Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Freewheelin' Minstrel

Once upon a time, in a land where sadness and tedium reigned, there was a young man who wanted more than anything else to become a minstrel. From the first moment when he had heard a minstrel singing in the small, dull town where he grew up, he was entranced by the beauty of the music and the power it had to work magic in the souls of some of those who heard it – above all in his own soul. From that day onwards he showed little interest in the business of the small shop his father had, nor in the games of his comrades; instead he could be found singing to himself, or playing the guitar or harmonica.

People paid him little notice. His singing voice was not sweet and his control of the instruments he tried to play was clumsy. But this had little effect on him; he continued to find life in the town where he lived dreary and meaningless and spent much of his time seeking out the few minstrels who could be found in the area, listening to and learning the songs they sang and asking them many questions.

One day one of the old minstrels took pity on him, or perhaps he saw something the others did not see, or perhaps he was even touched by some of the magic which will soon become part of this story, as you will shortly hear.

“You must search for the great old bard, Woody,” said the minstrel. “For he is the author of many of the greatest songs we sing and he can teach you more than any of us ever could.”

So the young man strapped his guitar on his back and taking the few coins he had in his possession, set off to find the bard, Woody, as the old minstrel had suggested. After some searching, on a day in the middle of winter, he found him in a small town near the greatest city in the land. But Woody was old, and ill with the shaking sickness and could teach him nothing. Instead the bard asked the young man to play for him and after he had hesitantly played a few of the songs he had learned, put his hand on his head and blessed him.

The young man left the house where he had found Woody and went out into the winter night. Downcast and desolate, he walked through the snow and wondered how he could become a great minstrel, now that Woody was too ill to teach him anything. Then a light suddenly shone around him and he stopped in wonderment. Though he could see nothing in the light a deep, melodic voice spoke.

“So you want to be a minstrel?”

“Who are you?” asked the young man.

“I am the angel Tambour Ine,” replied the voice, “and I find myself in need of your services.”

“And what’s in it for me?”

“I will make you into the greatest minstrel in the land,” replied the voice. “You will sing the messages I will send you throughout the land, the songs of justice. You will be a bell of freedom for the young and some of those no longer young. But you must promise to serve me and give voice to my tidings, to work faithfully for me and be my avatar for change, for the land is thirsting for change.”

“Now hang on just a minute,” said the young man. “I’ve been around minstrels for a while and have heard the songs of Johnny and his fiddle and his deal with the devil …”

Tambour Ine laughed and said, “Fear not. I am a hard master but I am not the devil. You will have to make sacrifices but I will leave you your soul. Go now to the great city, to the quarter where the minstrels dwell. And I will guide your heart, and your thoughts, and your voice. I will send songs to you which you shall sing throughout the land. And we shall see what we shall see …”

The young man agreed to the bargain and, as a token of the compact they had made, the angel gave him a new name – though it was an old name, a name taken from a great poet. And the young minstrel went to the quarter of the great city where the musicians and the poets dwelled. He listened to all the music and the poetry there and he learned a great deal. And, true to his word, the angel sent him songs; songs about changing times and hard rain, and justice and injustice, and love and freedom. He started to sing these songs and the people listened to them and found them good. Nobody worried that his voice still croaked and whined for they could hear the truth and beauty of the message of the angel in all that he sang.

Among the minstrels was a princess, whose passion was justice and freedom. She had dark eyes and dark hair and a voice that was pure as a bell and clear as a mountain stream. And she heard the songs too and loved the minstrel for them. She sang his songs with him as they travelled the land and thousands came to hear them and to sing along with his anthem about the wind. The minstrel rejoiced, even writing a song of praise to Tambour Ine which, the people said in wonderment, even the birds sang.

But although the people called him “the voice of a generation” and gave him awards and money and honours, the minstrel started to feel discontented. His songs were inspiring people to fight for change and to express their freedom but more and more expected him to lead them, to immerse himself in their causes and struggles. Hearing the songs the angel had sent him, he started to feel that they thought him to be the angel himself. “It ain’t me,” he sang, “It ain’t me you’re looking for.” But they did not seem to hear him. He began to realise the price of the bargain he had made.

The talent the angel had awakened in him was growing on its own now, giving birth to new songs and ways of singing them which had less to do with the message of the angel the people had been waiting to hear. Defiantly, he wrote these new songs and sang them with some other minstrels who made other kinds of music. But the multitudes who came to hear the expected message were confused, because this was not what they wanted to hear.

