Life and Death and the Walls of Weetabix: A walk up Glasgow's High Street

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By James Carson:

It’s best to stop at the lights. With traffic coming from all directions, the slightest trip could put me in hospital. But it’s too long a wait for one young lad, who strikes out for the other side, ignoring the blitz of angry beeps. Beside me, a baldy bloke with hairy ears glares at the youngster, who’s now happily powering up High Street.

“Obviously trying to make a statement,” he says, eyebrows twitching. “And the statement is he’s a dickhead.”

I’m at Glasgow Cross, once the bustling centre of a medieval burgh. Today, the fish and cloth traders of old are long gone, replaced by pubs and pawnbrokers, chip shops and bookies. 

It’s the last day of winter. Tonight, the golden hands on the face of the old tolbooth clock tower will be wound forward into British Summer Time. As ever, Mother Nature is one step ahead. This afternoon, Glasgow is wearing her spring collection: a cloak of yellow sunlight, with matching cerulean sky, accessorised by feathery white clouds.

To the south of Glasgow Cross lie Saltmarket and the River Clyde; to the east is Glasgow Green – the city’s oldest park. And westward is Argyle Street, a place of pilgrimage for those who worship at the church of St Marks (and Spencer). But today I’m heading north, up High Street. It’s a road well-travelled; I often use it as a shortcut when I’m in a hurry. Today I’m taking my time.

The 120-foot clock tower at Glasgow Cross was once attached to the tolbooth, a multipurpose building whose functions included town hall, jail and reading room. Perhaps most importantly, the tolbooth was a gathering place, a stage for the mercantile glitterati to see and be seen. It was built in 1626, the same year as the finishing touches were being put to the new St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But while St Peter’s endures, Glasgow’s tolbooth was demolished in the 1920s, one of many fine buildings the city fathers have sacrificed to the wrecking ball. Only the slender clock tower remains, marooned on its own little island as Glasgow flows around it.

History is in the stones of this quarter, and in the street names: Brunswick Street recalls the House of Hanover; Blackfriars Street is named after an order of Dominican priests who founded a church near here in 1248.

High Street gets its name from the High Kirk, better known today as Glasgow Cathedral, which crowns the top of the street. If this were Bordeaux, say, or Zagreb, this quarter would be known as ‘The Old Town’, with quirky little shops selling vegan shortbread, clock tower fridge magnets and inflatable kilts made in China. There would be restaurants with buxom wenches in authentic medieval smocks, serving authentic medieval haggis. A historical tramcar would jangle its way up and down the street, ferrying tourists from Baltimore and Brisbane. 

On the lower reaches of High Street, the vibe is very different from this imagined world. People are doing Saturday afternoon things: football fans on their way to the match, students brunching on sausage rolls. There’s a Turkish restaurant (“opening soon”), a pub (closed), a charity shop (closed down), a bedding store, another pub, student flats and another pub.

Actually, not just another pub. A sign outside declares it to be Glasgow’s oldest, dating from 1515. This is a bit of creative PR on the part of the owner. The bar actually dates from the 19th century, although its shabby appearance wouldn’t look out of place in The Flintstones.

The pub may be nothing to look at, but its neighbour is a real beauty. With a two-storey step gable and a gorgeous little domed canopy (a tempietto, if you please), the former British Linen Bank building is like an exotic fusion of Amsterdam townhouse and Mughal temple. It stands now in solitary confinement, badly in need of some TLC.

In fact, this whole stretch of High Street feels rundown, although little shops are doing their best to cheer things up (“The Best Steak Pie in Glasgow!”). It’s possible that Billy Connolly was thinking of this very spot when he once mused that if a nuclear bomb ever fell on Glasgow, no-one would notice the difference afterwards. Since the Big Yin made that observation, much of the centre of Glasgow has been given a makeover, morphing from industrial relic to Barcelona of the north. Decades of grime were removed from civic buildings and a constellation of starchitects sprinkled the city with their fairy dust.

It’s been an impressive transition, and Glasgow has somehow managed to achieve it while retaining its essential character. It’s a city that can celebrate the great works by Van Gogh and Dali displayed in its galleries, while simultaneously applauding the artistic genius who used the medium of spray paint to declare that “Boris Johnson is a pure fanny.”

The final section of High Street curves round towards Cathedral Square. There are lots of empty properties here, but also a cluster of new-age businesses, dispensing everything from aromatherapy to tarot card readings. And there’s an off-licence, so if the cards say your future’s not looking rosy, you can quickly hit the rosé.

Above the shops, sturdy tenements in red sandstone lend an air of dignity to the street. If Toulouse is La Ville Rose, and Aberdeen is the Granite City, then Glasgow is simply red. The russet colour features strongly in tenements all over the city. They’re made from an iron-rich building material that dates back nearly 300 million years, when Scotland was covered by a vast desert. The same colour can be seen today in the sands of the Sahara that are sometimes carried by dust storms to fall on Glasgow as ‘blood rain’.

The vision of Glasgow Cathedral at the top of High Street is an uplifting moment. It was built between the 12th and 15th centuries, and is the only mainland Scottish cathedral to have survived the Reformation intact. The interior has soaring gothic arches and sublime stained glass. Below, the tomb of Glasgow’s sixth century founder, St Mungo, underlines its historical resonance. When it was completed, Pope Nicholas V declared that a pilgrimage to Glasgow Cathedral was the equal of one to Rome. It’s fabulously beautiful. 

Across the square, the Museum of Religious Life and Art is less so. Opened in 1993, it was intended to blend in with its venerable surroundings, but doesn’t quite get there. The exterior walls seem to have been crafted from breakfast cereal (it’s known locally as Fort Weetabix), and there’s a Disneyfied attempt at a bishop’s castle. The whole effect is less medieval masterpiece, more product of the muddle ages. I could spend the rest of the afternoon exploring its exhibits, but I’m enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face. It’s time to walk among the dead.

