Pompeii and Amalfi Coast – Festive period 2022/23

The obvious out-of-Naples places to visit are Pompeii/Vesuvius and the Amalfi Coast. Pompeii we self-organised. We took at train from Naples Central towards Salerno and a short shuttle bus to the Pompeii excavation from Pompeii railways station. All very straightforward. The Pompeii site closes about 1700 at this time of the year, so there was a bit of a rush to the train back to Naples. In the summer I suspect it is a bit of a crush.

The second – Amalfi Coast – we subcontracted out to a company called Tramvia. Tickets are sold from the many street kiosks. They pick up in the morning on a big coach from around the town and then separate passengers by tour at a spot on the edge of the city. We ended up in a transit van (with seats, obviously) with a driver who shocked many of us with his clifftop hustling and adventurous overtaking. In the dark. We were first dropped off at Positano (right). We had a couple of hours to walk down to the beach, get coffee, visit the church and wander through some of the many pottery shops. Enough time.

And then on to Amalfi itself. Another two hours sufficient for a bit of wandering along alleys in search of an entrance to the so-called cathedral (left) which we did not find – the entrance, that is. We settled for a glass of wine and a light snack. Suffice to say, the driver wasted no time getting back to Naples. We needed more wine to calm the nerves, or that is at least our excuse.

Pompeii…well, at least we controlled the getting there. We hired a guide (shared with a few others) who was good value. His Italian English was perfect. He sounded a bit like Francesco da Mosto, for those in know. And mischievous with it. We subsequently found out that some of the things he told us were not absolutely true; though it took the great Mary Beard to put him right. For example, the difference between slaves and slave owners was not as great as we were told. Beard tells us that many slaves won their freedom and became citizens of the city in their own right, though not if they did something that warranted a flogging. To be flogged is to be permanently labelled. Moreover, some slaves were highly educated and skilled by the standards of the time. The rich could have a slave doctor, for example. What was constant was food – rich and poor, slave and slave owner all ate much the same – seafood, grains and nuts.

Pompeii is a great experience. There is plenty of room and quiet areas, apart from the ever-popular brothel – which is not really worth visiting – there is more erotica on display in the Naples Archaeology Museum which we also checked out. There are a few lessons for all of us to take from Pompeii. Many people died because they did not know that Vesuvius was a volcano. And when they tried to flee, they hid. Knowledge is important; there was nowhere to hide from the ash. And those not prepared to forfeit their wealth, perished with it. Knowledge also was lacking in the plumbing. Whilst it was sophisticated in terms of capture of rainwater, piping and pressurizing, the lead pipes were also lethal (above right).

It is quite an extensive excavation – and ongoing (above left). The killer – Vesuvius – sits to the north. Pompeii itself used to sit directly on the shoreline, but the eruption essentially moved it backwards! The city is a great snapshot, too, in the developments in architecture. This bit of Italy is prone to earthquakes as well as volcanic activity. The Pompeiian – if that is who they are – architects learned how to strengthen their buildings – eventually adopting the diamond formation (right).

But ultimately the lives of the people before the eruption look just like our own: domestic, consumptive, with entertainment (albeit gladiators) and eating (restaurants/home).

And having written all of this, I suddenly read this in the Guardian under the headline ‘Astonishing’ Pompeii home of men freed from slavery reopens to public.

Naples – Festive season, 2022/3

The dread of winter, of course, prompts thoughts of being somewhere a little warmer for at least some of the colder time. We’ve been to Seville/Andalucia over this period before, but travelling by train there this time proved prohibitively expensive. Second best – though with hindsight unfairly so – was Naples.

We travelled on 25 December Euro City Munich to Padua (end station, Venice) and then TrenItalia Frecciarossa (high speed, right) to Napoli via Rom. It is a good day to travel – busy but not too busy. A cafe was open in Padua station (above left). The coffee was timely and great! Total journey time around 12 hours. One hour changing time in Padua. A bit of a delay in Rom. Dodgy power sockets on train.

We were staying in the Municipio district of Naples – three stops on Line 1 on the metro. There was a ticket kiosk in the passage between the main station and the metro station. It takes about ten minutes to walk between the two.

The first thing to say about Naples – and it has been said many times by many – it is busy. Crazily so. Be prepared for cars – and particularly motor scooters – to demand you get out of the way, even in streets (for want of a better word) that look like pedestrian walkways. They are not.

Eating is easy, even on 25 December. A local diner (right) was open adjacent to the hotel. There are many examples like this. Pizza, of course. Pasta and a mix of vegetables for those seeking vegetarian options, as we were.

In fact, we had many eating experiences. There are a couple of vegetarian options. Both good, one less friendly than the other. Friendly was Cavali Nostri (left). This place was not a concession to vegetarian food. Whoever runs it knows what is vegetarian food. So good the first time that we entrusted to them new year’s eve. We knew there was a special menu, but we had not quite digested the fact that there would be nine courses. Nine! And course 6 would be risotto – a meal in itself. Still, we got some of our new favourite vegetable, friarielli broccoli. Not really broccoli. More like tough and chewy spinach.

The other place was Un Sorriso Integrale Amico Bio. The menu was extensive and interesting. And it was quick. But we never felt truly welcome. The first time we went it was “full” – we could come back in an hour (by then 2130); the second time, we could come back, but we’d get ignored once the order was taken. And so it proved. It became a rather an inexpensive meal, in retrospect.

We had various other experiences in – and off – the main thoroughfares. All very similar. Pizzas are great. Service mixed. Prices very fair, including for wine. Mostly street food, including fried pizza, for which people were well prepared to queue quite some time to get. One of the odd things about pizzas is that many people cut off the crusts and leave them (along with other food items – food waste is a problem here, I sense).

There are many wonderful little bars for coffee and cake. Quite a lot are quirky, and not traditional in any way; for example, this place on the left – Posca-Bar Bakery Bistro – is located on Via Port ‘Alba close to the Dante Metro.

And so to the nine courses at Cavali Nostri:

Summer 2022: the €9 ticket holiday – 2


Holidays often feature art – why would they not? In this journey we’ve been to Berlin, Elblᶏg and Dresden. The latter two are provincial cities with their own take on what should be shown and what not. And how.

Elblᶏg surprised me. The art is everywhere in the public realm. Seemingly in 1965 a number of artists were commissioned to make art and place it just about everywhere in the city. Examples of the work are below, but what it does to a place is interesting. In some cities the art would be defaced, damaged or vandalised. I saw none of this. 1965 – that’s 57 years! I assume that the art reflects the town and its people. Most of the artwork is made of steel, yet compelling. Maybe no one notices it, but it is there.

Gold Clock

In Dresden, art has a very different role. Dresden celebrates its kings or “electors” The Residenz – effectively the palace of the elector August the Strong (apocryphally he can snap a horse shoe by his brute strength). He was strong, but probably not in this sense. His art collection – or treasures – illustrate just what constituted his ego. There is no question that most of the objects in the galleries are exquisite. I simply cannot imagine how most of them were decorated. Some of them were linked to what was probably 17th Century high technology such as clocks. The example on the left is a roll-ball clock. The ball is rock crystal and it rolls down the tower. It takes exactly one minute. Inside, seemingly, another ball is raised “emporgehoben” (whatever that is supposed to mean in reality) which moves on the minute hand. Saturn then strikes a bell, and twice a day the musicians raised their wind instruments and an organ played a melody. It is an extraordinary piece; but somehow I prefer time keeping to be a little simpler, at least in its reporting.

Ivory galleon
Ivory carved frigate, 1620

The jewels are one thing, the ivory is quite another. I have to say I’ve never seen so much carved ivory in one place. It is quite sickening. The carving is amazing, however. Take this frigate (right). I do not know how many elephants died for this piece, but everything apart from one feature is obscene. It dates from 1620 and bears the signature of Jacob Zeller. Of course the frigate is supported by the carved figure of Neptune. The sails are not ivory, nor the strings. But there 50 or so small human figures climbing those ropes. They are extraordinary.

Ivory carved elephant

There is an ivory clock to rival the jewelled example above. But quite the most sickening is to carve an elephant from ivory (left). There’s a receipt for its purchase in 1731. It is actually four perfume bottles hidden the castle turrets. What gets me particularly is the failure of the gallery to say anything about the exploitation of nature. These are simply curated as exquisite objects of great value.

figure and coral

It was not only elephants from the natural world that were exploited. Here is something I absolutely did not know, coral was a material for artists and treasures in this period. The bizarre figure on the right is seemingly a drinking vessel in the shape of the nymph Daphne who metamorphosised into a tree (coral) to escape Apollo’s “harassment”. It is not just one piece, there’s lots of it in this gallery. Not a word about how the coral was gathered and where from.

But there’s more. There are some deeply troubling figures of black people. I am not going to upload the photos of a sedan chair occupied by an ivory Venus and carried by “Hottentots”. Venus is attributed to court sculptor Balthasar Permoser (1738 or so) and the figures to court jeweller Gottfried Döring.

I left this gallery feeling troubled and dissatisfied with the curation. They must do better.

Kneeling Figure
Nazi degenerate art

The Albertinum is another gallery in the historic centre of Dresden. There is some interesting stuff here. Sculpture is not usually my thing, but it has a number of examples of art that was deemed by the Nazis as “degenerate”. For example, Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s “Kneeling Woman” (1911, left) which is quite extraordinary, but obviously too extraordinary for the Nazis. Then oddly there is a piece by Barbara Hepworth, Ascending form Gloria, 1958). Odder still is a decorated wooden crate ascribed to Jean-Michel Basquiat (I am probably wrongly describing it). There are a couple of contrasting pieces by Tony Cragg – a wooden abstract sculpture and a cube made up of compressed rectangular objects ranging from lever-arch files to old VHS video players.

Kirschner's street scene

The upper floors are full of fine art. Again, keeping to the theme of degeneracy, climate and perhaps art that captures some of the potential consequences of unchecked warming, I start with Ernst Ludwig Kirschner’s Street Scene with Hairdresser Salon (Straβenbild vor dem Friseurladen, 1926). Kirschner was part of a group of artists known as the Brücke Group. Like many art movements the members were all against “old establishment forces” and following artistic rules. The bright colouring is an example. So shocking were the paintings that they could not be purchased by the City. Eventually, they became accepted and acceptable, only to find them labelled as degenerate in 1937.

Holstein Mill
Holsteiner Mühe

What was not degenerate was Hermann Carmiencke’s Holsteiner Mühe (1836, Holstein Mill). I choose this because water was a natural source of sustainable motive power. The steam engine was arguably introduced to break the collective power of labour and because the water resource ultimately could not be shared by the direct owners of capital.

Finally from the Albertinum I selected Wilhelm Lachnit’s Der Tod von Dresden (1945, The Death of Dresden). It is, of course, a reflection on the human suffering arising from the second-world war. The climate crisis will bring its own deprivations and a fight for resources. We will see these times again, I fear.

