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A Land of Extremes

As 1975 began, I spied a book on my father’s shelves in his Leeds University office, 1975: The Year of Doom.By now the Oil Crisis had severely constrained resources in Britain; I had realised just how reliant we were on supplies from overseas. 

When school broke for the Easter holidays that year, I had mixed feelings about my trip to Münster, under the York schools exchange scheme. My father had told me about the Federal Government’s response to German radicals’ activism of the late Sixties and early Seventies: Berufsverbot, barring Left-wing public servants (the German Communist Party was banned). And I was aware of the Red Army Faction’s campaigns, which included bomb attacks. As York students had been intensely active, I was curious to see a German university town. 

To fetch up with a bourgeois, observant Christian family, with paterfamilias lawyer, a collector of objects d’art, was unsettling in the extreme.His daughter, Eva G. was 18 months younger; we had nothing in common. Münster struck me as austere and ultra-conservative. (To add insult to the injury of her denial of concentration camps in Germany on her visit to York, Eva G. stole a Hogarth print, which Edie had found in a second-hand shop; we were powerless to recover it.)

In late 1976, my father took me to see Kuhle Wampe (Who Owns the World?) a film set in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, conceived by Brecht, with Eisler’s music. Their Solidarity Song etched itself onto my memory: “Vorwärts und nicht vergessen, worin unsere Stärke besteht!” (Forward, and don’t forget, What our strength is made of!) 

Still from film, on BFI website

After the screening, I asked my father how against that backdrop, the Nazis had come to power. His clear answer: the failure of the Left to unite against fascism. For its useful insights, he also cited Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism (however orgone therapy, the efficacy of which Reich believed, was to be taken with a pinch of salt; having read about that I was pleased to hear this ).

On my return to Germany in 1979, as a citizen of a Member State of the European Economic Community, I exercised my rights of entry, settlement and movement, and soon found a highly paid job at a medicaments factory in Hamburg.

First I sat by a conveyor belt. Watching over it, I found myself so utterly alienated so as not to switch off at night:  thousands of little green bottles swam before my eyes. Packing at least allowed for conversation. One morning, stuffing strips of the Pill into individual boxes, talk turned to Hitler. An older colleague said: “Wir waren alle Nazisten.” She elaborated: they had all attended parades off Nazi might. Given the sinister Münster family, I was disturbed yet not surprised to hear this. To add to my disquiet, on Friday evenings, as we stood by the gate awaiting the horn’s release for the weekend, a German colleague, in furs and jewels, looked down her nose at those from Yugoslavia or Turkey. 

This was my residence permit:

Seeking out connections with my homeland, and with nature, in my free time I took to walking by the Elbe, along which I had sailed from Harwich.

Often of an evening I strolled to the port, captivated by its ships and flashing signals. Aware that Hamburg had been heavily bombed during WWII, I was amazed to witness industrious shifting of container cargo. The contrast with Liverpool troubled me. The previous year, I had wandered along the Mersey, saddened that passenger ferries to the Wirral or Ireland were the only vessels on that river, and by the wreck that was the Albert Dock.

Like Liverpool, Hamburg stood out for its distinctive language and culture, and Hamburgers were lively and friendly. Also, alternative living in communes and gay café society had taken root. Seeking out such friendly spaces sustained me through the working week, and helped me process news from home. 

At the end of April 1979 my father had phoned me to tell me that he could not bring himself to vote Labour in the imminent General Election. As I was to be a first-time voter, he suggested that one of us voted Labour and the other Ecology Party. As my job immersed me in chemicals, and being aware of manufacturing’s destructive effluents, I readily agreed. On May 4, he rang again: the Conservative Party had won. We agreed: this was a turning point. [1]

After my factory stint finished, German friends took me to West Berlin. We speeded past Hamburg’s affluence, along the autobahn. As soon as we cleared border control and crossed into East Germany our pace slowed: the road had only two lanes. Although placards spanned fields proclaiming thirty years of the German Democratic Republic, I was swept back ten years – to my spell in Andalucía. There, I had noted men bent over strips of terraced earth. In the GDR, I saw older women, their Fifties frocks illumined by the setting sun, guiding horses and ploughs through communal furrows – evoking the backward agrarianism of Franco’s Spain.

Berlin, away from the expensive cafés and shops near the touristic Kurfürstendamm, felt less like an advanced capitalist city than did Hamburg. Wandering past Kreuzberg’s courtyards, I was transported back to Kuhle Wampe. Most Westerners paid a visit to the Wall, to peer into East Berlin, but having driven through the GDR, I could not bear to do so. At a late-night party in a squatted gay centre or searching for lesbian bars, I sensed the Wall’s divisive presence.

It felt liberating to wander without fear. And what a thrill it was to find, in a dark Schöneberg side street, the Pussycat Bar: mauve velvet bankettes lined the walls and the glow of dangling crystal sconces made an intimate women-only space. Pondering life on the other side of the Wall, as I drank a beer, I wondered what options East German lesbians had.[2]

[1]Once electoral data had been analysed, my father told me that a third of trades unionists had voted Conservative.

[2]In a sign of the times, the Pussycat Bar is no longer women-only; see:

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