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On the day that he left my sister cried. I didn’t. I was ten and I understood why he had to go. He took me to one side in the kitchen and explained it to me. I was the man of the house now. I needed to take care of the others. Once he was settled we could visit.
I never saw him again.
That night we sat together around our second hand television set, the ragged band of survivors that was now our family. It was almost Christmas. We ate marshmallows and watched Schneewitchen und die sieben Zwerge. That’s Snow White to you. It seemed to cheer everyone else up, but not me. I watched the stupid little green men tramp about in a brown smudge of old animation frames and I thought of him. If he’d been here he would have let me stay up late while he told me about Düsseldorf and the friends he’d had back there when he was growing up.
He alone knew how hard it was. I saw it in his eyes. He took me to work with him once in the school holiday and I watched him grin good-naturedly as the other mechanics made references to his brown overalls and his lunch of pumpernickel bread and rollmops. He told me afterwards it was just jealousy because he could fix automobile engines better than they could. [private]
“Why do they call you Franz?”
“Ach, they are too stupid to pronounce Jürgen.”
So he knew. I told him about school and he was at least sympathetic. My mother just couldn’t seem to grasp it. She embarrassed me by making me translate when the school nurse told her me and my sister had caught head lice. She made me ask if our German passports would be ok for a school trip to Wales. And she sent me in with my hair cut into a short back and sides. The top was a long fringe combed neatly from a left sided part. I looked like any other schoolboy catching the Deutsche Bahn in the crisp Rhine morning. Except I wasn’t catching the Deutsche Bahn was I? The kids called me Nazi Hitler and marched about behind me wherever I went. Nobody did anything about it. I think the teachers even found it funny.
I learned the language quickly enough though. I started with “fuck off,” but it obviously sounded hilarious in my thick German accent because whenever I used it I’d have four or five kids shouting it back, mimicking the clipped way it came out of my mouth. So I ditched the accent too. I refused to speak in anything but English at home and I started cutting my own fucking hair.
Was I a miserable child? Probably. I feel like I didn’t get a fair crack at it. There are some things you’re not supposed to experience until you get older. Every summer, after my father had gone, my mother took us “back home”. The first two years we didn’t want to leave again. I sat in the attic of my uncle’s house and refused to pack my things. God knows why my mother didn’t give in there and then, she gave in on just about everything else. But no, we were going back because that’s where our lives were now. I never understood that at the time. My life seemed to be wherever I was, and it was infinitely less shit over here.
Then I turned thirteen. Why is that significant? It isn’t, but by then I was overcompensating. I didn’t want to catch a cheap flight back into Osnabrük to see the fucking von Trapps. I wanted to stay behind and hang about in the old skateboard park listening to English rock bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Ultimately, of course, I didn’t have a choice.
“Fick dich, inselaffe.”
I was having an argument with my cousin about his record collection. It had nothing to do with him being German; it had everything to do with the fact he liked shit music. I knew he’d told me to go fuck myself and had called me an “island monkey,” but I didn’t have the vocabulary to argue back. We didn’t speak for the rest of the holiday. I trudged about behind everyone else through small market towns on days out and I wanted to go home.
It was the first time I’d seen both sides of my mother simultaneously. To me she spoke harshly. I had to cheer up. I had to stop sulking all the time. For god’s sake I was miserable enough at home, couldn’t I at least try and not spoil the time she and my sister were having? To everyone else she just shrugged pleasantly and used the same word over and over. “Teenager”. She pronounced it “jugendliche”. I had to ask what it meant.
“Don’t you wish we could live here again?”
My sister was nine. She didn’t understand. I didn’t understand myself. I hated England, but no, I didn’t want to be here again. We flew back through a storm and I watched the lightening stab hypnotic blue veins across the distant clouds. I felt at home up there, somewhere in the middle of the North Sea, suspended between two different lives I didn’t want or need.
My mother eventually learned English. From watching soap operas if you can believe that? She still has a melodramatic turn of phrase even now. I guess we all anglicised ourselves a bit more. The whole German thing never went away, it just sort of gradually faded into the background of our lives, at least for other people. And for me. I started a different school, I learned to play the drums from a neighbour who was in a jazz band. I bought the NME and the Melody Maker and slowly people stopped taking the piss out of me when I had every great record months before anyone else had even heard of it.
“Hey, Dieter, there are some new CDs in.”
I have a pile on my desk already that I need to work through. I managed to get myself this job writing music reviews for a small magazine. Don’t ask me how I managed it because I genuinely don’t know. It isn’t 1978 anymore I guess: the faint hint of a European accent is exotic now, cultured even, not the stigma I used to drag around with me like a sack of broken glass. I came for an interview with about a thousand other people and I spoke about New Wave like I knew what I was talking about. Maybe it was because the editor liked Bowie in his Berlin period. Maybe she assumed I knew all there was to know about Krautrock. Either way, I got the job. And I assumed it was going to be the best job in the world. Free music, legally free music, from unknown bands and established bands. I was going to get paid to listen to them and scribble down what I thought. I’d be first to the table on anything cool, and I’d have the best CD collection out of anyone I knew.
Yeah, I’m two years in and my spare bedroom is packed with some of the worst albums ever conceived or recorded. I can’t give anyone a lift as the passenger seat in my car is an ever shifting cityscape of crap music. There’s music in my head when I wake up in the morning, my dreams are badly scored and over-produced. It’s coming out of my fucking ears.
“You’ll like this one.”
The photographic editor, Jed, is opening some of the parcels for me. He’s pretty new here and still enthusiastic. He also has nothing else to do.
“It looks right up your street this. It’s from the Fatherland.”
“Go fuck yourself.” I snatch it off him. It takes its place on the top of the pile.
“Aren’t you going to put it on? We could do with some teary eyes, some sounds of the homeland.”
I laugh despite myself. I stop what I’m doing, which is typing out a scathing assessment of the latest UK Grime wannabe, and pop the lid on the office stereo. I press play.
And then everything stops. The world grinds to a halt. Jed has a cup of coffee in his hand and it freezes halfway to his lips. Time itself has given up the ghost.
For a moment there is only the metallic brush of fingertips on guitar strings and then the sound of a violin washes over us. A violin and a viola. The guitar props them up with acoustic chords and it sounds like a sail desperate to soar off on the wind, held back only by those wooden pegs and steel filaments. I sense Jed is on the verge of wandering off: he’s not sharing the surprise that has numbed me. He looks like he’s asking a question but I don’t hear him. I can’t hear him. I’m not sat across an office desk from him anymore, I’m somewhere else. The edge of a forest perhaps. The cracked concrete of a cold war bunker that nature has started to reclaim.
I rouse myself and hit the skip button. The next song begins with a real tender guitar part, a violin and accordion lightly scaling the edges. The vocal starts almost immediately on this one and it’s a deep, wistful wail of pain. I listen, stunned, as the band move through a verse – if such a thing could be called a verse – and then a small chorus of male voices join in. I forget to breathe for a second. It’s unbelievable. There is something Germanic about the whole thing. A U-boat requiem, a sailor-song of drowned men. It’s not the Germany I knew, but it’s somehow the Germany I now have locked up in the centre of my brain.
I’m an immediate convert. I’ve never heard anything quite like this before. Which is a problem when you’re a reviewer: cheap comparisons are my bread and butter. It’s a cross between Lou Reed and the Wu Tang Clan. It’s trying too hard to sound like Amy Winehouse. How on earth am I going to articulate how good this record is?
“Try song four.” He’s reading the titles from the back of the case.
We get to it in two clicks of the forward button. I wait to be impressed. And I am.
“It sounds like Placebo playing something by Wagner.”
He means it dismissively, but he’s not far wrong. I would have gone with Nine Inch Nails, but only because they’re marginally cooler. There’s a clean, sanitised drumbeat with some tinkling industrial dischords over the top. The singer drones his way through a few lines like Ian Curtis, like Kraftwerk, and then the whole thing gets washed away by the glorious war cry of a Valkyrie.
“You like it?”
With that, he is gone, and I’m left alone with the lingering melodies and the photocopied press release. I listen to it five times. I don’t write another word for the rest of the day.
For forty-eight hours I’m convinced I’ve stumbled across something huge. I subject the office to it over and over, I bother the editor incessantly. I can’t understand why nobody else can hear the indelible truths woven into the phrases and the arrangements of these songs. But I’ve learned enough to know when to shut up. In this business, there’s only so far you can inch out on any particular limb before it snaps off and lands you on your face. Your career is only as good as the latest consensus on what is and isn’t ground breaking. Even if you hate something, you need to hover around the edges of the buzz it creates and time your backlash to perfection. There’s credibility only in numbers. What was true back when I was watching English kids play football in a concrete schoolyard is, depressingly, just as true now.
Secretly, though, I remain mesmerised. I take the album home, I seek out the band’s back catalogue. There isn’t much, but it’s just as impressive. If anything it’s more eclectic, even more Teutonic. I lie on my couch in the dark and listen, and for the first time in years the Technicolor images my father stamped into my subconscious with his stories rise up from somewhere and spool behind my eyes.
