We’re currently witnessing the weaponising of optimism, as is par for the course during a General Election campaign. Less than a week in and I’ve already lost count of the endless billions being promised for all the public services the incumbent administration appear to have forgotten they’ve been responsible for underfunding over the past decade. Not that they’re alone in this imaginary lottery, mind; the other side are also hoping the electorate are suffering from amnesia by falling for it this time round – something that’s harder to achieve when it’s barely two years since the last visit to the polling station. But, hey, that’s politics – selling dreams when seeking office and selling nightmares once in it.

This weekend has given us a sober reminder of how optimism can spontaneously emanate from the street without any political salesman, yet still leave a lingering taste of thwarted possibilities. I’m talking Berlin 1989. Had I been born and raised in the GDR, would I feel the demolition of the Berlin Wall a worthwhile exercise if the first sight to greet me upon finally crossing into the fabled West was the mullet-haired star of ‘Knight Rider’ singing some awful 80s AOR homage to ‘freedom’? It’d get even better once the bloody Scorpions commented on the state of play with their excruciating, lighters-aloft anthem, ‘Wind of Change’. No wonder some displaced East German citizens found their first experience on the other side of the Iron Curtain somewhat overwhelming and soon began to harbour an inexplicable nostalgia for the world they’d left behind.

Not that the most repressive regime outside of North Korea would be necessarily mourned for its least celebrated aspects. In terms of eliminating ‘subversion’ by keeping tabs on its people and effectively treating them as inmates by playing a ruthless, inflexible gaoler, East Germany had few rivals during the Cold War era. Long after Uncle Joe was dead and discredited in the Soviet Union, the GDR stuck more rigidly to Stalinist notions of state control than any other nation housed within the Soviet Bloc. The limitations placed upon the personal freedoms and aspirations of those closest to the dividing line of Europe were uniquely cruel. Any East Berliner born after 1961 would never have known any different, so suddenly being free to stroll into the half of their city that hadn’t been locked in the deep-freeze of 1940s totalitarianism must have been one hell of a culture shock.

Yet, a felicitous portrait of East Germans crossing into West Germany as though they were a lost tribe of savages encountering civilisation for the first time isn’t entirely accurate, for many in the GDR were able to receive TV transmissions from the West, and consequently had a rough idea of how the other half lived. With old Berlin physically obliterated by Allied air-raids and the invading Red Army at the end of WWII, the Brutalist landscape that arose from the ashes once the city was split in two included one notable landmark that inadvertently backfired on architects and planners seeking to instil pride in the alleged beneficiaries of the great Communist experiment. East Berlin’s impressive TV Tower – the Fernsehturm – opened for business in 1969, yet its public observation deck offered GDR natives a view beyond their side of the city, as did the pictures it enabled them to pick-up on their television sets.

However, seeing something presented as a rather abstract image via the cathode ray tube and then being able to observe it in the flesh are two very different experiences. Once the barrier to the West was abruptly gone, GDR viewers of the West German way of life were finally able to see that life for themselves. Those belonging to the first wave of East Germans to pass through the holes in the Wall without being shot at often speak of supermarket shelves, of being beguiled and bedazzled by the abundance of choice when it came to a solitary item. Westerners naturally took it for granted that there might be half-a-dozen different brands of baked beans on offer; not so East Germans.

But what could have been a gradual, sensible transition to democracy in the East – leading to the eventual and inevitable unification of Germany – was scuppered by the short-sighted intransigence of the East German authorities. Deliberate misreporting by West German TV of a bumbling announcement on the slight relaxation of travel restrictions from East to West provoked an unstoppable march to the Wall by the people in November 1989; had the East German Government accepted the wind direction provoked by Gorbachev’s reforming agenda and dismantled the system with delicacy long before, instead of being reluctantly pushed into abandoning it overnight by the impatient masses, perhaps three decades later the former GDR wouldn’t still be the poor relation of its neighbour. But they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) loosen their grip on power until the eleventh hour, so whilst the rightly unlamented Stasi vanished from East German lives, so too did the more benevolent elements of the State that the people had become dependent upon.

The West German Government handed out cash incentives to the newcomers in the wake of the Wall’s removal, hoping it would help complete the absorption into the bosom of capitalism. Malnourished by their exclusion from the seductive extremes of the material world, many understandably became drunk on an excess of luxury items as though they were contestants grabbing the goods on the ‘Generation Game’ conveyor belt; meanwhile, the long-term security the GDR at its best had given them swiftly evaporated. But with the Wall gone, the domino effect across Eastern Europe was set in rapid motion; in many of those countries, revolution was already brewing; it merely took events in Berlin to legitimise the overthrow of the old order. The virus of democracy eventually made it to the gates of Moscow within a couple of years and Europe was a united continent again for the first time in half-a-century.

As with the 2008 election of Obama as US President or the end of Apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of those remarkable events that spread beyond the emotional euphoria of those witnesses to it at the scene and become communal experiences for worldwide audiences to share as a rare reference point of collective optimism. Most generations have one such moment – VE Day, the first Moon Landing etc. Such moments tend to simultaneously mark the death of bad old orders it had been difficult to imagine ever been overthrown and signal the dawn of a better age in which so many hopes and dreams are invested. Unfortunately, these moments invariably fail to live up to their promise, yet that doesn’t prevent the deep desire for them to realise their potential to change the world for the better.

When one looks at Eastern Europe today, with the malevolent spectre of a former GDR-based KGB man hovering over it, and when one considers the traumatic carnage in the Balkans that the collapse of the Soviet Empire unleashed, it’s understandable that some find curious comfort in the certainties that a black & white division between East and West represented. But we can’t go back to that Cold War. We’ve got one all of our own.

© The Editor


Yeah, I’m back again for another isolated observation in my occasional series of ‘Stars on 45’-style topical medleys. But while I might poke and prod a few minor irritants today, they essentially remain of a trivial nature to me; none of them irritate me enough to bring forth the froth to my mouth – unlike the subjects that fire the warring extremes on Twitter. One might almost imagine they have nothing else going on in their lives. Anyway, it felt right to endure one more unwelcome anniversary by stepping out of the shade for a few minutes; after all, if I leave this neglected baby of mine in the sun too long the poor whelp risks suffocation by spam – mostly in ‘Russian’ by the look of its distinctly Slavic appearance. By Jove, I’m being spied on!

God knows why I could possibly be of any interest to whatever name the KGB goes under these days, but it’s moderately exciting to think I am. Maybe Vlad’s online agitators think everyone here is pretending to be a ‘Communist’ now and they’re curious. I’m as guilty as the next spoon when it comes to hankering after something before your own time simply because your own time is uninspiring and your perception of the time before your own has been shaped by something you read or a movie you saw. But it’s a risky business. When one has no first-hand experience of something intriguing, it acquires a romantic allure and can be embraced without any awareness of its less attractive realities.

The latest fashion for proclaiming one’s self a Communist is one that is only being followed by those with no personal memory of life behind the Iron Curtain. As far as irrelevant ideologies go, Communism is currently the fatuous political equivalent of a Ramones T-shirt, generally worn by people of an upbringing untroubled by hardship whose way of coping with guilt over their good fortune is to lecture those without it how they should live their lives. Each generation of Trotsky groupies cherry-picking Marx’s greatest hits and compiling its own mix-tape knows what’s best for the rest of us; and it’s ironic that the current crop’s default insult is to call their opponents Nazis when they themselves espouse a belief system responsible for more death and misery in the last century than even Adolf’s mob managed.

Great in theory, terrible in practice, Communism’s good intentions have been open to abuse from day one simply because the system makes it easier for the worst side of human nature to assert itself than even the far-from faultless Capitalism can boast. International sporting events being beamed into my childhood living room gave the names of now-defunct countries such as East Germany, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia an undeniably nostalgic ring – as did the pronunciation of them by British TV commentators sounding as though they had socks stuffed in their mouths. But that’s as far as the nostalgia goes. Communism is not some forgotten musical genre from the 70s long overdue for critical reappraisal in ‘Mojo’ or ‘Uncut’. Just ask the good people of North Korea.

I have a particular fondness for the Regency era, but as no one alive today experienced it, reading written accounts in the absence of living testimony is the closest I or any other interested party can get to it. Therefore, safe in the knowledge I’ll never be put in such a position, I can comfortably declare life would be so much easier if gentlemen could still duel. Yes, it was an antiquated and illegal method of settling arguments over ‘honour’ even in the century that finally saw it disappear from civilian circles (i.e. the nineteenth); but it lingered for several decades as a controversial means of redressing a slight on one’s character or simply ending a long-running dispute. For all the talk of Cabinet ructions today, the incumbent Government Ministers don’t come close to their predecessors.

In 1809, Lord Castlereagh (Secretary of State for War and the Colonies) challenged long-time critic and Foreign Secretary George Canning to a duel on Putney Heath, a clandestine clash that resulted in amateur shot Canning being wounded in the thigh. Twenty years later during his stint at PM, the Duke of Wellington challenged the Earl of Winchilsea to a duel on Battersea Fields, sparked by the latter’s opposition to Catholic Emancipation. The Duke missed whilst the Earl refrained from firing; honour was upheld. Hard to imagine today’s Tory Brexiteers and Remoaners sorting out their differences in the same manner, but one cannot help but picture it as an alternative solution to political differences that conventional means seem incapable of resolving. Who knows what form Brexit might take were those involved in its implementation able to lock swords or aim pistols at the crack of dawn? Personally, there are some in this world I’d love to challenge to a duel tomorrow; and even knowing I could be mortally wounded wouldn’t dissuade me, as I can think of far worse ways to go. Alas, as ever, I am a man out of time.

Ironic in a way that an item of clothing one always associates with Regency duellists – the waistcoat – has experienced an unexpected resurgence of popularity this summer courtesy of Gareth Southgate. Unusually dapper for an England manager, Southgate worked wonders with the limited means at his disposal during a World Cup in which team spirit triumphed over the Prima donna superstar; his refusal to sanction a homecoming victory parade for a team that didn’t win anything is also a refreshing change that goes against the tiresome ‘plucky Brit’ strain of celebrating failure in the absence of success. Eddie the bloody Eagle can probably be blamed for that. Mind you, maybe we could play the Croatia game again – y’know, make it a ‘People’s Replay’ now that we have a better understanding of how the aim is to prevent the opposition from scoring. Best of three, eh? I’m sure Gary Lineker would tweet his approval.

Something non-toxic coming out of Russia was a welcome contradiction to the ongoing narrative, though headline-writers quickly focused on another defining characteristic of the summer. While that exceptional heat-wave was viewed by some as the harbinger of the climate apocalypse, to others it was just another of those sweaty intermissions we have every few years. More people seemed concerned the nation was poised to run out of beer during the World Cup than by the fact that every summer from now on threatens to evoke the kind of comparisons with 1976 that are destined to rival Fleet Street’s inevitable references to 1963 come each winter. Of course, if long hot summers are to be normalised, it sadly reduces the comical sight of red-skinned natives wincing with every step in their air-conditioned Crocs, as I should imagine most are now aware enough of what the sun can do to pale flesh to take precautions beforehand. Anyway, it’s already started raining again.

I don’t think the expression ‘burning the post-midnight oil’ actually exists, but I hereby invent it because it seems more applicable to the twilight zone I inhabit. Hell, a heat-wave is never conducive to a good night’s sleep, for one thing; but I was still active at 3.00 or 4.00am six months ago, back when my frozen frame was dependent on a fan heater as well as an invaluable electric blanket (when I felt I ought to finally drag myself towards the mattress whose warmth is strictly artificially-induced). Therefore, I can’t blame this joyless interlude devoid of all beauty on the summer. At the moment, brief bursts of creative energy just aren’t enough to let the sunshine in. Look at the example below and be fooled into believing it’s the work of a man as sharp as the blade that duellists once pierced a waistcoat with. It’s not. But it’s quite funny if you like that sort of thing. Anyway, I’ll shut up and keep trying until I’ve awakened from my dream of life.


© The Editor