Ever since I saw and became obsessed with the work of the German conceptual artist, Anselm Kiefer, I’ve wanted to see – and walk – and, inevitably, photograph, haphazardly, some of the rhineland landscapes that appear to have influenced his monumentalist work.
Kiefer”s art tries to – I think – reclaim a connection, a continuity, with a long, ancient, tradition concerning land that was eviscerated, literally burnt away, by the twentieth century in Germany. All that history that I know I must confront at some time.
In much of his most central work Kiefer uses quotes, ideas, and allusions to, Jewish mysticism, the cabbala – but not that LA-Madonna stuff – that I am discovering has a very strong link to the Rhine towns I am visiting now, here in Speyer and in Worms – not so far away beyond Frankenthal. Here, and separately in medieval Spain, the Jewish mystic tradition evolved in the 11th and 12th centuries; it feels strange as I enter the world of the Niebelung, the Germanic Saga, to be realising this.
Simon Schama, the historian, who I should really just quote every day, but a traveling man has some pride and hopes for originality, wrote of the 2007 Kiefer show in London at the White Cube:
“Much of Kiefer’s art represents a resistance to this inhuman virtualisation of memory; its lazy democracy of significance, its translation into weightless impressions. The opposing pole from that alt/delete disposability is to make history obstinately material, laid down in dense, sedimentary deposits that demand patient, rugged excavation. Kiefer’s work burrows away at time, and what it exposes also makes visible the painful toil of the dig, skinned knuckles, barked shins and all.
For a German born amid the slaughterhouses of 1945, booting up could never be glibly electronic. Kiefer became famous in the 1970s and 80s for his frontal engagements with the totems of German history: blood- spattered trails befouling the deep Teutonic woods (his name means fir tree) from which the national culture had been proverbially rough-hewn; torch-lit timbered pantheons within which heroes and anti-heroes lay provisionally interred.”
I think perhaps I have seen some of this land now, and meeting the Roma twice I feel we are still not home, still determined to find scapegoats, to torch land – my mind, dislocated by the travel and the attentiveness to detail not the big picture, still can’t understand the Koran-burning fiascos of Florida.
There’s a judenhaus here in Speyer, bathhouse remains, restored ruins. I visit on the Friday afternoon of Yom Kippur, atonement. Speyer had a long tradition, a vibrant, integrated community, of jews until around 1540 – unlike many towns that, while tolerant, still placed their jews in ghettos.
I keep thinking about the Roma, on the run from Sarkozy. Walking to the cathedral later a girl passes in a “I ‘heart’ Roma” t-shirt. She’s more Spanish Steps, Armani store on the via Condotti, I suspect – still I read it as a gesture in Anti Sarkozy-Bruni (I think we have to add her, regretfully) polemic.
In the bookshop at the judenhaus there’s a small brochure about the jewish mystics of the region. If this diary every becomes a book I will, in Chatwinny/Stewartian prose talk about these men. For the moment their lives are for contemplation back at the British Library.
I spend a few hours in the cathedral, but nothing quite becomes it like first viewing, walking the rhine, church as media, presence, power. It is plain, huge, being restored with vast UNESCO funds; down in the crypts those Emperors that Slyvie talked about yesterday in the dreamy, statue-filled, gardens of Schwetzinger. It really was a sublime pitstop, a wander into a truly other world for an hour. I imagine pageants there, bacchanalian festivals, regal strolling. But it is the Palatinate, and I am stupidly ignorant about it.
Down in the crypts the tombs are like giant loaves of bread, pressed into the walls. Upstairs I sit and consider the Romanesque interior, very plain, arched, austere. I can’t help but think of certain mosques I’ve seen in Istanbul.
There is more that connects us than separates.
There’s no phone, no television and no wi-fi in my Catholic hostel. I find a network at Maximillian and read about the Pope and terror arrests in London. (Later the suspects are all released). There is a tepid conversation with loud Russian women, who give me a what’s he worth once over: not much they conclude.
In Baden-Baden walking to a cafe at around nine one evening I heard the most pitiful sound. From a side street comes the echo, from a building with the terrifying blue neon logo often seen “abroad”, away from England, that just reads “pub”. The sound is of a male chorus, clearly well on their way, singing in various keys, Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.”
I’m remembering that moment now as I go for a late night coffee/red-wine at the Irish bar in Speyer. I don’t do this sort of thing. But last night, walking home, it was quiz night at the Irish bar, and one of the answers that boomed out into the courtyard to a question was “Schnitzel.” Which brought about large-scale applause. At least it will be German Irish, not Englishmen singing You’re So Vain, or indeed Anticipation or Mockingbird. Inside it is pretty quiet. A couple of guys my age standing at the bar, drinking Guinness. I order a red wine. Gunter says: “Why are you drinking red wine in an Irish bar?”
“We started in the Library, with champagne. The Oriental Club, just off Oxford street, in Marylebone. And then the food…the wine…Finally, we stand, we say the Loyal Toast, to the Queen! I am 18, in a borrowed morning suit, the first time in London. Me, from Speyer. The wedding [a family friend’s son – connected, investment banking….Hong-Kong heiress…] was in St Pauls! I mean people took their video cameras out, they filmed…us.”
The following year Gunter met an older, and married, woman…
I loved this story because it touches at so many things: travel, difference, influence, class, marriage, money…the English, but most of all the moments that matter – that change us. I think – I feel – that this story, this spot in time to misuse Wordsworth’s idea, changed Gunter’s way of seeing the world. He’s seen a lot of it now, and like many of us, feels spiritually at home in New York, that confusing brutal melting point where old Europe meets Steel-Canyon Modernity.
Gunter’s friend Peter tells me about the Palatinate, the subtle distinctions of “east” and “west” of the Rhine. I listen and learn and sadly forget. Because Peter wants to know about the British Royal Family.
What do you think of them? They’re very…expensive.
“But a great tradition,” says Gunter.
“Very expensive,” I say. I laugh. “Look, did you guys see The Queen?” [It is part of my doctoral thesis, exploring the distance between Peter Morgan’s script and some sense of what really happened. And yet The Queen is an Oscar winning movie.]
“Of course,” Peter’s mantra.
“Well, I don’t think it really happened like that.” I give a pompous lecture on history, narrative, new media and trust.
“A bit like the English histories of what happened in Ireland?’
“But what do you think of the Royal Family, expensive aren’t they?”
Soon we are trying to think of something useful, and inconsequential, for Prince Charles to do.
“Look, they’re all useless except for the Queen,” I say, “she does her job. But look, I’m a champagne socialist sort of guy, I would say this.”
“From Hampstead,” says Gunter, who understands these things.
We end, after a lovely chat, tilting at windmills in a bar named Don Quixote. But not for long; in the basement there is frenzied youth and deadly music. Gunter and I agree to meet next year; there’s a Clapton concert in London. My round, this time.
There is more that connects us, than separates, I say to Gunter and Peter. Why not?
I like my new red-wine, rhine-side, aphorism. It is perhaps a little Howard’s End, but..why not.
After the Farmer’s Market with Serious Hangover, and the Pope or God punishing me by hexing the wi-fi in the hostel, and at Maximillians, and by ensuring that when I phone my friends to meet up – via a train – nearby – they are in a shopping mall without mobile reception, I resign myself to a train to Frankenthal. It’s about 30 kilometres and I’m not in the mood. By the railway station there’s a unicorn [see Facebook for photographs]. My first of the trip.
Frankenthal is a bit belchy. A lot of men on the street with plastic bottles of vodka. A lot of men milling about generally. Don’t like the mood, though the town is nice enough to look at. At the family bar it is Ladies Night, which allows Robbie Williams’ Angels to be played without postmodern irony.
It’s not for me. At the sport’s bar I learn that Mainz are top of the Bundes-League. The first time in their history. And I’ll be there in a few days.
Still, I suspect, missing super Speyer.