Laura is back from some Latin dance gym class or other. I jump up and switch the stereo off. I don’t quite know why. I’m vaguely embarrassed somehow. Or maybe I just want to keep this obsession to myself. Keep it pristine by refusing to share.
“What are you doing in the dark?”
“Just listening to music.”
“With the lights off?”
“I have a headache.”
It gets worse. Some nights I wait until she leaves the house and I give her ten minutes before I pull on my jacket and take the car to the video shop. There’s a store closer to home, but this one has a European cinema section. I check out Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders, everything they have and everything they can order in by Werner Herzog. I slip Das Boot furtively into my coat as I walk back through our front door. On every one of them I have to use the subtitles: my German is not just rusty but practically eroded away. They draw me in nevertheless. There’s a hypnotic quality to them. I don’t always understand what’s happening, what’s meant, but they feel right and I can’t stop watching.
It takes over a week for me to get through the Wolfgang Peterson film. It’s the uncut version, over four hours long. Zumba only lasts forty five minutes at a time. The DVD spends longer hidden behind the bookcase than it does in the player. I have to pay a late fee when I finally get a chance to take it back.
Like most things, the idea comes to me half formed and out of nowhere. It’s a broken transmission from the satellite that beams me these alien thoughts from time to time. I pack a bag. I tell work I need two days off. To Laura I feed some bullshit about having an assignment: myself and Jed are going to Brighton to interview the bass player from Sigur Rós. (It’s obscure and plausible: I checked him out on Wikipedia). Where I actually go is to the airport. The cheapest flight I can get is to Hamburg. It hardly matters. It could be Bremen, Leipzig, Spandau. At this point, they’re all the same to me.
It’s not what I expect. Is anything? I get off the plane and walk out into an airport that looks exactly like the one I left back in Manchester. Identical, and yet subtly different. The advertisement hoardings are for products I’ve never heard of: things with strange names, names with umlauts in their spelling. Even the brands I recognise are slightly warped somehow, just marginally off kilter. I can’t put my finger on it. I stand staring at a poster for Motorola for an eternity. It looks like it could be for tampons, not phones. Two adolescent girls sharing a secret. It bothers me, but I can’t quite work out why.
Outside there is a snaking line of taxis that crests the horizon. I climb into the nearest and pass the address of my hotel to the driver on a piece of paper. I don’t trust myself to say it to him. Immediately, he’s pissed off.
“Verdammt noch mal.”
He mutters to himself as we pull away. He mutters to himself as we join the autobahn. For ten minutes he shoots irritated glances at me through his rear view mirror. Each one starts him off again. I’m not sure what I’ve done. The only thing I can think of is that the hotel is so close. It’s not much of a fare for him, not when he’s probably had to wait to get to the front of that infinite queue of beige cars for hours. In any case, he pulls up in front of reception with a grunt. I pass him the fare with a small tip which he snatches off me. He doesn’t help with my bags. I hear his tyres squealing as I walk up the steps to the door.
It’s still early but I’m suddenly in no real mood to explore, so I check in and go to bed. I lie awake for hours. There’s a crack in the ceiling above me that my eyes keep getting drawn to until it’s finally too dark to see. I haven’t wasted my time in coming here. I haven’t. There’s a revelation just around the corner. There is, and I just need to get some sleep so I’m ready for it.
The next day is no better. There was a light snow overnight and I’m struck by a sharp wind when I step out into the street after breakfast. I don’t know where I’m going, but I decide to leave it to fate and just start walking. It’s probably my first mistake because nothing happens. I walk for hours, past redbrick buildings with white plaster panelling, past shops and cafes and warehouses. It’s a city, just a city. The cars look different, the streets are neatly cobbled rather than haphazardly tarmacked, but other than that it could be anywhere.
People pass me speaking German and I struggle to understand anything they say. I’m aware of myself as a foreigner, a tourist, a pretender. It’s worse than that: I’m someone who speaks English with a German accent but can’t speak fucking German. How pathetic is that?
I walk into a shop to buy a sandwich and I find myself hoping the assistant doesn’t try talking to me. I’m actually quite tense about it, so tense my nerves are twitching and the blood is rushing around past my eardrums.
Hello. She said hello. But in my mind I’m working myself up to an acute sense of embarrassment and I don’t hear that. I’m expecting her to ask me if she can help. I’m expecting her to ask it in a way that I can’t understand, so when she speaks, this is the question I answer, not her actual friendly greeting.
