My Friend John
Posted: 15th November 2018
My friend John died last month. It wasn’t a great surprise: he had been riddled with cancer for years, but I was upset that the end came so quickly that I wasn’t able to spend some time with him as we had arranged, before he breathed his last. I went up to Norfolk for his funeral. The usual travails occurred that always happen when you try to do something ambitious here in Britain: I was stung for having the temerity to travel at peak time, suffered a filthy train, experienced a cancellation and hour-long wait in Cambridge, but somehow made it to King’s Lynn and caught my lift to Binham. And there were consolations in the landscape and what began as a bright, if frigid day.
The service was conducted in the fragment of the Benedictine Priory with its unexpectedly gorgeous Romanesque interior and late Gothic font and choir stalls. We sang Dear Lord and Father of Mankind - one of my all-time favourites. Outside, an amiable shire horse would not be deterred from munching on a mourner’s straw shopping bag. After tea and sandwiches a small group of us set off for the crematorium in Norwich in weather that had already turned apocalyptic: double rainbows, violent showers and icy winds. I watched John’s coffin go down to the flames and the same kind people drove me to Norwich Station. It was peak time again and they stung me for another £50 and more to get back. The sun set in purple clouds above Diss and I arrived into Liverpool Street just in time to get to a cosy dinner in Stockwell.
John came from a respectable Anglo-Irish ascendancy family, but he and his elder sister Sarah had been brought up in England. His father, George, read Greats at Oxford in the early thirties and was initially employed as a lawyer for the Home Office. George had been one of six, but two brothers were drowned in boyhood in a boating accident off the coast of Donegal, and later another brother was killed in action. George married his deceased brother’s widow - John’s mother. Later George took the unusual decision to relocate to Ireland and join the Irish civil service, heading one of the ministries there and living in one of the more plush townships south of Dublin. At this stage John and Sarah became reunited with the Irish capital. In his dotage, John said George became an enthusiast for Goethe and spent his time making long lists of German words and phrases.
I had known John for the best part of forty years. We met in Paris when I went to work for a company based in the 13e that supplied teachers for Thomson CSF, the French arms manufacturers. I learned with time that John had been schooled in England. He went to the famously bleak Sedbergh in the West Riding which also produced my head of history and my old editor at The Times. It was more famous for soldiers and sportsmen than scholars. He went to university in Canterbury, where he studied French and later - something I learned at the funeral - taught English in Spain. After that he came to roost in Paris where he moved in a circle largely composed of Irish friends, some literary, some painterly. John was quite standoffish at first. I recall he lived in a lovely studio above a stable, not far from our offices. He had a literary bent and tried his hand at fiction. He showed me a few bits and bobs he’d had published.
With time he opened up. I discovered his great sense of fun, and occasional mischief. I used to cook Sunday lunch for friends where I lived in Montparnasse. John was one of the regular attendees. I had been working with a pushy American woman whom I shall call Amelia Snodgrass. The day before our first lunch I had called her for some reason and got her answering machine. Now answering machines were red hot kit then, not many of us had encountered one, and particularly not one with such a silly message: ‘This is Amelia Snodgrass and her dog Fluffy’ said the voice, ‘if you would like to speak with us, please leave a message after the tone.’ I paused for a second, reflected, uttered a quiet ‘woof!’ and put down the receiver.
When I mentioned this at lunch, everyone clamoured to speak to Fluffy, John included. We assigned roles: Doberman, Alsatian, spaniel, Yorkshire terrier, Shih Tzu, Pomeranian etc, and barked into the answering machine. This jape went on for weeks until one Sunday I was warming up for my impersonation of a Jack Russell when I heard a quiet but frustrated voice at the other end of the line bleat: ‘They’re barking at me!’
Revels of this sort came to an end when John was posted to Toulon to work with the French Navy. I envied him his place in the sun, but when he was commissioned to write a teaching manual for the matelots he asked me to do some illustrations. He was largely pleased with the results, particularly one he referred to as ‘buggery against the bulkhead’.
I went back to London and John’s work in Toulon was wound up. By the time he too arrived in London he had written a novel and acquired a love-interest in the form of a teacher who had worked with him in the south of France. She was English and wedded to a Frenchman, the marriage broke up, but she still eluded John. The story was fully aired in the text of the book, which John then set about trying to sell, but without luck. I thought it was good, and used my contacts to try to procure a publisher for it. At one stage I thought I had succeeded when I saw my then editor, the late Penny Hoare, clutching it to her bosom, but then Penny worried it to death and the novel was no more. John wrote at least one more novel that I also read. This one was a thriller set in Naples. I thought it excellent, and we tried to think of an agent to represent it. Once again it failed to find a publisher, which I thought a great pity.
He settled in Notting Hill, and for a while the affair with the lady from Toulon went on. When it fizzled out he went to live in Norfolk, first on the coast in Salthouse and later in Binham. By that stage he had begun to trade in rare books. He had a lucky break at first, finding a mint copy of the first edition of Ulysses in one of the boxes of a bouquiniste on the Paris quays. He specialised in Irish literature and went regularly back to Dublin where he was a member of the Kildare Street Club on Stephen’s Green. He used to trade from an office in a bookshop in Holt but after much of the antiquarian book trade was snaffled up by Abe Books, he decided the future was in manuscripts, which he sold chiefly to American universities.
Sometimes when he was up in London we’d go out to dinner together and he’d doss down on my floor. One morning I saw him watching a group of likely lads who were emerging from the basement below. He seemed worried by one in particular, who looked like a short, stocky, bald version of Flash Harry in the St Trinian’s Films. He expressed the view they had ‘all been inside’. I explained the men were Olly and his friends. Olly had arrived a few weeks before. He claimed to be a photographer and had lots of noisy pals. One night (I think in June) two raucous girls had woken me up in the middle of the night singing Christmas Carols to him outside his door. Olly apologised the next morning, and thrust a bottle of Chablis into my hand. It was hard not to forgive Olly after that.
One day later that year, I locked myself out and had to wait for the lady upstairs to return as she had the spare keys. Finding me sitting on the doorstep, Olly asked me in. He poured me a glass of wine and picked up the telephone: ‘I’m going to call my mum and tell her I’ve got you down here.’
After he’d broken the news to his mother he proceeded to tell me his life story. ‘I went to this really awful public school in Yorkshire. It was in the middle of nowhere.’ He told me. This came as a surprise, as I had not associated Olly with public schools. ‘What was it called?’ I asked.
‘Sedbergh’ he said.
I looked at Olly and wondered how old he might have been and took a shot at it. ‘Did you know my friend John?’
‘He was my best friend!’ Shouted Olly, who described John, in less than flattering terms, but he was definitely the same John.
John was dumbfounded when I relayed the story to him: it turned out they had indeed been close friends. John had even taken Olly home during one of the school holidays and his mother and father had had to speak to him about cultivating more respectable friends in the future. Olly had passed out of his life when he decided he had enough of Sedbergh and had simply got up, put on his coat and walked out of the school gates, never to be seen again. I tried to encourage John to meet Olly after that, but he never did.
I visited John a couple of times in Norfolk. The first occasion was his fiftieth birthday. We came as a family with two small children. Although we did meet the crowd, John kept his other friends quite distinct, so that it was never easy to find out quite who they were and whether there was a new love interest brewing. I didn’t have the impression that his little passions lasted long. He never married. After the lady from Toulon he didn’t come close. I continued to see him in London even after he became ill. The treatments were effective at first but they destroyed his kidneys. The last time I saw him, only a few months ago, he sat in the chair in my study and told me how he planned to spend the last months that remained to him. He wanted to travel, remaining close to a dialysis machine.
A few years ago John had a rather wonderful idea of starting a publishing house called Front Street Editions. He aimed to produce beautiful books: lovely paper, block printing, leather binding, specially commissioned wood engravings etc. He asked me to do one. I suggested Brillat-Savarin’s erotic letters, copies of which I had in my possession, but he decided against. In the end I did do a little translation from Goethe for him. I received a couple of copies in the post earlier this year. It is an object I shall continue to treasure; my last link to my friend John.
Posted: 15th October 2018
I had a surprise invitation last week, to the opening of an exhibition at the State Opera House in Vienna to celebrate the life and works of the conductor Hans Swarowsky (1899 - 1975). Swarowsky is not as famous in the same way as Toscanini, Bernstein or Furtwängler but he is very well known to orchestral musicians, conductors in particular. He was briefly chief conductor of the second-string Vienna Symphonic during that time just after the war when denazification proceedings meant no one knew who was politically reliable anymore; and from 1959 he was the main man at the Vienna Opera House. He is less well-known for his recordings than he is for training many of the great musical conductors of the second half of the twentieth century: men like Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta and Giuseppe Sinopoli. He was a modest man who saw himself more as the ‘servant to the work’ than any sort of rostrum virtuoso.
I received the invitation as a member of Swarowsky’s extended family. In truth he was not my blood relative at all but the illegitimate son of Josef Kranz (1862 - 1934), a Jewish financier who had built up a huge fortune during the very rapid industrial development of Bosnia. With his lavish lifestyle and palatial residences, Viennese wits contrasted the simple, austere ways of Emperor Franz Joseph with the ostentatious behaviour of ‘Kranz Josef’.
Kranz’s brother Siegmund married my great-grandmother’s sister Malvida Zwieback and Kranz became ‘Onkel Josef’ to my grandfather and his first cousins; but that was not the only link to my family. When my great-uncle (a budding conductor) Josef Zirner was killed on the Russian front in 1915, Kranz convinced his widow, the later feminist novelist Gina Kaus, to live with him as his adopted ‘daughter’. Her relationship with Kranz is recounted in her autobiography as well as in her novel Die Schwerstern Kleh (Dark Angel) of 1933, which was filmed in French as Conflit by Arnold Pressburger in 1938 and in English as Her Sister’s Secret by Edgar Ulmer in 1946. The relationship is also parodied by Franz Werfel in his novel Barbara of 1929. She seems to have spent a lot of time fobbing him off with a ‘headache’.
Kranz’s only legitimate child died in infancy but he had two children by his mistress, the actress Leopoldina Swaroska: Hans and Josefine. Leopoldina went to Budapest to keep Hans’s birth a secret. She was not Jewish, and Hans was baptised a Catholic. There were no Godparents. ‘Joscha’ was born just a year later.
They were brought up in secret, first in Hietzing and later in the Leopoldstadt districts of Vienna, well away from Kranz’s wife Gisela, who survived her husband and his many infidelities only to perish in the death camp at Treblinka. Kranz was generous to his mistress and son and Leopoldina lived in some luxury at first. One of the first presents Kranz made to Swarowsky was the piano on which he practiced in his early years. He had lessons from Busoni and others scarcely less illustrious. Kranz also had a box at the Opera, and his illegitimate son was allowed to use it to see Mahler perform. As an eleven-year old child Swarowsky sang at the first performance of Mahler’s Eighth, and later became one of the leaders of the movement to revive Mahler’s reputation after the Second World War.
Swarowsky fantasised all his life about his father’s identity, as Kranz never formally acknowledged him or his sister. Swarowsky told people that he was the son of the Habsburg Archduke Otto. To others he said the truth: that his father had been a director of the Creditanstalt bank. Kranz evidently showed affection for his natural son. He took him to see Renoir in Cagnes-sur-Mer and the French painter did a portrait of the boy that was destroyed by bombing in 1944.
Swarowsky fought on the Isonzo Front in the First World War and was taken prisoner. During his captivity he learned Italian and during the Second World War, when he was unable to work, he put the language to good use by translating Verdi’s scores into German. Once he returned to Austria, Swarowsky frequented Gina’s salon. There is even a rumour they had an affair. He became a student of philosophy and art history but rapidly gravitated towards music. He studied violin and was taught theory privately by Schoenberg - like his cousin, Malvida’s youngest son Erhard Kranz. He went to Anton von Webern who instructed him in conducting. Webern’s influence on Swarowsky was so important, that he named his son ‘Anton’ after him. His first positions were as assistant leader with the orchestras in Vienna, Stuttgart and Gera.
Swarowsky’s experience of the Third Reich was bitter-sweet. His Jewish paternity was concealed by his National Socialist uncle Ludwig Zenk, allowing him to continue performing. He went to Hamburg to lead the orchestra and later to the Berlin Opera. He worked with Richard Strauss and later helped write the libretto for Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio. The Nazis, however, disapproved of his left-leaning politics and he was banned from performing for a while. No was longer able to wield a baton at home and became Chief Conductor at the Opera in Zurich. In 1944 he took over the conducting of the Symphony Orchestra in Hans Frank’s lavish General Gouvernement in Krakow from Paul Hindemith’s brother Rudolf. Both conductors used the orchestra to protect the lives of Polish musicians, although Rudolf Hindemith seems to have failed to recover his reputation after the war and ended up changing his name.
After a brief pause in Stuttgart, Swarowsky returned to Vienna and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and conducted the opera in Graz. From 1957 to 1959 he was chief conductor of the Scottish National Orchestra before returning to Vienna to conduct the performances at the Opera House there. More important perhaps, was that same year he took over the conducting classes at the Music Academy for which he is chiefly famous now.
The exhibition at the State Opera House opens on the 23rd October.
Posted: 17th September 2018
The old guard is thinning out fast. Following on the news of Jeremy Catto’s death on 17 August, came the report of the decease of David Watkin on the 31st. In some way Jeremy and Watkin were comparable donnish figures, the one teaching neo-classical architectural history at Peterhouse Cambridge, the other specialising in mediaeval history at Oriel College Oxford. They were both flamboyant and stylishly got up compared to the dowdy sort that tottered about in worn out tweeds and flannels. Jeremy always reminded us of David Hockney, with his characteristic mop of hair and Jancis Robinson spectacles, while Watkin wore what he pleased to call his ‘Dr Goebbels’ double-breasted pin-striped suits - a style latterly adopted by Jacob Rees-Mogg. They were not similar in character, however: Jeremy was always affable and benign, a big teddy bear; while occasional dark stories surfaced about Watkin that made him sound vaguely diabolic. I never heard a whiff of scandal about Jeremy. On the other hand Jeremy represented a distinctly un-productive school of academics, while Watkin wrote plenty of well-received books.
I knew Jeremy Catto far better than I knew Watkin. Jeremy was rumoured to come from a rich and well-connected family, which might explain why he didn’t actually sound like a Geordie. He was born Robert Jeremy Inch Catto in Newcastle on 27 July 1939 and went to the Royal Grammar School before going up to Balliol where he was tutored by a very young Maurice Keen. He came out the other end with a First in Modern History. Somewhere along the way he acquired a D.Phil, as he was always known as ‘Dr Catto,’ but I can’t see at what precise point in his career this occurred. His major published works amounted to editing two volumes of the history of the university. He also fronted a history of Oriel College. It was always said about Jeremy that he found writing hard. He is best remembered as an inspiring teacher and that is no mean feat either.
In 1964, Jeremy was appointed a lecturer at Durham and returned to the land of his birth. He had been a childhood friend of the singer Bryan Ferry which gave him some kudos (or smoke) in our eyes and in London he was part of the world of the painter Glyn Boyd Harte, who did his portrait. That being said, unlike David Watkin, I don’t recall seeing him in London often. When he returned to Oxford with a fellowship in history at Oriel in 1969 he brought a former tutee with him, Colin McMordie, who spent several years in Oxford working on a B.Litt on art history before abandoning it and heading for Paris. Colin used to tell stories about Jeremy’s shy sexual advances which amounted to no more than tapping a student’s knee with a ruler. He was still quite hide-bound even in the seventies. Every summer he took his mother to the Hotel du Camp Romain in Santenay on the Côte D’Or. We naturally found the name hilarious.
By the time I encountered Jeremy he was Dean of Oriel and a senior officer of the Oxford Union. As dean his job was to enforce discipline in a college famous for is rowdies and rowing heavies who were forever smashing or breaking things. In my first year my best friend was at Oriel and I spent a lot of time there. For a brief moment the friend became infatuated with a girl who was one of the small female contingent at Hertford College. The girl - who is now a very senior columnist on the Guardian or the Observer - was decidedly cool towards him, but one evening, fortified by Dutch courage, he took action and climbed into Hertford after dark to confront her. He chose as his entry point an open window over the main gate. He landed softly, too softly as it turned out, on a double bed; and the occupants strongly objected to the threesome. They turned out to be the philosophers Geoffrey and Mary Warnock. Geoffrey Warnock was also the college principal.
‘Who are you?’ said the Warnocks, switching on the lights. My friend responded that he was ‘Tom Smith from Iffley’. The philosophers were not going to be fobbed off so easily and Geoffrey Warnock might have detected something of the accent of a fellow Wykehamist: ‘You don’t look like Tom Smith from Iffley: you’re wearing a bow tie!’ Even worse, he had tied the tie himself, something exceedingly unlikely in a proper Tom Smith of Iffley. The friend was soon forced to reveal his identity. The next morning he was up before Jeremy.
Jeremy lightened the friend of a £10 fine to pay for the Founders’ Port and it was agreed that a bunch of flowers should be sent to Mary Warnock to soothe her ruffled feathers. ‘I suppose, in few days time’, said the friend, looking at his feet, ‘I shall find this pretty funny.’ He cast a glance across the desk at the dean whom he discovered to be quietly sobbing with laughter. Jeremy finally blurted out ‘I find it bloody funny now!’
As Dean he had to sort out a large number of vexatious issues, including a man called Rosser who had been falsely accused of mistaking the bath for the lavatory, and another called Booth, who eventually owned up to being the culprit. Then there was a creepy ex-hairdresser turned mature student called Raymond, and a boy called Mellon, who became the object of Raymond’s passion. On the academic side, his favourite tutee that year was clearly the unbelievably precocious scholar Laurence O’Connell, a friend of mine too who sadly drank himself to death a few years ago. His fate affected us all.
It was at Oriel in Jeremy Catto’s time that the Piers Gaveston Society was born. Of the five founders, three were Oriel men - the friend who had outraged the drowsy Warnocks and two postgraduates. The club was constituted in 1976 and threw its first party in that partly mediaeval quad just behind the High in the Lenten term of 1977. Jeremy was naturally invited and seemed to be having a rather good time until someone pinched his bottom. This appears to have offended his decanal dignity, for he never came again.
Another favourite undergraduate of Jeremy’s was Lord Xan Rufus-Isaacs. Oxford in those days possessed a small army of tramps. Some of them were quaint figures like ‘Snowy’, or ‘Karl Marx’ who lived with his gang on a bench at the back of the old Radcliffe Infirmary. One day Xan had the idea that they should all have a bath and rounded them up and took them to Oriel where he had found a spacious communal bathroom in the front quad. Alerted by the commotion, Jeremy arrived and chanced upon a dozen or so half naked tramps about to enjoy their first baths, possibly in decades.
It several years before I saw Jeremy again, having lunch in the Casse Croûte in the High. He called me a ‘rara avis’. He later became a core element in the Richard Cobb Dinners at Balliol which were arranged as a protest against the reforms to the history faculty, and indeed the way the university was going in the nineties. I found myself seated next to him at one and he greeted me joyfully as ‘Angelfluff’. Rather like Sir Michael Howard whom I met at much the same time at All Souls, he felt the life had gone out of the place: ‘Yours was a golden age’ he said wistfully.
Jeremy Catto retired in 2006 and went to live in a cottage in Northamptonshire. He remained active in the faculty, editing the magazine sent out to history graduates for a while, as well as commissioning reviews for one of the learned journals. I met him last in the summer at a memorial service for the publisher Penny Hoare, his Oxford contemporary and my sometime editor. He seemed subdued. Now I understand why.
Posted: 15th August 2018
John Prest, a much loved Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Balliol College Oxford, died on 3 July. He would have been ninety years old on 18 September. He taught history at the college from 1954 to 1996, was Senior History Tutor from 1965 and Vice Master from 1972 to 1974. During that time he left his stamp on a hell of a lot of historians, particularly those who specialised in nineteenth century British history.
John came from a solidly middle-class background in Surrey and went to the minor public school of Bradfield College before doing his national service in the RAF. He then proceeded to King’s College Cambridge to read history from 1949 to 1952. He achieved first class in both parts of the Tripos. Doctorates were not de rigueur then but in 1959 he published The Industrial Revolution in Coventry, which sounds suspiciously like a thesis. I am not sure I have ever looked at it. There was another little flourish of publications in the seventies, when he wrote a biography of Lord John Russell and Politics in the Age of Cobden and again in the eighties. That didn’t stop some of his colleagues from saying sotto voce that he didn’t publish enough.
Oxford is a bitchy place and we history undergraduates were treated to plenty of cattiness about John. I suspect I heard most of it from Richard Cobb, who had become a family friend and was also a fellow of the college before he became Professor of Modern History and moved to Wuggins. It has to be said that John and the cosmopolitan, hard-drinking Richard were like chalk and cheese. The Master, the Marxist historian Christopher Hill had one mildly scurrilous story about John which claimed he had been kidnapped in the fifties and replaced by a washerwoman. The history tutor in the front quad was an imposter and no one knew where the real John Prest was locked up. That there was something rather womanly about John is undeniable. In his way he was a little mother to us all.
Sometime in the early eighties I had lunch with the historian of the eighteenth century French church Jack McManners in Paris and we discussed the options we had both taken in Schools, him in the mid-thirties, me in the late seventies. Apart from discarding the compulsory Latin requirement at Prelims, nothing had changed. Left to my own devices I would have given up English History on matriculation - I had had quite enough of the Tudors and Gladstone and Disraeli at school - but that wasn’t possible. A third of the course was English History covering the period from 350 to 1939 and divided into three papers: EH 1, EH 2 and EH 3. Proper modern history only came in with EH 3 and mediaevalists were triumphant that they could get by with doing a basic minimum of modern history, but they still had to do EH 3. That was John’s parish, so he saw all of us. He also taught the history of philosophy paper (for which I was chuffed to get a baffling α-/γ+ in Schools) and Gibbon and Macaulay at Prelims. As senior history tutor he also approved special and further subjects and recruited outside tutors when Balliol could not provide. There was no eluding John.
We didn’t get off to a good start. One morning in my first Michaelmas Term I woke to a furious pounding at the door. The last night’s alcoholic consumption was playing a similar tune in my head and a sleepy Siren was lying close beside me. The man at the door was my tutorial partner John Firth: ‘John Prest is going green about the gills.’ He shouted through the door. I hurriedly threw on my clothes, thanking God it was not my turn to read an essay. Firth was a natural ally as the only other historian who had taken up the option to do a German Prelim rather than the usual choice of the Venerable Bede in mediaeval Latin. He had done his best to excuse me. Later that term John Prest surprised me by asking if I were warm enough in bed. I wondered for a moment whether he was alluding to this earlier incident, but I came to the conclusion he was not.
There was a mild snobbery about him, which was certainly not unusual at that time. Undergraduates were defined by the schools they attended. I remember a tutorial interrupted by a sleek young man telling him for some reason he was unable to do his essay that week. John beamed: ‘You Etonians are so polite!’ When we came to discuss Herbert Asquith, he characterised him harshly (and possibly inaccurately) as the first plebeian to become British Prime Minster, and said he’d been a traitor to his class for cavorting with posh women. Asquith had been at the same school as me. I thought of posh women and felt suitably small.
John always struck me as a rather innocent man; an old-style schoolmaster who insisted on good form and better grammar. His idea of a fun evening was the Victorian Society, where we used to dress up in wing collars and cravats and sing Victorian (and other) songs while we drank liberal quantities of mulled wine, port and madeira. His wife Susan had a very pretty voice and she accompanied him. The best performances came from the Greek tutor Jasper Griffin who wrote his own witty lyrics, likewise George, the Staircase XXI Scout, who was furiously right-wing, and had a special song he liked to sing against the Common Market - ‘Now we’ll all get right well boozed/ On Portuguese vin rouge/Now the Common Market’s come to stay with you.’
Jasper was one of my targets in Devorguila, a new college magazine that was created in my time where I was assigned the job of doing the caricatures. John Prest was another victim. Knowing that his other passion was gardening I drew him coming out of a flower pot. He was nice enough about the lampoon and offered to buy it off me. I said that I had given the drawings to the dons I had previously portrayed and I would do the same for him. ‘That is silly’, he told me, and handed me a cheque for £25. It was a considerable sum then, and worth about ten times that amount now.
His generosity was almost certainly influenced by the knowledge that I had been overcome by debt and that there had been moves to send me down that were only blocked by the Master, Christopher Hill. When John found an unclaimed £5 note in the Garden Quad he had it put into my battels, or college account. It was a typically kind gesture on his part.
I survived by virtue of an eleemosynary grant which paid off the major portion of my debts, but I continued to be hounded by the dean and found it easier to live out in my third year. When revision tutorials were offered I kept John guessing. I think he believed I would flunk Schools in order to spite the college. He invited us all out one by one to a sort of ‘pastoral’ (that’s the word they’d use now) dinner. He took me to the Taj Mahal in the Turl. John would not have known that I was a regular and that I used frequently to write my essays there over a curry. The owner, Farouk Ahmed, was a fan of mine, and used to stand behind my chair stroking my hair as I wrote. I quite often left saying ‘I’ll pay you next time Farouk!’ I am sure he cared whether I did or not.
Farouk hovered in the background that evening. He knew better. The meal was carried on in almost complete silence with John asking occasional embarrassed questions about ‘how I was getting on.’ When my results came in that July, John was naturally overjoyed at my ‘good second’ (Oxford didn’t grade seconds then). Even at a top college like Balliol, no more than a quarter of undergraduates would have been expected to achieve firsts, many got ‘bad’ seconds and some even got thirds. He wrote to me in Paris: ‘Now go on and be an artist and a great man as I am sure you will!’
But I didn’t make much of art and eventually went back to history. I saw nothing of John on the rare visits I made to Oxford following my return to Britain in 1985. He wasn’t a man to hang about the Buttery where I met my few allies among the fellows. When he retired he pestered me once or twice for contributions to the college magazine, and on another occasion he was given the task of placating me when I got cross with an undergraduate who tried to get me to attend a gaudy, but made it sound as if the meal was conditional on my making a donation to the college funds. The last time I saw him was at Maurice Keen’s retirement dinner in hall in 2000 when he was sitting two down from me on high table. He was positively bubbly that night, full of excitement about his trips to the British Library, the Balliol men he’d met there and the many projects he’d espoused. He was an unusually endearing, old school tutor, and we shall all miss his passing.
Posted: 16th July 2018
Last month I had a novel experience: I travelled from Basel to Amsterdam down the Rhine. I have, naturally covered sections of this itinerary many times before, but never all at the same time, and never in a ship.
Even before I boarded the Amadeus, the long-deliberated problem of the Rhine’s status reared its head. Is it a national river or a natural border? In fact that problem comes up well before the river reaches Germany. Prior to entering Lake Constance the Rhine marks the boundary between Austria and Switzerland below Chur. It pops out of the other side of the lake and weaves its way through the German and Swiss enclaves that fall on either side: Büsingen am Hochrhein, Hüntwangen, Bad Säckingen (where we stopped for lunch by the old covered bridge) all the way to Basel where the river turns south. The Swiss suburb of Basel-Rosental is actually on the northern, German side of the river and when you stand at the Dreiländereck (three nation corner) you are in spitting distance of three countries: Swiss Basel is to the back of you, Saint Louis represents France on the left bank and Weil am Rhein is in Germany on the right.
Even on the Swiss-Austrian Border the Rhine is simply a political division, not a cultural one. The culture either side of the border remains the same. This is Alemannic Europe. The Alemanns are a tribe as old as any of the Teutonic ones, but they are not the same people. Their territory extends from the Vorarlberg to the Vosges and encompasses The French left bank of the Rhine, German Swabia, the German-speaking Cantons of Switzerland and a fair chunk of western Austria. Physically they tend to be short and dark with black hair and quite often blue eyes. They speak an Alemannic language which is called Swiss German in Switzerland, Alsatian in Alsace and Swabian in Germany. They had their own school of art in the high middle ages and their own literature in writers such as Johann Peter Hebel, who was born in Basel and died in Schwetzingen, where we attended a concert in the Schloss. Of course most of it had to be translated to find a wider audience: Germans in particular look down on the Alemannic dialects and make jokes about Swabians and the way they talk.
Largely canalised by Johann Gottfried Tulla in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Rhine between Basel and the Palatinate (where it ceases to be the border) does not look like an effective frontier. It is too narrow and is too easily crossed. From the time of the Thirty Years War, the French had their eyes on the ‘Left Bank’ and on extending their country to the Rhine and beyond. Repeated French incursions into the German-speaking Rhineland, and their attempts to annex it (which had hardly ceased by 1945), have left huge scars; in many cases the wounds were no less brutal than those inflicted in the last war. Little Breisach, where we docked for the night, was a case in point. In Speyer the French destroyed all but parts of the Cathedral. They made considerable inroads in Mainz as well.
Worms is in the Palatinate. In literature it is associated with the Nibelungenlied: Siegfried, King Gunther and Brünnhild. In history it is rather more famous for the Diet of Worms of 1521 which used to make us schoolboys giggle so much. Gunther was a Burgundian. The Burgundians were yet another Germanic tribe which settled on the Rhine at the end of the Roman Empire. With time they passed beyond the Vosges and became French. The Vosges has always been the real cultural border, not the Rhine.
The Diet of Worms was convoked to settle the religious difficulties caused by Martin Luther. As Germany stacked up into territories ruled by Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists its once great culture sickened and died. The religious map of Germany in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is a nightmare to memorise, especially as much of it changed again with the Counter Reformation. The Palatinate was famously Evangelical in 1618 when Frederick V’s election as ‘Winter King’ of Bohemia unleashed the Thirty Years War. By the end of the century the Pfälzer were Catholics again and remain so to this day. As for German culture, it only began to recover in the middle of the eighteenth century.
The Rhine is at its most majestic between Mainz and Cologne. This is the stretch that inspired poets like Heine and composers like Schumann. We owe the image of the shipwrecking Lorelei to the Düsseldorf-born Jewish poet Heine and to Wagner we pay our dues for creating the river’s very own mermaids or Rhine Maidens. Ironically it was only once the rocks and rapids were removed - notorious killers like the Lorelei - that it became safe for largely English visitors to take their Cook’s Tours on Rhine Steamers and swoon at the sight of the treacherous rock. We were brought a glass of sparkling Sekt at that point. We had passed the pompous Germania above Rüdesheim some time before: yet another warning to the French not to try to pull a fast one.
Of course the Rheingau with its vineyards and the Mittelrhein with its castles are the highlights of most people’s Rhine journeys; the rebuilt Schloss at Johannisberg, the steep slopes at Rüdesheim and Assmannshausen and the incredible lengths growers in the Mittelrhein undertook to align their vines to capture the southern sun. A lot of the castles are rebuilt or bogus, but there are enough authentic ruins to make standing on the deck exciting. For me, there was the thrill of seeing the replica of the statue of William I ‘zu Ross’ (on horseback) again at Koblenz, and while we were at dinner, two of the remaining piers of the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen came into view. The failure to blow the bridge allowed the Americans to create their bridgehead on the right bank in 1945. Hitler went to great lengths to have those responsible executed.
It was night time when we sailed past Bad Godesberg, and Hitler’s favourite hotel, the Rheinhotel Dreesen. This was where the Führer spent the evening before the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, and again where he was in September 1938, for his second meeting with Neville Chamberlain. The British Prime Minister was put up on the Petersberg in Königswinter opposite and little boats plied the Rhine with messages as they tried and failed to strike an agreement. Bonn looked shabby and dirty. Nearby Cologne I visited for the first time in nearly fifty years. Again the rebuilt streets of the centre seemed worn and seedy, but I went back to Gross St Martin, which I had drawn as a boy and was stunned by the restoration. The Rathaus was still a shell then. Now it has been magnificently redone. The Rhine is a great wide river at Cologne, and Kölsch (both a dialect and a beer) begins to flatten out - although the beer in its tiny glasses is lively enough. North of the Düsseldorf where a deranged Schumann threw himself in the river there is the ‘Benrath Line’ above which Plattdeutsch is spoken. With minor variants we are not only heading for Holland, but Deutsch is becoming Dutch. What had begun in an Alemannic culture in Switzerland was to end in quite another in the Low Countries.
Our last stop in Germany was Wesel. This was another city blighted by war. In blazing heat I walked along the tow-path to the Cathedral, Protestant and shut. There was not a single old house anywhere near it. The railway bridge was still a picturesque ruin, pitted and pockmarked by artillery fire. That night we crossed the border and I witnessed a properly Turner-esque sunset on the river and mused that it was none other than our Cockney painter who disseminated the first popular images of the romantic Rhine through his (monochrome) engravings. The next morning I woke in Amsterdam: culturally if not physically a thousand leagues from where we began. We had exchanged a multinational Alemannic culture for a Low German one, which encompassed much of Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland and north-eastern Germany. The Rhine teaches us an important lesson about the nonsense of nationalism.
Giles MacDonogh’s latest book is On Germany.
Posted: 15th June 2018
I was in Vienna last week for the biennial Vievinum wine fair. The organisers had found me a blissfully cool (the temperature outside nudged 32C) hotel on the Margaretengürtel. It was not an area I knew well. I had heard it was formerly largely given over to ladies of the night, but that had possibly changed a bit. Walking through the Bruno Kreisky Park on my way to the U-Bahn I uncovered a rather different gang. Apart from a few yoga and fitness fanatics self-consciously posing beside a swamp the size of a bomb crater, blue-faced drunks tippled from their tinnies alongside huddles of migrants mopping up what must have been familiar levels of heat; the women were got up in swaddling chadors, the men were showing a lot of body hair in their singlets.
The U-Bahn station at Margaretengürtel was one of Otto Wagner’s art nouveau or Jugendstil masterpieces, at one end of the platform shabby but largely unspoiled, hemmed in between kiosks offering kebabs and cut-priced bottles of spirits, at the other rebuilt out of Lego in more recent times, but handy if you don’t want to struggle to cross the arterial road. The mighty Wien River, of course, runs through the station on its way down from the imperial palace at Schönbrunn.
Before the fun and games started up at the Hofburg on Saturday I found the time to visit the current Otto Wagner Exhibition at the Historical Museum in the Karlsplatz. Wagner (1841 - 1918) is remembered now as one of the architects who perfected the Austrian school of art nouveau called Jugendstil; Wagner was to building perhaps what Gustav Klimt was to painting; and yet Wagner was knocking sixty in 1900, and he was already a very distinguished architect specialising in composite ‘historical’ styles’ long before he began to seize hold of the decorative vocabulary of art nouveau. What Wagner embraced from the beginning, however, was the idea of a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk,’ or in his case a Ruskinian notion of a total work of art that meant he was as much responsible for the interior decoration and furniture of his commissions as he was for the outside walls. Before his more familiar art nouveau work, he produced not only wonderful furniture designs, but also some gorgeous neo-Japanese panels.
Vienna’s commercial hub on the Graben still has an early work by Wagner in the Grabenhof, which is almost neoclassical. Nearby is the rather more mature Anker Building of 1893 - 1895 designed only shortly before the U-Bahn stations but without the descent into exuberant art nouveau detail. Although we hear that he increasingly eschewed decoration, it was not a habit he was able to give up so easily. The celebrated Majolikahaus on the Wienzeile is a case in point - ceramic tiles allowed him to coat the facade with floral motifs. Until the eighties his style was an elaborate synthesis of Palladian and French Renaissance. This is notable in his own house, the Villa Wagner I of 1886 - 1888. By the time he had built his second villa - his last commission of 1912 - 1913 - decoration had been reduced to a minimum. Even the relatively simple Post Office building he designed in 1904 - 1912 is still highly decorative, even if the idiom is less historically based and the interior designs more innovative.
By the nineties some of the classic features of Wagner’s architecture had emerged: the lampshade-style convex-concave filigree domes and the loggias that play with the same curves; as well as the decorative angels with their straight bodies and butterfly wings. Some of these decorative features were even incorporated into the engineering works associated with the Vienna railway network. His greatest work in this art nouveau/neo baroque idiom was the lunatic asylum at Steinhof, which I have sadly never seen in the flesh. His pupils were the triumphant generation of the Vienna Secession, like Joseph Maria Olbrich who designed the Secession building itself decorated by Klimt with its famous bay tree dome, Joseph Hoffmann, and the Slovenian architect Jozef Plecnik, who later embellished the city of Ljubljana. In Glasgow Wagner inspired Charles Rennie Mackintosh who also designed his own furniture and nearer home Friedrich Ohmann, who beautified the Stadtpark and the monument to the Empress Elisabeth in Vienna and carried out numerous commissions for my Viennese family.
The exhibition provides tantalising drawings of unexecuted works, such as the projected Historical Museum which was to be - like the museum today - next to the Karlskirche. The entrance, however, was to be placed under an enormous porte cochère on the Schwarzenberg Platz. Wagner was a busy man and Vienna is still happily stamped by his creations. His best-loved monuments, like Hector Guimard in Paris are the stations put up for the underground railway lines now called the U4 and U6. A lot of these have gone, but some of the most gorgeous - those at Schönbrunn and Hietzing - have survived. And the Margaretengürtel station is still there too, curious oasis that it is.
Giles MacDonogh’s new book, On Germany is published by Hurst.
1968 and All That
Posted: 15th May 2018
It is now fifty years since the student uprisings of 1968. Although I was only a boy then, I do remember the buzz at the time. Of course the focus was on Paris: the students hurling cobblestones and raising barricades in their desire to bring down de Gaulle’s government and I heard of students of my brother’s generation going over in the hope of seeing some action. At one point de Gaulle even fled to Germany to consult the head of the French army in Baden-Baden. Although France returned to normality, de Gaulle’s pride was badly wounded and he resigned as president on the 28 April following year and died on 9 November 1970.
Outside France and Germany the protest was less noticeable, although I remember going to see Lindsay Anderson’s film If which was very much of its time. In the US it was all about the Vietnam War. The most striking event for me as a child was the shooting of four students at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970. At almost exactly the same time we had a home-grown riot at Cambridge, where my brother was in his last year. Students objected to a visit by the Colonels who had taken over Greece and wound up democracy and who were throwing a dinner at the Garden House Hotel next to Peterhouse. A picket was raised and there was an unusual amount of violence. A small number of students were identified and put on trial. Seven students received exemplary prison terms.
The incident has remained in my memory because one of the inculpated was Phineas John, the grandson of the painter Augustus and son of Admiral Sir Casper John, the former First Sea Lord. Caspar was my special friend when I was about eleven. After leaving the navy he became a considerable eccentric, reverting, I suppose to type. I used to do a bull-fighting dance with him to the tune of Dario Moreno’s Brigitte Bardot song and I remembered Phineas from those wild parties in Barnes. I was rather smitten with his sister Rebecca, whom I still see occasionally. She tells me that Phineas never recovered from his time inside. He lives half the year in Thailand and for the other six months drives a London cab.
Oxford being Oxford, the revolution didn’t break out until 1971 when students at Balliol objected to his college awarding the Prime Minister Edward Heath an honorary fellowship. The ugly new senior common room was daubed with slogans and the perpetrators were duly rusticated. I think all but one was allowed back after a year but for some this brief intermission is still an important element in their curriculum vitae.
But for real revolution with real long term effects you had to go to the Mainland and to Germany. The seeds of the German Uprising stretched further back and had much deeper roots even than the May rioting in France. At some levels of society, Germany had done little to supplant the old Nazi Party members who had contrived to survive the war. The professions were thick with them, and many old Nazis and SS men had found their way back into the police and the judiciary. In the cabinet of the Chancellor Kiesinger (1966 - 1969), there were eight former Nazi Party members. Meanwhile a new generation had grown up since the end of the war. They were strongly anti-Nazi, and objected to imperialism and fascism wherever they perceived it to exist. The Vietnam War was at its height and they thought that too an abomination.
Matters came to a head on 2 June 1967, when the Shah of Iran paid a visit to Berlin. A protest was organised and in the turmoil, the student Benno Ohnesorg was shot by a policeman who turned out to be an East German Stasi agent, although no one has been able to prove that the East German government was in on the act. Students took over the Free University in Dahlem, which had been created out of the rib of the old Berlin University in the Linden, which had been included in the Soviet Sector in 1945. The model here was Paris, which had seen faculties closed down in Nanterre and at the Sorbonne.
Protest in Germany took on both violent and non violent forms. The peaceful student movement had its heroes in the form of Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Rudi Dutschke. At Easter 1968, Dutschke was shot in the head and died a decade later from his wounds. The popular paper Bild was in some way seen as having instigated the attack on Dutschke, and students blockaded its Berlin HQ. In the course of that demonstration, two more were killed. The non-violent movement lost momentum, however, when the Prague Spring came to an end in August that year. Once again, the Soviet Union and their tanks put a stop to the evanescent dream of liberty. In the free West demonstrations marked the end of Alexander Dubcek’s idyll. From my bedroom window I remember seeing an impressive crowd with banners making their way up past our flat in the Warwick Road.
But Germany’s universities were never to be the same again. The dons cast aside their colourful gowns and mobcaps together with their magisterial style, the old formality was expunged. In the police and the judiciary, many of the old Nazis decided the moment had come to retire. Many politicians on the left like Helmut Schmidt, thought the students justified in protesting about this. On the violent side, the fact that the West German closet had been filled with non-rehabilitated Nazis gave motive force to the Baader-Meinhof Gang, later Red Army Faction, which saw the ‘execution’ of former Nazis who had made fortunes in the Federal Republic as fair game. The Baader-Meinhofs began their campaign in 1968 with arson attacks on two Frankfurt department stores in protest against the Vietnam War. They left a trail of death and destruction, killing at least two Germans who had had close connections to the Nazis: Siegfried Buback and Hanns Martin Schleyer. They also killed Jürgen Ponto, the head of the Dresden Bank, the nephew of Erich Ponto, who played Dr Winkel in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man. The actions of the RAF peaked during the chancellorship of Helmut Schmidt in 1977 with the hijacking of the airliner Landshut, which was successfully stormed by German Special Forces in Mogadishu.
The historian Götz Aly was a 21-year old student at the time. In a recent interview on Deutschlandfunk he recalled his school years. All of a sudden, enlightened masters replaced the one-eyed, one-legged or one-armed, angry teachers of the past who had all served in the Second World War. The younger men began to be frank about the crimes committed by Germans and showed them films of the liberation of the concentration camps. Orders to do so had clearly come from the Bavarian Ministry of Education. Aly became a Marxist and was later caught up in the revolutionary movement and fined for violent activity during his time as a student in Berlin. It was a reaction to his father’s generation, where you could guarantee that ninety-five percent would have fought in the war, and would be trying to forget the atrocities they had witnessed. 1968 was also the beginning of a sexual revolution that revolved around the contraceptive pill. It was not just a matter of liberation from the Adenauer era it also signified free love and - they hoped - unlimited sex.
By the time I reached university in 1975 all that was taken for granted. We were far less politically motivated than our older siblings. The revolutionaries - such as they were - were now our tutors and represented what authority remained. These were the men and women who introduced the sweeping reforms of the late seventies and eighties and denied Mrs Thatcher her honorary degree. Today, their children look set to do the same for Mrs May.
Posted: 16th April 2018
When we were children there were a couple of old editions of Whitaker’s Almanack lying around our London flat, both, I think for ‘years of Our Lord’ in the fifties. By the time I began to lose myself in them in the early seventies, these well-thumbed, yellowing, dog-eared, warped volumes painted a picture of the Britain of bomb-sites, austerity and post-war rationing. Our recovery was already under way; and yet there was something quite reassuring about these old Whitakers with their rotas of members of the royal family and tables of precedence, orders of chivalry and exhaustive lists of hereditary peers, members of the Privy Council, baronets and knights and how to address them should I ever have the fortune to meet one.
On the political side there were also lists of ministers and civil service departments (complete with salaries) and a run-down of all the MPs as well as a report on votes in the House for the year before: Whitaker was retrospective. And then there were lists of laws passed, legal officers, chiefs of the armed forces, lists of clergymen, Headmasters’ Conference Schools and universities, obituaries and updated population reports for the UK and Northern Ireland.
The rest of the volumes interested me less: litanies of houses open to the public and art galleries, the principal British cities and municipal directories, aerodromes and airports; and then it went global: first to the Empire, then the United States, followed by ‘foreign countries’ - that part was useful in pre-Google days when you wanted to know the capital of Bechuanaland or Togo. There were also even more arcane sections (at least that is what I thought at the time) covering archaeology, signs of the zodiac, foreign exchange, the Christian calendar and the solar system, tides, British architecture, newspapers, clubs, income tax, Nobel Prizes, passports and hallmarks.
I had largely forgotten about old Whitaker until I found a volume for 1980 in a pile of books left outside a house in a neighbouring street. I helped myself for nostalgia’s sake and spent a few happy hours poring over its pages. The principal difference between the volumes at home and the 1980 Whitaker was that the latter described a world I actually knew. Events centred on 1979, the year Mrs Thatcher came to power. I had left university in 1978 and gone straight to Paris. I did not open my eyes to Britain again until the beginning of 1985. Here then was the place in which my contemporaries began their careers in the City, did their articles as solicitors or pupillage at the Inns of Court, pursued their doctoral or medical studies, graduated from provincial papers to nationals or in some cases - like myself - hung around or dithered in the happy or unhappy bliss of not having the foggiest idea of what they were going to do with their lives. A few years before I had watched perplexed as queues of friends formed in shiny new suits outside the Randolph Hotel apparently waiting for job interviews. They seemed to be burying their youth. As a perpetual outsider, that world of money and advancement did not feel quite right for me.
Their world was palpable in that 1980 volume of Whitaker; a world of certainties. Indeed, apart from being a bit more prosperous, not much seemed to have changed in Britain since the fifties. They followed chartered itineraries. The lucky less-than-ten-percent of us went from school to university and from university into some sort of ‘honourable’ profession, we made enough money to lead modest lives and the process was repeated with our children. By 1980, however, the Empire was pretty well dead. The last major colony - Rhodesia - became independent that year after a long and embarrassing struggle to hold back the tide of history. The Colonial Service had ceased to be a career option ten or twenty years before. Friends of mine joined the Foreign Office, but it was purged in the nineties, and this also happened to the Civil Service as a whole. I did know a handful of people who went into the diplomatic corps, but they were mostly weeded out. True, a few stuck fast and reached ambassadorial rank, but I hate to think what they had to say and do to achieve it.
There were few takers for academic life, but that might have been a reflection on my particular circle. It was certainly the case, however, that the status of university don was in decline. There was no excuse for Mr Samgrass when there were no places for Lord Sebastian. Not many read for the church either, but there was a jolly crowd at Cuddesdon who used to come to our parties and who went quite wild about ‘smells and bells’ and more besides. Most popular then was the City and the bar. Above all people were hoping to make real money and not just tick over as their parents had done: most people’s earnings failed to keep track in those inflationary times. You needed to do better than your parents to survive.
Thirty-eight years later and these people I knew are at the end of their careers. Some of them did not start on the far-right of the political spectrum, but many have swung over to it now. It strikes me that this musty volume of Whitaker might hold the clue? The change in Britain since 1980 is very striking. It starts with the monarchy itself. Its reform had begun in 1917, when it wrenched itself away from its Germanic roots. Princesses Margaret and Anne had famously married commoners, Tony Armstrong-Jones was made an earl, Mark Phillips was not, but otherwise there had been little tinkering with the institution through marriage to date. For an old-school monarchist today, Buckingham Place must look like a madhouse.
We had all met peers. There seemed to be quite a few of them about at university, or rather their sons and daughters. Peers still sat en masse in the House of Lords. Whitaker told us the names of those who were minors and peerages that had become extinct. Ten years later, in 1990, the fortunes of these country gentlemen were greatly diminished by the Lloyds Scandal, then Tony Blair threw most of the titled folk out of the House of Lords rendering them politically irrelevant. I have no idea whether the round of parties known then as ‘the Season’ still pursues its course during the summer months, with its London balls and country dances. This is not my world now, nor is it the world of my children.
You would have come across Tory MPs at those balls, as many of them were still old-school patricians. Looking down the list there are people who would later aspire to the House of Lords when their fathers expired. Apart from a few Jewish MPs, there are no ‘foreign’ names, and I think no Muslims. There were nineteen women and Whitaker sees fit to tell us that this was the lowest intake since 1951. Apart from Ken Clarke and the Beast of Bolsover, I think these Parliamentarians are all gone now. Salaries also make interesting reading: Mrs Thatcher was paid £27,500, a Minister got a little under £20,000, a Minister of State under £13,000 and his PPS under £10,000.
It was still the England of the 39 Articles in 1980 and if you were not Anglican you were at best tolerated, but with the exception of the Duke of Norfolk, perhaps, there was no room for you at the top table. Women were not ordained until 1994, and the church still had a traditional smell of cassocks, doctrinal dispute and vintage port about it, summed up by that excellent, and now tragically lost television sit-com All Gas and Gaiters. If their chasubles were wearing thin, they still lived like lords in their roomy rectories and celebrated the Eucharist in magnificent mediaeval buildings, while we poor Papists worshipped in Nissan huts, and we still do.
The Anglican Church still ruled the roost at my university, where there were 8,761 undergraduates all told. There are now 23,195 ‘students’, but that includes graduates. Most colleges had few graduates then. Sexes mixed from 1978, but in some ways the abolition of closed scholarships did more to alter the character of the place. The houses lost their regional character as much as they shed any links to a particular public school. Undergraduates who were looking for a good time went elsewhere as the accent in the old universities was placed on hard work. Throughout higher education first class degrees were scattered like confetti, often in inverse proportion to the prestige of the institution. These days, not only does a large element of the student body come from overseas, many tutors are no longer British. Shorn of their traditions, the colleges have become little more than halls of residence.
One of the biggest outward changes has been in the nature of heads of houses. In those days we had a former prime minister as chancellor and distinguished academics managed the individual colleges. Now there are a lot of retired hacks and even a scattering of businessmen in charge. As I recall the public school element was a little over forty percent, but there were far, far fewer foreign students at undergraduate level. There were forty odd universities then, and well over twice as many now, educating nearly fifty percent of all school leavers.
The public schools have changed too. Looking at the list I see the ‘minor minor’ public school I attended for five years after leaving a grammar in Suffolk. The headmaster was still the same. Its fees were just over a £1,000 pa. For Eton you would have paid £2,500. Few public schools took girls then, now there is only a handful that don’t - although the single-sex schools are mostly among the big achievers. I can’t think that there are more than three dozen academically successful schools now (they might include my own which has gone up in the world), the others on the list are in reality finishing schools frequented often by foreign children. They have also changed in their very nature. Eton now no longer takes posh children as a matter of course, preferring more academic middle-class boys. The most common surname there now is Kim! Traditional Etonian families are forced to slum it at places like Stowe.
I could go on, but the point is clear: we are in a very different world. All our political leaders were to some extent complicit in its modification: Mrs Thatcher cut the old institutions down to size with great ferocity; John Major turned the polys into universities; Blair’s reforms shied from nothing in his desire to create an egalitarian world; while Gordon Brown threatened to go even further in the pursuit of what he believed to be a just, socialist society. Our demographics are very different. We have few children partly because educating them has become forbiddingly expensive and migration from the Third World, often via the Commonwealth, has changed the ethnic balance of our society. After 1989, the new members of the European Union (as it became at Maastricht in 1993) also chose to use their freedom of movement to put down roots here so that in many places now you do not blink to hear young people speaking Polish or even Romanian.
Above all however, the changes were wrought by the slow death of the British Empire. In a way it is a pity for our sakes that we were not defeated in battle (although no one in their right minds would have wanted the Nazis to win). Our part in the alliance that won the Second World War has meant that we have been slow to accept not only that we bankrupted ourselves fighting wars but also that the world has changed so dramatically, and that we can no longer claim an obvious place among the movers and shakers. Some of my contemporaries have done well: they include the prime minister, God damn it, many former cabinet ministers and at least one Catholic archbishop. Another runs the most notorious hedge fund on this island and feeds hundreds and thousands into the Brexit campaign. They also count two heads of houses at Oxford, good men both, but not, I think the sort of people who would have been considered candidates in 1980. The cosy world Whitaker described that year has vanished in little more than a generation. The expunging of this traditional Britain has caused great bitterness, particularly for those who believed in 1980 that the glittering prizes were within their grasp. By 2016 they were obliged to concede they had eluded them. This, I suspect, explains an awful lot about their lurch to the right.
A Roman Holiday
Posted: 15th March 2018
I am far from being an expert on classical civilisation, but paternal duty obliged me to play cicerone in Rome last month. It started well: we arrived at our digs in Trastevere in the evening to find bits of Roman masonry embedded in walls nearby: a column here, a capital there, a slab of marble worked into a pavement which looked like travertine. My son was enraptured by the modern manhole covers emblazoned with the letters SPQR: this was Rome, where the ancient world merged seamlessly with the new.
The next day we went to Ostia. We crossed the Tiber at the Isola Tiberina with its Pons Fabricius and Pons Cestius Roman bridges and saw the ruins of the Pons Aemillius down river to the west. The Theatre of Marcellus is not only at the centre of the old Jewish Quarter but at the very fulcrum of Ancient Rome. Almost all the houses here reveal some fragments of Roman masonry. Above the Theatre there were flats: people still living above the Roman remains. We walked past the Temple of Portunus and the famous ‘Bocca della verità’ - rendered even more immortal by Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck - to the Circus of Maximus, then skirted the Palatine Hill and the Forum to catch a Number Three tram to the Pyramid of Cestus. From there we took the train from the Porta San Paolo.
The journey to Ostia Antica takes about half an hour. It was dry thank God, and being February there can’t have been more than fifty people on the immense site; outnumbered about five to one by malevolent, fat, broad-faced feral cats. The cats are now pretty well the ancient town’s sole inhabitants.
Ostia is Rome’s answer to Pompeii. Closest to the station and the late gothic castle erected by Pope Julius II is the old necropolis, then the town begins in earnest with the remains of pubs and shops (there is even a cookshop), the theatre, baths and forum. Rome was a great trading nation and it was easy to see the positions of the merchants’ counters and mosaics often indicated their line of business. Being Ostia (formerly on the coast), shipping was big.
What fascinated the modern historian in me was the inspiration these ruins must have provided to our grand tourists: artists and architects in particular. There is a handful of tenement buildings that rise to the second or third floor and show clearly the inspiration for renaissance palaces with a mezzanine floor inserted under the piano nobile. That ‘noble’ apartment is announced by a balcony. In other places our ancestors were inspired by the pediments which provided models for so many seventeenth and eighteenth century doorcases. In one instance the door was even decorated with swags just like a late eighteenth century house at home. Sarcophagi preserved inside and outside the museum also point directly to renaissance painting and decoration.
We looked at the remains of the Christian basilica, of which there is not much more than a ground plan, but in the two basilicas close to our b&b, San Crisogono and Santa Maria, there was more to get your teeth into in that there were Roman columns pulled from the Baths of Caracalla and the same semi-circular apses we had seen in Ostia. In Santa Maria the capitals are a pleasant jumble of orders, and it seems there was no attempt to make them consistent when they were aligned for the new Christian church.
It had stayed more or less dry in Ostia, but the weather soured the next day. We had elected to walk to the Colosseum and half-way there the rain came down in torrents. We stood in what was certainly a very short queue considering (it was still painfully long) and shuffled our wet feet in full view of the Arch of Constantine while ticket touts popped up at regular intervals to offer us the chance to ‘skip the line’. I had a vision of small girls with skipping ropes. Most of them were I think Tamils, all claiming to speak as many languages as the devil, but one woman came from closer to home. When we failed to respond to her kind offer to ‘skip the line’ she became abusive, spitting furiously ‘Am no a fuckin’ gypsy ye noo!’
She was right: few gypsies are blond like her and fewer still speak broad Glaswegian. Her clothes were less convincing: her blue baseball cap and matching blue anorak might have been the envy of an upwardly mobile Romany.
I have been to Rome many times as an adult, but it was the first time since childhood I had visited the Colosseum. Somewhere I have a photograph of me there with my brother the devil behind me with his hands clasped round my throat. That time it was August and scorching hot. I was grateful for a dry bit of the building under the arcades, which showed some plans and engravings of the Christian adaptation of the Colosseum and the shrines erected to the martyrs torn to pieces for the amusement of the mob. Even now the Pope says Mass there once a year and it was successive popes who restored the building in honour of the saints. One plan I found quite fascinating: it showed a baroque chapel inside the building, and the whole area around it restored and turned into a Christian monument.
Eventually weather and rain drove us back to Trastevere. The problem with Roman sites is that you are often exposed. Churches and art galleries provide better shelter in winter.
The rain was still coming down in buckets when we went to the Forum on the tram the following day. I was schooled on the description of the Forum in Gibbon’s autobiography and how he was inspired to write The Decline and Fall: ‘It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter ...’ Half of me - poor classicist that I am - wonders how much we have lost with the clearing of the Forum of many of its later accretions? I suppose a lot of mediaeval buildings were simply knocked down? Maybe this was retribution for the fact that the Forum had provided Christians with such a rich quarry for their churches?
By the time of the renaissance, however, the Romans had changed their minds and begun to value the Forum and the Roman buildings all over the city. The buildings and gardens created by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese with their view over the Forum are a delight. As we climbed the Palatine Hill we chanced upon the little chapel to Saint Sebastian and the site of a vineyard formerly owned by the Barbarinis and pulled up in 1910. This had formerly been the Elagabalum, commemorating the kinkiest of emperors. At the very top of the hill you look down on the Circus again and off to the right there is a vista that opens up to the Vatican, revealing the dome of St Peter’s, the seat of the modern successor to the Roman emperors.
We climbed down again; past the Arch of Titus commemorating victory over the Jews. Out feet waterlogged and our arms numbed by our attempts to hold our umbrellas above our heads. My coat was sodden to mid bicep. I wanted a last look at the Curia next to the Arch of Septimus Severus. The Curia is that plain building under its simple pediment (I assume there were once colourful marble plaques decorating the front?) which must have inspired countless buildings right down to our own more than modest Georgian house.
By now a dry seat and coffee had become more important even than art. We found that off the Via Cavour, and intended to go on to look at the Roman house under the Palazzo Valentino. We coasted the Emperor Trajan’s markets and Column and finally located the museum. The next tour of the house was not before four. It was in French and we would have a couple of hours to kill. We tried the Museum of the Risorgimento but the Italian equivalent of the dreaded ‘’ealth and safety’ was invoked and the museum was promptly shut. The lady at the till pointed to a few pools of rain on the marble in justification. In the end we whiled away the time in a café.
The ‘French’ tour was taped. The lady who accompanied us ushered us around in English, but so be it: in the end the Roman house was a brilliant solution, as being underground it was dry, and we could see all sorts of bits of virtual reconstruction which I hoped would inspire the young archaeologist in our midst. It was a patrician residence under a renaissance palace built right next to Trajan’s Forum. The tour ended with a useful little lecture on Trajan’s Column which was something of a bonus.
The capricious Number Eight tram took us back to Trastevere and we dried out, a bit, over ham and wine. That was another form of civilisation and also well represented in Rome, ancient and modern.
Thomas Weber: Becoming Hitler
Posted: 19th February 2018
I don’t know how many books I have on Hitler, certainly as many as fifty with Hitler in the title, and I can admit that I am guilty of writing one of them, and translating another. There are plenty of Hitler biographies out there, both good and bad, they started with the émigrés whose accounts largely fuelled Alan Bullock’s pioneering study, and went on to other blockbusters from Joachim Fest or Ian Kershaw or more recently Völker Ulrich (of which I think only the first volume has appeared to date). With each revision we strip away more of the propaganda that found its way into the account from the necessarily biased wartime sources, but in some cases we can confirm its veracity, like for example the fact that Hitler only had one ball. Yes, it does indeed seem to have been true that one of his testicles failed to drop. You will find it in black and white in Thomas Weber’s new book Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi.
So what is it about Hitler that makes him so endlessly fascinating and why do we need another fat tome like this one? It is possibly because, despite the many books we have already, we still know relatively little about what made Hitler tick. He was born in obscurity, and grew up with next to no friends and even when he joined the army he kept himself aloof from the other soldiers. He did not have sexual encounters until relatively late in his life, so there were no women who could observe him in intimacy either. Those he did sleep with suffered convenient premature deaths. More important than any of these factors, as Weber makes clear, Hitler was also an active mythmaker who constantly worked on his own biography to create a cult of personality.
This comes across very well in Weber’s book which explores Hitler’s ‘Werdegang’ or ‘becoming’ from the time he left a field hospital in Pasewalk, where he was recovering from a British gassing, to his sojourn in Landsberg Prison and the subsequent publication of Mein Kampf. He shows us a social democrat who was a reasonably popular spokesman for his troops prior to his demob in Munich. There were the influences who were responsible for his growing opposition to interest capitalism and his hatred of the Jews, but it was not a traditional antisemitism, such as he might have encountered in Munich salons, in that it was not based on any particular religious antipathy. The Jews were a ‘bacillus,’ an antibody that needed to be purged from the German blood. Gottfried Feder seems to have been the most important mentor, together with Captain Karl Mayr, who recognised Hitler’s ability as an orator and propagandist.
And there were the others too: the playwright Dietrich Eckart whose version of Peer Gynt came complete with Jewish trolls (presumably Wagner-inspired) and the historian Karl Alexander von Müller. Hitler snatched gobbets of their views and inserted them into his ‘Weltanschauung’ or ideology. This is at the heart of his ‘testament’ - an answer to all questions - that he published as Mein Kampf: the two volume autobiography mostly written while he languished in prison at the leisure of the Free State of Bavaria. The coup and Mein Kampf would now make him a celebrity. Until this time Hitler’s world had been a squalid daily grind of rabble-rousing beer-hall oratory. The book is a reminder that an evening listening to Hitler’s rants doubled up as entertainment in those days before radio or television; but then again Weber points out that Hitler could be funny and even occasionally make jokes at his own expense.
That make-or-break moment in his early life and the event that landed him up in prison in the first place was the coup of 9 November 1923. As Weber tells us, this was actually originally described as the ‘Ludendorff Putsch.’ Hyperinflation led to a number of attempts to bring down the Weimar Government and this one starred the hugely important Quartermaster General and former military dictator Erich Ludendorff. The ensuing shoot-out disposed of some of Hitler’s closest friends - particularly the Balt Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter who along with Alfred Rosenberg had originally wedded Hitler to the idea of Russo-German cooperation (there is an early book by Walter Laqueur that deals with the influence of German Balts on Hitler). After Scheubner-Richter’s demise Hitler’s thinking changed fundamentally as he embraced Lebensraum and Russia became the chief enemy - a land to be conquered and turned over to hard-working German peasants.
Naturally Weber turns his attention to the origins of the Final Solution, and how much Hitler was planning on genocide even in those early years. Before his eyes stood the example of the Armenian genocide carried out by the Turks during the First World War and he certainly informed a Catalan journalist of ideas that hinted at extermination. Weber, however, makes it clear that Hitler was a pragmatist. Despite all the claims to idealism he makes in Mein Kampf his political ideas were based on the art of the possible. Genocide only became the answer once it became feasible - and that was after the war started. In the end it was ‘Fingerspitzengefühl’, his rare political instinct that lifted him over the shoulders of his many rivals. Weber is particularly good at showing how Hitler used his trial following the Putsch to make himself appear the instigator of the coup. After the trial, the Putsch was generally associated with Hitler rather than the national hero Ludendorff.
It is necessary to say a word or two on the text: Becoming Hitler is not an easy read. Weber is German but I assume he wrote the book in English himself as no translator is credited. It then seems to have been clumsily edited in American. That the editing is also less than conscientious at times is striking: on one page a lot of notes appear which I can only assume were not explained by the author and therefore remain partly in German. In other instances the writing is repetitive or obscure. This would not have been a problem had a decent editor been assigned to the task. It is a pity that the text is so stodgy, not least because Becoming Hitler is certainly an important contribution to the vast literature on Hitler.
Posted: 15th January 2018
The architectural historian and stalwart protector of historical buildings, the man who inherited the ‘Piloti’ column from John Betjeman in Private Eye, Gavin Stamp died from cancer on the penultimate day of last year. I well remember our first meeting, which must have been nearly fifty years ago. My brother brought him home to tea. There he sat in his stiff collar, mutton-chop whiskers and Victorian clothes and emphatically stirred the sugar in his cup, sniffing for punctuation. He had been in Rome and seen the paintings of the Scottish artist Gavin Hamilton. ‘They spelled his name “Gavine” [sniff]. I am thinking of changing mine to “Gavine” too, so much nicer than “Gavin” [sniff].’
My sister and I were as enthralled as my brother had been when he first met Gavin at Cambridge. I was thirteen, my sister sixteen. He and my brother were contemporaries at Caius: my brother reading Natural Sciences, Gavin History. Gavin lived in the Waterhouse tower overlooking King’s Parade and all sorts of legends grew up about him re-enacting Wagner operas. He changed to History of Art for Part II of his Tripos, and remained at Cambridge for his doctorate. Unusually, my mother loved him too. She was not the most hospitable of people - but she instantly granted him the rights to our spare room, of which he availed himself for years, possibly until he finished his dissertation and settled in a ground floor flat in Pocock Street (‘Poky Street’) in Southwark where he began stage two of his life: London.
Until that happened, Gavin’s arrival in London was always a moment of excitement for my sister and me. We would make up his bed, using the special sheet that was printed with a life-sized image of a naked woman. Teased about it in the morning Gavin would sniff in that way of his and pretend he hadn’t noticed. The pose was one of High Victorian prudery. One day he told us he had been to see a film called The Body: ‘Quite dreadful! I thought it was going to be a thriller! [sniff] With a title like that? [sniff] The Body? It was all about orifices!’
My sister grew up and Gavin took her to a May Ball. He was shy of women and I suspect a late starter, although in later life he was always surrounded by oodles of middle-aged female adulators, he was locked in an essentially homosexual world. When he struck up with a woman they called ‘Mrs Death’ (I don’t know why they nicknamed her that. I had met her daughters and they were called something like ‘Distemper’) he was teased rotten: ‘Where’s your belle?’ Asked the Rev Francis Bown, a famous Cambridge figure from my brother’s time who translated to Staggers in my sister’s Oxford days and was sent down for pinching a bishop’s bottom. Gavin replied ‘on the door like everyone else’s.’ He had to put up with a lot of ragging then and later.
In the intervening years he had converted me to Victorian architecture and encouraged my studies by finding me second-hand books on architectural history. I would go on Vic Soc walks to see threatened churches by Bodley, Street or E B Lamb. I became a campaigner as a schoolboy and corresponded with Sir John Summerson to save the old Bridewell building in New Bridge Street which the City Corporation was hoping to demolish. It’s still there, though shorn of its Georgian courtroom. There were some grotesque figures in the Victoria Society then, such as a young man dressed entirely in black with a stuffed parrot under his arm, but there were also experts and scholars who were kind to me such as Anthony Symondson - later a Jesuit priest - or Clive Wainwright from the V & A and the architect Roddy Gradidge, dressed in his skirt. I was easily the youngest person there. I didn’t meet the Cambridge don David Watkin at that stage of my life: perhaps that was all for the best.
In that world Gavin was not only known for his defence of certain Victorian architects but also for his exquisite architectural drawings. For my twenty-first birthday he gave me a little folder of signed prints of the months of the year which I later lost, to my eternal regret. His Christmas cards were prized by all the members of his circle: some monochrome architectural scene drawn with huge talent and sparkling wit. Poky Street was the scene of a great number of parties then and there I finally got to meet David Watkin in his ‘Dr Goebbels suit’. Later he outgrew Poky Street and used to entertain at Gradidge’s house in Bedford Park. It was meant to look suburban so one party was themed ‘Chez Nous’. On the door was a sign that read ‘Ici nous sommes.’
Gavin had been my mentor throughout my teens, both in drawing and in my profound love of English architecture, but he clearly disapproved of the direction I took in my twenties, and he lost patience with me. When my sister and I moved to Paris, he would occasionally visit, but it was to see her not me. I don’t think I was invited to either of his marriages but I was not spared the vicious campaign that was struck up to prevent him from marrying Alexandra Artley and sat through endless smoky sessions while ruses were sketched out to destroy the union. I am glad to say that Gavin took no notice and did what he pleased. He married, set up home in a little Georgian house in King’s Cross and fathered two daughters. He continued to sniff at me, though I had had no part in the plot.
His earnings must have been sporadic, and sometime after his marriage he took up a chair of history of architecture at Glasgow School of Art. When his first marriage broke up he returned to London, to what was - according the Telegraph - little more than a bedsit in Forest Hill. He was back to where he started: the south London boy, born in Bromley and educated at Dulwich. As he told me then, it he had essentially returned to the world of his childhood.
That was in the brief period when he forgave me. It was between 2008 and 2010. We met at the Wallace Collection where we were both lecturing for the Society of Court Studies. Gavin made a point of getting me a drink, losing his temper with the waitress and talking to me about his life and my family. Our relations continued good and I even received one of his precious Christmas cards that year. In 2010 we were on the same rostrum again at the Art Workers’ Guild in Queen Square, but soon after that door slammed shut again. He was introduced to me at a dinner party in Balham. I pointed out to my hostess that I knew him, well and Gavin sniffed. He sat next to my wife and in the course of dinner told her I was nasty to my mother. Someone had poured poison in his ear. I decided I wouldn’t bother any more. I saw him in the Rare Books Library once, looking down his nose and sniffing at me. I am ashamed to say that the last time I caught a glimpse of him, at a friend’s book launch, I did not even attempt to talk to him. He was with his new wife, who had been my incommunicative neighbour at the same dinner party.
Gavin’s funeral is on 25 January but I shan’t go. We were not friends at the end and I do not feel that it would be fitting, but he was a man who inspired me in so many ways as a child and teenager and I cannot let his death pass without paying him this small and heartfelt tribute.
Posted: 18th December 2017
I didn’t know Tim Hunt well at Oxford. He was the year below me and at the House. As such he was surrounded by the usual House men, many of them Etonians, virtually all of them from major public schools. Contrary to what you may read in the newspapers, this world is as dead as a doornail now and in most respects I recognise the Oxford I knew then only in the city’s mercifully surviving buildings; but let’s return to Tim: he was the brother of the dashing racing-car driver James Hunt and like James well-built, good looking, charming, well-mannered and blond; and those things combined brought him hosts of female admirers, most of them confined to the sixth-form colleges - Saint Claire’s and Beechlawn - rather than at the university itself. The academic side of Oxford can have only impinged on the rounds of parties that were Tim’s ordinary existence once a week, when he was obliged to write an essay for his exasperated tutors.
Tim’s best friend, as I recall, Harry Wyndham, was very much a part of that Brideshead world: he was handsome, titled, popular and when he wasn’t in Oxford, lived in the grandeur of Petworth House. Tim was chiefly famous for consorting with dodgy David Kirke, the creator of the Dangerous Sports Club. Kirke was much older than us, but hung around the city recruiting men like Tim for his reckless japes. Kirke’s men had to be, well, handsome public schoolboys. He didn’t like me at all, particularly after I exposed the fact that ‘Kirke’ was not his real name. He took these revelations badly and just before I went down he and two of his cronies found me in the garden of the Benedictine St Benet’s Hall. His gorillas pinned my arms back while Kirke threw croquet hoops at my feet at close range. For the last two weeks of my time at Oxford I could only walk with a stick.
I should add in fairness that years later Kirke tried to make amends. He had briefly become a successful author, writing about the Dangerous Sports Club, and as such introduced me to his agent. That relationship went nowhere, and Kirke himself ended up in chokey for a while. Rather than an MP and baronet (this was what he made out), ‘Kirke’s’ father had actually been a history master called Potter at Tim’s old school, Wellington, which must have brought them into contact or at least given them something to talk about. The Club’s activities took off only after I went down, culminating in a mass bungee jump off Clifton Suspension Bridge in April 1979 and a cocktail party on Rockall in the Atlantic, but such daring-do left me largely cold.