Glasgow’s Necropolis occupies a hill overlooking the cathedral, with panoramic views across the city. I feel at peace among the tended plots, but I’m not alone. The place is teeming with tombstone tourists, with voices from France and Germany, Poland and America.

Here, every stone tells a story; different circumstances, but always the same ending. Death at war, at sea, and all too often, in childbirth. Most of the permanent residents here are from well-heeled Victorian and Edwardian families – merchants and magnates, aristocrats and knights of the realm. But there are surprises, too: a Polish freedom fighter, the matriarch of a Gypsy dynasty; the first woman to graduate in medicine from Glasgow University. Even in a graveyard as grand as this, there are no answers to existential questions. Only an eternal verity: life goes on until, at some point, it doesn’t.

From up here, I can retrace my afternoon walk. I’ve only covered about half a mile, but I’ve reached across the centuries. It was the medieval High Street that nourished the relationship between the cathedral’s community at one end and the market traders at the other. Which is why, for all its faults, this stretch of land retains a special place in the city’s history and heart: no High Street, no Glasgow.

***

James Carson is a writer from Glasgow. His work has appeared in various magazines, including From Glasgow to Saturn, The Skinny and ExBerliner, and his stories have also been selected for anthologies such as Streets of Berlin, Tip Tap Flat and A Sense of Place.

Dispatches from Olsztyn: Olga Tokarczuk’s Chair

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By Marcel Krueger:

This year Marcel has been selected as the official writer in residence of Olsztyn in Poland by the German Culture Forum for Eastern Europe and until September he is living there, observing, taking part in cultural activities organised by local partners the City of Olsztyn and the Borussia Foundation, and of course writing about the city. You can find regular posts over on the official writer in residence blog in German, Englisch and Polish (thanks to his official translator a.k.a. Marcel’s Polish voice Barbara Sapala). But he has also been writing some  irregular dispatches from Olsztyn for the Elsewhere blog: 

In an interview with the Calvert Journal last year, writer Olga Tokarczuk expressed her shock about the age of the furniture that she discovered on an old Scottish estate where she stayed for a writers’ scholarship, some of it dating back as far as the 16th century. “We don’t have such a stable reality,” she said. “Poland is in the central corridor of Europe.”

This is a notion I concur with, living on an island. While Ireland has and had its fair share of violence and tragedy over the centuries, it often feels as if more objects and places have been given longevity, by fate or coincidence. On my street in Dundalk I have the bell tower of a Franciscan abbey built around 1240 AD, and the last time the building has seen targeted violence was around 1315 AD, when invading Scots under Edward the Bruce burned it and killed 23 monks. There are Victorian post boxes strewn around town that were erected in the second half of the 19th century and are still in use, the royal insignia clearly visible under the Republican green paint applied after 1921. There are plenty of hundred-year old tables and chairs still in use in households across town that are not in a museum.

It is different in Olsztyn. Here the tragedies and invasions feel more numerous, the past more unstable. Last week I walked around Park Jakubowo with radio journalist Alicja Kulik, and we talked about melancholy and what Olga Tokarczuk said in the interview. For me, the park provided an almost perfect cross section of the horrors that have visited the city, and I didn’t have to go back to the Middle Ages to find them. The park was first established in 1862 as part of the expansion of Olsztyn from a small provincial town to one of the main cities of the area thanks to Prussian railways and army barracks, and over the following years saw the erection of a panorama restaurant, a dance hall and tennis courts. 

Today it is a pleasant place to wander around in, with a small lake, playgrounds and tall trees providing shade in summer – the oldest tree here is an oak tree, 28 metres high. But even here the currents of history are visible, mostly through the buildings and memorials. The large green area across the street from the park used to be a Protestant cemetery that was closed in 1973 and turned into a park. The small neo-Gothic red-brick chapel that stands there was built in 1904 and is today the Orthodox Church of the Protection of the Mother of God. Right next to it is the memorial to Bogumił Linka (1865 -1920), a social and nationalist activist who campaigned for Warmia and Olsztyn to join the newly created Poland at the Versailles conference, and who was killed by a German militia during the 1920 East Prussian plebiscite. The memorial was created by sculptress Balbina Świtycz-Widacka and erected in 1975. Maybe fittingly so: back across the road, in 1928 the citizens of Allenstein erected the so-called Abstimmungsdenkmal, the memorial to the result of the plebiscite where the majority of the inhabitants voted for remaining in East Prussia and the German Reich. Together with a similar memorial in Malbork and the Tannenbergdenkmal Olsztynek it was one of the main nationalist memorial sites in East Prussia.

Across the street from it is a remainder of what extreme nationalism can result in: here lie those killed by the Nazis. Some of the people buried here were patients of the sanatorium in Kortau (location of the university today) and killed by the Nazis as part of their euthanasia programme, some were killed in sub-camps of the concentration camps across East Prussia. The remaining patients, staff and refugees that had gathered at Kortau were massacred in 1945 by the Red Army.

Back in the park, the Abstimmungsdenkmal was replaced by another memorial in 1972, a monumental slab commemorating the ‚Warmian-Masurian Heroes of the National and Social Liberation‘ created by local sculptor Bolesław Marschall. Down the road from the park, at the end of nearby Sybiraków street is a memorial to those Poles taken to work at the GULAG and forced labour camps all across the Soviet Union. It lists the places the people were sent to, among them Sverdlovsk in the Urals (Yekaterinburg today), where my granny was also sent from her farm on the outskirts of town.

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All these tragedies and horrors, and some people always trying to claim them for political gains. But I think there is a better use for the past and what it leaves from the people that were here before us. As Alicja and I continued on through the park, we walked past one of the playgrounds were a group of young children were playing noisily, the sun was shining and the park was beautiful. We stopped next to what looked like an old unused fountain, a stone bowl now empty of water but still looking beautiful. Alicja said that ‘maybe this is our version of Olga Tokarczuk’s chair’, and I think she was right. This then, perhaps, is a better way to look at the past. Regardless of who created it, we should be able to share the good things, without jealousy and hatred. A German or Jewish or Polish or Russian sculptor might have created the fountain, but I don’t know if this is relevant. It’s a beautiful old fountain in a nice park.

Sorbs, a poem by Alistair Noon

Spreewaldkanal by Lübbenau  – Photo by Dr Seuthberg – Used under  CC-BY-SA 4.0

Spreewaldkanal by Lübbenau – Photo by Dr Seuthberg – Used under CC-BY-SA 4.0

We meet where slow green water meshes
with swatting meadows. In Slavic shirts,
they hail our raid into well-drained marshes.

Traditional business here's to steer us
beneath the boughs and along the arms,
then serve us gherkins and farmyard stories,

to oar us up for open canoes
before we wrong-turn a channel
their land was left, and soak our knees.

Their teenagers bus to school in Cottbus,
grow up to squat the Berlin tenements.
Their roads are damp with moorhens and coots,

but expect their verse to trill with jays,
their dances to settle as colourful flocks.
They've cultural centres and anthologies.

And while the halls of greater states
proclaim their headlines and daytrip anecdotes,
right of the decimal point, the stats

ripple whenever they do the math
and discover Texas. Quaintly dressed,
the local tale is a pregnancy myth:

they got their Bible, but pools evaporate
where enlightened princes ban your books.
Now they build budgets and write their rights,

the woodlands where their nucleotides hid
are cleared for cattle, and only clutter
where leaves flop over our twig-dodging heads.

***

Alistair Noon's poetry collections include Earth Records (2012) and The Kerosene Singing (2015), both from Nine Arches Press. Concert at a Railway Station, his translations of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, was recently reviewed in the TLS. ‘Translocal Underground’, a short film about him by filmmaker Paul Cooke, appeared last year. He's lived in Berlin since the early 90s.

On Potsdamer Straße (to see an old friend)

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By Paul Scraton:

Potsdamer Straße talks to me, as I walk down from the S-Bahn, past the library and across the canal. It talks to me about the Joseph-Roth-Diele, with its checkered tablecloths and a menu of goulash and spätzle, surrounded by the books and the words of a writer who was both of Berlin and not from Berlin, a man who disliked the city intently and yet became one of its greatest chroniclers. It talks to me about the shop for believers, filled with statues and trinkets; a little piece of Rome in this godless city. And it speaks to me of the Wintergarten and its cabaret stage, and the many thousands of performances I’ve never seen.

Not all the memories of the Potsdamer Straße are mine, but some are, and they take me back to my earliest days in the city. A long night with friends who lived on a side street to this great thoroughfare, starting with cocktails in a dark bar of concrete and polished wood, and ending in an all-night drinking den with carpet on the walls and friendly drag queens, with one more beer to toast the rising sun. Another friend lived down the street, from whose apartment we could watch Christopher Street Day parades while eating a huge watermelon bought from the supermarket on the corner along with Fladenbrot and dips. And Potsdamer Straße reminds me of the night bus home to Steglitz, catching glimpses of 21st century versions of Sally Bowles through the window, visions wrapped in long coats and heavy scarves beneath the street lights. How I was too lonely and scared to press the button, to bring the bus to a halt and climb down onto the pavement. 

***

Anyone who moves to this city at any time is told that they came too late. They should have been here in the 1990s. Or the 1970s. Or the 1920s. But in those first few months, the Potsdamer Straße I spied through the night bus window offered a glimpse of the different versions of the city I arrived too late to experience. There was Franz Hessel, passing Christopher Isherwood on the street corner outside a red-lit bar. Across the road, a pale boy in the shadows who has come to the city to meet David Bowie. And my friends on the side street, newly arrived from the south, moving in to the apartment as the shadow of the Berlin Wall still lingered up the road, just a mile or so to the north. 

A decade later it was my turn. A train from Schönefeld with the city under snow. The television tower, lost in the mist. Darkness in the streets around Alexanderplatz, which made the three letters – OST – above the Volksbühne seem to shine all the brighter. The earliest memories of a place, seared the strongest.

On Potsdamer Straße I walk to see an old friend accompanied by these memories. Fragments and faces. Bodies and beer bottles. Up to now, my friend has haunted other places in the city. A basement bar in Mitte. An art school garden in Charlottenburg. A soft summer evening in Wedding. After today, he will join the cast that stalk Potsdamer Straße with me.

***

None of us experience a place in the same way. We all bring with us our own stories and knowledge, our own cast of characters, whether real or imagined. Even in unknown or unfamiliar places we rarely arrive empty handed, and what we see when we get there is shaped by what we know and what we don’t. A few weeks ago, in my friend’s kitchen, he talked about his work in the same way that I think about the Potsdamer Straße. He could show me something, he said, but he couldn’t tell me what to feel. Everyone brings their own luggage. Everyone brings their own ghosts. 

***

On Potsdamer Straße, where Joseph Roth loiters, making space on the pavement for pious shoppers, and the street looks the same now as it did when I viewed it through a rain- and exhaust-smudged window (even though I know that it can’t), I turn into a courtyard to meet my old friend. People used to make newspapers here. Journalists, editors, printworkers. You can see it in the buildings, read it in the brick and glass and concrete. A form for a purpose, now used for something else, like so many places in this city. I think of all those words, written and printed and sent out from the gates. News today. Chip paper tomorrow. Add this place to the memories;  my own and of others. Add it to what I hear when Potsdamer Straße talks to me. And add it to what I will be holding within as I face my old friend’s creations. 

***

Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and the author of two books published by Influx Press: Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast (2017) and Built on Sand (2019), a novel set in Berlin and Brandenburg. 


Postcard from... Rüdenhof, Moritzburg

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By Paul Scraton:

In 1943 the artist Käthe Kollwitz left her apartment in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg for the final time. The war, which she had campaigned against through her art long before it even began, had forced her out of the city she’d called home for 52 years. Her first destination was Nordhausen, but that soon became a target too, and so in July of 1944 she arrived at the Rüdenhof, a manor house on the edge of Moritzburg in Saxony. There she was given two rooms, and a balcony from which she could look out across the fields and the rolling landscape of this town a few miles north of Dresden. There were many refugees, both in the Rüdenhof and elsewhere in town, and hardly any of them knew that they had the famous artist in their midst. It was to be her final stop. She would not experience the end of the war, dying just a couple of weeks before the German surrender, in her room in Moritzburg on the 22 April 1945.

Today, the town of Moritzburg draws visitors from Dresden to wander the castle grounds or the only lighthouse in landlocked Saxony. On a July morning there are plenty of people strolling in the sunshine, crossing the bridge to the castle where it stands on an island, eating ice cream or drinking an early beer on the cafe terraces. At the Rüdenhof, it is quieter. One small group explores the rooms of the house, now turned into a museum devoted to the life and work of Käthe Kollwitz. We follow them through, tracing the story of the artist from her beginnings in Königsburg in East Prussia and the move to Berlin, her early illustrations and woodcuts, the tragic death of her son during World War I and the pacifism that inspired her work through the 1920s and 1930s, most clearly in her epic War cycle of 1921-23.

Es ist genug gestorben! Keiner darf mehr fallen!

Enough had died during that war to end all wars, and yet Kollwitz would live to see many more fall, including her grandson who was killed in 1942. War had taken a son and a grandson from her. It had changed the boundaries of her world. The only house she ever lived in to survive the second war was the Rüdenhof. Her childhood home in Königsburg was rubble. What would be built in its place was now in Kaliningrad, USSR. Her apartment block in Prenzlauer Berg was destroyed. What was built in its place would look out across a square that would take her name. Kollwitz was gone. Most of the places she called home were gone. But her art and message would live on. 

Summer sunlight shines in despite the blinds in the windows as we walk among her work, so dark and painful yet full of compassion for those who are suffering. When she reached Moritzburg at the end of her long journey, Käthe Kollwitz had left all her art behind. She came only with her diary and a few personal bits and pieces. The group ahead of us ask questions of the guide. Gentle, respectful questions, about a woman, her life and her work. There are not many of us in these rooms today, but it is clear that all of us who are here have been touched by her genius. She speaks to us, all these years on, whether we encounter her in Cologne or Berlin, in an old manor house in Moritzburg or in the pages of a book. She speaks to us and she inspires us. Our job is to make sure we continue to listen. 

***

Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. His latest book is Built on Sand, a novel of Berlin and Brandenburg, published by Influx Press. He also wrote about the places of Käthe Kollwitz in Berlin on his website Under a Grey Sky.

The Käthe-Kollwitz Haus, Moritzburg.

Autumn Street, 1981

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By Jude Abbott:

I have no love for where I grew up. It was suburban and stifling, and it taught me nothing except I didn’t want to be there. I got out as soon as I could, legitimising my escape with good A level results. I  had few criteria for my choice of University, except it had to be a long way from home and it had to be in a proper city. 

I went to Leeds. 

I lasted a couple of terms in student accommodation, but, like much of my University life, it was a disappointment. I didn’t understand the girls I lived among. I’d been imagining a cross between The Girls of Slender Means and Mallory Towers, but it was just dull. My flatmates were shallow yet poised, and appeared to be effortlessly navigating a path through this new territory, while I floundered, forever caught in the brambles of my own ineptitude.

In the final term of my first year. I moved into Autumn Street. 

Autumn Street was the first place I felt was a home to me once I’d left the one I grew up in. Arriving in it was like breathing out - a long deep exhale. It was the shining jewel in the wasteland of my University life. I lived there for not much more than three months.

Between 1981 and 1984 (apart from a year’s reprieve in France, and a term at home when I had Hepatitis B - there’s two other stories right there)  I lived within the same square mile of Leeds 6, and gave myself up to the heart of the student Shangri-la that revolved around The Royal Park pub and Maumomiat International Superstore. I lived in a series of houses that have subsequently blurred into one generic student house, with their fan heaters and filthy toilets. I trod water among an ebb and flow of people who had little in common except circumstance. Mostly I kept my eyes on the horizon and trudged dully onwards. My fellow students had lives that were unfathomable to me. They studied subjects I had never heard of, and they threw up with dismal regularity on a Sunday morning in the freezing bathrooms that always seemed to be next to my bedroom. 

Autumn Street was where I found my family. Not the oppressive family I had been born into and couldn’t wait to escape from, but my chosen family. My people. My person. It was where I found Nancy. We were the sisters we had never had. Except we both had sisters. 

It wasn’t the actual house. The house was just a back to back terrace in Hyde Park. The front door opened straight into the living room, which was painted an unlikely shade of brown. There was a tiny galley kitchen off to the left with stairs leading off behind a door. Single glazing. Rattly sash windows, stuffed with bits of rolled-up newspaper to soak up the condensation, and keep the warmth in. A curtain behind the front door. A gas fire. An immersion switch in the kitchen for when you wanted a bath. An Indian print throw covering the worst of the sofa. 

It wasn’t a coup de foudre with Nancy. We only gradually became inseparable. We had found each other on the evening of my very first day at University - part of a loosely connected group of people who ended up back at Fat Nick’s in Woodhouse, after some sort of ghastly Freshers event in the Student Union Bar.  In fact, we didn’t even see much of each other after that first meeting. We’d find each other drifting around the peripheries of the same political groups. Or we’d be brought together in a configuration that inevitably involved Fat Nick and the circle of people who orbited around him (he was a small time campus dealer). I got mushrooms from him, and once Nancy took acid with him and spent all night scrubbing his bath. I was drinking Gin and Tonic in the Student Union bar on my 19th birthday and Nancy gave me a Creme Egg.

Nothing can ever match the intensity of a friendship forged while you’re  a clueless work in progress. People know me and Nancy as we we are now, but only we know what we were then. Nancy and I held hands while the chaos of our lives  - the fuckings-up, the disappointments, the sudden beds - swirled around us. We were extraordinarily lucky that we had each other.

