Loneliness Is Killing Us

Lethal as smoking a pack a day

Yikes. Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times kicks the guts with some staggering stats.

1 in 5 adults are lonely

1 in 2 are unmarried

1 in 3 marriages are strained

1 in 4 live alone

Dr. Vivek Muthy, US Surgeon General under Obama, tells Nicholas that he, “saw families sometimes drop elderly family members off at a hospital for Thanksgiving or another long weekend in what sounds to me rather like the practice of a family leaving a dog at a kennel when they’re going away. At the hospital, doctors are sometimes the only ones to witness a patient’s death, with no loved ones around.” Sweet Jesus.

Loneliness kills more than obesity. Obesity kills a half a million people a year. Loneliness is a plague. Loneliness causes heart disease. Loneliness causes dementia. Loneliness causes death.

When you read this, it shocks. But, when you think about it, it’s obvious. We are a tribe. From the off, being detached from the tribe was never good. When we want to really hurt someone, we sent them to Coventry. One of the worst punishments that we have concocted is solitary confinement. Being lonely is hell. Of course, it fucking kills.

A few decades ago, I was visiting friends of mine who live in Harar, Ethiopia. One of them was getting married, and we had a week of festivities. They were a tight crew, but like me, they were young and hungry to get out in the world, to see what was going on. We spent the week drifting about Harar’s myriad of ancient, twisted alleyways, chatting to everyone, wandering the markets, chewing chat, and eating, always eating. Man, those meals. The table was a gigantic injera, a large sourdough flatbread, upon which would be dumped little mountains of beef, lamb, vegetables, lentils and potatoes. You eat with your hands. Tearing the injera and wrapping it around the stuff on top. It is always communal. People were always joining us, friends and strangers. Everything was shared. Coke was diluted and diluted again with water and shared. Everyone was included. This stretched to everything. Nobody was left out. There was a place for everyone — the young, the old, the supposedly mad.

Two of my friends wanted to move to London.

“Will you put us up? they asked.

“Of course,” I replied, “but you guys would hate it.”

Everyone exploded with laughter.

“Yeah man, we’d hate all that money and opportunity.”

“Yeah man, there’s all that stuff. But you know I don’t know any of my neighbors, I never speak to them, ever. I don’t know any of my cousins, most of them, I have never met.”

They thought I was having them on. I told them about Old Folks Homes, Lonely Hearts Clubs, depression, suicide. They laughed. You cannot conceive of some things, I guess, until you have lived them.

I know it is a one dimensional tale, but you take my point. We are boiled frogs. You know the concept, place a frog in boiling water, he will immediately leap out but place him in slowly boiling water and he will remain until he boils alive.

An excellent resource about the plague that is loneliness in our world now, is Johann Hari’s Lost Connections. In his excellent book, Johann uncovers the real causes of depression and the unexpected solutions, one of the prime causes is disconnection from other people. He tells the story of his parents moving to Edgware, London. His father was from a tiny village in the Swiss mountains, his mother was from working-class Scottish tenements where everyone heard every word you said. Edgware, the last tube stop on the Northern Line, was a suburban sprawl. His parents attempted to befriend people but people did not reciprocate, the line was drawn, life was meant to happen inside your house. The streets were empty, devoid of people.

In Nicolas’ piece, he tell us, “social isolation is more lethal than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to research published by Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University.”

So, it’s bad news. It’s always bad news when something is compared to the wretched old fags. But, there is a solution. We must rebuild collective structures. Johann writes about the research of Robert Putnam, a Harvard based professor, which focuses on huge decreases in the ways that people come together. His famous example is that of bowling. Bowling is one for he most popular leisure activities in the United States and people used to do it in organised leagues — remember the Coens’ The Big Lebowski — today people still bowl but do it alone.

In the 1970s, the average number of close friends an American had was 3, now it is none. And we are not falling back on our families. More and more, we eat alone, we watch TV alone, we go on vacation together less and less.

We must have a tribe. Whether it is a choir, a sports team, a book club, drinking buddies, BJJ sessions, a chess club, a walking group, whatever, we must have a tribe.

7 Life Lessons from Tao

The Tao Te Ching takes 20 minutes to read and 20 lifetimes to understand. This dog learned it in 1.

The Tao Te Ching, a two and half thousand-year text credited to Laozi, the second most translated book in world literature, forms the basis of Taoism. It teaches how to live in harmony with the world. It is hard, very hard, to master, but my dog, Betty is Tao. Here are eight things she does that are pure Tao.

1. Look within yourself and you will find everything you need.

“Knowing others is intelligence, knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.” So says, the Tao Te Ching.

Our culture focuses on making more — more money, more of yourself. These actions from a Taoist perspective are considered yang and are based on outwards and external movement.

Ying and Yang describe nature in dualities with two opposite, complementary and interdependent forces.

You require a balance of Ying and Yang. You need to spend time cultivating your Ying, which is your inner experience. You can do this through meditation and mindfulness, so that you have a deeper resource of energy and balance to draw from.

Betty spends a lot of time lying around, thinking, at least she looks like she is thinking.

2. You Become Free By Letting Yourself Go

Examine the attachments that you are clinging to that are causing pain to you or others. Attachment to recognition, attachment to security, attachment to control. Developing a state of non-attachment makes you freer to open your heart wider.

Betty has no attachments which cause her pain or others pain, at least none that I am aware of.

3. If You Really Want To Know Yourself, Let Go Of Your Labels

If you define yourself, you cannot know who you really are. What you whisper to yourself every day becomes your sense of self and directs your thoughts and actions. Do not label yourself or allow anyone else to label you. You are much freer to move from experience to experience, emotion to emotion when not being chained to one way of thinking. It is so much easier to move on from a mistake when you don’t carry it along with you.

Betty doesn’t carry her mistakes, I know this, because if she is given a chance, she will gobble up everyone’s food but she never shows remorse.

4. Kindness and Compassion Will Always Win Out In The End

The Way of The River. The River nurtures everything it passes through, it moves on without seeking recognition.

When you practice compassion you gain great insight into yourself. When you put others first, you put yourself first. It appears to be a sign of weakness but it is a sign of strength

No matter what the day presents to Betty, she is happy when you are happy.

5. Be Yourself Without Caring What Others Think

Care what other people think of you and you will always be their prisoner.

Betty doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of her.

6. Wisdom and Strength Come From Remaining Humble

The wise man is one who knows what he does not know.

Betty doesn’t look at the stars and try to understand them.

7. Change Is Inevitable, So Embrace It, Even If It is Uncomfortable

Rather than fighting against the condition of your life, you should allow things to take their natural course.

At any time Betty can be scooped up, placed in a car, not knowing for how long or where she is going. She is never concerned, she puts her head out the window, tongue out, she rides the wave for however long it takes to wherever it is taking her.

Medieval Ox Mountain Street Art

There is a curious road going south off the road between Ballina and Sligo at Dromore West. Akin to a time machine rollercoaster ride, it is a single track that larrups up and down over the Ox Mountains, it looks like the Ireland of a hundred years ago.

The few buildings which dot the road were around before The Great War. Some, have been around since before Napoleon.


The most common entity up here is the Mayo Black-faced sheep. After the Great Famine during the 1850s, the Irish Landlords, who owned vast estates in the mountains, imported thousands of these sheep from Scotland, through Killary Harbour. They are hardy, possessing long coarse wool which protects them from rain and cold winds; they can withstand the harsh climate of the western coast of Ireland and survive on plants such as heather. They never ask for much.

But they now have their own icon, from the hand of Ore. Inside, there are two other pieces from another artist.

They will divide opinion.

They make this curious road all the more curious.

The Kid of the Pictures

Graffiti artist Raul Ruiz, aka, El Nino de las Pinturas – The Kid of the Pictures transforms brick and mortar walls in Granada, Spain into masterpieces. Here is El Nino’s take on Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. Incredible that he created this piece with the oft-derided, always underestimated spray can.

The Great Boy Scout

From Waterford to Kyrgyzstan on a Pushbike

The Beginning

Sean Hoban pedaled from his home in Ballybricken, Co. Waterford, Ireland to China. Think about it, that’s a distance of 11,600 km across 18 countries on a pushbike, that’s some tipping.

Sean’s Kit

Sean is a young man, only eighteen when he set off, now nineteen, but he’s been around the block, he is a mature head on young shoulders. Incredibly Sean didn’t train. He isn’t bragging, that’s not his style, he explains, that the first two to three weeks for a trip like that is training, you go at your own pace, you get the body used to its new role. Basically, Sean leaped on his bike in Waterford, cycled to Rosslare and took the ferry to France. And when he got to France, he leapt back on his trusty Ridgeback Expedition 2018 bike and pedaled on.

Sean’s erstwhile travelling companion, who was cycling across the Continent on a unicycle

The allure associated with such a journey is even more impactful nowadays, in a world of immediacy, of speed, of urgency, plodding along, on just a bicycle across two continents is all the more appealing. Sean posted regularly on social media, and some of his posts are straight out of Kerouac’s On the Road laced with the great travelogues of nineteenth-century British Empire adventurers.

Sean in Istanbul

For instance, on the eve of cycling across the formidable Shipka Pass from Europe into Asia, he cooked his evening meal in a dilapidated farmhouse, sharing a bottle of wine with an Aussie bloke who was crossing the Continent on a unicycle. Later, he marched into Istanbul, laying down a marker (the Irish tricolor) in front of The Blue Mosque a la Sultan Mehmed II in the fifteenth century. His crossing of Turkey was an epic – 1,600 kilometers with an elevation of 12,000 meters. His line when he reached the Black Sea is pure box office – “finally made it to the Black Sea, it’s all flat to Georgia.”

One room house on Turkey/Georgia border

He carried everything, of course he did, how else are you going to have everything you need? He was wild camping, which for the uninitiated, is pitching your tent anywhere that is not a designated campsite. When you are not used to it, it can be intimidating, never mind doing it on the steppes of outer Uzbekistan. Sean admits that he possessed reservations, but he has been in the scouts since he was six, where he learned cooking and camping skills as well as being independent. He says you get used to wild camping, after a couple of weeks, you just flop in and fall asleep.

Welcome to Iran

He’s tough is Sean, he can endure, he cycled through the oil fields of Azerbaijan, after which, Stoic like, he took a refreshing dip in the Caspian Sea. From Batumi in Georgia, he attempted to cross the Godenski mountain pass to Tbilisi, when nearly at the top, he discovered it to be completely snowed over, he overnighted in a ski resort cabin. Cycling into the unknown is not for the faint of heart.

Touch of class by Sean’s work colleagues at Altitude sending him and Irish care package.

A really striking aspect of Sean’s journey was the kindness of strangers, he was regularly brought into people’s homes and fed, watered and given a bed. He slept in some interesting places – in the bunkhouse of a fire station alongside the Black Sea, in a tea café in Rize, Turkey, and in a one-room house on the Turkey/Georgia border.

Iran wedding

Another interesting facet of Sean’s trip was the micro-community of people cycling across the globe on bicycles. When he wintered in Tbilisi, he met dozens coming and going from the Pamir Mountains. Sean explains that Tbilisi is the perfect place to sit out the bad months of winter as you don’t need a visa for a year, there are plenty of hostels to work in, it is cheap and most people speak English.

Ak Baital Pass

He met, befriended and cycled with fellow adventurers. People such as James Owens and Ron Rutland, who were cycling from London to Tokyo, for the Rugby World Cup or his friend, Jacob, who had cycled over 91,000 km in four years.

Sean crossed into Iran from Astara, Azerbaijan, he was nervous, who wouldn’t be? However, he was bowled over with the friendliness and warm curiosity that he received. Everywhere he went, he was met with smiles and laughs. He tells me about his first night in Iran with his friend Mo –

On the road from Bukhara to Samarkand

“We camped that night behind a wall near an abandoned rice field. Who knew northwestern Iran’s biggest produce is rice! We were tired but happy and excited to see what Iran had in store for us. Our second night we camped on a beautiful Caspian beach. It was just too nice to not jump in the sea. We were also in bad need of a wash, not showering since Tbilisi, two countries ago. It was glorious! The water was a little cold but we didn’t care. Afterward, we cooked up a fine meal, well deserved after our dip in the sea.”

Murgab, Tajikistan

They stayed with a gentleman named Amin and his family in the city of Rasht, Iran who he met through Couchsurfing. They were very welcoming, so welcoming in fact that Sean and Mo were invited to a family wedding. Sean tells it, “So we put on our best dress, which to say the least is not much. For me my nice pair of hiking trousers, a clean sports polo, a clean fleece and my only pair of shoes, my dirty old runners. Mo was lucky, he was lent a shirt by Amin’s brother.” And away they went.

In North Iran, they camped inside Caravanserai – roadside inns that ancient Silk Road traders would rest in. Cars constantly stopped to give gifts of fruit. Indeed, throughout the trip, Sean encountered nothing malevolent. He explains that when you are on the bike, “people want to help you, as you look vulnerable”, he laughs, “there were lots of Mammies across the world wanting to mind me.”

Pamir Highway

Central Asia is an area of the world still cloaked in mystery and intrigue. One would be hard-pressed to draw a map of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Sean dove in, from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to the Pamirs, exploring the exotic, the unknown. They appear wild to us, but Sean found them to be welcoming, civil and beautiful. But tough…visas into Turkmenistan are difficult to come by, they refuse more than they grant, Sean was given a five-day transit visa, which meant covering 500km in five days. On one of the days of this Turkmenistan dash, he cycled 185km in rough terrain and furious headwinds from sunset to sunrise. Crossing into Tajikistan from Uzbekistan necessitated cycling through the Anzob Tunnel, aka the Tunnel of Death –

Over the top and into Kyrgyzstan

“Lucky for me the police had not arrived yet and I was free to cycle through. That was it, I was going to do it. I donned my headlamp and put my lights on. I took one last deep breath of fresh air and entered then black hole that lay ahead of me. I was very fortunate to have a very slow truck to draft behind. His rear lights lit up some of the tunnel, but with the amount of smoke and fumes inside it didn’t help much. It was 25 minutes of pure stress. Avoiding potholes that you can barely see. Filling your lungs with toxic fumes. The sound from the trucks and cars was deafening and really scary. Some parts of the tunnel were flooded too. It was so, so dark in there. It was definitely clear how the tunnel got its name. It really was a dangerous spot. Finally, I saw the light at the other side, emerging from the tunnel with an insane rush of relief and adrenaline, my face was black with smoke, my nose, and eyes filled with black awful goop. I was rewarded for my bravery or stupidity on the other side with 75km of pure descent to Dushanbe.”

Wintering in Tibilisi

In Tajikistan, he cycled over Ak Baital Pass, towering at 4,655 metres, which is the same height as Mount Blanc! People who have pedaled at that altitude are as rare as hen’s teeth. Indeed, he was over five weeks in the beautiful but grinding Pamirs, all the time over 2,500 metres, he suffered a loss of appetite, headaches, and nausea. But man, he endured, pedaling the Pamirs, at the top of Central Asia in the snow, gazing past herds of horses and yurts into Afghanistan. He says crossing into Kyrgyzstan was akin to entering Eden – green with good beers and good chocolate bars.

Inspirational stuff. It’s really striking, isn’t it? The fact that he powered himself from here to there on a bicycle. Just with his legs and a heart of steel. Sean is now back in Waterford, plotting his next adventure, some man…

Help! I like the Baddie in the Movies

Don’t worry, that’s normal

Man, going to the movies with friends, isn’t what it used to be and I don’t mean making out in the backseats or smoking Rothmans. No, rather, the post-movie discussion has changed from light banter to serious discussion, in which what you think about movies, what you like or dislike about them, can lose you real friends and alienate virtual people.

I’ve been to two movies lately, Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and Todd Phillip’s The Joker. One I loved, the other I didn’t, does that really matter? Is it not just a night out at the movies? Or does my opinion of them, really reveal who I am? Oh God, if I see something in Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, that I sympathize with or shock horror know is in me, does that make me an animal? If I like some of Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth shtick, does that mark me as a target for branding me a misogynistic shit? Of course not, let’s keep our heads.

The Joker has caused quite the stir. So, should you not go and watch it? And if you do, should you deride it? Man, don’t you know that we all have a shadow? A set of personality traits deemed undesirable by ourselves, or the society we live in, or most usually both. We push these traits into our subconscious. Everyone carries a shadow, but the more it is repressed the denser it becomes. The movie explores that Jungian idea and because it is a movie it reaches for dramatic effect.

Are not all great movie characters, even the most adored, complex beings that can possess parts noble and parts creepy? For dramatic effect? Take Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump, what’s not to like about Forrest? Yet, it has to be admitted that he did stalk that poor woman through the ages until finally exhausted, she agreed to sleep with him.

Google Most Loved Movies and you will see a poll from Ranker.com ranking prominently. It polled over 400,000 voters and here is a list of the top ten movies they voted for —

  1. The Godfather
  2. Pulp Fiction
  3. Star Wars
  4. Shawshank Redemption
  5. Forrest Gump
  6. Schindler’s List
  7. The Godfather, Part II
  8. The Dark Knight
  9. Gladiator
  10. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

Can you enjoy these movies? And if you do? Are you someone who gets their kicks from viewing Mafia kingpins terrorizing the populace? Who likes watching rape, overdosing and murder? Likes the glorification of terrorist rebels? Digs the Disneyfication of hardened criminals? Enjoys watching the inside workings of concentration camps? How can you like Al Pacino’s Don Corleone after watching him shoot his brother in the back of the head?

Reading novels creates empathy with our fellow humans, watching movies, gives us time in other worlds, surely it is okay to wander other worlds and even like parts of what may be in them as a fantasy? Perhaps citizenry’s fear is that watching movies will thwart our attempt to reach the individuation stage, that our shadows will take us over. But can that not occur without watching these movies? For were not heinous crimes committed before the movies? Napoleon never set his silky arse into a cinema, Attila the Hun never munched popcorn watching blockbusters of Alexandra the Great

Movies launch thoughts into the world, the same as history, mythology, philosophy, religion and yes identity and as Knausgaard describes it these thoughts are “viewed through the prism of a moment, which can only handle little bits at a time.” You know to see something of yourself in Darth Vadar is okay.

Always Funny In Kampala

Life Story On The Road in conversation with Ak Dans, Don Andre & Timothy Nyanzi

Sunday morning, Kampala, while the brave rave on in the furious Ugandan Afro-beat dance-halls, sprawled across downtown, AK Dans slumps onto the couch, in his house in the leafy suburb of Munyonyo on the shores of Lake Victoria. He smiles widely with that irascible grin of his, rubs his eyes, “how are you fam?” he asks. Ak has been out on the road for the past few months riding the whirlwind, hustling gigs in Joburg, scribbling his work, seeking validation. He apologies for running late, tells me that the rest of his crew will be here by the by. That’s okay, things move pretty slowly around here on a Sunday.

Don Andre, Timothy Nyanzi, Ak Dans

After the huge success of the last piece that I wrote about AK’s rising career in comedy, we have decided to do another piece on him. And this time around we’re including his crew – Don Andre, Timothy Nyanzi  and Hilary Okello, in anticipation of their upcoming show, Who Let The Jokes Out?, which drops in mid-November. The house is busy, people drift about like actors in search of a play, it’s a carefree time, watching the dawn after a night out, all young, hungry and energetic in a buzzing, coming of age city. The others drift in sans Hillary Okello, who bizarrely cannot attend the recording, because he is in surgery, as the doctor not the patient. Noticing my surprise, they shrug, “That’s Kampala bro.” Stately Don Andre, and Timothy Nyanzi possessing an intellectual manner, flop down on the couch on either side of AK. They are in high spirits, fist-pumping, ribbing one another, life is good. I ask them to tell me about Kampala and they are off, chatting at a million miles a minute, you can tell this crew are used to marathon all night discussions soaking up the world.

Ak Dans

Kampala is changing, three quarters of Kampalans are under 30. Akin to New York or London in the Seventies, the youth in Kampala want to be, want to seek direct experience, seek the heart of the city, wherever that may be. There is an embryonic artistic culture that needs nourishing, that is hungry for direction. The role of these comedians is to point murky mirrors to Kampalans, be Virgilian guides to the nuances of the city.

Don Andre

As detailed in my last piece on Ak Dans, Street Walking Cheetah In A Cross Fire Hurricane, Ak came from nothing, dragging himself up by his bootstraps, it wasn’t always sipping Eritrean coffees in upmarket Munyonyo. Possessing a dowser’s instinct, he knows the streets, knows what’s going down in his city. “From the ghettos, they come, the comedians,” he explains, “it’s not for those that have a path, the educated, the connected, the silver spooned.”  

Timothy Nyanzi

But in a city of almost two million people, how do you know where to start? Don Andre laughs, “You are funny, or at least you think you are funny, you go for auditions, but you don’t get them, so you think about joining The Man, fortunately I found Timothy.” Don Andre is talking about the man sitting to his left, Timothy Nyanzi, savior of comics, cornerstone of alternative Kampalan comedy. Timothy has ran a weekly workshop for budding comedians for years. Up to forty comedians cram into a crowded space to be mentored by him and the dude doesn’t charge a cent.

Timothy understands too well their frustrations, he went through the same cycle of rejection, repeatedly being told, “come back later, come back later,” so he started his own platform – The Punchliners, mentoring a new generation of comedians, blooding the best of them at his weekly show at the Waikiki Lounge. He teaches what they don’t know, shows them the wider world. He looks to the ceiling, seeking the words, spits them out in that rapid fire delivery method of his, “the majority of Ugandan comedians are unfortunately influenced by Ugandan comics”.

Ak agrees, “Most comedians are from poor backgrounds, they are desperate, they just want to work it out, but mentoring under Timothy, they tend to discover themselves, change their mindsets, you are not just confined to the Ugandan way. You figure out who you want to be.” Don Andre, seconds that, “your comedy depends on the people that you hang out with, they push you to do more, be more.”

Don Andre

So, are they influenced by American comedians? Timothy deadpans, “the money to see Dave Chappelle for one hour would take a child through four grades of school,” but he does see parallels with black American comedians, “poor and from the ghettos.” “Whereas”, Ak says, “Jerry Seinfeld would not pull a crowd if he came to Uganda, he has a totally different type of humor. We don’t do Tinder. You mock McDonalds for people shoveling junk into their mouths, getting fat, being cheap. but that’s where we bring our girlfriends on dates.”

Timothy Nyanzi

These guys are screaming to get out, outside of Kampala, outside of Uganda, out into the world, out into the great wide open. They love Kampala, it is their patch but there are not many opportunities to do comedy. There are only a few comedy clubs. There is no comedy on TV, no late night shows, no satirical sitcoms. One is reminded of the oft trotted out dictum, that prophets are never realized in their hometown. Don Andre booms, “Chappelle would not work here, people do not want to think, they just want you to be funny.” Timothy elaborates, “You do not criticize the audience in Kampala, we are not exposed, we are confined to our households, our schools, our work and the TV shows that are broadcast, like Indian soaps. You grow up in a village, then you come to Kampala, they have not been exposed enough to life, you need to think about this when you’re doing your act.”

Ak Dans

Of course, Ugandan youths are following pursuits other than comedy, primarily comedians are competing with musicians, sometimes being crushed between musical acts, like a variety show, which is far from ideal. Don Andre says, “Young people are more into the music, they only come to comedy when their ideals have being crushed, when they hit rock bottom, they need us.”

It’s a long and winding road, I ask them, are they in it for the long run? Timothy shoots back, “If comedy is the casino, then all the chips are in. Me personally, I have a day job, but I give my comedy priority, I have killed uncles and aunties to get days off work to do shows. We intend to do comedy to the very end.” Don Andre agrees, “There is no getting out,” he says. Ak concludes “We all have made sacrifices to get here, had disagreements with our families, refused to take regular paying jobs, failed college, taking shows rather than sitting exams. Keep going, that’s the main thing” He stands up and walks out onto his balcony looking out over romantic, tropical and blissfully chaotic Kampala, amid the smell of jacarandas.

With men like Ak Dans, Don Andre and Timothy Nyanzi there is hope for this generation of Kampalan comedians, rowing against the current with optimism and ambition, under the mango trees of Munyonyo alongside the great white father of the rolling waters of Lake Victoria. 

Tour Dates for Ak Dans

One Foot in X, One Foot in Y 

Surely you can belong to more than one generation?

The Intellectual Dark Web of Generation X

LA is a very unusual city, almost everyone in the world partially lives there. We all grew up on it’s streets, gaping at the alluring illusions of Polanski’s Chinatown, the crushed Hollywood dreams of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, thedummy dolls’ clinging nostalgia of Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, the desperate desperation of Altman’s The Player; the Coens’ paean to Bukowski’s LA in The Big Lebowski, the South Bay pulp of Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, Sean Baker’s LA shadows in Tangerine; Anderson’s pynchonesque LA of Inherent Vice, the LA noir of Hawk’s The Big Sleep, Curtis Hanson’s dreams versus reality LA Confidential, cruising the LA streets as a post modernist cowboy in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the concrete O.K. Corral LA of John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood, marveling at Cameron’s strangely alluring LA cement waterways in Terminator 2:Judgment Day.

Bret Easton Ellis says that Sunset Boulevard is really gone, that it is no longer somewhere, now it is rather a corridor to elsewhere as it fades into the global generic style. In a recent edition of Eric Weinstein’s podcast The Portal, Eric asks Bret, Dark Laureate of Generation X to look out the window at LA and imagine a neutron bomb going off in 1970, the Divorce bomb. Reagan’s signing of no fault divorce in 1970, caused divorce to skyrocket in the 1970s. The parents disappeared and children of privilege wandered the streets. Both Eric and Bret agree in numbness as a feeling, Eric remembers driving the Ventura freeway, seeking a shitty party, listening to Tom Petty on the radio, feeling completely numb, completely alienated and completely home. Their generation of LA pushed out a lot of this nihilism to the world. Yikes. Growing up where I did, on a comparative Pluto, we spent the years California Dreamin’. Say, it isn’t so.

The two chaps reckon there was something about this period which was highly regional but it was been broadcast everywhere. Brett’s debut novel, Less Than Zero looked exaggerated to the outside world, but neither Bret nor Eric view it as exaggerated. Bret says he wanted it as real as possible, almost as reportage; the main character, Clay, simply describes what his friends’ say and do, in a flat minimal way, he never talks about himself. Usually teenagers in novels are always emotional, Bret wanted an anti-Catcher In The Rye. Clay is telling us what is coming down the track, whilst most readers think it is braggadocio. But Bret and Eric, as far as I can tell, are not decrying that nihilism, they are lamenting it, it may have been harsh but it at least it was real.

Is that why Once Upon A Time In Hollywood has struck such a chord?

The Sixties end spiritually after the murders on Cielo Drive, they give way to the 1970s and the golden age of serial killers, the cardboard cutout LA of Mindhunter and the odious specter of the midget Manson. The Sixties had a fusion of idealism and horror, in the Seventies, the idealism drops out but the horror keeps going. Eric says that he stayed away from LA for 37 years because he viewed it as the darkest, blackest, most seductive hellhole. Cripes. Is it the case that whatever is currently unraveling the American tapestry was visible earlier in LA? Eric refers to the Penelope Spheeris documentary — The Decline of Western Civilization– about the LA punk scene, the suggestion being that the existence of the bands — X, Black Flag, The Germs and Fear signaled the decline of western civilization.

