CONGRATULATIONS: To Fern and Mara Strang who live in Elshieshields Cottage. To Fern for straight As in her Highers and Advanced Highers, to Mara for straight As (bar one!) in her National Fives. And also to grandson Alex Ramos for a First at Sussex university, and to granddaughter Isabel Ramos and her art collective ‘Keiken’ who have won a Jerwood Award and Arts Council Funding for their innovative installation work. To you all – very best wishes for the next steps!
SUMMER HOLIDAYS ‘How pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!’ (so the words begin in Psalm 133) – and even more pleasant, we might add, when a sister comes too and some in-laws, grandchildren, and cousins! In fact we numbered 12 relations in the house over the summer holidays, not to mention quite a number of friends. Not all at once I must add, but enough overlap to rejoice in each other’s company. There was swimming in the brown waters of the Water of Ae, bike rides round our lovely quiet local lanes, and even some fishing in the Liddle. We feasted on the fruits of the veggie garden – raspberries, chard, new potatoes, beetroots, carrots, salads, courgettes, spinach. The weather was kind and the house came into its own with family racket, thumping footsteps, and laughter …
Summer is also a time for reading and over the last two months I have tackled a great twentieth century Russian masterpiece, Vasily Grossman’s ‘Life and Fate’. Though written in 1960 it could not be published in his own country until 1988. Luckily a microfilm was smuggled out of Russia and an English version in Robert Chandler’s masterful translation came out in 1985. Grossman was a war correspondent who lived through the battle of Stalingrad (more of his writings from that time have just been published this year). He had an unflinching eye and a generous heart and these qualities shine through ‘Life and Fate’. It is written in small snatches of scenes and conversations – soldiers in the ruins of Stalingrad, the German High Command, Jewish victims on the way to the Holocaust extermination camps, Soviet intellectuals struggling with their consciences under Stalinism, glimpses of prison life in the gulag, as well as the struggles of family life and loves. Grossmann was a shrewd psychologist, philosopher and humanist. Through it all runs a condemnation of the terrible ideologically based tyrannies of the twentieth century – Nazism and Stalinism, and an affirmation of the values of freedom and sheer human goodness. It’s a tough read but worth it! It was salutary to read this extraordinary book this summer if only because it gives a historical background to the impetus for the formation of the European Union after the war: the longing for a society ruled by law, the decencies of civic society, a free press, for a world without threat of tyranny. Thankfully we in this country did not suffer under either of the appalling murderous tyrannies of the twentieth century. But every other country in Europe had experience of Nazism, and some countries in eastern Europe of both Nazism and Stalinism.
Grossman was not a Christian, he was a humanist from a Jewish background. He may or may not have known the Psalms, but I think he would understand Psalm 133 with its tongue in cheek symbolism of kinship and the natural world:
‘How good and pleasant it is, brothers dwelling in unity!
It is like precious oil upon the head, running down upon the beard, running down upon Aaron’s beard, upon the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon which falls on the heights of Sion. For there the Lord gives his blessings, life for ever.