Remembering arriving in Berlin freezing and hungry

The first time I arrived in Berlin I was freezing cold and ravenously hungry. I thought back on that time as our bus tour took us past the glittering, new Hauptbanhof where I first arrived all those years ago.

It was December 1981, eight years before the Berlin Wall came down, signalling the beginning of German reunification. I’d come from Warsaw Gdansk Station on a train that had started in Moscow and was heading for Ostend. I’d been in Warsaw, my first time in an Eastern European country, gathering material for an article on alcohol policy in Poland. I remember a woman putting a pillow over the phone, prostitutes in the hotel ringing my room all night, the cold severity of Warsaw, and my long journey on a tram through the snow to what seemed the edge of the city to celebrate the life of John Lennon on the anniversary of his death in a flat high in a soulless block.

Martial law had just been imposed (or was about to be imposed, I can’t remember which), and people were trying to get out of the country, filling the planes. I couldn’t get on a flight and so had to take the train. I hoped to be able to get a sleeper, but when I got on the train the Russian guard of the only sleeper carriage demanded “Two hundred US dollars cash.” I didn’t have it and went to one of the Polish carriages. It was around lunchtime, but I had no food. Then I discovered that there was nowhere to buy food and drink. My romantic notions of travelling luxuriously across Europe came to nothing.

We were supposed to reach Berlin at six in the evening, but as we travelled across a flat, snow-covered, featureless landscape I realised that we were falling behind time. We eventually arrived in East Berlin at about midnight and were shunted into a siding. By now there were only two carriages: mine, and the Russian sleeper carriage. The heating in my carriage failed, perhaps because the heat was supplied by an engine we no longer had. It became colder and colder. I put on all the clothes I had, including my pyjamas. I wondered if I could get off the train, but it didn’t seem wise to leave a train in East Berlin in a siding. I paced up and down, beating my arms, doing all I could to keep warm.

Berlin Wall

At six in the morning an engine arrived and hauled us through to West Berlin.memory, almost certainly distorted, is that we passed from total darkness into a brightly lit neon city, West Berlin. When we arrived at the Hauptbanhof I leapt off to buy food and coffee, but I had no Deutschmarks –and the vendors wouldn’t accept any other currency or a card. What to do? I couldn’t face a food less journey to Ostend or, indeed, any more time without food.

I got off the train, walked out of the station and found a hotel. Still wearing all clothes, including my pyjamas, unshaven, and exhausted, I must have looked like a refugee; but when I waved my American Express card, as in an advertisement, they smiled and showed me through to the restaurant. I still remember that breakfast as the breakfast of my life. When I looked at a map I thought that I had spent the night just a few hundred yards from where I had breakfast.

PS. After breakfast I made my way to the airport and caught what turned out to be the last flight into Heathrow that day. We landed in a snowstorm in the early afternoon with snow banked up three feet high on either side of the runway.

Quotes from Les Misérables IV:This is the distinction: the doctor’s door must never be shut; the priest’s door must always be open

This is the distinction: the doctor’s door must never be shut; the priest’s door must always be open.

That especial feminine genius which understands a man better than he understands himself,

Whatever else may be said of it, the French Revolution was the greatest step forward by mankind since the coming of Christ. It was unfinished, I agree, but still it was sublime. It released the untapped springs of society; it softened hearts, appeased, tranquillized, enlightened, and set flowing through the world the tides of civilization. It was good. The French Revolution was the anointing of humanity.

The best minds have their blind spots

Quotes from Les Misérables III: ‘The beautiful is as useful as the useful.’

The wisest of comforters, he did not seek to banish sorrow in forgetfulness but to ennoble and dignify it with hope. ‘Take care how you view the dead,’ he said. ‘Do not think of that which rots. Look steadily and you will see the living light of your beloved in the bosom of Heaven.’

O Thou which art. Ecclesiastes names thee Almighty, the Maccabees name thee Creator, the Epistle to the Ephesians names thee Liberty, Baruch names thee Immensity, the Psalms name thee Wisdom and Truth, John names thee Light, the Book of Kings names thee Lord, Exodus names thee Providence, Leviticus Sanctity, Esdras Justice, creation names thee God, man names thee Father; but Solomon names thee Compassion, which is the most beautiful of all thy names.

‘Monseigneur, you believe in making use of everything, but this fourth plot is wasted. Salads are more useful than flowers.’ ‘You are wrong,’ replied the bishop. ‘The beautiful is as useful as the useful.’ Then, after a pause, he added: ‘More so, perhaps.’


How Socrates could have helped us avoid Brexit

“No wonder an Alciabades turns against a state that distrusts ability and reverences number more than knowledge. No wonder there is chaos where there is no thought, and the crowd decides in haste and ignorance, to repent at leisure and in desolation. Is it not a superstition that mere numbers will give wisdom? On the country is it not universally recognised that men in crowds are more foolish and more violent and more cruel than men separate and alone? Is it not shameful that men should be ruled by orators, who “go ringing on in long harangues, like brazen pots which, when struck, continue to sound until a hand is put upon them.”

Portrait Herm of

Has my mother been given “the gift of forgetting”?

This morning I read the line “The gift of forgetting” in a poem by Wisława Szymborska. Immediately I asked myself if it is a gift to forget and quickly–and somewhat counterintuitively– decided it was.

Something else that I’d read this morning in a book by a neurosurgeon supported the conclusion. Henry Marsh in his uncomfortably honest book First Do No Harm writes about his many failures, the failures that are an unavoidable part of neurosurgery as well as his many mistakes, and is grateful that he has forgotten most of them. He speculates that the greatest neurosurgeons may be the ones who are least disturbed by their failures and most able to forget them quickly.

And inevitably I think of my mother, who has spent 10 years without any short term memory and with her long term memory fading progressively. Is her forgetting a gift?

Then I think of a workshop I was doing in Bangalore last week. As so often, I was diverted into my near party piece of asking people how they wanted to die. There are four broad options: sudden death, organ failure, cancer, and the long slow death of dementia or frailty. As usual, everybody except one participant opted for sudden death. But the one exception was the person most familiar with death and dying: a palliative care physician who is also an anthropologist. He opted for dementia/frailty.

I must have asked this question to around 500 people by now. Nobody has ever opted for organ failure, and only one other person has opted for dementia/frailty. A few have opted for cancer, and I created a global storm by arguing that cancer, with its relative quickness and opportunity to say goodbye, was the best.

But I have begun to change. I visit my mother almost every week, and the hour and a bit we spend together is enjoyable. I’ve always been glad when I cycle away, but perhaps because I’m getting so used to the nursing home and its gallimaufry of inhabitants I’m beginning to come round to the idea that perhaps the long, slow death of dementia is not so bad. You slowly fade away, casting aside the worries of the world, abdicating gracefully all responsibilities, and forgetting who you are and even that you are going to die. When death finally comes calling his touch may be very light–no raging against the dying of the light.

All this thinking has had a practical effect. Like many doctors I have boasted that I will kill myself if I know I’m becoming demented, always doubting that I’d actually have the courage to do. Now I’m resigned to dementia if that is to be my fate. That’s progress.

Quotes from Les Misérables II:  The guillotine is the ultimate expression of Law, and its name is vengeance

A scaffold, when it is erected and prepared, has indeed a profoundly disturbing effect. We may remain more or less open-minded on the subject of the death penalty, indisposed to commit ourselves, so long as we have not seen a guillotine with our own eyes. But to do so is to be so shaken that we are obliged to take our stand for or against. Joseph de Maistre approved of the death penalty, Cesar de Beccaria abominated it. The guillotine is the ultimate expression of Law, and its name is vengeance; it is not neutral, nor does it allow us to remain neutral. He who sees it shudders in the most confounding dismay. All social questions achieve their finality around that blade. The scaffold is an image. It is not merely a framework, a machine, a lifeless mechanism of wood, iron, and rope. It is as though it were a being having its own dark purpose, as though the framework saw, the machine listened, the mechanism understood; as though that arrangement of wood and iron and rope expressed a will. In the hideous picture which its presence evokes it seems to be most terribly a part of what it does. It is the executioner’s accomplice; it consumes, devouring flesh and drinking blood. It is a kind of monster created by the judge and the craftsman; a spectre seeming to live an awful life born of the death it deals.

Quotes from Les Misérables I:  Death belongs only to God. What right have men to lay hands on a thing so unknown?’

“Les Misérables” was arguably the greatest novel of the 19th century. It had more consequences than any other and like Shakespeare’s plays has been transmuted into many different forms. It’s an epic read and full of wonderful quotes. I plan to share them

But first, here is how David Bellos sums up “Les Misérables” in his book “The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables,” which I have read and recommend you to read after (but not before) you have read Les Misérables

“The novel achieves the extraordinary feat of being at the same time an intricately realistic portrait of a specific place and time, a dramatic page-turner with masterful moments of theatrical suspense and surprise, an encyclopedia of facts and ideas and an easily understood demonstration of generous moral principles that we could do far worse than apply to our own lives.”

What is reported of men, whether it be true or false, may play as large a part in their lives, and above all in their destiny, as the things they do.

He had to accept the fate of every newcomer to a small town where there are plenty of tongues that gossip and few minds that think.

There is always more misery in the depths than compassion in the heights.

Death belongs only to God. What right have men to lay hands on a thing so unknown?’