November, 2014

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Short and sweet

Well, that’s the end of my two weeks of holiday. ‘Holiday’ does not quite have the meaning it used to do, though, as I spent an awful lot of it writing, researching, reading (three books and half an audiobook while ferrying the girls back and forth). Definitely very productive and if a change is as good as a rest, I should feel well rested. Yes, well, should do is probably accurate. Today was a half marathon distance run, some jobs around the house, including lugging in 160 kg of wood pellets for the boiler, fortunately in smaller amounts, and the rest of the time writing. And waiting for the BT broadband engineer to arrive. He didn’t. It’s a long story involving close to three months of intermittent broadband at home. So slightly frustrating. But apart from that, a productive day and two weeks.

At some point in the past, I must have signed up to get weekly e-mails from Pocket and they are actually one of the e-mails I get which are useful. The ability to save articles to read later and not have to find them again weeks later is incredibly helpful. I wanted to share this one, which is based on some TED talks. It made me think.

And on a lighter note, this was a great advert which I saw in Berlin. I do not of course advocate running in shoes at all, never mind in heels.



What do you see in this photo?


It’s not very good, really. Railway tracks, pretty boring. It should have something dramatic, something that catches the eye, something in the foreground.

So as a photo, not up to much.

But this is Platform 17 at Grunewald train station in Berlin. It’s the platform trains departed from in the 1940s, heading to Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and other similar places. It’s now a permanent memorial to that period in German history. I doubt most people know it exists.

Along the platform are metal plates, each showing the date, number of Jews deported, and the destination. The rest we can imagine. I was particularly touched by this one:


It wasn’t 100 people on that one day in 1942, it was 101. And for some reason, that one person made a difference to me. It was more personal.

The other thing which struck me amongst the horror that this platform represented in a small way was the number of people who were still being found and deported as late as the spring of 1945. To have survived for all those years and then to have been discovered so close to the end of the war.

So the photo wasn’t meant to be technically good, it was meant to be a reminder. Changing our perspective is sometimes the most important thing we can do in a situation. Much more prosaically, I was reminded of that on two recent occasions.

You are running late, in traffic, and a car wants to pull in front of you. You might miss the next set of lights if you let it in. And then you realise that you recognise the driver, it’s someone you know. Of course you let them in, it’s become personal, not an abstract question of values.

Or you are watching a concert and some teenagers in front of you start climbing on each others’ shoulders, holding some huge video camera and blocking your view. How annoying. And then someone else asks them what they’re doing. It’s a school project, they’re on an exchange, learning about the country. And all of a sudden, who cares about missing the view for a few minutes while they film the experience they are having? Again, there’s a personal connection all of a sudden.

Three recent reminders for me that sometimes, all we have to do is change our perspective to change a situation, because it’s not what’s happening that’s the problem, it’s how we’re interpreting it.

9 November – Part 2

The backdrop to my childhood years is encapsulated in the Alphaville song “Forever Young” – “Are they going to drop the bomb or not?” The division of the world into East and West was just what it was, it had been in place for as long as I had been alive, and there was no reason to think it would ever change. Soviet General Secretaries came and went, American presidents came and went, and Erich Honecker had been the General Secretary of the East German party for almost all of my life. I’m still not sure if I like the fact that I was born while Walter Ulbricht was in charge, but he was. He was the one who said, just days before the first incarnation of the Wall was constructed, “Nobody has the intention of building a wall” – you can see him here.

When the Wall came down, I was living and working in Munich. I was washing dishes in a hotel there. We had a massive conveyor belt dishwasher for most items, but once a week it was our turn to wash the pots by hand. Three kitchens, a lot of cooks, none of whom had to clean up the mess they made. I still remember the first time I did it, I was far too slow, two of the kitchens were soon backed up and somebody probably had to rescue me. If you were the pot cleaner, you were there till you were done, which could have been well after the official 12:30 (am) finish time. By the time I finished working there, I was very, very efficient and looked forward to being the pot guy for the evening because I would get out earlier. Some of the German culture must have rubbed off of me. Or maybe it was just laziness.

Being 18 at the time, the end of the Wall meant I could travel to the Eastern bloc quite easily, and did so with three colleagues from the hotel in early 1990. There are two memories in particular which are still particularly vivid. The first is of driving through a forest at night to get to the Czech border (it was still Czechoslovakia back then). It was exactly as you imagine it from a spy film, no lights anywhere, no houses, snow on the road and the trees, and then you get to the border crossing where we and our car (an Audi 80, hired of course and standing out wherever we went in the East) were inspected. I don’t recall there being much conversation with the border guards, but they let us pass and we drove through a village which was as dark as the deserted roads we had been driving on. Prague was stunning, even back then. And of course incredibly cheap, even for a Western dishwasher. There were two prices in all the menus, one for the locals, one for the Westerners. It helped that the menus with the cheaper prices were only in Czech so we couldn’t have ordered from them anyway.

And then there was Berlin. I didn’t like it at all. We were staying in West Berlin and I hated it. Too over the top, too gaudy, too in your face. Even to this day, I tend to spend my time here in the Eastern part of the city. I don’t think it’s conscious, it just feels different. And we went across into East Berlin. Complete with the obligatory changing of Deutsche Mark into Eastern Marks (I so wish I had kept some of the Eastern money). We were warned against changing money on the street but there was no point in doing so anyway as there was nothing to buy and the restaurants would only accept our Western money anyway. For all the cliches about the East, it really did feel like a different planet.

At the time, it was just a trip with some friends, but when I look back on it now, I realise just how special it was. I was actually in the GDR. And we had to go to some government building in Prague to get our visas extended by a day or we would have had real trouble when we came to leave the country. I still have the passport with the GDR stamp and Czech visa in it.

To this day, I’m not sure what it was that took me down the academic line I took. I suspect the interest in ethics came from my Mum and Peter Singer’s book (which she recommended to me) Practical Ethics which proved that ethics is not just some theoretical discussion but something which affects real lives. Probably that appealed to my inherent interest in how to apply knowledge in practice. Goodness knows where the media bit came from. I had never met a journalist in my life. And, given my experience in Berlin in 1990, there was nothing pulling me back there to do my research. But I went anyway, and the Berlin I encountered bore no resemblance to what I remembered. Partly because it was a huge building site, partly because everything was changing around me, and partly because I had changed. But mainly because I got to know a good number of Berliners, from West and East, and the city was a proper home to me for the best part of a year. I found recently my notebook from when I was there. Apparently I met with a professor soon after I got to Berlin and recorded that he thought I wouldn’t get any journalists to open up and talk about their life before and after the Wall came down. For a while I thought he might be right. I got no reply to a couple of letters sent to Neues Deutschland, previously the flagship newspaper of the ruling Party in East Germany. I still remember going to their office building and speaking with the receptionist. Had they received my letter? Yes, and they had meant to get back to me. Could I meet with the editor? Yes – we set up an appointment. And from there, it snowballed. Another journalist there loved Scotland (the weather, of all things). And better still, he had been the editor of the main youth newspaper, a total hardliner, hated by the population in general. And I found them both to be thoughtful, reflective and open about their past, about their role in propping up the regime, about the sense of duty and commitment they had felt. They introduced me to other journalists, including at the Berliner Zeitung which, co-incidentally, is my favourite German newspaper, and within a few months I had spoken with over thirty journalists. All of which forms the basis of my book.

Unsurprisingly, the experience of living in Berlin as a twenty-something had an impact on me which far outlived my time there. One family in particular, from the East, and just a couple of years older than me, made the whole experience one of belonging in Berlin rather than just passing through. That feeling has never left me.

And now we are a generation older. Those of us who remember the Wall coming down are now middle-aged (allegedly). We lived in a time which is just history for our children. Things we grew up with are in museums. Including the GDR.

So, what is my fascination with the GDR? I’ve asked myself that over the years. My answer today might be different from my answer tomorrow. But for today, I think it’s because it wasn’t that different from what we still experience today, albeit in a different way. Last night, Klaus Wowereit, the outgoing mayor of Berlin, talked about the concrete walls and the walls in our head. The journalists in East Germany talked of the scissors in your head (die Schere im Kopf). To begin with, control of what they wrote was external, words or sentences would be changed or articles rejected in their entirety. It didn’t take long until they self-censored, knowing what would and would not be accepted. They no longer needed to be controlled, they did it to themselves. It wasn’t conscious, it just became part of who they were. They still tried to get things into the paper that were borderline, but it was small things. At the time, they seemed more significant because they were looking at it from the perspective of the walls in their own head which had limited their perspective.

And I wonder how different we are. I’ve written before about the ideology of the Scottish independence vote, and about the mindset which I might have implicitly adopted over the last few decades. Did I see that at the time? No. Did it limit my perspective? Undoubtedly. Can it be easily undone? That is perhaps the question I’m dealing with now.

It is a truism that we are shaped by our experiences, by our upbringing. School, religion, the values our parents taught us, mistakes we have made, paths we have gone down, choices we have made. They all contribute to who we are right now, and to how we view the world. It’s a gradual process and we don’t notice it. Remember the principle of the frogs? (skip this if you are squeamish) – if you throw a frog into hot water it jumps straight out again, but put it in cold water and heat it up and it will stay there until it dies. (As as aside, I really hope this is just a theoretical point and that nobody actually did it for real). So what does it take for us to make the big changes that we sometimes need but can’t always see we need?

In the case of East Germany, there were a number of factors. Gorbachev, running out money, Western TV, the ruling generation being out of touch with the population who were one or two generations younger. They all played a part. But I learned a new perspective last night from one of the speakers (as I predicted, there were speeches as well as music).

9 October 1989 (not a typo, a month before the wall came down) was the first unsanctioned demonstration in Leipzig, unsanctioned by the Party. Previous demonstrations had been smaller, this one included about 70,000 people.  The local population knew that water cannons were being brought in, the hospitals had extra blood supplies ready, the police and Stasi were out in force. And they went out anyway, knowing what could happen but knowing also that they had to. It was described as the day East Germany lost its fear.

And there it is. Losing our fear. I think that’s the thing that, however experienced and capable we are, holds us back again and again. Fear of what might happen, of what might not happen, of change.

And so, for me, the fall of the Wall, and what has become of Berlin, shows us what can happen when we lose that fear. It allows us to break through the limitations we have implicitly put on ourselves and discover something new, something better in ourselves.

The trigger, the thing that can push us to embrace something new rather than stay where we have been, can be external, but it always involves an internal choice. And, once again, I come back to my belief that books can be that trigger in our heads, give us a different perspective that allows us to see something new, or see something for the first time that has always been there. And then to decide to do something differently, to be better than we were before. Even when everyone says it can’t be done. Because until 9 November 1989, everyone said the Wall would never come down.


By the way, I decided yesterday during the concert that my novel needs to be written in the first person. I’ve been going back and forth on that for a long time and trying out different forms. Decision made.

9 November – Part 1

I’m going to do two blogs today. This one is about last night, the celebration of 25 years since the Wall came down. The second will be my thoughts on that day, on what it means today, and what it means to me. So it will be more personal. But first – the show.

Let’s just start with some of the people who were up on the stage during the evening (and I will apologise throughout for mentioning people who might not be (well) known (it at all) outside the German-speaking world, but here goes).

We started with the people who weren’t there, the people who were killed while trying to escape East Germany to find freedom.


Wolf Biermann – thorn in the side of the East German government, he was a songwriter and singer for many decades, even having his citizenship of the GDR revoked while he was outside the country on tour. I never thought I would get to see him in person. He is a legend, and not the only one there tonight.



