The DDR museum, Berlin

The dinosaurs were so brilliant. I can’t imagine why they ever bothered to die off in such large numbers.

– (Not) The Natural History Museum, London

On Tuesday I visited a sarcastic museum. It was the DDR museum in Berlin. To explain: most museums I’ve visited in the past have had almost painfully uncontroversial narratives and descriptions. So if you go to the natural history museum in London you will see exquisitely applied scientific vagueness, understandably so when figuring out exactly why certain things may have happened millions of years ago. Or if you go to the Hiroshima peace museum in Japan, there is a controlled, quiet rage behind the exhibits, which shows great restraint in the circumstances.

The Berlin DDR museum takes a different approach, somewhere between gentle sarcasm and outright derision. Can you believe that people really lived like this? Experience their shitty cars, which merely contained the kind of engine you’d find in one of capitalism’s many lawnmowers. And look at the funny fashions! These people were sincerely attempting to make a functioning society using authoritarian socialism, the museum chuckles, and this was quaint, banal, and occasionally evil.

And, of course, they have a point. But here’s a quote from the caption describing a typical May Day:

Dad drank his beer, whilst mum queued up at the sausage stand. Eat drink and be merry – cheers to international socialist solidarity

Which is fine, I suppose, if the museum is entirely aimed at arch Fukuyama scholars.

But plenty of people who lived through the DDR will visit the museum. What will they make of it? They’ll be bringing their kids and relations to give them an insight beyond Goodbye Lenin and Ostalgie.

And from this perspective it is, I think, slightly lacking.

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The Rail & Sail from Harwich

On Halloween I took a spooky trip on the rail and sail to Berlin. Well, to hook of holland. Then to Amsterdam. Then Berlin. It’s a long journey, but if you’ve got the time, and object to short haul flying for various understandable reasons, it’s well worth it.

We set off from Liverpool Street station, which was filled with young, merry people on their way to Halloween parties. We saw sexy spooky cats, sexy spooky nurses, and sexy spooky members of Islamic State.

Pausing for a pre-train cuppa, we fell into conversation with some middle aged women from the midlands, who were down to stare at the (Ukip style?) Brits-only poppy sculpture instillation down at the Tower of London. They wanted to know what the white poppy on my jacket was for. I explained. They didn’t seem too impressed, but hey. It’s a free country.

We get on the fairly deserted train, on the very front carriage – nearer the ferry, is my (it turns out, erroneous) logic. The driver came out of his cabin to catch me munching chicken curry. He eyes it greedily.

‘Wasabi, eh? I wanted that!’
‘I feel guilty now.’
‘So you should be. And what’s worse, when the train gets underway, the smell will waft into my cab.’

And we’re underway! This time, err, tomorrow, we’ll be in Berlin!

Among assorted Essex bound commuters, a man gets on at Stratford. Thick set. Can of Stella. He sits in the seat in front of us, and starts scrolling through Facebook. He fades from my mind.

Meanwhile, we talk of 1970s package holidays killing the English seaside, being scared of flying. Visiting Canada as a teenager. Calgary. It’s a bit boring, I confess, faux-conspiratorial.

He turned his head and peered at us through the seats. He’d been listening for a while. “You should have gone to Edmonton. Much more going on there.”

“I did!” I reply. “But I was only sixteen, I couldn’t go to any bars or clubs..” I smiled at the thought of those happening Edmontonian night spots. I’ll never know the like.

“When I was in Santa Monica I got arrested for getting too close in a copper’s face. They do things differently over there…”

I sat up and tried to follow this dramatic topic change. He quickly painted a vivid picture of what it’s like sharing an overnight ‘cooling off’ cell in LA. He tells us he was worried they’d do a search and find his criminal record and kick him out of the country.

He explained why.

“‘Decked a CSO. He was up in my face. Did four months in wormwood scrubs for that.” And in America, they’ll kick you out for anything. They’ll stitch you up.

“But I record everything now. See this watch? See the number six?”

I looked at his impressive, James Bond style watch.

“I press that button and it records everything said and uploads it to YouTube. Up to fifty minutes.”

He moved seamlessly on to talk about the British police.

“The copper at Liverpool street, he’s a good bloke. You ask him his oath, and he’ll tell you.”

“Seriously, ask any, it’s a good test. Good ones will tell you. Bad ones will know you’re taking the piss.”

By this point, everyone has got off at Colchester. We’re the only people left in the carriage. I’m laughing and nodding at all the right moments, and asking lots of questions, because he has plenty to say. But I’m hoping he’s not getting the ferry.

“Noone knows their rights. So data protection? Bollocks. Preventing you from taking pictures under the terrorism act? Bollocks.” True enough.

He whips out a bit of paper. It has advice from the police chief to forces, telling them to acknowledge the new reality of citizen journalism and possibly being on camera at all times. I ask a question.

“Do you think this level of video and internet has helped police or the general public more?”

“Depends. Bunch of my mates, Chelsea firm boys, handed over some footage to the police because one officer was acting up. But a bunch were identified from the same clip and done for football hooliganism.”

From here he talked about bailiffs, and the limited legality of their powers, which was interesting. Unfortunately, from here he got into conspiracy theory.

“Know Jonathan King? The paedo?”

“The novelty pop song impresario turned convicted sex offender?”

“He’s back at the BBC. Gave him his old job back. And remember Jill Dando? Think she was just murdered, out of nowhere? How likely do you think that is?”

‘She was friends with Cliff Richard, wasn’t she?’ I thought I’d better play along.

“Two convictions for indecent exposure. But under his real name. Not like George Michael, who did it for exposure. To come out.”

“Not that I’ve got anything against the gays you understand, as long as they stay away from me.”

“Anyway I can’t say a word against George Michael, my sister would kill me.”

He got off at the next stop. ‘Rail and sail, is it. You’ll still be going this time next week!’

And then he was off, urging us to check our rights.

The rest of the journey was uneventful after that. We checked in for the ferry with around 20 other foot passengers at Harwich, and sailed off at around 11:15pm, watching the lights of the port shrink away from us from our deck-bound vantage point. I was glad to be leaving. I needed a break from the English.

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On the morning Thameslink to St Pancras

Excuse me, can you keep your child under control? He’s pulling at my hair

A woman attempting to do her eye make-up while peering into a Moomin branded mirror admonishes the mother behind her. Said harshly at first, but request ended with an apologetic laugh, because there’s only so rude you can be on a train.

You’re such a wussy. Take some vitamin C and chillax.

A boss on hands-free to someone calling in sick. He has a case for his phone so it resembles a Game Boy.

Blackfriars station

Blackfriars station at night seems over-large. Nearby attractions are sparse. There’s the Blackfriar pub, a curious wedge-shaped Art Nouveau building saved after a campaign by Sir John Betjamin. There’s the automatic flowers machine in the concourse of the station itself, where guilty city workers in need of an evening gesture can drop twenty five quid to free bouquets from little plastic boxes. There’s not a lot else.

Dawn and sunset both offer spectacular views of the river and rapidly changing city vista, but these face competition from free papers and candy crush.

The river-spanning platforms are designed for twelve carriage trains. Which means the four carriage ones that run in the evening seem puny and out of place. The trains stop at the south end of the bridge, while most of the passengers arrive from the north side. So many an evening ends with a shuffle, then a panicked trot as passengers seek their steed back to the suburbs.

They’ll be back here in eight hours or so.

London Loves: the fanzine

Forever ago, I ran a club night with some friends. It was called London Loves. Last month, we brought it back, probably for one night only. We put together a fanzine to go with the night, which served to remind me how much I love fanzines, and left me with a vague desire to put on more club nights simply to fund (and distribute) more fanzines.

The zine contained an exemplary history of the club night in question, an assortment of interviews, rants and silliness, and a paean to Kenickie. It also contained the comic strip posted below, which is based on a real evening in my own life, though a few details have been reimagined. It was drawn and illustrated by Yuki Shirota.

We still have a few copies left, in the unlikely event of anyone reading this desiring one.

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Balfron Tower, Poplar

The National Trust are running tours of a Brutalist masterpiece in east London. The stock warnings on their website as you book – picnic hampers are usually allowed, but check before your visit – reveal that this isn’t your typical NT territory.

We are advised to meet outside a cafe in Poplar called Starlight. Unexpectedly early, we blundered in for tea, and were accosted by a very enthusiastic middle class young man.

“Are you here for the TedX?”

No, I explain. We’re off to tour the Balfron Tower, and are looking for a cuppa.

He passes us on to a woman who will furnish us with more information.

“Have you heard of the Ted talks on the internet?”

“Yes..”

“It’s like that. It’s a way of meeting up offline and exchanging ideas. Anyone can apply to set up a Tedx, so this is Tedx East End. We’ve got talks and workshops, and it’s going on all day. Would you like to take part?”

“I’m sorry, I still don’t understand. What is Tedx for? Are you trying to raise awareness about local issues? Is it about social housing?” I still had Balfron on my mind.

“No, we’re about ideas, and making spaces so that they can be shared. So today’s our discovery day…

“So you’re like a campaign group? Is it political?”

“No, we’re not a political organisation.”

I explained I was on a tour, but erroneously promised to come back later. Why was an avowedly apolitical organisation arranging arts, crafts and talks in a cafe in one of the poorest parts of East London?

Thoroughly confused, but with a small polystyrene cup of weak (but free!) tea, I blundered back outside, and met the person who had told me about the tour, who I knew from the non-real world of the internet. She had taken it before, and said the young volunteer guide – who had clearly learned her facts fairly recently – was incessantly corrected by the group, which consisted of stern middle aged architects. My internet friend felt bad about this, so stuck to the front and told the guide she was doing really well.

Our own guides were more confident and our group less bolshy. We were given a postwar history of the area, taken to see a modernist clock tower in the local market, then we were on our way to the main event. One of our guides, Stephen, a lovely man who is blogging an attempt to walk every London postcode, told me about the new town he grew up in – Crawley – and architectural changes to the place that had left it mess. I told him about Coventry, and the Cathedral Lanes shopping centre.

“That sounds like a shame.”

We arrived at the Balfron, via the other, lesser blocks that formed part of the same development. As we squeezed into the lift, someone asked what was going to happen to the Tower after it was refurbished. The main guide was a bit vague here, and said the plan hadn’t been finalised.

“It’s going to be sold off for private flats,” I said.

The guide nodded.

“Gentrification,” said a woman who hadn’t spoken before. Silence. The word hung in the air as we rose.

The flat we were visiting was the one occupied by Ernö Goldfinger, the architect, who lived there for a few months after its completion, inviting new tenants to come ’round to provide feedback over champagne. Derided as a publicity stunt at the time, he did incorporate some suggestions into his plans for Trellick Tower, so I’m going to give the man the benefit of the doubt.

The flat had been turned into an ersatz imagination of what it would have been like in 1968, after the Goldfingers had moved out and the first social tenants had moved in. One room was a shrine to the Beatles, though a lot of the Beatles stuff was “more 1964, 65,” as Stephen dryly pointed out. I found it a bit twee, fake heritage for an imagined past. But the flat itself was fantastic: good dimensions, a great balcony and wonderful, hypnotic views of the entrance to the Blackwall tunnel, Robin Hood Gardens, and the rapacious vampire squid monster of the Canary Wharf complex. If that’s your kind of thing.

Here’s my main beef with the tour, which is probably an unfair criticism, given the National Trust are not a political organisation. But I’m going to make it anyway.

You cannot view Balfron Tower without the wider context, which is the social cleansing of London. You can’t build a fake tribute to the optimism is a young working class family of the late 1960s without pointing out that today’s equivalent family wouldn’t have a chance of living in a similar socially rented flat today.

The heritage industry stops working once you start going backwards. You can’t go ‘look at the quaint way these people lived’ when the political consensus is that these people now deserve nothing.

Balfron Tower will be sold and filled with the rich. It is currently populated by artists and young, well-meaning middle class flat minders, selected by a local arts group and a social enterprise accordingly. I’m sure individuals in both groups have mixed feelings about their role in the recalibrating of the tower’s purpose, but given how high rents are I can’t blame either group for being involved. We meet one young artist as we leave, a neighbour to the ersatz-flat – she says it’s wonderful living there, and is hopeful the project will be delayed and that she will get to live there a bit longer.

We move back along the street in the sky and pile in to the lift back to reality. Half way down, the lift stops and the door opens to reveal a Byronic young man, with dark curls and a long sweeping black jacket. He’s clutching an empty bottle of red wine. He takes the packed metal box of day trippers in his stride, and moves the wine bottle out of sight.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get the next one.”

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Links

Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian:

As residents have battled their displacement, their plight has been framed against a backdrop of arts events, in a kind of live gentrification jamboree. There have been pop-up galleries and impromptu supper clubs, 24-hour theatre performances and a weekend branded as a “vertical carnival,” concluding with an architectural symposium on the roof – from which one artist also proposed to hurl a piano, before her plan was damned as an act of crass lunacy. All the usual actors of regeneration have been paraded through the building, the artist-tenants performing their valiant role as the kamikaze agents of real estate “value uplift”, enjoying a last hurrah on the deck of the brutalist Titanic.

An interview with a former tenant: a must-read.

We get to talking about the changes the area has seen in the last few years. The flats in the Balfron Tower, once emptied but prior to their refurbishment, have been used to host “artists’ live/work studios” by Bow Arts, but are also being farmed out to ‘property guardians’, and, lately, being used as temporary accommodation for homeless from outside of Tower Hamlets. “But more than Bow Arts, in my block is guardians. And that’s like basically paying to squat. You get no rights, you get a work contract. And there’s absolutely loads of them. People hate them, but I think that they’re just in the same position as everyone else. Why would you want to live like that? And you can be out in 24 hours. There was a guy in my block who was a guardian, and someone complained he had his music too loud, and he got a 24 hour notice the next day. So living like that, they don’t care about the block, and I don’t blame them either, you’re not going to put down roots in the community.”

Park Hill, Sheffield

All the things we saw: everyone on Park Hill came in unison at 4.13 AM and the whole block fell down

– Pulp, Sheffield: Sex City

My last memory of Sheffield was walking along West Street listening to Richard Hawley. Side streets falling back down one of the city’s seven hills gave me dramatic views of the countryside surrounding the city, and I fell in love. I vowed to return soon.

Nine years later, I was back, with a particular brief to gawp at buildings. We found the brutalist electricity substation while looking for our hotel (indeed: my companion hoped it *was* our hotel).

We walked down past the demolished Castle Market, where Jarvis Cocker worked at a fish counter and Owen Hatherley took delight in beautiful unchanging cafés. All gone now.

We climbed to the top of an underused multi-storey car park, and luxuriated in the view, and took the opportunity to fly a 50p model plane.

We saw a lot of spoons made from Sheffield steel.

But very much the star of the show was Park Hill. Love it, loathe it; you certainly can’t ignore it. With Kelvin now a fading, deep-fried memory, its survival and gradual overhaul should probably be celebrated, even though it’s impossible not to have deep reservations about the regeneration project.

But we’ll come to that.

Our first visit was on Saturday evening, heading across an unlit murderer’s bridge across the railway bridge and up through a new park. Looking back, the whole city was our jewellery box. Sheffield’s topography lends itself to dramatic aspects, and the Park Hill estate takes full advantage.

Much of it is boarded up and bereft, with a mere handful – we counted at least eight – of flats still occupied. We joined one of the famous ‘streets in the sky’ at the top of the hill, where the complex was only two storeys high. The rises to thirteen storeys at its height, as the hill falls away beneath it.

Walking through the still sporadically occupied section – one resident came out on crutches as we were guilelessly lingering outside his front door, and said hello. Following him along the walkway, we eventually came to one of the central blocks.

We watched it from the walkway bridge – now distinctly higher up from the ground than where we started – and took in the atmosphere. Which was, to say, silent and brooding. It was utterly deserted.

Unable to continue along the walkway to the empty block. We headed down the steps, out through a car park and down to the refurbished, occupied block, as owned and marketed by Urban Splash. We couldn’t get in, so instead wandered around its base, checking out the aluminium panels (yucky orange and reds, giving it a cheap and tacky aspect) and the ‘will you marry me’ graffiti, now immortalised in neon.

We were skulking around, seeing if there was another way in, a resident carrying a bag of shopping asked if we were lost and needed help. How kind. Her London equivalent would probably have called the police.

“Oh no, we’re just looking. We’re architecture nerds,” I said, by way of explanation.

So we asked what it was like living in Nu Park Hill.

“I fell in love with it as soon as I saw it, but it’s a lot of work – there’s quite a few teething problems,” she said. “Things keep breaking, but you put up with it. You feel loyal to it. I probably wouldn’t have put up with it if I’d bought somewhere else.”

“And my view is great.”

I was tempted to ask her to let us in for a look round, but felt this was probably too cheeky for 9pm on a Saturday night.

By now, you’ve probably noticed that a vast social housing project, once feted and then left to go to seed, is now being sold off as a ‘mixed development.’ It’s impossible to visit without getting angry at how we’ve come to this point, where councils feel the only way they can build any new social housing at all is to sell the majority to private developers. There will be a small percentage of ‘affordable’ and, one assumes, social rents in the new development. But it won’t go very far to house those who have been and will be displaced.

As Hatherley writes in A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain:

Park Hill went from the product of a policy of slum clearance to one of slum creation, as its inhabitants are decamped to the already heaving waiting list. Park Hill will lose around nine hundred council flats, with roughly three hundred being run by a Housing Association, sixty of which will be for shared ownership. Six hundred will be sold on the open market.

Park Hill looms over Sheffield as a reminder of the past, a social contract and a welfare state that is in danger of becoming a folk memory. It’s the future it points to that worries me.

