Jerome and getting a grasp on the passage of time

It takes me a while to settle down after travelling. And I have been reading four books at the same time which adds to my distraction – Norstedt’s Swedish history 600-1350, David Kynaston’s City of London, David Kitchen’s “The political economy of Germany 1895-1914” and Kelly’s Jerome.

In the last few days, I’ve got a grip on myself and have finished the volume on Swedish history.

I read about Swedish history early on in my stay in Sweden but this was a long time ago now and I want to refresh my knowledge now that my grasp of the Swedish language and other things Swedish is so much better. Reading the first volume of the history series was a very satisfactory experience allowing me to view what I’d learnt about Uppsala, not least the mounds and the stories about St Erik, in a broader context.

My reading plans are always over-ambitious. It feels as if one ought to be able to relax a bit and enjoy life when coming up to 76. And while I do enjoy life, I also live with a nagging feeling of discontent because I don’t always or even often fulfil my plan. I am going to try to use time more efficiently by organising it better – a couple of days a week dedicated to serious projects (those focusing on the state of the world), a couple of days on more escapist pursuits (permissible when one is over 70, a silver bonus…), and a couple of days for commercial activity and household work and other banalities.

Not as a rigid iron law but as a general guide for the direction of travel to make better use of time by concentrating activities.

At the moment, in the run up for Hieronymus day (aka Jerome, the patron saint of translators), I’m spending time sorting my Hieronymus pictures (I have collected about 90 reproductions of art work). I was originally thinking of putting them up in a corner of my flat.  However, as I have pictures of Dorset churches from my Dorset church architecture project, introducing Jerome would give visitors the impression that they were entering the home of a devout Christian, which would sit very uneasily with my self-image. I’m also not at all keen on the numerous pictures of Jerome (Hieronymus) as a penitent or hermit in the desert. I find hermits unappealing and pathological – the self-torture and austere existence. I could live with the pictures of Jerome in his study in his (inaccurate) Cardinal’s kit beavering away with translation but not the pics where he is half-naked or equipped with a grubby off-white cloak with stone at the ready to beat his sinful breast.

And the more you read about a subject the more complicated it gets. I read that Jerome’s library was destroyed by the Goths. If I’ve understood the text correctly that was at Stridon, Jerome’s birthplace (the location is disputed but it was in Italy at the time, on the border of the then Dalmatia, possibly in present-day Bosnia). But Jerome is supposed to have broken with his parents and spent most of his time elsewhere in Antioch, Constantinople and above all Rome. And he is also supposed to have had his library with him in his cave in the Syrian wilderness. Did he move his library around all the time like an early version of David Kendall? Or did he leave his classics behind in Stridon and have the new collection of Christian literature with him. Perhaps further reading will throw more light on this.

He wrote so much that we know quite a lot about him, even his thoughts about the clumsiness of direct translation and the need for paraphrases (complicated when the original text is supposed to be the word of God; my Swedish customers don’t go this far). But the patches that are dark are very dark as we are after all reading about events more about 1,700 years ago.

And as well as reading about him, it’s fascinating to study the development of paintings of him, his traditional attributes and the historical distortions (his supposed status as cardinal and pics of him, hob-nobbing with the Virgin Mary, for example).

Not to mention how the simple statement that he greatly improved the quality of the bible translation by going back to Hebrew rather than translating the OT from Greek becomes complicated when you start to look at what has been accepted as being part of the bible at different times and how he treated these various parts.  

The project easily becomes huge and I want to continue it but I need to set a ceiling on the amount of time I devote to it (as I do for my Dorset church architecture project).

Fifty years with Berlin

Had the scrambled egg at my Copenhagen hotel been just a bit runnier, I would have agreed with the reviewer’s “awesome” . It was all in all a pleasant surprise after an increasingly Dickensian walk through the tatty surroundings of the station.

I appreciated the breakfast as I was too tired last night to go out and eat after tussling with the most difficult part of my journey from Berlin to Uppsala, the underdimensioned Danish railcars from Hamburg to Fredericia, where every vestibule brought associations with the Grapes of Wrath with its uncomfortable heaps of humanity and piles of possessions.

My head is still full of images and memories of Berlin. I realised the other day that it’s 50 years since I first visited the city, arriving somewhere along Ku’damm between Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten and the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedächtnis church, bleary eyed after hitchhiking all night from the Ruhr, part of the journey made as helmetless pillion passenger on a fast motorcycle (this must have been before I reached Helmstedt). Once in Berlin, I went to Bernauerstrasse in Wedding early in the day to look over the wall and wonder at the strangeness of it all.

I spent the night at a commune in West Berlin although I don’t remember how I made the contact. I remember lying on the floor in my sleeping bag, half awake when the police banged on the door in the middle of the night purportedly in search of some mislaid teen. And rattling away on the S-bahn the following day somewhere around Westkreuz  in eager discussion with one of the commune dwellers.

I don’t remember where I slept after that but the next day I went to GDR Berlin, walking in some ordinary residential district close to the centre.

There have been many more trips since then. I often made a detour when I travelled overland from the UK to Sweden, to visit Berlin. I was fascinated by being able to move from one social system to another by a short journey on the S-bahn from Zoo bahnhof to Friedrichstrasse. I was depressed by the heritage of Stalinism which eventually crushed the hopes for a new Germany but relieved by the virtual absence of advertising, the feeling of natural adequacy when objects were products for use and not for profit, the serious bookshops full of classics (I had no problems with shortage of things I wanted to buy, only a shortage of GDR marks).

And fascinated by the quirks arising from making borders between municipal districts into a national frontier. I walked long distances along the border, inspected it more closely from the West as visual access from the east was often shielded. And visited semi-exclaves like Steinstücken where you could wave at people in the East who waved back, as you looked down on the border which was in a ditch at one point. However, I never travelled with the farmer whose tractor was apparently accompanied by the border police to some isolated field in the GDR that belonged to west Berlin. Or with allotment owners whose plots were in the east and who had to ring on a bell on a gate in the wall to be let through, safe in the knowledge that their cucumbers were protected from filchers by umpteen divisions of the Soviet army.

And amusing episodes such as standing on Friedrichstrasse after leaving the border facility when a border guard came running towards me at full speed. Even though I take the little songs about stone faced border guards with a lorryload rather than a pinch of salt, it was still unnerving. The border guard came to a halt before me and handed over various papers and whatever else it was that I had forgotten on his shelf when searching unsystematically for my passport. And then left me with a shy smile.

And another time when a car stalled and wouldn’t start in a street with administrative buildings but few people in central Berlin. And I helped the driver push start his vehicle. I liked the idea of me getting the machinery of the GDR into motion – it’s not often that I feel like Hercules so I have to savour and preserve these moments well.

Later there were more trips to Berlin when I was pretending to do a PhD and even more when one of my children lived there and now again to see friends.

I enjoy the freedom to visit Berlin’s surroundings (just recently to Greifswald) and the city still interests and attracts me but I am nostalgic for what has been lost as well as gained. I felt closer to the old working class Germany in the GDR, the Germany before the horrors of the 1930s and the Nazis and before the American veneer. I was also fascinated by the glimpses of a life that could be organised differently from our western dance around the golden calf or rather timeless dance around the black hole of capital, glimpses of an everyday life without the profit motive that could be seen despite all the distortions of Stalinism.

It’s increasingly hard to see the physical differences between the former West Germany and the GDR. The tone felt different in smaller, less affluent towns like Wolgast on the Baltic but the shops in Greifswald and even more in Potsdam are as plush as those in the old West. An architect could see the still abundant prefabricated buildings, the “plattenbau”, but the tell-tale semi-ruined buildings where ownership is disputed are becoming fewer and fewer in number. And now you have to be in your thirties to have any memory of life in the GDR.