Sunday, 9 November 2014

1984: A view of Berlin from my bedroom window and beyond

30 years ago, in 1984, my family moved to West Berlin with my Royal Military Police father. As the world remembers the falling of the Berlin Wall here's a few of my own memories through the eyes of a teenager. 

Me and two brothers in their matching East German outfits awaiting the birth of the smallest
From the bedroom window of our garrison flat I could just about see over the dividing wall, guards with guns looking out through the windows of the watchtowers. As RMP my father did a stint as a guard at Checkpoint Charlie and was also tasked the odious job of escorting Rudolph Hess from Spandau Prison to the British Military Hospital in Charlottenburg. My youngest brother was also born in this hospital. 

As we had when we lived in Antrim, Northern Ireland, our military ID cards were demanded everywhere we went; the military compounds, the NAAFI (Navy, Army, Air Force Institute) where we did our local shopping, our cinemas, the special army buses, swimming pools and military hospitals. 

I remember having a mixture of feelings about this; on the one hand it was seen as a special (read: good) thing because we were The Military, but on the other it was rather scary, with men in uniforms and guns everywhere. Only now do I realise we may have been a target for people not wanting us to occupy their territory. 

Military Bases

Each occupying force had an area of Berlin: French, American, British and Russian. Each area had their own military base and services. The street signs in each area were in both German and the occupiers language, schools operated in their native language and shops filled with familiar brands and flavours. 

As we were also devout Mormons my family used to hang out in the American Sector doing All-American traditions: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Taco Bell and Burger King. Soda Floats, Reece's Pieces and Jello were available everywhere, our family had garage sales and a Big American Car. 

Constant reminders of where and why you are...

Military School

Back in the British Sector, along with thousands of other military and diplomats children, I attended Havel School inside the grounds of RAF (Royal Air Force) GatowThe site of a former hospital, possibly also holding prisoners, the school was austere and brutal. We were escorted in every day on the military-only buses. 

Entrance to the military compound
my school was located in
As a rebellious teenager during breaks we used to sneak down to the 'Eintritt Verboten' basement to tell each other spooky stories and to generally be naughty. I vividly remember the time we wandered down a long dark tunnel following a shard of light streaming through a dusty broken window, the glass strewn all over the cold concrete floor. As we approached we saw a load of Nazi symbols daubed on the dank, grey walls, the beam of light illuminating a large Swastika. Spooked we certainly were. 

I suppose it makes sense now, but I really don't remember much about our history lessons. I don't remember being taught about the two preceding World Wars, I don't remember being made aware of our disgusting role in the British Empire conquering whole countries and creating colonies across the world, on not one occasion do I remember any discussion of racism, oppression and imperialism. But why would they want us to question why were in Berlin in the first place? 
War monuments at my school

Of course we were taught about the atrocities of the Holocaust, accompanied by numerous trips to Concentration Camps, Hitlers Bunker, Torture Chambers, Museums and so on, and Our Glorious Victory against the Fascists was the version of history we had drilled into us. Here's another version: The Real History of World War Two.

In other classes we used military metaphor and played army practical jokes across all subjects. In Design, Craft  and Technology class I made a, rather good, clock from acrylic in the shape of Berlin. A blue layer for the West, red for the East, both laid on top of a layer of black with a gap to depict the wall. 

My brother in his kit
Encouraged to join the Armed Forces we were trained from an early age in orienteering, military music and marching and numerous other rather useful skills, especially if you were to go on and fight wars. 

In Berlin I joined the Air Training Cadets and spent most of my time learning how to iron my uniforms, performing marching drills, cleaning guns and other equipment. In the Grunewald we learnt the art of making fires, building tents from trees and other forest items, canoeing, cycling and cross-country running. 

Military Privileges

As military personnel and family we were granted extended privileges, the significance which I was kind of unaware of at the time. We had access to the Olympic Stadium where my swimming club conducted training sessions and our youth club held regular disco's in the club rooms. 

We were able to travel more-or-less freely from West to East Berlin, whereas most Berliners could go not go either way. 

And we were given an exchange rate nine times that of non military Germans. So whereas most people got 1:1 West/East Deutsche Mark we got 9:1. This made our family's meagre military wage go nine times further, it made us rich to the extent that we were able to eat at the 5* Hotel at Alexanderplatz. I forget it's name but I do remember having flambeed fillet steak! 

Back to our garrison home we brought back car fulls of simple but practical wooden furniture, bold and bright crockery, cuckoo clocks, nutcrackers, clothes, crystal ornaments, bedding and tableware. We did not bring back sanitary ware and batteries...

West and East

It seems like a cliche but as soon as we crossed Checkpoint Charlie it really did feel like going from full colour television to black and white. No flashing advertisements lighting up the roads and no music in the streets, no glittering monuments celebrating war and empire only soviet statues of Lenin and Stalin. Modern German and Japanese motors were replaced by old cardboard-looking Trabant cars spewing our clouds of grey smoke, making the skies look even darker, the few shops displaying even fewer products in the windows accompanied by long queues of old women waiting for their daily bread. 

We did not bring back much food for we were not allowed, we were told there wasn't enough food to go around. Sanitary wares were also prohibited for the same reason. And we also did not return with batteries for we feared we would not be safe using them. Much like the deathtrap Trabants batteries were still cased in cardboard.

The feeling, real or imagined, of being a foreigner in a hostile land was not one we had experienced before. Maybe we just had our army heads on and believed the military propaganda about the evils of the Communist East?

However, my Mum and I fondly remember having a whale of a time over in East Berlin. We loved the simple clothes (Mormons always dressed in 'appropriate clothing' at all times). My brothers, as were many military kids, we dressed in matching Popova-style bright orange patterned pyjamas. 

We were fascinated by the friendliness of the shop keepers, and although we didn't much speak German I remember my Mum chatting away to the women behind the market stalls. 

East is West

Returning to Berlin, as I have done six times in the last ten years, there has been incredible change since the people of Germany campaigned for reunification and to bring down the wall.

Streets that were once rather gloomy in what was East Berlin are now teaming with trendy coffee shops and shopping malls. The few remnants of the east that can still be seen are probably only still there by accident. Possibly slightly by design there are fewer McDonald's and Starbucks but only time will tell how long that will be the case.

Friends and comrades over there tell of a city, indeed a country, still divided along political lines with both sides claiming a unified Germany has not necessarily made it a better place. 

For a more political analysis see Berlin: the wall that came down and walls that went up.

No doubt my friends will tell you Ich Liebe Berlin; living there with the wall up was the most educational experience I've ever had. I don't hark back to the days of a disunited country but I will fight on for a society free from oppression and inequality. 

Whilst the diving wall remains in Palestine no one will be free and equal. As they say in German Der Letzte Schlag Gewinnen Wir (we will win the last battle).

(Awaiting a fab picture of my brothers in their Popova Pj's from Mum!) 

Monday, 3 November 2014

Nick Clegg Talks to the hand and not the nation

Four years ago we did this... We hope this contributes to the bringing down of the Fib-Dem coalition.

Daily Mail report and brilliant photos HERE.
The Guardian HERE
Our protest was in the Financial Times, the Metro, on BBC News at 6 & 10pm then also the next day.
On Wednesday 3 November 2010, what Nick Clegg intended to be a beautiful publicity stunt turned into a PR disaster when students managed to  grab the media attention. This photo I took inside 70 Whitehall demonstrates, perhaps, how scared the government are at the moment.
12 students from higher education and school students were invited to ‘discuss developing policy on the future of Higher Education Funding’ on the day that the coalition government released their report on education cuts.
He invited me and 11 other education representatives, all of whom have colleges in Lib Dem constituencies, to what I can only describe as a sham consultation.
At 12.30 he released his report into the Brown Review. We were to meet him at 1pm. This gave us no time to download, digest and analyse the content therefore making a mockery of his attempt to pass off the meeting as though he had discussed it thoroughly with us.

Prior to the meeting we decided to write Hands Off Education on the palms of our hands a couple of us wore t-shirts with slogans on them underneath our regular clothes and managed to get past security with them concealed.
When Clegg invited the BBC to do a 3 minute panoramic shot of him looking cosy with students I was able to quickly remove my shirt and tie and expose the message “Remember, Remember, the 3rd of November: The Coalition Government Plot Blows Up Education’. His minders quickly tried to hide my striking t-shirt by surrounding me but I kept moving and waving my palm in the air.
This set the tone of the meeting, at which all students were very angry with Clegg, his bogus meeting and his defending of raising tuition fees and massive cuts to education that he and his party are supporting.
Mr Clegg, along with all his Liberal Democrat colleagues, signed a pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees. This Wednesday it was confirmed that the Deputy Prime Minister intends to break his promise and vote for fees to be trebled to £9,000 a year, despite having proposed their abolition at the general election and signing a pledge to “vote against any increase in fees.”
We demanded to know why the LibDems broke their manifesto promise of removing fees. Clegg said ‘you may live in a bubble but in the real world we have no alternative; what’s YOUR alternative then?’ he asked!! What a cheek. We told him to stop allowing companies like Vodaphone to dodge taxes, to halt the 55% pay increases for the bosses, to implement a progressive tax system across society, to stop funding war and Trident.
He said ‘that is complete nonsense’!!
When he tried to justify the loans scheme that poorer students will have to take to afford the fees one of the school students asked ‘are you saying that debt is acceptable?’
Elliot from Leeds Uni brought up the fact that Muslim students may not be able to take out loans because of the interest that is associated with the loans so large swathes of people will also not be able to afford the fees.
Elliot also pointed out that since education benefits the whole of society not just the individual who receives it (an educated society is more likely to vote, to have lower infant mortality, is more healthy etc etc) and that, therefore, it should not be the individual that pays. We need to push for progressive taxation across the whole of society so that the rich pay more tax and the poor less. This is the only fair way to fund the best education system.
We told him that we are committed to fighting both the cuts to education and to wider society and also against fees.  We told him about the NUS & UCU demo; and we told him we will be hounding the LibDems wherever they go (like the EducCamp students in London have been doing to Vince Cable)
See you on November 10th. Don’t forget the Big Demo and Breakfast at ULU from 8am, banner & placard making and student press conference at 10.15 all at ULU. Ask your coach to drop you at Mallet St.
Email to book your breakfast. We have over 1,200 booked in so far so make sure you let me know asap.

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