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.

In Walthamstow Forest

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By Dan Carney

Wide, flat dirt paths carving through lush woodland, open meadows flanked by wooded corridors and undulating, densely covered glades. Clusters of hornbeam, oak, and birch, many ancient, pollarded at the top to encourage further growth, presiding over hundreds of plant species; grass, herb, nettle, weed, fern, and wort. Underfoot, the fossil-rich London clay soil, hard and stiff but deceptively quick to churn during wet weather. Birdsong mingling with the low, umbilical hum of traffic on the A104, Epping to Islington, everywhere between, periodically suppressed by the sound of a plane or the sudden and invasive whooping of a siren. Bisected by both the Woodford New Road and the endless, disheveled North Circular, this is the beginning trickle, the tentative first stretch of the north-east London woodland panhandle which will open out into Epping Forest proper, and eventually creep, pleasingly, just beyond the confines of the M25. This part of the forest is a scruffy outpost, often overlooked in favour of its more storied and unbroken counterparts. There are no visitors’ centres, Iron Age settlements, or Grade II-listed timber hunting lodges here, but the paths lead, eventually, to all these things.

The first path, approaching the southernmost entrance to Rising Sun Wood, is inauspicious; a thin, dusty track, cracked and dry in the summer months, running through an open field, reassuringly parallel with the 1930s semis of Forest Rise opposite. The entrance is marked by a wooden post, painted white at the top, ground-secure in the shadow of the trees at the top of Greenway Avenue. Underneath the first flourish of woodland canopy, the path widens, becomes even and firm. The trees are tall, with dramatic branch formations exploring every possible angle. Some are hollowed out, exposing tender white bark. Dead trunk husks lie everywhere. A sparse glade foregrounds the wrought iron gate of the St. Peter’s-in-the-Forest graveyard, where the headstones are lopsided, covered in ivy, many rendered semi-legible by weather and time. The air is comfortable and still.   

Just to the north is an open, unkempt meadow. Large oaks guard secretive glades along one side, hash paraphernalia and half-empty chicken boxes strewn at the thresholds. Opposite, behind the incongruously shiny Empire Lounge on Woodford New Road (“Enjoy The Food, Enjoy The People, Enjoy The Vibe”), lays Bulrush Pond. Bog-like, derelict, murky water mostly obscured by large clumps of reeds. Once there were paddle-wheel boats, ice-cream kiosks, and deckchairs, before widespread car ownership enabled the leisure-seeking families who gathered here on bank holidays to travel further afield. It’s quieter now, but by no means deserted or bereft. Joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, families on short-hop rambles, occasional equestrians, and groups of teenagers punctuate the calm, but now it’s less organized, no longer an end point but a backdrop, a surrounding, or a point on the journey. On a warm summer’s day, the meadow feels enveloping, hermetic, unconnected to anywhere else, only leading back to slightly differing iterations of itself, like a gently fluttering audio loop or blinking, cyclical visual display. Bucolic and restorative, a place to think things through, but always with something flickering away, faintly, off to the side. A made-for-TV fever dream poking through the idyll. Layers and stories just beyond the lens flare, unseen, unarticulated but ready to emerge and speak, when the wind rises and the nights draw down.

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Back inside the forest cover, the track splits around a stubborn old hornbeam, its knotted roots securely encased under the top layer shingle. The route to Mill Plain is kinder here, on the west side of the A104, where there’s no need to engage with the fractured grimness of the Waterworks Corner pedestrian interchange. This is where the path breaks clear of the cover and ramps up, knobbly, cracked, onto a raised, open ridge, where the track bends gently through the long grass and willowherb. To the right is the Thames Water pumping station, its wonky rear steel fence offering negligible protection from anything with sufficient stature and determination, and the Waterworks Corner roundabout, only metres away. South Woodford to Redbridge, Barking, Beckton, Woodford Green, Loughton, Epping. To the left, the scoop of the Lea Valley. The atmosphere is sleepy and strange, ominously peaceful. Twin paths converge and slope down towards Forest Road, the occasional tent visible through the bushes, and the sharp tops of City of London buildings poke through the trees. Look into the valley-dip from the bridge adjacent and it’s Walthamstow, Tottenham Hale, Edmonton, Harringay, Alexandra Palace, Brent Cross. Stadiums, reservoirs, retail parks, antennae, the ever-present wash of the traffic, distant and interior.

On the other side, nestled behind the roundabout, is a raised, circular grass platform, flat, wide, and empty, aside from a shabby Thames Water brick hut at the edge. Marked, appropriately, as “The Circle” on Google Maps, it offers readymade laps for joggers, and numerous exits, down the tight, surrounding verge, back into the cover of the forest. Manmade and incongruent, barely visible from the road, it’s easily cast as the site for something more atavistic and obscure. A sacred place, where anonymous figures gather to offer up euphoric human sacrifices to a provincial woodland deity. A landing site for a small extra-terrestrial reconnaissance craft, carved out to order by devoted earthbound aides. A place to hide in the open. Stay too long and the joggers, smiling and efficient, assume – possibly through no fault of their own - a slightly sinister, collective aspect.

The path to the bridge over the A406, just beyond, is gravelly and uneven, bricks and slate pieces baked into the dirt, recalling the clay pits and brick kiln once residing nearby. A well-covered passage, accessible via a tight, cosy glade, runs parallel with the road, overlooking it. Thorny and narrow, discarded carrier bags hanging forlornly from bushes, a person-thin viewing corridor for the unending, thrusting snake of the daylight Walthamstow traffic. Crossing the bridge, to the South Woodford side, is a journey of metres but feels like an escape from this exhaust-choked claustrophobia into something wholesome, time-frozen, pastoral. The trackway widens, getting flatter and kinder underfoot. The canopy is less oppressive, offering a pleasing combination of light and shade. Patches of sunlight cast through the trees, dappling the floor. Little private clearings just off the main track lead into exquisite mini-mazes. To the left, an intricate branch structure built around a large horizontal trunk, and a carved stone memorial marking the birth site of a celebrated gypsy evangelist. Everything honeyed in yellows and browns. With minimal effort, you can block out the vehicle drone. Approaching the open field in front of Oak Hill, boundaries begin to dissolve; thoughts flicker and fade, hazy before they have fully formed. You start to feel drowsy, detached, separate, before the sudden rustle-rush of a small animal brings you back, sharply, to jittery alertness. You turn and hurry back the way you came. The sun hangs low and follows you, blinking and glinting through the gaps, and the temperature starts to drop.

***

Dan Carney is a musician and writer from north-east London. He has released two albums as Astronauts via the Lo Recordings label, and also works as a composer/producer of music for TV and film. His work has been heard on a range of television networks, including BBC, ITV, Channel 4, HBO, Sky, and Discovery. He also has a PhD in developmental psychology, and has authored a number of academic research papers on cognitive processing in genetic syndromes and special skills in autism. His other interests include walking, writing, and spending far too much time thinking about Tottenham Hotspur. Dan on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 




Sleepers, a poem by Stewart Carswell

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A curtain of ferns
spreads at eye height
to a child, and parts
from the push of a hand

to expose
the shrinking clearing
and the treasure at its centre:
an ancient sleeper

laying like a sunken casket
and shrouded by a puzzle
of oak leaves. The specimen
ornamented with metalware:

rusted plates and bolts,
brooches carried by the dead
to the next station of life.
Close the curtains. Change the scene.

A figure stands at the end
of the platform, his face masked
by a flag. Steam
spirals around him,

a spire above rows of sleepers.
There is one line
drawn from childhood
through junctions to connections,

and the destination close
to definition.
I feel the platform vibrate
from something about to begin.

