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The Day Job

This is me today, dealing with my day job.  This is also some super graffiti found in Berlin, because I only posted a tiny percentage of the pictures I took.  If Berlin was a writer’s holiday, returning home is the payback.  My day job means I help other writers to develop their work and, hopefully, attain their dreams.  It is a great job and I’m lucky to have it in this age of slash-and-burn cuts.  But it is hard to get all the work done without feeling a little blue, especially if you want to be writing.  It’s hard to get the balance right.

My day job is running East Kent Live Lit, a network for writers and artists in the East Kent districts of Canterbury, Ashford, Shepway and Thanet.  We’re in the middle of the Canterbury Festival, then straight on to the Folkestone Book Festival.  East Kent Live Lit has a number of events running in both.  Today was spent trying to document all this work, so that it will live beyond festivals, beyond my job, even.  If you want to see what my day job has been up to, visit the East Kent Live Lit blog.

Coming soon, on that blog, is a podcast of Friday’s publishing conversation, and photos of a brand new poetry installation on Westgate Tower – and some footage of our upcoming Slam at Orange Street Music Club if you’re really lucky.  On this blog?  Maybe when the day job lets me.

the new and old East

My last full day away took me on a circular tour west of Alexanderplatz in old and new East Berlin.  First up, a touristy breakfast of croissant and sour cherry jam in the sun at a cafe’ in Hackescher Markt, then a trawl through the artisan shops (albeit touristy ones, now) in the courtyards of Hackescher Hofe.  This was certainly a different “East” to the one walked through yesterday – with chain stores in abundance – but off the main drags there was still history and absence.  From here I wiggled my way along the atmospheric streets of Sophienstrasse, with its craft workshops and gallery/performance spaces, and Gr. Hamburgerstrasse, where the remains of Berlin’s oldest Jewish cemetery also mark a deportation site to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, beside a modern Jewish school, heavily policed.  Another found “absent place” is the Missing House, an installation by Christian Boltanski. You can just see plaques on the white wall where a house used to be – the plaques show the names of former Jewish residents, their births, deaths, and locations of their apartments within the missing building. It is all the more poignant for being a bit hidden itself – you have to know it is there to know what it is.  I then took a lovely sideways stroll along quiet Linienstrasse to Scheunenviertel and Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.

A pleasant emmentaler toastie was had in yet more sun beside the majestic Volksbuhne, East Berlin’s epic theatre of the people.  (And from here on, it also turned into a bit of an unplanned theatre crawl.)  I first saw the Volksbuhne at the LIFT festival in London many years ago, and have remembered how well the company balanced the fine detail of individual work with a stylized and unified vision.  Sadly, I picked Monday night to decide I wanted to go to the theatre and the only show on offer was a new book launch.  Next trip, I will pay more attention to the calendar.  A quick jaunt up Schonhauser Allee leads to Prenzlauer Berg, “East Berlin’s most beautiful borough”, says Time Out, quite contentiously.  I can vouch for a bounty of cake shops, second-hand clothes shops (selling the wrong size boots, may I add) and a remarkable number of women wheeling copious children on handlebars and in baskets of treacherous bicycles.  But then, Prenzlauer Berg is the district with the highest concentration of babies in Berlin, also sayeth Time Out.  Maybe it’s the cake.  Whatever, it certainly is a lovely, pleasant, easy-going, family-oriented neighbourhood, one that anyone could imagine slipping right into.

At this point, however, I was only thinking of Brecht.  If you’re like me, you have a love/hate kind of relationship with Brecht.  I just didn’t get him at university.  I thought he was pompous, over-worked, and, alarmingly, I thought that his leaving Berlin made him a coward.  I didn’t understand WWII or Berlin at 18, I admit it.  I thought it was his duty as a playwright to stay and work, and that leaving to “save his skin” compromised his work.  Now that I am older and my own work is that much more important to me, I do wonder what I would have done in his place.  Would I also have left to have the freedom to write?  That is the luxury of viewing your life and priorities through someone else’s war, but as a playwright, I cannot help but be influenced by Brecht and German theatre in general.  I am now a huge Brecht fan and just missed a new version of Mother Courage.  Bah.  I had to settle for a slim play about “how the Threepenny Opera came together”, for 2 actors + piano + violin.  This was staged in the foyer, more marbled and chandeliered than I can imagine Brecht being entirely comfortable with.  That is a terrible picture, it must be said.  But it’s the only one I took.

What else can I say?  In the morning I pack my maps and leaflets and cables and adaptors and go home, to write, to work.  I told many people, before I left for Berlin, that I didn’t know why I was coming or what I was looking for, but that I would know it when I saw it.  Of course, I have been most moved and influenced by what I didn’t see.  I was worried that a week wouldn’t be near enough to scratch the surface of Berlin.  But tonight, I sat in a wine bar beside the Berliner Ensemble, waiting for the show to start and doing an LA Times crossword puzzle.  (Thanks, Mom!)  Already, being here is ordinary enough that I can just sit and “be”.  Whilst sitting, I was able to eavesdrop on a couple of ex-pats living here, and they could only talk of how much Berlin had changed, how much New York had changed, how much the world kept changing.  True, they were speaking more in terms of the price of real estate, but even so.  The world is changing.  Husband emailed about “terrorist worries in French and German cities” and it was lovely that it was not even news here, or at least the shouty kind of news I’ve come to expect in Britain.  For all that has happened here, Berlin feels safe.  Feels free.  It feels like the kind of place that I absolutely knew I couldn’t write about blind.  I am no expert, by any means.  But I have been a guest for a week; I have been delighted and informed and shaken.  And in coming here, I know my main character in a way that I could not have done, so for that I am grateful.  It looks like my flight is confirmed so I’ll leave you with the new and old East, on the very same building, side by side:

When what you’re looking for is gone

To balance all of yesterday’s museums I limited myself to one today, and spent the rest of my hours pounding the streets in search of neighbourhoods and locations.  When you’re visiting somewhere for research, I would imagine it makes you quite a strange tourist.  People stop and look at what I’m taking pictures of; they probably want to point and say – there, look over there, that’s what you want to shoot.  But I don’t.  I want doorways and window frames, I want all the many trees and how they’re turning, one after another.  And, of course I want photos of things that are no longer there – wasteland or a new high-rise, with the knowledge that once someone lived there, once a great church stood there.

This morning I walked east from Alexanderplatz, along the grand Soviet Karl-Marx-Allee into Friedrichshain.  I took a number of pictures of buildings that would not have been here before the end of the war; Friedrichshain was hit particularly badly.  The new buildings are wonderful.  Light and airy blocks with courtyard gardens in the back, they are clad in the creamy travertine ordered and never used by Nazis.  It was a marvelous walk, lightened with smart couples strolling, little kids learning how to stay on their bikes, chipper dogs, as I headed for the Sunday market at Boxhagener Platz, down the cafe-strewn Simon-Dach-Strasse.  This is where the beautiful people in East Berlin come to drink juice.  The market itself was marvelous, ripe with industrial light fixtures and 70s chandeliers, toy Trabants, Soviet pins, T-shirts.  LP stands made me think of RPM friends back home.  In fact, if I hadn’t just spent a couple exhausting days scouring the Braderie in Lille, I would have given these cast-offs more attention.  But no.  A train took me to West Kreuzberg for the world’s best vegetarian Turkish crepe, then I was off to North Kreuzberg and the Judische Museum.  

You’ve probably read the reviews.  I was really here to see the building, an aluminium jaggedy lightning bolt, often described as an exploding Star of David.  It is purposefully disorienting.  They have put small red dots along the floor, no doubt to assist hapless tourists like me, but the dots break off now and again, and you see an exhibit to the side and you don’t know if you’re supposed to look at it yet or not, and the whole movement of the thing makes you think you’re in the wrong place – but maybe that is Daniel Liebeskind’s point.  The building and the permanent exhibition are about the absence of things.  Whereas the Topography of Terror was all about proof and facts and evidence and details, at looking at what was and where, the Judische Museum is about who is missing, the space they have left.  They are looking at what is not there, through voids in the building, views you cannot quite see through manipulated windows, and pedestrian artifacts left behind.  My particular favourite was the audio installations in big black blocks.  Wearing a wireless headset you move yourself, back and forth before the glass, to pick up bits of sound: conversations, music, static, sounds of industry.  Like chasing a big box of ghosts.

