A Letter From Berlin

Clive James, the poet, raconteur and wit,
A man whose light no bushel could conceal,
(A fact I’m sure he’d cheerfully admit
Between prolonged quotations from O’Neill)
Wrote letters home in verse – the clever git –
A trick too entertaining not to steal.
In striving thus to emulate my betters
I hope to write more interesting letters.

I write this from the city of Berlin
Where I cannot (although God knows I’ve tried)
Outrun the little Jewish boy within
Who watched the film ‘The Pianist’ and cried.
“Do Not Forget!” the pachyderms chip in
As though the past had anywhere to hide.
Once Hitler’s murders fade into irrelevance
This city’s rooms will still be filled with elephants.

Oh Hitler, you say, stifling a yawn,
What else is left to say to do him down?
How do you think poor Eva could have borne
That genocidal, double-talking clown?
Is her name said to rhyme with strength then, brawn,
Or like the shirts her husband favoured, brown?
How else could she, the evening after Gleiwitz
Massage the corporal’s unassuming privates?

That other Berlin girl, the Kanzlerin,
Whose mobile phone, as we all know, was hacked,
Her Handy handy too for listening in.
For shame, such an ungentlemanly act,
Obama isn’t welcome in Berlin!
(Well, let’s call that a taxi-driver fact,
But what with Cameron now at odds with Merkel,
It’s funny how the world has come full circle).

Frau Hargous, O, if you could see me now!
Those years of German lessons gone to waste,
Ashamed at mispronouncing Löwenbrau
(And more embarrassed not to like the taste),
And every time I speak a word, somehow
My adjectival endings get misplaced.
I’ve as much chance of being ein Berliner
As having Currywurst for Friday dinner.

When leaving my hotel I half expect
The buildings to appear in black-and-white,
Befogged with that cheap smoke machine effect
And those symbolic beams of splintered light
That made war movies such fun to direct
And patriotic privilege to write.
Instead I find the city’s calm disorder
Reminds me more of Lubitsch than of Korda.

The past is too oppressive to avoid:
I travelled west to Grunewald yesterday,
To see a rebuilt house since re-destroyed,
And heading back the guidebook chanced to say
(Or did I chance to see it? Tell me, Freud)
It’s where they carted Berlin’s Jews away.
I can’t imagine that almighty hubbub
Invading this genteel and leafy suburb.

In Egypt, when the Lord’s displeasure came,
They marked their doors with blood so they’d be spared.
In Germany they could not do the same,
The death’s-head angels were too well-prepared.
Gold plaques now mark their homes, each bears a name
For whom a rich survivor must have cared.
One more to throw on the bonfire of pities –
The streets aren’t paved with gold in other cities.

The Nazi bogeymen are all but dead.
Our nightmares all we leave them to abuse,
The monsters are afraid of us instead –
The goose-stepping Gestapo forced to use
The closets, squeezing underneath the bed
In spaces once exclusively for Jews.
But, out in Argentina, geriatrics
Still punch the air when Germany scores hat-tricks.

With so much past, a city might be drowned,
So Berlin stockpiles its museums on
An island. There on isolated ground
One holds one’s breath inside the Pergamon
To see the wall a room was built around:
The gates of Ishtar fresh from Babylon,
Whose gold and purple inlays had more power
Than barbed cement in the Berliner Mauer.

I must now bring this letter to a close –
Amidst your almost palpable relief
I feel an obligation to disclose
The German word, amusingly, is Brief.
Please pass on my most meaningful hellos
To those who otherwise would die of grief,
And for yourself as many hugs or kisses
As matches best what your idea of bliss is.



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