The figure sounds his whistle.
His flag drops
and it is my face unmasked
and time to leave this dream

and I see it now. The trackbed
has lost its track and I have lost
track of time. I get up
to check my phone

but there’s no signal
and my daughter is asleep,
habitually dreaming
of a better life to travel in

and I see it now.
The ancient sleeper
is a relic, an inherited burden,
second-hand history.

I step outside
and the first engine of the day
sets out light and I see it now:
I know what to do.

***

Stewart Carswell grew up in the Forest of Dean. He studied Physics at Southampton University, and has a PhD from the University of Bristol. He currently lives and works and writes in Cambridgeshire. His poems have recently been published in Envoi, The Lighthouse, The Poetry Shed, and Ink Sweat & Tears. His debut pamphlet, Knots and branches, is published by Eyewear Publishing (2016). Find out more on his website or on Twitter.

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.

Wells-next-the-Sea, a poem by Ian C Smith

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I am anxious driving through green England
always moving on, never stopping long.
In Norfolk, an argument east of The Wash
an old man wearing a cloth cap
strokes a horse’s whiskery nose in grey light.

A man, a horse, a cart, a sign.
Yes, she wants to take the ride
but with the reins in her experienced hands.
The old man hears us out, considers us,
before agreeing to a test drive.

He watches.  Scavenging gulls hover.
A merry-go round and round the empty carpark.
I talk her up, a city boy standing close,
clop, clop my praise overflowing.
You’d think she was Clancy’s daughter.

Our high seat might be a magic carpet,
morning air still, few cars, glimpse of sea.
Horse skiving, I ask how she knows the way.
The horse does.  I’m just along for the ride.
Some early shoppers stop, turn to stare.

The old nag’s pace increases.
We must be heading back, she says.
Aren’t you steering?  In control?
Hardly.  Stop waving, you show-off.
She seems happier now, in her element.

The horizon behind, I picture Europe beyond,
my mind fizzing with travel’s romance.
Then the old man, looking lonely, relieved.
He says, I knew you’d be all right,
his words a lighthouse beam of hope.  

***

Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Australian Poetry Journal, Critical Survey, Live Encounters, Poetry New Zealand, Southerly, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.


Five Questions for... Vanessa Berry

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Interview by Sara Bellini:

We love zines, maps, psychogeography and archives, which is why we really wanted to speak to Vanessa Berry. She started making zines in the 1990s and is the creator of the long-running Disposable Camera, the last issue of which was published a few days ago. Besides making zines Vanessa writes a psychogeography blog Mirror Sydney, exploring “the marginal places and details of the city of Sydney” and in 2017 she also published a collection of essays and hand-drawn maps with the omonimous title.

Vanessa’s work is equally autobiographical and historical, exploring her personal relationship with place and memory as well as the stories that belong to a specific place. In the case of Australia where the pre-colonial memory of the island has been highly disregarded, Vanessa always writes “with acknowledgement of the Aboriginal lands”, reminding us that we should always be respectful of spaces that we share with others and that many others before us have respectfully preserved.

Vanessa’s newest project is a book of essays on place, memory and relationships with animals and the 20th anniversary issue of her other zine I am a Camera.

What does home mean to you?

My connection to the physical environment is strong and deeply-felt and always has been. I attribute this to being a quiet and introspective person, an observer who has always felt a kinship with the environment around me - its objects, creatures, details, changes, daily rhythms - as much as with other people. I do a lot of work at home, in a small and cluttered room amid piles of books and papers, and this is probably where I feel most at home. Although writing is also a kind of home for me, if you see me with a notebook open and I'm writing in it, know that this is when I feel most connected with the world. Perhaps that's what home means to me: feeling connected to where I am, wherever that be.

Which place do you have a special connection to?