“How does it feel?” he cried at them. “Tell me, how does it feel to be on your own with no direction home?” But they did not like the way he was singing now, did not hear the message of the angel in the new, throbbing, harder beat he was using. Even the princess fought with him, for she wanted him to carry on struggling with her, to commit his energy and talent and passion to the causes so close to her heart. But he would not join her. "It ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe. Don't think twice, it's all right," he told her and went on his way.

Still he kept singing, for it was all he could do. Until, back in the place he had chosen for his home after a long period on the road, feeling worn out and driven beyond his strength, he called out one summer’s evening to Tambour Ine. And the angel came.

“I want out,” he said. “They all expect too much of me and it ain’t me. Well, I try my best to be just like I am but everybody wants you to be just like them. They sing while you slave and I just get bored. I ain’t gonna work on your farm no more.”

There was a pause. The angel sighed and then said, “Very well. I suppose you’ve done enough. The old moulds are broken and there’s freedom and creativity bubbling up everywhere now. I don’t really need you any more.

“There will be a price, though. There’s always a price. You will no longer be their hero.”

“I don’t care about that. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be anyway. I could use some time for myself. To be on my own. Like a complete unknown. Like a rollin’ stone.”

“Ok,” mused the angel. “Let’s see about the best way to do this. It’s going to hurt a bit …”

The jingle-jangle sound of the crash still ringing in his ears, Dylan picked himself up from the street, his back on fire, cast a glance at the wrecked motorbike and limped off down the road, his boot heels throwing up small puffs of dust into the upstate New York summer evening.

- It's all right, man, I'm only bleedin', he thought. Not such a bad deal after all,

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."
(Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited)

* * * * *

Following a motorcycle accident near his home Woodstock, New York, on July 29, 1966, Bob Dylan didn’t tour again for eight years. If anyone is interested in more comprehensive background to this tale, I cannot recommend Martin Scorsese’s wonderful musical documentary film, No Direction Home, highly enough.

Dylan's music is locked up pretty tight by Sony/BMG, which means I can't access most of it from YouTube in Germany. But they didn't manage to block this 1985 live performance of "Maggie's Farm"!

Picture retrieved from:

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Realising Balance

Unusually, I don’t really feel much like writing at the moment. Oh, there are themes enough – and I have a couple of posts half finished – but the motivation to complete them is pretty weak. Do the world, the internet, you, dear reader, really need my views about the pros and cons of the current actions of the so-called “coalition of the willing” against Ghadaffi in Libya? There’s enough discussion going on elsewhere about it – pick the commentator of your choice and have your own preconceptions affirmed.

I feel a certain sense of cynicism and powerlessness about many things right now. Looked at from a rational point of view, there’re so many messes in the world which could be better dealt with if people were only prepared to be more reasonable, to be less sure that they were absolutely right. If people were prepared to listen more, to approach each other with an attitude of tolerance and generosity. But they’re not and so the messes continue, many of them getting worse as a result.

If I’m going to be really honest about it though, this sense of cynicism and powerlessness probably has more to do with me personally. Too much time spent at work recently (much of which I don’t particularly enjoy at the moment), the feeling that the winter has been too long, some banal aches and pains …

Nothing serious, nothing that I’m not capable of dealing with. Even the stuff at work – but that’s a longer term project, something I’m not really ready to talk about yet; there are some alternatives I’m working at the moment which won’t be clearer for another couple of months.

Maybe that’s part of the problem. I am well aware that some things can’t be changed overnight, that the phrase, “with one fell swoop our hero broke free,” is something better suited to penny-dreadfuls than to real life. Often, real life involves patience and compromise; doing things by degrees, waiting for processes to ripen, working things through. The important part is remaining open and flexible, seeing and being ready for opportunities to grow. The changes that we wish for don’t always come easily, or immediately – but this doesn’t mean that we should give up working on them, for them, towards them.

Pocket psychology, I know; truth in truisms. The feeling that we need to change something in our lives is often a result of a gradual awareness of discontentment, dissatisfaction; there follows an analysis of the situation and then decisions about actions which we judge will improve the situation, fix it, make it right.

Our ability to analyse situations and conditions, to judge them as unsatisfactory and imperfect and to long for some kind of perfection as a solution is one of humanity’s greatest blessings and, at the same time, possibly its greatest curse. The image of the restless heart has been frequently used as a kind of argument for the necessity of the existence of the Absolute, God, call it what you will – particularly in western thought. It is as much behind Plato’s thinking in his famous Allegory of the Cave in The Republic, as it is in Augustine’s famous phrase in The Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

I call this urge for perfection a blessing because it constantly drives us to look at what we have, at concrete situations, to imagine something better and to work to change things. It is the motor behind any kind of progress, our best weapon against fatalism. It is what drives researchers and scientists, doctors and relief workers, philanthropists and idealists. It is what gives power and energy to protestors and revolutionaries – and also provides some kind of vicarious justification for tyrants, ideologues and dictators.

