(Re)tracing my steps

2022 has been an improvement on the success/happiness/fulfilment scale. In comparison with the slow awakening of 2021, this has been a year of activity and spontaneity. The fear of looming lockdown has dissipated and we are left with the legacy of ubiquitous hand sanitiser in all public places and restaurants with easy-to-navigate booking systems, which I think we can agree is both tolerable and, indeed, convenient. A positive legacy of Covid – there you go.

Midway through the year, I took over from Cara Hope as the Initial Advice Clinic coordinator for the Strathclyde Law Clinic, which I’m still involved with in my diploma year. Being in the Law Clinic is great and I’ve spent a lot more time in the actual building this year between classes as a place where like-minded people are likely to be at any given moment. Like the Ethics & Justice seminars of last year, it’s a chance to meet people at different stages in academic life, which can bring a fresh perspective on things. It also means that going into the diploma, there was a core of people I knew very well at the same time as encountering folk from different universities.

One thing I have felt has been slightly lacking this year was my creative output. A lot of my energy has gone into practical things, like the Law Clinic. I’ve written much less and didn’t really have a big project I was working on. Part way through the year I did have an idea to set up a kind of literary salon thing, inspired by the 18th-century coffee house culture, but that didn’t come to anything. For the most part, it’s been creative input rather than output. I’ve read quite a few good books and watched some (not in that way) inspiring TV in the form of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul plus, in my view, the excellent 2000s Battlestar Galactica series. Next year I hope to find some consistent creative outlet that is more than just the occasional tweet or blog post.

In terms of my career, that was remarkably resolved right at the beginning of 2022 when I received an offer of a traineeship with Digby Brown in their Glasgow office. I am really enjoying the litigation subjects on the diploma, so look forward to starting with them in September.

Thus I have made two journeys this year. The first was the St Cuthbert’s Way, which I wrote about at length in another blog post. The second was my return to Europe after a four-year absence.

My journey was motivated negatively by my desire to get out of the UK and positively by a desire to use my German again in an immersive context and to live out my cultural identification with Europeanness by existing in as many parts of it as possible. The places I chose to visit were constrained by two factors. Firstly, my limited student budget and secondly, my need for some thematic cohesion. In terms of theme, the budgetary constraints guided me down the path of basing the trip mostly around the idea of Lotharingia – a book I’d read three years ago about the lesser-known third kingdom between West and East Francia that one of Charlamagne’s three grandsons was apportioned on his death. It was a polity containing much of modern-day the Netherlands, Belgium and Western Germany. Basically, cheap flights to Amsterdam followed by where you can get by train from there.

The thing I was most excited about in the trip I’d planned was my visit to Aachen, the seat of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. The cathedral at Aachen dates back to the Carolingian age (9th century) and its strange octagonal design has been the setting of imperial coronations from then until the 16th century. Parts of the Rathaus in the historic town centre also date back this far, and it was during my visit to this that I stumbled upon what I took to be the imperial crown itself.[1]

I wouldn’t have recognised it two years ago, but this was before I started playing Crusader Kings III. It is some utterly iconic headgear and I felt strangely emotional upon seeing it, especially since I didn’t expect it to be there. My thought was, this is unsere Welterbe, our collective inheritance as earth citizens. Die Welterbe – if nothing else, we succeed to this.

Polish tourists see my fascination as I spin around the 3D model next to its glass cabinet housing. They ask me if I want to buy it. I hesitate and say – I want to wear it.

Aachen to me represents the idea of a Kaiser as originally conceived and that object represents Civilisation; an aspiration to something higher than the time from which it came. A new Caesar out of the ruins of Rome. A republic-breaker forcing the wheel of history to turn against its nature. A new pole in a hitherto unipolar world.

And yet, it’s almost gaudy to look at. Over-elaborate, self-justifying. A crude kind of glory. A peasant’s idea of majesty.

A massive portrait of another Master of Europe hangs in the Rathaus – Napoleon in his imperial get-up. I remember when his countryman Macron was awarded the Charlemagne prize here a few years ago. Previous winners have included Tony Blair and Henry Kissinger. Illustrious company.

Great photography, I know

My other experiences included trying out my Duolingo French in Brussels and being mistaken for an Italian by the hostel receptionist in my attempts. The highlight of this particular European capital was the Museum of Fine Arts’ exhibition on the fin de siècle. The 1890s are my jam. There was a lot of freaky stuff in there, especially towards the end. The last room held: a massive transfixing triptych featuring a waterfall of cherubs rendered hyper-realistically, a portrait of a glamourous woman standing among a heard of swine and a huge focaccia slab of fiery women melting into each other meant to represent the temptations of Hell.

My takeaway from the holiday, however, was that I don’t want to do that type of holiday again. I spent an awfully long time just wandering about rather aimlessly, aside from these snapshotted highlights. I felt I had to cram a lot in. Always be moving, to make the most of my time, while simultaneously being quite purposeless. Although it was good to take in a couple of capitals, I think I prefer more regional, specific experiences and to have a definite goal, even if somewhat arbitrarily set, and make progress towards this. I suppose what I want is more of a quest than a holiday!

What I also found was that I was doing a lot of Exploring. I have enjoyed this in the past. Criss-crossing from point to point with no regard to the incidental retracing of steps. Somehow it was less enjoyable this time. I don’t want to be retracing, I want to be tracing. I suppose this is the difference between linear composition and free jazz. At this point in time, I favour the former. Room for the unexpected and the occasional remembrance of the main theme, but essentially forward-facing and generative, always building from what has gone before.

[1] Later turned out to be a replica of the crown jewels from 1915. You’d think that the Kaiser would have more pressing matters to attend to at that particular date. Apparently, the real thing is in the Wiener Schatzkammer, which maybe makes a bit more sense as their resting place following the HRE’s dissolution in 1806.

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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