Harold and Bowie.

22 Jan

I went to a funeral yesterday. It was held in a small, obscure Methodist church in north-east Derbyshire. About 50 to 60 people turned up to mourn the loss of a long standing member of their congregation : Harold W——. He was 89 years old. He’d enjoyed a good, long life. Harold’s passing was mentioned in a short announcement in the local paper: The Derbyshire Times, along with the deaths of around 30 others who had also lived in the area. It was not featured in the Nationals and did not dominate 24 hour TV news for a day. Harold’s death will sadden a few score family members, friends and acquaintances, but tens of millions of the wider public were not even aware of his life, never mind his death. As the cricket commentators might say: “He didn’t trouble the scorers.” This is very different from the sudden, unexpected death of the pop star and performance artist, David Bowie, in the same week. Bowie had also led a good, long life but was only 69 when it ended.So part of the big reaction to his death was because it was regarded as being premature. He still had to reach the average life-expectancy and still had a lot to offer.

So 2 deaths of 2 Englishmen in the same week in mid-January, 2015. The loss of one life was mourned by a few but ignored by the many. The other was mourned by the many and ignored by very few. Even those who did not  like the music of Bowie would have been very lucky to escape the knowledge of his passing. There was saturation coverage on television and in the press, and a general outpouring of vicarious grief on social media. So why the massive difference in the reaction to these 2 sad deaths?

That question is easy to answer of course — it’s the consequence of fame. We live in an era of stars, superstars and so-called celebrities. Their lives are presented in great, constant detail to us  by the media. We know their likes, dislikes, activities and movements. We hear about their love affairs, marriages and divorces. We even hear about their weight problems and slimming regimes. One has to feel sorry for them really as the price of their fame is the loss of their privacy. Thus, it’s not surprising that it’s big news when one of these “stars” dies. It’s almost as if their death is just their latest contribution to the entertainment industry. To be fair to David Bowie, in his latter years he largely shunned the publicity machine. He kept his illness confidential, withdrew into obscurity in New York, far from his British homeland, and made his last 2 albums in secret. Maybe at the end, even he had grown tired of constantly having to parade in front of cameras and perform on the public stage. Maybe even great fame palls in the end. I admired him and liked his many different styles of music. I was also intrigued by  his multiple personas. He was very clever and creative. I admire his stance at the end. He had a quick, quiet cremation and denied the hungry media the opportunity for another mass feeding -frenzy. In doing this I think he maintained his dignity and integrity to the very end. In this sense I think he showed himself to be a real star. His legacy was his music and his writing. He also left millions of vivid memories for people all around the globe.

But was David’s death more important than Harold’s. Is the significance of a death measured by how many people were touched by that person in his/her life? Some may think this is true. However, I would argue that quality far outweighs quantity. Harold led a quiet life in one area. His passing didn’t cause many ripples at all. But he was  a faithful husband in a long-term marriage, a good father of 2 daughters and a son and a loving  and much loved granddad. He touched these people deeply not superficially. These were quality relationships. Harold  won great respect for his work as manager of the local Cooperative store, his long term union work and his lifelong support of the local Methodist church. He was much valued as a friend including by both my parents who shared meals, trips and holidays with him. Naturally, David Bowie had these close family and work relationships too and also probably had numerous close friends. I am not saying he was superficial by any means. So in the relationships that count, Harold and David were equals. To me, their deaths were of equal importance. The anguished outpourings of  people who only knew Bowie through a piece of vinyl, a picture in a pop magazine, an image on a TV screen or a distant dot on a stage, cannot compare with the genuine, deep grief of those who knew him in the flesh and with whom he had formed intimate, meaningful relationships.

Maybe I’m being pedantic. I’m just stating the obvious really. I know that people are not always treated equally in life. The famous few get a lot more attention and preferential treatment compared to the anonymous masses. I know we need “stars” — people to inspire us and illuminate our lives. ( I’m talking about real, talented stars like Bowie here, not the has-beens on “Big Brother” or “I’m a Celebrity.”) Bowie was a hero to many people in many ways. Yet Harold was a hero too. He enriched the lives of those who were closest to him. he worked hard, kept his family provided for and was successful in his career. He won the respect of many. Thus, in my eyes they were equal, and will be missed in equal measure by those that knew them. In one way Harold outdid Bowie. In one crucial respect he was not equal. He lived a full 20 years longer. The tragedy of David Bowie was that he still had a lot to offer and, up to his final illness, still had the drive and energy to create more memorable works of art.

Harold, I think, was happy that he had achieved his major goals in life. In the end, the ailments and physical restrictions of the ageing process, cut deeply into his quality of life. His beloved wife had pre-diseased him by over a decade. He was in need of daily carers and had lost much of his independence. Maybe he was relieved to slip quietly away in the end.

So Harold and David-two sad deaths in one week. Two completely different, contrasting lives lost in the same short space of time. There was a vast difference in the reaction to their deaths, but they will both be equally missed by those who loved them.



Short memories but Long Term Consequences.

8 Dec

Only a few weeks ago the United Kingdom conducted the very solemn ceremony known as Remembrance Day. Up and down the country wreaths were laid, poppies were worn and fine words spoken to remember and honour the country’s war dead. People recalled the terrible tragedy of war and grieved the  deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers who were lost in Britain’s conflicts from the First World War to Iraq and Afghanistan. The most high profile ceremony was, as usual, at The Cenotaph in Whitehall, London. Our most prominent politicians and representatives of the Royal family were present to take part in this ritual of national mourning  and of grave, sober remembrance. And quite right too — we must not forget those who gave their lives fighting for their country!

Thinking about all this, it seems very strange therefore, that less than 4 weeks later, this country, the United Kingdom, has once again voted to go to war! So more unfortunate victims will be created for us to remember in sad ceremonies of the future. The House of Commons, with a large majority, voted for British warplanes to start bombing the ISIS held parts of Syria, even though Syria is a separate and sovereign country. And it seems that despite the solemnity of Remembrance Sunday, many were very excited about this new rush to war. There was wall to wall media coverage, cheers in the Commons when the result was announced and vilification of those who voted for Peace. The Prime Minister, David Cameron described them as “terrorist sympathisers” and refused to apologise for these incendiary remarks even those he was asked to do so in parliament 12 times.

This is the 5th time in this short 15 year century, that the UK has gone to war. The reason this time is to attack the terrorist group, ISIS, who recently carried out the appalling massacre in the streets of Paris and who also claim responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt , killing all passengers and crew. In their territories in Iraq and Syria they have carried out atrocities such as: rape, murder, beheadings and crucifixions. Every decent human being is shocked and horrified by such outrages and I suppose it is natural to want to hit back at ISIS or Islamic State as soon as possible. However, is it sensible to make serious decisions such as going to war as part of an emotional, knee-jerk reaction? Surely it would have been best to count to ten and use that time to consider the possible consequences of our actions. We could have used that time to think of the alternative ways of bringing down ISIS other than bombing. We could also have used that time to remember the tragedy of war that we were all thinking about less than a month before. It’s a serious case of short -term memory loss and I don’t think the MPs who voted for war in Syria can use Alzeimers as an excuse.

So what might the consequences of this rash, rush to war be? First of all, although it is supposed to be defending us from terrorist attacks by hitting their bases in the Middle East, our bombing raids immediately put our air-crews in danger. I shudder to think what would happen if their war-planes crashed or were shot down over ISIS territory.  Secondly, the British bombing will almost certainly make the UK an even greater target for an ISIS inspired terrorist attack. Thirdly, many more people in Syria  will hate the British, once the bombing casualty figures start to rise. Thus the raids will be a superb recruiting tool for ISIS, as more fighters join their ranks to gain revenge on the bombers. Some belief that this is the very thing that ISIS wanted, so the British have played right into their hands. As Stephen Fry tweeted — In a war you do what the enemy least wants you to do, not the thing it most wants you to do. ( or words to that effect.)

The British government has tried to make this issue very black and white. We are bombing ISIS in Syria as well as in Iraq, in order to protect ourselves from a Paris-style terrorist attack. We also want to support our close ally: France. It sounds so simple. However, we are actually entering a very messy and murderous civil war with multiple warring parties. Russia and the USA are already involved in major bombing campaigns, along with the French, the Turks and now the British. The great danger is that the Russians are supporting President Assad but the Americans are supporting the anti-Assad fighting groups. The potential for a major incident between America and Russia is very high. They are supporting opposite sides in a civil war and both are flying their bombers in the same tiny airspace. Already, the Russians and the Turks have come to grief with the shooting down of a Russian fighter that is supposed to have flown into Turkish air-space. The British , along with the French have now entered into this volatile, dangerous situation. Two years ago the British wanted to bomb President Assad’s forces. Now they are bombing some of Assad’s enemies in the civil war. Has the British Government and parliament really made a sensible decision?

It can be argued that this war, like the Iraq invasion that preceded it, is illegal. It certainly does not have the full sanction of the United Nations. Resolution 2249 which the UN passed, does not invoke Chapter 7 of the UN charter. Only this chapter can authorise such military intervention. The military raids of the western allies ( as well as those of Russia) are not respecting the sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence and unity of the Syrian state, as demanded by the UN Charter. As in Libya, the western powers have taken sides in a complex civil war which could have disastrous consequences for the future.

A terrible consequence of bombing is civilian casualties. Ask anyone who lived through the Blitz in 1940. The Airwars project ( airwars.org) estimate that at least 10% of airstrike casualties are non-combatants. With thousands of raids being planned and ISIS using the poor civilian population as a human- shield, civilian deaths and injuries, including to women, children and elderly people are going to be considerable. Politicians and military people cynically and coldly call this “collateral damage.” To many people who campaign for peace, this is simply unacceptable. I remember at the start of the Iraq war, seeing a photo of a teenager who had had his arms and legs blown off during the American/British bombing onslaught on Bagdad. The British papers tried to dress it up as a feel-ggod story, as the poor lad had been kindly flown to England for medical treatment. Maybe it would have been much better if we had not bombed his city in the first place. I stared at the picture and then had to hide it away. It made me feel physically sick. I fear that many such scenes will be replicated during our Syrian bombing campaign.

The atrocities of ISIS and their followers are terrible but will revenge attacks make the situation better or worse? I would suggest the latter. My grandma and mum used to advise me “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” They are very wise words. It would be difficult to follow Jesus’s advice and turn the other cheek or forgive. However, surely the powerful countries of the West, plus Russia, can cripple ISIS economically by setting up a blockade?  They could also put diplomatic pressure on Islamic State’s supporters such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Pressure could be brought to bear on Turkey to stop it purchasing Isis oil and stop it giving Isis fighters easy movement across its borders. There are many alternatives to bombing, which is a dangerously simplistic solution.

Maybe, Prime Minister David Cameron is more interested in trying to maintain Britain’s status as a so-called Great Power. He wants to keep his place at the “top table” , I would suggest. He wants to save “face” when meeting up with Hollande, Obama or Putin. I would suggest that he is suffering from a severe attack of “Churchill syndrome.” Unfortunately, by joining in the bombing he has sacrificed a lot of the influence he or his Foreign Secretary might have had in Syrian civil war peace negotiations. The British cannot present themselves as honest brokers any more. They have revealed their hand to the opposition.

The Syrian Civil war is savage and dangerously complex. There are many sides involved in the fighting. Atrocities are being committed by all sides. In the end, only a diplomatic solution seems possible. By joining the war, the British, I would argue, are pouring oil on very troubled waters. They , along with the other powers have got involved without having any clear plan for the peace, if it ever comes. The interventions in Iraq and Libya have had disastrous consequences. Afghanistan is still a dangerous mess. I doubt that Syria will be any better.

It’s so sad that we seem to have forgotten the meaning of Remembrance Day so quickly. In joining the war instead of campaigning for a peaceful solution in Syria, the UK is failing to learn the lessons of even the recent past.

Mad Kings and Mass Tourism.

2 Nov

Being a History buff, I’m a sucker for castles. Living in the north east of England I am spoilt for choice as there are numerous fine examples within an easy day trip. The Normans built them to consolidate their hold over the country they conquered in 1066AD and, in my neck of the woods, to guard against marauding Scots.  They are some of my favourite places, providing enduring fascination. Some are now museums, some are stately homes and others just picturesque ruins. Most of my castle visits have been shared with just a sprinkling of other people, the only exceptions in Britain being The Tower of London and Edinburgh Castle, which are both on the international tourist trail, and Warwick Castle, which has been transformed into a major entertainment venue by the Tussauds organisation. It seems to me that usually, castles are a bit of an acquired taste.

So it came as a massive surprise to find that when I decided to visit a German castle in the Alps of southern Bavaria, Neuschwanstein, I found myself fighting for space with hundreds, if not thousands of tourists from around the world. At first I couldn’t understand why. It is situated in a fairly remote, rural area. It is a 3 hour journey by train and bus  from the nearest city (Munich). Even when  one gets to the village below the castle ( Hohenschwangau), there is a stiff 30 to 40 minutes walk up a hill, or one faces a very long queue to board a crowded bus or  horse- drawn wagon. The crowds are so vast that one can only visit Neuschwanstein on a guided tour and these have to depart every 5 minutes throughout a 9 hour day to accommodate everyone in the high tourist season. Even then, many people are turned away as they have arrived too late. One reviewer on Trip Adviser gave up his plans to visit the castle after learning that the queue for a ticket was 2 hours long and then there would be a further 5 hour wait before finally getting in. I had seen photos of the castle perched on a precarious rock , surrounded by mountains and had imagined a quiet, rather lonely place, cut off from the world in splendid isolation. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The place was heaving, and this was in September, outside the main tourist season. So I didn’t get much peace and there was little opportunity for quiet reflection. Maybe I should have done more research before going to Neuschwanstein. Even a cursory glance at Trip Adviser reveals mass adulation for the place. The last time I checked, it had attracted no less than 858 reviews!

So what’s all the fuss about? Why has this particular castle, tucked away in an obscure corner of Germany, attracted such a massive following? Every year it is visited by 1.4 million people. In summer, 6000 visitors a day stream through rooms only intended for one inhabitant. Neuschwanstein is one of the most popular castles or palaces in the whole of Europe. Why? What is even more astonishing is that it is not even a real, authentic castle. It’s a 19th century fake. In Britain, we would call it a “folly”, not the genuine article. It is actually the realisation of a King’s fantasy. Although loosely based on a medieval model it was largely conceived inside the King’s head, a product of his vivid imagination and romantic attachment to the past. That King was Ludwig II of Bavaria, sometimes called “Mad King Ludwig”, and it is his colourful back-story that partly explains the castle’s immense popularity.

Many people these days don’t seem to mind if something is a fake or not. From imitation “Rolex” watches to false eye-lashes; from spray tans to tribute groups — people don’t seem to care so much whether something is real or counterfeit. So why worry if a so-called “medieval” castle was not actually built in the Middle Ages or that it has never been involved in a battle and was never intended to? This castle was an eccentric monarch’s fantasy home. Ludwig had a megalomaniacal passion for creating fantastic architectural projects. Neuschwanstein was never meant to be an instrument of war. It is a fantastical confection of towers and spires, spectacularly situated on a high rocky ledge above a river gorge.  It has the elements of a castle but is merely an extravagant invention. Since the arrival of gunpowder into Europe at the end of the 15th century, the original fortified castle had been largely made redundant anyway. I believe it is the fantasy element that has fascinated so many people and goes a long way to explain the great popularity of this place. People don’t just come to see the building, they come to hear about the “Mad King”.

Ludwig II was really a king without a kingdom as in 1871, Bavaria had been incorporated into the newly unified Germany led by Prussia. It was the King of Prussia who became German Emperor, not Ludwig. He was reduced to the role of vassal. Although Ludwig was convinced that he had been chosen by God to rule, he never had any real powers.  Disappointed with the real world, he began to have Neuschwanstein built in 1868. It was here where he hoped to escape into a dream world based on the myths and legends of the Middle Ages which he was so enraptured by. These were the themes of the powerful operas of Richard Wagner, whom Ludwig greatly admired. Wagner would give private recitals to the King in his other pseudo-medieval castle at Hohenswangau down in the valley. The new mock castle was dedicated to Wagner and decorated with large picture cycles based on the stories told in his operas. The interiors are thus adorned with medieval Kings and knights, poets and lovers. They also prominently feature the swan, the heraldic creature of the royal courts of Swangau and also the Christian symbol for purity. Ludwig saw himself as a pure, ethereal messenger of God, sent to earth on a divine mission.

Yet the Middle Ages appearance of  Neuschwanstein is just an illusion. Behind the medieval façade lies a very modern building for its time. It has hot- air central heating, running water on every floor, hot and cold water in the kitchens, flushing toilets, electric bells to summon the servants and a lift to carry the King’s meals up to his chambers. Beneath limestone cladding, the building is really made of brick, not stone like the original castles. The spectacular Throne Room which also doubles up as a chapel, incorporates a steel frame. I think this intoxicating mix of the new and the old is another reason why so many people are drawn to visit it. The Throne Room was inspired by Byzantine churches. It features an enormous chandelier, a cupola decorated with stars and a beautiful mosaic floor featuring plants and animals. It’s all a bit “over the top” and I certainly wouldn’t want to live there myself, but it makes for a fascinating visit.

Ludwig built Neuschwanstein as a retreat. He allowed virtually no-one to visit him there. It is therefore richly ironic that vast numbers of people now come to visit what was supposed to be a private refuge. Here he lived out his fantasy life. From 1875, Ludwig lived mainly at night and slept during the day. He spent less time in his capital, Munich, and more and more time up in the mountains. He travelled around on elaborate coaches and sleighs. Sometimes he wore historical costume. Ludwig identified himself with Parsival, a legendary medieval figure who was famed for his purity. Unfortunately, Ludwig’s castle- building turned into an expensive obsession. He had several other castles built as well as Neuschwanstein. He got into great debt, and the foreign banks he had borrowed heavily from began to close in. The king’s behaviour became increasingly bizarre and erratic. Finally the Bavarian Government, supported by his family, declared him insane and deposed him in 1886. His brother has previously been certified as well. Ludwig was interned at Berg Castle. The very next day he drowned in mysterious circumstances in Lake Starnberg, together with the psychiatrist who had declared him insane. They were found in only a few feet of water.  These mysterious deaths have never been properly explained. Did Ludwig take his own life because he couldn’t live with the humiliation and disgrace? Did he and his psychiatrist make a suicide pact? We will never know. It is this mystery that has added spice to the tale of “Mad King Ludwig”. I believe that it is this strange story with a mystery at its heart that helps to draw thousands of tourists to this remote place. It has certainly been hyped by the modern tourist authorities. You can now buy: Ludwig tea-towels, Ludwig chocolates, Ludwig mugs, Ludwig calenders, etc etc. This rather sad, deluded man has become a tourist cash-cow. People love a mystery, and to misquote Churchill, Ludwig is “a mystery wrapped up in an enigma.”

So, we’re beginning to get to the bottom of why this fake castle in Bavaria is such a massive tourist draw. It is in a spectacular mountain location. It was built for an intriguing, mysterious character( though never finished in his lifetime). It is an eccentric mix of the ancient and modern. On top of all this, it is a perfect fantasy version of a castle rather than being hampered with the imperfections of the real thing. But the biggest reason behind Neuschwanstein’s phenomenal popularity, I believe, is it’s connection with the Disney Organisation, which has made “fantasy” its stock in trade. Walt Disney used it as the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the cartoon film of the same name. It was also the template for Cinderella’s castle in the Magic Kingdom theme parks.  It’s image is replicated in the Disney Tourist Parks in the States, Hong Kong and Paris. The shape of Neuschwanstein also features on the logo for Walt Disney Pictures, Disney TV, Disney Music Group and Walt Disney Studios. In other words, it has been placed at the very centre of 20th and 21st Century popular culture.  I think this is the real reason why it is so overwhelmingly popular. People see it as the archetypal “fairy-tale” or “story-book” castle. Instead of a real castle, it is Disney’s imitation of an imitation that has come to represent a castle in the modern, global public’s consciousness.

I doubt  whether many of those tourists are serious students of history or architecture. Neither do I believe that many of those who flock to see Neuschwanstein have read the biography of so-called “Mad King Ludwig” and are desperateto to see where he lived. The mountain location is stunning but this is still not the main reason for the tourist stampede. I believe it is the power of  the Disney cultural empire that brings so many to this corner of Germany. I hate using the word, but this castle has become “iconic”. The hype of the Disney organisation has sold this imaginary image of a romantic, medieval castle to the world. It is an idea of a castle rather than the real thing. This is why when I went there, even though it was slightly out of season, I had to fight for space with fellow tourists from all over the world. I met Europeans, Americans, Australians, Kiwis and especially Asian people. That is why I counted 30 large coaches parked up by 11 am and noted that the small village of Hohenschwangau has 5 enormous car parks ( all full). This is why this tiny rural settlement has: souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, guesthouses, and all the other trappings of a mass-tourist hot-spot. It’s certainly not your average peaceful Alpine village. The bells of the cows in the meadows are drowned out by the drone of the traffic and the clicking of a thousand cameras. This is why I had to duck and dive amongst the selfie-sticks and queue for everything. The trouble with mass tourism is that it is always in danger of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.” The density of the crowds means that it  can be more like a rugby scrum than an historical or educational visit. Any vestige of a medieval atmosphere ( fake though it is), is extinguished by the pressure of the constant crowds.

Despite all this it was still worth the visit. The wonderful location, the fantasy nature of the castle, the mysterious back story, all make for a memorable occasion. Even the tourist hordes are an interesting phenomenon in themselves. I can also add that one can fairly easily escape the crowds by walking along the lovely shoreline of the nearby Alpsee lake. From here you can view both the upper and lower castles ( Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Hohenswangau), in their proper Alpine setting.

My wife, Chris, and I stayed in the nearby town of Fussen. It’s a picturesque, historical place, with attractive old buildings festooned with illusionist paintings, a monastery and its own castle. It had a sprinkling of tourists but when we visited the beautiful baroque monastery and the interesting schloss up on the hill, we virtually had them to ourselves. We met less than a dozen other  tourists in the whole of our 2 hour visit. Only 3 miles away the mass tourist hordes were pouring in to Neuschanstein. It’s the power of hype and the power of popular culture. That is why it has ended up on so many people’s “bucket lists” — a must-see sight that has to be ticked off. We met an American on the train down from Munich, who had come all that way just to see that one castle. He wasn’t interested in anything else and was returning to the city as soon as he had made his brief visit. Everyone to their own I know, but I find it difficult to understand this approach to travel. I like to stay in an area for several days at least and soak in the atmosphere. But many don’t stay. They flock to see this “fairy tale” caricature of a castle before rushing on to the next thing on their tick list.

It was a memorable experience for me but I cannot wait to get back to the genuine castles in my home region, where I will have space to breathe and where visitors are generally there for the history rather than the fantasy. It’s so strange that an out and out replica can become so much more popular than the genuine article. Still “that’s life”, as they say, or in this case “that’s Mass Tourism.” One can only imagine what “Mad King Ludwig”, so jealous of his privacy, would think if he returned to his former retreat today. At least all those tourists have paid off  his debts and have given his estate such a handsome profit which accumulates every year!

A Holiday in Germany — Don’t Mention the War.

7 Oct

I’ve just had a holiday in Germany. I visited Bavaria. This followed up a city break in Berlin about 10 years ago. Germany is regarded as a slightly unusual destination for a British tourist. Even though it is close at hand and is a beautiful, fascinating country, the majority of British tourists ignore it, preferring the delights of Spain, Greece, France and Portugal, as well as being lured across the Atlantic to the States. I believe many British people have a prejudiced view of Germany and thus avoid visiting it. It seems to me that a lot of this derives from the two World Wars in which Germany was our main enemy. These devastating conflicts dominated and shaped the 20th century such that it will take a long time for the Germans to live down their previous reputation as aggressive, war-mongers and authors of the horrific Holocaust. Many older people still carry unhappy memories of  all the suffering, death and devastation caused by  the German armed forces in the World Wars. Even as they begin to fade a little, such memories are constantly stirred up again by the numerous war commemorations that the British seem so fond of. As well as the annual Remembrance day every November, the UK has recently commemorated : 100 years since the start of the First World War, the 70th anniversary of D Day, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and, in 2015, the 70th Anniversaries of VE and VJ days that marked the end of the Second World War in Europe and in Japan.  Films and TV programmes also often feature the war and stir-up its memories in the public consciousness. The enduring popularity of the BBC comedies “Dad’s Army” and “Allo Allo” are just 2 mild examples of this persistent trend even though they deal mainly in crude caricatures and stereotypes. Currently we have More 4’s “Resistance” a British/Belgian/French drama about the struggle against  German occupation in the 1940’s.

So the Second World War, in particular, continues to be alive and well on our screens as if it only happened yesterday. “Resistance” follows in the footsteps of countless other programmes over the years such as: “Colditz”, “Hogan’s Heroes”, “Secret Army”,and “Land Girls”, not to mention endless repeat showings of films such as “The Great Escape”, “The Guns of Navarone”, “The Dam Busters” and “Where Eagles Dare” The Nazis are the evil enemies in all these dramas, even in such family favourites as “The Sound of Music”, set in German- occupied Austria. I think that many people still mix up “Nazi” and “German”, even after all these years. So the image of a German in some people’s minds I suspect, is of a goose-stepping, sadistic monster, rather than of a normal person, just like you or me. I wonder if this is a significant reason why more British people don’t consider Germany as a viable holiday destination. Recently an acquaintance expressed nervousness because his relatives had persuaded him to go on a city break to Berlin. I asked him why he was reluctant to go and he replied:”Well, it’s Germany isn’t it?” Just for the record, he told me later that he had had a great time. I even fell into this mind-set myself on a recent trip to Vienna. A waitress in a café came up behind me and suddenly called out “auchtung!” as she struggled past with a tray full of pots. Just for a moment, a shiver slid down my spine as I remembered the German soldiers in my childhood comic, ” The Victor”, shouting the same command  before spraying someone with their machine-guns.

The British seem stuck in a rut in regarding the Germans as our “natural” enemies. The tabloids are quick to label them as “Krauts” or “Huns” whenever England plays them at football. They like to point out the German team’s mechanical efficiency and organisation rather than its skill or flair. This “put-down” has persisted even though the Germans usually beat us in the important matches. The recent Greek debt  crisis generated a lot of anti-German posts on social media, portraying Angela Merkel and the German government as cruel, unfeeling pay-masters 9 a bit like the Nazis perhaps?), forcing the poor Greeks into further austerity, poverty and misery. I think the real reasons for the Greek’s desperate situation  are a lot more complex than simply blaming the Germans. Because of the terrible atrocities they committed in the first half of the 20th century, it will take a long time for such anti-German sentiments to die down and be supplanted by more positive feelings. For many British people, the Germans will always be associated with Hitler and the Nazis. I often think of a  memorable scene from the 1970s TV comedy “Fawlty Towers”. Faced with complaining German guests, the hilariously incompetent hotel proprietor, Basil Fawlty, gets prickly and argumentative. When the Germans politely point out that it was he who started the argument, Fawlty retorts: ” No,you started it! You invaded Poland!” He then proceeds to march around the hotel dining room in goose-step style!

Another apparent negative point about German from a touristic point of view is that much of it lies in the north of Europe, where the climate tends to be cooler and less reliable. In fact, in that respect, it’s very much like the UK. Maybe British people just don’t fancy holidaying in a country that reminds them of their own! High street holiday brochures tend to concentrate on: sun-kissed beaches, bright, blue skies and sparkling seas. This goes a long way to explain the massive popularity of the Mediterranean destinations listed above. Germany spreads into central Europe, but its beaches are exclusively in the north. Here the skies can often be cloudy and grey, while the seas are cool, if not downright cold!. This image persists even though the German coast, like Britain’s, can enjoy many hours of summer sunshine. Naturism wouldn’t be so popular amongst the Germans if their resorts were always freezing cold. Even so, the North Sea ( formerly known as the German Ocean) and the Baltic, rarely, if ever conjure up the sunny, exotic images associated with the south.

Jonathan Meades, in his fascinating television documentary “Magnetic North”, persuasively points out that northern European countries have for a long time failed to have the glossy allure of their southern counterparts. He suggests that the vast majority of us have been seduced by the attractions of the south. Wine seems more carefree and celebratory than beer, which often is more associated with drowning one’s sorrows or obliterating one’s worries. Gently swaying palm trees seem more exotic and romantic than the stolid ranks of oaks or beeches in dark, northern forests. Blue skies of course are nearly always preferable to grey. Even the architecture of the south, the graceful, classical columns of Ancient Greece or Rome, are usually preferred to the gloomy Gothic style that originated in the north. The wealthy young aristocrats of yesteryear, set off on their “Grand Tours” to Italy, Greece and the Ottoman Empire of the Balkans and Turkey, rather than to Germany, Poland, the Low Countries or Scandinavia. As I look out of my window today, at the leaden, sodden skies of northern England ( in October), I can fully understand this preference for the sunny south.

For students of History though, it seems very strange that the British and the German peoples don’t have a much closer affinity because the ties between the two countries have been quite intimate over the centuries. The original “English”, as opposed to the Britons who were conquered by the Romans, were the Anglo- Saxons. They invaded British shores from the 6th century AD onwards and gradually took it over. The Saxons came from Saxony in Germany and the Angles came from what we now call Denmark, which is next door to Germany and well within German sphere of influence. Thus one can argue that the original ” English” were in fact Germans. Later on in the 17th century, England had a Dutch King, William III, and Dutch is technically a form of German. Then in the 18th century, Great Britain had a string of German Kings, the Georgians, who spoke limited English and preferred their native German. They were the Electors of Hanover ( also known as Brunswick-Luneburg.) and spent much of their reigns in Germany rather than England. When the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, died without a direct heir in 1714, the next 50 people in line for the throne were all Roman Catholics who were banned by law from succeeding. The 51st person in line, and the first protestant, was Georg Ludwig, the Elector of Hanover, in the loose mosaic of German states known as the Holy Roman Empire. He became King George I. The Hanovarians  ( 4 Georges and a William) ruled until Queen Victoria succeeded to the throne in 1837. She promptly went and married the German Prince Albert. It seemed a very appropriate choice at the time as the Germans had been our close allies in the wars against the Revolutionary and Napoleonic French.  The Duke of Wellington usually garners most of the credit for the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. However it was the late, decisive intervention of General Blucher’s Prussians ( i.e. Germans) that turned the tide in the Allies’ favour. Prince Albert had a great influence over British life, including introducing Christmas traditions such as decorated Christmas trees. Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, the Princess Royal Victoria, followed in her mother’s footsteps and married a German prince. At that point, in the 19th and early 20th centuries the British Royal Family’s surname was the German Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha). The German Kaiser in first World War, Wilhelm II, was actually the first cousin of the British King, George V. The war must have been a great embarrassment for the British Royal family as all other people with German sounding names were being rounded up and interned, because they might be potential fifth-columnists. Finally, in 1917, the Royal family officially adopted the name of Windsor, so they could hide their German ancestry. The only connection they had with the very English sounding “Windsor” was that it was the name of one of their castles.

I could go on and on about  the Anglo-German connections that have brought the 2 nations close together. What about all those classical musicians and composers that have had enduring popularity in Britain? — Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Hadyn, Mendelssohn, Bach and Wagner — all Germans or German speaking Austrians. I could do similar lists from the worlds of : literature, drama, art and philosophy. It was in Germany that Martin Luther launched the Protestant revolution which eventually resulted in Great Britain becoming an officially Protestant country. Yet all these important and numerous connections between Britain and Germany have been clouded by the 2 devastating World Wars of last century and Germany’s culpability in both ( although the first world conflict can be blamed on a whole host of countries including Britain.) Everyone loves a scapegoat — someone to blame. Germany has fulfilled that role for many years. They must have been relieved when the Soviet Union, then Russia largely took over that role. Now the Germans are officially our friendly allies. We are in NATO together. We are both long term members of the EU. We work and trade together in many ways. We have German players in the Premier League and Liverpool Football Club have just appointed a German manager, Jurgen Klopp. Yet I fear that anti- German prejudices linger on. I wonder how many people have been recently rubbing their hands in glee at the recent troubles of Volkswagon?

So what was it like entering the lair of the “enemy” — sorry, “friend”? Well the best word I can use to describe Germany and the Germans is “civilised”. At my very first meal in Berlin, when  I was struggling with the menu, the German gentleman on the adjoining table leaned over and said, in perfect, English ” If you need me to translate anything, I would be delighted to help.” Berlin itself was exciting with stunning modern architecture, great museums and art galleries and a whole host of fascinating history. I know it’s a cliché, but everyone was really friendly and helpful. This autumn’s trip to Munich and southern Bavaria was equally interesting and enjoyable. This time we saw: gorgeous mountain scenery, beautiful lakes, the fantasy castles of King Ludwig II ( made famous by Disney), medieval buildings decorated with illusionist paintings from the 16th century, spectacular Baroque and Rococo churches and palaces and so on. We even found vegetarian sections on most restaurant menus, a bit of a surprise in a big meat eating country. All the trains and buses ran on time. We never saw a speck of litter until we arrived back at London Stansted airport. Welcome back to England! Yes Germany was very “civilised”, picturesque, interesting and enjoyable. And, even though it was September and no- where near to the Med, the sun shone nearly every day. As in Berlin, everyone we met in Bavaria was helpful, friendly and spoke pretty decent English. It was a very enjoyable holiday and I’m glad I ignored the anti-German prejudice which unfortunately still lingers in Britain. I plan to return next year to visit the World Heritage listed Hanseatic city of Lubeck near Hamburg. It should be really good so long as I don’t mention that long ago war. But then again, why should I?

Living under a Nuclear shadow.

12 Aug

When I was a teenager in the 60’s I had a small collection of pen-friends, scattered around the world. This was well before the Internet/E Mail age. In those days we wrote real letters to each other. I had pen-pals in Northern Ireland, Sweden, the USA and Japan. It is the Japanese friend, a girl called Junco Fujii, who has stuck longest in my mind. She was a serious girl who wrote sober letters.  She was from the city of Hiroshima, which meant nothing to me at the time. While my American pen friends from Cleveland and Pittsburgh wanted me to send them Beatles memorabilia or wanted to know whether I had been to The Cavern or who my favourite “mop top” was, Junco sent me pictures of white doves and was always asking whether I was in favour of world peace. Sometimes she sent me pictures of peace memorials in her city, of which there seemed to be quite a few. Being a naïve, ignorant 15 year old, I was at first bemused by this obsession with “peace.” As far as I knew, the world WAS at peace, except for the war in Vietnam of which I was only vaguely aware of at the time. Then the penny dropped — Hiroshima was the first city to have a nuclear bomb dropped on it, on August 6th, 1945. Three days later, Nagasaki, also in Japan, became the second city to receive such a nuclear attack. The two cities suffered horrifying consequences, both at the time and for many years to come. It had obviously left a deep scar on Junco’s psyche. I wonder how many of her family perished on that fateful day?

The devastating bombs were dropped by the USA and the received wisdom is that they were justified because they led directly to the Japanese surrender, finally bringing the Second World War to an end. It is argued that the nuclear bombs  probably saved many lives that would have been lost in the battle to conquer Japan. This conclusion has been challenged however. Some think the nuclear bombs were dropped as a massive, horrific scientific experiment, using tens of thousands of Japanese civilians as human guinea- pigs. The Soviet Union was about to join the war against Japan. As this development would almost certainly have brought about a swift Japanese surrender, it is argued that President Truman and his advisers  dropped their nuclear devices in haste, before the justification for using them was taken away. The arguments about whether the nuclear attacks were morally acceptable have raged back and forth over the subsequent decades. Many have quite rightly pointed out the atrocities that the Japanese carried out during the war, especially in their appalling prisoner- of- war camps. My own great Uncle William was reduced to eating grass and although he survived, he could never eat properly again. However, can it be comfortably argued that revenge was an acceptable reason for dropping the bombs? As my grandma always taught me: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” It is not the purpose of this blog to come to a definitive conclusion however. I don’t have enough relevant information anyway and the Americans have made sure their motivations and discussions have remained strictly classified. ( I wonder why?) What I can write about are the consequences of those first, and so far only, nuclear attacks, both for the World in general and on my life in particular.

I was born in 1949 and in some ways you could say I was lucky as I had missed the horrors of the Second World War. However, what I didn’t know was that I had  entered a savage new age — the Nuclear Age. Now, for the first time in history, it was possible to kill and maim indiscriminately on a colossal scale. 90,000 people were killed instantly at Hiroshima, and another 70,000 died or were seriously injured at Nagasaki. Nuclear bombs were the most destructive explosives ever invented. A whole city could now be obliterated with a single bomb. Radiation poisoning could then kill or deform many others in the years to come. Even the unborn were to become its victims. So I had been born into a world of fear rather than one of hope. Luckily, in my childhood innocence I didn’t know that. President Harry Truman, the man who had catapulted the world into this frightening state of affairs, was rather proud of his achievement. He boasted: “We have spent more than 2 billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history and we have won.” That sort of gives the game away. The Americans probably dropped the nuclear bombs as a scientific experiment rather than to bring about a Japanese surrender. President/ General Dwight D Eisenhower stated in his 1963 memoir – “Japan was already defeated, so that dropping the Bomb was completely unnecessary.”  But as I said, we cannot reach definitive conclusions until the US government declassifies the relevant documents, and I don’t think they are going to do that until we are all dead and nobody cares about what happened in 1945 anymore.

Despite all this, I had a happy childhood, blissfully unaware of the threat to the world I lived in. The Soviet Union, Britain and France quickly followed America as so called “Nuclear Powers.” Other countries, such as China, India, Pakistan and Israel, followed. Nuclear proliferation was inevitable as the Bomb was seen as the ultimate status symbol, enabling  a country to be known as a “Great Power”. Possessing a terrifying weapon that could destroy the whole planet was thought of as essential by  countries and leaders who wanted to have a big say in world affairs. It seemed that they were quite content to hold the rest of us to ransom in exchange for power and influence. In 1955, while I was playing out with my friends and starting primary school, Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his last “great” speech to parliament. In it he chillingly stated that we had “reached a stage where safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival, the twin brother of annihilation.” He probably thought that sounded pretty impressive at the time, almost as good as his “Iron Curtain” speech at the end of the 40’s. But was he really happy with a situation where many of his people were terrified of a Third World War and where everything and everyone could be annihilated at a moments notice? ( i.e. at the press of a button by an unstable leader.) I’m pleased I was still living in blissful ignorance, thankfully unaware of the grave potential danger the world now faced.

By the early 1960’s I was growing up, entering my teens, and slowly becoming more knowledgeable about of the world. A first big clue to the dangers we all faced was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. Suddenly all the newspapers were full of gloom and doom about a confrontation between the USA and the Soviet Union which could lead to a nuclear war. I didn’t know the precise details at the time but I clearly remember the fear and tension. Dire headlines dominated my dad’s Daily Mail, though he never discussed any of it with me. Maybe, quite rightly, he wanted to preserve my innocence for as long as possible and for me to continue to enjoy my youth. Afterall, I was only just 12. My voice had not even broken yet! Yet my young life was being played out under a nuclear “sword of Damocles.”

Apparently, an American U2 spy plane had discovered Soviet nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, Russia’s communist ally in the Caribbean. They were within easy reach of all of America’s great cities. The American President, John F Kennedy saw this as a dangerous and unacceptable situation for his country. The Soviet Union and the USA had been sworn enemies in the so-called “Cold War” since the conclusion of the Second World War. So now places such as New York, Chicago and Washington DC could suffer the same fate as Hiroshima and Nagasaki 17 years earlier. Understandably the Americans didn’t like the feeling of being potentially on the receiving end of their own terrible invention. When the Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev refused to remove the missiles , Kennedy initiated a naval blockade of Cuba, which raised the tension considerably. What Kennedy didn’t reveal was that the USA had already placed similar missiles in Turkey, its NATO ally. They were near to the Russian border and were trained on Russian  targets. So Kruschev and his colleagues probably argued that they were merely acting in self defence. For 13 tense and terrible days the 2 leaders faced each other like 2 rutting stags, posing and strutting their macho stuff as the rest of the world waited in fear. It was like a massive game of “chicken” with potentially dire consequences for everyone . Thankfully Kennedy and Kruschev saw sense and the offending missiles in Cuba and Turkey were removed.  Kennedy was hailed as a hero who had faced down the Soviets and saved the world from a nuclear catastrophe. However, he never told anybody about the American climb-down in Turkey, a secret that was kept for 25 years. I’m surprised Kruschev agreed to keep this quiet, but maybe he had bigger problems to deal with. Kennedy was allowed to pose around as a great strong leader without revealing the full truth.

So the world was saved from a nuclear holocaust because one of the great powers was willing to back down and lose face. However, even though the world had escaped unscathed this time, the message was clear for all to see —  trying to keep world peace through the premise of Mutually Assured Destruction was a very fragile and highly dangerous concept. It could so easily have come unstuck, with disastrous consequences in 1962. The acronym of this policy is very apt I think — M.A.D. Already many people in the world were campaigning for nuclear weapons to be destroyed and abolished. The CND movement held many protests and marches in Britain in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Again, I was vaguely aware of all this through the press, but was more concerned with listening to pop music, trying to get a girlfriend and studying hard at school.

In 1964, just as The Beatles and Rolling Stones were hitting their stride, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party was elected to power in the UK. Part of its manifesto was to unilaterally disarm Britain of its nuclear arsenal. However Wilson, surprise, surprise, promptly broke his election promise and instead his government started to develop  a full nuclear weapons programme despite widespread public protest. The  Labour government then leaned heavily on the BBC to stop it screening a drama/documentary by Peter Watkins called “The War Game” in 1965. It set out to show in a terrifyingly realistic manner, just what might happen in Britain if it was subject to a nuclear attack in a future war. It depicted mass deaths through blasts and hurricane speed firestorms. It showed  large scale sickness and death caused by radiation poisoning. It examined the psychological impact of such an attack leading to a big rise in suicides. It depicted a breakdown in law and order and the shooting of looters by police. In other words it wasn’t the usual comfortable or escapist TV fare. The government pressurised the BBC to ban “The War Game” because it didn’t want the public to see the possible results of its own “defence” policies. By being a nuclear power we made ourselves into a prime nuclear target. The film was not shown until 20 years later to mark the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Until that time, much of the population was kept the dark.

Again I was only slightly aware of the fuss about Watkins’s film, not being told at home or at school what was really happening. I was too busy watching football, experimenting with a new “Mod” hairstyle and hanging around with my mates. But full realisation was to come and it came suddenly through my old friend, Bob Dylan. I had already sung along to Barry McGuire’s hit single: “Eve of Destruction” without bothering to engage with the Doomsday lyrics it contained. Now at the age of 17 or 18 I at last started to listen seriously to early Dylan. His 1962 song “A Hard Rains’ A-Gonna Fall” from the “Freewheelin” album, had such vivid , powerful, evocative lyrics that listening to them for the first time was like receiving an electric shock. They talked of “crooked highways”, “sad forests”, “a dozen dead oceans”, walking “ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard”, “blood drippin'”, and “A young woman whose body was burning”. This wasn’t the usual “I love you and you love me” of your average pop songs. Dylan’s lyrics were deliberately ambiguous and were open to all sorts of interpretation. But to me they were clearly about the aftermath of a devastating war. And what was the “Hard rain” that he finished every verse with? Although he denied it in an interview, many people interpreted this as a reference to deadly nuclear fallout. Irrespective of Dylan’s denial, I believed this interpretation and it led to me growing up very fast. I read about nuclear warfare and learnt all about the lethal effects of long term radiation, a silent killer. Bonny Dobson’s “Morning Dew” which I heard via Tim Rose’s recording, also referred to radioactive fallout, being a dialogue between the lone man and woman left alive after an apocalyptic catastrophe. So I had entered serious territory here — contemplating the end of the world!

I was really frightened, if not terrified by all this. It was a lot for a 17/18 year old to take in. My previous childhood innocence had well and truly been blasted away.( an unfortunate verb I know.) This all led to me having an enhanced awareness of my own fragile mortality. I started to fear death! This in turn developed into me being strongly against any unnecessary death. I became anti- war except in the case of self- defence. I did not want animal’s lives to be deliberately ended just to fill a hole in my belly. It was a formative period of my life. I became a pacifist and a vegetarian. I argued with my history teacher about the War in Vietnam. Yes, the Americans were sadly at it again — bombing, napalming and slaughtering people in a far away Asian country. Luckily they didn’t use nuclear weapons this time but I know that President Nixon actively thought about it. As a student I went to London and took part in anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in 1968, including a night long sit-in at the LSE. I manned the barricades, ate vegetarian food and watched films about American atrocities in Vietnam. I suppose you could say that I was being radicalised.

In the 1970s I got married and became a father twice over. A third child arrived in the early 80’s. I was also, busy working of course, so no longer had much time for demonstrations or activism. However, the arrival of my three lovely children gave me a sharp reminder that they had been born into a dangerous, precarious world. Their birth gave me a second, massive wake-up call. I suppose this is why, in my thirties, I became an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament ( CND.) Thus it was a decade of protest marches, torchlight processions, vigils, debates, doorstep canvassing, writing letters, signing petitions, lobbying MPs and singing songs of solidarity. The issue which re-energised the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980’s was the arrival of American Cruise Missilles at British sites such as Greenham Common. It seemed to many that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was making Britain even more of a target in the event of a nuclear war. We already had our own nuclear weapons — Polaris and then Trident — but now we were letting the Americans bring there’s along too. For me it wasn’t a time to remain apathetic and to sit on the fence. It was a time to stand up and be counted. The campaign against Cruise missiles was long and hard but in the end they were removed. However we remained a nuclear state and after 4 consecutive election victories for the Conservatives, the position of the Peace  Movement seemed hopeless. I personally lost heart and started to feel burnt out. Finally, reluctantly, I dropped out of active participation in CND, turning my attention to the environment and becoming a member of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

In the 80’s there were, thankfully, reductions in the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals, negotiated and cemented by treaties. This multi-lateral disarmament was welcome but the world still retained enough of these weapons to destroy itself  several times over. Also in the 1980’s we had a belligerent Prime Minister ( Thatcher) dubbed the “Iron Lady” by the Soviets, and we also had an American President, Ronald Reagan, who could joke ” let’s bomb Russia” when he thought the microphone had been switched off. With leaders like that it was a very worrying time for lovers of Peace. Apologists for the Nuclear weapons say they have kept World peace for over 60 years since the end of the last World War. However, this conveniently ignores the constant smaller wars that have occurred in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Central America and even in Europe ( Yugoslavia and Ukraine.) The Nuclear age has been anything but peaceful. I still cannot understand how any sane person can think that having weapons of mass destruction is the best way to preserve world peace. The Nuclear Powers of the West know this full well as they are desperate for them not to fall into the hands of terrorists or states they don’t like, such as Iran. If nuclear weapons are safe and necessary for our security, why deny them to the Iranians? This smacks of gross hypocrisy .

So the nuclear debate goes on. On the 70th anniversary of the atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese Prime Minister has twice called for the World to give up its Nuclear Weapons. Japan, by the way, is still a pacifist state. The leading candidate in the British Labour Party leadership race, Jeremy Corbyn, is in favour of Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament. Even though he is derided by the right wing press as  a left wing extremist, he is extremely popular with many people, especially the young. I still fear for the world and am worried for my children and now my grandchildren. I have been living under a terrible nuclear shadow all my life and it has not been pleasant. I may be thought of as a naïve idealist but I still dream of genuine world peace and of a planet free of weapons of mass destruction. I have recently rejoined CND and plan to be a more active campaigner again. I wonder what Junco is doing now? Maybe she was at the recent ceremonies in her home city and saw the release of the doves of peace. Maybe, like me she is still clinging on to hope and trying to conquer the fear of living in the Nuclear Age.


25 Jul

Every journey can end up as a mystery tour. This can easily happen even if the destination and route have been meticulously planned in advance. This explains the excitement of travel. When I set off I always get that feeling of nervous expectation in the pit of my stomach. What am I going to see? Whom am I going to meet? What am I going to learn?

Recently, my wife, Chris, and I drove from the North East to the South coast of England for a family visit. It’s a long trail so we decided to break the journey in Nottinghamshire. It’s one of those midlands counties that many merely pass straight through on their way to more obvious destinations. Nottinghamshire has few famous attractions that demand a visit. Nottingham itself is a large city but I have only ever visited it to watch Notts Forest football matches in the Brian Clough era. ( They won the European Cup twice in the late 70’s and early 80’s.) Other than that, I have largely associated the county with vast Sherwood Forest and the legends of Robin Hood. The tales of Robin, his girlfriend Maid Marion, and his Merry Men, robbing the rich to help the poor in the reign of “bad” King John, are emblazoned in my memory because they featured in the first television programme I ever saw. It starred Richard Greene. It always started with a fanfare of trumpets, then an arrow whizzed through the air and  thudded dramatically into an oak tree. The stories have since been given Hollywood glitz by Kevin Costner and co, but I’ll always remember those early, flickering black and white TV pictures from the late 1950s.

Nottinghamshire also makes me think of the novelist D H Lawrence, who hailed from the small west Nottinghamshire mining town of Eastwood. Since college days he has been one of my favourite authors. I remember finding novels such as “The Rainbow” and “Women in Love” so vivid and intense that  reading them made me feel dizzy. I suppose they sent me into a sort of swoon. It’s not often that that happens. Lawrence’s books featured smouldering heroes and heroines struggling to cling on to their individuality, freedom and spontaneity amidst the crushing pressures of industrialisation and urbanisation. Eastwood, when Lawrence was young in the latter years of the 19th century, was dominated by ten coalmines. The overwhelming majority of young men in the town were destined to become black-faced colliers. I can just imagine the young Lawrence vowing to himself that he’d never end up going down the “pit”. I can empathise with his predicament as I grew up just across the county border in north-east Derbyshire, another area dominated by winding wheels and slag heaps. I too was determined not to disappear down a deep hole and  chose the chalk face (of teaching) over the coal face.

However, I digress. I suppose my excuse is that like journeys, writing does not always arrive at interesting places by travelling only in straight lines. This road journey to the south , included north Nottinghamshire but only as a stopover. I’ve always believed in treating the journey as part of the holiday experience. We stopped in Newark, an historical river port and market town. I’d already visited a couple of times in recent years, exploring its atmospheric ruined castle by the river and its narrow streets and lanes leading to an impressive, spacious market square. But the biggest thing about Newark for many travellers is that it is on the busy A1 and the busy East Coast mainline between Newcastle upon Tyne and London Kings Cross. Until recently, I’d merely glanced at its lofty church spire as I sped north or south. Now it was to be a place to rest our weary heads before driving on the next morning. Our hotel, just off the motorway, was full of people with similar notions. Lorry drivers and travelling business people dominated the breakfast room along with a couple of families journeying to holidays or special events further north or south. One group at an adjoining table had come up from the south and were travelling on to Carlisle for a wedding.

As we consumed our breakfast, it felt as if we were in a large transit camp with everyone eager to hit the road and return to the frenetic “madness” of Britain’s motorways. We were soon to join them en-route to Hampshire, but our memories and camera cards had already been filled with images of an unexpected gem we had discovered just down the road the previous day — Southwell.

It’s a genteel, handsome little town, hidden in the green, rolling folds of the countryside. It had an attractive collection of  Georgian mansions, Britain’s only fully preserved example of a Victorian Workhouse, and a magnificent  Minster which was officially re-designated as a Cathedral in the 1880s. Southwell also threw up several interesting mysteries and questions. Why did a tiny, obscure town of less than 7000 people have such a large and impressive place of worship? Why did it have a large wicker-work representation of an apple in its Bishop’s Palace gardens? Why did Southwell’s most historical public house change its name following a fateful King’s visit. What on earth were the mysterious “Prebends”? Finally — how had such a lovely town escaped the devastation of the industrial revolution which had scarred much of the area surrounding it?

I have to come clean and admit that we didn’t visit Southwell purely by chance. My sister and brother in law had already tipped me off. However, it still threw up lots of interesting and unexpected stuff. It’s the Minster that dominates the scene. It is still mostly referred to as a Minster despite its cathedral status. Its twin pepper-pot towers can be seen for miles around. It’s a Norman church built on the site of an Anglo-Saxon predecessor. Underneath it there are also the remains of a sumptuous Roman villa. So it seems that the area has been settled for a very long time. Just near the town runs the route of the Roman Fosse Way which has now been turned into a very fast and very straight A46. In Saxon times, Southwell was a place of pilgrimage as its church contained the bones of Saint Eadburgh, the Abbess of Repton. Whenever I visit a place I try to work out why it grew up in that particular location. Is it on a major river, perhaps at a bridging or fording point? Is it on an important crossroads, servicing the needs of travellers coming from four different directions? Is it a port or the centre of an important industry? Is it the main market centre for its region? In the case of Southwell, the answer to all these questions is “no”. This puzzled me for a while. Where had it sprung from? Then I figured it out. It grew up here because of the church. It was an important religious centre. Thus it is most fitting that the town is still dominated by its Minster (Cathedral). It still attracts pilgrims but today these are mostly of the non-religious, tourist variety. It’s status as a religious centre attracted the wealthy to live there and this in turn protected it from the ravages of the industrial revolution.

It seems strange today, living in a predominantly secular society, that the Church could have the power to create and control a whole community. Yet that is precisely what happened in Southwell and many other places in the past. It must have been so simple in medieval England. Most people, in normal times, travelled no further than a day’s walk from their village in their entire lifetime. One had to obey without question the commands of the Norman Lord of the Manor, even to the extent of fighting and dying for him on some far off battlefield. Finally, one omnipotent church, headed by the Pope, controlled everyone’s spiritual beliefs and practices. There was no alternative to Roman Catholicism. This was before the Reformation which gave people a choice of churches and before the “Age of Reason” which gave us alternative philosophies and theories about life and death. Back in the Middle Ages, if anyone rebelled against the Catholic Church, he or she would be branded as a heretic and ran the risk of being burnt at the stake. It was a spiritual dictatorship. Everyone believed in Heaven and Hell, and in the struggle between God and the Devil. Intimidating priests threatened people with eternal damnation if they didn’t follow the church’s rigid rules. The Catholic Church’s dictatorship extended to levying taxes on the ordinary people. These were seen as down-payments on that place in heaven that was reserved for you if you were good and conformed to the rules.

It was during these times that Southwell was created. Up to the 12th century, Nottinghamshire parishioners paid their church dues to the Archbishop of York. However in 1108AD, these payments were diverted into the building of the Church of St Mary in Southwell. It was constructed on a magnificent scale, much bigger and grander than a run-of-the-mill Parish church. The Notts parishioners were then released from their obligation to visit York Minster annually. Instead they were able to visit Southwell Minster on a more local pilgrimage, in exchange for remission of their sins. Their subsequent church tithes and other taxes went to Southwell instead of York. Similar arrangements were made in Ripon ( North Yorkshire) and Beverley ( in East Yorkshire or Humberside.) Thus, all three places, Southwell, Ripon and Beverley, now have very impressive Minsters/Cathedrals even though they are only small towns. When the Archbishop of York went on a tour of his huge church estates, he needed places to stay, so Bishop’s Palaces were built next to his major churches. Southwell has one of these too except the palace has been partly in ruins since its brutal occupation by Parliamentary troops in the English Civil War, back in the 1640’s. They actually stabled their horses there!

Southwell Cathedral is still very impressive. It has a large central tower and two taller towers at its west front. The large wooden Norman doors are surrounded by fancy dogtooth decoration. Inside, the nave is flanked by massive stone towers linked by rounded archways. This heavy Norman-style architecture gives way to more delicate pointed arches in the choir. These were added in the 13th century in the Early English Gothic style. There is also a spectacular, octagonal Chapter House decorated with stone carvings representing naturalistic foliage. This is one of the earliest examples of this type of carving in England. Our eyes were also drawn to the large stained glass windows. Many of these used to have plain glass to let maximuim light in, until the Victorians added their contributions. Ironically, the window that impressed us most was the most modern. The huge 15th century west window had had its plain glass replaced, in 1996, with a spectacular collection of angels in light-coloured stained and painted glass. It was created by Patrick Reyntiens of York — very apt as Southwell Minster was originally formed as an annexe of York.

We left the Minster as it was being taken over by a large group of motor-bikers, gathering for the funeral of one of their own. Many had “Mansfield Rockers” inscribed on the back of their leather jackets. It showed that the church still has the power to pull the unlikeliest people in if the occasion merits in. We visited the remains of the Bishop’s Palace and found out that it been visited by several medieval kings and also served as one of the last refuges of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. He had fallen out of favour with King Henry VIII after failing to arrange his divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey had left London and gone into exile further north to escape the wrath of the sovereign. It made us think of our recent viewing of the wonderful Hilary Mantel drama “Wolf Hall.” It was strange to imagine Wolsey spending some of his last days in this tiny town  before being summoned back to the capital and dying in the Tower.

The Bishop’s Palace has lovely peaceful gardens with a colourful, Gertrude Jeckll style flower- border. It also has a wild meadow, a labyrinth and a giant wicker- work apple. The latter was because the Bramley cooking apple was discovered in 1809 by Mary Ann Brailsford of Southwell and the  original tree is still in a private garden there. I remember my grandma peeling and slicing bramleys when making an apple pie or crumble. They are popular for their tart, acidic taste and for the fact that they cook up into a smooth puree. The local football team is nicknamed “The Bramleys”, as is the local community newspaper.

The town itself is an attractive collection of mostly Georgian buildings with a lovely tree- shaded green at one end of it. The oldest building however is late medieval — The Saracen’s Head — built in 1463. This later became a coaching inn as Southwell, as we have seen, is just off the Great North Road ( now called the A1.) Its biggest claim to fame however was that King Charles 1 spent his last night as a free man there at the end of The English Civil War in May, 1646.  At the time the inn was called The King’s Head. The next day he surrendered to the Scottish army stationed in Newark. They subsequently sold him to Parliament whose leader, Oliver Cromwell, put him on trial for treason and had him beheaded in January, 1649. I think this is possibly why the King’s Head was renamed. Once poor Charles had been separated from his head, it would have been a sick joke to continue with the old name. To double the irony, Cromwell later stayed in the very same rooms as King Charles Stuart, because his parliamentary troops had smashed up the Bishop’s Palace, where he had planned to lodge.

Near the Saracen’s Head and opposite the entrance to the Minster we came across the mysterious “prebends.” They were big, grand houses set in their own grounds. Apparently, all the surrounding villages had to pay prebends, which were church taxes to pay for the housing of canons and other church officials. The churchmen also claimed a portion of this tax for their stipend, or income. Each house is named after the village that paid for it. It is just another example of the immense power and wealth that the church used to wield. Today most of the houses are in private hands except I noticed that one was still used as a religious retreat.

Southwell’s final claim to fame, apart from the fact that it used to be a temporary home of the Romantic poet, Lord Byron, is it’s huge, forbidding Victorian workhouse. Today it’s run by the National Trust which unfortunately closes many of its properties on Mondays. Guess which day we were there? However we did catch a glimpse of the building on the edge of town as we drove back to Newark. The long drive up to it is known as the “Pauper’s Path.” One can only imagine the feeling of deep foreboding the Victorian poor must have felt as they walked up the drive to take refuge there. For most, it was a desperate refuge of last resort. The building, put up in 1824 is very austere. It looks like a prison, which in many ways it was. The workhouse established a harsh regime which was meant to deter all but the absolutely destitute. It was the blueprint for many other workhouses around the country. As one churchman noted : “An empty workhouse is a successful one.” In  some ways the attitude of the Victorian authorities to the poor was similar to that of our present Conservative Government to people on benefits. Both wanted to force unemployed people into low paid work by making the alternative of living off the state, even worse . At Southwell, 160 inmates lived and worked in a strictly segregated environment, separating the old and infirm, the able bodied men and the woman and children. As I said, we didn’t get to see the workhouse, but we will return sometime when we are passing by on the A1. Apparently it’s a really miserable experience!

So I’m pleased we left the motorway and explored just a bit of the countryside that we normally flash by without a thought. A teashop in a little Georgian town is far preferable to the anonymity of a motorway service station. Maybe, we would get more out of modern life if we were  more like the tortoise and less like the hare.

Encounters with Russia.

23 Jun

I’ve just spent 2 months in Russia, visiting the homes of the very rich and the very poor, listening to monks deliver long religious discourses, eavesdropping on political and philosophical discussions in taverns, getting caught in the middle of violent family disputes, eavesdropping on passionate love affairs, witnessing a murder and attending the subsequent trial. It’s been a long, intensive, traumatic experience. Luckily, I am now back in the calm and familiarity of my English home and the book I’ve been immersed in: ” The Brothers Karamazov” is now resting safely back on the shelf. Reading its  985 closely typed pages was a mammoth enterprise and, at times, an all consuming experience. Fyodor Dostoyevsky didn’t belief in writing little ditties. His novels were invariably on a grand scale, sprawling epics giving a rich slice of life at all levels of 19th century Russian society. He’s very much like a Russian version of Charles Dickens, painting a rich, detailed picture of the human experience. Like Dickens too, Dostoyevsky’s works were published in instalments in newspapers or periodicals. That’s probably why they contain such gripping suspense. He wanted to make sure that his readers would  purchase the next episode. Some wag in a review I read, noted that he got paid by the word, thus explaining why his novels were so long.

The sheer length of “The Brothers Karamazov” explains why I waited until I’d retired before I was brave enough to tackle it. When I was at work I wouldn’t have had the time to read it regularly enough to follow the multiple threads it contained. As a 20 year old student I had attempted to read the same author’s “Crime and Punishment.” I gave up just over halfway through the crime. This time it wasn’t the length that daunted me but the frightening, sinister quality of Dostoyevsky’s prose. It got to the point where I was too scared to turn over the page! I abandoned the book and didn’t think about reading anything by him again until a thrilling, chance encounter in the early noughties. In November, 2006, I was lucky enough to go on a city break to St Petersburg, Russia’s former capital city. Opposite our hotel to the south of the city centre , stood an ancient looking Orthodox church surrounded by an atmospheric graveyard. It was in fact the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and cemetery from the mid eighteenth century. It had been snowing so everything looked pristine white and beautiful. My wife, Chris, and I decided to brave the biting cold and go to explore it. The church was mysterious but fascinating with people bowing to and kissing glistening icons and a bearded monk baptising a crying baby. But it was in the cemetery that the real surprise and thrill came. We wandered past a row of Bolshevik head- stones tucked away to one side. They were topped by red stars and red hammer and sickle motifs. Presumably they were not allowed to rest in the main part of the cemetery because they had been atheists. It was surprising that they were there at all though, as if at the last minute they had decided to hedge their bets. Then we stepped into the heart of the graveyard. It was surrounded by avenues of bare black trees festooned with bunchesof blood-red berries. It looked stark and beautiful in its blanket of snow. What enfolded was a parade of Russian, 19th century celebrities.

First came Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s headstone, quickly followed by two other famous composers: Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. Tchaikonsky’s handsome bust was accompanied by two thoughtful angels, one studying a music manuscript. Flecks of snow gathered in her wing feathers and in the folds of her gown. On to her lap someone had placed a bunch of lovely, white narcissi. Borodin’s tomb featured a dazzling art-nouveau mosiac of a page of his music, black notation, a glowing golden background and green and red decoration. We were just marvelling at our surprise find when there it was, the grave of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the celebrated novelist. We stood and stared, forgetting the freezing cold. It was a tall, handsome tomb surrounded by a low, wrought iron fence. At its centre was a head and shoulders bust of the great man , sporting a full, flowing beard and a dodgy looking comb- over. Above and below him in gold, Cyrillic script were his name and biographical details, I presumed. Strewn in the snow was a scattering of red carnations. We had just stumbled across the last resting places of 4 of Russia’s most famous sons. For a while, until the cold started to gnaw the tips of my fingers, I stood there mesmerised. I think it was at that moment that I decided to return to Dostoyevsky’s novels at some point, as well as listening  to more Russian classical music. Time to dust down those old vinyls and revisit the classics on the book-shelves.

