My refurbished life

No, sadly that does not mean that I’ve developed a gym habit, or changed my diet to include 10 portions of fruit and veg. It’s just that over the past few months a few new things have appeared in my world, which make it a little bit more pleasant and fun.

Here they are:

  1. While I was away on my summer holiday, my landlord replaced the floor in my living room. When I moved into the house 10 years ago it had carpet which had become a bit wavy from previous tenants’ clumsy cleaning efforts. I didn’t mind, the carpet was good otherwise, but my landlady insisted on replacing it, and so after about a year a new carpet was laid. It had a much darker colour, but a nice one. Unfortunately, though, whoever laid this carpet took away the underlay and stuck it straight onto the concrete. This lowered my floor by about an inch and made it quite cold and damp from below. Over time large dark patches appeared on the carpet even though I never stepped on it with my shoes on. It wasn’t dirt, it was the damp creeping up from underneath. So finally this year my landlord decided to replace that as well. Now my floor has been restored to its previous height, and I have beautiful light oak floorboards, with plastic underneath to keep off the damp. True, the floor bulges a bit in places – you can feel it go down when you step on it. “It’s a bit springy,” my landlord says, and that gives it a whole new range of cracking and creaking noises, particularly when the heating is on. But I don’t mind, I think it’s a vast improvement! I was going to buy a couple of runners to protect the wood, but haven’t done so yet.
  2. A couple of weeks ago my landlord executed step 2* in his home improvement plan: secondary glazing! My house is Victorian, and the two street-facing windows are historic wood-framed single glazing sash windows. Nice to look at, but not very insulating. Now, however, I have what is basically a second window sitting behind the original one, thus preserving the historic look but giving me better insulation. Just in time for winter! I like it a lot. The only drawback is that the new window takes up some space of the window sill, and it is now to narrow for my plant pots. I have three massive cacti, which will now have to be moved elsewhere. But that’s a fair trade-off for what I hope will be more warmth this winter.

*if I count differently this is actually step 3, because last summer I got a new front door as well.

  1. A few weeks ago I bought a new alarm clock. Yes, I know, not very exciting, but it’s little fun things like that which spice up your life. This clock has a light that gradually comes on in the morning (you can choose how quickly and how bright), and then the waking noise kicks in. You can have the radio or a horrible beeping sound, but you can also choose between a variety of other sounds: birdsong, rain (not sure about that, I have that “live” far too often), harbour (with those clinky-clanky sounds and gulls, so you can pretend to wake up in your romantic cottage in a Cornish fishing village), babbling brook, ocean waves, or city (traffic noises, so you can pretend to wake up in your chic Manhattan loft apartment). It also has a nightlight function with changing colours. And you can play around with the settings and change them every day if you like. Fun!
  2. The most exciting: last week I bought a new car! I last bought a car 8 years ago. It was a tiny red Ford, 5 years old at the time, which makes it, yes you’re right, 13 years old now. It didn’t break down, and there was nothing particularly wrong with it, but it had developed a few worrying…niggles, shall we say? Just a bit more rattling and clanking than I used to hear. Not to mention that I now needed two or three attempts to start it. Once it was running it was fine, but with the cold season approaching, I was thinking “what if one frosty morning it won’t start at all?” There was also the matter of rust. At the last MOT in spring, rust was noted on the undercarriage. It wasn’t considered excessive, and it passed the MOT, but I was warned that next year it might be a different story. So I thought, before I get into trouble and run up massive repair bills, maybe it’s better to replace it with a new one? I started looking. I only had a few criteria: a small car, five years old, not too many miles, with full service history, and I expected to pay around £3,500. I wasn’t looking for a particular make or colour. Very soon a suitable car appeared at a dealership conveniently situated round the corner from my house. A tiny red Suzuki. It fit all the criteria, so, long story short, I had a closer look, took it for a test drive, decided I liked it and bought it. The dealer took my old car in part exchange, although he only gave me a handful of peanuts for it. But anyway, it was what I wanted, for the price I expected to pay, and I like the colour! And it has a CD player – luxury, the old car had a radio cassette! Bonus: the emissions of this car are lower, so I pay £0 road tax! I picked it up on Saturday, and today I drove it to work for the first time! I feel comfortable driving it, but it is different from the old car, so there will be a period of getting used to it. Also the dealer had put a bubblegum flavoured air “freshener” in it, so it will take some time for the stench to dissipate. But I won’t have to worry about it not starting or the rusty floor dropping out.

So there you are, those are all the shiny new things in my life. Now, about that gym habit…

In defence of Thomas Cromwell

There is something of a running gag in “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies”, and that is that Thomas Cromwell looks like a murderer. He first hears it whispered behind his back by Mark Smeaton, the court musician later accused of having an affair with Anne Boleyn. He thinks of it himself when he sees the portrait Holbein has painted of him. “Christ, I look like a murderer!” he says, to which his son replies: “Didn’t you know?”

Whether he actually looked like a murderer or not, something must have induced both his contemporaries and historians of later centuries to assume the very worst of him. In many people’s minds (if they thought of him at all) he has been the blackest of villains. The biography with which Merriman prefaced his edition of Cromwell’s letters early in the 20th century did much to promote that picture, as did the play/film “A Man for All Seasons”, in which Cromwell is definitely the bad guy. Of course Cromwell is not helped by the fact that the image of the man he served with utmost loyalty is that of a bloodthirsty cruel tyrant. Cromwell as Beria to Henry’s Stalin is an analogy I have come across more than once.

This negative image is neatly summed up in an article by C.J. Sansom: “mastery of the black arts of spin and propaganda”; “flattery, patronage and sudden betrayal [to] make the most ruthless modern politicians seem mild by comparison”; “ran a spy network that was the nearest thing a 16th-century regime could get to the Stasi”; “revelled in the torture of his enemies”; “reign of unadulterated terror against the church”.*

He then mentions that Cromwell is back in the news (this was 2009), due to the publication of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”, which, Sansom says, “delves deep into the psychology of his pathological lust for power and his total absence of scruple in attaining it” – a judgement which makes me think that this can’t be the same book I have now read twice already. (Funnily enough, the portrait he paints of Cromwell in his own novels is somewhat more nuanced.)

So, a thoroughly bad guy serving another bad guy – what more is there to say? Actually, quite a lot. That picture outlined above is Cromwell as seen in a fairground mirror: extremely distorted and mostly not reflecting any reality. This realisation is not new, and indeed some people worked for decades to correct the distorted picture, first and foremost Geoffrey Elton. He wrote in a short piece in The Historical Journal in 1993: “In the general rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell one little matter has not yet received attention.” This makes it sound as if the “general rehabilitation” was more or less accomplished apart from some minor issues. However, some of his fellow historians did not get the memo, and some of the recent biographies, published in this century, are somewhat or even extremely negative. Others, though, are more positive. I have read all the biographies published in the 21st century, and in due course I will probably have to say something about all of them. I have also started to consume the works of Elton, who wrote extensively about Thomas Cromwell, but never an actual biography.

If you are standing in a bookshop or library and contemplate getting a biography of Cromwell, but ask yourself “what am I getting: a positive judgement, a fair appraisal or a complete slating?”, look at the subtitle. That usually reveals the attitude of the author. John Schofield, who is the most positive of the recent biographers, has “Henry VIII’s most faithful servant”. David Loades, who is also largely positive, has “Servant to Henry VIII”, which reflects the measured and neutral tone of his book. Robert Hutchinson, by contrast, has “The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s most notorious minister”. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll write reviews of all these biographies, but I will certainly write something about Hutchinson’s, simply because his book enraged me so much. Diarmaid MacCulloch judged it to be a “tabloid-style denunciation”, and I agree. I have a lot of issues with that particular book, so brace yourselves!

You have probably guessed by now where I stand on Thomas Cromwell. (There’s a big hint in the title.) Basically, I think his supporters are right, and his detractors are wrong. Of course, it’s not as simple as that, and I’m not so stupid as to ignore the details and nuances, but you can take that as the underlying attitude. I’m not saying this because I like “Wolf Hall” so much. (It is, of course, an amazing book, and an amazing TV series as well.) I am basing my judgement on the reading of the above mentioned biographies, a number of articles, and a couple of other sources. I’m still reading, and learning, but I doubt that anything is going to effect a major shift of my position. I am planning a whole series of posts about various aspects of Cromwell’s life, and how I and others judge them. I don’t quite know how to organise my thoughts yet, but this is meant to serve as an introductory post, in which I’m laying out my stall.

“Historians and history lovers”, writes Beth von Staats on the Queen Anne Boleyn website, “will debate Thomas Cromwell endlessly, and justifiably so.” Exactly. That’s what makes history fun, isn’t it? So, I am ready to join the debate, and the fun. I have picked my side. Am I biased? Hell, yeah! I am ready to defend Thomas Cromwell to the hilt. And, as a student of that “most notorious minister”, I know where to stick it!

 

* the article can be found here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1219158/Prince-Darkness-The-truth-Thomas-Cromwell.html#ixzz4uWkW4LQU

Image: Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the TV series “Wolf Hall”

Annoying trends in classical music

About ten years ago a new fashion swept the world of classical music. Wherever you could find a piece with a nice melody, it was turned into an arrangement for voice and orchestra. This principle was applied to pretty much everything that had a hummable bit in it. Slow movements of symphonies or concertos, film music – anything that had a nice tune somewhere in it was deemed suitable for singing. Of course, these hummable bits don’t come with words, but no matter. The first thing you try is to shoehorn the “Ave Maria” into your tune. If that doesn’t work, anything Italian sounding will do. Perhaps you can find a poem somewhere that scans the way you want to. Put the two together and hey presto! you’ve got yourself a brand new piece. If I remember correctly, Katherine Jenkins was particularly active in this area.

In more recent years singing has fallen somewhat out of fashion, but arrangements for other solo instruments have come in instead. Anything that can be played by one solo instrument can also be played by another, and all those hummable bits as well, no matter where they came from. Albrecht Mayer with his oboe is the main offender here.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to keep anyone from re-arranging pieces for their instrument  and playing them. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. It’s just gotten out of hand recently, to the point where you hear the re-arrangement more often than the original piece. “Oh, nice,” you think, hearing the announcer, “I do like the love theme from The Godfather” – and then it’s bloody Mayer with his bloody oboe again.

By the way, I don’t have anything against the oboe in particular, but while I’m giving my pet peeves an airing, can I just say this: I’m a huge fan of Ennio Morricone. He’s written more masterpieces than I can count, but boy, do I wish he’d never written that wretched “Gabriel’s oboe” thing! I am heartily sick of it, because it gets played ad nauseam, and because I never liked it in the first place.

Anyway, on to the next annoyance, which is arguably even bigger. Something happened to the way music is recorded in recent years which I would like to call “big intimacy”.

First, the “big”. Have you noticed that everything these days sound as if it was recorded in a huge space? I don’t mean particularly echo-y, just – big. My mother says “why does everything sound so hollow?”, and she means the same thing. If a concert is recorded live in an actual big space – concert hall, cathedral, whatever – then fair enough, it is what it is. But these days everything sounds like that. It’s difficult to describe, “big” is the best I can do. It’s not the same as “loud”, it just sounds as if the sound was blown up, like a balloon, hence the hollow effect that my mother bemoans. I suppose it’s meant to make things more impressive, but it sure doesn’t work for me.

The flipside of the coin is the “intimacy”, and ironically, both are applied to modern recording at the same time. As well as giving the listener the impression that they are sitting in a huge concert hall, they also give them the impression of sitting right next to performer. Close. I mean, real close. So close that you can hear them breathing. Tell me, is there anything more annoying than having to listen to the soloist’s heavy breathing? I want to hear the music. I don’t want to hear every gasp, every scrape, every squeak. I’ve heard guitar pieces where the clattering of the strings completely drowned out the notes. I’m not sure what that is meant to do for the listener. Perhaps it’s part of a wider trend which is all about getting up close and right in there. HD television, which let’s you see every pore on people’s noses, 3D cinema which immerses you in whatever you are watching, virtual reality, live tweeting etc. I guess those “intimate” recordings are supposed to make the listener feel like they are right there as well. It is a forced intimacy, though. When such a recording is played, I have no choice but to sit basically on the lap of the performer, I can’t move away from them. I can only grind my teeth and bear it or switch the radio off. When thinking of buying music on CD, I now have to listen to it beforehand, and if I hear the soloist breathing in my ear, I’m not going to buy it. Or, to be safe, I choose older recordings. With anything up to the nineties you are relatively safe.

Just so that this isn’t a wholly negative post, let me mention a trend which some might find annoying, but of which I wholeheartedly approve. That is the inclusion of film soundtracks and videogame music in classical music. Okay, maybe it isn’t actual “classical music”, but it is now deemed worthy to be played on classical music stations, and I love it. Such music is often magnificent, emotional, sweeping, soothing, it fires the imagination and you can really immerse yourself in it. In fact, I’m listening to “High Score”, the videogame music show on Classic FM, as I type this. I’m not a gamer, so I can’t put the music into its game context at all, but that doesn’t matter, I still greatly enjoy listening to it. And I suppose if classical music stations won’t play it, no one else will, so I think it’s great that they do.

But this post is called “annoying trends”, so I’m going to end on a more sour note.

When I become ruler of the universe, I’m going to put a ban on live recordings of the Radetzky March. Or, more precisely, I will ban the playing of such recordings on the radio, where I might come across them. Recordings can still be made, and sold on whatever music storage devices are in use by that point, and whoever wants to can listen to them. I’m not a tyrant, but I intend to shield myself by any means necessary from such horrors. Have you ever heard such a recording? It goes like this: the familiar tune strikes up, but with the music you also get ten thousand morons clapping along. They try to stay in time but inevitably fall behind, and as the music moves into the quieter, less familiar middle part, the clapping falls away. But then, “oh, there’s the good bit again”, and the ten thousand morons start clapping again. It’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. I can’t stand clapping along in time to the music anyway, it brings me out in metaphorical hives. This might surprise you, coming from a native of the country that invented “schunkeln” (linking arms and swaying from side to side in time to the music), but I should point out that this is not done at classical music concerts.

So, yes, once I’ve got the power, there’ll be no more clapping. No more heavy breathing. Don’t stand so close to me. But make the music truly intimate. Quiet works, you know. A string quartet doesn’t have to occupy the same space as a Bruckner symphony. And there is no need to make the solo instrument twice as loud as the orchestra. Yes, it might be called “violin concerto”, but that means violin and orchestra working together as a whole, not violin up front and some mumbling in the background. Got it?

Ah, what a lovely place classical music radio is going to be under my rule!

The last word on Brexit?

“Oh wavering and new-fangled multitude! Is it not a wonder to consider the inconstant mutability of this uncertain world! The common people always desiring alterations and novelties of things for the strangeness of the case; which after turneth them to small profit and commodity.”

George Cavendish, in “The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey” (1545)

Reformation Day

When I grew up, Halloween wasn’t a thing. No trick-or-treating (although similar activities took place on other occasions), no dressing up, no carved pumpkins. No, when – and, significantly, where – I grew up, the 31st October meant one thing: Reformation Day!

You see, I grew up in northern Germany, where the predominant, mainstream church is Protestant, or, more precisely, Lutheran. And that is what Reformation Day is all about: it’s supposedly the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, challenging the prevailing church doctrine and calling for reform. This is widely seen as the moment that sparked the Reformation movement, or even revolution, that would shake Europe in the decades to come. It split the church in Germany: the north is predominantly protestant, while the south is predominantly catholic. It led to a breakaway from Rome of the church in England and the foundation of the Church of England, with the reigning monarch at the head instead of the pope. This happened in a different way, under different premises and with different consequences than in Germany, but it, too, changed the world. I have been reading about Henry VIII and his time a lot recently, and what happened in terms of religion, so it’s been on my mind a lot. There have been a few programmes on TV in the UK about the Reformation to go with the 500th anniversary. What surprises me, after all I have read, is that Thomas Cromwell is not remembered more as one of the driving forces behind the Reformation and basically one of the founding fathers of the Church of England. One programme didn’t mention him at all, but that was David Starkey, who despises him, so no surprise there. The other mentioned him once, in passing, as one of the people advancing the distribution of the Bible in English. To my mind, he is one of the most important figures of the Reformation, so why is he so neglected? Perhaps because he wasn’t a cleric? Because everybody still hates him? I don’t know. Advance warning, though: Thomas Cromwell is my current obsession, and he is going to feature heavily in future posts.

Anyway, Reformation remembrance has been rather low key round here compared with Germany, which has been gearing up for 2017 for years and is now in full party mode. This year the 31st is even a bank holiday in Germany, which it usually isn’t. The good thing is that this is a holiday that can’t be commercially exploited (chocolate Luther anyone?). Normally it only involves some appropriate music on the radio, perhaps Mendelssohn’s fifth symphony (“The Reformation”), and some special church services, to which school classes are dragged (I remember this from my school days).

To me, this day has some importance. I grew up in the Lutheran church to some extent. My family wasn’t very pious or churchy, but a certain amount of religion was present in my upbringing. Nothing forced or repressive, though. Besides, we were all members of the church choir, and that meant choir duty on Sunday morning once a month, so for many years I did go to church quite regularly. In my home town (small, about 17,000 inhabitants at the time) there were three protestant churches and one catholic one. Only the largest protestant church had a choir, so any music-minded catholics came to us to sing (membership of the church choir was not restricted to members of that one congregation). We were also lucky in having an excellent organist and director of church music. Bach cantatas and organ fugues are the soundtrack to my childhood. Part of the reason why this church is still important to me is cultural. It’s the culture I grew up with, and I still feel that I belong.

I don’t want to expound my religious beliefs here – bit heavy for only the second post, don’t you think? – but I do want to mention why the Reformation is important to me and why I will be having my own little private celebration of Reformation Day. Part of it is, as I have already mentioned, because it’s tied into the culture I grew up in and which I regard as part of me. Part of it is because I personally subscribe to some ideas of the Reformation. I don’t want to go into detail here, as I said, I’m not really prepared to discuss my religious beliefs. But this much I can say, when I read my 16th century history books, in the division between reformers and traditionalists (or conservatives, or however you want to style them – “papists” in old-fashioned parlance) I know whose side I’m on. The Reformation caused a lot of conflict, strife, war even, but I’m still glad it happened. I don’t think we’d be better off if it hadn’t, on the contrary. That’s about as much as I’m prepared to say for now, but I think you catch my drift.

As for all the other things you can celebrate on the 31st of October – Halloween or All Hallows Eve, or Samhain or maybe others I can’t think off – I find it interesting to find out about them, to study them, to think about them as well. But what has meaning for me personally is Reformation Day.

I do have my own little tradition for the 31st. Being an old curmudgeon, I have no truck with tricks, and I refuse to have treats extorted out of me, so what I do is switch off the lights in the street-facing rooms and pretend I’m not at home. Then I sit in the small spare room which only has a skylight so nobody can see the light, with a plate of crackers and cheese and a book of spooky stories. In honour of the special Reformation anniversary, I might swap the latter for some Erasmus this year.

So, if you, too, are a reformer, I wish you a happy Reformation Day! If you are not, well, just have a happy day!

Until next time.

Welcome to my window seat

I have always wanted a window seat. There’s something about it that appeals to me, a little protected nook that is nevertheless open on both sides. In reality, I don’t have one, so I have created this little virtual window seat as my own personal nook here in the World Wide Webs.

From my window seat, I can see the interior of my room. Sometimes it’s a Georgian drawing room, straight out of Jane Austen. Sometimes it’s a draughty hall, like in Wolf Hall. Sometimes it’s my childhood bedroom. Other times it’s a modern loft apartment. You see, since this is all in my head, I can adjust the room to my fancy.

If I look in the other direction from my window seat, the outside view is just as variable. It could be the street of an English village. Or the vast grounds of a manor house. Or the skyscrapers of New York. My window seat can travel through space and time. Powered and directed by my imagination, it can take me wherever I want.

You are welcome to join me on my window seat, but be aware that this is my space, where I am the undisputed ruler. In this corner of the internet, I will write whatever I want, without regards to what my readers might find interesting. This is the space for me to muse, rant, deliberate, lecture. If I decide not to discuss a subject, that’s it. If I decide to return to a subject ten times, I do it. This is the place where I can “go off on one”, as Chris Packham put it. If you want to listen to me talk at you, you are welcome. If not – well, don’t like, don’t read, as the kids say. I’m not in it for the clicks. This is a room of my own, nothing more, nothing less.

With that, I believe I have set out my stall. Whether you want to buy is up to you.

Just a few words about the tagline. I believe it is high time that we reclaimed the word “spinster”. As the parallel to “bachelor”, it is more it’s dark flip-side. Being a bachelor is a good thing, something desirable, something exciting, something enviable. Being a spinster is being a failure, discarded by society, sad and lonely. I don’t think it should be so. I would like to see the word come back as a descriptor of an unmarried woman, without all the negative baggage. Because being a single woman is neither negative, nor is it necessary a temporary stage. It is a fallacy to assume that all single woman are in pursuit of a partner, so they can shed their single status as quickly as possible. For some, it is the right, the only way of being. When I grow old, I want to be Miss Marple. And yes, I insist on “Miss” as well. But why “spinster”? Because I don’t like “bachelorette”, which nobody can take seriously, and is simply a derivation, an appendix, to the male equivalent. No, I want a word of my own. Yes, alright, I’m not entirely serious about it, but serious enough to put it in the tagline!

So, that is it for my first post. I will be riding my hobby-horses and releasing the bees in my bonnet here very soon.

Until next time, fare you well.