Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Das Internet bildet doch!

This is what you find when you google "Blockflötenmusik - Barock - Anfänger"*:

Blockflöte des Todes, "Happy Birthday Jesus"


* After catching a couple of sonatas by Baroque composer Jean Baptiste Loeillet de Gant on the radio, I had a sudden urge to put my dildoesque pink plastic recorder (which I bought a few years ago in Abbeville) to use again and flitted around the web for sheet music.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

R.I.P. Alan Sillitoe

When I asked my students in one of my classes last week, not a single one had heard of, let alone read, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

This somewhat disillusioning classroom experience is made all the more poignant by Sillitoe's death. In turn, it also renders the statement by Sillitoe's son that "he hoped his father would be remembered for his contribution to literature" almost ironic. Maybe now I have a sacred duty to keep up the memory, who knows.

The film version of the novel (see update below) might be the best piece of memorabilia, especially as it adds an equally memorable Albert to the unforgettable Alan.

UPDATE: The silly Grauniad copyeditor calls Sillitoe an "author of kitchen sink dramas." So that's what they teach you at Oxbridge! Or are you all just too busy making up your mind whether to support Clegg or Cameron to mind such negligible details?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Organising a piss-up in a brewery

British-election-related quote of the day, via The Economist (which also makes the good point that for a debate on 'foreign affairs' the discussion was strangely parochial):

A Labour MP I know tells a story about the young Tony Blair, campaigning in a tough council housing estate years before he was famous and powerful. At the time, Labour was still promoting a platform of more cordial relations with the Soviet Union, and nuclear disarmament. According to this (supposedly true) story, the young Mr Blair began explaining to an elderly woman that only Labour could avert nuclear armageddon. "Can Labour stop the yobs peeing in the lift?" she replied. Mr Blair waffled, sticking to his lines about disarmament. "Young man," said the voter severely. "If Labour can't stop them peeing in the lifts, how are they going to stop a nuclear war?"

Perhaps perversely, I tend to think that the latter is, somehow, easier to prevent than the former.


'Something is better than nothing'

While watching last night's second leaders' debate (in all its digital wide-screen glory, as the house where I stay when in London is appropriately decked-out for this telly-obsessed culture), I was reminded of an essay that I had coincidentally read earlier this week.

I'd found a sharply reduced copy of Tony Judt's book Reappraisals (at the browseworthy Waterstone's on Gower Street....a cheap paperback is also available, I noticed today, at the also wonderful Judd Books) which appealed to me immediately, as I'm working my way (slowly) through his excellent Postwar.

The first essay that caught my eye (because I'm interested in this kind of issue) was entitled 'The Good Society: Europe vs. America', a review (originally published in the NY Review of Books) of books by Jeremy Rifkin, T.R. Reid and Timothy Garton Ash on the European Union.

It's a nicely balanced examination of 'Europe' in the sense of the -- alternatively inspiring and exasperating -- supra-national political entity that has emerged over the last half century (and it presages themes picked up on by Judt more recently).

I thought of it last night because of the apparent perception that Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg faces a problem for being a bit too Europhile.

(Not that the EU is uncomplicatedly or wildly popular in other European countries, but in Britain opposition to it takes on a special quality.)

Judt is clearly positively disposed toward the EU, but one of the things I liked about his review was his sober scepticism towards the more high-flown claims for the EU's potential, especially Rifkin's description of Europe as 'a giant freewheeling experimental laboratory for rethinking the human condition....':

These claims are absurd. The European Union is what it is: the largely unintended product of decades of negotiations by Western European politicians seeking to uphold and advance their national and sectoral interests. That's part of its problem: It is a compromise on a continental scale, designed by literally hundreds of committees.

Actually this makes the EU more interesting and in some ways more impressive than if it merely incarnated some uncontentious utopian blueprint. In the same vein, it seems silly to write, as Rifkin does, about the awfulness of American mediocrity without acknowledging Europe's own eyesores. This is a man who has never stared upon the urban brutalism of Sarcelles, a postwar dormitory town north of Paris; who has not died a little in Milton Keynes; who has avoided the outer suburbs of Modern Milan.

Having spent nearly a decade seeing both some of the highs and lows of my adopted home-continent -- and having 'died a little in Milton Keynes' on a regular basis -- I can appreciate Judt's point here.

Nonetheless, Judt expresses eloquently why -- for all its occasional frustrations and absurdities -- the EU is far more worthwhile than it is often perceived to be, explaining why, if it can manage to 'speak with a single voice in international affairs, the EU will wield a lot of power':

The reason is not that the EU will be rich or big -- though it already is both. The U.S. is rich and big. And one day China may be richer and bigger. Europe will matter because of the cross-border template upon which contemporary Europe is being constructed. ... Globalization is about the disappearance of boundaries -- cultural and economic boundaries, physical boundaries, linguistic boundaries -- and the challenge of organizing our world in their absence. In the words of Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the UN's director of peacekeeping operations: 'Having lost the comfort of our geographical boundaries, we must in effect rediscover what creates the bond between humans that constitute a community.'

To their own surprise and occasional consternation, Europeans have begun to do this: to create a bond between human beings that transcends older boundaries and to make out of these new institutional forms something that really is a community. They don't always do it very well, and there is still considerable nostalgia in certain quarters for those old frontiers. But something is better than nothing; and nothing is just what we shall be left with if the fragile international accords, treaties, agencies, laws and institutions that we have erected since 1945 are allowed to rot and decline -- or, worse, are deliberately brought low. As things now stand, boundary breaking and community making are something that Europeans are doing better than anyone else.
Heavy thoughts, perhaps, for a Friday night in a hotel bar in central London.

But I'm looking forward to crossing some frontiers tomorrow on a train that will take me through four countries (and languages) to a home that I'm missing very much at the moment.

And not, primarily, for political reasons.

Clegg captures German votes, hearts

British-German relations would, you might think, be pretty far down the scale of Vital Issues in the current British election.

Yet, they were curiously introduced into the (surprisingly lively) campaign trail via a 2002 article by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

When an MEP, Clegg wrote what I find to be a quite insightful and personal reflection on British attitudes toward Germany. Although this is hardly news, perhaps, he quite effectively uses memories of a student exchange trip to highlight how those attitudes have remained largely mired in the Second World War.

And he concludes thus:

All nations have a cross to bear, and none more so than Germany with its memories of Nazism. But the British cross is more insidious still. A misplaced sense of superiority, sustained by delusions of grandeur and a tenacious obsession with the last war, is much harder to shake off. I wish Mr Puhle and Mr Sawartzki well. We need to be put back in our place.

This might have remained largely in the archives had Mr. Clegg not emerged as a surprisingly popular figure, according to polls, after what was seen as his strong performance in the first party leaders' debate.

As a result of that, the above passage was worked into one of those typically subtle Daily Mail headlines: 'Clegg in Nazi Slur on Britain'.

And you can find plenty of frothy outrage in the comments that followed.

Still, Clegg can look on the bright side, having no doubt wrapped up the German vote, which is, of course, decisive in every British election.

Actually, it's been odd being in London during this whole 'controversy', not least watching the Conservative papers turning in goose lock-step yesterday to aim their fire in Clegg's direction and, today, to annoint David Cameron as the clear victor in last night's second debate. (From the Labour side, the Mirror's headline 'One foot in the Dave' has the same quality: today's headlines are analysed at the New Statesman here.)

Being familiar with two other countries (Germany and the US) where most of the mainstream press tends to observe at least a surface-level neutrality in its campaign coverage, the Pravda-like partisan contortions of the British papers is pretty breathtaking.

Curious Friday Music

Thanks to Spiegel I now know that there was a brief "Motown muss deutsch werden" movement. To which even poor Marvin Gaye was co-opted.

"Ich sage - yes - my little baby":

Gaye's near accent-free German is far more convincing that that of Diana Ross:

There's a hell of a lot of rhoticity going on there!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Separated by a common language

Spotted in the World's Pictorial News from 1929:

Not a few American talkies are responsible for introducing British film-goers to a new form of vocabulary. This is particularly apparent in the dialogue sequences of “The Broadway Melody,” in which some of the expressions used by the actors are, to say the least, rather spicy.

Thus we are beginning to learn that to “inhale poison” means to drink bad liquor; a “grand” means a thousand dollars; and “How about getting hitched up?” is not a polite invitation to a horse, but is an eloquent way of asking a girl to marry.

A joy ride in a high-priced motorcar is invariably referred to as a “buggy ride.” Expensive diamonds are “cracked ice.” A good provider is a “sugar daddy,” and an opulent lady is a “classy momma.”

If this goes on much longer we should really carry a glossary with us when we go to hear an American talkie.

Reg. Mortimer, 'A “Grand” from Your “Sugar Daddy”', World's Pictorial News, 2 June 1929, p. 8.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Apt music

To all those stranded in some airport or other: Your ship will sure come soon, too!

De Mens, "Hier komt mijn Schip" (heard yesterday somewhere on the motorway between Antwerp and Aachen)

Pressing matters

Over at Grazerlei Frau Malzahn sings the praises of Austria's national newspapers. Her thoughts struck a chord - though in a syncopated kind of sense - and prompt me to disrupt my blog silence.

Because at the moment hardly a day goes by that I don't feel the visceral urge to loudly (and in the presence of others) bemoan the failings of the German national press, whose manifold weaknesses are multiplied in the über-sloppy editing of the online versions I tend to read, with their embarrassing grammatical mistakes and pseudo-racy headlines.

Consider, for instance, a certain liberal paper from Munich, which I always thought had wit, style and a certain mature balance. Not so. Said paper has increasingly become a disappointment to me, not only because of its flawed content, but also because its employees seem to stubbornly resist my didactic intervention.

A few years ago they insisted on illustrating an article about German-born writer and artist Judith Kerr with an photo of Germaine Greer (who is only 15 or so years younger than Kerr). Although I pestered them with Emails demanding the immediate righting of this faux-pas, Germaine stayed put and me frustrated.

Then there was the publication of a photograph of Margaret Thatcher and a pubescently hirsute William Hague during the 1977 Tory party conference, which ran: "Margaret Thatcher and a [emphasis mine] high school student at an election rally."

Did they bother to change it after I tried to set matters right? Repeatedly. No.

Not that all this would matter to most German readers: These are minor details that irritate only crazy Anglophiles (though woe to an English paper that gets its Umlauts or German geography wrong) and could be ignored if they weren't part of a larger pattern that even impinges on genuinely German issues. Hence a few weeks ago, in said paper, the author of a thoughtful little column-filler (so thoughtful I can't tell you what it was about) used the beautiful term "Hybris" - the German equivalent of "hubris."

Only to spell it "Hypris."

Which - as any educated speaker of High German will tell you - sounds ... not so good.

I think I can explain this mistake. I'm pretty convinced that the author was a Franconian - i.e. from the impoverished and part-Protestant northern parts of Bavaria, where people famously can't pronounce p's and t's. Which is why there is the singular distinction between "hard b's" and "soft b's." And a tendency to comically overcompensate by those who want to sound really posh.

You want to know how to make a pretentious Franconian blush? Ask him or her to say the word "Anekdote."

But cultural differences are really no excuse. There must be standards! To have a Franconian write articles in a national newspaper may be considered a misfortune. To have her or his spelling checked by a Franconian copyeditor looks like carelessness.

Which pilfered witticism my brings me to today's journalistic clanger, where a picture-heavy piece on film adaptations of novels inspired by Oliver Parker's recent Dorian Gray opens with the following apodictic wisdom:

"Only a handful of books were written in 1890s England. And these are, again and again, turned into movies."

Only a handful of books? In which (Bavarian) University Department of Comparative Literature did you receive the degree that qualified you to write such nonsense, honey?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Random notes from the dust zone

Since there are two or three of you who might be wondering what happened to us over the last week or so, we are happy to inform you that we were simply away from our desks and at the coal face of cultural knowledge exchange, i.e. the European Social Science History conference.

The conference was held in Ghent, which is a lovely city that I recommend you visit. (Although give it another year or so: there is some fairly intensive construction work going on in part of the central city (seems to involve installing or replacing tram lines) which means that that part of town is not at its best.) If you're driving, you may wish to tune into Belgium's Radio 1. I can't vouch for their usual quality, but we hit some kind of chart show on the way back (see reference by The Wife) and the music they were playing was far above your average radio fare.

It also introduced us to this song, which is not exactly great, perhaps, but which is nicely absurd and, because of context, took on a special quality.

Arno & DLS Band, 'Brussels'

The conference went very well (thank you for asking), at least from my perspective, and it was a pleasure to renew my contacts with a number of people and also to meet a few other people for the first time.

Of the latter, I especially wish to mention Randy Roth, whose recent book, American Homicide, was one of the featured books at the conference. I have been invited to comment on the book at a conference in Chicago in November, which is a tremendous honour, given how good it sounds, as far as I can judge from a few excerpts and conversations with the author himself. Some discussion of the book's contents might follow in the next few months.

In the meantime, we wish Randy--and a few other people that we met in Ghent--the best of luck in finding their way back to the US in the face of the Airborne Toxic Event volcanic ash cloud that has grounded pretty much all European air travel over the last few days. Given that a bunch of scary maps have tended to place where we live as part of a big red danger zone, we are happy to report that life--other than air travel--carries on pretty much as normal here under the Enormous Ash Cloud.

Not to say that it isn't a bit odd to have the skies cleared of aircraft (or nearly cleared: a few small planes and gliders were out this afternoon, but they fly well below the dust cloud, or at least that's what a computer graphic somewhere explained ...)

This is especially so as it's really only the second time I've experienced this kind of silent sky, the first being in the days after 11 September 2001.

There is something eerie about it.

As there was about something in a conversation with a now-retired historian in Ghent. He who was offering personal reflections on events in the 1960s and 70s and commented on the way that, if they live long enough, historians become not only investigators of the past but also, themselves, 'primary sources'.

This reminded me, in turn, of a discussion I'd had with a dear friend in London a few weeks earlier. I mentioned to him that it had occurred to me that Black Sabbath's self-titled 1970 debut (of which I am very fond) had had its fortieth anniversary in February of this year.

In the course of the conversation that followed, my friend pointed out that from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old today, that event was as distant historically as World War Two was to me at the same age (i.e. 1983).

Now, somehow that's obvious, I know, but I've been haunted ever since by the realisation that not only Black Sabbath but also my own birth is about as historically remote to a modern thirteen-year-old as was the battle of Stalingrad to someone of my generation at that age.

I'll have plenty of time to ponder this tomorrow, as I head off on a long-planned train trip to Britain. So far as I know the trains are running fine...except for likely being packed full of frustrated air travelers.

Ah, joy.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Something overlooked

Not long ago, our friend Andrew posted something that was rather up our alley, and we neglected to pass on the word.

Very nice. Brilliant, in fact.

And it reminds us, while we're at it of this. This. And this.

Pause for thought

Things have been rather quiet here recently, which we can only explain by the fact of having too much writing to do in the real world (i.e., in the jobs that pay us). And we'll be off the next week to darkest Belgium for a big social history conference, so things might remain a bit silent here for a while.

Still, given the events of recent days, we would like to express our sympathies to our Polish neighbours regarding the loss not only of their president but also a substantial number of their political, military and cultural elite.

I must confess to never being a fan of Lech Kaczynski--to say the least--but I would have much rather seen him voted out of office this year than killed in a symbolically significant accident like this plane crash near the site of one of the 20th century's most notable crimes.

The obliteration of so many prominent people from the Polish leadership is not only a difficult burden to bear but also a reminder of the power of contingency over the lives of even the most powerful.

Thus, to the extent that our small voice means anything, we would join Chancellor Merkel in offering sincere condolences to the Polish people.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Carry on Westminster

Now, I'm all for efforts to spice up what has so far been a pretty lacklustre pre-election election season in Britain: but is it just me or is there something a bit...desperate?...about the Guardian's 'three-way swingometer'?

What's next, electoral key parties?