Monday, 23 April 2018

A Knave and a Queen

Oops, I almost forgot what day it is. Happy birthday, Will, from the Knave of Wasps!
As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by fortune's dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth;
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store,
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
That I in thy abundance am sufficed
And by a part of all thy glory live.
  Look what is best, that best I wish in thee;
  This wish I have, then ten times happy me.

Sonnet 37
Perhaps not one of his best efforts, but I love that Shakespearean precursor of "some or all of the above" in there. I wonder if they had multiple choice forms in Tudor times? Wouldst thou prefer to be executed by (a) beheading (b) hanging (c) evisceration (d) cutting into pieces (e) burning (f) all of the above? Odd, how many high-profile executees seem to have chosen (f).

Nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare, the text on the card below reads, "The pupil is thereby 'schooled' to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new". It's a quote from Deschooling Society, by Ivan Illich, that encapsulates pretty much everything that is wrong with contemporary education. The job of this particular queen, a member of the despicable Michael Gove's despised "blob", is to try and put that right.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

A Pair of Kings

I was at school with these two gents and, despite some ups and downs and occasional lengthy gaps in communication, still count them among my friends – my "elective family" – fifty years on. Both are accomplished musicians, and men of strong opinions and good taste. I think you can probably tell this from the nobility of their visages and bearing. Two worthy kings.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Full House

You may recall an earlier version of the image above which I posted in 2015. Yes, that is indeed me photographed five years ago, before losing a lot of weight and finally remembering to take off my Christmas-cracker crown. I called it "King of Fools", which seemed appropriate [1]. It was just a bit of fun, but I found the concept interesting, and it lodged itself in the back of my mind; essentially, the inverted pairing of a "court" card, plus associated playing-card paraphernalia. So, a while ago I started playing around with portraits of friends and family to produce a little set of similar "cards", all variants on the same format.

One thing this exercise revealed to me was quite how reluctant most of the people I know are to be photographed: I had to make the most of the few suitable "portraits" I could find, which were very thin on the ground. It's curious, in what is supposed to be a "selfie" culture, obsessed with the self-image, that I mainly seem to know representatives of the most camera-shy subset of the population. To an extreme degree, in certain cases. I can never decide whether this is due to vanity, love of or need for privacy, some sort of atavistic "soul stealing" thing, or just a reflex curmudgeonliness. Probably "all of the above" (yes, looking at you, Nick B.). Whatever the reason, I seem to have an extraordinary collection of pictures of people grimacing, glaring, blinking, flinching, fleeing the scene, or offering various apotropaic hand and finger gestures.

This reminded me that, back in the 90s, there was a corporate fashion for displaying galleries of staff portraits in open public view – more like "mugshots", really – with the intention that the relevant person could easily be identified (as if staff spent their days hanging about anonymously in public areas, hopefully waiting to be recognised and of use to someone). The real motivation behind this, of course, was to show an open and friendly institutional face towards clients and customers: this is us, here we are, we have no reason to hide! We did try this in the university library at Southampton, but it was never popular – it seems many people dislike their own appearance, quite rightly in some cases – and in the end it was abandoned, not least because it exposed the younger, more attractive members of staff to unwanted attention from our creepier clients. It seemed some of us, at any rate, had good reason to want to remain anonymous.

When I retired in 2014, I decided to draw up a list of all the members of staff, past and present, who had worked for me in one capacity or another, and was surprised to discover there had been over 50 of them. Quite a few had gone on to greater things – in fact, our most recent University Librarian had been one of my team in her younger days – but I found it hard to put faces to a surprising number of those names. I wished I had thought to make a photographic record, perhaps in the form of periodic "team photographs". It would have been easy to do, but I didn't, and it's obviously not one of those things you can do in retrospect. But the fun I could be having now with those fifty-plus faces... That's a whole deck of cards!

Anyway, I'll be dealing out a few more of the cards I have been able to make over the next couple of posts, not least because I'm going to be away from my workstation a lot: the weather has improved dramatically, and there are places to go, people to see, etc. I will be moderating comments, however, so do let me know if you think I've laid out a winning hand, or if you think I should fold on this game.

1. The banner carries a runic inscription, to be found below a window in Bristol Cathedral, which is said to mean something like "man is but a heap of mouldering dust", which, if nothing else, is quite a good description of a hangover.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

The Long 1968


On the radio the other morning I half-heard a discussion of various books relating to post-War France, and in particular les événements of May 1968. Three things registered out of the pre-coffee haze. First, the concept of a "Long 1968"; that is, that the "spirit of '68" was played out over a rather longer period than a single year. Obvious, really. Second, that 1968 is as long ago now as 1918 was then. Even more obvious – even I can do the mental arithmetic – but thought-provoking, nonetheless. Third, the image of that very strange man, the future conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, then a student, observing the riotous action in the Paris streets below from the safety of his girlfriend's apartment, and concluding that whatever was motivating them down there was the opposite of what, henceforth, would motivate him. I was also amused by his classically-conservative concession that, back then, student radicals were cut from a finer, better-educated cloth than today's student radicals. Which is true, self-evidently.

Ah, 1968. At the time I was 14, and probably had rather more in common with Roger Scruton than Daniel Cohn-Bendit. That is, I was a British grammar-school boy from an "ordinary" family, whose ideas and aspirations were increasingly at odds with those of his parents, a common condition in 1968. I don't think it is overstating the case to say that there have been few, if any, times when the gulf between generations living under the same roof has been greater. Watching the TV, my parents were appalled by everything that exercised such a strong pull on my developing adolescent desires: the revolutionary politics, the "mind-expanding" drugs, the loud music, the casual sex, the general urge to overturn the safe and cosy suburban world and build something new, young, colourful, and authentic.

Naturally, at 14, I had no real ideas of my own; even the most specious and shopworn stuff was new and exciting to me, particularly if it angered or upset my parents. I had no real idea of the difficult 50-year journey they had travelled, from 1918 to 1968, and why the safe, cosy, "straight" post-war world might have such a strong appeal for them. They seemed dull, conformist, and uninteresting to me [1]. They rarely left our flat other than to go to work, do a weekly shop, or visit family, and had no obvious interests beyond whatever happened to be on TV. I admit I had long nurtured ungrateful "changeling" fantasies. But also, already by 1968 a lot of the allegedly counter-cultural aspects of pop culture had been safely commodified and accommodated: I loathed the floral-shirted, kipper-tied types that appeared on TV, peddling a de-clawed sub-psychedelia, acceptable to my parents' generation because at least they were polite, neat and tidy, and playing a recognisable game of "fashionable young things". As the 70s arrived I was feeling an obscure all-round discontent that wanted to express itself in transgressive noise, dirt, scruffiness, and intoxication, and revelled in rejecting expectations and opportunities (mainly at school, the only arena of action open to me: in the classic Groucho formulation, I didn't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member). My friends and I became regular under-age drinkers in certain tolerant pubs, and hung out as the self-styled cool, intellectual fringe at local youth venues. When the atmosphere at home became too stifling, I enjoyed nothing more than leaving the flat and going for long, aimless walks, the more uninviting the weather the better. Yes, I was a teenage Situationist in Stevenage.

Although, actually, I had no idea what a Situationist was. Or of anything much, politically. When I saw the news on TV, I saw rioting students all around the world: France, America, Japan, Germany, Czechoslovakia... It seemed like there was a world party of unrest and anger happening out there, and I couldn't wait to join in. Why and what anybody was actually rioting about was anybody's guess: I imagined that they told you about all that when you became a student. It looked like fun. Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against? What've you got? So, becoming a student was the entire horizon of my worldly ambitions. Not some "varsity" bod with a college scarf and an ironic teddy-bear, obviously, but a full-on, long-haired, dope-smoking, acid-tripping, rock-throwing, protest-marching, soixante-huitard with attitude. Unlike Roger Scruton, I concluded that whatever was motivating them was precisely what, henceforth, should motivate me.

Oxford Examination Schools Occupation 1973
© 1975 Fiona Thompson

It bears repeating that when, after a year out, I did eventually rock up at university in 1973 I was still a clueless, small-town stoner, with an unattractive and largely unexamined package of ideas about politics and life. It is probably true to say that I had absorbed what few ideas I had from a combination of rock lyrics and late-night banter with friends, leavened only by the texts I had studied at A-Level, some influential teachers, and a few cult books at the wackier end of the spectrum. My worldview spoke more of a close study of Sticky Fingers, Aqualung, and Every Picture Tells A Story than any acquaintance with Marx, Trotsky, or Lenin, none of whom I had read.

But, by pure chance, I found myself in a hotspot of the Long '68. The collegiate structure of Oxford University means that each college is a little self-contained planet, with its own atmosphere and life-forms, and at Balliol College in 1973 it seemed that everyone who was anyone was a member of some far-left group with a rival, subtly-different plan for toppling the established order. I may not yet have grasped the essential differences between Trotskyist, Marxist-Lenininist, or anarchist visions of revolution, but it was clear I was up for a lark and almost immediately I found myself at the conspiratorial core of no less than two occupations of university property. Result!

The first was a rather casual mass occupation which proved to be no more than a couple of sleep-deprived nights spent crashing on the extremely hard floor of the Examination Schools. I recall singing folk-songs with David Aaronovitch [2], then a Communist Party member, only to be harangued by certain female International Marxist Group members who found the lyrics sexist, a word that did not yet figure in my vocabulary. But the second was an invitation-only invasion of the Indian Institute, a university administrative building, by a soi-disant revolutionary vanguard, which was ended almost immediately with a certain amount of brutality on the part of the university and the police, and resulted in the ending of the university careers of several of my new comrades. Personally, on being ejected from the building, I ran through the police lines like a rugby wing-forward in pursuit of a loose ball, and not long thereafter began to reconsider the idiocy of what we were up to.

In short, for me, the Long 1968 ended on the afternoon of Wednesday, 13th February 1974, a few days after my 20th birthday. My political views had been changed, radically and permanently, and I had made some lifelong friends, but I really wasn't about to sacrifice my hard-earned university career as a spear-carrier supporting the factitious efforts of a few public-school revolutionaries, who had read their Marx, to instigate their own private May '68. I had no Plan B: to be a student was still the sum total of my ambition. So I decided to concentrate on the hedonistic part of the student formula, and ease up on the rock-throwing part. It hadn't yet occurred to me that some book-studying might be a useful element to add in.

Amusingly, one of my friends from that era once informed me that my unasked-for and unwanted candidature into one radical groupuscule had been rejected, on the grounds I was a "piss-artist". Which was entirely fair. Although, ironically, a few years ago I discovered that several contemporaries assumed I had been a member of that same group all along, simply because several of its members so regularly found my college room a congenial late-night stop-off (a room which, I also later discovered, had formerly been occupied by Howard Marks). Well, the long march through the institutions would have to start sometime, but not yet, O Lord, not yet.

There are a number of distinguished people in this photograph, but
a three-term mayor of Baltimore is, for all the wrong reasons, 
easily spotted towards the back...

1. The fact that they were also kind, supportive, tolerant, and always willing to give me the benefit of the doubt didn't occur to me until it was far too late to atone for years of arrogant and boorish behaviour.

