Postcard from London
When left to my own devices in London, I liked to ride the buses. Alone, I sometimes rode all afternoon, just thinking and looking out. I liked to write while on the bus. From Finsbury Park I happily traveled to the end of the line in any direction: Archway, Wood Green, Northumberland Park, Hackney Wick, Waterloo Bridge, Trafalgar Square, Battersea Park. A bus pass furnished an inexpensive way to tour the city and included the additional advantage of views of passing street scenes, especially if the bus had an upper deck and you could snag a seat at the front by the large windows. These windows fogged up nicely during rain showers and sometimes smashed into the branches of the older trees that line the roads, if the trees hadn’t been trimmed recently, or if the driver was more experienced and hugged the curb very closely as the bus approached its stops.
The overheards on buses were priceless.
“I’m scared of London,” one American boy said to his father on the Number 4 as it passed by St. Paul’s Cathedral. His baby sister was humming “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” Then she said, “Lots of people are going down to London because today’s a sunny day.”
Another time an older Cockney couple rode my bus through the city from St. Paul’s along Fleet Street, chatting away like they were visiting London as tourists after a long absence in Australia, or outer space. The couple on my bus delighted in calling out the names of things we passed, as if they were touching a mental rosary of remembered sites from the distant past, offering a guided tour of their memories.
“Fourteen years ago that bridge was swinging so badly you wouldn’t dare walk across.”
“Devil Tavern. Demolished seventeen some-odd.”
“Look at that shop! Two suits for one hundred fifty pound.”
“Nobody wears suits anymore.”
“Except for weddings.”
“Fancy sitting in front of a Monet at the Courtauld for an hour?”
I guessed that this couple had gotten hold of Freedom Passes, which provided public transport for pensioners at no cost. The unemployed also received a discount on travel. This little act of decency always struck me. It might not be your fault if you lost your job, and you might need to spend time on the bus looking for work.
George Orwell, in The Lion and the Unicorn, described Englishness in terms of “solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, . . . green fields and red pillar-boxes.” I would add the London buses. There was even a reality TV show about trainee drivers—The Big Red Bus—which featured a tearjerker episode with an Eastern European single mom passing the challenging road exam. Your average London bus driver was a combination of X-wing pilot, threading tricky turns and blasting through narrow lanes between buildings, and Zen master, overcoming the karmic obstacles of road rage, congestion, death-wish pedestrians, and the universal disorder of a city of nearly 9 million. Drivers trained in Jedi mind tricks and sometimes, I imagined, they closed their eyes and used the Force.
“They hunt in packs,” my wife said about London buses one time as we waited for ours to arrive.
Waiting for a bus near the South Bank, I once overheard a father singing to his son one of the old Cockney songs: “Where did you get that hat, where did you get that tile?”
The much-mourned classic Routemaster bus had formed another example of pure Englishness. Its system proved difficult for outsiders to understand, but it remained completely efficient inside the parameters of its own bizarre logic. You entered and exited the old Routemasters through the back and a conductor came to you to collect your fare and dispense change, like a beer guy at an American baseball game. You could simply hop off the bus from the back whenever you liked, even when the Routemaster was in motion, because it had a doorless entrance with a metal pole to help you balance. This strangely brilliant design involved the premise that the bus could move along before all of the tickets were paid for, which presumably helped speed up travel. It employed two people, the driver and the conductor, rather than one.
The new Routemaster buses, with their glass display-case look—which treats their passengers as specimens in an exhibit (Individuals Living in Areas Poorly Served by the London Underground System, c. 21st Century)—generally went despised. What happened to all of the Routemaster conductors, who had to jostle their way through the crowds upbraiding fare-dodgers?
The view from the bus window transformed into the world’s longest tracking shot.
The 236 floated like a bumblebee through a sticky day in July from Finsbury Park to Hackney Wick, shuttling folks through the maze of streets connecting Northeast and East London. I hoped to record a snapshot of yet another London by grabbing a seat on this single-decker bone-rattler and using the window as a kind of antitelevision set. I planned to walk out to the Olympic Park from the end of the bus line.
I always got a little excitable when the 236 left Islington and started zigzagging its way through the neighborhoods of Newington Green, Albion Road, and on into Hackney via Dalston. This bus was overcrowded and not air-conditioned. You paid the price for attempting to move east-west in a city that was designed for north-south travel. In some ways the 236 felt like a microcosm of London from the pre-Blair years, a little fishbowl containing those who had been left out of the picture. The route hit on the edges of some of the larger estates that had erupted during the 2011 riots, although of course the entire area was far from immune to the general lunacy of London’s massive gentrification project.
I loved every minute of the journey on the 236 because it induced a trancelike meditative state peculiar to London buses. You could not go anywhere fast—at times you couldn’t go anywhere at all. In Hackney you encountered the shock and delight of a seemingly endless city regressing into infinity. Inside Hackney, the urban fabric felt coextensive with the galaxy. A carefully ripped-up billboard had been repurposed by street artists as a décollage featuring Employment Opportunities—doing what, the sign no longer said. Under the rail bridge and farther east on Cambridge Heath Road, there stood a cheerful sign telling you what the council or a developer hoped would happen next: “Making an impact through deeper relationships.” (In Islington I once stumbled on a sign offering “real housing for real people.” Were there unreal people? Zombies, space aliens, vampires, foxes, cartoons, and fictional characters need not apply!)
The bus discharged old folks and sick people at Homerton Hospital, where they joined the walking wounded circumambulating the NHS facility. The genius of Homerton involved staying snug within a cloak of invisibility. Then came the mysteries of Kingsmead and the estates near the canal across from the grand development projects of the Olympic Park. Completing this bus journey, just beyond the Trowbridge Estate, you had the place to yourself. A man you’d never see again paused on crutches with a quizzical look on his face, as if he wasn’t certain where to go next. As Spinoza wrote, “By reality and perfection I understand the same thing.”
Excerpted from Vanishing Streets: Journeys in London by J. M. Tyree. Reprinted by permission of Redwood Press.
Postcard from Berlin
I am walking to a gritty industrial club, through the warehouses and parking lots of East Berlin’s rust belt. I reach the darkened façade of a former factory alongside the tracks of Ostkreuz (where the local party scene has moved since the tourists discovered that “super-club,” Berghain). I clip around the building, take the back way, behind a pile of bricks or a broken wall of graffiti, past the fluorescent still-life of a security guard through a cubicle’s window, past a vent that smells vaguely of poppers, until I hear voices as I turn the corner.
The line is long, and I chat with two British guys who drink Club Mate, a hipster stimulant, perhaps because they’ve also taken something that doesn’t mix with alcohol. But they smell like Döner or perhaps Gemüse Kebap, so their stomachs are insulated for a good time. It’s a summer night; the party’s in the garden, the crowd heaving before the DJ. The moon is out, behind clouds; it’s Caspar David Friedrich light. Or “Prussian” blue, that 18th-century color first invented in Berlin.
I see the British dudes again; they’re very friendly, one grabs me on the shoulder, buoyed by the pulsing electronica, the movement of lights, lifted by the warm air, the stars above, the diversity and happiness of the crowd, and he tells me: “Amazing! This is Berlin!”
When I leave, it is already day—one of those amazing Berlin June days that start the moment you walk out of the club in the early hours. I am saturated with cigarette smoke and sweat and kisses. The now faint blue above softens the steely train tracks. I go home, shower, sleep for a few hours, wake up for brunch with my friends. We compare our evening adventures—you never know what is going to happen to you when you walk out of that door. We talk politics, sex, and the news. The New York Times Styles section has been extolling again how much Brooklynites love Berlin, and the blogs have responded by saying that since Berlin’s been “discovered,” it’s now “over.” Time to write the city’s obituary because everyone’s a tourist at Berghain! As a logical consequence, Berlin’s “no longer the coolest city in the world.”
We start discussing:
“Who moves to a city just because it’s ‘cool’?”
“I know a few people here who did.”
“You’re relevant just because you live in Berlin, didn’t you know?”
“Better to say you’re an artist in Berlin than unemployed and living at home in Bari.”
“Judging a whole city based on the popularity of a nightclub doesn’t make any sense.”
“That’s all people see when they come here, the city for them is a big nightclub.”
“Berlin’s the best nightclub in the world!”
“Not any more, apparently.”
“They only see the Technostrich–”
“I don’t even like riding my bike by there on a Saturday night.”
“How many of them you think have been to the Philharmonic?”
“I think Berlin would be happy to discover it’s ‘over.’”
“Over? Tell that to the Greeks. They’d be happy if Germany’s star dimmed a little.”
“She means Berlin’s over for the Peter Pans from Dalston.”
“What they see of Berlin is not even my weekend, let alone my week.”
It is perplexing the way the international press—Rolling Stone, the Times, Vice—weighs the status of Berlin’s elusive “cool” based on the fortunes of a nightclub, on whether the nighttime itineraries of self-conscious club kids have been discovered by the masses. For those who actually live in the city, the dizzying array of concerts, clubs, festivals, and street parties is just an awesome backdrop to the everyday. But otherwise it is hardly of consequence. What matters is that Berlin’s still a place where people can pursue their creative work with fewer pressures from the market than in other European capitals, and have the opportunity to do so in an urbane international environment where they are allowed to live decently.
What would cause Berlin to be “over”? If the conditions for its noncorporate lifestyle were suddenly to evaporate, there would be cause for concern. With property speculation and gentrification, this is the looming threat. But perhaps we have, after all, reasons to be optimistic. Despite the onslaught of gentrification, civic initiatives, such as rent control, are in place to protect the city’s multi-income neighborhoods, and there are some indications things will sooner get better than worse. Let’s hope.
It would be wrong to say that optimism is a peculiarly Berlin perspective, as Berliners love to meckern, or complain. Perhaps for too long it was incomprehensible to believe that anything German could be “cool.” I sometimes think these Berliners don’t always appreciate what an outstanding city they have. Berlin will be tested in the years ahead as Europe confronts rising populism, nationalism, security concerns regarding terrorism, and the uncertainties of Trump’s foreign policy. But things here are, especially in the longer view of the metropolis’s history, better. The city remains in many ways a provincial place, one that has not yet reconciled itself entirely to diversity, or the recent influx of creative folk. And yet, against the backdrop of what is Europe’s foulest history, Berlin has left behind the worst—militarism, chauvinism, and murderous state racism—and emerged democratic and egalitarian, full of great institutions, for the most part welcoming refugees, taking the best of preceding eras—tolerance, historical mindfulness, and creative and intellectual dynamism. Berlin now needs to harness these achievements as we face an uncertain future.
Now, if we could only do something about those short, dark winter days. But then you bundle yourself against the wind, put on your headphones, and send sparks down the cold of the S-Bahn tracks with an electronic soundtrack, light candles in the windows, and count out the hours with strong dark coffee and good conversation—and in Berlin there is plenty. Meanwhile, in summer, you don’t need to do much more than buy a bottle of cold Pilsner, ride your bike down the blooming canal bank—past where the Turkish-German families are grilling, the Kreuzbergers are playing boules, locals are loitering at the tables in front of the Späti—to the Admiralbrücke. There, you can sit with your back to the water, watch the street hum with love, and observe how on this beautiful bright night, as the Berliners put it, “everything’s in butter”—na, allet in Butta.
Excerpted from Berlin by Joseph Pearson. Reprinted with permission from Reaktion Books.
The Best of Berlin and London, according to Pearson and Tyree
Tierpark. This is the “animal park,” or East German zoo. Berlin has at least two of everything: from the former West and former East. The Communists provided more room for their animals, so it’s actually one of the few zoos that I enjoy visiting.
Clissold Park, which is in my favorite neighborhood of Stoke Newington. There is a pond and an aviary and a rose garden; you might encounter miniature deer on a visit. And when it’s raining, the Clissold House cafe is the perfect place to while away time with a book.
Favorite mode of transportation
The Berlin metro system, or U-Bahn. It has bright yellow branding and has the ugliest seat patterns in the world—but this makes it lovable. As does the fact that there’s an honor system to ride it—there are no ticket turnstiles—and it gets you quickly almost anywhere in Berlin’s enormous space.
There is no better mode of transportation in London than the bus!
Cultural text that best captures the city
There are too many to choose from, but one that comes to mind is the book Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. The plot moves all over the city, while a typical Berlin housing block, or Mietkaserne, is the centre of the action, with people from all walks of life and backgrounds occupying it. Fallada wrote the novel in 1946, encouraged by the Soviet authorities, about the Nazi period. There are plenty of historical problems with the text that lead to endless discussion about its status as an “anti-Nazi” text—and this is the kind of useful and historically engaged discussion I find also very “Berlin.”
Apart from the obvious classics by Charles Dickens and Graham Greene, and contemporary writing by Zadie Smith and Iain Sinclair, I would have to mention a relatively obscure short film made by Robert Vas in 1959 called Refuge England. It’s about a Hungarian refugee’s first day in London as he attempts to navigate the vast city and find lodgings for the night. He knows nobody and he has only been given an address—Love Lane—where he has been told someone will shelter him. But he doesn’t have the postal code, so he has to travel up and down the city all day visiting various Love Lanes in completely different neighborhoods. I love this film because it reflects a strangely fleeting tour of London’s nooks and crannies while advocating for tolerance toward those fleeing from conflict zones.
I named my blog The Needle after the television tower in Alexanderplatz. Inaugurated in 1969 in East Berlin, the tower is about 1,200 feet and the tallest structure in Germany. It can be seen from all over the city, and is often used to get one’s bearings when stepping out of a subway station. I appreciate that the television tower has had changing meanings: under the Communists, it peered threateningly over the city, surveilling the Berlin Wall. Today, it is sometimes lit up with bright colours and seems like Berlin’s big disco ball, celebrating a city that loves electronic music and a good party. I find the Needle optimistic: it shows how sometimes things can get better.
Alexandra Palace is a trek from Central London, but its hilltop location commands the entire city, and you can see virtually all of London from here. Originally built as a People’s Palace for leisure in the 19th century, it has served as a POW camp during wartime, as the headquarters for BBC television studios, and now as a venue for rock concerts, beer festivals, and ice skating. What’s remarkable about Alexandra Palace is that nobody tore it down even though it had been neglected and crumbling away for decades. Now a museum of television is planned for the site. It’s free to wander around, a truly public space where people from all walks of life and backgrounds mix, and the air is breathable.
The Neues Museum, with its Egyptian and early German history collections (including the sublime bust of Nefertiti), is a mid-19th-century building that was very badly damaged during World War II. Architect David Chipperfield restored the building, which reopened in 2009, leaving the war damage visible: the traces of artillery are on the walls, sections that were destroyed are built in luminous white to suggest absences. I love to be in a building that shows time passing, one that reflects poignantly on the objects from the distant past it contains.
The National Portrait Gallery is a museum that gets better and better as the visitor ages. I think when one is touring or when one is younger, it’s easy to rush to prioritize the world-beating masterworks in the adjoining National Gallery by Rembrandt, Monet, and Van Gogh. But the Portrait Gallery excites for different reasons. For one thing, the whole idea of portraiture, and the ways in which the human face have been captured over time, becomes more and more intriguing. Another great reason to visit is the annual contest for the best new portraits, which attracts a wonderful diversity of subjects and artists and is also a decent way to keep in touch with some currents in contemporary art.
Biggest misperception about the city and how you would correct it
I think many people continue erroneously to associate today’s Berlin with the Nazi capital, when it’s been more than 70 years since the end of the war. Germany today is not Hitler’s Germany. I think Germans have learned many of the hard lessons of fascism, because they have partially worked through their history as perpetrators. And I think other countries would do well to protect their democratic freedoms, privacy, and public goods, with as much vigilance as the Germans do. I think the best way to change stereotypes that people have about a country is to invite them to visit. Most people I know who visit Berlin—some with trepidation—end up wanting to move here.
London trumpets itself as the “most visited city” in Europe, which is both absurd and misleading. It is not a nice place to visit, but I would want to live there. I would feel bad for an American tourist who only had a few days abroad and chose to visit London instead of Paris, Rome, or Seville, honestly. The city center is miserably crowded, the weather often stinks, and the air is so polluted that I have to dust off my inhaler for our annual pilgrimage to my wife’s hometown. I’d urge anyone visiting to get out of Zone 1 and see the areas where normal people actually live in their millions. It takes about 10 days to fall in love with the vast galaxy cluster of endless neighborhood charms, but once London takes hold of you it becomes your mistress forever. Even what’s horrible about London—winter hat and gloves in June! four pounds for a pint of beer!—becomes lovely in the eyes of this beholder.
Cultural icon that best represents the city
David Bowie, who lived and wrote his Berlin Trilogy here. Berliners have a place in their hearts for the track “Heroes”—it was inspired by a German band (Neu!), it has associations with the Berlin Wall, and the ephemeral melancholy of “just for one day” captures something of Berlin’s slightly edgy and downbeat lust for life. And then Bowie was also experimental, an island of creativity, defying the gender-normative,
and good at what he did.
Surely it’s Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective has spawned endless imitations and made England—and London in particular—the home of creepy crime stories, and murder a local cottage industry, from Hitchcock to television’s Luther. It’s fitting that London’s icon would be a detective, since the entire city is a mystery and a maze that requires unraveling just to figure out where you are and what’s right in front of your nose. The English ideals of being sensible under pressure and eccentric in one’s private home are nicely summed up by Holmes.