Berlin (the start thereof)

As a big city, Berlin feels odd: long vistas, plenty of space, and little of the rush and bustle that characterizes Paris, say, or London, or Tokyo. Unter Den Linden seems rather boring, featureless and staid in comparison to Ginza or the Champs Élysées. Yet the city’s true dimension seems to be its equally expansive sense of time; throughout my stay I had the impression that it didn’t much matter whether it was night or day, as there was always something to be doing at any hour. Not the same something: you can’t access the city centre’s necklace of museums in the middle of the night, and it might be only slightly less problematic to find a techno club in full swing at lunchtime. But you can quite happily go to sleep at any hour in the knowledge that when you awake, you won’t find yourself regretting that you have missed something and now have to sit twiddling your thumbs; at the least you can always go out and get a kebab (not a gyros, as one Turkish proprietor emphatically corrected me) and see where you go from there. What adds to this impression is that it seems pretty much mandatory, particularly around Ostbahnhof (the cheap and grungy area where I was staying), and especially after dark, to be carrying an open beer bottle in one hand, although this is also apparently quite normal in broad daylight in the more upmarket districts, even among mature couples.

My original plan was to go to the Museum Insel, the island in the River Spree where most of the city’s cultural treasures are housed in a series of big galleries. But the queues were so long that I decided I’d find something else instead. It didn’t take long; I stepped inside the almost adjacent Museum of German History on the off-chance and got swallowed up for eight hours, watching Germany gradually assemble itself from its component fragments until in the 19th century it coalesced into a self-conscious and massively dynamic whole, presided over by the fiercely protective, sword-wielding spirit of Germania, her long golden locks flowing all the way down her back:


before shattering and disintegrating in World War I through the vain pretensions of Wilhelm II, then reconstructing itself in grotesque and demonic form under Hitler to wreak terror and destruction across Europe, and collapsing in absolute ruin. And I only had time to get up to 1945!

In the late afternoon Julie and Liz and I went out in the Tiergarten and had a drink in a bustling beer garden. At sunset we moved to the English Garden, where we watched a local rock group, wittily (after the Berlin-based U2 album) named Attention Baby, in fine form, playing loud and tight and enjoying themselves hugely. The singer and guitarist, a skinny 20-something bursting with joyous energy, with fine pipes and a walloping set of lungs on her, wore her hair coiled up on the back of her head; then she took her grip out and let her long golden locks flow all the way down her back, a Germania for the 21st century belting her heart out in a fluent jumble of Deutsch and English.


Liz observed that the audience was mostly middle-aged; I had a fleeting moment of panic that rock music this impressive is now merely a form of trad, like the clarinet-driven jazz listened to by the jolly old farts of my youth. Then I wondered whether it wasn’t just that it was too early in the evening for the young ‘uns, and if Attention Baby had been playing at 1.30 in the morning, whether it wouldn’t have been all students watching them?

I don’t know; but at 1.30 in the morning I went and looked at the queue for Berghain, the Mecca of world techno, just around the corner from my hotel and recommended to me by Stephen as an experience I could tell my grandchildren about – if I could get in, that is. Apparently, in what sounds to me like a surreally comic parody of the horrific procedure enacted seven decades ago on the ramp at Birkenau, an Aryan youth performs a selection on those lining up in front of him, and with a wave of his hand condemns many if not most of them to an evening of alternative entertainment, as the rejected plead frantically for their right to entry. Down at the other end of the line, the grim facade of the club (a converted Comunist-era power station) was visible several hundred metres away, while a continual parade of taxis disgorged their hopeful passengers – most of them less than half my age – to add to the motionless tail of the snake. I stood watching this for about 30 seconds, with the thought gradually crystallizing out of the late night fog enveloping my brain: I am not going to spend the rest of the night standing in this line, not even for the best club in the world! Then I turned on my heel and went to bed.

The other night I walked up Unter den Linden towards the approaching Brandenburg Gate, formerly the marker between the Soviet and western halves of Berlin, and then right through it, as though bursting through an invisible wall. I turned left to head for Potsdamer Platz, looking back for a final glance over my shoulder, and that was when I saw it, unexpectedly but unmistakably: the Reichstag. It was the first time I had set eyes on it, yet of course I had seen it a thousand times in so many photographs, and most of all in the two unforgettable images, seared in European consciousness, that bookended twelve years of horror and destruction: the Reichstag fire of 1933:


and the Soviet flag raised over the ruins of Berlin in May 1945:


Overcome, I stood back against the railings and wept, for Europe: for the dead, and the maimed, and the bereaved, and the displaced, and for all the barbarism, and all that was destroyed. And for myself too, for without that horrendous, epic conflagration, I would not be here: my parents, from different walks of life and different ends of England, met while in service, in Malta in 1945. And I wept to see that newer flag flying there too, the circle of gold stars on the blue ground: for all that has been mended and made possible by that peace (the cynics might say: especially for Germany), so that Germania now wields nothing scarier than a Gibson Flying Vee, and selections condemn their victims to no fate worse than uncooldom.

Berlin is far from finished: I need a week – if not a lifetime. Either of those will have to wait.

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