2. Aaronovitch may not be well-known outside the UK, but here he has become a fixture in the media firmament. For two terms, he and I were good friends, but his ambition and my hedonistic tendencies took us in different directions. Then he was "sent down" for failing his first year exams and, in those pre-internet days, we lost touch until, carrying the NALGO union banner at an anti-Thatcher demo in 1979, I spotted him covering the event as a journalist. We exchanged a few words but I was clearly not the story and he had a job to do, and, it has to be said, his memories of Oxford were probably less than positive, having been regularly denounced as a CP "Stalinist" by all and sundry. So he went off in search of someone more important, and we have never spoken since. Although every time I hear his voice on the radio I am transported back to 1973.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

On A Clear Day

Logged hillside at Shaky Bridge

Standing stones, ley lines, wholefoods, handicrafts, UFO-watchers, eco-warriors, stoners, shroom-pickers, smallholders, artists, students of the weird and wonderful... On a clear day, you can see the 1970s.

 Recumbent stone on Bryn-y-maen

Alien spacecraft on Bryn-y-maen 

Recumbent stone on Gilwern Hill

Quite what all these standing stones, recumbent stones, tumuli, cairns and hillforts are doing up here – apart from giving some purpose to a muddy ramble, and making Ordnance Survey maps look more decorative – is an interesting question. Most of them are glacial "erratics" with a very different origin to the local geology of schists and mudstones, and appear to have been dragged (or levitated by extraterrestrial technology) into positions of significance. My theory is that these are megalithic roundabout markers, controlling traffic flow along the ley lines when the climate here was more Mediterranean, and driving and droving therefore correspondingly more chaotic (come on, have you ever tried to drive sheep through central Rome?). Other, less climatist theories are available.

 Alien spacecraft component

What can it mean?
(it means a cat's-eye is missing from a road somewhere.
Though how it got on top of Gilwern Hill is a mystery.)

Tuesday, 10 April 2018


As a tinnitus sufferer, I'm cautious about mentioning, let alone hunting down what seem to be strange noises in the real, objective sound-world; that is, the one that exists outside my own internal acoustic wonderland. It took me years to realise, for example, that a neighbour somewhere was not playing bass-heavy music into the small hours, or that water was not trickling continually through a sonorous network of pipes somewhere in our loft. It was only when I could still hear these same nocturnal annoyances in the absolute silence of the countryside, in a cottage with no central heating and no neighbours for miles around that I concluded that in fact I was generating these sounds myself, from somewhere inside my own skull. But, walking down a lane near Lake Llynheilyn in mid-Wales, I began to be aware of a strange, haunting music coming from somewhere nearby.

The music had an eerie, hollow, bell-like quality that varied unpredictably in pitch and volume, and occasionally cracked into a harsh, wavering split-octave effect. It was exactly the sort of soundtrack you might use in a film to presage an imminent spooky happening, or the precarious mental state of a character. Now, given that I was neither in a movie nor, as far as I was aware, in the early stages of a psychic collapse, I was pretty sure these sounds were real. They were also very good.

Perhaps being a little odd, I really enjoy the sort of aleatory "music" that the complex interactions and interference patterns of the material world can spontaneously generate. I recall being lulled into a virtual trance state by the tintinnabulation of cowbells on a sunny hillside in the Auvergne, and will admit I was frequently detained rather longer than necessary by the mellifluous, lark-like warbling of a certain ancient lavatory cistern at work, intrigued by the rising urgency of its notes as the tank refilled, eventually fading away into silence, punctuated by increasingly infrequent, percussive dripping. OK, so perhaps I can be more than a little odd: let's call it creative. Anyway, the music I was hearing in that Welsh lane was an outstanding example of its kind.

Now, it has to be said that, in that part of Mid-Wales, you are never very far away from the sort of creative individuals who have shunned city life, in order to be alone with their creativity. It was not impossible, therefore, that this strange but compelling music was emanating from some nearby but unseen cottage, where, say, Brian Eno was enjoying a long weekend, or Harrison Birtwistle was giving his neighbours a much-deserved break. But it quickly became clear that the rise and fall of the music corresponded to the rise and fall of the wind and, as I got nearer, was evidently coming from a new, all-metal gate set in the fence around an otherwise empty field.

It was mesmerising. Really. You could not have designed a more perfect aeolian harp. The spacing and shape of the bars seemed to set up sympathetic vibrations at the lightest breath of wind, vibrations that were amplified and given voice and character by the galvanised hollow square tubing. The gate was not merely vibrating, or thrumming, it was singing. And the song it sang was a perfect expression of its situation, beside a track at the edge of a marshy field running down towards a hill-country lake, a situation which I might only semi-facetiously describe as the gate way, or perhaps a boundary condition. Heh. I only wish I had had the sense to record it on my phone [1]. In 2013 I was slightly mocking of an album called The Cattle-Grids of Dartmoor, but I once was deaf, and now I hear...  The Singing Gates of Radnor? It has "hit" written all over it.

1. I'm only dimly aware of the many miraculous things my "phone" can do. Just today, one of those blue-clad "geniuses" that lurk in the Apple Store explained how I can use my phone as a "personal hotspot" to connect my WiFi-only iPad to the internet. Crikey! How useful is that? Thanks, genius!

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Muddiest. Easter. EVER.

Llynheilyn Lake is spreading

I must have mentioned before that we have been visiting the Welsh Borders every Easter, now, for over 40 years. In fact, I have probably mentioned it at least once every year on this blog, now just six months away from its tenth anniversary. But it is what we do: drive to the area west of the border around Presteigne and Llandrindod Wells, and spend a week or so off-grid in a rented cottage, reading, walking, exploring, or (in my case) just gazing vacantly into the landscape. In all these years, however, I have never encountered so much mud. Snow, yes. Rain, yes. But somehow the land itself had always remained pretty firm underfoot, except where livestock had trampled it into a mire around gates and similar points of concentration.

On Gilwern Hill

Flooded trees at Shaky Bridge

This year was very different. It felt as if the entire soil-covering of the Radnor Forest had become semi-liquid, turning solid, springy upland into a boot-sucking morass. I ended up wearing wellingtons on every walk, rather than ankle-height hiking boots. Previously reliable parking spots had become treacherous, wheel-spinning mud-traps, with the result that the sides of our brave old Renault Scenic now look as if they have been coated with heavily-textured brown Artex. It did snow the night of our arrival, but the subsequent mild, drizzly weather caused this frosting to melt away swiftly and merely topped up the water levels in the soil.

On Gilwern Hill

On Bryn-y-maen

But, never mind, despite the dismal weather and the mud we did get out every day and, apart from the sheep, kites, buzzards, and the occasional farmer on a quad-bike, had the place to ourselves. Anyone with any sense, of course, was indoors, watching TV, eating Easter treats, in bed, or rendering themselves happily senseless. Perhaps all at the same time. But we can do any or all of that now we're back home. Although at some point someone is going to have to wash the car, it's true. But there's no rush: I quite like the "we've been off-road over Easter" look, and it might well rain heavily in the next fortnight or so, anyway.

On Shepherd's Tump

On Gilwern Hill

Friday, 6 April 2018

Berlin Miscellany

Museum für Naturkunde

Museum für Naturkunde

Here are a few more pictures from Berlin that I like, but didn't find a place for in the preceding posts. There are plenty more where these came from, but I think this will do.

Flats on Heinrich-Heine-Strasse

Flats on Spreekanal

Bornholmer Strasse

Budapester Strasse

In case you were wondering, all of these photographs from Berlin were taken with the Fuji X-M1 and XC 15-45mm "pancake" lens combination which, as I hope you will agree, worked out pretty well. I struggled a bit at times with the electronic zoom – I always do, and have yet to find one I like – and because I always shoot "raw" files I had to work on some image distortion in post that I expect would have been adjusted for in JPG files, but this was more than compensated for by the overall lightness, the image stabilisation, and the quality of the end results in all lighting conditions.

Wall marker on Bornholmer Strasse
looking into "East" Berlin

looking towards "West" Berlin

Berlin Neue Synagoge & Centrum Judaicum
seen from the Alte Nationalgalerie

[N.B. I'm away most of this week. I'll moderate any comments when I get back.]

Tuesday, 3 April 2018


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
(erected over the former "Death Zone" near the Brandenburg Gate)

It's too easy to imagine that you and I, naturally, would have been among the Good Guys, and would have refused to join the Nazi Party, defended and sheltered our Communist, Socialist, and Jewish friends and colleagues, and bravely accepted the inevitable consequences. Far too easy. I think there have been enough experiments that demonstrate  – even without the pressures brought to bear by the need to earn a living within a totalitarian state – how readily the sociopathic brute sleeping within most of us may be awakened to conclude this would probably not have been the case. If you are Jewish, which I am not, you will have a different set of questions to ask yourself about Germany in the 1930s, and perhaps also some about Israel in the current day, but it would be impertinent of me to suggest what these might be.

So, let's assume we all have a retrospective share in the guilt for what happened in Germany in the 1930s, in the sense that we would, at best, probably have turned a blind eye to what was going on all around us, have indeed probably been turning a blind eye to terrible events in the world in more recent decades, and probably would still do so if something similar were to happen closer to home involving some other scapegoated group of convenient "others". Nobody wants to make trouble for themselves. "First they came for the socialists, etc."

Bizarrely, this marks the "Walter Benjamin Playground"
outside the Daniel Libeskind Jewish Museum.
No, really. Pretentious misstep? You decide!

Compacted history...
Exhibition in the excavated SD torture cells,
looking across a Berlin Wall remnant
to former GDR government buildings...

I thought I was beyond being shocked by images of the Holocaust, but was deeply disturbed by some photographs I saw in Berlin's Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum) last week. These were not images of degradation, cruelty, and horror, however, but something far more subtle. A German-Jewish man (I've forgotten his name and, idiotically, didn't take notes) documented the antisemitic signs posted in the 1930s around a few rural towns and villages with his camera. The signs are quite professionally done – nicely sign-painted, legible, and permanent-looking – and say things like "Jews are not welcome here", "Jews enter these premises at their own risk", "The owner of the business opposite is a Jew", and so on. They are almost amusing in their obsessive single-mindedness, and in the fact that any Jewish family with the misfortune to live in one of those villages would, I am sure, have been perfectly well aware without such prompting that they had outstayed their welcome. No, I think these signs are intended for the edification of non-Jewish neighbours, a craven form of one-upmanship. If you have ever watched Edgar Reitz's groundbreaking TV series Heimat (or indeed lived in any village anywhere) I think you'll recognise the truth of this.

So these signs are not the ravings of some crazed urban antisemite, but a symptom of the systematic exclusion and persecution of Jews simply for being Jews in the rural German heartland in the 1930s. Equivalent, I suppose, to the "No dogs, no blacks, no Irish" signs that were displayed in English guest-houses in the 1950s, but backed up by official sanction. Having long ago become desensitized to images of emaciated human beings, huge-eyed behind barbed wire, or of corpses stacked like firewood, I found these simple, objective, amateur photographs shocking, pointing as they do, in one direction, at the bemusement of the photographer (who had the good fortune to get out of there shortly thereafter, in the process nearly losing this precious roll of film to border guards) and, in the other, at the pure, almost innocent malevolence in the hearts of his persecutors. And I admit I felt, for what little it's worth, "guilty as charged".

Inside the Garden of Exile
Jewish Museum, Berlin

[N.B. I'm away most of this week. I'll moderate any comments when I get back.]

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Mighty Museums

I've never been very good at doing my pre-travel homework. I'll probably buy the relevant Rough Guide and a map, but won't actually read anything about my destination until I get there. As a tourist, I am an improviser, rather than a planner. Having arrived, though, if there's one thing I always do, it's to check out whether there's a natural history museum in town. And – if we may be allowed to indulge in some national stereotyping here – if there's one thing we like to think about Germans it's that if there's a thing to do, they're going to have done it right. No half measures, no sloppy specifications, no stinting on effort or funding. Although it's true that as well as the BMW and the Leica it was also Germans who came up with the Trabi and the Praktica, not to mention cheating on VW diesel emissions; national stereotypes only go so far. But Berlin's Museum für Naturkunde turned out to be everything I'd hoped for. I spent a happy morning there, wandering about in a similar state to the parties of over-excited children, though with rather less squealing. It is simply terrific, or as the Germans appear to be saying a lot these days, super.

Seriously: it makes our own Natural History Museum in London look pretty second-rate. For a start, there are no apologies for the state of the taxidermy. No need: everything looks as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as if it were an entrant for Best of Breed (which, in certain ugly cases, must be a tough call). Then there's presentation. I doubt if the Museum für Naturkunde gets significantly fewer visitors than the NHM, but it doesn't have that tired, scuffed-up look so prevalent in the big British museums, with their peeling laminates, chipped edges, fingermarks, and temporary, sellotaped signs. Admittedly this museum is in an ongoing process of refurbishment, like pretty much everything else in Berlin, but every exhibit is well-chosen, properly lit, and uncrowded, except where plenitude is the point. And it also doesn't have that awful, patronising attitude to "interpretation": I'm still seething about seeing invertebrates labelled as "Creepy Crawlies" in the NHM.

You want stuff in jars? We got stuff in jars...

Also awesome, in a more literal sense, is the Pergamon Museum, located on Museuminsel ("Museum Island") in the middle of the River Spree. Typically, I had no idea that there was a "Museum Island", or what was on it, and at first took it for some sort of theme-park. You know the sort of thing: "Willkommen! Bienvenue! Ve-elcome... to Museum Island! In here, even ze orchestra is bee-oodifully taxonomized!" Anyway, I'd had mixed recommendations on the Pergamon from friends, ranging from "Wow!" to "Meh...", but as I'd wandered close by on one of my initial dazed-and-confused dérives I thought I'd have a look, and was mightily impressed.

To be honest, I think my friends think I'm smarter and better-informed than I really am: "Babylon", for me, I'm afraid, primarily conjures up images of reggae, not ancient Mesopotamia. It's that homework failure, again... So I simply wasn't expecting the sheer scale of the Pergamon Museum's contents. The Ishtar Gate alone, as reconstructed, is a blue-tiled edifice 46 feet high and 100 feet wide. It's BIG! "Awesome" doesn't do it justice. We Brits enjoy giving ourselves a hard time over our orientalist looting activities – the Elgin Marbles come to mind – but, blimey... Even to contemplate excavating and shipping back to Europe any one of the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, the Ishtar Gate, or the Mshatta Facade, never mind all four, and then to reconstruct them all under the same roof is a feat of cultural imperialism and archaeological ambition that could surely never now be contemplated by anyone, anywhere.

As a bonus, there is a separate Museum of Islamic Art upstairs, containing some of the most beautiful objects I have ever seen in a museum. I was particularly impressed by the large tiled "prayer niches", which have a hallucinatory level of detail and complexity, but there are any number of smaller objects whose craftsmanship and aesthetic qualities repay the closest attention. Again, my ignorance of Islam is boundless, but I know skill in the service of beauty when I see it, and it always stirs in me the desire to do a certain amount of post-travel homework. Although, as I also know, if wishes were hours of research, then beggars would be profound scholars.

[N.B. I'm away most of next week. I'll moderate any comments when I get back.]

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Stubborn Stains



Like a water-stain on a ceiling which is impossible to paint out, it seems the past will leak through pretty much any attempt to obliterate it. Perhaps especially in a city like Berlin, where terrible, terrible things have happened within living memory, some carried out in secret, some in plain sight, and others inflicted indiscriminately upon the entire population. It's as if the more destruction is heaped upon a place, the more insistently the past tries to return, like the photinia weeds that apparently sprang up all over the rubble heaps after 1945. Later in the year I may be visiting the spot on the planet known serially as St. Petersburg / Petrograd / Leningrad / St. Petersburg, which must be the test case and type specimen of such a theory. The infernal twinning by transformative obliteration between these two cities is not entirely accidental, of course.

