The Kierkegaard Spandrel

I have, for some time, been taken by the fact that when I photograph my children, they frequently manage to look contemplative, and troubled, and tousled, and very, very cool. This might have nothing to do with the fact that they are the children of two of the coolest people on the planet, and are largely dressed by one of those very cool people, and have had the opportunity to model themselves on those very cool people. And then again.

In fact, over the years I have thought, on seeing a number of photos of my children, “Ah, there is the cover of his (or their) debut album of shoegazer pop (or underground techno, or alt-folk, or whatever). Come to think of it, I reckon I bought one of their albums from Big Star in about 1994. Hermione put me on to them, or Richard, can’t remember. Wasn’t one of the band involved in some sort of bizarre egg-coddling accident?”

That sort of idea can burble along in the background for years, until you have a spare hour or two and a basic image editing program and no pressing need to be doing anything else. Which happened to me recently, and lo, The Kierkegaard Spandrel was born. I’m still not sure if they’re a shoegazer pop group or an underground techno collective or avant-punk outfit. Probably not an alt-folk duo, on second thoughts. But I do know that they will always be very, very cool.

Self-incompatability

Spring is springing, and with it the quotidian miracle of new life on many fronts, not least in the fifteen centimetres of unpromising dirt that hems one side of our house block. Hard by the corrugated iron fence that daily prevents violence by separating me from my neighbours has sproinged into existence a minor forest of tiny nectarine trees. Once you know what they are, they are as winningly adorable as any vulnerable young creature. A delightful sight – and also the first evidence that these tired eyes have ever seen that the stone in stone fruit has any purpose other than to break mammalian teeth or, if well aimed, the equanimity and goodwill of other children.

The companion of my joys and sorrows will not, I trust, mind overmuch me saying that she is not customarily given to whimsy. Perhaps it is yet another magical effect of spring, then, that caused the thought to enter into her head of attempting to sell some of the seedlings to passers-by. We have a house well situated for such an enterprise, occupying the closest block to the local school, past whose portal hundreds of parents must drag their offspring ten times a week. It is partly for that reason that, in honour of Lyle Shelton, a large rainbow flag has, for the last few weeks, fluttered, if periodically a bit soggily, out front. In keeping with the developing theme, therefore, my occasionally better half hit upon an advertising strategy that consisted of a small, A-frame blackboard promising to enrich the life of Willunga’s more progressive gardeners by supplying them with “gender-neutral nectarine trees”.

The ensuing conversation recalled to my mind an essay I wrote in second-year biochemistry, in which I discussed the sometimes intricate mechanisms employed by plants to avoid the catastrophe of self-fertilisation. The human taboo on incestuous couplings has, it is said, its deep rationale in avoiding the reinforcement of dangerous recessive genes in the offspring of close relatives. How much more pressing a need, therefore, must be felt by plants which, frequently bearing both male and female sex organs, must worry not just about outrunning their brothers but also getting knocked up by themselves, conceivably without even noticing, I assure you, officer.

I could recall, from those balmy, cannabis-saturated days of my undergraduacy, that not all plants face this difficulty, as some are true sexual heteromorphs. Whether that is the case for stone fruit I was eager to learn, and I hied me accordingly to the nearest available internet. What I learned was that one should never, under any circumstances, google “tree sex”, if one hopes to retain a sunny disposition and a freedom from uncontrollable Parkinsonesque twitching.

I am old enough to remember a world when the internet was new and, ipso facto, also a time when it was possible to be optimistic about its societal effects. With the coming of the net, it seemed, people might truly now speak peace unto other people, and the strident shout of nations become the convivial chatter of multitudes. That the result of all of this truth would be justice and the global triumph of democracy was, if not inevitable, at least plausible.

That it hasn’t turned out that way is, of course, regrettable, if fascinating. The emergence of the new media landscape (drink!) as an information battleground (drink!) over which evanescent psyops manipulators flit like malevolent spectres looks set fair to provide the voters of the near term future with quite a few problems, and not a few opportunities for employment, but in a sense ‘twas ever thus. Propaganda is as old as Babylon, and horseshit as old as the horse. We will find a way to navigate the sewers, even if we don’t yet know quite what the next generation of buckets and shovels will look like.

