Friday, May 25, 2007

The Flower That Fell Off The Ark

Don't fancy yours much.

I've been travelling a lot, hence the total lack of blogging. My most recent trip was to Namibia, which produced this piece, published in thefirstpost the other day.

The Flower That Fell Off The Ark

I'm striding across the dunes of Namibia's Skeleton Coast, on the hunt for the word's ugliest plant. And I'm hoping I'm not too late, because welwitschia is fast disappearing from the great Namib desert.

If you've never heard of welwitschia, you're probably not alone. Despite the plant's unrivalled status as the most hideous specimen in the plant kingdom, it gets relatively little attention from conservationists.

The reason for this is obvious. When it comes to Extinction, it tends to be the more glamorous or endearing of the world's threatened species that enjoy all the fuss. The Giant Panda, the Siberian tiger, the glittering Irawaddy dolphins: these are the celebs of the ecological cause.

But what happens when an ugly, hard-to-love organism is under similar threat? The silence is deafening. Yet this is a shame, especially as regards welwitschia: because it is truly a remarkable species.

Surrounded by arid sand, the plant lives off the fog that rolls in off Namibia's cold-water coast. Some people think it is technically a semi-submerged tree. It only produces two long twining leaves, but these scroll out like diseased dragons' tongues, ending in sun-bleached grey frizzle.

The plant is poisonous to most animals, and is inhabited mainly by the pyrrhocorrid bug. This beetle is vernacularly known as the push-me-pull-you - because of its ceaseless back-to-back copulation. Luckily for these sex-mad insects, a welwitschia can live 2000 years - making it one of the most pensionable organisms on earth.

Welwitschia's scientific "history" is almost as intriguing. It was discovered by, and named for, an Austrian botanist in the 19th century, who was apparently so confused by the plant he couldn't believe what he was seeing. These days botanists consider welwitschia to be a living fossil.

All of which makes me keen to encounter this freaky tree. Kneeling on the rocks I scan the hot, misty horizon. I may be out of luck. Changing climate and human pressure are diminishing the unique habitat where welwitschias thrive.

But there! I can see one. And wow - they're right - it sucks. It looks like the wretched offspring of a Triffid and a collapsed Irish rugby scrum. Sprawled messily across the sand, it has an air of bashful sadness. As if it knows it is no beauty.

The funny thing is, I kind of like it. And I think it deserves a little more love. After all, the knitting pattern of the world needs plain as well as pearl.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Photography is Easy, Part 49

I'm still in Texas, having just come from a trip along the Copper Canyon Railroad, in Chihuahua, Mexico.

I took this pic leaning out of the moving train, without looking, using a cameraphone. Hah!

You may have to click on the image to see just how fantabulously clever it is.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Nazi Aesthetics

Bryan "the Brownshirt" Ferry.

I'm in Texas right now, having spent the last ten days in the canyons and deserts of northern Mexico. It's a hard life. One day soon I shall post on my experiences, until then here's a piece ,that was commissioned by news website thefirspost. The article was pegged to popstar Bryan Ferry's recent remarks in Germany, when he controversially said "some Nazi Art was good".

As it happens thefirstpost never ran the piece - because they thought it trivialised the issue, by mentioning uniforms and stuff. See what you think. They paid me anyway.

Totalitarian Art

Can Nazi art ever be any good? Anyone who's seen the steroidal nudes of Arno Breker (Hitler's favourite sculptor) or the bombastic designs for Hitler's "New Berlin" (thankfully never built) would probably say no. And this is the easy answer, too - because it chimes with out revulsion for Nazism.

But this reaction is wrong. The truth, whether we like it or not, is that totalitarian cultures, even ones as vile as the Nazis, can produce great art.

Leni Riefenstahl's films are a classic example. Triumph of the Will, her 1930s movie of the Nuremburg Rallies, is a kinetic and mesmerising sequence of images, full of lissom athletes, singing soldiers, waving swastikas, and wildly applauding Bavarians. The whole movie approaches the status of the ideal art work - a marriage of picture, sound and word - which Wagner called Gesamstkunstwerk. Maybe its no coincidence that Wagner himself has been accused of fascist aesthetics.

It is also seems pointless to deny that the Nazis had a flair for design - in things like flags, parades, banners, and uniforms. Compared to the dowdy khakis of the Allies, the average SS officer's death-black uniform, with its double slashed lightning insignia, was a masterpiece of macho couture. The rumour is that the uniforms were designed by Hugo Boss.

True or not, such things have an effect. The diarist Taki saw the Germans swagger into his conquered Greek hometown, when he was a young boy. He has written since about his juvenile admiration for the glamorous, leathercoated Wehrmacht.

And this, in the end, is the point. If we don't admit that the Nazis had a certain glamour, even brilliance, we can never understand why their repulsive politics was equally seductive, to the foolish, the unlucky and the confused. And if we try to bury the truth about extremist art, we might, in time, in become vulnerable to its attraction ourselves.