For it also a curse; a constant source of dissatisfaction, a nagging feeling that what we have, what we have achieved, isn’t really it, isn’t that perfection we were longing for, striving towards. Having obtained our heart’s desire, it turns to dust. We realise that this too is not perfect, that it cannot live up to that imagined, inchoate fantasy of perfection which inspired us. So we frequently set ourselves new goals, dream new dreams, move on to possess or conquer more – only to fail to fulfil ourselves again. Sisyphus, doomed to continually push his rock up the hill.

For Plato and Augustine the reason for this is clear; we are chasing shadows on the wall, phantasms, trying to satisfy our longing for the true infinity and perfection of the Absolute with substitutes which cannot content us.

Yet I wonder. We can only describe perfection with reference to that which it is not – all that we experience, anything we can achieve or think. It is an almost instinctive affirmation that there must be something more. But is there any other reason for this apart from our feeling, our longing for it? Oh, we can turn this longing easily enough into a logical postulate – this is, in my view, the basis of all the various forms of what is called in philosophy the ontological argument, (though those who defend it will inevitably immediately disagree) – but I have always viewed such arguments as smacking of logical legerdemain, attempts to prove something to be true because we would so badly like it to be so.

We are indeed driven by a continual desire for something more, a desire which can be seen as insatiable. In the end, I think, it is the result of rational self-awareness combining with that already present deeper characteristic, primate inquisitiveness. Like so many other characteristics of human behaviour, basically monkey business.

But there is another way of seeing things. Instead of letting ourselves be driven by a search for an unattainable perfection, seeing our lives and our existence as an exile from the ineffable, a constant questing for a paradise lost, an unhappy sense of incompletion, we can understand ourselves as part of a dynamic sense of becoming; a wonderful complexity of processes coming into being, maturing and fading away, a-borning, a-growing and a-dying, feeding into each other, influencing and changing each other, creating myriads of ever-changing patterns. More ancient than Plato, there is another strand even to western philosophical thinking; the Πάντα ῥεῖ [panta rhei] of Heraclitus, meaning “everything flows.” According to such a view, perfection itself becomes meaningless – we are instead part of a continual process of flux, with countless beautiful patterns forever morphing into something else. And we “go with the flow,” though not simply as flotsam on the stream, but as active agents, contributing with everything we do to all the stories, the pictures, the symphonies continually being made of and in life; dramas and tragedies, comedies and farces.

Seen this way, Sisyphus (as Albert Camus recognised in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942) indeed becomes a metaphor for the human condition, one who, for all the senselessness of his task, is not unfulfilled. Camus concludes his work with the observation, “The struggle itself ... is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

It’s nearly a week since I started writing this. I’ve spent a lot of that time visiting my parents in Ireland with my daughter and her four-year-old son. Perhaps it has something to do with doing something very different; taking a week off work, being on the move with my grandson, experiencing the immediacy of life the way he lives it. Maybe it has a little to do with just writing this, following the flow of my own thoughts in what could be seen as an awfully convoluted explanation to myself about why I have been finding writing more difficult recently. At any rate, I have a feeling of some kind of balance regained, or perhaps just a realisation that that balance was always there, the balance which comes from movement in dynamism. It’s just not always so easy to be aware of it.

Life is like riding a bicycle; you can only find your balance when you’re moving.

Pictures retrieved from: 

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Lessons of Fukushima

Nobody is to blame for an earthquake. Or for a tsunami either.

The events which swept over Japan last week have awakened horror and sympathy worldwide. In our digitalised, 24/7 media-mad world, we saw continuous pictures of shaking buildings, of the wave breaking over the north eastern cost of Japan, sweeping all before it and drawing back in a dirty cluttered sludge of wreckage, flotsam, oil and blood. We have seen survivors looking silently aghast at the detritus which remained, tearful reunions with loved ones found and the emptiness of eyes realising that many other loved ones would not be found.

And, as the days went on, we have seen more and more pictures of four concrete cubes in Fukushima and watched in powerless despair as clouds of smoke rose from them. For those of us who live in central Europe the memories of April 1986 return, the explosion at Chernobyl; hundreds of square miles in the Ukraine made uninhabitable by fall-out, the pictures of brave Soviet rescue workers dying of radiation sickness and of children born with horrible deformities, the fear as weaker radioactive clouds swept over us, the warnings not to eat mushrooms or game.

