Montrose, and Lola Montez …

History can be deadly dull. Names, places, dates, events.

What of course makes history interesting is the ‘story’ aspect of it, the interplay between people and events, and also how people got on with everyday life. And of course, there are these occasional wild exotic characters that really you couldn’t invent with any degree of credibility. Characters who seem completely theatrical, such as Jane Ellenborough and Lola Montez, women who both had affairs with Ludwig of Bavaria, and who by force of circumstances took to living on the wild side, and embraced it with gusto.

In the case of Lola Montez, sometime mistress of Ludwig of Bavaria, sometime an exotic dancer who caused near riot in Castlemaine with her ‘spider dance’, she seems to have been destined to live fast and die young.

Her mother was from impoverished Irish gentry stock, who like so many genteel women of that time escaped the life of genteel poverty chronicled by both Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters by marrying an East India company officer and moving to India.

In due time, little Lola was born, except of course she wasn’t Lola then, she was Eliza Roseanna Gilbert. And then as often happened, her father died. The British in India died young, usually of drink or disease, rarely due to fighting. The cantonments of British India were surrounded by graveyards.

Her mother remarried in due course and Lola’s stepfather thought she should be sent to school in Britain, choosing a school in Montrose in Angus where she would be close to his family.

School was not a success. Lola lasted eight or so months in dourly Calvinist Montrose, where she caused outrage by running naked down the high street, for what reason no one knows. She was moved on to other schools, acquired the conventional accomplishments of a mid Victorian young lady, and in due course a husband, another Indian army officer, who promptly ran off with a fellow officer’s wife, leaving Lola on her own and without an income.

She tried being an actress, but was apparently terrible. She tried being a dancer but was not much better, and somewhere along the way hit on her true talent. I would say to be a courtesan but that would be unfair, her real talent was as a businesswomen to turn the money she acquired from her exotic activities into a successful and notorious saloon in California’s gold country. From there she toured as an exotic dancer including to Victoria’s gold country, which says something about nineteenth century communications and how fame and notoriety was spread by the press.

She was a larger than life character, someone who in the course of her career went from abandoned wife to a dalliance with Liszt to someone who negotiated with Metternich’s emissaries during the 1848 insurrections when her lover Ludwig was indisposed to a California bar and brothel owner.

If it was fiction it would seem unbelievable, but as fact …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Drinking beer with socialists …

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll be aware that we recently spent a few weeks in the old Habsburg lands. We arrived in Vienna on the last day of April, meaning of course that the next day was the First of May and therefore a public holiday when most things, other than art galleries and museums, were closed.

So what to do?


Well, we went to the SPÖ – (Austrian Socialist Party) May Day manifestation for a beer and a sausage.

Getting there involved walking up from our rented apartment past the university and through the alphabet soup of left wing politics – the various parties and factions each had their own corner of the park, the Worker’s party having better music, the Kurdish Worker’s party better food, and so on but the SPÖ – that was the big one in front of city hall.

It was strangely like the 1980’s Labour party in Britain – red banners, speeches against austerity and the roll back of social benefits, and generally in favour of refugees and human rights. But it was Vienna and the crowd – everyone from old guys who’d clearly been in the party for years to young families with kids stood around and listened politely and drank beer.

And then, at the end, they played the Internationale. In 1980’s Britain it would have been the Red Flag, but here it was the Internationale. People sang along and old guys gave clenched fist salutes. It was strangely moving to see people who obviously still believed in the left wing dream, and something that reminded me of other, past, times when politics seemed to matter.

And then it was over. People finished their beer and walked off, perhaps home, perhaps to another manifestation, or perhaps just for a picnic in the park. That wasn’t the end of it. The communists had a march to Parliament protesting about cuts, and that was a pretty friendly relaxed affair, despite the police escort, some left anarchist faction lived up to the stereotype with hectoring speeches (and no food or beer) from the steps of the parliament building  about the coming revolution.

When we walked back the Left worker’s party had quite a decent punk band playing and people were standing round having a beer and generally treating it as a day to relax, more a festival of the left than the prelude to revolution. The whole thing made me quite nostalgic for my younger days in trade union and left wing politics. It was very reminiscent of a time we tend to think has passed …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Roman remains in Ethiopia

Last weekend (yes I’m still catching up) brought news of Roman artefacts being found in 2000 year old graves in Aksum, in Ethiopia, suggesting a healthy trade between Aksum and Roman Egypt, if not directly evidence for the presence of Roman merchants themselves.

Intriguingly, there are old twentieth century reports of Roman coins being found out of area in what is now Kenya and Uganda, along with one from the Congo.

One could perhaps argue that these coins had come via merchants at Aksum and have been traded on, or carried as keepsakes, like East India company Rupees among the hill tribes of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, they may have simply been valued for the good quality of the metal, rather than the monetary value per se …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Train Travels in Mitteleuropa ..

When we recently spent five week overseas in Vienna, Budapest, Slovenia and Croatia, we did a lot of our long distance travelling by train – we’d originally planned to do all of it by train but events conspired against us.

I’ve previously written about the ease of booking tickets online – and it’s true it was easy. The only problem was that our tickets from Ljubljana to Salzburg were mail order, rather than online, meaning that they were put in the mail and sent to us.

They never arrived. And no, they weren’t in our mailbox when they got home either. Somewhere, in some foreign mail centre, is a lonely brown envelope with two now useless outdated Slovenian international rail tickets…

Getting the money back from Deutsche Bahn, who’d handled the booking for us, was a hassle, really because the idea of the tickets not arriving was something outside their concept of how things should work. Fortunately, I’d paid for them with my Visa card, and I was able to reclaim the cost that way.

That gave us dilemma – we could buy new tickets, in person this time, or cancel our connecting train from Salzburg to Frankfurt airport and fly direct to Frankfurt.

As there was a series of train driver’s strikes in Germany while we were in Europe, we chose the latter option and and cancelled our Salzburg-Frankfurt train tickets. And I can report that cancelling was easy, straightforward and efficient.

As were the trains themselves (mostly).

The train from Frankfurt to Vienna arrived on time, our seats were there and we had a pretty good journey staring out the window and marvelling at the sheer number of solar farms in Germany, that and the numbers of hare and deer to be seen. On board catering was not wonderful – the restaurant car was really a buffet car that would microwave things, but they did have decent sandwiches – rye bread, salad and wurst.

Needless to say our online print at home tickets worked perfectly, with the train guards having these neat little scanners attached to their tablets.

From Vienna we were going to Budapest and then back via Vienna to Ljubljana where we going to pick up a car, and drive around Croatia and Slovenia. (There is a train from Budapest to Ljubljana, but we eventually discovered they were digging up the tracks somewhere in the middle of Hungary to upgrade them, which meant transferring to a bus for part of the journey. The upside of going the long way round is we got a trip through the Alps.)

OBB – Austrian Railways – have this order and collect system whereby they give you a code and you print your ticket using the code at a machine not unlike a self service airline checkin terminal. I couldn’t find an online guide to using the machines, so rather than trust in my O level German and the availability of an English language option I chickened out and went to travel office in Vienna Hauptbahnhof where the staff would print them for you, which they did.

One little problem was that when I did this, quite rightly, the clerk asked for a passport or id card to confirm my identity.

It of course was the day I’d left my passport in the safe in our rented holiday apartment, and being Australian, I don’t have an identity card. I do of course have a driver’s license, and when I explained that we don’t have id cards in Australia but use driver’s licenses as a surrogate id card they were happy to accept it in place of an identity card.

The train from Vienna to Budapest was a bit of a trial – somewhere just before the border it stopped in a field for forty minutes for some totally unexplained reason, making us late.

Budapest station was a controlled anarchy of taxi touts, hotel touts and the like, and looked on the inside like an old French or Spanish main line station in the seventies – and smelt like one as well, even if the toilets were rather better than the old Gare du Nord.

When I was booking our Budapest – Vienna- Ljubljana journey OBB had been unable to book the Budapest Vienna leg and had advised me to book it separately with Hungarian railways, which after several battles with their website I did successfully.

Like OBB, MAV-Start (Hungarian Railways),use an order online and print at the station model rather than a print at home model.

Perhaps it  was prejudice on my part but after my problems with their website I had doubts about how well their print and collect machines would work. At the same time one glance at the ticket hall convinced me that help would be difficult to obtain. However  Seat61 has this excellent guide to both MAV-Start’s website and ticket collection machines. I’m please to report that the blue print and collect machine just worked, producing the tickets with a sibilant hiss and a clunk.

On the way back the train was on time, leaving us plenty of time for our connection to the Villach train. The journey across Austria was fine, rolling past romantically ruined castles and letting us see a bit of Alp as well.

We were also taken with the slightly oddly named Henry am Zug  on board catering service and their serve at seat coffee service, which consisted of a trolley with a Nespresso machine, which was plugged into the laptop power socket under your seat – left field, but better than most serve at seat coffee.

At Villach we had to change to the Ljubljana train. This was a tight change (only seven minutes) and we only just made it. It was supposed to be a Eurocity train, and it may well have been one on paper but this particular Sunday evening it consisted of three old OBB corridor coaches, no seat reservations to be seen, and none of the promised catering. If it hadn’t been for the train number and destination sticker on the door I’d have thought it was a local train. The fact its first stop was Faak-am-See seemed entirely appropriate.

However, on it rolled, through an impressively long tunnel to emerge in Slovenia at Jesenice, where they changed the engine for a Slovenian one, which at least caused the air conditioning to burst into life, bringing welcome relief to what had been a hot and stuffy ride.