Eric Weinstein is part of the Jedi raggle taggle of outliers who constitute the Intellectual Dark Web. Weinstein says the Intellectual Dark Web is an LA phenomenon and a Generation X phenomenon. In a Bigthink.com article Stephen Johnson writes “Weinstein emerged as a prominent figure of the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), a term he coined, half in jest, to describe a group of individuals from various fields who hold — or at least are inclined to explore — heterodox ideas, mainly through alternative media like YouTube. The members of the IDW don’t all share a political cause, but rather, Weinstein suggests, they share the personality trait of disagreeableness, or a willingness to stick to your beliefs even when it comes at a high cost.”

Generation X or Millennial or both?

Bret and Eric see Gen X as being invisible to Millennials and Boomers. Gen X is an in between generation that is not large enough to bring things into reality but is extremely robust. Before the Milk Carton Kids forced us all indoors, parents were never around. In my own childhood, from the age of eight we cycled to lakes five miles away to spend all day fishing and boating. We were free to think. Nowadays our parents would be locked up for neglect.

Is that the difference? One had parents always around them the other did not, and the ones who had parents surrounding them are the more effected? In a Gen X childhood, there existed skulduggery no doubt, but it was far from Lord of The Flies or was it? Is the fact that we cannibalized one another early, standing to us now? We were bullied and we bullied, was that prepping us, was it getting the toxicity out? Or is there such a simple difference? Could not a millennial be partly X and an X be partly a millennial?

The Manson family haunted LA’s 1970s childhood. There was something lurking beneath, but where I come from, going inside was more dangerous than being on the streets. When the curtain was ripped apart, is was teachers, sport coaches, priests and fathers who were most dangerous to children. Was the going inside, being surrounded by adults all the time, simply a heuristic?

Embedded Growth Obligation Disease

Eric states that the heuristics that were deemed necessary to a functioning society have morphed into dogmas to keep the show going. One — Embedded Growth Obligation (EGO) disease — that we needed growth from every institution, has morphed the same institutions into giant Ponzi schemes. Since the early 1970s, Weinstein says, this phenomenon has occurred in virtually every field, and it’s helped produce institutions that are more concerned with growth and self-preservation than holding honest positions. The result is an altered incentive structure within institutions: Experts are rewarded for sustaining the institution, not necessarily for being honest or doing the best work in their field.

Asch & Milgram Negative

In Johnson’s BigThink.com article Weinstein suggests the kinds of people who can help straighten out our institutions are those who’d pass (or fail, rather) two psychological tests:

  • The Asch conformity tests:In the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch studied the effects of incorrect majority opinion on individuals. You’ve probably heard about it: One unwitting test subject is in a room with a handful of people, all of whom are in on the experiment. The experimenter shows the group a set of lines and asks them to say which ones are equal in length. The answer is instantly obvious. But all of the actors report the wrong answer, and, surprisingly, often the unwitting test subject does too, suggesting that most of us desperately want to conform to the group.
  • Milgram — In the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments on obedience to authority figures. A researcher would ask a participant, who was told he was assisting in an unrelated experiment, to administer electric shocks to another participant (who was actually in on the experiment) in another room. Those getting “shocked” would scream and plea for the experiment to stop. But the researchers would tell the participant to keep administering the shocks, saying things like, “The experiment requires that you continue,” even though, of course, they were free to stop at any point. The vast bulk don’t stop.

Bari Weiss in the New York Times describes the IDW thus — “Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered ‘dark.’ Most simply, it is a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now. Feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, they are rapidly building their own mass media channels.There is no direct route into the Intellectual Dark Web. But the quickest path is to demonstrate that you aren’t afraid to confront your own tribe.”

Nowadays Art has to be a certain way, there are rules that you need to abide by. Bret believes his American Psycho would never be allowed to be published in mainstream American fiction. He sees it that Aesthetics no longer really matter, ideology has become the aesthetic, people want an affirmation, a lesson, and they want it to be explicit, ambiguity and metaphor is gone.

Gated Institutional Narrative

Eric believes that Individuals need to save Institutions. Individuals who are Asch Negative and Milgram Negative. Individuals who are used to being viewed as unsavory because of group norms. Gated Institutions create durable narratives about those that are frightening to them, those who refuse to go along. Consensus is achieved by plata o plomo incentives. The GIN (Gated Institutional Narrative) conjures phrases to create sides. Like the Heels and Baby-faces in wrestling performing Kayfabe, Eric believes that we pretend that institutions are not simulations, that they are not an organised structure of lies. And anything that steps outside that structure is branded Samizdat.

This fascinating discussion is stratified into Gen X and Millennial. I think we are all too nuanced, too complex, too changeable and too conflicted to be at ease with permanent titles — left, right, liberal, conservative, progressive, regressive, I was all of those things today. And perhaps you can appreciate a piece of art such as Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, without approving of every part of its content or everything its characters do or don’t do. And perhaps you can possess characteristics of two or more generations?

The Catcher In The Rye

A South Sudanese Childhood

The following piece was written following a number of recordings that I did with a contributor to Life Story On The Road who wishes to remain anonymous.

I am from South Sudan. My parents were cattle farmers. For us, cattle are where we get our milk and meat from, which is what makes us stronger and taller. The smoke from burning their dung reduces mosquitoes and we use it as fertilizer. Their urine is used for dying human hair brown. We arrange marriage with cattle – at least fifty head of cattle are given as a dowry but if the bride is from the right side of town, it can rise up to a hundred head. If you kill someone, you can pay that in cattle, again usually fifty.

We are not connected to the rest of the world like other countries, in that we are not connected to it at all. I guess we look in and not out. I don’t know why that is. Someone told me that some tribes, during the colonial period had been such a nuisance to the British, that they closed the south of Sudan off from the rest of the world, only allowing missionaries in, but that was almost a hundred years ago, you would think that we’d have learned to talk to other people by now.

So, we look in, at what? Well, at our land for a start. Our land has caused us a lot of trouble but we still love it, we believe that it represents our ancestors, we swear on the land, not on our mother’s life. When we eat, we leave portions on the ground. Who gets the land is important, perhaps more important than anything else, but isn’t it that the case anywhere in the world? Our main goal is to marry and reproduce children, especially sons, you got to have sons. See, we do believe in a heaven to come but still our salvation is in the continuation of our name, our line. Our immortality lies in the continuation of the line. If my brother dies, I will marry a woman and make sure that our children are named after him, so he can become immortal. Or if my brother dies leaving a widow, we must find someone to live with her to continue bearing children in his name. We’re all about the genealogy, you would think for a country that is so into its genealogy, that we wouldn’t try to annihilate the entire population? But, we did.

But yeah, we like our cows we do. Young men and women go through a lot of stress trying to find good grazing spots for their cattle, which can be great distances from their village. You wouldn’t believe the heat and the hunger and the threat of cattle rustlers and wild beasts, it’s like the American Plains at the time of the Wild West, like the way your great-great-great-great Grandfathers went about things.

Everything was going okay. But then we went and found what the what is and now we are known for our brutality, our starvation, our destitution, our refugees. What is that? The what? Well, God asked man –

‘What one shall I give you Man? There is the cow and the thing called What, which of the two do you want?’

The man said

‘I do not want the What.’

God said

‘What is better than the Cow?’

The man said ‘No.’

Then God said,

‘If you like the Cow, you had better taste its milk before you choose it finally.’

The man squeezed some milk in his hand, tasted it and said,

‘Let us have the milk and never see the What.’ *

I think I have seen the what. Who knows, what is the what? I am thirty-one but the world thinks I am twenty-one. You know those figures you read about it South Sudan? You know them, they start by saying, we are the youngest nation in the world, and then it goes down-hill – two and a half million dead, two million internally displaced, two million refugees. Well, we were part of those figures. Me, my parents and my sisters. In 1991, a pack of armed groups rampaged through our village and destroyed it. I was four years old. We walked over five hundred miles across South Sudan and over the Kenya border, with armed rebels tracking us, wild animals preying on us, starvation eating into us, dehydration driving us mad; just like Moses and the Promised Land that some of you worship and some of you think is a fairy tale – well we did it, while the world mourned for Gianni Versace, while Pathfinder landed on Mars, while you guys poured into cinemas to watch Titanic, while Harry Potter was first published, while you mourned Princess Diana, while you mourned Mother Teresa.

We moved in a wandering pack, bits of kids straggling along, not knowing whether their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers were dead or alive. We were lucky, my father could not speak and so he needed us as much as we needed him. So he stayed near us. If we were by ourselves, we would have ended up dying. Most people moving by themselves died. Have you ever been thirsty? I mean really thirsty? Like after you run a 10k and someone passes you a bottle of cold water? Or when you are hungover or eat something salty and you gulp and gulp water from the tap? Take that and multiply it infinitely. Days and days walking underneath the Saharan sun, it’s like a sauna, you are stomping for days in a sauna, you can’t breathe, you are dreaming of water, dreaming of droplets on your tongue. You start to go mad, mad, mad. Till you will do anything, like drinking your mother or father’s urine. And yes, that’s what we did, we drank the urine of our parents and that’s how we survived and others didn’t. That we were willing to do that and others weren’t or they never even thought of something so vile, that was the difference, that is how we were saved. Our Mom told us you may die later, but if you do not take this, you will die now.

We were like animals wandering for water.  You didn’t know where the water was. You got lucky or you didn’t. I saw a lot of people killed, some shot, some bludgeoned. When I see dead bodies now, it means nothing. Nothing. There was no one to help us. People were all struggling, just get to the border, to Ethiopia, Libya, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan even. We never ate, never, nothing, perhaps a husk a week. I was four years old on the long march. What are your memories of when you were four? Thousands of refugees with my story flooded in. So yeah, you’ve heard all the stories before, and they become run of the mill but Jesus, this was awful. We arrived there, half naked, no clothing, no shoes, not even sandals. UN agents collected us in a big truck that people use for carrying garbage, that’s what they put us in, two hundred of us, scraps of people, that’s how we crossed into Kenya at Lokichogio and onto Kakuma refugee camp.

Kenya is very hot compared to my village. It’s totally desert. There were few trees for shade. You struggle and fight for that tree, if you are strong enough you take the tree. There was disease but at least there was no killing in the camp. You could get free water, free medication and free education. From where we came from, Kakuma was a small paradise, funny what can become Paradise.

And at last I got some schooling. Imagine a child who was never taught anything. Imagine what they would be like? Wild? Crazy? Brilliant? Natural? I don’t know, but that was me, I was ten years old and could not count, did not know the alphabet. I was ten years old and had to attend infant school. You are not young but you have to go to school with the five year olds and even they were better than me. I struggled for two years. I practiced everything like a song – 1,2,3, – A,B,C. I was sitting at the back of the class on a bench like a giant, if I sat down without four of them on the bench, those on it would be catapulted into the air. It was humiliating, people looking into the classroom, pointing, laughing.

But I had to do it, my parents were telling me that it was all down to me, if I did not make it, we were all finished. I suppose we had nothing, so we were starting from the trash. All of your alternative music is based on the idea of the lazy adolescent, sleeping in, rebelling; here I was, ten years old, being told that the family fortune was down to me, that I had to get us out of Kakuma. What were they doing? Well, my father could not do much, he was deaf, he was just sitting at home. And my mother? I don’t know, what could she do? She hung out with the other women, talking about our villages, how we crossed, who was dead, who was alive. Eventually, after four years she got a job with the World Food Programme, serving people food and grain. Four years out there in the real world is a long time, but there in Kakuma, time is nothing. You sit and you wait.

                                                                            *

Money is another concept that out there where you are, wherever you are, is everything, but in Kakuma, you don’t see it, it barely exists, imagine no possessions? One day in 2000, I found twenty Kenyan schillings.  I was going to the field to play football and I found twenty schillings, it was small money but also big. I gave it to my Mam, and I asked her to cook us something, but she refused, thinking that I had stolen it. I pleaded with her, but she would not relent. It’s like that story about the guy hanging from a tree over a flooded river, so he prays to God to help him. Later, a guy comes by in a canoe and offers to help him but the guy on the tree says, ‘no I am waiting for God to help me.’

 So I went to the market and bought 1kg of sugar. I brought it to my mother and asked her ‘please make me something with this’, she refused again. I traded it for 5kg of wheat flour, then sold that to different people, each kilo for ten schillings, so I had profit, so I thought, this could be a good business, so I continued like that, trading and bartering and making small profits. I had a 20km circuit, carrying 25kg sacks around it, selling stuff and then heading off to the market which was 15km away to buy more.

I would go home wrecked, hide the money, and get balled at for not doing the chores. Back out I would go for water, 20 liters of water in a jerry can on one side and 20 liters in a jerry can on the other side, ten-fifteen minutes there and ten-fifteen minutes back, five times. Jesus, like a little ant, crushed under the weight but somehow managing it. We needed it for cooking, washing clothes and drinking. Only me. My family would say to me ‘If you don’t do this, who will do it?’ Each family looked after themselves in the camp. Our family was few, so it was all down to me, there was no one to share duties with. If I did not do it, they beat me, properly beat me. I did that for four years, what a way to spend your adolescence, Jesus. Get this, get that, everything to me was a condition, a condition, a condition.

I kept going at it until I had three thousand schillings, it was too much for me, it was too dangerous, I was too young. So, I went to my mother and tried to convince her to take it, but again she refused, my God. So I went to my father, and told him, ‘Take this money and do business with it, I am going back to continue with school.’ And thank God he took it, and started a business and it grew and he set up a small shop.

Ever hear of John Garang? That’s who I wanted to be.  He was like William Wallace. At the age of ten, his world was turned upside down, just like me. He believed in some great stuff, he believed that we were Sudanese and that we should be linked by that and not the other stuff, just that, being Sudanese rather than being Arab, or being Black, or being Christian, or being Muslim. I was depending on the rebels to get me out of the camp, if they succeeded, we could go home. When I was young, I would run with the exercising soldiers, they would ask me,

‘Why are you running with us?’

And I would say ,

‘Because I like what you do, and one day I will be you.’

‘Why?’ they would ask.

I would reply, ‘Because your leader is John Garang and I want to be like Garang and you will grow old and I will replace you.’

Also, I was depending on the artists, those who were marking our experience. Also, I was depending on journalists. They were collecting data on what was happening and they were updating us about the war. So I was hoping, one day, one time, I would return. It wasn’t certain, Kakuma camp is still open and there are some people who have been there for over thirty years, imagine, thirty years in a refugee camp.

I was in the camp for thirteen years. Thirteen years, it’s a long time, but you know, Kakuma became a town, a city, a home. To be honest, I really liked Kakuma, I was getting everything free and most importantly I was getting an education. It was not just a camp, it was a city where you met people from all across Africa – Rwandans, Somalis, Kenyans, Ethiopians and Sudanese – so I got to meet people from all these other countries and cultures and learn their beliefs, their behavior, their language. I can greet people in Somali, Turkana and Aramaic. And there were tribes from all across South Sudan living there that I would never have got to meet in my village.

So, I suppose the world came to me in Kakuma, but I had never been out in it, I mean the world, not really, just my village, and the long march. To be honest, I wasn’t all that eager to get back out there. But when I was twenty-three, I managed to get a cousin sponsor who was willing to pay for my secondary school education in Rift Valley Province (Nakuru District) Kenya. And so, after ten years, I left Kakuma. It was the first time that I was alone, but I had to do my studies. I missed the camp. But I had to do it, my family was depending on me. Everyone in the school was much younger than me, so I had to reduce my age, otherwise they would not allow me in the school, so I chopped ten years off. I pretended as best I could that I was thirteen, what do you do? Giggle and skit and stuff, but they knew, they must have known, but they let me stay. I guess because I took on so much responsibility in the school. After all, I was a man and had endured so much, I was naturally going to be a leader at the school. I became the main boy that organized everyone. The day that I left, everyone in the school was crying, students and teachers. You would not believe what someone like me can do. A student and teacher cannot go it alone, it is like putting a goat in with a leopard. I became the bridge between the two.

We studied English, Math, Kiswahili, Physics, Chemistry, Agriculture, Geography and History. The sponsor was providing me with eighteen thousand Kenyan Schilling, which is equivalent to three hundred USD, which was the exact amount of my tuition fee, so I had nothing extra. Nothing for my uniform or a pen or food. I could not go back to the sponsor. So, I did so much work in school, that they paid half of my school fee and then I had the other half to cover my other expenses. I was there for four years, I did it, I graduated and at last I was educated.

I eventually got back to South Sudan. I returned to my village for the first time in seventeen years. I did some teaching but there was no money to be made. Stuff there had changed utterly, or maybe I had changed utterly. I moved to the city, to Juba and I landed a job with a telecommunications company as a marketing executive and worked my way into management. Later I was headhunted by the CEO of a water company to join his company as a marketing manager where I worked for one year. Now I am with an international aid organization who are on the ground here in South Sudan. So, I did it, the American dream in South Sudan. Well almost, this is Africa, individualism doesn’t work here.  I brought my family to Juba one by one and then my uncle’s family who are now dependent on me. I am the elder. In my culture, I am the man who is responsible to take care of those families. I am carrying all the responsibilities of my families. A father of many families, yet I can never marry because I need money to marry and all my money goes to my families, each day I get three phone calls for help and money.

It’s not happily ever after for South Sudan either. In 2013 and 2016, war broke out again. The place where I was hiding was captured by rebels. It was properly destroyed while I was hiding under the bed in my living room, three hours later the government took over and I survived, again. I have seen so many dead people since I was young, I am still seeing dead people. I have buried ten people myself. But I cannot be afraid, if you give me a gun and tell me go and fight, I will go and fight, but if you ask me what is the advantage of fighting? I will tell you that there is no advantage. Education is better, it gives you ideas and it gives you something to live for. But if it is fighting, I am good to go, but I would prefer the other way. My job now is to take care of three big families, with sixteen children and provide schooling, medication, food and accommodation. Still condition, still condition, still condition. So I tell myself, it is a condition that I must accept, that I must do it.

*Deng, Francis M. “The Cow and the Thing Called ‘What’: Dinka Cultural Perspectives on Wealth and Poverty.” Journal of International Affairs, vol. 52, no. 1, 1998, pp. 101–129. 

If you met another Human Species, what would you do?

Would you kill them or make love to them?

Pixaby

You have seen him stealing glances at you on the sly. You think him kind of cute. The fact that he is not the same species as you, makes it all the more kinky. You sneak out. You meet him in a cave. You make love. You fall pregnant. You pretend it is one of your tribes’. There are suspicions, but you get away with it. Almost. If it wasn’t for those pesky anthropologists. 100,000 years later, a scientist finds your great-great-great-great-great- granddaughter’s ancient bones in Siberia, runs tests and announces triumphantly to the entire world that you slept with a Neanderthal.

Don’t worry, everyone did it

So we all belong to the only group of hominins ( a hominin is the group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species and all our immediate ancestors) on the planet today. However, there was a time on the planet, when we were not alone, there were other hominin species wandering around Eurasia.

Your ancestors met them, and shall we say, got to know them in the biblical sense. They were Neanderthals (we’ve known about them since the 1800s)and Denisovans (we only know about them since 2008). How do we know that we slept with them? Because they form part of our DNA. Indeed, part of our success as a species is due to our interbreeding with those other hominins. Living people of European and East Asian descent have between 1 to 2% Neanderthal DNA in their genes. Whilst there is up to 6% Denisovan DNA in some populations of Melanesians in the southwest Pacific.

So what good stuff did we get from them?

STAT2 is part of our immune signalling system and HYAL2 is involved in skin-cell repair after sunburn. These genes are examples of a phenomenon known as adaptive introgression, when genetic material from one species moves into the gene pool of another species and then is selected and sticks around. There can be a downside, introgressed genes which were once beneficial can become less so over time as the environment in which natural selection is taking place changes. For example, we have inherited a gene that increases the risk of blood clots.

Why are these other hominins not around anymore?

Anthropologists reckon climate change and competition from modern humans caused their downfall. But, incredibly, considering our history, there is no evidence of violence between us and them. So, some researchers have suggested that is was increased migration of humans from Africa into Eurasia that pushed Neanderthals into extinction, just a numbers game. Interbreeding may have been rampant and so contributed to decreased genetic variation. So, now we stand alone? Or do we? Not really, because parts of them live on today in us.

7 Stoic Exercises to Relax and Be Calm

1. Don’t Give A Fuck Practice

Seriously, Don’t Give A Fuck about other people’s opinions, any of them. You cannot control what anyone thinks of you, so why worry? Fear of being ostracized from the herd is in our DNA. If you got cut from the herd, you died. That isn’t the case anymore. 

Practice — Saying things that go against the grain. Do not follow trends. Do not gossip to curry favour. Do not follow mass hysteria. By doing these things, you expose yourself to situations where people will judge you negatively. You will realize that it doesn’t kill you, or hurt you too much. 

2. Negative Visualization Practice

Pessimism is under rated. We are taught to picture the day ahead with positive attitude. Don’t. 

Practice — Thinking about the very worst things that can happen in your day ahead —  the worst — death of a loved one, your death. At the end of the day, when these things do not happen, you will cherish your life more. 

3. Self Control Practice 

You can control — Opinion, Pursuit, Desire & Aversion

You cannot control — Body, Property, Reputation, Command

Practice — Strengthening the things in your control. Try Intermittent Fasting —  work up to fasting for sixteen hours each day.

4. Memento Mori  

Remember you are mortal. 

Remember you are going to die. 

Practice — Thinking about your death, dwelling on it in detail. Thinking about it puts it in perspective. Thinking about it removes the fear. 

5. Keep a Journal

You would not think it, but keeping a journal will change your life. 

Practice — At the end of each day writing your thoughts down. Hide nothing from yourself, pass nothing by.

6. View From Above 

Don’t sweat the small stuff and its mostly small stuff. 

Practice — Think about all that befalls you with a cosmic perception — as in all that is happening in the universe. Suddenly, the nagging comments of your in-laws, your irritating work colleagues, the traffic — you will see it as the trivial shit it is. 

7. Amor Fati

Love Fate. We worry about the future. We worry about the outcome. 

Practice– Embrace the outcome whatever it is. This is not nihilistic. You can have ambitions, but if they don’t map out as you expected, embrace where they do map out to. 

By the way, this is not medical advice, it is Philosophy

Am I a Boomer, Doomer, Bloomer or Zoomer?

A Man Lost In Generation Based Lifestyles

A Doomer is an enlightened version of an involuntary celibate, I learned that from Einzelganger on You Tube, he said he got that description from Urban Dictionary. I decided to show due diligence and look up what an Einzelganger was, it is — someone who withdraws from a social group or environment, an individualist, a soloist, a person who avoids the company or assistance of others. A Doomer reminded Einzelganger of a Gamma male, which he tells me is characterized by a negative stance towards the world which mostly manifests itself as a retreat from society. 

Uh-oh, that could be me, I work alone; run, swim and cycle alone; when I wander in for a pint, I usually find myself alone, but a Gamma male? Do I want to be three rungs down from an Alpha Male? I suppose it is better than a being labelled a Doomer, I am not liking the sobriquet of Doomer. Fortunately, Einzelganger elaborates —  like Doomers, Gamma Males experience feelings of resentment and are aware of the great tragedy called life. I don’t have resentment, and sure, life is a tragedy more than a comedy, but I don’t feel too glum about that. Perhaps from early immersion in Samuel Beckett, I feel okay. 

If I am not a Doomer, what am I? What are the options? Einzelganger tells me there are four options, so which one am I?

Doomer

They experience, Weltschmerz — world pain — deep sadness and painful melancholia because of the world’s imperfections. I do feel those emotions, regularly, though fortunately they don’t tend to linger, but it is not because of the world’s imperfections, rather mine, or my surroundings’. Apparently, the Doomer is enlightened, that counts me out, he embraces his Weltschmerz by putting it under a microscope. The Doomer wallows in his misery and thrives on it, day in day out, without intending to find a long term solution that might lead to a happier life. He is the Buddhist without the Eight Fold Path. The only relief he grants himself is through toxic substances, video games and porn. I take the odd beer sure, but video games? Count me out, I finished with games after my ZX Spectrum gave up the ghost; and porn, not much, I prefer lighter stimuli for arousal. 

The Doomer refuses to let go, he (it could be a she, I don’t want to refer to it as an It, so I’m going with he, because I have to choose one — does that point to me being a Boomer?) stays in the cycle of desperation, that’s not me, I am a lapsed Irish Catholic, we were flogged with self loathing, existential fear, monumental guilt and gripping fear of divine retribution from the first day at school, so I am done with all that, as the fella says, it is not my first rodeo.

Boomer

Yikes. So, I’m not a Doomer, but can I be a Boomer, am I not too young? I am the good side of fifty. (I’m not being ageist, but surely we can concede that the near side of fifty is ordinarily better that the far side?) But Einzelganger informs me, the Boomer is not necessarily the Baby Boomer, the generation born between 1946 -1964, The Boomer was a meme that started on the forum 4chan. Indeed, The Boomer is not restricted by age, no, The Boomer resides in blissful ignorance, yet see themselves fit to lecture younger generations, despite the fact that these younger generations might be better informed. The Boomer fails to recognize that the world has changed. I don’t think I am a Boomer. I listen to dad rock and I ain’t too glum about the world, but man I cannot stop lamenting about how much the world has changed. Einzelganger expands on the Boomer — he is unaware of the harsh realities of the world — that completely rules me out — it is impossible to live in the midlands of Ireland through the eighties and nineties and not be aware of the harsh realities of the world. 

Bloomer

So I am not Doomer, not Boomer, Bloomer? Sounds nicer. Einzelganger says that of the four main type memes, a Bloomer is closest to enlightenment. He is positive, he can turn negatives into positives. Sure I can do that, I mean I do that. He is aware of the harsh realities of the world. I’ve already ticked that off. These harsh realities do not stop him from living the the best and happiest life possible. Instead of obstacles, he thinks possibilities, problems inspire him to come up with solutions. Eh, this may be stretching it a tad. The Bloomer is beginning to sound like a motivational calendar. His love for people always exceeds his hatred. Look, I like people, I respect them, I don’t wish or perpetuate badness upon them, but love? He carries a machine gun loaded with morals and ethics. I’m out. I’m definitely out. The Bloomer takes the proverbial red pill and when it comes out of his behind, it serves as compost for beauty. Say what now?

Zoomer 

By the process of elimination, I must be a Zoomer right? Wrong! A Zoomer is born in the late nineties, Einzelganger tells me, so I am twenty years too late for that ship. Zoomers are Generation Z, raised by the Internet. Cripes. They play internet based games like Fortnite. Never have, never will. Played a lot of Minecraft. Ditto. Knows a lot about cryptocurrency. I know sod all about cryptocurrency. Einzelganger reckons that Zoomers are more susceptible to gaming and porn addictions. They are probably the only culprits out of the usual suspects of addictions, that I have never been addicted to. I am not a Zoomer. 

So, I am none of the above. Apocryphal Freud said you can’t psychoanalyze the Irish. I guess that works for generation based lifestyles as well as personality types. Supposedly that makes me NPC or a non-player character. Does that mean that I don’t exist or that there are more than four types of people on the planet? 

Bluffers Guide To Brexit

Brexit explained in three minutes

So, you never really got your head around Brexit?

Relax. You are not alone, just look at the Houses of Parliament in London, here is a basic road map you can use to get your head around it.

Brexit means Britain’s exit from the European Union. Get it?

Why did they want to leave?

Britain always possessed an influential lobby of Euroscepticism (criticism of the EU) which for example kept the UK from adopting the Euro in 1999. The sceptics believe the EU has morphed from a Free Trade Zone to a Super State, threatening Britain’s national sovereignty. The Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (May 2010 — July 2016) wanted to stay in Europe. The whole idea of a Brexit referendum started as a pessimistic campaign pledge which was never expected to actually pass. The strategy was to present it to voters, watch it fail and silence hard-line Brexiters like Boris Johnson, while strengthening Cameron’s position in the Conservative Party. He did not bargain with rising nationalism among older voters and a dismal turnout of younger voters. On 23 June 2016, Britain held a referendum, Brexit was passed and Cameron was gone.

Why have they not left Europe yet?

Theresa May, Conservative Prime Minister(July 2016 — July 2019) was voted in to make sure Brexit would become a reality. In March 2017, May invoked Article 50 to leave on 29 March, 2019. She had a more moderate take on what Brexit should look like and she entered stalemate with hardliners. She requested the EU for several delays, the latest being – 31 October, 2019.

What is the difference between a Soft Brexit and a Hard Brexit?

Soft Brexit = Deal = Leave EU with a deal offering a transitory period, keeping the same laws and regulations in place, for two years while they negotiate with the EU a longer lasting free trade deal.

Hard Brexit = No Deal = Leave EU with no agreements kept in place

Why was Theresa May replaced by Boris Johnson?

On 8 June 2017, May called a snap election. She was confident her Conservative Party would romp home and she could then push Brexit through on her own terms. But she lost the majority in Parliament, rebel MPs upset the agenda. May could not get agreement on a deal because Parliament said no several times because of the backstop.

What is the backstop?

Backstop = Fall back position which would prevent a physical border on the island of Ireland, even if the EU & UK could not agree on some other arrangement. Right now both parts of Ireland are governed by EU member states, so there are no border checks. At what price the backstop? — NI (Northern Ireland) or the whole of the UK adheres to EU regulations. But British MPs refused the backstop because they felt it could trap the UK in the EU or create a border in the Irish Sea with NI having different regulations to rest of the UK.

Boris in power

Boris Johnson, became Conservative Prime Minister on 24 July promising to end delays — deal or no deal, they were leaving Europe. The EU stated that the deal that they gave May was the only deal, the best deal, backstop and all. Similar to May, Boris lost a series of votes on the intractable issue. In early September, Parliament passed a law making an immediate no-deal Brexit illegal and potentially forcing Boris into asking for another extension to the leave vote. Boris suspended Parliament, but this was ruled unlawful.

So will they leave on 31 October?

A law demanding Boris rule out a no deal and ink a Brexit agreement with the EU by 31 October or extend the leave date to 2020 has now being passed. He wants to call an election but Parliament has denied his request. An Election cannot be called midterm unless 2/3 of MPs agree. Boris may find a way around this, with a no confidence vote in himself, which would lead to an election. But that didn’t work for May — Johnson could lose or win by too short a margin. Anything could still happen — a second referendum, a further delay, a deal, or we may be still here, dithering.

Happy Hallow e’en

Darkness at the Edge of Town

The Drugs Don’t Always Work 

We all thought the party had long since ended on the streets of my hometown. Where once there were 53 bars, there are now less than 20, my hometown has a population of 20,000. Nowadays, that’s a bar for every 1,000 people, which is a more than a decent return, but back in the day, there were only 10,000 of us, so there was a bar for every 200 of us. An obscene amount. I recall them all been jammed on all days of the week at all times of the day. The Colony’s five barmen were always crammed behind the counter, they came into work 30 minutes before opening, just to pour stout in anticipation of the moment when the door was unlocked and the thirsty mouths would flood in. Jumbo’s Clown Room threw gigs, seven nights a week and the place was always rafters. Saturday Night Under The Plastic Trees at the Brosna Mani Rabbit Lions Club (I am not making this up) always had a queue of over a hundred heads begging to be let in to dance, to drink, to party.

As a people, we loved nothing more than getting lost in Stygian darkness and Rabelaisian drunkenness. Sounds gloomy, and our hindsight appears to agree, but back when we were doing it, it was a lot of fun, I don’t recall anyone calling time on it. If you weren’t drinking, you were one of two things — on antibiotics or pregnant. Our main street, The Sodium Glare was saturated in drink, every third or fourth house dealt in drink. 

No longer. They are replaced now with a heap of fitness establishments offering TRX, BJJ, MMA, HIIT; there are a murder of coffee shops and a sprinkling of juice shops; tattoo parlors are happily humming away alongside pretty nail bars. But more than anything else, they are replaced by hairdressers, barbers and pharmacies. There are over 30 of the former two and a dozen of the latter, remember there are only 20,000 of us. There are no bookshops (there used to be four) and no record-shops (there used to be three). So for a bald man who is never sick or takes medication and who loves to read and listen to music, I am now something of an erratic. 

That’s okay. It is better that our citizenry is healthy, fit, looks good and meets in sober surroundings. This is good. For to wallow in lust and drunkenness, the soul detaches from the body, the Being is shattered, for madness consists of pulling apart the body and the soul. But, why is everyone so unhappy nowadays? Plagues of Depression, Anxiety, Loneliness and Fear scour our town. Or am I wrong? Jesus, I hope so. 

But I don’t think I am wrong. Depression is the 10th leading cause of early death in the world and where I come from suicide is the leading cause of death in young men. Were we always this unhappy? I don’t know. When I was growing up , some villages near my hometown possessed a propensity for suicide, people would deadpan, “it must be something in the water.” Performing guards of honor in our school uniforms, at funerals of teenagers who had taken their own lives, was not rare. Listening to Guns and Roses November Rain or Queen’s Who Wants To Live Forever in a church, while catatonic parents shook and struggled to stay conscious happened more than once. So, it wasn’t all sweetness and sunshine but it does appear to be more widespread nowadays.

Why? I don’t know, of course I don’t know, who knows? The businesses on our Main Street, would make you think that we are less dependent on toxic substances. But it seems the party has not ended, indeed it was never a party, we were self medicating and we just took it indoors. People are at home drinking wine, swallowing prescription drugs plodding about virtual worlds. We don’t see them, but we’re told about them, many of us are them. 

Did we replace something bad for us, with something abominable for us? Estimates reckon about one in four adults — are taking medicines for pain, depression or insomnia, which they can find hard to stop. What are these medicines? Can we call them that? Medicines? They are antidepressants, opioid painkillers, benzodiazepines mostly prescribed for anxiety, gabapentinoids for neuropathic pain and z-drugs for insomnia. 

Turns out, this has being going on for some time — America’s drugs and opioid crisis has been raging since the Nineties, but its getting worse. Drug overdoses are currently the biggest killer of Americans under 55

Eleanor Hall, writes in The Telegraph, “music writer and investigative reporter Ben Westhoff examines in his groundbreaking new book, Fentanyl, Inc, out this month in the US and next month in the UK (that) prescription drugs …such as Xanax, OxyContin, Percocet and the new and particularly lethal synthetic opioid Fentanyl…are the big killers. Over 70,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2017 (28,000 of which were from Fentanyl alone), and opioid deaths are expected to increase 147 per cent by 2025….Americans are more likely to die from an opioid overdose than a car accident.”

Melissa Healy writing about the Multidistrict Litigation 2804 case in the Los Angeles Times, writes “Greed drove opioid manufacturers to oversell and overproduce the drugs, the lawsuits allege. Greed drove companies that distribute prescription drugs to oversupply pharmacies, they add. And greed drove pharmacies to over dispense the drugs to patients who were becoming hooked.” 

Healy continues, the defendants “argue they are blameless because they adhered to the complex laws that govern their operations. Manufacturers say they briefed doctors on opioids’ risks as they were understood at the time and produced the drugs under the watchful eyes of the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Distributors maintain they followed DEA rules as they warehoused the drugs, recorded their volumes and whereabouts, and shipped them to drugstores as they were needed to fill prescriptions. Pharmacies say they dispensed the drugs as ordered by doctors and under rules dictated by state legislatures and pharmacy boards.”

The latter smacks of Just Say No — the sanctimonious utterance proclaimed from the ivory tower by latter day Marie Antoinettes. Nor is it helpful. Even if the judgement is that the fault lies with the misuse of drugs rather than their availability, surely a benevolent society would be moved to protect its citizenry? Surely, they would put measures in place to ensure that people are protected? 

Obviously, when you are purchasing drugs from a drug dealer you know it isn’t a good thing, but when you are using a prescription written by your doctor to purchase drugs from a pharmacist, there is a strong case to be made for assuming that you don’t know that it isn’t a good thing. After all we are patients not customers. 

Don’t Do What They Tell You

Sober up, recall yourself, shake off sleep once more: realize they were mere dreams that troubled you, and now that you are awake again look on these things as you would have looked on a dream — Marcus Aurelius

We come into this world, tiny, powerless, petrified. During our time in this world, we desperately strive to rid ourselves of those feelings, we do so, by attempting to take control of the chaos that surrounds us. Wrest back just enough control to stop feeling tiny, powerless, petrified.

How? Usually through obtaining higher status, through wealth, popularity, fame, success, power — I suppose we know we are doomed but what if we were less doomed than the rest? Than most others? So, by clambering to the top of the pile, we feel safer. Yes, doing that may make us feel less doomed but we are still doomed none the less.

Stoicism realizes that we exist in a reality that does not care for us, but that’s okay, we don’t have to be buffeted by its whim and fancy. Instead, we can control our reactions to its whim and fancy.

Stoicism has been around for two thousand years, but arguably we need it now more than ever. The world has always has been beyond our control, but in the present age, that horrifying reality bombards us everyday through the virtual world at our fingertips that like bluebottles we gaze and gaze at, even when it’s scorching us. It tells us the opposite of what is good for us, that things outside of ourselves give us happiness, that things that we are not in control of give us happiness.

There is nothing wrong with pursuing wealth, fame and power, once you are not dependent on obtaining them, or once you obtain them, that you are able to give them away and remain content. The Stoic philosopher, Seneca, directed that once we begin to do without the things that we thought define our status, we begin to realize how unnecessary many things are, we use them, not because they are necessary, but simply because we have them.

Alexander the Great, whilst he lived, had more status than anyone else on the planet. He ruled an empire that stretched from Greece to India. Undefeated in battle, he is considered to be one of the greatest military commanders of all time. He was tutored by Aristotle. He founded twenty cities that bore his name, including present day Alexandria in Egypt. He was seen as a classical hero in the mold of Achilles. You get the picture, the dude was the dude. The most powerful man in the world.

Plutarch relates that when Alexander went in person to the Stoic philosopher Diogenes, he found him lying in the sun. Alexander greeted him and asked if he wanted anything, “Yes,” said Diogenes, “stand a little out of my sun.” Alexander’s companions scoffed at the philosopher but the most powerful man on the planet admired so much the man who had nothing but scorn for him,he told his entourage, “If I was not Alexander, I wish I were Diogenes.”

I’ve always loved that story. Diogenes is complete. It is in our constant expectation that our happiness lies in other people or other things, that is, lies outside ourselves, that causes us to be unhappy. Rather, we should neither be raised by prosperity or cast down by adversity, we should rely on and derive all joy from ourselves.

Speaking about the world, the astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, said, “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Why do we want nothing more more than to dominate, control or yield the power over a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam? Rather act with honesty, virtue and humility and accept what the world presents to us and in return, escape the chaos of the world and achieve presence in ourselves. Rather than allowing the world to tell you what you need — popularity, wealth, power — which leads to anxiety and panic — to which the world answers — you now need something else to remove your anxiety and panic; go the way of the Stoics — remove the conditions of our indifferent reality and cement your own indifferent attitude in return.

Marcus Aurelius — 10 Rules For Life

Fearlessness and Freedom from Irrational Desire

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius address a Self that has retreated from public view. They are a dialogue of the soul as it speaks to itself, stressing an indifference to what other humans value most — family, wealth, reputation, power and even health. For the devotee, they promise achievement of fearlessness and freedom from irrational desire.

The philosophy associated with Marcus Aurelius is known as Stoicism. Diskin Clay, in hist introduction to the Penguin Classics 2006 edition of Meditations, describes the Stoic thus,

The word Stoic has two meanings: it describes both a member of the school of philosophy Zeno founded in the Painted Stoa at the approach to the ancient Agora of Athens and a person who represses his emotions and desires, is indifferent to pleasure or pain, and is enduring.

You can study Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations forever and benefit by such an endeavor. Here are ten rules for life that serve as a succinct and beneficial introduction to his teaching.

One — Take A View From Above

You should view yourself occasionally as if you are looking at yourself in the third person. Imagine a camera that is looking at you and then you slowly zoom out and up. So, if you are in a situation where you are feeling uncomfortable or anxious, you zoom out to look at the room and the people in it, then the building, then the street, then the town, then the county, then the province, then the country and so on. Whilst you are doing this, picture all the other buildings and all the rooms that they contain and all the people inside of them. This will have the effect of putting your problems in perspective, that other people are having problems and yours are not all consuming,

Two — Plan for complete failure

Yes, this appears contrary to the usual focus on the power of positive thinking and the law of attraction. The Stoics believed in negative visualisation — that you should think about the worst thing that could happen and do so in some detail. So, for example, if you are making a public speech, you should visualize the crowd standing up and booing you before all walking out. This is not going to happen, but if you dwell on it and visualize it, then if some other things do go wrong, it will not concern you as much.

Three — Stare at Death

Spend a month dwelling on death and indeed the worst and most painful death imaginable. If you realize you only have a certain number of days — the average person lives 25,500 days — you will live them better. Also, by ruminating on the terror of death, you lessen the fear of it, as paradoxical as that first appears.

Four — Do Only What is Essential

If you think life is short, it is not, for the Stoic, seventy summers is more than enough. But, you must learn to focus, to cut out what is important, if you concentrate on only the essential, you will have plenty of time to achieve the essential.

Five — All Things Must Pass

When things are going wrong for us, we tend to allow negativity to consume us. Learn to accept that all emotions, both negative and positive are transient and impermanent.

Six — Live like a Minimalist

Sadhu ascetics in India give all their possessions away, Kondo teaches us to declutter. Learn that the things that you buy will not bring you happiness. It will not bring you long term fulfillment. The more stuff you have, the more stressed you are. The things you own, actually own you.

Seven — Live In The Present Moment.

You did not worry about being around in 1841, why worry if you are not around in 2041? Do not dwell on the past nor be concerned with the future. Do not replay your mistakes over and over, learn to walk out of that movie. You cannot change the past but you can change your perception of it. Meditation is the best method for this.

Eight — Contemplate the Sage

Choose a person who you wholly respect. Or outline what traits you ideal character would have. When you encounter a situation that arises emotions in you, try to take a few seconds to consider how your ideal character would react and then strive to do the same.

Nine — Habits are necessary

The Stoics would write down their maxims, such as ‘The best revenge is not to be like your enemy’ or ‘I have no cause to hurt myself. I have never consciously hurt anyone else.’ And repeat them everyday, over and over, until they acted them out subconsciously

Ten — Review The Day

Before you sleep, take time to review your day, think about what you did well and what you can improve upon. Then, the next day try to act out what you thought about. Small improvements compounded each day achieve monumental results.

There are twelve Books of the Meditations containing 488 ‘chapters’, varying in length from three words to three pages. There is much to be gleaned studying them. But as a start, work each day on implementing these ten rules and you will benefit.

Has Hell Already Frozen over?

The Power of Thinking Outside the Box

The following is an actual question given on a University of Washington chemistry mid-term:

“Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)? Support your answer with a proof.”

Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle’s Law (gas cools off when it expands and heats up when it is compressed) or some variant. One student, however, wrote the following:

First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So, we need to know the rate that souls are moving into Hell and the rate they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving. As for how many souls are entering Hell, let’s look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all people and all souls go to Hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially. Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyle’s Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand as souls are added. This gives two possibilities.

1) If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose.

2) Of course, if Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over.

So which is it?

If we accept the postulate given to me by Teresa during my Freshman year that, ‘It will be a cold day in Hell before I sleep with you,’ and take into account the fact that I slept with her last night, then number two must be true, and thus I am sure that Hell is exothermic and has already frozen over. The corollary of this theory is that since Hell has frozen over, it follows that it is not accepting any more souls and is therefore, extinct……leaving only Heaven, thereby proving the existence of a divine being which explains why, last night, Teresa kept shouting ‘Oh my God.’

The student got the only A.

Are you aware that you are aware?

What does that even mean?

Walking to a friend’s house on Saturday night, the moon was huge and orange and low in the sky. I don’t know much about the moon, but I know the harvest moon. Way back in the early 1990s, a little band of budding psychonauts took that moon as their guide to shuffle around dawn fields wet with dew, seeking mushrooms. Sitting up all night, listening to The Beatles, Here Comes The Sun and then walking five miles to the lake, along the railway tracks, was in hindsight, a coming of age ceremony. Dredging up hills, scaring sheep, seeking the bell shaped fungi among the thistles, picking them, making sure to flick the spores for future harvests and harvesters. They were simpatico with the ancients.

What were they doing? Were they aware? Not really. Sketchily perhaps. All they had was a well thumbed copy of Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Yuan: A Yacqui Way of Knowledge and vague notions derived from endless spinning of The Doors’ LA Woman. It was a teenage kick.

In Michael Pollan’s excellent book – How To Change Your Mind. The New Science of Psychedelics, Roland Griffith asks Pollan ‘Are you aware that you are aware?’ Griffith, whose landmark paper – Psilocybin Can Occasion Meaning and Spiritual Significance, conducted, according to Pollan, the ‘first rigorously designed, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study in more than four decades – if not ever – to examine the psychological effects of a psychedelic…The paper reinforced the important distinction between the classical psychedelics – psilocybin, LSD, DMT and mescaline and more common drugs of abuse with their demonstrated toxicity and potential for addiction.’

Those little mushrooms and the potent power they possessed blew their minds. Dropping on the little hills on the edge of our lake, the spires of the Cathedral of their hometown in the distance. Man, it was a portal. It was Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole, it was the Frodo Baggins ring, it was CS Lewis’ wardrobe. And none of the citizenry in their sleepy country town appeared aware of it. To them, marooned as they were, no one was aware, Castaneda told them that it had been hidden for centuries until the 1950s when the psilocybin mushroom was discovered in southern Mexico, where Mazatec Indians had being using it in secret for healing and divination since before the Spanish conquest.

Picking them and placing them in their Dunnes Stores plastic bags, they didn’t know that they contained a chemical compound so closely related to serotonin, the neurotransmitter, that it can slip across the blood-brain barrier and temporarily take charge of the mammalian brain. Cripes. Away from the material understanding of reality it brought them away to the Beyond.

Are you aware you are aware? Step in Paul Stamets, the man who wears a giant mushroom on his head as a hat. (Seriously. It is made from a fungus called amadou, used in ancient times to start and transport fire.) Stamets is the mycologist who literally wrote the book on the genus Psilocybe (pronounced sill-OSS-a-bee) in the form of the authoritative field guide Psilocybin, Mushrooms of the World. The subtitle of his book Mycelium Running is “How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World”. He announces on Joe Rogan, Episode 1035, ‘we separated from fungi 650 million years ago, basically we are descendants of fungi…we are fungal bodies, Joe Rogan, whether you know it or not, you are a fungal mass.’ Yikes.

According to Stamets, we may think we are the bosses but in reality mycelium are still running the show. The mycelia in a forest links the trees it in, root to root, supplying them with nutrients and serving as a medium that conveys information about environmental threats and allows trees to selectively send nutrients to other trees. Indeed, the biggest organism on earth is not a whale or a tree but a mushroom – a honey fungus in Oregon that is 2.4 miles wide or 2200 acres, the equivalent of 665 football fields.

Humanity may owe more to mycelium than we think. Take the stoned ape hypothesis, first presented by Roland Fischer and popularised by Terence McKenna, explained by Paul Stamets on Joe Rogan, “With climate change and as our savannas increased and our ancestors came out of the forest canopies and onto the savannas, and as hunters they looked for footprints and scat and the most significant fleshy mushroom growing out of poop in Africa (from the) hippo, elephant, antelope is a very large mushroom, you are hungry, you eat in and then you experience this incredible expereince.” The hypothesis dictates that the brain cavity doubled in size (over two million years), allowing our ancestors to develop language, to plan and strategise. It gave them empathy and greater courage. They were able to overcome the fear of conditioned response. This happened millions and millions of times over millions and millions of years. Perhaps, once again we are at a juncture and we are ready for the next quantum leap in human consciousness. Indeed, John Hopkins, UCLA and NYU are all running major clinical studies, involving psilocybin assisting us in overcoming fear response, fear of dying and PTSD.

Stamets, similarly experienced a coming of age ceremony. He had a congenital stutter, comparable to that of King Edward VI, as seen in the movie, The Kings Speech. He endured six years of speech therapy but with no improvement. One day, he bought psilocybin mushrooms, went into the woods, near his home in Ohio, climbed a tall oak tree, ate 20 grams (a normal dose would be less than 5). Climbed to the top of the tree, taking in the beautiful landscape. Boiling, black clouds of a summer storm marched across the sky and the winds picked up, the tree began to sway violently, he wrapped his arms around the tree, it became his Axis Mundi right into the earth, the storm raged all around him, lightening would hit and he saw fractals for the first time, the atmosphere became liquid, he saw liquid waves of multidimensional, geometrical patterns everywhere and the sparks of lightening created this amazing crescendo of secondary, tertiary fractals all around him. He felt in touch with Goya, the Universe, his heart opened up, he felt one with all, he roared, ‘stop stuttering now, stop stuttering now’, hundreds of times, when he awoke the next day, his stutter was gone.

Pollan questions, why does this fungus go to the trouble of producing a chemical compound that has such a radical effect on the minds of the animals that eat it? Is it, as Stamets suggests, that neurochemistry is the language in which nature communicates with us and is trying to tell us something important by way of psilocybin? Giorgio Samorini, in his book, Animals and Psychedelics: The Natural World and the Instinct to Alter Consciousness, outlines ‘depatterning factor”. There are times in the evolution of a species when the old patterns no longer avail, and the radical, potentially innovative perceptions and behaviors that psychedelics sometimes inspire may offer the best chance for adaptation. Is nature sending us these messages now?

Or perhaps, there is a more reductive explanation. Jason Slot, a mycologist at Ohio State University talking to Ed Yong in The Atlantic says, ‘Psilocybin affects us humans because it fits into receptor molecules that typically respond to serotonin—a brain-signaling chemical. Those receptors are ancient ones that insects also share, so it’s likely that psilocybin interferes with their nervous system, too. “We don’t have a way to know the subjective experience of an insect,” says Slot, “and it’s hard to say if they trip. But one thing is clear from past experiments: Psilocybin reduces insect appetites.”

Surely there is more a loftier reason? Stamets tells Pollan, ‘Mushrooms have taught me the interconnectedness of all life-forms and the molecular matrix that we share, I no longer feel that I am in this envelope of a human life called Paul Stamets. I am part of the stream of molecules that are flowing through nature. I am given a voice, given consciousness for time, but I feel that I am part of this continuum of stardust into which I am born and to which I will return at the end of this life.”

Today, psilocybin’s potential for use as a mental-health treatment for PTSD, anxiety and depression is gaining new attention after Denver and Oakland decriminalized their possession and voters in Oregon and California in 2020 may be asked to approve statewide measures. Mushroom advocates see many parallels between their efforts and medical marijuana legalization that has passed in 33 states and the District of Columbia. Users say mushrooms, most often eaten dried or steeped into a tea, help them see themselves and the world around them differently, allowing them to re-wire their brains in healthier ways. Dr. Yili Huang, director of the Pain Management Center at Northwell Phelps Hospital in Sleepy Hollow, New York, told USA Today he’s carefully watching how decriminalization unfolds. Huang said he’s been intrigued by several small-scale studies that appeared to show terminally-ill patients can benefit from treating their anxiety and depression with mushrooms combined with therapy. The federal government in June acknowledged that ongoing research indicates psychedelics hold promise for treating anxiety. Huang, who specializes in treating pain in cancer patients, said psychedelics like magic mushrooms work on the same brain receptors as prescription anti-depressants. He said the nation should be “very cautious” in opening the door to increased psychedelic use, but said more research could reveal opportunities to help sick people.

That same hill at the edge of the lake in our hometown had some history and some myth associated with it. King Malachy, Monarch of Ireland stuck the Danish warrior Turtesius in a barrel and rolled him down the hill into the dark waters of the lake. While, the story of The Children of Lir (an Irish version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the tale that inspired Swan Lake), was set here. The unfortunate children of King Lir were transformed into swans by their evil stepmother, Aoife, haunting the lake for 700 years. It was there, that they unwittingly conducted our coming of age ceremony. It was a perverse rite of passage, it did not ease them into the adult world, rather it landed them in a world that few adults had any idea even existed. The effect on them was, to put it mildly, disruptive. Wordsworth says it best -‘to be alive that dawn was bliss, but to be young was Heaven!’

Reality was no longer limited to the perception that they had traditionally used. Where are they now? Are they aware? It seemed that as they got older, the less they knew. But as Yeats who wandered Coole Park not far from our stomping ground, said ‘God keep me from ever being a wise old man praised of all.’

Hunkypapa

Humble beginnings in Midlands had Schmidt hallmarks

This article was published today by Micil Glennon on RTE.ie. That’s me playing Number 9 under the watchful eye of the Number 1 rugby coach in the world, Joe Schmidt.

Here is the article as published on RTE in full.

Left to right – Me, Joe Schmidt, Dan Rooney, Bousy Bardon

The message was clear. Under no circumstances was he to open his mouth.

Bad enough that he stood out with a shock of blond hair, Mullingar didn’t want the opposition to hear their new full-back’s accent.

It was 1991 and 25-year-old Josef Schmidt had just rocked up at the midlands clubs as their new player-coach.

Nowadays almost every club has its share of Antipodeans but back then Schmidt was a pioneer.

Midland League rivals Edenderry hosted one of the New Zealander’s first games and the Mullingar captain told Schmidt that if the opposition pack heard that Fancy Dan was not exactly from these parts then they would prepare a special welcome for him.

Captain Mick Glynn warned: “Don’t you speak during the match because if they cop the accent they’ll only kick the shite outta ya”.

That was good enough for Schmidt, who stayed quiet for the opening exchanges before quickly coming to a realisation.

“F… it! They were kicking the shite outta everyone so I might as well speak anyway.”

That was how it was back then in those derbies.

Many of the players came from agricultural backgrounds and there were lots of Gaelic footballers keeping fit over the winter by dipping their toes into rugby. 

Schmidt (back row, 2r) (Pic: Mullingar RFC)

“It was 10-man rugby, wingers were only for decoration,” Dave Farrelly, who captained Mullingar in the two seasons before Schmidt came, tells RTE Sport.

