Berlin – November: The ‘89ers or In Gorbachev We Trust.

FB cover BERLIN 1

FB cover BERLIN 2

or The Berlin Wall and my part in Mauerfall.

In the summer of 1989 I won a photographic competition – well I say won, I had the best student entry. The photo’s were shown in a gallery in covent garden and quite frankly most of them were pants.. it was sponsored by a major brewer so I basically took as many bottles of their beer as I could fit in a promotional holdall and camped outside the place with my guest for the night and two homeless dudes who were happy to pontificate of the death of interesting art in exchange for some alcohol.

The reason I mention this is the competition had a brief of cafe society or something but my pictures were of my friends Steff and Kate who I’d snapped on a lovely spring day in a pub in Canterbury – not exactly cafe society – but the start of an individual way that I photoed. I often took a camera with me left it on a table and encouraged everyone to pick it up and snap, I’d do the same and I knew that without using an exposure meter this would all be under exposed and unusable…. so to counter this I’d develop the negatives for way too long, creating a very two tone negative without grey scale.
This was then printed onto watercolour paper that I’d painted light sensitive emulation on to get a black and white print.

It worked well – the images in the competition has caught the eye of an anonymous little black dress fashion editor whom in turn caught my eye and introduced me to another anonymous American in a black roll neck who wanted me to go and show my work to someone at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine… they would pay for the trip – I had my winnings to spend while there; it seamed like a kind of okay idea – even though I had no desire to go to America in the slightest. The Happy Mondays were on tour with Pixies so I thought I’d hitch around and follow them about like the crazed stalker I had been while the band were in England. It was a plan -I didn’t really want to go back to collage for my second year -so it all seamed like the thing to do.

In late October I went back to collage basically to say “see ya later I’m off to America”. They desperately tried to talk me out of it – the number of drop outs was getting close to their funding being stopped I guess – because they thought I was a bad influence – getting an unsigned letter from the principle saying how pleased they were that I was promoting the collage got my goat too. The completion was all my own work from a bedroom darkroom, using techniques I’d taught myself. So a big ‘fuck you’ was in the offing when I went to my mates house for a drink and we ended up in a pub.

That pub had a TV on, not very usual in 89, and having the news on was even stranger. That news program had people climbing the Berlin Wall, I looked, we talked, I looked again and said “in the the morning I’m leaving for Berlin, do you want to come?”

My mate said “give me a few days and I’ll be there” – that wasn’t an option – I turned up at collage early, went to the technician who dished out 3 rolls of film – the maximum amount we were allowed and I signed out of collage. My Mate Rich couldn’t turn down the offer and joined me; ready to hitch our way 800 miles – if I was ready to miss a flight to the US and a chance of a big job, then the least he could do was come and party on the Berlin Wall with me.

It took most of the day to get from the south coast of England to London – bored we jumped a train to Harwich – ready to buy tickets in the morning for a boat to Hamburg – no cheap flights in those days – this was real work. But the trouble just began – The Harwich – Hamburg ferry wasn’t sailing, it was grounded with engine trouble and the next trip was the Hook of Holland in the morning – we camped down on a waiting room sofa and I realised the delay was possibly a good thing; I didn’t have a valid passport! quick trip to the village post office and a few phone calls later and in my hands was a shinny new paper visitors passport with the artiest black and white portrait inside pealed out of my sketch book ready to advance on mainland Europe – we purchased some extraordinarily strong Vodka in duty free and attempted drunken chess all the way to the Netherlands.

We got off the ferry in the dead of night and the snow began to fall – hungover and slightly lost without a map we hitched a lift with a lovely woman in an estate car who took pity on us and dropped us off at Utrecht station.

With every bit of clothing we owned on our backs to keep warm we camped down next to very stoned big black blues player, strumming his guitar and warning us about the heroin junkies around the corner. I didn’t sleep much.

Once the shop opened I bought a map – a map that showed all of Europe in one giant fold out and was written in Dutch – sorted – Berlin here we come.
Weirdly enough – Berlin here we come was pretty correct – we got many lifts – we met various other strays heading in the same direction – we ended up in the back of a white van in darkness and the fug of spliff smoke with about 8 other hitchhikers – the driver; nice enough to kick us out at the border but wait for us all to get back in on the other side to carry on our journey through Germany.

When he finally stopped the destination felt so close, yet there were so many people trying to get lifts to Berlin that 50% of those that were in the back of the van gave up.
My mate Rich had had enough too – we were tired, hungry and cold and then a politician in an old 2CV picked us up for a 20 minute ride to a better road. He dropped us at a good place for lifts and left us his telephone number “just in case he could help on the return leg”.
We got a lift with a couple of blokes in a VERY fast Merc right across the waste lands (I mean long straight Autobahn) of East Germany onto the island that is Berlin.
Then our adventure took a little stumble.
My visitors passport didn’t allow me to cross East Germany to Berlin – and big guards with machine guns seamed to be shouting at our driver with furrowed brows. I was kicked out – one of the guys who had given us a lift implored me to ‘bribe’ them – and my passport went on a roller coaster ride of epic beauratic beauty – to cut a long freaky story short; in a small windowless room in return for my passport some German guards ended up having a night out at my expense and I ended up with a small circular bruise the size of a gun under my heart having had it poked in my chest for 30 minutes non stop… (and these were supposed to be the good side!).

Strangely enough the kind gentlemen whom had given us a lift dropped us off as soon as they bloody well could once we were through.
We were in Berlin – now where was that bloody wall?

T.B.C.

10 thoughts on “Berlin – November: The ‘89ers or In Gorbachev We Trust.

  1. Wow! Slightly speechless, that’s some adventure.

    I was in the wilds of Yorkshire at the time, well Rotherham in a grim, grey and bleak November watching it on TV.

    Very interesting post, you’ve clearly got too much time on your hands posting this and Guru duties this week.

    All the very best.

    Leavey

    • Yep – far too much time on my hands!
      I had to do ‘Peace’ at this time for it to fit with some art that I was doing about poppies – the art had been inspired by RR – so I felt it only right that I did a stint of free curating in return.
      It was set up ages ago – I forgot that it was 25 years since the wall came down, so this week I’ve been frantically scanning the photos on a little hobby machine to get them digital in time for today.
      This while trying to sort a website overnight with some Americans (while they are awake)… and creating Christmas things – I have to start now as everything is one off – I can’t ramp up production.

      Added to that I’ve been incredibly peeved at the response to the manager of the football team I support – so I’ve written an essay about that too – luckily the Guardian hasn’t let comments up on the Championship round- up – otherwise I’d be on there too… pontificating.

      Everything is becoming a bit stream of consciousness – heehee.

  2. Thanks for that Shane. I remember feeling viewing it on telly through a veil of post-miners’-strike cynicism about how it was covered. The triumphalism of the West seemed evident very early on, and the way platforms were constructed so reporters could do set-pieces to camera with the Brandenburg Gate behind them.

    I didn’t go to Berlin until 2004, when there was still a fair bit of Wall to be seen, but having walked past the zoo and the Siegesäule all the way through the Gate, down Unter den Linden to a coffee house for apple cake and whipped cream… having done that, now the pictures of the Gate behind the Wall are shocking. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum had some human stories – ingenuity leading to either reunion or to tragedy – that can’t be explained away as western propaganda.

    Looking forward to the next part…

  3. Thanks Shane, fascinating story, looking forward to the continuation! Stupidly I don’t remember much about it, there was a lot of personal sh*t going on that year, my dad died, etc. etc. So I’m learning more now than I did at the time.

  4. Hi Shane, thanks for this, found it a cracking read and like others, looking forward to the next instalment. Not really sure I have much to add to conversation, certainly no personal anecdotes that are relevant, but still really enjoyed it.

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