But optimistic as I am on that front, I am assailed by a more general anxiety, and the cause of that is not fake news (drink!) but the pure, unadulterated truth. For we do, in truth, now all speak, one to many and many to one. But to listen to that conversation for any time at all is to learn that a very large number of people are evil, stupid, malicious, hateful, ignorant and antisocial or, as Thomas Hobbes might have put it if he had lived in this hour (and could write as good as what I am able to), solitary, puerile, nasty, brutish and fraught.

The greater threat to democracy may not, in the end, be Vladimir Putin’s patsies convincing each other that Hilary Clinton ran a child prostitution ring out of a pizza joint. That the wicked will believe others capable of wickedness, however bizarre, is to be expected, and democracies have accommodated the foolish since the Ancient Greeks. But it is not clear to me that democracies can survive without democrats. Government by the people requires a minimum number of people who understand the stakes, who are familiar with history, alert to tyrrany’s seduction, people wedded to notions such as the rule of law, of due process, of the supremacy of Parliament and the separation of powers, of a mature and considered government acting after deliberation and with the consent of the governed, respectful of tradition but hopeful of progress, accountable to an electorate of engaged citizens. Such people are made, not born, by other democrats, and a mighty pile of them is needed to preserve the critical mass from which a polity, as opposed to a mob, is formed.

The risk presented by the internet is that we will, in sufficient numbers, decide that we have indeed heard the voice of the people and, frankly, being turned into cat food’s too good for them. That we’re not prepared to die in a ditch for the likes of the Comments Section. That in fact, the sooner they’re rendered into something we can spray on our lawns from a pump pack, the better. Democracy may die in the full light of day.

We didn’t sell any nectarine seedlings, either.

Europe 30 – Mr Nicholas Changes Trains

Yeah, look, there’s only one train in this story, but if you thought I was not going to follow up the Isherwood reference of a couple of days ago with another (on the flimsiest of bases) then you have badly overestimated my creativity (or underestimated my laziness).

Nor is it much of a story, frankly. We caught a train, full stop, the end. From Carcassonne to Barcelona. The Pyrenees were attractive. It’s nice to be back in Barcelona again, but we’re all tired, and ready to head home.

Full stop, the end.

Europe 29 – Le XIIIe siècle

A day in la Cité de Carcassonne. Some reading up on the Albigensian Crusade (C was a redoubt of the Cathars, I learn) and a short lecture is delivered in two versions for the boys on the feudal system and mediaeval military logistics, then we’re off to the walled city. Which is every bit as magical etc, etc, even the tat merchants seeming somewhat subdued – the obligatory dungeon experience easily swatted away, the boys largely uninterested in replica weaponry. A tour of the keep offers wonderful views of the surrounding countryside, the later part of our stroll along the battlements marred somewhat by the testing of the sound system for the music festival that runs throughout July, a test that sounded to me suspiciously like AC/DC played at a volume that ought to have satisfied any of the band’s legion of fans. It didn’t last, merci à le bon Dieu.

We paused in the Basilique de Saint Nazaire, attractive and, unlike a great cathedral in a major city, a comfortable, welcoming size. As we sat outside afterwards, a male quartet, unannounced, suddenly filled the space with song, Russian sacred music, stunningly demonstrating the acoustics of the space. They were advertising their CD, of course, but I dashed inside to catch what I could.

Audio: Basilique Saint Nazaire, Carcassone

Back for a rest, I went for a walk in search of the picturesque heart of the newer bit of town, and learned that it isn’t to be found down any of the eastern half’s run down, sun-baked and lifeless streets. I was forced to find what encouragement I could from the street names, which honoured, along with the inevitable Racine, Molière and Diderot, the Joliot-Curies, Evariste Galois and a number of names unknown to me but described as “Martyr” or “Resistant”, with dates of death in the early 1940s, and dates of birth not many decades before.

