Category Archives: Memory

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

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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

The Cathedral of the North

A Berlin story:

Outside the church a young woman pushes her bike up the cobblestoned incline that leads from the street to the door, passing by flower beds cut back for the winter and a slender post covered in words and images that, if you press on one of the small, silver buttons, will tell you the history of this building and its surroundings in a number of different languages. She doesn’t have time, and anyway, she has heard them before. Her bike is laden with shopping bags – in the basket and hanging from the handlebars – and she needs to get home. These are not supplies picked up on this square around the church; she had to ride to the supermarket and push her bike back. There is a shop on the corner, its neon sign suggesting you might find stacks of fresh produce in crates on the uneven pavement beneath. But look below and the pavement is bare. No fruit today or any day. Behind the windows, headless dummies model elegant clothes.

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Stories in the stones: Kalø Castle and the Mols Bjerge, Denmark

We share the causeway with cows. Or are they bulls? Perhaps someone can tell us, someone who hasn’t lived all of their adult lives in a city. In any case, bulls or cows both make me nervous, but the stream of families, walkers and other visitors making their way from the car park to the ruins of Kalø Castle out at the tip  of the peninsula, don’t seem to be all that bothered. Warily, I step around them across the polished smooth cobblestones.

This is the end of Denmark’s longest medieval road, built some 700 years ago to link the castle with the rest of Jutland. The story goes that the castle was nearly impenetrable, built by King Erik Menwed after the defeat of a peasant’s revolt. This was a fortress aimed to protect royalty not from the threats of overseas, but potential enemies much closer to home. Over the centuries the importance of Kalø Castle waned, later becoming a prison and the local manor house for the region of Djursland, until the establishment of an absolute monarchy in 1660 brought the history of the castle as a castle to an end.

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In the forest – from Pichelsberg to the Devil’s Lake

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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.

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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.

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On Cable Street, London

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

Postcards from the Edge, Part Ten: The Long Silence of the Factory Bell

For the past few months I have been walking the outskirts of Berlin for a new book project. Along the way I published a series of postcards from the edge here on Under a Grey Sky. The walks are now completed, and you can find the postcard archive here. Now I just need to write the book…

Outside the old brewery friends gather in the spring sunshine, taking a seat on one of the benches that line the waterfront north of Spandau’s old town. There has not been beer produced here for a long time. Instead, the old brewery has been transformed, with a mix of re-purposed old red-brick buildings and architecturally complementary new-builds to create a harbourside complex of apartments and a ‘premium residence’ old people’s home, with restaurants and cafes on the ground floor. The view from the upper floors includes both the citadel and the power stations beyond.

An iron bridge takes me across the river to an island. The remnants of an armaments factory still stand, re-purposed during the Cold War to store the reserves of the West Berlin government should the USSR attempt another blockade of the island city. Now the warehouses and factory spaces are used for events, part of a multi-million euro plan to re-invent this island on the Havel as a residential and commercial zone. The landscaped paths and gardens are ready and waiting. As are the jetties and landing stages. Only the apartments remain imaginary; depicted on a billboard that stands on the edge of a muddy expanse of wasteland.

The re-imagining and re-purposing of places and spaces built for very different uses can take time. Off the island once more, the old industrial complexes that fuelled the rapid rise of Berlin in the second half of the 19th century are now less about making things and more about providing space for those 21st century activities that have square metres as the highest priority when it comes to real estate. Film studios and storage halls (private and commercial). Indoor football pitches and paintball. Logistics companies and winter parking for campervans. Infrastructure is still important, but whereas once it was the canal, the river and the railway, it is now access to the autobahn and a pledge of high speed internet access that is offered up outside properties with square metres to spare.

Lots of space, but little passing traffic. A red kite hovers above a fenced-off strip of marshy land, that somehow escaped the city’s relentless advance. Apart from the odd car on the main road, there is little other movement to catch the eye. No one waits at the bus stop. No one is following me along the pavement. And across the street the billboards stand empty. In this corner of the outskirts, on a weekday morning, there is no one to advertise to.