The Alster - on a November day in March


There are many elements that contribute to the overall sense of excitement and adventure on a trip like this one; but packing isn’t one of them.  To me, it is - and always has been - a regrettable necessity, like power stations or by-passes.  If you’re leaving home for any length of time, you just have to take clean underwear, a toothbrush, a few shirts and socks, travel tickets and passport - and so on and so on and so on…

Merely packing whatever comes to hand simply isn’t good enough.  I once took a lovely, warm, woollen fleece jacket to Crete.  I arrived on Corfu with many pairs of good, thick, winter socks.  For a narrowboat holiday I once packed four towels and no shirts at all.

And you have to take things in the right quantities.  Stuffing your suitcase with four extra pairs of shoes without leaving room for some soap or your camera is almost a definition of stupidity, or at least a profound lack of forethought.

I know what the answer is, of course.  You have to make a list.  So I do.  And I put on my list all the things I know I will need - see above - and then I add to the list all the paraphernalia I won’t be able to enjoy my trip without.  And, thanks to the digital revolution, this supplementary part of my list can itself be quite extensive.

I can now take my laptop computer with me wherever I go, even though it weighs the same as a small car and needs its charger and a USB stick (don’t ask) as well.

The digital camera will need its charger, too - and the cord that connects it to the laptop so I can download the pictures I’ve taken instead of spending time outside in the city I’m visiting.

The iPhone must also be accompanied by such a cord and - needless to say - yet another charger.

And all this equipment will still be unusable if I forget to pack continental plug adaptors.  (I know I’m not the first person in history to wonder why we can’t all use the same plugs and sockets but that doesn’t stop me wondering it.)

Having written my list, I do what everyone else seems to do; I lay it all out on the bed next to my empty suitcase and burst into a mixture of tears and laughter (like you do when you think of Ed Miliband or Piers Morgan).  I’ve known several people who could furnish a small flat with what they can get inside a suitcase.  Things like socks and t-shirts seem to vanish completely into a black hole, thus leaving plenty of room for the fridge-freezer, a medium-sized bookshelf and the cat.

This is no joke.  A friend of mine once offered to show me how it’s done.  We laid all my essentials out on the bed as per, and she packed my case for me.  When she’d finished, there was still enough room in the case for a lawn-mower.  She then unpacked it and invited me to re-pack.  When I’d finished, I was two shirts and four pairs of socks adrift - and I’d lost my list.

Sad to say, this aspect of going away on holiday has never changed, except perhaps that I’ve become a little more judicious in my choice of holiday apparel.  Gone are the days of collapsible umbrellas to the Greek Islands or measly, thin cotton shorts to Mull or Skye.

For my German journey, I had decided that the only outer layer I could ever conceivably need was a kind of thin, semi-lined gilet - or ‘body warmer‘ - which I’d bought, and which had been perfectly adequate, for my Grand Tour to Italy.  Exactly how injudicious a choice this was became apparent as soon as I stepped outside my hotel in Hamburg and into what seemed to be an icy Thursday inside the Arctic circle.

The city of Hamburg lies where the River Elbe begins to broaden into an estuary and flow north-westwards to the North Sea.  Coming in the opposite direction - even, I’m told, in the height of summer - are the blusteriest, most unpredictable and numbingly cold winds imaginable in the ‘temperate zone’.  It feels as if they mustered, like malicious, screeching demons, somewhere near Spitzbergen, cast a last affectionate glance down at all the walruses and polar bears, and headed straight for Hamburg.

They are what my Nana used to call ‘idle winds’; too lazy to blow around you so they blow straight through you.  As soon as the hotel door slammed shut behind me, I was - as she also used to say - nithered.  It felt as if I’d been body-slapped by a shoal of recently-caught Norway cod.  As I walked toward the Alster - Hamburg’s inland lake - I felt positively cryogenic.

This was Messingaffenwetter (look it up) with a vengeance.
Across the Alster

I decided that, for the moment at least, my Hamburg guidebook could go to the devil.  As scenic an asset as the Alster undoubtedly is, I couldn’t really see it anyway.  My eyes were half-closed against the blast - and it had started to rain.  And this was no ordinary rain, either.  This wasn’t a friendly, late Spring shower giving the daffodils a gentle, refreshing soak.  This was Hamburg rain hitting my glasses (and the rest of me).  It was several degrees colder than charity (Nana again) and hurled itself at me horizontally at 100mph.

Naturally, this was the first day of my holiday on which I’d decided to wear shorts.  Some people are beyond help or even pity.

I decided that, as I was in Hamburg, I should do what Hamburgers do.  Have a Hamburger.


While I was dodging the onslaught of rain and gales, and failing to find a genuine Hamburg hamburger, I began to wonder if German tourists in, say, Bath would find it this hard to find a Bath Bun.  Were there hungry foreign gourmands in Eccles or Chorley or Bakewell or Banbury in the same predicament as me.

Cornish pasties, Yorkshire Puddings, Cumberland sausage - all were freely available in the places of their birth.  So where were all the bloody hamburgers?

I sheltered as best I could in a ‘smokers’ doorway’, which I shared with a ground-level statue of Heidi Kabel.  She was an immensely popular actress, born and bred in Hamburg, who'd died in 2010.  Even she seemed to be shivering.

I whipped out my trusty Oxford German Mini-Dictionary and, after a moment’s brief translation work, decided to ask the office-worker next to me ‘Wo kann ich ein Hamburger geniessen?’  His reaction was to cough and splutter his cigarette fumes all over passers-by.  I had just asked him where I could enjoy a Hamburger and hadn’t realised it was quite so open to misinterpretation.
The national theatre in Hamburg; it's opposite the station

Hamburgers have something of a sad history.  They started life here as good, wholesome (if stodgy) ‘peasant’ food.  German emigrants took them to the USA, where they have become the absurdities they are today.

The word itself has suffered, too.  Hamburgers contain no ham so our inventive American cousins re-christened them ‘beefburgers’, just to make things clearer - and losing the link to the city of their origin, which was not (after all) Beefburg. 

This in turn gave rise to cheeseburgers, baconburgers, chickenburgers and even fishburgers.  Nowadays, the word ‘burger’ can be heard and seen in everyday use.

Hamburg has a lot to answer for.

My fellow-shelterer asked me - in English - why I wanted one of those (said with a sneer).  They were, he said, working-class food - meatballs in bread.  But I persisted, telling him that I was on a special, place-name food tour and that I’d already eaten a frankfurter in Frankfurt.

Despite the prevailing meteorological conditions, he managed to smile sarcastically, recognising a blatant lie for what it was and said ‘You English!‘  He pointed me in the direction of the station and told me that I could enjoy as many hamburgers there as I liked, because the very, very best hamburger bar in Hamburg was in the station.
The station's clock tower

And he was right; it was.


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The 'Goose Fountain' in Munster's town square


It was a sunny and breezy midday. 

This is what I wrote in my notebook as I sat in the small town square in Munster, on the steps of the ‘Goose Fountain’.

‘They don’t build monuments to the right things.

Kings and Queens, great statesmen, military men on horseback.  They are all very well but they are pompous and proclaim uncritical praise where it may not necessarily be due.

Closer to the mark are the few paltry statues and plaques to Clever People Who Did Great Things.  Discoverers, seekers and finders, creators and questioners.

They make a strong case, yes.  But they are still not the right things to build monuments in memory of.

I remember first thinking thoughts like this when I lived in London and saw the statue of Nurse Edith Cavell just off Trafalgar Square.  Nearby, Nelson is raised on his column in memory of a battle he took almost no part in winning.  He gazes down on London’s countless statues of royalty, aristocracy, clergy, military and government.

Edith, though, stands on a small plinth at a cramped crossroads.  In the First World War, she nursed and cared for soldiers from both sides.  ‘Patriotism is not enough.  I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone’.  Someone whose statue in Germany is probably much more vainglorious than hers ordered her to be shot by firing squad for her trouble.

The origin of straightforward devotion and love like this is immaterial.  Nurse Cavell or Greyfriars Bobby; it doesn’t matter.  Their monuments and memorials and statues should be several times grander than they are because they provide a focus for us to remember good things - the humanity (or caninity) of devotion, loyalty and tenderness.

Why are there no monuments to flowers and trees?  I want to see a giant, bronze statue of tulips and bluebells and sycamore keys and apples.

Why can’t someone design a sculpture to the glory and wonder of chaffinches and robins and blackbirds - and to how very much we love them, and to how much joy and pleasure they bring us without asking for anything in return?

There should be a sculpture somewhere in honour of sunsets or thunderstorms or heavy rain or deep snow or butterflies or bats or walruses.

I want to build a tower. 

It will be very, very high so that it can be seen from many lands and by people speaking lots of different languages.  You will be able to climb to the top and watch the sun rise or forests turn from green to brown or feed the birds or feel the wind kiss your face.

People will want to come from miles around and from across the sea to visit my tower.  Their hearts will beat faster when they first glimpse it from a distance because they will know that it is a monument to
them.  It will have to be very grand indeed because it will have been built to honour humanity and all the things that give us grace and beauty and all the graceful and beautiful things we love and that have no monument or memorial.

My tower will be a recognition of selflessness and courage, devotion and care.  It will honour all the millions and millions of people who care for each other unrewarded and unnoticed.  People who seek no praise - not even the praise of self-satisfaction.

People who doggedly persist in facing difficulty, tragedy and adversity because of a love they cannot even clearly define deserve a tower like the one I have in mind.’


I had not travelled to, or arrived in, Munster on my hands and knees.  I was not lonely or terrified or desperate.  I had not stood naked at the gate, uncertain of my life’s worth and knowing only that horrors lay ahead.

I had stood at the gate with daffodils and primroses.  Where once a heart full of hope and love and passion had been speared and smashed and shot to pieces by callousness, cruelty and selfishness, I had, I hoped, left sweetness and colour, gentleness and innocence as evidence of defiance and of the sheer awesome power of endless and unconditional love.

Smiles were our collective acts of revenge against the hatred and bitterness which sought to destroy whole lives there.  Smiles - and nothing more except that I was there.

I know now that you cannot unbreak a heart.  I know that there will always be too many locks and not enough keys.  I know that it is easier to be lost than to be found.  But I also know - from Berlin as well as from Munster - that misery and despair can be at least partly redeemed by the paths they force us to take.  We can go a long way to neutralising their long-term effects by returning to the place of hurt and looking for the splintered shards of spirit, by trying never to underestimate the strength of grace and dignity and wonder - and by remembering.


That day in Munster I started to draw up the blueprints for my tower.


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A German pogonophobe


It came as quite a shock for me to discover, during my last couple of hours in Berlin, that its sparrows are pogonophobic.

Perhaps I’d had far too many other distractions to cope with during my time there but, for whatever reason, the city had kept this one final revelation hidden up its ornithological sleeve until the last minute.

I’d arrived at the Hauptbahnhof in good time to catch my train west so I sat down on one of the concrete blocks outside the main entrance and looked impressively pensive and melancholy.  I sipped a sad coffee and took reflective bites out of my final apfelnussrolle, all the while looking thoughtfully into the middle distance.

The woman on the next concrete block was feeding a large and noisy flock of sparrows with croissant crumbs.  I smiled wistfully and generously threw down the dregs of my apfelnussrolle so that the sparrows could vary their diet a little.

They ignored this nutritional goodwill completely so I threw down another speckle or two, sure that they would be unable to resist the tempting combination of nuts, sugar and pastry.

I was wrong, though.  They seemed to be mesmerised by Lady Bountiful’s croissant crumbs and turned up their beaks at what they obviously took to be my pathetic scattering of tasteless, un-sparrow-like, morsels.  I felt perplexed and not a little badly-done-by.  I had, after all, given up almost an eighth of a mouthful of my breakfast for the little reprobates.

I was about to storm off in a huff of self-righteous pity - membership of the RSPB obviously counting for nothing amongst these Teutonic upstarts - when Lady Bountiful, smiling sweetly, asked if I was English.

Why - I thought to myself - when they haven’t even heard me actually say anything, does no-one ever ask me if I am Greek or Brazilian or Swedish?  Why does no-one ever assume that I’m a Dane or a Pole?  What is it about me that confirms to total strangers that I’m definitely not a Canadian lumberjack or a salmon-fisherman from Norway?      

I desperately wanted to assume a look of utter bewilderment and reply to her in Welsh (a technique I’m ashamed to have used on several occasions upon being accosted with ‘yoo arrrrr inglis, yes?’ on a train or in a public lavatory) but resisted the temptation.  I admitted proudly that yes, I was English - and that the sparrows evidently had a bad case of collective avian anglophobia.

She pooh-poohed this suggestion with a wave of her hand and, in a flawless accent, invited me to look around.  Had I noticed, she asked, the unusually large number of bearded men?

I told her, with more truth than she knew, that I had.  Observing the pleasing preponderance of facial hair had been a passing highlight of my time in Berlin.  Shameless, full-face beards - shaped and trimmed to within an inch of their lives or left uncoiffured to make their own way in the world - were, indeed, noticeably common here and several of them had tempted me off the path of virtue during my sojourn.

And then came the revelation.

Sparrows, she averred, do not like men with beards.  That was why they’d ignored my apfelnussrolle -  a repast which, if offered by unbearded men (or, of course, women), they would have devoured voraciously.

The look on my face must have been a melange of pity, indulgence and fear. 

She got up and walked over to me.  I was beginning to wonder if a suitcase on wheels has the qualities necessary for an effective weapon when she said ‘Here - take some of these morsels and we will throw them to the sparrows together, side by side.’

I was a stranger in a very strange land and decided that resistance was not only futile but unwise.  She sat down next to me - smelling of 4711 - and we threw our crumbs down on the paving stones.

Needless to say, the wretched sparrows flew as one bird to Lady Bountiful’s feet, hungrily pecking at, and fighting over, every single morsel.  Mine, on the other hand, were left untouched.  It was as if I’d offered them chunks of cement or great mouthfuls of wrought iron.

I was cold-sparrowed.  They collectively sent me to the German equivalent of Coventry - probably Düsseldorf - evidently believing that, if they so much as cast a glance in my direction, I would trap them with birdlime, put them in a pie and eat them - like people do in Italy or France.

The little blighters wouldn’t come anywhere near me and it dawned on me that this strange and unexpected woman, who accosted bearded men outside Berlin’s main railway station with the sole purpose of proving how unsightly and unattractive they are to sparrows, may actually be right. 

As my train pulled out of the station, I even began to wonder if it wasn’t only sparrows that had pogonophobic tendencies.  Has Mother Nature ordained that other creatures are averse to men with beards?

