Thursday, October 28, 2010

Are my soaps really better than yours? Shakespeare gets a brief look-in as do Lady Polly Toynbee and Lord Andrew Marr

First there was The Sopranos, then Mad Men, then The Wire, at least in the sequence I came across them. In fact, Mad Men wasn’t premiered until after The Wire had concluded, if you’re a stickler for detail, but then if you’re a stickler for detail, it’s pretty unlikely that you take any interest in these ramblings and aren’t even reading this. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be some Guardian or Independent show-off piece involving loads of vague sociology and intense chat about the impact of demotic art on a post-modern, post-literate society (or something - you can probably tell I haven’t bothered reading such a piece for a while).

I made a point of watching all three and subsequently bought a DVD box set of The Sopranos. All three were - and are, because Mad Men is still about halfway through its life - excellent. By way of contrast let me mention EastEnders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale, Britain’s best-known and most popular soap operas. I will, and must, concede that each is extremely well-made to the highest standards and, in its own way, also quite excellent. But unfortunately, I am the original snooty-pants about ‘soaps’. I think they are awful, I have a silent contempt for those who watch them night in night out, and I would not put them in the same category as The Sopranos, Mad Men or The Wire.

I was sitting with my stepmother tonight, who since her stroke is, in many ways, a different character and has taken to watching TV all day. She is hooked on EastEnders, and I sit and watch it with her when I am there. (It is always ludicrously downbeat. Everything goes wrong for everyone. Why its popular I really don’t know except that because the characters have such a miserable time, fans feel that their lot isn’t so bad after all.) And here is my dilemma: if I am honest, these three are also essentially soap operas, yet I profess that I can’t abide soap operas. So what gives?

I know quite well how easy it is to get hooked on a soap opera. When I got married and first moved to Cornwall and was slowly finding my way around domesticity, I got hooked on Emmerdale, although my addiction didn’t last very long because I found it just too banal for words. In the past there has been a lot of loose talk along the lines of ‘if Shakespeare were alive today, he would be writing scripts for EastEnders. The odd thing is that, given that Shakespeare was a jobbing
writer and, by definition, turned his hand to whatever would earn him a groat or three, he might well have written scripts for the soaps. (In a similar vein, trendy clergymen who attempt to make religion more ‘relevant to today’ are apt to claim that ‘Jesus would have been a bit of a lad, you know, he would have liked a pint or two and watch a bit of footy on the telly. Oh, yes’.) But making that claim and admitting that Shakespeare would not have been above accepting work when it was offered is a long, long way off being able to equate EastEnders with Hamlet, which is its tacit intention.

Many writers have, especially in their early years when they were set on establishing themselves, turned their hand and talents to the shallower end of the market, but that has no bearing on the worth or otherwise of their other work.

So is that it? Are The Sopranos, Mad Men and The Wire admittedly soaps, but in some way more ‘acceptable’ because they are not banal? That might well be true. But then who’s to say what is and what is not banal? Who has the authority to arbitrate? Wouldn’t that line of argument be in danger pretty fast of straying into snobbery? Yes, I rather think it would.
But despite that I am quite prepared to argue that, taken in the round, my three soaps are ‘better’ than the three conventional soaps I abhor, but I would not relish being asked to justify my bias.

Mad Men, especially, is superb in its understatement, in how silence and pauses can be as eloquent as the dialogue. Everything is given time to breath, the performances, the storylines, the direction and the production. Thus it allows itself to recall and examine a specific time, the Sixties, in far greater depth and with far more subtlety than a straightforward analysis could probably achieve. But how does that make Mad Men ‘better’ than EastEnders (which I really do think is the pits)? Well, friends - and here this entry will fall horribly flat - I really don’t know. Answers, please, on the usual postcard.

PS. If you're really bored and have nothing better to do, consider farting. And if even that doesn't quite do it for you, you can read a reasonably comprehensive list of soap operas from around the world here. I say, 'reasonably' because it doesn't include Pobol Y Cwm on S4C (S4C is Wales's Welsh language channel).

. . .

Spending a few days in bed getting over an irritating sore throat, cough and cold. I’m due at work tomorrow and I can’t afford to go sick (I’m not paid if I don’t work), so I am on a crash course of ‘getting better’. The four-hour drive to London won’t exactly help, but at least it will be a single shift, and I can be back in bed by 7pm. Also I can log onto the system here and read the pages and do quite a bit before I get to work. I trust I have all your best wishes to ‘get well soon’. No? Oh, all right then. Just a thought.

. . .

Courtesy of the 'stats' feature provided by Google, I know that at some point today, someone came across this blog by googling the keyword 'polly toynbee', 'andrew marr' and 'cousin'. I also know that among today's visitors were someone from Morocco, someone from Israel and someone from Slovenia (and a welcome to all three. I hope to see you back here at some time).

What I find so curious is - not that a Moroccan, and Israeli and a Slovenian or people living in those countries - should visit, but what might prompted someone to google her Graciousness, the Lady Toynbee and Lord Andrew Marr. They don't yet have those titles, but patience, please. Given that at some point within the next 15 years Labour will form the new government it is pretty much a racing certainty Pol and Andy will come up with some intellecutal ruse to swallow their socialist principles and graciously accept Her Majesty's ermine honour. Plenty of other lefties have managed it, including John 'Man of the People' Prescott and, which is a little more nauseating as he was something of a left-wing poseur, Neil 'I could have been a contender' Kinnock.

In 15 years, both Pol and Andy will be elder statesman - which means we are obliged to listen to their waffle without interrupting - and Labour does like to look after its own. It is unusual for hacks (i.e. journalists) to be given the keys to the loos in the House of Lords, but you must remember these two are special.

What has the keyword 'cousin' to do with la Toynbee and Marr. I can't even begin to guess. I hope whoever it was stayed and admired my superb piccies of just down the road from here. Probably not, though.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A short trip to Freiburg, a mad dash back to London, a great party and my father 'der Englischer Spion'

It was off to Freiburg last Saturday for the 65th birthday party a distant cousin. The call came eight days ago, and as I was due to work the following day, I thought a flying visit would be cutting it too fine. But my cousin assured me that Freiburg’s local airport was only a 45-minute drive away (it wasn't) and I would most certainly be able to catch an 8.30am plane to get back to London in time for work. I did manage to do just that, but only by driving the 60-odd kilometres to Basel-Mulhouse airport at a hair-raising 150kph. And for once I am not exaggerating.

