Plymouth Pilgrim

Plymouth pilgrimage

Drake statue HoeIf you’ve read this blog recently you’ll know that one of my oldest friends died in May. Michael Flay’s works (reviewed by me) and contributions have featured many times over the years here. He and I used to meet several times a year to talk. Usually it was somewhere between Cheltenham, where he lived, and Truro – most often Plymouth (Bristol and Exeter also, sometimes).

We always travelled by train to these meetings; Mike loved railways. Yesterday I went on a poignant, solitary trip to Plymouth to meet with him in his absence.

Having arrived at Plymouth station concourse at noon, I paused to scan the Arrivals noticeboard. There was the train Mike would have caught: the 13.01 from Cardiff. I would usually wait in the garish buffet over a coffee. I looked towards the barriers, half expecting to see Mike’s customary approach and greeting. Of course, it wasn’t to be.

Armada Way, looking north (wikipedia photo)

Armada Way, looking north (wikipedia photo)

Through the arid shopping precincts of the city (Mike would have called them ‘zones’), rebuilt by modernist zealots after the destruction of the blitz – aimed inaccurately at the naval shipyards – during WWII.

I walked to the Waterfront, a striking art-deco bistro-pub on a terrace right beside Plymouth Sound. To get there I pass over the

The repaired Waterfront bistro terrace with the Hoe behind

The repaired Waterfront bistro terrace with the Hoe and Smeaton’s Tower behind

Hoe, with its stiff statue (see above) of an implausibly theatrical Drake (born in nearby Tavistock), bowling-ball in hand, gazing out implacably towards the expected, despised, ‘invincible’ Armada.

From below the Pilgrim Fathers set out on their puritanical way in 1620 to New Plymouth in New England – the second settlement there. Hence the accent: the West country English burr.

Our favourite table inside the Waterfront when too cold to sit outside

Our favourite table inside the Waterfront when too cold to sit outside

To the West, the estuary of the Tamar, border with my county, Cornwall. To the east, the Plym. Across the broad entrance to the Sound stretches the Breakwater, which has protected the haven since 1814.

Like a whale’s back in the middle of the Sound looms the granite bulk of Drake’s Island.

Drake statue lighthouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Drake’s statue the red-and-white striped lighthouse, Smeaton’s Tower, named after its designer, and built by Cornish miners in 1759. Originally located 14 miles offshore, the second of the famous Eddystone lighthouses, it was dismantled and reassembled on the Hoe in 1877, two thirds of its original height. Tourists can now climb to the top to admire the panorama. The tower even has its own Twitter account (@SmeatonsTower).

We used to catch a cab to the Waterfront and have a couple of beers. Mike invariably ordered a burger, but he only ever ate half of it.

The curving facade of the Waterfront and its terrace, with Plymouth Sound behind

The curving facade of the Waterfront and its terrace, with Plymouth Sound behind

It was warm and sunny enough to sit outside and admire the view across the bay. The terrace was almost destroyed in the winter storms a couple of years ago, so we’d taken to spending our lunchtimes at what Mike called ‘the colonial hotel’, about which more later. Sadly, the Waterfront didn’t reopen in time for us to have one more rendezvous there.

A young man with a handsome whippet called Carlos joined his father at the table next to mine. We chatted. The father was from Belfast, and was delighted to hear that my ancestors came from that city. Carlos watched us with canine dignity.

Brittany Ferry in the distance, entering the Sound

Brittany Ferry in the distance, entering the Sound

As we talked I noticed the Britanny Ferries ship approaching. It passed close enough to see its name: ‘L’Armorique’. Plymouth has long been an important trading and naval port, with a busy ferry service to Britanny and Santander, across the choppy Bay of Biscay. Armorica was the ancient Gaulish name for that French peninsula which features so often in Arthurian legends. An apt reminder of the cultural and ethnic links between Old and New Britain (as Geoffrey of Monmouth called Britanny).

 

 

 

L'Armorique ferry passes by

L’Armorique ferry passes by

Mike enjoyed coming to this place: as a child he’d spent many family holidays at the beach resorts nearby, and often visited Plymouth with his parents. I drove us to Cawsand, Kingsand and Whitsand Bay on one occasion when I came by car to meet him. We’d also visited Dartmoor – we liked the grim prison at Princetown, and once had a coffee in the dour café in the village.

 

Copthorne entranceCopthorne bar areaBack through the shopper-thronged precincts to the hotel bar, our more recent haunt while the Waterfront was rebuilt. It’s an unprepossessing concrete structure, but has a comfortable bar, and does adequate food. This is where my last obituary piece arose: the Sky News with sound off, subtitles scrolling, relating Cameron’s last PMQ session, and the forced jollity of the debating chamber’s farewell to the outgoing Prime Minister.

On the train home I considered whether this had been an uplifting pilgrimage, or morbid wallowing in sadness. On balance I think it was the former: cathartic. I felt his presence, like Eliot’s shadowy figure, the ‘third who walks always beside you’ from the Waste Land, and was able, in some way, to feel we’d communed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the colonial Conrad hotel

I had the desperately sad news this morning that one of my oldest friends had died after a brief illness. I’d known him for over 40 years. In memory of Mike I’m reworking an earlier piece from this blog, based on a journal entry from 28 Dec, 2010, written shortly after one of our regular meetings in a soulless hotel bar in a town between our two homes, his in Cheltenham, mine in Cornwall. This time I remove the invented nonsense about the parrot, ‘L’Amant Vert’, and tell what really happened. I hope it doesn’t offend anyone who knew him – it just made me smile fondly when I remembered the incident. If you did know him, you’ll recognise I hope that strange blend in him of intensely intelligent other-worldliness and ingenuous innocence. He was my great friend.

We were our usual meeting place – the hotel bar. Mike used to call it the Conrad hotel, a typically literary allusion to its pretensions to colonial grandeur, while it failed to overcome its obvious mediocrity.

It was nearly Christmas.  A noisy group of men in suits were eating food from a buffet table at one end of the bar, drinking beer and bragging competitively.

They didn’t look like businessmen – they had the air of manual labourers, uncomfortable in smart-casual clothes.

Mike and I sat at a table at the less raucous end of the lounge. The chairs were faux-leather, intended to look impressive.  A flat-screen tv on the wall near our table was tuned to Sky news but with the sound muted.  Disasters scrolled in an endless loop across the foot of the screen.  We drank our beers.

The news of the Jo Yeates murder in Clifton appears on the screen. Mike says he knows Canynge Road, where it happened – was directed there by the accommodation office at Bristol University when he arrived there all those years previously. It probably wasn’t Jo’s house, he says, but one very like it. Regency or early Victorian.

‘There were some weird landlords in Clifton then,’ he says. ‘When he answered the door, I told the landlord I was a graduate student who’d come for the rented room. “You won’t fit in here,” the man said, and closed the door.’

It occurs to me that in those days Mike had long hair and an alarming beard.

On screen appears an image of the 65-year-old landlord who’d just been arrested on suspicion of Jo’s murder.

‘See,’ says Mike, ‘he looks weird. Why do they make a point of saying he was an English teacher at Clifton College?’ We were both English Lit graduates, and subsequently teachers of English.

I point out with a smile that this landlord actually looks very like Mike. This disturbs him, and we move on to the more congenial topic of football.

I shall miss him.

 

A parrot called Elvis

Something different today, as I’m on a train en route for Berlin, and didn’t much care for the last book I read – Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter. It’s ok as a light read while travelling, but the plot was a little plodding, I found: a man in early 20C England, well to do, discovers he’s gay, is disgraced and sets off to become a farmer in the dominion of Canada. He ends up at the eponymous pioneer town, guided by a sinister Dane called Troels, whose villainous character becomes ever more that of a pantomime baddie by the end. There’s a touching love affair and a lot of tragic death along the way.

