Glasgow and Berlin

Written July 2012 (Near Lake Garda, Italy). You may wonder why this has been given a separate page. Well, I was new to writing a blog at the time and didn’t know the difference between a page and a post! Needless to say, I’ve left it where it is!

Haven’t blogged for a while and already miss it. I never realised I would enjoy writing so much.Have decided to write about my experiences in Glasgow and Berlin. I went to Glasgow twice for short periods last year. I went to Berlin for six days in February. In a way they were both trial runs for my trip to New York in May. These were preblogging days. For my Glasgow trip I wrote nothing, for my Berlin trip I kept a diary and also wrote a strange stream of consciousness which was part diary and part total insanity!  I will include my diary entries later, the rest I may keep to myself! The difference between a diary and a blog is that a diary may sometimes be read by others by accident or when you’re dead but a blog is for the living. It is a means of instant communication. I like that. I don’t aspire to be a published author but I do want to express myself in words and hope that somebody reads them.

I have just finished reading Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels. Mr. Norris Changes Trains is interesting and quirky. It is a study in eccentricity and touches on other things like left and right wing politics and morality. It also manages to include references to S&M and Gay sexuality in a coded way that managed to bypass the censors at the time (the 1930s). The narrator is a young, naive Englishman who acts as an observer to the bizarre occurences taking place around him who occasionally gets involved but most of the time acts as an observer but is rarely critical. This is the prelude to Goodbye to Berlin which operates on a totally different level. The narrator becomes the real author and although we come across the same characters as in Mr. Norris the perspective becomes heightened and right from the beginning we are told “I am a camera”. He is merely an observer of what goes on around him. It is clear he doesn’t approve of the Nazis and is a sympathiser of the Communists but generally he describes what is happening around him impartially even though he is sometimes an unwilling participant.

The book is episodic and, according to the author, was meant as a much bigger,grandiose work of which Norris was originally meant to be a part. What you get is a brilliant sequence of observations which sometimes overlap which gives an insight into how Berlin (and Germany?) virtually sleepwalked into a vicious totalitarian state. It touches on the casual racism that gave Nazism credibility but also how people generally would never have countenanced the extremism of the Final Solution. By the time that happened it was too late. In the final section of the book Isherwood describes how people were rubber stamped on the forehead as a punishment for shopping in a Jewish department store. They were aleady victims of a Terror State.

Berlin Cathedral

The Berlin that Isherwood describes is a fairly grim place. He finds the architecture oppressive and pretentious and describes the buildings as “copies of copies”. He thinks Berlin Cathedral is so grotesquely over the top that it should be called “The Church of the Immaculate Consumption” a name that might be better suited to the new Sony Centre in Pottsdammer Platz!

He also finds a hopelessness in the poverty and the slums. It makes you wonder why he has decided to live in Berlin at all as he ekes out a living teaching English to the German middle class. He never really gives a reason but you get the feeling that he is escaping from something in England that is worse.

Sony Centre, Pottsdammer Platz

All through the book there are coded and veiled references to homosexuality although there is never any overt description of an homosexual act. There are however many references to heterosexual acts and even abortion especially in the description of Sally Bowles. Overall, there is a sense of hopelessness and aimlessness in all the characters. They are all searching for something that they can’t have and will never find. Meanwhile, the Nazis are steadily taking over power in Germany. This is like a backdrop to the book. It is this that gives it such an ominous feel. Within a year of the book being published Germany was in a war that would bring death and destruction on an unprecedented scale to the whole of Europe and even to it’s own people.

You may wonder what this as got to do with my visit to Berlin. Well, it’s because I had very similar feelings about the place as described in Isherwood’s books. OK, Germany is now a modern and prosperous democracy and Berlin is it’s capital. The German people and state have made massive efforts to confront their past and prevent any recurrence of the mad extremism of the Nazi era. However, Berlin is a city that bears the scars of it’s past more than any other city I have been to. Don’t get me wrong, I have seen the effects of war in Coventry and the East End of London where even as an adult I saw large bomb sites where houses used to be. But almost as soon as I got there I realised that Berlin was a city that had been virtually totally destroyed. Even now, as I travelled on the train to my hotel, I could see massive areas of wasteland waiting to be redeveloped. I got an almost immediate feeling of gloom that never really left me all the time I was there. Maybe it didn’t help that it was the middle of winter with grey,icy patches on the ground and a bitter wind blowing and the trees looking black and dead. It also didn’t help that I got lost looking for my hotel which was far in the East and was a pretty grim environment of Soviet era apartment blocks covered in graffiti.

Graffitti in Berlin

But even though I found the experience fairly depressing I also found it very interesting and learned something about myself. Believe it or not, I intend to return. There is much I haven’t seen and I may even change my opinion about the place. It is obvious that others have visited Berlin and have come away with a very different opinion to me. One person told me how lovely it is, which makes me think I must have somehow missed the lovely bits.

