From Calais to Venice and Back, via Flushing and the Alps and the Rhine and lots in betweenThese pages reflect a few of the places I've been since 2007, when I first read Thomas Coryate's Crudities of 1611. One day they'll be in order.
- May 2020
- October 2016
- August 2016
- June 2016
- April 2016
- June 2015
- December 2013
- November 2012
- October 2012
- July 2012
- February 2012
- October 2011
- September 2011
- August 2011
- June 2011
- October 2010
- September 2010
- August 2010
- July 2010
- June 2010
- June 2009
- February 2009
- January 2009
- December 2008
- November 2008
- October 2008
- September 2008
- May 2008
- December 2007
- November 2007
- August 2007
- July 2007
- June 2007
- May 2007
- April 2007
- Alan Yentob
- Albert Speer
- Anselm Kiefer
- Around Robin
- Auden Dover White cliffs 9/11 Archer
- Bad Ragaz
- bail out
- Ben Jonson
- Ben Macintyre
- birth of journalism
- Blind Gloucester
- British Library
- Cafe Fino
- Card Cheats
- Channel crossing
- Chasing Pavements
- Coach travel
- Cologne cathedral
- commonplace books
- Coryat’s Crudities
- Crazy travellers
- Da Vinci
- Dan Brown
- Dave Nicholas
- Death in Venice
- Digital books
- Euston Road
- Ferris Buhler
- First Tourist
- Future of Travel
- Garden of England
- Gitta Sereny
- Golden Unicorn
- Goldman Sachs
- Gonzalez Foester
- Google maps
- Grayson Perry
- Gun clubs
- Henry Garnett
- Hildegard of Bingen
- Iain Sinclair
- Ian Fleming
- James 1st
- James I
- Jewish mysticism
- John Le Carre
- Johnny Depp
- Josiah the Great
- Jules Verne
- Kind of Blue
- King Lear
- Kloster Fahr
- Kueppersmuehle art museum
- La Chambre
- Leslie Howard
- London Orbital
- Martin Luther
- Max Frisch
- Miles Davis
- mobile phones
- Mouse Tower
- Move It
- MSV Duisberg
- Needle Park
- Neil Rhodes
- Neville Chamberlain
- New travel
- New York
- Noel Coward
- Norman Foster
- Patrick Leigh Fermor
- Petersburg Hotel
- Philippa Perry
- Pimpernell Smith
- point of view
- Pussy Galore
- Quentin Stafford-Fraser
- Radio 4
- Rheinstein castle
- Rhine Cruise
- Robin Hunt
- Russell Gardens
- Salon des Amateurs
- San Pellegrino
- September 11
- Sir Hugo Drax
- St Margaret's Bay
- St. Denis
- St. Leu
- Stipel bar
- Swiss Watching
- technologies that changed the world
- Temple Ewell
- The Gamblers
- The Gunpowder Plot
- The Rhine
- They Seek Him Here
- Thomas Coryat
- Thomas Coryate
- To Be or Not to Be
- tom coryat
- Tony Judt
- Tour du Pin
- Travel Writing
- Trieste and the meaning of nowhere
- Val Cenis
- Vera Frankl
- Vlissigen. Coryat
- W.H. Auden
- Way Down Upon the Swanee River
- Will Smith
January 2021 M T W T F S S 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31
That’s the Euston road in sunnier times (2011). And a few yards away is this
Which is the British Library. On Saturday the Radio 4 documentary I made with Vera Frankl about some of the readers at the British Library is broadcast. Details here. It’s called The Best Read Office in the World. Listen in at 10.30am, or anytime on Iplayer.
A SMALL POEM FOR VLISSINGEN
Zo de wind waait, waait z’n jasje
As the wind blows, so does his jacket
(i.e. He will jump on any bandwagon)
To light a cigarette with a candle
Kills a sailor, they say, in Vlissingen:
Aan kust sea and sky dance a light tango,
Ships now close sail for a pale horizon
Where tobacco can be smoked any way.
“Nietzsche believed that ‘only thoughts which come from walking have any value’. And look what happened to him, seething till his eyes popped out, conversations with horses.”
Iain Sinclair, London Orbital, pp31 (2002)
Even when intensely focused – on Coryat, his route, the Rhine, just finishing, the detail of everything from light to the often mythological names of the container ships that cruise the river – I am also living the bi-polar existence of multiple personality, at once deracinated and simultaneously acutely gripped. It’s what they used to call being a generalist, before post-modernism and the digital made seductive ahistorical overtures, willing a constant present upon us that my own lifestyle choices in London and New York, fuelled by Wallpaper and label-dependance alike, did nothing to refute. I think it must have been first a few fraught weeks in Cairo, followed by several years living in Eastern Europe, that refreshed my visceral need for a sense of the something beyond the download and the wifi; discovering by accident the work of Thomas Coryat I was given, like Mathew Barney is the early video work I experienced in Basel, both the limits and the potential for delicious inventive variation, that inform this staccato journey.
Some of my All About Eve lives at this moment in Duisberg morning include the doctoral scholar, seeking moments of understanding when confronted by early religious art in the kunsthouses of Switzerland and Germany; the would be poet, checking proofs on a private collection I’ve written (and where does this impulse come from, the pieces are formal and metre-strict, not the free verse of escape but the prison of order…?); the traveller missing home and its pleasures, a belated family life (travelling themselves now, in America, across Europe by car…); the writer trying to find a harmony that might inspire a book proposal for this project that isn’t either labyrinthine and pretentious or a guide book; the lover of Kiefer and the reader in English of Heine whose two week German language immersion is proving unsurprisingly inadequate.
Another life that is increasingly impinging is that of researcher for a radio programme I am going to make next year; I need to understand an architect, and occasionally on the trip I read some of his pieces tucked away in the Papers app on the Ipad. He seems so wise, so thoughtful in his ability to meld old and new; the requirements of monumentality and those of the solitary individual; and his dates and passions mirror those of my own father, who died a couple of years ago and the anniversary of which is today – in brutalist Duisberg.
It’s not hard to feel stupendously ignorant on a journey such as this; too fast to dismiss, or too taken with the superficial; or similarly quick to rush headfirst over the top about something, a painting or a building, a bar where people were friendly. An Englishman always takes his time, Eartha sang, but it can’t always be true, sometimes we too – and perhaps increasingly – are a little premature ourselves.
Which is how I arrived for my cathartic Kiefers two hours early and stuck in the modern watery redeveloped wastelands of Duisberg, I sat down and had a little weep for a while.
A few weeks later, in fact two days back in London, I am at the tube station waiting to travel to the British Library for the first time in three months. My clothes are clean for a change and I have my fancy headphones back. On the floor, dirty and well-trodden, is a pull out section of this morning’s Financial Times. For some reason I am drawn to it: the supplement is titled: Doing Business in North Rhine-Westphalia; and on page four a long feature on the redevelopment of Dusiberg’s former bulk cargo harbour. It is one of those very strange moments; the scruffy supplement is open in front of me now, sitting in the British Library, recollecting the last three weeks of my journey. I read about Norman Foster’s grand plan, about the “targeted” investment, the switch from cargo harbour for the local coal and steel industry – we are in Ruhr-Land – towards being a “logistics hub”. But mostly I gulp in horror at the sentences about “luring residents and tourists with a mix of museums (including a Lego museum), shops and restaurants.”
I’ve been here last night and today, on a restlessly emotional day, the vision is grim: neither the neo-futurism of Canary Wharf (from where I’ve always imagined the Blade Runners of the late twenty first century will operate, chasing not facsimile humans but their algorithms), nor the Truffaut-esque Alphavillery of La Defence. No science fiction flies here, no sense of Super-Cannes just an acute embarrassment that this is probably all Britain’s (and her Bomber Classes) fault.
I can’t even bring myself to go into one of the cafe for a coffee, so I snuffle around taking grey photographs and wait for the art museum to open. In the FT’s relocation guide to Westphalia – Where to Live; Schools; Shopping and Leisure; Transport Links are the sub-heads to the article – there’s not a mention of Duisberg, it is all about the Bonn, Cologne, Dusseldorf triangle, and prose so deathless Bomber Harris might have written it. Anyway…
At eleven the doors to the museum-kueppersmuehle finally opens and I scurry around its nihilistically white high ceilinged rooms, taking in epic photography by Hans-Christian Schink that covers the entire ground floor. I’m not sure what to think, the work is very precise and at times seems overly simplistic, but gradually as I middle-agedly take in that I have been to many of these photo’s environments, I warm to Schink’s bleak tourism. It is as if the the desire to efface any suggestion of an emotional response has been removed, and a cold technocratic vision judges silently. I think of the work of Nadav Kander, of whose photoshopped images these remind me, and I have learnt to like those very much…and anyway this is just the foreplay. Crowds bussed in from somewhere arrive and I play a game of hide and seek with them as they are umbilically linked to a guide and so I move wherever they are not. As in Dusseldorf the museum is a cathedral of chilly calm; but without those interactive dancers. This is a museum of solitary introspection; at least it favours no visions of the bleak outside.
Once again, though, it is the permanent collection that excites me. For years now I have found in Anslem Kiefer’s work some kind of synthesis of the very public and the intensely personal. I find it almost mind numbingly emotional. The work is huge in scale and ambition and so resolutely serious as to suggest it comes out of no obvious post war tradition, except that – as here – the thickness of the paint and the broad, architectural sight lines, make for a post-religious kind of sacredness. Anyway, I am moved and thus immobile in each of the two rooms with Kiefer’s art, four and four. I scribble and stare for hours, like a monk with a bunch of stations of the cross to consider.
I will write at length one day about the work but it seems to me that it personifies the state of being in-between, the betwixtedness of my journey and everybody else’s. I spend much of my life at desk 2178 in the British Library until recently unsure as to why this space is so conducive to work. Now, having delved through the essays of Colin St John Wilson, and the work of Alvar Aalto, I understand their obsession with this state of in between, the relationship of the out to the in; the concept of threshold. Kiefer’s work seems perpetually on the threshold, neither exploiting the allusions, the quotes, the familiar buildings he paints, the mythological, the huge dead fields, nor ignoring their potential for being remade. He seems to be able to paint this state of betwixtedness at the grand scale without making the viewer cowered. His work is assertion, but not i feel confrontation. Wilson writes: “We can still be moved deeply by buildings yet have no adequate terms to deal with the fact,” and this is how I feel about Kiefer. Wilson compares the sensation to sexual attractiveness…I think I prefer the idea of alchemy.
Or Wordsworth’s: “unknown modes of being.”
There is other work: Richter, being colourful. Polke….But my lessons were well learnt with Kate, just a few pieces today, at length. There is a sliver of sunlight when I leave the museum and I wander back into town in search of the best cup of coffee. I realize as I yomp the mall boulevards that the image I have see most often – consciously, for I’m sure I’ve blocked out the MacDonald’s signs – is the H&M carrier bag. Today there is a contagion of them.
The best coffee shop (non Dutch meaning) is nice, but hardly the Cafe de Flore in Paris where Sartre wrote that man is condemned to be free. White and stylish and a myriad of people who look as if they have escaped a mall pass through. I try to write. “Art is with us,” Nietzsche writes, “in order that we may not perish with the truth.”
I have a friend who has done well by his books, after a shaky start. These days he and his wife have relocated to Carmel and Hollywood has called, but when I knew him well he swore by shopping mall cafes. He could write longhand or on a laptop 5000/7000 words a day and then tear them up without remorse if he saw fit. I’ve arrived here via the harbor wharf, Japanese businessmen scurrying around, the Hitachi Europe offices are here; the “City” museum….phrooofff…..then a tram to the university district in search of life – but there is none, negatively none, it is a vacuum of inaction. A university….Hmmm.
The cafe Fino’s virtues are that it isn’t on the main street and the coffee is good and that’s about it. I ask a stylish couple where to eat tonight: they say there are great restaurants at the cargo harbour development. I die a little more and keep speed drinking espressos. I start to write a poem about in betweenness and their spaces….
At my cafe window seat the owners have left half a dozen copies of the latest IKEA catalogue. I think back to Kiefer’s monumental Brandenberg painting that’s in the kueppersmuehle, It is both the colonnaded facade and the liminal space in front, dark and thonic, “In the back of every dictator is a doric column,” Herbert Read once wrote. Somewhere in my tweeted universe I have read about the founder of IKEA again, those far right links much stronger than suspected all those years ago….When I die the music may be German techno in Hell, maybe not, but the decor will definitely be IKEA.
The questions mount: where does everyone go at night? Where are the students? Is everybody doing their anthropological research in the shopping malls? In a tiny fragment of the old town that has been dug up a sign in several languages explains how everything was destroyed in the war – I really should detour and go to the Ruhr museum in Essen.
It’s a strange feeling, elated from Kiefer, experiencing a kind of betwixt epiphany, and yet stuck in an oasis of zombie-future world. On cue Sade comes on the cafe soundtrack singing Your Love is King, for a few weeks in the early 80s this was the sound of sophistication; then the diurnal soundtrack of shopping. A sax solo! Oh yeah, Lady Gaga has made them hot again. I yearn for some music so slip on my iPod and listen to a French samba version of Blur’s Girls and Boys.
I make the gallery DKM too late, but the owner opens up for me with a big smile and goes to find me English texts and says I must to Bochum where there is a great show. There’s an Asian theme here and ever since the Dusseldorf Dude I’ve been aware of the Chinese influences in art: following the money.
My poem starts: Spaces in Between are pockets of resistance, fight escalated prairies of market perfection…..hmmm
“Bolero is good,” echoes in my mind as I finish the last espresso – how could they recommend the harbour places of Immelhafen?….I ask the coffee guys if there is “anything like this, but, you know, in a bar?” A bit of head scratching and then with the aid of my Gmaps they say – well there is one place……er…..here. That’s not too bad.”
I wanderweg back to my hotel and then on a largely domestic back street find a promising looking (there is graffiti) narrow bar that’s not yet open and then as I am crossing the square of my hotel I see a sign for the Film Forum. Film Forum means Jean Luc Goddard. Means not 3D. Means a heartbeat of something. I head straight for its cafe. It’s about 6pm now. A sense of darkness as late summer descends. And people. There is an Italian Film Festival happening.
People talking, not carrying H&M bags. Free wifi. The poem gets knocked off. A lovely older couple who’ve just seen the new Woody Allen, or perhaps an old one, ask me if I am famous as I look like an actor. Loving this. There is a different drum beating here and even the music has pretensions of being ok. Men wear belted jackets; women in berets. Silver hair is allowed. Here the fascism of the mall is being fought, centimetre by centimetre.
I go to the narrow bar I’ve found and very quickly the owner is telling all about it. Different of course, an artist has built the mis en scene; its not for everyone. A hint of Tingerlay, but it ain’t him, but I am happy. “We had to work for this,” she says. She tells me about a story she’s seen: two American guys who walked around the world for a bottle of whiskey. This place is a home to ponytails and how rarely I imagined I’d welcome that sentence. I start talking to Stefan at the bar, he’s a sound engineer, wanted to be a rock and roll star but now just makes soundscapes for films, yes he makes films too, it may be a pick up, I’m not really sure but I am smiling away, freed from IKEA. There’s a long conversation about the genius of Douglas Adams, to which I can’t contribute a huge amount but I do try – throwing in that I used to play tennis with his wife, and commission him to write for me at Wired – and that does the trick.
