“Capitalism and power politics have made our generation creatively sluggish, and our vital art is mired in a broad bourgeois philistinism” – Walter Gropius
All the world’s a stage, and as all good Marxists know, we are now upon the farce stage. Those of us chalking up parallels between the UK’s current ethical miasma and BBC 2’s timely ‘Rise Of The Nazis’ are doubtless besieging bookmakers for odds on a Reichstag Fire moment, anytime soon. With billions of pounds sterling hedged on a No Deal Brexit, I’m reminded of the words of George Carlin: “If you can’t beat them, arrange to have them beaten”.
May you live in interesting times, indeed. What a time to be alive. What a time to be heading to Berlin for the first time since 1987. What a time to broaden the mind. As the minds of those that surround you are seemingly narrowing, like barges. On canals. At the brith of the industrial revolution. We know the price of everything, the Victorian Values of nothing.
Day-1: Bags packed. Backpacks loaded. We laugh like drains at recent social media threads on the incompatibility of elder states-people and daysacks. As if those of us who fought the Punk Rock Wars are unduly concerned about the considerations of the Twitterati in regard to the correlation between age and personal effects management. Keeping it real, and in the spirit of true adventure, we get my mom to drop us off at Warwick Parkway. Feeling like we’re almost sixteen again.
With low quality hot chocolates and overpriced pastries consumed, we board the 10:15am, bound for Marylebone. We’re soon trudging through London’s underground system toward St Pancreas, Lady Di leading the way, yours truly lagging behind under the weight of a loaded backpack, carrying a packed bag in each hand. I’m rapidly acclimatising to the drawbacks of train travel. Fully off my trolley: a donkey pulling a narrow boat along tubed towpaths.
With a butterfly stomach full of what I can only describe as actual excitement, we arrive at St Pancreas Eurostar terminal for a short wait under the designer arches. The check-in procedure was somewhat of a revelation. It’s been many years since I’ve been processed for the purposes of travel, and sometimes we forget how the relentless pace of technological advancement alters even the most mundane of experiences. As we are herded through luggage x-rays, biometric passport checks, facial recognition software, and sombre customs officialdom, I’m genuinely waiting to be ushered into a darkened room for interrogation. All rather unnerving, especially as we’re leaving the country!
Ensconced aboard, we are soon hurtling towards Paris at speeds approaching 300-kph. One moment everything’s gone dark, the next Lady Di’s nudging me: “Look, France”. Gard Du Nord is heaving, the temperature has risen by 10-degrees en route. I’m stuttering in French at a baguette concession. With our baggage camp established as we await our connection, we take it in turns to venture outside onto Parisian rues to sample the ambience. It’s been a while since I’ve set foot in Paris. We have history. I was run over by a bus here, back in the early seventies: breaking my arm; fracturing my skull; covering my pretty little face with ugly stitches. My late father genuinely believed I was never the same after Paris.
The journey to Köln was exemplary. Initially, I couldn’t fathom why the drinks and food were free, or why they kept bringing us hot towels and face wipes, until Lady Di confirmed that we were travelling first class. The last time I attempted to travel first class on a train I didn’t have a first class ticket, and ended up having a blazing row with a Virgin Trains conductor about the class system, discrimination, and how I was going to ritually destroy my copy of ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ via the medium of fire as soon as I got home.
We arrived at Köln to find our connection to Berlin delayed by a couple of hours. Unperturbed, we stashed our baggage, ably assisted by our first jovial German of the journey. He couldn’t have been more helpful, or more happy to have been able to help. As we exited the Bahnhof to emerge facing Köln Cathedral, the penny dropped: Köln was in fact Cologne. I’d been here before. Established in 1248 AD, the cathedral, and in particular, its steps, mark the cultural centre of this sprawling city. Crammed with young people enjoying themselves responsibly, the square flanked with packed bars rammed with people drinking responsibly. Cologne had an immediate air of welcome about it, so we wandered down to the Rhine in the balmy late summer heat, scoring ice creams and convenience unterwegs. Along the banks of the river, buskers busked, rappers rapped, glasses and bottles clinked, corks popped, laughter rang out from every direction, Cologne felt like a big fun place to be. We crossed the Rhine and marvelled at the symbolism of it all: Warwick, London, Paris, Cologne, everybody talk about pop muzik.
Back on the platform, the delay grew incrementally. German football fans had overrun the Bahnhof, making their ways home from the Rhein Energie Stadion. Lady Di was becoming agitated, her meticulous planning lost in translation. On the bright side, we’d eventually arrive in Berlin later than the scheduled 05.30am, which had to be a bonus. Eventually our tardy connection sauntered onto the platform, an errant engine by now, in the eyes of Lady Di. We loaded the donkey, jostled for position with beery replica shirts, and clambered aboard our specified carriage number. We were surprised to find our allocated cabin empty and waiting on location. Lady Di whooped in elation as we settled in. There were no bunks, just four seats and a table, but we had a sliding door, and curtain we could draw. The six hour crawl to Berlin began.
Much like teenagers on their first 18-30 holiday, we grew increasingly uncomfortable as the journey progressed. The initial joy at the deportment of our apartment turned to frustration and discomfort, as Lady Di laboured to locate a suitable sleeping position, and I lost myself in the rapidly turning pages of Max Porter‘s ‘Lanny’ (Faber & Faber): “There’s a village sixty miles outside London. It’s no different from many other villages in England: one pub, one church, red-brick cottages, council cottages and a few bigger houses dotted about. Voices rise up, as they might do anywhere, speaking of loving and needing and working and dying and walking the dogs. This village belongs to the people who live in it and to the people who lived in it hundreds of years ago. It belongs to England’s mysterious past and its confounding present. But it also belongs to Dead Papa Toothwort, a figure schoolchildren used to draw green and leafy, choked by tendrils growing out of his mouth. Dead Papa Toothwort is awake. He is listening to this twenty-first-century village, to his English symphony. He is listening, intently, for a mischievous, enchanting boy whose parents have recently made the village their home. Lanny”.
I have often heard people exclaim that a book was unputdownable, that they’d devoured it in one sitting, but I have rarely consumed a tome from cover to cover in the course of one day. ‘Lanny’ consumed me, an electrifying read that challenged my parameters of novelistic convention. An utterly beguiling tale that epitomised everything that troubles me about post-everything existence in UKPLC 2019 under Tory Austerity. The things we’ve lost, it’s always about the loss. As we lumbered through Dortmund, Wuppertal, Hanover, Wolfsburg, into the dawn, it dawned upon me we’d boarded the archetypal ‘slow train coming’. Each stop punctuated by an announcement in piercing, staccato German only (all earlier concessions to multiculturalism by now unforthcoming), that rendered anything but slumber practically impossible. Finally, around 2am, ‘Lanny’ completed, Lady Di faux-asleep in the foetal position, swaddled in hoodies, I too began the search for rest.
At around 5:05am, we discovered what it would have been like to have been escaping the Nazi regime back in 1940. Our cabin door was rudely wrenched asunder, and in burst a 6ft 5in German guy shouting at us, barking orders and gesticulating. At first I thought he was shouting: ‘Achtung! Achtung! Gott im Himmel. Papers; papers; where are your papers?’ In fact, he was merely pointing at our seats, as if to say: ‘these are my seats, I pre-booked them, please move now so my wife and I can sit down in accordance with the seating protocol of this sleeping carriage, as specified here, in writing, on these tickets’. It’s a scary language at volume, at 5:05am, especially to vulnerable English people faux-asleep in uncomfortable sleepers. Lady Di, rudely awoken, responded with relative ungraciousness, and our new travelling companions settled into their seats opposite us, uncomfortably. The atmosphere was interesting. Lady Di annoyed, myself amused. Everybody stared at their phones. I offered placatory solace: “we’ll be in Berlin within the hour”. The German guy, a literal man mountain, possibly once an East German shot putter at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, was soon on his feet. He returned a few minutes later with further exclamations at volume, which, by now fully awake, I instantly translated as: ‘the compartment next door is vacant, therefore my wife and I shall decant there forthwith, enabling your companion and your good self to return to slumber’.
We finally hit Berlin at 6:30am. The sheer architectural wonderment of Berlin Hauptbahnhof literally took our breath away on arrival. We wandered the concourse momentarily, clicking away on our phones, savouring the enormity of the journey, our amazement at having completed it with relatively little hinderance. For a few seconds we both looked at each other, as if to say: ‘what the fuck are we going to do now, at 6am, in Berlin? With all this baggage?’ We made our way down to ground level, exiting into the fresh morning air, the sun rising to the east, elegantly framing the iconic Berliner Fernsehturm in Alexanderplatz, build by the GDR government between 1965 and 1969. We were both genuinely elated: feeling like we were almost sixteen again.
