I’ve always had a particular interest in post war communism, and as a child I couldn’t get enough news footage from Red Square, the Politburo and the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union seemed to have something that I found fascinating, not communism because that was too obvious and oppressive. It was probably the fact that it was so vast, had its own space program, cool posters and backward letters. Also it seemed so much more dignified than its idiot American or British counterparts in Reagan or Thatcher, the latter of which I am still waiting to die.
Also, we couldn’t go there, the forbidden fruit, so to speak. The Moscow satellite states also had a strange lure, and in particular East Germany which seemed even more remote and cut off, even though it was in Europe and we looked over the fence once on a school exchange visit (I snogged Terri Diss, which is slightly strange because she had an 80s Slavic look about her). Most of all it was stories about the Berlin Wall that trapped the imagination, the place that more than any other epitomised cold war paranoia in the 70s and 80s. A divided city, like Belfast was at the time, but with a grown up agenda, and far more at stake.
I’d always wanted to go there, probably more than any other European city. Rome, Barcelona, Paris and Madrid are all places to aspire to, but for me not quite for the same reasons. It’s true to say that those other European cities have seen their fair share of the action in the form of revolution, civil war and air raids. But it was Berlin that sat for forty years, split in two by fearful politics and hopeless ideology from which it still bares the scares. A city rising from the past, slowly coming to terms with the history for which it has become synonymous.
No better place for a stag weekend then? The idea being that the annual beer festival would provide a focus for which to base a few days in the city. Overwhelming amounts of fine lager, barbequed animals and techno awaited. That and poncing about in cafes talking about motorbikes and bullshit sexual conquests.
I can’t put my finger on what I liked about the place most, but I was almost overwhelmed by the sheer civility of the culture and atmosphere. By civility I mean that everything works, is well organized and presented like it matters. Not in the authoritarian way you’d expect in Germany, but in an unregulated manner conclusive to good living. In that sense it is a city completely at ease with its own contradiction.
There are bars everywhere open all hours of the night, they serve good drinks at reasonable prices and the service is impeccable. There is a general good feeling of tolerance about the place, you can smoke, and there’s bog roll in the toilet. The two Techno clubs we went to on Friday and Saturday night respectively draw on the contradicting theme running through the city. The concrete brutalism of the décor, and the abandoned factory locations sit beautifully against the well fitted hard rubber bars and friendly staff. It is insanely modern, almost uncomfortably cool and the music is overtly aggressive, and as if to top the contradiction, it is almost entirely self regulating. Surely this is what it’s all about.
No sign of foul tasting lager, trains littered with filth or hordes of police in oversized Scotchlite pushing you out into the street at bedtime. No, none of that bollocks, and unsurprisingly there was no trouble apart from that threatened by overweight northerners in ‘Man Yoo’ shirts. Looking around the fantastic beer festival at the tens of thousands getting blind drunk in good spirits, I couldn’t help but see us as an increasingly alienated nation, and as time goes on a less physically attractive one too.
And the irony of it all is that nearly 20 years after the end of communism in Berlin, it is the city of London that is turning into a dirty and polarized Police state, with daily violence and hate egged on by a paranoid media.
We have a lot to learn.