No One Expects…

A couple of weeks ago I was on a panel where everyone had to wear gowns—no, not dressing gowns, the academic ones. In Portugal these are long, somber, and black, with multiple hooks and fasteners, and a shiny black cummerbund.

By contrast, in Spain they’re blue, and in the United States or Great Britain multiple colors appear—there was a lady there in a bright crimson Harvard gown, just like the movies.

The photographic evidence from that meeting looks surprisingly like the classic Spanish Inquisition sketch.

Since it’s Christmas, or even ‘The Holidays’, if I felt like being politically correct, which I don’t, this should be a high jinks post—most appropriately, High Jinks was an eighteenth century Scottish drinking game. Wikipedia tells us there were dice involved, and of course alcohol—it describes the game as popular—hardly necessary, methinks, given the nouns Scotland and alcohol.

It’s been challenging to put time into my new book recently, Columbus is still stuck in the Sargasso Sea, and various ne’er do wells are  muttering mutiny in the depths of the night. Here’s a brief quote so you can see how things are going.

“Each one of us confides in a guildsman. You will speak with Cuellar the carpenter.”
“I know him, we have played dice together. What shall I say?”
“Simply that you overheard Salcedo.” The man was the captain’s personal servant, a man who heard things. “Tell Cuellar that Columbus spoke with the alguacil, the master-at-arms.”
Clavijo smiled, showing bad teeth. “And what did the Genoese tell Don Diego de Arana de Cordoba?”
“That he miscalculated. That the place he thought was Cipango was really this brown sea that mires us, this fetid weed that rots our souls. That he knows it’s too late to turn back, and there’s nothing to do now but head west. To die.” Torres looked somber. “Then tell him this, from yourself: If the wind allows, since now we have turned north.”
Clavijo nodded. “And is this true?” He was a simple man.
“I believe it is,” Torres lied, as he had done to the others. They would be more convincing if they were convinced themselves.
Juan de Moguer would speak to Domingo Vizcaino the cooper, the Basque who knew about whales. And Pero Yzquierdo needed to persuade the caulksman Lope that they were sailing to their death. As for Torres himself, his job was to cosy up to the Italian, Jacome El Rico. Torres didn’t know him, but the Genoese had expressed strong doubts about the voyage—he would need little persuasion.
The Santa Maria had a crew of forty. The way Torres figured it, eight were untouchable. They included the captain, pilot, owner, and comptroller. If the four convicts convinced the four guildsmen to spread their message, there would be twenty-four men to speak with—but six of them were cabin boys, which left eighteen seamen. And he well knew how rumor magnified—properly planted, it grew like a cancer.

But although I seem to be busier than Santa this Xmas (how did that happen?) I’ll definitely find time to write, and picking up on the cheery topic of torture, I want to write a scene about the Spanish Inquisition.

I think it runs well with the social climate of Southern Europe at present, where suspicion is the order of the day. The present-day inquisitors pray to the holy god of finance, rather than to the holy trinity, but the outcome is rather similar—certain qualities of people vanish from society.

Positive change demands innovation. Churchill once said

We must take change by the hand or rest assuredly, change will take us by the throat.

But when financial inquisition has the capacity to paralyze business decisions, the press is able to crucify individuals and hang them out to dry, and the justice system appears to serve only itself, change becomes an absolute rarity.

People with imagination, creativity, and a spirit of adventure become thin on the ground, so that the ground itself becomes arid and will not bear fruit.

The history of Europe during the times of the inquisition is a dark one, where Italy, Spain, and Portugal became chronically short of ideas. The great Italian innovators were replaced by Dutchmen and Germans, by men like Newton and Lavoisier.

I was in a movie theater in Lisbon when I first heard of Giordano Bruno—I was a little boy, Portugal was in the darkness of fascism, and I watched with horror and fascination as the Italian friar was burnt at the stake in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori, the field of flowers.

In the movie, and in real life, Bruno’s compatriot Galileo recanted. In 1633, thirty-three years after the flames consumed a man of change in Rome, another man of imagination and creativity spoke forth these words.

…intimated to me by this Holy Office, to the effect that I must altogether abandon the false opinion that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center of the world, and moves, and that I must not hold, defend, or teach in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing, the said false doctrine, and after it had been notified to me that the said doctrine was contrary to Holy Scripture.

The dogma that rules the South now is finance, and in my travels this fall I find that it is moving north. I see it in Ireland, both sides of it, and I see it elsewhere. It’s coming to a Northern European country near you.

And I worry. Growth, both for countries and companies, comes from the bold decisions that made The India Road. Broad strokes from imaginative men and women, innovators, minds with a vision.

It’s inconceivable that the crossing of seas was not at least partly motivated by greed, by the promises of power and wealth.

For every occasion in history there are symbols—people and occasions. English history is full of them, as is Portuguese, French, American, or Chinese. When I look around now, or look back over three or four decades, I can’t see those things. I wonder what our history will write about. I see it even less in the future, and if we don’t provide role models our children will have no compass.

Maybe I’m yearning for my boyhood days, who knows, but the fact is there are no heroes left except Santa.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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