Jazz visit: Die Glorreichen Sieben in Berlin Aufsturz

Having recently spent some time in Düsseldorf for work reasons, I am more than glad to be back in Berlin. I missed the light trickling through my shutters onto the dust on my keyboard, the fly screens on my windows, the cracks in my doors, the chinks in my chaos, the markers in my books, and the familiar faces at the obscure jazz concerts I love. People I’ve never spoken to, but we see each other around and nod, knowing we share something even though we’ve never shared a word.

Aufsturz is a club in the North of Berlin. Jazzkeller69 organises concerts there. Last night’s band was Die Glorreichen Sieben (The Magnificent Seven), but I didn’t really care who was playing. I really just wanted to get some jazz back into my system. By the time I had made diverse phone calls that could have waited until tomorrow, found a clean pair of trousers, talked myself into the hour-long journey there, and then finally made my way out and actually got to the concert, I’d missed the first set.

For the rest of the intermision, I got talking to a young English guy at the bar. He told me that the band had been playing some kind of country/bluegrass style of jazz. Really not my thing at all, so I was a bit sceptical about whether to stay or not, but I had already paid my 10 Euro, so … shame to waste it and I’m glad I did not.

The Magnificent Seven arrived on the stage, all four of them. Two drummers, a guitarist and a bass guitar player. They started off with three crazy rock-jazz renditions of songs from Pink Floyd’s first album Piper at the Gates of Dawn: Lucifer Sam, The Gnome, and Astronomy Domine. An unusual repertoire to say the least. All songs were written by Syd Barrett, who was lead singer and main songwriter of Pink Floyd until 1968. After he was replaced by David Gilmour, he had a short-lived solo career then fell into obscurity. His name was revived in 1983 after Roger Waters left Pink Floyd. The more loyal fans (like myself) preferred to re-explore the band’s past rather than follow David Gilmour into Floyd’s future as a superficial rock band.

I personally regard Barrett as as one of the most important songwriters of the 20th century and though I was touched  to see a contemporary jazz band giving his work with Pink Floyd such extensive coverage, I was also sceptical about the idea of Barrett songs as jazz improvisations. Most of his songs are constructed of strict, obscure rhythms.

The fact that the Glorreichen Sieben’s repertoire (during the second set) consisted solely of cover versions brought up the question of the recognition effect. Being a fan of Pink Floyd, my memory of the harmonies of the original Syd Barrett tracks made it easier for me to come to terms with the disharmony of the improvisations. This actually served to reduce my enjoyment of the music (although it was technically brilliant) because I found it difficult to rise above my existing knowledge of Pink Floyd to truly appreciate the improvisations that the band were offering.

Their fourth track was an improvisation on the Neil Young song “Round and Round”. I personally have had little contact with the music of Neil Young and did not know this song until yesterday evening (and all Neil Young fans say: “what?”, but it’s true). For this reason I had no memory of the song to hold the disharmony of the Seven’s improvisation together. I enjoyed this track much more.

The band are fascinating to watch. They produce such unusual sounds that I found myself scrutinising their every move to find an explanation for everything they did. Why two drummers? was one of the main questions that I had. But this question was quickly answered: these two drummers could not be more different from each other. I watched them closely trying to find a role that to allocate them to, but found nothing clearcut. Of course I could see that Christian Lillinger was providing structure by means of rhythm and concentrated quiet brushwork

whilst Alfred Vogel seemed to be experimenting with as many sounds as could possibly be made with percussion.

But it would be unfair to try to categorise drummers or indeed any musicians in this way. I spoke to Christian Lillinger afterwards and asked him what he himself thought. He laughed and joked that somebody had to be act responsibly in that setup:

Conclusion: if this band comes your way, don’t miss them:


Expats and Refugees

Let’s do the Letters again in 12 months with Letters from Refugees.

I was very excited about The Pigeonhole‘s Letters from Berlin project which I took part in and enjoyed immensely. One of the things I have enjoyed most has been the online criticism, which hasn’t always been good (though mostly), but it gets you to think. One point made was that many of the writers in the series, which is still running, focus on gentrification, which might seem a little bit pretentious since we “foreigners” in Berlin are, strictly speaking, one of the main causes of it, even though it also affects us. I personally live in one of the less fashionable Eastern districts of Berlin, so I feel less troubled by that particular point, but ok. Another point of criticism, particularly on social media, was the focus on elite expat experience: nightlife, drugs, art and architecture – generally speaking, luxury and the problems that luxury brings. And I take that point too, though I think it’s important to write about things that are important to you and everyone in the series is obviously doing that.

It would be far from the truth to claim that all Western foreigners here are middle-class expat kids trying to find themselves in a global playground (something expats like to accuse each other of), but something more important than that, than anything we could have written about, is happening right now: wave upon wake of refugees are on their way here from countries such as Syria and Iraq. A whole new generation of Berliners. Will they also have the good fortune to become expats or will they be seen as refugees?

What’s the difference between an expat and a refugee?
To be straight about this, I dislike the word expat, and I have often referred to myself jokingly as an economic refugee to avoid the label, though there is a grain of truth: I grew up in Glasgow at the height of the Thatcher era and, at the age of 19, found myself faced with the choice of zero development among large numbers of other unemployed youths or getting out. I was a bit of a weird kid who’d grown up to become a weird young man, so I wasn’t exactly well positioned to compete with the scores of other school leavers. I made my way for London where there were more job opportunities. Shortly after arriving, I lost my job in a hotel and spent a brief stint of a few weeks on the streets, then a number of months hitchhiking around Britain, and later France, looking for work. In the end I returned to Glasgow, got myself a council flat, and before too long found myself faced with the same choice as before: stagnate or get out.

Two years later I tried again. This time I hitchhiked to Germany. It was 1992. I’m still here. If I hadn’t had the right passport in my pocket, I might not be. But I did, and I am.

Of course, on the face of it, there is no real difference between most expats and most refugees, except a few thousand euros, a passport, and the scars of experience that the latter often carry with them. The human factor remains the same, and should be evaluated as such. And even though I came here to escape the economic climate of Thatcher’s Scotland and the underclass that her system allocated me to, I know inside that I was never a refugee; I’m really just an expat, even though that word stinks of affluence, whingeing, and pseudo-suffering because you’re missing black pudding, bran flakes or your mum – and that is definitely not me. But when I see the pictures of sinking ships and children washed up on beaches, I feel a strange form of shame that I ever regarded those few months I spent homeless as anything that amounted to any form of experience, even though I know, too, that there are still people homeless in London, Berlin etc., and that their experience is in no way improved by the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of displaced people from the Middle East on their way here. On the contrary, it might make it easier for some to ignore the poor at home and, equally sadly, there will also be those who will use the plight of the poor at home as an excuse to refuse entry to refugees.

But my own experience, which I have left behind me now, seems miniscule when I try to imagine (for the life of me) what those refugees have gone through in Syria or Iraq, and are still going through (whilst I write this meaningless blog post which I fear will appear vain in some way), trying to get to this city that I live in, to this country that I entered 23 years ago with no problems whatsoever, despite the fact that I only had 10 Deutschmarks in my pocket, a roll of sketches under my arm, and an irrational belief that I was about to become the next Picasso. No one controlled me at the border or asked me what I wanted here or which country I had come from. Despite my poverty – and I was undoubtedly and visibly poor by Western standards – my skin was white, my problems were luxury problems and all barriers were open to me. I was in the proud position to curse the systems and the governments I secretly trusted in and survive the blasphemy of doing so.

So this is my appeal to The Pigeonhole to come back to Berlin in a year and find the most talented unknown writers among those very welcome refugees. Give them a voice and let them share their experiences of the city with us, so we can see how refugee and expat experiences differ, and where they match up. Give them something else to think about than being refugees. (Quick update 🙂 )


I will continue to write about the rest of the Pigeonhole Letters from Berlin series as soon as I have time again and my head is clear.


Pigeonhole’s #LettersFromBerlin series — Wedding, Prenzlauer Berg

Wedding and Prenzlauer Berg are both districts in the north of Berlin, but they do not border on each other, separated by a narrow strip consisting of the North of Mitte and the South West of Pankow. There are hardly two districts in Berlin that could have such opposing reputations. Whereas Prenzlauer Berg is seen as being an affluent area abundant with culture, Wedding is regarded as a bit of a rough place with little to offer. Of course, if you live in the city, these stereotypical accounts of the two hardly stand up to scrutiny. It’s all a question of taste, time of life, and how you want to have the time of your life.

Lucy Renner Jones’ article on Prenzlauer Berg “The Squirrel Principle”, which is available as a sampler to the Pigeonhole series #lettersfromberlin, and you can read it here, gives a personal — but no less objective for that — account of the developments in this particular district, one of the first to be subjected to gentrification. Lucy visits places of personal nostalgic value for her, observes how things have changed and reveals those little secret pockets that have survived the gentrification process.

Of course the process of change was inevitable, as soon as the wall fell. The aspiring GDR literature scene, for example, that had been here previously soon evolved into something very different. Even Westerners like me could have the honour of being a very small part of it. I published my first German texts in Lauter Niemand, an annual magazine dedicated to emerging writers. That said, I arrived very late on the scene, back in 2008, and many of the English-speaking, German-writing colleagues who I met in Prenzlauer Berg had already been involved in literature here for 10 years or longer. By the time, just two years ago, I managed to stabilise my translation business to a degree that would allow me to move to Berlin, the rent in Prenzlauer Berg had risen above my budget. Though I don’t actually know if  I would want to live there any more anyway. It really has become a district of squirrels. The gathering season has passed and the long hibernation has begun — maybe I’m just annoyed because I got here too late.

At the moment I live at the unfashionable end of Treptow and I wonder whether the kind of energy that was injected into Prenzlauer Berg will ever be invested here. But more on that later when my own Stave VI in the  #lettersfromberlin series appears next week on Monday 24 August. Right now, I spend a lot of time wondering about Wedding. But as soon as I start wondering, there’s already an article in the New York Times about it and I know it’s only a question of time before…

Marcel Krueger’s Stave IV, “Workers, Foreigners and Beer”, Like Lucy’s Stave I, also has a touch of nostalgia about it, but it’s less personal and more comprehensive, going beyond his own experience to grasp such diverse topics as architecture, population, diversity and beer. Marcel has a talent for bringing such varied aspects together. Wedding has “a certain roguishness”, he says, which turns out to be an understatement when, during an informal chat cum interview with one of the American owners of small craft beer brewery, the notion of “us” being gentrifiers is disimssed: “We just built a small brewery and bar in a place that once sold heroin out the back door.” You can hear Marcel read part of his piece below.

I will be reading with him and with Paul Scraton at 6pm on Sunday 23 August 2015 here:

Vagabund Brauerei

Antwerpener Str. 3, 13353 Berlin

Like Lucy’s Stave, Marcel’s lives from communication with real people, from those coincidental moments of conversation in which people unwittingly get to the core of a topic with the kind of casual throwaway lines that only locals can say.

Both staves have been released and are available at



Pigeonhole’s #LettersFromBerlin series — Friedrichshain, Tempelhof

Berlin is often a balance between the permanent nature of history and the temporary nature of our life here: shared flats in buildings that escaped the bombings, makeshift exhibition halls in factories built at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution — the city will survive us, decaying infinitely slower than its inhabitants. Just to prove it, I’ve not been well recently; been on antibiotics and got a tooth out.

So that’s my excuse for not writing a piece about each one of Pigeonhole’s #lettersfromBerlin staves as they appeared. Today I’m going to start rectifying that and write a short overview of two of the pieces. The others I’ll do later this week if I’m not feeling too sorry for myself.

