I first encountered Rory MacLean’s writing through his blog Meet the Germans. I was living in Berlin at the time and found his observations amusing, entertaining and informative. He had obviously got to know Berlin and the idiosyncrasies of Berliners pretty well judged from his writing.
MacLean’s tenth published book, Berlin, Imagine a City is ‘a history of Berlin, told through the portraits of two dozen Berliners across five centuries.’ I was eager to read the book as the imprint of my Berlin experience was still relatively fresh and it is one of my favourite parts of the world.
So I have to admit at the outset that my eagerness was much the same as seeing a movie set in somewhere you have lived before, a kind of trainspotter’s relish for the familiar and known.
Diving into chapters discriminatingly I started off with People, Lets Dance which seemed apt given that I’d devoted a fair bit of time myself to the pursuit while in Berlin. The chapter is a nice vignette of a boy and girl and who meet in the city’s famous Berghain nightclub, an old power station transformed into an industrial leviathan super club.
Image Berghain. fyunkie via Flickr
‘A fierce, feral punk bouncer, pierced and tattooed on every inch of exposed skin, had stood at the club’s entrance like a sentinel from hell. (An obvious reference to Sven, Berghain’s legendary doorman) The story continues as the boy and girl who have hooked up make their way to the guy’s hotel and talk about life.
The conversation is fairly interesting but the thing that grabbed me was the guy’s awareness of the minutiae of their time together, how he already knew that these shared moments would be something he would remember.
When the girl talking about her parent’s generation actually having things that they believed in says ‘What do we have now? Ecology? Ourselves? The new iPhone? Adding that she feels full of emotion on the dance floor, but ‘Haven’t we lost sight of something…larger? I have heard it said that young Berliners opt for the all night partying because it prevents them having to deal with anything bigger.
There is some interesting stuff about Bowie’s time in Berlin in the book. ‘Berlin is a city that’s easy to “get lost” in – and to “find” oneself, too,’ said Bowie a sentiment that many would agree with, both short and long term residents.
Hearing about the typically outlandish big star that he was walking around Berlin shabbily dressed and no one giving a fuck is still very Berlin in some parts where what you do for a living is not important. There is also an amusing story when Bowie, who embraced his anonymity for the most part, steps on to a stage only to be told to get off by Berliners who were waiting to hear someone else.
Only in Berlin could Bowie in his prime be told to fuck off. MacLean actually spent time working with Bowie in Berlin and also recollects hanging out at Bowie’s New York apartment when he heard loud noises which he thought was the sound of a backfiring car. It wasn’t, it was the gun shots that killed John Lennon at the Dakota building which was across the road.
One of the most fascinating stories for me was of Lieu Van Ha, who arrived in Berlin as a 17-year old, part of ‘60,000 Vietnamese “specialist guest workers” in East Germany… who volunteered to join a fraternal socialist cooperative.’
Gifted with natural entrepreneurial spirit he escaped his early life, which he compared to feeling like he was in prison, in the ‘dormitory like barracks’ of the cooperative to being part of lucrative black market ventures selling computers, fake goods and cigarettes. Even when the Stasi confronted him, as they knew every bit of trading activity, he managed to get free with a clever coordinated escape.
Other chapters I found interesting were about the lives of Marlene Dietrich and Joseph Goebbels. Dietrich comes across as a wonderful floozy who certainly epitomized the spirit of the 1920s, pretty much impressing a who’s who of movers and shakers in show business and must of had a lifetime of stories.
Stories like getting sawn in half by Orson Wells entertaining US troops, dancing with a teenage John F Kennedy and his father on the French Riviera to planning her guest list for her funeral with Ernest Hemingway in Paris.
Dietrich comes across as a fun, sassy, ballsy, smart and talented operator and also quite a nice person with it too. Which was more than you could say for the monster Joseph Goebbels who seemed to be evil personified.
Reading about his odious all encompassing propaganda tactics made Machiavelli’s The Prince feel like a children’s book. You almost doubt whether Hitler would have been able to have done what he did without his dastardly clever yet obviously serious fucked up right hand man.
Like Hitler being a crap artist if only Goebbels would have been a talented literary person and not a failed author maybe there was an outside chance that he would stayed away from extremism.
Overall, I found Berlin Imagine A City a decent read. A good choice of stories to reflect on the history of a fascinating city. A place that many have found inspiration and creativity but also with the scars of a dark past and its apparently ever evolving nature. MacLean obviously loves the city for the same reasons many of us do but is also capable of being critical, honest and harsh like you can for something that is truly dear to you.
Berlin: Imagine a City – Rory MacLean