Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Frederick the Great

The history of Germany in the past hundred and forty years or so makes it very difficult to revisit famous characters and events from before this period, free of the ghastly ideological accretions which occurred during this time. From the unification of Germany under the dominance of the Prussian House of Hohenzollern in 1871 onwards, German history was interpreted to serve contemporary purposes, most completely and insidiously during the thirteen years of Nazi rule. But the worldwide consequences of Germany’s attempts to dominate Europe and the world also led to widespread ideological interpretations of German history by those who succeeded in defeating these aspirations, from the USA to France and from Britain to Russia.

It is, in all events, a chimera to seek for some kind of “objective” history, beyond a dry chronicle of events – and even such chronicles are the result of “subjective” selection of events seen as significant enough to be recorded and included. History is always at least as much about the attempt of contemporary generations to understand themselves in the multidimensional aspect of what went before and what is currently happening as it is about “what really happened.” We constantly create our own versions of significance and meaning in order to dynamically define our own identity. In this sense, whole memes, themes, concepts and categories are constantly coming into existence which then extend themselves into our understanding of our histories, giving rise to whole new chains of meaning, significance and, frequently, complete stories.

The events of the first half of the 20th Century have given rise to a unique and very difficult situation for Germans in with respect to their relationship with the past (and the present as the organic development of this past) and the whole way they regard and do history. One of the consequences of the disaster of the Nazi period is that many categories which are unquestionably accepted by most other societies have become deeply suspicious in the German context. No-one has any problems, for example, in speaking of le Nation Français or the American People. But use the expression das Deutsche Volk, and already the echoes of Hitler’s Nuremberg harangues start to sound faintly in the background.

One of the themes in which the problem of the prism of subsequent events becomes most apparent in German history is that of Prussia. It is the fascinating story of two small principalities – the Margraviate of Brandenburg (within the Holy Roman Empire) and the Duchy of Prussia (outside the Empire on the Baltic) – and a couple of even smaller counties in the Rhineland and Westphalia, united under the control of the Hohenzollern dynasty in the early 17th Century, which, by a combination of clever dynastic alliances and successful wars and diplomacy became the second great power agglomeration (along with the Austrian Habsburgs) within Germanic central Europe by the second half of the 18th Century, going on to unite almost all of German-speaking Europe (with the exception of Austria) under its control a hundred years later. It continued to exist as a component part of Germany until it was formally abolished by the Allied Control Council on February 25, 1947.

In our general way of thinking, Prussia has become synonymous with militarism, authoritarianism, blind obedience to superiors, uniforms, the goose-step, bushy moustaches and spiked helmets. Jawohl, mein Herr! Even in contemporary Germany, the adjective “Prussian” is often used as a description for mindless, exaggerated organisation and discipline. And there is an historical orthodoxy which sees a direct line running from Frederick the Great to Bismark to the Kaiser and his oath-bound generals (responsible for World War I) directly to Hitler and his Nazi brutes. It was, indeed, a line which Hitler himself accepted and embraced.

I don’t want to carry on a discussion over historical interpretations of German history, its meaning and the lessons which may be drawn from it, interesting though the arguments over a possible German Sonderweg [special way] may be, though I have a feeling I won’t be able to avoid it completely. But, so far as possible, I would like to step back beyond the interpretative floodlights of the intervening years in the next few paragraphs to consider a man who was regarded by his contemporaries and many of their descendants as one of the most important figures of the 18th Century.

Frederick II von Hohenzollern – Frederick the Great, der Alte Fritz – was born three hundred years ago today (January 24). A shy, sensitive and artistically inclined boy, the story of his childhood and youth is one of persistent brutalising by a father with a drastic militaristic fetishist streak who was determined to bring him up as a soldier. The young Frederick fought his father for the survival of his own identity throughout his youth, culminating in an attempt, at the age of eighteen, to flee his father’s kingdom and achieve his freedom. The attempt failed and Frederick was forced (under a sentence of death imposed by his royal father, which the old bastard probably never seriously considered having carried out) to watch the execution of his beloved tutor who had been the organiser and his chief accomplice in the escape attempt.

The drastic, sadistic measure worked. Frederick submitted to his father’s wishes and plans; accepting the overarching concept expressed by the Prussian/German word Pflicht [inadequately translated into English by the word “Duty”] as the organising principle of his life. It also twisted, perhaps even broke, something essential within him. Frederick remained, as he had been, a convinced child of the Enlightenment. He retained his interest in music, playing the flute in an accomplished manner and composing music. As king, he supported freedom of thought, toleration, reason. Yet all of these were now subordinated to an iron understanding of his Pflicht, his duty, to serve Prussia. In the execution of this duty, as he saw it, he fought and schemed to make Prussia secure in the most certain fashion possible – to make it so great and powerful that it was unassailable. This meant, in practice, establishing Prussia as the fourth great power in Europe, alongside France, Russia and the Habsburg Empire. (Spain, in the 18th Century was going through a long decline and England, though an important player, was, by virtue of its insular nature, somewhat removed from the perpetual rivalry, expressing itself in constantly shifting alliances, which defined the domination of the continent by the aforementioned powers.)

