(This article is reproduced from the June issue of Roqueta, Menorca’s English language magazine.)
This June sees the occurrence of a number of noteworthy anniversaries, some of which remain relevant in either poignant or disturbing ways today.
For example, 150 years ago, on 2 June 1864, the Caucasian Wars, the Russian conquest of the Caucasus that had begun in 1817, ended with a Russian victory. Russia annexed Circassia and deported about 500,000 of its population. Watching Crimea and Ukraine this year, it is easy to wonder how much humanity has made progress in our handling of territorial ambitions.
Also 150 years ago, on 14 June 1864, Alois Alzheimer, the German psychiatrist and neuropathologist was born. He is best known for identifying the first recorded case of pre-senile dementia – now known as Alzheimer’s disease. As we approach the sesquicentennial anniversary of his death, the condition that bears his name claims increasing numbers of people as a cause of death, and challenges all aspects of human care, from medical to spiritual, to make some sort of sense from the disease of the “long goodbye.”
On 30 June 1864, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln granted Yosemite Valley to the State of California for “public use, resort and recreation,” making it the first park in the USA to be permanently set aside. Yosemite National Park, which incorporates the valley, was established in 1890. Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, was the first national park in the USA. The world owes much to this American innovation in establishing stewardship of the earth’s beauty and resources. National parks were established in Australia, Canada and New Zealand in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The first European national parks were established in Switzerland in 1914 and in Spain in 1918. The United Kingdom’s first national park was not established until 1951. The Menorcan Biosfera can trace its lineage back to this act by Abraham Lincoln.
70 years ago, 6 June 1944 was D-Day: the date of the Normandy landings that were to presage the end of World War 2. Over 150,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy. The “Battle of Normandy” ended on 25 August with an Allied victory. Those who took part in that landing, and other parts of the second world war, were of a generation that did not like to speak of their experiences until much later, and so public awareness of the conditions under which they served is only now becoming unveiled.
Ten years after D-Day, on 7 June 1954, Alan Turing took his own life. There is a certain irony that this British mathematician, logician and computer science pioneer is now well-known for his work as a code-breaker during the second World War, making a contribution to Allied victory. He also developed the “Turing machine,” which in turn led to the development of the electronic computer. Alan Turing’s suicide derived from his prosecution and sentencing under laws that made homosexuality criminal, for which he has only recently been posthumously pardoned. Alan Turing’s fate should stand as a reminder, across the years, that we should be careful in our inclination to pass judgement upon one another. It is often a source of sadness to me that Christian religion is so prone to dogmatic judgementalism when its origins are in the ministry of Jesus, who was at pains to challenge the legalism and judgementalism of his time, and especially of the leaders of his own Jewish faith, whom he felt had lost their way, focusing on the letter of the Law rather than its spirit.
It is interesting that half way between D-Day and Alan Turing’s death, 65 years ago, on 8 June 1949, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published. Orwell’s vision of an autocratic, despotic state, ruled and oppressed by surveillance devices, may not have been realized in the exact way that he described, but Edward Snowden is living in exile from his native USA in Russia because he disclosed to the world the nature and scale of surveillance of citizens of America and other nations by security services. Edward Snowden will be 30 on 21 June.
Seemingly much more prominent in popular attention at the moment is the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Serbia on 28 June 1914, sparking a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia that led to the Great War. Provision has been made in the Church of England calendar and liturgy for ways to commemorate the centenary of the start of the first World War at the beginning of August, and more information about this will be available on the church web site.
The effect of the Great War was to accelerate the pace of change in British life, described by numerous writers. As it happens, 26 June 1914 saw the birth of Laurie Lee, the British poet, novelist and screenwriter. He is best known for Cider with Rosie – a memoir of his early years, lived in the shadow of that war.
Cider with Rosie describes a childhood set in village life in rural England at the turn of the last century, as the fingers of the industrial revolution, accompanied by the arrival of the motor car, finally started to exert a grip on a way of life that had remained largely unchanged for nearly a thousand years. The book charts the loss of innocence not only of the child who grows up, but of the rural life in which he was immersed.
As it happens, Laurie Lee also wrote about his occasional connections with Spain – a country that he first visited, according to his own words, because a girl from Buenos Aires came to Slad, the village in Gloucestershire where he grew up, and taught him a few words of Spanish.
I sometimes wonder whether the appeal of life in Menorca today is that, albeit with many twenty-first century conveniences, it offers a certain simplicity of life which harks back to the innocence, now lost, of rural life in early twentieth century England. Of course, it might be worth noting that along with its simplicity, other aspects of rural life that were lost include poverty, illness, filth, malnutrition and early death, all of which were as much a feature as the beauty of nature and days filled with sun. Yet, even as Laurie Lee chronicles both of these aspects of rural life, it is easy to be beguiled by his colourful recollections of its warmth.
On one side of Laurie Lee’s headstone is a quotation from his poem, April Rise:
If ever l saw blessing in the air
I see it now in this still early day
Where lemon-green the vaporous morning drips
Wet sunlight on the powder of my eye.
For Laurie Lee, the poem was a celebration of the English countryside. Yet I find the words of “blessing in the air” recall the feelings of early morning forays along the trails and between the fields of Es Castell, Trebaluger and Binissaida, and the flower-clad headlands atop the Mediterranean.
Perhaps the appeal of Cider with Rosie for me is that it reminds me of part of my childhood, passed in a village in Bedfordshire, where apples could be liberated from their orchard by a brief but furtive climb over the fence, and Mrs Sawford, next door, could inform my parents of what I was up to before I even arrived home. I have to forgive her disparagement of the slightly older, and in my adolescent eyes, ravishingly alluring and beautiful Rosalind from around the corner, who could reduce me to a stuttering, imbecilic, paralysis of shyness, rendering her utterly unattainable, even as I wonder how my deeply hidden affection could have been so evident to an elderly neighbour. Now that I come to think of it, Mrs Sawford was probably younger at the time than I am now.
But this post-adolescent reminiscing is a digression. These diverse anniversaries remind us that as we measure the passage of time, we do well not merely to reminisce, but to learn from our history. What do we do today that continues the legacy of stewardship of the earth’s resources begun by Abraham Lincoln’s gift of Yosemite Valley to the people of America? Do we persist in the idea that the earth is ours to exploit and plunder, regardless of the consequences, or do we take seriously the belief that our world is entrusted to us, that we are not freeholders but leaseholders of someone else’s property?
Looking back at the legacy of the two world wars, how much have we learned about the nature and repercussions of armed human conflict? How much can we embrace the Christian foundation that the heart of peace is not to be found in stronger armaments, but in improved justice? How much are we prepared to sacrifice in economic terms to make the world a more equal, and therefore a safer place?
And, finally, as we enjoy the blessing of the relative simplicity of many aspects of life in Menorca, and the joy of experiencing its beauty and peacefulness, how much can we contribute to sustenance of not only the Biosfera, but also preservation and protection of a way of life that can all too easily be eroded by pressures of commercialism and materialism?
Incidentally, another 150th anniversary falls on 11 June 1864. Three days before Alzheimer, Richard Strauss, the German Romantic composer and conductor was born. Anyone who has seen the film 2001 knows his music: “Also sprach Zarathustra” was its theme. Richard Strauss was also the composer of Der Rosenkavalier, a comic opera whose story is that of four lovers of different ages. Despite its comic nature, Der Rosenkavalier also operates at a deeper level. The older woman, Marschallin, conscious of the difference in age between herself and her lover, Octavian, muses in bittersweet fashion over the passing of time, growing old, and men’s inconstancy. One would hope that these themes might become less universally prevalent as humanity as a whole learns and grows.
Food for thought. Happy anniversaries!