Posted: 16th January 2019
Sometime after 1867, when Jews were accorded equal rights under the new Austro-Hungarian Constitution cum customs union, the cloth merchant Ludwig Zwieback arrived in Vienna from the little Hungarian town of Bonyhad to make his fortune. He worked as an agent, popping back and forth to Hungary while his wife, sometimes in Vienna, at others in Hungary, delivered their five children, expiring with the birth of their last, Ella in 1878. A year before Ella was born Ludwig and his brother Emmanuel founded the emporium Ludwig Zwieback & Brüder in the busy Mariahilferstrasse, the main route from the old centre of the city out to the new Westbahnhof Station and the old road to the royal summer palace at Schönbrunn.
The emporium was to be one of those new-fangled large spaces modelled on the department stores that had grown up in London and Paris, where customers could buy cloth or clothes. Later department stores expanded to sell a broader range of goods. The big store had become more and more a feature of Western towns and cities by the 1850s. Balzac wrote about them in César Birotteau (1837) and Zola included one in his collective portrait of the Second Empire with his novel Au Bonheur des dames of 1883. Ludwig ran his department store with his brothers for twenty years and branches appeared all over the Mariahilferstrasse, then he decided to go it alone.
In 1891 he opened a luxury business in the Palais Equitable opposite St Stephen’s Cathedral. This drew fire from the notorious antisemite Georg von Schönerer, one of Hitler’s seminal influences, who accused him of exploiting his workers. He was not there long. In 1895 he moved into a new building on the corner of the Kärntner Strasse and Weihburgasse: Vienna’s Bond Street. The eight-storey building by the Hungarian architect Friedrich Schön employed 187 staff while another 150 workers laboured in the attics and basement. It was distant enough from to the rag-trade corner of Vienna around the Judengasse.
Ludwig’s new store was going to be the grandest fashion house in the city. Comparisons were made with Liberty in London while later observers deemed it the most ‘Parisian’ of all Vienna’s department stores. In the ten years before his early death in 1906, Ludwig succeeded beyond all measure. He bought the old stock exchange in the Palais Arnstein in the Weihburggasse. He was made a Commercial Councillor to the Emperor and Zwiebacks was appointed a purveyor to the court. He died leaving a fortune of 2.3 million gold crowns to his three surviving children - together with a tidy sum to his mistress. He was one of the richest men in the city.
Ludwig divided the bulk of his estate up equally among his three daughters, but the youngest, Ella, was the favourite. Her husband, the jeweller Alexander Zirner, became the managing director of Zwiebacks and she played an important role in the administration. Her sisters Gisela and Malwida were silent partners. Ella took over, lock, stock and barrel when Alexander died in 1924. Their marriage had been on the rocks for some time and he had been living in the Imperial Hotel 150 metres from his wife’s city flat next door to the Bristol Hotel in the Ringstrasse.
Ella was certainly the most spirited and talented of the three girls. Gisela compliantly married another man from Bonyhad: Alexander Zirner’s elder brother - Marton Zirner, court jeweller both to the Habsburgs and the Shah of Persia and later President of the 190,000-strong Jewish Community. Malwida chose the lawyer Siegmund Kranz, the brother of Vienna’s Mr Big, Josef Kranz. She had a box at the opera and moved in Jewish high society from her palatial apartment in the Palais Leitenberger on the Ringstrasse. On the other hand Ella won first prize for piano at the Conservatory and left to her own devices she would have married Franz Schmidt, one of the best pianists of his day and the cellist who played the solos in the court orchestra whom she had met at music school. Ludwig wouldn’t hear of it: not only was Schmidt penniless, he was a Gentile.
Ella didn’t forget Schmidt, and after having two children in close succession by Alexander her third arrived six years later. Born in 1906, the year her father died, Ludwig Zirner was actually Schmidt’s son. Schmidt’s career had not stood still since he joined the Court Orchestra. His opera Notre Dame was finished that year and he made Ella a present of the score. Seven years later his Second Symphony was first performed. It was dedicated to Ella, who celebrated its triumph by commissioning a series of paintings by the painter Anselm Seligmann to decorate her music room on the Ringstrasse.
Although Ella never gave up the piano and performed at charity concerts in the twenties, she is chiefly remembered for her contribution to the visual arts. As a designer she became the queen of Viennese fashion, in the early days at least, she even modelled the clothes herself. As a result the Modehaus (fashion house) or Maison Zwieback became the best known source of fashionable ladies’ clothes in Austria. She also had her finger on the pulse of art nouveau Vienna. In 1906 she had the ground floor of the department store rebuilt to honour her late father. The architect she chose was Friedrich Ohmann, the man who had transformed the City Park and the embankments of the Wien River. Ohmann did a wonderful job. In 1922 he was called back to redesign the tea rooms. These have recently been restored to their former glory. They are the only one of the shop’s interiors to survive.
