Friday, 27 March 2015

The shooting of Dutch Schultz

I think this is one of the greatest press photos of all time. It shows the shooting of Dutch Schultz, the New York gang leader. Note the blood (or possibly sauce?) on the table, the bullet-holes in the mirror, and the reflection of a cop gathering evidence.
Dutch Schultz's real name was Arthur Flegenheimer. He was a Jew from the Bronx, though he converted to Catholicism not long before his death. He led an exceptionally savage gang of Jewish gunmen: Bo Weinberg, Abe Landau, Lulu Rozenkrantz, and a mathematical genius known as "Abbadabba" Berman, who calculated betting odds. Schultz was considered a dangerous loose cannon by the other leading gangsters (Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello etc) who decided he had to be eliminated. Schultz and three members of his gang were gunned down in a restaurant in Newark, New Jersey, in October 1935; the hit being carried out by two Jewish professional killers, Charlie Workman and Mendy Weiss, who were later convicted of the crime. Schultz took several hours to die,during which time he gabbled incoherently while police stenographers took down every word in the hope of learning significant information about organized crime: the effect being distinctly surrealist.
    More details can be found in the splendid book, "Tough Jews" by Rich Cohen. There is a fictionalized account of the shooting in the novel "Billy Bathgate", by E. L. Doctorow.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015


"Eala Earendil engla beorhtast
ofer middangeard monnum sended"

"Hail Earendil, brightest of the angels,
over Middle Earth sent unto man"

This is an extract from a cycle of religious poems in the alliterative form, attributed to Cynewulf, an Anglo-Saxon poet of the early 9th century. It appears to refer to the morning star (Venus), but could well also be alluding to John the Baptist, or even to Christ.
    The idea of Earendil sailing his boat across the heavens above Middle Earth was to become one of the earliest elements of J. R. R. Tolkien's private mythology, formed while he was still a student. For this, see Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Tolkien, chapter 6; also the "Silmarillion", and the long poem about Earendil in the chapter "Many Meetings" in "The Lord of the Rings". Needless to say, there is no reference to Earendil in the film version!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Visiting Prague

I made four visits to Prague: three with groups and one showing my cousin round the city. This is a summary of them.

Prague was the only central European capital not to be devastated in the war, but maybe now is less likely to survive intact from the current invasion by McDonald’s.
    The first metro ride I took in the city brought me to the Museum stop at the top end of Wenceslaus Square. This square, which is actually a long, wide boulevard, has an equestrian statue of the Good King dominating the top end. (In fact Wenceslas reigned for only eight years before being murdered by his brother Boleslav in 929. I'm sure not many people know that: I certainly didn't) From the bottom end of the square it is only a ten-minute walk to the centre. 
     First you can see the theatre where Mozart once conducted, outside which there is a statue commemorating the premiere of “Don Giovanni”, and then you come to the Old Town Square, which I think must be one of the most beautiful places in Europe. The first time I was there I just stood in amazement at the baroque facades and great looming churches. It is a large area, almost entirely pedestrian, ringed with brightly-coloured stucco buildings four or five storeys high with cafes at street-level and often bars and restaurants underground. 
A huge monument to Jan Hus, the early Protestant martyr, stands out blackly against the stucco. 

The north side is dominated by the monstrous ornate baroque bulk of St. Nicholas’s church, and the east by the Tyn church, which has twin Disneylandish spires. 