My own piece, Stave 6 on Treptow-Köpenick, will be released next week.

First of all a bit of background to my involvement here:
Purely by chance on Facebook, I discovered the Pigeonhole project #lettersfromBerlin, pitched, got accepted and set about writing. The Staves are released, in the tradition of literary magazines, issue by issue. The first five staves have been released and each of them has described a unique district from the unique perspectives of each author. My stave is Stave six and appears next week on Monday.

Friedrichshain and Tempelhof
Lily Sykes and Eve Danger, who wrote, respectively, about Tempelhof (Stave 3) and Friedrichshain (Stave 2), both take a retrospective approach, which really lends itself to Berlin: it’s the temporary nature of life here; maybe it’s everywhere in the western world, but it feels stronger here. History feels close and we feel part of it, but as tiny anonymous components crawling on the sites of events far bigger and more monstrous than anything we will ever blog about. This anonymity can be comforting when we want to flee the pressures and doubts of the individualist existence that we otherwise so fervently cling to; indeed some, like Eve Danger, prefer to lose themselves in that anonymity, for example, in the nightlife of Friedrichshain.

Eve’s retrospective feels like a diary account, although she only names the month and the year, not the exact date. “April 2015…just lucid enough to recognise…a kindred spirit”, she tells of how she met Molly, a silent observer with whom she trails around the nightlife, moving through a flashing blaze of observations of both the outside world and her own inner one: “…the tourists photograph the graffiti, not the monuments” or “…the stares I’ve received all night. It could be my old pal paranoia calling…” I recognise something of myself in Eve’s experiences. And we have at least one common musical interest: Alice Phoebe Lou, a young South African singer who writes the most beautiful songs which she plays outside of Warschauer Strasse Underground station. That really brings the vibrance of Friedrichshain close to home.

In Lily’s case the retrospective approach is less direct, switching between her morning runs and her fascination with the former Tempelhofer Airport which she describes historically from afar and at close range. She also addresses the all-pervasive question of accomodation, manoeuvring between the wish to live in a historical area and the frustrations of living in a shared flat. Also here there is experience I can relate to: although we inhabit buildings that were there before us and will outlive us, they remain evasive in the face of gentrification. We are part of the same trend that we curse. We are fighting for space to accommodate our memories and pushing the places that we love further out of reach in doing so.

If you are interested in the series, you can register here:



Corbyn: von der Farbfernsehdiktatur zu einer neuen sozialen Bewegung

Der Name Jeremy Corbyn ist momentan in aller Munde. Die Frage ist, ob er über September 2015 hinaus, nachdem die Wahl des neuen Labour Parteichefs abgeschlossen ist, in dauerhafter Erinnerung bleiben wird. Oder wird der linke Kandidat sich wieder zu den Hinterbänklern des House of Commons begeben müssen?

In Deutschland wird Corbyn genauso wie bei sich zulande als Schreckgespenst dargestellt. Während der britische New Statesman ihn auf witzige Weise als Kommunisten darstellt, der die schwarze Tür von 10 Downing Street rot anmalt, sich von George Osborne, den er als “Comrade” (Genosse) anspricht, Tea and Biscuits servieren lässt und die Möbel der Premierwohnung mit Stapeln von Das Kapital ersetzt, scheint die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Deutschland solche Witzbilder ein wenig zu ernst zu nehmen:

Vermutlich hat der Berichterstatter der FAZ den Humor in den britischen Zeitungen nicht erkannt. Es ist ein recht befremdlicher Artikel: Sinn Fein wird der IRA gleichgesetzt und Corbyns Bemühungen um Frieden in Nord Irland in den Achtzigern werden an den Pranger gestellt, obwohl dieser politische Vorstoß durchaus eine Nische in der späteren Politik von John Major und Tony Blair gefunden hat, die auch im Karfreitagsabkommen (Good Friday Agreement) resultierte.

Beide Artikel, sowohl in der FAZ als auch im New Statesman, sind symptomatisch für die wirtschaftliche Orientierung unserer Gesellschaft. Die Laissez-Faire Prinzipien der Hands-off Wirtschaft münden in die Haltung „Finger weg von der Wirtschaft”. Entsprechend dieser Mode des Denkens werden Politik und Wirtschaft einander diametral gegenübergestellt, als wären sie zwei angefeindete Körperschaften. Dabei wird die Wirtschaft mit dem freien Markt verwechselt, obwohl dieser ebenso ein Teil der Wirtschaft ist wie die Politik.

Wir haben aus dem unverantwortlichen Umgang mit den Finanzmärkten und den daraus resultierenden Krisen gelernt, dass der freie Markt Kontrollen unterliegen muss. Das ist nicht Einmischung in die Wirtschaft, sondern das ist Wirtschaft. So sehr die Politik ein Teil der Wirtschaft ist, so ist auch der freie Markt ein Werkzeug der Politik. Aber je mehr von dem wenig übrig gebliebenen Staatsbesitz auf dem freien Markt verkauft wird, desto weniger Möglichkeiten werden dem Staat zur Verfügung stehen, dieses Werkzeug zu kontrollieren, wenn es mal wieder darum geht, die bereits deutlich gewordenen Konsequenzen eines ungebändigten Bankenkapitalismus einzudämmen. Anfang August hat George Osborne, der britische Finanzminister, einen Teil der staatlichen Anteile an der Royal Bank of Scotland, die 2008 im Wege der Sanierung der Bank gekauft wurden, zu einem Preis deutlich unterhalb des Einkaufspreises wieder verkauft bei einem Verlust von etwa 1 Mrd. Pfund. Ein solcher Verlust wäre vielleicht annehmbarer, wenn Osborne die Anteile auf dem freien Markt, nach Maß verteilt, verkauft hätte, damit die normalen Bürger der britischen Inseln sich wenigstens daran hätten beteiligen dürfen. Die meisten Anteile wurden aber direkt von Hedgefonds aufgekauft. Es dürfte klar sein, dass ein Linker wie Corbyn sich nicht mit einer solchen liberal-konservativen Art des Haushaltens wird anfreunden können. Die FAZ aber stellt eine solche ablehnende Haltung gegenüber der Reduzierung des Defizits um jeden Preis dem „Ende des Haushaltens” gleich, als wäre Austerity die einzige Form von „Wirtschaft”, die es gäbe und Corbyns Position keine Vernünftige und deshalb gar keine.