In the end it always pares down to will people talk and Stefan talked; there was life here. I head, a little squiffily, to the bar recommended by the cafe folk. It is easy to miss, a door, nothing fancy.
Finally: men who dress like Jarvis Cocker, women bereft of H&M; ambient Duane Eddy minimalist music. A vibe. It is midnight. I have found the uber space in between. Yay me. A stranger would find this bar, unmentioned online, once in a million goes. The music switches to “The Selector” a ska song I bought in Brixton when I was eight. Teary now, obviously. The owner is a Munsterman, that’s German Munster, but has been to Irish Munster recently in a kind of why not way. He’s red-haired could so easily be Irish. I’m talking to lots of people now, the music is cool, there’s a 20 year old Seberg who is off to study film in Hamburg, full of excitement and fear with blonde bob; there’s guys who are musicians, and then I am dragged off to meet an older woman who sits on a raised dais, wearing all black – a famous actress I am told. Soon I have met her son as well, he’s just back from Iraq where he’s been doing theatre therapy for fucked-up soldiers. These are my people. The notes from my Moleskine from now on are a little tricky to transcribe. However…
The actresses son launches into a vitriolic attack on Sir Norman Foster and how the people of Duisberg would like to sending him packing down river – actually it was a little more visceral than that, but this is a family blog. “If you are from Dusiberg you hate Norman Foster, that’s the bottom line.” There are places like this, the people tell me, but they are unusual. The townies would rather go to Dusseldorf or Cologne, we build something, just something here.
Then there is the history of the local football team. “It’s shit, always has been, but we are proud – so proud – our fans are famous and even been taken up by Bayern Munich fans. It’s a history thing. We’ve always been the poor relative, and nobody who isn’t from here will understand. MSV Duisberg, I’ll write it for you. [The only clear piece of writing on that page]…The Actress often performs here; she’s just back from a one woman show about Goethe. Faust. Bliss. She promises to send me a poem she has written about Duisberg. We swap emails. Thomas a primary school teacher tells me about the problems, the drugs sure, the sense of this not being a boom town, having been eviscerated and never really recapturing a post war soul. Except that it is all over this bar. The actress is Kristina; at some point she dubs Seberg as the town Lolita – certainly she has been around the room several times and now she’s back with us as Kristina recites a little Goethe. It’s about 2.30 in the morning and all is well. I have one of those late night booze-inflected epiphanies. Two in a day. I think about my dad and stumble off to bed. In the morning this is in my in box:
Poem for Duisburg
I didn’t choose you,
rather been caught by you.
Probably we suit to each other.
The longer I know you,
The more we seem to be similar.
Too proud, to be offended.
Wide city to the one who does understand.
Having had better times.
But even worse of them.
Even you are an eldest sister.
Younger ones are snivelling.
Your governors are
The Third world of governors.
Your worldly wisdom
Is the high amount of cares.
Even you don’t make holydays.
Such a kind of thing we don’t need at all.
You make the championship
And show a sweet Blue
On the tower of the municipality.
Happy without triumph.
If you were allowed to wish something,
You’d give a party like me.
If you are sick,
You don’t open the phone like me.
No one loves you because of vanity
And you don’t answer love by symbols.
You were misused as armour
And did receive your ruins.
Now your are sold out
As old model.
And you know it better:
The city is then place of its humans,
If foreigners take you as a brave one,
They don’t understand:
You just cannot get out of your skin.
Your harbours are buried alive,
Your chimneys are blasted
And ceremoniously rust your giants.
But your breath is long,
Even if you got asthma hundred times.
You go on continuing –
But not to survive!
You are devote to life!
I take a train half way to Rees, my next stop, because I am old and hung over and I am sure Tom took a boat here. Bleedin’ cheat. It is a Friday and I walk through a lot of stinky farm land, see many horses and cows and stuff. But I am still thinking about Duisberg and its spirits of resistance.
This far into the journey a potential 40 kilometre walk holds few fears, and though the hills and mountains that have formed my backdrop in the mid Rhine have gone and i’m preparing for the flatlands of Holland there is still much pleasure to be found in the minute variations of light, the bright grey clouds, the limiting lines of sky or water, the bridges, their graffiti, the neat rows of trees; the way my path seques from forrest to open stretch, to village hinterland and back.
The light is playing dark tricks today, very photo-friendly and a reminder for some reason of the annihilating blurred light that cast few shadows which I experienced for so long in northern Italy all those years ago now on the first stage of the journey. I am walking from Dusseldorf, I start from Joseph Beuys street, to Duisburg.
I do though have a few fears about the latter as I know it was pretty much destroyed by blanket Allied bombing in the second world war. But whatever I find there will, I insist, be spaces of interest. And the art museum here does have Kiefers, eight of them. I can’t wait.
As I walk I think about my conversation with the art dude last night; he’s German but art takes him around the world. I’d assumed for a long while that he lived in Dusseldorf, but he was only there to teach; he lives in Paris.