My mad dash came after just three and a half hours sleep and having spent the seven-and-half hours before that steadily drinking Sekt. I also took an immediate wrong turn on my way out of Freiburg and found myself well on the way to a town called Merzhausen. I'm sure it's a very nice town and well worth a visit at some time, but at that particular moment it wasn't exactly where I wanted to be. At the other end of the journey, I overshot the exit to the airport - there are two just to keep things simple: a French one and a Swiss one - and found myself negotiating the, mercifully very empty, streets of Basel, looking for the fastest way out again and back to the airport.

I arrived with about 20 minutes to spare before take-off, but the check-in desk had long closed. But by a stroke of good fortune, I had checked in online two days earlier, and so was allowed straight onto the plane. The following day’s work was, however, hell, and how I stayed awake I really don’t know.

. . .

Paul Meyer, my cousin, is a cousin in the way that we choose to be related to those we should like to be related to. The nominal relationship is based on the fact that – and I think I’ve got this right – my grandmother, nee Maria Tholen, was a first cousin of his grandmother. Or something like that. His mother was nee Beckman, my great-grandmother was nee Mammes, and so it goes on. I'm sure someone somewhere knows the full story.

Paul grew up in a small town called Papenburg in the Emsland in Germany’s far north-west where his father owned a quite substantial shipyard which, I should imagine employed everyone in town who was not engaged in agriculture and who did not supply any of the services a small town might need – teaching, law, medicine, shopkeeping, that kind of thing. Paul was the oldest son, but as he was more academically inclined, the next youngest son, Bernd, took over the shipyard and still runs it very successfully. Given that, as far as I know, not one Belfast or Glasgow shipyard is still operating, the Meyer Werft is something of a roaring success. The shipyard was founded at the end of the 18th century and naturally was not building ships the size it is today.

The thing is that it is around 20 miles inland from the sea, sitting on a canal which links it with the river Ems. Every so often the canal has to be widen, then widened again to allow the finished vessels to get to the sea. The picture (below) should give you some idea how odd it can look when a

rather large ship apparently sails across the countryside. The third son, Wilm-Rolf, became a banker. He was - is - a little younger than me and was the one I remember knocking around with before we were teenagers.
When we lived in Berlin, my family often used to visit that neck of the woods, with my brother Ian and I sometimes staying with relatives in Papenburg, or joining my parents and younger brother and sister for holidays in a small riverside weir house near a hamlet called Hilter, which is about two miles south of a village called Lathen, which is about ten miles south of Papenburg. Lathen was also full of distant relatives, and Ian and I, about 10 and 12 at the time, would spend our days there just mucking about.

The party was especially enjoyable because I met up with people I had not seen in, sometimes, more than 40 years. I also got to know the children of cousins, and, in some cases their grandchildren. It also reminded me that in many ways I am more German than English, especially in the way the Germans like to socialise. But I should add the my nephew Johannes, who recently spent six weeks working for the pharma firm Bayer in Newbury and who I saw a few times while he was in Britain, what he likes about Britain is the greater informality. I suppose it's swings and roundabouts. Oh, but I'll choose German food over the swill English call food any day.

. . .

The one surprising thing was that it was apparently almost common knowledge among the extended gang to which my mother was related, and I through her, that my father worked for MI6. The odd thing is that they seem to think that he was primarily an secret serviceman and that his work with the BBC was his cover, whereas I always thought - and still think - that he was primarily a journalist who did occasional work for MI6. But either way none of it really adds up.

My father was always a gifted linguist and after joining up during the war, was commissioned in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. He took part in the D Day invasion of Normandy. But quite soon, though I don’t know quite how soon, he was working for the Intelligence Corps, and it is that connection which will have led to his links with the secret service, although, as I say, I have no idea how formal or otherwise they were. After he was demobbed, he stayed on in Germany and was engaged in vetting Germans who wanted to start newspapers and magazine. In that way he got to know a chap called Rudolf Augstein, who founded Der Spiegel, and another chap called Henri Nannen who founded Stern. (Both magazines are going strong, and Der Spiegel even publishes an English edition online which, as far as I know not even the Economist does.) In fact, I think his acquaitance with Nannen must have been quite close because as a baptismal present, I was given a free subscription to Stern up until my 21st birthday (although my mother benefited from it, not me).

When my father, now married with one young son and another child on the way, returned to England in 1949, he joined the BBC and worked at its monitoring service in Caversham (which coincidentally had turfed my school, the Oratory School out of its premises to that it could move in. That’s when the OS moved to Checkendon).

I really can’t say exactly what work the ‘BBC monitoring service’ did, but I think it is generally acknowledged that its work benefited the government rather than the BBC. My father worked there (eventually working nightshifts because, as he once told me, he thought it might be a way to ‘get on’, which was hell for my brother and I because we always had to be as quiet as mice when we got in from school as he was still sleeping, although we almost always work him up and then there was hell to play).
Finally, in 1959, he joined the BBC German Service and was appointed the Berlin representative. My years later I began to wonder why the BBC had a ‘German Service’ when it did not have a French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish or Greek Service, and it was then, a few years before my father’s death in 1991 than I began to ask him questions about his work.

I do remember one or two rather odd incidents. For example, after the Berlin Wall was built, there were still quite a few men and some women who managed to escape from East German to the West. One of them managed it by hijacking an East German river Havel pleasure steamer and having it sailed into Western waters in West Berlin. At the time there was only my father and myself I Berlin as the rest of the family was back in England, and this chap came around for supper. It didn’t strike me as odd, but later I wondered why
he, of all those who got through to the West, was of interest to my father. I now think it likely that he was a British agent (who, if I recall, looked very much like the chap pictured here).

In the years before my father died, I managed to get a bit out of him, but, as I say, I got the impression that he was primarily a BBC man who did things for MI6 rather than the other way around. We left Berlin in 1963 and in 1965 he was appointed Paris representative. Quite how that would fit in with him being an MI6 man I really don’t know. Oddly, I should think. He returned from Paris in 1972 and didn’t retire for another 11 years, during which time he did various things with the BBC, none of which, I gather were of much importance. There is a suggestion that at the time the BBC looked after its own and more or less invented posts and work for loyal senior staff who were otherwise supernumary. So when he did retire, he had spent the previous years working in (as I think it was called) the Department of Foreign Affairs. Just why the BBC should need such a department I really don’t know and can’t say.

The most likely explanation is that he was neither wholly a BBC man nor an MI6 man, but a little bit off both. And I suppose from the point of view of the security services it would be worthwhile having a sympathetic contact in the BBC who could indicate which way the wind was blowing, although, the problem with that theory is the MI6 does not concern itself with domestic matters. He did once tell me that the head of the KGB in London would send him a cheery Christmas card every year, which irritated the hell out of him.
Anyway, the gang up in Papenburg and Lathen seemed to know - or thought they knew - that my father was ‘ein Spion’, though quite how, I don’t know. He loved going up there and socialising with them all. They were great drinkers and extremely hospitable.

. . .

That neck of the woods is quite singular. The landscape and buildings are very Dutch, many of the farmers still speak Platt Deutsch, which is a kind of halfway house between German and Dutch, and one chap at the party, a doctor called Heinz-Bernd Dohmes, who is Paul's direct cousin, told me that the people from the Saterland, where my grandfather was from, had their own distinct language. But Papenburg is a small town, and all the 'young ones' I spoke to (as I am 61 in less than four weeks, 'young' is pretty flexible) said they were glad to get away and now live all over the place - in Berlin, in the Rhineland, in Hamburg, everywhere. My sister married a guy from that town and knows many of them better than I do (although I met several of those she knows, the sons and daughters of distant cousins I knew years ago, for the first time at the weekend). Because I went there as a child and always on holiday, perhaps I see the town through rather rose-tinted spectacles. A small town is always a small town.

The town is built along two extremely long canals, the Hauptkanal, then another with goes off at an angle. In the Seventies, I believe they filled in the canal but a decade later reinstated it (it it is possible to 'reinstate' a canal, which, after all, is just a long hole filled with water). The picture is admittedly touristy and was obviously taken on a nice day, but it does give a good idea of what parts of the town look like. The name 'Papenburg' is said to derive from something like 'borough of the Papists'. 'Burg' usually means 'castle', but also shares its roots with our English word 'borough'.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Three separate pieces, the latter two featuring Andrew Marr, and the last also including a drunk acquaintance from Solihull

Since signing up to something called Blogpatrol, which supplies a free counter, and becoming aware of the ‘stats’ facility offered here, I’ve kept, for no very good reason, really, a keen eye on what visitors are actually looking at. Someone or other, probably the author himself or another chap who insists he has more or less been plagiarised by that author, keeps on eye on the entry about Jesus The Terrorist. And thinking I had spotted a literal, I went over the list of previous entries to track it down. What struck me was that, in the past (i.e. last year) I was far more prolific. At first I felt rather guilty (although I’m not sure exactly why I should), but then I realised that were I to blether on at greater length and more frequently, the result would probably be entries which were far more contrived, far more artificial and generally pointless.
Incidentally, the first book is interesting, although the publisher did his author no favour in his editing. The second might well be interesting and might well cover new ground, but unfortunately is utterly, utterly unreadable.

. . .

I hear Andrew Marr, by now firmly part of the Establishment despite his undoubtedly impeccable left-of-centre credentials, has labelled bloggers ‘inadequate, pimpled and single’. You can read the Guardian’s account of the great man’s outburst here, or if you prefer the Telegraph’s account try here. It took place – where else – at the Cheltenham Literary Festival which, it’s fair to say, has joined Glyndebourne and other occasions on the social calendar of
those members of the Establishment who are cultured or like to think they are cultured. Marr (pictured - spot the ears) is part of a small group – all part of the Establishment – who I find rather irritating. Others in that group are Stephen ‘He’s So Intelligent’ Fry, Jeremy Vine, who has gone horribly native since he started his Radio 2 show, Polly Toynbee and Tony Blair. I must concede that every man and woman of ambition who regards him or herself as ‘left-wing’ or at least ‘left-of-centre will always face a difficult problem. None of the above who will insist they are 'of the left' is, I’m sure, short of a penny or two, and will most certainly have bought a weekend retreat somewhere or other in. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except when they insist that the Left is on the side of the ‘working man’. Just how they square their ownership of more than one property while claiming, tacitly or openly, to be in favour of the eventual establishment of socialism is beyond me. But then Blair, Diane Abbot, Sally Keeble (who I once briefly went out with) and various others on the Left sent a child or two to a private school while managing to oppose others doing so with more or less a straight face. Marr's comments on 'bloggers' are very odd, particularly as all and sundry of the BBC's correspondents write a blog (more or less hourly in the case of one of its political correspondents, Nick Robinson), and Marr's spiritual home, The Guardian, also carries any number of blogs by any number of thinkers. So who is he referring to? Marr is, of course, the man who takes out injunctions against any newspapers who threaten to report on his public life, even taking advantage of so-called 'super-injunctions' - an injunction which prevents the media even reporting that an injunction has been taken out. You can read further details here in an account by the former Private Eye editor and one of the magazine's co-founders, Richard Ingrams. Marr's stance on the freedom of the Press would seem to be rather confused. I understand that the injunction was taken out to prevent the Press reporting that he, too, belongs to that gaggle of Labour and Left-wing worthies who have decided to have their children educated privately although the denounce the practice vehemently in others.

. . .