Peter Gabriel – singing Bowie’s song Heroes.  I suspect the last time it was played by the Brandenburg Gate was by Bowie in 1987 (you can see it on YouTube). It definitely needed to be included in the show. You can see it here courtesy of Reuters. Their view was rather better than mine and it’s much better close up when you can hear the details, from a distance it was underwhelming.

Lech Walesa – leader of the Polish Solidarity movement that paved the way for the changes decades later throughout the Soviet bloc

Gorbi – the man who made sure the peaceful revolution in East Germany remained peaceful



Daniel Barenboim – only one of the best conductors in the world. It was quite something to see him projected onto a huge screen, and to see him from the front as he was conducting, rather than just his back as you normally see. The orchestra played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which is the “soundtrack” to this short clip which shows you some of the events of the last couple of days.


and…because you couldn’t have the event without him, Udo Lindenberg, the thorn in the other side, also a musician, but who came from the West.


His story – as he told it tonight – with East Germany began with a girl he met, who became the Maedchen aus Ostberlin, the Girl from East Berlin, in his song (which, of course, he played tonight). That story has also been turned into a musical performed in Berlin using Udo’s songs – only not between 9 and 13 November this year – and there was me determined to go to see it this time. It remains a reason to come back, as if I needed one.

He had the actress from the musical with him on stage (she is wearing the uniform of the East German youth movement, the Freie Deutsche Jugend, Free German Youth):


As part of his set (by far the longest, somewhere close to an hour I think) he had a crane. Not just a crane, but a huge one. Acrobats came in during one of his songs…

… and then he used it to fly away from the concert. A great finish.


The Brandenburg Gate was the backdrop for the whole day, and I’ve never seen it so spectacular.



There were huge moving screens throughout, onto which films, photos and the various acts were projected. At one point, there was a series of values which will resonate far from Berlin. They included




… freedom of opinion (I had to include that one of course)…IMG_3613



…and educationIMG_3620
And of course the balloons were released, the ones which marked where the Wall had been. I did a long run this morning and was able to run along the route marked by the balloons for much of it. It was a run I will never forget and one I can never repeat. Yes, it’s a terrible photo, it was the point at which everyone else decided to hold up their mobile phones to get a picture and I realised it wasn’t going to work out so well for me. At least the rest of the photos were largely good. I did take 620 though. Be glad these are the very very select few. My family is going to have look at the other 600+. And the videos.

What an evening. Only in Berlin.

And so it begins…

Berlin, 8 November

Well, I’m here. In truth, I was never going to be anywhere else.


I will write more later, but for now, just some small photos.

The Berliner Zeitung was pretty much devoted to the event today:


There are large screens all around the city centre telling the story of the Wall, of the protests in the late 1980s, and of the fall of the Wall.




You will probably have read about the lights which have been set up along the old route of the Wall. It makes you realise just how dominant it must have been to find rows of lights off side streets, in areas which we now just walk past without knowing what used to be here.






There’s a moving (official) video here. And here’s what it looked like from the air. And a lovely portrayal of how the city has evolved here.


On Sunday, there are events from 2pm onwards, with a big concert (and probably speeches, this is Germany after all). No Bowie, but Peter Gabriel singing “Heroes” by the Brandenburg Gate. That will bring back memories for a lot of people.

Thank goodness I brought my “proper” camera!

A different perspective – on everything

Imagine growing up in a country, being taught a history of that country, experiencing that country in a certain way, and interpreting your world through those lenses. Then, many years later, everything changes.

Yes, that was the experience of many people who grew up in East Germany and knew very little different, except what they saw on Western television or heard about from others. And with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall next Sunday (yes, I will be there – of course), that might be worthwhile thinking some more about. And my book on the experience of East German journalists shows how, while many things changed around them, a new normality soon set in which in some ways was not that different in feel and approach from what they had seen in communist days (and for the pedants, East Germany was not a communist state, it purported to a socialist one, but the end state of communism was never reached).

However, the experience I described above was one I had recently and was much closer to home. It starts with a book. Most things in my life do. But before that, there was the Snowden experience which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Remember how I believe less and less in coincidences? Here’s the chain of events.

