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Updated: 2018-01-18T13:13:47.188+01:00




Today's re-launch of The Guardian in tabloid format reminds me that it was the newspaper's design that prompted me to buy it for the very first time. I was on holiday, naked and unashamed and far removed from my working environment in Berlin, at the Cap d'Agde naturist resort complex. At the tabac, the masthead of the broadsheet caught my eye, modern and bold and very different from those of most competing publications of the time. And The Guardian had run colour photographs on the front page since the beginning of the year 1995.I quickly realised that the newspaper's journalism fitted my 'world view' and becoming a regular reader was an inevitability. My copy was always waiting for me at the kiosk in Cologne in the late nineties, then at the stand in the lobby of the Novotel in Abu Dhabi. By that time I could also access the online edition, but it was only when I returned to Germany that the digital version became my regular source of news and comment. Shall I be a buyer of the new tabloid? Probably not, given that I've become so used to inhabiting cyberspace in preference to the real world outside in Munich. But the re-design is, in my opinion, brilliant and will quite possibly attract new readers.  [...]



Quo usque tandem abutere, Herr Drumpf, patientia nostra? Quam diu etiam furor iste tuus nos eludet? Quem ad finem sese effrenata iactabit audacia? 
(Cicero, 63 BC, adapted)



Unshuffled in Theresa May's new cabinet, more's the pity.



All the quibbling concerning the veracity of what Michael Wolff has reported is surely neither here nor there. Herr Drumpf has promised us in a very recent volley of tweets that he “would qualify as not smart, but genius ... and a very stable genius at that!” Does such a preposterous claim from the man himself not suffice?



...they Tweet not, neither do they spin.



In June 2015, Good Will-Hinckley, a charitable organisation for at-risk youths that runs two schools in the State of Maine, hired Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves to be their next president. Governor Paul LePage, however, threatened to withhold $500,000 of state funding for the school if they hired Eves, due to his voting record against charter schools in the state. LePage’s choice to do so was labelled as ‘blackmail’ as well as ‘political interference’. As governor, he has made controversial remarks regarding abortion, the LGBTQ community, racial minorities, the death penalty, voting rights, campaign financing, the government and the environment that has sparked widespread national criticism including calls for impeachment. The Good Will-Hinckley board of directors rescinded its offer to Eves to be the next president of the organisation. Why do I single out this example of political chicanery from the year before the shadow of the dire Drumpf fell upon the whole of the United States? Because the offer made to Mark Eve was that proposed to my father in 1955, albeit at a salary rather less than the annual $120,000 offered to the Democratic House Speaker. Pa accepted the position, moved us as a family from Scotland to the banks of the Kennebec River and for a couple of years ran Good Will-Hinckley in the spirit of its founder. I noted in my memoir as follows: "Founded in 1889 by Rev. George Walter Hinckley, Good Will was seen as both a philanthropic and educational venture. It was dedicated to the provision not only of schooling but also a true home ‘dedicated to the needy and deserving youth of character and ability from either broken homes or homes of extreme destitution’ to quote a 1958 brochure. The Good Will Home Association; an altruistic experiment in a three thousand acre campus.” Averill High School, where I graduated in 1957, was part of this quasi-utopia in which at the time a dangerous clown like Paul LePage could never have been imagined.[...]



To start 2018 with depressing news from the United Kingdom, the country where the railways were for so long a matter of national pride. We learn now that anyone using a train for his or her daily commute to a workplace around 30 miles away will spend about 14% of their earnings for their season ticket.

In Germany, the cost would be half as high. In France, just 2.4% of monthly salaries would be asked of passengers riding trains that in general will be more modern than those deployed on British routes.

Sic transit... (pun intended!)



The promise of the internet was that it would gift us greater choice than we had ever had in the pre-digital era. But the web has enmeshed us in a systemic constraint of our options. According to our personal preferences, as construed from our online histories, we are increasingly targeted by algorithms that make recommendations on our behalf, ensuring that we inhabit in complicit complacent comfort our essentially self-determined echo chambers. Inside a figurative echo chamber, as Wiki baldly states, “official sources often go unquestioned and different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented. The echo chamber effect reinforces a person’s own present worldview, making it seem more correct and more universally accepted than it really is”. At worst this gives us inanities like Brexit and Herr Drumpf. But it is easy to be lazy, with streaming music platforms well aware of the kind of sounds we prefer, Amazon knowing what we’ll probably enjoy reading, Netflix not only confidently proposing our next binge viewing orgy but using the data they have collected from us, the audience, to decide what movies they should invest in and actually put into production.It was this latter that prompted me to think a bit more about the ways our choices are more and more circumscribed. The manipulation is ever more efficient and quite blatant. For example, Netflix is constantly looking at ways to ensure its eighty-one million members find something they want to watch. One ruse is to present us as viewers with customised thumbnail images when we consult the homepage menu illustrating what is on offer. They claim that if nothing catches our eye within ninety seconds, we will lose interest and move on to other activities. And so the company adjusts the feed of promotional thumbnails depending on demographics, including nationality and gender, and on what they can deduct from our individual user profile. With the new ‘content providers’ of the FANG fraternity (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) accelerating the billion dollar disruption of the entertainment industry, at least in its Hollywood iteration, we will soon have only the illusion of choice.However, we need not be completely disenfranchised. In parallel with the dystopian developments I’ve mentioned, there is a contrarian trend that can be seen as positive. While the new media tycoons produce their big-budget blockbuster movies and series, there is a generation of independents content to work on a shoestring and take advantage of affordable technology allowing them to make films that are personal in the tradition of the cinema d’auteur. Such work may reach only a niche audience, people who find the echo chamber stultifying if not downright dangerous. I dare to hope that this is an audience which will in 2018 and over time grow to become a small but significant countervailing feature of the media landscape.    [...]