I really got to know Tim in Paris, where he repaired soon after Schools. He came at the same time as another of his best friends, Hubert Gibbs, whose father Eustace was Consul General and they lived in a huge embassy flat off the avenue Foch. When Eustace Gibbs was absent we used to go to the flat and eat and drink anything Hubert could salvage. The other member of the set was Willie Purcell who called himself ‘Priapus’. There were a few others who came to Paris then, either like Hubert, linguists who wanted to polish up their French in their third year, or those who thought they deserved a year or two’s fun before the boredom of real life began. One of the former was Paul Golding - not I hasten to add, the oaf from Britain First - but the author of the novels Senseless and The Abomination. Of the latter there was the ‘Porpoise’ who was a bit closer to me than he was to the others. For the next few months I saw this crowd virtually every day. We ate together, we crashed out on the same floors, got up to the same mischief, we hunted in the same pack and above all we got drunk together.
No one had any money or any clear idea about how they were going to live. I had a bit of teaching and sometimes we pooled resources. When I couldn’t do a class, Tim would go in my place, but this didn’t happen that often and most of the time Tim would be anchored to his seat slowly rolling a fag and drinking ‘PG Wodehouse’ tea. Between school and university he had worked as a porter in a hospital in Germany and had picked up a bit of German; now he intended to do the same for French. He was a keen sports fan and came to life at the time of the Five Nations (there were only five then). When we had a few francs we’d go out to get booze: generally the filthiest wine there was which came in litre bottles with six stars round the neck with evocative names like Gévéor or Velours d’estomac which was about 30p a bottle, or a litre of rhum agricole from Martinique which cost all of three quid. Virtually undrinkable on its own, the rumbo slipped down nicely with fruit juice. We invented various drinking games to help us get there more quickly. One of these was called ‘Splice the Mainprice’ (it commemorated a woman of that name) which meant shouting all the nautical expressions you could think of. When you ran out you had to drink a tot of rum. After these drinking bouts we’d go to an Italian restaurant in Montparnasse and throw the food around.
Tim had an idea that he we would go into art, although it was hard to discern any particular reason why he felt it was his calling. An adorable friend of my sister’s, John Abbott, had had a gallery in Paris or New York and maintained good contacts with the scene in both. John had recently broken up with his long-term lover Raoul and had custody of their chowchow dog. John took an innocent shine to Tim which would be important later. He introduced Tim to a Lebanese lady who was also big in Paris and New York. The Lebanese lady used to ring Tim late at night for servicing. When we thought this was likely to happen, a little like Asie in Les Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, I would add special spices and seasonings to his evening meal behind his back: something to make the night go with a bang. We all looked forward to the reports the next morning. Tim had a similar relationship with a Tesco heiress, although on reflection that might have been a one-night stand.
When they arrived I was living in a flat the size of a couple of travelling trunks in the rue du Bac. Very soon I had to get used to Tim crashing out on the floor. I had trouble with the rent and the landlady moved me into an even smaller room upstairs. Then the money ran out altogether the others helped me gather my kit and we did a runner to my sister’s flat in Montparnasse. ‘Doing a runner’ was one of the favoured expressions of the time; ‘she got out’ was another; to ‘pike’ - meaning to fall asleep suddenly or die - was a third. Later Priapus found a flat in the rue des Boulangers and that served as our ‘quartier générale’ until the owner got wise to it. It was a filthy mess most of the time. I woke up in some discomfort once to find the remains of a pork chop in my bed, left, I think by Tim, but he never owned up. I had acquired a girl by then, and used to peel off to her more comfortable digs in the rue de Rennes as her mother didn’t seem to mind my presence. Tim also had a long suffering girl in London. I thought her name was ‘Walmer’ and nicknamed her ‘Cinqueports’ as a result, but it transpired it was something more like ‘Warman’. When we did another runner from the rue des Boulangers, Tim and Priapus found a room in the rue Lauriston through a posh English girl who was doing an art course at the Louvre. She had a pet rabbit, which was mightily abused.
It was Priapus who found George Hayim, or perhaps vice versa, in the boulevard de Montparnasse. George was a flamboyant figure, what in those more forthright days was called an ‘old queen’. He was a masochist of sixty-plus who liked to be tied up and beaten. He favoured burly heterosexual men to do this and he’d reward them with a meal (he was an excellent cook) and some cash that he’d whip out from a jar of flour or sugar while he grilled a veal chop or spatchcocked a chicken. He once got Tim and Priapus to beat him up. I came round at the end of the performance to find George trussed up naked on the floor and the others weeping with laughter at their performance. George was not impressed and may have borne a grudge. He used to cook for Tim then stand behind his chair stroking his hair: ‘You know, his real name is Dim!’ Tim was prepared to put up with a lot for a meal. We called him ‘Rapid’ because he was never knowingly seen to move. The only time I witnessed him take off at speed was when Priapus did a strip tease on top of a bus shelter in the boulevard de Montparnasse and police cars drew up.
Tim might have been the man who discovered Anne de Bavière, a half-French, half-American woman who had been married to a German prince and lived with a much younger man in the rue Vanneau. Anne had a sort of open table for elderly princes, homosexuals and any young men who took her fancy. You could be guaranteed of a modest meal and drink if you went there, but the problem was the lover, who was excruciatingly dull. Someone discovered, however, that he was two-timing Anne with another woman called Betty who would summon him by ringing three times and hanging up. So, when we wanted to get rid of the lover we would arrange for someone to do just that. He would come back looking cross a few hours later and go straight to bed.
Tim eventually got his chance to join the front desk at Christie’s or Sotheby’s and slipped back into the world of posh girls in London. For an unconscionably long time he was engaged to a member of the Catholic gentry in Somerset, but that came to nothing. For petty cash he worked as a model, which added extra kudos and drew gasps from more posh girls. Tim’s biggest problem was drugs. Where we all took drugs socially, there were limits: no one wanted to inject themselves, apart from Tim, for whom it was part of the same desire to court danger; and he destroyed his liver by doing it. I heard he finally left England because he had told the police he would give Queen’s evidence against a dealer but at the last moment he took French leave. For a long time his occasional presence in London or Surrey (where his family lived) was a closely guarded secret.
He made for New York where John Abbott and the Lebanese lady looked after him. As he had trouble telling his Pieros from his Peruginos, Christies or Sotheby’s had shunted him into tribal art. It turned out that Warhol had left quantities of this, and so Tim joined the Warhol Foundation. The first time I saw him in New York Tim had slipped happily into the world of chic galleristes. I stayed with John Abbott in Lower West Side who had full-throated AIDS by then but was somehow rendered stable by the mountains of pills he popped every day. There were the usual appetisers on offer. Tim had recently married the writer Tama Janowitz but then came the news that James Hunt had mysteriously died in his sleep. Tama had forbidden Tim to take drugs, but that didn’t quite stop him.
I saw him last fifteen years ago. I had arrived in New York not only hoping to see him but John Abbott. Tim broke the news that John had died after his liver had packed up. That rather than chronic AIDS had killed him. For some reason I had not been told, although Tim had been to Paris to scatter his ashes surreptitiously in the Jardin de Bagatelle. We spent the day drinking in the Upper East Side. He told me his doctor had informed him he hadn’t long to live.
He did live, at least for another decade and half and then like John his liver killed him. So many of the characters from this story have ‘piked’ now: Priapus died before he was thirty, then John Abbott, Anne de Bavière, George… Tim was sixty, not much younger than John. He was surely not made for old bones, nor were his brothers: he was one of six children of a wartime tank officer turned accountant - four boys and two girls, I think. Not one of the boys has survived into old age.
Blood and Bones in the Salient
Posted: 15th November 2017
I few days ago I made my maiden visit to Ypres. It was not my first time in the battlefields of the Western Front. Once returning from a trip to Bollinger on the Marne we took a detour and ended up looking at some restored trenches north of Rheims; then in 2014 I followed the route taken by the Irish Guards at the retreat from Mons down to the forest at Villers-Cotterêts where they were bloodied in battle, but the war was fluid in the last days of August 1914, Ypres was another matter altogether. There were five Battles of Ypres, and numerous other actions in a salient that covers a bare few square miles. There can be few parts of the world as soaked in gore as this.
We were delayed by a slight mishap at the Eurostar terminal in Brussels and darkest night had descended on Flanders by the time I reached my colleagues from Zeitgeist Tours in Ypres. The only chance of dinner was a chippie in Hooge. And so it was that the meal turned out to be the inevitable Belgian staple of ‘frites’ with mayonnaise and a tinny of Jupiler’s divine beer. To add insult to injury, the bar in the hotel had closed by the time we got back.
So the next day dawned before I was able to measure the enormity of sacrifice in the Ypres Salient. The first stop was the cemetery at ‘Hyde Park Corner’ and the circular monument to the missing at Ploegsteert by Harold Chalton Bradshaw across the road, with its rather wonderful lions carved by Gilbert Ledward. Rob Schäfer showed us the grave of the Bavarian Jew Max Seller, a German soldier buried alongside soldiers of the Royal Berkshires. It was Rob who successfully lobbied to have the Star of David carved onto his tombstone.
Our next stop was Hill 80 at Wytschaete. We were shown round by the archaeologist Simon Verdegem who did the preliminary digs at this observation point behind the German lines. Simon discovered that there was a veritable fortress lying just under the earth and is now trying to raise funds to continue the excavations. Any digging in the Salient will uncover the bodies of the ‘missing’ and Simon was able to identify a Canadian soldier in 2015, when he reconnoitred the site for the first time. Below us we could see the Bayernwald, where Adolf Hitler was awarded his Iron Cross (Second Class) in 1914. We went down to visit that too. The trench in the wood is maintained, and the entrance to the mineshaft leading under the enemy trenches was clear, even if it was filled with water.
It had begun to rain in a dreary sort of way, much as it must have done often during the war. We headed back to the Hooge Crater Museum and Cafe for lunch where Rob gave me a little guided tour. It is a spectacular if macabre collection of every aspect of the war, from medals and field equipment to shells, fuses and bullets. The display cases are crammed with material in the way that I used to enjoy at the Imperial War Museum, until that was emptied out of course and new touchy feely exhibits introduced in their place. Everywhere you look in the Salient, there are these sinister trophies pulled from the soil: fragments of Pickelhauben or tin hats, unexploded ordinance, bullets or rusting buckles and cap badges. There was a large collection of them behind glass in the corridors at our hotel the Kasteelhof 'T Hooghe nearby. Every now and then some smart Alec tries to take a live shell home with him on the Eurostar. Who needs Jihadis?
After lunch we went north in the direction of Langemarck. We stopped to look at a field of cabbages at St Julien. Simon Verdegem told us that he had recently been called in to supervise at the laying of a pipe through the Salient and some sixty bodies had been found. At a rough calculation that meant the area contained several thousand unburied soldiers who were occasionally ploughed up in the corn and potato fields we trudged over that day. We stopped at Ruisseau Farm, another small British Cemetery in Langemarck that commemorates a successful attack by the Guards Division on 8 October 1917.
For me at least, the high point of the day was the German cemetery at Langemarck. While the Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries with their central cross and neat rows of white stone slabs have a sort of silent majesty, Langemarck is clearly planned as an ‘experience’ that will move and humble the visitor all at once. There is controversy about the ‘Massacre of the Innocents at Langemarck’ (1st Battle of Ypres) and the National Socialists naturally exploited the story. It was said that German schoolboys have been cut down in swathes as they marched into battle singing Deutschland über alles against rapid fire of the British Expeditionary Force. Our ‘contemptible’ little riflemen had learned to shoot very quickly in the Boer War. It is not true that the soldiers were all seventeen year-olds, however, but around 3,000 graduates were killed, at a time when graduates were few and far between, even in Germany. Their old members’ associations have set up strange, beehive-like stones within the cemetery.
The German architect made use of extant pillboxes and fashioned the graveyard in the form of a fort or redoubt. You enter through a narrow aperture between blocks of red Weser sandstone. There are mature oaks and little clusters of three basalt Maltese crosses that resemble mushrooms. The over 44,000 dead are commemorated by simple polished slabs which list the known and the unknown presumably in the sequence their bodies were brought in from the field. They read like shopping lists; ‘Corporal Fritz Schulz... 3 unknown soldiers, Lieutenant Georg Zimmermann, 4 unknown soldiers...’ We were shown a film of Hitler visiting the cemetery in May 1940, soon after the start of the War in the West. Since then some things have been moved about, such as the four mourning soldiers by Emil Krieger and the famous epitaph from the poem by Heinrich Lersch: „Deutschland muss leben, und wenn wir sterben müssen!“.
Rob reminded me that I had translated the poem, but I had all but forgotten. In the end David Alton read it out. I was strangely moved:
Let me go mother, let me go,
Stop this crying, can't you understand
That we're off to defend the Fatherland.
Let me go mother, let me go,
A last kiss from your lips and a final sigh,
Germany must live even if we should die.
We are free father, we are free,
Deep in our bosoms beats a German heart.
Were we not free we could not depart.
We are free father, we are free,
Amid a storm of bullets you did yourself once cry
Germany must live even if we should die.
Calm yourself sweetheart, calm yourself.
Now I go to fall in with my squad
You should not marry a cowardly sod.
Calm yourself sweetheart, calm yourself,
If our joy be tinged with grief by and by
Germany must live even if we should die.
Now fare thee well friends, fare thee well,
If we should, for you and our future, fall
This shall be our last to you resounding call.
Now fare thee well friends, fare thee well,
A freeborn German knows the reason why:
Germany must live even if we should die.
I made a mental note to tidy up the third verse.
It had turned cold and wet again, but in places there was a dramatic sunset. We took a scenic route back to Hooge, passing the Canadian monument to the first ever gas attack, and an impressive Belgian cemetery where the gates were flanked by grieving mothers. Another British graveyard featured a tall obelisk and by the roadside near our hotel there were two graves pertaining to British Guards’ officers whose shattered bodies were thought to be somewhere in the field behind.
It was not long before we gravitated towards the hotel bar. By Jupiler I needed a beer.
Aunt Ella’s Big Store
Posted: 15th September 2017
On my recent trip to Austria I was able to carve off a few hours to visit the exhibition in the Jewish Museum in the Dorotheergasse in Vienna: Kauft bei den Juden! - ‘Buy from the Jews!’ The significance of the show for me was that one of the dozen or so department stores under examination was Modehaus Zwieback or Maison Zwieback founded by my great-great grandfather, Ludwig Zwieback in 1877. Ludwig had three daughters. After his sudden death in 1906, two of them remained silent partners in the firm while the business was carried on by Ludwig’s youngest, Ella Zirner until 1938, when like all the other department stores it was sequestered by the Nazis. Ella herself escaped to New York, where she died at the age of 91 in 1970.
Zwieback may not have been the largest of the department stores, that might have been Gerngross or Herzmansky, but it is often compared to Liberty’s in London, in that it was famous for its fabrics and Ella was a great fashion designer who also trained the next generation of Austrian modistes who flourished after the Second World War; the most famous of them being Fred Adelmüller. Ella had won first prize for piano at the Conservatoire and might have made a career of it had it not been for the fact her father had wanted her to run the firm. Later she behaved in exactly the same way towards her own son Ludwig, who wanted nothing more than to play the piano.
There were a number of Ella’s designs in the exhibition as well as some actual clothes. These include a mid-nineteenth century family wedding dress that my mother had donated to the museum. Possibly I am imagining things, but I have some memory of this little cloth of gold costume, which I don’t think was much respected by us children. It is in a safer place now. I looked carefully, despite scrupulous restoration there are still some suspicious stains on it.
Ella had a wild love life for a woman of her time. She was married within a tight family circle to my great-grandfather’s brother Alexander Zirner, and had two children by him. Her third child, Ludwig, was not Alexander’s. He was the son of her great love, the composer Franz Schmidt, a man Ludwig resembled - as the French say - ‘comme deux gouttes d’eau.’ The story goes that Schmidt had wanted to marry Ella but her father didn’t approve of a poor musician and a Gentile to boot. Schmidt later dedicated his Second Symphony to Ella and she had the text of his opera Notre Dame until it was impounded by the Gestapo: the Nazis thought very highly of Franz Schmidt. Their child, Ludwig Zirner studied under his natural father and in exile he finally had his chance to strike off his mother’s fetters and became professor of music at the state university of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He created the school of opera there and was one of the luminaries of the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts.
When Ella’s affair with Schmidt came to an end, she became the lover of the portrait painter Wilhelm Viktor Krausz. Apart from a great many photographs of Ella, there is a nice portrait of her in a blue dress in the exhibition, property of Ella’s grandson, my cousin the actor August Zirner. In another exhibit in the Zwieback room, Augi reads a description of Modehaus Zwieback from Hugo Bettauer’s novel Stadt ohne Juden - City Without Jews - of 1924. In the book, Bettauer imagined the disaster that would ensue if Vienna were to expel its Jews, something that it more or less did after 1938. Krausz’s painting looks unfinished, but he was hit-or-miss as a painter. The most famous portrait he made of Ella, Die Dame mit Rosen (lady with roses) has been lost since the war. Ella fled on Krausz’s arm shortly before the Germans crashed into France in May 1940. There is an ominous photograph in the exhibition of Modehaus Zwieback draped with swastikas.
I learned a few things about Ella that I had not known before, such as the fact she was the head of the Viennese Women’s Football Club! I also discovered that Ella was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1930 when the newspapers reported that she had taken to her bed. This is significant because it was the year in which her sister Gisela - my great-grandmother - had to sell her villa in Hietzing and my grandfather and his elder brother were more or less obliged to set up their own jewellery business as the Zirner firm - by appointment to the Emperor of Austria and the Shah of Persia - went belly up. In the exhibition there is an identity card belonging to my grandfather Felix Zirner showing that he was working as a rep for Ella.
There was also a picture of one of Ella’s models in 1910 who joined the Nazi Party illegally in 1930 and helped herself to Jewish property after 1938 - a common enough story. What was not so often the case was the fact that she got her come-uppance and was imprisoned after 1945. Ella came back after the war to see if she could get her department store back. For half a dozen years between 1951 and 1957, Modehaus Zwieback functioned again. Then she sold it and went back to New York and her lovers.
Another exhibit that comes from Augi is a spoon from the luxurious cafe that was inside the department store. After I left the exhibition I went to the Weihburggasse to see what was happening to that very cafe, which was once the restaurant, Zu den drei Husaren, one of the most famous in Europe and a firm favourite of the Duke of Windsor when he was Prince of Wales.
To my joy the doors were open and I pushed past a few Polish workers to have a look at the progress of the restoration: they were putting back the interiors they had found - the work of Friedrich Ohmann, author of the Stadtpark, and the monument to the Empress Sissy among other things; although this interior was comparatively late Ohmann - circa 1920 - he had also designed the now vanished facade of the shop in 1906. The banquettes were already in place. There was a wonderful small room with coloured glass and decorative pilasters each of which had been emblazoned with a Z for Zwieback. I met the architect who was happy to talk to me. He even invited me to the launch of the new cafe, which is due to open in the middle of October.
The exhibition runs until 19 November. There is an excellent catalogue in German and English by Astrid Peterle.
The First German Refugee Problem
Posted: 17th July 2017
Traditionally Germany's Protestants live in the north and east, and Catholics in the south and west. The percentages used to be roughly 60:40 in favour of Protestants (Lutherans and Calvinists), but now there are marginally more declared Catholics than Evangelicals as forty percent of Germans make no claim to religion at all. Attitudes in Germany's regions are said to be typical: Bavarians think like Bavarians, Saxons Saxons, Mecklenburgers Mecklenburgers ('typisch bayrisch, typisch sächsisch, typisch mecklenburgisch...' etc.) and their religion will also play a part in that profile - in Catholic Bavaria in particular. Such attitudes, however, ignore the massive demographic changes wrought in 1945, when Germany was shrunk to fit into the borders dictated at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam.
Beginning that year, some 16.5 million Germans trekked back towards the remaining rump of the Fatherland, and those who survived the journey were settled wherever local authorities could find a space. That was almost always in some under-populated rural area, such as Schleswig-Holstein, where many refugees from the Prussian east found new homes. The German countryside can be deceptive as a result. Franconia is the northernmost province of the Free State of Bavaria. It was originally a collection of small secular and Church principalities and it was only tacked on to the Kingdom of the Wittelsbachs in 1806 when Napoleon Bonaparte saw fit to collapse the Holy Roman Empire. It doesn't feel very Bavarian, indeed, half of it is Protestant. There is Wine Franconia to the west and Beer Franconia to the east. People say the natives are rude and nasty, but my experience has been precisely the opposite and when I used to seek solitude eating alone in lovely Bamberg, people always went out their ways to find out where I came from or offer me a drink. As the eastern part of Franconia borders on the Czech Republic, many German-speaking Bohemians ended up settling there after the war. The reputable Bamberg Philharmonic orchestra was entirely created by musicians from the Prague-based German Philharmonic Orchestra after 1945.
A couple of decades ago I stayed in Pflaums Post Hotel in Pegnitz in Franconia. The atmosphere at Pflaums (now sadly no more) could only be described as 'high camp'. Bayreuth was only ten or fifteen minutes away and many of the leading lights of opera stayed in its suites, where there was piped Wagner and huge screens that allowed you to relax to videos of Lohengrin or Parsifal while you sprawled on Brobdingnagian beds. I was told that Luciano Pavarotti had been the first man to sleep in mine. I was surprised that the springs had survived. At some stage a door mysteriously unlocked in my bedroom and I found myself wandering through all the neighbouring suites. Each was individually decorated in the same lavish, operatic style.
When the atmosphere became too much for me I went out to explore the little town, which in its tranquillity contrasted starkly with life at the hotel. There didn't seem to be much going on, but I dimly remember a pub. I popped into a church and read the notices outside. At that moment I realised everything had been written in an unfamiliar dialect: this part of Pegnitz had become a refuge for Upper Silesians after the war, and the parish notices were written in 'Wasserpölnisch', a German-Polish patois common to the eastern borderlands before they fell to Poland in 1945. Now these Upper Silesians in Pegnitz were trying assiduously to keep the language alive. They were the ones who got away, of course: nearly half a million Upper Silesians had been isolated in their region after the war, chiefly when the 'opted' for Poland rather than Germany. The Poles liked to see Catholic Upper Silesians as their own people, and many were culturally both Polish and German in a way that few people in largely Protestant Lower Silesia were. The reason why so many German-speakers had 'opted' for Polish citizenship was that it was perceived as a means of stopping the nightly rapes and violence to which the others had been subjected who wanted to remain German. It also meant that they were not expelled from their homes and driven across the Oder-Neiße Line.
Before the German-Polish treaty of friendship of 1991, the remaining Germans in Upper Silesia experienced persecution by the Polish authorities and the German language was as good as banned. I was in Opole, the former town of Oppeln, in 1992 and met a woman who offered to pray for my soul if I gave her DM 10. The money also paid for a fairly vivid description of what life had been like for Germans in Upper Silesia since the late forties. Although Poles learned German in order to get better jobs on leaving school, her own children were discouraged from speaking German for fear of being beaten up by the police, and places in higher education - she said - were not open to them. When Poland's relations with Germany were normalised, and above all when Poland joined the EEC, young Upper Silesian Germans could find full or part-time work in Germany, even when they spoke next to no German. Friends of mine in the Mosel Valley, for example, employed them in their vineyards for the semester lasting from budburst to harvest. The rest of the year they could live on their fat at home.
Some Upper Silesians simply moved to Germany after 1989. The woman I met in Opole referred to it quaintly as 'das Reich' - or 'the Empire'. This was an unconscious allusion to Hitler's policy of 'Heim ins Reich' ('home in the Reich') which was meant to bring alienated ethnic Germans back into their own racial territory. Hitler had used it selectively, generally to get Germans out of the Soviet sphere of influence before launching Operation Barbarossa and the invasion of the Soviet Union or to please Mussolini when he yielded up the South Tyrol and parts of German-speaking Jugoslavia in exchange for Italian support in the Mediterranean. The West German government echoed this policy when it sought to alleviate the various persecutions that took place after 1945 in Romania, Hungary, Jugoslavia and Poland.
This persecution was particularly acute in Ceausescu's Romania and many of the so-called Siebenbürger Deutsche, or 'Saxons' tried to escape to the West. Large numbers had disappeared into Soviet Russia at the end of the War. They were driven from their villages and their houses were plundered. In 1976 the Federal Republic agreed to buy the remainder out on the same basis that they acquired other Germans from across the Iron Curtain: Romania charged around DM 10,000 for adults, 6,000 for OAPS and 4,000 for children to release them. Before 1989, some 240,000 Germans had already left, but the exodus began anew after 1990 when another 159,000 headed west, lured by the promise of creature comforts and mod cons. Laws compensating the Saxons for stolen property have been issued since, but the damage has been done. When you go to Transylvania today it is bitter-sweet to see villages and towns announced in three languages (Romanian, Hungarian and German), but the simple truth is that the birds have very largely flown. The policy had a largely detrimental effect in destroying the last vestiges of an ancient German community: there are around 15,000 Siebenbürger Deutsche left now.
I made my first journey to Transylvania in 1990 and witnessed something of the end of that Teutonic culture. We visited one of the beautiful Kirchenbürgen (fortified churches) between Brasov (Kronstadt) and Sibiu (Hermannstadt). I saw an obvious 'Saxon' girl sweeping a porch and greeted her with 'grüß Gott!' Without lifting her head from her work she replied with the same. The probability is that she and her family have left too. There are, however, some striking reminders, particularly in the lovely city of Sibiu or Hermannstadt, which is the political seat of the remarkable Klaus Iohannis or Johannis who became President of Romania in 2014. Iohannis is a former physics master who taught at the Samuel von Brukenthal Gymnasium in Sibiu before he entered politics as President of the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania. He became mayor of his home town in 2000. Sibiu is still the most German city in Transylvania, with its vast mediaeval Lutheran Church (services in German) and the Gymnasium where Iohannis taught is the most famous German-language school in the country. Sibiu is also the home of the Schiller Verlag, the most prominent German-language publisher in Romania. Iohannes' parents, did not stay in Romania long enough to witness their son's success: both had already taken the German shilling and emigrated to Würzburg in the Federal Republic.
A year before my meeting with the woman in Opole, I had encountered a Prussian in Malbork, the former Marienburg, home to the magnificent red brick castle of the Teutonic Knights. I actually met him on the train crossing the Vistula. We had been watching one another for some time. He was a man in his sixties, accompanied by an obvious granddaughter who was playing with his Polish passport. He seemed interested in my book, a history of modern Danzig/Gdansk, which had a large swastika on the cover. When I got up to photograph the castle from the corridor he followed me out and addressed me in German. He had been in the SS, he told me, was captured and held as a POW in Britain. They let him go in 1947, but he determined to return to his West Prussian Heimat. Most of his family and friends had already been killed or deported, but he kept his head down and worked on the railways. He didn't want to be called Prussian - he was German - he said. Now he was retired and he was going to go to Germany, where he had been informed they would settle him in a nice modern flat.
He informed me there was a concentration of 'autochtones' in Olstyn, the former Allenstein, in the Masurian Lakes. Later in the same trip in went there for a few days and hung around the little Evangelical church until I was bearded by the pastor, a Pole who spoke fluent German. He confirmed what the SS-man had told me, adding that there were still around 200 families living in isolated farmhouses. They worshipped in his church on Sundays and were buried under the altar so as to avoid exciting too much attention from the Poles who had cleared away the tombstones around the church because they attested to the fact that Olstyn had once been a purely German town. I assume most of these 'autochtones' have now followed the SS-man back to the 'Reich'.
I don't know how many of these pockets of 'Deutschtum' still exist. The largest conglomeration of displaced Germans would be the Volga Germans in Russia. There are certainly people in Jugoslavia and the Czech Republic whose Teutonic origins are betrayed by their Germanic names, but in reality they have probably long since ceased to think of themselves as Germans. Besides Poland and Romania, only in Hungary are there still concentrations of people who went through difficult times before 1989 and who were reluctant to speak German outside their homes. Today, these German-speaking Danube 'Schwaben,' descendants of planters imported by the Empress Maria Theresa, make the country's best red wine in Villány - or indeed 'Wieland,' as they might call it in their unguarded moments.
The Island of Great Britain
Posted: 19th June 2017
In this second part of my examination of Brexit Britain I go on a bus tour to look at the country's fabric.
Oxford is magnificent. The Radcliffe Camera is not only one of the half dozen greatest buildings in Britain - it is in the top European league. The Radcliffe Square that frames it is an astonishing collection of architecture constructed from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries: St Mary's church, All Souls old and Hawksmoor, the front quad at Brasenose, the Old Schools and the Bodleian all hugger-mugger in a maze of Headington-stone-built quadrangles; and yet, if you never strayed east of Carfax or the Cornmarket, you would be forgiven from feeling that there was little to choose between Oxford and any number of provincial British cities: gimcrack 1960s shopping centres and covered malls of a more recent date, amid a few sad relics of a more ancient and more distinguished past. And in the malls and the shopping centres, the same miserable brands, the same ugly names, the same domination of philistine cupidity.
Oxford is the gateway to the Cotswolds. The sleek hills with their honey-coloured oolitic limestone cottages, it has to be said, are chiefly a delight. Our bus came to a halt in Bladon to visit a very modest, largely nineteenth century church, but the passengers wanted to admire the very unspectacular tomb of Winston Churchill. Burford was the real stop. It is a small town that is hard to fault from its Priory, former epicentre of the so-called Cotswold Set with its many grisly characters (Blair, Cameron and their oily acolytes) to the wonderful church of St John the Baptist and all the land in between. In the 15th century spandrels of a pub I found a barrel, a sign that beer had been dispensed there for five hundred years, a fabulous baroque mansion opposite had suffered the horrible fate of being converted into a Methodist chapel in 1842. Now the nonconformist churches have perished in their turn: we have no other God but mammon.
There may have been no branches of Tesco or Next in Burford, but there were plenty of twee tea rooms and antique shops. The interiors of most of the buildings had been wrecked at ground floor level at least, victims of strip lighting and modern display units. Unless you slap a Grade One listing on them, the owners are free to destroy. We proceeded to the Doubletree at Charlton Kings on the outskirts of Cheltenham. It was alleged that somewhere at its heart was an old house, but there was little hope of finding any traces of it under the layers of gaudy renovation. I think soldiers were stationed there during the war - the usual kiss of death. There was a curious hum in my closet-sized bedroom: it was like sleeping on a boat.
Next day we went to Bath via Cirencester and Tetbury. The latter looked pleasantly unspoiled. The rape of Bath took place in the sixties and seventies when the civic fathers decided it was necessary to abandon the lower town to modern commercial development. Now they can boast - as they can at Oxford or Chester or York - that they have all the same shops as everywhere else. Still, the barbarism is fairly localised and it is easy enough to climb to Queen Square or the Royal Circus to find relief from the monstrosities that rub shoulders with the Abbey below. One eyesore is at least seventy years older than the brutal excrescences of Stall Street, and that is the Empire Hotel - a quite spectacularly insensitive building and still the tallest in the city centre. It is no longer an hotel.
Most of Bath is beautifully maintained, but Cheltenham, of which we had a tantalising glimpse the next day, has suffered a horrible decline. I suspect the retired colonels that used to make up the mainstay of its population have given up their ghosts, and that the denizens of GCHQ are rather less vociferous in their defence of the old fabric. There are clearly still lovely bits, but almost every terrace, crescent or square seems to have been marred by a later addition that pays no attention to its stylistic environment.
On the bus, the speed of our motions was dictated by ancient bladders. We needed to stop every ninety minutes to two hours. Motorway service stations became therefore an important feature. The only view we had of the famous iron bridge at Coalbrookdale, was a colour picture above a fast food outlet. Shropshire, home of the 'Lad' was just the motorway to Wales; and yet, once we had crossed the border we had a real landscape with steep hills and fast flowing rivers. Llangollen was anticlimactic, but still there was an old bridge, a pretty railway station, a few antique shops by an interesting church and mercifully few chain shops.
It became dark and stormy, rain pelted down and water spouted from crags. The few farmhouses and villages along the road were all made of slate and glistened darkly, ewes huddled with their lambs against drystone walls. We overshot Carnavon and crossed to Anglesey to go to Llanfair, but the real destination was a big Pringle outlet with bargains and reductions; a huge bazaar in the middle of a bogus Welsh village. At least I got the chance to see the Menai Bridge and the statue of the legless Marquess of Anglesey on the way back.
It continued cold and wet. A narrow gauge railway journey in a steam train proved surprisingly gripping and on the way to the station we saw the plain little house where T E Lawrence was born in Tremadog, a village laid out around the time of the Battle of Waterloo. Lawrence's birth and upbringing were eccentric by any standards. I suppose it was hardly surprising that he became such a very odd man. In the course of the day we visited Portmeirion and an old slate works. In our sixth form The Prisoner was quite a cult, with a stony-faced Patrick McGoohan fighting against his Kafkaesque destiny in Portmeirion, but later I learned that the architect Clough Williams-Ellis had a rather bold conception and actually imported a number of threatened monuments to give them a home in this really stunning bay. After the usual sub-standard hotel lunch in the hotel I saw there was a Florentine (?) fireplace incorporated into the place and wondered just how many similar gems Williams-Ellis had rescued.
The slate works was - like the railway - surprisingly interesting. Compared to the miners of the south, we hear little of these slate miners, and yet their lives were equally grim. I thought of Kropa in Slovenia, where I went once with my friend Janez Fajfar, then manager of the Vila Bled hotel, and now Bled's mayor. The people of Kropa made hobnails for the Venetian, later Austrian navy, working in the dark for half the year because of the depth of the valley. Janez produced a lovely simile, evoking them 'creeping out like crocodiles' to bask in the sun at that moment in April or May when light entered the valley for the first time.
I have written about Carnavon recently. The Castle and the town walls are impressive and it has been pointed out to me that with their bands of variegated stone they were modelled on the walls of Constantinople as witnessed by English soldiers at the time of the 1204 Sack. There is a story told locally that the building of the new Marina deprived the town of its World's Heritage Site status. The Marina was doubtless meant both to modernise and provide facilities for young people, but it has had the benefit of keeping the big supermarkets away from the centre. Apart from the Castle, however, and a certain quiet charm within the town walls, there is very little distinguished building to be seen.
There were plenty of boarding houses. I was fascinated by the way that the working people of the middle and north of England had developed the Welsh coast from the mid-nineteenth century: a week on the sands, staying in a boarding house; tea, bread and butter, fish and chips and rock. There are actually quite a lot of pretty sandy beaches on the north Welsh Coast. We drove through Conway. It is a more warlike apparition than Carnavon. And within the walled town there were even Mediaeval buildings, largely lacking in the other place. Our destination was Chester. I had not been there since my teens. It was one of those moments now invariably described as an 'epiphany': I discovered the neoclassical architect Thomas Harrison. I was working on my written paper for Art History A-Level at the time, and he figured largely in my text. A few years later, Howard Colvin approved my suggestion that I should write my DPhil on the subject. I remember standing with him in his rooms at St John's, as he went through his card index to see if anyone had written anything substantial on him before. It transpired the field was wide open.
In one way Chester had improved: the hideous police station that had necessitated the piercing of the ancient walls, and which was seated opposite Harrison's Chester Castle ensemble, was no longer there. In its place was a marginally superior circular hotel building. Elsewhere destruction had run rampant; any non-listed building behind the Rows had been torn down and replaced by a Lego blocks. Within the Rows themselves almost all the interiors had been torn out for strip lighting and branded interiors. Chester was at its worst opposite the Cathedral by the Town Hall, where a mall has been constructed with a covered market. All the surviving structures have been blighted. I had one redeeming experience for all that. I was standing outside 12 Bridge Street looking into the basement of a sports' shoe shop when I spied a 13th Century arch. Accompanied by one of my Americans I stormed in: behind the arch were six bays of a 13th century vaulted chapel. Between the columns Perspex shelves had been arranged to display plimsolls.
York was more familiar to me, there is plenty that is delightful, but I was appalled by the march of the branded barbarians for all that, who have more or less seized the entire centre of the city turning most of the Mediaeval churches into cafés and bars. The same Lego blocks had taken the place of any unlisted buildings. As far as I could see the most disgraceful building in the city was Tesco in Goodramgate: a series of depressed concrete arches surmounted by a storey of bricks and a few more concrete arches and placed smack opposite a well-preserved terrace of 14th century shops, and just round the corner from the mega-touristy Shambles.
Hats off, however, to the volunteer guides at the Minster who were a revelation (or epiphany, if you prefer). From York we had an outing to Whitby and Castle Howard. I shivered at the Abbey, but took heart at St Mary's Church, where the chief delight was perhaps not the Romanesque detail, but its wholly preserved eighteenth century interior complete with triple-decker pulpit and box pews. Whitby has been a tourist town for donkey's years, attracting trippers from the collieries who came to buy the local jet and eat fish and chips. Castle Howard is in a sorry state after its various fires and many of the buildings - including the Mausoleum - are dilapidated - but Vanbrugh and his great flourishes of English baroque are always a tonic, no matter how grey the skies.
The next day we passed through Harrogate, which was another pleasant surprise. The northern spa town was in much better nick than Cheltenham. I regretted never taking up my invitation to visit the Food Festival issued by a charming Chinese restaurant proprietress I met in Vienna. There was a lavatory stop at Bolton Priory before we crossed the Pennines. The rest of the day in the Lake District exposed me to the tourist burg of Bowness-in-Windermere: more of the same - brands and shopping opportunities, huge prices for old tat and huge crowds ready to buy it.
There were many firsts on this trip: my first visit to the Roman Baths in Bath, first time at Stonehenge and Avebury Stones (which involved driving straight through Marlborough College) and my first sight of Hadrian's Wall. I wanted to see Lanercost Priory, but that was ruled out by the paucity of, or poor quality of the lavatories. We went to Gretna instead, where there were further opportunities for shopping. Moffat seemed a nice little spa town, but the waters have long since dried up and the pump house has become a bank.
I don't associate Edinburgh with philistinism and my three or four nights there was a pleasant enough break. The university takes up a huge amount of the old city, but that does not seem to result in any better facilities, there was a dire shortage of cheap restaurants. On one of my excursions to Leith Walk I saw a seamless demolition: John Lewis was being torn down while simultaneously a new branch was being put up. The shop remained open throughout! A direct descendant of Robert Adam took us on a tour of the city, and as a result of her advice I popped into see the old Scottish Parliament with its great hammerbeam roof and portraits hidden behind the Georgian facades of the high court near St Giles's Kirk. We did a perfunctory tour of the New Town, which had been embellished by her ancestor, and ended up at Edinburgh Castle, where I had another 'first' when I passed the portals and looked around the many military museums inside. The next day I was required to visit the Royal Yacht, but that afternoon I managed a couple of hours in the National Gallery and saw the Raphaels upstairs, and the Buccleuch Leonardo for the first time.
After a short break, my trip continued to Inverness. My sister was born in a home for unmarried mothers in Pitlochry and I used imagine it as a collection of smoking chimneys from my mother's (she was actually married at the time) description of it. It is of course nothing of the sort. It is a spa town, and although I spied no branches of Costa or Prêt-à-Manger, it doesn't look so very different to Bowness. We were coming into the Scotland I plied year in, year out as a whisky writer. We headed up through the Cairngorms to the Spey, passing Dalwhinnie and coasting past a few more places where I used to check the stills and sample the drams. Inverness, however, I knew only as a way of crossing the Moray Firth, and you don't need to go into town to do that.
I had missed little. The capital of the Highlands has been more cruelly treated than the Highlanders after Culloden. There were a few good, large houses on the Old Edinburgh Road, but almost everything of any historical value in the centre has been butchered. The city was filthy and depressed with the possible exception of the other side of the River Ness, where there were some baronial hotels. The ground floor had been ripped out of the Customs and Excise building in Bridge Street and a Georgian church shorn of its nave. Only around the kirk was a little clutch of seventeenth century buildings that were reasonably well preserved. That was where I found Leakey's: an excellent second-hand bookshop housed in a former chapel. What should have been a lovely railway station had been mauled, while a shopping estate had taken up all the space to the south. And yet, people were cheerful enough and I noted plenty of young people, almost all of whom were speaking Romanian or Polish.
Why should I be surprised at the desolation I had seen? The British provinces were always a cultural backwater. I had believed that the reason for creating universities in cathedral cities in the sixties was to adjust the cultural balance in places that had been all too ready to bulldoze their historic centres after the war. In this they had been far more efficient than the Luftwaffe. In the long run, however, the presence of cultural institutions seems to have made little difference. It is not just true of Britain, Britain just had less to lose. Paris retains its sophistication, style, its small shops and street life, but much of provincial France is stone dead. Friends from out of town tell me London is a 'bubble' (another word currently in vogue) and that we (fifteen percent?) of the population fail to appreciate the legitimate grumbles of the rest - those who inhabit the moribund, soulless cultural desert that is prey to Brexit here and the National Front across the way.
The cultural aspects of Brexit have been very largely ignored, but it is not necessarily the possession or lack of money or opportunity that segregates us. The shops and malls of provincial Britain are full enough; they are well stocked with the right brands, the right soma. The people in their track suits and baseball caps look anything but undernourished. There is no semblance of the dire situation of the Thirties. They are looking for another model that is far from our continent, one that is closer to the American model. Europe means nothing to them and they resent having to understand a foreign political culture when they hardly know their own.
Posted: 10th May 2017
There was a clue in the History Today crossword puzzle this month that had the family stumped: 'According to Churchill, the southern terminus of the 'Iron Curtain' (7).' The penny finally dropped, but not before a great many other cities were pencilled into the space. It was Trieste of course, which between 1945 and 1954, went through many of the same experiences that bedevilled Berlin and Vienna, but unlike those cool northern capitals, Trieste was a seaport basking in the Mediterranean sun.
One of the reasons it took the penny so long to drop was, to my chagrin, that I have never been to Trieste: the great Austrian seaport grafted onto the roots of an ancient Italian city in the second half of the nineteenth century; or indeed to old resorts such as Pola and Abbatia on the Dalmatian Littoral where my family would have once spent their holidays away from Vienna and the suffocating Föhn wind. They were all outposts of the Venetian Empire that was subsumed into the Austro-Hungarian as one civilisation waned and another waxed.
Trieste also lay on a cultural fault-line between an Italian world and a Slavic one. The development of the port and docks created a need for labour which attracted workers from the east, making Trieste a cosmopolitan city. After the First World War the Italians and the new 'South Slav' state of Yugoslavia both laid claims to it. As it had been one of the bribes offered to Italy to change sides in 1915, the Slavs were going to be disappointed. In 1945, however, it was not going to be so easy. The Western Allies collided with Tito's forces as they claimed the city and Tito had been making the running for them in the Balkans. As the hot war became a cold one the 'Morgan Line' was imposed and the city was divvied up between a chiefly Italian Zone A in the centre, run by the British and the Americans, and a Yugoslav Zone B in the industrial suburbs to the east. The line cut families and lands in two. Even after the final treaty was signed in 1954, there were still properties split in this way: the excellent Slovenian wine estate of Movia, for example, like many others, had vines in Italian Collio and needed to cross the border to tend them. Other producers sold their grapes to Italians for dollars.
The Cold War in Trieste is the subject of Christian Jennings' new book, which has tumbled out only a few months after his book on the Gothic Line and in some respects is a sequel, as once the Allies had broken through the German defences, it was full steam ahead to stop the Communists taking Trieste. Britain's decision to get into bed with Stalin in 1941 had been risky. It was possibly the only way to defeat the Nazis, but it would inevitably result in bringing the Bolsheviks into Central Europe. Seeing the possibility of the Americans abandoning them while they went off in pursuit of the Japanese in the Pacific, the British toyed with 'Operation Unthinkable', a plan that foresaw continuing the war against the Soviet Union and its Yugoslav allies, if needs be turning the demobbed and disarmed German enemy into soldiers once again to fight alongside them.
Trieste makes a good subject, and there are hosts of interesting characters to explore, including Colonel Peter Wilkinson of the Special Operations Executive, whom I met once in 1990, at the launch of my book on Adam von Trott, and who gave me an instructive talk on why it was the SOE was not allowed to step in to help the German opposition assassinate Hitler. Another colourful personality is the American lawyer-cum-soldier Colonel Alfred Bowman. These and other figures provide Flashpoint Trieste with many good anecdotes and some snatches of fine writing. Unlike his last book, it has not been awkwardly edited into American although about half way through there is a clumsy succession of 'meet withs.'
The Allied troops that approached the city were exhausted, some suffering from malaria. They hurtled into a hopeless enemy that knew its days were up. I enjoyed the story of the Kiwi soldiers entertained to horse stew by their German prisoners, and the soldiers 'liberating' alcohol from the semi-submerged wrecks in the harbour. There were the culture-boffins of the AIS (think Wilfrid Hyde-White in The Third Man) who warned soldiers against 'bad women' and communists and the tremendous story of the Intelligence Corps NCO who managed to avert a third world war after an angry Gurkha decapitated a 'Jug' (as Yugoslavs were called then). The city's hairy predicament was eventually resolved by Stalin, who withdrew his support for Tito when the latter began to overreach himself. From then on Yugoslavia was 'unaligned' and pursued its path outside the Soviet Block.
There are some glitches: once again, however, Jennings is let down by his editors. There are factual mistakes, like, for example, calling Prince Eugene of Savoy a 'Habsburg' or claiming that the port of Stettin was in Poland in 1918; but those aside, much more jarring are the very frequent repeats which mar what is an exciting sally into new ground.
The Lost World of Central Europe's Jews
Posted: 18th April 2017
I was in Austria briefly at the beginning of the month. I was there to speak at a conference in Burgenland, but I was allowed to build in a day in Vienna, my first for about three years. I stayed with my good friend and together we visited a few old haunts. One of these was the former Zu den drei Husaren in the Weihburggasse. This was Vienna's smartest restaurant until it closed a few years ago. A sign appeared in the window announcing a burst water main and months and years dragged by and no plumber came to mend it. The premises have since acquired a new owner or leaseholder (it's not clear which) and the old Modehaus Zwieback site on the Kärntnerstrasse has been gutted as well while extensive works seem to be taking place in the restaurant itself.
Zu den drei Husaren began life as the tea rooms of the department store founded by my Great Great-Grandfather Ludwig Zwieback in 1877. Ludwig died in 1906, leaving his share in the family chain of shops and substantial fortune to three daughters (the only son died in a boating accident). His youngest daughter, my Great Aunt Ella, was chosen to run the flagship in the First Bezirk. After Ludwig's death she commissioned the great Jugendstil architect Friedrich Ohmann - architect of the Stadtpark and the monument to the Empress Elisabeth - to revamp the building, installing the sumptuous new entrance and the lifts over which my ancestor's bust (now sadly disappeared) was installed in majesty. These things may be seen here: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_Zwieback_%26_Bruder
Ella ran the shop into the Thirties and like everyone else, suffered in the slump. The Zwiebacks' big Palais Pereira, the onetime Viennese Stock Exchange in the Weihburggasse, was heavily mortgaged to the bank and Ella granted a concession to three noblemen (the 'Three Hussars' perpetuated in the name) to open a restaurant in the tea room. It became one of the most famous in Europe and was reputedly the favourite haunt of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII. The most motivated of the hussars was Count Paul Pálffy, who soon bought out the other two. When the Nazis stomped in to the tune of the Anschluss in March 1938 it was swiftly decreed that Jews like Ella might not own property. Her 'compensation' was paid into a closed bank account that she could not touch and a year later she emigrated to New York with her younger son Ludwig. According to his autobiography, Pállfy didn't fancy running a restaurant in a Nazi Vienna and sought out Germany's leading restaurateur, Otto Horcher and voluntarily made the restaurant over to him.
So far, so good: Horcher had never been so lucky. He didn't have a bad war either, at least not until later. He ran Maxim in Paris, Zu den drei Husaren in Vienna, a number of Luftwaffe clubs and of course Horchers in Berlin. Before the war he had even had a restaurant in London's Mayfair. Then in 1943, with the bombs raining down and Total War, he decided he could go no further and loaded his staff onto a train and fled to Madrid to open a new Horcher in Retiro. It is still there, and run by his granddaughter.
After the war Zu den drei Husaren was used as a private dining room by the Austrian President Karl Renner. It came back to life in the 50s when it was sold (apparently by Horcher) to a Baron Fodermayer. At some stage the interior was covered with fifties or sixties plush. Fodermayer later sold the Husaren to the Carinthian Uwe Kohl, who had it until the affair of the broken water main. I might add that nothing is cut or dried in any part of this story. Who owned the land and who owned the lease? After 1945, Pálffy, Horcher, Ella and the Viennese Savings Bank all sought to assert their claims. The current claimant, another Carinthian named List or Liszt, has it from the Savings Bank.
We couldn't see very much when we sniffed around the courtyard of the Palais Pereira, only that the columns of the restaurant had been stripped down and covered with some sort of protective cladding. Men speaking a Slavic language popped in and out and we went across the road and had some lunch.
It was only when I got home that I spoke to my second cousin, Ella's grandson, the actor August Zirner, and he sent me some pictures of what was happening inside Zu den drei Husaren. The builders had uncovered the sixteenth century grain store that formerly belonged to Göttweig Abbey on the Danube, but more important still, they had revealed Ohmann's original decorations for the tea room. I don't know what the new proprietor intends to do next, but it is certainly an exciting moment. I hope the historical buildings people are keeping a watchful eye!
After lunch we went to see Georg Gaugusch at Jungmann & Neffe, Vienna's grandest tailor, whose old-fashioned shop is squashed between Sacher's Hotel and the Café Mozart. Gaugusch is an unusual tailor in that he is a trained chemical engineer and despite not being the slightest bit Jewish, has a consuming passion for Jewish genealogy. My friend wanted to give me the second volume of Georg's magnum opus: Wer einmal war (Who Once Was Who) which came out last year. It is a genealogy of the leading Jewish families of Central Europe in three volumes. The first came out in 2012 when I reviewed it in Standpoint. Georg was enthroned among his bales of yarn, arguing family trees with us while customers came in to be measured for suits and coats.
The third and last volume is due out in 2020. The book will count some 5,000 pages and be a memorial to a lost world of Jews who rose and prospered under the Habsburg Emperors, to the extent that many of them were ennobled - something that very rarely happened to Jews across the border in Germany. When Hitler came an entire culture was snuffed out like a candle. It is naturally the last volume that interests me most, as my people were Zirners and Zwiebacks! Georg consoles me that we are not quite the last family included: there is one other. In the meantime I intend to find out just what did happen at the Modehaus Zwieback and Zu den drei Husaren.
Theodor Fontane and the Alternative Prussia
Posted: 16th March 2017
The short-lived state of Prussia is controversial now, but before Prussians merged with the image of square-headed soldiers bayoneting babies in the opening phases of the First World War there were at least as many Borussophiles as Borussophobes. The state itself had been packed into the newly created German Empire in 1871, although the Prussian Assembly or Landtag governed territories which accounted for some two-thirds of the Imperial land mass and Prussians were still proudly Prussian, resisting any call to be Saxon, Swabian or Bavarian. The last German Kaiser, William II, was conscious of the fact he was King of Prussia as well as German Emperor, but he was perhaps less than impressed by the 'good Prussian traditions' of Spartan simplicity; living ostentatiously among his collection of three hundred or so military uniforms and preferring fast yachts and new cars to the austerity that was old Prussia.
'Brandenburg-Prussia' was formed in the sixteenth century as a result of a marriage between the Grand Duchy of Prussia centred on Königsberg in the Baltic, and Electoral Brandenburg with its capital in Berlin - one of the least significant parts of the Holy Roman Empire prior to the Thirty Years War. Prussia contrived to become a kingdom only in 1701 after some spectacular toadying on the part of the Elector Frederick William - Frederick the Great's grandsire. Its ruler was a mealy-mouthed 'King in Prussia' until Frederick the Great raised his rank. Frederick William I was definitely a second rate monarch.
It was arguably that Frederick William's son, the 'Soldier-King,' Frederick William II, who created the Prussia of legend: with its huge army captained by an officer-caste drawn from the provincial gentry or Junkers, a meritocratic civil-service and a tight administration designed to hold down a jigsaw of territories that stretched from the Rhine to the Memel. When the Soldier-King was not exercising his passion for tall soldiers, or working out his madness on canvas, he was redesigning his father's kingdom according to Pietist principles, welcoming oppressed Protestant refugees, establishing universal state education and filling Prussian towns with simple red brick houses and churches of a type common to Holland.
Although the Soldier-King may have defined the 'real' Prussia, most Borussophiles based their fascination on Frederick William's son Frederick the Great or 'Fritz' to his German friends. Frederick was not only the victor of the Silesian and Seven Years Wars, he was the Philosopher-King, Voltaire's sparring partner, the builder of Rococo Sanssouci, and the flautist who baited Bach - there was something for almost everyone. Frederick died in 1786 and Prussian monarchs were never the same again. After 1815, Prussia became a byword for social and political reaction.
Frederick's admirers were 'Fritzists.' There were black ones and white ones. Many Prussian militarists were black Fritzists, delighting in his success in the field (although he suffered humiliating defeats too and the later Prussia often found itself on the losing side). The blackest Fritzist of all was Adolf Hitler, who from childhood rued the decadence of his native Austria and stared longingly across the River Inn to what he believed to be the vital, modern state of Germany. Of all Germans he admired the Prussians Bismarck and Frederick most. Hitler's characterisation of Fritz was a gross distortion: a 'German' King, who fought tirelessly for 'Germany' against the massed forces of the nation's oppressors and won; who sacrificed his life and personal happiness for the good of his country, and who never took a wife... Anyone who wants to see Hitler's Fritz can watch the film, Der Große König made by Goebbels' favourite director Veit Harlan in 1942, but the truth about the Francophile, Teutophobic, misanthropic, homosexual Frederick couldn't have been more different. Encouraged by Goebbels to hope for a new Miracle of the House of Brandenburg, Hitler drank deep in Carlyle's biography during those last days and the King's portrait by Anton Graf hung on the wall of the Bunker until the Red Army encircled Berlin and the Führer's pilot Hans Baur was given orders to liberate it. His picture hasn't been seen since.
Of all the white Fritzists, perhaps the most interesting is the novelist Theodor Fontane. As his name might suggest, Fontane was not even a Teuton: he descended on both sides of his family from Huguenots who had sought refuge in Prussia after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. His father was a pharmacist in Neuruppin in the Brandenburg Mark and Fontane followed him into the business. With time the chemist gravitated towards journalism and the journalist towards fiction. His first novel - Vor der Sturm - was published when Fontane was a mature fifty-nine.
