Skip to content

Three Days In Berlin

Monday 24th October. It's the last of our autumn half-term city breaks; for there will be no more half-terms. Fantastic apartment, practically next door to the Friedrich Palast, where a lady who wasn't born that way wears her eyes on her arm and sports a superb Jean Paul Gaultier outfit, with feathers to burn; and unfortunately I am poorly. Got some bug. We won't be going clubbing, or visiting that fabulous rooftop bar Gabriel raves about. Cracking headache, aches and pains, thick head, stiff neck feeling sick, but I'll get by. First time we've had our passport check automated at St Pancras, I suppose the full body-scan won't be far behind. . . but still a nice atmosphere down there at the Intercontinental Bar. I have read The Green Hat (Michael Arlen), mysteriously placed in "The Second Inquisition", as glamorous naughty book, but this has always puzzled me, as the novel is actually really, really miserable, unless you think having multiple septic abortions is glamorous. One of that mini-genre I call "Syphilis trash romance" (better done by Ethel M.Dell in The Keeper of the Door). Nope, I'm no wiser. Next holiday homework,the notorious Darkover Landfall. (a Marion Zimmer Bradley initiation for me). Tomorrow is Gabriel's first recital in India. Hope it goes well (it did).

Tuesday October 25th. Museum Island. What a nifty idea, a corral of museums! We visited the Neues Museum, which is all about Egypt, and the star of the show is the bust of Nefertiti, she is amazing. You cannot photograph her, but you can touch her, as there is a replica, black stone, for blind people and anyone else with any sense. Akhenaten's bust, though less spectacular, is also pretty good. The Egyptian everyday stuff in the basement is very, very good, much more intelligently & respectfully annotated than in the BM. I would show you my photo of Imhotep (the real Imhotep, on whom The Mummy himself is based, in the two greatest adventure fantasy movies in the world), but the lights were low, and my hands were understandably shaky. They have what's left of the loot from Schleimann's Troy hoard (the Russians made off with the gold), and a whole EU budget's worth of cumbersome bronze-axe currency. But the other best thing, next to Nefertiti, in the Neues Museum has to be the Berlin Gold Hat, up on the top floor, beside the lovely video-diorama called The Time Machine. You've got to see this, it's bizarre. It's an actual hat ("made for the male skull" the info firmly tells you), a wildly tall and pointy wizard's hat, made of beaten gold, covered in arcane symbols, and dating the museum believes, from about 1000BC. Bought from an antiques dealer in 1996. It's been deciphered as a record and a demonstration of vital calendar information, converting from the Lunar calendar to the Solar calendar. (& if you don't get what that implies, dear reader, I'm guessing you're not female?). Hm. Maybe I should have smashed the case, or scrawled it with red paint GIVE US BACK OUR ELEVEN DAYS! But I just gaped. One thing I do not expect in an ancient history museum is a proper surprise. Wow. J K Rowling missed a trick!

Wednesday 26th October. Chill grey air outside our rooftop apartment: Berlin in the fog, thick fog in my head, but never say die. Off we go to Checkpoint Charlie, a puzzling tourist stop for me as I was convinced that we were staying in West Berlin, and would now be crossing over into the East. (Based on the fact that our part of town was all richly-built and fancy looking, whereas after Checkpoint Charlie it was dour housing blocks all the way; plus a misunderstanding of the orientation of the "East Side Gallery" beside the Spree, I retained this impression even as the day progressed). But anyway, just a short stroll down the Friedrichstrasse with its big shiny shop fronts, we moved in a slow procession with others, along the hoardings that tell the story, 1945-1989, (around the cleared ground that has become a sort of hippie camp). It was absorbing. Although I don't remember ever being afraid, I do remember some of this. I definitely remember Peter Fechter. I was ten: it was, I suppose a pitiful, horrible incident on a scale small enough for me. I don't remember the flood of "East Germans" through the last gap, but here it is, the story that puts Angela Merkel's response to the refugee crisis in context. We must let them in. Yes.

The sparrows chirped, the people moved quietly, reading their history lesson carefully. All the while I was growing up, and even to the turn of the 21st century, I never really believed that all this would be superseded, that WWII and its long Cold War dying would one day no longer be the worst of times; that I would live to see Europe, see the whole world engulfed in another descent into horrors. But here we are.

