Thursday, July 19, 2012

Karl Lueger

For reasons that I really shouldn't go into here, I know a great deal about the city of Vienna. I've never been there, and have no plans to do so in the near future, but a few years ago I found myself having to write around 60,000 words about the city. I read dozens of books about Vienna today, its history, and its culture; I plowed through thousands of blog posts and travel articles; emailed countless hoteliers, shopkeepers and museum staff. I could speak at length about the historicist paintings of Hans Makart, the fabric designs of Koloman Moser, or the palaces of the Habsburg royal family. There was a time when I could draw a pretty accurate sketch map of Vienna's downtown districts – complete with street names and traffic flow directions – entirely from memory.

Since then I've spent most of my working hours filling my mind with pointless military trivia, and the information about Vienna has been pushed further and further down into the sub-basements of my mind. Fragments still pop to the surface from time to time, however, when I read or see something that seems familiar. A few months ago, for example, I read Radetzky March by Joseph Roth – a brilliant novel about the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – and found that I could easily place the locations of all the scenes that take place in Vienna.

The other thing that keeps reminding me of the Vienna project, oddly, is American politics.

One of the sections of the book I was working on was a brief history of Vienna. Brief histories are always difficult, because publishers always want them to be comprehensive, while at the same time demanding that each rewrite be shorter than the last. Getting the tone right took dozens of revisions and a huge amount of research. While reading up on the subject I found myself getting fascinated by a couple of figures from the city's history. The rather sad figure of Emperor Ferdinand I was one of them, another was Gerard van Swieten – Empress Maria-Theresia’s personal physician, favorite advisor, and chief vampire hunter. The one that keeps popping up in regard to American politics, however, is Karl Lueger, a politician who was mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1900.

Lueger is a colossal figure in Vienna’s history – the man who wrestled a great deal of power from the emperor, who stood up to the corrupt old guard, who formed Vienna into a modern industrial city – but he is generally remembered for something else. On the campaign trail, Lueger was notorious for his scathing anti-semitic rants. He would blame just about anything and everything on ‘the Jews’, he often characterized them as subhuman parasites and urged the crowds to help him drive them out of positions of influence, out of the city, and sometimes worse.

If he was just a ranting anti-Semite, I don't think I would have paid him more than a second glance. Sadly this was not an unusual trait in late 19th-century Viennese politics and there are always bigots in the world. The thing that I found genuinely chilling – and the thing that reminds me of contemporary American politics – is the strange fact that he wasn't, by all accounts, an anti-Semite. He was an intelligent and genial man, to whom all that ranting and raging was just an effective campaign strategy. In his time Vienna was an overcrowded city where the rich had everything and the poor scrabbled around for scraps, taking advantage of ethnic tensions was easy and effective.

For all his fiery rhetoric, Lueger did not actually do anything politically to make the lives of the city's Jews harder. Admittedly, he voted for a few anti-Semitic laws while he was a representative in the local government, but he was not closely involved with these proposals; he simply threw himself behind them when it became clear that failing to do so would harm his chances of getting re-elected. He also had many Jewish friends, although he worked hard to keep this fact secret.

If things had stopped there, then Lueger’s campaign trail antics would probably have been forgotten. Unfortunately, life doesn't work like that. You can't stand on a soapbox and preach hate without it sinking in somewhere. Lueger may not have meant it, but he threw his considerable authority and oratorical powers behind these ideas, pushing them further and deeper than they would otherwise have gone.

When he died in 1910 thousands of ordinary Viennese workers turned out for his funeral. Among them was a young art-school washout called Adolf Hitler, who had hung of the great man's every word since he'd arrived in the city three years earlier. Decades later, he would write about his admiration of Lueger in his prison autobiography, Mein Kampf.

This is what worries me with US politics. For the last 10–15 years, the grandees of the Republican party have lined up to make vicious and dehumanizing statements about ‘the Muslims’ and ‘the Gays’. I don't believe that any of them actually think like this – that the thrice-married serial adulterer Newt Gingrich actually wishes fire and brimstone on same sex couples, or that the canny businessman Donald Trump thinks that the president is a crypto-Muslim – but their pandering to these ideas helps them spread.

The Republican party is already reaping the first harvest of this policy, with the old  
 hypocrites having to share the senate floor with the zealous (and stupid) true believers they inspired back in the 90s. I worry that if they don't do something to control this tendency soon, it's only a matter of time before their words drift into the wrong head – I don't mean spree killing bad, I mean Voldemort bad.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Long Distance

Despite what the frequency of flashback episodes in American sitcoms would suggest, most people manage to live their lives without often having to explain how they and their significant other met. No-one wants to sit around for ten minutes while a couple gushes about a romantic, dramatic chain of events that almost certainly didn't happen, nor do they want to hear the truth, as the story is ultimately pretty much the same for everyone.

I've only been married for about three months, but I've already learned that this will not be the case for me. My wife and I have voices that immediately give away the fact that we're from opposite sides of the Atlantic, and this makes people curious.

My usual response to the question is to say that we met in 2004, when we were both at the University of Kent. Which is true. Unfortunately, it's a response that creates more questions than it answers. Kristen is clearly not English, nor does she have (yet) the sort of mid-Atlantic accent that would imply she's lived here for a long time. The next question, therefore, is invariably about how long she's lived in the UK. When she says ‘three years’ people start to look confused.

A decent explanation of how our unusual situation came to be requires rather more detail than one can reasonably fit into a few sentences at a party. It also involves delving into a period of my life that I'm rather self-conscious about. As a result, I tend to run away as the next question is forming itself.

Right now I'm sitting in the attic of our shared home, with a wedding band on my finger and a warm fuzzy feeling in my head. I figure now is as good a time as any to look back on those four missing years, however, and perhaps if I actually set the story straight in my head I'll be able to answer the question properly next time it comes up. So, first up, a declaration: I was in a long distance relationship for about four years of my life.

There's a tremendous stigma associated with long distance relationships. It makes me feel uncomfortable to even write the phrase, to associate myself with it, because it immediately springs to mind so many negative associations – maladjusted ogres lurking in the darkness, emotionally desperate loners clinging to a vague approximation of affection, and, of course, girlfriends ‘who live in Canada’. As a result, without really meaning to, I tend to jump straight from the summer of 2005 to the autumn of 2009 when I'm talking about me and Kristen, glossing over the period of my life that makes people look at me funny.

When Kristen went home at the end of her year at Kent, it hit me pretty hard. I was grouchy and morose, prone to Marvin the Paranoid Android levels of gloominess. I tried to deal with this in my usual way – by trying to put a new band together and going on manic crosstown benders with my friends, but the gloom always seemed to sneak back in. I spent a lot of that summer wandering around in Oxleas woods, talking to myself, or rather, talking to a Kristen that wasn't there.

I was still was in occasional contact with Kristen through messenger and email, but that's a laughably pale imitation of actual interaction. This blog post Kristen wrote in June 2005 sums up the feeling of that summer pretty well.

Around the time that I went back to university I remember reading a news story that mentioned a program called Skype. Apparently it was something that allowed you to call people for free over the internet. Needless to say, I downloaded it immediately, as did Kristen, and one rainy evening in October (after the internet had finally started working properly in our house) we heard each others' voices for the first time in several months. Endless technical problems aside, it was a good evening (I say evening, I think it was well after dawn by the time I finally went to sleep).

We soon established a routine that would continue, with periodic interruptions, for the next four years. We both went about our daily lives as usual, occasionally chatting on messenger or through email while we worked on other things, but in the evening we would fire up Skype and talk for a few hours. This was before Skype supported video-calling (and neither of us had webcams anyway) so our relationship soon became a strangely abstract one – we were just two disembodied voices and minds. Sometimes we'd send each other pictures of ourselves, but for the most part we remained invisible to each other.

Our relationship would never have been possible without Skype. This was primarily because it was free, obviously, but there was another reason. Skype provides far higher audio quality than a regular phone line; I was able to hear kristen – through my big monitoring headphones – as clearly as if she was sitting by my side. I could hear her breathing, the full range of her voice, and the ambient sounds of the room she was in. I don't think that I could have held her image so distinctly in my mind if it were not for that three dimensional quality. Another tool that helped us keep in touch was Audacity, the open source recording software. On evenings when I knew we weren't going to be able to talk (which happened quite often when Kristen was living in California) I'd use audacity to record little messages or read poems and short stories I’d discovered that day.

The time difference meant that we generally talked when it was very late for me (11pm–2am, usually) but still fairly early for Kristen. This had the strange effect that while everyone in Kristen's life knew about me, because she had to excuse herself to talk to me, very few people in my life knew about Kristen. It wasn't that I was keeping her a secret – if people asked about my personal life I'd mention her – it's just that unless they asked (and very few people ever did) they'd have no way of knowing she existed. Obviously my flatmates and my close friends (who knew Kristen before she went back to the states) knew about her, but most of my extended circle of friends assumed I was either an unusually shabby closeted gay man or completely asexual. 

For me ‘Kristen Time’ came at the expense of sleep, rather than any of my daytime activities. I got used to this after a while – I became able to function at work or university even after only an hour or two of sleep – but I've gotten the impression that it was not without side-effects. Most notably, several of my friends have mentioned that I've become a noticeably calmer, nicer person since Kristen's been living the UK. My own recollections back this up – there are lots of things I can clearly remember saying that make me cringe now, they seem mean spirited and bitchy. How I appeared to other people back then was well summed up by one of my friends, who in the autumn of 2009 remarked, ‘It'd never occurred to me that you were capable of love. Before she appeared I'd always assumed you were some kind of Charlie Brooker-style misanthrope’.


Earlier on I mentioned ‘interruptions’. I'm not going to gloss things over and claim we've always been madly devoted to each other. There were two periods during those four years where we didn't really talk much. One was in the spring of 2006, when I had a crisis of confidence and decided I wanted to break things off. This lasted for about two weeks, if that, but made things a little awkward for a while afterwards. The second time, in spring of 2007, was more serious. I was in my third year of uni and working really unpleasantly hard, sleeping little and thinking way too much. Kristen was living in California, and also working unpleasantly hard, thinking too much, and sleeping little. The eight-hour time difference, coupled with the fact that we were both going mad, led to us just imploding. We didn't speak at all for around three months, but then started to write in our blogs more and more – until we both realised that we were writing mostly for the benefit of each other, and started talking on messenger again. We resumed talking on Skype towards the end of the summer, I think, but it took a pretty long time for things to return to how they were before.   


We did occasionally see each other in person during those four years. The first time was in the summer of 2006, just after I'd finished my second year of university and Kristen had graduated. She knew that she was going to have to drive from New York (the Hamptons actually, dahling) to San Francisco during the summer, and asked her parents if they'd pay for me to come along as a graduation present to her. Amazingly, they agreed to this, perhaps because Kristen had neglected to mention a few pertinent pieces of information like the fact that I can't drive, I'm shit at reading maps, I can't change a tyre and I am in fact significantly weaker than Kristen.

Luckily, none of those skills were required, and we had a wonderful time. For a suburban English boy who'd never traveled any further than northern France, traveling across America was an amazing experience. We spent our days talking and watching the landscape go by (I-40 is pretty much dead-straight from Knoxville, Tennessee to Bakersfield, California, so Kristen rarely had to devote much attention to driving). We lived off Waffle House pancakes and stayed in a constellation of – to my European eyes – absurdly large and air-conditioned motel rooms. Settling back into each other's company felt completely natural, as if we'd never been apart. Parting again was a bastard.

I tried to write about that trip on here, but I was swamped by university work (the third year was hard) and only managed to write these three posts. Kristen wrote just one, but it was much more thorough. The fact that I didn't write more pisses me off a great deal. I could still write thousands of words about that trip if I set my mind to it, and that's after those experiences have been left in the damp basement of my memory for years. Perhaps one of these days I'll sit down with all the photos we took, all the notes I wrote and see if I can recreate the trip in my mind and write about it.

We didn't see each other in person for another two years after that, not until my friends and I all decided to go to New York on holiday. We only spent two days in each other's company on this occasion, but we made up for it by not actually sleeping. Despite all the time that had passed, the period of silence, and how much our lives had changed in the interim (I had by then graduated from university and gotten myself a job working as an editor at a publishing firm, Kristen was working with children on a sailboat in Baltimore) we found, as we had last time, that everything just clicked. I remember sitting on the plane on the way home, reading and rereading a message she'd sent me as she left New York on the chinatown bus to Baltimore: ‘The city is out of sight now. I can still smell your hair on my hands.’

She's always had a knack for words.

The next two times we saw each other (she came here at the beginning of 2009 and I went over to New York in the summer of the same year) we were busy planning Operation Live in the Same Country, so I'm not sure if they really count as part of the long distance period. By this time we were talking on video Skype (which in some ways felt less intimate than when we were just voices in the darkness) and actively planning our future together, something that we'd never felt able to do before.

I wrote about my first trip to New York here and here. Kristen wrote about her trip to the UK here. I wrote about my second trip to New York here, here and here.


I sometimes wonder what the long-term effects of those four years have been on our relationship, and the way I've developed as a person. I'm reminded of something my dad said at our engagement party, which I can't remember clearly enough to do justice. It centered on the British idiom ‘tried and tested’ and the American one ‘Tried and true’. I feel like it's made us stronger and more confident as a couple – we know, more definitely than most people, that we categorically did not take the path of least resistance. We know that you can take us, fling us to opposite sides of the world and leave us for four years and we'll still love each other. That knowledge makes the everyday trials of the long workdays and cold winters, of the richer and poorer, the sickness and health – seem almost laughably insignificant.

It's one of those things though, like the scale of the universe, that it's almost impossible for me to hold a clear image of in my head. When I actually put what I have now in perspective, compare it to all the nights spent staring at a computer screen, struggling to keep my eyes open long enough to see the little note pop up that says ‘Kristen is Online’, I tend to tear up almost immediately. At our wedding Kristen's sister said something – I can't remember what – that made me glimpse, just for a moment, what was happening through the eyes of a younger me, a version of me to whom this all seemed like some wonderful dream. I think t was a bit much for Kristen too. We had to go and hide outside for a while.

I think relationships like ours will probably become more common over the next few years, providing the phone companies don't manage to get Skype shut down. I'm not the only person in my social group who has married an American, and I know of several other people my age who have also opted to do things the hard way (one of them was even brave enough to marry a Canadian). I doubt that will stop people from backing away from you at parties though. I think even people who've gone through this secretly believe themselves to be the only normal ones who did it, different from those other weirdos.


Friday, July 13, 2012

Tube Station Poster

Inspired by something Kristen wrote the other day.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


I've just finished reading through a chapter of a friend's Phd thesis; some 40 pages on the subject of thrift in wartime needlework. It doesn't sound the most interesting subject, I know, but it was actually a fascinating read. This isn't going to be a commentary on the content of the thesis -- I'm not even remotely qualified to write something like that -- but a piece about its form.

I should start by explaining that I've not written anything in an academic setting in about 5 years now, not since I put down my pen in the last exam of my degree in the summer of 2007. Pretty much everything I've written since that time has been related to my work as an editor. At work I write or edit travel guides, coffee table books, and illustrated reference sets, as well as more magazine-like publications. Everything I write is done with a very careful eye on the word count, and, more often than not, the physical space into which I have to fit the text. If you've never had to do this, it's hard to explain how deeply this affects your writing. You have to discard perfectly good prose and rewrite it, again and again, breaking down your ideas into haiku-like phrases so you can fit, for example, the complete history of the development of the steam engine into a little sidebar. Furthermore, you often have to change sentences, not because they're too long, but simply because they're the wrong shape; an awkward grouping of long words can wreak havoc with you line-breaks, especially in unjustified text.

To an extent, my writing has always erred on the side of concise. I've always strongly disliked the act of writing things out by hand -- it's slow and awkward for me -- so as a child I tended towards brevity, simply because it was less unpleasant. Even when I'm using a keyboard, when it comes to writing outside of work -- like this -- I'm generally restricted by the number of words I can write in one sitting without completely losing my train of thought (generally around 1000).

As a result, I was taken aback by my sudden return to the voluminous wordiness of academic English. The chapter I read was not bloated or overlong, but simply comprehensive. It mentioned everything there was to be mentioned and examined the key issues from every angle. Admittedly, like all academic writing, it repeated itself a lot -- introductions, conclusions, statements of intent -- but no more than is expected for such a work.

Nonetheless -- and I think it may have been the theme of thrift that kept bringing this to the forefront of my mind -- it seemed to me that there was something decadent, even wasteful, about using so many words. To compare it with my normal writing, it was like sinking into an enormous squashy sofa after spending a day perched on a wooden stool. The scholarly part of my mind appreciated the subtle nuances produced by repeatedly interrogating the same sources, but my editor brain simply spat out the red biro it had clamped between its teeth and growled.

I was restrained and sensible, but the presence of so many words did make me feel like an eager lumberjack, dropped in the middle of a forest of sturdy trees.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Money markets

I've generally tried to avoid reading too much about the financial crisis. I don't have much of a head for figures, and I know what I read will just make me even angrier than I already am.

A sort of morbid fascination, coupled with a vague sense of civic duty, often induces me to go and read up on the latest scandal. I'm not generally that interested in the reportage on the scandals themselves, but more on the peculiar world that these scandals shed light on. In order, for example, for a newspaper to discuss ethical violations by a company involved in the millisecond-turnaround automatic trade they have to first explain what that business is.

Each time I'm struck by just how amazingly abstract the business models of these companies are. They don't create anything, nor do they really do anything. Most of them conjure their wealth seemingly from nowhere by simultaneously jiggling thousands of sets of numbers. They're not investors in the traditional sense – putting their money behind businesses to help them expand or improve, with the expectation that they'll reap some of the subsequent profits – they're just taking advantage of strange quirks in the modern financial system. 

The best analogy I can think of for these businesses comes from the world of computer games. Amongst gamers there is a class of cheat known as an exploit. These are not intentionally programmed codes, nor are they bugs, exactly. An exploit is simply a trick that takes advantage of a careless bit of programming, a loophole in the game’s internal logic.

A good example of an exploit comes from the Elder Scrolls series (Morrowind, I think, was the last one where this was possible). In these games you could create a magical amulet that increased the potency of potions you brewed. You could then put on this amulet and brew a potion that increased the potency of amulets you made. It was possible to repeat this process until you were able to make absurd items that the developers never intended for players to have – like invisibility potions that never wore off, or amulets of protection that rendered your character functionally invincible. 

Most of these traders seem, to my eyes, to be people taking advantage of an exploit – cheating, essentially. They're bypassing the route to prosperity that society’s fundamental code is designed around – hard work, innovation, skill – and are replacing it with a cynical and repetitive manipulation of an overlooked loophole.


On a related note. A while ago I found myself looking at the wikpedia pages for facebook and Rolls Royce in quick succession (I don't remember why). The difference between the market values of the two companies says a lot about the confused state of the modern stock market.

Facebook is a relatively small company. It employs a few thousand people, owns a few million dollars worth of tangible assets (servers, offices, etc.), and has a revenue of about 3.7 billion dollars a year. It has a business model that’s based on people continuing in the mistaken belief that advertising with them is a good idea (many senior ad-men are pretty convinced it isn't) and that it will one day figure out a way of making money directly from its users (which is like someone saying that they've got a lovely pork dinner ready and waiting when what they really have is an angry boar living somewhere in the forest near their house). A while ago facebook spent one billion dollars buying instagram – a company with about a dozen employees and a business model that, as far as anyone can tell, was based around waiting for someone stupid to buy them out.

Rolls Royce, by comparison, employs more than 40,000 people worldwide and has an annual revenue of 17 billion dollars. It makes jet engines and turboprops for just about everyone, along with squillions of other aerospace and high-tech engineering products. A few years ago it bought the Allison Engine Company, a large and highly profitable company which makes the engines for most US military helicopters and transport aircraft, for $525 million.

According to the stock market, facebook is worth 104 billion dollars, while Rolls Royce is worth only 20.

The only reason I can think of for this is that facebook is an entertaining football for the short-term gambler types, while steady, boring Rolls Royce is only of interest to people with an attention span of more than five minutes. The boring people have a more pragmatic approach to valuing companies, which at no point involves the word ‘zeitgeist’.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

For the last few days I've been adapting a book about the battle of Philippi for a general-interest military history series. It's been a frustrating process. The book I'm working from was written by a classicist, and so uses latin terminology constantly, seemingly unaware that most people don't know what, for example, a ‘equestris’ is. He'll write something like ‘before Gaius landed on the west coast of Asia he had the quaestor declared a hostis’, and expect the reader to just know what a quaestor is, what hostis means, and not be baffled by the idea that Asia has a west coast.

The thing that's most frustrating, however, is the sheer mind-boggling amount of detail he goes into. He describes every double-cross (there were lots) every faction and every minor player. Just in the introductory background section he drops about a squillion names, mentioning everyone from the supreme over-emperor of everywhere to the bloke who carried Brutus' stabbing irons to the theatre. Everyone has a backstory, a family history, and a list of motivations and grudges. These descriptions, though extensive, also manage to be entirely useless to a non-specialist as they are peppered with references to events and personages whose significance is never explained.

This breadth of allusion is what I find strange about this book (and pretty much all classical history books). The author writes like he's describing events that he lived through and, more strangely, that his audience lived through as well. I could learn what all these terms mean (well, I have, obviously, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to write the article) but I'd still feel like a foreigner in their world. I'm not a Roman.

I'd been mulling this over for about a week when – woken by a premature hangover and unable to get back to sleep – I took my wife's slab-thick Complete Works of Jorge Luis Borges down to the living room and curled up on the sofa. The story I found myself reading was ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, one of my favorites. It's about a man who discovers an encyclopedia entry about a country that doesn't exist. This article turns out to be just a tiny fragment of a much larger work, a massive, Brittanica-like encyclopedia which stretches to hundreds of volumes, detailing every conceivable aspect of an entirely fictional world called Tlön. It is the secret work of generations of scholars, a vast enterprise that drew in specialists from every field imaginable.

Near the end of the story someone finds a complete set of the Encyclopedia of Tlön. It becomes a runaway hit, republished in every language, and reprinted constantly. The narrator then goes on to describe the effect it had on the world:

“Manuals, anthologies, summaries, literal versions, authorized re-editions and pirated editions of the ‘Greatest Work of Man’ flooded and still flood the earth. Almost immediately, reality yielded on more than one account. The truth is that it longed to yield. Ten years ago any symmetry with a resemblance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was sufficient to entrance the minds of men. How could one do other than submit to Tlön, to the minute and vast evidence of an orderly plant? It is useless to answer that reality is also orderly. Perhaps it is, but in accordance with divine laws – I translate: inhuman laws – which we never quite grasp. Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world. Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chess masters, not of angels. Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) ‘primitive language’ of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty.”

To my mind, this description works just as well for Rome.

I'm not saying that the Roman world never existed, just that it never existed in the form that we know it. What we think of as ancient Rome is not the civilization that once thrived on the shores of the Mediterranean, but a virtual civilization that still lives, insofar as it ever has, in an endless stream of written material.

Modern-archaeology aside, Rome is a paper-bound civilization that extends only as far as the edges of what people wrote down. As a result it is eminently knowable and finite, a far more comforting subject for study than the world around us. Even when there are contradictions or ambiguities in the written world of Rome, the problem easily identified as one of exegesis.

People like myself often look back through the broad sweep of history and say ‘it's only once people dropped religion that they started making progress’. I think this is true to an extent, but I think religion’s stultifying effect had a secular analogue – an enchanting, idealized world that captivated the minds of generations of scholars. It can also be said that it's only once we, as a culture, stopped trying to recreate ancient Rome – one bored latin student at a time – that we managed to get anywhere.