Peak Britain

Having left off last time with our intrepid group poised to undertake the National Three Peaks Challenge, I’m pleased to report that the hike was indeed successfully completed (two of our party did manage to get up and down all three mountains within the twenty-four-hour time limit by dint of literally running the entire Snowdon trail, whilst several more of us – myself included – at least staggered to the top of every peak before the deadline expired), and that your generosity helped comprehensively smash our fundraising target and collect over £12,500 to commemorate Paul McClean. There’s much that could be said about the trip itself, which involved battling against multiple injuries, Saharan temperatures, and (worst of all) rural drivers on narrow Lake District roads, but in all honesty much of it passed in a sleep-deprived blur and I’m not sure I could provide a coherent account if I tried. Besides, a potentially more interesting question was rattling round my head throughout the whole process, never more so than when sat in a Snowdonian B&B the morning after, waiting for a Scottish waitress to bring me a traditional English fry-up which she nonetheless insisted was the Full Welsh Breakfast: namely, what exactly was ‘national’ about the whole thing anyway?

In one sense, the ‘National’ Three Peaks Challenge takes its name rather prosaically from the fact that Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike, and Snowdon are the tallest mountains in the three nations of Scotland, England, and Wales respectively (and not – as is commonly assumed – the three highest peaks on the island of Britain, which are all in Scotland). But looking deeper into names suggests that none of the peaks fit very straightforwardly into local national traditions. Ben Nevis overlooks the town of Fort William, named not for any Scottish hero but for Duke William of Cumberland, the Anglo-German ‘Butcher of Culloden’ still widely reviled north of the border. Scafell Pike derives its name from Old Norse, and shares more of an etymology with the settlement of Skaw in the Shetlands than with any of its English neighbours. Snowdon, meanwhile, is an English moniker with no semantic link to what the Welsh continue to call ‘Yr Wyddfa’.* Given these entangled linguistic histories, are the three peaks just ‘national’ in isolation, or might we be able to connect them all to a common sense of Britishness?

* ‘Yr Wyddfa’ translates as ‘the cairn’ and is a reference to the mountain being a mythical funeral monument to the giant Rhitta Gawr, reputedly slain by King Arthur after trying to add the monarch’s facial hair to his magical cloak of beards. The literal meaning of ‘Snowdon’ is ‘snowy hill’. This may say something about the respective levels of imagination possessed by the two peoples.
NB I am experimenting with putting footnotes in picture captions, as this post is too long for people to scroll to the bottom. Don’t get too excited, now.

Certainly, it could be said that there is something peculiarly British about arbitrarily setting oneself the task of climbing tall bits of rock. Modern mountaineering was essentially invented by the Brits in the 1850s, when members of the world’s first Alpine Club in London set about organising expeditions to scale various Continental European mountains which the locals had been content to live alongside for centuries without ever feeling the need to stand on top of, and then writing books about it with absurdly Boy’s Own titles like Scrambles Amongst the Alps. But anyone can assemble a list of activities and things that are believed to be somehow quintessentially British (queuing, warm beer, the Queen, lawn cultivation, fish n’ chips, complaining about the weather etc etc) without this adding up to anything more than a grab-bag of tourist stereotypes that don’t say much about deeper issues of national character. If I’m going to decide in what sense the Three Peaks Challenge is authentically British, surely I’m going to have to advance a more systematic definition of what I think Britishness is?

At this point the mountains themselves are dwarfed by several enormous caveats heaving into view. Large swathes of modern historiography, and indeed previous posts on this blog, have been devoted to questioning the very existence of national character at all. Certainly, it bears repeating that the idea of national populations having certain personality traits coded into them by genes or geography is bunk; academic consensus has long since accepted that nations are cultural constructs or “imagined communities”, artificially woven together from disparate elements to create a myth of collective identity. Nonetheless, it is perhaps worth bearing in mind the response of Albus Dumbledore (himself created to embody a particular British archetype) to a question from Harry about whether a vision of Kings Cross Station during a near-death-experience is real or imaginary. “Of course it is happening inside your head”, comes the reply, “but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” To an extent, nations function in the same fashion. Although they exist only in the minds of those who believe in them, this still gives them the power to affect people’s real-world behaviour in hugely significant ways. Indeed, there is something wondrous and terrifying about how the fragile national consciousnesses pieced together by nineteenth-century Romantics out of folk songs, postage stamps, and coloured bits of cloth took on life and potency of their own, to the extent that by the mid-twentieth-century they were able to level cities and hurl armies across continents.

Understandings of Britishness remain as crystal clear as the view from the top of Ben Nevis.

Just because national characters – or perhaps more accurately national cultures – do exist in some sense, does not mean that they are easy to pin down. One can find in Blackwell’s bookshop whole tables of works attempting to analyse the soul of Britain or its component countries, usually with dustjackets that hint gloomily at the difficulties and ambiguities involved in the task (Brit(ish), Hunting the English, and so on). Certainly, I am not going to be able to surpass these authors’ carefully-researched efforts in a solitary online essay, and even if I had all the time and knowledge in the world I doubt that it would be possible to isolate a single compelling formula for Britishness. Our national identity, just like that of every other country, is founded on a set of hopeless contradictions. We pride ourselves on being a nation of loveable eccentrics, and also on our no-nonsense common sense. We are simultaneously stubborn anti-authoritarians and mustn’t-grumble conformists, tea-sipping introverts and beer-swilling hooligans, backwards-looking traditionalists whose scientists and explorers built the modern world. This is the land of both Bake Off and Love Island, and whichever traits one chooses to elevate from the inconsistent morass to the status of ‘definitively’ British can only be maintained as such by heavy use of the No True Scotsman fallacy. With this in mind, the following three values which I’m going to identify as British are freely acknowledged to be a subjective personal selection; in effect, what I’m doing here is defining Britishness as I would like it to be rather than attempting a categorical verdict on what it actually is.

On the subject of not being a true Scotsman, at this point it is customary that I (as an Englishman) should try to clarify the relationship between Englishness and Britishness, and reassure my Celtic readers that I haven’t forgotten the difference between the two. The trouble is, I’m not sure I can actually do this. It is quite easy to come up with alleged Scottish and Welsh attributes that differ from those of the stereotypical Briton, such as Scottish fiery tempers and fiscal prudence or Welsh melancholy and inherent musicality. It is quite hard to do this for the English; my earlier list of activities and things seen as ‘quintessentially British’ could function equally well as a list of things seen as ‘quintessentially English’.** Most learned commentators on our national identity have wrestled with similar problems, but their solutions don’t entirely convince. In his essay ‘On Being English Without Being British’, the writer John Fowles attempted to draw a distinction between “the red-white-and-blue Britain” and “the green England”, with the former being the focus for imperial nostalgia and jingoistic patriotism of the Last Night of the Proms variety, whilst the latter was built around privacy and Robin-Hood-style opposition to authority. Some more recent analysts such as Jeremy Paxman have endorsed this, whereas others such draw almost the complete opposite conclusions; Britishness is open and inclusive, they argue, whereas the English identity is associated with angry white working-class nationalists (hence the lingering association of St George’s flag with racism, and why the majority of England’s population of non-European descent choose to identify as British and not English). Both schemata seem to me too simplistic. If neither common stereotypes nor deeper analysis can put much daylight between the two identities, what, then, is Britishness reduced to? Just Englishness minus the cricket? I have no answer to this question, so I’m simply going to move on (although there are still more caveats needed, which I’ll address later) and give my list of three values that in my mind represent the Anglo-British ideal.

** See Ben Fogle’s recent book English: A Story of Marmite, Queuing, and Weather for a case of this. As an example of the problem, one could describe afternoon tea as both ‘quintessentially British’ and ‘quintessentially English’ in normal conversation, but calling it ‘quintessentially Scottish’ would sound odd. Irn Bru, on the other hand, is ‘quintessentially Scottish’ but never ‘quintessentially British’. I should at least specify that I am limiting myself to talking about Britain in the rest of this piece, and not addressing the wider UK; although the highest proportion of people identifying as purely British and nothing else do in fact live in Northern Ireland, political culture there is sufficiently different that I dare not extend my (already sweeping) generalisations to cover it.

1. Self-deprecation

As a crude rule of thumb, I usually tell foreign visitors that they can understand large chunks of British politics, economics, and society as simply the midway point between the twin poles of Continental Europe and the USA. One notable exception to this is self-deprecation, the British addiction to which often baffles Americans and Germans equally.*** It is rather hard for me to comment on this at length without getting tied in knots, because if I am going to claim this as a virtue, and at the same time as something which we British possess, then I have already effectively disproved my own assertion. I suppose the easiest way out of this bind is to deny that it is a virtue, which may well be quite true. People from other cultures might legitimately argue that the unwritten British rules that No Compliment Goes Unchallenged and Lights Must Be Hidden Under Bushels At All Times are just abstruse false modesty, and that instead of ritualistically doing ourselves down we ought to simply accept praise where it is due and be open about achievements that make us proud. Be that as it may, I do value self-deprecation, and found the relative lack of it one of the hardest things about being outside Britain or British social circles.

It should be noted that the British are rather less good at practising this collectively than they are as individuals, hence our inability to shut up about the war and similar faded glories (and possibly this blog post). However, even at a national level a streak of self-mockery often prevails. The recent World Cup is a case in point. The English in particular often get stick for overestimating the prowess of their national football team, only to have this hubris punished by inevitable defeat. There was a fair bit of this in evidence during Russia 2018, but in fairness, the England squad got almost as many plaudits for having a polite manager and taking the piss out of themselves with inflatable unicorns as they did for actually winning matches. Even the soundtrack of the summer, ‘Three Lions’, spends more time mulling over the dispiriting experience of “thirty years of hurt” than it does proclaiming English sporting supremacy (as an article in Der Spiegel noted with some puzzlement), and had the fateful semi-final gone the other way, it is difficult to imagine Harry Maguire replicating Croatia’s Dejan Lovren’s claims to be “one of the best defenders in the world”; instead, the Leicester man’s main off-field contributions to the tournament were a meme about his naff chat up lines and a good-natured response to being nicknamed ‘Slabhead’. When the whole thing was over, I can’t have been the only one to breathe a sigh of relief that this uncharacteristic bout of sporting success was finished and that we could now look forward to comfortably bemoaning our mediocrity during the inevitable disappointment of Euro 2020.

If Orwell re-wrote his famous essay on national character now, it would presumably be called ‘The Three Lions and the Inflatable Unicorns’
*** That is not to say that I regard this, or any of the other attributes I mention, as exclusively British. There are obviously people from all cultures who prize and practise self-deprecation, and from everything I hear about the Japanese they have levels of politeness and self-effacement that make the Brits look like crass braggarts. Similarities between Japanese and British cultural values are often remarked on, and I though I don’t know enough about the former to comment, I would be intrigued to explore further. The Finns too sometimes crop up as sharing certain interesting things in common.

2. Moderation

Britain is the land of mild weather, bland food, and the world’s most dreary national anthem. Our national colour should probably be beige, and if we had a national temperature it would be ‘lukewarm’. Before you fall asleep with boredom, I will attempt to argue that our devotion to middle-of-the-road averageness can be beneficial as well as merely dull. The British mistrust of extremes is most clearly of benefit in the political sphere. The near-total failure of radical ideologies such as fascism and communism to gain any purchase in Britain’s mainstream political life even during their mid-twentieth-century heyday is sometimes cited by smug Britons as proof of our freedom-loving abhorrence of tyranny, but the reality is likely more prosaic: our ancestors were simply too apathetic and averse to making a fuss to involve themselves in such uncompromising political projects. Even this lazy instinct for conflict-avoidance has been romanticised to an extent, spawning stereotypes about the British genius for ‘muddling through’ and the myth that the British Empire was only conquered “in a fit of absence of mind”. Nonetheless, statistics do lend substance to the idea that there is something in British culture that makes us unusually good at not killing each other. It is a remarkable fact that ever since the aforementioned ‘Butcher Cumberland’ put down the final Jacobite Rising at Culloden in 1746, mainland Britain has not undergone a single revolution, coup d’état, genocide, civil war, or even a significant rebellion. According to these terms (and with the possible exception of Denmark), Britain has a reasonable claim to be the most politically stable country in the history of the world.

The focal point of this compromise culture is the British constitution, one of a tiny handful of uncodified constitutions in the world, which consists of an unwieldy jumble of statutes, legal judgements, book-length commentaries, and unwritten rules. Again, I do not mean to claim that the British are unique in forging a political system based on ad hoc pragmatism rather than rational planning. One of the reasons I like the EU is because rather than functioning as an efficient centralising force (as its architects hoped and its detractors fear), it largely runs on a hodgepodge of hybrid systems, negotiated exemptions, and live-and-let-live arrangements, all of which have sufficed to keep almost everyone on board and the continent at peace for seventy years. The EU is often subject to historical comparisons with the Holy Roman Empire, and indeed the latter also has some telling similarities with Britain. After generations of condemning it for being insufficiently ordered and logical, historians have slowly come to the realisation that the Old Reich was actually quite effective as a framework for maintaining public peace among its subjects. Often, it was able to do so not because it possessed efficient dispute-resolution mechanisms or the power to decisively crush troublemakers, but for the precise opposite reasons; its multi-layered, ambiguous structure meant that there was always another authority whose permission had to be sought, another meeting to which hard decisions could be postponed, another diplomatic avenue to be explored, confounding militants’ attempts to cut the Gordian knot with violence.

The British constitution benefits from some of the same attributes, and all the time that we spend puzzling over legal grey areas and complaining about pointless anachronisms is time that we don’t spend shooting at each other. Moderation does not necessarily mean conservatism, of course, and the informal, flexible nature of our political system offers ample scope for rules to be bent into new shapes that more properly fit the times, provided one is willing to be patient. Probably the single greatest achievement of modern British political history is to have transformed the monarch from a powerful hereditary dictator into a harmless gilded puppet, all without a shot being fired and so imperceptibly that many people didn’t notice it was happening. It is to be hoped that such gradualist improvements will in time produce such necessary reforms as a more representative electoral system, an overhauled House of Lords, and perhaps the final sunset of the Crown itself.

Let me crudely reinforce that sunset metaphor with a picture. And they say Britain is not a visual culture…

All this is not to say that I wish to resurrect Whig History, which deified the British constitution and its supposedly inevitable progressive development from the Magna Carta onwards. Our fortuitous habit of moderate government dates at the earliest from the fudged settlement following the 1688 Glorious Revolution (largely effected by Dutch invaders), and even then this favourable political culture would probably have been unable to keep the peace were it not for a couple of other stabilising factors; firstly, the existence of the Channel as a bulwark against both disruptive foreign invasions and the need for a sizeable army, and secondly, the prosperity created by massive colonial appropriation of resources from the non-European world. Obviously, neither of these things are much to be proud of. Nor do I wish to encourage complacency about Britain remaining forever free of extremism, though I do think a broad perspective cautions against excessive pessimism on this front. There has been much concern lately about increasing bitterness and political polarisation in Britain and across the western world, some of which is well-founded; nonetheless, it is worth noting that whilst anti-establishment surges have effectively smashed the traditional party system in France and Italy and put a populist in the White House, in last year’s General Election Britain’s the two mainstream national parties got their highest combined vote share since 1970, whereas fringe outfits like UKIP and the Greens were all but wiped out. Almost alone among Europe’s major social-democratic parties, Labour has managed to keep leftists and centrists in a bad-tempered union, rather than seeing the former mount an independent challenge on the model of Podemos, Die Linke, or La France Insoumise. Although I don’t wish to offer up further predictions as hostages to fortune (as a general rule, history students should stick to commenting on the past rather than prophesying about the future), suffice to say that the British tradition of compromise and making do is alive and well. If you don’t believe me, look at the two main parties’ attempts to cobble together a coherent policy on Brexit; plainly, we can still fudge things with the best of them.

3. Reserve

The energy that Continental cultures put into the elaborate architectural facades of Baroque and Rococo, the British put into building our own personal emotional facades, which are every bit as intricate and artificial. The result is a society which foreigners often find confusing and contradictory; we are commonly praised for our civility and good manners, but condemned for our habit of being aloof and standoffish. Here, at least, I think there is actually no inconsistency. Being polite but cold (as opposed to, say, the Americans, who are as a rule rude but friendly) is a function of the general British tendency toward emotional reserve, whereby personal feelings both positive and negative are kept to oneself, and the world is dealt with from behind a carapace of courteous detachment. The value placed on privacy and stoicism is encapsulated in various stock phrases such as “an Englishman’s home is his castle” and the much-abused “keep calm and carry on”, to which I might add my personal favourite “a problem shared is a problem squared”.

Before I go any further, here I must stop to address the most urgent and important objection to my placing ‘British reserve’ on any kind of pedestal; surely it (and indeed all the other values I’ve identified) was created by and for white upper-caste males, and only makes sense as an ideal to those from a background of narrow privilege? This is often very true. The British cult of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and rigid self-control is historically associated with a particular form of class-conscious masculinity, and frequently proved toxic both for the mental wellbeing of men forced to suppress their most powerful emotions, and for everyone else who had to live with the consequences of this bottled-up angst. Nowadays we understand more about the vital importance of being able to admit to vulnerability and share the burden of negative feelings with others, and I would never wish to argue that those in need of support should withdraw inside themselves and attempt to tackle their demons alone.

Nonetheless, I still think there is a role for reserve in promoting, rather than stifling, a beneficial emotional environment in the twenty-first century. As modern culture pushes us towards the opposite extreme, where personal privacy is eroded and we are encouraged to post every passing thought and emotional ‘reaction’ online, we face a situation where genuine cries for help can get drowned out by the white noise of over-sharing, and things are revealed that we later wish could be retracted. Moreover, although behavioural codes of politeness and decorum may be rightly accused of tone-policing the self-expression of the marginalised, the breakdown of those codes has the potential to unleash yet worse consequences. Nothing I have yet seen in the online world – where the ability to hide behind usernames and the comforting illusion of distance often suspends the normal taboos on rudeness and expressing strong emotion – has dented my conviction that when the gloves come off, it is bigots, bullies, and the far-right who are the biggest winners in the ensuing bare-knuckle fight. Anxiety about Fake News and post-truth politics is everywhere at the moment, but in some ways the biggest problem in contemporary discourse is an excess of truth-telling, not a lack of it; the moment when people no longer feel the need to keep a lid on their anger and hatred but become proud to express it openly is a moment of danger for us all.

British male in his natural social environment.

Consider the #MeToo movement as an example of how traditional reserve and progressive politics can overlap to a significant degree. A complaint about this movement which has been endlessly raised by right-wing critics is that it will ‘take us back to the Victorian era’ by making people more cautious and inhibited in social situations. I think they are right, but I fail to see why this is a bad thing. Whilst I don’t wish to initiate a sexual counter-revolution per se, I would like to point out that the Victorian period was the height of Britain’s economic and cultural creativity; world historians writing in future centuries will almost certainly identify it as Britain’s golden age. The problem with it, of course, was that this splendid edifice of intellectual innovation and steampunk aesthetics was founded on a climate of crippling social inequality, which denied the benefits of that golden age to women, colonised peoples, the LGBT population, and the working classes. But the new culture of respect for others’ boundaries and dignity promoted by the likes of #MeToo is of course specifically designed to combat discrimination and enforce rules for decent behaviour that encompass everyone fairly. ‘Victorian Britain, but without the inequality’ sounds like a pretty decent formula to me. Reserve, interpreted properly, can function as another way of saying ‘a safe space for all’.

In a similar vein, I think it is possible to counter comparable objections to the other values I’ve put forward. Political moderation (it might be said) is all very well for those who are comfortable under the established system and can afford to wait for gradualist change, but might not the desperate and the disenfranchised have derived greater benefit from a radical revolution or two? This question cannot be definitively answered without digressing into counterfactual speculations, but for my part I can’t help but be sceptical. Studying the history of war and conflict, the things I read every day reinforce a simple point: violence is really, really rubbish. This is a blindingly obvious conclusion, but it’s still rather easy to overlook, or at least there’s a kind of basic selection bias at work which encourages us to downplay it. The accounts of revolutions and civil wars which we read are all, for obvious reasons, written by people who were not (yet) killed by them. Those who remain have a natural human need to believe that the results of the struggle justified the horrendous sacrifices made by their friends and comrades, whereas those who actually paid the highest price are automatically forever silenced. This is not to say that I am a pacifist who believes bloodshed in the cause of liberation to be invariably unjustified, but where opportunities for non-violent reform exist (as I think they do under the British system, for all its flaws) we have sufficient cause to be glad of 272 years of internal peace.

Even self-deprecation is not immune to concerns that it is a reactionary force. In her show Nanette (recently released on Netflix to near-messianic acclaim) comedian Hannah Gadsby launches a devastating critique of the very notion of self-deprecating humour, asking her audience “do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who is already in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.” From a very different point on the political spectrum, it is worth paying heed to the words of Neo-Nazi propagandist Andrew Anglin. “The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not”, he advises would-be writers for his Daily Stormer website. “There should also be a conscious awareness of mocking stereotypes of hateful racists. I usually think of this as self-deprecating humour – I am a racist making fun of stereotypes of racists, because I don’t take myself super-seriously. This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes. But that’s neither here nor there.” It seems perverse to defend self-deprecation in the face of this apparent confirmation that it functions as a tool for anti-Semites to mislead people and for minorities to collaborate in their own oppression, yet I think it can be done.

Doing our best to look wholesome and inclusive

In accordance with my earlier points, it is probably preferable that fascists still feel the need to hide behind self-mockery rather than thinking themselves free to express their ideology openly. Moreover, it may be significant that Gadsby comes from Australia and Anglin from the USA, both countries where self-deprecation is less firmly entrenched as a universal social norm than in Britain. I think the value of British self-deprecation is in its omnipresence. If we encounter self-deprecating humour predominantly in limited contexts and from certain people (e.g. stand-up comics, or marginalised groups under pressure to appear humble and non-threatening), the more likely we are to miss it or be misled into taking it at face value. If self-deprecation is practised by everyone at all times, the possibilities for discrimination and deception recede. As anthropologist Kate Fox puts it in her book on English mores, “we all do this, automatically, all the time [and] among ourselves the system works perfectly well: everyone understands that the customary self-deprecation means roughly the opposite of what is said.”

Readers can make up their own minds about whether self-deprecation, moderation, and reserve are genuinely compatible with modern egalitarian activism; I have argued that they are, but can only do so from my privileged perspective which may not be of great use here. Nonetheless, Fox’s point is a key one, and leads us on to what is perhaps the unifying thread between the three aspects of Britishness I’ve highlighted. As I’ve said already, the foregoing is largely a defence of Britishness, or rather a depiction of what I find to be the better side of our national identity; hence I haven’t dwelled upon less flattering traits such as our insularity, our materialism, and our inability to install proper taps.**** Yet if I were to encapsulate my vision of Britishness in a single word, it would probably be one that is most often thrown at us as an insult: hypocrisy. All the three values I’ve identified are essentially based around saying one thing and doing another. Self-deprecation isn’t genuine humility, it’s a performative ritual designed to allow for a degree of light-hearted boasting provided one pays lip-service to the ideal of modesty. Moderation and political compromise are largely the art of pretending to agree with people you dislike for the sake of larger interests. And reserve, of course, is all about concealing the truth of your personality behind a screen of politeness. I don’t necessarily agree with his typology of Britishness and Englishness, but John Fowles hit the nail on the head in a line from a later novel The Magus, of whom one character says “we could outperfidy his perfidy, and precisely because we were English: born with masks and bred to lie.” Perfidious Albion indeed. Yet in a world increasingly intolerant of ambiguities and grey areas, where unfiltered emotions are weaponised to hurt people, there is something to be said for the small falsehoods which help us all rub along together. Lying is not necessarily a sin when done with creativity, with kindness, and with wit; at the very least it may explain why the British are quite good at writing fiction. Long live Britain as the Kingdom of White Lies.

**** The last of these is genuinely the main complaint I’ve had from foreign residents in the UK. Not “you’re a bunch of emotionally-stunted Brexit-voting loons with a history of imperialist atrocities” but “why can’t you manage to get the hot and cold water coming out of the same tap?” To these people, I can only say: I’m sorry. You’re right, there is no rational justification.

After all that, I can at last attempt a response to my original question; namely, is there anything fundamentally ‘national’ about the ‘National Three Peaks Challenge’ after all? The answer is probably ‘not much’. For all that mountaineering may be a British invention (though one which, I note, the original Alpinists expressly chose to do outside their own island), our particular experience of it didn’t really demonstrate many of the attributes I’ve just outlined. The essence of the Challenge was to promise to perform a rather extreme task, persuade people to donate by bigging up the nature of that achievement, spend a while talking about the raw emotions caused by the loss of our friend Paul, and then straightforwardly go and do what we said we would. This isn’t to say that the Challenge is a bad thing; to state the obvious, most of the best things in life aren’t especially British.

If you are still hellbent on finding ‘peak Britain’ (did I mention the British like puns?), however, you could do worse than visit the Peak District, as I did a couple of weekends later. The website of the National Park is keen to downplay the area’s popularity, anxiously assuring readers that “it is NOT the second-most visited national park in the world after Mount Fuji” as some people apparently believe. Its most notable historic site is Eyam, the ‘plague village’ which became a byword for anti-social stoicism during the epidemic of 1665 by voluntarily quarantining itself from the rest of the world and arranging for all villagers to stand several feet apart during church services. The landscape feels inherently mild and moderate, a succession of gentle rolling uplands located slap bang in the middle of the country. And above all, the name itself is a falsehood; there aren’t actually any peaks (in the sense of hills with pointed summits) at all. Thus, to end on a vaguely heartening thought, the most truly ‘national’ way to go hiking in this country may not involve hauling yourself up multiple mountains after all, but rather pottering around rural Derbyshire in search of a Bakewell tart.

Unless, of course, I am lying.


Three Peaks, Too Soon

After several months of posting about trips in which I haven’t done anything more strenuous than lifting books down from the shelves in the archives, this post is to announce a new hiking challenge which I’ll be taking on in July. However, if you’re expecting this to be the cue for my usual introduction of laboured pop-culture gags and confusing historical exposition, I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you. Like my previous hike, the origins of this trip do lie in a past tragedy, but one rather more recent and raw than the Eighty Years War; in September last year my childhood friend Paul McClean was killed in a crocodile attack whilst on holiday in Sri Lanka, and this summer I’ll be joining a group attempting the National Three Peaks Challenge to raise funds in his memory.

It is hard to know how to talk about his loss without straying into being exploitative or mawkish. I should say at the outset that it is now some years since I knew Paul well (so please save your sympathies for his family and close friends, whose grief I cannot begin to imagine), but people like that stick in the memory. We met at primary school aged four, where his wicked sense of humour, infectious smile, and near-superhuman gift of the gab made him someone it was impossible not to be friends with. Being something of a nervous goody two-shoes myself, I recall that the few occasions I got in trouble usually involved being so lost in conversation with Paul that I failed to notice that the rest of the class had long since fallen silent and the teacher was staring at us balefully; it is a mark of the quality of his company that I never resented these occasions. Although we later lost touch, it is abundantly clear from reading any of the innumerable personal tributes that have poured in from his friends and colleagues that that this charm and warmth characterised all his relationships; you can see just a small selection of these here.

It is one of the privileges of youth that, even when you lose contact with someone, it is hard to imagine that this could ever be final. Second-hand updates about their life go on filtering through to you (he was going to Oxford, he had got a First, he was establishing a promising career at the Financial Times) and you remain convinced that whatever happens in your life, they will still be out there somewhere, their story unfolding in parallel to yours; it is therefore strange and disconcerting to think that his narrative has been so abruptly and senselessly ended. Even as a child he always had a knack for magic tricks, so on reading the news of his passing (in such an outlandish, million-to-one accident; surely it couldn’t be real?) I couldn’t help but hope that the whole thing was one more ingenious stunt, and that he’d reappear unharmed in time for the audience’s applause.

To the world’s great loss, Paul will never be coming back. But however uniquely tragic his circumstances, Paul isn’t the only gifted and hardworking young journalist to have had their career unfairly cut short. As the London-centric media sector economises by relying ever more heavily on unpaid internships (the National Union of Journalists report that 82% of new entrants to the profession start out as interns, 92% of whom receive no pay), getting a foot on the ladder is increasingly impossible for the thousands of talented people who don’t have the luxury of generous parental funding or a family home in the capital. This not only hurts the life chances of those aspiring reporters, it’s also damaging for the industry and for society as a whole. At a time when the rise of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ has made rigorous journalism which covers all angles more important than ever before, we cannot afford to let valuable voices and abilities be shut out of the media by creeping social inequality.

With that in mind, a group of Paul’s old friends had the idea that the best way to honour his memory would be to raise funds for a permanent Paul McClean Prize in Journalism at his old Oxford college, Lady Margaret Hall, which will award annual grants to budding reporters enabling them to undertake internships and training courses that might otherwise be out of their reach. I am very proud to be joining them to support this campaign, which is close to my heart for a number of reasons; as the Access Officer for my college’s postgrad community, I spend a fair bit of my time trying to convince bright young people from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds that Oxford is a place that welcomes them and not just privately-educated straight white blokes like, er, me. Increasingly, it’s becoming clear that meaningful Access is not just about getting people into top institutions, but supporting them once they are there so that their degree can become a stepping-stone to a better future rather than a three-year interlude in a lifetime of missing out. The Paul McClean Prize will play a valuable part in this, and will be a fitting tribute to a man who spent his time brightening the lives of everyone he met.

Our chosen ordeal, the National Three Peaks Challenge, involves cramming 3064 metres of climbing and 462 miles of driving into 24 hours as we attempt to scale the tallest mountains in Scotland, England, and Wales all within the space of a single day. It’s a tall order, and the initial reactions of my family and friends have been somewhat less than reassuring; the first person I mentioned it to responded by saying “you know that isn’t physically possible, right?” The internet assures me that it can in fact be done, but given that my regular exercise routine currently doesn’t extend beyond the occasional jog along the flat-as-a-pancake Thames towpath on a sunny day, I suspect it’s going to prove a bit of a shock to the system. Currently I’m still coasting by on the complacent assumption that “I walked 1000km across the Alps, how hard can one day’s hike be in comparison?”, but I suspect this may well be pride before a fall; there’s a big difference between gently pottering through the valleys of Europe one pub at a time, and intensively climbing multiple mountains all in one go. To add to my sense of foreboding, we’ll be setting out for Scotland on Friday 13th July, but if bad luck doesn’t jinx us and we complete the challenge then we’ll return to London on the 15th hopefully just in time to watch England triumph in the World Cup Final (OK, that last bit probably isn’t physically possible). I’ll keep you updated on how it goes, though after the fact, I imagine; I doubt I’ll have enough time to type blog updates from the summit of Ben Nevis.

Well, I’ll leave it there for now. I’m sure Paul would have found a way to say all that much more eloquently, and certainly with better jokes, but sadly you’ll have to make do with what I’ve got. If you can, please support our fundraising campaign by donating via the JustGiving link at the top of this page (or here it is again:, where you can also read more about Paul and the prize being set up in his honour. For your support, and for the pleasure of knowing him, I am profoundly grateful.

Croatias of Habit

It’s a small world, we are told, and getting smaller. Still, one familiar face from home which I didn’t particularly expect to encounter in the Croatian capital of Zagreb was that of Gandalf the Grey. Middle Earth memorabilia abounds in my college in Oxford, given that J.R.R. spent most of his career there, but stumbling upon a bar entitled ‘Tolkien’s House’ in a back street of Zagreb’s old town set my speculations racing. I knew Tolkien derived his odd surname from the German epithet ‘tollkühn’ meaning ‘foolhardy’, which a distant forebear had supposedly acquired for a feat of suicidal bravery fighting the Turks in the Balkans; could I be looking at the ancestral home of fantasy literature’s greatest author? I hastened inside.

“Excuse me, where did you get the name ‘Tolkien’s House’ from?”


“No, um, is there a connection with J.R.R. Tolkien?”

“Of course! We are very much liking the movies!”

Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, as they will probably turn out to be less interesting than you initially imagined.

My theory having been shot down in flames, I ordered a lager and sat in the hobbit-themed beer garden overlooking an attractive church, with a soundtrack of noisy American Country n’ Western completing the somewhat incongruous ensemble.

Yet, on reflection, maybe it wasn’t all so out of place. If any European people can relate to songs of frontier living, or Tolkien’s tales of dogged defence against armies from the east, it’s probably the Croats. For Croatia is an unusual case in that it is essentially a border that has turned itself into a country. You only have to glance at a map of Croatia to notice that it’s rather peculiar-looking, a thin strip of territory stretching for more than five hundred miles to form the outline of a wonky crescent or a particularly malformed butterfly.* This starts to make sense when you consider its past. Barring a brief spell running an independent kingdom around the turn of the first millennium, the Croats have spent more or less their entire history watching over the peripheral territories of a succession of larger powers, including Byzantium, the Frankish Empire, Hungary, Venice, the Austrian Monarchy, the Axis, and Yugoslavia. Their centuries-long career as border guards reached its apogee in the Early Modern period under Habsburg rule, when the bulk of Croatia was incorporated into a ‘Militärgrenze’ or ‘military frontier’ under permanent martial law, where soldier-settlers were sworn to perpetual service in order to maintain a cordon sanitaire against the Ottoman threat.

Given its lengthy pedigree as a point where different cultures have collided, Croatia’s colourful mix of influences should have come as no surprise. Still, having come to Zagreb vaguely expecting a grey post-communist backwater, I was agreeably taken aback by just how pleasant it in fact is. The buildings of the old town –  some newly restored, some in a state of picturesque disrepair – sprawl across the city’s central hills and valleys in pastel shades of orange, cream, yellow, and peach, while the elegant Secessionstil interiors of the Croatian State Archives coexist happily with pockets of Late Romantic bombast, and in general the cheerful jumble of Central European and Mediterranean styles gives the whole place the atmosphere of a love-child conceived by Naples and Vienna. It’s probably no coincidence that this part of the world (under its alternative name of Illyria) made its greatest impact on English culture as the setting for the Shakespeare play richest in themes of boundary-crossing, blurred identities, and liminality: Twelfth Night.**

Unlike the Bard’s rom-coms, however, Croatia’s relationships with its neighbours have not always culminated in happy-ever-after endings. Ever since their union with the Serbs turned into an extremely bitter divorce during the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s, the Croats have been attempting to go it alone as an independent state for the first time in almost a thousand years. Reflecting this sense of rupture on a micro scale, Zagreb has since become home to one of Europe’s more eccentric tourist attractions: the Museum of Broken Relationships. A few metres away from where in 1991 the Serbs attempted to gaslight their partners into submission by bombing a Croatian independence meeting, you can now find a peculiar assortment of discarded love-letters, rejected gifts, and unwanted keepsakes collected from donors across the globe. In neat labels alongside the objects, their former owners tell stories with a mix of bitter humour (“his dog left behind more traces than he did”), strained allegory (“this [copy of Football Manager 2006] symbolizes all the things I’d accepted in Samy which were unbearable for me”) and deadpan weirdness (“given to me by an American boyfriend… I didn’t know that he would hound my parents for years, and would eventually have a sex change and steal their name for his new persona”). Overall, the effect is strangely poignant and life-affirming, albeit a reminder of how far some people will go to get back at their exes. On a national scale, the Croats seem less keen to display mementos of their past entanglements; Marshal Tito may be the famous Croat of all time by quite some distance, but his association with the Yugoslav union has seen him quietly sidelined from most of Zagreb’s monuments, museums and street names, reduced to the historical equivalent of an embarrassing teenage boyfriend edited out of one’s Facebook timeline.

His police file: to be fair, you can see why they fell for those cheekbones.

Despite their recent experience of acrimonious separations and newfound independence, it seems that ultimately the Croats are creatures of habit. After only two decades of going it entirely alone, in 2013 Croatia became the newest member-state of the European Union, and currently serves as the EU’s southern rampart bordering the remaining nations of former Yugoslavia. Nowadays, when wandering around the streets of the country’s capital it is unusual to see the cheery chequered tablecloth of the Croatian flag unaccompanied by the familiar starry ring on blue, and the government appears determined to establish its credentials as a fully European state. In a roundabout way, this was the reason why I was in Zagreb at all. Seeking to boost Croatia’s standing within the academic community, the local authorities had heavily invested in a set of exhibitions and a two-day conference themed around Croatia’s participation in the pan-European military pile-up that was the Thirty Years War, and the lure of an all-expenses paid trip was too strong to resist. Once I’d arrived, the Croats’ determination to make a good impression became even more manifest. History conferences in the UK usually consist of a handful of academics in a nondescript lecture theatre, with occasional breaks for coffee and sandwiches. In Zagreb, however, we gave our presentations in a succession of beautiful historic buildings with large audiences, had a reception in the mayor’s palace (at which a government spokesman gave a speech about how Croatia was a peaceful European country now, but if there were to be any wars it would jolly well win them), and were even attended by soldiers in Early Modern uniforms who opened each new round of proceedings with a drum fanfare; the effect was only slightly spoiled by the persistent failure of one of them to stop his mobile phone going off in his pocket. Leaving, we were given a goody bag containing seemingly every conceivable history-related item the organisers could lay their hands on (an audio CD of the diaries of the late-nineteenth-century general Maksimilijana Cicerica! Just what I always wanted!).

As you can see, it is easy to be patronising towards the Croats and their slightly over-earnest attempts to join the European republic of letters, but to do so would be both ungrateful and misguided. Not only were our hosts unfailingly generous and welcoming, it is hard to fault them for having found a way to marry their patriotic sentiment with pro-European cosmopolitanism, particularly at a time when Brexit Britain is disastrously engaged in the precise opposite. Moreover, given the Croats’ recent history, it is understandable that they might be keen to defend their nation’s claims to sovereignty and equal status. Indeed, as the citizen of a country that has been comfortably free from invasion and civil strife for nearly three centuries, I felt a bit underqualified to lecture a room full of people about military history when many of them had first-hand experience of fighting for their lives not so long ago.

Ultimately, although Croatia has spent most of its existence on the edges of things, if Zagreb is anything to go by then that’s a pretty good place to be.

“And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” Feste, Twelfth Night

* It’s perhaps a noteworthy fact that the largest Croatian community outside the Balkans is located in Chile. Presumably not only does the rugged coastline and Mediterranean climate remind them of home, but they only feel happy living in a country which is a really weird shape.

** Or on second thoughts, it might well be coincidence: Shakespeare was well known for periodically picking exotic-sounding place names to use as settings for his plays without doing any actual research (c.f. the whole ‘sea-coast of Bohemia’ debacle). I’m not having much luck with literature-based theories about Croatia here. At any rate, having been subjected to a bit of Croatian pop on the airport shuttle bus, I can safely say that the region is unlikely to have inspired the line “if music be the food of love, play on”.

First We Take Mainhattan

Cities don’t often prove a very good fit for the foodstuffs named after them. Hamburg is expensive and refined rather than trashy and red-blooded like its burgers, Naples is hot and chaotic rather than chilled and neatly presented like its ice-cream, and Vienna… actually I have no idea how a city could feasibly resemble a Wiener Schnitzel, but it doesn’t anyway. Frankfurt, however, fits the sausages to a tee: rather bland, processed, and artificial, and somehow uncomfortably priapic.

Most of these attributes probably arise from its role as Continental Europe’s financial capital. Bankers being bankers, and thus rarely able to resist a compensatory phallic symbol or two, the city is almost unique in the German-speaking world in having risen from the ashes of WW2 with a complement of corporate skyscrapers. This high-rise landscape has given Frankfurt-am-Main the punning nickname of ‘Mainhattan’, but in truth the scattered clusters of towers don’t come close to matching the great glass canyons of the Big Apple’s streets. Moreover, although it has one of the richest and proudest histories of any German town, there wasn’t much of its heritage in evidence during my brief visit. The site of the famous Frankfurt book fair just looked like a lifeless conference centre out of season, and although the city cathedral is where Holy Roman Emperors were traditionally chosen and crowned, today there is nothing particular in the empty side-chapel to evoke the fact that for centuries this Wahlkapelle played host to the most important elections in the western world.

If neither Frankfurt’s present nor its human history offer much material for a visiting blogger, things become more promising if we dig back a bit further into geological time. For one undoubted bright spot amidst the skyscrapers’ shadows is the Naturmuseum Senckenberg. Natural history (a.k.a. ‘dinosaurs and some other less important things’) was my first love before I dropped the ‘natural’ part and focused more heavily on knights in armour, and I will always happily devote an afternoon to any building where I can wander about peering at fossils and badly-translated information boards.

Close, but no cigar.

However, what really held my attention in the Senckenberg was its enormous collection of stuffed birds, carefully arranged by Linnaean taxonomy in row after row of glass cases. There is something strangely compelling in looking at the neat labels in English, Latin, and German, and discovering how familiar species from our beaches and gardens acquire an alter ego in translation. Somehow a puffin sounds a lot less cutesey and more exotic when it becomes a Papageitaucher or ‘diving-parrot’, a nondescript tern becomes elegant when transformed into a Seeschwalbe or ‘sea-swallow’, and it is hard to think of the kingfisher as the same creature when it is called an Eisvogel or ‘ice-bird’. More disconcertingly, our supposedly solid categories can easily collapse with a simple change of language. In England we are used to associating doves with peace and love, whilst thinking of pigeons as pie-fodder or scruffy airborne rats; in Germany there appears to be no linguistic distinction between them, and they are all simply Tauben. As categories are lumped together (there are no herons and egrets in German, only Reiher) or broken apart (Germans seemingly have no concept of hornbills, but rather a bewildering range of groups with names like ‘Year Birds’, ‘Shield-beaks’ and ‘Sudanese Horn Ravens’), it becomes apparent that many divides which we take to be objective and scientific are just arbitrary lines in the sand. That leads me on to consider what happens when we apply that kind of logic to the ‘natural’ history of human societies.

The Generation Game is back. Judging by its ratings and reviews, Mel and Sue’s revival of the 70s TV classic is unlikely to stand the test of time, but it’s riding the crest of a much larger wave in how we think about ourselves and the past. Just mentioning the word ‘generation’ is probably enough for you to form a picture in your head of reactionary, home-owning Baby Boomers clashing with snowflakey, tech-savvy Millennials, with Generation X somewhere in the middle muttering about how great warehouse raves were in the early 90s.* Over the last few years it has been impossible to open a newspaper without encountering a story asking whether Millennials’ progressivism/narcissism/avocado-toast is going to lead to the world being destroyed/saved/woke, but amidst the tide of neologisms, it’s rare to stop and think about where these generational categories actually came from, and how valid they actually are.

♫ People try to put us down / Just because we are killing the Canadian tourist industry ♫

In 1912, Alfred Wegener took to the stage in the Senckenberg lecture theatre to propose the first theory of continental drift, explaining how landmasses drift apart and reform over time. William Strauss and Neil Howe are not exactly household names, but they have done more than almost anyone else to create a similarly tectonic shift in the way we think about twenty-first century society, bringing to human affairs something of the stately, scientific air of Wegener’s geological processes. Generally credited with coining the term ‘millennials’, ever since their 1991 pop-sociology book Generations made a splash they have been working to promote a theory which prioritises the cycle of generational groups as the fundamental force driving history. The popularity of their terminology and basic ideas has long since outgrown its creators; however, on closer inspection the whole edifice is built on rather shaky foundations. The two authors are somewhat unorthodox candidates for the role of intellectual revolutionaries – the former rose to prominence organising a satirical show-choir in Washington, the latter left uni after a Masters for a career in consulting – and their theories are based on a sweeping approach to (almost exclusively American) history that at times strays from social science into an oracular and quasi-mystical tone, categorising all generations downs the ages as either Prophets, Nomads, Heroes, or Artists. Nor do the uses to which their ideas have been put always inspire confidence; one of their closest adherents is none other than Steve Bannon, who in 2010 produced a documentary entitled Generation Zero predicting an imminent semi-apocalyptic ‘Fourth Turning’ which would launch a new cycle from the ruins of civilisation. Millennials and millenarians can sometimes be more closely linked than we would like.

If all this is starting to sound like I’ve gone a bit too native and adopted the ponderous intellectual pessimism of the Frankfurt School (in fairness, something about the sausage-grinder atmosphere of the city encourages this kind of response. If you had to live there, you too would get the urge to write books with titles like Eclipse of Reason, Negative Dialectics, and One-Dimensional Man), I should acknowledge that generational thinking has unlocked many positive insights too. Strauss and Howe hardly hold a monopoly on the idea that age cohorts matter, and scholars and commentators working independently of their more outlandish ideas have produced much important work. For example, Alexandra Walsham gave this year’s James Ford Lectures (Oxford’s most prestigious series of history keynotes) on the theme of ‘The Reformation of the Generations c. 1500-1700’, providing a perceptive overview of how the conflict between youth and age was harnessed to the religious struggles of Early Modernity in successive waves of reform and reaction.

Sitting in the archive down the road from Frankfurt in Wiesbaden, it wasn’t hard to trace similar themes in my own more modest research into the Nassau dynasty in the same period, nor to find occasional echoes of today’s familiar generational clashes. As an eighteen-year-old in 1579, the future Count John VII could be found complaining to his dad that everyone will think he’s uncool if he isn’t allowed to go travelling abroad like his friends, only to mount a firm resistance to his own children’s requests for a ‘gap yah’ when he himself reached his forties. His fears that his kids would come back from their travels filled with strange ideas were not entirely unfounded, as after a trip to Italy his son John VIII went on to commit the ultimate act of teenage rebellion against his strictly Calvinist family and converted to Roman Catholicism. The family row which followed was histrionic, though sadly I’ve yet to find the source describing how the younger John locked himself in his room muttering “no-one understands me” to his poster of the Pope and blasting out Catholic liturgy through the stereo, whilst in the kitchen his mother tried to restrain the fuming count with assurances that “he’ll grow out of it, darling, it’s just a phase.”

Nonetheless, it is clear that dividing society into generations comes with certain risks attached. This doesn’t only relate to Bannon-esque theories of coming demographic and civilisational crisis, which are dangerous when their adherents have the power to turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies (and also pointless, as everyone knows Western civilisation already fell on 18th March 2018 when Robot Wars was cancelled again). On a more day-to-day level, although generations have been established alongside alternative categories such as gender, class, sexuality, and ethnicity as useful analytical criteria, we need to bear in mind that they are no more ‘natural’ than any of these other social constructs. It’s an obvious point, but one that perhaps needs reiterating; there was no single point in time when people suddenly stopped being born with ‘Generation X’ embedded in their DNA and switched over to being Millennials instead, and lumping together everyone who was born within an arbitrary 20-year span can obscure significant differences. These days we would rightly cringe at any characterisation which assumed that all Indians are curry-loving corner-shop owners training their kids to be doctors, or that LGBT people are inherently fond of interior decorating and the back-catalogue of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Yet we’re often quite happy to generalise about ladder-pulling, Brexit-voting Baby Boomers being the source of all the world’s ills, and arguments praising or demonising Millennials rarely question the fact that they exist as a homogenous group. Maybe it’s just because in many ways I’m a rather poor excuse for a Millennial (I don’t really know what Instagram is, I think bushy beards aren’t appropriate for anyone except polar explorers and Victorian infantrymen, and I am morally opposed to brunch), but I find generational thinking often founders when we consider how much we have in common with those outside our peer group.**

The names and labels we give to things matter, and whatever title the coming generation eventually gets lumbered with (current frontrunners include Generation Brex, Generation 😭, and Generation Well-At-Least-You-Set-Us-A-Low-Bar) will presumably determine how contemporaries and historians think about it for years to come. But just as foodstuffs generally fail to resemble their namesake cities, and bird names rarely survive the language barrier, whatever moniker they acquire will probably prove something of a misnomer. Still, the wider generation game shows no signs of stopping any time soon; it’s just that when the final conveyor belt comes around, we’re more likely to win the novelty fondue set than the beach holiday. Didn’t we do well.

* One of the most entertaining comment threads I have ever read was for a Guardian report on declining drinking and drug use amongst young people, which prompted a horde of forty-somethings bemoaning the boringly un-hedonistic youth of today to descend into a sort of unintentional Gen-X parody of the Four Yorkshiremen Sketch. “In the 90s, we used to smoke a hundred packs a day, take our own body-weight in ecstasy, rave for six days solid, then wake up in bed with the entire population of Manchester.” “Ee, that’s nuthin’! In the 90s, we used to drink ourselves to death eight nights a week, wake up in jail for war crimes, then tear out our own livers and smoke ‘em!” Etc, etc.

** Interestingly, brunch is perhaps not as zeitgeisty as we think it is, since the term dates from the late nineteenth century, and there is evidence to suggest that in the Middle Ages people actually ate their main meal of the day at around this time. Given this illustrious heritage, it is invariably a disappointment to have to skip breakfast only to be presented with an overpriced plate of hummus and sourdough. And we got rid of Elevenses for this?

Angles of Reflection

A familiar sight in England is that of American tourists visiting the ‘Old Country’, often couples of advanced years clad in their trademark uniform of garish shirts and sensible headgear, intent on tracing some emigrant ancestor or just on soaking up ye olde atmosphere in the land of Shakespeare and the Pilgrim Fathers. English natives are accustomed to treating these colourfully-dressed visitors with a certain condescending indulgence, smiling to ourselves as they coo over any building older than a century and mangle the pronunciation of places like Loughborough and Gloucester. But what happens when the English find themselves in the same role? This is what I have spent the last week or so finding out in England’s very own ‘Old Country’: the Cimbrian Peninsula.

It’s the sticky-up bit that’s half Germany and half Denmark. Yes, I had to google the name too.

Britain is, of course, every bit as much a nation of migrants as the USA; the timespans involved are just a little longer. Most of us are dimly aware of this, and every schoolboy knows that England is named after the Angles, a Germanic tribe who came over from the Continent with the Saxons and the Jutes back in the Dark Ages.* But just as the small Lincolnshire town of Boston tends to be eclipsed by its transatlantic copy, we often forget that England still has its counterpart namesake on the other side of the North Sea. Visiting Angeln, a backwater region on the Baltic coastline of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, is a slightly odd experience for an Englishman. I encountered no fellow English tourists seeking out their ancestral homeland, nor any attempt by the locals to cash in on the link, as the British do to Americans with our profusion of half-timbered gift shops. Indeed, the only explicit acknowledgement of the connection which I discovered was a small nineteenth-century pamphlet preserved in the provincial museum at Schleswig, celebrating the finding in a peat bog of the iron-age Nydam Boat (now beautifully preserved and displayed at the museum, and quite easy to imagine being sculled across to Britain by a crew of fur-clad warriors) as a piece of heritage shared between England, Germany and Denmark. The unsavoury uses made of similar pan-Nordic rhetoric by later German nationalists perhaps explain why the region’s current inhabitants have little interest in remembering their distant cousinhood with the English; nonetheless, when driving around rural Angeln in the drizzle, encountering thatched cottages and signs to villages with names like ‘Damp’, it is hard not to detect a certain kinship between the two regions.

Odd echoes are even found in the local dialect, one of the innumerable variants of the Low German ‘Plattdeutsch’ language which is more closely related to Dutch and English than to standard High German. On arriving at the genteel seaside resort of Eckernförde, we were accosted by a polite old lady, who enquired in German if our train had just come from Kiel. “Ach” she sighed, on learning that it had and that consequently she had missed her connection, “shit!” I was slightly taken aback by this demure-looking granny swearing with such intensity and in English, but thought nothing further of it until later recounting the incident to our local hosts, who explained with amusement that ‘schiet’ was in fact Plattdeutsch, carrying the same literal meaning as the English ‘shit’ or the High German ‘Scheiße’ but with rather gentler connotations; ‘mein süßer Schietbüdel’ or ‘my sweet shit-bags’ is apparently a common term of endearment for Schleswig-Holstein’s children.

If the connections between England and the far north of Germany were limited to an ancient common ancestry (increasingly irrelevant as subsequent centuries of migrations continue to mix the gene pools of both regions beyond all recognition) and a few shared profanities, they would perhaps still not amount to much. Yet long after the initial exodus to Britain was over, the two regions continued to be bound together by ties rather more enduring than those of blood; the bonds of money. After the majority of the Angles had decamped from what is now Schleswig-Holstein, their place was taken by the Danes, whose main entrepot of Haithabu/Hedeby still dabbles in foreign commerce today, albeit by hawking hand-carved knick-knacks to tourists from the reconstructed huts and longhouses of the Viking village. The region really hit the economic big-time in the later medieval period with the rise of the Hanseatic League, the most successful of the armed cartels of mercantile towns which dominated European trade in this era. A glimpse of the Hanse at their height can still be found in the city of Lübeck, the former capital of the league. Surveying its various elegant churches and townhouses, all built in the red, green and black glazed bricks of the Baltic’s distinctive ‘brick gothic’ architectural style, one begins to get a sense of how merchants could rival kings in this period (and also of why it was this part of the world that gave us Lego).

Lübeck’s brick gothic Rathaus; also quite painful if trodden on with bare feet.

Lübeck’s current chocolate-box appearance (or, to be strictly accurate, marzipan-box, given that these days the city’s most famous export is sugared almond paste) nonetheless represents a certain kind of failure; as elsewhere across Germany, it is only those towns whose prosperity faded away before industrialism could alter their cityscape which preserved their medieval buildings from nouveau riche developers. Yet not all the Hanseatic cities suffered the same fate, and here the slightly love-hate relationship with England plays a key role. The rise of English maritime power – along with that of the Dutch – was instrumental to finally breaking the commercial hegemony of the Hanse in the 16th century, but some members of the league were savvy or fortunate enough to work this to their advantage. Chief among these was Hamburg, which broke ranks to cut a separate deal with the English Merchant Adventurers in 1567, before subsequently inserting itself into the British-dominated networks of Atlantic trade and overtaking its former allies. In contrast to Lübeck, Hamburg remains one of Germany – and Europe’s – biggest commercial powerhouses today, and the legacies of its complex connection with England can still be detected across the city.

By no means all of these links are positive. The blackened stone spire of Gilbert Scott’s Nikolaikirche is now almost all that remains of old Hamburg, a piece of English Gothic left standing by the RAF like a grotesque victory column following the incineration of most of the city in Operation Gomorrah, a single hellish week in 1943 which killed as many people as the entire London Blitz. A less harrowing relic of Anglo-German connections can be found in the city’s signature dish; this is not actually the hamburger at all, but a form of corned-beef-based mash which looks like bright pink slop but nonetheless tastes pretty good. This ‘labskaus’ is a close cousin of the traditional ‘lobscouse’ of Liverpool (from which the name ‘scouse’ derives), and the parallels between the two towns don’t stop at the dinner table, for it was in Hamburg that the most celebrated Scousers of them all, the Beatles, first got their big break.

Finally and most intangibly, modern Hamburg seems to share something of the spirit of middle Britain, despite its occasional half-hearted attempts to pose as a stronghold of continental bohemianism.** The city may have recently hit the headlines for hosting anti-capitalist protests against the G20, and the ‘Sin Mile’ where the Fab Four once played may be one of Europe’s most infamous red-light districts, but the Amsterdam-act doesn’t quite wash. Walking along the Reeperbahn in the morning (is there any sight sadder and less enticing than a strip-club in daylight?) it’s apparent that what’s left of the traditional sailors’ den of vice is a skin-deep show for tourist stag parties; in these days of automated supertankers, the only real mariners the city tends to see are the tiny crews of Chinese container ships, and although you can tour the gargantuan port facilities by boat, by day they are even emptier than the pleasure quarter. With the port handed over to the machines, these days the true heart of the city feels like the affluent districts bordering the Alster lakes, which swarm with joggers and locals frequenting cafés. And if impulse spending is a guide to someone’s inner desires, then the Hamburgers recently showed their true bourgeois colours when they blew nearly a billion euros not on sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, but on a new opera house.

One thing that does distinguish Germany from England is that it still has something of a manufacturing sector, and today the great symbols of Teutonic industrial strength are the BMWs, Porsches and Mercedes that roll out of the factories to grace the driveways of the world’s wealthy. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the flagship product of the German export trade was something rather different: royals. During this period, eligible princelings from the countless minor German territories were shipped wholesale from their Central European breeding grounds to provide rulers for newly-independent nation-states across the rest of the continent and beyond, and were imported as consorts or kings to keep the succession running smoothly in established monarchies. One of the best places to appreciate this from is Schloss Glücksburg, a small fortified palace located a few miles south of the Danish border. The period furniture and décor are pleasant enough (although the atmosphere of stately refinement is somewhat undermined by children using the mandatory floor-protector slippers to execute power-slides across the polished boards), but what really lends the place its interest is its former owners’ enthusiastic participation in the European monarchy-market, which has given it the tagline of the ‘cradle of dynasties’. Even with their focus restricted to this single cadet branch of the House of Oldenburg (a German family which had got ahead of the game by nabbing the Danish throne back in the 1400s, and has never relinquished it since), information boards fill the walls of several rooms with sprawling diagrams and family trees linking the clan with almost every crown in 19th-century Europe. Confronted with so much borderline incest and so many multi-barrelled names – Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg etc etc – even the trained student of history starts to glaze over, and it would be easy to miss a small but important detail which provides once last ongoing link between England and its ‘Old Country’.

Britain’s most famous engagement with the German surplus of sovereigns occurred in 1714, when Parliament bypassed dozens of more obvious candidates and brought in the Hanoverians – a branch of the Welf dynasty hailing from just south of Hamburg – to replace the extinct Protestant line of the Stuarts. What we sometimes forget is that this deal proved so successful that the British crown continued to almost exclusively ‘buy German’ when choosing spouses well into the 20th century. By this point, the palace’s PR men understood that aristocratic custom sometimes had to be glossed over to serve the needs of marketing; George’s VI’s relaunch of his Saxe-Coburg-and-Gotha dynasty as the less Hunnish-sounding House of Windsor during WW1 is the most blatant case of this, but it wasn’t the only example of a dynastic rebranding exercise.*** Shortly before marrying our current Queen, a certain German-Danish prince (whose grandfather had been headhunted as King of Greece some decades earlier when the Greeks tired of their previous – also imported German – model) changed his family name to the English-sounding ‘Mountbatten’, which in any case was to be subordinate to that of his wife in future.**** Thus, for official purposes, when Elizabeth II finally departs for the Great Big Balmoral in the Sky, the thoroughly British House of Windsor will continue. Looked at according to traditional rules of succession, however, the picture is somewhat different and exhibits a certain pleasing circularity; some 1600 years after first leaving the rainy Baltic shores of Angeln, the English will again fall under the rule of Cimbrian kings, beginning with His Majesty Charles III of the new royal House of Glücksburg.

Literally translated, Glücksburg means ‘castle full of luck’. I have a feeling he’ll need it.

I guess I should probably end by throwing in some kind of topical reference to Diana, but I’d honestly rather just look at this picture of the castle.

* It has always seemed to me that the Jutes get a pretty raw deal here. They settled Kent, Hampshire and much of the Thames Valley, but no-one ever refers to the Anglo-Jutons or the Juto-Saxons. Perhaps we can merge all three and talk about the Junglosax Period, which has the added benefit of sounding like a genre of rainforest jazz.

** Which perhaps makes it a bit bohemian after all, since I have never quite understood why Bohemia – a historic region around Prague characterised by nice beer and stodgy dumpling-based cuisine – should have become synonymous with decadence and libertinism. Possibly it has something to do with the Praguers’ habit of periodically throwing unpopular political figures out of windows, but the occasional bout of defenestration hardly seems to warrant being made a permanent byword for debauchery.

*** George VI’s marketing gimmick prompted his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II to quip that he was looking forward to seeing a performance of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-and-Gotha’. This was actually a pretty decent joke, but unfortunately did not quite cancel out the fact that Wilhelm had spent the rest of his life being a bit of a tit.

**** This led Philip to complain that he was “nothing but a bloody amoeba… the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children”, and marks possibly the first and only time that the royal family has done something gender-progressive.

P.S. Readers with good memories or the ability to scroll down may recall that back in March I promised that my next blog would be a belated account of visiting Berlin at New Year, a promise that I have singularly failed to fulfil. I have no particular excuse for still not having got round to finishing that particular post, but would like to point out in my defence that Hamburg’s new opera house has only just been completed, seven years behind schedule at a cost of triple its initial budget. So, in comparison, I’m doing fine.

Of Mainz and Men

Once again, insatiable wanderlust and the lure of the unknown (OK, more archival research) has drawn me back to Germany, and that means a new post. It would be more accurate to name this entry after Wiesbaden, though, as that is where I have spent the vast majority of the last week, but (a) I already talked about it in a previous blog when I passed through during the summer (b) the iron hand of tradition dictates that all my titles are puns, and nothing rhymes with ‘Wiesbaden’.* On the subject of inappropriate names, I am writing this in the early hours at Frankfurt Hahn airport to pass the time until my flight departs later (but still too early to get there from Wiesbaden on time unless you travel the night before). This doesn’t make much sense if you look at a map, which will tell you that Frankfurt is actually very close to Wiesbaden. Unfortunately, ‘Frankfurt’ Hahn is not; Ryanair’s opportunistic renaming policy covers up the fact that the aviation hub is actually buried in the Mosel hills 100km to the southwest, meaning it would be more accurate to name it after Coblenz, Trier or indeed France. Curiously, the airport’s full name translates as ‘Frankfurt Chicken’; I can only assume that once they’d decided they were going to call the airport Frankfurt, they thought they might as well just go the whole hog and make the rest of the name equally silly. I look forward to potential re-brandings of Luton and Malpensa as ‘London Impala’ and ‘Milan Micro-pig.’**

Actually, traditions of silly names in the region can be traced back further than the arrival of Irish budget airlines, though interlopers from the British Isles still seem to have been involved. One of Mainz’ two main claims to fame is that it is the birthplace of Christianity in Germany, which was brought to the area in the 7th Century by the city’s first archbishop, an enterprising missionary from Devon who managed to win over the local tribes of bloodthirsty pagans despite the handicap of being called (depending on whether you’re speaking Latin or Anglo-Saxon) either Boniface or Winnifrid. The smirks he got every time he was introduced to another group of potential converts may possibly explain his compensatory macho approach to evangelism, in which he demonstrated the supremacy of his deity by personally chopping down the sacred oak of Thor with an axe (though rumour has it this is also how Rowan Williams spends his retirement). Boniface’s achievements earned him the title of patron saint of Germany, no doubt helped by the unwritten rule that patron saints shouldn’t come from the countries they look after (St Patrick was also from England, St Andrew was Hebrew, and to the best of our knowledge St George – and it is amusing to imagine what the flag-waving anti-refugee skinheads of the EDL would make of this if they knew –  was from Syria) along with a statue outside Mainz cathedral, in which disappointingly he is not depicted in lumberjack-mode but as a worried-looking chap in a mitre. The cathedral itself is well worth a look, being a particularly elegant piece of Rhine Romanesque. A few gothic tomb-reliefs crowd the lower walls of the nave like petrified foliage, but otherwise the interior is pleasantly clear and simple; when I saw it, something in the red stonework of its domes and the dusty late-afternoon light made it seem like it could easily be in Jerusalem or some other corner of the Holy Land, rather than a rainy town near Frankfurt.

He’s an archbishop and he’s OK, he prays all night and stabs books all day.

Mainz’ other celebrity resident plied a rather different trade, albeit one that also involved dead trees. Johannes Gutenberg is of course famous as the inventor of the printing press (if you don’t count the Chinese who pipped him to it by a mere four hundred years or so), and opposite the cathedral the Gutenberg Museum stands as a monument to centuries of stamping ink onto squares of compressed bark-pulp. I was intrigued by the hangovers from the days of illuminated manuscripts which you can find in the earliest Gutenberg Bibles, such as blank spaces left at the start of every passage so that the customer could have the initial decorative capitals filled in by hand, making them a sort of 15th Century equivalent to today’s adult colouring books. Yet part of the appeal of the museum’s collections is that they represent the opposite of the individual and personalised. The whole point of printing was that it made it possible to replicate the same text or image on a grand scale, so despite the beauty of the illustrations and calligraphy on show, what you’re seeing isn’t like a normal art museum at all; there’s no one ‘original’ for some gallery to monopolise, everything is in a sense just a replica.

This is particularly apparent from the case of my favourite (and for my money, the best) artist of all time, Albrecht Dürer, who lived near the start of the print revolution and whose work can be found in many of the pages displayed at Mainz. I could bang on about him for ages, but what’s interesting here is that he chose to create his greatest masterpieces not as canvases, frescoes, sculptures or even sketches, but as print engravings. Not only was this insanely difficult (his mastery of detail and expression using just black lines is impressive, until you remember that he didn’t draw or paint those lines but had to hand-etch every single one into a piece of copper; then it becomes mind-blowing), it also means that some of the best artworks of all time have always been in a form of ‘public domain’.  This is not to say that Dürer was a particularly democratically-minded individual; by all accounts he was fully aware of his own genius, a zealous defender of his copyright, and not afraid to paint self-portraits of himself as Jesus. But sometimes the medium is as important as the message.

Knight, Death and the Devil. NB Digressions about classical art are handy when you’re short on pictures after forgetting to take enough photos on your travels.

Anyway, the rest of the week certainly gave me cause to be thankful for Gutenberg’s contribution to the printed word, as I spent it largely in the Hessian Capital Archive in Wiesbaden grappling with the torturous handwriting of various long-dead scribes. When you imagine the various challenges a historian might face, reading the writing is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet palaeography (the science of old scripts, not – as it sounds – of prehistoric bar-charts) is important; years of school education left me exhaustively prepared on how to evaluate sources in terms of origin, nature and purpose, but gave little guidance on what to do when you can’t even tell what language the scrawl in front of you is supposed to be written in. Fortunately, with some training these problems can be overcome, though the gothic script used in Early Modern Germany remains a headache even for the initiated; annoyingly, the texts tend to include the odd Latin specialist term rendered in a different, modern-seeming italic hand, as if to say ‘I could have written this perfectly legibly if I wanted to, but where’s the fun in that?’ If I had a time-machine, I would give one piece of advice to the rulers of the past about how to ensure that their legacy will live for ever and be studied with gratitude by historians; don’t bother winning battles and building monuments, the main thing is to hire clerks who write neatly.***

I almost managed to go down in historical record myself when a particularly sudden nosebleed left me scrambling to avoid spattering the ancient pages with blood, which would have made them considerably less legible for future scholars, although rather more dramatic-seeming. This eventuality was avoided, fortunately (most major archives still operate a strict ‘spillage is lickage’ policy), so I guess for the time being I’ll just have to rely on this blog to secure my immortal posterity. Oh dear. Still, next time I will be doing a bit of moderate time-travel after all, as I go back to New Year’s Eve and finish the post about Berlin which I never got round to writing up. Stay tuned.

* I have just realised that even the joke that I’ve got might not make sense to non-German-speakers unaware that Mainz rhymes with ‘pints’ and not ‘pains’. Some would say that any pun which requires its own footnote to explain it is automatically a failure, but personally I think no joke is complete without appropriate academic referencing conventions.

** Because I have so much spare time in this airport, I have consulted Professor Wikipedia and found that actually ‘Hahn’ does not come from the German word for cockerel but is a corruption of an ancient Frankish name meaning ‘plaited fence.’ However, this is possibly the most boring etymological explanation of all time, so I choose to disregard it.

*** What I would actually be doing if I had a time-machine is trying to see how much more badass the Thirty Years War would have been with dinosaurs, but you get the point I’m making.

The Boy Who Cried Adolf

Yes, back by no particular demand, the blog returns, with a shiny new name to boot; to go on calling it ‘The Spanish Road’ would be even more misleading now I’m no longer walking along it, so I’ve chosen a new description, the factual accuracy of which no one can dispute. To explain, it’s taken from my favourite of all German idioms, ‘das Leben ist kein Ponyhof’, which literally translates as ‘life is not a pony farm’ and means something like ‘life is unfair/life is no picnic’, and as such is sufficiently broad to cover any rant or digression I want to put on here. Admittedly, my train is currently whizzing through the outskirts of Aachen, the equestrian sport capital of Germany, so as I write this I’m literally surrounded by pony farms. But the main point still stands.

Anyhow, as you might have guessed, I’ve been in Germany again; in fact, in some ways the last fortnight has been so similar to the trek (early starts before the sun rises, subsisting off whatever I can cram into my pockets at the hostel breakfast buffet, inflicting my mangled German on innocent passers-by) that it would have felt wrong somehow not to spend the evenings jotting notes for a blog update. In another way, of course, I’ve been doing the polar opposite of what I did in the summer, by engaging in possibly the least outdoorsy activity of all time, namely working in an archive. Indeed, the Landesarchiv Duisburg where I’ve been researching takes being indoors to extremes, as its newly-built main structure has no windows at all but only rows of bricked-up apertures, blinded eyes running up the height of the tower which looms over the city like a Rankean temple-monolith to historical documentation. Now, if you’re thinking that a fortnight closeted inside looking at ancient paperwork sounds less exciting than crossing the Alps on foot: you’re right. But bear with me, this blog is going somewhere more lively.

First, I should note that if archives are not exactly the scene of wild adventures, they are quite interesting (to a history nerd anyway), and ever so slightly terrifying. I still remember walking down a subterranean corridor in a Boston research library with aisle after aisle of microfilm boxes on every side, each one containing thousands of miniaturised pages, and feeling awfully small next to the weight of more information than you could hope to read in a hundred lifetimes. Then there’s the unsettling fragments of the past that occasionally leap off the page and grab you. A letter breaks off halfway through with the hastily-scribbled excuse that the enemy has been sighted and the writer needs to go and man the walls. An envoy excuses the cynical tone of his report, explaining he lost his wife and child to the plague that morning. You look down at a dispassionate account of a civilian massacre, and wonder if the same hands that scrawled the text in front of you also wielded the sword.


Experts believe that the design of the Landesarchiv’s main tower was a delicate and challenging process which took all of 30 seconds.

But enough. Now, if this blog is supposedly going somewhere more lively than the archive, then I’m afraid it’s not the rest of Duisburg. The city certainly lived up to my expectations, by which I mean I was expecting a grey post-industrial sprawl and that is what I got. The glitz-and-glühwein of the Christmas market, stretched thinly along a single shopping street, did little to alleviate the gloom, which wasn’t helped by the mass of slate-coloured clouds which meant I didn’t see the sun for over a week. In fairness, the town does have a few things to recommend it. Firstly, it scores very highly indeed on the patented Louis Morris Döner Kebab IndexTM for the affordability of German cities (€2.50). Secondly and more importantly, like many of the towns in Germany’s old manufacturing heartland of the Ruhr Valley, there’s a certain rugged, reclaimed charm shining through that makes a virtue of brutalism. This is most apparent at the Landschaftspark Nord, an enormous former steelworks that has been turned into a kind of civic garden, complete with ivy slowly smothering the girders, climbing walls hammered into crumbling concrete, and love locks clinging forlornly to the odd exposed bit of mesh.* Finally, it is a bit rich for an Englishman to rock up in Duisburg and grumble about it not being especially scenic, given that it would probably look a good sight prettier if the RAF hadn’t obliterated it during the war.**

It's not quite Paris in Spring, but...

It’s not quite Paris in Spring, but…

This last holds a clue to where this blog entry is (eventually) heading: namely, back in time, to the 1930s. Why? Because apparently we all are, these days. Perhaps the least important, but certainly the most immediately pressing thing I dreaded about a potential Trump victory in the run-up to the US election was the bout of liberal breast-beating and soul-searching that was bound to follow, as the Left’s pundits both amateur and professional felt compelled (just like after Brexit and the 2015 election) to offer endless post-mortems of why it all went so wrong. As an all-too-keen amateur left wing pundit myself, I’ve tried to resist the temptation to join in, but one phrase keeps cropping up again and again which deserves some kind of response: the idea that we are going ‘back to the 1930s.’*** However powerful such rhetoric can be, for a student of history it poses a problem. It’s certainly easy to draw eye-catching parallels between today’s crises and the decade leading up to the Second World War, ranging from a shaky global economy and resurgent protectionism, to a rise in populist xenophobia, to land grabs in Eastern Europe. Yet why stop at the 1930s? If we are going to play this game, it’s just as easy to argue that we are going back to the 1830s, what with its racist US president (Andrew Jackson), anti-elite revolt in British politics (Chartism) and French action against Muslims on the beaches of the Mediterranean (landings at Algiers). Or why not the 1530s? They also had Germans struggling to handle a Turkish autocrat (Suleiman’s siege of Vienna), prejudiced treatment of Mexicans (Spain’s invasion of the Yucatan) and England controversially pulling out of a European institution (Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church).

As such examples hopefully show, comparisons like these can obscure as much as they reveal. Yes, many of today’s headlines seem eerily reminiscent of the thirties, but so much today is different too; global warming, postcolonialism, the internet, ISIS, nuclear weapons, the UN etc etc. The implicit message behind the ‘back to the 30s’ rhetoric – that we know how it turned out then, so we know how it will turn out now – has the potential to create misunderstandings at best, and self-fulfilling prophecies at worst. ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ may be the quote which launched a thousand UCAS personal statements, but our earnest desire to learn the lessons of history often means fitting the present into a predetermined straitjacket. I much prefer Mark Twain’s alternative formulation: ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’ By a careful study of previous generations – learning to scan the metre and decode the literary allusions, if you will – we can gain a sense for how patterns work in the long term, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the unpredictable individuality of each and every moment in history. As another famous maxim of the historical profession has it, ‘every age is next to God.’

This problem ties into another one, one which is so entrenched that it even has a well-known ‘scientific’ law describing it. Godwin’s Law states that ‘as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.’ Lately this law has been fully enforced in the offline world too, on both sides of the political spectrum. No sooner had the Daily Express likened the Brexiteers’ struggle against the High Court to Britain’s battle against the Third Reich, than the former Attorney General fired back by comparing the paper to the Völkischer Beobachter and the rest of the Nazi propaganda press. Republicans’ white supremacist cheerleaders and Democrats’ state-controlled economy, the Conservatives’ immigration policy and Labour’s anti-Semitic fringe; all are regularly painted as harbingers of an imminent fascist takeover. Even in Germany itself, students graffiti ‘FCK NZS’ to attack the right-wing Alternativ für Deutschland party, while the AfD themselves brandish placards of Merkel wearing the Führer’s uniform with a euro symbol replacing the swastika. In the face of all this, it sometimes seems like the entirety of politics has been reduced to a game in which the objective is to compare the other side to Hitler, and whoever wins gets to spend 4-8 years in power being relentlessly compared to Hitler. At the risk of stating the obvious, Donald Trump is not Hitler. Nigel Farage is not Hitler. Putin is not Hitler, and nor is Erdogan, Corbyn, Juncker or Le Pen. Only Hitler was Hitler, and he’s dead.


Brief interruption of earnest polemic while I attempt to look brooding and edgy.

That absolutely does not mean we cannot condemn these people, in strong moral terms if need be, but we must find a new idiom in which to do so. Otherwise, we risk becoming the boy who cried wolf. The regime which perpetrated the Holocaust remains one of the most powerful rhetorical weapons we can invoke, but if we fire it off every time a tabloid makes an off-colour remark or a student society shuts down a debate, what terms will we have left to fight back with if one day (as might well happen) a Western government really does start building concentration camps again, or planning a new world war?

If this seems a particularly bleak note on which to end a blog post so close to Christmas (I said this entry was going somewhere more lively, not somewhere more heartwarming), I apologise. Perhaps the new title has made me cynical, or maybe 2016 has just been an especially gloom-inducing year.**** If it helps, I think Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without an edge of darkness to it; it emerged out of the old pagan festivals that sustained out ancestors through the frozen depths of midwinter, after all, and everyone knows that the best carols are the ones featuring Satan anyway (those final-verse harmonies on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen get me every time, and O Come O Come Emmanuel is also quite a choon). Ultimately, it’s only by going through the longest night of all that we can come back out into the day, and if that’s not a good excuse for a party, I don’t know what is. Merry Christmas, one and all.



* I’m normally quite snobby about the unoriginal light vandalism that is the love lock ‘tradition’, but in this case there’s something about declaring your eternal love for someone by attaching a cheap graffitied padlock to a derelict hulk of rusting metal that is so hopelessly inappropriate, it’s somehow romantic.

** Duisburg holds the dubious accolade of ‘Germany’s most heavily bombed city of WW2’, which in terms of titles least likely to appear on a town sign is only just behind ‘national meth-consumption capital 2016’ and ‘birthplace of Donald J. Trump.’

*** Here is a brief selection of eminent commentators making the comparison, collected through a cursory google:

**** Though again, history teaches you a sense of perspective here. If you think 2016 has been a bad year to be alive, look up 1349 and 1644.

That’s Italy From Me, Folks

The lion was only feet away, and nothing now separated me from the huge apex predator. Muscles bulged tautly in limbs crouched ready to spring, and its razor-sharp claws glinted wickedly in the afternoon sun. Transfixed by the gaze of the majestic man-eater, surely I had reached a sudden end to my journey…

Fortunately the beast was only a marble statue adorning a royal monument in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo, and so I was able to fulfil my promise to conclude my travel-account with a lion encounter without risking a mauling.  But the journey is indeed over, although I’m able to pen these final thoughts from the comfort of my suburban sofa rather than from the inside of a carnivore. There is not too much to say about the last couple of days passed in Como and Milan, partly because I lack both the time and the knowledge to do more than scratch the surface of the Italy’s voluminous and colourful history, and partly because while I was there sightseeing took a backseat to my efforts to undo two months of healthy outdoor living with an avalanche of pizza, salami and tiramisu. In this respect, Milan itself was something of a disappointment, containing as it does too many clothes shops and too few gelaterias for my liking. There are still a few interesting titbits to be found amongst the overpriced haberdashery, however; the cathedral itself is a great white wedding-cake of gothic marble which looks good enough to eat, and the ‘Monumentale’ cemetery is a riot of enjoyably tasteless statuary and enormous OTT mausolea which serve as a testament to the apparent determination of the Milanese to abandon their fashionable chic in death. Moreover, by this point I was too conscious of the imminent end of my self-imposed exile to worry too much about anything; perhaps excessive time getting back to nature has made me into a superstitious primitive, but once again my surroundings seemed full of portents and this time they all pointed to the fact that the end of the road was nigh. Milan’s flag is a red cross on white (apparently this is the cross of St Ambrose; resolution of the copyright lawsuit between him and St George has evidently been held up by the shortage of lawyers in Heaven), and the sight of this emblem on every street corner seemed to herald my return to England.* More ominously, I discovered that the last stage of my route was coincidentally retracing the final posthumous journey of Mussolini, who after being executed on the shores of Lake Como was taken to Milan’s Piazzeta Loreto a few yards down the road from my hostel and there strung up as a grisly warning.



I don’t want to leave the fascists the final word, however, as part of the purpose of this whole blog has been to encourage people to look beyond the narratives of nationalists and extremists into the more complex shared past of our continent. This applies most strongly to the other, German, half of the former Axis, the history of which many British people still regrettably seem to think began in 1933 and ended in 1945. If you walk into a UK high street bookshop and look for the Germany subsection of the history department, you will find at best a dozen volumes covering the entirety of German history prior to the fall of the Weimar Republic, contrasted with multiple shelves stuffed with black-white-and-red jacketed analyses of every aspect of the Nazi era right down to Hitler’s favourite breakfast cereal (and that’s not counting the entire cabinets devoted to WW2 that are filed under Military History). Of course, it is absolutely essential that we never forget the crimes of fascism and the unprecedented evil of the Holocaust, but to my mind our fixation on their regime gives the Nazis a perverse kind of victory; they sought to present themselves as the culmination of German history and the very definition of German-ness, and for as long as we continue to focus on them to the exclusion of everything else in Germany’s past, they have achieved that goal. The need for a rebalancing is starkly spelled out by the numbers; the Third Reich lasted for just twelve years, the First Reich for over a thousand.

Indeed, the First Reich, or the Holy Roman Empire as it is more properly called, is perhaps a better place to end on, particularly as it’s been the elephant in the room for some time now. I’ve made numerous throwaway references to it, and have always intended to supplement this with some kind of general explanation, but somehow I’ve never managed to find the opportunity to tackle a polity notoriously resistant to being swiftly summarised. To Voltaire, it was ‘neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire’; to Pufendorf it was a political aberration so unclassifiable as to be ‘like a monster’; to our generation, it is ‘the faction from that one campaign in Age of Empires II’. Yet maybe the fact that the Empire is so enigmatic and amorphous is precisely the point. Although it always had the German-speaking lands at its core, the Reich was not simply a precursor to the modern German state but something far more complex and interesting; its former territories stretched across all ethnic boundaries from the Baltic to Provence and from the Channel to the Hungarian Plain, incorporating hundreds of subordinate kingdoms, principalities, bishoprics and city-states, as well as every single kilometre I’ve hiked on this trip. It was the messy, dysfunctional, yet surprisingly successful heart of European history for a millennium, and is the best illustration of the point I’ve tried to get across that the continent’s past is not a set of different versions of ‘our national story’ unfolding consistently in parallel, but a tangle of colliding contingencies from which our modern states and stereotypes only recently emerged.

To some extent then, Europe is what we make of it, a cautiously optimistic thought which was reinforced on the plane home as I looked down on the cities I’d passed during the last eight weeks, now transformed into clusters of lights amidst the whole constellations that fill the great arc of settlement between northern Italy and south-east England. Over the centuries, the communities along the path of the Spanish Road have taken everything that has been thrown at them by war, plague, famine and governments of every stripe, and each time managed to rebuild their prosperity and their cosmopolitan culture anew. Travelling through them has given me renewed hope that whatever the future brings, civilisation here runs too deep to disappear.


Apart from grandiose politico-historical lessons, did I learn anything else from the experience? Did I manage to find myself on my travels? Well, no (to be honest, I’ve never quite understood the obsession with ‘finding yourself’ whilst backpacking abroad. Compared with all the fascinating fragments of history, culture, landscape and gastronomy that are out there in the world waiting to be found, my self doesn’t seem worth the effort of looking for), but I like to think it has been a valuable experience nonetheless. Above all, being able to escape from the minutiae of 21st century urban living and spend two months following in the footsteps of past generations through the natural world was a refreshing change of perspective. It wasn’t that I didn’t face problems on the trip, but they were different to, and in some way simpler than, those of the modern everyday; time was lost to poor roads and bad weather rather than to the shallow distractions of the internet, and I had to navigate through literal quagmires instead of the metaphorical ones of admin and bureaucracy. This doesn’t mean that I have come back as some sort of born again nature-nut determined to live a life of low-tech frugality; indeed I’m currently very much enjoying rediscovering the pleasures of the Great Indoors (cups of tea on demand! Pyjamas! Easily-downloadable episodes of Robot Wars!). But I will try to hang onto some sense of broadened horizons, and not let my world shrink back down to within the confines of four walls or a computer screen again.

There are various other memories of the journey that will also stick for a while, so (possibly undermining my resolution to emancipate myself from the shackles of internet culture) here is a quick Buzzfeed-style list of highs and lows from the trip. And the award goes to…

Best Accommodation: the Karl Bäuerle Hütte in Dobel is a strong candidate on account of free wine and good value, and for a scenic location nothing can touch the Leit Hütte on Mount Campolungo. However, at Koblenz Youth Hostel I had a dorm to myself, I could dry out after two days of rain, the views were great, and it’s located inside a gigantic Prussian fortress. So really there’s no contest.

Worst Accommodation: this one has to be a small patch of grass by a war memorial just outside Hausach, where I ended up camped illegally after a rather bad miscalculation. Arriving by train from Strasbourg mid-evening, I tried to save a few miles and euros by replacing a lengthy detour to the nearest campsite with one of the various Schwarzwald forest huts, only to find the latter occupied by unfriendly local teens having a barbecue. It now being too dark to make for the campsite, I fell back on the only other place which could fit a tent that I’d seen, and there passed a lonely and uncomfortable night hoping the ghosts of the First World War fallen wouldn’t be too annoyed by a trespassing Englander.

Best Food & Drink: lots of competition for best meal of the trip here, ranging from a particularly good cheese board in Strasbourg to unpronounceable but highly edible geschnetzeltes in Zürich. However I probably owe my continued survival to hostel breakfast buffets, which were on offer only seldom, but when they were generally supplied enough calories to last the rest of the week (I’m now a veteran at getting maximum value out of your allotted plate; the trick is to start with a few layers of flat items such as cheese slices and ham, then use croissants and bread rolls to create a perimeter which holds in a mountain of potentially rolling items like grapes, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs). The one in Como was particularly stellar, and the accompanying taste of victory after finishing the hike elevates it to top spot.

Worst Food & Drink: this award has to go to a bottle of non-alcoholic malt beer which my friend Wainey ordered by mistake in a Rhineland campsite and couldn’t finish. If you’ve ever tried pumpernickel bread – a dense rye loaf which is vaguely sweet – then imagine drinking that; quite nice for a mouthful or two, before it became horribly sickly and cloying with an aftertaste that lingered halfway along the Rhine.

Most Interesting Encounter: as a solo traveller in campsites and hostel dorms you tend to be a bit of a target for oddballs looking for company, which produced a few interesting conversations. Probably the most memorable of these occurred in Sursee, where I awoke at 7am to find a French-Hungarian drifter knocking back cans of beer outside my tent. He claimed to be a rock musician taking a short break from his career in Switzerland, and insisted that I join him in his battered Audi in the campsite car-park (to which it had been confined under a driving ban by the Swiss police) to listen to some of his music whilst he rolled a joint; fortunately, he couldn’t find the marijuana he was looking for amidst the general detritus of what seemed to be all his worldly possessions. The sad thing was, the songs were actually rather good. He suggested we meet up again later in the trip, and declared that from the moment he saw me he knew I was a friend he could trust; having given him a fake number, I went on my way feeling only a little guilty.

Most Boring Encounter: still the man obsessed with fly-fishing in the dorm in Luxembourg. At least I got him out of the way on day one.

Best View: the shortlist for this one includes the first sight of Burg Eltz emerging from the trees, any number of Rhine castle panoramas, and the fjord-like mountain wonderland of Lake Lucerne. Top spot however is claimed by the view from the summit of the Hornisgrinde berg in the Black Forest, which I managed to reach just as the sunrise was illuminating the shadowy swathes of woodland and the majestic sweep of the Rhine valley with the pale fire of dawn. I have no photos which can do justice to that beauty and blissful solitude, but the best moments in life can rarely be caught on camera.

Worst View: the mere sight of WordPress’s mobile interface, the unmanageable clunkiness of which produced more moments of stress and frustration than all the storms, logistical problems and expenses of the trip combined. Nonetheless, I’m glad I persevered with my battle against it, and with scrawling notes into my notebook, laboriously typing them up on my phone’s tiny keyboard and then hunting down unreliable WiFi to post updates, as I have genuinely enjoyed keeping up this blog. Now that I will be heading back to university and thus will no longer have lengthy campsite evenings to do all this it will have to go into hibernation, but I may yet revive it in some shape or form if I have another adventure in prospect or just more opinions to inflict upon the world.


In the meantime, there are a range of writers with gifts fortunately far greater than my own who have written on related topics, so if you have been intrigued by any of the events or stories that I’ve briefly mentioned on this site, then I thought I’d append a quick list of recommended ‘further reading’ that you might enjoy.

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor: now that my blog is safely over, you may go and read this and hopefully it won’t matter too much if my efforts seem frivolous in comparison.

Germania by Simon Winder: for a beginner looking for a way in to the intimidating mass of German history, this is the perfect introduction. Written with an infectious enthusiasm, a lively sense of humour, and a keen eye for absurd yet telling details, this overview of pre-1933 German history manages to be very readable without sacrificing thoughtful and accurate corrective to Hitler-centric nationalist accounts.

Germany, Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor: another handy entry point for a general readership, again this is an engaging attempt to look beyond the familiar stereotypes and give a broader vision of German history. It also exists as a Radio 4 series if you want to listen along while doing some walking of your own.

Europe’s Tragedy by Peter Wilson: a slightly more in-depth academic read, this is one of my all-time favourite works of scholarship and a large part of why I got interested in this area of history in the first place. Primarily deals with the endlessly fascinating topic of the Thirty Years War, but also contains lots of illuminating context about the Habsburg-Dutch conflict and the wider state of play in Early Modern Europe.

The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road by Geoffrey Parker: for anyone interested in a more rigorous and focused account of the Road’s history than I’ve been able to provide here, Parker’s book is still the acknowledged authority on the subject.

Simplicius Simplicissimus by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen: moving into works of fiction, Grimmelshausen’s sprawling, ragged epic gives you life as a soldier and a vagabond of the Spanish Road era in the raw. There’s a good modern translation by Mike Mitchell, which preserves a fair amount of the quirky style and lowbrow humour of the original.

Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué: also readily available in English, this is an excellent epitome of 19th century German Romanticism and its fascination with resurrecting the Middle Ages of chivalric myth. But more than that, it’s just a good old-fashioned story, simply and elegantly told.

Rhinegold by Stephan Grundy: among the various adaptations and interpretations of the Nibelung legend, this plays it fairly straight, drawing together the various Norse and Germanic tales and retelling them as a modern fantasy saga.

At the risk of turning this final blog into some kind of overlong Oscars acceptance speech, before I go I should include a few words of thanks. Firstly, I am extremely grateful to everyone who came to join me for part of the journey. Alex, Hans, Joe, Wainey, Ellen, Mum and Rosie, without your excellent company along the way I would have ended up a lot lonelier (and even less sane) than was the case. Secondly, I’m very much in the debt of all those who donated to my fundraising appeal on behalf of the UNHCR Refugee Crisis in Europe project. Your generosity exceeded all my expectations, and I’m delighted to say that you smashed not only the initial target of £500, but also the new goal of £1000, meaning that every kilometre I walked has been matched by a pound raised for this great cause. If you haven’t yet had a chance to donate, the JustGiving page is still active here so please do give what you can; I’m lucky enough to be able to go home and put my feet up after my trek, but the thousands making infinitely more dangerous journeys to Europe have no homes to return to, and their stories will have no happy ending without our continuing support. And finally, big thanks to you, dear reader; if somehow you’ve managed to make it through thousands of words of my self-indulgent ramblings and ever-multiplying tangents since the beginning of this blog, that in itself is quite a feat of endurance.

And that really is it. Having started the walk with a Tolkien quote, I promised to finish with something erudite and German, but I’ve been pretentious enough already today and right now I’m just happy to be back in England. So here to sing us out is Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit, with one of the best songs about pleasures of wandering which I managed to forget to put into my Desert Island Discs earlier.

“I’ve only got so near

I’ve only come so far

I’ll walk another country mile

And see another star.”



Oh go on then, just one more pointless footnote:

* The city’s other emblem is the ‘biscione’ of its erstwhile Visconti dukes, a giant crowned serpent devouring a Saracen. I’m not sure what this could portend (an epidemic of racist reptiles?), but probably nothing good.


Ticino Rest for the Wicked


Last time, a disclaimer, this time, corrections; I certainly know how to start a blog entry with a bang. In my next (and probably last) post I’ll try to open in media res with me wrestling for my life against a starving lion, I promise. In the meantime, I’d like to rectify a couple of potentially confusing misconceptions that I now realise the ending to my last chapter might have created. First, I may have given the false impression that in reaching the top of the Gotthard Pass I had also reached Italy. In truth, whilst I had indeed got to the border of the Italian-speaking world, the country itself was still a week’s solid hiking away. Instead I had got to Ticino. Following the success of Anglo-French colonialism around the globe and the failure of Greater German nationalism in Europe, it is not unusual to find substantial communities speaking all three languages outside the frontiers of the modern states of Britain, France and Germany. The world’s only Italophone region not ruled from Rome* is not a leftover of Italian empire-builders, however (indeed, their incompetence in post-Roman times borders on the farcical), but of something more unexpected: Swiss imperialism.

As previously alluded to, the confederacy’s pacifism is a relatively  recent development, and the Swiss followed up their success in resisting Habsburg dominion by sending armies bristling with pikes and tiny multi-purpose knives to conquer swathes of northern Italy as far south as Milan itself. Defeat to the French at Marignano in 1515 rolled back some of these gains (and helped convince the Swiss that the future lay in letting other countries pay you to look after their valuables during their wars, rather than starting your own), but Ticino still remains, upgraded from a confederate fiefdom to a canton since 1803, and unlikely to demand independence from colonial oppression until Switzerland’s GDP per capita drops below double that of Italy.



After weeks of being able to get by happily in German, I was slightly nervous of how I’d fare in a land where I spoke precisely nothing of the local lingo, and I didn’t get off to a brilliant start when after three attempts I still couldn’t get passers-by to recognise the name of the place – Chiggiogna – to which I was trying to ask directions.** Fortunately, once I’d mastered the phrase ‘parla Tedesco?’ life became smoother, as the polyglot Swiss were naturally fluent in German. The differences between Ticino and its neighbouring regions to the north, which I’d first vaguely sensed while perched on the continental divide, were nonetheless significant, and ingrained into the landscape itself. The mountains were more arid (an impression enhanced by the first onset of Autumn’s orange hues), with cypresses and even palms beginning to displace the pines. Insect life multiplied alarmingly, including fearsome mosquitoes which drained more of my blood in a few days than their weedy northern cousins had managed in nearly two months. Familiar landmarks of the Germanic countryside disappeared, such as the peculiar wooden hunting platforms-on-stilts which crouch unused in corners of nearly every field across the Teutonic world, like abandoned tripods from some rustic version of War of the Worlds; in their place were tiled villas and the distinctive crenellations of Italianate architecture.

Connections between north and south remain key to the area of course, and the second deceptive impression I might have given in my description of crossing the St Gotthard Pass is that I was alone amid the Alpine peaks, clambering up remote and half-forgotten goat tracks in pursuit of armies long vanished. In fact the pass remains just as critical to trade and strategy as it ever was, and the footpath winds its way between (and sometimes on top of) multiple generations of highways and train lines, the most recent of which being a brand new rail tunnel which the Swiss have just invested seventeen years and untold billions of CHF in boring underneath the massif. The noise and commotion of the transalpine traffic might potentially annoy, but there’s a certain pleasure in seeing old historical relationships continue in modern guise. Switzerland has never been an isolated mountain idyll but rather the crossroads of a continent, and its inhabitants have long known that control of the passes represents a goldmine richer than anything buried in the rocks themselves. Such was the case in 1604 when the Habsburgs renewed their treaty with the Catholic cantons allowing the passage of Spanish soldiers across the Gotthard, a deal sweetened by the diversion of Milanese trade convoys the same way and into the hands of eager Swiss toll collectors.


All that being said, it would have been a shame to come to a region of such natural beauty and stick only to the most beaten of paths, so shortly after entering Ticino I took the opportunity to combine penance and pleasure by diverting from the Via Gottardo up the Campolungo mountain. Penance, because I wanted to atone for skipping by bus a few sections of the Val Leventina lacking in remotely affordable accommodation, and decided that climbing an extra Alp would make a more tolerable form of compensation than walking across Switzerland with pea-filled boots as pilgrims used to do (Simplicius famously cheated by boiling them first). Pleasure, because it really was stunning. After leaving all human habitation, trees and finally even paths behind to scramble up the bare mountain rocks to an altitude of nearly 2500m (about as tall as Snowdon and Ben Nevis stacked on top of one another), I was so chuffed that I even broke my prohibition on lonely solo-traveller selfies: see below. At such heights the sheer silence is deafening, and even the infernal clatter of Alpine cowbells was out of earshot far below.

Taken with Lumia Selfie

It was tempting to stay up in the peace of the peaks forever, but more than gravity sped my steps back down to the valley floor the following day. Despite so many great experiences, after nearly two months on the trail there was one view I wanted to see more than any other, and that was home. I was tired of fitful nights’ sleep in the tent or hostel dorms, tired of endlessly hand-washing the same three sets of clothes and trying to get them wearable with campsite hand-driers, tired of the bread, fruit and occasional packets of ham that were all I could afford to eat in Switzerland. Whilst walking my thoughts increasingly turned to fantasises of English food, and indeed the whole English summer that I had missed: lazy evenings in Thameside pubs, barbecues with jugs of Pimms, just being with family and friends. I have a fairly complicated relationship with my country (who doesn’t?); I’m no patriot, and partly I’d undertaken this journey to escape from it, but whenever I’m away I miss I terribly all the same.

Thus, for all the beguiling charms of both its present and its past, the rest of Ticino could not divert my yearning from the finish line. The canton today lives by a fusion of Swiss efficiency and affluence with Italian aesthetics and lifestyle, a combination most enticingly embodied by the lakeside resort of Lugano with its motto of ‘Swiss, Mediterranean style.’ I looked on with mild jealousy, but my resentment/admiration for the Swiss by this point was cooling; let them go their way, and me mine. The region is rich in castles, namely the three which dominate Bellinzona (thrown up with ever-increasing haste by the town’s former Milanese overlords in a bid to shore up their hegemony over the Gotthard gateway), and in the tiny fragments of might-have-been states which always intrigue me; I almost reached Italy two days earlier than planned when a lake ferry skirted the minuscule exclave of Campione d’Italia, a remnant of an autonomous abbey which escaped Swiss annexation and whose semi-detached sovereign status allowed it to serve as a base for American spies in the Mussolini era, and now as a gambling haven complete with a huge blocky casino erected as if in open defiance of Lugano’s tastefulness across the water. Yet in a part of the world where almost every valley has sheltered its own political system in microcosm, after a while the sheer labyrinthine complexity of history starts to become oppressive. It is tempting to launch into digressions about such fascinating vanished entities as the Republic of the Seven Tithings, or the mysterious Grey Leagues who briefly commanded the eastern reaches of the Spanish Road, but trying to dig up so many tangled roots stretching deep down into the past will drive you mad in the end.


At last, the final day of walking dawned this morning, thick with clouds and driving rain. A confession: I’ve spoken of the hike being from Luxembourg to Milan, and that’s strictly accurate, but the Milan I mean is not the city itself but the old Habsburg-ruled duchy of Milan whose bounds stretched rather wider and in the north are coterminous with the Swiss-Italian frontier today.*** Thus, despite weeks of decrying modern national divisions and the resurgence of borders, after a bedraggled day counting down the kilometres, the gates of the  Italian Republic at Como were one state boundary I was only too happy to see. Wandering through the near-deserted customs post, signs in multiple languages asked me if I had anything to declare. I wanted to say ‘yes! I’ve just spent eight weeks walking a thousand kilometres in the footsteps of mighty armies to get here, and now I’m done!’ I didn’t, of course, and what would the border bureaucrats have cared if I had? I was pleased nonetheless.

The trek may have ended, but the blog hasn’t (quite). There is still a day or two of exploring Italy left before I make my ever-so-slightly-quicker return journey by plane, and I’m sure I’ll be able to muster a concluding life lesson or two. But all that will have to wait; right now I’m demob happy and there’s an extremely large bowl of spaghetti with my name on it…


* I’m not counting San Marino, Slovene Istria or the Vatican as regions because they’re too tiny. And the Vatican is in Rome anyway.

** I’m reasonably sure this is because I was genuinely mangling  the pronunciation, not that annoying habit Italian waiters have of feigning total incomprehension when you try to order, then once you point to the menu in defeat exclaiming ‘ah, you mean —!’ pronounced in exactly the same way only with a more extravagant accent and a hand gesture.

*** It’s only two days’ walk from the border to Milan, but the prospect of trekking across the hot suburban sprawl of the Po Plain in the absence of hiking trails, campsites or scenery would make anyone resort to technicalities.


Gotthard or Go Home

To start, a disclaimer. This blog about crossing the Gotthard Pass will contain a fair quantity of grumbling, concerning the weather, aches and pains, human nature, the Swiss etc; if that seems churlish, I’m fully aware that it was  my choice to spend two months trekking across these particular parts of Europe, during which I’ve seen more wonderful sights than my camera memory can cope with whilst other people have been studying or doing proper jobs. To cap it all, before I started this leg of the trip I even got to spend a weekend relaxing in the extremely pleasant city of Zürich, which manages to bring a touch of Venetian elegance to its waterside location in the landlocked heart of the continent. If, then, it seems like I’m in no position to complain about anything, I will blame the Swiss for skewing my standards. It was in Zürich that it first hit me that not only are they substantially richer than all their European neighbours and blessed with a more scenic homeland, but they are also depressingly good-looking. What with their designer clothes, bodies toned by winter sports and tans bronzed by the southern Sun, in Switzerland it is hard for a pasty road-worn Englander not to feel like a morlock among the eloi. It is almost a relief when they open their mouths and sound (to someone trained to regard Hochdeutsch as ‘proper’ German) like backwards hillbilly children, with their gurgly accents and endless infantile diminutives; dörfli, städtli, hüsli ad infinitum. Perhaps they aren’t the master race after all.*

Given the present exalted state of the Swiss, it was particularly pleasing to find several examples of my favourite medieval motif lurking in the Alpine foothills: mementos mori. In a lonely lakeside chapel, faded wall-paintings from the Middle Ages tell the cautionary tale of three carefree young lordlings who were accosted in the graveyard by a trio of rotting corpses warning ‘what you are, we once were. What we are, you soon shall be.’ The point is rammed home by genuine human skulls embedded into the walls of a side-crypt. And although Lucerne’s celebrated monuments include the ‘most moving piece of stone in the world’ (according to Mark Twain’s assessment of the Lion Memorial to Swiss mercenaries fallen in defence of the ancien régime during the French Revolution) and the ‘most-photographed landmark in Switzerland’ (according to the local tourist board’s description of the medieval water tower, based on what precise statistical techniques I’m not sure), my personal highlight is the wooden bridge panelled with paintings of the danse macabre, in which the personified figure of death leads his victims to their untimely graves.


It may seem ghoulish to enjoy these grisly images, and indeed the medieval obsession with depicting death is often seen as symptomatic of the period’s morbid, moribund worldview. But I think the frankness, sometimes bordering on relish, with which our ancestors confronted their own mortality is if anything healthier than our modern sensitivity about the subject. Today death is hidden away within the walls of hospitals and Dignitas clinics, and if we think of the Grim Reaper at all it is as an austere, sanitised skeleton with his bones tastefully concealed by a shroud, reduced to a solemn metaphor or a symbol of trendy goth angst. The death depicted on Lucerne’s bridge and in other ‘totentanz’ artworks is a very different fellow; he still has withered flesh stretched over his bones, and he delights in sporting a range of costumes to mirror and mock the affectations of his prey. Indeed, the death of the Middle Ages is the closest thing the Christian pantheon has to a trickster god, a cousin to Loki or Anansi with a never-fading rictus grin. The choice butt of his gallows humour is always the rich and the beautiful, whose earthly vanities he humbles to dust; the Great Leveller scorns nothing so much as hubris.

The ancient heartland of the Swiss Confederacy holds plenty of examples of his handiwork in action. In travelling through the cantons where the alliance was first founded, I was on the trail of  Habsburg armies older than those which trod the Spanish Road; the dynasty’s original powerbase was in the region (indeed, the Habsburg Castle from which they took their name lay tantalisingly close to my route), and in 1386 they came a cropper by the pretty lakeside town of Sempach. Reportedly, the assembled knights dismissed their mercenary auxiliaries because they  wanted the honour of slaughtering the Swiss peasant rabble themselves, and were hindered in the battle by their fashionable but impractical pointy-toed shoes. Whatever the truth of that, the fact remains that on the day the Swiss underdogs prevailed, and death had the last laugh on the majority of the proud Austrian nobles. The Habsburgs themselves lived and learned, and were eventually wise enough to let their ancestral homeland go in order to pursue bigger prizes in Germany, Spain and the New World, but the triumphal columns and celebratory murals with which 19th century Swiss nationalists have bedecked Sempach suggest that the lesson of pride preceding a fall is soon forgotten in this region. You don’t have to subscribe to medieval notions of sin and judgment to accept that a little memento mori could still be of use to us in 2016; whatever legacies we create for ourselves, we are still ultimately fleshy things with a limited shelf-life to experience all that this world has to offer before we biodegrade. And personally I find contemplating the reaper a little less grating than just shouting ‘YOLO.’


On a vaguely related note, I hadn’t just come to Lucerne to ruminate on the hereafter, but to actively tick something off my own bucket list. This was actually my third visit to the city, and I was determined it would be third time lucky when it came to seeing the mountains which ring the famously beautiful neighbouring lake (Lake Lucerne to the English, who presumably took one look at the German name Vierwaldstättersee and said ‘nah mate’). On my first visit at New Year, snowfall had given the city a chocolate-box beauty but unfortunately obscured everything beyond a distance of fifty yards, and then whilst interrailing the following summer we timed our stopover to change trains there to coincide perfectly with the only rainstorm in two weeks of flawless sunshine. My third arrival in Lucerne on Monday was during a day of miserable weather which once again swallowed the view, but this time I had a plan. Rising early next morning amid thick mists, I set out on a small diversion from the Spanish Road to find the elusive peaks the only surefire way I knew: by walking on them. At first the fog remained impenetrable, but as both I and the Sun rose higher the air began to clear. Suddenly a pinnacle of rock pierced the vapours, and a nearby cloud parted to reveal a hulking craggy mass. Picture that scene in a monster movie where the hero is hunting for the beast, only to realise that it’s been there all along, it’s bigger than he ever could have imagined, and he’s standing on it; now you have a vague idea of how I felt. The Alps, at last.

Yes, after weeks of dropping portentous hints about Europe’s largest mountain range, it was time to stop foreshadowing and finally walk over the damn things. The ascent began in earnest the following day after I’d taken a ferry across the Vierwaldstättersee to Altdorf, which was disappointingly short on temples of Sigmar** and long on locals in folk costume blowing six foot long Alphorns as if to announce ‘you’re in the mountains now, sonny’. The houses turned from brick to timber, their roofs sloping ever steeper as if to match the gradient of the road as I toiled up the Reuss valley with towering peaks on either side, bound for the St Gotthard Massif.


After a night’s rest in Wassen, I set off again with the dawn to tackle the pass itself, the gorge narrowing with every mile whilst the river became a torrent and then a cascade. I was spurred on by the knowledge that the wind blowing hard in my face was now definitely coming from Italy; I’d like to say that it carried the faint scent of cypresses and olives and with it the heady promise of Mediterranean evenings, but actually it was just bloody chilly. The Sun doesn’t penetrate into the depths of the deepest Alpine canyons until almost noon, and down in the shadows the Devil lies in wait; more specifically, the ‘Teufelsbrücke’, a bridge which according to legend was built by Lucifer himself in exchange for the first living soul to cross it, which thanks to some quick thinking by the locals turned out to be that of a goat (if such stories are to be believed, then either Satan is phenomenally gullible or a much-misunderstood individual who is only really interested in collecting an underworld petting zoo, since almost identical folktales are also told about the construction of Aachen cathedral, the church by the Wolfgangsee, and many other structures besides).

After nearly seven weeks on the road, physically I was still holding up relatively well; I am blessed with extraordinarily insensitive feet, and up until then the only blisters I had sustained were on my hands, inflicted during a tragic incident involving the overenthusiastic wringing dry of a t-shirt back in Worms. But now the cumulative strain of so many hundreds of kilometres on foot started to take their toll. My shoulders ached, my legs were weary, and my ankles were rubbing raw. Thankfully, at times like these music can lend a helping hand. I promised a part two to my Desert Island Discs last time, and here it is; a playlist for when a few feelgood tunes isn’t going to cut the mustard, when you need to dig deep and psych yourself up for one last all-out effort. Music, in short, to go to battle to.

1) Longest Day by Iron Maiden. I could have picked almost any song by this band really, but sometimes when trying to metaphorically conquer Europe on foot, it helps to have the backing of a heavy metal D-Day.

2) Butterflies and Hurricanes by Muse. Another group with an arsenal of power tunes. This one’s so motivational that you’ll not only want to climb the mountain but also do a few press-ups afterwards, clear your inbox, and just generally sort your life out.

3) Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner. Incidentally, I passed Wagner’s house on the shores of Lake Lucerne, which is apparently where Siegfried’s Idyll was first performed (I can’t get away from those pesky Nibelungs, it seems). I was a bit sniffy about his use of mythology in an earlier blog, but when confronted with scenery of this grandeur, you feel it deserves every ounce of operatic bombast he can muster.

4) Lose Yourself Yourself by Eminem. As a certified gangsta badman, I naturally know all the words to this ultimate rap classic. Accordingly I try to save it for deserted areas lest my over-zealous attempts to spit rhyme along with Eminem cause pensioners out rambling undue alarm.

5) Kashmir by Led Zeppelin. A whole odyssey packed into a single song. Best deployed in the baking mid-afternoon heat so you can play along with the desert ambience.

6) To Holmgard and Beyond by Turisas. The official genre of this song is ‘Viking Battle Metal’, which probably tells you all you need to know about it i.e. it’s awesome.

7) I’m On a Boat by Lonely Island. Quite why an expletive-laden parody rap song about pleasure cruising should motivate me to scale mountains is unclear, but it does. Answers on a postcard please.

8) Colonel Hathi’s March by The Jungle Book. When all else fails, there’s this. Because when a high-ranking cartoon elephant tells you to keep-it-up-two-three-four, you damn well do it.


And so it proved. With a bit of musical assistance, and my own determination that I wasn’t going to give up, I was going to forge on to Milan and there order and consume the largest ice-cream in the history of the world, I kept going until the path started to level out, and then suddenly the Via Gottardo ran out of up. Victory! I had beaten the St Gotthard Massif***, scaled the backbone of the continent and now stood looking down on the virgin territory of Southern Europe. Already something seemed subtly different in the vegetation, the buildings, the light. And it was auf Wiedersehen to the Germanic world too; the familiar yellow trail signposts had suddenly switched to a strange language, and right on cue the next group of passing hikers greeted me not with ‘grüezi’ but ‘buon giorno’. Naturally I was feeling on top of the world at this point, and now only a week’s walking downhill separated me from the finish line. Yet amidst all this smugness, it would be as well to pause here on a note of caution. The Alpine landscape and history are littered with examples of the perils of hubris, as we’ve seen. Could I make it out of the mountains to my goal, or would the last leg prove a (devil’s) bridge too far?


*Although I must admit that most of them are capable of switching to flawless High German the moment they twig you aren’t from the area, making them effectively fluent in two forms  of German as well as frequently French, Italian and English. However, a few holdouts enable me to cling to my vestige of superiority, such as the old man who accosted me en route, and on being informed that I didn’t understand Swiss German very well, nodded politely before proceeding to deliver an unintelligible ten-minute lecture anyway, the main subject of which (I think) was why cars were a dangerous new-fangled innovation.

** If you don’t get this reference, I’m going to go ahead and claim that it’s to song lyrics by a really cool and edgy band that you haven’t heard of, and definitely not to anything in the least bit nerdy.  If you do get the reference, may I just observe that one of the many things that make the Old World so excellent is that instead of being the usual pale imitation of Middle Earth or medieval England, it’s main civilisation is directly inspired by the Holy Roman Empire at the turn of the 16th century. It’s like someone took the art of Altdorfer, Dürer and Bosch and somehow, improbably, made it into a tabletop wargame. Uh, I mean a really cutting-edge concept album.

*** I feel a bit like Ali G every time I write this, but that is genuinely what it’s called. Honest.