Archive for May 2012
Berlin is a very cool city indeed. And I can’t believe it’s taken me half a lifetime to visit for the first time. It won’t be the last, for sure. Not only is it a fabulously relaxed and laid back city, full of great bars, street cafes, cool shops and flea markets, it has, of course, the most extraordinary history.
A painful and disturbing history. There are definitely no victors in war, only qualities (and, of course quantities) of loss. But I think Berlin as a city has confronted its own painful past with a great deal of dignity and nobility. Everywhere you go there are mementos to those lost in the war, transported out of the city and never seen again. Painted on the wall of buildings, or brass plates embedded in the pavement, the names of those who once lived there.
And just as one enormous chunk of pain is being confronted and dealt with another comes along. On the morning of 13th August 1961, East Berliners awoke to find themselves sealed off from West Berlin with 100kms of barbed wire, 6 foot high, erected overnight and swiftly followed by The Wall.
Walls are mankind’s cry for help. A demonstration of its greatest single flaw. The inability to live peacefully and co-operatively with its neighbours. Every great wall is a symbolic, social, cultural, economic, ideological, emotional catastrophe. The more gargantuan the wall, the greater the catastrophe. Learning from history that we do indeed learn nothing from history.
These photos were on display at the cross section of Bernauer Strasse where they were taken 51 years ago. In 1961, the wall went up almost overnight, no-one knew it was coming and no-one was prepared for it. Suddenly, overnight, the division was in place, neighbourhoods were severed, those living along the fault line found themselves both walled in and walled out. Separated so definitively from old friends and neighbours and even relatives.
At agreed times, people on both sides of the wall would meet at this corner, wave to friends and family across the divide, show them new born babies, share their news by shouting it across to those on the other side.
I found these photos profoundly moving, particularly the woman in the first picture. It communicates so much about the anxiety and sense of loss that people must have felt, she’s waving of the white handkerchief as well, symbolic surrender and helplessness.
These photos gave me goose bumps.
Another long weekend in London, another little trip to Persephone Books. This time I returned home with a selection of cookery-themed books from the 1930s and 40s. I say ‘cookery-themed’ because they are a little more than just recipe books. Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll, for example, is full of entertaining and slightly satirical commentary.
Your spinster aunt will certainly accuse you of undue extravagance after she has partaken freely of your [Gigot de Six Heures].
Complaints of the difficulties one can have when one’s cook, “whose mothers so often specialize in sudden and disastrous illnesses” during the holiday season, leave and one is faced with an unexpected emergency. i.e. having to cook!
The recipes themselves are curious indeed, looking at them with a 21st century eye. Gelee Creme de Menthe begins
Make a quart of good lemon jelly in the approved way, preferably with calves’ feet…
or shopping lists for the butcher that read
half a pound calf’s liver, half a pound veal cutlet, 1 sweetbread, 2 kidneys and a set of brains
So one book is rather liberally peppered with French recipe names – Potage a la Ecossaise? - well that’ll be Scotch Broth then – giving it a sense of belonging to the more privileged classes.
The other book is more prosaic. A wartime ‘make do and mend’ handbook for cheap and cheery, easy to cook, food. Although still with curiously named dishes like Jugged Hare or Junket and Cream.
So this is my latest plan. Age of Austerity Dinner Parties. I will head down to Findlay’s in Portobello with my shopping list of liver, calves’ feet, kidneys and brains, guests should all come in frippery-free, 1940s style clothing, preferably with some homemade stout or equivalent – and we can all explore together, the joys of 101 things to put in aspic.
Followed by tinned peaches and a milk pudding.
p.s. photo was taken in Shakespeare and Co, Paris not Persephone Books, London
… will be girls.
Only sometimes with less lippy and a little more knitwear.
These figurines hidden down the back of a vintage books stall on the Left Bank in Paris remind me somehow of the old ‘saucy’ postcards that people used to send from the British seaside.
This is the one and only picture I’m going to post from this trip to Malawi. The trip was short and the work was intense and there was very little opportunity to explore Lilongwe in the few days I was there.
‘Exploring’ is logistically difficult in Lilongwe anyway. I have always enjoyed taking myself off when in a new place, with a camera if possible, to just walk and to watch and explore.
But Lilongwe is not an easy place to do this. Everyone and no-one walks. And that all depends on where you sit upon the spectrum of wealth. On the one hand, Lilongwe is full of people walking, Malawi is full of people walking. All walking along a road somewhere, or pushing a bicycle, wheels buckling under the weight of the load being carried – stacked crates of vegetables for the market, sack upon sack of Nsema, pregnant or elderly relatives.
Then at the other end of the spectrum, no-one walks. The roads are full of giant 4×4 vehicles, powering round potholes and on towards the other stratosphere of existence.
There was a chronic fuel shortage whilst I was there which meant that lines of vehicles were left abandoned for days at petrol stations throughout the city in the hope that when the fuel lorry finally did arrive to replenish the pumps, they would be fairly near the front of an impossibly growing queue. There were ‘Petrol Watch’ Facebook groups set up, alerts went out that petrol was due imminently at a certain location, or newly arrived at another, and suddenly half our workshop participants vanished in the chase for fuel. Two or maybe three hours of waiting and finally you’d have a full tank. All that effort, all that anxiety and expended energy, all for a single tank of fuel!
There were queues for sugar too. Rationed to four bags per person, the sugar queues were set up outside the main shopping centres and kept orderly by security guards. The highest denomination of bank note in Malawi is now worth less than £2 and yet, to eat in a restaurant, to buy basic food stuffs at a supermarket, take a taxi into town or stay in a hotel – these all cost almost the equivalent as in the UK. Very few places take credit or debit cards so, imagine heading out for an evening to eat as a party of six and making sure you have the equivalent of £120 in £2 coins in order to pay for the evening. In Malawi it’s not £2 coins but 500 Kwatcha notes, in bundles the thickness of a household brick. Western purses are not designed for carrying the Malawian Kwatcha.
On the morning I was leaving, I did finally go for a walk. I stepped out of the Lodge I was staying in and walked along the road to the main shopping mall about half a mile away. There are no pavements, so everyone walks ON the road, body swerving the 4x4s as they body swerve the pot holes. A western woman walking alone along a main road is quite an unusual sight in Lilongwe and it wasn’t an entirely comfortable experience. I felt a little exposed and vulnerable, more so than I was expecting.
Walking back to the Lodge, the man in this picture stopped me and asked me for money. On the spectrum of wealth, he was clearly not at the end with the giant 4x4s or indeed with the complaints about how much Kwatcha is stuffed in one’s purse.
He was immaculately clean and well-dressed and was sitting in an improvised wheel chair, unable to walk. He had an air of defiant pride about him, and the way he asked me for money was as if it was both my duty and responsibility to agree, which I tacitly did.
I nodded, smiled and asked him if he would mind if I took his photo, turning this into a crude currency of exchange and he accepted. But he didn’t smile back. Not once. He remained defiant and proud. I respect him for that.
I flirted with the idea of buying a rifle at the carboot sale on Sunday. In fact, I flirted with the idea of buying a rifle AND a dueling pistol at the carboot sale on Sunday. Not because I’m at all interested in guns but I quite fancied finding out how far I would get down Leith Walk with my two new purchases before an Armed Response Unit was mobilized.
Obviously, I didn’t entertain the idea for very long but I was thinking about the way that carboot sales are full of someone else’s discarded past and someone else’s memories. Objects that might have sat proudly on a mantlepiece for years somewhere, watching the passage of life from up high, now dumped ignominiously on a collapsible table in a basement car park, prodded and poked by scores of passing bargain hunters.
And junk yards just scale up this abandonment even further. Things seem to come in waves too. So one day, you pop by and it seems that everyone has decided to chuck out their golf clubs, thousands of them, everywhere you look. The next time it might be that there are a job lot of discarded toilets. Or filing cabinets. Or hospital beds. Last time I went it was all bowling trophies and church pews.
And in amongst all that was this lady. I fancy that in her past life she graced the bow of ancient ship and sailed the seven seas, slicing through 60 ft waves, protecting pirates and lovers and adventurers. And now here she is, trapped in a junk yard shed, with only a pile of battered Nana Mouskouri records and a broken hairdryer for company. Looking wistfully out, the streak of glamour in an otherwise colossal heap of shit, fending off the disapproving glances of a thousand Crown Green Bowling Trophies.
Well that’s how I imagine it to be.
So today, we went back to liberate her from her suburban prison and give her a new home somewhere near (but probably not on) our mantlepiece, so she could gaze wistfully out at our life for a while.
Only someone else got there first and she was gone.