June, 2016

now browsing by month



Something really lovely has just happened. Another school exchange, with new friendships made and understanding deepened.

My experience with school exchanges now goes back almost 30 years. I went on one to Germany after learning all of two terms of German, and it changed my life. Unsurprisingly, my ability to speak German was less than limited at the time. But the experience I had with a wonderful family, who just looked after me like I was one of theirs, was something which taught me more than I can probably ever understand. Back then, the trip there involved a train to the south of England, an overnight ferry (not in beds, on those chairs that you can theoretically sleep on) where I learned that I really do suffer from motion sickness, and another train journey the next morning. I can still remember the smell as we stepped off the train in Essen and I knew we were really somewhere quite different. And two weeks later, I was in love with Germany. Without that school exchange, I would never have continued with German for as long as I did, would not have spent many weeks touring most of Germany with the “boy” I had done the exchange with, and would not have ended up living there for several periods of a year or so, including the year when I met Camille. Our children would not have all the friends they do in Germany and they undoubtedly would not speak German today. Actually, they wouldn’t even exist, so that would be something of a moot point.

Since then, we have had more exchange pupils stay with us than I can easily count. Three sets from the one school in Coburg in Bavaria where LoLo just spent her exchange and from where our lovely exchange girls came, one with an Austrian school where our involvement wasn’t quite planned, our year with Maria from Berlin (we still have the photos around the house and on the fridge, even though it was seven years ago), and some shorter ones with people whose families we (meaning Camille, via her sewing courses in Berlin) knew.

Each one has been different, this one has been the most photographed.


Here are just some of the highlights:

The local sheep were being shorn and we ended up with a fleece:


Oreo milkshakes were a big hit:

Exchange-3  Exchange-4

As were the pancakes:

IMG_0220 IMG_0219

The Marmite less so:




We had a short harp lesson:


Met Dumbledore and Harry Potter:


…and only got into trouble once:


Broomstick lessons were apparently very funny…


…and effective – Abbi learned how to summon her broomstick:


We had the best weather on a beach in Scotland in 19 years:


and even remembered the marshmallows this time:


And in the space of 48 hours, we celebrated Christmas, Halloween, Easter and Valentine’s Day (this might not be obvious from the fancy dress competition below, which involved wearing clothes our girls had used when they were about 5):

IMG_7442 IMG_7439 IMG_7437

And then suddenly it was all over, but if you have to leave, you can at least do it in style:



With a combination of smiles and tears:


Before they were all gone:


When exchanges work, they really work, and this one was really special. Everyone ends up pretty exhausted and full of smiles and happy memories. This week, we needed that.

LoLo, of course, had her own set of experiences in Coburg, but that’s her story to tell. I thought this picture said it all:

Exchange 2

From psychology to mass movements

I decided a while ago that I needed to read the definitive book on the psychology of religion. This was mainly because I was looking for a different framework to compare with the experience of living in a relatively closed society like East Germany. The parallels of organisation and structure had struck me many years ago and I wanted to explore the possible similarities, and of course the significant differences. Over the years, I had been struck by some of the similarities in the language used to describe the experience of being within, and sometimes leaving, a controlling religion and East Germany. I still haven’t found that book, but I did come across a very different one which seemed to be approaching the topic in a different way. I could see the potential correlation from the title – The True Believer (no, not the novel by Nicholas Sparks…)

This, I thought, might be what I was looking for. An investigation, if not necessarily an explanation for, the true believers in all walks of life. The people who can exist in a world where they believe things to be true which, at one level, they know factually not to be true.

Eric Hoffer wrote his book in 1951, so a few years after the Second World War and a full ten years before the Berlin Wall. Hoffer himself is an interesting character. He could have been a character in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; he was a migrant worker in California in the 1930s and much of his life is shrouded in the mystery that comes from the poverty he was born into and lived in. He was a nobody and could well have remained so if he had not spent his time reading and writing, making up for his lack of formal education and qualifications. He wrote The True Believer on a plank of wood in the room he rented and there seems to have been no indication that he was even writing this book. And, after all, who would have been interested in a drifter writing a book?

Somewhere along the line, the book caught the attention of President Eisenhower, who quoted from it in one of the first televised presidential press conferences. And then everything changed and he became famous.

So, what of the book?

True Believer

I should start by repeating Hoffer’s important clarification about his work on mass movements. He emphasises that, while he concludes that

mass movements have many traits in common, [this] does not imply that all movements are equally beneficent or poisonous.

So similarities between the development of different types of movement, be they social, political or religious, says nothing about the motives or aims of those movements.

Mass movements begin with the desire for hope and the hope for change.

Those who would transform a nation or the world […] must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope. It matters not whether it be hope of a heavenly kingdom, or heaven on earth, or plunder and untold riches, of fabulous achievement or world domination. […] They know how to preach hope.

They then need to foster a strong sense of unity between members of the movement:

It is perhaps impossible to understand the nature of mass movements unless it is recognised that their chief preoccupation is to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrifice.

In this we have a reminder that this can be either a good or a bad thing, depending on the cause to which that unity and self-sacrifice are directed. It says nothing about the moral value of that cause. The twin evils of the twentieth century, Nazism and communism (of the Stalinist, not Marxist variety) shared the desire for united action and self-sacrifice with those seeking peace and a more humane way of living, even though the causes they were supporting were fundamentally different.

Where some of the psychological traits become more problematic, I think, is in the true believer’s understanding of truth and facts. These words about a ‘fanatical Communist’ can readily be applied to the true believers in a wide range of other causes:

The fanatical Communist refuses to believe any unfavourable report or evidence about Russia, nor will he be disillusioned by seeing with his own eyes the cruel misery inside the Soviet promised land. It is the true believer’s ability to “shut his eyes and stop his ears” to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be […] baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence. Strength of faith […] manifests itself not in moving mountains but in not seeing mountains to move.

You can perhaps see some parallels to current political debates as well as to the kind of cognitive dissonance which can affect members of some religions when facts become inconvenient. Here is another example of the approach which can be taken to dealing with the difficulties logic and reason can otherwise present to ideological movements:

The devout are always urged to seek the absolute truth with their hearts and not their minds. Rudolph Hess, when swearing in the entire Nazi party in 1934, exhorted his hearers: “Do not seem Adolph Hitler with your brains; all of you will find him with the strength of your hearts.”

And of course, having a nemesis is always helpful:

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. Usually the strength of a mass movement is proportionate to the vividness and tangibility of its devil. When Hitler was asked whether he thought the Jew must be destroyed, he answered: “No… We should then have to invent him. It is essential to have a tangible enemy, not merely an abstract one.”

A chilling way to regard other human beings, but one which is perpetuated throughout the ages, just with different groups and with different ways of dealing with them. Witches, Jews, immigrants, always someone else to be someone’s devil. Some of them reappear time and time again as the new, old, scapegoat.

The ideal devil is a foreigner.

If unity within the group is one feature of mass movements, it is also important that this is contrasted with those outside the group:

Every device is used to cut off the faithful from intercourse with unbelievers. Some mass movements go to the extreme of leading their following into the wilderness in order to allow an undisturbed settling of the new pattern of life.

Part of this exclusion of those outside of the group is the importance of obedience to the movement:

All mass movements rank obedience with the highest virtues and put it on a level with faith. […] Obedience is not only the first law of God, but also the first tenet of a revolutionary party and of fervent nationalism. “Not to reason why” is considered by all mass movements the mark of a strong and generous spirit..

When we think of some mass movements, a particular leader comes to mind – Hitler and Stalin are obvious examples of this in our political history. I particularly liked Hoffer’s casual remark that

The well-adjusted make poor prophets.

But of course, a movement needs not just a leader, but a cadre of able and committed lieutenants, and the leader knows that he must have

a capacity for winning and holding the utmost loyalty of a group of able lieutenants. This last faculty is one of the most essential and elusive. The uncanny powers of a leader manifest themselves not so much in the hold he has on the masses as in his ability to dominate and almost bewitch a small group of able men. These men must be fearless, proud, intelligent and capable of organising and running large-scale undertakings, and yet they must submit wholly to the will of the leader, draw their inspiration and driving force from him, and glory in this submission.

There is a danger in reading Hoffer’s work that we think primarily of the examples of mass movements whose aims most people would today regard as insidious or downright evil. But this would be to forget that similarities of features of mass movements are not synonymous with the moral value of the movements themselves. Workers’ movements have led to great social progress. Gandhi and Mandela remain examples of the founders of movements which had laudable aims and changed whole countries for the better.

Hoffer’s book is not the one I started looking for, but I am glad to have found it. It’s also a remarkably easy read given the complexities and potential sensitivities of its topics. I still have to find that other book though. So far, it is proving elusive.

And now for something entirely trivial…

I promised something lighter this week, although it’s actually a bit heavier than I had expected. About 2 kilograms heavier, I think.

There is a formula for the optimal number of bikes someone should have (so I am told, admittedly by someone who kept his bikes in his bathroom in his last place). The formula is n + 1, where n is the number of bikes you currently have. There is a bike for off-road, one for long distances, one for pure speed, one for the track, one for commuting… for example. Because n + 1 is infinite. But the bike that probably doesn’t get onto the list of “must have”s is one I have just bought. But I think it is the answer to the questions I have been grappling with for years.

  • How can I get a bike, a harp and two daughters into a Honda Jazz?
  • How can I avoid the utter mindless frustration and emotional outbursts from it taking 30 minutes to drive the last 1.6 miles from school to work in the morning?
  • How do I balance the obvious advantage of a car on country roads when I hardly use any petrol at all with the equally manifest advantages of a bike once I get within 5 miles of the city centre and everything grinds to a halt?
  • And how can I get around the city faster during the day for meetings, festival events (counting down the weeks until the Book Festival, Fringe and official Edinburgh International Festival), getting something from the only shop in Edinburgh that sells [insert random object that I actually do need].

Put like that, the answer is obvious. But I had to discount leaving a bike at school (gates are locked outside of school hours, for one thing, and I’m pretty sure it’s not meant to be my bike park), sticking a bike on the car roof (every day? I think not) and getting an electric bike so I could just do the whole trip by bike (I remembered the bit about taking girls to school).

So I bought a folding bike. It sits happily in the boot of the car…



…beside the harp if necessary, it’s always ready to go (about 30 seconds to put everything into place)…

Looking weird

Halfway there

it has lights and mudguards – so totally practical – and it’s just fun.


Ready to go…anywhere

I mean, when was the last time you rode a bike and had a small child call out “that’s a cool bike” as you sailed by on your tiny wheels that don’t feel tiny at all. I mean, the thing just flies along, I have to remember not to go so fast along the canal path that, very helpfully, takes me pretty much from school to work – no need to go on a road at any point. But slowing down is more about the fact that I am doing the ride in my suit, not my lycra (you’re all welcome).

Door to door for the school to work leg is about the same as the car journey on a decent day, faster than on a bad traffic day, slower than on a school holiday day, but there is one critical difference that cannot be measured in minutes saved or lost. I arrive with a smile on my face. Just like when I do the whole trip on my single speed bike in summer when I don’t need to take anyone else with me. Yes, you can get between the Borders and Edinburgh on a bike with no gears, including up all the hills, and it’s consistently faster than on my bike that has twenty something gears. You just ride more efficiently and learn the value of momentum and just deciding to get up the hill (I always end up overtaking other bikes uphill because you don’t have the option of slowing down and changing gears – you just go for it).

On my little Brompton, I think I get the best of both worlds and the ability to get around extremely efficiently. We will see how things pan out in winter…

My plan is to take it with me to London for the two meetings I have there in the next month. Office to train station = 15 minutes faster than walking, then no need to take the Tube in London (woohoo!), and I get to arrive with a smile on my face again. Assuming I don’t get lost, I suppose.

It might not be the bike on everyone’s list, but I’ve already fallen in love with it.

And it gets worse

I’m planning on a trivial blog next week. I hope.  But not this week. This week I am hopping mad and sometimes just writing about it helps.

Here’s my scenario for you. You need to buy a car. The ticket price is £1,000, but you are a good haggler (I’m not) and you get the price down to £900. You go home and tell your family. What do you say the car cost? £1,000 or £900? You might say, I did really well, it would have cost £1,000, but I got it for £900. But it didn’t cost you £1,000, so why would you say it did? This is not difficult. It is a matter of facts.

Last week, I wrote about Leni Riefenstahl and how she used her immense talent to promote the evils of Nazism and the persona of Hitler. I’m escalating it this week. And, like last week, this is not about politics, this is about truth versus lies. And yes, I’m going to be as black and white as that.

So, Joseph Goebbels. Minister for Propaganda and an absolute zealot when it came to Hitler and National Socialism. And a man of many contradictions. He had no hesitation in telling the German people what he wanted to be true, even when he knew it was false, if it served his aims. And from him we have the playbook of how to lie on a grand scale:

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

In the current excuse for a debate about Britain’s future membership of the European Union, the Vote Leave campaign has been hammering home one figure and associated concept time and time again. This is how they word it in their campaign literature:

“The EU costs us over £350 million a week.

“We are still sending £350 million a week to the EU.

“We will keep sending at least £350 million a week abroad.

“Permanent handing over of £350 million a week to Brussels.”

Got that? Four times in one document (five, if you count the time they tell us we would stop paying that much if we left the EU).

It is a lie, pure and simple. A lie that follows the Goebbels playbook of making sure it’s big and keeping repeating it, even when you have been told (as if you didn’t already know) that it’s not true. Remember the car? We are being told, again and again, that the car cost £1,000. It didn’t. It cost £900. And it’s not even that the car cost £1,000 with some cash back later on. It only ever cost £900 (and, in the case of the EU, you then got a large proportion of that £900 back in grants and other money to spend on your home or garden, but at some point the analogy breaks down).

Does it matter? Morally, I think unequivocally yes, it matters. We are asked to place a degree of trust in politicians. Our system of democracy (stop laughing in the back) grants them the authority to make significant decisions on our behalf. And yet some of them, including cabinet ministers and wannabe next prime ministers, wilfully lie to us when it serves their purposes. In my opinion, lying to the electorate does nothing to serve democracy, nothing to further a meaningful debate, and it will have a lasting impact of reducing further what trust we do still have in politicians. I will be honest, I am keeping a mental list of the politicians who continue knowingly to peddle this lie. I will never be able to trust any of them in the future, knowing that they have no scruples about lying to me about something as straightforward as this – and defending the lie when challenged.

I’m not alone in being more than a little troubled by the promulgation of non-facts in this campaign. Andrew Tyrie, Chairman of the Parliamentary Treasury Committee, summarised his committee’s report by saying

Both sides in the referendum campaign have traded in outrageous claims and unsubstantiated assertions, masquerading as “facts”.

And on the £350m figure, the committee was incredibly clear:

Brexit will not result in a £350m per week fiscal windfall to the Exchequer as a consequence of ending the UK’s contributions to the EU budget. Despite having been presented with the evidence contradicting this claim, Vote Leave has subsequently placed the £350m figure on its campaign bus, and on much of its recent campaign literature. The public should discount this claim. Vote Leave’s persistence with it is deeply problematic. It sits very awkwardly with its promises to the Electoral Commission to work in a spirit that reflects its “very significant responsibility” and the “gravity of the choice facing the British people”.

What a very British way of saying “They are lying to you”. Now, Vote Leave are not alone in talking factual nonsense in this referendum campaign. Theirs is just, in my opinion, the best (that should probably be “worst”) example of a lie on such a scale which is being told in what we like to think is a more enlightened age than 1930s and 40s Germany was. But people haven’t changed. Some still lie to us, abusing their position for their personal aims and ideology, and some of us will always believe it, particularly when it plays to our existing views. Confirmation bias, anyone?

While I’m on my soapbox, here’s another parallel with German history that worries me, this time from my home patch of media ethics. When politicians are up to no good, we have the media to hold them to account, to challenge them, to ask the questions we cannot individually. Jump forward a few years from the 1940s to East Germany. The media are under effective state control, the flagship newspaper Neues Deutschland is required reading (or at least subscription) for Party members. And it was unashamed in calling itself “Organ of the Socialist Unity Party” (the ruling party – and at this point, let me just say that the Party and country were not socialist, they were parts of a Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship that was socialist in name only). I will give them this – they were honest about their allegiances. I think the Daily Telegraph should be equally honest and include in its masthead “Organ of the Vote Leave campaign” given the incredibly biased coverage of the campaign over recent weeks. I rather hope that, one day, someone will do what I did with East German journalists and ask some of the Telegraph journalists some difficult questions about their concept of media ethics and how their professed values could be considered consistent with what they wrote – and did not write. I would buy that book.