It’s racism, not the economy


A couple of days ago, I wrote a post flagging up the considered view of Professor John Gray on the potential motivation of voters in the USA and the election of Donald Trump. The underlying point of his “letter” is that economic factors rather than social factors account for the result.

This opinion is not shared by all, and for good reason. The ever-vigilent Mehdi Hasan – has looked at the available data on the demographic that voted for Trump. It may not be as clear cut as we had thought. In actual fact, he argues, those who have been left behind economically – despite the logic – were not those who voted Trump. Rather it was those who have done better than average under neo-liberalism who put him in the White House. And the disturbing conclusion is not that the election was decided on economic issues. It was pure racism.

Luckies hoping we do not notice?

wp-1480279623909.jpgI suppose that when the UK leaves the EU and Nigel Farage becomes PM at the behest of the US President, then cigarette advertising will be back on the streets of the UK as they are in Germany. The run up to Christmas is not the best time to see this particular species of advertising, but the Lucky Strike – Luckies – brand is loitering in U-Bahn Stations in Munich (left).

What is interesting about this one, notwithstanding its lack of imagination – good deal and thick, if my translation is up to it – is that it is forced to show something nasty on the front. Inside the black band on the packet is an ashtray with the ash forming the shape of a foetus. This is the first time that I have seen this on street posters. It raises the question as to whether the advertisers could have avoided this by not showing the packet? If they are able to do so, then this is an even more stupid billboard than I had first thought. If they cannot, how is the negative image going to be represeted on more alluring advertising such as that practised by Marlboro, Camel and Gauloises? I trust the answer will come like the answer to plenty of other potentially lethal questions (Trump, le Pen, Wilders) in the much-anticipated 2017!

Reflections on a future

wp-1480168450862.jpgAfter the Brexit vote I was grateful to a number of thinkers who had contributed to a week of short talks on BBC radio. I wrote about them here. The BBC revisited this format last week to help us to make sense of the US election. It was – as with Brexit – left to Professor John Gray to present a hard truth. I’ve taken the liberty of uploading it below.

The stark reality, for Gray, and I fear for the rest of us, is that (liberal) progressivism is not the norm in European human history. Autocracy and war are more representative of earlier times over the continent. Moreover, humanity may get into an autocratic and illiberal mindset – indeed, vote for it – because progressivism is itself partial. Essentially, not everyone benefits and progresses. And this comes back to bite society. The question for us is whether what we are experiencing in 2016 – and probably further into 2017 with elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany – a reversible phenomenon. John Gray, I sense, is not so sure.


Das Ende der Welt

derspiegel_11_11_2016_coverRegular readers of this blog will already know my political philosophy. The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America is truly regressive. It represents not only an existential threat to liberals, people on the left and humanity more generally, but also a mortal threat to minorities, people of colour, LGBT, amongst others. In my lifetime, this is unprecedented. I grew up anticipating nuclear war – this was a time of Threads – in a bi-polar world of two ideologically-fuelled superpowers. But equally I grew up in a post-fascist world. This missing link, however, is about to be filled. Fascism has arrived.threadsmoviecover

The appeasement has started. With the noble exceptions in Europe of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, world leaders waited for a call from Trump for an all-important opportunity to cosy up to him. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, had to wait quite a while on Thursday – she was 10th on his list – to receive a call only to find that Nigel Farage, UKIP leader, got a very early selfie-opportunity (below left) to discuss “freedom and winning” with Trump in his trump_farageeponymous tower.

The litany of regressive policy preferences for Trump is shocking. Trump is a climate change denier. To him, it is a hoax, despite all of the scientific evidence. Trump intends to pull out of the Paris Climate Change Accord that came into force on 4 November 2016 (but conveniently it was not ratified by the US Senate). This is an international agreement to hold global warming to no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels. It is a problem for Trump because his isolationist stance and job creation objectives require energy self-sufficiency through fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas and shale oil). The science points to a climate climate-agreement-finalcatastrophe involving fire, drought, desertification, flood, mass extinctions and rising sea levels. One man – and his like-minded cabinet – can render the planet uninhabitable even without nuclear weapons. Talking of which…

…Trump, in his election campaign, also asked – and I paraphrase – what the point of nuclear weapons is if they cannot be used. And similar to his belief in allowing guns into schools  counter-intuitively to prevent mass shootings, he believes in nuclear proliferation for the same reason. At the very least we might finally confirm that  Israel is a nuclear power and maybe it is time to expedite North Korea’s nuclear aspirations? Back to a Threads scenario, I think.

enemiesThis  fascism has consciously crept into the UK. There is no better example than the Daily Mail’s front page after three lawlords interpreted British law – as they had been asked to do by a British citizen – and noted that, constitutionally, the Prime Minister does not have the power to invoke Article 50 (the leave the EU mechanism) without the approval of the sovereign parliament. This decision is being appealed by the Government and will be heard next month. But Brexiters – led by UKIP leadership candidate, Suzanne Evans given a platform on Today (Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme) – that Judges are trying to impede “the will of the people”; namely leaving the EU. Nothing of the sort. But Evans believes, seemingly, that independent judges should be subject to control by the parliament (the very same one that the Government does not wantlego_pg to inform about Brexit conditions).

This headline has fortunately had quite an impact. Stop Funding Hate is pushing to get advertisers to abandon newspapers that propagate hate as a matter of course. These titles include also The Sun, The Daily Express and The Daily Telegraph. Last week Lego stopped advertising with The Daily Mail (see below). The current effort is to put pressure on the John Lewis Partnership, a supposedly ethical employee-owned high-street retailer, to do the same. Its  Christmas high budget mini film advertisements have become an anticipated festive season event in recent years. And they work. But some of the profit made goes into the pockets of these newspaper owners whose racist bile has undermined the fabric of British society’s values of tolerance, compassion and inclusiveness. John Lewis has so far responded with an anodyne statement (left) indicating that the company does not judge newspapers by their content. Fascist supportjohnlewis_tweeting, then? Customers need to know that. And we must stop normalising this thinking. They will come for us, too.

Finally, it is very difficult to enjoy comedy these days. Everything is beyond parody. Consistent throughout this US election campaign has been John Oliver. He tried hard to expose Trump’s fascism. His final show of 2016 screened on HBO on Sunday evening. Unfortunately it is not available in the UK to view. Some people have the means to Americanise their IP address. If you are one of these, I recommend. By the time the next series starts in 2017 he may have been deported (and HBO closed down).

The Divine Comedy, Folkestone Quarterhouse, 21 October 2016

20161021_215801The Divine Comedy is a self-confessed vehicle for Neil Hannon to embrace a passion for history, conventional and unconventional romance, surreal humour and outlandish orchestrations. Hannon is a fine musician, curious lyricist and showman – “I may act” he warned. This show was our fourth experience of the Divine Comedy, but only the second with a full band (previously we had seen Hannon perform alone with a piano and guitar at Somerset House and later in Cambridge). We have also seen him do Duckworth Lewis Method with Thomas Walsh in September 2013.

The first time we saw the Divine Comedy at a damp music festival in Inveraray, Hannon was clearly (and probably understandably) unhappy such that beer was thrown at the audience. Tonight, wine was actually offered to the audience in a glass (albeit to one lucky recipient in the front row). How things change.foreverland

Two observations. First, Hannon unusually did not play piano, only guitar. Second, I have never seen Hannon so relaxed despite a few technical sound issues that inexplicably accompanied the songs. One indicator of this was his dressing up routines. Staples in the repertoire, quite rightly, are the Complete Banker and Bang Goes the Knighthood. Both are propped with a bowler hat and an umbrella (the latter being particularly useful). Songs from the current album, Foreverland, benefit, it seems, from Hannon dressing up as Napoleon  – two actually: the uncomfortably revelatory How can You Leave me on my Own? and To the Rescue (the latter gets a guest appearance from Billy Cooper and his trumpet). This is a little odd because the song about Napoleon, Napoleon Complex, did not get on to the running order, likewise the title track. Whilst I feared too much emphasis on the new album, it being the Foreverl20161021_222102and tour, Hannon perhaps under-represented it. A Desperate Man, I feel, would have gone down a storm. But it was nice to duet Funny Peculiar with the enigmatic, charming and funny Lisa O’Neill, left, his support act (for some reason this reminds me of Dean Friedman and Denise Marsa’s Lucky Stars).

I find Hannon really frustrating at times. He writes great songs – Our Mutual Friend is epic and rendered so in this show. Sweden is a colossus. Though I do not know why (the Napoleon garb here seemed appropriate). Song of Love – does what it does better than any other. National Express takes us back to simpler times (albeit being a shade impolite to hostesses). Indie Disco is a clever temporal list of tunes that defined a generation. Tonight we Fly, flies 20161021_215801absolutely as an encore. But why Hannon persists with the Frog Princess and Something for the Weekend, I do not understand. It is maybe something to do with imagination, fantasy, storytelling – all legitimate elements of the Hannon way. Count Grassi’s Passage Over Piedmont, one of Hannon’s own favourites, features the romance of travel (a recurring theme), with just a little too much cheese (songwriting surrealism)? That said, I cannot say that I did not enjoy them. Only that Hannon has better songs.

Playing with Hannon was his long-time collaborator, Andrew Skeets on keyboards (for me as much a part of the Divine Comedy as Hannon himself). Tim Weller was the drummer (his charming son sold me a couple of posters), Simon Little, Bass; Ian Watson accordian and keyboards and the guitarist who, embarrassingly, is nameless (if anyone can help with naming, let me know).  A cool unruffled bunch.

This 50-date tour gives us the opportunity to go twice. It straddles 2016 and 2017. We are off to Hamburg in February. Really looking forward to it.

Tilman Riemenschneider

dscf1599We were introduced to Tilman Riemenschneider by one of our favourite art historians (AGD) on his BBC series, “Art of Germany“.  Riemenschneider was a very fine carver and sculptor working in the 15/16 Century, largely in the Franconian region of northern Bavaria. Würzburg is the region’s capital; it was there that Riemenschneider had his studio (a prolific producer of largely religious icons, popular at the time with the wealthy Bavarians and staffed by a series of journeyman carvers). He utilised property that came his way through (four) marriages to set up the study (at least three of his wives died – he was not a mass murder as was my original concern). He was also a political figure in the region, holding a number of official posts, including Bürgermeister in 1520. However, when in 1525 the  peasants revolt reached Würzburg, he found himself on the wrong side of the victorious Prince Bishop. He was briefly imprisoned. He died in 1531 and was quickly forgotten. It was not until his tombstone was found in 1822 that his work was re-evaluated by Carl Gottfried Scharold, a significant local historian.

He worked using regional materials, in particular lime wood and sandstone. It is for that reason that it is amazing that so many pieces have survived these years. Take, for example, the “Sad Mary” (above left) who can be found amongst the largest single collection of his work in the  Mainfrankisches Museum in Würzburg. Dating from 1510, she belonged to a fdscf1592amily in Ochsenfurt, a significant town on the Main river. She hung from a hook around shoulder level; but seemingly she was not well loved. In fact, she was feared. She was also rather black having some sort of fire damage (she was stored in the attic near to the chimney). Her maker was recognised by Johann Valentin Markert as part of Riemenschneider’s rehabilitation.  Her robes are just exquisite. The representation of folds, creases, seams, hands etc. are carved out of a tree and are trademark Riemenschneider. The carver’s faces are distinct, something that helps scholars and amateurs alike identify his own work from that of the journeymen in his studio.

St. Antonius Kapelle and St Jakobus, Großlangheim

The carving of “Holy Nickolas” dates also from 1510. This piece came from the “Chapel of Marriage” in Würzburg. Nickolas’s face carriesdscf1527 the features of a sage; however, one assumes that most senior clergy at that time were sages? This look with oval eyes, ageing lines and long noses is repeated endlessly.

AGD told us that some of the best pieces are to be found in small churches dotted around the Bavarian countryside. In particular he said that there were a couple of seemingly forlorn pieces in a small chapel (St.-Antonius-Kapelle) in Großlangheim. To enter one needed to get the key from Frau Sterk, the owner of the nearby liquor store. Actually, the chapel was open when we investigated (Frau Sterk still looks after it, though). Moreover, there were four pieces in the Chapel, not the two featured in the documentary. St. Antonius, depicted above left, is signature Riemenscheider. We were directed in particular to the belt around his waist! The light in the chapel was not really conducive to photography, unfortunately.dscf1517

AGD did not tell us, however, that Großlangheim had two places of worship, both of which boast Riemenscheider sculptures. The Catholic church, St. Jakobus, is brimming with Riemenschneiders. For example, the sculpture of St. Anna with child and Mary (Selbstdritte) is beguiling, full of colour and symbolism. dscf1522

Another common subject is Mary and the dead Jesus (left). The Virgin’s clothes contrast absolutely with the dead Christ’s grey skin. A reminder, presumably, of the horror of the crucifixion and mortality, at least for the body.

There are professional reasons for this approach to colour. At that time such many works were
church commissions. If the commission was given to a painter, naturally any sculpture subcontracted as part of the commission would be painted. Carvers were not allowed to paint their own sculptures (or not). Where altarpieces were involved, there were also cabinet makers who could actually earn more than the carver for creating a hinged box (see St Jakob, Rothenburg, below).

Maria im Weingarten, Volkach

AGD had advised us to visit the Riemenschneider sculpture hanging in the Church, Maria im Weingarten, in Volkach. In his TV documentary he spent quite a bit of time discussing this carving dating from 1522 20160901_131924(right). It is certainly impressive, hanging as it does from the ceiling of the church. It depicts Mary standing on a crescent moon with the child, Jesus. The five roundels depict events in her life (the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Adoration and Death). The child is enthroned on the virgin’s left hip. It was stolen in 1962 and returned only after the payment of a ransom. But there is some doubt about how much of it was carved by Riemenschneider himself, rather than one of his journeyman carvers. Like many carvings and sculptures that are likely to be difficult for people to inspect closely, fine detail is not required.

Altarpiece of the Holy, the parish church of St Jakob in Rothenburg ob der Tauber dating from 1505. 

img0024The centrepiece of this fine altar (pictured left) depicts the Last Supper. In the centre is Jesus and next to him to the right is Judas (bearded and about to receive bread, a symbol of sin, from Jesus) being exposed as a traitor. Pilgrims enter the space in the westimg0007 choir of the church from the right, just like Judas, the sinner. Forgiveness is possible for pilgrims. St. Philip (left of Judas) points to the alter base where sinners should kneel and confess sins to receive redemption. One has to step back to see the real point of the altar – the relic of the holy blood encased in a glass cross (right).

It seems that this wonderful piece – we spent at least an hour with it – had to be done relatively cheaply. The master, concentrated his attention on the cluster of figures arounimg0003d Jesus, whilst his journeyman worked on the five apostles to the right of Judas (pictured left) seemingly trying to work out who the traitor was. The relief on the left of the central shrine of the altarpiece depicting Christ’s entry into Jerusalem does not seem to be Riemenscheider. In particular, the figure of Christ himself is insufficiently proportioned and the faces of the figures are stylistically different.


Altarpiece of Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul, Detwang – 1505-8

By way of contrast, this altarpiece (right) is thought to be wholly by Riemenschneider, although it was not originallyimg0020 designed for this church (it had to be narrowed fit in the space). The central section is a classic crucifixion scene with mourning women and St John to the left and the soldiers around Caiaphas to the right. The panel on the left depicts the agony in the garden, the one on the right, the resurrection. All are deemed to be stylistically coherent apart from some of the bodies in the resurrection scene.

Würzburg Cathedral

dscf1548Würzburg Cathedral is a wonderful space in the centre of the city. Riemenschneider was commissioned to carve a couple of tombs for former bishops. The founding bishop, Rudolf von Scherenberg, is celebrated in the stone carving (left) which is a masterwork in ageing human form. The Bishop gets the old-man treatment – though the contract specifies precisely how he was to be presented, with artefacts (swords, etc.), coats of arms and attire. dscf1549

Later, Riemenschneider did the same for Bishop Lorenz von Bibra (right). This depicts a younger, age-indeterminate man, but is a mis-mash of styles. Riemenschneider is credited with the figure, puttis (something that he liked doing, seemingly) and the lion vanquishing the dragon (at the base).


Walk down the knave and one comes across yet another Mary and child (left). Again, she stands on a crescent moon. The child is cradled on her right side (in contrast to the depiction in Volkach, above) and her leg protrudes forward. She stands on a plinth ahead of the altar.


The cathedral used, also, to be the home of Riemenschneider’s stone Adam and Eve sculptures (1493). Go there now and replicas flank the south portal of the Lady Chapel. The originals are now in the Mainfrankisches Museum in Würzburg (see above). They ended up there because the provost of the cathedral in 1894 was offended by the nudity and had them removed. The replicas were installed in 1975.

Botdscf1568h have missing arms. Eve is depicted as round and earthy in a renaissance style. She has the apple in her remaining hand and a serpent at her feet. Her hair confidently drapes her back. Art historians, however, have been a shade confused about the figure of Adam. Traditionally he is depicted as being mature and, naturally, bearded. This one is youthful, innocent – and a victim of female wiles. He’s late gothic in depiction; hence he is not particularly endowed with muscles (renaissance Adams often have six-packs). Adam’s face and hair are similar to Riemeschneider’s St Johns in altarpieces (for example, Münnerstadt, not discussed here).20150825_130318

Our tour was not complete. Münnerstadt, for example. But equally, the masterpiece at Creglingen 20150828_144631Herrgottskirche (right) and Bamberg cathedral (left). Unfortunately, there is a lot of geography involved and not enough time.

What I have tried to do is give a flavour of the life and work of Riemenschneider. Not only was  he a fine carver, but also a politician -clearly with some morals – a husband – though accrued much property by this means – and a businessman. He worked to specification and gave, usually, what was asked at the requisite quality. For tourists, focusing on a single artist can be an exciting and meaningful way of exploring a region. And if you have access to the language, there are lots of people to fill in the gaps for you. We are indebted to the attendant in the Mainfrankisches Museum for extra info about artefacts, and the woman in Großlangheim who told us about both churches and their treasures.

Additional source for text: Kalden-Rosenfeld, Iris (2004) Tilman Riemenschneider: The Sculptor and his Workshop. Translation by Heide Grieve. Karl Robert Langewiesche Nachfolger Hans Köster Veerlagsbuchhandlung KG . Konigstein im Taunus.


Three killers together

download_20160905_231947The three killer brands appear on the same billboard – Marlboro, L&M and Chesterfield. To what end?

Seemingly, they will now have the same box but with similar numbers of sticks. I assume this is something to do with European packaging regulations where two-thirds of the pack have to show the lethal side of the product rather than the brand. I need to check the packets in the shop.

Camel pushes on with its “do your thing” campaign

DSCF1538Germany is currently being blanketed with striking posters for Camel cigarettes. Quite a few feature women smoking in public places. Here (left) we see the blonde-haired woman again with, what appears to be, a “don’t care what some of us think” expression. She’s young, confident, and, for the time being, healthy. She also has a friend (bottom left).

DSCF1540What is interesting about this campaign – and something that it shares with the Marlboro parallel “You Decide” campaign – is how unsubtle some of the images are. For example, the woman (right) who is in the process of lighting up. (Apologies for the poor pictures, many of them are behind plastic and on sunny days the reflections are unavoidable.) I have recorded many advertising images over the years where cigarettes do not feature at all. A DSCF1502mere association is regarded as sufficient to promote a smoking lifestyle. Camel itself has moved a long way from its subtle brand-based “Untamed” campaign. I’m not entirely sure what this means. But as the increasingly small warning at the bottom of each poster says, “smoking is deadly”. If you are lucky.


Rijks Museum, Amsterdam

20160824_145714One of our favourite art historians recently made a programme for the BBC about the refurbishment of this national museum in Amsterdam. It was – and still is – home to the Dutch nation’s treasures, including its Rembrandt paintings, most especially The Night Watch (left) which is itself watched over by two museum bouncers, just in case.

The museum was first opened in 1885. It was apparently a controversial building. The architect, Pierre Cuypers, a20160824_163209 catholic, created a very catholic building for a staunchly protestant city. And Cuypers knew this. So much so that he sculptured himself into the building looking very sheepish, as well he might (right).

The museum’s transformation from staid national museum (seemingly stuffed animals and dull artefacts), to compelling home of the nation’s treasures took much longer than anticipated. If I understand the story correct, the architects plans (Spanish practice Cruz and Ortiz) involved closing off the cycle route literally through the centre of museum. This did not go down very well; reconfiguring the designs in order to retain the cycle route took some time. That said, there was also a small matter of asbestos that extended the task from 3 to 10 years.

20160824_145623Now it is expensive, at least for tourists – €17.50. It is easy to gain a day in there. There are 80 rooms and just under a million artefacts (clearly, not all are being exhibited at the same time). The galleries are now organised chronologically (rather than by type – paintings, ceramics, textiles etc.). This means one gets a mix, adding important context to one anoth20160824_120211er in the process. However, some galleries are exclusively art such as those where one finds Rembrandt, Vermeer, etc. (above left)

We started on the 3rd floor with the 20th Century. These floors celebrate Dutch water engineering (the Dutch made a lot of contemporaneous films of the building of their phenomenal water projects); innovative architecture such as Rietveld’s model orphanage housing project in Bergeijk Le Courbusier’s 1958 20160824_125709Philips World Fair Pavilion (model of); mischievous art in Ferdi’s Wombtombdesign such as the fusion of Mondrian’s geometric art with Yves Saint Laurent’s couture (right); and most sinister of all, a Nazi chess set (the Nazis were white, naturally. Their weapons were bigger and more up-to-date).20160824_125048

Other wonderful artefacts include Lion Cachet’s substantial 1902 sideboard with handles suspended from monkey heads (right); Petronella Dunois‘ intricate dolls houses c1676; Sam Schellink‘s finely-decorated porcelain c1900; and spectacularly, Frits 20160824_131136Koolhoven’s FK23 Bantam fighter from 1918 (left).

In terms of art, the museum tracks both the careers of Dutch masters and the significance of their work in telling the story of the country. For example, in much of Europe in the 17th Century, artists were employed by the Church or wealthy families (think Medici in Florence).20160824_150258 The Netherlands is a relatively new country reclaimed from the sea. It is also a maritime country built on heroic trade (Rudolf Bakhuysen’s Warships in Heavy Storm, right, is not untypical). The wealth was in the hands of a merchant class who, not surprisingly, enjoyed their images being reproduced on canvas.

20160824_152923The landscape features, too. Joseph Constantin Gabriël’s, The Month of July (left), is illustrative of the genre. We were also delighted to find Thérèse Schwartze’s Portrait of Lizzy Ansigh, a fellow painter in the female group of artists known as the Amesterdamse Joffers. This is at least a recognition that females were active in this period without in any way over-representing their work.

Finally there is recognition of particular schools of painters – the Hague School (1840s), with its20160824_153128 emphasis on the lives of ordinary folk and the Amsterdam impressionists of which Isaac Israel’s Donkey riding on the Beach (right) is a fine example.

Van Gogh is there, but if readers want to see his work, the adjacent Van Gogh museum is the place to go. It too is a special place, but much much busier.

Along with the reconfiguring of the physical museum, the curators also produced an excellent app for iPhone and Android. It saves hiring an audio guide; and if your mobile runs out of fuel, there are free fuelling stations.



Left luggage facilities, Amsterdam Centraal

The perennial for independent travellers is where to store luggage when passing through cities. And how does it work?

20160823_093129Amsterdam Centraal Station does it by locker. There are about 1000 of them located near to platform20160823_093113 2. Essentially, go to the main concourse, face the departure board and then turn right.

Cash is not welcome. You have to pay by card. There are two sizes. The large locker is big enough for two medium-sized cases and costs 10 Euros (right). The smaller costs 7 Euros. Put your luggage in. Close the door. Insert your card, follow instructions and wait for a paper key to be dispensed (left). The maximum storage time is 72 hours.