The Forecast Called for Rain

By Rob Packer

And this is probably the cloud to do it.

A Clash of Influences: Leipzig’s Völkerschlachtdenkmal

By Rob Packer

It doesn’t happen very often—or indeed, ever—that you go somewhere and think “Wow, this place is exactly how I’d mix Ancient Egypt, Star Wars, Tolkien and Heinrich Heine!” The Völkerschlachtdenkmal, the memorial to the 1813 Battle of Leipzig, in a suburban park is just that kind of place.

My knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars has always been a bit patchy: history-teaching in British schools leaves centuries-wide chasms in historical knowledge (1688 to 1914 is just the most scandalous gap) and my university studies of German history started around 1815. It’s only par for the course to find things out that I really should have known; and unless we’re talking about something in War and Peace, Childe Harold or Goya—or the odd reference to Nelson or Wellington—there’s a high chance of it. The Battle of Leipzig (no Tolstoy, no Byron, no Goya, no British) is just one of those.

The battle involved 600,000 soldiers, of whom at least 80,000 died, which makes it (thanks Wikipedia) the largest European battle prior to the First World War. This more than lives up to its standard name in German, the apocalyptic-sounding Völkerschlacht—the unnuanced English translation is the Battle of the Nations.

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No Entry

In response to this Picturing England blog, here’s the same (or almost the same) No Entry Stickman in Milan:

I’ll leave who it’s by to experts like Ali to wonder who it’s by—I could probably tweet my entire street art knowledge.

Spring in Germany

By Rob Packer

A chestnut candle.

The rhythm of the seasons is different everywhere and more used to more gradual changes in seasons, the continental shifts in Germany seemed shockingly drastic. After an Easter weekend spent in Munich, I remember my first day of cycling to work, turning left into a Schöneberg backstreet and stopping my bike. I’d taken a wrong turning. But had I? Where? I retraced the route in my mind: it seemed right. But the road looked nothing like what was here last week. The light was different: greener, viscous, darker. But no; the five-storey houses and the parked cars were the same. I carried on cycling and then realized. Spring had come to Berlin like an unexpected wave sprays you on the beach, and as suddenly as the electric storms that would clash without warning over the city in the summer to come.

Nearly ten years later, I stepped off a plane in Leipzig into an evening that smelled of honey. There might have been a whiff of kerosene in the bouquet, but suddenly time had concertinaed upon me. In two hours, I’d travelled forward in seasons from a blustery London airport to a balmy Leipzig spring; but also back in time to that post-Easter morning in Berlin and also back 17 years to my first—and only other—time in Leipzig. My timing was perfect to meet the seasons.

I’ll write more about Leipzig and Berlin soon, but here are some photos that I hope will convince you that Germany and spring really do go together—and not just in a song from The Producers.

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By Rob Packer

Just across Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz from the Volksbühne is Kino Babylon. They win points with silent films and their CinemAperitivo season: a Sunday afternoon Italian film followed by a traditional Italian aperitif.

The Volksbühne

By Rob Packer

The Volksbühne

„Wir freuen uns auf Ihren Besuch und wünschen Ihnen einen anregenden Abend“
Email sign-off, Volksbühne Berlin

If you could timetravel, where would you go? I saw this question on the train to the airport (on Mediaeval Musing’s excellent blog). My answers were definitive and immediate: Justinian’s Constantinople, pre-Conquest Tenochtitlán, Weimar Berlin. On a tram in Leipzig the next day, I heard the excellent BBC documentary, “Europe: The Art of Austerity”*, on artistic responses to 1930’s austerity in London, Paris and Berlin, where it looked at Brecht, Döblin and others (listen online or on podcast). A few days after that on a Prenzlauer Berg terrace, I clapped open Zitty, the Berlin listings magazine, and saw two Brecht Lehrstücke on the next day at the Volksbühne. If that isn’t a sign, what is? Tickets were booked within hours. And when I read the email sign-off, wishing me a stimulating (anregend) evening—rather than the normal pleasant (angenehm) one—I knew they were telling the truth.

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This Morning

By Rob Packer

I’ve been out of the country and on something of a blogging holiday recently (for various reasons; blogs on some coming soon). Walking into the kitchen this morning and seeing the newly leaved trees at the end of the garden glowing green in the morning sunlight, I grabbed my camera and ran out before the light changed.

