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Sunday, 18 November 2012

1980s Travel - Class and Racism Crushed!

Warning: Macabre photos.

Last week I was having my weekly read of the Daily Mail newspaper, when I came across these words found in the two-page Saturday Essay:

London in June 1857 - (John) Robarts was among 62 men presented with a medal by Queen Victoria, in a ceremony attended by hundreds of thousands who stood for hours in blazing sunshine at a time when they wore jackets and ties for such occasions, not T-shirts and shorts.
(Guy Walters, Daily Mail, November 10th, 2012. Emphasis mine.)

When I came across this insertion in an article about neglected gravestones of war heroes, I thought: PLEASE, GIVE IT A REST! Guy Walters wrote this article to be published on the eve of Armistice Sunday, therefore making the main theme of the article appropriate. But Walters, who was educated at Eton before attending University of London, is one of a number of middle class, well educated journalists who believe that the English had, over the years, lost their stoicism, the stiff upper lip, their national pride and imperialism, their belief that they were God's chosen people and the notion that they are of the master race.

He joins other journalists such as Amanda Platell, Simon Heffer and Melanie Phillips, who had all languished over the loss of the great British past. Both Platell and Phillips believe that we now live in a emotional, sentimental, mawkish, touchy-feely society, particularly since the death of Princess Diana in August, 1997. Heffer, a self confessed atheist and a devoted follower of the late Enoch Powell, once wrote a filler criticising British men for abandoning the wearing of the neck-tie, even on a warm Saturday afternoon while out shopping. To him, only those who wear a tie during all waking hours are considered to be gentlemen.

The Daily Mail newspaper itself picked up on the issue a few years ago. It launched an appeal to all its readers to send a tie to its office in London, from where they shall be distributed to the journalists and reporters of the BBC News bulletins. Many of the younger reporters spoke on camera with open-neck shirts with the intention of impressing their wives and girlfriends, so the newspaper believed. Rather, I tend to feel that their casual dress was an attempt to shed their "stuck up" image in exchange for a greater public appeal.

Enoch Powell was the M.P. for Wolverhampton, who gave the Rivers of Blood speech in Birmingham on the 20th April, 1968, protesting against the immigration of black people from countries that were colonised by the British. So as I can see, it was okay for the British to have invaded a foreign country and colonise it, with the belief that the indigenous were inferior to them, particularly the tribesmen who wore feathers around their waists in contrast the the smart uniforms worn by the colonisers. But for them to come over here...this was so deeply resented. Notices ordering them to go back home to their own country began to appear in city streets, landlords refused them accommodation, employers turned them away and any work found were the most menial jobs no white person wanted. Indeed, the British certainly saw themselves as the master race, God's chosen and even evolutionary advanced.

The murder of 19 year old Steven Lawrence in London took place on the 22nd April 1993 - just two days after the 25th anniversary of Powell's River of Blood speech. The gang of white youths who committed the crime escaped justice for some eighteen years due to the reluctance of the Metropolitan Police to press charges due to their bias against the black teenager. The BBC investigative programme Panorama exposed the guilty officers who were promptly sacked.

So, after all this I sit down and think back - were there some things I saw and experienced in life which is a direct rebuke to the English culture of national superiority, imperialism, racism, dress code, social class, stoicism and pride?

One of my loves in life is Travel, particularly as a solo backpacker. I have written blogs on this site already on this topic, the last was Travel - How I Loved It, published on the 4th November. In this area I have been very fortunate.  During my time outside the UK, I watched the Jews ushering their weekly Sabbath at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I also found myself in the midst of an Israeli protest demonstration among TV cameras, against the plans of the Palestinians. I attended an Arab wedding reception where a sheep was skinned alive in front of us all.  I waded chest deep in water, through this 2,700 year old tunnel dug by King Hezekiah's men deep under the original city of Jerusalem. By contrast, I stood in awe across the majestic Grand Canyon, and at the bottom, watched Bright Angel Creek flow into the Colorado River. I felt the ground shake at the Niagara resort as the mighty waters of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls crash below. I was able to compare the bustling metropolis of downtown Manhatten with the semi-tropical Californian city of San Diego, both under the same flag and using the same currency. I strolled through the tropical gardens at Singapore, dominated by the changing night illuminations of the Merlion. I snorkeled over the Corals at the Red Sea and at the Great Barrier Reef. I also hiked the rainforest and eucalyptus trees of Blue Mountains National Park. On the cultural side, I sat and watched a concert at the Sydney Opera House.

But the Italian island of Sicily really hit me in a way no other location had. It was here that I found myself standing on the rim of the active Central Crater on the summit of Mt. Etna, with just one other person. There is a story behind this, which I will share on another blog. Suffice to say, the ground I stood on was literally shaking as the gas explosions from within the crater created a continuous series of crashing thunders, and the huge plume of steam, mixed with a heavy smell of sulphur, rising and fortunately, turning away from us as it was blown north by a southerly wind.

And there were the catacombs. Oh yes, the catacombs.

I stood at the rim of the summit crater of Mt Etna, 1982.

My first visit to Sicily took place in 1982. It was part of backpacking the whole of Italy using the Ferrovia de Italia pass ticket. Like the Greyhound Bus Ameripass, this document allowed me unlimited train travel over a course of three weeks. That year, I entered Italy through Milano instead of Torino, as a church friend Derek, who had a contract with an Italian company based in Milano, as well as a spare bed in his apartment where I stayed for a couple of nights before heading for Napoli.

By boarding and alighting trains at different stations, I covered both coastlines of this European peninsula. After spending a day at the excavations of Pompeii, I took a night train to Brindisi, which was the terminus of the Roman Appian Way, an ancient road leading to Rome, a route not unfamiliar with the apostle Paul. It was in this handsome harbour town where I spent the day before re-boarding the overnight train south to Sicily.

One of the most spectacular experiences in train travel was the ferry crossing over the Messina Strait. At the port of Reggio di Calabria on the Italian mainland, the train was split up, with the first set of coaches left on the ship while the second set was shunted back onto land, to be pushed onto the next siding beside the first set, and the third set likewise, until the whole train was on board. On the other side, all the coaches of the train was re-joined to make its way either towards Siracusa or Palermo, the island's capital city.

After spending a considerable time in Siracusa which included the visit to the summit of Mt. Etna, I took a remarkably slow train to Palermo via the inland route from Catania (as opposed to the coastal route from Messina) which stopped at a town bang in the middle of the island - Caltanissetta. By evening. I arrived at the capital and found a convenient hotel nearby.

While staying at a small hotel in Siracusa, one of the attractions I visited were the nearby Catacombs of St John, a series of tunnels running deep underground which once contained thousands of Christian burials. Stone nitches were hewn out of the rock to accommodate the corpses. So many were hewn that the entire system resembled a giant filing cabinet. Back in 1982 anyone can walk unaccompanied into the tunnels as I did, alone and free to explore the labyrinth at my own leisure. Now access is by means of an escorted group tour, which in my opinion, too rushed to absorb the atmosphere of the site.

Catacombs of St John, Siracusa

But it was in Palermo where the Cappuccin Catacombs really hit me hard, and changed, or rather confirmed, my perception of our class-ridden culture, especially in the UK. These catacombs, owned by the Cappuchin monks (who invented the coffee drink which bears the name) is situated in a crypt of a church just outside the main city centre. Unlike the Catacombs of St John in Syracuse, this is an underground cellar filled with many corpses displayed in full view of the public.

Detail of the Cappuchin Catacombs, Palermo

I entered the Catacombs on a weekday, off season. Therefore I was alone in this huge cellar under the church, as back in 1982 the site was not regarded as a hotspot for tourists.  As I stood in wonder at the corpses, the silence of the crypt was disturbed by a loose shutter which was swinging on its hinges as a result of an airflow. "Blap, squeak, squeak, blap, squeak, blap, squeak, blap, squeak," went the shutter, the endless sound creating the perfect environment for shooting a horror movie.

The dead of all ages and class were there, from newborns to the very old, from the worker to the aristocrat (whose cellar was for to begin with). There was a section for academics, another for the clergy, another for women, another for children and so on. The sight of these bodies brought to mind the culture back in England. More class conscious back then than now, I had that urging wish: Oh for a law that every company executive, aristocrat, banker, and office staff must have a photo of the catacombs hung above their desks with the words printed underneath:

This is how I will look one day.
Therefore there is no point in acting snobbish!

Three of the pics I took of the catacombs in 1982, hence the fading of the colour. I had taken to the guy in the middle photo.

Stories abound with these bodies. One was that a fire was started mysteriously, destroying many of the corpses. Another was one standing upright on the upper shelf coming loose and falling in front of an onlooker. Weird. The only notice on display was one that read Vietato Fumare. Fortunately, I had never found cigarettes a problem.

Ever since that day there was one more catacomb I visited, and that was under the streets of Paris in 1985. Here was quite a different environment to the two in Sicily. From street level, I found myself descending deep underground in a spiral staircase before I came to the entrance of a long tunnel. As I kept walking, I was astonished on the length of the windowless corridor. It was 1.5 kilometres, or just under a mile. The corridor ended at a gate, with a sign above it which read in French, You are about to enter the City of the Dead.

