WE ARE ALWAYS RIGHT AND YOU ARE ALWAYS WRONG: Destructive Arrogance of the English-Speaking Peoples far-flung and slowly fading Empire

Massacre in PhilipinnesA drawing of American troops shooting Filipino children in Samar in 1901

(This piece is written by an English-speaking Englishman and is not directed at English-speaking people anywhere in the world. Rather it is directed at the leaders of the English-speaking Peoples, and more especially at the leaders of the United States of America and the United Kingdom, who, over the last couple of hundred years, have come to assume they are the only ones who know – and have the right to dictate – how the affairs of the world, and indeed the affairs of sovereign peoples other than their own, should be run.This is a polemic against a contagious arrogance that has caused and may cause again unnecessary suffering, conflict and death in the name of imposing ideals that are themselves suspect. In the 1930s, the western world sighed a sigh of collective relief when the new Soviet Union opted for socialism in one country and stopped actively exporting its form of government as Lenin had declared it should do after the Russian Revolution of 1917. A similar declaration by the heirs of the English and American revolutions of the 17th and 18th Centuries might at last lead to real peace and mutual tolerance, and bring to an an end the dangerous rhetoric that trumpets the English-speaking world’s rightness and threatens conflict from Russia to Iran, from Syria to China. People must change how they are ruled when and how they want to, not be encouraged, subverted or forced into doing so by others. No one, and no one system, is always right for everybody.)

The British called it the spread of civilisation and saw the mission of the British Empire as civilising the uncivilised world. They civilised Australia, Canada and New Zealand by ignoring and killing, or demeaning and corralling, the indigenous populations and then colonising their conquered territories with English-speaking people who were euphemistically called ‘settlers’ rather than ‘occupiers’ – the latter being a negative word reserved for Britain’s enemies who, unlike the British themselves, always sent ‘armies of occupation’ and ‘occupied’ rather than ‘civilised’ and ‘settled’. If they wanted to stay in the new dominions, these colonial settlers from the British Isles and the other countries of continental Europe were expected to spread the use of – or, if needs be, learn – English and English ways.

Once the United States was born, the newly independent, English-speaking Americans did much the same, harassing indigenous people into submission on reservations then declaring their country a haven for the oppressed of Europe and those wishing to make a quick buck. As the 20th Century dawned and the British Empire crumbled, with only a core of English-speaking dominions remaining reliable allies, America took up the standard of English-speaking arrogance, called its mission the propagation of freedom, liberty and democracy and began to harry and hassle non-English speaking peoples into behaving like Americans and doing America’s bidding whether it was in their best interest or not. With brief periods of isolation (and the honourable exception of a relatively altruistic participation in WW2, when two regimes in Europe and Asia, more predatory and oppressive than its own, threatened to dominate the world) America spent much of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries invading and killing in Central and South East Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, or subverting and sanctioning viable sovereign states, who, in its opinion, did not live up to the limited democratic ideals that the wealthy founding fathers propagated in 1776.

In short, just as English-speaking ‘civilisation’ was imposed by the Victorians regardless of the cost in human lives and suffering, so America’s founding values have been (and are still)  used as justification for the sanctions, invasions, subversions, bombings and endless regime changes that have been the hallmark of English-speaking foreign policy for centuries. In America’s case, despite a professed opposition to colonialism, the booty in earlier bouts of ‘settlement’ (places such as Hawaii, Puerto Rica and, for a while, the Philippines) was taken and kept as an American possession. Today, in 2014, America has by far the largest military capability in the world, with troops stationed in or occupying one hundred and fifty four countries worldwide and military expenditure in the trillions. The economic and geopolitical agenda in this spreading of light and liberty has always been cloaked (just as it was by the British in the 19th Century) in a veil of arrogant rhetoric that vigorously weaves together vague notions of liberation, moral superiority and the plaintive cry of ‘we are always right’.

Indeed, the English-speaking Peoples – with the honourable exception of Ireland since independence and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand, with its no-nuclear-weapons-in-our-ports policy and occasional refusal to join in with US military escapades – have been an arrogant, belligerent and bellicose lot in the world for much of recent history. They have also, at key moments in modern times, been instrumental in blocking possible constructive solutions to situations that have developed into costly conflicts. The British (along with the French) refused to ally with Russia in the spring and summer of 1938, a move that might well have saved Czechoslovakia, hemmed in Hitler and (had he persisted in his invasions) led to his defeat in a much shorter time. They feared egalitarian Communism more than racist Nazism and wished to contain the Russian bear in its communist resurrection, as they had the Tsarist bear during the Crimean War. In March 1952, Soviet Russia proposed creating a re-unified Germany that would be neutral, disarmed and a buffer between East and West – a model already functioning well in Austria. Again the US and UK’s suspicion of Russia and the wish to contain and control post-war Germany – a desire still apparent in the joint approach to Ukraine policy today – meant the offer was written off as phoney and (West) Germany was shepherded into NATO, where, despite its natural affinity with Eastern Europe and Russia, it was bound to the Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking sphere of influence until this day.

This English-speaking sphere is an exclusive club, however, and those like Germany who do not have English as an official language or mother tongue are kept at arm’s length. SIGINT, the most subversive security set up in the world, is an elite club of five English speaking nations: USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It gathers confidential information, on friends and enemies alike, and circulates that information between the core English-speaking members rather in the manner of a close friends-only Facebook post. It is part of a network of treaties between the world’s English-speaking Peoples that also includes the 1958 US/UK Mutual Defence Agreement, updated in 2014 to extend nuclear weapons cooperation for twenty years. Australia is locked in as the United States’ English-speaking poodle in Asia – Australian PM Abbott’s recent immediate participation in the bombing of ISIS shows how symbiotic that relationship is – and Canada, despite an attempt at an independent foreign policy under the French-Canadian Trudeau, is now more than ever the trusty ally of America as well as being its satellite and northern neighbour. If Russia ever made an attempt to detach Canada from America in the way the US is now trying to detach Ukraine from Russia, the English-speaking hounds would bay for the Russian bear’s blood.

The English-speaking Peoples (less Ireland, and perhaps, soon, Scotland) are a tight-knit club bound together by a common and chequered colonial history and, in many cases, the fighting of common colonial wars – WW1, the most competitive colonial war of all, has been co-opted as a core part of the white Australian, Canadian and Kiwi identities. The ruling class in those three countries, and in the United States, are often the children of the original occupiers or settlers and are bound to the mother country (as well as the surrogate English-speaking, American mother) by family ties and a common colonial guilt, or original sin: all of England’s English-speaking offspring nations were reared on the backs of indigenous peoples in conquered territories.

That those same English-speakers have managed to convince the world they are the saints and not the original sinners is, perhaps, why they have got away with such arrogant and domineering behaviour to this day. ‘We are always right and you are always wrong’, they cry and anyone who contradicts them is branded a tyrant, a rogue or a conspiracy theorist.

Rule Britannia, Rule Americana – but not for much longer we must all hope. Because the ability to genuinely talk and compromise, to sow peace and harmony as opposed to division and destruction is not in Perfidious Albion’s gene pool, not part of the English-speakers’ ruling class repertoire  – they are, and have always been at heart, marauders, privateers and wheeler dealers. Since the late sixteenth century only the presentation has changed: now we have smooth talking, smart suited deviousness that passes off a lone hostage taker as a terrorist conspiracy and uses a group of rebels that it helped create as a reason to impose draconian laws at home; makes weapons of mass destruction out of thin air; pulls, at will, the rug from underneath foreign economies that do not bend to its will; refers to its use of torture as enhanced interrogation then has the gall to preach to others about the rule of law.

How has this state of affairs come to pass?

Perhaps, because, in a world where neither Britain, nor America, nor Australia, nor Canada, nor New Zealand has ever been occupied or lost a major war – and, therefore, never had to question their country’s foreign policy, or the double standards in their modus operandi as a cosy post-colonial club, never had to reflect on a sometimes authoritarian approach to liberty at home – they, the English-speaking Rulers, have always been right, and we, the English and other language speaking Peoples have always been wrong. Only once in a while, if admission of wrongdoing happens to suit the rulers’ plan, do they admit we were right, pat us on the head, then send us back to the padded nursery of repressive tolerance, and lock the door.

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Storm at Sea and the World Cup

Friday night, (the 13th of course) and the Captain has already warned in his midday address (position, distanced travelled since last port and weather) of the same day that we will be passing 200 miles from the epicentre of Tropical Cyclone Nanouk in the Indian Ocean. Sounds a long way away? Storm in Leeds, calm in London? Well, in tropical storm terms it is not, because the centrifuge effect of a cyclone pulls in wind from a circle of up to three hundred miles and we are going to be a hundred miles within that circle– just to let you know. “The ship may move a little,” the Captain has said. But you know, and a sense of foreboding in your stomach confirms this prescience, that he is combining English understatement with a captain’s duty not to alarm passengers, or disturb their daily round of eating, sleeping, playing carpet bowls and emptying their bowels – the latter, while making every effort not to spread the current “minor” (in the captain’s words, again) outbreak of the novo virus.

All well and good as we cross the Gulf of Oman, and even when we enter (at about 4 p.m.) the Arabian Sea (a north eastern subsection of the Indian Ocean) movement is tolerable. Gradually the swell builds, but calmly and methodically. Repeating valleys form and we climb up the side of one, slip down the side of the next. “Five metre swell to be expected,” the captain had said, and this is all right if you have good ocean legs and don’t mind doing your daily deck walk in alternating moments of uphill and downhill with the horizon appearing and disappearing completely at either end of the ship.  One senses that the swell, the sea, is still benign even if the ship is moving like a seesaw with a fifteen foot drop at either end. If this is what the captain means by “the ship may move a little”, we (the collective ‘we’ of a herd of cruise passengers) can live and sleep with it and still stuff ourselves.

So, in this womblike state of undulation, we drift off to bed around ten o’clock – except for those two or three passengers under sixty, who wish to gyrate (while also undulating fifteen feet up and down) in the disco (still called THAT here) — and are rocked to sleep. Up, down. Mm! Good night.

And then: boom!

Horribly awake. Alarm bells ringing at full volume in mind and body.

‘What was THAT?!’

There it is again: Boom!

I – the collective ‘we’ cancelled, because survival is a ‘me’ thing – am NOT a happy embryo now.

That fifteen foot, five metre undulation, or slow moving see saw, has become a jagged fifteen foot drop into which the bow of the boat (where my cabin is positioned on the lowest passenger deck) is smashing (with a noise that sounds like the hull MUST have cracked open) every fifteen seconds.

 I try earplugs, but the boom blasts straight through to the fear centre of my psyche.

Again: Boom! Well, ker-boom, shudder, shake actually! Followed by a fifteen foot stomach-losing lift that you know is going to be followed by a fifteen foot stomach turning drop and another – wait for it, tense, suppress scream  –ker- boom, shudder, shake. The shudder is me and the ship, whose whole frame shudders back and forth and then tries to shrug of the shudder with an even more alarming shake. Movie cataclysms, even with wrap around sound and 3D, have nothing on this.

We (or is it just I?) have forgotten about the gale force winds mentioned en passant by the captain. These have now whipped up the undulations into jagged, irregular and very angry fifteen foot waves, though which the ship has to ride. No, ‘ride’ sounds too benign. Fifteen foot jagged waves within and on top of which the fourteen story, ocean-going liner is tossed about like a rubber ball: fifteen foot up in the air (about two and a half storeys) and then, down, down, down to your doom — ker-boom: a fifteen foot drop to the ground below with no more gentle valley side to ease the drop. And it is NOT ground. It is water with a depth of two and a half thousand metres: the Captain always tells us the depth beneath in his noonday message – so we don’t forget the Peril of those on the Sea.

Earplugs fail.

Go-with-the-flow – a sea-goer’s standby – fails miserably, too, and produces nausea. The bed is moving too much, the noise too loud, alarming and apocalyptic to be ignored.

I check the time. 2.30 a.m. The bleakest hour of the night. The fact that it is now Saturday 14th June is little consolation, as the ominous influence of a Friday 13th must, I know, extend until dawn.

I sit up and, like an off duty soldier in the trenches, prepare myself for the next boom. I try a homeopathic, anti-panic remedy Aconite and then negate it with an allopathic 2 mg diazepam.

Five minutes and twenty booms later, still no relief.

So for the first time in my ocean-going career – I am a writer who finds he writes best on a cruise ship, though this may change – I get up in the middle of the night. And that is no easy feat in a storm.  I stumble across the cabin trying to put on shorts and T-shirt mid drop and socks and shoes, mid-rise. Boom! I fall back on the bed, get up and finally make it to the door.

I lurch along the silent corridor of closed cabin doors with inmates silently sweating through their own gloom and doom of the boom scenarios. Or perhaps going much further with their allopathic sleeping pills than I did with my diazepam, deciding to black out and hope for the best rather than face the reality of this First World War at sea.

On to the atrium (cruise ships use hotel terminology), normally a hub of activity but now deserted apart from one member of staff.  I make human contact with a woman from Serbia on duty behind the hotel style reception desk. We exchange the ‘moving a bit’ understatement (probably not a natural reaction to rough sea for a Serb, but British sang-froid and Aussie understatement is mandatory) and I tell her about the booms, which thank God are not so audible here in the centre of the ship. Would I like a technician to come and check the noise? she asks. Or a complimentary set of earplugs? I smile and shake my head and then add:  If the technician can calm the sea, yes, and if the earplugs can soothe my panicked soul, yes, otherwise no point. This is too metaphysical for a Serb – or anyone else – at 2 a.m. in a storm at sea, so she makes a note of my observation and I stagger off.

The open access restaurant on deck fourteen is my next goal. I start walking the fourteen flights of stairs – a fitness gambit on good days — but the movement is too much and my body says it is the middle of the night. I press a lift button and hear the clanking and crashing of the lift cables far above – almost as bad as the booms, because it sounds like the ship IS falling apart, right now.

The lift sways and lurches up fourteen floors and I emerge. But here the sway and judder is worse though the sea-level noise reduced to a distant thud. I head for the restaurant. No longer open I know, but with a self-service tea and coffee facility available before breakfast starts at 5 a.m.

The restaurant area is moving like an off centre Ferris wheel about to lose its balance and I only just make to the teabags. Two Filipino lads are cleaning the place, but let me help myself. Their usual cheery countenances are grim and we do not even bother going through the ‘moving a bit’ ritual.

And then an unwitting saviour arrives – the first fellow passenger I have seen since leaving my cabin. A rugged, no nonsense sort of man with a pot belly, leathery skin and overfed, expressionless face.

‘How you doing, mate?’ he asks, in a strong Oz accent. ‘All good?’

I know Oz greeting rituals well enough to reply ritually and 100% untruthfully as we crash into each other on the way down to a sea-level boom and fourteenth floor level thud, shudder and shake:

‘All good.’

‘Moving a bit,’ he adds.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Moving a bit.’

He helps himself to coffee. I go for mint tea to calm the angst – no, terror – of a storm at sea.

‘Couldn’t sleep?’ I ask, hoping to share my terror in a therapeutic, co-counselling sort of way.

‘Nah, sleeping fine, mate. Just got up to watch the World Cup game. Australia versus Chile.’

I swallowed my amazement and nodded.

This man had woken himself on purpose having been fast asleep despite the ker-booms and fifteen foot drops and rises to watch a football game?  Was I imagining this storm? Had I over reacted?

BOOM! A ker-boom of nuclear proportions, so loud it made it to the fourteenth floor in one, undiluted mega-decibel and sent the ship shuddering and shaking in every direction at once.

‘Moving a bit,’ the man repeated, just a hint of nervousness behind the ‘all good’ façade.

He set off with his coffee. I followed him on the basis of ‘any port of call in a storm is better than none’ – for me, at that moment, this man was a haven of calm verging on the psychotic.

We went out onto the open deck, also on the fourteenth floor, where a giant TV screen dominates the swimming pools and deck lounging area. And there, the World Cup match between Australia and Chile was being broadcast live at full volume to beat the howling wind and driving rain. The image shook and shuddered with the ship, but as we were all shaking and shuddering with the ship this did not seem to matter to my haven mate, who took a seat and no further notice of me.

I watched for a while, the inane observations of the two football commentators briefly leading me to believe that I was at home watching the match. But after a first Chilean goal and a groan from my haven mate, I could take the swaying and lurching and distant thuds of valley-bottom hits no more.

I headed back to the fifth floor, past the Serbian receptionist – who waved at this, in his imagination, already drowning man – and on along the empty, swaying creaking corridors to the back of the ship.

 Here I found a final surreal sight and sound. In the area where professional videos and photos of the trip are sold at outrageous prices, a promo film was playing on half a dozen screens to no one: happy music, soft-sell voiceover, images of calm blue seas in Thailand – and not a soul to watch or listen.

Was anyone looking after the ship? Did anyone know or care that thud by thud and boom by boom the sea was shaking our boat to bits? Or would we go down with the promo video – and the World Cup on deck fourteen – still playing at full volume and everyone else asleep in their cabins.

It didn’t bare thinking about, so I curled up in a chair in the tiny library next to the video counter, closed my eyes and prepared for the worst. At least at the back of the ship the booms and thuds were almost inaudible, even if the shuddering and straining and creaking and cracking of everything around and about me seemed even louder.