Since reunification and the re-establishing of Berlin as Germany's capital, an amazing amount of rebuilding and re-configuring has taken place, and the character of entire city quarters has been changed. Although often, it seems, these transformations are merely the latest phase in a history of dramatic changes. Take the current glitzification of Potsdamer Platz, not so long ago a dead zone between East and West with the Wall running straight through it, and yet not so long before that one of the busiest and most iconic traffic intersections in Europe. And yet Berlin has done the right thing, surely, in leaving its most ghastly secrets exposed to public scrutiny, rather than attempting to ignore or hide them. I will write about the Jewish Museum and the various memorials to victims of the Nazis in a separate post. But certain plots of prime central real estate have been left barren, acknowledgement that these bore stains which could never have been painted over, such as the former headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS on Wilhelmstrasse, now an expanse of ground simply covered by grey stone chippings, and occupied only by an unsensationalised yet unflinchingly informative museum and library, with the oddly non-institutional name The Topography of Terror.

Inside the Topography of Terror

Museum Island

Osloer Strasse

Everywhere you look, there are cranes; everywhere, buildings are swathed in protective sheeting and undergoing refurbishment. Like central London, the plate-glass temples of global capital are dominating the skyline, in what seems like a similarly unplanned, unregulated free-for-all. But each new building project in Berlin does require, in one of those wonderful German compound words, a Kampfmittelfreiheitsbescheinigung; that is, a certification that the site is kinda-sorta free of explosives. Seventy years on, there are still an estimated 2,000-4,000 tons of unexploded ordnance buried beneath Berlin, a stratum of the past that continually leaches into the present in small but deadly doses: even now around 10-15 bombs a year, plus the smaller stuff that was shot, lobbed, and abandoned in the intense street-battles of 1945. You might say that Berlin is like a concentrated compound of London and Northern France: a few square miles that have been intensively bombed, shelled, and then fought over, house by house. With the result that by 1946 the city was largely a heap of rubble, haunted by the gangs of so-called Trümmerfrauen ("rubble women"), pulling down, breaking, sorting, and clearing up the ruins.

Apparently, the highest place in Berlin is the Teufelsberg, a hill rising 80 metres above the surrounding Grunewald forest, and entirely constructed out 75 million cubic metres of rubble and debris, dumped on top of an indestructible former military academy designed by Albert Speer. Such rubble hills, known as Schuttberge or Trümmerberge, exist outside most major German towns that suffered bomb damage: Berlin's just happens to be the biggest by far, partly because – owing to the containment of the Western sectors by the Soviet Zone – it all had to be dumped within the boundaries of West Berlin.

This raises an interesting question of perspective that I often encountered in my short three-day visit. Descriptions of the pre-1989 division of Germany often talk as if those in East Berlin were trapped behind the Berlin Wall. Whereas, obviously, in fact they were free to move anywhere within East Germany, and if anyone was "trapped" behind a wall it was surely the West Berliners. Yes, there will have been those in the East who yearned for a different lifestyle, or to re-unite arbitrarily divided families, and to them West Berlin must have appeared like a tantalising portal, but travel between West and East was possible and in both directions, even if under certain constraints.

I am not surprised that Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East) is now a thing. The social benefits of life in the GDR were not altogether illusory – full employment, equality in healthcare, childcare and education, subsidised food and transport, even if the, ah, Neighbourhood Watch arrangements had got completely out of hand – and the downsides of consumer capitalism rarely feature on the glitzy billboards of the new Potsdamer Platz. That some of the most intense anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist activism once took place in the shadow of the Wall, but on the Western side, in the run-down areas that are now being intensively gentrified, is ironic, to say the least. And perhaps just another one of those stains that will eventually work its way back to the surface.

Checkpoint Charlie

"Hands off Wedding!"