The journey began before we even caught a glimpse of a boat, a ship or a patch of water, let alone the open sea. The motorway, having swept across flat fields, canal-flanked and criss-crossed, now swung around Rotterdam and – beyond the pylons and the billboards, the railway wires and a raised bike path that might be a dyke – the first cranes of the Port of Rotterdam appeared against the skyline. It is the largest port in Europe, a fact that I knew and yet was unprepared for as we seemed to drive for ever past a procession of container yards, refineries, warehouses, yet more cranes and – finally – the first glimpse of ships flying flags from all around the world.
At the terminal for the ferry to Hull we stood in line as the ship loomed over us, above the waiting room for foot passengers (there were not many) and the wire fences that kept us all in place while advertising the sun-faded glories of the East Riding of Yorkshire to the travellers about to head across the North Sea. A family kicked a football across an empty patch of concrete. Motorbike riders compared horsepower and routes. Cyclists compared panniers and aching legs. We walked down the line and counted the numberplates.
GB. D. F. B. DK. NL. White letters on a blue background, surrounded by stars.
“What happens now?”
It is a question I have heard a lot in the past couple of days, ever since the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe woke to the news that the seemingly impossible had happened and the voters had – just – decided for LEAVE, for Brexit and for the end of a 43-year relationship with the rest of Europe. The question means different things, depending on who is asking it. What happens now for the UK, in England and Wales, in Scotland and Northern Ireland? What happens now in Germany, or France, or the Netherlands, where the far-right and Eurosceptic politicians spent Friday celebrating as the rest of the continent looked on in horror and disbelief. And what happens now to me, still an EU-citizen living in Berlin thanks to my British passport, and to my daughter and others of her generation for whom the world, all of a sudden, seems a little smaller?
“Are you going to get German citizenship?”
This is another question I have heard over the past couple of days, to which the only answer possible when no one seems to have any clue what is going on or what is going to happen next is: Maybe. And maybe, having lived in Germany for fifteen years, I should have got my German citizenship already. After all, having committed to living in this country, I should have made the next logical step. But until now it was not, for me at least, a logical step. I did not want to get German citizenship because I did not – I do not – feel German. My own sense of identity is as mixed up as many peoples, I imagine. Part northern English. Part British. And yes, part European. And it was always that third part, the European part, which allowed me to feel there was no contradiction in living in one part of this Union of ours while maintaining citizenship in another.
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.
# Continue reading
As always I started the year resolving to write a little more here on Under a Grey Sky, and for the first couple of months of the year it seemed to work out okay. And then came March. We began the month with a journey south as part of what has become an annual tradition around Katrin’s birthday to find a place to explore somewhere between Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden in order to bring her together with her closest friends and their families. This year we ended up in sleepy Torgau… the picture above is the main market square on a Saturday afternoon. Torgau is famous as being the place where the American and Soviet troops first met at the end of the Second World War, and infamous for its history as a place of detention both before the war, during the Soviet occupation, and throughout the history of the GDR. So part of Katrin’s lighthearted birthday stroll was spent exploring an exhibition entitled Traces of Injustice… this also appears to be part of a tradition as two years ago we were wandering around Colditz castle.
But a day trip to the banks of the Elbe river was not the main reason for Under a Grey Sky radio silence. In fact there were two. Firstly, this happened:
That is us launching the third edition of our magazine Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. We had chats on stage with contributors, drank some beer and gave some readings and the whole evening was a lovely celebration of another six months of hard work and (we think) great writing and illustration about places around the world. If you haven’t yet had the chance to get your hands on a copy, all three editions are available – take a look at our online shop if you are interested.
The second main reason for a lack of posts in this neck of the woods was that we spent the second half of the month away in Rhoscolyn, perhaps my favourite place in the world and that I will finally be writing about in the next issue of Elsewhere, published in September. We did some walking along the coast and in the mountains in glorious weather, some catching up with family, and some sitting in a caravan in the rain (all part of the experience). We collected plenty of inspiration for these pages and beyond, which I hope to get online soon. We returned not only with those stories but Katrin took hundreds of photographs and we brought home a new mug for our collection. So as I sit in Berlin and eat my breakfast, I can imagine I am in that bustling cafe in Llanberis, just down from the hills…
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig and Paul Scraton
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
Today we walked down a side street, not far from Tescos, and at a fairly anonymous wooden door rang a doorbell. A woman answered. “Is this the place for the exhibition?” I asked and she smiled and held the door open, apologising for not speaking English. No matter, she spoke German, and so she led us through an empty room with bookshelves at one end and piles of folding chairs beneath the windows. “This is where we hold our events,” she said, before taking us into a small room underneath those typical Prague Old Town arches. The room housed an exhibition titled “Václav Havel in a Nutshell”, his life story told on touchscreens with quotes and photographs filling all the space on the walls.
Prague’s celebration of the playwright, dissident President is modest, and you would only find the exhibition if you know about it and have the confidence to ring the doorbell. At first you think it is a shame that this is not more accessible, in the “Top Ten of Prague” to lead off every guidebook, but in the end it does not matter. He was one of the best, and in 15 sqm it was all there. Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred, he said on Wenceslas Square on the 10th December 1989. He was right then, and he would be right today. They charged us nothing to visit the exhibition, and so I bought a couple of postcards. A tiny contribution. And so Václav Havel will look down on me as I work at my desk… one of the good guys.
Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.
Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig