Danubia and the myth of Mitteleuropa

Before I kick off my latest batch of belated travel  blogs here’s my first book of the year, Simon Winder’s not unrelated Danubia (Amazon | GoodReads | Google Books). Reviews: GuardianNew York Times SpectatorTelegraph.

The Austro-Hungarian empire, at the heart of the alluring concept of Mitteleuropa, is a pyschogeographic gold mine – a “psychic and liminal space between east and west rather than an objective geographic reality, its borders imaginary, drawn and redrawn with each new historical situation” (Chris Haddix), erased almost unnoticed in a world of dichotomies after the Second World War. Writing in the New York Review of Books in 1986 (republished in the 1991 edition of The uses of adversity) Timothy Garton Ash explored its temporary rebirth – and in the early 1990s it briefly looked as if there just might be a middle way.

Simon Winder’s Danubia, the companion piece to his Germania, is a “personal history” of the mosaic of Mitteleuropa, taking political and especially military history as its main framework but seasoned with a host of sidesteps and even dead ends. Not entirely chronological and assuming an amount of prior knowledge on the part of the reader, it’s a long haul to get to my personal main event, typified by 1913 (“when Freud waved cheerily from a tram at Schiele and the Second Vienna School sang a capella to delighted cafe-goers”), but equally it’s a pleasure to bathe in the quirks of the Hapsburgs and their blundering incompetence, a quality they excelled in, and simply enjoy the ride.

On central Europe’s towns:

the standard full kit: electric tramways, an opera house, a whole lot of art nouveau, a bust of Schiller and a comically dreary monument featuring a statue of a lumpy woman with an ivy entwined sword and a palm leaf

On the Hapsburg jaw:

the women in portrait after portrait appear to have a sort of awful pink shoe attached to their lower faces

At the start of his bibliography Winder states that he has deliberately excluded Claudio Magris’ Danube (1986), along with Rebecca West’s Black lamb and grey falcon (1941), reprinted in 2006 with an introduction by of course! Geoff Dyer. Like Winder I find it impossible to avoid the gravitational pull of a growing canon of books and authors, and having dusted off my central European bookshelf am now embarking on Nick Thorpe’s The Danube: a journey upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest (Amazon), ie the wrong way, which looks like a good counterpoint to the rather blokey Danubia.

Also making a case to be read is Nick Hunt’s Walking the woods and the water (Amazon; blog), a 2011/12 retread of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1933 trek from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Nick H highlights even more jolly japes in Paddy’s footsteps, including Travellers’ century, a 2008 TV documentary by Benedict Allan, Blue River, Black Sea (Amazon) by Andrew Eames, who “travelled the length of the Danube by bicycle, boat, and, for some reason, a green plastic bathtub” in 2009, and New York Times‘ journalist Matt Gross, who walked from Vienna to Budapest in 2010. A final PLF related find is this analysis of the literary and historical references in A time of gifts, crying out to be mapped.

For a different perspective see Dimiter Kenarov’s From Black to Black, a literary overview which starts and ends with the significance of the Bulgarian equivalent of R4’s Shipping Forecast:

For nearly fifty years the Danube was a demolished bridge, a liquid roadblock. The wall may have been in Berlin, but the truly impassable one was an invisible dam on the Danube, somewhere between Vienna and Bratislava…Today, to sail along the Danube is to see the new face of Europe, old as it is…The great changes of 1989 might have brought freedom to the people of Eastern Europe, Eames suggests, but it has been the freedom that comes from the sudden bursting of a dam wall, the waters inundating everything on their way downstream.

In an article about Freud’s Vienna as inspiration William Boyd asks: “Why do certain cities haunt the imagination? Not just the city itself but the city in a particular historical period.” He identifies the cause as a place in time you would like to have lived in yourself, but sadly the 1913 narrative was a post-war creation. According to Winder at that time Austria-Hungary “could probably have been summed up as a barracksridden, aristocratic and actively philistine place”, with its music viewed as having a merely museum-like quality (Der Rosenkavalier rather than Mahler’s Ninth), its writing disregarded and its painting and architecture swamped by the Paris art scene.

This society “only really appreciated in the rear view mirror” was preserved in the memoirs of countless exiles and the writings of in particular Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, all soon eclipsed by a fresh wave of horrors. The keepers of the flame of the Hapsburg myth see the Dual Monarchy as a period in which a diversity of nationalities lived together peacefully in a well ordered, ideal fairytale world, compared with the series of “small and dirty cages of the new nation states” created after 1918, a dichotomy which persists into the 21st century.

Highlights from my Mitteleuropa bookshelf:

  • Frederic Morton’s A nervous splendor: Vienna 1888/1889, the year Crown Prince Rudolf shot himself
  • Gregor von Rezzori’s Snows of yesteryear on his childhood in Czernowitz  (“his very name a perfect Hapsburg amalgam”)
  • Bruno Schulz’s The street of crocodiles – Schulz lived in Drohobycz, where “oil deposits created a strange little semi-Americanized enclave of prosperity” near Lviv, and was shot dead in 1942 by a Gestapo officer

Just where is Mitteleuropa? The shifting borders are a thing of endless confusion – this timelapse doesn’t really help. Winder includes a map of how Kaiser Karl’s United States of Austria could have turned out, with names such as Carniola and Galicia which have vanished into history.

Update, 2 May: just back from Sofia, pretty definitely not Mitteleuropa and also not on the Danube, although not a million miles from either, brings us the story of Liberland, a self-declared microstate consisting of a wetland wilderness upstream from the point where the Danube is joined by the Drava, a borderland between Croatia and Serbia. More to be done on this stretch of the river, and also on the Rhine, rather less written about.


Robert Macfarlane’s Old Ways

Finally completed Robert Macfarlane‘s The old ways, started last summer. A reading in the garden book.

Reviews: Amazon | GoodreadsLibraryThing | three and a half pages of quotes in the book itself

Nature writing fans for whom Robert’s fame precedes him love it, others find the writing tending to the flowery. Falling somewhere in between, the less nature tinged sections, in particular the account of his grandfather’s final walks and funeral (p202-205 in the Penguin edition) and the chapter on Edward Thomas (Ghost) are what made me linger, as did walks in the strange but familiar landscapes of the Hebrides, Palestine and the Himalayas, “improvised pilgrimages of varying levels of seriousness and sanctity” (p235). See Rites of way: behind the pilgrimage revival for more on this particular type of walking challenge.

The book as an artefact has received some care and attention. With a Keep Calm era style cover, the text is divided into four evocatively named parts. Tracking covers England, with one word elemental chapters (track, path, chalk, silt). Following ventures to Scotland (water – south and north, peat, gneiss, granite), Roaming takes Bob abroad (limestone, roots, ice). Finally, Homing brings us back to England (snow, flint, ghost, print).

The final 70 pages or so consist of a glossary, notes, bibliography, acknowledgements and index. This last is interesting. Fairly conventional in conception, it includes the following categories:

  • animals, fish and insects
  • artefacts and artworks
  • birds
  • books, writings, stories and film – includes “books that choose the reader”
  • buildings and stuctures
  • countries
  • flowers and plants
  • ideas and practices
  • illusions and mirages
  • institutions
  • islands
  • maps and map making (but no maps)
  • mountains and hills
  • paths and tracks
  • people
  • places
  • rivers and streams
  • rocks, minerals and earth
  • seafaring, sea roads and vessels
  • songs and music
  • towns, villages and cities
  • trees, woods and forests
  • weather

As an indexing experiment, I’d like to have seen the entries mirroring the poetical tone of the text, perhaps tying in with the synopses at the beginning of each chapter.

From the chapter on Granite/Scotland (p198):

We tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we are in them or on them, when they offer us primary sensations of touch and sight. But there are also landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in the memory long after they have withdrawn in actuality, and such places – retreated to most often when we are most remote from them – are among the most important landscapes we possess…these, perhaps, are the landscapes in which we live the longest, warped though they are by time and abraded though they are by distance. The consolation of recollected places finds its expression frequently in the accounts of those – exiles, prisoners, the ill, the elderly – who can no longer reach the places that sustain them.

Update, 2 March 2015; Macfarlane’s new one, Landmarks (Amazon | Spectator), is about to go large. Intriguingly, if wearingly, this is described as a “field guide to the literature of nature, and a glossary containing thousands of remarkable words used to describe land, nature and weather”. See Macfarlane’s word-hoard, doubtless the first of many pieces (and an exhibition):

I organised my growing word-hoard into nine glossaries, divided according to terrain-type: Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands, Coastlands, Underlands, Northlands, Edgelands, Earthlands and Woodlands…Each of the nine glossaries is matched with a chapter exploring the work of those writers who have used words exactly and exactingly when describing specific places.

It seems that there are several other word hoards doing the rounds – see this review of Uncommon ground, with accompanying glossary. As Macfarlane writes: “Smeuse is a dialect noun for ‘the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal’; now I know the word ‘smeuse’, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.”

As John Burnside points out, “Landmarks goes further by enriching, not only our vocabulary of land terms, but also our ways of seeing.” Having recently bought a tree book I’m in with the naming things meme, but re this book I think I’ll stick with this entry from The Digested Read:

Mon-biot: the early morning tweet of the excitable green finch that would have been better off deleted.

Bleeding London: the challenge

We’re just coming up to the first anniversary of this blog – my first post was The lost art of walking, my notes on Geoff Nicholson’s book, published on 5 June. So it’s all his fault…

I’ve published 83 posts (and I’ve a huge  stash of drafts), so this is no 84 and an average of seven posts per month.

On his Hollywood Walker blog Geoff has just posted about Bleeding London: the photo project (Facebook), which has the aim of photographing every street in London:

If the standard A to Z is to be believed, that will involve covering 73,000 streets, an enterprise that sometimes strikes me as utterly insane. At other times however, I think well, let’s imagine the RPS can round up 1000 committed photographers, that’s only 73 streets each, and these guys can take a couple of hundred pictures in a day, so that seems perfectly doable.

While in London Geoff knocked off a square of the A-Z: “frankly it was absolutely knackering, mentally as much as physically (although the expedition only took a little more than three hours)… Here there was the impetus, the necessity, of finding something to photograph in every single street. You could argue that there’s something very democratic about this, maybe something very Zen. Every street becomes equal, you have to find something of interest, something “worth” observing and photographing regardless of where you are.”

Now that’s a challenge for our walks in Danish suburbia! Like writing, photography is a way of exploring the territory (map is not the…) and making it your own. I’ve started taking photos of our five walks and we’ll see what we can do for June.

And it’s low effort/data, building into something else through accumulation. Geoff quotes Sol LeWitt:

When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.

Update, July 2015: the Bleeding London Exhibition is go! Plus Footprints of London’s Jen Pedler is offering Stuart’s first walk, blogged by Geoff. I’m almost moved. Meanwhile, we have coloured in some more local streets, but plenty more still to go.

Sound Transposed

Sound Transposed is a project from Sidelong, a collaboration between Jo Dacombe and Laura-Jade Klee exploring “hidden or unnoticed elements of the landscape through encouraging new imaginative ways of looking and walking” and the idea of curated walks. Two walking experiences already:

Sound Transposed is their third experience,  a walk happening in different places shared by and with participants online, with the tagline “finding new ways of recording, sharing and describing spaces”. Instructions for the walk are generated randomly, with two words drawn randomly from two boxes each month. One box contains tiny scrolls with different words for something you might look for on a walk. The second contains words for how you might describe a sound.

The project was launched on 10 April, with the words revealed. The instructions may be interpreted as you wish, with the results as text, a short video or sound clip or other method mailed to Sidelong by the end of April:


Go on a walk. Describe the sound of a passage on your walk using rhyme.

I’ve put it in my calendar, but have a feeling I may wait for May’s challenge!

Updates: 2 May: here’s the result of the April challenge, A Passage…1 August: not for me.

Five walks: March

Me and the beags have a repertoire of five walks we do on weekdays. After four or so years we’ve got to know the area within a certain radius pretty well, although it’s shrunk rather since the arrival of beagle nr 2 – sniffing time seems to have doubled at least. In March, we tracked our walks on Viewranger and took some photos aimed at capturing the mood – roll/click for more info.

Update, June 2015: we can now do these routes blindfold, and are trying some variations – more soon! In the meantime, Running Hvidovre did their own version, made up of a Linieløbet (dvs Hvidovrevej, 8 km), Bjergetapen (Hvidovre Havn, 5,9 km), Vandløbet (Kalveboderne circuit, 14,9 km), Kirkeetapen (churches, 10,2 km) and Finalen (stadium and circuits, 3,2 km).

Walk 1: Risbjerg Kirkegård

Walk 2: Friheden

Walk 3: Avedøre

Walk 4: Hvidovre Havn

Walk 5: Vigerslev Park

Mark Mason walks the lines

An alternative to beating the bounds is walking lines. I’ve just finished my second book of the year, a record compared with the last few years which I’ll try to maintain. Anyway, Mark Mason’s Walk the lines: the London Underground, overground (2011), is a sort of urban Simon Armitage with a twist of Geoff Nicholson. While it started out a bit slowly, or maybe that’s just my difficulty with reading, by the last third I was galloping through it, turning down corners as I couldn’t bear to get up to get a pencil or paper to take notes.

See reviews on Amazon Goodreads. Mark offers walks on the Piccadilly, Central and District lines on his website, The importance of being trivial, and his follow up, Move along, please: Land’s End to John O’Groats by local bus, looks tempting.

In terms of lines to walk hereabouts, the obvious one is Hvidovrevej, which runs from the fleshpots of Damhusøen to the sea, but it’s not exactly Oxford Street. Back when we had an only beagle him and me did a decent section of our local S tog line, but with two you can’t just hop on a train to get back, and sniffing time is doubled (if not trebled) anyway. In Copenhagen proper there are several possibilities – more S tog lines plus the metro lines, and round The Lakes, which surely must have been done.

Back to the book…my mother was brought up in London, she and my father spent a couple of years there and I lived in south London for several years myself, so it was a bit of a nostalgia fest. I probably know the Northern Line best, which at chapter 6, or around halfway, is where things really started to resonate. Subtitled Nobody sees you, nobody hears you, on the first page Mark asks:

Does London drive you towards loneliness, make you more solitary than you might otherwise be?

He acknowledges “it’s menus for venues…I’d no more want people blanking me in a country lane than every passer-by on Piccadilly saying a cheery hello”, but after a factoid swapping session with mate Richard (“the conversation mirrors the Tube system itself, effortlessly linking up the entire city, tangents and connections getting you anywhere you want to go”) in the name of socialised pedestrianism Mark decides to try walking in company all the same. His chosen companion: Geoff Nicholson.

Geoff’s novel Bleeding London includes a character who walks every street in London, and in The lost art of walking he relates Albert Speer’s virtual walk from Berlin to Heidelberg via 2000 odd laps of Spandau prison garden. He and Mark get on fine – eye contact is minimised when walking, meaning that people talk freely, and they have the stimuli of Mark’s research notes and Stuart’s sightings from Bleeding London, as well as a brief Routemaster conversation:

My story about hearing one drive past our cottage in Suffolk one night, and looking out to see that it was a 159, the route I used to take to Jo’s in Brixton, is matched – no let’s be honest, trumped – by Geoff seeing a number 6, his local bus when he lived in Maida Vale, at Huntington Beach in Los Angeles.

In a spirit of joyful melancholy Mark mentions Stuart’s plan: when he’s finished walking London he’s going to kill himself. This plan embodies the theory that we walk as a celebration of death, but also the opposite (citing Dane Niels Bohr: the opposite of a great truth is also true). If there are two contradictory urges within us – to live and to die – then does London satisfy the latter as well as the former?


