the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

MUSINGS ON CLIMATE CHANGE

Milan, 14 November 2018

I recently finished the three-week course which I give annually at Kyoto University, on sustainable industrial development – or rather, lack thereof. Summarizing rapidly, my thesis is that current patterns of industrial development, indeed current patterns of economic development as a whole, are fundamentally unsustainable, and that if we don’t change course soon climate change as well as various other attacks on our planetary ecosystems will lead to their collapse and this to the collapse of our civilizations. The rest of the course outlines how we might change direction.

For the students it’s an intensive course, but for me it’s not so intensive: two three-hour classes a week, plus a bit here and there. So I and my wife, who always accompanies me on these trips, have a lot of spare time on our hands. In past years, we’ve visited the city’s museums but none of the exhibitions this year grabbed our attention. The only exception was the Miho museum, which we had discovered last year. It had a strange (well, to us strange) exhibition, obsessively focused on bamboo tea scoops, used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony to scoop powdered green tea out of its holder and transfer it to the pot of hot water. We see one here together with its bamboo holder.

Seeing one or two tea scoops is OK, but after the sixth or seventh my interest began to pall; yet this exhibition must have had a hundred of the things. Nevertheless, the building itself and the permanent exhibition was definitely worth another visit. I refer interested readers to an earlier post of mine on this museum.

We’ve also visited all the temples in and around Kyoto (and one year even took in the temples at nearby Nara), so by now we’re pretty much templed out. The only exception this year, because it continues to fascinate, was the Fushimi Inari shrine with its long avenues of torii gates snaking their way up and down the hill at whose feet the shrine stands.


Climbing up through all those torii gates was also useful exercise for us, helping as it did to maintain our fitness in readiness for the week-long walk we were booked in to do after I’d finished my course (and which, with a bit of luck, will be the subject of a future post).

In fact, walking the hills ringing Kyoto became the focus of much of our attention this year. Through serendipity we discovered a network of trails in those hills, and in the days I wasn’t teaching we would set off to explore them. They were quite hard going, their navigation not made easier by the many trees which this summer’s severe typhoons had brought crashing down over the trails. The typhoons were unusually severe this year in Kyoto, as was the summer in general; the climate change I was talking to my students about is making summers hotter and extreme weather events all the more extreme.


Luckily, many sections of the trails were easier on the legs, and it was on one of these sections, as we rounded a corner, that we suddenly found ourselves on the edge a steep wooded slope carpeted by intensely green ferns.


I have a great fondness for ferns. Partly it’s because of their innate elegance.

Partly it’s because of the beauty of young ferns as they uncoil.

Partly it’s because of their great age; as I have written in previous posts, I have a soft spot for those very ancient species which have survived to the present time.

Ferns first appear in the fossil record during the Carboniferous period, some 300 million years ago. The first evidence of ferns related to several modern families appeared in the Triassic period, some 250 million years ago. The great fern radiation occurred 70 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period, when many modern families of ferns first appeared. I should point out that in all these periods, CO2 levels were far higher than they are now. No doubt when that climate change I was talking to my students about, induced by rapidly increasing levels of CO2, brings our civilizations to their knees and wipes us out as a species ferns will once more conquer the world. Who laughs last laughs longest.

________________________________

Pictures: all ours, except:
fern elegance: https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/ferns/structure.shtml
fern uncoiling: https://www.bestphotosworld.com/15-lovely-unfurling-ferns/
fossil fern: http://www.tiedyedfreaks.org/ace/natural/natural.html

THE PAIN THAT NEVER PASSED

Milan, 11 November 2018

Exactly a hundred years ago today, the First World War ended. Some 10 million soldiers and 6 million civilians had been killed by the time the guns fell silent. May they rest in peace wherever they lie, in marked graves which circle the battlefields, or in some spot “known only to God”.

On previous anniversaries, I have written about the soldiers who fought and died in this war. Today, though, it seems more appropriate to commemorate those for whom the pain did not end on that 11th day of November in 1918, for whom the pain never ended.

23 million soldiers were wounded in the war.

For many their wounds healed, leaving only scars to carry to the grave. As Robert Graves wrote in the opening lines of his poem Recalling War, written some twenty years after the war ended,

Entrance and exit wounds are silvered clean,
The track aches only when the rain reminds.

But some men were so badly mutilated that they could never lead a normal life again. The German artist Otto Dix turned his unflinching gaze on these smashed men, forcefully reminding his viewers of their shattered existence and challenging them (challenging us all) not to turn away.


But turn away they – we – did, forcing these men to eke out an existence on the edges of society, like this match seller drawn by Dix.

Or like the barrow puller memorialized by the French poet Marcel Sauvage in his poem Le châtiment, The Punishment. (I give here my modest efforts at translation)

In the street
Cars
On the cobbles, like hard rattles
Taxis flying by
Red, their backs smoking
Heavy lorries
Houses trembling.
Tram lines under trolley wheels
Screeching …
On the pavements
Passersby moving, moving
The city screams
The city: Paris

A car raced along
Rich.
A barrow
Pulled by a pack animal
A man
A man in sweat
Barred its road
A Gentleman leaned out
Of that rich car,
A rich old man.
He shouted at the poor man
Poor devil caught up
In the swirl of the street:
“Idiot
You deserve to be run over …”

I looked at the man
Who dragged the barrow
He said nothing, did nothing.
He had a peg leg
Was dragging a heavy barrow
Was sweating
Pinned on the lapel of his dirty jacket
A military cross
A war medal.
He was yesterday’s hero
A martyr who was sweating
Frightened, resigned
In the swirl of the street
A pack animal
In the swirl of the street
The rich man should have run him over
That poor man –
– there

Some 65 million troops were mobilized for the war. Many may not have been wounded but they carried home psychological scars from the horrors they had witnessed, suffering from what today we wrap up in the scientific-sounding term Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. My grandmother would often tell me of her cousin Ernest. He came out of three years of fighting on the Western Front physically unscathed. But his mind was shot. He couldn’t hold a job down, he began drinking heavily, he quarreled with everyone. He died at the age of 44. Some descended even further into a hell they could never escape from.

Wilfred Owen caught those who were quite smashed in the mind in his poem Mental Cases.

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jays that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,- but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

-These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
-Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
-Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

But the lives of many non-combatants were broken too, by the death of a son or husband or lover or father, leaving inside of them a void that was never to be filled. The poet Vera Brittain expressed this never-ending sorrow in her poem Perhaps, in which she talks to her fiancé, killed in 1915 at the age of 20 by a sniper.

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of you.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though you have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although you are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although you cannot hear.

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of you
Was broken, long ago.

The German artist Käthe Kollwitz captured the desperation of parents who lost a son in the war in this woodcut. They lost their son Peter in the early months of the war, in October 1914, in Flanders.

Her desperation passed but not the pain. Some twenty years after the war she carved two kneeling statues, of her husband Karl and herself, which are now in the German military cemetery of Vladslo, in Belgium, where Peter is buried.

Karl is holding himself tight, as if afraid of showing too much emotion, sorrowfully gazing down at the tomb holding the remains of his son and 19 other soldiers.

Käthe is bowed over, holding her hand to her face, grief stricken.

Another statue she made, of a Pietà, became the model for the statue which now adorns the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship, in the Neue Wache in Berlin. Here, we see the mother cradling her boy, who seems, almost childlike, to be retreating into the comfort of her embrace.

This statue sits in the bare space of the Neue Wache. It is one of the most moving monuments to those who have died in war that I know.

Brittain and Kollwitz could use their art to voice their grief. A multitude of others were tongue-tied, because they could not give form to their grief or because their upbringing barred them from showing it. My great uncle and his wife lost their son Max in April 1915, during an attack on German positions near Ypres. He was just 23. His body was never found. My grandmother used to tell me that Max’s parents never recovered from his death. Yet, in the printed family history that we all received, all that my great uncle could write of this terrible blow to him and his wife was “He is much missed by his family and by Catherine Peake, to whom he was engaged. A fine looking young man, with a pleasant and charming manner, Maxwell showed promise of a brilliant future.”

The same bottled-up grief comes through on this simple plaque which we saw on our visit to Verdun. It was set up on the side of the road known as the Chemin des Dames, which was at the centre of a huge French offensive in 1917.

It reads, “Jean Dauly, 350th Infantry Regiment. Killed on 6 May 1917 in the little wood across the way, aged 20. Missed by his mother, by all his family, and by his friends. Pray for him”. Again that word “missed” … such a small word for such a terrible agony, especially if the body could not be found so there was no grave to mourn over. As the sister of Private Richard Pick wrote in her brother’s In Memoriam printed in the Grantham Journal in 1917,

The unknown grave is the bitterest blow,
None but an aching heart can know.

Sometimes the agony of loss was so great that minds became unhinged. In his book Goodbye to All That, about his experiences of fighting on the Western Front, Robert Graves recounts how he went down to Kent to visit a wounded friend of his who was staying in the family home while recovering. He writes, “His elder brother had been killed in the Dardanelles, and his mother kept his bedroom exactly as he had left it, with the sheets aired, his linen always freshly laundered, and flowers and cigarettes by his bedside.” Although Graves does not say it explicitly, one is led to understand that the mother spent her evenings trying to connect with her son through scéances with the spirits.

Violet, Viscountess Milner lost her beloved son George at the age of 18. He was killed during the retreat from Mons in September 1914. She coped by erecting a monument near where he fell and making annual visits to his grave, and befriending the local villagers.

But her grief was endless. As she noted in her diary on the twentieth anniversary of George’s death: “the sorrow, the loss, the pain, are as great today as in 1914.”

I pray – I pray – that my wife and I will never have to face the agony of losing our son – or daughter – to a war.

I leave readers with an excerpt from the poem Antwerp by Ford Madox Ford.

This is Charing Cross;
It is midnight;
There is a great crowd
And no light.
A great crowd, all black that hardly whispers aloud.
Surely, that is a dead woman – a dead mother!
She has a dead face;
She is dressed all in black;
She wanders to the bookstall and back,
At the back of the crowd;
And back again and again back,
She sways and wanders.

This is Charing Cross;
It is one o’clock.
There is still a great cloud, and very little light;
Immense shafts of shadows over the black crowd
That hardly whispers aloud. . .
And now! . . That is another dead mother,
And there is another and another and another. . .
And little children, all in black,
All with dead faces, waiting in all the waiting-places,
Wandering from the doors of the waiting-room
In the dim gloom.
These are the women of Flanders.
They await the lost.
They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;
They await the lost that shall never again come by the train
To the embraces of all these women with dead faces;
They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,
In the dark of the night.
This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;
There is very little light.

There is so much pain.

_____________________

Walking wounded: http://elsovh.hu/english/page/20/
Otto Dix, Two Soldiers: https://hanslodge.com/file/two-soldiers-by-Otto-Dix.htm
Otto Dix, Prostitute and disabled war veteran: http://www.trebuchet-magazine.com/aftermath-art-in-troubled-times/
Otto Dix, The Match Seller: http://www.germanexpressionismleicester.org/leicesters-collection/artists-and-artworks/otto-dix/match-seller/
Shell shock victim: http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/body-and-mind/shell-shock-on-film/
Käthe Kollwitz Pietà, Berlin: http://blogueresdesantmarti.net/index.php/etiqueta/dones-escultores/
Neue Wache: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/545991154801328984/
Monument to Jean Dauly: http://www.mairie-chateau-thierry.net/1418/labase/dosmonumEpineChevregnymai17.pdf
Monument to George Cecil: http://www.webmatters.net/cwgc/guards_villerscotterets.htm

OH NO, IT’S HALLOWEEN AGAIN!

Kyoto, 31 October 2018

Halloween is upon us once again! Time to don the costumes of ghosts, goblins, zombies, skeletons, witches, and other assorted weirdos which we’ve been storing in our wardrobes since last year, and roam the streets drinking booze and checking out each other’s costumes!

Time to light the candles in those pumpkins which we’ve been patiently carving into hideous faces (or we just bought ready-made in plastic at the local store) and plonk them down in front of our door!

A dim and distorted reflection indeed of the beliefs of our ancestors that this was the night when for a short while the thin membrane separating the world of the living from the world of the dead became permeable, allowing the spirits of the dead to roam the land.

A time not to be out and about, risking to be set upon by evil spirits. A time to stay safe at home with your family.

Our ancestors also thought that, born as they were at that moment when real world and spirit world temporarily connected, Halloween babies had the ability in later life to commune with the spirits. When, 32 years ago, I wrote to our friends telling them that our son had been born in the early hours of 31st October, I jovially added that I looked forward to him having a successful career as a medium. Somewhat like Whoopi Goldberg in the film Ghost, although she initially was frightened stiff by her gift.

As of this writing, our son has shown no such gift although he has done well enough in other ways.

I am no believer in spirits – I am, as I have said in other posts, a child of the Scientific Revolution and the rationalism that came with it – but I do find it sad that what was for our ancestors an important and holy feast day has degenerated into a twee happening fueled by companies egging us on to consume.

Even the Japanese are getting into the act! Here in Kyoto we are constantly coming across the same Halloween-related consumeristic crap that we see now from Seattle to Budapest and beyond.

Halloween, it seems, is following in the steps of Christmas and going global: any excuse is good to get us out of the house and do some shopping.

Better by far that we just stay at home and enjoy each other’s company over a glass of wine. That’s certainly what my wife and I intend to do.

___________________________

Halloween party: https://sf.funcheap.com/marin-singles-halloween-costume-party-san-rafael/
Jack-o-lanterns: http://www.maniacpumpkincarvers.com/jackolanterns/
Medieval living and dead: http://www.medievalists.net/2013/10/the-medieval-walking-dead/
Whoopi Goldberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsI5bREF20Y
Halloween shopping: http://www.halloween-online.com/articles/halloween-articles-budgeting.html
Holiday shopping: https://me.me/i/fox-10-holiday-countdown-days-until-halloween-400-days-until-2900508

KYOTO CITY BUS DRIVERS

Kyoto, 25 October 2018

In a previous post I mentioned in passing the wonderful delivery used years ago by an anonymous Amtrak employee when announcing the departure of trains from Penn Station in New York. Here, I want to come back to this theme, the delivery of messages on public transport, but this time the place is Kyoto and the transport in question the city’s buses.

Anyone who travels around by bus in this city cannot possibly have failed to notice the rather particular cadences used by bus drivers to announce upcoming stops, to thank you when you get off the bus, and to announce I know not what else (my knowledge of Japanese being limited to literally four words).

I think the Japanese already have a tendency to elongate the last syllable of the last word they pronounce, rather like the Czechs and Slovaks, but Kyoto bus drivers draw out that last syllable to an extreme. It’s as if a London bus driver were to say “Next stop: Trafalgar Squaaaaaaaaare” or “Coming up: Piccadilly Circuuuuuusssss” and “Watch your step getting off the buuuuussssss”. And it’s all said in such calm, caressing tones! As readers can see from the photo above, the bus driver wears a mic linked to the bus’s PA system, so he doesn’t have to raise his voice (it always seems to be men who drive Kyoto buses). He can just murmur quietly and breathily into his mic. My wife and I sit and listen (with some amusement, I have to say) as the driver’s litany of messages rolls out over us. We quite forget to admire the passing views, especially the tourists dressed up in kimonos and montsukis for the day.

The same cannot be said of the canned announcements on the buses, always by women. I don’t know what it is, but when Japanese women have to make public pronouncements they seem invariably to opt for a register in the higher octaves. I suppose they are adopting that childlike tone which seems to be the approved tone for women in this still very patriarchal society. I remember once meeting the wife of a Japanese colleague who spoke English to me in a high, squeaky voice but whose voice dropped an octave or so when she spoke to her husband. Those same squeaky tones emanate from Kyoto buses’ PA systems, announcing chirpily what stops will be next and various other information of public interest. Every time I hear that voice (and there seems to be only one voice used by the whole of the Kyoto bus system), I cannot help but think of the girly characters that populate Japanese cartoons, the ones with the impossibly big eyes and a suspiciously Caucasian look.

Women of Japan, arise! You have nothing to lose but the chains which tie you to ridiculous and outdated role models! Drop your voices an octave! And drive Kyoto buses, for God’s sake!

Well, having got that off my chest, let me go back to listening to the soothing tones of our bus driver. I should tape him, I’m sure playing his voice back in a loop at night as white noise would make me sleep very well.

_____________________________________________

Kyoto city bus:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Kyoto_City_Bus_200_Ka_1519.jpg
Kyoto city bus driver: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-kyoto-bus-driver-with-white-gloves-in-japan-133175829.html
Street scene Kyoto:
https://lexiskobe.com/2016/03/04/%E3%83%AC%E3%82%AF%E3%82%B7%E3%82%B9%E3%82%B8%E3%83%A3%E3%83%91%
E3%83%B3%E3%81%AE%E7%95%99%E5%AD%A6%E7%94%9F%E3%81%8C%E3%83%A2%E3%83%87%E3%83%AB%E3%81%AB%E3%81%AA%E3%82%8A%E3%81%BE%E3%81%97%E3%81%9F/lexis-japan-kimono-kyoto-3/
Girl cartoon character: http://www.nijisenmon.com/1070592288

MUSINGS ON BRAMBLES

Kyoto, 15 October 2018

As I struggle with jet lag on our annual trip to Kyoto and watch the night sky pale into day, my mind wanders to a previous post that I wrote about stinging nettles. I mentioned there in passing that brambles are also a bitch because of their thorns. And now my tired brain latches onto brambles.

Wicked little bastards those thorns are, capable of slicing with ease through clothing, never mind more delicate tissues like your skin. Look at the damned things!

Talking of which, there was a story doing the rounds of Medieval England which offered an intriguing alternative to the standard narrative of the start of the universal war between Good and Evil. As we all know, that war started with Satan daring to claim that he was the equal of God. Thereupon, in majestic rage, God, through the good offices of his Archangel Michael, threw Satan and his horde out of Heaven – a most dramatic rendition of which scene my wife and I recently came across in Antwerp Cathedral.

The standard story has Satan and his devils all falling into Hell. As John Milton put it so memorably in his opening lines of Paradise Lost

                             Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.

In Medieval England instead, they had the poor devils land in bramble bushes, presumably as a pit stop on their way down to their eventual hellish destination. The pain was such that every year, on Michaelmas Day, the feast day of their nemesis the Archangel Michael, the devils would go round all the bramble bushes in England and spit, pee, and fart on the blackberries. I sense that on their satanic rounds, the devils would have looked something like this.

Now, there was actually a moral to this story, to whit: one should not eat blackberries off the bush after Michaelmas Day. A very sensible suggestion, I would say; who would want to pick and eat blackberries after they had been so treated? The precise date when this interdict should come into effect is the subject of some confusion. When the story started on its rounds, England followed the old Julian calendar, in which Michaelmas Day fell on 10th October (in today’s Gregorian calendar). In the Gregorian calendar, though, Michaelmas Day falls on 27th September. The key question is: have the devils continued to follow the Julian calendar or did they switch to the Gregorian calendar like everyone else? While my readers ponder over this conundrum, I should note that, like many fanciful stories from our past, a good scientific reason exists for eschewing blackberry eating after end-September, early-October: the damper autumnal weather encourages the growth of molds on blackberries, grey botrytis cinerea in particular, the eating of which could be perilous for the health of the eater.

It’s typical of devils that they would try to spoil the one fun thing there is about brambles, which is collecting ripe blackberries. Luckily, this is done – or should be done – late-August, early-September, before the devils get around to their nasty business. This summer, when my wife and I were walking the Vienna woods,we got few occasions to pick blackberries; there simply weren’t that many growing along the paths we took. But I still remember my siblings and I going blackberrying some fifty years ago. We would head out to the bramble bushes lining the small country lane which passed by my French grandmother’s house, each of us with a container, slowly moving down the bushes and picking the darkest, juiciest berries. This young girl epitomizes that perilous and sometimes painful search for juicy goodness among the thorns.

She at least managed to come home, with purple fingers (and probably purple mouth), with her finds.

We never seemed to come home with any; eating them on the spot was simply too irresistible, and we would troop home with nothing to show for our work but purple mouths and hands, much to the irritation of our grandmother who had been planning to conserve our blackberries for the winter. My memory fails me at this point but no doubt we would be sent off to the bramble bushes again, with strict orders to bring back the blackberries this time.

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate for literature, captured well the joys of blackberrying in his poem Blackberry picking, although he speaks too of the heartbreak of his treasured finds going moldy, no doubt with the help of the devils.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Luckily, by the beginning of last century the terrors of the supernatural had been tamed by science, so that Cicely Mary Barker, in her collection of seasonal flower fairies, was able to transform the nasty devils of the past into this very twee Bramble Fairy.

The fairy was accompanied by an equally twee little poem.

My berries cluster black and thick
For rich and poor alike to pick.

I’ll tear your dress and cling, and tease,
And scratch your hands and arms and knees.

I’ll stain your fingers and your face,
And then I’ll laugh at your disgrace

But when the bramble-jelly’s made
You’ll find your troubles well repaid.

Twee it might be, but the poem’s last lines point us to the next step in the blackberry adventure, namely the eating of them in various yummy forms.

In my opinion, one can do no better than eat blackberries fresh with a dollop or two – or three – of whipped cream.

I’m sure my wife would agree. She once spent a Wimbledon championship selling strawberries and whipped cream to those going in to watch the tennis, and since she no doubt scarfed down a portion of her product when the manager wasn’t looking she will testify to the deliciousness of the cream-berry combination.

The English, however, also swear by the blackberry-apple combination, cooked together in a pie. The ideal is to use windfall apples, so slightly tart, with fully ripe blackberries; the tart-sweet combination which results cannot be beaten, I am assured in article after article.

I’m moved to throw in here a brief recipe for this delicious dish. Start by making the dough for the pie. Put 250g of plain flour into a large mixing bowl with a small pinch of salt. Cut 75g of butter and 75g of lard into small chunks and rub into the flour using thumb and fingertips. Add no more than a couple of tablespoons of cold water. You want a dough that is firm enough to roll but soft enough to demand careful lifting. Set aside in the fridge, covered with a tea towel, for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, preheat the oven to 180°C. Peel, core and quarter 6 Bramley apples, cutting them into thick slices or chunks. Put 20g butter and 100g caster sugar into a saucepan and, when the butter has melted, add the apples. Slowly cook for 15 minutes with a lid on. Then add 150g blackberries, stir and cook for 5 more minutes with the lid off.

Meanwhile, remove the pastry from the fridge. Cut the pastry in half and roll one of the pieces out until it’s just under 1cm thick. Butter a shallow 25cm pie dish and line with the pastry, trimming off any excess round the edges.

Tip the cooled apples and blackberries into a sieve, reserving all the juices, then put the fruit into the lined pie dish, mounding it in the middle. Spoon over half the reserved juices. Roll out the second piece of pastry and lay it over the top of the pie. Trim the edges as before and crimp them together with your fingers. Make a couple of slashes in the top of the pastry. Place the pie on the bottom of the preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.

In these troubled times of Brexit, when there are those Little Englanders who would question the UK’s belonging to a wider European culture, I feel that I should point out that this pie is not uniquely English. Already some 450-500 years ago, the Dutch painter Willem Heda lovingly painted a half-eaten apple and blackberry pie (unfortunately, my wife and I did not see this particular painting during our trip this summer to the Netherlands).

I feel I must include here a variation on the pie theme, the blackberry-apple crumble, only because my Aunt Frances used to make the most sublime crumble, whose magnificence I remember even now, more than half a century after the fact.

Once again, pre-heat the oven to 180°C. To make the crumble, tip 120g plain flour and 60g caster sugar into a large bowl. Cut 60g unsalted butter into chunks, then rub into the flour using your thumb and fingertips to make a light breadcrumb texture. Do not overwork it or the crumble will become heavy. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over a baking sheet and bake for 15 mins or until lightly coloured. Meanwhile, prepare and cook the apple-blackberry compote as before. Spoon the warm fruit into an ovenproof gratin dish, top with the crumble mix, then reheat in the oven for 5-10 mins.

Since the Bramble Fairy speaks about bramble jelly, and since something like it was the reason my grandmother sent us out to collect blackberries, I feel I should mention this preserve too.

Staying with the apple-blackberry combination, I give here a recipe which contains apples. But the purpose of the apples is different. It is to naturally add pectin to the mix so as to make a firmer jelly.

Put 1.3kg, 2 cooking apples, washed, cored, and diced, and 450ml of water in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20-25 minutes or until the fruit is completely soft. Tip the soft fruit and juice into a jelly bag (which has been previously boiled to sterilize) and leave to drip for 8 hours or until all the juice has been released. Prepare the jam jars by washing in hot soapy water and leaving to dry and warm in a cool oven for 10-15 minutes. Measure the juice. For every 600ml weigh out 450g sugar. Put the juice and sugar back into the clean pan, heat over a low heat until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until setting point is reached. Skim away any scum from the top of the jelly and fill the jam jars to the brim. Cover, seal and label. Store in a cool, dark place until required.

It goes without saying that the juice of blackberries can be drunk too, in many forms. I will only mention one of these, blackberry wine, and only because I once made the closely related elderberry wine at school, with a couple of friends. More on this later. Let me focus first on the making of blackberry wine. If any of my readers want to try this, they can use the following recipe which I lifted from Wikihow.

To make 6 bottles of wine:
– 4½-6 lbs of fresh blackberries
– 2½ lbs of sugar
– 7 pints water
– 1 package yeast (red wine yeast is recommended)

Crush the berries by hand in a sterile plastic bucket. Pour in 2 pints of cooled distilled water and mix well. Leave the mixture for two hours.

Boil ⅓ of the sugar with 3 pints water for one minute. Allow the syrup to cool. Add the yeast to 4 oz of warm (not boiling) water and let it stand for 10 minutes. Pour the cooled syrup into the berries. Add the yeast. Make sure the mixture has properly cooled, as a hot temperature will kill the yeast. Cover the bucket with a clean cloth and leave in a warm place for seven days.

Strain the pulp through fine muslin or another fine straining device, wringing the material dry. Pour the strained liquid into a gallon jug. Boil a second ⅓ of the sugar in 1 pint water. Allow it to cool before adding it to the jug. Plug the top of jug with cotton wool and stretch a pin-pricked balloon to the neck. This allows CO2 to escape and protects the wine from oxidization and outside contamination (the demijohn in the photo has a much more sophisticated stopper for the same purpose).

Let the wine sit for ten days. Siphon or rack the wine to a container. Sterilize the jug, then return the wine. Boil the remaining ⅓ of the sugar in the last pint of water, allowing to cool before adding to the wine. Plug the jug with the cotton wool and balloon and leave until the wine has stopped fermenting. The wine will stop bubbling when fermentation has stopped.

Siphon the wine as before. Sterilize the wine bottles and add a funnel. Pour the wine into the bottles, filling each bottle to the neck. Cork and store the bottles.

Cheers!

Reading this, I realize why our attempt at making elderberry wine fifty years ago was such a miserable failure. Readers should first understand that what we were doing – making an alcoholic drink – was strictly prohibited, so we were exceedingly furtive in everything we did. With this premise, let me describe the steps we went through. As I recall, we mashed the elderberries with water and yeast, a packet of which we bought down in the village (Lord knows what the lady behind the counter thought we were doing with the yeast; she was too polite to ask). I don’t remember parking the resulting liquid somewhere warm to ferment, we simply put the mash into (unsterilized) bottles that we purloined from somewhere; did we even strain out the solids? I have my doubts. Our most pressing problem was where to hide the bottles while the juice was fermenting into (we dreamed) wine. Our first idea was to put them in a sack and haul this to the top of a leafy tree where it was well hidden. But we had forgotten that trees lose their leaves in Autumn. So readers can imagine our horror when our sack became increasingly visible – from the Housemaster’s room, no less – as the leaves dropped off. We hastily brought the sack down one evening and buried it in a little wood behind our House. Later, when we reckoned the fermentation must be over, we furtively dug up the sack. Two out of the three bottles had exploded. We took the remaining bottle into the toilet and drank it. Of course, we pretended to be drunk, although in truth the potion we had concocted had little if any effect on us; the levels of alcohol in it must have been miserably low. And the taste was distinctly blah. I’ve had it in for elderberries ever since.

Unsurprisingly, we humans have been eating blackberries for thousands of years. Swiss archaeologists have discovered the presence of blackberries in a site 5,000 years old while the Haralskaer woman was found to have eaten blackberries before she was ceremonially strangled and dumped in a Danish peat bog 2,500 years ago.

