PC 118 Where are we going?

In the duty free area of London Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 in January, I spied a ‘buy one get one half price’ offer in a bookstore. In addition to a gritty novel about policing in Glasgow in 1973 by Alan Parks, I bought Dan Brown’s ‘Origin’. I guess like most people, well, most people who don’t consider themselves above such wild speculation, I had read his Da Vinci Code many years ago. I admit to being one of the most gullible people in the world and was drawn, hook, line and bloody sinker into his wonderful tale of codes, conspiracies and religion. I remember even making notes somewhere on my laptop for future reference! I never knew how much was from his creative mind, how much was simply regurgitating well-worn conspiracy theories or just ‘fake news’. Did it matter? Not in the slightest, such is the power of a good book, a story well told.

I ploughed my way through ‘Bloody January’, marvelling at the ability of the main character, a policeman, to continue to operate despite drinking copious quantities of alcohol and taking recreational drugs, read Paula Hawkins’ latest on my Kindle and started ‘Origin’. In my view the mark of a good writer is to engage you from the first page; you don’t want to be wondering, having read three chapters of a book, if you are going to enjoy it. ‘Origin’ is essentially a tale about a futurist announcing a breakthrough in establishing not only where we have come from but, maybe more importantly, where we are going. Sounds the basis for a typical Dan Brown novel, doesn’t it? Absolutely! Great, pacey, well-researched read with a little pinch of drama and a huge dose of make-believe.

And why have I mentioned this? Well, a day after finishing it I visited a new museum here in Rio de Janeiro, the Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Amanhã) which opened a year ago down on the waterfront. On the little leaflet showing the layout of the museum, it headlines “Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we? Where are we going?” Spooky huh!

My generation have seen a step-change in museums and galleries around the world, not only in how they display their treasures but also in their architecture. Take for example Bilbao, a dusty run-down port in Northern Spain!

Guggenheim Bilbao

The Guggenheim in Bilbao was built in 1997 and is a striking, modern museum by Canadian architect Frank Gehry. Next to the museum is a large Scotty-type dog; when I say large I’m talking 40 metres tall. I went in 2004 and frankly, apart from an exhibit of large steel plates at odd angles, I remember nothing ……. apart from the amazing building itself ….. and the dog! Dan Brown’s novel starts here.

So now we have buildings meant to house artifacts and exhibits which in themselves become the reason to visit. I remember the MOMA in New York, only for the spiralling ramp that takes you up to the different levels; maybe modern art is not my thing? Here in Rio the actual building that houses this Museu do Amanhã is in itself a striking piece of architecture.

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From a distance, from up close, and from inside it continually surprises one with its space, its details, its light.

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Inside I’m immediately brought back to Brown’s novel when we are given a smart card with which one can interact with IRIS, a computer-generated information system ……. just as guests to his futurist’s presentation in Bilbao were given.

Most people believe the scientific consensus that we evolved slowly from primates over millions of years. Except maybe the Americans surveyed in a Gallop poll, 42% of whom believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. Maybe they are the ones who voted for the current president? Or the Ultra-Orthodox Jews in north London who want to teach children that the world is only 6000 years old, despite evidence to the fact that the Aboriginal people populated Australia 60,000 years ago.

Even Pope Francis tries to bring Catholic thinking into the C21st: “When we read about creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with some magic wand. But that is not so. He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they could reach their fulfillment. Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the idea of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings to evolve.

One of the rooms in the museum, walled by mirrors, was full of 25cm square columns, covered with photographs of people, of cities, of nature, of agriculture, of religion, of riots, of warfare, of …… well, it went on and one, these closely packed columns about us …….. so much so that it became claustrophobic to be in this room …. and maybe that was the message ….. that the world will become too crowded, is over populated?


Looking ‘up’ the down-ramp

From the first floor level there is a beautiful downwards ramp, with lights, hidden in the underside of the handrail, reflected in the polished surface. Outside, the building’s soaring wings are reflected in shallow pools of water. I am sure they looked wonderful in the architect’s model but in reality, to look wonderful the pools need to be kept clean. An army of chaps spends all day scrubbing their bottoms!

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And you know how in every museum, every gallery, every mansion or palace you visit, there’s always a shop you have to go through to get to the exit? Well, it wasn’t until we had left we realised we hadn’t been through the merchandising bit. It was back at the entrance!

I never really think about where I am going, in a futuristic sense. Who knows what’s in store ……. and I have certainly come to accept that having a fulfilling and interesting life relies more on your ability to be flexible to change than your ability to lay down great grandiose plans! And I have no better idea having read Dan Brown’s novel or having visited the Museum of Tomorrow!! Maybe I’ll know …… tomorrow? Providing of course I can get through today!

Of course as you reach middle age and beyond, there is an unspoken desire to believe in something other than nothing! More scribbles for the new year to come.

Richard 24th February 2018 (Written in Rio, posted in the UK)

PS Mind you, if you’re Elon Musk, you might think a trip to Mars in your Telsa Roadster is the way to go?


 Musk’s Telstar leaving earth’s orbit in mid-February, on its way to Mars ….. or somewhere, complete with dummy driver!

PC 117 Ancient and Modern Slavery

Sometimes the drip, drip, drip of information, often in the background and not vitally important in itself, turns into a stream that deserves some attention and thought. Or you step into a puddle you hadn’t realised was there. So it is with slavery, across the centuries.

