Category Archives: Society

Letter to a German politician

Dear Jens Spahn,
First let me apologies for writing to you in English. I fully understand your concerns regarding the use of English. In my defence I can only say that, as a 71 year old resident of Vienna I find that every time I attempt to speak German I am responded to in English. Even when I asked “Haben Sie Kohlsprossen” the response from the Gemüsehändler was, in English ” I think it is too early in the season”.

The problem, which, as a well educated German mother tongue speaker you have, is that you just don’t recognise the complexity of your native language. You also fail to realise that English is fundamentally a German dialect, as is Dutch and other derivatives including local forms where, in spoken form, all nouns take the masculine.

Languages are not prisons, they are a method of communication and the easier that is, the better for everybody. People adopt words which they find useful, hence the appearance of “Zeitgeist” and “Schadenfreude” in English. These German words are better than the English equivalent, shorter and more precise and so the language adapts and incorporates them.

I could write more and in fact have done so within my blog but may I close with this. It is not the strong which survive, but the most adaptable. That goes for languages just as with species.
ps. Why is so much of the worlds economy in the hands of the USA? One market, 350million people, one language. That is a great place to start a business.

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Memories of Wine

Last week we were in the UK and visited an old friend. 17 years ago, on the occasion of his 60th birthday, I had given him a bottle of quite expensive vintage port and this year, on the basis that we might not have another dinner together, he decided to drink it. Opening it was a struggle. Despite storage on its side, the cork had hardened and broke upon attempted extraction. This was not really a problem as we had a muslin filter to hand as part of the decanting process though it proved vexatious to my friend who had become somewhat irascible in his later years. On sampling the wine, I can say it was good, but how good, and what defines good in this context? Thinking about this cast me into a pool of wine reminiscence.

I can remember at some time in the late 1970’s, taking a woman to a well reputed restaurant and, in order to impress, ordering a bottle of expensive Pouilly Fuissé. Frankly it blew me away. My drinking habits had, until that time, been confined to the lower end of red wine spectrum with a penchant for those from the Rhone valley, though my wine drinking experience had been initiated by the Sunday consumption of a “cheap” white from communist Yugoslavia, from a region now know as Slovenia, the first region of that country to gain independence after the fall of communism in 1991. At that time I would have been about 20 years old, the price of a bottle was 11 UK shillings (55pence in today’s currency) and its name was Lutomer Riesling. 20 years later it went on to become the UK’s most popular wine though I suspect it was more to do with the price than the quality as was the case with its later rival, Blue Nunn , a semi sweet white wine from the Mosel region of Germany which has a very low alcohol content, a significant factor keeping the price low as the tax on wine was directly related to its alcoholic content.

As time passed my wine drinking became more diverse. For a time I favoured a Christian Brothers Zinfandel from Northern California which was reasonably priced in the local Safeways. Subsequently I discovered that an almost direct comparison of Californian wines with those from Chile gave the prize to Chile both in terms of quality and price. From this I learned the significance of phylloxera a disease affecting the vines of which Chile is free.

My earliest wine experience came in 1963 when I found myself in Hungary on a visit to a pen friend. At that time, Hungary was in the very tight grip of communists and there was little of excitement to be found. We went to a summer vacation spot on the South Eastern shore of Lake Balaton and there was introduced to wine made illegally in bathrooms. It was white, tasted pretty good to me, a mere novice, and got me drunk. At 17 years old, that was I that was required. Lake Balaton remains a significant wine producing area with excellent wines found particularly in the Tihany peninsular.

I remember a day, some time in the 1990’s when I found myself together with my friend Guy, in a “booze” warehouse in Calais, which was, (an probably still is) an essential stopover for UK citizens returning the UK from the continent, given that the importation of alcohol for personal consumption incurs no additional UK taxes. We were both attracted to a Fitou which I recall, was popular at that time and both bought a case. Upon sampling the next day, I had another “socks blown off” moment and immediately telephoned to Guy who answered with “have you tried the wine?” With both of us so enthused is became obligatory for one of us to immediately return to Calais and purchase all that was available. The task fell to Guy who set of immediately. Five hours later he called. It had all been sold. Actually Fitou comes from the Languedoc, a region of the South of France bordering the Pyrenees and running towards the Riviera. it was the target of a Roman Catholic Crusade against the heretics of the region which continued for over 100 years.

At some time in the 1990’s I again found myself in Hungary though this time I was staying at the Hilton Hotel. I had dinner with another Hungarian friend, Balazs, at a restaurant within the Budapest Castle area. Again, a truly memorable wine from within the country though the only memory I actually have is of saying to myself, “this red is great!”