We were soon aboard a taxi, cruising the short distance to the Maritim proArte Hotel Berlin, on Friedrichstrasse. We’d arranged for an early check-in, but we were still three hours early, even for that. We dumped our luggage at reception, and were duly invited to take advantage of the hotel’s breakfast facility. The sumptuous buffet arrangement boasted all manner of frühstück options: Brot and Brötchen, decorated with butter, sweet jams and local honey, thinly sliced meats, cheese, Leberwurst, a variety of eggs/omlettes, sausages, pastries, fruit, cheesecake, cereals. We adopted a ‘fill-up for free’ policy immediately, designed to reduce in-day sustenance costs accordingly, returning to the breakfast station repeatedly until we could gorge no more. Refreshed and refuelled, we headed off down Friedrichstrasse in search of Checkpoint Charlie: 7:30am. What I would be missing out on in terms of cycling whilst I was away, we’d surely be compensating for in miles walked.
Checkpoint Charlie proved illustrative of any return to Berlin for the first time, post-wall. The last time I’d approached this iconic sentry box I’d walked from the opulent West (‘You are now leaving the American sector’) to stare over the wall at the oppressed East (‘You are now entering the Soviet sector’). The wall now gone, no-man’s-land now occupied by fast food outlets, retail establishments and real estate, the vista was unrecognisable from the one I’d seen in 1987. A disorienting experience, especially in my relatively zombie state. The timing of our visit was perfect, however, as we’d discover a few days later, at peak tourist, you can’t see the checkpoint for the Charlies.
Wandering back up Friedrichstrasse it began to dawn on me that the cultural compass of Berlin had shifted to the East: from the left to the right, so to speak. I pondered the irony of a contradiction we would encounter in many guises in the coming days as the heat rose with the sun. We checked into our hotel room at 10am. Showered, snoozed, and back on the road by 12pm, we were determined to squeeze maximum lemon juice from every second. We struck out West from our base in the former East, impossibly excited. With the sun high in the sky and the temperature in the high twenties, the high pressure was set to last the duration of our stay. We ambled down to the Reichstag, wandered through the Tiergarten, and on to Brandenburger Tor. The gate itself was the setting for a performance that coming evening by the Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Kirill Petrenko. The stage was literally set, somewhat obscuring our photo opportunities of the Tor. Pre-recorded operatics blared from the speaker stacks as the final preparations for the evening’s performance were put into place.
Following the former course of the wall, we headed South, for Potsdammer Platz. My brain recalibrated rapidly, the disorientation of change was disconcerting. The last time I’d been here, I’d walked through the Tiergarten to stare over the wall at no-man’s-land and the East beyond. I recalled a graffiti legend I’d photographed in ’87: ‘They came, they saw, they did a little shopping’. Our route was fittingly punctuated by the Holocaust-Mahnmal, two thousand, seven hundred and eleven gray concrete stelae, erected in memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, this enormous site undulates as one walks through the stelae, subsuming the visitor like a maze.
Potsdamer Platz is extensive, dominated by its impressive Bahnhof: an intersection at the commercial heart of the re-centred Berlin. Several sections of former wall are situated in front of the station, decorated with graffiti, surrounded by tourists armed with all manner of cameras. Trams criss-corse the square, cyclists race past at speed. You’ve got to be on your toes. With the heat bordering on oppressive, we opted to take the advice I’d photographed back in ’87, and entered the Mall Of Berlin for some retail therapy and sustenance. We spent the remainder of the afternoon hunting down one of Berlin’s three Camper shoe stores, before retracing yesterday’s steps along Friedrichstrasse to the Maritim proArte Hotel to sauna and swim.
Refreshed and eager for more, we wandered out East into the sunset, drawn by the talismanic Berliner Fernsehturm towards Alexanderplatz and the River Spree. We ate on the vibrant riverfront, entertained by a sax busker blowing cliched schmaltz. We both agreed we’d rarely felt this comfortable in a city. We ended the evening watching Berliners dance beneath a flower-decked wooden awning on a sand-covered square. They danced the tango, the waltz, the foxtrot, the quickstep, the samba, the cha-cha, the rumba. Older couples, younger couples, gay couples, unlikely couples, all filled with the joy of dance and their love of life. It was a moving experience, and we laughed as we watched, enraptured with the simplicity of unadulterated fun. Our first day in Berlin had drawn to a close. It had lasted 36-hours; we’d walked 15-miles, covering 39,421-steps. We felt like we were almost sixteen again. We’re both fifty six.
