Archive | July, 2015

Rotterdammerung

30 Jul

These days, I generally keep a journal when I travel in continental Europe. And maybe one day, I’ll write up all of the entries into a book. In the meantime, here’s a short reflection on my recent trip to Rotterdam.

I had been to the city several decades ago, and then, only for a few hours. The Harwich to Hoek van Holland ferry crossing is on my doorstep so I thought I’d take the opportunity to spend a few days in the Netherlands. Amsterdam versus Rotterdam, Ajax versus Feyernoord, Amstel versus Oranjeboom… the Netherlands’ two biggest cities have always been rivals. But why choose to visit the latter rather than the former, most people would probably ask? Ah, well, that’s the nature of the man, isn’t it? And there was investigation to be done.

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The train arriving to dispatch me to Rotterdam

14 Mei 1940. The Rotterdam Blitz. The historic centre of the city was destroyed entirely – a few miraculous survivals aside – in the course of one terrible day. Over 20,000 buildings flattened, the River Schie filled in with the rubble… And five grim years were to follow – the Holocaust, the Hunger, the harsh rule of the Nazis and their Dutch puppets, the NSB… I visited the Museum Rotterdam 40-45 NU. A humble institution, with few visitors or so it appeared, it was no bigger than a provincial museum. And that’s kind of fitting since all that was left of the great city by time the German bomber aircraft had finished with it could be accommodated within the walls of a small town. The story its displays tell is almost unbearably poignant. Later, I followed part of the Fire Boundary walk, marking out the area devastated on 14th May. Circular icons in the pavement, lit by LEDs, delineate the extent of the inferno.

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Sculpture outside the Museum Rotterdam 40-45 NU in Coolhaven

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Pavement symbols marking the Fire Boundary in Rotterdam

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Fire symbols beneath your feet – they glow red at night. This one is in Oude Binnenweg, which suffered catastrophic damage.

And so, Rotterdam was forced to reinvent itself. There were some, in the Delft School, who wished to rebuild the city in its previous incarnation, and evidence of this can be seen in many of the city’s streets. And then there were the modernists… Much of Rotterdam’s post-war architecture is spectacular. The city itself is vibrant. Smart shops and vast office buildings dominate the centrum, its streets bustling with people from every part of the globe, transported in shiny trams and speeding trains on the metro.

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Ultra-modern buildings in Rotterdam, including on the end there, “Paul’s Church”!

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The sight that greeted me as I walked out of Centraal Station

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Modernist iconography

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The Market Hall in Blaak, where a damn fine cup of coffee and pain au raisin may be taken

A few outlying areas escaped the destruction, most noticeably, in Delfshaven. It provides a direct conduit back to the pre-blitz city, a glimpse of how Rotterdam might have looked had it not been bombed. And it put me in mind of the display in the entrance of Museum 40-45. Alongside photographs of the shattered Dutch city are more recent images – Aleppo, Baghdad, Gaza… If hatred and the will to power are left unchecked, this could be any city. It could be mine. It could be yours.

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Near the Oude Sluis inn where your writer managed to order his de Konink in Dutch

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Back street in Delfshaven

I alluded to these events in my vast, unpublished war novel.

Five Englishmen, a Canadian and a Czech walked into a bar.  It was no laughing matter.  Tomorrow maybe or the day after, they’d be taking part in their first raid over enemy territory.  In the meantime, there was some serious drinking to be done.  It involved an element of what is sometimes called ‘Dutch courage’, though much good it had done the citizens of Rotterdam as the dive-bombers had been smashing their homes into brick-dust.  The odd glass or two of advokaat must have seemed scant consolation.

Tot ziens for now…

All text and images © PSR 2015

Revamp

19 Jul

So, after a couple of years of my blog looking exactly the same, I’ve had a bit of a revamp… I hope all three of my readers like it.

I’ve had a bit of fun with the randomised headers. They’re snaps from my travels, picture postcards from some of my favourite places, seven different countries in all. Refresh the page and a new one should appear – fiendish conjuring! Let me know if you recognise any of them. Here’s one of them in all of its glory.

Mystery destination...

Mystery destination… it’s in an eighth country

Happy summer hols!

The Library

16 Jul

Let it be known, I love libraries and always have done. I’m sitting in a library even now as I write this post. The area in which I grew up was culturally impoverished, to say the least. And so its libraries were like lighthouses, illuminating my voyages of discovery and imagination across the grey waters of dumbed down popular culture in 1970s Britain. The central library was an undistinguished modern building, from the outside, at least. Inside lay three storeys of well stocked bookshelves, a music-lending library, a lecture room (often given over to music appreciation) and a café. It was all very civilised and proved to be the saving of me. I loved that library. And now the institutions themselves need saving.

The library reading room in the town where I live now - ain't that something?

The library reading room in the town where I live now – ain’t that something?

Some years back, the neo-con local  authority in the county where I live tried to close all bar the biggest of its libraries. It spurned the borough council’s offer to run the ones in the county town and it was only community action that kept them open. Make no mistake, our libraries are under attack as never before. The phenomenal expansion of the internet and the arrival of e-books have caused some to question the continuing need for their existence. Politicians waging their austerity crusades are keen to commercialise or close them. After all, why would they wish to subsidise institutions brimming with ideas that might cause ordinary people to question their omniscience? Public spaces providing citizens with invaluable services for free must strike them as an archaic anomaly in a world where their corporate backers seek to monetise every aspect of our lives. Once the libraries have gone they’ll prove incredibly hard to bring back. And yet I believe that they remain the best marker of the worth a civilisation.

The writer at work, or not, as the case may be, since he's taking photos with his laptop instead of writing novels...

The writer at work, or not, as the case may be, since he’s taking photos with his laptop instead of writing novels…

One of my favourite of Borges’s tales is The Library of Babel, describing a library seemingly infinite in its dimensions. Borges knew all about libraries, of course, having worked as a librarian himself in Buenos Aires for many years. It’s tempting to read this tale as a prophetic metaphor for the internet, the means by which I’m communicating with you right now. Anyway, here’s a library-related extract from my unpublished novella (aren’t they all?) Norwegian Rock. Please close your eyes now if you’re a fan of genre fiction…

Until he’d worked in one, he’d imagined libraries to be the last havens of our literary heritage.  He’d envisaged himself presiding over a series of erudite and esoteric collections, assisting earnest scholars with their researches.  He hadn’t realised that he’d be helping out at a hostel for the homeless and insane.  And he’d been looking forward to discussing the great writers over morning coffee.  Again he’d been disappointed.  When his colleagues did consent to speak, it was to hold forth on television adaptations or bestsellers.  If ever libraries had served as citadels of culture then those days were long behind them.  So far as he could see, they were merely pandering to the tastes of simpletons and philistines.  His branch held racks packed with sleazy paperbacks, shelves stacked with horoscopes, even graphic novels, for heaven’s sake…  There appeared to be an entire section given over to footballers’ memoirs – the lives of men barely into their twenties, ghosted for them by shameless hacks.  Now had they been the work of Albert Camus, say, or Eric Cantona, it would’ve been a different matter…  Many of the books had been bowdlerised onto audio or video cassette, so that you might be spared the pain of having to read them at all.  It was as though the entire library had been re-stocked and categorised for the sake of semi-literate adolescents.  And yet in spite of all this, there wasn’t a solitary volume by Tove Jansson to be found there…

He was actively redressing the balance, though.  He’d become a one-man terrorist cell, a protozoan army fighting a rearguard action against the dumbing down of our cultural institutions.  And he took great delight in disposing of the trash in any way that he could.  Occasionally, he employed the direct method, taking an historical romance with him on his break then slipping it into the wheelie bin at the back of the library.  At other times, he would withdraw a detective novel on the pretext of its not having been borrowed or tear out a few pages from a spy thriller and declare it damaged stock.  With infinite subtlety, he’d been altering the balance between the good and bad in his local branch, and by extension, on a still smaller scale, across the national stock. 

All text and images © PSR 2015

Humbugs and Hullabaloo

11 Jul

Humbug. It implies that something is fraudulent. Its best known usage is by Ebenezer Scrooge, of course. “Bah! Humbug!”, he proclaimed, venting his opinion of the festive season in Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. And how misjudged and maligned his prescience has proved to be. Look at what’s become of our ancient Yuletide festival, hijacked by commerce and Christianity. All that fake bonhomie, “good will to all men!”, until January, anyway… Humbug indeed. It’s an old word for a modern malaise. Our political and big business masters pretend to have ordinary people’s interests at heart. It’s given new meaning to the terms electoral and corporate fraud.

By the by, I’ve never really got Dickens. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is the only one of his works that I’ve managed to finish reading. Most of my favourite writers are admirers, so I concede that I must be missing something. Big characters, ripping yarns, concern with social justice… those novels ought to be right up my street.

Wikipedia comes up with several competing sources for the origin of the word, Old Norse, Irish and Italian among them. And it has another meaning in English, denoting the traditional English peppermint-flavoured sweet… Apparently, there’s no connection between the two words.

“Mint humbugs” by Ka Faraq Gatri

So why this etymological enquiry? As I swept the hearth today, I came upon a little guest, who’d presumably come down via the chimney. And he provided me with an answer. I can reveal the origin of this meaning of the word, at least. None of the usual Internet sources will tell you. It’s the first one of its kind that I’ve seen. The Internet couldn’t even tell me what species it belongs to (so much for my entomological enquiries). So all answers will be gratefully received…

Yes, it’s a terrible photo, I know. He wouldn’t keep still, being keen to scuttle on his way. But the evidence, I suggest, is irrefutable.

This morning's visitor

This morning’s visitor

Yep, the same colours, the same shape… And like all larger beetles, I’ll warrant that he hums when he flies. It’s a barred humbug, for sure. That’s the colloquial name for the creature, no doubt, somewhere here in England.

I’m a big beetles fan and from time to time, they turn up in my writing. I’ll leave you with this.

His head was full of creatures. He could no longer see out of his right eye. Some kind of grub had woven the lashes of the upper and lower lids together and made itself a cocoon. His ears served as nests for hordes of shiny black beetles.  A caterpillar and a centipede had occupied his right and left nostrils respectively. His mouth hung permanently open and had become home to any number of creepy-crawlies. And most recently, a small brown bird had made a nest in his left armpit and laid six eggs there. The bird chirped a happy little song that cheered him up no end. So it seemed that he was a nature boy after all. Lawrence and Hardy, those comic colossi had claimed him for their own. It was another fine mess they’d gotten him into.

All text and images © PSR 2015 except ‘Mint humbugs’ © Ka Faraq Gatri – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

p.s., Life imitates art. For days I heard strange noises in my ear. And then this emerged… Ah, the origin of the word, earwig, but that’s a whole other story.

Another uninvited guest

Another uninvited guest