Thursday, September 29, 2011

Modes of Transport and Classical Music

Listening to Schubert's Unfinished Symphony this morning, I had an image of a man, Schubert I suppose, riding a galloping horse.  And I wondered could early 19th century romanticism be linked to the main form of transportation at the time - horse riding? Romantic painters like Delacroix and Gericault certainly loved to give us graphic images of horses straining at the bit, eyes enlarged in fear, nostrals flaring.  Could these wild horses be present in romantic works like Schubert's symphonies as well?
Delacroix: Lion attacking an Arab on a Horse

And now that I think about it, is it a coincidence that the jittering movements  and improvisations of jazz coincide with the onset of our modern obsession, the darting automobile, again reflected in the visual arts in the late works of Mondrian, such as "Broadway Boogie-Woogie".

And what of today? Do not Steve Reich's tedious works of repetition reflect the barley perceptible coughing motion of the modern high-speed train? I can imagine enjoying them on my iPod while riding the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, but surely not seated on a saddle.  Do not the pared down and depersonalised sounds of the works of Philip Glass reflect the atmosphere of airports and commercial flights? And if I need a parallel from the visual arts, let me pick the abstract  works of Robert Nymann, as white and featureless as the atmosphere through which we fly, broken only by the turbelence of his rippled surface.

Robert Nymann

Marx said something like - show me your technology and I'll show you your government.  Doolan now says, show me your means of transport and I'll show you your music. Just a thought.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

History Comes Back to Haunt Holland

It is commonly asserted that one ignores the past at one’s peril; that a history suppressed will return to haunt you. Such is the case in the Netherlands, where a court verdict last week revived disturbing memories that had long been buried. On Tuesday a court in The Hague found the Dutch state responsible for carrying out a massacre in 1947 in Rawagede, Indonesia, and furthermore called on the Dutch state to award compensation to the plaintiffs – seven elderly widows of those massacred. The court decided to ignore the fact that this crime is beyond the statute of limitations, a move that is normally only made to deal with Nazi war crimes.

Memorial to the victims at Rawagede

The Dutch had ruled most of Indonesia for 350 years, but found themselves prisoners of the Japanese from 1942 to 1945. With the defeat of Japan, Indonesian nationalists declared independence. The Dutch tried, with great difficulty, to reassert their control of the archipelago. After over four years of bitter conflict The Netherlands was forced to concede independence to Indonesia in December 1949.

By the end of the war numerous cases of military excesses had come to the attention of the Dutch public. Massacres by Dutch special forces on the island of Celebes had been the subject of parliamentary debate. The massacre in Rawagede had been the subject of debate at the United Nations Security Council in 1948. Such incidents gradually led much of the Dutch press to turn against the war. In February 1949 De Groene Amsterdammer published a letter from an unidentified officer. He wrote:

"KNIL [Royal Dutch Indies Army] officers (…) defend with passion and conviction the assertion that, for instance, if you are shot at from a kampong [village] than this kampong should be set on fire from four sides before the inhabitants have the chance to run away. And whoever then tries to escape (…) you shoot with a machine-gun, preferably not bothering with if these include women of children.”

The officer then drew a comparison with Putten, a village that had become infamous as being the site of one of the worst Nazi atrocities perpetrated on Dutch soil. The officer also wrote of summary executions of prisoners who are “simply shot behind the head and then buried.” He described the Indonesians as living under “military terror.”

The graveyard at Rawagede

After Indonesian independence a great exodus of Dutch citizens, perhaps 300,000 in all, left the new republic, where they were unwanted, and most found themselves receiving a cold welcome in their fatherland. They discovered that there was no audience for their complaints. Few people in the Netherlands were interested in their stories of hardship in Japanese prison camps, and they could count on very little sympathy for their losses during what was now considered a futile colonial war that had ended in defeat. With the experience of World War Two and the Nazi occupation still very fresh, the equalitarian Dutch nation settled into a collective memory which stressed the sameness of the citizen’s experience. The little, plucky Dutch had been occupied by their nasty German neighbor and all had suffered equally. Finally they had been liberated, thanks to their government in exile, led by Queen Wilhelmina, their heroic resistance and the invaluable help from the Allies – the USA, Great Britain and the Canadians. This was the national past and calls for alternative narratives were treated like calls for exceptionalism.

While the ex-colonials found their stories buried in silence, the 120,000 soldiers who had been drafted into the Dutch army to fight a futile war in the tropics, arrived home to a country that, shamed by defeat, had lost interest in them. Not only that, but, as we have seen, there were some who believed that the actions of certain soldiers had been disgraceful, even comparable to the behavior of German soldiers on Dutch soil. But with the former colony lost, the need for further official inquiries was quietly allowed to lapse, including the official investigation surrounding the massacre at Rawagede. Better to simply put a lid on it.

And so the atrocities of the 1945-1949 war years were allowed to slip out of the national memory. During the past few decades this memory lapse has been undergoing a gradual correction, and the verdict last week is yet another episode in the historical dialogue that the Dutch nation has been engaging in regarding its recent past. We are certain to hear more in the future.

You can read my article from History Today Magazine "Time for Dutch Courage in Indonesia" here.

Friday, September 16, 2011

ZIS Lipdub

This year we decided to do something a little bit different - shoot a short film with the teachers, staff and nearly 500 teenage students in our school. And here is the result. Hope you enjoy it:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Esther de Vries Poem: Mandala

Last year I posted a link to the Esther de Vries poem "Layered" that had appeared in nthposition.
Here is another of her poems. This first appeared in issue 19 of the Liverpool poetry journal erbacce in 2010.


Our breakfast table is a mandala:
at its corners white plates and cups of tea and coffee
flanked by cutlery of stainless steel,
blue and white Japanese bowls are dotted round,
in the middle a basket of bread
surrounded by jars of various colours.
At intervals hands move towards the center
to choose a croissant or a piece of zopf
but instead of calm chanting, there are raised voices.
A child screeches: “It’s my turn, listen!”
another snaps:
“Stop chewing so loudly, you’re disgusting”.
They lunge for each other,
prodding in whichever way might provoke
until one picks up a fork, yells and stabs
straight through the bread,
pinning the basket to the table.
“Up to your room!”
Off she storms,
leaving a flawed mandala in her wake.

There are also mornings when
words and smiles flow like sand
small shifts in mood don’t damage the picture
for a few minutes, it is still,
everything in its place 
until the table is cleared.

Esther de Vries

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Princess Comes to Visit

It isn't everyday that a teacher has a princess come to visit in the classroom, but that is exactly what happened when Princess Mette-Marit of Norway dropped into my class on Thursday.  Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary by flying to Zurich in order to attend the four day One Youth World conference, together with the likes of Desmond Tutu, Bob Geldof and keynote speaker Jamie Oliver. The Norwegian Royal couple decided to visit my school, in order to lead a workshop on Global Dignity.  I don't know how exactly it came about, but this Irish republican was landed with the job of playing host to the princess. 

We discovered that we had something in common, both being fans of the Australian rocker Nick Cave and his band, the Bad Seeds. Her Highness, a veteran of the Oslo rave scene and a well known rock fan, attended high school in Australia for one year. The most famous graduate of the school was Nick Cave.  The princess became quite animated when she told me that she had managed to track down some of Cave's old school English essays. These days Cave, former punk and heroine addict, is almost a type of royalty himself.  He lives in upper-class Hove, just outside Brighton; his albums are reviewed in the Financial Times, his novels are reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement, his films play at international film festivals. But he still rocks, especially when he appears with his pared down foursome, Grinderman.

I'll admit that having a princess in the classroom, being a bit out of the ordinary, did make the day a tad more interesting. But I wasn't overexcited.  Now if Nick Cave should come to visit...