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Let’s change the world, not ourselves: Laurie Penny on a new New Year

The idea of making and breaking new year's resolutions is wearisomely counter-revolutionary.

New year custom requires us to repent our seasonal overconsumption and embark on a round of dieting and overhauls of personal hygiene. A couple weeks ago, the editor of this magazine called, asking New Statesman writers to submit their new year's resolutions for the edification of our valued readers. I had a think and came up with the closest thing to a mantra I've fixed on for this year: following recent travails, upon which I shall not elaborate, I will no longer be involving myself romantically with any young man who does not own at least two pairs of shoes and who has lived for more than a week in a skip in Camberwell. One must have some standards.

In truth, though, the idea of making and breaking new year's resolutions is wearisomely counter-revolutionary. It is tragic that a significant proportion of us will be quitting smoking, starting a diet or revamping our wardrobe this January, not only because smoking, snacking and wearing strange clothes are all perfectly decent things to do but because the whole ritual of making resolutions yokes us back into the pernicious cycles of consumption and guilt that sustain corporate profit and make most of us miserable most of the time.

I'm quite happy to be an unfit, dishevelled and socially awkward roll-up smoker if it means that I have extra time to devote to more important things. I could promise to become a better person, to do everything in my power to help smash the global crypto-capitalist oligarchy and to stop biting my nails to the quick like an agitated toddler -- but I do that every day anyway.

Binge and purge

Every day and in every way, we all could change ourselves for the better and become cleaner, more productive, less monumentally messed-up individuals. The question is, why should we? Why should we improve ourselves? Wouldn't it be a lot more useful -- and a lot more liberating -- finally to accept our own filth and fallibility and try instead to change the world for the better? Very few people who make new year's resolutions stick to them but that is hardly the point. The ritual is all about setting individual goals and missing them, all about the orthodoxy of self-improvement.

The inevitability of failure is part of that orthodoxy. You are supposed constantly to be trying and failing to become a healthier, less weird version of your imperfect self and, when you fail, there will always be consumption to console you in your lonely guilt.

It's as if we are no longer allowed to celebrate something as joyously and collectively human as the turning of another year without promising to isolate ourselves yet again within the cruel, binge-purge cycle of private consumer neurosis. The spiritual logic behind these liturgies of self-indulgence and self-denial -- their place within old religious schedules of fasting and feasting -- has long since lost emotional relevance for most of us, but, in fact, the rituals have only become more frantic. Most of us don't gorge on chocolate on Christmas Day because of Baby Jesus or give it up for Lent because of Zombie Jesus, but we need only the barest of excuses to starve and stuff ourselves, wasting our energies and atomising dissent.

So let's do something useful this year. Let's decide that we're OK the way we are, after all, and that we don't need to try to become thinner or prettier or more productive. Let's refuse to make ourselves better, and make the world better instead. In this critical year, in which the very nature of politics and citizenship could change utterly, there is only one resolution that we should be making. It's the same as last year and the year before that: be brave, be kind, speak truthfully and fight the power. Apart from the one about not dating tramps, it's the only promise to which I'll ever hold myself.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza

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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