Category Archives: culture

Cultural prejudice and booksellers’ responsibility

I’ve just returned from a trip to a bookshop in Gloucester. Browsing the history section, I noted that the shelves containing books on German history were dominated by books on the Second World War, the Nazis and the Holocaust. One of the very few books that had significant coverage of Germany before 1933 was itself a highly controversial account by A.J.P. Taylor notable for the extremes of opinion it contains. Moving to the section on Freemasonry, I noted the unusually large number (no doubt boosted by the success of The Da Vinci Code) of books there were dominated by books pandering to the Freemasonry-as-world-conspiracy mythology accompanied by dubious (by academic standards) pseudo-historical accounts of Freemasonry’s origins.

I moved on to the reference section in search of a Welsh dictionary to help me better understand the language of the neighbouring country, a language being taught in schools less than thirty miles from Gloucester, a language that is the descendant of the original British languages spoken throughout this island, long before English arrived and a language whose number of speakers is growing. No dictionary to be found, of course. Only a couple of Welsh course books among the huge array of Spanish, French, Italian….

The choices the shop’s management (or distant corporate HQ?) had made obviously reflect what they believe will sell; choices, one presumes, based on the perceived interests and prejudices of the local marketplace. What might that tell us then about the shop’s beliefs about the typical Gloucester book shopper when seeking information on these subjects? – that Germany has little history or culture of interest beyond the Nazi era – that Freemasonry is a sinister secret society bent on world domination or something equally dodgy – the indigenous language of England’s immediately neighbouring country doesn’t matter much.

A German musical coincidence

Last Friday K. and I went to a birthday party in Llanfoist, outside Abergavenny. The host had invited a recorder orchestra made up of mostly middle aged ladies from near Stuttgart who were performing in the area. They played some mediaeval-sounding numbers which were charming, but after the fourth one I went outside where little A. was complaining that she didn’t like it. Made me reflect on how the world would be if adults were as frank as children.

By chance, tonight, I’m singing barbershop songs with the Wye Valley Chorus to a group of Germans from Monmouth’s twin town in the Black Forest. I hope our performance we will be sehr gut.

Bow ties, cricket and close harmony

This month has been notable for singing. The Wye Valley Chorus, with whom I sing songs in the barbershop style took part in the Herefordshire Festival last week. We were pitted against one other choir in our class on Tuesday night, singing “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Yesterday” with camp actions and sentimental yearning respectively. Winning the class, as we eventually did, was less memorable for me than the vignette with which I was briefly presented shortly before our performance at the Hereford Cathedral School.

Having arrived at the wrong venue, we eventually turned up at the school and were ushered into an old fashioned gymnasium, about a hundred feet long, with high ceilings and windows with a pair of cricket nets at the far end. As we came in our rivals were changing, some standing bare-legged as they put on formal white shirts and bow ties. We did likewise, then started warming up by singing some old favourites as two of our number bowled cricket balls in the nets. At one point I stopped and pondered the scene: bare legged men in shirts and bow ties, a huddle of nervous men singing barbershop songs in an echoey (I know that’s not in the dictionary but you find an alternative) acoustic while others bowled overarm at non-existent batsmen.

Looking back on it I can better appreciate its mild absurdity. I’m beginning to think that Proust was right to suggest that we miss so much in everyday life that can intrigue, amuse and enlighten, if only we would take the trouble to look.

Save the Radio Four Theme

I’ve been quiet of late, not because nothing has happened to me but because none of the things that have happened to me have stirred me to put fingers to keyboard. Well, something has happened that has done the requisite stirring.

BBC Radio 4 is planning to stop playing their “UK Theme” at 5.30 am. This is an orchestral arrangement of traditional songs from the four nations of the UK that starts every day’s programming. Much loved by insomniacs and early risers, it has, for many, become a comforting and uplifting soundtrack to pre-dawn preparations for the day: the groping for the alarm clock’s snooze button, the bleary-eyed shambling into the bathroom and fumbled coffee making. Unashamedly old-fashioned, its stirring melodies manage to be both reasssuring and uplifting just when you need some reassurance and uplift – er, -ment.

So incensed is one listener, he has produced a web site with a petition to sign. Sign it and lobby your MP. Raise Hell!

Save the Radio Four Theme

Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi

As a surprise evening out to celebrate our eleventh wedding anniversary (it was in June!) K had booked us tickets for dinner and the concert at Wyastone last night. Wyastone is a stately home and HQ to a classical music recording company in the very pretty Wye Valley five minutes drive from Monmouth. It’s a sort of less elitist Glyndebourne (although that may be uncharitable). In the summer there are various classical concerts, before which you may picnic next to the river or eat dinner in a pavilion outside the concert hall, then go on to the concert itself. During the interval you stand outstide sipping your G&T and enjoy the splendour of the warm summer evening and the lush scenery of the Wye Valley.

Last night’s concert was given by the BBC National Chorus of Wales. The highlight was a rollicking performance of Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. Based on the the poems of itinerant mediaeval German monks preoccupied with boozing and sex, it starts and finishes with an ode to the goddess Fortune who rules the world. I bet the surfer in the Old Spice ad from the seventies (which used this particlar bit) wasn’t aware of that as he negotiated that huge wave to its pounding strains. I had sung in this work when at St. Lawrence College Junior School when I was about 9 years old. Lucky I couldn’t understand the words, in mediaeval Latin and old low German and which include passages such as:

Mea mecum ludit
mea me detrudit

Veni, domicella
cum gaudio
veni, veni, pulchra,
iam pereo.

My virginity
makes me frisky,
my simplicity
holds me back.
Come, my mistress,
with joy,
come, come, my pretty,
I am dying!

And no, I have not selected the rudest bit – there’s stronger stuff. No wonder our teachers were coy about the meaning of all that weird language we were singing so lustily.


I imagine that most of us don’t associate ladybirds with the middle of winter in these northern climes. However, perhaps someone can explain the following: One evening about a month ago I noticed a ladybird creeping up the wall next to the lamp on my bedside table. I thought it odd, as it was the middle of winter and besides, how did it get into the house when so few windows are opened?

Imagine my surprise when, earlier this week I saw a ladybird creeping around (the same one? I should have counted the spots – damn) in the same place. Is it a sign? If so what? Perhaps it is a sign that God/fate/providence/supreme being of your choice is fond of playing absurd jokes.

On the subject of cosmic jokes, I can’t help but squirm (in a mature and manly way – not a giggly girlish way) with anticipation at the release of the film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Now that Stephen Fry is on board (as the voice of the Guide) it is getting even more interesting. Pencil in the release date of 30th June.

Real meat, Spam and Jung

To continue yesterday’s food theme, I found The Real Meat Company after they got an airing on BBC2 last night. They offer meat which has been reared humanely and is properly hung and probably tastes a lot better. When I’m back in the earning way, I’m tempted to celebrate by ordering something nice from them.

Lycos Europe has launched a screensaver called “Make Love Not Spam” which sends traffic to the websites advertised in the junk email we all get. The idea is that the spammers’ bandwidth bills go up as the websites respond to the fake traffic. Yes, we all want to hit back at the spammers, but is it legal and does it only generate more bandwidth, slowing down the net for everyone?

If you are in a profound mood, Melvyn Bragg’s BBC Radio 4 series on the history of ideas was good this morning. It was about Jung, the famous and influential Swiss psychologist who had a famous spat with Freud. He rocked the psychoanalytical boat by suggesting that sex wasn’t behind absolutely everything and believed that the natural outcome of therapy was a spiritual worldview, contrasting with the Freudian perspective which saw a materialist/rationalist worldview as the ultimate outcome of successful psychotherapy. He also influenced some of the thinking behind the New Age movement and created a branch of psychotherapy, to the extent that if you meet a shrink at a party, your opening gambit can be “Are you a Jungian or a Freudian?” And did you know, he wrote a book on flying saucers? Oh yes.

Anyway, listen to the programme again here or download it in MP3 format and burn it to a CD for your in-car listening pleasure.

Heimat: Happiness is a TV series from your adolescence

I have been excitedly anticipating a DVD release for a year or two now and last week it finally happened. The Extended Edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King? The Director’s Cut of Donnie Darko? No. It’s actually a very long German television series from the 1980’s called Heimat.

Heimat was part of the furniture of my adolescent mind for several weeks and was a drama that followed the lives of a family in a small, rural town in Germany between the first and second World Wars. Pretty dry stuff, you might think. Well, it does take some effort to get into, but you soon become so attached to the characters that when the series ends you feel you have lost old friends. A beautifully crafted work of art, it looked good, with occasional use of black and white, as well as being well acted and scripted. Heimat gave us a thoughtful and moving insight into a rarely exposed culture and historical period. Its German perspective was a refreshing antidote to the usual British and American TV diet.

I actually signed up to a mailing list which attempted, a couple of years ago, to persuade Edgar Reitz, its director, to get it released on DVD. I monitored progress on the campaign and eventually it was announced that a DVD would be produced.

I remember my French teacher at Hampton School, a Sudetenland Jew who still bore a German concentration camp tattoo on his arm, telling me that he felt it to be the best thing he had ever seen on television in any genre; and he was not a man given to hyperbole. Did Heimat perhaps give me a sentimental disposition towards some aspects of German culture that would nurture a blossoming relationship with a certain German au pair I met in London only a few years later?

Anyway, after that sort of wait, you can imagine, then, that if someone doesn’t buy it for me as a Christmas present there will be petulant tantrums! Heavy hints have been dropped within K.’s earshot.

And yes, it does have subtitles.

Available on
Heimat (Slimline) [2007]
Update: May 2008

Apparently Heimat was highly regarded by Stanley Kubrick.