Erst gestern hat Corbyn seinen „Better Business Plan“ bekannt gegeben, mit dem er verspricht, sich für „kleine Unternehmen und unabhängige Unternehmer einzusetzen, und auch für die wachsende Anzahl von Unternehmen, die sich durch Kooperation und Innovation um das öffentliche Wohl kümmern … das Spielfeld für jene kleineren Unternehmen und ihre Angestellten zu ebnen, die sonst in der Schlange hinter den Großen stehen müssen, von denen die Tories finanziert werden und von denen sie besessen sind.“ Das scheint von der einfachen Anti-Austerity Haltung, die Corbyn zugeschrieben wird, weit entfernt zu sein, auch wenn man lange auf solch eine Formulierung von Corbyn warten musste.

Die absolute Überzeugung von Margaret Thatcher, „There Is No Alternative”, scheint nicht nur eine ganze Generation von Nachfolgepolitikern nachhaltig geprägt zu haben, sondern auch viele Medien. Thatcher definierte Überzeugungspolitik neu. Ihr Aufstieg wurde von dem Aufstieg des Farbfernsehens begleitet, das ihren allgegenwärtigen politischen Überzeugungen die Farbe von Fleisch verlieh. Man duldete ihre Gebote und Verbote ohne Widerspruch. Damals hat es kein Internet gegeben. Heute ist das anders. Die Dogmen, die sich in der Zeit des Farbfernsehens etabliert haben, werden jetzt von wütenden, vernachlässigten Bevölkerungssegmenten offen im Internet angefochten.

Aber wie es so häufig der Fall ist, wird das, was sich im Netz verbreitet, auch im Netz gefangen bleiben? Wird Corbyns graues, leises Charisma tatsächlich in eine neue soziale Bewegung münden? Die Gefahr ist groß, dass breite Teile seiner jetzigen Unterstützer sich die alte Labourpolitik herbeiwünschen. Diese ist aber kaum wiederherzustellen, da große Teile der damaligen staatlichen Infrastruktur bereits auf dem freien Markt verkauft worden sind. Sollte dieser ehemalige Staatsbesitz wieder verstaatlicht werden? Sicherlich würde Corbyn das gerne tun, wenn es möglich wäre. Aber der Unterschied zwischen Corbyn und seinen liberalen Gegenkandidaten um die Parteichefposition besteht nicht darin, dass Corbyn eine Politik befürwortet, die nicht durchzusetzen ist, wie in vielen Medien dargestellt, sondern darin, dass Corbyn sich eine Form der Parteipolitik wünscht, die Kompromisse unter den Parteifraktionen fördert.

Eine solche Politik wäre revolutionär in Großbritannien: eine Politik, die auf demokratischer Abstimmung und nicht auf der Stärke eines Parteichefs basiert, die Querdenker in der Partei als ein Zeichen der Freiheit und nicht als ein Versagen eines schwachen Vorsitzenden ansieht; die den demokratisch gewählten Mitgliedern der Partei Richtlinienkompetenz gibt, anstatt diese einer einzigen Person zu übertragen; die keine persönliche Politik betreibt und das Unterhaus nicht für leere Rhetorik und Beleidigungen nutzt, sondern um zu politischem Konsens zu gelangen.

Obwohl die Medien Corbyn als möchte-gern Diktator darstellen, steht er tatsächlich für eine andere Form der Führung ein, bei der die Partei die Richtung entscheidet, während der Parteichef die Aufgabe wahrnimmt, eine Atmosphäre aufrecht zu erhalten, die offene Gesprächsbereitschaft unter den verschiedenen Gruppierungen der “Wide Church” (breite Glaubensgemeinschaft) der Labour Partei fördert. Im Moment scheint eine solche Politik unvorstellbar zu sein: eine Politik jenseits von Charisma und der Überzeugungskraft von Einzelgängern wie Blair und Thatcher, die seit den Achtzigern vorherrschend gewesen sind. Auch Gordon Brown, als letzter einer langen Reihe ehemaliger Kabinettsminister, riet indirekt heute von Corbyn ab:

„Wenn ich in den Umfragen lese, dass der Parteiflügel, der auf bestem Wege ist die meisten Stimmen [zur Wahl des Parteichefs] zu sichern, derselbe Flügel ist, der die schlechtesten Aussichten auf eine Regierungsbildung hat — sogar nach Aussage dessen eigenen Anhängern — dann müssen wir auf unsere Geschichte zurückschauen.“ Einfacher gesagt, er hielt die Partei dazu an, „den Kandidaten zu wählen der einen Unterschied macht und nicht den, der einem gefällt wie auf Facebook”. Browns Weltblick ist ebenso von der Doktrin des charismatischen Überzeugungspolitikers eingeschränkt: dass der Kandidat, nicht die Partei, wählbar sein muss; dass es eine starke Führungspersönlichkeit geben muss, die die Richtlinienkompetenz für sich alleine beansprucht, Loyalität per Dekret einfordert und durch eigene Überzeugung gewinnt.

Dabei ist Corbyn durchaus ein Überzeugungspolitiker. Vor allem ist er von der Notwendigkeit der Kompromissbereitschaft überzeugt. Diese Qualität wird er auch brauchen, um Abwanderung aus den eigenen Parteireihen zu vermeiden. Aber werden die, die ihn wählen – falls es so weit kommt – diese Kompromissbereitschaft als Ehrlichkeit ansehen oder ihm als Schwäche anrechnen? Ist Großbritannien überhaupt bereit für eine andere Form der Führung als Farbfernsehdiktatur?


When painters paint together….

Nowhere else in the art world is it so unusual for people to work together than in the world of painting. Actors work together, musicians work together. With painters, often noted for narcissism, it’s a seldom occurrence, though there are artistic duos such as Gilbert and George, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, most of whom work in concept art.

Whilst gathering material for my article on Treptow-Köpenick —  appearing 24 August in #lettersfromberlin; see ThePigeonhole.com — I met two Berlin artists who work together extensively on the same paintings: Matthias Moseke and Mathias Pelda (two Mat(t)hiases, only distinguished by one or two T’s in their names). Sadly, I met them too late to include them in the article. (On the other hand I had already collected far too much material to include it all anyway, but some of it will appear here, piece for piece).

One of their works — a large format picture that they painted together with the street artist FIO — can be seen at the Landscape Metropolis exhibition in Berlin-Schöneweide until the 8th of August.

I imagine it must be difficult to cooperate with someone else on the same canvas, so I spent some time talking to the artists about this whilst I was visiting the Landscape Metropolis exhibition. During the conversation, it was fascinating to hear them speak so unequivocally. Even when they disagreed, they just laughed it off and I got the impression that they thrive on disagreement — that the conflict of ideals, rather than perfect cooperation, is the thing that takes them on to new horizons.

First off they tell me that the picture was curator John Power’s choice, not just because of the large format, but also to have the idea of street art included within the Landscape Metropolis exhibition: “something playful, chaotic – unashamedly defiant.”

Mathias with one T explains that working together can help artists avoid getting caught up in their own form of expression. Why hold constant monologues with yourself in a mirror, when you can work together and answer each other’s questions using the language of image. The two Mat(t)hiases have been working together for so long now, they feel like “one painter with two bodies”.


But the two artists do not only collaborate as a duo; rather, they also welcome other artists to cooperate with them. “When a third comes along, they expand our spectrum, our horizons. The third brings questions to the painting, questions that you would not think of asking.” For example, FIO, the graffiti artist with whom the artists worked on the piece featured in the video, brought a street art emphasis into the work.

The Mat(h)iases obviously enjoyed working with FIO, someone used to crossing borders. “That’s also the case with us” – you need to have the guts to go where colleagues don’t want to go.”
But isn’t it difficult for most artists to make that step?
They nod. For many it’s just unimaginable to work over another artist’s work or to allow someone else to work over what they’ve done.

So is it a bit like hip-hop featuring?
“In a way, yes”, explains two-T Matthias. That was the case here, but that’s not what they always do. The important thing when they bring other artists into a joint process is to build a relationship of trust.
“They have to be prepared to work over the painting.” Says two-T Matthias.
“And be on the same level”, chips in one-T Mathias, “Eye to eye.”


Both of the artists find music extremely important for their work. I got to know two-T Matthias at a jazz concert at Novillo (Jazz club in Schöneweide). That makes sense: Jazz is about people coming together, jamming, maybe without knowing each other – one begins, the other chips in. Each of them has their own repertoire. And when you take other people in, the whole thing expands. “If three of you are working together on a painting, you see something on the canvas, and you think, that’s where I want to be, but one of the others has already put something there, so you always have to react, you always have to be aware of what the other does – it’s always dynamic.”

So who starts the picture?
The sprayer started this one. But by the time FIO and the two Mat(t)hiases were finished with it twelve hours later, there was nothing left of the initial work.

So this was done in one sitting?
“We don’t always work in a single sitting, but sometimes it’s helpful not to interrupt the flow.”

Looking at the canvas, the first thing that occurs to me is the vibrancy of the colours and the general feeling of joy in chaos. Far from the pretentiousness of much of the art scene, these guys seem to be having a damned good time and you can see it on the canvas. Of course art is a serious matter, but do we have to be serious all the time? At the same time, I have to ask myself whether this degree  of cooperation and reaction during the artistic process shifts the actual “art” away from the product and more towards the subjective moment of the “happening”, so I’m left wondering what’s left for the observer.

I ask, “How are you supposed to interpret a picture like this?”
“This is a free jazz painting”, explains one-T Mathias.
The round object in the top right-hand corner looks like the sun, I suggest.
“Someone else thought it was a helicopter”, says Mathias.
And Matthias answers, “It reminds me of an amoeba, something unicellular.”
And Mathias says, “But that’s one of the great things about this kind of painting: it’s totally open for every observer.”

I can’t get my head around the connection between the obvious buzz they get from cooperating (dare I call it joy?), their productive drive, and the interpretative freedom of the observer. I see more logical contradictions than connections there. Is it perhaps the inability of a (my) single mind to fully understand the strength of the discourse of two, or in this case three minds?

Certainly the comparison to free jazz is a good one: constant positioning and juxta- and repositioning. The sublimity of such action is somehow unfathomable, but perceptible. Whereas Jazz remains sublime only a moment, the moment is recorded here in paint — the material is intrinsic to the process and the process to the sublimity. 


If you want to know more about the artists (do I see you nodding?), I suggest:

  1. John Power’s Landscape Metropolis exhibition, running until 8 August: http://berlin.g11-art.de/home.htm
  2. The Ma(t)thias’s website: www.moseke-pelda.de


And if you want to know more about Schöneweide, register with Pigeonhole here:

and check out the tag #lettersfromberlin





Hurled into war

Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, exactly 100 years ago today. Other countries joined the war effort afterwards. By the time it ended in 1918, the First World War had cost thirty-seven million soldiers and civilians their lives.

It was a war fuelled by nationalism and propaganda, and people were only too willing to believe what they heard about the other side. This poem by Gustav Sack (who I mentioned in another post yesterday) reveals the degree of scepsis among some, but again this scepsis culminates in heroic warlike rhetoric to counteract the undercurrent of helplessness.











When war was declared, not all were ready and willing

One hundred years ago today, Germany declared war on France. President Gauck of Germany and President Hollande of France met today and can be seen falling into each other’s arms in Der Spiegel.

Gustav Sack

In my article on 1 August, I discussed the notion of voluntary military service and the doctrine of dying for one’s country.
Gustav Sack was probably one of the greatest living examples of individualism at the time. He initially refused to enlist, which was possible because he was living in Switzerland at the time. In September of 1914, he returned to Germany and was sent to the Eastern front in Romania. He fell in Ploiești on 5 December 1916. Doubtless, there will be some questions as to the way in which this particular poem “Genug” (enough) is translated. I have changed both the verse and the rhyme structure, but tried to keep the content as close as possible to the original. Gustav Sack has a tendency to repeat content, so one is often left with the feeling that his poetry could have been more reduced. Sometimes, therefore, when I translate his work, I make such reductions. This is a moral decision that I feel comfortable with, though some of the readers of this blog may not agree with me on that. In any case, the reason I decided to translate this one was because it shows very clearly how fear and frustration results in resignation to death in the guise of willingness to die. In this poem, the author retains spiritual freedom in death by making the decision to die for himself. The final verse in which he proclaims “meet my free and glorious death” seems somewhat disembodied from the rest of the poem, like an afterthought, searching for the sense or meaning of his death. It is also the only verse which begins with a stressed syllable. All others begin with unstressed syllables. For this reason I have not shortened this particular verse or consolidated it together with the others, in order to let it stand alone as it does in the original.


Other possible versions

. . . . . . . .

I quite like the idea of repeating the final line of stanza 1 after the long middle stanza, but it’s maybe a bit far removed from the original



On this day, 100 years later, Georg Trakl’s Grodek

I can think of no more fitting way to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War than Georg Trakl’s poem, Grodek, which has been translated many times before, but it deserves to be translated again and again.

Georg Trakl was a chemist whose task it was to attend to the injured and dying  soldiers. He found it impossible to accept that his help accomplished so little. His general state of psychological liability was put to the test shortly before the Battle of Gródek when he witnessed the hanging of thirteen Ruthenians. The scene marked the beginning of a nervous breakdown. Prevented once from shooting himself, he attempted to flee and was sent to a military hospital in Cracow. He died on the 3rd of November 1914 of a heart attack induced by an overdose of cocaine.



In the evening, in autumn forests, sounds
of lethal armaments, the golden plains
and blue lakes; above them the sun
rolls down dismally; the night embraces
dying warriors, the wild lament
of their shattered mouths.
And yet, silently in the willowed pastures,
red clouds, home to a raging god, are gathering
the spilt blood up, moonly cold;
all roads end in black decay.
Under the golden branches of night and the stars
the sisters’ shadows float through the silent grove
to greet the ghosts of heroes, the bleeding heads,
and quietly in the rushes, dark autumnal flutes sound.
O prouder grief! you brazen altars;
feeding the hot flame of the spirit this day is dreadful
the unborn grandsons.



Am Abend tönen die herbstlichen Wälder
Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
Düster hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt,
Das vergossne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;
Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter;
Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunkeln Flöten des Herbstes.
O stolzere Trauer! ihr ehernen Altäre,
Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger
Die ungebornen Enkel.


Fallen First World War Poets: 1. August Stramm

In much the same way as Wassily Kandinsky broke with the confines of expressionist- style representational art to portray more abstract realities in his paintings, and Arnold Schönberg fled the limitations of existing musical notation to create sounds that hang in the air with the weight of the piano they’re being played upon,

August Stramm, too, shook off the confines of the grammar of his native German—a strongly regulated language—to make way for purer forms of expression.

For this year, the 100th Anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, I decided about two years ago, as many obviously also decided, to translate German First World War poets. At school we had WW1 poetry rammed down our throats. They were all English (and not more generally “British”) poets, but I was one of those nerdy pupils who loved it. Of course the “losing side” (whatever that means) also wrote poetry which was largely ignored, despite the fact German WW1 poetry is every bit as good as its English counterpart.

About two years ago, I made the decision, to translate German First World War poets for the 100th Anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. I know WW1 poetry quite well for the simple reason that we had it rammed down our throats at school. They were all English (and not more generally “British”) poets, but I was one of those nerdy pupils who loved it. Of course the “losing side” (whatever that means) had also written poetry which was largely ignored. In fact it never occurred to me that there might be poets in Germany too until I got here and realised that German WW1 poetry is every bit as good as its English counterpart.

So over the next years I’ve decided to make a set of little bilingual chap books of translations which I will duly hand-print in a low edition. The first in the series is August Stramm. In an attempt to emulate proximity to the spirit of Stramm’s time, I did a woodcut portrait of the poet based on a photo from 1915: the year in which Stramm died.

Stramm was a civil servant. He worked in the higher ranks of the German Post. One of his university theses was written on the subject of international postage. He is known to have visited other countries, including the USA. In my darker hours I sometimes do thought experiments on what would have become of these people during the Hitler era had they survived. Would they have been oppressed or belonged to the oppressors?

Having worked in such civil service offices myself for a short space of time, I am in no way surprised that someone from such a background could write such violence-filled poetry. The conniving, subtle elbow stabs and hierarchically guided beatings that take place in such conservative houses are ideal breeding ground for frustration. What does surprise me is that someone of those ranks could write so well (though of course, there is also Kafka).

I find it hard to believe that Stramm was really one of them. His poetry is so human, without being humane. Regardless of topic, whether war or living room, his poetry is a series of loud, short-breathed, violent stabs of non-existent words and confusing syntax. After a few less meaningful publications, his poetry was finally accepted in 1912 by the magazine “Der Sturm”, a pioneering magazine for expressionist literature and graphical work. Three years after these first important publications, Stramm was dead at the age of 38 (1915), killed by a shot to the head during an attack at the Dnieper–Bug Canal, today Belarus territory.

August Stramm
August Stramm “Dance” (excerpt) and translation


Some interpret the strong imagery of the expressionist era as a kind of lyrical premonition of the war. And the fact that the violent language of Stramm’s poetry did not change much between peacetime and wartime could possibly support this thesis. I personally think the rise of such imagery was a natural social reaction to existing power structures. Education was better and more universal. As a result people had greater possibilities to voice their frustrations with the systems in which they were embedded. The war, which many may well have seen coming, simply provided “flesh” for this particular artistic inclination; it was no longer just imagery, but scars on the skin of a new reality that no one without war experience could have imagined.

August Stramm
August Stramm “Krieg, and Translation.

Translating Stramm

There are of course several possible approaches to translating any poet. I would therefore like to draw attention to another translation of Stramm by Alistair Noon (see this article). Talking to Alistair one morning over coffee we got onto a hard discussion on our very different approaches to translating Stramm. The main question seemed to be whether to transpose the meaning of the poetry to a modern context, as Alistair had done, or whether to attempt to recapture the context of the poet’s time, as I claimed to be doing.

As translators we are as free of moral obligations as poets are and each method has its justifications. The chief justifications of the first approach are as follows:

  • We cannot achieve adequate knowledge of any other time than the one we live in?
  • A contemporary approach is more relevant and understandable to the contemporary reader.

Whilst this may be true for some poetry which is more embedded in social phenomena, I think there are things that people have in common across time. Emotion and acute fear of death is one such thing. There seems little difference to me between crawling through mud in 1914 and crawling through mud in 2014. A shot in the head or a gas attack also mean pretty much the same. As living beings we are no more or less capable of feeling fear, dread, sorrow or pity, than our forefathers were. The dust we will become or the mud we are crawling through don’t care what year it is or whether we have I-Phones in our pockets. On the other hand, most of us (including myself) were never in a war zone, but that is a more a situational matter than it is a temporal one.

It is neither possible to transpose completely nor to recapture effectively. The former is possibly more honest since it accounts openly for the contemporary voice of the translator. However, despite this, I chose the latter: recapturing. I think this is valid in the case of Stramm, since feeling, which all eras have in common, is the main component of his poetry. Of course there is a political message too, but this is mainly contained within the motivation (why he writes) which is only an implicit component of the poetry itself.

I made a conscious choice to work with my own feelings, on the grounds that feelings (at least existential feelings) have a degree of universality. I questioned my perception of the ambiguity of the lexis of his work. Ambiguity plays a great role in the work of Stramm. He uses fragments of words—e.g. by removing prefixes or by adding non-existent prefixes or inflections—to create non-words. For example:

Bären spannt die Glieder

The word Bären only exists as (1) the plural of Bär (bear) or (2) the accusative/genitive/dative inflections of Bär, none of which make immediate sense in this context, because the word is being used as a nominal singular; however, the implications of bear are clear: strong, animal, Russia (Stramm fought on the eastern front), carnivore etc., besides other subjective/objective implications. The word gebären, however, meaning give birth to, is also implied and makes more sense in the purely linguistic context of kreißen (be in labour) which again is not directly semantically related to the title: Krieg / War.

Since it is impossible to know the true source of the word, such “non-words” or “half-words” may be cognitively associated with two or three possible meanings. This has the effect of bringing conflicting semantic associations into the same context. Lexical examination and gut feeling seemed for this reason more viable to me than contemporary interpretation as a method of translation .

I believe not only that much of Stramm’s emotional content is contained within the lexical, but that this emotional content is universal, i.e. not confined to a particular time.







Frühling der Barbaren: time of the novella?

2014-04-21 15.48.47Return of the Novella? I should be so lucky. Doubtless the waves of fashion will turn with the tide to 3-volume epics once again and render slow readers such as myself obsolete.

Jonas Lüscher’s Frühling der Barbaren (Barbarian Spring), 2013, so I’m a year late) provides unique commentary on our capitalist economy in little more than 120 pages. An English wedding party in Tunisia. The happy couple and most of the guests are young, highly-paid bankers and traders at the London stock exchange. Then, overnight, the British Pound is excessively devalued and collapses. The party guests find themselves trapped at their desert oasis, impoverished and unable to pay their bills. Only non-British hotel residents are still treated as guests, including Preising–the teller of the tale–a Swiss factory owner who was invited to take part in the wedding feast at the last minute.

Reading it, I was reminded of two works: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Albert Camus’s The Fall. The former because the cover of the book betrays many aspects of the end to us before we have even started. The latter because of the language of the main character: narcissistic, vain and without regret–though Preising, it should be said has somewhat more humility than Camus’s Jean-Baptiste Clamence.

A question that arose for me was what Lüscher still had to offer this particular strain of narrative. Gabriel Garcia Marquez really perfected the foretold end with the title “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”. Within two pages the reader is aware not only that he will die, but that he will be murdered. What we do not know is the reasons for his murder, what kind of person he is, who will fail to warn him, which relationships will guide him to his doom. Similarly, when we read the title and the first page of Frühling der Barbaren, we become aware that the stock exchange will collapse and that murder, perhaps indiscriminate murder, will take place, that civilisation will yield to barbary and that the main character will survive. Right from the beginning, this sluggish, rich, but strangely humble factory owner whose only narcissistic quality lies, apparently, in his language promises the listener “a story from which something can be learned. A story full of unbelievable twists, adventure and danger and exotic temptations”. Those are big promises. Will he keep them? Which relationships will save him? Who is this other person he is telling the story to, this real narrator of whom we know nothing except that he did not really want to hear any of it? How reliable is Preising as a storyteller? Is this tale simply a trace of vanity he fails to hide within his otherwise somewhat bumbling, humble image?

The technical difficulty with this kind of narrative is, how to hold the reader’s attention when the main strands of the end are already clear. Albert Camus manages this with with the second person narrative voice and with the simple power of the narrator’s language. Although the language of Marquez’s Chronicle is excellent, it is not the main instrument for holding attention; Marquez’s book is fascinating because of the complex weavings of relationships and antipathy, silence and coincidence which cause the victim to go unwarned.

Does the language of Frühling der Barbaren hold the reader’s attention? It is a rather sober language, drier and less intricate than that of Camus’s Clamence, perhaps more fitting to superficial times such as ours. Symptomatic of relationships without romanticism or excessive emotionality. It is a business as usual language–and this business is clearly founded on relationships. The mode of expression is more honest than the intricacies of Camus or Marquez, but this renders it, by the same default, less magnetic. When the language of Frühling der Barbaren does get adventurous, I occasionally felt it was slightly overdone. But let’s face it: I have chosen two hard comparisons and it’s easy to find something to criticise in a book.

It’s is well worth reading and I look forward to seeing the English translation and wish the translator and the writer all best with it.

We Have to Talk about Freedom of Speech

The murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists has led to outcry on the defence of freedom of speech. But what is there really to defend and from whom? We know that freedom of speech has long been under pressure from our political leaders, as came to our attention during the WikiLeaks era and following Edward Snowden’s revelations on the NSA. In both cases, our strongly voiced concerns about freedom of speech and surveillance were quickly dispensed with by sleight of rhetoric. The people maintained their right to speak while the secret services maintained their right to eavesdrop. The whole thing blew over, albeit slowly, until the deluge of protest became an ebb.

The people and the political establishment have been reconciled in grief and determination to retain our freedoms and even fight for them if necessary. But our digital media has a short memory. The international mourning and outrage will last a couple of weeks and blow over. New crises will arise, dominate our minds and subside into memory. Only side effects will remain. The event will be cited to justify political change, some of which we will not like. David Cameron has already used the Paris attacks to justify far-reaching legislation allowing intelligence agencies to monitor phone calls

A sense of national, perhaps even supra- or at least Euronational, pride has arisen from the simple phrase “je suis Charlie”. We feel compelled to be part of it and not to question it too deeply, though we should. Of course we are not all Charlie. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to defend our freedom of speech, but I ask the question once more: what is it we are actually defending? Our right to draw cartoons ranging in their offensiveness from mildly offensive to outspoken sexist, racist and religiously impertinent? I should clarify, indeed I feel morally compelled to state, that I respect the rights and the outspokenness of these cartoonists, and of course the dead earn our respect, but they were presumably strong individualists and I assume they would have wanted us to be individualists too.

At the same time, however, there are few of us who would speak out in defence of the anti-Semitic cartoons that were so popular in the 1920s and 30s and which arguably led to social division, indeed were used by various political groups, including the National Socialists, to create hatred towards Jews, Sinti, Roma and other groups, which ultimately led to the Holocaust. Those same drawings are now exhibited in concentration camp memorial sites, lest we forget the terrible power they helped unleash. So what has happened to make it easier in the present day to defend such stereotypical images of Jews and Muslims? Are we perhaps confusing grief and anger with defence of the cartoonists’ “contribution” to political debate? Should we not rather be trying to think beyond our stereotypical beliefs about others? Have we lost sight of the fact that caricatures are instruments of political and social ideologies? Could it be that we have lost our fear of the power of caricatures, despite the fact that their presence on social media is more pervasive than it ever has been?

Of course I value the right to express my opinion, but it seems to me that social media has rendered U.S. American ideas about freedom of speech commonplace. Is it not, for example, freedom of speech gone mad to defend a group of neo-Nazis’ right to march through Skokie, Illinois, a town which (in 1978, at the time of the proposed march) was inhabited by several survivors of the Shoah? This particular example comes from a very recent article in the New Yorker on the Charlie Hebdo affair by Teju Cole. An otherwise excellent article, but that particular content disturbed me:

“The A.C.L.U. got it right in defending a neo-Nazi group that, in 1978, sought to march through Skokie, Illinois. The extreme offensiveness of the marchers, absent a particular threat of violence, was not and should not be illegal. But no sensible person takes a defense of those First Amendment rights as a defense of Nazi beliefs.”

I really have to question this, although I know that this kind of thinking is quite typical for American liberals and libertarians. The fact that I have lived in Germany for the last 23 years, where any advocation of Nazi thought is illegal, makes it difficult for me to view freedom of speech as more important than someone else’s right to advocate Nazi ideology (I am referring to the Marchers, not to Teju Cole). It was this phrase in particular that got me:

“But it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech.”

The above sentence cleverly combines the lesser “evil” of obscenity with the greater “evil” of racism within a single argument. Defending the right to racist speech is very different from defending the right to obscene speech. Whereas obscenity may be a matter of taste, racism is an objective social obscenity, a threat to social integrity and should be condemned and, where necessary, forbidden by law. In any other case most liberals would agree with me on that, so I find it hard to understand why that is not the case here.

Our concern with freedom of speech seems to have evolved. Instead of making use of it, we seem to be simply expounding our fundamental right to it, just in case we need it one day.  Wouldn’t it be great if we actually used our freedom of speech to say something useful instead of defending absurd ideologies on the very principle of it? And I am not saying that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were propagating absurd ideology, simply that I question the usefulness of propagating stereotypical images of particular groups in society, particularly when we are aware of the degree of their intolerance to, and the dangers connected with, certain forms of criticism. I am also not advocating any form of censorship except self-censorship. Fact of the matter is that we are censoring ourselves daily anyway. We feel free to attack some groups whilst not attacking others, usually for ideological reasons or as a result of social pressure not to do so. Also simply by following the compulsion to join the viral chants that social media offers like, dare I say it, “je suis Charlie”. Our own voice is becoming more and more lost in the crowd; our own individual freedom of speech is slowly becoming a hollow sounding board for someone else’s agenda.

I am not Charlie. But I have something in common with him. Charlie would have wanted us to think for ourselves.