Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Tranquility of Copenhagen

Copenhagen is a city of myths – and  I don’t mean the Little Mermaid. No, the myth of Copenhagen is what is repeated in guidebooks everywhere. What do they tell you? Copenhagen is
  •  Hygge
  • Tranquil
  • Calm
  • A city of bicycles

The only statement of those above with any truth is the bicycles. There are indeed a lot of bicycles in Copenhagen. But the rest is a flagrant myth. There is a frantic feel about Copenhagen that is exacerbated by, perhaps primarily caused by, the endless traffic.

Here is a article by someone who should know better, Colin Amery, from the book Great Cities in History:

Despite the cliched song there is indeed something wonderful about Denmark’s model capital. It is the human scale, the presence of the sea, the Nordic light and the civilized way that the traffic is kept in its place, that all make Copenhagen such an agreeable city.
“Copenhagen and Nordic Neoclassicism”, in Great Cities in History

Nothing could be further from the truth. The centre of Copenhagen is bisected by the unfortunately named Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard, a six-lane highway right alongside the Tivoli Gardens. The walk from the Central Station to the SMK Art Gallery is alongside four or six lanes of traffic for its entire length.

Tranquility and calmness are nowhere to be seen. Rather strangely, the frantic aspect of the traffic seems to affect other aspects of the city as well. Although the food in Copenhagen can be wonderul, there is a frantic feel to some of the stylish restaurants that is rather uncomfortable. One restaurant where we ate had 12 serving staff for 70 diners. At one point in the meal I dropped my napkin, and before I had time to pick it up, it was replaced for me by an earnest waiter. That was the restaurant where we finally started eating at 9:30 in the evening, a Sunday evening, the first time that evening there was a table free.

My complaint is not that the city was frantic – most large cities are frantic – but at the pervasiveness of the myth of tranquility. Perhaps travel writers simply repeat the phrases of earlier writers; otherwise, why would they call a city tranquil when it is not? Why call a city good for walking when it is not? In some of the major public spaces, Copenhagen rivals Washington and Paris for having monumental buildings and roads that condemn the poor pedestrian to insignificance.

You would hope the architects would be on the side of the pedestrians. Yet even the Danish Architectural Centre (DAC) which has just moved into a new and very stylish building is in thrall to the car. A dual carriageway runs through the middle of the building, which is built on stilts over the road, and someone in the design team had the foolish idea of making the traffic visible from inside the building.

The bicycles in Copenhagen are widespread I believe since they are the only realistic way of getting from A to B in a reasonable time. It’s too far to walk to many places in Copenhagen, and buses get stuck in the traffic. I consider myself a hardy cyclist – I cycle regularly in London, and I’ve cycled in Boston and Washington. But I didn’t dare get on a bike in Copenhagen – it looked too alarming to me. Not only the traffic, but the bikes came at me from all directions. 

Truth and allegations in history

A review by Nick Lloyd of recent military history books (TLS, August 10 2018), contains the following remarkable statement.

Inevitably the much-derided peace of 1919 at the Treaty of Versailles (with its allegedly punitive treatment of Germany) hangs over the final years of the war like a black cloud.

Since when was the treatment of Germany “allegedly” punitive? I thought that was one of the reasonable certainties of history, the kind of “fact” that everyone agreed on. Of course, facts in history cannot have the same certainty as facts in science, but in both science and the humanities, there is a common agreement over many issues. When an academic (Lloyd is reader in military history at Shrivenham) questions a commonly accepted statement, the reader expects some kind of explanation for not accepting the consensual position - but none is given in the ensuing review. 

 Given that Germany was not invited to the negotiations over the treaty, and had to pay the equivalent of £284bn at present-day prices, I think it can be assumed there was an element of punishment about the treaty. The disagreement among figures at the time was whether it was too lenient.

Henry James gets the order of chapters wrong

It turns out that for over fifty years after publication of Henry James The Ambassadors, the order of chapters 28 and 29 was the wrong way round. This error was not noticed even by James himself. The error was spotted by Robert Young (as noted in the TLS). 

Does it matter? It might not be surprising that the author did not check his own work for one of the many printings of his books. But how could a widely studied novel not have such an oversight detected? Perhaps it suggests something about the way we read James, or perhaps more specifically the way we approach James' late works. After all, James is "The Master", and masters don't make mistakes.