Thursday, December 31, 2009

The End of a Year

This December has had half its normal rainfall and just under the average for sunshine. Evidence for what my body tells me, it’s been a dull cloudy month. Roll on summer. Today’s a cold southerly and I have the heater on as I work in my study.

So, it’s the end of a decade. For its first nine years Helen Clark led the fifth Labour Government. It did many good things. My big criticism would be that it did not do enough to alleviate child poverty. Early financial help in education, health and related areas cuts down future social costs.

This is not to say that all future social costs will be eliminated. As Obama said in accepting the Nobel Peace prize, ‘evil exists.’ As a teacher I quickly learnt the difference between ‘naughty’ and ‘bad’. Every now and then there would be a student who seemed inherently cruel and unfeeling. Even siblings can be different. Yes, I accept Nature does count, but so does Nurture and we ignore that at our peril.

My concern about the new administration is a rather punitive mentality. The most striking thing, however, about John Key’s first year in power is his wooing of the Maori vote. He has made a point of attending every Treaty settlement and occasion. His charm offensive also is attracting the women’s vote. The erosion of Labour’s heartland is at this stage effective. The next high tide of radical reform looks a long way away.

Unlike Key’s polling, Obama’s has slumped. Before his election when some pundits were speaking of him in messianic terms I thought ‘for goodness’ sake, he’s a political campaigner, very powerful on the hustings.’ In power he faced the usual dilemmas and choices. It is far too soon to make a judgement call. Abe Lincoln springs to mind. A great orator but also a canny politician. His assassination was indeed an American tragedy.

I’m reading at present military historian John Keegan’s The American Civil War. He excels not so much in the descriptions of the carnage, (though he uses Walt Whitman’s experiences in the Union hospitals to good effect), but in the macro-view. Rather than a narrative this is an analysis, a bird’s eye view. Lincoln shines out.

Keegan’s particularly strong on geography and terrain. The South stronghold was protected by the Appalachians to the west and while the North blockaded the Atlantic coast it was hard to make a sea-borne assault. Especially after an early successful landing was thwarted by inept leadership. Some American reviews point out inaccuracies in his location of some battles, especially in west Tennessee. I cannot comment upon these particular criticisms but found his overall geo-political explanation convincing and enlightening.

At the beginning both sides hoped for a quick major knock-out battle – shades of Napoleon. As time went on and the casualties mounted it became a war of attrition. What a waste. Until Sherman marched through Georgia living off the land. Another sort of waste. Manpower, munitions and money – the issues of modern warfare. Engineering expertise was needed to bridge rivers and lay down railroads. American expertise and ingenuity were put to use. The North's industrial base gave it a massive advantage.

Keegan gives the context for the conflict. Slavery! But the picture we have of cotton plantations was not the norm. It was subsistence farming, hogs, chickens and corn, The men from these farms fought for secession from the Union even more than the slave-owners. The South lost the war but its myths proved persuasive – Gone With the Wind (assisted by Hollywood) has outsold Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That distrust of Washington and big government is still a component of the area's psyche. Ask the Republican strategists.

In contrast to the book for the last two evenings I watched a video, the BBC production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra starring Jane Lapotaire and Colin Blakely. Shakespeare got over the difficulty of portraying destructive passion on stage by his magnificent language. Cleopatra’s beguiling glamour and allure and Antony’s power and manliness are conjured up in words. As is the age-old clash between Eastern sensuality and Roman austerity.

Let me savour an example: ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne/ Burnt on the water; the poop was beaten gold,/ Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that/ The winds were love-sick-‘

Not wanting to be taken as a captive to Rome, ‘the quick comedians/ Extemporarily will stage us, and present/ our Alexandrian revels: Antony/ Shall be brought drunkenly forth, and I shall see/ some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness/ I’ th’ posture of a whore’, she takes the asp from the fig-basket and clasping it to her breast encourages it to bite her. Octavius’s final order ‘She shall be buried by her Antony/ No grave on earth shall clip in it/ A pair so famous’ sums up the tragic grandeur. The play ends with a richness like the old Nile in full flood.

Ancient historians had the asp merely biting Cleopatra’s arm. Shakespeare knew how to excite an audience’s attention and sympathy. I used the line ‘some squeaking CLeopatra boy my greatness’ to illustrate the Elizabethan theatre and its customs – boys played the female roles. It also gave me a chance to teach grammar, ‘boy’ as verb.

An unusual ending for my blog for 2009; but once a teacher, always a teacher.

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