Friday, 29 September 2017


Does anyone else share my irrational dislike for these contemporary catchphrases::

"Shoot the breeze". It is something you can do with someone else, apparently.

"Not so much" - not in the old context of "Not so much salt in the potatoes next time might be a good idea" but as a response to, "Do you like living in this place?" "Do you like the course you're doing?" "Do you like what I've done with the curtains?"

"Not so much".

It sounds like you don't speak English naturally.

"Heft" also annoys me - it seems to have become the new shard

There is some other current usage that I probably find more irritating than all of these put together but my mind has decided to hide it from me, presumably to prevent me from spending my entire waking day in a perpetual state of frenzy. But it will come back in the fullness of time and then I shall tell the world (the blog as therapy).

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Have You Noticed

Driving through Flanders we noticed a haze. It seems to be something to do with autumn, which made us think of Keats's "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness". Then, looking at that poem ("Ode to Autumn") I thought I noticed an echo of it in another more recent poem. What do you think:

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river-sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;  30
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

That's from the Keats.

Then there is this from Wilfred Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, – 
The shrill, dementedchoirs of wailing shells;  
And bugles7 calling for them from sad shires.8
What candles9 may be held to speed them all?  
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes  
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.  
The pallor10 of girls' brows shall be their pall;  
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,  
And each slow dusk11 a drawing-down of blinds.12

Aren't there resonances between the two? Or am I imagining it? I'm only suggesting that Owen had Keats's lines buried in his mind and something of their music sang through- but I find it interesting to think of the possible fine threads of connection linking one writer to another back through time and the way that reading can be a kind of dialogue, even when the author of what you are reading his no longer around.

Monday, 25 September 2017


A while ago, I put one clove of garlic into some earth. Just one small clove. Yesterday, I pulled it up again and it had multiplied into this:

Not the plate, just the object on it, but still.

More prosaically, I suppose, I then chopped it up and mixed it with tomatoes and chilli and parmesan and some olive oil my friend had made in Italy and ate the whole lot with spaghetti. Which is not at all magic for those I live with.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Negative Space

I'm sure I've read somewhere about a branch of science that maps by absence. Perhaps I've conjured the idea out of my imagination but certainly such a thing makes sense to me these days. Something - or in my case someone - that you have taken for granted as part of your daily landscape is removed and the space left empty shows you exactly how pleasant it was to have that space filled by what has gone.

The only comparable experience that comes to mind is something that happened several years ago. There was a tree in our neighbours' garden, just beside the fence that divided them from us. It wasn't something I really noticed. It was nice when it came into leaf in spring, of course, like all the trees around. It was slightly irritating when it dropped masses of leaves or decided to reach its branches up to the power lines, at which point the local authorities would tell us that we had to have it cut back, (why us; it was their tree; yes, but they were our power lines, apparently).

The tree was just part of the scenery mostly, unnoticed as an individual item therein. And then one day I came out on the back verandah and somehow things had changed. At first, I couldn't see what was different, beyond knowing that the scene was in some way not nearly as nice as it had been before. There was a hole in the picture. Something was no longer there.

The neighbours had cut down the tree that day, it turned out. I don't know why. As they were renting, they hadn't actually been allowed to, but it was too late to do anything, by the time they were found out.

Only in the tree's absence did I realise how much it had been a part of the pleasantness of our back garden. Only then did I see all that it had shielded us from. Only then did I feel consciously grateful for the shade it had given us, which I had not been properly aware of until it no longer did.

I remember that tree now, having lost someone who was part of my life's fabric. Only now that he is gone do I fully understand how much he was there. The constant to-and-fro  that I had with my brother is something I never questioned. It was part of the everyday, the unnoticed flow of life. In its place there is nothing, a space that no one else can fill.

Appreciate what you have before it vanishes - the age-old lesson.

The first boxer, Bamtsa

With Paul, gardener, DIY dentist and maker of the best hot buttered toast on earth

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Battered Penguin - The Lost Continent by Gavin Hewitt

(Yes, I know it is only a Penguin substitute - Hodder, to be precise)

I am still reeling from the strange experience of deciding - somewhat from a sense of duty - to read a book about the euro and finding myself absolutely glued by it from beginning to end. The book's author, Gavin Hewitt, who was BBC correspondent in Brussels, tells the story of an elite so intent on realising a dream of unity that they ended up threatening the social fabric of a continent, ruining the lives of a generation and stripping nations of sovereignty and true democracy.

The euro emerged, according to Hewitt, from German unification, (although monetary union had been dreamt of long before):

"The German chancellor understood a price would have to be paid for German reunification ... by Berlin committing to a closer European Union", Hewitt tells us, continuing, "There was already a blueprint for the next stage of European integration. It was economic and monetary union with a shared currency."

In 1991, Mitterrand and Kohl committed themselves to this at Maastricht, ignoring the doubts of the Bundesbank about "whether a monetary union with a European central bank setting interest rates could survive."

The bank had major questions about whether setting up a monetary union without political union could work. But, while there were warnings not just about the differences between economies but between cultures, while political union wasn't feasible - because the people of Europe had no desire for it, "European statesman", according to Hewitt, "brushed such objections away".  Herman van Rompuy, then president of the European Council, admitted that:

"The euro was not created because there was an economic necessity, not at all. The euro was created as a major step in European integration".

I am not suggesting it was intentional, but what actually happened as a result of Europe's leaders pursuing their abstract dream, their desire for "integration" at any cost - (and what is it, apart from the amassing of power for certain people and institutions in Brussels that is so great about this concept; no one ever explains this with clarity - and spare me the argument that union has stopped European wars: which ones, where?) - was that membership of the eurozone resulted in individual nations being bullied and forced towards unasked for political union. As their economies failed and outside bodies forced them into bailout, the price became their own economic sovereignty.

The general consensus, of course, is to say that countries like Greece and Spain and Ireland overspent and behaved stupidly and had to suffer the consequences. This is the German line, but, as Hewitt tells it, "from the beginning of monetary union there had been deception. Figures were massaged to allow countries like Greece to join; later, rules were bent to allow countries like France and Germany to run up large deficits. Objections were ignored. Critics ... were dismissed as being anti-European."

Furthermore, despite the moralistic attitude of Merkel and her government, ("Member states face many years of work to atone for past sins", she declared in 2011, talking about countries other than her own), Germany did very well indeed out of those so-called "sins". It is surely no coincidence that in 2010, "just as Europe was struggling with its debt crisis, the value of German exports rose by nearly 20 per cent in a year." While an argument could be made that government and business are separate, the success of Merkel's government depended on the country's role as an economic powerhouse, and that depended on the shovelling of money and goods to other members of the eurozone, who would later be ruined by this very process.

German banks were only too willing to lend:

"[In Ireland] they invested over 200 billion euros, fuelling the appetites of the Irish developers. The governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, Patrick Honohan, said afterwards that foreign borrowing had financed the bubble".

In Spain:

"German officials who later would demand austerity had remained silent when German banks were lending the Spanish money; as they grew richer, the Spanish were importing more and more German luxury goods. The American economist, Adam Posen, said, 'It was as if Germany had been running a scheme in its own interest'."

German business - and by extension the German government, which profited in popularity from business's success - have the same responsibility, in my view, as the drug dealer who does not use but happily supplies the addict. Atoning for sins, if we are to deal in such language, is something that all sides should be involved in.

The economist Luis Garicano observed that "the euro has converted developed countries into developing ones", the Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugmann said Europe's leaders engaged in "magical thinking" about the euro, continuing, "the real story behind the euro-mess lies not in the profligacy of politicians but in the arrogance of elites, specifically the policy elites who pushed Europe into adopting a single currency well before the continent was ready for such a experiment". Europe's elite ploughed on regardless, "caught up in the romance of their ambition".  They "believed that destiny lay in building an ever-closer European Union" and were prepared to ditch economic sanity in the pursuit of that. While "on 3 May 1998, the European Commission judged that Greece had not met the criteria for joining ... the following year, the officials dropped their objections" despite the fact that, for instance, "the Greek state railway .. accounts were impenetrable. The suspicion was that there were more employees than passengers. A former minister, Stefanos Manos, said publicly at the time that it would be cheaper to send everyone by taxi." This was an irresponsibile decision on the part of the European Commission - and it ended up causing damage to the lives of many, many Greeks.

In short, Hewitt's contention is that, "Europe's leaders had embarked on the giant undertaking [monetary union] ... knowing that it was flawed." As one economist quoted by Hewitt said, the currency "offered every facility to a country to get into trouble"". When this happened, rather than admitting the mistake, Europe fought "to save its currency and, in its determination to protect its dream, was prepared to compromise democracy." Austerity was forced on countries - almost exclusively at the insistence of Merkel and Germany, (who were very ready to take the moral high ground and cast themselves as the exemplary workers of Europe, a concept, if ever believable, now thoroughly undermined by the diesel scandal in the German car industry). Leaving aside questions about how moral or high the moral high ground actually was that Merkel and Germany appeared to think they were occupying as they handed out their medicine, as George Soros pointed out, Germany's remedy was "the wrong remedy; you cannot reduce the debt burden by shrinking the economy, only by growing your way out of it."

In the process of protecting "its dream", unelected officials in Brussels, as Hewitt describes in horrifying, enraging detail, trapped and bullied the democratically elected governments of Ireland, Spain, Greece, Cyprus and Portugal, finally forcing each one to give up the right to control their own economies. This was done almost entirely at the behest of Merkel's goverment - Sarkozy tried to restrain her to some extent; her mentor Kohl reportedly said of her insistence on extreme austerity vis a vis the Greeks, "'She is ruining my Europe' … He wanted her to show solidarity and … to stick with the Greeks, 'even if it costs us something.'" But time and again Merkel's flawed judgment won out, a sobering thought, when contemplating the almost inevitable result of the coming German election.

Meanwhile, the struggle to save the euro and by implication "the European project [was] delivering more power to Brussels" Hewitt explains, adding "In the year of austerity, its European quarter [was] cluttered with cranes. It [had] expanded regardless, despite the hard times elsewhere. The EU believes in itself and its manifest destiny."

Hewitt's section on the relationship between Britain and Brussels delineates some of the inherent problems the UK faces. He describes the refusal of Brussels officials to understand Alistair Darling's position when he attended a eurozone bailout meeting, just after an election, in the interim period before his successor, George Osborne was sworn in; his inability to guarantee anything was seen as the British yet again being difficult, and, it seems to me, reveals the recurring disdain for democracy that so much of the book seems to highlight among the Brussels elite.

Hewitt quotes a fascinating analysis of the UK's position vis a vis Europe, from Roy Jenkins:

"There are only two coherent British attitudes to Europe. One is to participate fully, and to endeavour to exercise as much influence and gain as much benefit as possible from the inside. The other is to recognise that Britain's history, national psychology and political culture may be such that we can never be anything but a foot-dragging and constantly complaining member and that it would be better, and would certainly produce less friction, to accept this and to move towards an orderly, and if possible, reasonably amicable separation."

Hewitt also claims that on D-Day Churchill turned to de Gaulle and said, "Every time Britain has to decide between Europe and the open sea, it is always the open sea that we will choose", and on another occasion, (possibly not in the presence of de Gaulle) "We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed." In passing, Hewitt also mentions that Harold MacMillan predicted, it seems to me very accurately, that the European Union would be "a boastful, powerful 'Empire of Charlemagne', now under French, but later bound to come under German control."

One aspect of the euro story that Hewitt does not cover is the approach of Denmark. That country's no vote to Maastricht shocked Brussels, and the Danish attitude towards the euro should be a part of any story of its development. I think Hewitt was writing before Juncker came to power and so it is not a criticism to say that he does not mention the supreme irony - and one of the biggest mistakes on the part of the European establishment, in terms of public relations - which is that Juncker is now the spokesman for the European dream of federalism, while also being the architect of a supremely immoral taxation system that has made his country immensely rich at the expense of the other members of the European Union. What commitment to the cause of unity against the nation state his actions have displayed.

All in all, this book has been a relief and a revelation. I now fear Brexit, because I see what a sinister monolith the European project is - and, in that context, there is a particularly ominous moment in the narrative when the Prime Minister of Spain expresses confidence that the EU will not crush his country, because its economy is too big and too important, and is promptly crushed; this suggests that the UK's hopes that its clout will count for something are sadly misplaced; indeed the book's whole narrative of fanatical dedication to an idea at the expense of people is a lesson from which the British should be able to draw some worrying conclusions.

However, I am now also wholeheartedly glad that Brexit is happening. Being part of the appalling racket that is the Brussels project, led as Macmillan predicted by Germany, particularly while Germany's leader is Merkel - her judgment emerges in the story time and time again as flawed and her stubborn insistence on her own strategies being followed has led to recession and countless wasted lives - is utterly repugnant. 

Near the end of the book Hewitt poses some questions, the answers to which may elucidate whether or not Britain will find that it has been wise as well as right in seeking to leave this dreadful organisation:

"Does power and influence derive from large organisations or does it, at root, come from economic success? Does the desire to centralise, to harmonise, to regulate, suit the digital age that empowers the nimble, the creative and the innovator?"

He concludes with some discussion of the EU's future plans and some worrying observations about democracy in the area. As this paragraph was written in 2013 and yet quite a bit of the part of it dealing with EU plans seems to mirror Juncker's speech this week, one can only applaud his prescience:

"The Germans are discussing a federal system for Europe much as they operate in Germany. There are position papers that envisage a directly elected president of the commission served by two chambers – the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers … the problem for Europe is that if it cannot sketch out where it is heading and level with its people, then loyalty will be begrudging at best. The risk is that Europe becomes absorbed in itself, in its own grand projects and its own institutions … The euro was one of the foundation stones of integration but proved to be flawed in design. Yoking together such different economies was an act of hubris.... Economic and monetary union, so far, has not delivered stability but division … the remedy, designed in Germany, has been austerity and reform. Countries have been consigned to recession as they struggled to become competitive with the powerhouse of Germany. The levels of unemployment have not been seen since the thirties … In the meantime, the social fabric weakens … As leaders have scrambled to shore up the euro, they have, at times, appeared careless of democracy … Democracy works best when the lines between the decision-makers and the governed are short and transparent. Most people would agree that democratic control over tax and spending is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society, but what happens if that budget is determined by European officials? Who does the voter hold responsible? … A new model of government is emerging in Europe, but democratic accountability is lagging far behind."

I should add that there were a couple of very intriguing details that I would never have known without reading the book:

1. Christine Lagarde was once a champion synchronised swimmer.

2. Angela Merkel's party used the Rolling Stones song "Angie" at campaign events, which I find mystifyingly odd.

In addition, Hewitt's description of the fall of Berlusconi may well provide a blueprint for the fall of Trump one of these days. But Berlusconi is a bit like The Office - his was the original European series, with Trump the American remake. 

Finally, if nothing else, this book should be required reading for all aspirant nations, such as Romania and Croatia, who still believe they would like to part of the eurozone. My advice to them, on the strength of The Lost Continent, is: Beware.

Friday, 22 September 2017

No Roses Please

By chance, just after reading PJ Kavanagh's thoughts on Commonwealth War Graves, I came upon a Commonwealth War Grave in Wiltshire - one that deviates slightly from the vision painted by PJ Kavanagh in the passage I quoted from him in my last post; this graveyard is part of a larger church graveyard, and the parishioners have chosen not to include among the graves the usual Commonwealth War Graves roses and other garden plantings.

So Kavanagh's English country garden element is missing, but in every other way the place conforms to his ideal - that is, it honours individuals who got caught up in the maelstrom that was 1914 to 1918 in Europe.

Lying in this particular cemetery in Wiltshire are a number of Australians. They did not die as a result of battle but from the Spanish Flu:

The church itself is small and old but not especially exciting (although it does have some kneelers embroidered with maps of Australia). There is a rather charming memorial to a former local on one wall though:

"In loving memory of John Henry Leech" it says, "born 4 Dec 1862, died 29 Dec 1900, his short life was devoted to the science of entomology, to travel and sport. Ever an earnest student of nature and a staunch and generous friend."

He sounds a charming innocent. Compared to Cyril Mashford and Private M Cummings, let alone HR Phillips, one might say that his life was actually fairly long.

Churches like these are rarely well attended nowadays and they cost a fair bit to insure and keep up. Sometimes I read things about how they should be shut down or reconfigured to become community something or others, but they seem to me to be part of the beauty of Britain, just as they are, not useful now for everyone, but usually comforting for some at certain times.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Places of Beauty and Peace

I was reminded the other day that PJ Kavanagh died two years ago in August. I used to love his pieces in the Spectator - wise, meditative essays. What I hadn't realised was that he had had another life, as a performer on television programmes with David Frost! (My allowance of exclamation marks for 2017, used up right there, but in a worthy cause, I think.)

Having recalled him, I decided I wanted to read some of Kavanagh's prose writing and, after a quick search on Abebooks, I found a book called People and Places in which some of the columns Kavanagh wrote between 1975 and 1987 had been collected. I received it today and found it included an essay about Ivor Gurney and naming, which contains a lovely section about the Commonwealth War Graves that have been established all across the Western Front since the First World War.

Over the last three years, while living in Belgium, I have spent quite a lot of time in CWG graveyards in Flanders, quite often at grave rededications. These happen when patient forensic work results in the identification of a soldier whose tombstone hitherto was marked 'Known unto God'. Kavanagh identifies the important role the Commonwealth War Graves play in reasserting  'the value of the individual, after the indiscriminate blood-letting' and it is moving to know that this task is still considered important.

The essay, written in 1982, starts with a visit Kavanagh makes to the places that Ivor Gurney mentions in his poetry. Then Kavanagh discovers the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries:

"But all the time, slowly at first, then with increasing speed and force, it is borne in upon one that something has happened since he [Gurney] was there, something almost as enormous as what he experienced. At Aveluy there is a small graveyard of soldiers, surprisingly pretty; at Laventie there is another, and then you realise that at almost every bend in the road, hidden in cornfields, in orchards, in copses, are these small cemeteries, each prettier than the last - two thousand nine hundred and thirty-seven of them in France alone - and in each is the row of identical, well-designed headstones, sometimes no more than twenty and never too many, so that the mind is not overwhelmed, and on each of these headstones is a name...

To someone who has not come across these little cemeteries before the effect is almost indescribable; they are intimate, personal, the way Gurney's poems are. Of course I knew there were war cemeteries on the Somme but I imagined them terrible, impersonal places, with monuments. But the whole of this part of France is subtly and almost unnoticeably a graveyard and the graveyards are all English gardens, with roses and dogwood and prunus trees. That is, the Commonwealth cemeteries are. The German ones, with their tens of thousands of black iron crosses in long rows, and no flowers, give a different impression. It could be argued that they are more appropriate to the carnage they mark. What is sure is that the little British [and Empire] ones have become places of beauty and peace. As a reassertion of the value of the individual, after the indiscriminate blood-letting, they could hardly be bettered. They have the same insistence on the significance of each separate human personality that is in Gurney's poetry. Possibly he never knew of them.

They are so well and expensively kept, by hundreds of gardeners, that they are a story in themselves. The hero is a man called Fabian Ware, who began recording individual, hastily dug graves during the war. He could have had little idea of the magnitude of the task ahead of him. After many fights with officialdom and public opinion ('Why spend money on the dead?' or 'Bring them back home', or, worst of all 'How could an Office and a Private have the same design of headstone?'), he seems to have won all his battles and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was set up, each member-country paying a share, according to the number of their losses.

After the war, teams of specially trained gardeners, "The Flying Circus", many of them ex- servicemen, toured the carnage, gathering scattered graveyards together, keeping them as near the place where the men had died as they could. Some of the ground had been fought over so often that identification was no longer possible. In which case 'Known unto God' is on the stone, a phrase contributed by Rudyard Kipling, whose own son had disappeared in this way. In some cases the sons of these original gardeners continue the work and, in the case of James MacDonald, whom we met tending the graves at Aveluy, looking entirely French in his beret, the son of one of the original gardeners (who himself fought on the Somme) is followed by his son: three generations.

In each cemetery is a book with the name of every soldier known to be there, his parents' names and his address; also a book for the remarks of visitors. The French comments are oddly French - 'Très bien entretenu', 'Endroit reposant et sage'. The British ones vary from the eloquent 'Humbled' and the conventional, though doubtless deeply felt 'They shall not be forgotten' to 'The Old Lie, Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria mori' (itself a quotation from Gurney's fellow war poet Wilfred Owen). Well - yes. But these beautifully tended English gardens do not fill one with indignation, not exactly. Who is there to blame? The politicians, the generals, seem pitifully small when compared to this vast fact, made so human and particular here. God? It was not God that invented the machine-gun. And in his only reported appearance he recommended love. These cemeteries seem a humble, and almost infinitely laborious, attempt to put a known face on a nightmare."

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Feeling Grumpy

Last night we went to the theatre called Bozar (it's supposed to be a pun; the only thing to do with something so utterly feeble is pretend you haven't noticed is my advice) in Brussels. We were going to a concert given by the Asian Youth Orchestra, conducted by their founder, Richard Pontzious, who can be seen in the first of these videos fooling around with the musicians as they play William Tell as an encore (chosen because people in Hong Kong, where the orchestra is based, are mad about racing) (listening to it I can hear some woman there with the most dreadful laugh I've ever heard; gosh, I'd be so embarrassed, if I were her):

The concert last night was the final one of a world tour. The programme began with some Richard Strauss, then a Sibelius violin concerto, with Sarah Chang as soloist, then Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major. At the very end, the orchestra (including Sarah Chang, who you will see slipping in at left) played Nimrod, because as Richard Pontzious explains, it is a tradition, begun under Menuhin:

Well, anyway, as you can imagine, I went home furious at the end of the evening. I mean, how dare these people appropriate my culture? It really is disgusting to think that the citizens of Asia think they have the right to play our music - what can they possibly know about it? Just appalling, don't you think?

And then this morning I turned on the radio and one of the announcers said there were rumours that in the next Bond movie James Bond will marry, and the other announcer said, "I wonder who the woman will be", making the assumption, for heaven's sake, that Bond would be marrying a woman. My outrage knew no bounds.

No, it didn't. The concert was wonderful. I don't care about the announcer's assumption, because it is perfectly natural. The only thing I'm grumpy about is the idiocy of modern debate and the waves of outrage about absolutely nothing that seem to be a regular feature of life today.

Monday, 4 September 2017

What I Did on my Holidays

The other day, the New Yorker reissued this cartoon from 2011 (back when it was still an interesting and varied magazine rather than an unrelenting, unvarying scream of anti-Trump obsession; I'm sure it will calm down and get back to normal eventually; if not, I guess I'll cancel my subscription in the end, but that would feel like a sad step to have to take):
Probably anyone following me on Twitter will also have a vague idea of what I was up to over the summer, but I've been well trained by countless teachers and so, as it is the start of the school year, even though I no longer go to school, and haven't for ages, I feel the need to share at least a little more of where I went and what I saw.

Mainly, I went to Alsace, where I stayed in Obernai. Obernai is a charming town with lots of half timbered buildings, an attribute it shares with most of the towns of Alsace, I soon discovered - not that I'm complaining; the towns are all extremely pretty and I highly recommend Alsace to anyone who wants to go pretty towns. Obernai is also one of those places that has plenty of faces, something I always like - but, rather than put them all here, I'll do a separate blog called Obernai Faces, so that those who do not share my passion for masonry faces can avoid it; actually, it might be better to call it Alsace Faces, as several other of the Alsace towns we visited also had plenty of buildings with faces decorating their facades.

Anyway, the big discovery for me on my holiday was an Alsace illustrator of whom until then I'd only been very vaguely aware. The illustrator's real name was Jean-Jacques Waltz, but he was affectionately known as Oncle Hansi. He was born in 1873 in Colmar and seems to have spent much of his life in Alsace, apart from a short stretch at art school in Lyon. He turned his hand to various kinds of design, including textiles:

magazines, books, menus, labels and playbills:

and shop signs - several of his charming signs can still be seen in Colmar, and there is one outside Boffinger in Paris as well:

But the works that I particularly loved - although some amongst our party (of two) judged that the element of propaganda they displayed was a little unsubtle - were the pictures Oncle Hansi produced that expressed both his love for his native area and town and his protest at its occupation by Germany, (Bismarck annexed Alsace in 1871, without the agreement of all the locals). As Oncle Hansi was imprisoned several times for making fun of the German military and German professors:

I think he was entirely justified - the kinds of people who imprison satirists definitely deserve merciless mocking.

The propaganda element is very evident in the contrasting activities going on through the school room windows in these two visions of the same town square, one under French control, one under German occupation:

However, both pictures demonstrate what I really like about Hansi's illustrations - rather like a lot of Hergé's work (the scene in the dining room in Tintin in Tibet when Tintin suddenly yells "Chang" - or does he simply sneeze? I'll have to check - comes especially to mind), it is imagined in such rich detail. Each picture of an outdoor scene contains numerous different figures, all carefully dressed and with individually imagined expressions and personalities, varying buildings, each window, doorway, roof tiling pattern et cetera, clearly delineated with interesting features, while each picture of individuals is again replete with masses of different aspects to discover:

In 1913, Oncle Hansi produced one of his apparently best loved works, Mon Village. Strangely enough, the museum of Hansi's work in Colmar had all the texts displayed but I did not see the pictures, (this may very easily have been an oversight on my part; in fact, I suspect it must have been, surely). Anyway, if you search for them on the internet, you can find many of his illustrations for the book, and they appear to be some of his most charming work.  Apparently they were modelled on Oberseebach in the north of Alsace, and they show children in traditional Alsatian costume, plus veterans from the 1870 war, mixing references to the past before annexation and the time of occupation. The text itself has a nice elegiac poignance to it, I think, with many digs at the Germans incorporated. Some might find the idealising tone too saccharine, but I would point out that the towns of Alsace are genuinely lovely enough for it to be possible that little of Oncle Hansi description strays far from reality, even today. The museum also makes the claim that Oncle Hansi saw himself as a "people's artist", trying to connect with all parts of society with his books; while Mon Village appears to be a book for children, it can also be understood as a work of resistance against German occupation, in its obvious love of Alsatian tradition and almost more obvious attacks on German rule.

Here is the text of the book, Mon Village:

"The village that I am going to describe to you is not my invention. It exists. To find it you have to go a long way off the main road in the direction of Wissembourg or Niederbronn. You will leave the train at some little flower-covered station. You will follow a narrow path bordered by fruit trees. From a distance you will see a pointed steeple soaring above wheat fields or piercing the lace of the hops. Then on the shallow track, overgrown with flowering hawthorn, you will see at the edge of the wood, small girls leaving flowers on graves or at the feet of Turks and hunters fallen in great battles (???). This pretty village, whose pleasant houses conceal some suffering, is an emblem for the whole of Alsace, and that is why I will not tell you its name.

If you search for it in your atlas, you will find it somewhere between the Rhine and les Vosges, wherever your finger lands on the map in the region which at the moment is no longer in France and that has, ever since its removal from its own country, been edged around with mourning.

The Storks

The greatest pleasure of children in my village is the arrival of the storks. The first to arrive, at the end of winter, is an old grandmother stork. She lands for a few moments on the nest on the school house, then she disappears. She has gone off to tell the rest of the storks that the nest is in a good state. The time to return has arrived. The mother stork arrives and perches on the nest, while the father, to ensure he is seen by everybody, executes a few gliding swoops around her. Then from every street and every house cries of joy ring out. All the children of the village from the biggest to the smallest come running from every direction. They gather, join hands, forming a circle, and they start to sing: "Stork, stork, you are lucky. You spend every year in France; stork, stork, bring us in your beak a little soldier" (???).


The school has two teachers. One, Father Vetter, is very old and everyone loves him. Before the war he was already teaching French to the mothers and fathers of today's little Alsatians. When a child from the village wants to go to France, it is father Vetter who teaches him the most useful words, with the help of a very old, very dogeared grammar book. Father Vetter is invited to all the weddings and all the parties of all the village families, and no small boy has ever dreamed of mucking up in his class. But one day the government decided that he was too old and sent us a young teacher to help Father Vetter. This man is haughty and tough, with a false rubber collar and a jacket made out of a green sheet. He cannot speak anything but a tormented and pretentious form of Hoch Deutsch. He has a cane in his hand at all times and is mean to all the children, except those of the policeman - to them he is all sugar and honey.

The Bakery

In autumn, we celebrate the parish holiday, called the Messti. The day before, the house begins to fill with the lovely scent of pastry. We are forbidden to disturb our mother while she is busy mysteriously constructing huge plum and apple tarts and a gigantic Kugelhopf. Afterwards, if the children are good, they are allowed to go into the kitchen and make tiny Bretzels with what is left of the pastry. In the evening, the solemn moment arrives when everything is taken to the baker's to be cooked in his oven - the large fruit tarts are arranged in serried rows under diamonds of golden pastry. The grown-ups carry their precious platters proudly. The young ones form a guard of honour agains chickens and geese. In the main street, the band marches joyfully in front of little Karl, the seventh son of the policeman, who chews black bread while little Karl fumes with rage and dreams of his plans for vengeance.


If you were to arrive in my village on Sunday just when everyone is coming out of church, you would witness one of the most picturesque spectacles anyone could imagine. You would see young girls whose calm beauty is crowned with a large black ribbon, young people whose severe clothing is set off by a pretty touch of red, and old people who still wear wide frock coats and tricorn hats. It's true that the costumes my descriptions conjure up for you are not still worn in all the villages of Alsace, but, even though traditional costume is not preserved everywhere, the Alsace spirit is. Sometimes French tourists visit us; that is a great joy for everyone. One day a little Parisian girl asked me why the girls of Alsace do not put the tricolor in their hair, as the girls in Paris do. It was obvious that she had not met our policeman.


Sunday is a wonderful day for the children. To start with, they are allowed to sleep in, on condition that they have polished their shoes the night before. Then, once they get out of bed, they get dressed up. Their mothers do the girls' hair - they wind two pretty plaits around their ears, put on a colourful skirt, an embroidered bodice and their Sunday hat. The boys tidy themselves up - they scrub themselves so hard that their cheeks shine like porcelain. They put on a black suit like the ones their fathers wear. Then they set off for the church, the smallest at the front, happy knowing their parents are behind them, admiring and loving them. Then, once the midday meal is finished, the children run to the school square. Soon under the old liberty tree blond heads, coloured skirts and red waistcoats swarm.

Messti Festival

Like all Alsace festivals, Messti begins with a lavish family meal. Soup with quenelles, hare stew and then an enormous roast. Before the tarts are served, cousins and friends from neighbouring villages arrive, carrying baskets and umbrellas. Officially speaking, the festival doesn't begin before the gendarme has made his rounds. He does this to see that the German flag is flying above any others, according to the law, and to closely inspect the pain d'épices stall, checking that none of the wares are decorated in French colours. This doe, the festival begins. There is a procession led by musicians and the prettiest girl presents a biscuit (?) to the mayor. Finally, there is a ball which lasts into the night. It is very late indeed when the last of our friends leave us."

If you object to either patriotism or prettiness, Oncle Hansi may not be the man for you. I was charmed by a lot of what he did and intrigued by the possibility that Hergé might in some ways have been inspired by the example of his minutely imagined worlds.