Why swap a vintage Lada for a cheap BMW? Why build a McDonalds in an improvement area? Why tear down a perfectly good wall? These fascinating questions and their answers give us a glimpse into the enigmatic nature of the Berliner. From dictators and despots through presidents and pastries, history has shown the Berliner to be a determined, if ill-defined force in the battle against conservatism, mediocrity and restraint. Why, after only a few minutes in that heady atmosphere of downtown Kurfürstendamm, was I overwhelmed by the urge to buy a pair of leopardskin platform shoes? Berlin is a city of extremes. Agony and ecstasy cuddle one another in an uneasy alliance born of adversity. The exquisite ecstasy of my purchase was finely balanced against the extreme agony of my feet. Those of you who know what that means may be indulging in a little Schadenfreude right now. Well, fuck you!!
As is the custom on my travels, my first night was spent “re-orientating”. This involves writing the name of the hotel on the soles of my feet and spraying an area in front of the main entrance. I was reassured to see that the neighbourhood, flush with upmarket shops and restaurants, had an elegant sufficiency of luxury goods on offer. Opposite the hotel, nestling between two boutiques, is a darkly glowing erotic bar, with “rooms upstairs” (so I’m told) . Round the corner, just past the railway bridge at Savigny Platz, is a fully-fledged brothel stocked with beauties from the Eastern Block (or so the barman tells me). Well, you may be asking, why, with an empty trolley in the supermarket of love, did I not treat myself to a microwave dinner? You see, with two perfectly good porn channels beamed directly into my hotel room (so the brochure says), it simply wasn’t necessary.
Berlin and I go back a long way. In 1987 we both had walls to be proud of. Neither the British Met Office nor the German Government was able to predict the orgy of destruction that was to follow over the next two years. Ever since then, I have been incubating a growing guilt for spending the insurance money on fancy clothes and wild parties. In its own way, Germany has trodden the same path. It has spent over £20 billion on a massive urban regeneration programme in this city alone. This money has been squandered on infrastructure, buildings and business and community development schemes. Like the perimeter of my garden, it is unlikely that the Berlin wall will be rebuilt in the foreseeable future. Years of painstaking work by an impoverished communist government and kilometres of priceless graffiti were raised to the ground in a matter of days in the name of freedom and unification. Hundreds of soldiers and guard dogs lost their jobs overnight as wall fever gripped the nation, dazzling East Berliners in the glaring excesses of the West. Fortunately, the sections of the wall are numbered, so in theory at least, it could be reconstructed if the political will is there. Not so with my sad pile of bricks back home, cruelly mocking me with their triumphant anarchy. We’ll see.
Enough of the wall per se. One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was to explore the differences between Berlin now and as it was when I was last there in 1987; that is Berlin with and without the wall. Apart from superficial differences, like seeing lots of East Germans in the shopping malls, a distinct lack of Ladas and the construction of new government buildings to house the parliament when it finally moves here, the most noticeable change has been the weather. Last time I was here, temperatures were in the thirties and the place was awash with bronzed, half-naked bodies (wholly naked in some places), iced coffee was being drunk like it was going out of fashion (which it was) and air-conditioning was a non-negotiable right.
Now I look out of my hotel room across a bleak snowscape, the Siberian winds howling across the yawning gap that used to be the wall. Traffic is at a standstill. Drifts build up in doorways and between cars. Those hardy enough to be out tramp silently through the heaving whiteness, buried deep inside layers of rubber, leather and PVC. No-one in their right mind could ascribe this sea change to mere chance or a winter/summer thing. No, it is a direct consequence of removing the wall at a critical point where two weather systems meet. It is imperative that the wall be put back as soon as possible, before Berlin becomes just another frozen penal colony on the fringes of civilisation.