Briefly in Berlin, I took time out to visit the Pergamon Museum, which houses –among many, many antiquities, the remains of the great temple and its altar. If you’re at all queasy about how the Elgin Marbles reached the British Museum and why they are still there, you should probably give the Pergamon temple a miss. Otherwise, it is one of the great relics of the ancient world, rescued – or looted, depending on your view – for the delectation and education of more northerly Europeans.
There are, though, good reasons why – despite any misgivings – it’s worth going. One is that the Pergamon Museum is part of a grand, and still growing, ensemble that occupies Museum Island just a short distance from the Reichstag. Clustering so many grand collections together, rather than scattering them around the city in the name of regeneration, provides a magnificent monument to high culture that is unique to Berlin.
Another is for what it says about the practicalities of German reunification. Much of the island, which is in the former East Berlin, is in the throes of extensive restoration. And all the wraps, noise and excavations, along with the empty spaces before you cross to the island, are a reminder of how much remains to be done to knit the city together more than 20 years after reunification. Each time I go to Berlin, the disparities between west and east – in shops, building quality and overall feel – are less conspicuous. But the scale of the task to fill in the empty middle was, and is, enormous.
And, third, for all the Checkpoint Charlie memorabilia, it’s hard now to remember that the East was not just walled in, but under Russian occupation – unless you go to Treptow Park, where the vast Russian war memorial still stands. Elsewhere, Russian traces are mostly gone, including from the Pergamon Museum, where the information boards are now in German and English, and sometimes in Turkish, but not Russian.
Except for one. On the first wall, there is a summary of how the remains of the temple came to be in Berlin. They were, it says, displayed in Berlin until 1943, when they were taken to Russia. They were returned in 1958, unlike – the notice goes on pointedly – many other stolen artefacts. This board is in German, English and Russian – the only Russian, so far as I could see, in the whole museum. The hope presumably is that Russian tourists – of whom there are many – will take the message home.
Middle-lane road hog? Me?
Driving down the M4 on Saturday, I was on very best motorway behaviour – in common, so it seemed, with many other motorists. The Government’s threat to fine middle-lane hogs (you know who you are) is encouraging us to scurry to the left or the right, leaving whole swathes of the middle lane empty. Empty, that is, of cars. With nature abhorring a vacuum and all that, the lorries have commandeered the slack.
Hiding away in the slow lane – to be overtaken in torrential rain by an enormous lorry doing at least 70 (a Wilkinson since you ask, with a giant baby in nappies pictured on the side) – it also occurred to me how daft all these extra, highly specific, rules are: don’t sit in the middle lane, don’t use your mobile, don’t text while driving, don’t occupy the cyclists’ box. Once upon a time, there were just two main driving offences: driving without due care and attention, and dangerous driving. Most of today’s life-threatening habits fit comfortably into one of these without the need for any new provisions at all.