Invisible Stranger


Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Wednesday, May 28, 2003
Goodbye to (West) Berlin
I'm leaving the rent-boys and their hairbrushes at home today (they're a little tired, bless them, and they so need their beauty sleep). However, I'm still sticking with Berlin.

(Now stop yawning – and yes, that does include you lot at the back. Sit up and pay attention: you might even learn something. Looking at my timetable, I see today's lesson is: History.)


When I lived in Berlin, the city, like Germany itself, was divided. The Berlin Wall, 166 kilometres of concrete, barbed wire and anti-personnel mines, ripped through the city's heart. Remarkably, it was something you got used to pretty quickly, and there's no denying the Wall, and West Berlin's enclosed status in the middle of communist East Germany, gave the city a vibrancy and edge. After I left West Berlin and moved to London, I'd return for visits, but never thought the Wall was anything less than permanent.

On Monday 6th November 1989, I was sitting in a Soho restaurant with an old friend. For once we weren't bitching about who was or wasn't bonking who. Instead, we were talking politics. Everyone was, that November. Over in East Germany, people were making use of relaxed border controls to reach the West via Hungary. The East German government seemed powerless, or unwilling, to stop them. Back in the USSR Gorby was staying well out of it. When I was questioned over our dinner table on the likelihood of the Wall ever coming down, I confidently predicted that it would. In about eighteen months' time.

Just three days later, on the night of Thursday 9th November, I arrived home and flicked on the news to see hundreds – no, thousands – of East Berliners pouring through the now-open checkpoints. All restrictions had unexpectedly been lifted only a couple of hours earlier. Given the right for the first time in many of their lives to go where they wanted, East Berliners were literally coming over to see how the other half lived.

After I'd dried the tears – as I said yesterday, this was the city that made me – the ticket was booked within minutes. If that bloody Wall, the Wall that had wrenched the heart out of the city I loved, was going to come tumbling down, then I was going to help knock down the f**ker as well.


A couple of days later, and after I'd dumped my bag, the only place to head was the Brandenburg Gate, once the focal point of united Berlin, entry to it now forbidden by the Wall itself and the Death Strip which had claimed over a hundred lives in its 28-year history.

On the Western side it had become a natural place of assembly. It was here that the international news media, caught on the hop by the East's sudden political volte-face, were still setting up their satellite dishes, and flying in their prize commentators to report on the opening of several East-West crossing-points the length of the Wall.

Most of the people gathered here couldn't have cared less about the media. An impromptu party of several thousand Westerners of all ages had sprung up beside the Wall. With the rock and punk and reggae and folk and opera blaring out from ghetto-blasters everywhere, it was hard to think - and practically impossible not to dance. And, serving as a counterpoint, was the constant tap-tap-tappety-tapping of the "wall-peckers", people chipping away with hammer and chisel for their own piece of Berlin Wall. The air was filled with marijuana smoke, and the popping of champagne corks: as far as we were concerned, it was the biggest party in the world.

Across from the Reichstag, the former German Parliament, armed East German border guards were standing on top of the Wall, glowering down at us, trying their best to look stern. They fooled no-one. We all waved up at them; a couple even offered them a joint. A few wolf-whistled. Some of the guards couldn't help but smile back. It was then you sort of knew things were changing for the better.

I walked south down to Potsdamer Platz, once Berlin's Piccadilly Circus, now a bleak No-Man's Land. This was one of the places where a checkpoint had been opened up, and, though some of the excitement of the past few days had gone, there was still a steady trickle of Easterners – or "Ossies" as they were known, not always affectionately – coming through to take a look at the West.

Waiting for them were three unofficial welcoming committees. This part of West Berlin fell under the jurisdiction of the Brits, so the squaddies were out in force, offering free packets of real coffee, and mammoth bars of chocolate. Fair enough: those two were rare commodities over on the wrong side of the Wall.

A second group handed each newcomer one single red rose. Big softie that I am, I thought that was a nice touch. The third group was the most popular of the three. They were giving out grubby little maps and flyers, pointing the newly-liberated Ossies in the direction of the nearest Burger King. Enough said. Slowly the party was starting to sour.

Back in the centre of town, the Ku-damm, West Berlin's main shopping street, was packed as I've never seen it before or since. A huge billboard, advertising a appropriately-named brand of cigarette, urged in bold red letters: "Try The West!" And yet most of the West had been barred shut. Store-owners had locked their shop doors, knowing the East Germans had come only to gawk at Western goods they couldn't afford, but might just be able to shop-lift.

(The only businesses which seemed to be open and making money were the sex-shops. Outside the one on the corner at Wittenbergplatz, past the smack-heads and the rent-boys, a queue stretched down one entire block in orderly German fashion.)


For those few days I was there, the whole town tumbled around in a daze. It wasn't quite out-and-out euphoria, more a delirious astonishment that this was actually happening. Certainly no-one was listening to the economic doom-sayers who were already asking who was going to come up with the deutschmarks to clean up after this particular party was over.

As I checked my bags in at the airport, I was pulled over by a fierce, hard-faced official, a Brunhilda of a woman, Hitler in skirts, who demanded to know what the black shadow in the X-ray of my backpack was. Nervously, I told her it was a piece of the Berlin Wall, chipped off by myself just round the corner from Checkpoint Charlie.

"Ach! Everyone is taking that home with them. Good riddance to it, that is all I say! You can have it all!"

And then her face broke into one of the loveliest smiles I have ever seen.