1. Go to Book Festival event which Luke Harding is speaking at (about Snowden and the implications of what he made public) – incidentally, did you notice that GCHQ just last week admitted that they have been accessing data on UK citizens and others, collected by the NSA and other intelligence services, without court orders…

2. Read Harding book and realise that the Guardian has changed from the paper I remember it as when I was at university. In fairness, it’s been a while since then and it’s allowed to change.

3. Spend some time on the Guardian website and see that they have started a “membership” programme, including a free option which allows you to see what events are coming up (in fairness to me, most of the events are in London so paying to be able to go them really isn’t sensible).

4. The first event – streamed live – is with Naomi Klein, who has written a book on climate change, called This Changes Everything (I have it, it’s next on the non-fiction reading list)

5. The event is chaired by Owen Jones, who wrote The Establishment.

6. I read The Establishment (well, 90%, I’m in the last chapter at the moment. I probably should have finished it before writing about it. Oh well.)

The official blurb about it talks about a “powerful but unaccountable network of people who wield massive power and reap huge benefits in the process.” That wasn’t what I got out of the book to be honest. What I read was an account of how the events I remembered over the last thirty odd years could – and in Jones’s view should – be viewed differently. It’s persuasive. Is he right? I don’t know – there was one section in the book where my day job gives me some insights which I wouldn’t expect a non-specialist journalist to have, and which would lead me to different conclusions, so it did make me wonder what others closer to some of the other topics he covered would thing of them. But that’s at most a minor criticism.

One topic discussed at some length is the view of “scroungers” which is promulgated with a degree of relish by much of the media. By “scroungers” we mean of course benefit cheats/fraudsters/whatever other derogatory noun you can think of. One of the main objections against these people is that they are supposed to be ripping us all off – “us” being the hard-working, hard done by, families. And this is costing us all fortune, causing us to run up national debt beyond anything we would have believed just a few years ago. And this must be stopped. Politicians fall over themselves to tell us how much they will cut from the welfare bill.

What Jones does is remind us of the stories we don’t hear so much about. Atos, the French company which was paid millions (well, more like a billion apparently) to administer the new eligibility tests for disability benefits. The lack of human decency (and common sense) in the tests beggars belief. And Margaret Hodge, scourge of wrongdoers of all hues, said that

“Atos stated in its tender document that it had ‘contractual agreements’ in place with a national network of 56 NHS hospitals, 25 private hospitals and over 650 physiotherapy practices to provide assessments. This turned out not to be true.”

We are, according to Jones, being systematically told that the real “scroungers” are the individuals in receipt of welfare. But how about the companies and individuals who are being paid vast sums of taxpayer money to adminster what were government services, or construct and run buildings and operations which the public sector would previously have run? And then, when it comes crashing down, to walk away from it? Jones gives numerous examples of the scale of the “scrounging” going on at the top levels of society, funded by the taxpayer and part of the ethos of “public sector inefficient, private sector efficient”. To which one might say simply “RBS”. Or “HBOS”. Private sector companies which, absent the public sector rescuing them, could have brought down the entire economy.

Jones’s arguments are much more far-reaching than those examples could illustrate. But he does paint a picture of a direction of travel over the last few decades which we largely have accepted as “right” and which has been endorsed and promoted by the mainstream political parties, the media, and individuals in charge of a range of organisations.

So I saw today’s Telegraph headline (front page) “Dear taxpayer, quarter of cash goes on welfare” and thought “I’m reading that article with a different perspective now”.

Books really do change the way we think. And it’s good to challenge the way we think.

And finally, this article from the Guardian, tying up what I learned from The Establishment with the fall of the Berlin Wall:

As the wall fell, checks on capitalism crumbled.

Maybe it’s ironic that my eyes were opened 25 years after those of the East German population – although I might argue that their eyes were pretty open before then, they just didn’t know what they could do about it. And that’s the last 10% of the book I haven’t read yet. I did say I should probably have finished it before writing about it!