Posts Tagged ‘Germany

The Same Procedure As Last Year, Miss Sophie?

- December 30th, 2013

HAMBURG — A man walks into a crowded German bar and says (in English), “The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?”

 

Everyone in the bar (except the English-speaking tourists) looks at him and replies in unison: “The same procedure as every year, James.”

 

Really. I’m not joking. The whole bar (including the English speakers who don’t know what just happened) is laughing their heads off at the end of the exchange, but it’s not a joke.

 

It’s a tradition — a weird 40-year-old German New Year’s tradition that involves a couple of ancient English music-hall performers doing an 11-minute comedy sketch — in English — about a slightly gaga spinster celebrating her 90th birthday with four invisible dinner guests, an increasingly tipsy servant and a passive-aggressive tiger-skin rug.

dinner-for-one_bow

And, of course, that oft-repeated bit of dialogue:

 

“The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?”

 

“The same procedure as every year, James.”

 

It’s all part of a short film called “Dinner For One” with the subtitle “The 90th Birthday” (or “der 90. Geburtstag” in Deutsch) that was first performed live in Germany for comedian Peter Frankenfeld’s TV variety show on the Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) network in March 1963 and, a few months later, recorded for posterity by NDR in a series of repeat performances at Hamburg’s Theater am Besenbinderhof (an old union-hall theatre currently undergoing restoration).

 

Frankenfeld and producer Heinz Dunkhase, while talent scouting in Britain in 1962, had stumbled across Dinner For One being performed in a variety show in the English seaside resort of Blackpool. The soused butler James was played by comedian Freddie Frinton, who owned the rights to the short play, and the aged, dotty Miss Sophie was played by veteran actress May Warden.

UPDATE: Contrary to the standard storyline I repeated above, I’ve just read a conflicting account which says Frinton and Warden first came to Hamburg in 1961 to perform Dinner For One on a live TV variety show hosted by singer Evelyn Künneke. That performance apparently went largely unnoticed by everyone except Heinz Dunkhase who, two years later, brought Frinton and Warden back to Hamburg to reprise their performance on Frankenfeld’s hit show. I really have no idea which is the true story.

 

The rest is history. History in Germany and Scandinavia, anyway. Dinner For One may be almost unknown to the rest of the world, but from Switzerland to Finland it’s synonymous with New Year’s Eve (or Silvester, as the big night is known in this part of the world).

 

 Sylvester_the_Cat

Silvester Is Not A New Year’s Puddy Tat

 

So why is New Year’s Eve called Silvester in Central Europe? Because Dec. 31 is the feast day of Saint Sylvester — Silvester in the original Latin. The name means something like “Woody.” So Sylvester the Loony Tunes cat who’s always chasing Tweety Bird and Pope Sylvester I (who became Saint Sylvester/Silvester after he died on Dec. 31, 335) actually do share the same name as New Year’s Eve in Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic and half a dozen other countries. Not a lot is known about Pope Sylvester I except that he called the First Council of Nicaea (which laid down the law on what was and wasn’t approved Christian orthodoxy), he may or may not have converted Byzantine Emperor Constantine I to Christianity, and he’s the pope about whom documents were forged 200 centuries later to “prove” the doctrine of papal infallibility.

 

And it really is just a fluke that Dinner For One has become this big deal, this New Year’s tradition in Germany. There’s no earthy reason why a short, rather old-fashioned vaudeville skit — performed entirely in English, remember — should be as big a part of Silvester as fireworks and sekt and Bleigießen.

 

After it was recorded (in several versions) in Hamburg in 1963, Dinner For One was shown only a few times on German television through the 1960s, usually as a filler when there was an awkward gap in the programming schedule.

 

That all changed in 1972 — four years after Freddie Frinton had died, oblivious to his forthcoming iconic celebrity status in Germany, a country he rather disliked. In 1972, someone at NDR had the bright idea of adding Dinner For One to the New Year’s Eve programming schedule.

 

For some reason, it clicked. It was an instant hit and was repeated the following New Year’s Eve to even greater response. The next year, some dunderheaded NDR bureaucrat tried to put a stop to the foolishness by blocking the scheduling of Dinner For One. That was one sorry dunderheaded NDR bureaucrat: The outraged reaction was immediate and overwhelming. Dinner For One was shown that New Year’s Eve and every New Year’s Eve since.

 

It was quickly picked up by the rest of ARD, Germany’s public radio and television consortium, and is now shown repeatedly on New Year’s Eve. The record was, I believe, 2003 when Dinner For One was apparently telecast 19 times on various channels. Apparently over half the German population watched at least one showing of it that day.

 

And that’s just Germany. Dinner For One has, through osmosis,  also become a Silvester TV staple in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Austria and Switzerland. In Norway, for some reason, it’s shown on Dec. 23, not Dec. 31. I do not know why.

 

It’s even migrated as a New Year’s viewing tradition to South Africa and Australia.

 

But in Britain, the home of stars Freddie Frinton and May Warden, only a snippet of Dinner For One has been shown on television — and only once, to my  knowledge. Dinner For One has never been televised — at all, ever — on TV in Canada or the U.S.