And why wouldn’t it be? A winger, back in those days could go a whole season without getting a pass. (I know).

If it was good enough for Ralph Keyes to kick the leather off the ball and for Simon Geoghegan to go chasing after it then it was good enough for everyone else.

But the Kiwi, who had moved over with his wife Kellie during a gap year, thought otherwise.

He was employed as part of a FÁS scheme, which also brought recently deceased All Black Bruce Deans to Edenderry for a spell, and helped to coach the club’s underage sides as well.

Schmidt with the Mullingar minis (Pic: Mullingar RFC)

Farrelly was one of the first to meet Schmidt upon his arrival and remembers a “very chatty, affable, comfortable, approachable” young man.

A couple of days after arriving in Mullingar the gang sat down in Jim Gillespie’s house to watch a video of Schmidt’s Manawatu team playing France on their 1989 tour of New Zealand.

Schmidt scored a try, outpacing Jean-Baptiste Lafond to win a footrace after a kick through. Talk about good impressions.

They soon hit the training ground at Cullion but Schmidt wasn’t slow to show concern over the equipment.

He wanted to know if there were enough balls available for training.

“Yeah, we’ve plenty of balls. Two per team,” came the reply.

“He wanted a ball per player,” recalls Farrelly of the radical suggestion.

“His minimum was a ball per two people. We’re were like, ‘what are you talking about? That’s codology’.

“He had a completely different approach to coaching than what we were used to.

“After a while teams started to mark out Joe because we were using him so much. It was like England trying to take Johnny Sexton out, we were relying on him a lot. Once they took him out of it we were back to square one.”

Joe Schmidt (l)

Schmidt spent just over a year with Mullingar before returning home to teach and coach and eventually landing a job with Bay of Plenty.

Moving up through the ranks, Schmidt found himself back in Europe and helped Clermont to Top 14 honours, a success that paved the way for his move to Leinster and eventually Ireland.

Yesterday’s win over Wales moved Ireland top of the World Rugby rankings for the first time ever.

“It’s a label,” said Schmidt. “It’s a nice label to get, and it’s nice [that it’s the] first time that we’ve been in that position.

“We have been lucky enough to tick a few firsts off with this group over the last six and a half years but that label is not going to be relevant to anyone.”

The firsts he refers to, of course, are wins over New Zealand (times two) and away to South Africa.

You can add three Six Nations titles, including a Grand Slam to that. He leaves Ireland with 52 wins from 71 games, and that includes a record 12 Test wins in a row between March 2017 and June 2018.

He has a minimum of four more games to improve that but the 2018 World Rugby Coach of the Year will want to make that seven.

“If things were bad, they’d get better, if things were good, they could be better again,” Farrelly says about Schmidt’s approach back then. Sound familiar?

The two, along with the Gillespie family, remain good friends and Farrelly can list off numerous examples of Schmidt giving up his personal time to help out with a charity or a good cause, all at the drop of a text message. 

From dark days in midland derbies to top of the world, Josef Schmidt has come a long way.

Bring on the next chapter.

A Street Walking Cheetah in a Cross Fire Hurricane

AK Dans, the up and coming crushing comedian is strutting down Acacia Avenue, Kampala, a street walking cheetah in a cross fire hurricane –

‘Mind if we walk and talk?’ he asks, ‘I have a super hectic day ahead man.’

Kampala is home to AK Dans, originally of South Sudan, by way of Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya. He struts the streets, Massive Attack style, chatting, stopping for handshakes and bro hugs, noshing down a rolex while he talks to me down the phone about Kampala, comedy and grand plans for his hilarious one man show, The Woke Refugee.

I can hear street hawkers calling out in Luganda, the pop pop of Boda Bodas, music blaring out of shop fronts and someone singing Hallelujah under the jacarandas of Kampala.  

AK is back in his hometown, in between performing his one man show to a sold out crowd at Notos Lounge Bar & Grill in Juba, South Sudan and an eleven date tour of South Africa. Life is good. The future is looking rosy. His past is a crazy roller-coaster ride since his entry into the comedy world three years ago.

‘How did you get into comedy?’ I ask him.   

‘A fortunate series of mad events,’ he laughs.  

In November 2015, he bought a copy of Trevor Noah’s Lost in Translation and watched it on a loop. Maybe the hamster in AK’s head got to whirling about comedy, but he says, at that time he never considered it. AK, likes to cook for his guests, when he does, they sit and watch him cook and he chats, and riffs, telling them a bunch of stories and it always gets them laughing. One guest in the summer of 2016, suggested to AK that he should try stand-up comedy. And he decided he would. The only place he knew in Kampala was the now defunct Comedy Files, so he went there and presented himself to the stage Manager, Manager Mozey. AK was so green, he thought he would go on that day, of course, he didn’t, but Mozey liked the cut of his jib and recommended him to attend a weekly workshop dedicated to budding comedians.

That workshop was run by the remarkable Timothy Nyanzi, one of the best writers in Kampala, who mentored up to forty comedians every Tuesday for free. Some of the great comedians of Kampala, Okello Okello among them, had worked that room. AK went there every Tuesday for four months and found himself falling in love with comedy.

That August he clambered onto stage for the first time at Makerere University, with his fellow workshop compadre and friend, Don Andre. It went well, the crowd really liked him but he realized that they were ‘a super nice crowd’, he knew that he was not that good yet. He continued to attend the workshop, week in, week out, working his material over and over, taking on feedback from the other comedians and the mentoring of Timothy Nyanzi.

All the time he was searching for slots, for open mics, it wasn’t easy. Even with all the comedy clubs in Kampala, slots are not easy to come by, there are hordes of comedians and the clubs need to make money, so they want only the best. So the bosses, gatekeepers and all the head buck cats told AK to come back when he got good . But how do you get good without getting the slots? You need the slots.

So, in 2017, he and a few of the troupe from Timothy’s started to run an open mic show at Anne Kansiime’s bar, Obis. For two years, AK didn’t get paid, not a single coin all that time. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘it’s an open mic, they don’t pay.’ All passion. He had no job. Just hustling. There was a bunch of them that had no jobs, they did whatever anyone wanted, as long has it came their way, they got it done. It was just the open street, wherever they could get cash, they just went for it. Sometimes his brother would help him out and his aunties threw him a few dollars now and again.

AK proposing with pineapple juice to Grammy Award winner Joss Stone at her recent gig in Juba

‘They believed in you?’ I ask.

‘I wouldn’t say they believed in me,’ he laughs ‘because I never told them about it. My brother heard about me through the grapevine, but I wanted to make sure I was good at it, before I let them see me.’  

‘Did being South Sudanese and growing up in Kakuma refugee camp mean his comedy was different?’

‘No,’ he replies, ‘I was not mentored to be a South Sudanese comedian – more international, therefore appealing to all.  Anyone who gets the chance to cross the border tells sad and weird stories so they can get sympathy, so I’m going to tell the good things and if it is bad, I can find the funny part, because there is always a funny side. Even Kakuma man, we had fun, we used to sing, we used to dance, we were happy, I want to help refugees accept that their past lives matter.’

Late that summer of 2017, AK eventually got his first paid show. He was doing an open mic, and closed his set with his Embassy joke, which killed the audience every time, it is a killer joke, it never let him down. One guy in the audience invited him to do a show at his bar. AK went, the set went well. He was paid 10,000 Ugandan Shillings (around 3 USD), the price of the bus home. Still, it was a paid gig. It was a start.

Okello Okello was performing his one man show for two nights in September 2017. He gave AK and Don Andre a slot each night to open for him. It was the first time that his family and friends were in the audience. The ten minute slot went well and Okello offered them another gig in Soroti. 

They traveled to Soroti in a van, but this was no ordinary van, it contained big hitters, Akite Agnes, Cotildah and Daniel Omara were in that van. AK had being obsessed with Daniel Omara, binge watching him on TV. Now here he was sitting in the same van as Daniel Omara and about to share the same stage as him.

AK tells me about Daniel Omara –

‘We got chatting backstage. He’s a super nice guy, tells a lot of stories. Then I went on stage. “Go have fun,” he said. I did eight minutes, it was a super nice show, Daniel Omara was surprised. He had never seen me before. Then Don Andre went on and he killed it too, again Daniel was surprised. Daniel closed the show, he really crushed it. That night we exchanged contacts with him.’

They all returned to Kampala, but things had changed for AK, Daniel Omara was in his contact book. He continues,

‘Daniel Omara was booked for the Kigali International Comedy Festival. I saw the posters. I texted him to wish him well and he invited us to travel with him and that he would put us up in an apartment. Myself, Don Andre, Okello Okello, Timothy Nyanzi, Optional Allan and a few others, there were six or seven of us. We took a bus from Kampala to Kigali. All in this apartment. Man, it was a great time.’

Daniel managed to get them two slots at the festival. That was a big deal, there were comedians from all around the world performing. But there were six or seven in AK’s posse. One slot was given to AK, because he was South Sudanese and they wanted diversity and the others let Timothy Nyanzi take the remaining spot. AK got six minutes, he crushed it. A promoter approached him after the show and offered him a slot at the prestigious Laugh Festival in Nairobi the following month.

AK says,

“I took the bus, I had only fifty bucks left in my pocket. I slept at a friend’s house. I met up with some of the comedians like Cotildah. There were about five thousand people in the audience. I was fourth on stage, I did ten minutes that changed my life. I stepped off that stage as a comedian and doors opened for me – bookings, inspirational messages, an offer for a show in Australia – I was super freaked out. It pushed me to it more. I was recognized as a South Sudanese comedian. It opened up my mind, my writing.’

AK started getting bookings and getting paid. He has gigged in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Botswana and South Africa and most recently in South Sudan.

Promotional Poster for Ak Dan’s Juba show

I ask him is he the only South Sudanese comedian?

‘No, no, no, I wouldn’t say I am the only one, a lot of people say I am the only one, but there is a lot of them out there, doing their thing, like I was when I was super down there, going around the cities, where nobody knew me.’ There are other South Sudanese comedians. There is Emo who is based in Australia and Manelson who just moved back to South Sudan. I haven’t got to see them in the flesh but they are doing their thing.’

That recent return to Juba, South Sudan was seismic with AK performing his one man show The Woke Refugee for the first time. He has being writing it and trying out the material since 2016. Performing it for the first time at a hometown gig was very special and it went well, very well. It will be the first performance of many as AK is keen to tour the world with it, starting in the refugee camps of Rhino and Bidi Bidi. As his fellow comedian and good friend Long John says, ‘If it not big, it is not a plan.’

Ak Dans, Road Warrior

I tell you what freedom is for me; Do not be afraid

Today, I was strolling along the road that I used to live in Linares, Andalucia, seventeen years ago, when I came across resplendent Nina, done by Eva Mena. Man, I really dug living in Linares almost two decades ago, but it could become suffocating, I fell in with a few artists who were wild on change but were up against it. I was chuffed to see this piece that helps light the way.

The Walls Have Eyes – Haunting Faces in Andalucia

The town of Belmez de la Moraleda seemed abandoned, all the roads were blocked and prohibition signs were pasted everywhere. We were looking for the house.

We parked on the edge of town, and trudged in, the car thermometer read 41 degrees Celsius. Man, it was baking. We were looking for the house.

We rummaged through the streets looking for the house.

We got utterly lost looking for the house.

We stumbled across a sign and made our way towards the house.

We found the house. Behind the door of the house are the haunting faces of Belmez.

The eerie face-like images have being appearing in the house since Maria Gomez Camara, in 1971, witnessed a stain gradually forming into a human face. She tried to scrub it away but nothing worked. Her husband took a pick-axe to the face and re-cemented the floor. That, you would have thought would be the end of the affair, but the haunting image reappeared few weeks later. Indeed, the creepy faces multiplied.

Belmez de la Moraleda is a small town, so of course, the stone faces became the talk of it. People were freaked out. It was decided to excavate. Numerous decapitated skeletons were discovered under the floor. Yikes.

The remains were dated to the thirteenth century but nothing else is known about them. They were respectfully laid to rest in a local cemetery. And the floor was repaved. But, they came back, the faces and more and more of them.

Maria passed away in 2004. The faces still appear. Some claim it as one of the most important paranormal phenomenons of our time, others denounce it as a hoax. Whatever, the case, man they are haunting, the stone faces are haunting.

Out we came. Downhill we went. Got the car and drove away through the olive groves.

Life Story On The Road – Sheila Foster

Fantastic week recording Sheila Foster – she has led such a diverse and full life and continues to do so, ticking off her lengthy bucket list with gusto! It was a privilege to record her life.

Posted by Life Story Recording on Wednesday, May 15, 2019

I had a fantastic time recording Sheila Foster – she has led such a diverse and full life and continues to do so, ticking off her lengthy bucket list with gusto! It was a privilege to record her life.

Myself and Sheila in her home
Digital Life Story Recording
Life Story Recording Presentation Box

If you are interested in booking a recording or want further information, email me on russell@lifestoryrecording or leave a comment below.

Thanks!

Will Russell, Life Story On The Road

Thank you for the fantastic reaction to our piece on Manyang Reath Kher

Myself and Manyang Reath Kher’s piece on his life and 734 Coffee has received a fantastic reaction, since we released it two days ago. Check it out on lifestoryontheroad or on Facebook and Instagram.

Here is a great piece that NowThisFood did on 734 Coffee –

Refugee Starts Coffee Company to Educate People in Sudan

This refugee turned entrepreneur started a coffee company that provides scholarships and education to people in Sudan

Posted by NowThis Food on Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Manyang Reath Kher, 734 Coffee & Humanity Helping Sudan Project

I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Bob Dylan, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

Unfortunately Bob Dylan’s words suit the life of Manyang Reath Kher too well. But chatting to him you wouldn’t think it, speaking in his strangely compelling Virginian -Sudanese drawl, he tells you about how great the world is and that his coffee is the greatest coffee in it. His coffee is 734 Coffee. The name is more than a number. 7˚N 34˚E are the geographical coordinates for Gambela, a region in Ethiopia where over 200,000 displaced South Sudanese citizens now live after fleeing war, atrocities, drought, and famine in South Sudan. And it is where Manyang, from the age of three, survived for thirteen years. 734 Coffee is about building a brighter future for the displaced mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters of Sudan; it is harvested by growers right in the Gambela region, whom Manyang ensures are all refugees and after it is brought to the US, 80% of proceeds go right back to scholarships and education programs for refugees in South Sudan.

Manyang Reath Ker, Founder of 734 Coffee

And people are taking notice, Manyang was recently endorsed by Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, that’s some shortening of the degree of separation. I first asked myself, how did this happen? Then I got to know him and the answer is Manyang Reath Kher is how it happened. The man’s a force of nature, a survivor as tough as they come. Manyang is one of the Sudanese Lost Boys, refugees who represent the world’s newest nation, its warring tribes and incredible culture. To a significant degree, he forms a spearhead for a widening and diffuse movement. He tells me, “Things are going to change, they got to change.” He says that a lot. After some time in his company, you believe him. He is at the forefront of #RedefineRefugees and #HumanityHelpingSudanProject, movements that seek for refugees to be defined in terms of what they can do, rather than where they have come from.  Manyang stresses that we need to focus on business, get people in South Sudan to be entrepreneurs – “people with business, don’t want to go to war, peace comes in many different ways, I don’t want to fight someone who I trade with”, he says.

Manyang was orphaned at the age of three, possessing nothing but a picture of his father. That was it, alone in his little pajamas and a picture of his Dad in his tiny hand, my God. This is a story about a hero. A real hero. Born in Akobo, Sudan to a warrior father, who was a representative of the poor, the downtrodden, the soon to be dispossessed. Our hero, Manyang Reath Kher knows little of his family, his heritage, his early life; for at the age of three, Sudan was plummeted into hell and he plunged with it into an Erebus of monsters, bloodthirsty soldiers, plagues, famines and brutal refugee camps. Manyang, somehow and without a Virgil clawed his way through nine circles of hell, I don’t know how, for he was just an infant when the Apocalypse exploded. Over the course of a few weeks, we sat together and he told me his story, he began by saying –

“This is my story of how I lived from the age of three, in and out of war, one of the Lost Generation. It is a description of the need for freedom and how to value it above all. It is the assessment of how to become a man when there is no one left to show a boy how to be one. It is the example of community and how a tribe, how a group of people or even just a group of boys can learn how to take care of one another. It might even be an example to anyone who lives for themselves alone, of how to live for others in a highly competitive world.”

Our best memories are usually within our childhoods, when the world is tiny and innocence gigantic; Manyang possesses the terrible tragedy of not having one. Cruelly, he can barely tease out any, the few he can, are as precious as painite. 

“My father would wake me in the mornings. He would tease me that the moon had come to get me, but I had fallen asleep so the moon had left and moved to the other side of the world. There was a river near our house, I remember once, my father lifted me into it, to dip my toes and the fish tickled them. The last time that I saw my father, before he went to war, he placed his picture in my hand”

That’s it, that’s all he got; a cute joke, some paddling and the simplest of gifts. These things a childhood does not make, indeed, it is a mere few hours of memories in most normal worlds. And yet, when telling me them, Manyang smiles sweetly, sighs heavily and you can tell he lives those moments, over and over again. I guess, he has to, they are all he has. At the age of three, his little world was torn asunder. In 1991, with the Second Sudanese Civil War raging across the region, his village was subjected to an attack by soldiers conducting a shoot to kill policy directed at all people. Manyang tells me,

“I was woken by big noise, the sound of war. Somewhere in the house my mother was screaming. It was the last time I ever heard her voice. It was still dark, she must have run out of our house with my tiny baby sister. My Uncle Dodo slung me onto his back with my little legs wrapped around his neck. We could see bodies moving through the river. It was murky and thick, and it was not easy for Dodo to keep moving. Soldiers were shooting at us. Bodies of men, women, and children, fell under the water all around us, I watched them from Dodo’s shoulders. Then he too was shot and red spouted from his mouth but he kept swimming. We made it to the far shore. I tumbled from this neck. I looked up, soldiers stood above me. I didn’t know would they shoot me or help me. I saw Dodo lying in the sand, blood leaking from his body. I stood in my pajamas with my father’s picture in my hand, watching Dodo die.

We walked, for weeks and weeks, we walked. We were starving, I watched people swallow mud from the road and pull leaves and bark from trees. Some people simply sat down in the dirt to die. There were children crying in the dust because they had no one to carry them and they could not walk. We walked and walked, we walked into Ethiopia. I didn’t know what that was.  I was in a whole new country with many other young Sudanese boys. I had no idea where the girls and the mothers were. Local workers would ask for your name and geographic background so that they could keep tribes together. It was chaos. There were a hundred languages. They might not be actual blood kin, but the children were placed with adults from the same tribe.

I was given a new family. We all lived in a mud hut with rooms divided by sheets.  They called me Keat, I don’t know why, but that’s what they called me, Keat. Sometimes I peed in the hut, they yelled and made me clean it up. They took a dislike to me. They restricted me to the kitchen which had a hole in the roof for the smoke to escape from cooking. They set up a grass bed in there, but it was the rainy season, so the bed and floor were drenched. So, I stood like a horse in a stable. Did you know snakes search for dry ground? I heard a heavy whisper. The snake was in the grass in my sleeping pallet. I put my hand up to shield myself from this wind, this heavy whisper, and felt a thump on my elbow which went numb. I screamed and screamed. They yelled at me from the hut to knock it off. I lay there, numb. It was a very long night. In the morning they found me, numb and raving. They brought me to a house that had electricity and stuck my arm to the electric current, which they thought was a treatment. I began screaming again, so they brought me back into the kitchen, wrapped my arm and told me to lie down on the pallet. I was paralyzed on one side of my body and monstrously swollen. In the morning of the next day, the lady, my new mother, brought me milk in a blue cup. I may have been not quite four, but I knew that they had accepted that I would die, and maybe they felt sorry for me. Or maybe they were scared that my real father would find out how badly they had treated me. I knew I was going to die. I dreamed of my father and he was telling me, Hakuna Matata. Yet, I found myself so mad at him. He couldn’t touch me, comfort me, or make my hand better. I wished he had not left me just when I needed him the most. I found myself talking to the ghost of my father, yelling at the ghost of my father. I looked for a sharp object with which to harm myself, but I could find none. They didn’t stay to help me or take me to a hospital, I guess because of the money they thought they would have had to pay.

There was a man in the kitchen, telling me he was a doctor. I was sure that the family had called this man to take me away to die. I had heard all the talk about what happens to those who are about to die in the camp. When you are too weak and you smell, they throw you into the stream to let you die. That’s what I had heard. I yelled, “Go away!” But he kept asking for my name. I looked at him, he looked at me, and there were tears in his eyes. Now I was really scared. Why would he cry if he didn’t think I was going to die? He told me that a cobra had bitten me and I needed to go to hospital. An ambulance came. I was sick and dirty and smelled so they put me in a separate room which made me angry and scared. Again, I was convinced that everyone knew I was going to die and wanted to separate me. I didn’t realize that I smelled or that they were checking to see if I was contagious before they decided what to do with me. But they gave me medicine, washed me, and settled me in bed with fresh sheets and pillows. The doctor visited me a lot, he had a way of making me laugh. His name was Alfred. The moment Alfred would get to work, I could hear his voice, loud and happy in the hallway. He would check on me first, making sure that the nurses would turn me from side to side, change the bedding and check my blood. Alfred would say my name the way my mother would, and no matter how big the hospital was, no matter how busy he was, he always came to see me and that was the best part of my day. I lived for Alfred’s visits because he reminded me of my father. When I got stronger, he would take me walking and bring me caramels. But after six months, he placed me back in the ambulance and sent me back to my new family. He gave me a picture book and I made him write his name in it, so that I would be able to find him again.

My family were not eager for my return. My new father told me, “You can’t stay with us anymore. You’re four years old and really a man now.” So I walked away, what else could I do? I walked and walked. I found a tree where I sat. I stayed until it became dark. It was just me and the mosquitoes and shadowy animals. I climbed into the tree and tried to sleep but dogs were barking at the bottom of the tree. So, I climbed to the top of the tree. Mosquitoes flew up to where I was. I yelled, “I am Manyang! I am Manyang! I am Manyang!”  I worried about being bitten by another snake. I didn’t think I could go through that situation again. I hit the branches to check for snakes.

In the mornings, small children would go into a building near my tree, I found out that it was a school, where people got to learn stuff. One morning, I made my way over to them, they didn’t ask me where I had come from, and no one wondered anything about my parents or how old I was. There were three hundred of us. In order to prove that you were young enough to be in pre-school, they made us place our arms around to the other side of our head and touch the opposite ear. If we could, we were too old. We stayed there for two or three hours each morning learning some English and some Arabic. The teachers would give the children one biscuit, so I got one biscuit too, but that was never enough for me since it was the only thing each day that I ate. After two days I came up with the idea of making clay cows from the ground, and I made them for the other children in return for a biscuit. I was becoming popular and I got way more biscuits. However, if I ate two or three, I would fall asleep. I was so tired from trying to sleep in the tree and worrying about snakes. Often, if I did fall asleep at the school, the teacher removed me from the class. I had to sit outside. Students competed over spitting at me. The worst memory I had of that time is when the children would be picked up at the end of school, and I was left there at the gate. No one seemed to notice that I had nowhere to go and no one to pick me up.  A lot of children had no parents in the camp. They may have lost one or both parents, but usually there was someone older who came for them, a brother or someone who watched over them.

One day my luck changed. We had a free school water pump which was for the children and the people who lived nearby. One day a teenage guy came by and left his container. Sometimes people had to leave their containers and wait until more water was available. Each container had your mark, and it was the honor system.  I guess I felt bad for him when someone moved his container. I went and filled his container. He was grateful and asked where my parents were. I told him that I didn’t have a family. He told me that I could come home to his own house. His name was Wiyual and he lived with his brother, Oguol who was my age. I was afraid to go with him, but I knew that life with them would have to be better than living in a tree.  When we got to his hut, he told me to sleep. And I did sleep. From noon until three. When I woke up, they served me food! I couldn’t eat much because I had only been used to two biscuits per day, and my stomach wouldn’t handle good food. I made four clay cows for Wiyual’s brother, Oguol and we played with them. Wiyual cooked and I slept more. In fact, I slept for five more days and didn’t go back to school during that time. Finally, I was ready to go back and Oguol and I went together. I was happy with the three of us. It was so nice to have people to talk to and to actually hear people talking.

In July 1995, there was an outbreak of cholera in the camp, the disease with diarrhea and vomiting. Hundreds were dying. Many were hospitalized. Some died in their own houses because the hospital was full, and there were no more beds for others.  Wiyual caught cholera and was seriously sick for three days; he thought he was going to die. He gave me a talk.  He wanted to know that if he wasn’t around, would I be able to cook and bring in firewood water.  I said I could do them both until he came back from the hospital. He asked again what would happen if he couldn’t come back because of any reason. I said that I didn’t know. He asked his brother and he said the same answer. He told us, “It is not good to live under someone or depend on someone else’s help. Now, I will tell you to listen please. Don’t ask for money even if you guys are not going to live. It will be good if you can do that for me. Don’t talk too much to people because they will tell you what they don’t like and bring trouble to you. Don’t think of stealing something from someone to make your life better. Don’t lie when people ask you for truth. Lastly, keep in school because someday this simple school will be me and your parent. May God find a way for you guys to go to college.” We went out to play, and then we cooked and ate. We tried to give him something to eat, but he was too weak to eat it. He smelled the food and said it was good, to keep cooking anytime we got hungry. That things would get better. And he told us not to be mad at each other anytime.

Wiyaul died of cholera. I tried to go to talk to a man who was known at the local church. He told me that he would come over or send someone, but we waited three days, and he never came. I went back again. He told me the same thing. Then the third time, he told me that he would come and he never did. I told Oguol to talk with him, but he told him the same thing. We gave up because we knew the religious people would not come if we didn’t have any money. The body began to change and smell. We got a big carton and put his body in it and rolled him to a stream at night when no one could see us.

The camp was a place where we depended on the UN to get us food. They served one meal per day. People got their place in line for the food. We were too young for the line because older people would move us out of the way or chase us out of the line. Most of the time, we didn’t get any food. We would go back home, turn mud into doll cows so that children would buy them with biscuits. Other lost boys were registered as unaccompanied minors which helped them to get their food easily. We were not registered because Wiyaul had made a house that was in a group that counted as part of the village or block. Our situation turned from bad to worse. Since we were hungry, Oguol quit school. I was hungry, but I never quit school. We didn’t know who to complain to for help or how to register in the group for unaccompanied minors.  We turned mud into cows for help getting biscuits for a long time. Nobody knew for real if we would live. But we went on like that until 1997, when we became big boys of eight years old. We started to be okay because we finally knew that we could do for ourselves. By age nine we were able to get food in line and find firewood and water, and we could cook. We stayed there until 2003.

Some people arrived in the camp who my father had fought against in the war and they wanted to kill me, so I agreed with the UNHCR to go to another camp. I found a friend there that I used to go to school with and I was able to live with him. Just after I moved into the house, Oguol came to live in the camp. I was so happy but a week after Oguol came, the UNHCR told me that the some of the enemies of my father had also been transferred to the camp. They offered me to enroll in a programme for resettlement in America. I came home and talked with Oguol about it. We were both scared about going to America where we knew nobody. We also thought there were no African people in America. We didn’t want to live in a cold and icy place, especially if we were homeless.  We agreed that I would not go. When I took a long time of not returning to the UNHCR office, they called me again and sent me a counselor who was African American. He talked to me for two weeks and finally he convinced Oguol, who then talked to me. Oguol said that he would go to America too.