In this he very largely succeeded. Turning his keen intelligence to military matters, he was regarded by his fellows – and indeed by Napoleon, the greatest military genius of all – as the paramount general of his century, both in a tactical as well as a strategic sense. As an enlightened absolutist ruler, he reorganised his realm; professionalising public administration, introducing a basic code of law, abolishing torture and corporal punishment, guaranteeing religious freedom, encouraging trade, industry and modernisation, establishing rudimentary general education, being a continuous patron of the arts, science and philosophy.

To achieve his military aims he spent the lives of hundreds of thousands of his soldiers (and caused the deaths of many hundreds of thousands more Austrians, Poles and Russians), yet he was respected and even generally loved by his subjects. Still, spiritually deformed and damaged by his youthful experience, he grew increasing cynical about human nature. It is possible that he was homosexual – shy as a boy, as a man he wanted as little as possible to do with women, never fathering a child and consistently preferring male company. As he grew older, his misogyny developed into an even more general misanthropy. In later life he preferred, when possible, to withdraw to his palace of Sans Souci, which he himself had designed, in the company of his beloved greyhounds, which, he claimed, was better than that of most people. It was his wish that he be buried there – a wish which would not be fulfilled until 1991.

Frederick died on August 17, 1786, his life formed, deformed, defined by his commitment to his duty, his Pflicht. A year earlier, the professor of philosophy in the Prussian city of Königsberg, Immanuel Kant, had, in his seminal work, The Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, taken the concept of Pflicht and transformed it into a sublimely liberating idea of the freely acting individual subject in his expression of the Categorical Imperative. Without the general atmosphere of security, tolerance and freedom which Frederick had realised in his kingdom, it can be argued that Kant would never have achieved the intellectual space to develop his magnificent philosophy.

While Prussian intellectuals (and even the elites in general in the kingdom) generally sympathised with ideals of the French Revolution, there was little practical agitation in the Prussian territories to follow the concrete path taken by the French. It seemed so unnecessary, after all, most of what the French Revolutionaries were agitating for in their country had already been achieved in Prussia under the Alte Fritz, with his encouragement and blessing. In this, perhaps, can be seen some of the inspiration for the historical theory of the German Sonderweg in its earliest stages. Prussia had no need to abolish its monarchy and introduce republican democracy in order to guarantee most of “the rights of man” – its absolute rulers, Frederick the Great above all, had been reasonable and enlightened enough to implement them practically in their own realm. It was an example that freedom and enlightenment could be imposed from the top down, rather than be (often bloodily) struggled for from the bottom up. Perhaps this did have some role to play in the late, and comparatively weak, development of a democratic tradition in Germany; a circumstance which may have made it easier for Germans to accede to, and generally enthusiastically embrace a ghastly dictatorship in the 20th Century.

Pictures retrieved from:

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Little Old Lady

The reason I was at the telephone shop is one of those complicated modern stories of the science-fiction world in which we live, which would have been incomprehensible to all of us twenty years ago – and in the end, rather boring for anyone else to read, or even for me to tell. It involved a change of internet and telephone provider, a defective router, the impossibility of sorting anything out over the telephone with a call-centre, the (already mentioned) defective router being sent back by mail and then disappearing somewhere in the bowels of the provider, another router … I won’t go into any more details; those of you who’ve been unfortunate enough to be in that awful situation when your (in our weird, wonderful and complex global village) absolutely essential telecommunications configuration suddenly gets majorly fucked up will know how I was feeling. The fact that this all happened last summer when I was also dealing with personal problems like burn-out and depression just added the icing to the cake.

In fact, I was lucky. I’d managed to stick to my guns, not lose my temper too badly, have all the relevant bits of paper together, note the names of the various people with whom I’d spoken at the call-centre, etc., and finally managed to get it all sorted out. Today was the last chapter; I was bringing an unopened package with a new router I’d received via DHL to the telephone shop to hand in there and get the € 129 in cash back which I had at one stage in the sorry story shelled out there so that I wouldn’t have to spend weeks cut off from the internet – one weird phase in this awful story involved a miraculous multiplication of routers.

Going into the shop, in which I had spent many frustrating hours over the previous month, I was glad to see that Gerry, the assistant manager with whom I’d done most of my negotiating during that time, was on duty behind the counter (so that I wouldn’t have to start telling my complicated story from the beginning to yet another person) and that there was only one customer ahead of me. Great, I thought, five minutes, maximum ten, and I’m out of here … with my money. End of story. Game over.

Just one customer ahead of me. A little old lady, wearing a hat and a shabby, unprepossessing coat, one of those hundreds of people you hustle past on the street every day without even registering them. But there was something about her, a combination of subliminal signals which set alarm bells ringing with me. This, I realised, could take a little longer than five minutes.

