Saturday, 23 January 2016

Olympus Pen F 40mm f/1.4: Ruined Smiling

Let's have a look at the Olympus Zuiko 40mm f/1.4. It was one of the standard lenses for the Pen F half-frame SLR of the 1960s. It was a posh replacement for the 38mm f/1.8 that came with the camera. Olympus sold four standard lenses for the system - the 38mm, the 40mm, a 38mm f/2.8 pancake lens that made the camera really thin, and a 42mm f/1.2, which was the system's big show-off lens. Half-frame cameras had a 1.4x crop factor, so the 40mm is a slightly narrow 56mm in full-frame terms.

Physically the 40mm and 38mm are very similar. My 40mm lens is an early model with a conventional aperture ring. When Olympus launched the Pen FT they modified the lenses to work with the FT's lightmeter - the aperture ring could be rotated to show a set of numbers that corresponded with the lightmeter scale, although you could use conventional f-stops if you wanted.

As you can see the coatings appear to be different - the 40mm has a golden hue, the 38mm is much subtler. Compared to full-sized SLR lenses they are both tiny little jewels with cute end caps. The lens hood is a retro affair that clamps gently onto the front of the lens.

Performance-wise they're essentially the same; sharp in the middle at all apertures, no obvious optical deficits. Judging by this test the corners aren't so good at wider apertures, but for a fast standard lens that doesn't really matter because the corners will never be in focus. For the night-time shots in this article I used ISO 100 Agfa Precisa slide film, with the lens wide-open and the shutter at 1/30th or 1/15th, and it was sharp where it mattered.

Perhaps because the frame is vertical I find that lenses seem wider on the Pen F. The 40mm didn't feel limiting. If you already have the 38mm there isn't really a compelling reason to switch to the 40mm, but on the other hand you could sell the 38mm to fund your purchase of the 40mm, which is what I did.

The Pen F
Along with the lens I got hold of an original Pen F. Olympus sold three Pen SLRs. The Pen FT added a lightmeter and some tweaks, the FV kept the tweaks but removed the lightmeter. The FT had a dimmer viewfinder window than the other two - some of the light was diverted into the meter - and having compared them them side-by-side I can confirm that this is noticeable. The Pen F's ground glass focus screen seems to "pop" whereas the FT is a bit vague. Let's have a look at those tweaks. Just as Hitler ruined that moustache for everybody, so the Aphex Twin ruined smiling.

Those tweaks, let's have a look at those tweaks:

From the front, with the lens removed. Full-frontal nudity was taboo in Hollywood films for most of the first half of the 20th Century. There were scattered instances of full-frontal nudity in some of the edgier, artier films of the 1960s, but pubic hair didn't became hot box-office until Catch-22 in 1970. From that point onwards almost every Hollywood film had pubic hair, until of course Star Wars ushered in a new era of family-friendly blockbusters, but surely Chewbacca is naked, so perhaps Star Wars had masses of pubic hair after all.

Apropos of nothing, a Pen F shot with an infrared camera

I grew up in the 1980s, a time when pubic hair was no longer in vogue; it's not that nudity was unacceptable (NSFW), it's that pubic hair was seen as a throwback to the unwashed hippy era, and so women shaved it off. Nudity in the 1980s was clean-shaven, generally topless, and the women looked as if they had been to the gym at least once. The FT added a self-timer lever so you can take selfies, and the shutter speed dial became one of those lift-and-twist things so that you could set the lightmeter's ISO. Along the way the F's peculiar gothic logo was removed, although it remained on the lens caps. Why did Olympus decide on a gothic font for such a modernist camera? Dunno.

Let's look at the back and top:

The FT has a little rectangular window that shines light into the viewfinder, illuminating the lightmeter scale. It works surprisingly well provided you don't put your finger over it. The FT also has a single-stroke winder, whereas with the Pen F you have to pull the little winding lever twice when you advance the film.

Hollywood has had an odd relationship with bottom nudity. In films such as Splash and Cocoon it was a way of showing nudity in a PG context, but back then bottoms were not nearly as central to our collective sexuality as they are today. In the past bottoms were funny rather than sexy, but over the last twenty years or so Western culture has embraced bottoms. Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez and Elliot Offen have built business empires on their bottoms.

The F and FT have slightly different bottoms; the tripod mount is in a different place, and as a consequence you have to use different cases:

The FT also has a hole for the battery.

How about the sides? The F's more compact winding lever looks more elegant. NB there wasn't a motor drive or speed winder for the Pen F system; on the whole it had a limited range of accessories, mostly concentrated in the macro and medical imaging fields. Half-frame was apparently also popular for police mugshots, although the police generally used modified full-frame SLRs.

The Pen F range had cold accessory shoes that mounted on the viewfinder, which is why so many of them have chipped or broken viewfinder surrounds. The cameras had flash sync at all speeds with the PC socket above (the X marking is for electronic flashes, the M is for old-fashioned flash bulbs).

I like the Pen F. It's small and perfectly-formed, and it's a proper SLR. So far I've used the 38mm, 40mm, and 25mm f/2.8 lenses; the system was modest and concentrated in the normal-to-telephoto range, perhaps because the vertical format lent itself to portraits, or perhaps because the smaller format wasn't ideal for large landscape prints. There was only one lens wider than 25mm, a 20mm f/3.5.

Pen F lenses can be adapted for use on Micro Four-Thirds and NEX cameras with a simple metal ring; they're generally smaller than their modern autofocus equivalents, and a couple of them will fit into a jacket pocket. Alas there's no easy way to mount them on a full-frame SLR, so I can't objectively evaluate their performance. Nonetheless the 40mm f/1.4 pleases me, and that's what matters.

Monday, 18 January 2016

The Revenant

Off to the cinema to see The Revanant, an extraordinary new film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a man who is hunted by Native Americans, mauled by a bear, left for dead, hunted by Native Americans again, cast down a river, frozen, forced to eat raw fish and raw beef despite being right next to a roaring fire, beset by infection, attacked by French people, thrown off a cliff, frozen again, and then stabbed and punched several times. The film has a number of problems and will disappoint women who expect to swoon over Leonardo DiCaprio - he's a mess - but on the whole it's a refreshing mish-mash of epic manly high adventure and arthouse cinematography with a little smidgeon of unsubtle arthouse symbolism and a fantastic soundtrack. If I had a rating system I would use a stuffed toy rabbit like Gus Honeybun and I would bounce it four times on the table and that would be my rating for The Revenant goodbye.

It takes place in the snowy wastes of Louisiana during the early 1800s, so it's a costume drama like War and Peace or Downton Abbey. But the overall impression I had was of science fiction, along the lines of 2001 or The Martian. Director Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki shot the film in Alberta, which looks like an alien planet. There are numerous show-offy compositions, and famously the whole film was lit with natural daylight. The mixture of flat lighting, hand-held camera and tight close-ups add to the film's bleak, realistic air; the pre-John Wayne flintlock rifles and crude leather outfits give the film a timeless quality. The Revenant could have been set two thousand years before the birth of Christ or ten thousand years from now on a planet orbiting Tau Ceti, and it would work just as well.

The Revenant also put me in mind of Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God, although it's not as good. It's more attractive, but that's because it had a much bigger budget and the production team had access to computers, but on the other hand the character drama is full of clichés and the themes - theft, the great nothingness, man's animal nature and so on - are too vague to be truly compelling. Aguirre followed a magnetic despot, whereas The Revenant is stuck with a hero who is overshadowed by his nemesis.

The script is a mixture of grunts and commands, and Leonardo DiCaprio only has one good line. There is a single memorable speech, but it's delivered by British actor Tom Hardy in an impenetrable accent so I'm not sure what he said. Something about a delirious man mistaking a squirrel for God. It was a good speech. Film school students will probably pore over that speech in years to come.

