Category Archives: Memory

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.

Postcards from the Edge, Part Eight: Strandbad Wannsee

Over the next few months I will be walking around the outskirts of Berlin, starting each walk where I finished the last, until I complete a loop of the edge of the city. These walks will be written up for a new book project, and here on Under a Grey Sky I will publish some postcards from along the way…

From across the water the bathing beach is pretty much empty. No swimmers in the water or sunloungers occupied. No table tennis games played out on the terrace or beers served through the kiosk hatch. A solitary worker, climbs down from his tractor. There are a couple of piles of new sand on the beach. But that’s it. In a few months there will be thousands over there on the sands. Some will have packed their bathing suits with joy and anticipation. Others dreaming of Westerland. But from across Berlin they will head south, to Wannsee, and their beach.

The Strandbad Wannsee was born out industrialisation, of the needs of hundreds of thousands of city dwellers who moved to the metropolis by the Spree in the second half of the nineteenth century to turn it, by the 1920s, into one of Europe’s biggest cities. Most Berliners lived in small apartments in one became known, in the Berlin lexicon, as Mietskaserne – rental barracks. In the working class neighbourhoods of the city the apartment houses and the factories rubbed hard up against each other. These cramped conditions had catastrophic public health effects, not least in infant mortality rates. Health wise, things were worst in the summer. When the weather turned warm, the city stank. Air pollution above and an overwhelmed sewage system below. Through open windows across dank and dreary courtyards the noise of the neighbourhood filled the small apartments.

Psychologically too, things were difficult, for these were the first generations who had come to the city; from small towns and villages beyond Berlin and elsewhere in what was now the German Reich. They may have lived in the city, but many clung to the memory of the places they had left behind. An allotment garden provided a link. So did the lakes and forests on the edge of the city. So when the weather turned warm, the Berliners caught the train and headed out of the city. To the water. To Wannsee.

Technically, public bathing in Wilhelmine Berlin and its surroundings was illegal. But still they came, to this well-to-do villa colony by the lake, now linked to the stinking city by rail. In 1907 the local authorities came up with a solution, opening a stretch of shoreline at Wannsee to the general public. The industrialists and other villa owners put up a fight but it was to no avail. The Strandbad Wannsee existed, and would continue to exist through the Third Reich, the divided city and beyond. Today the beach might be empty, but give it a few months. The air is better in Berlin now. Apartments in the Mietskaserne of certain former working class neighbourhoods are some of the most expensive in the city. But Berliners still need that temporary escape. They will still come to the lake, and to the Strandbad Wannsee.

Postcards from the Edge, Part Six: Borderland Suburbia

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Over the next few months I will be walking around the outskirts of Berlin, starting each walk where I finished the last, until I complete a loop of the edge of the city. These walks will be written up for a new book project, and here on Under a Grey Sky I will publish some postcards from along the way…

The path runs right through the middle of the field, a dusty trail that has smoothed away the ploughed furrows on either side. A hundred metres to the right is the Berlin Wall Trail and the edge of the city. Where I am walking would have once been a restricted zone. Now it is the last stretch of Brandenburg before the city limits. I am aiming at a collection of pastel yellow houses; a new estate occupying what had once been a farmer’s field, then the border fortifications of the GDR and then a field again. This mini-suburb, only partly finished, clings to the bottom of Berlin like a barnacle on a ship’s hull. Some of the gardens are neat, lawns laid and patio furniture waiting for the summer to come. Others are still sandy soil, the tracks of diggers and trucks still visible where one day there will be grass and trampolines, barbecue sets and wooden decking.

As the path approaches these new houses the ploughed field gives way to a patch of uncultivated and unbuilt land, an edgeland space about the width of a football pitch between the countryside and the new suburbia beyond. This land, presumably where the construction crews of the new estate parked their vehicles and their portaloos, now contains the remnants of all the activities that come to unclaimed spaces such as these; places that are neither here nor there. A fly-tipped refrigerator. The burned circle of a bonfire. Empty beer bottles. Dirt bike treads. And then, two steps, and my feet leave the squelchy, muddy ground and hit the tarmac of the new street.

I move quickly through the estate. The houses feel too-close together, the gardens mean. You’d better get on with your neighbours.  I follow the road around and now it is right on the boundary to Berlin, the new estate facing the more established West Berlin suburbia of detached houses and allotment gardens on the other side. It appears the authorities have been unable to agree on shared infrastructure, as two streets run parallel to each other, divided only by a line of raised kerbstones. On the Brandenburg side the street is new, recently-laid and smooth. In Berlin it is uneven, potholed and neglected. The Berlin Wall is long gone, but here at least the dividing line is clear to see. Borders can still make a difference it seems, even when the concrete and wire are nothing but a three-decade-old memory.

Baltic: Capturing the stories of the shore

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We have travelled north again, following those well-travelled routes through the pine trees and past the lakes that have taken us back and forth to the Baltic shore over the past couple of years. Our destination is Koserow on Usedom and this time we are travelling with friends, here for a week to make a short film that will be a companion piece for my upcoming book about this coastline and the stories it can tell. It is fitting that we have come to Koserow, because it was here that the idea for the Ghosts on the Shore came to me. It was during the easter holidays and I had two books with me. One was Europe by Jan Morris. The other was Marshland by Gareth E. Rees.

Sitting in an old GDR-era dacha at the foot of the Streckelsberg with its ivy-clad beech trees and legends of witches and gluttonous cities lost to the waves, I sat one night with some beer and whiskey and wrote down an idea for an essay or maybe something longer that would tell some of the stories of the German Baltic between the old inner-German border to the west and the line in the sand that divides Germany and Poland to the east. Marshland inspired me because it suggested to me that there are many ways to tell the stories of place. Jan Morris provided me with a quote:

The Baltic she wrote, is the most ominous and eerie of Europe’s waters.

Why is that? I scribbled it down on my notebook. To answer that question became the starting point for my own explorations. The next day I talked to Katrin about the idea, about her own family history that would become a central part of what I wanted to write.

That was nearly three years ago and now the book is finished, to be published by Influx Press – just like Marshland – in June. Over this week we have returned to some of the places I travelled to for the book, to create this visual companion. We have talked a lot about the stories of this shore, of previous visits, of memory and legends. We have been to the beach and the town, the frozen inland sea and to the top of the Streckelsberg. And once again I have been captured by the melancholy beauty of this part of the world. It is amazing what can happen, given four days in a cabin by the woods, a couple of good books, and the time and space for a few drinks and a lot of conversation.

Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along the German Baltic coast will be published by Influx Press in June, and you can already order your copy via their website now.

Postcards from the Edge, Part Three: Parkfriedhof Marzahn

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Over the next few months I will be walking around the outskirts of Berlin, starting each walk where I finished the last, until I complete a loop of the edge of the city. These walks will be written up for a new book project, and here on Under a Grey Sky I will publish some postcards from along the way…

Across the street from the Eastgate shopping centre, on the other side of the S-Bahn tracks, is a cemetery. This has been a place of burial for decades; a pauper’s graveyard long before the S-Bahn came, the high-rise apartment blocks and the shopping mall. The memories contained in these spaces between the trees, tell the stories of this corner of the Berlin outskirts. Of villagers from when this was the countryside beyond the city limits. Of more recent residents of the huge housing estates built during the GDR. Of the victims of war and the Nazi regime.

Just north of cemetery is the spot where the Nazis interned hundreds of Sinti and Roma, brought here during the 1936 Olympics. From Marzahn they would be later shipped east, to the concentration camps and the extermination camps. A memorial stands in the cemetery and another outside the gates, telling their story. There are other memorials too, to the forced labourers of nearby factories and to Red Army soldiers who died during the battle for Berlin. To the victims of fascism and the victims of Stalinism. And on the grass, between the trees, row after row of small headstones. I kneel down to brush the snow from the stone closest to the path.

UNERKANNTER
SOLDAT
1945
1939-45

It is the resting place of an unknown soldier. Of tens of unknown soldiers. All that can be remembered is the year they died and the conflict that killed them. But in their numbers, these comrades have a power that is perhaps even heightened by their anonymity. It makes me think of the words of the old East German anthem, written on the walls of another graveyard, a few hundred kilometres north of here:

Dass nie eine Mutter mehr / Ihren Sohn beweint

That never again, a mother mourns her son. That is the message the unknown soldiers have for me, on this cold and bitter February morning.

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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