“Why not, I always wanted to live there, and now I have a place in the second. it’s not big but, hey, I live in Paris.”
And why not? Europe for all it’s faults and flaws and Berlusconis is an amazing place, and now I know that if I need extra “energy” I just need to hop to Shanghai.
I am hungry by the time I hit Lieversberg. I have passed the massive Dusseldorf Messe complex and marvelled at more container ships and burnt out the camera battery taking essentially the same photograph over and over in search of the perfectly lit sky, cloud, river, boat combo. There is wifi and it’s not summer any more so most of the diners are inside. The usual snitznel fizzy water double espresso fags lunch and afterwards I load the photos from the camera onto the iPad. My waiter clocks me. “Did you see the light this morning? It was magnificent on the river.”
I agree and then receive a list of detours I should make for high-end nature photography. I jot the names gratefully, but for another trip, another kind of experience. I’ve long acclimatized now to my sense of nature, which includes every “ugly” pylon and pig farm and haven and industrial complex. I know from David Blackburn’s marvellous The Conquest of Nature how unlike Tom’s rhine is the river I walk; and when he took boats, when he rowed with his ex-pat English mates as now on this part of his trip, the tides and the banks and the complexities were far greater than those which confront all on the Rhine today, yachtsman and skullers, container drivers and cruise ferries (there’s nothing doing from Dusseldorf to Duisburg today though, maybe it is the end of the season, or perhaps Duisburg isn’t quite Versailles). I suspect the latter.
It’s very hard to explain the pleasures of the very slow: tantric walking is cool – Sting would approve, and Mrs Sting too, I suspect, if she could bring her cook along – it makes for a very intensified looking, a miss-nothing attitude to trees and skies, and a lot of turning around to make sure the guys going in the other direction aren’t having a better time.
Then came the blocks of power stations, pumping a white smoke into the ether that is the colour of Tintoretto’s clouds, eerily whiter than the rest of the sky furniture. More photos ensue. More farms, long flat Kiefer landscapes – truly on this stretch the mis en scene is pure Kiefer. Grunged into a thick dense and textured world in which field and factory and sky merge into a giant live poster for German industrialism. I guess I am in the Ruhr. I veer inland to get a closer view of the factories and then tack back towards a shipyard cum container haven. There’s a giant bridge looming on my north-western front and I assume this is Duisburg. Then a village, but lost from the river and my GMap not, er, 100 per cent, I ask a woman coming out of a hairdresser’s where the centre of Duisburg is. It’s 15 kilometres away she says. I don’t believe her and so she very kindly packs me into her Audi and drives me 10 kilometers inland, leaving me in a bleak casino and international phone call shop heavy suburban hinterland that despite my love of all things bleak makes me feel quite, er…. bleak. I’ve walked a long way today, then been driven, and for the next two hours I walk the suburbs, which is pretty tough. Finally I hop a tram for the last stop and then I am Duisburg central railway station. I have no hotel booking and so I start walking into the centre.
OOOOfffff. If the Champs Elysees had been re-imagined as a pedestrianized set of shopping malls from the ninth circle it couldn’t have been more uninviting. This is a new town; the bombings must have taken away everything. Eventually I find tourist information on the ground floor of a huge smug mall, nestling next to a plethora of plastic international cuisines. Only the extreme friendliness of the staff prevent a mini breakdown. And even then I am soon contending with “Fantastic selection of restaurants in the malls, and there is a stunning waterfront complex…” We book a room and I ask. Where’s the best cup of coffee in town?
The answer, thankfully, isn’t Starbucks. I try desperately to get away from the mall-ish vibe of the entire centre with little success though my hotel isn’t bad tucked away in a square that feels a little “older”, except that there are a lot of Messe delegates drooling around speaking that Orwellian Deep Dive Bollox, like religious converts to the God of Ayn Rand. I ask again about nice places at reception and am sent to the Waterside complex, a walk that is not aesthetically in my top two million. And then I am staring at a row of identikit restaurants where, inside, identikit people listen to Duffy and Sade. I turn around, go home, and skoff the mini-bar. At least in the morning there is Kiefer.
First thing this morning, before i left Dusseldorf I phoned the largest Kiefer collector in the world and got his secretary. Yer man was in Paris with The Man. I was told to call back tonight. The phone rang for an age without voicemail. OK: tomorrow.
When I will also be in search of the best coffee shop; because with coffeeshop comes the possibility the staff might recommend somewhere else that is not mass-produced, that’s how it really works: forget online, this is word of mouth….
The first towne that I came unto was Dysseldorp a faire towne of Cleve-land, situate hard by the Rhene, which is famous for two things, the one a magnificent Palace belonging to the Duke: the other the residence of the Dukes Court here.
With the scrubbed up shoe sellers – there is a shoe convention at the Dusseldorf Messe I’ve discovered – I take a leisurely hi-tech breakfast with herrings and wifi. Long after the iPhone voice mails have been left and final make-up and hair reconstruction achieved by the boy and girl delegates here, I’m still noodling away. I write this, a beginning of something:
Who ate all the Sushi?
“The only reliable, durable, and perpetual
guarantor of independence is profit.”
The world isn’t getting warmer,
Forlorner, more medicated
Or self-obsessed. Every corner
Forms a wi-fi hotspot; the Fed
Finds no evidence for arrest;
The heir apparent reneges
His bonus, cites the very best
Reasons. Sports seasons pass like plagues
The main art gallery in Dusseldorf, and boy is Dusseldorf an art city, is split into three discrete buildings spread around the city. My first port of call is the Kunstsammlung, which “can be characterized as one of polyphony and contrast” the website states. I am more inclined to see it as a temporary show, Move It, which I missed in London, and the collection which is largely twentieth century and totally mouth-watering. At the ticket desk I’m told that the second building is closed today, there’s an opening tomorrow for Jordan Wolfson from New York. But, as for the third building across town, promising spectacular video installations, there’s a free shuttle bus every fifteen minutes. This is all very impressive.
In the main gallery space for Move It, three young dancers are limbering up as I wander the work, stopping for a good while first in front of a trusty Pollock. Another exhibit, by La Ribot, is a collection of folding wooden chairs that lean against a wall; each has a quotation of some sort and can be used to sit anywhere for artistic contemplation. One quote reads:
Without Walking I Would Not Be Able to Make any Observations.
I think I am going to like it here.
I near a plank based balancing act of art and the dancers, as one, rise from the floor, say good morning in accented English (how did they guess?) and ask if I have any questions.
“Er, what is this all about?” I am not the first to start my interaction in this way…
They are Fatima, Monica and Else, from Venezuela, Switzerland and Sweden; young dancers who interact both with the crowds who walk the show, and with their iPhones, especially programmed with a series of movements created by the piece’s creator, Xavier Le Roy. I tell them about my walk, within a minute or two we have taken four chairs from La Ribot’s art and are sitting in a semi-circle discussing stuff. I mention the arts cuts in the UK, Else, who knows London well, says, “perhaps this is a good thing, subsidy creates a sense of entitlement, I think the work will get better. My work is better when I have earned the money to produce it, you know, by selling tickets, having a job, I’d rather sell tickets at the cinema to make money than get an Arts Council Grant. It focuses creativity. I like the recession, it makes us change the way we think, Britain needs it.” The others are not so sure, dance festivals are great – and yes they don’t pay very much for all the rehearsal time that goes into a work, but “I do expect to be paid something,” Fatima says. They are more interested in my walk and its dynamic, in a sense it is a far slower – and less graceful – version of their own piece: interacting with whatever comes along and following, in a way, a set of rules (in my case Tom Coryat’s, not Xavier Le Roy). Later, after I have experienced the rest of Move It, including 30 mins lying on the lid of a leather facsimile of a piano surrounded by speakers, in solitary confinement as I endure/enjoy most of Boris Charmitz strange video piece about the impossibility of capturing “dance” on camera – full of grunts and sex and stuff – the show’s dancers are interacting with more visitors. I like this, it makes the show move. Ushers an unusual rhythm into what could be a stately progression. Oh, but upstairs….
At the river this morning, early for the latest moody cloudy photographs that obsess me, I find myself on Joseph Beuys street. And I know more treats are in store. Dusseldorf is home to one of the very great art schools, the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Look it up of Wikipedia, but the short list of the long list includes: Demand, Polke, Richter, Kiefer, Beuys, Gursky, Struth..Peter Doig teaches there….
It is an industrial power house of post war German (European) art. One of those places that would have been great to study at; like MIT in the 80s, or Oxford in 1930…
Upstair in the permanent collection Beuys work stands out for me, entombed in a pair of rooms, mythic and visceral and I’m struck with Ted Hughes-ish feelings about mortality. There is a gorgeous open window by Picasso from 1919, all gray and dark lime and pale blue and I spend more time on this simple piece than many others; it is overload, but without many visitors….pretty perfect. An elderly invigilator does a dance in front of me, “I am Moving It,” he says, rather sweetly. There are huge photo works by Gursky…It is like Christmas. No Kiefer though….Hmm.
I spend hours here, then cross the street in the first rain for a long time to the Kunstalle Dusseldorf: it is a proud large space that dwarfs the work and I can’t get excited; neither by the 50 percent off in the museum’s cafe, The Salon des Amateurs – which is utterly empty.
It is nicely furnished in faux leather and if there were people…
…..I note it down as a potential space in between. Half heartedly though, I mean who in a city with a thousand bars, the longest bar in the world, would come here?
A spurt of photography in the rain, dark clouds, spots of light, modernist architecture, school kids truanting over fags, and then I take the shuttle across town, out of the old zone and past malls I’ll never visit to Ständehausstraße and the K21 part of the experience. A gutted out stadthaus now a wonder of light and space; in the basement fields of video installations, Steve McQueen is first port of call, loud and thonic and an entire theatre to myself in the gothic dark. A three video piece by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, the Strasbourg born artist. Three evocative enigmatic films about place. On a wall Dominique states: “Having been a prisoner of literature for two years or more, captured by a triangle formed by Enrique Vila-Metas, Roberto Bolano, W.G Sebald, three stoires of Robert Walser and J.C Borges, it is impossible for me to present anything else here than three short stories which can be seen or read in any order.” It is if she has lived my life. I watch the slow films, one by one, and piece my own narrative. The films are shot, I think, in various locations in Sao Paulo. All I remember is that I first ate sushi there, many years ago. Now I’m writing about sushi as a metaphor for something utterly other. The work is mesmeric.