The south-western corner is cut off by the Old Town Hall, a 15th-century erection where tourists gather every hour to watch the operation of the Astronomical Clock, featuring a parade of saints, a skeleton ringing a bell, and a cock crowing. In the smaller square behind the Town Hall I heard an old lady singing one evening: a retired opera performer, I would imagine, since her voice completely filled the area without the aid of a microphone.
    Old Town Square tends to be seething with tourists, day and night, so the cafes are expensive. One place, I noticed, was a disco at night but doubled as a “museum of torture” during the day, which seemed vaguely appropriate. Much the best way of viewing the square is from the tower of the town hall, from where there was a marvellous view.
To the north of Old Town Square is Josefov, the Jewish quarter, on the site of the ghetto, which was once home to the biggest Jewish community in Europe. Do you remember the film “Amadeus”, about Mozart, which included a rather dim Emperor Joseph? In fact Joseph II, Mozart’s patron, was a radical reformer (far too radical for most of his subjects, so many of his reforms failed). Amongst other reforms he liberated the Prague Jews from the ghetto, and the district was named Josefov in his honour.
The oldest synagogue (confusingly called the “Old-new” as a result of German misunderstanding of Hebrew) dates from 1270, and there are four others still functioning, though few Jews live in this district today. Josefov was not officially part of Prague at all till 1850, and still has its “Jewish Town Hall”, complete with a Hebrew clock which runs backwards!
 The Jewish cemetery is a fantastic jumble of ancient tombstones. One synagogue, the Pinkas, is completely featureless inside apart from the walls, which are covered with the names of 77,000 Czech Jews who were killed by the Nazis. Very few Jews live in Josefov now; most of the synagogues are museums and there are too many tourist shops, but walking round is still a moving experience.
     Another relic of the Holocaust is found a little to the south of the centre, at the church of St Cyril & St Methodius. Here the resistance fighters who in early 1942 assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, deputy commander under Himmler of the S.S. and Gestapo, were finally cornered and killed. The operation to exterminate the Polish Jews, which had just started, was then named “Action Reinhard” by the Nazis in tribute to the dead leader.
From Old Town Square there is a short walk through narrow, twisty streets to the Charles Bridge over the river Vltava: one of the great sights of Prague. It is lined with statues of saints, mostly erected in the 19th century, and always crowded with tourists, pavement artists and buskers. These have to be licensed by the city authorities, so the standard is very high. The eastern end is guarded by massive fortified towers. Near the far end of the bridge is the garden of the Valstejnsky Palace, where there is a loggia with frescoes of heroic scenes, a formal avenue of statues (replicas, since the originals were stolen by Swedish troops in the Thirty Years’ War), a most peculiar wall and grotto covered with “dripstones” of stalagmites and stalactites, and a large fountain and pool with massive black carp. It was, improbably, all the creation of Wallenstein, the Catholic mercenary commander in the aforementioned war, presumably in intervals between massacring Protestants and before he was assassinated by a jealous Emperor. It was the finest city garden I had ever seen, and I sat there for some time in the hot sunlight.
Looming above you now you is the huge bulk of Prague castle and St. Vitus’s cathedral. You can walk up to it, but the best way is to catch a tram from the city centre.  I got off at the Belvedere, a Renaissance hunting lodge on a hilltop behind the cathedral, with magnificent views over the city. It was autumn, and all the trees in the grounds were in golden colours.
The cathedral and castle are part of a huge enclosed area of mostly 18th century buildings which are now government offices. The most picturesque area, a street of little houses called Golden Lane, is packed with tourists and touristy shops. St Vitus’s cathedral was much restored in the 19th century, and all the glass is new, but it is worth a visit for the shrine of St. Wenceslas (the Good King again!) and the fantastically elaborate tomb of St John Nepomuk, who became the patron saint of the Czech counter-reformation (though in fact he died in the 14th century). I was fascinated to see the coats of arms of all the provinces of the Hapsburg Empire painted round the ceiling of the choir. Next came the royal castle with its enormous great hall with elaborate ribbed vaulting. It was somewhere in this building that there took place in 1618 the "Defenestration of Prague", never to be forgotten by history students, which sparked off the Thirty Years' War. Two Catholic officials were chucked out of a window, but happily they landed on an immense dung-heap fifty feet below and survived, albeit presumably somewhat smelly.
Prague is rightly famous for its Baroque churches, which came about in an unusual manner.  Bohemia, which covers roughly the same territory as the modern Czech Republic, was the homeland of Jan Hus, the Protestant proto-martyr commemorated by the enormous monument in Old Town Square. He was burnt at the stake as a heretic by the Council of Constance in 1415, but his followers managed to keep control of Prague. The Bethlehem Chapel where Hus used to preach was restored as a museum by the Communist government after the war. Did they want to claim Hus as one of their own? Or were they more swayed by the fact that the chapel was later a pulpit for the radical 16th century preacher Thomas Muntzer? He was viciously denounced by Martin Luther, who called on the German princes to slaughter Muntzer's peasant followers; a call they were only too happy to heed.
Bohemia was largely Protestant until the early 17th century, when the German Protestant prince Frederick, Elector Palatine (the son-in-law of James I of England) tried to claim the throne. His supporters were defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, the Protestant lords were driven out or executed, and an aggressive counter-reformation Catholicism imposed. Most of the Prague churches were then rededicated to the Catholic faith. Their interiors date from this era and are very elaborate. (Today many of them stage concerts in the evening)
     The best religious buildings are up on the hill near the castle. The Strahov monastery has two amazing libraries with spectacular frescoed ceilings. The “Theological Hall” has Biblical scenes between Baroque plasterwork, and the “Philosophical Hall” next door had an allegorical portrayal of the human soul in search of knowledge.
     Even more fanciful is the Loreto, another monastery just along the road. It has an elaborate entrance, in cream and gold, with a peal of bells which ring out a tune on the hour. (To my unmusical ear, it sounded like a slightly cracked version of the “Bluebells of Scotland”!) In the centre of the cloisters is a small building with the proportions of a shoe-box, which is supposed to be following the exact dimensions of the Virgin Mary’s house, though she would surely have been amazed by the rich ornamentation of classical figures on the exterior. Inside was a miracle-working statue of the Virgin on a silver-plated altar. But even this is overshadowed by the Church of the Nativity in the same monastery,which is so unashamedly over-the-top that it makes ever the other Prague churches look models of restraint. Here I encountered a lurid baroque altar and pulpit, effigies of martyrs with wax faces, wigs of real hair and 17th century aristocrats’ clothes, and swarming over everything a veritable tribe of little cherubs, the little putti so beloved of 17th century artists, all painted in lifelike (?) colours. To the left of the altar I found a statue of Saint Apollonia, who was martyred by having all her teeth pulled out, and so was accompanied by a particularly repulsive-looking cherub playing around with massive pliers and bloodstained teeth, and showing his handiwork to an admiring friend. On the other side was Saint Agatha ,who was martyred by having her breasts cut off. I shall draw a decent veil over what her cherubs were doing. More cherubs infested the organ pipes, all playing musical instruments. As a fitting climax to this I progressed to the building’s treasury, which housed the most amazing collection of reliquaries and monstrances, the like of which I have never seen, glittering in diamonds, gold and enamel.