Nobody is to blame for an earthquake. Or for a tsunami either. But people have to take responsibility for some of the consequences which have followed them.

There are many understandable reasons why Japan chose to base a large proportion of its power requirements on nuclear energy. The country is densely populated, with a technologically highly-developed society – a society which needs a lot of electrical power. It has practically no energy resources like oil, gas or coal of its own and, as an island nation, importing electricity from other countries is very difficult, apart from he fact that Japan’s neighbours (with the possible exception of South Korea) are not in a position to export power anyway. If anyone could be trusted to build safe nuclear power plants, then the Japanese. They are the only nation which, up to now, has had to experience the awful power contained in the atom in a war situation, and the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have burned themselves deep into the Japanese psyche. They have a deserved reputation for technological efficiency and thoroughness, for planning and quality control.

The Japanese like technology and hi-tech stuff. They’re worldwide pioneers in the area of robotics and even the inventors of the technological pet, the tamagochi. From the late 19th Century onwards, when they consciously decided to follow the western industrial-technological way, they have proved to be very good at it, in many senses the pupil outshining his master. They are the real inventors of quality control, for example, disciples of the view that a continuous devotion to detail and planning can make physical processes controllable. Strange, perhaps, that such a philosophy should be espoused by a nation in which the basic foundation most cultures would use as an image for reality, the solidity of the earth itself, so often calls itself into question. Or perhaps it is the deep conditionality of physical reality which the continual possibility of a quaking earth (and the consequent destroying sea-waves) signifies, which calls forth such a reaction; no matter what nature throws at us, no matter what obstacles there are, we will survive and prosper, we will tame this earth and subdue it.

It is an attitude which demands that one takes risks, because the possibility that everything one has built up and achieved can be shaken down without warning, drowned in an instant, is behind everything. This is the basic reality of life, you accept it and then go on with discipline, dedication and hard work anyway, planning as well as you can to minimise negative consequences, working as hard as you can to increase the odds in your favour while knowing at the same time that it may go wrong. What else can you do? This, I believe, is part of the mindset behind the push for empire and domination in the Asian-Pacific area in the first half of the last century which led, finally, to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and total defeat. And it is the same mindset which gave the Japanese the strength to rebuild their country after that defeat; to follow a different way and this time do it right.

But it still involved taking risks, because risks are unavoidable. You need power and you have to import the means to generate it, which leaves you vulnerable. So nuclear power becomes attractive. In the increasing awareness of global warming, carbon footprints and possible greenhouse effects growing in the past decades, it becomes an even more attractive option. The risks remain because they are unavoidable; because nuclear power plants need continuous cooling you have to build them close to large amounts of water, either on major rivers (of which Japan doesn’t have many), or on the coast. You engineer things as well as you can and hope that nature will not raise the stakes higher than you can bet.

And then last week nature did. Fukushima was planned to withstand the consequences of an earthquake measuring 8.2 on the Richter scale, the quake which came measured 9.0.

So now the world holds its breath and watches as the Japanese frantically struggle to get runaway complex, immensely powerful physical processes back under control. As I write this the results are still open; radiation levels are high, the reactors and fuel rods are still overheating, the catastrophic possibility of melt-down, uncontrollable chain-reactions, explosions and massive radioactive emissions is still very high. There are no handbooks for this situation; all that can be done is to continue trying to do everything imaginable until the end-game is finally played out. The best-case scenario leaves a dangerous radioactive mess in the ruins of Fukushima which will continue to poison its immediate vicinity and, most likely, the ocean before the coast, a mess which will take years to clean up or reliably contain. The worst-case scenario sees immense amounts of fall-out being carried southwards by the winds towards the greater Tokyo area with a population of over 35 million and the rest of the densely populated southern regions of the country, perhaps even moving westwards to contaminate Korea, Russia and China. The consequences then are, for me, unimaginable – this goes way beyond Godzilla.

Whatever happens, the world needs to look again at nuclear energy, the use of fission to drive gigantic steam engines. Murphy’s Law remains universal and all our engineering comes down, in the end, to tolerance levels. I am by no means technophobic, but I don’t think that the concept of acceptable risk levels is compatible with nuclear power plants. If we want an image for nuclear power then Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice comes to mind. We conjure the spirits in nature to serve us only to learn, as the apprentice did, that they will no longer obey us. Goethe’s protagonist cries despairingly, “Die ich rief, die Geister werd ich nun nicht los [I cannot rid myself of the spirits I have called]!” In the poem, the master magician turns up in the nick of time, like a Deus ex machina, to banish them. We don’t have a master to send the fissioned demon back to his atomic nucleus and if he escapes our control then he can rampage unchecked, with frightful consequences.