The walls of the chamber were lined with thousands upon thousands of femurs, with skulls embedded here and there, many of these skulls forming patterns of crucifixes and even one of a heart. Other corridors led off from this chamber, but fortunately the gates at the entrances to these corridors were locked. This system is actually a tiny section of a vast, complicated labyrinth which has a history of taking the lives of those who got lost within the complex of tunnels.

Bones by the thousands line the Catacombs of Paris.

When I climbed the stairs to the exit, I found myself at another part of the city.

These experiences were part and parcel of backpacking and lone, independent travel. There are more tales I can tell, the one about Etna 1982 is for another blog.  But what drew me to these catacombs? Personally, my delusion with the British class system, the sheer reverence for the Monarchy by the average English (although I'm not into Republicanism), the greater respect gotten in wearing a tie, inequality in education and academic achievements, stoicism with the belief that showing emotion is not masculine (quoted by Daily Mail Melanie Phillips) and the respect and worth of a person based on his occupation and dress code rather than character.

King Solomon knew the vanity of life. He knew that really, there is no difference between a king and a worm, for the same fate await them both. He then advises us that the best course to take is to honour God with the lives we have, short and temporary as they are. And the only way to honour God is to believe in the One he had sent, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus too died, on a cross to atone for our sins. But he also rose again from the dead, proving that he is truly God and Messiah, and that his payment for sin was successful and accomplished. Nobody else in human history has ever risen from the dead. Jesus Christ was the only person who had done so, and to believe this brings eternal life.

Eternal life! Therefore I can search every catacomb in the world, and I would never come across the body of Jesus Christ. HE HAS RISEN!


  1. Fascinating post! Praise God that when He looks at believers, He sees neither our aging exteriors nor the blackness of our sin, but the pure righteousness of His Son! All else is vanity. I love the way you brought this post from the macabre images of death to the beauty and truth of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ and salvation only through His death, burial and resurrection. He is risen indeed! Thanks for the great post, & God bless!

  2. Great post Frank.

    Here in the United states, it seems to have been forgotten that as the Declaration of Independence states all men are created equal. The original text was based on the biblical teaching, but many today claim it is not true. They point out that not all have equal circumstances, apparently basing a person's value on his circumstances.

  3. Hi Frank,
    I returned to read once more, and comment on, your very interesting post after reading it yesterday.I had to skip the bit about the poor sheep in the arab wedding as I could not get it out of my mind last night how cruel some people can be, both to animals and fellow mankind. Yes, I agree that snobbery is prevalent in this country and in many other countries where they still uphold the class system, or where a particular religion might make them consider those who are not a part of that particular religion 'those to be destroyed'.I am glad that God does not judge according to outward appearance,(or I would probably be on the scrap heap) and so glad that in Jesus it is only the outward appearance that decays.
    God bless

    1. Dear Brenda,
      First, let me say thanks for your comment, as I appreciate everyone who post feedback whether positive or negative.
      As for the Arab wedding reception, I have remarked on this incident to show the difference between cultures in different countries around the world. For one who has visited Australia, I don't think I would relish swallowing a huge live maggot as part of the cuisine, but for the Aborigines, such delicacies as as normal to them as toast and marmalade are for us.
      The slaughter was not done out of cruelty, but as preparation for the big Reception meal. One has to realise too, that Eastern weddings and receptions are quite different to the way we westerners are used to. Over there, I think, they can last up to a week. Also worth considering is the year this took place - in 1976, before any western ideas began to take hold.
      Also a point of interest is that during Old Testament times, slaughter of animals without any form of anesthesia was a daily routine for the Temple priests to perform, under God's command. It was still practiced at the time of Christ and after.
      I realise where you are coming from, Brenda, but I can assure you that during that reception, no evil intent was made.
      God bless,

  4. Hi Frank,
    no I know no evil intent was made, I wasn't on about the slaughter though. I mentioned that I find it hard to imagine how anyone can skin an animal alive. I suppose we are all different, but I am a person that finds it hard to get something like that kind of unnecessary cruelty and suffering out of my mind once it is brought to my attention.

  5. What a really exceptional post Frank. Yes I concur with you; much of this snobbery and English superiority to other people is misplaced; thankfully, although the class system still exists, it is now much a thing of the past. Anyone who holds on to these kinds of things are now viewed as anachronisms, by-gones from another age, viewed perhaps as rather curious but usually I think not taken all that seriously.

    I travelled all over North Italy for nearly a month a good few years ago; off the top of my head I can remember visiting Padua and Bologna and Turin and Verona and perhaps Sienna, but forget other places I visited! I loved Verona, but didn't like Venice that much; too crowded and far too expensive! The one place I didn't go was Florence, which I now wish I had gone to.

    Yes, if only all people reflected on the fact that we go out of the world in the same way, whether a king or binman, we might live in a better world!