Friday, 30 December 2011

Happy New Year!

It's soon going to be 1 January and the calendar will click round one more year: hullo 2012 *waves*

However, it hasn't always been the case that 1 January was New Year's Day.  For a very long time the New Year began in March.  This actually isn't such a strange concept.  The Chinese have their New Year's celebrations in February.  Jewish New Year is in September.

A Year Has No Obvious Beginning

A year simply measures the length of time the Earth takes to do a complete rotation of the Sun: no one can say "this is the day it started", so there's no reason to choose January over any other time.  In many ways New Year in March makes more sense: it's when Spring arrives and is the beginning of the natural year.

A year doesn't actually begin on ANY particular day
So why does the year begin in January?  Well it's actually because of the Romans.  Their very first calendar had March as the first month (more of this later) but in BC153 they moved New Year to January for reasons connected with the governmental year.  There it stayed for some time.

Here Come the Christians!

Now enter the Christians.  1 January has absolutely no religious connotations for the Church.  25 December does - it is the somewhat randomly selected date for Christ's birthday.  Yes, random: the Bible gives us no clue as to when Christ was born except to mention that the shepherds were tending their flocks.  They almost certainly wouldn't have been out in winter doing so.

Sir Isaac Newton argued that the early Christians simply took over a pagan ceremony connected to the winter solstice, and that seems still to be the predominant theory.  Most Christians say this doesn't matter: the point is to celebrate the coming to the world of Jesus.

The Christians didn't start New Year at Christ's birth though: they counted back a pregnancy of 9 months (Swiss-Judean precision!) to Lady Day: 25 March.  This is Annunciation Day: when Mary received the Holy Spirit and became pregnant with Jesus.  So there we have it.  New Year in the Christian Calendar became 25 March.

Mildly Confusing

That's kinda mildly confusing though.  We're used to the New Year starting nice and neatly at the start of a new month (e.g on 1 January).  For centuries however the calendar went like this:

22 March 1499
23 March 1499
24 March 1499 (New Year's Eve)
25 March 1500 (New Year's Day)
26 March 1500
27 March 1500 etc.

There's a neat little example of the old Christian calendar in action in Salisbury Cathedral.  Look hard and you'll find a tiny grave of a boy.  In modern English his stone reads as follows: Here lies the Body of Thomas, Son of Thomas Lambert, Gentleman...  Born May 13 1683, died February 9 of the same year.

(Many thanks to @murphy_maria for the pic)

See how that is possible?  Good.  Poor little baby Thomas died in February of 1683 just short of nine months old, because New Year's Day 1684 didn't arrive until 25 March. 

The Romans Made a Mistake

Still with me? Smashing.  Now it gets a bit more confusing still.  The Romans had introduced the calendar with 12 months in BC45 under Caesar.  It is named the Julian Calendar (presumably because he had a favourite budgie called Julie. Or something).  Anyway, the Romans were a clever bunch, but they made a tiny mistake in working out they the length of the solar year.  That tiny error led to a big mistake over the centuries.

I think he might have noticed. Silly Romans.

By 1582 the calendar was "out" to the tune of 10 days.  The shortest day in the calendar should be 21 December (the Winter Solstice); the longest day should be 21 June (Summer Solstice).  However, because of the Romans' mistake the shortest day was now falling on 11 December.  The days were already getting noticeably longer by 21 December.  Pope Gregory XIII twigged and announced that the calendar should jump forward 10 days.  They also did something technical to Leap Years to stop the error from occurring again*.  Lovely job.

Now had naughty Martin Luther not started all that Reformation Jazz this could have been perfect.  By 1582, however, the Pope's authority had been seriously challenged within Europe.  The Northern Protestant nations viewed the new "Gregorian" calendar with a great deal of suspicion.  Many ignored it - which led to horrible confusion in terms of determining on what date anything happened.  The Eastern Orthodox Church also ignored it.

New Year's Day Moves Back to January

Although Pope Gregory did not expressly specify it, around the same time as the introduction of the new Gregorian calendar with its 10 day adjustment, many Catholic nations also moved New Year's Day from 25 March back to the Roman start of the year: 1 January.  What's more, some Protestant Nations also did the same - but kept the Julian Calendar itself.

Bit of a nightmare: European Calendars around 1600

Shite, this is getting horribly complicated.  Here's an example:

The Winter Solstice falls on 11 December 1599 in Scotland.  Why? Because they're using the old Julian Calendar**.  However, the still independent kingdom decides at this time to move New Year's Day away from 25 March and back to 1 January.  The year 1600 therefore arrives in Scotland on 1 January.  The same day, 1 January, is however still labelled 1599 in neighbouring England. New Year's Eve in England will be on 24 March and 1600 will not arrive until 25 March....

Let's hop on a hovercraft and go on a booze cruise to Calais.  The Catholic French have adopted the Gregorian Calendar in full, as well as the move of New Year's Day to 1 January.  Therefore if we make this trip on say the Spring Equinox, the exact same day is labelled in the following way:
  • 11 March 1600 in Scotland (Julian Calendar with New Year on 1 January)
  • 11 March 1599 in England (Julian Calendar with New Year on 25 March)
  • 21 March 1600 in France (Gregorian Calendar with New Year on 1 January)
The countries of Europe all adopt different schedules for moving their New Year about and switching to the Gregorian Calendar.  Prussia adopts 1 January as New Year's Day in 1559, but waits until 1700 for the new calendar; Austria has gone with 1544 and 1583 respectively.  The Swiss Cantons - part of the same country - all do it at different times (Grisons does not switch to the Gregorian Calendar until 1811). Various parts of the Netherlands also change at different times according to religious affiliation and political governance.

It is literally a nightmare... And *now* who is complaining about EU standardisation, eh?

Riots on the Streets

The British Empire, of course, is (almost) the last of the lot to move to the new accurate Gregorian Calendar and (with the exception of Scotland) is ever conservative about leaving New Year on 25 March.  Finally in 1752 Parliament makes the switch to both.  By this time the error in the old Julian calendar was so great, instead of ten, a full eleven days had to be skipped.

Wednesday 2 September 1752 was followed by Thursday 14 September 1752. People felt their lives had been shortened by 11 days as a result of an Act of Parliament.  There are literally riots on the streets.

The blackboard is centre front

It was still an election issue three years later in 1755.  This Hogarth painting has a tiny blackboard in the front.  When magnified the words read "Give us our 11 days".  The change of calendar incidentally affected the whole of the British Empire, including the United States, which had not yet become revolting ;-)

Well, finally we're all there.  Except the Eastern Orthodox Church, that is.  Russia waits until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 to move to the Gregorian calendar; the Greeks wait until 1923 and the Russian Orthodox Church is (somewhat unbelievably) still on the faulty Julian Calendar.  This explains why their Christmas is celebrated so much later than ours.  They are now a full 13 days slow, so for them 25 December falls on the day we now label 7 January.  Don't make the mistake of thinking they celebrate Christ's birth on a different date: for them it *is* 25 December.  They've just not got yet changed to the more accurate calendar.

The Tax Year: 5 April

Okay have you died yet?  Nope?  Then you need to know about this curious remnant of the Julian Calendar and New Year's falling on 25 March.  When does the tax year in the UK begin?  "6 April" you answer.  Yes: and why? Well if you take 25 March as the old New Years day... and add on the eleven days' adjustment that were required in 1752 you end up with..... 6 April***.  Ka-Boom.

It was felt that it was unfair on the Exchequer to shorten their tax revenue by 11 days when the calendar changed, so the tax year was left as it was, with the exception of the eleven day adjustment.

Her Majesty's Customs and Revenue are therefore still organising our tax years around the date the Virgin Mary became pregnant, with an adjustment for the miscalculation made by Julius Caesar.  This is another example of a "New Year" starting mid-month of course.  5 April 2012 is in Tax Year 2011/12, while 6 April 2012 falls in the "New" Tax Year 2012/13.

Numbering the Months

There's one last curiosity to note.  If we go all the way back to the ancient Calendar of Romulus, which was before 1 January was chosen as New Year's Day in BC153, and before the introduction of the Julian Calendar in BC45, you'll probably remember that we find March as the first month of the year.

Mars: God of War

March was named after Mars who was God of War and was second only to Jupiter in the Roman Godly hierarchy.  Like March the months of April, May, June all had proper names.  Then the Ancient Romans ran out of ideas.  Accordingly:
  • July was Quintilis (fifth month)
  • August was Sextilis (sixth month)
  • September was September (seven month)
Yep: September was the seventh month in the Calendar of Romulus. Have you ever thought about this?  Why is Month NINE in our calendar called "Sept"?  In this old calendar, beginning in March, the eighth month was October. The ninth was November.  The tenth was December.  Still in 2012, we have kept this incredibly ancient (pre-BC 153) and entirely unfitting naming convention for our calendar.  Unlike the shifts of New Years Day and the calendar alteration it has remained: quite possibly because no one has ever really noticed it.

I like it, though, and it is a reminder of where we began: New Year's Day is on 1 January, but originally, and for a very long time, New Year began in March.  For HMRC it still kinda does.

Now have a drink and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

* Every year that is exactly divisible by four was to remain a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100; the centurial years that are exactly divisible by 400 would remain leap years. For example, the year 1900 is not a leap year (it is divisible by 100 but not 400); the year 2000 is a leap year (divisible by 400).  You can see why I kept this as a foot note.

** There is a popular misconception that the Scots adopted the Gregorian Calendar in full on 1 January 1600.  They remained on the Julian Calendar until 1752 along with the rest of the British Empire.  All they did was move New Years Day to 1 January from 1600.

*** God, this is so technical.  Add 11 days to 25 March and you have 5 April. The reason that the Tax Year begins 6 April is because 1800 is a centurial year that would have been a Leap Year under the Julian Calendar, but not under the Gregorian Calendar (it's not divisible by 400).  The Exchequer went with the Julian rule, so it's therefore 12 days that are now added to 25 March to reach the Tax New Year.  Right, I need a triple vodka.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Rain scene

When i came home today, i looked out my window and saw this:

Rain on one side and clear skies on the other....

After a few more minutes, the rain subsided...

Its not everyday i get to see that. Its like a tale of two cities...

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Monday, 26 December 2011


A few months back I did a little spot on Rob Dunger's BBC Suffolk Sunday breakfast show - oh yes, my moment of fame!  I trundled down there for 7am and talked about blogging and Twitter, as well as did a newspaper review.  I really enjoyed the whole experience - which wrapped up with a thought for the day.

I'm not religious so the "thought for the day" was a bit challenging.  I decided to tie things in with what I'd talked about previously: Twitter.  Let's face it, if there's anything I can waffle on ad nauseam, it's that.  Below is an extended version of what I said.

My Thoughts on People

We live in our own little circle of friends, colleagues and family.  Most of us will know perhaps a hundred people tops.  The bulk of these will be superficial contacts: we might know anywhere from a handful to a couple of dozen quite well.  Broadly speaking we will have quite favourable impressions of most of these.  If you think of the people you know, I think most people would say they are anywhere from "okay" to "really quite nice".

Few of us know lots of people who are actually horrendous: there might be someone we dislike, perhaps even strongly; but on the whole the bulk of people most of us know are quite pleasant.  I don't think too many of us know many people who we would categorise as actually dangerous, nasty or evil. 

Despite this fact, we live in a world where we are taught to be cynical, suspicious and to fear. Although our own direct personal experience of other people we've met is broadly positive, most of us, I believe, subscribe to the view that anyone else "out there" whom we don't know is to be viewed with anything from mild suspicion, through cynicism, to outright hostility. 

This view of the world is particularly reinforced by the media.  Of course bad news sells: we gorge ourselves daily on stories of stabbings, con-artists, mini cab drivers who rape, the odd high profile murder etc.  Even the day-to-day stories are pretty grim and pessimistic.  We're thrown the odd scrap of a happy story, but you have to have to look for it amongst the onslaught of misery and depression.  There have been a few attempts at "good news" newspapers: they invariably fall flat on their arses.  No one is interested: we somehow want/need the daily dose of fear and worry.  It is of course epitomised by the Daily Mail/ Fail/ Wail.  It is really no small surprise, if as a result, we have the impression that the world is a horrible place and in particular that people are basically pretty shit. 

However, in fact - I would contend - as you drive through a town, each and every house or flat will in fact be populated by someone remarkably similar to you and to your circle.  The problem is we can't ever know this without knocking on their doors, going in, meeting them and having a cup of tea with them.  They wouldn't of course let us in to their homes to do so, because we're a stranger, and as we know strangers are to be feared because they're potential nut-cases / robbers/ murderers etc.  So we continue to live in our world where our circle is okay and everyone else is almost certainly not.  How can my contention be proven?

Twitter offers an E-Cup of Tea

Enter Twitter, stage right.  Twitter is people.  It is simply a medium where people - for the most part complete strangers - come together.  If you are a user of Twitter who has got to know people you didn't previously, ask yourself what your impression is of those you have encountered and got to know?  I follow 1100 people on Twitter and speak regularly to hundreds.  The medium offers me a snap shot into the lives of all sorts of people I would not otherwise come into contact with: in effect I am knocking on doors and having that e-cup of tea.

Some of these people are from a background I encounter anyway in my regular life; many are not.  Twitter has shown me, for example, that people with whom I might have wildly differing political views, are not inherently "bad" people.  I have developed a great deal of affection for one quite right wing woman who I only viewed as a "troll" at first.  Yes, politically we could argue until the sun comes up, but I wouldn't hesitate to have her over for dinner, or a drink, and I know she is a really humane, decent person - as differing as our views are.

It's very human to dislike people in the "other team".  We're incredibly tribal.  When you're face to face, however, with someone from that other tribe (and can stop yourself from taking a dogmatic position) it is incredibly revealing.  I don't tend to argue politics on Twitter any more: they won't change my mind and I won't change theirs: what it does is just lead to the reinforcement of stereotypes and hostility.  When the British and German soldiers met in the trenches on Christmas Day 1914 to play soccer, they weren't arguing whose foreign policy was correct.  They met as human beings - no longer faceless ones - and it was precisely for that reason that this was considered so dangerous by the High Commands.  When you realise your combatant is a person rather like you - with a mother, a family, friends and a life - and not a faceless monster, you're not so keen to blow them into the next life.

The Trenches, Christmas 1914

Obviously Twitter isn't about killing each other.  But it can be about exposing yourself to a broad range of people and if you're open to doing so, this can be extremely instructive.  I talk to Christians: many gay people view them with a default setting of absolute hostility.  I don't share their religious beliefs and sometimes their moral views, but I can tell you I really have forged some friendships here and have a lot of respect for people I didn't think I would.  I talk to Muslims, to policemen, to housewives, to mothers, to 16 year olds, to taxi drivers, to theatre directors, to students, to QCs, to republicans, to nationalists, to Libertarians and to Marxists.  The range of people you can access and get to know on Twitter is breathtaking.

What I've Learned

What I have come to realise is that Twitter can give us a very real insight into humanity.  It literally does open doors that wouldn't otherwise be open.  We can't in real life gain access to people's homes and lives, but on Twitter people are remarkably willing to share their thoughts, experiences, concerns and feelings.  It teaches much more about all those people we don't know than picking up and reading a newspaper or watching a movie can.

And what are my impressions?  Well I believe my contention is correct.  Put simply, I am repeatedly overwhelmed by the simple warmth, kindness, goodness of almost everyone I encounter. People are good.  They care for one another.  They want to form friendships and have support networks.  They enjoy laughing, socialising and sharing.  This is not the Daily Fail vision of humanity.  It is not the world of headlines of murderers, thieves and rapists.  It is something much more mundane, but something so much better.

Yes, there's the odd bad apple (see previous blogs!) but they are in such a minority.  I've tweeted well over 50,000 times: the number of falling outs and "nastiness" is perhaps 0.05% of that total.  I always try to bear this in mind.  If my sample on Twitter is broadly representative of people "out there" - which it must be - my conclusion is that the world is simply a much better place than we are led to believe... and tend to believe ourselves.

Thank you Twitter, and thank you all the people I talk to on it.

Can't help ending on this diamond ;-)

Saturday, 24 December 2011


A switch in my head just clicked and i realised how preoccupied i was with one thing and completely neglected things i used to enjoy doing, like taking pictures...

Sometimes focussing on only one thing brings dire consequences. Maybe it was the interest and the desire to make it work, blossom and bloom. But, after months, dissapointment still seeps through, dejected, the feeling of not being stable, just brings me down. The hype is dwindling.

I look back at the past few months, yes, i was preoccupied. Silly me to put aside everything that was me. I'm slowly bringing myself back while that one distraction fades away.

CNY is coming!!! I am happy to see many people smiling while chomping on my homemade peanut cookies.. It is peanuty and melts in your mouth!

Friday, 16 December 2011


I've done a "travel guide" before, but hey here goes. I'd like to tell you about my favourite city perhaps anywhere: Munich.  I'm off there again on 1 January and it's the single city I probably visit most outside the UK.

First Experiences: Munich is Shite!

The first time I visited Munich I thought it was absolutely shit.  I'd been inter-railing with my friend Nick in the summer of 1990: we were 19. After a full four weeks travelling around, three days in post-revolution Bucharest with nothing to buy except watermelons, bread and clothes pegs (the latter aren't that edible) had left us in quite a state.  We caught the Istanbul Express from Belgrade to Munich overnight and slept in the corridor. I remember people stepping over my head, smoking all night long, and had the delights of waking up with the side of my face stuck to the floor as I'd rolled off my camping mat.

We got off at Munich Hauptbahnhof, put our least stinking clothes on, washed up a bit, and bought as much food as we could afford from a department store supermarket.  I remember what then happened so clearly: I even know the place we were sitting devouring our rolls with processed sliced cheese, when an old man came up.  He asked in German where we were from.  I assumed he was begging and trying to get some food from us.  I wasn't concentrating (there's a distinction between "kommen von" and "kommen aus" in German) and answered that we came from "Romania".

The lovely old Bavarian clearly thought we were starving Eastern Europeans and offered us the groceries he'd just bought.  I was mortified and swiftly explained we'd *come* from Romania, but were English and had plenty of Deutsche Mark to buy ourselves some more processed cheese if we wanted it!  Bless him, I felt awful for the way I'd dismissed this kindly generous guy out of hand.

The rest of the day was spent wandering round the main shopping street, missing all the sights, and catching a night train on to Paris.  We probably bought some more rolls and cheese to fortify us through the night.  That was Munich.

Munich: Let's Try Again

I then returned with a group of young Americans whom I was leading around Europe.  We had a coach tour of the city with a local guide.  I couldn't believe what I was seeing: we literally had missed everything.  The city was beautiful: full of stunning architecture, beautiful green spaces, art galleries, history, markets and restaurants.  It is classy as anything.  The Munich people love to say it is an Italian city north of the Alps.  Frankly, that's crap.  I know Italy, and love Italy, and whilst elements of the Ludwigstrasse definitely have echos of Florence (quite deliberately) this is very much a German city in terms of architecture, cleanliness and "Ordnung".

The Italianate "Ludwigstrasse" with Alps behind
The people of the city may also be referring to the "laid back" attitude in the city.  Again *ahem*.  It is a little more chilled than say Hamburg, but far less so than scrappy-anything-goes Berlin.  It is an efficient, clean, polished city of 1.4 million people with an incredibly high local GDP.  Yes, people guzzle Bier and will happily sit round being sociable after work, but a city this wealthy did not come from a lot of hard work.  Get on the U-Bahn at 7am and you'll see everyone on their way to work at Siemens, BMW, the publishing houses (it's second only to New York in terms of numbers), or the many insurance and reinsurance companies.

Schickie Mickies

The city is not just wealthy, it is by any standards a very egalitarian city.  The unemployment level is around 4% and everyone seems well off.  You see yuppies in their BMW cabrios (the so called "Schickie Mickies") everywhere and well dressed students (over 100,000 young Germans study here for €500 a semester fees) but remarkably few homeless.   The city has been ruled by a Social Democrat/ Green Coalition for years.  Massive amounts are invested in excellent, reliable public transport: fab retro teak lined subway trains from the late 60s and their gleaming brand new air-conditioned designer counterparts.  You can ride 8km from one side of the city to the other, without touching a road once, on the network of cycle paths. And yes, both young and old people DO wear Lederhosen and Dirndls not for fancy dress (more later).

Oh, ze Lederhosen. Mein Gott.

You just get the sense of a very cohesive, comfortable, well off group of inhabitants.  There are stacks of art galleries (the Alte Pinakothek is magnificent), 4 symphony orchestras, loads of museums - it is an extremely cultural city.  Munich is supremely bourgeois, but in a sharp, trendy, "right on" way.  The city is hugely gay-friendly, has almost 25% non-German population and its Jewish population is apparently back up to 1933 levels.  The newly opened main synagogue in the centre of town is a testament to this: the six smaller ones were packed to overflowing, so a magnificent new one was opened on 9 November 2006. 

The New Munich Synagogue

You also feel you're in a young city: there are so many youthful faces everywhere.  The city is very liberal: in the summer people go to the city park (the "English Garden") and strip off over lunchtime and nude sunbathe.  It's not pervy or weird: you'll see a mother having her picnic with her kids and a young couple nude sunbathing right next door.  You'll also see the SURFERS all year round just close by.  These dudes (and dudesses) can be seen all year round (wet suits in winter) surfing on some serious waves close to the US Consulate.  The story goes that a GI from Hawaii stationed here after WW2 discovered the spot, but that is of course probably utter rubbish.  In any case, I highly recommend stopping here, at the entrance to the English Garden and watching them do their stuff.

Bavarian Surfer Boys (*Skreeeem*)

The English Garden of course also houses Bier Gardens: they are all over the city and provide a "sitting room" for people with apartments to go and meet and be sociable.  Apparently the average Bavarian drinks 46.5 gallons of beer per year.  It is called "liquid bread" and covered by the oldest food purity law in the world.  It is fooking lovely.  Just watch the Wheat Beer: it packs a headache and hangover like none other.  I'll only ever have one and then move to the regular Light or Dark Beer.

There are six big Munich breweries, all located within the city limits, as they have to be to take part in the Oktoberfest.  In 1810 the Crown Prince got married and they had a huge party to celebrate.  The people of Munich liked it so much they did it again in 1811 and have been doing so (with a couple of war related/ hyper inflation related interruptions) ever since.  It begins in late September (one year it snowed in October, so they moved it forward), lasts 16 days and is the world's biggest beer drinking festival.  The atmosphere is amazing: the whole city stops for 16 days as over 6 million visitors come to join in, visit the massive beer tents, drink several million pints of beer, and have fun.

An outstanding Bavarian Balcony
People are merry, but not obnoxiously drunk.  There are crazily fast fairground rides too - just what you want after drinking a few litre glasses of beer.  I've been once: the gay tent was *incredible* - drunken Bavarian boys in Lederhosen up on the tables at 10am, with their shirts open, wearing cute little neckerchiefs, singing and locking arms.  Wow. Just, erm, wow.  If you want to go to Oktoberfest, be aware hotel prices are literally doubled and rooms sell out 6 months in advance.  Ideally you should book no later than now (December 2011) for October 2012.  The Oktoberfest brings a staggering €830 million into the local economy.

Munich of course has not always been the cosmopolitan fun place it now is.  I read a description of the city in the winter of 1933 by that outstanding and sadly recently deceased travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor that sent shudders down my spine.  It was the City of the Nazis: the "Brown City" (as opposed to the socialist stronghold of Berlin, the "Red City").  When Hitler arrived from Vienna he declared "Finally, a German City!".  Vienna was much too international for his tastes.  The old main synagogue in Munich was destroyed in June 1938, 5 months before the other German cities "did their bit".  There are traces of the Nazi past all over the place: amazing fascist buildings that mysteriously all missed the Allied carpet bombing raids (6600 civilians died here, as opposed to 568 in Coventry).  Around 75% of the city was destroyed, but the main buildings were later beautifully reconstructed, unlike in other German cities.

"Führerbau": where Chamberlain signed Munich Agreement

I could write on and on about the history of the place, before, during and after the Nazi period (the 1972 Olympics are fascinating: private sponsorship was *banned* and the city and state paid for everything) but I think I'd probably send you to sleep :(  If you're into this stuff though, the city is a treasure trove of places to look up and is steeped in history.

Some Top Tips

Okay now it's time for some top tips of places to go if this has whetted your appetite to visit.  My favourite hotel is a gorgeous little designer boutique place close to the historic area around the Hofbräuhaus.  It is called Hotel Cortiina and is just loooooovely (click for link).  It runs in at about €250 a night, so is not exactly cheap... if you want somewhere stylish, cheaper, and a little further out but in a beautiful quiet street, try Motel One (Deutsches Museum).  It's around €85 for a double room, has an über-trendy bar and is still a design hotel despite the name.

My top meal recommendations are Sunday brunch at the Park Café (a former SS hangout and now mega trendy contemporary beer hall and jazz venue close to the Hauptbahnhof - the type of place the girls from Sex and the City would come to)... and a high end pizza restaurant called Riva Tal.  The staff are just erm... well very decorative... and the food is literally better than any pizza I've ever had in Italy.  If you really want to eat hearty Bavarian crap, there's plenty of it, and I guess I should recommend Weisswurst (apparently delicious white veal sausage, eaten only ever before 12 noon) - but as a veggie I'm just not going to. So suck it up.

In terms of sightseeing, the thing about Munich is it's quite small: 1.4 million inhabitants is not a lot and there aren't hundreds of big "sights" to see as in Paris or London.  I love it precisely because the centre is so walkable.   I can just stroll about, eat, drink, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the place. I do enjoy the Residenz (the former Royal Bavarian Winter Palace in the centre of town), the Olympic Park is well worth a visit out to on the U-Bahn, and while you're there most definitely go to BMW World.  It is free and even if you're not into cars, the architecture will blow you mind.  It apparently cost half a billion Euro to build and they have old and new BMW cars and motorbikes to play about with.

BMW World with Olympic Tower/ Park behind

Make sure you also visit the Viktualienmarkt (the main food and flower market) and Dallmayr, a grocery store that is smaller, but I think a lot classier than the Harrod's Food Hall.  Maximilianstrasse has the best shopping in town, along with the department store Oberpollinger which can give Harvey Nicks, a run for its money, dahling.  Check out the Veuve Cliquot bar there.  A totally zany recommendation is Wiesn Tracht which is run by a mad old Bavarian queen, his cohort of gorgeous girls, and sells Lederhosen and Dirndls.  They will serve you champagne free of charge if you hang round long enough admiring the checked shirts.  I go here *every* time I'm in Munich and buy something :)

The *actual* staff of Wiesn Tracht

Rounding Up

Okay, so I hope I've given you a litte taste of Munich?  I've done a lot of travel. I adore it. I've been to a total of 63 countries around the world on 5 continents on my own travels.  I've taken my groups of Americans to 178 towns & cities in 18 countries across Europe (yup, I keep an OCD style list).

I'm often asked what my favourite place is.  It's really hard to answer: doesn't it depend what for?  Of course I have places I love for nature, for beauty, for excitement, for relaxation...  But of cities where I would chose to spend a weekend or even a week - or where I would consider having an apartment - three stand out for me: Amsterdam, Zurich and Munich.  Of these three (I've lived in the first two) Munich is my all-time favourite.

If you haven't been, Oscar says you don't know what you're missing out on.  Even *he* has been to Munich with me.

@LassieOscar on tour in Bavaria

Thursday, 8 December 2011


It's just over 10 months since I started this blog and I've just reached a milestone (more of that later) so I thought I'd reflect a little about "blogging".

A Very Silly Word

First off, it is of course a pissingly stupid word.  Apparently it's a portmanteau that blends "web log" and "we blog".  Anything with the word "log" in it is bound to get my inner 4 old year giggling.  Aside from that it implies some kind of diary or journal of the writer: I could not think of many things much more dreary.  Blogging definitely had overtones of lonely teenagers pouring their thoughts out on their computers to me before I really grasped what they were.  To be honest when I started on Twitter and saw people promoting their blogs I thought it a little self-indulgent.  Who cared what this person had to say?  Who cares what I have to say?  If I bothered to write one, who exactly would read it anyway?

It really did take me a time to "get it".  I dipped into some of the "big name" blogs like the brilliant @DavidAllenGreen and @_MillyMoo and found them informative and entertaining.  These were "proper" writers who knew their stuff, though.  They were explaining elements of law and current affairs in an accessible, interesting way.  That is quite different to pip squeak me sitting here and pouring my uninformed thoughts out.  In a state of quite a lot of annoyance during the student protests I did have a go at writing one blog kettling for LibCon.  It was mildly terrifying sending it in and seeing it published, but it seemed to go down quite well.  I also wrote a couple of pieces for Political Reboot.  I was still some way from setting up my own blog though.

After Omi Died

Then my grandmother died.  I heard the news from my Mutti when I was in the bath.  I got out, set up a blogger profile and just poured my heart out.  It remains the single post I'm most proud of.  The link is here. It tells the story of a 26 year woman who packs her life onto a horse and cart, with my not yet 4 year old mother, in the bitter snowy cold of a Prussian winter, and flees for her life at the end of the Second World War.  I was in a state of shock and desperately wanted to share her story.  I tweeted it and it was retweeted.  People read it and I was immensely touched, moved and grateful that they would bother to read the story of my Omi.  I also wanted a permanent historic record for my own family in the future.

After Omi, I guess I just got hooked.  But what exactly *are* blogs?  Perhaps my favourite blogger, the brilliant Steven Baxter (@SteBax) described it in his published collection of blogs "Musings of a Monkey" in the following way.  It is responding "to that nagging voice in your head that tells you to write because that's how you feel best at communicating." It's a "way of getting across what you want to get across at a particular moment, which may be something profound or something profoundly silly."
A SNITCH at £2.29: buy it!
That totally fits what was going on for me with Omi.  I found it therapeutic, necessary, and comforting to write.  It's a stream of consciousness.  I never sit down and edit and reedit what I write.  It just comes out.  I find it very natural and enjoyable.  I am painfully honest and open in my blogs: I rarely think of who might be reading and their reactions: I just "chuck it out".  I know some of my history related blogs are probably a bit obscure to many people: I enjoy writing them, though, and am a bit of a frustrated wannabe teacher.  If you don't like reading it, don't, is my theory.

That said, people do read my blogs.  I'm frankly amazed and honoured that they do.  There's no question that the kind of messages I receive from time to time keep me writing.  If people told me it was a load of boring shite that I churn out (normally on a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday morning, once a week) I wouldn't bother.  

I always enjoyed essay writing at school.  My A-level history teacher Miss Cooper (she of the "Forget the "c" in Bismarck and you'll never have children" warning) taught me how to write essays properly and gave me lessons that stuck with me through university, law school and my later career.  I'm very happy to do public talking and have had lots of experience at it, but writing is something else for me.  I just love it.  I'm slightly playful and put silly pictures in my blogs.  I like them to be colourful and fun.  I know the serious bloggers don't do this, but this is my blog, so sod it.  As Steven Baxter comments, part of the enjoyment of blogging is there are no hard and fast rules to comply with.

A Personal Milestone

The milestone I was talking about earlier is 100,000 individual hits on the blog, which I passed this morning.  The two most popular entries have been A Fake Belief (19,230 reads) which exposed the infamous "Lord Credo" as a liar and Twitter fraud; and The Perils of Twitter (14,200 reads) which was about a guy sending abusive lewd messages, plus more generally a warning about looking after your online safety.  The "big" (for me) piece I wrote about my experience of living Ten Years with HIV is the third most read entry.  Almost as popular were Scum: a furious piece I wrote about the reactions of the majority towards the actions of a minority during the riots; and How to use Twitter which is a bit of a tongue in cheek guide to our favourite medium.

I don't have anywhere near 19,000 or even 5,000 followers on Twitter.  It means people are presumably retweeting links to my blogs or perhaps posting them on their Facebook pages.  It really flatters me and if I'm honest makes me feel wanted that people will read my stuff.  I hope you don't think I'm a dick for saying so.  I know there are plenty of other blogs that get 100,000 hits a week.  My "achievement" is nothing in the scheme of things, but it matters to me, so thank you.

Two You Might Have Missed

There are two more pieces I have written that didn't get many hits but which mean a lot to me.  I'd just like to share them with you as they were a while ago and you might not have seen them.  Boys in Girls Dresses is about my Dad and the somewhat amusing and quite inspiring way he reacted when I put on a dress when I six years old.  Parents is about the time I called my Dad and told him I loved him.  He died in 2000 and the memory of this still brings tears to my eyes.  Please read it and do what I did.

Publicising a Blog

The last thing I'd like to say is I'm never sure how much to "push" a blog.  I don't want to keep cluttering up people's timelines with a wanky egotistical "READ MY BLOG" tweet.  On the other hand, there are many genuinely appreciate and kind responses and I know people come on line at different times of day.  I'm grateful myself if I see a favourite blogger or friend promote their blog when I may have missed it the first or second time round.  My rule is three tweets at different times on the day of publishing and that's it.

It is always possible, if the blogger has enabled the facility, to get email alerts of new posts from someone you enjoy reading on a regular basis.  They don't see your email address (at least on Blogger which is what I use): google stores them and sends out alerts automatically.

Anyway, this whole thing is basically an explanation of why I blog and a thank you to anyone who has visited "The Blog That Peter Wrote".  Given I hate the word "blog" so much I should probably come up with a better name like "Thoughts of a Teutonic Himbo" or some such.  No, actually that's crap too :/  I'd also like to thank those who blog themselves for having touched, inspired, informed and moved me.  You never know the power your words might have and the capacity to bring a smile.


Sunday, 4 December 2011

Conceptualising Twitter

How many times have I tried to explain Twitter to a non-user, got all over-excited and after a confusing 10 minute spiel I halfheartedly end up saying "Trust me, it's great".  Cue indulgent, benevolent smile from friend and a discussion of the weather we're having...

I got an email this morning after my friend Janet from New Jersey joined Twitter.  She knows how much I love Twitter from the hours of glee spent on my iPhone in hotel lobbies in Poland and the Czech Republic this summer together.  She was wondering if I'd seen a particular tweet of hers (I hadn't) and needed an explanation of how Twitter differs from email or from a chat room; and in particular how tweeting generally differs to sending an @mention.

A Big Sports Hall

So, here is my analogy*.  Imagine a big Sports Hall.  Picture the kind of thing you have at a student freshers' or careers fair.  There are stands everywhere, people are everywhere; some are handing leaflets out and some are walking round collecting and reading them.  Most are doing both at various times.  A tweet is a leaflet.  It can contain anything: information, entertainment, a picture, a link to a blog or article - but it's short and limited in length to 140 characters.

When you walk in to the Hall you can go wherever you want.  If you just stay at the door, you will have access to no leaflets at all.  You need to jump in.  Perhaps you have a friend you know who has a stall.  You go over to them and pick up their leaflets and read them.  Perhaps you see some of the big, noisy people who have a stand in the centre of the Hall in the limelight.  They have have thousands of people picking up and reading their leaflets.

Twitter as a Giant Sports Hall

As you walk past a stall what will instantly attract your attention is the latest leaflet of the particular person there; however you may choose to look back at every previous leaflet they have stored on their table.  These are freely available if you're interested enough.  Some people aren't at their stalls and so aren't handing anything out right at this moment, but you can take a look at what they've said in the past if you wanted to.  One way this differs to Facebook is the nature of the stands: people can't spend ages trying to make themselves look interesting with loads of pictures of themselves etc.. all they have is a table with a short bio, a single picture.  What people are interested in are the leaflets they're handing out.  You have little more to assess a person on: it's much more dynamic and instant than other social media.

Of course you are not going to walk to continually read leaflets about what people had for lunch.  This is why that particular stereotype about Twitter is so absurd.  Occasionally, yes, it is amusing to see that someone can't cook baked beans on toast, but it is going to take a lot more of interest than that for people to return to a stall frequently to see the most recent leaflets.

What you see on your walk around the Hall creates your timeline.  You may choose to come back to a particular stall holder on a regular basis, in which case you can be said to "follow" them.  In effect you make a mental note that they will be on your route around the Hall each and every time you visit.  You might find their leaflets uninteresting after a while and decide to "unfollow" them.  It's all very casual indeed.  The people who have the most interesting or entertaining things to say naturally attract lots of people who happen to visit their stall.

What makes things quite chaotic, and fun, is the element of people not just handing out leaflets, but the same people wandering round also collecting them and reading themselves.  It's crazy in here, with leaflets strewn all over the floor and a hugely fast interchange of thoughts and ideas.  The more stalls you visit, the faster the pile of leaflets you grab and have to read piles up.  Some you will just flick through, others will really interest you.  You can choose just to stick to visiting one or two stalls, in which case your visit (your timeline) will be much calmer; or you can run round grabbing loads of leaflets and being up to your neck in it in the high energy, high speed world that can be Twitter.

Masses of information: masses of fun

You can choose to return to the Hall whenever you like, and as often as you like.  Some people seem to live in here (*puts own hand up*... others visit for a short time maybe a couple of days a week).  Certain times in the Hall are busy.  Other times are much quieter (e.g. 3am when most stall holders are home asleep).  It's important to note that any given moment when a person is handing out their leaflet, and if even they know 2000 people regularly visit your stall, they've no idea exactly which of their regular visitors will happen to be passing by at the time, and who will later come along and flick through their recent leaflets.  Just because a leaflet is produced it does not mean every regular visitor will read it, at all.

This is the critical way it differs from email.  If a stall holder therefore wants to make sure a specific person they know reads their leaflet, they have to pop it in an envelope and drop it over directly to the other person's stand.  You do this on twitter by putting the name (eg. @pme200) in a tweet and it will appear in the @mentions section of the other person's timeline.  The recipient may be at their stand and see the leaflet there and then, or perhaps later when they return to their stall if they are out of the Hall at the time.

The leaflet with someone's name on it, although addressed to them, is public.  Anyone can read it - people who visit both your stall and theirs are highly likely to see it - but also anyone who feels so inclined and is looking through a pile of previous leaflets can read it.  Again this is very different to the privacy of email.  To deal with this Twitter also has direct messages which are more akin to actually mailing a confidential letter through the post to your friend's home address. 

If someone really likes something you say they can shout out "Guys look at this" and hand your leaflet to anyone who passes their stall ("retweeting").  If that person has lots of regular visitors then your leaflet will get much more attention than just its exposure to the small number of people who visit your stall.  In this way you might also attract new visitors who didn't previously know you to your stand and you'll be added to their route.

Twitter isn't just about either reading leaflets or writing them.  It's also about responding to people's leaflets and this is where it's huge attraction is to me.  In the mêlée of your handing out your leaflets,  and picking up other people's and reading theirs, you can also respond by scribbling down messages of up to 140 characters on a leaflet and dropping it on their stand.  Frequently this is just a two-way interchange, but remember everything (except direct messaging) that goes on in the Hall is public.  Anyone else who is interested can chip in and a 3 way or even 4 way conversation can follow.  It's not a chat room with hundreds of people watching whatever is said on a single stage though; the stage is just the area around your respective stalls with whoever happens to be walking by at the time.

Sometimes you have angry, annoying people who will come by your stall to cause trouble.  Fortunately this happens relatively rarely.  They are called "trolls" and they probably don't follow you (i.e. visit your stall regularly).  They just want a fight, normally about politics.  Fortunately Twitter provides an invisibility cloak à la Harry Potter.  Chuck it over them ("block") and they can make as much noise as they like, you won't be able to see them or hear them.

Trolls: how we LOVE them!
The Hall is quite high-tech.  There's a central stand where you can do a deliberate search for any given subject matter and every leaflet mentioning it right now, or that has ever mentioned the term, will appear.  That explains how someone looking for say things specifically connected to Robin Hood Airport would chance on an obscure joking leaflet written weeks before that was only read by a handful of visitors to a particular stand and which had no wider circulation than that.

Searching is another way of finding interesting stands to visit on a regular basis, or just see what people are saying on a subject at a given time.  Because it is public, if someone does a search and you've included that word on a leaflet, your leaflet will pop up.  Anything you have direct messaged however, will still remain secret.

There are a few refinements to the above to mention too (thanks, @BrianInkster).  A person can protect their tweets.  This means only people they decide are allowed to may visit their stand and take a look at their leaflets.  However, those people can still manually copy their leaflets (they'd have to do this one by one) and republish them on their own paper.  Also, a few people choose to Twitwipe.  What this means is they can delete all their old leaflets by putting them in a shredder.  However, if anyone took a copy (a screenshot, akin to a photocopy) the leaflet will not be entirely gone.

Why On Earth Would You?

So given the description of chaos above (remember the Hall has tens of millions of people in it worldwide), why on earth would anyone even chose to enter the Hall? Well, information is valuable, it's fun, it's entertaining.  You may find out news quicker than the usual channels.  You'll get people's perspectives and opinions on the information.  Those big name stall holders are here in person.  You can send them a leaflet and they may respond and interact with you personally.  You have no idea where they live privately, so this is a rare opportunity for public access.

You meet all sorts of ordinary people you don't know.  By and large the atmosphere in the Hall is friendly, welcoming, and fun.  You're never on your own in the Hall.  If you've woken up with insomnia or are stuck with hours to kill, pop into the Hall, read some leaflets, respond to some, and write some of your own.  Twitter is people: that is all it is.  Many are kind, funny, supportive and far far nicer than you might ever have imagined.  It brings people together and in a very effective, safe, modern day medium and it fulfills the most basic need that we all have for social interaction.

And if that hasn't convinced you.... well, just trust me, it's great, okay? *sighs*

NOW if you've got this far and want to know more... check out my Guide on How to Use Twitter (click link) which is actually probably more suited to intermediates than absolute beginners, but which I hope will be of interest!

* Any analogy can be pulled apart.  Be kind to me! At the end of the day Twitter IS Twitter, nothing else.  I just hope this helps.

And welcome Janet, @heyugly6.  LOVE your avatar, this post is for you.  Now visit some other stands: there are so many lovely, interesting people on here that you will get on great with!

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Keeping Our Borders Safe

As tomorrow's day of action happens one element of media reporting has perked my interest.  Repeatedly I have seen attention focused on the striking Border Agency workers.  They make up around 18,000 of the 2.5 million estimated workers to be taking part in the action: some 0.07% of the total.  There are an awful lot of other essential workers going on strike: some 57,000 NHS patients could be affected with operations cancelled, almost 90% of schools in England and Wales will close, libraries, museums, leisure centres, local government offices will be shut, the courts may well be affected, the tunnels and ferries across the Mersey will close etc etc.  There will be a lot of disruption to millions of people in this country... yet, the "threat to our borders" seems to be taking top billing.

Look for example at this from the Guardian (at the time of writing, no 2 story on their website):

This is FAB emotional media stuff.  Any mention of "bringing in the army" is always designed to highlight the absolute seriousness of a situation.  Think back to the riots in the summer and the calls to "bring in the army".  It appeals to the dramatic sense that these are the last defenders of order: we are one step away from chaos, disaster, and only the army can save us.  It resonates with the calling of the Army into Northern Ireland or the imposition of martial law around the world.  When the Police or other public services cannot cope, the army will prevail.  Look too at this, again from the Guardian:

Dirty Bombs, Radiation and Nuclear Material

"Dirty bombs"... "Radiation"... "nuclear material"?  Is this for real? Do people believe this is a serious, credible likelihood of one day's not checking passports? What exactly is going on here?  There are different possible interpretations.  On the one hand this could be seen as an attack on the reckless unions for putting us all at danger of nuclear attack by being so selfish as to argue for a better pensions deal.  Given it is a lefty newspaper, another possibility is that it is seeking to portray the Government as willing to risk the safety of our land and borders because it will not budge.  A third interpretation is that this is simply the classic driver of so much in our lives: FEAR.

Fear sells. Fear grips people.  When I look at the stories about "keeping our borders safe" I somehow imagine Fortress Britain under siege from foreigners.  There are terrifying people seeking to scale our walls - millions of them who would burst in to our country at a moment's notice if we let our guard down for *one* second.  They'd either be bringing in their dirty bombs, or there would be millions of grubby little brown faces storming our fair green island looking for jobs or claiming benefits.  Our borders must be KEPT SAFE and they must be KEPT OUT.

We saw this so clearly during the attack on Theresa May - she had apparently committed one of the worst sins possible: the BBC reported that the Home Secretary admitted she "did not know how many people came into the UK without proper checks".  A bit like the Trojan Horse, instantly we imagine who got inside our safe haven, and is now wandering around, ready to attack us.  Look at this from the Mirror: hundreds of thousands of people may have entered the UK without critical anti-terrorist vetting:

Labour of course took this up with gusto.  They attacked her for giving the "green light for weaker controls" and attempted, in the usual depressing way in British politics, to score political points.  Yes there are very good grounds for having done so on the point about her not being in control of her own ministerial area of responsibility; this however became a more simplistic point about her having put OUR COUNTRY AT RISK.  Such a point of course resonates with voters and there is no doubt the Tories would have done the same the other way round.  The narrative is always the same: there is a "list of terror fanatics" who want to get in and moreover "strong borders" will stop them.  She dropped the ball and now we're all in danger.  Is any of this true, reasonable or balanced however?

What Are Borders?

First a bit of historic background.  Up until World War One it was possible to travel from St Petersburg to Land's End without showing a passport.  The passport, in essence a feudal permission to move away from your immediate place of residence, granted by your overlord, had disappeared and border controls had been abandoned with the advent of the railways.  Despite fears that the "Irish would be moving all over the country" the railways had now caused widespread social breakdown in the UK or elsewhere.  Before WW1 paranoia that German tourists on holiday drawing sketches of the Dover cliffs were actually spies led to the Official Secrets Act 1911.  Similar fears on all sides later led to the imposition of border controls across Europe.

Borders are artificial things.  We humans have drawn them on maps.  The local Dutch and Low German dialects on both sides of the border where my Mutti grew up are the same.  The border between the two has developed artificially, historically and politically.  It culminated at a certain point in a long barbed wire fence and two officials checking a piece of paper that determined if you could cross or not.  I do not need a passport to go from Mossband in Cumbria to Gretna in Scotland, yet I needed one to travel the 10 minutes from Freilassing in Bavaria to Salzburg in Austria.  Arguably the latter two are far closer from a cultural and historical perspective.  A bird flying overhead wasn't stopped, but I was. We've made these things up.  They are, in my opinion, social constructs to control/ check and constrain people's freedom by the State.

If that is true, the next question is to ask if the inconvenience they involve is proportionate, whether they serve their purpose, and where exactly we should have them.   Isn't it a fair question to ask why people are free to travel from Norfolk into Suffolk without the State demanding a piece of paper from me to make sure I'm permitted to?  Let's face it HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of people crossed the River Waveney last month without any anti-terrorist vetting.  That is a fact.  Literally anything may have been transported down the A140 with *no* checks. 

The United States is well over 2000 miles wide.  There are 3.79 million square miles you can travel about in without showing your passport (the whole of the UK is a tiddly 94,500 square miles by comparison).  Liechtenstein on the other hand is 15 miles long and 6 miles wide.  It had its own border controls until very recently.  Because of these passport controls am I correspondingly far safer in Liechtenstein than in the UK, and again far more so here, than in the US?  Think about this critically: at what point geographically do we impose travel checks?  Should movement of 15 miles be controlled? Or 100 miles? Or 500 miles? Or is it okay to have border free areas of 2000 miles?  At what point do we lose a grip on safety and security by not having State check points every X distance?

Am I being a Dick?

You quite possibly think I'm being a dick for somehow belittling the incredibly serious threats that face us. Such threats are much more serious in the modern age than they were before 1914.  You may not question the fact it is entirely obvious we need "strong borders" to keep our threats from abroad: both terrorists and migrants.

I actually, however, have problems with believing that people are queuing up outside Britain, specifically, ready to attack - or indeed to migrate to this land of milk, honey and freely available work and benefits for all illegal immigrants.  I think it is actually a bizarre, unsustainable, fear-driven notion.  I would like to know where the evidence for it is, other than in these sweeping headlines and unchallenged assumptions.  I think that what borders do is to cause real hassle and inconvenience to the hundreds of millions of absolutely innocent, peaceful people who wish to travel around - rather than stopping a tiny minority of people who may or may not be trying to use mainstream ports of entry to come into this country.

With ever increasing numbers of people travelling internationally, attempts to keep up "vigorous checks" are, I believe, completely unsustainable.  The passport lines for EU travellers at Heathrow or Gatwick are unmanageable: no wonder biometric checks on European nationals and warnings index checks on children for the EU were "abandoned" for a period this summer.  So what?  To me it is a massive non-story.  People working in this field, far better informed than I, took this decision because the attempts to man the walls of Fortress Britain in this way are in fact impossible.

Schengen Area

It is in large part the practical impossibilities of controlling the movements of the majority that led to the creation of the Schengen zone.  It covers twenty states including several outside the EU (e.g. Norway, Iceland and Switzerland) and functions like a single state for international travellers.  You are subjected to a passport control when you first enter (just as in the US) and then can travel round an area of 400 million people without a single internal border.

There is a single visa to enter for non-EU nationals that require one: there is no free immigration for everyone: there are still checks for those coming from outside.  Of course anyone applying for a job then needs to show they have the necessary permit, so it is not allowing 3 billion Chinese or Indians to just come over and settle - even if they had the money for the fare or inclination to do so (which seems to be the assumption in all immigration related matters).

Schengen Area in Blue; Applicant States in Green

I recently took the train from Budapest to Vienna.  The first time I did so, in the summer of 1989, we were held at the border: penned in like sheep whilst guards checked our visas, our police stamps, under our seats and in our bags.  Nowadays we simply crossed without a single check and the train didn't stop.  Even between Germany and Holland I remember passport checks very clearly: now there is simply a sign indicating the name of the village and you're in the next country.

Is the whole of the massive Schengen area *really* less safe for the lack of passport checks?  Has this nightmarish anarchistic creation led to millions of people travelling the continent freely committing crime, transporting "dirty bombs", nuclear weapons, radioactive material and/or claiming benefits - or any of the other evils that our "vigorous checks" supposedly prevent?  That is the risk we seem to think will occur if our external borders are left unmanned.  The answer is of course not: look at the evidence of the past 16 years of operation across the countries involved.  400 million of our nearest neighbours live within a huge no-passport zone quite safely, quite happily.

House of Lords Committee Reports

Don't take my word for it either: the House of Lords have twice considered in great detail the operation of Schengen.  The first report was in 1999.  The committee listened to expert evidence from the Intelligence Services, the Police, Border Staff, civil servants and the government. 

Here are some key points:
  • The (then Tony Blair) government had made its position on maintaining frontier checks clearly and repeatedly and left the Lords under no doubt of their conviction on this
  • The Lords said that they did not believe the status quo of border checks "remains a long term option".  The steadily increasing numbers of people entering the UK necessitates closer cooperation with other Governments, "as all our witness made clear"
  • The Government's main arguments for keeping passport checks were they prevented clandestine immigration and prevented crime.  They doubted other Schengen States would police the external border to "our standards" and that our island geography made our case "special" [never mind Iceland of course]
  • The Government however "failed to convince" the Lords committee that "systematic border control as currently practised is the most effective use of resources to control illegal immigration or is focused on the main sources of illegal immigration"
Just look at that last bullet point.  It could not be clearer.  The report considered whether Johnny Foreigner could actually carry out passport checks on non-EU nationals on our behalf and concluded quite clearly:  "We believe that in the three major areas of Schengen - border controls, police cooperation and visa/ asylum/ immigration policy that there is a strong case in the interests of the United Kingdom and its people for full UK participation".

Okay.  The facts here are that we, like all countries, face terrorist threats.  Here's a bit of a scary thought to those who like to keep the idea up of our "strong border" though - I'm pretty sure I'm correct in saying every single terrorist attack to date has either comes from home-grown (i.e UK) terrorists or from the Republic of Ireland (part of our Common Travel Area).  People INSIDE this country come up with these plans and manufacture these weapons.  Border and passport checks do absolutely nothing to stop them.  Alternatively they import weapons from outside, but you can be pretty sure they will get them into the country if they want to.  They do not bring them in their suitcases through Heathrow on a flight from Paris.  In the same way, as the Lords found having heard the evidence, the major ports of entry are not the source of illegal immigration into this country.  They get through anyway.

What keeps this and every other developed country as safe as they are is in fact the work of intelligence services and the Police within the country.  However, the really serious criminals operate internationally, so our own intelligence services require the help also of others abroad.  Part of Schengen is an incredibly detailed and sophisticated pooled resource for gathering information on serious crime.  It is called the "Schengen Information System".  It is far more appropriate to the modern world than one country seeking to stop terrorism on its own, by checking and looking at each and every person's passport at Dover.  The Lords looked at this again in 2007:
  • The Schengen Information System, and its development into a second generation system are matters of the highest relevance to this country
  • We believe this is understood by the police, the prosecuting authorities, and all those involved in the combating of serious cross-border crime.  They appreciate the benefits to be derived from this country's participation in the information system
  • We are less sure that this is fully understood by the Government.  They are content not to participate in the current SIS, and likewise content that the UK should be one of the last countries to participate in SIS II.  We find this hard to reconcile with their stated commitment to fighting cross-border crime
WOW, again, right?

Now what I'm wondering is, how many people reading this blog even knew that the House of Lords had looked at these questions in such detail and come to such clear conclusions?  The Government (then Labour, don't expect the Coalition to be making any changes either) are pandering to the "Fortress Britain" narrative without any actual objective ability to conclude that we are in fact safer for it.  The Dutch relied on cutting the dykes when the Germans invaded during WW2.  It had worked against the Spaniards in the 16th century; the Germans just flew over in May 1940 and dropped in paratroopers.

Just because the populist view out there follows the narrative set out time and time again that "the security of our borders" is the country's top priority and will be protected by systematic passport checks, it does not mean the Government should ignore the evidence for political reasons, does it?


There are 4 things going on here: 1) I have yet to see any evidence that there are in fact hundreds of dragons and foreign armies all around us, singling out Britain, trying to get inside our castle;  2) Even for the odd few there might be lurking from time to time, our castle walls are already screwed: you can walk round the back and so checking everyone at the drawbridge won't keep out the bad guys; 3) We've got our own bad guys from within the castle community, so the walls won't help against them; 4) We're relying on a medieval defence system in an age where we should using the modern tools at our disposal.

The key to keeping our community safe would be to pull down the walls, allow all of us peaceful folk to travel about freely - and rely on our security services, with the best information available to them (which they currently do not have because of the insistence that they waste their time manning the drawbridge) - to ensure our safety.

That is looking at the matter mainly from a Schengen perspective.  From a wider more libertarian type perspective, however, should there be any borders or border controls in this world?  Should the EU still have visa restrictions at least for countries at the same stage of economic development?  Why can't I go and live in the US, Australia or Canada if I can move to Germany or Sweden?  At least why can't I travel there without having to queue up for ages with a silly little passport that an official checks?  As the world becomes an increasingly smaller, more integrated, more coherent whole I believe there is a lot to be said for the great Labour politician Ernest Bevin's view:

"My foreign policy is to be able to take a ticket at Victoria and go anywhere I damn well please."

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Remembrance Sunday and Germans

I'm just back from our little Suffolk town's Remembrance Sunday service.  The war memorial is brilliantly looked after, with family names of people from the town I recognise, who still live here, on it.  I remember people in the 1980s saying that the whole culture of remembrance would die out.  I'm personally very glad to see that seems to be far from the case.

Our family was/is completely non-religious and we never went to church except today - it wasn't about the religious act, it was about having a forum and an event to remember.  It was particularly important to us as my father was in the British Army and served in three armed conflicts (not including Northern Ireland).  My mother was very nearly a 23 year old widow a year into her marriage because of a mortar attack on my father in Aden in 1964.

Beautiful, well attended Remembrance Sunday in my town
Remembrance Sunday was also very poignant for us precisely because Mutti is German.  My grandparents literally fought on opposite sides in WW2.  My English grandfather had also served in the horrendous conditions of the trenches of WW1, one of the millions injured by German fire and invalided home.  This is quite an odd thing to grow up getting your head round.  It's something I share with plenty of other Anglo-Germans of course.

My German great uncle Walter was in the Afrikakorps and a British prisoner of war (he always spoke highly of the "Tommies" btw).  Another German Great Uncle, Heini, thought the War was a struggle for right and wrong between Germany and the Soviet Union.  He was sure Germany would win and did not want people afterwards to ask what he'd done, and to say "nothing".  He was 18, literally a kid, when he died outside Kiev in 1943.  His last letter home, just before Christmas, told how terrified he was to go out on patrol into the dark winter.

Amongst the first words of Father Andrew at our town ceremony was a call to remember the fallen, to call for peace and to celebrate the "reconciliation amongst peoples" - the former foes.  This has always seemed to me the complete nub of the matter.

The British Press

It's precisely for all of the above I am so sickened and fed up of recent items that have appeared in the British Press.  First we had the Daily Mail talking about the "Rise of the Fourth Reich" and Germany conquering Europe in the context of the financial crisis.  This has been going on for several months now.  They don't even have the historic knowledge to realise that a Gauleiter was a regional, not national, leader when they call Angela Merkel it.

Then came the Daily Express with its "Germany warns of War of Europe" headline, which was the most perverse distortion of Dr Merkel's speech to the Bundestag imaginable.  I don't want to send any traffic to either newspaper to boost their advertising stats: you'll have believe me.  I wrote in passing about the Express two thirds of the way down this blog.  This is a small but typical selection of the reader comments:

We also had the Church of England News publishing that absurd article about the "Gaystapo" and the "Gay Wehrmacht" - utterly devoid of any intellectual value, but so telling that the silly homophobic author chose to frame it in such language.  In passing I'd like to think that gay people will not fall for the same bigotry and prejudice in tarring all Christians with the same brush as the individual who wrote it.

Here we are 70 years on and some British appear still to be fighting a war that ended in 1945.  At school I regularly had kids who would give Hitler salutes.  I had swastikas drawn on my desk in the 1980s in Hampshire.  The fact I was born here, am a British citizen and my dad had actually risked his life serving 23 years in the British Army? Never mind.  When I was 19 at work on a gap year in Schleswig-Holstein the managing director of the company stopped me in the corridor.  Could I explain why the Sun had a headline "We beat them in 1945 and 1966, we'll beat them again" about the 1990 World Cup semi-finals?  I couldn't really and it was actually quite mortifying for me.  A few months later a letter arrived from one of the company's British dealers - it had the words "Did some old Nazi do this on purpose?" in it with reference to a faulty product that had been exported to the UK. Again all I could do was be desperately embarrassed on behalf of my father's country.

As someone who is half English and half German, and who has lived in both countries for many years (the first 12 were almost exclusively in Germany), I have -never- experienced overt prejudice or taunts for being half English in Germany.  All of the prejudice I've had directed towards me has been related to my being half-German and it is British people who do it. 

What is Actually Going On?

What seems to be going on for some/many* British people I think (*delete according to how generous you're feeling) is something like this:

  • We're jealous of Germany.  How comes they still have a manufacturing industry, make excellent cars, washing machines, have a huge trade surplus, have superb high speed affordable trains that work, and are so wealthy compared to us? Also, why DO they always beat us at soccer?
  • The reason we're jealous is actually when it comes down to it, we are well aware of how pants we are.  In essence we feel quite inferior.  Germany is perhaps the only European country we don't actually look DOWN on, if we're honest.  It's not like the rest of the "continentals" whom we can dismiss with some amount of mirth.
  • At the same time, however, we also think/know we're superior.  This is utterly contradictory, of course, but an inferiority complex can quite often be bundled up with a superiority one.  It also doesn't matter, because at the end of the day WE WON THE WAR.
  • Because WE WON THE WAR (but still feel jealous/inferior) we must bring this up at every opportunity to put the Germans in their place. (Never mind that almost 90% of German military casualties were on the Eastern Front and even with our terrible losses Britain suffered 2% the deaths the Soviet Union did - that's not how we teach history and it's definitely not what our movies will show, ever.)
There is quite a fundamental problem with the last proposition however - apart from the fact the Germans are well aware from their perspective where WW2 was lost/won.  It is essentially that the Germans tend to find the British obsession with "the War" actually genuinely puzzling: it certainly doesn't put them in their place to bring it up.  It just makes Britain (for whom most Germans have quite a lot of inherent respect) look faintly ridiculous.  Basil Fawlty needn't have said "Don't mention the War" to be polite: it's not polite to avoid it so much as to avoid a pretty sincere "huh?"

[My Twitter buddy @mynameisedd, who has a refreshingly younger person's take on all this (he's 17), has since put this to me as a young German person would probably react to a WW2 comment in much the same way we would if a French person came running up to us shouting "1066! 1066!" - I rather like this analogy.  Another might be an American expecting us to be offended or put down by mentioning 1776.  Would we care?]

Germans genuinely don't understand why anyone would bring up the War in the context of a sporting event, much less so in the context of their Chancellor making a historic speech in the very serious situation of impending economic meltdown.  Merkel's speech was about the need for Germans to assume their special responsibility, because of their history, and to reach into German tax-payers' pockets, to ensure that conflict doesn't arise again in Europe.  In case you're wondering, that is how many Germans see the overriding reason for the existence of the EU: something the Brits continually fail to see themselves.  For that to lead to the Express headline? Wow, just wow.

It's Not Just the Tabloids

This reaction is not because the Germans have no sense of humour.  The appearance of 'Allo 'Allo dubbed into German was I think a seminal moment for the country.  Similarly there have now been several home grown comedies about Hitler in recent years.  This is a very healthy development for a country that is acutely aware of its special responsibility to learn from the past, but which has moved on and is now in a very different place.

This isn't about humour at all - which of course the British can do brilliantly and which I personally greatly enjoy.  This is about deliberate, nasty, and apparently acceptable racism and prejudice.  And it also isn't limited to the Tabloid Press.  Their regular anti-German attacks are, incidentally, reported on in the German press and are generally met with a weary expression rather than any indignation.

Take a look at this.  It appeared two days ago in the Guardian.  The (slightly misquoted) German at the end is from 1861 (yep, 150 years ago) by the nationalist Emanuel Geibel.   It means the "May the world enjoy the German spirit".  This was a very particular phrase used by the Kaiser in the context of German Colonial Imperialism in Africa (he was of course busy trying to copy the British and French).  It was then employed of course by the Nazis in the context of their racial theories and policies.  The use of "Führung", in German, has only one interpretation in this context: it makes the reader think of Hitler and the Third Reich.  Angela Merkel's middle name is for the record, Dorothea.  "Hilda" means "Battle Maiden" from Old German.  This isn't casual racism - it is extremely deliberate and educated.

There are valid concerns, and there should be debate, about what is happening in the Euro Crisis regarding the interplay of democracy and economics.  Putting that aspect to one side, the Germans (and Merkel in particular) are damned on the one hand if they do not as Europe's economic powerhouse provide decisive leadership, as called for in particular by the Coalition.  On the other hand, when they do provide it, we do not have to wait long for calculated and spiteful racist commentary from not just the Tabloids, but also the so-called quality liberal press in this country.  Debate the issue, do not resort to frankly pathetic Third Reich jibes.

We Will Remember Them

Our War Memorial

And so we come back to this Day of Remembrance.  I think of the men who left our town in those dismal years of 1914-1918, and since then, who never returned.  I think of the service people who are serving and still suffering.  I think also of the millions of civilians who were injured, raped or died during conflicts: the emphasis is so much on military remembrance it seems, but many more civilians in particular during WW2, died.  I think of members of my own family, from both sides, who were pawns and victims in the divided politics of the 20th century.

And I really, really wish that people in this country could move on, keeping the personal remembrance, the dignity, and the gratitude; but without continually lowering themselves regarding the Germany of today: a country that in 2011 is our neighbour, our trading partner, our ally, and our friend.