Saturday, October 28, 2006

River valleys, bright lights, stupidification and the end of an era

Last Sunday I set out on my most ambitious walk yet. My starting point was Monschau, the picturesque little town I mentioned earlier - which, on second viewing, gets an upgrade from "picturesque" to simply "beautiful". Stopping briefly to grab a few Brötchen for the day's lunch, I set off down the Rur valley.

The river Rur was to be my companion for the next 20 miles as I followed its development from streamlike status into a vast reservoir providing much of the water and power for the Rheinland. The first few hours were some of the most lovely of all. Dew still sat on the fallen leaves on the path underfoot, and the air still held that refreshingly sharp, prickly quality peculiar to rural mornings. Most importantly, for about 8km downriver from Monschau there is no road in the deep valley. Having grown up in the UK, where almost every valley of any size has its own metalled road and the accompanying insectlike buzz of traffic, I immediately fell in love with the place. Another Vorteil for Germany.

After meeting a road, the path crosed the river at a bridge and then rose up onto the wooded hillside on the other side, hugging the contour. At a particularly spectacular viewpoint I stopped for a Streuselbrötchen (German speciality: a shortbread-encrusted bread roll. Sounds weird but is delicious). From this point onwards villages started to emerge in the valley. A good while later, about lunchtime, I arrived above Einruhr, where the reservoir proper begins. Here, again, I got to follow a path along the edge of the lake, watching cyclists zip past me and the occasional boat chugging through the water. 5km later I was in Rurberg, where a dam separates the upper from the lower reservoir. I grabbed an ice cream and pondered my next move.

The problem was that the path along the lakeside was awfully long: 13km, to be specific. The map clearly showed a more direct route over the hills, so this was the one I took. Mistake? I suppose I'll never know. In any case, the ascent, about 500m of height in 1.5 km up the hillside, was ache-makingly persistent, and combined with the bright sunshine nearly did for me. Still, the views from the top were amazing. The Rurtalsperre reservoir is incredibly wide at its end point, and in its centre is a wooded, uninhabited island, of the sort you just want to grab a boat and row out to. I descended the hillside by way of a bendy mountain road, and after being passed by at least 50 motorcyclists I reached the Rurtalsperre dam, an incredible edifice. On one side is a beautiful view of the lake; on the other, the valley floor, a dizzying distance below, makes it clear just how deep the reservoir really is. From this point it was only a few more k to a little railway station at the end of a branch line to the middle of nowhere (Heimbach).

In other news, I'm writing this from an Internet cafe again, as my home connection is broken, a mere few weeks after being set up in the first place. The man at tech support seemed to think it was to do with the modem being switched off at the mains every night. I personally think that it's fair enough to do so, as the modem doesn't have its own on/off switch and bright lights in a room where I'm trying to sleep really annoy me. Leaving it on while not in use (as seemingly advocated by Alice tech support) is a waste of energy as well as an annoyance. This particular bugbear is one I've been fighting against for years. In my room at home I have a stereo, and an expensive one, too, with a little light that stays on even if you press its off switch. The only way to kill it entirely is to switch the thing off at the mains - which has as its side-effect the loss of all radio station settings. I had to live with it, in the end. In my opinion, though, it's just bad design to create appliances which aren't allowed to lose power. It is irritating to the consumer and a waste of energy, as I mentioned, but it also displays an incredible lack of foresight on the part of the manufacturer. In Derbyshire, at least, power cuts are far from uncommon, and nowhere is entirely safe from them. (For example, when I was in London the Haagen-Dasz cafe I visited was pretty much taken out of action by an outage in Leicester Square). Surely it can't be that hard to make appliances which need to store information actually store it, as in computers?

One rant is over; another begins. This one's about literature, or, more specifically, a tendency in literature: the tendency to present people as "simple".

I first came across this when I was working on a production of Shakers, by John Godber. I loved the play, the director, the cast, the adaptation - but there was something about the characters that bugged me. It was this: they weren't very clever. Now, don't get me wrong, I have absolutely no objection to lack of intelligence. What I objected to in this case was that entire scenes of the play seemed to be predicated on a certain "simplicity" on the part of its protagonists. Laughs were being drawn from it. Not hearty guffaws, but polite, elegant chuckles at the basic nature of these cocktail waitresses and their "amusingly" blunt or insightless statements.

This came up again when I was in Paris at the Sorbonne. We were reading a text by Maupassant about the commoners of his (rural) region going to market. The course teacher asked us if Maupassant was laughing at these "simple", "basic" people. NO! was of course the answer that was required. Maupassant has, of course, much affection for them, and is simply reporting things the way they are. But I wanted to stick my hand up and say YES! You can't write about how simple and basic these simple, basic (hereinafter referred to as SB) people are without a certain imagined superiority creeping in. Even the implication that these SB people's minds were somehow closed to "higher" things reveals this. I was only prevented from saying this by the fact that my French really wasn't good enough to discuss that kind of thing back then.

I put it out of my mind for a few years - until I read Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

Now I could devote several blog posts to a full explanation of why I hated this book, but the linchpin of my many diagreements with it is the characterisation. Not a single character in the book was believable to me. The village in the book was clearly the sort of "pastoral idyll" inhabited by SB people that I can't stand reading about. You've got the SB communist, the SB royalist, the big strong SB man, the young, carefree SB man... a full cast of them. There are, of course, exceptions. The young, zealous Nazi who comes to realise that what he's doing is wrong. The bold, cheerful, dashing, stiff-upper-lip British officer whose honour proves to be the end of him. These are just clichés. Then we have the central characters, Corelli and Pelagia, each of whom would in roleplaying terms be described as a "Mary-Sue" (or, in Corelli's case, perhaps a "Gary-Stu"). They can do no wrong and are devoid of any particular failings whatsoever, save those which are excusable as fundamentally human. As protagonists they simply managed to infuriate me through their constant, tedious perfection. The nail in the coffin is Pelagia's father Iannis, a man who has travelled the world and holds a doctor's qualification yet shows no signs of any kind of irony when he advises his daughter Pelagia against moving to Italy on the basis that they can't make good meat pies like the Greek can. Hm. Seems that once SB, always SB, no matter where you go or what you learn. He was the hardest to swallow of the whole two-dimensional lot of them.

At the moment, I'm reading "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith. An enjoyable, insightful book in many respects, but even here a bit of SBness creeps in, such as when Joyce Chalfen, an Oxbridge-educated middle class woman, asks a pair of lesbians who've been brought round to visit by a friend whether they use each other's breasts as pillows.

I'd love to say that I have absolutely no idea why writers do this, but the truth of the matter is that it's all too clear. This "affectionate" presentation of SB people is there for cheap laughs. So that the university-educated reader can sit back in his armchair and internally go "Ho, ho, ho. These SB people and the things they say. I'm so glad that I am middle-class, educated, tactful and well-rounded, and all in all a level above these SBs. But I do love to read about their delightful little antics."

Rural people suffer the worst from this (which I, as someone brought up in a small village, strongly resent), but the last example shows that urban dwellers are not immune to it either. However, my experience shows there are very few communities of SB people. In fact, there are very few SB people, period. People have different priorities, different motives, of course! But the sort of shit-headed SB oblivion that "good-hearted, affectionate" literary fiction portrays is virtually non-existent. Writers: pack it in. These people are not a fair target, whether existent or not. The truth is far more complicated. People are far more complicated. And I for one would like to read about real, perceptive people, rather than being assailed with stupidification intended to elicit a few cheap laughs and a fleeting feeling of superiority.

Ritter Sport Ratings

Rum, Raisin & Nut: 8/10
I was surprised to find that I preferred this one to its non-alcoholic counterpart. The rum hits a taste register that otherwise remains unused, in effect adding another dimension to its taste. Not just crunch and squish, but crunch, squish and oooooh.

Whole Almond: 4/10
Nah. Having tried the Hazelnut varieties so recently, I found that almond is a poor substitute. It's that bit squeakier between the teeth, and its crunch is feeble compared to that of the mighty hazelnut. Not a winner.

Diet Half Dark Chocolate: 1/10
Eeeeew. Ritter, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? This is just as dry as the non-diet variant. In addition, it tastes of nothing very much, except possibly bicarbonate of soda. Ick ick ick. What a terrible way to end a great series.

End, yes. This is the end. For, ladies and gentlemen, in my two months in Germany so far I have now tried out every brand of Ritter Sport available in German supermarkets. The league table is presented below. Fear not, for I will try my damnedest to get my hands on others, because I know others exist. In Munich, for example, I remember sampling a Cognac flavour Ritter Sport, and of course the legendary Baileys flavour. Sadly my memory is not good enough to compare one I ate three years ago to one I ate today. But I will hunt them down and bring them to you, my dear adoring public!

League Table
1. Rhubarb, strawberry and yoghurt: 9/10
2. Milk Chocolate: 9/10
3. Alpine Milk Chocolate: 9/10
4. Crunchy Biscuit (Knusperkeks): 9/10
5. Nougat: 8/10
6. Cappucino: 8/10
7= Hazelnut (milk chocolate): 8/10
7= Hazelnut (dark chocolate): 8/10
9. Fine Dark Chocolate (Edel-Bitter): 8/10
10. Rum, Raisin & Nut: 8/10
11. Marzipan: 7/10
12. Blood Orange: 7/10
13. Raisin & Nut: 7/10
14. Vanilla Liqueur Truffle: 7/10
15. Knusperflakes (Crunchy Flakes): 7/10
16. Sunny Crisp (sunflower seeds): 6/10
17. Espresso Crunch: 6/10
18. Half Dark Chocolate: 6/10
19. Amaretto Truffle: 6/10
20. Hazelnut (white chocolate): 6/10
21. Dark chocolate with Creme a la chocolate mousse: 5/10
22. Jamaica Rum: 5/10
23. Kakaocreme (Cocoa cream?): 5/10
24. Peppermint: 5/10
25. Whole Almond: 4/10
26. Golden Peanut: 4/10
27. Yoghurt: 4/10
28. Lemon: 3/10
29. Coconut: 2/10
30. Diet Half Dark Chocolate: 1/10


Little Fi said...

Still no internet? Or just getting a little lazy?!

George Walkden said...

On the contrary as far as both counts are concerned! My internet connection is fixed, but last weekend I couldn't think of anything at all worth writing about in a blog post, given that the Ritter ratings are over and that I didn't go anywhere or do anything the weekend before. This week I have more, so normal posting will resume on Sunday :)