We returned to the cité in the late afternoon – at what would have been dusk ten degrees further south, but even here in southern France the sky does not darken until past 10pm. Dinner at Restaurant Adelaïde and, yes madame, we get many Australians. Adelaide is a town there, no? Quoi? Un million de personnes? Une grande cité.

Watching Anna wrestle with a decision about whether to spend A$1,000 on a sheepskin jacket is awful, so I close my eyes until it’s over. When I open them, we still have the money and she seems comfortable with whatever rationalisation she has settled upon. All is therefore well as we return to the apartment for our last night in France.

Europe 28 – Goodbye to Berlin

I have left this too long, partly because it was such a waste of a day. Forewarned that Schönefeld Airport is a national joke and to be early to allow for inevitable delays, we were early, and were evitably processed with efficiency and rapidity. That left us with the best part of three hours to pass, in Terminal B, waiting for our budget flight. I’ll say this for corridors in airports without much in the way of facilities – you get to watch people. People like the male American student being grilled by a striking El-Al staffer, who looked very much like he wasn’t used to having extended talks with beautiful young women of about his own age and that it was excruciatingly typical of the damn universe that he had to spend the entirety of this rare opportunity convincing her that his intentions towards the state of Israel were entirely honourable.

The flight uneventful, the highlight of the journey was conducting a conversation entirely in French, a first for the trip, with the taxi driver. Nous avons arrivé de Berlin. À Carcassonne. Non, merci, nous avons des billets pour le train, SNCF.

While waiting for the train, I dragged the boys into the street of Toulouse nearest the station for a drink. That strip seemed to have no brasseries or cafés, just bars. We plonked down in the first one I found without a sign indicating that enfants were interdit. Called Le Winger, the walls were covered in posters of the All Blacks. With an Australian’s natural ability to find all things New Zealandish familiar and ripe for appropriation, I cheerfully tipped the Parkinsonian barman a couple of euros for our sodas and received his “c’est gentil” with due magnanimity. It was only after I was half way through my Coke that I noticed that:

  1. Everyone in the place was a youngish man, dressed in very inexpensive, mostly black muscle shirts and jeans. A couple of slightly older guys seemed to be, in some almost imperceptible way, in charge.
  2. Several more lads were outside leaning on powerful motorcycles.
  3. A couple of the outdoor types were smoking something that Pepé Le Pew would have found a bit on the sharpish side.
  4. An older man had just turned up and was doing the full double cheek kiss routine to the more senior hangers on.
  5. Absolutely nobody cracked any sort of a smile, whatsofuckingever.

I leaned over to Raf and said, sotto voce, in English, words to the effect of “I think we should drink up and leave, quietly and without making any fuss. I’ll explain in a minute,” and to Seb the four word version of the same message. We drank up, and we went.

The Avignon train was fullish but we found seats and, feet on luggage, made it to Carcassonne, Seb asleep with his head in my lap, Raf’s head on my shoulder, this being one of the bits of the trip when I was in favour with my increasingly critical older boy. Anna’s train arrived minutes after ours and we put the band back together. Into Carcassonne, right under the famous walls, which promised adventure on the morrow.

Audio: Train de Toulouse à Carcassone

Europe 27 – Babylon

The way to do museums, with kids, is hit ’em early, while they’re still waking up. Also, audio guides. 

“That queue will be at least an hour,” said some bloke to some bloke I met in the queue, who relayed the message. Bloke didn’t know what he was talking about, blessedly, and about half an hour later we were inside the Pergamon Museum. We managed to stay better than two hours. Audio guides, I tell you. Winners. Seb was happy as Larry going from exhibit to exhibit, dialling up the narrative – produced with an adult audience in mind, mind you. Raf did a few, and today I wasn’t minded to push it – if he wanted to spend some of the time sitting on a bench waiting for us, that was his business. He did see the Ishtar Gate with us, and we all marvelled. The other highlights, for me, were some Hittite artefacts – a light on the early first millennium BCE I hadn’t previously had shone for me. The Assyrian friezes were impressive again – again, because the best pieces are copies of those we saw in the British Museum. 