The First World War was the first big test for Zwieback as Austrians suffered from considerable hardship, even famine. In 1916, Friedrich Adler, a cousin of the Zirners, shot and killed the Prime Minister Graf Stürgkh as he ate his lunch in the Neue Markt. Ella’s nephew, the budding conductor and cavalry ensign Josef Zirner, was killed in the Bukovina. He died in the arms of his best friend George Fröschel, the Oscar-winning Hollywood screenwriter who wrote Waterloo Bridge, Random Harvest and Mrs Miniver. His widow, who later made her name as the feminist writer and Hollywood screenwriter Gina Kaus, moved in with her mother-in-law: Ella’s sister Gisela.
The widow Gina Zirner went to work in the court jeweller’s shop in the Graben. It was there that she met Josef Kranz, brother to Malwida’s husband Siegmund. Josef was still officially married (to another ‘Gisela’) but he wanted Gina to be his mistress, but she agreed only if he would adopt her as his daughter. The Zirner family, the curious relationship between Gina and Kranz and the merry dance she led him, was turned into the background for a novel called Die Schwestern Kleh (The Kleh Sisters/Her Sister’s Secret). The book was filmed twice: first as Conflit in Paris in 1938 and later as Her Sister’s Secret in Hollywood in 1946. Shortly after Gina moved in with Kranz, the banker was arraigned in the most sensational show trial of the war.
Gisela’s husband Marton Zirner died at the age of sixty in 1918, a victim of the Spanish Flu. When the war ended revolution was followed by economic collapse, but Ella held her own: Zwieback was still the height of fashion in the twenties. Not only did the ladies of high society go there to shop, they frequented the tea room, the restaurant and the American Bar. Ella was now seen on the arm of the royal painter Viktor Krausz, who painted at least two portraits of her and one of her son Ludwig in a sailor suit that became a popular postcard.
Ella added to her notoriety by her chairmanship of the women’s football club, her charity concerts and her clientele of titled ladies. She had a house in Mauer and an estate in Croatia where her guests were fetched from the station by a coach driven by a team of white horses. There were plans to build holiday accommodation for Zwieback workers on the estate. Zwieback’s pre-eminence is confirmed by Hugo Bettauer’s novel Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City Without Jews) of 1924. The following year the book was made into a film. This time Zwieback became ‘Bisquit’ - a reference to the fact that in German ‘Zwieback’ means ‘rusk’. Bettauer describes the elegant store and the fastidious clientele. In the book Ella is forced to flee to Brussels and the place goes to the dogs. Instead of coming for fittings for beautiful creations by Ella, notably fat women come in to have their clothes taken out to accommodate their expanding girths.
All customers want is Tracht - ethnic costumes, and the smart restaurant is turned into a smoky beer cellar. The creator of this nightmare vision, Bettauer was shot and killed by a Nazi Party member in 1925. His prophecy was to become true when Vienna was declared ‘Judenrein’ (free of Jews) during the Third Reich.
It was in 1924 that Ella’s sister Malvida Kranz died. The whole family had converted to Catholicism twenty years before. Malwida was not lucky with her children either. The oldest boy Otto fought in the First World War. He became a drug addict and a paranoid schizophrenic and was in and out of the Otto Wagner’s magnificent psychiatric hospital Am Steinhof throughout the thirties. When the Nazis arrived they showed him no mercy and gassed him in Schloss Hartheim. The same fate awaited Franz Schmidt’s first wife Karoline, who also went insane.
The second boy Herbert was in a cavalry school at the end of the war. He went into business in Zagreb before emigrating to Argentina. Her most talented child was Erhard, who was a musical prodigy, going to Arnold Schoenberg for private lessons in Mödling from the age of fifteen. He was an organist and premiered a number of important avant-garde works in the twenties. In 1932 he got a shopgirl pregnant and a child was born secretly in Paris. The following year he disappeared off the face of the earth. Erhard was not the only member of the family to study with Schoenberg. Josef Kranz’s illegitimate son Hans Swarowsky went to the father of atonal music a year after his first cousin and later studied with Alban Berg.
A guidebook to Vienna published in 1927 made it clear ‘The lines and colours worn by the majority of Viennese women are actually designed by [Ella].’ The author praised Ella’s ambition and taste, but Ella’s world was shattered by the economic crisis that followed the Wall Street Crash and the failure of the Austrian Bodencreditanstalt bank. She took to her bed. Gisela had to close the court jeweller Zirner on the Graben and sell the Villa Zirner in Hietzing. The elegant Konditorei in the Weihburggasse was rented out to two count Palffys and a baron Sonjok or the ‘Three Hussars’ to create a restaurant that was to be Vienna’s finest off and on until it ceased trading a decade or so ago. Ella limped on by mortgaging the vast Palais Arnstein-Pereira to the city savings bank.
By the mid-thirties Ludwig had joined her at Zwiebacks. He was unaware of his paternity, and trained under his natural father at the Academy - as it had now become, and he its president. Ella would not allow Ludwig to become a musician. A newspaper article in a communist daily drew attention to the boy’s exploitation by his mother. Ella replied that he got twenty Schillings a day and free food. It was also admitted that he had to address his mother formally as ‘Sie’ when in the presence of employees. Ludwig only managed to become a musician once he had broken loose from his mother in New York.
The First World War, Inflation and the Wall Street Crash put paid to the other Zwieback operations and their successors in the Mariahilferstrasse, together with the Zwieback concessions in Budapest and Carlsbad, Innsbruck, Salzburg and Graz. Ella just about kept an even keel until the arrival of the Nazis on 13 March 1938. In April the new brooms decided that Jews could not own property any more. Ella was forced to sell to her creditors, while her tenant Paul Palffy at Zu den drei Husaren offered his successful business to Otto Horcher, the restaurant tsar of the Third Reich, who operated it until he took his entire chain to Madrid in 1943.
Ella was now the last of the Zwieback girls. Her sister Gisela expired in 1930, three years after her daughter Kati who died in childbirth above Simla in India. Kati’s child suffered from cerebral palsy. The boy was known as ‘Martin Ray’. He was quite incapable of even lifting his head. During the war he was shifted to a Jewish Collection House in the Second District to be taken to Auschwitz but expired before the transport was organised.
In 1938, Gisela’s youngest son Felix was able to procure travel documents and sailed to Bolivia via Chile. He left in September. On 9 November the synagogue opposite the Villa Zirner was gutted by fire in the ‘Night of Broken Glass’ - a pogrom against the Jews. For a short time Bolivia was receptive to Jewish refugees. Felix’s first cousin, Otto Braun was working with the Patiño family and the Bolivian ‘Schindler’ Moritz Hochschild to train Jews to become farmers. Felix’s weak heart prevented him from benefitting from the scheme. He died at the age of thirty-eight in 1943 in Cochabamba and is buried in the Protestant Cemetery there.
He might have been slightly luckier than his elder brother Walter, who was arrested and deported on the second Dachau transport in May 1938. From an overcrowded Dachau he was translated to the new camp at Buchenwald in September. After the communist Peter Forster’s escape and recapture, he and the other prisoners were forced to watch his execution on the Appellplatz on Christmas night1938. The men stood in the snow for twelve hours as a result of which Walter lost fingers and toes and ultimately a leg from frostbite.
His Protestant Bavarian wife divorced him, and he was released from Buchenwald that spring, possibly as a result of the amnesty that marked Hitler’s fiftieth birthday. He converted to Catholicism in the Augustinerkirche in Vienna, leaving for South America via Switzerland and taking the same perilous route that Gina had taken with her two children the previous March.
Ella left for France with Krausz, whose wife had committed suicide. The ‘compensation’ that Ella was given for the forced sale of her property was paid into a closed account that she could not touch. She got out in the nick of time and survived the war in New York by making fabric flowers. Ludwig left Europe before his mother, sailing in February 1939 from Cherbourg. Shortly before he left, SS officers called at his door and demanded the score of Schmidt’s Notre Dame. Ludwig fetched the music, but tore out the title page on which Schmidt had written an affectionate dedication to his mother. He never learned who had tipped off the SS.
Ludwig had managed Zwieback’s and found work in Orbach’s department store in New York until he joined the US army as a musician. He married the half-Viennese Jew, half-English Protestant Laura Wärndorfer, whose uncle Fritz Wärndorfer, the one-time owner of Klimt’s painting Pallas Athene. In 1902, Fritz had commissioned the Glaswegian architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh to design the music room of the Viennese apartment he shared with Laura’s father August. Later Mackintosh’s wife Margaret contributed a frieze. In 1903 Fritz created the Wiener Werkstätte in imitation of the Guild of Handicraft and the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain.
As for Schmidt, his second wife Margarethe Jirasek, was an enthusiastic Nazi, which may have had some bearing on his decision to accept a commission from Austria’s new masters to write Eine Deutsche Aufersteheung (A German Revival): a hymn of praise to the Anschluss. Schmidt never finished the work. He died in February 1939. A commission from the one-armed Jewish pianist Paul Wittgenstein arrived at much the same time, and was acquitted. It is improbable that Schmidt’s heart was in the Nazi piece. He was aware he had a Jewish son.
In the main the Zwiebacks and the Zirners suffered less than many European Jewish families in the Second World War. Only one family group was almost wholly expunged, and those were the Budapest Zirners, the descendants of Marton’s brother Sigmund who ran the jewellery business in Vaci Utca. They fell victim to the Nazi razzia in 1944. Most were slaughtered in Auschwitz, others in more ad hoc massacres. Just one Zirner, Livia survived the ordeal.
In 1951, Ella successfully petitioned the municipal authorities in Vienna for the return of the Modehaus, but she failed to get back the Palais Arnstein or Zu den drei Husaren, which was the private dining room of the President of the Republic Karl Renner until 1950 when Otto Horcher (quite illegally) sold it to a Baron Födermeyer. In 1957 Ella cashed in the family shop for four million schillings and returned to New York. After the war he managed a coffee plantation in El Salvador, but he missed Vienna terribly, the music in particular. He made two visits to Europe: once in 1957, and the second in 1961. At the time of his death he was making plans to go home for good. After Krausz’s death Ella took lovers, right up to the time of her death at the age of ninety-two in 1970. The last of the Zwieback money was left to the ultimate fancy man, who dumped her body at the gates of a pauper’s morgue and disappeared. He has never been seen since.
Posted: 18th December 2018
For some months now I have been making slow progress through Paul Scott’s epic Raj Quartet about the death throes of British India. I enjoy it: the historian in me likes the attention to detail and I admire the enormity of the conception. Scott has created his own India complete with towns, hill stations and regions which are often hard to nail down, so that you find yourself asking whether Pankot is Simla or Poona and Ranpur Delhi or Bombay, and the truth is probably neither, or a bit of both. But Scott is not a great writer; his problem, I think, is that he is often brought down by his stodgy prose, verbosity and a lack of characterisation in his dialogue. Dialogue is not really the word: the characters deliver monologues, often seemingly interminable monologues, but then again the stories are generally repeated from different sides and in different contexts, so there is a lot you know already. I have now acquitted three out of four and the last one lies ready for the quiet days succeeding Christmas.
I have also read Andrew Robinson’s excellent India, A Short History recently which was a useful reminder for many points of later Indian history as well as giving me a lot more information on the period on which I am shakiest: the story of the subcontinent before the arrival of the Mughal Emperors in the sixteenth century. Robinson is quite right in insisting that India is a lot more than just the history of the Raj, although it is this side of India that I obviously feel most tangible. I suspect, like many people, I find Hindu theology mind-bogglingly complicated even if I have relished every opportunity I have had to explore antique temples on my travels. The fascination of India for me is that there is still so much of ‘us’ there, but allied to a world that is much older, stranger and more exotic, one that we find as hard to quantify are our forebears did, those narrow-minded jumped up soldiers and civil servants who populate the pages of the Raj Quartet.
Things might have changed. I recall my astonishment when a bearer (yes, servants are called ‘bearers’ and there are still servants) called me ‘burra sahib’ while another brought me a ‘chota peg’, but well-heeled Indians still retain the Raj language we find comic now, and not just for the ears of Europeans: English is the lingua franca of the Indian middle-classes, and this is their English, still spiced with the little bits of Hindi that the Englishman could manage when talking to his inferiors.
In the nineties and the early years of the new century I went to the subcontinent ten times. I visited each of the old Presidencies: Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay and Madras (all besides Delhi have changed their names since). I went up the Hooghly to examine the trading counters of the French, Danes and Portuguese. I trod swathes of Georgian Calcutta, Dum-Dum and Barrackpore and sniffed at Victorian Bombay and the seventeenth century Fort St George in Madras. In Rajputana I admired the achievements of Hindu princes (and some pornography in Deogarh) while in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri I saw some of the greatest Islamic architecture in the world. I flew or took toy trains to the hill stations of Simla and Darjeeling, inspected the cantonment of Bangalore and the court residences of Mysore, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Udaipur and more. I endured gossip wallahs in Simla, clinked whiskies and soda with barristers in Calcutta clubs and suffered the silences of Rajput princes. I ate street food in Bombay and nursed gastro-enteritis in Paris as a result. I went to Sri Lanka too, and drank toddy with Eurasian planters. Later I gasped at the beauties left by the Dutch in Galle and Colombo which far surpassed any visual record deposited by the British.
But Sri Lanka is another world. The culture is Singhalese and the religion is Buddhist, with the exception of some members of the upper classes who tend to be Catholics or even Anglicans, as reflects the denominations of the four main public schools. India today is chiefly Hindu (although with 180 million it still contains the third largest Muslim population in the world). Scott’s India, however, was rather more Muslim, although this might well have been a reflection on his experience as an intelligence officer and the places where he was stationed during the war. Scott’s position seems to have been a little more like that of the sinister, bumped up policeman Ronald Merrick than the dull-witted ‘Muzzie Scout’ Teddie Bingham (Merrick is clearly not modelled on Scott), although he must have had time to observe the Laytons and their snooty, Indian Army set. People like the Laytons ruled the roost in India, but would have been looked down on by the British Upper Crust at home. My great-uncle Bernard, a grammar school boy, rose to become an undersecretary of state and was ‘commensal’ - could share a table with - a maharaja. His world collapsed in 1947, he spent the rest of his life plodding around the legal department at Shell.
In Delhi, the emperors had been Muslim, together with their nawabs, nizams and walis. Hindu royalty were generally maharajas (‘great kings’), of whom there was a concentration in Rajputana. Some of their territories were so small they could only be compared to the reigning princelings of the Holy Roman Empire. This Muslim ascendancy was eroded from the time of the British firman of 1717, which marked the moment when the East India Company gained the upper hand, or 1757, when Clive defeated a Mughal army at Plassey and even more so 1857 when the British exiled the last Mughal Emperor to Burma and placed Queen Victoria on his throne. For the British Raj, all things evidently ended with the number seven.
Once the British removed the Moslem emperor, the Hindus struck back little by little and the British begrudgingly handed over small concessions and minor reforms, so that when they finally left in 1947, it was the Muslims who packed up and fled to the fringes of East and West Pakistan, while the Hindus (with the exception of those stranded in the new states of Pakistan) stayed put in their heartlands on the Indus and the Ganges. It had taken six centuries to take back the control they had lost to the first Muslim rulers, longer even than it took the Irish to eject their British overlords.
I had always believed that many Indian Muslims and Christians - like the ‘Andrew’ who drove me from Madras to Mysore and back - were converts who took stock of the fact that neither of the Abrahamic religions of Islam or Christianity recognised the idea of caste. By converting, the ‘Untouchables’ or ‘Dalits,’ as they are called now, would be able to elude the predestination that rendered them the lowest of the low. Robinson casts doubt on this, saying there is no proof and that most conversions did not take place in areas where the caste system was rigorously applied.
One of the most interesting places I visited in India was Lucknow in UP (by some stroke of luck ‘United Provinces’ has the same initials as the modern Uttar Pradesh). It has many things going for it: not just the dramatic ruins of the British residency and the fantastic Vanbrughesque La Martinière school, but also the largest community of mixed race Anglo-Indians in the subcontinent. Our very own Cliff Richard is one of them. It is also the home of ‘dum’ cooking: the best courtly, Muslim cooking to be had in India. It was in Lucknow that I was offered the chance to meet the King or Nawab of Oudh whose ancestors had laid siege to the Residency. On my way into my audience in his small section of the old royal palace my guide whispered ‘everything is for sale’.
The audience chamber did indeed resemble an upmarket antique shop. His Highness asked me if I would take some refreshment. When I was unwise enough to say yes I was brought a glass of Coca Cola. I thought I might ask him about his ancestors and the ‘Uprising’ but he was most uninterested. Instead he asked me if I understood Italian, and when I said ‘more or less’ he had a lackey bring me an Italian magazine in which there was an interview with him: ‘Can you translate please?’
It was an unflattering article that mentioned, I felt unfairly, that he was uncomfortable about his baldness. It flashed across my mind that a few centuries before I might have been tortured or beheaded for translating it truthfully. I took the bull by the horns: ‘Your Majesty, the author seems to dwell quite unnecessarily on your personal appearance. With your permission I shall omit the next two paragraphs.’ The King of Oudh indicated his consent with a radiant smile and a majestic wave of his hand.
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.
Blog entries posted before 2018 can now be found in the Blog Archive.