Friday 20 Nov
So, after a short but uncomfortable flight courtesy of Ryanair, Sarah and I land at Schonfeld Airport, Berlin. I have no German whatsoever, Sarah only a remnant of pre-GCSE vocab, so with some trepidation we manage to find our way into the city on one of those amazing double-decker trains you also see in France. Danke, danke, trainz zis vay? Seriously.
Once in the centre of Berlin (Alexanderplatz) we make our way to our hotel – a trusty Ibis – and then to the venue for the first night of Poetry Hearings 2009.
Kaffee Burger is situated on Torstrasse, which I have been reliably informed is the Shoreditch of Berlin. Some signs of this: messenger bags, graffiti art, design agencies and jagged haircuts. Also, lots of Turkish cafes, so perhaps more the Dalston of Berlin? Anyway… we grab some dinner first at a nearby Italian restaurant where we don’t even have to open our mouths before they greet us in English, then to Kaffee Burger, which is a lovely little bar with several rooms and a low stage and crumbling walls and the like. Friendly staff who resist the urge to patronise me when I stumble through some insulting impressions of their language to order drinks. We are met by Catherine Hales, organiser of the festival, who is lovely and welcoming but obviously a bit anxious – it being the first night. As an events organiser, I empathise and grab a seat after saying hello to poet and founder of the festival Alistair Noon, Tim Turnbull who has come with his wife (like me, although Sarah and I are living in sin), and a few new faces.
It’s pretty rammed for the start of the festival. Two kids from the local international school, I think, kicked things off, before Alistair Noon takes to the stage, in fine mettle reading from his new pamphlet from Penumbra amongst other things, followed by Mary Noonan, who reads beautifully. After a break in which we scurry outside to join the smokers and I meet MC Jabber aka fellow-South Londoner and CPFC supporter Scott, Maurice Scully performs a mesmerising set of highly inventive poems. Cool stuff, I think. Then comes Matthew Sweeney, who is awesome. Really wonderful to get a proper introduction to his poems. I must have read some of his stuff years ago, but have never seen him read before. What a night. I get on the scotch, then Sarah and I stumble home via the hotel bar, apologising profusely for missing the following morning’s famous ‘festival brunch’ (we’re going sightseeing).
The part of Berlin we’re staying in reminds me of a few places, but the overwhelming impression you get is that it’s pretty damn quiet considering it’s so near the centre of a major international city. Oh, and another thing – Germans drive fast. Very fast. And it takes us ages to get used to pedestrian etiquette. I spend most of the weekend in fear of falling under the wheels of some thundering Vorsprung durch Technik.
It’s basically one long road into the centre of the city, passing Torstrasse, Alexanderplatz with its looming TV tower, and crossing the River Spree (twice). We check out a statue of Marx and Engels in a park. Someone has scrawled on its base LE KAPITAL C’EST FUN, LE COMMUNISME C’EST NUF. I keep overhearing conversations in German and thinking I know what they’re on about. It’s something to do with the rhythms of the language. Also, I’ve studied Anglo-Saxon, and can sort of read quite a lot of basic stuff like place-names.
We pass the impressive Berliner Dom (cathedral). Still not many people around, and we’re practically in the heart of the city, on a Saturday morning. There are some excellent neoclassical constructions to our right – museums, etc. We hurry on – it’s cold – and grab some coffee on Unter der Linden. Bit confusing. The coffee (instant rubbish from a seasonal shack that looks like it’s been flatpacked in Lapland) is 7 euros, but then we get 4 euros back when we return our cups. Hmm… Check out the square famous for the burning of the books, and pop into the stunning and peaceful Catholic cathedral (with its sunken altar affair). I note lack of holy water on entry.
At the end of Unter der Linden is the Brandenburg Gate. Wow. But also – presence of actors in SS uniforms, that’s strange. American embassy. HUGE flag. And what’s this? German B boys entertain the crowds as we pass beneath the huge gate itself and find out more about its history from some excellent trilingual noticeboards. I learn a lot, how the Gate was built as a celebration of peace, subsequently became a symbol of Prussian imperial power, then of Nazi power, and finally, post-war, it came to represent a divided city.
We check out the Reichstag, and walk a bit more along the Spree, looking across towards some very modern buildings which house a TV studio. Again – where the hell is everyone? Berlin is surely the quietest capital city I’ve ever been to.
