The End of the World


The world did not come to an end.  At least not for humanity as a whole.  But an era is slowly, almost imperceptibly, coming to a close, the mileposts of its terminal state: two deaths.  Unlike Kim Kardashian, Eric Hobswam and Jacques Barzun did not have their own dedicated media empires; their claim to recognition does not arise out of surviving a trial, à la OJ, or undergoing the trial of Survival, as our minor celebrities on far flung islands; they brokered no peace and brought about no war; they led no one off a cliff, fiscal or otherwise; the highest award humanity, or at least the Swedish Academy and the Norwegian Parliament, bestows upon its most illustrated does not even include a category in which they could have competed.

And yet.

They – the one an unrepentant communist, the other an unreformed conservative – chronicled, analysed and bore witness to the march of modern history, especially over the past century.  With them dies not just a tradition of historiography, not just two immense stores of knowledge and wisdom, but two eye-witnesses of and to the most lamentable and exalted period in human existence.  It is thus fitting that I close this year by marking their passing and commending their wisdom to you all.

In From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun laments the descent of man from the heights of the Renaissance to the Age of Kardashian.  It is a magisterial history of the rise of Western culture and what to Barzun, the conservative historian, appeared as its slow and perhaps terminal decline over the past hundred years.  Now, it is possible to exaggerate the splendour, intellectual and physical, of the Medici court and ignore the squalor of a Borgia pope, all the while lamenting how we ended up with Trump and Fox News in their stead.  Barzun is not so crude; and his history is, for the most part, a celebration of the human.  It is worth reading for that, but also for the coda, the Twentieth Century, that gave rise to Penicillin and the Holocaust; the iPad and the Great Leap Forward.  To that, he bore witness to the “decadence” of a century in which the sole object of humanity appeared to be the crushing of the human spirit.

Hobswam closes his series of books chronicling much the same period with The Age of Extremes, a history of what he called the Short Twentieth Century (I am half-way through an already well-dog-eared volume).  A communist to his death, he nevertheless retained to the end, more than any other historian I have read, an unerring and unforgiving objectivity.  He, too, is not enamoured of a century that brought one war upon another, one revolution built on the last, one massacre after the next.  And yet, for each chronicle of war or disaster, there is one of magnificent progress, even in this, the deadliest, the most decadent of all centuries.  It is impossible to read of the rise of South Korea, the rebirth of Germany and of Japan, the pacific dismantling of the British empire, the progress of women and the enormous cultural and scientific advances of the last fifty years and not feel hopeful for humanity.

And so, as if by prior accord, the two eminent historians of the last century, each belonging to the opposite end of the spectrum from the other, have departed and by that put at least a semi-colon, if not a full-stop, after the period they chronicled, a period of extremes, of dawn and decadence, in our own lifetimes.

From one extreme – a historical era – to another – our daily lives.  As I step out of my 45th year in under two weeks (I assure you, I will look not even a day older as I advance in age by a whole year – a feat, I know, but I am special after all), it is increasingly the concrete and not the abstract that occupies my mind.  My niece Eliana remains a daily source of wonder, amusement and delight. “My entire family loves me just because of being me,” she told me the other night, as I was trying to get her to sleep.  Yes, we do.  And therein lies the great secret of the universe: as long as there are children, there is only dawn; decadence belongs to the cranky historian.

The city is under a deep cover of snow; darkness descends; the fire roars; my cup of (spiked) hot chocolate is almost done; I must bring this to a close and head to dinner.  It’s snowing.  But I know that even as they grow colder, the days are already getting longer; there is a lesson in there somewhere.

Seville: May 1990

We got there after ten days in Portugal; it was my first trip to Spain – an introduction that led to a life-long romance.

The reception on arrival was cold, brutal: at the first restaurant, we waited for half an hour before a server would deign to serve us, and then another half hour before we got the food – a dry, rubbery and tasteless omelette that would have done well to stay in the kitchen. Naturally, no bread or water while we waited; when the bread came eventually, stale and equally tasteless, we were charged for it – and no butter.  The contrast between the warm welcome we received everywhere we went in Lisbon, Faro and Madeira was striking. We thought perhaps it was just the one place; we were to discover that the standard of service and friendliness in southern Spain was markedly different from – that is, significantly worse than – that in Portugal. Then there was the perplexed couple in the American Express office: all their luggage had been stolen – from the trunk of a car parked in a busy thoroughfare and left alone, locked, for only five minutes. If only the cooks and the servers were as efficient as the thieves …

Ach – service, shmervice.