Semper Opera
Semper Oper, Dresden

A quick word on Dresden. The historic centre was essentially rebuilt from 1985. Many of the historic buildings were left as shells and rebuilt using plans and authentic materials. It was an exceptional achievement and good on the eye; the Semper Opera House, for example (above left). But this is not a city preparing for rising temperatures. Whilst there are green spaces, this central area is totally devoid of natural shade. The new centre around the railway station is largely concrete-based retail. Could be anywhere.

Menzel's Berlin-Potsdam railway
Adolph Menzel, Berlin-Potsdamer Eisenhahn

Meanwhile in Berlin, we visited the Nationalgalerie. I was taken by the work of Adolph Menzel. He obviously earned his money painting portraits of rich men, but he also had much to say about contemporary issues of the time – the mid 19th century. He is, by definition, a contemporary of Turner. And Menzel’s picture Die Berlin-Potsdamer Eisenbahn (1847) has some similarity to Turner’s Rain Steam and Speed which dates from 1844.

Flax spinners

Menzel also painted a number of factory scenes – Flax Spinners, dangerous women’s work. The only safety equipment is clogs on their feet.

Flute Concert

Contrast this image with that of his painting Flötenkonzert Friedrichs des Groβen in Sanssouci (1850-52). This depicts Frederick the Great playing the flute with a small ensemble and aristocratic audience. It takes place in a grand setting. At night with candles galore as illumination (expensive, if nothing else). It is incongruous. Those flax spinners will not be consuming high art at this hour, for sure.

Constant Troyon’s Holzfäller, 1965

The industrial revolution and the ruling (plutocratic) elite play their distinct roles in the journey to the current climate crisis. Images of trees being cut down are visual reminders of how the natural environment is the source of all exploitable resources. Constant Troyon’s painting Holzfäller (1865, Woodcutter) is a great illustration of this. Though I am sure this is not the actual meaning of the painting. Trees were, of course, felled well before the arrival of the industrial revolution for shelter, housing and agriculture. What is significant is how the deployment of technology turned it into a truly industrial process. Watch how trees are harvested in modern times as though they are bowling pins, to understand how the pace of destruction has increased.

There is one other theme here, to share. And that is “otherness”. Mihály Munkácsy’s 1873 painting Zigeunerlager (Gypsy Camp, right) expresses it well and nicely contrasts with Menzel’s Woodcutter (I note and am aware that both Zigeuner and Gypsy are pejorative terms. The Nazis, we remember, committed genocide against this group. Hence the word Zigeunerlager is particularly troubling. The correct term is Der Roma). That very same landscape lost to the axe is potentially a place of refuge for nomadic people. These are people who are seen as being rootless (and stateless), where in actual fact probably the opposite is true.

Summer 2022: the €9 ticket holiday – 1


There is a certain normality currently as I sit on ICE928 heading to Frankfurt and then Brussels. What is not normal is that the trains are running to time and my Eurostar connection is within reach. This is not normal!

Me waiting at Frankfurt (Oder)

Nor is a holiday facilitated by train journeys courtesy of the €9 ticket. This ticket has been available since June 2022 and allows unlimited travel on regional services, buses, U-Bahn and trams. It is wonderful and has taken us from one end of the country to the other. The DB Navigator app is the essential companion. The downside is that sometimes the demand generated by the €9 ticket has not been met by DB or the private rail operators. It has been difficult to board trains, let alone get a seat. But on the whole, trains have been on time and reliable. And people have been polite. On the whole.

So, we wanted to go to the Baltic coast. We also wanted to go into Poland to visit a place in Eastern Poland called Elbląg – the birthplace of my beloved’s mother and trace the movement of the whole family seeking to avoid a confrontation with the Red Army as it pushed back the Nazis and established what we now refer to as the “Eastern Bloc”.

We made it to Berlin on one day and then visited the Reisezentrum in Berlin Hauptbahnhof to book tickets to Elbląg. There were two substantive problems. First, demand for trains in Poland is high. It’s the summer and “walk-on” is not always possible. Second, as others have noted, booking trains – or even just getting tickets for cross-border services – is thwarted by insufficiently integrated IT systems. Or just insufficient systems. Buying tickets online or through an app is not easy. We did not try it. We used the Deutshe Bahn Navigator to provide times, as well as Koleo. Since looking more deeply into this, I have found another online option, Polish Trains, though I have no way of validating this site. (as buying tickets online or through an app in Poland is not easy).

Oder – the border between Germany and Poland

We delayed our journey by a day and bought tickets as far as Zbasznek via Frankfurt an der Oder and Rzepin. We thought that buying a ticket at Rzepin should be straightforward, but there is always something about border towns. The stations are often either not open or simply building sites. The towns themselves may be a good walk away. It was difficult to find a café, or a bank as we needed some cash (Poland is not in the Eurozone). We did find a bank and the bank machines dispensed cash, though in unwieldy-denominated notes. Most shops do have card payments, but I dare not look at how much it costs per transaction.

Ticket machine at Rzepin – not in the most obvious spot

We managed to buy a ticket using the machine (right) to Poznan. We stayed overnight and carried on the following day, but not without a 90-minute wait in the queue at the station ticket office. In the end we took regional trains from Posnan to Elbląg (via Bydgoszcz, Tczew and Malbork). For the return journey we did book ahead and got a seat on the direct InterCity service Elbląg to Szczecin. Another overnight stay and another ticket purchase problem. I asked the conductor on a Germany-bound train whether we could buy tickets on board (as there was another long queue at the ticket office and the two auto ticket machines were out of order). She basically said no, but as we discovered the following day, it is possible, but at a greatly inflated price. It was about €20 to get to Pasewalk (below left) – advanced purchased more like €2. By the morning the ticket machines were again functioning, but unable to sell tickets across the border. Though you have to go through the motions to discover this. The touch screens assume you have a paw rather than a finger, so it is easy to mess up and have to start again.

The semi-derelict station at Pasewalk – fantastic font though

I am learning something about border crossings. We crossed the German/Polish borders at two different locations (hin und zurück). Both services were operated by Deutsche Bahn – both were diesel traction and made up of two coaches. It is very similar to what I experienced in recent times crossing the border between Germany and Belgium. Welkenraedt, for example, is not an obvious place to cross from Aachen (Liège, surely?). But the border history of European countries cannot be ignored. They are located where checks could be made, identities validated.

Polish railways are quirky like in most countries. This is partly due to the EU which requires a split between infrastructure and operation, and partly to facilitate operational efficiencies – essentially separating longer-distance Inter City services from regional services and freight. To that end, in Poland the Inter City services are run by PKP (Polskie Koleje Państwowe) centrally and the regional services, (Przewozy Regionalne) are just that, regional and managed so. Additionally the Gdansk areas has its own brand, (SKM). There is no inter-operability between PolRegio and Inter City. Over many routes they compete with one another. Though those aforementioned auto ticket machines can dispense both.

InterCity train services, Poland

The Inter City services are fantastic. They run using refurbished rolling stock manufactured in the 1980s (the plates in each corridor specify exactly when they were built. The locomotives seem to be of more recent vintage. They are not high speed. They have many timing points. But they do seem to be reliable. Many have European power sockets, but no wifi. That is for East to West. North to South has some impressive new Pendolino trains but seemingly they run fast not so often as, again, the infrastructure cannot support it. That said, I saw lots of evidence of infrastructure renewal using equipment from Alstom and Bombardier.

The units used for regional services seem to be more modern, with a few exceptions – Malbork to Elbląg being a case in point.

The PKP (right) logo is interesting. It has a period design and the obligatory arrows associated with mobility – and railway mobility in particular.

Naturally, the younger company, PolRegio has a much more modern appearance and a bit more of primary colour. The livery of the trains reflects this, too. Though exactly what it is supposed to say, I’ve no idea. PolRegio seems to be enough. But what do I know about design?

Elblag tram
Elbląg tram

Most of the cities that we have visited have street trams. Elbląg, not a huge place, has a complex network of trams. Some of them are dated – rustbuckets, even (left). They run – in certain parts of the city over beautifully grassed avenues. They are a delight (we did not ride the trams, but they sat with me as characterful as the art – see blog entry 2).

Reflections on “The Pie at Night” by Stuart Maconie

It was at least three years’ ago that a colleague lent me this book, knowing full well that I am a regular listener to Maconie’s radio programme, the Freak Zone, on BBC Radio 6 Music. I have finally read it and have some thoughts on its content. Maconie is the same generation as I am and the cultural references are meaningful in a way they would not be for younger people and indeed people not from the North of England.

In the book Maconie discusses – effectively – the leisure pursuits of northerners – music, art, education, museums, fun fairs, eating, walking/countryside, sport/football/speedway/betting. Let me start with music. His Freak Zone show is sometimes inaccessible – or unlistenable. He says of the show’s playlists “[I like what] some people might call ‘weird shit'”. He also likes “well-crafted pop” such as Chic, Abba, disco and Tamla Mowtown. “What I do not like is the stuff in between: middle of the road rock, landfill indie, earnest singer songwriters, self-important rock stars who think they are old bluesmen or great poets, stadium rock bands, divas, legends, anyone who has got to the stage in their career when they now wear a hat thinking it makes them interesting, all the stuff that ends up in those rock critics’ list of the 100 Greatest Albums.” I love some of the phraseology without actually knowing exactly what it means. Landfill indie – I sense I could be partial to a bit of that. Earnest singer-songwriters…I have often struggled with this genre; not least because I wish music changed things, but it does not. Earnest, but fruitless. Anyway, does he mean Bob Dylan (who also wears a hat)? The rock critics’ top 100 albums…as he is a former rock critic, I defer to him on that. Interestingly he then admits to his dislike of opera. He has tried, he says. And then he tries again with Opera North and a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. I have seen some opera at the BBC proms and a little bit in Munich. I have also seen some Gilbert and Sullivan at the English National Opera. A hoot, but I am not sure it is really opera. I will never admit to it being a favourite genre, or anywhere close. It is potentially captivating. One problem is that I’m not so interested these days in stories. I stopped going to the cinema about 10 years’ ago. I just cannot cope any more with people getting hurt. An opera without betrayal and the odd stabbing is not really opera. I know most of it is not real, but even an edition of “Yes Minister” makes me feel bad.

On fun fairs and the places that host them such as Blackpool, I am reassured that people have always gone there to escape from their day-to-day lives (work is illustrated throughout the book from mills to mines). With a fun fair and “white knuckle rides”, the sheer terror is guaranteed to focus the mind – I’ve never been a great fan of such rides. The best I have been able to manage is the Waltzers. The side-shows, too, serve that purpose. I can still remember as a kid shaking hands with the “tallest man in the world”. He did have large hands. On the basis of this chapter, I am going to give Blackpool a pass.

His football chapter takes readers to Rochdale – the club that has never won anything – and FC United, a club that resulted from Manchester United fans who could not endorse the take-over of the club by the Glaziers. They did what was unthinkable for most fans – leave the club (relinquish the season ticket) and set up a new one that would start at the bottom of the most amateur of the amateur leagues. But FC United is a club with ambition – and now its own ground, Broadhurst Park.

