Category Archives: Reflections

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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The wild white horses

All night the wind and the rain hammered at the windows and shook the walls, the story of the storm creeping into dreams and half-awake thoughts. The view down and across the field as it started to get light was of a sea beyond the cliffs that was thrashing and churning, banging off the rocks to throw explosions of spray high against the overcast sky. For a moment the sun came out, the patch of blue sky closing again almost as quickly as it opened.

We walked out, down the headland path towards the coves at the bottom of the island where we have rock-pooled and swum off the rocks, built fires on the sands or spied birds and sea rescue helicopters off the rocks. Now there was just water, a violent, flailing mass of water, swelling and crashing, the huge waves making the normally impressive cliffs seem small in comparison. The wind stung and the spray soaked us, leaving us with a strong, salty taste on the lips. One wave caught the wind and, although we were a long way from the edge of the headland, soaked us like a bucket of cold water had been tossed across the path. It was impossible to look into the wind without it hurting your face and eyes.

Beyond the rocks, the sea was like something out of folklore, like one of those vengeful seas that rises up to swallow whole a town of gluttons and hedonists after nature cannot take the debasement any more.

Down on the main beach there was no main beach, the high tide and the storm lifting the waves up to the very top of the shingle and onto the dunes. Seaweed had landed high in the grass, along with plastic debris – bottles and face-cream pots, half a petrol canister – that suggested the seas and oceans had finally had it with us dumping all our crap and had decided to throw it back at us where we walked. The spray had been joined by rain now. At the end the beach, a family stood a little bit too close to the waves. The dad took the kids by the arm and pulled them back, away from the seventh wave. The sea was not to be messed with.

A friend from university was staying at the next village up the island. Back inside – soggy clothes hanging from door frames and in the shower – I saw her videos posted on social media, the waves rolling straight in off the sea and crashing over the beach wall onto the street beyond. She told me the road to her village had been closed off. It seemed odd that we could still write to each other in the middle of the storm. The rain had closed in now. It was no longer possible to look down across the field and beyond the headland. Nothing but a grey wall. But the wild white horses were still there, the fury not yet exhausted.

Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton

Hollow Ponds and the Strange Labyrinth

From a house in Leytonstone we walked through quiet residential streets until they gave way to an open patch of grassy land, leading down to a beach where ducks and geese gathered on the edge of a small lake. It was a warm Saturday morning in June, but apart from birdlife there was nothing on the water. Perhaps it was too early for the inexpert rowers to head out from the little wooden boathouse to explore the Hollow Ponds, these former Victorian gravel pits that had been dug out further by unemployed men in 1905 to create a boating lake speckled with islands, and a small part of the ancient Epping Forest that stretches out on either side of the boundary between London and Essex.

In Will Ashon’s fascinating book about Epping Forest, Strange Labyrinth, the chapter on the Hollow Ponds reflects on the fact that they had not only inspired “a rather sappy song” by Damon Albarn but also some of the other activities beyond boating on the lake that the area is known for:

“The bushes around here and the car park further east are renowned locations for gay cruising and dogging and if a man strolls along behind you looking as if he’s forgotten something while staring at his iPhone, he’s probably checking for your profile on Grindr:”

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The art and places of Käthe Kollwitz

Gustav Seitz’s memorial to Käthe Kollwitz, Prenzlauer Berg

On Kollwitzplatz in Prenzlauer Berg there is a statue of the woman for whom the leafy, prosperous square in the north of Berlin is named. It stands in the heart of the square, next to the playground, facing the spot where the artist Käthe Kollwitz used to live having moved to Berlin in 1891 at the age of twenty-four. She would go on to spend the next fifty years living on the square, almost the entire rest of her life, as her husband worked as a doctor in one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods and she worked on some of the greatest artwork produced in Germany in the 20th century.

The experience of living in Germany through the rapid growth of industrial Berlin and the First World War, the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism, certainly had an impact on her work. But more specifically, it was perhaps working class Prenzlauer Berg that influenced her the most, both on the streets that she walked daily as well as the stories of the patients who passed through her husband’s surgery. This was a Berlin of extreme poverty, of overcrowded apartments, of illness and child labour, and Kollwitz did not shy away from depicting these realities in her work. The writer Max Egremont describes her art as having ‘a preoccupation with suffering, a horror at what people could inflict on others, at how painful so-called progress could be’. It is true. What I would add to the quote is that there is also a sense of responsibility, both in the work itself but also for those who look upon the suffering and horror; a responsibility to challenge a profoundly unjust society.

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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