Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Friday 4 October 2013

This ship on a stick actually sits on top of one of the tall flagpoles outside the even huger Rathaus in Hamburg. It underlines, as the Rathaus itself does, that like the other Hanseatic cities, its strength is in trade, business and craft. At present, there's a display in the entrance on all that the relevant trade organisations do to support the training and promotion of independent craft and artisan trades in Hamburg: as their predecessors have done for centuries, to judge by the opulent display in the public rooms of the building as the tour guide takes you round.

As it happens, the mediaeval heart of the city was destroyed in a great fire in 1842, the old Rathaus having to be sacrificed to create a firebreak, so this building dates from the same era as the equally show-off Victorian town halls of the more recent industrial cities of Britain. From the intricate casting of the entrance gates, rooms and staircases lined with marble, onyx columns, intricate carving and inlay on doors and panelling, felted and leather wall coverings, ornate candelabra, plush upholstery and grandiose paintings and statues: all underline what a confident and competent company of citizens can do. Royal patronage and pomp gets a bare nod here and there.

Also as it happens, this building was barely affected by the other great firestorm on the city in the Second World War. There was a bomb that landed in the square outside that could have done severe damage; but it failed to explode. The detonator is on display in one of the meeting rooms. It looks like any other piece of finely-machined precision engineering: though no-one actually said so, its failure could be a symbol of what's happened in the long rivalry between us - and why.

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