‘I see bookstores as citadels of life. They civilize neighborhoods,’ the American author John Updike once told a group of readers and writers. ‘My local bookshop brightens my life and the whole street it’s on’.
Berlin is blessed with a bounty of fine bookshops: Dussmann, Hugendubel, Lehmanns and above all Marga Schoeller’s, a venerable Berlin establishment which opened back in 1929 and boasted W. H. Auden, Samuel Beckett, T. S. Eliot, Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann among its guests and customers. These German stores have good (excellent in the case of Schoeller’s) foreign sections. But for readers who want to lose themselves in English language literature alone, the city offers five or six specialist outlets.
In Kreuzberg Another Country sells and loans second-hand books as well as runs a film club. With its 10,000 used books and chesterfield sofas, Saint Georges in Prenzlauer Berg is especially welcoming, as is East of Eden in Friedrichshain. Charlottenburg’s Books in Berlin specialises in American writing and produces a thoughtful newsletter (although sometimes their monthly picks get a little scrambled).
Earlier this year a young, energetic Londoner, Sharmaine Reid entered the field with Dialogue Berlin.
‘The shop is called Dialogue as I want to engage interested people in the art of conversation and debate,’ Sharmaine told me earlier this week.
For her Berlin has ‘the perfect ingredients. It’s an historically fascinating city that is vibrant, culturally-aware and full of interesting regeneration opportunities. It’s not commercially-consumed, and is reflective and very different to London. The other important point for me is that I can offer my skills and experience to Berlin and open something that is not already here --the city’s only English-language bookshop to specialise in new books.’
Sharmaine first visited a bookshop alone when she was eight years old. When the bookseller handed her the latest Roald Dahl in its brown paper bag she knew that she’d found her calling. While still at school she found part-time work in an independent bookshop near her home in Battersea. Then, at the same time as studying for her degree, she worked at the second-hand bookstalls under Waterloo Bridge. She moved on to Foyles, London’s oldest bookshop, then Waterstone’s in Leadenhall Market and finally the London Review Bookshop.
‘Although Foyles is a wonderful bookshop, it was too big for me,’ she said. ‘I wanted to work in a smaller shop where my skills could shine. I fell in love with the selection and the atmosphere at the London Review Bookshop. For me it’s the best bookshop in London.’
Dialogue Berlin occupies a small living room at the back of the T Room Café in Prenzlauer Berg. Its compact size enables Sharmaine to offer her customers personal attention, while browsing the shelves and through her Book Doctor service, with guidance on holidays reads, one-to-one consultation and even advice on building a library.
‘I always wanted a bookshop with a café, where the café was a focal point of the shop and the bookshop was a ‘boutique’ shop,’ she told me. ‘It was hard to find a place in the right location and I went to the T Room by chance and got chatting about my plans to open a bookshop. Everything came into place from there.’
Dialogue Berlin aims to introduce readers to new and dynamic English-language writing, as well as English and German classics, and stimulate a ‘conversation’ that goes beyond the books themselves.
‘For me books are the key to other worlds and other people. Stories can transform people’s perceptions and understanding of a variety of subjects. I think that today, as we are shifting to different forms of communication and pace of life, reading is imperative to keep us grounded and open minded.’
‘Booksellers, defend your lonely forts,’ said John Updike. ‘Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity.’
Sharmaine Reid is is helping Berlin's English-speaking readers and writers to define themselves with her citadels of life.
Donnerstag, 25. März 2010
Donnerstag, 18. März 2010
At school in Berlin Maus has been writing his first essays, plunging head first into the world of narrative. His fine teacher started the process by drawing the class’s attention to three key authorial principles:
1. I will try my hardest to write the whole time.
2. I will NOT be afraid to write.
3. I will always write the date.
Their first assignment was a journey into the imagination. The children had to complete the sentence ‘If I had an elephant head I would...’ Maus responded, ‘If I had an elephant head I would think I would be dumb. Well maybe I could run fast. But it would be heavy. Well, there would be a lot of flies around me.’
A hint of William Golding? A touch of Kafka? Who’s a proud father then?
The second task was travel journalism. The kids were asked to describe their favourite place in the world. Maus could have written about Marrakech, the Dorset coast or the Canadian woods but he chose a destination closer to home instead. ‘My favourite place is Kartworld in Berlin,’ he wrote. ‘You can drive Go-karts which go go. I wish I could live there. It is so so so so so fun. I really, really love it. When will I go go go karting again?’
Not quite the eloquence of Patrick Leigh Fermor or Colin Thubron but I can detect a hint of Norman Lewis’ immediacy and humour ... perhaps.
His final assignment moved me above all. The class was asked to imagine how they would feel if a wall was built in the middle of their city? With John le Carré (and perhaps Quentin Tarantino) as his spiritual guide, Maus wrote, ‘I would feel scared because I would be trapped. Hopefully my friend Manuel would be on the same side? Well, I would feel sad because I could not travel anymore. And still I WOULD HATE IT!!! What more than a NICE AXE to cut down THE WALL!!!!’
