Saturday, August 31, 2013

An unexpected but very, very pleasant sentimental journey. I won’t say ‘to my roots’ because that would be bollocks, but there was something of that about it. And a rather odd tale as to why my father was nicknamed The Spy (Der Spion) by my many relatives in that part of the woods.

I don’t think I’ve yet really done justice to my trip to Germany in what I’ve written. OK, so my stay there was extended from just three days to eight days through a piece of expensive bad luck (and what cost me a total of €573 to have put right would have cost me here in Cornwall around £180, according to my friendly Vauxhall dealer. I told him I like to think - I prefer to think that costs are just higher in Germany, which is why I paid more. Don’t you believe it, he said, they knew you were a visitor and upped their prices accordingly. Surely not, I said. Well, he replied, I could give you the names of ten garages here in Cornwall who do just that whenever a holidaymaker breaks down and needs emergency work done.)

As it turned out the trip became more than just attending my niece’s wedding and reception and meeting up again with my sister’s family and some of their friends. When I was told that the car (the starter motor needed to be replaced) would not be ready until the following Monday afternoon, I was invited to stay with a distant relative and her family. Her grandfather and my grandmother were cousins. Then, after I had rung the garage and was told - in German, of course - ‘problems, I’m afraid, sir (a sentence with which folk the world over will be familiar), I had to ask whether I could stay another night, and there was no problem at all with that.

The plan was originally that I would pick up my car and drive north to the Emsland, the area my grandmother and grandfather came from. My sister and her husband have bought themselves a renovated farmhouse for his retirement of which my sister is very proud, and she was keen for me to see it. I was hoping to stay for three nights and two days, but what with ‘problems, I’m afraid, sir’, it became just two nights and one day.

There was a second problem when I was taken my my cousin (as I like to think of her although if truth be told be are cousins several times removed) and two of her sons to pick up the car. I handed over my credit card to pay. ‘Is it an EC card?’ they asked. ‘We only take EC cards. It wasn’t as were my other three debit cards. But my cousin kindly offered to pay and get the money back from me. (‘EC cards’ are almost wholly unknown outside Germany and only available in Germany. And a few hours ago I was looking them up on the net - ‘researching’ as they say when they want ‘looking up’ to sound a tad more important - and it seems you can only get one once you have opened a current or savings account with a German bank and then only after showing you are a straight-up sort of guy by making regular deposits for nine months. Daft or what?) Then it was off to the Emsland.

. . .

The farmhouse my sister and brother-in-law have bought was a bargain. It is in a remote area right in the district of Bunde on the west of the Emsland and less than a quarter of a mile from the Dutch frontier. And when I say remote, I do mean remote. There is a small village a mile or two away - it’s called Ditzumerverlaat, and a German village with a Dutch name shows you quite how remote it is - which has a mini supermarket where you can buy most of what you might need in the way of food - particularly fresh Brötchen for breakfast - but otherwise the only surrounding houses are other farms. I don’t know the history of the farmhouse, but I gather it was renovated by an architect and then bought by a Dutchman, a painter and decorator, who eventually sold it to my sister and brother-in-law.

It is big, and I mean big. There are three separate apartments and the downstairs apartment where my sister will live could easily be split into two separate apartments and none of them would be cramped. Then there’s a huge barn at the far end of the building. And bizarrely it also has a sauna. What was astounding about it is that the asking price for somewhere that large was comparatively low, probably because it is remote. I shan’t give figures (I know them, but these things are private and I don’t suppose my sister would be too chuffed it I did), but my brother-in-law offered around 10 per cent less, but this was turned down. A few days later it was accepted.

It is typical of the area. The rooms are large, but have Kachelöfen in them which can keep a room toasty warm. It is surrounded by garden and lawns (though not in the pristine and to my mind rather soulless British sense) and what is especially nice about the whole set-up is that it will be a paradise for young children - as in grandchildren - to visit. And as my sister had just seen her oldest daughter now married and has two sons and another daughter who are likely to have children, she is rather pleased.

The one full day I had there was spent visiting, separately two aunts (and I say ‘aunt’ but they are again several times removed, though that doesn’t bother them and most certainly doesn’t bother me. Their father was the chap I mentioned above who was a first cousin to my grandmother). They are sisters, although one is now 88 and the other 78. However, the 88-year-old could give many a 55-year-old a run for their money. She’s a real livewire.

I spent a few hours with her, then took off from her village to a town a few miles to the north to have Kaffee und Kuchen (although it was, in fact tea as this is the one area of Germany where they drink tea rather than coffee) with my sister’s mother-in-law. And the second aunt, who I had earlier contacted met me there. It was good - Lord, that sounds lame - it was great to see them both again and I am very fond of both, especially the second aunt. After homemade apple Torte and Sahne, I went back to her house where we sat on her balcony and chatted. And then, coincidentally, a cousin - her nephew - also turned up.

Both aunts are now widowed and lonely, but you wouldn’t know it. I know it, because we spent a long time chatting and both, in the least dramatic way rather let their hair down. The first aunt keeps herself busy, but really there is not a great deal for her to do. The second aunt is also busy but she, too, finds living alone a pain. As, I should imagine, do many widows and widowers. I don’t feel I am especially romantic and rather loathe a rather overblown way many, both here in Britain and in Germany, but most certainly everywhere else as well, and get rather sentimental and fanciful.

Yet driving up to my sister’s farmhouse, for several miles along dead straight roads surrounded by huge wheat fields, now harvested, I had the oddest feeling of coming home. I have only mentioned it to my sister and mention it here because no one else reading this, with two exceptions, actually knows me. But I did, and I wasn’t pretending or indulging in some silly fanciful fantasy. And I don’t really know why.

The feeling was, and this is the oddest bit, that this is where I belonged and where I should end my days. I almost certainly will not. But I should very much like to. It has as much to do with the kind of people who live up there as the countryside (a word which seems wrong, in fact, and Landschaft would be better, although by using it I might well come across as not a little pretentious and I really don’t want or mean to do so).

In a sense the people are almost as much Dutch as German and most certainly not German in the way many imagine Germans to be. (The cousin in Langenfeld I stayed with told me that when, as a young girl, she went to stay with a family in America, they were very surprised that she didn’t arrive wearing a Dirndl. To explain that, for the folk up there to wear a Dirndl would be as odd, not to say outlandish as for an Italian to wear tartan trews as a matter of course.)

