Archive for the ‘leipzig’ Tag

Bach in the DDR

[25.X.15]

Been away so long I hardly knew the place
Gee, it’s good to be back home

back in the ussr beatles 45 single cover record

Started the day bright (the clocks went back during the night) and early with a jog in search of a park I knew to be nearby according to my trusty guide ‘Leipzig Highlights’ (which I picked up on my last trip to Leipzig in 2014). p.24 Clara Zetkin Park. I did a bit of a reprise of yesterday running past the Great Synagogue site with its empty bronze chairs, round the corner past my grand-parents’ married home and on down the former Promenadenstrasse, empty in the early morning. I paused at a stretch of canal in some trees (mistaken initially for the lost park) and then carried on, listening all the time to Desert Island Discs on my vintage orange iPod, companion of many runs in many countries. The guest was Stephen Fry and blow me if he didn’t play some Bach as I ran through the park and back towards the Thomaskirche. He said he hadn’t really got Bach until later in life when Glenn Gould’s playing had enabled him to see beyond the clever patterns. My friend Jon Turner gave me a Glenn Gould CD for my birthday many years ago but I’m afraid even that didn’t do the trick for me. Bach just doesn’t move me. The only great Bach experience I ever had was being taken by my mother to hear the Brandenburg Concertos from the gods of the Albert Hall at the Proms. That – as I lay on the high-altitude floor – struck a chord and probably kicked off a liking of baroque music.

Following a hearty breakfast in the shadow of Bach’s church, his statue staring in through the hotel window, I headed up with Oregon-based documentary buyer Louise Rosen to the MDR campus for Day 2 of Documentary Campus. [[ When I type “Oreg…” into Google to check my spelling, weirdly (or maybe not) its first suggestion is “Oregon Bach Festival”. ]] Listened to another morning of documentary pitches, overall a high standard. This batch included one on freeing white slaves in Russia (produced by my Russian pal Vlad’s Mrs) and another fabulous one about a young musician travelling around collecting songs that are dying out in Central Europe (shades of the marvellous 1 Giant Leap).

In the afternoon I wandered off through the allotments adjacent to the MDR, savouring the autumn colours. I ate a pear and an apple. I read ‘The Moor’s Account’ in Connewitz Cemetery. I headed in the direction of the hospital where my father was born, just a kilometre or two from the MDR. I walked past a corner shop with the name Noah on its hoarding. I walked past a car with a number-plate with 4444. Signs. People were with me. I came out suddenly at the back of the hospital and ended my journey under the 1935 clock of the S. Elisabeth Krankenhaus. The leaves were gold. The weather of the first official day of wintertime mild. In a partial way I’d come home.

I was reflecting recently that most people’s lives are in some way a journey home.

screw_you_guys__i_m_going_home south park animation

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Get Bach to Where you once belonged

Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805)

Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805)

Spent the first half of a beautifully golden sunny autumn day out at the MDR (Mitteldeutsch Rundfunk) campus at the edge of Leipzig listening to documentary pitches at Documentary Campus 2015. Included was ‘Craig Barfoot’s Modern Dilemmas’ which is the project I’ve been mentoring – the bastard child of Louis Theroux and Woody Allen. I walked back into town through the autumnal streets – it’s always spectacularly yellow against blue when I’m in town.

I made my pilgrimage to the site of the Great Synagogue, burned down on Kristallnacht in November 1938, the year my grand-parents got the fuck outta here and headed to Highbury. I spent time chatting remotely to Enfant Terrible No. 1 who has been to that place twice with me, chatting from the back row of the ghostly congregation. I wanted to link him to his great-grandparents.

I had a special experience there. I took a moment to say a couple of prayers, the couple of lines I knew. As I finished a small flock of sparrows (my favourite bird) landed on the brass chairs which make up the memorial. Exactly at the moment of finishing the key line from the memorial prayer. They stayed for just a few seconds then flew off again.

Leipzig had 11,000 Jews in 1933. It had 0 in 1945. 14,000 perished in and around the city.

From there I walked – via a cafe moment – to my grandparents apartment of 1938 in Promenadenstrasse (now Kathe Kollwitz Strasse) – it’s just a space now, formerly a car park, soon a new development.

And for the third point of my pilgrim’s triangle I took an imagined walk from their place on a Saturday afternoon three-quarters of a century ago to my grandfather’s favourite sister’s flat in Nordplatz. I stood on the threshold of No. 1 and reflected on his time there as a bachelor and the wider family he lost.

It feels good coming back here and reclaiming our stake in the place. And to reclaim my steak in the place I went for a traditional German meatfest in Auerbach Keller, closing the day’s circle from Craig’s Meat v Veg dilemma, and adding to Bach the Romantic figures of Goethe (who set the first written scene of Faust in that cellar) and Schiller as other resonant ghosts in this city.

city full of ghosts

city full of ghosts

Bach to the Fatherland

The boy is Bach in town

The boy is Bach in town

So I’m sitting here in the shadow of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig listening (unusually for me) to Johann Sebastian Bach, chapel/choirmaster of St Thomas’s, on Spotify, absurdly selecting ‘tracks’ according to number of listens (Partita in B-flat major 2,764,917). And I’m writing this post 5 years and 1 day after I wrote my first Back to the Fatherland on first coming to the city where my dad was born, accompanied by my sons/his grandsons.

Here is that first post about how I found my grandparents’ house, which is just a few streets from here, the other side of the site of the burnt-down synagogue:

Back to the Fatherland – first part

Back to the Fatherland – second part

I came back in 2010 thanks to Documentary Campus/Doc Leipzig, the annual documentary film festival held largely at the MDR building just out of the city centre, just a short walk from the hospital where my dad was born. That’s why I’m back for the fifth time.

Here’s an account of my third (2013) visit during my sabbatical from Channel 4:

Return to the Fatherland

Leipzigzaging

Last year I came with my older son who was making his first documentary (Scattergun – a life in four tattoos) as part of his A level in Applied Media. He was interested in listening in on the pitching sessions.

This year I’m solo again (like 2012 and 2013). I’ve been mentoring a documentary team making a film about renouncing vegetarianism. Last year I mentored a film about Super 8. This year I brought my own Kodak flipcam (off-spring of the Super 8) to make a little video of the trip.

I arrived in the autumnal late afternoon sun of Berlin Schoenefeld, got a taxi driven by a mad Turk to Sudkreuz (he miraculously got me there with 15 minutes to spare) and then the train to Leipzig Hauptbahnhof. I had dinner with a bunch of the Documentary Campus folk in an ex-vinegar (Essig) factory. So no bitterness there, just celebration of The Documentary among a group of old pals including Elizabeth MacIntyre of Discovery Networks International, who is just leaving Documentary Campus to head up Sheffield DocFest, and Lena Pasanen, formerly of YLE, Finland, who is taking over Elizabeth’s role. I walked back, surprised at how well I could navigate the city at night.

So here I am in the shadow of the Thomaskirche as its bells chime midnight. By now I’m listening to Jacques Loussier playing Bach – sacrilege perhaps but sometimes a man just needs jazz.

Get Bach to where you once belonged

Get Bach to where you once belonged

Stormtrooper: Goodbye to Berlin (Day 39)

Goodbye to Berlin Christopher Isherwood book cover

Started the day in Leipzig, boarding the train early at the Hauptbahnhof (the biggest in Europe, reminiscent of Grand Central, New York in its grandeur). Arrived at Berlin Hbf and taxied over to Tegel airport. The local placenames of Berlin are resonant from literature in particular (Moabit, Kopenick, etc.) The city looks good in its autumn colours but not as good as Leipzig where the colour of the brick and stone is light and complements the autumn palette. Meanwhile, back in Blighty a storm was coming…

My younger son sent me a text last night from the NFL 49ers game in Wembley – “don’t get on the plane it is too dangerous and u will probs die the wind could go as fast as 80 mph have fun hope u get back back safe love form (sic) all”

My flight was cancelled which gave me time to plough back through a key Ginsberg/Beat book which I read just before deciding to write this book, in fact it was part of the inspiration. It was interesting to revisit it with a particular focus on openness and generosity. A number of the people I met at Leipzig Networking Days/DOK Leipzig found the subject interesting and were keen to get a copy of the book when it appears which was encouraging.

Yesterday one young film-maker from Chicago/Berlin gave me a copy of his last documentary film which was on William Burroughs, who of course features in the opening scene of my book. [William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010) by Yony Leyser] I’ll have a watch as a reward some time this week. He is about to embark on a documentary about gay punk which features an interview with Laurie Anderson whom I’m thinking of pairing with Jeremy Deller in the Art chapter. That meant we were talking about Lou Reed at lunchtime, only to find out a couple of hours later that he had gone to the Great Gig in the sky on the very day. He had agreed to be interviewed for Yony’s film too. Echoes of my Carolyn Cassady set-back.

I was only ever a moderate admirer of Lou Reed. The Ginsberg chapter has a little diversion into that scene via its film-makers, in particular Barbara Rubin. Lou and the Velvets played live in front of her film Cocks and Cunts. The Velvet Underground & Nico speaks to me most but he is always a challenging listen. The work he did with Bowie, including in South London, was also ground-breaking and bold.

So I ploughed through the Beat book only to notice from my annotations that I had been reading it the very same day last year in Leipzig (near the St Elisabeth Krankenhaus). These kind of skeins of coincidence and connection seem to weave through creative enterprise. As I was reading Harry Thompson’s biog of Peter Cook whilst researching the Comedy chapter over the weekend I rewarded myself with a peak at the photo section in the middle of the book. As I came to a picture of him at his daughter’s wedding I spotted a woman I knew yonks ago (went to her for the occasional aromatherapy massage when my back was sore from child-lifting) – I had no idea she was one of those Cooks, hadn’t made the connection, though looking at the photo the resemblance is obvious, she is clearly a chip off the old block in looks at least.

Managed to get myself on a Lufthansa home so disruption minimal and a reasonable amount of reading and research got through.

Goodbye to Berlin Christopher Isherwood book cover

Goodbye to Berlin Christopher Isherwood book cover

Leipzigzaging (Day 38)

(c.1954)

(c.1954)

On something of a pilgrimage today. Read up about Peter Cook and The Establishment club in the square in front of where my grandfather lived when he came to livd in Leipzig as a young man in the home of his favourite sister and her husband. The smart apartment building gives on to Nordplatz, centred on an old church and made up of simple but attractive grassed gardens. I get a certain pleasure of continuity and return from standing on its stone threshold.

I am writing this post sitting in the gardens of the St. Elisabeth Krankenhaus in the Connewitz area in the south of the city, the hospital where my father was born in 1937, two years after it opened.

From Nordplatz I walked through the adjacent autumnal woods round the zoological gardens. I stopped for a bit to do my daily German revision with the Duolingo app (keeping in touch with my linguistic roots) then headed on to Kathe Kollwitz Strasse where my grandfather and his young bride moved in. Where their flat was has been blank ground for a long while (a car park with trees) but by the time I get back here it will have been built on, laying to rest the vestiges of their home here.

I read some more Cook book on the back chair of this resonant memorial which feels like the hub of my Leipzig.

Before I left for my trek I had reviewed my master document to get a feel for what progress I’ve been making on the book and had a pass at the nascent Theatre chapter which needs a number of interviews transferred into it. That’s looking like a laborious transcription task though I will see if it can be automated at all.

