Sunday, 14 April 2013

A credo, drawn from my experience of life

I have not added a new post for more than five months, and this was partly because I have been living quite intensely and with some difficulty, and also because I did not know exactly how to put what I wanted to say.

When I last wrote, I was in Paris, as part of a long and strange quadrilateral journey which took me all around Europe and to the Levant. My eventual goal was Israel, but I wanted to keep this secret from everyone for as long as possible, so I chose the most circuitous of routes, progressing very gradually through northern Spain from Portugal and into southern France, aand staying there a while before eventually reaching Paris.

From the French capital I went to an inconspicuous resort on the Belgian coast called De Panne. From that place, I spent a week in late November 2012 going quite rapidly south-eastwards through Europe towards Athens, mainly by night trains, and with stops in Cologne, Budapest, Belgrade and Sofia. In Athens, late in November 2012, I bought my ticket to Tel Aviv.

Then, from 30th November 2012, I spent five weeks in the Holy Land, and this journey was by air, from Athens and back, because that was the only way to travel, and I was forced to purchase a return ticket at Athens Airport.

On my return from Israel and Palestine, I spent a little more time in Athens, then went by boat between Greece and Italy, spent a little time in Rome, took another boat to Spain, stopped in Madrid, and finally reached Portugal in late January. Since then, I have been living largely at my villa in the Algarve, but recently I visited Lisbon and two Portuguese regions to the north of it.

The period since I returned to Portugal has been troubled, and conflict has broken out with many of the people I know in the Algarve, both the Portuguese themselves and the British expatriates, with whom, as I described in my previous posts "Increasing Happiness in the Algarve" and "Wintering in the Algarve", increasing closeness seemed to be developing during 2011 and 2012. Well, I suppose essential disharmony cannot be disguised for ever, and certainly not in my case. And, anyway, there has been a positive development during the difficult journey and difficult return which in some strange way seems to be connected with trouble and dissension.

When I was in prison, between 2006 and 2009, I lost an enormous amount of weight, but during the four happy months in London after my release, and then the period of my four sybaritic grand tours, and the somnolent and mainly harmonious intervals between them in the Algarve, I put back all the weight I had lost and added some more. When I was in Sicily in the summer of 2012, and had access for the first time in many months to a weighing machine, at Palermo railway station, I saw with horror that I had reached 17 stone.

Since then I have been fighting back. During that long journey through the twelve countries (or thirteen, if Palestine be counted) I climbed every hill I could find and took on every adventure that was within my physical capability. Since returning to the Algarve I have often chosen water rather than wine with my lunch. And I have succeeded in reducing my shirt size from XXL to XL.

The most important part of this process of self-discipline was the five weeks I spent in Israel and Palestine, where I had a particularly difficult time. I was alone there, and I suppose such an eccentric and solitary traveller as myself would have been bound to attract suspicion, and particularly from those who hold power in the land. It was a wonderful and all-encompassing journey, which I would not have missed for the world, but I also could not help (to my regret) developing quite a marked dislike for Israel. This was because of the outrageous way in which I was treated there, but I also accept that Israelis, ever since the inception of the state, have lived in a condition of existential angst, and that therefore behaviour which in the case of any other western nation would be entirely unacceptable is understandable in their case.

I went to Israel and Palestine with three purposes. The first was just to see as much as I could, as a tourist. The second was to visit as many of the sites connected with the life of Jesus as possible, as a Christian. These two aims I fully accomplished. The third was to find out more about my own identity as a Jew. Here, my success was limited.

During my Israeli journey, which began with 12 days in Jerusalem, after which I went to Tel Aviv, I attracted the attention of a private security team (or at least their leader told me it was that). It consisted of three men, who were all, according to their own account, Jews and Zionists, and who were presumably acting with the authorisation of the state of Israel.

I encountered the first of the three, who was the leader, on the evening of the day I had tried to register with Beit Hatfutsot, the organisation which hosts the Jewish genealogy centre, in Tel Aviv. He was a large South African businessman in middle-aged physical decline, who had homes in Israel, near Cape Town and in Florida, who in his youth had been a mercenary in the former Portuguese colonies, and who, according to his own account, could, at the drop of a finger, kill anyone without hope of detection.

We were in a slightly dingy hostel in Tel Aviv, and we were all guests. On the first evening, a Friday, the South African was hostile to me briefly. Then, repeatedly, on the Saturday evening, he threatened to kill me, came very close to me in a threatening manner, called me an anti-Semite and a paedophile, and followed me to the toilet and tried (or seemed to try) to break the door down. His two cronies looked on, and occasionally added their own threats.

The second man was a very quiet, bearded middle-aged American, with pointed wit and a mystical interpretation of the more threatening parts of the Torah. The third was a huge and gross young Brazilian who, the other two later informed me, was a hitman. There were quite a number of other people around in the hostel who just did nothing, acting as if to subject foreigners to this sort of third degree was the personal right of every Israeli. Not even in the worst countries of Africa do I think the staff of a hotel would have allowed a guest to be subjected to such treatment. But there you might have been killed.

I reacted to the intimidation by showing as little fear as I could, and the following evening I met the trio in the street. They invited me to come with them to celebrate the last night of Channukah (the Festival of Lights). I was moved by this very Jewish occasion, and after that, under some pressure, I offered to stand them three rounds of drinks at a crowded nearby bar (the American, who was drinking Guinness very fast, eventually got four). That evening they were very amiable and told me that they knew that I was a Jew. Towards the end of the evening we became mysterious separated.

In the following days, the South African, in particular, was alternately friendly and threatening, openly intercepted my email, said that he had been commissioned, in his capacity of head of the private security firm, to find out everything about me, and that, with this purpose, during the third degree evening, he had put me under hypnosis. He confirmed, however, that his information was now extensive enough for him to say that I was not an anti-Semite.

I found all this difficult to deal with, and hoped to escape them by going to the hostel in Tiberias. But when I arrived there, the South African and the American were waiting for me. In Tiberias they became increasingly more friendly still, and the South African wanted to take me with them to the synagogue, but the rabbi apparently vetoed it, because I was a Christian. And, once, when I was sitting more or less alone with my chief persecutor in the sitting room of the hostel, I asked him why he was taking so much trouble over me. And he answered, with surprising gentleness, "We have to be sure, so that you can know."

But I was effectively being held as a sort of open prisoner, and they told me that they would be with me at least until the end of my stay in Israel and possibly beyond. I could not stand this, and eventually, one morning a few days after Christmas, just before the beginning of Shabbat, taking with me as much of my luggage as I could carry without attracting suspicion, and when they were themselves going on a pre-Shabbat excursion, I left the hostel, and made my way in a series of a taxis and on foot into the Palestinian Authority.

After crossing the very quiet frontier, I was borne off by a party of friendly Arabs to Nablus and spent a good day and two nights based there, seeing the Christian sights of Samaria, and reflecting on the strange historical continuityof the fact  that this area, in the time of Christ, just as now, was inhabited by a people hostile to the Jews but related to them. I passed New Year's Eve in Ramallah, and wandering around, just as we went into New Year's Day, was inveigled by a cafe-owner into carrying the Palestinian flag through the streets. I did this to please him, but dropped the thing with great relief when I reached my hotel room.

And, the next day, it was back to Jerusalem on a maximum-security bus, and then over the desert to mysterious Eilat, where a man calling himself a hotel-owner met me at the bus station and took me to a strange encampment where there were no other guests and which I think was a security outpost. Then back to Jerusalem and back to Tel Aviv and the airport, and my trip to the most unforgettable of all countries was over, and I sat in the plane and looked over the disappearing Holy Land with God knows what mixture of longing and regret.

To attract all that attention from a wealthy private businessman and his associates was obviously strange, and I do not believe it can have been connected to anything I have done in my own life, which has only consisted in practising as an unsuccessful literary man, followed by being an even more unsuccessful would-be murderer. This surveillance must therefore, I believe, have been connected with the mysteries about my ancestry which I have mentioned in previous posts, the possible Italian Jewish origins of my mother, and the possible German (and Nazi) ones of my father.