With luck, the Japanese may still regain a level of control over the situation in Fukushima, the worst possible consequences may be averted and we can all heave a collective sigh of relief while they get down to year-long expensive measures to clean up the mess already caused. Until the next time. For the next time will come, sooner or later. Many of the nuclear plants around the world are not proof against a 9/11-type attack, or portable anti-armour missiles already reported to be in the hands of terrorists in certain parts of the world. Or the demon Murphy will manifest himself once more. Generating electricity with steam-driven turbines powered by nuclear fission is not the answer to our global energy hunger and the problems of carbon dioxide emissions. Even if no further accidents or sabotage were to happen, we still don’t have particularly good solutions regarding what to do with the massively dirty waste they produce. And the world does still have alternative options, involving more efficient use of energy, reduction of unnecessary energy waste and renewable CO2-neutral ways of producing it, like wind and solar power.

And, on a completely different stage, the events in Japan have already produced one nasty victor. While the attention of the world has switched to Japan, Muammar Gaddafi has marshalled his loyal army units, jets and artillery and is in the process of massacring thousands of the citizens of his country who dared to try to rise up for their basic rights. The world has been distracted and it looks as if he will get away with it.

Not a good week for the world.


Pictures retrieved from

Monday, 7 March 2011

Around the World in 1911

Picasso: Le pigeon aux petits pois 1911
It’s been a while now since I used the time-machine I keep in the garden shed, so I thought we could take a short trip. Back this time a hundred years to 1911, a year which already knew all about time machines since Mr. H. G. Wells had published his famous book about one sixteen years previously.

Following the sunrise, we arrive in the Empire of Japan. The country has been modernising frantically for the past decades, determined to be regarded as a world power. In 1905 it has already given the Russian Empire a serious black eye, defeating Russian armies and destroying a Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima. The result was Japanese control over Korea and most of Manchuria. In 1911, Japan will renew its strategic alliance with Great Britain. Modernisation will continue, two Japanese officers visiting the USA to learn to fly aeroplanes this year.

Farther to the South, the Qing dynasty in China is finally in terminal collapse. This year will see the Wuchang uprising which will culminate in the overthrow of the dynasty and the proclamation of the Republic of China on January 1, 1912 under Sun Yat-sen.

In India, changes are also underway. The new Emperor, King George V of England will visit the country this year and preside over the formal transfer of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi, laying the foundation-stone for the administrative centre of New Delhi. Thoughts of Indian independence are being expressed by some members of the Indian Congress party, but its charismatic leading figure, Mohandas Gandhi is still in South Africa, championing the rights of the many Indian immigrants there and developing his theory of non-violent resistance, satyagraha.

But the world is dominated by Europe. Almost all of Africa has been divided between the European powers who are in continual competition with each other, though by now two alliance blocks are becoming clear; France, Britain and Russia against the central empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary, with whom the Ottoman Empire is also allied. With the exception of France, all the other great powers are ruled by kings and emperors. They all have parliaments, elected according to some sort of democratic franchise but, with the exception of Britain where the king’s position has become largely ceremonial, they all retain the ultimate reigns of power.

And they’re all playing dangerous games of provocation with each other. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, sensitive with regard to his own dignity and that of his Reich, will send gunboats to Agadir in Morocco this year, once more playing “chicken” with the British and the French. The ensuing crisis will, once more, be resolved diplomatically as have many others during the previous years, but many are convinced that sooner or later war is going to break out. Perilously, a lot of people are looking forward to it – all are convinced of their own superiority and of the possibility of quick, glorious victory.

Various figures who will play major roles in the 20th Century are still lurking in the wings. Lenin is in exile in Switzerland, a dedicated Marxist revolutionary, fighting for dominance among the splintered radical Russian left. His faithful henchman, Stalin, is escaping from Siberian exile to once more try to stir up problems in the Caucasus. Adolf Hitler is an unsuccessful artist, living in a home for poor working men in Vienna.

Britain is going through a process of constitutional reform; the Parliament Act which will be passed this year will remove the right of absolute veto, held up to now by the House of Lords. This will have major repercussions for Ireland; the decade-long dream of Home Rule is now on the verge of attainment. The Bill will be passed in 1912 – due to come into force in 1914, it will be overtaken by other events and, finally, by more ambitious Irish dreams.

