Then we take Berlin…

Saturday night and London is in the grip of Halloween fever. Emaciated, emasculated, degenerate figures with hollowed out eyes and concave faces scour the streets of Hoxton and Shoreditch screaming, vomiting and rutting. No change there then. But many of these interlopers are out-of-towners who have invaded our patch, ravenous for skanky all-night parties – but even worse – they’ve deliberately made themselves up to look like us. Are they taking the piss or what? The problem with being invaded by un-dead hordes is that the 7 o’clock Sunday morning Central Line trains are so ramrod with dribbling zombies the crush is as bad as the weekday rush hour. I tut-tut and fiddle with two wheelie suitcases because I am heading for Paddington and the Heathrow Express en-route to Berlin after an absence of 20 years.

As a special treat for my trip I bought a 1st edition copy of Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood from the excellent ABE online marketplace which is the nearest thing the web gets to a smelly second-hand bookshop. Isherwood lived in Berlin during the early 1930s when Nazism was beginning to warp everyone’s minds and rubbing its hands with Jew-hatred. The precious little parcel arrived a week ago and I’ve deliberately not peeped until I withdraw it from the dusty wrapper 33,000 feet above Belgium. The printed pages have a moist sheen as if Isherwood’s breath still fogs the paper. This mouthwatering book is prize enough, but tucked away in the back I am astonished to discover a neatly folded yellowing newspaper article scissored from The Observer in 1952. Gingerly separating the musty newsprint in this hi-tech jet makes me feel as if I am a forensic archaeologist liberating an object from a pharaoh’s tomb that has been mummified into an afterlife.

Isherwood is also revisiting Berlin after a 20-year break and reports his impressions of the post-war devastation. Much of his familiar infrastructure has been destroyed – but the indomitable bloody-mindedness of Berliners has survived. Like Isherwood, my roots are in Manchester, and I have always identified with the Mancunian, Berliner and New Yorker addiction to adversity. My Berlin has also been destroyed, but by something positive – the fall of The Wall. The delicate dynamics of East and West no longer hold the city in aggravated tension. The no-go-zones and wastelands of divided Berlin are now crammed with generic curtain wall architecture, and gentrification of the old east has blurred all the distinctions I remember. Isherwood’s newspaper report describes cold-war Berliners who have become so damaged by fascism, occupation, Holocaust guilt, political quarantine and the fear of Russian invasion that they don’t really feel anything any more. They have given up on real relationships, preferring the fleeting attractions of serial encounters. The legacy of love-at-arm’s-length was still evident in the 80s, when a frisson of infatuation could lead to casual sex that evaporated as soon as it had happened.

The plane begins its descent to Tegel – Berlin’s cottage airport. During the course of the next seven days I will meet many ghosts from my past. I am flying on a high-octane mixture of time, space, context and coincidence. Had I been flying from London to Berlin 65 years ago, I would be cradling tons of high explosives.


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