She looks at me like I’m insane. So I know I’ve fucked up somehow, though it takes a few seconds for me to register why.
“Oh, ja, er, guten tag.”
I mumble it. I can feel my face burning. She just stares at me like I’m a specimen in a jar. I turn around and walk back out without buying anything. Her eyes burn a hole in the back of my head until I’m out of sight.
Fuck it. Fuck fuck fucking idiot. What am I doing here? There are more people out on the streets now it’s lunch time. It feels like every one of them is glancing in my direction. They all know about me, they all know about what just happened. It’s impossible, of course it is, but maybe there’s something in the way I’m shifting about that makes it obvious. I try not to look directly at anyone. I hurry along, huddled up, and I find a taxi rank. There’s the same routine with the address of the hotel on a piece of paper. This time though, the driver doesn’t say a word, and I’m glad of that at least.
After this, I don’t really leave my room. I call down to the English-speaking receptionist for room service, and I lie on my bed waiting for the time to pass until my flight back. I’m a moron. I don’t know what I thought any of this would achieve. I don’t belong here. But at least nobody has to know about it. Nobody will ever know about it.
I sleep sporadically through the rest of the day. But at one in the morning I’m awake and I don’t feel tired. I’m wide awake. I move restlessly around the room and suddenly, for the first time since I quit, I need a cigarette. I don’t want one, I need one. I don’t know why. It’s like the habit was still curled up inside somewhere, dormant but not dead. Slowly germinating until I hit a level of dejection that it could exploit. I put my shoes on and go down to the bar. There’s a cigarette machine there, I saw it earlier.
Reception is still open as I pass. It looks like the night porter takes over after hours. He nods at me and I nod back. I turn and take the stairs down into the basement. I’m working out my change when he appears behind me.
“You want a drink?”
He makes me jump. There’s nobody else around at this hour and his voice obliterates the silence.
“Cigarettes.” I gesture at the machine.
“Ah. Bad habit.”
He lets me carry on sorting through my coins, but he doesn’t leave. He watches me as I pull the plunger out on the brand I want. I grin vacantly at him as I retrieve the pack and go to walk past.
“You want a drink? The bar stays open.”
I’m about to say no and then think, actually, why not. Why the fuck not?
“Yeah, ok. Thanks.”
He walks around behind the pumps and flicks on the lights. He pulls down two glasses and it occurs to me that he’s probably lonely here, night after night. As lonely as I feel right now. Maybe worse.
“Beer. I pour it, and then we smoke, yes?”
He gestures out towards the patio.
“Sounds good to me.”
He doesn’t say another word. We step outside and I share his lighter. He looks up at the windows of the hotel. He looks up at the sky. He doesn’t look towards me at all, but it doesn’t feel awkward. It’s a strangely comfortable silence. When we go back in he picks a few CDs up from behind the bar.
I smile at this, because it’s a pretty shitty collection of music. Bland, generic pop rubbish from a decade ago: the standard fare of your average corporate venue. There is one I own myself there though. St. Germain, a French band. They mix jazz with dance music. I point it out to him.
“Very good.” He reads the back of the case as he puts it on. He nods and purses his lips as the first few bars of ‘Rose Rouge’ seep seductively out of the speakers.
“You like it?”
He looks me in the eye for the first time and seems to think carefully about his answer.
“Yes. Right now, yes. Tomorrow, maybe not.”
I laugh at this. I don’t quite get it, but I assume he’s making a joke.
“You won’t like it anymore by tomorrow?”
“For now, here, this moment, is perfect. But tomorrow, different moments. This is important yes? No two moments the same. This, right now, I remember, but I don’t try to make again. I don’t try to, to, recreate.”
He holds my gaze the whole time he’s speaking. For the first time I feel slightly uneasy. But it passes, and it passes quickly. He turns his attention back to the bar.
As he pours it the telephone starts ringing upstairs. He sets my glass down and leaves. He doesn’t come back. I’m left alone with the low lighting and the hypnotic music. I try waiting, but the time starts stretching out and the beer and the bass lines make me drowsy. Eventually, I leave some money on the bar and head up to bed.
The lobby is empty. There’s nobody about. No porter, no doorman. I can still hear the St. Germain but muffled now, a flight of stairs away, playing to an empty room. I guess it will carry on until after I’m asleep. But that’s not my concern is it? Because he was right. I’ve taken what I need. Beyond that, it’s meaningless. Beyond that there’s only what was and you can’t do much with that except leave it alone. [/private]