In West Berlin times this was the British Sector, and traces remain of the occupation that began in 1945 in a city devastated by war. The Olympic Stadium – built for the 1936 Games and location of Jesse Owens’ triumphs under Hitler’s disapproving gaze – was the headquarters of the British military occupation forces. The Commonwealth War Cemetery is here, as well as the campus of the British School. From the banks of the Havel, emerging from the shaded paths of the Grunewald Forest, you can see across the water to the terraced gardens of the white villa, once the residence of the British Commandant. Until 1994 the British military held an annual celebration of the Queen’s Birthday on the Maifeld. The boots march no more, but the traces of their presence in this corner of the city remain.
From the other bank, outside the high walls of the Commandant’s villa, it is hard to imagine that you are looking towards Germany’s biggest city, even as you stand within the city limits. The low hills of the Grunewald hide the streets and the cars, the tall office blocks and the even taller Television Tower. Only two human-made structures are visible here: the frayed domes of the former American Listening Station on the Teufelsberg and the red-brick Gothic Grunewald Tower. Both, above the West Berlin tree line, offer views across the cityscape that are unavailable down here on the lakeshore.
From a house in Leytonstone we walked through quiet residential streets until they gave way to an open patch of grassy land, leading down to a beach where ducks and geese gathered on the edge of a small lake. It was a warm Saturday morning in June, but apart from birdlife there was nothing on the water. Perhaps it was too early for the inexpert rowers to head out from the little wooden boathouse to explore the Hollow Ponds, these former Victorian gravel pits that had been dug out further by unemployed men in 1905 to create a boating lake speckled with islands, and a small part of the ancient Epping Forest that stretches out on either side of the boundary between London and Essex.
In Will Ashon’s fascinating book about Epping Forest, Strange Labyrinth, the chapter on the Hollow Ponds reflects on the fact that they had not only inspired “a rather sappy song” by Damon Albarn but also some of the other activities beyond boating on the lake that the area is known for:
“The bushes around here and the car park further east are renowned locations for gay cruising and dogging and if a man strolls along behind you looking as if he’s forgotten something while staring at his iPhone, he’s probably checking for your profile on Grindr:”
Gustav Seitz’s memorial to Käthe Kollwitz, Prenzlauer Berg
On Kollwitzplatz in Prenzlauer Berg there is a statue of the woman for whom the leafy, prosperous square in the north of Berlin is named. It stands in the heart of the square, next to the playground, facing the spot where the artist Käthe Kollwitz used to live having moved to Berlin in 1891 at the age of twenty-four. She would go on to spend the next fifty years living on the square, almost the entire rest of her life, as her husband worked as a doctor in one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and she worked on some of the greatest artwork produced in Germany in the 20th century.
The experience of living in Germany through the rapid growth of industrial Berlin and the First World War, the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism, certainly had an impact on her work. But more specifically, it was perhaps working class Prenzlauer Berg that influenced her the most, both on the streets that she walked daily as well as the stories of the patients who passed through her husband’s surgery. This was a Berlin of extreme poverty, of overcrowded apartments, of illness and child labour, and Kollwitz did not shy away from depicting these realities in her work. The writer Max Egremont describes her art as having ‘a preoccupation with suffering, a horror at what people could inflict on others, at how painful so-called progress could be’. It is true. What I would add to the quote is that there is also a sense of responsibility, both in the work itself but also for those who look upon the suffering and horror; a responsibility to challenge a profoundly unjust society.
It was a strange time to travel to London. The attacks on London Bridge and Finsbury Park, and the desperate scenes from Grenfell Tower – let alone the stories that were emerging of how something like that could come to pass, let alone how the survivors were being treated – seemed to weigh heavy on the city as the temperatures soared to record levels. We had lots to do and lots of people to see, but there was one free morning. Over breakfast Katrin and I discussed our options.
‘I’d like to see this,’ I said, pointing at a picture of a mural on my phone. It was only a short walk away, down Brick Lane and under the railway. A place I had never been to but a name which resonated. Cable Street.
On the 4 October 1936, Oswald Mosley and his British Unionist of Fascists planned a march through the East End of London. That their route took them down Cable Street was no coincidence. This was a neighbourhood with a large Jewish population, and Mosley’s Blackshirts were marching to intimidate. The mural that now stands on Cable Street on the side of St George’s Town Hall shows what happened next: the combined forces of locals and anti-fascist demonstrators made up of Jewish, Irish, Communist, Anarchist and Trade Union groups among others, gathered on Cable Street to barricade the route and stop the Blackshirts passing through. Continue reading
The lagoons of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – the many Boddens that stand between spits of land, islands and half-islands – are a fundamental part of the Baltic landscape. The tourists may head for the long stretches of beach between Travemünde and the Polish border, but for thousands of years the focus of life has been the sheltered waterways, teeming with fish. The Bodden has a hold over the local imagination in a way that the open waters of the sea do not, and there is a certain poetic and melancholy appeal to the reeded banks that hide shy birds from all but the most patient of watchers: in the inlets and coves and sandbanks; in the fields of sheep and cows that run down to the water; and in the thatched villages and their small harbours that face not the Baltic but the Bodden. As I caught the bus from Ribnitz-Dammgarten it followed the single road that led on to the peninsula from the west. The Bodden approached and retreated when viewed through the right-hand side windows of the bus, across ploughed fields and wide expanses of marshland through which drainage channels had been cut in dead straight, unnatural lines.
From Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast
Things have been a little quiet of late here on Under a Grey Sky, mainly because of a number of deadlines as different projects managed to come together at the same time. But I decided to break radio silence because last week we took delivery of copies of my new books Ghosts on the Shore, published by Influx Press. It was not only an incredibly exciting moment, to hold it in my hands for the first time, but it was a fitting day for it to arrive as that very evening we drove north for a weekend in Wustrow, on the Fischland-Darß-Zingst peninsula and the location of one of the chapters of the book.
As well as history, family memories, stories and the people that live along the Baltic shore, one of the reasons that the area became so interesting to me that I decided to write a book about it is the landscape. In particular, the bays, inlets and lagoons that can be found all along the coast have a particular feel and atmosphere that shapes my feeling about the area. It is very different to the rugged, rocky coastline of North Wales that shaped my ‘idea’ of the coast as a child, and it has its own haunting, often melancholy beauty. For the first time, we were staying in a house that looked out over the harbour and the Bodden beyond, and it seemed like a fitting place to celebrate the publication of the book.
We will be holding a launch event in London on the 21 June at Burley Fisher Books and in Berlin on the 16 June at FC Magnet. At the Berlin event we will also be screening a short film made by my good friend Eymelt Sehmer that is based on the book and which we travelled to Usedom to film earlier this year.
The path leads up from the Grassington Road first along a farm track and then across slightly muddy fields towards the shapely cone of Sharp Haw, rising out from the ground like a child’s drawing of the perfect peak. Ahead of us stands a pheasant on the path. There are lapwings and meadow pippets. The call of a curlew. And then, overhead, the roar of two vintage aircraft, jousting in the ever-changing skies above the Yorkshire Dales.
At Manchester Airport we climb aboard. Tired travellers struggle down the narrow aisle in search of empty seats, lifting wheeled cases and plastic bags of fags onto the overhead shelves before sitting down heavily with hungover smiles. An announcement warns of travelling on the wrong ticket, inducing slight beats of panic in even those passengers whose paperwork is in order. And then, with a jolt and a lurch, we are off.
Northern England passes by outside the window. We are travelling across the Pennines from Manchester to Leeds, a journey I used to take from home in Lancashire to university in Yorkshire. Crossing the great divide. Lotte asks me what has changed. Not much, I say, as we look down on suburban back gardens and their trampolines, the overgrown edgelands between the tracks and the back fence a tangle of bushes, brambles and fly-tipped waste. Across the rooftops we spy a cricket pitch and a primary school. 20th century blocks of flats and more modern, sandstone-coloured new-build estates. Shipping containers and a mechanic’s yard. An ice cream van under an overcast sky. Pink and white blossom adding colour to the scene. Continue reading