At first though I ignored Dostoyevsky. Maybe I was still too scared. I had had nightmares for months after putting down “Crime and Punishment.” To me it was the literary equivalent of Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, a film I always have to pluck up courage to watch. Instead I took down Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, another epic work. It’s sheer length had made it previously too daunting to tackle. My only previous connection with it had been through the old Hollywood film starring Ingrid Bergman. ( made in the 1930’s I think.) Most people remember the last scene when the ” heroine” jumps in front of a thundering train. But watching the film seems a lazy way of tackling one of the great works of world literature. The inner world of the book and of the characters cannot adequately be revealed in a moving picture. I’ve always thought this and that’s why I made a point of reading all the novels of Jane Austin instead of just being satisfied with the pretty costume dramas on TV or at the cinema. The same goes for the works of Dickens. One cannot capture the sheer power of his writing by singing along to the catchy tunes of “Oliver” or viewing any of the innumerable TV adaptations of his works. Applying the same logic to Tolstoy, I decided to pick up the book, even though it was so big. I don’t know what all the fuss was about– my translation of Anna Karenin ( mysteriously missing the final “a”) was a mere 853 pages of close text and they flew by in no time. From the first sentence Tolstoy’s wonderfully lucid writing had me in its spell. A book only seems long if it’s boring. It’s dead easy to read a genuine masterpiece. Don’t worry, I’m not going to deliver a critical analysis of the novel in this blog. It probably wouldn’t be very good anyway. I’ll just suffice to quote part of the back cover of my Penguin classic ( translated by Rosemary Edmonds) :” Acclaimed by many as the world’s greatest novel, Anna Karenin provides a vest panorama of contemporary life in Russia and humanity in general. In it Tolstoy uses his intense imaginative insight to create some of the most memorable characters in literature.” Like Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy is a supreme master of the psychological novel, delving into the motivations of his characters and their many conflicting facets, with subtle, compelling skill. Yes, I got drawn straight into it,was gripped and fascinated throughout and felt sad and bereft when it finally finished.  Like all very good books, completing it was like losing a close friend. Anna Karenin jumped straight to the top of my all time favourite  novels chart, pushing George Eliot’s marvellous “Middlemarch” down to number 2. Without leaving my armchair I had returned to St Petersburg and Russia. My earlier trip had inspired and enhanced my reading of the great novel. I was now on a roll. I now picked up “War and Peace”, another Tolstoy classic and another truly epic read. Many critics regard this as the greatest book ever written.

I thought “War and Peace” was great. It too has vivid characters and their psychological and emotional worlds are expertly detailed. The epic battle scenes are fascinating too but I think Tolstoy overdid the theorising about history and the fate of humanity. Sometimes he laid it on with a trowel as they say and his frequent philosophising slowed the momentum of the main story. So I didn’t put it at the top of my personal literary hit parade, ( sorry Leo), but it easily secured a spot in the top 20. The book has wonderful characterisation, and  such convincing dialogue that you feel as if you are actually in the room with the speakers. Most of all, it too immersed me in the Russian world, albeit one of over 2 centuries ago. It’s a world that is familiar but strange at the same time. Russia is the largest country in the continent of Europe, yet the majority of its land is in Asia. It’s a paradox. I entered that same intriguing world in my Dostoyevsky readings. To make it all the more mysterious and compelling, it’s a world that has now passed into history following the traumatic revolutions of 1917.

For much of my life I wasn’t allowed to visit Russia. It wasn’t even called Russia. The communists renamed it : The Soviet Union. When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, the Soviets were the enemies. They were the ones we might have a catastrophic nuclear war with. It was very scary especially during the incredibly tense Cuban missile crisis of the early 1960’s. Russia still is scary. Their recent annexation of the Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine are not exactly peaceful or welcome developments. Also the Russian treatment of the Chetchens and other Causasun peoples has been consistently shocking and largely ignored by the west. Putin loved Bush and Blair’s “War on Terror” as it gave him the convenient opportunity to harshly suppress and oppress his minority peoples with western approval. All he had to do was label them “terrorists.” It’s not surprising that in their desperation, some of his opponents have turned to terrorism. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Violence sadly breeds violence. And all this has come on top of the many horrific events of Russia’s tragic 20th century — a disastrous First World War, violent revolutions, bloody civil war, communist dictatorship under Lenin and especially Stalin plus others, reigns of terror, political repression, enforced collectivisation and subsequent famine, forced relocation of whole populations, the lethal work camps of the Gulags, the Nazi invasion and the horrors of the Second World War… The list of terrors and tragedies is seemingly endless. It makes Tolstoy’s or Dostoyevsky’s Tsarist Russia seem like a walk in the park.( which it wasn’t of course.) The fact that many Russian novels are so big, long and heavy, merely reflects that nation’s long and heavy history.

Even in our brief visit to St Petersburg in November, 2006, we could feel the heavy weight of Russian history bearing down on our shoulders. St Petersburg, 17 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, looked superficially prosperous. The roads were crammed with cars, big, glossy shop windows displayed a wide range of luxury goods, and many of its grand historical churches and palaces had been beautifully restored. However, even a brief look at the people, their facial expressions and their body language, was enough to show that all was not well. Most people avoided eye contact and did not even look up. They trudged through the streets or on and off the Metro with bowed heads and slumped shoulders. Most, if you could see them, wore miserable expressions. There were no smiles, and no courtesies in these street encounters. People did not make way as we approached. They just walked straight  at us and it was us who had to give way. It’s easy for tourists from a rich country with a comfortable life style to conclude that Russian people are just plain rude. It’s not as simple as that though. As soon as I tried to imagine myself in their shoes, I understood their behaviour a lot better. With all that tragedy and tyranny in their lives, why should they be carefree and happy? The younger ones whom we met in shops and restaurants were more friendly and spoke enough English to break down the language barrier a little. However the younger generation is not weighed down by so many terrible memories. They had not had to survive the horrific Nazi siege of Leningrad in the 1940s for instance or the gross deprivation of human rights experienced under the Soviet regimes. They had not lost loved ones in the wars in Chechnya or Afghanistan.      Many older people tragically lost their life savings in the post Communist Yeltsin regime when inflation ran riot and the state’s prized resources were sold off to opportunist businessmen who became obscenely rich overnight. There was a power vacuum and an economic free for all which saw the rise of the notorious Russian mafia. Apparently, when state run industries such as oil, gas and minerals were broken up and privatised, every citizen was given a handful of shares. However these were gobbled up by the oligarchs, who bribed many gullible people with the price of a bottle of vodka and so the few became super rich and the many became desperately poor. A travel companion of mine told me she had lodged in the St Petersburg apartment of an older couple in their late 60’s. They had lost all their savings in the Yeltsin era and were forced to go out to work full time and rent their spare room to western tourists. This was  in the mid 90’s. My friend told me the area where she stayed was dimly lit and shabby, with litter and broken glass . She didn’t feel safe and was always in well before dark. She said it was an interesting but very uncomfortable experience. Meanwhile, mega rich Russian oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich, buy up properties in central London, the south of France or Cyprus, swan around in luxury yachts and private planes and buy football clubs such as Chelsea FC to use as their private playthings. At the last count, Abramovich was worth a cool US$9.1 billion. A few years ago someone commented to me : “I wonder how many people are slaving away in Siberian mines to pay Frank Lampard’s wages!” At the time, Lampard was one of Chelsea’s highest earners at £150,000 a week!

So it was not surprising that we encountered gloomy faces and defeatist body language. Many Russians have had their hopes and spirits crushed by circumstances. Life is one big, bitter struggle. That was my impression anyway. The lack of smiling, welcoming faces was disconcerting but it certainly lent a powerful atmosphere to the place and a definite edge to our visit. Yes, we saw wonderful churches and cathedrals, ornate palaces, spectacular squares, picturesque canals, world class art and a wonderful ballet performance. We saw the Winter palace in winter and queued for the Hermitage museum in a raw, freezing -7degrees centigrade, to be eventually rewarded with a dazzling array of masterpieces. St Petersburg is a world class tourist destination. Yet my most abiding memory is of the depressed ordinary people shuffling through the wintry streets. It was not a  totally comfortable experience but that made it all the more fascinating. On our last day there we got mugged in an underpass as if to underline the air of discomfort that hung in the air. A large group of Asiatic- looking men in military uniforms, bumped into us and jostled us for about 30 seconds. It was like being in the middle of a rugby scrum. When we were spat out at the end I found that my wallet was missing and they had tried to cut the straps of Chris’s rucksack. Luckily we were not hurt, albeit more than a bit shaken, and they only got away with the equivalent of £35 and my Tesco’s card. I hope they found it useful!  Oh, and we also got taken as hostages in the colourfully named Restaurant Rasputin where we ate with friends after the ballet. They would not accept payment by card, demanding cash only. They refused to let us leave until one of us walked back to the hotel cash machine to get the money. A couple of “heavies” suddenly appeared to back up the previously friendly waitress. ( They weren’t really that heavy– I’m only joking.) Still it wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience.

So, I’ve had a rich, interesting interaction with Russia and the Russians over the years. Not all of it has been easy. But it’s a vast, strange and intriguing country and in my reading, music listening, ballet watching and armchair travels, I continue to be fascinated by it.  I’m determined to visit it again and see places beyond St Petersburg which is beautiful but not exactly typical. I have another Tolstoy lined up — “Resurrection!”, plan to explore the piano concertos of Rachmanoff and revisit the plays of Chekov.( The Cherry Orchard is a particular favourite of mIne.) I may even pluck up courage and face up to my old nemesis: “Crime and Punishment.”




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