From 1648 to 1914 Prague was one of the great cities of the Austrian (Hapsburg) Empire. Several traditions of the city stem from this period, such as the very grand cafes (I can recommend the Art Nouveau elegance of the Municipal House for this), and the many puppet theatres: under the Empire it was illegal to stage plays in the Czech language, but puppet-shows were exempt from this restriction. Franz Kafka lived near Old Town Square, and Prague must be the only city in the world where you can buy a Kafka t-shirt. Feeling the need to do something in keeping with fin-de-siecle Hapsburg decadence, I went out one morning before breakfast and bought a bottle of absinthe; but I didn’t actually drink it, so I suppose I failed the decadence test.  

The Austrian Empire disintegrated after the First World War and the new state of Czechoslovakia was created. By the 1930s it was the only democratic country remaining in central and eastern Europe. But the presence of large numbers of ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland, the north-western fringe of the country, enabled Hitler to stir up trouble there. In autumn 1938 the Sudetenland was handed over to Germany at the Munich Conference in the hope of preserving peace, but six months later disputes between Czechs and Slovaks resulted in Hitler occupying Prague and Slovakia becoming a nominally independent state under a pro-Nazi government. After the Second World War Czechoslovakia was recreated, but under a Communist government; and all the ethnic Germans were expelled in a massive purge. (In 1938-9 and again in 1945 Prague surrendered to the invaders without firing a shot, which accounts for the city's fine state of preservation) 
People of my age remember the “Prague Spring” in 1968, when a new leader, Alexander Dubcek (who was a Slovak rather than a Czech) attempted to set up a more liberal Communist government. This was ended by a Soviet invasion in August of that year. As usual in Prague, there was no armed resistance, but next year a young man, Jan Palach, burnt himself to death in front of the Wenceslas statue in protest against the invasion. There is now a small park in the city named after him.
The guide who showed us round on my first visit had been a student there when the Russians invaded, and described how she and her friends tried to confuse things by taking down all the street-names and road-signs, and then acting very dim when baffled tank-drivers asked them the way. All students had been forced to learn Russian at school, and others got into heated debates with the invaders. It transpired that many of the soldiers thought they were attacking Germany at the start of World War Three!
      Communism in Czechoslovakia collapsed in 1989, in the so-called “Velvet Revolution”, and the playwright Vaclav Havel came to power. Soon afterwards the country divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. All this was achieved without any violence; an impressive contrast with what happened in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. There has been much new construction since; most notably the splendidly eccentric building nicknamed "Fed and Ginger", after the movie dancers. 

On my last visit to Prague we stayed at the Cloister Inn, situated on the ominous-sounding Konviktska street. We were told that it had indeed once been a monastery and was then used as a prison under the communists. A young receptionist, who was also studying medicine at the Charles University in the city, told us that Vaclav Havel had been held there for a while. Another guide, who came from the Sudetenland, told us a rather threatening story. The post-communist government had decreed that all state property should revert tot he heirs of those who had owned it in 1938, and in consequence numbers of Germans had been appearing in her town, saying "This used to belong to us!" No-one knew what was going to happen. One can only hope that it all gets resolved peacefully.

Tips for visiting Prague: The public transport is very good, especially to and from the airport (you can buy tickets at the hotel), but in fact most of the places worth visiting are within walking distance of the centre. Try to get to a concert in one of the churches: these are rather expensive (ours cost £15) but very good. There are many interesting little restaurants away from Old Town Square: the national dish being pork with sauerkraut and dumplings, washed down with foaming lager - the names Budweiser and Pilsner are both derived from towns now in the Czech Republic! 

Monday, 2 March 2015

The labours of Hercules in Shropshire

Many thousands of years ago, when half of Britain was covered in ice, the River Severn flowed north, into the Dee estuary. But then, when the ice retreated, the god Zeus spoke to Hercules and said, “It is my desire that the Severn should now flow southwards. Take your club and beat out a new channel for the river”.
Hercules took his club and began his labour at the northern end of the new river-bed. But the god of the northern marshes, fearing that his wetlands would be drained, sent out his reed-girls to distract Hercules. And the reed-girls said, “Stop your work, Hercules, and come with us, and we will show you pleasures beyond imagining!” But Hercules answered, “Go away! Come back when I’ve finished!” and he continued with his work. But he was thinking so much about the beauty of the reed-girls that he beat out his channel shallower than he intended, so some of the wetlands survive to this day.
As Hercules worked further southwards, the river god, annoyed that he had not been consulted, sent river-nymphs to distract Hercules. The river-nymphs danced round Hercules and sang, “Stop your work, Hercules, and come with us, and we will show you pleasures beyond imagining!” But Hercules answered, “Go away! Come back when I’ve finished!” But he was so confused by the nymphs dancing in circles around him that he lost all sense of direction, and the course of the river-bed he was beating out, through where Shrewsbury now stands, instead of being a straight line, now ran in great loops and meanders.
Hercules now reached a line of hills and began to beat a passage through them. But the god of the hills, foreseeing that men would come and cut down his trees to fire their furnaces, and blacken his rocks with their smoke, sent woodland dryads to distract Hercules. The dryads sang, “Leave your work, Hercules, and come with us, and we will show you pleasures beyond imagining!” But Hercules answered, “Go away! Comeback when I’ve finished!” But he was so eager to sample the pleasures that the dryads had promised that he stopped he work early, so that the Ironbridge Gorge was narrower than intended, and it remains a place of fierce and dangerous waters to this day.
At last Hercules finished his labours, and the Severn now flowed southwards in a new path. And Hercules went and sat down to rest in the Quarry gardens, and he called out, “Ho! Reed-girls and water-nymphs and tree-dryads! I’m finished at last! Where are the pleasures beyond imagining that you promised me?” But there was no answer, for they had all gone away. And Hercules smashed his club on the ground in frustration, causing a great pit which is now the Dingle gardens. But eventually he fell asleep, exhausted by his labours.
The god of the River Severn saw him asleep and thought, “Now I’ll have my revenge! Reject the pleasures offered by my water-nymphs, did he? Not to mention the reed-girls and dryads too! I’ll cast a spell on him so that he’ll never be able to enjoy such pleasures again!” And he cast the spell, but Hercules did not realize it till he awoke.

Men came and erected a statue of Hercules, which you can still see in the Quarry today. This angered the river-god, and he was angrier still when he realized that, thanks to the labours of Hercules, he now faced a very long and weary route to the sea. His anger continues to this day; and every few years he sends down a flood, which often fills the Quarry garden and surrounds the statue of Hercules, but he has never yet managed to topple it. And if you go to the Quarry, you can still see Hercules, naked, with his lion-skin and mighty club and his gigantic muscles – but if you look closely you will notice that, thanks to the river-god’s curse, the only clothing he is obliged to wear is an improbably tiny fig-leaf.