Berlin, Bowie, Creativity, History

This week I spent a couple of days in Berlin, partly there to kick off a year long training programme with a hand picked group of rising PR rock stars from across our EMEA network, our Future Leaders Academy.

I made the point that starting this year-long journey through creative and digital leadership, innovation etc in Berlin was not an accident of logistics. Here we were at a crucial point of positive change in their careers, our firm, and the PR and wider media and marketing industries. So the backdrop of Europe’s most culturally and creatively relevant city was apt.

I love Berlin. If I could live anywhere outside the UK, and certainly if I was younger and freer of responsibility, it would be Berlin.

I guess I fell in love with it from afar in the 1970s when Bowie moved there and Lou Reed recorded an album dedicated to the city. Bowie’s “Heroes”was the soundtrack to that unrequited love affair of my mid teens.

Even further back, with Cold War spy thrillers like Michael Caine’s ” Funeral in Berlin”,  and the nuclear paranoias of the blockade, the city held a twin fascination for me. Dark romance and annihilation dread.

Then there was “Cabaret”, my first X rated movie and still my favourite piece of musical theatre. Whatever your sexual orientation in the 1970s, Lisa Minnelli in heavy mascara, bowler hat, stockings and suspenders, and a jump suited David Bowie with his arm draped round Mick Ronson’s shoulders on TOTP, were the twin images burned into your over stimulated brain. 

My first visit was a couple of years after the Wall came down. Actually a lot of it still remained and the deep tissue scars of its partial removal were plainly evident in their pain and ugliness. I bought a rabbit fur hat of an East German soldier selling off his kit at the Brandenburg Gate. He offered me his Kalashnikov. I passed.

During a break in my day yesterday I walked for an hour and a half across the city, from east to west in the warm spring sunshine, on a pilgrimage to find the house Bowie shared with Iggy Pop in during his Berlin exile. The stay that produced the trio of creative projects “Low”, “Heroes” and  (less significant in my view) “The Lodger”.

I crossed Potsdamer Platz, referred to in the opening lines of “Where are we now”, the haunting and nostalgic highlight of Bowie’s latest album, now a rather bog standard modern European glass and steel urban development. Down into the Turkish quarter whose citizens Bowie empathised with on several songs. There, amongst the Turkish cafes  and next to a tattoo parlour,  was 155 Haupstrasse. Not much to see but I photographed it anyway. Evidence.

Why was this important to me?

Why at Christmas was it important to me to drag my thirteen year old son around streets and graveyards in Drogheda, Ireland, where my family hailed from and which I hadn’t visited for decades. Photographing doorways, streets, gravestones.

Evidence. Artefacts.  History.

In another life, assuming I was reincarnated with the patience I lack in this one, I would want to be an archeologist/historian.

From my fascination with Bowie’s brief time here (itself a reflection of the post sixties musical world of creative, cultural and sexual experimentation), the significance- laden names (Zoo, Neukolln, Potsdamer Platz, etc), the pre-war artistic and sexual “Cabaret” culture,  the wartime and post war fate of the city, the terrible nerve centre of Naziism, the anti-freedom symbolism of the Wall, liberation, reunification, healing,  to the current raging creativity and artistic expression. The  city is a multi-layered cultural and historical swirl, all that is great and awful  about Europe’s contemporary artistic and political history. The essential backdrop for this boy growing up in the Brave New World.

Berlin. Europe’s dark heart and brightest light rolled into one. A rare city whose future is as big as its past.

My admiration for Maggie – by former Labour spinner shock horror

Having spent hours watching coverage of Mrs Thatcher’s death yesterday, reading everything from sycophancy to cruel abuse on Twitter, and the acres of analysis in today’s press,  I was reluctant to put two fingers to iPad keyboard but here goes.

I never met Mrs T. However I own a signed copy of her collection of speeches and I did actually work for the Labour Opposition (press officer on 1987 election campaign – the one Campaign magazine commented on that Labour won the campaign but lost the election – and then Chief Press Officer) during her time in power.

In fact I joined the Labour Party in response to her 1979 election win.

So I got political with her coming to power as backdrop – though in truth it was racism and opposition to the NF that got me into politics.

But I never despised her, which was the popular Left idiom of the time (and judging by the outpouring on Twitter yesterday, still is). No. I admired her. I wanted Labour to have its own version. I even worked with him in the early days. Tony Blair.

Unlike a lot of the middle class lefties poking fun at Mrs T on Twitter yesterday, I grew up in Salford in the seventies. The backdrop was the decline and fall of the docks and Trafford Park industrial estate. My Dad was an Irish Republican and Trade unionist Labour supporter. But the decline of our city and his employment prospects were nothing to do with Mrs T, who was years away from power. He and many of his working class friends blamed the Labour government and the unions. Labour had become out of touch with them and their lives.

So he became one of the people who brought her to power. Working class, ex Labour voters, turned off by Labour’s inward focus and union paymasters, not natural Tories but rallied by Thatcher’s personal appeal and articulation of their ambition.  We argued like cat and dog, but with hindsight just a few years later, I understood.

Cut to the early 1980s. I am a Labour activist in trendy, leafy Putney. Part of Wandsworth, one of the testing grounds for the “right to buy” council house policy. I am accused of political heresy for saying the policy is popular with disenchanted Labour voters we should support it with reservations. Largely by middle class Labour Party members who owned their own Victorian semis.

Then I went to work for Labour. I helped design and fight  campaigns against the Thatcher Government. I thought most of her senior people were tossers. But apparently so did she. But I never despised her. I wanted a Thatcher of my own.

I remember the day she announced her resignation. Labour HQ was cock a hoop. They thought her passing meant a watered down and beatable version of her as replacement. They were wrong.

Cut to 1993. I am working with a business led charity, part  of The Prince’s Trusts, promoting sustainable capitalism in places like Central Europe only a few years after the Wall came down. In most budding entrepreneurs’ offices I see a common feature. A picture of them with Mrs Thatcher in pride of place.

Mrs Thatcher was the most divisive figure of her time in the UK. She was wrong on many issues, most notably The Poll Tax and her destruction of the mining industry and many communities in an almost personal political war with Scargill. The Falklands War remains a divisive issue decades later. She was wrong on Europe.

But reading the comments yesterday, often from people who were in nappies in the 1970s, you would think that Britain’s problems began with Thatcher. They didn’t. Britain under Labour and Tory governments in the ’70s was a mess. The unions were out of control.  Working class politics had not caught up with post-war working class aspiration. Unpalatable truth or not, Thatcher was the harsh, kill or cure medicine to the sickly British body politic.

Tony Blair is the first to accept that without some of the changes Thatcher made, New Labour would not have been the successful force it was for a time.

 (Footnote to my personal story,; much missed Dad returned to being a Labour supporter after Tony Blair became leader.)

For me, Mrs Thatcher – for right or wrong – is the most significant British woman leader, along with Elizabeth 1st, ever. Indeed they shared some positive and negative traits. And both were woman trying to run things in a man’s world, taking men on and usually beating them at their own game.