Sunday, 1 March 2015

WHEN DIPLOMATS historical novels, that is.

It’s 1904, and the Germans are frustrated. Their fondest hopes of starting a war have been ruined by the entente cordiale, an alliance between England and France.

They did it again, those unbearable Englishmen! The entente cordiale has destroyed all our plans. ..We thought we could roll Luxembourg into the North German League and finally have a good reason to go to war, but those Englishmen, a nation of grocers…those bookkeepers have destroyed all our hopes. But we shall have revenge…and if I’m not mistaken it is brewing already. 

We know that something is brewing because old Chancellor Bismarck gave a dinner the other day,in which he revealed his love of nature. He spoke in the most enthusiastic terms of his desire for a quiet life in the country, to which he would soon retire; and such words, as you well know, always leave a political after-taste in the mouth. Whenever Bismarck retires to the countryside or suffers from rheumatism, it means there is something in the air.

How romantic, you say. I know him as a rather sarcastic man. Here is what I overheard him say at that dinner:

  • A Bavarian is something between an Austrian and a human being.
  • An Austrian could be very intelligent if he wasn’t so fundamentally stupid. His blood is a mixture of Italian, Spanish, and Dutch, a strange brew. Sometimes the phlegmatic temperament of the Dutch bobs to the surface; at other time it’s the Spanish spitefulness.
  • And those treacherous Italians: God made man in his image and the Italian in the image of Judas.
  • And one more thing: French diplomats never speak the language of the country to which they have been posted.
Source: Luise Mühlbach’s historical novel Von Königsgrätz bis Chiselhurst (Stuttgart, 1874) – my translation.

Thursday, 26 February 2015


The New Yorker is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, so I looked at the first four issues. Here are some lines that caught my attention:
  • On general principles, this magazine expects to take a firm stand against murder. But we don’t want to be bigoted.
  • Broadway has no end of actors out of work. But as a rule they refuse to admit the truth of their unemployment.
  • Re the exhibit at the Grand Central Art Galleries: If you care for anything later than Ingres, stay at home.
  • Better a third rate artist and a first rate publicity man than a first rate artist and no publicity man at all.
  • Re prohibition: The bootleggers are cautious. They always suspect a customer of being a prohibition agent, unless some taxi driver is willing to vouch for them.
  • The transit situation in New York City which for many years has been a problem and a nuisance is rapidly becoming a menace.
  • The Last Laugh – Cameo Theater. An imported German film and a milestone in the progress of cinema. Superbly acted by Emil Jannings.
  • Burning witches at the stake was a grand sport in its day and much more sportsmanlike than the modern game of censorship.
  • The New Yorker wishes one and all an Ideal Ides of March. Tax vobiscum.
  • Re Ziegfeld Follies: It isn’t drama. It’s osteopathy…The girl was admirably undressed. I do not mean that the costume was bold. Far from it. It was positively shrinking.
(Source: February/March 1525 issues of The New Yorker)

Saturday, 21 February 2015


Authors must tweet, or so I’m told, so I started tweeting a year ago and have gathered some 450 followers – thank you, people, whoever and wherever you are.
For those out there who have never read my tweets, here is what I do:
I post historical photos, like this Bolivian hat below, a present from the man who built the reed boat in which Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Atlantic.

Or of places I’ve visited, like this one: a rock sculpture at the back of LACMA in Los Angeles.

I never thought I’d tweet words. For one thing I didn’t think I could fit anything worthwhile saying into 140 characters. But other people apparently manage just fine, as in these examples:
  • Hair: thick and seemingly warm enough to be the vest of some fabulous…creature (Howard Jacobson)
  • Backstory: They don’t tell you in movies where people grew up…no history, no past, just them (Doctorow)
  • There is no getting on, or getting over, just getting in (Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal)
  • Keeping your distance: He engaged in verbal jabbing to maintain perimeter (Tad Friend)
  • Habsburg soldiers: Best dressed army in the world (Edmund De Waal)

Like my selection of quotes? Check my tweets for more: @historycracks.

Thursday, 19 February 2015


Hollyhock House in Los Angeles has reopened after years of renovation work. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Aline Barnsdall in 1919-21, it is now restored to its pristine Mayan Revival style.

The furniture has been reconstructed according to old photos and original designs. Last week the house was open to the public for a 24 hour preview. And, as a one-time privilege, visitors were allowed to take photos!

We went there on Friday night, thinking that few people would brave the infamous end-of-week traffic in L.A. but we were wrong. Hundreds of people did. We had to line up for 2 ½ hours to get in. Such cultural enthusiasm, can you believe it?

Sunday, 15 February 2015


From Kafka’s unpublished notes (quotes in bold):
There was once a village that boasted a giant hedgehog. It attracted many tourists, but only one serious observer – the local grade school teacher, who decided to write a report on the phenomenon. The report was published and sold well.
The old teacher was an excellent man but neither his abilities nor his prior studies enabled him to produce a thorough examination that might be of further use, not to speak of providing an explanation.
He continued to study the case and became increasingly discouraged by his inability to explain the phenomenon. At last he decided to consult an expert in the field.
A small addendum which he attached to his publication (many years later when hardly anyone remembered the case anymore) shows that he suffered a great deal from the rejection he experienced at the hands of …people from whom he had least expected it.
The expert he consulted listened to his report in a distracted manner and finally commented:
“True, there are various hedgehogs, small and large. The earth in your area is especially black and heavy. This offers especially rich nourishment to hedgehogs, and that is why they turn out exceptionally large.” “But not that large!” the teacher exclaimed, and outlined a 2-meter silhouette, exaggerating the dimensions somewhat in his wrath. “Oh, quite,” the scholar answered. He clearly thought the matter was very amusing. “And why not?”  With this verdict, the teacher returned home. His wife and six children waited for him in the evening, as snow fell on the country road, and he had to confess to them the final collapse of his hopes.
            When I read how the scholar had treated the teacher… I immediately decided to collect and put together everything I could discover about the incident. I couldn’t punch the scholar’s face, but I could defend the teacher in an essay at least, or to put it another way, defend not only the teacher but the good intentions of an honest yet powerless man. But I soon regretted my decision…Cont.

(Source, unpublished text posted on, my translation)