I am currently reading a book about a doomed society on the brink of Fascism. Where publicity takes the trivial and ephemeral and promotes it as serious journalism. Set in a city where it is important to be seen in the right places. A society where there is a strong underlying current of racism. A place where a spectacle is required every evening to entertain manual workers, secretaries and shopkeepers. A city where greed and cheap, unreliable information dominates the public space. This could be London; this could be today.
In fact this is Berlin in 1930 where a man whose name roughly translates as Cheeseburger sings sickly romantic songs and becomes the equivalent of a Tik Tok celebrity – reports about him soon dominat the front pages of the city’s many newspapers and journals. Such is Käsebier Takes Berlin, a demanding book ably translated from the German by Sophie Duvernoy. (You can improve your knowledge of Berlin Argot at https://www.fluentu.com/blog/german/berlin-slang/)
Not the least interesting aspect of this novel (early metrication??) are the cultural references to be found in the notes- from Schiller to Fontane including scenes of the famous, louche “Romanisches” cafe. If you enjoyed the recent series on KaDeWe on BBC you will enjoy this spectacle of the frantic Weimar period.
Then there is the evocative smell of newspapers hot off the press. Journalists who become frustrated by sub-editors who cut their best phrases and compositors who have a scarcely veiled contempt for content as long as it fits elegantly on the front page.
Finally Berlin itself as it was in the pre-war period is touched upon; the Biergartens beside the Spree, the absurd architecture of prosperous flats and yet the strange variations in property prices. This latter caused by insecurities in the currency together with the speculations of dodgy developers. This too gives Tergit’s Weimar novel contemporary relevance.
As most of Schoenefeld prepared for a huge Rainbow Festival, I ventured out into the neighbouring streets through Massenstrasse to the good-humoured crowd in Winterfeld Market. There was some comical exchanges between the punters and the stall holders. Myself, I was looking for a new and cheap hat to relieve the heat from the powerful Sun. There were plenty of hats on sale; I had lost a lovely hat that my daughter had given me in a windy day at Wansee when my beautiful, smart and I thought English looking hat was taken by a Windstoß or Böe blew my hat into a gated secluded villa. In the market there was a variety of hats for sale and yet more expensive at around 15 Euros than I wanted to pay-for just a few days. I thought I found what I was looking for only to discover it was fuer Kinder-and didn’t fit meine klein Kopf!
The variety of stalls with delicious cool fruit drinks, summer dresses, wurst stalls and varieties of olives, kebabs and much pickled cabbage on sale. The market is dominated by the lovely neo-Gothic St Matthias Church. In the heat, the smells from cooked meat and fish aded to the atmosphere. More details are at http://blog.sofitel-berlin-kurfurstendamm.com/unmissable-food-market-at-winterfeldtplatz/
Interesting too was the multi-culti feel of the area. Finding Buddhas in a row outside the Catholic Church was a thought-provoking experience. After turning the corner, there was a great trio of singers who sang in an interesting accent-one sounded Liverpudlian. When they sang, “Bei Mir bist du Schoene”, a tune with a lot of personal feeling for me, I could not resist a few mostly joyful tears. The music in the open air was beautiful and another couple of ladies sang more songs which had a Klezmer feel. It appears that there is a lovely community theatre here under threat from more capitalist development. Community cultural developments like this are so important for people’s development and expression. What a really lovely day!
“Louise was born in 1984 in London she studied at Falmouth school of art in Cornwall graduating in 2007. She was immediately picked up by SAATCHI/channel 4 collaboration ‘Sensations’. She exhibited internationally living in Cornwall, London and Paris for a while. After a residency in Iceland and living with Nuns in a convent in central London she settled in Berlin in 2013 where she currently lives and works.”
The above is a quotation from the artist’s personal statement. Louise has lived in a number of interesting environments. I couldn’t help smiling, when she described how when homeless in London, she wrote around to numerous agencies and the only supportive assistance she received was from the convent. She is currently based In Berlin and has it happens in the long Sonnenallee – a location in East Berlin made famous by Thomas Brussig in his ironic and witty novel, which has now been made into a film and performed as a play at BTZ.
Am kürzeren Ende der Sonnenallee
Currently, Louise Thomas has just completed a three month placement at Porthmeor Studios where her work has focussed largely upon an historical approach to the coastal landscape including ships and shipwrecks. About her work, Louise has written,”I construct magical realist narratives through collages, sculpture and painting. The enviroments or events depicted show contrast between real and magical elements. These elements are visible through my different methods of production and placement of resources. I find inspiration from a wide range of source material, from films I have made of abandoned interior spaces, to specific walking routes, to archive material of paintings hanging in museums. I perform extensive research and careful study of the subject matter, building a pool of scenarios to work from.”
“Through construction of models and collages I develop my ideas for painting. From the initial source material I make collages and if necessary bring in images from holiday brochures or photocopies from unique archives. I will research historic events, sourcing restoration records from museums or libraries. I usually end up with stage sets to play out scenarios. The models can be in clay, paper, plaster and other site specific materials. I work my way through various stages, addressing ideas of scale, colour, atmosphere until I find a valid reason to develop a painting. The historic elements run alongside fictional narrative I have developed; for example flooding the space, rebuilding it, imagining it thousand years from now or highlghting natural phenomenon.”
Keine Ahnung–well not really. Except the coffee is good, the beer is cheap and the company-when you meet the people is grossartig. Getting the internet to function and paying the eventual bill rather more difficul. Uploading pictures from my @Handy@ -yes on my transformer pad does @ for “-via bluetooth seems very difficult. So far simply connecting devices and logging into accounts has taken ages-I suppose that actually my ASUS transformer only has a very small brain. Anyway one answer is photographing the various Vorstaedte (Kieze??) and the splendid architecture.
Isaiah Berlin wrote in tribute to the memory of Dorothy de Rothschild of her personality, ”…..overwhelming charm, great dignity, a very lively sense of humour, pleasure in the oddities of life, an unconquerable vitality and a kind of eternal youth and an eager responsiveness to all that passed…” Reading this second volume of letters, now available in paperback, covering Berlin’s most creative period, these same characteristics might be aptly applied to Sir Isaiah himself. However, as this most self-aware of intellectuals recognised, his loquacity and compulsive socialising were driven by a persistent need to escape a sense of unreality, an inner void. In these letters he writes, ‘’my quest for gaiety is a perpetual defence against the extreme sense of the abyss by which I have been affected ever since I can remember myself…’’
He is at his clearest when actually writing rather than using the Dictaphone. His use of this device adds interest to the resulting text, transcribed by a sometimes confused stenographer. Here he is writing from Harvard to another editor of letters, in what he elsewhere termed his wretched Colefax-like hand,’’…my blindness to Mrs W’s true character makes you think of me as gazing through a telescope at remote, dimly distinguishable, dwarves round whom I construct mythologies which sometimes fit & sometimes don’t but always smother the subjects: I do that a little: I like rounded vignettes:& I cling to my hypotheses: it is the only sense I attach to understanding about people as opposed to moment-to-moment reactions to, or impressions of them…”
Berlin’s tendency to construct an overarching, grand scale view of people is interesting, indeed notable. When it comes to political philosophy it is the construction of universal systems, Marxism and Monism, theories he later studied and to coin the term, the ‘’counter-enlightenment’’, which overarching theories Berlin most deplores. The hesitancy and multiple qualifications in his communication, often results in a diffuse and difficult prose style. However, the thick impasto and layering of shades of meaning can also reflect, like some sort of rich expressionist painting, the intention of conveying a lasting and deep impression. If you can tolerate very lengthy sentences, laced with subordinate clauses, which are richly punctuated with colons and semi-colons; then memorable and multifaceted observations on the people, politics and those interesting times, emerge.
These were indeed both interesting and difficult times.The move from diplomatic service in the States to the daily grind of teaching and lecturing in post-war Oxford, Berlin found particularly irksome. Advising Chaim Weizmann and defending the newly found state of Israel in the period after the King David Hotel attack was a duty on which he focussed his considerable abilities and influence. Later he was to meet and to like Ben Gurion. However, as his interest turned once again to Herzen and Russian intellectual history, he was careful not to get side tracked. He was involved in Paris with the setting up the Marshall plan and frankly admitted his limitations when it came to discussions on economic practicalities. Yet he began to translate his beloved Turgenev and still found opportunities to advise government propagandists on what he saw as the dangers of mentioning Hegel and the imperative of countering Russian territorial ambitions. In addition to this involvement with high level politics he was pleased to be consulted by Churchill on his memoirs. When it came to making predictions, he agreed with his fellow don, Trevor-Roper on the accuracy of those proposed by that interesting Swiss cultural historian Joseph Burkhardt based on his study of the Italian renaissance.
At Oxford his coterie included brilliant talkers that included his mentor, Maurice Bowra, the witty Warden of Wadham; here described as having felt jaded in Greece, found Athens heavenly, full of jolly poets, and himself adored there. Sir Isaiah found a warm spot for that ‘’loveable scamp’’ Bob Boothby, talking over appeasement with which he recalled All Souls to be more than a little complicit. Then there was the scintillating company at lunch of the novelist Elisabeth Bowen. He entertains with the witty and erudite Lord David Cecil at New College, the renowned conversationalist and author of the brilliant biography of Lord Melbourne. We have only just begun the alphabet of Berlin’s extensive and amusing friends which extended far beyond the University to journalists, politicians, policy wonks (as they are termed in a less deferential age ), diplomats and heads of state. One of the pleasures of reading these letters lies in this investigation of this, the social hinterland of this philosopher of secular pluralism.
A supplementary reason for reading these letters is the insight they afford into Berlin’s relationship with women and otherchanging social attitudes. In 1956, he married Aline Halban, an exile from Russia, at the relatively late age of 46. There are indications of a developing maturity but there are also lapses into donnish backbiting, for instance A.L.Rowse is repeatedly characterised as a Malvolio in the fractious atmosphere of All Souls. This kind of gossiping is ultimately a sign of inanition and unworthy of an esteemed philosopher. However, it was a feature of the academic ambience at the time and Leslie, as Rowse is known amongst his Cornish friends, would probably have relished Berlin’s further remarks about his open emotionalism, ‘’Curious. In a way better than the stiff English upper lip, & stoicism, hypocrisy and inner rages..’’
Reading ‘’’Enlightening’’’ is no substitute for the study of Berlin’s works if you are interested in his approach to the history of ideas. On the other hand, given the range of his achievements, from founding Wolfson College to his friendship with Pasternak(he smuggled out ‘’Dr Zhivago’’ to the West) and also with the great poet Anna Akhmatova, these letters shine an interesting light on the author’s effervescent persona. In this splendid tome, his peculiar sort of Englishness, his fondness for vigorous debate and his concern to counter and defeat the monster of totalitarianism are sparklingly displayed.