There may be something new in the way that ISIS has set about destroying ancient monuments in Syria and Iraq—but archaeological vandalism itself has a very wide spectrum, as I realised during a recent visit to the Sudan National Museum.
May has come to South London, blustery, fresh and often wet, but many Britons on the streets are sporting short sleeves and bare legs as if holidaying in the tropics. Even the hospital, stuffy and suffocating by tradition, turns out to be airy, with a chilly draught coming from the window berth I have luckily secured. Perhaps they’re saving on energy.
Our ward has a motley, shifting crew of patients. Of the languages I know, English is the only one that confers this subtly coercive title, redolent of the administrative grandeur that made it possible to run an empire, upon the bedridden malades, enfermos, bing ren.
British imperialists picked some fine spots from which to supervise their dominions. The colonial administration of Nyasaland, a 900 kilometre long strip of south east Africa that has been known as Malaŵi since independence in 1964, was headquartered on the lower slopes of Mount Zomba. Salubrious breezes ruffle the trees and flowering bushes that surround a cluster of early 20th century brick buildings, quaint and dinky now, making one wonder how so much power could be exercised with so little concrete. A dilapidated Gymkhana Club, built in 1923, looks out over a wide lawn that probably doubled as a cricket and polo pitch. It is easy to imagine the few dozen colonial officers and their wives gathering here for gin and tonic at sundown, some brightly planning an amateur performance of Charley’s Aunt in the surprisingly ample hall behind, others complaining about the insufferable stupidity of the houseboys and yearning for home.
A few pleasant days in London entertaining small grandsons—chasing pigeons in the park, stamping in puddles, riding on trains and buses—are marred only by occasional incivility, which first surfaces at the London Transport Museum.
A day is not long to spend in Madrid, and the two hours we can spare for the Museo del Prado are hardly sufficient, so we ignore most of its treasures and concentrate on Goya.
We go up the valley looking for Lorenzo, who grazes his cows on our patch of mountain. Twenty seven cows this year, not much to keep a family on, but not too bad either. Smallholder husbandry has declined steadily in the years that we’ve been coming to Cantabria, but Lorenzo seems to be clinging on somehow, almost thriving. He has Parkinson’s disease, causing a distracting shake to the hands that he clasps around a long walking staff, so it takes some time to notice the surprisingly jaunty twinkle in his eye.
In the UK for a week on family business I make the mistake of travelling by public transport in a country that is configured for the private car. The journey from my sister’s house outside Ipswich to my brother’s in Northampton, a distance of around 80 miles, takes 7 hours (on three buses, one train and one taxi) and costs a total of GBP 28.30. But I’m not in a hurry, and enjoy looking out the window. January’s cold snap is over. Snowmen dissolve into the bruised grass of town parks. Where there are still fields, water lies flat upon them.