“… and Frau Müller was supposed to ring me back about a new appointment with the doctor and then she didn’t and then I tried to phone her and that’s when I realised that the phone wasn’t working …”

“But you mentioned that you’d had a letter from the telephone company before that, explaining that you’d been cut off …”

“Yes, but Frau Müller had fixed that. A man was supposed to come yesterday morning and reconnect me.”

“And even after he was there, the telephone still didn’t work?”

“Oh, but he wasn’t there. Or maybe he was. You see, I wasn’t there. I had an appointment …”

“But, Frau Schmitz, if you’re not at home, the man can’t get in to reconnect you!”

I sighed inwardly. This was probably going to take quite a while. My initial suspicions had been confirmed by the mention of Frau Müller. It had been the pale, oddly emotionless face and the slight tremor in the hands that had first set my alarm bells ringing – typical symptoms of extra-pyramidal side-effects of neuroleptics (antipsychotic medication). I happened to know that a Frau Müller worked as a social worker in the local psychiatric hospital, her speciality is the support of patients who are being released, helping them to re-establish themselves in “normal” life. This disconnection probably had a background of unpaid bills – Frau Müller had already achieved a lot if she’d managed to get things sorted out to the extent where the phone company were prepared to reconnect. And then Frau Schmitz hadn’t realised how important it was for her to be at home when the technician arrived to reset her telephone. Shit!

“I had a letter from the phone company,” Frau Schmitz went on. “Maybe I’ve got it here somewhere …”

She started to rummage through her handbag.

“I thought I’d brought it with me, but I can’t seem to find it …”

“It doesn’t really matter, Frau Schmitz, it’s Saturday afternoon now and I won’t be able to reach the technical staff until Monday. And then a new appointment will have to be made. There may be extra costs involved …”

“Things will be very difficult without the phone. There are a lot of things I have to do …”

I felt awkward. Should I intervene? This was really none of my business. Moreover, what I felt about the whole situation here was a rapidly reached personal judgement, based on nothing more than shrewd observation and unfounded surmise. It would mean me having to tickle the role of Frau Müller out of Frau Schmitz, possibly outing her as someone with mental health issues in the process. It would all be dreadfully complicated and would probably result in nothing more than me getting Frau Schmitz’s back up, embarrassing her and pissing off the assistant manager in the process, if he got the feeling that I was just playing the interfering busybody. I decided to keep my mouth shut.

Gerry was now following another track and had recommended that Frau Schmitz might buy a mobile phone. She didn’t seem completely opposed to the idea and admitted that she had had some experience with the devices in the past.

“It was so much easier when my poor husband was alive. He used to take care of matters like these. I find it all so difficult …”

Statue of Eleanor Rigby in Liverpool
I could see that Gerry was somewhat uncomfortable. My experience over the previous week had shown me that the basic function of the telephone shop was not to deal with customers’ complaints but rather to sell telephones and, above all, contracts, so that the company could earn certain money, month after month. Such direct customer-company interfaces are becoming rarer; the telephone service providers would like their customers to do everything possible on-line – paying people to do things that software can do is not good business. If problems arise, that’s what hotlines and call-centres are for. The jobs of the people in the telephone shop are dependent on the turnover they manage to achieve and dealing with complaints, trying to give decent advice, etc., all these things take away from the time available to actually sell what they’re suppose to be selling. As it is, only the two largest telecommunications firms in Germany still have direct retail outlets – all the others work through franchisers operating on commission, and most of these haven’t a clue about the real pros and cons of what they’re selling. They’re certainly not interested in the likes of Frau Schmitz who knows nothing about the internet and isn’t interested in a smart-phone, flat-rate downloads or how many “free” text-messages per month a particular package will give her.

But Gerry is basically a decent bloke. He had actually spent around an hour around ten days earlier trying to find out just what had gone wrong with my contract before admitting that he – a professional – wasn’t really able to get any farther than I could on the phone to the call-centre. But he’d stuck at it and after a further thirty minutes had managed to cast some light on my particular situation and even work out a somewhat unorthodox but acceptable solution with me. The last phase of which I was now still waiting to complete.

So he selected the cheapest, simplest mobile phone the company had on offer and started to explain its workings to Frau Schmitz.

“Do I have to put in some sort of number when I want to use it? I don’t like that, I have trouble remembering it and the last time, after I got it wrong three times, I couldn’t use the phone at all – it was broken, or something …”

Gerry assured her that he could take the requirement to enter a PIN out. He asked her for her bank details. In Germany everyone has a bank account and he told her that the easiest way to keep the phone topped-up was to allow the phone company to debit directly from her account. It was cheaper than having to top up with cash as well. Frau Schmitz dived once more into the depths of her handbag.

“I hope I have my bank card with me. I know I’m supposed to take it with me but I often forget …”

Prolonged searching failed to produce her bank card or even some sort of letter which had her account number on it.