Once back at the hotel after a dinner out at Leipzig Media City, about two clicks from my father’s birthplace, I did some more online research about Jeremy Deller, making me even more reassured that he is a good subject for the Art part. In particular I was reading about his work Procession for the Manchester International Festival. I’ll think of my pilgrimage around the city as a fusion of that and Richard Long’s work with some spirit of Picasso in its triangularity since today is his birthday.

Return to the Fatherland (Day 37)

Emil and the detectives Erich Kastner book cover uk

I’ve just boarded a train at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof heading for Leipzig, the city in which my father was born. It’s a modern glass-doored version of one of those old-fashioned railway compartments. The only other occupant is a rotund German, balding, pot-bellied, bespectacled, avoiding eye contact, ignored my Guten Abend. So straight out of Emil and the Detectives (albeit travelling in the wrong direction) which is as it should be. Alles in Ordnung.

This will be my third time in Leipzig. The first time was a great adventure with my own gang of urchins which you can catch up on here and here [written 3 years ago to the very day]. And here’s a poem inspired by that trip.

What with the packing and generally getting my shit together, not that much accomplished book-wise before hitting the trail. My focus today has been on the Comedy chapter – sussing out whether Peter Cook is a potential candidate for the protagonist of the case study. I consulted comedian Gordon Kennedy of Absolutely Productions (with whom I once shared a train carriage to St Helens on a research trip) and he was uncommitted regarding Cook as he hadn’t really encountered him much. My friend author Doug Miller who is really good on the Ingrams/Cook/Private Eye circles felt there was real potential so I’m following his guidance and embarking on Harry Thompson’s quite fat biog of Cook. From memory he was Daisy Goodwin’s business partner who I’ve been working with recently on a TV project to do with Facebook. I liked his biography of Herge and this one seems an entertaining and informing read.

Apart from that I set up a meeting with entrepreneur James Laycock (mentioned yesterday) and a call with Mark Brown, writer on Creativity, with whom I made The Blue Movie in 1994, winner of the Grand Award at the New York International Film and TV Festival, a large chunk of silver I was holding when I first met Peter Fincham [story here], now one of the grand fromages of ITV, who is one of a panopoly of UK comedy movers&shakers interviewed by Thompson for the Cook book. (Thompson and Goodwin worked at Talkback before setting up on their own.) I’m meeting another one, an actress, next week to talk about Joan Littlewood. [I just noticed in that post which tells the New York award story that Allen Ginsberg was already entering my consciousness, six years ago –  how these things brew…]

I’m rather tickled with the idea of writing part of this book in my grandfather’s city, hence this trip now.

in memoriam Nat & Dora Gewurtz

in memoriam Nat & Dora Gewurtz

Leipzig Hauptbahnhof - the biggest station in Europe

Leipzig Hauptbahnhof (today) – the biggest station in Europe

Leipzigzag

I look down at my feet of red clay
The stone threshold is a vale
Worn by hundreds of residents
On thousands of journeys
Behind which lies the story of Nathan
And his married sister Else
In which seventy-two years later I stand
And cross my path with theirs.
What mathematics zigzagging
Across the great gentle curve
Along the angles of history
Brings their heirs to this square
Where I feel they were happy?

The code is broken
By a facsimile map
On the back shelf
Of a dusty museum shop

Promenadenstrasse
Blown to high heaven
By a home-grown bomb
Ironically Angle or Saxon
Or written out of existence
By Soviet canonisation
Comes into alignment
In the palimpsest of charts
Etched back into history
As Käthe Kollwitz

As the lines and angles align
Our trajectory bounces off the city museum
Across the top of the central square
Towards Nat and Dora’s quarter
I fire off a text to a vestige of their family
Dead loss
And shoot off a volley
To the other half in the other Old Country
Prompting tears

Then the rectangle is spotted

Simple concrete
With invisible walls
And bronze chairs
For the invisible congregation
It’s Saturday morning, about eleven
Just the right time
And Nat’s three off-spring zag off onto the rectangle
Sit in the cold back row
Where I wonder what strange geometry
Brings us back here
And what the old man and his sister make of this
I’m sure he’s pleased we got him back home

On Kristallnacht
They melted the angles
And Moorish curves and arches
In their chaotic flames
Then charged the Israelites
To demolish the remains

A hundred and forty haunted seats
Seventy-nine people per seat
Plus interest for 1933 to 1938
By the time the 69th arrived
The maths of dark bureaucracy
Calculated zero squared

We spun off to the first point of the triangle
Twenty-two twenty eighteen
Sixteen

A space

A car park
Emptiness
Covered by a blue cloudless sky
Tranquil leaves swaying

Two years on plus two days
I zig back into town
To complete some symmetry
And get these last lines down
In the fatherland
Land of my fathers
May the old language endure

Emptiness
A car park
A space
By the corner, the first corner
We piece together the crystal shards
Of our past
By reflection
As eighteen so sixteen
Then translated to Carmel Court NW11
And rotated to that opening scene
Of burgerlich Krakow apartments abandoned
In haste
What fearful symmetry

A sweep round the circular by-pass
Brings us to the stone threshold
Number one on the Northern square
Is point two

The address on the birth certificate
With its eagle and perverted cross
What fearful geometry converted that cross
From auspicious object
Turning right and rotated
Night on blood in emptiness
To helpless subject with broken limbs
Nailed to the intersection

Father don’t forgive them
They knew what they were doing
They typed it all out
Signed and sealed it with the eagle
They had staplers and ink pads
That’s how mundane they were

The address after all these years
Turned out not to be home but hospital
The red pin dropped
On the point of birth
The last point of the triangle
Where the sons of the son of the son
Played on the black posts
Rising and falling
Lifting the feet of red clay
In the triumph of fearless play

A vestigial homeland triangle
Superimposed on the triangle of father . son . son .
Is a star
Look up
Burning across time
And space
Ad infinitum…

 Leipzig, 27th October 2012

Back to the Fatherland 2

…so I headed down to the city museum – nothing from the 20th century covered, they pointed me to the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig (Forum of Contemporary History) – that covers from 1945 onwards focusing on the GDR. So by any standards a big gap in their city history, the 30s and 40s an official blank. But I had a break through. In the back of the museum shop I found a facsimile map of the city from 1938 – the year my grand-parents got the helloutta here and arrived in London. Promenadenstrasse wasn’t renamed after a Soviet leader but after an artist socialist by nature, Käthe Kollwitz, her inherent empathy for the less fortunate evident throughout her life’s work. As soon as I’d figured out how the old map mapped onto the new I headed over. The route took me from the old town hall past the famous Thomaskirche, last resting place of JS Bach, and then past the site of the Community Synagogue of Leipzig, burnt down on Kristallnacht in November 1938. They burnt the place down and then charged the Jews for the demolition costs. The lost 14,000 (not including never-to-be descendants) are commemorated by the empty chairs of the congregation in dull bronze set out on a flat blank concrete base. When I got to 16 Promenadenstrasse where my paternal grandparents lived from (I think) 1935 to 1938 that too was flat, blank, empty. A carpark, albeit a tranquil one shaded by trees and bathed in dappled autumnal light on my special visit. I can see from no. 14 the kind of building it probably was, a typically elegant Leipziger apartment in a tasteful neighbourhood. My grandfather was always a snappy dresser – like my youngest brother and my older son (that gene skipped me for better or worse) – so I can picture him easily in these streets.

The view from No. 1 Nordplatz

Next stop was Nordplatz, slightly further out from the centre, where he lived as a bachelor with his older sister’s family. No. 1 proved to be all present and correct, with a beautiful view over St. Michaelis church, a Gothicky affair built between 1901 and 1905, and the green beside it. Another smart apartment building where I stood on the threshold trodden by Nat Gewurtz (later Gee, 1938 was a good year for dumping German surnames) and his sister Else Wolf, peering in to the interior which has evidently been revamped in recent times. I was glad to see he’d enjoyed such a beautiful and calm home. From there to Promenadenstrasse – then next stop 5 Highbury Grove.

My next stop was the address on the Nazi birth certificate, 84 Biedermannstrasse, Sankt Elisabeth Krankenhaus, the Catholic hospital where my father was born. It was only a few blocks south of MDR (Mittel Deutsch Rundfunk), the main broadcaster in the region where I spoke yesterday on Crossmedia and Broadcaster Online Strategy to an audience primarily of factual film-makers which also included a State Minister of Saxony and the President of German/French broadcaster Arte. I spoke among other things about Surgery Live, which I reckon many of them thought had come from another planet. Seven Days was from another galaxy. From the feedback I received afterward it seems my passion for the possibilities of interactive, networked media and the boldness of our ambition at the very least landed home even if the out-thereness of Channel 4’s approach and the freedoms of British culture were somewhat alien to some of the Euros. I should have mentioned another of my projects which I also spoke about in my presentation, One Born Every Minute, because that would have given me an easier segue back to the maternity unit at Sankt Elisabeth Hospital. On arrival it was clear it has been recently refurbished so fear of disappearance returned. I found the maternity unit now in a clean modern block. A chat with the receptionist soon established that the original maternity block still stood and as I roamed the corridors of the art deco building I stumbled across the original foundation stone dated 1930. That meant when my father was born there it was an equally state of the art set-up. An irony of course was that he never got to see the place himself again after his blurry-eyed first days. He died a few years after the uprising that started in Leipzig and ended with the Fall of the Wall, never getting/taking the opportunity to come back.

I’ve enjoyed a couple of days with the presence of my grand-father and father around me. I see a tiny sticker on the wall of the hospital saying “I will wait for you” (in English). I spot a sparrow (my favourite bird, rather thin on the ground these days in England) hanging around. A warm autumn sunshine shines down from a perfect azure sky the whole weekend, contrary to the usually reliable information on my WeatherPro iPhone app, created by German-based MeteoGroup with a Teutonic regard for precision.

{2nd photo courtesy of Leipzigpost}

Back to the Fatherland

I’ve just arrived for the first time in Leipzig in Saxony in East Germany in Europe in the World in the Solar System (I remember doing those very long addresses looking up out of my bedroom window aged six or seven at 2A Selvage Lane, Mill Hill, London, England, UK, Europe, etc.) for Dok Leipzig, the 53rd of this documentary film festival making it (one of?) the oldest film fest(s) in Deutschland. I’m speaking tomorrow about multiplatform factual TV with some folk from Arte (one of the few Eurobroadcasters consistently exploring the space) and Finland’s YLE, as well as hooking up with various documentary-makers with eyes on the interactive and networked. There’s a few fellow Brits around like Andy Glynne of DFG and Mark Atkin of Documentary Campus. But that’s getting towards the point of my post. These memories of childhood, the home I shared with my father before The Big Split, reflections on Germany and especially Leipzig. Because in some ways I’m not a fellow Brit. My dad was born in this city. In 1937. His birth certificate says Biedermanstrasse 84 – thought that was his home, Google-mapped it last night, turned out to be the Catholic hospital where he was born. The certificate which I have at the back of my filing cabinet in a file called Odds & Sods has a little swastika on it. So I’m back in the Vaterland.

My plan – I’ve managed to track down the address where my grandparents lived until they hightailed it outta here in ’38. Got it from a cousin in Hamburg who was 13 at the time. Also got the address where my grandfather lived before he was married, with his older sister. The former doesn’t show up on Google maps – hoping the Commies changed the name to Leninstrasse or something, then it got changed back to a different name after the Fall of the Wall. Will investigate tomorrow at the city museum or find someone old enough to remember where Promenadenstrasse was. The latter I haven’t had a chance to check out yet online – I’m saving it up for later, delayed gratification of the old school.

So I’ll report back and continue later/tomorrow with how I’ve gotten on…

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