The Rats

One of the drawbacks of living outside of the UK is that you miss out on all the juicy gossip.

Not the personal stuff necessarily –my best mate’s Auntie Trisha’s radar is so finely tuned that we sometimes think that she knows more about us than we do about ourselves. That kind of news requires no ethernet connection to cross a continent and it is rare in the extreme that I hit British shores without a full briefing on the latest round of domestic strife and extra-marital infidelities.

When it comes to celebrity dirt however, living abroad puts you at a significant disadvantage. I work with serious minded professionals who have no interest whatsoever in Ant, Dec or Fergie. During coffee breaks here, talk turns to more high-minded issues such as Euribor rigging, ECB base rates, Boris Becker’s bankruptcy or Daniela Katzenberger’s wedding. As such, I am out of the loop.

To give you an extreme example, I knew nothing about Boris Johnson’s lovechild until just a couple of weeks ago. I could have kicked myself. Within about half an hour of hearing the news I had a good half-dozen jokes worked out that I’m never going to use because they’re already four years old. I guess I’ll just have to wait until next time.

What’s the difference between a lovechild and a bastard? Well in this case the answer’s easy: The bastard’s the father.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist at least one cheap shot. He really is a rat, that man. A rat who can’t keep his tail to himself.

Forgive the Chaucerian humour here, it does have something to do with today’s tale, I promise you that.

I’ve come to Hamelin today and, as you might imagine, both rats and folk tales are hot topics of conversation here, at least among the tourists. The Pied Piper is still big business in Hamelin and so he should be. Even today, there is much that the story has to tell us.

In the real world, the issue of citizens’ rights dominates the wider Brexit debate and also what friends are beginning to dub “my own personal Brexit”. As things stand, the British government are offering EU nationals living in the UK something less than they have now, a reduction in rights that, however small, plants doubt where once there was certainty.

What happens to extended family or future children? What happens if they move back to their country of origin for an extended period of time? It occurs often enough.

What happens to me if I want to move back to the UK for a couple of years? Or move somewhere else in the EU? If we make a reciprocal agreement based on what the UK is offering then I’m screwed.

At the moment it’s unlikely, but you never know. Life has a habit of throwing up surprises, as Boris Johnson will testify.

Just at the moment it’s very unlikely actually. Germany is looking particularly fine today. It’s a sunny August morning and I’m reminded once again that Germany really has some beautiful countryside. Because all of the big cities are scattered around the edges it’s all too easy to forget that the country has a middle, one which in many ways is its heart and soul.

The train to Hammelin takes me eastwards into a land shrouded in mystique and obscurity. I change onto the branch line at Paderborn and within a few minutes the big skies of the North German Plain give way to a narrower skyline punctuated with rolling valleys and thick forests.

Hansel and Gretel country, I think to myself. I am not far wrong. This is the northern side of the Mittelgebirge, the range of hills which dominates central Germany. At the other side of it is Hanau, home town of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. At the end of the line is Kassel, where the pair were schooled and where they took the first steps into a lifelong expedition into the heart of German folklore.

Little wonder then that they should be linked to Hamelin, although they should not be given all of the credit for the rise of a legend which still pays the wages of the local tourist board to this day. A lot of Hamelin’s buildings look like a gingerbread houses, pointed with wedding cake gables for which Weser Rennaissance is the correct architectural term.

Like many of the Grimm tales, the Pied Piper of Hamelin is not an original piece of work. I have the complete editions in my hand and it takes a long while to find in the thick volume because it runs to no more than a couple of pages.

It reads like a typical Grimm fairytale, full of long, flowing sentences of simple, unassuming German. The tone is soothing, equidistant from both reader and text:

“In the year 1284 a wonderful-looking man appeared in the town of Hammelin, dressed in a robe of manycoloured cloth, and he went by the name of the Piedman. He declared himself to be a ratcatcher by trade, promising the townspeople that, for a certain consideration, he would free their town from rats and mice.”

You can believe it or not, the text seems to be saying, and yet…

Over the years, many have not taken the tale at face value. Theories have been put forward and Hamelin has become Germany’s Loch Ness. Questions have begotten questions. Whatever did happen to the town’s children?

The museum on the main street is the place to start looking. Explanations are wide and varied. Where there are rats, there’s plague of course. Other suggestions hint at the use of child soldiers, either in a war against the nearby Bishop of Minden or in a crusade against the Turk.

Mass migration is another theory: many names occur only here and in the eastern marches of Pomerania in what is now Poland. Others suggest Transylvania as the eventual destination of the town’s young, for whom “children” may be no more than a figurative term.

Agents apparently did wander the German countryside looking for new settlers to populate the wild east freed up from the heathens. Often they used music to charm new customers –in a world free of modern distractions it would have been much more hypnotic than it is today. Music mania has also been put forward as an explanation in its own right: It was not unkown for people to fall into a “dance trance” during holidays and religious festivals.

It is handy that the Grimms sourced their work. There is evidence to go on if you look hard enough. The tale is first recorded in 1384, a single line set down in the town’s chronicle on the exact centenary of the events which are supposed to have taken place here.

“It is one hundred years that our children are gone”

The brothers record an inscription at old town hall which tells us a little more:

In twelve eighty-four in the year of our Lord

In Hammelin were led forth

A hundred thirty of the youngest born

By a piper to Koppelberg hill under th’earth.

The translation is mine, and hence the poor rhyming scheme. Had it been left to myself and the Grimms then the legend of the Pied Piper would have drowned in the river Weser with the rats.

That it did not is actually thanks Robert Browning, an Englishman whose language carries all of the hallmarks of a Victorian eccentric:

Go,” cried the Mayor, “and get long poles!
Poke out the nests and block up the holes!
Consult with carpenters and builders
And leave in our town not even a trace
Of the rats!”– when suddenly, up the face
Of the Piper perked in the market-place,
With a, “First, if you please, my thousand guilders!”

One thousand guilders. For the first time, a price is named and the story has a moral to it. The Piper wants the price he asked for, not a penny more and not a penny less. When the mayor of Hamelin reneges on the deal, the town is punished for his underhandedness. Browning’s sense of morality is also typically Victorian.

Not all would agree with him. Most of the portraits of the piper in the museum are bright and jolly but others are dark and sinister. He also figured in Nazi propaganda, a symbol of the German culture and legend that Hitler was trying to protect.

The carilon on the town’s registry office chooses to take an equidistant position. At 5:35 pm the bells ring, the window opens and a happy strutting piper leads out the rats. At 5:37 he comes out again, a pale-faced hooded figure menacingly hunched over his flute, the dancing children in hot pursuit.

At twenty to six on a Sunday there really isn’t much else to do in Hamelin. Time to go home and so I hop on a train heading westwards out of the forest. Within an hour I am travelling once more through big Westphalian skies.

A thousand guilders is a lot of money, but a deal’s a deal.

You could say the same about citizen’s rights of course, and if Boris Johnson were here I would do just that. He’s gone on record as saying that the British government’s offer is a good one which should be taken in the spirit it deserves. It is still not enough.

Spirit is meaningless, paper is timeless. In Maastricht there is a treaty guaranteeing our free movement, there is a dotted line and on that dotted line is Britain’s signature –John Major’s signature to be precise. We wish for no more than what was promised and will accept no less.

Whether they pipe us free, from rats or from mice,
If we’ve promised them ought, let us keep our promise.

says Browning.

Remember that Boris, before the ratcatcher comes knocking.

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2 thoughts on “The Rats

  1. Wind and Piss

    By accident or design your musings here have captured the two most vital elements of the UK government`s approach to all that surrounds Brexit ( and just about every other damn thing) – Wind and Piss.
    Why so? As any Scotsman knows, WIND is an essential element in a would be piper, pied or other wise.
    PISS is what the UK`s current foreign secretary has to spread around, all over the planet. Boris excels at this and is a Windbag to boot. In Scotspeak he is a `balloon` full of `wind and piss`.
    I too am surprised to know that he has a `love child`. I thought the only thing he loved was his fringe.
    Stick it to`em Bro.

    Like

  2. Oh yes. Normally I wouldn’t deign to recommend a Daily Mail article to anyone but a clearer picture you’ll never have of the most senior Brexiteer on the planet. He even tried to hush the press up with a court injunction denying his daughter’s existence. Idiot son of an inbred duke he may be, but he’s a democrat at heart.

    Like

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