I like, and very much relate to, their more relaxed, laid-back manner, their hospitality, the way they socialise, their sense of family. I look forward to making many more visits to my sister there, hopefully sooner or later surrounded by her grandchildren and their cousins, before I pop my clogs. I took several pictures of the farm but don’t have them with me at present, so here is a picture I dug up on the internet which might give you a flavour of the area. It’s not actually the Emsland (named after the river Ems of telegram notoriety) but of Ostfriesland, but it will do.

Oh, and it is all about three or four metres below sea level: the land was reclaimed several hundred years ago and is surrounded by dykes.

. . .

One very odd story I came across several years ago was that my father was known among my mother’s many relatives in Papenburg and Lathen as Der Spion (the spy). I do happen to know that he did occasionally help out with MI6, although what his relationship was with the good folk in real-life 007 country I have no idea and now no way of finding out. I’ve always thought he was a BBC man first and foremost but that he - well, as I say helped out. There have been suggestions that it was pretty much the other way round, but who knows? I most certainly don’t.

He started his World War II service, after spending two years at Cambridge, in the infantry, but very soon his rather special gift for languages, especially French and German, saw him transferred to Intelligence. (One of the aunts mentioned above assured me that he spoke German completely without an accent. I can’t vouch for that, but merely pass on what she said.)

Once the war ended part of his duties were to seek out Germans untainted by Nazism to build the framework for a potential resistance movement who could be relied upon by the Allies if and when the anticipated Soviet Russian push westwards began. This, most probably through my mother, who he married in 1947, brought him into contact with August Löning, my mother’s mother’s cousin.

August Löning was quite special: he would have nothing to do with the Nazis when having nothing to do with the Nazis was not at all easy and even insisted that his daughters, two of whom were the aunts I mention above, were not allowed to join the Bund Deutsche Mädel (BdM), the girl’s equivalent of the Hitlerjugend (HJ). One aunt, the 88-year-old, born in 1925 was rather upset by this as the BdM was sold as nothing more than an innocent Sportsverein. All her friends were members and she a young nine-year-old, felt rather left out and couldn’t understand why she couldn’t join. But August wouldn’t, he simply wouldn’t, let her.

I have no idea what he did for my father and the British military authorities, but my aunt tells me that every so often - she would by now havebeen around 22 - a mysterious ‘Mr Warner’ (here, left, is the only picture I have been able to find of the man) would turn up for meetings with her father and everyone was told to make themselves scarce while they discussed whatever they discussed. And that, dear reader, is it. I really can’t tell you any more, except to repeat that as no one can keep secrets for long my father was jocularly known as Der Spion. The most curious part is that at my niece’s wedding reception was one very nice (and attractive) woman, a student friend of hers from Peru who spoke impeccable German. And when she was introduced and told who I was, said: Also du bist der Sohn von dem Spion (you’re the son of The Spy). This, from a total stranger, took me aback, to put it mildly.

My how time passes (or from baby poo to first driving lesson)

Altogether now: aahhh, isn’t it sweet. Well, it is for me. Not many months ago, it seems, I was wiping my baby daughter’s arse, then putting on a new nappy. And not many weeks ago, I would pick her up from primary school as she struggled, all twiglet legs and pink gingham summer uniform, to carry a cello twice her size from the playground to my car.

She is utterly without a musical ear and only asked for cello lessons because her best friend at time had also started cello lessons. She never once touched it at home, except when on one occasion I mentioned this and said lessons were a waste of money if she wasn’t interested, that I didn’t give tuppence either way whether she had them or not and that she should at least be honest with herself on the matter. A few minutes later, as though, incidentally, she went up to her room and scratched about on it for a minute or two then came downstairs again.

At the end of term she informed us that she wasn’t particularly bothered about carrying on with lessons, so she didn’t, and as the cello had only been hired from school, there was no great loss. Then, just a few days ago, it seems, I drove her off to some disco in some village hall where they supped Coke and came home again at ten. And this morning I gave her her first driving lesson.

She turned 17 on August 7 and immediately applied for her provisional driving licence (which has to be replaced because there is a spelling error in the address). A friend gave her a Cars keyring and my wife gave her a front door key and the spare set of keys to the small Matiz she drives. I can’t afford the £1,000 odd it would cost to insure her to drive either that car or my car. It’s that expensive because of her age.

For myself, my wife, my brother and my cousin comprehensive insurance on my V-reg Rover 45 (nothing modern or young for me, I’m afraid, is just £198 a year. But I drove her up past Camelford to Davidstow where there are two runways left over from the war and their I initiated her in the intricacies of changing gear while rolling a joint. Actually, that’s a joke, but I’d better point that out for fear of real misunderstandings.

My reasoning is that as she is not driving on the road (‘a public highway’, no doubt, in officialese) she doesn’t have to be insured to drive the Matiz. I suspect that that is complete nonsense and that she most certainly

should be insured whether she drives on a road or into the Tamar at full speed, but that was going to be my story and I was going to stick to it should, for some reason, we have been stopped. There was, of course, no chance or that because we were more or less in the back of beyond. I tried her out in first gear, then second gear and then, tentatively because the runway we are on is anything but smooth and has the occasional hidden pothole, briefly in third.

Then I got her to reverse, which was an interesting experience as she has real trouble understanding ‘doing things backwards’ as she put it. But there you go, a sentimental first. I should like to claim I shed a quiet tear in private at how my little babby (sic) is suddenly on the verge of womanhood blah-blah, but cynics everywhere will be pleased to hear I did nothing of the kind.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The joy of breaking down and needing a new starter motor while abroad, but thank the Lord for relatives, even if most of them are several times removed

In Germany, though as things have turned out, in Germany for rather longer than I had planned. My niece, my sister’s oldest child, was married on Saturday, and I caught the ferry from Dover on Thursday afternoon to get to my hotel in Dusseldorf at about 9pm. I should have got there about and hour and a half earlier, but was caught up in commuter traffic on the Antwerp ring road, which can give London’s M25 a run for its money any day. I came in what I call ‘Ken’s car’, and there’s the rub and the reason why a planned four-day break has become a week-long break.