Should we have seen it coming, the confusion of 2017? The year of unrepentant 'pussy grabbers', Little Englanders and assorted purveyors of fake news left us lost for words. Maybe in 2018 we'll all simply relax and accept a 'new normal'.



Before Mickey's birthday (her 61st) in November, and possibly even before Jessi's (her 29th) in October, we all solemnly agreed that our 'wish lists' for Christmas should be kept short. But yesterday evening when the ladies in red descended upon my little flat, all looked quite splendid and by no means reflected the fact that not one of us is currently at all prosperous.Wishes were granted, champagne was quaffed and we agreed that sushi made a pleasant change from the traditional goose.But before afternoon became evening there was time to watch the movie file that Jessi had been given by her BFF and quasi-sister the day before. It documented the August nuptials in Mexico City, and I have never seen a more spectacular wedding video. It was professionally shot and edited with great sensitivity, and in spite of the incredibly lavish celebrations staged for the marriage of Dominique and Daniel, it was very touching. We agreed that it struck a welcome positive and optimistic note in a 2017 that had not been joyful for too many people we knew.   We count ourselves very fortunate indeed. There are fathers of Jessica's contemporaries, approaching retirement, who have just been abandoned by their wives, others slipping into alcohol dependency or incapacitated by illnesses. In comparison, Auld Da feels reasonably chipper and is not tempted to touch the Glenkinchie 12-year-old malt (yes, it was as always on the 'wish list') until the computer is turned off at the end of a day's work!Another wish was granted in the form of a new portrait of Jessi which needed to be properly displayed on my desk. This implied that much of today would be taken up with the task of getting rid of a lot of rubbish which has accumulated over the past few years. In many ways, I am not the minimalist I pretend to be, but one who is easily seduced by quirky and ephemeral tchotchkes. Not that I have consigned such items to the trash can, I have merely moved them to other places in my flat! The result now? Jessi grins at me over her shoulder and reminds me of my very good luck.   [...]



I must admit that I'm looking forward to Wednesday's edition of the Today program on BBC Radio 4. Not that I ever fail to turn on the radio as soon as I've brewed the day's first coffee. But the interview conducted by Harry Windsor with ex-president Obama should be very interesting indeed. We shall be reminded that there was a time when the White House was occupied by an idealistic and well-educated man. Yes, there was such a time, when nobody really believed that a thin-skinned, narcissistic buffoon could aspire to high office in the United States.

Turning to Nick's boy, Harry Thomson, I think his artwork embedded below (inspired by the work of the wonderfully named Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser) has a youthful verve that is truly admirable. 



A decorated tree, festive fare on the dining table, unwrapping of gifts... there was never any doubt that Christmas Eve would be celebrated by Jessica and her mother in the time-honoured German way. 

For many years I, too, rejoiced in the traditional rituals, especially when it was all en famille with Mickey's parents in the Upper Engadin. 

But these days in Munich I cannot cope with climbing the four flights of stairs to reach the flat where Heilige Abend is duly observed on the 24th of December. The solution nowadays is that I insist that for a Scot it is the 25th that counts. Hence this afternoon Auld Da will welcome the ladies. We may well listen to Her Majesty's broadcast. There will be further gifts to unwrap. And we've all agreed that a feast of Sushi will suit perfectly well.  



This afternoon at 17:28 hrs. Central European Time we mark the winter solstice. We can now look forward to a little more daylight every day. And that's really great news!



from The Telegraph
"Britain’s relations with Germany can sometimes be as frosty as the field outside Good King Wenceslas’s window, but once the first candle on the Advent wreath is lit we embrace our Teutonic cousins for one simple reason: they do Christmas rather well. Waitrose this week said that sales of its stollen were up by fifty percent."  

from the Daily Mail back in 2013
"Mince pies are facing some stiff competition this year from their stodgy European rival - the stollen. Pronounced 'shtollen', it is a rich and sticky fruit bread, usually anointed with rum or brandy, laced with marzipan and doused in icing sugar. Waitrose and Sainsbury's have both reported booming sales."



It might seem tactless, following the fatal derailment of that train on the west coast of the United States, but I cannot help welcoming the latest feat of railway engineering in Germany, the addition of a new section of line through Thuringia inaugurated a few weeks ago. Twenty-two new tunnels and a similar number of valley-spanning bridges now permit speeds of up to 300 kilometres an hour on the journey from Berlin to Munich.

As I write, one of those trains is bringing Jessi to us for a festive week in the Bavarian capital.



Reading matters! (Note to self)

Do not read two courtroom drama novels one after another. They occupied six or seven evening reading sessions last week, but both featured maverick American lawyers, charmingly flawed but nice to their pet dogs, and a wealthy scheming matriarch.

I found myself conflating the two narratives, wondering why significant evidence (in one story) had not been revealed(in the other) and how it was that the guilty party had not been clear from the very first page!

It would have been better to intercalate a procedural thriller set in Wales or Ireland.

The latter is the setting of my current read, and the action takes place at Christmas time.





Disney announces it has reached a deal to acquire 21st Century Fox, as predicted by a Simpsons episode that first aired on November 8, 1998.

In March 2000 the Trump presidency was still 16 years away. However, writer Dan Greaney explained the joke was meant as a warning to the country. “That just seemed like the logical last stop before hitting bottom,” he said. “It was pitched because it was consistent with the vision of America going insane.”



My postman is spoiling me! Today's mail brought comfort and joy, the confirmation that the Munich social welfare office will be perpetuating support payments through the year 2018 and with a monthly sum five-percent higher than previously. 

This 'top up' in addition to my small state pension and the meagre earnings I predict for the coming year means that things should not be too bad.

Of course, I'll have to pay it all back in the event that my Kindle e-books are suddenly discovered and actually purchased in a respectable quantity. But the likelihood of that happening is, I fear, remote.   



(image) In the course of my decade of writing this blog, I think I have made it clear that I have a greater affinity for Yule and Saturnalia than for the cannily crafted legends surrounding the death, life and, yes, the birth of the Prophet Jesus.

There are, however, delights of this holiday season, especially in Germany where bakery specialities like marzipan-filled Stollen loaves and Spekulatius biscuits invite me to binge without shame.

The seasonal jollity was greatly enhanced this morning when the postman delivered a real Christmas Card. Snail mail from Yorkshire, not a pseudo-personalised missive from my bank, the local optician or one of the food and grocery delivery companies who, admittedly, make my life more comfortable. 

Hence, at the behest of a lovely lady I have known for almost fifty years, I shall duly twinkle!



This morning's news at breakfast-time could mean that I'll not need to surrender my British passport and take German nationality in order to be able to remain in my chosen Heimat.

At least I think that's what it means...



Ariel Sharon was a brutal, bombastic, buffoonish, bigoted, boorish bully according to many, and that’s without taking descriptors from the rest of the letters of the alphabet. I well recall cringing and anticipating the worst in the first year of the new millennium when I saw reports of Sharon’s infamous walkabout on the Temple Mount, the Muslim-controlled holy site in Jerusalem. We know what followed that provocation, the misery and bloodshed of the second intifada.Now I find myself searching for apt epithets starting with the letter 'c' that can do justice to the monumental madness of Herr Drumpf!I can think of a few...[...]



I had conversations with Johnny Hallyday in Paris in the mid-sixties and in Vienna in the nineties and found him courteous and approachable.

I guess approachable also applies to Christine Keeler, whose demise was also announced this day. She frequented the Kenco Coffee Shop which was a hangout of mine back in the days of the Profumo scandal, and we may well have passed the time of day. But I abhorred the gangland low-lifes with whom she seemed happy to be associated, the notoriously rapacious slum landlord Peter Rachman and the East End crooks Ronnie and Reggie Kray.  



How could I not buy the Kindle edition of Berlin Calling? The story of Kelly Dunham's heroine spans the seven years from 1938 until 1945. My own Chance Of Reign covers only seven months in 1936. But my narrative also features the nascent Nazi radio propaganda apparatus of the time and so I was anxious to learn how the author had approached the topic.It is a highly entertaining piece of storytelling, full of detail speaking of serious research and where poetic license has been taken it is fully justified. There are reader reviews on the Amazon site which accuse the author of being too soft on the Germans and deplore the Irish-American heroine's lack of patriotism. I disagree profoundly with such opinions, for one of the biggest challenges when writing about the epoch in question is finding ways of dealing honestly with the astonishing ambiguities of the times. One of the sponsors of Hitler's 1936 Olympics was, after all, Coca-Cola! Kelly Durham rises to the task admirably, offering us protagonists who are merely misguided as well as others who are devious and brutal. It is a nuanced and well-calibrated narrative and should please readers who prefer not to view history in terms of black and white but (dare I say it) in shades of grey.  It is entirely coincidental that BBC Radio 4 very recently broadcast a half-hour program about Radio Caledonia. Donald Alexander Fraser Grant was the voice of the shortwave station. The broadcasts attacked the British establishment and fomented Scottish Nationalism. The clandestine Nazi radio station broadcast to Britain between June 1940 and August 1942.  The man from Alness on the Black Isle peninsula north of Inverness, known on-air as ‘Jock Palmer’, argued in his broadcasts that a Hitler-controlled Scotland would be vastly preferable to ‘an England run by a war-mongering Churchill’.The audio documentary gave this Scot, at home for almost a decade in modern Germany, much to ponder over.The radio program is linked here.[...]