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I should probably give a bit of background to my experience of Berlin, given that it’s where I keep returning to, with or without various family members in tow, and also where my novel is set, so even when I’m not physically here, my head still is. I use the present tense because I am writing this blog on holiday in Berlin – in fairness, I spend much of the time travelling around in trains, buses and trams just observing the place and we do end up going down an abnormal number of side streets in case we encounter something unusual I can use or that prompts a thought. Or a photo.
I first came here in early 1990, just after the Wall came down. I was living in Munich at the time, but as an 18 year old living and working away from home for the first time, I don’t have any real memory of the political events happening just a few hundred kilometres away from me. But a few of us decided to take what seemed like a new opportunity to travel to the East. Some memories of the trip:
– Driving along the transit route between what was still East and West Germany and seeing the Trabants and other Eastern bloc cars at the side of the road being or needing repaired. There were a lot of them. An awful lot.
– Leaving the transit route and ending up driving through the suburbs of Dresden. I’m pretty sure we weren’t supposed to do that, but my only regret now is that I didn’t have a camera with me. The Dresden you can visit today looks nothing like the outskirts did back then. End of understatement.
– Driving through a forest (we were fairly convinced we were lost by this time) trying to get into what was still Czechoslovakia in the middle of winter, with snow on the road and in the trees that rose up close to the road on both sides. Yes, it was exactly how you imagine a cold war spy thriller. We did eventually come to a border crossing and despite the lack of a mutual language managed to get whatever stamp we needed in our passports and continued on our way to Prague.
– The restaurant menus in Prague had two prices, one for the locals and one for the tourists. It was easy to ensure everyone paid the right price because we couldn’t have ordered from the Czech menu if we had wanted to. It was still ridiculously cheap for us of course.
– And then there was Berlin. We stayed in the West, in a grotty hotel over a bar. I think that’s what happens when you don’t think to book anything in advance because the internet isn’t something anyone has heard of yet. My memory of West Berlin is that it was loud, bright, and brash. I didn’t like it at all. The next day, our car had disappeared. We found it in a nearby street with no sign of any damage, but as one of our group had been in the British Army, he was convinced that we had to check for bombs under the car. Why I had to check instead of him might have been testament to my youth and his experience. The mystery was solved a few weeks later when the Berlin police sent us a bill for having towed the car that was apparently partially parked over a bus stop. In the meantime, we had to go over to East Berlin. We drove through, exchanged our money at the border, and were suddenly in a different world. Gone was the glitz of West Berlin, the familiar cars, the familiar shop names and brands. We walked around for a while, partly trying to find something to do with the Eastern Marks we now had. It must have made an impression on me even then because when I returned years later, I instantly recognised the streets we had walked down which at the time had seemed so forgettable.
The clincher for me was of course living in Berlin for almost a year. But that was almost twenty years ago now, and parts of the city are unrecognisable from the chaos I experienced back then. There were stations that had been blocked off for thirty years that were being not just reopened but rebuilt from the inside out. Just to change trains at those stations, we had to go out of the station building, walk around it to a different entrance and then go back in there. It took for ever changing at Friedrichstrasse, the station that had symbolised the division between East and West and then became past of the largest building site in the world that was Berlin.
Skip forward a couple of decades and it turns out that there are still things we haven’t seen in Berlin that are well worth a visit. More on that next week. I have four rolls of film to develop first!
The thing that my eye has been drawn to this last week has been the things that are still the same, caught in time.
Houses that could still be in East Germany:
Buildings falling apart between expensive villas (I said it was worthwhile going down the side streets):
And others whose exteriors look like they have missed the last 25 years, beside spectacularly renovated buildings:
And finally, the Glienecke Bridge, where East and West swapped spies.
The centre of the bridge marked the point those two worlds met, and today we could walk across it, see the plaques and tell the stories of when it was all so different. Because eventually the buildings will be gone, one way or another, and we will be left with the stories.
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…
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
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.
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.
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!
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:
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!