Luxus, Glenn Patterson, published by Millenium Court Arts Centre, Portadown, 2007.
(Luxus: A Visual and Verbal Collaboration by Victor Sloan and Glenn Patterson)
Collins German-English Dictionary
‘Brothers and sisters the time has come for each and everyone of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or whether you are going to be the solution. You must choose brothers. You must choose.’
‘You’ve never been more beautiful/ your eyes like two full moons/ than here in this poor old dancehall/ among the dreadful tunes/ the awful songs we don’t even hear…’
Magnetic Fields, ‘Nothing Matters When We’re Dancing’
There used to be so many fish shops in Cold War East Berlin people fed the cheap fish to their cats.
What you think you know you don’t.
A dead goldfish can be revived with a drop of whiskey or, if that fails, by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Some of what you know you wish you didn’t.
A barmaid arriving for work here one morning found a goldfish motionless on the floor. She popped it back into the tank above the bar – no whiskey, no mouth-to-mouth. The goldfish came round, though for days afterwards it would make sudden dashes towards the surface as though trying to leap out again.
I know a metaphor when I hear one. I know a fishy tale. I know enough not to mix them up. I do. I know I do.
I am on a stool below the fish tank, mid afternoon, midweek, month of March, my forty-fifth year. The Artist is behind me somewhere, preoccupied with tiles and tabletops and the ghost of last night’s bums-on-seats. The Owner is at the far end of the counter, looking uncomfortable with the daylight. In the window to my right a twist of yellowed tubing hangs like something intestinal, an appendix maybe, leftover with the tiles from the days when this was a kosher butcher’s shop. (Just saying the words ‘kosher butcher’ in Berlin is to flicker-book through a whole century of horror.) At night this tubing gets a neon rocket up its arse and does its best Starry Plough impersonation as if to proclaim it is a country – a universe – unto itself in here.
Last night I sat until the stars blurred, over the shoulders of the Teacher Who Fell Off a Chair and the Diplomat’s Son Who Sat On Che Guevara’s Lap, and one for the road became two, became three, became drink and pray there is still ground beneath you when rise from your seat.
This afternoon, though, I am not looking at but beyond, to the crane lowering klieg lights from the penthouse across the way. Prenzlauer Berg – for that is where we are, the Artist, the Owner, the goldfish doo-wopping at the waterline, and me, the Writer – Prenzlauer Berg is the German film industry’s backdrop of choice just now. Prenzlauer Berg is an estate agent’s wet dream. If it is luxury you are after you will find it in spades in Prenzlauer Berg.
Just don’t come looking for it in here.
It is held together by Polyfilla and gaffer tape. You don’t even want to think about the wiring. A bulb blows, that’s it, gone, and who knows when it will be replaced. If.
It is Warhol. It is Dada. A whole fountain of inverted meaning. It drags luxury down from the penthouses, back through that little twisted tube hanging in the window. Think about this, it says. Think again.
Jesus, in some medieval versions of the nativity, was born in a penthouse. The ‘house’ is a red herring; it is the ‘pent’ you need to focus on. The Middle English word is pentis: a lean-to, an add-on, an appendix.
When I first went to Berlin in 1991 it was like a wall coming down in my understanding of Europe. It was like a wall coming down in my understanding of home. The city’s own wall had been dismantled almost two years before, although in places it looked more like half an hour ago. Actually, never mind the Cold War, in places it looked like the Second World War had just ended. On the day I arrived I walked with the friend I was staying with across the no-man’s-land of Potsdamer Platz, Hitler’s bunker to our left, the Brandenburg gate beyond, and on out east, past buildings that were more bullet-hole than brick, to her flat in Prenzlauer Berg.
I had never walked so far across a city (I’m from Belfast, I had never had that much city to walk across), or cared so little about the distance. I had never been, have never been since, so excited by a city: its history, yes, but also its here and now. And nowhere felt more here and now than Prenzlauer Berg. It was in Prenzlauer Berg, around the Gethsemane Church, that resistance to the GDR had burgeoned and it was to Prenzlauer Berg after the regime collapsed that much of Berlin’s alternative nightlife gravitated. Behind every shot-pocked tenement block, it seemed, was another courtyard – hinterhof – another staircase up to another one-room bar, or gallery or performance space, or bar, gallery, performance space rolled into one. I didn’t get to bed until breakfast the next day. It was all so thrillingly ad-hoc: provisional, I would have said if someone else hadn’t already had a monopoly on the word.
I was living in Lisburn at the time and running a weekly writing group in Portadown Library. The group finished at nine o’clock. The last train to Lisburn came through at a quarter to ten, suspicious objects on the line outside Newry permitting. For half an hour or more every Wednesday I would sit in Portadown station, on the border between the Protestant and Catholic ends of town, alert to every footfall, and curse the place for a god-bothering dump. I cursed Lisburn too. I cursed Belfast. I cursed them twice as roundly when I had to come back from Berlin.
If Berlin’s wall could come down, why couldn’t our walls?
Perhaps because (it didn’t occur to me to think it back then) the citizens of Berlin hadn’t asked in the first place for their wall to be put up, extended, reinforced by petrol bombs – or worse – and by injunctions and judicial reviews over who could do what where and when.
Fifteen years on the only bits of the Berlin Wall left standing are monuments and outdoor museums. (At least that’s one thing no one can teach us here in Northern Ireland, how to put up a memorial.) Out towards Wedding, where there was for a while in late Sixty-one a literal window of opportunity for people wanting to escape west, until the buildings on the east of the wall were demolished, tram tracks are being laid up the middle of the death strip. Potsdamer Platz, once the crossroads between the American, the British, and the Russian zones of occupation, is now home to a mega mall and cinema complex with landmark buildings for Daimler-Chrysler and Sony. Not far away, near Alexanderplatz, where on 4 November 1989 a million people gathered to protest against the old regime, the Ideal Worker looks bewildered, as if he has awoken from decades-long sleep to find he is no longer a colossus but a buffoon: a pavement ranter, a bottom pincher. The Institute of Marxism-Leninism, on the border of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg is as derelict as a Seventies Belfast cinema. (My own childhood cinema, closed since 1975, has just been reincarnated as Tivoli Court Apartments.) I want to draw an arrow pointing east from the Institute a couple of thousand miles: business as usual, contact Kim Jong-il. Actually I want to catch myself on, and start saving now to buy property in Pyongyang. One nation’s post- is another nation’s pre-.
Fifteen years on, Prenzlauer Berg has lost some of its old identity. No longer a borough in its own right, it was recently re-designated one of thirteen ‘localities’ of Pankow. The word on the street, and in the bars, these days is improvement, not improvisation. Or at least that is the official word, but there is still dissent, if you keep your eyes and ears open. On Schönhauser Allee someone has taken the trouble to climb to the top of the scaffolding around a building under renovation and write, ‘Fuck the Free World’.
And then there is Luxus.
Luxus is Latin for dislocated. You can find a bit of it in ineluctable, that which cannot be escaped.
The Artist has a friend – the Critic – who has a flat off a hinterhof on Kollwitzstrasse and who has, in his turn, a friend upstairs with a bed where I can sleep. The Friend’s place is not so much a flat as a flat-sized hi-fi: a state of the art within a state. He has built the system himself, from components bought and bartered and salvaged down the years. It was either that, he suggests, or carrying on drinking as he used to, alcohol in the GDR being as cheap as chips… or fish. He tells me how in those days he used to smuggle his reel-to-reel tape recorder through the streets to friends’ flats to record illicit LPs. He tells me that was how he first heard Kick Out the Jams by Detroit’s MC5. His expression tells me the rest: this was true revolution. I begin to think I can never have really listened to the MC5, as opposed to listening to stories about them (proto-punks, White Panthers). My expression must tell him this. When I get in from Luxus the afternoon of the klieg lights I find on my pillow a copy of the CD he has burned, complete with colour printout of the sleeve, Rob Tyner double-exposed on the back, hollering into the mike.
He is hollering now as I write this, ‘I’m at my borderline, I’m at my borderline...’ and for a moment I’m at Portadown station all those Wednesday nights ago, on edge.
Back in the bar that night it is Magnetic Fields on the sound system, 69 Love Songs: a quieter subversion (note, not 68 or 70 Love Songs). The appendix has turned to plough again in the window, the world beyond to so much fog. (On our way here I lost sight of the Artist somewhere around Prenzlauer Berg’s famous Water Tower then saw a flash in the murk: some idea he had had about trees.) The Teacher Who Fell Off a Chair is in again and the Diplomat’s Son Who Sat on Che Guevara’s Lap. It is always a balancing act, that dependency of customer on bar, bar on customer: who will blink, or change, first?
Magnetic Fields have arrived at somewhere in the low fifties of their repertoire, ‘The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure’: ‘We don’t know anything, you don’t know anything, I don’t know anything about love.’
Saussure was the father of structuralism. What I know about structuralism could be scratched on the short end of a brick: signifier and signified, binary oppositions…
Male implies female, dark, light, communism… what?
When I ask the Owner later that night what he was thinking, opening a bar whose upkeep he occasionally seems indifferent, even hostile, to, he shrugs and says, ‘I just wanted there to be a place where I could go.’ It doesn’t seem that extravagant a luxury in a city of three and a half million, in a neighbourhood of a couple of hundred thousand. And I remember how after my first visit to Berlin I became obsessed with the idea of opening a bar in Belfast. A friend and I had it all planned. We would take over the down-at-heel Du Barry’s Saloon Bar near the Albert Clock. The Humanist, we were going to call it, for the four weeks it would have lasted before we went bankrupt. We wouldn’t do an awful lot to it. There was too much being done to bars as it was. (Du Barry’s was comprehensively done to a few years later.) Still, we might have changed a light bulb.
The Owner doesn’t tell me that he was jailed under the old regime for refusing to work. He doesn’t tell me either what he thinks looking past his small constellation of lights at the luxury apartments across the way, but I think I can guess.
The opposite of all that went before is not this.
White Panther Party 10-Point Program
1. Full endorsement and support of Black Panther Party's 10-Point Program.
3. Free exchange of energy and materials — we demand the end of money!
4. Free food, clothes, housing, dope, music, bodies, medical care — everything free for everybody!
5. Free access to information media — free the technology from the greed creeps!
6. Free time and space for all humans — dissolve all unnatural boundaries.
7. Free all schools and all structures from corporate rule — turn the buildings over to the people at once!
8. Free all prisoners everywhere — they are our brothers.
9. Free all soldiers at once — no more conscripted armies.
10. Free the people from their “leaders” — leaders suck — all power to all the people! Freedom means free everyone!
— John Sinclair, Minister of Information, White Panther Party. November 1st, 1968
(John Sinclair managed the MC5 until 1969, when he was sentenced to ten years for possession of two joints. The band subsequently distanced themselves from his statements urging violence.)
69 Love Songs
1. "Absolutely Cuckoo" – 1:34
Localities of Pankow:
49% - M
51% - F
AB - 34%
C1 - 37%
C2 - 18%
DE - 11%
Employed - 70%
Student - 17%
Housewife - 3%
Other - 10%
Frequency of use
Daily - 43%
Weekly - 29%
Less Often - 28%
Copyright Onscreen Solutions
24 November 2006
The slogan on the posters might have come straight from my early Nineties nightmares. ‘Don’t Cross the Line,’ it reads, above a graphic of a car trapped on a level crossing. The view across the line from platform one appears little changed: same ferns, same row of rooftops, same aerials angled towards the distant Denny factory sign, around which the same inexplicable steam billows. But the waiting room now has a plasma screen above the ticket booths with ads for Rushmere Shopping Centre, Craigavon Borough Council, Chestnut Lodge. The straplines bleed into one another: ‘something for – something to suit – everyone… no one feels left out.’ Inclusiveness is the new exclusiveness. Second-class has been written off, or at least written out of the script. In this world of Passenger’s Charters and Independent Monitoring Results on reliability, punctuality, and speed in picking up the phone, of leaf-fall leaflets and improved cross-border service, we are none of us lower than enterprise class, even if those that were first are not now last, but just first plus.
In a break between the ads the plasma screen treats us in our percentages (see Appendix Four) to archive footage of a Model T Ford with DIY propellers on the roof. The blades turn silently, furiously, but the Model T never leaves the ground. All the while a news-bar rolls across the bottom of the screen, ‘Assembly to meet’, ‘Baghdad bomb victims buried’; ‘Wagon Wheels firm for sale’.
I walk out of the station (High Street Mall, Magowan West, Matalan to my right) a little before eleven o’clock, so never discover how the plasma screen – the waiting room – copes with Michael Stone wedged in a revolving door at Stormont shouting No Sell Out Paisley. I carry on through the underpass to where I parked my car, trying not to give credence to the lines scrawled on the walls.
‘Fuck Ulster,’ (talk about a lack of ambition) ‘Shoot all Huns.’
Plough and stars http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Sparta/1648/ceacht_e.htm
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