Most of my Blogs have at least a passing affiliation with Blues music. This one won't - apart from, perhaps, sharing the fact that Blues music has often been political, sometimes subversively and sometimes totally overtly.
My wife and I have just returned from our first trip to Berlin. Over the years I've read lots about the city; John Le Carre and Len Deighton's novels often featured spy exchanges here as it formed the border between the West and the Eastern Bloc. It was also where David Bowie, my ultimate musical hero, recorded three albums: 'Low', 'Heroes' and 'Lodger'. The visit was to me to be something of a pilgrimage for that reason. For my wife it was the opportunity to visit one of the famed German Christmas markets as well as, for us both, the chance to discover a little of the city's history. What's detailed above was pretty much my knowledge of the city before my visit. Oh! I also recall driving home from London when I worked there in 1989, listening to Radio 4 as they gave us live coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I knew that this was history in the making but hadn't really grasped the intensity of the popular groundswell and the sheer guts and determination shown that day by the East Berliners. I am ashamed to admit that, although so much of Berlin's recent history has taken place in my lifetime, I'd never truly understood or felt the extreme way in which the East Berliners were subjugated by their oppressive and brutal regime.
I got to visit the building housing the Bowie studio and we drank some gluhwein at a Christmas market. But those much-anticipated events became the almost frivolous backdrop to our visit.
I am not a particularly political animal. My head has rarely been raised above the parapet over anything more important than mere office politics. But my brief visit to Berlin has moved me deeply and I feel compelled to write of it.
Berlin was a broken city by the end of the Second World War; allied bombs having ripped it apart. As peace descended, the Allies divided up the city with each claiming parts as their own. There were the American, British and French sectors representing the Western democracies and the Russian sector which transmuted into East Berlin. Historically, this style of division was nothing new following a conflict. We Brits are old hand at it: India/Pakistan, Israel/Palestine being just two examples of how dividing a nation of people for political purposes has never, ever worked successfully. Particularly unique in the case of Berlin was the fact that the whole city (including the Western parts) fell within the geographical confines of East Germany.
In August of 1961 - despite assurances a couple of months earlier that it could never happen - the East Germans built a wall dividing the city in two; East and West. This took place so suddenly that whole families, living just streets apart, were prevented from having any further contact. Residents of the East became virtual prisoners with no way of getting to the West unless they could escape the border guards, the dogs and the rifles. Any attempt to escape was a shooting offence. A death sentence.
Expressing an opinion which was regarded as negative to the regime led to people being hauled before the secret police and incarcerated. Or worse. It was an Orwellian nightmare and this is how it thrived. If you cannot freely express your views without fear of retribution then those views are silenced. No criticism of the state is possible and by this, the state becomes all-powerful. Add to this the immense disincentive of certain death if not toeing the party line and you have a controlled, suppressed population.
In Berlin, people risked everything to get to the West. Literally. Many tried. And many died.
I think all of our children should be taught about Berlin to give them some insight into how fortunate we are to live in a free society. For adults, I would recommend a visit and would suggest the following:
'The Gate', a hundred metres from the Brandenburg Gate gives 300 years of Berlin's history in 20 tear-jerking minutes and for me would be the starting point for any future tour. Next would be the 'Checkpoint Charlie Museum' which is a humbling yet fascinating experience. Then, most certainly, the 'Topography of Terror' which documents the rise of the Third Reich and the Nazis which might provide a cautionary note to those who object to racial harmony.
Sit for a moment and consider this. (Impossible though it is). Try to place yourself in the position of an East Berliner. What if your own town or city were divided so you could no longer travel freely to see a sister, a friend, a favoured shop or restaurant? Any attempt to do so would lead to your certain death or, at the least, imprisonment. How would it be if you could not express discontent with the progress or otherwise of Brexit? For those in the States, how would you feel if unable to criticise your President or President-elect? These are things we all take for granted in a free society. We can all offer our opinion. It is inconceivable that it should be otherwise.
But this freedom brings with it a solemn responsibility. To ensure that our future remains free, we must not single out parts of our society to deride or to treat differently. Dividing a nation, as history has so often proved, can lead to its downfall. We should have the same respect for the rights and views of people of all colours, creeds and political affiliation- we may not agree but we should offer them the opportunity to state their views. Marginalising any parts of society is a recipe for disaster and inhumanity. I find it alarming that the people who voted for Brexit are being labelled as racists by parts of the British media. My own conversations lead me to believe that most voted against remaining in the European Community because they feared the loss of sovereignty and the continued absorption of independent thought and national identity being sucked away by the expensive behemoth with its petty rules and regulations for every aspect of our lives. The 'Remoaners' (What a derisive and divisive term!) complain that they have not been advised what Brexit actually means. Well, let's face it: no-one truly knows. This is unprecedented in the whole of history so I imagine that there are politicians, diplomats and civil servants all over Europe scratching their heads and wondering "How the hell do we sort this out?" But it will, in time, become clear how the future will be and that future will be democratically arrived at.
I have to say this: I was moved to tears several times on my visit to Berlin but my overwhelming feeling on coming away was of awe at the sheer will of man to overcome oppression; the strength of humanity to overcome adversity. There are clear lessons here for us all if we value true democracy.
Anyway, that was my political rant. Visit Berlin if you get the chance. I'll certainly return there.
Now I'd like to finish with a message for all my listeners (and readers). A very schmaltzy opening script (reminiscent, perhaps, of a Swedish porn film "I'm your TV repair man. " "Ooh, come inside...") leads to a great song from David Bowie and Bing Crosby.
Wishing you all you would wish yourselves for the festive season and 2017.