Our hidden lives

 

My portraits of Chinese peasants before, during, and after the decades of Maoism, like the villagers of Gaoluo or the Li family in Yanggao, lead me to consider people’s lives elsewhere, including Soviet Russia, Czechoslovakia, the GDR, and even Britain (such as this sketch of my great-aunt).

All over Europe, not just World War Two but the years immediately following it were deeply traumatic, as evoked tellingly in

  • Keith Lowe, Savage continent (2012).

I cited his bleak opening passage in the biography of my colleague Hildi. Thoughout Europe it took many years to remould the physical and ethical landscapes. Amidst displacement, famine, vengeance, ethnic cleansing, civil wars, and the consolidation of Communist regimes, people continued to face moral dilemmas as they struggled even to survive. Britain, never occupied, plays a rather minor role. Allied observers who had experienced the Blitz were still unprepared for the scale of the destruction of the landscape that they found in Germany. And the devastation was worse the further east one travelled.

Heilbronn

Housing displaced persons in Heilbrunn.

* * *

The battle against the cold this long winter, the continual Government crises and blunders, the cold, wet, delayed spring and everlasting austerity have exhausted us all to the bone.

Maggie Joy Blunt, 2nd April 1947

  • Simon Garfield, Our hidden lives: the remarkable diaries of post-war Britain (2005)

intersperses the daily diaries of five ordinary people writing at the behest of the Mass-Observation Project, evoking the period from the end of the war to 1948. Of course, both diaries and biography can be instructive windows on social history. How I wish we had such detail for the lives of Yanggao peasants at the time—themselves still mostly illiterate, of course.

queue

In their daily lives, often mundane, food shortages and rationing loom large. The diarists show concern for the wider world (the Nuremberg trials, Palestine, the assassination of Gandhi), along with some disturbing anti-semitism. The victors find the continuing deprivation and drabness hard to take, bemoaning the diversion of much-needed funds to help rebuild Germany. Hopes for greater social justice are tinged with concerns about lawlessness.

For ordinary Russians too, despite all their appalling losses, the war had brought similar hopes, and their disillusion was even greater.

On the cultural front, Maggie Joy Blunt receives a letter from a British soldier serving in Austria:

Then we are whisked off to a luxurious flat which is a Russian officers’ mess, where sober, stiff, disciplined soldiers serve us with caviar and vodka. There are about twenty officers and a number of Austrian girls all well dressed and crowding round an elderly officer who is playing Chopin on a grand piano. A senior officer with a ravishing blonde enters, and she says to me in lilting French, “I am a displaced person”, and gives me her hand to kiss. Suddenly they all begin to sing magnificently in harmony, a wild rousing song that on inquiry I find has the delightful, incredible title of “Yo Ho For The Day, the 10,000th Tractor Cut The First Furrow at Ekaterinoslav”.

The Colonel announces that he will sing an English song, and with a voice to challenge Paul Robeson sings with fervour “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me A Bow-Wow”. He then turns to me and asks what the words mean, for he learned them by heart without knowing the meaning. I hadn’t the heart to tell him the truth so I said it was called “The World Shall Be One People”.

Several diarists sing the praises of the new Third Programme. And B. Charles gives an intriguing take on Vera Lynn:

It seems this woman admits that she has never had a singing lesson in her life, never practises, can’t play the piano, yet manages to earn, so we are told, £1,000 a broadcast in Australia if she goes there. […] I have never heard Vera Lynn, and I certainly do not want to. But the idea of making £1,000 a broadcast for making a noise over the air seems fantastic. Money, really, has ceased to have any value.

They are most impressed by the 1945 film Brief encounter, reminding us how bold and truthful it must have seemed at the time.

Edie Rutherford’s comments on an item in The Brains Trust now look quaint:

The question asked was whether the phone had destroyed the art of letter writing. From the answers you’d have thought every home in the UK has a phone. No doubt all those round the table had phones and have had for years, but that obtains in so few homes that I could not help realizing how The Brains Trust is NOT representative of the people. No one thought to point out that phones are the luxury of the few. We, for instance, have never been able to afford one.

For the first landline in Li Manshan’s village, and Alexander Graham Bell’s prophesy, see here.

Reservations about royalty are nothing new. Edie reports some overheard comments:

Housewife: “I wish all I had to do was dress up and smile.”

Typist, aged thirty-five: “All that nonsense about not enough coupons and how they make over their clothes, as if anyone believes it!” […]

Housewife: “I thought we were supposed to be hard up. They are all the time telling us we are and yet we throw away thousands at a time like this for four people to swank at our expense.”

She also notes:

Chinese laundry near here has a new notice up, “A few customers taken in”.

Even by the early 1950s, as Andrew Marr (A history of modern Britain, 2007) notes,

People still look different. Few schoolboys are without a cap and shorts. Caught breaking windows or lying, they might be solemnly caned by their fathers. Youg girls have home-made smocks and, it is earnestly hoped, have never heard of sexual intercourse. Every woman seems to be a housewife; corsets and hats are worn, and trousers, hardly ever. Among men, a silky moustache is regarded as extremely exciting to women, collars are bought separately from shirts and the smell of pipe tobacco lingers on flannel.
Above all Britain is still a military nation…

Most of the challenges that British people faced may seem minor in comparison to the terrible tribulations of their fellows on the continent; but it’s a reminder of the changing world of our own parents.

 

New tag: Iron Curtain

 

To accompany a growing list of posts, I’ve now added a rough-and-ready tag Iron Curtain to the sidebar. For want of a more succinct handle, it includes posts on the region both before and since 1989.

Most of these posts suggest Chinese parallels—including various essays on the GDR (here and here, as well as a two-part biography here and here), SerbiaBulgariamusical cultures of east Europe, and Cheremis, Chuvash—and Tibetans. There are yet more links under the tag German too. Under the separate tag Czech are several (mercifully lighter) stories, notably from Švejk and my mentor Paul Kratochvil.

Notably I include the “bloodlands” of Timothy Snyder’s book, a vast region not easily characterized. In my post on his book, i wonder what would it take for the region to be recognized as the physical and moral graveyard of the 20th century—shifting our balance from the Western to the Eastern Front.

map

Setting forth from A Nazi legacy and Anne Applebaum’s Between East and West, I described the blind minstrels of Ukraine, leading to posts on the famine and the intrepid journalist Gareth Jones.

I’ve included my posts on Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen, since so many people from the region ended up at such camps.

Doubtless more to follow.

Between East and West

With my own background, the work of Anne Applebaum often suggests Chinese parallels. I already found her book Iron curtain: the crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956 a valuable introduction to this formative period. Rather like Dikötter for post-revolutionary China, she groups her discussion under themes like Victors, Policemen, Youth, Radio, Reluctant collaborators, and Passive opponents.

* * *

EW

Before I get round to reading Applebaum’s Gulag: a history of the Soviet camps, and her recent book Red famine (again, both suggesting Chinese links; for the former, see here), her

  • Between East and West: across the borderlands of Europe

makes a vivid, accessible picture of a vast area unknown to me, continuing my education from the work of Philippe Sands around Lemberg.

Travelling, um, north to south from Kaliningrad to Odessa, along a kind of faultline from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Applebaum explores in a series of fascinating vignettes the constantly changing border regions of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova; Ruthenia, the Bukovyna, and Bessarabia.

map

I suppose I’m not alone in my ignorance—such work serves as a corrective to a simplistic British East–West perspective:

Whole nations were forgotten: within a few decades the West no longer remembered that anything other than “Russia” lay beyond the Polish border.

In her introduction to the 2015 reissue, Applebaum observes that it began to seem out of date very soon after its first publication in 1994:

Meandering discussions of history and identity that seemed so important in 1991 or 1992 began to feel irrelevant as the new states in the region took very different paths.

But she has wisely refrained from trying to update the book. As she comments, her descriptions now take on another significance as history—“a record of an experience that can never happen again” (which is always true, of course—like our notes from 1990s’ Hebei).

The people I met on that trip are doubtless more worldly, more busy, maybe more confident, maybe more cynical than when I met them. They would no longer treat me like an emissary from another world, and I would no longer perceive them, as I did then, as exotic and strange. But in 1991, this is what I was, and this is what they were.