Day-2: The following morning we struck out East, to The Stasi Museum: a research and memorial centre documenting the political system of the former East Germany, located in the Lichtenberg locality, in the former headquarters of the Stasi, on Normannenstrasse/Ruschestrasse, near Frankfurter Allee. The bright yellow carriages of the U-Bahn trains set the tone for the day. Like a kid unwrapping a Hornby 00 Gauge on Christmas morning, it was love at first sight. Simple to to use, relatively cheap, clean and punctual, Berlin’s underground and overground rail network is a credit to the city. As we emerged from the U-Bahn onto Frankfurter Allee it felt somewhat akin to exiting the Tardis in 1987. This entire district was but a blank white space on the map back then, and as we made our way towards the museum entrance it was easy to imagine the bullets flying off the pock-marked walls of the surrounding tenements. Inside we discovered how the Stasi operated, examining their original technology: weapons, bugs, hidden cameras, infra red beamers for photography at night. One particular case study documented how the Stasi sent one poor woman insane by entering her flat daily whilst she was out, and simply moving her possessions around. I was reminded of Hans Weingartner‘s ‘The Edukators’ (2004), where Jan, Peter and Julie seek to unnerve the wealthy through their form of protest art: ‘Your days of plenty are numbered’. It struck me that the apparatus of state control remains fundamental, regardless of ideology. UKPLC 2019 may be infinitely more nuanced than the DDR, but we are intrinsically monitored, psychologically harassed and ultimately controlled by entirely parallel methodology. On floor two we entered the office of Erich Mielke, Minister of State Security and head of the Stasi from 1957 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The entire second floor of the building remains untouched since the days of the Stasi, complete with desks, chairs and filing cabinets. It felt like we were in an episode of ‘Deutschland 83′, I kept expecting Martin Rauch to walk in any second.
Returning once again to Potzdamer Platz, we headed South into Kreuzberg, in search of Köthener Strasse 38, home of Hansa Studios. Located in a former builders’ guild hall, famous for the acoustic properties of its Meistersaal, employed by the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Depeche Mode to capture many of their finest moments, the studio used to be known as ‘Hansa by the wall’. On arrival it initially took a few minutes to recognise the building, it was only the giant image of Bowie in the window that gave the game away. The documentary ‘Hansa Studios: By the Wall 1976-90′ (2018) portrayed Hansa as an ‘outpost of Western civilisation’ on the edge of no-man’s-land, it was again impossible to reconcile that image with what stood before us now.
Day-3 was never going to be a walk in the Tiergarten. We set off for the Jüdisches Museum, back past Checkpoint Charlie, now overrun with tourists, surrounding souvenir shops bristling with business. Opened in 2001, it’s the largest Jewish museum in Europe. It consists of three buildings, two of which are new additions specifically built for the museum by architect Daniel Libeskind. Architecturally imposing, the modern elements are reminiscent of Frank Gehry‘s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. German-Jewish history is documented within the collections, the library and the archive, and reflected in the museum’s program of events. The experience was provocative and disturbing in equal measure, an installation replicating the arc of the searchlights in particular sent shivers down our spines.
Having remembered the victims, we made our way to examine the perpetrators at the Topography Of Terror, an indoor/outdoor exhibition located on the former Prinz Albrecht Strasse, the former site of SS Reich Main Security Office, the headquarters of the Sicherheitspolizei, SD, Einsatzgruppen and Gestapo. The site is flanked by the longest stretch of Wall left standing. Below the wall lie the remains of the basement level of the former site. We began by viewing chilling footage of the destruction of Warsaw, filmed form the air as it smouldered in ruins. Imagining what would have taken place within these walls was a dispiriting experience. The indoor exhibition further documented the rise and fall of the Third Reich in unflinching detail. The content was unremitting, we separated to digest at our own pace, meeting at intersections as we criss-crossed the voluminous weight of information on display. Within a couple of hours, the experience was simply overpowering. We both felt utterly drained by the horrors before our eyes.
“The ultimate goal of all art is the building! The ornamentation of the building was once the main purpose of the visual arts, and they were considered indispensable parts of the great building. Today, they exist in complacent isolation, from which they can only be salvaged by the purposeful and cooperative endeavours of all artisans. Architects, painters and sculptors must learn a new way of seeing and understanding the composite character of the building, both as a totality and in terms of its parts. Their work will then re-imbue itself with the spirit of architecture, which it lost in salon art.
The art schools of old were incapable of producing this unity—and how could they, for art may not be taught. They must return to the workshop. This world of mere drawing and painting of draughtsmen and applied artists must at long last become a world that builds. When a young person who senses within himself a love for creative endeavour begins his career, as in the past, by learning a trade, the unproductive ‘artist’ will no longer be condemned to the imperfect practice of art because his skill is now preserved in craftsmanship, where he may achieve excellence.
Architects, sculptors, painters—we all must return to craftsmanship! For there is no such thing as ‘art by profession’. There is no essential difference between the artist and the artisan. The artist is an exalted artisan. Merciful heaven, in rare moments of illumination beyond man’s will, may allow art to blossom from the work of his hand, but the foundations of proficiency are indispensable to every artist. This is the original source of creative design.
So let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavoured to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come”.
As we made our way around the architectonic building, every room delivered wonderments: the door handles; the light fittings; the hinges; the materials; the stairways; the banisters; the symmetry; the functionalism; the light; the reds; the blues; the yellows: it felt utterly contemporary, to the nth degree. Timeless design manifesting in total realisation of the principles of the original manifesto. Back out on Gropiusallee, we headed North West for the short walk to the Masters’ Houses. Built in 1926, at the same time as the main building itself, these four white, cubic forms establish complex connections between interior and exterior. Their lasting influence on modern architecture continues to inform the debate around standardisation in housing construction to this day. The Masters’ Houses are not only architectural revelations, they are the former homes of Bauhäusler artists Lyonel Feininger, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Lucia and László Moholy-Nagy, and Gropius himself. Flanked by pine trees, the Masters’ Houses remain the epitome of functional serenity.
With clouds banking in from the North, and the buzz of static in the air, we could feel the storm coming as we left the final house. The temperature was bordering on thirty degrees, something had to give. As we wandered the suburbs of Dessau in search of ‘The Box’, we realised we’d ventured off-piste. With the palpable essence of rain in the air, we Google-mapped our way back to the Bauhaus building, a matter of seconds before the storm broke. The blue skies of earlier that morning were now dark with cloud. Thunder and lightning danced across the horizon, as Bauhaus staff members rushed to close all those windows. We took sustenance down in the cafe, but the storm has set in. In only t-shirts and shorts, we were suddenly trapped in the Bauhaus building. We revisited the gift shop, I scored a t-shirt, then we retraced our steps, and toured the building again. When the rain eventually relented, we headed for the town centre, a mile-or-so’s walk to ‘The Box’. The building itself was a mass of glass, reflecting the obverse of everything that surrounded it. One day we’ll return to explore its contents.
Day 5: Having spent the first four days in the former East, we headed out West, via Zoologischer Garten Bahnhof, in search of Bikini Berlin, a retail and dining complex on Budapester Strasse boasting windows and a rooftop plaza with enticing views of the animals currently being held captive in Berlin Zoo. We watched bouncing baboon’s bottoms from the mall’s aisles. Baboons aren’t amongst Lady Di’s favourite creatures, but she did find them amusing. I was more concerned, on the other hand, about how sore their bottoms had to be to get that red, and pondered the genetic wisdom of evolution in that regard. Displaying dominance and sexual prowess is admittedly important for any species worth its survival, but there has to be a hipper signifier than a raging, raw, red bottom, surely?
Bikini Berlin was rammed with impossibly chic retailers punting expansive ranges of edgy garments, lifestyle accessories and accoutrements. I scored a couple of Berlin IND t-shirts for my girls, and we climbed to the rooftop plaza for a bird’s eye view of the bustling retail heart of the former West. We were soon lolling along Kurfürstenstrasse, shopping for further gifts for our families. Once part of the French sector of the city, Kurfürstenstrasse felt reminiscent of Paris in many ways. Block after block of exclusive designer outlets, all the usual suspects. For the first time this trip we suddenly felt like we could have been anywhere in Europe.