Here are the results:

And this one yesterday evening:

Berlin mon amour

By Rob Packer

I will shortly be in Berlin, the best city I’ve ever lived. The hardest part of the packing is never the clothes: it’s the reading material: not too heavy, not too light, room for impulse buys. I go to the bookshelf, blow the dust off an unread weighty tome, feel it in my hand, flick the pages, pick another, compare them, put them both back, get a different one out, put that back and then, and then decide.

Maybe re-read Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (my favourite novel of the 20th century alongside The Trial and 100 Years of Solitude)? Maybe Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina? Maybe something by Thomas Bernhard? But no, none of these made the end cut.

My selections are:

  • Orlando by Virgina Woolf: I was reading it already and Orlando’s not even switched genders yet.
  • Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin: It’s reputation precedes it and it’s sometimes compared with Ulysses (i.e. not holiday reading), but I’ve wanted to read it since I lived in Berlin (nearly ten years ago, folks) and difficulty aside, there is, quite frankly, no way I’d ever get around to reading this in Brazil.

Of course, there’s a half-decent chance that Berlin Alexanderplatz will come back unread and that I’ll have been waylaid by other goodies from German bookshops.


By Rob Packer

Seriously! Wasn’t putting on some wellies and splashing about in puddles the best about being a kid?

Well, maybe one of the best, being carried up steep hills was pretty damn awesome too.


Rain by Don Paterson

By Rob Packer

At first glance it seems the perfect opening metaphor: a poem about two trees lashed together, their branches intertwining over time and eventual separation so that:

each strained on its shackled root to face
the other’s empty, intricate embrace.

But Don Paterson’s 2009 collection, Rain (his latest), also begins by prohibiting interpretation and the poem concludes:

They were trees, and trees don’t weep or ache or shout.
And trees are all this poem is about.

Don Paterson’s Rain

Over-interpretation is something all poetry readers dabble in every now and again—sometimes it really is irresistible—but in an extreme and simple example, I heard Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, say in this podcast that his mother is often interpreted as Palestine: he really is writing about his mother. For good measure, Paterson closes the collection with “and none of this, none of this matters”.

Ultimately this means you can concentrate on Paterson’s fantastic use of language that often rumbles along unobtrusively in subtly rhymed and effortless metre and end up leading you into a trap. Domesticity often hides something dark or unnerving, referenced obliquely and unexplained: a child tied up like some Frankenstein creation or a son’s hand that shakes because “one inch from home, we couldn’t get the air to him”. Paterson’s genius lies in the way he makes the unsaid say more than the said and he does this best in the opening to ‘The Story of the Blue Flower’:

My boy was miles away, yes, I admit it,
but the place was empty, my lines of sight were good
and besides, such things were unknown in this town –

Even without any details, these is a hidden menace below the surface: which “lines of sight”? Maybe he has a gun? And what things are “unknown in this town”? We assume the worst, but still aren’t sure. This menace reminded me of the Spanish theatre genre* of the esperpento, Valle-Inclán’s theatre of the grotesque, where language is colloquial and reality is deformed by the grotesque.

Rain is fascinating for its effortlessness, simplicity and often-grotesque imagery, but also for its varied poetic forms and influences that come from far and wide. There is a sequence of adaptations of poets like Li Po, Antonio Machado or Robert Desnos and a fantastic poetic description of Zurbarán’s masterpiece of dark and shadow, St Francis in Meditation (a personal National Gallery favourite). There is the strangely wonderful ‘Song for Natalia “Tusja” Beridze’, a poem about a musical internet obsession with a Georgian electronic musician, where I just enjoyed finding out just what Paterson is going to use as a rhyme (struggling/Googling, virusy/piracy and maxxing/taxing are particular gems). But some of the most entertaining verse comes in a 35-poem renku sequence**, where some made me laugh out loud and others are simple at first glance but incredibly deep: it’s impossible to choose favourites, but here’s one of the most bizarre ones:

Aha! The zip
for that idiot-suit.
And inside? Zip!

Don Paterson, Rain, Faber & Faber 2009

* Admittedly not one I know well, though.

** If you think of renku as a sequence of haikus, you get the right kind of idea.

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