The Holocaust Memorial was something I wanted to see, but actually find disappointing as a piece of commemorative architecture/installation art. It’s constructed of 2,700 concrete slabs. The whole thing resembles a field of gravestones. It’s something you can get a bit lost in, and at times the huge slabs loom over you in a genuinely oppressive manner. But lots of people – not just kids – use it as a playground, running through it, laughing as they catch sight of a friend through a forest of grey slabs. I suppose humour’s no bad thing, but I was expecting something more affecting.
We find a steak house – the kind of place I’d never frequent at home – and have lunch. I eat a steak, Sarah a cheeseburger. Sour cream is good. But service is poor, so we fail to tip.
After lunch we stumble on a brilliant little museum, elegantly put together, and hugely informative. I can’t remember what it’s called, but if you’re in Berlin it’s just opposite the south-eastern corner of the Holocaust memorial. The museum focuses on Nazi architectural plans for Berlin, including the bunkers built for Hitler, Goebbels and the Nazi elite. Lots of talk of architect Albert Speer, who was the subject of an excellent play by David Edgar. Absolutely fascinating. City planning always tells you so much about how people think about themselves, their dreams for the future, etc. The site around the museum was once known as the ‘death strip’ – a no man’s land between East and West Germany. It’s still underdeveloped, until fairly recently a wasteland. Berlin seems to me a scarred city.
Next – Checkpoint Charlie, which is touristy. Find a cool neon art installation thingy about poetry (but really about the fall of the Berlin Wall). Took some snaps. Then back home on the Metro or whatever the Berliners call the Tube. Unsurprisingly very efficient! I really enjoyed our little ride from Stadtmitte to Rosa-Luxemburg Platz.
Sarah has a nap in the hotel and I grab a box of books and head off to meet Sharmaine Reid of Dialogue Berlin. Sharmaine (whom I know from London, where she worked at the LRB) is about to open her new boutique Anglophone bookshop inside a stylish cafe called The T Room. I have – of course – a cup of tea with her and fiance Thomas, who is a journalist. Very impressed with / inspired by her vision for the store. She buys one copy of every Penned in the Margins title for the store. We promise to maintain links. She has a nice antique sofa, and tells me about the shelving units she’s going to put up. This is surprisingly good chat, but then I like shelving.
I rush back to the hotel to prepare, and time, my set.
Get to the venue at 7pm. Marginally fewer people there tonight but still a good buzz. Pre-match nerves. Sit with the lovely Hannah Silva, both rifling anxiously through bits of paper. Sarah gets drinks from the bar, where she coincidentally bumps into an actor from the Globe theatre, where she works, on holiday. Turnbull is back, tonight dressed to the nines. I’m up first. Compere Michael Haeflinger, an American emigre with a German name, introduces me as ‘the busiest man in London poetry’ or something like that. As I write this meandering blog post, it doesn’t feel like it at all.
My set list
- This is yogic
- Poem as diminishing return
- Poem as topiary
- The Terrors (3 poems)
- How to Build a City
My 20 minutes are up, and I return to my seat to warm applause. They liked my jokes and, I think, at least some of the poems. Afterwards, I sell all my books save one, which is a good sign. ‘Iconic’, ‘The Terrors’ and ‘Goring-by-sea’ (a poem I wrote for one of Roddy Lumsden’s events, and have only performed once) went down particularly well.
I can relax for the rest of the night as a succession of amazing poets let rip. Donna Stonecipher reads these precise, economic poems, some with great wit and ingenuity, others more contemplative. Andrew Shields is a name I’ve heard about quite a few times, and I was pleased to see him in the flesh – a warm and engaging character on stage, and off (later, he gives me his card – I like a good card). The night is closed by Hannah Silva and, finally, Tim Turnbull. I know both poets well, so no surprises. But Hannah gives an incredible, spine-tingling performance – the most coherent and confident set I think I’ve ever seen her give. She reads some work I knew already, and some new stuff, like an excerpt from her ‘Panoptican’ show. Tim… leaves us all in creases. What can you say about the man? Brilliant.
After the poetry, the venue starts to fill up with Berlin locals in stetsons; a Johnny Cash tribute band is booked to play. Some dancing, and more drinking commenced, and then we all (poets, organisers) pile into the kebab shop next door. Sarah and I share falafel and sloppy chicken kebab with too much onion. An appropriate end to a wonderful two-day festival.
Hangovers all round, but not enough to stop us taking the back roads into the city… all very recognisably East Berlin, ie. industrial wastelands, brutalist tower blocks and, again, that total absence of people (although to be fair, it is Sunday morning). Graffiti everywhere, even on handsome nineteenth century stonework. I’m ambivalent. Actually, no I’m not: I don’t like it!
Nowhere’s open, but we eventually find a very unfashionable little coffee shop, which serves probably the best coffee we’d had so far in Berlin.
We follow our curiosity into the Museum fur Kommunikation. I genuinely can’t think of anywhere more childishly wonderful to spend a lazy Sunday. We’re there for a good couple of hours, I reckon. It’s a wildly eclectic museum housed in a beautiful and spacious neo-Baroque building. Founded as a postal museum, it now collects a wide range of postboxes, televisions, typewriters, telephones, telegram senders, faxes, stamps, letters, postcards, as well as a whole load of bizarre interactive toys, robots and machines. They have a special exhibition about braille, and another organised by the European Central Bank about the Euro. I buy a load of postcards in the shop. I love postcards.
Before lunch, we continue walking west until we hit Potsdam Square and ‘cross’ the wall again into West Berlin. There are bits of wall, all covered in colourful graffiti, in sites all over the city. All very ghostly. Walking into West Berlin reminded me mostly – sorry – of Croydon. Very dull modern, ie. 90s, architecture, lots of commercial signage (McDonalds, Sony, etc.)… we could be anywhere in Western Europe or North America, except it’s so grey. We don’t get a good vibe off this place. Circling back on ourselves, we head in the direction of Checkpoint Charlie, through some back-streets and residential estates. Desperately hungry (it’s past 2pm by now), we finally find a bistro-style restaurant and alight.
Duck! Red cabbage! Dumplings! White wine! Finally – a proper German meal… and proper nice it was too.
Our flight is late evening, so we have time to kill. Slow meander via Balzac Coffee Shop, Friedrichstrasse, and then to an outdoor exhibition The Topography of Terrors, on the site of the old SS headquarters. Again, a wasteland. Noone knows what to do with it. They started building a museum, and then gave up. Noone wants this scrap of earth. Too much blood in the water table.
For the first time on our trip, I’m moved by the horror of this city’s history. We walk back towards Mitte in sombre mood. We pop into the handsome Deutscher Dom, which is somewhere between a miniature St Paul’s and a Hawksmoor church. I can’t quite work it all out, but the place has been converted into an exhibition space over multiple floors. The exhibition charts the politics of Germany over the centuries, from the Franco-Prussian wars through the unification of Germany, the Third Reich and Cold War periods. Lots to read, but sadly no English translation. That said, the Germans really know how to do museums. So elegant! So innovative! So well designed! No queues!
When we come out, it’s dark and the bells of the Berliner Dom are ringing out all over the city. For the first time, there is a wonderful, tangible atmosphere. Perhaps it’s a nighttime city?
Pretty exhausted now. We return to the hotel to collect our bags and spend an hour lounging in the foyer and drinking tea. Then train from Alexanderplatz to Schonefeld, which is rammed and horrid. Worse than Gatwick! Our gate is called, finally. We are assembled in a corridor, when the announcement comes… The Ryanair flight to London Stansted is delayed by 40 minutes. Groan… Then ten minutes later, The Ryanair flight to London Stansted is delayed by 90 minutes… Siphoned into another room with fifty London teenagers on a school trip. Desperately try to spend my time usefully concentrating on my book about the Crusades. Flight finally boards. Frustrated passengers. Cramped and anxious flight back, culminating in a hairy landing through turbulence. Hate to have to use Ryanair. A truly awful, irresponsible airline.
Land at Stansted, train back to Liverpool Street… ah, glorious East End!
In summary, a full, exhausting and enjoyable weekend. Berlin is a weird city, it seems to me, with my tourist’s eyes. I couldn’t quite get a handle on it. Where is the centre? Why are the streets so quiet? Why are there so many patches of unused land and derelict buildings?
As for the poetry, I’d like to thank the organisers of Poetry Hearings. It’s rare to come across two evenings in a row so well curated, with lineups that are diverse enough to keep you interested, and with poetry of consistently high quality. The audiences were lovely too – they laughed at my silly jokes, and bought my books with actual money.