The apartment is just off the Kurfürstendamm, on the top floor of a building constructed around 1910. It is light and airy and quiet. It has a central location but there is no sound of motorism. The building is created around a courtyard which has large mature trees and a glorious spread of flowers and bushes and plants. Blackbirds sing and doves perch on balconies and railings. There are five flights of stairs and the stairwells are lit by large windows with large panes of yellow coloured glass. On sunny days this amplifies the sense of sunlight. On each landing there is a substantial brown painted door with big locks and tough looking knockers or elaborate bells.
The main streets are wide and this encourages perambulation. There is a small public space nearby and the local children have chalked elaborate games on the pavement. I would describe this as Hopscotch. In German it’s Himmel und Hölle or Hüpfekästchen. Heaven and Hell sounds much more dramatic and I suspect much more delightful to children.
You have to take the city as you find it rather than trying to find equivalents. ‘Where’s the Berlin version of Covent Garden or Notting Hill or Elephant and Castle?’ It doesn’t really work like that. It’s difficult to imagine that anything survived the Second World War but there are streets where there are several buildings from the early 1900s and there are earlier buildings too. These give a sense of what the city must have been like before the barbarism.
The layout of the housing with the courtyards – even in central locations – helps to provide multiple pockets of green space, trees and flower beds. In addition, there are small parks at a local level and trees and bushes grow where they can. One consequence of this is that there is a surprising amount of bird song. I have never noticed birds signing in the streets of central London and it’s something I will listen for the next time I’m there.
I walk up to Charlottenberg Station. A woman on the corner communicating to someone on a mobile phone. She has such a just-so-outfit, all matching in purple, black and pink. I join the queue to buy a ticket. I’m ok with doing this, but I’m not sure whether it needs to be stamped. I can’t think of the word. As the woman behind the counter gives me the ticket I make a charade in which I make a stamping movement. She smiles and tries not to laugh.
‘Stampe’ she says.
‘Stampe’, I repeat. This is the great thing about learning a language. Once you’ve got enough words to buy a ticket and explain it’s just a single you want, you start getting into conversation. And then you learn new words in a way in which they won’t be forgotten.
I bet she sees a great deal of life’s high and low points here. Just another day dealing with the public for an average sort of wage and a never ending noise from managers who never have to deal with the public. No doubt there are PowerPoints and spreadsheets and efficiencies and initiatives and changes about to happen. And through all this, railway workers throughout the world drive trains, sell tickets, sort out the most mind-expanding problems and go home and put their feet up and dream of the day when there are no managers and somehow, just about, the railway workers will run the railways. And if the public behave themselves, they might get a say in this too.
The railway across the city is a marked alternative to motorism. People sit and stare at their phones, read books, look out of the window, fall asleep, dream their strange day dreams and thoughts. A woman wearing a white coat gets on holding a small red child’s bike. It has a white basket on the front and yellow stars painted on it. The wheels have a yellow trim. It’s a cool bike.
I’m getting so fed up with commentaries on war. Perhaps the starting point should be what’s it like for kids? What’s it like for a kid to lose their bike, to see their toys blown up by heavy artillery? Their mum with her legs blown off? War planes. Rockets. Missiles. I look at this sometimes and all I see is old men. Old in years and spirit. Putin, Biden, Johnson, Trump. All the same. Lies and lies and lies and lies. Corruption and money greed. All part of the death-cult. How many arms can we sell? How much profit from rocket launchers and cluster bombs? How can we test our air bombs? We need to get together, all the good people, and sweep these hypocrites and war mongers away. And put the kids in charge. And organise the world around red bikes with yellow stars and white baskets.
The U-Bahn and S-Bahn are nodes of connection. Of people, ideas and a surprising amount of goods. Two men are standing either side of a bicycle which is piled high with planks of wood. A Chinese woman who is carrying so many bags. What can be in them? Through Bülow Strasse Station. I assume this is named after Prince Von Bülow who wrote four scandalous volumes of memoires. There are whole passages which are surrounded by the publishers words saying ‘We have nothing to do with these statements’ (the books are at home in the library, I’ll check when I return). Bülow wasn’t sure what the response to modernism should be. In his memoires you can feel him grappling with these new problems. He senses the enormous changes going on in Europe pre-1914 but isn’t sure what the conclusions should be.
It is people such as Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci and so on – the revolutionaries – who feel the Zeitgeist and more clearly articulate it. Bulow’s memoires are the end of a certain ruling class formation. I’ve still to read volume four, which I think will probably be the most interesting part of the sequence. For this will be the revolution and much more. I can’t think why I stopped at volume three? Various distractions came along as they do. And in some ways I felt like saving volume four. I’ll read it when I get back to England.
Potsdamer Platz could be anywhere and nowhere. Is it Vauxhall in London (no, it’s not ugly enough), or Rotterdam or Paris? (I apologise for being Euro-centric here – I have yet to travel more widely). It’s the identikit neo-liberal architecture that’s beaming death rays to existing aesthetics and emitting alienation through every LED light. But it’s tricky. If it was all truly horrible that would be easier. But it’s not. There are elements of contemporary architecture – and recent individual buildings (and indeed some of the buildings at Potsdamer Platz) – which I like a great deal.
This is much more confusing to deal with, partly because ‘like’ is such as difficult thing to understand. For now we are into the complicated arena of feelings and emotions. This is a very dense maze of contradictions of which there is no easy way out. Dirty money is everywhere and is responsible for a great deal of ugliness and anti-people urban landscapes. But isn’t there something, at times, quite inspiring about a city at night, with the buildings all lit up and the red winking signals on the uppermost floors? The Shard and it’s strange elegance? The raw power of the engineering? A world of the internet and aeroplanes and smartphones and computers? These are extraordinary artefacts. That they are predicated on the intense exploitation of labour just illustrates how complex the contradictions are. And also suggest what the world might be if the contradictions of capitalist production are ever resolved.
I walk along the Potsdamer Strasse toward the Kunstgewerbemuseum. I don’t know why, but the space feels wrong. Is it because I walk everywhere and so much is built for cars? I’m not sure. It feels bereft of people. Berlin is a city full of people. I notice kids playing in the streets, on their bikes. I don’t see that in London much anymore. The streets feel largely safe. I don’t experience that nasty sense of menace which comes unexpectedly in England sometimes. We live in the age of Neo-liberalism. I’m not sure we’ve properly learned how to describe the lived street experience of this.
I buy a ticket for the museum. The conversation is all in German. It’s going well. The woman behind the counter asks me something and I’m convinced it’s ok to agree. Except I say ‘oui’ instead of ‘Ja’. Neither the woman, the museum attendant next to her, or myself can stop laughing.
And then I’m inside the most wonderful space I’ve been in for a long time. Suddenly I’m immersed in the fashions and costume from the 18th century to the 20th century, tapestries from 1525, Art Nouveau furniture. It is like being in a trippy dream, a space where one comes alive, where the world is suddenly there in it’s magnificent glory. A lifetime could be spent in this space and it would never be enough. And yet life is treated so shabbily, blown away for some vain ego, the hard steel fins of a rocket. It’s all here. Life, death, socialism or barbarism. Now it feels as if history itself is under threat. There must be a better way than this, a much better way than this.