One morning we took a bus from the UNHCR office to Addis Ababa. We then took a plane to Cairo and from there to London and onto Chicago. When we arrived in Chicago, we were told that we were to be separated, Ogoul was going to Michigan and I was going to Richmond, Virginia. And just like that, he was gone and with him all that I ever knew was in the past.”

On his first day in Richmond, while been transferred from the airport to the shelter that would be his home for three years, Manyang Reath Kher passed St. John’s Church on East Broad Street, where on 23 March, 1775, Patrick Henry made one of the boldest and eloquent speeches ever delivered. In front of an audience that included future Presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, Henry exclaimed, “Give me liberty, or give me death”, powerfully influencing Virginians and events leading to American independence. Manyang had faced death for fourteen years, now he had his liberty and boy was he going to make it count. Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘Life’s most urgent question is, what are you doing for others?’ Manyang Reath Kher possesses a great answer.

The Miracle that is 734 Coffee

This is Manyang Reath Ker. His coffee is 734 Coffee. The name is more than a number. 7˚N 34˚E are the geographical coordinates for Gambela, a region in Ethiopia where over 200,000 displaced South Sudanese citizens now live after fleeing war, atrocities, drought, and famine in South Sudan.
734 Coffee is about building a brighter future for the displaced mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters of Sudan; it is harvested by growers right in the Gambela region, whom Manyang ensures are all refugees and after it is brought to the US, 80% proceeds go right back to scholarships and education programs for refugees of Sudan.
Myself and Manyang have worked on an incredible piece which we will be sharing on Lifestoryontheroad in the coming week. Don’t miss it!

Manyang Reath Kher & The Presidential Candidate

Manyang Reath Kher encompasses an alluring manner which makes you believe in him, so I wasn’t at all surprised when I read that Pete Buttigieg, who is running for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 United States presidential nomination, endorsed Manyang and 734 coffee for his work in raising awareness for refugees.

Pete Buttigieg stated on Twitter – “Refugees are looking for opportunity, not a hand out. It’s time to change the conversation around refugees. A former Sudanese refugee turned entrepreneur founded @734 Coffee to be that change and give back to those left behind. Let’s follow his example this #WorldRefugeeDay.”

Manyang is the man. I have spent the last number of months speaking with the incomparable Manyang Reath Kher and recording his life story. It has been my privilege to speak with him and witness one of the great life stories. Myself and Manyang have worked on an incredible piece which we will be sharing on Lifestoryontheroad in the coming week. Don’t miss it.

Manyang Reath Kher

I have spent the last number of months speaking with the incomparable Manyang Reath Kher and recording his life story. It has been my privilege to speak with him and witness one of the great life stories. Myself and Manyang have worked on an incredible piece which we will be sharing here in the coming week.

Having to leave Berlin, feels like leaving the love of my life…

Thanks to NotesofBerlin

Like I said, at the beginning, once I got to thinking about those trees in the Volkspark, those oaks and maples swaying in the summer wind. And I was wondering, how old are those threes? One hundred? Two hundred years old? This is Berlin, so you are always thinking, at least, I was always thinking, what have they seen? So, I got to thinking, what have the trees seen come and go and this led me to thinking about vanishing Berlin.

My platform at Weberweise where I started all my adventures from

Man, I’m so glad that I embarked on this Vanishing Berlin series, I got to see so much of this marvelously baffling city. I have been in Berlin so many times, in past work lives, visiting old friends, lost weekends – and that’s a Berlin – but this time around, I rummaged into it’s oddest corners and strangest alleyways, it’s world-changing rooms and world famous inhabitants – it’s being always so interesting. From the wind-swept white domes on Devil’s Mountain to hearing the footsteps of ghosts behind me in the abandoned corridors of Little Moscow. Days spent searching for hidden street art and deciphering their elusive messages. Finding Einstein’s gaff on Haberlandstrasse with a lot of effort and falling into the Ramones museum with no effort. Being dragged along to see the graves of the Brothers Grimm to eagerly picking up the crumbs of Bowie’s Berlin. From unlocking the secrets of Karl Marx Allee to almost missing the controversy of the African Quarter. Nights following the ghosts of Marlene and Brecht to stumbling on the slab of Frederick de Grot and it’s potato flowers.

The steps that welcomed me home every night

Berlin inhabits me now, I’ll always be walking the tree-lined avenues toward Isherwood’s house, will always be riding through the ghost stations of Berlin’s U-Bahn listening to Iggy, will always be clambering over the ruins of Jesse Owens room in the duplicitous Elstal Olympic village. It’s where I got to re-invent myself, or at least start to think that yes, I will get to live again, live differently, be who I once was once again, no longer forgotten. Man, I’m going to miss this place so much, I’ll be back, for sure, I’ll be back.

The Creepy Ghost Stations of Berlin

After the border between East and West Berlin was closed on 13 August, 1961 and the Berlin Wall was built, underground connections still existed between the two city halves. Two U-Bahn lines and one S-Bahn line traveled beneath the old city centre of East Berlin on their way from one section of West Berlin to another. The trains did not stop in the stations located in East Berlin and the passengers came to regard them as ‘ghost stations’. They were guarded by policemen and soldiers, were not used as station stops and provided no access to the eastern side of the city. The East German government had numerous barriers erected within them to prevent the tunnels being used as escape routes. In particular, the train stations located close to the border were perfected into underground blockades after the Wall was built. Despite these obstacles, many people attempted to flee through these tunnels, but few were successful. Most of the fugitives were captured and placed in East German prisons. While these dramatic events were taking place underground, above ground these unused stations disappeared, first from the East Berlin cityscape, later from the public mind. When the Wall fell, these stations were reintegrated into the transportation of the uniting city and were rediscovered by Berliners.

Bernaustrasse subway station on the Brunnenstrasse before the wall was built
Bernaustrasse subway station on the Brunnenstrasse after the wall was built
The East Berlin section of the subway system shown as part of the still intact complete transportation before the wall was built
East Berlin subway network after the Wall was built . The East Berlin residents only had access to a small section of the system
West Berlin subway map with the ghost stations in East Berlin marked

The trains of the two U-Bahn and one S-Bahn could only be accessed from West Berlin stations. The GDR made the West pay dearly for this privilege.

Potsdamer Platz station platform guarded by border soldiers

It was a strange experience for West Berlin passengers. The trains slowed down before entering the ghost stations, but they did not stop. Armed guards from the East German transport could be seen mooching about the dimly lit stations. Before the trains entered East Berlin a loudspeaker announcement was made ‘Last station in West Berlin!’

Border soldiers at the Potsdamer Platz station looking out of their bunker at the passing trains

As the Berlin Wall was increasingly enlarged and the above ground border barriers more effectively prevented escapes to the West, people began searching for other ways to get out. Some tried fleeing through the sewers; others dug tunnels beneath the border grounds. The U-Bahn and S-Bahn lines that ran to the West were considered as potential escape routes. The walls and border fortifications that the GDR government had installed to block these passageways gradually developed into a complex underground system of barricades. In the Alexanderplatz subway station, for example, the wall built to block the platform of the U-8 subway line created a pathway that allowed East Berlin passengers reach Lines 2 and 5 from Alexanderplatz without anyone even noticing that they had entered a station platform of a west line.

Walled up station platform of today’s U-8 subway line at Alexanderplatz platform

The blocked off station entrances were also equipped with signalling devices. Border soldiers monitored that station platforms, the tracks and alarm systems from bunkers. Rolling grille gates that were let down at night or when an alarm was set off created invincible barriers. Light barriers reported movement from persons fleeing across the underground track area. Footboards in the tunnels set off an alarm when they were stepped on. Metal gratings at the end of the platforms were designed to prevent someone jumping onto the tracks from the platform. The bunkers of the border guards were also equipped with a signaling device that notified when a guard left his post without permission.

Bunker in the Bernauerstrasse subway station

In the fall of 1966, two young men, Kurt B. and Dieter K. tried to reach West Berlin through the U-8 subway line. In September the East Berlin Police had found them exploring the vicinity of Heinrich-Heine-Strasse and arrested them temporarily. Arriving from Halle (a town 170km south-west of Berlin) on the night of October 3, they went from the Ostbahnhof station to the closed subway entrance at Schmidtstrasse. Using simple tools they broke through the walled-up entrance, a rolling grille and one other barrier and entered into the highly secured station. It took them four days and nights to finally reach the tracks on October 7. As they advanced to the West they unknowingly stepped on floorboard equipped with a signal contact and triggered an alarm. Two groups of border soldiers responded and arrested the fugitives approximately 25 meters from the border. A prison sentence awaited them. How heartbreaking is that? Just two young guys wanting to live elsewhere and the crummy GDR goons lock them up. Jesus.

The closed off entrance to the Heinrich-Hesse-Strasse subway station, Kurt and Dieter entered the heavily walled station from the back

There were thankfully some sucesses. Corporal Bodo Z, leader of a squad of border troops, escaped shortly after Christmas 1962. He assigned himself to guard the Walter-Ubricht-Stadion station (today’s Schwarzkopfstrasse) on the night of December 27. He left his post at about three in the morning. Fifteen minutes later the other border guards noticed that he was missing. They searched in the subway station , the station platform and the subway tunnel all the way to the West Berlin border without finding him. They were not allowed to cross the border marked with a line in the border tunnel. But an employee of the transport system found footprints under an airshaft that served as an emergency exit on the West Berlin side and found the grate to the street open. Bodo had followed the platform in the direction of West Berlin, jumped onto the tracks and run about 250 metres through the subway tunnel to West Berlin.

West Berlin side of Chausseestrasse, north of the the border crossing. The emergency exit used by Bodo to reach the sidewalk is marked.

In the beginning a number of border soldiers escaped across the underground border while on guard duty in the subway stations. On 22 June, 1963, for example, three border guards fled from Heinrich-Heine subway station to West Berlin. After the first one escaped, the second one went to look for him and did not come back. Then the third one followed. For this reason border guards were as much suspect as the GDR citizens that they were supposed to be guarding. To prevent them from escaping, bunkers were erected on the platforms of the western lines and the guards were locked inside while on duty. What utter Monty Pythonesque nonsense – nobody not even the goons wanted to stick around East Berlin – locking up the locker uppers.

Observation post in the closed down S-Bahn station at Potsdamer Platz

The subterranean S-Bahn station at Stettiner Bahnhof was opened in 1935. After the Second World War when Szczecin (Stettin) belonged to Poland, the East German government renamed the S Bahn station Nordbahnhof in 1950. After the border was closed on 13 August 1961, Nordbahnhof became one of the many ghost stations. Trains passing through the station did not stop. Located right next to the border, the Nordbahnhof building formed a spatial link between the eastern and western parts of the city. The Invalidenstrasse entrance was located in East Berlin, the one to Gartenstrasse was in West Berlin. The Wall, which took a sharp turn north at Gartenstrasse , ran between the two entrances. To prevent any chance of escape, countless walls and alarm systems blocked the passageways in the station building.

Invalidenstrasse entrance in the 1970s
Invalidenstrasse entrance today
Outside Nordbahnhof in the 1970s
Outside Nordbahnhof station today

Walking around Nordbahnhof station today, its remarkable to think how utterly creepy and utterly futile it got to be around here. Man, it makes me feel so empty, to think of those border guards gazing out at the free world passing it in a train carriage.

Why do people place spuds on Old Fritz’s grave?

My recordings in Berlin are almost finished, they have went well, but it means that my time in Berlin is drawing to a close, which means my Vanishing Berlin series will be concluding, or perhaps only paused, as I would like to return, perhaps with my Pops, as there is so much more to see and I know, he, being a boffin of Germany history could add so much to this Vanishing series. I know he could assist me with understanding Frederick the Great and all the Fredericks that came before him and the clan that they came from – The Hohenzollerns – they who defined Berlin more than anyone else. Alexandra Richie, in her beyond excellent Faust’s Metropolis writes, ‘The Hohenzollerns were the luckiest of the ruling families of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Of all the great houses theirs was the only one to produce a succession of four healthy male heirs, none of whom were inept or deranged. Three were truly outstanding monarchs. This enviable continuity began with Frederick William in 1640, extended to the first King in Prussia, Frederick I, to his son Frederick William II, the ‘Solider King’ , and finally to Frederick the Great, who died in 1786.’ Confused? That’s okay, that makes two of us, in fairness that is a lot of Freddies to get your head around.

Fritz’s bath

For now, until Pops comes back here with me, let’s make things nice and easy and just concentrate on Frederick the Great, thing is, the word ‘just’ doesn’t really work when it comes to Frederick De Grot, after all the chap is known as The Great. His father, ‘The Soldier King’ set about toughening him up, creating a child regiment for him to drill when Frederick was six. At age fourteen, he was placed in charge of the Potsdam grenadiers. However, the young Frederick was more interested in music and philosophy rather than the art of war, memorising Aristotle, Rabelais and Bousseut and dreaming of being a poet. He once planned an escape to England, but it was rumbled and The Soldier King beheaded his co-conspirator and soulmate, Hans Hermann von Katte.

New Palace, Potsdam

The Soldier King shuffled off to Valhalla in 1740 and Frederick immediately set about making Berlin an enlightened city. It’s epicenter became Sansoucci, the rococo palace sat on top of the terraces of Postdam. He filled it with books, artefacts, thinkers, musicians and artists, eventually even moving Voltaire, the man of the century in as a housemate. Peace beckoned, or did it? The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Germany was a fractured monster of over three hundred states and principalities, and Frederick sought Prussia to bind them into the one. Leading his armies from the front like a madman, he galloped around but got gobbled up by the Habsburgs, French and Russians. At then the Miracle of Brandenburg, eh miraculously occurred, when crazy Peter III, obviously liking the cut of Frederick’s jib, changed tack and placed his soldiers under Frederick’s command. Prussia won. Frederick the Great changed the destiny of Europe.

Soviet graffiti behind portrait paintings in the New Palace, Potsdam – the black and white facsimiles are in place of missing portraits

However Berlin once again had suffered terribly, her streets were wrecked, her buildings were burnt, her insides were charred. Frederick settled it with himself that that was the price of victory and began rebuilding Berlin, as the capital of his new nation. He welcomed in over 300,000 colonists from France, Germany, Poland, Greece and other Mediterranean countries. All religions were tolerated, the building of a Catholic cathedral in the centre of the city was even permitted. Berlin was made great with monumental building structures featuring combined elements of baroque, rococo and neo-classical styles. Unter den Linden began to approximate what it looks like now with large palaces, new Academy buildings, the Royal Library, the Opera House and St. Hedwig’s Cathedral. The Tiergarten was redesigned in the Baroque styles with mazes, avenues of trees, benches and tents.

Back of the Garden facade at Sanssouci

Frederick represented the end of an era – the last of the absolutist monarchs, the Enlightenment had been good for him, he modeled his rule on its ideas but the Enlightenment was double edged, the people were no longer content to waddle after the dictates of a monarch. By the end, he cut a bizarre and lonely figure, waddling around Sansoucci in his tattered uniform, lonely and friendless.

Grotto Hall, New Palace

Napoleon knew his greatness, after destroying the Prussian army at Jena and Auerstadt, he rode through the Brandenburg Gate, dismounting at the Garrison Church, he stood beside Frederick’s tomb, telling his fellow officers, ‘ Hats off gentlemen, if he were still alive, we would not he here.’ Frederick had created Prussia by binding together the splintered Hohenzollern lands. Now, Napoleons troops stripped his palaces of his beloved spoils. Berlin would grow nostalgic for the old certainties. What would they fill the vacuum with?

Regarding his burial, the old Fritz wrote, ‘I have lived as a philosopher and wish to be buried as such, without circumstance, without solemn pomp, without splendour. I want to be neither opened nor embalmed. Bury me in Sanssouci at the level of the terraces in a tomb which I have had prepared for myself… Should I die in time of war or whilst on a journey, I should be buried in the first convenient place and brought to Sanssouci in the winter.’ It took while for that to happen – they placed the tired resisting corpse into the Garrrison Church, where he lay lying beside The Soldier King, balling him out of it, no doubt. He lay there until 1943 when German soldiers took him to the safety of an underground bunker in Potsdam, then to the saltmines at Bernterode, where the US Army found him and brought him to Marburg Elisabeth Church from where they he was carted to Burg Hollenzollern at Hechingem in 1952. Eventually in 1991, 205 years after they simply couldn’t do what he asked his remains were laid out on the front crease above the terraces of vineyards at Sanssocui.

Grave of Frederick De Grot

So, what’s with the spuds? Well, he introduced them to Germany and I guess they like them.

Bobby Darin, Bertolt Brecht & Mack The Knife

What’s the story with the song Mack The Knife? I always knew it as a Bobby Darin tune, with which he achieved his only number one, in the US in 1959. You know it, even if you don’t think you do, chances are you danced to it at a wedding or warbled it at your grandmother’s eightieth birthday party or indeed awkwardly slow danced to it at an early nineties Ireland disco – yes that was still a floor filler in 1992 where I came from, I know – but hey so too were Rock the Boat and Macarena – so Mack The Knife was something to savor.

Bobby Darin

Mack the Knife was sandwiched uneasily between the Bobby Darin chart toppers, Dream Lover and Beyond The Sea. I say uneasily because, well, have you ever paid attention to the lyrics? Check them out –

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
And it shows them pearly white
Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe
And he keeps it out of sight

You know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe
Scarlet billows start to spread
Fancy gloves, though wears old MacHeath, babe
So there’s never, never a trace of red, oh, let it swing, yeah

On a sidewalk, blue Sunday morning
Lies a body oozing life
Some, someone’s sneaking ’round a corner
Tell me, could that someone be Old Mack the Knife?

There’s a tugboat down by the river, don’t you know?
Where a cement bag, just a dropping on down
Yes, that cement is there strictly for the weight, dear
Five’ll get you ten Old Macky’s back in town

D’ja hear ’bout Louie Miller? He got disappeared babe
After drawin’ out all his hard earned cash
And now MacHeath spends just like a sailor
Could it be our boy done somethin’ rash?

Jenny Diver, yeah, yeah, Sukey Tawdry
Hello Miss Lotte Lenya, good evening Lucy Brown
You know that line forms, way on the right, babe
Now, that Macky’s back in old biggest town

I said, “Jenny Diver, look out too”, Sukey Tawdry
Sit back Miss Lotte Lenya and wait Old Lucy Brown
I mean, I tell you that line forms way on the right, babe
Now, that Macky’s back in town
Look out, Old Macky is back

Yes, you got it, it’s about a serial killer of prostitutes and assorted others. Jesus, Bobby Darin? Who would have known? So, what’s this got to do with Vanishing Berlin? Well, its got to do with old Bertolt Brecht. I was rummaging around Dorotheensradt cemetery looking for Schinkel’s grave, which I found –

And I stumbled across Heinrich Mann’s –

Source – Wikimedia Commons

And his neighbour is Bertolt Brecht –

Brecht has always perplexed me, well, more than perplexed me, I haven’t really the foggiest idea about him. And, I suppose I should, I know heaps about Beckett and a good deal about Artaud, but nothing at all about Brecht. Those three are ordinarily pointed to by literature boffins, as the triumvirate that dictated twentieth century European theater. Well, it turns out, that if I had wanted to know more about Brecht, then I had come to the right place, because overlooking Dorotheenstadt cemetery is the house in which Bertolt Brecht lived with his wife Helene Wiegel.

So what is Mack the knife? It appears to be such a modern title and its lyrics are more akin to Gangsta rap than late 1920s German theater. Well, The Threepenny Opera was Brecht’s first and greatest commercial success, and it remains one of his best-loved and most-performed plays. Based on John Gay’s eighteenth-century Beggar’s Opera, the play is set in Victorian England’s Soho but satirizes the bourgeois society of the Weimar Republic through its wry love story of Polly Peachum and “Mack the Knife” Macheath. With Kurt Weill’s amazing music score, which was a fusion of American jazz and German cabaret, it became a popular hit throughout the Western world.

Mack the Knife or The Ballad of Mack the Knife as it was originally known became the most popular song from The Threepenny Opera. It opens and closes the play, comparing Macheath with a shark and telling tales of his heinous crimes of robbery, rape and murder. Louis Armstrong stuck swing into in 1958 and Bobby had his hit with it in 1959. Darin’s is the definitive version, that’s according to Frank Sinatra, and if Frank says its so, its so, despite the best efforts of Ella Fitzgerald, Dave van Ronk, Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, Dr. John, Marianne Faithfull, Nick Cave, Westlife and Michael Buble who have all recorded it.

Brecht’s Front Door

So, I know a little more about Brecht, but I need to know more, you can visit his house, but it was closed when I was there so I decide to dip across to the Oscar Wilde Bar to have a beer, but alas, that too has vanished.

It’s sad to see poor Oscar gone, I had some good times in the past in the old Oscar Wilde watching Ireland playing rugby at odd parts of the day. I remember one fine day with my parents and brother in there, getting to see Ireland hockey England. But hey in the words of Axl Rose, ‘nothing lasts forever and we both know hearts can change.’

Bertolt Brecht

That is glib, Brecht wasn’t and requires detailed study. Cosmo Pappas reviewing Stephen Parker’s biography on Brecht, writes, ‘Parker strikes a delicate balance between the historical events and the more temperamental qualities of Brecht’s (personality) that informed his writing, be it his lifelong inability to temper his sexual appetite or manage his frail body. In particular, Parker emphasizes the latter in the way that Brecht’s writings, even at his most Leninist moments, revolve around a feeling of bodily precarity and appetite-driven excess. Parker’s success is the caution and deliberateness with which he traces Brecht’s multifaceted, contradictory personality and artistic corpus…. succeeds remarkably in animating the world of political instability and terror that Brecht lived through…’ Like I say, Brecht for me, requires further study but for now check out Bobby Darin’s Mack The Knife, all together now – ‘oh the shark babe, has such teeth…’

Should Berlin change the street names in The African Quarter?

“But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen – to use an image you’ll understand – it can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of… fact.”  Brian Friel, Translations

I am interviewing a number of South Sudanese people living in Berlin. They live in Afrikanisches Viertel, which is a neighbourhood in the Wedding area of Berlin. The Afrikanische Strasse U-Bahn station is different to other U-Bahn stations, embellished as it is, with huge photographs of elephants, giraffes and zebras. You are filled with an expectation of something different to the rest of Berlin lying above ground. However, that expectation is soon dashed, as you emerge from the U-Bahn station, there is nothing African about the area.

Except, that is, the street names – Zanzibar Street, Congo Street, Transvaal Street – they are the only thing that appear to be African.



So, what’s going on? Well, apparently a lot. The African Quarter has being at the centre of a raging debate in Berlin regarding whether the names of streets in the African Quarter should be changed or not. The streets are named after former German colonies in Africa and the colonialist leaders who ruled them. So, on one side, there are activists campaigning for the name changes because they represent Germany’s shameful colonial past. Whilst on the other side, some want the area to remain as it is, as a way of not hiding that shameful colonial past.

During the Scramble for Africa, in the late nineteenth century, Germany seized Togo and Cameroon, German Southwest Africa, which is today’s Namibia, and German East Africa, today’s Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi; and also parts of present day Congo-Brazzaville, Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, Guinea, Ghana and Nigeria. The Scramble for Africa is a fluffy name for the invasion of African countries by European powers, who committed abominable atrocities whilst conquering the continent.

There are twenty thousand people of African heritage living in Berlin, many of whom live in the African Quarter, these street names must be galling to them. Ana Naomi de Sousa, writing in The Guardian, states – “Even in a city that seems to specialise in monuments and memorialisation, Germany’s colonial past, and with it the history behind the African Quarter, had until recently slipped out of public consciousness. “While Germany is often praised for its critical engagement with its Nazi history, it still struggles to acknowledge that the Holocaust was preceded by this history of overseas colonialism and genocide,” says Sinthujan Varatharajah, a German scholar of political geography.

The source of the African Quarter can be traced back to a bizarre plan by the wild animal merchant Carl Hagenbeck to create a permanent zoo in Berlin to exhibit wild animals and Jesus merciful God, humans to celebrate the German colonial project and its spoils.

Surviving Herero after the escape through the arid desert of Omaheke in German South-West Africa (modern day Namibia). Roughly 80,000 Herero lived in German South West Africa at the beginning of Germany’s colonial rule over the area, while after their revolt was defeated, they numbered approximately 15,000. In a period of four years, approximately 65,000 Herero people perished. Source -Wikimedia Commons

But de Sousa also writes – “Many of those in favour of maintaining the street names say it is precisely this “historical amnesia” that they are fighting against. Karina Fulusch is a spokesperson for PAV, a residents’ organisation who oppose what they say is a “politicised and ideological” debate around the street names. She cites local resident Johann Ganz: “The simple disappearance of controversial street names from the cityscape does not do away with the need for a deep-reaching discussion about Germany’s colonial legacy.”

Source – Wikimedia Commons

A majority in the district parliament of Berlin-Mitte recently voted for new street names. If the district office gives the go-ahead, Lüderitzstrasse would then be renamed after Cornelius Frederiks, a resistance fighter in what was then German South-West Africa; Nachtigalplatz would become Bell-Platz, to commemorate Cameroonian King Rudolf Magna Bell, who was put to death by the Germans in 1914; Petersallee would have two new names. One part would be named after the Namibian independence fighter Anna Mungunda. The other part would be called Maji-Maji-Allee, after a resistance movement in former German East Africa.

In Brian Friel’s play, Translations, a detachment of Royal Engineers are engaged on behalf of the British Army in making the first Ordnance Survey in County Donegal, Ireland. For the purposes of cartography, the local Gaelic Irish place names have to be translated into English. Friel reveals that what is initially perceived as an administrative practicality becomes an action that has an invasive and unexpected impact on a community of people and their culture.

During the weeks that I have spent recording in the African Quarter, I have thought more and more about street names and how we take them so for granted, we think they are what they are, rarely do we consider their impact on our consciousness because we think after all they are only names, aren’t they?

How to stop talking about Hitler – Christopher Isherwood & Godwins Law

Godwins Law states – As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1; that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will start mentioning Hitler.

I was chatting to The Mule about my Vanishing Berlin series and she said, ‘you got to stop writing about Hitler.’ Really? To be honest, I hadn’t thought I’d written much about Hitler at all. I mean, I thought I was avoiding the bugger, knowing that in the end I would have to write stuff about him, indeed, a lot of stuff. It’s impossible to write about Berlin in the twentieth century without encompassing the little bollocks , and so, I suppose he has blotted the ink and lurked on my blog more than I would like. He even wormed his way into my piece on Bowie, well sort of, his odious henchmen shaking their horrible arses in the ballroom that would become Hansa recording studios. Even when you write about the antithesis of the Nazis, they tend to become a counterpoint to that opposite and so you end up writing about them in some way. Even when you are writing about stuff that happened before them, it becomes pre- National Socialism, it becomes an explanation as to what happened next. Like today, I want to write about Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin, but to do so means to write about the Nazis who snuffed out his kind.

17 Nollendorfstrasse, Christopher Isherwood lived here between March 1929 and January/February 1933.

In one of my earlier posts, I wrote about Marlene Dietrich and the Golden Twenties in Berlin, when Berlin became the counterculture epicenter of Europe and indeed the world, when another path was being sought out by artists, writers and thinkers. German youth, tricked into and then annihilated in the trenches of World War One had lost faith in the old imperialist Prussian guard who had pied pipered them into that hell. Now, they immersed themselves in naked flesh, wild dancing, jazz and art. Everyone wanted to forget. Even now, an inverted Joycean riddle would be to walk across Berlin and try to find a World War One monument or memorial – there are none – still Berlin tries in vain to forget that horror.

Plaque, 17 Nollendorfstrasse

In the late 1920s Berlin had thrown her arms open to foreign writers and artists, who came wanting to access its modernist thinking. These included Francis Bacon, Paul Bowles, Valdimir Nabokov and the trio of Spender, Auden and Isherwood. The latter, Christopher Ishwerwood would become the most synonymous with the city. Rory MacLean in his marvelous book, Berlin, writes about what was attracting them and many of the other two million other visitors who poured into the city each year – ” to mingle in the bedrooms and boy bars, to live out their fantasies at the masked balls and revels….An erotic guide to ‘naughty’ Berlin – Curt Moreck’s 1931 Fuhrer durch das ‘lasterhafe’ Berlin – mapped out the dark streets, private clubs and chic cafes ripe for sexual adventure.’

Isherwood, like Berlin, had always sought myth. Whilst writing in Cambridge, he had taken imagery from Poe and The Brothers Grimm to transform the banality of the townspeople into a parallel universe where the magical and perverse were commonplace. Following his mentor and lover, W.H. Auden, to Berlin in 1929, the twenty-five years old Isherwood took rooms on Nollendorfstrasse. “He liked to imagine himself as one of those mysterious wanderers who penetrate the depths of a foreign land, disguise themselves in the dress and customs of its natives and die in unknown graves, envied by their stay-at-home compatriots,” Isherwood wrote of this period in “Christopher and His Kind,” his third-person memoir of the 1930s.

W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood en route to China, 1938, Source Flickr.com

In the book that would forever link him with the city, Goodbye to Berlin, he writes, “From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied facades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scroll-work and heraldic devices.” Gosh, walking Nollendorfstrasse today you can picture Isherwood spilling out of Number 17 in the mid-morning heading to his favourite cafe on Winderfeldtplatz, to sip coffee and write his observations on Berlin, generating fiction from life and similar to his writings whilst at Cambridge, heightening ordinary people into the realm of myth.

Isherwood and Auden, 1939 Source – Wikimedia Commons

The Golden Twenties and the experimental early 1930s were soon to be quenched by the abominable Nazis, Isherwood wrote “The Nazis may write like schoolboys, but they’re capable of anything. That’s just why they’re so dangerous. People laugh at them, right up to the last moment…” Against a backdrop of mass unemployment, malnutrition and hatred of the Versailles Treaty; the Nazis hoovered up the citizenry winning the battle for hearts and minds.

Bebelplatz – Site of the Burning of the Books in 1938. Source – Wikimedia Commons

In a late Spring evening in 1933, Isherwood was in the crowd watching the burning of thousands of ‘un-German’ books whilst Goebbels was yelling for people ‘to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past..the future German will not be just a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you.’ The city that Isherwood so brilliantly captured was disintegrating. He left in 1933, writing the terribly beautiful sentence – ‘Today the sun is brilliantly shining; it is quite mild and warm. I go out for my last morning walk, without an overcoat or hat. The sun shines, and Hitler is master of this city.” Cripes. I suppose The Mule is right, Hitler always finds a way to get his oar in. Best to silence him with the last words coming from Christopher –

“Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching. I feel in my bones the sharp ache of the frost in the girders of the overhead railway, in the iron-work of balconies, in bridges, tramlines, lamp-standards, latrines. The iron throbs and shrinks, the stone and the bricks ache dully, the plaster is numb.”

Hidden Berlin & The Brothers Grimm

We’re sat in our usual haunt of Badfish on Stargarderstrasse in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, me and my friend Paul. We always meet here, it’s in between where he lives and where I stay, it serves cider, Paul only drinks cider, cider is hard to get in Berlin plus the bar has old style, chatty bar staff and they play good music, well, at least they play music that we like. We argue a lot, me and Paul about stuff that is not important, so its best done in surroundings that mutually suit.

I was telling him about my Vanishing Berlin series about the abandoned Olympic village , Devils Mountain, Templehof, Little Moscow and the rest. And we got to discussing artists that were once influential in Berlin but have now disappeared from the general consciousness and he tells me that the Brothers Grimm are buried in Berlin. He said it with this face –

And there was drink taken. Would you have believed him? He is one of the most knowledgeable dudes that I know, he is the kind of chap that can converse about any subject and offer opinions that are completely original and thought-provoking. But I mean The Brothers Grimm? The dudes who wrote Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Rumpelstiltskin – did they really exist? I had always kind of flung them in with the Evangelists or Franklin W. Dixon (fictional writer of the Hardy Boys books) – in that The Brothers Grimm was a sobriquet for a collection of writers or collectors of fragments of folklore. And if they did exist, where they not back in the medieval period? My head fugged with a few Dunkels (dark German beer), I argued (its what we do) that The Brothers Grimm were, like their fairy-tales – a fairy-tale. In the midst of our drunken debate, I found this message in the gents –

Obviously, it means nothing, just a drunken ranting, but at the time I thought it did and a I say there was drink taken, and the language in it was so strange and so I took it as a sign, and we went seeking The Brothers Grimm on what I thought was a fools errand. We took the U-Bahn to Yorckstasse in Schoenberg and ducked into the eternal resting place of Alter St-Matthaus-Kirchhof and indeed they are in there, and not just two Grimms but the graves of four Grimms – the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm and two of Wilhelm’s sons, just lying there kind of out in the open.

Strange, these two Brothers, who wrote perhaps the most widely read and known stories from any German hand, just here, with no real fanfare. And the graves are so modern with perfect cut marble, that it throws you, their stories being so reminiscent of Old God’s Time. We left, still arguing, after all, had not The Brothers Grimm purloined many of their stories from German and European folk tales, medieval German literature, Norse mythology, Roman and Greek mythology and Biblical tales? Are they not early nineteenth century Franklin W. Dixons?

Wilhelm (left) and Jacob Grimm in an 1855 painting by Elizabeth Jerichau Baumann. Source – Wikimedia Commons

Of course, I jest, but it keeps us debating our way back to Prenzlauer Berg. Man, Berlin really is something the way it keeps bringing stuff up. Almost all of us know those stories – we fell asleep to them, watched Disney movies extracted from them, were enchanted by them, were terrified by them – serious kudos to The Brothers Grimm. And to able see them here in Berlin, accessible albeit in a cemetery, it provides a tenuous link to those ancient tales of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and Little Red Riding Hood.

Why are The Ramones in Berlin?

I was chatting on the phone to my friend Johnny, telling him about how I was getting on in Berlin and he asked me, ‘have you been to the Ramones Museum yet?’ Surely he was mistaken? A Ramones Museum in Berlin? I never heard of it. ‘Sure, there’s one there, it’s the only one in the world, it was in Mitte but I don’t know where it is now.’ Now? Why where was it before? ‘It moves about a bit.’ Really? ‘Really.’ I hung up, not fully sure if he was having me on or not. I had never seen it or heard of it, but that’s cool, Berlin’s a big place. But why would a Ramones Museum be in Berlin? Why not in New York? I forgot about it until I stumbled upon it. It’s in Kreuzberg now. On Oberbaumstrasse. Just off Oberbaumbrucke.

Source – Wikipedia Commons

I looked across a road and it was just there, the Ramones Museum in Berlin with Link Wray clone dudes draped across the outdoor seating drinking beer, Sheena Is A Punk Rocker blasting out onto the early night street. In under the Gabba Gabba Hey sign, is a bar behind which a girl tells me its five Euro in, I look at the small gap through which the museum lies, she tells me that five Euro is life membership, that I can come back as many times as I like, forever. I pay and am given a badge which I affix to my Osprey and in I go not expecting too much.

Like Lucy going through the wardrobe, it’s a portal to whole world, a Hail To The Freaks Ramones world. It houses over a thousand original original artifacts spanning the band’s career from 1974 to 1996. The collection includes posters, unpublished photos, signed memorabilia, stage worn clothing, instruments and amps, original tour-shirts, hand written letters and song lyrics. Man, it’s really something.

You are taken from their early childhood- and school days in Forest Hills to early gigs at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, through the composition and recording of their 14 albums and their nonstop touring for 22 years across over 2,200 gigs. You can watch their film, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High school’ in what is referred to as the cinema but is more like a cosy 1970’s Forest Hills sitting room.

They never seem to get older, The Ramones, each year, they remain the same, even when they change as people – Tommy gets replaced by Marky who gets replaced by Richie who gets replaced by Elvis who gets replaced by a returning Marky and Dee Dee gets replaced by CJ, but they always appear to be the one entity.

There is some weird stuff in here – Dee Dee Ramone’s credit cards and autopsy report, Joey Ramone’s gloves, his wrecked mic stand, Marky Ramone’s sneakers, CJ Ramone’s blood stained finger tape. An enthusiastic girl comes in yelping, very excited, I guess she’s right to be, this is the greatest room on the planet for a Ramones’ fan. I lose myself late into the evening in those rooms containing The Ramones.

What helps is that The Ramones were a merchandise machine. Not only did they come up with countless designs for new tour shirts, they were very inventive in terms of new income sources – frisbees, socks, shorts, hats, pins, flags, posters, photos, guitar pics, drum sticks, and much more. Pretty much anything the band ever sold at their merch can be seen in here. Seeing more than 50 different t-shirts from various tours, eras and counties in here – I get to understanding the amount of Ramones T-shirts you see out there, all around the world, on all shapes and ages of people.

This series that I am writing is about Vanishing Berlin, things that were here and are now gone or those that remain but are utterly changed. But why are the Ramones here? Sure Dee Dee spent a lot of childhood and early adolescence in Berlin and there is The Ramones’ song Born to die in Berlin which includes the lyrics –

Sometimes I feel like screaming Sometimes I feel I just can’t win Sometimes I feel my soul is as restless as the wind Maybe I was born to die in Berlin

But surely if this place was supposed to be anywhere, it would be New York? So, why Berlin?

The Ramones Museum was born in summer 2005, when founder Flo Hayler moved in with his girlfriend and she said it’s either her or the Ramones junk on the walls. Basically, it was just a stupid idea to move eight boxes of Ramones memorabilia to some friends’ basement two blocks down the road, throw some paint and a few dozen wooden frames on the walls and call the joke a Ramones museum. Due to rent increases and need for space, its moved about a bit, I think this present incarnation is its fourth.

Man, it’s become more than a museum. It is the beating heart of The Ramones. It received the the blessing of the living members of the group, Marky and C.J. Ramone with the former stating, “I’m very flattered that another country will help keep the Ramones legacy alive.” In addition, serious pedigree has assisted in its curation including Arturo Vega, designer of the Ramones logo, attendee to almost every gig they ever performed and referred to as ‘the fifth Ramone’; Monte A. Melnick, Ramones tour manager and author of the book ‘On The Road With The Ramones’; Danny Fields, the Ramones manager; Beverly Mulligan, Dee Dee Ramone’s sister and his mom Tony.

Joey died in 2001, Dee Dee in 2002, Johnny in 2004, stripped off The Ramones, the Ramones drifted away. Tommy too, in 2014. Mikal Gilmore, writing in Rolling Stone in 2014, says, “Onstage, they were the personification of unity – even family. The four men dressed the same –in leather motorcycle jackets, weathered jeans, sneakers – had the same dark hair color, shared the same last name. They seemed to think the same thoughts and breathe the same energy. They often didn’t stop between songs, not even as bassist Dee Dee Ramone barked out the mad “1-2-3- 4” time signature that dictated the tempo for their next number. Guitarist Johnny Ramone and drummer Tommy Ramone would slam into breakneck unison with a power that could make audience members lean back, as if they’d been slammed in the chest. Johnny and Dee Dee played with legs astride, looking unconquerable. Between them stood lead singer Joey Ramone – gangly, with dark glasses and a hair mess that fell over his eyes, protecting him from a world that had too often been unkind – proclaiming the band’s hilarious, disturbing tales of misplacement and heartbreak. There was a pleasure and spirit, a palpable commonality, in what The Ramones were doing onstage together.”

When they came off stage, that brotherhood paused until the next gig. Joey and Johnny barely spoke to one another for most of the band’s life. Man, they struggled, despite creating a genre and influencing a shit load of bands, they never had a hit single or a hit record. At the end, they were frayed, even playing Beatlesque stadium gigs in South America and being lauded by all the new kids on the block including Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Rancid they could not break into the US mainstream. Perhaps something in them wanted it that way. In the documentary – End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones – there is footage of the band attempting to leave a gig in Brazil, hordes of young people are banging on the car and convoys are following them hanging out of windows, one of the Ramones says in Queens, New York drawl, ‘there’s always fucking something.’ There’s something I like about their being always the same, and this museum in Krezberg holds them there, and you can see them like that, anytime you want, you just got to walk through the portal. It seems like that 5 Euro lifetime membership is the deal of the century. Perhaps just like the band it celebrates, this museum creates a whole new genre of museum – you don’t have to be from a place to be at home in a place.

Marlene Dietrich, In the Ruins of Berlin

Photo Source – Film Museum, Berlin

Stendhal said of Berlin, ‘What could have possessed people to found a city in the middle of all this sand?’ When Karl Scheffler contrasted Berlin with other European capitals such as Paris and Vienna, he described them as places which ‘are the centers of a country, are rich and beautiful cities, whereas, Berlin is a city that never is, but is always in the process of becoming.’ Berlin should not be here. The next time that you fly into the city, make sure and get a window seat – Berlin is sat in the middle of giant lakes, waterways, swamps, marshes and pine forests – she just suddenly appears, bizarrely marooned in the outback. The Oder lies to the east and the Elbe to the West, Berlin sits on neither but rather she sits exposed and so subject to endless migrations and wars.

Photo Source – Film Museum, Berlin

The Romans never bothered with it, they viewed the dense forests that surrounded the area that would be called Berlin as a Hades on earth where grotesque beasts and magical creatures wandered and they considered the Germanic tribes too barbaric to be civilised. This thinking was perhaps fortunate for the Germans but then it dashed the chances of the future Berlin being able to boast of its imperial heritage and the glorious structures and architecture that that entails. Berlin was an oddity, unlike the other great European cities, it had no great creation myth, no great legend to frame it’s early history, no mighty Kings to honor.

Photo Source – Film Museum, Berlin

What has that got to do with Marlene Dietrich? Well, Berlin was always jealous of it’s mighty brethren- Paris, Rome and Vienna – and like any jealous dude, she liked to create myths and indulge in fantasies of an illustrious past. Some had heinous consequences, such as its denial of its Slavic heritage. Berlin had good reason to create myths, she was always looked down on as a cultural backwater, but you know, sometimes you have to reach rock bottom to achieve greatness. Following the wasteland of World War I, Berlin bizarrely flung off its Prussian imperial mantle and became the capital of modernism and the epicenter of the Golden Twenties.

Photo Source – Film Museum, Berlin

For a few fleeting, enchanting years, Berlin created a new vision, which Germany rejected and her exiles brought it to Hollywood and changed the world. Man, there was a whole lot of stuff going on – the films of Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg and Billy Wilder; Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera; the Berlin Dada of Georg Grosz; the Bauhaus architecture and artistry of Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Wassily Kandinsky; the writings of Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Stefan Zweig, Alfred Doblin and Carl Zuckmayer; the music of Otto Klemperer and Arnold Schoneberg; the sirens – Josephine Baker, Greta Garbo and the most enduring of them all – Marlene Dietrich.

Photo Source – Film Museum, Berlin

The threat of Bolshevik Russia forced a change in the world’s attitude towards Germany; many began to see the war as something Europe had stumbled as a result of the international arms race. The Dawes Plan set a lower scale of reparation payments, inflation was halted and Germany received Allied loans. A lot of Allied loans. Between 1924 and 1931 Germany received 33 billion marks in short term loans; one of the results been that 1920s Berlin experienced a surge of apparent prosperity and easy money. Incredibly, Berlin resumed her role as one of the foremost industrial cities of Europe, James W. Angell called it ‘one of the most spectacular recoveries in the world’s entire economic history’. The population surged from 2 million to 4 million in just over a decade, making it the third largest city in the world behind London and New York.

Marlene & John Wayne – Photo Source – Film Museum, Berlin

Artists flocked to Berlin – money was sloshing about and its censorship laws were the least repressive in Europe. The movement was called the New Reality as Berlin banished its recent awful past and looking forward, embraced the future. The Golden Twenties legend depends massively on the cabaret image created by Dietrich and Christopher Isherwood. But myths were still being spun, Alexandra Richie writes in her history of Berlin, Faust’s Metropolis – “The image of the Golden Twenties which has come down to us is a grotesque distortion of one of the most complex and tragic periods of Berlin history…Most Berliners never realised that they were living through a Cultural Renaissance…The Nazis were able to destroy the avant- garde precisely because it was a minority affair despised by many and treated with suspicion by most..”

The Blue Angel – Source – Wikipedia Commons

The Blue Angel, made in 1929, was Germany’s first talking film and lies at the heart of the myth. Set in the seedy world of cabaret, it mocked the bourgeois values of Germany by depicting the humiliation of an old schoolmaster at the hands of a femme fatale cabaret singer, Lola Lola, played by Marlene Dietrich. Marlene, christened Maria Magdalene, grew up on Lebenstrasse in Schoneberg, Berlin, attended music school in Weimar (learning piano, violin and lute), played the violin in silent movie theater orchestras, stepped onto stage as a high-kicking cabaret girl , auditioned for Max Reinhardt (he turned her down due to ‘over-acting’) and played bit parts in small movies. She was in the right place. The German movie industry was exploding. In 1914, The Kaiserhad banned all foreign movies, so Germans created a cinematic culture of their own, making over 600 titles a year including the expressionistic horror of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Murnau’s Nosferatu and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Marlene & Groucho Marx – Photo Source – Film Museum, Berlin

Dietrich was of the age, made the age – sensual and sensuous, cross-dressing and character adapting, she loved and learned how to be wanted, desired; learning to express herself more by doing less. Both on and off screen, she became magnetic, there had never been anyone like Marlene. In 1929 when the film director, Josef von Sternberg first heard Dietrich speak, he knew he wanted her for The Blue Angel. During the shoot, Buster Keaton, Max Reinhardt, George Grosz and Sergei Eisenstein all visited the set to watch Marlene in alluring postures such as spread- eagled on a barrel, in silk stockings and white top hat singing Falling in Love Again.

Marlene & Jean Gabin – Photo Source – Film Museum, Berlin

Sternberg set out to shock, he was obsessed both with the movie and its leading lady, shooting her cabaret numbers in long uninterrupted takes which enraptured audiences. Everybody was enthralled with the movie, all but the studio executives who despised it for its mockery of the establishment. The Nazis were on the rise, the walls were closing in, Dietrich joined the flock of artist emigres – Sternberg, Lang, Peter Lorre, Billy Wilder, Brecht and Weill – to Hollywood. They, Dietrich and Sternberg, made six Hollywood movies together including Blonde Venus, Shanghai Express and The Devil is Woman.

Photo Source – Film Museum, Berlin

Goebbels in his capacity as Propaganda Minister tried to entice her back to Germany, Dietrich rejected his overtures in no uncertain terms. Instead she threw herself behind the Allies, promoting the sale of American bonds and performing morale-boosting shows for the troops in North Africa , Italy and during The Battle of The Bulge; singing, ‘See What The Boys In the Back Room Will Have,’ lifting their hearts and courage. But, she wept too for the Germans, during a US Armed Forces Network broadcast she suddenly switched languages, knowing that the radio signal would be carried across the front line – ‘Jungs! Opfert euch nicht! Der Krieg is doch Scheisse, Hiter ist ein Idiot! ‘Boys! Don’t Sacrifice yourselves! The war is shit, Hitler is an idiot! Then she sang Lili Marlene in German.

Photo Source – Film Museum, Berlin

She returned to Berlin in September 1945, wearing her US army uniform, was reunited with her mother and visited their blitzed family home. After the War she continued to make movies but she spent most of the fifties, sixties and seventies touring the world as a marquee live-show performer. She thrilled audiences across the world except in Germany where her tour was met with public demonstrations, she never went home again. In 1977, while living a reclusive life in Paris she was persuaded to star in Just a Gigolo alongside David Bowie. She agreed on condition that Berlin come to her, so the crew, cast and set came to Paris. Fifty years had passed since Sternberg cast her in The Blue Angel. After the shoot, Dietrich called the crew around her. She asked who were Berliners and asked them about the city, she told them, ‘There are many people who imagine I betrayed Germany during the war. They forget I was never, never against Germany. I was against the Nazis…You can’t know how that feels. You’re going home tomorrow and I can’t. I lost my country. I lost my language. No one who knows that can know how I feel.’ Marlene, like Berlin was constantly able to reinvent herself but the two were at odds with one another in those heady days of the early thirties. Oh, if only her version had been favoured

Friedhof Schoneberg, Friedenau, Tempelhof-Schöneberg, Berlin,

Two sides of Yuri Gagarin

Gagarin monument in Wünsdorf-Waldstadt 

Wunsdorf is a town famous for its statues of Lenin – both of which are difficult to access; but there is a statue of Yuri Gargarin. The Russian cosmonaut is plonked with no explanation in the centre of town. The building in which it is in front of, was, I believe the Soviet Union Commandos Headquarters in Berlin. Unfortunately, unlike Phoenixrosedesign, I did not walk behind Yuri to see his God given ass.

Little Moscow, The Forbidden City

Vladimir Illyich Lenin remains at his post, the last Soviet in The Forbidden City. Once, there was seventy-five thousand of them, back when Wunsdorf (located, approx 25km south of Berlin) was The Red Army’s largest Soviet military camp outside the USSR. What a strange sensation it is, wandering around this gigantic complex alone, a landlocked Marie Celeste, hearing the voices of times past when hordes of Russian soldiers nested here in anticipation of any dissent from the German population or to quell any Western forces’ incursion. Or the voices of times past when the Nazis occupied it before them or voices of times past when the Prussian military barracked here.

It is still a restricted area, so working off a tip from the excellent Abandoned Berlin, I contacted the caretaker, Jurgen, who met me at the gate and allowed me to step into what was once known as Little Moscow where once trains departed daily to the real Moscow. It makes you feel lonely, wandering alone on this sixty thousand acre site with buildings so large that you get lost inside them and with some difficulty retrace your steps to find your way back out.

Obviously, the Soviets did not build it (with the exception of the bizarre space age nightclub clawing to the back of the Officer’s House), its history stretches back to 1871, when the Prussians established a shooting range here. By the start of World War I in 1914, it had expanded enormously to become the largest military base in Europe.

German soldiers leaving for the front from Wunsdorf in 1916, Source – Garrison Museum, Wunsdorf
Source – Garrison Museum, Wunsdorf

During the War, the site doubled up as a POW camp. There was a large population of Muslim prisoners, the area where they were held was called the Crescent Moon camp and included Germany’s first mosque.

Photograph taken at the Garrison Museum, Wunsdorf
Muslim POW, Photograph taken at the Garrison Museum, Wunsdorf
Muslim POW, Photograph taken at the Garrison Museum, Wunsdorf
Muslim POW, Photograph taken at the Garrison Museum, Wunsdorf

After World War I, the Army Sports School was established at Wunsdorf and remained in use until 1943. While all other other nations competing in the 1936 Olympics trained at the Olympic village in Elstal, the German team honed their skills here at Wunsdorf.

Hitler and his goons enjoying sports day at Wunsdorf, photograph taken at the Garrison Museum, Wunsdorf
Photograph taken at the Garrison Museum, Wunsdorf

The German Olympic team were not alone here, they were rooming with the Third Panzer Division who moved in during 1935.

Photograph taken at the Garrison Museum, Wunsdorf
German children playing soldiers, photograph taken at the Garrison Museum, Wunsdorf

Obviously, the Wehrmacht knew what they were really here for. In March 1937, work began on a state of the art subterranean communications centre named Zeppelin with 3 metre thick walls. The following year construction began on Maybach I & II -bombproof bunkers which were disguised as ordinary rural homes. They also built nineteen strange looking aerial defense bunkers that resemble NASA rockets; the idea being that bombs would slide off them and explode harmlessly below. The German Supreme Command moved in, days before the invasion of Poland. The Nazis’ entire second world war campaign was guided from the Zeppelin underground communications bunker at Wünsdorf, providing direct contact through telex to the fronts at Stalingrad, France, Holland and even Africa. Incidentally, the resistance movement within elements of the German High Command evolved at Wunsdorf, among men such as Wagner, Fellgiebel, Stief and Hitler’s would be assassin Stauffenberg.

The Soviets took the complex in April 1945 without a shot being fired as the Germans had already abandoned it. Soviet Marhsal Georgy Zhukov made Wunsdorf his headquarters and the Soviet High Command remained here until their complete withdrawal in 1994. Locals were moved out and the area became restricted, East Germans were not allowed near it, it became known as Die Verbotene Stadt, The Forbidden City

The radio studio, Officer’s House, Wunsdorf
Map of Ireland, inside the Officer’s House, Wunsdorf – divided East/West
Walkway clawing to the Officer’s House, Wunsdorf – it connects to the nightclub
Inside the nightclub
Shower room, swimming pool, Wunsdorf
Prisoner Cell, Wunsdorf

Up to seventy-five thousand Russians including women and children called Wunsdorf home at one stage. It was self contained with schools, supermarkets and businesses. Relations with the East Germans were supposedly good, and the base was a huge boost to the local economy. Indeed, East Germans bribed their way onto the base to purchase goods that were unavailable and prices were cheap as the Russians did not pay VAT. But their presence was ominous, their capacity included been the muscle, in case of dissent, such as was the case during the 1953 uprising.

Russian worker, Wunsdorf, photo taken at Red Star museum, Wunsdorf
Russian worker, Wunsdorf, photo taken at Red Star museum, Wunsdorf
Russian soldiers, Wunsdorf, photo taken at Red Star museum, Wunsdorf
Russian soldiers, Wunsdorf, photo taken at Red Star museum, Wunsdorf
Russian soldiers, Wunsdorf, photo taken at Red Star museum, Wunsdorf

And then in early nineties, they left, leaving Little Moscow abandoned. They skedaddled rapidly, leaving behind 98,300 rounds of ammunition, 47,000 pieces of ordnance, 29.3 tonnes of munitions and rubbish. Shops were left full of electronics, radios, TVs and fridges. Families were in such a hurry they couldn’t take everything. Houses were full of domestic appliances. Even pets were left behind. Now, it’s a little piece of Russia rotting and withering away as the surrounding forests loom python-like on its lonely edges. Meanwhile, Lenin waits and waits and waits and waits…

Is this Europe’s last great street?

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In an earlier post, I wrote about the views from the place that I am staying in Berlin, on Karl Marx Allee. Over the weeks staying here, I have really fallen for the Boulevard of Broken Dreams as the newspaper Das Speigel referred to it in 1997. It’s gigantism dwarfs you, even cars look dinky under its giant oaks and Land of the Giants streetlamps. It gets a tad busy between seven and nine in the morning, otherwise it’s pretty quiet, and the road is so far away from the buildings, nothing disturbs you, except the odd cyclist zipping past you on the cycle paths. You can walk under shady trees on the dusty pavements the size of national roads in some countries, you laze in flowery parks, it’s like no other main street in any other city in the world. And that’s before you even get to thinking of the Soviet-classicist buildings reflecting the golden sun, covering us all in a golden hue. Aldo Rossi calls it Europe’s last great street. But it wasn’t always like this. Karl Marx Allee is symptomatic of Berlin’s turbulent history.

Front door of my digs.

In the eighteenth century, Berlin had expanded eastwards to Frankfurter Tor (Frankfurt Gate). This was one of the gates through which traffic entered the city. Just outside my building are the U-Bahn steps for Weberweise (Weaver’s Meadow), this marked the end of what was called Grosse Frankfurterstrasse. During the nineteenth century, Berlin was transformed by industrialisation and migration, and the area around Grosse Frankfurterstrasse became the centre of the booming textile industry.

My window is the last one on the right at the very top.

The current avenue stretches for two kilometres from Mitte to Friedrichshain. Man, it’s impressive. Stalinallee as it was renamed was a flagship construction project, of East Germany’s reconstruction programme after World War II. It was designed as a message to the West, that the socialist GDR could create great things. The avenue is three hundred feet wide and is lined with monumental eight story buildings in the social classicism style of the Soviet Union. Eight stories is high for Berlin and the strangely named wedding cake style reminds one more of Moscow than the German capital. The avenue is bookended at each end with the dual towers of Frankfurter Tor and Strausberger Platz. It is so iconic, even now sixty years after it was constructed.

Photograph on display at Cage Sibylle

After its completion in the mid-fifties, the Boulevard became the place to be seen, ‘Taking the E line to the shops on Stalin Boulevard’ became a catchy slogan. People could find things here, that could be found nowhere else and could relax in stylish places like Cafe Sybille or the Kosmos cinema. The boulevard was to be representative of the new social order, elements were developed which gave the boulevard its unique appearance including huge candelabras, columns, balustrades, Meissen porcelain facings, fountains and clocks.

Photograph on display in Cafe Sibylle
Photograph on display in Cafe Sibylle

Stalin, loved a good parade, hence the expansiveness of the avenue, as it was to double as a venue for goosestepping soldiers, marching bands, loads of tanks, you now the drill, everyone saluting old Joe in his greatcoat, standing on a dais, delighted with himself.

Aesthetic highlights include pillars in the building’s entrance areas and ceramic features adorning their exterior facades. The majority of these residential buildings benefited from interior fittings on a par with western standards, including lifts and central heating.

German Sports Hall, erected in 1951, in just 148 days, for the hosting of the Third World Festival of Youth and Students. But it was shutdown in 1968 due to structural damage.

Some more realistic Bauhaus housing buildings were built on Stalinallee between 1949 and 1950, but they were a thorn in the side of the East German head buck cats and their lofty ideas, so they actually planted tall poplars in front of them, to forget about them.

There exists a disorientating uniformity on the Boulevard, there are several U-Bahn stations strewn along it – Schillingstrasse, Strausbergerplatz, Weberweise – each with four exits – as you emerge from any of them, the buildings look the same, sentient consistent monoliths – it takes a while staying here until you can tell where you are when you first emerge from the U-Bahn.

Photograph on display in Cafe Sibylle

However, behind the facade, something was rotten. In 1953, tanks rolled down Stalinallee, the Red Army crushing the workers uprising. The demonstration had been organized, among other reasons, in response to the increasingly untenable construction demands for the workers of the Stalinallee and it was mercilessly quashed.  It set down the marker towards the path that East Berlin would take, the oppression, the iron fist pounding any divisive acts or thoughts. On the morning of 16 June, 300 East Berlin construction workers marched down Stalinallle calling for a general strike; the next day 40,000 protesters gathered in East Berlin, the East German government turned to the Soviet Union to quell the protests. 20,000 Russian troops with tanks and 8,000 Volkpolizei trundled onto the streets opening fire on the protesters.

Poplars planted to obscure the buildings behind.

Figures vary depending on the source, but at least five hundred people were killed in the uprising and over a hundred were executed under martial law. In addition, over five thousand were arrested with over a thousand sentenced to penal camps. It is also alleged that Soviet soldiers were executed for refusing to shoot demonstrating workers.

The reflection makes this a poor picture, I took it from an information board on the Boulevard, but I can’t help but include it here – the bravery of these kids, Jesus.

Every year on the first of May and the seventh of October, tanks rolled down the great Stalinallee, celebrating first the workers and second the state of the GDR. The parades were televised across the country. In later years, the tanks were left out of the celebrations, but the processions continued with politicians and celebrities alongside the common people, balloons, parade floats, members of the Free German Youth holding up massive pictures of the country’s leaders.

Karl Marx bust on Karl Marx-Allee

In 1961 Stalinallee became the Karl Marx-Allee. Stalin was now something of a PR disaster and so the street was renamed, his statue was torn down and modern buildings were erected in the remaining one kilometer of the boulevard.

Through its sixties, seventies and eighties, Karl Marx- Allee aged and began to crumble, her tiles began to drop and its facades began to look tired and unfashionable.

And the citizens were not sympathetic, Karl Marx-Allee was a symbol of the odious regime and monstrous state. Indeed, its Egor-like Stasi were literally a nightmare in the attics, in the basements, between the walls.

By 1990, the street was a specter with empty sockets were once there were buzzing shopfronts.

Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi in the Paris Review writes, “When Berliners talk about life in Berlin, they like to talk about Kiezleben and Kiezkultur, colloquialisms for something like “neighborhood life.” Someone who never leaves the neighborhood is a Kiezhocker, a criticism that Berliners level against each other but never against themselves: Berliners have strong affinities toward their neighborhoods, their streets, the convenience stores nearest by their houses. Berliners always believe their Kiez to be the best Kiez—why would they go anywhere else?

Brenna continues, “The Karl-Marx-Allee doesn’t have a Kiezkultur, and everybody knows it. One lives in the Karl-Marx-Allee and goes out elsewhere; works in the Karl-Marx-Allee and cycles over to a distant coffee shop. Even the grocery stores struggle to succeed. The vibrant sidewalk life that existed when the GDR had its huge department stores, such as the Kaufhaus des Kindes, and its entertainment venues and “nationalities restaurants,” such as the Kino International or the glamorous Café Moscow, hasn’t been revived in the past twenty-five years.”

Kino International Cinema

And now once again, Karl Marx Allee is on the front line. The struggle erupted last November when a property management firm announced its intention to offload 700 apartments on the road to Berlin’s largest property company. Fearing rent increases, tenants organised protest marches and hung banners from their apartments, eventually pushing the city senate to block the sale. After months of legal wrangling, the senate confirmed on Monday that three blocs containing more than 670 apartments would instead be purchased by the state-owned housing provider.

Trummerfrauen – Rubble women

Einstein’s Berlin

Einstein Chaplin
Photo of Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin at the Los Angeles premiere of the film City Lights, 1931 Photo in public domain, source: Wikipedia

He woke early as usual, slipped out of bed, shuffled over to the shuttered window, stuck his eye to the gap and looked down on quiet, tree-lined Haberlandstrasse, he could hear the birds singing, he watched them fly out of the trees, wheeling into the blue sky. He turned and watched Elsa sleeping, she was smiling, dreaming and smiling, he grinned and went out to the washroom. ‘Fifty three Albert,’ he said to the mirror, he washed quickly, dressed and went up to his study. He looked over the scattered papers on his desk, took his hat put it on, went into the hall, opened the door, went through it and closed it gently behind him. He tumbled down the four flights, the building was still asleep. He stepped out, the weather was fine and still. He turned onto Landshuterstrasse.

Berlin group including Max Planck, Ramsay MacDonald Albert Einstein, July 1931. Photo: public domain, photographer unknown.

A truck sped by packed with Brownshirts, gazing passively down at him, their election flags and bumf fluttering in the wind, reading Deutschland Erwache and Fur freiheit und Brot with small swastikas in the corners Young, handsome, idealistic, virile. A shadow of darkness on the bright street. He turned at the Deutsche Bank, three men in bowler hats and pinstriped suits, laughing disappeared down the steps of the Untergrundbahn. Albert could hear the sound of the train arriving underneath, shunting under his feet through the city.

Einstein and Neils Bohr in 1225, photo in the public domain, photographer unknown, source -pxhere

He went into the shop and bought a bag of apples. Walking back, eating one of the apples, he thought of an article, written b Carl von Ossietzky in the left wing journal, Die Weltbuhne, in which he, Albert, had been name checked, in which von Ossietzky was pointing to the increased usage of the term, ‘Cultural Bolshevism’ being used to attack anything which offended the cultural sensibilities of the right – ‘when Klempereer takes tempi different from Furtwangerl, when a painter uses a colour for a sunset not seen in Lower Pomerania, when one favours birth control. when you build a house with a flat roof, when you admire Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein, when you follow the democracy of the brothers Mann and when you enjoy the music of Hindemith and Kurt Weill – all that is ‘Cultural Bolshevism”

From 1917 to 1932, Albert Einstein lived on the fourth floor at Haberlandstrasse 5 (now number 8). Einstein entertained some of the most out-standing personalities of the time in his living room. Guests included Charlie Chaplin, Franz Kafka, Max Libermann, Heinrich Mann, Lise Meitner, Carl von Ossietzky, Max Planck and Rabindranath Tagore. During the Second World War Einstein’s residential house was completely destroyed in an air raid. Nice touch here from whoever now lives on the fourth floor of the building on the original site with their flag emblazoned by the most famous mathematical equation of them all.

There was a man outside the cafe with a placard around his neck on which was written – Antifashisten Wahlt Liste 3 Kommunisten. A truck for President Paul von Hindenburg drives down the streets, warning the people that a vote for Hitler is a vote for “eternal discord.” He made his way onto Bayerischer Platz and got to thinking about Charlie Chaplin’s movie City Lights, he and Chaplin had attended the premier in Los Angeles together, he was thinking about it’s final scene when The Tramp is gazing in the window at the love of this life and the petals are falling from his flower. He walked around Bayerishcer Platz for a while, finishing his apple, it was getting busier, people beginning their day, he started back to his apartment.

Corner of Haberlandstrasse and Landshuterstrasse

The area where Einstein lived, now known as the Bavarian Quarter, was the former Jewish district of West Berlin. In the early 1990s, Berlin-based artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock inaugurated their hugely controversial “Places of Remembrance” memorial. Stih and Schnock attached eighty signs hung on lamp posts throughout the Bavarian Quarter, each one spelling out one of the hundreds of Nazi laws and rules that gradually dehumanized Berlin’s Jewish population. They are disgusting – Jews aren’t allowed use the subway; Jews are not allowed to buy sweets; Jews aren’t allowed use telephones; Jews may only buy food between four and five o’clock in the afternoon; Jews are not allowed to have pets; Jews are not allowed radios or record players; Items made of gold, silver or platinum and pearls belonging to Jews are to be turned into the state.

One of the eighty signs in the Bavarian Quarter – notice the painting on the gable end of the building depicting the Bavarian Quarter in the early twentieth century.

Einstein had left the country before these laws began to be implemented. As the political climate changed, he became more aware that his Jewish background meant that even a man of his stature was at risk of anti-Semitic attacks. He spent more and more time in America and, when word reached him during a business trip there in 1933 that Hitler had finally taken over, he decided never to return. He accepted a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived with his family until his death in 1955.

8 Haberlandstrasse

Strange to think of Einstein and Hitler walking the same streets at the same time. Humble Albert pottering about his little apartment; Hitler strutting about the Lustgarten yelling his utopia. Albert changing our way of looking at Newton’s universe; Hitler changing the way Germans looked at the world. Fortunately, Albert escaped the clutches of the Nazis who hated him. Alexander Richie, in her marvelous book, Faust’s metropolis writes, ‘the Nobel laureates Johannes Stark and Philipp Lenard led the attack against Einstein’s ‘Jewish physics’, an approach to science which, they said, sought to undermine the absolute laws of nature. For them, ‘German science’ was factual and objective while ‘Jewish science’ was mere opinion. Ultimately their attack on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity impeded attempts by Nazi scientists to develop a nuclear bomb, according to Albert Speer, Hitler’s knowledge of atomic science ‘was limited to anything that appeared even remotely associated with Einstein, for whom he conceived an irrational hatred.’ It did not help that Heisenberg and Max Planck were called ‘white Jews’ because they agreed with Einstein. Although research in atomic physics did continue throughout the Nazi period, anti-Semitism might have been the crucial factor which prevented Hitler getting the bomb before the United States.”

Landshuterstrasse

Hitlers’ one dissolved into the all, Einstein’s one embraced the all, the power of daydreams mightier than fiendish visions. Contained in Knausgaard’s The End, is a remarkable piece of writing that is worth quoting in full – “Remoteness is the opposite of authenticity, and it is not the yearning for authenticity that is the problem, but the remoteness that gives rise to it. The unique is what cannot be replicated, existing only in a particular place at a particular time.It is the art of the one, and the life of the one. What took place in Germany was that the one dissolved into the all, the sky of ideals descended to earth, and the image of the absolute, which is without consequence, became a point of reference for human action. The absolute, in this case construed in terms of race, biology, blood, soil, nature, death was not only set against the relative, construed in terms of the stock market, the entertainment industry, democratic parliamentarian-ism, as occurred throughout the period leading to the First World War, but it was also carried into life itself, as action: Nazi Germany was the absolute state. It was the state its people could die for. Watching Riefenstahl’s film of the rallies in Nuremberg, its depiction of a people almost paradisiac in its unambiguousness, converged upon the same thing, immersed in the symbols, the callings from the deepest pith of human life, that which has to do with birth and death, and with homeland and belonging one finds it splendid and unbearable at the same time, though increasingly unbearable the more more one watches…and I wondered where that sense of the unbearable came from, the unease that accompanied those image of the German paradise, with its torches in the darkness, the intactness of its medieval city, its cheering crowds, its sun and banners, whether it was something I imposed upon the, knowing from what this paradise arose, what it would become and at what cost, and what happened to it, and I came to the conclusion that this was not the reason, that it came not from what was in me, the knowledge I had of what lay behind the images of those days, but something from in the images themselves, the sense that the world they displayed was an unbearable world. Not that it was a false world, because this was obvious, its every image meticulously created from scratch for that particular occasion, it was more that this false world one if the few pure utopias to be established in the last century, in which everything was exactly the way it was supposed it be, was unbearable in itself. What was unbearable about it lay in its own undifferentiatedness Everything was so affirmative of one and the same thing, and when this is the case no other thing exist but that one, and without the other is nothing. The society that Riefenstahl portrayed , this utopia of the one, had to establish an other for its own simplicity, it own undifferentiatedness, the be maintained, and this what lies beneath those peaceful and harmonious images and fills them with such foreboding: the inevitability of war. It was not the absolute values of Nazism that led them to war, for birth and death, homeland and belonging are characteristics of all people and all peoples it was the utopias of one and the same. It was the fall of the differentiating into the undifferentiated.

Photo of Albert Einstein in Princeton, NJ, soon after he fled Germany. Photo – In the pubic domain, Source -W ikipedia

Albert’s equivalence theory stated that objects and the space-time fabric around them can influence – even distend – one other and influence how they move. A century on, the conclusions are clear: without Einstein we couldn’t even begin to understand black holes or the Big Bang theory. And without his general theory of relativity, the world would be a very different place. Thankfully, the good German won out.

When Albert returned to his apartment, Elsa was still sleeping. He went into his office , closed the door and picked up his violin, he looked out the window and thought, am I or the others crazy?

Who was the first to write on The Wall in Berlin?

Berlin Street Art

Berlin’s Street Art is as definitive to the city as Frederick The Great’s baroque, rococo and neo-classical styles or Rauch’s statue of Frederick on Unter den Linden or Schadow’s Quadriga atop of the Brandenburg Gate. Walking around Berlin, looking at the Street Art, I got to thinking of the mythologist Joseph Campbell and his description of entering the caves of Lascaux to view the 20,000 year old Palaeolithic paintings in the Dordogne region France. Speaking to Bill Moyers on the The Power of Myth in 1988, Campbell states,

Berlin Street Art

East Side Galley – My God, help me to survive this deathly love,  by Dmitri Wladimirowitsch Wrubel. It shows Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing, it’s a reproduction from a photo taken in 1979 while celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the former DDR. The crowds always all gather here – probably the most famous street art piece in Berlin.

The animal envoys of the Unseen Power no longer serve, as in primeval times, to teach and to guide mankind. Bears, lions, elephants and gazelles are in cages in our zoos. Man is no longer the newcomer in a world of unexplored plains and forests, and our immediate neighbors are not wild beasts, but other human beings contending for goods and space on a planet that is whirling without end around the fireball of a star. Neither in body nor mind do we inhabit the world of those hunting races of the Paleolithic millennia, to whose lives and lifeways we nevertheless owed the very forms of our bodies and structures of our minds. Memories of their animal envoys still must sleep, somehow, within us, for they wake a little and stir when we venture into wilderness. They wake in terror to thunder. And again they wake with a sense of recognition when we enter any one of those great painted caves. Whatever the inward darkness may have been to which the shamans of those’ caves descended in their trances, the same must lie within ourselves nightly visited in sleep.

Take a right turn on Oranienstrasse to Skalitzer Strasse. On the building to your left is the mural by ROA , a Belgium street artist, which shows a deer, bird and hare hanging from the wall. 

There is a link, between us and them, stretching across twenty millennia as covert citizens among us stamp their dreams and ideals on the concrete of our city to allow us to think of what we are not thinking about – what is this place? What are we allowing happen to it? What should we be doing with it?

East Side Gallery

I started this series to consider a vanishing Berlin. Street Art is everywhere in this town, and this ephemeral medium encapsulates that concept more than any other. Everywhere you look there is street art. From world renowned artists to gang tags; from public statements and personal pleas; from criticisms of society to private puzzles; from secret messages to citizenry to inspiration for all; from raising awareness of social and political issues to providing a channel for the disenfranchised,

East Side Gallery

From the East Side Gallery and street art walking tours to the hidden puzzles you see in the most out of the way places, that in that moment, you feel is speaking directly to you and you wonder about the artist, and when they did it? And what did they want to say? And how long will their mark survive? Wandering around Berlin, keeping your eyes peeled, you see a lot.

East Side Gallery

Backjump by Blu, on the right side of Oberbaumbrucke
This street along the elevated viaduct railway tracks, on Dircksenstrasse, which connects Alexanderplatz and Hackescher Markt in Mitte is filled with street art.
facebook.com/mistertona/
Hans Schwarzenberg, Rosenthaler Strasse
faile.net/
moe79.com
It’s time to dance Project by SOBR

Much has been written about the Berlin street art scene, it’s pretty muddled; when it comes to genesis of graffiti, it can never be any other way. Who knows who started it all? Who first scribbled their name on a Berlin building? Some Germanic barbarian? Or some Colln market trader? Some Brandenburg margrave or some ancient Wend? Who was the first to write their names in letters nine feet high? Who was the first to harness themselves to a chimney stack and abseil down nine floors, tattooing its gable wall with their tag? Who was the first to stencil thought provoking images on the monstrous steel and concrete environment? Who decided to mark the ponderous grey concrete in technicolor? Who first decided to communicate to one another in puzzling stencils across swathes of Berlin high-rise and subterranean underground?

Whoever did, from them, a movement blossomed. They stamp their city, their names, their Art. They have as much a say, make as much a statement, as the city planners, the head buck cat architects and property developers. Perhaps it is akin to a form of group therapy, the shouting out to the like-minded, the attempted conversion of the lemmings. Some are masterpieces, some are goddamn awful, like any gallery. But those with the courage to display themselves give inspiration to others to display themselves.

But there is Thierry Noir – the first dude to take The Wall back. That cursed obliteration. He told The Guardian, “I started painting outside because I wanted to say that it’s good to put art in the streets and not solely in museums and galleries. At the time my influences were everyone from Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, plus musicians like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Kraftwerk, Led Zeppelin and Nina Hagen. My early paintings on the Wall were very different to my later style. My style changed out of necessity, because every day hundreds of people would come up to me and ask me questions. So I had to adapt to be quicker, which became my Fast Form Manifesto. The Fast Form Manifesto is a good recipe for people who have to paint fast in dangerous environments, or with constantly interruptions. You need two ideas and three colours. It was a way for me to show people that this mythical wall was not built for ever and could be changed.”

The Camel Man

Thierry continues, “It was the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, so I found some spray cans and with Christophe Bouchet made a two-metre-high stencil. It was made from a plastic napkin fixed on a wooden frame. On the Fourth of July, we put up 42 Statues of Liberty on the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. It was well guarded and dangerous to paint there. We did not have enough money for more spray paint to do more the next day. As David Bowie said in his 1982 song Heroes: ‘You can be heroes, just for one day.”

Others followed, they transformed fourteen feet monstrosity that was The Wall into a blank canvas for artists to voice their protests. The fact that the East Side remained blank; illuminated the fear, the shitty Stasi surveillance, the lack of freedom behind the Wall.

Mural on Oppelnerstrasse by Os Gemeos

The Astronaut Cosmonaut is a piece by Victor Ash, created in 2007 and located in Kreuzberg.

In that interview with Joseph Campbell, Bill Moyers asked him, “Do you ever look at these primitive art objects, and think not of the art but of the man or woman standing there, painting or creating? And he answered, with –

Oh, this is what hits you when you go into those caves, I can tell you that. What was in their mind when they were doing that? And that’s not an easy thing to do. And how did they get up there? And how did they see anything? And what kind of light did they have the little flashing torches throwing flickering things on it, to get something of that grace and perfection? And with respect to the problem of beauty, is this beauty intended, or is this something that is the natural expression of a beautiful spirit. You know what I mean? When you hear a bird sing, the beauty of the bird’s song, is this intentional, in what sense is it intentional? But it’s the expression of the bird, the beauty of the bird’s spirit, you might almost say, and I think that way very often about this art. To what degree was the intention of the artist, what we would call “aesthetic,” or to what degree expressive, you know, and to what degree something that they simply had learned to do that way? It’s a difficult point. When a spider makes a beautiful web, the beauty comes out of the spider’s nature, you know, it’s instinctive beauty. And how much of the beauty of our own lives is the beauty of being alive, and how much of it is conscious intention?

That’s a big question.


Colossal Templehof: The Berlin airport that has everything except planes that land

The building complex was designed to resemble an eagle in flight with semicircular hangars forming the bird’s spread wing

The runway is stuffed with people, whilst the terminal is empty. Templehof, once the mother of all airports, lies empty, the fact that it is one of the largest buildings in the world, makes it all the more bizarre. In terms of square footage, it is beaten only by The Pentagon, Ceausescu’s Parliament Palace in Bucharest and several newer international airports. Only in Berlin, could a 400 hectare site slap bang in the city centre be left abandoned, or at least huge swathes of it, be left abandoned. Hectares are confusing, what is a hectare? Well, Monaco is 200 hectares, that gives you an idea, Templehof is twice the size of Monaco. As you walk around abandoned Templehof, hearing your footsteps echo around it’s giant halls, you can look out the windows and in the distance, hordes of Berliners stroll, jog, roller blade and cycle on the runway, while people loll in the grass tending barbecues and sipping beer. How wonderfully odd.

Templehof airport closed it’s doors in 2008 after an incredible history. The site in medieval Berlin was owned by the Knights Templar, hence the name, Templehof. The Prussians and latterly united German forces used the site as a parade ground right up to the start of World War I. The first flights at the site took place when Frenchman Armand Zipfel and the American Orville Wright launched flight demonstrations from there in 1909. Templehof was first officially designated as an airport in 1923.

When the Nazis took power with their lofty futuristic plans, Templehof was handed over to the supervision of chief Nazi architect, Albert Speer with the direction to design the gateway to Europe and a symbol of Hitler’s world capital, ‘Germania’. Speer directed architect, Prof. Ernst Sagabiel to replace the old terminal building and man did he do that, the building complex was designed to resemble an eagle in flight with semicircular hangars forming the bird’s spread wings, the 1.2 km quadrant is still something to behold.

Check out the giant canopy roof, high enough to accommodate most of the aircraft used by the airport even in the decades after WWII. The aircraft could taxi all the way to the building and under the canopy. Passengers could then board and disembark from the plane protected from the elements. Look closely at the picture above and you will see a whole lot of steel holding up the roof, more steel than would be required for a roof. That’s because it was to be more than a roof, the Nazis again were thinking ahead to their dastardly plans – they saw Templehof as the perfect site to parade their victorious armies, and saw the roof as the perfect place to install bleacher seats for one hundred thousand spectators to watch the triumphant Reich armies goosestep around the pan and Luftwaffe air displays dive and soar in the skies above.

During World War II, all civil aviation was moved to an airfield in Rangsdorf, whilst Templehof was used to assemble Stuka dive bombers. Soviet forces took Templehof in the Battle of Berlin in April 1945, but after the division of Berlin, it fell under the control of American forces. Thankfully, for Templehof was to prove the vital artery with which the Allies kept Berlin from been completely overrun by the Soviets. Apart from the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world has never been closer to a Third World War than during the first tense months of the Berlin crisis of 1948.

The Berlin blockade was introduced so gradually that the West was not initially aware of what was occurring. However, on 31 March 1948, the Soviets announced that all western nationals travelling to Berlin via the Autobahn and railway would be required to show identification at Soviet control points. From that date, the Soviets escalated their control over Berlin. The Allies with only 6,500 troops in Berlin were in a very vulnerable position, when you contemplate that Stalin had 300 divisions, almost 400,000 troops within striking distance of Berlin. Step in General Lucius Dubignon Clay, stating, ‘Why are we in Europe? We have lost Czechoslovakia. We have lost Finland. Norway is threatened…After Berlin, will come western Germany and our strength there, relatively, is no greater and our position no more tenable than Berlin. If we mean that we are to hold Europe against Communism, we must not budge. We can take humiliation and pressure short of war in Berlin without losing face. If we move, our position in Europe is threatened. If America does not know this, does not believe that the issue is cast now, then it will never and Communism will run rampant. I believe the future of democracy requires us to stay here until we are forced out.’

Them’s fighting words. On 23 June 1948, the Soviets barricaded all roads, canals and rail links leading to the western zones. Berliners were terrified, few believed that the city could hold out against the Soviet threat, may wanted to flee, but that was now impossible, everyone was trapped and there was only a couple of months supply of food and coal. US army Lieutenant-General Albert Wedemeyer suggested an airlift, an unprecedented airlift in terms of scale, to bring food and supplies to the citizens of besieged Berlin. The first plane landed at Templehof on Saturday 26 June 1948. What started as a haphazard affair, became one of the most efficient, large scale operations the world as ever seen. Marshaled by the extraordinary US air force transportation expert, General William H. Turner. The logistics of the operation were mind blowing, indeed the lessons learned in dealing with the sheer volume of planes later proved pivotal in creating the international system of air traffic control. The Allies built a second and a third runway at Templehof, used the airstrip at Gatow in the British sector and Lake Havel at Gatow where Sunderland Flying Boats were landed. And finally they constructed Tegel Airport – this became a lasting symbol of Berliners defiance – with almost 2,000 Berliners working on the runway laying over 10 million bricks scavenged from rubble. At the height of the airlift up to 8,000 tons were been brought each day. The missions were difficult and dangerous. Crews were making two or more round trips a day, seven days a week, in all weather; for tours of up to six months in old planes in need of repair with Soviet planes buzzing them and Soviet anti-aircraft guns blinding them with lights and jamming vital Allied radio incidents.

Berliners were incredibly thankful, they began to turn up at Templehof with presents, for the pilots, which for many consisted of their few prized possessions. Towards the end of 1948, west Berliners had become actively pro-western. Unlike many Germans in the west who still resented the western Allies, Berliners began to embrace American culture – cinemas showed American movies, clubs and cafes played American music, even people started using American expressions and idioms. The success of the airlift was a huge blow to Stalin, he had not expected it to succeed, he had assumed it would go the way of the Nazi’s failed attempt to supply Stalingrad or of the unsuccessful attempts by the Americans and British to supply Warsaw in 1944. In May 1949, he gave up the ghost and lifted the blockade. The only reminder now in Berlin of the airlift is on the approach to Templehof airport where a soaring fan shaped sculpture with three gigantic arcs points west in the direction of the air corridors that kept Berlin alive through the winter of 1948/49 with 2.5 million tonnes of food and supplies on some 280,000 flights. The names of the 73 Allied airmen and 5 Germans that were killed during the year long operation are carved on its surface.

The Berlin crisis defined the beginning of the Cold War proper, battle lines were now drawn across Europe, across what would be termed the Iron Curtain. Berliners had been transformed from a defeated, disgraced enemy people into a new western ally. The Americans who had expressed confidently that they would leave by 1952, realised that they had to remain to protect western Europe from the Soviet threat. There were now two giant superpowers brushing against one another and if Berlin was the flash point. Templehof was the symbol of defiance.

Rambling around the site of Templehof airport today is very interesting. Relatively few bombs were dropped on Templehof during World War II, partly because the Nazis protected it with antiaircraft guns, it was also because the Allied forces knew they could use it after the war. so most of the airport remained intact. When bombs did fall on Berlin during the war, these air-raid shelters in the depths of Templehof would be filled with people. The shelter rooms still contain original paintings from the war that were designed to distract children from the chaos above, looking at the gaudy Wilhelm Busch sketches, it is difficult to see that they would do anything more than add to the terror of the poor children.

During their time occupying the building, the Americans set up various function rooms. There was a bar, a bowling alley, a full size basketball court, a disco area, a supermarket, a cinema and there was a baseball pitch on the pan. In 1962, the Americans removed a 5-metre sculpture of an eagle perched on a globe from the main terminal roof and replaced it with radar equipment. The eagle’s head now sits outside the terminal building.

Templehof’s capacity was stretched to the limit in the 1960s, and operations at Templehof were suspended after the construction of Tegel airport in West Berlin’s French sector in 1975. ​In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Templehof started to operate domestic flights once again. In 1993, the US Air Force handed the airport over to the Berliner Flughafengesellschaft, and it was used on and off for commercial purposes until November 2008.

Berliners do love their Templehof, in 2011, plans were mooted for a huge development on the site, proposing building 5,000 houses on the site, as well as commercial areas and offices. However, the Templehof Field Initiative gathered enough signatures to hold a referendum, the result, 65% voted to keep it as it is. Well, the airport, after all, is an old war-time hero, it saved the city, kept it breathing when the Soviets tried to strangle it.

Where to find Bowie in Berlin?

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155 Hauptstrasse, Schoneberg, Berlin, Bowie lived in the front first floor apartment with Coco Schwab and Iggy Pop

Speak of David Bowie and before long, Berlin is spoken of, almost before his native London or New York where he spent decades. It is his couple of years spent in Berlin that enthrall, inspire and puzzle fans. He produced arguably his greatest work while living here in the late seventies; putting out in quick succession, the three albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger, collectively known as the Berlin Trilogy in collaboration with Tony Visconti and Brian Eno, with his spiritual companion, Iggy Pop shadowing him. Bowie referred to those records, as his DNA. He also produced, The Idiot and Lust for Life, two of the greatest records in Iggy’s solo canon. Yet, Bowie’s presence in the city is not in bright lights, there are no statues, no plaques, no museums pointing the way to him; as usual, he is more elusive than that. But, he is of course still here, beautifully alluring in the eaves.

Hansa Tonstudio, Kothenerstrasse, Berlin

Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and Station to Station ensured Bowie had only gone and conquered America, and as Elvis and Lennon learned, you don’t want to go doing a thing like that. Into the void, Bowie dove, scurrying about borrowed houses, sustained on a diet of milk and cocaine, or so goes the myth, there’s a lot of that about Bowie, the old myths. Yes, there is valid evidence on Alan Yentob’s 1975 documentary, Cracked Actor, where Bowie’s fragile state is apparently illuminated. Still, in one scene, he looks pretty content and well, wearing a large felt hat, motoring through the Californian desert, sitting in the back harmonising to Aretha Franklin’s Natural woman, gulping milk , Tony Mascia and Coco Schwab sitting up front like his auld pair, as they pass a wax museum, he grins “A wax museum in the desert, you’d think it would melt.” How much was he putting us on?

The Isolar world tour to support the album, Station to Station marked Bowie’s journey away from Los Angeles and towards Berlin. That record, in the words of Allan Jones, writing in Melody Maker in 1976, “captured the spiritual malaise of the decade.” Through it, Bowie was leaving the decadence and America behind and pointing towards the technological phenomenon of the Berlin LPs. The train was leaving town, Bowie was on it. On the opening track, he haunts the vocal –

Tall in this room overlooking the ocean
Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth
There are you, drive like a demon from station to station

He’s taking the freight train from Kether, the celestial crown on the kabbalistic tree of life, to Malkuth, the most earthly of the kabbala’s ten stations –

It’s safer than a strange land
But I still care for myself
And I don’t stand in my own light
Lord, Lord, my prayer flies
Like a word on a wing
My prayer…

He wasn’t partying in LA, he told John Robinson, “I didn’t really use drugs for hedonistic purposes, I didn’t go out very much. I wasn’t getting totally out of it and going to clubs and all that; I’d never really done that to a major extent. i was really just working, I’d work days in a row without sleep. it wasn’t a joyful, euphoric kind of thing. I was driving myself to the point of insanity…I was in a fragile state at that time, it was time to get out of this terrible lifestyle that I had put myself into, and get healthy, it was time, to pull myself together.” Glenn Hughes, whose house he was staying in said, “David told me the thought his demon had caught up with him. He told me he had to get out of LA.

Whilst touring Station to Station, Bowie had met the writer Christopher Isherwood backstage at the Forum in Inglewood, California. Isherwood had lived in Berlin during the early 1930s, and the city became the backdrop to his works including Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye To Berlin – which became the basis of the 1972 film Cabaret. Bowie was fascinated by Isherwood’s memories of Berlin and coupled with his avid digesting of German expressionism, he began considering the city for his next destination. He began to Berlin as “the center of everything that is happening and will happen in Europe over the next few years”, he wished to, “experiment, to discover new forms of writing; to evolve, in fact, a new musical language.” Six months later he moved to Berlin. His assistant, Coco Schwab found him a modest, first floor apartment, above a car repair shop in an Art Nouveau building in the modest area of Schoneberg.

Bowie’s picture in the window of Hansa Studio

Life in Berlin changed Bowie, Rory MacLean in his chapter on Bowie, in his fascinating book, Berlin, provides a delicious description of a day in the life of Bowie in West Berlin in the late seventies, “The cyclist swung off Hauptstrasse onto the deep, tree-lined streets. His bicycle tires thrummed on the cobbles. The warm air ruffled his hair. He pedaled past the buildings where Isherwood and Riefenstahl had lived. At a co-op cafe pale-faced students in PLO scarves looked up from their copy of Kierkegaard and ordered another espresso. Above them ‘US Army Go Home” was graffitied on the walls of a squat… At Brecht’s blitzed apartment block on Spichernstrasse he veered north, retracing the old playwright’s daily stroll to the Romaishces Cafe. Over coffee and chess – the cyclist had read – Brecht and Grosz had called for a new kind of art and gifted it to the world. Some mornings the cyclist turned left rather than right and rode south to where Ernst Kirchner – one of the fathers of Expressionism – had had his studio…the cyclist past the vacated bunkers, the demolished Sportpalast where Goebbels had declared Total War, the People’s Court where Hitler’s would be assassins had been sentenced to death. Templehof’s vast arrivals hall and cold stone eagles rose behind him…At Mie van der Rohe’s New National Gallery, built on the abandoned foundations of Speer’s Germania, he turned right to follow the canal..into Kothenerstrasse, avoiding the tracks of the trams which no longer ran, and glided towards the Wall. At the edge of no man’s land he coasted to a stop and rolled his bike into Hansa Sound Studio.” In this imaginative piece, I feel that Rory MacClean sums up better than anyone, the new Bowie, the Bowie who wrote in his diary, “I have now got the will . I will be and I will work. “

Neues Ufer, Hauptstrasse, Berlin – A regular haunt of Bowie and Pop

MacClean succintly puts it, “Many come to Berlin on a search, often for themselves. Bowie found himself in Berlin. He pulled away from addiction and shed his false personas.” Bowie said of the period, “Life in LA had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I had approached the brink of drug-induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take positive action. Berlin was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke, it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer…”

Twenty thousand people
Cross Böse Brücke
Fingers are crossed
Just in case
Walking the dead

Alastair Mackay, writing in Uncut, says, “Bowie, enjoying his isolation in Berlin, remained enthralled by the electronic music of Neu! and Kraftwerk and was heavily under the influence of Eno. But the real sense you get from Heroes, is of an artist relaxing into a new identity…What you hear is a kind of alienated psyche music; European, and narrated, as ever, in the Mockney patois of Anthony Newley. There’s no denying the influence of the Cold War’s divided city on the mood. The three instrumentals on side two – Sense of Doubt, MossGarden and Neukoln – are like a soundtrack to the geopolitical anxieties of the day.”

Hansa’s Studio Two had been used as a dance hall by the Gestapo, and was known by Bowie as ‘The hall by the Wall’. “It was a Weimar ballroom,” he told Uncut in 2001, “utilised by Gestapo in the ’30s for their own little musical ‘soirées’. The studio itself was a relic. My first impressions were of the curtains surrounding the studio, and the darkness in the studio. It was not foreboding, just that the air was thick with a darker vibe. You have got to remember, we’re painting a picture based on our emotional disposition and you’re thinking: Germans, Nazis, the Wall, oppression. These things are hanging in the air, and when things get darker physically, you kind of think of darker themes too. Berlin was a rather dark, industrial place to work. There was one point when we wanted to see a bit of light and we asked them to open the curtains. There were these gigantic, heavy curtains and when they did that we saw the walk where the gunner is and that was a rather rude awakening. Although it gave us a cold slap in the face as to where we were, it also gave us a heavier resolve about the intensity of what we were doing.

All five albums that Bowie made during his time in Berlin are extraordinary pieces of work, but the one that is most firmly rooted in Berlin is “Heroes”. Tony Visconti, in his book, A New Career In A New Town, writes, “The music and lyrics on the album were informed by cultural and physical differences between East and West, the Russian Red Guards that could see into the studio, and the sheer scale of Berlin’s recent history all contributed to a darker, more claustrophobic atmosphere than that on Low.”

Bose Brucke, July 2019

The defining track on the album was lead single, “Heroes”, it was to to become a anthem for the divided city. It’s constant fascination lies in it’s open interpretation, but the lyrics

I remember
Standing by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall

firmly rooted it in Berlin and the insane situation in which people had to live.

Potsdamer Platz, in the late seventies. Source – Flickr

Visconti writes, “The couple’s kiss in the shadows of the Berlin Wall famously inspired the lyrics of the title track. After a few days of lead vocals David decided to have a go at “Heroes”. He had to write the lyrics first and it seemed to be taking a long time. Antonia was visiting and our conversation, albeit a quiet one, was distracting him. He asked us to literally ‘take a walk’ so he could finish the lyrics. The area around the studio only had a few shops and a coffee house and it was late evening. It was kind of bleak. The control room window faced a forsaken empty lot sometimes used as a gypsy encampment, with the ubiquitous Wall looming in the distance. Antonia and I had a coffee and walked around a bit but didn’t go very far as it felt unsafe. We stopped beneath the control room window to look at the Wall. We had a little chat about it that somehow turned into a little snog. We chatted some more and then returned to the studio.”

Bowie street art on Dresdenerstrasse, on which Nick Cave lived in the 1980s

Heroes became a Berlin anthem. Bowie returned to the city almost thirty years after writing it, MacClean eloquently describes that night , “In June 1987, his driver drove him past the old Hauptstasse apartment, by the Brucke Musuem and Hansa, to a stage in front of the Reichstag. As night fell, her performed to 70,000 fans, their candles and sparklers glittering around the Platz der Republik. Towards the end of the show, he read a message in German, ‘We send our wishes to all our Friends who are on the other side of the Wall’ . Then he sang ‘Heroes’. On the other side of the hateful divide, hundreds of young East Berliners strained to hear the echoes of the concert. They caught sight of stage lights flashing off blank, bullet marked walls. They heard Bowie greet them. They listened to his song. Their song. Berlin’s song. As ‘Heroes’ reached its climax some of the East German crowd pushed towards the Brandenburg gate, whistling and chanting, ‘Down with the Wall’. They threw insults and bottles and the Volkspolizei, rising together against the thugs in a rare moment of protest. On stage Bowie heard the tears from the other side. He was in tears.”

The memorial plaque that was erected at 155 Hauptstrasse, but was later stolen and has not been replaced.

“It was one of the most emotional performances I have ever done, he said later, It was breaking my heart…that’s the town where it was written, and that’s the particular situation that it was written about. It was just extraordinary.

So, where is Bowie in Berlin? On the physical level, there is Hauptstrasse 155, you can stand across the road and look over at it, and imagine back, to young Bowie and Pop, barely in their 30s, strutting in their East Berlin duds down to Neues Ufer for a beer, which you can do too. There is Hansa, which for a princely sum, you can get a tour of; there is the Brucke museum where you can walk in the footsteps of Bowie gazing at the works of Kirchner, Kollwitz and Heckel.

But much of Berlin is steeped with Bowie, or Bowie is steeped in Berlin; stick on your headphones, listen to the album Heroes and wander Neukolln the open streets and through the crowds spilling out of the shopfronts – chatting, laughing, eating, drinking, smoking and cavorting, Explore the tree lined avenues of Schoneberg, diving in and out of the book, antique and junk stores listening to Sound and Vision. Embrace the sonic experimentation of Eno on the second half of Low, and wander about the Wall at Nordbahnhof and through the quiet cobblestreets of Prenzlaeur Berg with Warszawa, Art Decade, Weeping Wall and Subterraneans. Go to Potsdamer Platz and listen to Heroes and Where are We Now?. Ride the U-Bahn listening to Lust for Life, The Passenger, Success and Tonight; and you’ll find Bowie permeates the city in that willow the wisp enchanting way of his.

Flowers, candles and pictures left outside 155 Hauptstrasse in the wake of David’s death in January 2016. Source – Wikimedia Commons

Is Devil’s Mountain the greatest historical hybrid in Berlin?

Standing in the glass dome of the Riechstag, taking in the views across Berlin, I saw giant white domes on the horizon, upon asking, I was told that’s Devil’s Mountain. So, I went there. Man, it is one of the most compelling sites in Berlin and one that I had never heard of before.

I took the S-Bahn to Heerstrasse and then walked a few kilometers to Teufelsberg. So what is Teufelsberg? Get this, Teufelsberg is German for Devil’s Mountain, and it was an NSA spy station built on the site of a Nazi college. Wow. That is Vanishing Berlin gold. The Nazi college was called the Wehrtechnische Fakultat and stood deep and hidden within Grunewald Forest. In May 1950, the Allies turned it into the graveyard of old Berlin as they dumped tons and tons of rubble and a mountain, Devil’s Mountain, Teufelsberg began to rise above the trees of Grunewald, built from the ruins of the buildings of war torn Berlin. It now stands 400 feet creating fine views of the forest and Berlin away in the distance.

What lies beneath? Old historical Berlin. In keeping with the thinking of Stunde Null (Zero Hour), Germany’s past was to be written off and the nation was to begin again. in hindsight a madness perhaps but in many ways understandable. It led to the destruction of all remnants of the past and their replacement with legions of concrete high-rises. Many historical buildings which may have been saved were torn down; treasures such as nineteenth century townhouses and the Anhalter Bahnhof along with 400,000 other buildings now form part of Devil’s Mountain.

1951 Berlin Ruine des Anhalter Bahnhofes, By Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P054491 / Weinrother, Carl / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Link

The destruction of historical buildings was viewed as a path of cutting Germany off from the Nazi past. Traditional styles were seen as tainted and international modernism was embraced. If you take the case of Anhalter Banhhof, which was the railway terminus for Berlin, it was severely damaged by Allied bombing during World War II, however it may have being resurrected but perhaps elements of its past did for it. 55, 000 Jews, around one third of Berlin’s Jewish population were transported to extermination camps from Anhalter Banhhof.

After the construction of the Berlin Wall, the US National Security Agency (NSA) built a radio measuring, intelligence gathering field station at Teufelsberg. The facility, known colloquially as “The Hill” contained massive twelve metre satellite antennas and the most sophisticated spying equipment, enabling the field station to intercept satellite signals, radio waves and microwaves; which they would then intercept and analyse. The station continued to operate until the fall of the Berlin Wall and its closure, the US removed the equipment but left the buildings and the radomes standing. They are the moon like globes. Why are they so unusual looking? The name, radome is a portmanteau of radar and dome; they are weatherproof enclosures that portect the antenna and are constructed by material that minimises the electromagnetic signal received by the antenna.

In the 1990s, after German reunification, a group of investors bought the former listening station area from the City of Berlin with the intention to build hotels and apartments and there was talk of preserving the listening station as a spy museum. But for whatever reason, no building has taken place on the site; there are rumors that the city is seeking to buy the hill. But still nothing happens, the domes stand tattered, fluttering in the wind, harking back to a time when they were the ears and eyes of the West and a pain in the arse for the East. Overtime, the site has become a mecca for street artists and is now one of the best street art galleries in the city.

Good old Beckenbauer

I walked back towards the city through Grunewald Forest, be careful, if you take this route, as it is quite easy to get lost and in a forest that is nearly 8,000 acres, you don’t want to be thrashing about blindly in it. There are tree people too living in the high branches, enjoying Amazonian accommodations on the edge of the sprawling metropolis.

The route brings you to the Olympic stadium and you can take an S-Bahn or U-Bahn from there back into the city. I looked back, but could not see the randomes from where I was, obscured as they were by the forest. What a strange place, a man-made mountain built from the ruins of war scarred Berlin on the ruins of a Nazi college on which the NSA built a futuristic spying station, then abandoned to the impending forest and street artist invaders who transformed it into an eerily beautiful art installation. I’ll leave the last words to TOBO.

Hitler’s Extraordinary 1936 Olympic Village, Elstal, Berlin

Gymnasium at Olympic Village, Elstal

Hitler and the Olympics. The greatest oxymoron. I had to go and see it. Ciaran Fahey is the King of Urban Exploration in Berlin, in a town like Berlin, that is some title to hold. His site, Abandoned Berlin, is a great piece of work, mapping out in great detail all of the abandoned sites, and there are quite the amount, which he has explored. I found his post regarding the abandoned 1936 Olympic village fascinating. So, I took a regional train to Wundermark, Elstal, and walked the few kilometers to the site.  

Nazi helmets from 1945 Fall of Berlin found on site

Wow, it’s incredible. As Olympic villages go, Elstal broke the mold, prior to it, villages were basic affairs with little or no training facilities and simple huts serving as accommodation. The Berlin Olympics 1936, was viewed by the Nazis as the perfect platform in which to promote their ideals and government. Everything was aimed at superseding Los Angeles 1932, Hitler had a one hundred thousand seat track and field stadium built and the games were the first to be televised with over seventy hours of coverage been broadcast to special viewing rooms in Berlin and Potsdam and some private viewing sets.

Walter von Ruckteschell, Nazi Wall Relief at Hindenburg Haus, Olympic Village, Elstal

All detail was looked at it, they pioneered the modern convention of moving the flame via a relay system from Greece to the Olympic venue. Check out Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary, Olympia, in which she documented the relay from ancient Athens to the packed and roaring Olympic stadium and the flags of the world fluttering in the breeze, Great Britain and Japan beside one another. Watching the huge crowd in the stadium welcoming all the teams and Hitler with the Nazi salute is disturbing as is the German team marching by him doing likewise. The crowd are deliriously content, their country which had been on its knees for so long, was hosting one of the greatest, if not the greatest event in the world, all eyes were on them and their magnificent stadium.

Swimming Pool, Olympic Village, Elstal, Berlin. People would never have seen floor to ceiling windows like this in 1936.

A well fed Hitler takes off his hat and announces the Games open and thousands of pigeons are launched into the sky. Then the torch relay is shown running under the Brandenburg Gate, down Unter den Linden and into the stadium and the Olympic flame in the stadium is lit. The desired link between Ancient Greece and the Third Reich is all too apparent.

Inside one of the USA Olympic Team Huts, Olympic Village, Elstal, Berlin

The Olympic Village was revolutionary in its design, illustrating both the technical ability and ideological absurdity of the Nazi regime. When it was built, it included state of the art dormitories, dining areas, training facilities, a swimming pool and was home to almost five thousand athletes who it must be remembered were all amateur and had never seen anything like it. It was designed to portray an idyllic and peaceful Germany and was laid out to resemble a German village with each accommodation building been named after a German town. But chillingly, it was built with darker motives, as Germany was already planning war, it was constructed to be easily converted into an army barracks and hospital after the Games. The Gestapo were also monitoring all letters and telephone calls the athletes made home, so dare you say anything anti-German or anti-Nazi, because down the line it may be used against you. Again, the idea is deeply troubling that there was a sinister side behind everything, a plotted dastardly plan shadowing the purest and noblest of events.

Outside one of the USA Olympic Team Huts, Olympic Village, Elstal, Berlin

Hitler had tried to implement anti-Semitic and racist ideology on the Games, attempting to ban Jewish and Black athletes from competing, however when countries threatened to boycott, he relented. Jessie Owens and some of the other American athletes were to become the fly in the ointment. In Olympia, you watch him in his 100m heat beating with ease all the other competitors, all white, with ease. Borchmayer, the German, defeats the field in a similar fashion in his heat. Six make it through the final – Borchmayer, Wykoff, Owens, Strandberg, Osendarp and Metcalfe. Riefenstahl’s close-ups of Owens under starter’s orders, show a Hollywood handsome, supremely focused athlete; he of course wins, the other American Metcalfe, also black, is the only one running him close. The lanky American, Woodruff, wins the epic 800m finals, beating the favored Italian, Lanzi into second place, the commentary begins by stating the two black Athletes, Woodruff and the Canadian Edwards are against the best white athletes of Europe. Riefenstahl shoots Owens beautifully at the Long Jump as he covers 8.04 metres, a new world record. You can’t see Hitler being too impressed with the way she shot him, it is so iconic. And the footage of the the American flag ascending above of the Swastika and the Japanese flag must have stuck in his craw something shocking. Another black athlete, Cornelius Johnson wins the High Jump with a world record of 2.04 metres, only bothering to get out of his tracksuit for the final heat. In the women’s 4×4 relay, the Germans way out in front, get struck by commentator’s curse when, at the final handover, he states, “the Germans cannot lose!”, they drop the baton, Helen Stephens wins for the Americans the camera then shows Hitler in classic Chaplin mode, pretending to be jolly and a good sport, as the commentator lists, one, two and three, America, England and Canada, Hitler then turns and says something to someone off camera, what’s he ordering there you wonder. But overall, the Germans won the Games, winning eighty-nine medals with the Americans in second place with 56. It is strange now to see the Swastika being raised as the flag of Germany each time a German athlete won a medal.

Hindenburg Haus, Olympic Village, Elstal, Berlin

Rambling around the Olympic village, abandoned since the Soviets withdrew in 1992, I was thinking about all those fine athletes and what an excellent month they must have spent in Germany in 1936. Living in state of the art facilities, surrounded by the finest athletes from 51 nations across the world, travelling to the 100,000 seat stadium, competing, seeing themselves on TV for the first time. Almost 400,000 visitors came to see the village before the athletes arrived in July 1936. It was comprised of 136 one story bungalows, with 28 athletes staying in each, two to a room and a room for two stewards, there was also a small common room and a tiny telephone exchange in each bungalow. There was a large horseshoe-shaped building which housed dining areas and kitchens for each team, so that their chefs could cook the food that their respective athletes wanted and were used to. In addition, there were state of the art training facilities on their doorstep. And all of this was set in the most tranquil of sites, indeed, over a thousand mature trees were dug up, transported and replanted on the site to make it look like a real village. Allies of the Germans got the best houses but all of the houses were in comparison to ordinary training facilities, were state of the art. So it was paradise. Well almost, there were no women allowed on site, including the Olympic female competitors, who stayed in housing near the stadium.  

Lenin Painting, Inside Hindenburg House ,Elstal, Berlin

The two-story Hindenburg Haus – named after the field marshal and German president Paul von Hindenburg, patron of the Games up to his death in 1934 –was the main administration center with its own theater/television exchange. It was here that the first tests were done on live TV transmissions. The 1936 Olympics provided the first live sports broadcasts to the world.

Soviet Iconography inside Hindenburg Haus, torn by vandals, notice the swastika is left untouched

But what sad times would befall the site, during World War II, it was used as a hospital and a training academy for German soldiers, indeed with weeks left in the war they were still churning them out. In 1945, it was taken over by the Soviets and used as a barracks until 1994. Since then the site has lay abandoned, but property developers have recently bought it, indeed, there are parts of the site, where they are working and are off limits as the complex is being developed into townhouses and apartments as Berlin encroaches into the suburbs.

Gymnasium, Olympic Village, Elstal – the mature trees created an idyllic feel but they also provided cover from aerial notice

All in all, I spent about three hours on the site, it was an amazing experience peering into show that the Nazis put on for the world, before they showed their real hand three years later. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is long left for these buildings, there were bulldozers on site knocking stuff down, as I walked about, so I guess it won’t be long before they are all resigned to just memory. It was of course a fantastic stage set, over one million people visited the city for the Olympics. Few saw through the facade, indeed Thomas Wolfe mocked the 3,000 journalists who were blinded by the masquerade that the Nazis put on in his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again. It is of course debatable whether this is a good or a bad thing, many people will want it razed to the ground, to eradicate the duplicity of what occurred here. But many others will have wanted it maintained, to remember what occurred here.