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Biedermeier

Gilded waning crescent moon in a clear sky when I got up this morning, and a sharp white frost. Naked trees in the little gardens and sparkling white roofs, white roofs, crossing the valley and up to the skyline, at 8am, but now my window's filling up with fog. Click through the rooster icon to get your (Chinese) horoscope for 2017, and a poem about the Rooster personality (sadly, no interesting surprises, just a positive spin: "Rooster" is a family man, keen on appearances and the strict guardian of the farmyard. Strutting cockerels have the same profile in China as anywhere else, apparently)

Biedermeier, what does it mean? Originally it was a caricature, a character called Gottlieb Biedermeier (roughly: God-fearing steward of the commonplace), invented to mock the complacently oppressive attitudes of the middle-class family-man, getting on fine under a complacently oppressive political regime. Later, and this is the meaning that won out, it became the name for a German style of furniture and decor that was trending in the quiet decades after the fall of Napoleon (between the Congress of Vienna in 1819, and the revolutions of 1848). Basically (it says here) Biedermeier is a modest, cosy version of the pompous, magnificent Empire style that preceded it. I've met the name in museum displays all over Northern Europe; and the furniture's pretty. The Biedermeier way of life, on the other hand, was the original "nineteenth-century respectability" rulebook. It means comfort in a narrow-minded compass, and a wise determination not to step out of line. It means the secret police are watching, so make sure you never admit you even know they exist. It means don't talk politics, and have no dreams (other than seeing your sons earning decent money, and your daughters well-married). Keep an eye on your neighbours, guide your wife and your children with a firm hand. Channel your outrage -and you probably enjoy that feeling, as it's your only real freedom- against anyone who dares to disturb your comfort zone.


For Germany, the age of Beidermeier ended in 1848, when Europe broke out in revolutions again (but not as severe as the French version of the virus), because when the dust had settled Germany was a proper, modern nation state, instead of just some departments in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, comprising a bunch of petty nobilities and Prussia (I paraphrase). But I think the culture lingered for much longer, well into the twentieth century; enforcing itself, as these things do. All those bold young women, taking lovers, smoking cigarettes, cutting their hair and wearing skirts above their ankles, they were fighting the Beidermeier rules. All those popular fictions where a Great Artist (m) struggles against Society's Expectations, or a young woman kicks over the traces, gets a job outside the home, and wins her true love as a reward; despite rejecting the rulebook . . . I never thought about the secret police aspect when I was being forced to read D.H Laurence, but I'm thinking about it now.

Mainly, I admit, because I've just read Ian Bostridge's Schubert's Winter Journey . . . a book I recommend highly, although with the caveat that it's seriously about the music of Schubert's Winterreisse song cycle, besides explaining the history, the social conditions, the science, the politics, and even the weather, around a great work of art. Anyway Bostridge has got me thinking about "Beidermeier" as the Zeitgeist of a period in European history. A time when a generation's wild hope and passionate belief in the future had turned horribly, horribly sour. When ideals only recently held to be self-evident had been discredited; freedoms recently declared the inalienable property of all human beings had been snuffed out, and nobody wanted to know.

Everything is still standing, that's what's confusing. The law is still the law, truth is still truth and justice still justice: these words simply don't mean what you used to think they meant, when it was joy in that dawn to be alive. And they don't belong to you, not anymore.

It's not very Nineteen Eighty Four, not very Alone In Berlin, it's more insidious. Nobody's going to stop you being comfortable, the whole point is that you never step outside the lines because you are comfortable. You can be sexually active outside marriage, you can be sexually deviant, you can do any allegedly hellfire thing you like, as long as you keep quiet about it. You can even talk politics, within the walls of your own home, and if you're sure you can trust your friends . . . Your world is full of terrible evils, adulterated food, disgusting pollution, endemic child prostitution, appalling conditions in teeming urban slums (check out Engels on Manchester, if you've forgotten), and all in the sacred holy name of wealth creation, but it's not your job to know these things. Nobody's going to tell you anything, and anyway you don't listen to those people, of your own choice. Those people just make you angry.

"In Biedermeier art the skies never glower, mountains are unforbidding and water is still. Biedermeier offers no stirrings of revolt." http://www.economist.com/node/8846582

Winter Journey

Saturday 14th January, a frosty morning, some promise of snow later, it's time for the traditional post-Christmas walk, from Balcombe to Balcombe, and around Ardingly reservoir: with christmas cake and little oranges for provisions (in fact this year a single big orange). Our train not more than ten minutes late or so, and oddly dressed in yellow and green Southern livery, on a Thameslink route. Whatever next! From Balcombe station we take the new and tiny footpath through the woods parallel to the road, that exits where the track leads off to Cuadrilla's Big Fence and their well-pad, which is still deserted, so far: Mr Francis Egan having decided the humble, ignorant folk Ooop North would surely be more docile He's currently finding out that this is not the case, but he's happy, because now the government is letting him do what the hell he likes with the regulations that used to trip him up . . .. But today, we're going down into the valley, (very claggy mud in a stripped maize field); into the woods. Uphill again, on a broad path thick with orchids in Maytime, to the sandstone outcrop that was crowned with two magnificent ancient beeches, when we first came this way. Only the roots remain, in a massive, spooky grey tangle. The buttercup meadows have been ploughed, no fields of gold this year. Across the lane we stop to watch a big flock of fieldfares, foraging in stubble; and then hurry past the farmyard where a large Union Jack is flying. Not that we're doing anything wrong, but . . .

It's hard to explain the charm of this afternoon, the sullen sky, the naked oaks, the damp edge-of-freezing air, but the best bit, always, is the hide. We ate our cake and shared the orange, and stayed for a long time, because it was raining. We were playing house, minimalist house, very happily but silently. There are never many birds, but we don't seem to mind. A male bullfinch in the alder by the waterside, and a goldfinch. A pair of grebes, a coot, two herons, and a huge squad of cormorants (low in the water, only the black dagger beaks and lean black heads of the divers visible, way out in the distance). Some mallards (aka wild duck), passing close by. A woman came and joined us, then she went away again (hide etiquette, not a sound, and I think she was a woman, but I didn't look round). In the end it dawned on us that the rain was mostly just dripping water from alder branches tossed in a bit of a breeze, and we set off again, so inexplicably happy, all you can say is, somehow, everything here and now is outside the doom that's overtaking our world, and provides a spare,chilly, complete sufficiency.



The water's very low. It's been an exceptionally dry winter down here in Sussex, despite a few downpours. Once, we left the copper-leafy, muddy path and ventured out a long way onto weird, crusted yellowish moss; we found the traces of a firepit (modern, not ancient). Many warning signs about Toxic Blue Green Algae: but these are post-truth signs, purely an attempt to stop people from letting their dogs go swimming. It does not work.The icy drizzle never changed to snow; a small flock of Greylag geese in another field, and now we'll soon be back at the station. I'm wondering, as you do -if you like to see life, and have spotted that there's less ahead of you than lies behind- what changes will we see before we die? Will we be able to engage with the new conditions, at all?

(I get nudges from Twitter, it's eager to help me to incentivise my self-advertising. For a trifling investment! Ah, no. Sorry, a misunderstanding. Of course you can't actually read, so you don't realise: if I have something to advertise I'll advertise, but mostly my tweets are not in any sense business. I'm addressing the counters that are counting these beans, adding rare drops to the vast ocean of public interest. I'm raising, drop by drop, the concentration, in that ocean, of concern about topics I'd like to bring to our rulers' attention; that's the whole plan. It's sort of like having a vote).

But what new conditions? Jury's still out. Is this strange world of plenty, where everything gets better and there's just more, and more, forever; where it's always Christmas and never winter, really dying at last? Are our neighbours, the resolutely unconcerned, already living in the future, which is a new Beidermeier? Or will something completely unexpected come along instead?

Wait and see.

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