More work needs to be done on this subject.  Someone should get EU funding to carry out the necessary research and write a smug little thesis on a topic which, I am convinced, has been hitherto neglected.  After all, animal dislike of facially hirsute men like me could go some way to explain certain hitherto inexplicable and upsetting occurrences that have befallen me over the years.


About 80 miles west of Berlin, I had to change trains at Stendal.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time between trains to explore it - which is a pity because (according to Wikipedia) it has ‘a university, a market and a psychiatric rehabilitation clinic’.  My kind of place, then.  I should have mentioned it to Lady Bountiful.

My second train took me north to Uelzen, which was a different kettle of fish altogether.  My timetable allowed for me to spend over an hour there, which is much, much more than it merits.

Uelzen’s problem is its station, which was joint winner of the German rail enthusiasts’ Station of the Year Award in 2009.

2009 must have been a poor year for stations because Uelzen’s is grotesque.  It was completely refurbished and tarted up for some sort of competition in 2000 and has now attracted over 3 million visitors.

I didn’t know any of this when my train pulled into the station and I disembarked into a nightmare of wavy lines, candy-stripe ornamentation, multicoloured arabesques and frivolous excrescences.  It’s a nightmarish combination of Disney and Hitchcock; pink and bubbly and vaguely, horribly menacing.

The shopping hall and central staircase looks as if it’s made of gigantic, poisonous toasted marshmallows with a shrivelled, dead mushroom stalk at its centre.  Complicated brick- and tilework constantly lead the eye towards a promised land that turns out to be something banal and utilitarian, like the toilets or the tobacconist.

Uelzen station seemed to lift everyday eccentricity to dizzying new heights.  The station was quite small - as befits a town not much bigger than Durham - yet contrived to have platforms numbered up to 24.

And my third (and final) train was timetabled to leave from platform 16, which I could not find.  I was forced to wander round this preposterous confection three times until I found a sign to platform 16 hidden behind a florid and entirely superfluous stucco outgrowth that defies description.

In truth, I began to suspect that it was a kind of practical joke laid on, at a cost (I’m told) of 10 million euros, for uncritical railway enthusiasts.  When I discovered that the name of its architect - Friedensreich Hundertwasser - translates as PeaceEmpire HundredWater, I was sure of it.


The two-coach, country train from platform 16 carried me north-west from Uelzen through woods and heathland, by farms and villages.  Tractor drivers waved from fields, and children from schoolyards.  We wandered ever deeper into rural, richly fertile Lower Saxony - a world about as different from Berlin as it was possible to get.

As the little yellow train meandered lazily past hedgerows and copses, stopping at wayside halts once in a while as if to draw an ageing breath, the day’s air of surreality - spooked sparrows and a faux-Gaudi railway station - began to give way to unreality.  The train was carrying me out of the present altogether and into the past.

Munster station was deserted in the cool and quiet afternoon sunshine.  No-one was waiting to catch the train and only one person got off:  me.  I sat on a station bench for over an hour.  And as I looked around, completely alone, it was 1952 and I was three years old.  The housing estate opposite the station did not exist and the road that ran through it and into the town was a country lane again.

Amsterdam and Berlin became mere distractions.  Munster was the broken heart of my German journey and I knew that my pilgrimage to honour unbelievable courage and to redeem unimaginable despair and terror had begun.

Less than a day later, I had realised that many people endure their own private holocausts and that each of them deserved a memorial like the one I'd seen in Berlin. 


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A Farne Islands arctic tern

In this blogposting…
* Blogs
All yours…

Our thirty-second truckshunter AGM took place earlier today as planned - at the Newcastle Art Centre.  This time, it was open - although I’m not sure whether they were as pleased as we were about that. 

And we were very pleased indeed - and for several reasons.

Firstly, our traditional AGM sunshine was nowhere to be seen.  Instead, it rained and kept on raining throughout the proceedings.  We were thus forced to invade the Art Centre’s café - the rather nice Gallery Café.  (There’s an exhibition gallery there, too, but we didn’t invade that.)
Vivienne, Hildie, Nev and Brenda

Secondly, we were graced by the company of not one but two new Truckshunters, both of whom went to the trouble of getting soaked to the skin in order to attend.  So both Brenda and Stephen deserve medals the size of several skillets for braving both the weather and the unknown!

I think that the more ‘hardcore’ members of our august fellowship who where there - Hildie, Vivienne, Nev and me - made them feel welcome and I know that they’ll agree that the splendid time guaranteed for all was enhanced by their presence.  Which makes it sound much duller than it was. 

They were full of stories and reminiscences of the ‘good old days’ of Paul and Ian; memories which stretched back to the earliest Saturday morning appearances of the Tipsy Duchess, my time on Traffic and Travel, the local history programme Roots of the North-East, the scandalous ‘trail-lines’ Paul and I used to do - and, of course, the Big Blue Bus.

If there was any justice in the world, one or more of these redoubtable features would still be audible on BBC Radio Newcastle.  There isn’t, though.

The agenda - more or less the first ever - had to be jettisoned.  After all, it’s just not possible to tango in the rain and be taken seriously; and wet planking would have got us arrested.  They are both in abeyance for next time, though.  You have been warned.

As for Truckshunter Tongue-Twister Torture….I printed out the tongue-twisters that Martin sent me, and which I featured in blogposting 346, but left the print-out on my computer table at home.  Nobody’s perfect.

And anyway - as you’d expect - conversation didn’t flag at all.
Vivienne, Hildie, Nev, Brenda, me and Stephen

I enjoyed every moment of it and hope that we can all meet again  - with even more newcomers - at AGM XXXIII, which will take place in June at Birkheads Nursery.

A big, big Thankyou to Hildie, Vivienne, Brenda, Nev and Stephen for an awesome AGM.


I hope you’re keeping up-to-date with out two most important linked blogs.

The Farne Islands wardens are back in full swing and taking care of one of our most beautiful local sites and its wildlife.  They’ve been visited by bluethroats, wrynecks, black guillemots, cuckoos, gannets, redstarts, arctic terns, whitethroats…

You can read the whole story, and see some terrific photos, at http://farnephoto.blogspot.co.uk.  (If the link doesn't work, cut and paste it into your browser.)

And Serge’s blog is beating all records, too. One of his latest postings is all about his recent holiday here.  From his fulsome description of Edinburgh, I think he may be falling in love.  Luckily.

Take a look at http://spepere.blogspot.co.uk or click on Serge’s photo in the Followers box on this page.

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Hans ('Nick') Leutwyler
In this blogposting….
* Robinson’s German Journey:  Day Six

Our May AGM will take place at 1100 on this upcoming Thursday 17 May at Newcastle Art Centre at the town end of Westgate Road, more or less opposite the Assembly Rooms.

There is an agenda.

Item One:  I will expect everyone to plank (unless the appropriate surface is wet).
Item Two:  Truckshunter Tongue-Twister Torture.
Item Three:  Truckshunter Tango - I will provide the music.

I am especially looking forward to Item Three.  And Item One.  And Item Two.

The AGM will go ahead, even if I am the only one there (which should make for an interesting Item Three).

A splendid time is guaranteed for (one and) all.


In the same way that England is not just London, so London is not just its tourist sites.  You don’t get a feel for ‘the people’s London’ if you only visit Trafalgar Square or St Paul’s.  To find out what life is like in Chalk Farm, Acton of Streatham, you have to go there and have a look.

And, if I’ve got time in a city new to me, that’s what I try to do; to take a bus or a metro or a tram to its terminus, just to see where it goes and what it’s like there.  Even doing that may not give you an accurate idea of what life is truly like for ordinary people but it’s usually worth doing nevertheless - just for the ride and to get away from the visitor sites, however splendid they are.

I’ve visited Amsterdam often enough by now to have done this several times there.  I set aside an hour or two, grab a coffee and a cake (which make all the difference) and jump on a tram.  By doing this, I’ve chatted to some talkative Dutch people (usually about why on Earth I’m on the tram in the first place) and, so far, I’ve ended up in places as varied as an industrial estate (twice), Amsterdam’s Turkish quarter (where I ate some quite delicious spinach and cheese pie), a drab housing estate of gigantic proportions, the Dutch equivalent of the MetroCentre, a beautifully laid-out park, the biggest children’s playground I’ve ever seen and an extremely pretty, almost picture-book, Dutch village called Sloten (‘Ditches’), complete with working windmill.

In New York City I ‘commuted’ each day from the suburban town I was staying in (Rye) and this served a similar purpose to my Amsterdam tram jaunts.  I was able to see the kind of streets that Kojak was filmed on, and to spend time amongst ordinary New Yorkers going about their business and speaking in an accent so thick that it may as well have been Dutch.  Which, come to think of it, it once was.

Unexpected consequences can sometimes ensue, though, if you beat a path away from the tourist sites.  In Seville, our journey on the number 5 bus was enlivened by a gentleman who insisted that he was speaking perfect English (which he had learned at school 40 years ago) even though we couldn’t understand anything he said.  It sounded like a patois of Hungarian and Urdu being uttered by a dying duck.

Where was I?  Ah yes.  Monday morning - and my final day in Berlin.  Time to catch a bus somewhere…..


Berlin’s double-decker buses are enormous, six-wheeled monsters as big as cathedrals but much more fun.  They are cheap, comfortable, reliable, frequent and convenient - and they run all night.  Moreover, they are driven with the kind of graceful, lurch-free smoothness that’s been a thing of the past amongst English bus-drivers for decades.

So it was a pleasure to walk up to Wittenbergplatz once more - but this time to take a bus rather than the metro.

The first one to glide up to the bus stop was a number 29 to Hermannsplatz.  I had no idea where this was and didn’t care.  I boarded the behemoth, sat in the front seat upstairs (as you do) and was driven away in considerable style.

We were soon crossing over into ‘East' Berlin; I saw the only remaining stretch of the Wall left standing to its full height.  It’s about 100 yards long and is now a city heritage site and important tourist destination.  From my vantage point, it looked grim and forbidding which was, I suppose, exactly the intended effect of its builders.

Nearby, the bus wove its way past the site of Checkpoint Charlie - also thronged with visitors.  And that’s where things started to change.

At first, I thought that the surrounding buildings looked meaner and untidier because I had expected them to.  But it was no self-fulfilling expectation.  The streets really did look much less chic and up-to-date.  The shops were duller and cheaper, there were no fashion outlets, and groups of people - mostly men - stood about on street corners smoking and looking threatening and unhappy.

The bus ran the whole length of Oranienstrasse, the centre of the Turkish quarter of the city.  It looked extraordinarily inhospitable.  I hadn’t known what to expect, but I certainly wasn’t expecting quite so many jerry-built slums and so much obvious poverty.  It seemed to me that many of the city’s Turkish ‘guest workers‘ were living hand-to-mouth lives at odds with the lives of their hosts.

I know this phenomenon is not unique - it exists in England, too.  But I’d never seen it quite so baldly presented as here.

My bus journey also provided me with first-hand evidence of the increasing ‘capitalisation’ of ‘East’ Berlin, and the resentment it’s causing.  Most of the Communist-era tenements were drab and shabby, but some of them have been tarted up, double-glazed, colour-washed in subtle pastel shades - and sold to affluent ‘West’ Berliners.  I even saw anti-West graffiti like Nein Verein - 'No Unity'.

The impression of lives comparatively poorly-lived intensified at the Hermannsplatz, the route’s terminus.  A large, paved square was lined with very cheap fast-food outlets you wouldn’t touch with someone else’s bargepole.  At its centre was the ugliest sculpture I’ve ever seen.  It dated from the ‘bad old days‘ of Communism and looked it.  Two featureless bronze figures held hands (I think) with ‘workers’‘ tools kind of sticking out everywhere; I could see a hammer, something that looked like an adjustable spanner, something else that looked like a sink plunger, and a scythe (- scythes being very common tools in deepest urban Berlin).

It was truly ghastly and I whole-heartedly approved of the verdict bestowed on it by the local pigeons.
Jehovah's Witnesses - Jehovas Zeugen

As I looked at it, trying to figure out what was going on up there, some Jehovah’s Witnesses started setting up their stall so I took a picture of them.  Then I looked around looking for other subjects for my photographic talents.  There seemed to be a lot of people carrying carpets or items of furniture or large, bulging bin-liners.  And a lot of other people were standing about doing nothing at all except looking at me looking at them.

I didn’t feel threatened or uneasy - just a little ‘uncomfortable’.  To point my camera at any of these people would have been unwise.

So I bought an iced-coffee, sat in the sunshine and suddenly realised how unbearably smug I was feeling.  The citizens of the old 'East' Berlin lost much that they genuinely valued when the Wall came down.  Their sense of commonality and community has evaporated in the full glare of the West's capitalist 'sunshine'.  And I realised that what I was seeing was not just the symptoms of impoverished Communist-era life but also the signs of how unforgiving and avaricious capitalism can be when it marches in and takes over.


The late evening - my last in Berlin - found me sitting outside my favourite little Turkish café reading a publicity leaflet about an internationally important event to be held in the city 6 days later, over Easter. 

The Berlin Leather and Fetish Festival.

The leaflet was 124 pages long.  Here was evidence of an extreme of gay liberation totally outside my experience.

Every gay venue in the city - and there are well over 50 of them - would be open 24 hours a day for five days.  During that time, over 250 events would be taking place, including….

Leather shopping nights (at Sling King)…‘Prosecco for Pigs’...Wet Hunks (at the Apollo Splash Club)...Black Extreme (at Woof, just round the corner from my hotel)...Fetish Mix (dress code:  bondage or nudity)….Fist Invasion….Bears and Boots….Black Foam Zone...Skins and Punks United….Sweaty Meat Extreme….

And those were only in the first 40 pages.  Many of the other events listed had titles the mere mention of which would make maiden aunts swoon and repressed ex-Army officers move to Corbridge or Wooler.  Dale Winton and Graham Norton - eat your hearts out.  This was gay life with a capital F.

The highlight of the weekend was to be the election of Mr Leather Germany 2012.  The winner is pictured above.

Reading the leaflet made me feel that - maybe, just maybe - my life was a little too reassuringly comfortable and perhaps even cynically unexotic.  I was tempted to pop into Woof just to see what a Berlin darkroom was like - just for the hell of it.

But I gave up on the idea fairly quickly.  Regrettably, I am way past my sell-by date for steamy sexual encounters in humid darkrooms.  They are for another generation to enjoy and savour.

And anyway, it was late.  Too late.

It was too late to enjoy any of the many other unsampled delights that Berlin had to offer me.  My time was almost up.  Tomorrow morning I would be leaving.  As uplifting and as exciting and as liberating as the city had been, it was not the heart of my journey.  Many miles away in the countryside to the north-west lay a sleepy little town….


Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com
How British culture is being promoted on Berlin's gigantic buses

In this blogposting…
* Robinson’s German Journey:  Day Five
Jetzt setzen Sir fort….

You should know by now where and when our next AGM is - but, just in case you don’t…

It’s at the usual time of 1100 on Thursday 17 May at the Newcastle Art Centre on Westgate Road, which is near Central Station and more or less opposite the Assembly Rooms.  It’s a very genteel venue but we’ll soon put a stop to that, one way or another.

See you next Thursday.  Or else.



Picture it.

It was late on Sunday night - after midnight.  It was still quite warm, though, and I was sitting at a street-table outside Eckstein, a street-corner café popular with locals.  Several people had recommended it to me because it’s food is good and cheap, even by Berlin’s inexpensive standards.

I’d eaten my pork chops with spicy mashed potato (topped with broccoli and cheese - mmmmmmm) and I was drinking my second glass of beer - all the while trying to communicate with the waiter in really atrocious German.

I was actually quite shocked at how bad my German was, considering I studied it to A-level standard at school and then for a year at university.  In the intervening 45 years, though, it had evaporated more completely than I would have thought possible.  To be unable to say ‘how unspeakably sensational the civil engineering exhibition ought to be‘ is understandable.  To stumble over ‘how much for a beer and a sausage‘ is quite another.  It was fortunate that the waiter took pity on me and didn’t bring me a baked apple in fish sauce or a firkin of schlitz, which is probably what I had ordered.

The waiter (Stefan) brought me a copy of Die Zeit, the upmarket daily newspaper, and challenged me to translate a news item on the front page while he upturned the chairs on the tables.

I sipped my beer and read the item closely.  It was perfectly clear to me what it was about, and I told him so.  A pregnant young woman, who had been fishing from a bicycle, was injured by a passing rabbit and had been taken - by a rat-catcher, for some reason - to the local hospital.  Here, after a lethal dose of morphine, she recovered completely and is now threatening to sue the airports authority for the loss of her shoes.

It all made perfect sense.

I heard a barely-stifled groan of pain coming from a table behind me, as if someone was having a tooth extracted.  I turned to see a rather  - er…. flamboyant - older gentleman burying his face in his hands with obvious despair.  His shoulders were heaving with either laughter or uncontrollable weeping.

In near perfect English, he asked me to pass the paper to him and I did.  He then proffered an alternative translation of the news item which did, indeed, feature a young woman on a bicycle, a hospital and some morphine.  So I was nearly right.

This was Herr Doktor Pfeier (which rhymes with higher).  And he cut quite a dash.

His shirt was of the deepest, plushest crimson and his tie, slightly awry, was bright, daffodil yellow.  This unhappy combination was offset by his incredibly ill-fitting jeans, which looked, under the street-lights, to be a strange, purple colour - like a bruised aubergine.  He was wearing a thick, tweed hacking jacket which did not, alas, hide quite enough of his shirt and the whole, indifferent outfit was topped off by a fedora that had a feather in it.

He looked lovely.

I was put about when he told me that he hadn’t heard German so badly mangled for years.  Emboldened by a soupçon of Dutch courage, I suggested that a language as perversely awkward as his had no right at all to be so assertively cheeky.  After all, I was doing my best….

But I had chosen entirely the wrong person to discuss matters of language and words with.  Herr Doktor Pfeier revealed that he had been - ‘in my flourishing years‘ - a professor of linguistics and that, if I was prepared to share a bottle of Moselwein with him, he would be happy to pit my language against his ‘until the unseasonal sun rises into the heavens once more’.  My reluctance to agree to his challenge was pure pretence, especially as Moselwein was involved. 

For my opening gambit, I suggested that we speak English as if it was German.

To get the measure of this, you have to understand the most troublesome and irritating aspects of German.  Firstly, all Nouns start with a capital Letter.

Secondly, it is necessary all Verbs except one to the end of the Sentence to shove.

And thirdly, German is very good indeed at huge, long, composite Words building up.

To demonstrate how mind-mangling these oddities can become…. a sentence like ‘I told the underground train driver that he should not have stopped there‘ becomes ‘I told the Undergroundtraindriver that he there stopped not have should’.

The ensuing conversation between us in German/English was finally overtaken by the Moselwein and soon it was Doktor Pfeier’s turn to have a go at my language.

His armoury of criticisms was impressive.  He had a dig at English spelling - wound/sound, break/beak, shoe/woe, cough/through/rough/thorough/bough.  He quoted language ‘hiccups‘ that had never occurred to me, like the precise meaning of the word ‘quite’.  (I'd never noticed that it means different things in ‘quite right‘ and ‘quite nice’.)

But by the time we were arguing the toss about English’s lack of a negative interrogative, everything we were saying was bathed in wine-induced guffaws.

With great reluctance - and considerable physical difficulty - I scrambled to my feet, hugged him Goodnight, downed the dregs from my glass and staggered back to my hotel.


When I called into Eckstein the following afternoon, I discovered that I’d left without paying my bill.  Doktor Pfeier had paid it for me - and had left a considerable tip, as well.


Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com
The metro map - Berlin style

In this blogposting…
* Robinson’s German Journey:  Day Five
Proceed at your own risk….

Our next AGM will take place at 1100 on Thursday 17 May at the Newcastle Art Centre, which is at the city end of Westgate Road and more or less opposite the Assembly Rooms.

Remember...a splendid time is guaranteed for all.



Sunday morning’s sunshine found me at my little café over the road slurping coffee and wolfing apfelnussrollen as if there was a world shortage.  By the time I’d finished, there was.

I was trying to formulate today’s plan of action; an ongoing strategy for continuing my systematic onslaught on Berlin’s tourist attractions - the sort of places you have to see if you visit the city.  But my attention was continually distracted by a conversation two American blokes were having at the table next to mine.  I didn’t need to eavesdrop; they were distracting the whole of Schöneberg.

They were on one of those whistle-stop, whirlwind tours so beloved of our American cousins:  If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.  Only it was Sunday and this was Berlin.

And Berlin was, in a way, the topic of their discussion.  Why, they asked each other, were capital cities so badly placed and so often?  Why didn’t someone have the foresight to place them somewhere near the centre of their respective countries, like the Spanish did with Madrid?

My mind started rambling to the rhythm of their chat.  I gulped another mouthful of coffee, took a bite out of my fourth apfelnussrolle, whipped out my trusty notebook and scribbled this worthless and entirely trivial essay...


'If the Earth has a God of Small Geographical Things - and it damned well ought to - there are one or two questions I’d like to put.  Why, for example, did Norway and New Zealand, two of the least accessible countries on the planet, get all the prettiest fjords and sea-girt mountains?  What stark raving lunacy necessitated the invention of Belgium?  Why is Africa so big and inhospitable compared to everywhere else? 

And why are capital cities very often so awkwardly placed in the countries they are meant to be the centre of?

If you were designing the UK from scratch, you wouldn’t put London
there, would you?  Tucked away in the bottom right-hand corner of these sceptr’d isles, it’s about as accessible for most people as the Moon; it might as well be in another country altogether.

Cardiff and Edinburgh are clumsily-sited, too, and in the same way.  It’s feels like a conspiracy -
go south and east!

But let’s not be totally insular about this.  Washington DC is hardly down with the kids and Norway doesn’t just have all those fjords; it also has Oslo, which may as well be in Sweden.  And Sweden has Stockholm, mis-sited as far away from the rest of the country as it’s possible to get and still be in Sweden.

And - although I’m sure it’s a fine city - Copenhagen doesn’t do Denmark any favours, either.  It’s even on an island, or several islands, stuck out on that country’s east coast.  What was the God of Small Geographical Things thinking?

She came a cropper in Germany, too.  It’s 20 minutes by train from Berlin to the Polish border but
5 hours to Munich or Cologne.  Under those circumstances, it must be difficult for Bavarians to feel any sense of commonality with Berliners, as it for Geordies with Londoners.

Which reminds me - I’m in Berlin - it’s Sunday morning - and I have things to do….'

I asked for another apfelnussrolle but, mysteriously, there weren’t any left.


Two minutes’ walk brought me to Wittenbergplatz, a large and breezy square lined with bars and shops (including the KaDeWe, Berlin’s most prestigious department store) and dotted with cafés.  I was in no hurry so I sat down to look at the large and lumpy fountain at the square’s centre.  It was surrounded by sculptures of bathers and sun-worshippers which must have looked quite striking had the fountain been working but which looked strangely silly without water splashing all over them.   
The fountain on Wittenbergplatz

Much less silly was the metro station over the road, a building of unmistakably Hitlerian vintage.  Its Third Reich overtones were emphasised rather than mollified by a panel outside the main entrance.  Under a heading which read Places of terror which we must never forget, it lists twelve of Hitler’s most notorious concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka. 
Outside the metro station: 
the 'places of terror we must never forget'

No-one could ever seriously suggest that Germany doesn’t acknowledge the horrors of its past in its capital city.  As I looked at the panel, and remembered the other memorials I’d seen yesterday, I wondered if other cities might not learn useful lessons in Berlin. 

British history is stained with unremarked and unremembered bloodshed - we invented the very idea of concentration camps, after all; Turkey refuses to acknowledge its Armenian genocide; and both the French and the Dutch have a lot of owning-up to do; they hide their obscene levels of collaboration with the Nazis behind German guilt.  There are no self-referential holocaust memorials in France or Holland - and there ought to be.
An original mural inside the station.
The image on the right is of the world's first-ever electric train, which ran in Berlin in 1879.

On the metro...part of a game I played to find the longest composite German word.  Here, it's Beförderungsbedingungen - 'conditions of carriage'

I took the metro to Alexanderplatz and discovered, to my undoing, that Berlin has trams.  Lovely, bright, new, yellow, shiney, friendly trams.  Such is my addiction to these monsters of the streets that I travelled two stops on one of them, thus giving myself much further to walk to my ultimate destination:  the Cathedral, Museum Island and the Humboldt Box.
The sacred trams at Alexanderplatz

My walk involved a stroll by Berlin’s river - the Spree (say shpray).  To be honest, I felt a bit cheated.  Most great cities of Berlin’s status stand on great and noble rivers - the Thames, the Seine, the Hudson, the Tiber, the Arno, the Danube.  Berlin, on the other hand, stands on the German equivalent of the Gaunless or the Coquet; perfectly ordinary in its way, but a mere excuse for a metropolitan waterway.

The view across it, though, to the flamboyantly baroque cathedral, redeems its mediocrity.  And as I walked over the bridge to Museum Island, I could hear bagpipes….

Bagpipes.  Not of the squealing and irritating Scottish variety, though; nor of the sweetly mellifluous Northumbrian breed, either.  These bagpipes made a raw and gutsy sound that blasted down to the Museum Island from centuries before.  They were European Celtic pipes - and they were wonderful.

I stopped to listen to the pipers on the bridge - and their two accompanying drummers - for almost an hour (plus or minus a coffee or two).  The tunes as well as the instruments were basic and guttural and extraordinary.  One of the pipers (Henk) gave me a potted history of bagpipes; how the ancient Mediterranean echoed to their sounds, how the prehistoric Celtic tribes lent them to the Greeks and the Romans and also carried them across ‘Dark Age‘ and mediaeval Europe.

Now, of course, bagpipes survive only where Celtic culture survives - in Scotland, Ireland and Brittany - though not in Wales - and the sound has changed, too, to the raucous, ear-splitting skirl we’re used to.  These pipes were different, though.  They were plaintive and mournful.  They were the sound of standing stones, druids and mystic, mist-bound moors.


The sun was getting warmer and, so far at least, my day had consisted entirely of distractions of one kind or another.  I decided that a more business-like approach was necessary.  Sadly, I turned away from the pipers on the bridge, walked onto the Lustgarten (the ‘pleasure garden’) and finally got a full-frontal view of my goal:  the Humboldt Box.


First things first.

To a certain extent, the Humboldt brothers are symptomatic of the ‘isolationist‘ nature of British education.  Whereas almost everyone in the world has heard of our heroes - Shakespeare, Darwin, Newton - we tend never to have heard of theirs.  And, in this case, that means brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt; so extolled in Germany that the university of Berlin is named after them.
The wise words of Wilhelm Humboldt...
'The study of languages is the world history of human thought and perception'

These two towering, 19th-century intellectuals blazed many trails in the study of language and linguistics, physics, education, meteorology and exploration.  They were gifted with boundless curiosity, wonder and incisive intelligence.  They were kind and gentle men, too, whose only aim was to increase the sum of human knowledge and wisdom.

Alexander even reconstructed a dead South American language from the 40 or so words of it remembered by a parrot.

Someone should certainly write a book in English about them.  So far, nobody has.
Someone has, though, bought a mug with Wilhelm und Alexander und Ich printed on it.  Me.

The Humboldt Box is a queer, polygonal structure built by the German government to raise money for something much grander.  It sits on the site of the old Prussian royal palace, which was demolished by the Communists in 1951.  They replaced one palace with another - the ‘Palace of the Republic‘ - which was, in its turn, demolished after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 because of serious asbestos pollution.

All there is now is a vast and untidy open space with the Humboldt Box on it.  They’re hoping that the money raised from entrance fees to the Box will pay for the reconstruction of the old royal palace façade.  Behind the shell, though, the new building will be the home of the ‘Humboldt Forum’, a modern German showpiece for international art, science, research, and the exchange of ideas.

It all sounded splendid to me, so I paid my four euros and went in.

The main floor features a startling model of what this part of old imperial Berlin looked like before the Second World War.  Grand boulevards, palaces, halls, churches, the Cathedral and the many museums and galleries.  The long and stately Unter den Linden led to the Brandenburg Gate and, beyond it, to the Column of Victory.  I was seriously amazed at how magnificent it must have been; Berlin was truly a rival to Paris, St Petersburg, Rome or Istanbul.
While I was looking at the model of Berlin’s past glory, an old man wearing a Guide badge approached me.  ‘Mais maintenant - rien!’ he said.  This means ‘But now - nothing!‘ in French, although he said it in an unmistakably thick, German accent.  I told him I was English and he apologised for not being able to speak my language.  No matter, we thought.  Why don’t we talk to each other in the one language we both know a little?

Thus it was that a German and an Englishman communicated with each other for over an hour in French, a language foreign to both of them.

Hans-Georg is 87 and can thus remember the war vividly.  And how Berlin looked before the war, too.  He looked sadly at the model.  ‘It’s almost all gone’, he said.  ‘Berlin was a happy place.  It was free and friendly.  Everyone was welcome.  Everyone was loved and in love’.

I pretended to be looking at the model but I was looking at Hans-Georg.

‘That war!  That war!‘  There was real and very deep-seated bitterness and anger in his old voice.  ‘Why always war, my English friend?  It destroys and kills.  Always, always, always.  They should leave us alone, you and I, and all the people like us - to become friends and to talk’.

Sometimes, when you think you can hear someone’s voice breaking with emotion, you are only imagining it.  So perhaps I was only imagining it.

Hans-Georg was the only person I spoke to about the war while I was in Germany and I am so glad my itinerary gave us that chance.  I will not forget him and I hope that he is well.


The view from open-air café at the top of the Box lays modern Berlin out at your feet.  Behind you, the dreary tenements of Communist East Berlin; to your right, the telecom tower and the Cathedral; to your left, Under den Linden; and directly ahead, the cultural treasure-chest of Museum Island.
Berlin Cathedral:  the Dom

There’s enough brain-food there to nourish an average human culture-vulture for decades.  The Pergamonmuseum, the Altes Museum, the Bodemuseum, the Alte Nationalgalerie and the Neues Museum.  All of them are still in one stage or another of complete restoration and, taken together, they are one of the world’s greatest centres of art.
The Lustgarten and Museum Island

During my stay in Berlin, I didn’t visit a single one of them.  It’s always best, as far as I am concerned, to keep something in reserve so you have a reason to go back.

By the time I left the Humboldt Box, I realised I already had a dozen reasons to come back to Berlin.

Wilhelm und Alexander und Ich.  Indeed.


I enjoyed the walk back to Alexanderplatz metro station.  It took me through a sliver of ‘East’ Berlin and past some inordinately lumpen statues of Marx and Engels, who must surely be turning in their graves.
Herr Marx and Herr Engels

It was quite late by the time I’d finished writing up my notes back at the hotel.  I needed food, a drink and some conversation before my day was through.  So I set out to wander around Schöneberg in search of all three, rentboys notwithstanding.

I meandered past many pubs and clubs and shops and cinemas, many of them gay and most of them with lurid reputations of one kind or another.  I’m not, of course, making judgments - except about me.  Darkroom excitement has its place in the wonderful array of gay life.  But not for a bespectacled, trend-free, old and tired Englishman.

Food, drink and conversation.  I found all three at the Eckstein café.  A couple of German pork chops, a glass of ‘white beer’ - and the unforgettable Doktor Pfeier.


Post comments on this blog or email me:  truckshunters@googlemail.com
In this blogposting…
* Robinson’s German Journey:  Day Four
Proceed with caution…


Without any doubt at all, the two most-visited sites in Berlin are the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, which stand within a few yards of each other.  And you don’t need to ask for directions to find them, either.  Just do as I did - join the crocodiles of tourists as they converge on them from all directions. 

In truth, the crowds can reach football-match density, and behave in the same, apparently single-minded, way - drifting to and fro en masse, all of us pointing our cameras in the same direction at the same time, as if we were all one organism with one goal in mind.  Which is, I suppose, exactly what we were.

It is of course reprehensibly inaccurate and unfair to stereotype people in any way, which is why I do it so often.  I just can’t resist the temptation to see common traits in people who I know have traits in common already - their nationality, their language or whatever.  As I joined the devoted throngs making their way along Eberstrasse from the scraps of Wall on Potsdamerplatz, it was the way that they took photographs in a seemingly stereotypical way that caught my attention.

The Japanese group directly in front of me, for example, appeared to find photogenic qualities in almost anything they saw; a Starbucks sign, a manhole-cover, a street-lamp, the white line down the middle of the road, an utterly ordinary office-block.  One of them would stand in front of it and three others would take photos.  I often offered to take the photo myself so that they could all be on it and so that I might get an inkling of the hidden beauty in a No Entry sign or a kerbstone.  I never did.

Halfway up the street, the Japanese group crossed the road so they could take pictures of each other in front of some road works and their place was taken by a group of American twentysomethings.  They were casual, talkative and happy - and far too busy to stop and take photographs.

So they took photographs without stopping.  They didn’t bother to look through their camera viewfinders - or even in the right direction at all.  They would keep walking whilst pointing their cameras and clicking to right and left.  I was in awe of the skill involved - but unsure of the quality of the resulting pictures.  American photo albums must be stuffed with images of half a statue, stretches of pavement or gigantic American thumbs.

The British, on the other hand, seemed to bore each other to death composing their photos.  Enormous and pointless pains were taken to get sky, building and human subject in the right proportions.  Everything stopped if unwanted elements of the composition entered the proceedings - stray dogs, buses, me.  By the end of the afternoon, I was enjoying Germanic schadenfreude by identifying British tourists and walking absent-mindedly into their meticulously-composed photographs.

You can get away with that sort of thing if you’re old and grey and you limp.


At the end of Eberstrasse, a large park opens up on the left.  This is the city’s old Tiergarten - its ‘animal park’ - where the King used to hunt.

At its gate, there’s a plaque.  This is what it says…

‘Because of its history, Germany has a special responsibility to actively oppose the violation of gay men’s and lesbians’ human rights.  In many parts of the world, people continue to be persecuted for their sexuality, homosexual love remains illegal and a kiss can be dangerous.

With this memorial, the Federal Republic of Germany intends to honour the victims of persecution and murder, to keep alive the memory of this injustice and to create a lasting symbol of opposition to enmity, intolerance and the exclusion of gay men and lesbians.’

The reference to Germany’s history reminded me of another memorial I had already seen that morning....


To get from the happy, boisterous, Saturday-morning sounds and smells and sights of the Winterfeldmarkt to Potsdamerplatz, I’d had to catch the metro at Nollendorfplatz station.  And there, on the station’s wall, was a small memorial; a pink marble triangle set into the stone.  It commemorated the spot where, on several occasions, gay men were rounded up by the Nazis and beaten to death - or even shot.
Then as now, this area was popular with gay people, arty types, rebels, bohemians, drop-outs.  The unconventional, the eccentric, the subversive.  It was thus easy for the Nazis simply to corral a few of them here and leave behind, a few moments later, a pile of beaten or murdered bodies.

The lives of such people were cheap; they were disposable.  The choice was simply to kill them here or to transport them to concentration camps and kill them there.

Not for the last time today, words began to fail me.  And because we think in words, thoughts began to fail me as well.  I found myself in deep shadow, struggling to focus and enunciate my reaction.  It wasn’t easy; these events were, of course, very close to home for me....


And now here I was at the Tiergarten gate, looking at the plaque and beyond it, to the ‘official’ monument to the gay victims of Nazism.  To the thousands of men who disappeared into torture, bloodshed, victimisation, terror and death.
It is a large and solid concrete block with one small aperture at eye-level.  If you look into the opening, you see a black-and-white looped film of two men kissing.  An activity concerned only with love and pleasure but considered so dangerous and offensive that it had to be secret, here in its concrete hideaway.

