Archive for August, 2022|Monthly archive page

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.