And so it goes on. In Shanghai I met an Australian who was trying to launch a wine brand in partnership with an Aussi producer. I can’t remember the name, but I managed to drink a bottle so it must have been reasonable. During the early 1980’s I went annually to Munich and whilst there always visited a Swiss restaurant to drink a Swiss red of outstanding quality. Switzerland? Red? Outstanding Quality? Yes, all true, though again, of name or specific origin I have no memory.

One wine always sticks in my memory, Gewurztraminer, from the Alsace, that German speaking part of France. Tending to sweetness, it is, for me, the quintessential summer wine. I call it liquid sunshine.

Given my extensive, though amateur, wine drinking history it is perhaps no coincidence that I now find myself living in one of the most wine aware countries in the world, Austria, the son-in-law of a wine producer and brother in law of Leo, one of that country’s most famous wine makers. Austria is a very good example of bad things ultimately producing good results. In 1985 a lot of Austrian wine was found to be adulterated with a sweetener and as a result, 90% of the country’s exports were wiped out. With purity laws introduced and an emphasis on quality over volume, the result has been remarkable. I would venture that it is hard to find a bad Austrian wine and much is really excellent. This could well be a precedent for the situation in the USA where Donald Trump is so unpopular, it could well produce a backlash which will end the Republican dominance and in the EU where Brexit looks to be such a disaster for the UK that the rest of the EU will realise just how lucky they are to be in such a Union, despite the populist campaign against it.

My father-in-law produced about 5000 litres of annually, mostly of the Gruener Vietliner variety but with some Riesling also. As a member of the wine co-operative he sold the bulk to them retaining about 500 litres for family consumption. One day I was there with Leo, the real expert, and sampled his family production. Turning to my brother-in-law I said, “this is brilliant, how can it be so good?” He didn’t know but speculated that it was the comparatively slow and low temperature fermentation.  Another possible explanation lies in the position of the vineyards. Set in terraces below forests, the sun of summer is mitigated by the nightly decent of cool air from the trees. Not being an expert of course, I am unable to speculate.

On another occasion Leo offered me a red to try and asked me if I knew the provenance. I had the strongest feeling it was from New Zealand but declined to guess. It was from New Zealand and I lost a lot of brownie points for not saying it.

We drink wine almost every day, moderately, with food. With red meat or strong flavours is it always red, with chicken or fish, white. This is pretty conservative I will admit but it works for me. And the choice? Our every day red is the blend know as Flat Lake, produced by my brother in law (without his name) for one of Europe’s biggest chain of grocers. At €4.49 it is outstanding value. For a more upmarket experience we might take the other iterations of the brand though on those Sundays when I cook roast lamb in the traditional UK Sunday Lunch style, I will reach out to a French red which I purchase from a specialist local importer.

For white wines we push the boat out to €9.90 for a local Riesling though last week I had an interesting wine experience. My next door neighbour has a wine garden with 350 vines. The “heavy” work is undertaken by a local farmer whist my neighbour is responsible for pruning and harvesting, which is usually undertaken on a co-operative basis with friends of which I am occasionally one. The 2016 seems to have been particularly good not only in terms of quantity, 1050 litres, but also quality. It is an excellent Chardonnay vintage and one which I look forward to drinking.

So, what makes a great wine? One thing is clear. The difference between good and bad is readily apparent but to really get to grips with the shades of difference, blind tasting from a selection is vital. I discovered this one day when drinking Scotch. Looking into the cupboard I saw five different kinds and decided to do my own blind tasting test. The clear winner to me was Bell’s so, on the basis that year of production is of no consequence, it is my Scotch of choice. But of course the same thing does not apply to wine which, in comparison to Scotch, is subject to grape, soil, climate, producer and blend and, sorry to say, fashion. Todays “outstanding” can easily become tomorrow’s “indifferent” yet when I am at a restaurant I invariably leave it to the waiter to choose. Frankly I can drink almost anything but sometime the proffered wine is great, and all the better for it being a surprise. I like surprises!

Updating German

Once upon a time I jokingly said that if Germans spoke English they would take over the world. I now suspect that this may not be such a joke after all. With the UK out of the EU, there is little to challenge the German leadership of the block and as they increasingly embrace English as an (almost) gender neutral, easy to learn, language, the possibility that Europe can move forward towards a united continent, draws closer. Reasons for the rapid spread of this offshoot dialect of German, seasoned with French and Latin and spiced with words stolen from around the world may, at first, be difficult to understand. After all, we all have a mother tongue, absorbed along with mothers’ milk. Why do we need more? The answer is of course business, the driver of our lives and supplier of all the material things we hold dear. How much easier it is to do business with somebody you can actually speak to.

It is the relative ease with which a little bit of English can be learnt that gives it the edge over alternatives. You can go a long way with a little bit of English, not so German. And though Spanish might be equally easy to pick up, it doesn’t (apart from South American) have the global connections which English has developed over the past 200 years, first with the British Empire, then with the USA.

With eight years of teaching English in a German speaking country, let me predict the way both the German and English languages will change over the coming years. First, efficiency. It is clear that, for what ever reason, language changes are being driven by a desire to be efficient. The need now is to express ideas with precise words with clear meanings. As an example I give you zeitgeist. Count the syllables. There are two. Now look at the English translation and you get, yes its true, zeitgeist. Now if you ban this, clearly German, word from English you would need to write “spirit of the times”. Count the syllables and you get five. Zeitgeist is clearly more efficient. Similarly iceberg is more efficient than the English word for berg, mountain. The Titanic may have hit an ice mountain, but they called it an iceberg.

The second motivator for the “Anglicisation of German” is actually the size of the language. German has many compound words, words made by adding nouns together. For example, luftkissenboot. You don’t need to be an expert in German to figure out that this is a boat which kisses air or, in English, a hovercraft. So I would contend that English has more discrete words and as another example offer sicherheit, a German word which can mean either safety or security. In English they have separate meanings. Now of course, German speakers can understand the difference in meaning because they can compare the context in which it is used. Unfortunately, there is a whole industry based on context free words. I mean of course the advertising industry. Advertisers need to catch the audience with one or two words. They have no time for context. So German marketeers default to English for a snappy headline and, due to the spread of English pop songs, they are understood.

Yet the biggest problem which is hitting the German language, particularly in Austria, is its gender bias, and the struggle to overcome it. Formerly the word “Österreicher” meant Austrian people. The drive to eliminate gender bias now dictates that “Österreicher und Österreicherin” is used. Clearly this is a bit of a mouthful. We may yet come to a time when “Austrians” is adopted as the simplest solution!

PS, actually, the German word for kiss is küssen not kissen, kissen is a pillow. In my mind the hovercraft “air kisses” the sea but for Germans, the air is a pillow on which the hovercraft rests. As they say, “the devil is in the detail”!

Doomed to failure? Maybe not.

The vaguely liberal, vaguely centralist consensus under which we, in Europe, have lived for the past 70 years looks like coming to an end. The rise of so called “popularism” which is perhaps better termed, the rise of the ignorant, will see to it.

Increasingly I blame the internet – and I’m only half joking. The gift of anonymity has freed the population from any of the social restraints which once operated. Now, anything can be said anonymously which gives us look into the darkness which is, for many, the human soul. Just read any of the discussion comments on newspaper articles to see the venom and bile which seems to be the motivator. As liberal, socially conscious people, we are at a distinct disadvantage. We limit our actions through consideration and thought. The others have no such constraints. So obsessed with the “rightness” of their cause they would take any action, make any statement to further it. The Nazis didn’t burn down the Reichstag for fun, they did it as a means to an end, the end justified the means. For the charismatic confidence tricksters, the puppet masters of the new reality, the aim is power and in pursuit of that, any thing goes, and anything can be said. Their foot soldiers are the voters seeking simple solutions in a very complex world. The thoughtful and rational stand a good chance of being defeated.

On the bright side, it looks like Trump is willing to stand up to China. Their claim to the South China Sea is reminiscent of, again, Hitler. “our territorial ambitions extend no further than the Sudetenland”. And we all know where that ended.
And on the bright side again, I have, of late, been suffering from extreme tiredness. I had considered that it might be a sort of lassitude as precursor to death but last night I had a revelation. I think the problem is the statins I have been taking to reduce my blood fat levels. Checking the internet (yes, it is good for something) I find that, indeed, tiredness is a possible side effect. I feel better already! And so I say now, to borrow the famous lines of Winston Churchill,  “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”.

The truth is out there.

Holocaust, Superiority, Charisma and Political correctness.

