An evening of research about the German community in New York for my magnum opus. Who now remembers the General Slocum? On 15 June 1904 the huge paddle steamer, a then familar sight for New Yorkers, caught fire and sank in the East River, just off the Bronx. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board perished. She had been chartered, as every year, by the German Lutheran Church in Manhattan’s Little Germany, for a church picnic. In one fell swoop Little Germany all but disappeared (the few surviving members of the community moved up town). It was the New York area’s worst disaster, in terms of loss of life, until 9/11. Similarly, who now remembers the 30 July 1916 Black Tom explosion when, in an act of sabotage carried out by German agents, roughly one kiloton of ammunition waiting to be shipped to the Allies blew up, the equivalent of an earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter Scale, causing property damage estimated at $20 million? The explosion has been described as the worst terrorist attack on New York prior to 9/11. Lastly, the RMS Lusitania, sunk by a German torpedo off the Irish coast on 7 May 1915, killing 1,198 of the 1,959 people aboard. Despite popular belief to the contrary, the disaster did not encourage the US into the war – that came two years later. But why did the ship sink in 18 minutes only? What was that mysterious second explosion? Was the ship secretly carrying explosives? Why did the Royal Navy depth charge the wreck in the 1950s? Episodes like Black Tom and the Lusitania demonstrated just how deeply American industry was involved in the Allied war effort. Combined with pro-British and anti-German propaganda, they also convinced many German New Yorkers to anglicize their names and play down their origins. It’s all history now, but only just: Germany’s final compensatory payment to America for the Black Tom damage was made in 1979; the last General Slocum survivor died on 26 January 2004; and the last Lusitania survivor died on 11 January of this year.
Maggie Hughes was back at the Committee today, giving a general presentation to the Section on Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship about the challenges she faced when her son, Robbie, was badly injured in an attack whilst on holiday abroad. She was last here in March, pursuing her campaign for some sort of EU-level standard of help and support for the relatives of those who encounter difficulties (accidents, attacks, thefts) whilst abroad. Thanks in no small part to her efforts, the European Commission has heeded the call and a proposal is in the pipeline. The presentation was timely, with us all fresh back from our holidays. As Maggie pointed out, it is when something goes wrong on holiday that people start to encounter other parts of the country they happen to be in – the police, the judiciary, hospitals and the health system, insurance companies, etc – that, despite their best intentions, are not necessarily geared to working with foreign nationals. Nothing can bring back the Robbie Maggie knew before the attack that injured him so badly but, in line with her philosophy, something good is going to come out of something bad, and not just the legislation, for Robbie has been shortlisted to play paralympian football for his country next year. Here’s how London ITV covered her visit.
And so back to work: the management board on Monday morning, a long and enjoyable catch-up meeting with my President, Staffan Nilsson, on Tuesday morning, and a meeting of the so-called enlarged Presidency (President, Vice-Presidents, Group Presidents) today, and various other meetings dotted about those. At the political level, there are three Section meetings this week (Single Market, Production and Consumption yesterday; Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship today; and Economic and Monetary Union and Economic and Social Cohesion tomorrow) and therefore many of the Committee’s members are back in the meeting rooms and corridors – just as it should be.
In May last year I saw Massenet’s Don Quichote at La Monnaie and vowed that I would read Cervantes’s original over the summer. Well, I did, but the summer in question was this one! I have only read the first volume, the original one (published in 1605), so far (in Edith Grossman’s excellent translation). I know the second volume (published in 1615) becomes more philosophical and maybe I will change my point of view but I have a number of observations to make. The first is that although Cervantes’s Don Quixote is madly (and maddeningly) romantic he is also a physically dangerous lunatic. He not only risks his own life and that of the poor Sancho Panchez but seeks to do serious damage with his sword – and sometimes succeeds. The second is a suspicion that the iconic scene where he tilts at windmills is quite so well known because it happens early on in what is quite a lengthy text (there are other iconic devices – inns are always castles to Don Quixote, for example, and prostitutes are invariably maidens whose honour must be defended). The third is that the book contains a number of stories that don’t directly involve the two protagonists – not the least of them being the tale of the recklessly curious man (chapters 33 to 35). At times it reads like a bracketed set of short stories (like A Thousand and One Nights). The fourth, more spuriously, is that the mule train drivers who populate Cervantes’s countryside as much as shepherds and villagers and inn-keepers were clearly to Spain in the seventeenth century what lorry drivers are to Europe now. Coming back to my first observation, though, the overall moral I draw from the story is that those who live in a fantasy are capable of inflicting great hurt on others as on themselves. It is, in other words, a cautionary tale as much as anything else.
We showed two Belgian friends, both gallery curators, some of the artistic and architectural jewels of the region today. One of these, a bit off the beaten track, is the church of Santi Eusebio and Vittore and its extraordinary wall paintings. The church stands on a rocky outcrop high above Como lake. There are two curious geographical connections. The first is Palermo. As the local population grew it became clear that the land could not provide food for all and so, between the 16th and 18th centuries (echoes of the Mani!), many families headed towards Sicily, especially to Palermo, where they prospered but maintained their Peglio links, sending money and precious objects back up north. The second is Flanders. In particular, the church walls were decorated by one Giovanni Mauro della Rovere (1575-1640), of distant Flemish origin. On either side of the altar at Peglio he painted two massive illustrations of the last judgement and of the inferno (with plenty of Bosch-like details). As one of our guests pointed out, artists were constrained by a number of conventions in depicting heaven, but there were no holds barred when it came to depicting hell and the ‘Fiammenghino’ really let his imagination run riot to great effect, as the detail shows.
To Como for this and that. In atmosphere it is the quintessence of a provincial town, though I always have the impression its still waters might sometimes run deep. The cathedral, il duomo, is clearly and quite rightly the first port of call for culture lovers, but visitors would be wrong to miss the civic museum and, in particular, the art gallery (pinocoteca) in the Palazzo Volpi. There is an excellent section on stonework in the early Middle Ages, the Romanesque and the Gothic periods, and a wonderful collection of renaissance works, including paintings from Paolo Giovi’s sixteenth-century collection of portraits of the rich, famous and powerful. (Those who feature include Dante and Christopher Colombus.) For my illustration I have chosen a fragment of fresco from the old church of San Giorgio in Borgo Vico that I found beautiful and moving.
We watched the very dark C’est arrivé près de ches vous (literally, ‘It happened in your neighbourhood’), marketed in English as Man Bites Dog, this evening. Strangely, we watched it with people in whose neighbourhood some of this 1992 film was shot. It pre-dated by two years Pulp Fiction and must surely, with its garrulous, philosophizing serial killer, Ben, have had some influence on Quentin Tarantino, if only indirectly. C’est arrivé was shot on a shoe string by four filmmaking students and benefits greatly from those twin liberties, as their black-and-white cinema verité ‘mockumentary’ sends up the media and its fascination/complicity with violence. There is another message, I think, though it is delivered via reductio ad absurdum. We are all capable of the sort of detachment which enables us to do to ‘others’ what we would never do to our own.
Following my deal with N° 2 sprog, I today read Marcus Sedgwick’s White Crow, which N° 2 had read with great enthusiasm. It is indeed an excellent gothic but contemporary horror story that rattles forward and I greatly admire Sedgwick’s skill in concocting it. He even explains how he did it in the acknowledgements at the end, bringing together three stories based on true elements, and then weaving the lives of two youngsters around this combination. The three elements are, respectively, the Suffolk coastal village of Dunwich (once a thriving medieval town and the capital of East Anglia, but steadily reduced by the encroaching sea to become today’s village); a French scientist, Dr Gabriel Beaurieux, who in 1905 observed that the head of a freshly guillotined prisoner lived on for a good half-minute; and the fascination of Henry James’s brother, William James (a psychologist and philosopher), with the possibility of the afterlife. Magicians are always told not to reveal how they do their tricks. Sedgwick reveals how he does his it but his magic would still be beyond most of us.
We went up Monte Legnoncino (1,361 metres) today for a picnic. Behind me in the photograph, to the left of my head, is yesterday’s conquest, Sasso Canale (2,411 metres – to the right is a previous, lesser conquest, Monte Berlinghera – 1,930 metres). Sadly, it seems we won’t have time for Monte Legnoncino’s big brother, Monte Legnone (2,600 metres) this visit, but we’ll be back. Monte Legnoncino is a pleasant walk because it is all on a track built by Italian engineers during the 1915-1919 war, part of the fortifications collectively known as the Cadorna line (after General Luigi Cadorna). The Italian engineers used only local materials and no cement and were so attentive to water courses and drainage that the track today is still in excellent condition. Though it surely wasn’t Cadorna’s intention, the network of pathways and mule tracks has done much to facilitate walking in these mountains.
This morning, at around eleven, we bagged another local summit; Sasso Canale, weighing in at 2,411 metres. The walk we did is described here. It was a beautiful day and we drank in the stupendous views out over the Swiss alps and beyond. At our feet, the Chiavenna valley seemed like a drawing. The other way, we could see down to a miniature Como lake. There were, of course, photos at the summit but the illustration I have chosen for this post is an extraordinary dry stone wall, marked on maps as il muro del terminone, which runs straight up the mountain side for at least a kilometre, as straight as a die. Why so straight and why so long? I can find no explanatory references on the internet. Once again, I had that sense of many anonymous men achieving great, monumental things and leaving an enduring mark on the landscape they once graced.