My Grandfather’s Axe


Yesterday afternoon I finished reading Neal Ascherson’s book ‘Black Sea’, which,like my blog, cannot be categorised. Sandwiched between important ecological sections is a ramble along the littoral of this vast body of water, 90% dead, in the sense that it cannot support life below a certain level. Ascherson tells of the peoples and their origins, often combining myth and reality. He gives us history, geography, philosophy and literature. The book heaves and bustles with lively descriptive, often poetic language, and he makes good use of simile and metaphor.

There are interesting treatises on ethnicity and nationality, nicely encapsulated in an old saying: ‘This is my grandfather’s axe. My father gave it a new helve, and I gave it anew head’. The writer’s point is that the origins of many of the peoples in the countries bordering the sea is unclear yet they have firm beliefs about them. There may be nothing that seems the same as it was, yet they have internalised roots which, like, for example, many Poles or Greeks who have never seen their ancestral lands or spoken the relevant languages, are deep in their psyche.

Ali’s son and Sam’s oldest friend, James Akhurst, lives with his indigenous wife in Ukraine. It was therefore natural that I should pay particular attention to this large country; but I was also informed of and intrigued by the youngest and smallest independent republic of Abkhazia, which emerged from the Georgian war of the 1990s that followed the sudden dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union.

When reflecting on much of the strife that is the history of this region, I once again consider myself fortunate in the time and place of my birth and residence. Our invasions and civil wars were so long ago as to seem insignificant in comparison. My grandfather’s axe, despite the conflicts we do have, is, I believe, in reasonably good shape.

‘Indigenes’ (Indigenous people) is the original title of the 2006 film by  Rachid Bouchareb which has, rather inappropriately in my view, been translated as ‘Days of Glory’ on my French-bought DVD. Perhaps this term is ironic. I doubt it, somehow. I watched it last evening. It tells the story of courageous and idealistic North African and African volunteers who enlisted to help France in 1943. It is a magnificent, beautifully photographed depiction of the injustices they faced; the tortuous courage they displayed; and the discrimination they encountered from the nation they helped defend. The one Algerian survivor, powerfully played by Sami Bouajila, ignored by officers and press, watches stoically as the French ‘cavalry’ take all the glory after his comrades’ days of horror. Other lead characters are passionately and tenderly portrayed by Jamel Debbouze, Bernard Blancan, Roschdy Zem and Sany Nacery.

As an epilogue we are told the pensions of these unsung heroes were frozen in 1959. It was not until 2002 that a law was passed to make backdated payments in full, but successive governments have deferred the date of implementation. I don’t know whether or to whom compensation has yet been made.

In Sigoules it rained throughout the night and all day today. Yesterday, I described my MBTs as boats. The Clarks’ ones, left in the garden to drip, now look more like boats in need of being baled out.

Maggie and Mike collected me this morning and drove me to the shopping area outside Bergerac, then back to their home in Eymet. I bought a chain for hanging the mirror Mo and John had bought me on their last visit, and Mike attached it when we got to No 3 chemin de la Sole. After lunch we played Scrabble. Their friend Cath will be joining us soon to watch a recorded episode of Inspector George Gently, after which we will all dine. Someone from Taxi Eymetois will drive me back later.


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