Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Berlin Part 2

A modest amount of sleep plus sworn promises to never drink that much ever again, no no not ever, and we get to see our neighbourhood in snowy daylight, and it‘s gorgeous. Prenzlauer Berg is old East Berlin. Kastanienalle and Zionskirchstrasse are the buzziest bits and Katie’s ingenuity has landed us right in the middle (for €25 a night each, danke kerching). Oderbergerstrasse is like a Parisian avenue with a park at one end where you can sit on a swing that takes you backwards and forwards across the Wall with childlike irreverence.

Today there is a flea market which is really an excuse to indulge in currywurst and gluhwein rather than splash out on kids clothes and old chairs and Michael Jackson picture discs, all of which are covered with snow. It’s a great opportunity to dog spot too, the dogs in Berlin are beautiful, the happiest and healthiest of beasts, especially in comparison to the rats on sticks in vogue in New York or Paris.

I decided ahead of time I wasn’t ready for the Libeskind Jewish Museum but we go to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which is surely the most photographed thing on Facebook. It is interactive in the good old-fashioned sense you have to get in and walk around it. It’s moving in unexpected ways. When we were there the tops of the pillars were covered with snow, the sides were dusted on one side with flakes reflecting the direction of the wind and many had slim fingers of ice running down the sides, it was beautiful. I like to imagine teenagers sneaking in there at night and making frantic love between the pillars. It’s life.

The concrete was dark and wet and imposing and of course made me think of concentration camps and graves and gulags. I thought about people who perished from working outside in the temperatures we were walking around in. I thought about Primo Levi walking all the way back to Italy through empty villages after the liberation. There is no memorial big enough, but you have to try.

The gay and lesbian memorial in the park across the street is a defiant cube cast in the same lifeless concrete but in its heart runs a perpetual film of two timeless-looking men kissing tenderly. The writing on the plaque is actually more touching than the monument. I think about Uganda. I think about Larry Kramer saying ‘Homosexuality is hated everywhere in the world’ and I feel in my bones he’s right. There is no memorial big enough, but you have to try.

The Reichstag, closed for some political thing of course, all very nice but I didn’t really feel anything, or much care. I would liked to have seen it wrapped in plastic. There’s a Starbucks at Brandenburg Gate where the tours commence. I’m sure Berlin didn’t come all this way for so very little. There’s not much head-space there to mourn the death of a possible Socialist Europe, you might as well print up Stasi appreciation T shirts, but I do feel sad that Socialism is the dirty word it now is when it had so little to do with whatever that system was which buffered the Soviets from the rest of us.

Power nap then to Zionskircheplaz in search of a vegetarian Russian restaurant which is closed. It is fortuitous. We go to the next restaurant we see to get out of the cold and snow and the lovely proprietor explains to us thusly: there is a golden pig on the bar into which you place €2 to hire a wine glass. At the end of the bar are five open bottles of red wine which you taste and choose as you please. The deal is you order what you like from a menu of four courses and at the end of your meal you pay as much as you feel it was worth by putting your cash into a jar. Simple. Civilised. Difficult too.

A kind waitress translates the menu into English (cream of celery and gorgonzola soup, walnut and cheese ravioli, divine) before Katie and I embark on one of those Olympic conversations we specialise in that encompasses art, fashion, food, fucking, mortality, politics, children, God, hairy chests, you name it. It feels, to paraphrase, as if the conversation is having us. It is one of the nicest nights of my life. How can we possibly go to bed? A neighbourhood bar keeps us in Cosmopolitans and Manhattans until the wee small hours and we trudge home in the snow. In lieu of a stereo we stay up singing James Taylor and Ivor Novello and Suzanne Vega and Ella Fitzgerald to each other in the kitchen.

I can’t remember getting to bed.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Berlin Part 1

What Berlin lacks in … actually I can’t finish that sentence because after four days of food, drink, tubes and trains, inspiring streets, inspired people, glorious snow, dancing, dogs, history and art, the only thing I’ve been left wanting is more.


Katie and I hit the city on Saturday night so necessarily begin the trip at the far end of hedonism. Criminally underdressed (in terms of warmth, not style) and approaching midnight we find ourselves trekking alongside one of the few remaining stretches of the old Wall in search of Berghain / Panorama Bar. The stretch is now known as the East Side Gallery and displays exciting outdoor contemporary art, only the most obvious of ways that old and new Berlin symbolically merge, and they frequently do.


Various street punters aren’t able to tell us the way to Berghain. They obviously aren’t cool enough, and neither are we. Eventually we give in and cab it before we die of exposure (it’s around minus 11 out). After a door search that stops just short of internal we’re permitted into the old power station that runs over two enormous floors. Following some good advice, we get stamped, stay for one then go elsewhere while the party kicks in.


Elsewhere translates into whiskey sours and all manner of cocktail goodies (and smoking indoors!) in Kreuzberg where we befriend a fabulous twenty year old barmaid who is off-duty but just hanging out. It seems to happen a lot in the friendly bars there. Bizarrely she’s spent some time in Iowa so her excellent English is peppered with endearing Americanisms (“I’m like, you’re kidding me, right?”).

Drinks, laughs, conversation then back to Berghain (it’s on the borders of KreuzBERG and FriedrichsHAIN) around 3 am where the main draws seem to be a party-hard, mixed-sexuality crowd, and tough but understated techno (for which the Berlin clubs are still best known). The huge windows are un-curtained at dawn so you can carry on partying into the next day in unforgiving daylight and discover at last if you’ve been making out with a man a woman or a hat stand. (We don’t quite make it that far). The atmosphere is amazing, hedonistic but not po-faced, drugs and decadence in abundance (allegedly), androgynous couples sprawled on old cinema seats, strange negotiations under red lights, divine abandon.


We leave about nine in the morning when everything but us is getting its second wind (translation: Katie is asleep). The curtains are still drawn. First item on my ‘Next trip to Berlin’ list: see it through at Berghain. I can’t wait.

Attempting to negotiate things like cigarettes and fizzy drinks at dawn in Manchester while the Normals are up and about after a night’s sleep makes you feel as if you’ve fallen off the end of the world, but here not an eyebrow is raised as you drunkenly fall in and out of the Photoautomats, hug strange dogs and make angels in the snow …

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The year turns

2009 … 1 Year Blog Anniversary, DJing, carefully soundtracked walks in the rain, 20 years since Stone Roses and De La Soul, frozen vomit on the streets, Thomas Tallis, wondering if I could live abroad, red wine instead of white, tea with the bag left in, books about Renaissance costume and Anthony Burgess, first stab at loneliness, writing with my dressing gown on, planning the new novel, snow, snow, snow like I’ve never seen in this city, flakes the size of your palm, snow so thick the traffic is silent, fantastic Christmas of Orson Welles and whiskey, Glasgow, my special boy, trains, menthol cigarettes, Christopher Owens …

2010 … look after myself better in all sorts of ways and look after the boy, write, get published (perennial, I know), DJ some more (I hope), be a better friend, go to Berlin, distinguish myself, don’t give up …

The eternal battle between the Arthur Russell and the Madonna in me rages on.

Great starts to the year include …

The Irrepressibles. EP here, album here, amazing compilation of live images set to beautiful track ‘In This Shirt’ here …

Gorgeous preview of The Knife’s operatic collaboration with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock here ...

The Red Shoes new digital print.

Music and Silence by Rose Tremain.

And more to come …

Happy New Year