As usual, our ancestors not only ate the fruit but believed that the rest of the plant had medicinal properties of one form or another. As a son of the scientific revolution, I have grave doubts about the purported therapeutic value of berries (ripe or unripe), leaves, and flowers, when no rigorous scientific testing has ever been carried out to support the claims. However, there is one medicinal property which I will report, simply because two widely divergent sources, who could not possibly have known of each other’s existence, mention it. The first is a book of herbal remedies, the Juliana Anicia Codex, prepared in the early 6th Century in Constantinople by the Greek Dioscorides, and which is now – through the twists and turns of fate that make up history – lodged in Austria’s National Library in Vienna. This is the page in the book dedicated to the bramble.

The text relates, among other things: “The leaves are chewed to strengthen the gums ”. For their part, the Cherokee Indians in North America would chew on fresh bramble leaves to treat bleeding gums. The same claim by Byzantine Greeks and Cherokee Indians? That seems too much to be a mere coincidence. When the world has gone to hell in a handbasket because we were not able to control our emissions of greenhouse gases, and when my gums begin to bleed because there will be no more dentists to go to for my annual check-ups, I will remember this claim and chew on bramble leaves.

On that pessimistic note, I will take my leave of my readers with a poem by the Chinese poet Li Qingzhao. She lived through a period of societal breakdown, when the Song Dynasty was defeated by the nomadic Jurchens in the early 12th Century and retreated southward to create an impoverished rump of its empire around Hangzhou, known to us as the Southern Song. Li Qingzhao reflected on this period of decline and decay in her later poems. I choose this particular poem, her Tz’u Song No. 1, because it happens to mention blackberry flowers and blackberry wine.

Fragrant grass beside the pond
green shade over the hall
a clear cold comes through
the window curtains
crescent moon beyond the golden bars
and a flute sounds
as if someone were coming
but alone on my mat with a cup
gazing sadly into nothingness
I want to call back
the blackberry flowers
that have fallen
though pear blossoms remain
for in that distant year
I came to love their fresh fragrance
scenting my sleeve
as we culled petals over the fire
when as far as the eye could see
were dragon boats on the river
graceful horses and gay carts
when I did not fear the mad winds
and violent rain
as we drank to good fortune
with warm blackberry wine
now I cannot conceive
how to retrieve that time.

_______________________

Blackberry thorns: http://iuniana.hangdrum.info
Frans Floris, “Fall of the Rebel Angels”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Fall_of_rebel_Angels_(Frans_Floris)_September_2015-1a.jpg
Devil: https://www.etsy.com/sg-en/listing/517991225/the-devil-ceramic-decal-devil-ceramic
Blackberry fairy: https://flowerfairies.com/the-blackberry-fairy/
Blackberry picking: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Jug of blackberries: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Blackberries with whipped cream: https://depositphotos.com/80606340/stock-photo-fresh-blackberries-with-whipped-cream.html
Apple and blackberry pie: https://www.thespruceeats.com/british-apple-and-blackberry-pie-recipe-434894
Willem Claesz. Heda, Still Life with a Fruit Pie: https://www.masterart.com/artworks/502/willem-heda-still-life-with-a-blackberry-pie
Apple and blackberry crumble: https://www.taste.com.au/recipes/apple-blackberry-crumble/837e5613-3708-42f2-8835-dcd9dd3b3876
Blackberry jelly: https://www.bbc.com/food/recipes/bramblejelly_13698
Demijohn of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/371476669246000245/
Bottled blackberry wine: http://justintadlock.com/archives/2018/01/27/bottled-blackberry-wine
Glass of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.pt/pin/573294227542445354/
Haraldskaer woman: http://legendsandlore.blogspot.com/2006/01/haraldskaer-woman.html

ODD STATUES

Milan, 3 October 2018

When my wife and I are in Vienna, we very often walk down our road into the centre of the city. It is a very pleasant walk, down a historical high street with little shops lining it, in the shade of linden trees much of the way. At about the halfway point, we pass a very nice little square, with a café-restaurant on one side and a fountain in the middle. In the summer, when the weather is good, the restaurant puts tables out in the square around the fountain.

It is this fountain that interests us here. At first glance, it looks quite unremarkable. It seems a typical product of its time, which is late 19th Century. It is composed of three statues, two of which spout water. The composition illustrates some tale, which I suppose was once well known in Vienna, of a bright young girl called Elspeth who through some cleverness or other managed to outwit two infamous robbers. So, we have Elspeth, Goddess-like, standing on a column

while at her feet crouch the two robbers with their hands tied behind their back, looking disconsolate and spouting water from their mouths.

So far, so good. But actually there is something definitely odd about the composition. The pose of one of the robbers is such that it looks like he’s vomiting the water he’s spouting. Already that is a bit strange, but it takes on a surreal quality when you see people merrily eating and drinking at the tables while the statue behind them seems to be puking his guts out.

We’ve been walking past this fountain very often over the last several years, and its oddness strikes me afresh every time we pass (who knows, though? maybe I’m the only person who finds it odd). This frequent mental pause, this little stone in my mental shoe, has had the effect of making me start to think about other odd statues which I have seen over my lifetime. And I’m thinking here of statues where the oddity is unintentional; I’m not interested in statues such as this one where the oddity is very, in-your-face, intentional.

Well, there are these odd statues which my wife and I came across in Salzburg during a little trip we made there during this past summer. They are statues of pickles, or gherkins if you prefer.

The fact that anyone would spend his or her time making statues of pickles is odd enough. What I found even odder was the way the pickle statues were aligned with a very normal statue of Schiller in the middle distance.

But it seems that this was the point. The blurb which accompanied the statues helpfully explained:

A gherkin is a gherkin is a gherkin – or then again, perhaps not? …. “I find the diversity of forms, which by virtue of their uniqueness are inexhaustible, compelling” explains Erwin Wurm [the sculptor] “Although individually different,  each gherkin is immediately identifiable as a gherkin, and generically classifiable as such … analogous to man”. The forms are as different as gherkins and people tend to be: tall and short, thick and thin, rough and smooth, slender and stocky. By scaling his gherkins up to human dimensions and by creating the impression that they are sprouting from the tarmac, Wurm confers upon them the status of creatures, possessed of an intrinsic individuality. The artist leaves his work open to interpretation, hovering as it does between critical irony and playful teasing.

Indeed … Well, my take on the composition is that it looked very Star-Wars like. I could imagine that after a long journey through intergalactic space I was being brought into the presence of the (human-looking) ruler of some distant planet, whose court consisted of pickle-like creatures. In my mind’s eye, I can see them wave gently as I walk past on my way to pay my respects to the ruler, creaking a little perhaps and perhaps oozing some pickling liquid, murmuring in some incomprehensible far-galaxy language as I pass them. I would guess that they stay upright as a result of having suckers on their base. But how would they move around, I wonder?

Leaving this rather feverish daydream and coming back to earth, how about this statue?

It is of a young man, naked but for some sort of loin cloth, purposefully striding along. Its oddness comes from its location, which is in the vestibule of Milan’s main post office. The inference is clear. When he was installed, which must have been some time during the Fascist era, he was meant to be representing those thousands of postmen who stepped out every morning to do their rounds. It’s already odd enough that he’s nearly starkers. I’ve never seen any postman doing his rounds in the state in which Adam found himself in the Garden of Eden. But apart from that, the statue clashed mightily with the dominant image I had of postmen in the mid-1970s, which is when I first saw it. That image was shaped by the husband of the lady who looked after my French grandmother and who lived in one part of her house. He was the postman for the surrounding rural district. He looked something like this.

I would see him ride off on his bike early in the morning. I would also sometimes spy him delivering his letters, which invariably seemed to involve a chat, a Gauloise cigarette (unfiltered), and a glass of red plonk. By the time he wobbled home in the early afternoon, his face would be several shades redder than when he left. He would proceed to have lunch and demolish another half bottle of plonk, at which point he would put his head on his arms and pass out.

But I think first prize for oddity goes to a statue I saw on my first ever trip to Italy. I was traveling with a rail pass and staying in youth hostels. The youth hostel in Rome was near the headquarters of the Italian Olympic Committee. In the early 1930s, during the first decade of Fascism, a stadium had been built next to the headquarters, where Italian athletes could strut their stuff for the Committee. To make it look suitably Roman and imperial, the Italian provinces had been invited to send in statues in white Carrara marble of men intent on various athletic pursuits. Some sixty such statues duly arrived and were placed around the stadium in Hellenic style. I would look over these statues as I went by on my way to and from the youth hostel. There was one which struck me in particular, representing the noble sport of skiing.

Who on earth, I would ask myself bemusedly, would ever go skiing naked?? Because, of course, as befitted statues echoing their worthy Greek and Roman predecessors, most of them were carved strictly in the buff. I don’t remember now any of the other statues but in preparing this post I looked at some of them and found a couple which are nearly as odd:
The Naked Mountaineer

The Naked Footballer

The Naked Tennis Player

Somehow, I find that these statues represent beautifully Italy’s Fascist era: a time of bombast and chest-thumping which, though, was all rather comical.

That is what I have to date in my gallery of statuary oddities. But I will keep a weather eye out for other specimens. If readers have any suggestions to make, I will be more than happy to hear about them.

____________________________

Photos: mine, except for:

Silly statue: http://forumodua.com/showthread.php?t=318155&page=56
French postman: http://kenhtruyen.info/?i=Ann%C3%A9es+1970+en+France++Wikip%C3%A9dia
Naked skier: http://roma-nonpertutti.com/en/article/66/foro-italico-an-enclave-of-the-cult-of-mussolini-and-his-empire
Naked mountaineer: http://stadio.dei.marmi.dalbiez.eu/Stadio%20dei%20Marmi%202006.htm
Naked footballer: https://www.pinterest.at/?show_error=true
Naked tennis player: https://www.gettyimages.co.nz/search/2/image?events=50786504&family=editorial&sort=best

AUTUMN CROCUSES

Milan, 1 October 2018

We’ve had a hot, hot summer this year in Vienna, with very little rain. It seemed as if the summer was never going to end. But then, quite suddenly, it did. We had three days of heavy rain in the first week of September and summer’s back was broken. Temperatures tumbled overnight, as they can in this part of the world, by 10-15 degrees. The rains passed, the sun shone again, but now there was an autumnal chill in the air.

This weather pattern has been a godsend to mushroom pickers. I had lunch with an old colleague a week or so after the rains. He and his wife are dedicated mushroom pickers. As we tucked into our Wiener schnitzels, he told me that this year it was like manna from heaven: mushrooms were popping up everywhere. They had picked and pickled enough steinpilze to last them through to next September, he exclaimed, with a dreamy look in his eye. For those of my readers who are also into eating mushrooms, steinpilze are penny buns in English, although nowadays I suspect many people know them by their Italian name porcini. I throw in a picture of this delicacy in its natural state.

Even my wife and I, who like the occasional mushroom but are definitely not aficionados, had noticed on our last walks in the Vienna woods a sudden profusion of mushrooms everywhere we looked. But since neither of us would know a steinpilz from a eierschwammerl (chanterelle in English – actually French, but the Brits seem to have adopted the name), we did not dare to collect any: stories from our youth of whole families wiped out from eating the wrong mushrooms continue to resonate.

What my wife and I really noticed on our late-September walks were the Autumn crocuses. The Vienna woods are dotted with meadows large and small.

I think most of them were created for a very utilitarian purpose. During the hunting season, they allowed a clear shot of any poor beast which made the mistake of breaking cover, and in fact many of the meadows have a hide at one end.

But at this time of the year, a good number of the meadows are speckled with Autumn crocuses. We came across a particularly lovely display on a walk we did behind Klosterneuburg, the little town on the Danube to the north of Vienna clustered around its venerable monastery. We climbed the ridge which abuts the town, pausing to catch our breath, admire the surrounding vineyards, and take this photo of the monastery below us.

We then walked a long way along the ridge, on the suitably named Lange Gasse, Long Lane.

We ambled on through some woods, and then suddenly found ourselves in this meadow. It was carpeted with Autumn crocuses.

Crocuses are really lovely little flowers, so delicate, so tender. A much better photographer than I posted this close-up photo of an Autumn crocus, which shows off to perfection its subtle traits.

When I was growing up in the UK, Spring crocuses were my delight, beautiful in and of themselves but also a harbinger of the Spring and daffodils to come, banishing the grey cold of Winter. But in Vienna, it is the Autumn crocus which dominates, a last extravagant splurge by Nature before Winter starts closing in.

Like the birds whose inner clock tells them in August that it is time to fly south

the Autumn crocuses told my wife and I that the moment had come for us to migrate down to Italy. And so we have packed our bags, flown across the Alps, and are now ensconced in Milan for the winter.

___________________________

Steinpilze: https://apollo.tvnet.lv/5095184/senu-trakums
Meadow in wood: https://www.bundesforste.at/nc/produkte-leistungen/jagd/jagdreviere/detail.html?tx_jagd_dfb%5Brevier%5D=3&tx_jagd_dfb%5Baction%5D=show&tx_jagd_dfb%5Bcontroller%5D=Revier&cHash=36e512ac3435f6026d5490ce7c4e6882
Klosterneuburg: our pic
Lange Gasse: our pic
Autumn crocuses in a meadow: our pic
Autumn crocus close up: https://www.gardeningexpress.co.uk/colchicum-autumnale-autumn-crocus
Birds heading south: http://www.nhpr.org/post/heading-south-bird-migration-and-human-impact#stream/0

NETTLES

Vienna, 25 September 2018

On the walks which my wife I have been enjoying this summer in the Wiener Wald, Vienna’s woods, we have from time to time come across nettles along the side of the path. Here’s a picture of one large patch which we came across recently.

Whenever I see nettles, I instinctively move to one side and slow to a deliberate pace to make sure that I don’t get stung by the little bastards. I suppose that those of us who live in parts of the world where stinging nettles flourish – and that’s pretty much everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa – have learned the necessary defensive tactics to adopt in order to avoid being stung, probably learned the hard way after ill-fated encounters with the plant when we were young and innocent of the evil ways of the world. To be fair to the nettle, I should note in passing that not all nettles sting; there is one species, the fen nettle, which is stingless. I read that it is a European species. I suppose I have never been to those parts of Europe where it grows, which is a great pity.

The stinging sensation comes from the plant lathering biochemical irritants on your skin, such as histamine, serotonin, and choline, and from its tiny sharp hairs piercing your skin – look at those nasty little buggers, glitteringly evil and just waiting to slice into you!

The result is, of course, those horribly itchy, hot, blotches on your skin.

Poor kid, I feel so much for him! I say this because I have a particularly painful memory from when I was a Boy Scout; I must have been 11 or 12. We had gone off on our annual week’s camp, and two groups of us found ourselves one afternoon at the bottom of a hill thickly covered with bushes, long grass, brambles – and large swathes of nettles. We made a bet as to who could arrive at the top first. For some reason, I found myself at the head of our group and so had the task of hacking a path through the wilderness. At some point, taken by a sort of frenzy, I charged ahead with minimal covering of my exposed limbs. We arrived first at the top, but by then my arms were covered with nettle welts. At first, the congratulations of my group members made up for the pain, but after a while the pain dominated my thinking. I stiffened my trembling upper lip, though, and carried on. I was a Boy Scout, after all. But the memory of the pain has lingered on all these years.

Well, I was a boy then and my behaviour can be put down to juvenility. But in preparing this post I have learned that there are actually adults who run through nettles! There is a race in the UK, called the Tough Guy Nettle Warrior contest, where the contestants not only run through nettle patches but also through fire, and through wires delivering electric shocks. They also do more mundane things like race up and down steep hillsides, run in and out of muddy ditches, clamber up 15ft rope nets, and worm their way under barbed wire perilously close to their face. Here we have them running through the nettles.

Well, all I can say is, there is one born every day.

The nettle doesn’t even have a nice flower or yummy fruit to offset its nasty stinging habits. The bramble, for instance, which is also a mean son-of-a-bitch to fall into or to traverse, has both. Does the nettle have any redeeming features? Well, it seems it does have one or two, none of which, I have to say, I have experienced personally. So I can only pass on what I’ve read.

You can eat nettles. If you’re a masochist, you can eat them by entering the World Nettle Eating Championships, another competition held annually in the UK. Competitors are served 2-foot long stalks of stinging nettles from which they pluck and eat the leaves. After an hour the bare stalks are measured and the winner is the competitor with the greatest accumulated length of stripped nettle stalks. Here we see the competitors at work.

The men’s champion in 2017 munched his way through 70 feet of nettles …

It takes all sorts to make the world, they say.

If, like me, you are not into self-harm, you can cook the nettles first; that takes their sting away. I’ve often heard of nettle soup, although not only have I never tried it but I’ve never met anyone who has. Here is a Swedish recipe for this soup (nässelsoppa in Swedish, in case readers visiting the country want to ask for it). For some reason, I sense that the Swedes make a “purer” version of it than others; I mean, isn’t Noma, the Michelin-starred restaurant where you are served pickings from field and forest, just across the waters, in Copenhagen? (and they serve nettles in various forms, according to one blogger who ate there)

  1. Pick the nettle leaves – WITH GLOVES! Pick the top four or six leaves on each spear, they are the most tender.
  2. Clean the leaves well of any grass and beasties which you might have unintentionally picked up as well.
  3. Blanch the nettle leaves, and then strain them from the liquid. Don’t throw away the liquid!
  4. Make a roux with butter and flour. Pour the water in which the nettles were blanched onto the roux.
  5. Chop the blanched nettle leaves very finely, along with the other ingredients, which typically include chives (or ramson or garlic), and chervil or fennel. Or you purée them, although this must be a modern alternative, born with the advent of mechanical blenders.
  6. Put the chopped (or puréed) nettles and herbs into the nettle water-roux mixture. Bring to a boil and then leave to simmer for a few minutes.
  7. Serve, with a sliced boiled egg and/or a dollop of fresh cream.

The result should look something like this.

Njut av! (which, if Google Translate got it right, is the Swedish for “Enjoy!” – although if Bergman’s films are anything to go by, the Swedes don’t enjoy much of anything)

I read that nettle leaves can also be consumed as a spinach-like vegetable, puréed, or added to things like frittate or vegetable and herb tarts (the latter being a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe; not a word about nettles in Jamie Oliver’s recipes). It is also an ingredient in herbal teas. And of course – but here we are drifting into Medieval beliefs (literally) – nettles have been used as traditional medicine to treat a wide spectrum of disorders: disorders of the kidneys and urinary tract, gastrointestinal tract, locomotor system, skin, cardiovascular system, hemorrhage, influenza, and gout. Take your pick. Or if you have rheumatism you can have someone flog you with nettles. In preparing this post, I came across a report by someone in the UK who had himself flogged with nettles for his bad back.

Whatever takes your fancy … (my country is full of some really strange people – no wonder it voted for Brexit).

You can also make a linen-like textile with nettles; the plant’s fibres have very similar properties to flax and hemp (and I need hardly mention that the processing of nettles into textiles eliminates their stinging properties). In fact, in Europe, our ancestors were making nettle textiles at least 2,800 years ago. A piece of textile from a Bronze Age burial in Denmark, a photo of which I insert here, has been identified as made of nettles.

The clever scientists involved in the research have gone one step further and figured out that these particular nettles came from Steiermark, which in today’s political geography is in southern Austria, just down the road from where I am sitting writing this. They argue, with some justification it seems to me, that if this textile made its way from southern Austria to Denmark it must mean that nettle textiles were considered a luxury item in the Bronze Age. Quite why this is so is not clear to me, however. Nettles grow in Denmark too, so what was so extraordinary about nettle textiles made in southern Austria? I guess we will never know.

After the advent of cotton, nettles fell out of favour, along with flax and hemp. There were moments, when wars made access to cotton difficult, when the use of nettle textiles was revived. It seems that one such moment was in France during the Napoleonic wars, when the UK’s maritime blockade meant that France’s access to cotton was restricted. So perhaps La Vieille Garde, Napoleon’s elite troops, about which we heard so much during our visit to the battlefield of Waterloo, wore uniforms made from nettles?

The Germans too, it seems, made use of nettle textiles in their soldiers’ uniforms during World War I, again because the UK’s blockade cut off the country’s supplies of cotton.

Nowadays, it’s niche designers who are making clothes from nettles, promoting their greenness and sustainability. Here are a couple photos of such clothes which I found during a random surf of the web.


There seems to be a whiff of the alternative lifestyle here. We appear to still be a long way from mainstream clothes being made of nettles. But the EU, I read, is deadly serious about trying to promote a greater use of nettles, as well as of flax and hemp, as an alternative to cotton, both as a stab at greater sustainability and as a way of getting farmers to grow more non-agricultural crops, thus reducing Europe’s over-production of food while still maintaining farmers’ incomes. Perhaps fields of nettles like this will soon become common.

As an environmentalist, I of course would welcome this move towards more local production – but I would agitate for a law making signs like this a legal requirement, upon pain of the farmer being flogged with his produce if he fails to put them up.

28/9/2108: POSTSCRIPTUM

After I had posted this, an old friend of mine quickly reminded me that nettles also play a very important role in supporting butterflies, or rather the caterpillars which will become butterflies; these critters will happily feed on the leaves. Suitably chastened, I did a quick search and found a page on the Woodland Trust site which explained this important nettle-butterfly nexus. To make amends, I add here pictures of those butterflies most commonly associated with nettles.

The small tortoiseshell:

The peacock:

The red admiral:

The comma:

The painted lady:

The Woodland Trust exhorts gardeners to keep that patch of nettles which they have in their gardens, to help the butterflies. Hmm, I wonder if the fen nettle would support these butterflies? If yes, I’m all in favour of it. We would have a win-win situation here: supporting our beleaguered butterfly populations but not risking getting stung in our own gardens.
_______________________

Nettles on our walks: my pic
Nettle hairs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urtica_dioica
Nettle rash: http://blog.shopprice.co.nz/10-health-benefits-of-stinging-nettle/
Running though nettles: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2021411/Tough-Guy-Nettle-Warrior-4-000-endure-cross-country-hell-Britains-bizarre-races.html
Nettle eating championship: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/world-nettle-eating-championships-held-8246974
Nettle soup: http://www.swedishfood.com/swedish-food-recipes-starters/92-nettle-soup
Flogging with nettles: https://wildfoxwildfire.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/how-i-fixed-my-bad-back-using-stinging-nettles/
Bronze Age textile from Denmark: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3460533/
Member of the Vieille Garde: http://www.wikiwand.com/hr/Grenadir
German soldier WWI: https://www.quora.com/Why-were-Germans-called-Jerry-in-WWI
Nettle wrap: https://www.etsy.com/listing/590489032/grounding-nettle-wrap?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=nettle%20clothing&ref=sr_gallery-1-7
Nettle man’s vest: https://www.etsy.com/listing/280624084/mens-vest-handwoven-nettle-fabric?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=nettle%20clothing&ref=sr_gallery-1-13
Field of nettles: https://herbaloo.org/experimence/the-nettles-experiment/
Stinging nettle sign: https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/21/nettle-dandelion-greens-mint-soup-recipe-nettle-tea/
Butterflies: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2016/05/butterflies-need-nettles/

BATTLE OF VIENNA, 1683

Vienna, 23 September 2018

My wife and I have spent much of the summer crisscrossing the Wiener Wald, that mantle of woods draped over the hills to the north and west of Vienna, sampling the myriad paths that meander through the cool green of its beech and oak trees.

But one place I’ve tended to avoid if at all possible in our wanderings is Kahlenberg. For those of my readers who are not familiar with Vienna, this is a spot on the northern ridge of the hills where you get a magnificent view over Vienna.

But precisely because of that, and because it is easy to access by car, Kahlenberg is often very crowded with urbanites who can’t be assed to walk (here speaks the militant walker) as well as with tourists brought there by the busload to gawp at the view. If that weren’t enough, the place is imbued with a rather nasty form of nationalism, due to its role in the Battle of Vienna, fought on 12 September 1683. In this battle, a combined force of Austrians, Germans and Poles, under the overall command of Jan III Sobieski, King of Poland, comprehensively trounced the Ottoman army which was besieging Vienna. In these days of anti-Islamic feeling in Europe, the place has become a magnet for far-right groups extolling the virtues of a Europe in which Islam pointedly does not have a place. Here, for instance, is a picture of a march by a group calling itself the Identitarian Movement, which took place last year on Kahlenberg a few days before the battle’s anniversary date.
Given the role which the Poles played in the battle, and the fact that Sobieski, a national hero in Poland, had overall command, Kahlenberg is also the setting for a specifically Polish form of nationalism. The Polishness of the place was given a big boost in 1983, when on the 300th anniversary of the battle the Polish Pope John Paul II met there with what were then exiles from Communist Poland. In that same year, a plaque was unveiled on the side of the church at Kahlenberg to commemorate Sobieski. Although modest in size and design, the plaque contains inflammatory words: “To the commander-in-chief of the allied army on the 300th anniversary of the relief of Vienna for the salvation of Christendom, his grateful compatriots with the congregation of the Resurrectionists” [the latter own the church]. Salvation of Christendom … big words!
It seems that this was not enough, so at the instigation of the Poles the Vienna Municipal Council decided some years ago that a more glorious monument to Sobieski should be placed on Kahlenberg. The monument, designed and executed by a Polish sculptor, would have looked like this.

It was meant to have been unveiled this September on the anniversary of the battle.  Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and the project was cancelled at the last minute, leaving just the base. But of course this led to much gnashing of teeth in the far-right media, especially the electronic media. In this time of European history, I must say that I find this xenophobic nationalism, which we see everywhere in Europe but is the official government line in Poland, really distasteful.

So, for all these reasons, I have, as I said, been avoiding Kahlenberg on our walks. Nevertheless, it just so happened that we were walking through it on 11 September, on a walk towards Klosterneuberg. When I noticed that we there the day before the battle’s anniversary date, I began to be intrigued by this battle, about which, it must be said, I knew very little, other than its outcome and what seemed to me the strange claim that the relief forces came down from Kahlenberg to give battle. I say strange because what has always struck me at Kahlenberg is how steep the drop is down towards Vienna and how far the old city seems to be. I simply could not imagine troops careering down the hill and catching the Ottoman troops unawares. There was nothing for it, I decided; I was going to have to do some reading. Now, after a few weeks of desultory consultation of whatever I could find online. I am ready to report back (in passing, I should note that I am particularly indebted to Ludwig H. Dyck’s article on the topic which I suggest battle buffs read if they want to know more).

Vienna had been under siege since July, and by September the situation was looking increasingly desperate for the defenders. This painting gives a rather fanciful view of the besieging forces, with Vienna in the distance. Readers will note some camels in the foreground.

Readers should also note two other things in this picture: the hills to the left, and the small river passing to the right of Vienna, the Vienna River. These will play an important role in the upcoming drama.

Luckily for Vienna, help was on the way. On 6th September, the Polish forces under Sobieski crossed the Danube at Tulln, some 35 km upstream of Vienna, and linked up with the Austrian and German contingents. To give readers an idea of the multinationalism of this army, the Austrians, naturally enough, made up the largest contingent, with 20,000 men, under the command of Duke Charles V of Lorraine. The Poles came a close second, with 18,000 men, the great majority of whom were cavalry. Then came troops from a number of the German states: 11,000 Bavarians, under the command of their Elector Max Emanuel, 9,000 Saxons, under the command of their Elector John George III, and finally 8,000 Franconians and Swabians, under the command of Prince George Friedrich von Waldeck. With a sprinkling of other troops from here and there, the relief force was composed of close to 70,000 men. What I want to emphasize here is that the Poles were by no means in the majority on the battlefield despite their modern proclamations that it was they who saved Vienna.

The army commanders’ first order of business was deciding who should have overall command. With all these aristocratic primadonnas around, one could imagine that reaching agreement on this would have been an almost impossible task. But the Duke of Lorraine managed, through tact, diplomacy, and a certain amount of abnegation (he was well qualified to do the job himself and he was commanding the Austrians, after all), to get everyone to agree to Sobieski being given overall command. Being a King, he could pull rank on everyone else, he had charisma, and he had beaten the Ottomans in battle ten years earlier. I throw in here a Polish painting of Sobieski, which I would say falls into the realm of propaganda, painted in the days when Poland no longer existed and Poles dreamed of having a country once more.

In truth, Sobieski was well past his physical prime by this time; he was so fat that he couldn’t get into his saddle without help. But luckily his mind was still sharp. This painting from an earlier era probably gives a more faithful rendering of what he looked like, although I doubt his horses did much prancing.

In order to soothe any ruffled aristocratic feathers, it was agreed that each Prince, Elector and Duke would nevertheless lead their own men while respecting the overall battle plan. A potential recipe for disaster, I would have thought, but one which in the circumstances actually worked.

Where was the Austrian Emperor Leopold I, readers might wonder? Should he not have been leading the army on its way to relieve his capital?

Well, at the first sign of danger he had scarpered from Vienna, along with his whole court, to the safety of Passau far in the west of Austria and a long way from the Ottoman forces. Which was probably just as well, because he was a useless soldier and had an aptitude for quarreling with all and sundry, as we shall see. Since the Duke of Lorraine played such an important role in the planning and execution of the upcoming battle, I feel it is only fair to also throw in a picture of him.

Now that the issue of command structure had been sorted out, agreement was needed on the plan of battle. The Duke of Lorraine had come up with a plan, which can be understood from this old map below.

Lorraine’s idea was to have the relief force appear on the ridge of hills to the north of Vienna (to the right of this map) and give battle on the plain below, forcing the Ottomans to have at their back the Vienna River (that rather weedy stream passing to the south (left) of Vienna), the city of Vienna itself, and the Danube beyond that: caught in a vice, as it were. It was a good plan, and in the end all agreed to it. But it carried a big risk. As this next map shows, the roads from Tulln (just off to the left of this map) to Vienna all pass through the hilly country that lies to the north-west of Vienna.

This meant that the army, all 70,000, plus all the horses of the cavalry as well as the lumbering cannons of the artillery and the baggage trains, had to cross heavily wooded, steeply hilly country intersected by numerous gullies and stream beds, along roads that were probably little more than forest roads. During walks which my wife and I have done behind Kahlenberg over the last week or so, after I had mugged up on the battle a little, I have kept marveling that the relief force had made it through this rough and rugged terrain. Here are some photos which might help readers appreciate its ruggedness.


I don’t want to pass for an armchair general but I also find it incredible that the commander of the Ottoman forces, Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, didn’t take any steps to block their passage. He knew the Poles had crossed the Danube at Tulln and had linked up with the Austrians and Germans (I use this as a shorthand for all those troops from the German states). His scouts would surely have told him which way the relief forces were heading. It would have been easy enough to block the few roads which they would have had to take. A few well-placed cannon would have kept the relief force at bay for a considerable time. But no, no significant moves were made on the Ottoman side to bar their passage. One book I read suggests that Ottoman commanders had no experience of laying siege to a city while having a relief force threatening their rear. Well, let’s accept that. But this inactivity on the part of the Ottomans was strange indeed and was one of the factors which cost them the battle.

In any event, the relief force did make it through, although it does seem that a fair amount of muskets, cannons, and other baggage were abandoned along the way and that a good number of stragglers only managed to rejoin their regiments a few hours before the battle started.

And so it was that on 11 September, as their troops were still struggling up the flanks of the final range of hills to reach the ridge, Sobieski and his army commanders congregated on Kahlenberg to review the battlefield below them and make final arrangements. I suppose that is why Kahlenberg is host to memorials to the battle. That, plus the fact that the first inkling which the Viennese had that help was on the way was bonfires lit on Kahlenberg by an advance party.

It would be nice to think that the assembled commanders soberly reviewed plans and calmly agreed to next steps. But actually, Sobieski got into a terrible snit because he saw that the terrain below the ridge was much rougher and steeper than he had been led to believe from the rather crappy maps he had been given. He wanted to put off the attack to have more time to get his troops in position. In the event, the other commanders persuaded him to keep to the plan of attacking the next day, although at the cost of their agreeing to transfer a certain number of German regiments to his wing to screen his cavalry as they picked their way down the hill.

So it was that on 12 September the Austro-German-Polish army gave battle. I do not plan to go into excruciating detail about what happened. A brief summary will suffice, and this map should help in general understanding.

The forces under the Duke of Lorraine kicked things off on the left wing (GLW on the map) with an attack at sunrise on the village of Nussdorf, a village which I have had cause to write about in an earlier post concerning a walk we did in the Wiener Wald. The Germans in the centre (GRW) followed suit. An eyewitness on the Ottoman side, describing the soldiers coming down from the ridge, wrote that it seemed “as if an all-consuming flood of black pitch was flowing down the hills.” An arresting simile I find. This painting of the battle, while somewhat confused, does at least show this human flood down the hills (to the left).

The Ottomans fought hard and the battle went back and forth, but by noon the Turkish right wing was destroyed. Meanwhile the Poles (PLW, PC, PRW on the map) were still struggling to get down from the ridge and out of the forest. They only got in line on the right wing by about 4 in the afternoon.

By this time,the Austro-Germans were well rested from their morning exertions and eager to advance on the centre of the Ottoman line. Specifically, they wanted to capture the Ottomans’ Holy Banner, which was flying on what is now called the Türkenschanz (and where we lived for a number of years on a street called, appropriately enough, Waldeckgasse). At more or less the same time, after a few initial cavalry skirmishes, Sobieski, his armour covered by a blue, luxurious semi-oriental garb, personally led his whole cavalry in what was one of the biggest cavalry charges in history: some 14,000 cavalrymen were involved. Here’s a modern take on what the leading line of these Polish cavalrymen looked like. Readers will note those strange wing-like attachments on the riders. They were the so-called winged hussars, and were the elite of the Polish cavalry.

The Polish cavalry charge on one side and the renewed attacks by the Austro-Germans on the other side, broke the Ottoman forces, who took to their heels. The usual cutting down of fleeing soldiers took place. There was also wanton butchery. Before fleeing, the Ottomans had massacred hundreds of their captives. In retaliation, the commander of what remained of the Vienna garrison burned alive 3,000 sick and wounded Ottoman soldiers found in the Ottoman camp.

One would think that after such a great victory, all would be sweetness and light between the victors. Not a bit of it! By happenstance, the Poles stopped their advance right in the middle of the Ottoman encampment. An orgy of looting followed, the lion’s share of which went to Sobieski himself. The other commanders didn’t object to the looting per se – that was acceptable behaviour in those days – but they were really pissed off that the Poles hadn’t given them a chance to take part in the looting. After all, as far as they were concerned they had been as responsible as the Poles for the victory, and I can’t say I disagree with that. Then on the next day, on 13 September, Sobieski decided on holding a triumphal entry into Vienna, casting himself in the role of savior of the city. We have here a take on this event by a Polish artist from the late 1890s: another romanticized view with strong propaganda overtones.

I doubt it was quite as joyous an affair, because Sobieski once more seriously pissed off all the Austrian and German grandees. They felt – quite rightly – that they had been as much saviors of Vienna as Sobieski, and should have had a strong presence in the entry into Vienna. The Austrians were also angered by what they saw as an insulting breach of protocol. In their view, it should have been Leopold I as Emperor to have headed such a triumphal entry. And the Duke of Lorraine was highly irritated that Sobieski had preferred this display of narcissism to the more sensible military objective of pursuing the demoralized Ottoman forces (to be fair, Sobieski did eventually get around to going after the Ottomans, and some two weeks later he and the Duke of Lorraine annihilated an Ottoman corps).

The next day, 14 September, Leopold I arrived back from his hiding place in Passau. He was furious when he heard about Sobieski’s triumphal entry into Vienna. He was so agitated about it that he refused to pay attention to the Duke of Lorraine’s pressing problems of how to provision the relief force. He also brushed aside the Elector of Saxony, who as a devout Protestant wanted to discuss the matter of Leopold’s treatment of Protestant Hungarians. Fed up, the Elector marched his troops back to Saxony. As Protestants, they hadn’t been well treated well anyway by the other, Catholic troops.

Then, on 15 September Leopold finally got around to visiting Sobieski in his camp. The meeting did not go well. Leopold ignored the presence of Jakob, Sobieski’s son, whom Sobieski had hoped to marry off to Leopold’s daughter. Sobieski, egged on by his Francophile aristocrats (France and the Hapsburg Empire were perennially at loggerheads), took umbrage to such a degree that his relations with Leopold were strained for evermore.

So a great victory, though less because of tactical brilliance on the part of the relief force than because of stupid mistakes on the part of the Ottoman commander. I’ve already mentioned his inaction in blocking the routes through the Wiener Wald. There was also his decision to leave 15,000 crack Janissary troops in the trenches around Vienna to continue the siege. And a victory, whatever Polish propagandists might proclaim, that was due as much to the Austrian and German troops as it was to the Polish troops.

In retrospect, the battle of Vienna was the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire, although I doubt any observers of the time saw it that way. A great victory over the Turk for sure, the greatest since Lepanto a hundred years before. But the end of the Turk? The immediate aftermath instead showed up glaringly the fissures between Catholics and Protestants, fissures which would only really heal when most of Europe simply dechristianized last century. And contrary to what one might expect, relations between Poland and the Holy Roman Empire actually got worse rather than better, just because of the childishness of the rulers involved.

So I don’t think chest-thumping memorials on Kahlenberg are really what we need. The Municipality of Vienna have in my opinion struck the right tone by having inscribed on the pediment which was meant to hold the triumphalist monument to Sobieski the following words:

“The battle of Vienna at Kahlenberg Mountain on 12 September 1683 was the culmination and turning point of the struggle between two Empires, the Ottoman Empire striving to expand to the west, and the Hapsburg Empire forced onto the defensive. A coalition army formed to protect Cracow and Vienna, led by John III Sobieski, King of Poland, came to Vienna’s aid.

More than 50,000 men from many nations lost their lives in the battles fought to break the siege.

May this historical event be a reminder for the people of Europe to live together peacefully!”

____________________________

view of the woods: our pic
View from Kahlenberg: http://ourviewfromwien.blogspot.com/2011/05/stadtwanderweg-1.html
Far-right march on Kahlenberg: https://www.gettyimages.fr/detail/photo-d’actualit%C3%A9/some-250-members-of-the-far-right-identitarian-photo-dactualit%C3%A9/844970164#some-250-members-of-the-farright-identitarian-movement-attend-a-on-picture-id844970164
Plaque to Sobieski: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-wien-vienna-commemorative-table-for-the-polish-king-jan-iii-sobieski-130947975.html
Planned memorial to Sobieski: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Planned_John_III_Sobieski_Monument_in_Vienna,_Kahlenberg_01.jpg
Siege of Vienna: https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/the-1683-battle-of-vienna-islam-at-viennas-gates/
Jan III Sobieski on his horse: https://ludwigheinrichdyck.wordpress.com/2016/03/26/the-1683-battle-of-vienna-islam-at-viennas-gates/
Jan III Sobieski: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georg_Philipp_Rugendas
Leopold I: https://www.giantbomb.com/leopold-i-holy-roman-emperor/3005-11949/
Charles Duke of Lorraine: http://backgroundimgfer.pw/Election-of-Stanisaw-August-Poniatowski-as-King-of-Polanddetail.html
Old map of Vienna and surroundings: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/turkish-siege-of-vienna.html
View of the woods: our pics
Battle plan: https://ludwigheinrichdyck.wordpress.com/2016/03/26/the-1683-battle-of-vienna-islam-at-viennas-gates/
Battle of Vienna: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Vienna
Polish cavalry charge: https://about-history.com/the-battle-of-vienna-1683-and-europes-counter-attack/
Sobieski entering Vienna: https://culture.pl/en/artist/juliusz-kossak

OTTO WAGNER

Vienna, 2 September 2018

There is an Austrian architect who is spoken about in reverent tones by his compatriots: Otto Wagner, who lived from 1841 to 1918.

The Austrians claim he was a precursor of all modern architecture, his motto being that form should follow function. Now, I’m not an architect so it’s a little difficult for me to evaluate this claim, although my gut tells me it’s an exaggeration. But I’m not here to delve into the roots of modernism in architecture. I’m just interested in the buildings that Wagner designed, because as readers will see in a minute he did design some rather striking ones. Luckily, he didn’t build all that much and most of what he built is here in Vienna. So, a few weeks ago, armed with a slim book listing Wagner’s buildings and accompanied by my long-suffering wife, I crisscrossed Vienna, determined to inspect as many of his surviving buildings as possible.

What follows is an album of Wagner’s buildings. Since, apart from one exception, we were not able to visit them inside, the focus is on their exterior. As a consequence, the external decorations play a large part in my commentary. I have ordered the photos chronologically because it’s interesting to see how Wagner’s style developed over time.

This building, an apartment building close to the town hall, was finished in 1882. I suppose apartment buildings were exciting commissions to get, these being the new palaces of the up-and-coming Viennese bourgeoisie.

I can’t say the building excites me much. It looks very similar to countless stodgy buildings that litter the city centre, for instance this one which stands on the same street.

The same is true of this building, constructed in the same years (1882-84), originally as a bank and now, I think, owned by the Ministry of Finance.

If anything, this building is even stodgier than the last, but I suppose bankers were not interested in architectural virtuosity. Something sensible, solid, and conservative was what they were after.

I have to think that these last two buildings did not reflect Wagner’s inner self, but the need to make money meant that he bowed to the desires of his clients. I say this because two years later, in 1886, he built a house for himself. This surely must reflect what he really wanted to build, and what we see here is a rather florid take on an ancient temple of some sort.

I suspect that the house may not originally have looked quite so florid as it does now. Some 45 years ago, when the house was half ruined, the prominent Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs bought the property and turned it into a museum to himself. It’s full of paintings like this.

I rather suspect, therefore, that Fuchs went overboard on his coloring scheme for the house, Wagner’s palette having been somewhat more sober.

A year later Wagner was putting up another apartment building. Although it is still quite traditional-looking, it seems to be not quite as stodgy as the first one. For one thing, he’s eliminated the heavy-looking window sills and generally made the decorations “flatter” and less obtrusive.

We have to wait another seven years, to 1894, for the next building, yet another apartment block, but this time with a swank shop on the ground floor (currently a Nespresso shop). At least this was now in the chicest part of town, a stone’s throw from the cathedral. Perhaps it’s my imagination but I rather fancy that the building has further lightened up from his previous attempts in the genre. Certainly, the windows on the facade take up more of the total space than before, and the attic-like structure on the roof adds yet more glass to the whole. But all in all, same-old, same-old.

From 1894 to 1900, Wagner was busy on various stations for railway lines that were later to become part of Vienna’s subway system. These are much chattered about here, although I can’t say that I find them particularly elegant to look at. They don’t hold a candle to Hector Guimard’s Metro stops in Paris, for instance. One station in particular, actually a waiting room for the Imperial family when they were on their way to Schonbrunn palace, gets a lot of press.

So does the pavilion at Karlsplatz, where the Art Nouveau style that was coming to the fore at the time bursts forth – I rather feel that I’m in fin-de-siecle Paris or Brussels when I see this little building.

But I also want to insert here a picture of one of his other stations made for mere mortals like me.

These stations are squat and rather bare, I have to say. The dull green paint which has been used on the metalwork doesn’t help.

Thereafter, things begin to look up, at least from my perspective. In 1898, Wagner completed two buildings, apartment buildings again, side by side, on the quays of the river Wien which on this stretch had been covered over. On one side, we have the so-called Majolica House. As its name suggests, the facade of the building is covered by large ceramic tiles, depicting a floral pattern in the form of a vast flowering tree. I suppose we could say that this design connects to the William Morris school.


Next door, Wagner opted for what I would say is a more typical example of Vienna’s form of Jugendstil, the German world’s version of Art Nouveau: more sober floral decoration but a more extensive use of gold leaf (this style always leaves me with a slight sense of decadence, I find).


In the previous year, the most famous building in the Jugendstil style, the Secession Building, had burst onto the Viennese scene, creating much brouhaha among the chattering classes.

Over the next decade or so, Wagner was very busy. Following the style of his last building, between 1902 and 1907 he built the Church of St. Leopold high on a hill overlooking Vienna.


The references to the Jugendstil are strong in Wagner’s church. Not so with the Imperial and Royal Postal Savings Bank, which he built between 1903 and 1912.

Here, he cut out the curvaceous and glittering side of Jugendstil, opting for rigorously straight lines, a white-light grey colour combination, and minimal decoration.

I suppose to avoid monotony in the building’s facades he stamped every facing stone with a circle in low relief (an idea which readers can see, going back to the previous photos, he also used, although with less intensity, on the exterior surfaces of St. Leopold’s church).

The overall effect of all this is quite striking, particularly when you contemplate the facade and then turn round and look at the Ministry of War building, constructed during the same period.

The overly decorated facade of that building jars after the stripped down decoration of Wagner’s building.

While working on his church and postal savings bank, Wagner was also commissioned to build various elements of the Vienna canal system. The most interesting of these is what was originally a bathhouse and is now a restaurant, built in 1906 or thereabouts.

It is here that we first see what I consider Wagner’s signature design: straight lines with an accent on the vertical, minimal decoration but what there is of it of an abstract nature and colored of dark blue.

The effect is really quite lovely, although here it is rather overshadowed by the nondescript buildings behind it and the overpowering graffiti that covers many of the surrounding walls.

A few years later, in 1908, Wagner built a pavilion for sufferers of Lupus disease in the grounds of the Wilhelminen Hospital (it seems that Vienna was then at the forefront of research into this disease).

I have first shown a photo from the time because when my wife and I went to have a look we found a building which seems rather down on its luck.

Lord knows what it is now used for. The fact that its original name has been clumsily covered over suggests that it is no longer used for Lupus sufferers. I have to hope that the signs of construction works around the building herald a renovation. It would be sad to lose this building. Here again we see the use of minimal decoration dominated by blue on white, or at least on pale.

Wagner returned to the apartment-building theme in 1909-11, when he again built two apartment buildings next to each other. The building that most immediately seizes the attention sits on the main road

While following the design principles of his last couple of buildings, this time Wagner opted for black on white. To my mind, the contrast is too strong. Something on the grey side would have been better. The building behind it, on the side road, is more faithful to the blue on white design but is plainer, no doubt as befits a building tucked away from view.

Perhaps the most striking detail of the two buildings is the garage door, a great nail-studded steel affair.

And finally we come to the last building Wagner built, in 1912-13, so a few years before his death. It was another villa for himself and his family, built right next to the first. I see in it the distillation of his latest style and is, to my mind, the most beautiful thing he built.


I would gladly live in it. Someone does – it’s still a private residence. But not visitable, as we were informed, when I tried my luck and asked someone coming out of the front door.

__________________

Photos: all mine, except for the following:

Otto Wagner photo: https://www.pamono.it/designers/otto-wagner
Ernst Fuchs painting: http://benedante.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-surreal-madhouse-of-ernst-fuchs.html
Court Pavilion Heitzing: https://www.pinterest.at/pin/450148925226765989/?lp=true
Karlsplatz pavilion: https://vivent.at/orte/otto-wagner-pavillon-karlsplatz/
Secession building: https://www.dreamstime.com/vienna-austria-august-secession-building-exhibition-hall-built-joseph-maria-olbrich-as-architectural-manifesto-image103293489
St Leopold Interior: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vienna_-_Otto_Wagner%27s_St_Leopold_Church_-_6854.jpg
Postal Savings Bank: https://arthive.com/artists/5998~Otto_Wagner/works/517471~The_front_faade_of_the_Austrian_Postal_Savings_Bank_sterreichische_Postsparkasse