 A storm at sea is an all-embracing event.

I did not sleep and the storm continued until the afternoon. But after 5 a.m., I was no longer alone, lurching and shaking as one of the herd with countless ‘Moving a bit’ exchanges to ease the angst and anaesthetize the reality of imminent shipwreck. I hope the Aussie man with the nerves of steel enjoyed his game – despite the storm, and despite the fact that Australia lost three goals to one.

HELLO TO BERLIN – Part Eight

The young filmmaker tries to cross back from East to West Berlin with forbidden goods

Bahnhof-Friedrichstasse

(Part of the novel Friends & Enemies included in a different form in published version)

I reached the Friedrichstrasse crossing point just before midnight.

I was well-oiled with cheap East Berlin beer and schnapps, but not drunk. My friend Lothar – DDR museum worker, passive dissident and surface conformist – had given me something, though he had not said what, to take across to West Berlin and I had to be on my guard.

There was no queue.

The guard checked my battered blue British passport with its imperious request to allow the bearer to proceed without let or hindrance and stamped an empty page. I returned it to my coat, donated my unspent East Marks to the orphaned children of North Vietnam and walked towards the remotely controlled doors that accessed the S-Bahn trains to West Berlin.

But they did not open and, as I stood waiting for them to do so, a voice behind me shouted: “You! Come back!” And then more than one voice, “Zurueck, bitte! Zurueck!”

I turned and saw two guards approaching. They asked me to remove my coat – an old trench coat loaned to me by Lothar to ward off the late November snow that had started falling as I left his flat, and, presumably, to hide the goods, which, Lothar had said, it was better I know nothing about.

Scheisse!

The older guard took the coat, while the other, a rotund youth with acne, led me back across the hallway to a room beside the passport desk.

“Please sit!” he said, indicating a chair in front of a scuffed, Formica-topped table.

I sat and surveyed the cream coloured walls stained with nicotine and, in my imagination, the faded blood of previous detainees.

After a minute or two, another guard entered. He was tall, blonde-haired and judging from the insignia on his uniform, an officer.

He stood for a moment and then perched on the edge of the table opposite my chair

“Good evening!’ he said in perfect English.

“Good evening,” I replied, disconcerted by the fact that my first line of defence – ‘I don’t speak German’ – had been undermined.

“As you were walking way,” the officer continued, “my guards noticed something moving in the back of your coat.”

“Moving?”

“Yes. I think you know what I mean.”

“I have no idea,” I said, shaking my head.

“Then,” snapped the officer, unrolling a sheet of card in his hand, “what is this?”

I stared in amazement at the image in front of him: Lothar’s favourite collage; the one that had hung on the wall above his bed in the Prenzlauerberg apartment – a gem of humorous subversion and light-hearted satire.

I rubbed my eyes and shook my head, feigning ignorance and innocence.

“Never seen it before.” I paused and tried a polite English smile. “Not bad. Where did you find it?”

“In the lining of the coat,” snapped the officer, unimpressed by the smile or my misplaced flattery of a subversive piece of art. “Are you telling me, you did not know it was there?”

“No idea,” I said, dropping the smile but upping the level of Michael Caine nonchalance in my voice.

“I find that hard to believe. Where did you get it? ”

I thought fast.

I must not involve Lothar, if I did he would lose his job at the museum and most probably be charged with subversion.

“At a shop,” I said, improvising a beginning without middle or end in sight.

“You bought this picture, this piece of counter-revolutionary propaganda in a shop? I don’t think so. No one would want to sell you something like that.”

“Not the collage, the jacket.”

“And the picture was inside it?”

“Yes.”

“Without your knowledge?”

“Yes.”

The officer stared at the image and then at me.

Sweat formed on my forehead, perhaps from the heat, perhaps – in the interrogator’s eyes – from the effort of lying.

“And where was this shop?”

“In the centre… near the television tower.”

“There are many shops near the television tower. Which one?”

The officer stood up and paced around the room. The youth with acne left and I felt panic pinch the pit of my stomach and tighten the edges of my brain. Could they arrest me? Hold me indefinitely? There were no official diplomatic relations between the GDR and Britain, artists on the DAAD programme had been reminded of this in a circular from the British Council: ‘All visits to East Berlin undertaken at own risk.’

My heart palpitated, the sweating intensified.

“I can’t remember.”

“Convenient,” laughed the officer, going to the door. “Well, I have time. So please, over the next five minutes, try and improve your memory!”

He left the room.

I stared at the picture on the table and despite the feeling of anxiety chuckled.

The collage showed Karl Marx and Lothar – both bearded, both middle-aged – sitting at a table for two in an East Berlin bar drinking People’s beer with People’s schnapps chasers. On the wall above, portraits of Lenin, Stalin and the DDR’s first leader, Walter Ulbricht, stared down in stony silence and obvious disapproval. Beside them a blank fourth canvas indicated where Mr Marx should have been if he had not been having such a good time with the hoi polloi below: imprisoned in a frame, a grey-bearded, graven image painted to look as stern and impassive as the three successors who had co-opted and corrupted his name.

The door opened and the youth with acne entered, a cup of coffee in his hand.

“Thought you could use this,” he said.

Nice cop, hard cop routine, I thought, but the youth did not stay.

I took a sip of the hot but tasteless liquid and tried to think through the shop story.

But I didn’t know any clothes shops near the television tower.

Scheisse!

My brain misted over and before I knew it, before I could step on the brake of adult self-control, I started crying. Crying like a small child who has lost its mother and doesn’t know how to get home. No, not crying – wailing.

The door swung open and the officer stood on the threshold.

“What is the matter, Mr Cruft?” he demanded.

I shook my head and continued to wail.

“Have we treated you so badly?”

Again I shook my head.

“Then where is your famous stiff upper lip?”

I shook my head for a third time.

The officer turned on his heels, slammed the door shut and disappeared.

I continued to bawl.

The exhaustion of a hard night’s drinking with Lothar, the long walk in the cold night air from Prenzlauerberg to Friedrichstrasse, persistent worries about my new film in West Berlin, and my girlfriend’s sudden defection to a Maoist had all combined to reduce me to an infantile state of self pity and despair.

If I could have got up and danced, if I could have shaken a leg, waved my arms and screamed ‘Star Fucker!” with Mick Jagger then dropped dead-tired into bed, the hopelessness I now felt might have sweated itself out and been flattened by the overriding need to sleep. But here I could not sleep and I could not dance, so I howled. The officer had been right: where was it – that symbol of British sangfroid and cold civility? Gone with the wind, gone to a graveyard every last bit of it. When will they ever learn? Boys cry too. They do. They do.

“Mr Cruft?”

I looked up and through my tears saw a man in a suit with a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose.

“Mr Cruft,” said the man in a soft, heavily accented voice. “We are sorry you are so upset. On January 1st, 1974 – tomorrow as we speak – a new Four Power Agreement comes into effect regulating all matters related to Berlin. We hope this agreement will improve understanding between East and West and in the light of its imminent enactment and your obvious distress we have decided to overlook this unfortunate incident.”

He pointed to the collage on the table and without further comment tore it into little pieces and threw the resulting remnants into a waste paper basket beneath the table.

“You are free to go. Auf wiedersehen!”

The destruction of Lothar’s work led to a new bout of tears from me, but this time the guards were ready. They lifted me from my chair and walked me out of the room and across the hallway to the automatic doors where the youth with acne held out Lothar’s trench coat.

“Expect you could use this,” he half-whispered, a pimply smile on his round face.

I took the coat, but before I could say thank you the door released and the guards deposited me on the far side: somebody else’s baby, a wimp for the West to whip into order.

And by the time I had rattled over the wall past the burnt out ruins of the Reichstag and the floodlit modernism of the Academie der Kuenste to Zoo station – staring into the neon-lit night sky from my empty S-Bahn like a dropout on Valium or a hippie on lysergic acid – I had recovered. Thin skin healed over, emotions in custody, British upper lip stiff as a military crease. And when, after leaving the train and braving the snow covered streets, two West Berlin policemen stopped me near the Tiergarten, asked me for my passport and searched me – out of boredom or on the off chance of finding a red terrorist from the Baader Meinhof gang – I accepted the intervention as meekly as a lamb and as quietly as a mouse.

Governments were always obsessed with something, always on guard against subversion, always under threat. In East or West, there were always enemies, enemies within, enemies without; the skill of a good citizen lay in reading between the lines and recognising friends.

HELLO TO BERLIN – Part Seven

The young filmmaker shoots an experimental  film in a West Berlin commune, but proceedings are disrupted by a surprise, anti-formalist demonstration. 

