Friday, 8 January 2016

Berlin: Bees Burst with Fierce Hungry Love

The minds of bees erupt with light as they fuck the flower; they thrust their bodies into the pollen like bullets penetrating the heart of ecstasy. O! to experience the fierce hungry love of bees. To dive into the world's vagina and fuck the sun. Off to Berlin!

I actually went in early November. It took me a while to recover. It's hard to write about Berlin. It has a lot of history but most of it has been wiped away. Geographically it's built on a swamp, and although it has rivers none of them are as charismatic as the Thames or the Tiber or the Danube. It is inland, which is boring. Nowadays Berlin is turning into a generic Euro-pudding of ultra-expensive flats and houses with basement extensions, just like London.

What a perverse world we live in, that the richest of us should build homes underground. If I was very rich I would live atop a mountain. I would not spend a single penny of my fortune on an underground snooker room or swimming pool.

In a few years Berlin will be an investment haven for billionaires and their kids. For a while I could tolerate this wireless keyboard but over time it has become increasingly intermittent. The bonds of trust between us have been broken, innocence has been destroyed and I will never trust it again.

A lot has changed since 1961. Back then, men in military uniform jumped over barbed-wire barriers - now giant women in lingerie encourage other women to share pictures of themselves also in lingerie.

I can't help but think that I missed Berlin. It all happened before I got there. In the distant past it was a place where Harry Palmer cautiously snuck around bombed-out ruins while tanks went toe-to-toe at Checkpoint Charlie and brave dreamers met by The Wall. But by the 1980s that kind of thing was passé and Berlin no longer seemed like a nuclear flashpoint. When I was young the war wasn't going to start in Berlin, it was going to start in the Middle East, or perhaps it would start with the misidentification of a flock of geese somewhere in the bowels of NORAD or the headquarters of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces. Within half an hour we would be scavenging through radioactive ash for the last ever can of Spam.

During the 1980s Berlin popped up in the news every now and again, but overall it felt unimportant. Besides, people could apply for Visas, couldn't they? There was a train line that went from West to East, couldn't the East Berliners just escape through the tunnels? What was so great about mid-80s Berlin? Imagine an East Berliner cautiously raising a manhole cover and pulling himself up into West Berlin circa 1987. The West Berliners would just sneer at him and his East German monkey-money and tell him to go home, ossie.

Why would the West Berliners want to share their space with the people of East Berlin? I grew up reading Judge Dredd, which is set in a ruined future world where cramped cities of the future are surrounded by walls that keep out dangerous mutants and poor people - this was presented as a harsh but necessary measure - and as a kid I imagined what would happen if Berlin's guards met one night and swapped places. The East Berliners would wake up and rush the wall, only to be machine-gunned by guards firing from within West Berlin, trying to keep them out. "You can't have our BMWs", they would say, "or our Leicas and Porsches, besides which you can't afford to live here, naff off". When I thought of German people I thought of fat businessmen in suits.

The Wall fell when I was thirteen. My indelible memory is of Nicholas Witchell talking over fuzzy videotape of men in jeans and puffy jackets hammering away at the wall, with one of those electronic datestamps in the corner of the screen. The Wall was demolished and obliterated within a few years. I never had a chance to stand beside it while guards shot above my head, kissing as though nothing could fall. The shame was on the other side; we can beat them, forever and ever. "Do it to her, do it to Julia".

The people of East Berlin were actually given a wad of cash when they entered West Berlin, they were not machine-gunned at all. Potsdamer Platz is today a large modern shopping mall with one of those touchscreen McDonald's where you don't have to interact with the staff. I like using the touchscreen, I can spend time exploring the menu instead of having to blurt something out when I get to the front of the queue. I hate it when they ask what drink I want, doubly so in Europe because I don't speak German and I feel guilty forcing the staff to speak English but then again it's an American restaurant chain not bloody McBergmann's. I have to remember that McDonald's sells Coca-Cola, whereas Burger King... but according to Google, Burger King also sells Coca-Cola. They both sell Coca-Cola. Neither of them sell Pepsi. I hadn't noticed that until now. Google, McDonald's, Burger King, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, that is the world we live in today. Facebook and Twitter.

I must have looked a fool asking for Pepsi in Burger King. Oh sweet Jesus no. My apartment was just inside what had been East Berlin. There were traces of the former East - the paving slabs were wonky, there were lots of those plastic pipes that Berlin has - but on the whole East Berlin is now indistinguishable from any run-down city in the United Kingdom.

East Berlin

The GDR's former hub was Alexanderplatz, and although a plan to obliterate it and turn it into a mirror of Potsdamer Platz was recently defeated, the Palace of the Republic - the former seat of government - was torn down in 2006. I missed that by nine years. I never had a chance to stand beside it while guards shot above my head etc. Latterly it became a fascinating and probably very expensive art installation.

There was a time when you could be shot for approaching this line. I walked back and forth over it a couple of times; there are still lines of death in the world, fewer in Europe than there were, but perhaps they will return.

As a British person it's hard for me to appreciate the nightmare horror of East Berlin. Most histories of the Cold War are written by Americans, who contrast the grim tower blocks and empty supermarkets and crap cars of the USSR with the neat ticky-tacky houses and shiny chrome Cadillacs of boomtown USA, where everybody had a chrome walk-in fridge and a television set for every room in the house. But here in the UK life was grim after the Second World War and barely improved thereafter. We had crap tower blocks and crap cars too, just like the Russians.

Britain's post-war economy coasted for a while and then died. In the 1970s, life in the USSR didn't seem so much worse than life in the UK. When the Sex Pistols sang about tunnelling under the Berlin Wall in "Holidays in the Sun" they weren't just being provocative. Britain in the pre-Thatcher era really was a horrible place of mass unemployment and economic malaise, with no light or colour and no opportunities for young people. Naked people were grey. I think of pre-Thatcher Britain as a mirror of Enver Hoxha's Albania, a paranoid, isolationist place convinced that the rest of the world talked about it constantly, when in fact the rest of the world didn't care.

Thankfully, that Britain is gone. Margaret Thatcher and her Tory Party introduced a free market economy and now we all have DVD players and so forth. There's something quite melancholic about East Germany from a British perspective. They had comics and cartoons and pop music and books etc, just like us, and now they're totally obsolete and forgotten.

But the same is true of us, of Dan Dare and Meccano, and the ZX Spectrum and Knightmare, and even Kylie Minogue. The future belongs to the internet and particularly Wikipedia, which is American and always has been, and when kids today talk about Kylie they're not talking about Kylie Minogue. British children of the future will never know Tony Hart; instead they will grow up with repeats of Bob Ross, and they will be inspired by Mr Rogers. And yet it turns out that much of British culture was just a front for child abuse, and most of it was rubbish, and if it was so good why is it dead? The French try to keep their culture alive, but it's futile. People are the ultimate judge. They are the law, not Judge Dredd.

Yes but what about your holiday in Berlin, what about bloody Berlin, what was Berlin like? Well madam I was not spat on, nobody robbed me, none of the women flashed their breasts at me, and unlike in Barcelona none of the women grabbed me in the street and offered to make love to me. As a British person I've always been accustomed to sitting at the top table of global culture, but even so it was a shock when I first got onto the internet, in the mid-1990s, and discovered that most of the things I had grown up with were meaningless on this new frontier. Most of the things; a few things had captured the hearts and minds of Americans, but what must it be like for people from lesser nations such as Slovakia or Bulgaria? I don't know if they have the internet yet, but how will they feel when they realise that their entire national history - everything that happened, and every man and woman that ever lived - is of no consequence whatsoever? Just as each generation of mankind is cast into oblivion by its children, so it is that nations, religions, cultures, shared mythologies are pushed aside by the new nation of the internet.

I sometimes wonder what it must have been like for the last inhabitant of Easter Island. I picture him standing on the beach, watching as ships approach; he has tales to tell of Easter Island's history, but when the visitors land they march past him, and he dies unnoticed. And with him dies the final record of everything that the Easter Islanders ever did. So it will be with East Germany, so it will be with Britain.

I visited Dresden on Friday 13 November. The train was delayed on the way back. When I finally sat down and checked the news I learned that there had been a mass shooting in Paris. The next day this memorial appeared outside the Bundestag.

