Category Archives: Diary

Joseph Roth and the Schiller Park in spring

The parks of a city reflect their surroundings, not so much in how they look but in who can be found wandering their pathways or lounging on their green spaces. In Berlin, many of the parks were created with the expansion of the city – ‘People’s Parks’ intended as a patch of nature, a communal garden, for those who lived in cramped tenement blocks and worked the red-brick factories of the industrial age. With their trees, lawns and gravel paths, the parks of Friedrichshain, Wedding, Mitte and even the grand old Tiergarten in the heart of the city, have always shared much in common, but since the beginning they got their local character from their local characters.

In 1923 the writer Joseph Roth visited the Schiller Park in Wedding for an article published in the Berliner Börsen-Courier. It was autumn, and he reflected on the falling leaves and the poetry in the sound of their rustling, that symbolised a spirit of ‘mournfulness and a sense of transience’ that fitted the time of the year. Or at least, it did in the Tiergarten, preserve of the promenading well-to-do of Charlottenburg. In the Schiller Park, things were different:

‘…the locals from the working-class district of Wedding gather up the leaves every evening, and dry them, and use them for winter fuel. Rustling is strictly a luxury, as if poetry without central heating were a luxury.’ (from What I Saw, translated by Michael Hofmann, Granta)

On a Saturday morning in spring I run from my flat in Gesundbrunnen (once part of Wedding) through the backstreets of my neighbourhood until the Schiller Park opens out in front of me. There are no leaves on the ground of course, and even if there were, most of Wedding’s apartments now have central heating. But in the people on the benches and playing football on the open space, the neighbourhood is still reflected, as it was when Roth was here. This scene is Wedding. The park is rooted in its community.

The football pitches are both makeshift and yet impressively organised, with thin ropes and plastic training cones to mark the sidelines. Each team has a different coloured bib, and there is a referee, identifiable as the only person on the pitch without a day-glo vest and by the whistle hanging around his neck. There is a small crowd off the the side watching on at the halfway line, and I stop with them for a moment as I catch my breath. Encouragement is shouted in a number of different languages. A young child plays in the piles of discarded jackets and tracksuit tops of the players. I chat with a man doing keepy-uppies, waiting for his substitute appearance. We speak in English. He was born on another continent. He lives around the corner. He asks me where I am from. I tell him I was born on an island that seems to wish it was another continent. And that I also live around the corner. He laughs.

I am tempted to stay in the Schiller Park, to watch the rest of the game and wait for the time that the beers are opened from the crates that mark the halfway line. The sun is warm and music plays, a rhythm from portable speakers that mingles in the spring air with the sound of shouts, the referee’s whistle and the thud of a hoofed clearance out from the back. Elsewhere in the park, morning drinkers occupy the benches that line the path around the edge. I re-join the stream of joggers circling the park. Away from the football pitches, a family have arrived to set up for a picnic, laying out blankets between the coolboxes. It is the first warm Saturday of the year and you can feel the happiness in the air. The Schiller Park is still the neighbourhood’s backyard. It was a mild winter, but a winter nevertheless, and we all survived it. Now it’s time to play.

Words & Picture: Paul Scraton

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By the river

It is a cold morning down by the river, on one of those days when it doesn’t really get light. If there is activity here, it is to be found inside. In the red-brick workshop where, behind high windows, a blonde woman with paint beneath her fingernails hammers at a lump of stone. In the library where, among the shelves, staff move with soft footsteps as tandem partners trade languages in low voices across circular tables and children search for stories they can read, listen to or play. In the apartments that look down on the river, the library and the workshop, and the spaces in between.

Outside, the football pitch is empty. The playground too, and the benches where drinkers gather on warmer days than this. They are part of the strange community down by the river, with their dogs and their brown bottles, and the arguments which can be heard over the laughter of kids on the playground or the shouted appeals to fair play in the direction of non-existent referees. They are all someplace else today. As are the young people who follow desire paths down the embankment to smoke and drink in the sanctuary of the bushes.

But there is life and movement beneath the sullen skies. A grey heron stalks the shallows, stepping elegantly over the latest shopping trolley to have been dumped from the embankment. A woodpecker scurries around the truck of one of the older trees. Wait until dusk, and a family of foxes can be spotted trotting along the embankment where, last summer, tents were pitched, tucked beneath overhanging branches of trees. The encampment moved on when the winter winds began to blow. A presence by the river for months, they left no trace when they departed, except a sodden blanket, curled at the water’s edge, waiting to be swallowed by the brambles in spring.

At the window she
stands, staring at the river
and recalls his face

Words & Picture: Paul Scraton

Out of season

The year starts slowly. Around the back of the boathouse, the vessels have been lifted up out of the water and tied to the chain fence in preparation for the winter freeze that can come at any moment. The road runs down the back of the properties that line the western shore of Plötzensee, this lake that has been here since the retreat of the glaciers and is now flanked by a children’s home and a youth hostel, the facilities of the swimming beach, football pitches and tennis courts, and a stonemason’s where they’ll keep your name alive for as long as someone has paid the cemetery fees.

Christmas decorations still hang and flags advertising ice cream flap in what breeze there is, but beneath dull Berlin skies it feels as if the weather too is taking its time to get going this early in the year. The wooded paths around the lake are filled with joggers and strollers, but what action there is takes places on solid land. The playground is empty and there is little to encourage anyone to linger on the empty park benches. There is a need to keep moving.