From there the train rattled on to Ljubljana to arrive on time – the main station being impressively graffitied and grubby – a complete contrast to Austria’s near surgical cleanliness.

So, would I use the trains again ?

Most definitely, but next time I think we’d pace ourselves a little more. Frankfurt to Vienna was seven hours, which was just about our (jet lagged) limit. If it hadn’t been for the breakdown, Vienna to Budapest in just over two and a half hours would be fine. Our marathon from Budapest to Ljubljana was fine but took us nine hours – which is a little too long, and having a tight change at Villach was in retrospect not a good idea, but given the choice of seven minutes or two hours seven minutes seemed the better choice.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Watching other people’s history

We’re back from a trip to Vienna, Budapest, Slovenia and Croatia. We were on a holiday and mostly did tourist things, but for quite a lot of the time we stayed in rented holiday apartments which mostly meant that if we wanted to watch TV it was whatever the local cable service provided  rather than the standard hotel fare of CNN, BBC World and Al Jazeera.

We’d left Australia just after the hundredth anniversary of the Gallipoli landings and had been sated on both Australian and British documentaries about World War I.

In Vienna of course it was different. The first world war brought about the end of empire and ushered in the republic. It was also the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War 2.

In the Leopold museum there was an exhibition on the impact of the war on Vienna’s avant garde arts scene, which included remarkable film of the winter war in the mountains – film I’d never seen before. On ORF one evening there was a rerun of a truly remarkable documentary on Franz Ferdinand’s assassination that tried to put it in context with the various Balkan conflicts of the early part of the twentieth century, and again included amazing footage that I’d never seen before, and traditional folk songs about the assassination – we tend to forget that for the people of the Balkans this was one war in a sequence of bloody conflicts between Austria-Hungary and the dying Ottoman empire and its successor states.

What was really wierd was that some of the people interviewed were some of the same academics interviewed in British and Australian documentaries, but they were speaking from a different point of view.

Another documentary was one on soldiers photographs – unlike the British who tried to discourage ordinary soldiers from taking photographs on the front, the Germans encouraged it leading to a vast archive of pictures, again little seen outside of the German speaking world.

There were other things. Not just documentaries but TV dramas – the programs that tell the stories a society tells itself.

Standing out among them was a Sarajevo TV drama about a prosperous middle class family in the 1930’s, but with the subtext that a multi-ethnic society was possible, and another low budget drama from Bosnia that looked as if it was made by the local amateur dramatic society, set in the nineteenth century and about corruption and double dealing during the last days of Ottoman rule.

And photographs – we stayed the night in Krasnja Gora, a ski resort in Slovenia  en route to somewhere. In the square there was a construction site and the fence round the building works had been covered with a montage of photographs of people going skiing in the 1920’s and 30’s, queueing up at the train station with their skis etc. It looked as prosperous, and perhaps a little more so than anywhere else at the time.

It gave us a different view of history, and one that counterbalances the standard anglo view of the early decades of the twentieth century

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

They’re taking down the statues …

News this morning that the statue of Cecil Rhodes has been removed from UCT in Cape Town.

Rhodes was of course an utter racist. By today’s standards much of his behaviour was reprehensible in the extreme. But of course the uncomfortable fact is that to many of his contemporaries his views were rather less reprehensible, and it’s true he used some of his wealth to help found both UCT and Rhodes University.

If it wasn’t for a rather large and prominent statue, it would have been possible to quietly gloss over his role in the establishment of UCT.

But statues are big and highly tangible objects. In both Delhi and Budapest the uncomfortable reminders of the past have been exiled to lonely sculpture parks in distant suburbs, and the last statue of Queen Victoria installed in Dublin ended up as a lawn ornament outside an eponymous Sydney shopping mall.

The statues of Franco have been, in the main melted down, and in Portugal references to Salazar have been removed.

It is a very human thing to try to erase an uncomfortable past.

The act of removal is part of history’s narrative. But it doesn’t change the reasons as to why these objects were there in the first place …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

National Portait Photography prize 2015

Easter Monday was damp and rainy.

Too rainy to get anything done in the garden so we went to the National Portrait Galley to look at this years Photographic Portraiture prize winners.

And I didn’t like any of them.

All super sharp portraits, even those shot on film, and soulless. Technically excellent but lacking soul. It could have been a display of work by wedding photographers.

Personally, I think that it is in part due to the fact that digital makes it absurdly easy to take multiple, nay hundreds of the same shot and then pick the best, and that makes for soulless technical excellence. It’s also why these days I’m more interested in lomography as an art form, using old or simple cameras to shoot on what is often expired film and to see what happens, without worrying about the image quality or if the timing’s quite right to see if something interesting comes out …

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment