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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

A sad walk around Berlin

Our late colleague and friend Brian Micklethwait was very good at making people think. In particular he was very good at making me think, and even at times making me write. Often he would say something interesting that would make me write something as a response that I would never think to write for any other reason, and this blog, his own blog and its predecessors are full of articles and comments that were responses to things he started me thinking about. He had a tendency to repost my comments as articles when he found them particularly interesting, and many of our conversations took place in the articles and comment sections of various blogs. He loved posting photos of quirky things, fascinating objects, major pieces of architecture and engineering and interesting maps of places around the world that looked like they might be interesting.

Brian was not a great traveller. He was very pro-American, but he never visited the United States. He had done some travel earlier in life – including some behind the Iron Curtain before it fell, which I wish I had been able to do – but in the final two decades of his life when I knew him, he only ever really left London for regular summer trips to visit some friends in France. He clearly enjoyed this immensely, but travel was too much of a hassle for him unless there was warm hospitality as well as good company at the end of it.

He did, however, inspire me to travel. I saw photos of interesting things on his blog, and I researched them and wanted to go there, and I often did. He found this amusing, but he also liked to talk about what I had seen and photographed with me, so this continued the thoughts and conversations. (I still haven’t been on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, alas, although I have been on the similar but not quite as spectacular Matheran Hill Railway south of Mumbai).

In any event, in March this year Brian posted a pictographic map of Berlin in 1440 that he knew nothing of the origins of Berlin, but that he found the map interesting, showing a town or small city on two islands in the river Spree with a third island on the left that was at not that point significantly populated. As it happened, I knew relatively little about the origins of Berlin either, but I was instantly curious. I have been to Berlin many times, but I couldn’t have told you where the original town was. (Actually Berlin was technically two towns at the time – Berlin on one island and Cölln on the other). So I researched it, and discovered that although Berlin had some medieval city walls, these had not protected the city well in the Thirty Years War. The relatively unfortified city had subsequently been fortified into a star fort between 1650 and 1683, at which time the two outer streams of the river surrounding the three islands had been turned into a moat and the inner banks replaced with high walls. These walls then subsided into the swamps on which Berlin was built and were torn down starting in 1734, after which the two outer streams of the river were filled in, leaving only one island. The route of the north-easterly wall/stream was eventually used as the route for the Stadtbahn – Berlin’s main east-west railway. The south-easterly route, well, it was filled in and replaced with a layout of streets. Where it was is not obvious on a map or in a photograph.

I also found some modern maps and photographs of Berlin, and sent them to Brian. The inner island, the Spreeinsel, is recognisably the same between the oldest map and the newest photo, and does still have some remnants of being the important centre, including Berlin’s protestant cathedral, but the northern half northern half of it became the site of Berlin’s greatest museums, many of which have been reconstructed in recent times and restored to something even beyond their pre-WWII glory. In the comments, further conversation ensued. More people got involved in the conversation.

Inevitably in all this, I booked a trip to Berlin to wander around and look at the city from this new (or old) perspective. This was originally booked for April 2021. This was optimistic on my part given the circumstances, but I have actually done a lot of optimistic booking of travel over the last 18 months, the vast bulk of which has subsequently been rebooked, postponed and/or cancelled. (Lots of things have been ludicrously cheap to book due to travel companies promising anything in return for being given even small amounts of money, and have then been deferred to the indefinite future. Hopefully these companies will not now go bankrupt when they are forced to catch up with their liabilities). In any event, this trip was postponed to this month.

And, well, on Friday October 15 I got on a plane having received the awful news earlier in the day that Brian had died that morning.

Trying to find old things in Berlin is a struggle. There was a fairly small town there in 1400, but since then it has been drained, expanded, made a provincial capital, rebuilt, fortified, invaded once or twice, expanded again, demolished, rebuilt again, expanded some more, fortified, rebuilt again and turned into an imperial capital, torn down, blown up, bombed to rubble, blown up some more, turned into a communist capital, demolished again, neglected, expanded some more and rebuilt again and made into a national capital, just giving he highlights. In most cities, the geographical and historical bones stick through. In Berlin, much less so. The watercourses to some extent, but that is all.

I attempted to look for remnants of the old city walls. In most cities it would be helpful to type “[City Name] wall remnants” into Google, but “Berlin Wall Remnants” gets something else. To make things even more complicated there was another wall, the Customs Wall, that was built around 1737 for tax collection purposes (boo). Most Berlin place names refereeing to gates (most notably the Brandenburg Gate) refer to this wall. So, I actually found myself looking at the original maps of Berlin in 1440 (and the later map of the star fortress in around 1683), looking carefully for the rights bends and branches and former branches of the river. I started well, finding a piece of (obviously restored) medieval city wall in Littenstrasse>. But that was it for finding further pieces of wall. I followed the approximate line of Littenstrasse through Alexanderplatz, just to the south of the Stadtbahn along the top of what had been Alt-Berlin.

The street plan had been changed by the centuries and the Prussians and the fascists and the communists, and I found nothing more medieval. I crossed the Spree at Bodestrasse, between the Neues Museum (now again containing the bust of Nefertiti, as it did before 1939) and the Berliner Dom, the now restored protestant cathedral that had still been in post-WWII ruins when I first visited Berlin in 1992. I then doubled back to the top of the island before walking past the Humboldt University of Berlin, through Bebelplatz (site of the Nazis infamous book burnings), past the Roman Catholic St. Hedwig’s Cathedral (at present closed for the East German post-war modernist restoration to be removed and replaced with something more tasteful and less full of asbestos) and Oberwallstrasse, Niederwallstrasse, and Wallstrasssse, the latter three streets following the route (with a little straightening) of the wall of the star fortress, at least some of the bends in the shape of that wall being apparent. And back where I started, but on the other side of the river, having circumnavigated the old cities of Berlin and Cölln.

But there was one more thing to see. When we were looking at old and new pictures of Berlin, Brian’s cousin (I think) David Micklethwait commented that the only building that could be seen in the first, last, and intermediate pictures of Berlin was the Berliner Schloss (Berlin Palace), originally the Churfurstl Schloss (Elector’s Palace), home of the heads of House of Hohenzollern during their long journey from Margraves of Brandenburg to being Emperors of Germany before Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate in 1918.

Except, I did some further research and it is stranger than that. Rather than being the oldest building in the later photo of Berlin, the Berliner Schloss is actually one of the very youngest – the current building was completed in 2020. The original building was badly but not irreparably damaged in World War 2. The East Germans at times used it as a backdrop for a War movie (including firing live ammunition at it), partly repaired it and used it as office space, denounced it as a symbol of Prussian militarism, and finally demolished it in 1950, partly for ideological reasons but mainly because they were arseholes. The Palace of the Republic – the East German parliament – was then built on the site. After German reunification in 1990, the new German government demolished this building, partly for ideological reasons and partly because it was full of asbestos.

After much discussion, the Palace was rebuilt as the Humboldt Forum, a museum featuring a reconstruction of the Berliner Schloss on the exterior but with an entirely modern interior. (The result was then denounced by the New York Times as an attempt to hide the history of Prussian militarism). Brian found this amusing, as it fitted in with another of his ideas – the triumph of modernism on the insides of buildings but not so much on the outside. His recent thoughts on this subject came in the context of hospitals, alas.

So, I finished my walk around old Berlin with a visit to the Berliner Schloss / Humboldt Forum. And, well, it’s weirder than that.

If you are going to reconstruct old buildings after a war, there are a few things you can do. You can take what is left, and use modern techniques and designs to rebuilt the rest, leaving you with a building that is half and half new and old. (Lots of buildings in Britain and for that matter in West Germany that were quickly rebuilt after WWII are like this). You can reconstruct the new parts in hopefully a sympathetic and complementary style, but also in such a way that the new bits are obviously new rather than old. (Much of the recent restorations of central Gdansk are like this, and I like them a lot). You can attempt to restore the damaged part of the building to the same design as before. The aforementioned Berliner Dom is an example of this. Or you can demolish the ruins and start again, either in the same style or differently. Rebuilding exactly what was there before (as was done in the centre of Warsaw) perhaps works if you do it right away (as the Poles did) but the longer you leave it, the more the result looks like trite and artificial, at least at first. (For an example, look at the Dresden Frauenkirche. It’s a brand new Baroque building with no wear built to modern health and safety standards)

And well, the architects who rebuilt the Berliner Schloss decided to make the fact that it is a reconstruction obvious, by building the front wall (including the main entrance) and two side walls as perfect reconstructions of the original down to every detail, but the back wall in a rather severe modernist style. Similarly, the main courtyard has three interior walls in the Prussian Baroque style of the original building and one in modernist wall. If you look at the building from the front or the sides, it looks like an (admittedly brand new) Prussian Baroque palace. From the back, it looks like a modernist building. From other angles, it looks mostly like an old building, but not quite.

Does it work? I’m not sure. It would have no chance of working anywhere other than in the strange city of Berlin, which is a mix of old and new and original and reconstructed and broken and repaired and has been a showcase of every German regime for the last 500 years – for good or for bad.

A month ago, and a year ago, and ten years ago, and twenty years ago, I would have talked about all this with Brian when I got back. I might have e-mailed him photos when I was still there. There would have been more sharing of photos and conversing and commenting on blogs. He might well have called me an idiot if I said something I disagreed with. I have no idea whether he would have liked or disliked the rebuilt Schloss Berlin, but he would have had something interesting to say about it. He loved talking about what buildings looked like in the context of the surrounds of the cities they were in, and found that too much architectural commentary didn’t focus on this and instead talked about buildings in isolation. I agreed with him on this point, which is one reason why I go places to see stuff.

Anyway, the point is that I miss Brian. Fuck cancer.

Final farewell

Brian Micklethwait departed this world earlier today, leaving the samizdatistas poorer for his absence but richer for his lifetime dedication to the cause of liberty.

Very interesting on-the-ground report from Kabul

Very interesting chat between CNN’s international correspondent Clarissa Ward in Afghanistan and Freddie Sayers of Unherd. This is great stuff and why independent media is so valuable.

Routing around censorship

The vulnerability of people expressing their views via other people’s platforms was pointed out by Glenn Reynolds back in the fairly early days of blogging when almost every blogger was hosted on a blogger.com site, with a .blogspot.com at the end (can’t find Glenn’s remark to that effect online but first half of the 2000’s I think). And .blogspot.com sites steadily became slow and buggy as hell. This technical risk largely ended when people moved away from the increasingly unreliable and clunky hosting and set up MoveableType or later WordPress sites hosted all over the place.

But by 2010, blogs were no longer at the centre of what was now being called ‘social media’, with Facebook and Twitter being where the mass eyeballs were, blogs becoming more of a niche thing. This brings us back to the risks Glenn warned of, but dialled up to 11 this time, with less technical and more political concerns.

I am seeing an interesting development in response to Big Tech shutting down voices dissenting from The Narrative, with people taking their discussions away from curated platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook (who still get to act legally as if they are not curated platforms)… and onto Telegram groups, like for example the delightfully named Slightly Offensive (with posts like this) or global anti-lockdown stickerists White Rose.

These groups are somewhat clunky and it is harder to spread interesting post via links (they are more phone/desktop app oriented rather than web-friendly), but this does show the social media landscape is still changing.

The Life of Brian

Dear fellow friends of Brian,

Many of you will have received Tim Evans’ email below with a message from Brian Micklethwait telling us that he has lung cancer. Brian asks that we boost his morale by telling him if and how we have been inspired or influenced by what he has written, said, or done.

Since several of us at the IEA have been inspired by Brian, we would like to invite you to celebrate ‘the life of Brian’ Micklethwait on the evening of Friday September 3rd, at the Institute of Economic Affairs, 2 Lord North Street, London SW1P 3LB. The event will be from 6pm to 8pm, but you are welcome to stay on until Brian decides to go home. Consider it a special edition of Brian’s Fridays, with Brian being the topic rather than the host.

If you are able to attend, please can you reply to VIPEvents@iea.org.uk so we know numbers in advance. If we have more than the maximum capacity of the IEA, we may have to seek another venue.

Please save the date in your diary and forward this email to fellow friends of Brian who are not in Tim’s distribution list below.

Can I also ask for a volunteer who would be willing to be the recipient of photos and short videos of Brian as well as video messages from those unable to join us, so that these can be shown on the evening.

We will send further details over the next few weeks. In the meantime, please do keep emailing and/or phoning Brian and writing about him. I know Brian is looking forward to us all joining him on September 3rd.

Best wishes,

Professor Syed Kamall, Institute of Economic Affairs

A dastardly personal attack

I thought it was a photoshop prank when I first read Matt Walsh’s tweet, but this does appear to be a genuine Independent headline: “Rightwing blogger launches gofundme for AOC’s Puerto Rico grandmother in latest personal attack”

In an attempt to shame Ms Ocasio-Cortez, Mr Walsh then started a gofundme to raise money for the congresswoman’s grandmother’s home repairs, paying just under $500 into the fundraiser himself.

Ben Shaprio, another conservative commenter who regularly attacks the congresswoman, also donated $499 and called on other conservative media personalities to do the same.

The fundraiser’s goal of just under $50,000 was met and exceeded by Friday afternoon, currently sitting at just under $60,000.

“Hi @AOC, we are raising money to help your abuela. It’s been inspiring to see the response so far. Can you send me a DM so that I can get the necessary information to ensure that this money makes it to your grandmother? Thank you!” he wrote on Twitter.

So long as the money is transferred as promised, and is transferred without strings attached so that Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s grandmother can turn right round and give it to her granddaughter’s re-election campaign if she wants to, I felt that the Independent‘s description of this as an “attack” was… incomplete.

Just as a discussion point for the libertarian argufiers out there: in what circumstances would giving someone money, or giving their relatives money, actually violate the non-aggression principle?

Banned from Twitter

I just got banned from Twitter, which I do find hilarious to be honest, given the things they tolerate. Have no intention of pressing that ‘remove’ button. Wotevah…

On Gab.com from now on, was moving away from Twitter anyway as more and more of the interesting people have been banned.

I foresee a steady division process in which Twitter only tolerates what Kristian Niemietz describes as “high status opinions”, with platforms like Gab, Minds and Parler etc. becoming the home for contrary views. In short, social media will be more of an echo chamber, much like it was during the ‘golden age of blogging’ 2001-2009, when you knew exactly what to expect from a given site (such as this one for example). I always saw the whole point of platforms like Twitter as being where things get mixed up and people spar across the divide. But that will increasingly not be the case, so not sure what Twitter et al are really for.

Take action now… because choices will be made for you if you do not

If you do not hold the ‘correct views’, the time is rapidly approaching that you need to find alternative venues for expressing those views. So set up your own blog (& do NOT host it with a company owned by Big Tech) and/or set up accounts on alternative platforms that do not depend on the very worst of Big Tech.

It is only a matter of time before Twitter, Google & Amazon makes the decision for you, either kicking you off platforms they own directly or taking down other platforms they disapprove off by denying them hosting. Gab and Parler can be accessed via the web, and the Parler app can still be installed on Android devices. It’s a quick and easy process.

And if you are still using an iPhone and want the app… consider making your current iPhone your final iPhone.

Dissenting views are under attack and the people doing the attacks do not even need to hide the fact anymore.

We are seeing the second coming of new media

On this day back in 2001, the first iteration of Samizdata haltingly plopped onto the internet, wide eyed and not quite sure what to make of itself.

Why did Samizdata happen? Because every time a ‘news’ feature appeared about the 9/11 atrocity, I and other assorted stalwarts were done shouting at the television screen (remember them?). That was the trigger, but frankly there was much more to it than just that. It was years, decades really, of seeing the mainstream media’s disconnection from common sense and observable reality on a great many issues. We were sick of the BBC, Robert Fisk, CBS, The New York Times, ITV, Dan Rather, The Guardian, CNN, all of them.

Glenn Reynolds created Instapundit and showed the way… and we followed (Samizdata was the UK’s second political blog, the first being the long vanished ‘Airstrip One’). Many more piled into the scrum, most now long extinct. Blogspot hosted most of the new online blurting initially, they were the blogosphere’s training wheels, even if most of us eventually moved elsewhere. We held blogger bashes, networked, and people got drunk and ended up with regrettable tattoos. I met Andrew Breitbart (truly amazing guy) and Arianna Huffington (um, yeah) and they were heady days, the wild west era of the opinionated internet. We had our own platform to say what we wanted to anyone who cared to listen (which back in the ‘golden age of blogging’ circa 2002-2008 was about 30,000 people a day for Samizdata, vastly more for Instapundit or Andrew Sullivan). We were social media before anyone called it social media.

But times move on.

Gradually the internet ecosphere changed, the cacophonous mosaic of a gazillion blogs were steadily overshadowed by bigger and taller things. In their place came walled gardens that commoditised the users in return for ‘free’ access, most prominently Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The very term ‘blog’ seems a bit archaic now, I tend to use the term ‘independent site’ these days. And independent sites like this one remain, as does Instapundit, but we are just part of a much bigger and far more managed internet, a fringe sitting on the edge of the new on-line mainstream media, which is what Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are, the new mainstream media with all that implies.

Heh, meet the new boss, same as the old boss; rolls of barbed wire are appearing atop the garden walls. With the internet rapidly becomes far more stage-managed and tightly controlled than I would have guessed possible almost twenty years ago, we are seeing a second wave of independent sites. And they are driven by the same discontent at the same MSM disconnect from reality that drove the first wave of new media post-9/11.

Excellent slick new operations like The Critic, Unherd, Spiked, Quillette and others are rising to the occasion, with sites using a more ‘trad’ blog-like format also still popping up, like Expunct, Lockdown Sceptics and others.

The weapons have changed a bit but battlefield looks pretty similar and the same war continues.

Keeping it long

Volume 9 of of the collected works of Kim Il Sung is now out, and Mick Hartley is having a hard job containing his excitement:

Let’s hope the book maintains the powerful tradition in Korean revolutionary literature of keeping sentences long, with plenty of clauses which further elaborate on the idea first mentioned in the opening clause, thereby ensuring that the original idea becomes ever more entrenched within the consciousness of the reader as the theme is expanded upon and elaborated, very much in the way that a piece of music takes an original theme which is then embellished and repeated in different formats and combinations, which serves to increase the power of the music and can similarly be a powerful device to increase the power of a revolutionary thought or indeed instruction from a Great or Dear Leader, even if there is a risk, among those perhaps insufficiently devoted to the drive towards a successful and dynamic socialist country, that the original thought that started the sentence may have been forgotten by the time the reader comes in, panting but nevertheless certainly wiser and also older, to the end of the sentence.

Hartley has also been very good on the lockdown.

Could you live in this socialist country?

Is the challenge from YT Vlogger ‘bald and bankrupt‘, in this video, filmed recently in Cuba. ‘bald’ as he is referred to, appears to be a chap from Brighton (if you watch his oeuvre) who walks around various parts of our Earth and makes short documentaries about what he sees. He speaks fluent Russian (it seems to me, and his former wife we have been told is Belarusian) but not such good Spanish, and his sidekick is a Belarusian woman who does speak enough Spanish to get by and who interprets for him.

He presents Cuba by the simple device of walking around and going into several retail outlets to show what is on offer, and it looks pretty grim. He also talks to locals, most of whom seem well-drilled in what to say about the Revolution and to profess their loyalty to Fidel. He notes that everyone seems to want to escape. There is an unresolved side-issue of an abandoned kitten in the video.

And yet 10,000,000 people in the UK voted last December for a party just itching to get us to this economic state, without the sunshine. And in the USA, there seems to be far too much enthusiasm for socialism.

Bald’s ‘back catalogue’ contains a great travelogue for much of the former USSR. Whilst he admires all things ‘Soviet’ in terms of architecture (there is a running ‘gag’ about his excitement at finding himself in a Soviet-era bus station, he does acknowledge the grim reality of Soviet rule.

Titania McGrath takes to the stage

Whilst the British ‘comedy’ circuit has long been the preserve of the Left, events have taken a dramatic turn as Titania McGrath, radical socialist, feminist, intersectionalist, Twitter SJW par excellence and all-round good egg has escaped from Twitter into real life and has brought her insight to the stage.

The Culture War rages on.