* * *

Much of the region was still quite isolated. Long unstable, it remains so, with a history of linguistic complexities, deportations, cycles of hatred and revenge, atrocities—and the constant spectre of the Jewish heritage. Wider entities such as Poland or Russia are often buried under local allegiances.

Applebaum’s comments on architecture often remind me of China too. In Kaliningrad—populated by Russians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Uzbeks, and Azerbaijanis—and once a German city,

wherever one looked, there was nothing to see but high walls of concrete and steel.

But it was not the clean, crisp concrete and steel of New York or Los Angeles. Here the tall buildings were cracked, broken, and sagging, as if prematurely aged. Their walls were pockmarked with dirt and building flaws, their windows were broken, their facades had grown black from pollution. Although already in a state of advanced deterioration, few appeared to be complete. Great hunks of concrete, rusted piping, wire, and sheets of plate glass covered with masking tape lay strewn about on the mud beside them. Piles of broken brick stood beside doors whose hinges were already rusted. Thick green fungus covered half-built walkways. Whole avenues were partially paved or blocked off for repair, heaps of dirt and sand covered the grass in the parks.

Occasionally, signs of another, older, order poked through the wreckage of the new. In one place, a concrete sidewalk came to an abrupt end, suddenly revealing a well-laid cobblestone road lying just beneath its surface; somewhere else, an old building leaned sideways in an empty lot, surrounded by nothing.

In Minsk too the 20th century had taken its toll:

After the baroque extravagance of Vilnius, the remote silence of the countryside, and the slow silence of the pastel-colored villages, the suburbs of Minsk came as a shock: dirty concrete apartment blocks lining the highway, muddy courtyards, ancient trams, people scurrying through the long shadows cast by the tall buildings.

The city center wasn’t much better. On the morning I arrived, Minsk seemed to be suffocating in its own dirt. Visible grains of black pollution floated through the air, and a thin film of black grease lay over the buildings and sidewalks. Plumes of purple smoke puffed out of the cars, the factories, the chimneys of the apartment blocks, the cigarettes in the mouths of pedestrians. Everywhere there were crowds: crowds lining up for bread, crowds waiting for the broken-down buses, crowds pushing and shoving one another across the wide streets.

But even here, in a city deprived of history and soul, she finds

the low murmur of a people discovering, or rediscovering—or perhaps inventing—who they were.

Reminding me of Kundera‘s comments on the exploitation of folk ritual and music, a young idealist comments,

“Kitsch—they gave us fake peasant culture: mass-produced dolls for tourists, cheap wooden spoons. And all the time they were destroying the real peasant culture, shutting down workshops, telling people to give up carving and join the Communist Party.”

Here too Applebaum explores the city’s lost Jewish culture—and again when she visits Kobrin, home of her great-grandfather, who had fled conscription to make a life in America.

She learns of scholarly warfare over a phantom 1930s’ manuscript said to prove that Lithuanian had once been the dominant culture of western Belarus. In Paberžė she meets Father Stanislovas, who has filled his house with relics of early Lithuanian culture, “waging his own war against conformity, against enforced equality”.

In south Lithuania the short-lived Independent Republic of Perloja was declared in 1918—reminiscent of Passport to Pimlico. By the 1940s the region was invaded by the Soviets and Nazis. The widow of a resistance hero who had disappeared into the forests then, having herself languished in Siberia for fifteen years, still hopes that he will emerge.

Applebaum hears complex, conflicting claims about history and ethnicity. In Bieniakonie, Pan Michal tells her

“Eh,” he said, waving his hands in disgust, “these people here aren’t Polish or Russian or Belarussian or Lithuanian or anything, they are Bieniakonian.”

She comes across scenes of massacres, like the 1,137 “peaceful Soviet citizens” (actually Jews) murdered by the Nazis in Radun in 1942.

Nearby in Nowogródek she inadvertently spends the night as guest of a devout ancient grandmother, who had suffered under successive invasions and remained desperately poor, yet turns out to have remained virulently anti-semitic. When Applebaum takes her to task,

The old woman’s features shriveled in confusion, and I felt suddenly sorry for her. She was ignorant, poor, and dirty; her life had been one long series of misfortunes. The world into which she had been born was well and truly dead, and she had witnessed its passing. […] Why argue with her?

Such an uncomfortable confrontation has shades of Timothy Garton Ash’s conflicted encounters in The file with people who had once informed on him.

Learning of the “many Ukraines”, Applebaum explores Bukovyna, Bessarabia, and Transcarpathian Ruthenia. As she visits L’viv (heart of Philippe Sands’s account) she is at first impressed by the Habsburg legacy, but

After a while I began to be wary of it. L’viv was part of the borderlands, and the same historical breaks, the same mass murders, the same shuffling of peoples back and forth across borders had affected the city like all other borderland cities.

Through a crime reporter she glimpses the murky underworld of the city.

For me, all this might be a starting-point for exploring the background of the late lamented Natasha, if I could ever begin to broach it.

Moving down towards the Balkans, in Chernivtsi

the city’s Romanian Hungarian Ukrainian Polish Jewish German essence seemed capable of outliving any empire.

Here she talks with a professor who finds the city’s isolation conducive to a wholesome life. But in the island town of Kamanets Podolsky (also the subject of ch.2 of Anna Reid’s Borderland) her hosts are less contented. Once proud, it had long been in decay. Its decline reminds her of Venice:*

Walls sagged, potholes grew wider, houses fell down. […] The town authorities tried to grow trees in the central square, but failed: so many centuries of rubble were buried beneath it that nothing came up except scrawny shrubs. […] Laundry hung from the ancient walls, and garbage lay in the streets.

She doesn’t mention that Kamanets Podolsky was the site of yet another massacre over two days in August 1941, when troops under German command murdered over 26,000 Jews.

By contrast with Minsk, Applebaum finds that Kishinev (now Moldovan, sometimes Polish, Turkish, Russian, Bessarabian, Romanian; site of vicious anti-semitic pogroms), “was not even especially ugly”.

She ends up in the cosmopolitan port of Odessa, created by immigrants, leading to yet more cultural worlds.

* * *

For the southern leg of Applebaum’s travels, Kapka Kassabova‘s more recent travel writings also seek to get to grips with ethnic and cultural diversity. I suppose Patrick Leigh Fermor is a predecessor of such authors. I often find his precocious prose ponderous, and Vesna Goldsworthy has unpacked his “othering” nostalgia. But Neil Ascherson (always worth reading for the wider region) is more measured (see this review).

* * *

Of course, throughout the globe—even in nations that seem to have achieved some kind of lasting stability—there are always border areas with skeletons of traumatic histories, great and little traditions, cultural faultlines. Only quite recently, vast areas of south and west China have had to learn to accommodate with the power of the nation-state, while their own allegiances remain ambiguous.

One might also think of the medieval kingdoms of central Asia, or indeed the city-states absorbed not so long ago (more effectively, with rather less trauma) into Germany and Italy. “Between East and West”—central in the vast land-mass, but marginal in our conceptual world; while it seems unlikely that we could give a central place to such regions, they make a salutary case.

Meanwhile traditional soundscapes, a crucial part of social life, suffered along with other regional cultures, and will make a further absorbing project for me. For the blind minstrels of Ukraine, see here.

 

*Such descriptions might be the cue for a party game on post-Brexit Britain. Another good one is to substitute words like “borders” and “laws” with “bowels”, as in fatuous Brexit phrases like “It’s high time for us to take back control of our own borders”.

 

 

 

 

The Mary Celeste

A couple of dubious and inadvertent highlights from my orchestral life, on the perils of gut strings—among several occasions in my so-called “career” in early music when the taint of maestro-baiting would be quite unfounded:

Mary Celeste

Göttingen, mid-1980s, concert performance of a Handel opera on stage, recorded live for broadcast. I’m sharing a desk with a Hungarian violinist who hasn’t been playing with the band for long, and in the middle of a frantic tutti passage his E string breaks (as they do).

We do take spare strings onstage, but it’s not long till the end of Act One, so you might think he could just flounder around in the upper reaches of the A string when necessary before putting on a new string in the interval—it’s quite a tricky procedure, made tense in public. Ideally you want to take time notching the bridge, and the node at the top of the fingerboard, with a pencil; securing the loop at the tailpiece and threading the string carefully into the peg (perhaps after applying a bit of peg-paste), spooling it neatly inwards in the pegbox; stretching the string and adjusting the bridge—and even once you’ve got the string on and up to pitch, it needs a while to bed in. By now the other three strings will have gone haywire too. *

But no—my desk partner, bold as brass, decides to replace the string right there and then, on stage. It’s not exactly that I’m not amused at the comic potential, but apart from my subtle discouraging shrug there’s not a lot I can do—am I my brother’s keeper? So as the loud chorus gives way to an intense recitative from Michael Chance, I join in with the magical sustained pianissimo string accompaniment, while my desk partner is noisily and cheerfully cranking his string up to pitch, twanging away, tuning peg creaking ominously.

Later in the bar I evoked the soundscape:

“It was just like the Mary Celeste…”

Needless to say, backstage in the interval it was me that got a bollocking from the maestro: “Steve, you really should keep your desk partner under control—these foreigners just don’t understand our system…” WTF.

tailgut

And here’s a related incident from the second half of a concert in Lübeck cathedral during the wonderful Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000, again being recorded:

I was sitting in the middle of the band innocently admiring a hushed secco recitative when the tailgut on my fiddle snapped. Since that’s what holds the whole contraption together, it exploded spectacularly, sending bridge, tailpiece, tuning pegs and sundry fittings flying high into the air. It wasn’t so much the initial explosion—everyone watched spellbound as bits of wood descended in slow motion onto the ancient tiled floor all around, the clatter drowning the singer’s exquisite pianissimo. With a husk of a violin in my hand, I scrambled round furtively on the floor to retrieve all the debris I could find, and sloped off while the cantata continued.

I thought I handled the mishap rather well, but sure enough, after the gig I got another (neither deserved nor surprising) bollocking from the maestro, who seemed to take it as a personal affront—as if I had deliberately made my violin explode in order to undermine his personal majesty. Hey ho.

Drowning my sorrows at the posh reception afterwards, ** I asked around to see if there was a luthier there who could get my fiddle back in shape for the rest of the tour, and sure enough I was introduced to a kindly old man who, after we’d shared a few more drinks, took me back to his workshop to take a look. We spent a lovely hour chatting as he carefully fitted a new tailgut and pieced my violin back together, exchanging stories of my fieldwork in China and his own early memories of Lübeck cultural life.

My new friend refused to take any payment, but having been just as enchanted by the Buxtehude Klaglied in the first half as I was, he asked if I might possibly get hold of a copy of the recording that had been made. Later, back in London, I did indeed manage to send it to him, which made a suitable reward for his kindness. Silver lining, then.

See also Muso speak: excuses and bravado, and the early music and humour subheads under the WAM category.

 

* If you like this kind of detail, then try my comments on the Daoist mouth-organ, and Carson’s on Irish music. If you don’t, then tough.

** For Gary Kettel’s classic posh reception story, and Stewart Lee’s variation, see here.

Europe: cultures and politics

While the main theme of my blog is the maintenance of local Chinese ritual cultures (before, during, and since Maoism), it’s worth providing a little roundup of recent posts on European cultures and politics—most of which have ramifications for, and links to, China.

And in the sidebar, do use the tags, categories, and search box!

 

China and Europe: local society and politics

 

 

My article on Guo Yuhua leads to several related posts on my blog—many collected under the Maoism tag in the sidebar.

For further alternative grass-roots accounts of Chinese society, see

For the troubled maintenance of local ritual life under changing regimes:

On recent conflicts between state and society, see e.g.

In Guo Yuhua’s interview with Ian Johnson she gives short shrift to the Intangible Cultural Heritage—as do I. Some tasters among the numerous posts under the heritage tag in the sidebar:

* * *

For Chinese parallels with authoritarian regimes in Europe, see e.g. my posts on

 

For another handy digest on a variety of topics, see here.

Learning the lingo

Sedaris

I’ve noted the unlikely connection between Li Manshan and David Sedaris.  Both are fine humorists, but the latter takes language-learning to the cleaners with his essay “Easy, Tiger” in Let’s explore diabetes with owls. As with Daoist ritual or any text expressed through performance, Sedaris’s literary ouevre works best if you read it in his endearingly whiny voice (for more on public speaking, see here, here, and here).

On trips to Japan, rather than adopting the sinister Teach yourself Japanese (which would be right up his street) he makes progress with the aid of the Pimsleur language program [sic]. But

instead of being provided with building blocks that would allow you to construct a sentence of your own, you’re left with using the hundreds and thousands of sentences that you have memorized. That means waiting for a particular situation to arise in order to comment on it; either that, or becoming one of those weird non-sequitur people, the kind who, when asked a question about paint color, answer, “There is a bank in front of the train station,” or “Mrs Yamada Ito has been playing tennis for fifteen years.”

BTW, the ability to adapt by using building blocks is just what Indian musical training provides. In WAM we don’t even memorize hundreds and thousands of sentences, we depend on reading them out of the score. FFS…

One of the things I like about Tokyo is the constant reinforcement everyone gets for trying. “You are very skilled at Japanese,” everyone keeps telling me. I know people are just being polite, but it spurs me on, just as I hoped to be spurred on in Germany. To this end, I’ve added a second audio program, one by a man named Michael Thomas, who works with a couple of students, male and female. At the start, he explains that German and English are closely related and thus have a lot in common. In one language the verb is “to come”, and in the other it’s “kommen“. English “to give” is German “geben“. Boston’s “That is good” is Berlin’s “Das ist gut“. It’s an excellent way to start and leaves the listener thinking, Hey, ich kann do dis.

My own German vocabulary extends only as far as the Matthew Passion, blut, ellenbogen [Wozzeck], and plötzlich—none of which are very handy when you’re trying to buy toothpaste—but I know it will expand exponentially once I get to grips with Nina Hagen and Ute Lemper. Evoking my own inept flailings, Sedaris comments,

People taught me all sorts of words, but the only ones that stuck were “Kaiserschnitt” which means “ceserean section”, and “Lebenabschnittspartner“. This doesn’t translate to “lover” or “life partner” but rather, to “the person I am with today”, the implication being that things change, and you are keeping your options open.
[…]
There’s no discord in Pimsleur’s Japan, but its Germany is a moody and often savage place. […] It’s a program [still sic] full of odd sentence combinations. “We don’t live here. We want mineral water” implies that if the couple did live in this particular town they’d be getting drunk like everyone else. Another standout is “Der Wein ist zu teuer und Sie sprechen zu schnell” (“The wine is too expensive and you talk too fast”). The response to this would be “”Anything else, Herr Asshole?” But of course they don’t teach you that.

For a trip to China he reaches the “Romance” and “Getting closer” sections of the Lonely planet phrasebook:

A line that might have been written especially for me: “Don’t worry, I’ll do it myself.”
Oddly, the writers haven’t included “Leave the light on,” a must if you want to actually say any of these things.

Sedaris doesn’t see politeness in foreign languages as much of a problem, recalling the phrasebooks of his youth,

where the Ugly American was still alive and kicking people. “I didn’t order this!” he raged in Greek and Spanish. “Think you can cheat me, do you?” “Go away or I’ll call the police”.

In my own ancient German phrasebook I’m still very taken by the script suggested by the sequence

“The chambermaid never comes when I ring.”
“Are you the chambermaid?”

And while we’re about it, don’t miss the classic “Look!” story.

I also look forward to a phrasebook of Yanggao dialect—for me, better late than never.

* * *

Doubtless I will chortle further over David Sedaris on this blog, but meanwhile (still in Let’s explore diabetes with owls) I note an intriguing parallel with the choristers’ famous kangaroo story (in “Laugh Kookaburra”):

It was around this time that we finally entered the bush. Hugh pointed out the window at a still lump of dirty fur lying beside a fallen tree, and Pat caroled, “Roadkill!” Then she pulled over so we could take a closer look. […] We walked toward the body and saw that it was a… what, exactly? “A teenage kangaroo?”
“A wallaby,” Pat corrected me. […]
“Hugh,” I called, “come here and look at the wallaby.”
It’s his belief that in marveling at a dead animal on the roadside, you may as well have killed it yourself—not accidentally but on purpose, cackling, most likely, as you ran it down. Therefore he stayed in the car.
“It’s your loss,” I called.