“Any serious flaneur walks by night as much as by day; for by day it’s too easy to be drawn into a complacent acceptance of normalcy. This much we plainly know: the panel truck disgorging toilet paper; the smoking secretary with laddered tights; the dosser senatorial, sporting a sleeping bag for a toga. But by night these are shape-shifters, capable of defeating our expectations.”
The quote comes from Will Self and an Independent column from six years ago on the pleasures of night walking. He is a fan of the nocturnal ramble and describes one such walk from a restaurant to his hotel through the dark streets of Glasgow. I can see him as I read, imagination stimulated by the words on a page, but despite his enthusiasm for walking under the glow of streetlights there remains a sense of foreboding or threat, and I am relieved for him when the automatic doors swish open and he steps inside at the end of his walk. This almost definitely says more about me than it does about him, and my own mild fears of being out – whether in the city or beyond – after dark.
We understand darkness and the night in a positive or negative way based on how it stimulates the imagination; perhaps the streets give us something to fear, or perhaps instead it is a liberation as the anonymity of darkness increases of idea of what might be possible. The night can be the time when we come out to play. It can be also atmospheric in Self’s “sodium firelight”, as it was when we visited Greifswald a few weeks ago. We decided to first experience the city centre and its medieval heart after dark, and we walked through the streets illuminated not only by streetlamps and shop window displays, but also the Christmas decorations that had not yet been taken down.
Will Self talks about the city at night as being “distinctively modern terrain” but somehow in Greifswald it was as if the city had moved back in time as darkness encroached… it was easier to imagine the cobbled side streets and old university buildings as they had been two hundred years ago and more, back when this city was controlled by Sweden or when its spires and towers became the favourite subject of romantic painters. Down by the river as the wind rattled the masts of the old sailing ships and you half expected to hear the calls of sailors climbing ashore to make their way to the nearest pub or house of ill repute.
It was not so easy to see which buildings were old and which had been re-built in the 1980s using the prefabricated techniques that were such a feature of building projects and urban planning in the old east. Of course, you had to ignore the cars rumbling over those cobblestones, and the “Everything Must Go” neon pink SALE signs on the high street, but still it was easier to picture Greifswald as it had once been, or at least how it would have been portrayed in the paintings of Casper David Friedrich.
The next day it was easier to see the joins, the patch-up jobs and the different ideas of the local council when it came to what would be suitable for planning permission in this lovely old town, depending on the era. Surprisingly, I couldn’t help but think that the GDR planners and architects had been let down more by their materials than their vision. What had been built since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a lot more hit and miss. By daylight it was a certainly much more prosaic place… the romance of Greifswald was in hurried footsteps after dark along softly lit streets, the light rain visible beneath the lamps and on the shine of the cobbles at our feet.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig