Category Archives: Books

Hollow Ponds and the Strange Labyrinth

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:”

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The art and places of Käthe Kollwitz

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.

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Baltic Lagoons and Ghosts on the Shore

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.

Zabriskie and a year in five books

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One of my favourite discoveries of 2016 was Zabriskie, a bookshop focused on ‘culture and nature’ writing and a place where I am always certain to find something new and tempting and I know I am about to emerge back onto the streets of Kreuzberg a few euros poorer but as always with books, infinitely richer. They have been strong supporters of Elsewhere – we wrote about Zabriskie on our blog – and in November they hosted an evening of stories from the journal, and I read alongside my colleagues Saskia Vogel and Nicky Gardner.

This week Zabriskie sent out their newsletter, featuring the book selections of a number of writers who appeared at events in the bookshop over the past twelve months. I was delighted to be included, and also thought it would be nice to share my choices here. The books did not need to be published in 2016 but read in that year… an approach that more ‘best of…’ lists would be well-advised to take. When combined with the rest of the choices on the newsletter, I think there is at least a year’s worth of inspiration for further reading, so go check it out hereContinue reading

On Heinrich-Heine-Straße, Berlin

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I am early, so I take some time on the corner with the man who is always there, looking out across the junction towards the kebab shop and the U-Bahn station; to where the crowds gather waiting to gain entrance to the club; to the Plattenbau walls and their balconies; beneath the wintergarten windows still shining with the lights of a Christmas already past. The cars move along the street that bears the name of the man for whom this memorial – surrounded by trees atop a small plaza of crooked flagstones – was built. Beneath the ground the U-Bahn trains stop at the station of the same name, a station that was closed for 28 years when the wall divided the city and divided the street a few hundred metres to the south, complete with barriers, checkpoints and border controls.

Heinrich-Heine-Straße is one of those corners of Berlin I had never had any real reason to spend time in, although my daughter’s friend lives down the street so I have emerged onto this corner a few times recently, and usually too early. When I do, I spend some time at the memorial, following the man’s gaze as he looks out across the street and the traffic. Heinrich Heine lived in the first half of the 19th century, a writer of narrative poems, plays, essays and travelogues; a man who wrote the words “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people too” in 1821. In 1933, 102 years later, Heine’s books were among those burned on the Bebelplatz by the Nazis in Berlin, and those sadly prophetic words are now engraved at the spot.

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The forest compound and the lake, Wandlitz

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During the first years of the German Democratic Republic, the leading members of the Socialist Unity Party took homes in Pankow, in a crescent of villas close to the Panke river and the palace at Niederschönhausen. After 1953, when Soviet tanks rolled onto the streets of East Berlin to quell an uprising of the workers, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which ended in much the same way, those head honchos, including Walter Ulbricht, Erich Mielke and Erich Honecker, decided things were not secure enough even in the leafy Berlin suburbs. Five years after Brecht had written his Buckow Elegies as a response to the events of 1953, the leadership – unable to dissolve the people / And elect another – moved north, to a fortified compound in the woods, just outside the town of Wandlitz.

They remained there until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the eleven-month transition that followed, resulting in German reunification on the 3rd October 1990. Not long after the Wall came down, at the end of November 1989, the first journalists were admitted into what had become known as Volvograd, after the Swedish cars the Politbüro members drove along their special motorway between Wandlitz and East Berlin. Although the myth and rumour of the GDR had created an impression of the leaders of the GDR living in unimaginable luxury in the Waldsiedlung (‘Forest Settlement’), the reality of life in the compound was, like so much in the GDR, a little more banal. Continue reading

Germany: Memories of a Nation

memories-of-a-nationPhoto: The Baltic Shore

Yesterday the publishers Influx Press announced the release of my book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast, which will be published in June 2017. The book is an exploration of the shoreline between the old inner-German border just north of Lübeck and the boundary with Poland on the island of Usedom. The idea behind the book was to tell the stories from the shore, from folklore, art and literature to the history of the 20th century, as well as personal memories of Katrin and her family and their time living on the Baltic coast during the GDR.

So the subject of place and the importance of memory, particularly in this country I have now called home for fifteen years, has been consuming me for the past couple of years as I have been writing the book and it was therefore with great interest that I headed to the Martin-Gropius-Bau on Friday to see the exhibition Germany: Memories of a Nation. The exhibition, which first appeared in London alongside a Radio 4 series and an excellent book by Neil MacGregor, has been subtitled in Berlin as “the British view” because of its origins. On the day we were there our fellow visitors in the gallery were overwhelmingly German. I had already read the book, so most of the objects and the reflections in the accompanying text were not new to me, but nevertheless it was a fascinating exhibition that in its essence asks of us the question: what is a nation anyway?

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