Author Archives: Deirdre Carabine

About Deirdre Carabine

Expat Irish academic living and working in Uganda for the past twenty-five years, at first right on the Equator and lately in the capital city Kampala, now an independent researcher and consultant for IT in education.

Carpets, Churches, and Cupcakes

A few weeks ago The Man and I, together with Sheridan and Annabelle, (re-)visited Byzantium / Constantinople / Istanbul for what they call a long weekend city break, and we enjoyed every second of it. Three things stand out for me – as the title of this blog might give away – except that you should really substitute baklava and Turkish Delight for cupcakes: the alliteration opportunity was just too tempting to ignore.

First carpets. Forget “Do you want to build a snowman?”, “Do you want to buy a carpet?” became a constant question on every street corner. After a while they sort of had us brainwashed, and bedad didn’t we take ourselves off to a carpet shop to see what they had to offer. Well, the floor show was magnificent. The OTTness of it all! Once it became clear that we might be serious punters, out came the wine and the baklava – and very tasty it all was too. The head honcho was a born actor who never missed a clue in private conversation between us two couples, all the time whirling his carpets around like Ali Baba and giving instructions to his guys in rapid Turkish.

IMAG0988

After some few hours had passed, we settled on one traditional carpet for ourselves, and Sheridan and Annabelle selected three more modern pieces for a new build. Well, the guy thought he had died and gone to heaven. More wine was called for. The prices were haggled a bit, and I know we did pay more than they were worth, but it was an experience never to be forgotten. He even threw in the cost of the DHL and handling – although at the price we paid, he had a nice hefty profit from which to extract his costs. Ours has just arrived at home having spent the Easter vacation in a Kampala warehouse awaiting the revenue authority decision on taxation. All in all, it was one of the nicest shopping experiences of my life, and when visitors say: “what a lovely carpet! Where did you get it?”, they will hear the whole unedited story.

And now to Churches. On the shores of the Sea of Marmara stands a small building called the Little Hagia Sophia (Küçük Ayasofya), formerly Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (fourth-century Syrian martyrs). This church, a mosque since the time of the Ottoman conquest in 1453, was built by Justinian and his wife Theodora between 527 and 536, and despite damage from earthquakes over the centuries and the advancement of the city, still retains its dignity as a house of God.

HS Little.jpg

Its plan consists of a small basilica with the dome resting on an octagon. Sadly, its original beauty and decoration can only be guessed at because the interior was plastered when it became a mosque.

interior LHS

This little picture shows the dome of the San Vitale church at Ravenna; the Little Hagia Sophia would have had similar interior design.

SV Dome

But the octagonal shape is what captured my attention as I immediately thought of two other octagonal churches: Ravenna and Aachen. It could well be that the Ravenna Church of San Vitale (capital of the western Roman Empire at the time) was inspired by the Little Hagia Sophia given that it was commissioned by Bishop Ecclesius (what a wonderful name for a bishop!) after a visit to Byzantium. San Vitale was consecrated in 548 and its mosaics are considered masterpieces of Byzantine art, no doubt inspired by those of the Little Ayasofya.

mosaic SV

The final member of this trinity of churches is the Cathedral at Aachen, begun around 793, commissioned by Emperor Charlemagne and built by Odo of Metz, and it is, as with the other two octagonal churches, a world heritage site. Charlemagne had moved the capital of the Frankish Kingdom from Ravenna to Aachen so there is a likely link between the Little Hagia Sophia of Justinian via Ravenna and the Church of Charlemagne at Aachen. Although Charlemagne’s cathedral is mostly Romanesque, the octagonal design forms its centre. The Palace Chapel at its core was built from columns and marble from the ancient buildings of Rome and Ravenna (given by Pope Hadrain not looted as was to happen in centuries to come), creating a link between Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, and Charlemagne, the new Constantine who kick-started the Carolingian Renaissance where one of my academic interests lies.

aachen outside      aachen dome

But trends change quickly: just seventy or so years later Charlemagne’s grandson built his own church: Notre Dame de Compiègne. This time not an octagonal design but a full-on Gothic Church. It has been suggested that a poem penned by my friend Eriugena (the ninth-century Irish scholar who worked at the palace school of Charles) Aulae sidereae (starry halls) was written to commemorate the consecration of this church in 877. But how I wish the builder had used the octagonal design: that would have made a neat quad of churches built on eights with roots at the very heart of Christendom!

