17 July 2013

Testament - John Romer

A year or so ago I re-read John Romer’s “Testament: The Bible and History” (1988). The pages are beginning to yellow a bit now. The book, and the original documentary series which it accompanies, is a fascinating exploration of faith from the historical perspective. Bible archaeology can be highly contested ground where scholars would best be wise to tread carefully, but Romer masterfully manages to do exactly that. The first film in the series begins with him sitting in an English churchyard on a lovely summer’s day, and he begins by talking about the Bible and what it means to him. Not so much in terms of his own faith, but in terms of his own family’s Bible – it’s a remarkably old copy, the covers of which have been inscribed by all the preceding generations of his family, dating right back to the 17th century. From this starting point he takes the viewer back through a history of how the Bible came to be, how it was read and received through time, and what it meant to different peoples at different times.

I first saw the programmes at a salient time in my life. I was already fascinated by ancient history and already beginning to get involved in both working in museums and archaeological fieldwork. I was also attending confirmation classes at my local parish church, the actual building of which fascinated me. I had many interesting conversations with the Vicar and the Curate about the architecture and the old monuments decorating the church. I was also a trainee bell ringer there, and it was often my job as the youngest bell ringer to climb up into the bell tower amidst the bells themselves to fit the mufflers before we rang the bells on Remembrance Day. I remember it was often freezing cold or stiflingly hot in the bell chamber (depending on the season), not to mention very dusty and potentially quite dangerous if you weren’t fully aware of what you were doing up there! Having access to the bell tower though was wonderful for a budding historian as the various levels above the ringing floor were intriguing spaces, filled with the dust of times long since past. The old clock mechanism was a beguilingly antiquated thing. And the stone sets around the stained glass windows had all sorts of weathered graffiti scratched into them – someone at some unknown point clearly had a real predilection for carving intricate flowers into the soft stone. The church itself dated back to somewhere around the 1300s.

‘Testament’ as a TV series and a book seemed to sum up my interests at the time. It visited many places which I too would visit not so long after it first aired on television: Karnak, Luxor, and Elephantine in Egypt; the Pergamon Museum and Wittenberg in Germany; Florence and Rome in Italy; the (old) British Library in London, and, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The programme presents a subtle but unashamedly English view of its subject – and indeed there seems to be a perennial fascination in this country for the story of William Tyndall (c.1494-1536) and the King James Bible, how it came about, along with the country’s conversion to Protestantism, and then later the debates started by the publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859. But I think what struck me most, perhaps without fully realising it at the time, was Romer’s style of presentation. He has a very easy manner, and talks to you as if he’s having a conversation. He has wonderfully expressive hand gestures, and he assumes from the first that you aren’t an idiot – you must be as familiar with the subject as he is, but, he’s very much seeking to open your mind to the various means and methods by which we can place and interpret real history. It’s amazing how a man simply talking and strolling around an overgrown field of tumbledown old stones can vividly summon images by weaving a picture of words which the viewer can relate to – History genuinely comes alive without the need for silly or forced re-enactments or computer simulations. His writing style is equally as accessible. If I could found my ideal university in which to study, I think I’d like John Romer to preside as its Chancellor.

Watching the films again I can feel how he nurtured that interest already long kindled in me from visits to forgotten Neolithic sites whilst on family holidays to Cornwall. Seeing him giggling at a showcase full of ancient statuettes “all jumping and jiggling about” on the glass shelves before launching into some very perceptive reflections which they’d instantly seemed to suggest to him as he wanders around a museum gallery is exactly why I always wanted to work in museums. Objects aren’t simply boring things which sit bland and immobile on shelves. We don’t always need whizzy coloured lights and interactive displays to genuinely engage with the material culture of the past. Just looking at them and reading about them in the accompanying labels and interpretation can set us off and get us really thinking about what they can tell us of the past, or better yet – what they can suggest, which we can then weigh up and debate for ourselves. History is always, and only ever, a reading of the past. We can’t possibly know everything – often we can only guess, but it’s better to attempt an educated and informed guess, rather than a wild surmise. Romer’s style is perfect for opening up just such a conversation – after all that’s what history should be, in my opinion. A conversation between us, ourselves, here and now; and, between us and the past itself. We can do this by visiting particular historical places, by wandering around in museums and libraries, by leafing through old and new books, by chatting with other people who share such interests – this is the appeal of history for me, and also, frequently enough, it’s how I see history appealing to other people too. Curiosity is often highly infectious, and that’s no bad thing.

_ _ _

John Romer is the only one of my early scholarly heroes whom I’ve not, as yet, met. I imagine it would be fascinating to chat or travel with him. He has written a number of highly acclaimed books and presented several excellent documentary series, mostly to do with ancient art and Egyptology, but sadly there’s relatively little about him nor much about his work currently on the internet. His Wikipedia page and the John Romer Resource Page are the best sources of information, but ultimately the best way to know more about the man is through his work, the books and TV programmes themselves. A playlist of all 7 films of ‘Testament’ can be viewed here on YouTube. The two accompanying photographs of John Romer were taken by his wife, Elizabeth Romer, who is also frequently his co-author (… and they live in lovely Tuscany too!).

15 July 2013

O-Bon Festival - Japan

Today marks the start of the traditional three day celebration of the O-Bon (お盆) or Bon () Festival in the Kanto and Tohoku regions of Japan.

In 2009 I was living in a very shitamachi-jyōcho (下町情緒) area of Ikebukuro in Tokyo where the festival was duly celebrated by the local neighbourhood. A tiny park area near our apartment was taken over with small stalls selling food or offering children’s games, and in the centre a scaffold tower, called a yagura ( or 矢倉), had been constructed. Atop the tower a taiko (太鼓) drum had been set up, below which was a platform that encircled the tower. Loud music was playing from speakers set up around the space, and there were paper lanterns hung from poles and from the trees. Many of the people attending wore traditional, colourful yukata (浴衣), a light cotton summer-style kimono.

The Bon Festival, is the Lantern Festival or the Festival of the Dead. It is the traditional day of the Buddhist calendar on which the Japanese people remember their ancestors. It’s a day to come together, reuniting with family and the local community at home; a time to tend the ancestral graves, and a time when the ancestral spirits are supposed to visit the ancestral shrines in people’s houses. It’s a tradition which is believed to go back as far as 500 years. The month in which Bon is celebrated depends of which type of calendar (lunar or solar) the particular area follows, consequently other parts of Japan hold the festival in August.

The Bon Festival is best noted across Japan for its characteristic dance styles, Bon Odori (盆踊り), which can vary from region to region. The dancers usually process in a very measured and mannered style around the yagura, making very precise gestures with their arms and legs, sometimes turning in to the yagura and sometimes turning away from it. In our neighbourhood the festival began early in the day and we could hear the music in our apartment. We went down to take a look, but the festival really comes into its own once the sun has gone down and the lanterns are all lit – this is when everyone, especially the small children in their yukata, joined in the dancing. It reminded me somewhat of the traditional maypole dances and summer fêtes back in the UK.

The day had been a typically sunny summer’s day, and the evening was nice and warm. There was quite a magical, relaxed and friendly atmosphere, with familiar faces from local the neighbourhood all smiling and saying ‘hello’ as everyone mingled near the yagura. It was the perfect day to round off the evening with a visit to our favourite family run unagi (), grilled eel restaurant, just downstairs from our apartment – 美味しかった!


The accompanying photographs and short films were all taken by me at our, very small and very local, Bon Festival in Ikebukuro, Tokyo in July 2009.

12 July 2013

Dan Eldon - "Safari as a Way of Life"

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the death of Dan Eldon. He was only 22 years old. Yet already at that age he was a young man of many talents and achievements: Artist. Activist. Adventurer. Accomplished war photographer.

I never knew Dan, but, like many people who only came to know of Dan after his tragic and untimely death, I found Dan to be an inspiration. As near contemporaries (Dan was a few years older than me), I’d like to think that Dan was a kindred spirit – although, in truth, I’m not sure If I could have kept up with him! … Dan lived a life more full - in just 22 years - than most of us manage in twice, three, or four times as long. We can only imagine what he would have gone on to have made of such a rare and genuine life. Yet, I wonder what he would have made of the inspiration his life has since become for others?

I first heard of Dan when browsing in one of the bookshops on London’s Charing Cross Road I came across a newly published book titled: “The Journey Is The Destination” (1997). The book is a fascinating compilation of his vibrant and riotously chaotic journals – each page a lavish spread of colour, collage, and creativity that simply spills out in an intriguing and enticing, cavorting, and exuberant telling of a remarkable life being chronicled by a marvellously open and accessible young man. I was 22 years old, the same age as Dan when he died, when I came across the book – which made the book seem all the more immediate. I could relate to what I found in those pages. Unconsciously drawn to exactly this sort of creativity. Dan’s journals reminded me of an article I’d seen in The Sunday Times Colour Supplement of Peter Beard’s earlier photographs and artworks inspired from a life also lived in Africa. Lamentably for me the London suburbs weren’t quite as exotic as Africa, yet I too used to be fond of creating collages. I used to plaster my Sixth Form College folders inside and out with images cut from magazines and newspapers. And a walk-in cupboard in my room was similarly adorned with an intricate mosaic of miniscule movie stills and doodles. I’d already experimented with what I called ‘photocopier art’ to create one multi-layered book of stories, poems, and images a few years before. But now, inspired by Dan, I too created a ‘scrapbook chronicle’ of my own first 22 years. Mine’s just a single book. Dan managed to fill some 17 journals. On a different level though Dan’s inspiration fed into something parallel to art which was already an on-going aspiration – for, like Dan, I had a deep wanderlust for travel and adventure. I already had an ‘endgame’ in mind for what kind of life mine would be. A mantra, like Dan’s, had been slowly forming. Art, travel, history, activism, self-chronicling, curiosity for the world at large, seemed all of a piece. I had already been on two life-shaping trips to the former West and East Germanys, and I’d also been to Portugal, Holland, Greece, and Egypt. I knew then that I wanted to make friends with people scattered far and wide in order to shrink and bind the world more closely in some confused and exuberant adolescent desire to know, see, share, and experience everything that the world had to offer. As an affliction or some kind of bug it evidently bit deep because I probably still feel exactly the same even today.

One of Dan’s journals shows him sitting on the steps of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, an ice-cream cone in hand and a camera lying on the step between his feet. I’d visited the same museum in 1993. I had also stood on the mid-point of the great dam at Aswan with a new found friend from South Africa and pointing south across Lake Nasser I’d said: “You live down there. I wonder how long it would take to walk to your house?” Dan would probably have suggested that instead of walking we got ourselves a Land Rover and given it a shot. Perhaps we could have stayed at his house in Nairobi en route. My trip to Egypt was in July 1992 – exactly a year before he died.

“Mission Statement for Safari as a Way of Life: To explore the unknown and the familiar, distant and near, and to record, in detail with the eyes of a child, any beauty (of the flesh or otherwise), horror, irony, traces of utopia or Hell. Select your team with care, but when in doubt, take on new crew and give them a chance. 

Look for solutions, not problems.

The most important part of vehicle maintenance is clean windows, so if you are broken down you will enjoy the beauty of the view.” 
– Dan Eldon.

Dan was born of a British father and an American mother, but he and his younger sister grew up mostly in Kenya, where he attended the International School in Nairobi – so it’s no wonder he grew up with such an internationally mixed outlook. Unhampered by dull suburban conformities he was able to explore a world which seemed limitless and unbounded, not just in the vastness which is Africa itself but in maintaining his connections with friends and fellow students from all around the world. His journals speak as testament to his endless curiosity and his multi-layered reflections upon all his diverse encounters and explorations. There are Tube tickets and snapshots of Dan in London in his journals and I can’t help wondering if I might have passed him at some point. In the early 1990s I used to go on what I liked to call “walkabouts”, exploring London on foot, randomly navigating different streets each time, relying only on a natural sense of direction, building up my own mental A-Z map by spinning a web of these streets in my mind as they linked and overlapped in long footsore days spent wandering simply for the sake of wandering. Since then I’ve got to know other cities in much the same way on repeated trips to places such as: Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Taipei, Tokyo, Kobe, Osaka, Madrid, Rome, Florence, Zurich … 

Eventually a camera became my companion on these “walkabouts”. I come from a family of photographers, but unlike some of my relatives who have really excelled at photography I’ve never really mastered the scientific-art of taking pictures; a moderately natural eye and a lot of good luck have resulted in a few shots I’m fairly proud of. I did give photography a good go though (some years back) when my brother loaned me his old Nikon 35mm SLR and all his kit of lens and filters, etc. I got somewhat hooked on Ilford black and white film, and that distinctive sound that the shutter release makes, followed by the satisfying ‘sense of finish’ that the thumb crank moving the frame on gives you – and the mixed excitement and trepidation of collecting your prints from the developers, leafing through the wallet of shots which until then were framed and fixed only in your mind, now matching them or raising your eyebrows at how they’d turned out differently to what you’d remembered or expected. One summer whilst away camping on an archaeological excavation a free batch of film helped open up my picture taking technique. A friend and I decided to use this unexpected windfall of film to the full and so we resolved not to hesitate when shooting, and in doing so I learnt why the paparazzi shoot rapid quick fire shots – simply because by probability of averages one is bound to be a winner. Modern digital cameras make this even easier, but there’s still something altogether more satisfying about real film which digital cannot match. I recall sensing that film would one day inevitably be surpassed, and I knew even then that I’d one day feel nostalgic for that unknown roulette game which photography was for me, along with the nervous excitement of it all. 

Clearly Dan was a fearless and experimental photographer from an early age. Undoubtedly, as I’d seen in some of my relatives, the camera is a device which melds itself to some people as much as they become melded to it – the two become one. They click. And the camera simultaneously becomes a shield and a bridge, in a sense it allows you to look in without being seen, or, conversely it draws attention to you and sets you up for some kind of encounter depending on how you play the situation. Natural photographers allied to their kit seem to bring out the best in people, capturing a skein of reality – with an immediacy – which might otherwise have been missed. I’ve no doubt in my mind that photography is a genuine art. And as a tool of reportage it is an invaluable recording device – it really is a truth that a picture can speak a thousand words. Dan’s photojournalism is a testament to that fact. It rapidly shaped and transformed him, particularly in his last year. In many senses we can see from his images of the crisis in Somalia that he had entered a new phase. His art and his humanitarian instincts, both closely allied elements of his personality, which had come together in his previous aid work initiatives done in collaboration with his sister and his friends had eventually led him on to his career with Reuters. A career and character of dedication which unwittingly led him into a situation he could not have anticipated or controlled, and, consequently, it was one which ultimately cost him his life. Dan and three of his colleagues, Hos Maina, Anthony Macharia, Hansi Krauss, were beaten to death by an angry mob furious at a US/UN air strike of unprecedented brutality which claimed many innocent victims – Dan and his colleagues had gone out, urged by locals to photograph and report on the incident, yet inadvertently they too became victims of the same incident themselves. They died at the hands of the people they were hoping to help.

Dan died far too young. But his life, his art, and his inspiration very much live on. Twenty years later, his name is known. His artwork is still published, exhibited, and appreciated. His activism still inspires and continues to achieve good things through the projects and initiatives kept in perpetual motion by his family and his friends in his name. As I’m sure Dan would agree, the adventure is far from over – for adventure never ends. The journey is always the destination. And “One's destination,” as Henry Miller said, “... is a new way of seeing things.” I think Dan would have agreed with that too.

Find out more:

With thanks to Cynthia Young at daneldon.org for kindly giving me permission to reproduce the images of Dan, his artworks, and his photographs which accompany this post. Some eight years ago now (2005) I wrote a short piece for the ‘Dan Inspired’ section of daneldon.org and I’m pleased to see the website is still going strong and still attracting similar such contributions and tributes to Dan’s memory. Long may it continue to inspire young people to make a difference, undaunted – to make the world a better place.

Dan Eldon (1970-1993)

8 July 2013

"The Wind of Change" - Germany 1991 & 1993

Souvenir Series #5

I’ve been rummaging around in some old papers and old photo albums today, and I came across some souvenirs and a short diary I wrote on my second Student Exchange trip to Germany in 1993. The first exchange I went on was to Hannover in 1991 and the second was to Berlin. These were two very interesting experiences. I was 15 years old on the first and a couple of months short of turning 17 on the second. The Berlin Wall had come down in November 1989, so Germany was a very vibrant and buzzing place to be at that time. I was very fortunate to glimpse the changes from both perspectives as I stayed with a West German family in Hannover and then an East German family in Berlin. The insights I gained from each trip were a real eye-opener. I learnt that not everything was as simple and as easily explainable as the News Media back at home had seemed to suggest.

I remember I kept a diary of my trip to Hannover too, but this now appears to be lost. I may well have thrown it away as I seem to recall I wrote parts of it in my hopelessly obscure pidgin German which may well have become mystifyingly untranslatable with the passage of time! But the two parts of this first trip which stick most vividly in my mind were two day trips we made, one to Bergen-Belsen, and the other to the small East German town of Wernigerode. I make mention of both these day trips in my East Berlin Diary, firstly because we made a similar trip to Sachsenhausen, and, secondly, by bizarre coincidence I found out that my second exchange partner’s parents had married in Wernigerode Town Hall (they were amazed that I’d visited such a small place, especially so soon after the fall of the Wall). Sadly I have relatively few photos of these two trips. At the time I had only a small and very simple Kodak camera and perhaps only one 24 frame roll of 110 film per trip, the results of which – twenty years later – are now satisfyingly grainy looking photos!


The following edited extracts are from my East Berlin Diary. It’s interesting to see what my 16 year old self thought at the time. Clearly Trabants were a big part of the trip for me. Times were changing fast back then – I remember seeing many more Trabants roaring around in Wernigerode in 1991 than we did in Berlin in 1993. I bet they’ve all long since vanished from the streets. Oddly enough I occasionally see an old Trabant parked in a little backstreet near where I work in London. Seeing it the other day took my mind back to these two student exchange trips. Both hard and not so hard to believe it was twenty-odd years ago, I wonder what I’d make of Berlin now if I revisited? – I’ve not been back since then. I’m sure it must have changed a lot.

Saturday. February 20, 1993. East Berlin.

            It was a very short flight out, and consequently it felt like quite an abrupt arrival here in Berlin (on the exchange to Hannover in 1991 we’d travelled out overland by coach). We landed at Tegel Airport in former West Berlin. All our exchange partners were there to meet us. Frank was there with his Mother. As we drove back to Frank's place I asked them to let me know when we passed over the former border into East Berlin. I didn’t have to wait long. We were driving down a smooth road when all of a sudden the road surface changed to cobbles and the car was bumping along noisily. Frank’s Mother lent over and said: “We’ve just crossed over into the East!” A short while later she stopped the car to show me the prison where Erich Honecker was held.

Back at Frank's we had a quick dinner. Frank's family live in a very small flat in a suburb full of identical blocks. We then went straight out … to see what Berlin nightlife is like. We met up with some of the others and went on to a rock gig which was taking place (illegally) in a big, dilapidated, bombed-out-looking old building. The place looked like it hadn’t changed since Berlin fell to the Soviets! The music was quite loud, we hoped the place wouldn’t collapse on us. It was quite crowded too. After a few sets we left and went on to a nearby bar which again matched that decadent old Bohemian image of Berlin, as the place was full of flamboyantly dressed transvestites. We had some tall glasses of wheat beer.

The weather in Berlin is extremely cold, much colder than London. [My friend’s] exchange partner, teased me saying that we’d brought the bad weather with us from rainy old London! But the rain was more like ice sleet. By the time we got back to Frank’s place it was 3am and there was plenty of snow on the ground. I was completely soaked and felt absolutely dead tired.

Sunday. February 21, 1993.