And Autumn Street was where it played out.

Of course, every dramatic set up needs its foil - the worldly and glamorous Gatsby figure who the narrator looks up to and who seems, at that point, to be the one who glitters and has it all.  Our Gatsby was Lesley.

Perhaps Lesley is the centre of this story. Because without her, Nancy and I had no-one to  measure ourselves against and be found wanting. Or maybe she had no influence at all on how we all turned out, but she was a a big part of how we thought about ourselves while we lived in Autumn Street. 

While Nancy and I slept with unsuitable men in our chilly attic bedrooms -  rarely out of real desire, and sometimes only so we would have a good anecdote to share afterwards -  on the floor below us Lesley was embarked on a sexual odyssey that belonged to a universe whose laws we would never understand and where we would never gain admittance. Although of course we both did. But not until much later.

Nancy and I employed a rather scattergun approach to sex - if we did it enough then some of it would hit the target - but Lesley had intensely passionate relationships that we were all drawn into. Her affairs were all of our concerns. Which was why, after she’d dumped Kevin for his housemate Nick,  it was Nancy and I who had to deal with him crying in our living room for hours. He came round most evenings and we didn’t really know what to do with him, and Lesley was too busy rolling around upstairs with Nick to care.  

Lesley delighted in dropping discomfiting nuggets of information about her and Nick’s sex life into  conversations with me and Nancy. This meant that we knew more about Nick than we needed to. He could, according to Lesley, make her come just by walking into the room (something I was more impressed by then than I am now), and he’d learned to masturbate by rubbing himself against the mattress rather than using his hands, and it was still what he preferred to do.  For our part, Nancy and I embraced our roles. Turning round and saying, “Actually I’m not fucking interested” was not something we even contemplated. We were the housemates of the more glamorous Lesley, and we got to trail in her wake, mopping up the mess and absorbing some of the glamour of her life.

Today we teach girls to value themselves, and I wonder why that was a lesson I hadn’t learned by that point. Looking back at my lack of self-esteem at that time is painful. What also saddens me a little now,  is that everything was so much about men - how they were, for us, still the means by which we validated ourselves. This was the eighties - feminism (and the Yorkshire Ripper) was all around us. We had badges. We knew women who had chosen political lesbianism as the only logical path to follow to escape the patriarchy. Our bodies were our own, we said, but we had so little self-regard that we offered them up indiscriminately to anyone who showed a flicker of interest. We were seeking affirmation from elsewhere, when all along there was something amazing right in front of us.  

I make it sound miserable, but it wasn’t. Mainly it was fun - a small beam of sunshine that lit up the overriding dullness of those four years.  I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much before or since as I did then. We each had an ally. Whatever shit life threw at us, we dealt with it together. Nothing was so awful we couldn’t get a laugh out of it. There was even an element of daring each other to do our worst. Who could have the most humiliating sexual encounter? Who could be the most gormless around the people we sought to impress? I can argue there was an element of self-awareness in how we were for those few months in Autumn Street. That we were watching ourselves, knowing now was just a phase we had to get through, and life wouldn’t puzzle us for ever, and we wouldn’t always be hopeless, and this was probably as good as it was going to get for Lesley. I like to think we both knew our time would come.

***

Jude Abbott grew up in the suburbs of London. Following 16 years as an accidental pop star she now divides her time (unequally) between Berlin and West Yorkshire. Jude on Twitter.

Motzstrasse

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By James Carson:

On a warm autumn night, I ordered a beer at a bar in the Schöneberg district of Berlin. On one of the plasma screens positioned behind the bar, Danny Kaye was duetting with Kermit the Frog. On another, a different coupling was in progress between a half-naked firefighter and a young man with a hunger for a half-naked firefighter. A third screen was advertising forthcoming events: Leather Pride, Halloween, Christmas. Before long, another year would have passed into memory.

In a city freighted with history, Schöneberg carries the weight of the past with a rare delicacy. A few blocks from the bar, the art nouveau U-Bahn station on Wittenbergplatz is a testament to Berlin’s imperial heritage, and to its 19th century transformation from  “a dingy city in a marsh” – as Mark Twain put it – to “ the Chicago of Europe.“

Next to the station, an understated sign displays the names of  Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau and the other prison camps where millions were murdered. Many of them began their hellish journeys at Wittenbergplatz.

Further south, the sandstone city hall of Schöneberg was the location for John F Kennedy’s famous speech, in which – depending on who you believe – the President of the United States may or may not have proclaimed himself to be a jam doughnut.

This well-heeled quarter is an architectural Irish stew. Gründerzeit apartments, sporting preposterously ornate balconies, rub shoulders with plainer post-war facades painted in unexpected flavour combinations of aubergine and custard, beetroot and lime. Modern, glass-fronted hotels share the streets with antique stores, booksellers and sex shops. The famous names attached to Schöneberg are as diverse as the landscape: Helmut Newton, David Bowie, the Brothers Grimm.

It’s in this multifaceted neighbourhood that I found myself on a still, September night. Like many a gay bar from Brisbane to Baltimore, this one had a cross section of clientele: locals and tourists, the handsome and the hopeful, the deluded and the desperate.

A low buzz of conversation – punctuated by the occasional grunt escaping from the darkroom – was overlaid by a soundtrack of Europop. The barman conveyed quiet authority, his burly figure contained by a leather harness that was less of a fashion accessory, more a work of civil engineering.

I was embarking on my second beer when the cops arrived. Two, then four, then half a dozen police officers entered the small bar, and paused to survey the scene. Hello, I thought, it’s somebody's birthday, and I sat back to enjoy the show. I had to hand it to them: they looked the real deal, right down to their off-yellow uniforms and don’t-fuck-with-us expressions.

They fanned out, resting glances on clots of men around the bar. From somewhere, a wolf whistle was followed by a snigger. One of the cops caught my gaze, then released it before heading into the darkroom. The occupants must have thought Christmas had come early.  