Image - Still from subtitled version of Inside and Oustide

(Part of the novel Friends & Enemies included in a different form in published version. Though events described are partly fictional, a version of the film Drinnen und Draussen exists and is included as an extra on the BFI boxset An Unflinching Eye)

On the 30th December 1973, snow fell. I stood at the window of the commune’s front room in the Stephanstrasse, Moabit, West Berlin and sighed with relief as – despite the cold – a crowd began to form. I had finished editing my window film, Kniephofstrasse, and was now shooting a project using two performers, a pianist and people on the street. Scripted action was located inside, unscripted on the pavement outside where passers-by would, I hoped, stop and watch the actors in the same way that an audience watched them on screen.

“Ready to go in five,” I said turning from the window to Franz Schmidt, the Academy technician now acting as my cameraman.

The DAAD, my bursary benefactor in Berlin, had designated the German Film Academy (DFFB) as my support base, but since my visit there in September to show my early work and talk about Structuralism, the students – Maoists to a man and in line with their Helmsman as anti avant-garde as ever – had voted to withhold assistance from my ‘elitist’ projects. They said I should make agitprop documentaries using conventional cinematic language, not muddle the masses with experimental pieces about how they were being manipulated by Hollywood. Franz had ignored them and persuaded Brigitte, the academy secretary, to act as production manager and a colleague from SFB to sound record. The actors were participating free of charge and Edith from the commune was doing art direction. The other communards, including my friend Reinhardt, were away.

“Director!” the actress called to me. “How real do you want this kiss?” 

The high point of the film, and the scene we were about to shoot, involved the two performers kissing each other to the accompaniment of a Mozart slow movement played live by the on-set pianist. Given the crowd outside, I had decided not to do any prior rehearsal, but allow the action to develop of its own accord.

“How real can you make it?” I replied, walking over to a tall, blonde-haired woman in a beige blouse, three-quarter length brown skirt and sensible shoes.

“That depends on Wolfgang,” whispered Ulrike, nodding her head in the direction of the male actor. “And on what you want. You’re the director.”

“I want a real movie kiss that moves the viewer to tears,” I replied. “Bacall and Bogart; Leigh and Gable; Crawford and that violin player in Humoresque.”

“John Garfield,” exhaled Ulrike, rotating a shoulder to relax her diaphragm. “I will be Dietrich. Distant but determined, detached but passionate – ice and fire rolled into one.”

“Good! Shall I warn Wolfgang?”

“No, let him be surprised. I take the initiative, no?”

“Yes, Mrs East kisses Mr West. But make sure your lips come together slowly – in the classic Hollywood manner. I want maximum pre-touch tension.”

Jawohl, Herr Regisseur.” 

I crossed the room to Wolfgang, a man of twenty-six with Cary Grant features.

“All set, Wolfgang?”

Wolfgang glanced at the crowd outside.

“It will be difficult in front of them.”

“Imagine you’re on stage,” I soothed.

“I can’t see the faces on stage.”

Wolfgang had been harder for me to deal with than Ulrike. He worried that the characters had no personality, that they were cardboard cutouts without motivation or emotions.

“Why are we kissing?” he asked now.

I glanced at my notes.

“‘To signify the similarity of social codes in East and West; to cement – seal with a kiss – two systems that, despite surface differences, seduce and cajole their citizens into obedience and passivity; to emphasise the common bond of bourgeois family values and traditional role-playing prevalent in consumer capitalist and state socialist countries.’”

Wolfgang raised his eyebrows.

“Doesn’t help much.”

“Follow Ulrike’s lead,” I coaxed, giving him a pat on the shoulder. “And relax! Imagine it’s your first kiss, the first time a woman’s lips have touched yours.”

“Ready to go in one,” Franz shouted, as he switched on a two-kilowatt light and bathed Wolfgang in a golden glow.

I crossed to the camera and squinted through the eyepiece. The frame was set just as I had requested: Wolfgang in chair, centre left; Ulrike at doorway, far right; pianist at piano in the room behind; fifty odd faces pressed to the window in the background. Perfect! I made my way between Franz and the soundman and plopped down on my haunches beside Theo the piano player – a tall, sixty-year old Prussian junker’s son with tufts of grey hair and a twinkle in his eye that put him somewhere between Einstein and Harpo Marx.

“Give it all you’ve got, Theo. Elvira Madigan and then some”

Theo nodded.

“All set!” shouted Franz.

“Right!” I called, returning to my position by the camera. “Let’s go for one!”

I put a finger to my lips to quieten the crowd, waited for the boom to steady above Ulrike’s head and then raised my hand.

“Roll sound!’

“Sound rolling!’

“Roll camera!’

“Camera rolling!’

“Scene ten, take one,” Edith called, clapping the board and ducking out of view.

I let her settle and glanced at my leading lady. She gave a nod and my hand fell.

“Action!’

Ulrike dusted. Wolfgang opened a beer and sat back to watch the woman at work. Ulrike turned and their eyes met. A moment’s pause, then Theo sounded the opening arpeggios of the Mozart – gently, seductively. As the melody developed, Ulrike sidled across to the table where Wolfgang sat. The crowd behind the window held its breath. 

“May I, schaetzchen?” Ulrike whispered.

Wolfgang patted his knee. Ulrike lowered herself onto his lap. The melody swelled, chords cascaded towards the dominant. Ulrike’s face approached Wolfgang’s. The 10-120 Angenieux Telephoto eased inwards. And, finally – as the melody hit high C, the chord modulated to the tonic and Franz reached the limit of his lens’ prying capacity – the two sets of lips met and the crowd let out an enormous cheer.

“Bravo!” “Long Live Love!” “Brilliant!” “More!” “Encore!”

Staring eyes streamed tears or twinkled with the titillation of an erotic act at one remove; children giggled or buried their faces in parental legs. A collective release beyond my expectations and, as the final chord faded, I experienced the moment in triplicate – as a future cinemagoer on the camera’s side, as a participant centre stage and as part of the crowd beyond. Quadraphonic emotion bouncing back and forth and melding in the middle; feel, touch, weep and wallow – the essence of a movie’s manipulative power exposed, exactly as I had intended!

Then trouble started.

Chanting on the far side of the street and banners waved above the crowd’s head: ‘Reflect workers’ struggles – NO art for art’s sake!’ ‘Down with dilettantism and the DAAD!’

The Academy Maoists had arrived. Not content with boycotting the film’s shoot, they had now decided to disrupt it. Shit! Franz, still zoomed in, remained unaware of the disturbance and awaited my signal to cut. I hesitated. The banners and placards advanced, the crowd parted to let them through, the front row turned to check the action behind.

I reviewed my options at stop-frame speed and then tapped Franz on the shoulder.

“Don’t cut! Pull out! Smooth and fast!”

Franz nodded and signalled to the soundman to raise his boom. Ulrike and Wolfgang broke their kiss and turned to the window.

“Keep staring out!” I hissed. “Don’t look at me!”

The crowd, disconcerted by the Maoist presence, began to drift away. The demonstrators lined up along the window, placards and banners pressed to the glass. The chanting began in earnest:

Imperialism is what we hate, make films workers can appreciate.”

“Theo, open the door!” I shouted at the pianist

Theo’s willowy, aristocratic figure stood up bowed and then opened the door to face the revolutionaries’ wrath. The volume of the demonstrators increased, their gestures grew fiercer. I tensed. Would the mob enter? Rip the film from our camera and beat me – the errant formalist and recipient of imperialist DAAD funds – up? Or demonstrate at a distance and provide a backdrop against which we could continue to film?

A new chant began:

Stop this dilettante crap, leave Berlin and don’t come back!”

Theo retreated to the piano and struck up Mozart’s Marche a la Turque. Ulrike and Wolfgang glanced at each other – too professional to turn and scream ‘Help!’ at the camera, too nervous to outstare the thirty or so demonstrators.

 “Go to the door,” I hissed, deciding to up the dramatic ante. “Invite them in.”

 “What?” retorted Wolfgang without moving his lips. “You must be joking.”

“Please,” I persisted. “They’re not dangerous, just deluded.”

 “Come on,” said Ulrike, pulling at Wolfgang’s arm.

 Wolfgang stayed put. Ulrike headed to the door. She listened to the chants and then leant across and planted a kiss on the cheek of the nearest demonstrator.

 “Please,” she smiled, “come in and discuss with us.”

 The man continued to chant. Ulrike stepped outside and, squeezing along the front row, repeated kiss and invitation to each of the demonstrators. She then turned to the window, shook her fist and joined in the chanting:

 “Imperialism is what we hate, make films workers can appreciate!”

 “Stop this dilettante crap, leave Berlin and don’t come back!”

I watched. Perhaps this was the ending I needed. Mrs East joins Maoists in condemnation of decadent art, while Mr West looks on with disdain and the stoicism of repressive tolerance.

