Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Summer Break

After weeks of record-breaking temperatures, drought, and wildfires we've all had enough, and could do with a radical change, I think. So, utterly selflessly, we have decided to cool things down and bring on the rain by taking a holiday. It usually seems to work. Actually, though, this will be more like a break of routine, as we're simply moving the domestic operation to Bristol for a bit, but it should still have the required effect. I'll also be giving the blogging a rest, and will be back in a couple of weeks.

Probably... I'm reminded of the post that I rewrite and sometimes even publish in a new version every other year or so, declaring the imminent end of my blogging adventure, like the periodically updated letter of resignation you might keep in a desk drawer at work. And another thing...! My own resignation note from work did start out as an actual letter, mutated into an early-retirement speech, but was eventually delivered as a farewell email to several hundred colleagues. As the readership of this blog comes nowhere near that sort of number now, at least most of the time, I suspect by the time I finally put up the CLOSED FOR BUSINESS sign I might as well hand deliver a note of explanation to the remaining readers (I'm resisting the urge to add: "both of them"... heh!).

It's inexplicable, I know, but I've somehow never managed to get Barack, Britney, Bill, or Bieber to "like" one of my posts, and thus become an overnight millionaire influencer, with my own menswear franchise, grooming products, and everything. I'm sure you've all been trying on my behalf, but it just hasn't worked out so far. Try harder!

Have a good summer.

[N.B. any comments to this and previous posts will be put on hold in the meantime]

Saturday, 13 August 2022


I think I'm probably not alone in thinking that the unsubtle binary of "like" vs. "not like" is, shall we say, unhelpful. This has most obviously been manifested by the vociferous policing and trolling of opinions expressed on social media, resulting ultimately in the so-called "cancellation" of individuals, both socially and professionally. This person is wrong! We don't like this person! Ex-ter-min-ate! I mean, whatever your views on the matter, we are clearly at a very curious stage in the development of our civilisation when, for example, the expression of the previously unproblematic view that to be "a woman" or "a man" is a biological condition and not a matter of opinion or choice has come to be considered intolerably provocative by people with whom one might otherwise agree on most other things. TERF! Ex-ter-min-ate!

The danger in such polarisation – you're either with us, or against us! – is that we are losing touch with the concept of "tolerance". Toleration is a much more nuanced and accommodating condition than "approval", is often hard-won, and is an indispensable feature of liberal cultivation and society. I don't approve of, much less "like" the noisy party down the road that is keeping me awake, but I tolerate it, just as most of us tolerate many nuisances and behaviours that we don't actually like, rather than invoking the law or rounding up a posse of like-minded neighbours to silence the merry-makers (much as the latter option might entertain my sleep-deprived mind as 3 a.m. approaches). "Do as you would be done by" and "live and let live" are excellent principles to live by, despite the sad fact that selfish, unthinking bastards are unlikely to notice, learn anything from, or reciprocate your own saintly tolerance. It does have to be conceded that sometimes wrathful Old Testament smiting does have its attractions over meek New Testament cheek-turning, but "let's all get along" is infinitely preferable to "let's find out who's the strongest here".

These distinctions are useful where art is concerned, too. Echo-chamber art, where one hears, sees, or reads nothing but work that is gratifyingly close to one's own worldview, is barely "art" at all: it is merely interior decoration, chosen to complement the colour scheme of one's mind. The equivalent of tolerance in aesthetic terms is suspension of judgement, the willingness to let unfamiliar or even rebarbative offerings do their work, something I have previously described as a "Hendrix Moment": giving "argh!" a chance to transmute into "wow!". Naturally, as you get older, this flexibility of mind starts to stiffen, along with your knees; you know what you like, dammit, and this is not it. But that is all the more reason to deploy the relaxed mental yoga of toleration: someone must enjoy this rubbish, perhaps there's something in it after all?

But – and this is merely to state the bleedin' obvious – provided you have given something every chance to work whatever magic it might or might not possess, there's absolutely no reason to pretend to like it, or to force yourself to like it, just to fit in with the prevailing opinion. There are many hilarious stories of gallery-goers mistaking a pile of builder's rubble for an art installation and enthusing about it, just as there are thousands of high-profile artworks out there that I, for one, wouldn't rescue from a builder's skip (have you seen the finalists for this year's Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize?). To pretend to enjoy something is to mistake cowardice for tolerance, like pouring your complementary limoncello [1] into a handy plant pot, rather than spitting it in disgust onto the floor, which is surely the only honest reaction. It's perfectly OK not to understand or enjoy, say, opera, Rococo art, or atonal music, having given them a chance; why pretend?

At the same time – and this should be even more bleedin' obvious, but clearly isn't – what is definitely not OK is to campaign for the suppression of opera, Rococo art, or atonal music simply because you don't like them or, worse, because you don't approve of them or the people that do like them. All those pretentious fools? Those rich bastards? Cut off their public funding! Shut it all down! It seems to me perfectly acceptable not to like very camp self-presentation or to find drag queens repulsive, without feeling the need to banish Ru Paul's Drag Race or, by the same token, to suffer accusations of homophobia as a consequence; after all, there are plenty of gay men who don't like them, either, for whatever reasons (good taste, most likely). To be tolerant of things, people, and behaviours we don't actually like may sound condescending – oh, how big of you, not to hate me! – but it is the only way we have to prevent dislike – whether instinctive or considered, aesthetic or political – mutating into active and malevolent intolerance, and is far more effective than any legislative measures.

In the otherwise rather neglected play Almansor, written in 1820 by the German author Heinrich Heine and set in the Granada of 1492, the burning of the Qur'an by the Archbishop of Toledo is mentioned, prompting the much-quoted response: "That was just a prelude: wherever books are burned, eventually people will be burned, too" (Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen). In fulfilment of his own prophesy, Heine's books were among the 20,000 burned on Berlin's Opernplatz in 1933 – he was an "assimilated" Jew – and those words are now engraved on the commemorative plaque set into the square.

We know only too well how destructive ideological behaviours can escalate: first books, then people. As it happens, I'm writing this the day after Salman Rushdie was repeatedly stabbed at a literary gathering in New York state. It seems to me there is an unavoidable paradox here. Which is: intolerance should not be tolerated. But one is therefore obliged to ask the question: if social-media zealots are the present-day book-burners, can we really distinguish between good-guy book-burners and bad-guy book-burners? After all, it is only a few easy social-media steps from a "cancellation" pile-on to actual violence. There's always an excitable mob, or some lone nutter who hears and acts on the implicit command to act. Kill the pig! Slit her throat! Bash her in!  Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest? 

One view, certainly, is that some Old Testament wrathfulness directed at all the enemies of toleration is the best way to ensure its preservation; let the trollers be trolled, and the cancellers be cancelled, yea, unto the last generation. But then there is also the more reform-minded New Testament alternative, as demonstrated when a certain woman faced a terminal cancellation by stoning, to be executed by a mob convinced of its own rectitude: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her". It worked then, allegedly, and is clearly a Great Teaching and always worth a try, I think, but should be followed up, when necessary, by some righteous pre-emptive smiting, before things really get out of hand.

1. For some reason, Italian restaurants like to ruin a good meal by offering you a post-prandial glass of this disgusting brew.

Sunday, 7 August 2022

My Postillion Has Been Struck By Lightning

Now that the summer holiday season is here, and COVID restrictions have been lifted for now, a lot of people are heading overseas (not us, I'm happy to say: such people are surely mad, bad, and dangerous to sit next to). Which means a lot of foreign-language phrase books will be finding themselves packed next to the sunscreen. Whether they'll ever actually get used is another question: the typical phrase book in the hands of the typical tourist is a pretty useless combination.

Phrase books are never entirely useless, of course, provided they are up-to-date, and you have at least a rudimentary grasp of the foreign language in question. It never hurts to know the current everyday, idiomatic way of asking directions, for example, or how to ask for a table for two in a restaurant without sounding like an idiot. Whether you'll be able to understand the reply is, of course, the point at which "usefulness" may collapse back down again into looking like an idiot. Communication is not a one-way street [1]. My German and French, for example, are in theory quite good, and I ought to be able to hack a bit of Spanish and even some Russian, too, but I have found that the attempt to buy something as simple as a bus ticket is the true test of fluency and comprehension and yet, oddly, has never figured in any examination, written or oral, that I have ever sat.

The problem is the sheer depth of idiomatic understanding required. It is no good stepping up to a bus driver, and burbling, fluently but ungrammatically, "Good day to you, sir, I will want buy some ticket, which take me after the central station, and then let me to come back this same place later by this same exact day. Please, sir." No good at all. The driver wants to hear the right ritual exchange, pitched at the right level of formality and politeness, and briskly expressed using the right vocabulary. Something like, "Hi, there. Central station, please. Super Saver return? Cheers, mate!"  Except spoken in French or German, obviously. Let's pass over the fact that French or German are probably not the first language of most French or German bus drivers, nor mention the humiliating fact that they usually manage to speak serviceable English, too.

What they definitely don't want is to tell you how much your ticket will cost, only for you to gape in incomprehension or, worse, for you to hand over a 50 euro note for an 80 cent fare. Numbers! Most languages have some aspect that strikes you as mad when you first encounter it in the wild, and distressingly often it is something as simple and as essential as numbers, which can be utterly baffling when spoken out loud. How such a self-declared rational people as the French, for example, ended up representing "99" as "four twenties and nineteen" (quatre-vingt-dix-neuf) is beyond me. Even the Italians have come up with a word for "ninety". I dread dealing with money in France, and always end up behaving like a true tourist at the till, shoving large denomination notes across the counter, and hoping for nothing more than an eyeroll, or at worst a minimal, incomprehensible tongue-lashing.

In Portuguese, I discovered that the "mad" thing is not the numbers but, of all things, the names of the days of the week. There's none of your good old "Mercury's day / Woden's day", and the rest of the Norse or Roman litany. It seems that the Catholic Church in Portugal, uniquely in Europe, banished all that pagan nonsense centuries ago. In an act of stunningly eccentric overreaction, the days of the week were given instead the names of the days of Holy Week: that is, the one week in the year in Catholic Europe when nobody was expected to work. So, apart from Saturday and Sunday, all the days are named as numbered feiras, meaning "fairs" or "holidays": Monday is segunda-feira ("second holiday"), Tuesday terça-feira ("third holiday"), and so on. Confusing is hardly the word, but here's where a decent phrase book can help, provided you take the trouble to read it before encountering, as I did, a roadside notice that says that parking restrictions apply "from second to sixth holiday". Huh?

There is a famous (but probably apocryphal) expression, "My postillion has been struck by lightning", that had purportedly survived from various antique foreign-language phrase-books; it's a good example of a "meme" before memes were a thing. Or, indeed, before being a thing was a thing. As well as being inherently amusing (unless you happened to be a postillion), it was intended to illustrate the useless fossilisation of phrase-book language; after all, who, in the days after horse-drawn coaches ceased to be a thing, even knew what a postillion was? (FYI: "the person riding the leading nearside horse of a team or pair drawing a coach or carriage"). Or how likely or how often – if ever – such an expression might have been needed, even in the days when supply postillions were hanging out at every coaching inn waiting for employment? "Find me a fresh postillion! Immediately / tomorrow / by next week! This one is injured / dead / mangled beyond reasonable repair!"

Personally, I love old phrase books, and if I had the shelf-space I might even collect them: they are indeed fossils, a remarkable deposit of bygone necessities and yesterday's routine politenesses. I do have a few. Here are some random pages from the Collins' German Phrase Book, for example, published in 1951, reprinted in 1961, but still oddly redolent of 1851:

I say "redolent of 1851" advisedly. And not just because of its peremptory tone, or the apparent need to know the cost of your servants' board and lodging (always a problem in hotels, I find; the answer is to take as few servants as is tolerable). Compare it with the star item that I own: a well-used, very grubby English-Greek phrase book published in Ermoupoli in 1858 that I found in a second-hand bookshop years ago. The resemblance is striking, right down to the layout and the surreal stream-of-consciousness dialogues that seem to be taking take place in some accident-prone bilingual pessimist's head. Somewhere in there, I'm sure, a postillion will actually have been struck by lightning, but I have yet to stumble across it. There are 276 pages, after all, and I always feel the need for a bath after handling it even briefly. So I'll simply scan a few page-spreads for your instruction and amusement:

It took me a while to realise that this phrase book was not intended for the English in Greece, but for Greeks visiting England. I mean, wake up, Sherlock, does it ever get too dark to see at five in Greece? Or snow? And what the hell are we doing feeling seasick in the mouth of the Thames? But if it is intended for Greek-speakers, as it clearly must be, then why on earth does the English come first? Whatever, the extended bickering over the validity of the shillings on pages 133-4 is priceless, and I'm sure that would have gone down just as well with a London cabbie in 1858 as it would have in 1951, or indeed in 2022. There is still a good deal of base coin about, I hear.

For comparison, here are some pages from a current phrase book, the BBC German Phrase Book & Dictionary. Handy small size, colourful layout, but not a word about accommodating the servants, or how to deal with counterfeit currency. Useless!

 And the pronunciation guides... Ish mershteIsh browke?! Puh-lease... If you didn't feel like an idiot before, you will after trying those out in the local cop shop.
Ish bin oonshooldig, officer! No, really – I had no idea that he was an unlicensed postillion! Lemme see: Ish browke iynen anvalt (der english sprisht), yeah? Oh, you speak English? It seems like everybody does... 
Look, don't take this the wrong way, I'm not being funny, but I don't suppose you sell bus tickets?
The naming of parts

1. Eine Einbahnstraße / une rue à sens unique / una calle de sentido único / улица с односторонним движением.

Tuesday, 2 August 2022


Hertfordshire Regiment territorials leave Letchworth for France 1914
(My grandmother is in the white hat, my grandfather behind on her right)

Last week I was having an enjoyable exchange of views with some old friends on a WhatsApp page that was set up following the college "gaudy" I mentioned a few posts ago (A Literary Discovery). Naturally, one topic led to another, from the event itself to COVID (half of our WhatsApp group attendees caught it), from undercover dining and drinking clubs to Rory Stewart's politics (and remarkable face), to the recently-concluded "Wagatha Christie" case (one of the group is a senior lawyer closely identified with the case – I know, I sometimes keep dodgy company). But the most interesting thread resulted from a discussion of the college's WW1 Memorial Book that I had linked to in that blog post, which ultimately led to three simple but related questions: "Were any men from our college killed fighting on the 'other' side?"; "Is there an equivalent memorial volume for WW2?"; and, "Do they have WW1 and WW2 memorials in Germany?"

Now, if there's one characteristic common to most Oxbridge types, it's an instant, unfounded conviction in the veracity of one's opinions, even – especially! – when based on the flimsiest actual knowledge, evidence, or experience. I'm no exception, and I doubt this blog would exist otherwise. Although I hope that I do considerably less harm here than the typical government minister does, rather too many of whom have had their baseless self-belief reinforced on the PPE ("Politics, Philosophy, and Economics") course at Oxford. So my instant, confident opinions on those questions – based on nothing more than a moderate command of the German language, some visits to German-speaking countries, and a quick survey of Wikipedia – were that, yes, there may well have been "enemy" college casualties that went unrecorded in the Memorial Book; no, I couldn't see any evidence of a similar 1939-45 memorial book; and, yes, there would be some WW1 memorials in Germany, although probably not as many as in Britain, but no, there wouldn't be any WW2 memorials to speak of.

The so-called "Great War" was an enormous and unprecedented shock to European and British society and culture, and marked the end of a certain innocence about the nature of warfare and the acceleration, although not the beginning, of the questioning of the rigid class-structure and aims of British society itself. The industrialised slaughter of mass-conscripted men left its mark on even the smallest villages. I don't think I've ever been in a town or village in Britain that does not have a war memorial – typically in pride of place on a village green or town square – engraved with the names of the local men who died. The attrition rate among young infantry officers, obliged to be first "over the top", was especially high – Robert Graves estimated their life expectancy in the front line at two weeks, and the Balliol Memorial Book lists nearly 200 deaths from just one Oxford college, mostly junior officers. After the war's conclusion, it seems to have been felt that a great national mourning (combined with what would now be acknowledged as the mass PTSD of the surviving younger male population) could only be assuaged by convincing "the people" of the necessity, justification, and quasi-sanctity of the "sacrifices" required to achieve what passed as victory; local memorials were an important part of this attempt at transmuting raw grief into more manageable, contained acts of "remembrance". If you don't know it, Geoff Dyer's book The Missing of the Somme is worth reading as a reflection on this process of memorialisation [1].

All of which must have been so much more problematic in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the other so-called Central Powers. You could be forgiven for wanting to draw a veil over mass deaths incurred in a war you had both lost and been instrumental in starting; words like "sacrifice" must have rung especially hollow. So my presumption was that there would be 1914-18 memorials in Germany, but fewer and probably more impersonal than here. As we know, unrest about the terms of the Treaty of Versailles was widely felt, and the poisonous legacy of WW1 – not least the Dolchstoss myth – was influential in the rise of the Nazis. And as for 1939-45, it seemed very improbable indeed that anyone would want to be reminded at all of that darkest chapter in German history.

However, I may be over-confident in my own opinions, but if I have learned anything in thirty years as a professional librarian it is that any asserted "fact" rewards checking, and the best place to check institutional facts is in an institutional library. So I put in a call to the college library, and within a day got back a truly comprehensive answer. It turned out that any questions one might have about Balliol deaths in WW1 had been answered and statistically tabulated in an article in the college Record (an annual publication distributed to alumni, not unlike a school magazine); in the issue for the year 1975, as it happened, when, curiously, those of us in the WhatsApp group were actually in our first, second, or third years at the college. There were indeed ten Germans associated with the college who served in WW1, of whom just two died, including the son of the Chancellor, Friedrich von Bethmann-Hollweg.

As for WW2, it was confirmed that there is definitely no equivalent, expensively-produced, double-volume memorial book. In fact, all the library was able to produce for me were some partially-digitised notebooks, some as typed pages, others in manuscript, listing the casualties: a relative handful in the tens, not the hundreds. Numbers aside, it seems that by 1946 the enormous pressure of national sentiment had gone out of the memorialisation process: we were already in the post-war world, eager to get on with life and looking ahead to the emergence of the welfare state. If you look at most local war memorials in Britain, a similar handful of 1939-45 names will have been added to the existing monument at the bottom, like an afterthought or postscript.

Which brings us to those non-existent German war memorials. On which subject, I was completely wrong – who'd have thought it? – misled by my own uninformed instincts and, to an extent, by the biases of the English-language internet. A cursory search using the German word Kriegerdenkmal (war memorial) threw up, amongst others, this remarkable site: Onlineprojekt Gefallenendenkmäler (Online German War Memorials Project). It seems that not only are there memorials, but lots of them, and many of them also include names added from 1939-45, just like ours. As a sample, I took a look at the Rheinland-Pfalz region where my secondary school's exchange-partner town, Ingelheim-am-Rhein, is located, and was astonished at the sheer quantity of memorials recorded, photographed, and transcribed. But most astonishing of all (to me, at any rate) is the fact that, quite unlike our British monuments, the names from WW2, where present, generally outnumber those from WW1, often by a very large margin. A stark reminder that Germany lost between 4.5-5.5 million military personnel, compared to Britain's 384 thousand.

As for German men from the college who died in WW2, there were just five, and their names were added in 1947 (against protest from some old members) to the marble memorial tablet in the college chapel. One of these is of special note: Adam von Trott zu Solz, executed for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler on 20th July 1944. 

1946, somewhere in N. Herts...
"Eager to get on with life and looking ahead to the emergence of the welfare state..."
(Back row: all ex-army, top ranker my mother, 2nd right, a sergeant)

1. Alex King's Memorials of the Great War in Britain : the symbolism and politics of remembrance was well reviewed, but I haven't read it myself.