27 June 2023

So it goes.....

 Dresden, and associated thoughts....

Pescara Beach, (too) many years ago.....
(Michael, Me, Hil & Gerry)

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die.  He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral.  All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.....

Kurt Vonnegut , Jr.
The Children's Crusade

And what, Mein Freund, has this ever so slightly silly pic go to do with the price of fish?

Well, for a start, we had fun....  But, sadly, now that Gerry's gone, this piece is for him.....

Because, around the time that photo was created, I may of [sic] lent Gerry my copy of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, which started him off on a life-long love of Vonnegut.... 

And, by coincidence perhaps, I just got back from Dresden (or Florence on the Elbe, as it was once known) which was destroyed by British and American bombing that created a firestorm in February 1945, with a loss of maybe 35,000 civilian lives.

Destroyed City Center of Dresden. Bundesarchiv Image, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Kurt Vonnegut, was there, an American prisoner-of-war, and his novel is partly about the bombing. Before World War II, the city, Germany's seventh largest with a population of 600,000, drew visitors to see the 18th-century Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) and the Zwinger, an impressive palace complex commissioned by Augustus the Strong (1670-1733), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, (he who liked to demonstrate his strength by snapping horseshoes in half).

The Old Markt in Dresden, c 1750/51, by Bernardo Bellotto

Collections of Renaissance and Baroque paintings in the Semper Gallery, included works by Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck. In the 19th century the presence of composers Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner established Dresden as a force in the Romantic movement.

But all changed at 10.15 pm on February 13th 1945, when, in the space of about 15 minutes, RAF bombers dropped 880 tons of high explosives and incendiaries (the first of four waves over two days) on the town centre. Götz Bergander, an 18-year-old who survived the raids in a shelter, later described what it was like: There was an indescribable roar in the air - the fire. The thundering fire reminded me of the biblical catastrophes that I had heard about in my education in the humanities. I was aghast. I can’t describe seeing this city burn in any other way. The colour had changed as well. It was no longer pinkish-red. The fire had become a furious white and yellow, and the sky was just one massive mountain of cloud.....

Donald Miller, a(n - please yourself) historian, explained what happened: People’s shoes melted into the hot asphalt of the streets, and the fire moved so swiftly that many were reduced to atoms before they had time to remove their shoes. The fire melted iron and steel, turned stone into powder, and caused trees to explode from the heat of their own resin. People running from the fire could feel its heat through their backs, burning their lungs. He also recounted that many of the victims, possibly as many as two thirds, may have died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

In the words of Winston Churchill: The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing....

So it goes

After the war, with the division of Germany into East and West, Dresden remained in ruins.  This was the opera house in 1977:

And the famous Frauenkirche remained a pile of stones until years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Of course the city was resurrected, but the GDR wanted to leave the marks of Western Aggression for all to see, and so they raised their version of Crawley New Town on the ashes of the old:

And put their mark on the functional and brutalist:

You could say, as Vonnegut did, And so it goes..... But, although the restoration is still ongoing, phoenix Dresden arises now in splendour.  The Semperoper, the Opera House of the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden (Saxon State Opera), has been rebuilt to the exact detail as it was in 1878 (the 1841 version had burned down in 1869 after an incident with the state-of-the-art gas lighting):

Inside it is grand but not cramped:

The gardens and fountains of the Zwinger are currently being restored:

But inside is magnificent, like the almost ridiculously opulent neighbouring Residenzschloss (Royal Palace), official residence of the rulers of Saxony, and in particular home to August the Strong (him of the horseshoes - see above).

In the decades following its destruction in the war, the remains of this palace were protected and it is now a Residenz Der Kunst und Wissenschaft (Palace of the Arts and Sciences).... Though there is a more than a touch of the exotic, or should I say, the madness of the Oligarch, about some of the rooms?

This is the Turkish Chamber, which houses a twenty metre long, eight metre wide and six metre high Ottoman Tent, made of gold and silk, in which Augie liked to dress up as a Sultan. A leaflet tells me that there are more than 600 objects in an area covering 750 square metres [which] illustrate the magnificent abundance of the Türckische Cammer ....  [And while I know this is not accurate, I am tempted to say that it is from this that the word Kitsch originates....]

Anyway, back to basics.  In 1997, the day that Diana died, our friend Michael was in Dresden, lodging at the execrable Ibis Hotel, and the Frauenkirche on the Neumarkt was literally a pile of stones.  Look at it now, by day:

By night:

On the inside:

And from the top:

And from the bottom, where there's a piece of the original church as a memorial:

It hasn't had an easy ride, this Florence on the Elbe.  Apart from almost total destruction in the War, the river Elbe burst its banks in 2002 and did a great deal of damage (the Opera House, for example, was inundated and all sets and costumes were ruined).  The brown in this picture is floodwater, the Zwimmer is just below the centre:

And there are architects and engineers who have also wrought havoc. In 2009, after Dresden was inscribed as cultural landscape in 2004,  the World Heritage Committee decided to remove Germany's Dresden Elbe Valley from UNESCO's World Heritage List due to the building of a four-lane bridge in the heart of the cultural landscape which meant that the property failed to keep its outstanding universal value as inscribed.  Tut.  Tut.....

But, as the sun goes down:

And I raise a glass of Zwickelbier on Brühl’s Terrace of the Radeberger Spezialausschank (try saying that when you've had a few....)

Yes, I raise a glass to my friends, especially to my late friend Gerry, here seen with me at another favourite spot, near where I used to live outside of Rome:

And then later I raise another glass in the Augustiner Beerhall:

Whoops! Wrong photo...... you weren't supposed to see that.... But as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, in the first sentence of Slaughterhouse 5,

All this happened, more or less.....

And I could tell you a lot more.

But another time.....

Vonnegut wrote:

Over the years, people I've met have often asked me what I'm working on, and I've usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, "Is it an anti-war book?"

"Yes," I said.  "I guess."

"You know what I say to people when I hear they're writing anti-war books?"

"No.  What do you say, Harrison Starr?"

"I say, 'Why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?'"

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, and they were as easy to stop as glaciers.  I believe that too.

Der Krieg (War), Triptych by Otto Dix, 1929/32

And even if wars didn't keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

And so now death has taken you too, Gerald, like it took Vonnegut before, and it will take us all one day.

And the wars keep coming. And the glaciers are receding. But, for the moment, at least, the world keeps turning and the sun rises and sets and the river flows, flows to the sea 
(Where ever that river goes 
that's where I want to be.
Flow river flow, let your waters wash down.
Take me from this road to some other town.)

So it goes

You always were an Easy Rider, Gerald.  May your soul be at peace.  I wish you were still here, like I wish that time could stand still for a moment, or that we could go back, for example back to Giannutri where we spent the night in the Roman ruins having taken a little acid that Richard Eddie gave me and the bushes became centurions and the night spun with the stars going so fast and clear and the sea a spangle of light and laughter and you told me about your love for Maria.....  

Or when we ate at Le Tre Scalini in Via Panisperna one night with the waiters in starched white jackets who moved the tables back and cleared the floor and we danced to a harmonica to celebrate someone's something....

Or when we sang Forever Young with the kids at school and everyone was happy and we thought it might last forever.....

The long day closes

And somewhere there was springtime. The corpse mines were closed down. The soldiers all left to fight the Russians. In the suburbs, the women and children dug rifle pits. Billy and the rest of his group were locked up in the stable in the suburbs. And then, one morning, they got up to discover that the door was unlocked. World War Two in Europe was over.

Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street.  The trees were leafing out.  There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind.  There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses.  The wagon was green and coffin-shaped.

Birds were talking.

One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, 'Poo-tee-weet?'

Kurt Vonnegut


In Memoriam

Gerald Brian Firth

1934 - 2023

People aren't supposed to look back.  I'm certainly not going to do it anymore......


So it goes


  1. Lovely, thank you

  2. How beautiful and touching. I really do enjoy reading your depth.

  3. Thank you Richard. Very moving.