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11 October 2023

A guide to Berlin’s orchestral etiquette

Also: My brush with bicycle “fascism” and a sobering threat to fiction writing.

By Douglas Kennedy

That grand postwar temple to symphonic sound, the Berliner Philharmonie, is not exactly the place I expect to witness near fisticuffs. But that’s exactly what happened a few weeks back during a concert by the exceptional Boston Symphony Orchestra. In front of me was an American couple – mid-fifties, drabby, attired in a style best described as banal New England summer casual. The novelist in me immediately pegged them as lawyers from some second-tier Massachusetts town. Texting during a performance in Berlin is not simply verboten, but also something approaching a mortal sin. But the woman part of this couple spent much of Stravinsky’s Petrushka doing just that – much to the rightful consternation of the British gent next to her, who started berating hersotto voce. Yet she refused to stop.

After the concert the gent actually went for her, yelling: “You bloody well spoiled the concert for me with your texting, you idiot.” Suddenly, her husband grabbed him by the lapels. There was moment when a punch-up was on the cards. But then the gent stormed off.

[See also: At MoMa, I saw an artwork that moved me – made by a machine]

“That guy’s got a lot of nerve, telling me to stop texting,” the woman said. At which point I came in with: “This is the Berlin Philharmonic – where mobile phones are not allowed during the performance.”

“I thought I just couldn’t take photographs,” the woman said.

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“Oh, please! There was an announcement in German and English before the concert about no phones.”

“I was just texting!” the woman said.

“Imagine if the other 2,299 people in the Philharmonic were texting during the concert. What you did was thoughtless and selfish.”

“We’re really sorry,” the husband said. But the woman stormed off. Although she contravened the rules, she followed what might now be called the Trumpian playbook: even if you are in the wrong, you have to always act like you’re the aggrieved party. 

Reality bites

At a book festival in Toulouse last weekend I was asked by a reader if it was necessary to have lived something in order to write about it. When I mentioned that Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary and wasn’t a bored, increasingly depressed doctor’s wife in a seriously provincial northern French town, the reader said: “He’d never get away with that today.” Which was a sobering, accurate statement on a dangerous contemporary belief. Isn’t one of the givens about writing that the novelist should be free to put him/herself in the mind of someone far from his/her reality? To insist otherwise is to denude fiction. Graham Greene was never a whisky priest and yet wrote The Power and the Glory. Herman Melville never hunted whales. The list could go on and on – because a key aspect of fiction is the appropriation of other people’s lives, frequently far divorced from your own.

After the crash

On 2 November 2021 I was knocked off my bicycle in Berlin by an anxious fellow cyclist in a flat cap and a duffel coat. With his seriously bad teeth he looked like a tertiary character in some obscure Ealing comedy. He made an illegal pass on the bike lane, running into me and sending me flying. I landed face-first on the pavement. “Sorry, but I was running late for my night shift,” my cycle assassin told me. “I work with the disabled.” (I am not making this up.)

The surgeon who put my face together at the Charité, Berlin’s leading hospital, told me that had I not been wearing a helmet I’d be in neurosurgery. He then said: “As soon as you are better, get back on your bike.”

Bicycle metaphors abound in everyday conversation. But there is a seismic semantic difference between “on your bike” (shorthand for “piss off”) and the self-help notion of rebounding after a fall. In my case, getting back on my bike took almost two years. In the wake of that accident, I had the Frankenstein demeanour of someone who’d been in a bad bar fight – and lost. But just last week I pumped up my bicycle’s tyres and tentatively set off down the same bike path on which I’d had that near-fatal collision. Almost immediately some clown overtook me on the left, yelling at me to get out of his way. A woman pushing a pram nearby shouted after him: “Cycle fascist!” All of which left me thinking: politesse is not the modus vivendi of our tense times.

Hunter’s guide to politics 

As we begin to brace ourselves for the 2024 American presidential election – where the future of the US as a democratic construct is on the line – the perfect epigram for this vertiginous moment comes from the late, ever-gonzo, Hunter S Thompson: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Douglas Kennedy’s 27th book, the novel “Et C’est Ainsi Que Nous Vivrons”, was published in France in June

[See also: Jack Kerouac’s contested legacy]

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits