Rory Maclean's Berlin: 'A city where history broods. Its legends, both real and imagined, stalk the streets: Lenin drinks at the same café as Bowie’s heroes.'



Rory Maclean's Berlin: 'Wim Wender’s trench-coated angels wing above torch-lit Nazi processions'

Why are we drawn to certain cities?  Perhaps because of a story read in childhood. Or a chance teenage meeting. Or maybe simply because the place touches us, embodying in its towers, tribes and history an aspect of our understanding of what it means to be human. Paris is about romantic love. Lourdes equates with devotion. New York means materialism. London is forever trendy.

            Berlin is all about volatility. Its identity is based not on stability but on change. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful, and fallen so low. No other city has inspired so many artists and witnessed so many murders. It’s a capital city made up of villages. An island long adrift on a foreign sea. A city where history broods. Its legends, both real and imagined, stalk the streets: Lenin drinks at the same café as Bowie’s heroes, Wim Wender’s trench-coated angels wing above torch-lit Nazi processions, Speer conjures myths from the same canvas as Georg Grosz, Dietrich shops alongside Sally Bowles at Ka De We, le Carré’s George Smiley watches the packed trains leave for Auschwitz.

            I was once a baby-boom Canadian ‘doing’ Europe, a child of the most liberal and stable of nations. During a happy, footloose summer I climbed the Eiffel Tower, tripped down the Spanish Steps and made love under the stars on an Aegean beach. Then on the last week of the holiday I saw the Wall. The sight of that brutal barrier shook me to my core. At the heart of the continent were watchtowers, barbed wire and border guards who shot dead ‘defectors’ because they wanted to live under a different system. I knew the history. I understood what had happened. But I couldn’t conceive how it had happened. The individuals whose actions had divided Germany and Europe — the wartime planners, the Soviet commissars, the Grepo — weren’t monsters. They were ordinary men and women. I ached to understand their motivation, how they came to act as they did, yet at the same time I was repulsed by their crimes and needed to give voice to their victims’ suffering. A decade would pass before I began doing that, putting pen to paper, writing my first book as the Wall fell, then another fifteen years and six more books before I settled in the city.

            Berlin’s unpredictable undercurrents long attracted artists. The historian Peter Gay wrote that living in the city in the Golden Twenties was the dream of ‘the composer, the journalist, the actor; with its superb orchestras, its 120 newspapers, its forty theatres, Berlin was the place for the ambitious, the energetic, the talented. Wherever they started, it was in Berlin that they became, and Berlin that made them famous.’ During the Weimar years it was the world’s most exciting city. Here Walter Gropius conceived the Bauhaus, Weill penned ‘The Ballad of Mack the Knife’ and Isherwood immortalized the cabaret.  Nabokov, Kafka, Auden and Spender were inspired in its cafés. At Babelsberg Studio Fritz Lang filmed ‘Metropolis’ while von Sternberg and Dietrich created ‘The Blue Angel’. For ten breathless years, artists and intellectuals danced on the edge of a volcano. When their vision of a new world was rejected by Germans in 1933, the year Hitler became Chancellor, Berlin’s exiles carried their new modernity abroad.

Situated on a long plain of marshes stretching as far as Warsaw, medieval Berlin was an uncultured spot. Christianity did not take root here until the twelfth century. Robber barons and the plague besieged the primitive outpost as late as the fifteenth century. It was the Hohenzollern princes who wrested a capital from the swamps with hard work and immigrants. But the princes’ obsession with military power also laid the foundations for the bullish force of Prussia, the ‘army within a state’ which aspired to European domination. It’s no wonder that Goethe loathed the place, equating it with the Devil’s world.

            At the outbreak of the First World War, Berlin was a grandiose capital dominated by pomp, parades and overbearing buildings of immense ugliness. ‘Groups of people everywhere, and in addition, soldiers marching out of the city, showered with blossoms as they went. Every face looks happy: we have war!’ cheered the actress Tilla Durieux in 1914. But within a year disillusionment had set in and, by 1918, some 350,000 young Berliners had been killed in action. The ignominy of defeat and the vindictive Versailles Treaty made the returning troops ideal candidates for radicals on both the left and right. Revolution, insurrection and political assassinations characterised the next desperate years and — along with the wild inflation of 1922-23 — shattered respect for tradition.

            Then, in 1924, the American-led Dawes Plan stabilised the mark, fuelling a bubble of prosperity and stimulating a remarkable cultural flowering that bridged east and west and transformed Berlin into the international capital of modernism. Almost overnight the population boomed, industrial output soared above pre-war levels and Germany became second only to the US in value of world exports. The city pulsated with life and easy money. Hungry for experimentation, artists from Britain, France, America and Russia moved to Berlin, attracted by creative and sexual freedom, as well as by the least repressive censorship laws in Europe. Heinrich Mann called it ‘a city of excitement and hope’. But for all its frenzied, prodigious output, the decade was golden for only a small minority, many of whom were outsiders.  


            In 1926 a young Jospeh Goebbels — another of many ambitious storytellers — arrived at the Anhalter Bahnhof, determined to ‘take the city’ for an aspirant Hitler. At the time there were fewer than 200 Nazi Party members in Berlin, while the Communists boasted a membership of 250,000. In an audacious move Goebbels cast the Communists — along with the Jews — as the scapegoats for society’s ills. He orchestrated hundreds of street battles against them to gain publicity. He took advantage of the resurgent financial crisis and, after 1929, of mass unemployment (one third of the city’s labour force was out of work towards the end of the Great Depression). His Machiavellian mastery of propaganda exploited the suffering of Berlin’s majority; like most Germans they embraced the Nazi’s radical solutions in response. In the month following Hitler’s accession to power over 50,000 Berliners joined the Party. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                      The minority left-wing avant-garde was easily destroyed. German literature went up in smoke in the 1933 book burnings. Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin, Mann and many other writers fled the country, alongside Lang, Einstein and Mies van der Rohe. With the Nazis’ arrogant triumph Hitler proposed rebuilding Berlin as ‘Germania’, the new capital of the populist, nationalistic ‘Thousand Year Reich’. ‘In ten years no one will recognise the city’ he boasted. During the Second World War more bombs fell on it than on the whole of England. By 1945 three-quarters of the city lay in ruins.

            The victorious Allies divided Berlin into four sectors.  Stalin’s secret intention was to draw it — and then the whole of Germany — into the Communist orbit. In 1948 he blockaded the city as a means of driving the Americans out of Europe, but the Allies retaliated by launching the Berlin Airlift to sustain its freedom. With the brutal suppression of the 1953 uprising, hundreds of thousands of East Germans began moving west, forcing the Communists to close their escape route by building the Wall. Behind it East German literature flourished, though not necessarily in print due to strict censorship. In the encircled western sectors writers struggled to come to terms with the recent past, handicapped by both widespread denial and young men moving to West Berlin only to escape military service, their spirit of refusal emasculating criticism and engendering self-indulgence. The return to literature of quality — influenced by the residencies of Heinrich Böll, Wolf Biermann, Günter Grass and Uwe Johnson as well as Ryszard Kapuscinski, Cees Nooteboom and Susan Sontag — was accelerated by reunification. The city has emerged from its dark anger to become again a creative capital of Europe: cool, experimental, bohemian, with cheap rents and an irony-free exuberance that attracts aspiring scribblers and the international cultural elite alike. East and west, German and foreign, meet once more, as illustrated in the work of Thomas Brussig, Bernhard Schlink and Uwe Tellkamp, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen and Imre Kertesz.

            Today I ride my bicycle past the site of the wooden observation stand where I decided to become a writer, across the former death strip, to the glittering glass and steel phoenix of Potsdamer Platz. Near to it is the Holocaust Memorial, the undulating labyrinth of concrete plinths which commemorates the murdered European Jews. The black husk of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943, casts a long shadow along buzzy Kurfürstendamm. At my son’s school an old brick wall is still pockmarked from machinegun fire. A young German painter told me recently, ‘I do not want to say that they — the SS officers, the guards by the Wall, the Stasi interrogators — are like us. It is different, worse I guess.  They are us — and we would have been them, in our respective times. It does not mean that I think we — the Germans — are likely to ever become Nazis again. Germany is a profoundly different land now, its identity reshaped forever by cataclysmic events. But it is the potency of us, them, me, to have been part of such events that is the horror today.’

            Of all human characteristics change is ever the most constant.  Germans no longer shy away from acknowledging the darkness in their past.  Convinced of the Freudian idea that the repressed (or at least unspoken) will fester like a canker unless it is brought to light, Germany has subjected itself to national psychoanalysis. Past atrocities are unearthed and confessed, as a condition of healing, as if the psychic health of a society depends upon it. This courageous, humane and moving process is inspiring painters and authors at home and abroad, illuminating legends real and imagined, galvanizing again this volatile, ever-changing city … for a time.

Introduction to city-lit Berlin by Rory MacLean, author of Berlin: Imagine a City. City-lit Berlin, £9.99, paperback, Oxygen Books features over 60 writers on Berlin.

'From buying underwear to chewing a hunk of baguette is somehow more stylish because you're doing it in Paris.' Stephen Clarke on all things Parisian in city-lit Paris.

Author Stephen Clarke

Paris is not entirely unique. You can sit in cafés, wear designer clothes and even have sex in lots of other towns.

It just feels unique, as if everything you do, from buying underwear to chewing a hunk of baguette, is somehow more stylish because you’re doing it in Paris. Certainly Parisians act as if they’re unique — not as a community but each individual one of them. It is the city of moi. As they walk down the street they’re thinking, look at moi. Even when they’re kissing a friend on the cheeks, they’re saying it – moi, moi.

And the obsession driving each moi is its lifestyle. Parisians have elevated lifestyle to an art ― no, more than an art, it is (as only the French can say properly) a raison d’être. In summer, they close off a whole chunk of the road running along the right bank of the Seine — the city’s main throughway — to create Paris Plages, a chain of imported beaches, riverside cafés, performance spaces, even pétanque pitches. Block a main inner-city artery so that people can play pétanque? Not many capitals would do that.

Similarly, the new Vélib scheme ― cheap bike rental — was instantly adopted by Parisians as a chance to glide about the city looking stylish, as well as being a great new chat-up opportunity. “Bonjour, you have rented a Vélib? So have I, what a coincidence. Destiny has obviously decided that we must sleep together.”

Admittedly, this love of lifestyle does have its downside. As soon as the Vélibs were introduced, you saw impatient Parisians jostling around, trying to push in front of each other to get a bike. Because waiting is not part of their lifestyle. The person in front is preventing moi from being where moi really wants to be.

So when a chic Parisian office worker barged in front of me to get his Vélib, I knew that he wasn’t just being bad-mannered. No, he had an urgent appointment with himself and his lifestyle. It was probably imperative for him to go and sit outside a café before shutting himself away in the office. If he waited for me to fiddle around selecting my bike, he’d miss the chance to watch that new secretary walk past in her tight skirt. One of these mornings she is sure to notice him, and then who knows what will happen.

It is the city’s addiction to the moi-first lifestyle that has attracted writers to Paris for so many centuries. The average writer is, after all, even more egocentric than a Parisian. What’s more, Paris is the true home of the intellectual, a place where you can talk total arty-farty twaddle and, as long as you are passionate about it (and preferably squinting through a haze of cigarette smoke), people will actually take you seriously.

Fortunately, though, there have been plenty of brilliant writers either visiting Paris or living here, and the book you’re now holding is full of anything but twaddle, except perhaps for the samples of my own writing.

And what strikes me about reading Balzac, Flaubert, Orwell or de Beauvoir on Paris is how little the city changes. Superficially, yes ― Balzac’s heroes didn’t have to battle their way onto a metro during a travel strike — but deep down things are always the same. There are still foreigners getting mistreated in swanky kitchens exactly as George Orwell was. You can still trip over Americans like Hemingway sitting with their litre of wine on the river bank. Even some of the streets in Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris are almost unchanged, and the darker ones can certainly smell pretty medieval on a Sunday morning before the cleaners come round.

My own first visit to Paris was inspired by a book ― Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris), a novel about the often unappetizing things that went on in the city’s food market at Les Halles. Being too hard up to buy a decent guidebook, I marched off in search of the market using only the free Galeries Lafayette map they give you at the railway station, and was disappointed to discover that the glass-framed market halls had been knocked down and replaced by a hideous shopping mall about twenty years earlier.

However, as I wandered away, deep in literary mourning, I stumbled into the rue Montorgeuil and was confronted with bloody hunks of horsemeat, skinned rabbits, live lobsters and heaps of pungent mushrooms with the soil still clinging to their roots. A boulangère had set up a stall in front of her shop and was gleefully handling money and bread while sneezing into her palm with a disregard for hygiene that would have brought out the bacteria police back home. I was in Zola’s novel.

These days, people moan that the area around the rue Montorgeuil has gone posh — there is now, for example, a trendy Japanese restaurant that does mango sushi. Merde alors. But Zola would recognize the epicureanism of a street where every other business is dedicated to food. And you can still buy a baguette that has been fondled by a baker’s dubious fingers. Mango sushi, OK, but polythene bags for baguettes? Non merci!

The area of Paris where I now live has many timeless qualities to it. It’s the Butte aux Cailles. A picturesque name, I thought when I first moved in ― Quail Hill. But no, a friend explained that quail was an old word for prostitute. Apparently the hill used to be a prime cruising zone. And in a modern way, it still is. There’s a small gang of ladies who go round sticking massage ads on trees and lampposts. Hand-written, too. None of your new-fangled colour printing technology for these quails.

I often see people filling water bottles outside the Butte aux Cailles swimming pool. There is a spring beneath the hill, and a fountain where you can collect the water, free of charge. These days it is checked for purity, of course, but even so, it is a part of daily life that must go back hundred of years.

Nearby is the small local bookshop, which advertises an in-house “public writer”. No, not a resident author who will lecture you on the problems of the omniscient narrator — this is a person who writes your letters for you if you can’t spell too well yourself. What century are we in again?

And the wonderful thing is that none of this is done for tourists or because the state or UNESCO has provided a grant to ensure that future generations will always be able to witness ancient French folk customs. It is simply unchanging, everyday Paris.

There is, however, one quaint folk custom that is state-subsidized. Every year, generally in winter, the French government workers go on strike, and the nearby Place d’Italie comes alive with balloons, revolutionary songs and the fragrant odour of merguez sausages being cremated on barbecues. The atmosphere is usually very festive, with old friends meeting up and comparing banners. Last year, I went and interviewed some of them for a French TV programme, and the protesters were in a hearty mood despite the rain. I met a group of strikers from a suburb of Paris who were sitting out a shower in a café.

“How many times have you been on strike?” I asked one man.

He had a think and replied, “this year?”

Next I found a chanting Parisian social-security worker and interrupted him to ask about his all-time favourite strike or protest march. He consulted his colleagues and they decided that “it was last year, when we went to Brussels.” Yes, these demonstrations are such an integral part of their lifestyle that they even go on striking holidays.

So if you come to Paris hoping to visit some of the places mentioned in this book, and your trip is disrupted by a transport strike or protest marches, don’t be disheartened. It’s just one example of Paris imposing its lifestyle on you. All you can do is adopt the strategy I used with the Vélib queue-jumper – accept that c’est la vie and give a resigned Parisian shrug.

You don’t know how it’s done? It’s very simple. You put on a facial expression that says “what do I care, we’re all mere grains of sand in the infinite desert of the cosmos,” you imagine that a pair of overweight parrots has settled on your shoulders, and then try to lift them six inches higher without tipping them off. Get practising before you visit Paris – it’s a key exercise in all the city’s yoga classes, so you’ll have some catching up to do.

A Year in the Merde author Stephen Clarke's introduction from city-lit Paris, featuring over sixty writers on all things Parisian, £9.99, paperback, Oxygen Books