 

So what’s all the fuss about?

 

Well, it’s about Miss Sophie celebrating her 90th birthday with four dear, old friends who join Miss Sophie for her birthday every year — but all of whom have been dead for at least a quarter century. Serving the food and wine as usual is faithful butler James — who also fills in as the four guests for table talk and toasts to Miss Sophie’s good health.

 

And, since the meal has four courses each with its own wine, and since James is toasting for four … he is soon a very wobbly butler. And don’t forget the passive-aggressive tiger-skin rug I mentioned earlier.

tigerskin

It’s primarily slapstick physical comedy — of which Freddie Frinton is a master — with limited dialogue. The most-spoken words are, of course:

 

“The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?”

 

“The same procedure as every year, James.”

 

Everyone in Germany knows those lines. If you say the first part anywhere — anywhere — in Germany someone, whether you know them or not, will respond with the second part.

 

So is it funny?

 

I think so. I laughed and laughed the first time I saw it. I laughed the second time I saw it. I laughed the third time I saw it. I was chuckling again a few minutes ago when I watched it on YouTube. I’m sure I’ll watch at least one of the television showings this New Year’s Eve. So, yes, I think it’s funny.

UPDATE: Of course I watched it again.

 

You can decide for yourself. Here’s a link to one version on YouTube. I’m not sure if it’s the exact version shown on German TV because it doesn’t have the introduction in Deutsch by an elegantly dressed master of ceremonies that you normally see on the televised version.

 

As I said, there were several versions filmed in Hamburg in 1963. The Swedes show a version with slightly less drinking (I’m not sure how you do that with four toasts by four non-existent guests and one butler) and the Swiss have a version of their own.

 

I believe this is the Swiss version, filmed in reverse from the one I’m used to. (And, like all traditions based on familiarity and repetition, I can barely watch this reverse action. It all seems wrong, disorienting.)

 

I won’t give away the ending, but rest assured — it makes good use of the lines (repeat after me) …

 

“The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?”

 

“The same procedure as every year, James.”

 

dinnerforone

Christmas In Germany

- December 23rd, 2013

 

weihnachtsmarkter-frankfurt

 

HAMBURG — Most of North America’s Christmas traditions — from the lighted, decorated tree to the prototypes of Santa Claus and the Christmas stocking to half of the carols we sing — can trace their roots back to Germany.

 

(Of course some of those traditions arrived via Britain, but most of the UK’s version of Christmas came from Germany too, largely due to the influence of the family of Hanoverian princelings who have been sitting on the English throne since 1714.)

 

There are some major differences, however, between a German Christmas and a Canadian or American Christmas.

 

And I’m not talking about weather, although the North German countryside today (Monday, Dec. 23) looks a lot more like a bucolic Irish springtime than the ice-storm mess currently gripping Toronto.

IMG_9841

Today (above) and one year ago (below).

IMG_1990

 

The biggest difference between Christmas in Canada and Christmas in Germany (apart from the fact that Christmas in Germany is called Weihnachten) is this:

 

In Germany, all the really fun Christmas stuff — like rushing to the tree to open presents, singing carols and so on — is already over by Christmas Day.

 

The big day in Deutschland is Dec. 24 — Christmas Eve — and it really is a big day because almost everything happens that afternoon and evening, including putting up the Christmas tree.

 

Yep, the tree won’t even go up in most German homes until mid-afternoon on Tuesday, Dec. 24. Everyone pitches in to decorate the tree and then goes out to church or visits neighbours or whatever for the rest of the afternoon.

 

(Until the Christmas tree goes up, Germans make do with a hanging Advent wreath holding four candles that are lit one by one on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.)

 

O TANNENBAUM

 

The Christmas tree is pretty much a German invention and is, in fact, older than Christmas. The pagan tribes of ancient Germany brought evergreen boughs into their huts and hovels during the coldest, darkest time of the year to remind themselves that spring would come eventually.

 

A little later, they started burning whole trees outside their homes around the same time to shoo off the winter blues. Eventually the trees were moved inside and the devouring flames were reduced to small symbolic candles to avoid burning the whole house down.

 

When Christianity was introduced, the Germans just incorporated their pagan tradition of the lighted winter tree into their Christmas celebrations.

 

The Christmas tree showed up in England in the 1700s along with the line of German princes who became the British Kings George I, II and III. Mainly because the Georges weren’t very popular, the Christmas tree didn’t really spread outside the royal palaces until young Victoria ascended the throne.

 

The December 1848 issue of the Illustrated London News contained an engraving showing Victoria, her German husband Albert and their brood of children gathered around a lighted and decorated Christmas tree.

V-and-A-Tree-Dec

 

 

That started a Christmas-tree fad among the celebrity-conscious middle class of England, further fueled by Charles Dicklens’ various Christmas stories that were the best-sellers of the mid-19th Century.

 

The Christmas tree seems to have been popularized in North America a bit earlier, during the reign of George III, when German mercenaries hired to help put down that nasty little colonial American rebellion celebrated Christmas with their quaint tradition of cutting down fir trees, hauling them inside and decorating them.

 

Now one thing we need to get straight here is that a Christmas tree is called, in German, ein Weihnachtsbaum since “Christmas” is Weihnachten and “tree” is baum.

 

So now you’re wondering what Tannenbaum is. The “baum” you know is “tree” and the Tanne is just the type of tree — a fir, which is the evergreen Germans prefer for their Weihnachtsbaum. You could also have a Kiefer (pine) or Fichte (spruce ) Weihnachtsbaum.

 

 

Meanwhile, back on Christmas Eve, it’s getting dark and people are gathering back at the house to sing carols and drink hot mulled glühwein (which means “glow wine” but tastes to me more like it’s pronounced,  “glue vine”).

 

When everyone’s attained a certain glow from sharing songs and wine, some mysterious person (could it possibly be Santa?) rings a bell and the assembled celebrants, still singing, traipse into the living room to admire all the presents that have magically appeared under the tree.

 

Then it’s the usual joyous mayhem of present opening and admiring and more present opening and, because it’s evening not morning, maybe a little more glühwein or bubbly or whatever. It’s all just a day early.

 

After the presents — sometimes before — comes a feast fit for a … pauper. Yeah, the one big thing left over for the real Christmas Day is a fancy Christmas dinner. The Christmas Eve dinner is traditionally something plain and simple like wieners and potato salad — just to remind everyone that Mary and Joseph were poor folk travelling on a tight budget the night Jesus was born.

 

Christmas Day itself is a bit of an anti-climax (apart from the big dinner) just because the excitement of the present-opening is already a fading memory. It’s sort of like New Year’s Day a week later — the aftermath, the clean-up-and-count-your-casualties day that follows the truly big event the previous night.

 

Of course, because all the fun’s already pretty much over, Germans have decided to double their ennui by having two days of Christmas — Dec. 25 and 26 — which is really more like having two Boxing Days (although Germans don’t use the term “Boxing Day” and don’t have Boxing Day sales — the stores definitely stay closed both days of Christmas).

 

Another Christmasy thing Germans have two — or more — of is Santa Claus. But he’s not called Santa Claus in Germany: He’s called Sankt Nikolas in early December and he’s called der Weihnachtsmann (the Christmas Man) in late December. Depending on who you ask, he’s either the same guy or two different guys.

 

Sankt Nikolas shows up on the night of Dec. 5-6 (since Dec. 6 is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children and other criminals) to bestow small gifts on children who were smart enough to put their shoes by a door or window, just waiting for kindly old Nick to fill them with candies, small toys and so on. It’s where the concept of Christmas stocking came from, in other words.

Sankt-NikolausSaint_Nicholas

Germany’s Sankt Nikolaus (left) and Saint Nicholas (right), the 4th-Century Turkish bishop whose Dec. 6 feast day got melded into the whole Christmas package.

 

He’s got half a dozen other names in other parts of Germany — along the Rhine, Sankt Nikolas is also known as Pelznickel (“Pelz” being fur) for example — but you get the drift.

 

weihnachtsmann

Weihnachtsmann — or is this Sankt Nikolaus just dressed as der Weihnachtsmann?

Then this other guy (or maybe the same guy), der Weihnachtsmann, shows up on Dec. 24 to deliver another round of bigger presents. In the Catholic south of Germany, kids used to believe that Baby Jesus brought the gifts, but Weihnachtsmann has pretty much taken over everywhere now. Over the years, Weinachtsmann has basically morphed from a Father Christmas character to the basic Santa Claus image. It’s all rather confusing but the kids don’t seem to mind as long as somebody keeps delivering gifts.

 

Speaking of confusing, let’s look at what Germans call the various days of Christmas.

 

Everything’s “holy” — which makes sense, given that the whole holiday season is supposed to be celebrating the birth of the little holy being at the centre of  Christianity.

 

But Germans have a couple of words that mean “holy” — “heilig” and “weihen” — and they attach them to different days over the holidays.

 

Christmas Eve is Heiligabend (Holy Evening).

 

Christmas Day is Weihnachten (Holy Night).

 

Go figure.

 

Anyway, I have to stop now because Heiligabend is almost upon us,  there are presents to wrap and Weihnachtsmann is on his way. Frohe Weihnachten (Merry Christmas) from Deutschland.

 

FroheWeihnachten

Russia’s Gay Crackdown Claims New Victim — Fashion Sense

- October 2nd, 2013

German-Sochi-uniform

Germany unveiled its 2014 Winter Olympics team uniforms Tuesday to a rainbow of reactions — oohs and aahs and gasps and giggles. And a few hearty guffaws.

 

The uniform colour palette is, well, basically everything. As you can see, the jackets are striped yellow, white, green and blue with white pants for the men and patterned red and orange pants for the women athletes (and black pants for team officials).

 

There’s definitely a 1970s vibe going on there. Or, as ESPN said, “German uniforms scream ‘Brady Bunch.’”

 

But a lot of people — at least those not blinded by the rainbow glare of the uniforms — are seeing much more in the German team outfits. They are seeing what The Huffington Post called “a powerful political statement.”

 

“Political” because, of course, Vladimir Putin, the gangster president of Russia, has stepped up his pogrom against gays in recent months (with widespread public approval, I should add). Russian authorities have said they will enforce laws against “gay propaganda” during the Winter Olympics in Sochi and have threatened to arrest any foreigners — be they athletes or tourists — who show outwardly homosexual or lesbian behaviour or who promote gayness in any fashion.

 

Of course there has been all sorts of international outrage, including the ongoing boycott of Russian and (supposedly) Latvian vodka, but no actual boycott of the Sochi Olympics themselves seems to be brewing in any corner of the Olympic world.

 

And the International Olympic Committee seems to be siding with — or at least appeasing — Putin by threatening to ban any athlete wearing a rainbow pin or other symbol of support for the gay-lesbian-etc-etc community in Russia at the Winter Games.

 

So that’s why the design of the German team uniform is being hailed today as such a “powerful political statement.” The day-glo jackets and pants are seen as just one big gay-pride, rainbow-flag hug for Russia’s gays.

pride-flag

Of course, German officials are vehemently denying the connection, as they must to avoid any possible IOC sanction.

 

But, you know what — I think the German officials are being straight-up (sorry) and I really do not think the Team Deutschland uniforms are a phantasmagoria of colours to show intentional support for Russia’s gay community. I think it’s just a happy coincidence.

 

I think the uniforms are gloriously, painfully ugly on their own merits. After all, Germany’s Olympic uniform designers have a track record of coming up with splashy, pretty-darn-gay outfits all on their own, without a political or social-conscious push of any kind.

 

You probably don’t remember, but here’s a look back at Germany’s Olympic uniform from the 2012 London Summer Olympics.

2012-London-uniforms

And here’s the uniform Team Germany wore for the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

2010-Vancouver-uniform

To tell you the truth, I actually don’t think the new jackets look so bad — without the red and orange bloodbath pants. Look at the guy below in the white pants. The jacket doesn’t look nearly so garish on him, does It?

 

German-uniforms-male

Besides, the uproar over Russia’s gay crackdown only really heated up a few months ago and Olympic uniforms take at least a year, usually much more, to be designed, developed, haggled over, approved, changed, re-approved, manufactured, modelled and marketed. It’s big business and not something that’s going to be flipped over in a couple of months on a political whim. (Adidas is the clothing supplier for the German team.)

 

Anyway, there’s going to be a much more potent symbol of gay solidarity circulating at the Sochi Olympics — and it has the Russian government stamp of approval.

 

The Russians have just unveiled their official Sochi 2014 Olympic mittens. Here they are.

Olympic-mittens

What do they remind you of — especially with a couple of dabs of orange and purple fabric paint?

 

Can’t you just see 5,000 pairs of rainbow hands raised defiantly in the stands at the official opening ceremony? Hopefully there will be a few clenched-fist rainbow mitts raised by athletes on the winners podiums as well. There is an Olympic tradition, you know.

Carlos-Smith

In Praise Of Flipping The Bird

- September 13th, 2013

Peer-Steinbrück-cover

Germany is all a-Twitter today over a magazine cover that shows Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief political rival flipping the bird to the Deutsch nation little more than a week before a federal election.

 

It’s a visually arresting cover (which is what magazine cover art is supposed to be) but it really doesn’t signify much. And it will probably have zero impact on how German voters cast their ballots on Sept. 22.

 

Still, it’s a nice reminder of what a universal gesture of derision flipping the bird (or giving the finger or whatever you want to call it) is — and has been since ancient Greeks first γυρίσει το πουλί.

 

Every time someone with any degree of celebrity extends a middle finger in public, it becomes that day’s trending topic.

Trudeau-finger-Serge-Chapleau-1982

 

Weiner-finger

If it’s not Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga or Keith Richards, it’s Anthony Weiner or Pierre Trudeau or some ancient Greek.

 

The latest in this long line of celebrated finger flippers is Peer Steinbrück, leader of Germany’s centre-left SPD (equivalent to Canada’s NDP) and likely runner-up to Angela Merkel for the post of chancellor in next weekend’s German election.

 

It’s no secret that Merkel is almost certain to head Deutschland’s next government, so many observers are seeing Steinbrück’s gesture in the photo as a defiant rebuke to the voters who seem likely to choose Mutti over him.

 

Merkel’s allies have been quick to label the SPD leader’s gesture “unacceptable for a chancellor candidate.”

 

It’s not really. The photo is just part of a long-running series that Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin does in which celebrities from various walks of life are asked to express without words how they feel about various things

 

In the case of the flipped finger, SZ (as the publication is called) asked Peer Steinbrück to respond to the host of unflattering nicknames his critics have given the SPD leader —  Problem-Peer and Peerlusconi and the like. Steinbrück’s spontaneous reaction was to flip the bird.

Peer-Steinbrück-cover

Now, Steinbrück does have the reputation for being a bit hot-headed and arrogant, prone to speaking his mind rashly and generally being a controversy looking for a place to happen — so the current magazine cover controversy fits nicely into that established scenario.