So instead I thought I’d pass part of the journey (we passed into Germany from Holland just now – always seems odd that the border is crossed without any official checks) with an account of the journey. From England we took the Eurostar train from St Pancras to Brussels, where we stayed two days, and loved the city.

Levi's parrotFrom there on by Thalys train to Amsterdam – the same day that a man was tackled on the corresponding train back from Brussels to Paris by four fellow passengers before he could presumably carry out a massacre. Sobering.
After five days in hedonistic, beautiful Amsterdam we settled into the sumptuous café for breakfast at the Centraal station. In the former international waiting room there’s a magnificent polished wood bar, ornate wall coverings and stucco – and a white parrot called Elvis.

The toilets are equally impressive: the wc pan is made of blue and white delft ware, with a pattern of … parrots.

Just as well we had a delicious omelette there: there’s no buffet or restaurant car on this intercity train – a journey of five hours if we stayed on it all the way to Berln. We’ve opted to change at Hanover to pick up the ICE train, about which we’re very excited. Must send pictures to the grandson, who’s very envious. Maybe we’ll be able to get something decent to drink then, even to eat.

I’ve started reading William Gerhardie’s 1936 novel Of Mortal Love, in an attractive Penguin Modern Classics edition that I’ve owned for ages but never got round to reading. Maybe that will be the subject of my next post.

Meanwhile we’re just pulling in to a place called Rheine. The squally weather we left behind in Amsterdam has changed: the sky is blue and the sun is shining.

Flat Dutch polders and farmland have been replaced by flat, verdant German pastures. Can’t help imagining the foraging armies that will have marched over the centuries across the parts we’ve been travelling through – especially the blood-soaked fields of Flanders.

Addicted to books

 

I recently posted on Eva Stalker’s initiative #TBR20 – read a nominated 20 books from the To Be Read pile within a set period of time. I’ve been thinking some more about this.

 

JacquiWine’s blog, which I referred to last time, talks of the ‘craving’ to buy books, avoiding the ‘temptation’ of visiting bookshops and buying, and of the impulse to ‘splurge’ on yet more books. There was also the issue of ebooks v. physical copies.

 

I don’t take much pleasure from reading an e-text. I don’t like the way my screen refuses to give page numbers, just the percentage of text I’ve completed, and some weird ‘location x out of y total’ figure that means nothing to me. In a ‘book’ as huge as the collected works of Chekhov these numbers are enormous. I like to feel the weight of a real, physical book in my hand. Ebooks are a poor substitute, so I shall exclude them from any TBR undertaking I subscribe to (which I don’t intend to do anyway). To my mind the Kindle is an unpleasant but useful substitute for the real thing – like alcohol-free beers.

 

I’ve also taken, over the last year or so, to using my local library again – but mostly for research purposes. If I’m reading a book I’m likely to write about here I like to be able to annotate it, underline key passages, and so on (in pencil, of course; ink is barbaric – and I include Wordsworth here, cutting pages with his greasy butter knife; Coleridge was a great inked-comments-in-the-margins culprit, too). Ebooks’ facility for ‘notes’ is ridiculous, cumbersome and annoying.

 

Then I came across the excellent blog by Belinda: Bii’s books. Back in May Belinda had some interesting things to say about her TBR project. She’d even devised a spreadsheet to constrain the urge to buy more books! As she said, ‘It sounds crackers’ to do such a thing…

 

Then on June 1st she continued in similar terms. She called herself an ‘almost unapologetic book buyer’ who loved a ‘spree’ of acquisitions. This leads, of course, to the ‘almost unbridgeable’ gulf that grows ever wider between books read and those accumulating relentlessly on the TBR pile. It’s a theme I find constantly on book blogs, or when talking to bibliophile friends.

 

She goes on to describe the desire to de-clutter, and take books TO the charity shop, and the conflicting desire to visit secondhand bookshops with a view to buying more. Here her imagery becomes revealing: she says at the end of the TBR20 project she ‘gorged’ like a ‘sugar addict at the end of Lent’ on buying new books. Repeatedly she says it’s ‘unhealthy’, this desire to ‘guzzle’ texts.

 

Better to appreciate the ‘treasures’ on the shelves already, she concludes. ‘Rekindle the passion’ for what one has in hand, is the message here. Reminds me of Kipling’s Kim, or a zen koan. Commendable – but I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge.

 

Unlike Belinda, I don’t think I have the resolve not to stray into the ‘path of fanciful desires’, to seek something newly invigorating. ‘I spend far too much time feeling like I’m missing something’, she adds, suggesting it’s how we’re ‘socially wired’ in this materialistic, capitalist world. (I haven’t even touched on the desire – the need – to do my own creative writing. Where’s the time?)

 

Finally she returns to the metaphor of addiction: the ‘seasoned alcoholic’ trying to self-convince that ‘coffee is a fair substitute for…vodka’.

 

She even tags this post ‘book obsession’.

 

That’s it, isn’t it. It’s an obsession. An addiction, almost. I have a parallel obsession, apart from books, with notebooks. In a cupboard I have enough pristine notebooks to keep me going for decades. But I still have to work hard to resist that temptation to buy another when I see a good one.

 

The other day, on an errand to town, I heeded the siren call of a charity bookshop. I won’t buy anything, I assured myself. Then picked up a good copy of Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End – only £1.

 

I put it back. As I walked away empty-handed I felt like I was leaving an AA meeting.

 

So: the TBR pile? I’ve been sent some novels to review, so they won’t count. I have several novels bought over the last two years which I’ve still not got round to reading, from de la Pava to Charles Newman and Shark, Will Self’s sequel to Umbrella, which I loved.

 

And there are those Library of America collections of Henry James criticism, Raymond Carver, Philip Roth, Bellow and the rest…oh my. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

 

 

#TBR20: dealing with the To Be Read backlog

In yesterday’s post on The Nun I mentioned bloggers who write and read with such amazing rapidity yet maintain high qualities of output. I’d like here to spend a bit more time on this.

Max first put me on to the Twitter and blogger phenomenon of #TBR20. Essentially it was a project whereby one undertook to choose 20 books (or some other total) from the to be read pile and work through them within a set time, while refraining from buying any new books (link to his piece below). I’ll start with the blogger who instigated this scheme, though:

Eva Stalker in a post from Nov. 2014: TBR20 project proposed HERE

Link HERE to her conclusions when finished (and plan for future similar ventures)

Among those whose blogs I follow (and who post with admirable frequency and read voraciously) and who took up the challenge:

JacquiWine’s Journal 15 May reflections on finishing:

I need to carry on with the spirit of #TBR20, of valuing the books I already own rather than allowing myself to be distracted by the next craving. I’m not sure if I can go another four months without buying ANY new books; it might be a little too soon after the first round.

Jacqui provides links to those who inspired or joined in the project subsequently, including

Emma (BooksAroundTheCorner): her views HERE

Max (mentioned above): link HERE with further links on that piece to related posts.

I’m reluctant to join in formally. I understand Max’s explanation that TBR20 can provide the impetus, focus and discipline to get stuck in to the backlog, and stop finding distractions or excuses – or other books that come to hand; but he does also point out that there’s no point going for it if it becomes itself a burden.

So I prefer to carry on picking out, from time to time, individual volumes that languish on my shelves (some have been there years, like The Nun), sitting patiently awaiting their moment in the sun. And I’ve just been sent another couple of novels for review, so need to prioritise reading them, and have John Harvey’s The Poetics of Sight looking at me reprovingly from my desk as I write this. I need to review it.

I recently had new bookshelves installed, which meant emptying many of the old ones and then putting all the books back once the new shelves were in place. This enabled me to introduce a little system in their placement (though much of it was determined by size of book and depth of shelf), and I’ve isolated many of the TBR books. I’ll keep you posted on the progress I make.

First I need to choose between books which were published some time ago, those that I bought fresh from publication (de la Pava, Newman, etc.) – but there’s another category: those I’d like to reread (the TBRR pile?).

One final reason for dodging the formal TBR20 challenge: I like to choose my next book, often, on the basis of a contrast with the one just finished (something old like Diderot followed by something recent, for example; something modernist and challenging followed by something more conventional; fiction/non-fiction, and so on).

So, in the spirit of self-discipline I’ll shut down my laptop now, ignore the siren call of social media, book bloggers and email – and the constant stream of bullfinches and chaffinches visiting the window-mounted bird feeder by my window as I type – and get down to some serious reading.

 

It’s been quite liberating, writing this piece, and not the usual book review. Must do it more often. No revising, redrafting or polishing: just the thing itself.

 

 

What would Gerald of Wales make of Gamel Woolsey?

My recent posts here have been mostly reviews or critiques of books.  I felt a change was needed today.  What else should I write about?  I’d begun drafting a piece about Rupert Thomson’s latest novel, Secrecy, that I’d heard discussed with the author on Eleanor Wachtel’s podcast for Canadian radio.  It sounded good, and I read it over Christmas.  As I drafted the post, though, I became disenchanted with the task: I hadn’t enjoyed the book much, and the piece tailed off.  Maybe I’ll incorporate the material in a roundup of 2014 reading later in the year.  (I meant to take a picture of the cover to include here, but have put the book away on some less-frequented bookshelf and can’t find it now.)

BL Royal MS 13.BVIII, f. 9v: a kingfisher and stork (from a 12C copy of Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hiberniae

BL Royal MS 13.BVIII, f. 9v: kingfishers watch fish in a river, and stork with a worm (or is it an eel?)(from a 12C copy of Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hiberniae)

This morning, having some time to devote to this post after a busy period at work, I sat at my desk waiting for inspiration.  My interest in medieval literature persists, even after spending years on postgraduate research into medieval hagiography.  I love clicking through the beautiful images of British Library digitised illuminated MSS, and found myself making notes on Gerald of Wales.  The project became too complicated for today’s post – it’s easy to see why it took so many years to finish my PhD, I’m so often side-tracked – so that piece is on ice.

Instead I thought I’d search for the Penguin Classics copy of his The History and Topography of Ireland that I thought I had on my shelves somewhere.  True to form I became distracted.  I couldn’t find the book, but what I did find is what I want to write about today. As I made these happy discoveries I started reshelving the books into themed clusters – a task I always find strangely (worryingly) satisfying.  Many of these books I’ve still to read, so I must stop buying new ones.

Celtic Misc 001I found my Penguin Classics copy of A Celtic Miscellany: Translations from the Celtic Literatures (odd plural), edited by Kenneth Hurlstone (splendid name) Jackson.  A student of the legendary medievalist Chadwicks at Cambridge, he went on to teach at Harvard and Edinburgh.  This anthology was first published by RKP in 1951; a revised edition in Penguin was published in 1971; this is the reprint from 1976.  I must have bought this secondhand in Cambridge, for pencilled inside the front cover is the price paid: 40p.  The retail price printed on the back cover is 95p, so if I bought it in the early eighties that’s not exactly a great deal.  Among the sections in the anthology are ‘Hero Tales and Adventures’, ‘Love’ and ‘Religion’, which includes an extract (from the Cornish-language miracle play of about 1505) dramatising the arrival in Cornwall (where I live) of the sixth-century (?) Breton St Meriasek (or Meriadoc) and his miraculous creation of a spring of fresh water.  This spring, near his oratory outside Camborne, was reputed to have healing powers.  He later returned to Brittany, founded monasteries and became a bishop.  Can’t say I’ve ever seen this spring.  My wife once bought me a wonderful book about the sacred wells of Cornwall; I must look again to see if Meriasek’s spring is mentioned.

Some years ago I taught at a college some miles from where I now live.  Because of a change of site the old college library was culling much of its stock of books; staff were invited to salvage what they wanted, and I acquired a pile which I rediscovered while searching for Gerald of Wales:

Books 2014 jan 008Hardback: a Chatto and Windus copy of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, from the 1970 Collected Edition.  Had I known I possessed this I wouldn’t have used the tatty paperback Penguin for my blog piece on this superb novel a few months ago.

A Chapman and Hall (1965, rather battered) edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, which I’d read in Books 2014 jan 013paperback a few years earlier, so I have still to re-read this early novel of his.

There’s a rather fine 3-volume edition of Coleridge’s extraordinary anthology of essays, Biographia Literaria; not surprisingly I could only find vols 1 and 2 for this picture (in which I’ve included the fine anthology of English Prose published in the now sadly defunct Pelican imprint – though I believe it’s about to be revived.)

Books 2014 jan 004Paperback: two rather interesting DH Lawrence volumes – Selected Literary Criticism (first published 1956; this is the 1969 reprint) edited by Anthony Beal; I have looked into this from time to time; and DH Lawrence: A Selection (also Heinemann, 1970), edited by R.H. Poole and P.J. Shepherd.  The title page tells us the disarming news that Poole was a Senior Lecturer at Wolverhampton Teachers’ College for Day Students, while Shepherd was SL at Eastbourne College of Education.  As a teacher in Further Education myself I’m intrigued, and wonder how many of my colleagues today would be commissioned to edit such prestigious academic tomes…

Books 2014 jan 005Two volumes of literary essays now sit together: Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow and the one that inspired one of my earliest blog posts, T.S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood .  I like the symmetry of their austere covers.  All of these books still have the old library shelf-mark taped to their spines.

I still haven’t read the Penguin MC edition of e.e. cummings, The Enormous Room, or Edward Upward’s  The Railway Accident and Books 2014 jan 010other stories.  An anti-fascist in the thirties and member of the Isherwood, Auden and Spender set, he’s now largely derided or forgotten.  Must get round to reading this book.  I like the surrealist cover.

Also rather obscure now is Gamel Woolsey’s Death’s Other Kingdom, in the distinctive green covers of the early Virago Travellers series (this one dates from 1988).  An American by birth, and perhaps better known as a poet, she moved to the UK to be near her lover Llewellyn Powys, and later (1930) married the writer and Spanish scholar Gerald Brenan; Bertrand Russell had also wanted to marry her.  This book is an account of her experience, with Books 2014 jan 006Brenan, of living through the Spanish Civil War; it was first published in 1939.

There are two fine hardback Everyman novels: Moby-Dick, and the now neglected Thomas Love Peacock’s Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey (he featured recently in Robert McCrum’s weekly list of great novels in the Observer Books 2014 jan 007newspaper).

There are several elderly Penguin Classics editions, in the distinctive black livery with fine colour pictures on the front cover, of Balzac’s novels, including The Chouans and The Black Sheep.  I’ve read neither, but have fond memories of Goriot – a set text for A Level French.

Books 2014 jan 003Let me finish with some happily random rediscoveries – all from the one bookcase in my front porch (I didn’t get as far as the living room, or the boxes relegated to the cellar by my spring-cleaning wife, who found the double-stacked cases, with the inner layers hidden from view by the horizontal second layer, just too untidy to countenance; no doubt I’ll have more serendipitous discoveries when I look properly at these).

There’s one of the first books I recall owning: a purloined library copy of Scholes and Kellogg’s The Nature of Narrative (OUP, 1966; this is the paperback reprint of 1971).  I was an A Level student (English, French and Spanish; today my students are required to study four subjects, poor things), and this was one of the first works of lit crit I ever encountered; I was mesmerised by the authors’ erudition and by their fascinating thesis; I still look into this book occasionally, and always find gems in there.

Finally, also as yet unread, is a paperback copy of a novel by M.J. Hyland, Carry Me Down.  It’s a nice clean copy with an attractive cover.  Somebody left it on a train a few years ago, and as I’m a bibliophile magpie I rescued it and brought it home.

Maybe on my next free day I’ll go to the cellar and search the boxes for Gerald of Wales.  The nearest I’ve come up with from the one bookshelf so far is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history of the kings of Britain…

Berlin: meze, the Wall and reconciliation

 

 

Hasir restaurant

Hasir restaurant (photo: Hasir website)

There’s me, my wife and son – all English; his wife and her parents – Chilean; and her Turkish-German friend.  We’re in Hasir on Oranienburgerstrasse, one of a small chain of excellent Turkish restaurants in Berlin, eating meze.  It was just before Christmas a couple of years ago.

This is Mitte, the heart of former East Berlin.  Before the Wall came down in 1990 this was the dour sector of the city; now it’s more vibrant than the commercial West: the excesses of Potsdamer Platz and the Ku’damm shopping street.

Our dinner party typifies the multicultural diversity of the new Berlin.  Son and daughter-in-law are DJs who make music in a studio in the former Tempelhof Airport.  Up the road from his flat we stop for a coffee in an Italian cafe, where they make a wicked mozzarella and tomato ciabbatta sandwich, and coffee as good as anywhere in Berlin.

He leaves for work, so I continue my dérive alone into four-lane Bernauerstrasse, which used to mark the border between East and West.  This is the History Mile of the Berlin Wall.

 

Berlin wall

Berlin Wall memorial strip

On the left is a graveyard, and a row of rusting girders, vertical remnants of the Wall, now a stark memorial to that divided time.  The former ‘death strip’ between Brunnen and Gartenstrasse has been preserved.  The Berlin Wall Memorial is in the middle of this section.  Sixty meters of the   strip were preserved.  The memorial grounds are beside the Visitors Centre by the Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station. Plaques announce how the barrier grew more imposing over the years, the people who died attempting to cross it.  Dogs patrolled the death strip, wires attached to their collars and to the perimeter wire, so they could run freely alongside the wall, but not away from it.

Berlin wall with church

Berlin wall with church

I walked on through the outdoor exhibition and crossed over to the Documentation Centre, which houses a fascinating guide in pictures, film and text to the history of the Wall.   Climb to the viewing platform where you can see over the whole area, picturing how it would have looked.  A whole terrace of apartment blocks was demolished to create the strip.  In 1985 the DDR dynamited the Versoehnung (Reconciliation) Church there to facilitate their expansion plans for the wall; a neo-Gothic structure consecrated in 1894, it stood in the death strip in the Soviet sector – since 1961 its congregation had been unable to gain access to it.  A modern chapel has been built on its site.

Destruction of the church

Destruction of the Reconciliation Church (photo: website of the Reconciliation Chapel)

It’s a cruel history which Berlin presents in sombre openness.  This is maybe what makes it such a stimulating city; its diverse, talented inhabitants seem aware that life in Berlin requires something special from anyone who enters it: be inquisitive, keep your eyes open, and you will feel what it is to be fully human – flawed, inclined to be dangerous, capable of being sublime.

Next day the snow has fallen.  Miniature snow-ploughs keep the pavements clear; bigger ones keep the streets passable.  A fire-engine arrives over the road; we watch entranced as a fireman is hoisted to the full extent of the hydraulic arm.  He reaches up and knocks from the eaves of the three-storey building a huge icicle.  Berlin won’t risk pedestrians being flattened by ice-fall.  Nowadays it’s an efficiently caring city.