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 intensely and with some difficulty. It was also due to the fact that I did not know how to put exactly 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. I stayed 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 because 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 my home in Portugal in late January. I have since visited Lisbon and two Portuguese regions to the north of it.

The period after returning to Portugal has been troubled, and conflict has broken out with many of the people I know in the Algarve and elsewhere: the Portuguese who surround me; the British expatriates who are a little farther away; and the members of my own family, yet farther, in Portugal and England.

Well, the essential incompatibility between people cannot be disguised for ever. And a relationship broken is a freedom gained. Furthermore there has been a positive development during the difficult journey and difficult return, which in a strange way seems to be connected with this trouble and dissension. Details of it now follow.

While 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 is 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. There I had a particularly stressful time. I was alone, 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 by a group of people who went unchecked and also by the general hostility towards others that seems to be characteristic of the Israeli people., But I also understand that Israelis, ever since the inception of their 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 at least 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, or at least the toleration, 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 in such countries you might have been killed. I do not believe there was any danger of that in this case.

I reacted to the intimidation by showing as little fear as I could, and the following evening I met the trio in the street. TSuddenly they were very friendly, and invited me to come with them to celebrate the last night of Chanukah (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 took 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. They later said that it was I who had left them in the lurch, but I believe  it was they who vanished.

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 the grilling was extensive enough for him to say that I was not an anti-Semite and that this had been confirmed by what he had since discovered.

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 said I would be going back to Greece, that Greeks did not like Jews, thatxilowed to Greece I would have no hesitation in denouncing them to the Greek authorities.

Meanwhile I could not stand the situation I was facing in Israel, 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 my persecutors, ostensibly going by taxi for the day to Banias, the ancient Caeserea Philippi, where Peter recognised Jesus as the Christ. It was a beautiful enough place, with its streams, grottoes and ancient temple, and I stayed there a while, but when the taxi returned me to Tiberias I immediately got another one to a town farther westward in Galilee whose name I do not now remember. There, with some difficulty, I procured a third driver to take me to a point some distance away from the frontier with 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 continuity of 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. On the second night in Nablus, lying in bed within my room at the hotel, I heard the voice of my chief tormentor in the room outside, talking to the Arab proprietor, but the latter evidently did not prove co-operative, because I was not dragged away, although the recorded announcements of the muezzein were wildly out of sync all that night, presumably the humour of the ex-mercenary.

The next morning they quickly hustled me into a taxi towards Ramallah, and I passed New Year's Eve there, 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 abandoned it there.

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 the Kaplan Hotel, where on the last night, about two o'clock in the morning, I suddenly heard, within my room, shouts and screams and the sound of gunfire, followed by maniacal laughter, But the next morning all the Israelis said nothing at all had happened in the hotel in the night, so I suppose this was my jokey friend's last hurrah. Then back to Tel Aviv and the airport, where after a frisking from a severely handsome Israeli soldier who had me stripped naked, my trip to the most unforgettable of all countries was over, and I sat in the plane with God knows what mixture of anger and longing.

To attract all that attention 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 and persecution 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 Germana (and Nazi) ones of my father.

And, as far as all this goes, I have recently made two discoveries, or possible discoveries, one of them very startling. Among 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.

Tia Eva 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 estranged, said that she had found the photograph, and invited me to dinner. We had a very amiable time together on that evening. 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 one or two 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 my mother's native region, in order to lay flowers on her grave.

On that morning, before leaving, I looked quickly at the photographs and suddenly, with immense surprise, saw 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 and whom I had always believed to be her wedded husband and my father.

The man in the photo looked very like the person I had known, but I suddenly felt sure if he was someone different. The man she was marrying, I suddenly realised, was possibly posing under the Englishman´s name, Arthur Ernest Hills. And, come to that, I remembered, I wasn't even sure that Arthur Ernest Hills had originally been an Englishman, although he must have arrived in the country before the age of eight, because he had no foreign accent. I had already conceived suspicions he might have been a German or a Pole, because three old women, including Eva, had told me his father, my grandfather, had been either of those.

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. And the two men, if two men they really were (because I was still very confused at this point), as I said, 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. Really, they could be twins. 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.

In one of the photographs remaining in my aunt's possession,there was  a wedding group that 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, I thought, possibly for money.

There was 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 the wedding itself would be difficult to fake. Later I was to discover that there had also been a church ceremony with Arthur Ernest Hills, at the church of St Joseph, Highgate Hill, on 13th November, 1955. But I had also been told bu ant Eva that my mother had a church wedding, somewhere near the house of the Maccariellos at 19 Hornsey Rise, N19, that this was definitely to my father, and that she had no other wedding.

There were also stories 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. If she gives information, it is because she wants to.

The whole set of stories and discrepancies, and now the photographic evidence, were disturbing indeed. But I longed to discover that Arthur Ernest Hills had not been my father.

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. He studied the photograph a moment. "Is this Arthur?" he said doubtfully.

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

He took the photograph from me and looked at it quickly. "It's another man," he said.

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 Bill Hicks 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, it seems, not my relations by blood.

But my knowledge of all this is so very incomplete, and based so entirely on hearsay, 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. She saved me from death, I believe she must be a very close relation. And, as I have mentioned in a previous point, there are stories of a mysterious woman known only as "Ana of the Stockings" who lived in my grandfather's household, and who could be my grandmother and also hers.)

