Monday, October 31, 2016

Florence: 4 November 1966

Annamaria on Monday

Fifty years ago, this coming Friday, the waters of the Arno killed 101 people and damaged or destroyed thousands of masterpieces of art and millions of rare and beautiful books. 

Man using a broom to indicate the level reached by the flood waters.

As this year, the day was a Friday, and in Italy a national holiday.  So many public buildings and stores were closed and many of the city’s citizens had gone away for the long weekend.

The weather had been extra rainy, but no one expected a disaster.  Why would they have?  It had been 409 years since such an event had taken place.  Trouble started the day before.  Villagers up the Arno Valley began to call for help because of flooding.  Engineers, fearing the two dams above Florence would fail, began to release extra water into the river.  Up north in Anconella, the water claimed its first victim, a 52-year-old worker at a water treatment plant.

By dawn on the 4th, water was rushing into Florence at a speed 60km an hour.  By daylight, the army barracks were flooded, gas, electricity, and water were turned off, and shortly thereafter the emergency generators in the hospital failed.


Landslides blocked roads in and out of the city and, channeled along Florence’s narrow streets, the floodwaters increased in speed and height.  Within buildings, heating oil tanks were bursting, and the oil and mud mixture was filling up any space below ground level.  By mid-morning, the flood had divided the city in two.

In addition to the 101 dead, the resultant statistics of damage are horrifying:

Families left homeless: 5,000
Stores forced out of business: 6,000
Works of art damaged: 14,000
Books and manuscripts damaged or destroyed: 3-4 million!

Among the casualties: Cimabue’s Crucifix, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, and Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene.

And then.  And then.  The human beings of world lent a hand.  The very best thing about our species is that we care.

Artists, restorers, conservers, and plain ordinary people came to Florence.  Those volunteers have a name that is an indelible part of the city’s vocabulary: Angeli Del Fango.  Mud Angels.

They came with their skills and their willingness the help.  Many of them were put up in railroad cars at the train station.  The chefs of the city cooked their meals there on portable gas burners.  Some shoveled mud out of basements.  Some delicately, with infinite patience—page by precious page—cleaned the ancient books.  Funds came from charities and governments the world over.


There are still works and books awaiting restoration all these years later.


I never think of this tragedy without thinking of my friend Lilli and another woman whose name I don’t even know.  Lilli was in labor with her third child.  She was on one side of the flood that day, and the hospital was on the other.  She told me she was grief stricken over the damage and terrified about bringing an infant into what felt like maelstrom.  But she safely delivered her son Simone.

The other woman was a librarian at the Biblioteca Nazionale.  She stayed, carrying precious books and documents from the lower floors to the upper ones, until darkness forced her to stop.  Then she escaped over the rooftops, carrying Galileo’s telescope! 

You can see British Pathe’ film of the event here.  

Here is an everlasting reminder of the damage done that fateful day. 


Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Strange Case of the Desert Fox

Annamaria, pinch-hitting for Susan on Sunday

A bit of explanation: Our dear Susan Spann reached out for help because she is in Japan and can’t log on to Blogger to post for herself today.  So I agreed to fill in, knowing full well that a day will come soon, when I am on the road and will need her to return the favor.  For now, I offer you a mystery in the hopes that you will have some advice about how solve it.

You see the desert fox may be living under cover in my kitchen.

No.  This is not about him:

 Generalfeldmarshall  Rommel died over seventy years ago.  This concerns something currently alive and eating.

I have posted here before about the papyrus plants growing in my apartment.

When I am out of town, I move two of them from my dining room to the kitchen where they can soak up some direct sun in front of the window.   I have had these plants for over thirty years without incident.  But when I returned last month from Bouchercon and Mississippi, I found something I had never seen before. 

The fronds of my papyrus ordinarily look like this:

But something had been chewing on the ones nearest the kitchen window.

MMM, I thought.   I wonder what could have done that. 

So I did an experiment to see if whatever it was was still at it.  I moved one perfectly whole frond to the place were the chewed ones had sat.  The next day I found the evidence.

My Google search (what eats papyrus?) turned up little to go on.  A couple of Google Books covers and pages:


No help there.  Only one plausible answer: according to Google the Egyptian Desert Fox (or fennec) eats papyrus!  It gave no other answer.  MMM.


