Think ink: a woman with a far less controversial tattoo at a convention in Cyprus in June. Photo: Getty
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Strange geometry: is it ever possible to rehabilitate the Swastika?

A community of tattoo artists in Copenhagen vehemently reject the swastika’s associations with all things menacing and want to “reclaim the symbol” as a deeply ancient emblem of well-being and peace. 

Reclaiming the Swastika
Radio 4

Those of us who missed its launch last year might be surprised to learn that 13 November is “Learn to Love the Swastika Day”. As this documentary revealed (24 October, 11am), it seems that there is a community of tattoo artists in Copenhagen who vehemently reject the swastika’s associations with all things menacing and want to “reclaim the symbol” as a deeply ancient emblem of well-being and peace.

A “universal sign based on shapes of nature, with limb-like arms denoting eternal love to everyone”, the earliest known swastika is 15,000 years old and was apparently unearthed in the Ukraine, carved on to mammoth bone. But it can also be seen on terracotta figurines from Troy, on a 12th-century collar fashioned for a Slav princess and all over Russia and eastern Europe – as well as, of course, India. “Symbolising pure geometry and set at an angle which suggests continual motion”, there was a tremendous fad for it a century ago. Rudyard Kipling put it on his book covers, the RAF on the side of planes and Coca-Cola on merchandise; the Boy Scouts handed out swastika pins to those “worthy of praise”.

Then came Hitler.

“It is related to a very negative time in ­history,” one ink-wielder begrudgingly accepted, “but we need to take it back and show the world it is beautiful.”

Do we? And can’t you just see David Beckham falling for all of this? A chain of swastikas up his neck, next to some Sanskrit about Victoria’s unmentionables? “We are spreading love,” he claimed (the tattoo artist, not Beckham), “and you can’t take away such a powerful symbol.” I rather think we can. Are our design cupboards so pitifully bare?

The swastika is the incarnation of the full-blown insanity of the Third Reich, which had entire demented departments devoted to trying to prove everything from the movement’s links to primordial superhuman motifs and sects to the existence of Atlantis. The swastika is done! Absolutely anybody wanting to involve themselves in trying to rehabilitate it is, at best, a foolish fellow traveller or, at worst, a stupid and wicked person. Not even a time-of-day-level conversation is required, let alone a nose-stroking Radio 4 doc. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State