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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Why Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were a real horror couple

BBC Radio 4's My Muse sees Kathryn Williams explore the eerie side of Plath's life.

The first in a three-part series in which artists describe the figures that have most inspired them (Mondays, 4pm) followed the English singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams as she went, first, on a pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath’s grave and later to a favourite spot of the poet’s atop Parliament Hill. Williams has written an album devoted to Plath and we heard bits from it – but those weren’t the moments that conjured up the poet. It was when Williams approached the grave in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire – and thunder clapped from nowhere as she reached the headstone (with its inscription from the Chinese: “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted”) – that this story really got going. “It’s baking hot,” she croaked, “and there’s thunder behind me!”

Occasionally we heard Plath herself reading from poems, talking in that Katharine Hepburnish way, a way you can’t quite believe she spoke in actual life, oddly decelerated and lustrous, slowing into a relentless and deeply uncanny imperiousness. Then, just as Williams visited the bench on Parliament Hill where Plath sat wretchedly after a miscarriage in 1961, a rat ran past her feet. “Wow! Look! What is going on?” By now both presenter and programme were deep into the boding mood that Plath can put you – the sort of mood where you’re bound to meet a million portents and omens. Someone mentioned a woman who thought she saw a picture of herself in the newspaper one day . . . and only after some time did she realise that it was Sylvia.

A more spooky Plath-Hughes ­experience you couldn’t make up. Both poets, masters of the harbinger. Sylvia pulling the worms off her body (“like sticky pearls”) after coming to, following a childhood suicide attempt, lying in a nook under the ­family house. Ted with his horoscopes and his dreams, recalling the howling of wolves in the aftermath of Sylvia’s death (London Zoo was just down the road from him). They were the great horror-writing couple: it is an abashingly real element, vital to their appeal. “Need”, “want”, “an addictive pull”, “moon” and “sea” – those were the sorts of words Williams used in speaking about Plath, in her kind and curious Liverpudlian voice, and with her songwriter’s noticing eye. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser