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Say Trees

July 29, 2010

To Berlin for the Monkey’s birthday weekend. We’d been discussing a trip there for, it turns out, years before actually managing it. Having visualised it as a winter trip — all long black coats, steely skies, pleasantly chill winds — we instead went at the height of the June heatwave. Black coats unneccessary.

The last time I went to Berlin was on a school trip in 1994, a fortnight that took in two other German cities, a sidestep to the (then) Czech Republic and, most memorably, some intense episodes with the hapless teacher whose coralling of forty excitable 16-year-olds around central Europe coincided with (or perhaps induced) the menopause, which seems to have obscured many of my memories of the trip otherwise. This time round, no such hormonal problems, and we wandered round the essentially unfamiliar city for a weekend on a sort of extended reconnaissance mission.

Inevitably, we gravitated towards monuments and memorials. Daniel Liebeskind’s monolithic extension to the Jewish Museum is a startling piece of architecture, though the contents of the museum are so numerous as to ensure that museum-fatigue — always a guilt-inducing feeling, even more so in this context — sets in as one wanders through the artefacts and trappings of six centuries of persecution and denunciation. The pieces associated with the Holocaust, contained in the Liebeskind bunker, are of course the most moving, though the most powerful experience is to be had entering the Holocaust Tower, a parallelogram three storeys high, light admitted through a sliced-open top corner. You enter into a hush; the heavy door closes behind you; even the squeak of shoes on the concrete floor feels like an imposition. The feeling is not one of incarceration exactly, although the concrete surface and that blank door strongly hint at internment; somehow the triangle of daylight, so high and so small, helps to balance the tension you feel on entering the chamber.

Similar feelings are engendered by Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a collection of monolithic concrete cuboids set in an acres-wide plot of undulating ground. As one wanders through the grid, the shapes growing taller as the ground slopes downward, these seem at once to be buildings, cells, tombstones. Minute variations in the angles at which the monoliths are set disturb the apparent orderliness of the grid, and — these differences aside — when one stands near the centre of this blank mausoleum, to look in any direction is to see only near-identical channels between these unyielding, unending concrete blocks. I found it an appalling feeling, powerful in the extreme.

One last memorial:  across the road in the Tiergarten is a squat concrete block resembling a truncated version of the monoliths in Eisenman’s mausoleum. This is the memorial to gay victims of the Holocaust, set into which is a window through which the viewer sees a slowed, looped video of a kissing couple. You peer through the glass — it’s small enough that only one person at a time can look — to see one of young men break the kiss and lean, in dreamy slow motion, to murmur something in his lover’s ear, at which point, moved to tears, I had to turn away.

Something of a war memorial of a very different sort is the Boros Collection, on Reinhardtstraße in the Mitte area. A former World War II-era bunker — a ‘state of the art bomb-shelter’, as it was described by our guide round the collection — in the 1990s this vast windowless concrete cube five storeys high became a nightclub, which sounds every bit as merrily debauched as all Berlin nightclubs of the 90s sound to the uninitiated, and is now a home for artworks by Olafur Eliasson, Sarah Lucas, and many others I (shamefully) hadn’t heard of. The art is of variable quality, the best examples being those pieces which utilise or compromise their environment (five vast black blocks pushed through one of the interior walls; a small room containing an office water-dispenser and an instruction that visitors should feel free to drop spent plastic cups on the floor), but the space itself is marvellous. This must’ve been a horrific place to be during the war — such wartime details as air-vents which slam shut if there is a blast outside the building still remain — and in some ways equally horrible to go clubbing in; we were told that as the night wore on, the club’s top floors would grow so airless that smokers would find their lighters unable to catch for lack of oxygen.

No such nightclub experiences for us, though we hung out at a couple of bars in Kreuzberg on Saturday night and joined in a street party which was being thrown for no readily discernible reason, but at which the atmosphere was jovial and friendly. Further cultural embroilment came when I gave in and returned to Soho House, where we were staying, to watch the last ten minutes of England’s participation in the World Cup, which I’d successfully managed to avoid completely (bar overhearing shouts from bars of jubilation/dismay as appropriate) up until then. Never particularly interested in the game, I was however  enthralled to see three goals in scarcely more minutes, and in vague way felt I understood after all why it might be popular. The Monkey, who is greatly interested in football for the duration of England’s participation in the World Cup and at no other time, was despondent, but soon cheered up over Wiener schnitzel at the lovely (if not especially German-feeling) Alpenstück restaurant.The previous night we had dined in splendid style at Dos Palillos at the Camper Hotel (yes, the shoe people now have a hotel and restaurant), which serves Asian food in tiny bejewelled tapas style. A dish of white asparagus, toasted clumps of sesame seed and an asparagus foam was a vegetarian highlight, while a monkfish-liver and seaweed dish intriguing but texturally problematic, and the questionably-named ‘Japo Burger’ of wagyu beef couldn’t fail to win us over. The space is rather clinical — the only major decoration is a vast gold curtain — and the view of the hotel lobby stocked with rentable bicycles isn’t especially romantic, but the very good Austrian and German wines we were served soon took the cool edge off the environment.

Holiday reading: It’s probably a very bad idea to admit this, but I’m going through something of a D.H. Lawrence phase at the moment (people have been polite enough not to recoil yet, but I fear the popular perception of ol’ David Herbert is that he was a bit of a crank). Rather than embark on a novel, I opted to read John Worthen’s biography D.H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider (Penguin), which spared no details about Lawrence’s tempestuous relationship wih Frieda (she gave as good as she got, about which their hapless houseguests were left in no doubt, but I think he still tends to be labelled a misogynist which, given the sexuality-philosophy most directly laid out in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, seems pretty unfair). Worthen’s biography is likeable — as is his depiction of Lawrence — and benefits from that mixed blessing for the biographer, his subject’s early death, thus sparing all concerned any extended phases of waning powers, declining health, etc (in contrast, I recently read Wendy Moffat’s E.M. Forster: A New Life, which works hard but can’t disguise the fact that at its halfway point Forster has published all he’s going in his lifetime and the latter half of the book is all downhill). I was most taken by the accounts of Lawrence’s constant shifting of location — according to Geoff Dyer’s non-biography Out of Sheer Rage (a book about Dyer’s inability to write a book about Lawrence, and one of the funniest and most insightful books I’ve read in years) he would write rather plaintively to friends and acquaintances, asking them where was the best place to live. I hadn’t appreciated that he and Frieda were more-or-less destitute for most of their lives, and thus the romance of moving to Australia on a whim was offset by the realisation that Sydney in the 1920s was too expensive for them and they’d have to move to a shack forty kilometres down the coast. I lay in a park in Prenzlauerberg in the sun, reading about the Lawrences’ paradoxically romantic piecemeal, hand-to-mouth lifestyle, while every so often, from the bars and pubs bordering the parklands, England and Germany supporters would periodically erupt as the big game unravelled itself. It’s not a bad life.

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