GoetheIn this blogposting…
* Robinson’s German Journey: Day Four
* AGM XXXII
Proceed with caution…
ROBINSON’S GERMAN JOURNEY: DAY FOUR / PART THREE
SATURDAY 24 MARCH 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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