As for the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazzar, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, and all the other magnificent places we visited, that will be for another day and another blog as I have to serve desert now. The people of Turkey are serious about their sweet stuff, baklava and Turkish delight being the tip of the iceberg. We found a cafe that serves only tea, coffee, and deserts / sweets. The Man thought he had died and gone to heaven. His only problem was choice! It was indeed very good but you wouldn’t want to be going there every day for a cholesterol special.

A short time later, just like with the carpet shop, we stopped a fraction of a second too long outside a sweet shop. In a blink of an eye we were whisked inside and given explanations of all the goodies on display. Really interesting and complex, but it was the samples that did me in. The Man smiled through it all and ate all his without complaint. They even found him a seat so that he could be more comfortable. I had the job of choosing which items to put in a box to carry carefully and lovingly back to Kampala. And while I was doing this, the two men were diverted to a section of the shop that sold sweets laced with what I suspect was viagra. “It will make her very happy tonight”, they were told with a Frankie Howard wink; “it will make her smile tomorrow”, they added. And with another saucy wink, your man slipped a sachet of the stuff into each husband’s coat pocket. “You will get two free if you buy ten”, they persisted. But that was just too much for their manliness to deal with and all cajoling to buy the stuff fell on deaf ears.  And in any case, the credit cards were maxed out after the visit to the carpet shop.

Advertisements

Grammar, Google, and getting away from it all

Dee Nkozi

I retired officially from university teaching and administration last week on 28 February 2018. This seems an appropriate enough moment to have a quick glance back at a thirty+-year career together with its ups and downs. It all started innocuously enough: the lecturer for the course was on a sabbatical and thought I should have more than just conducting tutorials under my belt. And so I ended up teaching my first full philosophy course in the 1986-87 session when I was nearing the end of my doctoral studies. It was a small class composed mostly of seminary students who had to fulfil their obligations to take a requisite number of philosophy courses, and my course: medieval philosophy, was mandatory. They were mildly interested (at least I thought so at the time), but I was totally hooked! Nights were spent reading until the wee small hours, then writing out each lecture in large readable joined up worried that I be caught out by an innocent but unprepared-for question from a class not much younger than me. I was a nervous wreck at the start of each teaching hour, but they were quite forgiving of any gaps in my knowledge, and, happily, all of them passed the exam!

That was then. Thirty-odd years later a lot more lectures have been written up, slept through, enjoyed, given off the cuff, not-quite-booed-at but nearly, and a lot of dissertations have been supervised. By my reckoning, somewhere in the region of fifty master’s dissertations and a handful of PhDs have kept me up nights and had me out of bed when the moon was still making her rounds. I have lost count of the BA dissertations that, for the most part, had me tearing my hair out.

There were, of course, hard years, dry years, but also – thankfully – more fertile, enjoyable years. One in particular stands out in my memory. Being short of staff at the university on the equator, one colleague in my department and I each ended up teaching three courses in one semester and two in the next. That was to be the first graduation year at our new university, and 18 undergraduate dissertations were also thrown into the mix. I think we both had seven to supervise and somehow managed to farm out the remainder. That was a rough schedule that was made tougher by the fact that I had never taught any of my five courses before. A lot of books came back in the luggage before that year began and a lot of candles were used to read them night after night, getting each lecture ready just before it was due to be given. But apart from all the hard work that was a good year, and it stands out in my memory as the year I finally regarded myself as a university teacher. I learned a lot from teaching (probably more than my students!), especially in the environment and gender courses I taught, so much so that a half-written book has been on my desk gathering dust for the past ten years. It’s called Putting on Trousers that are Empty. Empowerment in a Patriarchal World. Rather a naughty title, but I think you get the central argument! Other more esoteric stuff is also on the back burner and I’m now looking forward to getting back to my academic roots with a follow-up volume to my first book on negative theology – if, as my granny would have said “God spares me”.

Previously in this blog I have highlighted my difficulties with understanding what has come to be known as Uglish (the Ugandan version of English) but over the years my ear has adapted rather well and my brain has finally caught up, so much so that I am almost a fluent speaker at this stage. But given the fact that in Uganda all my students were learning in a second language (for some a third language), English has almost always been a problem. My newly-allocated, end-of-second-year dissertation students were invariably scared sh**less by the third years: “eeeeh she’s too tough”, “she writes ALL over your pages in a green pen and you have to tick off the corrections as you make them”, “she tells you stuff about split infinitives, Oxford commas, colons and semi-colons, and attributive adjectives … she’s nuts” … things like that. No wonder they came for the first consultation in deferential mode. But they thawed as we began to work together, and I’m proud to say not a single BA student failed a dissertation. There were mishaps with two or three MAs but I’d rather not get into that. I did, therefore, spend an inordinate amount of time correcting bad English, but to my dismay only a handful of students over the years learned from the corrections – three of whom are now PhDs, (and I am happy to have been their doktormütter). But after so long, I have now lightened up a bit and am a little more tolerant; I “cope up with it” and let some Uglish slide – after all, everyone else will know what they mean!

But what I can’t let slide is the plagiarism. I know it’s not a local problem but it has become endemic in Uganda’s institutions. And the awful thing is very few academic staff complain about it; even fewer academics do anything to detect or prevent it. There is a number of reasons for this, not least is bottom-line laziness stemming from having two or three jobs to make ends meet. But stubbornly I routinely ran work submitted through plagiarism detection software. Students who violated the rules of academic honesty were almost always genuinely surprised to be the subjects of demerits. It was not unusual to receive an essay comprised of a series of plagiarised paragraphs (quite often disjointed) with a general reference tagged to the end of each. “But I gave the references”, they wailed. “But you copied each paragraph word for word”. “But I told you where they came from”. “Why didn’t you use quotation marks?” It was hopeless. I personally blame Google. As soon as this search engine became available on campus, library use was noticeably less while the computer lab became crowded. I myself love Google for all the great services it provides from how to get rid of jiggers under your toenails to the secrets of hing in Indian cookery, but its use by students leads to serious plagiarism. Despite my giving zero for plagiarised work, very few understand academic theft and, therefore, it continues unabated. Unfortunately, my little battles didn’t contribute much to winning the war on that front.

Another issue I am really glad to be leaving behind is basic student laziness regarding academic effort. As I have said here before, Uganda has a rather poor reading culture stemming from the fact that books were / are simply not available so teachers wrote / write notes on the blackboard which students copy and subsequently cram for examinations. That practice is, unfortunately still with us. Students will always want your notes to keep them in their comfort zone. To take notes in class and read about the subject in books is outside that comfort zone. “Just how much of this required reading textbook do I have to read?” “Well, er, all of it. Plus the other five recommended texts if you want a first-class mark”. “But I can’t read all that. Can’t you give us summaries?” Jeepers!

Over the years it has been a lot of hard work with some wonderful successes, but a lot of it was simply hard work with little thanks at the end of the day and much, much less pay than an average plumber (sometimes none at all). Although I must say I have received a fair few out-of-the-blue phone calls from former students thanking me when they got a job / promotion / higher degree / professional award …. . Those calls remain dear to my heart. And I do meet students on the streets of Kampala who always say thanks; “you were tough with us, but fair” seems to be the general consensus of those I taught. My former students are professors, vice chancellors and deputy vice chancellors, registrars, politicians, doctors, policemen and women, teachers, nurses and midwives, administrators, public health practitioners, bankers, development workers, IT specialists, farmers, shopkeepers, and fisherfolk, so my words have travelled far and wide. I hope some of those words have been remembered.

But now I think I have done my bit for tertiary education in Uganda. Twenty-five years and three universities later I am not sorry to retire from it all. It has been a steep learning curve for the most part, but an experience I would not trade for all the fish in Lake Victoria. I am going back to the academic work I started with after a hiatus of a quarter of a century, but I am going back with a wealth of experience that twenty-five years in Ireland could never have afforded me. A huge thanks to all the students who have taught me so much since I arrived in The Pearl of Africa as a naive philosopher hoping to teach for a year, get a tan, travel a bit, and then return to Europe for a tenured appointment. I for one am happy that life doesn’t always give us what we plan for!

And so this is me, back to my roots, sans robes, and loving every minute of it!

Dee Feb18

Dive Inn, Doctors, and Dodgy Donations

Spotted yesterday evening on the tedious drive from Entebbe to Kampala: “Dive Inn” – not a mis-spelling but the unfortunate name of a local “lodge” in one of the shanty-like suburbs on a dirt road near Kampala. You wouldn’t dive in, not in a million years, except you were a client needing a mattress for an hour or two of a lonely evening. After the affluence of Johannesburg (admittedly I had been holed up in an up-market hotel), Kampala seemed dingy, tired, and down at heel. Three hours it took to cover the forty-odd kilometres from airport to our capital city. And when you are recovering from a bad bout of food poisoning, three hours is a mite too long to be away from the big white telephone.

A word of advice? Never get sick in a classy hotel in South Africa. Never! Faint requests to the Front Desk for medical assistance result in a brisk visit from a house-call doctor who sizes you up in about two minutes flat, then quickly dispenses the necessary medications to get you up and running again. Needle in the rump, potions against the dreaded runs, white pills for bacteria, and green pills for pain. He was very kind and sympathetic; he even emptied the rehydration salts into a glass and poured water on them. Great, I hear you say, wonderful service. Yes indeed, wonderful service. Until you get the bill. Well I didn’t actually get the bill because I was on the great white telephone, but the lady at reception got it and presented it to me upon check out. The light nearly left my eyes. Total due to him for about four minutes with me, three minutes to do his sums, whatever time it took to get him there, and the medications: 280 US dollars (that’s about £220). Afterwards I did a quick calculation on the medical costs and I could have bought this:

ipador this:  huawei
for around the same price.

I also found out that this sum was slightly more than the monthly salary of the maid who was assigned to the rooms on my floor. “We blacks don’t love each other”, she told me gravely, “and we don’t get paid enough money either,” she added rather too quickly. “Three thousand Rand a month and I pay one thousand for transport”. Talk about adding to my misery! Since I didn’t actually have any Rand or other useful currency, I gave her some clothes. And because she couldn’t leave the hotel with them, I had to write a note and sign it saying I had gifted them to her. I was aware that she was tapping me for “odds” as they would say in Belfast, but was too sick to care.

An official porter at O.R. Tambo airport, the only other service person I really interacted with, also tapped me without shame and with a mouthful of lies. He was polite, he showed me where the self-check-in was, and he guided me to the security gate, all the way proudly announcing his faith in Jesus Christ and how he spent his days praying and helping people for the love of his Maker, oh, and yes, how the airport authorities did not pay him for his work even though he had a security pass around his neck and a bunch of keys dangling from his belt. Again, because of the no-Rand situation which I explained, I offered to pray for him very specially before I went to bed. “Haven’t you got any Uganda money?” I did dig out a twenty thousand shilling note and most ungenerously offered it to him. “I don’t know if I can change that”, says he despondently, “what’s it worth?” I can’t repeat my answer. I know that people hustle all over the world – Uganda is probably best at it – but it left a rather sour taste in my mouth on top of the already sour taste that had accumulated there.

All in all, travelling on a Wednesday, getting sick on a Thursday, spending Friday in bed, and returning home on a Saturday leaves one rather exhausted in body if not in spirit. And so I want to leave you with a poem I re-read yesterday for the first time in ages. I wish I could evoke the mundane journey from Entebbe to Kampala with such mastery, but then I am not a wordsmith, activist, and brave tearer-up of green cards like Wole Soyinka.

wole

IN THE SMALL HOURS
Blue diaphane, tobacco smoke
Serpentine on wet film and wood glaze,
Mutes chrome, wreathes velvet drapes,
Dims the cave of mirrors. Ghost fingers
Comb seaweed hair, stroke aquamarine veins
Of marooned mariners, captives
Of Circe’s sultry notes. The barman
Dispenses igneous potions ?
Somnabulist, the band plays on.

Cocktail mixer, silvery fish
Dances for limpet clients.
Applause is steeped in lassitude,
Tangled in webs of lovers’ whispers
And artful eyelash of the androgynous.
The hovering notes caress the night
Mellowed deep indigo still they play.

Departures linger. Absences do not
Deplete the tavern. They hang over the haze
As exhalations from receded shores. Soon,
Night repossesses the silence, but till dawn
The notes hold sway, smoky
Epiphanies, possessive of the hours.

This music’s plaint forgives, redeems
The deafness of the world. Night turns
Homewards, sheathed in notes of solace, pleats
The broken silence of the heart.

August 2016 2: Belfast, Beards, and the Bucket List Trip

Getting from Belfast City Airport to the Queen’s University is easy peasy; I’ve done it loads of times over the years. Not this time though! Went over a bridge and kept going instead of hanging a left. Ended up somewhere up the Newtownards Road (I don’t know east Belfast except for a wee shortcut from the City airport over to Queen’s via Short Strand!) and we spent a good thirty minutes quite lost until I thought I should look for Divis Mountain – that would give me an idea where to head, I thought. And indeed it did! In no time at all we where whizzing up the Ravenhill Road … and whizzing … and forgot to turn right! Ok, down this road and we’ll be fine; we’ll just take this here wee shortcut. Jeepers, got lost in the backstreets near the River Lagan bridge (and I know that area quite well) until we caught sight of the river itself. It took an hour and fifteen minutes to get to the university. All that stuff about taking the girl outta Belfast … it seems that you can also take Belfast outta the girl, after all.

But it was indeed lovely to be back in the town of my birth. Something about the water I think. But let me tell you, Belfast has changed and is changing right before your eyes. First of all, there are tourists. Loads of them. Everywhere. Even up the Falls and Shankill Roads in black taxis. They are taking pictures of the City Hall and Belfast Buildings. St George’s Market (a bit uppity now it has to be said since the stinky days when my Granny bought her fish there) is full of them eating oysters and swilling down fancy coffees. But the thing that took me to the fair was the number of wee lads (well, 20 somethings) strutting their stuff in skinny jeans and wearing face fuzz. They all look like that Fifty Shader Jamie Dornan to me. And do you know that thing about the Northern Ireland accent being the sexiest on the planet? That had to do with him too, I suspect. So now it’s cool to be a young beardy in Belfast speaking Norn Iron. Can you imagine? Gone are the days … Apparently the cops have gotten in on the act too with their eye candy recruitment poster guy (also sporting a beard)!

ni-cop

There are some places in the world where beards are something to fear. Afghan refugees, for example, are afraid because they are immediately recognised. But not in Belfast. I know now why there are so many wee girl tourists: they are all looking for their very own Mr Spanky! Good luck to them! The wee lads of Belfast will have drunk them under the table in two hours flat, so enjoy this while it lasts lads. Next week some other role model will have popped up and Norn Iron might not be so sexy anymore.

I don’t know why I needed to visit the west coast of Donegal via Coleraine and Portrush and Enniskillen but I did. North Antrim was simply lovely. A bit on the cold and windy and rainy side, but still lovely. And the rain does tend to be followed by a great sunset like this one.

portrush

Sheridan and Annabelle were great company and we enjoyed the third (the first with my aunt and the second with my bro) of my sixtieth birthday parties with them. Thanks folks for the craic and the lovely hospitality! From Coleraine to Enniskillen on the back roads was a sight for sore eyes after the city: lovely countryside. We stopped at the Ulster American Folk Museum and spent a few hours out of the rain moseying around their exhibits. I kinna enjoyed it but it was a bit too curated for my liking. Fermanagh was, as always, welcoming and rain sodden. Bernie and Anna laid on a great meal with lotsa gin and wine and craic, and a great sleep was had by all that night. I considered that my fourth birthday party!

And finally we were doing the bucket trip journey. I must add here that I don’t think I’m on the way out; I am just celebrating sixtiness by driving around places of the past! First night Killybegs. On the second morning we climbed a goodly part of Slieve League (1972 feet above sea level) up into the damp clouds and even damper terrain. Great views though. And you would never find this sort of thing just anywhere these days, certainly not in Uganda. I wanted to drink from it but Himself wouldn’t let me in case the sheep above had done a pee.

mountain-spring

Too many tourists though, far too many in SUVs driving more than halfway up. Going through Teelin on the way to Glencolumcille I found the house where I stayed when learning Irish at Colaiste Aoidh Mhic Bhrice when I was fifteen; I had just turned sixteen when I was promptly kissed the next night at a ceile! Ah, such innocent memories! I came home and washed my mouth out with TCP – well I hardly knew the lad!

Over the Glengesh Pass to Ardara and up to Portnoo was the next leg of the journey. The coastline is superb and we stopped many times to ooh and ahh while the waves kept patiently hitting the shore and rolling back again. We were looking forward to the next part of the trip up to Dungloe of the famous Marys and then The Rosses through to Gweedore and Gortahork. Well, I could have cried. Those developers with pockets full of brown envelopes have but ruined that part of the Island of Ireland. Ruined. There are Daily-Mail-Book-of-House-Plan houses everywhere. And they are a blot on the landscape, an eyesore, a wart on the end of Sleeping Beauty’s nose, a boil on the cheek of the prettiest girl at the party … I could (as you know) go on, an on, and on! But then a bad thought popped into my head. What if they are all contaminated with that mica stuff that rots concrete and will fall down in about ten years time? That’s a thought to keep the spirits up. Except of course if they are real people’s homes and then it’s not such good news. Not in the slightest. Read about it in the Irish Times. But it is a pity. If they had built them in groups or small villages, it would have been ok, but they are scattered all over the place like confetti in a clean churchyard.

One thing that struck me as we drove into the Gaeltacht area in the north of the county: more signs are in Irish now than I remember from the old days. That’s not so bad because I can read them, but Himself, the map-reader, does not have the Irish (being a foreigner and all that), so it got a bit tricky at times, and I have to admit to a third incident of lostness (but only for a wee while). And then it was time for the final leg of the trip up to Downings. I bet a number of you readers will know of Downings, and I bet some even know Mrs Casey’s caravan site where hoardes of Norn Iron families fled for the twelfth fortnight every year. Sadly, Downings was not the same either: lots more Daily-Mail type houses so we didn’t even do the Atlantic Drive. I was so disappointed. But instead of a caravan or tent, this time we got to stay in the Beach Hotel. Horray! And that was the end of the childhood / teenage years memory trip. After that it was home to Culdaff for a quiet lazy week where I would have the fifth of my significant birthday parties. We visited Malin Head, now home to a coffee van at Banba’s Crown (Caffe Banba) and a soya cappuccino just had to be bought and drunk before the wind blew it out the the cup. EIRE is writ large up here so that German planes would know they weren’t flying over enemy territory.

imag1209-12-20-24-pm

The Carndonagh Cross was also re-visited. I loved David as both harpist and soldier:

imag1203imag1202

 

That birthday party was had (and yet another one with my sis), all business and pleasure activities were done and dusted, and then it was time for sad farewells before the long and stressful journey from the Emerald Isle back to the Pearl of Africa for the seventh and final sixtieth birthday party. Sixty is definitely the new forty! Bring it on!

August 2016 1: Ancient Theological Fraud and Contemporary Theologians in the Towery City

conference

Last month yours truly spent at week in Oxford doing interesting academic stuff. Himself came along for moral support and we loved every bit of it. We attended a workshop about a philosopher / theologian called Dionysius the Areopagite and his commentators throughout the centuries, a guy who perpetrated one of the greatest identity fraud “crimes” (with the widest-ranging theological consequences) of all time. This Dionysius was a sixth-century monk / theologian, most likely from Syria, and in his writings pretended to be a convert of St Paul who had, sometime around the year 50 AD, preached a sermon on the Areopagus in Athens (“Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus ….” Acts 17:34). Why this sixth-century scholar decided to take on a first-century identity has been the subject of much diligent scholarly detective work but we are no nearer to an answer – not surprising given the intervening millennia! But Dionysius, despite his assumed identity, was to prove one of the most significant influences on medieval philosophy and theology. Even today, his work has sparked huge debates among the luminaries of contemporary thought, spearheaded by French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

But on the first day of that conference at Pusey Hall, St Cross College, Syria was often on my mind. The images on our TV screens of Aleppo and other besieged Syrian cities and towns make for harrowing viewing, and provided a seriously stark contrast with the sunny, humid setting of the small, intimate Oxford library in which we were gathered.

dscf1359

Scholars from four continents were present for the workshop, and the discussions were truly participatory. Not surprisingly, there was a sizeable contingent of Orthodox scholars present, including Emeritus Professor Andrew Louth (Durham) who made the opening presentation and a further presentation on the last day. My slot was on day two, and of course I spoke about my Irish friend the ninth-century philosopher / theologian John Scottus Eriugena. Here he is on the old Irish punt note in the days before the euro.

eriugena

I was happy with the presentation, and in the chair, Dr Wayne Hankey from Dalhousie University handled the ensuing discussion with his usual aplomb. I am writing a review of the conference for the journal Sobornost and look forward eagerly to the publication of the proceedings. My friend from the Lesbos conference on Love in May 2015, Dimitrios Pallis, did a great job organizing the workshop, and my sincere thanks go to him for securing the sponsorship that enabled me to attend.

Academic work aside, I hadn’t been in Oxford since Christmas 1995, and while the place in general hadn’t changed that much, the streets most certainly had. Walking up to Cross College in the morning and back in the evening cost me a fortune! These days, the homeless and their (often frighteningly large) canine companions are a prominent feature on benches, in doorways, and anywhere really where they can sit, relax, and get their containers jangling. I simply couldn’t pass the street people with dogs. How did they manage to get enough to eat for two? Where did they get water? What about the doggy worming tablets and rabies vaccinations? How did they get their yearly bath (both humans and canines)? All these and other questions filled my mind as I struggled to gather my thoughts for the scholarly discussions to follow. And so my hand was constantly rooting around in my bag for cash as I asked the names of canines and their humans. In return I received many, many “God bless yous”, and for these I was, and am, most grateful.