The sun was setting, pink behind buildings, as I strolled past Checkpoint Charlie and into the stunning Gendarmenmarkt, the buildings lit up and glowing.  My first night walk in Berlin.  I was lucky to get a table at Lutter and Wegner, home of “sekt”, serving Wurst and potatoes to well-heeled Berliners since 1811.  Perfect place to set a scene.  Last stop on the “absence” tour was Bebelplatz, whose lit hole shows empty shelves; this was the site of the infamous Nazi book burning.  The way home was easy – just follow the big ball on the knitting needle and wiggle your way round the areas of construction that still mark Berlin, a city still filling in its absent spaces.  And so, I bid you good night to the dulcet sounds of German disco below me, in the Oktoberfest celebrations that go on and on…

In search of Weimar

Friends, today I went in search of Weimar.  I was on the hunt for decadence, depravity and degenerate art in Berlin.  And where better than Charlottenberg and Tiergarten, Berlin’s pre-Nazi playgrounds?

It started off very badly with a whiz round a fantastic community market and the beautifully restored Catholic St. Matthaiskirche in Schoneberg.  Badly, in that there was very little decadence to be found round Winterfeldplatz – only handmade woolen goods, the world’s most beautiful cheeses, happy families and a man pressing fresh seed oils.  I hunted and pecked to find a link to the church, so that you could see some of the 45 subtle, exquisite stained glass windows – solid blocks of colour, expressionistic forms.  No dice.  On the way to the market I did pass by Christopher Isherwood’s old digs on Nollendorfstrasse – that must be good for half a point in decadence bingo – as well as the new dance hall, Goya, that was once a haunt of Hitler’s, to watch UFA star Zara Leander, and the home of experimental epic theatre director Erwin Piscator, The Piscator-Buhne, during Weimar.  Am I getting warmer?

The search began in earnest, moving swiftly toward Charlottenberg, home of Zoo Station, the Erotik-Museum (which I did not visit), and KaDeWe, the second largest department store in Europe, after Harrods.  A Jewish-owned business, KaDeWe suffered under Hitler’s race laws and the store became “Aryanized” then bombed and ruined.  It was completely rebuilt just in time for the Wall to go up.  With a history like that, you think I’d like it, you’d think I’d root for its prosperity.  But I found it a place of incredible decadence.  Maybe it’s because I had a hole in my trousers, but it was the least friendliest place I’ve visited.  Women stopped short of grabbing top-Euro leather boots out of one another’s clutches, but only just.  I was lucky to get through the WC queue and get out alive.  I haven’t seen such a collection of solely expensive goods for a long time; it goes without saying that there were beggars outside, red-faced men opening breakfast beers, Roma women flapping their accordions while their men looked on.  It seems mean of me to point it out, but there it is – decadent spending back then, decadent spending now.

Next stop, and first art museum of the day, was the wonderful Kathe Kollwitz Museum.  Kollwitz is known for her “War Series” of drawings, “The Weavers”, and her anti-war propaganda pieces such as “Brot!”   I have long been a fan of her work, and it was marvelous to see the original pencil and ink drawings that I have only seen as jpegs, as well as some of her woodcuts.  As the wife of a doctor who tended the poor of Berlin, Kollwitz was best placed to see how the government was failing its people in the period between the wars.  She found the means to say something meaningful and accessible at the same time.    Unsurprisingly, her work was banned by the Nazis from their first “art purges” in 1933; they threatened her with deportation to a concentration camp in 1936.  She was not deported, in fact – her international standing kept her safe – but she died just before the end of the war at 77.  Her work is the most moral “degenerate art” I have ever seen.