Taking a brief glimpse at my native Ireland, I note that two of my grandparents are still going to school. My other grandmother is a young woman, living on the family farm in Roscommon. To see her future husband, we will have to travel a little farther.

Across the Atlantic, then, to where my grandfather is driving a street-car in New York. Eight years will pass before he returns home to inherit the small family farm and marry the girl next door.

In the USA, William Howard Taft is president, though he will lose the position next year when his popular predecessor Theodor Roosevelt runs against him on the Progressive ticket, thus splitting the Republican vote and letting the Democrat Woodrow Wilson win as a result. The economy is booming and the power struggles between the various European powers are fairly peripheral for US American politics and people; though ever larger numbers of them were born in Europe, for the USA is still a country of immigrants. But for all their disdain for the old European powers, the USA is administering a little empire of its own. The Spanish-American war, in which Teddy Roosevelt had played the role of the dashing military hero, had brought the Philippines as well as Guam and Puerto Rico under American control and Cuba too, though formally independent, was also firmly under US domination.

Roosevelt was the author of a famous “Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, which basically defined the entire Western Hemisphere as a US sphere of influence. Most of South America is under the control of propertied oligarchies, though Roque Sáenz Peña, the newly elected president of Argentina (the richest and most progressive of the South American nations at the time), is preparing to introduce universal suffrage in his country. Wisely perhaps, the USA has decided not to interfere in Mexico (when possible), where the revolution which had broken out during the previous year is tearing the country apart. But in Nicaragua, American gunboats intervened in internal politics only last year and next year the country will be occupied by US marines. And, speaking of Nicaragua, stopping briefly on our journey in Tampico, Illinois, we discover that Mrs. Reagan has just given birth to a son, Ronald.

Canada is an exception to the Monroe doctrine. It is a Dominion of the British Empire, with considerable autonomy, just as New Zealand and Australia also. But the limits of their independence will be shown in three years time, when Britain does not seek their approval before declaring war – also in their names – on Germany and Austria-Hungary.

In 1911, people believe in progress. Many wonderful discoveries and inventions made in the previous years are becoming popular and spreading; electricity and Edison’s electric light bulbs and phonographs, Bell’s telephone and Marconi’s wireless. Henry Ford has been producing Model Ts for two years now and this year Chevrolet will start to compete with him. The motor car is spreading throughout the world and 1911 will see both the first Indianapolis 500 and the first Monte Carlo Rally. All over Europe and the USA intrepid pioneers are improving the eight year old invention of the Wright brothers, the aeroplane; many paying for their experiments in the flimsy undependable machines with their lives.

Cinema or moving picture shows are also becoming popular. Already a small motion picture industry is coalescing around Los Angeles. The famous director, D. W. Griffiths, has produced a 17 minute short feature, In Old California, filmed entirely in the village of Hollywood and the Nestor Motion Picture Company, the first Hollywood film studio, will begin business this year.

In art, Braque, Gris and Picasso are developing cubism. In literature, George Moore publishes the first volume of Hail and Farewell, Joseph Conrad Under Western Skies and G. K. Chesterton The Innocence of Father Brown. In music, light opera and operetta are popular, but there’s also a lot of ragtime about, moving far beyond the work of composers like Scott Joplin to influence even Claude Debussy in his 1908 Golliwog’s Cakewalk. Although the phonograph is becoming more popular, the most beloved piece of furniture in many households is the piano; many people can play and sheet music sells briskly. This is the basis of  the success of Tin Pan Alley, which this year will see the advent of its newest bright star when Irving Berlin bursts onto the scene with Alexander’s Ragtime Band. In fashion, a particularly crazy development is de rigueur; wide at the waist, the hobble skirt becomes so narrow at the hem that women are only able to take very short steps.

It is a world on the brink of catastrophe, of cataclysmic change which will break over everything with the beginning of the Great War, three years later. 1914 and all that it initiated defined most of the agendas for the 20th Century and we, the children of that century, can only look back to its beginning through the lattice of what came after; total war, the battle of ideologies, fascism and communism, the violent deaths of hundreds of millions, the Shoah and the bomb, the end of (formal) colonialism, feminism and the pill. For the people of 1911 all of this was part of an unknown future. Despite the fears and warnings of a few, the view of the future was optimistic. Progress had brought so many wonderful things in the previous decades, surely this would continue in the future. It would, but the price of it would also become clearer.

See my other time machine journeys; to 1762 and 1810

Pictures retrieved from: 

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Viva Colonia!

In the Rhineland, the area of Germany in which I live, from Thursday onwards the celebration of Carnival reaches its zenith. And in no other city in Germany is the festival celebrated with as much fervour and dedication as in Cologne – despite what potential rivals in Düsseldorf and Mainz may claim. For in Cologne Carnival goes beyond a joyful expression of the Dionysian aspect of the human spirit to become a very statement of identity; from Thursday (Altweiberfastnacht) to the following Ash Wednesday the Cologners show the rest of Germany and the world – as well as restating it for themselves – that they regard themselves to be a particularly blessed portion of the human race, eternally proud and thankful for the fact that they are residents of the greatest, most wonderful city in the world.

As has already become clear in this introduction, decent understatement is not part of the Colognian character. But, lest anyone misunderstand me, there is little of overweening, arrogant superiority in this attitude; adopting such a position would mean having to take oneself seriously and, perhaps, even having to work hard at it and such an attitude is generally foreign to the Cologne nature. For the Cologner generally cultivates an extremely relaxed attitude to life – secure in his conviction that his city is the one most beloved of God on earth, he tends to watch the struggles for power and influence between other cities and countries with equanimity, as signs of their gnawing fears of being seen to be inferior. The serene self-assurance of the Cologner keeps him above such petty competitiveness.

Cologne is one of the oldest German cities. Originally founded by a German tribe under the patronage of the Roman general and friend of the emperor Augustus, Agrippa in 38 B.C.E., it derives its name from his granddaughter, Agrippina, the wife of the emperor Claudius and mother of the infamous Nero. Having married Claudius, Agrippina persuaded him to rename the city of her birth as Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Colony of Claudius and Altar of the Agrippiner), which in the following centuries became shortened to Colonia/Cologne [in German Köln, in the local dialect, Kölle]). In this, Agrippina was acting in a fashion which would be immediately recognisable to all her compatriots over the following almost two thousand years; using influence and charm to her own good advantage and to the greater glory of her native city. A real Cologne girl (ein echte kölsche Mädche), as they would say today in her home town.

For large periods in its history Cologne was a more or less independent city, and I think this was formative for the character of its inhabitants. Following the Roman period (many of the excellent Roman archaeological remains can today be viewed in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum near the cathedral), Charlemagne put Rome under the control of the Archbishop, who became a powerful figure within the Holy Roman Empire, ruling over extensive territories in the Rhineland. With one notable exception – Cologne! After a long period of increasing tension the city basically threw the archbishop out in 1288. A compromise was subsequently reached in which the city became generally free, the archbishop retaining only control in purely ecclesiastical matters and, oddly perhaps, the administration of justice, torture and capital punishment. However, the archbishops moved their residence to nearby Bonn and it would be over five hundred years before they returned to live in Cologne. This is just one example among many of the typical “Kölsche” way of doing things – complex compromises based on the trading of influences and advantages, incomprehensible (and often illogical) to outsiders, but comfortably accepted by Cologners.

In the end, the archbishops and the city needed each other. During the reign of Barbarossa in the 12th Century, the then archbishop, Rainald, who was also Chancellor of the Empire, had basically stolen the relics of the Three Wise Men from Milan and deposited them in Cologne Cathedral. The relics became a major centre of pilgrimage in the middle ages and were thus economically important for the city.

There’s a story told in Cologne about the events leading up to the building of the present magnificent cathedral, which began in 1248. The merchants of Cologne, conscious of the commercial possibilities provided by the relics, were unhappy with the old unspectacular cathedral they had and they’d been hearing reports of the wonderful new buildings being erected all over Europe. So they went to the bishop to propose building a new one. As the one who would have to pay for it, bishop Konrad wasn’t enthusiastic. A few weeks later, the old cathedral just happened to burn down …

Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom)
They’ve been building the new Gothic cathedral ever since; there’s a saying in Cologne that the world will end when work on the Cathedral finally stops. But the most prominent and famous trademarks of the Cathedral, the magnificent twin spires, were only added in the 19th Century, paid for by the King of Prussia into whose domains Cologne and the rest of the Rhineland had come after the defeat of Napoleon.

Prussian rule was not very popular in Cologne; there can hardly be two mentalities in Germany more different than the fun-loving, easy-going attitude of the Cologners and the disciplined, duty-driven, tightly-organised world-view of the Prussians. Unable to resist Prussian might militarily, the Cologners resorted to ridicule. Many of the traditional customs surrounding Carnival – dressing up in fantastically bombastic uniforms, bestowing each other with masses of meaningless medals and according each other wildly exaggerated titles – were originally parodies of Prussian behaviour. It was a typically relaxed way of dealing with the harshness of reality, following the most basic rule of life as expressed in the old Cologne saying

Et es wie et es!
Et kütt wie et kütt!
Un et hätt noch emmer joot jejange!