I read up on this critter, and found it  has another feature that coincides with my experience—it is nocturnal.  And it could even  turn out to useful.  In addition to plants, it also eats insects and rodents.  Eggs, too, but since it has not learned to open the fridge, I think tomorrow’s omelet ingredients are safe.

There are some things about the fennec fox that could turn out to be alarming.  It can jump up two feet high and leap four.  Given which, I hope the one in my kitchen looks more like this—


…than like this—

The range of the desert fox might make you think it implausible as an explanation for my lost papyrus fronds.

On the other hand, this little guy is available as an exotic house pet.  But then how could someone else’s household fennec have made its way into my apartment?  Another mystery to be reckoned with.

So far I have not discovered any other creature that comes close to a plausible answer. 


Saturday, October 29, 2016

As I Said Before, Greeks Know How to Say "No!"


As a matter of a fact, I said that precisely five years ago today!  My how time flies on Murder is Everywhere.  So, to bring things up to date...

Yesterday, October 28th, was a Greek National Holiday.  One of two publicly revered ones to be precise.  The other, March 25, commemorates the day in 1821 that Greece declared its Independence from the Ottoman Empire and fought until 1832 to obtain it.  

But it was yesterday that carried a more relevant lesson for those of you who might wonder about the effects on that nation of eleven million having endured more than a half-decade of economic crises exceeding the Great Depression, compounded by the European Union continuing to use their nation as a refugee filter trap for hundreds of thousands of families fleeing horrors not of their making, and a world media quick to disparage the Greek character with a catchy headline.   To those of you who wonder if the Greek spirit will somehow throw in the towel—I simply say, ‘NO.” 

Which is only appropriate since the name of yesterday’s holiday is “Oxi Day” (pronounced “O-hee”), meaning “no” in Greek.

And here’s how it came to pass. 

Thanks to John Pozadzides' blogsite for the photos.

On the morning of August 15, 1940, the Greek navel vessel Elli was in the harbor of the Cycladic island of Tinos.  It was peacetime and the light cruiser was anchored to participate in a major Greek Orthodox holiday, The Dormition of the Theotokos (Assumption of the Virgin Mary).  Without warning the Elle was torpedoed and sunk by a submarine, killing nine and wounding twenty-four.  Although fragments of the torpedo clearly identified its source, the Greek government officially declared the nationality of the attacking submarine as “unknown.”  The Greek government may have been reluctant to declare the attacker as Italy, and therefore immerse itself in war, but the people knew who was behind it.

Ioannis Metaxis

Two months later, around dawn on the morning of October 28, 1940, after a party at the German embassy in Athens, the Italian ambassador approached Greece’s Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas and demanded that Greece surrender to the Axis powers or face immediate war with Italy.  He offered Greece three hours to decide.  Italy had seven times the population of Greece, seven times the troops, ten times the firepower, and total air superiority. 

The Prime Minister’s response was simple: “Oxi.”  And less than two hours later Italian troops stationed in Albania invaded Greece.  Occupation of Greece was critical to Hitler’s plan for isolating British troops in North Africa.  The Italians expected it to be a three-day war.  They learned otherwise. 

Oxi became the battle cry of the Greek people.  Within weeks the Italians were driven back into Albania, and repelled by the Greeks at every effort to occupy Greece.  It became clear to Hitler that Italy was not up to the task and on April 6, 1941 Germany invaded Greece, but it took even the Nazis five weeks to succeed.  Greek resistance had thrown off Hitler’s plans to capture Russia before the winter of 1941. 

The Greeks were the first people in Europe (outside of Great Britain) to stand up to the demands of Germany and its allies, but their one hundred eighty-five days of resistance took a horrific toll on their country:

One million of Greece’s citizens (13% of the population) are estimated to have died from battle, starvation, resistance, reprisals and concentration camps.

Greece’s infrastructure, economy and agriculture were destroyed.

Greece’s gold, works of art, and treasures were plundered.

Civil war followed and many emigrated.

On a purely economic basis, it is estimated that in standing up to the Axis’ threats Greece was left in financial straits twice as bad as it finds itself in today… and its societal costs were inestimably worse.