Then to see Cara one last time and we picked one of the items from her list of suggestions so kindly curated for us. The boys had had enough history, so we did art instead: some immersive pieces at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. Martin, it turns out, is the uncle of Walter, and another architect. Perhaps no city I know so celebrates its architects and has so little to show for all that effort, and if I am to believe what I’m told, we do not have allied bombers to blame for that as much as I thought – a lot of the city survived the 1940s just fine and what survived are a bunch of boilerplate neo-classical pseudo-temples and the ubiquitous European four/five storey terraces that someone seems to have hit on in about 1780 and no-one has improved on since. I asked Cara where the centre of the city was. “Nowhere,” she said. I asked where the pretty parts were. “Nowhere,” she said, after a second’s thought. This turns out not to be true. Later we sent to a street fair in Bergmannkiez, and bits of that were quite pretty, as long as one looked up from ground level. Only you couldn’t, because you risked stepping on a broken bottle.

At the M-G-B we did serious art. In a white floral shirt I stood out in a flock of twenty-somethings all in black, but it didn’t matter because the first exhibit required us to don black jumpsuits to which were strapped flashing and vibrating lights, then goggles that fogged our vision, and we were then squirted into a multi-occupancy womb consisting of several darkened rooms, empty but for a handful more LEDs, intermittently visible as glowing blurs. I quickly lost everybody and then myself in musings on art’s attempts to mimic drug states. Perhaps I have that backwards, and all amphetamine chemistry has been an attempt to recreate van Gogh and Dalí directly in the brain. Be that as it may, I found the piece quite soothing, and would have found a corner to curl up in had I not been nominally responsible for two children, both of whom I had just lost in a darkened room full of trippy sounds and fuzzy glows in a foreign country. When my fairly lazy conscience finally pricked me, I found the guide rope and made my way out. 

That was certainly the most diverting of the pieces. I found a screen showing what seemed to be actual simulations of merging black holes, which triggered an interesting conversation with Seb, which boiled down, as it has before, to, “we don’t know, because we lack a quantum theory of gravity,” and you try saying that in terms a seven-year-old can grasp. Another work seemed thematically related, using a water tank to conduct the single-slit experiment of yore, projecting the edge-vortices onto the ceiling, a hydrodynamic effect I’d not previously seen. Was it Art? I don’t know. I couldn’t dance to it.

We finished with a virtual reality movie, a standard dystopia and invitation to free your mind, man. Raf enjoyed it. If the engagement of a twelve-year-old was the artists’ aim, they succeeded. 

Finally, the street fair on Bergmannstrasse, near the Marheineke Markthalle, where the kids bouncy castled over and over. There I met Andi’s friend Torsten, wife Sibylle and little Fritzi, the last of whom I think I mortally offended. Remembering that I’d been told her age earlier, and filed it away as “only one year different to Seb”, I asked if she was six. She is, of course, eight. I will apologise if I ever see her again. 

We weren’t at the fair long enough for me to pump Torsten for embarrassing stories about his childhood friend, as the kids were starting to flag. Final goodbyes, and we were off back to the hotel. One moment of panic as the U-bahn doors closed with Raf on board and Seb and I still on the platform, but a fellow passenger hit the button in time and he was restored to us. The next train, we all made it on, and back to Nollendorfplatz for the last time.

Overall impressions of Berlin? I have felt comfortable here. It seems to have norms and mores similar to those I’m used to. It wears its contempt as unselfconsciously as its amusement. It seems, genuinely, to have no functioning centre and is a patchwork product of its history. If it would be a less fun place to be young with money than Rome, it seems at least that it might still be a vital place to be young without money. The soundtrack, I think, would still be punk. No harm in that, but I am used to thinking of punk as something a person – or a city – outgrows. If I come back in decade, will it still be punk, or elevator pop? 

Europe 26 – The Border

To travel by U-bahn is to be deceived. Overground, Berlin sprawls.

I had promised the boys the day to do as they pleased, including to sleep in as long as they wanted. They took me at my word, and we slobbed about until after 11am, Seb and I making it all the way across the street to achieve breakfast, Raf content to lie in and be fed on our return. We all deserve breakfast in bed occasionally.

Audio: Café, Motzstraße, Schöneberg, Berlin

Eventually, we were off to the Mall of Berlin, solely because it advertised a spiral slide that ran two floors from top to bottom. We got there and I had currywurst, because this is Berlin. The boys slid. Once. Bored with that, let’s go. Where? No idea, Dad.

OK, so back in the driver’s seat, I took us to Alexanderplatz and the television tower. An hour wait, but this is Germany, where you wait by taking a number – none of this tedious standing in line – so we went and had ice cream, and then went back, and up, and took photos. My strongest impression? The Tiergarten is bloody huge. Due to the weather, we’ve still never set foot in it.

Down again and I dragged us one bus stop, in the suddenly soaking rain, so I could take a photo of Marx and Engels, presumably (like the tower) residues of the former communist state. To do so, we ducked under a bridge, walking by a group of men who sleep there, shouting at each other (and us, for all I know), men old enough – if they were locals – to remember communism, and with no reason to think terribly much of the system that replaced it.

The number 100 bus down Unter den Linden which I wanted to take was, according to its electronic bus stop, “delayed due to demonstration”. Whatever it was, it didn’t make the BBC News website, so I assume Chancellor Merkel’s government is in no imminent danger. To my surprise, the boys decided that they wanted to go into the museum that is the nascent Humboldt Forum, the institution that is to occupy the revivified Stadtschloss. The “museum” is one room dedicated to the process of rebuilding the palace, which contains a paper model of the area surrounding it as it appeared in 1900. The model curiously includes buildings, parks, fountains, even horses, carts and a handful of motorised vehicles, but absolutely no people who might be horrified to be informed of what the terrible twentieth century would bring to their city, or to live in some magically resurrected Belle Epoque when the work is complete. Here, perhaps, is what the city planners are trying to achieve by recreating an imperial building that was destroyed decades ago in a democracy that cannot house its people – a Berlin as it would have been, had its fortunes not included defeat, devastation, era-defining evil and deadening tyranny. A Berlin as it Should Have Been. If so, they will fail. And should fail. All the ghosts, all the people impoverished in the name of solidarity enforced at gunpoint, all those still living under bridges in one of the richest countries in the world, will defeat them. Sticking Mickey Mouse ears on history and declaring the past over and safe is dangerous nonsense, as I thought Germans, of all people, knew very well.

With no buses, I asked the boys to walk down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburger Tor. It should have been a stirring walk. Instead, it is a building site, the Champs-Élysées with the plumbers in and bits of the dishwasher all over the carpet. We got to the gate, photoed, turned the corner to see the Bundestag (all flags at half-staff, presumably for Helmut Kohl’s funeral) and caught a bus. To see a bit of the city, I went further than we needed to, all the way to the Zoo, taking us, without realising it, back to the U-bahn stop where we first surfaced in Berlin three days ago. And now, at last, I saw the other Berlin – the pristine streets, the shopping district, the first world capital of an economic power that I had subconsciously been expecting this whole time. I had seen it, of course, in the mall this morning, but in one isolated spot it made no impression. Here we drove though West Berlin, every bit deserving of the capital letters, five kilometres and many euros away from the bridge under which we had walked to meet the author of Capital. The Brandenburg Gate, the Tiergarten and the whole length of Unter den Linden now seemed less a cultural precinct than a cordon sanitaire. There is still a wall, but now it’s built with money, not concrete.

All foolish maunderings of a naïve and ignorant foreigner, no doubt. But if I’m right, I finally understand why this city gives me a sense, now and then, of what tastes a bit like righteous anger. Why I learn of a sit in by leftists over a building lease that needs hundreds of police to break up. Why I should not in the least be surprised to learn, a year or a decade from now, that Berlin has spawned more serious political violence, or transgressive and transformative art, or just possibly both.