Great cities are like great art, they’re basically indifferent to the visitor…they don’t try to please us or to ingratiate themselves. So you don’t like London? Big fucking deal…You don’t judge great works or great cities – they judge you.

The real test is to stay in the little place, to see how big a fish we could be in the little pond, rather than contenting ourselves with being minnows on the basis that everyone is a minnow.

Next up the Circle Line, at the heart of a great challenge beloved of Australians – the Circle Line Pub Crawl. Mark embarks on this with Matt, the latter in suede lace-ups. About half way in they start walking (and drinking) separately – Matt drinks faster but walks more slowly. It’s hard work, and all that for the line which goes nowhere. 

Mark concludes his challenge walking the Metropolitan Line at Xmas in the snow. Things begin to get difficult: “I’m not looking around so much, concentrating on my feet…it really does start to feel like my senses are closing down, insulating me from discomfort…Walking brings a heightened awareness not just of your surroundings but of yourself. It just so happens in this case it’s a heightened awareness of how awareness can be lowered.”

One of the reviewers on Amazon castigates Mark for lack of Iain Sinclair, but with an extended section walking with Bill Drummond, musing on his cake circle and soup line projects as well as his circular urban work, Surround, plus taking on Richard Long (Bill says he walked into a gallery showing a Richard Long after following a map on which he had written ‘Bill’ – the gallery was at the bottom of the second L) I think this can be excused.

Earlier on Mark comments that the people he knows in London aren’t Londoners, they moved there. Bill echoes this:

If you’re growing up in some far-flung corner of the British Isles you’ve got more time to dream and make plans and develop ideas. If you’re in London there’s too much on offer, too much to take up your time just consuming rather than dreaming. There’s something deadening about it.

Mark concludes that London isn’t a city but an idea:

It’s just a collection of buildings and roads and parks and Tube stations linked by colourful lines which aren’t really there, just as the dreams and ambitions of all the people who come to London only amount to anything if you imagine them as a unified whole.

London is in our mind. But then our minds are all we have, and all we need.

For more Tube goodness see #underground on the A/drift Tumblr and the Tube category on Mapping London, an unending source of fascination. More London walking challenges aplenty on Walk London, plus a final nod to A series of tubes, who set out to walk London’s Tube lines for charity in 2011 and seems to have done five so far. Updates: found another – London buses, one bus at a time is the record of three ‘ladies who bus’, travelling every London bus route from end to end since 2009…here’s Diamond Geezer on the All Lines Challenge.

Postscript, 16 Feb: just finished Geoff’s Bleeding London. While not the sort of thing I normally read, if anyone ever asks me for a list of walking novels it can go on the list next to Harold Fry. The section on guided walks is great fun.

Post-postscript, 24 July: someone’s only gone and walked all the streets of central London – see Noelle Poulson’s Congestion Zone and Londonist interview. That’s dedication. I find I tend to drift, and not just because of the beagles.

how much of the Tube is actually underground?

how much of the Tube is actually underground?

Beating the bounds the canine way

I’m on the look out for a walking project that can be done with two beagles in tow  – or rather by two beagles with me in tow.

Beating the bounds has a certain attraction. Geoff Nicholson has just posted on walking within bounds, exploring the boundaries and maps of Hollywood. That done, he ponders the feasibility of walking systematically down every street:

I probably have walked down every street in Hollywood, though I may have missed the odd one, so doing it systematically, marking it out on the map, filling in the grid, does have it’s appeal, the problem is that in the end I’m not a very systematic walker.

Being Denmark, there’s only really one Hvidovre map:

Hvidovre kommune

Hvidovre kommune’s municipal boundary – view on Google Maps

I reckon we’ve pretty much covered the central areas bounded by the E20 and the 21, although systematic colouring in remains an option. The outer areas are a bit more of a problem.

Meanwhile, having been on holiday for 10 days the beagles are back and beating their own bounds. This involves systematic sniffing of every yard of pavement down every street. On our first two walks the amount of sniffing far exceeded walking, but today we made it a bit further – all the way to Hvidovre’s north western boundary.