A marijuana legalisation campaign in June 2013. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.
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In contemporary Britain, to be stone-cold sober all the time is the real lunacy

There's plenty of marijuana-smoking and khat-chewing on my doorstep - in the park it's all good fun.

Oh, now that autumn is well and truly here, would that I could summon up the sweet smells of the skunk smokers outside the Surprise! They come across from the college around mid-morning and, plonking themselves down at the pub’s grotty outside tables, beneath the crap loggia, they skin up and fill the air with that peculiar taint: two parts synthetic cat’s piss to one of old-style marijuana. They’re pretty inoffensive, the skunk smokers: they just sit there, cosmically addled in their Puffa jackets and trainers, their jeans at half mast and the waistbands of their stretchy psyches exposed for all the world to see.

The skunk smokers are young and mostly black – the boules bellies who patronise the pétanque area immediately beside them are entirely pasty-white and middle-aged. One of them plaits his grey beard. I’ve never seen the boules bellies exactly drunk but there’s that persistent hoppy aroma and low-level effervescence about them, when they play, indicative of men who are seriously committed to real ale. Elsewhere in the park, there’s more drinking going on: the Portuguese who gather outside the Luna Café favour bottles of Sagres and the Ghanaians who cluster on the low wall along from the pétanque area have a penchant for tinned Guinness but, again, neither group seems to get pissed: this is workaday drinking.

Indeed, during the week, there’s a serviceable vibe to the local alcohol culture that would gladden any erstwhile Blairite: these solitary Polish tradesmen, sitting cross-legged under the trees, canvas grips full of spirit levels and plastering hawks beside them on the grass, a can of Lech or Tyskie wrapped in a brown paper bag in one hand, a black-market fag in the other – surely they are exemplars of the happy, pan-European café society that we all hoped open borders and 24-hour licensing would usher in?

Still, I doubt even the most passionate globaliser would feel as sanguine about the khat chewers. They buy their khat in a café on the Wandsworth Road, where it arrives early each afternoon – presumably direct from Heathrow, since the stuff loses its potency in about 24 hours – and sits quite brazenly, stacked up on the floor, wrapped in newspaper. I tried chewing khat a few times but although the hit was acceptable, an intriguing cross between amphetamine and weed, the means of ingestion was insufferably tedious, necessitating as it does the eating of about half a hedge before you lose your grip on suburbia.

The khat chewers are either solitary on benches, or else make up small colloquies that occupy the tree-fringed mound at the southern end of the park. All are instantly recognisable by their bugged-out red eyes and the bouquet of privet-looking fronds tucked under their arms.

The khat chewers are either Ethiopians or Somalis – and some are presumably Yemenis. They’re inoffensive enough and one can’t help but feel a little protective towards them, dependent as they are on a drug that has to be daily dew-picked a continent-and-a- half away.

I wish I could say the same about our indigenous addicts, who are often shockingly incontinent. Vanessa, who maintains a hefty crack habit about a hundred yards down the road from me, often collars me outside the local chemist’s; and when, in the past, I’ve challenged her on the veracity of her claim to be begging the price of some baby formula, she’s yanked her breast from her blouse and squeezed it in my face to prove that she’s lactating, albeit insufficiently.

But that’s not in the park. In the park, the toxified largely behave themselves and even needle junkies retire decorously to the bushes and then use the dog shit bins for their contaminated sharps. No, it’s in the street that things get wiggy: at night, the demented whippoorwill of the emergency services’ sirens whips this poor Will into a frenzy, as does the garbled gargling of late-night totterers- back from the local pubs.

I need at such times to remind myself: you were once like them – indeed, usually considerably more stoned/drunk/wired than they are and sometimes for several days in a row. No, in contemporary Britain, to be stone-cold sober 24/7 and 365 days a year is the real lunacy: I am part of a quiet and well-behaved crowd of nutters who, if we are ever remarked upon at all, are only castigated by the effervescent majority for being the most frightful bores.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage