an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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an assortment of new technology palaver

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I like the inset pic – very useful for the Chinese

Western Australia lithium mining boom

I’m hearing, better late than never, that lithium carbonate from Western Australia is in big demand. The state already provides most of the world’s lithium for all those batteries used to run smart devices, electric vehicles, and large-scale storage batteries such as South Australia’s Tesla-Neoen thingy at Jamestown (now 80% complete, apparently). Emissions legislation around the world will only add to the demand, with the French and British governments planning to ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, following similar plans by India and Norway, and the major investments in EVs in China. Australia’s government, of course, is at the other end of the spectrum re EVs, but I’ve no doubt we’ll get there eventually (we’ll have to!). Tesla, Volvo, Nissan, Renault, Volkswagen and Mercedes are all pushing more EVs into the marketplace. So now’s the time, according to Money Boffins Inc, to buy shares in lithium and other battery minerals (I’ve never bought a share in my life). This lithium mining boom has been quite sudden and surprising to many pundits. In January of this year, only one WA mine was producing lithium, but by mid-2018 there will be eight, according to this article. The battery explosion, so to speak, is bringing increased demand for other minerals too, including cobalt, nickel, vanadium and graphite. Australia’s well-positioned to take advantage. Having said that, the amount of lithium we’re talking about is a tiny fraction of what WA exports in iron ore annually, but it’s already proving to be a big boost to the WA economy, and a big provider of jobs.

battery recycling

Of course all of this also poses a problem, as mentioned in my last post, and it’s a problem that the renewable energy sector should be at least ideologically driven to deal with: waste and recycling. Considering the increasing importance of battery technology in our world, and considering the many toxic components of modern batteries, such as nickel, lead acid, cadmium and mercury, it’s yet another disappointment that there’s no national recycling scheme for non-rechargeable batteries. Currently only lead acid batteries can be recycled, and the rest usually end up in landfill or are sent to be recycled overseas. So it’s been left to the industry to develop an Australian Battery Recycling Initiative (ABRI), which has an interesting website where you can learn about global recycling and many other things batterial – including, of course, how to recycle your batteries. Also, an organisation called Clean Up Australia has a useful battery recycling factsheet, which, for my own educational purposes I’m going to recycle here, at least partly. Battery types can be divided into primary, or single-use, and secondary, or rechargeable. The primary batteries generally use zinc and manganese in converting chemical to electrical energy. Rechargeable batteries use a variety of materials, including nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride and of course lithium ion chemistry. Batteries in general are the most hazardous of waste materials, but there are also environmental impacts from battery production (mining mostly) and distribution (transport and packaging). As mentioned, Australian batteries are sent overseas for recycling – ABRI and other groups are trying to set up local recycling facilities. Currently a whopping 97% of these totally recyclable battery units end up in landfill, and – another depressing factoid – Australia’s e-waste is growing at 3 times the rate of general household waste. So the public is advised to use rechargeable batteries wherever possible, and to take their spent batteries to a proper recycling service (a list is given on the fact sheet). The ABRI website provides a more comprehensive list of drop-of services.

2015 registrations: Australia’s bar would be barely visible on this chart

EVs in Australia – a very long way to go

I recently gave a very brief overview of the depressing electric vehicle situation in Australia. Thinking of buying one? Good luck with that. However, almost all motorists are much richer than I am, so there’s hope for them. They’re Australia’s early adopters of course, so they need all the encouragement we can give them. Journalist Timna Jacks has written an article for the Sydney Morning Herald recently, trying to explain why electric vehicles have hit a dead end in Australia. High import duties, a luxury car tax and a lack of subsidies and infrastructure for electric vehicles aren’t exactly helping the situation. The world’s most popular electric car, the Nissan Leaf, is much more expensive here than in Europe or the US. And so on. So it’s hardly surprising that only 0.1% of all cars sold in Australia in 2015 were electric cars (compared with 23% and rising in EV heaven, aka Norway, 1.4% in France and 0.7% in the US). Of course Australia’s landscape’s more or less the opposite of compact, dense and highly urbanised Europe, and range anxiety might be a perennial excuse here. We have such a long way to go. I expect we’ll have to wait until shame at being the world’s laughing-stock is enough of a motivation.

Adelaide’s Tindo

I’ve been vaguely aware of Adelaide’s ‘green bus’ for some years but, mea culpa, haven’t informed myself in any depth up until now. The bus is called Tindo, which is a Kaurna aboriginal word meaning the sun. Apparently it’s the world’s first and only completely solar powered electric bus, which is quite amazing. The bus has no solar panels itself, but is charged from the solar panels at the Franklin Street bus station in the city centre. It’s been running for over four years now and I’m planning to take a trip on it in the very near future. I was going to say that it’ll be the first time I’ve been on a completely electric vehicle with no internal combustion engine but I was forgetting that I take tram trips almost every day. Silly me. Still, to take a trip on a bus with no noisy engine and no exhaust fumes will be a bit of a thrill for me. Presumably there will be no gear system either, and of course it’ll have regenerative braking – I’m still getting my head around this stuff – so the ride will be much less jerky than usual.

So here are some of the ‘specs’ I’ve learned about Tindo. It has a range of over 200 kilometres (and presumably this is assisted by the fact that its route is fixed and totally urban, so the regen braking system will be charging it up regularly). It uses 11 Swiss-made Zebra battery modules which are based on sodium nickel chloride, a type of molten salt technology. They have higher energy density, they’re lightweight and virtually maintenance free. According to the City of Adelaide website the solar PV system on the roof of the bus station is (or was – the website is annoyingly undated) ‘Adelaide’s largest grid-connected system, generating almost 70,000 kWh of electricity a year’. No connection to the ‘carbon-intensive South Australian electricity grid’ is another plus, though to be fair our grid is far less carbon intensive than Victoria’s which is almost all brown coal. South Australia’s grid runs on around half gas and half renewables, mostly wind. The regen braking, I must remind myself, means that when decelerating the bus uses no energy at all, and the motor electronically converts into an electrical generator, which generates electricity with the continued forward motion of the bus. There are many more specs and other bits of info on this Tindo factsheet.

the greatest country on Earth?

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let's call bullshit

let’s call bullshit

Canto: So Michelle Obama thinks America is the greatest country on Earth…

Jacinta: Not just thinks, but tearfully feels, in every cell of her body, but you know, even she must realise it’s all rhetorical baloney.

Canto: I prefer to call it balderdash – less American.

Jacinta: But you can’t blame pollies for getting all jingoistic come election time, can you?

Canto: I do. I can’t stand it at any time. But I want us to reflect for a while on the meaning of ‘the greatest country on Earth’. Is greatness measurable? Is there currently a fifteenth greatest country on Earth? What are the measuring criteria?

Jacinta: I think you’re taking it all too seriously, but it’s interesting – we’ve observed this before – that every nation in history that has had economic and military superiority over others has assumed this entailed moral superiority. Whereas in the world of realpolitik it just means they’re an apex predator.

Canto: I’m sure Donald Frump would agree, though I think he’s wrong to claim that the USA is no longer an apex predator. There can be room for more than one at the top, though it wouldn’t do to let that space get too crowded.

Jacinta: Yes, so ‘greatest’ can only mean ‘most powerful’, it’s not the kind of term you use to measure a nation’s quality for its own citizens.

Canto: But why are Americans so keen to trumpet their nation’s superiority? I mean methinks they do protest too much.

Jacinta: Well a couple of centuries ago, when the Brits had the strongest economy, weren’t they the same?

Canto: Well, not really… I mean, that wouldn’t be British, would it? I mean they thought they were morally superior of course, but they weren’t so utterly boorish as to proclaim it while banging their tits.

Jacinta: Well you’re making a good point. When imperialist nations or superpowers or whatever start believing they’re better than others in some moral way, they may act accordingly, pushing their weight around, hectoring, lecturing, even taking it upon themselves to punish other nations for not being like them.

Canto: Or invading other nations to show them how ‘being great’ is done. So that’s why we need correctives. We need more objective measures, not for measuring national greatness, which is just a term of power, or just rhetoric, but for measuring success in terms of the well-being, happiness, freedom or whatever of the members of that nation.

Jacinta: I think that people like Obama, and so many Americans, really believe in this rhetoric though. They take a term like ‘great’, and they really think it refers to all those other things – opportunity, well-being, smarts, etc.

Canto: Which is why reality checks are in order. Take the ‘land of opportunity’ rhetoric. What this refers to is social mobility. Anyone has the chance to be anything. But there are surely ways to measure social mobility, which are more or less objective.

Jacinta: Certainly more objective than just making the claim. And it’s interesting, we’ve looked at a few national surveys, based on various criteria, and I can’t recall the USA ever coming in the top ten in any of them. Usually it’s well down the list.

Canto: So it’s time to revisit those surveys. First the OECD survey that was posted on in the past, its better life index. The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)…

Jacinta: Such a positive, feel-good internationalist title.

Canto: Isn’t it? It was founded in 1948, another of those positives to come out of the negativity of warfare. It’s headquartered in Paris, it has 35 member countries and its purpose is pretty well self-explanatory.

Jacinta: Yes, but while its focus is obviously on economics, primarily, the better life index is a kind of side project, which is almost saying ‘money ain’t everything’, there are all these other factors as well as the economic, to consider when striving for a better life, and a better country.

Canto: Yes they consider 11 factors in all: housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. People can give different weightings to these factors, and on their website they allow you to change the weightings so that you’ll come up with a different top ten or twenty of the 35 participating countries.

Jacinta: But according to the weightings they favour, the USA comes a fairly creditable ninth behind Norway, Australia, Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland, in that order. But since we’re in Australia we can surely permit ourselves some eye-rolling at your standard Yank jingoism.

Canto: Surely but of course many will say that these ‘objective’ assessment criteria are highly suspect, and possibly anti-American.

Jacinta: Naturally, and we haven’t the resources or the time to evaluate them, so instead we’ll look at a number of these surveys with the assumption that they’re not all anti-American, to see how our chauvinistic allies fare. But it’s interesting that the OECD survey doesn’t highly rate any of the non-Scandinavian European counties. A Scandinavian bias perhaps?

Canto: Well here’s another rather different international survey, which looks instead at cities.

Jacinta: Very relevant considering the world’s rapid urbanisation shift.

Canto: The Mercer Quality of Living rankings looks at living conditions in hundreds of cities ‘according to 39 factors, grouped in 10 categories’: Political and social environment, Economic environment, Medical and health considerations, Schools and education, Public services and transportation, Recreation, Consumer goods, Housing, and Natural environment. And again, you may want to believe its findings are biased and you may be right, but its highest ranking American city is Honolulu at number 31.

Jacinta: Honolulu? Hardly the heart of America.

Canto: Compare neighbouring Canada, which has 5 cities in front of Honolulu. Vancouver (4), Ottawa (14), Toronto (16), Montreal (21) and Calgary (28). Australia and New Zealand also rate far better than the USA with Aukland ranked at 4 (tied with Vancouver), Sydney ranked 10, Wellington 12, Melbourne 18, Perth 21 and Canberra 26. Some 16 European cities are in the top 25, with Vienna being ranked the number one city for the past 6 years in a row. There are no Asian, African or South American cities in the top rankings.

Viennese market, in front of some Euro-impressive pile. I was there a few months back, shivering in the rain, blissfully unaware that I was in the world's best city, according to some

Viennese market, in front of some Euro-impressive pile. I was there a few months back, shivering in the rain, blissfully unaware that I was in the world’s best city, according to some

Jacinta: Mercer, by the way, is a human resources consulting firm headquartered in New York, and it’s really hard to get full data from it because it restricts full access to ‘professionals’, presumably behind a paywall. Nosy impoverished amateurs like us are unwelcome. So most of the data we’re using is from back in 2010 (and that’s only from press releases, with little detail) but I doubt that the USA has become any ‘greater’ since then. So it’s clear that the USA is no great shakes, city-wise – in fact it would be classed as probably the lowest-ranked western country in the world, according to this survey…

Canto: Conducted by a New York based firm…

Jacinta: Insofar as the liveability of it’s cities are concerned. And that’s where most people live, after all.

Canto: So it’s not looking good for the bad old USA. Any more surveys?

Jacinta: And in case people quibble about the term ‘western’, let’s be a little more precise. The USA, in terms of the quality of its cities for their own residents, lags behind Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Canto: That way greatness tells lies.

Jacinta:  There’s a website called numbeo which claims to provide ‘the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide. Numbeo provides current and timely information on world living conditions including cost of living, housing indicators, health care, traffic, crime and pollution.‘ Its ‘quality of life index’, based on countries,  looks somewhat similar to that of the OECD, with the USA ranked tenth, well below Australia and New Zealand, ranked third and fourth respectively. However it differs from the OECD in that it ranks a number of non-Scandinavian European countries above the USA, namely Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Spain. And it ranks Canada below the USA, which is unusual. And again the top rankings are dominated by western countries, with Japan being the top Asian country at 16.

Canto: I’ve never heard of numbeo, what are their bonafides and how do they gather data?

Jacinta: It’s a crowd-sourcing site, founded in 2009 by one Mladan Adamovic, a former Google software engineer. It’s evolving, and its findings suggest it’s not particularly an outlier, though at this stage not perhaps as reliable as the OECD.

Canto: Well, with crowd-sourcing, there would be some nation-participants where information would be scarce, or virtually non-existent.

Jacinta: That’s right, but all of these survey organisations and websites face the same problems, and it’s pretty likely that the places from which info is scarce wouldn’t be in the top rankings in any case. If you know your country’s doing well, you’d want to share it.

Canto: Okay, so we’ve looked at three sources. One more?

Jacinta: Yeah well a few more, which I’ll summarise. Monocle magazine, a British lifestyle magazine, has been doing an annual quality of life index based on cities since 2006. Its criteria are ‘safety/crime, international connectivity, climate/sunshine, quality of architecture, public transport, tolerance, environmental issues and access to nature, urban design, business conditions, pro-active policy developments and medical care’, and it ranks Tokyo at number one, whereas Mercer ranked it 44th! It did rank Vienna at number two, however. And it ranked Melbourne at 4 and Sydney at 5, so it must be very objective.

Canto: And the US?

Jacinta: Its highest ranking city was Portland Oregon at 25. So there’s definitely a pattern emerging.

Canto: Where’s Adelaide?

Jacinta: They’ve never heard of it. Another survey based on cities comes from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), from the London-based group that publishes The Economist. They go into a lot of detail about their criteria on their website, so I won’t go into it here. I only had access to their current top 10. It shows Hong Kong at number one, and Sydney at 5. No US cities make the ten, and Vienna isn’t there either. Tokyo comes in at 10. It should be added that they seem to have drastically amended their criteria recently – before that, Vienna regularly came in at number 3, with Melbourne and Vancouver also in the top 5 regularly. Melbourne ranked number 1 in 2011.

Docklands in the Great City of Melbourne

Docklands in the Great City of Melbourne

Canto: That’s interesting about Hong Kong, because I read elsewhere that life expectancy of its residents is about the highest in the world. So the city must be doing something right.

Jacinta: Well I’m sure the Chinese government will put a stop to that.

Canto: Okay I think we’ve done enough survey of surveys – let’s summarise. We started with Michele Obama, in typical US pollie style, proclaiming the greatness of her country.

Jacinta: I.e. not just great but ‘the greatest on Earth’. So we had a look at a handful of the most well-known global surveys of nations and cities, based essentially on liveability criteria. Though it’s impossible to be entirely objective in these surveys, they collectively present a pattern. In none of them did the USA distinguish itself, and in terms of its cities it really did quite badly, as a western nation. As to why that might be the case, we leave that for the reader’s speculations, for now. The gap between US perceptions and reality, I would contend, is largely caused by the assumption that if you’re globally dominant in economic terms, you’re in a ‘great’ country in any or every other way.

Canto: Roman economic hegemony, in the old days, was largely based on a substantial slave population, wasn’t it?

Jacinta: Well, that and being able to dictate terms of trade with others, as every dominant nation or empire has been able to do. But you’re right, a lot of economic success in the past has involved the exploitation of a populous underclass. The USA is by far the most populous of the traditional western countries, and it effectively has no minimum wage. That’s very handy for the McDonald Frumps of that great nation.

Homless Vacant Homes

Written by stewart henderson

August 7, 2016 at 1:37 pm

Gypsies, heroes and the Austro-Hungarian Empire

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The liberty statue, Buda, viewed from over the river. Known to locals as the bottle opener

The liberty statue, Buda, viewed from over the river. Known to locals as the bottle opener

The Romani or Romany or Gypsies originally hailed from northern India it’s believed, and their overall population seems nigh-impossible to determine given uncertainties about heritage – gypsiness can no more be measured by DNA than Australianess. It’s estimated for example that there are between about 600,000 and 2 million Roma (another moniker) in Romania (no relation), and the figures are even stretchier for the USA, an apparently favourite destination in recent times. A people with no country and no desire for one, the ultimate internationalists. This sense of not belonging, of camp life and lightness on the ground, that’s attractive, but the inwardness, the apparent indifference to those not of their own, to the world of progress and development, that’s not quite repellant but unnerving – a challenge to renovation, modernity and the primacy of the individual. Where do I stand on these people with a reputation for scavenging and thieving, but also proof against the lure of property, investment and accumulation? I stand for diversity, I think, but there’s more. Since I was young I’ve felt and mostly enjoyed a sense of rootlessness, and a home of my own, supposedly the aspiration of every right-thinking Australian, has never been on my agenda. And as for being Australian, I only became one officially to get a passport to travel, and to return to where I have work waiting for me. So much for my gypsy traits, but the big difference is that I’m not an inward-facing ethnic-group member, more an outward-facing solitary, who admittedly enjoys the advantages of being loosely affiliated with a dominant culture.

Enough about me, back to Heroes’ Square where we wandered around in one group among many listening to our tour guide touching lightly on the soi-disant heroes of the nation, and particularly King Istvan (Stephen) I, the first Christian king, and so obviously the first real king, of Hungary, or the Magyars, or whatever. He was crowned, or anointed or whatever by the pope in 1000, and we gathered around a very macho central column atop of which was perched the Archangel Gabriel holding in one hand Stephen’s crown and in the other the apostolic cross, ‘saint’ Stephen’s symbol. He became a saint by converting to Christianity apparently, and thereby making his subjects Christians instanter.

Heroes’ Square is on the flat Pest side of the river, and we next travelled over to the hill-sown Buda side. The two sides only came to form one city in 1873, but now, according to Daily Cruiser, it’s seen as the queen of the Danube, a city that embraces the river with its many bridges. In the distance are I think the Carpathians. I love these European names from my reading youth and my fantasies, and this is where my story so differs from Wallace’s, apart from every other detail, because this was a European river cruise not a journey into the heart of a Bermuda-triangular darkness of Americana, and Europe’s a kind of mind-numbingly interesting place to scratch the surface of.

Buda is the upscale side of the river, and it’s geographically more impressive, though the Pest side has the university, the national museum and such, and seems to be a more lively cafe-arts hub. We crossed one of the bridges to Buda while our guide regaled us about the Emperor Franz Josef and his beautiful melancholic spouse. This was the first of a series of tales and mentions of FJ’s interminable reign by our various guides through the Austro-Hungarian region, and I wondered, here in a mildly crumbling Budapest, whether it made them feel still nostalgically proud to have been at the heart of a relatively recent Austro-Hungarian Empire. But our current guide seemed also heartwarmed in informing us that FJ never cared for Budapest, nor Budapest for him, so it was also the first mention of a series of local-national tensions among the denizens around these river courses, tensions that probably went back to the Thirty Years’ War and beyond, stuff I was intrigued by but keen to dismiss.

Franz Josef, emperor of Austria, king of Hungary, Bohemia as a molto-privileged youth

Franz Josef, emperor of Austria, king of Hungary, Bohemia as a molto-privileged youth

Written by stewart henderson

June 7, 2016 at 8:57 am

Travel marvel’s rough diamond

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image

A couple of not-so-interesting pics taken of the reception area, Danube deck

image

All euroed up, my TC and I returned to the Mercure Korona where a great many other travellers were gathering in the lobby with their baggage. I presumed that, unbeknown to us, all of these people were our fellow-cruisers staying at our same hotel, perhaps from all corners of the globe. We hadn’t apparently noticed them because as privileged guests we had the dubious honour of dining and breakfasting, more or less alone, in the elite dining area while our fellows were, as we heard, making happily raucus noises in the hoi polloi eating hall. It really is lonely at the top.

So after a while we were scooped up, along with a handful of Travel Marvel travellers, and taken on a (not Travel Marvel) bus to the Travel Marvel boat awaiting us on the Danube, where we were checked in, assigned a cabin, and given an hour or so to freshen up and explore our new homes before assembling in the lounge for a captain’s welcome and a briefing preperatory to our first guided tour of the city.

Our captain was a tall jovial Serbian or Slovakian with over 30 years of river-cruising experience. He was apparently fluent in German, Dutch, Slovakian and the various Slavic languages but had very limited English, so he had to call on Marion, the cruise director, whenever he groped for an English word, which was often. He introduced Marion as his daughter, and I actually believed him until, at various points during the cruise, he described the bursar as his son, the second captain as his nephew, etc. It was all very merry and familial.

Marion, from Austria, was, of course, our main guide and booster throughout the cruise. She sort of introduced us all to each other, and I was mildly irritated to learn that we were all Australians apart from a half-dozen New Zealanders. And here’s where I should make some separation between my humble piece and Dave Wallace’s essay about the ‘Nadir’ (I must say I effing hate those double-barrelled literary monikers beloved of Yank writers, sorry Dave, RIP). I can’t recall if Wallace mentioned the approximate number of passengers and crew on his Nadir, but it was surely in the thousands, and in fact a few of our passengers had been on these big sea cruises and gave them the thumbs down in comparison to our scenic/historic land/river cruise. It was my TC who garnered this info, being far more convivial and extravert than my shy/aloof self. Our own boat, which I now christen the Rough Diamond in remembrance of my Aussie fellow-travellers – doctors, nurses, teachers, truckies, shop assistants, landscapers, postal clerks, real estate agents and others we didn’t know of, some of them morbidly obese, others like myself only mildly so, and most of them in retirement – had little in common with the Nadir. For a start, it was too modest a beast to be treated with absolute disdain. No write-ups by famous prostitute-authors, and certainly no need for red dots telling you where you are on the boat (I call it a boat though I overheard a nautical chat between passengers one of whom was officially advised, he said, that it was a ship, not a boat) . Its maximum carrying capacity, in people terms, was 140-odd passengers and 42 crew. There were 4 decks, the lower deck, the Moselle, which had only a few cabins, as well as a fitness room and storage areas, then deck 2, the Danube, deck 3 (our deck), the Rhine, and above us the sun deck. It was all very tight-knit and cosy.

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 15, 2016 at 7:23 pm

More impressions of Budapest, mainly

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Matthius church, Buda. Supposedly first associated with 'Saint Stephen', Hungary's first Christian king, in the early 11th century, it was largely built in the late 14th century and much-restored in the 19th. Its style is over-the-top late gothic

Matthius church, Buda. Supposedly first associated with ‘Saint Stephen’, Hungary’s first Christian king, in the early 11th century, it was largely built in the late 14th century and much-restored in the 19th. Its style is over-the-top late gothic – sort of steampunk sans irony

Once we’d checked in, we didn’t much want to leave the air-conditioned comfort for the cold and damp, so we settled in at the hotel bar for a bit. I’d decided to over-dress to cheer myself up – fancy tie and colourful waistcoat, etc – so this elicited discomforting looks from the definitely not over-dressed bar people, and even smirks and laughter from passers-by when we decided to brave the weather and try out an ATM down the road. When a particularly attractive damosel made some obviously mocking remark about me to her beau I was stung into trying out a charming French greeting, but she ignored me. Our ATM venture was also unsuccesful, it would only spit out Magyar currency, aka forints. Still I was beginning to warm to the city, as I noticed a lot of attractive, interesting-looking young people on the streets, all dressed mostly in black. This was probably because, as I discovered next day, the city’s principal university was very close by.

The next day was slightly warmer and drier, and we went for a walk to the nearby museum, an absolutely massive building which was closed, and only open a few days a week – a bad sign I thought. The university precinct, though, gave me the sense of lively Enlightenment that all such areas do. We took some lunch in a pub across from the hotel, after which I took a stroll down to the nearby Danube, where I discovered a lively cafe hub, just one street back from the river, jammed between the usual tall, tightly-packed examples of Euro-impressive architecture. By which time I’d decided I really liked Budapest, but I’m probably more easily pleased than most.

There were a few touristy/traveller problems though. The flight had affected my normally regular sleep pattern, and two weeks into the holiday I still haven’t regained any sleep normalcy (I’m writing this at 3am in Amsterdam), and my cash-flow concerns weren’t alleviated by another ATM failure. This time I’d pre-located nearby a so-called ‘Euro-ATM’ via GPS on my phone but when I got there I couldn’t make any sense whatsoever of its instructions, and I ended up withdrawing a massive number of forints – something like 400,000 of the buggers – thinking I’d receive euros. This is no doubt the closest I’ve come to being a demi-millionaire in my life, but I felt more like a bloody idiot, with a pocket stuffed with a wad of currency that would be practically useless to me within 24 hours. My stress about this caused my first contretemps with my TC, who decided to shop for something warm to wear, in consideration of the somewhat unexpected chilliness, and so left me waiting longtemps outside stanping my feet and sensing the beginnings of a cough and a ‘bubbly dose’, when all I wanted to do was get to a bank that would turn my unearned forints into a maximum of euros. So after an all-too-familiar nasty spit-spat I stamped off to a bank. I’d been warned off having dealings with money exchangers, whose shingles were all over the place, because they apparently charge extortionate commissions, but in the bank I was advised by a friendly young teller in perfect English to use a money-changer down the road who charged no commission and whose rates were much better than the bank’s. This sounded all very helpful and civilised and I followed the young man’s directions precisely and with alacrity until I came to a kind of hole-in-the-wall booth advertising no commission and told my tale to a solemn-looking university type who very carefully counted out my great bundle of forints, typed a formula into a calculator and asked me silently to approve the result, some 800-odd euros, which I could only pretend to know was correct. But I really did feel enormous gratitude that these people seemed to be on my side, if that’s not too self-indulgent a term. Shortly after leaving the hole-in-the-wall with great relief, I stopped as my heart skipped a beat – should I have ‘tipped’ the fellow for his good sevices? I must say I can’t stand the stress and strain that tipping and haggling and such things causes. I’m no good at either, and I’m sure it’s not just a matter of inexperience. It’s just not a fair system – I would rather that people charged plainly and were paid appropriately, so I don’t have to fret about it…

Anyhow, I was happily cashed-up and ready to start the cruise….

Written by stewart henderson

May 12, 2016 at 11:55 am

first hours in Europe

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First cafe latte in Europe: Hilton hotel, Budapest

First cafe latte in Europe: Hilton hotel, Budapest

We had to line up to get our passports checked, walking through a pointless zigzag of blue cordons and then we had to wait to be called by one of 3 or 4 inspectors. They all seemed admirably forensic in their analysis, which meant the queue moved very slowly, giving me ample time to scrutinise their scrutiny. I’m sure my limited knowlege of Hungary as a struggling ex-communist nation was infecting my impressions. In the eighties I had a near-fetish for so-called eastern bloc literature; Konwicki, Brandys, Kundera, Skvorecky, Havel, mostly Czech and Polish writers mapping the fortunes of non-conformity under ultra-conformist regimes. But that was 30 years back in my eternal-present existence. I was finally called to a checking station by a hunched, pinched elderly woman, about whom it was easy to imagine all sorts of inhumanity, either suffered or perpetrated. She looked as if she really hated me – or her job, or foreigners, or her country, or herself. In any case she didn’t spend much time on my fresh, near-virginal passport, and handed it back with a look of profound contempt. Or maybe it was just a 50-year rictus.

So with dampened spirits we were released into a small sign-holding crowd; our assignment was to seek out the ‘Travel Marvel’ sign. Over time I discovered that the ‘travel’ tag was part of an attempt by our hosting company – half-hearted at best (which was a good thing) – to convince us that we were travellers in the tradition of Marco Polo (the notorious 13th century tourist) rather than mere tourists.

Our man with the sign was a tall balding young Hungarian who shepherded four of us into a waiting kombi van while extolling half-heartedly (or again, so it seemed) the virtues of his city. Our two fellow-travellers were also Australian, leading me to at least two discomforting prophecies; all the cruisers would be coming on two by two, and they’d all be Australian. And also, they’d all be kipping the night at our Budapest hotel. Only the third turned out a failure.

It was a longish ride into town. The back seats had no seat belts, presumably not de rigueur in Hungary. We passed through a large resi-area, its colourful houses looking decidedly run-down, their steep-sloped roofs dark with what I assumed was mould. And lots of abandoned factories, railyards and carparks jungled with vegetation. It was all very green. Closer to the centre, the buildings got more solid and Euro-impressive, an architectural style I’ve hit upon, which is basically defined as ‘not much in existence in Oz’, yet still they looked a bit neglected. I had an odd sense of the guilts about my thoughts, that I was judging the place way too harshly. The cold drizzly weather was surely affecting my judgment. There’s getting to be a real accumulation of solid evidence that such externalities as temperature affect mood and hence judgment far more than we’d like to admit.

There was nothing too dilapidated about the Mercure-Korona though. We were greeted by a charming Hungarian (presumably) damosel and taken to our ‘privileged’ bedroom suite. I don’t know why we were treated as Privileged Guests at the hotel – my TC tried to explain but I didn’t get it – but it meant not only a room with the Biggest Bed I’ve Ever Slept In (didn’t take a pic as I’d not yet switched to the camera-clicking mode which is the sine qua non of the tourist), but elite breakfast in the elite dining room, set in a sort of glass bridge overlooking a mall. Budapest was looking up.

Written by stewart henderson

May 6, 2016 at 5:32 pm

bumping into Budapest

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view from the hotel window, Mercure-Korona, Pest

view from the hotel window, Mercure-Korona, Pest

Dubai aiport is, of course, multicultural, and you can see that’s very good for business there. It was busy when we disembarked, and busy busy when we embarked for Budapest. My TC, so much more patient than me, queued longtemps to secure a table and brekky at a patisserie française while I mooched around in a Dubai-promoting bookshop and took pics of random distant buildings. So then we spent a pleasant hour or so watching the colourful crowd – Africans, Asians, Europeans, Unidentifiables. The United Arab Emirates is just what you mitght guess it to be, a union of absolute monarchies – seven in all. The Emirati citizenry make up not much more than 10% of the pooulation, the rest are expatriates, with Indians and Pakistanis predominating. Its wealth is based pretty much entirely on oil, and I picture a thoroughgoing stratification of the population. It’s described as more diversified than other Arab states, but that’s not saying much, it’s mostly the same old shite; no elections, no press freedom, abysmal treatment of half the citizenry, not to mention the non-native semi-slaves. I was as happy to remain in the airport as they would’ve been happy to keep me there, all nuances aside.

The flight to Budapest was easier, at least most of it; I definitely fell asleep as I don’t recall much of it. The pilot spoke of turbulence, and the weather at Budapest would be storm-cloudy and cold, but I was feeling blasé and I had more leg-room in this slightly differently configured craft, and again no window seat to distract me, so all was floaty until we started in on the landing, and I noticed the viewing screen was all grey with what looked like slabs of slush hitting and slip-sliding off it. Hoping this wasn’t the view from the cock-pit, I couldn’t help but peek around a bit desperately, but couldn’t spot anything to reassure or concern me. This situation pertained for quite a while, maybe they were hovering about for conditions to clear. The aircraft was being distinctly buffeted. Finally I could feel us descend, and a lonely-looking airstrip came into view. Nothing like the bright criss-crossing lines of light in midnight Dubai, this was midday dark, divided by a solitary road. It looked more like a road than a runway; too narrow, too rough and uneven, too meagre. As the plane approached it, the noise, presumably of air brakes but imagination played it into a drum roll or mad piano music, got pretty intense and the plane was shaking. My eyes were absolutely glued to the screen and I felt completely alone in there. The touch-down wasn’t good, I could feel it. The plane veered sharply left, off, then corrected, finding and sticking to the centre line, rushing over every hump and bump, and when it had sufficiently slowed and quietened there was a smattering of clapping from the passengers. So it wasn’t just me.

So, Budapest airport, foggy, drizzly, outside temp 7 degrees. My first impression: the bleakness wasn’t just a weather thing. Sure once we got inside the ambience was that of universal airportland – big off-white tiles, discreet neon with blue signs in native and English – but when we lined up to leave that land for Hungary, the atmosphere got chillier…

Written by stewart henderson

May 6, 2016 at 1:00 am

Posted in blogging, Europe, stress, travel

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preliminary remarks preliminary to a voyage

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follow the thick blue line

follow the thick blue line

I’ve been working desultorily on a number of blog pieces which I’m struggling to finish, partly because they’re hard work but also because the excitement and stress is building for my maiden voyage overseas, not counting my barely-brain-developed boat-trip to Australia from Southampton aged 5 – memories include a camel train on the banks of the Suez, being rescued from drowning in the ship’s pool, and being befriended by an older kid which mainly involved being chased around the decks a lot. So from this day forth I’m devoting this blog to the trip, lots of short sharp and shiny shite, around 500 words daily, though I’m unlikely to keep to that limit, seriously.

So I’m not yet packed and wondering about the Aus$ which they say is rising and that’s good for OS travel. I’ve been described – though only by one person, my travelling companion – as a Scottish mothpurse and my main stressor is definitely $$$$ – sadly I don’t have the symbol for euros on my keyboard. I think the recent rise means cheapie flights but ours was paid-for long ago. The current Aus$ buys .68 in euros and I’ve no idea whether that’s good or bad or better than it was, whenever was was. Anyhow nothing to be done so let’s change the subject to my moustache. I thought it’d be a fine frivolity to grow one for the trip, something Frenchy and chic and daft, but after about four days’ growth it’s looking more Hitler than Charles Boyer, who was too chic to sport a tache anyway, and besides I’ve never liked them. At least my hair’s grown salt’n pepper with age, and seriously short on pepper, so it’ll be prominent as frost on a silver dust bush, and a change is as good as a haircut so I’ll leave it growing for now.

I’m at the frantically seeking advice stage. Got my first-ever passport – had to become an Australian citizen, which made me feel like a fraud come congratulations time – money-belt, international connector thingy. Downloaded Skype for myself and my travelling companion (though I won’t be using it, having no friends and family), had it explained to me that Messenger through Facebook is the cheapest form of communication – would desperately love to have an extra TC, aged about 13, to keep me straight on smartphone technostuff etc. Told to wear stockings on the flight, against DVT, which I may not, and have found hopefully the right advice against aerosynusitis, aka plane brain, which had me folded over my seatbelt on a recent flight to Melbourne. Still have to photocopy my passport, do some house-cleaning and catfood-buying for my house-sitter, and other things I can’t remember. My mind’s blanking out unpredictably so I’m sure to stuff something majorly up, but my TC’s coming over tomorrow to help with the packing and share the stress.

Okay the itinerary. A 14-day cruise or thereabouts down the Danube-Main-Rhine from Budapest to Amsterdam, after which a two-night stopover and then a train to Paris for a week’s stay on the île Saint-Louis, the walls of our cosy pied-à-terre lapped by the Seine, plus ou moins. Then down the tunnel and two nights in once-swinging London, and then, hurly-burly done, back to the serenity and quiet contemplation of home. On verra.

Written by stewart henderson

April 21, 2016 at 7:44 am

Posted in blogging, curiosity, Europe, technology, writing

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some thoughts on urbanisation, language and culture

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Australian_language_families.png

Australian language families. From west to east:

Mindi (2 areas)
Daly (4 families)
Tiwi (offshore)

Pama–Nyungan (3 areas)

The trend is massively towards urbanisation, though it varies massively between nations. The big urbanising country now is China of course. Citification leads to homogenisation, as everyone strives to be original. Anthropologist Wade Davis says that of the 7,000 or so extant languages, more than half are not being taught to the next generation. Cities are about communication, requiring a common language. It’s unlikely to be Wajarri or Pitjantjatjara. How about English? Language groups, it has been argued, constitute the most natural nations, rather than states with their artificial boundaries. There’s a whole theory based around this but I say, whenever you hear the word natural you should be skeptical. Why did a diversity of languages arise? A very very complex question. Or rather a simple question but the answer…

It presumably wasn’t the case that each language was invented from scratch. My speculation – somewhere, sometime, a human or proto-human population developed a language (a bit like saying ‘here, a miracle happens’, but we know more than that about the earliest abstract sign systems). That population grew, split up and separated to such distances that the languages followed separate developments, just like, say, chimps and bonobos followed separate lines of development after being separated by the Congo River, if that’s what happened. But then it could have been invented from scratch more than once, as is supposed to have been the case with writing.

Surely though the emergence of all these languages is primarily due to migration and isolation. Surely this is neither natural or unnatural. It happens. The loss of many of these languages will be due to their being surplus to requirements, due to a modern process that has reversed the ‘tyranny of distance’. The need to communicate effectively across distances, between nations, has meant that a lingua franca has been a high priority, and the more such a language dominates, economically and culturally, the more small, local languages will die of neglect, or be rendered redundant. Is this tragic? I’m not entirely sure.

Wade Davis is quoted (in issue 63 of Cosmos magazine) as saying:

The central revelation of anthropology is that other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at being you, at being modern. On the contrary they are unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? And when the peoples of the world answer that question they do so in 7000 different voices, and those voices and answers collectively become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us all. When we lose a culture we lose a part of ourselves. And it doesn’t have to happen.

This is all stirring stuff, and it would seem bad form to demur, even slightly. But I would like to reflect a bit more on this. First, note that Davis is equating language with culture, which is fair enough to a degree, but some people may be separated by language but have more cultural similarities than differences. After all, this is part of the raison d’être of the European Union, that the French, the Italians, the English etc have enough in common that they should work together rather than separately. And I would dispute the claim that there are 7000 different voices answering the basic questions of human existence and purpose. Surely there are no less than 7.2 billion? On my street, I know there are at least a couple of people who speak a different first language from me. It’s highly likely, though, that I would share more with them in terms of outlook or interest than with others who share my language. But I wouldn’t share every interest or preoccupation with anyone, and nor would anyone else.

And to look at the first part of the quote: I’ve never seen other cultures, such as Australian Aboriginal cultures, as failed attempts at being modern. I see them as generally quite successful attempts at surviving and multiplying in a fairly inhospitable but obviously not uninhabitable environment, in which they’ve had to adapt to a world of resources, opportunities and threats that has remained relatively static, and certainly far far more static than was the situation in Europe over the same time period. And then, 200-odd years ago, Europeans arrived here, with (always in hindsight!) predictable consequences. The very concept of modernity would not have occurred to humans who had lived in a pretty well completely unchanging environment for more than 40,000 years, whereas for the Europeans who arrived here the concept of modernity was very much a living thing, as they were constantly aware of their changes and development, in technology, in politics, in lifestyle. They naturally believed in the progress which had, after all brought them to this great southern land and enabled them, they felt, to lay claim to it.

So, many of us are well aware of the situation. Just keeping to our Australian circumstances (though I’m actually a Brit, if it comes to strict definitions), one culture or set of cultures was long habituated to stasis, the other set of cultures was long habituated to dynamics, and, as a result of having survived all those dynamic processes, to ‘progress’. So, in an important sense these two different groups aren’t answering the one fundamental question, they’re answering two quite different questions. The Aborigines had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human in a world which for 40,000 years has been unchallenged by other humans, and which has enough resources to survive on if you know how to read the signs, and if you pass knowledge and skills on down the generations’, whereas the Europeans had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human whose ancestors have fought and defeated invaders, conquered other lands and enslaved or exploited their peoples, cultivated soils and experimented with plants and animals to provide a variety of foodstuffs, exploited mineral resources for construction and technological purposes, etc etc’.

So, it comes to this. We Europeans, sharpened by our historical experience, have come to Australia and transformed it. We – some of us – tried to make peace with the Aborigines while taking the best land to cultivate ourselves. We brought in our sheep and cattle, we took over the rich coastlines, we built our industries, and we made an assumption of ‘Terra nullius’ because it was so obviously in our interest to do so. We had no idea, of course, of the history of the Aborigines – being all ‘young earth creationists’ at the time. The Aborigines had no more chance than, say, a tasty flightless bird would have if feral cats were introduced onto an island that the birds had comfortably and skilfully survived on for a million years. Of course we didn’t eat any Aborigines (as far as I’m aware) but we transformed their environment almost beyond recognition and made a continuation of their habitual way of life well-nigh impossible.

I make that comparison to suggest that humans are nothing special. Cultures, like species, go extinct, or adapt. That’s a harsh reality, but somehow, in our sophistication, we know, at least some of us do, that diversity, of species and cultures, is a good thing, not just intrinsically but for our own selfish benefit. It’s a balance maybe – we strive to preserve, but also encourage to adapt.

Written by stewart henderson

July 18, 2015 at 3:44 pm

Christianity’s future: 3 national perspectives.

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Since I’m currently off work due to illness I feel like cheering myself up by doing another number on how Christianity is faring in various countries, such as the USA, Britain and France – where I’ll be heading, hopefully, in March-April (France, that is). A nice gloating session might be just what the doctor ordered. So here goes.

the not so united kingdom

ch_rates_of_decline

Would that nationalism was in as sharp a decline as Christianity is, but that’s one for the future. The UK’s last census was in 2011, as in Australia, so comparisons are irresistible. As of that census, the percentage of Christians was 59.5 (down from 71.8 in 2001), slightly below ours at 61.1 The no religion faction comes in at 25.7%, and unstated at 7.2%. In Australia the nones are still down at 22.3% with 9.4% not clearly stated. So the UK still seems to be ahead of us in the race, but of course I’m being overly simplistic. It’s unlikely that the exact same questions are asked in both censuses, and framing makes an enormous difference. And in any case self-reporting is hardly the best way to get a handle on such a socially pressured subject as religious belief. Not that it lacks any value – the fact that a decreasing percentage of Britishers are saying they’re not religious tells us something about the way those social pressures have eased over time. I think all we can really say from the census figures on Christianity in the UK and Australia is that they’re both travelling in the same direction at roughly the same rate – at least over the last decade or so, because the religious question was only introduced as a voluntary option in the British census in 2001. The term post-Christian is beginning to be used.

However, unlike Australia, the UK has other major surveys of religion, the 3 major ones being the Labour Force Survey, the British Social Attitudes survey and the European Social Survey, all of which, of course, ask different questions. The census in England and Wales asks the question ‘What is your religion?’ and provides a list of option boxes, with ‘no religion’ at the top. Scotland, my birthplace, has a different question – ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’, and this slightly more alarming question might account for the larger percentage of the non-religious in that country (or is it just a region?) Some 36.7% of Scots answered ‘none’ to this question in 2011. I find this quite satisfying in that Scotland came under the influence of Calvinism for centuries – a harsh form of protestantism infected with ‘predestination’, a variously understood and variously modified concept which in its bleakest interpretation is entirely fatalistic. Maybe a long dose of that craziness has helped the Scots come to their senses more quickly than their neighbours.

Wikipedia summarises the results of the other surveys thus:

The Labour Force Survey asked the question “What is your religion even if you are not currently practising?” with a response of 15.7% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2004 and 22.4% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2010.
The British Social Attitudes survey asked the question “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?” with 41.22% of respondents selecting ‘no religion’ in 2001 and 50.67% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2009.
The European Social Survey asked the question “Which religion or denomination do you belong to at present?” with 50.54% of respondents selecting ‘no religion’ in 2002 and 52.68% selecting ‘no religion’ in 2008.

All of which emphasises, again, that the responses are vitally connected to the framing of the question. None of these surveys, I would argue, are reliable in any scientific sense as an account of the actual religiosity of the nation. They all involve self-reporting. That doesn’t mean that they’re worthless of course. They’re particularly useful if you keep asking the same question over time, which is why I don’t favour chopping and changing the question in the forlorn hope of getting a more ‘accurate’ picture.

A surely more telling indication of the decline of Christianity in the UK is church attendance. It amuses me to note that, though both denominations are in decline, the overall church attendance of Catholics in the UK is higher than that of Anglicans, mainly due to immigration. It was only a few centuries ago that Catholics were being executed for their faith in England. Fat King Henry must be turning in his gravy. Wikipedia again well summarises the situation:

Currently, regular church attendance in the United Kingdom stands at 6% of the population with the average age of the attendee being 51. This shows a decline in church attendance since 1980, when regular attendance stood at 11% with an average age of 37. It is predicted that by 2020, attendance will be around 4% with an average age of 56. This decline in church attendance has forced many churches to close down across the United Kingdom, with the Church of England alone being forced to close 1,500 churches between 1969 and 2002. Their fates include dereliction, demolition and residential conversion

I’m sure you all get the drift of the drift.

So the UK has come a long way since Guy Fawkes, along with his aristocratic confederates, tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the royal family with them, in the hope of bringing the nation back to the OTR (One True Religion). Since the Act of Settlement (1701) all monarchs have been obliged to ‘join in communion with the Church of England’, which disqualifies Catholics (and all other denominations and religions), but pressure has been brought to bear to end this discrimination, as well as to disestablish the Anglican Church. This seems inevitable, given the rapid decline of that institution. 

the not so united states

GallupAttendance

The USA has long been in a right religious mess, and some of the reasons for it were canvassed in a short essay at Salon in May. Many other westerners could be forgiven for thinking that the country is a basket case, full of the most bizarre scientific denialism and educational vandalism, a breeding ground for hate preachers, life-denying cultists and home-schooled ignoramuses, but a closer look will reveal much that’s hopeful. The USA, we shouldn’t forget, is the third most populated country in the world, with a population diversity second to none. Even assuming that only 10% of that population is non-religious (a conservative estimate) that’s way more than the entire population of Australia.

The USA, like France, doesn’t measure religiosity in its census, but there are a number of important surveys that can fill in the picture for us. The Pew Research Religious Landscape Survey of 2007 found that 16.1% of the population was ‘religiously unaffiliated’, which is not so far behind Australia’s ‘no religion’ set, though the extent to which those two sets are comparable could be argued till the end of days. A more recent Pew survey, results published in late 2012, put the unaffiliated figure at just under 20%. Encouragingly, these people overwhelmingly state that they’re not looking for a religion to join (though many believe in gods or are ‘spiritual’) and consider that established churches are overly concerned with money, power, rules and politics. The extreme noisiness of the religious right in the US is having a negative effect on the majority. And the change is really quite rapid, as rapid as that of many other western countries. Here’s an interesting quote from the summary of the 2012 results:

In addition to religious behavior, the way that Americans talk about their connection to religion seems to be changing. Increasingly, Americans describe their religious affiliation in terms that more closely match their level of involvement in churches and other religious organizations. In 2007, 60% of those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In 2012, just 50% of those who say they seldom or never attend religious services still retain a religious affiliation – a 10-point drop in five years. These trends suggest that the ranks of the unaffiliated are swelling in surveys partly because Americans who rarely go to services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether.

This seems to indicate that drops in involvement lead more or less quickly to a drop in actual belief.

Other surveys show a range of results. A 2007 Gallup poll had the number expressing disbelief or uncertainty at around 14%. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of 2008 had some 76% of respondents identifying as Christians compared to 86% in 1990. Another survey organisation is the Association of Religious Data Archives (ARDA), which basically provides an overview of all the major surveys, but I’ve found it hard to get anything clear out of its data. It is clearly a pro-religious organisation.

The Wikipedia website dealing specifically with Christianity in the US points out the usual decline, but notes that church attendance is still way up on that in France and Australia. The ARIS survey of 2008, in its commentary, states that the drop in religiosity has slowed considerably since the 90s:

The “Nones” (no stated religious preference, atheist, or agnostic) continue to grow, though at a much slower pace than in the 1990s, from 8.2% in 1990, to 14.1% in 2001, to 15.0% in 2008

The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.

Asian Americans are substantially more likely to indicate no religious identity than other racial or ethnic groups.

So multiculturalism, as a diluter of traditional Christianity, is one of the many factors contributing to what is undeniable, in spite of arguments that can be had about the pace of change. Christianity is fading, even in its self-proclaimed heartland, and there’s no real likelihood of a reversal.

france

WO-AM683A_EUPEW_G_20130212183610

 France presents the same story only more so. With no census stats, the various major surveys range from 40% to 58% of the people self-describing as Christians, with the non-religious at between 31% and 35%. The average age of believers is rising and church attendance has suffered a spectacular collapse. Evangelical protestant churches are growing, but from a very low base in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. The idea that the evangelists are onto something ‘great’, as this commentator has it, seems grossly exaggerated.

Again, what fascinates me is the incredible variation in findings, with only one clear trend identified, that of overall decline. According to some, the non-believers already well outnumber the believers, and Salon has listed France, along with Australia, one of the best countries for atheists.

France appears to be abandoning Christianity more quickly than other western countries, but it’s hard to tell for sure from all the contradictory surveys and questions. As something of a Francophile, I have a particular interest in the history of France’s connections with Christianity, so that’ll be the focus of the rest of this post.

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, from the second century CE, Christians were providing headaches for the administration in Gaul as well as elsewhere. Blandina of Lyon became one of the first ‘celebrated’ martyrs of the region, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. While the Romans were tolerant of the religious practices of subject peoples generally, Christianity, with its inwardness, its intransigence and its rejection of eclecticism and syncretism, posed more problems than others. Nevertheless, the persecution of Christians was not by any means as widespread as some later commentators have asserted. The treatment of Christians largely depended on the whims of particular emperors, local tensions and character clashes, and the waxing and waning sense of ‘internal threat’.

Things changed, of course, with the Christianisation of the empire, and the politicisation of the church. One of the first powerful rulers of the region known to us, the brutal Merovingian king Clovis (r.481-511) started out pagan, married a Christian, converted and was baptised at Rheims by the leading bishop. By this time it had already become clear that the secular and the ‘spiritual’ powers needed each other’s support. In fact the network of bishops encouraged by Clovis and other leaders helped to unify the Franks and the Celtic Gauls under a Latinised administrative system, which was a useful adjunct to highly unstable hereditary monarchies. The successors of Clovis squandered his legacy and the secular power eventually fell to a new line, culminating in the reign of Charlemagne, whose association with Pope Leo III helped to bolster his own legitimacy and the power of the papacy. In 799 Leo fled from Rome to the court of Charlemagne, his life in danger from a gang of Roman nobles. Charlemagne chose to support Leo (though he didn’t think much of him), and entered Rome to ensure his reinstatement. In return, Leo crowned Charlemagne emperor. It was the most spectacular example up to that time of the effectiveness of church-state collaboration, and it jump-started the soi-disant Holy Roman Empire, a somewhat vague institution that languished on until 1806.

Naturally the Carolingian dynasty faded, and the French nobility was weakened by its lengthy adventures in the crusades, and it wasn’t till the 12th century that a new dynasty, the Capetians, was able to dominate the region. Again, alliance with the church proved essential to the maintenance of power, not only through administration and productive associations with key figures such as the Abbé Suger, but in terms of ritual and display, including the tradition of a sacramental coronation in Rheims.

Of course, tensions between Rome and the French church were bound to arise, and when the Pope tried to interfere with the ecclesiastical decisions of the French king, or vice versa, this would often lead to real blood-letting, with fragile alliances, betrayals and pointless heroics in a political world based on power and gloire. The notoriously 13th century ascetic Louis IX, aka ‘Saint Louis’, actually moved the French monarchy away from the Vatican, anticipating the later idea of divine right direct from Mr Supernatural. He also strengthened the Roman Law system and heavily patronised the arts, and he and his successors presided over a greater nationalisation of religious ideas and practice, as well as the building of many of the great French cathedrals that still bedazzle tourists. Paris became the centre for theological discourse – the only intellectual game in town – with the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Peter Abelard doing their utmost, this side of heresy, to remake the Old Testament god into the BOOB (benevolent omnipotent omniscient being) we’ve come to know and scratch our heads over.

With the printing press in the fifteenth century came a new challenge to Catholic hegemony, leading to the Reformation, as literature and ideas became more widely disseminated, and the practises of the church came under greater scrutiny. The precursor to full-blown protestantism was a kind of religious humanism, associated with such figures as Erasmus of Rotterdam and England’s Thomas More. Jean Calvin, a theology student at the Sorbonne, was influenced by humanist methods of direct connection and interpretation of Biblical texts, and his conclusions regarding faith and predestination naturally caused alarm in some circles. The prominent French Renaissance king, François I, who was at first well-disposed towards the new intellectual trends, finally found them personally threatening, and the persecution of protestants began, and were further stepped up by his less amiable successor, Henry II. Over the next century France was one of the major theatres of the wars of religion, culminating in the Thirty Years War. The only bright period was the reign of Henry IV (1589-1610), a protestant who pragmatically converted to Catholicism in order to ascend the throne. Much to the disgust of Pope Clement VIII, he issued the famous Edict of Nantes in 1598, granting substantial rights to the Huguenots (Calvinist protestants) while affirming Catholicism as the ‘real religion’. Remarkably liberal for its time, it lasted for less than a century, being revoked by Louis XIV in 1685. The revocation led to an exodus of protestants, and tensions with neighbouring protestant countries (and when I say ‘tensions’, I don’t mean in the modern sense of babble about ‘shirt-fronting’ national leaders, but battles, sieges, massacres and the like – the standard European stuff of those centuries).

The enormous privileges granted to the clergy and the nobility under the ancien regime were a decisive factor in bringing about the French Revolution of 1789. Various failed attempts were made to get these elites to pay taxes or make concessions, but they of course refused, suicidally as it turned out. The revolutionaries declared null and void the King’s divine right to rule, and issued a Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and the Supreme Being was redefined in non-denominational terms. The clergy were made to swear an oath of allegiance to the new Constitution, which most of the higher clergy refused to do. The revolutionaries’ insistence on this measure caused both domestic and European unrest. Pope Pius VI condemned the revolution in 1791, but the French got their own back when their troops expelled him from the Papal States in 1798. The next Pope, Pius VII, was in continual conflict with Napoleon. The 1801 Concordat between the two was used by Napoleon to gain the support of traditional Catholics, as it granted rights to the clergy that had been taken away from them by the National Assembly, but it was heavily tilted towards the French state and away from the Papacy. The Concordat declared that Catholicism was ‘the religion of the great majority of the French’, but not the state religion (as it had been before the revolution), thus preserving religious freedom.

Finally, the Concordat was largely abrogated by the 1905 French law on the separation of the churches and the state, which clearly established state secularism (which had also been declared by the Paris Commune of 1871, but it didn’t last). According to Wikipedia:

The law was based on three principles: the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise, and public powers related to the church. This law is seen as the backbone of the French principle of laïcité. The French Constitution of 1958 states “The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion”. However, France’s republican government had long been strongly anti-clerical. The Law of Separation of Church and State in 1905, subsequent to prior expulsion of many religious orders, declared most Catholic church buildings property of the state (cathedrals) communes (existing village churches), and led to the closing of most Church schools.

France’s 1905 law is still controversial, and it didn’t prevent governments from spending taxpayer funds on Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran and religious Jewish building projects well into the 2oth century. However, the impact on the Catholic church was most substantial, though reconciliation processes between successive French governments and the Vatican have since eased the pain.

This has been a blustering tour through the complex religious history of France, another far from unified nation, with complex regional histories and dynamics. My hat-tip is to Cecil Jenkins’ Brief History of France for much of the detail. It has brought me up to speed on far more than France’s religious skirmishes; it has given me a basis for understanding something more of that country’s queer and unique dirigiste economy and social history.

Written by stewart henderson

December 8, 2014 at 6:35 am