Despite his late start, Fontane has left us with an interesting corpus of literature. Journalism covers not only the major events of his own lifetime - his participation in the Revolution of 1848, for example - but also what we would now call 'travel writing', with some interesting observations on England and Scotland (he was resident in London in the late 1850s); and then the novels. It has become a commonplace to label him the 'Prussian Zola,' but that is probably unhelpful: there is nothing in Fontane to rival the seamy side of Zola, the attention to detail or his interminable lists. Fontane was also a realist but in many ways more humane. He is closer to being a 'Prussian E.M. Forster' who seems to be telling us constantly that all this folly could have been avoided, if only the characters could have put two and two together.
Some of Fontane's novels are historical fiction focusing on Prussian themes like the Napoleonic Wars while the realist novels explore the seamier side of Prussian life: marital infidelity permeates L'Adultera of 1880 and his most famous novel, Effi Briest, a heart-breaking story of a bored young wife who - neglected by her ambitious and much older husband - takes a lover, and wastes away in the opprobrium following her divorce. Both books were based on cases that came up before the courts. There is often a contrast between the outmoded code of honour that governs aristocratic behaviour, and the march of the new age with its smoking factories. The duel that eliminates Effi's lover also decides the fate of the sympathetic Robert von Gordon in Cécile. Where those two novels concentrate on the upper crust, Irrungen Wirrungen deals with a love affair between the noble Prussian officer Botho and Lene, a seamstress who lives in a market garden near the Berlin Zoo. Botho eventually marries a rich cousin and Lene the preacher Gideon, but at the end Botho is constrained to admit that Gideon is a happier man than he is. A similar territory is examined in Stine.
The penury of old Prussian families comes under the loop in Die Poggenpuhls: well-connected Junkers who try hard to maintain appearances. In many instances the bourgeoisie was already richer than the nobility. Business, politics and the preoccupations of the Bildungsbürgertum forms the subject matter for Frau Jenny Treibel. Fontane's last work, Der Stechlin, is an examination of an old Junker who has become detached from the modern world of Kaiser William and is sceptical about the future, but there is plenty of observation of state religion and indeed politics in the Mark Brandenburg.
Fontane was Prussian down to his toenails. His image of Prussian life is the pendant to Adolph Menzel's paintings (or vice versa) - the realistic depictions of everyday life, conflict and industry and the sympathetic evocations of the Seven Years War. Menzel's prints of Frederick the Great's generals and battle scenes hung in many Prussian homes where Franz Kugler's popular biography of the King would have held pride of place next to the Bible in the gute Stube. Paintings like Die Tafelrunde (lost in 1945) and Das Flötenkonzert became stock images of the cultured King who relaxed his warlike mien in the company of philosophers and musicians.
Fontane's greatest tribute to his native land is the Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg of 1861. It is a collection of articles covering his various excursions to the Mark to the north of Berlin, the Uckermark and the Oderbruch to the east, and the Spreewald to the south. They present a little compendium of the 'good' Prussia that somehow avoids being hagiographical. As the historian Gordon A. Craig described the work in an Anglo-German Kauderwelsch, it is 'Sachlichkeit consorting easily with Plauderei.' It might be significant that Fontane restricts himself to the Brandenburg core - there is nothing on East Prussia, Silesia, or even Pomerania (Fontane spent his childhood in Swinemünde in the Oder Delta), where estates were larger and quasi-feudal.
A genial, charming Fritz looms large in the pages of the Wanderungen: articles deal with his imprisonment at Küstrin, his executed friend Katte's grave and modest family mansion at Wust; Frederick's general Zieten's schloss at Wustrau and the monuments associated with Crown Prince's Frederick's first command at Ruppin. Fontane's interests go back much further, however, to the time of the Slavic Wends who populated the Mark before the Germans, and who still inhabited the marshy Spreewald; to the Cistercians and the abbey-ruins of Lehnin, Zinna and Chorin; to the battles of the Great Elector against the Swedes and the field of Fehrbellin; and to the more recent Wars of Liberation against Napoleon's army and the Battle of Grossbeeren.
It is not all warlike, far from it: Fontane studies the life and times of Albrecht Thaer who performed a role analogous to Antoine Parmentier in France, and weaned the Prussians onto potatoes, creating their simple suppers of potatoes in their skins with a dollop of quark or cottage cheese; or the famous Teltow beets beloved of Goethe; or Werder, famous for its cherries, and the favoured Sunday excursion of generations of Berliners. Fontane studied the life and oeuvre of the architect Friedrich Schinkel and the Schlosser he designed for the Hardenbergs and the Humboldts at Neuhardenberg and Tegel. He charted the idylls of the Prussian kings on the Pfaueninsel and the grave of the dramatist Heinrich von Kleist in nearby Wannsee as well as the 'peace church' at Sacrow and the artillery ranges at Jüterbog. In the Uckermark he dwelled on the history of Schloss Liebenberg, then the property of Prince Philipp zu Eulenberg, who would later (and after Fontane's death) unleash a scandal that nearly cost the Emperor his throne and would reveal quite another Prussia, the murky depths of which not even Old Stechlin would have suspected.
'My Master had poor judgment': Adrian Phillips, The King Who Had To Go (Biteback)
Posted: 23rd February 2017
A couple of decades ago I took a train down to the New Forest to see the late Sir Dudley Forwood Bt. I wanted to talk to him about the time he spent as an honorary consul at the British Embassy in Vienna. I found a charming old gentleman with twinkling eyes and we spent a long time over a shepherd's pie and a couple of bottles of claret stitching together the frantic days back in March 1938 that culminated in Sir Dudley's departure on the Zurich train, escorting some of the Rothschild children who had been secretly entrusted to his care.
Sir Dudley is chiefly remembered for being the most loyal of the Duke of Windsor's equerries. He began his service after King Edward VIII abdicated as King and took refuge at the Rothschild family estate at Enzesfeld in the Thermenregion, south of Vienna. Sir Dudley was devoted to 'David' - as his friends called the former Prince of Wales and King - but it was not blind love. As he said to me at lunch that day: 'My Master had poor judgment.'
More recently I reviewed the German journalist and historian Thomas Kielinger's biography of the present Queen for The Times. Kielinger made the important point that David's abdication had marked her most profoundly. Queen Elisabeth would never consider ceding her place to her eldest son as a result. She believed in putting duty before all else. In the words of Frederick the Great, the monarch was merely 'the first servant of the state.' The egomaniac Uncle David provided her with an example of how not to do it: by never letting business get in the way of pleasure. Sadly for the Queen, some of her children seem to have learned little from the lessons provided by their great-uncle.
Edward VIII might stake a claim to having been the first royal 'sleb:' he was suave and good-looking, took delight in adoring crowds, enjoyed fast cars and yachts and like Princess Diana let off the occasional embarrassing soundbite which found favour in depressed communities. The press too loomed large in the crisis, taking one side or the other, with press barons playing shady roles much as they have done recently during 'Brexit;' but as Adrian Phillips points out in his admirable and exhaustive account of the crisis, he had not the slightest commitment to responsible monarchy, and was prepared to toss it all away for the love of his dumbfoundingly dreadful choice of bride.
Mrs Simpson had to obtain a divorce first, and he needed to be crowned and that would only happen if the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin and his Cabinet gave their consent to his marriage. Divorce was no easy matter in 1937, however, and the writer and MP A P Herbert was actually putting through a private members' bill at the time in a bid to make matters simpler. He had put the case for a new divorce law in his novel Holy Deadlock of 1934 pointing out the preposterous mechanisms required, that meant being 'caught' in an hotel bedroom by a private detective engaged at the petitioner's expense. While the crisis raged Mrs Simpson's second divorce might have been halted at any moment by the King's Proctor if evidence of collusion had been found (which would hardly have constituted a problem even if her husband Ernest had agreed to place the onus of guilt on himself in the hope of financial profit), or if more damning evidence came to light of her having committed adultery with the King! In the end the possibility of bargaining over granting her decree proved a useful way of getting rid of her.
David bore some resemblance to his louche cousin the German Crown Prince particularly in that he liked wild girls and dangerous riding, and just as in the case of 'Little Willie', his father tried unsuccessfully to bring him to heel. Like all British princes before the present Queen's generation, he spoke German, and was close to his cousin the Duke of Coburg, an Old Etonian who was the first of the German princes to pledge his support to the Nazis. The future German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop naturally made a beeline for David, and part of the latter's short reign corresponded with Ribbi's time as Ambassador to the Court of St James's. Phillips is perhaps a little too ready to condemn Ribbentrop's ability in business and pour scorn on the popularity of the Nazis in certain quarters in Britain, although Ribbentrop was not particularly adept at harnessing it.
Phillips' book is about the political crisis and has been thoroughly researched in the various archives. He is no gossip, and it can be dry at times. You long for the little sustaining tittle-tattle he provides, but it is sparse. When the scheming Mrs Simpson finally fled to Cannes, she left in a Buick with the unintentionally funny number plate 'CUL 547,' which allowed French journalists to 'chase her tail' all the way to the Riviera. Later when the King agreed to go, he almost left this island on board the HMS Enchantress, until someone spotted the mistake and he was carried into exile on the HMS Fury instead. One small point: Phillips' editors needed to cut out nine out of every ten uses of the verb to 'stonewall.'
As I got up to leave for London after our lunch, Sir Dudley told me he wanted to show me something in his bedroom. When he reached the bottom of the stairs he settled in a chair lift and fairly soared up to the top of the building. There were piles of papers in his commodious sleeping quarters, but the one that interested him was a photograph album. It contained pictures of the Windsors' tour of Germany in 1937. We turned the pages together: there was David and Wallis with Ley, there Himmler and here Hitler, and always somewhere nearby was the diminutive Scots Guards officer Sir Dudley with his big black moustache. If the British didn't know how to treat the King and Mrs Simpson, the Nazis did: they gave the ex-King's 'belle' the nearest thing she ever experienced to a state visit. I often wondered what had happened to that valuable document after Sir Dudley's death in 2001. A few months ago I read that it had finally changed hands for many thousands of pounds.
Eighty Years Ago in Germany
Posted: 16th January 2017
Der Hitler hat keine Frau
Der Bauer hat keine Sau
Der Metzger hat kein Fleisch
Das nennt sich nun das Dritte Reich
[No one warms the Führer's feet,
The farmer has no sow;
The butcher wails for want of meat,
They call that the Third Reich now.]
Graffiti, Mannheim, September 1936.
War was coming: in November 1936, Göring had made a speech about the government's new Four Year Plan that would redefine Nazi economic policy. Those who heard or read it came away with little doubt. Panic grew exponentially from that moment onwards. While some Nazis looked forward to a decisive 'Battle of Ragnarök' which would establish the Thousand Year Reich, exiles too believed the cloud might have a silver lining, 'the war must come, for without defeat in war, the regime cannot be toppled.'
But Germany wasn't ready yet, and the social revolution had not yet come to an end. A sop was thrown to women in the New Year. From 1937, they were all to receive the title of 'Frau,' married or not. Yet, unmarried motherhood was still seen as grounds for dismissal from the civil service. Lebensborn was available for unmarried women prepared to have children by blond beasts. Lebensborn clinics provided pre-and post-natal facilities. Later the project accepted children with Aryan features seized in Poland and other occupied lands.
Although her role was later contested by Emmy Göring, Magda Goebbels was the unofficial Mother of the Third Reich and her secretary had to answer letters from other mothers desiring help and advice. If the petitioners were good Nazis, they received some cash. Magda and the little Goebbelses were the subjects of numerous fashion shoots and courted by various couturiers to model their creations.
On 1 January 1937 the offices of city president and Oberbürgermeister of Berlin were merged in the person of the former Angriff journalist and Goebbels-toady Julius Lippert. Lippert's euphoria might have been rapidly dispelled as Albert Speer was named Surveyor for the capital on 30 January. Finally there was a chance to build some real monuments. The first of these were to be the military technology faculty at the Polytechnic Institute in Berlin (27 November 1937) and the House of Tourism (14 June 1938). Hitler felt he could not trust Lippert with his grandiose plans: the Mayor was an 'ineffectual, an idiot, a failure, a nothing' and Berlin was to be transformed into the 'kernel of the Germanic race'. Hitler pointed to Paris: 'the most beautiful city in the world' where he admired the Garnier Opera House and the boulevards. Speer went back to the Berlin plans made by Martin Mächler between 1908 and 1920. There was to be a new VIP reception centre on the Heerstraße where Mussolini was feted later that year and the famous dome that proposed to reduce the Reichstag to a 'silly, decorated toy-box'. Work on the new layout resulted in the destruction of entire quartiers in the south of the city while the Siegessäule column and statues were removed from the Königsplatz and re-erected in the Tiergarten park, and the infamous 'Puppen' - marble effigies of Kaiser William's ancestors - were banished to a un-frequented alleyway.
Also on the first day of the New Year, Confessing Church pastors were locked out of their churches in Lübeck on orders from the bishop; any attempting to preach was subject to banishment from the city. The Confessing Church press was shut down and the Kultus Ministry prohibited students from going to churches where the incumbents were members. The detractors of the Confessing Church in the pro-Nazi German Christian movement had been fighting back: on 10 November 1936, Bishops Müller and Hossenfelder had founded the Union of German Christians in a ceremony on the Wartburg and Thuringia halted the use of the Old Testament in schools. Religion caused rifts in Hitler's government. On 30 January 1937, the fourth anniversary of the coming to power, Hitler offered Freiherr Paul von Eltz-Rübenach, Minister of Posts, the Gold Party Badge; but Eltz declined, saying he would not accept unless Hitler stopped persecuting the Catholic Church. Later his wife refused the Mutterkreuz and Eltz was briefly placed under Gestapo supervision.
On 18 January, the Ministry of Justice ordered prison governors to report on all inmates sentenced for treason or high treason one month before they were due for release. Courts occasionally delivered sentences to keep the regime's opponents out of concentration camps, although it was often the case that prisoners were delivered to the police on release, who promptly took him to a KZ. On 22 January a law was issued on the Punishment of Juvenile Offenders - they would now be subjected to racial and biological examination. As of 27 January, juvenile criminals were taken to criminal-biological collection points in Berlin, Freiburg, Münster, Leipzig, Halle, Hamburg and Königsberg.
The Jews had recently been banned from trading in cattle. On 5 February, they were back in the news when they were prohibited from hunting. Eight days later they could no longer work as notaries. On 16 February 1937, Werner Stephan sent the journalist Theodor Heuß an advance copy of Agriculture Minister Walther Darré's book Schweinemord which postulated that the mass slaughter of the pigs in 1915 was a Jewish plot, and an attempt to undermine the German economy. The lack of food in the markets led the Nazis to propose Reichs menu cards to help people make the best of what there was. On Monday they could make soup from Sunday's leftovers and an oat pudding; Tuesday meant fish baked in cabbage with potatoes; Wednesday was for milk soup, Brussels sprouts and fried potatoes; Thursday meant green spelt soup, baked heart, potatoes and salad; Friday was fish layered in Sauerkraut and chocolate pudding; Saturday proposed baked potatoes with quark; Sunday was naturally the best: oxtail soup, salsify with meat dumplings and potatoes and a coffee cream to follow. Meat figured just twice a week, and in limited quantities. Some offal, such as tongue or liver, was available during limited periods and only in certain localities.
If the German people's stomachs rumbled, this was not true of their chiefly Bavarian leaders, who were gaily feathering their nests. Ley had a new villa built in Geiselgasteig, the film-star suburb of Munich, with its own cinema and eight bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms. Hitler's old comrade-in-arms the printer Amann, built his at St Quirin on the Tegernsee. The Radio Controller Habersbrunnen had a luxurious house constructed at Bad Kreuth, while Göring, who was not short of property, bought himself a new Schloss near Prien.
On 18 February Himmler aired his views on homosexuality: Germany had lost two million men in the First World War and there were two million homosexuals in the population (calculated as one in seventeen - there were 34 million male Germans). Homosexuals had renounced their duty to the race. 'There are those homosexuals who take the view: what I do is my business, a purely private matter... The nation with many children may bid for world power and domination. A nation of good racial stock with too few children has bought a one way ticket to the grave... [Homosexuality] had to be got rid of, just as we pull out weeds and toss them on the bonfire...' Himmler turned to homosexuals in the SS: 'I have now decided on the following: in each case, these people will naturally be publicly degraded, expelled and handed over to the courts. Following completion of their punishment... they will be sent, on my orders, to a concentration camp, and they will be shot... while attempting to escape... so at least the good blood, which we have in the SS... will be kept pure.'
From 1936 to 1939, close to 30,000 men were convicted of homosexual offences. Himmler did not believe that prison could cure homosexuality, but that did not stop authorities from confining them: an estimated 10 -15,000 homosexuals were taken to KZs, and 100,000 to conventional prisons where they were seen as a part of the despised 'asphalt' culture. The Röhm Putsch was often invoked by judges when handing out sentences of one year or more (in Weimar homosexuals were often just fined). Convictions were halved after the start of the war from 7,614 in 1939 to 3,773 in 1940. On the other hand the military courts also handed out sentences. It was not common to castrate homosexuals, as this was not believed to be effective. With the Sterilisation Law of 26 June 1935, however, they could be sterilised to 'liberate them from their degenerate sex drive'. This was voluntary, in theory at least, but in practise those who refused were turned over to the Gestapo and taken into protective custody. As many as 174 men were 'voluntarily' castrated before 1939. Homosexual prisoners were generally kept isolated in single cells. They did not wear pink triangles in KZs but the nametags on their bunks were underlined in red.
On 23 February, Himmler ordered that 2,000 known professional or habitual criminals be arrested. The courts protested that they had no law to work on. Himmler regularised the situation on 14 December by creating a new form of imprisonment: Vorbeugungshaft (preventative custody). The category of 'asocials' was defined as well, those persons who demonstrated through their behaviour, which may not in itself be criminal, that they will not accommodate themselves to community. The following examples were given: persons who through minor, repeated, infractions of the law demonstrate that they will not adapt to the natural discipline of a National Socialist state - beggars, tramps, Gypsies, whores and alcoholics with contagious diseases, particularly sexually-transmitted diseases, who evaded the measures taken by the public health authorities. The next war would have to wait a few months more - the inner enemy had to be annihilated first.
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