Trouble in Manchester

The RSA's Matthew Taylor on the whispering cabinet minister, an antagonisic local and the train that

Sunday was just one of those days. I was booked to chair a fringe meeting for the New Statesman at lunchtime and so got to Euston in good time for the Manchester train. That’s when it all started to go wrong. The train ‘wasn’t ready’ which, given that Virgin had presumably had since Saturday night to prepare it, was hard to understand.

When we finally did board the train it was chronically overcrowded. There were three announcements from the buffet (or ‘shop’ as it is now called)) one to say it was opening late, another to say it couldn’t take charge or credit cards and a third to say it had closed down due to ‘unforeseen’ problems.

The train then stopped and we were told it would arrive at least an hour late. But at least something was working; the air conditioning in our carriage was set so high that people were scrabbling around in their luggage for woollies.

I arrived in Manchester far too late for my meeting but in time to run to the Piccadilly Sports Bar and watch the last five minutes of my beloved West Brom losing to Aston Villa. Thoroughly grumpy and miserable I walked the streets of Manchester. Eventually I found a pub with the Chelsea v Man United game but distracted by the match I accidentally picked up someone else’s drink at the bar.

As the rather large person in question was remonstrating with me Chelsea equalised an event in which I could immediately tell he somehow felt that I as a Londoner was somehow implicated. I beat a hasty retreat.

Of course, I could have gone to the conference but ever since the Observer printed a tendentious piece two weeks ago suggesting I had been appointed to advise David Cameron I have been getting funny looks from my old comrades.

Eventually it was time for the RSA World at One fringe meeting at the Raddison Hotel. The room was packed and hot and the audience having to be patient as we had pushed back the start time by half an hour to accommodate David Miliband.

Our first speaker was supposed to be Ben Page from IPSOS MORI but for reasons best known to them, the Social Market Foundation had taken his pass and despite my pleadings were utterly indifferent to the fact that he was stuck outside the security cordon with minutes until our meeting.

As the minutes ticked away Ben kept phoning to say the police were getting increasingly suspicious of his story and he was starting to worry about the prospects of a full body search. At this point I snapped, losing my temper with various SMF staff and bellowing (mild) obscenities in front of several rather startled members of the Cabinet.

Eventually I tracked down the pass and Ben and I ran up five flights of stairs to a meeting room so hot that it could only have felt tolerable to anyone who had just stepped of the super cooled 8.36 Euston to Manchester train.

Ben was a star and entertained everyone with his slides showing the contradictory nature of public opinions. I made my short comments. But RSA and WATO staff were frantically waving at me to indicate that the Foreign Secretary was ten, no fifteen, no five, no ten minutes away so I slowed down and extemporised.

After 25 minutes which ranged over my life at the RSA, Number Ten, the Labour Party and Bootham Street Junior School I dried up so we had to move to questions.

Eventually, after very enlightening exchanges about how to canvass in Mitcham, the design of leaflets and engaging with your local park, Mr Miliband showed up looking relaxed and commanding. After he had made a few comments Martha Kearney started to quiz him, presumably aware that we were by now running well over time and that several people were showing signs of heat exhaustion. But the conference delegates have been well briefed so the moment Martha mentioned the leadership issue she got drowned out by a combination of booing and the soft clump of expiring bodies falling to the carpet.

So that WATO could get something to tape for today’s programme there was no choice but to overrun, anyway, we couldn’t get out of the doors until all the people on stretchers had been carried to safety. Suddenly I realised I had fifteen minutes to get the last train back to London. There was no choice but to run. As I sprinted past a Cabinet minister I can’t be sure but I think she murmured ‘that’s right Taylor you can run, but you can’t hide’.

I made it to the station with two minutes to spare. My body was steaming, my shirt was soaked and there was sweat running in rivulets off my forehead as I sat down in the carriage. ‘Ding dong’ went the announcer ‘welcome to the 20.10 to Euston. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances. the air conditioning will not be working on this journey’.

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.
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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