On the corner of Prinzenallee and Osloer Straße I wait for the tram, standing on the platform of the stop between the currywurst Imbiss where they grade their sauces by how red it will make your face and the old pub on the corner that was a den for serious drinkers when we first moved to this neighbourhood five years ago but which now sings over its polished wooden tables as the canary in the coalmine of gentrification. Except, as I wait for the tram and look down Prinzenallee, past the pub towards the Spielothek and its slot machines, towards the Späti with used mobile phones in the window and the line of kebab shops, halal butchers and shops advertising cheap calls home to wherever home may be in this neighbourhood with the highest number of foreign-born residents in the city, I can’t imagine that you could gentrify Gesundbrunnen. It was once a spa town, north of the city. Then came the railways and industry and then the bombs of the Americans and the British and as the Berlin Wall cut it off from its southern and eastern neighbours the industry had long fled, never to return. The printworks is a cultural space. The factory on Osloer Straße is a children’s museum. The bus depot is a dance studio. The queues at the unemployment office are long.
Here comes the tram. It is an imposter, one of the few lines in this city that breaches the old East-West border. Look at a tram map of the city and it is like the Berlin Wall never came down. But it did, the first hole opening at Bornholmer Straße in November 1989, across the bridge that the tram I am waiting for will soon take me as I travel from Gesundbrunnen into Prenzlauer Berg. The bridge rises up, over the top of the railway lines and past the allotment gardens and the Lidl supermarket where the checkpoint once stood. Into the east, towards my destination. Continue reading
Long time readers of Under a Grey Sky will have seen pieces about Rhoscolyn before, and here comes another one, but I make no apology. As someone who left the UK at the age of 22 and has lived in Berlin for almost 15 years, and whose parents no longer live in the town that I grew up in, the idea of “home” has always been an interesting one to me. And if there is one constant in my conscious memory, the one place that has changed through the years but – really, when it comes to my emotions about the place – always stayed the same, then that is Rhoscolyn, and specifically Outdoor Alternative, home to my Uncle and Aunty, cousins and whatever it is kids of cousins are to me or to Lotte (we have this discussion on every visit).
Over Easter we returned again, to that field with the views across from Holy Island to Anglesey and beyond, to Snowdonia. When the weather is good it feels as if you can make out the climbers reaching the top of those peaks. When the weather closes in you can feel as if this collection of buildings along a dusty track is the very end of the world. This time, on arrival, we did as we always do and walked the headland around to the beach, following at the same time the waymarked trail of the Anglesey Coastal Path but also the personal topography of memory and my fellow members of the Red Devils, who explored every patch of heather and gorse, sandy cove and rocky inlet, and gave them names and stories and drew maps that made the place truly ours… and now, as we walked that headland again, I could still picture those maps in my head as I told some of those stories to Lotte.
On the 15th April 1989 I was nine, and I can remember playing a game with my younger brother Sean. We were in the bedroom of our house in Burscough, messing around on the bunk beds. At some point we wandered downstairs, to get a drink or a ‘Toronto Snack’ – a fruit salad like the ones I used to get at nursery in Canada when Dad was teaching there for a year and Sean was just a baby. In my memory we came into the living room to find him watching the television.
“Something’s happened at the match,” is what I remember him saying. I remember the green of the pitch and the blue of the sky and the people milling around on the grass. People running as they carried others on makeshift stretchers. A line of police. As the afternoon progressed we learned of the deaths. 10, 20, 30… until it got to 95. Mum and Dad never hid the truth of the world from us, and so we knew what had happened but of course, at nine years old, I don’t know if I could really comprehend it. That night and over the next days Dad met many of the survivors as they returned from Sheffield. He knew, we knew, the truth from the beginning, whatever that newspaper wrote. A week after the disaster we went with Mum and Dad to Anfield, to pay our respects and to leave scarves on the pitch in front of the Kop. At 3.06pm we were in Stanley Park and held the line of scarves that linked Liverpool and Everton. It was the start of a bond between the two clubs, between the two sets of fans – between the people of Liverpool – that remains to this day.
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On the 17 November 1989 a group of students set out on a candlelit procession through the streets of Prague, following the funeral route of Jan Opletal, a medical student killed by the Nazis in 1939. Fifty years later, with central and eastern Europe revolting against Communist rule, the students of 1989 were in no mood to follow the agreed route. Instead they made their way along the river bank to the National Theatre and turned right onto Národní třída, heading for Wenceslas Square. Met by riot police they held out flowers, put their candles on the road in front of them, and held out their bare hands to show their non-violent intentions. The response was brutal, and truncheon blows rained down on the students and the other men, women and children that had joined the peaceful demonstration. It was, in the words of Timothy Garton Ash, “the spark that set Czechoslovakia alight”.
The memorial to mark this momentous first step in the Velvet Revolution that would end Communist rule in just a couple of weeks, is pretty difficult to find. It is on Národní třída, hidden in a small passageway at the point on the street where the students met the riot police. It is close to the Cafe Louvre, where Kafka and Einstein once hung out, and the Reduta Jazz Club where President Havel took President Clinton during a visit that seemed to take in more basement watering holes that palace reception rooms. The simple memorial shows a set of hands. “We have bare hands,” the students told the police, and regardless of the violent response, the protests would remain peaceful. That, and the speed of change, is one of the remarkable achievements of the events of November and December 1989. Continue reading
The day after Christmas we drove through the streets of West Belfast until they began to rise to meet the lower slopes of Black Mountain. Not that we could see it. As we reached the last house on the left, where Feargal lives, the fog not only blocked our view of anything above us but also the city we had left behind. So the visibility was poor and the ground was surely to be sodden, after the rain of the previous couple of nights, but we gathered together with Feargal and his friends the mood was good.
Just past the house a river runs beneath the road and there is a sign dedicated to Feargal’s dad Terry, whose poetry has appeared on these pages and who did more than anyone to get access to the Belfast Hills. The story is on Under a Grey Sky here, and sadly Terry died not long after. I never got to meet him, but my dad and Deena did and by all accounts he was a remarkable man. So we were walking in his memory, and that of Feargal’s brother – also called Terry – who was killed in 1998 and who had also loved these hills and the outdoors in general.
It was in these quiet days between Christmas and New Year in 2011 that I started Under a Grey Sky, so as well as a look back on what has been going on over the past twelve months it is also something of a birthday. Although I haven’t been able to keep up the intensity of posting here over the last year or so, I remain very proud of the writing that I have published here in 2015 and remain incredibly pleased that so many people continue to read about my (and our) adventures beyond the front door.
At this point a year ago I had a couple of plans for the 2015. I had just finished work at The Circus after five years looking after their company communications and a decision to return to the world of freelance work. The first major plan was the launch of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place with my friend Julia. We published Elsewhere No.01 in June, followed by Elsewhere No.02 in September. Along the way we built a small team here in Berlin who helped us get the journal out there and put on a couple of events, as well as working with some excellent writers, photographers, musicians and illustrators from around the world. I am incredibly proud of Elsewhere and can’t wait to show everyone No’s 3 and 4 which will be published in 2016.
The park is deserted. I have walked here from home, a couple of kilometres along the Panke river from our apartment, past the garden colonies and old factories, past the football pitch and where the Berlin Wall once stood. It is a walk I have made many times, a corner of Berlin I have written about many times. More often than not we go this way in the summer, aiming for green open spaces of the park or the beer garden at its heart. We have celebrated birthdays here. Met friends. But on a weekday in December we have the park to ourselves.
The playground is empty, the swings gently rocking in the breeze as the sound of a plane coming in to land at Tegel fills the scene. The path by the river is muddy, churned by the bicycles of the school run or the journey to work. I look for the grey heron but he is not around today, just a handful of ducks on the embankment, heads buried in their own feathers. The bandstand is deserted. The beer garden too. A solitary runner enters at the far end, a flash of reflective orange from her jacket, but then she is lost to the path through the trees. Continue reading