26 October 2016

Strasbourg - The bleeding heart of Europe

Handbags at Dawn.....

I am in Strasbourg, in the aftermath of the Handbags at Dawn saga so unlike the image of UKIP I had developed over the Farage years…..

In Business Insider UK on Oct 7th, Adam Payne wrote that:

Mike Hookem the UK Independence Party MEP accused of punching colleague Steven Woolfe has vehemently denied striking the party's migration spokesperson.

Mr Hookem, MEP (born 9th October 1953 in Hull), is quoted as saying:

If you want the truth, I'll tell you the truth.

Mr Woolfe (born 6th October 1967 in Manchester),  explained to the meeting his part in the last leadership election. He stated that his paperwork had gone in and he had evidence of it but it hadn't been accepted.

{Woolfe was set to stand in the party's recent leadership contest but was blocked from entering after failing to submit his application documents on time}

I then said 'no Steven, you had 20 days to get this in and the reason it never went in was it was your fault'... Mr Woolfe stood up in front of the meeting, in front of witnesses, and said 'if this is going to be the tone of the meeting, let's me and you take this outside mano a mano;' he made for a small room, taking his jacket off.

I entered that room. He approached me. He came at me. There were no punches thrown. There were no blows thrown. There were no slapped faces. There was no pushing. It was a tussle between an elderly grandfather and a 40-year-old MEP. Quite silly and embarrassing. Handbags at dawn. Girl on girl. It was embarrassing. It lasted seconds.

Writing in The Telegraph on the same day Claire Cohen quoted Mr Hookem as saying, My hands were never round anyone’s neck – it was the pair of us hugging each other like a pair of tarts.

In a later comment, Hookem also referred to the incident as girl on girl. Nigel Farage (born 3rd April 1964 in Farnborough) then waded in, adding that the incident was one of those things that happens between men.

As a vignette of life in British politics, Ms Cohen comments, it’s embarrassing and hugely revealing.

Hookem’s language was clumsy and outdated (when was the last time anyone said ‘handbags at dawn’?) While Farage’s assertion that the odd mano a mano encounter is just ‘one of those things’ that happens between male politicians behind closed doors’ was nothing short of nasty. The implication being that we should all mind our own business and let the men get on with running things.

Just when you thought politics couldn’t seem like any more of a boy’s club. No wonder women are turned off from entering the political arena when this bunch of testosterone-fuelled ninnies is set on making it more gladiatorial than gender balanced.

Having spent a few days in hospital, and then, presumably, thinking about things, Mr Woolfe issued the following statement on October 17th:

It is with deep sorrow and regret that I am aborting my leadership campaign and announcing my resignation from UKIP with immediate effect.

In his statement he referred to Nigel Farage as one of Britain's greatest ever politicians.  

(Pause for applause.... and a stiff drink....)

He went on to say:

I believe that a strong UKIP would hold this government's feet to the fire and make sure it delivers a clean Brexit. However, I have come to the conclusion that UKIP is ungovernable without Nigel Farage leading it and the referendum cause to unite it.

The way I was treated by members of my own party during the Summer’s leadership campaign and the events that have led up to today have all contributed to me coming to this conclusion. The party is riddled with infighting, proxy wars between rival camps and is run by an NEC that is not fit for purpose.

Once my recovery is complete, it is my intention to sit as an independent MEP in the European Parliament.

I will continue to represent my constituents in the European Parliament until the UK's exit from the EU in 2019. I will champion the values I hold dear - those of freedom, democracy and an independent United Kingdom.

And he concludes with the clarification that:

With regards to the highly regrettable events in Strasbourg, I will reiterate my position that I received a blow from Mr Hookem that knocked me back into the meeting room and caused my subsequent injuries. Contrary to reports, I have made a police complaint.

On October 23rd Nigel Farage suggested, on Peston on Sunday that too much ambition had got the better of Steven Woolfe!



I don’t know much about Mr Woolfe, but one thing that puzzles me about these Ukippers (even if they resign) is how they square UK Independence etc with drawing a salary from the European Parliament?  

During the Leave Campaign, Mr Woolfe proclaimed that Mass migration has failed towns in the North West, and people, young and old are starting to see through what this European Union actually is - a political union, which only benefits to coalition of the comfortable. By taking back control of 55 million pounds a day in membership costs we send to the EU, we can start to reinvest some of that money in long term to spend on local communities in the North West.  Well a small start would be to give back the monthly pre-tax salary of MEPs of €8,213.02 plus travel allowance and other benefits (including a 3.5% of annual pay per year served pension from the age of 63)……  But this doesn’t seem to strike anyone as an issue…..

So, anyway, I am in Strasbourg, where there seems to be a slight edginess in the streets.  It is at the heart of Europe, which is why one of the two seats of the European Parliament is here.  

Poised as it is between France and Germany, and ruled by both in its history, Strasbourg is a city of style and significance, 

pomp and circumstance, 

rich and poor….

At the heart of the old town is the Cathedral of Notre Dame

an extraordinary gothic construction which seems almost to have fallen from the sky into the centre of the town.  

At night, unless the moon lights it,

it vanishes, 

and in the rain its 465ft spire (it was the world's tallest building from 1647 to 1847, and is still the highest completely medieval construction) gets lost in the clouds.

Tourists worship at this colossus, but then wander the alleys of Petite France 

and gorge themselves on Le Waedele (braised ham hock) or Baeckeoffe (mutton, beef and pork baked with potatoes and carrots) which are traditionally consumed with lots of Pinot Noir.  Before and after the drink to die for is Picon, which is a lethal concoction of North African orange liqueur, lemon cordial and beer.  A few of those and one really does feel like swinging handbags, UKIP style….

As far as I know, I don’t meet any MEPs on this trip, though La Victoire at lunchtime could easily be full of them (it’s full of some people).  My hotel is the sort of place they might stay – all grey and beige, some sort of sauna on the fifth floor – and the weather suits politicians, being dull and wet (shome mishtake there? Ed.)

Actually I really like Strasbourg…..  I just don’t like Handbags at Dawn....

(But I do like hats....)

And just in case you didn’t know, Strasbourg is the capital and largest city of the Alsace-Champagne-Ardennes-Lorraine region in eastern France and is the official seat of the European Parliament, which came about following the disastrous effects of the Second World War and the constant threat of an East-West confrontation (with the intention of removing risks of racist intolerance and promoting harmony). The institution is currently legally bound to meet in Strasbourg for twelve sessions a year lasting about four days each.  Meetings are held in the hemi-cyclical chamber in the Louise Weiss building, inaugurated in 1999, which lies in the Quartier Européen of the city.  Incidentally when the Louise Weiss building was opened, it was condemned by some for being shabby, dark and difficult to navigate with telecommunications and lifts being plagued by technical difficulties.  In 2002, the building's water supply was hit by an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease and in 2008 the ceiling of the plenary chamber collapsed, necessitating that sessions be transferred to Brussels for much of that year.

According to its official website, Strasbourg is a young and dynamic city. 

It will definitely surprise you for its lively side, making it a hotbed of culture including museums, theatres, operas, concert halls and festivals. Everything is so close at hand here! Whether you love fine restaurants, monuments or entertainment, there's no doubt that you'll soon fall in love with this captivating city!  

In fact it is sited on the River Ill, two and a half miles west of the Rhine, and there was a Celtic settlement here before the Romans, then was variously occupied by Alemanni, Huns and Franks before being designated Imperial City in 1262 by Philip of Swabia.  After the 30 Years War, Louis XIV annexed it for France (in 1681), but then, following the Franco-Prussian War, in 1871, it became part of the German Empire, until 1918……

So, it’s a rough old place……  Perfect spot for the odd mano a mano encounter…..

Handbags at dawn. Girl on girl….


“One of those things that happens between men,” [Nigel Farage: “one of Britain's greatest ever politicians,” Steven Woolfe.]

Yeah...  Right...

(have you not forgot to wind up the clock?)

*     *     *     *     *

For more on Strasbourg, see.....


It was one cool, refreshing evening, at the close of a very sultry day, in the latter end of the month of August, when a stranger, mounted upon a dark mule, with a small cloak-bag behind him, containing a few shirts, a pair of shoes, and a crimson-satin pair of breeches, entered the town of Strasburg......

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Volume IV

Laurence Sterne

*     *     *     *     *

But back to the moment:  Stop Press: Breaking News  from the BBC website:

The clash at the European Parliament earlier this month between UKIP MEPs Steven Woolfe and Mike Hookem has been reported to the French police.

European Parliament president Martin Schulz said he had referred the "regrettable" incident after a probe.

The parliament's advisory committee on conduct concluded the two men's account of events "diverged substantially".

Mr Woolfe was rushed to hospital after collapsing in the parliament later on the day of the incident.

Mr Schulz said he had referred the matter "given the seriousness of the reported facts and their possible criminal implications".

Speaking in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Mr Schulz said medical examinations carried out following Mr Woolfe's hospital admission suggested his collapse followed a blow to the head.

He said he had taken note of Mr Woolfe's allegations, and had "no doubts about them personally".

Mr Woolfe collapsed earlier this month following an altercation with fellow MEP Mike Hookem, who has consistently denied hitting, pushing or punching Mr Woolfe.

UKIP's interim leader, Nigel Farage said there was "no evidence anybody was punched at all".

Mr Woolfe, who will sit as an independent, said last week that the incident led to him being treated by doctors for two seizures, partial paralysis and the loss of feeling in his face and body.

He insisted a blow from Mr Hookem knocked him back into the meeting room where UKIP MEPs were discussing reports that Mr Woolfe was in talks about defecting to the Conservatives.

Mr Hookem has said Mr Woolfe's political career "was over once he showed disloyalty to the UKIP party and membership when he held talks to join the Tories".




22 October 2016

Baden-Württemberg - Travels in Germany - 7

Dinner for One?
No laughing matter.....

An English couple have a child. After the birth, medical tests reveal that the child is normal, apart from the fact that it is German. This, however, should not be a problem. There is nothing to worry about. As the child grows older, it dresses in lederhosen and has a pudding bowl haircut, but all its basic functions develop normally. It can walk, eat, sleep, read and so on, but for some reason the German child never speaks. The concerned parents take it to the doctor, who reassures them that as the German child is perfectly developed in all other areas, there is nothing to worry about and that he is sure the speech faculty will eventually blossom. Years pass. The German child enters its teens, and still it is not speaking, though in all other respects it is fully functional. The German child's mother is especially distressed by this, but attempts to conceal her sadness. One day she makes the German child, who is now 17 years old and still silent, a bowl of tomato soup, and takes it through to him in the parlour where he is listening to a wind-up gramophone record player. Soon, the German child appears in the kitchen and suddenly declares, "Mother. This soup is a little tepid." The German child's mother is astonished. "All these years," she exclaims, "we assumed you could not speak. And yet all along it appears you could. Why? Why did you never say anything before?" "Because, mother," answers the German child, "up until now, everything has been satisfactory."

I am driving around a select part of Germany, seeking reassurance that despite all the wars, and despite our current turmoil, it may yet be possible to raise a laugh….

Stewart Lee, a small-time hero of mine and part-time intellectual, researched the German sense of humour for The Guardian in 2006, and provided the above  offering by way of a starter.

It is a curious thing that the German people have a reputation for a lack of humour, but Lee accurately pointed out that the problem lies at least partly in the language, with its rigid sentence construction which does not allow for a jokey reveal at the last moment, and which disadvantages punning with its composite nouns. 

What doesn’t quite add up is that, apparently, every New Year for over 40 years, Germans have been laughing hysterically at a black-and-white TV version of a sketch entitled Dinner for One, written in the 1920s by Laurie Wylie. It was recorded (in English) in 1962, with Freddie Frinton (who I remember used to do his drunk act as a stooge to a prim Thora Hird) as the butler and 72-year-old May Warden as 90-year-old Miss Sophie.  Since 1963, the sketch has been screened at least 231 times to German audiences, making it the most repeated show on German television, and, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most popular show in TV history. In 2004, 15.6 million Germans watched it.

You can see the sketch on YouTube, but the gist is that Miss Sophie celebrates her 90th birthday in the imagined presence of dead friends; the Butler drinks all the absent friends’ drinks, and then escorts the lady to her chamber.  The recurrent question is, "Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?" to which she replies: "Same procedure as every year, James."

And therein lies a clue.  History. In an extract from Keeping Up With The Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters, published in The Observer in 2012, Philip Oltermann wrote that By the time I moved to Britain, there was a commonly expressed view in the German press that England was a country tragically stuck in the past, obsessed with its glorious role in the second world war, unable to shake a German's hand without making some daft joke about the Nazis – all true, to an extent, just not the whole truth. In many ways, one British comedy had already come up with a much more convincing explanation for this. John Cleese's Basil Fawlty desperately tries to be serious when he meets his German guests at Fawlty Towers, yet he cannot stop himself from reverting to the English instinct of black-humoured wordplay: "That's two egg mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Herman Göring and four Colditz salads." Basil Fawlty reminds us that postwar Anglo-German relations weren't just complicated by changing economic fortunes and a rapidly unfolding European project, but also by increasingly divergent ideas of what humour could and should do…..

Should we be laughing today?  Should we be backslapping our German friends despite our loss in the Brexit war?  Or are the Germans laughing at us, with our backward ways?

So, in short, I recently visited some of the southern parts of Germany, including Tübingen, which, according to its own website: lives from the complementary interaction of the old town, the university and the civil community, that Tübingen lives between professors and wine growers, and gains its peculiar attraction and its unsurpassable "genius loci". Still, today Tübingen is…. an "Athens on the Neckar". Tübingen is the small big city, "the place for which one is vainlessly in search on earth."  It is also where Joseph Ratzinger (later, for a while, Pope Benedict XVI) fell out with colleagues and undisciplined students in the late ‘60s, but we won’t go into that. It is certainly a fine place, with a colourful punt-filled riverside, delicate washed timber framed houses, and hip-hop filled beer halls. 

Perhaps typically for a town where about a quarter of the residents are students, it is quiet in the morning.  A street violinist plays the love theme from The Godfather

and wooden burghers pray silently in the Stiftskirche St Georg

I don’t get a strong sense of humour from the damp cobbles of the Markt, but the Altstadt seems happy enough.

After Tübingen I attempt to scale the tallest church steeple in the world, that of Ulm Münster, which is 161.6m tall.  

I have to admit that at about 135 metres, feeling that I had had enough steps and vertiginous open stone work for one day, I decided to paraglide back down the narrow spirals to prefer the 15th century wooden congregation 

and stony statue of Bach below in the quiet gloom. 

But then Fränkische Bratwurst mit Senf in the lively market brings a smile to my lips, as does a bottle of Erdinger Weißbier Dunkel in a beamed Weinstube, where conversation with a generous lady sipping Riesling from a half pint jug turns on the calamitous nature of English beer…..  Is that a joke?

Tübingen survived the second world war almost unscathed because it had no industry.  Much of Ulm, however, was destroyed by bombing in 1944, and many of the places we visit on this trip were subject to all kinds of violence and destruction during the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) which may have caused as many as eight millions casualties (three quarters of the population of Württemberg died during this conflict).  The war was essentially between the Protestant Union and the Catholic League, though it also involved Spain, France, Bohemia, Sweden, Denmark, England and the Netherlands, and it raged all over what is now this part of Germany.  Not much to laugh about there.

But then, as they say, shit happens.  On the road from Ulm to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, we veer into Northern Bavaria and pass the Nördlingen Ries, a 25 km wide meteorite crater, where Apollo 16 astronauts trained.  This was caused slightly before the thirty years war, and was not, as I first thought, divine intervention to resolve the crisis on behalf of the Calvinists.  This particular meteorite had a diameter of about 1.5 kilometres and it  impacted the target area at a velocity of about 20 km/s (45,000 mph). The resulting explosion had the power of 1.8 million Hiroshima bombs. Not much to laugh about there either…..

We then admire Dinkelsbühl, where the moat and walls seem to have survived all conflicts,  and where Tessie Bear drives Noddy round and round the cobbled streets vainly trying to find a parking space.

Then we breech the traffic laws to enter Rothenburg, passing the bus park and narrowly avoiding having the car crushed by the press of mondial visitors…..  

It’s no joke!  I thought that, during the school holidays, off the beaten track, there would be hardly anyone here!  But, despite the Wars and the Meteorites, the place is packed…..

Rothenburg was badly affected by both the Peasants’ War of 1525 and the Thirty Years War - so much so that it slipped into insignificance and so was preserved by ignorance. 

It was then pulverised in 1945 by allied aerial bombardment.  But, miraculously, a spirit survived, and the town has re-emerged, phoenix-like, from the dust.  We stay at the rather fine Hotel Eisenhut on the uniquely preserved Herrngasse, and dine at the warmly welcoming Weinhaus Zum Pulverer

where a smiling hostess serves us cheese soup in an edible bowl made of bread, and we learn what a Bembel is – twice!  I begin to laugh….

In the morning, thick mists shroud the valley and swirl up above the walls and towers.  

The sun burns like a cigarette through the silky vapours and gradually the scene clears.  

Across the cobbles a cohort of good protestants step briskly to take up their positions in the choir of St Jakobs Kirche

while outside the Rathaus a number of peasant types prepare to blow their bagpipes and squeeze their wolf skins to amuse the day-trippers….  

It is interesting to note the different factions here, even in such a short stay.  No obvious antagonism, but a simple divergence of preference.  Nothing to be alarmed about.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  Nothing to laugh at either…..

We make our way across country, through the Odenwald, to Heidelberg.  On the way we happen on the Bikers’ Café, 

where, being Sunday, every biker with more than 500cc of nickel chrome, oil and rubber within 100kms is necking Bitburger Pils and inserting French fries into its beard, but, despite an EasyRider frisson with our hostesses, we survive, to arrive in Heidelberg before it, whatever, is too late.  Almost nothing to laugh about….

Heidelberg, according to its official website, is a cosmopolitan city and has a real culture of welcome and acceptance. Even though the city’s population is becoming more diverse all the time, people feel at home here.  

And it’s true.  It would seem that most of the world has moved here, to live in the epitome of romantic ruins, the semi-derelict Schloss

where in the late seventeenth century French explosives split seven metre thick walls and left whole sections of towers forever lurching into the ditch, which so moved Mark Twain that he wrote of it as deserted, discrowned, beaten by storms, but royal still, and beautiful.  

The castle was at one time the palace of Frederick V, the Winter King, who built the Elisabenthor in 1615 as a present for his young wife, the daughter of James I.  Only a few years later, however, calling himself King of Bohemia at the age of 24, he enraged the mighty Hapsburgs, and lost all his titles, and the Thirty Years War kicked off.  Not a lot to laugh about…..

Despite the impress of visitors and students, crowding the funicular and swelling across the Alte Brücke, the city quietens at night, and we are well looked after in both the Hotel Weisser Bock and the Heidelberger Kulturbrauerei, where Hausgemachte Bratensülze with Remouladensauce, Bratkartoffeln und Salat goes extremely well with their home-brewed Oktoberfest beer….  Something to make you smile….

Henning Wehn, regular representative of Germany on Radio 4, attempts to explain German humour in his own way:  Having performed up and down the UK, I know for a fact that there is a severe lack of yodelling, gnome-juggling, wurst-eating, thigh-slapping and rabbit-in-and-out-of-a-hat routines – the foundations of good entertainment. Hence I have teamed up with Berlin-based German TV entertainer Otto Kuhnle, who is an expert in all those fields. The quality of his set-pieces varies between precise and very precise. Between us we have 87,687 minutes of stage time and can draw on years of experience in intercultural field studies. Herr Kuhnle and I developed ‘A Beginner’s Guide to German Humour’ especially for British audiences. In order to impress them, we add stereotypical props such as lederhosen (short leather trousers), Maßkrug (beer stein) and Gartenzwerge (garden gnomes) to our repertoire.

The show is based on the six iron regeln of the Fatherland’s hilarity bible ‘Lachen, Lachen, Lachen’ (‘Laugh, Laugh, Laugh’).

Regel 1) Be arrogant.
This is why Germans like Australians. It’s just their attempts of coming across as jovial that isn’t consistent with German humour.

Regel 2) No self-deprecation.
How can trying to laugh off failure be regarded as a positive character trait? Nobody deserves to stay in their job simply because they tell the tale of their underachievement in an entertaining way.

Regel 3) Never ever laugh with failure.
Only ever laugh at failure. For example: Stuart Pearce 1990, Gareth Southgate 1996 and Paul Robinson 2007. You get the gist.

Regel 4) Don’t mention the war.
Because we lost. Admittedly we were the moral winners, but merely winning the sympathy vote simply isn’t good enough. We’re not Scottish.

Regel 5) Physical humour is best.
Vorsprung durch slapstick. An old codger falling over or getting a cake in the face is always funny. Even during a famine.

Regel 6) Stand-up comedy is pointless.
The best-case scenario is leaving the stage after plenty of hard work to the same level of applause to which you were initially brought on to the stage. Excitement can only be lost. What a waste of time.

Aren’t all these regeln refreshingly common sense? Definitely a lot more than that mantra of British wit: ‘laughing about everything indicates a great sense of humour’. It doesn’t. It indicates mental illness. Hence, be sane and join Herr Kuhnle and my laughter revolution. You will visit us or we will visit you. Auf Wiedersehen!

This brief tour of Baden-Württemberg has been a delight, even though in seven hundred kilometres I haven’t heard a single joke.  Apparently the rest of Germany characterises the Swabians as hard-working, frugal and rather boring.  Maybe, but I have also found them to be kind and hospitable.  There may not have been a great deal of laughter, but there was plenty of smiling, warmth and welcome.  

In fact, I almost felt that our hosts were sorry for us, in a small way, and that takes me back to Dinner for One.  I suspect that the real reason the Germans love this particular curiosity is that the joke is on us.  We now sit alone at our table with places set for absent guests. The procedure in all its pomp is the same as it ever was, but no one else is present.  I can just see a white haired, stork-like Theresa May sitting at the head of her table, toasting in turn the empty places of Angela Merkel, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and François Hollande while David Davis, in white tie and tails, trips over the tiger-skin rug and spills the lemonade. You've just got to laugh....

In our imaginations all will always be the same; but from the outside looking in, it is a very comic, though somewhat sad, spectacle. The Germans have a very good sense of humour, but the laugh is on us…..

To twist Bertolt Brecht’s epigraph to his poem Deutschland:

Mögen Andere von ihrer Schande sprechen,
Ich spreche von der meinen

Let others speak of her shame
I speak of my own.

Or, to put it another way:

Up until now, everything has been satisfactory