I once had a brief run-in with Marr. It was when I was, for around 14 months, a fully-paid up member of the Conservative Party. In October 1970-something of other, it was holding its annual party conference in Blackpool, and I decided to go, although attending a party conference and visiting Blackpool (above) – which every Brit should do at least once, although having done so once, the experience should ensure they will decide never to do so again – was more important than attending the conference because it was Tory. To be honest, I regarded the conference as something of a short break. (American readers should think of Blackpool as a kind of downmarket Coney Island.)
There were, as there are at all these party, many sideshows, all of which attempt to garner an audience by supplying food of some kind and red wine. So in the interest of being fed and having a drink of five at someone else’s expense, I attended seminars and meetings on all manner of arcane political matters, ranging from The Future Of The Countryside, Education In The Modern Age and Why Local Government Is A Mess to a very lively meeting organised by Tory party members who were undoubtedly Ulster unionist fellow travellers. I can proudly assure my reader that on four days I did not spend a penny on either food or drink and never once went hungry.
On the Wednesday night, the night before the Leader’s
Speech (the leader at the time, by the way, was Iain Duncan Smith (pictured), so if you really want to know what year it was – there’s your clue), everyone gathered at, I think it is called, the Excelsior, where the VIPs were staying. After attending yet another meeting about something or other – and again enjoying another generous spread of various canipes and unlimited red wine – I adjourned to the hotel foyer, more or less just to enjoy the ambience. (Some spell it ‘ambiance’, so take your pick.) There I fell into conversation with a chap from Solihull, a small businessman – small in both sense of the word – who was already well-gone on his favourite tipple when I came across him. While we were chatting about this and that, I
spotted Andrew Marr deep in conversation with The World At One’s Martha Kearney (pictured), although at the time she was still working for Newsnight, and another Newsnight producer/reporter called David Grossman. Would my new friend like to meet Andrew Marr, I asked him. He most certainly would, he told me, so both of us picked up our glasses and stood with the group, my friend swaying rather a great deal. Although I wasn’t half as drunk as he was, I was certainly not sober. Marr (who is, incidentally, rather shorter than I thought he might be, shorter than I am certainly) held forth about something or other, and I do remember he did all the talking. At first he ignored us, but after a while, obviously irritated by these two silent stooges at his shoulder he turned to us and announced: ‘Do you mind, we’re trying to have a private conversation.’ I told him that my friend would very much like to meet him, but that cut no ice and after being ignored by him for a few more minutes a retreated, pulling my new friend with me. Not much of an encounter, you’ll admit, but I was glad to see that Martha Kearney and her colleague were rather amused. I cannot say for certain, but I sensed they had more of a sense of humour than Mr Marr. Oh, and his ears are just as big in real life as they are on screen.

. . .

I feel you need an explanation as to why I became a card-carrying Tory for just over a year, much to the astonishment, it is only fair to add, of various friends and collagues. I shall supply one at some point. By way of a trailer: I even managed to get myself onto the Conservative Party list of approved Parliamentary candidates. But, in fairness, I should add that I never felt I was 'a Tory'. Not then, not now, and, I should think, not ever. Ever-so-slightly right-of-centre, but not 'a Tory'.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

To kill off forever that old canard that 'the Germans don't have a sense of humour', I bring you Der Untertan and the satirical novelist Heinrich Mann

My mother was German and my father was English. When I was very young, my mother spoke to my brother and myself in German, so although I didn’t learn to speak German until I was a little older, I learnt to unserstand it as, growing from being a toddler to being a young child, I learnt to understand English. French, Spanish, Italian, Russian etc were and are foreign languages as far as I am concerned, but English and German are my languages. It feels as natural to hear German spoken as it does English.

In 1959, my father was appointed the BBC representative in Berlin, or West Berlin as it was then, and we moved to the city in June. (My father’s appointment to a post in Berlin at the height of the Cold War might not have just been for journalistic reasons, but that would be for another entry in this blog.) For a month or two, we lived in a very spacious flat in the Olympische Straβe in Neu Westend in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district, just down the road from Berlin's Olympic stadium (hence the name- neat or what?). When we arrived at the beginning of June, the weather was hotter than I had ever experienced before – 40c in the shade – and although Berlin regularly had consistently warmer summers and colder winters than I had known in the ‘Home Counties’ in Henley-on-Thames where I grew up, the summer of 1959 was particularly hot even by Berlin standards.

We spent almost every afternoon at an open-air swimming pool, and I remember eating, I think for the first time ever, peaches and apricots, and eating a great deal of them. It was an irony that Germany, the ‘loser’ in World War II, abandoned ‘rationing’ far earlier than Britain, which had ‘won’ World War II. And although rationing had been abandoned in Britain six years earlier, there still seemed to linger a 'ration' mentality.

I can remember visiting in those early days and weeks of the four years I spent in Berlin, an open-air market on, or near, the Preuβenallee, and being astounded by the plenty. Henley in those days, although already a town for monied people, was still a dusty and, in my recollectons, rather scruffy Oxfordshire town when I grew up there in the Fifties. Where you will now find any number of bistros and estate agents and wine bars and boutiques on Hart Street, the main drag leading up from the bridge to the Town Hall (all Town Halls deserve capital letters), when I was growing up there, we had Frank Gilbride the butcher, a Boots which still had a lending library upstairs and any number of pubs. In the 400 yard stretch from the bridge up there were, I think, at least seven pubs.

In Germany, the autumn school term started at the end of August, and my older brother, Ian, was enrolled in Das Canisius Kolleg, a Jesuit secondary school (which, I gather, was then as now a school of some repute) in Berlin-Tiergarten. I was not yet ten years old, so I was enrolled in a local primary school, Die Steubenschule, which was about a 20-minute walk away down near the Heerstraβe. That was when Ian and I learnt to speak German. Several years later, it was said that Ian spoke more correct German than I did, but that I spoke more natural German. Ian was always the better linguist.

I must be honest that although I was bilingual at the time, I now longer get much of an opportunity to speak German, and it now takes me several days to get back into the swing of speaking it as a native, But then, once that transition has been accomplished, I often find that my English goes, temporarily, which is very odd and I even start thinking in German.

In my time at the Steubenschule, I partly learnt German by reading Kasperle books. Kasperle was a folk figure quite closely related to our Mr Punch. And although these days I don’t often get the chance to speak German (although my knowledge of the language was useful when I translated items for Tully Potter when he was writing his biography of Adolf Busch), I have kept up a habit of reading a German novel every so often. Over the years these have included Der Steppenwolf (which made more sense to me as a fortysomething than it does, I'm sure to any number of teen rebels and solipsists), and two novels by Heinrich Mann: Professor Unrat and Der Untertan.

For some reason, I have never read any of Thomas Mann’s novels, neither in German or English. Heinrich and his brother Thomas were both novelists of repute, and although both are equally well-known and respected in Germany, Thomas is far better known in the English-speaking world.

Heinrich Mann (pictured), the older of the two, had a decidedly satirical bent and wisely left Germany, never to return when the Nazis came to power in 1933. One distinguishing feature of totalitarian states of every stripe (well, strictly speaking there can only be one stripe) is that having a good laugh at their own expense doesn't come easily. Another particular distinguishing feature of the Nazis was their outstanding intellectual mediocrity and it close friend sentimentality. (Oscar Wilde once observed that 'sentimentality is a Bank Holiday from cynicism' and when you look at the Nazis, you know exactly what he meant.)

Professor Unrat was the basis of Josef von Sternberg’s famous film Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), although oddly – and I don’t know why, though my memory might be at fault as I haven’t seen the film for years – von Sternberg only utilised part of the novel for his film and in the process transformed the personality of the central character. If I remember, the film ends with the total humiliation of Unrat, played be Emil Jannings (pictured below with Marlene Dietrich), whereas in the novel, he

gets his own back to a certain extent by opening a brothel cum casino on the outskirts of town which counts as it best customers all the local great and good who otherwise condemn him and what he has made of his life. is In that sense, what von Sternberg produced was not a film of the novel, but a film based on the novel.

I read Der Untertan when I was living in London in the early Nineties (lodging with the Orams in the Fulham Road). I can’t for the life of me remember why I chose to read it, but I do remember tootling off to Warwick Street to The German Bookshop, which was called something else at the time, I think, to get it. Remember, we didn't have Amazon in pre-Steve Jobs/Bill Gates dark ages.
Der Untertan is viciously satirical, but - and this is the point - it is also hilariously funny. It satirises Germany and German life under Wilhelm II when obedience to authority was for many the be all and end all of life. (Another great satire is Der Hauptmann von Köpenick, Carl Zuckmayer's play which was based on real events and is substantially true. Again, more another time.)

The protagonist of Der Untertan, Diederich Hessling – it would be completely wrong to call him a hero and who I always imagine as pasty-faced and a little overweight - is utterly in thrall to authority, power and society's convention, and worships the Kaiser. He is also a thorough and nauseating hypocrite. A good example of his hypocrisy is the following: while he is a student in Berlin, he gets to know the daughter of a friend of his father’s, becomes infatuated with her and seduces her. After clearly intimating that he will marry her, he drops her and she is brokenhearted.

Eventually, just before he is due to leave Berlin and return home to take over the family firm, the girl’s father calls on him to confront him and asks why he no longer calls and particularly why he no longer calls on his daughter. The girl's father intimates that he more or less knows that Hessling was, as they say in my neck of the woods, giving her one. A measure of Hessling's character is his reply: “Mein moralisches Empfinden verbietet mir, ein Mädchen zu heiraten, das mir seine Reinheit nicht mit in die Ehe bringt.” (“My moral sense forbids me marrying a girl who cannot bring purity to marriage.”)

The German is, in fact, even more damning because it conveys far more than the English translation. (It is ironic that English is always lauded as a versatile language and German relegated to some kind of minor league in such matters, when, in fact, English can be horribly vague and ambiguous – useful, of course, if like a diplomat you want to be vague and ambiguous – whereas because you can express yourself so precisely in German, that you have the means to convey subtlety extemely well.)

Thus my translation, just one of many possible translations. of course, doesn’t at all convey the sheer self-serving hypocrisy of the man, and I think it is legitimate to claim that any other translation - because there would be severtal different way of traslating that short passage - would do no better.

For example, in English we wouldn’t really say ‘my moral sense forbids me’, but, more probably, ‘my moral sense doesn’t allow me’ or 'my moral code doesn't allow me'. And moralisches Empfinden - particularly that word Empfinden - additionally conveys the man’s pomposity. Empfindlich in German means 'sensitive', so Empfinden can mean 'sensitivity'. But any Englishman who, in all seriousness, referred to his own 'moral sensitivity' would be thrown out of the room as a pompous prat and might never again be taken seriously.

Yet, although Hessling's use of the phrase does mark him as being pompous, it does not mark him as being excessively pompous, and many another German man or woman could use the phrase quite easily without inviting ridicule.

The German version - das mir seine Reinheit nicht mit in die Ehe bringt - also stresses that the girl can’t bring him her purity (i.e. virginity), indicating that he would be at the centre of any marriage he made and that his bride is something subsidiary. None of this is adequately conveyed in English, at least not in my translation, though I suggest again that any English translation which did stress that element would sound quite stilted.

Incidentally, the very title of the novel - Der Untertan - sums up just how much is lost in translation. There is no English word of phrase which can adequately convey what Heinrich Mann intended to convey by calling his novel Der Untertan. Several titles of English translations I have come across - Man Of Straw, The Patrioteer and The Loyal Subject - don't even come close to the putdown undoubtedly intended by Mann, although having to come up with a title for a novel in translation must be a perennial problem for publishers.

In German, Der Untertan is laugh-out-loud funny, and when I was reading it, I was forever wondering just how a particularly funny passage I had just read had been translated into English and whether the humour had survived. So quite often, I left the flat and walked a quarter of a mile up the Fulham Road to a Pan bookshop, where I would again haul out the English translation of the novel I had tracked down and look up the particular passage. (The translation I found was called Man Of Straw, and there are several other translations with different titles.)

Each time I found that, in English, what was bitingly funny in German was as distressingly flat as a pancake. In fact, the whole novel is not at all very funny in the English translation and is probably regarded by many as just another worthy German tome.

Additionally, there are other passages in the novel which demand an understanding of German culture and her people’s lifestyle before they can be comprehended. For example, at point Mann writes ‘und am Abend spielte er Schubert’, which is, in context, very funny indeed (trust me), but in English – ‘and that night he played Schubert’ – is close to being meaningless.

After all that, I am at a loss as to how to conclude this entry. I suppose the only honest thing to do is to sound a thoroughly bathetic note and observe (archly) that the propensity for comprehensive misunderstanding between these two great, related but separate European languages - languages related by blood and love, but separated by the contingencies of two diverse cultures - is curiously threatening, and thus the gulf between our great nations is larger than we think. Or something like that. Say it in a German accent. It’s the kind of vacuous observation Hessling might well have made and then patted himself on the back for having such cute and intelligent insight. But, believe me, the Germans are simply not the humourless Teutons of popular English mythology.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Some autumn pictures from a small part of North Cornwall, all taken between 2.30 and 3.30pm today, Saturday, October 9, 2010

I was chatting to a friend via my Facebook page (and exactly why I got one, I don't know. My sister, something of low-level geek, insisted I start one, but to be honest, my mentality and the Facebook mentality are poles apart). I mentioned that I had to walk down the road to see my stepmother as I do every day when I am home. She — my friend, not my stepmother — lives in the U.S., but loves Cornwall, and she asked me to take some pictures of the autumn leaves.So I have. And here they are, in no particular order. None is as it was taken because I use a cheap digital camera, a Fujifilm Finepix E900. It does me just fine, although the lens will be nothing to write home about, and much can be done these days with digital manipulation. (It is also a reminder of how skilled photographers were before the 'digital revolution'. I put it in quote marks because I am now several months over 60 and that is the kind of thing we are supposed to do.) However, given that most pictures now appear online (with a 72 dpi resolution), a good lens is pretty redundant. And if they appear in print, they are so manipulated as to make the original file, however good or bad it is irrelevant.
I have played around with each pic, just for the hell off it. I have adjusted 'temperature', 'exposure', colour saturation, contrast, brightness, and whatever else I could. They don't look too bad on my laptop screen, but uploaded they are nothing special. But what the hell (a comment which ensures, if nothing else does, that I shall never be 'an artist'.)
Underneath each picture is a brief explanation. (That was written several hours ago. Naturally, each explanation is anything but brief.)

This is a view from the gate leading into one of my brother-in-law's fields, taken leaning on the gate. I took it just yards from my front door on my way to my stepmother's. The field is empty because (I think) it is in its fallow year. My brother-in-law is a beef farmer, although he has now cut back on the number of cattle he keeps because he and his wife also run farm holidays for families with young children. Below is another picture taken from the same spot of a cat which lives next door. I don't know the cat's name. This, and the pic of an abandoned van at the end, are the two pictures I like best.

Next are two rather similar pictures of the arbour opposite The Hollow, where my stepmother lives at the moment. I have included both because they were manipulated in slightly different ways and are thus rather different pictures. The first:

and the second:

There is no accounting for technology, and these two pics (and, to a certain extent, the first two) are rather flatter than I should like, but after several days of some glorious afternoon sunshine, today was dull. One reason why I began manipulating the pictures was to try to get a little life into them. I didn't always succeed. The above two, for example, don't, to my eye, look half as good in this blog as they do on my laptop, on which they are also bigger.

My stepmother's passion in life — and although the word 'passion' is usually horribly overused these days, I shall use it despite that because in her case it is true — was gardening. Then she suffered a stroke and for the past three-and-half-years has been confined to her armchair. Until then, she was a very active, very independent woman. She owned two dogs and these she took for two walks very day whatever the weather. Then she suffered her stroke. And she has not complained once. Not once. She misses her garden and gardening but is determined to make the most of her situation. At some expense — and despite what you might think reading this and looking at the pictures, she is not especially wealthy — she employs a gardener twice a month to keep the gardens in shape, but the truth is he can not do a lot. When, in a practical moment, I suggested a few weeks ago that the bottom garden, the garden belonging to The Hollow, might be abandoned and given over to folk who might like to have an allotment, I was given short shrift. My stepmother is a very generous woman, especially in spirit, but the gardens were her life and, and she said, she could not bear the idea that they might become allotments. In this particular case the word 'passion' is not just anther trendy term. For more than 30 years she did give her life to transforming it. She even got into the Yellow Book, which will mean nothing to non-gardeners (such as me), but gardeners will understand.

Both she and my father worked for the BBC, and that is where they met, and she retired early at the age of 46 when my father retired at 60. Her parents were both Irish, but she was born and brought up in Bodmin where her father ran the mental hospital. With a small legacy, she bought Rose Cottage in the early Seventies, which she and my father then extended. The cottage was small and had almost no land. But just outside the living room was a rough old piece of land which she bought — for far too much — from the diary farmer who lived and worked opposite. This she then laboriously, but very successfully, cultivated into a very handsome garden. This the following pictures are of aspects of that garden.


Then there is this image, in monochrome (the posh word for B&W) of more or less the same view as the first urn. Incidentally, one of the 'manipulations I used was a fearure available on Mac's iPhoto either to sharpen or unsharpen and image. Several of these pics have been unsharpened to try to make them look like some of the images you get in coffee table magazine no one ever reads - Yorkshire Life, Estate & Title, Cornwall & And The Cornish etc, bought, displayed but never, ever read.

Here's a picture of the urn in the first image taken from the other side, with Rose Cottage in the background.

On the other side of the cottage is the washhouse, the coal 'cellar' and outside loo (and shower, though no one ever used it) and, up a flight of steps, the garage which is next to the vegetable garden. Here are the steps with, in the background, some rather lovely autumnal leaves showering over the garage.

My stepmother was lucky enough to come into ownership of the two cottages next to her's. One, Middle Cottage, she bought jointly with my brother, and the other, The Hollow, where she lives at the moment, was bought by her sister which she left to my stepmother when she died. For many years these two cottages were let out as holiday cottages (and, it has to be said, at ridiculously low prices as my stepmother is one of the few people I know who sincerely and honestly doesn't give a stuff about money — she let out the cottages for holidaymakers for, as she would put it, the fun. More importantly with the two cottages came more garden which she was able to transform utterly. I can't remember what the garden for Middle Cottage looked like, but this is what she made of it.

This next picture is included only because I like it. It is of a scene just outside the back door of The Hollow. On the left is the 'wood shed'. In the winter that is filled with logs.

All three cottages — Rose Cottage, Middle Cottage and The Hollow — are one building and, I should think, about around 200 years old. The Hollow underwent 'conversion' in the Fifties and the inside was hideous. When my stepmother's sister bought it, it was restored to something a little more in character. Its garden, the largest of all three cottage gardens was a wilderness. And in the full knowledge that the word 'literally' is also horribly overused and abused, I shall use it to say it was literally a wasteland: full of six foot high bracken, nettles and whatever else finds its way into a wilderness in North Cornwall if it remains unattended. You have to know that because what my stepmother did with it over the years is quite astounding. This picture (below) is a rather poor picture and doesn't really do the garden justice. But it is the only one I took and it might give you some idea of her achievement.

The cottages are about 200 years old, perhaps older, perhaps not quite as old, but Guy's House dates from the late 16th-century. When I first saw it, it was a tumbledown granite wreck, but my father and my stepmother renovated it so that downstairs is a small shower and lavatory, and a 'wine cellar', and upstairs is a study/library/guest bedroom. For most of his life, my father was 'writing his book', and I'm pleased to say he finished it (almost. It was - is - a history if the Germans and the IRA and how, along the lines of my enemy's enemy is my friend, the Germans, both in the Great War and in World War II, tried to woo the IRA as allies. It never really came off). However, within just a year or two of Guy's House being renovated, my father died of cancer, so it was never really used. It could be, but when and by whom, who knows.
At the far end of Guy's House is shady area where you can watch the sun set while eating or just enjoying a drink. Many is the time I have had one too many gin and tonics sitting there.

Given the build-up I have submitted, this picture dooesn't do the spot justice. For one thing, you can't see the shaded area, but at least it gives you an idea of the view to be enjoyed while you'revgetting slaughtered on gin.
Here are the final two pictures. The first is also of Rose Cottage from the lane leading down to The Hollow from the road. I call it 'The Blue Gate', but you might like to call it 'The Green Gate'. I shan't object.

Then, on the way home, I spotted this fine example of a scene of rustic life in post-modern, not to say post-ironic, Britain. Actually, I spotted it on my way to my stempmother's but took the picture on the way back. On the way there, I didn't think it would be much of a picture. On the way home, I thought otherwise. Pictured is an abandoned truck in Jeff Hollister's field. Jeff Hollister is the son of Jim Hollister, the dairy farmer from whom my stepmother bought the unused, unwanted and derelict piece of scrubland slanting down from the road from which she created her first garden.

I say the van is 'abandoned', but truthfully I don't know for sure whether it is or not. It has been there for quite a few years now, but might at some point be resurrected. It is, after atll, a T reg vehicle which would make it no more than 12 years old and thus still of some use to a local farmer. Perhaps Jeff will sell it. Perhaps he won't. Who knows? Who cares? Does Jeff? I really cannot tell you.

I add this image because I should like to provide a counterbalance to the other images of choccy-box Britain to show that it is not all sweetness and light down here in the shires. You think you city folk are the only kind who suffer from abandoned vehicles? But being the thoughtful sort, I have, of course, tried to make sure that my sobering image is still presented tastefully. It is intended to salve one's conscience without unduly upsetting one's sensibilities. It is, if you like, a Liberal Democratic kind of picture, the pictorial equivalent of reminding the family just before we enjoy our rich Christmas lunch that we should be mindful of our great good fortune and that we should not - we must not! - forget the millions living in less salubrious corners of the world who go hungry every night and probably don't even have democracy. Right then, now that's out of the way, tuck in!

Dedicated to Kate who misses Cornwall.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A plea to all visitors

... and I won't call you 'readers' because I have no idea whether you stay or skim a few lines, tell yourself it's awful and fuck off sharpish. If I am honest, I have, for one reason or another, read several blogs, both on this Google site and elsewhere, and - oh, dear, should I really admit it? - none has done anything for me. Those by younger bloggers - those I have so far read - are just inconsequential bollocks, so personal as to be unintelligible, and the other were about areas in which I have no interest.
Who do we write for? Well, I can't speak for anyone else, but I write to be read. I don't write for myself. Years ago when I kept a diary, from around 1981 to 1995, handwritten in hardback A4 ledgers, I consciously wrote for 'a reader'. I can't imagine anyone will ever read those, and they will most probably be thrown out with the rest of my stuff, when either of my children or perhaps a grandchild clears out 'all that rubbish'.
But that isn't the point I was making: the point is that the diaries - and this blog - were not and is not written for me.
A recent visitor

Why would it be? They are written for you. I am, after all, a hack (and I use the term in its proudest sense - yes, there is one) although all I have got out of writing so far is a few pleasant buckshee holidays. (I am not a writer or a reporter on the paper I work for but a sub-editor, copy editor in North America.)
So my request: using the new-found 'stats' feature, I now know where visitors - suprisingly more than I ever thought - are from. And I know they have used other blog directing sites and international versions of the ubiquitous Google. But>
Another recent visitor

I don't know why they arrived here, and I should like to, and I don't know what they think of what I write, and I should like to. So, if you are not exactly violently opposed to the idea, would you, my reader, consider leaving just a small comment explaining where you live, who you are and just how and why you arrived here?
You could, of course, always tell me to fuck off and mind my own business (one of the undoubted benefits of living in the Free World - try saying that in Russia), but I'd rather you didn't.
PS The pictures, as we say in the trade, are of two bona fide visitors - don't think I'm trying to butter you up. Perish the thought.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Statistics of dubious usefulness, The Sun, Kelvin McKenzie and a question: just how thick are Sun readers?

Ever since I have been writing this blog, I’ve wondered whether anyone actually bloody reads it. Well, it seems some might be doing so. I say ‘might’ because it’s quite possible that someone who follows a link, say ‘newspapers’, and then comes across this blog might take one look at the rather sparse and sober layout and some of the blog entry titles and say to themselves ‘most definitely not for me, squire’ and fuck off sharpish. But at least we can now know how many visit this site, even though it is impossible to tell how long they lingered. This info is courtesy of a ‘stats’ feature which I never knew was available until about ten minutes ago. It works in much the same way as the ‘stats’ feature on YouTube (another fiefdom in the burgeoning Google empire) so I suppose it uses much the same code.
The stats you are given are, as is the way with most stats, reasonably obscure and in some ways downright pointless. For example , you can be told how many visits you have had in certain timeframes – last week, last month etc – and where those visitors came from. So I know that I have had visitors from Brazil, Russia, Romania and Israel as well as the U.S. and Britain.
As for the rather less useful info we get (or, to put it another way, the rather more useless info) the stats also record what browser the visitor was using, whether he was using a machine with a Windows, Mac or Linux OS or an iPod, iPad or whatever. Fascinating, if that sort of thing fascinates you.
This all started with me wondering whether I get any visitors at all or whether I am simply blethering in the dark (so to speak). After finding out about ‘Blogspot stats’, I now realise I really don’t care.
Which reminds me, in a very obscure way, of an anecdote about Kelvin McKenzie (pictured), a former editor of the Sun who is quite well-known in these islands. One day, Kelvin was walking past the newsdesk when the phone rang and he picked it up to answer it. On the other end was some reader who began complaining about something or other. Kelvin very quickly got fed up with having his ear bent and curtly informed the reader:
‘Right, you’re banned from reading the Sun,’ and put the phone down.
He carried on talking to the news editor for a few minutes when the same phone rang again. He picked it up. It was the wife of the reader he had just spoken to. She told him her husband had just informed her that he had been ‘banned from reading the Sun’. Did that mean, she asked Kelvin (certainly plaintively and perhaps even tearfully) that she was banned too?
Sad, but true.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Bullshit, blogs and backgammon: a truly heartwarming account of one man's love and how his soul is redeemed by honesty.

When anyone sets up a blog on this site, they are asked to list their ‘interests’. Well, I don’t know how honest others are when they jot down their lists, but I most certainly had half an eye on listing ‘interests’ which might possibly do something to attract the attention of others and persuade them to visit this blog. So although I can honestly say that I do have an interest in each subject and topic listed in my profile, it would be dishonest to claim that it is an active interest. The list is: people, sex, gossip, politics, music, writing, painting, backgammon, philosophy, art, money, greed, altruism, the past, the present, the future, love, hate, hacks, fleet street, newspaper, hypocrisy and — which on reflection is surely the giveaway — anything else you can think of. Take the first on the list, ‘people’: the first thing you can say about anyone who sincerely believes they are interested in ‘people’ is that if they are being sincere, they are most certainly under 22. And if they are not under 22 — though being sincere — they suffer from a severe case of retarded adolescence. ‘Being
interested in people’ is one of those things we think we should be interested in when, in our salad days, we are rather prone to a kind of socialistic idealism, not to say a jejune tendency to kid ourselves. (NB I have just looked up the dictionary meaning of ‘jejune’ to make sure I was using it correctly, and according to the definition given by whatever dictionary Apple Macs use, the sentence ‘jejune tendency to kid ourselves’ is somewhere in the no man’s land of between being tautologous and almost meaningless. But fuck it: it sounds good, so it stands. Any complaints must be written out in longhand an an A4 sheet of paper, which you must then screw into a tight ball and shove up your arse.)
Also on the list are ‘the past’, ‘the present’ and ‘the future’. These again, if someone were to suggest that they are seriously his or her ‘interest’ would tell you more about that person, specifically that they are in danger of being pretty self-regarding and most definitely pretentious. Ditto ‘altruism’. As for ‘art’, ‘painting’, ‘music’, ‘politics’ etc, these, when they appear in my list, are pretty much in bullshit territory in that, although I do occasionally go to art galleries, listen to music, watch and listen to the news etc, to claim I take an active interest in them, as is implied by listing them in my profile, is bollocks. I am on firmer ground with ‘Fleet Street’, ‘hacks’, ‘newspapers’ and their eternal companion ‘hypocrisy’. In these I do take an active interest, although being a fully signed up and very active member of Her Majesty's Press, it isn't difficult.
This morning I added another keyword to my list of ‘interests’ and it is quite possibly the only honest ‘interest’ in the list: backgammon. I learnt to play backgammon about 25 years ago (and writing that last bit made me realise just how bloody old I’m getting: it seems like yesterday). Exactly when and by whom I really can’t remember. ‘Backgammon’ was for me, before I learnt to play, something of a pastime for rakes and generally the louche. I knew there were backgammon tournaments and I knew many people played and play it for, often quite high, stakes. I also assumed it was a rather difficult game to learn and play. Well, I was wrong. It is very easy indeed to learn, though like many good games it is not at all easy to be a good player. Because what move you can make depend on the roll of dice, it is a mixture of chance and luck (and I’ve both won and lost games dramatically merely on the throw of the dice). But it is fair to say that a good and experienced player will, over time, always beat a worse player. Each match consist of three, five or seven games, or, I suppose, however many you want it to consist of. Then you can, of course, go on to play as many matches as you like. And, as I say, in the long run, the better player will always come out top.
After I learnt to play, I have played against everyone and anyone with enthusiasm. When I bought a secondhand PC with Windows XP as the OS, I was pleased to discover that it allowed me to play backgammon at any time of the day or night for however long I wanted to. Most recently I have bought a laptop which has Windows 7 as its OS (which has the same facility as XP) and I have played at least an hour of backgammon every day ever since. In fact, being able to do so was one of the main reasons I bought that laptop. (I didn’t and don’t need another laptop as I had, at the time I bought it, two Mac iBooks and a Mac Powerbook. I have since sold one of the iBooks).
I am no good at chess and have hardly played it, and although I occasionally play card games, particularly Irish Snap with my two children, I can’t say I do so regularly. But there is something about backgammon I truly love. The essence of the game is simplicity, yet it is not simplistic and is most certainly no a simple game.
So there you have it: an interest listed on my list of interests which really is an ‘interest’ and not blog bullshit.