Maconie – against a Lancastrian’s better judgment – visits my home town of Hull to go on the Larkin trail, named after the city’s adopted poet and librarian to Hull University’s students. When I lived in the city (from birth until I was 23), we had absolutely nothing to do with the University. I am not even sure that I knew who Larkin was. Or a library for that matter. We lived in the East. The University was in the West and across the river. And for others. So I now know that Larkin enjoyed an occasional drink in Ye Olde Black Boy pub. I confirm it is a dark cave. It is where I used to hold the animal rights meetings until we moved into the much-more welcoming Blue Bell (for animal rights people, that is). Larkin also enjoyed, seemingly, cycling out of the city to places like Broomfleet (Humber flood plain) in the West and the Holderness peninsular in the East. Both as flat as anything. Both always foggy and mysterious. Both offered silence – until my first (and only) Siouxsie and the Banshees gig at the City Hall that gave me tinnitus which remains to this day. Maconie concludes that “I like Hull a lot”.

Maconie is perhaps at his best when taking on the leisure activities that good Methodists like me would never contemplate. For example, where can one bet on crown green bowling? There’s one place, Westhoughton. Through a shabby green door on Wigan Road in the town is “the home of professional crown green bowling”. Inside, everyone knows everyone else – outsiders are easy to spot. The betting is not with bookmakers like at the races, but between punters. They square up at the end of the day having made their bets using a language that needs learning. But if you want to see the world’s best CGB player, Brian Duncan, play, this is where you come. If you dare.

A lot of the north is “if you dare”. I’ve been away for a while and going back can feel alien. I do recall being singled out one time as an outsider, so much must my accent have changed. I said I was born-and-bred. But perhaps leaving was a betrayal. Hull City is my football team. It was not when I lived there. I may be a citizen of nowhere now. Or at least in my head, a world citizen.

European travel by train, post-Covid

Köln Dom

Since leaving planes behind pre-Covid, I have been travelling by train regularly between London and Munich. It can be a very stressful journey because connections are invariably missed. Deutsche Bahn is not having a good time at the moment. For example, whilst writing this, I am writing this on a train that has picked up a technical fault and goes no further than Köln (it should be going to Brussels).

I cannot remember the last time that I had a trouble-free journey. There is always a problem. Here are the most common:

  • technical fault on train (the train does not arrive, or it does and gets cancelled on the spot)
  • detour to avoid damaged overhead lines and failed points
  • failed AirCon (whole coaches closed)
  • bad weather (which now increasingly means hot weather)

So, going out from the south coast of England a couple of weeks ago (midweek), my first leg was delayed (Hastings to Ashford, 0615). I took a slower train to London (0620), changing at London Bridge. I reached the Eurostar terminal (St Pancras Int) with 5 minutes to spare (before the check-in closed at 0830). Important here is just to go to the front of the queue and ask to get straight to the gates and through security.

I usually give myself a lot of connecting time in Brussels (careful of thieves, they are active and I have had a bag stolen, use the cafes). Eurostar arrives in Brussels at around five-past the hour. Deutsche Bahn ICE usually leaves at 25 past the hour. It is according to The Man in Seat61 a recognised change. But 20 minutes is not long. I usually allow more for the next train (in my case 1425, Brussels – Frankfurt). Often this train is cancelled or starts at Liège. If the latter, there are plenty of trains to Liège. Take one. But if the former, travellers need to get to Aachen. This is not possible from Liège. If readers end up there, then the place to go is Welkenraedt. From there, it is possible to get across the border on a small local train to Aachen, and from Aachen to Köln and from there options are available to go south, east or north in Germany and beyond.

Where delays are involved, DB conductors do not care whether passengers are on their booked train or not. So, It is not necessary to ask in the Reisezentrum to validate a ticket (I used to do this), for general travel. Just get on. I do not print out my tickets these days. They are stored on the DB app, DB Navigator (right). The app records the journey and sends updates. Take screen grabs where cancellations occur (DB does take them from your app shortly after the cancellation notification, so it is good practice – readers may want to claim back money, too).

On the way back, I was booked on 0746 InterCity train Munich to Frankfurt (left). The app had warned me early of a 10-minute delay; the train was 40 minutes late leaving Munich after experiencing engineering works between Salzburg and Munich (though the app reported a technical fault on the train as the cause). I had given myself a 45 minute change time. The app allows users to specify how many minutes are preferred for changing – I set mine to at least 30 minutes, but increasingly that is not enough. On this first leg of my journey the app kept saying that the connection would be met in Frankfurt. And then not. And then once again possible (erreichbar). In the end it was 4 minutes. A bit of a run from platform 11 to 18 (the station is a dead end, so there are no stairs). It was all rather in vain. The ICE to Brussels developed a fault at Köln and went no further. I waited for the next scheduled train two hours’ later (having given myself this extra time in Brussels to accommodate such a failure). I squeezed on, only for the train to develop a fault at Aachen. So then it was back to Welkenraedt, this time with two ICE trainloads to be accommodated on a two coach electric train! The Belgian rail staff keep their distance. Not everyone got on. From Welkenraedt there is a direct train to Brussels Midi (Oostende service).

Now I did not think that I was going to be confronted by two failed ICEs in one day. At Köln I could have taken a regional service to Aachen, and from there to Welkenraedt. That would have given me time to get to Brussels. Though I held back because the immediate next Aachen train was itself cancelled. I chose to wait for the ICE. I should have thought that something might have gone wrong as my way out was plagued by two failed trains. But I edged my way forward. But Eurostar is a bottleneck. There is only one tunnel (and not enough trains).

To finish the story I arrived Brussels at 1900 (missing the Eurostar comfortably). On the train I used Booking.com to find a hotel in the vicinity of the station. The only meaningful option was Park Inn. Pretty standard. Been before. I also booked a Eurostar ticket for 0852 on Sunday morning. €200 – about double what I paid for the original ticket. Ultimately I was lucky to get a ticket as I had no seat options other than that allocated.

Advice –

  • keep a mobile phone charged/charging (use the power on DB trains – though do not forget an adapter)
  • ensure that you have roaming
  • always go forward – though decisions are tight. I am disappointed that I did not go for the Aachen-Welkenraedt option in the first instance. I would have made the Eurostar
  • always assume something will go wrong – ensure you have room on credit cards for unexpected payments (I heard some people on the train trying to book a hotel with insufficient credit).
  • I appreciate that is a bit of a privilege, but a bunk bed in a hostel in mid-summer in Brussels will cost €100. Sleeping in the station really is not recommended
  • always carry food and water.

I’ll work out how to claim back money for failed services and post again.

I’ve also got something to say about Germany’s €9 ticket. Great idea but comes with some systemic failures.

Book Review – Barnabas Calder, Architecture From Prehistory to Climate Emergency

Regular readers will know that I have much regard for the work of Andreas Malm. His book Fossil Capital was influential in my thinking about how to reframe my teaching of business strategy at my university. It tells the story of our addiction to fossil fuels. It posits the idea that it did not need to be so; the addiction arose primarily from the owners of capital using technology to outflank organised labour on the one hand, and competitors on the other. Organised labour was quite powerful in the British mill towns of the 18/19 Centuries because of the static nature or source of motive power – flowing rivers. Steam, generated by burning coal and heating water was so much more flexible and, what’s more, the owners could be confident the government would intervene to crush organised labour when called on. But equally, water was a shared resource and the owners proved themselves to be unable to agree how to share it.

Calder has made me think again in his extraordinary book (right). Calder is a historian of architecture, but very particular kind. In every building he sees energy. In the prehistory it is in the food that provides the energy to build shelter. In later periods of human advancement – particularly in respect of agricultural efficiency and yields – excesses meant that labour could be siphoned off by kings and emperors to build the great vanity projects of history such as the pyramids, the Parthenon, etc. With the advent of fossil fuels, not only was more labour displaceable from the land, but the building materials themselves were innovated as well as construction techniques. That bundle of stored energy found in coal and oil liberated architects, builders and clients. Later they were aided and abetted by information technologies that were able to do the calculations that legions of humans could not realistically handle (Calder offers the example of the challenge to realise Jørn Oberg Utzon’s vision for the Sydney Opera House and the pioneering work of Ove Arup crunching the necessary numbers).

The first part of the book examines culture, energy and architecture interesting pairings. Greeks and Persians; Rome and the Song Dynasty – different places, different times. Though he also uses this technique for the 20th Century in comparing New York and Chicago (chapter 9 – good value even if one does not read the rest of the book – difficult to keep Donald Trump out of the mind, however). In all cases through history, powerful men are deliberately trying to outdo one another. Rightly, we are constantly reminded about infrastructure, bridges, water supply and sewerage.

Photo: Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland – Teli, Pays de Dogon

What are some of the curiosities? I learned (always a good indicator of a worthwhile read) from prehistory, Dogon village houses (Mali, left) have low height forcing occupants to sit. This specifically prevents men from fighting one another. Uruk (in modern-day Iraq) is perhaps humanity’s first city. Not everyone worked the land and hence specialisms developed – bronze casting, currency and writing. The transformative agricultural technology was animal-drawn ploughs and, of course, irrigation. We are talking 5000 years ago. 2000 years ago, 172 men pulled crafted stones of 58 tonnes with a lone individual throwing water to keep down the friction. Though 200 tonnes was not unheard of as manageable by human strength – though the men needed to be fit and, crucially, well fed.

For the Parthenon, Calder tells us why the columns are not evenly spaced (of course, Doric order!), reveals that it bends upwards to the middle, there are other distortions too (entasis) and that these are a deliberate manifestation of intellectual debate and democracy prevalent in Athenian society.

Photo: by MM in it.wiki

I learned about opus incertum (random), Opus recitulatum (standard square bricks), opus latericium (like a brick wall – rectangular fired bricks that overlap, right). I did not know about Roman concrete and that the Pantheon’s dome is made of it and that it gets lighter as the dome extends so that the whole structure does not collapse. It is impressive, notes Calder, that it has survived 1900 years!

Not surprisingly, religious buildings feature highly in the prose. There is a chapter on mosques and some insights on the architecture of what is now Istanbul (the text is not limited to Istanbul, there is an extensive section on the Great Mosque of Damascus – the initiative of Caliph al-Walid I c705-15 and the mosque in Timbuktu c1320, the product of Mansa Musa’s great wealth as emperor of Mali). I have visited the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, as well as the near-adjacent Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque), a private enterprise that, on cost grounds, sourced materials much closer to home than the builders of its neighbour. For Christian buildings (notwithstanding the Hagia Sophia’s regular changes of denomination), Calder discusses the 13th Century cathedral in Bourges, so big that it breached the city walls and so tall it reached to what we would now identify as 10 storeys high. To the locals living in tiny dwellings shared with animals the internal cleanliness, order and light, Calder says, would have seemed astonishing. But Cathedral building was not immune to ego – the next one needed to be bigger: Notre Dame, Reims, Amiens and Beauvais (left) all bigger than the rest. Though there were limits, Beauvais repeatedly collapsed under its own weight.

Next on Calder’s list is the impact of plague on European civilisations. Bubonic plague devastated populations in the 5th and 6th centuries leading to reduced cultivation and construction. With no surplus, building returned to basics and bricks were no longer fired. The Black Death did wonders for pay rates and educational opportunities. There is room, too, for the Renaissance, the Vatican and the Reformation. These are gems for readers of this blog to explore without my help.

Source: Wikipedia; original source not specified

Into modern times, and into territory that is really Calder’s heartland, modernism and concrete. There is rightly an extensive review of the work and life of Le Corbusier (asa Edouard Jeanneret). His influences included Giacomo Matté-Trucco’s Lingotto factory (Fiat’s manufacturing plant in Turin with its roof racing track, right). Le Corbusier was quite a self-publicist, it seems like he sold more books about his architecture and the attendant vision for concrete, steel, glass and electricity), as he did design buildings. I certainly did not know how awful the buildings were to occupy. Concrete and glass enabled a very particular spacious and well-lit living and work spaces, but with no insulation and relatively poor heating, the houses had serious condensation problems. It is not surprising that one famous building – Villa Savoye – ended up as a barn after its occupant-family fled the Nazis. Nor was I aware that the beautiful Bauhaus building in Dessau was similarly afflicted by intense heat loss rendering it totally unsuitable for its use as a workshop. Le Corbusier is, however, celebrated for his Unitè d’Habitation in Marseille – a huge block of 337 flats with a row of shops half way up. It’s founding principles as a community with its roof garden for children is visionary and only possible because of new building materials and the fossil fuels that generate the energy to make cement from limestone and steel from iron ore (Calder gives us the figures to demonstrate their consumption). The Barbican in London was a later manifestation of this principle.

My own alma mater – the University of East Anglia – gets a mention for its Ziggurat-shaped student accommodation (which was my home for some of my university career) for its modular design and manufacture. Concrete remained in the 60s the building material of choice for the new inclusiveness captured in school and university buildings. It is true, the building I studied in was one continuous block of concrete. Magnificent it was, too.

And so to conclusions. Calder is clear, we need more renovation of failing properties. Demolition might be a viable business proposition using current measures, but the energy needed cannot be justified in a carbon-reducing world. Calder does not find too many exemplars. Even buildings like the Blomberg HQ in London falls far short of being sustainable. Calder introduces us to the Cork House in London. Built from cork as the name suggests. But its limitations are such that it cannot accommodate current and future needs for buildings.

On his own sustainability, Calder tells us early on that some of the buildings he writes about he has not actually visited, to do so would have been to make the carbon problem worse. This is a brave statement and one that sets a standard. Modern technology gives us unprecedented virtual access to so many cultural artefacts, sufficient to be a scholar and produce work of this quality. If your summer is short of reading, this is 20 GBPs well spent.

Book Review – Super Charge Me: Net Zero Faster by Eric Lonergan and Corinne Sawers

If you have a spare evening, buy this book and join the conversation between two wonderful dinner guests, Eric Lonergan and and Corinne Sawers. That said, I’m not sure that you’d get a word in edgeways, even if you wanted to. I suggest just listening and learning.

In the first instance, the format spooked me. It genuinely is written as a dialogue. The two conversationalists flesh out their arguments – they do not challenge one another, rather they develop one another’s points – or invite further development: “go on…” says Sawers, to avoid a cliff hanger. Unless one is paying absolute attention, it is not clear who is speaking, such is the mutual expertise revealed in the exchanges. The book can be read in one sitting.

This is not, be rest assured, one of those “I’ve read this so that you do not have to” reviews. I have been known to write these. Readers are invited into a conversation that needs full engagement (my copy has plenty of page markers for future reference, top left). In addition, if we are in luck, the shelf life of this book will be short. If we, our governments, and the global community more widely, make the transition, the book will have served its purpose and become a cherished museum exhibit.

I’ve reviewed some other books – Alice Bell’s wonderful, Our Biggest Experiment, for example – that reveal how we got to where we are. What we could have done; how we could have avoided the precipice that humanity has now perched itself upon. Those perspectives inevitably lead to despair and inaction. Lonergan and Sawers are future-oriented. There is little dwelling on the past. They discuss a bright future: one that is fair and safe. Readers do not even have to have that much knowledge about climate change because a couple of to-the-point sentences – to paraphrase Douglas Adams – “avoid all that mucking about in hyperspace” and gets readers up to speed. There is no time to waste. It is just better to start using the language of Super Charge Me straight away: appropriately-named EPICs (extreme positive incentives for change) and Mini Musks (those intractable problems – aviation and cement, for example).

What are EPICs? They are extreme because moderate does not change behaviour. They are positive because the behaviour change cuts carbon emissions. They incentivise (never think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives, says Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s long-standing business partner, p172). It is all about change. In particular, change that reduces carbon emissions.

But what are they in reality? I have been led astray, it seems. It has been known for me to advocate carbon taxes. My dirty vehicle is taxed – the vehicle licensing cost is high for that reason and it costs more for my on-street parking than for cleaner vehicles. But I still have it. The incentive to ditch is not sufficiently extreme. I’ve learnt recently, that keeping it is potentially better for the environment than buying a new electric vehicle, thanks to a recent BBC show, Sliced Bread. But this is the wrong thinking. I should not be replacing it, I should be using a substitute. I do not because there is no incentive provided by the relative price of that substitute. For example, to visit my family tomorrow using the train would cost me £153. Even with the high price of fuel, my dirty vehicle could do it for half that cost, and I could take two people and unlimited luggage (it is a van) with me. The substitute, if I read the authors right, needs the EPIC treatment by Government. It is their job to fix the relative price and provide the incentive to switch. More generally, it may need investment in infrastructure to do it (more trains/capacity), a change in work practices allowing slower and shared commutes or fewer and, ultimately, a change in the norms of behaviour – actually it is a bit passé to drive a dirty white van rather than take the train. What, no photovoltaics on your roof?! Etc.

These are obviously EPICs for individuals, but there are EPICs for states. EPICs are responsible for the collapse in the cost of solar/photovoltaics and wind power. My new favourites that are going straight into my curriculum are captured in the Green Bretton Woods and Green Trading Agreements. The institutions of the Bretton Woods post-war agreement include the IMF and the World Bank. In the context of the transition, Lonergan cheekily says that “I am not sure that the World Bank is up to the task” (p144), but credits the designers of the post-war economic system with bestowing upon the IMF a “magic power” that was apparently leveraged in the banking crisis of 2008 and more recently in the global response to Covid-19. This power is manifested in a “special drawing right” (SDR). Readers can discover the magic for themselves, but I would entirely concur with Lonergan that the designers of the Bretton Woods institutions covered all bases insightfully and provided utility well into the future.

Thanks also to the conversation, I now also know about Export Credit Agencies (they’d somehow passed me by). These agencies mitigate credit risk for banks lending to low-income countries. The authors argue that they can be repurposed towards carbon-reducing investments. They have served the fossil-fuel industry well in the past and can serve transition economies well, too, into the future.

The book also provides an strong argument for countering the “stranded assets” challenge. Stranded assets are long-lived assets that, if economies transition to net zero with haste, will lose their value and become redundant before their time. Shareholders will lose money. It is true, they will, but it is not really an argument against stranding them if it makes the difference between a liveable and non-liveable planet. Rather, the losers will be an energy elite who have made lots of money from the carbon economy in the past. Being an elite, they are so few in number and the impact overall is small. There is about $4 trillion locked up in fossil-related assets. A lot to us, but small in relation to overall assets in the global economy.

Be prepared to be (re)educated about how money is created, interest rates, why China is cleaner than it may seem, how to stop free-riding, leveraging state borrowing capability, why inflation is good (within reason), contingent carbon tax, sovereign wealth funds, border taxes and why activism is not futile. And trees.

An evening well spent. And no one noticed the food was vegan.

Ukrainian refugees

Regular readers know that I have been writing daily to my MP, Sally-Ann Hart (left), to raise the prospect of opening the UK border to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the warzone.

Ms Hart has now posted a message about all the measures taken by the government to support Ukraine both militarily and with sanctions. Whilst some of these are laudable, others are totally inadequate, particularly with respect to refugees – the focus of my emails in recent days. Here is an extract:

“Finally, and alongside the letter (below) that I was proud to add my name to as a signatory calling on Ministers to seek a flexible and pragmatic approach to those Ukrainians wishing to gain temporary refuge in the UK, I strongly welcome the humanitarian support package announced by the Home Secretary yesterday [1st March 2022]. With changes already announced that will allow an estimated one hundred thousand close family members of British nationals or other people in the UK to come here immediately, the Government has taken the laudable step of offering even more assistance. The Ukrainian Family Scheme will significantly expand the ability of British Nationals and people settled in the UK to bring family members to the country, extending eligibility to adult parents, grandparents, children over eighteen, siblings and all of their immediate family.
This Scheme is free and those joining family in the UK will be granted leave for an initial period of at least 12 months during which these individuals will be able to work and access public funds, and it will be compliment by the Home Office opening a Ukrainian Sponsorship Humanitarian Visa Offer too. This will provide a route to the UK for Ukrainians who do not have family ties here, and they will be matched with individuals, businesses, community organisations, and Local Authorities who are willing and able to act as a sponsor.”

I am pleased to see at the end of this statement that Ms Hart has put her name to a letter asking the Prime Minister to open the borders to Ukrainians. I take that as a positive. Ms Hart has been a firm supporter of government policy since the last election.

Full statement: https://www.sallyannhart.org.uk/campaigns/campaign-response-ukraine

There is a long way to go, though, with respect to dirty money in our economy and in the coffers of the Conservative Party.

War in Ukraine

I feel helpless in this situation. Though the British Government is responding as we might expect with an unserious politician at the helm.

I have decided to write to my MP, Sally Ann Hart (right), every day about the situation. Short, so the message is clear. Here are the first three:

Dear Ms Hart,

Once again your Government embarrasses us in the international arena. Notwithstanding the failure to clean up London and indeed your party, my current understanding that visa applications for Ukrainians are closed at a time when their country is being extinguished by a foreign power creates a new low bar.

25 February 2022

Your PM lit Downing Street in yellow and blue last night while blocking entry to our country to fleeing Ukrainian women and children. Is that virtue signalling or solidarity?

26 February 2022

I hope that you are enjoying your weekend. The sun was glorious yesterday, and it looks like we might have a repeat performance today. It is great to see the people of Hastings and beyond enjoying the promenade, and even ice cream. Fortunately, there are no bombs, missiles or tanks in evidence unlike in Ukraine. The people fleeing Putin’s war are not looking for a holiday, they are looking for sanctuary. Your government is blocking entry to refugees. Please remove visa restrictions and open the border.

27 February 2022

Dear Ms Hart,

This is my fourth missive, as you are probably aware. I have repeatedly asked for your government to open the border to Ukrainians, but it remains closed to all but a select few who are related to British nationals. This is not good enough. Brexit was supposed to be about agile decision making, but the EU seems to be able to make decisions much faster and incorporate the humanitarian need and current situation.

Please open the borders.

28 February 2022