Around Vienna one often finds brass plaques set in the pavement recording the names and dates of birth of citizens who ones lived there but we sent to extermination camps to die. In fact one such plaque is set before the building next door but one to where we live. There, incised into the metal is the name of one such victim, Ella Klein, initially sent to the Lodz Ghetto before final murder. Since my daughter’s name is Ella, my immediate reaction was to tell her about it and show her. On reflection I rejected the idea. At 10 years of age the enormity of the topic which the revelation was bound to open was, I considered, too much to contemplate. Closely following this, whilst clearing a book shelf, she picked up a book of photos of the seconella kleind world war and opened it on a picture of a 14 year Russian girl hanged by the invaders for insubordination. “How can this be?” she asked. I have no ready answer. Years before my daughter was born I asked a friend who had two young children how one could possibly explain the holocaust to them. He had no answer then and I have none now.
Yet the potential for such inhuman crimes is still present. Charism and the ability to enthuse an audience and set them on a destructive path can still be seen in many politicians. Finding an “enemy” from which to defend the nation is an all to common ploy on the path to power. And that of course is the purpose. To gain power is an end in itself and maintaining it at any cost, a price many seem willing to pay.
It is unfortunate to say the least that many see the Nazi cause of racial purity as a purely German matter. The problem of course is that many none Germans joined them and willingly participated in the crimes carried out. Britain and the USA were spared this and can proudly point to their record of fighting the good fight agains evil. Yet it s abundantly clear that given the right circumstances, almost anybody can fall prey to the poison of “superiority”. After all, there are many Israelis who espouse the racial superiority of God’s chosen people.
So called political correctness is the current attempt to put an end to such ideas.
We of the older generation often sneer at this seeing it as a rather pathetic attempt to stifle free speech and expression, viewing the classification of some crimes as worthy of extra punishment because they were motivated by hate as just semantics. We were brought up in a different time, when discrimination against any outside the group, whether Black, Irish or Paki was casually perpetrated and frequently the butt of jokes alongside mothers-in-law, women drivers, cripples and the mentally challenged. And looking at the news from the USA, the notion that “all men are created equal”, a founding tenet of the USA Declaration of Independence has, 240 years later still not quite gained traction.

A movie extra

I spent last Tuesday afternoon as an extra in a movie being made in Vienna and staring the British actress Juliette Stevenson. Actually it only involved standing about and looking at the memorial to Austria’s Jewish victims of the holocaust. Like many people I find the whole issue of the holocaust deeply moving but more so at the memorial. Man’s inhumanity to man is, at times, quite overpowering, as we see currently in Syria. Even more shocking was one view I heard expressed which was that the current refugee crisis should be stopped by shooting them on the border. Bad enough you might think, but made even worse by the proponent, a white male Canadian of long term residency in Austria. That the issue of this mass migration is contentious and deeply dividing is clear. Made even more so by the occasional acts of violence committed by the so called “refugeesgrid-cell-5092-1422446450-0”, of whom many are clearly economic migrants from countries which are not in conflict. The mass “gropings” which occurred in Germany over the New Year festival was bad enough, but even more disturbing was the little reported rape of a 10 year old boy at a swimming pool in Austria. Clearly in any population there are good and bad. In ones life one must have encountered a thief and or a violent criminal or even a murderer, but usually without knowing. Yet to advocate shootings on the border just beggars belief. A case of “failure to engage brain before speaking” I fear.

I don’t want to reveal the plot of the movie. Needless to say it concerns that an aspect of the holocaust, though on a very personal level. It’s title is “Let me go” and should be out later in the year.

What to do at Christmas

During the Christmas holidays I began the work of saving one of my best books by transforming it into a PDF and ebook. It is a rather mammoth task. The book in question, MOHAMMED by Maxim Robinson, is a biography of the prophet of Islam. The task involves ripping the pages from this old and faded paperback, scanning them, putting the output into character recognition software, pasting it into Word, making the many, very many corrections to the imperfect output then putting it into InDesign to compose it so that my finished pages begin and end just as the paperback does, this to ensure that the end notes coincide in both pdf and print copy.

You might well ask why I am bothering. The book may be out of print (a mammoth marketing failure following 9/11 I think) but it is still available, at high cost, as ex library copies on ebay. The reason is that the story of Mohammed is so remarkable that it deserves to be made accessible. Reading it and one can begin to understand both why and how Islam gained such a prominent position in the lives of its followers.

Perhaps one of the most striking things to come out of it is the profound similarities between Christianity and Islam, particularly in regard to the position of the poor, both emphasise charity. Striking also is the relationship between Jews and Arabs at the time the prophet was living.

I can’t say that it is an easy read, it is after all the work of a philosopher, but is is well worth the effort and a great aid to understanding the present and persistent conflict which the faith suffers from.

If you are interested in this project and would like so view part of the finished work, go here and see where I am up to with it. The first chapter, which is entitled ‘Introducing a World’ is available now.