I was very impressed with the museums and art galleries in Berlin. The Kulturforum contains one of the best exhibitions of Renaissance art I have seen. Seeing these pictures in real life one realises how technically brilliant they are and also how incredibly imaginative and inspired. Prints and books don’t come anywhere close. Also, the “Topography of Terror” exhibition is a must see. It is based where the SS headquarters used to be and there is a portion of the Berlin Wall at the side. The exhibition is free and takes a long time to get around. It is well worth it though giving an excellent description of the rise of Nazism and the erosion of citizens’ rights through to the creation of a terror state and the Holocaust. It excuses nothing but gives a real insight into the victims of the war which also includes the German population. This exhibition continues to make me think months after I have been there. It also makes me realise how accurate Isherwood’s descriptions of the growth of Nazism are and how easy it is to sleep walk into totalitarianism. It makes me realise the importance of resistance and not accepting the status quo. Rebellion and nonconformity are good and to be encouraged!

Glasgow, on the other hand, was a very different experience. On my first visit the weather was terrible. I stayed in a hostel and when I got up the following day the front door had been blown in by a gale force wind! Why do I insist on visiting big cities in the winter? Maybe because otherwise it would leave only three months to go anywhere. As I have said, these trips were a prelude and training ground for my visit to New York. I wanted to know how I would be away from home where I didn’t know anyone. It was all good experience. My attitude was that it didn’t matter if the experience was good or bad (or both) because it was all useful. You can write poems and songs about any experience and it is a resource of memory that you can draw on later.  On the other hand there is a big difference between going somewhere for a few days and three weeks. I needed to be prepared. One of the big discoveries I made is how good writing a diary/blog is. It’s a bit like talking to an invisible friend and fills the time nicely when there’s nothing else to do. The other thing is to make sure you have plenty of things to do and have an overall plan. My main plan was to get involved with the local live music scenes and meet people. A good outcome was that I made a real effort to get to know people, something I don’t particularly do when I’m at home. It’s so easy to be complacent. On the other hand I didn’t want to be a bore and outstay my welcome. So, it was a it of a juggling act!

Glasgow is a place I knew as a child. My father was a Glaswegian and I stayed many times at my Grandma’s who lived in Clarkston. I have many happy memories of being there especially boating and playing at Rouken Glen Park. I also remember standing in awe at the big ships being built on the Clyde. Glasgow was the biggest city I had ever been to and the town centre seemed to glitter and was so glamorous with the lights, the crowds and the posh arcades and tea rooms.

This may sound strange to many people who know Glasgow and I was aware of the poverty in some areas. You couldn’t avoid it. On the train into Glasgow Central there was a giant slum that straddled the railway line. Washing hung out to dry out of the windows whilst billows of smoke from the steam engine engulfed it. They may never have had clean clothes but at least they tried! Getting off the train I would see the giant sign advertising Johnny Walker whisky. I can see it in my mind now. Childhood is a very impressionable time. It was the first thing I looked for in my recent visit but sadly it is no longer there. My father took me to the freight yard at a time when trains were actually worth spotting, they were like majestic beasts spitting steam and smoke with their unbelievably complex machinery. Without doubt they were the Princes of Heavy Industry and the ships were the Kings.

Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross

So, I went to Glasgow hoping to have a nostalgic trip and revisit the places of my youth and also play my guitar at some of the open mics. The truth is I hardly recognised any of it. It’s been so long and some of it has changed and I also realised that there was much of it that I didn’t know at all. I’m not sure if I ever went to the Kelvingrove Museum but if I did there’s nothing that sticks in my mind. On this trip I went twice. Salvador Dali’s famous painting is much smaller than I thought it would be (unlike Monet’s garden pictures in New York which are much bigger than I thought they’d be). It’s also the first time I’ve seen the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh which is amazing. One of the highlights of my trip was having a guided tour of the Glasgow School of Art designed by Mackintosh. I was also incredibly impressed by the tapestries created by his wife Margaret Macdonald that influenced the artist Gustav Klimt. Amazing stuff!

Tapestry by Margaret Macdonald

In many ways Glasgow is similar to New York. The people are very friendly once they have decided you’re alright. And the buildings are similar. Glasgow is like New York before the skyscrapers were built. You can see the similarities in Brooklyn which is probably how Manhattan was a hundred years ago. There is the same interest in music and the creative arts and the same level of interest and support for fellow musicians and artists. The open mic at  Bloc Bar on Sunday nights is one of the best ones I’ve been to along with Penny’s Open Mic in New York. I felt very welcome in both places. Don’t get me wrong, Berliners are friendly as well but there are less places to perform and jam in. I think the creative areas of activity are different, but maybe that is just to do with the limited time I spent there. Perhaps I just missed it all! It also helps being able to speak the same language although many Berliners spoke good English. I did go to an open mic in Berlin at the Artliner Cafe which was pretty good. An amazing number of British and American ex-pats were there. Berlin is a lot cheaper than the UK and they obviously thought it was a good place to be. I did quite a few songs there.

As I said I wrote nothing in Glasgow but I wrote a journal in Berlin that I will show here. Some words of explanation. About two years ago I suffered a groin strain that has affected my walking. It’s quite annoying not being able to walk like I used to and I certainly overdid it in Berlin walking about twelve miles on the first day. That night I thought I’d never walk again! What I found though was that it gradually improved each day. In my journal I got very depressed about it but now I’m coping with it much better. Just make sure I take plenty of rests. It was annnoying to realise that I’ve finally got the time to do what I want but not the ability to do it. Life’s a bitch then you die! Sorry to sound like an old git but unfortunately that’s what I am! You have to deal with what you’ve got and make the most of it.

Here’s my journal entry:

24/02/12

Well, here I am in Berlin and feeling a bit on the knackered side. Instead of my thoughts flowing I think mainly about how my legs hurt. Not that it has been a bad experience. I’m glad I came. Good practice for my New York trip which will be longer. I know I should have taken a taxi to my hotel. Decided on public transport, got totally lost and eventually it took me two hours to find the hotel. Nightmare!

Berlin is a truly fascinating place but enormous! Fortunately, it’s easy to get around on the transport system which took me about a day to get to grips with.

Berlin is not what I expected although I don’t know what that was. Am staying in the East side which is fairly grim but not too bad. Hotel room is clean but dull. TV churns out German programs accompanied by an insanely loud buzzing noise. Won’t be watching that! No reception desk so I feel a bit alienated. Only bars are in kebab shops of which there are lots. Bottle of Berliner Beer in the machine downstairs costs one euro. Cheaper than water!

Love the trams passing by my window, they are only in the old East Berlin. The transport system is a fascinating mix of buses, trains and trams. You can use the same ticket on all of them! Very good!

Fascinated by the “dachas”, small sheds and houses that look like allotments but no one seems to grow anything on them. They’re basically summer houses to have barbecues etc. Quite quaint really. When I first arrived I thought they were houses that people lived in. They are obviously very important to their owners.

Not done as much writing as I wanted to do but at least I’ve started now. Found it very tiring, will need to work on this. Guess I’m feeling my age. How annoying, to have the freedom to do what I want but not the stamina.

It’s plain that Berlin is still greatly affected by the war and the Cold War. There are some moving exhibitions about the Wall and the Nazi era. Went to an interesting Dali exhibition that featured mainly prints. Am always amazed at the sheer quantity of Dali’s work. My attitude to him has changed greatly over the years. From viewing him as a clown and self-publicist (which he was) to an artist of great variety and innovation. Will visit another gallery tomorrow.

Was disappointed by the Spandau Zitadel although the museum was nice. Spandau itself is more like the Germany I know. Clean and nice old buildings unlike the baroque overkill of old Berlin (what’s left of it!). Checkpoint Charley is a tourist trap. It’s strange how the photos in the exhibition don’t seem to fit into the present scenario. Gave up in the end! The “Topography of Terrors” was excellent but too much to take in in one visit. Will visit a gallery tomorrow, not sure which one yet.

Had problems finding open mics but I think I should find one tomorrow. The best one I think is on Tuesday but I wasn’t here then.

26/2/12

Well, final day. Need to work out what to do with my suitcase tomorrow. Will ask bar owner if I can leave it there.

Had a nice time last night at the “Red Rooster”. Said it was a jazz/blues club but when I got there the band played death metal. Had a trumpet in it though! It was a really friendly place. They made feel welcome even though I looked totally out of place and the band were very good although not what I was really expecting!

Night time in Berlin is weird. Everybody seems to be young and carrying round bottles of beer (which is very cheap). No sign of trouble though. There is a slightly manic air of freedom. Similar to England but with a different edge to it and you don’t get gangs of screaming women which has got to be an improvement!

Graffiti everywhere but no attempt to clean it up even on houses. I think it goes back to the Wall when the West side was decorated but the East side wasn’t. Rather than being seen as antisocial it is seen  as positive and life affirming. A sign of freedom!

Looking forward to going home. Language is a problem. America should be better. At least I’ll be able to communicate to people more. Still, it’s been an interesting experience. Wish my legs didn’t ache so much. Very off putting.

And that’s it! On the last day I put my case in left luggage at the airport then went to the English cinema at the Sony Centre and watched the film “The Artist”. Very good, and a brilliant cinema. Would recommend it. They just show English language films without subtitles. Don’t know why really but the seats and sound system are amazing!

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