That’s all there is to it.  But it was quite enough for thoughts to fail me yet again.  Ideas about how glad I was that much of the world has changed for gay men seemed fatuous and almost irrelevant and even patronising.  Not even the most liberal of reforms can ever redeem the sins committed against these men.  Never, ever.


I walked along the park’s edge to a statue of Goethe, the ‘German Shakespeare’.  I sat down and realised that I was crying a little, which is no more than my unhappy forebears deserved.

In truth, I was sitting in the shadow of a man of enlightenment and culture and beauty and grace.  But Goethe’s gaze, like mine, was fixed on the monument across the road.  The Holocaust Memorial. 
2,711 brutal, naked, unadorned, unembellished, stark concrete blocks which refuse to be avoided or ignored.

I took out my notebook and wrote what you see in the previous blogposting.

For what they are worth, I also repeat here the words I wrote in the blog that day.

‘...amongst the concrete blocks, you get lost - physically and emotionally.  Very, very sombre.  And humiliating.

That I am human, too - like the people who did these truly awful things...

I’m glad I was alone there today.  Who knows what to say or think?  Who do we condemn?  And for how long?

No language on Earth has the words for all this…’

I wondered what Goethe, or any of the many other great figures of German artistic culture, would have made of the actions of some of their descendants.  I suspect that no poem or play or novel or painting or sculpture or musical composition would have been enough.

What has stayed very strongly with me since that afternoon when I sat at Goethe’s feet staring terror in the face is my own personal shame and humiliation; my own despair and my own misery.

I was right.  No language on Earth has the words for all this.

Almost all of Berlin’s historic buildings and monuments have a unique double-edge to them.  They have the conventional historic or architectural significance such structures have anywhere they are found but are also overlaid here with a patina of meaning linked to Berlin’s central, and often regrettable, role in modern history.  Both the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag are typical of this unsettling phenomenon.
The Brandenburg Gate was built in 1791 as the royal gateway to the city - and is a splendid example of its type:  a grand ceremonial arch surmounted by a heraldic quadriga sculpture and harking back for its inspiration to ancient Greek and Roman forebears.  It has cousins in Paris, London, Rome and even New York City.

But to Berliners - and many millions of others - its power and significance are of much more modern vintage.  Construction of the Berlin Wall started here in 1961 and for years, poignant photographs of its subsequent isolation in the ‘dead zone’ were common in western newspapers.

And, in 1989, this was where the demolition of the Wall began.  The Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of the city’s unhappy division for almost 30 years, became once again a token of unity and pride.

Berliners seem to have decided to mark potentially upsetting connotations like this in a playful but curiously meaningful way.  The fake East German border guard issuing passes in Potsdamerplatz was echoed at the Brandenburg Gate by young men wearing the various uniforms of the city’s post-war occupiers and waving their flags - French, American and Russian (but not British, for some reason).  For a couple of euros they’d pose with tourists for photos.

Berlin seems to have mastered a way of ensuring that the past, whilst emphatically unforgotten, is put into some sort of uplifting and liberating perspective.  I suppose they have no choice.  Not to do so would drive the city mad.

 At the Brandenburg Gate...another 'multi-bike' - but without the beer - and a group of visitors waiting to start their tour on segways and motorised scooters

Slightly to the north of the Brandenburg Gate looms the Reichstag, the German equivalent of the Houses of Parliament.  It looks like a bouncy castle on steroids and was dreamed up by Bismarck to convince the German people that they lived in a parliamentary democracy - which they emphatically did not.

Its grandiose monumentality is undeniable but it’s symbolism and flamboyance have given it, too, a many-layered history.  In 1933, a mad Dutchman set fire to it and gave the Nazis a ready-made excuse to seize dictatorial powers.  Thus began modern Germany’s nightmare.

Then, at the end of the Second World War, the Red Army victoriously flew the Russian flag from its roof - and one of the most famous photographs in the world was taken.

Its burnt-out shell stood as a gaunt and ugly ruin in the Berlin Wall’s ‘dead-zone’ until German re-unification was formally proclaimed in front of it in 1990.

But its revival at the centre of the nation’s political life had to wait another few years.  Its next incarnation was as a weird and arguably wonderful artwork.  Artists Christo and Jean-Claude wrapped the entire building in 100,000 square metres of silvery fabric.  For two weeks, visitors came from all over the world to see this startling creation.
Finally, in 1999, Lord Foster’s re-design of the building was completed - including its amazing dome.  A spiral walkway winds upwards inside it and the views from the top are said to be the finest in the city.  The dome is even kept open late into the evening for special, night-time views.
I’m not entirely sure why I omitted this treat from my itinerary - except to say that the day’s other sights and emotions left me feeling rather enervated and melancholy.

And anyway, leaving something important undone has given me a good excuse to return to Berlin someday soon….


It’s no compliment to be propositioned by a rentboy.  It’s even less flattering to be approached by another one less than two hours later.

I realise perfectly well that I am stretching credibility to its limits when I say that I simply didn’t know that Fuggarstrasse Corner was a haunt of rentboys and their clients, though its place in the centre of a gay district - and even its strangely sordid name - ought to have been strong enough hints.

It’s a perfectly ordinary small street-corner garden - about 6 or 7 plane trees and some park-benches - and it lay on the route I chose to take from my hotel to Nollendorfplatz to find something cheap and hot later that evening.

Cheap and hot is what I could easily have had, too.  A well-dressed and very good-looking young man suddenly appeared out of nowhere by my side and said ‘You do it with me for 50 euros?’.  Oddly, my first reaction - which ought to have been a mixture of shock, irritation and threat - was to ask him how he knew I was English.

He ignored my question, smiled sexily and reduced his price to 40 euros.

As I turned to walk on, he told me how enormous and satisfying his penis was and reduced his price to 30 euros.

In a display of dyed-in-the-wool, Colonel Blimp Englishness which took even me by surprise, I told him, in my best House of Lords voice, that I had never paid for sex in my life and ‘had no intention of ever doing so’ (although my fingers were crossed behind my back).  I must have sounded like every foreigner’s stereotype of an ageing Englishman:  stuck up, repressed and defensive.  And impeccably polite.

We both started to laugh - and he reduced his price to 20 euros because ‘we Bulgarians like the English’, which sounded like a good enough response to me.  With characteristic English stolidity, though, I resisted the price-reduced temptations of the flesh and continued on my way.  I was, after all, quite hungry.

When I was approached again on my way back to the hotel, I was in an alcohol-induced mood of generosity and bonhomie.  I felt as if I could take on ten rentboys with one arm tied behind my back, Bulgarian or not.

As it turned out, Bogan - for it was he - was Croatian.  In a ground-breaking display of international relations worthy of the Council of Europe, we walked happily along Fuggarstrasse together.  As his charges for me to ‘do it’ with him plummeted like the euro itself was doing, I began to feel sorry for him and offered to buy him a coffee.

I was hugely relieved (as it were) when he accepted my offer.  We spent a very lively half-hour together commenting on the dress-sense of late-night passers-by outside Bogan’s favourite little Turkish café.  I really enjoyed it.

He left quite quickly, though, when he saw another ageing Englishman wandering by, looking lost and needy.

That little Turkish café on the corner became my late-night coffee-stop for the next two nights.

Bogan didn’t re-appear.


The next AGM will take place at 1100 on Thursday 17 May at the Newcastle Art Centre at the bottom of Westgate Road.

Perhaps this time it’ll be open!

If you have any agenda items, please keep them to yourself.


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