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, the daughter of the possibly Jewish "Ana of the Stockings", 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 all 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, and the subsequent years, were unhappy. My mother and the man who it 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, did not identify with my coevals at Hertford College, was able eventually only to get low-grade professional jobs, never shared a house or flat with a group of friends, never had a sexual or loving relationship, and never found any other writers who could help me along. This last failure to connect was the most damaging of all, because my writing is my life.

Thus my loyalty during my life has been solely to the mother who brought me up and my other influence the man who did the same. Arthur Ernest Hills, even if his initial background was German, became an English nationalist and fanatical racist, and my mother, even if her real background was at least partly Italian or Jewish, identified strongly with what may have been her adopted country, Portugal, and brought me up to think of myself as a Portuguese patriot. This contradiction in terms of a background engendered in my character a sad dualism, where I attempted to be part of both England and Portugal, but fitted in with neither, could commit myself to 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 unbearable modern world..

Because I was never invited by others to partake of the banquet of life, I have mainly been occupied in snatching the crumbs from under its table. Other people have disapproved of this scavenging, and the result has been that I have come to hate and despise them and they have just ignored me. Yet the s upside of this isolation has been that I have developed emotional and intellectual self-sufficiency to an  unusual degree. I am entirely indifferent to the convictions, interests and preferences of others. I have no favourites. There are those I hate, those I am grateful to, but there have not usually been anyone I loved.

All this has led to my developing a harsh philosophy. I am - although not with absolute consistency - a person of the far right. It has sometimes not seemed to be so, because I have often been forced to mask my real allegiance in the left-liberal society, England, and which I have lived, and have indeed come to take delight in deceiving others as to my real character and beliefs. Anyway, I have refused to believe in the ideals of democracy, human rights and anti-discrimination which are the common currency of my educated  and less-educated contemporaries. I have been tempted to racialism (although not racism in the sense of discriminating against anyone - I treat people as I find them). In bold moods, I have often opposed and derided moves towards progress and greater human happiness. I have more or less openly stated that I think that in certain circumstances an autocratic government might be necessary and desirable. 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 are beliefs, because of their sheer outrageousness, that I have not voiced.

As I have grown older, however, almost imperceptibly, and with a sense of joy during the time I was in prison - because for the first time in my life I felt part of the community in which I found myself - I have come to subscribe - although with frequent lapses into older beliefs - to a more humane, liberal and optimistic outlook.

Democracy may, indeed, as Plato believed, 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 seems likely always to 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 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 (which cannot be reversed), the ecological, economic and other problems that now affect humankind as a whole, and the demands of common decency, all mean that, whatever our doubts, we must increasingly emphasise Human Race Limited 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 nuclear weaponry and threatens death and destruction to Israel. The consequences of any Israeli preemptive 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 an attack on Iran proportionate to the level of threat posed. It is also possible that force of circumstance might justify a disproportionate response. This would have to be judged on the exact nature of what threats Israel might face from whatever quarter in the short to medium term.

The issue 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 see how it can be achieved.

For many decades, all conventional opinion has favoured the two-state solution. But the whole territory of Israel and Palestine is only about the size of Wales and almost 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 not be in a clear majority 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, interested members of humanity, as one might call them? That would require very careful thought and planning, and I myself, in a humble way, have given some thought to this matter.

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. I am a loyal enough Jew to have a lingering desire for the continuance of the State of Israel in its present form, but in moods of both great rationality and also sudden love and generosity know that this cannot be the right solution.

Going back to more general questions.  If I am not really so keen on liberty, equality, fraternity and all that, and have no exclusive attachment to any group to which I may happen, by affiliation or ancestry, to belong (Jews, Christians, Gypsies, homosexuals, conservatives, Germans, Portuguese, Italians, English, Europeans, whites, Nazis, writers, human beings, God knows), what are my real commitments? Of course in one sense the question is easily answered. My commitment is to myself and my own desires, and just to getting through my own life as comfortably as I can. But that goes without saying. Is there anything more than that? Do I have any loyalties that transcend my own ego?

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 for me over long years to be identified with Jesus Christ and the Christian religion. The Church may be an imperfect institution, individual Christians are sometimes intensely annoying, abstract dogmas can seem dry and doubtful 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 my fellow human beings, seek God's kingdom, keep his law, do not judge others, give to those who ask, forgive those who do me wrong, and don't worry too much about the future. Is it so very difficult to follow? Well, yes, it's almost impossible to follow. But has there ever been a better set of precepts? Or one more deserving of my total loyalty?

And I have two other allegiancies. I was named after Prince Charles. Could I ever cease to love the Royal Family in whose honour I was named? Never! (Well, hardly ever.)

And I believe in the transforming and healing 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 continuing to follow my goal by writing this blog. It may often appear to be a total waste of time, but I'm going on with it!

Is that all positive enough? Well no, I'm afraid it's not, my dear Charlie. You've hedged your bets so much you've done the reader's head in. From all this stuff I don't think anyone could really work out what you think about anything.

 Don't qualify your statements at every turn, you idiot. Be crystal clear. Boil your beliefs down to a single sentence.

OK, here goes.

For me it's basically love of all, tempered by fear of all, hoping for joy for all.