Tuesday, April 21, 2009



Today a rare sun of spring, and I set off at noon to hike cross town to the Coal Square. Here I will pass my Easter Sunday in the sunlight, in the company of the new New Yorker, a couple of cigarillos, a pint or two of golden brew, notepad close to hand.

Here I can gaze across to a first floor apartment occupied more than 150 years ago by the father of existentialism Søren Kierkegaard, across from that The White Lamb serving house, shelled by the British in 1807, under orders of the Duke of Wellington, the year it opened. Now, 202 years later, Wellington is dust in his grave and The White Lamb continues to serve golden pints. Sometimes you hear a Duke Ellington CD playing in there – the only Duke now welcome.

There are seven trees and eight outdoor cafés on The Coal Square. I once conducted an exercise which I dubbed “Pint of View” on this very square, its objective being to drink a pint in each of the eight cafés and observe the Square from the eight points of view, the eight pints of view. The point of view is variegated, particularly through the intensifying focus of the increasing tally of pints.

Today, however, I alternate between tipping my face up to the ancient, holy sun, sipping my golden pint, reading a James Wood article in the New Yorker about George Orwell, and observing the human traffic on the Square.

This being Easter Sunday, the café tables are sparsely populated by their usually affluent clientele, and the public benches and pavemwent are largely taken over by the homeless. At my table in the sunlight, I am drinking a seven-dollar pint and smoking a fifty-cent cigarillo. Off center on the square, a few meters from an educational tobacco-preventive sculpture of a huge, twisted-out, filter-tipped cigarette butt, sprawl an encampment of the homeless, drinking fifty-cent cans of strong Easter brew and smoking various substances.

There are five of them, laying or sitting on the cobblestone-bordered cement slabs. The seven trees ranged round the perimeter radiate with a glorious halo of spring green so young it glows yellow in the midday light.

The five are talking loudly in foghorn voices about the hash they would be smoking if only they had a pipe. Two women, three men, and two large mongrel dogs. The dogs sleep on their flanks on the sun-warmed concrete. The spirits of the people seem high. Soon they are joined by two young men whose hair is an unnatural shade of red. They kiss one of the women, greeting her as “Mom.”

Ranks swelled to seven, the conversation grows louder. Scraps of phrase reach me:

“Allo, allo, master! Who you think you are?!”

“Gimme that fuckin’ lighter!”

“Hey, Mom, I got to go into jail soon.”

“Just relax!”

“I’m fallin’ asleep here – who could be more relaxed than that?”

These seven and another group clustered on a public bench nearby never mix with the patrons of the cafés. Only two Inuits I have occasionally seen do that, sneaking up to try to snatch pints of beer from the tables at unguarded moments to steal a slug and giggle mischievously.

Clusters of words fly across the sunny square:

“The dog’s okay. He’s lyin’ on my jacket.”

“There where I used to live…”

“You never lived there!”

In the background, the cathedral bells are tolling, no doubt in honor of the resurrection of the savior of man.

A short, mustached Inuit man in a porkpie hat, obviously well into his cups but spry on his feet, dances happily across the square, trying to sell an unauthorized copy of the homeless newspaper to the occasional passerby. He is indefatigable and relentlessly cheerful and before long has sold the paper for three and a half dollars to a black woman with an enormous Afro, rolling her bike across the square. He bows in formal thanks to her as he pockets the money, then spins and dances lightly across to his bench mates, giggling at his success.

Among the Inuits is a tall muscular young man in a sleeveless T-shirt who hunches around, growling loudly, occasionally attacking the giant cigarette butt which he seems to want to lift over his head and heave away from him, but every time he gets it off the ground he loses interest and drops it, rolling his head, face up to the sun, growling, roaring.

Two of the Inuits are in standard hospital-issue wheelchairs which they sit in and walk with their feet. A woman stands in front of one of them, bowed forward at the waist. They kiss passionately, mouths rotating together, arms around one another’s neck. The kiss continues long enough to make me wish I was kissing somebody. Another Inuit woman sits on her jacket and strums a guitar, singing a happy Greenlandic song.

The conversation in the other group grows increasingly animated:

“Mogens, bring me that bag of beer – no! don’t look into it! Just bring it to me!”

A skinny, wrinkle-faced fellow in a peaked cap announces, “The supreme court has asked me to convey greetings to teach and every one of you on this Easter day!”

“Same to you, buster!”

“Whoa, master! Who telephoned you and invited you to say hello?!”

Off to one side, a large round man rises from a bench. He looks like a prophet in a dirty grey jogging suit, big belly, big face, big head, big bald pate with long grey hair streaming down, a long grey beard. He garbles some words in an impressive booming voice, and a small slender woman in a sleeveless blouse stands up to block him from joining the group on the cement.

“You do not belong here,” she says. “Go. Away!”

He tries to circle around her but she steps to the side to keep her face in his. He stumbles away from the homeless circle, shaking his head, over to my table. He is wearing garden gloves, one of which he drops a foot in front of me, leans on the edge of my table and says, “Gagagaga…” which I interpret to mean he is only leaning there for a moment until he retrieves his glove.

I say, “That’s quite okay,” and he answers, “Très bon!”

Glove in hand, he peers into my face. “I gi’ them half an hour,” he says. “Then they’re blown away.”

I say, “Très bon.”

He says, “Magnifique!” with a satisfied grin and limps away, but glances back and adds, “You got the right to sit there and write if you want!”

I say, “Merci. Très bon. Magnifique!”

He looks happily at me and stumbles over to collapse on a bench, falling immediately asleep.

The thin woman with the dog, whose name I surmise is Mette, shouts out, “Is my dog dead?!”

A café customer at one of the tables yells, “Give it mouth to mouth!” and Mette yells back at him, “Ey, buster! Who called you on the phone?!” Her dog lifts its head where it lays in the sunlight to look at her, and she says, “King! Don’t scare me like that!”

In addition to taking notes, I am reading an article in the New Yorker about George Orwell, which asserts that Orwell could not really tolerate the thought of social mobility.

A woman with henna hair sitting amongst the homeless on the cement calls out in a foghorn voice: “Allo! May I speak?! Allo!”

The homeless people are breaking into factions that shout or call to each other from bench to pavement. One of the young men who called the henna-haired woman mother says something to which a skinny, scraggly-bearded man wearing a peaked cap says, “Pseudo necrophile!”

The henna-haired woman says, “Slow down there, buster! What’re you sayin’?! That means a person who fucks the dead! Look me in the eye and say that about my son!”

“I come from the provinces,” says the scraggly-bearded man. “I don’t look in people’s eyes.
Anyway, I said pseudo-necrophile.”

“You do not call my son a necrophile!”

“I didn’t say that. It’s a joke. And he’s an adult. He should stand up for himself. A man doesn’t need his mother to do that.”

The tall young muscular Inuit looks at them and rolls his thick shoulders. He growls. Then he turns away but looks back again and roars and struts away, nodding with satisfaction.

It occurs to me that this being Easter Sunday, I really ought to work in a metaphor of resurrection and redemption, of sacrifice to atone for the sins of mankind, about the spotless virgin mother of Jesus. But what I am actually thinking about is the incredible amount of energy that these people exhibit.

I ask myself how it can be in this enlightened social-democratic Christian kingdom that there can be so many of our fellow citizens who have no home to live in. How can it be that I sit here drinking seven-dollar pints of beer while they sit and fade away on the pavement? Though they look older, they are young most of them – not more than a couple over fifty, most of them under forty, forty-five tops. Apparently life expectancy among this segment of the population doesn’t extend much beyond that.

Then I remember a black-and-white poster I used to have hanging on the wall of my studio apartment on East Third Street in Manhattan, Alphabet City, back in 1966: the photograph showed a scraggly derelict staggering along the Bowery above the words: WE HAVE ALL COME FROM LOVERS.

All except Jesus, it occurs to me.

Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy (www.thomasekennedy.com)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Journalism and Putin

Interesting article in The Observer about the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and the consequences for reporting the news in Putin's Russia.

It is 11am and the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta is holding its editorial conference. Seated at the top of a long, wooden table, Dmitry Muratov, the paper's bearded editor-in-chief, is flanked by his senior team....

The mood is good-natured; there are arguments and jokes. But nobody doubts the seriousness of Novaya Gazeta. On the wall is a photo-gallery of dead colleagues. There is Anna Politkovskaya, Novaya's feted special correspondent, shot dead in October 2006. Next to her is the paper's deputy editor Yuri Shchekochikhin (mysteriously poisoned). Then there is reporter Igor Domnikov (bludgeoned to death). Two new black-and-white photos have just been hung on the wall.

One shows Stanislav Markelov, who was one of Russia's best-known human rights defenders and Novaya's lawyer. The other is of Anastasia Baburova, a 25-year-old freelancer for the newspaper. An armed assailant killed them both on 19 January, a few minutes' walk from the shimmering gold towers of the Kremlin. Markelov died instantly; Baburova lay dying in the snow. The photos provide a constant reminder of how dangerous the most basic function of journalism – telling the truth – has become in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Monday, April 13, 2009


I came late to Walt Disney and am enjoying the experience now that I have (thanks to my one-year-old son). I am struck by the quality of the singing, the weakness of good characters that causes them to make basic mistakes (such as leaving someone unattended), the sense of a paradise lost for which we need to find our wings. My wife’s favourite is Sleeping Beauty, in which the young Princess Aurora confides in her animal friends that she has met someone “once upon a dream”. The owl asks persistently, “Hoo? Hoo?”

In a recent article about the line, I made reference to the Sanskrit word hu, which is the root of our word God and means “invoke the gods”. A bit like the owl crying “Hoo? Hoo?” It also sounds the same as WHO, which I explained refers to Christ, the Being, the One Who is.

This word hu is an extraordinary one, and not only because it contains my favourite letter, h. I think of it as the primal word. Speech is made up of three elements: breath, water and flesh. If you have not breath, you are dead, in short. And if you are dead, you cannot speak. So breath forms the basis of all speech. It is represented in our alphabet by the letter h, which curiously in some languages (such as Spanish) is not even pronounced and in certain dialects (such as Cockney) is dropped.

But breath on its own is not enough to form a word. I cannot just breathe out if I want to address someone (they would think I was strange). I must add voice, by which I mean a vowel. Try it. Open your mouth. Begin by breathing out. Then add voice. You have sound.

If you carry on adding voice, you will find that water collects in your mouth. This is because vowels are water. They flow. And the interesting thing is that they are not pronounced from the throat to the front of the mouth in the same order they have in the alphabet. In fact, the first vowel sound to be produced from the throat is u. So the first word we can possibly make is hu. The root-word for God.

We read at the beginning of that most remarkable of books, Genesis, that “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said…” (Genesis 1:2-3). The two elements of breath and water enabled God to speak. This is why I refer to hu as the primal word and the sound of creation. No surprise, then, that it means “invoke the gods”.

But I would get a sore jaw and start dribbling if I only produced voice and did nothing to stop it. And this is because, after h and the vowels, there is a third element to language: the consonants. How do I stop my voice? With my lips or tongue, i.e. with flesh. This is how I form the consonants.

We again see a correlation with the Creation account in Genesis: “a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground – then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:6-7). Here, in the creation of man, we see the third element at play: the dust of the ground, or flesh.

What is extraordinary is not only that the elements of speech and creation are one and the same (as you would expect when you consider that Christ is the Word and “all things came into being through him”, John 1:3), but that these three elements have one word that unites them all.

BREATH. WATER. FLESH. Different? Take the h away from BREATH. WATER-BREAT. The sounds represented by the letters b-v-w are almost identical (think of Spanish and German).

But how do we get from BREATH and WATER to FLESH? For this you need to know that the fourteen simple consonants are divided into seven pairs, one of them being l-r. Another is f-v, which makes it easy through v to connect f with b and w. Now all we need to do is take one step in the alphabet from t to s, and BREATH (without a) becomes FLESH.

Using the same rules of phonetics and the alphabet, we will see that one word is common to all three elements: FATHER.

(By the way, h + 5 vowels + 14 consonants leave 6 letters from the alphabet: the semi-vowels j and y (i) and w (u). And 3 letters that seem to be doubling up: c (k or s), q (k again) and x (ks).)

See also Jonathan’s article WHO AM I