 

Steinbrück did have an opportunity to veto the cover, however, and chose not to, so it’s not really such an unguarded display of political nakedness as it is portrayed. Steinbrück’s response to the flip flap is roughly along the lines of “It was a joke, dummy. Get a sense of humour or get a life or get something.”

 

The magazine could have picked a number of other images from the Steinbrück photo shoot for its cover, but the finger flip was the obvious smart choice.

 

Here are a couple of other poses from the photo gallery. I think Steinbrück was probably wise to stick with the distended digit cover. It certainly got him a shot of attention in an otherwise sleepy election campaign.

Kiss

Pointing

Crossed

Now, I knew I had written about flipping the bird before but I couldn’t remember when.

 

Turns out in was back in February 2012 (and earlier in August 2011 too, if you must know). The main purpose of that particular blog post  was, from my point of view, to defend the honour and dignity of flipping the bird and to run photos of 20 or 30 famous folks giving the finger for whatever reason. My favourite — the ultimate — always has been and always will be Johnny Cash. More about that later.

johnny-cash-finger

Here’s a REWIND of  the Nosey Parker piece that ran on Feb. 8, 2012, shortly after singer M.I.A. got attention (and upstaged Madonna) by extending her middle digit during the halftime show of that year’s Super Bowl.

(Don’t worry if you don’t remember the incident — it was entirely inconsequential. I just used it as a jumping-off point for a legitimate salute to the noble art and honourable tradition of flipping the bird. By the way, Giants beat Patriots 21-17 in Super Bowl XLVI, if you forgot that too — as I did.)

And now, without further ado, I give you … the finger:

 

I may be the only person in the world who didn’t see M.I.A. flip the bird to the Super Bowl multitudes.

 

Doesn’t bother me. I never heard of M.I.A. before and hopefully never will again now that’s she’s had her five seconds of fame.

 

What does bother me is that she somehow misappropriated a fine finger gesture with a noble heritage and used it for her own calculated, crass, publicity-seeking ends. Shame on you, M.I.A.

 

And shame on NBC and the NFL for apologizing about the gesture. They should apologize for giving M.I.A. a massive international platform on which to abuse the gesture. But “the finger” itself is blameless — honourable, in fact.

 

“Flipping the bird”  or “giving the finger” has been recorded as an expression of rude derision since the time of the ancient Greeks and was probably in use long, long before that.

One might almost say it’s a primordial instinct.

 

The_Finger

 

I’m not going to get into the origins of the gesture (and the related British “two-finger salute”) because, frankly, no one knows for sure where or how it came into common usage. And it just doesn’t matter.

v-sign-winston-churchill-fisherman

It’s one of those things that is so right and so righteous (when used properly, of course) that Moses may as well have brought it down from the mountain along with those tablets.

 

The key element that makes a bird properly flipped or a finger properly given is a sense of real, heartfelt outrage.

 

Angry-finger

Sometimes it’s joyously obscene or just plain frivolous, but usually giving the finger is so far away from any sexual or scatological connotation as to be essentially unconnected.

willie-nelson

 

At its best, the finger (or fingers, if you’re British) is a spontaneous gesture of such genuine and immediate sentiment that it cuts deeper than any word or weapon.

 

middlefinger

And it’s an underdog gesture. Flipping the bird is an expression of defiance, of resistance, of unbending, unwavering opposition to the target of the flippage.

 

It’s generally a gesture of the oppressed, not the oppressor, which is why it’s gotten an undeserved bad rap in “polite” (read “dominant”) society.

 

You’ll never see royalty or a president flip the bird.

bush-finger

 

middle-finger-obama

Oh, never mind.

 

But the fact remains that for the finger to be effective, it should be from the heart and express a deep, personal antagonism. Not a flash of irritable pique from a spoiled celebrity.

 

justin-bieber-middle-finger

Oh, never mind.

And you really can’t do rock ‘n’ roll in any of its forms without having at least one obligatory bird-flipping photo in your press kit.

billie-joe-armstrong-finger

70517-madonna

dan_hicks-1

tupac-finger

iggy-pop-middle-finger

lady-gaga-finger

 

KURT-COBAIN

Keith-Richards

Anybody (even a Godfather or a grandmother) can flip the bird — it’s the great equalizer (and it’s always at your fingertips when you need it).

marlon-brando-godfather-bird

granny

Now I’m going to show you a few photos, many of which you will have seen before, of various people flipping the bird in an appropriate matter. In most cases, I’ll tell you a little story with each photo.

realkid

Most people know this photo: It’s an Internet classic. What you probably don’t know is where the photo was taken and who the kid is.

 

Reuters photog Jasper Juinen made the image at the 2002 UEFA Cup soccer/football final between Holland’s Feyenoord Rotterdam and Germany’s Borussia Dortmund in Feyenoord’s home stadium.

 

The kid is Mikey Wilson, then five years old, and he’s wearing a Feyenoord jersey so I think it’s safe to say Mikey’s flipping the bird to German fans on the other side of the stadium. Feyenoord won the match 3-2 over the favoured Germans, so maybe Mikey’s never-say-die attitude in the stands carried over on the pitch.

 

Steve-McQueen

I just like this shot of Steve McQueen giving the British two-finger salute in the 1971 racing film Le Mans.

Eva-Mendes

And I like this shot of actress Eva Mendes flipping a double eagle to someone in a restaurant. Actually I think the birds are meant for the photographer taking this picture and she’s just turning away from the camera. But it must have been interesting for the people (you can see one) sitting on the other side of glass to ponder why this beautiful angry stranger was gesticulating wildly at them.

 

Now let’s move on to fingers in the news.

 

Less than two weeks after the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster in 2001, New York City was again hit by terror attacks — this time in the form of bio-terrorism. Letters laced with deadly anthrax spores were mailed to newspapers and TV news organizations in New York and Florida.

 

A few weeks later, more anthrax letters were sent to the offices of U.S. congressmen. In all, 22 people were infected and five died.

 

This front-page photo from the New York Post shows editorial assistant Johanna Huden, the first person who contracted the skin form of anthrax on her finger when she opened the Post letter. It expressed the whole city’s defiance and determination in the face of repeated assaults by unknown, unseen terrorists.

anthrax_this

(The FBI investigation eventually focused on a U.S. government scientist, who killed himself as a result. The case was closed and no further anthrax attacks occurred — but we’ll never know for sure if Bruce Edwards Ivins was the perp.)

 

In a way Johanna’s finger flexing showed the same spirit of “carry on” as Churchill’s V-for-victory wartime gesture.

 

winston_churchill_two_finger

 

And then there was the London Sun’s 1990 response to Jacques Delors when the then-president of the European Union suggested that one central EU government should supercede Britain’s Parliament and other national governments.

 

Sun-1991-Up-yours-Delors

 

The front page was the subject of a number of complaints to Britain’s Press Council (mainly regarding the Sun’s perceived anti-French racism). But, as the BBC later said: “(T)he now defunct Press Council cleared the newspaper after (the Sun) said it reserved the right to use vulgar abuse whenever it felt it justified in the interests of the British people.”

 

Hear, hear. Three cheers for “vulgar abuse” in defence of the realm.

 

But my favourite bird-flipping photo is this spontaneous shot of Johnny Cash.

 

johnny-cash-middle-finger

 

Here’s what I had to say about Johnny’s bird in an unrelated Nosey Parker blog post from last August:

 

“This iconic picture was taken in 1969 by rock photog Jim Marshall at one of Johnny’s San Quentin prison concerts. Marshall later said he told Cash ‘John, let’s do a shot for the warden’ and this is what he got.

 

“Cash used this photo for an ad in Billboard (below) a couple of decades later as a back-handed ‘thank you’ to the Nashville music establishment and country radio after he won the 1997 Best Country Album Grammy without their help or support.”

Johnny-Billboard

 

So no, M.I.A., you can’t have the bird. It’s not yours to claim and never will be.

 

On behalf of Johnny Cash, little Mikey Wilson and every other person who has flipped the bird and meant it, who has given the finger to tyranny or tedium and lived with the consequences, I reclaim the bird.

But now, on the count of three, we’re all giving the bird to you, M.I.A. Enjoy.

›››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››››

Oh, what the heck — let’s look at some more photos of celebrities flipping the bird (some in fun, some in annoyance at the invasion of privacy, some simply because they have fingers) just to completely remove any modicum of chance that M.I.A. still comes to mind when you hear the phrase “flipping the bird.”

joan-rivers-middle-finger-

Joan Rivers

madonna

Madonna again (heck it was her show that M.I. A. stole, so I think she deserves extra space here)

ashton-kutcher

Ashton Kutcher

mickey-rourke

Mickey Rourke

queen-latifah

Queen Latifah

 

avril-lavigne-bird

Avril Lavigne

 

kirstie-alley-gives-the-finger

Kristie Alley (really, she’s still a celeb)

HeidiKlum

Heidi Klum (long before she met Seal, so it’s not aimed at him)

 

ozzy-osbourne

Ozzy Osbourne

rihanna

Rihanna

jodie-foster-flipping-bird

And finally Jodie Foster, just because she’s got the longest middle finger I’ve ever seen — a finger meant to flip a bird. Actually, I just noticed most of the women here have longer middle fingers than the men. But that’s a subject for another day.

How To Figure Out A German Election (As If Anyone Could)

- September 9th, 2013

angela-merkel-beer

HAMBURG — You wouldn’t know it from the eerie quiet, but Germans are going to the polls in less than two weeks to elect a new national government.

 

In the murky, diffuse fishbowl of German politics, only two things are clear:

 

1. Although vilified as an austere taskmaster in the have-not regions of Europe, Chancellor Angela Merkel is by far the most popular politician in her own country where she is commonly known (mockingly or affectionately, depending on one’s political affiliation) as “Mutti” — “Mommy.”

 

2. Despite her personal popularity, Merkel has almost no chance of forming a majority government after Germany’s Sept. 22 federal election.