Everybody involved in the production earned the heck out of their payslip. I learn that twenty-nine members of the production crew were killed during the lengthy shoot, which at one time became stranded from civilisation for so long that the wardrobe staff ate each other. When Iñárritu was confronted during promotional interviews he was unapologetic. "I did not say that actors should be treated like cattle", he told the interviewer. "I actually said that actors should be eaten, full stop". When pressed, he gestured to a small wooden figure of a man. There was a hole burned through it, all the way through, where the heart would be.

During one infamous incident Iñárritu had the entire catering crew put to death because the head chef's mobile phone went off. It wasn't even during a scene; Iñárritu forbade anyone from carrying modern technology, with the exception of the 65mm digital Arriflex cameras with which the film was shot. The catering crew were blindfolded and tied to trees; the wind did the rest. Now their dessicated corpses are a warning to others. Midway through production the crew developed a primitive new religion with Iñárritu as the creator/mother, the camera - the ata - as the continuum of life, and DiCaprio as a living representation of the human spirit. They regularly clothed him in cloth woven from the bark of the mulberry tree. The female members of the production staff were allowed to bathe his feet. This pleased him.

Now he has been nominated for an Academy Award. Who will beat him? Difficult question. DiCaprio does a tonne of physical acting but he has very little dialogue and essentially no character development - there's a suggestion that he has some kind of epiphany at the end of the film, but he begins as a fundamentally decent man in a brutal world and ends that way. Of the other nominees, Bryan Cranston is a television actor, Matt Damon has the same problem as DiCaprio, Eddie Redmayne has won already, and I'm done with films about Steve Jobs. Besides which I can't think about Matt Damon without also thinking about this.

Perhaps DiCaprio will win after all. The Revenant isn't entirely cinema verite. There are CGI buffalo, what must have been a CGI bear, and presumably the poor horses were CGI as well, but otherwise I have no doubt that Leonardo DiCaprio really did wade in a frozen river, climb up a bank of earth, run across snowy wastes etc, which is good of him. The film also stars Domhnall Gleeson as the leader of DiCaprio's pelt-stealing expedition - Gleeson's character is an honest company man who finds himself just out of his depth - and I realise that purely by coincidence I have now seen two Domhnall Gleeson films, because he was also in Star Wars. He must have shaved off his beard in the interim, unless it's a beard-wig. And the film also stars Tom Hardy as a no-nonsense fur trapper who leaves DiCaprio to die. Hardy's character has an arc, unlike everybody else, but it's not a convincing arc; his switch from moaning minnie to murderer is very abrupt.

Hardy's character is the most interesting in the film. He reminds me of Tom Berenger's Sergeant Barnes, from Platoon, in that he's not necessarily evil, he's just a hard nut with a well-developed instinct for self-preservation. The Academy has nominated DiCaprio for Best Actor and Hardy for Best Supporting Actor, but in reality Hardy is the co-star. His accent is terrible but he has charisma; if this had been a spaghetti Western, he would have been the main character. Hardy and DiCaprio are both driven by an urge to survive, the crucial difference being that Hardy does not mind if this involves letting other people die. For most of the film he is a dark mirror of DiCaprio rather than an outright villain. He has a charisma that everybody else lacks, and the scattered instances of outright villainy feel out-of-character. Typically in films of this nature the villain is portrayed as a venal monster and homosexual, and the hero is driven to destroy him in order to reassert the conservative, heteronormative order, but in The Revenant the central conflict grows organically from the situation rather than being imposed by the story. The second-most-interesting character is a resourceful Pawnee who is badass and departs the film far too soon.

This leads us to the first of the film's problems, or second depending on how I have reordered the paragraphs. DiCaprio brings his game but the character is boring. He is a stereotypical "white person with a heart of gold", a fiction from films that doesn't exist in real life, and I should know because I'm white. We learn in flashback that he had a Native American wife, but their village was burned to the ground and she was murdered. His son survived, and he is trying to make a living for them both by acting as a guide for hunters. Periodically his late wife comes to him in visions, generally when he is down in the dumps. The problem is that this is all a massive cliché that has appeared in countless films already, including Conan the Barbarian and Braveheart and Gladiator. I suppose I have to treat every film in isolation, but I just can't.

The Revenant is based on a book, which is loosely based on a supposedly true story, but there must have been a better way. DiCaprio's love of his wife and son explain where he gets his mojo, but it feels trite. What really drove these men to risk their lives for a bit of money? Was it just the money or something else? By giving DiCaprio such a simplistic motive the film lets itself down.

Plot-wise the film divides into two unequal halves - a lengthy, tense survival epic followed by a conventional Western revenge drama that feels tacked-on, as if the director wanted to have an old-fashioned fist-fight. Like a lot of sci-fi novels the film tries to combine an impressionist portrait of an environment with a straightforward human drama, which inevitably feels unsatisfying; after two hours of epic wonder it ends with two men hacking at each other with knives.

And there's the symbolism. Alejandro Iñárritu has something of John Frankenheimer or Sidney Lumet about him, in that his films are tough and unsentimental but with occasional flashes of dreamery. For the most part The Revenant strikes an solid balance between gritty thriller and arty meditation, but it's enough to have DiCaprio die and be reborn once. It's silly when it happens again an hour later, and again half an hour after that. At one point he has to spend the night in a dead horse, emerging naked the next morning; the problem is that the same idea appeared a few scenes beforehand. Iñárritu reuses shots of the moon gazing down impassively "on all poor creatures born to die", along with shots of horses doing the same, while we watch these people who lived two hundred years ago struggle and perish in a hostile world that will swallow them up. The Revenant is always gorgeous to look at, but it could have been trimmed without losing anything.

There's something about the cinematography. It's as if they had a single wide-angle lens for the outdoorsy bits. Generally this isn't a problem, but people are constantly shot in extreme close-up, with their heads almost up against the camera, so that you can see into their nostrils. Sometimes the lens is hit with spots of blood; there is a clever sequence in which a character's breath steams up the camera, clever because it works in the context of the scene. But the close-ups get repetitive, and worse than that they put me in mind of Terry Gilliam, who had a similar style. The film's mixture of occasionally cartoony close-ups and ordure reminded me of Brazil and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but whereas Gilliam used that style deliberately, it feels as if Iñárritu simply ran out of ways to compose a shot with an extreme wide-angle lens.

On the other hand, gosh that cinematography. Alberta looks freezing and magical, like one of the moons of Saturn. When the camera moves, it does so gracefully. Over the last fifteen years there has been a shift away from the smooth motion of the Steadicam in favour of jerky, newsreel-style handheld footage; in The Revenant the camera glides around smoothly, as if you were a ghost witnessing events dispassionately, rather than an active participant. The film alternates massive, static establishing shots with constantly-moving human drama, and during the action sequences the camera is always in precisely the right place at the precisely correct moment. It reminded me of Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men in that respect, which makes me wonder what it is about Mexico that produces excellent filmmakers. There is one memorable shot, which must have been taken with a drone, of a tiny tiny dot in the middle of a huge valley that grows closer until we realise that it's DiCaprio, seemingly the only human being for hundreds of miles. Is modern-day Alberta really that empty? If they cleared away the snow and built houses there wouldn't be a housing crisis.

Perhaps because they only had a wide angle lens Lubezki uses two shots throughout the film - dead-on, and slightly off to one side. Do you remember the snail? The one that Greek artists used when they were painting something. You're supposed to make the viewer's eyes look at the snail's twisty bit. Something like that. Lubezki has a snail and uses it all the time, drawing your attention away from the centre of the frame. The Revenant is an extra-wide film where the curtains continue opening, and Lubezki makes use of the extra space. Just after DiCaprio is eaten by a bear we catch a glimpse of the bear's cubs, poking their noses into the corner; a sequence by the fireside at night is given depth by a glimpse of stars in the edge of the frame, which must have taxed the camera's sensor. The Revenant is being marketed as a mainstream adventure film, and has been surprisingly popular at the box office, but I can't help but think that The Revenant is an excellent, minority-interest visual film lurking beneath a decent revenge plot. The film is generally quite slow, but it can be extremely efficient when it wants to be. The fate of a hunting party's boat is dealt with in a single quick shot, and what at first seems like an arty shot of some dust falling from the ceiling of a cabin turns out to be a clever bit of foreshadowing.

Plot-wise The Revenant is more an experience than a story, although it's far more conventional than (say) The Thin Red Line or indeed 2001. I saw the film during a very mild winter, in an air-conditioned cinema in a comfortable chair with a coffee. It was Iñárritu's job to chill me to the bone; he uses an accumulation of details to convey the difficulty and danger of trekking across frozen Louisiana in the days before GPS and Gore-Tex. A lesser director would have had the characters simply complain about the weather while clapping their arms but Iñárritu makes us feel it. He shows us nasty wounds, chapped lips, dangling snot, steaming piles of guts, the sun through frozen leaves etc. The film has a heightened realism about it. The Native American arrows cut through legs and skulls with a visceral impact; at one point a character chops off another character's fingers with a tomahawk, and although a throwaway detail the cinema gasped, because it looked genuinely nasty. The Revenant has a 15 certificate but it's really rated M, for Manly.

Older viewers will remember the classic 1993 computer game Doom II. One race of baddies were called revenants; they were giant skeletons that had a mean right hook, and they could also fire homing rockets from their shoulders. In Doom the baddies were a mixture of cybernetic monstrosities and re-animated corpses brought back from the dead. Never let it be said that computer games aren't educational.

The Revenant is a manly film. Two hours of pain and suffering. I can't see women enjoying it. As a man I imagined how I would survive in the wilderness. I imagined how cool it would be to own a flintlock rifle. We see DiCaprio's character reload a couple of times, but he still seems to get off more shots than a flintlock can hold. As a British person I imagined killing the verminous French - it was quite normal in those days to kill French people, they represented everything base and evil in the world. I imagined how cold the actors' feet must be, having to stand in water all the time with crappy boots, and I also imagined how I would look in Domhnall Gleeson's outfit. He wears a faded military uniform that looks like Sergeant Pepper crossed with Mumford and Sons.

The film has one female speaking part, and she only says a few words. She does make an impression however because she is handy with a knife, and on one level she's really the main character. DiCaprio's hunting party is attacked by a Native American chief who is trying to find his kidnapped daughter; throughout the film he talks about her obsessively. At first it seems as if the man has gone mad. She must be dead, surely. But Iñárritu makes it clear without saying so explicitly that she is very much alive, and she eventually plays a pivotal role in the film. A lesser director or a lesser film would have had her fall in love with DiCaprio's character, but in The Revenant they share a few words and a glance. At the risk of spoiling the ending, it's not clear whether a major character is spared a fate worse than death because he saved this lady from the evil French, or simply because the lady's dad has got what he wanted and has decided that enough is enough. The Revenant is frustrating because for all the epic scenery, it's that moment that sticks with me; the horsemen ride on, their work done. Damaged people with wrecked lives, left to make the best of what they have left.

Thematically the film is all about theft. Our heroes are unpleasantly boorish racist brutes, but the film makes it obvious that they were shaped by their environment. When Hardy's character chances upon a burned Native American village he spots a broken watch, and immediately complains that the Native Americans are a bunch of thieves, ignoring the bodies strewn all around; a Native American chief explicitly spells out the irony of the situation to a group of French trappers, but on the whole the film simply shrugs. I can go with that. We are hard to each other, and the natural world is hard to us. DiCaprio's character is not laid low by a Native American arrow or a gunshot wound to be back, he is instead mauled by a bear that was looking after its cubs. The bear attack is nasty. It has come in for some stick in the press because it looks like a rape, which seems comical. The idea of Leonardo DiCaprio being raped by a bear is funny. Truth be told it does look like a rape, but it's not funny, and the makeup effects on DiCaprio's body made me wince. Paticularly the neck wound, eww.

I'm mindful of the cynical Westerns of the 1970s, particularly Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller, which also took place in the snow. In that film righteousness did nothing to save Warren Beatty from certain death and God did not reward the good; insofar as The Revenant has a moral message, it is a surprisingly old-fashioned one, and DiCaprio's character only seems heroic because he is played by Leonardo DiCaprio. For long stretches of the film he is passive, forced to endure agony on a stretcher. His concern for his son is mirrored by Hardy's treatment of his team-mate, who he could easily have bludgeoned and left to die in the wilderness. DiCaprio's one moment of heroism feels cartoonish and doesn't really help the person he was trying to rescue (the film implies that no-one notices her running away across a mile or more of flat ground), and his final quest for revenge turns into a disaster that really solves nothing, but again we are specks in an uncaring world.

But is it any good? You have to be in the mood. Women won't like it; the popcorn audience will be bored senseless. It's not arty enough to appeal to the intelligentsia. It reminds me a bit of Gravity, in the sense that it has a simple story told in a mesmerisingly visual way. It is one of those films that sticks with you, that inspires people to become cinematographers, that makes the world seem different when you walk out of the cinema. And if you have or plan to own a 4K television, it will be one of the first titles you buy or download. It's just that a film should be more than just a plot, it should be a story, and that's where The Revenant falls down. None of the characters grow or change in a believable way, and even after journeying through the heart of darkness DiCaprio's character seems unaffected. Revenge dramas usually end with the main character a broken man, drained of humanity, appalled by the waste, but like so much science fiction The Revenant is uninterested in people.

I admit that I've lost touch with home media - do people download 4K films? They would be massive, surely. But Blu-Ray doesn't have the capacity to store a 4K film. So what do people play on 4K televisions? Upscaled DVDs? Is 4K just a big con? All the more reason to see The Revenant in a cinema, where God intended films to be seen.

NB I saw the film at the Curzon, Soho, because I am a superior sort. There were trailers for Anomalisa, a stop-motion-animation from Charlie Kaufman that didn't appeal to me, Youth, which is one of those films where elderly actors get up to antics, and The Assassin, a swordy kung-fu film that was shot in 4:3. It looks gorgeous and the audience went quiet as the trailer unfolded. Sadly they didn't play the trailer for the new Independence Day film.

Monday, 11 January 2016

David Bowie Was

David Bowie has died. He finally fell wanking to the floor. No longer will his god-given ass shimmy across the world's stage. He has died several times before, emerging afresh in a new body on each occasion, but no longer, amen.

Two years ago I went off to see David Bowie Is at the V and A. I'm not even a David Bowie fan, but it was a fantastic exhibition and it would have been a shame to miss it. It's impossible to be part of modern culture without knowing David Bowie. Like so many rock stars of his generation he was born into hum-drum suburban middle-class life and then willed himself into greatness, although he took longer to do it than his peers and the route was more circuitous. All of this happened before I was born.

In the last post I went off to Berlin. There is a lot to do and see but I felt that I had missed it, that I was too late to really appreciate it. So it is with David Bowie. I missed Bowie's rise and initial collision with fame. I witnessed some of Bowie's fallout, but by the time I was aware of pop music Bowie had stagnated. I remember the bleak video for "Let's Dance", but I also remember "Dancing in the Street", which was bleak in a completely different way.

I am in the position of knowing that Bowie meant a lot to people, without ever being able to experience him for the first time. He was always there. I simply can't appreciate the likes of Diamond Dogs and Aladdin Sane because they belong to a bygone age. They push buttons I do not have. The whole socio-sexual element of glam-era Bowie is a mystery. However his run from Station to Station right up to and including most of Scary Monsters is awesome. Conventional wisdom has it that his Berlin period was a clean break from the past, but Station feels like a prototype of Low, and the slicker sounds of Lodger lead in to Scary Monsters; there's a much cleaner break between Monsters and Let's Dance. Furthermore the first side of Low is a kind of mutated R and B, it's not really like Kraftwerk at all. "Breaking Glass" is Aleister Crowley singing drug-addled R&B over a prototype of the big drum sound that would be rediscovered in the early 1980s by Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. The same sound pops up in "A New Career", which has the most Kraftwerk-esque moment on the record, but only for a few seconds.

Low is one of my favourite albums. It's only thirty-eight minutes long and most of the songs feel like sketches, but it covers a huge amount of ground, and you can see where so many other artists borrowed ideas from it. The ambient pieces have simple, affecting little one-finger melodies, but they develop and never become static. Side one is clever and inventive - Bowie's vocals are almost dry, the guitars are clipped, "What in the World" is happy, the overall sound is Talking Heads Peter Gabriel Devo crushed into a single record that predated all of the aforementioned by a couple of years. If the electronic noises were removed, "Always Crashing in the Same Car" could have been one of those anthemic Britpop singles. "Be My Wife" is simultaneously a big pose and sad, as if he really was desperately lonely.

Bowie's futuristic Berlin period was a misstep, but a brilliant one. Bowie assumed that the electronic sounds and cold precision of Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder were the future, and they were; but he thought they would be the future of next year, not five or ten years hence. Low sold to people who were expecting another set of pop songs but "Heroes" and Lodger bombed in the States and for the first time in a few years he found himself lost for direction. He pulled himself together for Let's Dance and always kept himself busy - the 1980s was the decade in which he really concentrated on film stardom - and perhaps because of that he never had the same focus on The David Bowie Musical Project as before.

He has left every place

Bowie was always compromised by his need to be a big star. While the likes of Scott Walker and David Sylvian  gave up on mainstream success and produced some extraordinary, challenging, or in Sylvian's case extremely listenable music throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Bowie struggled with a desire to be hip and avant-garde but also very popular at the same time, and I think the only albums on which he pulled it off were Aladdin Sane and Low. The irony is that his commercial prospects in the United States tanked in the late 1990s and never recovered, and even outside the States he operated on the same commercial level as e.g. Paul McCartney, with his albums peaking in the first week at number four and then dropping out of the charts. It's sad that he didn't, or couldn't go all the way; it's not as if he was short of money. He might have used his pioneering website to release challenging new music... and perhaps he did, but I have the impression he never really got a handle on BowieNet. It was too ambitious.

David Bowie Is coincided with the release of his last-but-one-in-the-final-sense-of-the-word-last album The Next Day, and its lead single "Where are we now". A line from that song haunted me. "Where are we now, where are we now / the moment you know, you know, you know".

The moment you know what? I assumed it was a reference to his heart problems. In 2004 he had emergency heart surgery, and the doctor must have taken him aside and told him to knock it off. That he wasn't young any more. Bowie retired from touring shortly afterwards. The moment you know you're closer to the end than the beginning, that you came closer to the end than you expected.

In the end it wasn't heart disease that got him, it was the other thing. He had been ill for eighteen months and "Where are we now" has a palpable sadness to it, as if he was taking stock of his life. Most of the press has concentrated on his last-in-the-final-sense-of-the-word single "Lazarus". I think of that song and "Where are we now" as two halves of a double-A on the topic of death and regret.

Back then I wrote that there is a Last Chance to See quality to him now. At the age of 66 David Bowie has done far more with his life than you or I. He is happily married to a woman he loves and he wants for nothing. His son, Duncan Jones, is a successful indie filmmaker who seems poised for much bigger things. What does he have left to look forward to?

I'm not happy with that conclusion. There is always something to look forward to if you are a good man who has lived well. And it's unfair to single out his son and ignore the rest of his family. They have a future too.

The David Bowie Is exhibition continues. It has slowly toured the world, like Bob Dylan. It's currently on at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, Inevitably, used prices of the limited edition clear vinyl version of his new album, Blackstar, have soared. The album is actually called , but that doesn't work because this blog has a black background. I could write it like this - - but that's wrong. Every second I think of death is a second death has robbed from me.

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.