I can't tell what Berliners are like because apparently they don't exist. Everybody in Berlin comes from somewhere else and is just there temporarily, as in London. I drew up an itinerary of places to visit that inevitably degenerated into a scramble to see everything in the last couple of days. Two days from the end I stumbled on this set of blog posts and fell into a deep depression as I contemplated the gulf between us.

We're writing about the same subject, some of the same places, similar photographs even, but her writing has charm whereas mine is pretentious, stodgy, and incredibly pompous and just fundamentally unlikeable, essentially a weak imitation of Auberon Waugh. Our writing is different because we had completely different upbringings and exist in a totally different environment and target a different market; and of course she was probably writing with her professional voice whereas all of the words on this blog are blood-raw scrapings from the skin of my soul.

We were shaped by different things, we continue to be shaped by different things, we will never achieve meaningful communication. Locked in these bodies we are born alone, live alone, and die alone, like deep-sea divers trapped in a diving suit at the bottom of the ocean. Like that man who tried to retrieve the body of the dead diver, but he misjudged the task and died. There is no help at the bottom of the sea.

Berlin, Berlin. Tempelhof is a large disused airport and one of the few remnants of the pre-Cold War era. I say large - the building is vast but the runway is too small for modern jets, so it all had to go. Aeroplanes no longer land there. Tempelhof is eerie because it was abandoned only a few years ago, in 2008, and so all the signs still look modern. The terminal building is well-maintained and on the whole it looks as if it has been closed for a Bank Holiday, not forever.

When I went it was swarming with worried-looking swarthy men in puffy jackets, so at first I assumed some kind of Muslim festival was going on inside, but it is actually being used as a camp for refugees. The former runways were full of kite-flyers, leg-joggers, and barbecue-stokers. It is occasionally used as a film location; you might recognise it even if you have never been there. It's a bit like love in that respect. You can recognise it because you saw it on telly, even if you have never actually seen it in real life.

Everything in this post was shot with either an Olympus Stylus Epic using Fuji Superia, Ilford HP5, or Agfa Precisa; or my Moto G mobile phone

Berlin's geography is odd. The bright-lights-big-city centre of town is off to the west because it is the centre of the former West Berlin; the geographical centre is just inside the former East Berlin; the bright-lights-etc centre of East Berlin was to the west of East Berlin and so it's in the geographical centre, around Museum Island and Alexanderplatz, which has a large shopping mall but feels a bit low-rent in comparison to the area around Potsdamer Platz. East Berlin was popular a few years ago because it was literally low-rent - unusual for a modern European capital - but that's all over now.

BOXOUT: The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is now over ten years old. It's a disaster. I understand the idea - it's supposed to be offputting, a distressingly ordered wound in the heart of Berlin - but it doesn't work.

The design lends itself to photographs of people leaping across the top of the blocks, and when I was there I saw at least two couples doing this, tarting up their Facebook profiles. It's low to the ground in the middle of a traffic intersection, surrounded by ordinary shops, and my enduring memory of the place will be Hertz Rent-a-Car, kebab shops, anonymous office blocks, generic European peoplecarriers waiting at traffic lights.

The floor, with its little lights and non-slip pavement, looked cheap. Besides which, it's too late. The time for a memorial was 1946. If I had been in charge of Germany, I would have gathered every German over the age of fifty and forced them to build this memorial, and then I would have forced them to move away the rubble - just pile it up into hills - and rebuild the surrounding area until they were all dead. The unstated purpose would be to work them to death.

It's not Germans that ruined the world, it's old people, and they have long since escaped justice. Old people are the mortal enemy of humankind, not immigrants. They send their children out to die for a bit of money. The current generation of old people destroyed the world's economy and sold us all out; they will die in nursing homes in a pool of their own piss, with poorly-paid non-English-speaking nurses ignoring them. Serves them right.

Museum Island didn't thrill me much, in part because the large exhibits at the Pergamon are currently closed for renovation. The island is perfectly okay, but the museums are a bit fusty. Did I mention bottle recycling? When I go on holiday I self-cater because the thought of a package tour horrifies me. Having to pretend to be nice to a bunch of fat old English assholes, yuck. If you buy a bottle of fizzy pop from a German supermarket, you can take it back and put it into a special machine that reads the barcode, eats the bottle, and gives you 25 euro cents. That's about seventeen English pence. Not much, but imagine taking back ten bottles. Now you're talking.

The feeling of joy I had when I worked this machine for the first time is indescribable. I carefully observed the people of Berlin as they put their bottles into this machine, and at an opportune moment I stood forward and used the machine myself. No-one looked at me as if I was strange. No alarms sounded and nothing broke. Berlin did not reject me. There was no shouting, no feeling of failure and inadequacy. I had triumphed over my biggest enemies; myself, and others, and plastic bottles.

South-west of the Reichstag is a second museum complex, the Kulturforum, which was created in the 1960s because Museum Island was just inside East Berlin and thus hard to visit. The Kulturforum's Gemäldegalerie had an exhibition of works derived from Botticelli's Birth of Venus. There's a thing in galleries where you have to pretend not to be checking out photographs of naked women. You're supposed to glance at them as if you are bored with naked women. And yet, as a man, I am never bored of naked women.

Along with many millions of other people I have seen the original Birth of Venus, which is indeed striking; the exhibition was surprisingly good, given the very narrow focus; I have never been to Venus, the planet, which is just as well because its atmosphere is hostile to life.

Berlin's atmosphere on the other hand is not hostile to life. Some cities evoke within me a sensation, and so did Berlin, although I can't define or express it. Which of the artworks moved me most? That's easy, Antonio Donghi's Donna al Caffè. The colours and composition speak to me. I don't know who Donna was, but she has the expression of someone who regrets agreeing to pose for a portrait but will go through with it anyway. I have seen that expression before, quite often, in the faces of the women I have met. The other paintings that grabbed me were Canaletto's La Vigilia di Santa Marta and La Vigilia di San Pietro, two images of Venice that are extraordinary because they present night-time as genuinely dark and hard to see. The internet's scans don't capture their subtlety.

Moving on to the next thing in Berlin (looks in bag) the DDR Museum was a small hole in the wall albeit that the space was utilised well. It presented life in the DDR as a fairly pleasant place where people had houses and led pretty comfortable lives, unlike for example modern Britain, where people have to pay £600 per month to live in a shed - literally, in a converted shed - and share a bathroom with eight other people. The text mocked the DDR but the exhibits made it look surprisingly attractive. Life had purpose and meaning, and by the 1970s people had somewhere to live, and if people had to join a queue before they could have a video recorder or a mobile phone what's so wrong with that?

As for the Stasi, in Britain today you can be sent to prison for sending pro-ISIS tweets, possessing terrorist propaganda, or being a lunatic fantasist with legions of social media followers. You don't have to actually do anything to be sent to prison. You don't even have to encourage other people to do things. In Britain today, if you're a Muslim and you have Air Force One on DVD, you're in deep trouble, doubly so if you lend it to someone.

An example of East Berlin's supposedly awful housing; but in London today this would house twelve people, who would pay £400 each for the privilege of hot-bunking. Or alternatively two people paying £1,700 a month between them.

We had bog-standard cameras too. Sold by Argos. In fact Argos sold almost the exact same model of Praktica.

But that's enough politics. The Computer Game Museum is small but emotional, because it was full of kids playing video games, just like when I was a kid playing video games. Little do they know the horror in store for them. My generation had a bad deal. When I was a kid, video games were frowned upon. Parents hated them and trendy people pooh-poohed them.

Nowadays trendy people pretend to have always loved video games. The irony is that video game arcades were massive in the 1980s but were generally ignored even by the adventurous parts of the mainstream. There was no Lester Bangs or Hunter S Thompson of the video arcade, no Boswell, and as the saying goes, no Boswell, no Buck Rogers. You and I went there to watch other people beat Double Dragon while the tannoy played something by Iron Maiden, Powerslave in the 8-bit era, Somewhere in Time during the early Neo Geo period, from what I recall you used the backwards elbow attack... those albums topped the charts but, just like video arcades, the mainstream press hated heavy metal and wasn't even aware of chiptune music. My entire childhood culture was ignored or outright mocked by the mainstream media, which is probably why I have always wanted to destroy the mainstream. The mainstream mocked my culture when I was young; what essential aspect of modern youth culture is the mainstream mocking today?