In the summer the water will be alive with swimmers from the beach and those too tight to pay the bathing fees and who have jumped the lake’s perimeter fence, as the rowers strike out from the boathouse in varying degrees of expertise. Later in the winter a different type of action will come to the lake, after the snow and the temperatures have fallen and a rink can be cleared just offshore from the nudist section of the beach and the air will be filled with the sound of sticks on pucks and skates on ice.

Somewhere, in the apartments and houses of the city, ice hockey players wait for the cold to come, so that the lake freezes and the games can commence. Today, it feels like they might be waiting a while. On the Plötzensee there are no swimmers and there are no hockey players, just a cormorant flying low across the lake, wings beating down towards the water, a black bullet moving fast until that too is just a memory. The lake is still once more.

Beneath the jetty
Swans paddle without fear of
Divers from above

Words & Picture: Paul Scraton

Invisible Borders at WoWFest Liverpool – 15 May 2018

I am really excited to be teaming up with Marcel Krueger again to discuss borders visible and invisible with Dr Andy Davies of the University of Liverpool as part of the fantastic Writing on the Wall Festival in Liverpool on Tuesday 15th May. Both Marcel and I have long had an interest in borders, how they shift and how they shape our perception of place and history. We will be talking not only about our respective books, but also (no doubt) Marcel’s corridor project in Ireland and both our explorations of the Berlin Wall trail here in Berlin.

I can’t wait to get back over to Liverpool, and you can find out more information about the event, including tickets, venue and all the important stuff, here on the Writing on the Wall festival website. And if you are within striking distance of Liverpool, check out the rest of the programme, as there are loads of great events going on.

Notes from a Bohemian village

At the bottom of the garden, outside the half-timbered house on the old village lane, the stream rushes over pebbles worn smooth by centuries of continuous flow. From here it enters the woods, cutting deep gorges through the sandstone landscape and flowing beneath frozen ponds until it joins a bigger stream, and then a river, and then finally the Elbe and its long journey to the North Sea, on that short stretch where one bank is Germany and the other is the Czech Republic. This stream at the bottom of the garden does not look up to much, but it explains the village.

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Not far from here is an old trade route, for moving salt and grain through the forest between Lausitz, Saxony and Bohemia. Where the old ways crossed the stream, settlements were established. In the village, the business was wood and textiles, and one of the oldest glassworks in Europe, founded in the 14th century. Along the track that followed the path of the stream, houses were built, stretched out in four directions from a central square. Many of the village houses are wooden constructions, dating back to the 1700s. Others are more recent, with the distinctive style of a long lost empire that once stretched from the Balkans to Bohemia. At the start of the twentieth century, over two thousand people called this village home. They worked in the textile industry, and at the glassworks, but next hundred years left their mark. Different flags, different capitals. Ideologies imposed from far beyond the banks of the stream. In the cemetery of the Gothic church, a memorial to the 49 victims of WWI. In the upper village, a memorial to the mass grave of 22 who succumbed to a death march at the end of the next war. Outside the factory, two flags fly. The Czech tricolour and the European stars. The lorries lined up outside a modern-looking warehouse have Danish plates. The population of the village is no longer fixed. It swells and falls, with the season and the days of the week. I wonder what the local phrase for ‘up from Prague’ is, but on a Tuesday morning in February, there’s no-one around to ask.

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Allowing the walls to talk, Erfurt

On the top floor of the exhibition, arrows guided visitors from the lift and through a heavy metal door. To the right: the guard’s office, still fitted with a small desk, a telephone and a seat. To the left: a corridor, floor polished by the footsteps of countless guards, remand prisoners, democracy protestors and today, visitors to the exhibition. It had been left as was. Exposed pipes and padded cell doors. Bars on the windows. Strip lights and a sink. The cell doors were open, but otherwise this was the view the guards would have had from their command post. Weak winter light shined in from the opposite end of the hall.

From the founding of the German Democratic Republic in 1949 to the dramatic events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall just over forty years later, the remand prison of the Ministry of State Security (Stasi) stood on Andreasstraße in Erfurt, within sight of the main cathedral square and the gingerbread half-timbered houses of the picturesque Old Town. Over those years some five thousand people were held there, awaiting trial for crimes that for the most part amounted to little more than political opposition to the GDR regime. A banner, requesting that the government abide by the human rights agreements of Helsinki. A satirical slogan, spray-painted on the wall. That was enough to land you in these cells. Men upstairs. Women downstairs.

After trials, prisoners would be transferred to the main prisons. For his Helsinki human rights banner, Gerd-Peter Leube was sentenced to three years and six months for “anti-government incitement”. For their slogan painted on the wall, six teenagers (Grit Ferber, Ulrich Jadke, Holm Kirsten, Jörn Luther, Thomas Onißeit and Andreas Tillmans) spent up to six months in prison for the crime of “hooliganism”. Continue reading

Return to the Black Mountain

It is good to be here again.

That’s what I think, but only once we have reached the top of the slippy slope. It is probably not the most sensible way to climb the mountain, but the other option is closed to us. A farmer’s gate has been moved. The alternative blocked off. Whose land is this anyway? That has long been the question on the Black Mountain.

Two years ago we walked in mist. Up the slippy slope. Across the Hatchet Field. To Terry’s cairn and along the path. Belfast was down there, somewhere, but we only caught the odd glimpse. A ghostly apparition as the cloud cleared. For a second. Two. A quick click of the camera shutter and the invisible city was gone again.

Today is different. Today the sun shines as we catch a cab to the last house in West Belfast, to the very spot where the city meets the mountain. Urb meets Rus. When we reach Hatchet Field, and hear the stories of the family who used to live up there – thick walls, great views and long walks to school – we can not only see the city laid out before us, but all the way to Scotland. Continue reading