(From the 6th of Feb. My opinions have changed somewhat since writing this; the city and I have made friends again, but what I’ve written here was true once, and so it stays.)
It’s Monday morning and I’m feeling wretched, and so the only time I can write this is right now, as my wretchedness may well be due to chemical deficiencies that will have righted themselves tomorrow. But perhaps not.
I’ve been listening to Bloc Party’s second album, Weekend in the City, on repeat for weeks now. It’s fascinating how you can revisit an album from years before and find it imbued with new life. When I was younger, the lyrics were obscure; confusing and depressing. The album’s opening line, “I’m trying to be heroic/in an age of modernity” – what the hell does that mean to a 14 year old? Today, I find comfort in those words and in the agonised guitars that follow, because someone, somewhere, felt the same way I do. The urgency, the inner city claustrophobia, the confusion, it pours out of the record. The music hasn’t changed; I have.
Since I returned to Berlin after Christmas, things have been different. The rush and wonder I experienced when I first came here has dimmed, and I’ve become somewhat disillusioned with the strangeness around me. In fact, disdainful would be a better word. It’s constant, this weirdness, and it’s wearing me down. The drunks on the U Bahn during the morning commute, the addicts and wasters, the mad and the desperately poor. How can a city so proud of its life and youth and freedom at the same time house so many living in destitution? I give money to those sitting in the street but I’ve not enough to do it every time or I’ll have nothing left. Back home there were a handful of homeless scattered across the city. Here there are estimated to be ten thousand. How? This hypocrisy is making me blue.
It all start with the protests last weekend. I went out on Friday to protest Trump’s inauguration, on Saturday for the Women’s March, and again this Saturday to protest the refugee ban and show solidarity with Muslims. There are huge events occurring in our world right now that can’t be ignored. There will be immense and terrible repercussions from the sowing of all these hateful seeds, and anyone who presumes to call themselves a good person has a moral obligation to get out there and do something. In London, tens of thousands have taken to the streets time and time again. Around the world, squares have been filled. In Berlin, all we could produce was a few hundred people beneath the Brandenburg Gate chanting weak slogans. The crowd barely outnumbered the tourists drifting there, ignoring the protest and instead throwing up peace signs and craning their selfie sticks before the Gate, utterly oblivious to the blood that has stained Pariser Platz over the centuries. Indifference is violence.
Since that first protest, I’ve carried with me a sense of disgust as I’ve stalked the bars and clubs of Berlin. Yeah, you’re all so beautiful and interesting, but where the fuck were you all? If everyone that claimed to give a shit about these matters actually did, actually acted on all the cocaine conversations held at 8am on Sunday morning, we could have filled the square and all the roads from the Gate to the Reichstag, and showed every Muslim and every refugee living in Berlin that they have nothing to fear, that we will defend them. But dancing and drugs are all that matters.
Klaus Wowereit, Mayor of Berlin from 2001 to 2014, once called the city ‘Poor but Sexy’. This was a stroke of genius as far as marketing was concerned, and caused skint creative types to flock here. Wowereit was certainly right, but he missed something out. Poor and apathetic but sexy seems to fit better. When I moved here, I remember writing something in a diary entry about wanting to find ‘my people’, or whatever. I was frustrated that many people back home, in my old office and friendship circles, didn’t seem to really want much from life. They weren’t moving, they were stagnant, just going to work and going home. What I’m increasingly seeing here, however, is just a variant on the same. People go to clubs, they go to work, repeat ad infinitum.
This, I think, has been the downfall of so many wonderful youth movements over the years. I remember once saying that Berlin is a special point in time and space, just as San Francisco was in the 60’s, when all that positive energy converged in one white hot city block over on Haight Ashbury and exploded with colour one summer. The trouble with this, all the blind optimism of youth, is that it’s easy to feel that we are bound for joys eternal, just because we are young. Hunter S Thompson wrote the following on San Francisco:
“There was madness in any direction, at any hour. […] You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, […] you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
It’s funny how much that quote has changed in meaning to me. When I first moved here, only four months ago but so much younger, I often quoted that passage to friends when describing Berlin, ecstatic. I never gave much thought to the last sentence and instead focussed on the first two paragraphs, because I saw it gleaming from every surface. I’d stand on the platform at Kotbusser Tor and watch my reflection in the window of the U Bahn as it moved off, and I’d see a free spirited young man with eyes full of life, and I’d look around and see the same in every face, and I knew that I was part of something special, something inexactly yet undeniably good. This attitude is wrong and useless.
Before moving here I was excited at the prospect of living among artists and poets. I’d read enough Jack Kerouac to be in love with the idea of freewheeling madmen and spontaneous dropout adventures; seeking pleasures that would never be known to the rich and boring. Even those modest hopes seem to have been dashed recently. The spoken word nights I’ve frequented for months are, I’ve gradually come to realise, packed to the rafters with nothing but personal insecurity, dull self-exploration and groan-worthy ‘epiphanies’.
Where is anybody with any vision? Let’s share ideas down in these basements! Let’s contribute to something actually worthwhile – something with benefits and ramifications beyond a gloomy bar. The beginnings of a new global narrative, one of tolerance and compassion, could, should, be beginning in basements like this across the world, if only we weren’t so selfish.
While we are down here in Berlin being cool and doing drugs and dancing for days on end and having anonymous sex in nightclub black rooms, outside of this bubble the world continues turning and hate is growing. I got on the U Bahn on Saturday to attend the Muslim ban protest, and on the window of the carriage was scrawled ‘MOZLEM NOT WELCOME’. I’ve never seen that before. My heart sank when I saw it. This is real. There are difficult times ahead, for so many people. We can either ignore it, and wallow in ugly indifference, or we can fuck up and do something about it. Berliners toiled and struggled for years to earn their liberties. They knocked down their wall while the world cheered them on. Now walls are being built elsewhere in the world, and I am not satisfied with the response of this city. It’s not good enough.
Berlin is poor but sexy. Maybe that was true, once. But all I’ve seen lately has made me think that the people coming here have misinterpreted what sexiness is. The most attractive attribute a person can have? Heart. Charisma is nothing more than conviction and compassion. Berlin, you are beautiful, you are free and wild, but you have to fight to keep your heart. I believe that all of this chaos meant something, once upon a time. Maybe the partying and the joy was a rebellion against the stupidity and darkness of old men in suits with fingers hovering over big red buttons in the Cold War, and celebration at the fall of the Wall. Today, there are struggles elsewhere in the world that are just as urgent, and we can’t afford to allow the bright and brilliant people that flock here to waste themselves and disappear with the tide.
Give a fuck. It’s the sexiest thing you can do.