Hopping the U-Bahn back to Hauptbahnhof, we stuck out on foot in search of Hamburger Bahnhof, the former terminus of the Hamburg-Berlin Railway. Situated on Invalidenstrasse in the Moabit district, opposite the Charité hospital, Hamburger Bahnhof is a contemporary art museum (the Museum für Gegenwart), and is part of the Berlin National Gallery. The museum houses art from the 1960s to the present day: Pop Art, Expressionism, Minimalism. Paintings hang alongside sculpture, video installations and photography, and the museum showcases some of the most important examples of modern art from the past six decades in a 13,000-square metre exhibition space.
After a brief pit-stop chez Maritim, we set off by U-Bahn in the general direction of Kraftwerk Berlin for the opening night of Berlin Atonal. In a previous life, the building used to supply the people of Berlin with power to heat their homes. More recently, it has become the focal point of the Berlin underground techno scene. These days it’s known to both music fans and art enthusiasts alike, hosting a broad range of cultural events. The former Mitte CHP Plant has many different aspects. The building itself is simply an incredible space. Absolutely breathtaking. It was originally constructed between 1961 and 1964, before eventually being abandoned in 1997, when a new power plant in the vicinity rendered it redundant. The Mitte CHP Plant thus documents the evolution Berlin’s industrial history. In 2006, Dimitri Hegemann began the search for a new home for his Techno club, Tresor. Mitte CHP became available, and he duly opened up part of the plant’s huge empty space for his venture. Further extensions and renovations were carried out throughout the noughties, eventually the current exhibition space and venue known as Kraftwerk Berlin was finally opened to the public. We roamed every level on entry, a club experience the like of which neither of us have undertaken before. The main stage occupies the far end of the upper level, dramatic red lighting and lasers cutting through the dry ice miasma to pick out the distant roof high above us. With an early morning’s travel ahead of us, we were restricted to a few precious hours at Atonal, but we managed to catch impressive sets from UCC Harlo and Pavel Milyakov.
Day-6: The sadness had begun to descend the previous evening, as we’d walked slowly back from our last night meal in Hackescher Markt, along now familiar routes. Neither of us wanted to leave. We’d fallen head over heels with Berlin. We were smitten. It had begun to feel like home already. We both agreed we’d never felt as engaged with a city in all of our respective travels. There was something encapsulating about the place, something undefinable. Checked out of the Maritim and loaded up like a donkey once again, we jostled for position with early doors commuters as we made our way to Hauptbahnhof and our train to Cologne. I was struggling to stay on my feet. I was being hit from all sides as I wobbled like a Weeble. Lady Di was in tears watching my plight. A quizzical look on my part brought the response: “We’re going the wrong way!”
Ensconced on our Cologne-bound train, I’d stashed the luggage just in time. As the train began to move, we discovered we were in a first class carriage: the wrong carriage. A helpful German couple explained that it wasn’t a problem, that we’d only miscalculated by one carriage, and that we could simply change carriages at the next stop, a mere ten minutes away. The train pulled in to the next station, I loaded up the donkey, we clambered out onto the platform, only to discover that the door was at the far end of the next carriage. We began to run the thirty-odd yards to re-board, but the guard was already blowing his whistle, seemingly oblivious to our plight. Lady Di began to pull out ahead of me, as we shouted at the top of our voices: “Wait! Wait! Waiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!”
Breathless and shaking with relief, we quickly found our specified seats, only to find them occupied. Lady Di politely remonstrated with the errant occupants until we were eventually seated in our allocated seats, with metabolisms returning to vaguely normal. I was finally able to pull out my return journey book: Benjamin Myers‘ ‘The Offing’ (Bloomsbury Circus): “One summer following the Second World War, Robert Appleyard sets out on foot from his Durham village. Sixteen and the son of a coal miner, he makes his way across the northern countryside until he reaches the former smuggling village of Robin Hood’s Bay. There he meets Dulcie, an eccentric, worldly, older woman who lives in a ramshackle cottage facing out to sea. Staying with Dulcie, Robert’s life opens into one of rich food, sea-swimming, sunburn and poetry. The two come from different worlds, yet as the summer months pass, they form an unlikely friendship that will profoundly alter their futures”.
Myers’ previous volume, ‘The Gallows Pole’ (Bluemoose Books), had captured my heart the previous summer, during our adventures in Brittany. ‘The Offing’ had me from the first page, as Robert Appleyard assesses the speed of the passage of our existence: “A few summers here, some long dark winters there; good fortune, infamy, illness, a little love, a little more luck and suddenly you’re looking down the wrong end of the telescope”. Here we were, careening back towards Blighty, frankly afraid of what would be left of our country on our return. Berlin fading into the distance behind us, six days that have felt so elongated in real time now compressed to the size of memories already.
As the pages turned, and the stations sped by, Lady Di became concerned at the time we were losing en route. The margin for error was slim, with 45-minutes at Cologne before we we due to board our connection for Brussels, and on towards Paris to pick up the Eurostar. Our 45-minute window slow misted up: 40, 35, 30, 25, 20, 15, 10. As we sat at a signal point the wrong side of the Rhine just outside Cologne, surrendering precedence to a regional train, our final ten minutes went up in the smoke of frustration as we pulled into Cologne only to wave at our departing connection. Lady Di was by now distraught, heated discussions with Deutsche Bahn Rail operatives furnished us with a rescheduled itinerary that suggested we present at the Eurostar Brussels terminal where we would be allowed to take the next Eurostar train directly to London.
After an hour and a half’s wait, we boarded a later train for Brussels. There were no seats available. We found ourselves scheduled to stand up for the duration of the three hour journey. I was not best pleased. The next carriage’s seats were taped off, apparently due to non-functioning air conditioning. I stashed the bags and slid under the tape. I was happy to ride seated, air conditioning or no air conditioning. A cohort of students followed my lead, and before long the closed off carriage was fully occupied. A DB employee arrived to inform us that the conductor was on his way, and that he was a stickler around occupied seats in carriages rendered inoperable due to faulty air conditioning issues. I watched with interest as the conductor approached. First he came for the students, but I did not speak out because I was not a student. Seat by seat students abandoned their positions to retreat past me along the train in search of further unsuitable places in which to perch. Eventually the conductor came for me, and their was no-one left to speak for me. I gave it my best shot, loaded with remonstration on DB’s performance-related failings and good old Anglo-Saxon verbiage. All to no avail: “If you do not move I will stop this train”. I moved from my seat to the arm rest of the single seat opposite, as the conductor huffed past. He duly seated Lady Di in the next carriage, leaving me to alternate between corridor carriage floor and arm rest for the remaining three hours.
By this time, I was beyond caring. I shared this space with a Macedonian tattoo artist who spent the duration of the journey showing a young Moroccan women with an obvious interest in tattoos You Tube videos of his tattooing skills, whist I chatted intermittently with a German psychology student en route to London to study. As we disembarked at Brussels, we stuck closely to several other passengers who had also fallen foul of DB’s scheduling program, in particular the lady who has been erroneously occupying our seats on the Cologne train. Like the Pied Piper, she led us to the Eurostar Hub where we joined the queue to plead for clemency. By this stage Lady Di was convinced we’d be made to pay for two new tickets, but one by one those in front of us in the queue began to be directed towards the check-in for the imminent train to London. Lady Di pleaded, whilst I began getting feisty in the background, but eventually sheer weight of numbers won through, and the by now lovely Belgian Eurostar employee issued us with boarding passes.
Careering across Belgium at 300-kph, bound for St Pancreas, the news broke that Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Bumboys Vampires Haircut Inconclusive-Cocaine-Event Wall-Spaffer Spunk-Burster Fuck-Business Fuck-The-Families Get-Off-My-Fucking-Laptop Turds Johnson had announced his intention to prorogue Parliament. The Coup was underway. We issued an immediate statement: “In light of the right wing coup/ongoing establishment of the Fourth Riech in the UK, we have today approached the German authorities with the intention of defecting to Deutschland”. By the weekend, I was manning the barricades alongside comrades in what would become known as the Demo In Leamo. From Bodmin to Berlin, crowds vented their fury at Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Bumboys Vampires Haircut Inconclusive-Cocaine-Event Wall-Spaffer Spunk-Burster Fuck-Business Fuck-The-Families Get-Off-My-Fucking-Laptop Turds Johnson’s ‘coup’.
“Fortified by laughter/galvanised by love/I am forever/in your atoms” – Romy Landau, 1940