There’s a mirage effect in the Channel. A ship appears to be hovering above the sea. It would make a good photograph. But I must hurry as I have a train to catch, and then a plane. I glance at the ship one more time and hasten to the railway station. The mean spirited and greedy ticket prices on the ‘Great British Railways’ – or whatever the latest branding is – means that certain trains are full because they are the first to allow the ‘cheaper’ tickets. This is all relative. Unless a ticket is booked months in advance there are very few that can be described as cheap. Southeastern Railway doesn’t even offer this concession. And a day return before 10am is nearly ninety pounds.
I’m on the first of the ‘cheaper’ trains. It’s soon full up. An elderly woman sits next to me. She’s wearing bright green trousers and clutches her bag closely for most of the journey. The wifi stops working but the endless announcements don’t. There isn’t so much as five minutes without the booming voice that warns us all to ‘see it say it stick it up your jumper’. It’s even worse on the London Underground where it is played constantly. Anecdotal evidence suggests that vast numbers of people hate it. I’ve had casual conversations with Underground workers and asked them if the endless announcements bother them. A tall young Black woman shook her head in a fed up sort of way and answered, ‘When I get home, it’s all I can hear in my head’.
Through east London on the Docklands Light Railway. There’s a new type of housing that’s built just to be rented. Nothing wrong with renting. It could be run in such a way that the housing was of good quality, the rents were low in cost and the tenants had several law books full of rights. Instead the train passes a block which has banners hanging from the balconies declaring ‘Fizzy: Reinventing Renting’. Prices start from £1200 a month and the smallest ‘unit’ (not so long ago a flat might be a home) is a studio. Once known as a bedsit. It’s not easy to find out much about Fizzy by a few searches on the internet. More specialist (and fee-paying) datasets are needed. The only result I do get is from 2014 and states:
‘Fizzy Living has secured a £200m capital commitment from a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, enabling the company to speed up its private rented sector expansion while handing a ‘substantial shareholding’ to the investor.’
That actually tells us a great deal in just one sentence. I’ll do some more research when I get home. And I need to have a proper walk around this part of east London. From the DLR train it all feels oppressive and without much space. And neither from the street nor the train does one learn anything about how it was financed, who owns it, how much profit is generated and all those other unpleasant aspects of neo-liberalism which are kept hidden.
At the airport my two bags get selected for extra scrutiny. They are swabbed and I have to open my small suitcase for closer inspection.
‘What’s this?’ the woman in a black suit asks. She seems to be having a bad day. The woman who had been in front of me had every single thing taken out of her bag and all the lotions and creams were taken away for forensic examination. When they are returned, some very small print on the side of one of the jars is pointed out to her. This particular lotion looks like it won’t be flying anytime soon.
‘Oh that’, I reply, ‘is a box of tea’.
‘A box of tea’, the woman says to herself as she checks for explosives one more time. I get the sense of a small quantum entanglement and that while this is her day job, her evenings are spent studying Sebastiano Timpanaro. In all the fuss I nearly lose my mobile phone and wallet.
I’ve become involved in a conversation with an Irish guy who works in corporate hospitality and he’s in the middle of telling me a story about going to Dubai – or was it The Hague – and something about a credit card booking and nine people. I’m trying to follow this story and keep an eye on my luggage being taken apart. There is always a lot of seeming random stuff in my bags and I find it difficult to explain to myself, let alone the authorities. And now I’m trying to double-guess the questions about various objects I’ve packed and following a convoluted story about a corporate box at Silverstone. I’m beginning to think he’s one of those people who doesn’t quite twig when the other person isn’t really listening because they are distracted by other things. Later I wonder how that works in the world of corporate hospitality? But perhaps the trick there really is to just keep talking without any regard to whether anyone is listening or not.
I sit in the airport and watch the planes take off. Apparently if you’re not keen on flying, it’s recommended to visit airports and do this sort of thing. I’m not convinced. Watching the planes take off makes me feel rather queasy and I move seats. I remember that I have a birthday card to post. For some reason I was convinced that an airport would have a letter box. Now I’m not so sure. I ask the woman in WH Smith’s who says I should have posted it down stairs, before I did all the security checks. And then she very kindly offers to post it later.
The passengers walk across the tarmac to the plane. It’s windy but aircraft are aero-dynamically designed and are used to this sort of thing. The woman next to me seems nervous and mechanically shakes her head when I offer a mint before take-off. She maintains a rigid tension throughout the flight. I’m sitting next to the window and have remembered to clean it with a lens wipe to help with taking photographs. The plane slowly moves to the take-off part of the runway and then without any further ado the engines open up, a great roar and the plane accelerates away. And then the mysterious sense of leaving the ground. The plane seems to slow down and the question is whether it’s going fast enough. And then it banks to one side and one wonders if there’s a problem. It seems to be losing height. Is this normal? I’m not sure that this is the correct route. Surely Frankfurt is over there?
The curving shape of the Thames is impressive and the Dartford Bridge can be seen and then DP World London Gateway. Is that Faversham over there? And is that Canterbury? It’s a real shame that there’s not a map of the route to study. And then we are over the coast and that must be France or the Netherlands. I take a lot of photographs hoping to map the route out at some point in the future with a mix of satellite imagery and detailed Ordnance Survey maps. It would be interesting to work out which part of the English coast was crossed. Down below in the Channel there are several ships. From up here it makes me think that they must be under instructions not to pick up refugees for I have never heard of any commercial ships doing this.
These thoughts are interrupted by the trolley being pushed down the aisle. It’s a choice of one drink and a bag of crisps or a brownie. I opt for the latter and a cup of tea. It’s a tiny cup and the liquid is thick and intense. It’s a break in the routine of looking out of the window and when this ‘meal’ is finished the plane has begun it’s descent. The engines sound as if they are about to stop, I’m sure something has just dripped onto my head from the luggage rack above my head and the wing is bouncy up and down as the plane goes into thick cloud. Then the plane begins to bounce up and down. The woman next to me has had the right idea all along. She’s had nearly 90 minutes of practising a rigid pose with her arms firmly gripping the arm rests. I’ve been straining to look out of the window and now realise I don’t have much to cling on to at all. I wish I did.
This bouncy up and down has deeper moments when the plane appears to fall a little in the sky. It gets more bearable once we’re out of that particular cloud level. However, I’m puzzled to see an airport to the south which the pilot seems to have missed. I’m trying to think what other huge airport there might be so close to Frankfurt. That’s certainly Frankfurt down below. The various towers of the financial district are plain to see and the ECZ (European Central Bank) building is distinctive, regardless of what one thinks of its design. And there’s Offenbach and the lovely green space on the opposite side of the river where M– and I had a lovely walk around one afternoon. But where this plane is off to is a mystery. But then it turns around. And we fly over Offenbach again but this time with a different view and then the market gardens and the finance centre. Autobahns and railway lines, a power station, blocks of housing, a huge hill covered in trees which creates a mental note for further exploration. The land is becoming closer once again.
The experience of flying and airports is of huge amounts of infrastructure which are oddly disconnected. On leaving the plane we walk across the tarmac and have to get on a long bendy bus. I’m in a seat waiting for the bus to move when an elderly woman is helped on by an airport worker. I immediately stand up to offer my seat as I’m the closest to the door.
‘No, you sit there’, she says, ‘you were there first’,
‘No’, I say, ‘come and sit down’.
‘Thank you’, she replies, ‘but you can sit here too’.
I sit back down next to her and we instantly spark up conversation. She has lived in Frankfurt since 1956. ‘I married a German man’, she says. And tells me that he was a musician. She in turn was a linguist and taught at the university. We discuss New Frankfurt and the Städel. I notice that she’s carrying a National Gallery bag. She tells me that she is now 88 years old and that she gets dizzy. She speaks in English with a German accent. I carry her bags and help her off the bus. She does this slowly and deliberately. I step down first so she can hold on to me and another worker in a yellow high viz jacket who’s turned up. As she puts her foot forward from the bus to the ground I notice that she is wearing the most fantastic pair of mauve coloured suede boots.
It takes 40 minutes to go through passport control. More than half the time it took for the flight. The guy in front of me in the queue tells anyone within hearing distance that it’s all the fault of Brexit and that he’s got to be at work in the evening and he’s going to be late. Two other people join in the Brexit bashing. I do too. I’m sure there are many evil aspects to the EU and in principle I’m not in favour of it. But Brexit to me was always an alt-right project and it’s emboldened the right in lots of different ways. Farage, apparently used to support the National Front and when I read that I thought, yes, this is National Front type stuff. It’s amplified the Little Englanders who supported it much more than it’s amplified those on the left who supported it.
Finally it’s my turn to be confronted by the police at passport control.
‘Why are you visiting Germany?’
‘Holiday’. I reply
‘And how long do you plan to stay?’ the policeman asks.
‘About ten days’, I reply. He looks at me so I add.
‘I’m here to study New Frankfurt’.
He looks at me.
‘You know, Ernst May and Ludwig Landmann and Greete Lihotzky-Schutte and New Frankfurt in the 1920s’.
‘I don’t know this’, he says.
‘It’s world famous’, I tell him. ‘Frankfurt was one of the most progressive cities in Europe, possibly the world. Architecture, housing, hospitals, clinics’. I was going to add, ‘sports pavilions, drinking fountains and the Futura font’ but something tells me this might be pushing it.
He looks at me from above his mask but I have no idea what that look in his eye suggests.
Frankfurt airport is huge and this is what I mean about disconnected infrastructure. I follow all the signs to exit but where is the public transport? I ask at the information stand and am told to get the escalator and then catch the sky train to Terminal One. It’s a monorail which runs through the airport and a great mass of buildings. One of the anti-Brexiteers is on there too and he’s engaged in discussion with an elderly woman who he is helping with onward travel arrangements.
The train stops but the doors don’t open and a guy near me says, ‘how do I get out?’ How should I know? I’ve gone into Zen travel mode where I am seeking a higher state of being where nothing matters in terms of where the train might go, or where the mono-rail ends and the S-Bahn starts. We could go round in a circle of Frankfurt airport all day for all I care. The sky-train moves again. When it stops again the door opens and we all get off. There is then another huge march through yet more airport infrastructure and once again the signs suddenly disappear and I cannot work out how to get to the S-Bahn. I go and ask a woman working at Turkish airlines. She points to a huge sign which clearly says ‘S-Bahn’. How did I miss that?
Downstairs there is a further information point. The man looks one of the least likely customer servant agents I’ve ever seen. He has the sort of face that Fassbinder made movies out of. I ask him if he speaks English. He sort of shrugs in a non-committal way and says, in German, ‘why not in German’. Ok. And so I ask him in German how to get to Offenbach and can I go on the train or the S-Bahn, and does he sell tickets ( of course not) and ok, how can I buy a ticket – ‘the green machine’ he says in English, pointing. I was mighty pleased with that conversation. He doesn’t wish me a good day or pleasant journey, he doesn’t remind me to keep my possessions with me at all times and he would no more say ‘See it say it stick it up your jumper’ than he would vote for a Tory politician.
There was something about the ticket I bought that made me uneasy. I went to check in the travel centre and discovered that I’d brought the wrong ticket. The man in the travel centre sorted it out for me. He explained that I bought a ticket for the bus and that’s a nice journey through the forest but it takes quite a long time. By the time I got to the platform I just missed the through train to Offenbach-Ost. I wait and then catch a train to the Hauptbanhof and then the S-9 to Marktplatz.
In the sunny evening light this train runs parallel to the market gardens and allotments which were part of New Frankfurt in the 1920s. Ernst May had the idea that this would create work for the unemployed and that it would be useful, productive work which would grow fruit and vegetables which could be sold in Frankfurt itself. I had once walked through this area of farming and stopped to take some photographs. A guy came over to ask what I was doing. I explained the New Frankfurt research and this and that. He stopped and talked to me for a long time. His grandparents had been some of the first farming tenants in 1927 and he had been involved in organic farming here for several years. He explained how difficult it was to make money and the pressures from much larger agricultural operations and the pressures from the supermarkets. He told me where to go to see one of the remaining farm buildings which had been constructed in the 1920s.
There it was again in the sunny evening light. New Frankfurt come to life once more. The greenhouses and the agricultural machinery and the land freshly tilled. There’s a lot of vandalism now and capitalist economics make it harder still. But there’s an idea there. An idea of an alternative way of production and of life. And ideas are like seeds. It’s never clear what they might grow into. But as we know, from the acorn, the mighty oak. An idea might be an acorn size now, but an idea can grow to oak proportions, and oaks can form immense forests. And the process of growth itself presents many possibilities.
I liked finding the air of New Frankfurt once again, the air of progress and of freedom. It is much easier to breath in such air than the stench of neo-liberalism and Tory corruption.