And, as far as all this goes, I have recently made two discoveries, or possible discoveries, one of which was very startling. One of my purposes in going to Lisbon was to visit my one surviving aunt, Eva, and my main purpose in going to see her was to get a photograph of my Neapolitan godfather, Gennaro Maccariello, whom I never met after my babyhood and whose face I therefore did not know.

My aunt had been extremely reluctant even to try to find this photograph, but after I had visited her once and taken her a large present, she rang me up at the house of the woman who lives in the centre of Lisbon, whom she has known for sixty years but from whom she has become partially estranged, said she had found the photograph, and invited me to dinner. We had a very amiable time together, I did not ask her all the usual questions that she does not like, and she eventually gave me many photographs relating to my early life, including some of my mother's wedding, and retained only a few for her own possession.

I did not look at the photographs she had given me very closely before leaving her, and the next day, which was last Sunday, I rested from everything to do with my own family and spent the day around the Anglican church in Lisbon, with its eccentric but delightful congregation. On the Monday, I was due to visit the area of rural Portugal which was, ostensibly at least, my mother's native region, in order to lay flowers on her grave. Before leaving I looked quickly at the photographs and saw suddenly, with immense surprise, that the man who was posing with my mother in one very clear photograph of her wedding did not appear to be the Englishman who had brought me up. It must therefore, I suddenly realised, have been someone else, and it occurred to me that he had probably been posing under the Englishman´s name, Arthur Ernest Hills. And, come to that, I wasn't even sure that Arthur Ernest Hills had originally been an Englishman, although his voice was entirely English, so he must have arrived in the country by the age of eight.

I had known various photographs of my mother's wedding, and of my parents and family background, since I was a child, and had assumed, as children will, that they all showed same man, the man who was with us then, Arthur Ernest Hills. And certainly the two men, if two men they really were, looked very similar in that both were fair, both roughly the same age, both rather wolfish-looking, and both balding rapidly to about the same extent. But the other man, if such he was, seemed to have slightly more hair of a different shape, to be bigger, taller and fitter than Arthur, more of a catch, really, than Arthur Ernest Hills had been.

The two sentences that follow, and the present sentence, are an interpolation, written on 11th January 2014, in London, and later slightly revised. I was later to discover when a very observant Chinese couple who are friends of mine looked at the photo of the wedding pair and one of Arthur Ernest Hills that the two men had entirely different shapes of nose. It was the wife of the Chinese couple who first noticed this, having initially believed the two men to be the same. This is proof positive that the man who married my mother in the photo is not Arthur Ernest Hills.

In one of the photographs remaining in my aunt's possession, a wedding group included the father of Arthur Ernest Hills (or at least someone I always believed to be that) and the second wife he had married bigamously (if such she was), so the deception, if deception it was, seemed to have been practised with the full knowledge of Arthur, and presumably for money.

There is certainly an official record of a marriage between my mother and a man calling himself Arthur Ernest Hills in the registry office in Hendon, north-west London, on 11th September 1954, and this would be very difficult to fake. But I have been told that my mother had a church wedding, somewhere near the house of the Maccariellos at 19 Hornsey Rise, London N19, and no other.

There were also the stories I had been told, and which I have mentioned before, that my father had been a German or a Pole (or at least that his father had been that), and that my mother had met my father on a tube train, when she got her finger stuck in the train door, and not at the Lyceum Ballroom in the Strand, where she and Arthur Ernest Hills always told me they had met. I had many times questioned my aunt about this discrepancy, but she is as taciturn as they come.

When I arrived in my mother's "terra", I showed the photograph of the wedded pair (in Hendon? near Hornsey Rise?) to an elderly and deeply Catholic cousin by marriage, who had known Arthur Ernest Hills quite well, and to whom I had taken a large statue of the Virgin as a present.

"Is this Arthur?" he said doubtfully.

:"Well, it's strange," I said. "It looks like someone else."

He took the photograph from me and studied it. "It's another man," he said briefly.

At that point I was sure Arthur Ernest Hills had not been my father, deep joy filled my heart, and that evening, after my return to Lisbon, I phoned my friend BillHicks in London to tell him about the strange discovery.

Just as an aside, and in relation to the mystery that surrounds my mother, I want to relate here that, later in the day spent in the terra, I spoke in private to the wife of the man who had looked at the photograph, and she told me, in response to my prompting, that my mother had been given to the family Reis, by whom she was brought up,as an outcast baby. These sorts of unconventional family arrangement were very common in Portugal up until the end of the dictatorship and many people in the country are entirely uncertain who their grandparents were and sometimes even their parents. So the woman who told me this,, and my aunt, and my cousin Maria in England, who saved me from suicide, are possibly not my relations by blood. But my knowledge of all this is so very incomplete that I can make no definite statements about it at present. I am particularly close to Maria, who knew instinctively on the evening when I had taken a hundred paracetemols that it was essential she ring me. I believe she must be a close relation.

The day following my visit to the "terra", which was my last full day in Lisbon - I was going off to visit an elderly friend (and rival) of my mother's who lives in the north of Portugal - I set off for the Museum of Ancient Art, but on the way dropped in at the Lisboa Story Centre. There I met a personable middle-aged Canadian woman painter who also wished to see the ancient art. So we visited the museum together, enjoyed a very pleasant tour, and afterwards I treated her to drinks at a nearby café, and told her about the mysteries surrounding my parents and showed her some of the photographs in my possession. She was convinced that all the photographs I showed her were of the same man, and said she had the special knowledge of physiognomy of an experienced painter to tell her this. Since then I have been studying all the photographs carefully, now with doubts in my mind, but never quite losing the conviction that some of the ones taken at the wedding, and possibly every single one in the group, show a different man to the Englishman I knew.

So did my mother marry a mysterious German closely resembling and posing as Arthur Ernest Hills, live with him for some time at the house in London of Gennaro Maccariello and his mother, and did then Arthur Ernest Hills resume his true identity on our move down to Crawley in Sussex, when I was nine or ten months old, or even at some point after that? It seems too fantastic to be true, but just in case it is true, and I am an explosive mixture of Jew and Nazi-descendant, I want to set down my personal credo for all who might be interested.

First a little more background. The childhood in Crawley was very unhappy. My mother and the man who itI now seems was not my father, lived at war until Arthur Ernest Hills left our house soon after my sixteenth birthday. I was a very solitary child, immensely attached to my mother, but not getting on with other children, who did not like my intelligence and oddness. During my whole formation, although I went to Oxford, I had no teachers who could much understand or encourage me, was eventually only able to get low-grade professional jobs, never shared a house or flat with a group of friends, never had a sexual relationship, and never found any other writers who could help me along, either older or younger. My influences were solely the two who brought me up and my instinctive loyalties are only to them, but much less to him than to her.

Arthur Ernest Hills was an English nationalist and fanatical racist, and my mother, even if her real background was at least partly Italian,identified strongly with what may have been her adopted country and brought me up to think of myself as a Portuguese patriot, a painful identity, especially in England, which I have never been able to shake off. Thus there was engendered in my character a sad dualism, where I attempted to be part of both England and Portugal, but fitted in with neither, experiencing rejection in the one, seeing my personal life ruined in the other, longing to escape from them both and what seemed to me the miserable modern world..

For a variety of reason, therefore, I was never factored by others into the equation of life. Yet the result of this, perhaps inevitably, has been that I have developed my ideas and belief-system independently of their convictions, preferences or interests. I have refused to believe in the ideas of democracy, human rights and anti-discrimination which are the common currency of my educated  contemporaries. I have been tempted to racialism - not racism, in the sense of discriminating against anyone - have often opposed and derided moves towards progress and democracy, as well as more or less openly stating that tyranny may in some circumstances be preferable to the latter. In my most brutal moods I have come close to believing that there may be nothing intrinsically wrong with murder, slavery or torture, although these beliefs I have rarely voiced.

But, as I have grown older, almost imperceptibly, and with a sense of joy during the time I was in prison, I have come to subscribe, although with frequent lapses into older ideologies, to a more generous, liberal and optimistic outlook.

Democracy may, indeed, be flawed, because the great mass of voters can never be induced to accept the necessary sacrifices that their leaders might reasonably demand. But we are not living in the age of the Enlightened Despots, and modern tyranny must always be dreadful. The idea of human rights may be an intellectual construction, and lead to innumerable stresses in daily and political life, but there has to be some way to guard against torture, persecution and other frightful abuses. And, although the idea of race - or, as we might now call it, "regional genetic variations within humanity"" - may have had some rough validity in the past, and to a limited extent in the present, and although local, regional and national loyalties can all be important, the immense global mixing that has taken place in recent decades, the ecological, economic and other problems that now affect humankind as a whole, and the demands of common decency, all mean that we must ever-increasingly emphasise Human Race Ltd as one enterprise and one family.

What about the issues that specifically affect Jews and the State of Israel? Here I believe we must give different answers to the question of Iran and that of the Palestinians. The present Iranian regime both develops potential nuclear weaponry and threatens death and destruction to Israel. The consequences of any Israeli pre-emptive attack on Iran are terrible to contemplate in human terms, but it is nevertheless possible to envisage circumstances in which Israel might find itself left with no reasonable alternative but to launch a devastating nuclear attack.

The case of the Palestinians is different. They are not the aggressors but the victims in the current situation. It is they who have either been driven from their land or forced to live as second-class citizens there. Their wrongs cry out for proper redress, all hopes of lasting peace rest on such redress, but the difficult question is to decide how it can be achieved.

For many decades, all conventional opinion has favouted the two-state solution. But the whole territory of Israel and Palestine is only about the size of Wales and half of it is desert. I personally find it difficult to see how a two-state solution can ever be implemented. The only other solution is a unitary state, and this would obviously entail the end of exclusive Zionism and a situation where Jews would be in a minority within the new state.

We Jews have an entirely understandable need to be separate and self-sustaining and to control our own destinies. It is essentially this need that is holding up a solution. So is there a way to maintain a strong Jewish identity in and for Israel and at the same time welcome adherents of Islam and Christianity and of other beliefs? Well, all three monotheistic religions have Abraham as their father, and Jerusalem is equally  a holy city to all three, so surely there is a deep common heritage on which to build. The almost equally difficult problems of South Africa and Northern Ireland have eventually yielded to some sort of imperfect solution. The dangers, the hatred, and the apparent insolubility of the problem are all obvious, but let us hope that time and demography and human reason will eventually do their work.

And, finally, if I am not really so keen on liberty, equality, fraternity and all that, and have no exclusive attachment to any groups to which I may happen to belong (Jews, Gypsies, Christians, homosexuals, Germans, Portuguese, Italians, English, Europeans, God knows), what are my real commitments?

Life has often seemed to me, and indeed still seems, like nothing so much as a medieval melee, a war of all against all, with no mercy and no quarter, where everyone uses the first weapon that comes to hand, where you are slightly more likely to be destroyed by your own side than by the other (if indeed it is clear to you what side you are on), and where those who were once rebels and underdogs, and therefore full of justice and hope, always end up lording it with reciprocal ferocity over the tyrants who once oppressed them. High above this grim battlefield love and good feeling seem sometimes to shine like an unpredictable ray of light.

And this redeeming love and light has come over long years to be identified for me with Jesus Christ and the Christian religion. The Church may be an imperfect institution, individual Christians may be intensely annoying, abstract dogmas may be dry and difficult things, and it is impossible, I find, always to retain one's conviction that Jesus is God. But never mind. The essence of my personal faith lies in trying, no doubt very uncertainly, to follow in the footsteps of that radiant figure, as portrayed in the Gospels..

What Jesus tells me to do is in essence simple: love God and your fellow human beings, seek God's kingdom, keep his law, do not judge others, give to those who ask, forgive those who do you wrong, and don't worry too much about the future. Is it so very difficult to follow? Well, yes, in a way, it is. But has there ever been a better set of precepts, or one more worthy of my utter loyalty?

And I have two other commitments. I was named after Prince Charles. Could I ever cease to love the Royal Family in whose honour I was named? Never!

And I believe very deeply in the healing and transforming power of art. How could I not do so? I have dedicated my life to trying to be an artist, a writer, and even now I am trying to follow my goal by writing this blog.

So for me it's basically love of all, tempered by fear of all, hoping for joy for all. That is my philosophy.


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