Don’t Fear The Reaper


If I were a UK MP opposed to Brexit, I would vote against the triggering of Article 50 when it comes up in Parliament.

It is said that MPs who vote against Brexit will then be voted out by their angry constituents.

I suggest:

1: in many constituencies, the opposite is the case and a majority will support a vote against Brexit.

2: in many, a majority will support a vote for Brexit but this is very far from being people’s main political concern or criterion and they might well continue to support a local MP who is trying to work well for them in other ways – or just vote on party lines as usual.

3: If an MP is, indeed, voted out for voting against Brexit, this seems a price worth paying. First because voting against Brexit is the best thing you can do in the national interest. Second because, if you are opposed to Brexit, being an MP in a land that has exited the EU is not so appealing. Third because, if you are opposed to Brexit and it happens because of votes like yours in the Commons, the thought that you have voted for it should hang on your conscience and sicken you. So it would hardly be worth doing it just to hang on to your place in Parliament.

The one argument I see against this is: if anti-Brexit MPs are ousted for voting against it, they could be replaced by worse people (UKIP mainly) – so an MP might feel it is their duty to hang on in the Commons for the state of the polity, and that voting Brexit through is a price that unfortunately must be paid for that.

Another pragmatic factor can be added: an MP was killed this year by a neo-Nazi, apparently – at least in part – because of her support for staying in the EU. This might mean that MPs who vote against Brexit in Parliament will be in danger from similar fanatics who will feel all the more right to be vengeful and violent. So MPs should vote for Brexit just for their own personal safety. That could make sense, but if that’s really how bad things are, do they want to be MPs at all? I don’t think we can endorse a scenario in which MPs’ votes on an important matter of principle are determined by fear for their lives.

This post has summarised why I think that MPs who are opposed to the UK leaving the EU should not vote for it to happen.

The Man in the High Tower


Yesterday was election day in the United States. I live 3,600 miles from Washington DC and have no vote, but I take an interest. I watched BBC election coverage from after 11. For perhaps two hours it didn’t much disturb the pre-existing perception that Hillary Clinton was likely to win – to the point where the prospect of her victory could almost seem a bit routine and unexciting. That seems a woeful thought now. Perhaps confirmation bias was involved, and people were seeing what they expected to see. Sometime between midnight and 2am the narrative stated changing, responding to reports of Trump’s small lead in the vote count in FL. Then in VA. And in NC. Then in more states. It started to look dismaying. I went to bed, woke and remembered how bad it had looked, braced myself, tried to assume it had happened, looked at a news website. I was still surprised, just as I was when I did the same the morning about the UK’s referendum result.

Here are brief thoughts on the outcome while it is fresh, with four years of this Presidency to look back at them.

  1. Polls had told us that Trump wins were quite possible in OH and FL, so no real reason to be shocked by those. It’s the wins in WI and PA, and perhaps MI, that shock me. I had assumed for months that PA was a blue state and this could not change. To lose those states is dismaying. I feel a humiliation about it.
  1. Clinton finishes ahead or about level in the popular vote. I understand that the election is not decided this way – though I’ve been persuaded that it should be, and that the electoral college is a pointless historical hangover. (I see that Michael Moore agrees.) I know that the winner of the most votes doesn’t necessarily win the Presidency. I just think the fact worth emphasizing to counter the distorted reaction that says ‘American voters have overwhelmingly voted for this racist, misogynist bully’ and the like. About half of those who voted have voted for him. About half the eligible population didn’t vote.
  1. I feel sorry for Hillary Clinton – as I did for John Kerry, though perhaps I had still more sympathy for Kerry. I even thought of writing him a letter. I don’t think I got round to that, as I did for Barry Davies when he retired. It is curious to remember that Kerry later (2012) took the senior post that Clinton had just vacated, so he wasn’t finished as I might have imagined. Anyway, I feel sorry for Hillary Clinton. I watched her concession speech today and found it quite gracious, but also strong, somewhat a piece of fighting talk in its references to defending the equality enshrined in the Constitution. I also appreciated what she said about women, girls and the long struggle that lies ahead of progressive campaigners who are just at the start of their careers. Actually I thought it was a terrific last stand.
  1. I suppose I have some sympathy with people who vote for 3rd-party candidates on principle. It could be said that the principle is not that different from what makes people vote for Jeremy Corbyn, let alone Caroline Lucas. But I don’t have sympathy with people who don’t vote because they can’t be bothered, can’t bring themselves to do it or think they’re all the same. That’s wrong.
  1. After an event like this loads of people leap to explain it in diverse ways. I think we must be rather over-saturated in such commentary nowadays for I feel I’ve had enough of it for now. I don’t like the way that it becomes such a carousel of competing lines: someone says ‘the white working class won this for Trump’, then someone (like Paul Mason) says ‘don’t blame the working class, the affluent also voted for him’, and someone says ‘don’t blame the poor, as ethnic minorities didn’t vote for him’, and someone else says ‘I’m from an ethnic minority and I’m offended by the assumption that I would vote for Hillary Clinton’ … This stuff chases itself round forever. I know the truth is out there somewhere but when 120 million votes have been cast it seems possible that many different factors were involved. The competitive battle to explain an election seems to tend to over-simplify this.

In thinking of writing a post about this election, I had actually just planned to note what I thought were the possible bad, and even good, outcomes of Trump’s Presidency. In thinking of such things, though, I notice how much I don’t know. It’s easy to cite certain things that Trump has said. But it’s not easy to assess seriously what he will do and by what governmental levers, or for that matter much of what Barack Obama has actually done. (It is of course very important, and very bad, that Trump’s Presidency coincides with Republican control of Congress.) Trying to describe real political outcomes accurately induces some humility for one who’s not actually involved in politics. Still, here is my list of the bad things Trump might do.

  1. Climate change. The contrast seems big between a President who talked a lot about this, as though he grasped its immensity, and even sometimes seemed to manage to do things about it – and the new President who does not seem convinced that climate change exists. Climate change is the largest problem in the world, so Trump’s unwillingness even to acknowledge it, and the likelihood that he will therefore do things that worsen it, is effectively the most damaging thing about his Presidency.
  1. Global conflict. A simple idea of what is bad about Trump is that it is dangerous for such a person to have his finger on the nuclear button. That’s true. If he ever does launch a nuclear war, I suppose he will go down as the worst President in history, if history still exists afterwards. Perhaps he will be that President anyway. Short of the unusually high nuclear peril, though, I’m not sure that it seems so likely that Trump will precipitate global conflict. We are always told that he likes Vladimir Putin, which would seem to make a military conflict between Russia and the US less likely. Perhaps what it makes more likely is Russian imperial adventurism that doesn’t involve the US.
  1. The Supreme Court. I gather that the Republicans have shamefully prevented the appointment of a new judge. Trump will presumably seek to appoint one who will be regressive, specifically in relation to abortion rights. This seems one of the largest concrete dangers he presents. Its effects could last many decades. An oddity about it, though, is that, as people have pointed out, Trump isn’t really much of a puritanical Republican, and perhaps isn’t personally opposed to abortion. This element of his persona is perhaps more of a pose, adopted to appeal to others; yet its effects could be very large and bad.
  1. Bigotry and violence. I am doubtful that Trump will accomplish or even attempt some of the notorious policies that he has promised relating to immigration. As above, I don’t feel sure if he even cares about immigration, as many of his voters do. But I do think that his election will embolden others to act violently against minorities. This would somewhat echo the effect of the vote to leave the EU, but probably, as Trump says, ‘Brexit +++’: his campaign was far more explicitly racist than the Brexit campaign, which for instance included an appeal to leave the EU so we could import more Indian chefs.
  1. Lastly a larger, looser problem, more of atmosphere and meaning than of policy and concrete outcome: essentially, the dismaying fact that the way to become President is now to be a reality-TV billionaire. It feels like the apotheosis of an effect seen in Ronald Reagan – thirty years ago it was customary to sigh at ‘a cowboy actor in the White House’. People like Clive James and Peter Ustinov satirized it wryly at length. But that seems tame next to this latest culmination of, let’s say politics as reality TV, as vulgar showbiz, as neon bombast and illusion. The Philip K. Dickification of our real world: that’s the process to which a President Trump immediately and constantly makes a vast contribution. This will be hard to escape, day in and day out, for the next four years: a total reversal of the dividend of pleasure that could come from the thought that someone as astoundingly gifted as Mr Obama was in charge.

Could any good things arise from Trump’s Presidency?

  1. He is opposed to trade deals. We are told that TTIP is dead in the water. Well, George Monbiot, Caroline Lucas, Jeremy Corbyn and Billy Bragg are opposed to TTIP, so if the US President is torpedoing it that ought to be good news. Admittedly it already seemed to have run aground before this result. Perhaps Trump’s protectionism will be good for those progressive people who resist big trade treaties that give US corporations undue power over governments. But power to those corporations, and diminished power for foreign governments, sounds like something Trump would like, so perhaps he will replace TTIP and co with something even worse.
  1. He is mostly opposed to US military intervention overseas – except that he also talks of taking out ISIS. I have also long been opposed to such interventions (so have George Monbiot, Caroline Lucas, Jeremy Corbyn and Billy Bragg), so isn’t this good news too? Perhaps it is another case of being careful what you wish for: perhaps in the absence of US military force in areas like the Middle East, let alone the Baltic, things actually will get worse in ways that those of us who have been opposed to such deployments of power have never thought we would have to imagine. Perhaps the outcome will be more regional power for Putin’s Russia – a much more repressive and corrupt state than Trump’s America will ever be – and that will be a new negative.

Like many others – currently a majority of those who voted – I am not happy about this election result. It still carries an unreal air, and I wish it were not a reality. I have a feeling that if I lived in the United States, it would feel still far worse than it does: that I am somewhat insulated from it by distance, but to know oneself an actual citizen of President-Elect Trump’s America would be a confounding oppression.

Soccer Snaps


1. Match of the Day 2. In the studio for expert analysis, Ruud Gullit and … Kevin Kilbane. The incongruity of this – not a one-off, but a recurring sort of arrangement – strikes me. Gullit was once the most celebrated European footballer of his generation. A couple of years younger than Maradona, a few more younger than Platini, he was virtually the successor in that line: with less pure skill than other greats, but with much barnstorming power and versatility. Aged 25 he captained a team to the European Championship, as Platini and Maradona had done at the previous two major tournaments. Now he appears alongside Kevin Kilbane, whose achievements I don’t remember. Perhaps Kilbane actually had a better career than I realize. But it feels like pairing Emilio Butragueno with Billy Whitehurst, Jorge Burruchaga with Geoff Thomas. I later see where presenter Mark Chapman has acknowledged this, posting online an image of the pair: ‘One of the greats of international football on #motd2 tonight at 1030 on BBC1. And Ruud Gullit.’ Actually, during the programme itself there is a bit of play on it, and Gullit does seem the senior partner. His analysis strikes me as authoritative and expert, but I can’t now remember any of it.

2. Chapman to Gullit: ‘Talk to me about Ronald Koeman’. I like this: it shows an understanding of why it’s worth having someone like Gullit in the studio. A world-soccer-historical figure, he won that 1988 title with Koeman at the back behind him in every game. They shared club experience at PSV Eindhoven too. Gullit talks of Koeman’s slowness and hence his need to be a good reader of the game, making him a likely manager; then of going on a coaching course with him: ‘He took out this pencil case with all these different coloured pens’. It turns out that this whole anecdote and more is on a BBC Sport web page published the same day – surely it must have gone up before MotD2 itself? So Chapman had already read it and was priming Gullit to recite from it? Anyway the detail is now official:

I got an idea of how precise Everton boss Ronald Koeman is as a manager when we did our coaching qualifications together in the Netherlands in 1998, and he got his pencil case out. I had just been sacked as player-manager by Chelsea and, along with Ronald, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten, I went on a special fast-track course that the Dutch FA had put on for former top international players that allowed us to get our badges in only a year. Koeman, who had retired in 1997, had always wanted to become a manager when he was a player and you could tell then he wanted to make the most of this opportunity. We were all enthusiastic but even his note-taking was extremely systematic – it still makes me laugh that he wrote everything down very carefully using lots of different coloured pens.

3. Earlier in the day, Match of the Day 2 Extra. Guy Mowbray: ‘Adam Lallana’s a Liverpool player now. He’s not just a Southampton player who’s gone to the bright lights of Liverpool’.

The bright lights of Liverpool.

The Passing Image Of You

I thought that Flann O’Brien’s hundredth birthday must make this a celebratory sort of day, but in fact it has brought sad news. The Scottish guitarist, singer and songwriter Bert Jansch has died aged 67. He was only born in 1943. That’s not so long ago. You’d think he deserved another 15 years at least. He died of cancer. I don’t know whether this related to the amount he had smoked. He used to drink a lot too, I’m sure of that – though it seems that he stopped and rescued his health in the mid-1990s.

Bert Jansch’s death feels premature. That’s one reason it affects people – not just me but, for instance, all the people who have logged in to pay brief tribute on a Guardian thread about him. Another reason it touches me is that he was of my parents’ generation, and important to them. My father was born a year after Bert Jansch. He went to see him, at a folk club I think, in his home town, way back – this must have been about 1964, when the first LP was released. Goodness, that’s getting on for 50 years ago. He saw Jansch play a few times over subsequent years also, and kept coming back to the music in recent years – rediscovering the early LP Jack Orion on a CD release, and the late work Crimson Moon with Marr and Butler. Only last year I bought my dad the early album Bert & John on CD: a brief live stereo recording of Jansch and John Renbourn on duelling acoustics. Those guitarists were part of Britain’s folk revival in the 1960s. That music scene was important to lots of young British people, including beatniks, students, CND activists – not that Jansch himself was playing political songs. Since I’ve known who Bert Jansch was, I’ve associated him with this generational history. He feels important to me in part because he has been important to others.

I like the music myself, too. I have never really made my way into Pentangle, the folk-rock-jazz supergroup that Jansch and Renbourn formed with others, though one or two of their LPs were around when I was a child, and some of the obituary talk presents that as though it’s his major achievement. Maybe it’s time to try. But I know Jansch mostly as a solo performer, and I associate him most with single-track recordings, voice and acoustic guitar presumably taped live. It seems fair to say that he was the greatest living British folk guitarist. His playing was legendary. Other guitarists genuflected to it. I’m not as good as them, let alone him, but I can identify with the admiration, the sense that this if you take the path of the acoustic guitar, this is the maestro. But I always get the impression that he was not forbidding or full of himself. He seems to have been shy, modest, mumbling, wearing his talent lightly.

I’m not sure that I can describe the distinctiveness of Jansch’s guitar playing. Others may be trying to do it. I think of his stinging hammer-ons and pull-offs, how casually, almost constantly he drops them in to some tracks. His ability, playing alone, to keep the undercarriage going while playing something melodic on top. A looseness – that’s what seems to stand out – an organic looseness that makes you think he wouldn’t have been that suited to playing with a drummer, let alone a drum machine. He seems to vary the tempo and the rhythm in accordance with the song, the feeling of where he is in it. His playing has no rigidity, is fluid, changeable, improvised, happening in a moment. It’s a precious substance, but also casual, disposable, for it could go on for ever.

He recorded a track called ‘Blackwater Side’ which has a lyric – ‘one morning fair / I took the air’ – sung in his mournful country voice. I listen to it now and I’m very struck by how the voice and guitar happen simultaneously: not just guitar ‘accompaniment’ but lead playing, in effect, combinations of notes rolling and blasting percussively out of the track. There is an instrumental of the same tune called ‘The First Time Ever’. But an early track I like still more is ‘Running From Home’. This has fewer guitar fireworks. It is a gentle stream of a song, a river that flows on and on. Jansch plays on guitar the same sweet melody that he sings. It swings back and forth across two chords – a B and an A, or whatever. The song is about restlessness, running to the big city, and perhaps the chords get at that. But there is also something peaceful in it, a wise calm, a wide angle. I think it’s my favourite Bert Jansch song.

But I also especially like one other: ‘Woe Is Love My Dear’. The voice sounds like Bert Jansch all right, but the music doesn’t – not like those other virtuoso acoustic solos. It sounds like Nick Drake on Five Leaves Left or Bryter Later: tinkling piano like John Cale’s on ‘Northern Sky’, soaring flute. It’s early-1970s pastoral, ‘electric Eden’ stuff, a traditional melody and old words, done with a daft overreach, a flowery garden of sound. It’s like the music that seemed to have inspired the Belle & Sebastian of ‘Mary Jo’. Once upon a time I had an idea that I wanted to play it at a gig – in Glasgow, perhaps? I’m pretty sure I never played the gig. I certainly never played the song. But what an expansive, vaulting melody.

Those are some of my favourites from the music of Bert Jansch, who will be sorely missed and remembered fondly.


both the day and the hour were predicted

Myles before Myles

Brian O’Nolan was born one hundred years ago today, on the 5th of October 1911, in Strabane in the North of Ireland. He went on to become the novelist Flann O’Brien and the newspaper columnist Myles na gCopaleen. He died on April Fool’s Day 1966, aged just 54. So we are getting on for a half-century on from his death already. Flann O’Brien has quite a lot of readers, people who cherish and appreciate his work. They like it for its humour, its comic deployment of pedantry and absurdity, the finicky attention to words and syntax from a man who grew up speaking Irish before turning to English, and made the same movement in his newspaper column Cruiskeen Lawn. I think that academics can do a good job of helping to maintain a writer’s readership, but in this case that has not really been necessary. Lots of academics like Myles, but lots of people who have little to do with universities like him too. The fact that his humour can appeal, quite gently and happily, to so many people is something I like about this writer.

This year, Flann O’Brien’s admirers have mustered the energy to hold a number of events marking the centenary. But today is the centenary proper. How can one do justice to this date? I will simply quote Myles’s peroration on calendrical inevitabilities, published in the Irish Times on New Year’s Day 1945.


On behalf of my constituents (the human race) whom I have had the honour of representing for so long on the Governing Body of the University of Life, I wish to express the regret we all feel that this should, at last, be 1945. It is, of course, nobody’s fault – all are absolved without qualification. Indeed, one might pause to pay a well-deserved tribute to those thoughtful people who have been in recent years endeavouring to interfere, through the medium of high explosives, with the ‘normal’ movement of the heavenly bodies and thus disrupt the mechanism that conditions the mystical arcanum known as ‘time’. For my own part, my conscience is crystal-clear. Warning after warning I gave of the approach of 1945 – both the day and the hour were predicted. No heed was taken and ….. now …. now it is too late.


Leaving Home Again

clouds above

My parents are moving house. They have lived in Northampton since 1995, and in their present house since 1999. They are moving to East Sussex. I didn’t grow up in Northampton. Yet I have spent a good deal of time there in the last sixteen years. I have a first set of memories of the first house there – very small, looking down on a green, opposite a church. The first time I visited was September 1995. A coach took me to Northampton’s unaccountably big Greyfriars bus station. I heard the War Child Help CD which had just been released. The sleeve said that it was all so rushed, they could not list the artists and track names. The next day, I think, I saw the town for the first time. A new Waterstones in a sandstone building on the edge of the market square – it soon enough closed and became a travel agent. The glass lifts in the mall, the Grosvenor Centre – which has remained popular and crowded over the last sixteen years I’ve witnessed it. A big ugly car park from where on a high floor my mother pointed out a sight on the horizon – the tower in which they tested elavators, perhaps by dropping them from a great height.

The second house, since 1999, is far bigger. Three floors, spacious rooms, a cellar that they had refurbished for storage. A garden, which has been altered over the years – it becomes hard to remember all the changes, but it has been paved with rough brick, with beds of flowers and herbs, and a pond. A garage at the end which was given an electronically operated door, a few years ago: then the car could drive out into the back lane. Up and down the back lane, a long stretch of brick, tarmac, weeds running between walls and doors: a Smithsian setting, the kind of place I found romantic when at 19 I first educated myself in British New Wave.

Only Bricks & Mortar

At the front, the house looks on to a long street heading away in each direction. Looking out from the front gate, the street stretches further to the right (south-west) than left (north-east). The latter leads soon enough to a junction. Turn left again, past a vet’s surgery, to another junction on the corner of the Racecourse – a vast green space. To the left, grand houses front the Racecourse. Across the road, the White Elephant pub does the same. To the right, the road runs away through an agreeable parade of shops, fish & chips, a Chinese restaurant, a church. I am very fond of this humble landscape.

Go back to the street, the house. The long pavement feels quite narrow, for it is so hemmed with cars. Last week my father and I walked up it and saw an overweight boy cleaning out an iron groove between paving stones, as though in a perverse bob-a-job. I looked at the iron – stamped with the name of a Northampton firm. In front of our house, an iron gate enters a low stone wall. The front garden is shallow, paved. I’ve never paid that much attention to it. The porch is nicer. White plaster surrounds you as you press the stinging bell. The house number is marked in a blue & white steel plate. The door is painted pale forest green. Its top half contains a large, remarkable stained glass feature: a songbird in a tree. Turn a Yale key and open the green door. Inside the hall is quite dim. A mat. The floor is a pattern of tiles. The ceiling feels high. The hall conveys coolness, sobriety. A modern clock ticks, apparently remotely connected to an atomic clock somewhere, so always telling the right time. To the left, a door to the living room. Open this and light floods in – through the big bay windows which take the sunlight streaming from the southeast, through the morning at least. Wooden floorboards, white walls. A colour scheme of oranges and yellows, on the low sofa, the low pine table, the darker wood piano against the wall opposite the windows.

I think you dropped a moonbeam

The piano has held books of music, and piles of LRBs, now gone. It’s a better piano, for practical purposes, than the one at my own apartment. It resounds with a modest ingenuous sound that I like in this instrument. On this piano in three days at the start of June 2001, I wrote ten songs that I called I Think You Dropped A Moonbeam. I must have been sitting on the stool with a pen and paper to hand, picking them up and scribbling something, going back to formulating a melody. Behind the sofa are low lamps for the evening. On the opposite wall, a fireplace. Christmas cards are spread across the flat horizontal surfaces of this wall once a year. On the right, a pine chest of drawers; above it, 4 shelves of American fiction. On the left, a TV and video that don’t work that reliably; a collection of VHS and DVD; and a few shelves of modern British fiction, with Rushdie and Iain Sinclair at the top.

The next door in the hall opens with more difficulty – and yes, when I last left Northampton, and tried to remember the house, I found myself thinking of doors and their knobs, their motion, heaviness and play. This white door can be awkward to open. Inside is the garden room with dark wood floorboards, a mirror over the fireplace, a locked door to the outside, to a tiled passage into the garden. A big dresser stood in here for years, taking up space – then they discarded it: an improvement, really, the greater space and light. A low table, a low green sofa, a narrow chair almost like something in a church. An entire alcove of books: British classics, works from the Eighteenth century (lowest shelves) up through Romanticism, the Victorians, Eliot, Hardy, Tennyson, a load of James and Conrad, Ford, and into Joyce (the old squat green hardback Ulysses that my dad says he was given as a school prize in the early 1960s), Lawrence, even up to postwar works at the top: The Lord of the Rings in three red volumes, Kingsley Amis, William Cooper. These shelves of books touch me. Partly because I still see the house as it was when they first moved in and placed all these things – I still see this alcove as an ingenious new resting place for stacks of books from the older house in Woolwich. (A feature of my mind, which I actually like, is to tend to think of things as new when they are years old, while I still feel I have not made a full reckoning with them.) At Christmas when I have visited, I have sometimes taken one or more of these books and read in it, beside a fire roaring or smouldering here, preferably with a glass of sherry or port to hand. Last Christmas I read William Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age, and a bit of Walter Pater. I like reading Max Beerbohm’s Christmas Garland of parodies too. Beyond the mirror is a set of shelves holding … art books, old catalogues, theatre programmes, a few songbooks. European and Russian classics lined at the back of the top shelf, unconsulted in truth. And mostly music: a stereo, a couple of speakers, a long shelf of vinyl LPs, a rack or two of tapes below it; a large shelf of CDs. A year or so ago I encouraged my parents to discard unwanted, unneeded music. A lot of vinyl, CDs and tapes were purged. I like this. It clarifies what you retain.

Back in the hall, along the white walls – a mirror here, a picture? – a crowded set of coat hangers. A door down to the cellar. The knob turns easily, fluently. A light switch on the left. We had a cellar in quite a similar place in Woolwich. It was musty, dank. A supply of coal lay unused. This is somewhat different. Descend the cellar steps and find a little cupboard within it – it holds washing, pots of paint. On the wall opposite it, shelves which have quite long held a mess of matter – old video cassettes, figurines of Mickey Mouse and friends, a battered Spanish tambourine, an abacus, coloured pencils. Now, in this long season of preparing to move, the cellar floor is full of boxes full of books to be picked up – and of magazines and other items. A little window opens to the stony front garden. Maybe I have never given enough time to this cellar. Maybe I could have spent time here sorting things over the years. I suppose that a cellar is always a place you readily leave behind – climb the stairs, shut off the light and put those unresolved items out of mind. My other association with the cellar is the cat that my parents kept from 2001 to 2007. If you opened the door she would want to wander down the stairs. If you locked the door, you might come to hear mewing from inside.

Opposite the cellar door, a more awkward door opens to the dining room. The metal knob is somehow jerky. The upper door has two glass panels. We close it to keep heat in. The dining room is big, spacious, airy. Its walls are painted bright yellow. To the left on the near wall are high cupboards, the whole wall given to storage. The cupboards have held glasses, bowls, plates, tins, bottles of drink for Christmas. Open one and you smell a scent – of old wood in an enclosed space, or of the foodstuffs themselves, or whatever combination. So many times I have pulled open one of these wooden doors (not always easy to keep closed) to fetch plates or a wine glass. A long table runs through the middle of the room. A green plastic cloth covers it. It tends to pile up some bills, paper from charities, sections of the Guardian. These pile also on the slim dark wooden table with drawers, parallel to it on the right. It holds also books of Northampton Stone or Pevsner on the county. Above this a set of shelves hangs from the wall. Here are bowls (though many have just lately been discarded, those bowls I’ve eaten cereal from over years), cups, the tiny sample of imitation Russian revolutionary porcelain I bought for my father for Christmas 2004, after someone took me to an exhibition of it at Somserset House. Another fireplace, marble, black and grey. Postcards atop it, some from me: Edinburgh, Montreal, Dublin. Cards from others sending thanks and greetings. Before the fireplace stand bottles of wine, full and empty. Another set of wooden cupboards in the wall beside it. Paintings on the wall, including an abstracted cat fight. To the left, as you advance through the house, a great broad window. It lets in much light and makes the table here a good place to work. It looks out on the garden wall, the bird feeder, next door’s house.

Another awkward door – why these anomalies? I suppose places are gradually refurbished, features are uneven – with a cheap local firm’s calendar on it, into the small kitchen. The floor is tiled in navy and maroon. Another view of the outside. The mundane morning world of instant coffee in a mug showing a local church or a Moomin. The cooker’s hob is hard to use, not very reliable. At times over years I’ve stayed here alone, and enjoyed being in the house a lot – and I have tried to cook things, but I can’t say I have found this cooker a boon. Opposite it, a shelf with glass jars of cereal; a fridge-freezer with a bread bin on top. A door from the kitchen is bolted. Open it and step down from the kitchen, to the porch with its rough mat, hooks holding a few implements like brushes, a toilet door to the left. A key turns the back garden door – not always easily for me. Its faint crashing, rattling noise as it opens, swinging away to the right. A concrete step to the garden. It is paved in brick, I think. A couple of paths lead through it, past beds of herbs and flowers, past the pond and a tree that I think was once cut back by the council. There are a couple of beautiful pictures of the fluffy cat in the garden. The side passage leads back to the garden room door. Here I remember being in the evening with lanterns lit, in the summer of 2003. I associate the memory with reading By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, which I’d found tucked unassumingly on a shelf.


At the garden’s end, a green iron picnic table, a bench of iron and wood, green iron chairs, under a wooden trellis. Sometimes we’ve eaten lunch out here, cheese and pickle; not so often supper. It ought to be a good place to work. But it can get windy. I remember coming out here to read and write on Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman or Poor Mouth, around April 2002. Sunshine and wind. Beyond the table is the garage. This is just a functional space, a transitory space where you get in and out of the car. On its concrete floor are a few benches, tools, paint pots and the like – and a couple of bicycles. I have ridden round the Racecourse on one.

Back in the hall, you can climb the stairs. A white banister ends at the bottom in a round knob, a bollard. Many times I have descended the stairs and clasped this, curved around it on my way, in an exaggeration of safe landing. I find that I develop ways of relating to such spaces and features – like the way I will routinely cushion a door with a foot to stop it shuddering into its frame. The stairs are lined with quite a thick green carpet. This runs up to the passage through the first floor. It is a feature of the house – luxuriant, comfortable, also quietening, muting one’s movements around the floor. A picture of what I think was Christo’s wrapped Reichstag was on a wall here once – I think it’s now gone, though I also see now how bizarrely easy it is to forget these basic things. (My own home has virtually no pictures on any walls, mainly because I don’t know how to put them up; so there’s little for anyone to forget.) At one end of the hall, at the front of the house, is my parents’ bedroom – a big room which I suppose catches a lot of light at daybreak. Outside it is a set of shelves, at the foot of another stair. Here are a bunch of genre novels: crime and science fiction. I always found it a delightful touch that the shelves are also populated with toy robots, illustrating the SF chronotope. Moving towards the back of the house, next on the left is my father’s study. Its door is usually open. I have little tactile memory of what it is like to open it, how the doorknob feels. I think the walls here are grey or pale blue, gunmetal. I recall first entering and finding all those books moved here, from Woolwich and from the other Northampton house. Shelves in two alcoves were piled high with them – and still are, as I write, though many books have lately gone from here. A big window looks out over gardens, over the brick-paved passage in ours. My dad often has a blind down, and works on late into the dark with the tiniest light on, not seeming to notice he is scrutinizing a little screen amid such darkness. The floorboards I think are a rich wood. A rug upon them. A couple of different desks have occupied the room. A big Edward Hopper painting confronted me the first time I entered here – an empty train tunnel. I think the picture was new. Other smaller portraits stand around: an aged Ezra Pound, a sketch of Bertolt Brecht, postcards of Russian constructivist art.


The bookshelves on one wall have come down. They held many books on London, New York and modernist literature. Beneath them used to be a long green desk, bracketed to the wall I think. A desktop computer stood on it. This is quite long gone now, after some kind of internet failure I think. I have memories of using that computer in its bulky plastic casing. Coming back across the Racecourse one Sunday early in 2001 and looking for the first time at a pop music message board, which would come to be rather a focal point in my life. Travelling to Northampton alone in September 2001, arriving late at night from delayed trains, and on a subsequent Saturday sitting and typing a chapter on Flann O’Brien which four years later would finally be in print. Doing the same, the same day even, for an essay on Frank O’Hara – this was just four to five days after 9/11. Or three years later, again tending the house alone, dropping in on this computer to check my email and fire off regular replies each day over a weekend, while the balloons sailed outside in their festival.

Two more doors lead to bathrooms – a toilet of which my only thought is that its flush is such an extensive crescendo, it makes me think of the word ‘cataract’; a bathroom whose bath I always felt took a long time to fill. One more room down the last stretch of the greencarpeted hall: my mother’s study, another remarkably big room extending to the back of the house, to a bay window overlooking the gardens to left and right as well as ours. From here you see the trees and flowers, or neighbours. My mother had shelves of academic books on education, especially with reference to young children: these have moved somewhere now. On the opposite wall, above a second desk, more shelves with a little assortment of plays, a few of Shakespeare’s, a set of Virginia Woolf featuring, I think, a first edition of The Hours. Perhaps what has touched me most in here is the set of shelves left of the door: here, for a dozen years, waited the children’s books left over from my youngest days. Many I have not read, many were my brother’s. But many I have – I was a more prolific reader before age 12 or so than any time since – and so many titles, authors and pictures carried their own charge when at Easter this year we assembled them all for sorting and in many cases discarding. Now a remainder waits here to be transported; others in a box in the cellar will be taken away by a bookselling friend tomorrow.

Climb the last flight of stairs. The soft green, worn a little in the middle of each step; the white banister to the left. A railing above, securing the highest landing. As you climb you come gradually level with a window, facing the top of the stairs: a simple sash window I think, with a little fastener to pull to one side, then you can hoist the lower half roughly up. I can hear the sound of the wood scraping as it loosely rises. It leaves just enough space to stick your head out, if you want. Or just sniff the air outside from here. Beyond the window is a sloping roof of grey slate – above the bathroom and the study. In the middle, atop this, is a chimney stack. Orange-red chimneys point up from the roof. Beyond is the landscape of the gardens again, but from higher than before. This view, this point means a lot to me. I like the vantage point, the height over the local world. I love the mundane suburban architectural detail of the slates and the chimneys, the bricks, the colours and textures. You can reach through and touch the rough slate. I love how it looks in the sun, or in a downpour. I suppose some of my pleasures and attachments could be called simple. These little things, this view and the scent of the air, and the memory of all the times I have viewed and scented it, the other years to which those memories belong – all this seems to me like the richness of a lifetime, something you could live with forever.

The top floor holds two proper rooms. One, along the corridor (which previously held a wooden dresser full of colourful recent novels), was designated as my brother’s room when the house was purchased. He didn’t spend so much time in it, and didn’t object to it being redesignated for other things – a place for a scholarly project, in fact, with journals lining the shelves. Some of his books remained a long time, though, like the Spiceworld volume I’d bought him. The room looks out over the stairs, through an internal window halfway up the wall. It also features a skylight, and the low door (turn a simple latch, I think, in a wall sloping down with the roof) into the attic. The house has a cellar, a garage and an attic! I have explored this space very little. It’s not especially hospitable, not meant for a long stay. I think you feel the heat of boilers or shafts of hot air floating up through the house. I am not sure of the floor, but somehow I feel that it’s softly carpeted or lined with rugs. It has had boxes piled in it a long time. They have held old tapes, Spectrum computer games, Lego, playmobil, Star Wars toys, jigsaws and more. I’m afraid I have foolishly evaded exploring the attic’s contents still more than I have the cellar’s. I should have looked through all this years ago, and I never did. It was out of sight and mind, till just last week the boxes were hauled out for consideration at last.

The other door from the landing leads to my room. The door is of light wood, pine I think, and it swings breezily open, its base a little off the floor. Stand in the doorway and look in. Green carpet soft across the floor: comfort, quiet. To the left, a desk which was there when my parents moved in. I have always been glad of these accidents, the inherited desk with its grainy wooden edges and legs, its deep drawers holding old packets of photographs I took in New York City in January 2001, and its middle a different surface, brown but heavily scratched by perhaps decades of use. I have taken photographs of things on this desk, trying to catch this texture. Above it hung shelves – now gone. On those were a lot of books shipped up here from Woolwich, a rather inappropriate, ill-assorted bunch – Hegel, Ricoeur, stuff I’ll never read now – but also a fine set of Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, and two books I was given for Christmas in 2000. The then current edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Film in black and white livery, and the even heftier Letters of Oscar Wilde in purple and orange. I asked for the former, not the latter. I have always kept them together since, even now at my place, remembering the time I received them. On the desk over years I’ve often typed at a computer. In April 2002 I was writing a book on an old laptop here, morning and night.

The other way, to the right as you enter, a window looking out over those gardens. A replay of the views from below, a variant on the window view I mentioned before: here looking right at those slates when the rain comes down, remembering. And looking across the great expanses of gardens, both sides of that back alley, all the way to the big houses on the main road by the Racecourse. So many times I have looked across, and never known what life is like in those houses; barely even seen anyone; trusted that they couldn’t see me. The happy mystery of other life going on. The lower window hauled up in summer, to let in the evening’s air, and sometimes in August the sounds of the festival: tribute acts, local rock, funfair rides. Below the window is an old green chest. This has been in the family perhaps 30 years or more. It contains bedding, linen. Left from the window, plugs in the wall including one that I think handles all the TV for the house, from an aerial up here I suppose, and one powering an old stereo deck which nestles on the lower rung of a black trolley. I have another such trolley in London, with a bigger stereo; have carted that around for twelve years. The one here in Northampton is two tape decks, radio, and a CD player that was my first ever but packed up a few years ago. I bought it in September 1993. I tested it with The Best of the Icicle Works. Later I would keep the Parklife CD in it a lot, a red and white ring. Now I sometimes tune to radio on it, like Russell Davies on Radio 2 – and I recall hearing Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Devils and Dust’ on this radio, early in 2005, and having sentimental tears brought to my eyes. And I play tapes, from the selection stored on a nearby shelf. But this stereo has run its course. It will never play again. I have left it behind after eighteen years.

Franny and Zooey

Beside it, a broad alcove in the wall opposite the door. Bookshelves line the alcove. These books are still here, as I type – no, wait, they’re not. They have been packed, or are being packed, in boxes for delivery to me tomorrow. But they stayed on their shelves a long time. They include old Penguins like Ivor Montague’s Film World; Tolkien’s Silmarillion; Hardy; Salinger (I read Franny & Zooey here, some of it in the cafe in the Grosvenor Centre); Gavin Lambert’s Inside Daisy Clover, another odd teen story I read; more academic books. On a top shelf have stood more things, random objects: a Jimmy Carter coin from the US mint, a tower of Meccano. A mantelpiece in a disused fireplace along the wall has held figurines, like a polar bear from Sweden and, in his box, Hazel from Watership Down. The wallpaper around all this is grooved, ridged, pale. My bed moved here from the other Northampton house. A little table beside it, a laundry basket on the far side. The bed is broad and comfortable. I wonder how many nights I have slept in it. For years, above it hung a little poster denoting an England match at White Hart Lane. That now hangs in my bedroom in London. On these walls too hung two posters from the James Joyce Centre, illustrating episodes of Ulysses. One now hangs in my London study. Finally, beyond the bed, the last thing before the wall backing on to the attic, is a cupboard covering the length of the wall. Again what serendipity, that the top of the house held such a room, with such vast storage, that could take so many of my possessions that were shipped up here, back when I had no space for them. You pull the thick wooden cupboard doors open with effort – they have no locks, just sheer weight, you must get behind them and push one side or the other. On the left side hang old jackets and T-shirts, mine and my brother’s. On the right side, three shelves, so four tiers of material. In boxes shunted efficiently into the space here have been my old university work and notes; student union posters; notes from my days trying to form a band; jiffy bags holding envelopes holding letters, from my family and so many others. Role-playing games and their spin-offs, floor plans, extra rulebooks. The home-made scenarios that my brother and I concocted, and mapped out with immense, absurd elaborateness, in folders and envelopes. Comics that we wrote and drew. Magazines: Shoot!, Match, Imagine, White Dwarf, a few volumes of Q and Empire that were easier to lose; a pile of inkies, mixed in with student newspapers, that on my last day in this room I sift and halve. The amount of material in this cupboard is vast, and I have only made really good inroads into sorting, judging and where possible discarding it during the last six months in the house: a session or two in spring, then several days in September, sixteen years since I first came to Northampton.

I needn’t dwell on those boxes here, though. What I have always liked so much is having a room here at all. The fact that my parents bought a house with space for a room for me; that whenever I chose to visit, I knew I had my own place to sleep and stay, amid my own things (to an almost ludicrous degree, as I’ve just indicated); that the room had its desk, its cupboard, all this fortune. The way I could spend summer evenings sniffing and listening to the world outside through the open window. The many mornings with coffee up here as I dawdled or broached some task, always knowing that it would be really useful, while I’m here, to look at all that stuff in the cupboard. These days are gone. There won’t be a room for me anymore. What is left of my possessions is coming to my home. I must find space for them somehow. I am saying goodbye to Northampton, to life in this house and around it, which has been a haven to me, a place I could always go.

late summer sky

Berliner Tagebuch


People keep telling me that a bus is the way to see Berlin; and that riding the 100 bus from east to west is equivalent to taking a tour bus. So to go west I go east and emerge at Alexanderplatz, which is less clearcut than it sounds. Perhaps there is only one Alexanderplatz, the big square with the global clock in it, but the area around it sprawls, from the block of the S-Bahn station to the squat brick of the shopping gallery, from the base of the Fernsehturm to the dual carriageway of Karl-Liebknecht Strasse. So many immaculate yellow trams come and go, I can hardly believe the city needs so many. Surprisingly after 5 or 10 minutes I find the bus stop where an Aussie youth (lean, handsome, hardly twenty, pocked with acne) is asking people for directions to Brandenburger Tor. He seems to have comically little idea what it looks like or where it is. After four days here I manage to make out I know the place well, advise him on his route, perch on the 100’s top deck pointing things out. This is Museum Island, that’s Schlossplatz where a palace has been torn down; the Berliner Dom is Berlin’s main Protestant cathedral; Schlosssbrücke holds these white classical statues. That’s the memorial to the victims of tyranny, this is Frederick the Great, here’s the Guggenheim Berlin. The bus veers away round the Reichstag as we near Pariser Platz: I don’t think he’s going to make his one o’clock appointment with a Red Berlin tour. What’s Museum the Kennedys doing here, he asks; well, you see, JFK came to Berlin once. Our friend casually launches on some kind of conspiracy theory, whose irony is either that the Left killed a liberal or the Right killed a Cold Warrior – or maybe it’s less coherent than that. It’s all going to come out soon. JFK? It is? Yes – the files are all gonna be released in a few years and we’ll all know what really happened. I wonder how young you have to be to believe that. 

I walk around Berlin, first on a guided tour, then on my own, and sometimes even with others. And wherever I go I think about history, wonder at how its processes and events shaped these streets and plazas, construct lines of thought that are probably meant to end up here, if only I hadn’t forgotten most of them. I am also thus struck by a discrepancy, one which is quite familiar and even structurally embedded in travel. The Berliners around me aren’t thinking much about history or locating themselves in a narrative of grandeur and tragedy. They see Berlin as it is now, and consider what might be the quickest way to cross it now a U-Bahn line’s partly down for repairs, and wonder where to go for a drink after work and who’ll be there. Surely they are not very different from Londoners doing the same thing in Tottenham Court Road or Oxford Circus, picking up the Metro or wondering about hiring a bike rather than taking a bus. There is a basic contrast between the native who lives in a place and is alive to its day-to-day fluctuations, and the outsider who clutches a book about it and sees it as the culmination of so much past – to the point where the fluctuations appear frothy. It can be hard to believe that Berliners are so bothered about small things, given the great things that made it all possible.

It might look as though this contrast is weighted in favour of the outsider. That is not my intention. It seems true that the outsider can see some things about a place that the natives no longer can, and hence can find it more deeply interesting than they do. And it might be true that we could all benefit from thinking more vertically about where we live, thinking of centuries of plague pits and poorhouses where the Starbucks stand. We seem to value Iain Sinclair, or Tim Hopkins, for retaining that ability. Anything that makes life more interesting could be good. Yet the outsider is also ignorant, just scraping together dates as he walks haltingly along under the latest pediment. And there is also something about everyday life in a place that is vaster than whatever the outsider can bring to it. Academics like to say that ‘the everyday is always a site of political contest’ and so on. I can make some sense of such claims, but I’m not very keen on them, and have said so to academics. What is distinctive about the everyday cannot be its participation in the struggles that the tourist hears about. It is the immense sleepy way it outlasts all that stuff; the way its habits make monuments invisible; the way it stretches out, life and life only, and comes to dwarf the world’s big themes, which are lost amid the action of putting the orange juice back in the fridge or wondering whether you remembered to lock the door. All this is in a way vaster than history, for it is our horizon. To people who experience Berlin this way, my tourist’s view of it must look a meal of corn and ham.

Yet that’s the view I have, and I don’t have it of where I live, so I might as well use it here. Probably this is all an pre-emptive apology for the fact that I want to comment about political issues and ideas miles away from my own country.


Rosenthaler Platz
The hotel where I spend most of my trip is blissful, its glass doors drawn back to the summer pavement, its courtyard narrow beneath the high blue sky of breakfast time; its bar staff serving me a cup of tea when I arrive and feel weary and thirsty, a few pints of lager a few hours later. The bathrooms hold no shower gel or body lotion: you pick it up from a shelf by reception, supposedly part of their green agenda. The lift won’t go until you wave your key card over it. Each day new notices arrive on its walls: a weather forecast page that says Feels like 19 degrees, a poster for the jazz band here on a Friday night, a list of nearby nightclubs. The door to a room is impermeably heavy, a perfect fit leaving the space beyond it either way utterly unattainable; the windows likewise open with big turning steel handles, industrial-strength comfort and discretion, suddenly letting in however much air and traffic noise you seek. I wonder why the doors and windows of our homes can never be like this, why it’s only hotels. Then for the last couple of days I move to another hotel and remember that not all hotels are like this either.

When I sadly check out, in blue and white stripes late on a sunny Saturday morning, the receptionist on duty says my colours remind her of a sailor. It spurs a bout of pure Cooganism. Well, I say, I’m not as strong as a sailor. – Oh, she assures me, nobody has to know that! I may not be a sailor, I tell her, but I’m going to take another … voyage around Berlin. Hard to believe I really said this.

Go to Germany, and what do you really not expect to find? A decent pint of London Pride? A statue of Michel Platini? How about … a Nazi rally? Surely this is the one place in the world where no-one would have the nerve for such a thing. But yes, I am informed that a Nazi demonstration has suddenly been announced at Mehringdamm, complete with its anti-Nazi counterpart. I take the U-Bahn to see this, idly and with profound self-indulgence trying to think of things that an English person would say to a group of German Nazis. By the time I arrive I can only see a couple of yellowjacketed cops standing around in the distance, and then squadrons of police in black armour in the underground tunnels as Saturday’s hipsters come and go. It doesn’t seem like it quite worked out for the Nazis.

Most visitors to Germany will think at some time about Nazism – because the country is specked with sorrowful plaques and exploratory museums, and a tour guide in a major city will reach for the sombre note to talk of a dark time in Germany’s past as you pass the beer hall where they rioted, the office block where they planned the Blitz, the sketchy skeletal statues of unhoused Jews. For an English visitor, if anything, the inevitability of all this feels even greater, because my country has a continuing fascination with its own struggle with Nazism, stretching from feelgood celebrations of Spitfires and codebreakers to the amateur historians who seem a bit too wrapped up in their obsession. I went to Munich in summer 2009, and if any past was around, pervasive though vanished, it was this one.

I might have guessed that Berlin would be more of the same. But to come to the real point, it isn’t. Considering that this was the capital city and HQ of the most notorious regime in modern history, the Third Reich feels curiously unimportant to Berlin, even to an ignorant British visitor to Berlin. I have to gather my thoughts to remember the traces I did see or hear about. OK, the tour guide on that first full day brought out a number of things: Bebelplatz with its frankly ineffective memorial to burned books (you can’t see through the scratched plastic into the cellar full of – well, full of non-existent books, so there wouldn’t be much to see in any case); the old Luftwaffe HQ that now houses the finance ministry; even talk of Hitler’s bunker, a few hundred yards from the vast Jewish memorial site. Yet none of this felt very present to me, and Berlin was not wringing its hands over it now. It’s dark, all right, but it seemed distant. Why?

Because the Cold War has intervened here. History from 1945 to 1989 has left such an immense imprint in Berlin that Nazism is two or three phases back – not so much the dark guilt that we are all daily grappling with but a far-off, insanely eccentric other time. It’s perhaps how you would logically want it to be all over the country: for Nazism to feel genuinely long superseded, something you need a telescope or an archivist to recover. But the price of that distance is forty years of Stalinism. Walking around Berlin brings a constant sense of epic confrontation and tragedy which have little immediately to do with the Nazis. I read endless information boards about the wall and DDR policy on emigration; I hear of the scale of the death strip and how guards would shoot any escapee in the back or be imprisoned; I wonder about the streets and squares named for Marx and Engels, wonder what texts of Marx were actually read and taught in the East all those years, whether anyone really believed they were implementing his will or whether the whole saga had plainly come asunder from its origins in polemical nineteenth-century political economy. I wonder how far the Eastern government simply did what the USSR told them, or had some degree of independence – a relationship I have never grasped, never thought hard enough about. With R— the architect I look at a generic DDR building in Friedrichshain and assess what it’s made of. Brick, then the rough grey exterior for some reason slapped over it (maybe, says R—, because the bricks were poor quality), then these curious grey lines that make a grid over the building … we go up to one that has come apart at street level, and find that it’s not concrete but more like rubber, and behind it is a cheap mash of chips of stone or broken metal, all worn away by decades of running water. Jerry-built. The history of the DDR, the crazily elaborate division of space, the mad isolation of West Berlin’s high life in a soviet world, the exclusion of the West from the town centre and its cultural treasures, all this is still the overwhelming fact about Berlin as I experience it. In relation to the Third Reich, it is like the new problem that comes to overwhelm your old problem; a process so long and troubling it cathartically purges what came before it; or a penance, which I suppose the division of Germany was supposed to be.

I doubt that this explains why you can still find a Nazi demonstration in Berlin. They’re probably a lot like neo-Nazis anywhere else.

Sinclair often writes something like ‘we struck out south but weren’t making it, circling Deptford Bridge: the heart of Lewisham remained inaccessible to us, a riddle in a language we didn’t know. We took refuge in a pub and vowed to come back and try again another day’ – and this seems obscure, a mixture of physical limitation with something atmospheric or mystical. I suppose it is psychogeography in the most classical and simple sense, Debord’s original definition of the environment’s emotional effects on individuals. Obscure, but you can have experiences a bit like it when trying to explore a city like this. Set yourself tasks, places you want to see that become elevated and reified: places you want somehow to accomplish – just by going to them, walking through, seeing the sights the book elects to list. Then struggle to reach them as the day turns and time narrows options. I decide that my tour didn’t show me enough Museumsinsel, nor did my first walk across it: I need to come back another day, across the Friedrichbrücke, reading the guidebook on the Neue Nationalgalerie amid its neat gardens, circling the other museums and their Grecian portals, not actually going in – too complex, costly, time-consuming, and not really enough Berlin: the city is its own museum. Altes Museum, Lustgarten, Berliner Dom. Schlossplatz a scrubby wasteland, hardhats slowly excavating something in the middle, plaques along a walkway announcing avant-garde pieces of music. I can’t hear them. But then, one is called I Have Nothing To Say And I Am Saying It. My name is Paul Morley and I’m a joke addict. Past the old Staadtsratsgebäude, down a canal and a lock as sun bakes me and boils the water, stop at Gertraudenbrücke with its carved metal mice, circle back up and on to the mainland and the brick turrets of Friedrichswerdersche Kirche. An Eighties Night poster shows a Rubik cube and the Fernsehturm’s silhouette, within sight of the Fernsehturm. Down Friedrichstrasse’s forest of street signs for an ice cream cone whose receipt says Galeries Lafayette; back to Unter den Linden all the way to the Brandenburg Gate and Museum the Kennedys.

Brandenburger Tor

OK, I’ve done this – but where it falls apart somehow is in the afternoon. I want to see what the guidebook calls ‘East of the Centre’: walking between residential tower blocks with melancholy carved figures on their lawns, emerging on to Karl-Liebknecht Strasse. Trams pass a scrubgrass division up and down the bleakly broad road. Dim apartments piled high over cut-price stores. It strikes me that the bleakness of the whole place is not just Soviet: it could carry a touch of Thamesmead or South Shields too. On the verge of Marx-Engels Forum, round a corner from Alexanderplatz, the tower of Marienkirche is accompanied and dwarfed by the Fernsehturm, just a few hundred yards away and no distance in a viewfinder. They huddle together on the edge of the empty space that expands south and west. In and out of the church, past its statue of Martin Luther; then at last I must confront the Fernsehturm itself. Round another bend or two and you are suddenly at its feet: concrete and plastic rising from a grey plaza, the feet of clay that a monument has, elegant and comforting in the distance but close up rooted in weathered flagstones, temporary railings, tourist queues. I suppose the Eiffel Tower maintains more glamour this close, in its eminent field by the Seine, but even there you face giftshops and tat. When I arrived in Berlin the Fernsehturm was striking against a pure blue sky: now grey rainclouds gather around it.


Inside the entrance the visitors stick it out, buy tickets and await their turn, shepherded by Fernsehturm-branded crowd barriers. Ascent is about 11 euro, and the thought of it brings back my allergy to heights. Round the walls silhouettes tell of the world’s tall towers: this place is hardly at the top, but seems happy to accept their company. In fact, remarkably, there is an official World Federation of Great Towers in which they gather. Radio masts, Olympic ostentations, the Empire State, rather absurdly the Blackpool Tower. Cabinets sell Fernsehturm memorabilia, to embed it in your waking dreams; even a bottle of cava branded for it. Outside the rain is falling, falling on the Starbucks tables and the grey stone. I need a slash. I find my way to the bluntly blocky shopping gallery, ride its escalators up, up, up: the closest thing to Selfridges I find in Berlin. Back at the entrance, the rain has accelerated. People cower here against it. To the south still lie Marx-Engels Forum, the Neptunbrunnen, the Rotes Rathaus, the two spires of Nikolaikirche. But the mission is off, I’m too fatigued, I can’t make it to Nikolaivierten in this. Through the drops I reach an Alexanderplatz entrance, go back to the hotel and sleep.

Rosenthaler Platz
Kottbusser Tor
Bernauer Strasse
Warschauer Strasse
Hackescher Markt
Potsdamer Platz
Heidelberger Platz
Fehrbelliner Platz
Oranienburger Strasse
Frankfurter Allee
Brandenburger Tor
Treptower Park
Strausberger Platz
Zoologischer Garten
Berliner Strasse
Hallesches Tor
Rathaus Neuköln
Adenauer Platz

My coach docks at the Hauptbahnhof for a minute on the way into town: I’m impressed by the reality of this great mound of glass that travellers wheel their bags toward. I take one or two trains through it during the week. But using the Hauptbahnhof itself – this is a challenge. The place is so big, so inclusive, that it is hard for the uninitiated to find the relevant train. The tracks don’t spread out for half a mile around like a big English station: they rise level by level, each floor granting access to another load of rail services. How can they all be stacked thus, where is the extended Meccano ladder of rail that ought to leading out of both sides of the Hauptbahnhof? Inside, though, it is a department store of railways, escalators to floor after floor to find the platform you want. I rise from a U-Bahn – in fact the only U-Bahn to cross this station, the miniature U55 with its elite run of three central stations – seeking an S-Bahn to ride just two stops east, and spend a moment waiting on a long platform thinking it’ll come through here: but no, these are regional or intercity trains. Up and up following the green S sign, past other platforms, other kinds of trains, not to mention cafes and shops. At the top of the building the S-Bahns come through. As always you must pick your train by its final destination: no ‘eastbound’, only Erkner or Hönow, hence much consultation of tiny print on the map’s edges seeking these faraway endpoints.

Kottbusser Tor

Buy a ticket for a week and just walk in and out of stations: no barriers, turnstiles or bars, the whole network open to the world. You can be stopped and asked for your ticket, but it doesn’t happen to me. A New Yorker says it’s a ‘trust system’ and that it probably costs a lot of money in fare-dodging. Or does it save money in administering all those barriers? Is it like the Dutch traffic system where Brian Eno said they removed all the signs and lines and everyone behaved more sensibly?

On a U-Bahn I see a bloke talking to himself; then realize he’s talking on a phone. We’re used to people apparently talking to themselves in cities, and ready to assume they’re on phones. The reason this character seemed odd was just that … he was on the U-Bahn. This is my first encounter with the remarkable fact that mobile telephony works on the Berlin Underground. Is it because it’s shallower than London’s? It can’t be that the Germans have better phones: they seem convinced that they have more primitive ones. What an impact this would have in London, where they say that the lack of mobile connection underground is the reason the free Standard is successful. Maybe it’s on its way.

Brandenburger Tor
Admittedly in saying that Nazism wasn’t that much of a presence here I was slighting all the memorials to its effects: one in Steinplatz, I think, North of the Kurfürstendamm; the statues marking the Rosenstrasse Rebellion; the Topographie des Terrors with its bizarre apparent commingling of languages; the wide rippling plain of blocks of stone by Hannah-Arendt-Strasse. This might be the world’s most memorial-heavy city for its size. Next to so many public reminders, my blithe declaration that Nazism seems absent threatens to become a sketch called what have the Nazis ever done for us?

It makes you wonder, though, what a memorial is doing. It can be a site of pilgrimage: you could go to a memorial to commune with a particular past, as people do with gravestones. But for most people passing through, I’m not that convinced that much memorialisation is taking place. You’re prompted to remember the existence of the Holocaust, or whatever other event is in question – but you’re not told anything new about it. Surely (thinking now of residents more than visitors) once you’ve been through or past a memorial site a few times, you’re no longer much reminded of what it’s meant to be reminding you of? Isn’t it possible that what it will wind up reminding you of is the previous times you’ve been here? I wonder if memorials that way gain their own life, different from what was intended. You don’t really think of the battle of Trafalgar when you cross Trafalgar Square (I don’t even know when the battle was: early C19?); you might think of a winter afternoon you crossed it before, or of a demonstration you attended here. Perhaps Berlin’s memorial to the Jews of Europe is too big and grave to be subsumed in this way; though I still think that for someone it will mainly come to mean the date they went on that took them here one evening.

I’m just not convinced that memorials (distinct from museums) do much work of remembrance, especially because everyone remembers everything differently and thinks of a thousand different things, so the idea that you can design a memorial to direct people’s thoughts one way may be mistaken. Yet maybe that is not really why we want memorials. Probably they are really a catharsis: the building of the memorial lets out feelings, signs off some space to an issue and thus gives it its due and its enduring place in the world. Maybe the main gain of a memorial is that it saves you from not having a memorial. Not to have a memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin – to some people that would seem criminally irresponsible. The shame of not having a memorial – that’s what a memorial ends.

The first time the tour guide mentions the partitioning of Berlin I am very struck by something we don’t talk about much. We know about West and East, but what about the three Western sectors: North to South, French, British and American? There were no checkpoints between them, OK, but were there no social differences? The guide says not, save that soldiers from each country would be patrolling their own sector. I suspect there is a whole literature on this, literally a busload of pulpy thrillers in which plucky Corporal Henry has to haggle with proud Capitaine Jean-Claude in the North and laconic Sergeant Jake in the south. But no one has anything to say on the cultural differences, except a German raised in the North of West Berlin, only thirty or so years ago: it was French, so she went to a French kindergarten!

Freie Universitat

Dahlem was tended by the Americans – I suppose much of the West was, their list of boroughs is six next to the British four and French two. They say that the Freie Universität was founded when students disaffected with Humboldt approached the Americans seeking assistance. The CIA must have been happy to hear this; we’re always told that they spent decades trying to promote free-world cultural institutions, and here were some people crying out for one. The academics tell me that the university’s origins don’t count for anything much now, they compete with Humboldt in a general way; though they still have the Henry-Ford-Bau, where I wind up talking to a security guard without any English after walking around half the campus in sunshine for which the hundreds of students lazing on the grass are better prepared than me. Humanities are housed up the road in a bizarrely brown building by Norman Foster: inside it’s an education superhighway, clean white halls and red carpets, ramps and railings, corridors the signs call strassen. A sign proclaims that one whitewalled hall holds Languages of Emotion, an idea whose rendition in English seems odd to me only in retrospect. A shop sells some of Berlin’s best postcards, though not the Benjamin that you can find in the Literaturhaus on Fasanenstrasse in town. A curious sculpture represents, I think, a gathering of senior German academics welcoming the Third Reich: white clay figures but this isn’t mere abstraction, the people are distinct, and I think I know which one is Martin Heidegger. Upstairs on my second day here I eat apple tart and drink latte on a broad balcony while two Americans, punky bloke and skinny dame, produce an hour of loose chat, then the sky starts spraying rain almost far enough in to reach us. Finally I hear the locals’ view of Chancellor Merkel as we enter green Dahlem on a May evening, foliage and soft air, a lush suburb unlike most of England’s: like walking along the edge of Blackheath or going to a country pub.

Being surrounded by a foreign language can be alienating, but I come to think I like being surrounded by German. For one thing, if I really need to, I could normally find someone who speaks English within a hundred yards. In that sense this is foreignness with stabilizers or a safety net, a ride you can always get off. But it’s a bit more positive than that. I wish my German was better, or that it existed at all; wish I had retained even the disappointing levels I attained aged 14 or so. But it’s close enough to English that you can at least often recognize the structure of a sentence, see where the subject and verb are, even if you don’t know what they are; and often you can guess what they are because of the marvellous kinship of languages, the way that owls turn out to be Eulen and veal is Kalbfleisch (a lot more literal and detectable than the English, really); not to mention that beer is bier (and a few hundred miles south is biere or birra) or museum is … Museum. Come to think of it, Tor must be related to door, and Mauer to mural.

Guessing a few words written down isn’t much help with hearing words, though. Even in French, a language I like fondly and fairly falsely to think I know, I can barely understand a word anyone in Paris actually says. But here is the other side of what I like about German: the fact that I can’t understand half of what everyone’s saying, all the time, on the platform and the pavement, on the diverting mobile and the trundling train. I can make out the emotional and expressive structures of some of it: you can tell when someone’s being enthusiastic, surprised, exasperated – and maybe this helps to show you how much of a pantomime these communicated emotions of ours are. But if I can’t make out the detail, I just hear foreign intricacy, ordinary people exercising a remarkable skill I am a thousand miles from having – what advanced deftness they have in this language, though they presumably never notice it. What they are saying might be banal to one who understood it, or in its English counterpart – but as I can’t understand it, it’s not banal, it’s mysterious and impressive. I come to feel I like this better than being surrounded by people saying things that I can tell are lazy, average, phatic because I understand them. When I arrive back in England I don’t really relish the regained airspace of English words – they seem so obvious, so transparent, and just making up the numbers. I want to be surrounded by people making sounds I don’t understand, and occasionally turning to me and kindly translating, in English that stands out because it’s worked up, imperfect and precarious.

Kottbusser Tor

Kottbusser Tor
My second night in Berlin, with a friend down the road and into a courtyard amid alarmist nuclear graffiti. Finding a bar inside I take out my phrase book and confuse the bartender a lot more than mere English could. Outside the mention of Montreal stirs a geezer at another table to ask if I’m Canadian. Sans geezer we decide to try to eat Turkish in Kreuzberg as people recommend. While my companion rides a bike into the streets’ wrong turns, on a U8 from Weinmeisterstrasse I surface at Kottbusser Tor. A traffic island, roads heading off a few ways, a beauty awaiting her date, the U1 heaving overhead on its concrete supports. Bicycles leaning on the concrete, cops standing amid the painted scribble and patchy grass. Curious place to put a station – but I suppose the whole overpass is only here because the railway comes through it. I suppose the concrete overhead is what I like about this place, reminding me of the great traffic flyover in Brooklyn near that Union Pool Hall place – for what else is appealing about it? Two hours later, against the dark, the squares of light of the trains passing overhead.

Eberswalder Strasse
‘Lessons from the East’? As one who grew up unwatched by the Stasi, I am prepared to believe that this is a weasel phrase, that the only lesson from the DDR is – don’t try this at home. Ditch that blueprint altogether, knock the crocked buildings down and maybe we’ll say no more about it. That is roughly the message from the tour guide on my first day, and I hardly dare to argue with it. Yet a curious and consistent thing is how much more complicated are attitudes to the old East, among the unrepresentative tiny handful of Germans I get to talk to. I might have guessed that ambivalence about Communism was an indulgence of the Western left, as far from the border as possible. But I don’t talk to any German with a merely horrified or contemptuous view of the DDR. I hear that people liked being assured of jobs; that food production was local and hence in line with the ecologically sound ideas that make us now admire farmers’ markets; that women were encouraged to work, crèches and kindergartens provided, the women of West Germany looked upon as trapped in their housebound femininity; and that many of the dissidents of 1989 didn’t want to be like the West, or even for Germany to be unified. They were taken over, steamrollered, swallowed by the West, I hear – though you’d have thought that a country that so many people were shot trying to escape would be happy to be swallowed by what they were trying to escape to. Late one night walking from Prenzlauer Berg to Scheunenviertel, the bars all open absurdly late, serving eats at 1 or 3 am, utterly unlike home, a German tells me that she misses the idealism of 1989, the purpose that people had then: now it’s media trivia and people not bothering to vote. That’s more like home, though I still think there are differences, and am happy to indulge the maybe stereotypical sense that the Germans are more sensible than us.

Prenzlauer Berg

Oranienburger Strasse
An apparent paradox related to all that: that Berlin is a Cold War city but also apparently a place of the political Left. A Western Cold War attitude would say that the closer you get to Communism, the more you recoil from it; that only in Berkeley could you believe in Lenin, Castro or Tom Hayden. So at the very gates of the East, Berlin would be a ferociously anti-Communist city, repelled by the Stalinist life going on yards away; and even now you’d expect such a lesson to be remembered. Maybe this has some historical applicability to West Berlin, the streets of GIs and wealthy ladies, a place now becoming more obscure as the East and centre of the city have been regained. But at the height of the Cold War, who was the Mayor who showed JFK around, preserved now in all those Museum The Kennedys photos? Willy Brandt spent the 1930s in Socialist youth movements, helped found the International Bureau of Revolutionary Youth Organizations, and later led an SPD that can trace its origins to the groups around Marx and Engels – well, that’s what they say in Trier’s Marx museum, where phrases from Brandt are plastered on the ground floor walls. It seems as though being on the democratic Left was never a problem here; and I don’t sense in Berlin today any revulsion from the Left in grim memory of the DDR. Perry Anderson says (when back home I finally find more than enough interest to read his conspectus of contemporary Germany) that the city is governed by a coalition of the SPD, Greens and Die Linke, with its share of old Communists perversely popular in the East. Not, again, that I think people want the DDR back, though I hear that one or two people out in the rest of the country do, or never wanted it to end. But Berlin seems, over several decades, to have generated several generations of new leftishness with little or nothing to do with Stalinism: anarchistic, irreverent, counter-cultural. It seems to have been not only unembarrassed by proximity to the DDR, but encouraged by it; an anti-authoritarianism as defiant of the border guards as of Western superstores. I gather that this was seeded by the influx of people dodging West Germany’s draft, making Kreuzberg some kind of bohemia since the 1970s. They say punk rock was important on both sides of the wall, which makes me think of the Duke’s quixotic declarations, over strong coffee on the thousand pebbles of his Devon garden, that Talulah Gosh were punk.

Now whole districts of the city are sheeted and splattered with graffiti, as though spraying on a wall is as natural as walking down the street; a scuzzy aesthetic connects the place to a CBGB memory of New York. The Tacheles gallery on Oranienburger Strasse is some kind of concrete car park reeking of urine and even more soaked in graffiti than the rest of Berlin. In rooms within it artists sell their wares. It’s probably a load of tat, relatively speaking; maybe in Shoreditch or Greenwich it would be clear that this was brash tourist fodder rather than anything artistically important. Yet even this stuff makes me think, looking for a structure of feeling: neo-pop art collages showing Superman flying confused over a new Berlin landscape, or (a recurring pattern) cars going incongruously west and east containing Lenin, Castro, the Marlboro Man and Mickey Mouse. I suppose that pop art was Western, an American triumph in itself, but this genre of picture seems to be chaotically ‘neither Washington nor Moscow’, claiming the virtue of mess and uncertainty in front of history’s pile-up.

And at the Freie Universität, founded in defiance of the DDR, lockers bear stickers of Marx in a baseball cap, and posters announce Marx is Muss: Zizek and Alex Callinicos on their way here at the start of June.

Treptower Park

Treptower Park
I change trains amid the temporary-feeling platforms and walkways of Ostkreuz, go one more stop south to Treptower Park. The vast park is on the S-Bahn’s doorstep, stretching off East. Boats ply the Spree, chemical factories stand across the water, and a long way down the river I cross a high curved bridge to the Insel der Jugend of all things: a tiny body of land where I think monks once lived, where now chicks play table tennis near a small café. It feels like Massachussetts way back. I bounce my battered heels on a couple of springy circles – maybe this is the island of youth bit – and cross back to the mainland. A remarkably big group of youths (maybe I should tell them where the island of youth is – right here, a few yards away) are gathering enviably for a picnic. I cross to the middle of the park, a highway between tall trees; past an observatory that commemorates one of its old astronomers. I start to wonder if I’ll ever find this park’s big attraction. Then at last as I near the station again I find it, and see what a joke that is: it’s bigger than a football stadium.

I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like the Soviet war memorial, so elaborately designed with two entrances under granite gates bearing the hammer & sickle, no other way in so you must start at one end, by (when you get there – it’s a hundred yards just to reach this point) a statue showing the grieving motherland – which land, I’m not actually sure. Then you look down the aisle and see the colossal space heading away from you, hemmed by heavy trees: flagstones and steps up and down leading the way past strange wreaths you’d have to be in the air to read, archways, blocks of stone with carvings of soldiers fighting, returning home or liberating people: each one with a quotation from Stalin on the end, these replicated in Russian and German on the park’s two sides. A placard at the start says, a bit pricelessly, that no one has ever seen fit to remove these, as after all they’re not particularly ‘Stalinist’. The whole trail culminates in a soldier crushing a swastika and carrying a saved baby (Germany!) and, incongruously for WWII, a sword.

It’s an epic encounter with history, but the whole thing seems terribly fanciful and unlikely, this park within a park set aside for mourning foreigners. In marking only the Red Army and not the Allies it is clearly part of the grievous postwar problem of division, and in repeatedly citing the war years as ‘1941-45’ it leaves you wondering where they were for the first two years – in a pact with the Nazis, presumably. I knew that the Soviets had lost hordes of men at home, but didn’t really recall that they had taken special casualties in capturing Berlin – I need to watch more channel Five. Or is the memorial for every Soviet soldier, on every front, who perished in the war? In any case, the strangest thing is that this is a massive memorial, in Germany, to foreign soldiers who invaded Germany and killed thousands of its people. Is there anything like this anywhere in the world? Perhaps the US made similar claims on Japanese soil, though they surely wouldn’t have taken up as much land as this just for show. It must be unique to Germany, that it contains these immense self-abasements and homages to defeat. The peculiarity of that war and the way it went down.

Sowjetisches Ehrenmal

Warschauer Strasse
Three alleged stretches of the Wall: the memorial at Bernauer Strassse, a platform looking down on a watchtower and the scratchy remains of a death strip, the Fernsehturm distant beyond it; on nearby walls the large letters and magnified photos of public memorialisation. At Potsdamer Platz half a dozen chunks to stand in front of, graffiti’d to obscurity either by people in the first blaze of liberty or perhaps just by tourists coming here for the last twenty years. And along the curve of the Spree the East Side Gallery. A lazily brusque German academic will tell a room later that this isn’t really the wall – really? Well, Wikipedia does say that some of it has been moved 40 yards west, an improbable fate for those stones, but not that any of it is new.


The mile or more of wall starts just west of the elaborate turrets of the Oberbaumbrücke, which is on my list of sights: but when I ascend from the S-Bahn at Warschauer Strasse I feel almost dizzy, an old acrophobia surfacing amid the passing rows of traffic, the north- south highway in blazing late afternoon. I’m barely even on a bridge, this is just a road over a rack of railway lines – so many of them, so many trains and cars, I didn’t imagine Warschauer Strasse this way, a hectic hub of pollution. I zinc myself just enough to cross the bridge, and realize I’m now at the edge of Kreuzberg, now entering the American sector: wonder how much interest lies in the thousands of yards of road stretching west around Skalitzer Strasse. But no, the East Side Gallery was the aim, so I cross all the way over the bridge and the highway again, mysteriously vulnerable, and wait for the green lights to walk along Mühlenstrasse.

The wall rises on the left, the traffic sweeps past a yard to the right. Dreadful Mauer souvenir shops punctuate the wall where it opens on to a stretch of the Spree, even an artificial beach (maybe not very artificial, they say Berlin was built on sand). The river is busy, my expectations are cut across again: boats, Berliners, tourists, sunbathers. The East Side Gallery consists of a long sequence of paintings on stretches of wall. I read now that they were all done in 1990, then restored a couple of years ago. Maybe paintings have come and gone. They bear international signatures, references to the artists’ origins in Japan, Spain, Canada. They’re all pretty bloody awful, though. The fine idea of freedom has mostly brought out a woozy Pink Floydism, prog celebrations to send back to 1974. Apart from a badly drawn Batman virtually the only one to hold my attention is a great big passage from Brecht. You have to have a nerve to quote a DDR poet here; I can’t read the text but I guess, perhaps wrongly, that the artist made it to acceptability by quoting his famously sardonic lines on the 1953 uprising. The idea that Brecht could survive everything that’s happened here, retain credibility – this question bobs around all week and beyond. I ask a German a few hours later how Brecht is seen now, whether his DDR years taint him. (Why not, given what we think of Pound and Larkin?) – Oh, no, she says, Brecht is a national poet, taught in schools. (Why not, given what we think of Larkin and Pound?)

East Side Gallery

Oranienburger Tor

Lied der Problemlöser
Was werden wir über das Problem zu tun?
Wir werden versuchen, das Problem zu lösen.
Wie werden wir das Problem lösen?
Wir bitten die Leute, die wir kennen.
Die Leute werden fragen wir
Hilfe mit dem Problem?
Wir mit einem Schreiner starten
Und ein Philosoph.
Was wird sie sagen?
Sie werden wahrscheinlich sagen,
Wir brauchen mehr Ideen
Und mehr Holz.
Nachdem wir uns gefällt
Und gemahlen und gewürzt
Genügend Holz und Ideen
Was werden wir dann tun?
Wir untersuchen das Holzund
Diskutieren die Ideen
Und sehen, ob sie
Nützlich sind.
Wir bitten den Philosophen
Um das Holz zu kritisieren
Und wir bitten den Zimmermann
Was sie denkt, der Ideen.
Dann werden wir fragen die anderen Menschen
Was sie dachte an die Kritik.
Wir werden versuchen herauszufinden Ideen und suchen, was nützlich
Aber wir werden nicht zu bestehenden Formen im Interesse der daran halten.
Wir werden versuchen, daran zu erinnern,
Dass die Ideen und das Holz
Müssen vor allem
Nützlich zu sein zu den Menschen.
Aber wir werden im Auge behalten
Dass die Menschen vielleicht lernen müssen,
Űber das, was ihnen nützlich.
Jeder kann helfen – du bist eingeladen.

A thing about a foreign language is that you tend to encounter it as a solid mass, intimidatingly unknown and self-identical – but presumably most languages are actually organically changing like ours, or at least they are spoken different ways in different places and by different generations. And a native can be amused by a phrasebook, just as we might be by the examples of English a foreign book gives. There is some curious intricacy here, unplumbed most of the time, for the languages of the world must keep up appearances before each other, but they are spoken by people like you and me who presumably don’t trouble to talk the way you are taught they talk. And then there is the crossing of words between languages and countries, the Germans so much keener than the French to pick up English and make it their own, almost to the point of producing the kind of isolated absurdity famously found on Japanese clothing.


Generations, moments of language: a sign giving advice for swimming accidents is written in ‘old German’ – that is, 1960s German. And I am told that if you look at an old East German textbook, its exemplary sentences will include things like: What does your local agriculture association produce? and What machines do you know? Spellbinding.

My favourite phrase in the book: Gehen Sie!

German for Travellers

Strausberger Platz
As I finish the East Side Gallery my next destination is supposed to be Karl-Marx-Allee, recommended for its Soviet architecture. I remember seeing it on a map in the guidebook and thinking, of course, in Berlin you’re going to find these places named after Marx – though it still feels incongruous that they use ‘allee’ for a great avenue, the opposite of our word; both of them presumably close to the French. In the guidebook K-M-A gets an entry of its own, an enormous open-air museum of Socialist Realist architecture – I have read these pages so many times I can quote from memory. I don’t know what I’ll see exactly – statues and frescoes on the sides of the buildings? – and the whole thing produces that uncertain feeling that the East does: are we supposed to approve of this, disapprove, or take a very detached antiquarian attitude?

I never really find out what my reaction is. Wherever I go in the world I wind up walking, not just hauling a heavy load of luggage down a road to a bus stop but tramping what must be miles along streets with a guidebook in and out of my hand, all on feet I have battered so much over the years that they are less equipped for this than anyone’s I know. As I strain my way North from the painted wall, I find that distances seem longer in reality than they look on the map; I am still striving along Holzmarktstrasse with no good option for a train. I realize that wherever I go, I don’t just walk around tourist sites and picturesque parks; I always wind up labouring along hard shoulders, service roads, highway feeds, standing on concrete islands, peering at slabs of signage designed for drivers, fluttering in the slipstream of juggernauts, halfway between where I started and where I thought I’d go. At some stage I am always a pedestrian tourist who has wandered into a world of engines, tarmac, industrial estates and diesel fumes, my cosy goal a couple of miles further than I’d imagined. I take a turning North to escape the river of cars. I wait at a bus stop, whose timetable says a bus is due about now, or a minute or two ago. Maybe it’s because this is Germany that the efficient bus has already apparently been and gone. I pick my smarting feet up and walk again, reach the corner of Andreasstrasse and Karl-Marx-Allee. This is it, the road the DDR trebled in width and that was Stalinallee for fifteen wrong-turned years. Big blocks of flats; buildings that are not just clumsily blocky but something else, would-be futuristic maybe, cubes of 1960s tile. It’s pretty immense, but I’m too tired. I walk into the Strausberger Platz U-Bahn and never see Karl-Marx-Allee again.


Schönleinstrasse’s wide avenue between high European buildings in dripping dim early evening of middle May: off the U8 and standing around for a minute, I realize that I must be at the wrong entrance: the station is so languidly lengthy it admits people a few hundred yards North. So I descend to the station and simply head up the platform, and I don’t think I am quite struck at the time by the fact that I’m walking directly under the street, following the same course as the stray cars on Kottbusser Damm. I thought this was Kreuzberg: I learn that it’s Neukölln. The name must refer to the Cölln that the guidebook gives as the origin of Berlin – a touch bewilderingly, as that sounds like the same name as Cologne, so it’s as though London had originated around a village called Manchester. Well, I assume that Neukölln is a spread away from that Cölln, like New Oxford Street extends that thoroughfare – I don’t know. I don’t think I know the name Neukölln at all, because I have not paid enough attention to David Bowie. The next time I’m back online I find his instrumental of this name and it seems familiar, as well as ominous and very good.

A magazine – is it ex-Berliner? – has declared that you know a street is being gentrified when an apartment building is painted yellow; in Dieffenbachstrasse we quickly see three. In the pale damp evening the high elegant buildings are closer to Paris than I’ve seen elsewhere in Berlin. In a restaurant a busker looking strangely like an aged Paul Morley preciously plays a Spanish guitar, then has the gall to circulate the leanly populated room and stand by tables asking for tips from punters who never asked him to show up in the first place. This is worth it, though, for the opportunity to learn that Lokomotiv Leipzig were not just the football team that Philippe Fargeon and Bordeaux faced in a longago European tie that I think featured on the cover of the first Onze I ever bought: they had a youth chess team. A Lokomotiv chess team! Picture the high intellect, the Soviet discipline, that it must have demanded from its adherents. Lessons from the East.

Beyond storied Sonnenallee das Gift remarkably dares to actualize the most juvenile conceit any Briton learning German encounters – well, no wonder, it was set up by someone from Mogwai; but stuck on a bar the name does make sense. To hear of a Scottish bar in Berlin may prompt fears of a nasty tartan saloon serving creamy illtravelled Tennents, but this is something else: it could genuinely be a Scottish bar, provided you were somewhere off the Great Western Road. Smoke’s ghost hangs in the air. The music, now I think about it, is extraordinarily good: Magnetic Fields, ‘Draft Morning’, and song after song that sounds like it’s either a forgotten 1980s sound, or the latest Pains of Being Pure at Heart – who can tell? At the bar I finally talk for the first time to a couple of the dawdling and drawling Americans I mentioned in the first paragraph of my first letter from Berlin, loaned to the city by Pittsburgh and Iowa. One of them corrects the article in my Teutonic attempt to order a pint: a peculiarly pointless exchange as the barmaid’s from Glasgow, though she thinks Alasdair Gray is from Edinburgh.

Frankfurter Allee
Friedrichshain was supposed to be an empty zone, hardly worth seeing, but also seems to have become festooned with restaurants and bars, a longer stretch of them than any I can think of in London. Down other roads nearby under the soviet pebbledash R— and I walk through the sun and shadow of an early Sunday evening. We buy bottles of lager from an off licence and settle on the scratchiest excuse for grass in a park. He tells me about Zizek and Bob Monkhouse. Walking again down some avenue I say there’s one person you associate with Berlin who’s not mentioned once in my guidebook. Whom do you associate with Berlin? R—: Hitler. OK, but someone else. He gives the same answer five times. I have to tell him I am thinking of David Bowie.

R— wants to try Hops & Barley. It is a microbrewery like England’s – always that range of four beers or so, a Pilsner, a wheat ale, a special, but here I suppose a Dunkles rather than a stout. The place gains its own vocal impression. I’ll tell you about it sometime. In a corner with a Pilsner we realize after a while that a curious noise has commenced. The bar has filled with people, not milling punters here to drink and talk, but all sat watching a screen on a far wall. It’s not showing footy or something you can talk over, but a TV drama, a German cop show. The noise is the actors and background music. In a back room I glimpse a kind of cinema, a bigger screen, a big audience, watching the same thing. Crazy – as if everyone had gone to a bar to watch Taggart together. We’d better go.

Eberswalder Strasse

Eberswalder Strasse
A Friday evening walking up Weinbergsweg and Kastanienallee with its pavement tables, awed at the amount of life, the number of places and nights happening here, to the intersection with Eberswalder Strasse and Schönhauser Allee. The U-Bahn passes overhead, running right along the main road: just one line yet such an immense station to disgorge it here, more pillars of concrete and rivets of steel. People are turned out of the train and descend to the street, to meet, wait, talk or whatever they’re doing – and pausing in the late sunlight I think, 7 o’clock on a Friday in mid-May, this must be one of the centres of the world. I am subsequently told otherwise, though.

Zoologischer Garten

Zoologischer Garten
Impala: first of many deer and the name of Oedipa Maas’s rented Chevrolet
Llama, white and brown
Crow, feeding on the llama
African equivalent of a magpie
Hornbill with eccentric beak
Hippo: flusspferde: river-horse, like our name: swimming past at eye level, with a duck bobbing nearby


Schwein, plenty of pigs
Bonobos, possibly misnamed due to the place they were sent when brought back from Africa; a matriarchal species: so says the prim unknown German beside their glass menagerie.
Orang-Utans: how their speed varies from lumbering age to the performance of youth; working with props, carrying blankets around, preparing to make a speech.
Gorillas outside, in a big netted space like London Zoo’s, fetching blankets to sleep on or knuckle-walking as though posing as the Zoo’s logo: remarkably artificial postures a gorilla holds for minutes at a time.
Baboons, pavian the German, on a great caged sandy hill of their own, their ways announced by a nearby sign. These dozens of apes run around like dogs, scatter and group as though going somewhere to do something, like a gang seeking another gang to fight; but carry their little young on their backs while doing it.
Penguins. Seals.
Brown bear, pacing round and round, not a good sign; black bear perched; several bear statues for Berlin, city grown by Albrecht the Bear. Pity he wasn’t an actual bear.
A leopard walking around its cage.
Arctic wolves of Canada. Wolfgang: the way of the wolf.

Unseen: lions, Eisbären.

Zoologischer Garten
The Zoo (tzouh) would be a good location for a film: the Penguin Pool especially spurs this thought, a shallow arena of concrete benches from which to watch them and the seals, though they’re doing little enough by 6pm. I suspect I’m not thinking of anything more ambitious than a Noah Baumbach knockoff: The Penguin and the Seal. Or a Wes Anderson neo-Salinger piece with Berlin Zoo instead of Central Park, trying to resist putting ‘At The Zoo’ on the soundtrack. Something about this place is expansive and inviting, the broad paths between the bushes, the enclosure of the next unknown animal emerging around a curve. The bridge over a river or canal, quite a bit like how Regent’s Canal splits the zoo in London: beyond the boards is the Australian zone whose kangaroos remain elusive, despite a board detailing species and mentioning nothing less specific than an actual kangaroo.

Zoo Berlin

Spots of rain through late afternoon. Down the dead-end alleys yielding no polar bears, suddenly the sky breaks and issues a downpour. Running through the zoo to the spare shelter of the brick gates, over the spattering tarmac, while the animals pad away and hide. Waiting under the gateway, cotton stripes weighted with rain: a bit like emerging from Union Square off the L train from Coney Island on a Saturday in June three years ago and finding a downpour holding everyone in the exits, waiting for a break or dip to run for it, while opportunists ran around calling out Umbrellas, five dollars!

Zoo Berlin

Rathaus Neukölln
Drizzle down Karl-Marx-Strasse between the deco buildings, the functional megamarts and the town hall where Easterners came to receive their Begrussungsgeld from the unified state, a golden handshake if ever that phrase was apt, save that the token amount seems to have been more like fools’ gold. In a drugstore aisle racks of yellow packets of photographs for collection. So? Well, I have not seen the like in years, perhaps because I’ve not been looking: in an age when digital photography is so commonplace that even having a dedicated digital camera seems superfluous to many, I have forgotten what it is like to call in at the chemist’s and hesitantly sift the glossy cards. The experience, now I think about it, was usually of discovering one or two photos you could cherish, and a lot more bland or botched. But there seem to be reams of people doing this in Neukölln. And it makes me think now, that we all used to be amateurs snapping away on analogue cameras (I once tried to work out what the word was for analogue photography, and could only find … photography), but now such innocents point digital boxes like mine, and the people painting with light the old way are become something else, a caste of experts and experimenters, people whose very deliberate choice to follow this hard path makes them seem like studio technicians next to the rest of us. Many of them might be producing better quality photographs than we all did before, but then many of them might not be framing anything special: just the different kinds of colour and light make their prints look like arch works of art, not like the mere record of time that is the most I can produce. It’s as though playing a guitar rather than playing Guitar Hero made you a Bert Jansch; as though to handwrite a letter is now the sign of the seasoned calligrapher.

But all this overlooks the real local conundrum, to which no ready answer appears. Why on Earth is a street in Neukölln called Karl-Marx-Strasse?

What should Walter-Benjamin-Platz look like? Maybe a little cobbled square with a weinstübe (Die Zeit Verloren), a fountain flowing gentle water through a cherub’s mouth, an antiquarian bookseller stocking Rabelais, alchemy and Proudhon. A place of stowedaway secrets, alcoves of history. Walter-Benjamin-Platz off Leibnitzstrasse is the opposite of that: a large oblong of concrete flagstones surrounded by blank office blocks, their anonymous business another kind of secret. A fountain seems to be present but out of use: maybe that improves the place sometimes. Of course, the antiquarian is only one side of Benjamin, and a modernist setting could be said to respond to his strategic Brechtian functionalism; but this is taking functionalism a bit far with little aesthetic pay-off. You start looking for ironically Benjaminian dimensions. The very inaptness of his square is apt to his regular ill-fortune, the hapless way that history seemed to evade his hopes. Perhaps to be off the Ku-Damm is not so inappropriate: he was interested in shopping, especially the shopping of a past era, and the Ku-Damm itself is becoming a bit more of a high-end relic now that Friedrichstrasse has been remodelled as the C21 high street. And then at the far end of the Platz, an empty coffee stall: presumably containing coffee, kettles, jugs, mugs, all locked up and unattended on a cloudy Monday morning. Placards around it proclaim products and prices. Mute signs in the silent city, banal tariffs gaining poignancy or intrigue from their abandonment, stranded in a square named for one who wrote a book crowded with capitalized urban slogans. See, you can bring Benjamin anywhere and he starts to adapt into pertinence.

Schloss Charlottenburg
Charlottenburg’s streets which people say are an aspic museum of old postwar West Berlin
Allies Museum
Haus Checkpoint Charlie
DDR Museum
All the museums on Museumsinsel
Marx-Engels Forum

I want to hear David Bowie again, to hear many things for the first time. Why have I left those Berlin albums largely unexplored all these years? Not a lack of interest or admiration, goodness knows. I’ve just been waiting for a time when I felt ready to give them the attention I imagine they deserve. I’ve been saving him for a grainy day. Perhaps it’s coming.

Bowie is not that evident here. He is not once mentioned in the guidebook. R— doesn’t think of him when he thinks of Berlin. I am told, would you believe, that some Berliners think Bowie is American. But in Neukölln I see a vinyl Changesonebowie (and I realize now this is almost the last act before Bowie’s Berlin), and on a Kreuzberg street on Saturday’s young evening, one sighting. In a basement, between a couple of mannequins, a picture of “Heroes” David in grey and white, angled up to send us a sign.