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A MIRROR FOR NUREMBERG, A MIRROR FOR GLASGOW

 

Duncan McLaren

 

DAY ONE


I’m sitting on a bench in the back garden of Schloss Almoshof, with the cereal, water and fruit ingredients of a healthy breakfast spread out over the trestle table in front of me. It feels good to be in Germany for the first time ever, other than when I’ve been on the way to somewhere else. But am I really in Germany? Yesterday evening, I landed at a modern international airport, a place that one could imagine finding close to any Western city. Then, in heat I associate only with the likes of Athens and Istanbul, I was given a straw hat and a bicycle with which to make the journey of less than a mile to the formidably walled sixteenth century castle in which I’ll be staying for the week. If this really is Germany, it would seem to be a toy-land version that’s been dreamed up by a child.


Nicola Atkinson-Davidson emerges from the castle with coffee for two. No child, Nic, but I suppose it’s her that’s responsible for the Nuremberg I’ve so far been presented with. She’s the one that’s here for three months as artist-in-residence. The residency will lead to a show in the schloss towards the end of her stay here. But, the residency is also contributing towards the putting together of an ambitious project that she’s been in the process of developing for months now.


Nic pours the coffee. Actually, she wants to talk about her multi-faceted project right now. We’ve already agreed that this afternoon is the best time for me to do what I really want to do while I’m in Nürnberg (the German pronounciation is something I should try and get used to) that is, visit the Documentation Centre and the Nazi Party Rally Grounds that surround it. But tomorrow morning I’m accompanying Nic to several meetings and I need to be briefed if I’m to get the most out of that process. And so that briefing better happen before I disappear for the day into the turbulent history of the Third Reich. I can’t see me not wanting to talk about that stuff when I get back to castle base this evening. And I can’t see Nic not wanting to discuss such fundamentals either.


So. On one level Nic’s project is simple. She wants local people to contribute to a show of mirrors: one in Scotland, one in Germany. But that is a deceptive and misleading way to put a project that is turning out to be – by necessity - extremely complicated. The show of mirrors in Scotland will be at Paisley Museum and Art Gallery in September, just a few months away. The Paisley contact, with curator Andrea Kusel, I understand. After all, the three of us met for lunch in Glasgow not long ago. Nic explains how this initial contact led to a hook up with Glasgow council departments, then the organisation that deals with Nürnberg’s friendly international relationships, then a twinning officer in Fürth. But, despite my concentration being at a peak of coffee-induced sharpness, the names and the precise sequence of developments, go in one ear and out the other. I retain an overview though. Glasgow and Paisley are near neighbours, one bigger than the other. Nürnberg and Fürth, likewise. Glasgow is officially twinned with Nürnberg, while Paisley is twinned with Fürth. There is no single person or organisation that Nicola can use as her contact in order to achieve all she wants to in the large and satellite Scottish and German settlements. Indeed not: she has to negotiate with lots of individuals in series and in parallel, as it were. Of course, she rather enjoys the process; that’s all part of her work, as I understand it. But it doesn’t have to be part of my work to follow the minutiae. Not yet, anyway. So the names of several organisations and a dozen individuals remain safely stowed away in Nic’s mind. Not mine.


I notice that the day is heating up. Schloss Almoshof’s main function is to host a variety of cultural and social events for the people of Nürnberg in general and the immediate locality in particular. As part of this, there is a nursery sited in the grounds of the castle. It was noisy first thing this morning, when we were still lying in our beds. It’s noisy again now. A little blonde boy who has been running round the castle with a chum suddenly stops at our table and blurts out a full minute’s worth of German. Neither Nic nor I speak the language, but we both make sympathetic eye-contact, and we listen to the stream of earnest words coming out of his mouth. When he finishes, I say much the same as I said to Nicola a few minutes ago:


“That would seem to be an extremely interesting project you’ve got on the go there. And if I can help you with it in any way, either now or in the future, then I surely will.”


Suddenly self-conscious, the infant runs off. And right now it’s equally clear to me what I should do. I have to collect the bicycle that’s been provided for me by Gabi, who organises the art side of things here at the schloss. I must rub sun-block onto my face and ride the bicycle to the airport where I will immobilize it using the key provided for me by Manfred, the castle’s friendly caretaker. Then I will descend into the underground station and zoom south to whatever awaits me when I emerge from – only to immediately disappear back into - the darkness at the far side of town.