Oh, yes, and on that subject of catchy headlines or phrases attempting to capture Greece’s national character, let me offer a quote from someone who understood how the actions of the many, not the failings of a few, are what matters in any such sort of measure: “Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but Heroes fight like Greeks.”  Winston Churchill.


Friday, October 28, 2016

The village of the lost generation

Friday 21st October 1966 was a normal October morning with a fine  mist lying low in the valley of the  Welsh village of Aberfan, close to Merthyr Tydfil. The children in Pantglas Primary School were settling down to their lessons. At 9AM the crew working at Tip number 7 on the slope above the village noticed that the tracks for their crane had been deformed by about 9 feet, drawing the conclusion correctly, that the waste tip of slag was becoming unstable.
There was no telephone so a worker started to run down the hill to report the problem, as those left at the top watched in horror as the tip slowly subsided another 6 feet.
 The eyewitness testimony of the crane driver describes something that could come out of a Desmond Bagley novel. As he stood on the edge of the depression, he saw it rise up and  begin to grow and grow at tremendous speed. The slag tip turned itself into a wave that went crashing down the hillside towards the village of  Aberfan, which was so covered in mist. They couldn’t see it coming.
                                                            the aftermath

 The man sent down to report the disaster was halfway down the hill when he heard the roar behind him. He  heard trees cracking. Looking back, all he could see was a tsunami of black sludge and water. He kept running, he kept shouting, running blind as  he couldn’t see anything due to the black spray. He heard someone shout ‘to get out of there’ and a hand of a colleague, who was on his way up to tip number 2, grabbed him and pulled him out the way to safety. The landslide had been almost upon him.  They climbed up on to the old railway line, and when they looked down all they saw was blackness. The school had gone. The houses had gone. Their  instinct was to go down and help but they couldn’t because the ground in front of them had transformed into a waterfall of dense black slurry.
The landslide moved over 100,000 cubic metres of spoil, it travelled at 35 kilometers per hour at its fastest, moving about half a kilometre down the hillside. Right in its path was the primary school and 16 houses. The disaster claimed 144 lives, 116 of them were the children from the school. The fatalities were mostly suffocation, the crush injuries of the weight of slurry on small rib cages and drowning as the landslide had ruptured a water main which caused a secondary more viscous but equally deadly threat.

 rescue work

 The response of the small mining community was immediate. Miners were called up from their pits far underground to help with the rescue effort, digging with their bare hands and anything they could find. It’s reported that the rescue effort was very well organised in the face of no real organisation as there was no outside agency there to help. The miners who know how to work the slurry worked the slurry. They would work until the whistle blew and then stay silent waiting to hear a voice or cry that might indicate somebody buried alive. The last survivor was pulled out 2 hours after the impact.

One of the schoolboys had been outside in the playground when the slurry hit and he said you could hear it but you couldn’t see it. He said it was as if someone was flinging a barrage of stones at them, he ran away as fast as he could and he recalled something hitting him on the back of the head and then he was falling. When he woke up he was covered in pitch black, and when he was pulled from the waste he had lost an ear, he had two serious head wounds and the crush injuries were so bad on one hand he lost 3 fingers. Later he learned that he was trapped by his feet and was minutes away from drowning.
                                                      the memorial

Only 4 of the teachers survived, they had all been in the corner of one room that kept standing. One said it was just as if a mountain of black had just tumbled right on top of the school and stayed there.
And of course in any disaster like this there are heroes. One of the dinner ladies, Nansi heard the noise and grabbed 5 children. The 5 kids were 7 years old and were standing in the corridor paying their dinner money. One of the girls remembers the glass at the top of the corridor caving in under what she thought was a big black monster. Nansi pulled the children together and jumped on top of them so the wall fell on top of her and the slurry moved over the top of the wall. Nansi died but all the 5 children survived.
The 50 year anniversary was commemorated last Friday with Prince Charles unveiling a plaque and a there was a minutes silence all over Wales. The surviving teachers rebuilt the school for the few remaining pupils. But it always be remembered as the small mining town with a missing generation.
The aftermath and the enquiry that followed about who was responsible was bitter and contrversial. The coal board in that area had a lot of local knowledge about the conditions of the hills and they were aware of the conditions that had caused slips in the past. They were found to be more at fault than the Board at national level who bore overall responsibility for the stability of the tips that consisted of the waste of the coal mining industry.

So like many of these things the only solace that came out of it was that lessons were learned and so it will never happen again.


Caro Ramsay 28 10 2016

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Whither South African Universities

Michael - Thursday

Protest at the University of Cape Town
The last months have seen a concerted push by students around the country in the Fees Must Fall campaign. Initiated at the end of last year in response to the large fee increases proposed by the universities, it was successful in getting the government to agree to fund part of the increase and the universities to eat the shortfall. Somewhere along the line, the demand changed from no increases, to reducing fees, and finally to free tertiary education.

Protest at the University of the Witwaterstand
I’ve been a staff member in one form or another at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg for 44 years, so I have a lot of myself invested in the institution and its future is of real concern to me. It has transformed dramatically over those years from a largely segregated institution where 90% of the students and almost all the staff were white, to a university three times the size with a multiracial and multinational staff body and a student body whose racial makeup pretty well reflects that of the surrounding Gauteng province that it serves. It also hosts many international students, mainly from Africa. It does stronger research and has better students and courses than it did in the eighties.

The current scenes of police all over the campus supporting private security personnel and massive student protests remind some people of the demonstrations against the apartheid government in the eighties. But the comparison is wrong for a variety of reasons of which the most important is that then the university and the students were on the same side. Although the university has tried to align itself with the students by declaring that it’s in favor of “free, quality, decolonialized higher education”, the students are too savvy to fall for that. If that’s so, they say, then join our protest. Close your doors until the government agrees to exactly that. Our university has refused to do so—90% of staff and 75% of students want to finish the academic year and write the final exams.

Small groups of students (and others) break up classes, damage property, set fires and throw stones. I have to say that I’m disgusted by much of the violent protest. Sometimes it consists of bullying—often targeting on female staff and students. Fire extinguishers have been used to break up classes. A cleaner subsequently died from the fumes. Firecrackers of the most explosive type are hurled into classes. A student of one of my colleagues was burned in three places on her leg. Buses and cars have been vandalized and destroyed. This week a fire was started on a bus transporting 15 students. Thankfully, it was spotted, the bus stopped, and the students evacuated; they could all have died. That isn’t robust protest, it’s nothing short of terrorism.

And what is the government doing while all this is going on? The president too has urged the students that he hears them, that he’s on their side, that their aim of free higher education is just and reasonable and one the government supports. So there's no need for violence, no need for protest aimed at wrecking the academic year. Another stakeholder trying to get on the right side of the students by supporting what he has no intention of delivering. (He has other things on his mind.)

Protest at Parliament
How “just and reasonable” are the student’s demands? Free higher education is almost certainly unaffordable in South Africa which is beset by needs from poverty, healthcare, primary education, through to crushing unemployment, to say nothing of the president’s new mansion. But fees have increased rapidly ahead of inflation, and bursaries are inadequate for the total of fees, living, and other costs. Furthermore, sometimes students are denied bursaries on the grounds that their family income is too high. Yet that calculation takes into account the income of siblings who may have their own financial stresses and have no obligation and no intention of supporting a brother or sister at university. The administration of the national loan scheme is hopeless, with students sometimes being excluded because their loan payments are delayed. Banks also loan students money but they want it back! (People in the US are well aware of how that may play out.) The students don’t need platitudes, the system is broken and they need it fixed.

Also there is another aspect. When asked at his recent book launch to comment on the student unrest, Athol Williams, a self-made man by any standard, said that it reflected a deep disillusion of South Africa's youth who feel failed by the new South Africa. That goes way beyond the issue of fees. 

It’s the universities that will be the meat in this sandwich, being squeezed between student demands and government priorities and ineptitude. Research will decline, good staff will go elsewhere. Well-healed students will take themselves off to private universities as they have with private secondary schools already. Take the ‘h’ out of the first word of this blog's title.

Still, violent student protests have occurred throughout the world. Sometimes things are achieved, sometimes not. Yet the universities have survived. I hope.