Sign of the times: revellers at the Berlin Love Parade in 2006, the last year it was held in the city
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Fly on the Wall: Berlin by Rory MacLean

The German capital lacks a modern-day chronicler. This book aims to change that.

Berlin: Imagine a City
Rory MacLean
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 432pp, £25

One of the mysteries of Berlin is that while it attracts many writers, it has a strange tendency to sap them of their creative juices when they get there. I know scores of German authors who live in Berlin, court publishers at parties in Berlin and socialise with other writers in Berlin, but just can’t get any work done inside the city borders – they go to the Baltic coast, the Bavarian mountains or rural Brandenburg to do that.

This may be one of the reasons there is a curious gap on the shelf where one would expect to find the must-read non-fiction history about Berlin: the kind of book strangers would thrust into your hands when you tell them you are moving to the hard-partying new “capital of Europe”. London has Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd; New York has Colson Whitehead; Paris has Graham Robb and Adam Gopnik: writers who tell you not just about the city’s history but also its emotional or psychological effects. But Berlin? Tobias Rapp, David Wagner or Hanns Zischler have recently come close in German but they haven’t been translated into English.

Rory MacLean’s Berlin: Imagine a City is an intelligent, entertaining and ambitious attempt to fill the gap. It tries to capture the essence of the German capital in 23 portraits of Berliners through the ages, from wandering troubadours singing songs among a patchwork of dirty hovels in the Middle Ages, to young easyJetters wandering in a post-clubbing trance through the shiny metropolis of now.

MacLean visualises Berlin’s rise through the story of Frederick the Great, whose uncle first declared the city capital of Prussia and who himself ordered the building of Sanssouci palace outside the city gates, his own tribute to the Enlightenment. We see fin de siècle Berlin through the eyes of the sculptor Käthe Kollwitz; Reichshauptstadt Berlin through those of Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer; and cold war Berlin via the CIA super-agent Bill Harvey, who audaciously dug a tunnel into the Soviet sector.

The breezy portrait of Frederick II, who was given a regiment of 131 children to drill when he was six years old but ended up a frustrated poet, is one of the best chapters in the book because it gets at the paradoxes that still define Berlin: the artistic hub with the proletarian manners, the world city that can feel like an island, the capital that launched wars but couldn’t feed its own citizens.

Another chapter distills Berlin’s characteristic mix of militarism and debauchery into almost parabolic form. The golden statue of Victoria that sits on top of the Victory Column in Tiergarten, built to commemorate Prussia’s defeat of the Danes and known amongst locals as “Goldelse”, is revealed to have been inspired by Else Hirsch, a prostitute hired as a life model by the sculptor Friedrich Drake. Actually, MacLean admits at the end of the book, that one really is a fictional story: these days, he argues in an afterword, biographers need narrative to propel the facts, and “the notion of non-fiction may itself be a myth”.

The reasoning behind this move is sound: Prussian princes and published poets leave behind records of their lives but the poor working women of Alt-Moabit don’t. If we want a biography that shows both sides of Berlin, it needs to be allowed some artistic licence. The rendering of the “fictive biographies” is more tricky. MacLean fashions short stories, imagined letters and mini plays but few of the invented stories here are as fascinating and morally complex as the real lives. Who could have made up Walter Rathenau, the Weimar Republic’s foreign minister, a Jewish pacifist who helped arm Hitler; or Fritz Haber, the scientist who drafted Albert Einstein’s marriage separation agreement and invented poison gas?

MacLean’s narrative-led city writing works better in the first half of the book than the second. On one hand, he breathes life into medieval history that would otherwise feel dead and dusty. On the other, he lets more recent Berlin legends get away with their own myth-making when a reality check would have been more appropriate.

The portrait of Marlene Dietrich is much more forgiving of her tempers and self-deceptions than the late Max Schell’s documentary Marlene, and David Bowie is allowed to bestride this pile of biographical sketches as Berlin’s troubadour king, the one artist whose creativity is not frustrated or curtailed by Berlin.

Bowie’s Berlin trilogy records are undoubtedly still great, not least because songs such as “Neuköln” and “Yassassin” broke new ground in tapping into the sounds of Kreuzberg’s migrant communities. But it’s worth remembering that Bowie mainly shaped the English-speaking world’s view of the German metropolis rather than Berlin’s view of itself. To suggest that Bowie performing “Heroes” outside the Reichstag in 1987 “may even have helped to bring down the Wall” is extremely generous, especially since almost every rock band that played Berlin in the 1980s has staked that claim. For context, it might have helped to point out that twice as many Berliners had watched English prog-rockers Barclay James Harvest play the same site seven years earlier.

The appeal of modern Berlin is largely due to its ability to accommodate both the Bowie fans and the BJH crowd: the cool and the naff, the beautiful and the ugly. Even compared to London, Berlin can feel like a radically liberal place, where people still drink beer and smoke cigarettes on the underground, and different social groups cut their own paths through the urban jungle. But one of the annoying side effects of that same mentality is that it can lead to a mass of posturing young people, in love with the idea of Berlin but unengaged with the city itself .

MacLean has written a great book about Berliners though perhaps not quite one about Berlin. It suggests that one of the reasons the city proves so resistant to the definitive non-fiction portrait is that it has for too long been “the capital of reinvention”. “Berlin is a place where men set their dreams in stone, or at least in brick,” MacLean writes about Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the architect who designed Berlin’s neoclassical centre. And sometimes such colossal monuments can make it difficult to see beyond.

Philip Oltermann is the author of “Keeping Up With the Germans: a History of Anglo-German Encounters” (Faber & Faber, £9.99)

Philip Oltermann is the author of "Keeping Up With the Germans: a History of Anglo-German Encounters"

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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