Photo by Gabe Austin

Part I: The lessons of authoritarianism

Much have I travelled in the realms of authoritarianism. I’m the daughter of a man who was conscripted into the Austrian army at seventeen to fight for Hitler. Mercifully, my father was taken prisoner after a year and spent the rest of the war effectively under the protection of the Allies although even in an American prisoner of war camp, he and his friends were attacked by other prisoners for their anti-Nazi sentiments. Returning to the States after the war, he met a woman escaping the gloom of post-war Britain and the pair married…

‘The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms.’

It was at some point during the first UK lockdown that I read The Machine Stops, a dystopian story published by E M Forster in 1909. In what was an uncharacteristic work of fiction for the Edwardian novelist, Forster hit on an accurate description of life for many in 2020, a society composed of people living separately and fearful of the outside world. ‘In each room there sat a human being, eating, or sleeping, or producing ideas,’ he wrote, describing…

Glastonbury Festival by Rachel D

Since I first went to Druid Camp, a tiny esoteric festival held near the River Severn, early August has been a special time.

Growing up in Gloucestershire, late summer had always felt special. But up until a decade ago I never had a name for it, much less a festival to mark it. Roaming the lanes and fields with my friends in the freedom of the school holidays, we would half-notice the turning of the crops, suck the ‘flour’ out of a wheat ear and be surprised by the arrival of the combine-harvester. …

The White Cliffs of Dover by David Cassteel

Five years ago, I couldn’t possibly have imagined I would be living in southern Europe, having accidentally emigrated to Portugal.

On June 23rd 2016 I went, rather nonchalantly, to my local polling station to vote — there had been a lot of elections that year and the referendum, following just a few weeks of public discussion about an idea that clearly hadn’t been thought through, seemed more of a formality than anything else.

When the news came of the result, like almost everyone I knew, I was shocked and dismayed. I remained so through the summer of 2016, stunned by…

Alex Klaushofer on the phone in Komiteti, Tirana, Albania
On the phone in Tirana

The photo above has a curious back-and-forth quality. It’s of me in Albania in 2019, a country I’d wanted to visit since hearing of the bizarrely isolated communist state in the late 1980s. I’m in a cafe which pays a kind of ironic homage to the country’s half-century of authoritarianism, and I’m on the phone — the kind of dial phone I was always on during my English adolescence. Is it my adult self phoning back to her earlier self, after a childhood part-formed by the legacy of Nazism, with some message from the future? …

Photo by Malamas Sotiriou

By a strange and dystopian coincidence, during this pandemic I’ve been teaching Brave New World to a group of Chinese Australians in Melbourne. If history shows us the lessons of the past, dystopian fiction, through its exaggerated envisioning of the present, offers an insight into a possible future.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World — a book which struck me as out-of-date when I read it at school — explores a fantasy of the perfect society which uses science to all-but abolish pain. The physical causes of human suffering — ageing, disease and death — are controlled to the point where…

The Post Office Tower, London, June 2020

Authoritarianism arises as a response to a threat, real or perceived. More often than not, the threat finds fertile ground in reality: in 1930s Germany, economic hardship created the conditions for the rise of Nazism. Humans, vulnerable and dependent on others for their early survival longer than other mammals, scare easily. Key to our psychology and way of being in the world is our tendency to give our inner fears outward expression.

In 2020, the threat precipitating authoritarianism in the western world is a disease, a new respiratory infection which poses a particular threat to the vulnerable. Covid-19 presents societies…

Masks for sale in a Paris market

“We are going to get back to our ‘art de vivre’ and recover our taste for liberty,” President Macron told the French on June 14.

A month later, I took the train-under-the-water from London and found that, indeed, the Parisians are resuming their usual pleasures.

Masks are worn widely on public transport and in shops, but a sense of calm normality prevails in the French capital. The metro and trams are fairly full and the city’s markets, both covered and outdoor, are well patronised by shoppers making purchasers in that peculiarly French purposeful yet relaxed way. …

Last year, I spent three months travelling to see what three of Europe’s lesser-known cities showed about life on the Continent in the twenty-first century. Geographically, culturally and economically distinctive, each place — with its own legacy from the past and priorities for the future — illustrates a different aspect of Europe and the challenges it faces.

Now, with the evolving Corona crisis, I’ve popped back — virtually, of course — to see how the three cities are faring. …

Photo by Darren Harmon

Some years ago, researching a book about the little-known spiritual life of Britain, I embarked on a quest to find modern-day seekers of solitude. I wasn’t sure that they still existed in today’s noisy secular world: the days when the land was filled with religious recluses are long gone. But, by happy chance, I got an interview with a rare hermit and, to my greater surprise, discovered a network of people pursuing solitude while living ordinary lives.

Now, with the world in the grip of a pandemic, solitude has gone viral. Unprecedented numbers of people are confined to their homes…

Alex Klaushofer

Writer, reader & genre-weaver: current affairs, travel, place. Writing a book about Europe by way of its cities. See:

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