My mental map of Sydney is made up of many such places I feel a special connection to. Generally they fall under the categories of anomalies, places of respite and places of solace. In the latter category there's a particular headland overlooking the Pacific Ocean that I go to at times of significance or difficulty. The city's eastern edge is a long stretch of coastline, scalloped into bays and beaches between sandstone cliffs. The approach to this particular headland is a stretch of parkland which rises up to a rocky outcrop. I sit on the grass and watch the magpies which patrol it. A group of them live here, and whenever I am there I see them moving across the lawn, heads cocked, listening for insects under the soil. One time, when I was sitting on the rocks, they assembled in front of me and all started singing, which felt like a gift from them and from this place, which never fails to make my spirit feel lighter.

What is beyond your front door?

Having lived in the same house for almost a decade, this scene is now permanently established in my mind's eye and I could describe it to the utmost detail, however I will keep it brief: a low brick fence with a crooked front gate made of wrought iron shaped into hearts and curls. Beyond this, lining the street, is a row of native fig trees. Directly across from the house is an olive-green metal box a few metres long which I like to imagine holds the street's secrets, but is actually an electricity substation. At the corner of the yard is a hibiscus tree which is often in flower. People like to pick them as they walk past and I don't have the heart to tell them that once you do, the flowers close up very quickly.

What are you reading / watching / listening to / looking at right now?

I am writing this answer on a plane which is flying over a scene below where the land meets the sea in an outline of bays and rivers, and the sun has dispersed to an orange glow on the horizon. I'm listening to the new Gwenno album, Le Kov. Tucked into the seat pocket in front of me is How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee and an issue of Elementum. My watching, for now, is all out the oval frame of the plane window, thinking about the ocean below, the atmosphere above, and how it feels to be suspended in between.

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Hermannplatz

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By Mike Hembury:

Sometimes words fail me.

Sometimes I struggle to put a name to even the most commonplace, the most obvious of things.

I don’t think it’s pathological in my case. But there is a word for the condition: dysnomia.

Curiously, Dysnomia is also the name of the Greek goddess of lawlessness, praised by some as the daemon of freedom and rebellion.

***

My first flat in Berlin was on Sonnenallee, almost at the corner of Hermannplatz.

That was back before Sonnenallee turned into Little Damascus.

Don't get me wrong, I like the way it is now. But I liked it back then too. Loud, dirty, unpretentious. The beating scraggy heart of North-Neukölln.

No-one would ever say that Sonnenallee is pretty. No-one can claim that Hermannplatz looks nice.

It has some "art" these days though. There's a statue in the middle of the square that has two golden figures in a pose you could possibly interpret as dancing. It's a crap statue, only serving to make the place look cheaper than it already is.  

When I arrived back then it was a golden October day. I was due to link up with a friend of a friend, a guy called Harald who lived near Hermannplatz. I came out of the arrivals gate and there was this guy beaming at me. Maybe he recognized me from my friend's description, maybe he was just smiling at everyone. It was 1982. There was no email back then, and we hadn't been in contact before.

I said "You must be Hermann."

He just laughed. "Hermann from Haraldplatz?"

I was a little taken aback. "Sure, I guess so. Or not?"

He stretched out his right hand. Long fingernails. A guitarist's hand. "Harald. Easy mistake. Good to meet you."

We took the bus back from the airport. Changed at Zoo and took the U-Bahn to Hermannplatz. Dumped my stuff at his place and I let him guide me down to the Landwehrkanal, where we sat in the garden of Café am Ufer and drank large bowls of milky coffee.

The autumn sun was warm and the sunlight filtered through the orange leaves of the beech trees lining the canal.  

Everything was new except, strangely, Harald.

He had already acquired a familiarity that maybe should have surprised me, but somehow didn't.

We just clicked. He was like the older brother I never had. I was 21, he was 26 or 27. Still a student, driving a taxi, making music and writing poetry like a real Berlin intellectual.

He knew the ropes.

He was part of a posse of draft-dodgers who had fled to West Berlin from Stuttgart on receiving their call-up papers.

After three months of hanging out with Harald's crowd in Berlin I spoke German with a Stuttgart accent.

***

One time he took out his teeth to show me. He had smashed his jaw in a trampolining accident in his teens, and now had a full set of false teeth which he could hook onto a few remaining stumps in his mouth.

He was a heavy smoker, so his teeth had a kind of patinated ivory quality to them, like you see on the keys of pub pianos.

Harald's flat was a dark, first-floor two-roomer in the rear courtyard of a vaguely slummy Berlin tenement. It had an outside toilet and a boiler over the sink for hot water.

When I asked, on the evening of that first day of my new life in Berlin, where he wanted me to sleep, he just pulled the keys out of his pocket and flung them across the table where we were sitting.

"It's all yours. You take the bed. I'll be upstairs with Sabina."

Sabina was his Lebensabschnittsgefährtin - his 'life phase companion', to use the dry jargon of the times.  

***

The October sunshine didn't last. Winter came quickly, with snow in November. I learned to use the Kachelofen - a big, tiled, lignite burning room heater of the type that have now all but disappeared from the city.

If I had to tell you one smell from those years it would be the particular smell of burning lignite - "brown coal" to the locals - in sub-zero air. Preferably alcohol-fuelled, in the three-in-the-morning snow.

Back then I would wake to the sound of the kids on the school playground next door. Put the kettle on for coffee. Take a trip down half a flight of stairs to the little loo in a cupboard on the landing. Come back and fire up the coal burner. Roll a cigarette, drink a coffee and think what a grand life I had.

No, I'm lying. Even with new friends, Berlin can be a tough place. I missed my girlfriend, who was on a student exchange in Paris. I wasn't suited to living alone. Half the time, I didn't know what the fuck I was doing there.

Harald had become a big part of my life though. Big and getting bigger. One time, returning from a trip to England, I literally leaped into his arms, footballer-style. That should perhaps have rung a few bells, but it didn't at the time.

I was ignorant. Unversed in the hearts of men, and ignorant about myself, and the possibilities within me.

So when Harald took the logical step, and put a name to the obvious, and told me that he had fallen in love with me, I was like: "Ok, so now what?"

I remember him raising an eyebrow. Looking at me, with his dark eyes.

"I mean, what do you want me to do with that information?"

I was cool, detached. Hurtful, I guess, because afraid. My English upbringing hadn’t equipped me with the words to deal with such a situation.

"Is it going to change anything?"

"I guess not."

It did change something though. It changed everything.

We ended up in an ill-advised ménage-à-trois with his latest girlfriend, Karin.

It didn't end well, for me at least, though I think they are still together.

What can I say? I was young and stupid, and still had so much to learn.

Our friendship exploded.

We've lived in the same city for 30 years and seen each other maybe twice, accidentally.

Hermannplatz still has a Harald-shaped hole in it, a scar that troubles me sometimes.

I guess sorry is the word I was looking for.   

*** 

Mike Hembury is an Anglo-Berliner originally from Portland, England, and describes himself as a writer, musician, photographer, sailor and environmentalist in no particular order. He is the author of a novel, New Clone City, and writes a regular environmental column for the online journal The Wild Word. He is also a member of Extinction Rebellion, the Dark Mountain Project and the Climate Cultures network. You can find out more about Mike on his website: mikehembury.org.



Spring In This Place – a poem by Will Burns

I choose the bee-flies for company today.
Sunlight on beech leaves,
cool sweat in the warm wood,
the blue flowers of the season.
Not numerology or some old painting
I think you might like.
Not a poem I hope you read for signs of life.
I fall hard for this place every day
the way we do for people we shouldn’t.

***

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As part of The People’s Forest project, the poet Will Burns is creating a series of new works inspired by Epping Forest. Over the year Burns is penning a collection of poems, one per season, in part reflecting on the unique nature of Epping intertwined with his own experience of the forest real and imagined – here we have had the pleasure and privilege to publish Will’s poem for spring.

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.