I call it Ken’s car because a chap called Ken, who died a year or two ago at the age of around 80, left it to my brother in his will, and my brother – god bless his soul – gave it to me because he lives in London and said he had no use for it. It is not young – a T reg (i.e. registered in 1999) – but it had only 38,000 odd miles on the clock when my brother gave it to me, and still has only 45,000. So it seemed a better bet than my Rover 45 which is a year young but already has 149,000 on the clock and is due to have its cam belt replaced. Bad move.

On Friday I drove over to see my sister at their base in Langenfeld, and then in the afternoon I set my heart on sitting in a Lokal somewhere in the country, supping Bitburger, smoking a cigar and doing absolutely fuck-all. Unfortunately, the ares around Dusseldorf, Langefeld, Leverkusen and Cologen is as built up as it is around London and finding such a Lokal in a rural setting seemed improbable if not impossible, until my sister suggested a place called Diepental, which is more or less just a few Lokale on a small lake. It was perfect, and I stayed for three hours, eventually, as one does, falling into conversation with four German pensioners.

What was not quite as perfect at eventually getting into my car, turning on the ignition and being greeted by nothing more than a slight click from the engine which is a sure sign that something is amiss. It wasn’t that my battery was flat, but the the starter motor had decided to bugger of to the great car park in the sky and needed to be replaced (although I found all this out only a few hours later).

To cut a long story short (not so say an increasingly tedious narrative which is beginning to more even more, so Lord knows how scintillating you, the reader, are finding it, after a great deal of hassle – I stress a great deal – finding the number for the German equivalent of the RAC who came and read the last rites over the starter motor and arranged to have it towed away. This happened 90 minutes later at a cost, as I was told later of 145 euros (which for the sake of convenience and as everything is always more expensive than the estimate. The garage rang a minute or two ago and informed me – I’m sure regretfully – that there were problems, it was more than the starter motor and would cost around 500 euros.

Fuck. Remember, please, in your prayers.

. . .

 Last night I went out for a meal with relatives (in the neck of the woods where they all originally come from they like to claim more or less everyone as a relative. In fact we are all cousins, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews several times removed, but I like it. And they are all very nice. What’s more relevant is that I hadn’t seen some of them for at least 20 years and some for much longer.

The plan was that I would pick up my car this afternoon and drive north to stay with my sister in the old farmhouse she and her husband have bought. Well, that will now be tomorrow night (and I might even post some pictures – it’s right on the Dutch border and a rather nice, if isolated and very flat neck of the woods.) But one thing I shall do is visit an aunt (see note above about the Emsland attitude to relatives – they’d rather you were one than not) who I haven’t seen since I was about 22, perhaps even before then.

. . .

The Germans don’t usually drink tea, but they do in the Emsland and are a very down-to-earth people who I rather like. They call a spade a spade and have a dry sense of humour. Ironically, for one reason or another, many of them now live down here in this town, Langenfeld, are nearby. It just happened that way. I must say that I far prefer German food and dishes to British food and dishes and also like the way they socialise. Some Germans have a tendency to sentimentality (and the Americans caught that particular disease from their German and other immigrants) but not all, and the folk from the Emsland are among those who don’t.

When I was young, my mother spoke to us in German, so to this day to me German is as much not a foreign language as English is. When I hear Italian, Spanish or French etc spoken, it is foreign. German isn’t. But I didn’t learn German until I went to school in Germany for four years, and eventually I spoke German like a German. I was rather proud of that because it was the one thing I – an Englishman – could do: speak German so that Germans thought I was German. In most other ways I didn’t shine, except, perhaps, talking bullshit. That, I’m sorry to say is no longer the case.

German is still not a ‘foreign language’ and when I hear people speaking it, it is just people speaking rather than ‘people speaking a foreign language’. But my command of the language has slipped rather. I like to think that it is still better than your average Brit, but it is not as fluent as it once was. I know that it would be just a matter of time to regain the command I once had, but I can’t see myself living in Germany at any time in the future. It is also rather frustrating in that I can’t express myself as fully as I should like. It’s not that I don’t have the vocab and phrases, it’s just that some are tucked away somewhere and aren’t readily available.

Oh well, at least I’m not being gassed to death as some poor Syrians are now.

. . .

The situation there is looking dire and doesn’t seem likely to improve at any time soon, especially as the US and Britain seem to have made up there mind that the fuck-ups that were Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam and Suez weren’t enough and a new fuck-up must be added to the list. Granted that Assad’s forces used poison gas – although it is all very strange as to why they did it (and I can’t quite buy the notion that the gas was used by the rebels in order to try to discredit Assad’s government) – but if it was Assad and his side, it was all rather badly timed (thought ‘bad timing’ is the least obejectionable thing about the affair). Granted all that, but the wise old dictum Never Take Sides surely to goodness should count here.

Perhaps the wiseacres in the Foreign Office and State Department have some sophisticated wheeze up their sleeves and bombing Assad’s forces is just a ploy in some greater scheme – though I don’t beliveve it – but backing the once side rather than the other seems to me to choose between cancer of the bowel and cancer of the stomach. Never take sides: I learnt that years ago when I was working in a bar and intervened when a drunken man started knocking six bells out of his equally drunken wife – who immediately turned her husband to turn on me.

Never take sides, the pub manager told me later, and never was a truer word spoken. But Obama and Cameron seemed intent in getting the West more involved. What with the betrayal the Muslim Brotherhood are feeling in Egypt and the standard scepticism many Middle Easterners feel for the West, its interference in the matter there, however much the handwringers proclaim ‘something must be done’ is not going to end well.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Let’s hope the US courts see sense and let off Bradley Manning with nothing more serious than a slap on the wrist and the advice next time to look before he leaps

UPDATE (on Aug 22): I understand that Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years, but could be out within ten, and that he now feels he is really a woman and wants to be called Daisy or Betty or something (I wasn’t paying that much attention to the news broadcast). All of that notwithstanding, I feel what I wrote a night or two ago below still stands, with the poor chap’s gender confusion making some of my comments all the more pertinent.

One of the items on the news tonight was the Bradley Manning’s lawyers have petitioned President Barack Obama to pardon the lad. And I bloody hope he does so. Reports from the trial suggest Manning is looking at a minimum of 60 years in jail. Before he went to trial and admitted some offences, there was even talk that he faced the death penalty. That, it seems, is no longer likely.

One of the details about the case, which to me is - obliquely - pertinent is that Manning passed on 700,000 documents to Wikileaks and run by who I regard as an arch-fraud Julian Assange. Does anyone really suspect that Manning had the slightest idea what he was doing? Does anyone really think that his motives for passing on those documents was somehow to damage the United States. And, crucially, does anyone really think that Manning even knew the importance of what was in some of those documents, let alone read the whole lot. I repeat, he passed on 700,000 (according to the news).

Manning, we now know, was a confused young man who was having trouble coming to terms with the fact that he was gay. That, in itself, is no excuse for ‘treason’, if you want to regard and describe what he did as ‘treason’. I rather think the poor chap did not have the faintest clue what he was up to. I have no way of knowing how bright he is, but I also suspect that he is not, in the sense of being a man of the world, all that bright.

There can be no doubt that he caused the United States, both the present administration and the previous administrations, a great deal of embarrassment. Publication of the content of the documents he leaked have also, I have to admit, entertained us a great deal. But I do feel rather sorry for all those embassy staff around the world whose candid reports from the country in which they were serving were made public. They were asked for their informed opinions of the governments and leading figures in those countries and, assuming that their views were confidential, gave honest accounts.

Admittedly, among the many documents that were leaked were some quite shocking accounts of criminal misbehaviour by, for example, US troops in Iraq. But for those who oppose the US, those accounts - remember the previous and unrelated reports from Abu Ghraib, will not have come as a great surprise. In fact, Manning is on record as saying that one such shocking account, of a helicopter targeting, then murdering innocent Iraqis who just happened to be in the way, was the catalyst which set him on course to do what he did. To but it bluntly, there is a strong smell of fish about it all.

Manning, in my view an innocent abroad, was used by Wikileaks and Assange, and by the Guardian. That paper likes to present itself as some kind of social conscience and there is some truth in that. But it is also just another newspaper in the business of making money, and the documents leaked by Manning to Wikileaks who passed them on for publication to the Guardian will have seemed like all their dreams come true.

Here, dear reader, was another opportunity for the Guardian to demonstrate its oh-so-holy chops. And if by doing so it could damage what it regarded as the opposition to boot, so much the better. Manning was, of course, the prime mover in all this, but there is no suggestion, as there is, perhaps, in the case of Edward Snowden that what he did was a matter of principle and undertaken after he great deal of thought. And even the whole Snowden affair is not quite as straightforward as the Guardian would have us believe.

Manning now faces spending more or less the rest of his life in jail purely because - in my view, I had better repeat - he was a confused young chap who didn’t have much of an idea as to what he was doing and was cynically used by those who should know better. Soon we will know what the courts decided will be Manning’s future.

Ridiculous as it might sound to some reading this, I would simply like to see him let of with a suspended sentence and then allowed to get on with the rest of his life, perhaps a little wiser. Will it happen? Well, writing this tonight, I don’t know. But, sadly, I rather doubt it. To quote Alexander Pope and use a phrase previously used in a Times leader when it commented on a drugs trial involving those arch ‘rebels’ the Rolling Stones, ‘Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?’ I hope to God it isn’t the US in all its outraged vigour. There are other ways to deal with being made to look rather foolish.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Turn down the sneering, the natives are restless. Or why Frey and Henley are as good as Fagen and Becker any day (and aren’t quite as up themselves to boot)

I’ve long liked Steely Dan and I also like The Eagles, though I have heard far more - well, everything Steely Dan have recorded, but not everything, The Eagles have done. There are crucial differences between the two bands quite apart from the music they play. For example, although Steely Dan did their fair share of touring, being part of the back-up band of someone called Dave and The Jaywalkers (or something, I really can't be arsed to look it up), and although they toured as Steely Dan in the early days, they gave up just as soon as they could. The Eagles, on the other hand, seemed to have done nothing but tour, and it and the drugs were probably the major factor which saw them burn out in 1981.

There are other differences: Steely Dan are essentially a New York band, even though they spent a considerable time in LA. The Eagles aren't. Steely Dan would be regarded here in Old Blighty as nice middle-class chaps you might well not object to having the vicar take out on a date. The Eagles came from all over what, I suppose, could be described as smalltown America, although Glenn Frey was from Detroit. And their respective backgrounds, or at least some of them, was not quite as hi falutin'. Don Felder, for example, was, by his own admission, dirt poor. Generally, I get the feeling that The Eagles were rather more down-to-earth than Steely Dan.

There is a line in a Steely Dan song which puts down The Eagles - ‘Turn up The Eagles, the neighbours are listening’ on Everything You Did from The Royal Scam - which is another of those cynical, sneering lines of the kind Dan fans like because their appreciation of it confirms to them that they, too, like Fagen and Becker, are a just a little hipper than your average joe, a little brighter, perhaps, a little more knowing, and, of course, if truth be told a little more self-regarding and smug.

Not for them the mainstream pop sensibility of The Eagles - they, brighter, more knowing, somehow - in their imagination - more sophisticated prefer the jazzy intricacies of Steely Dan. Me? Well, however much I like Becker and Fagen’s music, that line and a rather superior, patronising attitude (both are from New York) has always rather got up my nose. Several years ago, I went to see Steely Dan at Wembley Arena in London. Becker and Fagen, although I rather think Fagen rather than Becker, became notoriously unwilling to tour. They didn’t like it at all.

But that was in the Seventies and now, in the Noughties (as I understand we are obliged to call the first decade of the 21st century, I suspect Becker persuaded Fagen that what with staying at expensive hotels and being waited on hand and foot as only successful and respected musos on tour are waited on hand and foot meant that ‘touring’ was not half as bad as it was when they were starting out. For me Steely Dan were always ‘other’, so I was hugely disappointed when at the start of the concert and in the first address to the attendant Dan acolytes, Becker came out with the corniest of corny lines ‘Hello, London, we love your fish and chips’.

Christ, I thought, even Steely Dan have feet of clay. It was rather like hearing the girl you have been idealising fart loudly and take off to the loo where she noisily proceeds to take a dump.

No romance can survive that or Becker’s standard-for-a-tour crass line. Why the fuck didn’t he keep his mouth shut. But he didn’t and a part of my appreciation of Steely Dan died. And so pissed off was I that about ten minutes later I heckled Donald Fagen. We were far upfront, just about four or five rows from the stage, and Fagen and his keyboard could have been no more than 2oft away. So devilry took me and when one song ended and just before another was about to start, I shouted to him: ‘Play Hotel California’.

He didn’t like it, not one bit. How do I know? Well, it will have played on his mind throughout the subsequent song and when that song finished he said something along the lines of ‘bad things happen to people who say things like that’. But why should they. Well, they should - thus the subtext - because they were Steely Dan and way, way more sophisticated than The Eagles. He would have remained high in my estimation had he said nothing. But to respond to so innocuous a heckle - well ...

. . .

I mention this because the other night I watched almost all of The History Of The Eagles, the documentary they made several years ago. And what is obvious is that Glenn Frey and Don Henley were just as obsessive in their determination to achieve perfection in the music they were producing. And whether or not you like their songs - I do - they stood head and shoulders above their peers. OK, so the music is by no means as ‘sophisticated’ as that of Steely Dan, but for what is is, in construction, production and shape, they are just as good.

Frey and Henley wrote lyrics just as good as Becker and Fagen (and I suspect, judging by their subsequent solo work, the lyrics were more Becker than Fagen). I was far more familiar with The Eagles first and second album - Desperado is especially good - than what came later, although naturally I heard the hits on the radio, but I have since bought a hits compilation which spans their whole career and the excellence does not tail off. They deserved their success.

So at the end of the day that sneering throwaway line - ‘turn up The Eagles the neighbours are listening’ - tells you far more about Becker and Fagen than The Eagles. I’ve only been to New York once, and that was more or less by way of a fluke, so it’s fair to say I don’t know New York at all.

But I do rather suspect the that superior superciliousness of Steely Dan is pretty much shared by the the city’s ‘artistic community’. You do get the feeling that they sincerely feel they are a cut above the rest of us, and it doesn’t surprise me that John Lennon, who could be as pretentious as the rest of us given half a chance, was able to make New York his home so glibly. It might also be the reason why Becker and Fagen - who was actually from New Jersey, so what is he so proud about - found it so easy to sneer at a chap from Linton, Texas, and another from Detroit. . . . I was walking home tonight and courtesy of my £15 Three add-on which give me a unlimited 3G internet access I switched off BBC Radio 4 and tuned in to two jazz stations out there somewhere on the net. The first - Jazz24 - was reasonably pleasant, some jazz violinist demonstrating his chops, but I wasn’t in the mood and found another - piano jazz on That, I thought would be a little more to my liking, especially as I like Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano a lot.

It was good, as in pleasant, but not great, uptempo jazz piano, double bass, drums and eventually two saxes. To be honest it sounded like pretty much standard fare, the elements of jazzy funk making the piece I heard reasonably contemporary. But what it reminded me again for the umpteenth time is that 99 percent of your music is in 4/4 time, and 4/4 is boring. Familiar but boring. All pop is in 4/4 as is a great deal of classical music, and a great deal of jazz. We like it because it is the essence, in music, of accessibility. I should, perhaps, write ‘Western music’ - Asian music not only deals in other time signatures but also in quarter notes which our Western ears find ‘strange’.

Increasingly, rather like mediocrity - I would say dumbing down if it weren’t such a cliche - in culture and food, that 4/4 time is imposing itself around the world. And at the end of the day it is boring. I don’t suppose it much matters if the music you are listening to is lightweight, but I find it boring, boring, boring. I can’t claim to ‘know’ other time signatures, but a rule of thumb is that if you can’t dance to it, it is not in 4/4. You’ll find that virtually every country and western song is in 4/4, every funk piece, every pop song, every music hall song, every bluegrass piece, every blues, and we like it because it we are familiar with it and it brings no surprises. I can’t pretend that when I play guitar (not particularly well, and I have finally decided to get better and have started by learning scales) I play anything else. But that notwithstanding it is boring, boring, boring.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Stupidity (or how do you make a bad situation ten times worse? Ask us here in the ‘developed’ West. We can give you chapter and verse, whether you like it or not)

There is a good case to be made that one can forgive most things except stupidity. Actually, there are one or two other things which one feels disinclined to forgive, a lack of charity being one, so that’s me set to be pilloried for another unforgivable trait, hypocrisy. But leave that for another time. Let me here ramble on about stupidity on a grand scale.

The overnight news is the action by the Egyptian army to clear one or two protest camps set up by protesters who support the ousted president Morsi and can’t, for the life of them, see the right in a democratically elected head of state being toppled. Between 150 and 2,000 folk are said to have died in the attacks by soldiers. That’s at least 150 too many.

Well, you might tell yourself from the comfort of your armchair, worse things have happened at sea, and, anyway, isn’t such violence quite commonplace in what is still regarded by many as the ‘underdeveloped world’? Good Lord, you might think, just the other day several hundred people were killed in Somalia, Syria, Brazil, Nigeria and other such insalubrious places. Surely it’s a way of life out there? Surely they rather expect to come home to find that dad, or their brother or their sister was in the wrong place at the wrong time and won’t be coming home tonight or, for that matter, for ever?

Perhaps you think I’m joking, but there are quite a few here in the ‘developed’ West, where a ‘tragedy’ is their flight being delayed by several hours and they didn’t get to summer holiday resort until a day after they were supposed to get there, who think just along such lines. I was once told, years ago, in all seriousness, that famine in East Africa wasn’t as bad for the East Africans as it was for us because ‘they were used to that kind of thing’. In a sense, what happened in Egypt yesterday was commonplace. Change channels and you can hear reports from Syria where equally horrible things are taking place.

What caught my attention was a report from Cairo on BBC radio news in which several Morsi supporters were interviewed. In broken English - it’s astonishing in this day and age how little English some chaps have - they vented their fury at Britain, the U.S. and the smug rest of them over their supine reaction to the toppling of Morsi a month ago and how there had not been a peep of protest at what was to any honest eyes an out-an-out coup.

One of them screamed - you rarely hear us here in the ‘developed’ West screaming, oh no, the most we might do is raise our voices a little, but then different strokes . . . - that we in the West had been lecturing the Arab states about how they must embrace democracy, but that when they did as they were bid and elected Morsi, there was rather a lot of muted tut-tutting. ‘When we said that your leader should be democratically elected, we didn’t actually mean that you should democratically elect a chap who would very much like his country to be run along more Islamic

Here’s a chap who will probably think twice the next time the West urges him to act democratically. ‘Is there,’ he’ll ask himself, ‘really that much point?’

principles, don’t you know.’ Then when the chap a majority of Egyptians did elect - and I’ll repeat, I have yet to hear anyone claim that the election last year was in any way rigged or otherwise unfair - was removed from power by an unholy alliance of the army and assorted metropolitans liberals, the silence of the West who are usually none too slow in condemning a military coup was deafening. You rather feel the guy’s frustration. And it doesn’t bode well for other Arab states taking the West seriously when we decided to lecture them, too.

