Trees increasingly denuded, the mulch on the path starting to settle, I find myself stumbling into the final third of November. Since my impromptu excursion to Manchester at the end of October, Hamburg’s schools have gone back, but of course, academic business could not fully be resumed without commemorating 500 years of Reformation in unique style.
Martin Luther Day began with an assembly of all the pupils in the hall, where the appearance of a special guest was announced. After a rather dry introductory film, one of the teachers walked out on stage dressed as the man himself in earnest monk’s robes. He paused dramatically and unfurled an authentically yellowed scroll. This document carried the pope’s lengthy response to the 95 Theses, which announces Luther’s excommunication. It was read out in full. Faux-Luther then took the parchment and held its corner to an atmospherically flickering candle stage left. Lifting the letter, now alight, he placed the pontificate’s denunciation in a glass (presumably to some degree heatproof) bowl, where it was left to burn as he vacated the stage to rapturous applause.
So, an odd, but interesting beginning to my second term at Immanuel Kant Gymnasium. I hasten to add that the day was not uncritically swallowed wholesale by the whole school. Many questioned the suspension of the normal timetable for a not uncontroversial religious leader who many saw as irrelevant due to their atheism/agnosticism/membership of other religions.
Regarding my school life, it seems again that I’m not entirely avoiding Britain on this ‘Year Abroad’ – next week I’m off to London as part of my participation in the UK-German Connection programme. Although I’m not sure of all the details yet, what it will basically involve is a parallel project that I create with a German language assistant working in a UK school. Currently I would like the project to address questions of regional, national and European identity as explored through literature. I am aware that this is probably definitely too ambitious, but I’m of the school who think it’s better to overreach and fail to fulfil all your objectives rather than be overly modest and achieve mediocrity.
In preparation for this trip, and inspired, partly by the German literature class I help in’s working on Theodor Fontane’s poetry, I’m reading Ein Sommer in London. I went in expecting a sort of sentimental sycophantic praise common of contemporary travel writing (this blog not excluded!), but I was refreshingly surprised to find this was not to be found. It’s humorous and keenly sceptical of British culture, even if the author clearly remains in the ‘Anglophile’ camp.
The top-grade English class are also reading about the capital, but in this instance of Airstrip One under Ingsoc. Here, the landmarks are somewhat different though. The pupils give pertinent responses, without the benefit of context, to the three slogans of the Party. Just war is given thorough scrutiny, detailed references to the German constitution’s obligations for citizens in a proudly post-dictatorship country are made and the benefits of wilful oblivion are measured in relation to Eastern Europe’s response to the refugee crisis.
Since I last wrote I’ve had the chance to go to a couple of Hamburg gigs, and one even further afield (Berlin). The Mojo is a fantastic venue; just about the perfect size and shape to support dazzling light shows and bone-resonating bass while still retaining a closeness and sense of collective experience. I saw synth-pop folktronica duo, Sylvan Esso there to Kick, Jump and Twist things off with intricate, syncopated electronics and crystalline vocals. The following week I caught Canadian hip-hop/jazz/electronica quartet BadBadNotGood in the same club, whose set was masterful and virtuosic without being alienating – keeping its human soul with tight funky grooves as a vital underscore to mind-blowing solos.
I went ridiculous lengths and suffered sleep deprivation to go and see Mac Demarco at Berlin’s Astra (incidentally Hamburg’s famous beer) Club. Was it worth it? Absolutely. It’s impossible not to love him. Even though a sizable chunk of his set was comprised of extended jams and faffing around, he still played all the songs you wanted to hear and the spontaneous nature of all the tomfoolery made it easy to forgive everything. The crowd was certainly on side. Occasionally literally, with topless audience members of both genders making successful stage invasions.
My latest gig was Girl Ray at Hafenklang, whose melodic basslines I adore, supported by the charming and articulate guitarist Fake Laugh. Tomorrow I’m seeing Public Service Broadcasting at Knust, who you’ve probably heard of if you follow this blog at all. Their use of the spoken word as opposed to sung vocals leads nicely into an experience of a different kind this past week.
Poetry slam is big in Germany. I can now tell you that first hand. On Thursday I attended a Städebattle between the rival cities of Hamburg and Leipzig. There were many reasons for me to want to go, not least that I’m due to study in the former in the spring of next year, but also because the event description made explicit reference to Plattdeutsch and Sächsisch, dialects I’m interested in as crucial facets of regional identity. Unfortunately, there were few direct instances of these languages during the ceremonious competition, nonetheless it was highly entertaining.
The evening began unusually, with the charismatic compere asking audience members’ Abi (Abitur – the exam Germans take at 16-19 [the age of examination is a subject of fierce debate and varies in different Bundesländer] which determines job prospects, university entry and it seems, crucially, status) scores in order to gauge whether they were fit to be judges of the performed poetry. This was bizarre, but also somehow typically German. At the end of it all, Leipzig, where Goethe went to uni after all, had a higher score by the judges reckoning, but Hamburg won the popular clamp-o-meter vote – unsurprisingly, in home territory. This I felt was justified as Leipzig were the better team, although Hamburg had some outstanding individuals.
To bring you right up to date, yesterday, in an attempt to see a bit more of this country, authentically this time and not just through going to English-speaking international acts, I visited the free Hanseatic city of Bremen – Germany’s smallest Bundesland and about an hour and a half by bus. The weather was quite poor, but I managed to spend an overcast late morning wandering through the Bürgerpark before the deluge began and I retreated to the shelter of a café for lunch. I explored the interior of St Petri’s Dom before venturing out to reach the Kunsthalle, which occupied the rest of my afternoon with its exhibition of modernist Max Beckmann, a show taking a critical look at Bremen’s colonial involvement and an impressive collection of fin de siècle and 1960s pieces. Just managing to snap a silhouette of the town’s iconic windmill blades before sunset, I boarded a slightly delayed Flixbus home.
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