 

That’s not Merkel’s fault. It’s the inevitable byproduct of a complex and counter-balanced German electoral process that has seen only one majority government take power — back in 1957 — in the 17 elections since post-war Germans began voting again in 1949.

 

With coalitions the rule rather than the exception, the German Bundestag has seen political parties of every stripe forge strange alliances of convenience to form governments or throw governments out of office in those seven decades.

 

Germany’s two main parties are Merkel’s centre-right CDU (joined at the hip with its Bavarian sister party, the CSU) and the centre-left SPD social democrats, currently led by Peer Steinbrück.

 

Those two camps now usually split about 70% of the vote with the other 30% going to a smattering of smaller parties, the largest of which are die Grünen (the Greens), die Linke (the Left — the reincarnation of East Germany’s old communist party amalgamated with a leftist breakaway faction of the SPD), and the FDP (free-market liberals, often seen as Germany’s small business party).

 

So far, those are the only five parties (the CDU and CSU are lumped together as one party in all but name) that have held seats in the Bundestag. And those are the five parties that play musical chairs in coalition governments.

 

Other small parties include the Piratenpartei, which sprang up as a digital-age freedom and transparency protest collective a few years ago but now seems to have lost its way and initial popularity, and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a new conservative grouping that is anti-Euro (the common currency, not the European Union itself, at least so far). But those parties are all scrambling for the bottom 5-10% in the vote barrel and probably won’t have any elected representatives in the Bundestag come Sept. 22.

German-parties

But back to coalitions: You can leave die Linke out of that mix-and-match equation, since none of the other parties are willing to get in bed with the ex-communists and die Linke’s leaders say they wouldn’t be caught dead joining a bourgeois capitalist government even if they were asked to join.

 

The other four party groupings — the CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP and die Grünen —  have, however, teamed up in various combinations that usually take their nicknames from party colours.

 

Since the social democrats’ SPD colour is red and die Grünen’s colour is (obviously) green, a SPD-Green government is called a Christmas Coalition. Germany was run by a Christmas coalition from 1998 to 2005.

 

The current government of Merkel’s CDU (black) and the liberal FDP (yellow) doesn’t really have a name, but the possibility of a broader coalition including the Greens has given rise to talk of a Jamaican Coalition — because black, yellow and green are the colours of the Jamaican flag.

 

And a SPD-FDP-Green configuration is known as a Traffic Light Coalition (red-yellow-green).

 

Die Linke, by the way, also stubbornly claims the colour red (for obvious, communist-heritage reasons) but, because the SPD was there first, die Linke are usually given a brown designation on German election graphics. For that reason alone, it’s probably just as well they’re frozen out of any colour-coded coalition mixing and matching.

 

The most important German power combination, however, is never given a cute monicker. It’s just known by the colour combination, Red-Black (or Black-Red, depending on which party is on top), or — more grandly — it’s called the Grand Coalition.

 

It’s almost impossible for a Canadian to fathom a coalition government formed by a working alliance between the Conservative Party and the New Democratic Party, but that’s exactly what the German Grand Coalition is.

 

And, for the most part, Grand Coalition governments of the dominant left and right parties have worked surprisingly well for Germany.

 

Angela Merkel’s first government, from 2005 to 2009, was a Grand Coalition in which her sorta conservative CDU/CSU bloc and the socialist SPD each held eight seats at the cabinet table, including Merkel as chancellor.

 

Many Germans consider that government to have been far more effective and smooth-running than the current alliance between Merkel’s CDU (still healing from internal rivalry during Angela’s first term in office) and junior partner FDP (itself subject to infighting).

 

Peer Steinbrück, the SPD leader currently running against Merkel for chancellor, was Merkel’s finance minister in that 2005-09 Grand Coalition. The two worked well together and are said to have a high regard for one another.

raab-framegrab2

The arschloch comedian is on the right

In fact, when Merkel and Steinbrück faced off a week ago in their only head-to-head televised debate — overdramatically called “Das TV-Duell” — the two politicians were butting heads with a four-member panel of TV interrogators (including a popular arshloch comedian) much more than they were with each other. (And the post-debate analysis was moderated by the host of Germany’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Go figure.)

 

At one point, after a slightly personal jab by the Steinbrück, Merkel turned to the SPD leader with a look of injured reproach and said (in German, obviously), “If this wasn’t an election campaign, you wouldn’t have spoken to me that way.”

Merkel-Steinbruck-2013

I sort of expected Mutti’s next line to be, “Now go to your room until you apologize.”

 

She didn’t say that, of course, but Steinbrück looked suitably chastised and refrained from further uncivil attacks on Merkel.

 

German elections, I should stress here, are so unlike North American elections that it can be difficult for Canadians and Americans to believe there’s actually an election going on.

 

First of all, the vitriol and negative attack ads we’ve gotten used to in political donnybrooks just don’t exist in Germany — by law.

 

Charismatic personality cults and partisan gutter attacks are pretty much drained from German politics both constitutionally and by social convention. That’s because of, you know, the problem Germany had in the 1930s and ’40s with charismatic personality cults, partisan gutter attacks, fascism, state brutality, institutionalized insanity, attempted extermination and world war.

 

Instead, the election campaign seems to focus on vague emotive appeals (like FDP’s “freedom in person” — what the hell does that mean?) or policy pitches.

 

Here’s a look at a couple of fairly representative election posters from the current campaign.

CDU-Linke-posters

Merkel’s CDU is boasting about its record of “Solid Finances.” And the ex-communist die Linke is appealing to Germany’s aging population: “Instead of collecting bottles, a minimum state pension of 1,050 Euros (about $1,400 a month).”

 

The major parties are pretty much in agreement on most issues anyway. Merkel’s centre-right CDU has defanged die Grüne by stealing much of their environmental platform and the centre-left SPD’s usual policy position seems to be, “We’ll do the same thing Frau Merkel is doing — but better.”

 

Consensus and compromise are essentially the hallmarks of the German political process these days. That’s only natural when your government has been a coalition of one sort or another for 60 of the past 64 years: You become very good at negotiating common ground and learn to temper your me-first tantrums.

 

The main reason no party gets a majority in the Bundestag is because Germany has a really wacky system for electing politicians — you get to vote twice, one time for a person and once for a party.

 

The Bundestag has a minimum of 598 members with half (299) elected directly by the voters on a first-past-the-post basis to represent the interests of specific districts.

 

Then you get a second vote for party preference — and it doesn’t have to line up with your first vote in any way, shape of form. The votes cast in the second ballot are added up and another 299 seats are divvied up among various party-appointed slates of candidates (let’s just call them party hacks who couldn’t get elected on their own) according to the percentage of votes cast for each party.

 

The reason I said “minimum” of 598 seats is because Germany has another wacky electoral conceit called “overhang.” I don’t really understand how it works and no ordinary German I’ve ever talked to does either, and it only ever comes into play for the benefit of the two largest parties, the CDU and the SPD, but …

 

When all the party votes are added up, one party or another can actually win more constituency seats than it is entitled to under proportional representation — so it gets to keep all those seats. In the 2009 election, for example. “overhang” added an extra 22 seats to the Bundestag.

 

Look, I told you I don’t understand it. Don’t ask me to try to be any clearer than that, because I can’t. Go ask Germany’s constitutional court  why they have this crazy system.

 

But the bottom line is that the German electorate can vote overwhelming for the individual members of one particular party and then turn around and vote for a completely different party in the second ballot — just to keep one party from becoming too powerful and to ensure that the lesser parties in the middle don’t get wiped out.

 

To avoid the nightmare of the fractured, ineffectual Weimar Republic, however, only parties that receive a minimum of 5% of the total votes cast in the proportional party ballot get to be represented in the Bundestag. That is what has, so far, kept neo-Nazis and other extremist groups out of the political mainstream.

 

In other words, the system is pretty much designed to stop any party from ever getting a clear majority but also designed to keep splinter factions from infesting the political process. The Germans seem to like it that way.

 

See this election poster? It’s from state elections in Schleswig-Holstein last year, but the “Zweitstimme FDP” is the same in the current national election.

FDR-junge-mutti

“Zweitstimme” means “second vote” and FDP is the junior (very junior) partner of Merkel’s current coalition government.

 

The FDP is basically saying, “We know you’re probably going to vote for the CDU or SPD candidate on an individual basis, but use your second vote to keep the FDP alive and able to perhaps act as the balance of power in any post-election cabinet negotiations.” Or words to that effect.

 

By the way, my favourite election poster ever is from the same Schleswig-Holstein state election last year. It’s a FDP poster promoting its position on rural health care, but I just love the feisty old woman with her flock of geese and the cast on her arm.

FDP-ganze

So I hope we’re all clear now.

 

The German electoral system is designed to create coalition governments and thus diffuse power while forcing politicians to seek consensus and compromise. But it can also lead to dithering and lack of clear direction.

 

Maybe that’s fine, maybe not — I really don’t know for sure. I tend to think it’s not so great, especially with the Euro zone still tottering along the edge of an economic abyss and Germany nominally in the driver’s seat when it comes to financial triage.

 

But Merkel has also proven — so far as least — that caution, motherly concern and even inaction can sometimes be a wiser course than rash and ego-driven acts of macho political bravado.

 

And it explains why Germans don’t get all worked up about the outcome of their elections: They know it’s not going to be an all-or-nothing outcome and they know their particular group is going to have a voice of some kind in forming national policy.

 

After the German federal election in 2005, it took two months — TWO MONTHS — of political horse trading before Merkel’s CDU was able to form the Grand Coalition with the SPD. The world didn’t end, the country didn’t fall apart and Germans eventually got a government they seemed quite happy with.

 

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that Germany may be headed for another Grand Coalition after the Sept. 22 election.

 

Steinbrück ruled that possibility out during the TV-Duell a week ago, but that was probably just pre-election posturing, subject to amendment after the reality of post-election stalemate and/or instability settles in.

 

The one thing that is almost certain is that Angela Merkel will be the next Chancellor of Germany, regardless of what form her new coalition government takes.

 

If consensus is the rule of thumb in German politics, there seems to be widespread agreement on one point in particular: Mutti knows best.