Theo completed his march. I prepared to call ‘Cut!’

But just then, sirens sounded. The Maoists glanced from left to right. Ulrike hurried along the frontline, re-entered the commune and closed the door.

“Darling,” she said to Wolfgang. “The police are here.”

A megaphone became audible. The Maoist leader scowled at me, assuming I had called the police. I indicated my innocence with a shrug of the shoulders, pointed at the door and invited the demonstrators to use it. This time there was no hesitation and the nearest man ran in followed by thirty colleagues. Edith guided them through to the courtyard, whilst I shouted at them not to look at the lens – I wanted orchestrated drama now, not fly on the wall documentation. 

When the last one had passed through, a policeman appeared, baton drawn.

“Can we proceed?” he asked, raising his visor and wiping sweat from his face.

“Proceed with what?” inquired Ulrike from her position at the table – a born improviser I thought to myself, a performer cool under fire when the curtain fails to fall.

“With the arrest of the people disturbing you,” the policeman panted. “We were called by a neighbour.”

Ulrike bent and whispered something to Wolfgang, who nodded and stood up.

“These people are our friends,” he said, “their presence here is intentional.”

The policeman glanced at the microphone and pointed to the hallway.

 “You’ll be all right, then?”

 “Yes,” replied Ulrike and Wolfgang together. “Thank you.”

The policeman shrugged his shoulders, mumbled something into a radio and retreated.

“Cut!” I shouted, when he had closed the outside door and disappeared. “That’s a wrap!’

“About bloody time too!” Wolfgang exclaimed.

“I enjoyed it,” said Ulrike. “Let’s do another take!’

I hugged them both.

“Brilliant! All of you,” I added, turning to the crew. “Fucking brilliant.”

Franz stood up and stretched.

“One meter of film left!” he whistled. “But we got it. The whole thing.”

“Brilliant,” I repeated. “Fucking brilliant!’

Edith appeared and announced that the Maoists were now assembled in the courtyard.

“I told them we had to lock the doors to stop the police getting in,” she grinned.

“Are they chanting again?” I asked.

“No, quiet as mice. What shall we do with the bastards?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“Let them go, I guess.”

“No punishment?’ Edith pouted. “No hosing naked bodies with cold water?”

I laughed and turned to Franz.

“What do you think, Franz?”

Franz did not reply. He sat unloading the camera’s magazine, his hands moving inside a black changing bag, his forehead furrowed in concentration. When he had transferred the exposed film to an empty can and taped it up to ensure no light could get in, he removed his arms and unzipped the bag.

“A ten minute single take,” he said holding up the can. “Brigitte!”

Brigitte took the can and went to the table to fill in a lab report sheet.

“And the Maoists?” inquired Edith.

“I’ll talk to them later,” replied Franz. “Their action is most unprofessional.”

I sat on the floor, leant back against a wall and glanced outside. Snow falling again; flakes drifting down past street lights, their fluorescent lamps triggered by encroaching darkness: winter in Berlin, Berlin in winter. The filming had gone better than expected – the final scene a vindication of my original idea, the comments on the Maoists banners a neat example of self-reflectivity. And later tonight, a wrap party to reward the team: raucous reminiscences of the shoot’s ups and downs; food, alcohol and wild dancing to the Stones and Lokomotive Kreuzberg. I felt exhausted, but ready to enjoy myself – to be the life and soul of the party, my last duty as director.

A FREE RIDE HOME

Or why a missed train connection in the UK may entitle you to a taxi

Blog - York Station

Not long ago I was returning from London to York after a busy day in the metropolis keeping book and screenplay projects on the boil – writing is very much like cooking, with pots on the creative stove all in need of attention at the same time – when I made a useful discovery about the legal liabilities of our country’s railway network.

The train I had caught was due in York at 8.28 p.m. leaving me ten minutes to get the 8.38 p.m. connection to Malton, a market town fifteen miles to the east of York, where my car had been parked since a very misty 8 a.m that morning. Ten minutes out of York, with the train on time, we began to break and grind to a halt. An announcement from the train supervisor (guards have long since disappeared) regretted that due to ‘a track side issue’ we would be a few minutes late arriving. ‘A few minutes,’ I thought, ‘does that mean what it should mean – not long? Or will we be stuck here for the next hour?’ To my relief, we began to move again, and I relaxed. But un-hatched chickens should not be counted and the train not only failed to pick up speed but continued to creep past the ‘track side issue’ at the speed of a broody hen crossing the road with no answer to the question ‘Why?’ I glared at my mobile phone (not smart, but smart enough to tell the time) and saw the minutes tick by: 8.25, 8.30, 8.32.

The chances of making my connection were diminishing and the sense of annoyance ignited by the train supervisor’s formulaic announcement began to metamorphose into righteous anger. When, finally, we pulled into the station at 8.37 p.m., I grabbed my ageing, overweight laptop, jumped off the train, ran up the steps of a footbridge and down on to platform five just in time to see the Malton train disappear: a cliché scene of pathos or farce in the movies, a nightmare in real life, when, as a quick glance at the display board told me, the next train was not due until 10.20 p.m.

Fuelled by an anger, now not only righteous but on the verge of turning psychotic, and rehearsing killer arguments about the iniquity of a railway privatisation programme that meant one company could no longer wait for another company’s delayed train, I remounted the footbridge and strode across to the station concourse determined to vent my wrath on the first uniformed person I met. By chance this hapless human being, selected by fate to hear me out, happened to be wearing the uniform of East Coast, the company whose train had been delayed and arrived too late.

His first reaction to my furious but icily coherent fume on the particular and general issues at stake was, I sensed, a holding operation.

“There’s another train,” he said, glancing at the display board as I had done. “You’ll not be stuck.”

Despite his Yorkshire brogue and corporately-inculcated sense of calm, I was neither soothed nor returned to that state of resigned sanity which makes Anglo-Saxons (and some Celts) so good at grinning and bearing it, or, more often, at grumbling, mumbling and moving off to vent frustration on the spouse via a mobile phone.

“In an hour and half, yes,” I snapped in a crisp, military manner, narrowly avoiding use of an obscene incendiary. “And what about my mother waiting at Malton station to meet me – what will she do?”

My mother died sixteen years ago, and introducing a lie into my already strong case was unnecessary, but the writer in me had entered the fray and fiction would now fight side by side with fact.

“You could call her,” the East Coast official suggested.

A weak response easily shot down.

“She has no mobile phone and why would a call help? She’d still have to wait for an hour and a half.”

The official nodded and changed his approach. By resisting his initial attempts at pacification, I had, it seemed, passed some test, or crossed some Rubicon, and would now be treated as a serious complainant who could not be fobbed off with the company’s first line of defence: ‘You’ll not be stuck.’

“Follow me, love,” he said, adding the Yorkshire term of endearment in a non-corporate, man to man manner. “I’ll get you sorted.”

We crossed the concourse and entered an unmarked corner office squeezed between Starbucks and Hertz. A large woman in a darker, less well-kept uniform than that of the man stood behind a desk, monitoring a series of screens and nursing a coffee container. She glanced up and caught my eye.

“Missed connection?” she asked, switching her gaze to the East Coast man and taking a sip of Latte.

”Aye,” said the man, “Late 8.28 from London, onward journey to Malton. He’ll be wanting a taxi.”

 The woman checked her screens again, picked up a phone and muttered something into it. The man filled in a form and handed it to me.

“Sign here, please, sir.”

Promoted from ‘love’ to ‘sir’, but I was not yet ready to be pacified and drop my protest.

“A taxi? And who will pay for that?”

“It’ll be taken care of,” said the woman without looking up.

“I don’t want to end up filling in a lot of claim forms,” I persisted, keen to continue the fight.

“No forms, except one you’ve signed,” said the man ushering me from the office. “And I’ve filled in that. Now if you go out to taxi rank you’ll see a grey unmarked, car in the far lane. That’s yours.”

Before I could offer thanks, the man had disappeared leaving the concourse deserted apart from two passengers, perhaps off the same train as me, heading to the bar to grin and bear it or grumble and mumble into their mobile phones. There was no one else in uniform to be seen (the information desk had closed, the newsagent was shuttered), and it occurred to me that if I had not bumped into my East Coast man, I too would have been left with no option but to grin and bear it, or bear the considerable cost of a taxi to Malton myself.  As it was, by chance, and because of my refusal to be fobbed off, I had stumbled on a little known regulation (explained to me in more detail by the taxi driver in the unmarked taxi) that requires the UK railway network to facilitate the completion of a passenger’s journey if that passenger has been on an officially delayed train and, as a consequence, will have to wait longer than one hour for an ongoing connection.

