Day Off Hamburg



More sausage with that, Sir?



As soon as I hit Hamburg I feel a little more comfortable, I don’t know why. In Berlin I had spent a whole day traipsing with headphones bolted to my head. The only music that suited the city was the astringent tension of some Beethoven string quartets. It seemed to draw out the latent angst. Reggae was ridiculous; the lowering cloud cover and the flat shadowless spread of Berlin demanded something overcast. Those bleak modernist Lou Reed and David Bowie records were recorded there for a reason. There’s still a wall around the town somehow and it’s oppressive. The lack of a nearby coast perhaps, its proximity to the endless expanses of the east.

The people at the Hamburg show are very sweet and I enjoy myself – not always a great sign. The venue is housed deep inside a “flak tower”, an above ground six-storey anti-aircraft bomb-proof building built by Hitler to defend German cities in WWII. The walls are impenetrably thick and the whole structure is enormous, forbidding and slightly sad. I’m relieved to escape its concrete clutches.

The next day I take a walk around the spiffing new harbour development and board a 1933 icebreaker steamer called Stetlin after its Polish city of manufacture. A genial old man, short and solid, gives me the run-down on the ship’s history and his club’s efforts to maintain its seaworthiness. There are six furnaces feeding two boilers running one giant propellor, he tells me in quaint, functional English. The engine room is a beautiful nest of oily rags, rivets and crazy piping. Humphrey Bogart’s African Queen comes to mind. The smells are redolent of a black & white world, populated by men mostly now dead. She’s a lovely boat and I donate a few Euros to her little fund. Someone has made a life out of her preservation.

On the way back to the hotel I come across St. Nikolai memorial, a bombed out Gothic revival church with its surviving vertiginous spire that was in the nineteenth century the tallest building in the world. There is a fast modern elevator that takes me seventy-five meters aloft to a viewing deck. From there you can survey the resurgent Hamburg and compare it to the ruined city of the forties in the photo displays around the interior walls. The scandal of modern warfare is laid out before you like a disinterred murder weapon.

There is an anti-deportation protest going on on the main drag. Young activists chorus chants supporting immigrants’ right to remain. A few drape themselves over a slogan bedecked sofa and attempt to block what is essentially a pedestrian precinct. They are quickly surrounded by photographers. Little superbly organised squads of riot police caterpillar within their ranks and prevent them from massing. It’s all very civilised but God help you if you step out of line. The previous day I had passed a small band of tidy women demonstrating to highlight the current plight of Christians in Iraq. Their song was more shrill. I think to myself, at least the middle-class kids are acting in the interests of a group outside of their own immediate clan. Their message that the human race is one tribe strikes me as indisputable.

I take a break from the city for an hour in my lavishly appointed Hyatt luxury cell. The vastly overrated Scott Walker sings me into a ten minute sleep. Dinner is taken at a nearby trattoria before a final walk around this wonderful, emptying city. Great inlet and outlet Hamburg, swarming with culture and commerce, town of copper roofs, canals and a hundred bridges, avenues of cranes, launch platform for the brilliant Beatles, well of sin, gateway to the German interior and escape route to the New World. An enchanting acquaintance.