One of the lessons from five visits to Africa between 2009 and 2015 was that beauty could be a vehicle with which to transcend ugliness. Travelling to Rwanda on each of those visits and to Burundi for three of them, there was much in both countries that might have been a cause for gloom or despondency or even despair. Rwanda still bore the scars of the terrifying genocide of 1994, while Burundi had continued to suffer social and political instability and the detrimental effects of endemic corruption.
There was an overwhelming sense among the people that the political and economic realities that surrounded them would not be allowed to define them, that there were realities other than the grinding poverty most of the suffered. For those who had even a little money to spare, the preferred way of dressing was in flamboyant colours. Attending church on Sunday really did mean wearing “Sunday best” clothes. Church services were occasions of exuberance, hours of music and dance and celebration. Ugliness would not be allowed the last word; there might be grim realities, but life could also have moments of beauty.
Historically, human experience has been one of a seeking after beauty, even in the darkest times. In France, during the Nazi occupation from 1940 until 1944, there had to be an adjustment to the realities in which the people found themselves. Jean-Paul Sartre returned to his teaching; Edith Piaf returned to her singing; sustaining morale meant needing to do things that distracted the mind from the uniforms in the streets outside. Such experiences have been replicated countless times in countless places.
So it is that the responses of some British people to the ugliness of the internecine conflict called Brexit have been a seeking after beauty. One Somerset journalist posts a picture of a composer or musician on Instagram each morning to represent the piece of classical music to which he is listening at 8 a.m. instead of listening to the sterile repetitions of politicians and analysts on BBC Radio 4, he is transported to a level where no BBC correspondent can spoil the day.
Perhaps one of the saddest developments has been the politicisation of the BBC, instead of being a network that lifted people’s thoughts above party politics, it has allowed its broadcasters to openly pursue their own political agendas – it has become part of the ugliness of the times.
If history is cyclical, then the current times will pass, and, whatever happens, the human spirit will still find occasions of beauty.