Next stop on the decadence trail led to Tiergarten’s Bauhaus Archiv.  Alongside expressionist painters and creators of the avant-garde, Bauhaus designers and designs were banned by the Nazis.  Work was scattered across the globe until the creation of the Berlin Archive in 1960.  It is, as you would expect, a clean, white place: well-proportioned, everything just so.  And still the moratorium on big bags.  I don’t know.  I wanted to feel for the plight of the Bauhaus designers, but I suppose they’ve had the last laugh in the end.  The world has fallen in love with their furniture.  We’ve all gone mesh and tubular.  Even the Nazis were inspired by their proportions.  In a contentious posting on there is a claim that a Bauhaus designer became similarly inspired by the Nazis.  Depraved, indeed!  Even I could not escape the insidious lure of its design.  Reader, I left with my big bag bulging.  And so, on to the day’s third museum, Neue Nationalgalerie, home to more of my favourite “degenerate artists”, particularly Otto Dix and Hannah Hoch, as well as a few I didn’t know.  You can also watch a wonderful film celebrating the full-speed-ahead techno-culture of Berlin circa 1927, “Berlin, Symphony of a Great City” by Walter Ruttmann.  They dance and type and eat, not knowing the end is just around the corner… This might not sound near-degenerate-enough for you, but to read there the lists of the works destroyed by the Nazis is chilling.  It is, of course, not as bad as destroying people.  But it is very, very bad to destroy things simply because you do not like them or do not understand them.

By now, the dark is coming.  I am on Potsdamer Strasse on a Saturday night and the world is my oyster.  Did I run for the nearest fetish bar?  I did not.  (Please, my mother’s reading this blog!)  Instead I hied me to The Wintergarden, Berlin’s home for variety entertainment since 1888.  This may not be the Tingle Tangle Club, but that doesn’t exist anymore and any re-creations will be filled with tourists like me looking vainly for authenticity.  Nein, it will not do.  I decided to see what Germans were seeing – what brought them out for a Saturday night in a tourist-free place.  I found it was The Tiger Lillies, “the world’s foremost Death Oompah band, and their Freak Show.  I myself could never resist the promise of a freak.

The Wintergarden is a joy to visit, crystal chandeliers in the lobby, a goodish size small stage with cabaret seating downstairs and traditional theatre seating up.  There are stars on the ceiling and a mirror ball.  You can order dinner and eat while you watch a large, strange man with demented Kabuki make-up sing about Flipper Boy and how he wants to start fires.  At the interval a lovely girl offers pretzels and Eis when once she would have sold cigarettes from that box around her neck.  Everyone is feeling very jolly.  Every up-tempo song, they clap along.  Every quiet moment, they listen to with the utmost quiet, only the odd punctuation of fork on plate.  During one particularly jaunty song everyone is clapping overtime – until the lyric mentions Hitler.  Now, this is a crowd who didn’t flinch at the song “There’s a Death Train Comin'”, but a throwaway lyric of Hitler brings the clapping to a stop.  It isn’t a stop of protest.  It is simply that they have been taken out of this moment, this dark carnival with the two dwarves who cannot dance and pull small train carriages relentlessly around the stage, and into another, much darker carnival.  They falter, but the show goes on.  By the show’s end everyone is clapping in time, demanding more, lusty on their feet.  They have forgotten it already.  And so it goes.  Here is a picture of The Tiger Lillies tonight, and the moment when the dwarves attacked one of the band, just because they could:

The last time I saw The Tiger Lillies they were doing Shockheaded Peter in London.  That was a long time ago, but I remember the show so well.  I have already forgotten much of Freak Show.  Never mind.  But it did make me think that I haven’t shared my favourite book purchase of the trip so far.  Here, in homage to The Tiger Lillies, it’s Shockheaded Hitler.  

Get comfortable and I’ll read you a little bedtime story:
“Just look at him! There he stands
with his nasty hair and hands.
See!  The horrid blood drops drip
from each dirty finger tip:
And the sloven, I declare,
never once has combed his hair;
Piecrust never could be brittler
than the word of Adolf Hitler.

And if you can find a better rhyme for old Adolf than that, I’ll read you another story from the wonderful Struwwelhitler.  Good night.

A tale of two museums

I went to two very different museums today – very different in that they had different content and themes, obviously, but also different in that one was western and modern and ruthlessly contemporary and the other was in an east that had not been updated at all.  Perhaps no one’s told them about that wall.  This is a picture of the outdoor installation of the second museum, The Topography of Terror, which makes it sound a bit of a funfair ride.  I can assure you it is not.

But first up was the State Museum of Childhood and Youth.  The first challenge was to find it.  Having consulted a variety of maps and walking the same two blocks back and forth, I found it.  On the top floor of a block of flats, perhaps?  There was no signage whatsoever.  I did feel like I was breaking and entering, but there didn’t seem much to take.  Then I could hear the shouting of small children.  This might have put another traveller off, but I was promised Nazi and DDR classrooms from a guidebook.  Push on, push on!  At the top of four flights of stairs was a clump of thirty amazingly well-behaved German children, spending their Euros on children’s toys from yesteryear: wooden tops with sticks and strings, coloured feathers.  The prices were not from yesteryear, however – really, one Euro for a coloured feather?  I think the children felt they had to buy something, to be polite.  They were exceedingly polite.  The white-haired woman serving them raised her eyebrows at me, gave a shrug.  Yes, I would wait my turn to enter – this was the children’s museum after all.  I had a half-chat with another woman with carefully drawn on eyebrows who found it odd I should be wearing flip flops.  I suppose it is odd, now that Oktoberfest is beginning below my window.  I didn’t know the German for “feet hurt” and I thought that sharing the big phrase I can remember, “Ich habe grosse kopfschmerzen” wouldn’t leave her any the wiser.  She took my coat and bag.  My bag is simply too big for Germany.  So I stripped down to “museum mode” with essentials: passports, camera, iPhone, notebook, pen.  (Honestly, if I decide to research in the wild, I will be the first to be knocked down and eaten due to excess luggage.)  The white-haired woman was ready for me now; she took my 2 Euros and all my excess baggage, shrugging again and pointing at a locker.  Clearly I did look like I was up to no good.  I kept the notebook stuffed in my pants – I do have my priorities – but I didn’t write anything down after all, nor did I long for my absent camera.  There were 4 rooms with vague artifacts of childhoods from 1900 to 1970-something.  There was not a lot of labeling and what there was defeated my high school German.  It felt like a museum from my own childhood, actually – from anyone’s old childhood spent visiting dubious museums celebrating pencils or the world’s biggest thermometer.  (You can actually visit those sites in California.  I digress.)  I gazed about each of the rooms with the politeness of a German child, then retrieved my belongings.  Eyebrow Lady told me I was quick.  I shrugged.  I left without a feather.

I rocked up to the Topography of Terror (hold on tight!) expecting very little.  Perhaps it is the low-key entries in guidebooks.  Perhaps it is the faintly ridiculous name for an exhibition on the filled-in ruins of SS buildings.  But I was completely unprepared.  The picture above shows the foundations of one such SS building, with the former Reich Aviation Ministry in the distance, now the Federal Ministry of Finance, and a long stretch of the Wall between.  Behind are gravel tracks and small plaques indicating what lies beneath.  People read slowly and carefully.  Inside the Documentation Centre, which leads me to believe it will be a place to collect flyers and have a wee, is an exquisitely detailed exhibition of the history of National Socialism, from Hitler’s Chancellory to the post-war trials.  Several young Germans give tours to dazed visitors, but my ears cannot keep up.  I must be content to read, and read, and read.  Maybe the guidebooks think people won’t come if they know what’s here.  Frankly, I was impressed and overwhelmed by the amount of information on offer: police transcripts, arrest files, newspaper articles, photographs more graphic than I have ever seen – and I’ve seen a lot.  I bought a piece of spinach quiche and couldn’t eat much of it.  When the clerk followed me back into the exhibit to ask if there was something wrong with it, I said no, no, of course not, “zu gross” etc. and then burst into tears as he left.  Warum?  His random kindness and concern, his small pink hearing aids, or the fact that we were having this little exchange before a line of black and white men swinging from hooks?

I thought that the Germans wouldn’t want to talk about the war.  I remember when a young German offender, years ago, asked me why people still cared about “that war – it was so long ago – we have moved on.”  I was prepared for coyness about the Nazi years.  I was struck by the even handling of the facts and figures at the History Museum yesterday, but here is full-throttle, in-yer-face reckoning in this stark stone and glass box.  Not only are Germans looking history in the face, they are staring it down, staring into the dark centre of its eye, refusing to blink.  There is something incredibly moving just in that – that ability, that willingness to look.  Just to look.

Lest you think I’ve gone all serious, I will continue to be as glib about Nazism as I can be.  That’s where my character is, at least until the bitter end.  It’s how they all were, I suppose, until the bitter end, those who had not been taken, of course.  Those who passed their tests.  Here is my favourite photo from the exhibit.  I didn’t take many.  Here is a Nazi couple, catching a few rays.  This is where my character is, for a little while, at least.

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