It was difficult not to fall in love with the city (and, eventually, the country). We had just come from an island overflowing with exotic flowers, and yet were mesmerised by Seville’s abundance of colour. The architecture was captivating, and its people among the most beautiful I have seen anywhere. But for the traffic, the smog, the heat, the thieves and 25% unemployment, I could see myself living there. Well, that and the uncertain driving of the Spaniards, who did not seem to have any regard for the pedestrian or the pavement on which one walked, let alone other cars, traffic lights, cops, buildings or street markings.

Me being me, our first tourist port of call was the cathedral. It is reputed to be the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and the third or fourth largest church altogether. My memories of the interior are fuzzy and generally not positive. It has none of the grace of Notre Dame, the history of Reims, the light of Bourge or the charm of Chartres.  The grimness of the cathedral was particularly striking given the lightness of the Alcazar practically across the street.  Yet again, the human trumped the divine.  We spent the afternoon walking around the orange and lemon groves; picked a few and ate an orange by the reflecting pools.

We then set out for a walk around town. We crossed the Guadalquivir – and I think it was the south side of the river – to where there were a few bars that were just filling up.  A particular bar caught my eye, or rather, my ear: it was playing Granados’ Danza Oriental.  The rest were full of rowdy teenagers and loud music.  And so it was that we settled on Casa Grande, the faded skeleton of a once proud meeting place for the young and the young at heart, now a sleazy tavern on the banks of the Guadalquivir, across the narrow alleyway from the neighbourhood police station.

The red velvet of the sofas and the chairs was torn and faded, the once gilded carvings had lost their lustre, the brass railings and door handles looked dirty and badly in need of a shine, and the tap – it looked like an antique – was broken and no longer dispensed drinkable beer. Where once, it seemed, the Seville society trod and chatted, looking across the river at the beautiful outline of the city skyline against a moonlit sky, now drunken men slumbered on tables stacked with empty bottles and glasses.

And the stains on the carpet? Once, I suppose, the carpet sported spilled champagne and the finest Bordeaux or Rioja; now – now it was difficult to tell which was the real colour of the carpet and which the stain. But the guitars were playing on and refused to be drowned out by the pounding of the beat of modern music in the neighbouring clubs.  We went in and sat down on the only available seats at the bar. The bartender, a small bespectacled man of indeterminate age, looked at us, muttered something incomprehensible, and gave us beer. Only one kind of beer was available, and it tasted as though it had grown stale and flat along with the old bartender and the older bar and the decrepit furniture. But something in the atmosphere was reassuring. Whether it was the music or the old bartender, it felt good to know that some things do last, not just mirthless cathedrals or Moorish palaces, but the essence of a culture, of a people; carpet stains and hand marks on brass railings and faded velvet sofas and torn curtains and chipped statuettes and smoky wall papers and old bartenders; the stench of rotting fish – was it from the river or the nearby market? – and of cheap alcohol, mixed with the ancient lingering traces of expensive perfumes of bygone times, or even spilt blood when the Republicans had crossed the Guadalquivir; the echoes of the silly chatter or perhaps war commands that must have filled this room in their time.  Were we insane to have picked this place?

We stayed there for a couple of drinks; not a single word passed between us; nothing needed to be said. We were too enchanted and revolted by this place, we were absorbing the atmosphere, and the guitars kept on playing, and there was nothing to say.
When we left the weather had cooled down a bit, and it was much more comfortable to walk around than it had been in the afternoon.

The next day we headed south, to Cadiz and Gibraltar.

The Adventure continues: Day two

August 6, 2012

This morning we finally left Ontario. After about 30 hours. It’s quite remarkable, in fact, how large the province is, and even more remarkable how much of it is so flat, so green, so swampy, so uniform, so desolate. That is, until you get to the top of Lake Superior. The bit right before Manitoba is amazing, especially as the sun rises. Rocky hills, lakes, rivers, forests … but arranged in odd and far more vivid ways. And then, you hit the flatlands, and you know you are in a different world. The Prairies.



