Quirky signs with unwitting senses – part of the pleasure of travel in distant places.


This is the name of a well endowed cafe at Leipzig railway station. Not to be outdone, the ship from Riga to Stockholm sports a somewhat different culinary experience:


But my favourite is this one, on the old train from Minsk to Riga:


It took me a moment to realise that there is no red line through the lit cigarette, for in the vestibule at the end of each carriage you can indeed smoke. How civilised!

On my most recent flight to China, I awoke from my drug-induced slumber to find that we had been diverted from Shanghai to Hangzhou. The reason was fog at Pudong. So we landed at Hangzhou and sat on the tarmac to wait out the fog – for three hours. Meanwhile, some older men became rather irate and criticised the flight attendants. Why? They wanted some ‘fresh air’ while we waited. That ‘fresh air’ turned out to be the sort that came through a cigarette filter. They had managed the flight by anticipating the welcome drag on a smoke at the end of the flight. Now they had to wait for an unspecified time on the tarmac, with no ‘fresh air’ in sight. The flight attendants seemed well used to such antics, and calmly told the cranky old men to take it easy.

I did ponder the usefulness of having some nicotine chewing gum on hand, or perhaps a few e-cigarettes to hand around. But it also made me wonder why those men didn’t take pleasure in the withdrawal symptoms. One of the lost pleasures of age and imminent grand-father status is the loss of that pleasure. Why? I think the thing  I enjoyed about smoking most was the withdrawal from nicotine. On the many occasions of giving up, the greatest pleasure of the craving, the bodily longing for a fix, the mental confusion and slowness of time that ensued. It gave me a different perspective on life and allowed me to indulge in my love of asceticism. On the last occasion that I gave up, I treasured the last time I could experience these feelings. No more, I’m afraid …

I wondered whether this insight would help these cranky old buggers on that flight. For some reason, I kept that advice to myself. Instead, it turned out that the fog stayed at Pudong airport in Shanghai, so we disembarked at Hangzhou and they immediately lit up – in the baggage claim area.

Yes indeed, the innocuously named American Legislative Exchange Council held a workshop last year in Salt Lake City called ‘Can Tobacco Cure Smoking?’ It was led by a dentist called Brad Rodu, who is the ‘Chair of Tobacco Harm Research’ at the University of Louisville, a chair funded by … the US Smokeless Tobacco Company. Guess what: they promote snus (chewing tobacco) as a replacement for smokes.  Some more info here and the full at one of the sponsors, the anti-climate change, pro-smoking, and flat-earthers known as the ‘Heartland Institute‘. I’m really pissed off I missed that one.

Apart from the four constituent items of Berlin life – moustaches, a beer in hand while walking down the street, dogs on trains and in shops, and the omnipresent cigarette (Germany would have to have the highest number of smokers, apart perhaps from Bulgaria) – a number of other items have caught my eye.

Toilets are few and far between, which explains the frequent yellow patches in the snow – which has been falling for over a week. So when a public toilet turns up, it is a rather glorious affair. A cause for celebration:

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Of course, you have to pay for the damn thing.

And then, up north while visiting the Wulfshagenerhütten Basisgemeinde, a Christian communist community (thanks Anthony), I came across some stunning ice trees:

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Not the warmest place if you happen to be a bird.

Penultimately, just around the corner and up the Karl-Marx Allee is an old friend:

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Although he still has to contend with Friedrich’s cigar smoke:

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But I am sure Friedrich, the great connoisseur of beers, would have found the following useful:

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I am in the midst of proof corrections for Criticism of Earth: On Marx, Engels and Theology, a hefty tome which is due out in March with Brill and later with Haymarket. So in yet another moment of shameless self-promotion, a section of the preface:

I have put off writing this book for too long, daunted by the endless volumes of Marx’s and Engels’s writings. At long last I opened the first volume of their collected works. Over the next eight months I read the whole lot, instead of the select pieces I had read until then, finishing the last volume on the evening before boarding a freighter-ship bound for New Zealand in June 2008. Vast, tiring and exhilarating, it was one of the great reading experiences I have ever had.

From the nooks and crannies of their youth, with bad poetry, love-letters, angry and worried parents, the story unwound in volume after volume. Marx soon showed up as an obsessive and brilliant writer who cared nothing for his health, even when there was a long history of unstable health on his side of the family. Engels, by contrast, obviously knew how to enjoy himself and unwind: good beer, fine wine, exquisite tobacco and women, mixed in with long-distance hiking and a love for swimming. We follow them through the obstacle course of early political journalism in the face of censorship, arrests and exile in Paris, Brussels and then London. I found myself enticed by Engels’s background, one that was so similar to my own, as well as his remarkable ability with languages (I have come across French, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Danish, Dutch, Frisian, Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Devanagari or Sanskrit, as well as classical Hebrew and Greek). While Engels passed through his hawkish phase and wrote some amazing pieces on battles, campaigns, and the histories of matters such as infantry, rifles and castles, Marx buried himself in piles of economic data and wrote endless notebooks working out his breakthrough-theories. As Marx peaked and burned himself out with the monumental first volume of Capital, Engels kept the whole show together, maintaining his partnership in the firm in Manchester, sending Marx endless pound notes in the post, until at last he could retire and set up both Marx and himself in relative comfort. The formality of intellectual work and the immediacy of journalism finally make way for the intensely personal correspondence. Here, Marx’s obsession with his declining health – especially the interminable reports on those famous carbuncles – shows up starkly (if before he disregarded his health now it is at the centre of his attention), as does Engels’s patience and irrepressibly jovial take on life. And this is how the story closes, with Engels dutifully ensuring Marx’s legacy through a mountain of editorial work on Marx’s unfinished manuscripts (not always understanding them) and yet utterly enthused by the strides taken by the working-class and socialist movement.

When I began writing, I became conscious of the fact that Marx and Engels too were primarily writers. I started to gain respect for Engels as a writer. At times, he may have been too categorical and doctrinaire, not quite shining as bright as Marx, but, at other times, his texts sparkle with insight and observation. Unlike Marx’s intense and obsessive prose, Engels could have a lightness of touch and way of turning a phrase that draws one in. I have read his accounts of the walk from Paris to Berne in Switzerland many times, the travel notes on Sweden and Denmark, his glorious description of the cotton-bale that passes through so many handlers and merchants (swindlers) before reaching Germany, or his letters full of comments on smoking, drinking and women, or indeed his continuous doodles, portraits and battle scenes. Only Engels could write, ‘… now I can shit in peace and then write to you in peace. … Damn, there’s somebody sitting in the lavatory and I am bursting’.[1] No wonder he lived to a good age. His motto, written in young Jenny’s notebook would have helped: ‘Your favourite virtue – jollity; Motto – take it easy’.[2]

Often, Engels had to remind Marx to get some fresh air and exercise instead of sitting on a broken chair at a worn desk in order to write. For Marx was driven by a demanding muse, one that allowed him three or four hours sleep a night, rushed breaks for meals and those endless cups of coffee and reams of tobacco. There are plenty of notes in the letters about working all night, or for thirty hours straight until his eyes were too sore to go further, or Jenny taking over letter-writing since he had dropped from sheer exhaustion. No wonder he became so ill – liver, carbuncles, sores, abscesses, rheumatism, lungs (the letters are full of them) – and no wonder he recovered when on the sea at Margate where he ate well, went for long walks (up to 27 kilometres to Canterbury), swam everyday and slept. He was already sick from overwork in his 30s, was alternating between periods of enforced rest and frenetic writing in his 40s, was spent after Capital appeared at the age of 49, and he could not write anything substantial after that. He was lucky to get to 65.

The image Marx’s father, Heinrich, had of his son in Berlin pretty much sums up the way Marx wrote: ‘God’s grief!!! Disorderliness, musty excursions into all departments of knowledge, musty brooding under a gloomy oil-lamp; running wild in a scholar’s dressing-gown and with unkempt hair instead of running wild over a glass of beer’.[3] Or, in Marx’s own words:

The writer does not look at all on his work as a means. It is an end in itself; it is so little a means for him himself and for others that, if need be, he sacrifices his existence to its existence. He is, in another way, like the preacher of religion who adopts the principle: ‘Obey God rather than man’.[4]

The result was that Marx’s texts are often rushed, dense, endless and written in that atrocious hand. Yet he could also rise from that tangle and produce extraordinarily brilliant stretches of text, such as the Eighteenth Brumaire and The Civil War in France, but it came less naturally to him. I find myself caught in between, preferring Engels as a writer over against Marx, but then taken up with Marx’s sheer originality. And I must confess that I too often succumb to that demanding muse.

[1] Engels 1839ff, p. 411; Engels 1839gg, p. 354.

[2] Engels 1868k, p. 541.

[3] Marx (Heinrich) 1837, p. 688.

[4] Marx 1842i, p. 175.

Does anyone know the address in Berlin of the former Hippel Cafe, where the Young Hegelians (or ‘The Free’) used to meet and carouse all night – Marx and Engels among them for a while in the late 1830s?

(Engels’s own sketch of a night at the cafe).

Warn smokers. No smoking. Strictly. Tea and smoking during the break (in the adjoining room).

Collected Works, vol. 45, p. 568.

P.S. Next: was Lenin a dictatorial centrist, suspicious of workers and keen to keep them out of the small core of professional revolutionaries? Kautsky, Luxemburg, the Mensheviks and others seemed to think so.

In preparation for a book called Intimate Life, I am thoroughly enjoying a re-read of Engels’s early writings in volume two of MECW. One chapter will deal with Engels and sex, while another will deal with the good life – via Engels’s love of beer, wine and tobacco.

A typical evening for Engels while in Bremen (from a letter to his close friend and church pastor, Wilhelm Graeber):

The night before last I had a great booze-up in the wine cellar on two bottles of beer and two and a half bottles of 1794 Rüdesheimer. My prospective publisher and diverse philistines were with me … I can argue six such fellows to death at once, even if I am half-seas over and they are sober … They are dreadfully stolid people, these philistines; I began to sing, but they resolved unanimously against me that they would eat first, and then sing. They stuffed themselves with oysters, while I went on angrily smoking, drinking and shouting without taking any notice of them, until I fell into a blissful slumber (MECW 2: 484).

Or, the only way to read Hegel:

Now I’ll study Hegel over a glass of punch (MECW 2: 487).

Cave on his liking for suits:

Most importantly, they are the reason why the Bad Seeds look like travelling oboe salesmen from Weimar Germany and not like an accidental meeting of chain smoking experts. Suits are a minefield: less skilled exponents (Tindersticks, Gallon Drunk) are often left looking like provincial bingo callers.

Interviewed by John Robinson, New Musical Express.

And a more recent (Grinderman) pic:

(Yes, the book is almost finished …)

Almost makes you nostalgic:

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