Friday, 27 December 2013

Castles of the Rhine Gorge

The Rhine Gorge does not have to work hard for its appellation of 'romantic'.  It was at the heart of the nineteenth century movement towards sentimental revision of popular conceptions of the past.  For the romanticist, the castles built by robber barons or political prelates aiming to extort money from the travellers and traders who passed up and down the river can so easily be converted in the mind's eye into fairy tale residences of beautiful princesses or chivalric knights.  Many of us seem to prefer our history with a large top-dressing of imagination and as few grisly details of reality as possible. 

There are so many of these remarkable fortresses perched on the hills overlooking the waterway that tourists have probably forgotten their names within minutes of having first heard them. One castle even sits on an island in the river itself.  Did we really hear the guide pointing out Castle Cat and Castle Mouse?  Whatever happened to Castle Cheese?  (Burg Katz, right and Burg Maus, above left.)

Relatively few of the Rhine Gorge Castles seem to have been left in a ruinous condition.  Many are now hotels or tourist centres.  Bromserburg in Rudesheim is a wine museum.

Pfalzgrafenstein (left) cannot be a mere customs post and so has to be a dungeon designed to keep a beautiful maiden away from her unsuitable lover.  Needless to say, it failed in this capacity, since no castle is strong enough to stand against love.  At least that's they way it usually works out in the fairy tales.

Of course the most fairy tale of them all, at least in appearance, has to be Marksburg (right) not too far south of Koblenz.  If ever there was a fortress designed to feature in story books and epic films this must be it.  From a distance it is quite simply perfect.  I found it remarkably difficult to photograph without a rose tint invading even my camera lens. 

Mind you, the medieval baron who allowed the field of defensive fire to be quite so badly overgrown would probably not have held on to his castle for long.  Now would the present author have cared to be involved with the digging of the well to supply this eyrie with water.

As for the maiden who lived at the top of the tower, she probably froze to death.   There's never a handsome knight on a white charger around when you need one these days.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Conversation with a Squirrel

"It's no use complaining to me, mate," said the grey squirrel, drawing himself up to his full height of about ten inches or so.  "There's no sign here saying 'Birds only, squirrels keep off,'"

"Would you take any notice if I put up a sign?" I asked.

"Of course not," he replied. "Squirrels can't read, silly."

"And it doesn't seem to make any difference if I set up the bird feeder in a holly bush or some other really tricky location."

"You have to know the right way to approach a holly bush, but of course I do know it.  And as for tricky locations, I don't know what you mean. I am a squirrel.  There's no such thing as a tricky location.  Anyway, what have you got against squirrels eating these seeds?  Birds are messy and they drop half of the seeds on the ground.  Then you get weeds in your flower bed.  You should be thanking me for performing a public service."

"I don't mind so much about the seeds on the ground.  It's the climbing up the bird table that I'm objecting to."

"There's no notice here saying, 'No climbing.'"

"Now look, we've been through all that.  What about the poor red squirrels anyway.  You've driven them all off and they were here first."

"Personally I never saw a red squirrel mate.  In any case, what about the Picts?  You Scots have driven them all off and they were here first."

"Probably they forgot to put up any notices,"  I said.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