----

It’s six o’clock by the time I emerge from the Documentation Centre. The museum houses a superb display of photographs, models, and text (available in English: first time I’ve ever used an audio handset while going round a museum or art gallery). I feel I’ve been given a historically grounded handle on what went on here in Nürnberg between 1930 and 1945. But I’m also feeling a little harassed as a result of having had to hurry through the last rooms of the building. Fact is, I experienced the Nuremberg Trials in five minutes flat. Time enough for a photograph of high-ranking Nazi corpses to make an indelible impression, but I would have liked to spend longer taking in the trial process itself.


I was also hurried along past a platform that sticks out into the open area at the centre of the huge building. The award-winning architecture of the Documentation Centre takes up just a corner of what was intended to be the Nazi’s Congress Hall, and I am now wandering into the middle of the courtyard. Was the platform - which I’m now looking at from the outside and from below - where Hitler was intended to stand at the end of? A photograph on a display board shows me what the building would have looked like if it had ever been completed. A hall with seating for 50,000 party members, all of whose seats would have been directed towards a central plinth where the Führer would have stood and given his audience a piece of his mind. A great white arena under a high flat white ceiling was the intention. The hall was never finished, thank God. What I’m actually looking at is a great curve of red brick wall under a blue sky.


I walk to that very significant spot which is right in the middle of the courtyard (quite a distance away from the platform) and decide to take a picture of myself with Nicola’s digital camera. Nic does this a lot, I’ve noticed. That is, she stretches out her arm, points the camera at herself and shoots. She then flicks the mode to playback and checks to see what she looks like on the screen of the camera. So that’s what I’m going to do. Why? Well, what better place for me to use the camera as a mirror? I urgently need to check that I don’t look anything like a certain leader of the National Socialist Party...

 

 

Hmm, I’ve never seen myself look more serious. I don’t think I do look like him. It’s not just the straw hat and the absence of a moustache. It’s not just the slightly reddened face (is that the effect of the sun or of not having drunk any water for a couple of hours?) in contrast to Hitler’s customary death-pallor. It’s a moral dimension. But no, that’s unsustainable. On the face of it, there is nothing of substance to separate my appearance from that of a tyrant who was only too willing to expend other people’s lives so that a personal ambition of his - a racist vision of the world - could come a little closer to reality.


I walk out of the courtyard in order to make my way to another of the Nazi Party buildings. But which one? Let’s see… The assembly area in front of the war memorial – standing room for 150,000 people and a rostrum for one Adolf Hitler, according to my guide book - isn’t there any more. And the enormous horseshoe-shaped German Stadium with room for 400,000 interested spectators plus one Führer was never built. So that leaves the ‘Zeppelin Tribune and Fields’ as the best bet for my next port of call. Once I get my bearings, I find I’m walking along The Great Road. It’s 60 metres wide, apparently, and it goes on like this for a couple of kilometres. The sunshine is bouncing off the granite slabs and keeping my temperature up despite the bottle of water I’ve now necked. I wouldn’t have guessed this was a road, I would have said it was a car park. That’s because most of it is being used as a car park today. It seems that there is some kind of motor sport event, taking place in the Zeppelin Fields. I haven’t got a ticket to get in, but the spectators are making there way out now, and I’m advised by security that if I leave it half an hour or so I should be able to get in myself without any problem. So I walk round in a big loop, beginning to realise just how huge these Rally Grounds are. I sit down with my guide-book for a while in some shade. Albert Speer’s monumental architecture consciously echoes the architecture of Greece and Rome, I read. Concentration camp labour provided the stone for the buildings, I now know. And as soon as that perspective sinks in, then the buildings strike me as disgusting. Soon the Pyramids are horrible to contemplate as well. Just another case of the lives of hundreds of thousands being turned into monuments to the vanity of an elite few.


When I get to the Zeppelin Fields I am allowed in, sure enough. There are people and vehicles everywhere. But I can see where it is I want to get to. The main ‘tribune’ is the tiered spectators’ area at the front of the Fields, which used to have a giant swastika of gilded copper on top of it. This was blown up at the end of the war by American troops. However, still in existence is one of those optimally situated rostrums that Hitler was so keen on. That’s where I’m heading. I make a start by stepping up onto the white stone of the tribune itself. It’s been used as a grandstand today, and I think the Formula 3 cars have been racing around the great stone construction. There is litter everywhere, though groundsmen are already getting rid of it. I’m being cautious about where I go, but it seems there is nothing to stop me from walking along the top row of the tribune. There used to be a row of columns adding to the height of the structure, but these were blown up when deemed unsafe in the sixties. The place must have looked at its most striking - its most chilling - when in 1936 the pillars and swastika were here, and in addition a cathedral of light effect was created by a hundred anti-aircraft spotlights being switched on at once while directed up into the sky. Enter Adolf from the raised area under the giant swastika to a standing ovation. ‘Heil Hitler’ they all mouthed, as they did that Nazi salute. What was it called again, the stiff arm job? Maybe it didn’t have a name. But if it did I’m pleased to realise that I’ve forgotten what it was.