[That’s the way it is,
That’s the way it goes,
And it always works out for the best in the end!]

The fundament of this basic optimism is the assurance that one is a child of the most wonderful city in the world. Cologne has survived emperors and kings, bishops and chancellors, invaders and floods, plagues and bombs. When the smoke has cleared and the excitement died down, the Rhine will still be flowing and Kölle will still be there on its banks.

Kölle! No-one else in the world can proclaim the name of his home town with so much emotional sentimental love more than the Cologner. This is something which quickly becomes clear to any visitor to Cologne, as soon as he or she visits any of the thousands of bars in the city. Friendly and outgoing as they are, you’ll quickly find yourself in conversation with the locals and before long they’ll be listing the reasons why their city is the greatest in the world. Indeed, listening to them extolling on their favourite subject, you come to the conclusion that Cologners are capable of becoming homesick even when they are at home. This is a capacity they share with the residents of only one other town I know, the city of Cork in Ireland; so it comes as no surprise to learn that the two cities are actually formally twinned.

All this relaxed local patriotism reaches its annual peak on Rosenmontag [Rose Monday], two days before Ash Wednesday when the great Carnival parade, watched by around a million people (most of them costumed), wends its way through the streets of Cologne. Tons of sweets are thrown from the floats into the jubilant crowd, kisses are freely exchanged and hundreds of thousands of gallons of the local beer, kölsch, are drunk. Residents of the rival city of Düsseldorf may claim that kölsch is a liquid which passes unchanged, apart from its temperature, through the human body; such claims do not seriously worry the Cologners. They regard the Düsseldorfers as johnny-come-latelies, insecure status-seekers obsessed with fashion and money.

All of this accompanied by lively music played by one of the famous traditional Cologne bands like De Höhner or Brings, the lyrics generally in the local dialect. But even more serious rock bands from Cologne have had the courage to sing in their local dialect and enjoy German-wide success, the most notable perhaps being BAP. Wofgang Niedecken, the founder and lead singer of the band, is also a respected painter (he’s an art-school graduate). This is not surprising, for Cologne is a centre for all sorts of artistic endeavours. The 1972 Nobel Prize winning writer, Heinrich Böll, came from Cologne and the city is today one of Germany’s main media centres. It is also the unofficial gay capital of Germany and the large Christopher Street Day Parade every summer is even more shrill and colourful than the Rosenmontag parade. It’s certainly great fun.

For that is one of the best characteristics of the Cologners; their capacity for celebration. One of my abiding memories is of a balmy summer evening – the festival in question being the Kölner Lichter [Cologne Lights], a fireworks display accompanied by music on the great river, held in July. At the height of the celebrations, Henning Krautmacher, the front man of the band De Höhner, proclaimed to a huge jubilant throng on the banks of Rhine:

“Ich jläuve, der leever Herrjott es ene kölsche Jung!
[I believe that the Lord God is a Cologne lad!]”

The crowd cheered their agreement with the sentiment.

Typical Cologne understatement.

There was a wide array of music available to accompany this post. I’ve decided to put musical links to the bands mentioned directly into the text and to finish this with a quieter song, sung in standard German, by the lesser-known but excellent band “Zinnober" (thanks to Lara for the tip!).

Pictures retrieved from:

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Project Guttenberg III: The Minister Resigns

“I have reached the limits of my strength.”

With these words, Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg ended the statement this morning in which he declared his resignation as German Defence Minister.

Over the past few days the criticism of him, particularly from the academic community, had grown steadily. Over the weekend, the number of Christian Democrat party colleagues who were prepared to publicly question whether his questionable conduct in plagiarising large parts of his doctoral thesis made the retention of his position within Chancellor Merkel’s cabinet possible increased.

The pressure was finally too great.

It remains to be seen how Merkel will “spin” this, particularly given her public support for zu Guttenberg up to now. In particular, a comment by the chancellor last week in which she said that she “had appointed zu Guttenberg as a minister and not as a research assistant,” had provoked much criticism. Many had pointed out that it was the same person who had cheated in his doctorate and was now commander or the Bundeswehr – Merkel’s distinction was “schizophrenic.”

The academics were perhaps somewhat slow in going public on this but, perhaps, this was only to be expected; the learned often need more time than others.

See my earlier posts on the subject.


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