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“But I shouldn’t call them that. They’re Bengalis.” The 133 bus to Streatham, midnight on Sunday

She was sat on the top deck of the bus. The tinny dance music poured out of her phone. It wasn’t quite loud enough to be antisocial by local standards, but the inhabitants of the top deck had been in England long enough to be socialised into ignoring her anyway.

Dressed in a tracksuit and swigging from a bottle claiming to contain an energy drink, she had found what she felt to be a kindred spirit: sat a few rows ahead. Greasy hair, slicked back. Eyes not quite all there.

“Are you having a good night?” She asked. He twisted himself round to half face her.

“Well you know, it’s not bad I suppose. Can’t complain.” The words came out stuck together.

They talked about their respective love lives. He was ‘sort of’ seeing a girl in Brixton. She was on her way to see her fella in Streatham. She was east end, “born and bred”, but her home of Whitechapel was “full of Pakis.” The surrounding tension went up a notch.

“But I shouldn’t call them that. They’re Bengalis.”

There followed a brief bigotry interlude: how they come over here for a life of luxury while she can’t even get a secure hostel. But it was racism by numbers, half remembered phrases. Her heart didn’t seem to be in it. It was just what you said. The man looked away, out of the window. She was drifting badly. She tried again.

“What sort of stuff do you do? I think you’re like me. Me and you are the same.”

“Well you know…” All of his sentences started with these three words, slurred into one, a kind of wry apology for whatever was to follow.

“Bit of weed, bit of brown, you know how it is.”

“I do, sweetheart.”

“I tend towards thinking that the moon landings were a bit of a hoax.” – at Dulles International Airport

Two men are sat up at the counter of a bar in Washington Dulles airport’s departure lounge. Though strangers, they greet each other and talk with the practiced ease of international business travelers. They get straight down to the important topic: how to save America. Earlier today, Space shuttle Discovery made a farewell fly-by of downtown DC atop a NASA jumbo jet, and sits at the airport awaiting its transfer to the Smithsonian museum. The airport’s bookshops is full of tomes on America’s decline, and what is to be done about it.

The older man fixes Volkswagens for a living. He’s on his way to Munich. He’s a libertarian, and believes Ron Paul is the only man with the answers. “And I voted Obama last time. I think the media have a lot to answer for – I don’t want to use the word conspiracy, but they’ve shut him out. He hasn’t a hope”

“I fear his son” responds the younger, referencing Rand Paul, tea-partying Senator for Kentucky. “Libertarian ideology is fascinating, but I’m a liberal / socialist. You have corporations writing regulations now.” He goes on to discuss the corporate takeover of US politics, with fair lucidity.

This gets a snort of agreement from the libertarian. “The government should just get on with governing. They shouldn’t be involved in anything else.” The two have an interesting way of debating – they steer around the fact they are diametrically opposed ideologically speaking by selective listening and agreeing with mangled interpretations of the other’s position. It’s a very affable way to disagree.

Then the older man broaches 9/11. In an airport. “Of course the government were at the bottom of it” says the libertarian. “It was done to test the bottom of our credulity”.

I expect the younger guy to baulk at this. Instead, he couldn’t be more enthusiastic.

“Well, look at the Patriot Act. Look at the legislation that came in so quickly after. They wouldn’t have had time to plan all that.”

“Our government has led our citizens to slaughter many times before,” continues the libertarian.”

“Oh absolutely. Look at Vietnam…” encouraged the socialist.

“Or Pearl Harbour. The government knew about that attack, it’s historical fact. It was to trick the American people into war.”

What follows is a beginner’s guide to 9/11 denialism tropes. We get building seven. We hear the magic phrase ‘controlled demolition’. The implied lack of wreckage from the fourth plane. The fact the terrorists hit the ‘wrong’ side of the Pentagon “that only contained filing cabinets.”

The liberal / socialist then asks: “What’s your view on the moon landings?”

The older man considers, gazing into his beer. “I tend towards thinking that the moon landings were a bit of a hoax.”

When the conversation started, I suspected the younger man was maybe humouring the libertarian, aware that he was stuck eating his burger next to a crank, agreeing and encouraging for the sake of either amusement or an easy life. By the end I wasn’t so sure.. I felt that supreme anxiety and paranoia was at the centre of both their world views, despite their contrasting political viewpoints.

They headed off together to get their plane to Europe. As they taxied to the runway, the mothballed shuttle would be pointed out to them by the pilot, ready to take its place in the Smithsonian.