Last year a friend and colleague, Kuli Kohli, was invited to give a talk and reading at Humboldt University, Berlin. Although it was planned for this June there were complications so she finally got to deliver a couple of weeks’ ago.
Why am I telling you this? Well, Kuli has a number of disabilities, including cerebral palsy, and she was never going to travel on her own. Her husband was busy so he suggested that, as her publisher, I escort her. I was delighted as I used to live in Berlin in the early 1980s. I kept an eye on the weather forecast.
And we are talking about the Cold War era when ‘The Wall’ (150 kilometres of it) surrounded the western sector of the city and it was a pretty scary place. I found myself there because my girlfriend at the time was studying German with Drama and had got a student placement. Somehow it seemed a slightly more exciting prospect than working on the local newspaper back home in Worcestershire.
When there I found work teaching English to businessmen and contributed to an English-language cultural magazine including reviews of Bertolt Brecht’s plays I watched at the Berliner Ensemble (over in the Russian sector). Exciting and dangerous times, perhaps, but when you’re 23 you don’t see the bigger picture.
I was amazed when the wall came down in 1989 and I’m sure I shed a few tears. I couldn’t really imagine, when I lived there, that this symbol of division and chilling oppression would ever fall. There are a couple of short sections still in place, for the tourists. But how the city has improved and how much better Germany is for it!
Kuli and I were able to stroll freely between the two former parts of the city and with Dr Katrin Röder, our adorable host, enjoy coffee and cake in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate where before it would have been uncomfortable at best.
Kuli’s talk went well. She read an extract from a memoir and some poems from Patchwork and impressed the students, who are studying ‘Writing and Disability’, in many ways, not least the physical problems that some writers face like holding a pen, for example. Towards the end I chipped in with a brief reminiscence about my time in the city, which was warmly received, and I read an extract from a sequence of ‘BERLIN, berlin’ poems (november ’81, Berlin):
leafless silver birches
toing and froing in
the breeze that blows north east [ ]
soon a white wall of snow
will collapse on this place
and muffle it in warmth
Happily, the wall’s gone but the silver birches remain, leafless and chilly, naturally.
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