“It doesn’t really matter,” said Gerry. “We can arrange it to work with cash as well. But I’ll still need your identity card; we have to note the identity of everyone we sell a mobile phone to …”

At this stage, Frau Schmitz had found three purses and a somewhat larger wallet in her handbag. All of them were on the counter in front of her and closer scrutiny of the contents of each managed to produce her identity card and enough cash to pay for the whole thing. Gerry entered the details from her ID card into his terminal and spent another ten minutes or so patiently explaining the basic details of the phone to her, writing down her number for her so that she could give it to others, having ascertained that text messaging was (and would most probably remain) a mysterious world which she did not want to enter.

Finally, she packed all her bits and pieces, including her new mobile, back into her handbag, thanked Gerry profusely for his help and left the shop …

I’ve found myself thinking of her – and the many others like her – occasionally since. People who find surviving and coping in our modern, high-tech, rapidly changing society a difficult challenge. Forty-six years after the Beatles released the song, Eleanor Rigby is alive and (still not very) well.

Pictures retrieved from

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Frankie: Republican Presidential Candidates 2012

-          C’mon wimp, publish me on your blog this time.
-          No, Frankie, it’s not on. We made a deal. If you must use me to spew your filth, then I’ll publish your stuff over on Obnoxious. The style over there is a little more … robust.
-          Pseudo-bourgeois hypocrite! All this is nothing more than a literary fiction; when you get right down to it, I’m nothing more than a figment of your imagination anyway.
-          Maybe, but you’re not a very pleasant figment of my imagination.
-          Pleasant, schmeasant, you’re just chicken, that’s all. What a fucking schizo wimp!
-          If … and this is a hypothetical question … if I published you this time on “Attempted Essays,” would you leave me in peace – completely in peace – for, say, two months at least?
-          A month?
-          Six weeks.
-          O.k.
-          Oh, and Frankie …
-          Yeah?
-          No explicit, graphic descriptions of what santorum really is.
-          Oh … all right!

[So, here you have it, gentle reader, Frankie in all his nasty glory. Read on at your own risk …]

They like to call themselves the greatest democracy in the world – the USA. Christ, if this were really the case, then democracy in the world is in a very bad way indeed. If this is the best democracy can do, then there can still be quite a case made for absolute monarchy.

On the one hand there’s the incumbent. Free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last! … Yes, we can!, and all that other good (bull)shit. And what did America and the world get? When you come right down to it, an old-style Chicago Democrat – a man whose prime instinct is to make any deal as long as it will keep him on top. To be fair to him – not that I have any great urge to do so, fairness is overrated, something for that wimp in whose head I’m condemned to silently rage most of the time – much of the past three years have been spent dealing with the various messes that his idiot predecessor left to him. But really, Obama has proved to be so ready to make compromises, has been so flexible that he’s shown himself to be capable of kissing his own ass. Yes, we can, folks! We can withdraw from Iraq – though we leave the country completely wrecked and tens of thousands of US “military advisors” and “defence contractors” still in place. We can close Gitmo, only, er, no, we can’t, not really. We can get Bin Laden – in the middle of a country we still call our most important regional ally, which has been sheltering him for years. We can deal with Wall Street and the banks – by letting them more or less carry on the way they were going before they wrecked everything in the first place. We can deal with national and private debt … well, we could … maybe … but Congress won’t let us.

Ah, people, but the crazy thing is, the way it looks right now, he’s going to be re-elected next November. And you know what makes this craziness down-right bizarre? That this is probably the best thing that could happen to the USA and the world because, when you look at what the opposition is offering as alternatives, any rational being is forced to the conclusion that a wishy-washy, infinitely flexible Chicago Democrat boss is better than any of the various varieties of lunatic the Republicans are likely to nominate.

Let’s be thankful for small mercies. Some of the wackiest have already bowed out; Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann (because Jesus told her to). Herman Cain is gone too and as I’m writing this reports are coming in that Jon Huntsman has given up – showing, at least, that the guy seems to actually be basically reasonable and in possession of some intelligence. Of course, that’s probably what gave him the kiss of death; I’ve a feeling that the Republican party just doesn’t do reasonable at the moment.

Let’s look at some of the more interesting fruit and nut cases who are still in there and running. They’re all rich, of course, because you have to be rich to run for the presidency in the USA; proof, should proof be needed, that the country isn’t so much a democracy as a plutocratic oligarchy. And they’re all as mad as hatters.

Take Rick Perry. This is the man who wants to abolish government agencies whose names and functions he can’t remember. The guy has been governor of Texas ever since Dubya gave up that job to move on to wrecking the US and the world. Let’s face it, anyone who thinks that America is ready to elect another Texan governor just has to be a little crazy. But then, Rick is another one of those who believe that Jesus has told him to be president. Personally, watching this circus is making me think that Jesus must be more than a little confused at the moment.

Then there’s the other Rick, Rick Santorum. Jesus seems to like Ricks. Maybe that’s what’s happening; Jesus has got drunk in heaven and started roaring out, Rick for President, as a joke and every Tom, Dick and Harry who’s called Rick thinks that Jesus means him. (Apart from Michele Bachman, but her husband, Markus, has probably been taking his inspiration from the priestly caste snob in The Life of Brian who claims during the crucifixion, “I’m Rick and so is my wife!”)

... considers entering the race as a
 compromise candidate ...
In the special private funny-farm they’ve got for Republican presidential candidates, Santorum has a whole suite reserved (he thinks it’s the Presidential Suite). He’s given his name to a rather icky by-product of anal sex (and if you don’t believe me, just google santorum). [I’ve promised the wimp not to go into any more detail about this, much as I’d like to; let no one say I’m not a man of my word.] This guy’s Catholicism is so conservative that he’s been endorsed by the evangelicals, including the wonderful Mike Huckabee (just be thankful he isn’t running to, though maybe if Santorum gets the nomination he’ll put him on the ticket as VP). Santorum is so “pro-life,” he’s not just against abortion – he believes that sex is wrong if it doesn’t lead to children. Believe me, people, this guy makes Pope Ratzinger look like a dangerously radical liberation theologian. Santorum can best be described as the American equivalent of Ahmadinejad.

What about Newt Gingrich? Newt by name, Newt by nature, I say – the man has many similarities with a resentful lizard suffering from halitosis. This is the guy who, as House Speaker, gridlocked American politics back in the nineties because he didn’t like Bill Clinton (or because he thought Bill Clinton didn’t like him). He wants to build a fence between the USA and Mexico; should he be elected and succeed in this, he’s going to piss off an awful lot of rich Americans who would then have to pay decent wages for legal gardeners and household helps.

Ron Paul is a bit of a maverick. One of his basic problems is that he’s in the wrong party. Paul’s views make him a natural leader of the Libertarians but, since they don’t have any national clout, he has to settle for being a Republican. The guy has the advantage of being pretty consistent and faithful to his principles; the problem is that these principles often tend to put him outside the real world. I think he’d feel happier in an America where the South had won the Civil War – then he wouldn’t have to feel continually oppressed by big Federal Government. He’s winning a lot of support from liberal-minded people, who like his positions on (non-)intervention in world affairs with things like foreign wars, his personal abhorrence of capital punishment and his opposition to the War on Drugs. They’re fooling themselves – all Paul really stands for is asserting the rights of the individual over those of communal society and of individual states at the expense of Washington. What this would mean in practice is that in Massachusetts, Oregon and California you could get legally stoned, in Texas and South Carolina you’d probably be hanged for possessing a joint. Liberal thinking people who tend to admire Paul should not forget that one of his heroes and major philosophical influences is Ayn Rand.

It could also be argued that his age might mean that America would finish up with a president suffering from dementia. I don’t see any problem in this; Ronald (it’s morning in America) Reagan proved that this can be done without seriously disrupting daily business and the press could once more ask the interesting questions, What did the president forget and when did he forget it?

In the end, it doesn’t really matter – the way things look at the moment, Mitt Romney is going to get the GOP nomination. What a prospect! This is a man who believes that some of the lost tribes of Israel settled in America, were visited there by Jesus after his resurrection and left divinely inspired records, written on golden plates in a language called “Reformed Egyptian,” to be discovered by Joseph Smith (guided by angels) nearly eighteen hundred years later. He also believes that God doesn’t want you to drink coffee.

The man became a multi-millionaire, running companies which specialised in asset stripping and hedge funds. His business background is firmly among the people who caused the financial crisis of 2008, the consequences of which are still reverberating around the globe.

He has the advantage of being more flexible than Obama. Having introduced a package for universal health care as Governor of Massachusetts in that state, he now claims to be against “Obamacare,” though the basic differences between the two measures are minimal. Watching him throughout the campaign for the Republican nomination, he seems to be a chameleon, one capable of taking on whatever opinions necessary to attract the majority of Republican voters in order to achieve the nomination. His basic claim for suitability for the job is his long experience in business – if elected he would then, logically, run the USA as a successful CEO runs a company. One wonders how he will deal with employees – oops, sorry, citizens – who don’t live up to agreed targets and reach agreed goals.

In the end, it probably won’t make all that much difference whether Obama or Romney rule the USA for the next four years. The best you can say for them both is that most of the alternatives are a lot worse. Isn’t modern US democracy wonderful?

The wimp usually finishes up his posts with some music. I’d like to dedicate this little number to Rick Santorum.

Pictures retrieved from:

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Keith Jarrett’s Rio

As regular readers of this blog will have noticed, music is an aspect of life which is very important to me and one which regularly inspires me to posts here; anything from Bob Dylan to G.F. Handel. My taste is wide-ranging and catholic – while the core of it is certainly popular music, more particularly what is called rock music, in the second half of the last century, it also spreads out in many other directions.

For some reason recently, something in me had started to whisper … Jazz. Now I would not regard myself as any kind of expert in this wonderful area of music. I have had phases where I have concerned myself more with the genre and I am not ignorant of the major movements and currents which have taken place in this fascinating form of musical expression. I will readily admit my profound respect and admiration for the genius of many of the great figures of jazz: from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, John McLoughlin, Gil Evans and Charlie Mingus and, of course, the incomparable, the divine Miles Davis.

At any rate, I had the feeling that I needed to listen to some good jazz. And, as it happened, Christmas had brought a gift token and I had had occasion to read a review somewhere of what aficionados were describing as the jazz event of 2011 – a new recording of a live concert at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro on April 9 by Keith Jarrett. So I ordered the double CD and was fortunate that, on the day it arrived, I had the evening free and the flat to myself. Making myself comfortable, I put the CD on the sound system and listened to what all the jazz critics had been making so much fuss about.

And was transfixed, awestruck, amazed …

Keith Jarrett will be 67 this year and he’s been on the scene for a long time. He was a bit of a Wunderkind, possessing that blessing (and often curse) of many really good musicians, absolute or perfect pitch. Why curse? Let me explain. While I would in no way describe myself as a good musician, I do have, not perfect pitch, but a pretty good sense of pitch. This means, among other things, that I can hear if an instrument or a singer is out of tune – even to a small degree – and that it can quite annoy me. Pitch is a difficult thing; there are styles of singing, for example, which rely on shading it. Bing Crosby’s crooning is one good example, where he often intentionally starts slightly flat of the note –and this is all right, because he will then hit the pitch perfectly. But a singer who tends to consistently sing flat (think of Marc Almond of Soft Cell singing Tainted Love) or an out-of-tune guitar can be genuinely painful. And Keith Jarrett has a reputation as a perfectionist, which must make things (or people) only slightly out of tune particularly unbearable for him.

Jarrett’s musicality was recognised and fostered early and as a teenager his interests gravitated more and more in the jazz direction (one of his early inspirations was Dave Brubeck). In 1969 Miles Davis basically head-hunted him for his group; Jarrett played keyboards (along with Chick Corea) on the legendary Miles Davis at the Fillmore recordings, as well as at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970. But despite his reverence for Miles, Jarrett was developing an antipathy to electronic instruments (particularly keyboards) which gradually moved him out of the rock-driven fusion style which Davis was following.

Jarrett’s done most of the things great jazz players do; he’s recorded and performed with smaller and bigger groups, trios and quartets and quintets and bands and orchestras (his work with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette providing a defining expression of many jazz Standards); he’s explored different musical directions in that crowded family of jazz styles; he’s composed and covered the compositions of others. He’s crossed-over (like nearly everyone who was hip in the sixties and seventies into rock), more particularly, in his case, into classical music – including composition but also wonderful performances, particularly of Bach. Yet this kind of description only skirts around the circumference of what really defines the man. To get closer to the centre, to the reality, I’ve got to pare it down, cut it back to the essentials. Because this is also a central part of the reality which is Keith Jarrett – the pursuit of the logical simplification of things, their rendering to the essentials; there to let a new, stripped, simple, wonderfully complex artistic beauty come through.

Jarrett is a pianist.

Jarrett is a perfectionist.

Jarrett is gifted with a sublime musicality.

Jarrett follows his own particular dedication to one of the central, perhaps the central truth of jazz – improvisation.

And so, Keith Jarrett regularly takes to the road on tour with the most daunting, vaunting personal project any musician can take on; just a piano, an audience and his own, very particular musical genius.

Improvisation is an essential part of jazz – it’s what you can hear every time you are part of the audience for any half-decent combo playing live, the musicians merging, melding, grooving; tossing a theme from one to another, letting each of them work it a bit, sharing it. Hell, you don’t even need to go as far as a jazz combo; in my own youthful, amateur adventures in playing rock music, jamming was one of the things which was most fun when my friends and I gathered to make music. And even I have experienced that sublime feeling when it clicks, when you finally get into that wonderful gift of space beyond space, of timeless time which only making live music can give you.

And it is this same timeless time, space beyond space that Jarrett is looking for when he goes on his solo tours. It is one of the most wonderful democratic things about music that it can provide so much pleasure for anyone who really is engaged in honestly making music; whether it’s a young enthusiast struggling to get clean chord sounds out of an electric guitar in a garage band or Daniel Barenboim playing a Tchaikovsky piano concerto with a symphony orchestra.

But Jarrett is taking all this one step – one vast step – farther on; he’s making the music, the completely extemporaneous improvised music, all on his own. It is what Miles Davis described in wondering bewilderment as Jarrett’s ability to “play from nothing.” Himself, a Steinway, the audience, and his own genius, his feeling for music. It is, simultaneously, an amazing exercise in hubris and a completely humble act of total trust in and adoration of the goddess of music (and, though the Greeks named Apollo the god of music, take it from me, my friends, the deity of music is definitely feminine – and she can be a real bitch sometimes too).

Given the incredibly high standards he demands of himself, and the breadth of his genius, these performances can be nothing less than stupendously strenuous occasions for him. This is, in my view, the reason why Jarrett has the (deserved) reputation of being so critical and demanding of his audiences, so … narky. He’s been known to stop playing, for example, and demand that coughers in the audience either quit coughing or risk being thrown out. Talk about the horror of the writer before the virgin, empty page; Jarrett sits there evening after evening, just him and his piano, waiting for the initial inspiration, the ignition to come. One story tells of the opening of a concert, of minutes going by in silence – the maestro can’t find a beginning. Finally, someone in the audience, blessed by some kind of divine intuition, calls out, “D sharp!” “Thank you,” replies Jarrett and launches into a sublime improvisation. It is no wonder that this man has made the ghastly acquaintance of nervous breakdowns, and chronic fatigue syndrome. As he himself describes it, “No matter what people think, no matter how many hundreds of times I've done it, it doesn't get easier. It gets harder, because my whole goal is not to repeat myself, and in some way bring something else into the world that wasn't there before in quite that way.”

The man is talented enough, and professional enough, to always give his audiences more than value for their money. He engages completely with his work, moving constantly on the piano stool, humming and groaning in dialogue with the emerging music. But sometimes … very occasionally … it goes beyond that and Keith Jarrett reaches a pinnacle which goes beyond any descriptions which could be reached with mere words. It happened at the Köln Concert (1975) and the Vienna Concert (1991). And it happened in Rio last April.

“I really had no idea what I meant, but this concert is it. Everything I played in Rio was improvised, and there is no way that I could have gotten to this particular musical place a second time, or in a different country: not even in a different hall or with a different audience, or on a different night.”

Luckily, the evening was recorded. I’m not going to give a long description of it here, if you want this, read some of the links I’ve put at the end of this piece. But, more importantly, listen to the music. I’ve put some YouTube links into this essay* but they don’t really do the master justice. This is music which needs the full wav. format, compromised audio forms like downloaded mp3 files just don’t hack it. Nor do headphones – if you want to do this music, this performance (and yourself) justice, listen to it on a decent sound-system. Go out and buy the CD and listen to it properly. It doesn’t matter if you’re not into jazz, this music goes far beyond categories. You won’t regret it.

*The links I originally placed in this essay have since been blocked on YouTube. Those now there are replacements - that ongoing internet theme of intellectual copyright, the rights of record companies, freedom of the web, etc.!

Keith Jarrett didn’t pay me to write this, it was entirely a labour of love! J If you want to read more about the album, try some of the following links

Photo retrieved from:

Friday, 6 January 2012

Crying Wulff: Germany's Pathetic President

Herr and Frau Wulff

It being a new year and all, I’ve decided to try a little experiment here on this blog. Although I’ve lived in Germany for over a quarter of a century, German is not my first language. Apart from a few years at school, many years before I moved here, it is a language I have only learned to speak and write as an adult – and I still feel nervous about writing and publishing in it. But there is a bit of a political scandal brewing here at the moment which I feel like commenting on. Only Germans, with a few exceptions, will really have been following the story and will know all the background, so it seemed more sensible to put the first argument I want to present in German – apart from anything else, it saves me the trouble of having to explain all the tedious background to non-Germans.

For those of you who do not read German, do not despair! Following the next section in German, I will return to English, not to offer a direct translation, but to offer a few more thoughts, inspired by the current difficulties of the German president, Christian Wulff.

Wir hätten Joachim Gauck haben können …

Erinnern Sie sich noch? Es ist kaum mehr als anderthalb Jahre her, dass Horst Köhler überraschend die Brocken hinschmiss und Deutschland sich einen neuen Bundespräsidenten suchen musste.

Damals haben die SPD und die Grünen Joachim Gauck nominiert. Dieser Vorschlag war der Bundeskanzlerin und ihre Koalition nicht genehm … warum eigentlich nicht? Im Rückblick hauptsächlich, weil Gaucks Name von der Opposition ins Spiel gebracht wurde und eine Vollblutregierung nie und nimmer eine Idee der Opposition gutheißen darf. Dann und heute habe ich geglaubt, dass dies der eigentliche Grund war. Aber in jenen fernen Tagen, als Westerwelle noch Chef der FDP war, und Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg sich im Verteidigungsministerium profilierte, gab es auch von der Regierungsseite eine (angeblich) sachliche Argumentation.

Das Problem mit Horst Köhler, hieß es, war, dass er kein Profipolitiker war. Er verstand nicht, wie Sachen auf der politischen Ebene liefen, deshalb nahm er manches viel zu ernst, manch anderes nicht ernst genug. So großartig Joachim Gaucks Persönlichkeit auch sei, er wäre auch ein politischer Fremdling, in manchen Situationen eine ungesicherte Kugel. Köhler hatte gezeigt, wo so etwas hinführe, deshalb müsse jetzt ein richtiger Politiker dran. Jemand wie Christian Wulff eben …

Nun haben wir den Schlamassel. Abgesehen von eventuellen Fragen bezüglich der Finanzierung seines Hauses – und seien wir ehrlich: ist irgendjemand im Mindesten überrascht über kleinere Verflechtungen zwischen Geschäftsleuten und Politikern? – ausgerechnet ein Berufspolitiker müsste wissen, dass Drohungen gegen Journalisten und Redakteure, um zu verhindern, dass Geschichten über ihn geschrieben werden, gar nicht gehen.

Es gäbe für Frau Merkel eine Lösung für das jetzige Problem. Sie sollte Herrn Wulff den Rücktritt nahe legen und dann Herr Gauck der Bundesversammlung als Präsidentschaftskandidat der Regierung vorschlagen. Dabei könnte sie sich auf Herrn Wulff berufen und die Bereitschaft, aus eigenen Fehlern zu lernen, als positive Eigenschaft darstellen …

Let me quickly point out that the office of Federal President in Germany – in political terms – is not very important. It is almost exclusively a formal, representative office and the incumbent is not directly elected by the people but, rather, by a peculiar institution known as the Federal Assembly (composed of all the members of both houses of parliaments as well as an equal number of delegates, nominated by the provincial parliaments). Throughout the history of the Federal Republic, it has generally been used as an honorary parking lot for a senior politician, whose basic job is to spend five years looking worthy, shaking hands, and giving inspiring speeches.

It’s not all that long ago that Germany had trouble with its Federal President. In June 2010, Wulff’s predecessor, Horst Köhler resigned, basically, in a huff – an event which inspired me to write an early post here on this blog. Wulff, a professional politician who, up till then, had been Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, was chosen by the government coalition to succeed him.

In recent weeks there have been a number of reports circulating in the German media about how Wulff financed a private house purchase before he became president – it’s a complicated story involving a private loan from a wealthy businessman (or rather his wife) and a subsequent bank mortgage with interest rates which were, to say the least, generous. Questions were asked about the propriety of a political office holder being accorded this kind of friendly help. It was all stuff in that seedy grey area where elected politicians and other people of wealth, influence and power meet and move; cloudy moral areas often, where friendship and mutual advantage overlap – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

As all this was coming before the public eye, the German president phoned the chief editor of the Bild newspaper and tried to have a story killed (Wulff claims that he was only trying to have the story postponed and has since admitted that the phone-call was a “mistake”). He also apparently made some other calls, including one to the owner of Bild. The language he used and the threats he made in the call to the mailbox of the editor are claimed to have been pretty strong. What exactly was said is not officially known, since – although Wulff has done the whole public apology and repentance thing – he has refused the paper permission to publish the content of the message he left.

Leaving the question of the house financing to one side, it was his attempt to suppress reporting on the subject which, in my view, makes Wulff’s continuance in his office impossible. And expressing this opinion makes me immediately uncomfortable, not because I really have any sympathy for Wulff, but because it puts me into a situation where I find myself championing the cause of the Bild Zeitung.

Bild, the flagship of the Axel Springer publishing group, is no shrinking violet. It is a sensationalist, dumbed-down, frequently hysterical, exploitative rag, which would find itself completely at home in the grubbier corner of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. It is also Germany’s (and Europe’s) biggest circulating daily newspaper. In its chequered history it has not been loath to use its not inconsiderable power to influence the course of German politics; championing some politicians, dissing others to the extent that it has practically destroyed their careers, pushing questionable causes and occasionally fomenting public opinion in very unsavoury directions. It certainly does not need me to defend it.

Bild has also enjoyed a mutually parasitic profitable relationship with Christian Wulff for many years; this was probably why he thought he could come on so heavy in his attempt to have their story on his house financing quashed. In any case, it didn’t work; Bild not only published the piece, it also gleefully reported the president’s attempt to stop it.

He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon …

But behind all the Schadenfreude I feel watching this comedy of fools, the serious issue remains. For a head of state to try to personally muzzle any organ of the Fourth Estate is not on – even an organ as disreputable as Bild. If the president felt that the newspaper was behaving incorrectly, there were enough legal avenues open to him to have the publication of the article in question stopped; Germany’s privacy and reputation protection laws are generally a lot stricter than those in force in, for example, the UK. But Wulff, who is himself a lawyer, probably knew that he didn’t have a legal leg to stand on.

Will Wulff remain in office? The one who will ultimately answer this question is, of course, the real boss in Germany, Angela Merkel. Wulff was a member of her Christian Democrat Union up to his election (as president he is not allowed to be a member of a political party) and her nominee. Normally, I would tend to the view that she (and her president) will follow her usual tendency and sit the whole thing out. But I thought that too about the plagiarising Minister of Defence, Karl-Theodor zuGuttenberg, last year and, in the end, the public indignation at his conduct finally forced her to let him go (even if, ironically, one of his most stalwart supporters right up to the end was Bild).

As with zu Guttenberg, if Christian Wulff is forced to resign, it will be a result of widespread public opinion that his behaviour has been unworthy of a president. Should this happen, the Germans will have proved that they deserve a better president. At the moment he still seems determined to hang on to his post. But I suspect that the next weeks may well show that the most serious mistake Wulff has made was that phone-call to Kai Diekmann, the editor-in-chief of Bild. Not even because it was because it was a massive abuse of his position – but because the last enemy any mainstream politician in Germany wants is Bild.

Pictures retrieved from:


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