“I’ve taken people to London, Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester,” said the driver, “even Penzance once. As long as you fill conditions and have a ticket to show where you were meant to end up, you get a ride at the taxpayer’s expense – or maybe it’s railway companies that pay, I’m not sure on that. But either way there’s legislation from the 70s – ‘Completion of Journey Act’ or something like that – that means people like me are kept busy and remunerated year in year out.”

I shook my head in disbelief.

“First I’ve heard of it,” I said, thinking of all my missed connections over the years and imagining the chaos that might ensue if the British public – both passive and active wings – got wind of this freebie.

“Aye,” said the driver, as we pulled onto the A64 and sped off to Malton and my fictional mother. “They don’t shout about it from tree-tops,  just apply it when customer puts his foot down.”

So, if you miss a connection and the wait for your train is more than an hour, assert your rights and settle for no less than a taxi home. If, that is, you can find an official to facilitate the ride. The Catch 22: ‘Availability of appropriate staff at the relevant station.’

Good luck!

WALKING ON WATER

A four-mile tramp on the Indian Ocean – or how to cope with a cruise

 Promenade_Deck_094

Introduction

6pm and a sand dusted sun of deep orange is preparing to set over the Arabian Sea in the North Western corner of the Indian Ocean. Our boat – somewhere south of the Arabian Peninsula, and in the preferred zone of operation for Somalian pirates (in readiness for whose possible appearance we have already done a drill involving a return to cabin, drawing of curtains and sitting as far from portholes as possible) – is cruising along at twenty miles an hour on course for Mumbai and its ultimate destination Sydney.

I have finished my writing for the day, but am not yet ready for my evening meal taken in the self-service, free-seating restaurant on Deck Fourteen where a mountain of food awaits me whether I have earned it physically or not. My cabin is on Deck Eight and is just one floor up from the Promenade Deck (Deck Seven) where a well-scrubbed boardwalk encircles the ship from port to starboard and fo’csle to stern. Three laps of this are the equivalent of one mile and my aim this evening is to do twelve – laps, not miles.

It has been 35C during the day and overfed (male) stomachs and underused  (female) thighs – all stretching too-tanned and prematurely aged Caucasian Aussie skin to its leathery limits – have been much in evidence on the Lido Deck (Deck Twelve). I do not inhabit this zombie-like zone of inertia and excess where royal blue sun loungers, azure blue pools and overheated Jacuzzis vie with free ice cream, burgers, hotdogs and French fries for the attention of the atrophying muscles, jaded palates and over-exercised intestines of cruising Australia. Ninety-nine percent of fellow passengers hail from that country, but I have not yet met one indigenous person – not even a neighbouring Polynesian or Maori. Still, no point in taxing my social conscience: the boat, whether I like it or not, is a living, breathing metaphor for the injustices, inequalities and economic imbalances of the world. White European and Australian passengers serviced by Indians and Thais (in the restaurants), Filipinos (in the cabins), Indonesians (in the engine room) and, only at officer level, a handful of Brits and Italians on permanent contracts with paid holidays. I am, after all, one of the privileged first world passengers too, and unless I am prepared to start, stoke and lead a mutiny – for which there would be little support, given the importance of the hire and fire wages to the lower crew echelons – I must accept the status quo.

With this salve applied to the militant tendency in my mind, a mental complement, perhaps, to the factor fifty lotion on my skin, I exit the over cooled Atrium – where the early-to-bed, early-to-rise wizens of Oz are gathering like bats at dusk to drink beer, sip coffee and listen to the world’s worst pianist croon standards no one has heard of – hit the evening heat (now 28C) and, dressed in my beige shorts and brown v-necked leisure shirt, set off for my walk on water.

The first mile: Laps One, Two and three

A florid-faced man slumped on a lounger (there are loungers here too, though they seem less decadent than those on the burger-fuelled Lido Deck) greets me with a ‘How you doing, mate?’ and, as an afterthought, after I am well past him and picking up speed, a yell of ‘Going for gold?’ I wave in acknowledgement of this immobile support for the mobile, but block further bonhomie by fixing an expression of ‘deck walker at work, do not disturb’ on my face. My scrubbed plank path is clear because I have timed my tramp to coincide with the first sitting of dinner in the formal dining rooms, where fixed seating and waiter service appeals to those who like to sit in the same place with the same people every night. Most white Australians, in line with their white British working class heritage, eat the evening meal (‘tea’) early and thus clear the decks for walkers like me who prefer a later ‘dinner’.

Lap one passes without incident. I clock the usual landmarks of a white wash stretching out at the stern of the ship – marine equivalent of a jet’s vapour – bleary-eyed casino staff taking a break by a staff-only door, and defiant smokers on a wagon train encampment of loungers at the forward end of the starboard side. These puffers and coughers, like pioneers of the Old West exploring the frontier of death, clap and mock the self-righteous walkers with aggressive expulsions of smoke and acerbic anecdotes of non-smoking joggers dropping dead mid-jog. Smoking is not allowed inside the ship and at only two designated points outside. The Oz smokers, unlike the Oz over-weights and the Oz over-eighties, see themselves as a persecuted minority and cling together like cowboys on whom the sun is setting fast.

At the start of lap three, having navigated the forward tunnel that separates anchor and mooring gear from maintenance storerooms, a figure shoots past – the first to have done so since I started. One of that rare species aged between twenty and thirty and seen as neither lower nor upper class in the ship’s hierarchy. In this case one of the six female dancers who, together with four males, offer song and dance shows once a week. Schmaltzy extravaganzas in which the ‘girls’ show off their bodies for the titillation of male seniors and their (mostly female) other halves, reminding the former of limitations in the late prostate era and the latter of how lithe and beautiful they once were, or weren’t. Also in this young-blood group are: Spa staff who massage bodies well past sell-by dates into a semblance of freshness; Reception staff with the patience of saints and the memories of sieves; and Cruise staff whose job it is to corral loose-enders (a majority) into collective capers and afternoon bingo. These middle-rank staff are allowed to eat in the anytime, any amount restaurant (perhaps why the pert buttocks passed me at such speed), but unlike passengers they have to clear away their dishes.

The second mile: Laps Four, Five and Six.

I count my laps by shifting my cruise card (a credit card clone that gets you into your cabin and into trouble in the Casino) from left hand pocket (odd numbered laps) to right hand pocket (even numbered laps). Now, as it slips into my right hand pocket and I use the opportunity to adjust my genitalia to a more comfortable position, I notice the swell has swollen. Swell, of noticeable size, occurs in oceans not in enclosed seas like the Med or the Black or the Baltic. It may have been caused by a storm miles away or (in its benign form) be no more than the sloshing that a large amount of water, left to its own devices on a ball revolving at speed around another ball, would make in any context. For landlubbers swell can be disconcerting, discombobulating calves, thighs and feet and requiring readjustments disapproved of by osteopaths and trainers. Imagine the landscape tilting up and down like a seesaw and then from side to side like a – well, like a ship in swell. When side on to swell, a ship rolls; when head on, it pitches. Diagonal swell can produce a mixture of the two movements as the boat’s hull (made of riveted segments) adjusts and resettles. Like turbulence in a plane, but without fasten-your-seat-belt signs and with a duration of twenty-four hours plus rather than ten minutes. In swell there is no choice but to soldier on as if nothing’s afoot – apart, that is, from the undulations beneath your feet. This flexing sensation is when some people throw up, but today the swell though present is not disruptive to a seasoned sea traveller. That said it takes most of the second mile, and the odd near miss with fellow walkers on the narrow sections, to adjust to the fact that the earth is, once again, moving for me.

The third mile: Laps Seven, Eight and Nine.

Nothing of note occurs during my third mile. The swell stabilizes to an acceptable pattern; the deck fills with strollers summoning appetites for the second sitting and getting in my way; the sun disappears and darkness descends with the rapidity of a sub-tropical clime. The smokers have enlarged their wagon train and need to be given a wider berth if passive smoking is to be avoided; my greeter on his lounger outside the Atrium has fallen asleep so will fail to see whether I go for gold or not; the dancer has disappeared, her dancing toes perhaps too discombobulated by the swell. Now the black sea is at one with the black sky and only the deck lights distinguish us from the void. A feeling of a fair at night, or a promenade in a 1950s seaside resort with nothing but the heat to remind me of where I am. That is the role of a cruise ship: wherever you are in the world, you are still in its safe, demarcated interior world – still able to define your existence in terms of its familiar smells and angular points of view. Some find this limiting, or boring, but, for a writer, its consistency allows the mind to roam.

The fourth mile: Laps Ten, Eleven and Twelve.

I am tempted to head indoors at the end of lap nine – my eat-anytime appetite is growing, my sweat pouring and the boardwalk turning into an unattended obstacle course. But then, as with the dancer, I am overtaken by someone who has come up, without warning, behind me. I watch as the figure, speed walking not jogging, powers past and draws ahead inch-by-inch and then foot-by-foot. No twenty-something this time, but an elderly woman with a slightly dislocated hip whose age I would put at 70. She is, to coin a phrase, motoring, and whether it is because of my competitive male instinct, or because of a sense of guilt at only having done nine laps, I start to motor too. A second wind becomes a second turbo charge. And, yes, it is a competitive instinct kicking in, or perhaps more of a ‘if a seventy-year old woman can do it, I can too!’ challenge. I up my speed, dodging strollers more boldly and threatening those who sabotage my dodges with a collision. ‘Where’s the fire, mate?’ someone says, and I want to reply ‘Up ahead, that woman in the red shirt and white trousers doing ninety miles an hour!’ But I don’t, I just follow in my new pacesetter’s wake – she is a more determined and effective clearer of obstacles than me – and bit-by-bit I narrow the gap.

By the middle of lap two I am within striking distance, when, despite the apparent fragility of her hip, and an age that I now put closer to seventy-five, the speed queen ups her tempo and, in the process, almost knocks a smoker lighting up into the sea. ‘You should watch where you’re going, mate’ the smoker (male) exhales at me, preferring not to chase the real cause of his near demise. ‘There could be an accident’, he adds, as if his flaming lighter weren’t danger enough. I smile, the Englishman’s defence, and push on.

Speed Queen swerves round the left hand bend at the top of the starboard side and into the forward tunnel. When I take the turn, she is not there and I fear she has cheated and broken into a trot. But no, after the second bend at the end of the tunnel, I see her striding down the port side, her faulty hip falling and rising like the well-oiled piston of a steam engine. This is my last lap and I decide that I have to catch and overtake her before it ends – otherwise, she will think I have just given up and thrown in the towel.

If that is, she has given me a second thought.

We thunder down the port side, scattering strollers and forcing a wheelchair to take a pit stop in the jigsaw room. Hard left into the stern section, the wake now bubbling in the glare of neon deck lamps, and hard left out of it. The last starboard leg and I’m gaining. The second sitting strollers have fled to the second sitting, the smokers have smoked their last cigarette and the deck is almost empty. The tunnel looms, but I will not be able to pass her there – too narrow. Then we are out of the tunnel and suddenly she turns and smiles at me. She has been aware of my presence. I make a supreme effort and catch up as the Atrium door and the end of my twelfth lap approach. ‘Thank you!’ I gasp, ‘you’ve been a marvellous pacesetter.’ ‘You stop now?’ she says with a faint French accent. I nod and slow. ‘Quel dommage!’ she adds, motoring off at full speed. ‘Ten more for me tonight! Au revoir!’

HELLO TO BERLIN – Part Six

The young film maker joins illegal and violent demonstration in West Berlin to protest at death of Red Army Fraction (Baader Meinhof) member Holger Meins

Berlin (West) Demo image 2(Part of an early draft of novel Friends & Enemies not included in published version)

After a year in Berlin, I had reached some sort of alternative Cloud Nine. I had friends in the West and friends in the East and when I stood in the control hut at Checkpoint Charlie with East German guards staring at me and my passport – back and forth, up and down – I felt a heightened sense of being somewhere, of being someone, of being here and being now.

And it wasn’t just the Wall. In Berlin, I had, at last, came across like-minded people; people, with a serious approach to life, trying to understand how they fitted – or had been fitted – into society and how they could break out. In autumn 1974, West Berlin was a place for discussion and practice of everything from revolution to relationships and communal living to open sexuality: ‘Need for tenderness’, ‘Compul­sion to orgasm’, ‘Whole body relating’, ‘An end to genital fixation’ – the list was end­less and, in many ways, far ahead of its time. Everyone, women and men, felt oppressed by the sexist adverts on the hoardings and in the U-Bahn; everyone accepted that things would have to change, inside and out. Marx had met Freud and women had stated their case; the notion of simple futures where wives would nurture hard working husbands had been blown away. The uphill climb by me, the lone male mountaineer with an over-sensitive take on gender and life in general had become a communal caravan across the desert of capitalism. Now people saw where they were going, helped each other on the way and did not doubt they would get there in the end.

Some, of course, wanted to take a short cut – Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof sat in cells in Stammheim, condemned for blasting their way through the sand – but I did not support violence and saw it as a form of capitulation to the psychotic ways of the ruling class. I had, however, demonstrated against the prison conditions of Holger Meins, another member of the Red Army Fraction. He was not in Stammheim, but in Moabit jail in West Berlin where he had gone on hunger strike in protest at his solitary confinement. He had not eaten for three months, the authorities refused to transfer him to a hospital and his death was expec­ted soon.

It finally came on November 10th, a grey and unpromising day. I was reading a book on semiotics in my room at the back of the commune, when the news broke. The door burst open and Gisela bounced in. She was a round woman with red cheeks and a permanent air of enthusiasm. Along with my friend Dieter, she was the founder of the commune where I lived and had roped me into her Sponti political movement after a Sunday seminar on undogmatic Marxism a few weeks earlier.

“Come on, Joe! We’re meeting at Turm­strasse and marching down to the prison.”

“What? Why?”

“Haven’t you heard?” Gisela’s eyes gleamed as she warmed her hands on the tiles of a brown coal oven. “Holger Meins is de­ad.”

“When?”

“Last night. They only let the news out this morning. The Senate’s banned marches so we’re keeping the meeting place secret, spreading it by word of mouth. I’m to tell sympathisers round here. Will you help?”

“Of course.”

We ran through courtyards, climbed staircases and left notes informing people where to go. We hammered on doors, cajoled and persuaded, and, at our last port of call, dug out Stefan, the lover of Gisela’s best friend Hanna and a man more into movies than Marx.

By the time we reached Turmstrasse, the demonstrators were forming into rows. I spotted Hanna and waved. She ran over and gave me a hug.

“My favouri­te Englishman!” she cried.

Then she saw Stefan attempting to hide behind Gisela.

“You’ve come? You told me you were ill?”

Stefan shrugged his shoulders.

“You told me you couldn’t get off work and you’re here.”

“That’s because I was speaking from the teachers’ common room.”

Gisela pushed her way between the lovers and linked arms with them both.

“Come on, you two. No arguments today. All right?”

A police bus – light flashing, siren wailing – screeched past the demonstrators and pulled across the road. Riot police jumped out and positioned themselves in front of the first row. The way to the prison was blocked.

“Someone must have informed,” said Hanna, taking hold of my right arm.

A loud-hailer declared the demonstration illegal and ordered all participants to disperse. A group at the back began shouting. Somebody threw a bottle.

“RAF,” said a voice to my left. “They provoke on principle.”

I turned and found a tall man with blonde hair standing next to me.

“Your first demonstration?” the man asked as he linked arms.

“Oh no,” I replied.

“But the first with action, yes?”

“Well,” I said, ducking as another bottle smashed in front of the police, “I was nearly in Grosvenor Square in ’68.”

The man laughed.

“Nearly in Grosvenor Square in ’68. I like it. English humour, no?”

“Yes. Yes.”

I laughed, too.

The police gave a second warning and said they would charge if the crowd did not disperse. I was in row six. I turned to see how many were behind us and was surprised to find people complying with the order. Row by row the demonstration was dissolving.

“We’re not moving,” hissed Hanna to the tall man. “Right, Manfred?”

But someone had tapped Manfred on the shoulder.

“New tactic,” a voice whispered. “Pretend to cave in. Regroup at the Ku’dam.”

Manfred passed the message on to me and peeled off.

“Manfred, you shit!” yelled Hanna.

I explained the tactic to her and soon everyone was heading for the Ku’dam – ambling off in twos and threes, pretending to be out for a stroll.

Near the entrance to Tiergarten, Manfred glanced up at the sky.

“Damn!”

I followed his gaze and saw helicopters approaching from the south.

“Should we scatter?” asked Stefan hopefully.

“No, we should not,” said Hanna. “Straight on for the Ku’dam!”

“I only asked,” whined her boyfriend.

“If you don’t want to come, don’t,” snapped Hanna. “Go to a stupid film instead.”

“Hanna!” hissed Gisela.

At the junction of Kurfurstendam and Joachimstaler­strasse, demonstrators had already occupied the pavements. Reinforcements were emerging from the U-Bahn and spilling on to the road. A whispering began, like wind in the willows.

“Make a circle. Block the traffic.”

People formed into lines of five and walked round the centre of the junction – one after the other, closely packed, column after column. Motorists hooted. A policeman blew his whistle. But they were powerless to break the human wheel.

My group linked arms and squeezed in behind five Red Army men in crash helmets.

“The state has murdered Holger Meins – Holger, Holger, Holger Meins!”

A white Mercedes tried to push its way through. An RAF man forced open the driver’s door. Manfred pulled him back. The driver reversed away.

“That’s what the authorities want us to do,” said Manfred, rejoining the line. “Beat people up, behave like animals. It doesn’t help our cause. We must win the public’s sympathy.”

I nodded and joined in the chant. I had never felt better, never felt so much. Acting for justice with no self doubts, a rebel with a cause – no dream of what might be, just action now.

“The state has murdered Holger Meins,” I shouted at the top of my voice, “Holger, Holger, Holger Meins!”

Hanna laughed and yelled in my ear:

“Your accent is atrocious.”

Then the sirens began. A chill ran down my spine. Tank-like vehicles clea­red a path through the cars – blue mon­sters with blank faces.

“Water canons,” Manfred shouted.

The line in front stopped. A helmeted man turned and yelled.

“New formation. Rows of twenty across the Ku’dam!”

He indicated that my group should move forward and link arms with his.

“Oh no,” wailed Stefan. “We’re in the front line.”

“That’ll make a change for you,” said Hanna, but her voice sounded nervous too.

The cannons halted behind a phalanx of shield-wielding riot police with visors down. I glanced over my shoulder. Row upon row of demonstrators stretched back towards the ruined shell of the Gedaechtniskirche – faces alert, tense, determined.

Die bullen sind bloed!” yelled a Red Army man.

Police are stupid.

“Don’t provoke,” said Manfred.

“Shit liberal!” the man replied, but stopped his chant.

Night had fallen and a cold wind from the East cut through the seams of my worn sheepskin coat. The advertisements flashed and winked, mocking the protesters with their message of stabi­lity. In Kempinskis, ladies in fur hats sipped coffee and toyed with cakes, faces turned towards the street waiting for the show to start. Press photographers positio­ned themselves near the police, flashguns firing. TV cameras took aim from rooftops or patrolled – tape recorders in tow – up and down no-man’s land. One reporter argued with her direc­tor about where to stand. She wanted to be in front of the demonstrators, the director wanted her with the police. In the end, she and the camera walked around in circles.

Then the space between the front-lines was cleared. A new chant rolled for­ward from the back of the demonstration, picking up momentum and volume as it approached us.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demonstrate!”

The Red Army men added ‘Holger, Holger, Holger Meins’ and as the chants met they doubled in force and surged across no-man’s land to the waiting police, drowning out an officer calling on the demonstrators to ‘Disperse or face the consequences!’

“This is it,” hissed Manfred.

The police moved forward followed by the water cannons. Slowly. Steadily.

Then they fired.

“Stand firm!” shouted Manfred, as water slammed into his stomach.

I bent to help him but was hit too, a block of ice smashing into my skull.

“Turn your back!” Hanna shouted.

I couldn’t breathe, could­n’t move.

Another jet of water smashed into my groin. The police were only yards away – truncheons high, shields out. The crowd surged forward, pushing me towards the truncheons that now began battering batons on shields in a deafening cacophony of terror.

“Fall back and regroup!” came the command.

I turned and ran. Manfred ran. We all ran. Retreating head over heels in front of the drums, lines disintegrating as the din approached. I glanced back and saw a policeman beat a Red Army man across the back – not once, but on and on and on. A woman was hit between the legs and dumped into a van that moved forward with the canons picking up human refuse as it was clubbed into submission.

My coat felt heavy – soaked through, weighing me down. But I kept on running.

Suddenly a pair of arms grabbed me. I ducked, ready for a blow to the head, the back, the balls. The arms held me, but didn’t abuse me.

I turned. It was Manfred.

“No good running. Police are everywhere. We must regroup.”

I locked arms with Manfred and counted a dozen rows ahead of us – we were no longer in the front line.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned. It was Hanna. Her long hair soaked with water, her face blue with cold. She locked arms, too, and huddled close.

“Stefan’s been hit. Gisela’s taken him home.”

“Is he all right?”

“I think so.” She wiped away a tear. “He was trying to stop a pig hitting me.”

“And Gisela?”

“Cut in the face – best for her to go with him.”

With the column reformed, the chan­ting swelled again. We surged forward as one – at a run this time – charging headlong at the state’s protective wall, the words of the chant coming fast and loud.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demon­strate!”

I kept my eyes on the front line. When it hit the police, it would stop dead.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demonstrate!”

I concentrated on the words – spitting out each sylla­ble, fighting off the cold.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demonstrate!”

Shots broke across the chanting. Four rows in front of me, lines scattered as a plume of smoke rose from the ground. More shots and a canister landed by my feet.

“Tear gas! Cover your mouth and nose!”

Manfred thrust a scarf at me. I pressed it to my face, but gas had already reached my lungs. I wretched. I no longer cared what happened, as long as I could stop and lie down. I tried to cover my mouth, but the gas numbed my brain and my hands would not move. I collapsed to the ground coughing.

“Get up!” – Manfred’s voice – “Get up! Head for Zoo Station!”

I struggled to my feet, fighting off nausea, willing myself to move.

All around people coughed and screamed. Beyond the fog, sirens wailed.

“Can you walk?” Hanna yelled.

“I think so,” I replied.

“Good. Keep your face covered and follow us.”

Figures loomed from the shadows clutching scarves to mouths. Red Army men ran past with iron bars, guided by the sound of breaking glass. Onlookers cowered too terrified to move.

One old lady crouching by a kiosk on the corner of Kantstrasse held a cardboard carton over her head with the word ‘Hilfe!’ scrawled on its side. Men in suits, emerging from the peep shows behind her – eyes stained with prurience, expressions blank and empty – ignored her plea, fastened their trousers and ran for safety.

I struggled across the street and took hold of the woman’s hand.

“Where are you headed?” I asked.

“Anywhere,” she stuttered.

“Want to come with us?”

The woman nodded.

Manfred took her other arm and we pressed on.

Baton-wielding policemen appeared from an alley and charged. Manfred pointed at the woman. The police took no notice. Manfred and I hoisted her onto our shoulders and ran as best we could.

The police pursued. A flashgun fired. Aimed at us, I hoped: ‘Demonstrators save granny from police!’

“Ought to be ashamed,” the old lady mut­tered into Joe’s ear.

“Who ought?” I gasped. “The demonstrators?”

“No! The police.”

Near Zoo station, the pursuers were diverted by a fire and gave up. Manfred and I, out of breath from our exertions, lowered the woman to the ground and entered the station. It was packed. Wounded demonstrators lay in rows tended by medical students. Unhar­med protesters huddled in corners discussing tactics. Members of the public wiped eyes and dusted down clothes, unsure what to do next. The station regulars – junkies and unemployed Turkish workers – stood in front of the exchange office too bemused to ask for money. Beyond them a crowd pushed up against the ticket counter, desperate to get home.

Hanna bent down to the woman.

“Where do you live?”

“In the East. Prenzlauer Berg”

“In the East?”   Hanna queried, and then burst out laughing. “You can tell them it’s true then. We are oppressed and brutalised.”

“I know,” said the woman. “I was here in ’68. I always come for the riots.”

I wondered how she could have crossed the wall, and then remembered that pensioners were free to travel back and forth.

“The East – that’s a good idea,” said Manfred, as a group of policeman arrived to block off the entrance to the street. “Let’s go to Friedrichstrasse.”

“Coming too?” I asked the woman.

“No thank you, but I’m grateful for your help.”

I squeezed her hand and ran after Hanna and Manfred.

At the S-Bahn entrance Man­fred ducked under the barrier. Hanna and I followed suit. On the platform most people were heading west, and when a train for Frie­drichstrasse clattered in we were the only ones to board. We collapsed on to the slatted wooden seats and sighed with relief when the doors shut and the train pulled out.

As it rolled through the Tiergarten, we saw blue lights flashing in the trees and a gas cloud hanging low over the Ku’dam Ecke. The cross on the Ge­daechtnis­kirche shone forth, the Mercedes sign winked.

We win, it said. You lose.

Hanna took my hand and squeezed.

“You all right? You were in a bad way back there?”

“A bit cold.”

“A bit cold? Is that all? You English understate everything. Aren’t you exhilarated, terri­fied, exhausted, happy, sad?”

“Yes, that to.”

 Hanna leant across and hugged the sheepskin coat. I put an arm around her and an arm around Manfred and together we rattled past the ruins of the Reichstag, over the Spree and across the wall – today a welcome barrier against the hypocrisy and conflicts of capitalism. When the train reached Friedrichstrasse – with its East German guards on gantries above and kiosks selling duty free goods below – we found a bench and declared it free of East and West. Manfred bought whisky and Swiss chocolate and we sat getting drunk against the cold – happy to be in no man’s land, happy to be alive, happy to wait a little longer for the revolution.