Why do these landscapes make me go weak at the knees when mountains in other countries (the UK, Germany, or Switzerland to name but three), whilst very fine and wonderful things, do not? Read on…
There’s a story that the Chinese leader, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung to some of us brought up on earlier transliteration systems) was once asked by a French journalist what he thought the effect had been of the French Revolution of 1789. He mulled over this question for a while, and then said “It’s too soon to tell.”
Thus it is with Brexit. Some short-term instability was bound to occur, because the markets are always open to uncertainty. And some equally short-term rebound was always going to happen. But pro-Brexit commentators who are pointing to that rebound and saying “Ha! See? We told you it was only Project Fear! This proves it!” are being very short-termist. Then again, short-term thinking is something the British political class does very well. When I worked for Ofwat, we set water company price limits five years ahead, and were accordingly branded as engaging in some sort of dubious long-term planning. And as for the sort of planning that the private sector engages in – well, don’t get me started. When I took up my current job, I was amazed at many of the practices that the company seemed to tolerate, sometimes things that would have gotten me sacked in the Civil Service. Having spent thirty years being browbeaten by all sorts of people who said “Huh! You and your wasteful, lazy, inefficient mollycoddled public sector ways! You wouldn’t survive five minutes in the real world of the thrusting, harsh private sector”, I found it remarkable that the standards I carried forward and lived by were seen as admirable and qualities that the company was in short supply of. And I worked a damn sight harder and for fewer rewards in the Civil Service. Personally, I would not go back, though. In the Civil Service – and, to some extent, the wider public sector – what you do is governed, not by what your managers think, but ultimately by what a politician thinks is the Right Thing To Do. But their concept of “the right thing” tends to be what will benefit them, or their party. Meanwhile, if you do a good job, a Minister will take the credit. If, on the other hand, your department does the wrong thing, everyone gets branded with that failure, and sometime branded personally. Thirty years of that is enough for anyone.
But none of that has amounted to a hill of beans in the end. The company I worked for is owned by venture capitalists, and their view after three years is that the company wasn’t making enough profit (the fact that it had been hugely profitable when they acquired it and that profitability had been on a downward trend for all of the period of their ownership was neither here nor there). So costs had to be cut, and some things that the company considered to be on the “nice to have but not essential” had to go. Like testing software before issue. The company decided to move to buying off-the-shelf software. After all, it’s always installed without problems, always works perfectly with heritage applications, has fully compatible data schemas and always works straight out of the box. What could possibly go wrong?
I wish them well with that.
As a consequence, my work has been declared to be of no value to the company going forward, and as of today I have been served notice of redundancy.
I’ve already had a couple of interviews, but neither have worked out for me. Both employers said that I had a vast amount of knowledge and experience; the first said that I was a “poor cultural fit” to the office and the role (which was a bit odd, as it was the most mono-cultural office I’d set foot in for twenty years – I suspect that was shorthand for “too old”, but of course that’s illegal now); the other said that “he’d make a great user acceptance tester, but we’re looking for a functional tester right now”, when their job description, and indeed the mood music at the interview, had been “we need an all-rounder”. So right now, I have about a month to six weeks to find something else to earn a living doing before things get distinctly dicey. It may be that I have to take up contracting again, though that didn’t work out all that well for me last time.
Interestingly, the company I did my last major contract for, in Burton on Trent, advertised for permanent testing staff a few weeks ago, so naturally an application went in; I’d found the work interesting, the company looked pretty good to work for and had a good vibe around the office, and they’d liked me enough to set me on for four weeks and keep me for six months, and to have me back to fill in some staffing shortfalls eight months later. But most of their work was with EU countries, and I find it odd that suddenly, they have gone silent on application responses. They did do business outside the EU as well, but I can’t help thinking that the Brexit decision has thrown a spanner in those particular works; and I’m hearing quite a bit of anecdotal evidence to suggest that that’s not an uncommon response from SMEs who have traded heavily with Europe and are now having to have a major rethink about their futures.
I don’t intend to express any views on the reasons that Brexiteers had for their views. Many of them were well-founded concerns about the role of the EU and the pooling of sovereignty, the nature of international trade, or the mechanisms of democracy. As with all these things, there were arguments for and against, and both arguments had points of merit. I didn’t make a thing about my voting intentions during the referendum campaign. If anyone asked me, I told them what I thought, but always one-to-one. My reasons for voting as I did were quite personal. I suspect that most of those who voted ‘Remain’ did so because of direct personal experience of Europe, either for work, family or leisure. And whilst there were many things wrong with both campaigns, we are now where we are. I always said that whatever the result was, we as a country would have to work hard to make either outcome actually work for us.
I do think that the way the vote came out means that no-one can treat the result as a “winner takes all” issue. More than sixteen million Britons voted to stay in the EU, and the margin of victory for Brexit was just over 1.2 million. Sixteen million represents what statisticians call a “material number” in this case, “material” meaning “too big to ignore”. Some sort of accommodation for those sixteen million will have to be made in the Brexit negotiations. This is what Nigel Farage of UKIP meant when, before the vote, he said that if the result went 52%/48% in favour of ‘remain’, that “this would not be the end of the matter”. Now the boot’s on the other foot, but the same principle applies. I do not mean by this that I believe there should be a second referendum; quite apart from anything else, I doubt that any sane person could possibly stomach the level of stupidity that a re-run referendum would cause.
But there are still a number of misapprehensions about Europe, and Europeanness that many people do not properly understand. Whether these are important to anyone is up to the individual to decide. For me, though, these things mean a lot.
I don’t have a well-developed sense of “Britishness”. I was born and raised in the UK, to parents whose ancestry can be traced back at least four or five generations. But I am European, as is anyone with a pale skin and whose mother tongue is one of the major Indo-European languages, such as English. The islands of Britain were first settled by peoples who migrated from the east in prehistory and who crossed into what is now Britain via the land bridge that existed up until the end of the last Ice Age. That much is proven fact, based on archaeological findings, genetic markers in our DNA and the structure of the language we speak. How much that makes us feel any affinity to a trans-national political structure that is only some sixty years old is a matter of personal choice.
This much I know: when I started travelling in Europe, I quickly found that I fitted into European life and society surprisingly well. I first went to Austria in 1994 and immediately felt at home there. My German language skills, up until then fairly untested, seemed to serve me well, and I was able to make myself understood quite easily. I found that I was being asked directions, which meant that I must have looked like a local. The way of life seemed to suit me. And when I saw one particular tract of landscape – the Drau valley in the south of Austria, between Villach and the Grossglockner massif, I was overcome with a strange and powerful emotion that I’ve never really been able to explain.
Should that make me misty-eyed over the EU? Not particularly. The Austrians certainly aren’t, though Austria’s history of deciding its place in Europe is a long and complex one. All I know is that I reacted to Austria in a particular way, and it has made me want to go back as often as I can.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time wondering why that might be; as I said earlier, I’m about as British as you can get, and I have no particular connection with Austria. My father was in Italy during the war; I had an uncle by marriage from Düsseldorf, but I would never say that we were close. And yet I have this particular affinity with Austria that I can’t explain. But I can theorise.
The following might sound like fantasy, though if you look up ‘mitochondrial DNA’ you might get some idea as to where I’m coming from. Concepts of ‘ancestral memory’ also play a part in this theory, and that’s a far more nebulous concept. And I might just be making all this up, trying to find some sort of rationalisation for what I feel. But…
Before he died, my father spent some number of years trying to trace the family tree. On my mother’s side, we got back some four generations, and could trace my mother’s lineage back to a family in Bourne, in Lincolnshire. (Like so many families, the male line couldn’t be traced back all that far before coming to a blank in the genealogical record.) Bourne is on the edge of the Fens, and the Lincolnshire Fens were drained in the middle 17th century, after King Charles I brought in large numbers of Dutch engineers to create the networks of dykes and sluices.
We were able to go to find the site of the house where my mother’s ancestors lived. The house is no longer there, but we were able to pin the location down. The site of the house was on the Boston road, stretching out across the Fen. Seeking for further information from long-time residents, we decided to call at the nearest big farm, which was just at the Bourne end of the road where the Fen ended and higher land began. We asked there, and got a few leads but they didn’t really amount to all that much. But the significant thing to me was the name of the farmer. His name was Muller.
English surnames generally date from the 14th century and usually fall into one of four categories; they can be patronymics (Johnson, Anderson, etc., indicating ‘son of John’); they can indicate some characteristic of the ancestral person (Brown, Black and so on, usually referring to hair colour); they can be locational, referring to a town or other place of origin; or they can be occupational, such as Smith, Butcher, Clark, or my own name, Day (which sadly shows that my ancestor was pretty low down in the pecking order, as ‘Day’ refers to ‘day labourer’, someone who was only hired by the day to fulfill any menial jobs that needed doing). ‘Muller’ is an Anglicisation of the Germanic ‘Müller’, or ‘Miller’ (the words being the same in German and Dutch). It seems quite likely, then, that the farmer who was my mother’s ancestor’s nearest neighbour was of Dutch origin.
Now for the real speculation.
I speculate that my mother might have had some Dutch ancestry, though that could well be as far back as eight or ten generations. Holland is at the mouth of the Rhine, which going back into prehistory was a major communication route between the North Sea coast and central Europe. The headwaters of the Rhine are in north-east Switzerland. Meanwhile we now know, from evidence gathered in the examination of Ötzi, the early Bronze Age man found preserved in Alpine glacial ice on the present Austro-Italian border in 1991, that individuals commonly travelled around the region, crossing considerable natural barriers in order to do so. So my greatest leap of speculation, the idea that I hold explaining my reaction to a particular place in Austria, is that a distant ancestor, resident in the area, heard that things were better in some valley over to the west, and so set out on a trek which always worked westwards. Some 4,000 years later, that trek resulted in that person’s descendants moving to Lincolnshire to help drain the Fens, which in turn led to the particular accident of birth that made me who I am today.
This could all be fantasy. But if any of us are to explain why we do things, from voting intentions to where we like to go on holiday, at some point a leap of imagination must become necessary. I know that I can pay to have my DNA analysed, though if I’m going to be out of work for any length of time, that’s going to be pretty low on the list of priorities (as soon as I get my meagre redundancy money, I am going to go out and buy a new suit because I need one badly!). I also recognise that such analysis might burst my bubble and leave me with no explanation as to why I yearn for the high places of the Alps. But at least it’s a coherent tale, and as good a reason for explaining my position on EU membership as any other.
(Some more Austrian mountains follow.)
Before I moved to Kirby Muxloe, I’d heard of the place, and for two reasons. Firstly, there was a castle there. It still exists – or at least, its gatehouse and moat do. And secondly, the 1960s satirical songsmiths, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, performed a comparatively straight song about the Beeching closures, entitled Slow Train (this link takes you to a recording of the song with pictures of the stations named; Kirby Muxloe is the second one up) .
Kirby Muxloe is located on the Midland Railway’s line from Leicester to Burton-on-Trent via Coalville. The route as a whole incorporates much of the route of the very early Leicester and Swannington line, opened in stages starting in 1832; however, that line was blessed with an extremely long and narrow tunnel at Glenfield, and so in 1848 the Midland built a diversionary line to avoid that tunnel and connect the line to the rest of their system. Kirby Muxloe is located on that line. Kirby Muxloe is quite a ‘posh’ area; and it is the area around the station that has the best houses. The house my flat is located in is a bit downmarket from those properties, but nonetheless is a reasonable Victorian villa built in 1886. (And for me, it counts as a ‘newer’ property, as my previous place went back to at least 1815!) Interestingly, if you walk back into the village, the properties get more plebian as you get further from the station. Their builders thoughtfully put the dates of their building on them, and those dates get later the further you go from the station, giving a clear picture of advancing development over time as more and more people began commuting into Leicester by train.
The line remains open for aggregate traffic, which mainly runs at night; the passenger service, however, ceased in 1964 as part of the Beeching closures. The station has been demolished and re-developed, although there have been a range of proposals to re-instate passenger services between Leicester, Coalville and Burton. A station at Kirby Muxloe would be a great help to me, as my workplace is moving in the summer to a new office across the road from Leicester Midland station. Plans were well advanced at the time of privatisation, but ironically they were shelved because privatisation “froze” proposals at their 1989 state unless they could secure the necessary funding and permissions from a range of bodies and regulatory authorities; when British Rail was the sole service provider, if they decided that a service should be re-instated, then they were the sole body to decide that from the “railway” side of the business.
But today, there was something worth seeing – a passenger train. Not a steam train, and not a regular service, but a railtour for enthusiasts to travel over a number of freight-only lines in the Midlands and South Yorkshire. I would have liked to have travelled on this, but at £75 a seat and with the nearest boarding point being Market Harborough, just over 20 miles to the south, this wasn’t practicable for me. Instead, I had to content myself with walking up the road and taking a picture of the train as it passed through the site of the station. (I contemplated another vantage point that would have made a nicer picture, but I wanted to get the train passing through the station site.)
Would that I could repeat this exercise from August on a daily basis!
Just because I’ve said that I’ve given up on the ambition of being an acclaimed and profitable writer and photographer doesn’t mean that I don’t have any projects in hand. What it does mean, though, is that those projects that I do have are either highly speculative or are being done for the love of the thing and are not expected to make me any money at all.
So it is that I actually have one book in pre-publication right now and a brief from a publisher for another one. But the publisher in both cases is the Austrian Railway Group (ARG), a body I think I’ve mentioned in these blogs before and of which (for new readers) I have the peculiar honour of being the Secretary. (About once a year, I get a speculative e-mail from some manufacturer or other of rails and other railway infrastructure materials, asking if they could introduce their product range and perhaps their representative could call at our offices? I reply to tell them that we are not a railway industry undertaking but an international group of railway enthusiasts who have a particular interest in the railways of Austria. I rarely get a second approach from the same manufacturer.)
A few years ago, I compiled a bibliography of Austrian railway literature. It was the first one in any language for a hundred years, and although it was never going to be a best-seller, I took the view – and the Group agreed – that it was a necessary work and if the ARG didn’t publish it, who would? To bear that out, sales have been, if not spectacular, at least occasional, and a specialist bookshop in Vienna regularly shifts a few copies. It’s not perfect, and there are doubtless gaps in it; but it has the benefit of actually existing. It lists just under 1000 books, reflecting the limited subject range (the UK equivalent, known as ‘Ottley’, currently runs to three volumes each listing well over 10,000 titles). I am currently collecting titles for the next edition and volume, but it could be a good five years or more before I have enough to make it worth doing the job of updating the current work and creating Volume 2.
The ARG has a range of books, unique for being books in English on Austrian railways. This rather surprised Austrians when we took the range to the Vienna show last October. Most of them are regional guides to Austrian railways and railway-related attractions; but what we have often found is that these only sell to people who already know Austria and are going to a particular region. People who don’t know the country or are only thinking of going don’t really know what is there to see; so we often get asked at shows whether we have a guide to the whole country. And we have had to say “Sorry, no”. So when we were at the big model railway exhibition at the NEC last November, after about my third conversation along those lines, I said, a bit too loudly, that we ought to do a guide to heritage and narrow gauge lines in Austria – and our Editor, who was standing behind me, said “You’ve got the job.”
The text is done, but I’m stalled because just when I needed to do the revisions and proof-reading, I got hit by the Inland Revenue for silly money because they received the tax return I sent in a month early something like three months late. And they have also re-assessed my tax liability for the past year. So that took up time sorting out an appeal against £550 of fines, quite apart from finding an extra £315 back tax on top of that. And then my other half went into hospital and needed support when she came out. Life’s like that. Finishing off the heritage guide remains near the top of my action list.
I have a second book project lined up for the ARG, though. Over the past couple of years, we’ve been inheriting various archive photographs as people’s photographic collections start needing new homes. 2017 is the 25th anniversary of the Group, and it’s been suggested to me that I could put together a large-format photo album, along the lines of my self-published photo-book The Soul of the Machine which I produced in 2012. That will hopefully appear during our anniversary year, but we shall have to see.
Having said all that, I still get ideas for books that I might produce for myself, and possibly try to get published by a proper publisher again. The Lost Railway was not a stunning success, though it did get me an invitation to give a talk in Shrewsbury a couple of weeks ago, and you can still find copies on sale here and there – the last couple I saw was in the shop at the Great Central Railway in Loughborough a few weeks ago. First come, first served! I’m still thinking of looking for another publisher to pick the series up, though I would have to buy the title back from Ian Allan if I wanted to include a reprint or second edition of the first book in the new proposal. But other projects are possible.
One such is a book which I think of as Return to the End of the Line. And that title isn’t just a suitably railway-themed random choice. For a while now, I’ve been an admirer of a book from the 1950s called The End of the Line, written by an author called Bryan Morgan. It was a personal travelogue of minor railways of Western Europe, just at the point where many of them, particularly in France, began their decline as Western Europe recovered from war and began to find prosperity again. Morgan was an enthusiast, but he didn’t revel in technical detail; rather, he would talk about the countryside, the passengers, the decor of the coach interiors and, as one reviewer said, “the shape of the conductor’s moustache”. He was also an accomplished writer, with a few, now mainly forgotten, novels to his credit as well as a number of books on railways and engineering. The End of the Line is a charming book, if a little redolent of days long past, and we could do with a few more like it to encourage people to take a pride in their hobby. After all, railways are suddenly fashionable again…
About half the book is taken up with France; it then continues to deal with Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Benelux countries and Italy. The preface suggests that Morgan had material on Scandinavia and possibly the Iberian peninsula, but none of that made it into the final publication.
But it’s not just about nostalgia. When I read Morgan’s book, I realised that, whilst the lines he described in France were almost all gone, many of those in Germany, Switzerland and Austria survived in some form or another, and I had visited quite a few of them. Moreover, Morgan had been unable to access the railways of eastern Europe, and the best he could manage was making some allusions to rumours of wonderful things just across the internal German border in the Harz. What I’d seen in the former East Germany, in the Czech Republic and Poland had a lot of the flavour of the sort of railways Morgan was seeing in the West in the 1950s. With that material, plus what I had on some of the lines he’d seen, I could probably make a reasonable story about “The End of the Line – sixty years on”; and if I could raise some money, I might even be able to get around a few more of the survivors and make quite a production of it. But persuading a publisher of the viability of the project might be a bit harder – some specialist publishers I spoke to, even those who shared my enthusiasm for the original, could see little mileage in a sequel to a sixty-year-old book that very few people today would had heard of. And then there’s the matter of rights.
A project like this would need to make quite considerable use of quotes from the original. That would require some degree of co-operation from the original author or his representatives. Research showed me that Bryan Morgan hadn’t had anything published since the middle 1970s, although one of his books did have a reprint as late as 1988. The original publishers of The End of the Line, Cleaver-Hume Press, was absorbed by Macmillan in 1967; and their current owners, who acquired the company in 2007, have no records remaining relating to heritage imprints. I could find no record of Mr. Morgan’s agents; nothing indicating where he could be contacted or who represents his literary estate now; and if he is still alive (I did find a date of birth for him), by now he would be 93. Which means that The End of the Line is not out of copyright and won’t be for some time to come.
So this project may well be in limbo for quite some time; but I shall not give up. It gives me something to think about and work towards. And who knows? A lead may emerge at any time…
(The photographs, both by me, are of Poland in 2011 and the Dresden area in 1996.)
Over the past week, I’ve been re-visiting the catalogue from an art exhibition I attended quite some while ago. The exhibition was of German paintings of the nineteenth century, held at the National Gallery back in 2001, and I seem to think that I had a spare couple of hours to kill in That London once when I was down on some union business or other – quite how I ended up at the National Gallery I don’t remember, as most of the time my TU work took me ‘Sahf the River’ and although I vaguely think I’d heard of the exhibition before going, I don’t really recollect making a conscious plan to visit it.
I do think that I went to the National Gallery and happened across the exhibition, and as I went in recollecting that I’d heard this was on. But anyway: for whatever reason, I went to this show, and was impressed with the work on display, and found myself in awe and wonder at the fact that here was an artistic tradition that was virtually unknown to the average art lover on the street. If you go around Britain’s stately homes and municipal art galleries, you will see lots of British painting (of course), plenty of French Impressionists (and their imitators), plenty of classical Italian work, and Modernism from all over the place – but next to nothing from Central Europe in the Nineteenth Century. Yet here was a whole exhibition devoted to one country’s output in that period. Perhaps only one name – Caspar Friedrich – was familiar to me, as his pictures from the beginning of the Nineteenth Century are often cited as typical of the Romantic movement. Their most typical use is on the covers of classical music albums, but quite often they may be unattributed. (The abbey in the oakwood  and Wanderer above the Sea of Fog  are the two most commonly-used pictures in that connection.)
The 20th Century saw a strange reversal of opinions and alignment between Europe and Britain. Up to 1914, our natural ally in Europe, and the country considered the most cultured, was Germany, not France. For me, the fascinating thing about the Nazi era in Germany is this very question; what made the most cultured country in Europe turn in little more than twenty years into a land whose politics set the standard against which all other repressive regimes (and, at the drop of a hat, all other political opinions) are still judged?
Re-reading the catalogue, and thinking about my experience of Central Europe, especially in light of current news stories, has made me think again about the British reaction to Germany, Austria and other “far-away lands of which we know nothing”. The current British reaction to Germany is coloured massively by the populist “Two World Wars and one World Cup” attitude of some sections of the media. Attitudes to Austria and Switzerland are, if anything, worse than that, in that these countries are almost total blank spaces on the map; often, people confuse these three countries. There are those who think that Austria, in particular, is either part of Germany or part of Switzerland, or that Austrian and German history is interchangeable. (In my experience, Austrians are not very excitable people, but put that view in particular about in Austria or to an Austrian and you will start a fight.) There are so very few voices that offer any dissenting view.
I’ve also been re-watching the recent TV drama series Deutschland ’83, about an East German soldier manipulated into acting as a spy within the West German Bundeswehr during the 1980s, when tensions were at their highest due to the American proposals to site medium-range Pershing II nuclear missiles in Germany. This is a German series and draws on the experience of Germans who lived through the period on both sides of the Wall. I don’t know how many other people picked up on some of the background that was common knowledge for the writers, but I saw instances in the drama where high-ranking members of the West German military were sceptical of the Americans’ willingness to site missiles in Germany because no matter how winnable the Pentagon thought that would make a war with the Soviet Union, the Germans were acutely aware that win or lose, Germany would be reduced to a smoking battleground and that this would be for the second time in a generation, only much worse this time. We don’t see too much of everyday life in East Germany, but what we are shown runs counter to the accepted wisdom that all life in the Eastern Bloc was, of necessity, cruel and harsh and repressive. True, the DDR was a police state; and given that the series is about espionage, we are shown upper echelons of the state security apparatus in some detail; but East Germany was probably amongst the most prosperous of the Soviet Bloc states in terms of the quality of life of its citizens. State repression was a fact of life for many citizens in that time and place; yet there are those now who consider that we in the West are experiencing increasing levels of state repression now that could easily reach those of East Germany within a few years, with state control of media, surveillance of communications, the assumption by the State or its ruling elite that they are automatically in the right on any given question, and organs of the State – education, healthcare and so on – acting as informers on grounds of threats to the nation, either real or imagined.
And there were plenty of East German citizens who examined their Stasi files when they were opened after re-unification and found that there was either no file or what there was said, effectively, “Mostly harmless”, as Douglas Adams would have put it. This was a particular upset for those in the DDR who thought themselves to be Really Radical and Dangerous Characters (and who lived on projecting that self-image). Again, this is not to play down the amount of state repression that did happen; but there were plenty of people who wanted to be thought of as Cool Dudes when they really weren’t. I’ve encountered a number of people like that in my time.
In fact, my reading about and my experience of Germany suggests that interchange between East and West, on very many levels, was far more open than we are given to believe.
More generally, my travels and experience over the past twenty years suggest to me that there is a wall of silence between the UK and Europe generally, and Central Europe in particular. Quite how this came about, it’s hard to say; but the upshot of this is that very little gets reported in the UK media about everyday events on the Continent, and vice versa. As far as the Continental media is concerned, nothing happens in the UK unless it concerns the Royal Family; whereas here in the UK, nothing happens on the Continent unless it’s Angela Merkel in political difficulty, giving the opportunity for a wildly ignorant joke or comment referencing the Third Reich.
I remember the 1960s and 1970s. Then, Europe was exotic and different; people were just beginning to discover it through the start of mass tourism, and I remember relatives bringing back stories of their travels. We still had large numbers of people and their families based on the Continent with the armed forces; and the debate about the UK joining what was then the Common Market focussed attention on Europe. In the popular media, the BBC fleshed out its children’s content with overdubbed European series whilst in the cinema, James Bond could often be seen taking his Aston Martin over the Furka Pass or performing derring-do in the Alpine mountain-top lair of some super-villain; meanwhile, The Sound of Music played to packed audiences, many of whom went to see it multiple times (my mother, for one), although its particular sugar-coated view of inter-war Austrian politics – and indeed, of the von Trapp family themselves, though this was mostly of their own making! – turns out to be mind-bogglingly at variance with reality. In this atmosphere, when Britain finally joined the EEC, there were many voices predicting that within five to ten years, we could be the leading nation in Europe.
Instead, the whole European Project within the UK was tainted by association with Edward Heath, the Conservative prime minister who led our accession; the Wilson Labour administration that replaced him confirmed our membership in a referendum which I narrowly missed voting in, and although Britain voted to remain in the EEC, the Wilson and Callaghan governments that followed took their eyes off the European ball with economic difficulties of their own; and when Callaghan was replaced by Thatcher in 1979, those economic difficulties remained the government’s priority; and in any case, there would have been an element within the Thatcher administration that saw Europe as the project of a deposed and hated leader, and therefore not worthy of any engagement with.
It is my view that the UK squandered the opportunity to maximise its influence in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s; and the current debate, the levels of disconnection with Europe, and the coming referendum are the result.
I am not convinced that David Cameron’s “package of measures” will improve matters, even if we vote to stay in the EU. That package does nothing more than reinforce the populist stereotypes; there is certainly nothing in it that does anything to increase engagement with Europe. If we do stay in, we need to look to taking measures here at home that strengthen our ties with Europe on a whole range of levels, with the aim of putting us back where we should have been in the 1970s and 80s. And if we vote to leave the EU, I see the UK turning its back on Europe – and probably having the compliment repaid – in a way that panders to certain mid-Atlanticists’ personal agendas. There are people out there who would prefer us to become the 52nd State, after all. I think it would take a concerted effort to give the UK a proper internationalist outlook if we vote to leave the EU; and I fear that there are too many vested interests in particular bilateral relations to make this genuinely happen.
A big part of the problem is the British status as an island race. We lack the perspective that living on a continent of differing cultures delivers, instead preferring to think that because people look or sound like us that they are like us, and vice versa. (And the British do have a habit of preferring their own prejudices to the facts, even when presented with and understanding those facts.) It often comes as a shock to Brits returning from a visit to the USA to discover that America is actually a foreign country, no matter how much we think we know about it from films, television and other media. I have recently been reading some online magazines from a European science fiction fan, and I was puzzled as to why his e-mail address had a .se designator (i.e. Sweden) when he was by name of obvious German heritage and lived in Italy. It turned out that he had been born in Finland to German parents but brought up in Sweden. People leak across land borders, whether others want them to or not; and where people go, influences, ideas and cultures follow. As an island race, we have to come to terms with the fact that this happens now because borders are porous, even physical ones; and to roll that back would involve uninventing the aeroplane, the steamship, and probably ultimately the wheel.
Go to Europe and you will find that there is a European consciousness and an emerging modern European culture. It has a sense of “European-ness” that transcends language, borders or political alignments. Before his fall from power and the collapse of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev was working towards bringing the Soviet Union into the EU by 2000-10; a friend of mine who worked for the UK HM Revenue & Customs was on an EU delegation to Moscow in the early 1990s to discuss tariff harmonisation between the EU and the Soviet Union. In his writings, Gorbachev spoke of “our common European home”, and he was certainly looking to move the conflict between East and West into the realms of soft power rather than hard power.
We had the opportunity throughout the 1960s and 1970s to tap into that common consciousness, and to use it for our own advantage, and mould it for our own ends. And we wasted that opportunity. Whatever we decide in June, we cannot afford to ignore any other country in the future.
I’ve just read a book that resonated with me so much that I now think it is going to be a major part of my life from now on. It was written by a writer of my acquaintance, Graham Joyce, who died in 2014 and who I’ve mentioned in these blog posts before. The book is called The Facts of Life and I have written a review for the book social media website LibraryThing. That review is cross-posted to my own reviews blog, Deep Waters Reading, but the book made such an impact on me that I’m also cross-posting to this blog, because although Graham was writing from his own experience and his own family history, so much of that history was similar to my own that I felt Graham was writing about my own experience. Each page of that book was filled with characters that I identified with, that spoke to me in the voices of my own family, friends and relatives.
I don’t normally cross-post my reviews, but in this case, I’m making an exception. I think you’ll see why.
Without trying too much to sound as though I’m dropping names, I want to tell you about my relationship with Graham Joyce, because without knowing that, you might not understand why this book means so much to me.
I first met Graham when we were working on an educational resources project in Derby in 1978. He had been studying in Derby, and was already becoming involved in the artistic world and the craft of writing. So when I mentioned that I had connections with the somewhat esoteric world of science fiction fandom and science fiction fanzines – something that in the popular imagination was only connected with punk rock or football – Graham was fascinated. I can honestly claim that I introduced Graham Joyce to the science fiction and fantasy community via fanzines. Little did I know at the time that this was going to be a major part of his professional life.
Our backgrounds were very similar. I was born in Nottingham in 1957 to parents who were progressing up the social ladder; my father was the son of a tenant farmer, whilst my mother was the daughter of a mineworker who was invalided out of Bolsover Colliery in the 1930s through a pit accident. I grew up in Derbyshire, in the semi-rural outskirts of Belper, a small mill town; was educated in a grammar school that was created by a philanthropic mill owner for the children of his workers (even though in later years it aped the manners of more prestigious public schools). I then worked in Derby; later, I moved for my job to Birmingham, and lived in the Warwickshire village of Fillongley, six miles outside Coventry. In more recent years, I have changed job again and now live and work in and about Leicester.
Graham was born in 1954 in the Warwickshire pit village of Keresley, the village next door but one to Fillongley. He came from a mining family. After working in Derby (and a brief period spent developing his writing in Greece), he moved to Leicester, where he settled down with a family and taught creative writing at Nottingham Trent University.
In other words, we moved in the same environment, the English East Midlands; our backgrounds were similar; our families were similar; and we moved in the same sort of social, employment and political circles. And that is why, when I opened this book, I was immediately in amongst people, situations and family histories that were familiar to me. Graham wrote this book about the sort of people he lived with, and grew up with, and worked with; and the people I lived with, grew up with and worked with were the same sort of people.
The Facts of Life concerns an extended matriarchal family, making their way in Coventry over a fifteen-year period from 1940 to the mid-1950s. From the outset, I had a vivid picture of the Vine family, their surroundings, the places they lived and the places they went to. Into this commonplace setting, Graham injected an element of the fantastic. The family matriarch, Martha Vine, experiences uncanny messengers who knock on her door and deliver messages that are pregnant with meaning. her daughter Cassie, youngest of seven sisters, seems to have her own conduit to other realms, other realities; and her son, Frank, conceived on the night of the Coventry Blitz, seems to have inherited that sensibility.
The fantastical elements of the novel are an organic part of the whole; the reader only realises how fantastical they are after they have occurred. Graham drew on his own family experience here; again, I can corroborate this, as my own relatives and friends of my parents would sometimes recount experiences that defied explanation; Graham’s examples seem a little more extreme, but only a little. My grandmother would speak of having lost a brother on the Somme in the First World War, and she always lived in hope of a knock on the door that would bring that brother back to her. It never came, but the hope was there, and if it had happened, it would have been a fantastical encounter wholly in line with those that Graham describes happening to Martha.
Other characters in the book have a similar immediacy and full-fleshed out nature. Cassie Vine moves between her sisters and their own growing families in the years of austerity immediately after the Second World War, and these scenes – a bohemian commune in Oxford, or a farm in the North Warwickshire countryside – are equally well-drawn with characters and situiations that i identified with. Whilst at the farm, Cassie;s son Frank encounters a mystical presence, the Man-Behind-the-Glass, which becomes a central part of his life. When the true nature of the Man-Behind-the-Glass is revealed, that revelation rings true and links back to themes of the war, and the land, and yet it is both fantastical and real at the same time. The answer to that identity had, of course, been there all along in the story, and yet Graham hid it from us, the readers, until the time was right for it to be revealed; and I gasped in amazement at how ingenious it was, and yet how obvious from what had gone before; yet it was something that only someone from that area would have really known about.
At other times in this book, I laughed out loud; and at the end, I wept. Throughout, I identified with the characters and the places in the book. Graham Joyce was writing about my people. I am only sad that I never got around to reading it whilst he was still alive, so that I could tell him these things and tell him how well he captured the lives, loves and experiences, both real and mystical, of a generation and a class so very little recognised in English literature
The first excursion of the New Year was a rather special one; we headed for That London to see two exhibitions, just a few yards apart. One, at the Science Museum, was entitled Cosmonauts and commemorates the Soviet and Russian space programme. The other, across the road at the Victoria & Albert Museum, was of photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron; of which, more later.
In a strange echo of the Cold War era, cultural relationships between Russia and the UK are an ongoing source of wonder and interest even when the political climate is rather frostier than might be hoped for. This year is actually UK-Russian Year of Culture, which is not an event that has particularly set the world alight. But the Science Museum took the opportunity to approach contacts in Russia to see about mounting an exhibition to mark Russia’s contribution to space research. Hence Cosmonauts.
We travelled down on Saturday lunch-time and checked into a hotel in Kensington with some pretensions to be up-market. It was certainly far from the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in, and indeed the staff did a number of things that made me think quite highly of the place. The thing was, though, that due to the strangeness of London’s ground plan, although the hotel was only half a mile from the museums as the crow flies, the distance on foot was nearer a mile and a quarter due to the street layout; using the Tube would have not been much better, as it would either have meant waiting for a Circle Line train or using the District and having to change and double back on yourself – plus South Kensington Tube station is a bit of a stretch away from the museums. So we opted for Shanks’ Pony. At least this gave me an opportunity to do something I’ve rarely done, and that was to see chunks of the West End of London on the ground. Most of my travelling to the capital has involved either Central London or East London and further out. I have little experience with the West End; indeed, other than a trip into town from Slough when my sister lived there in the early 1970s and a visit to the Science Museum in the early 1990s, I’ve not been around that part of London at all since I was a child. My previous visit to the V&A was when I was a student, back in the late 1970s.
The area around Exhibition Road was absolutely heaving by the time we got to the Science Museum for our booked entry to Cosmonauts at 3:30. London is now a year-round destination for tourists, and it showed; either independent travellers or coach parties were filling up the pavement outside the Natural History Museum, and the queue to get into that snaked all across the forecourt. The crowds thinned a little as we got further up Exhibition Road towards the Science Museum, but the museum itself was very busy; but there was no queue for Cosmonauts and we were able to go straight in.
The exhibition starts with a general background section, setting the scene of the work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who formulated many of the ideas for spaceflight in the late 1890s; then looking at the work of Russian space enthusiasts who were doing spare-time development of rocketry as hobbyists, rather like Robert Goddard in the USA was doing at about the same time. At the same time, others were looking at rocketry and space as a means of political activism and spreading Marxism to other, less enlightened societies who (it might be presumed) were out there in the cosmos. This was reflected in early Soviet films of the era, such as Aelita, Queen of Mars and others, which reflected similar thinking in Germany with Fritz Lang’s Die Frau im Mond and the enthusiasms of Hermann Oberth (but without the overtly political subtext); but in the Soviet Union, this became embodied in a movement known as ‘Cosmism’ which looked forward to the new Soviet destiny in the stars, until Stalin’s purges and the Great Patriotic War mostly put a stop to this.
One of the victims of the purges was Sergei Korolev, a rocketry enthusiast and engineer with the Tupolev aeronautical design bureau. He was arrested in 1938 for alleged misdirection of official funds (which he was actually diverting into unofficial rocketry research!) and sentenced to six years imprisonment, including time spent in the Gulags. He was eventually transferred to CKB-29, one of the specialist Gulags which employed professional aircraft designers as forced intellectual labourers. CKB-29 was responsible for producing some of the more successful bomber designs of the Soviet air forces, including the Tupolev Tu-2 and the Petlyakov Pe-2. Eventually, in 1944, Korolev was one of a number of designers who were released from CKB-29 under special decree and were released back to civilian life as aeronautical engineers. Korolev resumed work in rocketry, this time officially, and so was in the right place to be drafted in to evaluate materials recovered from the German rocket base at Peenemünde. From there, Korolev went on to become the “Chief Designer of Rockets” at the specialist design bureau OKB-1; he was never named publicly in his lifetime as a security measure, and his name only became known in the era of glasnost.
The display then changed to tell the story of the early Sputniks, including the series that started with Sputnik-2, which launched the dog Laika into orbit. Unfortunately, Laika perished through heat exhaustion; later launches with animals on board were able to successfully recover them, paving the way for human spaceflight. This ultimately resulted in Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 flight, though as ever compromises had to be made; for example, as the capsule shell used for the Vostok missions was based on an existing spy satellite which was never intended to be retrieved, the Soviets arranged that the returning cosmonaut had to eject from the capsule at about 7 kilometers’ altitude as there was no provision for any sort of arrested landing. Only when the Voshkod series of missions were launched, which shoe-horned three cosmonauts into the same size capsule (meaning that there was no longer any room for the ejection seats) did it become necessary to develop an add-on module for braking rockets.
The Voshkod-1 capsule (left), and Valentina Tereshkova’s Vostok-6 (right), which she piloted in 1963 to become the first woman in space, are on display in the exhibition. The one-seat Vostok is very clearly roomier than the equivalent Mercury capsules that put the first Americans into space. Both these and the Soyuz return capsule shown later in the exhibition show the scars of re-entry. It is also possible to get quite close up to them and see the engineering involved, which owes as much to industrial and submarine design as they do to aeronautical engineering. There are other, smaller exhibits relating to Gagarin, Tereshkova and to Alexei Leonov, who as well as being a cosmonaut and the first person to carry out a spacewalk, was (and still is) an accomplished artist and who was encouraged to take his sketching and watercolor materials into space.
The stars (as it were) of the show are the full-size engineering models of the Soviet Moon lander and the Lunakhod-2 Moon rover. The Moon lander would have accommodated one cosmonaut only; it was intended that Gagarin should be the first man on the Moon, but after his death in an aircraft training accident, Leonov was moved up to number one slot for that honour. However, the failure of the N-1 heavy launcher, followed by the success of the American Apollo programme, put a stop to Soviet lunar ambitions. Instead, they concentrated on establishing a permanent presence in space with the Salyut and Mir space stations, which are direct predecessors of today’s International Space Station. The exhibition has many artifacts from that period illustrating life aboard these space stations.
The Soviet Bloc was the only alternate reality that we have ever had access to; and the space programme was its highest and possibly noblest achievement.
The following day, we went back to the other side of the road and the Victoria & Albert Museum to see a display of photographs by the pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Taking up photography in the 1860s, she made a series of portraits capturing both her own and her neighbours’ servants (posing to reconstruct classical or Biblical scenes), her neighbours themselves, and – through the contacts those fairly high-placed neighbours provided – many of the leading figures of the day such as the poet Tennyson, the astronomer John Herschel and Charles Darwin amongst many others. She developed many of the techniques of portrait photography, working with the difficult wet collodion process (which involved coating glass plates with a photographic emulsion, exposing them in the camera whilst they were still wet, and developing them immediately). Naturally, these images are of great interest for their age and rarity, as well as the famous individuals she photographed. She was also a fairly accomplished self-publicist, and worked very hard to get her pictures into the then-new South Kensington museum, enlisting artist friends to promote her work and exploiting contacts to try to get more famous sitters for her pictures. The V&A was able to mount this exhibition without the need to borrow many pictures from other sources,such was her assiduousness in getting her work bought for the nation, even though some contemporary critics dismissed some of her staged pictures as trite and artificial.
As the V&A could mount this exhibition using their own resources, that meant that they didn’t have to make any sort of charge to see it. Yet the numbers of people viewing it were as nothing compared to the crowds queuing for what must have seemed like hours (after paying £14) to see an exhibition of Indian fabrics. And the rest of the museum was equally packed; we were able to get to see some of the Japanese collection (the V&A has a good collection of netsuke, the exquisite little Japanese carvings that helped gentlemen keep their purses – imro – safely tucked into their belts) as well as some of the Renaissance European collection. There was an especially fine inlaid cabinet on show which was built by two craftsmen in the German city of Würzburg in the 1550s; they left a note concealed inside the cabinet, which basically said “This cabinet was made during a hard winter, and there is no meat in Würzburg, just cabbage and turnips and we want to be somewhere else.”. The V&A is in itself a spectacular building and is worth seeing for that alone.
As is our wont, we naturally gravitated to the bookshop for a good browse (on our way to a cream tea). The V&A bookshop is a trove of highly attractive books on art and design, and other things as well. This includes remnants of the books and catalogues from previous special exhibitions, and I was struck by some of the material still on sale from the 2012 V&A exhibition of the life and work of David Bowie – including the limited edition, hand-made and cased book made by and for Bowie himself, a mere snip at £650. Thus it was that David Bowie came back onto my radar – not that he’d ever occupied a prominent place on it – just a day before the surprise announcement of his death on 11th January 2016.
I say that Bowie wasn’t on my radar; well, perhaps that’s a bit unfair. What I really mean to say is that, unlike perhaps the vast majority of my generation, I have hardly ever followed rock and pop music. There’s a number of reasons for this. My sister is eight years older than me, and so she was bringing pop music into the house when I was still a child, during the ‘Summer of Love’. I have a distinct recollection of putting Let’s go to San Francisco by the Flowerpot Men and Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys on my Christmas list in the year they came out; and, rather unusually, my parents flatly refused this request. What I didn’t appreciate then was that they were probably concerned over my getting into something that they didn’t understand and – being of the essentially pre-war generation – may even have been afraid of, and that was the whole hippie youth culture thing that my sister, with her own job and own income was just getting into herself. My parents’ only sources of information about this would have been the popular newspapers of the day, with their distinctly establishment view of the new and radical.
I’ve never been one for outright confrontation; I prefer the more subtle approach, and I think I always have. So my act of teenage rebellion wasn’t to kick against my parents’ views on popular music; instead, I seem to have taken what they liked – which included orchestral music – and crank the volume on that up to eleven. In this, I was aided and abetted by my music teacher at the grammar school I went to in 1969. That was a young teacher by the name of Mr Large. His approach was not just to teach us the basics of music theory (which I only vaguely understood), but also to introduce the children to the world of classical music, going way beyond Saturday-afternoon or Sunday-morning local bandstand renditions of popular overtures like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 or Rossini’s William Tell, into the more rarefied areas of Richard Strauss or more complex pieces of Sibeilius or Wagner. After two years, Mr Large left us. It was said that he was going to work for the BBC, producing television films of classical music and opera; though it may have been that he was being confused with the established classical music producer and director Brian Large – though from what I have seen, “my” Mr Large and Brian Large would be about the same age. Perhaps they were related?
For whatever reason, I embraced classical music with the fervour of the real fan, and it has never left me. I gravitated to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the music of Wagner, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Dmitri Shostakovich. (Not too much of this is easy listening, you understand.) Over the following forty years, I have continued to explore classical music, discovering first the rest of the Romantic repertoire, then chamber and instrumental music, and finally realising that the masters of the ‘classical’ period – Haydn and Mozart in particular – were not just purveyors of pretty tunes, but did express real feelings and artistic insight within the more formal musical language of their times. Two things evaded me – Italian opera and the serialism of the Second Viennese School (Berg, Schoenberg, Webern) – this latter I’m still trying to understand how to listen to after all this time.
And so there was no room in my musical life for rock and pop. It wasn’t that I disliked it; but it was way down on my list of priorities.
But then in the 1980s, I became aware of the new American minimalist composers, such as Richard Adams, Steve Reich and in particular the work of Phillip Glass, which I took to very strongly. And when Glass started writing symphonies in the middle 1990s, his first symphony was based on themes from David Bowie’s album Low. He returned to Bowie with the Third Symphony, similarly based on Heroes. And so I began to listen out for David Bowie’s music, as well as seeing his acting performances in The man who fell to Earth and more recently in his cameo as Nikola Tesla in Anthony Nolan’s film of Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige.
So Bowie’s death, though not something that upset me in the way that Iain Banks’ or Graham Joyce’s did, does have some significance for me. And it shows me that we should celebrate and mark creatives wherever we find them, whether they are visionary engineers aiming to do the impossible, or people who take up new technologies to create works perhaps only recognised as art years after their passing, to musicians working in a range of different fields. It is perhaps our creativity that marks out what is good and unique about us as a species; and we should embrace and rejoice in that creativity whilever we can and wherever we find it. And that is what last weekend was all about.
That’s the question put so often nowadays when some item or other of modern art comes before the public gaze. This most often happens about this time of year, when the winners of the Turner Prize, a British award for contemporary art, is announced. Past winners include people like Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry; and there has been Controversy.
But this year’s winner is of especial interest. I’ve been following the wonderful Liverpool blog of Ronnie Hughes for some time now (another WordPresser), A Sense of Place. Ronnie has been involved with the issue of social housing in Liverpool for most of his working life; these days, he’s a sort of roving consultant activist. And over the past couple of years, he’s become involved with the Granby 4 Streets Project, which started out as random acts of guerrilla gardening by some local residents trying to brighten up a decaying corner of Liverpool and blossomed into a 100%, bottom-up housing regeneration project, succeeding where seemingly well-meaning but highly paternalistic and bureaucratic, top-down regeneration Big Projects have failed.
The Granby 4 Streets project engaged an architectural agency, Assemble, to carry through the design work on the property renovations. And along the way, they began to gain attention (without particularly trying to). Until Assemble got nominated for the Turner Prize.
And last night, they won it.
Some wag – Goethe, I believe it was – once called music ‘frozen architecture’. Which makes architecture defrosted music, I suppose. But however you want to describe it, architecture is an artistic discipline, albeit one that has to be underpinned by basic mechanics. So I would suggest that Assemble’s award is as appropriate as any other winner of the Turner Prize. And as Hazel Tilley, one of the community activists behind the Granby 4 Streets project says,
“It’s recognising the politics in art, it’s recognising the humanity in art. It’s not this piece of work of art that goes into some rich person’s warehouse, this is something that you live with. And it’s art for the people. And if art isn’t about people and humanity, then what is it about?”
In applying a clear, artistic sensibility to everyday living for anyone and everyone, Assemble seem to me to be going right back to the roots of the Arts & Crafts movement, saying that the things we use, the spaces we live in, should be artistically uplifting and at the same time honest. And in doing this, they have blown away much of the pretentiousness that the Turner Prize entrants themselves have epitomised in recent years. And that can only be good for all of us.
Read Ronnie’s account of the night of the awards here.
The BBC News announcement of the award is behind this link.