Two officers were stationed at the door. One nudged the other and gestured in the direction of the plasma screen, where the firefighter was no longer merely half-naked. The cop’s mate gave a little smirk.

The lights went up, Sophie Ellis-Bextor was cut off in her track and the show began. I looked on as the police did their thing: asking questions, taking names. The years fell away.

During the 1920s, Berlin was a magnet for people in search of the freedom to be themselves. In Motzstrasse, Marlene Dietrich performed at The Eldorado club, where men dressed in lace frocks and called themselves Letty and Countess Marina. A few streets away, Christopher Isherwood chronicled a decade of decadence in the company of Sally Bowles and an assortment of male playmates. Beyond Schöneberg, more than 100 Berlin bars, cafes and clubs welcomed homosexuals, lesbians, transvestites, and any curious souls open to the idea of difference as a way of life.

The new era of tolerance extended to wider society. In print, on the stage and on the cinema screen, gay men and lesbians began to emerge from the shadows. And in medicine, a pioneering physician, Magnus Hirschfeld, attempted a better scientific understanding of homosexuality.

While some regarded Berlin as enlightened, others viewed it as degenerate and perverse. By the beginning of the 1930s more bars were being raided by the police. Names were taken, arrests were made and most bars were closed. A fortunate few, like Christopher Isherwood and Magnus Hirschfeld, escaped the worst. Hirschfeld’s library was an early victim of the Nazi book burning frenzy.

Homosexual men now lived in fear. Affection and affectation became incriminating acts. A gesture or a look could lead to the concentration camp. Once there, inmates were ‘re-educated’, through slave labour, castration and horrific forms of surgical experimentation. Almost two-thirds of the 50,000 homosexual men sent to the prison camps died there.

I approached the barman who was grimly observing the police as they checked ID cards.  “Is it drugs?” I asked, in a low voice. He rewarded me with a look that Berliners hold in special reserve for imbeciles, and nodded towards an ashtray on the bar.

As quickly as they’d arrived, the cops were gone. The soundtrack resumed, accompanied by a chorus of resentment.  

“They made us feel like criminals!” said one aggrieved voice. “Yeah, said another, “You can smoke dick in here, but you get treated like shit for a fucking cigarette!” I’d never answered tobacco’s siren call. It was this that had spared me a brush with the law.

Today, The Eldorado is a supermarket, with a photograph of Marlene Dietrich at the door, and further down the street, the Hirschfeld pharmacy is named in remembrance of an early champion of gay rights. On nearby Nollendorfstrasse, a plaque outside Isherwood’s apartment offers a reminder that these storied streets are where Cabaret was born. And at Nollendorfplatz, a triangle carved in pink marble remembers the homosexual victims of a regime that promised to make Germany great again.

It was business as usual when I returned to the bar the following evening. Except now there was a hand-scrawled note taped to the door:

NO SMOKING – BY ORDER OF THE GOVERNMENT

***
James Carson is a writer from Glasgow. His work has appeared in various magazines, including From Glasgow to Saturn, The Skinny and ExBerliner, and his stories have also been selected for anthologies such as Streets of Berlin, Tip Tap Flat and A Sense of Place.

Dispatches from Olsztyn - Practitioners

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By Marcel Krueger:

This year, I have been selected as the official writer in residence of Olsztyn in Poland by the German Culture Forum for Eastern Europe, and until September I will be living here, observing, taking part in cultural activities organised by my local partners the City of Olsztyn and the Borussia Foundation, and of course writing about the city. You can find regular posts over on the official writer in residence blog www.stadtschreiber-allenstein.de in German, Englisch and Polish (thanks to my official translator a.k.a. my Polish voice Barbara Sapala). But I will also write irregular dispatches from Olsztyn for the Elsewhere blog. As an amuse gueule, here is one of my first pieces for the Stadtschreiber blog, about a wander along the local river.

***

“Walkers are 'practitioners of the city,' for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.”
― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

I like walking. This seems to be an odd statement, given that anyone does that on a daily basis. But I think we don’t walk enough these days, and not consciously enough. Or, as writer and editor Paul Sullivan writes in his essay Walking the City:

Like writing someone a letter by hand, visiting a friend across town spontaneously or just sitting on a bench and watching the world go by, the act of meandering slowly through the city streets with no particular destination in mind is one of life’s simple pleasures – and an almost entirely lost art. While most of us would argue that we do stroll through the city to some extent – to the post office, through the park, around the block – a combination of factors, chief among them a general deficit of leisure time and an abundance of convenient public transport options, conspire to ensure we usually don’t get very far on foot.

So during my first week in Olsztyn I did what I always do when I want to learn about a place: I went for a walk. I actually went on a walk every day, though some days I cheated by taking a bus or the tram. I first drew circles in and around the old town with my feet, exploring the main thoroughfares and shopping centres, but also the back alleys, laneways and suburbs of the city.

For me, someone who is now living in a central location and without a car, Olsztyn really is a city that lends itself to walking. The new parks along the Łyna river (the German Alle) are pleasant places to stroll and to linger, and on Friday afternoon there where students and teenagers sitting under bridges or on the wooden steps that lead down to the water, swigging from beer cans and smoking; office workers on their lunch break sat on benches and licked ice cream, parents leisurely pushed buggies along the pathways left and right of the river.

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From the parks, I then walked northwards, past the castle from 1346 and the Warmia brewery from in a former mill building from 1868, and finally under the railway viaducts from 1871 and 1893 and the newer road bridges into the city forest proper. Every time I see the viaducts I’m reminded of Robert Budzinki’s tongue-in-cheek travel book 'Die Entdeckung Ostpreußens' (The Discovery of East Prussia).

Budzinski (1874 -1955) was a painter, graphic artist and author, and – even though he himself was born in East Prussia in Klein-Schläfken (Sławka Mała today) – in 1913 published his 'travel book' which is not only full of wonderful woodcuts, but also sardonically talks about East Prussia as the proverbial distant eastern province. He also records the often exotic-sounding East Prussian place names, before they were 'Germanised' by the Nazis 20 years later:

During my wanderings I continuously discovered places with not very known but quite illustrious names; so that I often thought I was roving about in a magical landscape. One day I took the train from Groß-Aschnaggern to Liegentrocken, Willpischken, Pusperschkallen and Katrinigkeiten, breakfasted in Karkeln, arrived in Pissanitzen, Bammeln, Babbeln, and had dinner in Pschintschikowsken while aiming to overnight in Karßamupchen.

The book remains in print until today, which I think is a testament to his enduring humour and skill as an artist. From under the bridges then I made my way into the city forest proper, with the Łyna growing wider to my right and only the occasional biker disturbing my solitude. I like to be out, walking, slightly removed from the noise of the world. Or, as Walter Benjamin writes in 'Berlin Childhood around 1900', 'Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.' The beauty of Olsztyn is that the forest proper is never far – so I can train to get lost both here and in the city. The lady walking her dog just that came towards me on the forest path did not seem to agree with my Waldeinsamkeit: the look she gave me over the rim of her sunglasses seemed to suggest that only idiots stand in the middle of a forest and scribble in notebooks.

I continued for another 30 minutes before I decided to leave the Łyna valley and loop back to the city centre. I walked up the wooden slope right of the river and came across the Leśny Stadium, now almost completely reclaimed by grass and trees, where athlete Józef Szmidt (the so-called 'Silesian Kangaroo', born in 1935 and an honorary citizen of Olsztyn today) broke the world record for triple jump in 1960 with a length of 17.03 metres. I wonder if the soft peat soil here had something to do with that. Further on, I came across a graffiti of three knights on a wall, maybe a harmless reflection of the Teutonic Knights that haunted these woods long ago.

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A not so harmless reminder of the violent past was just up the road – two cemeteries of honour, one a German one with dead from both World Wars that was restored and is looked after by the German Minority Association of Olsztyn, with men who died in 1914 lying next to men who were born in 1914; and the other a small Russian plot, with no headstones left but a German memorial set up in 1914 that reads:

Here rest Russian soldiers who followed the orders of their ruler, found their death fighting against the liberators of East Prussia and are now buried far from their home

It seems a futile honourable gesture, something that would have surely not been set up following the industrialised mass murder of the Somme and Verdun and during the Brussilov offensive, which surely eradicated all humanity left then.

When I walked back from the cemeteries, my head full of somber thoughts, chance and sunlight and the city cheered me up: a pizza taxi stopped near the forest entrance and two teenage girls emerged from the woods, inexplicably wearing white plastic antennae and white plastic fairy wings. They paid for the pizza and skipped back into the woods, to what I can only imagine must have been the first fairy pizza picnic of spring in Olsztyn this year.

The Fabric of Place: Yinka Shonibare's The British Library

The British Library, 2014, by Yinka Shonibare, Tate Modern 2019 © Yinka Shonibare. Photograph Oliver Cowling, Tate. Purchased with Art Fund support and funds provided by the Tate International Council, the Africa Acquisitions Committee, Wendy Fisher and THE EKARD COLLECTION, 2019

The British Library, 2014, by Yinka Shonibare, Tate Modern 2019 © Yinka Shonibare. Photograph Oliver Cowling, Tate. Purchased with Art Fund support and funds provided by the Tate International Council, the Africa Acquisitions Committee, Wendy Fisher and THE EKARD COLLECTION, 2019

By Sara Bellini

It was 2014, during what ended up being my final months in England before leaving for good. In my attempts to deal with work-related stress I started taking day trips to escape central London, and it was thanks to two of these trips I came to know the work of Yinka Shonibare.

Without knowing it at the time, my first encounter with his art dated back to my very first week in the country in 2011. His work Nelson's Ship in a Bottle was on display on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth, with its colourful sails made of the artist's signature Dutch wax fabric. The fabric (and the meanings behind it) would be the detail that stuck with me during the years, while the photos I took got lost in my poorly managed digital memory.

Dutch wax fabric visually identifies West Africa, including Shonibare's parents' native Nigeria, where he also lived as a child before moving back to the UK to study. What I didn't know about this textile is how complex its ties with colonisation, globalisation and identity are.

Dutch wax fabric takes one of its names from the Dutch merchants that started mass-producing it in the late 19th century, when it was first introduced to Africa through naval commercial routes. Their model was batik, a wax-resist dyed cloth from Indonesia, a Dutch colony until 1949. The initial purpose of the merchants was to break into the batik market with cheaper fabrics, but they couldn't compete with the original hand-made prints. Meanwhile the African market was prospering, driven by ex members of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army in Indonesia who had returned to the Dutch Gold Coast in West Africa. Other European countries started making Dutch wax fabric and eventually local companies developed more African-inspired patterns. When African countries gained independence from their former oppressors after WWII, African wax print had interwoven its role into various African communities, especially in the West, enriched with local meanings and customs.

This is how we get to a British contemporary artist, born from Nigerian parents who had moved to the UK in post-colonial times. Shonibare explores all these themes in his works: (post-)colonialism, multiculturalism, history, identity.

The two exhibitions I saw when I was still living in London were at Royal Museums Greenwich and the installation The British Library at Brighton Museum. The British Library is a room lined up with bookcases where each book is covered in Dutch wax print and their spines carry the names of immigrants and children of immigrants that had made contributions to British culture. A computer was available to explore the library and find out about Zaha Hadid, Hans Holbein, Noel Gallagher and more famous and less famous names.

At the beginning of April 2019, Yinka Shonibare's work The British Library was purchased by Tate Modern. Another work from the same series, The African Library, is on display in the exhibition Trade Winds at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town until August 2019.


The invisible border

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“Where does Togo start?”

My guide looks out across the steep scarps of Ghana’s Volta Region, a vibrant green landscape that folds and curves like velvet curtains. His eyes trace the ferrous-red roads scratched between the hills before settling on one of the villages nestled in the valleys.

“It is that one,” he says, smiling shyly.

I return the smile and point my lens in the direction indicated, the reflections of the corrugated roofs leaving a temporary blind spot on my retina. Snap snap. Camera returns to case and we share another awkward smile.

We both know he guessed. He doesn’t have a clue where his country ends and its neighbour begins.

Why would he? The border is almost meaningless here; someone else’s line marked out decades before, when the Europeans carved up a continent to their uninvited whims and ideas. It matters little in the day-to-day living of life. While one side is Francophone country and the other Anglophone, the shared Ewe language is the one used to talk to friends or family who happen to be on the other side. And an ECOWAS passport allows for easy, visa-free movement across the whole region (a privilege that no one here would ever think of giving up through a plebiscite).

The name of the hill we are on – Mount Gemi – is another colonial legacy. This is not an Ewe word, not even Twi, but a contraction of the German Mission that came here to share the word of Christ, leaving a cross on its summit. Perhaps there would be a little more acknowledgement of the boundary if the Europeans had been a little more decisive, but it has shifted many times since then. Mount Gemi’s summit was once in a country that no longer exists, German Togoland. Little wonder that most ignore it.

We leave the summit and its cross behind and set off back to Amedzofe. Most of the village’s residents are watching the local football team’s match – are the opponents Togolese? – but we continue past the pitch to the village square. Ghanaians wait for the cooler evening air to meet with friends, thus avoiding the worst of the daytime heat. This respite comes a little earlier in this hilly country – we’re at around 600m – and even though the sun is still out, Amedzofe’s older inhabitants are already congregating in stone seats, waving as we pass.

Adjacent to this rendezvous point is the small visitor centre. Inside, my guide diligently asks his boss to identify exactly where the border lies. Maps are withdrawn from a large wooden chest and the obliging superior shows me where we are, then where the border is. My guide wasn’t too far off, and his face displays a mix of pride and relief. It’s around five miles away, the boss-man says; shall I take you there?

I thank him and decline. Time to move on; there are more hikes to be had further along this invisible border.

*

The border is much closer at Wli (pronounced ‘Vlee’, another linguistic leftover from the Germans). There’s even a checkpoint at the end of one road from the village, where the guards will happily mark your passport with Togo’s stamp and let you potter about in another country for a while, all for just a few cedis.

A more popular activity for the growing numbers of tourists – mostly young volunteers who comprise Europe’s present-day, less disruptive mission to Ghana – is to the double-drop Agumatsa waterfall, the highest in West Africa (although not the only one to claim this title). An easy path meanders through fruit farms and forest to the lower falls, where you can swim in the plunge pool and sip coconuts after. But I opt for the harder route along the steep-sided cliffs of this natural amphitheatre, which leads to the upper falls.

It’s a steep, sweaty climb, and its unpopularity relative to the signposted lower route is evident as my guide hacks constantly at the overgrowth – grasses, vines, saplings – barring our way. Eventually, after ninety minutes of slipping and sliding, swishing and swearing, we reach a viewpoint overlooking the hidden upper falls. Any waterfall is a captivating sight, but this one is flavoured with exoticism by being glimpsed through a thick frond of creepers and ferns. And it has further novelty to its name: the water leaves Togo, crashing down an 80m drop into Ghana. A truly spectacular border crossing.

The path continues beyond the viewpoint, and at some point along it enters another country. But there’s no border post, no fence, no wall up here; nothing except a leaf-covered footpath and a neat stack of felled trunks, about a hundred metres ahead.

Are those in Ghana or Togo?

I don’t bother asking out loud this time. It’s just forest.

*

Only when the border is close to running out of land does it assert itself. Lomé snuggles into the corner where the line meets the sea and here, things are done properly.

I’ve always wanted to walk across a national border. Perhaps it’s a legacy of growing up on an island, where our neighbours are all a boat ride or tunnel away. And Ghana/Togo indulge me in style. Late one Friday evening, two hours after departing the heat and hustle of Accra, a taxi drops me in Aflao, a town whose main purpose is to wave goodbye to those leaving the country or welcome those arriving, the lines of snack stalls ready to provide sustenance on their way.

From here, I proceed on foot beneath a crumbling arch, Ghana’s signatory black star on top, and wait for a stern border guard to scrutinise my passport for … what, exactly? Once waved through, I approach his Togolese counterparts. They usher me through without question; it’s late, they’ve evidently checked enough passports for one day. I raise a hand in acknowledgment and walk into another country.

Now this is a border. There is change, distinction, separation. A city springs up immediately around you; no suburbs, no urban sprawl, at least on this side. Just a few metres from the neatly farmed fields that surround Aflao are high-rise buildings, crowded streets and that distinctive scent of city tarmac warmed by tropical heat. There is a busy hum of horns and engines, the chaos of a thousand people in each street, an urgency that only urbanity provides. It feels a long way from Mount Gemi and Wli, where the border is little noticed.

Other changes, too. Motorbikes, largely absent in Ghana, zip all over; the bread sold by street vendors is long and crusty, not soft and stodgy. And the language of the capital, into which people from all corners of the country pour, is the communal French, local languages reserved for when you meet someone from ‘home’. Yet just a few metres back that way, barely a word of French is understood. I hail a motorbike, ignoring the common-sense warnings about riding on one without a helmet, and struggle to summon enough schoolboy French to get me to the hotel.

*

Two days later, my brief sojourn over, I walk back across the border. The same taxi driver is waiting, as agreed, and we soon head west.

‘Do you know how the border is marked beyond the checkpoint?’ I ask.

‘It is a fence, I think. Yes, a fence.’

‘Do you know how far it goes? Because I was in Wli a few weeks ago and there isn’t a fence there, so I wondered where it stopped.’

The driver gives me a bemused glance in his rear-view mirror, then turns up the radio so that it is loud enough to drown out any more daft, irrelevant questions from the back seat.

***

Tim is an editor on Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and the author of Love In The Time of Britpop. You’ll find him on twitter here.