The local wildlife has been entertaining. The homo sapiens trainturiticus comes in a variety of shapes and colours, and appears to have a decidedly varied home base.

For the most part, it is of the Polar variety: ample insulation topped by white fur. The Polar trainturisticus has difficulty navigating the narrow passageways of our moving maze, but the other animals in the maze soon discover that in the face of a Polar in motion, the only thing to do is to retreat, find a corner to squeeze into or a doorway to hide away in. When at rest, especially in a choice seat in the Dome, the Polar is practically immovable.

The Talker is rare, but given the volume and vehemence of his roar (the Talker, alone among species, comes only in the male sex) he appears to be everywhere, all at once, at all times. Despite its being so rare, the Talker has been differentiated into the ad nauseum and ad argumentam subspecies. The former has the capacity, over breakfast, lunch or dinner, during coffee or tea time, or even while running away from the Polar and ducking for safety, to hold forth a conversation with no beginning, no end, and no content, usually at a rising volume. The latter has two calls in its natural habitat. Being only male, the species does not have a mating call; rather, biologists consider its natural call to be an existential one: without it, the subspecies consider itself dead. The call consists in two variations of a single theme: “In my opinion”, and “With respect, you are wrong.” The call remains at a steady volume, thereby driving its victims into a frenzy of helpless flutter.

The Canadian also comes in two subspecies: french and other. On the whole, they appear to be relatively agile navigating the maze, and limit their calls, mating or otherwise, to four short sounds, “interesting”, “very interesting,” “wow” and “even more interesting;” the french subspecies appears to be able to make four additional sounds that, as at least some biologists argue, could mean more or less the same: “intréssant”, “très intréssant”, “wow” and “je dirait même plus …”*.

* For Tin Tin aficionados, this is an inside joke.

I am told that this is a nonexhaustive list.

So we are in the Prairies. For the first two hours out of Winnipeg, the land was as flat as legend would have it. The horizon being so wide and far, I thought I could actually take the time to write.

It is not as easy as it sounds. Our car, where my small one-person cabin is, is in the middle of the train. The social car, where I tend to park myself (it is called the Park Car, perhaps for that reason), happens to be at the end of the train, some eleven cars away.

The Park Car

That’s not just 250 meters, but twenty two sets of doors, guaranteed encounter with at least three Polars (and having to back off and retrace my steps) through narrow corridors as the train lurches and heaves side to side, occasionally throwing you into an unsuspecting sap’s cabin. And, of course, from where I sit, each change of gear takes two trips to the cabin. There and Back was Bilbo’s tale; it could well be mine, each time I want to change the computer stuff for the camera bag, or vice versa.

Which is what happened: I left the camera and took the computer. But – you know the only way the story could continue: as soon as I sat down, the horizon closed in and narrowed; the flatlands gave way; rivers and hills and valleys and bridges started showing up. And me with the computer on my lap, describing the wildlife inside, while life outside was passing me by. Literally.

This sense of utter loss – an entire thirty-eight seconds worth of picture-taking opportunity wasted, gone, gone forever as I wrote this missive – is all pervasive. I get up to brave the maze and the Polars and risk being trapped or attacked by the Talkers to go exchange the computer for the camera. And bring instead with me the quaintest thing of all – a notebook. If only I remembered how to write …

The evening of the second day; God did not rest and the train keeps on moving, pressing to its evening destination, Saskatoon. We will be let out for thirty minutes, to get some fresh air, stretch the legs, move about, before heading back to our moving cells. The walk this morning in Winnipeg was good. We saw the overbudget and still unfinished Human Rights Museum – about as good a common on the subject as the museum could muster – visited the tomb of Louis Riel and ended the talk with my purchasing a three-litre bucket of sour cherries. Now there’s a memory to have of a city …

The Canadian Human Rights Museum, Winnipeg

Melville, Saskatchewan




A Canadian adventure: Day one

August 5, 2012

I know I can get through this. My fingers are twitching. There is a buzzing in my ear. I’m fidgety. There is a sense of loss: the profound missing of a thing that has been with you day and night for ten years, or more, and now is gone. Vanished. Replaced by an X. Everywhere. I’m paralysed. Eyes roving round. All is lost.

As of this writing, I have been without internet and mobile connection for sixteen hours. If an email, or a text, does not reach you, has it been sent? If no email is sent to you, do you even exist? I have been filling the time, to be sure. There is that thing we used to do, in days long gone. Con-ver-sation, I think, it was called. Where you have an actual person in front of or next to you, and you let your mouth, and not your fingers, do the talking. Quaint. The conversation goes on, uninterrupted by text or telephone or email. There appears to be a coherent flow of logic, argument and/or narrative. Confusing. There is a lag, a lull; no email or text to check and distract. What to do? Come up with a new topic, that’s what the Wise Ones used to advise in the old days. Distressing.

I am on board the Canadian, fitfully traversing Northern Ontario.

Destination Vancouver, in three days. The train is rolling along fine, making photos a hash of smears and mis-exposure. And then, with no warning, it slows down and grinds to a halt. We wait. A freight train (three locomotives and 167 cars) passes.

We restart. Train rolls; pictures get smudged; we come to a slow halt. Fitfully.

In just three hours I will break my own record of length of time on a train.

Last time, it was between Lisbon and San Sebastian. Or Donostia in the local language. The accents are missing – assuming they were needed in the first place. With no internet; how can I check spelling? How can I ensure accuracy? How do I know that anything I think I know is still true? Eighteen hours and change. My recollection of that ride is as vivid as if it happened just last week; which says nothing at all about the accuracy of what I think I remember, only that the pictures I conjure up are remarkably lucid. Technicolour, even. (HD, for the young ‘uns.) A woman, darkly beautiful, bare bronzed shoulders, luscious lips, eyes ready, Carmen-like, to direct a dagger into an unfaithful lover’s back. A slight man in his early twenties; glasses slipping down his nose; reading a thick book, well-thumbed-through; the kind of young man who, those days, looked forward to the promise of an Erasmus scholarship for a term in the Hague and a term in Athens and who, these days, has the prospect of endless unemployment and potential recruitment into the latest crypto-fascist promise of “a better life under an iron hand.”

The train comes to a stop. There is a muffled announcement; movement in the corridors; fresh air rushes in. We are let out. Hornepayne. A small town of 1700. One restaurant; one variety store; an abandoned elementary school right next to the train tracks – city-planning this far north requires work. Mobile access! And nothing. Just a spam email. Does anyone not care that I have not been in touch for sixteen hours? Legs stretched, we are back on board. Connection gone, lost, once again. Soon the train is swaying as it speeds into the night. Just one spam email in sixteen hours. I feel not just lost and disconnected, but bereft.

Stop before Winnipeg

Train. Spain. Carmen. Nerd. And two farmer types, so short that their feet did not touch the ground as they sat back in the chair; rotund, and a waft of manure. The husband and wife stare at me the entire time they are in the cabin, which is about six hours. They get off but the effects of their staring, like the waft of manure and hay, is left behind.

No peasants on this trip; no Carmen; and only one or two nerd types in a 22-car train. A lot of retirees and some overseas tourists. And at least two federal civil servants. Still in Ontario, but darkness has landed gently all around us and so there is nothing to be seen out there; the cloud cover hides the sky from our searching eyes.

The Canadian is advertised not only for comfort or scenery but for its food. This is the first time in six years that I am eating in a train dining car. Last time was in Italy. Train from Venice to Geneva. I remember going through the mountains, but the food, aside from its price, remains out of reach in my memory. Or, at least, my brain fails to reconstruct, true or not, a new history of that trip. The dining experience on board our Canadian train is certainly special. This is a white linen service. The food is fresh and while perhaps not quite as good as advertised, is still very good. (Cajun veal chop for dinner: excellent; salmon at lunch: good; the greens were crunchy and the salad was crisp – which is about the only thing you could ask for. Overall, the food is about as good as it has any right to be in a train dining room.)

The first day comes to a close.

The adventure continues …