It didn’t even seem to bother the us here in the West that Morsi was placed under house arrest and that a large number of Muslim Brotherhood members were locked up without charge. Not a peep of protest was heard from London, Washington, Paris or Berlin, let along Rome, Copenhagen, The Hague or Madrid. That was the first act of Western stupidity. It was, in fact, a lot more than just criminally stupid, but here I’ll just deal with the rancid, breathtaking stupidity.

Large numbers of Morsi supporters then set up their protest camps - a concept of a protest camp not unfamiliar here in the ‘developed’ West, and demanded that their man should be released and that the new government and the army should respect the results of last year’s election. Nothing much wrong with that, you might agree (that is if your armchair isn’t now far more comfortable and you’d far prefer to switch on

No, not Spain in 1936, but Egypt in 2013
the TV and watch Masterchef or Escape To The Country). But the Egyptian army did disagree, and yesterday they demonstrated how much they disagreed. Now, of course, the West is outraged as only the West can get outraged, and has been tut-tutting far into the night about it all. It’s wholly unacceptable, don’t you know. But, dear friends, the genie is out of the bottle.

Anyone who believes that the situation Egypt can somehow be resolved peacefully is living in cloud-cuckoo land. Among a great many of those who supported Morsi are those who have now had it with democracy, and when they are told that democracy is incompatible with the kind of state they would like to live in, one in which sharia law is observed rather more to the letter, they are inclined to tell us: OK, stuff democracy. But it needn’t have got to this stage. If only when the original coup took place the West had put its money where its mouth is and said ‘now hold on, chaps, this man Morsi was elected fair and square and you can’t just dump him like that, we would, at least, still have one leg to stand on. Now we have none.

. . .

The original charges against Morsi included that despite his promises to rule ‘for all the country’ he did nothing of the kind and merely promoted the ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that he did absolutely fuck-all to improve the conditions of anyone. Well, that might well be true. And it might well be a load of cobblers. How can I tell? But in many countries of the ‘developed’ West similar charges are being made against an elected government.

Here in Britain the Left daily makes claims that the ‘Tory cuts’ are ‘costing lives’. So how come we don’t have a coup to get rid of Cameron? We don’t because it would be undemocratic. Which begs the question: if water is wet in Britain, is it not equally wet in Egypt? Apparently not. But now we have the mess. With exquisite timing the U.S. for what seems like the umpteenth time, has once again persuaded Israel and the various Palestinian factions to sit down and try to hammer out some kind of modus vivendi which will lead to a more peaceful, less unpleasant life all round.

Given that the Yanks didn’t come up with the idea last Friday and will have been painstakingly planning this for several months, didn’t it occur to any of the wise herberts in the State Department that giving the Egyptian army a wink and a nod to go ahead and launch a coup - for that is practically what the West’s supine attitude to the events boils down to - would go down like a pork sandwich at those Jewish/Muslim peace talks, especially from the Palestinian perspective? Apparently not.

As I say, one can forgive much except rank stupidity.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Wagner gets a Brownie point, Tchaikovsky gets a load more, Brahms – well, who was Brahms except, apparently, the third B? - and me, well I’m still wondering just how English I am

It’s was off to St Endellion last night for the penultimate concert of the St Endellion Summer Festival with the aunt with whom I stay when I bugger off to Bordeaux for concerts. On the bill - ‘bill’ sounds horribly plebeian for an evening of 19th-century classical music, and on reflection I should probably use the far more respectable ‘programme’, but I’m in a contrary mood, so ‘bill’ it will remain, and at the end of the day both mean the same thing and are only distinguished by snobbery and attitude - were Brahms, Wagner and Tchaikovsky.

 Of Brahms, who I understand is regarded as the third B in the Three Bs, the two others being Bach and Beethoven, I haven’t actually heard very much, but I must say what I heard yesterday, Gesang der Parzen (and I, too, had to look up ‘Parzen’), was very much to my taste. (As for Brahms being the third B, I must admit that I can’t quite see it, but that is probably because, as I say, I haven’t heard a great deal of his music, but that also because for me a little 19th-century romanticism goes quite a long way).

Next came the Wagner, and I was intrigued. The flip thing for me to write here (and being about as deep as a saucer of water I really cannot resist writing it) is that I haven’t heard a lot of Wagner because I just haven’t got the time. My other quip, used here once before but as the man said ‘if they liked it once, they’ll like it twice, is that Wagner became very affluent in his later years because he was the first composer to insist on being paid by the hour. In short, Wagner doesn’t grab me very much at all. Beecham once said (I think it was Beecham) that ‘Wagner has his moments, about one every 15 minutes’, and that sums it up rather well.

When you go to hear and see a Wagner opera, you are well advised to take a change of clothes and leave a forwarding address. Apart from that the chap, as far as I am concerned, more or less invented bombast, which is perhaps why he went down a storm with the National Socialists and, more recently, the Americans. But I was intrigued, for the bill (aka programme) didn’t promise two days of Germanic sword and sorcery but Lieder, to be more precise, the Wesendonck Lieder, five of them. And, dear reader, I liked them.

I had previously heard musicologists being rather positive about Wagner, about how he was a innovator and, as one said recently, was (something along the lines of) the interface between classical music and modernism. Well, I know next to nothing about music in that deeper, technical sense, but is seems Wagner came up with chords and harmonies which were quite startling to then contemporary ears. But being a crypto-liberal despite my reactionary pose I was prepared to give good ’ole Richard the benefit of doubt. And I’m pleased to say he came up trumps, with his Lieder having sometimes a delicacy I never suspected the old sod was capable off.

After the interval (and £3 glass of bloody awful red plonk my aunt and I had to share because neither of us had brought enough dosh with us to buy two - I had had £8 on me, she had nothing, and I had previously blown £5 of those £8 on a glossy programme. It’s a measure of how much the St Endellion Festival has embraced the 21st century that in days gone by you had to put up with a blackboard with that night’s bill chalked up on it in rather illegible handwriting. One year they did experiment with a chap all togged up as an ‘olde worlde’ town cryer, including bell, who spent an hour or so walking around the church announcing that night’s programme, but it didn’t go down well with the more refined sort who thought it all a bit infra-dig) came Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and very glad I am, too, that I heard it in live performance.

Many, many, many folk are horribly sniffy about Tchaikovsky but I can’t see why and it is nothing but a bad reflection on them. Years ago when I was living in Berlin and attending a German school, I would arrive home at just before 2pm, have my lunch and then go upstairs to do my homework and tune into AFN to Don Ameche’s Pop Concert whose theme tune was Tchaikosky First Piano Concerto, and if that isn’t enough to turn most 11/12 year-old lads onto classical music, I don’t know what is. I still like it, and get beyond those crashing opening chords it does get very moving.

The opening bars of the Fourth Symphony are, I’m sure, pretty familiar to many, rather like the faces of actors we have seen in many a film but can’t quite place. Well, yesterday I placed it and listened to the lot. Because I had booked late and there were few tickets still available, we sat at the side of St Endellion parish church right next to the orchestra. I was - literally (yes, Pete, literally, about a foot and a half from the string section (or at least the outer reaches of the string section) and it was great. Perhaps the balance of instruments wasn’t what it might have been - the French horns, who play quite a prominent part in the opening, were barely ten feet away and loud - but it was a revelation, for example, to hear how the strings interacted. And that third movement, the ‘pizzicato’ movement. It should persuade anyone with a soul that for all his angst and troubles - Tchaikovsky never came to terms with being gay and drank far too much - the lad was basically good-hearted, good-natured and would surely have been good company. I like to think that laughing came to him rather easily, and I don’t mean laughing in a spiteful way. It is no surprise to me that he got on well with his brothers and inspired affection in his friends. He’s the kind of guy - make that gay - whose real tragedy, one he shares with Oscar Wilde, was that he wasn’t born 150 years later when his sexuality would have been of no consequence.

. . .

Just before writing this entry, I looked up (inevitably on Wikipedia) further details of Wagner’s life, and where I like to think I should very much have enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s company, Richard, despite my rather grudging praise above, was what we call in the trade ‘a cunt’. Make that self-centred cunt. There is this curious belief that ‘the artist’ has to be a bastard to be good. Well, bollocks to that. Certainly, an ‘artist’ must be single-minded where his work is concerned, but when it comes to the rest of his or her life where being just an ordinary Joe or Jane is concerned he and she are just like the rest of us and are obliged to treat the rest of us with respect. Wagner, it seems, didn’t. I’m not going to go into his anti-semitism because for the purpose of what I want to say that is not pertinent (in as far as there are just as many Jewish cunts as there are Gentile cunts). When he was still an aspiring composer Giacomo Meyerbier, which should really just be Meyer Bier as the Giacomo was assumed for professional reasons, championed him. In return Wagner later shat on Meyer Bier.

He hitched up with Minna Planer and treated her like dirt, putting his own career well before hers, though I rather suspect she was just as much a pain in the arse as he was. I like the story when, after many rows and many partings, they finally got married, they even had a stant-up row in front of the minister who was about to marry them. Later, patronised, in the best sense, by a businessman Otto von Wesendonck, he went on (if some are to be believed) to have an affair with the chaps wife. Then there’s the flight from Riga across the Russian border with Minna and her daughter Nathalie, the horrendous trip to London, the years of poverty in Paris, the participation in the Dresden revolution and what came later and it seems to me Wagner had a life crying out to be made into a - good, that’s important - mini series. If it wasn’t for the hours and hours and hours of bombastic music. But I must say I’m glad I discovered the Wesendonck Lieder.

. . .

One last point. If anyone wanted to capture the essence of a certain kind of English middle-class life, visit a St Endellion festival. Very few of the fok there are under 40, most of over 50 and many over 60, almost all have grey or white hair and beards, including many of the women, and most of the cars are quite young. I hate to be snooty (well, actually, I don’t, I like it) but it is everything Labour hate. I, too, now have white hair and at the moment a very trimmed beard, but I still feel like an outsider.

Last night I was wondering why, and I came up with this explanation: I was born in Britain to an English father and a German mother, but more or less brought up as a German child, even wearing Lederhosen at primary school, which was quite something in the early Fifties, just eight or nine years after World War II ended. Then, in 1959, we move to Berlin where I attended German schools, but again felt like an outsider, the English kid who spoke perfect German (though sadly no more) and, as all kids do at that age, wanted to be like everyone else. Then it was back to England, to boarding school, where again I felt the outsider (my nicknames were first Preggers, because I wasn’t the slimmest, then Kraut and Jackboots). In time, of course, as we all do, or all of us try to do, in my case reasonably successfully, I made a virtue out of a vice and began to celebrate being an outsider.

So at St Endellion I might well have resembled the masses, but I still looked on. And feel able to make rather condescending comments about it all now. For the record, I don’t feel ‘English’, but nor do I feel ‘German’. I speak English without an accent and, given a few weeks in Germany to get back in swing, I would speak German like a German in that Germans would think me German. But what I am, Lord knows. My younger brother, now 55, can’t remember Germany, but was brought up in France from the age of seven to 12. My sister, who was also brought up in France, married a German when she was 22 and has, more or less, lived there ever since. I don’t know how either feels. My older brother is mentally ill, probably schizophrenic, so what he feels will depend on the day you talk to him. He also watches an awful lot of bollocks TV but is twice as bright as me. Make of that what you will.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

In which I drop the pose and ask: Marriage? Is your’s pretty shitty too? Read on

I have sometimes complained in the past that in this ’ere blog I have painted myself into a corner, that after I started it as a kind of digital update to my ‘written diary’ - which, as I said was as much a commonplace book as a diary - it became, not rather quickly, just another platform for just another pub bore to sound off. It is now less of a ‘diary’ and far, far more of just another cunt sounding off. And why do I feel I have painted myself into a corner? Because I am no longer writing ‘for myself’.

It’s quite simple: whereas, to my almost certain knowledge, no one, but no one, ever read the diary, this blog is, according to ‘the stats’ read - or rather individual entries are read - by about 30 folk a day. So where before I was able, in private, to let it all hang out, to bemoan my lot, to rant and rave about the fortune life had decided to give me, now I am far more inhibited. Here everything I say is public, but how could anyone have been able to read my previous private diary? Unless someone had broken into my home and decided to make a point of searching out out a diary rather than making off - in that quaint phrase still used by newspapers, although only by newspapers - with whatever goodies and chattels they might come across, my diary would have forever remained unread. Good Lord, even I didn’t bother reading it after a particular itch had been thoroughly scratched.

On the other hand, and ironically, a blog such as this can be - and is, in fact, according to the statistics - read, by complete strangers the world over, many of whom, I’m certain, are quite content with browsing through my ramblings and have no intention whatsoever of taking any interest in my woes, let along stealing anything from me. In fact, even if they did decide to rob me blind, such an enterprise would, logistically, be not just difficult, but pretty bloody pointless. The vast majority of those who tune in live several thousand miles away: in Russia - increasingly, which is something of a mystery to me, but quite gratifying - in the United States, in the ‘Far East’ (a quaint concept that the ‘Far East’: do our cousins in Indonesia, China and Japan see us as her in the smug Western World as the ‘Far West’? I rather doubt it. I rather suspect they increasingly don’t really give a shit about what we here in the ‘Far West’ are up to).

So even if some reader or other in Turkey or India or South Africa or wherever they lay their heads at night did wake up one morning, find they had nothing better to do for a while and did tell themselves: ‘That chap whose blog I sometimes read, I wonder whether he’s got anything worth nicking?’ would they really follow it through? Answers, please, on the customary postcard. Ever so often - as now - I do rather wish that this were more of the ‘private diary’ I once kept and that I could speak personally. I do rather wish I could moan. But I am inhibited: who, except for perhaps the morons who are all so keen to perform on prime-time TV with several million watching, is all that keen to bare their soul? Not me. I am the private kind.

The point is that because my ‘private diary’ would never be read by anyone, I could step out from behind the disguise, facade, call it what you will, and record what was on my mind, what was upsetting me. Here, in this blog, I have never really felt I cold. But now I will. I have in past entries hinted that my marriage is not the best. It is not the happiest. In the best world of all possible worlds I would have hoped for better. But I also know that no marriage, and I stress ‘no marriage’ is ever trouble-free. But in a good marriage I suspect there is willing, their is a desire to improve things. That, sadly, is not unilaterally the case in my marriage.

I am, of course, very, very aware, that there are two sides to every coin, that should my wife also be writing a blog, she would quite possibly give a slightly different account of our troubles. Let me put it this way: I am not ‘a Christian’ but I do believe that what Christ said, or what he is reported to have said, is often quite wise. And one of his observations is that - I am obliged to paraphrase - we should be rather less critical of the mote in the other’s eye and rather more aware of the beam in our own eye, because all too often we are not. So please bear that in mind when you read what follows, and please bear in mind that I am very aware that I am no saint.

My wife - how do I put this? - more or less treats me as a stranger. I am, more or less invisible to her. And that’s how she likes it. She doesn’t want to know any more. She doesn’t talk to me. She discusses nothing. To sum up: we don’t have a marriage in more or less every sense of the word.

I have described, in past entries, how our marriage came about, and it was not - on my part at least - the most romantic of couplings. I discovered after we were married that long before we got to know each other, though after she had first set eyes on my, she had developed a crush on me. The trouble was that, as is almost always the case, what she imagined would come true was nothing like what did come true. The problem was, and is, that she is utterly inflexible and has been unable to adapt.

You, who is reading this, don’t know me. You don’t know my wife. All you have to go on is what I record here, but I must ask you to believe me, to trust me. I have my faults, as we all do, but I also have my virtues. I am usually quite easygoing. Yes, I can lose my rag, and, yes, I have a sharp tongue and, yes, I can be ratty. But at the end of the day I like to get on with people, I will compromise, I will make allowances, I will give way, I will start again, I won’t hold a grudge, if for no other reason that it helps to make life easier and more pleasant all round. Quite simply I like life to proceed as smoothly as possible.

My wife is - and I remind you again that this is my account, not hers, so at least be aware that I am aware of that - is more or less the opposite. To put it prosaically, choose to regard a glass as half full, she far prefers to see it as half empty: perhaps that will make some sense to you reading this. A few years ago her father fell out with his daughter-in-law and - I almost wrote ‘in a very Cornish way’ but, in fact, such thing happenings are universal - what I can only describe as a family feud developed and my wife cut her father out of her life and chose to side with her sister-in-law. He, too, became a non-person. I was astounded at her attitude. There was no compromise, no meeting halfway, nothing. The odd thing was that it wasn’t even her fight. It was just that she had aligned herself with the side he wasn’t on. Something similar has happened to me.

Whereas I was once, from afar, the apple of her eye, I am now a zero. As far as I can see my one role in her life is to pay the household bills, no more. I have, every so often, tried to discuss it with her, but that was never successful. I don’t deny that I have said some hurtful things - I have already admitted that I can have a sharp tongue - but then so has she. I shall try to describe her objectively to, perhaps, give you a fuller picture.

She is not stupid, but she is not the brightest, either, in the sense that some people have an ability to evaluate situations and see them from a variety of points of view. She can’t, or, at least, doesn’t seem to want to see anything through the other’s eyes. She is very confident in her own narrow world, supremely confident, in fact; but outside that extremely narrow world she goes to pieces. Put her in a situation in which she is unfamiliar or at a loss and she goes to pieces. People like that can, I think, develop in two ways: some become timid and cower, afraid of what might happen next. Others, and I think she is one, prefer to keep an iron grip on everything to ensure that nothing changes. She wants to make every decision to that she is certain of what is what and will have no discussion on any matter. It so happens that I - and I must again remind you that this is my account, that I am describing the mote in her eye and am quite possibly utterly unaware of the beam in mine - will choose to give way to keep the peace. I can’t pretend that situations don’t rankle, but I also really don’t want - for my own sake as much as anyone else’s - to live in a perpetually poisonous atmosphere.

. . .

This is pretty irrelevant (even though I haven’t had sex in 14 years - an invitation, girls or what!) but I have always liked these seaside pictures, both Donald McGill and Bamford.

This one is a Bamford. And if you like that one, here’s a few more: