Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Walking in a winter wonderland

Looking over the Lech to St Mang's 
Being English means, in part at least, developing an obsession with the weather. The Other Half and I had spent weeks before our Bavarian trip studiously watching the weather forecast for the area – not least in an effort to work out exactly what clothing would be required.

Overall, the outlook was not good, with precipitation of various sorts predicted for almost the entire week.

Looking back to Füssen
And it began exactly as forecast, with snow falling throughout Saturday night so that we awoke to a winter wonderland. A winter wonderland, it should be said, with knobs on.

And fairylights on the knobs.

Even in London, a little snow is transformative. In terrain such as this, it’s magical.

After breakfast, dressed in proper walking boots – mine, coincidentally, from Bavaria – and wrapped up against the cold, we set out.

A snowy stroll
The cloud was still low as we headed down the road. I was desperate to see Neuschwanstein and insisted we continued down a path the bordered a park, believing that, as soon as we reached a certain point, it would be there, soaring majestically out of the woods.

We never quite got that view, but we warmed instead to a walk that gave us the chance to enjoy the snow. And to see the slopes of the lower hills, with trees dressed in white – evergreens bowing under their thick garments; deciduous with a dusting that gave an illusion of mistiness – was just one of the pleasures.

Then there was the water of the River Lech as it wound its way toward the Forggensee – crystal clear and a wondrous, malachite green.

The Forggensee itself – the largest lake in the immediate vicinity and the fifth largest in Bavaria – is partly drained in the winter, which makes for an odd sight.

The clear, icy waters of the Lech
Created in 1954 when the Lech was damned for the first time to create the Lechsee further north, being able to drain it helps to reduce the risk of flooding during the spring snow melt, and provides a perfect setting for aquatic sports in the summer. It’s also a great source of pike, eel and trout.

And while we’re on the subject of such things, the Lech is a tributary of the Danube, flowing from lake Formarinsee in the Austrian Alps down past Füssen, before flowing through the Forggensee and on north to reach the Danube near Donauwörth.

The walk back was as pleasant and we continued under the main road bridge and round toward the side of the summer palace of the bishops of Augsburg before slipping back into the old town alongside St Mang’s Abbey.

The Benedictine abbey has stood there for centuries and is named for a hermit, Magnus of Füssen, who built and oratory and cell there and died on 6 September in a year nobody bothered to remember. The first proper documentary record shows that, while he was certainly not the first abbot, Gisilo held that position in 919.

The Heilig-Geist-Spitalkirche
But there were practical and political reasons for the founding of the monastery there too. Füssen lies on the medieval road that leads from Augsburg south and across the Alps to Italy – it’s the point where the Lech breaks out of the mountains, which is what gives it great strategic importance.

Thus both the bishops of Augsburg and the Holy Roman Emperors considered it to be of political interest.

But we’ll return to the abbey another day. In the meantime, as we enterted the old town, we came across the Heilig-Geist-Spitalkirche (Holy Ghost Hospital Church), which was built between 1748-49 by Franz Karl Fischer.

At this point, you might be thinking that that name reminds you of Spitalfields in east London – named because the land in that area belonged to St Mary Spital, a priory and hospital nearby.

Damn such linguistic connections, illustrating how we don’t live in clearly-defined national vacuums.

video

But back in Füssen, the tiny church’s rococo façade shows the trinity and assorted religious figures, including Johannes Nepomuk, the patron saint of rafters – rafts being an important craft used on the Lech when this was built.

The walk gave me a first opportunity to see if my photographic experiment was going to work.

Having finally been pretty much forced to upgrade my phone, instead of bringing the big camera, I’d decided to see if I could shoot the entire trip on a camera phone, albeit that the phone in question is an iPhone 6 plus, which I was just starting to realise has a very good camera.

Cake. And coffee
This is a phone camera that will do macros and panoramas and various other whizz-bang things, including video, which I was determined to try – and the first attempt can be seen above, giving you a brief look at the inside of the Heilig-Geist-Spitalkirche.

But after a stroll around the streets and a first sense of orientation – and a first chance to admire some of the painting on the buildings, including plenty of trompe-l’œilgiven that it was still rather grey, we returned to the hotel and took coffee and cake in the Kurcafe, which was how our hotel had begun life, back in the late 19th century.

The cake involved chocolate. And creamy truffle.

Schweinebraten
And after that – and after a break to let thew cake and coffee settle – it was off to enjoy the sauna for the first time.

An early dinner followed in Himmelstube, the hotel’s Bavarian restaurant. For me, it was a first experience of a Schweinebraten, a roast pork dish; this one in Dunkelbiersoße – a dark beer gravy – with a substantial potato dumpling, a little side salad and some red cabbage, and with a glass of beer on the side.

And so, sated and warmed, and with the mind full of the winter landscape, we slept, with the weather forecast having told us that the following day would be the best of the week.

Fairytale castles awaited.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Bearing east for Bavaria and beer

Frauenkirche and Neues Rathaus, Munich
Commeth the hour, commeth the beer. But first came the chaos. Our long-awaited trip to Bavaria was thrown into chaos at the 11th hour when our flight to Munich was cancelled by virtue of a strike by Lufthansa pilots.

With only a little over 24 hours to go before we were scheduled to fly, The Other Half fortunately managed to get us new tickets on board EasyJet, from Gatwick.

One point to remember here: we were booking late, obviously, but those EasyJet tickets cost more for a one-way journey than the original Lufthansa return flights had cost.

So much for all the guff about ‘budget’ airlines. And unless you are travelling with only enough luggage for a couple of days, and can therefore cram it all into a cabin bag, you can expect to pay around £30 per case for the privilege of taking more.

Mind, judging by the sight of fellow passengers struggling to cram a bag into the overhead lockers, some people stretch the definition of cabin baggage to its limit and probably beyond.

That said, I’ll give EasyJet credit for being considerably less unpleasant than RyanAir.

Erdinger
At Gatwick, we discovered that the plane was a little late arriving. But, with the wind now in the ‘right’ direction, we made up time on the journey to Germany.

Our initial plans would have meant that we arrived at Munich airport at around 11pm German time, so with that in mind, we’d booked a room for that night at the Hilton hotel that sits squarely between the two terminals.

In the event, we had slightly longer at the hotel, since the EasyJet flight was two hours earlier. But having checked in, neither us of felt much like sitting down to a meal – travel days do disrupt eating patterns – and opted instead to sit outside (yes, outside) in the clear evening air (albeit under a small heater) to enjoy a couple of glasses of beer.

In this case, it was Erdinger: a clean weißbier with a good taste. And jolly welcome it was too. After the previous day’s panic, merely being in Munich felt like a victory.

The next morning, with sun in the sky, we grabbed a coffee (€25 for breakfast was not on the menu) and caught a train into central Munich.

Bavaria may, in many ways, be a conservative part of the world, but that it not a neo-liberal conservatism that believes in taking every opportunity to rip people off.

At the main railway station, which we were due to depart from in the afternoon, there were whole rooms of lockers where we could leave our bags for the day at a mere €3.

Weißwurst, pretzel and mustard
That’s right: no airport-style ‘security’ to allow some jobsworthy tosspot to spend 10 minutes running a finger around your laptop as though it’s the most mysterious container he’s ever encountered (all the while, giving you an unpleasantly challenging stare), and then charging you a rip-off £6 to hold your bag for three hours, with the company claiming that’s a “competitive” price.

Take note Britain and, in particular, the Excess Baggage Company at Manchester Piccadilly. 

Free to wander, we headed straight toward the Marienplatz and, claiming that coffee as our ‘first breakfast’, sat down on Neuhauser Straße outside an eatery called Schnitzelwirt to engage in a great Bavarian tradition.

Second breakfast traditionally occurs at around 11am, but always before noon. The reason for that is that it includes weißwurst, a local delicacy that, in the past, would have gone off if left any later.

It’s served in in the water in which it has been gently simmered and comes with a pretzel, sweet, grainy mustard and beer. The beer in this case was a Franziskaner – a gorgeous weißbier brewed in Munich, which I have experienced from bottles in the UK.

Altes Rathaus, Munich
It’s the sort of drink that makes you stop anything else, sit up and pay attention to the taste.

The most traditional way to eat the weißwurst is to cut off one end and suck the light veal and bacon mix out of its skin. Or you can slice it from end to end and then roll the meat out with a fork. I opted for the latter approach.

But all in all, this Bavarian ritual was observed properly and very much enjoyed.

We ambled on, seeing the extraordinary Rathaus-Glockenspiel strike noon. Made in 1908, its 32 life-size figures re-enact scenes from the city’s history, accompanied by 43 bells.

This is the new town hall – a vast piece of Gothic Revival (it has 400 rooms) built between 1867 and 1908 by Georg von Hauberrisser.

Its predecessor, the Altes Rathaus, stands at the east side of the Marienplatz, and was first documented in 1310.

The site of a 1938 speech by Goebbels that was the prelude to Kristallnacht, it now, rather more pleasingly, serves as a toy and teddy bear museum.

Heilig-Geist-Kirche, Munich
Here too, we could see the iconic twin onion domes of the Frauenkirche, the city’s cathedral. A Romanesque church was first built on the site in the 12th century. What stands there today crosses architectural styles, with the main building – completed in 1494 – being Gothic, while the Renaissance-style domes were added in 1524.

I bought a hat – of which more another time – and between exploring churches (a first taste of Bavarian baroque), markets and shops, we took coffee in thetypically large German cups that are almost bowls.

The original plan for our time in Munich had involved visiting one of the three major art galleries, but we soon realised that, to do so, we’d be rushing ridiculously. Thus we’d settled on a rather less frenzied approach.

But heading back to the railway station, we found ourselves facing another less-than-relaxing snafu: The Other Half’s locker wouldn’t open.

Welcoming coffee
Thankfully, we’d allowed ourselves plenty of time, and I raced off to deploy my pidgin German in finding someone to sort it out.

That was not entirely straightforward, but for the first time in my life, I actually understood directions in another language and did, after what seemed like an age but probably wasn’t, find a young man who understood, picked up a fistful of keys and followed me back.

Checking first that we could describe what was in the locker, he then opened it and liberated the case, leaving us to head to the train that would take us to Füssen.

The journey south east into the Alps takes two hours: fairly fast for the first half, it slows as you start the real climb into the mountains.

Not that we could see anything more than Alpine pasture that was close by, with heavy cloud draping its gloom over anything higher. My frustration was almost tangible.

We emerged at Füssen into a dark early evening, a fine drizzle in the air.

A fine plate of zander
Our hotel, fortunately, was only a very short walk away and, as a large tour party was decanted from a coach into the lobby, hauling industrial amounts of suitcases up in the lift for a single night, we were handed flutes of sparkling wine by the lady at reception.

Settling in a short while later, we found that we could look out and see the summer palace of the bishops of Augsburg close by.

After a dinner in Chili, one of the hotel’s two restaurants – a very enjoyable first taste for me of zander, a fresh water fish – we decided that it had been a long couple of days and an early night was in order.

But, with one or two hitches, we’d made it. Now Füssen awaited.


Sunday, 15 March 2015

A rare piece of early Brecht and Weill

Trinity Moses, Widow Begbick & Fatty (Peter Hoare)
Like the proverbial London bus, it seems that you wait ages to visit the Royal Opera House and then, once you’ve done it for the first time, another visit speeds into view in a matter of weeks.


If I was the prime mover behind the desire to see some Wagner in mid-February, then The Other Half was probably ahead of me in wanting to ensure we didn’t miss a new production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Brecht and Weill.
Given that Brecht declared of Mahagonny that it was an written in an attempt to “pay conscious tribute to the senselessness of the operatic form,” there’s a certain piquancy to rare chances to see it being more likely to be in opera houses than in theatres, but whatever ones opinion. it has become an accepted part of the opera canon.
However, as an early piece – first performed in 1930 – it is fraught with difficulties for any company.
Unlike in later works, Brecht was here still developing his worldview, and Mahagonny offers an unrelentingly misanthropic and dystopian perspective, with nothing – even right at the end – to suggest that we might have a chance to stop the insane drive to self-destruction.
One also has the sense that, when writing this, Brecht was still a small-town boy feeling ill-at-ease in the big city – it isn't simply a rant against capitalism per se.
Jenny (centre)
Three on-the-run criminals – Widow Begbick, Fatty and Trinity Moses – find their vehicle broken down in Amerika, and decide that, since they can go neither forward nor back, they will found a city based on nothing but pleasure, and that city will be called Mahagonny (Brecht’s nickname for Munich – this is not simply an onslaught against the ‘American Dream’).
It’s a place for (male) workers who are exhausted, and offers booze, fighting and sex.
When the first group of prostitutes arrive, we hear one, Jenny – a role first created by the legendary Lotte Lenya – sing the work’s most iconic number, the Alabama Song.
However, trouble starts, when lumberjacks Jimmy McIntyre, Jack O’Brien, Bank-Account Bill and Alaska Wolf Joe arrive from Alaska and, when Jimmy defies an impending hurricane, his own even more anarchic ideology wins approval.
But even in Mahagonny, rules are required and, when Jimmy cannot pay for a round of drinks, he’s arrested, tried and – as he has no money left to bribe the court – executed.
This current production is in English, with a new translation by Jeremy Sams, but this was never a straightforwardly German libretto anyway: Alabama Song is one of two songs that were written in English originally.
It is certainly flawed – the third act is paced far too slowly and reduces the possibility of any real punch at the end.
But there are some very interesting aspects to it – not least the opportunity to see such an early work. The staging is wonderful, as the new city starts from a single lorry and, at the start of the second act, we see a container city rise up.
Jimmy McIntyre (centre)
There’s plenty to maintain interest and plenty to consider, up to an including working your way through Brecht’s philosophical jumble.
There’s a big question as to whether Weill’s works with Brecht should be sung by opera singers or non-opera singers, but that’s generally subjective. My Other Half – a serious Brecht buff – and I had differing responses, but while he was, in general, more critical of the overall production than I, he still considered it a very worthwhile evening out and with plenty of points of interest to spark subsequent conversation.
As it happened, we saw this three weeks after seeing Der fliegende Holländer at the ROH. It made for some intriguing contrasts and connections. Not least in that Wagner never regarded many of his works as ‘operas’ but as ‘music dramas’. It was a serious point for him.
And it’s a description that can probably fairly be applied to Brecht and Weill’s works together. While in general, Wagner’s own choice of terminology has been quietly forgotten and his works widely accepted as part of Opera, it is easy to see why people still feel uncomfortable, if you will, with knowing how to describe and site works such as this, since they don’t fit comfortably into most established cultural pigeon holes.
Mahogany is not, strictly, ‘opera’, but neither is it a ‘musical’ or a ‘play’ or a ‘cabaret’ or any other performance type that you can think of. ‘Music drama’ – Wagner’s term – seems entirely the best fit.
At the end of the interval, two other members of the audience behind me were discussing why it was being staged at the ROH, with one wondering whether it was a “cash cow”: it remains to be seen when Brecht (and Weill) has ever been a “cash cow” in the UK. And if you wanted to go down that route, using Brecht, your best bet would be Die Dreigroschenoper, not this.

So, to the cast.

Container city
It was a joy to see Sir Willard White as Trinity Moses, while Anne Sofie von Otter as Begbick really grew into the role as the evening went on.

Christine Rice gave a strong account as Jenny – beautiful singing on the Alabama Song – while Kurt Streit as Jimmy was, for me, also very strong.

There, are nods to all sorts of things all over the place – including to Nietzsche, in terms of the citizens of Mahagonny killing God – and to Wagner, whose ‘motif of longing’ from Tristan und Isolde is quoted in the opening sequence of the work.

I think that John Fulljames has done a generally good job with a difficult piece, while, as mentioned earlier, the set design of Es Devlins really gave me another look at opera as spectacle – and I have so appreciated that in the last month.

The use of projection works really well here – and it does also make you aware that Brecht, as someone who used surtitles to further stamp home what he was saying, was arguably a leader in terms of multi-media theatrical performances.

But if this is cannot offer a perfect production of an imperfect work, then it still a very good opportunity to see a rarely-performed piece by Brecht and Weill and a production that has a great deal to enjoy and admire, and will certainly provide plenty of food for later conversation, as The Other Half and I found.

Photos: Clive Barda for the Royal Opera House

Thursday, 5 March 2015

There can never be too many books


And so it is that World Book Day is upon us again – and almost gone, at the time of writing.

In an era where, increasingly, digital seems to dominate, it’s wonderful to think about books.

Yes, yes: I know that books can be digital too, but, to me – and many millions more – there is nothing to beat the tactile joy of a real book. Indeed, for billions of people on this planet, the old-fashioned variety of bound paper is all that they can hope to have access to.

Do you remember the joy when, as a child, you managed to read a book on your own for the first time?

I cannot remember the title of the first book I managed like that, but I remember sitting in a small red and white straw child’s basket chair with it, and being so proud when I got to the last page.

Not that long after, I took enormous pleasure in Enid Blyton’s Well Really, Mr Twiddle, which had me hooting with hysterical laughter.

Many years later, I got pretty much the same sense of pride from reading an entire Asterix book in German. Books always offer potential for new moments of personal achievement.

At the beginning of my twenties, I suffered some sort of breakdown after being injured and then chucked out of polytechnic. For ages, I couldn’t read – even much-loved books could not hold my concentration beyond the first few pages.

What revived reading for me was Stephen King. I picked up Carrie in a local bookshop and couldn’t it down. Then The Stand and It, with many more to follow.

I ‘discovered’ Terry Pratchett before he was anywhere near national treasure status, standing in a small sci-fi and fantasy bookshop to meet him once when nobody else was even around.

The result is three very precious signed volumes of the earliest Discworld novels.

Books – among the very first things I’d unpack in my nomadic early adulthood: get those out and it would start to feel like home.

Books, which provide a wonderful pre-holiday ritual when considering what from my buckling shelves I wish to take.

Books, which bring with them knowledge and entertainment.

While the majority of the books that I have bought in recent years have been non-fiction, I still seek out good storytelling too.

Penguin are now releasing the entire Maigret collection, and with new translations that finally do Simenon’s noir novels justice. Those are on pre-order with me.

There are old friends that I have read many times already and will probably read many times more: Jan Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre (which I hated at school), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Stephen King’s The Shining (the movie was crap) and Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, all of which I find new things in every time I pick them up.

I have a few antiquarian (relish that word) books – some up to 200 years old. They are to be treasured and looked after: I feel only a temporary guardian.

And I also rather pride myself on having a collection of books about German history – no! Not that period! – that would, I suspect, count as pretty decent.

I still judge a bookshop on its history section: on whether it is just full of WWII and the Nazis or goes beyond that.

Of course, talking of the Nazis, its always worth remembering how they burnt books on Bebelplatz in Berlin in 1933 – right next to the Humboldt University. That symbolism should tell you something about the power of the written word. And today, of course, we have groups of religious fundamentalists who want to deny people – and women and girls in particular – the right to learn.

Whether in the deepest, darkest days or winter, curled up on the sofa with a good read and a hot chocolate or under a parasol on the beach in the height of summer, is there really anything that can compare to the pleasure that can be found in the pages of a good book?

So let’s celebrate books today – and those who create them and those who read them – but let’s never stop loving books for all the other days of the year.

And PS: make sure you love your local library too.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

After the ’flu, a wonderful Dutchman

Egils Silins as the eponymous Dutchman
It would be easy to imagine that our opera going was jinxed. Having missed two performances at the English National Opera in the last few years, for varied reasons, February brought with it a first planned visit to the Royal Opera House to see a first full Wagner opera.

I love the theatre in general, but I was almost giddy with excitement at the prospect of this. But cometh the hour, cometh the ’flu.

On the basis that you cannot go out socially in an evening if you’ve been off sick earlier in the day, I battled into the office that morning, desperately clinging to the belief that it was ‘just a cold’, stuffed to the gills with medication and with precious tickets sitting next to more pills in my bag.

It was all to no avail: by early afternoon, I was running a fever and had to give in. As The Other Half pointed out, I was in no condition to have enjoyed anything much anyway.

The RoH did its bit, trying to sell on my tickets for that evening’s performance.

Then, with amazing good luck, we managed to get hold of more tickets for a week and a half later.

Regular readers will be aware of my Wagner affliction, and I had been wanting to see a full opera for some time.

Der fliegende Holländer seemed the perfect way to start: short by the composer’s standards at a mere two and a half hours, and as his first masterpiece, not as ‘heavy’ as some that followed. Perfect, in other words, for a Wagner ingénue.

And so, last Tuesday, we finally headed out to Covent Garden, emerging from the London Underground past ‘living statues’ and buskers, to pick up our tickets with plenty of time for a meal before the performance.

We decided to try La Ballerina, a small Italian restaurant just over the road from the opera house.

An oppressive factory
It looked packed, but we got a table easily enough and settled down to order. On the upside, my carbonara was perfect pre-theatre comfort food and the tiramisu that followed was perfectly pleasant.

On the down side – the waiter knocked a glass of red wine over, soaking the table cloth and leaving me with damp attire. Fortunately, it had dried by the time we left.

The Royal Opera House itself is vast and labyrinthine, but we made it to our seats high up in the amphitheatre. High they may have been, but we had a perfect view of the stage and orchestra.

This led to The Other Half looking down and commenting: “Is that really six basses?” Well, yes – it is a band for a Wagner opera.

Unfortunately, the dreaded lurg had not finished with its jinxing of my operatic experience, as it was announced that Bryn Terfel, who was playing the eponymous Dutchman, was ill, and bass baritone Egils Silins had been flown in from Hamburg to sing the role.

My not having heard of him indicates nothing: he was excellent.

As for the opera as a whole, it was wonderful. Seeing something like this live makes you appreciate the sense of spectacle and scale.

It also makes me appreciate the awesome vocal technique: not only were the singers making perfectly sure that you could hear their voices throughout the auditorium – even when singing quietly (the hardest thing) – but you could clearly hear the words too.

Adrianne Pieczonka as Senta
The story is straightforward: cursed to roam the seas for eternity, the Dutchman’s one chance of redemption comes on one day every seven years when he can walk the land again.

If, in that time, he can find a woman who will be true to him unto death, he will be released from the curse.

That day strikes and he finds himself ashore in Norway. Meeting a sea captain, Daland, the Dutchman uses his vast hoard of treasure to buy the hand of Daland’s daughter.

But Senta has been dreaming of the Dutchman herself and is more than ready to accept his hand as she wants to be the one to save him.

However, when the Dutchman realises that Senta has turned her back on her former love, Erik, he realises that he would be dooming her and he leaves without her.

This is the second revival of Tim Albery’s 2009 production and it’s easy to see why they’ve brought it back.

There are two principle ways to approach Der fliegende Holländer: first, by looking back to Wagner’s Romantic musical roots, as are evident, or by looking forward to what he would go on to create – which is also evident.

The Dutchman's crew
The darkness here is particularly appropriate for the themes that Wagner was exploring, and the lighting and staging really add to this.

In Senta, we see a woman who dreams of breaking free from her oppressive existence working in a factory: she alone refuses to join in with the spinning song that the women’s chorus sings as they work.

And her dreams of saving the Dutchman – ignoring the dangers, turning her back on those who love her – reveal a naïve or deluded desire to believe in a fairytale future. Perhaps not unlike teenagers running away to Syria right now.

The cast is universally excellent, including the three – that’s right: three – choruses of over 60 singers. Wagnerian to the core!

Of the principals, I’ve already mentioned Silins , while David Rose as Daland, Michael König as Erik (a pretty thankless role) and Ed Lyon as the Steersman are all in wonderful voice.

And Adrianne Pieczonka was wonderful as Senta, with a clear, brilliant soprano voice.

Andris Nelsons’s conducting of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (with those six basses) was faultless.

So, that was it – my first Wagner: great drama, wonderful spectacle and sublime music that lived on in my head.

Suffice it to say that it’s extremely doubtful that it will be my last Wagner opera or my last visit to the Royal Opera House.

* Production photos: Clive Barda and Mike Hoban

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Keep looking on the bright side


Look on the bright side of life – offends some Christians
More than once commentator pointed out, last month, the hypocrisy behind the attendance in Paris of so many senior politicians in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and that week’s other murders.

Then again there were the UK media outlets that spoke high and mighty words about ‘free speech’, but thought twice about actually reprinting a Charlie Hebdo cartoon or two – and instead, chose to illustrate reports with pictures (in some cases not even pixilated) of policeman Ahmed Merabet seconds before he was murdered, thus doing the terrorists’ work for them – while some on the British left chose to castigate the victims for ‘racism’.

I didn’t envisage coming back to the question of offence again so quickly, but within the last few days, there has been a further assault on free speech in the UK, with a call to ‘ban racists from social media’.

This came from the all-party Parliamentary inquiry into anti-semitism, days after the Community Security Trust had reported that UK anti-smitic incidents “more than doubled to 1,168 in 2014”.

That itself came against a background of various news reports claiming that anti-semitism was up, with increased numbers of Jewish people thinking of leaving for Israel or the US.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, in the wake of the murders of four Jewish people in a kosher supermarket in Paris, been urging Jewish people to emigrate to Israel.

Mira Bar-Hillel, an Israeli-born freelance writer on property and housing, and Zionism and Israel for the Evening Standard and Independent, took to social media to question some of what this report said.

She pointed out that it listed one serious assault, while most of the other incidents listed were comments – largely but not exclusively – made on social media, relating to or as a result of the attacks by the state of Israel against Gaza last summer.

Some of those were downright nasty; many were very emotional responses to Gaza that didn’t worry too much about taste (whatever that is) or logic; some made comparisons that others may find distasteful or historically inaccurate (ie drawing similarities between Zionism and Nazism), but from what it’s possible to see from the examples provided, while there may be hate and there may be ignorance and there may be a lack of intellectual rigour, there are no examples of incitement to assault or attack.

And what is the wider context of this?

Anti-Muslim incidents in the UK are also apparently on the rise – and these saw a particular spike after the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013.

But it’s not just religion.


“Home Office statistics reveal police recorded 1,841 reports of disability hate crime in 2012-13, with 810 incidents going to court.
“This led to 349 convictions, but only seven of these resulted in an increased sentence with the victim’s disability being considered an aggravating factor.”


Other forces around the UK also reported rising figures.


It seems to be generally felt that much of the rise is down to increased reporting of issues and greater confidence in the police to deal with them, so the rises in reported attacks may not be as negative as first appears.

But there’s a vast difference between a violent assault – whatever the motive – and being upset by something seen on social media or as graffiti.

We’re back, once again, into the territory of ‘offence’.

For most people, it’s no fun being labeled a bigot. I got it in the neck on social media a couple of times last summer, being accused of being an anti-Semite for daring to challenge Zionists.

But then I count myself in good company, with people such as Bar-Hillel and satirist Jon Stewart, both of whom have spoken out on such issues and both of whom have been accused of anti-Semitism, self-hate and goodness knows what else in an effort to silence them.

Bar-Hillel wrote recently: “The beauty of the antisemitic label (and libel) is that it is impossible to disprove.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem that I see with calling for bans on (in this instance) “racists” using social media.

We have laws to deal with incitement – on any grounds. If people use social – or any other media – to incite on the basis of any hatred, then they can be dealt with by laws that already exist.

But how are we going to define, in law, what constitutes hate speech if it is not incitement?

Who gets to decide?

As Bar-Hillel put it, “it is impossible to disprove”. Or at least it is certainly very difficult on any objective level, if one person genuinely believes that, say, criticism of the state of Israel is a synonym for anti-semitism.

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we had some people doing a ‘oh, it was bad, but ...’ routine.

In other words, they found it entirely reasonable for someone to say: ‘oh look, nobody can insult my god (according to my definition/interpretation of theology) because that’s racism (because Muslims are usually brown people’.

That’s the thin end of the wedge (as well as being patronising).

I’ve no desire to see or hear hateful thoughts – but should they be illegal or should it be illegal to voice them in what is supposed to be a free and open space, ie social media?

Don’t criticise anything theological or someone will be offended.

Don’t comment on something political – or someone will be offended.

Don’t satirise something – or someone, somewhere, will take offence.

As noted earlier, hate crimes – including serious, physical assaults – are up against disabled and LGBT people.

The increase in attacks on the former group has been laid – in part at least – at the doorstep of some in the UK mainstream news media, which has spent a nice chunk of the last five years demonising those on disability benefits as ‘scroungers’.

For the latter group, there has been negative coverage too, plus hatred/dislike of various other groups, from the far right to assorted intolerant religious sorts.

Ralph Steadman cartoon
The thing about free speech – the thing that most seems to confuse a lot of well-meaning voices these days – is that the philosophical aspect of the question isn’t about what you agree with, but what you disagree with.

It’s never difficult to think that what you agree with should be allowed.

That’s why it’s important that we have incitement as a crime that can be prosecuted.

But if we say that someone should have legal action taken against them that is the equivalent of a convicted child abuser being denied internet use, on the basis that they accused Zionism of being like Nazism or suggested that Mohammed was a child abuser or ... well, fill in as many entries as you wish ... and thus upset some tender souls: this is naïve and dangerous.

Offence is a subjective matter. If you claim to have been offended by something – to have been abused by something – then who is to say that you’re wrong?

In 2009, the then Fianna Fáil government introduced a new blasphemy law in Ireland.

This legislation defines blasphemy as “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted,” and with fines of up to €25,000 for conviction.

Former justice minister Dermot Ahern has subsequently defended the law, saying that it was needed because the 1936 Irish constitution only covers Christians.
Well, just scrap that bit of the constitution, then. Why does any religious person need this special, legal protection?

Blasphemy is a brilliant cover-all for any offence: law based on total subjectivity and a lack of reason.
In January 2012, Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan posted on an atheist Facebook group that God did not exist.

Further, he asked: “If God exists, why do bad things happen? ... There should only be good things if God is merciful.”

He went on to declare that heaven, hell, angels and devils are “myths” and also posted an article describing Mohammed as “attracted to his daughter-in-law”.

But that counts as blasphemy in Indonesia – and also incitement – and he was reported to the police, attacked by a mob in the street and then charged. In June 2010, Aan was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, with a fine of 100 million rupiah (£6,945.15).

Predictably, that wasn’t enough for some: the Islamic Society Forum, a coalition of Islamic groups, wanted him executed.

Thankfully, Aan was released in January 2014, but the case reveals the sheer bonkersness and subjectivity of the entire issue.

But clearly it’s light years away from what happens in, say, the UK. Or is it?It is really not that long since the likes of Mary Whitehouse and her ilk demanded prosecution of people for offending them. It’s not long since The Life of Brian was the subject of outrage (if not actual riots).

It’s not that long since BBC staff were sent death threats because the corporation screened Jerry Springer: The Opera, which portrayed the family of Jesus as dysfunctional.

The only objective way of dealing with this is to say that nobody has a right not to be offended; that providing there is no incitement to violence, let people say what they want.

I’ve been on the receiving end of all sorts of verbal abuse over the years, including on the internet and for a variety of reasons – but all of which essentially stems from someone being ‘offended’ by something about me and wanting to shut me up with something other than an actual argument.

It can be damned unpleasant, to say the least. No sane person wants to be accused of being an anti-semite or a racist, for instance.

But how naïve is it to expect that all of life should be ‘nice’.

Great if it was – but how would we be able to tell? – but reality is not all chamomile tea and cuddles.

Education has to be central to changing attitudes.

But driving things underground, fueling a sense of victimisation and martyrdom ... what good does that do?

If people want to burn flags or books, ignore them. They’re little different to online trolls demanding attention. So don’t give them the reward.

And unless you really want a situation in which what you say can be reported because it ‘offended’ someone else, then be very – very – careful what you demand be censored in situations where you decide that is the acceptable approach because you disagree with the comments.