MTV Cribs: Goethe

The extent to which I’ve read into Goethe’s oeuvre is really quite limited. I’ve covered about as much as an average German school pupil can be expected to in the course of their education; the early poems – Prometheus, Willkommen und Abschied, Ganymede etc. Through the uni seminar I’m attending I’ve also looked through Götz von Berlichingen, Clavigo and Stella, and of course the quintessential Romantic epistolary novel –Die Leiden des jungen Werther.

Faust, of the big titles, remains unopened. Apparently some of the settings are inspired by Goethe’s time in Leipzig as a law student; especially Auerbach’s Keller – a Bierhall and restaurant in the historic centre.

Goethe only spent a few of his formative years in Leipzig though. Most of his life he resided in Weimar -a town of huge cultural and historical significance for Germany in which, during the late 18th century, he, Schiller, Wieland and Herder congregated and shared ideas under the patronage of the proto-enlightened absolutist, Karl August, grand duke of Saxon-Weimar-Eisenach. Of course, Weimar also gives its name to the Weimar Republic – the liberal democracy in place in Germany from 1918 to 1933. During the Nazi dictatorship, Buchenwald concentration camp was situated in the outskirts.

The works that I’ve listed above don’t really belong to the artistic movement most strongly associated with the town – Weimar Classicism. After a period criticising French playwrights for sticking too closely to the dramatic rules laid down by the ancient Greeks and French architecture for being more imitation than innovation (instead holding up Shakespeare and the Gothic style as exemplary), Goethe went on a trip to Italy and began a lifelong obsession with antiquity. Each of these artistic ideologies can be evidenced in Weimar. There is a statue of Shakespeare in the Park an der Ilm, which is designed in an “English” style i.e. asymmetrically, as opposed to the French, and built around nature rather than in opposition; the town hall is a beautiful neogothic building which was constructed some years after Goethe’s death. Behind the Shakespeare statue is, however, evidence of a taste for the ancient – the ruins which serve as a backdrop are actually artificial, the stone taken from a burnt-down castle and reconfigured to give the appearance of a grand, mystical heritage. Most of the buildings in Weimar are very rectangular, elegant and mathematical, but there are some striking examples of architectural clashes, such as in the market square and surrounding area…

 

That said, there is a significant overlap and interplay between these styles and ideas – rather than exact opposites, they represent antithetical ideologies which can practically combine and feed into each other.

The most obvious manifestation of Goethe’s admiration for the classical world in Weimar is to be found inside his town house, which now exists adjacent to a museum of any and all aspects of the poet’s life. He amassed a considerable number of statues and busts in the renaissance style.IMG_20180609_151736059All the rooms are accessible, and there is barely a barrier in sight; that is, with the exception of the writing room, which cannot be entered, only viewed from the doorway.IMG_20180609_152712066

What I got from the day was not really an impression of the literary man Goethe, but rather the practical one, who exercised minute control over his life – designing his own staircase, for example, in the pre-lift age to require minimum strain to ascend (the steps are really long and shallow). I discovered Goethe the scientist who was not content with a mere “poetic” understanding of the world, who sought to further “natural philosophy” and who published several theories on colour, geology, botany and biology. Finally, I came to understand more about Goethe the politician, who in service to Duke Karl August became the equivalent of the prime minister, was in charge of fortifications and the university of Jena and got the aristocratic “von” added to his name in 1782.

IMG_20180609_145428292A full day walking around Weimar and trying to get my head around at least some of the culture that seems to radiate off every façade, statue and sculpture has left me conflicted about the figure who seemed so comfortably to inhabit the role of Germany’s national poet.

On the one hand, Goethe, the person, embodies many of the qualities I would admire in my idea of an artist. He did not, like some of the Romantics who came after try to set himself apart from the world and assume the position of the apolitical observer. In his work for the duke, he participated in and attempted to change the material world. He also saw no dichotomy between art and science, or at least believed that the two could and should feed into one another. This is an idea that ought to be more valued and promoted today in the face of Humanities and Sciences contemporary mutual disdain for the other group.

Despite this, Goethe seems to have allied himself with the aristocracy very closely in an age where the feudal system was far from uncontentious. This must have stifled him intellectually and prevented him from making a critique even if he privately wanted to. An example I found in the museum of this was when young students started convening in secret committees in order to sort out personal feuds non-violently i.e. without duelling. As a politician, Goethe condemned this more democratic method of settling disputes, but from his letters we can see he supported it. The Weimar group were also highly critical of the French Revolution, with Goethe opposing it even before the Terror, whereas Schiller expressed optimism up until this point.

It is in this capacity that I cannot help but compare him with our national poet, Burns. Whatever one might think about his longstanding kitschification, Burns as a figure is far easier for me to accept than the German. For me, you’re already fighting an uphill battle in terms of credibility if you are born into wealth, as Goethe was. He could have addressed this. Perhaps shunned honours and carved his own path, but instead he was happy to accept patronage and position and to furnish his house with ostentatious sculpture and paintings.

By contrast, Burns was born into a relatively poor farming family and when invited into aristocratic circles, declined opportunities for self-glorification. He tackled the inequalities of feudalism directly and championed democracy. Burns also supported the Revolution, which upset the noble connections he had made following the publication of his first volume.

I’ve also considered the Shakespeare comparison, with whom he’s more often measured against. Goethe has the significant disadvantage that we know so much more for definite about his life. Shakespeare can be all things to all because he is predominantly speaking through characters, there are no diaries and little information about his personal life that might shed light on his political allegiances. Perhaps though, it is unfair to judge the artist more than the art. In Goethe’s case, however, and particularly in the journals and poetry, the two are so closely linked that it becomes difficult to do so.

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Erfurt excursion – Berlin briefly – Leipzig living

I began writing this in transit on the way to the capital having missed the Flixbus and worked up quite a sweat in the process at the tail end of a week of consistently 20-degree weather. The switch to Deutsche Bahn was pricey (adequate punishment for not knowing the location of bus station with enough exactitude) but at least this puts pressure off my rather tight arrival time. I’m actually getting there earlier and alighting right at the rendezvous rather than having to faff around with the U-Bahn. Squinting to read the signage I see the train is bound for Hamburg, Altona – a throwback I wouldn’t have experienced had I taken the road as originally intended.

The day previous I’d visited another capital, this time of the federal state of Thüringen as part of a trip laid on for international students at Leipzig. Passing swathes of verdant East German countryside, the train came fleetingly to berth in Weimar – exciting in itself without even getting off – I must go there properly someday.

We arrived in yet another Willy Brandt Platz. There seems to be a surprising abundance of these in the former GDR for his being a Chancellor of West Germany from Lübeck. More bizarre still is a building housing a Sparkasse and café opposite the shopping centre displaying a sign in large white letters, which reads “Willy Brandt ans Fenster”. We are told that this used to be a hotel where a conference was held in 1970 between East and West. Citizens gathered in the square below to address Brandt directly. Their concerns were heard, so goes the popular version of the events, and this led to greater communication between families divided by the iron curtain.

The tour goes on. A more ideal day is inconceivable. We’re doused in sun, ice cream parlours are trading to capacity and beyond, brass bells of sousaphone and cornet throw glinting flashes into screwed-up eyes. I ask a French medical student (Geigespielerin) how her rehearsal for the uni orchestra went – a sheepish reply to the effect of “unsuccessfully” is followed by an awkward verbal blankness.

We’re wrapped in shade as the seconds tick slowly by, passing through a snaking close. As we turn around the final bend we erupt into light, revealing a gorgeous sandstone church – its roof endearingly askew. Out of the silence, a thought is forming simultaneously in two minds.

Rays beyellow beige stonework. The place is bustling with cafes whose territory is sprawling naturally outwards across the cobbles, separate establishments indistinct and these mutual encroachments unnoticed in this joy of an April day. Chatter swirls up and rebounds off terracotta tiles. Glasses are clinked under the shade of ample greenery beside opportunistically erected market stalls selling ceramics and other useless trinkets.

It’s a scene from le pays de la mére, the south specifically, although accordionless.

We climb to the summit of the highest hill. Atop it sits a fort built after the Thirty Years War (which I somehow appear to be studying at the moment) – completed in the 1660s, I ascertain from our tour guide, and constructed against the fear of Lutherans as a catholic island in a protestant sea belonging to the archbishop of Mainz (one of the seven electors of the Holy Roman Emperor). Below someone is strangling the bagpipes and, of course, as token Scot I’m asked to comment.

At the foot of the castle is Erfurt’s cathedral which houses some interesting sculpture and tapestries as well as the usual stained-glass windows and altarpieces.

After our quick dose of religion, it was time to head to the beer garden. Sitting there, stein in hand, soaking up the sun at a great long table surrounded by students all doing the same was really the picture I had in mind when I imagined my “Year Abroad in Germany”.

The idyllic situation could not last perpetually and the group split off to explore again after an hour or so. We stopped at a church where one of our number went to fill up his water bottle at a fountain just outside. Although there was no “kein Trinkwasser” sign to be found, the general consensus was that it looked a bit dodgy. Anyway, the detour gave me the chance to notice that there was a picture of a moustachioed figure carved into the plinth with the caption “Gustav Adolf” written underneath. Hmm, I thought, then cast my gaze above eye level. Ah, the cherry on top – a lion’s head. What’s a fountain dedicated to a Swedish king doing around here? Thirty Years War again – Der Löwe aus dem Norden – Gustavus Adolphus protected the Holy Roman Empire’s protestants from persecution in the mid-17th century.IMG_20180421_153120425

I began telling this story on the train to Berlin. It seems I’ve omitted the purpose of that journey and launched into another one.

Well, I was travelling to Berlin to attend the first event of a Scottish-German Connection event, coinciding with the opening of a Scottish Hub at the British embassy. We were gathered to collect ideas for a joint project between “young people” in the two countries/learn from each other in how to engage the youth in intercultural understanding. As you may infer from that rather vague sentence, there was quite a high buzzword density to wade through to arrive at some substance. Anyhow, it was good to be back in Berlin properly – the last time I’d been through was for a Mac Demarco concert. It was cool to be inside the British Embassy, meet some new people and get the chance to reunite with my UK-German Connection partner, Sina as well as Jule, who I also met in November.IMG_20180423_202111344

I’m loving being a student again. My courses range from Game of Thrones (name of the Thirty Years War seminar) to Goethe and literature of the GDR to linguistics of proto-Indo-Germanic. I’m pretty well settled in, but I’d like to push myself to get involved in more aspects of student life here outside of academic stuff. Next time I write I’ll have consigned our Plattdeutsch/Orcadian project to the past, with the evaluation seminar coming up soon, and I’ll probably be working quite intensely, having taken on quite a lot of credits out of interest. It seems that I have fewer contact hours in this semester abroad, but that I’m doing more courses, each with their own assessments, so it does add up. It’s hard, but not psychologically challenging like my teaching placement in Hamburg! Reading, research and time dedicated to both is really all I need to do well here. However, I want to do more than that, although part of me would be content with this alone. Tune in for the next update to find out if I succeed in this rather nebulous aim.

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German & the Neutral Language?

Since I last committed pen to paper with the intention of publishing a blog nearly a whole month of me living in the city of Leipzig has passed. Tomorrow my first lectures and seminars begin after what I have to say has been quite an extended settling-in period.

As mentioned in the previous post, my first three weeks were spent taking part in a language and orientation course during which some events were organised to facilitate us getting our bearings and experiencing some of the culture, alongside there being suggestions almost every night for possible evening’s entertainment. Of the former the Leipziger Buchmesse, which was a huge event for literature of all kinds including a mini comic-con for manga (fun fact: Leipzig is home to the largest goth gathering in Europe) and at which there were several panel discussions going on being filmed for various TV networks, and the opening and closing buffets were the highlights. The first was held in the Moritzbastei semi-subterranean student union, constructed as a fortification in the 16th century, partially destroyed in the Second World War and then reclaimed by students, among them Angela Merkel, in the 1970s.

For the evening activities my favourite would have to be the “Wir feiern Bach” concert at the Kunstkraftwerk in Plagwitz in honour of the composer’s 333rd birthday. The venue was this converted industrial warehouse lit variously in pink blue and green, with a massive winch descending from the ceiling and an iron staircase running up one wall to a lonely door at first-floor level – this was utilised in a call-and-response oboe piece from alternating between atop the steps and amongst the groundlings. We were placed right at the back and simultaneously had front row seats; the performances happened in all corners of the room and these included barber shop quartets, experimental jazz guitar and a local celebrity busker with a 10-euro flute (sounds horrific – it was, and made more so by his wearing of ear defenders to play a full three movement concerto!) as well as the expected choral and classical instrument ensembles. My only criticism would be the three-hour duration without an interval. Nevertheless, it was excellent value for money.

I’ll admit the introductory course really held your hand through the setting-up process of studying at German university and specifically Leipzig, but I think it has eased my anxieties about what tomorrow will bring to some degree. So far, I can say that I like the city’s vibe and, from what I’ve seen, the university culture seems pretty cool. Getting the vulgar out of the way; it’s much cheaper than Hamburg and Edinburgh, especially rent. People are quite relaxed and the Innenstadt has some beautiful public architecture; the library in particular is utterly gorgeous with its marble interior, abundant natural light and self-regulating blinds (which are admittedly unnerving the first time you notice them scroll up unprovoked). Around midday the Mensa opens for two hours and you can get a lot of food for very little money using your student ID as cashless payment – it’s highly efficient and very convenient as a system and makes me kind of despair that there’s not that culture among UK universities. To be frank, the food is far from gourmet, but it suffices and there are always plenty of options.

Ok, so you’re waxing lyrical about infrastructure; I think that’s really best left to concept albums from Kraftwerk and Public Service Broadcasting don’t you? What about the people you’ve met?

Ah yes, you might be surprised to hear that I have actually bumped into a few of those during the past month. Not always very good about talking about other people in this blog, it’s all a bit introspective as a literature student might say (wait what?)

Flatmates might be a good place to start. To save myself the trauma of going on the Wohnungssuche again, I reserved a place in a Studentenwohnheim – basically halls. This form of accommodation is actually pretty unpopular for German students, so their now being filled up with college students and people doing their Abitur (secondary school leaving qualification) – this applies to my two Mitbewohner who are from Uzbekistan and Syria respectively, the latter being a refugee of Palestinian heritage. They are both very friendly and helped me get my internet set up when I first moved in. I’ve also now got 5000 Uzbekistani som in my possession (traded at the extortionate rate of one pound sterling).

Yes, and then there are the Erasmus, or more accurately international, students as of yet existing in our own microcosm of blind leading blind, but this week released into the real world of Universität Leipzig. Italians make up the largest constituent of the group and there are quite a lot from China, add to this Korea, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, USA, France, South Africa, Brazil, Portugal for a flavour of some of the other nationalities, oh and there is a surprisingly large Manchester contingent.

Since moving here I’ve reassessed my relationship with the English language. Although I’m using German as an Alltagssprache of day-to-day business, we speak it in our flat even though none is a native speaker, I employ it when talking to other Erasmus students whose English isn’t as strong as an equaliser and of course in the presence of actual Germans, English does seem to be the default international language. On the one hand that’s incredibly practical and allows you to be the truest version of yourself in social situations, barring complex phraseology (from my time as a teaching assistant I’ve become more used to simplifying and repeating what I say in different words) and using too much of a regional inflection – which I suppose is a kind of betrayal but worth it to be understood, and after all, standard English is also my native language. It’s just sometimes I’m in a group of say six people and I look around and account for all the nationalities/languages and wonder why it should be that although only one or two of us are English native speakers, the conversation is in English. It seems unfair that this should be the case; my advantage is undeserved.

I’m grateful for having grown up where I did because it makes travel and contact with other nationalities incredibly easy, but I’ll also never have the experience of having to employ the dominant international language abroad as a lingua franca.

The effect here is kind of a neutralising one that makes English seem like a base-level language after David Hume (writing as a thoroughly Anglicised Scotsman during the Enlightenment) “the ENGLISH, of any people in the universe, have the least of a national character.” This is obviously not the case, but one can’t help but feel that in these situations. Another effect of English spoken as a language in common is that it feels as if everyone is sort of playing diluted, watered-down versions of themselves on this level playing field and I have this inherent upper hand. It makes English feel rather soulless and not the language of true feeling if that makes any sense at all.

At the beginning of this year I watched a German film called Toni Erdmann which I think sums up this idea quite well. The German class I’d been working with were going to be analysing this in school; something I think was a strange choice considering the film’s exceedingly bleak or very darkly comic tone, extended “love” (more accurately loveless) scene which culminates in the consumption of a semen-smeared cupcake and the film’s climactic final scenes hinging upon extensive nudity as a crucial plot point. This was not the choice of the school, I hasten to add, but the Hamburg education authority; the scenes were going to be cut but I don’t see how they could properly assess the piece without them – needless to say I changed by timetable (but not just because of that).

Anyway, the basic premise of the film is that a 60-something German’s 30-something daughter never has time to se him because she’s working for this multinational company in Romania which completely absorbs her and deals with most of its customers in English. In order to get back into the daughter’s life, her father poses as a client, Toni Erdmann – forcing her to interact with him in a business capacity.

Here the English language is presented in terms of the globalising, depersonalised and disingenuous means of communication. The interests of the Romanians are shoved aside and the daughter flatters and accommodates her business connections’ every whim in flawless English, whilst her British assistant helps arrange her professional life in noticeably fumbling German. It’s a fascinating multilingual film that is far from an easy watch but that really puts language into the spotlight as well as being a critique of global capitalism. Silence also plays a significant role with restrained use of soundtrack and minimal dialogue in the final scenes. German speakers will get more out of it, but I would thoroughly recommend regardless.

I realise this stirs up more questions than answers, but that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately! It’s probably too late for Esperanto and gone are the days of Latin as a neutral language (these are both very Eurocentric suggestions anyway). I’m not sure what the solution is, maybe there’s not even much of a problem. In any case I think it’s an interesting issue.

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Disgorging suspended cargo

Perhaps it begins rightly on a frozen Tuesday morning.

Bikeless, following the previous day’s abandonment to nature of my, on balance, trusty-enough hot pink-saddled steed in central Hamburg after failing to sell it to anybody, I board my usual number 14 HVV bus from Fleestedt, hoping to make it to Sinstorfer Kirchweg where I can pick up the 345 directly to Am Pavillon. Alas, the fates would not allow and I was trapped in an anxious crawl as the truth dawned incrementally that I’d be late on my penultimate day at IKG.

The last thing I wanted to do was phone the school. It would be an admission of defeat. Needlessly narrowing the possibility of a just-in-time appearance. Eventually I caved and broke the news of my tardy arrival. The receptionist of boundless pathos and empathy who took my call was one of two members of staff who gave me the warmest of hugs last Wednesday.

Luckily, I was only meant to be delivering one half of the lesson myself – I’d picked the 1935 Dylan Thomas poem, The hand that signed the paper – so it wasn’t a total disaster.

This paper theme continued in my last art lesson, where I struggled with origami. I then said goodbye to my 9. Klasse, who thanked me and asked me to say “frrrequent” again.

That night my mentor met me at the Ratsherrn brewery, Altes Mädchen on my suggestion.

Compensating for that morning’s mishap I arrived punctually. The place was heaving. No seats in sight. Massive. Noisy. I wanted to escape. But no. Stay with it, she’ll come soon. Breathe.

We sat at the bar. On my own I’d rather not. On my own I wouldn’t go to a bar. Well, at least not just to drink. If a band was on…

We talked of Leipzig, life, art and careers. There was something maybe a bit high stakes about the conversation; both of us knowing it would likely be the last real “chat”. Yet that catalysed as well as impeded and it probably stayed just those vital few steps back from the threshold of “oversharing”.

I’d liked to have talked longer, liked to have drunk more, but once again, and as I said previously, my time was cut off by reason of my relatively remote abode.

The Fleestedt running busses reduced in number through the week approaching midnight; my 14 stopped at Rustweg, two stops prior to the aforementioned. This made for a late-night couple of kilometres dash across snow-covered pavement to reach my flat, where I had to pack for tomorrow because I’d had to wait over an hour in the queue at the Bürgeramt to deregister that afternoon.

The next morning a deeply demoralising trudge to school where I had to lug my stuffed suitcase over a good layer of snow between bus stops ensued. I had my final meeting with the head teacher, who told me that the Leipzig dialect was “eine Katastrophe”, and then after distributing various gifts and having several heart-warming goodbye conversations I received a wee package myself – two books of German poetry (thanks guys).

As much as I enjoyed Hamburg, I was eager to get away. Perhaps if I had nicer accommodation or friendlier flatmates (i.e. ones who were willing to go beyond surface pleasantries) I would have stayed a couple of days longer. However, as it stood I had booked to leave that same afternoon on the Deutsche Bahn to Copenhagen.

Against the odds, I made it to Harburg on time but, perhaps predictably, my first connecting train was delayed, meaning I missed the most important one. Luckily the self-loathing part of my brain that was cursing me for being such an idiot also plays the role of the negative motivator of the practical part of my brain that wants to prove it wrong. So I set out for the ZOB (Zentraler Omnibusbahnhof) determined to make the 1530 Flixbus, which I was relieved to discover had a very similar journey time to the train.

After anxiously waiting in a slowly moving queue, I was finally taken at quarter past and following an embarrassing regurgitation of the contents of my rucksack to find the necessary passport, I held in my possession the all-important ticket.

Ah, I thought, “erwartet 1545”, as I read the display screen, at least I’ve got a bit of time to compose myself now before it arrives. 1600. 1615. 1630. Oh my god. 1645.

Finally all the cases are bundled on. I’m seated next to a guy from Kosovo whose headphones seem to let more sound out than actually reaches his ears (luckily his phone did eventually run out of charge). A very Danish-looking Dane who says he’s already been travelling for over 50 hours now from south America is doubtful we’ll make the ferry because of the delay. An older guy in the seat in front who’s from New Zealand, travelling through the old, tries to put things into perspective citing his 24-hour trip time over to Europe from the Antipodes. Great. And it’s minus seven with blizzards ahead.

Yet the common cause and the confinement bound us and after a scrupulous and lengthy border check, where one of our number, a German-speaking Syrian refugee on his way to pick up papers, and two others were detained by Danish police, we finally made it to Copenhagen at about 10.30pm.

Immediately I notice the difference on the local transport. The bus is pristinely clean after HVV’s gritty filth, its boarding system is very liberal after Hamburg’s strict etiquette and the journeys are all clocked electronically using chip cards tapped against glowing blue terminals throughout instead of the cursorily flashed paper passes of the Hansestadt. This check-in/check-out system is used across the whole country; both busses and trains.

I’ve gone Airbnb after vowing not to put myself through youth hostels again unnecessarily. Despite my more-than-two-hours delay, my host is exceedingly welcoming and gives me a plate of stew absolutely free!

I travel to Helsingør, or as readers of Hamlet might know it, Elsinore the next morning. Punishing temperatures persist. As the train pulls in the moat of Kronborg castle is frozen solid; gushing fountains disgorge a suspended cargo onto hard sheet surfaces. There are chunks of ice in the sea and boats are lodged into place. This all adds to the brutal isolation of the fortress where the action of Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark takes place. One can just imagine the claustrophobic intensity of living in such an outwardly austere encampment.IMG_20180301_104025662_HDR

To wrap up this blog post, which I feel is necessity because things are now moving quickly in my life, I saw some Viking longships in Roskilde, explored Copenhagen (its royal residencies and anarchist communes) and took a hop across the Øresund bridge to Sweden for a day. I then flew to Orkney for a brief visit where I met the Orcadian participants in the project I set up with my school in Hamburg and spent an afternoon in Egilsay, the site of St Magnus’s martyrdom. I sit typing this in Leipzig, where I arrived yesterday, after a balmy day of exploration. On Monday I start an orientation and language course before I begin my studies fully in April.

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Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Flett

Ah, Sunday. A fine day for reflection and calm, quiet contemplation. In Germany a brief respite from consumerism (also perhaps an inconvenience). Additionally, and purely coincidentally, you understand, optimal for the garnering of likes as the weekend’s accomplishments tie together and the anxious limbo between convalescence and the working week ahead begins to seep into the unoccupied psyche.

This Sunday, however, is unlike most in that it represents a threshold; a liminal phase as much as a stagnant in-between. It’s the last of Sundays I’ll be spending in Hamburg for the foreseeable. This one has been graced with that fluffy whiteness so prevalent this icy February and just as the sheets were beginning to break up and the burns to bubble afresh after their temperature induced stasis.

At present I’m getting another load of laundry in – a luxurious second of the week, owing to the fact I’m not going directly home in the couple of weeks’ gap I’ve got between my contract with the British council coming to an end and the beginning of the “summer” semester at the University of Leipzig. No, I’m off to Denmark, you see – Copenhagen to be precise, although I’ll be visiting other places too; hoping over the Øresund bridge to Sweden and doing a bit of a Hamlet pilgrimage to Elsinore (Helsingør). Ok, it’s a bit of an indulgence but it’s relatively easy on the Deutsche Bahn and I’d like to see something of Scandinavia in person, seeing as I heap on such praises in the abstract.

It’s busy in here (the laundrette I mean), and I’ve had to spend an idle half hour in a Turkish bakery because it seems an entire sports team’s strip was occupying all six drums! That reminds me, I must learn Turkish. No. Really, I’ve got to stop this dabbling and actually commit to mastery of one or two languages! Then again… It does seem like Turkish is a bridge between the European and Middle Eastern languages with its Latinate script and “logical” (or so I’m told) phonetics. It’s also even more agglutinative than German, meaning whole sentences can be condensed into one long word! How exciting. Anyway, I think it might be worth just having a look at seeing as the Turks are the largest minority in Germany (hmm…by that logic I should be learning Polish in Scotland).

Where was I? Yes. End of the British Council contract. Right. Reflection.

Looking back I’d have to say it’s been far from plain sailing. After a terrible start where I got defrauded (what a lovely word for such a horrible thing) on account of a flat that didn’t exist and was sent on a frantic and highly stressful Wohnungssuche, I managed to find a place that was technically over the Niedersachsen border. Transport times and removal from the city centre have, I would say, undoubtedly adversely affected my social life, but at least it came with the advantage of being close to my school – a mere 20-minute bike ride. Moreover, at least I was within an hour of the muckle toon, so on that score I was able to take advantage of the bigger and lesser acts visiting the Hansestadt from time to time.

Of course, having my bike stolen after two months was not much fun at all and I had to forgo seeing King Krule and Gurr on because of that, but at least I’ve had the experience of reporting a crime in German now!

On the subject of bands, on Wednesday night I attended probably the best gig I’ve been to since Mac Demarco in November; this being Jen Cloher at Nochtwache. In order to reach the venue I had to walk through on of the most obviously dodgy areas of the city I’d ever been in –  poorly lit and with so many open drug exchanges going on and police clearly actively investigating things on my exit. However, it was totally worth it. The support act Hachiku spent her childhood in Germany and subsequently moved to Australia, so she was able to warm up the crowd in their native language. She played completely solo, but used looping to create an impressively full, yet delicate and subtle sound. When the band took to the stage I couldn’t help but stare at the guitarist, who looked suspiciously like Courtney Barnett. Maybe Melbourne just breeds loads of women who look like that? Surely not. But right enough it was her, whose new single I’d just written about on the Monday! Amazing and completely unexpected.

Stay on topic. Stay on topic. Ok.

As for school life itself, I never really quite felt fully integrated into the staff team, but I suspect that is partly due to my own nature and a willing ignorance of certain group events i.e. the Christmas meal. That said, I did develop some good individual relationships with certain English teachers and indeed the Music teacher in whose lessons I had great fun during the second half of my placement. I particularly enjoyed teaching the younger kids about Burns Night on the 25 of January, which almost made up for the lack of haggis and irn bru. We sang ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’, which also happens to have a German version (‘Trotz Alledem’) that was used as an egalitarian anthem of the Völkerfrühling in 1848.

I think it did take me a long time to get into my stride though. Once things did fall into place, however, it led to some moments of real joy. Among the highlights have been: one of the pupils trying to read a verse of To A Mouse with a Scottish accent and rrreally rrrolling those Rs and then the subsequent realisation that my own accent had become something of an inside joke (they found my pronunciation of the word “frequent” hilarious when I was trying to explain the difference between it and regularly); the sarcastic banter I have with the older pupils; the paranoia I managed to induce with my 1984 Thought Police vs Party Members game and of course my beloved 6. Klasse who never fail to greet me in the corridor or Schulhof with an enthusiastic, “Hallo Mistah Flett!”

