• Not poppies again....

    Not Poppies Again…

    Members of my family are all agog at Cummins and Piper’s ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ currently to be admired at the Tower of London: 888,246 ceramic poppies recall the sacrifices of British servicemen during the First World War. A pity noone thought to include those Commonwealth soldiers who also lost their lives in a war that must have made very little sense to them, especially if they were living in India. That’s not my main problem with ‘Blood Swept Lands’, however. My real problem is the poppies. Now don’t get me wrong. I know that poppies have established themselves in Britain not only as the symbol of suffering and death in the Great War, but also as the symbol of remembrance, regeneration and charity, and one should respect that. I appreciate, too, the fact that the poppies used at the Tower will be sold to raise money for charity (indeed I think they have already all been sold). But their representational hegemony needs to be challenged, not reiterated and reaffirmed in one artwork or installation after another. (Recently, for instance, at Nottingham Contemporary, we were treated to a sea of poppies representing the Nottingham servicemen who died in the Great War). Cummins and Piper may appear to have designed their artwork imaginatively, but all they have done is arranged the symbols of blood into the appearance of blood itself, turning the metaphor back into what it represents - although to be honest the poppies gushing down from the tower remind me of the oil, hot pitch or animal fat that the defenders of castles poured down on their enemies in times gone by. There is an almost obsessive and narcissistic preoccupation with poppies in this country. When we sell ceramic poppies as mementoes of an art installation we have perfected this preoccupation. With poppies we remember - poppies. No individual symbol, not even one as rich as the poppy, can bear such a huge burden of attention. We need to find other commemorative signs and perhaps even idioms if remembrance of World War One is not to ossify in stale routine.

  • Karen Duve

    Polemics sell well in Germany. Author Karen Duve seems to have joined the polemics bandwagon with her new essay-cum-book "Warum die Sache schiefgeht", which bemoans the failure of the politicians to tackle climate change, and tells us why Duve thinks so many managers are psychopaths. Bound to sell well, then. A few months ago, Akif Pirincci published his "Deutschland von Sinnen", a laboured, unimaginative and tedious attack on all possible forms of political correctness. It sold well. So did Sarrazin's "Tugendterror", though perhaps not as well as "Deutschland schafft sich ab". Denouncing or, even better, declaring yourself a victim of political correctness is an extraordinarily lucrative business. I suspect that books by victims of the Stasi or of terrorism don't sell as well. We all love to hate political correctness. Yet it is not even clear that it really exists, at least not in the forms evoked in the anti-PC books. In fact, anti-PC books are arguably very politically correct, because they feed the market, satisfy the modern desire for scandalisation and distract us all from dealing with the real issues. Whatever those might be....

  • The Eyes of War

    Below is a link to an article on the new exhibition at the German Historical Museum, "The Eyes of War". It shows photographs of people blinded by war (in this case, the Second World War). The Dutch photographer, Martin Roemers, took his subjects from a number of countries. The victims were all very young at the time.

  • Patrick Modiano

    Congratulations to Modiano for winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, but what is this I keep reading in the British press reactions that Modiano is "not really known outside his own country". Just because he is not widely known HERE does not mean he is not known anywhere else. Why do we keep confusing our own parish with the world?

    He is certainly known in Germany, for instance, his works have been appeared with Fischer, DTV, Hanser etc. Hardly 'unknown'.

  • Death of Siegfried Lenz

    Sad news - Siegfried Lenz, a much quieter but no less magisterial literary institution in West Germany than Guenter Grass, is no longer with us. More at

  • Lutz Seiler wins German Book Prize

    ...for his novel 'Kruso'...

  • Phoenix, Hoss and Petzold

    Just seen Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix”. Another brilliant performance from Nina Hoss. The reviews seem basically positive, some with significant caveats. Below are a few links to these reviews. I was gripped, certainly. Watching Nina Hoss’s face – her ability to mirror in it the tiniest movements of the soul and the sway of contrary emotion – gets me through any film she is in without even needing to bother about the story. But there is certainly a story in this film. Nelly, a German Jew who has miraculously survived Auschwitz, rediscovers her husband Johnny (played by Ronald Zehrfeld) among the ruins of Berlin, but he does not recognise her. Instead, he thinks she bears an incredible likeness to Nelly, whom he assumes to be dead, along with the rest of her family. Hoping to benefit from a possible inheritance now that her family are dead, he persuades Nelly – whom, as I said, he takes to be someone else – to pretend to be Nelly, and share in the spoils. Nelly goes along with this, i.e. she pretends to be Nelly, although she already is Nelly. Confused? There is the issue that Nelly returned from Auschwitz badly disfigured and estranged from herself; in ‘playing’ Nelly for Johnny, she hopes, no doubt, to step back into her real self. But the self Johnny has in mind is a Nelly far removed from the reality of having experienced Auschwitz. He wants to stage her return from the East, but with her wearing a flashy red dress and shoes bought in Paris. She is not to show any trace of the camps. This is how he, and his and her friends from the time before she was deported want to see her. In this, of course, lies a critique of the postwar era in Germany – Auschwitz is to be written out. Not for nothing is the film dedicated to the courageous lawyer who did so much so activate legal proceedings against former Nazis in West Germany – Fritz Bauer, about whom, incidentally, a feature film has just been made (it will soon be running in German cinemas). I won’t betray the end. Betrayal – yes, there is that in the film, too, for it seems likely Nelly’s husband betrayed her to the Gestapo, and agreed to divorce her shortly before she was deported. But all of that remains unclear. What is clear is his preparedness to make money out of the Holocaust. He is a postwar opportunist, calculating, on the make at any cost. Yet Petzold is too clever to turn this into a tale of Jewish revenge. Nelly seems submissively attached to her treacherous husband (hints of Caviani). Her Jewish friend and counterfoil , Lene, is disgusted at Nelly’s apparent forgiveness of Johnny, and wants her to come with her to Palestine and turn her back on the Germans. She gives Nelly a gun, but Nelly never uses it. Nor does Lene turn out to be all that she seems. This is a film about how Germans want the Jews to be, the role they cut out for them . Johnny wants Nelly to play the Nelly of old, he and she are to act in a game of German-Jewish symbiosis which masks the crass reality of his betrayal in the recent past and heartless materialism in the present, and her experience of Auschwitz. His game-playing has the opposite effect to that intended.

  • Word already occupied...

    OK, I see erotourism is already in existence for - well, matters of personal romance or sensuality in connection with travel. Mind you, zoetourism won't really work either, will it...

    I still stick to erotourism - after all, we need something to contrast with thanatourism....

  • The Wall

    It is good to be in Berlin again, after what seems too long a time. It is more crowded than I remember it. I am staying in Winters Hotel, right at the site of the former Wall – which gives me a chance to visit the various Wall memorials and associated installations and reenactments, such as Yadegar Asisi’s amazing DIE MAUER, a huge historical panorama of a section of the divided city, and the would-be guards standing at Checkpoint Charlie, always ready to take a photo with cheerful tourists. If you want, you can go up in a huge balloon moored to the ground, and enjoy an aerial panorama to complement the virtual one provided by Asisi, and if you have had enough of museums such as the Black Box and the Mauermuseum, then you can hire a Trabi and cough and splutter a stinking trail down the Wilhelmstrasse. The Wall has everything: it has high political deception and unintended irony (was it Ulbricht who said “no-one intends to build a war” and “the wall will stand for 50 or 100 years until the circumstances that gave rise to it cease to be”, clearly not meaning by “circumstances” the existence of the GDR!). It has heroic tales of rescue and imaginative tales of flight, as well as tragic ones of failed escape attempts. The larger tale ends happily, with the fall of said Wall, and this time there is no need to build an economic miracle from the rubble, you simply open up the east Germans to the real existing miracle in the west. The sacrifice of individual life, documented to assiduously at several points in Berlin, was terrible, but each death served to weaken the Wall just that little bit more, and in the end, the mass of east Germans smashed their way to freedom (more or less). The 17 June 1953 memorial which commemorates the uprisings in the GDR just a short distance away tells the same story, ending happily with the ‘Wende’ and reunifcation, whose dynamic is inscribed retrospectively into the actions of the protesters of 1953. The story told over at the Holocaust memorial does not have a happy ending, of course. Any such suggestion would be an insult to the dead. That is probably why people were thronging in huge numbers around Checkpoint Charlie, but not at the Holocaust memorial when I visited it. And of course the numbers of deaths at the Wall are not so enormous or the activities of the Stasi not so uniformly terrible as to make the GDR appear as bad as the Nazi regime, which allows a little scope for nostalgic Trabi rides, GDR breakfast menus (especially GDR rolls) and other GDR memorabilia shops. Imagine if a visit to the Holocaust memorial were rounded off by a trip in a cattle truck or an offer of a KZ breakfast. As you are leaving Asisi’s panorama, on the inside of the exit door, you see advertisements offering you a nice ice cream now you have got the Wall behind you. Unthinkable, this, as you leave the Place of Information on the Holocaust memorial. Ice-cream and mass death don’t combine as well as ice-cream and the Wall, so it seems. Indeed, Checkpoint Charlie is stuffed to the hilt with stalls offering sausages, beer, pizza, noodles, so to the appeal of heroic rescue and escape, ultimate victory and nostalgia we can add the lure of food and drink, none of which is deemed inappropriate. The Wall lends itself to commodification, the Holocaust does not. Thanatourism, we read, is in. It might be, but every bit of death needs to be leavened with a bit of life. That’s why the Wall story is good for the tourists. If we are thinking Freud, then why not erotourism, if Eros is the life drive? Escape stories over or under the Wall were sometimes motivated by or associated with personal romance tales. But there is a bigger impulse for erotourism: the Wall was a barrier between two frustrated halves that belonged together, its overcoming – as we know from Thomas Brussig – was all about sexuality, and the wonderful of embrace of east and west that resulted surely gives the erotourist a thrill. That the love match was not a match made in Heaven – well, we know that, but don’t we all like to think back to those moments before the arguments began that set walls between us? Inner walls. Harder to break down than the concrete ones.

  • Goodbye to Independence

    I am sparing more than a thought today for Alex Salmond. Many moons ago, I spent a year sharing a student residence with him (and four others) at St. Andrews. Occasionally, I would accompany him to a political meeting (though I was totally unpolitical, at least in any active sense). I even remember playing pinball with him in the early hours. And I recall him poking fun at me for devoting three years of my postgraduate life to a "trivial topic" (a 19th century German dramatist called Hebbel). He didn't mean it as it might sound. He was just Alex. He had other ambitions, had his sights set on bigger things. He hasn't achieved the biggest of them, the disappointment was etched onto his features today. Most of us don't achieve our greatest goals, and usually there is noone around to film us when we can't suppress the bitter feeling of failure. I feel for him. Will he resign? I would have voted for independence. If only for old time's sake. Hardly the right motive, I know. Still.


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