Last weekend – after his venture into story writing – Mrs. Cat, Maus and I went to Munich. Apart from its Gothic spires, giant Augustiner beer halls and the kindness of friends, the highpoint of the visit was the Pinakothek der Moderne. The city’s superb new art gallery is in fact four museums assembled under one roof, presenting fine art, works on paper, architecture and design.
Maus especially loved the fabulous exhibition of modern German and international design on the ground floor: Bauhaus furniture, early Volkswagens, Apple computers, Italian glass, Swedish mobile phones and Nike running shoes. It was a wonderland for an inquisitive, young mind and together we spent over two hours working through the collection.
Towards the end of our visit we stopped by an early BMW motorbike. As we squatted together in front of it, discussing its design and operation, a rather short and grumpy security guard stepped forward and barked at us, ‘Do NOT touch the exhibit!’
‘We weren’t touching it,’ I replied.
‘It’s because of people like you that the display will end up behind glass,’ he went on.
‘We weren’t touching it,’ I repeated. ‘I was teaching my son how the machine works.’
‘You should go to Macdonald’s if you want to touch things. Go to Macdonald’s with your dirty, greasy fingers.’
Before I could point out that Maus has never been to Macdonald’s, Mrs. Cat launched her counterattack.
‘We are enjoying beautiful German design in a beautiful German museum,’ she said. ‘Thanks for making us feel so welcome.’
‘Ich will nicht weiter diskutieren,’ snapped the guard. I’m not discussing the matter further. ‘Step back or I will have you removed from the museum.’
We stepped back from the exhibit. Ich will nicht weiter diskutieren means – to me – I refuse to acknowledge you. I will feel no empathy for you. But empathy and compassion are at the heart of our humanity, and – in his own individual way -- Maus recognized it.
‘Daddy, was there a Berlin Wall in Munich?’ he asked me as the guard wandered off in search of others to impress with his authority.
‘No,’ I replied.
‘Are you sure? Because if there was I think it’s still running through the middle of that man’s head.’
Donnerstag, 11. März 2010
On the edge of cities, in vacant lots, alongside rail lines and beside urban parks spread Germany’s verdant colonies. Across the country there are 1.4 million Schrebergartens. These ‘garden colonies’ are not unlike British allotment gardens, except that they’re not simply places for growing flowers and vegetables.
The industrial revolution, and the migration of people to cramped inner cities, devastated public health. In the eighteenth century enlightened souls began to make land available to help Europe’s hungry masses overcome food shortages by growing their own vegetables. About 150 years ago a Leipzig doctor, Moritz Schreber, advocated for the provision of open green spaces for urban children. But local youngsters didn’t care much about his ideas and his ‘Schreber playgrounds’ were abandoned to their parents, who took pride in cultivating them. The idea spread like dandelions across Germany, especially in the hungry years during and after the two world wars. In 1946 Berlin had over 200,000 Schrebergartens, or about one for every three families. Today a remarkable 4% of the city is still covered by private allotments.
Germany has almost five times more allotments than the UK. But these colonies are not simply utilitarian, as is generally the case in Britain. They grow flowers and vegetables of course but, rather than a simple garden shed bought on the cheap from B&Q, German allotments usually boast a small house with chairs, cooker and a vast selection of corkscrews and bottle openers. Many urban couples spend their weekends ‘on the land’, socialising with neighbours, organising barbeques and beer festivals, watching television and – oh yes – even doing a spot of gardening. The colonies themselves -- which have names like Cuckoo’s Nest and Sunbath -- are open to the public, who wander along their twisting lanes, eyeing prize courgettes and tulips over the fences.
The Berlin singer Claire Waldorf was a passionate community gardener. During the Weimar years she sang, ‘Wat braucht der Berliner, um glücklich zu sein?’ (‘What does a Berliner need to be happy?'). She answered, ‘’ne Laube, n’ Zaun und n’ Beet!’ (‘an arbour, a fence and a flower bed’).
Allotment gardening isn’t just good for the body and soul. It may well have helped to inspire one of the twentieth century’s greatest minds.
A few miles up the road from my apartment, in Berlin-Spandau, is the Kolonie Bocksfelde. Here in the early 1920s Albert Einstein leased a handkerchief-size Schrebergarten. The great theoretical physicist called it his Spandau Castle and, according to contemporary reports, he was fully involved in the community, frequently calling on neighbours and visiting the colony’s restaurant. But his gardening skills were not as refined as his scientific gifts. In the end the allotment association grew disappointed by the standards of his weeding.
‘Dear Herrn Professor Einstein,’ the local authority Bezirksamt Spandau wrote to him in 1922, the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize, ‘You presently lease Allotment No. 2 on the Burgunderweg in Bocksfelde. It has come to our attention that this allotment has been poorly managed for a considerable time. Weeds have spread over it and the fence is in a bad condition. These oversights leave an unaesthetic impression. If you do not put your allotment in order prior to the 25th of this month, we will assume that you are no longer interested in leasing it and will give it to someone else.’
History does not relate if Einstein made good the repairs before he moved to Potsdam and then the United States to refine his work on quantum mechanics. But then, as the gardeners of Bocksfelde are still apt to say, ‘It’s all relative…’
Donnerstag, 4. März 2010
The Web 2.0 revolution is ‘decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers and other purveyors of expert information are being replaced’ by the ‘cult of the amateur,’ wrote Andrew Keen in his controversial book The Cult of the Amateur. On the road to the universal ‘democratisation’ of knowledge, ‘the dictatorship of experts’ is being replaced by ‘the dictatorship of idiots’.
My In Box is full once again and so, for the last time, I’d like to expand the discussion on the threat posed to the livelihood of professional artists in Germany, Britain, America and beyond. It seems, as well as musicians, writers, photographers and film-makers, professionalism in all walks of life is being undermined by the digital revolution, to the point where we may no long be able to recognise quality.
So I was told by Sheila Keegan, a psychologist and founder of a business and social research consultancy. ‘The open source movement, though perhaps honourable in its intention, lacks a sense of commercial realism,’ she wrote. ‘We all have to earn a living and it is immoral to live off the work of others without rewarding their efforts.’
Keegan went on, ‘For decades, we have revered the individual thinker, the genius, whose shoulders we can stand on. Now, it seems, individual knowledge and individual creativity are being displaced by group knowledge and co-creation.’
At the heart of this development is the assumption that the group is more creative than the individual. But groups of people – as Irving Janis wrote in 1972 -- tend to rationalise poor decisions, believe in their own morality and exert the pressure to conform. Not a recipe for inspired innovation in our Brave New World. Yet as ‘co-creation’ (online communities, crowd sourcing) grows more evangelical, it’s becoming difficult to criticize the movement without being accused of being a Luddite.
Andrew Keen does not believe that the digital revolution will provide people with more viable avenues to become professional writers, musicians and film-makers. He does not believe that amateurism benefits mankind. He does believe that ‘we are teetering on the edge of catastrophe. Blogs, wikis and social networking are, indeed, assaulting our economy, our culture and our values. Web 2.0 is pushing us back into the Dark Ages.’
Some critics think Keen is scared. They say he is a ‘self-proclaimed elitist’, unwilling to collaborate with amateurs, in danger of becoming obsolete. Charles Leadbeater leads the attack with his bestseller We Think, a book which explores ‘how the web is changing our world, creating a culture in which more people than ever can participate, share and collaborate, ideas and information.’ Leadbeater writes, ‘Ideas take life when they are shared. That is why the web is such a potent platform for creativity and innovation.’
Last week the New York ‘digital media market’ guru Ken Park wrote that the coming revolution will ‘support the arts and make professional creativity thrive’. A regular correspondent responded that Parks’ future (i.e. corporate sponsorship) has nothing to do with artistic expression, and everything to do with greed, citing as an example Tescos and Amber Entertainment’s announcement of a ‘new paradigm for delivering content to audiences that is the future of the entertainment industry (sic)’.
I asked Park to respond to the charge as, like it or not, the future is being shaped by men like him. He wrote, ‘Corporate sponsorship applies the most scared of creative tenets -- know thy audience. Since when did art stop becoming communication? So much of this blog discussion and Andrew Keen’s wallowing revolves around the “artist” that it misses the true revolution of Web 2.0. It is now entirely about the audience and listening to what is important to them.’
‘The media landscape is no longer focused on the giver or artist, but instead more appropriately focuses on the “end user”’, Park went on. For him the artist of the future will listen and learn from his or her audience. ‘Today’s fractionated and segmented media landscape results in smaller affinity audiences and an artist’s wares must stand up to the scrutiny of this long-tail marketplace to survive. Or in short-hand, they must be good, by the end-user’s standards.’
So the market will decide. According to his argument, a handful of ‘arbiters of quality’ – gallery owners, studio executives, magazine editors – will no longer decide for us what is good and bad, what defines quality. The public will no longer have ‘to swallow what we were fed’.
‘The media exec decided who was professional and who was amateur and yet somehow Web 2.0 is the ruination of media? In Web 2.0 the market dictates, and in fact demands, that the content with the most authenticity and established voice within a defined affinity or niche will become a pro and get paid for their art. It is Keynesian economics meets Anderson’s long-tail at its finest.’
‘Sure there is the chance to sell out, as there always has been,’ he admits. But ‘if you are good at what you do, make content that appeals to your core audience and wield their trust, corporate sponsors will pay you to integrate their brand message into your art -- and when done well without interrupting the end-user experience... Greed? No, just good business and make no mistake about it -- art is and has always been a business.’
Park voices views which are diametrically opposed to my own. For me, art is not a business. A brand message cannot be incorporated into art. But to have the strength to work artists need to eat, which means earning a living. As traditional means of support collapse, new models must – and will – be found. For professionals and amateurs alike.