I’m lifting this brief post from the very smart and witty Steven Hayward at the peerless Powerline, which apart from anything else, has five regular writers who are absolute role models for concise and pithy blog posting. Here is the essence of Steve’s piece, referring to the work of Michael Uhlmann, about whom I know very little. He is though, a master of the unwritten law:
Like Uhlmann’s law of legislative analysis:
If an Act of Congress has a long title—lock up the children and run for cover.
Or Uhlmann’s Razor:
When stupidity seems a sufficient explanation, there is no need for recourse to any more elaborate analysis.
Uhlmann’s Razor also has a corollary known as Uhlmann’s First Law of Historical Causation:
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
And my personal favorite:
When evaluating the soundness of any moral proposition, law, rule, or regulation, however popular, to ascertain its true meaning, read it aloud slowly in a German accent.
I’d always thought of Dürer** as more of a portraitist, miniaturist and woodcut person – yet here he is with a landscape in watercolours. Dürer’s career was astonishingly early on in the development of technically advanced and accurate art – he died in 1528, so 78 years before a fellow Northern master, Rembrandt was born. One gets the impression that he was pretty confident in his skills, and probably a touch egotistical – his self consciously Christ-like and brilliantly executed self portrait tends to hint at that. Fame and riches came rapidly.
Early in his career he did the obligatory travels, including Italy, though much of his itinerary is surmise and shrouded in uncertainty. Prior to that he did quite a few watercolours, including the justly celebrated Willow Mill. The latter is a good example of the difficulty in reproducing art both in books and online. Here are two online versions of the same painting. Pretty different:
For what it’s worth, I think the second is the right one, though the first one is maybe more appealing.
In any event, the subject of this blog is Dürer’s simple landscape of the river Pegnitz, by Nuremberg, his hometown. He was about 20 when he did it. In fact, although it’s a pretty accomplished piece, it isn’t necessarily anything special in terms of technique or subject, but it has, to my subjective eye, something. Which is a hallmark of art which you actually like, rather than art which you’re virtually obliged to praise (numerous examples, from the Mona Lisadownwards). I particularly like its evocation of a sort of prelapsarian rural age of tranquility and bucolic comfort – a far cry from the Jeremy Kyle peasants of Bruegel, 60 years later.
In fact the closest works that create a similar ambience for me are, perhaps bizarrely, the Nutwood landscapes created by the great Alfred Bestall for the endpapers of the long series of Rupert the Bear annuals (seriously). See what I mean?
Four hundred years after Dürer’s youthful gem, here’s what the Pegnitz looked like in Nuremberg itself. Also vaguely prelapsarian and idyllic, given the intrinsic joys of Bavaria, and the fact that World War 1 was still 15 years off:
** if you’re interested in Dürer, then this monograph by Norbert Wolff is one of the best art books that I’ve read. Outstanding.
The old man lived alone in a council flat. Access in and out was tricky, and he was, as the saying goes, becoming ‘off his legs’. He was 90 years old, and totally with it mentally.
I asked my usual question: “what did you do in the war?”
This certainly animated him. He told me that he’d been a gunner on an escort vessel in the North Atlantic, escorting the merchant navy convoys, that prior to this policy of escorting, had been decimated by a ruthless and highly effective U-boat campaign. It had clearly been very tough out there, often in 30 foot waves, freezing cold, and at risk of being torpedoed at any time, but he was exhilarated just talking about it.
“Did you actually see any Germans?”, I asked. He laughed and said very rarely, but there was one occasion in particular that sprang to mind. Depth charges had hit their mark, and the German submarine had to surface. The sea was relatively calm. The crew came out on deck and put their hands in the air, attempting to surrender. We Brits were generally pretty chivalrous about that sort of thing. Lots of crews did surrender.
“What did you do?” I asked, wondering how they transferred them on to the ship sitting much higher than the German crew.
Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal…. Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.
Truly, one man’s war crimes are another man’s good soldiering. The dilemma is with us to this day.
This elderly lady was actually a sort of a colleague of another one of my patients. She was a 94 year old nun, still bright and active. The nuns lived in a convent by the North Sea, in an enclosed order. A very happy and tranquil group. They’re still there today. She spent her days – when not in prayer etc – making greetings cards. These were decorated with dried flowers which she flattened by placing them between the pages of a book and sitting on it for a while.
As a young girl, her father was a big cheese policeman in the town where she lived. She was used to big civic events and tagging along.
One day her father took her and the family to a huge public meeting, and she was introduced to the star attraction, shaking his hand. The atmosphere was apparently buzzing, big things were happening, the children were told.
The date? 15th March, 1938
The location? The Heldenplatz in Vienna, still there in front of the remarkable Hofburg Palace.
The event? The culminating rally of the Austrian anschluss
When I graduated in 1986 I spent a lot of time as a junior doctor admitting elderly patients to hospital. So if my patient was 90 they were born in the Victorian era, and the men would frequently have served in the First World War, with the stories to go with that. The last WWI veteran of the trenches, Harry Patch, died in 2009. They’re all gone, along with their astonishing oral histories.
These days the average Second World War veteran is 90ish. There are still plenty of them, but they’re disappearing rapidly. A few years ago in the US, it was estimated that they were dying off at 600 per day. So when I get in a patient – male or female – in their late 80’s or 90’s, I always ask them what they did in the war, and they certainly have stories to tell.
I thought I’d summarise just a few of them. These remarkable pensioners are living history. Bear in mind that these are the most ordinary and unassuming of elderly citizens, living out their retirements without much money, in an average British town. You would not notice them in the street.
The Germanpanzerschiff Admiral Graf Spee had cruised into the South Atlantic a fortnight before the war began, and had been commerce raiding after receiving appropriate authorisation on 26 September 1939. One of the hunting groups sent by the British Admiralty to search for Graf Spee, comprising three Royal Navycruisers, HMS Exeter, Ajax and Achilles (the last from the New Zealand Division), found and engaged their quarry off the estuary of the River Plate close to the coast of Uruguay in South America. In the ensuing battle, Exeter was severely damaged and forced to retire; Ajax and Achilles suffered moderate damage. The damage to Admiral Graf Spee, although not extensive, was critical; her fuel system was crippled. Ajax and Achilles shadowed the German ship until she entered the port of Montevideo, the capital city of neutral Uruguay, to effect urgent repairs. After Graf Spee’s captain Hans Langsdorff was told that his stay could not be extended beyond 72 hours, he scuttled his damaged ship rather than face the overwhelmingly superior force that the British had led him to believe was awaiting his departure.
My patient was on HMS Ajax, I think. He recalls the early skirmishing and the battle, but his fondest memory was something different. When the ships got into neutral Montevideo – which then and now had various links with Britain, the sailors all piled into the bars to get hammered. The surviving crew of the Graf Spee did the same thing. After all, they had 72 hours to kill. With the tension out of the situation he recalls just how jovial it was, and how well the Germans and the Brits got along. A sort of “Christmas in the trenches” in sunny South America. He told me all this about 70 years after the event, and the memory was still vivid.
The Graf Spee is still there. Its captain, Hans Langdorff, a decent man in the way he treated prisoners, shot himself 6 days later, lying on his boat’s battle ensign in a Bueno Aires hotel room. The bronze eagle from its stern has been salvaged, and to my knowledge, no-one knows what to do with it.