Other people beating Double Dragon

Adults in those days had pub darts and pub snooker and stupid boring crap like cribbage. Kids, listen to me when I say that adults are a dead end. They have nothing to teach you. Their pastimes are out-of-date. They are the enemy, trust me. Dot dot dot but now that video games are fashionable, video arcades are still dead and will probably never come back.

Is there a place for a modern video arcade? The arcade has risen from the grave once before. When I was a very young, arcades were all over the place; they had Space Invaders, Defender, Pac-Man and so forth. Michael Jackson had a video arcade of his own, and I remember wishing I could hang out with him so badly. Sadly my dream never came true.

By the end of the decade the novelty had however worn off, and a lot of places had closed, but the release of a string of beat-em-ups - notably Street Fighter II - reinvigorated the arcade, and even in the late 1990s the likes of Virtua Fighter, Sega Rally, Star Wars Trilogy and Dance Dance Revolution stilled packed them in.

But the technological gap between dedicated arcade hardware and the Playstation and Dreamcast home consoles was modest, and despite dominating the arcades Sega still had financial difficulties, and rents increased, and I don't know. Perhaps crime kept people at home, and conversely the Game Boy meant that you could play games anywhere.

Gambling slot machines still exist, airports have those grabber machines that pick up mobile phone cases. Gaming is still huge. The Game Boy has given way to the mobile phone, and although the PC is become a niche, the Playstation is still around. Arcades are still dead. I blame rent. If rent was cheap, it wouldn't matter if the machines only brought in a pittance. There are people who would be perfectly happy to run a video arcade on a salary hovering around minimum wage, if the machines covered the rent, just so that they could run a video arcade. Also you could make extra cash by using the machines to launder money, and you could sell drugs round the back and allow prostitutes to use the toilets. That's how I would run the place anyway.

Does anybody still make arcade games? Perhaps the arcade could have modern PCs and games consoles hooked up to screens, in some kind of robust unbreakable case. The problem is, what's the point? Why travel into town to play games that are no better than the games you can play at home? Because it would be an event, and also the drugs and prostitution would bring people in. I went to the arcade to be wowed by Gauntlet and Virtua Racing, but also because it was the only place to find other people with whom I could play those games, especially four-player Gauntlet. Throw in fellatio and drugs and I would spend most of my time and money in a modern arcade. I can't see arcades having the same widespread appeal as before, but it saddens me that London's Trocadero Centre (for example) died such a horrible death. It was stripped from the inside, left to die for a decade, and eventually turned into a hotel, except that it's still not dead yet. Professional video games tournaments fulfil a similar role but the atmosphere is very different and a lot smellier.

I don't know. Professional arcade owners knew more about running arcades than I do, and they couldn't make the maths work. Rent is always a problem, and simply acknowledging a problem doesn't make it go away; if an arcade was built in the middle of Western Sahara the rent would be low, but it would be difficult to draw a crowd. I also went to Ostpacket, a store that specialises in consumer goods from the former DDR. Ostpacket was originally part of a mall, but is now a separate store. Unfortunately it meant nothing to me; there is nothing inherently amusing about recreations of goods from the former DDR, and without any cultural context it's just chocolate and ersatz Angel Delight. And some of the chocolate is still available brand new in Lidl and Aldi here in the UK.

The Reichstag is the seat of government. The interior resembles the lair of a Bond villain, although in reality it is the lair of Angela Merkel. It looks as if there is a giant laser hovering over parliament poised to turn the politicians into dust if they displease Angela Merkel. As a tourist attraction it is essentially an elevator followed by a winding staircase, although the views are nice. I found it hard not to grin during the security screening, which is carried out by stereotypically brusque German security guards. It's not my fault that jacket and ticket sound similar in German-accented English. The man must have thought I was mad when I handed him my jacket.

I dedicated an entire post to Konnopke's Imbiss, where I ate some currywurst. Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall Memorial are two sides of the tourist coin; Checkpoint Charlie is naff, the Berlin Wall Memorial is sombre and genuinely interesting. A TV screen showed footage of the protests leading up to the wall and its eventual destruction, and I couldn't help but feel a little moved by the sight of a mass of moustachioed men wearing Adidas tracksuits rushing past the camera. Back in 1989 I remember wondering why the people of Liverpool wanted to visit West Germany so much - it was only later on that I discovered they were in fact East Germans, not Scousers at all.

The East Germans were basically economic migrants, weren't they? They weren't motivated by a love of freedom, they just wanted BMWs instead of Trabants. If East Germany had been a nightmare hellscape on a par with North Korea I could sympathise with them more, although in practice the wall would not have fallen; as it stands the people of East Germany exchanged dull, ordered lives of sufficiency for a rollercoaster ride of high rents, consumer debt, and periodic economic collapse. If you ever want to irritate a left-wing person, talk to them about Berlin. They'll start to waffle on about the six months they spent living in the former East Berlin in the late 1990s where the rents were cheap and how horrible it is that the area is being gentrified but isn't that what the former East Germans wanted I mean I'm not saying that the DDR was great but, you know, but how come so many people were shot trying to get out etc. Some people think that mankind is descended from monkeys, but why not bears? They're just like human beings but with lots of fur. I telephoned the National History Museum earlier today and asked them, "why not bears?" I said this seven times down the phone as loudly as I could and then hung up.

I also went to Dresden, although I spent so much time looking at Dresden that I didn't have time to see any of it. I walked from the station to the mostly-closed Zwinger Palace, which has a nympheum, essentially a real-life Pornhub where presumably the local rich people could go and masturbate to statues of naked women.

Dresden was in the former DDR and is a curious mixture of empty spaces, modest tower blocks, more empty spaces, and run-down-but-not-unattractive streets. The station is in the midst of a large shopping mall. I walked to the military museum, which took longer than I expected. The museum resembles something from Half-Life 2. It is an old building with a jagged metal shard rammed through it, as if it is being absorbed by the Combine.

Aiee, it's Peter Elson!

The museum's curators must have had a difficult job. Military museums in Britain are stuffed with reminders of our glorious triumphs over the villainous Europeans, and at the same time they tend to fetishise Nazi-era military technology. Museums in Europe have to deal with the fact that they were the bad guys and that they lost. Furthermore Germany's military history in the last sixty years has been very modest and I imagine that the curators didn't want their museum to become a haven for the wrong kind of people, doubly so given that the museum is in Dresden.

And coverage of the Cold War is awkward because Dresden is in the former East Germany, which means that the people of Dresden were the baddies even after the war. Twenty-seven years ago the people of Dresden were itching for a chance to thrust their Russian-supplied T-72s into the radioactive wastes of what had been West Germany. It would have been interesting to see the museum try to cover that, but ultimately it handwaves the Cold War into oblivion.

The exhibits tend to portray the Bundeswehr as if it had always been a pan-German force. The museum had a faint anti-war air, and on the whole it came across as the kind of military museum a group of art students might make.

Berlin has an odd position in the history of Nazi-era Germany. It was the capital, and Hitler died there, but he spent most of his time during the war elsewhere. We expected him to flee south to Austria; we were genuinely surprised when he stayed in Berlin. The city appears to have had no special enthusiasm for Hitler and his Nazi Party, and Hitler did not think much of Berlin; he wanted to tear it down, rebuild it in his image, and call it Germania. If the Nazis had won the war Berlin would not exist today, either in name or in spirit.

Do I have any tips for people journeying to Berlin? It's not exactly Kandahar. The people of Berlin share my alphabet and culture. Berlin is easily walkable, with an extensive and cheap public transport system. The only time anybody checked my ticket was on the express train to the airport. I navigated with GPS, and despite not speaking a word of German I got along. The Berliners don't speak much English so I suppose we are equal.

Berlin has electricity - you'll need a Europlug - and wi-fi. Despite being Britain's foremost David Bowie expert I did not even try to follow his steps, because Berlin 2015 is not Berlin 1977, it's all gone. As with Italy you have to open train doors yourself. Otherwise you'll stand in front of the closed doors and the other passengers will think that there's something wrong with you and they'll get worried that you're not going to open the doors and then they'll hurriedly reach in front of you and press the button / pull the handle and you will have committed a social faux-pas.

What will I remember most about my trip to Berlin? The train ride to Dresden. Listening to this. The birds that followed the train.