Giles MacDonogh

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Clemens Meyer, While We Were Dreaming, Fitzcarraldo Editions

Posted: 16th March 2023

When I did English A-Level (a very long time ago), our inspirational head of English, the late Peter Coulson, would tell us the only information we needed to glean from a poem or a novel was contained in the work itself. You didn’t need to know anything about the author either. He rejected both biography and periodicity. Camus, he declared, was not superior to Chaucer, he was simply sitting on the other man’s shoulders. It struck me there was something almost Lutheran about this: the book alone would provide all we needed to understand the book. There were other tools, however: Coulson positively encouraged us to read literary criticism. He had read English at Oxford, something that he found hard to live down. In his heart he had wanted to be at Cambridge, the home of the great critics F R Leavis and I A Richards. Boys who desired to do English were told to apply to Cambridge. If we couldn’t go there, York had a good department; but whatever we did, avoid Oxford.

As it turned out, I didn’t go to Cambridge and I didn’t read English. I studied history and became a historian specialising in France then Germany. I still love literature, however, but I confess that when I read a novel I am not immune from using it to feed my understanding of some aspect of the historical period in which it was written. I should add very quickly that I can’t see the point of historical novels. If I want to know something about Thomas Cromwell, I read a proper book about him, not a novel.

Which brings us to While We Were Dreaming: it is a German Bildungsroman. It explores the circle of the adolescent Daniel Lenz, a bright, working-class boy growing up in the bleak eastern suburbs of Leipzig. He lives alone with his mother, his father having been sent to a camp after a punch-up with the ‘Vopos,’ the East German state police. Daniel inhabits a panorama of slab blocks and ruins bisected by roads and railway lines, the only relief provided by a few grimy pubs filled with sodden old topers.

The prospect before the boys is mapped out at school: they can choose to be good socialists and progress from the ‘Pioneers’ (politicised boy scouts) to the FDJ (Free German Youth - the regime’s version of the Hitler Youth). With time they might aspire to Party membership. The Party ‘Nomenklatura’ enjoyed a better life with plenty of treats and privileges.  If they opt to become bad boys, they can join gangs of neo-Nazi skins, anarchist ‘crusties’ (a new word for me), or Goths. There are lots of violent clashes between ‘fash’ and ‘antifa’ not to mention ‘hools’ - supporters of rival football teams.

While We Were Dreaming is a long, stark, brutal, male novel and a brilliant depiction of the purposelessness of working class boys around the time of the ‘Change’. They are decadent. They drink, smoke, take drugs, steal, look at porn and fight rival gangs; and relax by watching football, boxing, playing pool and dreaming about girls. The come together in makeshift clubs in sheds and cellars to an accompaniment of booming ‘techno’ music. This nihilistic drink-and-drug-fuelled existence could just as easily be set in Glasgow or Dublin, or any other run-down, post-industrial city, but there is an important difference: the political legacy of Leipzig and its key role in bringing the East German regime to an end. The connection emerges late in the book, but hints multiply along the way as more people migrate to the West, leaving the boys mired in increasing political and social isolation. Once the regime falls, Stasi spies disappear from schools to reappear in menial roles later on. One who leaves is Katja, Daniel’s good muse, who wanted to keep him on the straight and narrow. The boys show little interest in politics, even if they have rejected the wholesome solution of Party membership. They flout authority and like their fathers before them, perceive the ‘Vopos’ as their enemy. Borstal and grown-up prison are just so many Stations of the Cross along the well-trodden path.

The novel is very cleverly constructed. Episodes are not played out chronologically but recounted in such a way as to add more colour to the picture. Daniel’s friends succumb one by one, the girls become prostitutes (like his bad muse, Estrellita), while the boys are committed to longer and longer prison sentences, or wiped out by meaningless death. But is it all in the book? I may be mistaken, but it may not be an easy novel to understand if you know nothing about everyday life in ‘the Zone’, or East Germany under the ‘communist’ SED regime. I wallowed in the cheap brands of cigarettes and schnapps, the Vietnamese tobacco peddlers and the chance to get some Western goods if you happen to work in the right place, but I might have been tempted to include some sort of introduction, possibly written by the excellent translator Katy Derbyshire (who lives in Berlin), to frame the narrative, but possibly the book doesn’t need it?

With respect to Peter Coulson, however, I did not look up the salient facts about Clemens Meyer until after I had finished. The author is a forty-five year old novelist from Halle in Saxony. He was born a citizen of the East German DDR and was twelve when the Berlin Wall came down - or thirteen when the two halves of Germany were sewn back together. He was in borstal for a while before finding the right path much as Daniel does. Meyer speaks from first-hand experience.  While We Were Dreaming was published in German in 2007. It is a simply stunning first novel. Now I must read the rest.

Karina Durbach, Alice’s Book: How the Nazis Stole My Grandmother’s Cookbook

MacLehose Press, £20 hardback, £14.99 paper

Posted: 15th February 2023

The golden age for Vienna’s Jews lasted less than fifty years, between 1867, when they were first granted full liberty to settle in the city, and 1914 when the disastrous First World War broke out. It was a period accompanied by an artistic and intellectual flowering that is explored in Tom Stoppard’s brilliant new play Leopoldstadt. After 1914, war, famine, revolution, hyperinflation and the collapse of the Creditanstalt bank in 1931 contrived to whittle down the fortunes of so many quondam millionaires, several years before the Nazis administered the coup de grâce.

Karina Durbach’s grandmother was born Alice Mayer, the daughter of a rich cloth merchant who rose out of the lowly Leopoldstadt, where the Jews had settled after 1867 and aspired towards the more genteel, leafier suburbs of the city among the vines of Döbling. She married a doctor who died young after squandering her dowry at the gambling tables, leaving her to bring up their two sons. This book is a chronicle of their lives.  

Dr Durbach’s behaviour almost reduced Alice to penury, but an early interest in cooking meant she could survive by running a fashionable cookery school. Then as now, cookery books were an obvious spin off. Their fortunes were remade. But then came the Anschluss of 12 March 1938. Three days later Hitler reached Vienna and all that changed. Jews were immediately subjected to the corpus of antisemitic legislation that had been enacted in Germany. Her books continued to sell well, but the royalties were awarded to one Rudolf Rösch whose name replaced hers on the covers.

One of her sons was already safe in the US, but the other suffered a spell in Dachau after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November. Alice fled to England and became cook to the eccentric Violet van der Elst at Harlaxton Manor before running a school for Kindertransport children in Newcastle and Windermere. Her story recalls the fates of so many German or Austrian Jews who sought sanctuary in Britain: reception at Woburn House where many were assigned to domestic service and given patronising advice on how to behave in their new country, detention on the Isle of Man with other ‘enemy aliens’ and British fascists in 1940, menial jobs for the women, but for younger men at least, a chance to bear arms from 1943.

After the war Alice revisited Vienna, but like so many others, she felt a stranger there. She died in the US, but not before she had revived her cookery school in California. She eventually won the rights to her books back too, but because Austria was still officially ‘the first victim of Hitler’, this was a long drawn out process.

I very much enjoyed Alice’s Book, particularly the descriptions of the curious Austrian ‘corporate state’: Chancellor Dollfuss’s Austro-Fascist creation. ‘German Austria’ was desperate to find an identity distinct from the Nazi pariah to the north. Although Austria was priest-ridden, it was not officially antisemitic at least; a truly visceral antisemitism was unleashed, however, even before Hitler’s troops arrived. The people of Vienna in particular threw up decades of suppressed hatred on the heads of a defenceless Jewish population as soon as they got a whiff of the German arrival.

There is actually very little in Alice’s Book about the theft of her intellectual rights, but that chapter is compelling. I was not completely ignorant of this robbery. My own godfather’s name was removed from the cover of his guide to the museum collections he managed in Eisenstadt, and on a rather grander scale the Nazis swiped all the money due to Felix Salten for Bambi, not to mention the compositions of the popular classical composer Erich Korngold. At least both escaped with their lives. Fritz Löhner-Beda, who wrote many of Lehar’s lyrics, was beaten to death in Auschwitz. 

I would have liked to know a bit more about the recipe books, which are not really explored. I am now keen to put my hands on Alice’s book - I am addicted to my Grosse Sacher Kochbuch to the degree that the spine is broken and many of the pages are falling out.  

Alice’s son Otto Durbach’s undercover work in US POW camps provides an episode which was new to me but the fact that Austrian and German Jews provided the muscle for the post-war occupation was not. The Jews made up about ninety percent of the people who could speak the language required to run the administration. Their hour had struck once more, but it should come as no surprise that very few of them chose to stay on. A certain bitterness had crept in, and it remains to this day.

Catharsis at Schloss Weissenstein

Posted: 16th January 2023

A considerable high point in 2022 was my first visit to Schloss Weissenstein, one of Germany’s most magnificent baroque buildings, situated in the small village of Pommersfelden in Franconia. Actually, we went twice, but that was more by accident than design: I had neglected to look at the website and as a result we trundled off on the rare local bus from Bamberg only to discover the schloss was shut. I was crestfallen, not least because finding the means to cover the twenty kilometres back to town proved a nightmare. In the end, we were obliged to take an expensive taxi to the nearest railway station and our 9-Euro tickets did the rest. The alternative would have been grilling in the hot sun in a village entirely devoid of functioning restaurants, hotels or cafés while we waited till the late afternoon for the bus to return.

Had we looked more carefully that Tuesday, we might have seen that at least the park behind the schloss was open. You simply had to pop a two-euro piece into a slot to operate the turnstile. There were plenty of old trees to provide a bit of shade in a proper English-style garden. The following day, after an extensive tour of the rococo interiors of Schloss Weissenstein, we did indeed make use of the park, as there were still no restaurants or cafés functioning for miles around.

Access to the park appears to have been possible at different times (perhaps always) in Schloss Weissenstein’s 300-year history, for it was during an ‘excursion’ to the former Prince-Bishop’s country palace that the writer E T A Hoffmann suffered a cathartic experience that changed his life and accelerated his transformation into the writer whom we know and love today.

Hoffmann was born in Protestant, East Prussian Königsberg in 1776. He had been an up-and-coming Prussian judge until 1806, working latterly in Warsaw which had been part of Prussia since the Third Partition of Poland in 1795. Prussia’s defeat at the hands of the French in the twin battles of Auerstedt and Jena changed all that. The country shrank and the number of senior judges required shrank with it. The thirty-year old Hoffmann had had some success as a composer and theatre director and he must have seen it as a chance to rise above the drudgery of the law and devote himself to art (he was a talented painter as well). When, two years later, he saw a job advertised to run the theatre in Catholic, South German Bamberg he applied.

The work, however, was not what it seemed. His task was that of an ill-paid maid of all chores. The only way he could keep dogsbody and soul together was by reviewing and teaching music. In 1810 he was employed by Franziska Mark, the widow of the American Consul Philipp Mark, to teach music to her two daughters, Julia and Wilhelmina. The Marks (originally ‘Marcus’) were a Jewish family from Gotha partly converted to Christianity. Hoffmann taught Julia piano and singing, and was captivated by her beautiful voice.

His marriage to his Polish wife Michalina (‘Mischa’) was exhausted. Their one child, Cecilia, had died in infancy. Julia was twenty years his junior, but that did not prevent the former magistrate from making a proper fool of himself through a misplaced obsession. Hoffmann himself feared it would end in madness and suicide. He confided to his diary on 28 February 1811 ‘The devil with this strange mood - I shall either shoot myself like a dog or go mad!’ To prevent Mischa from finding out, Hoffmann’s diary was written in German using the Greek alphabet, or embellished with large chunks of Latin.

On 18 March his feelings towards the girl had reached their highest point. Hoffmann lay in bed and masturbated, signing off with the observation that he had committed ‘spiritual adultery’. Julia was little aware of his obsession. An affair with a very young actress, whom he characterised as a ‘lightning conductor’, lightened the burden of his frustration.

Julia turned sixteen in 1812 and her mother was keen to marry her to money. Her eyes lighted on a Hamburg merchant called Johann Gerhard Graepel. Julia confided to Hoffmann that she would never be happy with Graepel, but she did not disobey her mother. Hoffmann naturally could not abide his rival and he was not alone in his low opinion. His later publisher, Carl Friedrich Kunz said ‘Despite his youth, the fellow was the very picture of an old man, an emaciated brand of humanity, the marks of carnal desires stamped on his forehead, eyes, and cheeks, and the imbecility of his spirit shining through with every word he spoke.”

On Sunday 6 September 1812 Hoffmann was invited to join a Mark family excursion to Pommersfelden. They must have been luckier than we were, and found a place to eat and drink. Hoffmann wrote in his diary: We ‘got quite horribly drunk and I made the most awful fool of myself... [Julia] scolded her husband-to-be who was so drunk he fell over...’

In the evening they wanted to go for a last walk, probably in the still formal, baroque gardens at the back of the house, the ‘English’ garden being laid out only in the early nineteenth century. Kunz’s description is rather more revealing than Hoffmann’s: ‘with visible difficulty, the fiancé lifted himself from his seat, offering his arm to his future wife. Hoffmann and I wandered behind the couple while the rest of the party came along in clusters. Scarcely had we reached the courtyard of the schloss when the fiancé began to lose his balance, swerving one moment to the left and next to the right to the degree that his lady had difficulty keeping him upright. Then he lurched violently, looking as if he’d pull poor Julia to the ground. Hoffmann leapt forward to catch her while I tried to grasp the arm of the sinking man, but it was too late: they had fallen and the suitor lay on the ground with all four limbs in the air. Julia went pale and rubbed her hands together as the party assembled in a circle around her prostrate lover. Hoffmann glowed with anger, and turning to me, he uttered in a loud voice “Look, there lies that shit hound! We have all had a drink but we don’t behave like that! That sort of thing only happens to a common, prosaic fellow!” Everybody was horrified by what he had more shouted than spoken. Julia threw him a look of contempt, the mother joining in with some weighty epithets of her own... He stood for a while as if crushed, then came to his senses, walking away with quick, decisive steps.’

Kunz summed up: ‘that was the end of the love story.’ Everyone had been able to put two and two together and saw Hoffmann as a jealous and unsuitable rival. Hoffmann wrote a letter of apology to Franziska Mark the following day, but she had already formally banned him from the household.

On 10 August 1812, he wrote (this time in Italian) ‘The die is cast. The woman has become the wife of this damned ass of a tradesman and it seems to me that my whole musical and poetic life is snuffed out. I need to make a decision about what sort of man I believe myself to be. It is a diabolical day.’

Julia married Graepel on 13 December. On 18 March 1813, Hoffmann signed a contract with Kunz to produce his first book Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner. On 21 April he left Bamberg for pastures new. Once the French were chased from Prussia, he would return to the law as a judge on the Berlin Criminal Bench, but his fame grew more and more as a writer in those last nine years of his life. He died of syphilis, at the age of forty-six, in 1822. In many of those books, some of the greatest in the German language, Julia appears, sometimes disguised, sometimes as herself, the flame was never quite expunged.

As for Julia, her marriage to Graepel was short lived, and she married a second time to a cousin, before taking up residence in Munich. Some thirty years after that fateful day at Pommersfelden, Julia was interviewed about her relationship with Hoffmann. She rejected the idea of some sort of ‘low sensuality’ on Hoffmann’s part: ‘the influence he had on me kept me free from all the triviality of a banal girl infatuation’. ‘Everybody will have decided that I treated Hoffmann with contempt, but that cannot be true. I am still aware of how I bared my fear-filled inner thoughts to him.’

Coming Home

Posted: 15th December 2022

On Saturday 10 December I flew to Knock to address a wine society Christmas dinner. The meal was on Sunday night and before it I spent a happy day in a sunny, but frigid Sligo exploring Yeats and Mountbatten memorabilia and megalithic tombs. My hosts drove me to the airport the next morning. Overnight a thick frost had descended on the land and the coppices looked like collections of Christmas trees thickly hung with crystals. The sky was clear, at least, and as we walked into the small airport at 10.30 am the flight was pronounced on time.

It was the beginning of my longest day, a Ulyssean epic of immense frustration and tedium. I had slept badly that night and was hoping to get away quickly so that I might snooze on the short flight back to Luton; but there was no news of the aircraft and searching around on the Internet I found out that it had not yet taken off. Every now and then the departure time would be put back, first to 3.00 pm, then four etc. The lounge became steadily fuller as all the flights were delayed. Worst hit seemed to be those going to London airports. It appeared that the city had had two hours of snow the night before, which had effectively destroyed air, road and rail communications.

People are at their best in a crisis like this, even English people, who drop their reserve and share information; although it should be said that most of those I spoke to had Irish connections: mother, father, a married sister etc.. Like me they had been coming home. My father’s family had originally hailed from close to the spot where I had given my talk the night before. By four I had struck up a conversation with a philosophic man who was not only a mine of information on the history of Luton but he had been observing the behaviour of the travellers in the lounge, noting they had now shifted to the bar where they were drowning their sorrows in Guinness and vodka. When the flight was scrapped at four he told me he would go back to his sister’s and try again the next day. I thought of the imminent train strikes and decided to see what Ryanair would offer me as an alternative.

The 18.10 to Stansted was full. I could stay the night in Knock or I had a choice between flights to Edinburgh or the East Midlands. Still mindful of the strikes, I feared that even if flights took off the next day, I would have difficulty getting home from the airport. Edinburgh was out. I was told East Midlands was between Nottingham and Derby. I convinced myself there had to be trains to London from both. I opted for the East Midlands.

I went back through security, weighed down by a litre of duty-free gin and a side of Sligo salmon. When I connected with home I was told there were problems with the trains and I might have been better off spending the night in Knock, but I had already changed my flight. I made a new friend in the lounge who lived in Northampton. We looked at the train connections. None seemed promising, but there was always the chance of a bus from a Nottingham or Derby.

The aircraft came in late. Departure was announced for 19.00. In the later afternoon Knock Airport had been enveloped in freezing fog, and every time the doors were opened a needling cold seeped in. We were eventually released to the plane. I was hemmed in beside two ailing passengers who coughed like seals. It was announced that we would not fly until the wings had been de-iced. This took an hour. I thought I might attempt sleep, but every time I did my neighbour barked in my ear. I resorted to E. T. A. Hoffmann. I was glad to find him in my pocket.

I was aware of a crane perched above us, squirting liquid onto the wings, then at eight we finally began to move, seemingly guided towards the English Midlands by a fat moon. East Midlands Airport appeared immense with coloured lights lining the runways. I thought I would seek advice in the terminal, but there was no one to help. It occurred to me I could ask the man in the car-hire booth. He suggested a taxi, but there was no money for that. Then he said that Nottingham or Derby was the best bet as he thought a train unlikely, but agreed there might be something on offer from the bus station. I found an airport bus leaving for Nottingham. The driver told me that he would point out the way to the bus station. Meanwhile a woman I had spoken to in the airport had emailed her daughter who had found two trains leaving from Nottingham Station. Everyone was helpful in a way that would have been inconceivable in London.

One of the trains was at ten. When we approached the station I made a dash for it, but there were no trains. A boy suggested Leicester at 11.20. I couldn’t see any reason why I might be better off in Leicester. I asked about buses. He told me there was one at 3.00 am. I walked to the bus station.

The bus station was a gloomy, modern, concrete quadrangle under a car park and almost completely empty. I found a security guard who sent me to the ticket office. The window was closed but there were machines. A bus left for Heathrow at 1.45 am, but I wondered about getting in from Heathrow, and it was £66. The 3.00 am bus to London-Victoria was full, but there was another at 3.45 and that was half the price of Heathrow. I decided to wait for that.

It was now 10.20 pm and besides a slice of toast at breakfast and an air-bread sandwich in Knock Airport I had had nothing all day. I imagined I might find something to eat and drink, but between the Bus Station and the Railway Terminal Nottingham was shrouded in gloom. The only thing open was a chippie. I went in and ordered a small fish and chips. Only then did I understand what people meant when they said ‘cheap as chips’: it cost £5.50 and was so copious that I had trouble finishing it. They were closing, but they allowed me to stay after they locked the door so that I might eat my dinner in the warmth. One of the women offered to take me to a night club, but she thought I wouldn’t enjoy it much. So I traipsed back to the Bus Station to begin my vigil.

The security guard introduced me to his domain. There were hard metal seats, no dispensers of drinks of any sort, but there were clean lavatories. It was cold, but only draughty when the bays opened for the buses, of which there were a few, only local and airport buses until the Heathrow bus. There were probably no more than half a dozen people in the entire space. I read. I was conscious of the fact I needed to stay awake and it was quite cold, so from time to time I did a lap of the quadrangle. I eventually decided that where the long-distance buses came in was marginally warmer because there were more human bodies scattered around.

I still had regular visits from the security guard, who wanted to know all about me. He clearly felt didn’t get many people of my sort in his bus station. There was also a woman who had come from Sheffield and was trying to get to Kent. She had been turfed off the train in Nottingham and had intended to spend the night in the station waiting for the 7.20 train to St Pancras. She was told they were going to lock up, and the warmest option was the Bus Station. I was mildly sceptical about the 7.20 train and suggested she take the bus to Victoria. It was good to talk to her because that way I did not feel so tempted to close my eyes.

Little clumps of people arrived for Glasgow, Heathrow and Huddersfield; mostly students travelling by night. It was a brave new world for me. At three I tried to get onto the London bus, but the driver said it really was full. It wasn’t so long till the 3.45, which came in early and the driver let me get on. The woman I had been talking to cracked at this point. She loaded her suitcase and came in and sat beside me. I slept all the way to Victoria getting in at 7.20 am. Unlike Nottingham, London was under a thick layer of snow but the tube was running and I was home by eight, only about twenty hours late.

The British in India

Posted: 17th November 2022

My generation grew up on a diet of British nationalist history. My shelves are still full of it, from the majestic cloth bound volumes of Macaulay to the earlier emissions of the Oxford Monarch series. We all got to study this ‘Whig’ History at school and university, according to which, following a successful Protestant Reformation, English, and from 1707, ‘British’ history was just one long string of successes that has enriched the lives of the people of this island and beyond. As good students we challenged this interpretation.

When it came to describing the empire created by the first Elizabeth, Whig historians passed it off as beneficial to the less favoured elements of mankind and one which helped them to come of age by basking in our light. Our former colonies had long since begun to disagree with this benign vision, and even before independence, nationalists, and even native British critics had begun to pull our legacy apart. We British did not stand for civilisation or even some pious and condescending notion of the ‘white man’s burden,’ we stood for the economic and moral exploitation of our subject peoples, whom we looked down on as inferior to ourselves.

The United States threw us out 250 years ago and the ‘white’ colonies, the former dominions Australia, Canada and South Africa, were like New England: to a greater or smaller extent, peopled from home. Their treatment was different: they were allowed to run their own show as soon as they were perceived to have grown to maturity. With one major exception, Britons did not put down roots in our intemperate African colonies. With the winds of change, we packed and left, depositing pseudo-Westminster style constitutions as we said goodbye. As ‘former colonial powers’ our motives for being there were pilloried, until Gallagher and Robinson’s Africa and the Victorians raised a few questions to modify the debate.

And then there were some anomalies, like Ireland. Ireland was our first colony, the subjugation of an island in our own archipelago. From Tudor times, so the Irish nationalist line ran, English and Scots had impoverished the Irish people, stealing their land, reducing their liberties, suppressing their religion and imposing an alien ascendancy upon them. There is much truth in this. Even today it is hard to walk through the better preserved Georgian streets and squares of Dublin without coming to the conclusion that, magnificent though it all might be, this is the fruit of an alien culture that saw ‘wild’ Irish natives as little more than helots and cannon fodder.

Despite the Penal Laws, Ireland, even Catholic Ireland, grew rich on the colonial trade in the eighteenth century; but after the Famine in the mid-nineteenth century, poor Irishmen and women came to the island of Great Britain to work as navvies, building roads and railways, while women toiled as laundresses or worse. Many settled, and their presence led to a proliferation of pubs and Catholic churches. Until thirty years ago they were disdained, but now a bit of Irish blood does not go amiss: it might even mean the right to an EU passport. Irish historians used to be quick to present the awfulness of British rule in lurid detail. The picture is more balanced now, and takes account of the widespread and sometimes highly creative fusion of the two worlds, English and Irish. It is more nuanced, but the central tenets remain.

If being Irish is less disadvantageous than it was, the British image of India and Indians has also changed. For the time being at least, we have our first Hindu prime minister in Rishi Sunak, and educated at Winchester and Oxford too. Neither Ireland nor India was considered mature enough to be offered dominion status before independence. The Indian version of the Ascendancy was the Raj, which was in many aspects more sympathetic towards Indians than the Ascendancy had been towards the Irish. British rule in the Subcontinent was certainly patronising, occasionally cruel and maybe exploitative, but in general they were more considerate.

I have been reading Roderick Matthews’ Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India. I should say that I know Matthews, well; nearly half a century ago we were two of twelve historians in our college, and two of the nine who went on to sit Schools three years later. He did spectacularly well, but decided to drop history in favour of music, in which he worked until he became disillusioned a decade ago. At that point he returned to history and now concentrates on India.

India has probably more nationalist historians than all the other former British colonies put together. In a long and magisterial overview, Matthews proceeds to cut them down to size. He does this not to repolish the image of British India, but because he is convinced that many of these arguments are misconceived. Matthews believes that you cannot write the history of British India without reference to what was going on at home. Indeed, context is vital everywhere: the Easter Rebellion has to be seen in the light of the Western Front, and the looming Battle of the Somme.

The book blows away the clouds and cobwebs of Indian historiography. ‘Divide and rule’ is debunked: it becomes ‘oblige and rule.’ India was too divided to start with, between dynasties and sects, castes, regions and creeds. Constitutional change and independence would have happened a lot sooner if there had not been so many factions to satisfy. Ultimately there was no way of uniting the elements: Partition was the result, and the invasion of the princely states by the Indian army after 1947. Many Indians happily collaborated with the British from the beginning. They were complicit in the process of preparing the country for self-government. Unlike Ireland, the British did not appropriate land and Indians increased their holdings, nor did the British settle in India, apart from a few mixed-race Anglo-Indians in UP after Independence.

The British brought with them Whig ideas current after the 1689 Revolution. These found their philosophic basis in the writings of John Locke. Here ‘Whig’ ideas mean something different: pragmatism, and a desire to create and enjoy wealth in an environment of civil peace without reforming the fundamental rules of society. It was colonisation of the weakest sort. Also unlike Ireland, the idea of bringing enlightenment to India absorbed liberals like the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s father James in the East India Company’s offices in the City. Legal codes were drawn up for India that had no echo in England while Macaulay applied himself to creating a modern education for Indians. Missionaries might have been active, but the government did not encourage evangelisation. The result Matthews calls ‘liberal authoritarianism’, but it might have been the work of say, Frederick the Great, or some other enlightened despot in Europe.

Matthews confines himself largely to the political and economic picture. This is perhaps the weakness of the book. There is little said about the men on the ground: Thomas Hickey-style wastrels or buccaneers, some of whom went native before 1857, or the second-rate public school-types who became a feature of the Raj after the 1857 Uprising; the Haileybury boys, or the bright Indian students who came to Britain to compete with British candidates in their desire join the Indian Civil Service (ICS). The ICS is, however, covered beautifully by David Gilmour in his recent book The British in India. Matthews deals with the movers and shakers in Calcutta, Delhi and Westminster. Some administrators and merchants made money, but not all; that wasn’t really the point. You will also find no detailed account of events like the Black Hole of Calcutta because Matthews would see it as a minor incident blown up out of all proportions by propagandists on both sides.

After 1857 came imperialism, but Matthews points out that this is far from being the Hobson/Lenin idea of ‘the last stage of capitalism’, but some sort of synthesis of British and Indian culture revelling in empire with Durbars and much pomp following the assumption by Queen Victoria of India’s imperial throne in succession to the Mughals. In those last ninety years before Independence in 1947, a conservative administration faced organised opposition with repression and bloodshed. Again Matthews spares us the gory details, but if you are interested you will find them in Geofffrey Moorhouse’s gruelling book Calcutta which takes the story on to the time when the British really went home: in the late sixties.

Back in Britain nationalist history is almost dead now. It survives, perhaps, only in the school textbooks commissioned by Michael Gove when he was Minister of Education. Endless books and dissertations assault the Whig interpretation in microscopic detail and stress what diverse genders and races have done over the past centuries. Some of this might be misconceived too. It is a feature of our own post-imperial blood-letting, and with time that will also be subjected to revision.

The Trouble with Ludwig

Posted: 17th October 2022

I didn’t know Bavaria well before this year, I’d been to Munich a few times, but that was more or less where it ended. The Wittelsbach family, which ruled the roost from 1186 - 1918, I knew rather more about, but always in the broad context of German history. They had never been my consuming study.

Last summer turned out to be largely about Ludwig II, the so-called ‘Mad King’. Unlike the droves of tourists that flock to Neuschwanstein every year, I had felt no compunction to visit his castles, which are at a good distance from Munich anyway. Some thirty years ago I reviewed a biography of him that was quite the silliest book I had read in ages. Not much has changed: in Füssen, Neuschwanstein’s nearest town, I saw a bookshop that had dedicated a whole vitrine to Ludwig. I wondered how many of the very many books about him were impartial. Many romanticise the friendship between him and his cousin Sissy, or put him on a pedestal as a ‘gay icon’. As it was I did find useful books in the stack and even invested in a cheap copy of Michael Petzet’s beautiful book on Ludwig’s castles: Gebaute Träume (Dream Buildings).

The Wittelsbachs are crucial to the understanding of Ludwig. They are in some way the Catholic, South German pendant to the Protestant Prussian Hohenzollerns. They started out obscure, but became major players by hitching their vessel to the Habsburgs in Vienna and the Bourbons in Versailles. They had a trump card over the Hohenzollerns in that they could claim two Holy Roman Emperors: the first, Ludwig the Bavarian, died in 1347, some hundred years before the Habsburg’s became quasi-hereditary emperors. It is significant that Ludwig the Bavarian’s tomb in the Munich Frauenkirche was rehoused in sumptuous renaissance garb in 1622; just when the Wittelsbachs stood at the right hand of the Habsburgs in the Thirty Years War.

The first significant duke was William V, who brought the Jesuits to Munich. A wise policy of making themselves useful in Vienna meant the dukes were rewarded with one of the seven imperial electorships in 1621. After that, marriages to Habsburg princesses ensured a prominent seat on the board: Maximilian I to Maria Anna, Max Emanuel to Maria Antonia, Charles Albert to Maria Amalia. A measure of Bourbon blood also lubricated alliances with Louis XIV’s France. When Elector Max Emanuel was badly bruised at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 he was forced into exile. His son Charles Albert knew it could be Bavaria’s moment when the Habsburgs died out in the male line. Emperor Charles VI expired in 1740 and he seized his opportunity. Again with French help, he claimed the imperial throne. He was crowned by his brother Clemens August, Archbishop of Cologne in 1742, but Austria invaded Bavaria and a chastened Charles Albert died in 1745. He was succeeded as Emperor by Francis of Lorraine, husband of Charles VI’s daughter Maria Theresa.

The French proved benevolent again in 1806, making the Elector Max I Joseph King of Bavaria. At last, the Wittelsbachs enjoyed equal status with the Prussians, who became kings a century before. In 1848, an expensive taste for building and autocratic ways meant Max’s son Ludwig I lost his throne. The Bavarian government imposed severe restrictions on the Wittelsbachs, and created a constitution and a civil list. Ludwig II was heir to at least one of Ludwig I’s passions

Ludwig loved his grandfather a lot more than his father Max II, who had married the Prussian Princess Marie. Max’s unexpected death in 1864 brought Ludwig to the throne at the tender age of eighteen. For Ludwig, the throne was an empty chalice. He wanted to be a proper king, not some sort of bargain-basement constitutional monarch, and he wished to build big like his grandfather. He also desired Wagner to come to his court, and receive all the encouragement due to the man who had inspired the king’s childhood with his settings of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. All this required cash. Unfortunately for Ludwig there wasn’t enough. He had to borrow, and that meant debt. He also had to keep his grandfather, who lived on until 1868. It is significant that it was from then that Ludwig’s own buildings began to rise from the ground.

At first he ‘cooperated’ with constitutional kingship, inspected troops and visited wounded men. He resented Prussia’s rise to dominance in what was to be the new German Empire, yet he signed the ‘Kaiserbrief’ granting assent to his cousin William becoming emperor rather than him. Bismarck had successfully bought him off using the ‘Welfenfonds’, the money he had taken from the Hanoverian Treasury in 1866. And yet Bismarck was also surprisingly generous in his assessment of Ludwig, whom he did not believe to be mad.

Wagner was spectacularly greedy, and within a year Ludwig’s ministers had him banished. As Ludwig saw less and less to please him in his office, he became nocturnal, spent a good deal of time alone or in the company of a few trusted companions and servants. He was preoccupied by his building projects. His grandfather had been an urban planner who had turned the mostly mediaeval city of Munich into a neo-classical gem filled with boulevards and squares. In his dealings with artists and architects, Ludwig II was as fastidious and difficult as his grandfather. There were Prussian precedents too: Ludwig’s cousin Frederick William IV was a depressive like Ludwig, also possessing a mania for building. He finished the mediaeval cathedral in Cologne, ‘restored’ castles on the Rhine and employed the great Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Frederick the Great was another ancestor who built exquisite villas and was allergic to courts like Ludwig. He was homosexual as well. Indeed homosexuality galloped in the Hohenzollern family. Ludwig may have owed more to his mother than he cared to admit.

Ludwig rebuilt his quarters in the Munich Residence, and made a spectacular Winter Garden complete with leaking lake and had to be removed. His legacy is now reduced to three ‘castles: The Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee and Neuschwanstein plus a number of smaller building projects in their purlieus. I was dreading them, but my initial scepticism has to some extent abated. The Linderhof is a neo-rococo villa, Ludwig’s version of Frederick’s Sanssouci. Ludwig saw the rococo as a Bavarian national style, and it is true that Bavarian rococo is as good as it gets. The key to enjoying it is the exquisite detail, all of which was chosen by the king. It was Ludwig’s ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, his answer to his idol Wagner. The Linderhof is the most successful of Ludwig’s creations, but it is hugely cluttered. Hohenchiemsee, his reproduction of Versailles in the middle of a lake, is the most quixotic. It was a tribute to his Bourbon ancestors, absolute kings, the ones he liked best; but Versailles was built so that Louis XIV could keep an eye on his nobles, Ludwig didn’t want the nobility anywhere near him.

Like Hohenchiemsee, Neuschwanstein remains unfinished. As elsewhere Ludwig used stage architects to design his castles for theatrical effect, and sometimes they look too much like sets. That is true of Neuschwanstein from the outside at least, and it is not for nothing that it inspired Disney. Inside, however, it had me thinking a bit about Ruskin and William Morris. Every detail in the castle is individually designed and executed, perhaps not by the greatest craftsmen, but they were good, and the king managed to feed work to the Bavarian artisans of Nymphenburg, even if some of them must have had to sing for payment.

Building was Ludwig’s creative drive, and any attempt to cap it was bound to end in tears. I shall refrain from offering any theory about his early death: Ludwig’s refusal to adapt to the new age would have nailed him to the cross in the end. The audit was just a matter of time. On Lake Starnberg this summer I chanced upon the annual mass to celebrate Ludwig’s life at the place where it ended. The president of King Ludwig Association gave a speech extolling the virtues of the monarch: he was pious, creative, peace-loving and had a place in his heart for little people. The sad reality is that Ludwig’s sole achievement was those castles in the sky and that the palaces of that Greta Garbo of kings, the great misanthrope, are now poked and prodded by the sort of charabanc-borne vulgarians who might have driven him to an even more premature despair.


Posted: 20th September 2022

In Munich Airport the man scrutinised my passport before he reached for the stamp: he wanted to know why I had been in Germany so often and over such a short period of time. ‘The Passion Play at Oberammergau’, I blurted out, adding ‘I’ve been three times.’

He laughed: clearly nobody goes to the Passion Play three times. It is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. You might go twice, but in the last instance only after a fifty year gap. Obergammergau is like Hajj, or walking to Compostella. You are under no obligation to repeat the experience.

I often remember the first time I heard about Oberammergau. I was doing O-Level German at school. I thought it sounded frightful, and hoped, fervently, that I would never be obliged to attend. Then, back in 2018 I signed up to convey six groups to the Passion Play, but after the Covid plague postponed it for two years, my tours were whittled down to first four, then three.

As it was, I had been present at an Oberammergau lunch in London earlier that year. I sat next to the director, Christian Stückl and met Frederik Mayet who had been his principal Jesus in 2010 and was again in 2022. I mentioned my cousin, the actor August Zirner. Stückl was astonished to hear he was related to me. Augi was playing Nathan in his production of Lessing’s Nathan the Wise in Munich. The next thing I knew Stückl had clamped his telephone to my ear. Augi was on the other end of the line. Stückl said he liked using Augi to play Nathan because he was half-Jewish. In the same way, he was pleased to report that there were now some Syrians living in Oberammergau and he was looking forward to using genuine Middle-Easterners on stage. He took the leading members of the cast to the Holy Land to breath in the atmosphere and bits of Hebrew had been scattered round the text to emphasise the fact that everyone in the action was Jewish. During his forty-six-year tenure as director of the Passion Play, Stückl has tried to make it more authentic and less antisemitic.

There is no disputing the fact that, until recently, the Passion Play was thoroughly antisemitic. The Gospels hold the Jews responsible for Christ’s Crucifixion. There were probably lots of passion plays in mediaeval and early modern Europe. Oberammergau’s was first performed in 1634 in the middle of the Thirty Years War. Bavaria was overrun by two plagues: one literal, the other Swedish squaddies, who put large tracts of Germany to the torch. The Alpine village of Oberammergau had been spared, but in 1632 one Kaspar Schisler arrived and infected the population, a sixth of whom succumbed. The village decided to put on a passion play every ten years and as the Prologue tells you ‘since that time no single person has died.’

The play was performed in the cemetery of Oberammergau’s gorgeous rococo church until 1900, when the present neoclassical stage was built. The text was established by Father Joseph Daisenberger in 1858, and is easily distinguishable from later additions by the fact it is in verse and slightly archaic German. Similarly the original music with its many allusions to Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Haydn was written by Rochus Dedler (1779 - 1822), and I suspect the more Bach-like additions are the work of Markus Zwink. It is part passion and part mystery play, and the events of that fateful week in Jerusalem are broken up by tableaux vivants from the Old Testament using actors and actresses and framed by Stefan Hageneier.

I presume that before the nineteenth century, the play was much more rustic, but many of the creases have been ironed out in the last 150 years. The two men who chiefly contributed to its fame were the misanthropic King Ludwig II of Bavaria (the so-called ‘Mad King’) who watched the whole show in 1871 together with four courtiers, and the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, who saw the same performance. After Bertie went the mountains were alive with middle-class British sycophants. By 1890, Thos Cook was doing a roaring trade. Special trains took parties of Britons to the play, who made up seventy percent of the audience.

For the 300th anniversary, Oberammergau had a distinguished guest in the form of Adolf Hitler. Hitler didn’t enjoy the play which he thought the wrong sort of antisemitism. He believed in the racial, biological form, which was not represented. The only thing he approved was Pilate, a man of superior race and intelligence, he thought. Oberammergau was divided at the time between Nazis and members of the Catholic Bavarian People’s Party. Fortunately for its subsequent reputation there were not many Jews in the village, although one was despatched to Dachau. The 1934 performance was the last before 1950, when the play was reestablished.

The Passion Play is an amateur performance and a fiefdom of the large village of Oberammerau. There are 6,000 inhabitants of whom 2,000 are involved in some way as actors, singers, musicians or in ancillary roles. Stückl is no exception: he is the son of a publican who started out carving wood - then the only other thing to do in Oberammergau, although it has to be said that the village makes plenty of money out of skiing and tourism too. Stückl has actually made a big name for himself now. He runs two ensembles in Munich, and has directed plays and opera all over the German-speaking world.

Like Bayreuth, perhaps, since the Second World War, Oberammergau has had to be careful to conform to the Zeitgeist. I suspect most visitors are still Christians and the revised theology is by no means revolutionary. When I commented to my neighbour that something Jesus said to Judas was new to me, an American on the other side gave me the Gospel reference, chapter and verse. So an inferior Galilean Jew, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem seeking social justice at a time when Judean Jews are at loggerheads with their Roman overlords. The Romans, in their turn, look down on the Judeans. Jesus has not come at a good time. The stage erupts into factions, Jesus has his gang, with support from Judeans like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, while Caiaphas has the weight of his fellow high priests who decide that Jesus is a blasphemer claiming to be the son of God and take him prisoner by hoodwinking Judas. Jesus is tortured and crucified, but the play ends as the Angel reminds the Christians of the joys of redemption and resurrection.

It lasts fully five hours, but there is a long break for dinner. It is certainly a magnificent spectacle: the massing of villagers on stage, the Jews in their pastel shades, the Romans in armour and the choir in black and white looking like the Amish are joined numerous animals from donkeys to camels, via sheep and goats. In one performance the goats butted the sheep and had a little fight echoing that between the Jews and the Christians. The inevitable droppings provide a moment of light relief. The choir was magnificent, but the soloists (there were five of each as performances run four times a week from May to October) could be disappointing. I experienced at least one bad tenor, one poor bass, a disappointing alto and a squawking soprano, while others rendered the music in a fine score really well. Mayet was an aggressive, strutting Jesus, sharp of movement and delivery, but I think that was intentional. Some of the acting was frankly bad: I had a good Caiaphas and a poor Mary Magdalene, but, I reminded myself more than once, this was not a professional performance and a little rusticity must be par for the course.

I don’t know if the next performance will be in 2030 or 2032, but I don’t imagine I shall be called upon to go again. Did it measure up to the frightful image I had over half a century ago? I would say not, and I am glad I saw it. As is generally the case, I saw different things every time I went, but that being said: once is enough.

Dog Days in Paris

Posted: 18th August 2022

Last week I finally went to Paris to see my mother. It was a trip I had been putting off for some time, not least because all my Paris friends have moved away and I have nowhere now to stay. For once, however, the circumstances looked right: a friend had lent me his flat in Clichy where two quiet days were promised, and all I had to do was to scrape together the fares for Eurostar.

But it was August, and Paris is another place in August. On 15 July every year Paris decamps to coast and country and while some Parisians return on 15 August, many do not reappear until the end of the month. That means a lot of the city is closed and restaurants, bars, bakers, candlestick makers, they are not there. It was never the time to see friends because they would have left the city as well. In August in Paris you are on your own.

I had a few plans, a few things I was hoping to track down, when I set out late on Monday night. Then when I was passing Rochester Cathedral and Keep I was suddenly overcome by a terrible dread: had I taken the friend’s keys? I scrambled around in the bottom of my travel bag: no keys. A call home confirmed it. They were on the chair where I had left them. The remaining time in the train was spent rummaging in my mind for a solution when there clearly was none: I would arrive at the Gare du Nord at 11.15 pm local time, it would be steaming hot and I would have nowhere to sleep. The only sensible answer was to try one of the many seedy hotels opposite the station. You don’t trail from pillar to post at that time of night and certainly not in that part of Paris.

As it was the ‘New’ Hotel had a clean room with a shower and air conditioning, and that was more or less where it ended. In my twenties I spent a great deal of time dossing down in cheap Paris hotels. Not much had changed, except they were no longer cheap. The next day I had a grand’ crème and a croissant in a local bar and braved 35 Celsius on my short walk to the 95 bus, that took me, in a roundabout sort of way, via a number of train termini, to Montparnasse.

I spent some three hours in the first of these, my two planned visits, and then joined an Australian friend who by chance had signalled that he was going to be in Paris at the same time as me. We had a pleasant late lunch in the boulevard Edgar Quinet before I caught the 39 bus in the rue de Rennes, that would take me back to the Gare du Nord in a less circumlocutious way. It is wonderful how Paris unfolds from its mediaeval hub, to the faubourgs, where the grandees decamped from the seventeenth century onwards and finally the great cavernous apartment blocks put up from the beginning of the Second Empire until the First World War. The 39 bus revealed it all: the rue de Rennes is Second Empire, then from St Germain onwards you are in the ancient core. There are grand palaces on the Quai Voltaire before you reach the Louvre, then it’s back to the Second Empire in the avenue de l’Opéra before you hit the Faubourgs and where occasionally an eighteenth century palace appears. You enter the railway age with the Gares de l’Est and du Nord. The latter is distinctly slummy at least on its eastern side. In the past decade the flavour has become Indian, and there are lots of curry places to choose from.

I collapsed on my bed. Physical exhaustion had finally cancelled out the emotional strain of the morning and I went to sleep. At seven or so I braved the heat again. The sun was going down as I walked up the rue de Dunkerque and on to the rue des Martyres. For decades I might have found friends, a meal and a bed there, but that is no more. I looked up at the flat. I recognised the ironwork on the balcony from the drawing I made for them when they bought their new house near Bordeaux. The street was once a simple market street, but has now become impossibly chic. There were a lot of children out enjoying their ices now that the heat had finally begun to abate.

I stopped at a little Chinese place off the rue Mauberge for some dinner and a half of rosé, astonished how quickly they throw the food together, then I went back to my room and fiddled with the television for a while: France was burning.

The next day abided by the same pattern: coffee near the station and then the 39 Bus followed by three hours with my mother in Montparnasse. I did some shopping for her in the market. I needed to get her some butter and popped into a place I used to use in the rue du Montparnasse. At the time I was convinced that the owners were Armenians. There was a girl of about thirty with a cruel wit. The interior had changed: the counter had gone. An elderly man told me he had acquired the shop in 1984. I asked about his predecessors. He told me they were Tunisian Jews. When I left my mother I decided I’d have a little walk down memory lane, despite the great heat. There on the boulevard was the studio where I learned to etch, and opposite the Théàtre de Poche, above which I lived on and off for several years. Over there on the ground floor, opposite the big brutalist UGC cinema was George Hayim’s Paris flat (he had similar spaces in London and Sydney). Hayim was a fascinating character, who used elaborate wall-paintings to lure in burly men from the cinema queue and treat them to exquisite meals. Sometimes he’d also ask them to rough him up a bit, but it was nothing strenuous and they’d leave with their bellies full and a hundred francs in their pockets.

I walked down the rue du Monparnasse, passed the private Collège Stanislas. They were adapting a chapel building I hadn’t seen before. Inside the courtyard I glimpsed the Hôtel de Silène, a lovely neoclassical villa. In the rue Notre Dames des Champs, there was the large rococo Hôtel de Mailly, now part of the military diocese. In the Rue de Rennes I looked at 106 Bis, where I spent many happy hours. The building had a complicated floor-plan, which meant many of the rooms looked out over the boulevard Raspail. It was getting even hotter and I sat for a while in St German des Prés, recovering.

There was an attractive little tabac on the rue Bonaparte. I gave in and went inside. I was hungry and got the man to make me a rillettes sandwich with a cornichon. He clattered about, dropping things on the floor. It was beer I wanted most and he was quick to top me up. The barman was fascinated by a Franco-Chinese family whose children spoke French to their father and Chinese to their mother. An Australian couple came in looking for menthol cigarettes. I had to translate for them, prompting a conversation about languages with the barman. I popped round to look at La Palette in the rue de Seine. It was the first Paris bar I made my own in 1974. Jean-François was a waiter then, later he became one of the most famous patrons in Paris. He must be retired now, or worse? I see that La Palette was sold in 2009.

I walked to the rue du Bac, where I lived in a cramped studio for a while, and then over the bridge to pick up the 39 in the Louvre. When I got back to my hotel I collapsed again. I called the friend near Bordeaux: it was 39 degrees and he said it was only pleasant between five and eight in the morning. It was still boiling at seven when I went down to the Marché St Quentin. I might have bought a few things to take home, but there was no fridge in my crummy room, and there would not have been much left of it by the morning. I went to the Terminus Nord, which was offering a cheap menu with a choice of three starters and three main courses. It was a chance to sit in that lovely art deco dining room and enjoy the ballet performed by the waiters with their platters piled high with oysters and lobsters. When I emerged the African men had all congregated outside the local cafés with collections of beer bottles to enjoy a balmy evening. I went to bed with the prospect of an early train back to London.

Rococo Variations

Posted: 18th July 2022

The rococo style is the last phase of the baroque, an explosion of theatricality and music in religious and secular architecture that bloomed in around 1720 and finally made way for a sober neo-classicism in around 1780.

It was not uniquely German, even if the Germans have some claim to calling it a national style. It is not uniquely Catholic either, but the greatest concentration of rococo is to be found in Catholic South and West Germany. Protestant rococo is above all a secular style best represented by palace buildings like the Zwinger in Dresden, or Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci in Potsdam.

Indeed, the origins of rococo lie in France, where it was a decorative style employed at Versailles in the first years of the eighteenth century. The asymmetrical motifs derived from bird wings and crustaceans were available to copy from the manuals published by Oppenordt and Meissonier. Many of rococo’s greatest masters were from the Catholic Low Countries, such as the Munich court dwarf, François Cuvilliés who produced such stunning work in white and gold at the Munich town palace as well as the gems of the Amalienburg and Badenburg at the summer palace of Nymphenburg; but if the first great rococo craftsmen were imported, the Germans caught up fast, producing such notable fraternal groups as the Asams, Zimmermanns, Dientzenhofers and Schmuzers.

Rococo, like baroque, was an architectural handmaiden to the Counter Reformation. Baroque emerged to fight the Reformed religion at the end of the Council of Trent in 1563 and found its first expression north of the Alps in the Jesuit Church in Munich twenty years later. The baroque was to be the ‘theatre of god’ while the Reformed church pushed for a reductio ad nihilum: the illusion and excessive decoration of baroque interiors were so many dirty words. There is a very good demonstration of this in the Minster in Lindau on Lake Constance, which sits cheek by jowl with the local Lutheran church. There are a few rococo flourishes in the Protestant church, but there is no trompe l’oeil - no heaven, if you like. Everything comes from the word, and is delivered from the pulpit. 

The Thirty Years War effectively stopped any creativity in Germany from 1618 to 1648. There was no art or architecture, and precious little literature. When it ended South Germany was rebuilt in a baroque style. Early examples are the Basilica of St Lorenz in Kempten and the Theatiner court church in Munich. That early baroque was Italian in style, but the slow progression to full throated rococo was visible in the three Munich churches I explored the other morning: the Theatiner, the Dreifaltigkeit (Trinity) and St Nepomuk. At the Theatiner it was represented by the odd altar or confessional. The Trinity has been described as ‘the purest Italian building in South Germany’, like a small Roman church, but inside it is a rococo ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ where decoration, fresco and stucco are indivisible. Cosmas Damian Asam did the frescos in the cupola, a sine qua non in rococo churches, and like the rest, was often pure illusion: a trompe l’oeil dome painted on a flat wooden ceiling. Later he and his brother Egid Quirin built St Nepomuk - the ‘Asam Church’, possibly the most striking small rococo gem in all Germany.  

The Asams spent two years in Rome as part of their training, and the dark Asam Church is still quite Berniniesque. The Zimmermann Brothers were all white light and gold. Much of the style of South German rococo was dictated by the school at Wessobrunn Abbey. Wessobrunn trained dozens of stuccateurs (‘plasterers’ seems a bit too banal to describe this refined ornament) between 1600 and 1803, when Bavaria’s monasteries were dissolved and much of Wessobrunn demolished. What remains in the Abbot’s and Prince’s Wings is mostly baroque, with a few rococo flourishes in the saloons. Wessobrunn stucco is chiefly white, but some is Wessobrunn green, where the gypsum is mixed with ground malachite and quickly worked into fantastic forms. Marble columns are merely polished stucco, because they could be coloured to suit the design, but they support no entablature. Nothing in mere nature could equal the artifice produced by the stuccateurs.

When I was at Wessobrunn a few days ago I decided to pop into the plain parish church. In rococo architecture an unassuming exterior is no indication of modesty within. I am glad I did, for it is enchanting, and the purest rococo imaginable; a profusion of the usual ribs, straps, baskets, laurel, acanthus, putti with the other standbys such as fruit, vegetables, weaponry and musical instruments.  The craftsmen involved were Joseph Schmuzer and his son Franz Xaver. Another major school of stucco was based in the Vorarlberg in Habsburg territory to the south. St Gallus in Bregenz is a fine example of the Vorarlberg style.

Last week I travelled the whole pilgrimage route from Munich to Bregenz. The first stop was Andechs where Johann Baptist Zimmermann painted the ceilings. Much was destroyed after the dissolution of the Bavarian monasteries, but the magnificence of the surviving church was striking. Another monastery shorn of most of its buildings in 1803 was the Premonstratensian Steingaden. When the church was rebuilt after a visitation of Swedes during the 30 Years War, the idiom was a chaste-ish baroque, but in 1740 the stuccateurs arrived and filled the nave with stucco, framing ceiling paintings by Johann Georg Bergmüller. The basilica in Kempten was another church rebuilt immediately after the 30 Years War, and once again it had been partly rococosiert in the eighteenth century.   

The quality of the work rarely disappoints. The painting of Joseph Schmuzer at Oberammergau is rightly celebrated. Schmuzer also beautified the little church of St Martin in Bad Kohlgrub up in the mountains. Dominikus Zimmermann was responsible for the glorious interiors of the church in the little walled town of Schongau where we also stayed.  The brothers Johann Baptist (he painted the frescos) and Dominikus Zimmermann’s greatest work and perhaps the most wonderful halt on the German pilgrimage trial is the elliptical church at Wies. Designed as a shrine between 1745 and 1754, it has been described as the ‘dance floor of God.’ The paintings are didactic as usual, conferring information to pilgrims and parishioners, but the effect is uplifting and joyful, and the attention to detail is phenomenal, from what is possibly the most beautiful pulpit ever conceived and stretching to the pews, altar rails and confessionals, it is one tremendous, unified work of art.

Who Made Munich?

Posted: 15th June 2022

Munich was made by the Wittelsbachs, since 1186, dukes, electors and finally kings of Bavaria. Some might add Adolf Hitler, who had a special affection for the city that he had made his home as a penniless painter in 1913. It was the cradle of the Nazi ‘movement’, but his embellishments were largely swept away to please the Americans after 1945 and he might more properly be seen as the man who caused the destruction of most of Munich by unleashing the Second World War in 1939.

Munich is a relatively young city, founded in 1180. Like Berlin there had been no Roman settlement, and it was only in the later middle ages that the Wittelsbachs adopted it as their ‘Residenz’. The oldest buildings in Munich now are the gates, which were constructed in the fourteenth century and the first monument with any claim to distinction is the late fifteenth century Frauenkirche. The bishop was away in Freising and it was only later that Munich became the seat of a bishop and archbishop.

The first truly significant building in the city was the Jesuit College and church, commissioned by Duke William V and built by Friedrich Sustris in imitation of Il Gesu in Rome and begun only fifteen years later than that model Jesuit church. The finished college was far grander than the royal palace. The Jesuit church was an assertion of Bavaria’s Catholicism at the time of the Counter Reformation and religious wars in Germany. Bavaria threw in their support for the Habsburg emperors in Vienna. In 1632, loyalty points paid off and earned the duke of Bavaria the title of ‘elector’, one of the shortly-to-be-eight German archbishops and secular rulers possessing the right to choose the emperor. This change of status made the Wittelsbachs all the keener to beautify their capital in the baroque idiom of the time. Survivals are the magnificent court Theatinerkirche and Schloss Schliessheim. The first Nymphenburg Palace outside Munich was also from then but was later rebuilt under the Elector Charles Albert. It also meant that their status had improved enough to conclude alliances and marriages with both the Habsburgs and the French Bourbons. The Elector Maximilian II Emanuel married Maria Antonia, daughter of Emperor Leopold I, but Maximilian Emanuel sided with the French in the War of the Spanish Succession, in which the French and Bavarian armies were soundly defeated by the combined Imperial and British forces at Blenheim on 13 August 1704 (in German it is called the Battle of Hochstädt). Defeat led to Max Emanuel’s banishment from Bavaria.

His son Charles Albert married Maria Amalia, daughter of the Habsburg Emperor Joseph I. Joseph’s brother the Emperor Charles VI, whose one son died in infancy, bequeathed two daughters and a ‘Pragmatic Sanction’ when he died in 1740. The Sanction allowed the oldest, Maria Theresa, to assume control of the Habsburg family lands. That meant however, that the Holy Roman Empire was up for grabs. Frederick II (‘the Great’) of Prussia marched into Silesia, and with French help, Charles Albert of Bavaria stormed into Austria. As the son of one Habsburg princess and the husband of another, he thought he had the best claim. In 1742 he had himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor, but the Austrians had already marched into Bavaria and seized Munich. He was dethroned in 1745, and Maria Theresa’s husband, Francis of Lorraine, become Holy Roman Emperor. The pantomime emperor Charles Albert died the following year.

All of which may appear a bit convoluted, but Charles Albert’s imperial longings made him want to make an even more splendid Munich. Baroque was on the wane, rococo would become his style.  From 1726 onwards he set about transforming his home town. The rambling city Residenz was provided by new tracts of buildings. The Flemish François Cuvilliés was the best of his architects along with Egid Quirin Asam who built the fantastic St Johann Nepomuk church in the Sendlinger Strasse. Cuvilliés was the author of magnificent interiors in the Residenz as well as the exquisite court theatre. Nymphenburg was worked over in the rococo style and the jewel-like Amalienburg built for Charles Albert’s hunting-mad Habsburg wife.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Munich was still a mediaeval city surrounded by walls. Bavaria’s electors were courting the French again, and for their pains in 1803 they were awarded the territories that comprised Franconia to compensate the Wittelsbachs for the French annexation of the Palatinate. The greatest moment of all occurred in 1806 when the Wittelsbachs joined the select coterie of German kings. The first King Max made some positive additions to Nymphenburg in a neoclassical idiom and Carl von Fischer produced some fine buildings while Ludwig von Sckell transformed the city’s parks. The real Augustus of Munich was, however, Ludwig I, who acceded to the throne of Bavaria in 1826 and believed himself the perfect personification of a creative patron. Munich was opened out to the north, new boulevards and open spaces were created both in a neoclassical idiom as in the galleries on the Königsplatz and in his favourite ‘Rundbogen’ or ‘round arch’ style that was derived from the Florentine renaissance. His chief architects were Leo von Klenze and Friedrich von Gärtner. Just like our own John Nash, the architects designed the facades of the palaces that lined the boulevards, behind them the owner of the plot had to decide just what sort of luxury he proposed to live in.

Ludwig spent a king’s ransom on building, painting and sculpture, and a bit more on his Irish mistress Lola Montez. When the revolution erupted in Munich in 1848, the spendthrift king was the first victim. He was forced to abdicate in favour of his son Max. Although after 1886 the regent Luitpold saw many changes to Munich, particularly in art nouveau and neo-rococo buildings, the money did not come from the court. By now constitutional monarchs were obliged to subsist on their civil lists.

One who resented this was Ludwig’s grandson, the so-called ‘Fairy-Tale King’ Ludwig II. Ludwig admired his grandfather, who did not die until 1868: four years after the second Ludwig became king. Ludwig II had to pay for his grandfather out of his own income. After the first Ludwig’s death he had some more money for his architectural projects, plus the large annual bribe he received from Bismarck in Berlin. He also borrowed money, sums he could never hope to repay, which sealed his fate in the end when he too was forced to stand down. His mysterious death occurred soon after.

Ludwig II did rebuild his part of the Residenz, but after wartime damage these rooms were not restored, and the furniture is now in his museum at Hohenchiemsee. His rooftop winter garden had been taken down after it began to leak, ruining the decoration of the saloons below.

Ludwig was therefore confined to his creations in his beloved Bavarian Alps: the neo-rococo gem that is the Linderhof, which reminded me a little of Sanssouci in Potsdam (his mother was a Prussian Hohenzollern); the vast, and largely empty recreation of Versailles on the island at Hohenchiemsee which was a tribute to the French Bourbon absolute monarchs Louis XIV and XV he admired so much; and his last creation: the great stage-set that is Neuschwanstein. Neuschwanstein looks down on his father’s modest neo-gothic house Hohenschwangau. Inside, the few finished rooms show that Ludwig had absorbed something of the lessons of Ruskin and William Morris, for each one is a little work of art. It makes you wonder what he might have done to Munich had he been able to listen to ‘Lolette’: his idol Richard Wagner, or possessed something of the free hand of his ancestors.

Vienna: Back in the Josefstadt

Posted: 25th May 2022

It had been three years since I was last in Vienna. I went first in 1970, following family footsteps, and again in 1989 to begin a tour of Velvet Revolutions from Prague to Berlin. I came to look at wine in January 1991. Thirty-one years later wine had brought me there again. I would be hard-pressed to say how many times I have been to the Austrian capital since 1991, and not always because of wine.

I arrived on 19 May. I was supposed to go to a party at the Heurige Mayer am Pfarrplatz but British Airways scuppered that. We took off late because we had lost our slot, and we had lost our slot because someone neglected to close the cargo doors. When I got to my hotel I realised there was no point in going to the Heurige. I’d have had less than an hour at the party before I had get on the bus and come home.

It was a new hotel for me at least: Flemings in the Josefstädter Strasse. It was built for a gas company in 1910, and had some pleasant features, not least the view from my fifth floor window. I could pick out the vines of the Nussberg framed between Hundertwasser’s Garbage Disposal Tower and the twin spires of Josefstadt Parish Church. Two things troubled me about my room, however: I could see no way of turning off the bedside lights without disconnecting the electricity, and the shower, which was housed in a Perspex box in the middle of the room. Now, I could think of many women I might have liked to have seen naked in that box, but I could not imagine a single person of either sex who would have wanted to see me in there. I was glad I was travelling on my own.

It was a lovely, balmy evening, I thought I’d cut my losses by having a sausage at a stall and turning in early. I decided to mosey down to the Naschmarkt. There used to be a few old-fashioned places near the Secession building, but since my last visit they seemed to have gone, and the market itself had been turned into an uninterrupted series of chic restaurants. I went to the sausage stall behind the Opera House instead. That can be special too: I ate my Käsekrainer next to a woman who was drinking a pipkin of Moët & Chandon champagne. At the last moment I thought I needed wine as well and popped into the nearby Augustinerkeller for a Viertel of Grüner Veltliner. I ran into a friend. Vienna is a very small world.

The next morning I indulged in a little nostalgia as I set out. I was back in the Josefstadt. The Josefstadt (or 8th District) developed after 1683 when the Turks were routed under the walls of Vienna and was named after the Emperor Joseph I (1678 - 1711). It has the advantage of being close to the core of the old city. In the early years I was almost always lodged in the Josefshof Hotel, which was family-owned then and had a nice, friendly feeling about it. In the next street along was the house in which Beethoven composed the credo to his Missa Solemnis, possibly the greatest piece of music ever written.

Last Friday I walked straight past the pleasantly down-at-heel Café Eiles where I would often eat a hasty breakfast before a car arrived to whisk me off to another vineyard. In those days, if I walked in the other direction up the Josefstädter Strasse I would find myself outside the flat of an Irish friend. There were a few trendy restaurants opposite where we could eat. Later on I saw my cousin, the actor August Zirner, perform once in an Ödön von Horvath piece at the Josefstadt Theater. Before the performance I recall drinking a cool beer in the square in front of the parish church, the same building I could see from my bedroom window.

This morning I needed to sign up for a tasting in the sumptuous Palais Niederösterreich (where Austria’s first parliament was held in 1848) and collect some money from the Graben. This meant crossing the Rathausviertel with its enormous, stately blocks of late-nineteenth century flats. Before 1938, many of these were occupied by rich Jews. Then it was a short walk through the Volksgarten park to the Hofburg, the old city palace where most of my wine activities were based. It was a sweltering day. I avoided the sun where possible, but I was frazzled by the time I met a friend at the Café Hawelka and we went off to a pleasant dinner nearby.

It rained in the night, which brought down the temperature a bit. After the business in the Hofburg there was a relaxed party in the garden outside the Burgtheater given by a group of ‘Premium Estates’ winemakers - a small group of men I had known for decades. The party was all the nicer for being just a five minute walk from my hotel. Until Sunday night I didn’t need to use any form of public or private transport to get around Vienna, I just walked.

On Sunday, however, the Nussberg was too far to walk, and after a tasting in the magnificent Palais Liechtenstein we took a taxi to a party in Vienna’s best vineyard, eating and drinking among the very same vines I could see from my hotel room. From the top of the Nussberg I could see the sun setting on the city. In the other direction you watched the moon wax over Bratislava.

I went home on Monday. After I tasted my last wines I had another little walk in the Josefstadt: the Beethoven House, the Josefshof, the English theatre, the Lange Gasse, the Josefstadt theatre and the Strozzigasse, where I noted the façade of a magnificent former baker’s shop built in 1930 and a wine merchant called Torberg I hadn’t seen before. Then I settled down with a small beer or two in the Café Eiles and read the newspapers and waited for the taxi to come and take me to the airport.

The Fate of Hungary’s Jews

Posted: 20th April 2022

Agnes Kaposi, Yellow Star, Red Star, with contributions by Lászó Csősz, i2i Publishing, Manchester 2020.

17 March was a lovely, sunny pre-spring day. It was also Purim, as I discovered when I took the wrong turning in Golders Green and ran into large numbers of Jews in their finery, carrying big bunches of flowers. I was on my way to see Dr Agnes Kaposi, who was born in Budapest in 1932 and had the misfortune to grow up in Hungary during the war years. She was going to explain to me the special flavour of the Hungarian Holocaust.

I had wanted to talk about Hitler’s plenipotentiary, Edmund Veesenmayer, who worked in tandem with Adolf Eichmann to ensure the liquidation of Hungary’s Jews, but Agnes Kaposi believed the Hungarians had rid the country of its Jews very largely on their own. Eichmann had a staff of 150 to 200 men, she said; it was not them, but the national gendarmerie that rounded the Jews up and bundled them onto trains bound for Auschwitz. The only time she remembered seeing a German was when she arrived in Vienna in March 1944 and an SS man enquired ‘wie viele Tote?’ - ‘How many dead?’

Under its ‘Regent’ Admiral Horthy, Hungary was Germany’s ally in World War Two and until 19 March 1944, to some extent the country was free to do whatever it chose. They were, however, under constant pressure to subscribe to Germany’s racial policies. Once German troops invaded Hungary to shore up the Eastern Front, the SS came too to orchestrate the genocide.  Veesenmayer sorted out the political side by insisting on sweeping governmental changes in Budapest. Later, the fascist ‘Arrow Cross’ took over where the Germans left off. Their victims were simply shot in the streets of Budapest.

More than half a million Jews died as a result, most of them were shipped out in just 56 days.

Agnes was right: the Hungarians were by no means philosemitic. They had created their racial laws all by themselves. The first was the 1920 ‘numerus clausus’ that limited places for Jews at universities to mirror their percentage of the actual population. Many doctors, lawyers and academics were Jews. There was pressure to do the same in Austria and in some faculties a numerus clausus had existed. Polish Jews, for example, were allowed to study at Vienna before the First World War, but they were not allowed to practice as doctors in Austria. Germany did not introduce a numerus clausus until 1933. Other Jewish laws were introduced as Hungary courted Germany in the hope of winning back the territory it had lost in 1919. A first Jewish Law was voted in 1939 (a year after Italy). It limited the proportion of Jews in certain professions to twenty percent. A year later this was reduced to six percent. In 1941, Hungary introduced its own version of the Nuremberg Laws, forbidding sexual relations and marriage between Jews and Gentiles. In 1942, all Jewish land was swiped by the state.

Unique to Hungary was the Military Labour Service introduced in 1939. Unable to join fighting units, young Jewish men worked in the front line as unarmed, non-uniform wearing sappers. More than 50,000 died, many in the abysmal hygienic conditions of Doroschich (Kupyshche) Camp in the region of Zhytomyr in the Ukraine.  

Towards the end of their time in Hungary, when it became increasingly clear that Germany might lose the war, Himmler’s SS began making deals. A train-load of prominent Jews travelled via Belsen to Switzerland, and 15,000 more were placed ‘on ice’ and were delivered to a camp outside Vienna where conditions were dreadful, but there was no ‘selection’ as such. These Jews provided free labour for vital industries. Agnes had been in the ghetto in Debrecen when she and her family were rounded up to be sent to Auschwitz. For most of them, this was certain death, but after the usual four-day journey in a sealed cattle truck, her train turned round and made for Vienna instead. 

They landed at a former slave labour camp at Strasshof in the Wagram north-east of the city. Eleven-year old Agnes and her family were then sent to the Bisamberg in the north of Vienna to perform backbreaking labours at the state-owned Margarethenhof farm at the top of the hill. Gruelling the work might have been, but it was a lot better than Auschwitz. The girls even ventured down the hill into outlying parts of Vienna. In one moving episode in Agnes’s book, a Gypsy fiddler threw his coat over Agnes and scolded her for failing to remove the yellow star from her jacket. He found out where they lived and left packets of food in hiding places for them.  

I remember the Margarethenhof. Some of Vienna’s best vineyards are on the south-facing slopes of the Bisamberg. There was a restaurant in a hunting lodge there, now closed, where I once met an entertaining Uzbek.

Agnes’s next stop was up by the Arsenal, where the military museum is now. I have crossed the area many times taking my children to see the car in which Franz Ferdinand was killed. Here little Agnes helped construct ack-ack guns. It was the spring of 1945 and the Red Army was closing in. Vienna had already been ‘Judenrein’ - clear of Jews - for over a year. Now a few Jews had returned. They were sent to clear up the rubble in the city centre. Some Viennese gave the children food, others not. They returned to Strasshof, where the Hungarian guards took to their heels. Then they walked most of the way back to Budapest eating when they could find food and keeping the older girls out of the way of Russian Army soldiers bent on rape. There was no joyful homecoming awaiting them in Budapest: the city was wrecked, there was next to no food and nowhere to live. The Hungarians were as antisemitic as ever.

Agnes finished her education, became an engineer and at the time of the 1956 Uprising she fled, and settled here in London.

Life on the Borders of Oligarchia

Posted: 15th March 2022

I had very little knowledge of Highgate in my childhood and teens. I lived in West London, and the north of the city was considerably more remote to me than Cambridge, for example. I had a school friend who lived in Belsize Park and together we explored neighbouring Hampstead; but all I knew of Highgate was that Coleridge resided there, that my school had a rival on the top of the hill and Karl Marx was buried in the cemetery. And you can imagine my surprise when I made my first pilgrimage to Marx’s tomb, to find my own grandfather and grandmother buried only ten metres from the apostle of communism. In 2006 Putin’s victim Alexander Litvinenko was buried there too.

In my teens, however, there were discordant rumbles that issued from Highgate Hill. They generally involved some permutation of the words ‘activities incompatible with their station’. The heart of the problem proved to be the Soviet Trade Delegation at 32 Highgate West Hill.

The Trade Delegation was established as early as 1920, but it only moved into its sleek, modernist HQ designed by Eric Lyons in 1957 - just after the Suez Crisis when the Soviet Union had pointed its ballistic missiles at Britain. Why the Soviets had acquired land there is not related. It might have had something to with the proximity of Marx, the height of the hill, or the size and relative remoteness of the plot of land on offer. Unlike the embassy in Kensington, there was plenty of room for expansion and for constructing discreet accommodation for Soviet ‘diplomats’. In 1973 the Trade Delegation was joined by the Military Attaché’s office in Millfield Lane designed (?) by Dinerman Davies, a site that was handy for members of the Trade Delegation as you could access it without quitting Soviet land.

Probably the first time I got wind of something happening on the hill was in 1968, around the time of the Prague Spring. Then as now, Londoners had strong views about Russia. Two members of the Trade Delegation were expelled. The biggest haul of all was in 1971 when the defection of KGB agent Oleg Lyalin led to the expulsion of 105 Russians. Between 1981 and 1984 four residents of the private flats between the Trade Delegation and the Military Attaché’s office were forced to leave. Another 25 were thrown out in 1985. As John Le Carré would have been the first to point out, the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 was by no means the twilight of Russian espionage. In 2014 another 90 were ordered out, almost ten percent of the Russian officials based in London. At the time of the Skripal Affair in 2018 it was assumed that there were roughly 200 Russian case officers in London distributed between the Embassy and the Trade Delegation, and operating some 500 agents. Her Majesty’s Government even made noises about closing down the Trade Delegation.

Whether proximity to Karl Marx or the Trade Delegation is responsible or not, Highgate has proved a magnet to Russians, poor, rich and stinking rich. Of course it is not just the Russians who have bought up the nicer places in recent years. The lovely seventeenth century houses in Highgate Grove that had accommodated Coleridge, J B Priestley and Yehudi Menuhin have filled up with spivs, crooners, actors, models and pasty (sic) cooks.

The Russians might well have been attracted by Gordon Brown’s Tier 1 Visa, created in 2008, which allowed so many to settle here and acquire British nationality, but that doesn’t necessarily explain why they plumped for Highgate.

Russians have settled in Fitzroy Park and Millfield Lane and are to be found as far away as Bishop’s Avenue, where the Railway King Andrey Yakunin lives. His son even went to Highgate School. Three massive properties in particular unite some of the most pungent members of the current London colony. At the top of the list must be Andrey Guriev, the owner of Witanhurst, said to be the second largest house in the city after Buckingham Palace. Guriev is a former senator and ‘Fertiliser King’ who bought the mansion in 2008 for £50 million. Possibly he took advantage of the new Brown visa? Witanhurst with its Anglo-Saxon redolence was built in 1913 in a neo-baroque style by the architect George Hubbard for the soap magnate Sir Arthur Crosfield. Since Guriev acquired the house it has been in a state of semi-permanent flux. It is said now to be as big below ground as it is massive above.

Just round the corner, between Hampstead Lane and Fitzroy Park is Beechwood House, built in 1834 by Disraeli’s cousin George Basevi for his barrister brother Nathaniel. Basevi built The Elms - tucked into the southern wall for himself a few years later. Beechwood with its twelve acres of land was sold to the Uzbek oligarch Alisher Usmanov for £48 million in that same year of liberation, 2008. It is very hard to catch a glimpse of Beechwood. Possibly the best bet is from the allotments at the east end of the Heath, but I have occasionally seen its neoclassical profile from Hampstead Lane. It is said locally that The Elms is also Russian owned. It has been subjected to a monstrous ‘restoration’ of late which has completely destroyed the character of the listed building.

The third Russian property of note is Athlone House, a gaunt, baronial mansion constructed by E Soloman and JP Jones from 1870 to 1872. It was owned by the Air Ministry during the war and after that became a nursing home. In 2016, Mikhail Fridman bought it for £65 million and tried to have it demolished to make way for a modern mansion. We locals fought tooth and claw to keep it. And it now looks as if we might have finally won. 

For twenty-six years now Highgate Hill has been my backdrop and my walks often take me up to Muscovy, or Oligarchia, or whatever you want to call it. I take an interest in my more exotic neighbours and it seems I am far from being alone.  As I stopped to look at the ugly Military Attaché’s Office on Sunday I noticed a couple taking photographs of the building. We had a chat. The woman told me she had spent her lockdown beefing up on the local Russians. There were, it transpired, already commercial tours of Russian Highgate. Far from being remote, Highgate has become a backyard to us all.

Eleanor Reissa, The Letters Project: A Daughter’s Journey, Post Hill Press

Posted: 15th February 2022

Eleanor Reissa is an American actress, singer and playwright. She performs in English and Yiddish, laudably keeping alive the language of pre-war Ashkenazi Jews that is in danger of being crushed between the monoliths of English and Modern Hebrew.

Now in her late sixties she has decided to examine her navel. The incentive was a collection of fifty-six letters she unearthed after her mother Ruth’s death. They were written by her father Chaskel Schlüsselberg in the immediate post-war years. He had been living in Stuttgart picking up the threads of his previous life, while Ruth was already encamped with her family in New York. Ruth had, however, recently been in nearby Ulm as a ‘DP’ or ‘displaced person’. Eleanor’s mother and father were cousins, and her father had courted her in Ulm. It was only a matter of time before he would settle his affairs and join her in America.

As Polish Jews their recent lives had been disrupted to say the least. Her mother’s family had fled to Central Asia: Ruth, her parents, brothers together with her son by her first marriage. Eleanor’s father had been packed off to Auschwitz in 1943. He too had been married before. One son had been despatched to safety in England on a Kindertransport, but his wife and daughter had been ‘deported to the East’, in other words murdered by the Nazis.

Eleanor couldn’t read the letters. There is one reproduced in the book. It is written in a legible, conventional German. Like so many of the descendants of German-speaking Jews, however, she never learned German, and despite its occasional similarity to basic German, her knowledge of Yiddish failed to provide clues. She therefore decided to pay for their translation as she was preparing to embark on a voyage of discovery.

Here my sympathy was aroused. I too have dug up my past, and like Eleanor Reissa I began just a little bit too late to catch living people who might have put it in context. I have been reliant on written sources which, fortunately, I can mostly read. I too was enlightened by a collection of letters that arrived via a cousin who couldn’t make head or tail of them. They exposed many home truths.

My immediate family was less affected than hers, even if my great-uncle endured Dachau and Buchenwald. His brother, my grandfather, was able to escape to Bolivia where he died of heart disease aged thirty-eight. He was the last Jewish member of my family. My millionaire Jewish great-great grandfather Ludwig Zwieback had three daughters. Not one single descendant is Jewish today. One by one they converted or married outside the faith.

But Eleanor’s letters proved a red herring. They did not contain the information that would explain the past. She knew her father had been in Auschwitz, but like so many survivors (she prefers the word ‘fighters’) he scarcely mentioned it. The vital information was to be found in the archives in Baden-Württemberg. Using a variety of contacts from her professional life, Eleanor allotted a small amount of time and set off to Germany. It was winter, it rained, it snowed, the sky was grey and she had a visceral distrust of any German over a certain age. We are introduced to a variety of characters, and learn how Stuttgart, Ulm and Ludwigsburg now ‘celebrate’ the history of the genocide with monuments and ‘Stolpersteine’.

We discover all this with her. To some extent this is a dramatic device. You get a sneaking feeling she is exaggerating her ignorance of what happened in those dark years: had she never seen the films, the endless television programmes, never read the blogs or the rantings of internet tubthumpers?

Once Eleanor had seen her father’s depositions, made in the interests of receiving compensation from the Bonn Government, she realised that he had indeed been a ‘fighter’. Chaskel or ‘Charlie’ was a big man from a prosperous trading family in Poland who had joined a brother in Stuttgart in the thirties. The brother was kicked out with so many other Polish Jews in the autumn of 1938, but Chaskel had remained. Ironically, making his home in Germany might have helped him survive: in Poland so many Jews were simply shipped straight from ghetto to extermination camp. Chaskel’s diligence made him one of the last Stuttgart Jews sent to Auschwitz. Selected for his physical strength on the ramp, he was the only member of his transport to survive. He was assigned to Monowitz-Buna like the Italian writer Primo Levi. It was vital to maintain the will to live. The so-called ‘Musulmänner’ (for some unaccounted reason they were called ‘Muslims’) who descended into apathy were the first to be sent to the gas chambers.

It was hardly ‘life’ in a conventional sense, but he endured until the camp was disbanded in January 1945. Then began the death marches: first to Buchenwald and finally Oranienburg just north of Berlin. Here he finally managed to evade his torturers and hide in some straw until the Russians arrived. They gave him a cigar.

Through the deposition, Eleanor learned that her parents’ marriage had been anything but happy, that Chaskel had lost status in coming to New York and from a wholesale trader he had been reduced to working in a brush factory. The one thing that had redeemed his post-war life had been her, as he saw her as the reincarnation of Frida, the little girl he had lost to the genocide.

Many of Eleanor’s friends and relations had discouraged her in her quest. Her father’s ‘English’ son and grandson were uninterested in their Jewish past: the humiliations were behind them. The young were particularly apathetic and her American family and friends were unable to share her enthusiasm, but she still believed the journey to have been worthwhile for she had finally discovered who she was.


Posted: 17th January 2022

Michael Day died at 4.30 am on Thursday 13 January. He was seventy-five: not a great age now, but he was diagnosed with premature dementia a few years back and had recently moved into a comfortable old-people’s home where he could be better looked after.

I had known Michael since 17 November 1987. He came to a lavish dinner at the Portman Hotel prepared by David Dorricott to celebrate the launch of my first book. Michael had supplied the cheese for a menu that replicated a number of the French Revolutionary dishes mentioned in the text. At the end of the meal when most people had left, Michael and I sat down and drank together. We remained firm friends until last week.

Cheese was Michael’s visiting card. He came to the launches of most of my books, and always bearing an appropriate cheese. He missed the last one, on a scorching day in the summer of 2018. I realise in retrospect, it was a bad omen for him, me and the book (which didn’t sell well).

Michael was the younger son of Squadron Leader Frank Day and his wife Louise née Kay. Frank was a Spitfire pilot who was shot down over the Mediterranean and rescued from the sea near Crete. He was taken to Stalag Luft III and took part in the famous Great Escape. When the German guards rumbled the prisoners, Frank was just three men away from the great wide open. He was taken back and placed in solitary confinement. I met Frank once on a sunny afternoon in 2007 at his house on the waterfront in Bosham. Michael had organised a Spitfire to fly over the garden for what was to prove Frank’s last birthday.  He showed me his hand: he had lost a thumb when he was shot down. Out of filial piety, Michael had reenacted Frank’s freezing march in 1945 from Sagan (now in Poland) to Spremberg on the Oder.

Extravagant gestures of the Spitfire sort were Michael’s real forte: he was generous to a fault. Like Frank he went to Uppingham School in Rutland where he was a contemporary of the celebrity chef Rick Stein. After leaving school he went to France to learn a language, which would be useful in his later career. He worked in the City for a while, and hated it. He married twice, the second time to Stephanie Howell who brought him two stepsons: Stephen and Simon Yorke. For the last thirty and more years of his life he was coupled with Cherry Lenderink, whom he met on a blind date in Switzerland.  

After the war, Frank, who had worked his way up to the top of the pharmaceutical company Savory and Moore, bought a small, Sussex-based cheese company owned by a Mr Harvey and a Mr Brockless. In 1974, he put Michael in charge. Michael discovered some fine old cheddars and ventured up to London to see if he could sell them. He took to cheese like a duck to water, and for a while he was the only British member of the Guilde des fromagiers. In 1982 he sold Harvey & Brockless and set up the Huge Cheese Company. Those were the good days when the company was turning over around £2 million a year. He supplied Harrods and many of the grander London hotels. He provided Mrs Thatcher with cheese (his stepson Stephen was working in Downing Street around that time) not to mention President Mitterrand. Through Cherry, who worked at the Dutch Parliament, he even tried selling a consignment of cheese to the Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers.

In the nineties the bottom began to fall out of the cheese market. Michael lost control of the company in 1992 but continued to dabble in cheese. I remember a lunch with him when he told me just how much money he had lost that year through unpaid invoices or restaurants going bust and failing to honour their bills. Suppliers were always the first to be shafted.

Michael was a strikingly good-looking man and was happy to work as a male model. Only a few years ago he tried, and failed to be hired for a nude shoot, possibly in Holland. He had a natural gift for promotion and always maintained contact with newspaper gossip columns through friends like Sebastian Shakespeare and Marcus Scriven. His other - tamer - passion was for collecting uncorrected proofs. A copy of your latest book in a primitive state was the way to his heart and many of his friends were writers or publishers. He had been close to Elizabeth David through her sister Felicité. Elizabeth was a notoriously difficult woman, but Michael applied his charm. They used to go out to lunch together and Michael amused her with tales of his love life. Back in 1987 he gave a copy of my book to Elizabeth, and I received a kind and encouraging letter from her as a result.

Possibly through Elizabeth David, Michael became a friend of the novelist Paul Bailey. I used to see Paul and occasionally his friend the publisher Jeremy Trevethan at Michael’s annual pre-Christmas lunch. Although the core of the invitees was much the same (they always included Stephen Yorke and his doctor Trevor Hudson), others only came a few times. My friend the photographer Fritz von der Schulenburg was often there, and once or twice the conductor Ivor Bolton. It was an occasion eagerly anticipated. For a long time it was held at the now sadly defunct Union Café in Marylebone Lane. A couple of long tables were laid out for his guests among the bustle of seasonal revellers. There would be presents in your plate, and later cheese would be handed out: stilton or parmesan.

When the cost became prohibitive, Michael shifted the meal to the upstairs room at the Admiral Codrington in Chelsea. There was just one table there, but perhaps a score of guests sat down to lunch, and the same generosity applied, even when Michael was living on his fat. Some of those financial problems were alleviated when he inherited property in Bosham from both Frank and an aunt.

When the Cod also became too dear, Michael’s lunches shifted to Pino in Kensington High Street. It was there that I saw him for the last time in 2019. There were the presents that we all knew Michael could scarcely afford. Michael told me that he had been diagnosed with dementia but he was good company for all that. The following year I cried off. I had had some bad news and I didn’t feel like going out. After that came Covid and the curtain fell on all our social lives.

One of the original sources for Michael’s proof collection was John Sandoe, the venerable Kings Road bookshop. When Michael failed to secure the cheese in time for the lunch, he would leave it labelled with his friends’ names in the bookshop’s basement. There was cheese deposited for me there in 2020, and just a few weeks ago, Cherry sent me a message to say that a piece of stilton had been left for me at Sandoe’s as usual. There is still a tiny piece of it left in the fridge; of Michael, sadly, there is no more.

Frederick the Great

Posted: 15h December 2021

On Sunday 12 December I appeared live on’s Talking History moderated by Patrick Geoghegan of Trinity College Dublin. A jury had been assembled to decide whether Frederick II of Prussia was ‘great’ or not. I’d managed to crack a tooth on my morning toast and the jagged remains had lacerated my tongue. I hope I was comprehensible. You can listen to the podcast here.

It was a distinguished panel: Tim Blanning, Emeritus Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, Professor David Blackbourn, previously of Harvard but now at Vanderbilt University, Professor Patricia Simpson from the University of Nebraska and (rather lower down the line) myself. Blanning read my biography of Frederick in proof back in 1999. He evidently liked it. He called it ‘A tremendous read, making the most of all the opportunities offered by the most intelligent and interesting of all European monarchs. It is particularly good at capturing Frederick’s neurotic bitchy personality and addresses the vexed question of his sexuality more frankly and authoritively than any previous biography. The book will surely stand as the standard life in English for a long time to come.’ The writer A N Wilson teased me, telling I was greater than Thomas Carlyle.

My reign did not last so long. In 2016 Blanning published his own biography of the king which my friend Philip Mansel decided was ‘sure to be the standard English-language account for many years.’ It won a huge prize from the British Academy. I had been put back in my box. The other two panel-members were both authorities on German history, but had not applied their talents so specifically to Frederick. I had come across Blackbourn from a nasty review he wrote of a different book of mine, but I knew nothing about Patricia Simpson.

As it was, everyone had something good to say about the king. Blackbourn concentrated on Frederick’s conquest of a province in peacetime: the draining and deforestation of the Oderbruch which had figured in his book The Conquest of Nature. After the carnage of Frederick’s wars, people needed to be lured to Prussia to work the soil and industry. Resettling itinerant populations in Prussian provinces was a tradition that started with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and continued in Frederick’s father’s time.

Professor Simpson talked about gender and reminded us that Frederick was not necessarily a misogynist even if he kept his arranged wife at several arm’s length and would not let her near Sans Souci where he entertained his philosophic friends (he kept no ‘court’ as such). She mentioned various women, but might also have talked about the king’s fondness for his Hanoverian mother and sister, Wilhelmina. His mother was determined to marry Frederick off to an ‘English’ (ie Hanoverian) princess. His father ensured he got a politically powerless bride instead.

Blanning was the star of the show. He is the author of a life of Joseph II of Austria too and was well-practised in putting the Prussian king in context. The Prussia Frederick inherited in 1740 was a poor, middle-ranking power which, the king averred, contained more sand than Libya. In a move that his father would certainly have approved, Frederick snatched the richest province in the Austrian Empire and spent much of his reign fighting to retain it. When he died forty-six years later Prussia was unquestionably in the world’s front rank. Frederick died three years before the French Revolution and was soon overshadowed by Napoleon and the massive upheaval he brought with him.

An hour proved far too short to cover Frederick’s many-facetted life. We discussed poetry, but scarcely dealt with his cultivation of French Enlightenment philosophy or his friendship with Voltaire. Frederick’s cruel experiences after his attempt to escape from his despotic father made him appear the champion of enlightened values. He abolished torture, a measure invoked by lawyers physically abused during the Third Reich. Professor Simpson talked about porcelain (a sine qua non for most eighteenth century monarchs), but we did not treat architecture or indeed music. Frederick liked to draw up plans and design facades, played the flute and kept a tribe of composers and opera singers, even if he looked down his nose at J S Bach.

We also missed out on the nastier side of the King’s character which bordered on tyrannical at times. He imprisoned Trenck, who was rumoured to have dallied with his sister Amalia. He may have made noises about building a mosque in Berlin, and did indeed create a church for his new Catholic subjects, but he remained virulently anti-Catholic at heart. In the case of the duplicitous miller Arnold, he backed the wrong party and packed the bench off to prison rather than the wily peasant who had hoodwinked him. We did not go into the controversial Polish Partition either. Actions like these (and many others) showed Frederick was closer in character to his austere, unhinged, Pietist father than many have given him credit for. Frederick William also had his artistic side: much of Berlin and Potsdam was redesigned during his reign and the king dabbled in painting in his grotesque fashion, including a telling self-portrait ‘in tormentis pinxit’ - painted in agony.

We did deal with his legacy, however, and the way that an effeminate (Blanning took exception to the anachronistic word ‘homosexual’) king was clothed in false personae in the centuries following his death. Blanning reminded us that Prussian liberals had venerated Frederick before 1848, and that his equestrian monument on Unter den Linden had gone up in 1851 (it was commissioned in 1839). After 1848, the French-speaking, Prussian ‘Fritz’ was invoked as one of the fathers of a united Germany - a thing he never dreamed of. Aggressive nationalists worshipped him and in the First World War the philosopher-cum-flautist became an unabashed ‘militarist’ comparable to the generals who prosecuted the war. His greatest deformation occurred after 1933, when he was co-opted into the Nazi Movement. Goebbels encouraged Hitler by reading him extracts from Carlyle’s biography, and one of the last things to leave the bunker was a portrait of the king by Anton Graff, which has never been seen since. It is to be hoped that these false pictures of Frederick have been put away now, but interpretation is a wondrous thing and we must brace ourselves for whatever happens next. It is unlikely he will have any more greatness thrust upon him, more probably all sorts of bad things will be brought up and the mantle of approbation will be swiftly torn aside.

Ian Ona Johnson, Faustian Bargain: The Soviet-German Partnership and the Origins of the Second World War

Posted: 15h November 2021

Since its creation in 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany has looked west, anchoring its policies in NATO and the European Union, but Germany has not always been inclined towards the West and when it was formed at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, Imperial Germany was more likely to look east. Prussia is the clue here. At the time that it merged into Germany, Prussia constituted some two thirds of the country’s landmass and it possessed very close ties to Tsarist Russia.

Poor Prussian nobles found employment in the Russian army, industrious Germans rocketed to the top of the Tsarist bureaucracy and droves of Teutonic farmers went east to exploit Russian soils. On a dynastic level the bond was at its closest from the beginning of the nineteenth century and the marriage of the Prussian King Frederick William IV’s sister Charlotte to Tsar Nicholas in 1817.

Russia and Prussia had both been beneficiaries in the partition of Poland in the eighteenth century and while they were friends Poland remained off the map. The first military alliance between the two lands was the Convention of Tauroggen of 1812, which aimed to rid Prussia of Napoleon. In 1814, the success of Russo-Prussian military cooperation was perpetuated in the formation of the Alexander Regiment of Guards in the Prussian Army.

The Russian Alliance was considered vital by Bismarck, and William II is still thought a fool for letting it lapse after he ‘dropped the pilot’, sacking his Iron Chancellor in 1890. In fact William later put a lot of effort into trying to revive the alliance, but failed. By that stage many of the Tsar’s advisors had other plans, proposing expansion to the west and most of William’s underlings were itching for the chance to strike Russia down before it became too powerful. As a result Russia and Germany found themselves on opposite sides in the First World War.

Germany was defeated and Russia laid low by the Bolshevik Revolution. The Treaty of Versailles punished Germany by drastically reducing its military capacity. The German army was whittled down to 100,000 men and the country was banned from possessing submarines, tanks, aircraft, heavy artillery and chemical weapons. Despite having been on the winning side until 1917 at least, Russia was not included among those nations that would benefit from German reparations.

A clever Prussian Junker, however, General Hans von Seeckt, saw a way round this and the chance to establish a means of keeping the German Army up to date by training it in Russia. The pact was all the more remarkable because Seeckt was no longer dealing with Tsars and noblemen but Trotsky and his coterie of revolutionary Jewish intellectuals. One issue united them as much as it had ever bound Prussia and Russia: Poland. Both countries had lost territory to a restored Poland under the terms of Versailles. Neither country was content to let this pass. Lenin wrote Poland off as a ‘bastard child’.

The cooperation was mutually beneficial, as Ian Ona Johnson makes clear in his excellent book: the Soviet Union received money and technology. Russians starved, but as Göring might have said: ‘guns come before butter’. The new Red Army derived its training from German models. German aircraft were tested at Lipetsk and Fili (where the Stuka prototype was first aired), and new tanks (disguised as tractors) at Kama. Tomka was used to fire heavy guns and poison gas. Politically the cooperation was enshrined in the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922, a bond between two progressive states, Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia that looked innocuous on the surface. The project survived the arrival of Stalin as well as Seeckt’s fall from grace in 1926. It was finally phased out before Hitler came to power, when Chancellor von Schleicher started expanding the army beyond the limits imposed by Versailles. Hitler tore up the restrictions as soon as he became properly master in his own house in 1934.

Given Hitler’s attitude to bolshevism as enshrined in Mein Kampf, the idea of cooperation with Stalin’s Russia might have seemed beyond remote, but many of his ideas nonetheless derived from Soviet Russia and he clearly admired the Russian leader’s ruthlessness. He watched the holodomor with interest as the Stalin wiped out millions of troublesome subjects through famine in the Ukraine.

The Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact that was signed in August 1939 was evidence of Hitler’s more pragmatic side but there was clear economic necessity behind it. Despite (if not because of) Germany’s Four Year Plan, the country was desperately short of raw materials.  Hitler’s persecution of the Jews had resulted in economic boycott from the West. Wise German experts began to direct their gaze towards the bountiful Soviet Union. 

The Treaty allowed the two countries to carve up Poland once again - effectively a fourth Partition. Germany took the western parts and Russia received the territory east of the River Bug, which it retained until the breakup of the Soviet Union (it is now Belarus). Soviet Russia also got back the Baltic States despite the fact that they had once been filled with German nobles and traders. Respecting Baltic barons might have scuttled Ribbentrop’s masterpiece. Hitler was overjoyed and called his foreign minister a ‘second Bismarck’, and by all reports Ribbentrop saw it as his crowning achievement. Ribbentrop regretted Hitler’s decision to break the treaty unilaterally when he launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union in June 1941.

As Johnson points out, in the ensuing war many of the German officers had received extended training in the Soviet Union. Lots had learned Russian. Russian materials had been used to create German weaponry while the Soviet army had benefited from German funding and instruction, even if many of the actual officers who had trained with the Germans had been liquidated in the Purges. Those resources in materiel and manpower won the day in the end, when the Soviet Union delivered an unequivocal defeat to its former ally.  

Some people like to see the DDR - the old East Germany - as a ‘Prussian’ state. I am sceptical, but it was certainly a Soviet puppet for most of its forty-year life, and always looked east. Angela Merkel might have proved a fitting heir to the east-looking Prussia-Germany. She was brought up in the DDR, after all, is a Russian speaker and had a proper Prussian mother, but when she became leader of the CDU she toed Adenauer’s line and turned her head resolutely to the West.

Grey Gowrie

Posted: 15th October 2021

Grey Gowrie died on 24 September. I first got to know him in the early to mid-nineties. His reputation had gone before him: his spectacular resignation from Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet, because he could not manage on a secretary of state’s salary, had been the subject of a good many guffaws up and down the land, and many of us were aware of Bron Waugh’s perennial vendetta against him in Private Eye and the Spectator, which had given rise to a fair number of chortles too.

Although Bron Waugh would have admitted none of it, Grey was actually a strikingly stylish figure. Born in November 1939, he was a viscount by the time he was three, when his VC-winning grandfather was created Earl of Gowrie (his father had died of his wounds after an SAS commando raid in wartime Libya). He succeeded his grandfather to the earldom in 1955 when a teenager at Eton, where he was Rosebery History Exhibitioner. If my memory serves me rightly, Grey went up to Balliol to read Modern History. His tutorial partner was Martin Brett (who later had the misfortune to be assigned to teach me mediaeval history during a particularly hectic summer term). The college decided that Grey was a bad influence on Martin, who had his heart set on a fellowship, and separated them. At that point Grey switched to English.

Grey had been writing poetry since his schooldays, and while he was at Balliol he published his first poems. He edited Isis,and bought modern art for the college, including a Hockney. Bron Waugh’s autobiography, published in 1991, paints a quite gratuitously distasteful picture of the young Grey. Waugh’s motives were quite unabashed: he was jealous. According to his own account (which he muddies a bit) he had fallen in love with a woman who was being subjected to Grey’s advances. Again, if I remember correctly, this was actually Grey’s first wife, but Waugh conceals her identity, choosing instead to ridicule Grey’s physical appearance: his ‘touch of the tarbrush’, his obvious African origins, and his resemblance to a street Arab (‘It helped, of course, that he was an earl. If he had not been, I might well have decided it would be wiser to walk on the other side of the street.’) Opening the book again after thirty years, I recoiled at Bron’s attack. The idiom he uses would be unimaginable today.

I worked for Bron writing for the Literary Review from the mid-eighties until he stood down prior to his early death in 2001. I liked him very much, but was never entirely sure he liked me. The sharpness of his literary persona belied a man who seemed both shy and avuncular. Grey knew that I got on with Bron. He never alluded to the terrible things that he had said and continued to say about him. When Naim Attallah pulled the rug out from under the Literary Review it looked as if the magazine would have to fold. Then Grey told me one night at dinner ‘I have found a buyer for the Literary Review. I haven’t told Bron yet. He can sweat for a few more days until I break the good news.’  In the circumstances I can only say that Grey had exercised the restraint of a saint.

After Oxford, Grey went to the United States with his young wife, studied at Harvard, worked as secretary to the poet Robert Lowell, taught English and American Literature at New York State and Harvard before returning to Britain and teaching at University College London. In 1972 he went into politics, becoming a government whip in the House of Lords under Edward Heath. Mrs Thatcher was said to have a particular fondness for him and he rose through the ranks after 1979. After being a junior minister for employment, she dangled a Cabinet position at him but he refused it, going to Belfast as minister of state instead. From 1983 to 1985 he was in the Cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and (yes, I am casting a glance at Nadine Dorries) a particularly well-qualified Minister for the Arts.

After he stepped down he became Chairman of Sotheby’s International division and later Chairman for Europe. In 1994 he was appointed Chairman of the Arts Council - again one could only say that it was an inspired appointment. He rang me soon after ‘You had better apply for a grant quickly’ he joked, ‘I don’t suppose I shall be around for long.’

It was the time I remember him best. In the early nineties, Grey still had a lot of youthful energy. We made a trip to a rum bar in Brixton, and he was enthusiastic to try all the cocktails. Once or twice I went to stay with Grey and his second wife Neiti at their house in Wales. He was very fond of good food and wine. One New Year there was delicious spiced beef he had made and for several years I prepared some myself in imitation. There was nothing flashy about the Gowries’ lifestyle, the earldom had not come with land or cash but I do remember him sending me down to the cellar for some top classed growth claret. Once he had to give Virginia Bottomley, his successor as Minister for the Arts, some practical advice on the telephone. This was quite a performance, which involved a great deal of winking and smirking in my direction: ‘Yes Virginia... Of course Virginia…’ I concluded that he did not have a high opinion of Virginia.

Grey was aware that he was a sick man. He had a bad heart, and as his condition worsened he was scheduled to receive a new one at Harefield hospital. Unfortunately he had a fall as he as waiting and broke his hip. He was at Harefield for almost a year waiting for a suitable organ:

Lights come on, patient sleepers wake
From semi-dreams of the death of a likely donor
Or dawn alert of car and helicopter
Bearing our lives swaddled in salt, in ice...

A new heart from a living donor (who required a more complete set of organs) was installed in 1999 but it was never going to be strong enough to deal with the blood transfusion required to operate on his hips. He put a brave face on things: when asked later he would say he was ‘in good heart,’ but he became progressively less and less mobile and sticks gave way to the inevitable wheelchair. In the last phase of life came a brush with Covid. He limped on a few more months, an alert brain in an increasingly uncooperative body still enjoying tapes of favourite books.

I saw little of him in his last years. I have an affectionate memory of chancing upon him in the Crush Bar at the Royal Opera House (he was a huge Wagner fan) eating sandwiches out of a plastic box. Grey was not in the least bit embarrassed, but the friend who had provided the sandwiches was mortified to be discovered slumming it like this while the great and good of the Opera House tippled champagne all around.

I treasure a book of Grey’s poems - Third Day - that he inscribed to me at their launch in 2008. He might have been the first person ever to write verse about heart transplants. Rereading them I rediscover elements of a familiar world now lost to me forever.

Adieu Grey.

Anthony Pagden, The Idea of Europe

Posted: 20th September 2021

The Idea of Europe is published in November. It is available for pre-order.

The classical scholar Oswyn Murray told me once that that my cosmopolitan nature was the inevitable result of my background. It was determined from birth - I had no choice in the matter. He didn’t mean it unkindly. He has no time for our great leader, whom he taught at Balliol. When Johnson became Prime Minister, Oswyn used a Latin formula to publically ‘divorce’ him as his former tutee.

But if I am locked into my cosmopolitan nature, I pale into insignificance beside the intellectual historian Anthony Pagden. Pagden’s secondary education began in Chile and was polished off at Westminster. He then took the unusual step of reading for a history degree at the University of Barcelona and working in a Spanish publishing house for a couple of years before going up to Oriel College Oxford as a twenty-four-year old mature student. After a congratulatory first in History and Spanish (he started out reading Persian and Arabic) he began his teaching career there. He was still knocking around doing his doctorate when I was up. Since then he has taught at London, Oxford, Cambridge, Johns Hopkins, Washington, Princeton, UCLA and Harvard; as well as Aarhus, Florence, Santiago de Compostella, Madrid and Paris.

Armed with such a breadth of knowledge and experience, Pagden is surely the perfect man to delve into the complex roots of the European idea. He takes us back to the maritime empire of the Greeks and the rather more solid Roman Empire, dwelling on the inclusive nature of Roman citizenship. Rome also designed the model and identified the territory into which Christianity fitted its ‘orbis christianus’. A Christian Europe, occasionally threatened from the outside (mostly by Islam), cognisant of Latin and later of French was the cosmopolitan word of the Middle Ages and the early modern era.

There was always a Europe of letters and the idea of a European ‘superstate’ has been with us since the Enlightenment. Even the conservative philosopher Burke was able to say that ‘no European can be a complete exile in any part of Europe.’ Edward Gibbon felt much more at home on the Continent than he did in England. It was also where he could see more clearly the remains of the Roman Empire he so much admired.

But soon after the flowering of the Enlightenment in the late eighteenth century, the European idea came up against its chief bugbear in the form of nationalism. Nationalism reared its head in response to the exporting of the French Revolution and the occupation of most of Europe by Napoleon. There were obvious questions about how ‘enlightened’ or disinterested was the French annexation of the Rhine’s Left Bank, for example, which may have looked rather more like a continuation of Richelieu’s foreign policy, and a desire to create secure borders or ‘Lebensraum’ for France.  The European system established in 1814- 1815 was meant to hold nationalism in check. It was a failure, and individual European tribes clamoured for their own states based on a near identical notion of ‘nation’, ‘Volk’ or ‘ethnos’.

Pagden steers us through a nineteenth century dominated by nationalists who abhorred dynastic divisions and looked towards a tribal ‘national society’ in some form or other. It was a time when nationalism was perceived as a revolutionary movement, rather than relegating it to backward-looking thinking, as many would prefer to see it today. The Wagner who rose up against the King of Saxony in 1848 was perceived as a revolutionary. Nationalism, however, inevitably led to clashes and wars, and the twentieth century came close to destroying Europe, not just as an idea, but as a cultural entity too.

During the Enlightenment, thinkers like Diderot and Voltaire could move between St Petersburg, Berlin and London happily communicating a common language of ideas in French. The Enlightenment’s idea of Europe was chiefly expounded by thinkers such as Condorcet and Gentz and the young United States provided a new model of how different communities could live with different laws under a federal umbrella. Sovereignty was defined as ‘indivisible power’- a possibility for Britain then, perhaps, but certainly not now.

In the twentieth century, the idea has had its luminaries too, first following the massive bloodletting of the First World War and then in an ever growing number following the Second. In recent times the avoidance of war has been the engine that has driven the European idea. Many of the earlier supporters of a European idea were active in the League of Nations which tried to damp down aggressive nationalism between the wars; but the nationalist potion proved too sweet. Behind closed doors Germans discussed post-Hitlerian Europe, particularly in the opposition Kreisau Circle. They understood all too well the need to dismantle borders and downplay sovereignty in order to prevent Europe’s tribes from savaging one another. In France there were two schools: one at the heart of the Vichy government that sought to make the most of a bad lot, in the other the Frenchmen were part of a more visionary school that revealed itself in the immediate post-war years in the likes of Monnet and Schuman, together with the Italian Altiero Spinelli. It was these men who got the movement off the ground in the fifties. Henceforth Europe would share its resources. It was an idea that had British champions then. Churchill is claimed by both sides now, but in the war’s aftermath his language was pretty clear: ‘If Europe were once united... there would be no limit to the happiness, to the prosperity and glory which its three or four hundred million people would enjoy.’

In his wonderfully wide-ranging study, Pagden is aware that that European Union has faced unforeseen destructive forces that have almost brought it to its knees. In the past generation we have seen migration brought on by poverty and climate change on a scale comparable only to the late Roman Empire. The Community created in 1957 always fought shy of invoking any form of ‘Christian Europe’ or indeed the mentioning of the idea of a profane form of Roman Empire. The Union’s weaknesses are palpable, as it necessarily tries to cater to all men and women in a way that will ultimately satisfy no one.

For some the idea was a dream that came true and remains true in the bulk of Europe. For others it is clearly a nightmare. My own juxtaposition may sound a little extreme: I would see the triumph of the ethnos/Volk-dominated Europe in Adolf Hitler and his promotion of tribal warfare. This was meant to end in the survival of the fittest. The Germans lost, proving perhaps they were not the fittest. Those who refused to follow him were pronounced culturally rootless - ‘citizens of nowhere’ (the Kaiser called them ‘vaterlandslose Gesellen’). Hitler’s diametric opposite would be Stefan Zweig, the ultimate cosmopolitan, who tragically took his own life in Brazil in 1942, because he could not face the decline and fall of the world in which he had dominated Europe and the world’s stage. He committed suicide just three years before Hitler - temporarily at least - discredited the idea of nationalism.

Karl Heinz Bohrer

Posted: 16th August 2021

The German literary critic Karl Heinz Bohrer died on 4 August. It was the end of a decade in which he had not been in the best of health. He had succumbed to Covid, emerged a weaker man only to suffer a massive stroke. He was in hospital for forty days, but never properly recovered consciousness.

Illness had not slowed down his productivity. The extent of his bibliography is stunning: twenty-eight books, and not just any books, and there is a breath-taking density of thought about them and an ability to muster the entire repertory of classical literature from the Greeks to today. There is even a last book in production, a posthumous work from Karl Heinz, a message from beyond.

Karl Heinz was my friend. He entered my life nearly twenty years ago, after his second wife, the writer Undine Grünter died in Paris. He was soon to remarry one of my best friends. All I knew of him at the start was contained in some kind words he had written about my biography of Frederick the Great. I am by no means an expert on German literature, the field he professed and in which he was one of the world’s greatest authorities. I am sorry to say that large amounts of his oeuvre went unfathomed.

He was born in Cologne on 26 September 1932, the only child of an economist and his flighty wife. He attended a humanist gymnasium or grammar school where the curriculum was based on Greek and Latin and attributed his occasionally surprising weakness in English to that. Latterly he boarded at the Birklehof, a liberal gymnasium in the Black Forest, where he adopted a beret and existentialist philosophy. He also developed an abiding love of France, just across the Rhine.

He proceeded to university at Cologne, Göttingen and Heidelberg, taking his doctorate at the latter. He then slipped out of university life to run the arts pages of first Die Welt in Hamburg followed by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He worked at the FAZ between 1968 and 1974, until he was ousted by the editor Joachim Fest, who replaced him with the redoubtable Marcel Reich Ranicki. It was a time of great turbulence in Germany, and Karl Heinz was controversial for his friendship with fellow journalist Ulrike Meinhof, who was later to become a key element in the bloodthirsty Baader-Meinhof group. He distanced himself from her when she took up arms against the state. Fest sent him to London to cover cultural affairs and he shocked German sensibilities once again by supporting Mrs Thatcher’s Falklands War. Karl Heinz was no pacifist.

In 1977 he prepared to slip back into academic life by taking his second doctorate or ‘Habilitation’ at the University of Bielefeld. The subject was the early writings of Ernst Jünger and the aesthetics of terror. From 1982 to 1987 he occupied the chair of modern German letters at Bielefeld. In 1984 he became editor of the forbiddingly intellectual monthly Merkur. After standing down at Bielefeld he continued to teach doctoral students for a semester a year at Stanford in California.

His experiences of growing up under the Nazis and above all during the war, formed the background to his first volume of autobiography, Granatsplitter (Shrapnel, 2012). Five years later he published a second volume: Jetzt (Now). Karl Heinz’s autobiography unsurprisingly revealed a more light-hearted side of his character. On two occasions I worked for him writing essays for Merkur. I could see that he would have been an inspirational tutor. He helped me shape the essays, and gave me fascinating suggestions as to what I might read. One formed part of a special issue on heroism, a subject close to Karl Heinz’s heart, as he was not in agreement with the intellectual left’s refusal to accept the existence of heroics.

Quite recently he fired up at an intemperate letter to the Spectator suggesting that Stauffenberg and his fellow plotters had been Nazis interested only in saving their own skins. His response was impassioned and categorical.

The German papers are filled with obituaries to Karl Heinz. It is a sad truth that I have learned so much more about him now he is no longer here. For the most part the English and American press has been silent. I offered an article to the most highbrow paper in Britain. They told me that Karl Heinz would mean nothing to their readers. They were probably right, but it is an admission to a terrible provincialism in this country when it comes to the broader world of knowledge. Only one of his books has been translated into English to date: Suddenness, and that was forty years ago.

As it was Karl Heinz spent two long periods of his life in England, not to mention many years in Paris, whence he commuted to Bielefeld for work. Latterly he was heaped with honours: The Lessing Prize, the Thomas Mann Prize, membership of the German Academy, the Bundesverdienstkreuz (I was at the German ambassador’s residence in 2014 to see him receive it). Many disagreed with him, but he was always hugely respected.

Karl Heinz was not the easiest man to define, although critics were able to agree that he fitted into no definable category.  Reich Ranicki mocked (he always mocked) that no one would understand him. The most touching obituary comes from Germany’s greatest intellectual: Jürgen Habermas in the FAZ, who admits that they never saw eye to eye, but liked his fellow Rhinelander none the less for it. Karl Heinz comes across as an outsider, who chose to live out his life in voluntary exile in Paris and London. In England he admired the rather more dilettante non-university-based approach to scholarship that possibly struck horror in his former colleagues. He was no stock German academic, far from it. His career in journalism helped. In some ways he came closest to Heine, who observed his fellow Germans with sadness and occasional satire. Heine, however, does not figure in his triumvirate of gods: Jünger, Hölderlin and Baudelaire.

To his obituarists, he was perceived as a radical aesthete above all - a ‘gentleman anarchist’ or a ‘nihilist revolutionary’ who made light of Germany’s bland leaders, Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel in particular. The philistine provincialism of Germany irked him; garden gnomes, trellises, the ‘comfortable’ in general, and the comfortable left in particular; he took aim at a particularly Teutonic brand of vulgarity. He rejected critical theory, which has taken hold of our universities too. On a more positive note, they pointed out that Karl Heinz stood for a number of aesthetic concepts that he applied with a broad brush to literature, such as the terror of appearing and expectation, the aesthetics of horror and evil, pessimism in romanticism, the limits of aesthetics, the aesthetics of the state and (of course) irony.

Much of what I read in the German papers cast Karl Heinz in a stark new light, but for me he was above all an affectionate apparition balancing a steaming trencher of goulash in one hand and a bottle of red wine in the other; and quite possibly the warmest, kindest, most intellectually alert man I have ever met.

Ordinary Germans

Posted: 19th July 2021

Horst Krüger, Das zerbrochene Haus: Eine Jugend in Deutschland, Schöffling & Co, 2nd ed, 2019

Horst Krüger, The Broken House: Growing Up Under Hitler, Translated by Shaun Whiteside, The Bodley Head, 2021

Several people recommended Horst Krüger’s memoir to me and in the end I gave in and obtained a copy. I bought the German edition, which worked out a little more expensive than the English translation, but I have no regrets: there is something very solid about German books: good binding, good paper, and that little built-in bookmark - they look like proper books - to have and to hold.

And I have no regrets about reading the book either. In fact I felt rather ashamed that I hadn’t come across it earlier. It was written after the author attended the Auschwitz Trial in Frankfurt am Main, at the invitation of his friend, the fearless Jewish judge Fritz Bauer and was published in 1966. Krüger set out to explain the aberration that was the Third Reich by delving into his own history and that of his family - by his own admission ordinary people who brought him up in the lacklustre western Berlin suburb of Eichkamp. In Krüger’s account they were just ordinary people, and in many cases it was quite ordinary people who ushered in the Nazi regime and carried out its crimes.

As Martin Mosebach points out in his afterword to the German edition, Krüger might have stretched a point here and there. Eichkamp is not as ordinary as he makes out, it isn’t plutocratic Grunewald, but it is not far off, and as a civil service office manager his father enjoyed a relatively superior status; and there are questions the author does not address, such as why his sister chose to commit suicide in such a painful way? This is an autobiography, but there is art too, indeed plenty of it.

The ‘broken’ house of the title is naturally Germany. The German dilemma is represented by the dutiful, hard-working Prussian father who had been decorated in the First World War, and his pious Catholic Silesian mother. Neither of his parents expressed much interest in politics, but they were naturally to the right. Neither was particularly antisemitic, although they might have come out with the odd put-down, much as my own great-aunts were wont to do. There was the famous Gymnasium, or grammar school in Grunewald, were the masters were not obviously Nazi either and Krüger’s perhaps unfortunate friendship with the half-Russian, half-Jewish boy Wanja which led to his volunteering to distribute letters for the National Bolshevik opposition. This resulted in Krüger’s arrest and a three-month long detention in Moabit Prison before the charges were dropped. His friend Wanja was imprisoned for five years by the People’s Court, which nonetheless saved him from a concentration camp, where he would have almost certainly perished. During Krüger’s time in Moabit, he met Hitler’s opponents: men as ordinary as his adulators.

Krüger studied philosophy in Berlin and under Heidegger in Freiburg before being conscripted into the army. He was wounded at Monte Cassino, but this is not mentioned. There was nothing glorious about the war launched by the ‘sinister’ man in Berlin. In the last days of the conflict, Krüger was left without ammunition facing a superior American enemy in the Ruhr and he and another soldier decided to desert. Unable to communicate with the American soldiers, a Jewish interpreter was brought in who had once studied philosophy under Jaspers in Heidelberg. They hit it off and Krüger was able to reveal the German positions, and the fact that they had no materiel to defend themselves.

Krüger ended up in a massive POW camp near Cherbourg. It was there that he learned of Hitler’s death in the first non-Nazi newspaper he had ever seen. Years later he tracked down his erstwhile friend Wanja, who worked for the East German paper Neues Deutschland as their Cairo correspondent. Neues Deutschland was as much a propaganda sheet as Goebbels’ Der Angriff had been. The reunion was not a success.

In an essay written ten years after The Broken House, Krüger explained that the Auschwitz Trial had been the real reason for writing the book, which had been written backwards to explore the roots of the evil. He wanted to explain why the insignificant people he saw in the dock (many of them bookkeepers) had been willing to perform such repulsive roles in the camp. He was keen to take his readers back to the ordinary people who allowed Hitler to rise, take over Germany and launch his suicidal, genocidal war. He gave himself no airs. He wondered if, had he been ordered to do so, he might have done the same. There was, he maintained, a little bit of Hitler in every German.

The date of The Broken House is significant. It was written at the end of the Adenauer-Era, during the brief reign of Ludwig Erhard, the man behind the earlier Economic Miracle. Although the concentration camps and the destruction of the Jews had been examined at Nuremberg and in immediate post-war films such as The Murderers Are Among Us, during the Cold War these things were swept under the carpet in the desire to establish the Federal Republic as a solid member of the Western defensive alliance. Germany was to have an army again, and that meant leniency. The trials stopped, and in the early fifties Nazi malefactors were released. It was not until the end of the decade that books like Exodus, or films like Last Judgement at Nuremberg began to sift through the ashes again. The Eichmann Trial of 1961 brought it all out into the open. The next blow to Adenauer’s whitewash was the Auschwitz Trial which lasted from 1963 to 1965.

Meanwhile a new generation had grown up. Those born in 1940 were now in their twenties. Their resentment against their parents’ generation would cause the student uprising of 1968. If they succeeded in anything, it was in having former Nazis weeded out of their jobs in the police and the judiciary. Krüger’s book was an extremely eloquent part of that indictment.

What Is History?

Posted: 15th June 2021

On 7 May I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. I had been asked to apply, and was naturally reticent when it came to putting my name forward to join a body largely composed of university teachers when I have played so little part of that world. I am proud that they found room to include me.

It has been almost exactly fifty years since I took my history O Level (the predecessor to GCSE) a two-paper exam covering British and European History from 1815 to 1914. In truth the path had begun earlier. I can’t remember whether I was six or nine when I decided to become a historian. My choice was probably influenced by my friend Gaboo Douglas, who had fought in both the Boer War and the First World War rising to the rank of Captain of the Marines. He had been too old to fight in the Second. He was naturally a great fan of Monty, which was also the name of our cat. He didn’t want to hear about our cat.

I began the formal study of history at eleven, and I was always top, if not nearly top of my class. At the age of thirteen a master dangled a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge in front of me for the first time. This was ‘grooming’ as it was practiced then. It certainly put an idea in my mind, even if that scholarship eluded me.

I did A (we added Tudors, Renaissance and Reformation and a special paper on Gladstone and Disraeli) and S Level History followed by the history entrance exam to Oxford. There was no history scholar in my college that year. There were three exhibitioners, and I wasn’t one of them. We had a dozen historians a year and four tutors on the foundation, plus the Master, Christopher Hill.  I faced a pretty distinguished team of tutors, notably the mediaeval historian Maurice Keen and the rising star of French Revolutionary history, Colin Lucas. Donald Pennington was on sabbatical when the time came to do Tudors and Stuarts again, and so I went to the Master for a term instead and to Robin Briggs at All Souls for another. Balliol had a pretty good network when it came to outside tutoring. In my time I went to Howard Colvin and Ross McKibbin at St John’s, I have some memory of going to Eric Christiansen at New College. Richard Cobb had become a family friend after teaching my sister. Famous figures from the past still filled the lecture halls in the Schools building, from Hugh Trevor-Roper to AJP Taylor.

I toyed briefly with the idea of staying on. I even consulted Howard Colvin on a suitable subject. I discussed another with Christopher Hill. In the end I went to Paris, and after a pause devoted to art, I signed on at the Ecole pratique des hautes études in the Sorbonne. I went to Jack McManners on the French Revolutionary church (I had attended his Oxford lectures), and later Romuald Szramkiewicz on French bankers. This came closest to the work Hill had inspired in me, which revolved around the Irish trade with Bordeaux in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Szramkiewicz had offered to supervise my doctorate, but in the end nothing came of it as after six and a half years in Paris I decided to return to Britain.

As I could not possibly finance a return to university in Britain I decided to write a book. Nobody wanted my thesis on Bordeaux (although a chapter appeared here) and so I chose a light-hearted theme from French Revolutionary history. My second book was about Third Reich history and in that Teutonic groove I have chiefly remained.

Dated historical principals remain deeply ingrained. Historiography was at the core of the now defunct S-Level exam taken by pupils aiming to study history at university. We learned about Whig and Marxist history, how to eliminate bias and argue both sides. Above all it was Leopold von Ranke’s line that we took home: history should be written ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen ist’ (as it actually happened). Historiography was the basis for our first Oxford public examination or ‘Prelims’: Gibbon and Macaulay and our foreign language texts: de Tocqueville’s Ancien régime, and in my case Burckhardt’s Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen. I can still quote both. That wasn’t the end of it: Philosophy of History was a whole paper in Schools, as our final exams were called. Hegel was still a big thing. We were also somehow conscious that a ludicrous answer could merit an alpha if the candidate argued the case well, which in retrospect was probably wrong. There weren’t so many alphas anyway. Firsts in Schools numbered between three and five percent.

Fewer people took doctorates then. The older tutors were often just MAs. Some had submitted them recently and remained ‘Mr’ because they preferred the title. A lot of theses were ‘referred’ (rejected). Are doctorates become interpretations? I saw someone argue recently that historians ‘interpret’ and that was what history was about. In those days I believe the doctorate was awarded for a contribution to ‘original knowledge’. It was still to be hoped the gaps in the picture could be filled. Christopher Hill was famously ‘Marxist’ (he left the Communist Party in 1956), but he was too good a historian to impose his views. I remember a tutorial with a rather foppish partner who refused to write the essay Hill assigned to him. Hill was almost apoplectic: ‘you will write that essay, and Mr MacDonogh and I will make sure you do it properly!’ He raged. I am not sure how I was to provide any muscle, mind you, but he always encouraged me, and he knew I did not share his political views.

Oxford insisted on two languages and examined undergraduates after eight weeks. Most did Latin and French, but my Latin was too weak, and I had to do the famously hard Burckhardt text instead. I thought I’d sail through the French, having spent six months there after leaving school, but I had to resit the exam. I got an unexpected ‘vix satis’ in German, as many of the examinees tossed their papers in after half an hour had elapsed. Of course we have a bigger menu now and rightly so. English History played too important a part in my training. History was very largely white men writing about white men. We had no women’s history to speak of. When I did a bit of colonial history I went to Robbie Robinson, then Beit Professor, mind you, and I was able to consult the wisest head of his time.

Cobb was highly influential then, an eccentric figure to be sure, but a strict archive man who could find a box of dusty papers and produce sparkling conclusions. Jack McManners, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History, was in awe of him. Later Szramkiewicz was to champion prosopography and the classical historian Ronald Syme. I had studied Lewis Namier, of course and his crook-taloned birds. Collective biography was an approach that suited my Bordeaux merchants.

The study of history has changed and become more judgmental. The first time I heard retrospective moral arguments was in the late eighties in Germany, when a friend - a professor of sociology - told me the Pyramids should be demolished because there was slavery then and women weren’t equal. In St Petersburg I was shown round by an unrepentant Marxist, but she was pleased the palaces had been restored. The tsars’ time was over, they were on their way to the dictatorship of the proletariat, but we could admire previous times in their context. It was all about Zeitgeist.

The writing was on the wall, however: after the Historikerstreit (‘Historical Controversy’) in Germany in the mid-eighties several household names had to bow out when they tried to argue for ‘closing’ the period of the Third Reich and allowing comparison between Nazi genocide and others. What was I to think? I was the grandson of a victim. It became clearer that an injustice had been committed to my family every time I visited Vienna. My Irish family was also dispossessed, but they got most of their country back in the end. The question remains how far back you can take this? Are Saxons to complain now about the Norman invasion and the imposition of a Franco-Norman culture on England for at least three hundred years that turned their ancestors into vassals? This would clearly be insane.

Yes it’s true that some Christians had always opposed slavery (there is plenty in the Old Testament), but it was the extra muscle provided by the Enlightenment that produced the anti-slavery movement at the end of the eighteenth century. Not so many people shared the white supremacist visions of Joseph Chamberlain or Cecil Rhodes to make it a winning political agenda, but their objections were less gut reactionary than ours. The Edwardians are now dead and buried. On the other hand I still know people who were in Auschwitz, and they are lucid enough to describe their experiences. They are right to demand justice. Their grievances are not yet history.

The London Blitz

Laurence Ward, The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945, Thames and Hudson, 2nd ed. 2020

Posted: 17th May 2021

I’ve been lusting after this book ever since it first came out in 2015, but when I turned out my pockets I realised I couldn’t afford it. I was discussing it the other day with my good friend Mister Slang and he recommended Abe Books for a cheaper copy, and lo and behold! There were new ones to be had for a third less than the recommended price, so I bought myself a late birthday present for just over £30.

It is a sumptuous book, measuring 37 x 27 cms, and all 147 maps are reproduced on strong paper in their original colours to show the extent of the destruction. There is also a section of black and white photographs of the bomb damage taken by Arthur Cross and Fred Tibbs, professional photographers attached to the Metropolitan Police at the time.

I turned first to the map of where I live. Our little terrace was unscathed by the war, and the much rebuilt house a little further up cannot blame its ugliness on German bombs. We are close to the railway line now called the London Overground and here as elsewhere, the German bombers followed the line of the tracks littering the neighbouring streets with bombs. Just round the corner they destroyed Gospel Oak School and Station, and Savernake Road which leads to South End Green was peppered with bombs. If we were spared, the streets behind us with their names redolent of St John’s College Cambridge were badly mauled. Three V2s fell harmlessly on the Heath nearby and another landed up by Tufnell Park Reservoir.

I immediately flipped to other locations that had a family significance. The first V2 to hit London destroyed the apse of the Catholic Church at the end of my mother’s street in Chiswick. She tells me she hid under the piano as the ceiling came down. Alas, that missile goes unrecorded here, as only a tiny bit of Chiswick was administered by the LCC. Another V2 hit Nevern Square, where we lived in my teens, destroying many buildings and shaking the mansion flats we were to inhabit decades later. Bomb shelters were still a feature of my childhood and beyond. There was one behind the maisonette in the Earls Court Road where I lived from three to nine, and more recently another in the garden where I lodged in Islington.

The worst damage was done by incendiary bombs. When a V1 flying bomb or V2 hit, it could take out a large area and sometimes killed hundreds of people, but the missiles were aimed vaguely at Tower Bridge and in reality they landed just about anywhere. London flak was widely condemned as a joke. Unlike the Germans, we relied on fighters to bring down assailants. I remember Hettie, a forthright wartime post-woman who used to mind my niece, telling me of her horror of ‘doodlebugs’ as she called V1s - from their characteristic drone - pursuing her on her rounds. The V2 was an incredible invention: a ballistic missile that flew at mach 3, taking only five minutes to reach London from the Low Countries. It was a small mercy it was so inaccurate.

The worst damage was effected in the City where 108 hectares were more or less written off. The epicentre was a thick strip north and south of St Paul’s which wiped out London’s book quartier and most of the land covered by Smithfield, St Martins-le-Grand and the Charterhouse, also creating a desert to be rebuilt as the Barbican in the Seventies. Every time I see the Barbican I rue the destruction that gave it life.

There was another big area taken out to the west of the Tower, but some bits were spared. A few bombs gutted St Bride’s Church and damaged the streets north of my school, but on the whole Fleet Street remained as it was, even if there were some sad losses in the Temple to the west. The fact that Fleet Street managed to retain its maze of alleyways north and south makes the current plan to destroy a large chunk of it even more criminal.

I had always thought the East End had suffered the most, but more damage was done in South-East London, as that was the trajectory of the aircraft, and they often dropped their bombs short of their targets when the RAF pitched up. There was still a huge amount of Bethnal Green destroyed, not to mention the now super-trendy Hoxton and Shoreditch.

It is good to remind ourselves that the Germans were not responsible for the destruction of as many great London landmarks as post-war developers. The current bland exterior of Grosvenor Square, for example, dates from after the war. Some of the better buildings were successfully rebuilt, so that you might not realise they were ever hit: Nash Terraces, for example, or University College London. Many of the City churches were painstakingly reconstructed, if not perhaps with the same scholarly devotion as some restoration work carried out on the Continent.

The maps are not always 100% reliable. When a bombing was deemed ‘sensitive’ the damage was not recorded. This was obviously the case at the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace (both of which were hit, the latter several times), but I cannot see why the destruction of Holland House in Holland Park on 27 September 1940 went unrecorded, or the damage to the Zoo? Maybe British morale would have been sapped by the idea of dead animals?

The maps bring home the scale of destruction between 1940 and 1945. Over 30,000 people were killed, almost exactly half the number of British civilians slain in these islands; although for scale it might be added that the RAF killed 20,000 people in Hamburg on one night, 27 July 1943, and that in that single week of bombing, Hamburg lost 37,647 citizens to the conflagration.

The book is a treasure, but it is not without its disappointments. I have mentioned the fact that it is limited by the fact it covers only the area administered by the LCC, which can be frustrating, but that is hardly the publishers’ fault. The chief demerit is actually the size of the maps, which require a magnifying glass to construe finer details. Realistically, the book needed to be twice as big. I would welcome the chance to see the maps online, so that I might scroll in at leisure. But still, I mustn’t let this get in the way of my delight at finally possessing the object of my desire, to have and to hold.

In Memoriam Peter Ainsworth

Posted: 15th April 2021

Sometime in the summer or autumn of 1977 I climbed a staircase at the back of the old Mitre Inn in Oxford. It had ceased to function as an hotel in 1969 and now provided rooms for students at Lincoln College across the Turl. I was going to see Peter Ainsworth, who lived in one of those bedrooms. In my hand I had a proof of the invitation to that term’s Gaveston ‘Synod’. I wanted to put his name down as one of the ‘minions’.

I had met Peter at the behest of Simon Linnell, like me a founder of the Piers Gaveston Society. The Gaveston had been created in the autumn of 1976 to provide a termly shindig that was all about dressing up, wild parties and some unspecified sort of sexual ambiguity. As such it flew in the face of more established Oxford clubs, like the Grid, where pompous public schoolboys met above a shop near the Westgate, or even the ‘Buller’, which was still feudal then. If the Buller Boys had been sober enough to notice the Gaveston, they would certainly have broken it up.

Peter was an actor like Simon. He possessed the right sort of ambiguity, mischief and something besides: an encyclopaedic knowledge of English music and poetry. His love of Benjamin Britten bubbled up on every occasion; and he impressed me by knowing all the lesser-known settings of A Shropshire Lad. He had a beautiful, rich baritone voice. I had squared his election with the other four. Peter was thrilled.

He was discreet about his past. He was born on 16 November 1956 the son of Lieutenant-Commander Michael Ainsworth, a former naval officer who had become a cricket-playing prep-school master at Ludgrove School. His mother, Patricia, née Bedford, was a widow, her first husband Commander Vernon St-Clair Ford had died suddenly leaving her with two young sons. Later Patricia gave birth to a daughter too - Peter’s little sister. His first schooling was naturally at Ludgrove before he went on to Bradfield College where he was head boy.

As my final year progressed Peter became a close friend. I was already living in Paris when I heard Peter’s father had died suddenly at the age of fifty-six. He had another wild year to go. I saw him on rare visits to England, but after his Schools I went to stay with him at a cottage he shared with friends near Bicester. I was greeted by a vile stench: someone had run over a deer and brought it home. It was hanging in the kitchen but no one had thought to gut or eat it. They had simply fled to the first floor. There was a party in my honour. The next morning Peter offered me a large glass of water. It turned out to be neat gin. The day continued in that vein. I was taken to a grand 21st in Isleworth. My hostess was gracious, but clearly unamused.

Peter calmed down and went to work at a bank. He had toyed with acting, but I suppose that looked like too much of an uphill climb, and he was worried that his nose was too big. In 1981 he married his fellow banker Claire Burnett, a contemporary who had read law at Somerville. They were together for over forty years. It would be hard to imagine a better marriage. I remained in Paris until the end of 1984 when Peter was taking his first steps in politics, something I understood about as much as I did banking. He had initially joined some sort of independence movement for Wessex, but now Conservative politics meant greasing up to councillors in Wandsworth. It was not the warmest period in our relations.

I lived with my sister at first and then with a dear friend, who promptly got married and I had to move again. In 1987 the friend took a letting on a house in Tuscany called Oliveto near Cortona. The party consisted of Peter and Claire, and two doctor friends of the friend’s doctor wife. We were bound by strict rules after Peter and my rendition of the Italian tenor solo in Act 1 of Der Rosenkavalier caused rumblings on Mount Olympus. I was writing an article on Brunello di Montalcino and we visited some estates. Among these was Il Greppo, where the wine was invented in the nineteenth century by the Biondi-Santis. We were warmly received by Franco and Tancredi Biondi-Santi. When we left Franco pressed three bottles on me: a 1975 and a 1981 Riserva and a 1980 Annata.

I didn’t think to open these bottles at Oliveto. They were too young, so I took them home. The following year Peter and Claire’s first child Imogen was born and I was appointed a godfather. Imo was christened in Orford where the Ainsworths had a pretty Georgian cottage. One memorable night we sat together opposite Orford Ness and he recited poetry and complained about the fowlers shooting the ducks. There was a party the next day, and I bribed Peter’s nephew Rufus a pound to keep my glass topped up. He performed his duties admirably and did not want to be relieved. He wailed horribly when his parents took him away.

Peter was elected MP for East Surrey in 1992. There was a ladder to climb and I was certainly no asset. Peter kept most of his friends in non-overlapping circles. He was nervous about some of his wilder traits being revealed and thought that as an occasional journalist and diarist I was not to be trusted. I continued to go on Ainsworth family holidays to Italy, mind you, as a second girl and a boy joined the team. Then I too married and had children of my own.

At Westminster, the former head boy gravitated towards the Whips’ Office under John Major before shadowing Blair’s Secretary of State for the Arts and finally receiving the environment portfolio.  I remember going to the House just twice while he was there. Once I had lunch with him at his home and we set out together. We went to one of the many bars where he jabbed a finger in the direction of Michael Fabricant, adding some caustic remark. While he voted I drank with the then Liverpool Labour MP Peter Kilfoyle. He was good company and Peter had to drag me away.

On another occasion he asked us to an arts party on the terrace. Peter would have been a wonderful Secretary of State for the Arts: someone sympathetic for once. I remember he got on well with Grey Gowrie, a published poet who had been one of the few Tory arts ministers of any stature. On this occasion I met Cecil Parkinson and the actor John Mills, but the evening was about support and not huge fun. Twice I got Peter to do something for me: once I needed some MI6 papers from 1938 which for some loopy reason were still not accessible, and he put me on to Tom King. I still had no joy, but I eventually found what I was looking for in the German archives. On another occasion I caught some developers ripping down a Georgian house near here. Peter was able to challenge the Labour Minister, something he enjoyed as Alan Howarth had been a Tory defector.

Peter was enthusiastic about the environment. It was a passion he shared with Imo, who read Geography at Bristol and it is for this he is chiefly remembered. Despite a good start, it was David Cameron who ended Peter’s career when he sacked him in January 2009. Peter stood down at the same 2010 election that returned the Conservatives to power.

I saw Peter at a party soon after the election. He said that he had had nothing in common with the people in his constituency, but he may have meant the House too. He had his eye on a job in broadcasting, which would have been a natural choice, but a suitable position eluded him. He was still reliant on patronage from the Conservative government, and continued cautious. He was placed in charge of the Lottery Fund, ran the Churches Conservation Trust and the Elgar Foundation. He also spent a lot of time lunching with his mates at the Garrick Club.

Shortly before the 2015 General Election we were guests at a house party in Dorset given by our old friend from Oliveto, who was excited about the Referendum and the birth of a New Britain in its wake. The atmosphere was heavy, and I was censured for escaping to the pub with Peter and Claire. It was 5 April and that night there was a frightful row at the dinner table. I was accused of treachery for wanting to remain in the EU. Peter sat on the fence, but I recall him saying quite distinctly ‘look, the EU isn’t great, but it’s the best deal we have’. I had told no one the next day was my birthday and we had planned to celebrate at home. We left straight after breakfast. I have seen the friend just twice since. The Daily Telegraph says Peter voted for Brexit in 2016. They must be right, but when I last saw him he told me he had renounced his membership of the Conservative Party.

It was about this time that Peter had some sort of health scare. He never learned what had happened, only that it had been serious. Peter’s sixtieth birthday occurred eighteen months after mine, but they were late in sending out invitations and I had already accepted another to the writer Jonathan Keates’s 70th birthday dinner at the Stationers’ Hall. The eulogy was delivered by Jonathan’s school friend, the conductor Sir Mark Elder, who had also had to forgo the pleasure of Peter’s party. I sat down with Elder later and we talked enthusiastically about our absent friend. 

The last time I saw Peter in the flesh was on 14 June 2019. The man who had introduced us more than forty years before, Simon Linnell had died. As fate would have it the funeral was in Peter’s old constituency. We met in Clapham and had a disgusting lunch at Wetherspoons in Horley. He knew the options, there was nowhere else. We were dreading it, not least because Simon’s friends were mostly of the right-on left and despised Peter as a former Conservative MP, while I was just as unpopular for other reasons. It was a sad day, but in retrospect, it was a feast to have had Peter to myself for much of it and to have been able to talk freely.

He was writing poetry and planned to publish a collection. One of his Garrick muckers was going to write the introduction and I was to design the cover according to his conception. Peter lacked confidence in his poetry, and right up to our last telephone call, some two months before his death, he flitted this way and that about publishing the volume. I liked the pieces and he showed me some brilliant parodies he’d written of poems printed in the Guardian and elsewhere.

Peter and Claire didn’t do dinner parties, although we did manage meet up a couple of times at one another’s houses. I was concerned about those Biondi-Santi wines, as the levels were dropping, and they might have been fading. I tried to interest Peter, but he was vague. The Oliveto group had been decimated by divorce, the sad death of our friend’s wife and civil war. At Christmas I decided to drink the 81 Riserva, and finding that on great form, I kept the last two for my birthday on 6 April. That evening I drew the corks and decanted the 75. By some ghastly twist of fate at that precise moment the telephone rang upstairs and my daughter ran to get it. It was the estranged friend (her godfather). I took the receiver. The voice at the other end quavered as he broke the news: Peter had had a massive heart attack. He was dead. 

Naim Attalah

Posted: 15th March 2021

The death of the publisher Naim Attalah at the beginning of last month did not come as a blow to the heart. He was nearly ninety and my own association with him had long since ceased, but when I thought about it I was compelled to admit that many things had changed in publishing in the last thirty-five years and one of the most noticeable of them was that the fun had gone right out of the business. There are many explanations for this, most of which revolve around the disappearance of the so-called ‘middle-list’ composed of interesting books that didn’t necessarily earn publishers much money, but which might have won them some kudos and even a few rave reviews.

The authors of these books are now often obliged to go to academic houses, self-publish or publish online while decisions as to who actually receives an adequate advance are left to a committee dominated by sales and marketing people, who give the thumbs up only if a book looks like making a substantial profit. Agents are harder and harder to find and often put the dampers on projects: as one who owed me a favour told me recently: ‘Giles, if it isn’t going to make a million, quite frankly I’m not interested.’

Publishing with Naim wasn’t like that. He was peculiar, sometimes even hilarious but open-minded and surprising numbers of famous authors published at least one book with him before their reputations were set in stone. Advances were not generous and he hated agents. If you published with him you took the pittance you were given.

Naim was born in Haifa in 1931. I think he was a Palestinian Christian, but I could be wrong about his religion. It appears that his father was not exactly poor. He came to London to study engineering and later worked for the jeweller Asprey. He married a Polish woman and I remember a son called ‘Nelson’ - which I thought a strange West Indian name for a half Palestinian, half Polish boy. When I looked him up just now I discovered his name was actually ‘Ramsay’, which was also odd, but possibly less so than ‘Nelson’.

It was often said that Naim had wanted to be the George Weidenfeld of his day. George was a Viennese Jew who had allegedly broken into British society by employing lots of grand British girls in the publishing house he created just after the war; but in truth George had gone into business with Nigel Nicolson, son of Arthur and grandson of Lord Carnock and George was an inspiration and mentor to his authors in a way that Naim never was. 

In a way it was natural that I should have gravitated towards Naim, as many of my university friends had worked at his company - Quartet Books - for a short time at least. Most prominent among them was my good friend Stephen Pickles whom Naim picked up in Harold Moore’s record shop and offered him the job of editorial director at Quartet. By the time I arrived at Quartet Pickles had transmogrified into Greta Garbo. They said he inhabited a cork-lined room in Goodge Street and published worthy translations of modern European literature for his Encounters series. I never saw him once. Nigella Lawson had already gone to the Sunday Times, but a close friend ran the Academy Book Club from an office in Beak Street, sandwiched between the Academy Club and the Literary Review, where I reviewed books for Auberon Waugh. All three institutions belonged to Naim’s Soho empire.

I must have first read of Quartet in Private Eye (‘Courgette Books’), and it was a Private Eye staffer, Paul Halloran who first encouraged me to get in touch with Naim. It didn’t look like my thing: I had heard that Naim wanted only to fill his offices with beautiful upper-class girls, and I hardly qualified as either. I took no notice, but later I got to know his secretary who claimed she’d find a way to get him to read a chapter of the book I was writing. I don’t think she managed to get him to take the bait. It was not until I heard that Rebecca Fraser, the publisher of Robin Clark - another of Naim’s imprints - was looking for a book, that I actually submitted some material about the eccentric French gastronome Grimod de La Reynière and employed an agent to represent me.

There was a certain irony about Rebecca working for Naim. Her mother Antonia Fraser had been employed by George Weidenfeld in her youth. Rebecca accompanied me to the decisive lunch. There were just three of us in Naim’s private dining room in the basement of Namara House in Poland Street, the beating heart of his empire. A cook brought in a very grand meal for us and good wine was served. Naim started talking about a pet project of his: a book of photographs of naked women and maybe a few men from all walks of life. I had read in the Evening Standard that he was to figure in it. He turned to Rebecca and said that he was hoping to persuade her to pose. She looked cross. I mentioned the article I’d read. Now he looked cross. We changed the subject.

He said he wanted my book but proposed a risibly small sum of money. He then proceeded to attack agents, who, he said, came between publishers and authors. This was of course true, but strictly speaking they existed to ensure that authors got more than risibly small sums of money from their publishers. I said I would discuss the offer with my agent and left it at that.

I wanted to have my friend Jennifer Paterson write the recipes that I planned for the last section of my book. Jennifer had been at school with my mother and was later to become an unlikely television star when she was discovered by the late Patricia Llewellyn. Naim didn’t approve. It turned out he didn’t like Jennifer: ‘Big fat woman’ he said with some distaste, then repeated it several times: ‘Big fat woman’, ‘Big fat woman!’ I would have to write my own recipes.

There were two or three important people at Quartet I needed to get to know now: David Elliott who ran the business side of things, and the magnificent Anthony Blond, who had once owned the publisher Blond and Briggs and performed an indefinable role for Naim. When I was a child my mother had designed book jackets for Anthony. He arranged for David Dorricott to cook a sumptuous dinner to launch the book at the Portman Hotel. Anthony was at his campest with the kitchen staff who seemed to be delighted. Quartet paid nothing for what was a truly memorable meal. The other person I needed on my side was Anna Groundwater, a woman of dazzling beauty who was in charge of publicity. I confess I must have got Anna badly wrong. I assumed she had little interest in books. When I looked her up recently I found the same Dr Anna Groundwater was currently curator of the renaissance collections at the National Museum in Edinburgh.

I had written quite a lot of the book before it was commissioned and it didn’t take me long to do the rest. It appeared in November 1987. By that time Rebecca had left and a quiet, atypical Jeremy Beale had become my editor. After I turned in my final proofs I told Jeremy about a strange lunch of spies I had enjoyed in Walsham-le-Willows, and how I had been encouraged to write a book on the German opposition figure Adam von Trott. One of the spies had gone so far as to suggest that his publisher nephew would do it. Jeremy said ‘If you are going to do it for anyone you had better do it for us.’

And so I wrote a second book for Naim and this time I became much better acquainted with the interior workings of Quartet. Pickles was still upstairs - no one ever saw him. Anna had gone, and had been replaced by Serena Blow and Anna Pasternak. Opposite Jeremy was Nina Train, a half-American, half-Italian woman who seemed to have stepped straight off the pages of Scott Fitzgerald. The real fun was downstairs, where Naim sat enthroned among a jabbering crowd, the butt of endless japes it seemed, but always exulting in the attention. Chief among his tormentors was Jubby Ingrams, daughter of Richard, founder of Private Eye.

By the time I had published A Good German in 1989, I had moved elsewhere. It is hard to imagine it now, when work is so sparse, that I brought out three books in 1992 alone. Quartet must have gone on being Quartet, but the truth was that it emptied out with time. I tried looking up the fates of those people I had known in Goodge Street. Anna Groundwater went serious and Anna Pasternak has achieved fame as a writer. Serena Blow became a dress-designer but seems to have suffered upsets, and poor Jubby died of an overdose. For a long time Pickles beavered away in his attic but when the empire passed through hard times even he had to go. Namara House was sold off, the Academy Club and the Literary Review upped sticks and passed into other hands but Naim clung to his publishing interests and never let go. Quartet Books is still there at 27 Goodge Street, but I can’t imagine it being much fun without Naim.

Rooting Out the Ancestors

Posted: 15th February 2021

On Wednesday last the final piece of the jigsaw fell into place.

Since the end of August I had been trying to find correct information relating to my mother’s birth and baptism, not to mention my grandparents’ wedding and when and where these two or three events had actually occurred? My mother had told me certain things, but some facts were clearly garbled. She had not been present at the wedding, and she had not seen either parent since her mother died in 1937. She had obviously been present for both her birth and baptism, but could not be expected to remember either.

In September I sent an e-mail to the parish church in Hietzing, the prosperous suburb of Vienna, near the imperial summer palace of Schönbrunn, where my mother spent her first few years. I received no answer, but in the meantime I spoke to my mother who told me she was not born at home in Hietzing, but in a sanatorium, because my grandmother was already suffering from the TB that caused her death ten years later. My mother told me that her parents had been married in the ‘big church behind the Rathaus’ where she had also been baptised. I looked at a map. Behind the Rathaus was a prison. I spoke to a friend in Vienna. He suggested the Piaristen might be a suitably large church and not far off. I contacted the town hall of the 9th District. They told me to try the as yet un-digitised diocesan archives. They had no record of my grandparents’ marriage or my mother’s birth at the town hall.

My mother then reverted to the story she had told me as a child, that her parents were married in Paris.

In the meantime professional archivists attached to the Viennese regional government were on the job, I told myself I would let them find the information: they would be much better equipped for the task than me.

On Wednesday, however, I had an apologetic e-mail from the church in Hietzing. They had lost my e-mail but had found it again and were able to report that my mother was not born or baptised there, but in Lichtental, at the other, vinous, end of the city and provided me with the appropriate reference to the parish records.

I promptly sent an e-mail to the church in Lichtental, but received no answer. Then I noticed that the vestry was open only twice a week and that the next time would be on Thursday afternoon. In the meantime I looked up the church. It was a lovely building by the great baroque architect Lukas von Hildebrandt, and my mother could say with pride that she had been baptised at the same font as Franz Schubert, although unlike Schubert, she had not returned the favour by writing two or three Masses to be performed in the church. I also sought out that sanatorium my mother had mentioned and found a likely one: the Sanatorium Hera in the Löblichgasse, a well-known private maternity and gynaecological clinic.

At 2 pm on Thursday I called the church. A pleasant female voice answered: ‘Ah, sie sind der Engländer. Ich bin grad dabei’, she said (‘you’re the Englishman, I am working on it now’). Five minutes later the mysteries were solved.

My mother was indeed delivered on 13 April 1927 by one Anna Jelinek, a midwife, at the Sanatorium Hera. She was baptised on the 22nd by the priest Anton Fischer. At the baptism were present my grandfather and grandmother: Felix Zirner, a jeweller aged just twenty-two, and his English wife Katharine Bacon, apparently five years his senior (according to her birth certificate it was more than seven). Felix and his parents are described as ‘mosaisch’ (Jewish), Katherine and her parents Roman Catholic. Both my great-grandmothers were widows by then. My English great-grandfather John Henry Frederick Bacon MVO ARA had been court painter and signed off the official representations of the coronations of Edward VII and George V. My Austrian great-grandfather had been court jeweller to the Emperor Francis Joseph and the Shah of Persia. The priest felt himself beholden to translate my great-grandfather’s Christian names into German: Johann Heinrich Friedrich - but restrained himself from transforming Bacon into the more appetising Teutonic version of ‘Speck’.

The witnesses were one Bernardina Gruber, director of an institute in Percholdsdorf, south of Vienna and my great aunt Joan, who is described as a ‘nurse in Harrogate’. Joan must have been the source for my mother’s version of her birth and baptism.

I don’t think Joan or Bernardina were my mother’s godparents. I knew her godmother. She was Miriam Grey Wornum, the American wife of the British architect George Grey Wornum who designed the RIBA building in Portland Place. Oral history has Joan studying chemistry at Leeds where she met her husband ‘Tony’ and eloped with him to the United States in a bid to get away from her tyrannical mother. Maybe she had dropped out? Later that year she married Dr George Marston Haddock, Principal of Leeds College of Music in succession to his father and the scion of a great musical dynasty in the city. Sometime in the thirties the Haddocks did indeed leave Britain for the United States where both Tony and Joan died.

As I was told to expect, the certificate also provides the clue to my grandparents’ wedding. My mother had told me her parents were married somewhere in Paris on 26 November 1926. I then spent several wasted hours looking through the registers of twenty arrondissements online and a few suburbs too, to no avail. The record in Lichtental sorted that one out: they were married on 13 November 1926 at the Mairie of the 14e Arrondissement. The record gave me the number 2032 in the register for 1927. I could now find the wedding with no problem.

It was a civil wedding conducted by the légion d’honneur-swinging assistant mayor, and the religious differences between the couple go unrecorded. Felix is shown to have lived at 24 rue des Fossés St Jacques, while the painter Katharine lived at 29 rue du Campagne Première. Two witnesses were present, neither of whom I have been able to trace: the journalist Elisabeth Jaustein who resided in the rue Becquerel behind Sacré Coeur, and Rose Bercklen, who had no profession and lodged in the rue Masarine in St Germain des Près, next to one of my favourite bars, La Palette.   

Felix’s Paris address is now a psychiatric clinic; while Katharine’s is the Hôtel Istria, a place with quite an ‘istory. A plaque on the facade reveals that at much the same time that Katharine lived there it was the home, or temporary home to Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Kiki de Montparnasse, Eric Satie, Rilke, Mayakovski and Louis Aragon and his muse Elsa. I am sorry to say that my grandmother’s intercourse with her famous neighbours has been lost - at least for now.

Katharine was three months pregnant with her young lover’s child. My mother tells me that Felix had travelled to Paris to convince her to marry him.  Am I am wrong in assuming that she had fled from Vienna because she didn’t dare admit to her very strict Catholic mother that she was pregnant, and by a Jew as well? Was her family even informed of the wedding? My great-grandmother did not travel to Vienna for the birth. I have learned a lot recently, but there are some details archival sources can never reveal.

John Le Carré and the Literature of Brexit

Posted: 15th January 2021

The death of the 89-year old John Le Carré (real name David Cornwell) two weeks before Christmas aroused bitter-sweet memories. There was a time when I wolfed down every new book he wrote. I think that must have started in the mid-seventies and continued until shortly before the end of the Cold War.  I remember thinking that Smiley etc. must have been a bit long in the tooth by then. Once the Wall was down I couldn’t really see the dowdy, shadowy world he had created being translated into a hi-tech modern one with a range of different enemies: it must have been a crisis time for all spy-writers - the Cold War was the gift that kept giving. The removal of the Iron Curtain might have put a lot of them - at least temporarily - out of business.

My own life had changed too. In 1989 I published my first book on German history. At Christmas that year I celebrated by travelling from Vienna to Berlin via Prague, Dresden and Leipzig. On New Year’s Eve I went to a huge party at the Wall and watched people hacking holes in it. At one point a man doused it in petrol and set it alight. I felt like Wordsworth welcoming in the French Revolution: ‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive.’

I think I only read one Le Carré novel after that: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and that at the request of an editor who wanted a piece on Cold War Berlin. To be honest it is probably Le Carré’s best. It captures a certain mood which was well translated to the cinema screen in 1965, when Richard Burton played possibly his greatest ever role as the downbeat, hard-drinking Alec Leamas. I still watch the film, often. Alec Leamas is the perfect foil to the frankly absurd creation that is James Bond.

A few days after Le Carré’s death I saw a strange letter in the local rag that revealed the enormity of his feet: he wore size 13 shoes. It was written by a woman who used to talk to him on the Heath, where they both walked their dogs. It turned out that he lived in Well Street or nearby. And then it occurred on me that the face in the picture was familiar; that I had probably seen him recently, walking with a dog and a stick. Then I felt lonely, as if I had lost a part of my existence, and that he was some sort of estranged but still valued friend.

Not everyone felt that way. In the Telegraph he was passed over for the top slot on the obituaries page in favour of the crooks’ moll and carry-on star Barbara Windsor. Boris Johnson also eulogised our Babs, but failed to mention Le Carré. The reason for this was probably clear enough: Le Carré had been a vociferous opponent of Brexit. He was not only a former Cold Warrior, he was a linguist and a staunch European. The Brexit oligarchy has little sympathy for the pro-European older generation in the Conservative Party either. They might have said Le Carré was stuck in the past with causes and attitudes that were now meaningless, and maybe they were right. Let’s face it: I too had decided that Cold War literature was an outmoded genre.

Then my son gave me a copy of Le Carré’s last novel - Agent Running in the Field - for Christmas. I cleared my desk and for a couple of days I reverted to form: I was almost totally absorbed. One of the first things I noticed of course was that despite my misgivings, the enemy hadn’t really changed: why should it have done? Russia was still a pariah, if not THE pariah; the President of the Russian Federation is a former KGB officer who served in Dresden during the Cold War. Russians are everywhere you look, and many of those made their fortunes as the world so beautifully described by Le Carré in his earlier novels fell apart. In their hearts, however, it is not hard to imagine that many of them remain steadfast KGB-men.

I do not intend to give away the story to anyone who has yet to read the novel, but the plot revolves around Nat and Ed. Nat is a seasoned MI6-man who has been head-of-station in various places, while Ed is a gauche younger ‘media’ man who challenges him to a game of badminton in a Battersea sporting club. Somehow Nat and Ed’s games become trammelled up in the operation that Nat is leading, and which revolves around some covert surveillance focussing on a Russian oligarch.

Nat finds Ed sympathetic, maybe because they both dislike Brexit; indeed, Ed is a furious ‘Remoaner’. Nat has no fondness for Brexit either, or his boss - the Foreign Secretary, our present Prime Minister. The novel is set during Theresa May’s ministry: ‘A minority Tory cabinet of tenth-raters’ says Nat, ‘A pig-ignorant foreign secretary who I’m supposed to be serving. Labour no better. The sheer bloody lunacy of Brexit...’ Ed adds a warning against dependence on Trump, an ‘institutional racist’ a ‘neo-fascist’.

Nat’s dislike of Brexit is more old-school: ‘I am European born and bred. I have French, German, British and Old Russian blood in my veins and I am as much at home on the Continent of Europe as I am in Battersea.’ He is not enamoured of Trump either and nor are most of his ‘chers collègues’.

There aren’t many takers for Brexit in the novel to be honest. Nat goes to the former Carlsbad to see one of his old agents, Arkady. Arkady isn’t impressed either: ‘You walk out of Europe with your British noses stuck in the air: “We’re special. We’re British. We don’t need Europe. We won all our wars alone. No Americans. No Russians, no anyone. We’re supermen.” The great freedom-loving President Donald Trump is going to save your economic arses, I hear. You know what Trump is?
‘Tell me.’
‘He’s Putin’s shithouse cleaner.’

Agent Running in the Field is not Le Carré’s best book by a long chalk. The characterisation is unconvincing. It is not at all clear why anyone is interested in the gawky Ed, least of all Nat. That he finds love seems, well, unlikely. A tiresome PC world has taken over the service (that much is almost certainly true to life); the badminton analogy failed to satisfy me, and the end descends into a sort of unseemly schmaltz...

But it is a novel about Brexit and as such Le Carré’s last minute stab at a new genre. It is quite a swansong, and on the face of it, it is no wonder that Le Carré went to his grave (in official circles at least) ‘Unwept… Without the meed of some melodious tear.’


Posted: 21st December 2020

On Thursday I said my farewell to the Mainland. We needed to pick up some wine in Calais, and set out in darkness shortly before six in the morning. The Channel Tunnel was heralded by mile upon mile upon mile of lorries parked up on the hard shoulder of the motorway, awaiting their slots in the Channel Tunnel train. For some reason they reminded me of the German tanks in the forest at the beginning of the film A Bridge Too Far. Without obvious drivers in their cabs, they were strangely menacing, but they also brought home to me the strengths and weaknesses of islands. Yes, we are hard to invade, but we are also acutely vulnerable because we produce so little of what we need to sustain us. A lot of our fresh food comes through that tunnel. Both the First and the Second World Wars demonstrated that it was quite possible to starve us and we had a proper navy to defend us then. The drivers of these apparently stranded vehicles could all be classed as heroes in their way, who have put up with this ignominy to make sure we had at least some food and drink over the festive period.

A rosy dawn broke over the Continent as we waited in the car park in Folkestone. There were not so many small vehicles heading for the continent but we were still delayed for an hour and sat in a queue while others walked their dogs around their cars in intermittent rain. With Brexit not two weeks off, maybe this would prove the last chance to visit the holiday home with Rover and Fido? Next year even humans might need visas.

We emerged on the other side to be greeted by kilometre upon kilometre of lorries laid up by the side of the road, waiting for their slots on the Channel Tunnel train. The only difference was that these lorries were frequently surrounded by packs of migrants in shabby anoraks and woolly hats, desperate to find a way to hitch a lift across the water. As we drove to the warehouse we saw roads blocked by lorries parked four abreast across the motorway.  If they weren’t going to get through, no one else would either. Angry drivers tried to carve us up as we skirted the roundabouts. 

The business of collecting the wine took virtually no time. Rampant Covid dictated that we had as little contact with the staff as possible. Once the van was loaded we went into Calais to a branch of the supermarket Carrefour. As we got out of the van, a French lad, dressed in much the same kit, was negotiating with three or four migrants. I wondered what he was proposing. Was he about to relieve them of their last reserves of cash?

The supermarket was almost empty which was hardly usual at this time of the year. My friend had brought a substantial list from his wife, and I needed to find someone who could help us. When we did locate someone stacking the shelves, she was the purest sweetness and light. The only item that stumped her was ‘champagne vinegar’. She led my friend off to the wine section, where there was row upon row of bottles of champagne, and threw up her arms in triumph.

The absence of customers was most noticeable when it came to seasonal foods. There were heaps of smoked salmon, boudins blancs, every conceivable form of foie gras, chocolates and bûches de Noël. Possibly as many as a dozen people were picking over the piles in a desultory sort of way. I could not see that mountain of foie gras diminishing much by the end of next week. I picked up some raw livers for myself, some vacherin Mont d’Or, and a few odds and ends, and we left. There was a crowd of migrant boys gathering around the lavatories, few people braved the picket.

We planned to get ahead of the lorries by driving though the centre of town to the mouth of the tunnel at Coquelles. Calais has never been a particularly enticing spot. In 1974 I spent a night there in the flat of one of my sister’s friends. There was a fair and we all went out to play on the dodgem cars. When I lived in Paris I used to take the train several times a year to Calais Maritime to catch the ferry. The train took four hours. Most often the boat required an hour and a half to cross the Channel, and you needed another hour and a half to get to Victoria. With all the waiting and passport checks you were lucky to manage the whole trip from the Gare du Nord in under nine hours.

Calais was badly bashed about in the war, which resulted in the destruction of 73 percent of the town. In most streets the war damage had been plugged with modern buildings. It was lunchtime, but scarcely a soul emerged from the streets of low, terrace houses. The bars and restaurants were closed. We drove along the boulevard Gambetta. Near the theatre there were a few relics of a more splendid past in the form of belle époque houses. There was an impressive Vauban-style fort, erected, I supposed, to defend the place against the English. I later learned that Fort Nieulay was actually been constructed by the English, but had indeed been rebuilt by Vauban. A few miles on, Coquelles looked more prosperous than the city centre. Sangatte, a sort of temporary home to the migrants, was only a short distance away on the coast.

We had done well: we had got out beyond the lorry traffic and joined fewer than half a dozen cars and vans waiting to use the Tunnel. And we waited, and we waited, sitting in the cab of our van while the rain pelted down, punctuated by occasional bursts of blinding sunlight. The only distraction was a near perfect rainbow. The terminal was a desert with its overpriced shops and cafés (takeaway only). We were there for some four hours before they let us onto the train.  We emerged into darkness on the north bank of the straits. As we sped along the M20 lorries were banked up on the hard shoulder for some sixteen miles from Folkestone to Ashford, patiently waiting for their slots on the Channel Tunnel train.

Hitler’s New Map of Europe

Posted: 17th November 2020

Steven K. Pavlowitch: Hitler’s New Disorder: The Second World in Yugoslavia, Hurst

At the end of the First World War the Treaty of Versailles and its related treaties (St German, Trianon and Sèvres) created new states that fell apart under the hammer blows inflicted by Adolf Hitler. Hitler was no great fan of the so-called ‘principle of self-determination’ that had guided President Woodrow Wilson’s hand, and to a much lesser extent influenced other world leaders as they deliberated in 1919.

The German, Austro-Hungarian, Tsarist and Ottoman Empires broke up and several wholly new states were carved out of the pieces. As there was no treaty with Soviet Russia, the freshly-minted states of the Ukraine and White Russia and others in Russian Asia drifted back to the fold; but in the north-west, the three Baltic Republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were pulled away from Russia and awarded independence. Although Germany had created a vassal state in Poland in 1917, the country was only properly revived and given a far greater land-mass at Versailles two years later. Romania was expanded at considerable cost to Hungary. Italy mopped up a few titbits in the north and north-east. Belgium was given Eupen-Malmédy, while the border was adjusted in favour of Denmark in Schleswig-Holstein. France won back Alsace and Lorraine and a lease on the German Saar. 

Of the creations in east-central Europe arguably only Poland has proved a lasting success, but it is no longer where it was. To allow the Soviets to hang on to their gains east of the River Bug in 1945, it was shifted westward, obliging the German populations of East and West Prussia, Pomerania, eastern Brandenburg and Silesia to run for cover across the River Oder.

Czechoslovakia was formed out of Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and Ruthenia, but in Moravia and the major towns, there were Germans totalling 22 percent of the population, and the Slavic Slovaks were also unhappy with a settlement that awarded primacy to the Czechs. Yugoslavia (or the Kingdom of the South Slavs) brought together the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, not to mention Macedonians and Bosnians, across a fault line created by the limits of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. To the west they were Catholic, to the east Orthodox. In Bosnia there were Muslims too. From 1919 the designated rulers were Serbs. Politically and culturally it was a tinderbox.

Hitler was committed to redrawing the map. He dealt with Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939 and sponsored the new, independent state of Slovakia in 1940, when large amounts of Slovak territory were handed back to Germany’s ally Hungary. Yugoslavia contained half a million Germans, or more than forty percent of the population but as a major trading partner Hitler left it in peace until 1941. It was only the coup d'état of 27 March 1941 and his projected invasion of the Soviet Union that changed his approach. On 6 April Germany invaded, Hitler justifying the attack by the usual pretext - threats to the German minority.

The invasion lasted all of twelve days. Germany sustained 558 casualties. It was three-pronged: Hitler’s commanders organised the participation of his Italian and Bulgarian allies, both of whom could be expected to receive slices of Yugoslavian cake. Bulgaria cast its eyes on Macedonia (which was racially similar) and Italy claimed much of Slovenia and the Adriatic coastline, formerly part of the Venetian Empire.

The real reason for the invasion was the perceived pro-Western inclinations of the new King Peter, who promptly fled to London. Germany created a vast independent Croatia at Serbia’s expense. Croatia was to have a proper government, Serbia an administration directly controlled by the German military. In Croatia the fascist Ustasha leader Ante Pavelić styled himself ‘Poglavnik’ or ‘Führer’. The Ustasha were more inclined towards Mussolini than Hitler. For that reason Pavelić was not Germany’s first choice. He must have endeared himself to more rabid Nazis, however, by asserting that the Croats were not Slavs, but pure Aryans. Bosnia’s Muslims could be used against the Serbs and Serbia’s own nationalist ‘Chetnik’ militias. Later the SS was able to muster two entire units composed of Bosnian Muslims.

The destruction of the Settlement of Versailles was a major plank in Hitler’s foreign policy and it was for the German Foreign Office to effect the changes, creating in its place a new Europe subservient to Germany. In this Europe Jews had no place and Slavs might be considered at best helots. The Serbian administration was not too worried about the fate of its 15,000 Jews and Serbia was the first country in Nazi-dominated Europe to be designated ‘Judenrein’ or free of Jews. Serbia was, however, predictably reluctant to take a lead in the punishment of those suspected of killing or injuring German soldiers and with time German commanders adopted a draconian reprisal policy that is remembered in so many wartime massacres. It was decreed that 100 Serbs would die for every German soldier killed or fifty for each wounded man. Josip Broz Tito led the resistance with his Soviet-backed Partisans while General Dragoljub ‘Draža’ Mihailović represented the armed opposition of the government in exile.  

Steven Pavlowitch has written an essential single-volume history of Yugoslavia during the period of the German occupation, but the title is a misnomer, for too often he makes ‘Hitler’ responsible for an action, rather than his military commanders. In other domains the players belonged to Ribbentrop’s Foreign Office. It was Ribbentrop’s ‘enforcer’ Edmund Veesenmayer, for example, who appointed both Pavelić in Croatia and the ‘Quisling’ General Milan Nedić to head up the administration in Serbia, yet Veesenmayer doesn’t merit a mention in the text.

After Italy concluded peace with the Allies in the summer of 1943, it was only a matter of time before the Germans were forced out. Then it became a question of who would inherit the carcase that was Yugoslavia. It was not to be the youthful King Peter, however, but Tito. Communism put Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia back together again, but only an iron fist or brutal Soviet tutelage could sustain them. ‘Velvet revolutions’ broke them asunder, and thirty years later only fragments remain. 

On Managing the Past

Posted: 19th October 2020

These three new books are related by a common theme of Germany, Austria and lives blighted by Nazism and the Second World War.

Peter Frank, Growing Up With Foreigners, Pegasus, £7.99

I shall begin with a disclaimer: Peter Frank has acknowledged a nugatory contribution I made to this book which I certainly didn’t do enough to merit! It is nice of him to thank me for all that.

Frank’s book touches a raw nerve common to all of us with Central European roots who grew up in Britain after the war. Yes, my father was Irish, but I scarcely knew him, as my mother bolted with her three children and two cats when I was three. The Franks were rich, ennobled Jewish bankers, who like many upper class Viennese Jews, abandoned their faith and married Christians long before the rise of ‘eliminatory’ antisemitism might have driven them to it. After the First World War their wealth was dissipated by the Depression and the collapse of the banks. It is a theme well explored in Tom Stoppard’s latest play Leopoldstadt.

The fate of Frank’s Jewish grandparents was sadly predictable: his grandfather perished in Theresienstadt, his mother in the ghetto in Minsk; but with the help of undersung Quakers and Swedes, his father was able to make it to England, where he found his bride and an unlikely profession as a market gardener.

She was a Catholic Blaschke from Upper Silesia. Her mother had been a member of the minor Polish nobility. In the twentieth century her place of birth meandered between Germany and Poland. She spoke both languages, and could claim both nationalities when circumstances made it wise to do so, i.e. living in England during the war.

My chief interest in the book was the experiences of Peter Frank’s Viennese family, but it was difficult to put down when he recounted experiences of growing up not quite British in Cheshire in the lean years of the forties and fifties. He didn’t speak the idiom of his parents and cousins and they naturally gabbled in German when they didn’t want little Peter to understand. When we hear the inflammatory language of people today it is good to remember how forgiving people were towards foreigners then, when all of them could personally remember the carnage and destruction wrought by the Germans in the blitz.  Although I am younger than Peter and grew up in a more sophisticated London, my world wasn’t much less bleak, nor was the poverty any easier to bear. I don’t remember rationing, and that austerity was soon mercifully dissipated by ‘swinging London’ but I never grew out of feeling strange and I don’t believe I have ever quite fitted in.

Géraldine Schwarz, Those Who Forget: One Family’s Story, Pushkin Press, £20

In Those Who Forget, we see the story from the perpetrators’ side. A Germano-French journalist looks at the skeletons in the closet. She contrasts two families and their pasts. Her grandfather was a Party member who used his position for all he could milk it for. While his wife was evacuated to the country with the children he led a gay old life in a bombed-out Mannheim attending the local cabaret and striking up a ménage-à-trois with another woman and her husband. During the American Occupation of Mannheim, Karl Schwarz proved his mettle once again as a black marketer, selling off barrels of oil he had stashed away in another part of town during the blitz. While others starved, the Schwarzes lived (as the Germans say) ‘like God in France’.

It transpired too that Karl had swindled a Jewish family called Löbmann out of their share of the oil business. Karl was able to hide under the skirts of the Adenauer Government that was lenient towards ex-Nazis. Her father - Karl’s son Volker (Géraldine Schwarz maintains it is a Nazi name) - was an Achtundsechsiger: of the generation that rose up in the student revolution of 1968. He did military service in the new Bundeswehr and adopted the right causes during his time at the university. It was as a result of these protests that the Nazis were finally rooted out of their dugouts.

The author’s French grandfather was a ‘flic’, and being a policeman naturally meant obeying orders. Her mother grew up in a suburb near Drancy where France’s Jews were concentrated before they were shipped to Auschwitz. She writes off the French resistance as largely bunk, telling us the story of the French refusal to admit their complicity in the deportations which has only really been fully revealed since the screening of Marcel Ophuls’ film Le Chagrin et la pitié in 1969. She accuses: both her German and French grandparents were ‘Mitläufer’ or ‘collabos’ - collaborators. 

The book inevitably contains a lot of familiar history and we often lose track of the author’s family in the context. Géraldine Schwarz has a message: she doesn’t want us to forget. Forgetting breeds the AfD and Marine Le Pen; forgetting nurtures the preposterous rhetoric of Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage (‘We won the war’): no one should be allowed to escape from the horrors of the past. As the descendant of victims I am sympathetic, but I feel for the other side too: how many generations must elapse before the account is settled on the sins of your grandfather and great-grandfather?

I don’t think I could bear to be a sensitive sort of German. Those who forget has been translated from the French into gritty American English. For some unaccountable reason the venerable University of Freiburg in the Black Forest was allowed to escape and remains in a fully Gallic groove.

Michael Geoghegan, The Ruins of the Reich, Leitmotiv, £14.99

From what I glean from his book, Michael Geoghegan is neither victim nor perpetrator. For the past forty or so years he has been an agent for various publishers selling English-language books in Germany. He has been travelling in Germany for most of his life, from his first school exchange and his years studying Modern Languages to his occasional residence in the country of his fascination.

The Ruins of the Reich is a travel book, but I would be doing it no favours to call it that. There is a lot of history and literature in it, and good stuff too. Like me, Geoghegan is interested in the ghosts of the German Reich: dilapidated effigies of Bismarck and the Kaiser; crumbling monuments to fallen Nazis; Nazi Ordensburgen; the relics of the defunct East German state; in short everything that has been swept under the German carpet since 1945 and 1989.

In eighteen stylishly written chapters he explores the pre-1945 Germany that stretched from East Prussia to the Rhine and beyond. I suspect some of these journeys began with business, but had the added lustre of allowing him to pursue his voyage of discovery. He gives us frank glimpses of intimate experiences along the way, and his disappointments in love.

I had been to so many of the places he describes, and arrived at such similar conclusions that I kept wondering whether he was standing at my elbow at the time? I don’t know if the book would work the same for others but I enjoyed it very much.

Katharine Agnes Rose Bacon (1897 - 1937)

Posted: 21st September 2020

For reasons that will probably be obvious to everybody, I have been taking a considerable interest in my family tree and my maternal grandparents in particular. I never had the pleasure of knowing any of my grandparents, although the Irish ones were still around at the time of my birth. They are buried quite near to where I am sitting now: about five or ten metres away from Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.

My maternal grandfather could hardly be further away: he lies close to heaven on the other side of the world. I was told he was in the ‘Protestant’ Cemetery in mountainous Cochabamba, Bolivia, where he died in the spring of 1943. His death certificate records ‘Cemeterio donde sera sepultado’ as ‘General’ - so he might have forgone that ignominy at the last moment.

My English grandmother predeceased him by six years in leafy Surrey, breathing (with difficulty) her last in a sanatorium in Haselmere. The cause was tuberculosis. She was a couple of months short of her fortieth birthday.

Katharine Agnes Rose Bacon was born on 10 December 1937 at Pillar House, Harwell, Berkshire (now part of Oxfordshire). She was the third daughter of John Henry Frederick Bacon, a painter who was doing very nicely. The grandson of an illiterate domestic servant whose illegitimate son John Cardenall Bacon had been set up as a lithographer (probably by his natural father), John Henry Bacon occupied a huge house at 11 Queens Gate Terrace in town, and Pillar House in the country. He had been a prize winning student at the Royal Academy Schools, was one of four Catholics elected ARA and would be awarded the MVO for painting the official representations of both the coronations of Edward VII in 1902 and George V in 1910. He died, aged forty-eight in 1914.

His widow and their six surviving children moved from luxury to Chiswick, supported by a grace and favour pension from the Crown; but I should stress that the information I have from now on is not easy to verify, and might be inaccurate in many details. Such is oral history.

As his name would suggest (think Cardinal Newman) John Henry had been brought up a Roman and the Bacon girls were educated at a convent in Ramsgate. I have a dim memory that Katharine might have studied at Hammersmith College of Art (her elder sister Joan took the much bolder step of reading Chemistry at Leeds).  She would have left art school at the end of the Great War. What happened next is a mystery. My mother speaks of a travelling scholarship and of a spell working as a cartoonist for the Daily Express. Also in the recesses of my mind is Martin Travers, neo-baroque church architect and stained glass designer. Katharine is supposed to have worked for him. The idea is tempting: two little watercolours in my possession do slightly resemble Travers’ work.

We may not know much about what she did in the early twenties but we have more information about 1926, the year of the General Strike, when she was in Vienna. There she met a man, a Jewish man, eight years her junior and by the name of Felix Zirner. He was the third son of the former court jeweller Marton Zirner, while Felix’s mother Gisela, the ‘Old Hen’ was the daughter of the owner of Vienna’s leading fashion house, the Modehaus Zirner. What the twenty-one year old Felix got up to I cannot say. He is supposed to have made little bits of jewellery in his late father’s workshop. Anyway, the result of his meeting with Katharine was tangible enough: my mother.

It is said that Katharine fled from Vienna when she learned she was pregnant and that Felix set off in pursuit, rapidly marrying her in Paris on 26 November 1926. I have looked at the registers for every arrondisement in Paris in vain. Now my mother tells me this is not true and that they married in Vienna, so she may not have gone to Paris at all. My grandmother was already ill with her consumption and my mother tells me she was born in a sanatorium. After my mother’s birth they moved in to the old chauffeur’s house at Neueweltgasse 9 in Hietzing while my great-grandmother remained next door in the sumptuous Villa Zirner, longing for the chance to spoil her new granddaughter.

We have a rare glimpse of Katharine at this time provided by the novelist and filmmaker Gina Kaus, who had been married to Felix’s elder brother Josef until his death in action in the First World War.  ‘One of ... [Gisela’s] sons was married, had a baby and lived with his family in the villa as well (sic). But his wife was an Englishwoman and had her own views on bringing up babies, including one that did not permit them being carried about for the sheer fun of it.

“My stepdaughter is a bad woman” said the ‘Old Hen’. “It’s a pretty child but I am hardly allowed even to look at it...’

My mother maintains that she remained in the chauffeur’s house until 1932, when my grandparents separated. The Zirners had been ruined by the banking crisis in 1930, the year the Old Hen died. The Villa Zirner became a school, and my mother went there for a while before being sent to a Dominican convent. For a while the two of them lived in the First Bezirk, my grandmother teaching English to make ends meet; then in 1935 Katharine took her eight-year old daughter home to England. My mother went to live with her maternal grandmother, while my grandmother went into that Haselmere nursing home from which she was never to re-emerge.

She was luckier than Felix. When the Nazis stomped in to Austria in March 1938 he had to suffer the opprobrium of being a Jew in the Third Reich. By September he had assembled his papers and was permitted to make his way to Genoa to board a ship for Chile. From Chile a train took him to La Paz, but his weak heart made life impossible there. He went to Cochabamba - a mere 2,570 metres above sea level, but that wasn’t much kinder. Endocarditis killed him in the end. He was just thirty-eight.

Selection or Free Will: Nazi Medical Ethics

Posted: 17th July 2020

Eugenics is back in fashion we hear, particularly with the sort of nerdy, far-right SPADs who have the run of Downing Street. The word actually means ‘good breeding’, deriving from the Greek ἐΰς (eǘs, “good”) and‎ γίγνομαι (gígnomai, “breeding”) and was coined by the founding father of eugenics, the Briton Francis Galton. It should mean selecting breeding pairs of humans, but it also encompasses removing poor quality breeding stock from the chain of reproduction, in the form of chronic invalids, the congenitally insane, criminals, drunks and other anti-social beings. If we can get rid of the dross, we can breed a master race; or so the argument runs.

As regards breeding, I suspect the reason why most of us fathers procreated had very little to do with creating a master race and more to do with love, temporary attraction or just a happy or unhappy accident. If your mother had tried to put you off your beloved by telling you your prospective bride’s family had a medical history, that her father was a bugger-for-the-bottle or that her great-grandfather had been hanged for murder, I expect you might have told her to jump in the lake. For most of us, having children expressed our ‘free will’, and we were not to be dictated to by anyone else. If records had revealed your prospective breeding mate’s family had a clinical record of cancer, epilepsy, syphilis etc, I doubt many would have seen it as grounds to call the whole thing off: we would simply have kept our fingers crossed and gone ahead with announcing the banns.

How selectively you marry (if you do still formally ‘marry’) is actually an interesting study. Do you marry someone you met on Tinder (or Grinder)? Or someone you got to know at university or a friend’s dinner party, a cousin, or daughter of a family friend? Or the girl next door you inadvertently put ‘in the family way’? How much ‘selection’ was actually involved? How long did you know that person before you took the decision to seal the knot? It strikes me that the only people in Europe who used truly selective criteria were members of the landed gentry or aristocracy, in that they wanted a particular piece of land or favoured a dynastic alliance. Before the furore over the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer at least, in grand or royal families love was of secondary importance: the man could discreetly select a mistress, the woman a lover, without incurring any great social stigma. Selective breeding still applies, however, to certain immigrant communities - Marwaris marry Marwaris, members of Indian castes other members of their own caste, orthodox Jews wed orthodox Jews, for example.

The usual criticism levelled at eugenics is that the idea of selective breeding and disposing of bad genetic material, has led to some of the most shameful episodes in the recent history of medicine; and that the Nazis believed in it and used it as a pretext to allow German doctors to carry out experiments on human beings in concentration camps.

The German word ‘Rassenhygiene’ (racial hygiene) is rather more all-encompassing than ‘eugenics’. Nazis cited the obvious truth that racehorses, dogs, sheep and cattle all benefitted from selective breeding: if you spent a day at the races you wouldn’t put your money on a clapped out old nag. Himmler bred chickens and he and his like were keen to see selective breeding introduced for humans. It should be said, however, that when it comes to racehorses or Labradors, brains are not normally the primary consideration and those Nazis keenest on breeding a master race appeared even to their contemporaries as fairly pitiful examples of humanity, particularly the bright, but physically deformed Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. In Nazi Germany potential married couples had to show proof of racial hygiene and some of love's dreams might have been shattered at that point. Also anyone proved to have a record of congenital illness, be classified a simpleton or an alcoholic could simply be taken away and locked up. The other bugbear was of course race. There was to be little or no ‘miscegenation’: you could not marry outside your race. This was targeted chiefly at the Jews.

Racial hygiene was therefore not only designed to prevent the wrong people from marrying it was intended to use sterilisation to stop the wrong sort of people from breeding at all. Germany was not the first country to introduce these measures - before the seventies 60,000 sterilisations were carried out in 29 US states. In Britain the famous computer scientist Alan Turing was actually judicially castrated for homosexuality in 1952, and is believed to have taken his own life as a result.

In Nazi Germany stupid or backward people were classed as ‘Lebensunwertes Leben’ or ‘life unworthy of life’. The chronically ill or insane were ‘unnecessary eaters’ or parasites - 75,000 of whom were disposed of under the 1939 T4 Euthanasia Programme. Nazi Germany reserved its most radical eugenics for the insane. Sterilisation was first proposed during the Weimar Republic but only became law in the Third Reich, when the courts regularly decreed that criminals should be forcibly rendered barren. Castration was another possibility.

The killing of the insane was not uniquely levelled at the Jews, although it didn’t help to be Jewish. I shall not labour the point: millions of wholly sane Jews were ‘selected’ for killing too. In my own family, my Jewish grandfather’s first cousin Otto Kranz was a paranoid schizophrenic who was gassed at Schloss Hartheim near Linz. My Jewish great-aunt Ella Zirner’s lover, the gentile composer Franz Schmidt’s equally gentile first wife Karoline Perssin shared his fate, as she had also been diagnosed as insane.

Since 1945 the finger has often been pointed at doctors - physicians and surgeons - who collaborated with the policies of the Third Reich. In most if not all countries, doctors subscribe to some form of the Hippocratic Oath, which requires them to preserve life and not destroy it. During the Third Reich doctors’ ethics were challenged by ‘obeying orders’ in the instance of selecting victims for gassing on the ramp at Auschwitz, or in other instances by the purest sadism; in some cases (the most notorious would be Josef Mengele and his supervisor Ottmar von Verschuer and the experiments carried out on twins) doctors benefitted from the cheapness of life in the camps to carry out tests on living human beings. Others retrieved blood and organs from those executed in Germany’s many prisons, while psychiatrists and neurologists (both branches were rolled into one by the Nazis) were able to carry off the brains of the insane killed at Hartheim or Sonthofen.

The original Hippocratic Oath was addressed to Apollo and the Gods, and subsequent versions were sworn in a God-fearing world that recognised ‘free-will’ and the idea that only God had the right to take away life. The Third Reich did not subscribe to this thinking, nor indeed do so many doctors today. In several countries a form of voluntary euthanasia is already enshrined in statute law. Some doctors must still itch to experiment on living humans as they do on animals. Others like the fictional Dr Frankenstein long to get their hands on a good, fresh brain to carry out tests and work out how you might marry up two human beings to produce some sort of superman. Do the creatures prowling the corridors of power also advocate this? Were the Nazis wrong for making use of windfall fruit? Or were they simply one step ahead?

Nazi Diplomacy

Posted: 15th June 2020

To talk of Nazi diplomacy is probably oxymoronic. Hitler and his gang more or less mangled the famous Clausewitzian maxim that war was the continuation of politics by other means. They negotiated by brute force or Blitzkrieg. Apart from a few specific instances such as the 1935 Naval Treaty with Britain, foreign policy was a conducted by brick walls and hissy fits which kicked off with their storming out of the League of Nations in November 1933. Other methods included dirty tricks, such as assassinating intransigent heads of government (Dollfuss) or bullying them into submission (Schuschnigg, Hácha) or simply calling the opponent’s bluff by flouting international law (reoccupying the Rhineland). Having done well at Berchtesgaden and Bad Godesberg, Hitler was furious about Munich which he put down as a defeat. He thought (and he was right) that Chamberlain had stolen the show. In his mind he had already been riding into Prague in an open-topped Mercedes.

When he was looking for friends he could be pragmatic. He was prepared to give the Baltic States to the Soviet Union for a free hand in Poland, and despite Germany’s important cultural links to the area; similarly he gave Mussolini the South Tyrol and Gorizia without heeding their ethnic German populations. To win friends he offered other gangster leaders a share of the loot: Franco was to get Gibraltar and Mussolini his ‘mare nostrum’ in the Mediterranean if they helped with Britain; Stalin could have Poland east of the Bug, Hungary, Transylvania and parts of Slovakia providing they fell in with his plans. Similar sweeteners were dangled before Romania and Bulgaria.

Hitler had little time for traditional diplomats. He inherited his foreign minister Constantin von Neurath from the previous regime and in 1938 replaced him with Joachim von Ribbentrop. Ribbentrop was the owner of a drinks agency which sold such profitable brands as Pommery champagne and Johnnie Walker whisky onto the Berlin market. He had no diplomatic qualifications beyond loyalty to his master, and it showed. While he was ambassador to London he made so many gaffes that he was openly ridiculed as ‘Brickendrop’.

Ribbentrop had profited from the Weimar Constitution’s ban on noble titles to acquire the ‘von’ in his name by getting the wife of an ennobled uncle to adopt him. You could still call yourself ‘von’, ‘Freiherr’, ‘Graf’, or ‘Prinz’ but it was now just part of your name. He promised her money for this, but she was never compensated. Ribbentrop was, however, successful in negotiating the 1935 Naval Treaty with Britain which allowed Germany to formally dispense with the limits on war-shipbuilding laid down by the Treaty of Versailles. His crowning achievement was the pact with the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov that licensed Germany to overrun Poland in September 1939. To celebrate Ribbentrop’s skills, Hitler hailed the ‘RAM’ (Reichsaussenminister or Imperial Foreign Minister) as the ‘Second Bismarck’.

That Germany was not to be trusted became apparent two years later when Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union. When I spoke to Ribbentrop’s son Rudolf shortly before his death, he reiterated what he had said in his apologia for his father: Ribbentrop’s treaty was not intended as a cynical snare - he had believed in it and steadfastly opposed the invasion of the Soviet Union. Once the shooting started Ribbentrop was largely sidelined.

The headquarters of German diplomacy was 74 - 76 Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin, where once upon a time Bismarck had dazzled the world with his diplomatic pirouettes. Hitler wanted to set the diplomats aside too as he did not trust them. A sizable number of the German Foreign Office’s staff wore the particle ‘von’ as well and Hitler instinctively disliked nobles whom he believed to be sneering at him. Ribbentrop was appointed to radicalise his department, shake it up from top to bottom, pare off the dead wood and instigate a new style of diplomacy.

Ribbentrop never fully succeeded in doing this, but he vastly expanded the ministry adding whole new departments and separating them from the old offices in the Wilhelmstrasse which was relieved of control over their Nazi rivals. In 1938, the Wilhelmstrasse employed 2,300 men, of whom 600 were diplomats. Ribbentrop brought the numbers up to nearer 10,000. He expanded the ‘German Department’ created by Stresemann and added the Radio and ‘Information’ departments, the latter to take charge of German propaganda abroad. Anything liable to enhance Ribbentrop’s celebrity grew exponentially: the staff in Protocol augmented from three to fifty and the Press Division rose from seven to 200.

In these new or expanded departments Ribbentrop bred Nazi diplomats designed for Hitler’s brave new world. Often working in tandem with the SS, these new-fangled diplomats were promoted over the heads of the foreign office proper and sent out to do the bidding of Hitler and Himmler. The head of the German Department, Martin Luther, had been a furniture remover and interior decorator previous to being talent-spotted by Ribbentrop. He later tried to topple his master, and ended up in Sachsenhausen. Meanwhile the old-school diplomats were made complicit in the actions of the regime by including their names in lists of circulating documents relative to massacres or deportation of Jews from occupied or satellite countries. Short of resignation, there was no easy way to refuse to sign or initial these letters and had a diplomat resigned, he might easily have shared Luther’s fate.

The diplomats’ dilemma should have become obvious at the Wilhelmstrasse Trial at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg that ran from 6 January 1948 to 13 April 1949 but once again they often failed to understand the real nature of Nazi totalitarianism. The trial threw the diplomats in with other civil servants who worked in other ministries like Lammers, Stuckart, Darré and Meissner. The defendant diplomats, old and new style, were Ernst von Weizsäcker, Otto von Erdmannsdorff, Gustav Adolf Steengracht von Moyland, Ernst Wörmann, Karl Ritter, Ernst Wilhelm Bohle and Edmund Veesenmeyer.

As State Secretary, Weizsäcker, the son of the former Prime Minister of Württemberg and father of a later President of the Federal Republic (another son was the famous physicist Carl Friedrich), was the biggest fish in the ministry. A former naval officer, he drew the line at working for Germany’s defeat, but maintained he did everything within his power to promote peace. It was he and Schacht who arranged for the twenty-nine-year old diplomat Adam von Trott to go to London to plead with Chamberlain to help depose Hitler. Trott used his connection to the Astors, and theirs to the Foreign Secretary Halifax to secure the interview. Chamberlain dismissed the idea of helping the German Opposition, saying that they reminded him of the Jacobites at the court of Louis XIV. After the war started, Weizsäcker despatched Trott on his unsuccessful mission to Roosevelt in Washington. The aim was to nip the war in the bud, as they knew that if Hitler could secure victories, the Germans would back him.

I could go on but I suspect few people would see him as a villain now. Weizsäcker was sentenced to seven years, but released in 1950. The biggest tariff handed out to the diplomats was that awarded to Edmund Veesenmayer, a loyal Nazi diplomat raised in the school of dirty tricks. Veesenmayer was an agent provocateur with a great list of credits to him name: he was behind the scenes in Austria before the Anschluss, Danzig just before war broke out, and in Croatia and Slovakia, where he prepared to topple governments and have them replaced by those more favourable to Germany. He even had a go at bringing the Irish Free State over to the Nazi camp. His other talent was for putting pressure on countries to ship out their Jews. He is chiefly remembered in Hungary, where he engineered a change of government in March 1944 and proceeded to arrange the shipment of 340,000 Jews to Auschwitz. He got twenty years, but was released a year after Weizsäcker in 1951. He died in his bed over a quarter of a century later.

Woolverstone Hall

Posted: 18th May 2020

In these pandemic times, I watch a film most nights. A few weeks back it was Tom Brown’s Schooldays in the 1951 version with John Howard Davies as Brown (the famous Oliver in Oliver Twist) and a very sober and moving Robert Newton as Dr. Arnold. Michael Hordern appears as a traditional, flog-‘em-all master and a young Max Bygraves delivers a few lines as a coachman.

About a decade ago my daughter and I watched the 2005 television film of Tom Brown with Stephen Fry playing Arnold. She was appalled. About twelve at the time, she couldn’t believe that any school would ever have been like that: so bleak, so vile and so violent. For me, however, nothing was remotely shocking; indeed, I may not have travelled up to Rugby with Max Bygraves in a coach and six (we took the motor coach from County Hall) but in virtually every other aspect school life had remained unchanged in the intervening 130 years. My first two years of secondary school were nasty, brutish and - hallelujah - short!

And my schooling was in no way grand. My mother left my father when I was three. My elder siblings were both in private institutions then; my brother in the junior school at Highgate, my sister in a pre-prep in the Brompton Road. I was making merry with the Servites in the Fulham Road nearby, but they both had to be taken out and packed off to Bousfield Primary School in the Old Brompton Road, where I too went in due course. Two years later my brother needed a secondary school and my mother was told about Woolverstone Hall near Ipswich in Suffolk.

Woolverstone was a single-sex grammar school spread over fifty acres of parkland and around a Palladian mansion rising serenely above the River Orwell. There were 360-odd (verb sap) boys apportioned to six houses. Modelled on a traditional public school, it was founded by the Inner London Education Authority in 1951. It was a revolutionary idea: richer parents paid modest fees, the poorer ones, none. The children came from broken homes like mine or from deprived parts of the city and were thrown in with a lot of NCOs’ boys. Mens sana in corpore sano might have been the motto, as there was sport, sport and more sport. Academic standards were nonetheless high with as many as half a dozen boys going on to Cambridge every year.

Six years later it was my turn. I passed the Eleven Plus and joined my brother at Woolverstone. He was already in the second-year-sixth. I was put in his house but he was a remote, god-like figure and both he and his study-mate Hotz de Baar were to go on to Cambridge, as indeed was our head of house: the actor Mark Wing-Davey. Wing-Davey actually won a scholarship to Caius, a thing so rare that the whole school was granted a half-holiday to celebrate. If Wing-Davey had not been a god before, he was then. We all knew his best friend too: a slight boy with flashing spectacles called Ian McEwan.

The houses were named after their first housemasters. Ours, however, was called Orwell after the river, not the writer. It was said the first housemaster’s name was Mudd, and that for obvious reasons they had declined to call it Mudd House. He was succeeded by a pyknic named Thornberry. We called him ‘Stumpy’.

Stumpy didn’t like my brother. He had nicknamed him ‘Rubbish’. When he appeared in a Grenadier Guards’ tunic (remember Sergeant Pepper?) at the leavers’ dinner Stumpy humiliated him before the entire house, telling him to go back and change. In his eulogy he damned him with the faintest praise: ‘the best timpanist the house has ever had’. He failed to mention his conditional place to read Natural Sciences at Cambridge.

He was a brutal little chap who smelled of sweet sherry and was rumoured to be romantically linked to the housemaster in the neighbouring house. I am not sure that was true. I never saw any masters taking a sexual interest in us but we were forever groping one another. The prettier boys had to pretend to be girls and were subjected to squeezing and petting. Kissing, however, was quite taboo. A tall, freckly farmer’s daughter used to come to see some of us by the ha-ha. We jumped on her. She ran away, cross and bruised, but always came back for more.

Stumpy was inclined to sadism. One day he performed a prodigious feat by beating four entire forms. A turd had been found on our lavatory floor. Anyone could see the thing had been dropped from above, in fact from ceiling height and over the partition from the third and fourth-form bogs adjacent to ours. There was a gap above the cubicles and plenty of room for someone to lob a turd.

We were formed up in a queue on the stairs in our dressing gowns. It was all a bit like an updated picture of Dr. Busby beating the entire school at Westminster, except this was Woolverstone, not Westminster. We had to drop our pyjama-bottoms and gratefully receive our punishment, remembering to thank Stumpy for being kind enough to cane us before we returned to our beds.

Our chief bugbears were the second formers with whom we shared our dorm. We were on the bottom bunks with them on top. In the showers, heads were divided into first and second year, according to efficiency: if the water came out in a dribble, they were for the new boys. One day a much put-upon second-former with big ears called Andy Gus found me under a second form nozzle. He beat me bloody and I had to be admitted to sick bay with concussion. The prospect of three days off was a pleasant one until Andy Gus was ushered into the bed next to mine: Stumpy had beaten him so badly he couldn’t walk.

When we became second-formers we too bullied the new boys, There was a punishment called a ‘head rap’ that involved bringing your fist down hard on the skull of another boy, who had no right to protest. I was beginning to have problems with my peers, however. I felt I had little in common with them and I had discovered a new set in another house which centred on a boy called Pinnington (now a professor at a university in Japan, I see). We discussed books (Orwell, Greene), had a camp where we cooked beans and sausages and prowled around the hard at Pin Mill where one of our number taught us how to open windows with a penknife.

It was not done to have close friends in other houses and a persecution campaign was instigated. The first-formers were set on me and everything done to make my life as miserable as possible. Nights became orgies of violence: ‘Then falls thy shadow Cynara! The night is thine!’ The younger boys pummelled me while the others stripped off my bedclothes and befouled them in the lavs. Stumpy washed his hands of it.

It was a standard punishment to make a boy lay up the breakfast tables. Once, when it was my duty some fiend got in after me and messed up the knives and forks. Stumpy must have known this was not my work, but he still caned me, much to the pleasure of the other boys. I got the message quickly enough and I had an ally in my mother’s lover. He wanted me to go to his school, but I hadn’t a chance in hell of passing the exam. Instead I sat Common Entrance at his grandfather, the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s school, which was much easier. I excelled only in English. I just about managed the maths and French, but with one year of Latin and a few months of German, I was not able to do justice to either. The headmaster took pity on the grammar school boy and I was accorded a place.

Now I had a term and a half of torture to endure, but I still had my pals in the other house. One day towards the end of the spring term we got into a boat on the hard and stole some bottles of alcohol. These we gave to Pinnington’s older brother and his friends. They got wretchedly drunk and committed a number of outrages around the school before killing some chickens in Pin Mill. One of the chickens’ shattered heads was shoved in my mouth and unflattering comparisons made between me and the bird. I was covered in blood. That night I carefully hid my stained clothes so as not to betray the older boys.

It was my mother who saw the blood when I took the clothes home in the holidays. I begged her to say nothing, but without telling me she wrote to complain. When I went back to Woolverstone for my final term I was immediately summoned to the headmaster. I remember him telling Stumpy: ‘This will be interesting.’ There had been a litany of complaints from the farmer and others. The older boys had also attacked one of the assistant housemaster’s children. I realised my mother had set me up, but like Tom Brown I refused to incriminate the others. The headmaster had enough evidence without me and Pinnington’s brother and the others were summarily expelled.

The incident with the chicken sent a chill wind through my relationship with Pinnington and his friends but I knew a couple of boys in another house called Collins and Swithinbank. The former had bright red hair; the latter was short and fat. We used to go on long walks towards Holbrook or Tattingstone on Sundays armed with our packed lunches. Then one day Collins announced that he and Swithinbank were homosexual and asked me if I’d mind if they ‘jumped’ me? I said I very much would. We walked back to school, observing strict, anti-social distancing.

For many years I had nightmares about Woolverstone. I learned that the school had been closed down but I was uncertain as to why. And then, recently, I saw a film about its demise. After less than thirty years of life, Woolverstone had become an anachronism. Once the Red Kens and Teds became part of the furniture at County Hall, they questioned the justification for London funding a school that cost per pupil more than Eton. And it was selective. In 1977 it finally went comprehensive, closed its sixth-form and catered to boys with ‘special needs’. They wanted to make it co-ed, but that was going to cost even more; so in 1990 the gates were finally shut. It reopened as a girls’ school.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies summed up the cruelty and nastiness of pre-pubescent and pubescent boys. Some boys’ schools, however, were apparently nice, friendly places. That could not have been said of Woolverstone. At Rugby, the scene of Tom Brown’s schooldays, boys are no longer ‘roasted’ and it is now said to resemble a luxury hotel. I have many friends for whom schooldays were indeed the best days of their lives. Since the seventies most schools have been mixed, and girls have provided boys with another focus. The crass brutality I encountered at Woolverstone must have all but died out; indeed, people under the age of fifty would probably think it was a figment of my imagination.

Describing Pestilence

Posted: 17th April 2020

We are all retired from the world. The lucky ones are fit and well, but we twiddle our thumbs, invent tasks and hope that we will be able to return to our former functions as soon as possible. The house needs painting, the grotto repairing; there are languages to learn, books to read and meals to cook. One distraction I have found compelling is discovering what our forefathers did in times of plague and the literature that was created out of it.

First up are the ten plagues of Egypt in the Book of Exodus. The third plague of lice sounds similar to typhus. The sixth plague, ‘of boils’ might be bubonic: swellings in the groin and armpits being a feature of most plagues. The swelling is called a ‘bubo’, which gives us the word ‘bubonic’. A bubonic plague is generally borne by rats and their fleas. The one that cut a swath through Athens in the 5th Century BC and killed the general Pericles, already has a familiar ring to it. That plague was meant to have come from Egypt. Unlike the Black Death, Thucydides makes no mention of rats or fleas even if many features of the malaise would point to a bubonic plague; but Thucydides mentions a hard cough as well. Neglect was billed as a major cause of death as people feared risking their lives should they visit the sick: ‘indeed many houses were emptied of their inmates for want of a nurse; on the other (hand), if they ventured to do so, death was the consequence.’

Best suited to ministering to the sick were those who had recovered from the plague. Thucydides, like Boccaccio later,  mentions people who decided to live for pleasure and threw decorum to the winds ‘no one was eager to persevere in the ideals of honour...’ The plague lasted for two years and then struck again, raging for another year. Most epidemics repeat themselves, it seems, no one has ever properly defeated the plague.

The first so-called ‘pandemic’(it affects ‘all people’) was the Justinian Plague which struck in the Eastern Roman Empire in the mid-sixth century. The pestilence is believed to have originated in the Far East and was carried by rats. ‘Buboes’ featured once again. The Black Death or Bubonic Plague of 1347 - 1351 was similar and is meant to have killed off thirty to sixty percent of Europe’s population. The Black Death also spawned at least one great work of literature in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (itself the model for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). The Decameron is a distraction: ten young people telling stories to take their minds off the death going on all around them. Some of them are notably anticlerical and bawdy. Meanwhile priests explained away the deaths as the natural fruit of dissipated lives and sin.

Boccaccio’s introduction tells us of the Florentines’ reaction to the scourge and the measures carried out to limit contagion. Not much has changed between Pericles’ Athens and today: quarantine, or isolation and extra attention to hygiene have been the two things that have been stressed from the beginning of time. Rat-concealing rubbish was cleared away and sick people were forbidden entry to the city. Isolation, flattening the curve, as we would say now, was the only cure. Again, we have not made much progress. There are still rats, and, indeed, bats.

The last major instance of the Bubonic Plague in London was 1665 - 1666 and the Great Fire which followed doubtless did an excellent job in carbonising the rats and cauterising London’s streets. Samuel Pepys’ diaries are an obvious source for information on the plague, as is Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, even if Defoe was five at the time it broke out and sixty when the book was published in 1720, the very same year that bubonic plague erupted in Marseille killing as many as a quarter of the population.

Once again it was the bubonic plague that struck Jaffa in 1799. Napoleon was apparently capable of healing a soldier by touch in the descriptive painting by Antoine-Jean Gros. It was a property of kings to rid you of an ‘evil’ and Gros’ painting was painted in 1804, the year Napoleon crowned himself emperor.

Not all plagues are ‘bubonic’ there are also septicemic plagues that affect the digestive organs and pneumonic plagues that hit the lungs. Some plagues combine two or three types. Pneumonic plagues are not communicated by rats, lice or fleas but by coughing, like COVID-19. The most lethal pandemic of modern times was ‘Spanish ‘Flu’ which was first recognised in Kansas and was not in the least bit Spanish. It wiped out my Great-Grandfather in Vienna. The most famous modern representation of a plague is Albert Camus’ novel La Peste (The Plague) of 1947.

There had been an outbreak of plague in Oran in Algeria as recently as 1944 but unlike Defoe, who provides the epigram for the book, La Peste is not a documentary novel but, as the character Tarrou suggests, an existentialist reflection on life and how people approach it. Others have said that the book is about the German Occupation. Camus studies the plague meticulously, which might be why his novel has been selling like hot cakes these past few weeks.

Camus pitches a variety of characters at the reader whose approach to the sickness is wildly different. There is the Jesuit Paneloux, who preaches that the plague is the result of sin, but who changes his mind after witnessing the death of a child and dies refusing treatment for the plague; or Tarrou who expresses a wish to be a secular saint; or Rieux, who believes it is sufficient to carry out his duties as a doctor through thick and thin. The plague spares no one, it is unselective. It picks off the young and healthy just as it kills the old and useless.

It is a pneumonic-bubonic plague. This time a serum is produced, and eventually the virus is defeated. The city is liberated amid scenes of public rejoicing. Dr Rieux observes the jubilant crowd but finishes with a grim reflection: ‘because he knew something that joyful crowd did not, something that you could learn from books, that the plague bacillus neither dies nor does it ever disappear, that it can stay sleeping for decades in cupboards or piles of linen, that it is waiting patiently in rooms, cellars, suitcases, handkerchiefs and scraps of paper, and that perhaps, a day will come, for the misfortune and for the education of mankind, when the plague will awaken the rats and pack them off to die in a happy city.’

Why I am Not a Conservative

Posted: 16th March 2020

Ed West, Small Men on the Wrong Side of History: The Decline, Fall and Unlikely Return of Conservatism (Constable)

I am conservative. I don’t like novelty much or change. I grumble about many things: chiefly the Americanisation of my language, the decline of literacy, slebs, silly caps emblazoned with slogans, football, golf, supermarkets, fast food, the progressive disappearance of crafts, butchers, grocers and small shops, the eradication of local communities... these are just a few of my least favourite things.

I don’t believe we live in the best of all possible worlds. I’d be happy translated into a previous era providing there were functioning water-closets and hot and cold running water. I am not sure I’d have wanted to be born in the mid-1890s, or 1920, mind you: I’m a man of peace, one reason why I always supported our membership of the European Union, an organisation we joined in my last year at school, and which very nearly saw me out. The Treaty of Rome was borne out of the carnage of the Second World War and based on the principle of sharing resources - ‘from each according to their ability to each according to their needs’ - a socialist idea that derives a charitable message from Christianity and which - hand on heart - I can hardly say is wrong.

I grew up in a liberal household, in the sense that we believed people should enjoy freedom as long as it does not impinge upon the liberty of others. When I went up to the most political college at either of the two ancient universities, I just missed the really radical time, dubbed the ‘Kettle-Brickhill Era’ by Jacko the Bursar, when a clutch of undergraduates were sent down for daubing slogans on the walls of the new, brutalist Senior Common Room; an act of vandalism occasioned by a visit by a prominent Old Member: the Prime Minister Edward Heath. Our vintage was actually quite conservative, although Britain’s most prominent Trot, Seumas Milne came up a year later. I might add that Martin Kettle now writes eminently sensible articles in The Guardian while Christopher Brickhill seems to have had a successful career in business! Left-wing firebrands mellow with age.

I am conservative, but I don’t vote Conservative in general elections. They are an ugly, xenophobic party. I did vote for Boris in the London Mayoral election - twice, but only because I couldn’t stand Ken Livingstone with his horrid, whiney, nasal voice. I don’t vote Labour, as they place equality above liberty and drone on about a working class to which I clearly can’t belong. I vote Liberal Democrat because they have always been emphatically pro-Europe, although not so long ago and in Ed West’s constituency there was a Lib Dem MP so shockingly illiberal that I had second thoughts. In the end the choice was between the Liberals and the Monster Raving Loonies. I plumped for the Libs for Europe’s sake.

When the publishers Constable offered to send me West’s book on what it was like to be right-wing, I recalled the respect I had had for his parents. In the mid-seventies I was an avid reader of Richard West in The Spectator, then in its golden age under the editorship of Alexander Chancellor. I still recall one piece he wrote about how badly paid he was, something that alarmed the incipient man of letters in me. About thirty years ago I actually met my hero at the bar of the old Academy Club in Beak Street, and we had a drink and a short chat. I think I neglected to tell him how much solace he had given me in the past. I regret to hear he’s died.

I also read articles by West’s Irish mother Mary Kenny. To Ed West they are ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’, and he and his brother the ‘kids’. He blames his father for an exaggerated love of trains, not driving a car and suggesting his wife take the laundry to a launderette, which was like the village ‘lavoir’ - a sociable place where women could gossip. I suppose my own children will complain about my not driving too, and I am worse: I never even acquired the ability to ride a bike.

Home life in Notting Hill sounds familiarly eccentric, with argumentative wine-fuelled lunches and dinners. My own equivalent of ‘Mum’ refused to be called ‘Mum’ or ‘Mummy’, requiring her children to use her Christian name instead. As for ‘Dad’, I last saw him when I was three. He was mentioned with a snarl, and then only as ‘Your Father’. We were called ‘You Kids’, mind you, but never nicely. This may account for the fact that ‘kid’ is another word that drives me up the wall, except when I am eating it, well-roasted in northern Portugal.

Both my parents were Catholic, and I suspect that the little Wests worshipped in the same churches that we attended as children and that our attentions wandered just the same. There, perhaps, resemblance ends. Unlike Mum, my mother was virulently anticlerical. We were dragged off to mass by a novice nun unleashed by the priest who baptised me at my father’s instigation.

So what of Ed West’s book? The central premise, that the right are the pariahs of political history looks strangely untenable in 2020. The right is not only popular, it’s bursting with life and kicking.

We live in a world where the Boris-Trump-Netanyahu-Orban-Kaczyński-Putins look set to remain for the immediate future, unless (perish the thought!) they all fall victim to Corona. A referendum in 2016 that more or less pitched left-wing cosmopolitans against right-wing nationalists, awarded 52% of votes to the latter. Last year’s general election resulted in a landslide victory for Boris Johnson.

West seems offended by the rebarbative image of the right. Political life has become much more polarised recently and West complains that lefties get the best-looking girls and the plum jobs in the press and the BBC (to me there appears to be an abundance of right-wingers in both). When we were young we disliked the extremes: they were just two bears to be baited. The left with its caucus and causes we thought absurd, and the right, congregating in the Union Society or OUCA, with their shabby tweeds, spots and spectacles, were simply repulsive. We imagined them prone to unspeakable lusts. They were also virtually indistinguishable from the Godsquadders who came banging on your door when you planned to spend a noisy afternoon in your cups (or possibly with girls). We did not join political parties. I have never even considered such a thing. We were ‘aesthetes’ who believed beauty to be the ultimate good. It is possible that our breed is now extinct.

West says a lot in this long book, but one bunch he does not discuss are home-grown ‘Tories’ although he uses the word wrongly as a synonym for Conservatives. Tories are neo-feudal conservatives who reject the Darwinist, Nietzschean foundations of new-right ideology and favour policies more likely to reconcile the nation. They number Dominic Grieve, Ken Clarke and Rory the Tory. Dominic was an earnest young man in a tweed jacket when I first met him. I naturally gave him the cold-shoulder. I have tremendous admiration for him now: he is the Cato of modern British politics. It is significant that the Tories were completely purged by the Conservative leadership in 2019.  I can’t think of a single one left in the Commons. It may be that the world has become too dangerous and too globalised for old-style Tories and that the measures we need to take must be more radical; but I am not sure West discusses this.   

His book might be more compact. We have a blokey history of England, for example and similar disquisitions on Christianity or philosophy (a ‘guy’ called Hobbes, a ‘dude’ named Rousseau). Then there are references to all those films I haven’t seen, and a million American television series I have never watched. Not only have I been without a television since my early twenties, but I doubt I’d feel tempted either. And then there is his addiction to that other dismal science of sociology, and acres and acres of tedious statistics culled from political websites and invoked as Gospel truth.

This is only partly a book about Britain, but West does not spend much time discussing the AfD, Marine Le Pen or Giuseppe Conte. Measures to crush the perceived ‘enemies’ of our commonwealth will most likely be hatched in America. That means radical Islam and economic migrants as well as liberal, international institutions like the EU; just as the tiresome, preachy side of the left, with its ‘isms’, ‘woke’ culture and PC also originate in the US. America brings us the Alt Right, neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. And their organs have opened up here in the form of Breitbart and political websites too numerous to name. Trans-Atlantic ‘Conservatism’ feeds the ERG at Westminster. West talks a lot about the influence of Edmund Burke, but mention Burke to Mark François or Andrew Bridgen and they would probably think you were being rude.

The ubiquitous Steve Bannon has emerged as a sort of global Fu Manchu, leading a panicky, sickly old right to a dynamic, ideologically-charged new right. Slightly ridiculous condottieri like Little Tommy are paid by North Americans to fight Islam. The goodies in West’s book strike me as most un-English. A reading not helped by the fact (was this at the publisher’s instance?) that the source material flits relentlessly backwards and forwards across the Atlantic (how Americans construe ‘liberal’ as a dirty word, heaven only knows?).

West became politically aware after 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall appeared to discredit socialism. Capitalism was clearly the only answer, a pitiless, survival-of-the-fittest attitude that would triumph over those sharing, egalitarian, benefit cultures dictated by post-war reconstruction. Few of us oldies who spent their early days nodding off during the homily at the Carmelites in Church Street are really pitiless, and I know that West isn’t either. You don’t need a religious grounding to be accessible to sentimentality, even when it contradicts your political ideals. The new right appears to require us to be cold and heatless, but I like to think most of us are simply not that nasty.

West doesn’t talk too much about Brexit. Brexit was a coup. It overturned a status quo that had reigned in Britain for half a century. West’s Conservatives are radicals, revolutionaries inspired by alien political thinking. In Britain a weak Prime Minister is at the mercy of his unelected ‘spads’: younger men steeped not only in neo-con ideas, but also eugenics, a science largely discredited by the Third Reich. West doesn’t really tell us what he thinks about this, but I suspect not much: he is quite right-on about some things and not really conservative at all.

In Deepest France

Posted: 17th February 2020

I have returned from my first visit to our largest neighbour since our so-called ‘liberation’. Paris was mercifully functioning on both occasions I crossed it, but public transport reveals how much the city has been open to immigration from its former colonies. When I lived there, Paris’s urban poor was mostly from the Maghreb. Now Sub-Saharan Africa seems to account for the bulk. Down in the Ventoux where I was heading, in Carpentras, the former Jewish banking capital of the Avignon Papacy, the immigrant population is mostly made up of the descendants of the North African ‘Harkis’ who fought for France in the wars of independence. Many of them still live in a symbiotic relationship with the descendants of the ‘Pieds Noirs’: Arabic-speaking whites who returned from Africa at Independence and who bought up significant amounts of the land in the Midi in the sixties. The Harkis till the soil and build the méchouis roasting whole lambs on pied noir properties whenever a family feast is deemed in order.

Paris was always hugely overcrowded, but France is still a big, empty country; at least twice as big as the United Kingdom and with a population of about the same. After the Second World War people living in small towns and villages flocked to Paris and the other industrial centres. There are a few really big cities: swollen by recent immigration: Marseille, Lyon and Toulouse are all over a million now, but much of the rest is made up of very modest-sized towns from which much of the life has been sucked in recent years. Most amenities in the form of small shops have gone as the French rush to mop up the cheaper goods and poorer quality on offer at suburban supermarkets. In the past generation, the vacuum caused by the departure of French villagers has been filled by foreign devils: hundreds of thousands of British, Dutch, Germans and Swedes who are looking for the good life in abandoned farm and manor houses and have become a force to be reckoned with in the local economy.

Provence is not always the most receptive place. The people have a reputation for being cold towards this foreign invasion. Anyone who chooses to put down roots in France has to reckon with the fact they may be the butt of measures generated by a power-hungry mayor or municipal council, and may be well advised to cultivate contacts among the natives to make his or her life easier. That will involve gauging the elements of power within French communities, which might lie in the person of the notaire who signs off all property deals or the village pharmacist who shells out pills and medical advice in the absence of surgeries.

These days I am just a visitor, but I rarely find the locals unpleasant or unhelpful even in Provence. It does - of course - help to know the language. Setting out the day after my arrival in search of some veal kidneys, we stopped at the small supermarket in Mazan. I thought the idea of finding the kidneys there frankly unlikely, but most of the butchery or cheese counters in these places are franchises and sometimes they can be good. He had one, and prepared it well, but one was not enough: we needed two or three.

We went on to Brunet, the good butcher-cum-charcutier in Carpentras. She sighed: this is what happens when you close down all the butchers’ shops, she said. Sometimes the places limp on for a year or two, then like the restaurants they shut down: there is simply not enough passing trade to sustain them. As it turned out, she had none, but rang the butcher in Pernes, but he was also was all out of veal kidneys. An executive decision was made: the kidney would be a starter. I bought a rabbit. As she prepared it for me I had to tell her whether I wanted kidneys, liver and heart. I said yes to all three (the estate’s feral cat Boudicea would have the heart) but no to the lungs. This led to an interesting discussion of local dishes and dialects. I left a more instructed man than when I went in.

The following day was almost wholly taken up by a boar. Boars are quite a feature of life on the Mainland, where they lay waste to vineyards and orchards and rustics eagerly await the season when they might get their guns and their revenge by shooting a few. The meat is rarely available for cash, but is shared out among the hunters or bartered for wine, truffles, fruit or vegetables. If you kill a boar on someone else’s land, the polite thing to do is to leave a bit for your host. The haunch I had been marinating in the estate wine for two days was just that.

The mistral had blown all day on Friday, but on Saturday the wind dropped and we had one of those lovely warm winter days when the sun lights up the almond blossoms and little flowers spring from the soil. I had things to get from the market in Pernes: lavender-scented soap and honey among others. Half-term had rid the market of half its traders, but the German-speaking cheese man was there and he’d been joined by a man from Düsseldorf who made coffee on his stall. Later we went to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, which is surely unique among small towns in the Department of the Vaucluse in that it has fully established itself on the tourist map as a centre for (generally overpriced) antiques.

We looked at some ravishing things. France’s size, wealth and cultural superiority until the eighteenth century at least, means that there is a lot more to sell, but it was all well beyond my pocket. We dropped down at a table at Le Jardin du Quai, a restaurant in the middle of warehouses stuffed full of antiques owned by the affable Daniel Hébet, whose black Labrador promptly settled at my feet. Suddenly France became the stuff of dreams again: sun, generosity of spirit, a cold beer, some complimentary plates of tapenade and radishes; plans were laid to come again.

That night there was dinner in the new place at the bottom of the hill. The joint was heaving. It had been Valentine’s Day the day before but this was different: people were simply eating out with their families as they had always done. The menu was good value, the wines chiefly local and there was a buzz about the place. It won’t last, of course, but it was good to see a spark of life in la vieille for all that.

Digging Up Bordeaux

Posted: 20th January 2020

I can’t be the only author out there who has incomplete manuscripts lying around, or rather, lurking in my Word files. I might compare my study - a little fancifully I admit - to Scapa Flow after the incursion of a rogue U-Boot: there are seaworthy vessels; a few damaged but salvageable ships; one of two prows peeking up above the water line; and other ships gone fully to the bottom of Davy Jones’ Locker.

The hulks in question are in reality mostly fragments: a book decommissioned when I was half-way through writing it and another that was trashed on completion - and it’s a pretty massive MS too. There is a novel - which I have always been in two minds about and another work of fiction that went under during a viral attack, and to the best of my knowledge was lost for good, as the agent billed to represent it promptly had an accident and fell downstairs and died; and there is another book that I wrote even before I acquired a computer and which lives in a spatchcocked box under piles of dusty papers.

It was there that I eventually found it a few weeks ago, when I was asked to contribute a chapter on the Wild Geese to a book on Bordeaux. The MS was to be my doctoral dissertation and the earliest pieces of research it contains, undertaken chiefly in Bordeaux and Paris, dated from 1980. The thesis had been squared with the authorities: I had my supervisor - the Vice-President of the University of Paris IV, whose seminars I attended at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes études - and together we had been along to the ‘équivalence’ office in the old Sorbonne building to learn if I qualified. I was told that as soon as I had confirmation of my M.A. in 1982 I could begin my doctorat de troisième cycle. So far so good: I set to work.

The idea was to look at the Irish colony in Bordeaux - both Catholic and Protestant - see how they consorted together and what were their links with the mother country. The subject was actually quite close to my supervisor’s heart, as it involved ‘prosopography’ or collective biography. The eighteenth century belonged mostly to the Catholics - descendants of the Wild Geese who had fled with the armies of King James II after the Battle of Aughrim; the nineteenth century was dominated by Ascendancy Protestants who lived the lives of, well, Ascendancy Protestants. It was an idea that originated in discussions with the master of my college, the distinguished English Revolutionary historian Christopher Hill.

Plans changed and I was back in England from the start of 1985 but I still had my notes even if I lacked the financial means to submit the dissertation at a British university, which would have meant signing up for a doctoral programme. French universities were free. The present typescript must have been written in 1985 or 1986 and I was definitely looking to place it with a publisher as a book. I occasionally made presents of sheaves of notes to interested parties in Bordeaux. One well-known deuxième-cru-château-owner sent me a couple of cases of his wine in exchange.  Later he called me to say he’d lost his notes and could I send them again. He sent me another case of wine. Then I saw what had happened: my notes turned up in a book published by a journalist in Ireland about Irish châteaux in Bordeaux! The château-owner must have handed them to the author of the book; that was when he lost them.

So when I was asked to write this chapter, my first task was to locate the text. There had been a copy, but I had given that to the late Nick Faith who had handed it on to someone else. When I finally put my hand on the box, I opened it with some trepidation: was this even going to be readable? And did I ever have anything important to say on the subject? What I found was a proper antique: an MS typed on thin sheets on an old-fashioned typewriter with lots of rewriting over thick layers of Tipp-Ex (remember that?). The numbers for the bibliographical notes had been entered by hand. Most of the detail I had forgotten, so I had the rare pleasure of reading my own work with the critical eye of a mature writer, and finding it not at all bad.

And in many ways writing was harder then. Not only was there the business with the Tipp-Ex, cutting and pasting was just that: cutting (with a pair of scissors) and pasting (with a pot of ink). Some of my early books were submitted with a few bits of hand-written scrawl here and there. This was tolerated by editors and setters at the time but in the nineties they began to insist that all manuscripts be submitted on computer files that could be fed directly into the publisher’s system. My old mediaeval history tutor, the late Maurice Keen never learned to type. At the end of his life he had to hand his hand-written scripts to some middle-aged lady to process them before they were submitted to his publisher.

Checking facts and figures was a huge job then. If you couldn’t find what you needed in the British Library it meant you might have to make a day of it and go to the Bodleian or the Cambridge University Library. Sometimes the book you needed wasn’t even here in Britain, and you had to take a list of queries to Paris or even Bordeaux when you next had the chance. Now a lot of the stuff I require is actually on the Internet, not just a number of useful family trees that sort out the ‘alliances’ between various immigrant families, but also references to some promising-looking Irish archives that I would have to look at if the book were ever to be published in toto.

But the ease of finding things on the Internet can also be a curse. Cutting and pasting takes no time at all, and plagiarism is rife. There has been an explosion of doctorates on quite spurious subjects that has caused hyperinflation in academic titles... but to mention it could just be sour grapes on my part, as my dissertation went down with all hands.

Fred Uhlman

Posted: 16th December 2019

The last few weeks have been marked by clan gatherings. First there was a MacDonogh lunch, at which a long-lost half-sister mustered not only a half-brother and his children, but her own children and grandchildren. I had long adhered to the view that my family was damned, but there was much conviviality on this occasion and the sight of a plethora of nieces, nephews, great nieces and great-nephews gave me renewed hope.

And there was another lunch at the Shelburne Club, an event bequeathed by a kind woman who died recently and who had worked for a number of publishers as a book editor. I was aware of the relationship between us, but her son wanted me to tell the thirty or so people around the table just how we two were connected. The explanation was simple: we shared a great-aunt, and not just any great-aunt, but the novelist and screenwriter Gina Kaus. Gina had been married to both my great-uncle Josef Zirner and his great-uncle Eduard Frischauer. Zirner was her first husband, Frischauer her last. In between she had two children (her only offspring) by Otto Kaus. This was Vienna as it was before the Final Solution. Now people called Kaus, Zirner and Frischauer are thinly represented in the city. They have been scattered far and wide. The American journalist Micky Kaus is Gina’s grandson.

Gina’s father was a bit of a lad, and sired a daughter by Johann Sebastian Richter’s Jewish wife Ludmilla; Richter was in prison at the time Stephanie was conceived. By a succession of curious circumstances this quite ordinary child became not only Princess Stephanie zu Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingfürst but also one of Hitler’s closest female friends. The Führer didn’t know she was Jewish. He gave her the Gold Party Badge and sent her off on spying missions. In 1939 she eloped with her lover, Hitler’s former commanding officer Fritz Wiedemann and settled in San Francisco. Gina left the same year for Los Angeles. I could write reams about Gina and Stephanie, but I shall save that for another day. The real purpose of this blog is to write about Fred Uhlman. 

My host at the Shelburne Club, Gina’s other great-nephew, introduced me to Caroline Compton and explained to me that Caroline was Uhlman’s daughter. Uhlman’s name rang a little bell and as luck would have it, Caroline had been seated on my right at lunch.

I knew of Uhlman vaguely as a painter. When I looked him up again I found his canvasses slightly primitive. They were chiefly landscapes, but there is an interesting folder published by Cape after the war depicting Uhlman and his fellow prisoners (my Godfather Alphons Barb was one of them) when he was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man in 1940. Jews like Uhlman had to muck in with various Nazi waiters and hotel managers.

Uhlman was born Manfred Uhlmann in Stuttgart, a member of a rich and socially-assured Jewish family. He went to the Eberhard-Ludwigs Gymnasium (i.e. grammar school) in Stuttgart and then on to study law at Freiburg, Munich and Tübingen universities, becoming a doctor of law in 1925. He was part of a duelling fraternity as a student, but gravitated to the left and towards the socialist Kurt Schumacher. In 1933 he fled first to Paris then to Spain, where he met his wife Diana, the daughter of the former British Cabinet minister Sir Henry Page Croft (later Lord Croft). In 1936 they went back to England together where they settled on Downshire Hill in Hampstead and befriended painters like Oscar Kokoschka, Berthold Viertel and Kurt Schwitters, as well as the writer Stefan Zweig.

I had a nagging feeling that I had also seen a copy of a novel by Uhlman. Later that afternoon I found it staring me in the face: a book, long spread-eagled on top of the bathroom cupboard: L’Ami retrouvé by Fred Uhlman. It was the French translation of his novel Reunion. I suppose it had been left there by my daughter, who had abandoned it a few pages in. I rescued it and took it into my study to read.

Reunion is really a novella, and a very German one too in that it abides by the formula of the Bildungsroman that points the spotlight at the growing man. In this case it pitches Hans Schwarz, a young Jewish boy, against the ineffably grand Graf Conrad von Hohenfels. Schwarz could be Uhlman, and the school is a smart Humanistisches Gymnasium in Stuttgart like his, where the boys existed on a diet comprised largely of Latin and Greek. Hans’s father is a respected physician whose only quarrel with Christianity is that he could not understand why God the Father could have been so cruel as to allow his only begotten son to die so painfully on the cross. His mother was scarcely any more pious, and gave money to all causes, Jewish and Christian alike.

Hans’s father has a violent argument with a Zionist, and compared the idea of reclaiming Palestine to Italians demanding Germany because the Romans had occupied bits of it at the beginning of the first millennium. The Schwarz family were Swabians before anything else, then Germans. Their Jewishness came further down the list. Hans’s father had won the Iron Cross First Class in the Great War which he hung above his bed together with his officer’s sword and next to a picture of Goethe’s house in Weimar.

The chief difference between Uhlman and his hero is that Schwarz is about ten years younger and the action begins in 1932, a year before the Nazis come to power. Hans is lonely at school before the arrival of Conrad, whose family were the stuff of legend in Swabia. Conrad’s father is a diplomat, and as Schwarz learns later his mother is a fanatical Nazi. After a slow start, the boys become good friends, walk home from school together, go on little exploratory trips and pore over one another’s books and cabinets of Roman and Greek curiosities.

When the Nazis achieve power the friendship between Hans and Conrad falters and dies. Hans leaves on a Kinderstransport and goes to America to become a lawyer. His father gasses himself and kills his mother at the same time. Hans avoids Germans and German, even refusing to read his first love, the poet Hölderlin. Although he acknowledges that he still speaks German, the mere memory of the language is enough to ‘rub salt into his wounds’.

The school ‘reunion’ of the title takes the form of a request for funds from his old school to build a war memorial. It comes with a tally of those killed in the war. Twenty-six boys out of forty-six in his class had perished. Hans hesitates before turning to see what had happened to Conrad, only to find that he had been executed for his part in the 20 July Plot to kill Hitler.

Reunion was made into a film in 1989. The screenplay was written by Harold Pinter. I haven’t seen it, but I can imagine it would make a good film in the way that other Pinter script, The Go-Between, did not. The Go-Between was a complex book, and Pinter framed the ‘commercial’ theme, the love interest, rather than dwelling on the real story of how the boy Leo’s life had been wrecked by the ill-matched lovers. Reunion, by comparison, makes a very simple point about Germany, the Third Reich and the Jews, but makes it very well.

Death and the Nile

Posted: 18th November 2019

I have been reading the letters of Jean-François Champollion, the man who deciphered the hieroglyphs and opened the doors to a proper scientific study of Ancient Egypt. I don’t know if the time he spent on the Nile hastened his death, but he died at the very early age of forty-two and his name is deservedly commemorated in a street near the Sorbonne in Paris and plenty of others elsewhere.

Champollion’s letters reminded me of my own one and only trip to Egypt and Nile cruise, which occurred in 2001, shortly after the episode of the Twin Towers. Four years before dozens of tourists had been massacred in the Valley of the Kings. Such things made both visitors and the Egyptian authorities nervous, to say the least. Tourism accounted for a substantial percentage of the country’s GDP.

I was hardly unaffected. While I was purchasing a bottle of malt whisky in Heathrow Airport I spotted a man whom I was convinced was preparing to carve up an air hostess at the very least. I gave him a very wide berth. When I boarded my aircraft, however, I found him sitting in the seat next to mine demurely reading the Economist. I wondered what I’d do if he suddenly turned violent but in the end he caused fewer problems than the in-flight entertainment: The Mummy Returns with Rachel Weisz was certainly one of the worst films I have ever seen.

By the time I had filled out various forms in Cairo Airport and taken a taxi to Mena House, it was already two o’clock in the morning, but I thought I deserved a nightcap before I went to bed. I threw open the shutters and walked out onto my balcony where a dim, pale yellow moonlight bathed the Pyramids of Geza, and the odd camel gambolled around the base of Cheops. It was a sacred moment; one never to be forgotten.

Champollion first glimpsed Geza from a boat arriving from Alexandria on 19 September 1828: ‘... at seven, when the haze had lifted, we saw the great monuments to our right and, though they were eight miles away from us, we could already sense their colossal size...’ ‘Seen from a certain angle, they look like a huddle of three tall, rocky peaks around whose soaring summits several types of birds of prey glide ceaselessly.’ I spent the next days in Cairo, revelling in the exquisite detail of Ancient Egyptian jewellery in the Cairo Museum and satisfying an abiding longing to see the Coptic Museum and churches. I took in the Sphinx and various mosques, and spent an evening with my friend, the late Paul von Maltzahn who had been installed as the German Ambassador to Egypt. A performance of Aida under the Pyramids was denied me: it had been cancelled again after the events in New York.

I had come for the Nile and after Cairo I flew to Aswan to join my steamer, heading in low over the magnificent temple of Abu Simnel in which Champollion had laboured to copy the bas-reliefs and hieroglyphs. Since the creation of the new dam in 1952, it has become harder to get to the remains which lie up against the Sudanese Border. We had to make do with Philae - also the name of our vessel - where Champollion was laid low with gout. We took small boats from Aswan to reach the temple island. I remember graffiti carved into the stones, some of it dating back to Champollion’s time if not before.

Our journey took us on to Kom Ombo with its mummified crocodiles and Edfu: one of the best preserved of all the temples and the model for many mills, theatres and cinemas constructed by nineteenth and twentieth century British architects. With the threat of terrorism at its peak, we were not many: a couple of Americans and rather larger posses of Germans and Belgians. The food was not great on board ship. In Cairo I had looked in vain for pigeons, a typically Egyptian gastronomic treat I had remembered from reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The chef obliged one night. They were stuffed with something, possibly cracked wheat?

Champollion found hot mutton pâtés served with soured milk and seemed to be permanently excited at the sight of crocodiles in the hope that he might get one to eat. The party’s bullets, however, merely bounced off the crocs’ tough hides. One day in Luxor he procured a chunk which they were all set to consume at a dinner party in the Tomb of Sethos I, but by the time the chef rolled up his sleeves it had become putrid. Champollion describes a wonderful feast with a whole stuffed sheep preceded by mezes and  liberal toasts of date liqueur fired off while Greek musicians played Marlborough s’en va-t-en guerre (to the music of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow). His expedition also had the advantage over mine by having plentiful supplies of Nuits St-Georges. Paul von Maltzahn had warned me against the local wine which came in three colours. Over a glass of hock from Langwerth von Simmern at the Embassy he told me to stick to the rosé, as it was the least bad. Thank God I had that whisky.

Champollion first encountered truly transcendent architecture in Luxor which he called ‘The Paris of Egypt’. He felt ruins such as the Temple of Karnac fully outshone anything the Greeks had left behind: ‘we in Europe are no more than Lilliputians and no other ancient or modern people has achieved a level of architecture that is so sublime, so large, so grandiose as the ancient Egyptians did’. Champollion returned to Paris with his trunks packed with treasures, but in his letters he reveals himself as an early conservationist who railed against Lord Elgin and the removal of the Dendera Zodiac. He was not impressed by the Copts either who had turned the temples into churches and covered their ancestors’ bas-reliefs with plaster bearing Christian images. 

In Luxor I had to find a costume for a shipboard party, and bought a long smock and a fez, both of which are still with me. Somewhere too is the Nubian hat and fiddle I obtained in Aswan for my infant daughter. There was plenty of entertainment, with whirling dervishes and belly dancers livening up our evenings. I looked around for some other presents for home. There were rather lovely alabaster vases in the shops that reproduced the shapes of those in the bas-reliefs. I summoned up the courage to ring a bell and started trying to haggle: ‘Look, times are hard.’ said the man with an American accent. ‘The price is the price.’

The east bank of the Nile was for the living, the west for the dead. Champollion explored the Valley of the Kings where the Pharaohs were buried: ‘... an arid valley encased by extremely high rocks sliced in peaks or by completely eroded mountains... With the exception of a few serpents and lizards no animals haunt this valley of death...’ Death was still the theme when I visited as well: there were many more armed soldiers in the valley than tourists.

My Nile journey ended in Luxor. I never saw Memphis or the Pyramids of Sakkara. Instead I was taken across the desert on a bus to Hurghada on the Red Sea. It was a long journey and at some point we all got out for refreshments. An Egyptian soldier stood at my elbow with a submachine gun at the ready lest a terrorist choose to interrupt me. The paint was still wet at the Oberoi Sahl Hasheesh, when I arrived and I was the sole guest. That night I was serenaded by a small orchestra as I ate severely alone. I flew back to Cairo and Mena House the next day. Later that evening I started my journey home, a trip that took just a few hours. Champollion had taken as many months.

The Marquise of O

Posted: 15th October 2019

Heinrich von Kleist is possibly the most Prussian of German writers, more even so than the ‘Borussophile’ Theodor Fontane, who admired the Prussians profoundly but who, in a novel like Effi Briest, was still ready to question the wisdom of the Prussian code of honour. Born in 1777 into a noble family more distinguished on the battlefield than the lecture hall, Kleist served his king in the wars against Revolutionary France before attending the small university at Frankfurt an der Oder, where he fell under the influence of the writings of Immanuel Kant.

After Prussia’s defeat at the Battles of Jena and Auerstedt in 1806, Kleist was arrested and briefly imprisoned in the French Jura. He was released in 1807 and once back in Berlin he turned his pen against the French, writing a series of excoriating articles and pamphlets. Finally, in 1811, despair at the continued French occupation of Prussia led him to commit a bizarre double-suicide together with the terminally ill Henrietta Vogel near the Wannsee lake. He was only thirty-four. Had he survived who knows what a corpus of work he might have left behind? This tomb is still there, tucked away in a small public park opposite the S-Bahn Station and generally decked with a fresh bunch of flowers.

Kleist wrote a small number of brilliant plays including the uncharacteristically light-hearted comedy, The Broken Jug. His most challenging drama was The Prince of Homburg, which seems in places to define the idea of duty as enshrined in ‘Prussianism’. Kleist was also the author of a clutch of novellas, such Michael Kohlhaas, where Kohlhaas’s quest for justice becomes so extreme that he ends up compromising his case. The Marquise of O is another: the story of a young north Italian widow, who is rescued by a Russian count from certain rape at the hands of his own soldiers during the siege of her home town and who, despite her respite, begins to feel symptoms she knows only too well as the mother of several small children.

The Count, who has had the men summarily shot, demands her hand in marriage. The Marquise - Juliette - consults both a doctor and a midwife. When the latter confirms her worst suspicions, Juliette asks whether the Midwife knew of cases where women had become pregnant without having had sex. The midwife replies cheekily that she can think of only one - the Virgin Mary. When her parents learn of her ‘condition’, they banish her from the house, initially believing that she is being dishonest and that she knows who the father of the child is. Her mother, however, produces a failsafe stratagem to test her innocence and Juliette is reconciled to her father is a scene that is, well, distinctly kinky. In the meantime Juliette places an advertisement in the local paper asking for the author of the child to come forward so that she might marry him. It would be unfair for me to reveal more as there must be many who have yet to read the novella.

The story of the unfortunate Marquise has been retranslated by the former publisher and Germanist Nicholas Jacobs for the Pushkin Press and now appears in a slim but elegant volume that is the perfect size for a jacket pocket or handbag. It is not the first English-language translation of The Marquise of O, but Jacobs translates the rather sparse - Spartan even - language of the original to perfection. Those of us who read German rarely look at translations, and it hardly needs saying that people who don’t are unlikely to do what I have done and compare the translation to the original. I note with pride that he has used as his text, the same East German Aufbau Verlag edition that I have on my shelves.

I was grateful to the Pushkin Press for reminding me of The Marquise of O and remembered that I also possessed the Erich Rohmer film from 1976 which I promptly re-watched. The film is quite stark as well and in most places religiously faithful to the text. The Russian Count is predictably brilliantly played by the late Bruno Ganz, while the Marquise is portrayed by the German actress Edith Clever. What is really striking about the film is the attention to detail: every shot is a composition of great beauty, and an evocation of the interior architecture and fashions of the last years of the eighteenth century. The cinematographer was the Spaniard Néstor Almendros, the acknowledged master of natural light. Rohmer particularly favoured him, as did François Truffaut - it was Almendros who filmed his best-selling The Last Metro. Later Almendros went to Hollywood and was behind the camera for box-office successes like Kramer vs Kramer and Sophie’s Choice.

In what seems a lifetime ago I knew Almendros in Paris, where he had made his home. He was a quiet, modest man who refused to accept the idea that he was in any way exceptional. On at least one occasion I dined with him in a little local restaurant. It was a huge pleasure just to listen to him talking about his experiences. Like Kleist he was taken away from us long before his time: Almendros died of AIDS in New York in 1992 at the age of sixty-one.

A Biography of a Nobody?

Posted: 16th September 2019

From where I sit I can see perhaps fifty books with ‘Hitler’ in the title. Publishers like the name: it is supposed to sell, like putting a swastika on the cover: Hitler plus swastika is a double hit. I can’t complain much: I am responsible for one of them and I translated another.

Only a few of them are biographies of Hitler. I have Bullock and Kershaw and one or two that sank before they were even spotted on the horizon of Third Reich scholarship. I also possess bits of Hitler by Thomas Weber or Hugh Trevor-Roper: his early life and last days. Missing are some of the German ones, such as Fest and the new one by Volker Ulrich. I have books on his taste in interior decoration, books on his books, books on his speeches; you name it, I’ve got it. And now I’ve added to this mighty collection with a thousand-page paving-stone from Peter Longerich: his new biography, which follows on from a clutch of very highly regarded books on the Third Reich, including lives of Himmler and Goebbels.

So why write a new life of Hitler? There can be lots of good reasons: to peddle a new slant, accommodate new research, air newly discovered documents, or simply to synthesise new arguments. Hitler has come a long way after all, since Alan Bullock first sought to apply an historian’s eye to the case in 1952. Before his ‘Study in Tyranny’ there had been a lot of dodgy exile histories and propaganda, and other assessments that had sprung from post-war tribunals. The man himself was often lacking from the accounts.

And he still is, in some respects. Despite all we know about the Third Reich, we are still short on information on what made its progenitor tick. He lied, he romanticised his story, and later others told fibs too about him to make a shortish, dark, plebeian man with black hair and blue eyes appear to resemble a composite portrait of Frederick Barbarossa, Frederick the Great and Bismarck. Peeling back the layers of untruth to get to the real Hitler can be very hard. He was, by all accounts, a strange man: one in a million, or one in fifty million? A German nationalist from Upper Austria fearful that his culture was about to swallowed up by the Slavs across the border, who drank at the spring of Central European antisemitism - that he was - but there were plenty more; and they weren’t all dreamers like Adolf, who walked around Linz frittering away his days concocting plans for huge neo-baroque buildings until his fantasies were shattered by a frankly unimpressed art school in Vienna whose teachers told him he had failed to make the grade, twice. Nor were all those German nationalists prudes like Adolf, whose relations with women are still a closed book; or most un-German Bohemians like Adolf, who rose at lunchtime, and delivered rambling monologues to anyone who was unlucky enough to find themselves in his company in the early hours of the morning. As people have observed, Adolf was hardly Teutonic at all. In some lights he appears like some vicious potentate from One Thousand and One Nights.

He was, it seems, musical, and very fond of Wagner. There were plenty of devotees of Wagner around, and even a few who peddled Wagnerian aesthetics, but not so many who secretly listened to Lehár, and worse than Lehár (Lehár is actually very good): simple popular music of the time. Adolf was a man who lauded pure German culture and watched Hollywood films hidden away from the public gaze in Berchtesgaden. Witnesses attest to a fondness for detective novels. Anyone who rumbled him was likely to be despatched to the Eastern Front. He was a cranky vegetarian who stuffed himself with lentils and cream buns and foreswore beer and wine but... who, after Stalingrad, swallowed schnapps to steady his shaking hand; and (let’s face it) Adolf was also a man with a monumental vision, with an idea (however deluded) that he knew more about strategy than all the generals in the Great General Staff and one with a conviction that he could lead Germany to a stupendous victory and establish a thousand year empire in eastern Europe. This was no ordinary man; ordinary men don’t do this.

Now it is possible that Adolf was none of these things, that he had no vision, that he was a just a chancer, a gambler; and there is a school of thought that says that the man who hid himself away in Berchtesgaden with Eva, stuffing himself with chocolates and listening to the inane prattle of her fellow Munich shop girls, his quack doctor, his drunken court photographer and a few adjutants selected for their ability to nod in the right places, was just that; but a chancer or gambler who hoodwinks seventy million people, is no ordinary man either. When he succeeded in doing that he ceased to be a nobody and became a public menace, a threat to world order; Hagen, not Siegfried.

Longerich claims, and repeats his claim that Hitler was a nobody, although he does occasionally delve into the home life of our dear King Adolf he concentrates on the world around the tyrant. Hitler is reduced to a metaphor. Instead of a biography of Hitler, Longerich has written an excellent short (960 odd pages) history of the Third Reich.  The book has many virtues, but it won’t reveal anything more about the man Adolf than we already know.

And so we move from fact to fiction, or at least fiction that may be based on fact. I confess I know very little about Nazi occupied Antwerp beyond the undeniable truth that the Flemish part of Belgium was sometimes moved to accommodate Hitler and the German invaders, but then so were the Walloons. If there was a difference it was that Flemish people might have perceived themselves as a little more ‘racially’ akin to Germans than French-speaking Walloons.

Antwerp was and is the centre of the diamond trade and as such was and is a city with a large Jewish population. Occupied Antwerp and a former policeman haunted by his past is the subject of Jeroen Olyslaegers novel Will. The hero, Wilfried Wils, is not only a policeman, he is a poet tormented by an inner voice he calls ‘Angelo’. The poet-policeman’s command of reality is sometimes feeble, but I don’t want to give too much away here, as it is a good plot and packs a few surprises. Like many people in challenging times Will finds himself hunting with the hounds and running with the hare, something that gets him into trouble with his colleagues and superiors then, and with the moral backlash later. The character of Wils is meant to be based on Olyslaegers’ grandfather who was just such a collaborating policeman.

The novel has been well translated by David Colmer. It is racy, punchy and very coarse. There are plenty of allusions to Brueghel and it is the earthiness of the painter that comes across again and again. For the historian there is a lot of well-studied detail and the author is very good at painting the louche mood of Antwerp during the Occupation. It is entertaining and sometimes genuinely funny. I loved the moment when Will borrows a prized collection of German classics from a Flemish fascist to distract a Jew that he has hidden in a cellar. I couldn’t recommend Will more highly, and I suspect we might hear quite a bit more from Olyslaegers.

Marc Bloc

Posted: 23rd August 2019

When I was in Brittany at the end of last month, my host lent me Marc Bloch’s L’étrange défaite (translated as Strange Defeat) about the collapse of the French army in 1940. It is an important book and a gripping read, not least because it was written by someone who was also an eye-witness to the events. Bloch had fought in the Great War and was recalled to the colours as a captain in the General Staff in 1939. He was assigned the task of organising fuel for French motorised divisions at the front and found himself mired in chaos and demoralisation from day one.

In civilian life, Bloch was a professional historian and no mean historian either: together with Lucien Febvre he founded the Annales School - possibly the most important historical movement of the century. To some extent we were all brought up his disciples. The Annales School taught us to work in archives, use primary sources and not base our writings on cobbling together the arguments of other historians. Annales historians studied social history at all levels, stressing the importance of mentalities and everyday lives. It would be hard to imagine a British historian with a similar clout, but then we tend to distrust theorists. I can only think of Lewis Namier, who was actually a Polish Jew, but who managed to change the way we looked at the history of British politics.

In addition to his other achievements, Marc Bloch was an undisputed hero. Again, I struggle to think of other examples of historian-heroes. The distinguished military historian Sir Michael Howard (happily still with us at the age of ninety-six) won an MC at Anzio, but it is one thing to display valour on the field of battle and quite another, at the age of fifty-seven, to play an important role in the secret battle against the invaders of your country and subsequently die for your country.

Bloch witnessed the whole process of France’s humiliation from mobilisation to Dunkirk, where he was taken off by the British and returned via Plymouth and Cherbourg, landing behind French lines to rally the army. He was in Rennes, in Brittany when the Armistice was signed on 2 July. With the position of Jews increasingly dangerous in the north he went south to Vichy in mufti. He was subsequently relieved of his functions as a Jew before returning to his day-job of teaching, this time at the University of Strasbourg which was translated to Clermont-Ferrand after Alsace was returned to Germany. He later taught at Montpellier until the machinations of an antisemitic rector drove him out. From that moment onwards he was fully dedicated to the resistance until his arrest on 8 March 1944, just three months before D-Day.

Bloch was subjected to various tortures. The Gestapo broke his wrist and smashed his ribs before plunging him into an icy bath. He was taken to Lyon’s Monluc Prison in a coma. On 16 June 1944, he and a number of others were taken away to be executed. One of them, a seventeen-year old boy, was crying. Bloch comforted him: ‘They are going to shoot us’ he told him, ‘don’t be frightened. They won’t hurt us... It’s all over quickly.’ Marc Bloch was the first to be killed. As he fell he shouted ‘Vive la France!’

Just this once, Bloch wrote his account of the French defeat without reference to archival sources. Nor did he ever see this work published: it was written in a Vichy France that was little disposed to upset her conquerors. Bloch was not only determined to resist the Germans, he was a Jew struggling to hold on to his professorship. The text has a freshness all its own. Historians often make very good and sympathetic writers. I have only to think of Richard Cobb (who would have made a wonderful novelist) or AJP Taylor, whose autobiography succeeds in being both moving and funny. Bloch was another historian who wrote with commendable fluency.

Strange Defeat was written between July and September 1940. Naturally he draws attention to some of the obvious drawbacks of French strategy, such as imagining that France could take refuge behind the imperfect, incomplete Maginot Line system of defences. Psychology also looms large: despondency and defeatism were very probably the result of the very recent Great War, which had affected every household in France. Neither the French, not the British for that matter, were mentally ready to fight another war.  Bloch has a lot to say about ancient generals who refused to accept the way tactics had changed since the last debacle. They based their thinking on a static war. As such they continued to spout the lessons they had imbibed at the Ecole de Guerre. As Bloch points out, their reluctance to alter their approach was all the more reprehensible given they had had eight months to absorb the way the Germans had dealt with the Poles and change tactics accordingly.

Superior officers come in for a pasting: ‘the incapacity of command’ is writ large. The Germans refused to do what they wanted them to do. The surprises, that are the key to tactics, were all the enemies’ shock and fire - none came from the French side. The Germans kept turning up in the ‘wrong place’ and cutting off the French army. French equipment was outdated, their tanks out-classed, they made insufficient use of motorcycles. There weren’t enough aircraft, lorries or motor-vehicles... Later, Bloch corrects himself: France did have enough, but not at the front: they were under lock and key behind the lines. The French fortified a broad front, but the Germans simply drove their columns down the roads, which were faster and easier to repair. Above all defeatism meant that the French failed to use Danton’s old trick and call the nation to arm against the invader. When the French collapsed, they fell in an undignified heap and lay there prostrate for four years of humiliating occupation.

Bloch is also critical of the British and of the lack of cooperation between the two armies. He was writing at a time when the British were unpopular in France. Dunkirk rankled. The French Army had been made to wait, cover the retreat and was then only carried off, seemingly as an afterthought.

Had Bloch survived I feel certain that he might have wanted to tackle some of the other causes of French defeat in 1940. Strange Defeat misses out much of the German factor: for him the defeat is the fault of the French. The German victory on the other hand was spellbinding and no amount of blaming France or its allies can explain why, in just six weeks, Germany was able to trounce the numerically superior armies of France, Britain, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg with only minimal casualties. It wasn’t just that the Western Allies were piss-poor (which they undeniably were), it was also that Germany was bloody good. As Bloch points out, the Germans fought a modern war, while the French adhered to ‘yesterday’s, or the day before yesterday’s’ strategy.

France’s sickness was to a degree founded on victory in 1918. The Germans had learned from defeat to adapt and actually benefitted from the punitive clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. They had lost their General Staff and most of their officers and men. They were banned from having tanks and aircraft. They had had to rebuild from scratch, creating a professional cadre that could at any given moment spawn a proper modern army from an embryo. It was that revitalised army, freed from many cumbersome traditions that so soundly defeated France.

Hoffmann’s Tale

Posted: 17th July 2019

Looking for a book to read a week or so ago I reached into my shelves and pulled out Rüdiger Safranksi’s biography of ETA Hoffmann. There were none of the usual pencil markings in the text and so I could only assume it had not been read. In the back, however, were a couple of railway tickets. One told me I had travelled from Frankfurt Airport to Würzburg on 30 April 2001, and the second showed I had gone from Bamberg to Berlin on 2 May. I presume I must have bought the book in Würzburg or Bamberg, most likely the latter.

I like finding things in books: they provide tantalising bits of information, even when I left them there myself! So why did I buy this fat book on Hoffmann? I think I was looking for a literary project, and that this seemed like a good one. I almost certainly went from Würzburg to Bamberg because of Hoffmann, who spent five years there between 1808 and 1813. Somewhere I will also have a diary which will provide me with the missing information.

I recall that I mentioned the idea to the late and great publisher George Weidenfeld at a launch party in his flat overlooking the Thames at Chelsea. He thought it was a wonderful project and pointed to the top shelf of his library and a book that he believed was the only one in the English language. ‘Not a good book’, he added. It had been published as long ago as the late forties. As I recall his encouragement was unique. Hoffmann is a level-two German writer, after the obvious ones like Goethe, Schiller or Thomas Mann. There are biographies of Goethe etc, but apparently even they are hard to sell. As one very friendly publisher told me ‘Frankly Giles, even if you proposed a life of Goethe, we’d have problems accepting it.’ They couldn’t see much money coming in. I gave the project a little push here and there, but no one showed any interest and I gave up.

I still think Hoffmann would make a great book. It would be to some extent the story of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann or the Tales of Hoffmann, one of the most popular operas ever written. That was based on a play by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré entitled Les Contes fantastiques d’Hoffmann. Of course Offenbach’s opera uses a great deal of hyperbole and poetic license, but the story is there, and the details of Hoffmann’s life are mostly directly derived from three or four of his tales or novellas. Hoffmann himself, with his hopeless love affairs and his devotion to the bottle, is fairly well observed.

So who was ETA Hoffmann? Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann (1776-1822 - he changed his third Christian name to ‘Amadeus’ in honour of Mozart) was a Prussian jurist, writer, composer, theatre director and artist. He was born in Königsberg in East Prussia, now Kaliningrad in the Russian of oblast of that same name. The second of two surviving boys from a family of lawyers, his elder brother was properly insane and it is not hard to see Hoffmann as a man whose genius sat on the knife edge between sanity and madness. Soon after Ernst’s birth his parents’ marriage broke up. His father went to practise law in Insterburg on the then Russian border and his mother moved back into her family home. Hoffmann was brought up by his uncles and aunts, fantastical figures who crop up in his later stories.

After attending the local university - the Albertina - where Kant was the greatest ‘fleuron’ of his age, Hoffmann became a judge, but an indomitable, rebellious spirit kept him from rising on the bench, that and a habit of falling in love with unsuitable women. One of these passions had him whisked off to Glogau (now Polish Głogow) in Silesia at the end of his time at university. There the stock Prussian Calvinist was inspired by the baroque, Catholic churches of the town. A visit to the royal art gallery in Dresden introduced him to great art for the first time, and fed his talent as a painter and draughtsman. Possibly it went to his head, for when he was completing his pupillage in Posen (Polish Poznan), he decided to publish caricatures of the great and good of the garrison. This didn’t go down well at all, and Hoffmann was punished by being transferred to the one-horse town of Plock (Płock). Before he took up his position there he married a Polish girl, Michalina (‘Mischa’) Rorer by whom he had a single daughter, Cäcilia, who died in infancy.

Relief came in 1804 when he was appointed to head the bench in ‘South Prussian’ Warsaw. Warsaw had fallen to Prussia with the Third Polish Partition of 1795. Hoffmann divided his time between his professional duties in the courts and putting on plays at a local theatre which he also decorated with murals and ceiling paintings. It was the time when, among others, he discovered the works of the Spanish playwright Calderon.

One of his tasks was to provide surnames for the city’s Jewish community, which up till then had not required such embellishments. Hoffmann took his work seriously: one day a soubrette brought him flowers, and all the Jews were given flower names; the next he ate an interesting fish for lunch and the Jews were all awarded fish names; on the third he was hungover after dining with a Prussian colonel and the Jews were all named after guns, shells and artillery pieces. On the fourth day no Jews turned up.

Hoffmann was happy in Warsaw, where he made friends with another jurist, the Jewish-born Julius Hitzig in memory of whose daughter Hoffmann he was to write the Nutcracker and the Mouse King; but the idyll came to an end with Prussia’s defeat at the Battle of Jena in 1806. Prussia lost its Polish colonies and Hoffmann his job. After two years of penury in Berlin, Hoffmann arrived in the lovely city of Bamberg in Franconia to manage the Rose Theatre. He was already drinking heavily, as he confided to a diary in which he wrote his German partly in Greek characters to prevent his wife from understanding it. The Greek alphabet also concealed his frequent use of prostitutes. He had begun writing music in Berlin and now he became a critic too, writing his notices for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. He championed not only the music of Mozart, but also Beethoven. In 1809 he penned his first successful short story: Der Ritter Gluck about the appearance of the composer Gluck’s ghost.

But Hoffmann’s time in Bamberg was bedevilled by a passion for a private pupil, the fourteen-year old Julia Marc - who was possessed of a beautiful voice. Her mother was not exactly enraptured by the idea of her daughter performing the role of muse to this thirty-three year old, impecunious, drunken, married man and she swiftly portioned her daughter off to a member of the local bourgeoisie. Hoffmann was disgusted, and worked off his anger in a tale of Berganza, a talking dog who bites a fairly transparent parody of his graceless rival.

After an interlude in which he found himself caught up in the wash of the Napoleonic wars in Leipzig and Dresden, Hoffmann returned to Berlin and the bench. This time he served on the Kammergericht, Prussia’s highest court while he was able to put on his opera Undine at the Schauspielhaus. In the evenings he met up with his friend the actor Ludwig Devrient at the wine house Lutter und Wagner and drank champagne. The friends took to shouting ‘Give me a cup of sack, rogue!’  (Henry IV, Part 1, Act II, Scene 4) - or rather ‘Gib mir ein Glas Sekt, Schurke!’ whenever they needed a top up. It is the probable origin of ‘Sekt’, which means sparkling wine in German.

Hoffmann was the talk of the town: novels and novellas like Die Elixiere des Teufels (The Devil’s Elixirs), Der goldene Topf  (The Golden Pot), Klein Zaches (Little Zach) and Kater Murr (Tomcat Murr) guaranteed his place both in the forefront of German romantic literature, but also as one of the fathers of magical realism, for Hoffmann’s fiction was always construed as a means of escaping from the humdrum to some higher, magical world - just as little Marie does in the Nutcracker.

This escapist literature was not the only medium in which he excelled, however: Hoffmann was a satirist on a par with Swift, and inspired by the trials of liberals in reactionary Prussia, he wrote a parody of the Chief of Police Kramptz in Meister Floh (Master Flea). Unfortunately the Police Chief recognised himself: Hoffmann was to be exiled once again; this time to the little town of Insterburg in East Prussia where his father had once vegetated as a lawyer. He never got there. He died of syphilis in Berlin on 25 June 1822 at the age of just forty-six.

Besides the body of fiction he has left us and few quirky, but interesting paintings and drawings, Hoffmann wrote a reasonable corpus of music, and it has often to musicians that he has spoken most directly. His inspiration is chiefly associated with Robert Schumann, whose Kreisleriana was inspired by Hoffmann’s conductor in his remarkable novel Kater Murr. In the novel the Kreisler writes his memoires, while his cat, Murr, uses the back of the paper to write his own. The result is an extraordinary text where the cat’s thoughts form the counterpoint to the composer’s. Hoffmann’s direct influence extends much further than Schumann to Wagner (Meister Martin), Tchaikovsky (the Nutcracker), Delibes (Coppélia) and Hindemith (Cardillac), and naturally Offenbach too.

Simon Linnell (1956 - 2019)

Posted: 17th June 2019

Simon died in the early hours of 2 June. He had been in Morocco, no one knows quite why. After a few weeks he flew back to Gatwick. Scotland, where he lived, being another flight away, he checked into a hotel. Here he fell ill. The hotel alerted East Surrey Hospital. The doctors saw he had only days to live: his heart was failing and his kidneys had already given up the ghost.

At first he was lucid, he even drank a little of the bottle of whisky he had smuggled in. He mentioned various names and we received regular bulletins, but he died the very day I was planning to visit him with a friend. He had never wanted for company and was surrounded by bevies of the faithful, right up to the moment he expired.

My friendship with Simon began in 1976, and the beginning of my second year at Oxford. We were founder members of the Piers Gaveston Society, a club that remains as notorious as ever. The creators of the Gaveston were Philip Ruttley and Dave Rampersad, the former a Swiss who had stayed on to do a doctorate at Oriel, the latter a Trinidadian come from Cambridge to write a dissertation on colonial history. They recruited my then best friend Jeremy Howard. Howard brought me onboard and I believe it was Ruttley who proposed Simon. Ruttley had second thoughts about his doctorate and stood down before the first ‘Synod’ in Hilary 1977. He was replaced as Keeper of the Poker by my friend, the Canadian Geoffrey Chambers. 

Then and now, the Gaveston was all about giving risqué parties. Simon and I were in charge of drinks and we made the cocktails for the termly synod. Each cocktail was named after one of the six office-holders, one of these being the Custodian of the Anals. We always took great care to make the ‘Anals’ cocktail a suitably revolting colour.

Simon and I hit it off from the first and we were inseparable that year. I soon learned his story: he was adopted and claimed to be the illegitimate son of an Irish peer who had been taken in by a Catholic couple in Lancashire. Simon had a sister called Lisa, eighteen months younger than him. Her origins were as obscure as his. At the reception that followed his funeral her twin daughters agreed that Lisa looked quite like Simon.

It is a mystery that remains to be solved. Simon’s nieces said that he had never made any attempt to find out who his real parents were. His adoptive father and mother sounded quite saintly. He had attended the seminary at Ushaw in County Durham and had considered the priesthood, but in the end didn’t feel he had a vocation and worked in business instead. Simon always spoke of his adoptive parents with respect. I recall once his mother sent him a box of white shirts. Simon wore them all term, until they were far from white, adding that he wanted to ‘to show you all that I have a mother.’ The shirts became a part of his Bohemian chic along with the usual tattered foulard or boa.

His adoptive parents sent him to top schools. Simon had come up to New College to read English from the Benedictines at Downside Abbey bringing a wealth of stories about dirty monks. He was extremely bright, but had no real taste for study. He was taught Anglo-Saxon by the novelist A N Wilson, and it is hardly surprising they got on well. Anne Barton, the Shakespeare scholar who tutored him in his second year was less forgiving. It was astonishing he survived to take Schools. Modern Oxford would probably have never let him in, and if they had, they would certainly have thrown him out.

He could be sharp. I was keen a girl that year, and watching me waiting for her to arrive he complimented me drily on my performance as a cat on a hot tin roof. He was up for any play, good or bad. I remember a particularly crass adaption of Stoker’s Dracula, with Simon as the Count and a Design for Living with some Americans from Princeton who were doing a course in North Oxford. We all loved Coward - Simon in particular. He used to call ‘Time and Again’ my song. I was not involved in university acting, but once we were asked to perform the back-up for a pop group called the ‘Crutchfumblers’ in the Newman Rooms. We took our brief literally, and many walked out.

He could be very drunk indeed and long before most of us had even thought about our first drink. On one occasion following her election as Leader of the Opposition, Mrs Thatcher appeared in Oxford to open a branch of Oxfam in the Broad: civic dignitaries, aldermen swinging their chains of office and hacks from the local press lined up behind ropes on either side of the entrance. Simon pushed his way through their ranks and arms outstretched like a child imitating a Spitfire, he stopped in the doorway and refused to budge. There was a prolonged stand-off while officials tried to coax him away, but he stayed put at one end of the crowd with Mrs Thatcher waiting at the other. Meanwhile the Kiwi Paul Halloran, later of Private Eye, was shouting from the back of the crowd ‘Maggie, they’re pulling your tit: it’s been open for weeks!’

The one and only time I received a (in justification, unannounced) visit from my school contemporary, the famous lawyer Anthony Julius, he found me sitting with Simon under a tree outside Staircase XIV, a bottle parked between us. Julius marched off in disgust and I haven’t seen him since. In the evenings Simon liked the Berni in the Cornmarket. The wine list consisted of six bottles. We’d order all six.

In the summer of 1977 it was New College’s turn to put on the Commem Ball. The ball committee asked me to do the poster, paying me £15, which was £10 short of the price of a double ticket. I managed to find another tenner somewhere and was able to bring my girl. Too late I learned that I had the privilege of having Simon’s filthy room in Holywell as my ‘sitting out room.’ It might have been an honour, but I think it was also a ruse on his part not to have to tidy up before the end of term.

I saw a bit less of Simon in my third year. I had nowhere to live at first. For a while I slept on sofas. The porter’s lodge put out a story that I was living in a tent on Port Meadow. Sometimes I put two chairs together in the JCR and Ray, the steward used to come and wake me up in the morning with a cup of coffee. Then I had the use of a place in Walton Street for a while, followed by a horrid little room off the Iffley Road, before I finally settled in a house by the roundabout at the very top of the Banbury Road. Simon could not have been further away, up on Headington Hill: the last stop before London.

I went straight to Paris at the end of my time. Simon gravitated towards London where he hoped to achieve glory on the stage, although he did come and see me on at least one occasion. I was living with Tim Hunt in the rue des Boulangers. We drank and sang a lot. He seemed happy. When Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister, Simon’s failure to be the next Laurence Olivier but three was blamed on the woman he had prevented from getting into the Oxfam Shop in the Broad. ‘The Thatcher government’ seemed to justify dividing up the day into three eight-hour shifts between the sheets. It was possible he was depressed, but it was a feature of Simon’s protracted naps that he came round at the oddest times. Lord Justice Jackson (or ‘Paddy’ - as he was then), alluded to this in the wonderful eulogy he delivered at Simon’s funeral. When he woke up he would inevitably cook himself a proper meal - meat and two veg - at three or four o’clock in the morning. Paddy mentioned that on one occasion when Simon was living with him he turned on the gas in the oven but forgot to light it. When he reappeared with a fag in his mouth he blew up half the kitchen. A bedraggled Simon appeared at Paddy’s bedside minus his eye-brows and ‘half his nose’.

If you invited Simon to dinner he often stayed the night and that meant waking up to him cooking an omelette at four a.m. When he finally left he’d insist on taking the leftovers - a carcass or something like that - to make soup (even if you had plans for it yourself). On one occasion he was arrested for drunken behavior and was found to be in possession of a mangled, half-chewed duck. The police didn’t press charges: they were too keen to get rid of him, and the duck.

Simon was kept alive by a wide circle of largely New College friends who forgave him both his outrages and his inability to get up, but even their patience snapped sometimes. A female friend I saw at the funeral admitted she had once called the police to evict him. Spare rooms filled up with children and Simon eventually found a council flat in a tower block in Walthamstow in which he lived for many years. I have a vague memory of unfurnished rooms and a huge collection of airport novels, which he loved and he made good money reviewing them for the broadsheets.

I don’t know why (even if I have my suspicions) Simon failed to capitalise on the connections he had made at Oxford. He was a good friend of Jeremy Mortimer’s and a contemporary of Richard Curtis’s. The latter in particular acted as a sort of fly-paper to all that passed for thespian talent at Oxford in those days: Rowan Atkinson, Tim McInnerny, Philip Franks; the musicians Howard Goodall and Philip Pope, and later Hugh Grant and Imogen Stubbs. Simon, it seems, never got a look in.

The problem was the Equity card, and how to get one. Actors needed the card to obtain work. He did a few one-man shows in pubs, Eddy Canfor-Dumas told me he had written the one culled from Dostoevsky I saw in Kilburn. He was liked by Northampton Rep and often performed there. There was some Ödön von Horvath in Camberwell. The missing Equity card finally drove him to acting school at E15. He learned all sorts of methods that to some extent mitigated the more histrionic style of his Oxford years. He also acquired his first steady ‘occasionally requited’ (to use his phrase) love. This ended badly, however, when despair made him swallow a bottle of bleach or cleaning fluid, I suspect permanently weakening his vital organs.

Simon stayed largely the same, but we moved on, generally because we had families. I may have lasted longer than some, but I too stopped seeing Simon after his 40th birthday. He wanted me to buy him a special present in Berlin. I didn’t object to that but as the present had to be consumed in Berlin he also expected me to fly him out and put him up. I demurred. I lost no sleep over the fact he didn’t invite me to the birthday party he held jointly with a friend in Oxford. My life was changing dramatically: I too was about to become a father.

I last saw him about ten years ago at a close friend’s family party at an old music hall in the East End. It was already late, but he wanted to hear all my news. I needed to get back to pay off a babysitter. With time Simon had found bits of work, including television, but he never made it big time as an actor. In some ways he was in greater demand as a book reviewer.  He moved to a croft in a hamlet north of Glasgow, where he was popular with the locals in the pub, who used to deposit pheasants on his doorstep. He also worked with a local theatre group - the Walking Theatre Company who had the highest regard for him and the experience that he was able to offer.

Simon left no children. There is as yet no physical monument, no corpus of work, no collection of writings, no sets of DVDs that we can pick up to remember him; but as his funeral near the runway of Gatwick Airport (where his death trauma began) amply demonstrated, he bequeathed to all of us who had known him a superabundance of cherished memories, some tragic, but mostly comic, and we will miss him hugely to the end of our days. After all, Simon was part of us all. He was our youth.

Nick Faith

Posted: 15th May 2019

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange von mir nichts vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben.

(I have now come unstuck from the world/With which I once wasted so much time/ It has been so long since it has learned my news/It might well believe I am now dead.)

These lines by Friedrich Rückert, so beautifully set to music by Mahler, seem to sum up my present position to a tee; but it is not just that the world has heard nothing from me, I have heard nothing from the world, and most of the time it is because I don’t want to know about something to which I cannot usefully respond.

And so it was with Nick’s death. I had not heard anything from him or about him for a very long time and I began to fear the worst and the worst proved true. When I finally looked, I found the end had occurred all of six months before and no one had thought to tell me.

Born on 6 July 1933, Nick was a generation older than me and the others who went into wine writing in the eighties. He used to describe himself as a ‘Geordie,’ I don’t know why. Maybe his mother was from Newcastle? The one proper obituary I found (Christian Wolmar in the Guardian) says he was born in London, the son of an evidently prosperous Jewish furniture manufacturer who sent him to Harrow. Nick was pretty quiet about Harrow, but it slipped out at unguarded moments. I am not sure he enjoyed the experience much: he was virulent in his condemnation of public schools, describing them expensive ‘finishing schools’. I don’t think his own children were sent down that road. I recall him imitating one of his sons: ‘Dad’ he would whine, ‘Dad’... drawing out the ‘a’.  He clearly loved his children, but he said they were exasperated by him.

He told me he had done National Service as a subaltern in the Royal Artillery, I assume that was before he went up to Magdelen College Oxford where he read History. He came down with a viva’d First. With characteristic self-deprecation, he used to tell the story that they had awarded him a First simply to get him out of the room, regretting bitterly they had interrupted his last long vac to have him give more precise answers to the questions posed in the exam.

From Wolmar I learn too that his father Philip Faith died just before Nick finished Schools, and that he had had to take over the reins of his father’s business. Once divested of his family firm, Nick was briefly involved in films before going into journalism. He moved from writing about industry to commenting on business and from the Economist to the Sunday Times’ Insight team. He was a successful hack. Even at the end of his life he used to pride himself on having at least three commissioning editors he could rely upon to print his copy. And then there were the books, of which he must have penned at least a couple of dozen. Opus one seems to have been a work on road safety published in 1968. Most of his early books were about business and transport: trains (which he loved), boats and aircraft. There was even one about the Wankel engine. Wine, however, occupied a special place in his heart. He managed to get all the best commissions when it came to wine - particularly writing about top Bordeaux châteaux. Cognac became a personal fief, and he produced all manner of guides to it and keep them constantly updated.

I must have half a dozen of his wine books. The first one I read was The Wine Masters (1978), a study of the 1974 Bordeaux Wine Scandal. I chanced on the book in Paris and loved every word of it. The pages were filled with the antics of the crooks that Nick seemed to like so much. For me it was an eye-opener and breathed life into the project I was working on the late seventies and early eighties. I must have met Nick not long after I returned to Britain. I remember the launch of his excellent Story of Champagne in 1988 and the speech he made thanking the various PR women present for providing so much vintage champagne on his fifty-fifth birthday. It was an excellent party.  

Once we got to know one another there was a degree of complicity, and he kept an avuncular eye on me. He was always supportive of my various projects: all the more so because like him I wrote about things other than wine. He allowed himself to be sucked into the wine world, however, and at one stage he was roped into becoming Chairman or President of the Circle of Wine Writers. He found an Augean Stables, filled with a lot of superannuated members who hardly brought credit to the club. On one memorable occasion he penned an e.mail to a friendly member carelessly describing a notorious drunkard as a notorious drunkard, and then clicked on ‘reply all’. The notorious drunk was not best pleased and Nick had to give him money to stop him from taking the matter to court.

By that time I was writing less and less about wine and I saw less of Nick. I recall meeting him for coffee at the British Library at about the time his book on the Canadian drinks magnates, the Bronfmans came out. We had something to swop, but I can’t remember what it was. I ran into him a couple of years later when I found him eating alone at the Reform Club, where he managed the wine list.

The last time we spoke was on the telephone in 2014. I was trying to unravel the family life of Christine Valette in Saint Emilion for an obituary. I thought she must have been his sort of woman, but he sounded vague, and claimed he didn’t know her. I was worried about him and mentioned this to a close friend of his when I ran into her at a memorial service. She said that he was still very much on the ball. This is confirmed by Wolmar, who says he was in the middle of writing an article when he died. He even managed to bring out a history of the Channel Tunnel in 2018, which must have been published at around the same time.

Nick was living on his own by the time I got to know him.  He was twenty-two (and she twenty) when he married Rosamond Arnold-Forster in 1955. She must have been an Oxford contemporary. They were terribly young. She was the daughter of a naval officer and they had four children. Rosamond Faith went on to become a published mediaeval historian and taught at Oxford. Nick and his wife were divorced in 2000 although I think Nick had flown the coop long before. His wife was not, I believe, Jewish.  Nick did not give the impression of being religious although he would describe himself to me as a ‘yid’, ‘skid’ or ‘kyke’ from time to time, but then again, he knew I was also partly Jewish. His sense of humour was defiantly puerile. He teased, but was usually in the side of the angels.

Indeed, although Nick made light of it, I think there must have been some rancour at home. One of his sons changed his name, adopting either his mother’s or his wife’s. Unshackled, Nick moved into Oz Clarke’s old flat in Islington when Oz decamped to Fulham. Nick was now free to develop his passions for hard-bitten PR ladies. There was a certain type, and Nick’s new women invariably conformed to type.

Despite his patrician education, Nick remained a political firebrand. He was a rigid Labour voter. According to Wolmar he supported Brexit but, in his contrarian style, he could not abide Jeremy Corbyn. While he was warm and friendly, he was seldom intimate. He erected a screen of self-mockery and effectively concealed himself behind it. Although he lived very near me for much of the time, I never went to his flat even if I couldn’t count how many times we shared a taxi back to Islington together after wine trade dinners.

I am sorry that I shall never have Nick’s news again.

The Lavender Ladies of Somerville

Posted: 16th April 2019

Last month I went on my third ever demo. I missed one last year because I was on a ship sailing down the Rhine. Our numbers have been called into question and I certainly couldn’t tell you precisely how many there were, only that it took one and a quarter hours to walk from Grosvenor House to the Dorchester, which would normally take me five minutes. The previous time I marched it took only three-quarters of an hour.

While we members of the metropolitan élite, the establishment, stumbled forward in the crowd, certain in my case that this gesture would be ignored like every other one, there was plenty of time to look at the banners and placards, some of which were quite witty. The more basic ones contained portraits or effigies: the severed head of Nigel Farage, a hairless man whom I took to be Damian Green at first but who, in retrospect, I think was Rupert Murdoch, lots of pictures of David Cameron and rude remarks about Eton, some pigs in provocative postures and of course thousands of pictures of Theresa May.

Naturally I see quite a lot of images of Theresa now but it still strikes me as remarkable that this gawky, beaky, timid girl should have become the reason why I am prepared to shuffle from Hyde Park Corner to Parliament Square to stand up for the beliefs I have held all my adult life. I remember teasing her about something in the Union Bar, and then getting that stubborn, spiteful look we have all come to know so well. Had I got any closer I am sure I would have been rewarded with a scratch even deeper than the one on Jean-Claude Juncker’s face. She was my opponent in the one paper speech I made in the Union Debating Chamber, in Trinity Term 1978. I remember very little about either my speech or her riposte. It was a frivolous motion and I had almost certainly drunk too much Pimms beforehand. I haven’t seen Theresa in the flesh since that day.

Normally I would have kept well away from the Union, it wasn’t my sort of place at all. I blame the Bear, a contemporary of mine who did every one of those eager things you were supposed to do when you went up. He joined all the political parties, wrote for the university newspaper (the Cherwell) and it goes without saying that he beavered (if a bear may beaver) around the Union. One day we were both in a friend’s room in Somerville (then an all-girls college just as ours was just for boys) and the friend showed us some grotty invitation cards she had been given by a well-meaning aunt. They were mauve and embossed in gold and evidently quite embarrassing, but the Bear’s eyes twinkled, for he had already dreamed up a scheme for how to dispose of them: the Lavender Ladies of Somerville would give a fancy dress party at the Randolph Hotel.

Before we knew it he jotted down a list of people he’d met at the Union adding a few more he had encountered in our college. We addressed them and popped them in the pigeon post. Of course it wasn’t going to be a real party, it was a hoax, but students were prepared to go to virtually anything if they thought there would be free drink and we would be able to watch the fun from the back gate of our college, which afforded an excellent view of the Randolph. We were able to congratulate ourselves on a considerable success as quite a lot of people turned up in elaborate costumes and went away again looking cross.

A few days later the Bear introduced me to the Union Bar. Somewhere in the crowd I heard a piercing shriek and before I could take cover a tall, thin Asian woman was standing before me screaming ‘What do you mean by asking me to some non-existent party?’ It was Benazir Bhutto, whom I hadn’t met before. It was obvious that she wasn’t really angry, and rather more intrigued than anything else. A few days later there was a knock at my door in the horrid modern staircase by the back gate (our vantage point). I opened it to see her and Damian Green they had come to pay me a call.

I can see them both, sitting on my bed, teasing me. I sat on a chair with my back to my desk while Damian bobbed around giggling like the cat who’d got the cream. I ran into Benazir several more times that term. In the Union Bar she’d slip me a fiver and tell me to buy us both a drink and occasionally we’d go for a spin in an open-topped sports car she called ‘Baby’.

Just before we went down for the Christmas break she gave me her telephone number at the Pakistani Ambassador’s House in St John’s Wood. The ambassador’s wife was her aunt. I was too shy to call and I had a taxing job in a rough City bar and that took up many of my evenings. Then she rang. I held the receiver at arm’s length: ‘Why did you take my (expletive deleted) telephone number? To stick on your wall?’ She invited me to join her Valkyries and go to see The Sound of Music,but I didn’t want to see the Sound of Music. I still don’t. So she invited me to join them for dinner afterwards.

I should explain that the Valkyries was my name for her protection mob. There were about a dozen girls who formed a thick cordon around her on most occasions, I think to prevent her from getting up to mischief. From Theresa’s later utterances on the subject you might imagine she was one of them, but I don’t recall her being there, certainly not that night. I arrived before them, and a considerate flunky in pyjamas showed me up to a plush flat at the top of the house and handed me a decanter filled with whisky. I remember a rather good buffet supper downstairs and some cauliflower cheese enhanced with masala spices; and that is all.

Benazir and I became good friends, but when her father got into trouble she went home and I never saw her again. Years later I had a surprise invitation to her engagement party, but sadly I couldn’t go. I regret that profoundly now, particularly when I think of her gruesome fate.

Of course I saw a lot more of Damian, who was in my college. Damian not only shone academically, he succeeded at the Union, becoming its President in Michaelmas 1977, like Benazir two terms before. The Union in those days was chiefly a place where grammar school boys and girls took their first steps up the ladder to success. There was nothing posh about the Union Presidency in those days, probably the only exception was the Amplefordian Richard Norton, now Lord Grantley, a UKIP hereditary peer who was President in Michaelmas 1976. If you wanted to get on in life you hung around the Union Bar making friends who would elect you to Library Committee, and then you could run for one of the three major offices that would sparkle on your CV later. For me they were just so many boars to be baited. Sometimes they bought you drink thinking you were a member and therefore a potential voter. I was only a member for one term, and that at the insistence of Alan Duncan who got fed up with seeing me climbing over the garden wall.

Damian and I were never huge pals but we were definitely friendly. I recall I tried to get Barry Humphries to speak at the Union during his presidency. Humphries lived near me in London and I had had dinner with him and his wife and discovered a man of enormous wit and erudition, the contrast to his Edna Everage persona could not have been more striking.

I have seen Damian fewer than a dozen times these past forty years. He rose to become Deputy Prime Minister before coming crashing down again in a recent scandal we can all recall. He appears to have fallen foul of the police. For the past few months he has been Theresa’s eminence grise, the sole politician regularly admitted to her presence, devising her stratagems, thwarting her enemies, helping her cling on despite all those gravitational forces that should otherwise pull her down. Such were my thoughts as I soldiered on towards Parliament Square, just one in a million established élitists thwarting the People’s Will.

Resistance in the Third Reich

Posted: 18th March 2019

In these worrying times when many of our received values are up for grabs and forms of political representation have become utterly confused in the public mind, it seem natural to revisit the Third Reich and the failure of the German democracy. Although Germany succumbed to Hitler, during most of the period from 1933 to 1945, there was an opposition working in the shadows. Resistance to a totalitarian state is particularly risky: if you are caught you will either end up in something like a concentration camp, or swinging from a rope; and opposition becomes that much more problematic in time of war when it is all too easy to accuse an opponent of undermining his country while it struggles to survive. We need to be clear, however that the Nazis arrived in power democratically. Despite their setback in the elections of November 1932, one in three Germans voted for them and they remained the largest party in the Reichstag. Their leader was a natural choice for chancellor.

The failure of any one party to achieve a majority meant that Germany had been ruled by decree since 1929. Abiding by the Weimar Constitution, chancellors and cabinets were approved by President Paul von Hindenburg. His opposition to the idea of appointing the ‘Bohemian Corporal’ - as he called him - was eroded by his bosom friend, the former Chancellor Franz von Papen and Adolf Hitler was chosen as Chancellor of the Weimar Republic on 30 January 1933. He brought just two other Nazis into the government with him: Hermann Göring and Wilhelm Frick. The other members were Vice-Chancellor Papen’s appointees.

According to Papen’s plan, these Nazis would be just three sausages floating in a national conservative stew, but events came to Hitler’s rescue as early as 27 February when a demented Dutch communist set fire to the Reichstag. Now the Nazis had an excuse to bring out their SA paramilitaries to help the police round up communists. Anyone who was thought to oppose them was beaten and tortured in makeshift torture chambers. On 23 March the Enabling Act allowed Hitler to dispense with parliamentary democracy. Only the Social Democrats resisted, limply. Opposition political parties were banned in July.

But Hitler was still not fully master in his own house. At any time the increasingly doddery Hindenburg might have dismissed him, especially if the army, or his favourite Papen put pressure on him to act. As it turned out, the beginning of an opposition was already developing in Papen’s kitchen cabinet, particularly in the person of conservative Edgar Jung. Jung and possibly Papen himself were keen to replace National Socialism with the clerical style of fascism enshrined in the Austrian Corporate State. A return to Christian morality loomed large in their thinking. On 30 June 1934, Hitler was frightened enough of what Papen might do to unleash the furies in the form of his SS Praetorians. He feared Hindenburg might bring out the army and depose him. Papen’s clique was murdered: Jung and Herbert von Bose, as well as the popular leader of Catholic Action, Erich Klausener. Victims also included Hitler’s Nazi rival Gregor Strasser and the former Chancellor General Kurt von Schleicher. Schleicher and Strasser may or may not have been considering a move to oust him. Hitler also threw a sop to the army, and through them, Hindenburg. The army was worried that Hitler was planning to merge the SA Brownshirts with the regular Reichswehr or even supplant it. Hitler had Ernst Röhm and the SA leaders slaughtered. A month later a reportedly gaga Hindenburg was dead and Hitler and his Nazis became indisputable masters of Germany.

Germany was comparatively calm in the mid-thirties. The numbers of people in concentration camps dwindled. When political prisoners were released they were ‘convinced’ not to speak of their experiences.  Although there were occasional ‘spontaneous’ actions against Jews, the Nuremberg Laws were actually an attempt to create a legal framework to the ‘Jewish Problem’ by attempting to define a ‘Jew’ and the various levels of ‘part-Jew’. With the communists out of the way and the socialists lacking any political base there was little in the way of active opposition. Adam von Trott zu Solz, when not immersed in his legal studies, tried to find like-minded opponents of the regime. He made contacts with a few communists, but most of the opposition he encountered was in the now banned student corps associations and represented national conservatives who found Hitler’s style little to their taste.

All that changed when Hitler revealed his hand to the leading generals on 5 November 1937. He wanted to launch wars to secure ‘living space’ for the German people. The army had no particular reason to dislike Hitler that that stage: he had eliminated the threat of the SA and revived national service, but building Germany’s military up to what it had been was taking time. In the early months of 1938, Hitler was convinced to dismiss both his Minister of War Werner von Blomberg and his army chief Werner von Fritsch. Blomberg had remarried a woman with a dodgy past. Fritsch was removed on trumped up charges of homosexuality. Hitler now revealed his plans to tear up the post-war Treaty of Versailles which had removed 27,000 square miles of Germany’s territory and dictated the size and power of its army.

The army’s outrage at Fritsch’s departure led to the Third Reich’s first organised resistance movement. It centred on Colonel Hans Oster at the Abwehr or Military Intelligence; but it wasn’t just the atrocious treatment of Fritsch, it was Hitler’s military adventures that ruptured the alliance between the Nazis and the national conservatives. The army leaders did not think themselves ready to reclaim the lost regions parts of Germany let alone support Hitler’s more wide-reaching plans. The Chief of Staff Ludwig Beck believed the generals should resign en masse, although in the end, only he did. The crisis, on the other hand saw a coming together of military and civilian elements with a project to arrest Hitler which was only thwarted by Chamberlain’s flight to Munich.

The same plot, with a similar cast was revived the following year. Wise men realised that successful campaigns would diminish the chances of removing Hitler. The restoration of Germany’s pre-First World War frontiers, the merger with Austria and the rescue of the Sudeten Germans trapped in Czecho-Slovakia were not unpopular moves. The danger was more the kudos that Hitler would gain by shaking off the punitive clauses of the Peace Treaty. With this in mind, members of the German elite woke up to the need to prevent war, sending emissaries to Britain and the United States both to elicit support and to encourage both Chamberlain and Roosevelt to show sufficient muscle to make Hitler stand down. This was the origin of Adam von Trott’s meeting with Chamberlain in London in July 1939 and the abortive trip to Washington later that year when he was prevented from meeting Roosevelt.

The war went ahead. The Polish Campaign was short and sharp and allowed the Germans to restore their eastern borders. Behind the lines the SS killed Jews, priests, noblemen and intellectuals. There was anger in army high command, civilians exchanged shocked letters but nothing was done to bring them to book. Much worse for Hitler’s opponents was the stunning series of victories in the first half of 1940. After subduing the Danes and Norwegians, Hitler’s armies knocked out the Dutch, Belgians, French, British and Luxembourgeois in just six weeks and with minimal loss to themselves. Few people say this, but it is hard to find a comparable victory in ancient or modern history. Hitler’s opponents were aware that it would be impossible to incite a popular revolt while Germany basked in glory.

The ‘Siegfriede’ (the ‘peace of victory’) lasted a year before the Russian Campaign kicked off. It ran to ground after six months, and the subsequent war of attrition was a more favourable climate for resistance. It was here that Henning von Tresckow operated as chief General Staff officer attached to Army Group C. With his team of younger officers Tresckow was behind a whole series of bold attempts on Hitler’s life that were dogged by poor luck not to mention the Führer’s extraordinary sixth sense that seemed to keep him out of danger.

On the civilian front, the older opposition figures around the former Mayor of Leipzig, Carl Goerdeler, were joined by the younger men of the Kreisau Circle. With time the Kreisauers led by Helmut James von Moltke numbered civil servants, diplomats, trade union leaders, socialist politicians and churchmen, both Protestant and Catholic. Their meetings set out to design a post-war Germany rather than plan Hitler’s death. By the end of 1943, Heydrich’s SD were able to break up the group of conspirators around the Abwehr, and very soon the net tightened yet again and more and more of Hitler’s opponents were arrested, including Moltke.  

With little or nothing in the way of transport, constant disruptive bombing by the Allies not to mention the Gestapo and their narks poised to report on them, it wasn’t easy to plot against the regime. Those caught doing so were tortured and executed. Adam von Trott’s friend Peter Bielenberg once described to me the problems of communication in Germany during the war. From his base in Graudenz in West Prussia he needed to book a call early in the morning in order to speak to his wife Christabel in the Black Forrest late that night.

For soldiers planning a coup d’état, the problem was getting close enough to Hitler to kill him. He kept irregular hours, spent his time in his various bunkers or hidden from the masses among his court in Berchtesgaden. When Claus von Stauffenberg arrived in Berlin the autumn of 1943 he seemed to be the man to galvanise the various factions, young and old, but it was not until June 1944 that he was admitted to Hitler’s conferences as General Staff officer to General Friedrich Fromm commanding the Reserve Army.

Stauffenberg was an impressive figure but the injuries he had sustained in North Africa made him less than ideal to carry out the assassination: he had lost one eye, one hand and two fingers from the remaining one. His inability to prime both packets of explosive was just one of many reasons why the attempt on 20 July 1944 did not succeed. Nearly 5,000 people were executed in the wake of the plot, including ten percent of the General Staff. Given that fewer than 200 people had any real knowledge of the plan, The SD was clearly taking no chances: anyone with any connection to the opposition was liable to arrest, and possibly execution. The slaughter removed many great minds who would have contributed to post-war Germany.

Some would argue that the failure was for the best: had Hitler been killed, it would have given rise to the accusation that the opposition had ‘stabbed Germany in the back’. Germany, they say, needed to drink the cup down to the dregs. Had Hitler been removed in July 1944 and Germany lost the war, the resisters would have been seen as traitors who brought about the country’s downfall.

On the other hand Hitler’s crimes would have come to light, and it would have taken a considerable effort of will to explain them away. Redeeming the Germans has been linked to the recognition of these crimes. It has been very largely successful. In this post-war re-education, the story of the men and women who resisted Hitler from within has been a crucial factor in returning them to the pale of civilisation.

‘It’s Just France’

Posted: 26th February 2019

To borrow a word from French, for the past quarter century I go to a friend’s domain in Provence twice a year to ‘oxigenise’; spending a few days each time at an altitude of a thousand to fifteen hundred feet in full sight of Mont Ventoux and soaking up any sun that happens to be on offer. It is one of the most beautiful places I know and there is a magic moment at gloaming when the sun sets and the lights go on in the villages to the north: Caromb, Bédouin and Crillon-le-Brave, looking like little beads of pearls below the crimson sky.

In his kindly way, my host occasionally offers me a permanent position as a hermit on the estate. In return for lodging, I would keep a small number of hogs and chickens, and possibly a few goats with an eye to cheese. I would also be in charge of an ass, but the precise role of the ass has yet to be defined, other than providing manure for the vines, of course.

As an unabashed Francophile I am tempted. I first spent an extended period in Paris after leaving school in 1973, and after coming down from Oxford I was resident another six and a half years. I certainly couldn’t tell you how much time I have spent there since, but a great deal for certain, and that love of France has meant that both my children attended French schools and have both been brought up to speak French.

For that reason, perhaps, what pains France pains me. The country took the wrong direction I feel, all the way back in 1981 at the time when François Mitterand became president and pursued a policy of leading it towards a form of utopian socialism that could never be achieved except by destroying the French way of life. The thirty-five hour week was a disaster from which France has still to extricate itself. In the nearly thirty-five years since I left Paris, many things that I loved have disappeared, from many family restaurants and small shops, to the understanding of good quality and craftsmanship.

Just like Britain, France is seduced by the American model and risks losing its traditional way of life. With the exception of Paris, French people are generally even more inelegantly dressed than the British. People of all ages are getting fat, something that was unimaginable a generation ago. In the provinces the infrastructure has collapsed making it impossible to live without a car. People now have to take to their vehicles to stock up at supermarkets selling goods every bit as shoddy and mass-produced as the ones we have over here.

When the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement started up fourteen weeks back, I was sympathetic. I have experienced first hand the terrible disadvantages of living in la France profonde. They have made their point, however, and not only was the fuel tax scrapped but there was a significant increase made to the minimum wage. Since then they have reverted to a form of mindless thuggery like the sans-culottes of the Revolution: destroying public buildings and private property as well as beating up policemen for the sheer hell of it or to spite the President they elected with such enthusiasm not so many months ago. It seems les gilets jaunes have their right and left wings but the balance seems to be more to the right than the left, to the degree that the Front national led by Marine Le Pen seems to have disappeared from the political stage.

Still, I still feel a buzz when I go to France and these days it is a great deal easier. French technological advances in the seventies and eighties did that for us. Instead of an hour and a half on the Boat Train from Victoria, a choppy crossing on a ferry stinking of vomit and disinfectant, followed by over four hours from Calais to Paris, the journey has been reduced to two-and-a-quarter hours on Eurostar. On my biannual Provencal jaunts I meet my friends for lunch in a restaurant opposite the Gare de Lyon before getting on the TGV to Avignon. The journey takes another two-and-three-quarter hours, and there is even a connecting train to take you on to Carpentras. When I used to visit friends in Provence in the old days I’d travel overnight. On 1 November I left a cold wet Paris at ten or eleven and arrived in sunny Fréjus at seven the following morning.

The collapse of rural France is less striking in the south, but over a quarter of a century I have become aware of the changes around that sleepy little corner of the Ventoux. The only physical change has been the construction of three new council estates and an ancillary supermarket or two along the D942 between Carpentras and Mormoiron. Carpentras is the local ‘city’ which has fewer than 30,000 inhabitants. Its population is largely North African in origin, many of them ‘Harkis’ who fought for France during the struggle for independence in the Maghreb. Harkis and old white colonial ‘pieds noirs’ continue to live cheek by jowl: many pied noir farms and vineyards in the south of France are worked by harkis who also build North African style barbeques or méchouis on high days and holy days. In Carpentras, however, the North Africans look sadly alienated and severely idle.

In the time of the Comtat Venassain Carpentras was the banking capital of the Papacy and the Jews were allowed to settle there, hence the ancient synagogue that draws tourists to the city. The desecration of the Jewish cemetery in 1990 meant that the Jews and other middle-class Carpentrassiens moved out to more genteel towns such as Pernes and St Didier.  

There are a couple of decent shopping streets in Carpentras and a big market on Friday that spills out of the car park into the local streets, but good restaurants struggle to survive as little goes on there after dark. The nearest conurbation to the domain is Mormoiron, a ‘village’ with around 2,000 inhabitants. Over the years I have seen the commercial side of Mormoiron evaporate. There is an apology for a market on Sunday morning. There were two bakers, two butchers and a grocer. One of the bakers has set up on selling in brought-in stock on the D942. The butchers have both gone. There is a new bar but a long-promised restaurant-cum-hotel has failed to materialise. The only really prospering business is Pascale the pharmacist, who in his spare time is an authority on Burgundian wine.

The population of Mazan is three times the size of Mormoiron. There are plenty of shops scattered along the line of its ancient walls but it too has lost something. The butcher closes down with alarming regularity but there is a decent meat counter in the small ‘U’ supermarket. Le Siècle, the friendly bar formerly run by Irish-educated Jerôme has been sold. Its former proprietor now spends half the year making wine in Argentina. There is a clutch of restaurants, including a cheerful long-established pizzeria occupying the vaults of the mediaeval hospital which is popular with the locals.

Recently we have explored Villes sur Auzon a bit more. It tends to fill up with elderly Dutch cyclists at certain times of the year who can be a shock to the system in their latex plus-twos and torsos plastered with advertisements, but there is a nice little cafe where we gathered the other day and watched the progress of the trials against Eric Drouot and the other sans-culottes of the gilet-jaune movement. The real attraction is the artisan baker who makes the best bread this side of Pernes and whose wares can be seen proving in the room next door. The other Friday she celebrated the local tradition by having puff pastry fish for sale, filled with brandade de morue: an emulsion of salt cod.

Otherwise the other local villages like Blauvac boast little more than a restaurant (with frequent changes of proprietor) or at best a baker (Malemort). The most exciting place for miles around is Pernes-les-Fontaines. Pernes somehow contrives to be quite stylish and there are a few antique shops, a wonderful baker with an ancient oven and a new seafood restaurant selling Irish crab! We go to Pernes chiefly for the Saturday market and stop for a coffee afterwards up by the river gate where one of the chief attractions is a pair of come-hitherish asses.

Places like sunny Pernes with its fountains and jolly market traders make you forget the decline of rural France, but sadly it is not often long before you are reminded of just how bloody the country can be. On Monday I returned to Avignon from my four-day stay to hear a four-hour delay announced on the TGV. The fact the train limped past such tourist attractions as the Côte-d’Or and the Rocher de Solutré was little compensation for missing my connection in Paris. I had to stand in a long queue under the Gare de Lyon to obtain a metro ticket and when I arrived at the machine found it accepted neither coins nor my debit card. A nice middle-aged woman obtained a ticket for me with a smile while I let off steam. Another woman who had been on the same train from Aix reassured me that it had not been Drouot and his sans-culottes who had destroyed the train, and that it was not the first time the line had been knocked out by power-failure either: ‘enfin Monsieur, il s’agit de la France!’ ‘It’s just France!’

Ella Zirner-Zwieback

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.

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