In this central spot, directly under where the giant swastika used to be, there is a black doorway, which is from where Hitler and his henchmen would have walked out to the adulation of the crowds. On that black door someone has painted a white swastika, and then scored though it and written, ‘no more’ in English. But its crazy of me to pick out that detail, when all around there are garish flags and banners (motor company flags, not National Socialist party ones, I should add). There is a light blue banner covering much of the front of the top of the tribune, advertising Nestlé ice-cream. Looking down from the grandstand I can see a giant screen that is showing a post-race interview. And everywhere there are mechanics and roadies, packing things away.


The Hitler rostrum itself is just a few rows of cement-cum-granite below me. It’s a little balcony with a metal railing all round it. I want to stand exactly there so as to get the precise perspective that Hitler got. Trouble is, there’s a wire fence between me and the balcony. However, it seems that if I go to the side of the fence, and step onto the two-foot high wall that leads to the balcony, then take a couple of careful steps, I’ll be on the rostrum itself. Shall I do that? Well, first let’s read what it says on the wire fence:


Sperrzone
TV Kamera
Betreten verboten
Technischer Aufbau
MotorSport Club Nürnberg


I translate this as permission to go wherever my conscience dictates. Yes, it seems I am allowed to stand on the very rostrum that Hitler occupied. Why else would it still be in existence other than to chasten the living with the mistakes of the dead? So let’s not think about it any more, let’s just go.
The view from here is incredible. I can’t remember ever feeling as weighed-down with what? Not guilt, exactly. The Holocaust was nothing to do with me. But at some level I do feel responsible. If I want Einstein to be part of my tribe – which I do - then I have to accept that Hitler is a member as well. It’s a tribe called the human race and it’s full of plonkers as well as stars. Actually, for me Isaac Newton is a better example of a star than Einstein, because I understand the Law of Gravity, whereas I’m not sure that I do understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. I know how Newton must have felt the day he woke up to the realisation that he could explain almost everything he saw from the window of his Lincolnshire home. He could explain it by the fact that all things in the universe were attracted to all other things in the universe in proportion to their mass and in inverse proportion to the distance between the things. Ha! The simple law explained why the apple fell from the tree to the ground; why the moon stayed up in the sky; why when a man ran he moved across the surface of the earth and not either into it or up into the sky! And I have shared the joy Newton felt on another day when he proved his vision using mathematics. Isaac was humble about his discoveries, invoking the efforts of other scientists when he said he’d been: ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. And so here I am standing in the jackboots of a dwarf. Yes, I feel responsible for the Holocaust, once removed. Hitler was a human being; he was one of us. I’m trying to think how the leader of the National Socialist Party must have felt the day in 1933 that he came up with the Nürnberg Laws that began the disenfranchisement of the Jews in Germany. He should have felt a huge weight on his shoulders. He should have felt terrible. And as I’m trying to get my head round this I look in the camera-mirror:

 

 

If I looked never-more serious in the last mirror, I look never-more steadfast in this one. No anti-semitic laws are going to be passed while I’m standing here. A moral stance has been taken and there will be no shifting from it. I’m not used to taking moral stances. There isn’t an everyday need for them any more. (There are enough people taking a moral stance to keep things going pretty smoothly in my part of the world.) But it’s good to know I’ve got such a thing up my sleeve.


I keep walking. As I make my way to the underground station from which I started my afternoon, I realise that I must be getting close to some other event. I follow the stream of people with picnic baskets and suddenly come across an extraordinary sight. Thousands of people are sitting down over a huge green area. And just as I’m taking in the densely packed scene - brightly dressed people lying on their backs, lying on their fronts, sitting on rugs - music starts up. Classical music. This must be the concert that Gabi invited Nic and I along to. She will be here amongst the sitting thousands. Isn’t that great? A Nürnberg Rally for the twenty-first century.


Evelyn Waugh comes to mind, I’ve been holding off his robust appearance there since rushing through the Nürnberg Trial display at the Documenation Centre, but now I’m ready for him. The British writer, who I hope to be writing a biography about in months to come, spent a couple of days in Nürnberg while the Trials were in full swing in 1946. He described the town as consisting of a courthouse and a five-star hotel in a desert of corpse-scented rubble. Ha! Look at it now. The medieval centre has been rebuilt and the people devote their leisure time en masse to enjoying the fruits of a classical tradition.


A year or so before coming to Nürnberg, Waugh had been given permission by the Home Office to take leave from the army, enabling him to write the magnificent Brideshead Revisited. I suppose the scene I’m looking at now could be related to that book’s protagonist’s surprise and joy when, on taking a day trip out of Oxford during the University’s summer term, he turns a corner and catches his first sight of the glorious stately home that is called Brideshead.


Still fresh from this literary triumph, Waugh’s intention was to write about his Nürnberg visit, at least for journals and newspapers, but all he managed was a single letter and a one-page diary entry. A month or so later he was invited to Spain, and out of this free trip came the short novel Scott-King’s Modern Europe. The premise of the book is that a dim little classics master from an English public school is invited by a post-war socialist government to a celebration of the classical poet, Bellorius, who the classics master knows a great deal about and whom the modernist nation claims as its own. The celebration turns out to be entirely bogus, its sole intention being to create positive public relations for a philistine government. Ultimately, Scott-King is left stranded in the middle of Europe without funds or official status and with no easy way back to his tranquil home village of Granchester. So, it seems that Evelyn felt more compelled to say something about the undesirability of the new post-war socialist administrations in Europe, than to come to terms with the terrible fate of a German civilisation that could be traced back through the Renaissance.


I feel…How do I feel as I look around once more? I’m too tired to think of a phrase that means the complete opposite of corpse-scented rubble, but that’s what I need right now. This place would seem to have risen from the smouldering ashes that Evelyn Waugh looked disinterestedly upon. That the city has pulled itself up by its own bootlaces is another cliché I could use in lieu of the exact words to describe what’s in front of me: this landscape of enlightened listeners. I’ll just take one more picture and maybe that will tell the story as well as any words of mine could do.

 

 

DAY TWO


This morning we had to get going a bit too early for my liking. I didn’t get to lie for long in my schloss bed, listening to the kids arrive for nursery. And there was no leisurely breakfast for me and Nicola, sitting at the trestle table drinking first one then a second mug of quality coffee, swopping notes about life.


In fact we’ve been a bit off with each other this morning. Nic’s got these meetings that she wants me to attend, but which she’d clearly have liked to travel to in solitude, allowing the opportunity for some low-key mental preparation. Instead, there was me walking by her side, if not chatting inanely then at least puncturing her train of thought from time to time in order to ask where we were going and such like. The main problem for her was that, having at one stage shown her irritation, she had to exert a lot of charm demonstrating that I wasn’t being a nuisance and that she was cool with me being there. And I had to waste resources trying to make out that I was relaxed about it all from my own standpoint. Whereas, in fact, for a few minutes I was really pissed off about being there at Nicola’s invitation and yet having become uncomfortably aware that she wanted me to as good as disappear.


We got over it though. And I feel we’re back on an even keel again, thanks to the surfeit of goodwill that I know lies on both sides. We’re sitting in the offices of an organisation that Nic refers to as ‘Internationale’. This runs the relationships of Nürnberg with the cities it’s twinned with. Nic must liase with this place in order to get permission to do what she wants to do. What she wants to do, is to get permission from the relevant authority in the city council to use the interior of a picturesque medieval bridge, one whose covered area used to be the dwelling place of Nürnberg’s former hangman. She wants permission to install the mirrors she intends to collect from residents of Nürnberg in what must be the German equivalent of a listed building, and a most evocative space. The main person Nic liases with at Internationale is Christina Plewinski, who we’ll be meeting for lunch. But Nic’s also been given the part-time services of an intern, called Johanna , and it’s her that Nic is talking to right now.


As I understand it, Johanna, Nicola and I are going to walk to what’s most commonly referred to as ‘The Hangman’s Bunker’, where we’ll meet the bloke who is responsible for the building. We must get his (or his department head’s) permission to use the space as a gallery in which to hang domestic mirrors. So Nic talked through (last week) with Johanna exactly what she wants in a general way to propose to the official, and Johanna has turned it into a page of German. But before the page is handed to him for his perusal, Nic has to check that it doesn’t say anything that could be undiplomatic at this delicate stage of the negotiation. In other words, Johanna is verbally translating her German back into English, and Nic is talking this through with her. A process that is resulting in Johanna making the odd change to the document as they go along.


I’m here to observe in the widest sense, so having understood what’s going on at Johanna’s work-station, I take a wander out into the corridor. There is a display of gifts from Nürnberg’s various twinned cities. A pennant from Strathclyde Police is Glasgow’s most obvious contribution. What other cities is Nürnberg twinned with? There is a pigeon-hole for each city, and each of these is filled with a pile of A4 sized sheets of card. These are headed up: Atlanta, Venice, Cracow, Skopje, San Carlos, Gera, Khorkov, Prague, Haclera, Antalya, Shenzhen and Kavala. I don’t know where about half of these cities are, but I do surmise it’s an impressive list. Glasgow’s card has a pink border and I pick one off the top of the pile and sit down with it in the office. Of course, it’s written in German and so my eye only picks up the odd real name. ‘Robert Burns’, for example. Now the poet had very little to do with the city of Glasgow. And for a second it makes me defensive about having started off my take on Nürnberg by referencing Adolf Hitler. But I can relax about that, because there is a vital link between this city and that individual. Burns and Glasgow, though? I suppose all it means is that with the Glasgow twinning comes a link with the whole of Scotland, past and present. Yes, that makes sense.


I turn over the card and again only a few words are recognisable, essentially the names of the famous: William Wallace and Mary Queen of Scots, for goodness sake. By which I mean they have no solid link with Glasgow, as such, and only an old, historical and semi-fictional link with Scotland. However, near the bottom of the page are the words ‘Alasdair Gray’. Now his novel Lanark is as good an introduction to Glasgow as it would be possible to get. In this bold book, the Scottish city is given the fictional name of ‘Unthank’. The author describes an emotionally cold and intellectually dismal place whose inhabitants are incapable of loving each other. Gray is extremely open and crucifyingly honest throughout, and I imagine any reader (German or otherwise) would be as much struck by these positive Scottish attributes as the negative ones Gray determinedly brings to light.


I’m fascinated by the card, and keep turning it over. From Robert Burns to Alasdair Gray and back.... Which side of the mirror shows the true side of Glasgow, the true face of the Scot? And, talking of mirrors, I wonder what the equivalent take of Glasgow’s International Relations office on Nürnberg is. I suppose I could find out via the PC behind Johanna that I’ve already used to check my e-mail. I sidle over and put ‘Glasgow’s twin cities’ into Google, and there they are: Dalian (China), Havana (where Nic has forged ties and completed a project thanks to resources made available through this official twinning business), Nuremberg, Rostov-on-Don (Russia) and Turin (Italy). What does the Glasgow City Council website say about Nuremberg? Just a sober paragraph about population and economic prosperity. Apparently, Nuremberg is perfectly placed to take advantage of the new markets developing in the east. Nothing about its 1000 years of civilisation, though. Well, what would a Glasgow town councillor know about that? Still, I dare say care has been taken in keeping the foreign city’s pen-portrait from going altogether off the rails:


Senior Council Employee: “Ye haven’t mentioned Hitler on the Nuremberg web page, have ye, son?”


Junior Council Employee: “Not a word about that cunt, boss. Not a fuckin’ word.”


Oh yes, there is something mad and funny about Scottishness. Or at least the Scottishness I was subjected to in early life and which I now carry around with me, unable - and unwilling - to shrug off its distorted reflections.


Nicola interrupts my reverie to let me know that we’re off to the Hangman’s Bridge, with Johanna as translator. Great, I’m all for getting more thoroughly immersed in our host city.

 

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

 

Contributions to following NADFLY works:

 

HANGING BY A THREAD 2006 - 7

Glasgow, Paisley, Fürth and Nürnberg Glasgow’s SECC Pedestrian Walkway Paisley Museum & Art Galleries, Nürnberg’s the interior of the Hangman Bunker and Furth’s Saumweber, Schwabacher Str

 

Bring the Glam to East Kilbride

 

Profiles

 

Duncan McLaren

 

Nicola Atkinson.Davidson

 

Hanna Tuulikki

 

 

PRESS RELEASE

Separate/Together

sound collaboration

 

Nicola Atkinson Davidson

& Hanna Tuulikki

as part of

HANGING BY A THREAD, 2006 - 7

 

 

International artist’s exchange

Nürnberg July - Oct 18 2006

Schloss (Castle) Almoshof

Nicola Atkinson Davidson is living, working and exhibiting in the Castle Almoshof.

 

Black Suitcase from Karachi ( on tour )

Starting with the Glasgow Art Fair and then Los Angeles, who knows where...?

 

Buttons UP

UK, LA, NY, BRAZEN and HABANA

Initiative by Nicola Atkinson.Davidson

 

 

 

 

 


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