Outwith my compulsory work, I also set up an after school group through the UK-German Connection and ran a project facilitating contact with Orcadian pupils. This has honestly at times been the one thing that’s kept me going throughout my time here. Briefly, it was about cultural heritage at the regional level and how that can expand out beyond homogenous nation states, reaching across Europe – this idea being filtered through the lens of local language. If that at all piques your interest than please read more here.

Taking all in all, I think the experience has been beneficial; there has been a net gain. This has not come without frustration and struggle, however. The highs have been immense, but there’s certainly been a lot of drudgery to wade through in order to reach them. Overall, it’s confirmed that if I ever was to become a teacher, I’d put it off for a bit yet.

One of the main things I’ve had to grapple with during my time as a language assistant has been the need for respect. It is impossible to teach pupils anything if they do not first have respect for you. This can be quite a soul-destroying thing to learn from experience, but it is actually a very useful lesson. Those of you who know me can probably vouch for me when I say I’m not a particularly foreboding person to encounter. For me, I think this means I need put on a display of assuredness and expertise fairly early on when I start working with a class, otherwise they will just view me as another pupil who’s just as clueless as them.

Upwards and onwards, as they say though. I’m very much looking forward to becoming a student again next month and of course to experience a new part of the country. A visit to Wittenberg is far from “retrograde to [my] desire” after seeing the court of the Danish prince.

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On Orwell

I don’t know if you know or don’t know but I’m currently living and, ostensibly, working in Germany as part of my Year Abroad from the University of Edinburgh. Hence weird gushing praise of Burns, hence the invocation of glorious Viking ancestry, hence emotional responses to public infrastructure. I’m missing home, or well, I’m missing the feeling of deep-seated, innate connection to the banal minutiae of daily life. Its strange how one feels the irretractablity of one’s culture and upbringing when living with people whose frame of reference is just so slightly shifted.

I’m also missing low-stakes interaction. Just going for a coffee with someone spontaneously of an afternoon or having a pint or two to share minds over. Most conversations I have contain a purpose, an end goal with the object of reaching said endpoint in as short a time as possible. The scenario explained above cannot be obtained through Skype, where the objective is too direct and there is no room to gaze absentmindedly in contemplative silence, absorbing an atmosphere that continues to chatter regardless of your presence; the venue a third partner in the verbal exchange.

Anyway, one subject I turn inescapably towards to regain a reassuring foothold in life is literature. Ok, I know what you might say – literature should be shocking, outrageous and discomforting. Yes, I agree, but it can be both, and the type that helps me now is the former even if only affirming for “systemis[ing] the knowledge […] possessed already”, as Winston Smith remarks of Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism in Orwell’s 1984. Or, if I may employ a relevant cliché, Pope’s “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”.

I refer to the dystopia that politicians and commentators feel very clever about when they invoke in using the word Orwellian because it’s a text that has, not that I have had much choice in the matter, been occupying me these past couple of months due to its being studied by final year pupils at the Gymnasium (German secondary school) where I work.

Unlike so many of these pundits and participants in public life, I’m not at all eager to hail in the reign of the thought police. Yet the value of Orwell goes beyond drawing tenuous parallels between our world and Oceania. We can learn much from his unwavering commitment to the truth, his warning against the lies of propaganda, his historical allegory, his advocacy and practice of a clear, concise writing style and most importantly, his faith in the proles.

The pursuit of the truth is the single most important thing in Orwell’s philosophy. Of course, this is an admirable end in itself, but what’s more to the point is what we do with that knowledge. Orwell made an excellent diagnosis of the ills of his age, but he leaves us in the dark when it comes to the treatment. At least, this is the case when we read 1984 in isolation…

Teaching the novel in the context of German school adds another layer of complexity, and this is especially apparent in the author’s attitude to language. For all Orwell’s contempt for the florid, inaccessible prose of the contemporary intellectual elite, he himself was a huge language snob. In 1984, he undermines the idea of avoiding fancy foreign terminology and expressing things in as few words as possible by equating a smaller vocabulary with a smaller “range of consciousness” a la Newspeak (and that was deliberate!) This does not translate to multilingual German pupils, especially when this fictional language seems to implicitly attack compound words as somehow inferior relative to Anglo-Saxon monosyllabism (again I’m being silly!)

1984 to me is a bit like some people’s Dickens or Austen, although far from a cosy book, it remains pleasure to come back to because it reminds me of the power of the literary prophecy. As much as it irks me to constantly here casual accusations of Orwellian behaviour levelled at parties, governments and institutions, it’s probably a good thing that such shorthand exists.

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The man o’ independent mind: who was Robert Burns?

Robert Burns is the National Poet of Scotland – a phrase I use to introduce the most important figure of Scottish literature. This led, after about the third repetition to the question of: Why does not England then have a national bard? Did you mean bird? No, Google, I assure you I did not.

Is the idea of a National Poet merely a Celtic conception? Why is he celebrated so much then, if the accolade lacks universal currency? It’s probably because he is the only one; the awkward truth that there’s no one to compare. Incidentally, for the English poet, Shakespeare was suggested. It seems that we speak his language, so that would make sense. Alongside him, though, sit Blake, Wordsworth (of whom I’m no fan) and Coleridge. The Wikipedia entry for National Poet talks of justifying the ethno-linguistic state. I’m not sure Burns quite fits the bill. His Scots was regional really – what of the Northern Isles in his lied? He was also under the influence of the multi-lingual curse; a riven soul between standards and the core. His heart a swarming mass of contradiction channelled in all its various courses, Scots for humour and ecstatic love, English for grave politics and highfalutin reference.

No, the idea of the national poet is not merely a Celtic creation, so it seems – it’s Teutonic too, take Goethe. Schiller here’s a competitor, but he wasn’t quite the universal genius Johann was. Germany did not exist in Goethe’s time, and, if truth be told, he liked it that way. A loose confederation of autonomous city-states and princedoms – that was the ideal. United, perhaps in tax or tariff, but no more. Feels eerily like an EU without the states. On the flag the stars are fixed at twelve, no more, no less; it cannot change. Perhaps Goethe’s Europe would have been more constellational; ever-warping, irregular and full of burning life. Perhaps that’s just a pithy liberal dream.

Did Shakespeare write of England though? Yes, but he also wrote of everything. England was part of this, so it was in. Pride in England get’s a bad rep these days, but, if restored in the right way, it might be part of the path to healing this broken world. Clarification: the British Empire has skewed English nationalism into a restorative ideology seeking to rewind time and suck other nations into the vortex along with it, firmly against their will – if the English saw themselves as just that, England, then perhaps this could be remedied.

I’ve been reading a lot of D. H. Lawrence these days and I’m aware that he’s shunned, and deservedly, for his undue obsession with phallic worship and his disdain for labour movements. Yet, there’s something in him. A core, a kernel of truth that’s worth salvaging from the reaching, often unfocused prose. That is, his radical ideas about relationships and sexuality and, underneath it all, his England. There’s no coincidence, in Women in Love, that these two ideas fuse dramatically in the locus of national myth that is Sherwood forest, where Ursula and Birkin enter for the first time into the true ecstasy of love on equal terms:

She saw that they were running among trees – great old trees with dying bracken undergrowth. The palish, gnarled trunks showed ghostly, and like old priests in the hovering distance, the fern rose magical and mysterious. It was a night all darkness, with low cloud. The motor-car advanced slowly.

‘Where are we?’ she whispered.

‘In Sherwood Forest.’

It was evident he knew the place […]

It is at once possible to be the most strident of radicals and yet be rooted in tradition. Burns here, is an exemplary figure. Absurdly though, it is ritual honouring of this tradition which distances us from these fundamental commonalities by setting these firmly in the remote past, not merely unattainable but inaccessible. In relation to Scottish identity, I mean the characteristics we reinforce in ourselves year in year out that only serve to hold us back. Scots make good soldiers. The highland clansman warrior bashed into shape by British imperial discipline. The clamour to blame the reign of religion for our dour, miserly insularity, as if the spectre of Knox remains president.

Did Burns, like Goethe, go to the people? Or was he like the Russians of Tolstoy’s Francophone drawing rooms, estranged from his serfs? He did not and was not – when he expressed contempt it was only a form of extrinsic self-loathing. He saw potential in the breed and not as merely raw material, but as a dormant nation brooding between cynicism and fancy, this is the ultimate tragedy.

Like, it seems, all great Scots, he was a man of parts and many. Besides poetry he worked on rented land and always had an eye open for the next money-making opportunity. Yet Shakespeare acted, Goethe tried at law and furthered science, and Franklin, whom I take to represent America though he was no poet, had his digits in many pastry-based dishes, not to mention his dampened fingertips on the spinning glass harmonica.

The medium is much derided – Scots, the language, only seems to be sniggered at. An odd relic, absurdly contrived. However, his brand is really comparably light, reflects no spoken tongue and goes so far as to admit ‘small’ when ‘wee’ suffices. Yet it’s strong enough to provoke incomprehension nonetheless.

Burns had the fortune of being recognised for his talents during his short life and was assimilated into the aristocracy. We would do well to remember that the “rank” of National Poet “is but the guinea stamp” – he embraced the French Revolution bore the snubs of the cronies who wanted to make him one of their own. Burns belongs not just to Scotland, but the world. He was exalted as the people’s poet of Russia from the Tsars to the Soviets and beyond and his influence is firmly felt on such classics of American literature as Of Mice and Men and Catcher in the Rye. In this current climate of the adored and the disgraced if Burns were alive today he’d likely fall into the latter – though polite enough, society’s approval meant little to him, what mattered was a humanity worth fighting for.

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