A city set on a hill

Berlin bookended my formative years.  I first visited at the age of seven, though I have little memory of the long, hot trek through the flatlands of East Germany in my parents’ camper van.

800px-Berlin_schoeneberg_belziger_26.10.2012_11-53-22_ShiftNI returned seven years later, in 1982, with one year of schoolboy German and a deep fascination for the city and what it represented. I had read about the Berlin Airlift and the building of the Wall. I had stared at photos of Checkpoint Charlie. I had sat in the school library listening to a faded recording of JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech from 19 years earlier; I stayed with a family friend just yards from the Rathaus Schöneberg where that speech was given, within earshot of the Freedom Bell as it rang every day at noon.

Berlin then seemed a self-conscious place, under scrutiny from West and East alike, almost brazen in showcasing western freedom in the heart of the grey, barren German Democratic Republic. A western S-Bahn line, forced by the arbitrary geography of the Wall to run through one East Berlin station, offered me a glimpse of the sinister bleakness of life on the other side – all weeds, discoloured concrete and heavily-built Grepos -before restoring me to the carefree relaxation of the free world.

Reading Christopher Isherwood a few years later, I encountered the Berlin of the 1930s, a place of nightclubs and high living that nevertheless knew it was balancing on a razor’s edge. It rang true, that image of a hollow, glittering society living like Gatsby’s New York on the lip of a deep pit. I had to wonder whether modern-day Berlin was just as precarious.

Then on my next visit, at the end of 1989, I found myself in the middle of history being made. I’d booked my ticket about three weeks before the border had opened, with no idea that I would come home with my own souvenir pieces of the Berlin Wall (not to mention the grazed knuckles that came from hacking them out). A euphoric place it was then, vindicated in its stand against the oppressor, celebrating not just its own freedom but the freedom of everything around it.

It was easy to think, in those intoxicating years of the early 90s, that the razor’s edge was an exaggeration, the fall of the Iron Curtain inevitable, the cold war just a bad dream. Easy but naive.

51haU9bIGAL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX342_SY445_CR,0,0,342,445_SH20_OU02_Earlier this year I read Anna Funder’s book, Stasiland. I had just read her novel All That I Am, which showed the darker side of 1930s Berlin and the human and emotional cost of resistance against the Nazis, a poignant, haunting counterpoint to Isherwood’s perspective.

For Stasiland Funder, an Australian journalist, visited Germany in 1996 to discover the real story, the human story of the German Democratic Republic. In understated but luminous prose she tells of her encounters with those who lived under the communist regime – both its victims and its agents. A quarter of a way into the book I read this, about her visit to Stasi headquarters:

A smaller room leads off from this one. At first I think it’s going to be more revolutionary kitsch, but here there are just books and medals under glass. In fact, mostly there seem to be papers. But when I read them, I see why they deserve a room of their own. They are the 1985 plans of the Stasi, together with the army, for the invasion of West Berlin.

The plans are methodical. They include the division of the ‘new territory’ into Stasi branch offices, and figures for exactly how many Stasi men should be assigned to each. And there’s a medal, cast in bronze, silver and gold by order of Honecker, to be awarded, after successful invasion, for ‘Courage in the Face of the Western Enemy’. No-one in the west had imagined the extent of the Stasi’s ambitions.

No, we hadn’t. Where had I been in 1985? I’d visited West Germany every year throughout my teens. Eighteen months earlier I’d visited the East/West German border, a barren landscape marked by barbed wire, watchtowers and a lifeless silence, but ultimately forgettable. In the summer of ’85 I’d stayed with friends near Düsseldorf – two weeks of lying in the garden under the sun, sightseeing, and as usual falling briefly but hopelessly for a girl who wasn’t that interested. There wasn’t a hint of the meticulous plans being laid in an airless office in East Berlin to turn the world upside down..

I have never made it back to Berlin, nor to Germany since the weekend before East and West were formally reunified in October 1990. I have not, as my daughter has, visited the memorials to a wall that is now just a line in the pavement. Berlin is somewhere near at the top of my bucket list. One day, maybe, I’ll go back as a first-timer to this place I’ve never visited.

I hope, when I get there, that Berlin isn’t just another city.


(This just in. No… not just another city.)

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Leavers’ Evensong

Yesterday I watched my daughter
stand where I once stood
stand before God in His House
to receive His blessing
before walking out into the world
over which she has been given dominion

Two by two they walked out
three and fifty young women, poised and silent and sure
walked with fearsome purpose through the cool stillness
of the cathedral’s solemn air

around the running water of its font,
which flows (O Pison Gihon Hiddekel Euphrates) to north south east west
to replenish the earth–
walked out through the great west doors, through which none but the great may pass
three and fifty conquerors stepping into their inheritance

They have worked for this–
They have earned this–
They accept it. It is their due.

Go forth and shine.

Written on 6th July 2013 and published on A-level results day, with love and admiration for my darling daughter and her fellow leavers.

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“…that thing indoors each one dwells”

You had to be there, they said. And I was.

Last Sunday night I was at the Royal Festival Hall, listening to forty women–poets and performers–reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. It is not an experience I will forget in a hurry: intense, searing, overwhelming, cathartic, at times scandalously intimate, it offered a view of Ariel and its author that went far beyond any one reading or analysis.

Introducing the performance, Plath’s daughter Frieda Hughes pointed out that in the years since her death, Plath has been analysed, dissected, re-interpreted, fictionalised, re-invented in any number of ways. (I paraphrase. I didn’t take notes.) This, said Hughes–this reading of the restored edition of Ariel (as distinct from the 1965 edition edited by Ted Hughes)–is the closest we can come to what Plath herself wanted to say.

It is not necessarily what we might expect to hear. The restored edition is a very different collection to the one I know. How interesting that in this ordering, despite the darkness and despair of the poems, the sequence opens with birth, with “Love set you going like a fat gold watch” (‘Morning Song’), and ends with a faint message of hope: “What will they taste of, the Christmas roses? The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” (‘Wintering’).

Listening on Sunday to these forty voices of Plath, though, I found myself wondering just what it is about poetry that speaks to us so powerfully and personally. At the risk of suggesting I know the answer, I’d like to put forward three ideas: introspection, ambiguity and individuality.

Continue reading

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Grace, and what it does

what-so-amazingWhat’s So Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are so many books out there that purport to teach us how to live. Every one starts from some premise, some basic assumption or other: the self-help books that insist it’s all a matter of attitude and determination; the psychological treatises; and perhaps more in America than Britain, the unashamedly biblical.

Here are two of the latter that actually do what they say on the tin. What’s So Amazing About Grace? is Philip Yancey’s 1997 classic, examining grace as “the last best word” – the one great theological word that has not been distorted and devalued over the generations. Continue reading

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Never assume you know why…

Last Sunday night my daughters were singing in a performance of Fauré’s Requiem. Quite right too. Nothing unusual or alarming in that.

Except that the concert blew my mind.

Fair enough. The Fauré Requiem is a moving piece. But the piece still echoing in my head at 48 hours’ remove is the piece that opened the programme: Bach’s Partita no. 2 for solo violin, superbly executed by Adrian Adlam, its movements interspersed with a series of chorales performed from the back of the auditorium by a semi-chorus. The final movement, the chaconne, saw four of the semi-chorus weaving the chorales into the violin part, to extraordinary effect.

This interpretation of the Bach is based on the work of musical cryptologist Professor Helga Thoene. There is a recording available by the Hilliard Ensemble, and a review which discusses Prof. Thoene’s theories, not all of which are entirely convincing.

Nevertheless, the interpretation turns the Partita, which Bach wrote shortly after his first wife’s death, from a sublime piece of absolute music into a moving reflection on loss, grief and hope.

The programme note was quite clear: there’s no evidence that Bach intended it to be performed this way, but it offers an intriguing insight into how he might have heard it in its own mind.

I will certainly never hear the piece in the same way again.

Here’s the thing, though. Continue reading

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Lives less ordinary

When God Was a RabbitWhen God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a while you read a book that passes straight into your bloodstream, and you are hardly aware of how it happened.

When God was a Rabbit describes itself as the story of a brother and sister, “about childhood and growing up, friendships and families, triumph and tragedy and everything in between…about love in all its forms”. That is a perfectly fair description as far as it goes. What it doesn’t say is anything of the quiet and kindly magic with which Sarah Winman defines her characters.

Elly, her brother Joe and her childhood friend Jenny Penny are all outsiders – not the angry and embittered kind, though, but the kind who know they are in some small way different, unique, set apart. Continue reading

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The next ten words

Some time ago I posted an article called Precision Tools. It covered quite a complex sequence of ideas that had been taking shape in my thought for a few months. And yes, it’s longer than the average blog post, at just under 2,500 words.

One reader commented that he thought there was material in there for two or three posts. Perhaps it should be broken up into parts, he suggested, to allow each idea to be discussed properly. 

We seem to have accepted that blog posts shouldn’t go much beyond 800 words, and that that they shouldn’t cover more than one main idea. Why? Do we not risk losing our ability to construct (or, as readers, to follow) a complex argument? Is this perhaps a symptom of a society that fails to nurture polymathy?

My correspondent told me that on another site, one devoted to SME business people, he’d been told that his posts were too complex. He’d been advised to run them through some special software to determine the reading age at which they were targeted, and to reduce that age to 15/16.

As a litmus test of how society is operating, I find that rather scary. Continue reading

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