            Today was a long day, spent entirely with Frank and his family … We visited most of the major sights of Berlin – the Brandenburg Gate, what's left of the Wall and Check Point Charlie. It's amazing the Berliners now all just whiz across what was once Check Point Charlie without a change in gear. There’s a small Museum about the Wall a couple of yards away ... Here they currently have on display the huge Russian “Freedom” flag that was paraded in the streets of Moscow when the Soviet regime collapsed. You could actually touch it, the label said it was now travelling on a tour of Europe to promote peace in the new era. There was also an old box file on display that had come from an office on the West side of the Wall. It still had a bullet lodged in its spine which had been shot by an East German Border Guard when an East Berliner had tried to make a dash over the Wall. There were lots of photos documenting the history of the Wall and all of the escapes and attempted escapes. After the Museum we went to a café on the corner on the opposite side of Friedrichstrasse.

Berlin looks just like it does in Cold War spy movies. The architecture on the East side is all very grey and communist looking. There are giant ducts, just like the ones in Terry Gilliam’s movie “Brazil”, running along the sides of the streets, bending up and disappearing into the sides of giant grey, box-like blocks of flats. The snow is now thick on the ground which only adds to the general John Le Carré-like atmosphere.

Monday. February 22, 1993.

            I get the impression that [my exchange partner’s family] were very happy in the GDR. … They used to have a Trabant but now they have two cars, a Citroen and a Honda. Frank says that although they now have more freedom in terms of what they can buy and because they can now travel abroad, life in the GDR was much more certain. Frank says he was assured of a job for life when he left school under the GDR, now though that kind of thing has become much less certain.

            Today we went to our exchange partners’ school. I attended three lessons with Frank – English and double History. Their History lesson was about the Second World War. Frank explained that their teacher was talking about Nazi propaganda and showed us the chapter they were discussing in his textbook which had pictures of propaganda posters that showed Nazis fancifully marching through a conquered London. Most of Frank’s classmates seemed to find this hilarious seeing that we were sitting there. I’m not sure their teacher had fully thought this lesson through as she was having some trouble contending with their unruly behaviour. My being English was one thing, but I don’t know if their teacher had any idea that [my fellow classmate] is Polish (her family defected to England only a few years before the fall of Communism).

            In the afternoon we visited the Fernsehturm (TV Tower), where we drank beer in the revolving restaurant. After this we wandered round some old churches, before going to the Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate. I think the success of an exchange depends on your tolerance of the other and vice versa.

Tuesday. February 23, 1993.

            Frank has explained to me why there are so many broken Trabants littering the streets. Apparently it’s an old GDR tradition. If a Trabbi breaks down and it can't be mended or the owner cannot afford to move or mend it – they leave it. They do this so that other people can come and strip things from them for free instead of buying the parts. No one is supposed to do this but it’s become a kind of unspoken custom. The Police eventually move the dead Trabants after two weeks and give the owners a nominal fine. The authorities have tended to turn a blind eye perhaps because it was seen to be quite an altruistic practice, genuine communism, helping out those who don’t have enough cash to fix their own Trabants. Since the Wall fell the Trabbis are no longer seen as particularly safe so eventually, as the East westernises more, it’s likely that they’ll disappear forever. Frank’s family got rid of their Trabant in 1990.

                        Today we took the train to Wittenberg. I’d been looking forward to this part of the trip having learnt all about Martin Luther and Wittenberg watching John Romer’s 'Testament' documentary. Travelling down from Berlin [we] stood for a while in the corridor of the railway carriage to watch the snow filled fields passing by outside. Soon after we pulled out of the station on our way back to Berlin the train steward turned up, we thought he wanted to check our tickets but instead he kicked us out of what we discovered was his private compartment. Now that the train was underway we had to walk the length of the train to find another compartment with enough room for all of us to fit in.

Arriving back in Berlin we met up again with our exchange partners and went out for the evening. We didn’t really know where we were going but when we got there it turned out to be a church youth group. Not quite what we’d bargained for. It soon became clear that this was to be a full on God Squad affair. Everyone singing hymns and playing happy-clappy games. (This must have been the kind of religious gathering that was banned under the GDR. The fact that it was being held in a basement only enhanced the feeling that the Stasi would be hammering on the door shortly). We swiftly made some very crap excuses, to which the group leader said: "Ich glaube ... NICHT!!" (Wayne's World style), and [then we] left. Having made our escape we went to a bar – all brass, dark wood and velvet curtains, again a place with that strange out of time pre-war-feel which still clearly seems to characterise the eastern side of Berlin. It’s kind of spooky, but I quite like it.

Thursday. February 25, 1993.

            I can't remember much detail about yesterday. Thinking hard, what did we do? Oh yes, we took the U-bahn to West Berlin and saw a modern Church, nicknamed the “Lipstick and Powder Puff”, which stands incongruously next to the ruin of the original Church which was bombed out during the War and has been preserved as a monument. West Berlin is such a contrast to East Berlin, so much more commercialised and awake! All bright lights and chock full of life. We hadn’t realised how quickly we’d become so used to the grey, drab monotony of the East. In the evening we went to a party at the school. After that Frank, Holgar and I ended up in a bar where we continued to drink – by then all three of us were well gone. We swore brotherhood on our beers! Exchanges usually end in dramatic declarations of Brotherhood!! Stumbling back through the snow … we sang ‘Doors’ songs all the way home to Frank's flat! (Bertolt Brecht's "Alabama Song" seemed particularly appropriate)

            Today, we spent the morning watching lessons in a Realschule. Es war sehr langweilig – although it did make me wonder how I would have fared at school had I been born here in Germany. The education system in this country is very different to England. For whilst literature and history have always been my main interests, my failings in most other areas probably would have steered me well clear of any path which would lead in such a direction. I’d probably have been destined for a life working on the assembly line of a Trabant factory (which might not have been so bad if they gave out company cars!).


Friday. February 26, 1993.

Visited the Check Point Charlie Museum again, this time with [my fellow college] students. Parked outside there was a Trabant which had been given a paint job like the Trabants on the album cover of U2’s “Achtung Baby”. It was for sale. I couldn’t believe how cheap it was. It cost near enough the same amount of Deutsche Marks spending money as I had brought with me [for the entire trip]. I pointed this out to [one of my friends]. 
“How would you get it back to England?” she asked.
“I’d drive it home on the Autobahn and get the ferry over.” 
I imagined myself driving it to College. Nothing could be more cool than owning a U2 Trabant!
[My friend] laughed, “I bet it wouldn’t even make it to the other side of Check Point Charlie without conking out!”

In many ways East Berlin has been just as we’d expected it to be. East Berliners … all seem very serious ... There still isn’t much in the way of advertising billboards and such, and what there is seems old and dated even though it’s clearly only appeared since the Wall came down. There are lots of large open spaces, like Alexanderplatz, and there are next to no trees. We’ve been told that the last two are our fault (or rather Bomber Harris’s) for flattening the place during the Second World War, but I’d venture that the Communists who followed didn’t do much to remedy this situation! It’s interesting to hear though how a lot of East Berliners seem to tell a different tale to the story we’ve been told on all our news reports over the last few years. It seems like a lot of them miss the GDR and would prefer it if East Germany still existed. Several of the East Germans I spoke to have said that they only wanted the old system to relax its rules a little, to let them travel and buy western goods, otherwise they’d be happy to still have the same Government and the same prospects for their own personal futures that they had before. I told Frank how I’d seen a huge train loaded full of tanks, big field guns and other military hardware wrapped up in tarpaulins rolling slowly through a deserted station somewhere outside Hannover in the early hours of the morning. I’d asked my exchange partner at the time what it was all for and he’d said it was nothing – it happened most nights: “It’s just the West German Army moving into East Germany” he’d said. This clearly shocked Frank and it made me realise that the West had simply taken advantage of the collapse of the GDR’s corrupt elite. ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’ had changed everything. The Kremlin was no longer there to keep things in line, so the West just quietly strolled into the empty space and reunified Germany. No wonder the West talks about finally having “won” the Cold War. Staying here in the former East Germany has spun a different perspective on that spirit of “The Wind of Change” which we’d all been joyfully singing about in Hannover in 1991. 

Friday. February 26, 1993.

Writing this I am crouched at the corner of one of the original buildings in the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen. This place is very upsetting; more so than Belsen, even though it’s much smaller. This place is beyond words.


Sachsenhausen is a grimly shocking place. Seeing it in the deep snow added an extra chill. Most of the buildings are gone. There’s a memorial with a tall obelisk pointing to the sky. One of the few buildings that have been left standing is what was called the Pathology Department. Here the “Doctors” performed twisted experiments with various strains of diseases, as well as using human skin to make lampshades and book bindings. There are two white tiled tables with drainage holes for [operating on] human bodies. There’s a basement below where they’d dump the bodies before disposing of them, a wooden bier still stands down there. In the far corner of the camp stands a set of ovens for cremating the bodies of prisoners, the brick work is now crumbling and the iron doors are rusting. Not far from the ovens is a wood lined pit where prisoners were executed by firing squad. The wall behind [the spot] where the prisoners were made to stand is made of logs laid end on in order to catch and deaden the bullets. This camp was mainly for political prisoners. Here the Nazis also used the prisoners to run a huge counterfeiting operation. At the end of the War the Allies found stacks of forged banknotes, English Pounds and American Dollars.* Sachsenhausen was in the Soviet sector. After the War the camp remained a prison, part of the Soviet prison system, until the 1950s.

At the site of Belsen all the camp buildings have been levelled. All that remains are landscaped mass burial mounds with stone inscriptions that say “Hier ruhen …” – here lie, rather than, here rest … – so many thousand bodies. The site has become once more a part of the Luneberger Heath. The rumbling boom of artillery guns from the nearby British Military base unsettled the already eerie feel of the place. But Sachsenhausen is a profoundly more disturbing place. It’s so small. Still surrounded by a residential area – just as it was during the War – and yet, hidden just a stone’s throw behind its fence, was such deep depravity. It is incomprehensible. I’ve not visited Auschwitz, but I have seen the film ‘Shoah’ [by Claude Lanzmann]. If this is Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz must be overwhelming. It should be a part of everyone’s education to visit these places and know what happened here.

[Richard Dimbleby's BBC Radio reports from the liberation of Belsen in 1945: Part 1 & Part 2. British Pathé newsreel footage of Belsen after its liberation in 1945. A short documentary on Sachsenhausen and its place in the events of the Second World War: Part 1 & Part 2. Warning: Some of the images accompanying all five features are unsettling.

* A movie based on a memoir by one of the internees of Sachsenhausen about the Nazi counterfeit operations there, The Counterfeiters, was released in 2007.]

Saturday. February 27, 1993.

            Alles Fertig. Wir fahre nach London mit einem Flug [sic]. (We are flying over the sea now.) Last night Frank and I went over to Franka's flat [a fellow classmate’s exchange partner]. Here we met some friends of Franka’s brother who own a Trabant. [We] squeezed into the back and they took us for a ride around the icy streets ... It was quite an experience, neither the driver nor his girlfriend spoke any English and he hammered the Trabbi for all its life. The car seemed to roar like a tiny tank taking corners with an almost perfect right angle. They are about the size of a Mini but feel much more cramped inside. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it, it was fantastic – good fun!

Afterwards Frank and I went back to his flat for a final dinner with his Mum, Dad and younger Sister. It was the most talkative time I've had with them. Frank's Dad showed me their family photo albums. They were filled with black and white photos of Frank and his Sister on holiday, they looked as though they were from another era altogether! ... By a strange coincidence I discovered that Frank's Mum and Dad were married in Wernigerode Town Hall. They couldn’t believe I’d heard of it and were even more amazed when I told them that I’d actually visited Wernigerode in 1991. Whilst we were looking through their photos Frank disappeared and when he returned he’d dug out an old toy car of his which he presented to me as a souvenir – it was a light blue Trabant, just like the one in which [we] had thundered around [Berlin only] a few hours before.