More Thoughts on Democracy

Hardly anyone in the West can be found to argue against democracy; indeed, it is considered a truism that democracy is the best form of government. Countries moving towards democracy are regarded as making political progress, whilst those with other systems are trapped in political backwardness. When applied to systems of government, the word ‘undemocratic’ has become almost a synonym for ‘bad’.
You would certainly be excused for thinking that we believe ourselves and most of our immediate neighbours to possess democratic systems. Yet can we even define the concept? One hears elected politicians, who presumably ought to know what they are doing, regularly make a simplistic equation between democracy and majority rule.
If democracy were indeed the same thing as majority rule then of course it would be far from the best possible system of government. It is not hard to show examples of what J S Mill called the tyranny of the majority. Suppose a society to be divided upon ethnic, religious or economic grounds, such that one section was always outvoted. Would it be democratic for the majority to rob, persecute, or enslave that minority? If not, then democracy must imply limits to what the majority may do. These limits are usually understood to be human and civil rights.
Even more crudely, the doctrine of the ‘mandate’ is nowadays widely taken to mean that an elected government is empowered to put into practice any element of the manifesto upon which it stood. The voters who supported a government are held to have endorsed everything that it proposed, despite the fact that, except for the occasional referendum, there exists no mechanism by which the electorate may disagree.
Democracy means rule by the people, not the dominion of the majority, not the dominion of the largest minority (which was the UK norm between 1945 and 2010), and certainly not the dominion of the professional political class.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

A Democratic Country?

John Wyndham asked “Why was I condemned to live in a democracy where every fool's vote is equal to a sensible man's?”
In the Platonic tradition everyone should stick to what they are good at and most people are no good at statecraft. The same may well be true for any specialist subject. If you were about to undergo brain surgery would you be inclined to rely on a brain surgeon or take a vote amongst all the patients in the hospital? Would you rather your airliner was flown by a pilot or elect someone from amongst the passengers?
If you agree that specialist tasks should be performed by specialists and yet consider yourself a democrat then perhaps you are either a person who believes that running the country requires no expertise, or else someone who conflates the idea of the most popular with the idea of the best.
Yet the alternative is even less attractive. Of late a whole class of politicians who know no trade but politics has grown up. These professional politicians are not in the service of democracy.
It cannot be democracy where most constituencies are safe seats for a particular party and where the choice of representative is effectively restricted to the person approved by a small number of that party's activists.  In practice we have even less of a democratic choice in politics than we do in electricity supply. The sooner we move to open primaries the better.
Moreover, although we have travelled a long road from the days when the leading citizens of each borough used to select two of their number to travel to the capital for short assemblies, decide basic issues of taxation and supply and thereafter return and explain matters to their fellow citizens, I see no good reason why we should not require  any prospective MP to live in a constituency for at least two years before being eligible to represent it.

Thursday, 12 December 2013


At the foot of the Niederwald hill and at the entrance to the Rhine
Gorge on the river, Rudesheim is a justifiably popular destination for tourists. This source of income is now added to its traditional livelihood which for a millennium has come from winemaking and shipping.  It is an ideal base from which to explore the many romantic castles that overlook the Gorge.

It is a good idea to reach the cable car up to the Germania monument at the top of the hill before the crowds in the morning. You can enjoy a beautiful view across the Rhine Valley and stroll along the floral walk. On the way up and down you have a close up of the vineyards on the slopes and can appreciate an aerial perspective of the Brömserburg. This, the oldest of the Rhine Gorge castles, is built on Roman foundations. It is now a wine museum.

The Drosselgasse is a lane famous for being so narrow that it is reputed that drunks had not the space to fall over. It is lined with taverns and restaurants and full of tourists trying to take photographs that do not include other tourists.
The annual wine festival is the third week in August, but if you miss it you can still sample the local wine in the main square or the various wine shops.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

A Free Society

The concept of a free society is not difficult to grasp. For me, it is nowhere more clearly spelled out than in John Stewart Mill's book 'On Liberty'. Although a nineteenth century work, its fundamental principle is still sound. It is this: everyone should be allowed to do what they want as long as it affects no-one but themselves; when one person's words or actions begin to impinge upon others, we should draw the line at significant harm.
That line is further away than one might think. We do not, for example, suffer significant harm when we are offended, not even if we become angry and start shouting. Indeed, by frightening others when we are angry we may do harm ourselves.  It also makes an important difference whether someone is trying to offend us or whether we are going out of our way to seek and take offence. Freedom of speech is more important than the feelings of any individual or any group, however deep those feelings may run. Neither we nor our views should be above criticism.
For Mill the line is crossed when the exercise of one person's freedom poses a direct threat to someone else. He has no concern when someone in a rational debate denounces profiteering by corn merchants. He would not allow the same words to be spoken by a rabble rouser whipping up a mob outside a corn merchant's house.
Today in Britain, freedom of speech is under threat from both reactionary and populist forces. Intolerance of dissent shows itself in unwillingness to listen to rational argument and the shouting down of contrary views. It shows itself in a determination to impose a viewpoint by compulsion upon those who cannot be persuaded by reason, or upon those with whom persuasion has not even been attempted. It shows itself in declarations that certain topics may not be discussed at all or that perceived dissenters must be punished unheard.
When we restrict freedom of speech we take a big step down the road to totalitarianism and its associated social stagnation and intellectual decay. We need to think more carefully before we permit steps in such a backward direction, however seemingly well motivated.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Die Lorelei

I was fortunate enough to sail down the Rhine Gorge, past the notorious Lorelei Rock, the scene of numerous wrecks. As we approached, the ship's loudspeakers began to play the lilting Lorelei Waltz, which is a folk song setting of the famous 1822 poem by Heinrich Heine.

When I got home, I looked for a translation of the poem, but could not find one that I really liked. I doubt in fact that a pure translation that retains the poetic beauty of the orginal is possible. Since my German hovers somewhere on the weak side of feeble I needed help from various sources, but I eventually produced my own version. I immediately confess that it is a paraphrase rather than a translation, and I certainly would not claim for it the artistic merit of Heine's poem, but maybe it makes a small contribution to an understanding of the work in English.

Since it is a waltz, the poem is in dactylic metre. All ballroom dancers know that the basic waltz goes ONE two three, ONE two three etc. So does this, and it also fits the tune.


by Heinrich Heine (1822)
paraphrased in translation

I know neither rhyme nor yet reason
Why the sight of this rock frights me so,
Unless I'm caught up out of season,
In a tragedy here long ago.

The air murmurs soft in the gloaming,
As Old Father Rhine makes his way
Through this cavernous gorge, rapids foaming,
Whilst the high peaks catch sunshine's last rays.

But wait, does that glow hide a maiden
All artlessly combing her hair?
Oh see, clothed in fine golden raiment,
She glistens and glimmers up there.

And hark! As she combs out her tresses,
She's singing a sweet faerie song;
Its melody softly caresses
A doomed man that it draws along.

Lo! There in his ferry the boatman
Enthralled can do nothing but sigh;
His skill will not keep him afloat when
His gaze is directed on high.

Oh boatman, have care of the river
Lest it swallow both you and your boat!
Ah no! You are captured for ever
By the whisp'ring rock's magical note.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013


Mainz would like us to award Johann Gutenberg the title of Man of the Millennium. They certainly have a case. Few can lay claim to so radical a transformation of society as the man who invented printing on movable type. Prior to this invention, books were laboriously copied by hand, with all the attendant mistakes and omissions which that involved.
The time that it took made books expensive and rare. Not many people learned to read and access to information was mainly restricted to the rich and powerful. The clergy told people what The Bible said and the nobles in their capacity as magistrates told people what the law said. They naturally interpreted the words that they read in their own favour.
Printing began an information revolution that led quite quickly to the beginnings of freedom of thought and speech. In Mainz they show you the sort of press on which Gutenberg worked. It still looks painfully slow and the characters that he used were an attempt to reproduce as accurately as possible the learned script of his day, which is extremely difficult for a modern reader to decipher. Nevertheless, here it was that it all began.
In other respects there is fragmentary evidence of Mainz's important history, since most of the medieval city that remained was destroyed by wartime bombing.   An exception is the fine half-timbered square (left) close to the cathedral.  The Romanesque cathedral itself was damaged, but has been restored. There are still traces of Roman rule, including a monument to the celebrated general Drusus.
By contrast Mainz has a great flowering of modern architecture and some interesting stainless steel statuary.