To my great excitement we had been allocated accommodation in Christ Church. Wow! Just going through the massive portal that is called Tom Tower is a step back in time. As residents we could enter at any time, unlike the tourists who were were allocated a few hours in late afternoons. To my shame I must admit to a degree of smugness as we were whisked past the crowds waiting to explore this mighty institution. The college is built around a central quod (the original cloister), and as we walked around, I could hear centuries of music echoing in my head way back to the days of John Taverner the director of the first choir. The present-day church has its roots in the twelfth-century, and has the distinction of being both college chapel and cathedral.

quod

Interestingly, the first church on the present site dates back to the time of St Frideswide, founder of a church on the site; he was born around the time Eriugena was dying. In the twelfth century, Augustinian monks built a monastery church there, but this suffered the fate of all monasteries in the time of the Reformation: it was suppressed in 1524 and partially destroyed. But only one year later, the famous Cardinal Wolsey founded the college, and the church became the college chapel. Henry VIII also had a part in its history when he “re-founded” the college and made the church a cathedral in 1546. We spent a good three hours inside the church and emerged with very sore necks!

chirch-ceiling

Other interesting facts about are that Charles I lived at Christ Church between 1642 and 1646, while the brothers Wesley studied and were ordained there in the 1720s.

The more modern connections may be more interesting; my favourite is Lewis Carroll. Charles Dodgeson went up to Oxford in 1851 to study mathematics, and became rather fond of the Liddell sisters, especially Alice, daughters of the then Dean. He told stories about a girl named Alice to the girls who begged him to write them down. And so history was made. Here is the little door that was Carroll’s inspiration.

door

Edward Burne-Jones (who worked closely with William Morris) crafted a wonderful stained-glass window in the church where the representation of St Catherine of Alexandria is actually a portrait of Edith Liddell, Alice’s sister. Alice herself can be seen in a window in the magnificent Great Hall – the whole of which was actually reproduced at the University of Chicago – where parts of Harry Potter were filmed. We had breakfast there every day!

great-hall     hall2

 

 

 

 

My favourite place was the Jabberwocky Tree called after that wonderful nonsense poem of Carroll “Jabberwocky”. This is the actual tree at Christ Church where Carroll got his inspiration.

tree

My favourite (and most weird) fact about Oxford is that there once was “Oxford Time”. Yep, you read that right! Even today, Church services follow Oxford time which is GMT+1+5 minutes! How wonderful is that? We did not get to hear the Cathedral Choir sing because term was out, but if you want to have an idea of their sound just listen to the theme music for the Vicar of Dibley (The Lord is my Shepherd ) and — wait for it — Mr Bean (Ecce homo qui est faba).

All in all, it was a wonderful experience and I want to go back to visit all the nooks and crannies we did not reach. It was with a heavy heart that we jumped back on the bus outside Tom Gate that would take us back to Heathrow and on to the town of my birth. Coming up next: Belfast, Beards, and the Bucket List Trip.

Old Belfast, Horses, and the Titanic Dogs

I have been working on the Carabine family tree of late. I’m back to 1837 but can’t get very specific details before that. My great-great-great-great-grandfather died in 1900 having been a carter (horse and cart man) for the better part of his sixty-year working life. So when I found a video of Castle Junction in Belfast taken by the Lumière brothers in 1897, I was excited, thinking I might catch a glimpse of the man I have thought so much about. I may well have done, but I couldn’t really make out features on individual faces. I was, however, struck by the number of horses (and excrement) in the city at the time and wondered where they lived. More importantly, what happened to them once the electric tram made its appearance on the city’s roads? According to my father, his grandfather Thomas Carabine (a carpenter by trade) had drays so he might have had a side business carting stuff around the city. I suppose the horses simply died of old age and replacements were not needed. It put in mind the number of horses used during the first world war: apparently eight million horses and countless donkeys and mules died in those mad times.

Well one thing invariably leads to another on the Internet, and right below the YouTube listings of Old Belfast films was a series of Titanic-related clips. I haven’t been able to take myself away from those since, and am truly fascinated by the amount of minutiae we have garnered about this mighty tragedy.

One detail that captivated my interest concerned the nine (or twelve, depending on which account you read) dogs on board during the ship’s maiden voyage. Apparently only first-class passengers were allowed to travel with pets and some did indeed take their dogs, but there were roosters, hens, and possibly canaries on board as well!

This photograph, supposedly (there is doubt) taken by the famous Jesuit photographer Fr Browne shows three of them. An interesting aside about Fr Browne is that his Superior would not allow him to continue the voyage to New York and ordered him off the boat. Some wag is said to have later remarked that it may have been the first time holy obedience saved a life!

titanic

The Great Dane is the one I am going to tell you about. While there is still doubt as to the truth of the whole story (read more here), and we do not have a record of the dog’s name, we think the owner was a Ms Ann Elizabeth Isham who boarded the ship at Cherbourg. She was, according to surviving accounts, devoted to her pooch and visited F Deck every day for walkies and canine affection. But the sad part occurs when the Titanic struck the iceberg and began its slow sink into the icy waters of the Atlantic. As a first-class passenger, Ms Isham was given a place on a lifeboat. But, according to legend, when told that her dog could not also find a seat to safety, promptly got out of the boat to be with her beloved pooch. A few days later a rescue boat found the unfortunate woman, still holding on to her dog, but both of them had perished. Ms Isham was one of only four women from first-class who didn’t make it to safety. Here she is.

isham_ae

But the story got me thinking. What or who would make me get out of that boat if they were not going too? Husband? Children? Yes, certainly, but for many people their canine companions are dependents who are loved as much as their human children. I am a bit of a softie where dogs are concerned, so I’m almost sure I wouldn’t leave my current wee honey on deck while I disappeared in my lifeboat. For some, that is a ridiculous notion, but for others it makes sense because companionship is not species specific. Just saying.

A visit to Abu Dhabi

I first set foot in the United Arab Emirates in 2010 for a business meeting that was paid for by the other party. That trip saw my eyes standing on stalks for 90% of my waking hours. Flying in Emirates business class was, I thought, the most luxurious flight I have ever taken, and I spent most of the the five-hour journey from Entebbe to Dubai playing with the seat and the fancy touch screen. I wasn’t until three days later when I was due to check in for the return journey that I noticed I was in first class. My, oh my! What sheer, absolute over-the-top luxury! The “seat” was in a small compartment with a door and everything, reminiscent of those gorgeous railway carriages on the Orient Express. There was a huge touch-screen TV, a (real) flower arrangement with orchids, a wee console with drawers filled with all sorts of useful items, a mini fridge bar and a “do not disturb” sign for the door. But best of all was that the seat turned itself into a bed. Yep, and a decent-sized one at that. The soft duvet was covered with a crisp, fresh, white cotton cover, there were cotton sheets with a thread count that I could not possibly guess at, and, wait for it, there were jammies, dressing gown, and slippers. I actually did put my jammies on and get into bed even though it was a day flight! Simply couldn’t waste it all.

I have been back to Dubai a few times since when the need for retail therapy overcomes me. I have now just returned from my first trip to Abu Dhabi. While my eyes no longer bulge out of their sockets at the sheer opulence of it all, I am still gobsmacked by the hugeness and décor of the place that just misses by a merest millimetre being kitsch.

Abu Dhabi’s (Father of the Gazelle) roots can be traced back to around 3,000 BC, and the place has been inhabited by Bedouin tribes ever since. But it wasn’t until the late 1800s that it began to grow in tandem with the burgeoning pearl trade.

old abu

Interestingly, the old Zayed the Great brokered a deal with the British for Abu Dhabi to be placed under British protection, a protection that lasted until 1971. When the old Sheik died in 1909, the place began a steady decline due to political instability and the collapse of the pearl trade — apparently the Japanese had a hand in that. However, there was a light on the horizon: black gold. And so it was that in 1939 that the first Petroleum Concession was granted. Sheik Zayed the Great, of the Al Nahyan ruling family, was a key player in the formation of the Union of Arab Emirates after lengthy discussions with neighbouring emirates  in 1968. This Zayed then engaged the services of a Japanese architect Dr Takahashi to develop Abu Dhabi, and well, the rest is almost history. Today, the Emirate is home to 1.5 million souls (including many migrant workers from India, Pakistan, and the Philippines), and it boasts the highest GDP in the world. When I was there the Grand Prix was taking place, but you’re talking $1.000 for a day ticket!

new abu  imag0710

imag0708   imag0709

While there is a fair diversity of things to do to pass the time, such as visiting the fruit and veg markets, the meat market (no, I didn’t), the flower market, the old souk that is now, strangely, housed in a high-rise building, and the carpet souk, the Heritage Village is well worth a visit for a glimpse into the past. But the tour that made my day was a morning visit to the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, built, of course, by the man himself. According to visitabudhabi.ae: “This architectural work of art is one the world’s largest mosques, with a capacity for an astonishing 40,000 worshippers. It features 82 domes, over a 1,000 columns, 24 carat gold gilded chandeliers and the world’s largest hand knotted carpet. The main prayer hall is dominated by one of the world’s largest chandeliers –10 metres in diameter, 15 metres in height and weighing twelve tonnes. The mosque’s first ceremony was the funeral of its namesake, Sheikh Zayed, who is buried at the site.”

imag0744

I got a pain in the neck from looking up. I’m now going to let the pictures tell the rest of the story. Conclusion: if you are in that neck of the woods, do drop in. It is a balm for soul and body on a hot desert day.

imag0772    imag0751

imag0781   imag0759  imag0788

imag0766   imag0767