Culture

With a Master’s in Contemporary Media and Cultural Studies, I have the ideal background to write on a wide range of cultural topics. A small selection of this work can be seen below. Details of my extensive work as a music critic may be seen by following the drop down menu to the page entitled ‘music‘.

ADMIRING THE ARCHITECTURE

BRUSSELS, Dec. 1, 2005 (Viewpoint) – The construction of a new pulp or paper mill is an amazing thing to behold: The sheer-scale of the buildings and equipment, the logistics involved in coordinating the activities of the thousands of people working on-site, the speed at which the work is completed.

The men and women who design a mill are of course thinking about its function, not its aesthetic appeal, but the two are not mutually exclusive, as the list of illustrious architects that have worked on projects for the industry illustrates.

Form follows function at Sappi Alfeld

The Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany, with its mantra of ‘form follows function’, was one of the biggest influences on industrial and commercial design in the 20th century. And in 1924, two of its key architects, Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer, designed a new paper mill, Hannoversche Papierfabrik in Gronau an der Leine, Germany. Today the mill is known as Sappi Alfeld and produces 360,000 tonnes/yr of coated woodfree graphic paper, and coated and uncoated specialty paper, as well as 120,000 tonnes/yr of bleached chemical pulp for its own use. Unsurprisingly, little remains from the original Gropius and Meyer design, but there are still some traces of their work to be found.

The pride of Finland
Given the importance of the pulp and paper sector to the country, it is not so surprising to learn that Finland’s most famous architect, Alvar Aalto, worked on numerous projects for the industry from the 1930s through to the 60s. The first of these was the Toppila pulp mill in Oulu, built from 1930-1933 (the mill closed down in 1985). Sunila pulp mill (today a 50:50 joint venture between Myllykoski and Stora Enso) has a strong association with the architect, who worked on both the mill and on housing for its workers in three commissions between 1936 and 1954. Stora Enso is the proud owner of a number of Aalto designed properties, including parts of the Anjalankoski and Summa mills and, most famously, its headquarters building in Helsinki, built between 1959 and 1962.

Burgo cuts a dash
Italy’s Cartiere Burgo is another company with a rich architectural heritage. For its mill in Mantua, Lombardy (completed in 1962), Burgo commissioned the Italian architect Pier Luigi Nervi, who designed an eye-catching hanging roof. The machine house is as striking today as it was back then, its steel roof suspended from gigantic concrete trestles, in a design similar to ones used for suspension bridges.

When, at the end of the 1960s, Burgo decided to construct a new head office near Turin, the company selected the renowned Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer to design the building. Niemeyer was already famous for having almost single-handedly designed the city of Brasilia and his work for Burgo (completed in 1981) is considered by many experts to be among the finest of his career. It’s certainly a distinctive building, not unlike a giant flying saucer!

Originally published in Pulp & Paper International magazine, December 2005.

THE LONGER PERSPECTIVE

Professor Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse discuss their latest work, Microcosm: A Portrait of a Central European City, multi-national history, and the EU’s future with Justin Toland.

The British historian Norman Davies has spent most of his career fighting the distortions of nationalistic views of history. “The multi-national character of European history is obvious,” he asserts. However, until recently this aspect was sidelined in favour of (often-conflicting) national histories. “Obviously nations, national communities, do have their histories,” says Davies. ”The trouble is that for quite a long period, I would think from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century, national histories almost had a monopoly. Everybody was writing through a national prism. I think Europeans in particular, looking back at the catastrophe of the 20th century, in part regretted the way that their history had been written.”

Following the broad sweep of his best-selling generalist works, Europe: A History and The Isles, for his latest book Davies, together with co-author Roger Moorhouse (his former lead researcher) has chosen to focus on just one city. The city in question is Wroclaw in Poland, the former German city of Breslau. The book is titled, Microcosm: A Portrait of a Central European City, and, as the title suggests, Davies and Moorhouse attempt to make the history of Wroclaw, “A condensed compilation of all the experiences that have made Central Europe what it is.”

Nationalist presentations of history

“This is a city whose history has always been presented in almost extreme nationalist terms,” explains Moorhouse. ”I think we are probably the first to try and step away from that and present it in a different way,” he says. This ‘different way’ involved respecting all the influences that have shaped the city’s history – most notably Poles, Germans, Jews and Czechs. The authors also sought to show that the city was not monolithically ‘German’ for 700 years, that for instance, “The Prussian period was very different in its tone, its culture, from the Habsburg period,” says Moorhouse.

“One hopes that the new ‘multi-national’ way of looking at history will have its social and cultural consequences,” says Davies. One consequence he would welcome would be an end to the long-standing, and “artificial” division between eastern and western Europe. Unsurprisingly, the historian is enthusiastic about the potential impact of EU enlargement on this division. “I don’t think it will be long before the old mental divide between East and West has disappeared,” he states.

“I see the EU as a club where all sorts of permutations are possible. All forms of contact, and not just political, but economic and cultural and social, so that the former East is not only joined with the former West, Scandinavia is part of the mix. North and South, East and West and Central,” says Davies. In his history of Great Britain and Ireland, The Isles, the historian enthused about the EU’s ability to give “a place in the sun to Europe’s smaller and middle-sized nations.” Now, with enlargement, Davies believes that the exercise of power will become even more fluid, to the benefit of smaller Member States: “The European political game is becoming much richer… I think the permutations that are now going to be possible are going to transform European politics, and for the good… The new set-up is going to say goodbye to the Paris-Berlin Axis.”

Shifting power blocks

In its place will be a series of shifting power blocks, which will enable the smaller Member States to have a bigger influence than at present, believes Davies. “There are countries like Lithuania and Latvia, Slovakia and Slovenia which are very small and have traditionally been railroaded by their bigger neighbours. They will now be able to play a part in this new game with a hope of being able to kick the ball from time to time, which is great,” he says.

Davies hopes that the EU will also begin to speed up the process of incorporating other former Communist states: “The sooner the Union can move to absorb as many of those countries as can reasonably be absorbed, the better,” he says. Whilst they are “floating untethered in space”, as at present, Davies sees the likes of Ukraine, Bulgaria and Belarus as “extremely vulnerable,” particularly in the event of any dispute between the EU and Russia.

Taking a long-term view of another contentious issue, Davies says that, “There are all the ingredients for a European nation to grow, but you can’t create it overnight. European identity will grow slowly, if at all. By the end of this century there may well be something approaching a European nation,” he believes. First, however, Europe will need a lingua franca, since, “A common form of communication is a pre-condition for a national community.” Here at least there is one crumb of comfort for the UK’s Eurosceptics: “Only one language could become the common language of Europe – English,” reckons Davies.

Putting politicians in their place

Part of the role of the historian is “To put politicians in their place,” believes Davies. He is happy to criticize Jacques Chirac for treating countries such as Poland, Hungary and The Czech Republic like naughty children over their support for war with Iraq. He is also quick to take umbrage with those who seek to parcel our continent up into ‘Old’ and ‘New Europe’, describing the neo-conservative champions of this idea as, “Historically extraordinarily ignorant… their view of history seems to be extraordinarily short-sighted and contingent… I’ve not yet used the term New Europe and I don’t think I will do.”

Davies believes that combating “Not only myths, but deliberate political distortions which are put out for short-term reasons,” is a “very serious problem” for the historian. The surfeit of data we have to deal with nowadays, does not help matters: “The infinite quantity of information that is available is too much to cope with, it opens the way for charlatans, ideologists, people with an axe to grind, people with simplistic theories, political agendas. And, as it were, the natural defences against these people are a lot weaker because nobody has an overview, everybody’s a specialist,” he notes.

Yet, Davies and Moorhouse view this as an opportunity as much as a threat. Davies believes the popularity of works of general history such his own, The Isles or Europe: A History is, in part, a response to this information glut and gives new impetus to the discipline. Moorhouse concurs: “It’s a fantastic time to be a historian,” he says.

(Original version published by Euro-Correspondent.com, May 2003; This version edited by Justin Toland, February 2010).

TIMBERSPORTS AND BEARS IN THE WOODS

By Justin Toland, Contributing Editor, PPI

A PHOTOGRAPHER FRIEND recently sent me some snaps he had taken at the 2009 Stihl Timbersports World Championships in Brienz, Switzerland. Aside from reminding me how impressive the physical feats of the competitors are, the photos also made me wonder why forest-based sports are no longer the mass appeal events of the past? I well remember watching ‘World of Sport’ on British television of a Saturday afternoon in the late 1970s and early 1980s and seeing the likes of the legendary Ron Hartill in action. It seems I am not the only journalist who has been pondering this strange decline, as this recent article by John Branch in the New York Times illustrates.

Perhaps the decline of lumberjack sports can be tied to the wider malaise facing the forest and paper industries: a lack of new blood and competitors that are more economical and more appealing to public tastes? Yet, even if it is declining in popularity, the very existence of a Lumberjack World Championships is a reminder of how embedded in the fabric of rural communities the forest based-industries have been. The forest defined people’s leisure activities as well as their working life. For a modern mill worker staring at a computer screen as a log is chipped and debarked by a machine, it is perhaps inevitable that he or she would be less inclined to watch a couple of guys competing at rolling logs or shinning up a tree. In fact, probably the only forest-industries inspired ‘sport’ most people enjoy nowadays is a ride on the log flume at the local amusement park, more’s the pity.

Bear necessities

Word has reached me of a new EU-funded project in the forests of Romania that is aiming to develop a brand new eco-label. After ‘100% recycled’, ‘FSC’, ‘PEFC’ and ‘carbon neutral’ comes…’bear friendly’. The project, which is being led by the Vrancea Environmental Protection Agency, is attempting to reverse the decline of the brown bear population in the Eastern Carpathian mountains. One of the measures that will be introduced before the project ends in December 2013 is the ‘bear friendly’ label, which will “highlight the use of forest products collected or processed in a manner that does not threaten the life of the bears.” Start planning your firm’s marketing campaign now…

(Originally published by RISI (www.risiinfo.com), September 2009).