With the temperature up in the seventies, the cafes and bars along Aachener Strasse – a long broad road which runs through the lower half of central Cologne – were packed with customers. At one end of the street, not far from where the weekly flower market is held beside the church, there were tables set out on the pavement, and every seat was taken. Here and there, beneath the tables, panting in the heat, various urbane looking dogs were enjoying the shade.
It was the middle of July, a little under five years since I had made my first trip to Cologne and my first trip to Germany. Returning, I was due to stay for nearly two months. The cultural tourist, with ideas perhaps above his station and quite possibly beyond his means, had decided to become a temporary resident. Did this mean that my romance with the country and its culture had intensified with further acquaintance?
Or would it be, rather, that once I’d spent a few days adjusting to daily routine, and wondering at the many varieties of German milk, that it would suddenly seem very banal.
I wasn’t so sure.
I had arrived the day before, renting a small, virtually empty apartment from one of the city’s museums. And with the apartment, at least, it had been love at first sight. It was housed, as was the museum to which it belonged, in a Bauhaus designed building that had once been an outpost – the Amerika Hof – of the American mission during the 1950s to reintroduce Germans to the processes of democracy. Its design was sleek, sparse and linear. A big main room, with four square windows looking out across a low flight of steps, the pavement, cycle lane, four traffic lanes and two sets of tram lines.
On the far side I could see an Italian restaurant, somewhat blousy with outsized house plants, and then a side street where you could just make out a Turkish supermarket and a Thai café. Other than this, a small, cool bedroom, a bathroom and a broad hallway completed my kingdom. And yet somehow the impression was one of luxuriant space – it made you want to stretch out, or stride purposefully about, happy in the knowledge that one was living in an attractive and ergonomically efficient environment…
But hold on.
I had only been in the city about fifty minutes, and I was already thinking like a German. Or, rather, how I offensively imagined many Germans to think. And there was the rub.
In all my pondering on Germany, the whole thing – the castles, the nightclubs, the atonal music, the super cool Weimar haircuts that you saw on interns at the big private galleries…. It all seemed to come down to the German relationship with the intellect. If Germany was my America, as Brian Eno had informed me (when he materialised at the foot of my bed, like Marley’s ghost to my Scrooge) and was to be the country in which I located a version of epic romance, then the basis of this romance was a fusion of the physical and the philosophical. Blasts of icy Alpine air, laden with tiny particles of ice! The scent of pine needles! Blue skies over the cloud-wreathed triumphant peaks! Bare knees!
Accept that, and the rest made perfect sense.
I later tried out this theory on a German friend who had gone to live in New York. She was unimpressed. “The modern Germans,” she pronounced, through a mouthful of linguine primavera, “are either boring eco-liberals with anal fixation. Or…” and here she swallowed, “secret Nazis.”
This seemed harsh.
Back in Cologne, during the week before the summer holidays were due to begin, I strolled down Aachener Strasse and took a seat towards the back of a big modern café called Salon Schmitz. The concrete and exposed brick walls were covered with items of Pop Americana: here a red guitar; there an album sleeve. The furniture was all mid – twentieth century functional chic – department store dining tables from the 1950s, and low, vinyl backed and polyester cushioned sofas. So I might have been in Brighton or London’s Shoreditch or Manchester’s Northern Quarter?
Had the pasteurising forces of affordable glamour, retro chic and lifestyle consumerism conquered the pleasingly jagged edges of German individualism, with the ease and devastating tyranny that they had made the centres of most British cities appear more or less identical?
Just across the river in Dusseldorf, the great conceptual artist Josef Beuys had developed his deeply poetical and political ‘actions’ and happenings. A fighter pilot during World War Two, he had entered the art world as a mythic and mythical figure, proposing a kind of Green Party socialism in which strands of alienation, glamour and confrontation were effortlessly mingled, proposing the artist as part shaman, part poet and part street politician. What would he have made of this latest form of boutique bohemianism, in which nostalgia for earlier forms of pop modernity were the basis of a cosily non-conformist chic?
After all, this was a German who had managed to visit America without actually setting foot on American soil: he had had himself carried from the plane to a waiting ambulance, then carried to a room on an upper floor, where he sat wrapped in a blanket, with only a live and hungrily prowling coyote for company. Would he take one long look at his happily latte and quiche consuming descendants, and feel that he had lived in vain?
It was a thought to play with.
As I watched the pretty, haughty waitresses, gliding like swans from table to table, and probably far richer than you or I, it suddenly dawned on me that here was a place, apparently, where excess and ambient aggression were not – as they are in the UK – the norm.
Instead, here was a city of reasonably gentle pleasures and quiet hard work. Basically a bourgeois creed of moderation and apolitical conservatism that has all but disappeared from contemporary British society. Thinking about it, Beuys must have seemed completely bonkers to the majority of Germans – but that, when you got down to it, was the whole point: he recognized a need for extremism.
But now all that had changed.
Back in the 1980s, I knew, Cologne had been the second city of the international art world – rivalled only by New York. In those days, there had been a thriving and hotly debated art scene, funded by international collectors, backed by major museums, and discussed in locally produced magazines by a new generation of intellectual students of critical theory. This had all passed away. What were left was a handful of distinguished private galleries, and the famous Museum Ludwig – which I intended to visit the following day.
For myself, I liked the slightly obvious comfort and populist good taste of Salon Schmitz – but I was soon to meet younger people from Cologne to whom the whole place represented a cultural conformity in which they refused to participate.
In just over twenty four hours, I would discover that the old sects of radical intellectualism which had once held sway in Cologne had not, in fact, disappeared – but simply disappeared underground – their number heavily diminished. Starved of cash and starved of institutional recognition, they were maintaining a steady if covert course between punkish iconoclasm, post Marxist theory, and elevated aestheticism.
Only in Cologne could you be taken to a tea room of exquisite gentility, where elderly ladies with dachshunds ate bright pink cakes of Baroque complexity, and be told – persuasively – that Tin Tin was the true figurehead for a new understanding of Modernism. Or that the best album to be released in 1977 was by The Grateful Dead, and so unfashionable that nobody even knew what it was called.
What all of this came down, it seemed to me, was a continuation of German romanticism: the desire to find occasions of transcendence, from the heights of which one might observe the peaks and valleys of the human condition… How this might be achieved with an obscure LP by The Grateful Dead remained a mystery, but what an interesting philosophical challenge, to be contemplated under the influence of café American and fluorescent fondant fancies. With that espousal of reactionary tastes that is the advanced tactic of all determined aesthetes, it seemed that Cologne’s intellectual in-crowd took their coffee and cakes in splendid isolation, in a genuinely mid twentieth century café – rather than at its funky descendant down the road.
And it would always prove amusing and instructive to listen to an earnest semi-circle of intense young men discuss the nature of cultural twilight by way of Eighties pop and disco music.
It made me feel like Stephen Spender, fallen to Earth at a hot party in Hamburg, in 1929.
One might easily slip into this way of life – benefitting, of course, from the traditional sense of freedom and novelty which travellers feel when they settle abroad. I had seen so little of Germany, and of German life.
What I had discovered, however, beneath the whims of my own enthusiasms and prejudices, was that modern Germany was comprised of many layers of thought and feeling, and many contradictions. But isn’t everywhere? What appealed to me about the country, beneath the romance of my dream Germany, was a strange but strangely harmonious patterning of qualities.
For example: my sister had lived for a while in Wiesbaden, and had warned me that some Germans become uneasy around spontaneity. “It freaks them out”, she said – with a concision refreshing in a woman whose interest in anthropology is matched only by her interest in theology. I discovered the truth of her words when I rang a German couple I knew, one Saturday morning, and suggested we meet that evening for an easy Italian meal somewhere – a pizza, anything… Within half an hour, a formal dinner party had been arranged, with two other guests, candles on the dining room table and people wearing their nicest casual clothes. Here, the term ‘leisure wear’ means just that. I suddenly remembered how another German had informed me that girls like to wear pretty dresses to go dancing.
And then there was that aspect, somehow summed up for me by the sight of a neat, communal tennis court, in the middle of nowhere, but still floodlit – which I saw from the back of a taxi when I was being taken to Cologne airport early one morning.
My sister had told me how her German neighbours were very puzzled, to the point of suspicious, when they could not place a person socially and professionally. If you were not a businessman, for instance, or a teacher, or a stay-at-home mother – then what exactly were you?
And how, for instance, should you be addressed at a local sporting function? For my sister, as a parenting academic who worked at home but had connections to the Church, it was hard work trying to define her identity.
I was surprised by, but secretly find comfort in this kind of conformity and formality. There is a gentle quality to it, and a fundamental courtesy which can be seen as both the practice of mutual respect, and the basis of an old fashioned liberal humanism. I particularly like its tracery across artistic circles, where the desire to embrace non-conformism collides with endemic conservatism.
One might remember E.M. Forster’s great Anglo-German novel, ‘Howard’s End’, in which the distinction is made – advanced for the time – between the quiet, philosophical, ‘good’ Germans and ‘Germans of the beastly kind’.
The latter presumably meant those Germans believed to be brutal in their dealings with others – and in particular non-Germans. In all my travels, I never came across one like that. But then again, I wouldn’t, would I?
[Fünfter und letzter Teil der BBC-Serie »Germany Dreaming« von Michael Bracewell. Der erste Teil ging weitgehend in den Essay »Germany Is Your America« von Bracewell ein, den wir unter dem Titel »Deutschland ist dein Amerika« in Heft 4 von »Pop. Kultur und Kritik« in deutscher Übersetzung abgedruckt haben.]
Michael Bracewell ist Schriftsteller und Kunstkritiker. Buchveröffentlichung u.a.: »Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music«.