 One tribe fought another and won …. and enslaved those captured.

My own knowledge of slavery is very much informed from English history. In the Domesday Book, the Norman census of 1086 stated that 10% of the population were slaves. But 800 hundred year later, public pressure, particularly from the Clapham Sect, and through the skills and persistence of William Wilberforce, brought about The Abolition of Slavery Act in 1807; further acts ensured the British Empire free by 1834.

 ‘In Common Law no man can have property (own) in another.’ 1706

And I knew that many individuals had made a fortune in this trade of people, as the profits were huge. British merchant ships sailed with goods to West Africa, exchanged the goods for enslaved Africans from the interior, sailed to North America where the slaves were sold, and the ships returned laden with coffee, sugar and other commodities from the West Indies. The British ports of Bristol and Liverpool were the focus for such trade.

Can you imagine being a slave? Being owned as a human being by someone else? Can you feel the shackles, real or imaginary,  around your neck and ankles? The mere idea sends shivers down my spine.

So for me ‘slavery’ was identified in those poor unfortunates taken from Africa to North America; over the years about 500,000 individuals. And I should also include those ‘transported’ to the British Colonies, firstly to the Americas and then to Australia after the American Revolution in 1776, as ‘slave labour’, for their conditions of work were hardly any different. Europeans I sense always think of this Atlantic triangle of trade as the only one, as its long-lasting legacy on the development of the United States has been fundamental.

But I write this from Brazil where it is estimated that 40% of the population is descended from slaves from Africa. Starting in the 1500s, the trade reached its peak in the early 1800s as the answer to labour shortages for the sugar and coffee plantations. Most of these people came from the Portuguese colony of Angola and from The Congo. If they didn’t die in the inhuman conditions in which they were shipped, they arrived at the Valongo Wharf in the centre of Rio. Standing at this site today creates enormous emotions; none pleasant.

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O Cais doValongo, the stones marked by slave shackles.

Here they were sold indirectly to the Slave Traders or directly to the plantation owners. It is estimated that between 1500 and 1870 some 5 million Africans arrived in Brazil and were sold. (That is ten times those shipped to the Americas.)

With the abolition of slavery complete in Britain in 1834, she put pressure on other countries to do the same, using her Royal Navy to intercept trading vessels and release the slaves. But the internal market in Brazil continued for another 54 years until the monarchy finally signed the law abolishing slavery. You may recall in PC 37 the fact that the bankrupt Baron San Clemente had to sell his large house in Friburgo to the Guinle Family in 1913 as, after the abolition of slavery, his plantations were unworkable, and unprofitable.

‘It is not something to be triumphant about, this ownership of another human being.’

Close by where Caio Valongo has been excavated, there is a large column bearing a statue of Visconde De Mauá, a hugely wealthy businessman, entrepreneur and politician who was a driving force for the abolition movement here. Further down the street, there’s an enormous mural by Eduardo Kobra celebrating the human race, with a representative from each of the five continents. Whilst it was painted for the Rio 2016 Olympics, its juxtaposition near Valongo can’t be ignored and I sense its powerful message reaches beyond this continent.

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 The last face, that of an Aborigine. The colours have faded but the symbolism is clear.

 And did you really think that increasing civilisation over the centuries would have made the practice of slavery extinct? Sadly not!

In Britain in the last few years there have been a number of cases where a group of people have been subjugated and badly treated. These poor unfortunates are often badly educated, maybe immigrants who are not officially registered, falling prey to unscrupulous individuals, working at their beck and call for the roof over their head and some meagre food to keep them alive. Forced into labour, prostitution and domestic servitude, this is the face of modern slavery.

Slavery is a weed that grows on every soil.” Edmund Burke

The ‘Modern Slavery Act 2015’ estimated that there were some 13,000 individuals living in ‘modern slavery’ in the UK. Section 71 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which had come into force in 2010, created a new offence of holding another person in slavery or servitude or requiring them to perform forced or compulsory labour. In the first case brought under this act, former hospital director Saeeda Khan was convicted of trafficking a Tanzanian woman into the country to work as her domestic slave.

The Connors family made headlines in two county courts. In Luton two members were jailed for holding some 24 people against their will in filthy and cramped conditions. Some of the men, from Poland, Latvia and Lithuania had been held for up to 15 years, and others for just a few weeks. Some were British citizens. All were deemed “vulnerable” and had been recruited at soup kitchens and off the street with the promise of paid work, food and lodgings. A further five Connors were convicted of conspiracy to require a person to perform forced or compulsory labour between April 2010 and March 2011 following a three-month trial at Bristol Crown Court.

Also in October 2016, a couple who trafficked a 10-year-old girl to the UK, then repeatedly raped and kept her as a servant for nearly a decade, were jailed. Ilyas and Tallat Ashar brought the girl, who is deaf, from Pakistan and kept her at their home in Eccles, Salford, where she slept in the cellar. Judge Peter Lakin, sentencing, said the couple were “deeply unpleasant, highly manipulative and dishonest people”.

And I imagine this is simply the tip of the iceberg. The stream runs, the puddle gets deeper. When will we learn the difference between right and wrong?


Richard 10th February 2018

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Eduardo Kobra’s face of Africa