Notebook: Ich bin ein Berliner. Or maybe not

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The Independent Online
HALF-WAY THROUGH a quick tour of Berlin last Sunday, I asked my guide what was the city's largest industry. An old-fashioned kind of question, I agree; it comes from a time when the maps in school geography books had little silhouettes of the codfish next to the name Hull and emblematic ships stuck across the River Clyde, when differences between cities, counties and regions could still be represented by something more profound than football shirts. But the answer was still a surprise.

"Culture," said my guide. "This city has a hundred museums, nine orchestras and three opera houses. Culture is what we do in Berlin."

And, he might have added, festivals, because festivals are also what they do in Berlin. The city has them six months out of every 12: films, jazz, literature, theatre, "young music". You can't move for cultural celebrations of one sort or another. In September it's the turn of the misleadingly named Berlin Festival - as though there was only one of them - which this year has an American-British theme to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. I was there as the editor of Granta to talk about new British writing, and I'd gone with a certain amount of apprehension. You may remember the scene in Carol Reed's The Third Man when Joseph Cotten, who hacks out a living by writing pulp Westerns, suddenly and much to his alarm finds himself before a solemn Viennese audience who have gathered to hear his views on the state of the literary novel after James Joyce. Before my flight last Saturday, I began, nervously, to remember it a lot. National stereotypes are everywhere to be suspected, but there is, undeniably, a serious intelligence to German culture, which has the effect - they may not mean it to, but it has - of persuading non-Germans that they are incorrigibly frivolous and will be found out. And to be British these days is to belong to perhaps the most famously frivolous nation on earth. We are found out even before we begin.

But on the plane I read an excellent piece by Jane Kramer in The New Yorker, which contained reassuring news. It was about Gerhard Schroder, the leader of the German Social Democrats, who is (or was) expected by most people to beat Helmut Kohl in the coming elections and become the new president. Schroder, according to Kramer, does not believe in anything very much but looks good ("Germany's Clintonblair") and, even more important to his electoral appeal, never refers to "yesterday" and the burden of German history which Kohl, who is old enough to have been conscripted in the Hitler Youth, still carries on his broad shoulders. This, Kramer wrote, matched the mood of a country that was - at last - recovering from the complicated psychological and political legacies of the Third Reich and the Cold War. Suddenly, the Germans felt like normal people in a normal country. Life was beginning to amuse them; they could laugh at themselves. Why, Kramer wrote, they were even "writing funny novels and making funny movies".

I was met and greeted warmly at the airport and taken to my hotel on the Kurfurstendamm. The hotel was charming: irregular passageways, gilt mirrors, old photographs of famous guests on the walls (Arthur Miller stayed here and, or so I was told, Franz Kafka). It was also hushed. The street outside, which is Berlin's most fashionable place to shop, was nearly as quiet. The newspapers, I noticed, had Clinton's sexual adventures modestly displayed at the bottom of the page rather than the top; only with perseverance would you learn about the cigar. That day's London papers had whole supplements on the affair. (Later I found that people in Berlin even talked about it in a different way - with more bafflement and distaste and less voyeuristic glee, as the British might once have done.) The febrility of Anglo- American civilisation, the noise of its media and its streets, the shaky feeling that you sometimes get in London and New York that anything might happen - all this seemed far away, as though a gale from the Atlantic had blown itself out to the west, somewhere over Holland.

That night we had dinner with a couple of Berlin publishers. One came from Kiel; the only thing I could associate with the town was the term "U-boat pen", which shamed me and which I didn't mention. I asked the other, a man I guessed to be in his thirties, about the Kramer piece.Was Germany now "normal"? Had people got history off their backs? His answer was definitely not; it was something so large that it still complicated everything, and perhaps especially German writing (and here it may not be coincidence that about half the books published in Germany are translations from Britain and the US, where the past is a lighter load).

Perhaps the publisher was untypical. Perhaps he was too earnest. But the next afternoon I saw, in a tiny but very direct way, precisely what he meant.

In the morning we took a bus to what was once the separate city of East Berlin and walked through a poorer townscape of modernism gone wrong: wide roads, weeds between flagstones, shabby high-rises that were monumental versions of the stuff inflicted on Britain's inner cities and New Towns. We saw a robust statue of Marx and Engels together - retained by popular protest - and a heap of new drainpipes lying stiffly in line with VIAGRA daubed down the side of one of them, a joke that would win the Turner Prize. Eventually we reached the Potsdamer Platz, where, on the no-man's land that once divided east and west, the new centre of what will be Germany's capital in two years' time is rising from the ground. Famous international architects have been hired, the sky is filled with cranes, the new European headquarters of the Sony Corporation and Daimler-Benz are taking shape. But there is also something quite modest about it all - none of the new building is tall - as though the planners feared that architectural ambition might be mistaken for national arrogance. The past again.

I asked our guide about the city's contentious plans for a Holocaust memorial. He said it was Kohl's idea - "somewhere foreign politicians can come and lay a few flowers" - and that he, like many Berliners, was against it. The Holocaust was too serious to be remembered in that way.

It was lunchtime. I went back to the hotel to prepare my small speech. How to link, in a few light introductory remarks, the magazine, Granta, with the city, Berlin? In London, I'd remembered there was a tenuous connection. Granta is named after the river in Cambridge, as is the village just upstream, Grantchester. The poet Rupert Brooke had lived in the Old Vicarage, Grantchester - Jeffrey Archer lives there now - and written a poem with the same title that ends with two of the most famous lines in English verse: "Stands the church clock at ten to three/And is there honey still for tea?" Also - hey presto! - I remembered that the poem carried a dateline: Cafe des Westerns, Berlin, May, 1912.

It's a poem of homesickness and patriotism: "God, I will pack, and take a train/And get me to England once again!" When I read it in London, it had seemed almost comic in its nationalism. Even our flowers were better: "Here [Berlin] tulips bloom as they are told;/ Unkempt about those [English] hedges blows/An English unofficial rose." In Berlin, however, it seemed disgusting: "Temperamentvoll German Jews/Drink beer around; - and there the dews/Are soft beneath a morn of gold."

Jews and dews - the pun needs locking-up.

And so 99 people gathered in a Berlin art gallery did not hear about Rupert Brooke, not because his attitudes are unsayable or undiscussable in Berlin - far from it - but because the saying and discussing of them could not be achieved quickly or lightly; we would be into a large, disturbing and over-familiar subject, which would cloud anything that came after, if, that is, anything could come after.

This was for me a small thing, a few sentences repressed, but as I sat over my notes in the old-fashioned Sunday hush of a Berlin hotel lounge - grey skies, no wind, the shops shut, the purr of a distant vacuum-cleaner - it gave me a minute taste of what it must be like to have been a German writer, or perhaps just a German, over the past half-century. That time may be over. Schroder may encapsulate the "normality" of younger generations. But I do not think, if nationality was on offer, I would be quite ready yet to be German. Berlin is probably the most well-mannered, courteous city I've been in since the Glasgow or Edinburgh of my childhood. But there is never any danger of forgetting its history, which sometimes, in the interests of feeling "normal", you would certainly want and need to forget.