Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Who wants the Goebbels house?

It can be a temptation to own a historic home. It can also be a mixed blessing.
Some years ago I succumbed to the temptation and acquired one of those beautiful old buildings East Anglia is so rich in.
An elegant, slightly tired house with a long frontage in warm red 18th-century brick. A quiet eye-catcher in the middle of its village.
Frankly, we wouldn’t have been able to afford it if it hadn’t been right on the main road.
A road that had never been expected to cope with motorised traffic, let alone millennial volumes of it.
And a house that would surely have been a money-pit if we’d had the money to pour into it.
As it was, I had to find a significant sum PDQ when I finally tumbled to the reason why one of the upstairs doors sometimes swung free and sometimes stuck fast.
Or when the surveyor I called in explained it to me.
Most of the house, in fact, was in pretty good shape for its 250 years.
Give or take the odd rotten windowsill. And the place on the end wall where the exhaust fumes of cars revving up to get out of the lane and into the traffic flow had eroded a hole clean through the brickwork.
The real structural problems weren’t with the original building. They were with the cheap and flimsy extension added in the 1960s.
And especially with the decision taken at that time to demolish a length of the original back wall up to first floor height.
It had left an original oak beam spanning a gap of something like 15 feet – with the full weight of another storey of brickwork above it.
It’s remarkable, really, that that beam had taken more than 30 years to start showing severe signs of fatigue.
The surveyor reckoned that in another few months that whole end of the house might have collapsed.
A heavy steel U-shaped girder and another venerable oak trunk now support it. And another owner has the responsibility.
I occasionally go by that way and it’s clear even from a passing car that the house has benefited lately from more love and more money than I could afford.
If the village ever gets the by-pass that’s been on and off the agenda repeatedly for at least the last 30 years, the owners will no doubt get a handsome return on their investment. And good luck to them.
I hope in the meantime they haven’t had too much of the hassle from planners that I now know can afflict anyone who has to maintain a Grade II listed property. For myself, I’ve been there, done that.
None of these are quite the problems that will afflict whoever cares to buy the historic Haus am Bogensee – though it too is a listed building.
Assuming, that is, a buyer can be found. There are now, apparently, bidders for the property, which has been standing empty for 24 years.
Bidders, what’s more, who are considered acceptable by the current owners, the city government of Berlin.
They are right to be fussy, even though they will no doubt be delighted to get the haus and its 42-acre grounds off their hands at last.
Before 1990, the Haus am Bogensee, beautifully secluded in beech woods 45 minutes’ drive north of Berlin, was used as a heavily guarded kindergarten for East Germany’s Communist Party youth movement.
In those Cold War days, the previous history of the building was probably not much thought about.
That kind of sensitivity didn't count for much in the Soviet bloc. Post-war Germany and Eastern Europe had too many buildings with queasy stories in their recent past.
But it's not its use in the Communist era that makes the Haus am Bogensee a difficult subject today. It's what it was before.
The lakeside villa, completed in 1939 in then-fashionable “Germanic” style, was built – at the expense of Berlin's tax-payers – for Joseph Goebbels.
It's where the Nazi propaganda minister had sexual trysts with a whole parade of young actresses.
And where he wrote his toxic anti-Jewish tracts.
It still has its grandiose stone columns and steeply sloping roof, and a banqueting hall with a large open fireplace and oak-panelled ceiling.
It has a private cinema where Goebbels presumably didn't entertain his wife, Magda, or their children.
And a bunker which isn't the one where he and Magda poisoned all six of those children before killing themselves in 1945.
Remarkably, the Haus am Bogensee is the only home of any of the former prominent Nazis still standing.
Which makes it historically interesting. And potentially difficult for its owners.
The Berlin government hopes it will become a boarding school or a hotel.
What it really, really doesn't want is for it to fall into the hands of neo-Nazis. For its old propaganda role to be revived.
An intriguing and important building. But not an easy one to own.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Straight in at No.1, it's Devo-max

Two more days and we’ll know if the UK is about to self-destruct. Or whether a bout of collective madness is merely set to fizzle out. So here, before it all passes into history, are a few final reflections on one of the oddest episodes in our national story.

1: Whatever happens, Alex Salmond’s SNP will get the result they want on Thursday. Up to a point.
The only way they can lose is if they get the result they say they want – a Yes vote to Scottish independence.
In that case their very purpose in existing will cease to be. The natural party of power in an independent Scotland will not be the nationalists. It will be Labour.
What Salmond really wants is more local power, still under the protective, over-arching UK brand. In other words, the so-called “Devo-max”, which isn’t a dodgy 1980s pop group but the third option David Cameron refused to allow on the referendum ballot paper.
And that – thanks to panic in Westminster – has already been granted.
So while the vote looks excitingly close, the leaders on both sides now actually want the same result – the No vote they all assumed until recently was a foregone conclusion.
2: If they don’t get it, Cameron’s head will be on the block. Or so they say.
He will be seen to have shot himself in the foot, carelessly losing a whole country. He could pay by losing the Tory leadership too.
I don’t think, though, that that outcome is quite as certain as some have suggested.
After all, the prospects for Tory rule in England would be greatly enhanced by the loss of all those Scottish Labour votes and MPs.
It could actually help Cameron to stay in power.
Or, heaven help us, to put Boris Johnson into No.10 in his place.
3: My biggest laugh lately came from a remark made on the radio by Scots novelist Val McDermid.
“The only reason Cameron’s ever set foot in Scotland before was to shoot stags on his father-in-law’s estate on Jura.” Touché.
4: Too much of the whole discussion has been about bankers and stock-market economics.
“The markets,” I keep hearing, “hate uncertainty.”
So what? Who elected “the markets” to power?
It may be – or seem to be – a fact of life in the world’s so-called democracies that bankers call all the big shots, but it’s the exact opposite of democratic.
A well-run independent Scotland – one in which the financiers work for the country, not the other way round – could emerge from the uncertainty as one of the richest little nations in the world.
5: One of the biggest losers in the whole farce is Ed Miliband.
The Labour leader’s show of unity last week with Cameron and Nick Clegg was a massive error of judgement.
It merely confirmed, at least to a casual glance, what disaffected voters have been saying for a long time. That “They” are all the same.
United or split, what the kingdom desperately needs is a radical change of direction. A Labour party – a Labour government – worthy of the name. Not Tory-lite.
Unfortunately, nothing of the kind is on offer. Except, potentially, in Scotland.


My piece last week about the wonderful crops of blackberries and fungi this splendid autumn has brought us didn’t quite tell the whole story.
I neglected to mention how full the hedgerows are of wild plums.
Or what a bumper season this is proving to be on our raspberry canes.
Anyone intent on making sloe gin or elderberry wine will have no difficulty in harvesting all the natural ingredients they could possibly desire.
And if you know what to do with hips and haws, there’s no shortage of those colourful traditional companions out there either.
Season of mellow fruitfulness, indeed.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

A Kingdom facing disunion

Suddenly it’s almost upon us. In just eight days’ time a vote will take place that could have a profound effect on everyone in what is still, for now, this country.
Yet neither you nor I will be able to take part. Unless you live north of what we already call “the border”.
Ever since the referendum was called, the outcome has looked pretty much a foregone conclusion. Until now, just when it’s on the point of happening.
Now it seems the United Kingdom could be facing disunion after all.
The pollsters who have all along been predicting a resounding ‘No’ vote now say it’s too close to call.
Partly, no doubt, because the “Better Together” campaign has been so dreary, so negative, so threat-based that it’s worked for the other side.
Partly, perhaps, because Scots feel like doing whatever David Cameron, Hillary Clinton, the King of Spain and the premier of China tell them not to do. And who could blame them for that?
If it turns out to be ‘Yes’ after all, it will mean an awful lot of change. Not all of it in Scotland. And not all of it predictable.
It’s a fair certainty that David Cameron and his Government have made no serious plan for that possibility.
More strangely, it rather appears as if Alex Salmond and the SNP haven’t thought it all through properly either.
If I lived there, I might well answer ‘Yes’ to the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
If it’s about keeping a non-privatised NHS, the answer’s Yes.
If it’s about keeping university education free, that’s a Yes too.
If it’s about getting rid of the expensive, dangerous and unnecessary Trident nuclear programme, it’s a definite Yes.
But I might want answers to a few other questions first.
For a start, I might want a look at the proposed constitution. Oh, wait, there isn’t one. Or if there is one, we haven’t seen it.
Will the currency union with England continue?
If so, does that mean key decisions affecting Scotland will continue to be taken in London?
And if not, then what?
And – this one could concern me even though I’m not (yet) Scots – will the free movement of people between the two countries remain?
At present, the plan is that it should.
But what if Scotland is denied its wish to remain in the European Union? Which looks likely, with Spain – worried by the ambitions of Catalan separatists – sure to cast its veto.
How would the EU look upon an open border with a non-member state?
And how about if it then flips round? Which it surely could – the Little Englanders getting UKIP’s crazy wish to leave the club just as Scotland is allowed to join.
The future, in so many ways, is uncertain – as the ‘No’ campaign has been so keen to stress.
But if the alternative is the “certainty” of continued rule by the globalised fat-cat interests of the City of London, I can see the appeal.
There doesn’t seem much hope of escaping that fate for the rest of us. For whatever the rump UK would have to start calling itself.
Before Wales, Northern Ireland, Cornwall, Northumbria etc embark on their bids to go their own way.


When did the English lose their taste for wild food?
Have they not read the inspirational writings of adoptive Norfolk bor Richard Mabey, whose book Food For Free has been a steady seller since its first appearance in 1972?
And have they not noticed that this year’s mild winter and wet summer have filled the hedgerows with the earliest and best crop of luscious blackberries I can ever remember?
Not to mention producing another good year for wild mushrooms.
OK, you have to be careful with fungi.
We’ve eaten some good field mushrooms and perfect parasols from the hillside outside our back gate. But there are also some destroying angels in the same field, and I’ve seen death caps in the vicinity – both, as the names suggest, are killers.
Unless you know your mushrooms well, and/or have a very good book, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
But you can’t go wrong with blackberries. As long as you’re prepared to pay the price of a few minor scratches and nettle-stings, anyway.
Yet I’ve seen very few people taking advantage of the present glorious bounty.
I was collecting a punnetful from the lane the other day when a woman out walking her dogs stopped to wish me a good harvest.
She too, it seems, likes blackberrying. And so does her whippet.
Put me in mind of a Staffie I had years ago which would accompany me on blackberry-picking trips and carefully pluck and eat any that were growing low enough for him.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

'Most of us hate the boss'

Surveys that tell you what you already know – there are a lot of them around.
Newspapers, magazines, radio and TV all seem to like them. They're good for filling in those awkward little corners. And if nothing else they always get a knowing little shake of the head.
Like this recent (small) headline-maker: “Most of us hate our bosses.”
OK, maybe that was a nod, not a shake. Though “most” may be only just over half, and “hate” may be stretching it a bit.
But hang on. Look at it for a moment from your boss's point of view. Think how much he must hate his boss too. And so on and so on.
Maybe the findings of that other survey aren't so surprising. The one that claimed most really, really top bosses – the ones who actually own or run the big companies and scoop up the big bucks – are clinically psychopathic.
I assumed when I first read that one that a psychopathic personality was a requirement in getting to the top. (I was going to say “in a capitalist society”, but then I remembered Joe Stalin and Chairman Mao.)
But there's another way of looking at it. Maybe the sensation of all those accumulated layers of hatred rising up from below would bring out the psycho traits in anyone.
Now there are various reasons why you might not like the boss.
A lot of people probably just don't like being told what to do.
But it turns out the main reason is lack of respect and appreciation.
People like to feel the boss trusts them and values what they do. And most, it seems, don’t feel that – not often enough, anyway.
Now I'm not a manager (thank goodness), but I have been. In a fairly junior, middle-management sort of way.
When I got the job – a horribly long time ago – the best piece of advice I got came from my father.
He told me that if you're ever going to criticise someone, you have to be prepared to praise them too.
In fact, every telling-off should be balanced by at least eight compliments.
And – in some cases this can be the tricky part – the praise has to be deserved. It's not hard to say “well done”, but it must be said honestly.
Praise where it's due. And plenty of it.
It's a lesson many bosses could do with learning. It might save them from being so hated.
I was reminded of it the other day by another of those little reports on psychological research.
It said the human brain was hard-wired to remember bad things better than good ones. That eight-to-one ratio came up again.
The researchers drew two conclusions.
The first was that children remember the horrid feeling of being told off much more strongly than the nice feeling of a pat on the back. Parents beware.
And the second was about news values.
Bad news sells.
Back in Cold War days there was a journalists' joke about an East German front page headline: “Half the harvest safely gathered in”.
But why was it funny?
It was certainly a contrast with the diet of endless doom and gloom that we got – and still get – from the media in the West.
Yet we are constantly being told that we are the lucky ones. As, in so many ways, we are.
Of course, those who lived under Communism were also told – and in most cases no doubt believed – that it was they who were lucky.
So which would you rather read about? A successful harvest, or wars in parts of the world you'd probably never heard of before things got bad there?


Rotherham was grim. Ebola is very nasty. The situation in Iraq and Syria is almost too ghastly to contemplate. Ukraine’s worrying. The accidental killing of a gun instructor by a nine-year-old girl armed with a sub-machinegun was just one more example of the madness of America.
But last week’s most touching news item concerned the death of a hippo.
Investigators in Germany are said to be conducting a “murder inquiry” after the incident at Frankfurt Zoo.
Which is news nonsense really. Evidence only of our ridiculous obsession with “murder mystery” stories.
There's not really much mystery about the death of Maikel, a 39-year-old, 315-stone gentle giant.
Someone threw a tennis ball into his enclosure. He ate it. It got stuck in his gut and killed him.
Sadness, yes. Mystery, no. Not once they'd carried out a post-mortem to see why a healthy animal suddenly got ill and died.
I doubt very much whether deliberate murder, or even cruelty, was involved. Just ignorance and stupidity.
The touching thing was the behaviour of Maikel's “lifelong partner” Petra.
As he was dying she kept swimming round him, nudging him to get up. As puzzled as the zookeepers. And grieving.
Some people – including many who really should know better – still cling to the old idea that humans are the only animals that feel emotion.

Which is as ignorant and stupid as whoever chucked that tennis ball.