There is much good young work here, but on the third floor a simple exhibit of newspaper front pages from September 12, 2001 – in multiple languages and from many places – slows me to a standstill. The tenth anniversary is in a few days.
Back at the Einhorn I chat to an American who has lived here for a few years; she followed her heart, after tango took her to Buenos Aires. A paired down life of adventures; a past sadness I sense but don’t want to explore. We are similar, I think.
Later I jot that cathedrals are like railways stations, museums like cathedrals once were, and it is only in found spaces that we are able to impose a clear sense of individual meaning. I have no idea what this means now.
The greying of Dusseldorf with the rain sends me home and I watch a film named The Hangover, which is oddly funny in its way, and then with the heavens still thundering I wonder about dinner. I have had an art overload today and I could just Einhorn and be done with it, but my spaces in between antenna is buzzing and so I make for the dark and empty looking Salon des Amateurs where there are a few people drinking; older, corduroy-types, bearded, dare one say fatter? Smokers outside. I go the bar and order some wine and then later go outside for a cigarette. Jens is about my age perhaps. “Ah, English…You know that tonight is a poetry recital? How is your German?”
I mumble: Goethe Institute two week course, back this up with my undying devotion to Heine and Durs Grünbein. “Yes, but how’s your German?”
“I love the sound and assonance of poetry, I’ll make do without meaning,” I say. I explain my trip, “Ah, do you make a sentimental journey?” Jens asks. “Yes, indeed, just like Laurence Stern, did you know he invented the phrase in his book about travel -“
– Jens does. I feel a bit stupid. He probably translated Sterne into German I think. I stumble back inside and take my place at the bar. The cafe is full now and the poets are pacing, warming up like retired footballers playing in a charity tournament. One of the organizing men, not so old, not so young, is wearing flares – which is a first on this journey. I note down, this poetry can not be any more impenetrable than the iconography of Joseph Beuys, or the reasons why I spent time in Cologne drinking as parties partied to Neil Diamond-playing brass bands. These are my fates.
The first poem, from a spectacled, slightly nervous man, seems to be aus dem hinterland – and I’m feeling: hey poetry this is easy….and then there’s a long one which involves the names of many, many German footballers through history, so that’s a breeze. Then a Romanian woman reads a very long poem in German about the last days of the Ceausescus in Bucharest. And while I understand not a word I have lived in Bucharest for a little while and – as it were – know the story.
The drink break does come, though, with a little relief. In fact there is little for me. Jens is introducing me to other English speakers, an Englishman who has lived here for thirty years who writes plays and poetry and the “definitive guide to the Ruhr” as he put it. I am a little grouchily yeah-yeah where are the Germans, but put it down to tiredness. Then I am introduced to the next poet, he promises to dedicate a poem to me. Thus, back at my place at the bar, I am subjected to stares of abject pity as the poet explains how I understand bugger-all.
His poem is onomatopoeic, lots of Germanesque sounds and nobody much laughs. whoosh, sploosh, mooosh….I don’t know. There are many more poems and the audience seems fretful and then it is break time again.
“They weren’t laughing with him, they were embarrassed,” says a young woman. “It’s a tough crowd here and everyone knows everyone.” The woman’s English is very good, what do you do, I ask.
“I am a satirist,” she says, without irony.
“How’s it gong?”
“Not so well….”
The crowd disperses but I go back inside to write and end up talking to a guy from the art academy. “did you enjoy the poetry?” I ask.
“I wasn’t listening, I just came for a drink while I worked.” All the time he is scribbling in a notebook. “A writer?”
“Yes, but now I am just writing a to do list for China, I am off tomorrow.”
We talk for about an hour, he tells me about Liu Xiadonj, He Yanchang, Li Gang and the thriving Chinese art market. “I used to go to New York for the energy, all gone, now that energy is in Beijing and Shanghai,” he says. He’s read everythjng, teaches at the academy, writes, does deals in China, and is generally pretty cool. Finally I tell him about my Kiefer obsession and he casually jogs down the number of his biggest collector for me. He lives here. OMG, as they say. Epic win. It’s late when I get home and there is not a shoe soul in sight.
Late Sunday sun on Ratinger strasse in Dusseldorf, close to the river, and I am sitting on a bench at the Goldenen Einhorn, the Golden Unicorn, number 18 and built in 1630 – though in those days I assume the bar didn’t offer live Sunday night Tatort (the oldest and longest running German cop show) screenings. I have history with Tatort, but I have never seen it. Tonight I will be back.
The vibe is very different from anything experienced in Cologne and I ask the waitress about it. “Oh, it’s much more hoity-toilty here,” she says somewhat surprisingly, sounding almost Coryation…”it’s stuck up; Cologne is more industrial, grungey. I should dress up when you go out.”
The other boys at my table find this slightly amusing; of the three two are head to toe Prada, with plenty of logo. I have been for many post Naomi years very much Kein Logo, though hypocritically so, but am, as ever, utterly non-judgmental. They are testing out a new cologne named “Matador” and recalling the highlights of a recent trip to the Dominican Republic. We don’t speak; my IPad may have something to do with this.
At my next espresso order I ask the waitress if I am vaguely suitably dressed for an evening. “you look alright” she says, “Sure, why not shake them up a bit? I should tell you that there are more Porsche drivers here than anywhere you’ve been on your route so far.”
Stay pedestrian, I think. Easy in the old town. Ratinger street has many bars, and the hot night, I am told, is Wednesday. Just a few metres away a club promises Hugh Cornwall, founder of the Stranglers, live-ish, soon. I wander down a street that’s done business for a good 700 years. On the river the light is sensational – again – and a few hundred metres away a street performer is making rude shapes with balloons and many of the audience are convulsed. “More stuck up?” They must be tourists, I hear an English voice and scurry home to my hotel.
In the evening, spruced by shower rather than a change of clothes, I wander around the old town, there are thousands of bars, all doing good mid-September business. None appeals. There’s a lot of boutiques, and smart clothes, and I can’t imagine what the new city super malls are like. Thankfully I don’t have to find out.
Back at the Golden Unicorn I read my Cologne notes, some a little blurry. “The problem with the Brits in Dubai,” I read, “is that they still believe they are running an Empire.” it occurs to me that Germany, the places I have seen at least, are a successful regional empire that needs no geographically expansionist dreams any longer. Is it finally at ease with itself? I like to think so.
The opening credits to Tatort have been the same for over 40 years. Saul Bass and Burt Kamfert meet in limbo to suggest big action. Almost. A dozen or so have gathered inside to eat dinner to Tatort and the atmosphere is gently nostalgic; a one time common culture that’s now deracinated by download and time-shift, demographics and the web. But this is, despite the small numbers, a collective experience. The show is based in various cities, with various casts, a precursor if you like, of CSI. It begins bang on 8.15, displaying none of those on the hour insecurities that bedevil British or US networks. A ninety minute show with no adverts, it is truly a time-travelling experience. This episode opens – in Cologne, and familiar vistas and those Cathedral towers – with an opera soundtrack – revealing my operatic ignorance – played on domestic vinyl, and a middle aged man dressing up as a woman not utterly dissimilar to Grayson’s “Clare”. This could be the BBC, though the editing lacks Spooks’ ADD driven propulsion, and despite the deaths and mid-life tentative romances and burly jean-clad “Gene Hunt” detective it is all really rather cozy. There are men with axes and sundry nice retro cars and it is a classical way to end Sunday after a heavy weekend of sun, gun clubs, and thrash metal bars…
I wander towards boutique home and the shoe sales-people but just a few metres away it is salsa night at the Schlösser Quartier Bohème. The place is very close to the main art museum, and seems closer too to the Dusedorf money. Men and women in high heels and burnished leather wander back and forth from the dance floor to salsa or sit out or change partners. I jot: long legs and silk dresses. A man stops to ponder my terrace jottings and says: “but words are never the present for yesterday has gone,” then he asks to buy a cigarette. A taxi of blondes arrive and the burnished shoe boys hover, and as I walk home I pass an underground car park from where a Maserati sticks out its shiny red nose with a growl of Ruhr industrialism and Italian design. Kein Porsches tonight for me.
There is chocolate on my pillow for the first time on my journey. In the morning at designer breakfast the shoe sellers are very smart indeed. And many are Russian.
I felt bad taking the train to Dusseldorf until I discovered that Tom had taken a boat all the way from Cologne to Rees, and he’d ganged up with a bunch of Englishmen who he travelled with for the rest of his journey. No such luxury for me. In fact he only spent 15 minutes in “Dysseldorp”, but I was having no such lacuna. The sweaty walk from Dusseldorf’s railway station went through the 80 or 90 per cent of the city I’d never see again: I was focused on the old town, on the Rhine, and some pretty tasty sounding art galleries. Strange how quickly one can reacclimatise when Beuys and Kiefer are in the picture. I was a middle aged grunge hero by the time I made the tourist office in the old town, a dripping mess. So when the lovely tourist officer, hearing of my desire to stay in the old town, said: “Most of the guys who do that just want to drink all night and have a bed to crash, the places are not so nice,” I was thankful she recognised my inner poet. I looked like a guy who might have been all night in a Cologne heavy metal hangout who then got freaked out by mass-taking German gun clubs. But somewhere in my ruddy look she saw Heine. Forty minutes later I was in a suburban boutique hotel, ten minutes walk from the old town, surrounded by shoe salesmen – and women. The TV was flatscreen and plasma and not bolted high from the ceiling; there was no smell of kebab. And the breakfast bar had Apple desktops for web access.
One final detail. On his last day in Cologne Tom saw, somewhere in the city, a portrait of the Jesuit Priest, Henry Garnett, who had been executed in London in 1606 in controversial circumstances. After his hanging it was claimed that a piece of straw was found nearby that “looked” like Garnett. It became a Jesuit icon. Well, in Cologne just two years later, Tom saw a printed image of the piece of straw. An early example of viral global conspiracy theory. “Though I thinke the truth of it is such, that it may be well ranked amongst the merry tales of Poggius the Florentine….”