Thursday, July 31, 2008

È pericoloso sporgersi

We thank the gracious collector of German Joys for having written about the astute introduction to the musical mores at German parties over at Nothing for Ungood (this is a bit of a clumsy site to navigate - "nichts für ungut!" - and I haven't actually found the article that he is referring to, which is why in some of the following I draw only on Andrew's detailed post).

Andrew lists a string of must-party sing-alongs from the olden days, called "Schlager" in German (a more or less direct translation of the term "hits"), which brought back memories. After all, these songs provided the soundtrack to my own childhood, spent during that crazy period when people painted their walls in three shades of mustard yellow, wore flares that reached from here to Rüdesheim - co-ordinated with Darwinian sideburns (if the wearer was male) - and danced the kasatchok on their flokatis in a state of blissful inebriation.

Not kidding. I was there.

And if I had my mother’s photo collection here, I would scan and post a picture of mini-me (circa 4 years old) in a teeny-tiny flokati coat. Since I don’t have the photo, this rare experience will have to wait for another time. Remind me, though.

But, fond memories of my moderate hippie childhood aside, I would like to make an addendum to the NfU list, which sadly leaves out a musical genre that seems very specific to the German taste and is no less pervasive than the Schlager: Italopop.

Pronounced: "Italopopp-a" (now I am kidding).

Now you people outside of Germany will of course not know what that is (in fact I imagine that even most Italians won't know the concept - but don't worry: I'm here to enlighten you all). Italopop is a vague umbrella term covering a broad and diverse range of musical expression. Italopop comes in all shapes and sizes, from the insanely cheerful to the downright suicidal, although on the whole the songs evince a certain thematic continuity.

Because - surprise, surprise - they are mainly about one thing: the love stuff. Amore - happy amore, sad amore, constipated amore, amore vongole, more amore.

In its nostalgic moments, Italopop harks back at the crooning of not quite Italian Mario Lanza (I'm thinking here of Umberto Tozzi, the drained brain behind that ubiquitous piece of seventies soft-porn drivel, Ti Amó, every German housewife's secret heart-throb Eros Ramazotti, or the gratingly fluffy Angelo Branduardi, beloved by left-leaning school-teachers with an attitude), if more experimental and in-yer-face, it emulates the rough timbre of Italy's own Elvis, Adriano Celentano, whose vocal nemesis is lesbian pop princess Gianna Nannini.

In 1982 or so there was even a German Italopop spoof by the German band Spliff:

Oh poor old brain that has so much completely unnecessary information in it! And I swear I didn't have to look any of this up - it's all just there, in my sad head.

So, this then is Italopop, which has been providing the musical accompaniment to the special Italo-German relationship post WWII for several decades now. Its halcyon days were the vain 1980s and 1990s, when the more banal strand of this kind of music provided a superficial alternative to Punk. No "London is drowning and I / live by the river" urban despair here, only "O Sole Mio".

Which is probably the reason why Italopop is of enduring popularity in this here country, played up and down German radio stations and in department stores (even in our sleepy little town), especially during the summer. August is the cruellest Italopop month.

Italopop is preferably enjoyed with a gigantic latte macchiato, another token of aforementioned Italo-German relationship specially invented for German tourist stomachs too sensitive for proper espresso. And only German tourists felt cool about drinking overpriced jugs of hot milk with a few drops of espresso in them - until Stellardollar and other coffee chains came along to flog the stuff at an even higher price to Anglo-American aficionados.

Well, until recently.

The thing is: most Germans don't even understand enough Italian to get the lyrics of Italopop, some of which are far more complex than I have made them out to be. They just go "Azzurro ... la la la la la la la ... Azzurro ... la la" to the music and feel great because it reminds them of their last holiday in Tuscany.

But really, if you play any - any! - Italopop track backwards, you will hear the subcommittee of the Siena-East branch of the Partito Comunista Italiano sing Avanti Popolo (solo: Antonio Gramsci).

PS: No, the title of this post has nothing to do with its content. I just like the sound of it. It's the "Nicht aus dem Fenster lehnen" warning that you still come across in some German trains.

Next instalment of “Extend your musical expertise with The Wife”: Why The Hollies were crap lyricists (and why John Darnielle is a divine poet).

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hadrien's walk

So this French bloke, like, called Hadrien - just finished high school - has this really awesome idea: he wants to spend four months hiking through France, accompanied by a cow called "Camomille". And during this time he will mainly feed on the plants he finds growing by the wayside. Like his cow.

One hell of a cool diet plan.

But I kind of like the sound of it.

UPDATE: Quite a few people have found this blog by searching for Hadrien and Camomille. Hello, welcome, do come back. On that note: quite a few people still find us via "Philip Lahm naked, married, girlfriend, whatever." Pfui! We don't do that kind of stuff. Yesterday we still came tops in the Google search (which consisted of - essentially - us), today, there are plenty of hits and links to more extensive articles about this endeavour. Such as in Libération and Tribune de Genève.

To quote Hadrien (which I hadn't done before, but he deserves it - crazy guy): «Ce qui est sympa dans le voyage, c’est que nous partons à deux» because the presence of his cow «va faciliter le contact avec les gens».

Bon voyage and good luck!

No fun in the sun

Sweet Jesus, please - not another "honest British holiday-makers denied access to superior facilities in blatantly pro-German Greek holiday resort" story.

Rhetorically, the article in the world's second greatest newspaper is a complete muddle and full of incomprehensible references to what appear to be (I wouldn't know) typical features of all-inclusive package holidays.

Such as: "Mr and Mrs B. were even told they had to pay for their own armbands, even though they were free for the German children."

Which frigging armbands? Like the Kabbalah one Madonna is wearing? The unidentified "Daily Mail Reporter" responsible for this sublimely intransparent piece does not seem to see the need to explain this apparently significant item of evidence to those of us unfamiliar with this kind of holiday.

What exactly happened on the (similarly) unidentified Greek island remains in the dark. The ins and outs of the alleged "segregation" between the unassuming (and ripped off) Brits and the (genetically, surely) expansionist Huns privileged by an unfair plot are never explained. For instance, mightn't it just be possible that the use of certain facilities had less to do with the users' nationality (which is the way the article presents it) than with the deal that people signed up to (and paid for)?

Not that the "Brazilian football club, superstar stage school [whatever that means] and family entertainment" that apparently lured the British family in question into booking this holiday from hell would tempt this here holiday maker to part with her dosh - no matter how free the drinks.

The following passage from the article would come in handy in a seminar on "Language and Ideology", however:

While German children enjoyed a sheltered play area, air-conditioned indoor facility and had their own toilets in a securely gated compound, British children were left to play in a hot, wooden hut with no gate, according to the family.

Sob, sob, sobbity sob. Apt essay topic on the basis of this article: "Constructing cultural otherness through language: Discuss."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ze Germans: Funnier (and funkier) than you'd have thought

On our last night in Britain, the BBC provided us with some simplistic but effective entertainment, in the course of which we found these little gems:

Well, ve had to laff ....

Acts of Urban Heroism

Act # 67: Putting on make-up while travelling on public transport

During my brief stint as a city dweller I was reminded over and over again of what adaptive little critters Homo Sapiens are. Just think of how adept we have become at opening plastic food wrapping (though we somehow balk at shrunk-wrapped CDs), slotting devices into USB ports, hacking text messages into our mobile phones as we are crossing Euston Road while deep in conversation with Sasha from Human Resources (Act of Urban Heroism #42).

In situations like these, our species affirms its crown of creation status on a daily, nay hourly basis!

Today’s heroic deed refers to the intimate acts of beautification usually committed in the privacy of one’s bathroom (and in front of a large, preferably well-lit mirror). Or so I have always thought. Yet in the cramped twilight of the London Underground I have seen many a woman dangle a make-up bag on her knees three times the size of the one I have at home, performing feats of artistry well beyond anything I could ever achieve, even with world enough and time and both my feet firmly planted on the ground. In amongst total strangers, it’s all “eyeliner, rosehips and lip-gloss, such fun”, like in that lovely old ditty from Lou Reed’s Transformer.

And no, these women don’t ever stab themselves in the eye with their khol. They never accidentally prise back their eyelids with an eyelash curler in freak accidents recalling the famous torture scene from A Clockwork Orange. Nevertheless, I’m convinced the tabloids will someday bellow the headline “Woman impaled by mascara on the Victoria line.”

Why then do women engage in dangerous acts that might well leave them maimed for the rest of their lives? Now, here’s my theory (which is mine). These are acts of costly signalling, whereby women inform the world about the status of their fertility. They are complex statements in a kind of behavioural morse code whose erratic beeps announce the following: “Hi - I’m a strong, high-quality female and capable of performing complex tasks in untoward circumstances. You - yes, you - should mate with me.”

The implicit logic of such acts runs as follows: "If we can do this on the tube, just think what we might do in the suburban home (that you will be paying for). We will have babies aplenty (as bawling containers for your - yes your - genes) and keep them entertained while we dangle the cat on our knees and roll a batch of vegetarian sushi at the same time."

Judging by the many, many pregnant and/or bechilded women I’ve seen over the past weeks (man, what a reproductive country the UK is!), that strategy seems to be successful.

It also goes well with the obnoxious reality show that I didn't really watch while here: Tribal Wives, a kind of Big Brother for the more discerning viewer, based on the silly conceit that ambitious albeit burnt-out career women might be brought to their senses by being sent to live with remote tribal cultures for a weekend or so. After that they usually ditch "that job interview" scheduled for next week in order to have a/another sprog. Because they want to find out what is really important in life.

Like passing on those damn old genes!

This is a crazy city indeed, and not a place I would find it easy to live in. But right now I'm kind of sad to leave.

Next AUH: Surfing dog poop in your flip flops. Watch this space!

UPDATE: For more on career women out of touch with their feminine side, see here. I'm utterly bored with the sanctimonious waffle by hypocritical career women telling other women what they shouldn't be doing that seems to be all the rage at the moment.

Poshitty (needless)

We spent most of our day today in Cambridge, where, among other things, we had drinks in a popular al fresco eating place of some intellectual historical significance. A booklet distributed by the management provides a long list of famous (or at one point famous-to-be) visitors taking their cream tea underneath the humble apple and pear trees there while talking iambic pentameter and the double helix. Rupert Brooke, apparently, yearned for The Orchard during an unhappy spell in boring Berlin (on not so boring Berlin, see here).

And I agree: it is indeed rather nice there.

Now of all cream tea joints in the world it was here that I had to discover the greatest linguistic inanity of this trip yet.

On a laminated note (oh, lamination, that other English vice) pinned to a wall by the food counter, I was forced to read the following syntactic aggregate of disturbing ambiguity:

Deckchairs - please ensure that your deckchair is securely erected before being seated.
Am I the only one who finds the sound of this polite reminder - apart from irritatingly contorted - a trifle naughty?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Of lice and men

I have kept silent about the Mosley affair, partly because this kind of stuff is so beneath this blog, where we always try to maintain a high standard of reportage.

But The Mail (once again) prompts me to comment. I find if very sweet how everyone is currently trying to deny the apparent Gestapo-fetish that caused poor Max Mosley all the distress that he seems to be in. Really, it was all totally harmless! Says "Michelle", the "vice girl", as the paper calls her, helping to set up Mosley. In an interview with Sky News last night she vehemently "denied the News of the World's claim that there were Nazi overtones to the sex sessions".

Those Nazi overtones again! Instead, "Michelle" claims that the whole thing was "just" an enactment of German prison scenarios.

Because of course in Britain people are so familar with ordinary German prison life (quite apart from ordinary life in Germany) that it dominates (note the pun!) their imagination down to their sad sex lives. There are all these German prison films shown by the Beeb on a Sunday afternoon to educate people in this country about continental carceral procedures. Or the Open University's many late night/early morning educational programmes on "Crime and Policing in Mainland Europe". Set text: Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish.

That might explain the impressively intimate knowledge some Britons seem to have about standard pratice in German prisons. To which belongs, according to German prison specialist "Michelle": "lice inspection, this that and the other, measuring him up for his uniform, that sort of thing".

This is the bit which caused John to nearly spit his coffee all over his keyboard when I read it to him. So read safely. And have a good Saturday.

Friday, July 25, 2008

'Anger, real steaming fucking anger can make a man verbose.'

As someone who has himself not been immune to rage-fuelled verbosity, I leave you with two fine examples of the genre.

The first is from Giles Coren, whose enraged letter to the Times--after a sub-editor removed an indefinite article from a restaurant review he had written--is a classic.

A sample:

And worst of all. Dumbest, deafest, shittest of all, you have removed the unstressed 'a' so that the stress that should have fallen on "nosh" is lost, and my piece ends on an unstressed syllable. When you're winding up a piece of prose, metre is crucial. Can't you hear? Can't you hear that it is wrong? It's not fucking rocket science. It's fucking pre-GCSE scansion. I have written 350 restaurant reviews for The Times and i have never ended on an unstressed syllable. Fuck. fuck, fuck, fuck.

Second, PZ Myers's response to the flood of abuse (and even threats) he received after suggesting that he might 'desecrate' a communion wafer.

Myers has upped the ante, and has now unkindly treated some other objects that some might hold 'sacred':

I didn't want to single out just the cracker, so I nailed it to a few ripped-out pages from the Qur'an and The God Delusion. They are just paper. Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanity's knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind.

Here's to the eloquently angry.

Have a nice weekend.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Phrase of the Day

I'm watching the BBC news. It's item two after Obama in Berlin: Mr Mosley's famous latex antics. No need to discuss the issue as such - just a linguistic point: What the hell is a "Nazi-style sex orgy"? For that is the phrase that was used. And I'm kind of puzzled.

On unhealthy, sickly, womanish tendencies and the threat of feral ruffians

We have happened to visit London in the midst of a fairly insistent media panic about street violence, meaning that we have been confronted by a steady stream of stories about the horrors of ultraviolence at the hands of feral youths. (Or, 'FY's, as we've come to affectionately know them. We hope this might catch on.)

And today, even the Conservative leader was the victim of crime.

I'm far from unconcerned about the topic of youth violence (or adult violence for that matter), but it is interesting to note that the actual facts of the matter are far more ambiguous than they often are presented.

Moreover, such possibly excessive concerns are hardly new.

Just today--while researching various historical crime-related issues at the Colindale newspaper archive--I ran across similar media-expressed concerns from the (now sadly defunct) World's Pictorial News from 1926 about the mayhem perceived to be facing Britain.

One of the weekly paper's commentators went by the name 'Man of the World', and--perhaps rather like Max Mosley--he had a bit of thing for flagellation.

The vast majority of people not only agree that certain criminals should be punished with the “cat,” but they agree that it is a punishment not ordered as often as it should be, and that there are cases for which it cannot be ordered that should be made punishable with the “cat.”

Three Liverpool ruffians battered and bashed a man in order to rob him. They also brutally assaulted a woman who observed them at their fell work. Mr. Justice Swift sentenced the eldest, aged 26, to three years and 20 lashes of the “cat,” the others, aged 25 and 21, had sentences of six months’ hard labour and 18 lashes each!

The judge added: “So that you may feel some of the pain and suffering you inflicted.”


Most righteous Judge! There has been an unhealthy, sickly, womanish tendency of late to over-pity the convicted and the condemned. Mr. Justice Rigby Smith must be thanked for reminding the mugwumps of the painful position of the victims of our more interesting criminals.


There are several offences to which the lash should be a sequel. The repeated offences of the cruel and heartless swindler often merit it. But above all there is the sexual offender.

The filthy satyr who molests children, in the parks or anywhere, and the equally detestable beast who commits what lawyers call the full offence against girls or women should be flogged.

That further protection girls and women do demand, and judges cannot give it.

More “cat”—less crime of the kind indicated would be the result. It was so with highway robbery and so on till the judges got in the habit of forgetting the “cat.”’

‘More “Cat”—Less Crime’, World’s Pictorial News, 7 February 1926, p. 4

Later that year, things had, it seems, not improved:

The record of undiscovered crime mounts up. Fraud and larceny are commonplace, but I am referring to the much more serious offences of violence, especially assaults on women.

For one arrest and conviction of a footpad two escape. Particularly is this the case with assaults on women and girls, both for robbery and for other objects.

The state of things in some districts and cities is such that women and girls are actually afraid to go out after dark. The assailant waits his time, it may even be in a street, and pounces out on his victim. There is at least time for plunder is dealt a knock-out blow. In lonelier places a criminal assault is attempted and often accomplished. [...]

Some of the violently indecent men may be mental cases. In that event they should be detected and known and placed in restraint for good. All the others should be flogged—flogged the first time.

--‘Footpads and Young Girls’, World's Pictorial News, 5 December 1926, p. 4
Early in 1927, one of his colleagues, T.A. Hannam, penned a familiar-sounding follow-up:

‘People must be beginning to ask, “Will the Judges act?” For war has been declared on the community by reckless, daring men.

The new highwayman is here. Hanging cured the old highwayman. Flogging will kill the new one, but the judges of the King’s Bench must determine to act together and consistently.

Is orderly Britain about to enter a new era of licence and lawlessness?

T. A. Hannam, ‘New Highwaymen of Britain’, World's Pictorial News, 16 January 1927 , p. 5

I'm not sure whether I find the continuities across eight decades to be comforting or disturbing.

More trouvailles

Nice comment from the mid nineties by the Wise Man from Shepperton on the UK's socio-political position, internationally perceived:

... we are a northern turn-off, a slip-road off the northern end of the great European motorway.

Source: Will Self, Junk Mail (London, 1995)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Vikings would prefer a coffin

There seems to be a bit of a Viking-theme to our sojourn in London. Over the past week, we have not only had the chance to speak to various real and quasi-Danes dwelling on this windswept island. We've also seen an unusual amount of English-speakers wearing t-shirts displaying the "Bevar Christiana" slogan. And in addition to the anglo support of the anarchist free state near Copenhagen (what's going on here, I wonder - have I missed something?), we also seem to be surrounded by non-activist Danish tourists who fill the mucky London air with their charming analstaltic voiced consonants and glottal stops.

Which is why this Süddeutsche-interview with the chairman of Forn Sidr, the Danish Viking community, is not only an apt and timely commentary on what appears to be a general trend, but might be of genuine interest to some of our readers. It is comforting to see that the Danish authorities seem to take the religious needs of this minority entirely seriously, even allocating a part of the graveyard in Odense (birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, the author of tales like "The Little Mermaid" and others) as a burial site for staunch believers in Thor and Freya.

This opens up an entirely new dimension of religious tolerance, if you ask me. But then these Vikings not only seem to be perfectly harmless - they also, charmingly, do not seem to have a concept of hell. Which might have positive ramifications for the way Vikings see life in the here and now, too.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tangled banks

I have been intending to write something about our very fine one-day getaway from the city on Sunday, but I haven't gotten to it. Among other things, I've shifted my research up to Colindale, which--unlike the British Library's St. Pancras reading rooms--doesn't seem to have wi-fi.

The agony.

This has a downside, obviously, but it may somewhat improve my research efficiency.

In any case, Francis has beaten me to it, describing the tour we made together of Down House, the home of Charles Darwin.

I had jokingly commented to The Wife that this was a kind of 'pilgrimage', but it occurred to me that it was actually almost the opposite. What is interesting about seeing the house is that--far from serving as a kind of secular shrine that elevates the man to some sort of otherworldly genius--it in fact makes Darwin ever more human. The curators have done a fairly good job of giving visitors insights into the Darwin family's domestic life (cluttered closets and all), not to mention a sense of Charles's own personal quirks.

The garden is lovely, but thoroughly practical. The house, while exuding a sense of solid, respectable wealth, is not grandiose.

It's a very pleasant place, and I recommend walking along Darwin's 'thinking path', where he apparently did a lot of his mental toil.

Although it was our idea to go to Downe, Francis doesn't mention the side journey he suggested along the way, a visit to the Medway estuary. Getting out for a bit of a nature ramble was a perfect prelude to visiting Darwin's house. There were unfortunately no plovers to be seen that day (wrong time of year, I think), but it was otherwise ideal.

And we thank Francis not only for his time but also for driving us through the Kent countryside, showing us a corner of the country we had hitherto not known.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Broken English

On our daily treck into the big city we have the great pleasure to use the services of Southern Trains. An ... interesting experience, anthropologically. All those people to watch, all those conversations to overhear! One of the things that really bugs me, though, is the announcement made whenever the train comes to a halt in one of the half dozen stations between here and London Bridge: "Do not leave unattended luggage on the platform."

Now, if you ask me, this announcement entails a logical impossibility. “Unattended luggage” is not something that you can still leave on a platform - it has already been left there. That's why it's unattended. The phrase also suggests that this is somebody else's luggage, really, not something that you yourself could feasibly leave behind. In fact the request - formulated in this way - invites you to take any unattended items of luggage with you should you happen to come across them. To help Southern Trains.

To make sense, the announcement would have to run: “Do not leave luggage unattended on the platform.” Though that, too, sounds a bit tautological to me. Any act of creating a physical distance between you and your suitcase creates the state of unattendance so feared by the London transport authorities. There really is no need to adorn the act of "leaving" with an explanatory adverb, at least not with one of the pseudo-posh (but potentially misleading) type favoured by public companies trying to smarten up linguistically. Such as "due to" and "beverages."

Why not just: "Do not leave your luggage behind"?

Oh well, I guess this provincial bumpkin is being too simple-minded once again.


We do not migrate from biology to culture like settlers moving into a land of opportunity, nor do we shuttle backwards and forwards between the two provinces. We live in both at the same time. This is a complicated state of affairs. The options are to try to understand it better, to maintain the fiction of simplicity, or to declare that the situation is too complicated to analyse.

Marek Kohn, As We Know It: Coming To Terms With An Evolved Mind (1999)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Queer as Moles

I took a break from my reading in the British Library last week to redeem the "Adopt a Specimen at the Grant Museum of Zoology" voucher I got as a birthday gift from John. The likes of us find this romantic.

The Grant Museum (wir berichteten) is a marvellous, formaldehyde-flavoured chamber of zoological wonders in UCL's Darwin Building (more on Darwin buildings probably soon at this blog), just off Gower Street. It's a bit difficult to get to, since you have to enter the building from the back (follow the signs to "Anatomy Yard", then turn left). But the intrepid tourist is rewarded with an unusual (to say the least) collection of deceased creatures (or bits thereof) preserved in pickling fluid or stuffed with loving care. And it's free!

Anyway, I had a fun time choosing my favourite specimen. Sadly, the loris had already been taken (as had the axolotl, which John adopted a while back) and the bats looked a tad worse for wear. I didn't really fancy the tapeworm and the ugly Surinam Toad is simply hors de question.

But then I found the specimen of my heart (which soon will have a label with my name attached to it). Here a living equivalent:

The Golden Mole is a small, insectivorous burrowing mammal native to Southern Africa, ranging in size from about 8 to 20 cm; they live almost exclusively underground. Golden Moles have powerful digging claws and dense fur. Unfortunately, their eyes are non-functional and their ears are but tiny little holes. To compensate for these serious delimitations in sensory equipment, the Intelligent Designer (joke!) gave the Golden Mole a rather practical pad for nostril protection and a generally heightened vibration sensitivity.

Fair exchange is no robbery. And the Intelligent Designer is one hell of a clever (and just) guy.

There also is a Golden Mole signature tune, based on The Strangler's "Golden Brown". I'm still working on the lyrics beyond the first line: "Golden Mole, texture like sun". I think the song might go on as follows: "Fried in lard and stuffed in a bun". But I'm not so sure ....

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The march of time

Oh yes, before I forget.

Today marks the second anniversary of this here blog.

Let the terrible twos begin.

Raise glasses as and when you choose and/or are able to.

Cantankerous, prosy and full of mutual hatred

As a quick update from the British Library, I thought I'd share a couple of things that I've run across.

I'm spending part of this trip researching a project relating to ethnicity and the criminal justice system that I'm working on with a colleague. I've been scanning through a variety of books on immigration, identity and racism for the last few days. Some of them have been quite good, others rather dreary.

So, par for the course.

But there's a lot of interesting stuff that you skim over while more-or-less frantically trying to find what you need in the short time that you have available.

For examle, I found the following, from an essay by V. G. Kiernan, to be a remarkable opening sentence:

‘Wherever homo sapiens [sic] made his first and on the whole regrettable appearance, it was not in Britain; all our ancestral stocks came from somewhere else.'

-- ‘Britons Old and New’, in Colin Holmes, ed., Immigrants and Minorities in British Society (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978) p. 23

Stating the obvious well while also adding a dash of probably unnecessary misanthropy is a skill I admire.

The other quote, which I found in a book by Rosemary Ashton on German emigrants in London, comes from Alexander Herzen.

Herzen, a Russian writer and political thinker (whose mother was German), provides a less than kind description of the German emigrant community in London in the second half of the nineteenth century:

‘The German emigrants were distinguished from the others by their ponderous, prosy and cantankerous nature. There were no enthusiasts among them, as there were among the Italians, no hotheads nor sharp tongues, as among the French.

The other emigrants had little to do with them; the difference of manners, of habitus, kept them at a certain distance: French arrogance has nothing in common with German boorishness. The absence of a commonly accepted notion of good manners, the heavy scholastic doctrinairism, the excessive familiarity, the excessive naiveté of the Germans hampered their relationships with people who were not used to them. They did not make many advances themselves … considering, on the one hand, that they greatly excelled others in their scientific development and, on the other, feeling in the presence of others the awkwardness of a provincial in a salon at the capital and of a civil service clerk in a coterie of aristocrats.

Internally the German emigrants displayed the same friability as their country did. They had no common plan; their unity was supported by mutual hatred and malicious persecution of each other.'

--Rosemary Ashton, Little Germany: German Refugees in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 25

As Ashton notes, Herzen’s depiction is ‘probably exaggerated’.

Monday, July 14, 2008

R.I.P. Björn Berg - not Borg

For bookworms of my generation, the death of Swedish artist Björn Berg is sad news, as many of us grew up with his artwork for Astrid Lindgren's Emil books (in German: Michel aus Lönneberga).

His illustrations were wonderful:

Image via.

Pity that publishers seem to be hell-bent on replacing the work of Lindgren's original illustrators - besides Berg the wonderful Ilon Wikland - with less congenial artists. Some of the English editions just look dire.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A momentary lapse of luggage

I would like to think that the willingness to publicly admit having done something Really Fucking Dumb shows a certain degree of character. Perhaps it even marks a refreshing acknowledgement of one's limitations and fellowship with the other sometimes confused mammals we know as Homo sapiens.

On the other hand, it might just be a kind of psychological masochism.

In any case, there I was yesterday, having returned to London from a very fine time at a crime history conference held at my university and making my way to the place where The Wife and I will be staying for a couple of weeks in scenic south London. And what do I do? In a not entirely explainable momentary lapse of reason upon disembarking, I left my suitcase on the train.

Although I realised my mistake within seconds, the doors had closed and the train was already in motion by the time I made it back through the gates.

Yes, this is very stupid.

But it is even more stupid than you think: this is the second time I have done this in the last few years.

Indeed. I am a singularly silly boy.

To make a long and wearisome story short, all is well that ends well. Thanks to the extraordinarily kind, competent and sympathetic assistance of three employees of Southern railways, I had my suitcase back within a couple of hours.

I had the opportunity to thank all of them personally (and wrote a letter to the company commending their work).

However, my gratitude is also due to the unknown fellow passenger who saw me leave the train without my suitcase and who handed it in a few stations down the line, allowing my agony of frustration and self-loathing -- while intense and certainly justified -- to be brief.

Thank you. Whoever you are.

The next couple weeks in this exhausting city will most likely dim the temporary glow of fellow-feeling that that experience gave me.

But still: it has been nice while it's lasted.

Music for Sunday

Zipadeedoodah - the semester is over and, Deutsche Bahn permitting, I will be in London tomorrow afternoon! Due to a derailment in Cologne Central Station and subsequent extensive inspections of dozens of high-speed trains, there has been travel chaos over here since Friday - including, annoyingly, on the line between Cologne and Brussels - but I'm kind of optimistic that I will make my Eurostar connection.

Anyway, I'm terribly busy right now, what with packing and stuff, but I thought I ought to at least post some music for today. Inspiration via I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue:

And I'm sorry it takes a while to load.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Vengeance from the grave

I'm off to London for a few weeks tomorrow morning for a conference and research trip. Happily enough and for a change, The Wife will be joining me soon, and with any luck, there'll be at least a few things here posted from over there.

We are told that there be wi-fi where we're staying, but, you know, I'll believe it when I see it.

In any case, as and when, you'll continue to hear from us.

As a brief interlude from my side of things, something from a band I've been enjoying a lot lately.

Black Sabbath, "Iron Man"

I'd have preferred something from Master of Reality, but the selection of high-quality YouTube videos from that album leaves something to be desired.

Still, this song rocks.

And stop thinking about Marvel Comics....

Till soon.

So this is what the volume knob's for...

Ladies and gents, an important warning:

"The nation has been hypnotized by the swaying and the gesturing of the Watusi and the Frug."

Brought to you by the late -- and not so lamented in these quarters -- Jesse Helms.

This horrifying vision of dance-oriented social decay is among the more innocuous of his comments across a long political career. More of which are documented at Obsidian Wings. (via LG&M) Further insight into Helms's history is provided by Christopher Hitchens at Slate.

Just as useful information to help you avoid the above-mentioned threat to the American Way of Life, I present you with the terrifying moral decadence of the Watusi...

...and the Frug:

(Were that Helms's panic had only been justified: in that case, we'd be heirs to a far more groovy -- if slightly more twitchy -- nation than the one we have....)

Monday, July 07, 2008

Just a shot away

Chris Dillow points us to Arnold Kling's statement that his most 'absurd belief' is:

that human nature has changed in the last few hundred years. If you could go back to 1708 and replace all of the babies at conception with babies conceived today, my prediction is that the alternative history from 1708 to 2008 would have less violence, more economic growth, and faster scientific progress. Conversely, if you were to replace babies being conceived today with babies conceived in 1708, they would grow up to produce staggering increases in crime and violence.

Dillow follows up by suggesting that Kling's belief might not be so absurd. He cites the alacrity with which early 19th century gentlemen entered into deadly duels with each other over trivial matters, and he points to Steven Pinker's claim that violence has declined in the last few centuries. (I'm confining my brief comments here to Western Europe, since that's the context I know best, even if the tendency is also visible elsewhere.)

There is nothing absurd about noting the decline in violence in modern history, as this is now a fairly well-established consensus among historians, based upon several decades of empirical work in various countries. (I discussed this briefly in relation to Pinker's essay last year.)

The criminologist Manuel Eisner, having surveyed nearly 80 quantitative histories of homicide rates has concluded:

the data confirm the notion, now hardly controversial among historians of crime, that homicide rates have declined in Europe over several centuries. Typical estimates referring to the late Middle Ages range between 20 and 40 homicides per 100,000, while respective data for the mid twentieth century are between 0.5 and 1 per 100,000. The notorious imprecision of population data, deficiencies of the sources, shifts in the legal definition of homicide, changes in the age structure as well as improved medical possibilities, surely have to be accounted for. But the evidence is so consistent, the secular decline so regular, and the differences in levels so large, that it seems difficult to refute the the conclusion of a real and notable decline. (Manuel Eisner, 'Modernization, Self-Control and Lethal Violence: The Long-term Dynamics of European Homicide Rates in Theoretical Perspective', British Journal of Criminology 41 (2001): 618-638, 628)

It's important to note that this discussion of violence is based on homicide rates. While they are our most reliable measure of serious violence, they do not say everything there is to know about all of the violence going on in a particular society. Personally, I think there is likely to be a meaningful relationship between the prevalence of violence more generally and the homicide rate, but it's not a simple one and this issue is somewhat controversial. (I.e., it's possible for a society to be relatively violent but not particularly homicidal.)

Also, one should keep in mind that the decline in violence occurred at very different rates with somewhat different patterns and various ups and downs depending on which region you look at.

The English decline, for example, appears to have been a relatively smooth one, going from the 13th/14th centuries (c. 24 homicides per 100,000) to the late Middle Ages (3-9 per 100,000) to the mid-19th century (c. 1.8 per 100,000) to the early 1960s (0.6 per 100,000) (Eisner, 622-23). As Eisner points out, there was a similar pattern for the Netherlands. However, things look very different in Scandinavian countries. In Sweden, for instance, Eisner finds that the data 'suggest a spectacular decline of lethal personal violence by a factor of at least 10:1 within a period of only 150 years' (624) from the beginning of the 17th century (10-25 per 100,000) to the mid 18th (below 1 per 100,000); afterwards, there was a rise in the rate and then another fall beginning by the mid 19th century.

But taking into account all these caveats, the decline of violence in Western Europe -- overall -- seems have been a fact. (As does the rise in violence since the 1950s or 1960s depending on where you are in Europe, followed, again, by a decline in many places. However significant these have been, by longer-term historical standards, the 20th century variations in Western European homicide rates -- excluding war -- have been very small scale.)

The 'decline in violence' thesis seems counter-intuitive, obviously, considering that there still seems to be so much violence about in European countries. And perhaps there is: but not by historical standards (or by comparisons with many other regions of the world). Even admitting that our perceptions of violence are partly exaggerated by the media, one might however point out that the 20th century was an exceptionally bloody one (and the next one maybe isn't shaping up to be much better).

Taking war and genocide into account complicates the above picture of increasing civility, certainly. And in terms of raw numbers, the last century can likely not be beat. (So far...)

But Lawrence Keeley, in his excellent book War Before Civilization, points out that many low-technology tribal societies achieved rates of killing that dwarfed those in the last century. The tactic of utterly wiping out an opposing tribe (so, genocide on a small scale) was also not unusual. Keeley's book is fascinating and full of details worth discussing...but that is for another time perhaps.

In short, there's nothing absurd about saying that violence has declined, even if the issue is complicated.

However, what I do find a bit absurd (or at least questionable) about Kling's statement is the idea that this (decidedly non-absurd) decline in violence has been caused by (or caused) a fundamental change in 'human nature'.

This is a complicated issue obviously, and I'm not really up for a mammoth post today (I'm heading off for a crime conference and long research trip the day after tomorrow), so this is all rather off the cuff.

However, in other contexts -- primarily in reaction to Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms -- I have taken a sceptical look at the idea of rapid genetic change shaping our behaviour. While a firm believer in a meaningful human nature (and advocate of the idea that historians and other humanities scholars should take it seriously) I would align myself with those who have argued that it is a rather less malleable thing than Kling and others suggest.

Put quickly, there is no reason to think that a stable set of average innate psychological attributes (or potentialities) across a given population and over time could not generate widely differing behaviours as a result of changing conditions. If Scandinavians can reduce their homicide rates at least 10 fold in a century-and-a-half, this suggests that changing social relationships can have a powerful effect on this behaviour without there having been any kind of plausible underlying genetic shift.

Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have usefully examined how different kinds of social cues can have a strong influence on variations in risk-taking and social competition (especially among men, and the general decline in violence noted above is primarily the result of the pacification of males), and they have connected these to homicide rates. Furthermore, we can see the ways that previously pacified societies can become aggressive again, when the social factors that seem to have driven the decline in violence in the first place (increasing social exchange, more effective 'state' policing, the social encouragement of self-discipline, the provision of relative material security) are withdrawn.

Clearly, people in Western Europe seem to be behaving in a very different way than they did centuries ago. (Or even less than a century ago: in Germany the ritualised duel known as the Mensur lasted into the twentieth century.)

But you can see relevant changes on a smaller time-scale.

In my book on nineteenth-century violence (parts of which can be viewed via Google Books), I took a more qualitative look at the issue, examining the values and norms that surrounded that behaviour in England.

What you see during that time is a shift from a relatively shared culture of violence in the 18th century: violence was -- compared to later times -- far more acceptable, and social class was not so decisive in determining what you thought about it. This began changing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when some people (predominantly some parts of the upper and middle-classes and many of them religious) and the state started taking a much less sanguine view of disorder and interpersonal violence. 'Violence' itself was -- rather quickly -- identified as a 'social problem' in a way that was new and that has since remained important to British culture. It also became increasingly something that 'respectable' people did not engage in, and became associated with the lower classes. By the end of the century, even the 'respectable' working class were distancing themselves from behaviour that only a generation or two earlier would have been normal.

So, on the level of attitudes (admittedly somewhat less solid than that of statistics) there seems to have been a meaningful change in values in England over a century or less. (There were many continuities, and this was an ambiguous process in many ways, but I believe the general outline holds.)

I find it difficult (and unnecessary) to credit this change to genetics (other than the obvious fact that genes serve to shape the common human psychological structure that allows us to think, feel or recognise social cues, or provides us with various innate motivations).

In any case, there is no inherent contradiction between being a highly enlightened or intelligent person and engaging in violence.

Kling's claim, though, seems to rest on the idea that violence is something that only less-intelligent and less-rational people enjoy or might potentially engage in. However, there is no reason to think that violence is merely some sort of atavistic survival of primitive times indulged in by social failures. As Daly and Wilson have succinctly observe in their book Homicide, 'poor young men with dismal prospects for the future have good reason to escalate their tactics of social competition and become violent' (287). In a different context, Elijah Anderson made a similar point in his book The Code of the Street, arguing ‘a cultural adaptation to a profound lack of faith in the police and the judicial system – and in others who would champion one’s personal security’ (34).

For the vast majority of human history and prehistory, being good at violence (or at least suggesting to others that you were) was a factor in heightened rather than lowered social status.

And I think Kling is being a bit optimistic in suggesting that that is no longer the case.

Kling's formulation also makes the implied assertion, it seems, that, in a sense, we (however defined) are now much better people than we were, that, in fact, we could loosen up the very dense network of social controls, material prosperity, economic interaction and psychological training developed in, say, Europe over the last four hundred years and everything would still just fine...because of something to do with our genes.

This is not an experiment I'd like to see undertaken, to be honest. Most of Europe has indeed become a quite pacified place, and has been so for some time now. But I think we should be anything but complacent about that. Things, as we know, do fall apart.

(Moreover: why send twins back from 2008? The British homicide rate reached its nadir in the early 1960s. It's now about twice as high. If we're going to dream social science fiction dreams, why not go all the way?)

Speculations about genetics and human nature and behaviour are certainly worthwhile. And Kling's comment was offhand -- and he did self-label it 'absurd' -- so I don't want to go on about this too much ('too late!' came the voice from off-stage...). However, as my discussion, linked to above, of Gregory Clark's book suggests, these kinds of explanations seem to be becoming more popular. And I don't know why, because even a rather quick closer look seems to show how shaky they are.

Sadly, without access to a time machine and a lot of twins, it would seem to be impossible to design a test that could clearly disentangle the issues of nature and nurture across historical time.

(Moreover consider the Swedish example noted above: presumably Kling would have to argue that the same now-and-then relationship would also apply when exchanging babies born in Stockholm in 1600 and 1740? Remember, there appears to have been at least a 10-fold decline in violence in the intervening time. Were those in 1600 at least ten times more genetically bad-ass?)

But given the speed with which we have seen the prevalence of serious violence change in Western Europe (along with a set of quite reasonable if incomplete or still controversial explanations for why that was so), it would seem to me that the reach to genetics to explain complex behavioural changes is not only often implausible (and often made without seriously demonstrating how particular behaviours are genetically generated) but also unnecessary.

They may turn out to be relevant in some way at some point.

But I remain unconvinced.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A bird you would have loved the sight of brought the sky down

Your instructions, should you choose to accept them:

1. go to, where there are FREE downloads of very nice versions of songs by OD house band, The Mountain Goats. (I'm especially fond of 'Raja Vocative' and 'There Will Be No Divorce'.)

2. Read the article, which provides some worthwhile background reading on TMG.

3. Enjoy.

4. Be grateful to us for bringing this to your attention. That's all I ask.

Pretty simple for a Sunday evening (or afternoon or evening...or even, possibly early Monday morning, depending on where you are), I would think.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

How do you remember?

John’s expatriate thoughts on July 4th have triggered some, albeit clearly less patriotic, associations of my own. They are related to things I've said earlier in the week - and of course they have to do with what I do (at least most of the time) for a living.

One of the ideas that currently seems to possess some popularity in a variety of disciplines – the cognitive sciences, philosophy and literary studies – is the notion that “we are our stories”. In other words, the way we perceive our lives – from everyday experiences to life-changing events – is shaped to a significant extent by the narrative forms in which we wrap up these events and experiences. In fact, so the story goes, without these narrative forms, we wouldn’t really have an identity at all. We need the coherence-creating sweep of narrative to make sense of who we are in time and space.

All this does not lack a certain plausibility or attractiveness. Nevertheless, I can’t deny that I increasingly feel a sense of unease vis-à-vis the idea that we are what we tell others/ourselves we are.

First of all, the notion that “all is stories” seems to lead into the poststructuralist abyss that there is no truth and/or reality. I know that this is not really what poststructuralist theory really maintains, but somehow this is the facile conclusion at which many of its adherents always seem to arrive. It's all stories, ergo there is no truth.

Or, as a character in Todd Solondz's film Storytelling (more on that below) puts it: "I don't know about what happened. But once you start writing, it all becomes fiction".

Secondly, the “we need stories” argument is a bit too feel-good for my liking, suggesting not only that the stories we tell are practically significant, but in fact that they have a positive psychological effect.

By contrast, my immediate association with storytelling is something less uplifting: ideology. Whenever I read that stories are good for us, I feel the urge to ask: where do these stories come from? Which intentions do they serve? What is the person telling me stories trying to do to me as he/she is letting me in on his/her adventures, exploits or woes? Rather than untainted truths, stories transport ideologies - or, to put it more bluntly, lies - be it the gossipy lies spread about colleagues in the (non-)professional contexts in which some of us work, be it historical untruths of the "We have always been at war with Eurasia" kind. While the stories themselves may be fiction, the political situation and the agents that bring them forth are not. Think of the current situation in Zimbabwe, which looks like a postmodern joke, but is in fact bloody serious.

The third source of my unease, however, is related to the fact that I simply fail to satisfy the narrative paradigm. Because, truthfully, I neither feel that I'm a particularly narrated personality, nor that I like telling stories (about) myself. My past comes to me in fleeting flashbacks, some pleasant, many others embarrassing or painful, and it takes some effort on my part to turn these brief glimpses and impressions into a coherent narrative. Usually I fail.

Because, really, I’m one hell of a lousy storyteller. I lack the theatricality, the ability to create suspense, the sense of timing that a storyteller needs. When I was little, my mother once (or more than once? Depends on the version of my story, I guess) referred to me in public as “the child who can’t tell jokes”. I can tell you that this particular skill hasn’t improved with age.

And whatever impression I might leave at this here blog, I’m kind of a quiet person in real life. I’m not chatty – only when I’m nervous, stressed and need to get something off me chest (which happens sometimes, but not often).

What is more, I’m not particularly attracted to natural storytellers (or those who believe that they are), whom I instinctively tend to find manipulative. I don't like to be reduced to a passive claqueur for the public performances of egomaniacs. Which is why I dislike this whole culture of narrative as it manifests itself in scandal-mongering talk shows about and intimate memoirs by vulgar people who apparently lack a sense of distance and discretion. Some things should remain left unsaid and not every kinky habit needs to be shared.

So I was glad, a few months ago, to stumble over an essay by Galen Strawson, provocatively named “Against Narrativity ” (in Ratio XVII [2004]). Strawson questions the current narrative dogma that I have sketched above, which he calls the “psychological Narrativity thesis”. One of the reasons why he challenges this thesis has to do with the ethical stipulation entwined with it, the idea, namely that only a narrated life is a fulfilled and moral life (this, Strawson calls the "ethical Narrativity thesis").

Strawson's defence of non-narrative people such as himself, i.e. people whose memories are episodic rather than narrated and chronological, is quite intricate and I will not comment on it in great detail. What I like about Strawson's argument is that he draws our attention to the undeniable self-importance that characterises many champions of the Narrativity thesis as it is usually applied. As he puts it: "... those who think in this way are motivated by a sense of their own importance or significance that is absent in other human beings" (436).

This is an impression I, too, have begun to have.

Note, however, that this criticism does not apply to the kind of storytelling represented by Hugh Lupton, a storyteller cited today in a post by Francis Sedgemore. For Lupton, myth, legends and folklore possess a very real truth value: "The function of myth is to tell the truth. Not the everyday truth that is the opposite of lying, but the truth that can’t be told any other way." I'm not talking about this kind of truth, which for want of a better term we might call "human universals", but the more pedestrian, individual myth-making that seem so characteristic of our egocentric age.

A less theoretical challenge to the Narrativity thesis can be found in Michael Frayn's 2002 novel Spies (a wonderful, wonderful book on this and other topics which I recommend wholeheartedly):
What I remember, when I examine my memory carefully, isn’t a narrative at all. It’s a collection of vivid particulars. Certain words spoken, certain objects glimpsed. Certain gestures and expressions. Certain moods, certain weathers, certain times of day and states of light. Certain individual moments, which seem to mean so much, but which mean in fact so little until he hidden links between them have been found (32).
The novel describes the narrator-protagonist’s attempt to retell an embarrassing and guilty period in his childhood, during which he caused (or helped cause) others great pain. Although this "confession" is done with a therapeutic aim ("I have a feeling that something, somewhere, has been left unresolved, that some secret thing in the air around me is still waiting to be discovered" [1]), the narrator is aware that his retrospective attempt at ordering his memories is a construct. And while it may bring out some of the "hidden links" of which he is not yet aware, his revelation is tainted by his unfulfillable desire for repentance.

In the end, the narrative told to make sense of his past only reveals how effectively stories can be used to veil what really happened. The narrator wishes to confess so as to repent, yet all we learn about him (and ourselves) is how human beings can use stories to defer repentance.

And this brings me back to Solondz's Storytelling, which is a viciously funny film about exactly that: how our many everyday stories help us to do just one thing - lie, lie, lie:

Friday, July 04, 2008

Rockets red glare

I've felt some kind of strange pressure to write something, what with it being the Fourth of July and me being an expatriate American and all.

However, I find that my feelings about both patriotism and America are far too ambivalent and complicated to pour into the kind of blog post that I really feel up to writing tonight. It's been a long day of translating jewellery-company promotional material under the influence -- at least during the evening alcoholics here -- of a bottle of whiskey and, in any case, why do you care what I, who have left the Land of the Free, have to say about this, eh? Eh?

I would say that part of my feelings are expressed by Francis, part by Bing, and part by whoever it is who writes Sorry I Missed Your Party.

That seems like a good healthy mixture to me.

And I am reminded of a Fourth of July long ago.

I was 16, and this was in the dark heart (or possibly the pancreas) of the Reagan years. Along with a few friends of mine, I attended a Fourth of July party hosted by The Boyfriend of Older Sister #3 (counting from oldest to youngest). By this point, they'd have been in their mid-twenties.

There, we found kegs of beer that were made freely available to our underage palates as well as a very odd guy -- with a very bad perm, as I recall -- who offered us at various points some LSD.
We -- mainly -- stuck with the beer. The fireworks, I recall were fabulous, the friends had a good time, and the beer was as good as American keg beer got in the age before micro-breweries became popular.

And Older Sister #3, I found out later, quite literally discovered her boyfriend in bed with another woman, ending their many-years relationship.

By early the next morning, my best friend at the time managed to pilot our rather drunken teenage wrecks to our various homes safely in his 1964 Corvair.

My girlfriend at the time was, as I recall, kind of a bitch to me. As she usually was.

These are the associations, I must say, that the combination "4" and "July" spontaneously bring forth.

Along, perhaps, with a few years in Chicago, where the fireworks on the Lake (and more rarely the music) were amazing. Or a few years in Washington, D.C., where the fireworks were equally spectacular on the Mall.

Times that were quite pleasant and where I was, in one way or another, somehow a bit fucked up.

Yes, that's freedom for you.

Make of this what you will.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Small victories

As a follow-up to my post a few days ago regarding the business relationship between the Munich-based firm Giesecke & Devrient and Zimbabwe, an article in Der Spiegel today reports (English/German) that the company has ceased deliveries of banknotes to Zimbabwe's central bank.

The German-language article suggests that growing public outrage -- as well as requests by at least two cabinet ministers from the SPD -- was decisive in leading the company to suspend its activities with the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung reports that a company spokesperson stated: 'There was a certain amount of political pressure.' ('Es hat einen gewissen politischen Druck gegeben.')


A small victory. But even these, I think, should be celebrated.