Anyway, we had another surprisingly short walk down the Freidrichstrasse, to the turn off for the Jewish Museum. Huge banners advertising an exhibition called The Golem, took us aback, we'd been prepared for an intense and grim immersion, not a monster fable, but all became clear indoors, and the Libeskind Building part was exactly as described by Gabriel. Stark. Gripping. Really good, tragic art in the form of a tall hangar of a building holding a concentrated small maze of different experiences. In the Holocaust Tower (the endpoint of the maze), we were invited by Libeskind to think of the genocide; or of genocides; or to find our own meaning for this darkness. So of course I thought of the oblivion that is likely (on current figures) to swallow me, years before I die. I'm very, very much more terrified of that than I am of death itself, because death at least is a door out, whatever lies beyond. An escape.

The towers of the Garden of Exile were also pretty good. Very unsettling.

After this, the Jewish History museum part was thorough, informative and a little bit tame, but we didn't skimp. Much.

I kept thinking, this could happen to me. No, not for being a "bolshy feminist", or any of my other tiny squeaks of dissent (thanks for the thought) but for something I didn't even know I was doing,; let alone doing wrong. For having four Irish grandparents, for having been baptised a Catholic. And they would start closing in, but I would put off running for my life, because I wouldn't be able to believe it was happening, and then suddenly it would be too late . . . I didn't want to have lunch in the cafeteria, I couldn't sit down and happily munch a sandwich after that lot, and so on we went, hungry, and ate risotto in a pop-up cafe near the river.

The East Side Gallery was great, both sides. Nice wide open space.

That same evening, in spooky deep darkness, we took a taxi across town to the piano salon where Alex works and where Gabriel had booked us tickets for a warehouse recital, for two pianos. Grand piano carcases like beached whales lining the walls of this great cavern, strange medley of art and fantasy works among them and up to the rafters, and everyone kept their coats on, you'd better believe it. Olha Chipak and Olesky Kushnir, playing Stravinsky, and Bizet, and Schubert and a bit of Swan Lake, and a four-hander version of Die Erl King that was just brilliant.

Thursday 27th October. The mist was thicker, the temperature lower, and we did a lot of walking around. Can't say I was too impressed by the "Empty Library" (You paid how much?) Decided against the official "Holocaust Memorial", put off by the idea that the anti-graffiti paint on the pillars provided by a subsidiary of IG Farben. Through the Brandenburg Gate and across the Tiergarten, which means zoo but we didn't get that far. The Alte Nationalgalerie in the Kulturforum is the place where the Germans definitely were not at the back of the queue. Wow, what a heap of loot! You like Sandro Botticelli? This is the place for you. Vermeer? They got Vermeers. The Rembrandts are a bit so-so; except for a couple of the self-portraits . . . Like that.The food, however, was awful. The hoodie crows (I loved the hoodie crows of Berlin & they were everywhere) crowded around the little trees outside the Reichstag, but I had nothing to pay them with, so they wouldn't let me take their photo.

& in the morning we caught the train home.

Funny thing, it comes back to me now that I was really quite worried about the reunification of the two Germanies, in 1990. There was a cartoon in one of the broadsheet newspapers of that time, showing a map of Europe with two Jack Boots standing upright, springing to attention: ready to resume their old business. Watch out! The Stasi are coming! But it didn't happen. On the contrary, and as of today, we have a middle-aged East German woman in post (much to her dismay) as the de facto, acting Leader of the Free World. It goes to show you never can tell. A thought which is not supposed to make you feel cosy and better. Feel as bad as you like. You won't be wrong & you might achieve something that way.

P.S Darkover Landfall did not disappoint; so to speak. Highly reminiscent of a certain kind of Seventies Commune, the kind from which you should run away very, very quickly. And, just by the way, what an idea! We're stranded on an unknown planet, haven't a clue what it's going to throw at us, haven't yet built shelters or got crops in the ground, quickly lets all the women get pregnant! And lets declare "them" useless for any other purpose! Cruelty breeds cruelty, I have a strong suspicion she was abused before she was an abuser . . . but, anyway, less said the better and that's another unknown become a known.

Reflections on a New World Order

I've been thinking about what to do about the new world we're facing. No, not which petitions should I sign, where should I donate; I mean internally. There's a lifestyle piece on this very topic on the BBC News site today. Cheer up, dears is the message. Shocked by the EU referendum vote? Disoriented by Donald Trump's victory? Daunted by the UK racist surge? Terrified a the way the world's powers ignore climate change? Concerned about the loss of 40% of the world's wildlife, upset about the ever spreading, ever more horrible fall-out from the rich world's Oil Wars? Distressed by all those bodies in the Med? Here's how to deal: just don't be silly! Your convictions, that you think are so important, are the whole problem! Accept that you don't know what's best, and everything will be fine.

For God's sake.

Never mind to all that? Let's get back to the rich are supposed to be rich, the poor are supposed to be betrayed, our rulers are supposed to be corrupt, and either insane or criminally stupid or both; and the earth is supposed to be despoiled: don't fret, "It's God's will!"? Nope, doesn't work for me. Sounds like the worst kind of mind-numbing anti-depressant. I plan to continue accepting responsibility, and believing in better, and what the hell, why not . . . There was nothing I could do but vote Remain in the referendum, even though I knew we'd lost (and had to endure the irritation of my friends and family, solid "Remainers", not so much activist, telling me to shut up with the doom and gloom). What would I have done in the USA? Tough call. I'd have voted for Clinton, I suppose, but without any conviction (as the editorial in last week's New Scientist suggested "Vote for Clinton, even if you have to hold your nose"). But voting for any "political party candidate" in our present circs is voting for the cherry, does nothing to change the cake. All I know for sure is that any social justice society, any Good State, cannot be the shape of a pyramid. It has to be a Bell Curve: the poor and the rich both have to be outliers or else . . .

The image that keeps coming to me is of a storm at sea: what's best to do, if you're caught out there, facing a scale of challenge you never expected? You batten down the hatches. Take off all the sail you can, while still retaining some control of the boat, and head for the open sea. Stay away from the shore. Don't try to seek shelter, you'll get bashed to bits. You have a better chance of surviving on the deep waters, far from land.

So weather it, as they say, and accept no false comfort. Face the thing out.

But enough of this frivolity. That's the cover of my Tor novella again, to celebrate the fact that I just turned in the copyediting, and and here is a link to the cover memo I sent them. The less an author has to do with the cover the better, in my humble experience, but one shows willing. Warning: this memo may contain spoilers.

& I think I'm overdue for a fiction round-up.
I will be brief (mostly)

Movies first.

Under the Shadow. What I tweeted. Wonderfully acted and directed. It's about Iran, it's about women and war; and djinn, the people of the wind. Why, why, why didn't she cut and run? Because you don't. Because it was her daughter's childhood culture and how could she abandon that? Because that's what low intensity war does to you, and anyway, a great horror movie is entitled to press a few buttons? It's deep, rich, it's a brilliant scary movie. You must see it. Babak Anvari, Narges Rashidi, and one amazing little girl, Avin Manshadi.

Lo and Behold Werner Herzog, and various IT people (also some anti-IT people, but they were deluded and didn't really count except as a romantic backwoodsy touch); and featuring Elon Musk in a special guest appearence, explaining why we have to get a colony started on Mars "in case anything happens to planet Earth". A quirky, patchy treatment of the history of the Internet. I enjoyed this when I saw it, later decided I was underwhelmed. Very strange moment when a still of Tim Berners-Lee suddenly turned up, and then nothing more . . . Wow, I thought. Has he died?. No, the creator of the World Wide Web just, sort of, apparently, got left out. The internet scientists were exclusively male, giggly and cheeky as toddlers, and never displayed a single solitary sign of being grown up; or in touch with reality. The only non-civilian woman among the interviewees did not turn up until chapter 7, I think it was: to explain how the internet could be killed. It was nice to see her; it was Lucianne Walkowicz (later returning in another cameo, to demolish Elon Musk's big idea), but a pattern emerged!

Nocturnal Animals High production values, very watchable and entertaining trashploitation. This is Pop Art. No, I'm serious. There was this one shot, outside the abortion clinic, when she's being cuddled by her lover, and there, right outside the car window, is her husband (who happened to be passing. . .) The father of the child she destroyed: rain and tears pouring down his face . . . that screamed for Lichtenstein. Where did the other daughter, I mean the real one come from? How did the corpses manage to be so delectably clean and tidy? Do all men who go far in the fashion industry really, really hate women? Is it an occupational hazard? Not a big advert for gun control nb. Nocturnal Animals has everything, ghastly poor people, the whimpering cissy who finds manhood, the tough guy with lung cancer, and bitches, bitches, bitches. If you were moved and impressed by this movie you're going to love the Trump presidency.

Books . . . Tourism

Books and Tourism round up will wait for another day or two, because I have to get back to the maze of twisty passages all different, and all equally enticing, that is the Joanna Russ project.

Written listening to Ashkenazy playing the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. I fell in love with this recording, and with the composer a few years ago, when Dimitri Shostakovich was on Gabriel's syllabus at Trinity. It was 1950, he was a desperate man, living under one of the darkest shadows in modern history; and he wrote this.