Guardian Diary (March 1990)
Wednesday: Crackly call from rapidly vanishing Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR as they say in Germany. My pal Werner has finally got his visa from the British Embassy for the trip neither of us had ever thought possible - a weekend visit to London. We first became friends in the early eighties while I was briefly living and working in East Berlin. Playing with local musicians meant an unrestricted visa and allowed me to visit Werner in his small home town of Prenzlau. Returning his hospitality, however, had always seemed out of the question. Only nonstop flight available is with World's Most Modest Airline, whose West German reputation ("bei BA kriegt man immer Scheiße") is well deserved. Reluctantly book his ticket, consoling myself that it can't be much worse than Interflug.
Friday: Waiting with Partner at Heathrow Terminal One. BA989 from Berlin twenty minutes late - no surprises there. Further hour before a shaken but beaming Werner eventually emerges, the last from his flight. No-one, especially from today's DDR, expects the British Inquisition: how long are you here, what is the purpose of your visit, who are you staying with, when, where and how did you meet him, what does he do, where does he live, why did he invite you. Just like the old days back at home, chuckles Werner. Crossing The Wall this afternoon, the guard simply wished him a pleasant stay, and hoped he wouldn't forget to come back.
Back to Hammersmith in high spirits with hugs, introductions and presents - East German kirsch, flowers from Prenzlau and two small pieces of concrete personally chiselled from Wall. Sit down to an Indian takeaway. What on earth is that stuff ? Rice, Werner. This weekend, he wants to try EVERYTHING.
Saturday: We lay on a typical German breakfast of ham, cheese, boiled eggs, filter coffee, butter & pumpernickel for our guest, who is baffled. He's never seen Tilsiter cheese or tasted fresh ham, while coffee and butter are unaffordable luxuries. Breakfast is black bread, a glass of milk and an egg from his parents' chicken in the yard. As a bricklayer he works an eleven hour day, earning 700 marks a month. Even at the DDR's ludicrous official exchange rate this is under £60 a week. Though his rent is six pounds a month, the unspectacular trainers he's wearing cost a week and a half's wages.
Outside, the sun is shining. Werner marvels at how clean, well-kept and tidy everything is. Can he really mean the Shepherds Bush Road ? Goods in the shops, beautifully displayed, friendly and polite service - above all, no queues outside. And where are all our friendly unarmed Bobbies with their famous helmets ? By some fluke we don't see one the whole weekend, though white transits packed with shadowy figures scream past a couple of times.
The city looks so different through a visitor's eyes: full of immaculate old buildings and staggering new ones. This belongs to an American corporation, and that's a Japanese bank. For some reason Buckingham Palace reminds him of Ceaucescu. We pass brutal sixties concrete office block: at last, quips Werner, something you've copied from us. Plenty of queues there too, we tell him. It's the DHSS.
Improbably, he's accosted by a street vendor brandishing a special DDR issue of Living Marxism and he responds in a torrent of German. Great theory, he agrees, but hopeless in practice: he's been there, done that and definitely had enough. Uncomprehending but encouraged, the woman asks if he feels positive about re-unification. "Stasi !" hisses Werner, displaying an imaginary lapel badge and producing from nowhere an ancient plastic camera. He snaps his first British marxist at point blank range, and stalks off grinning.
Much disbelieving laughter over the various machines cluttering our household - not just the tumble drier and video, but my shaver, the hair dryer - even the kettle. ("You mean you just fill it with water and it boils ? That's amazing !") By the time I nuke our dinner in the microwave he thinks I'm taking the piss. Guiltily hide the electric toothbrush my brother gave us for Christmas.
Tonight Werner wants to sample London nightlife. Partner nobly suggests capital's most enduring and spectacular gay discotheque and, since Saturdays are Men Only, opts for an early night. Driving into West End, further mirth at removable car radio - yet another machine ! Outside club help gay man being hassled by aggressive drunk and pass begging teenagers huddled on pavement - Werner gives them all the hard currency in his pocket. Gay man buys us a drink. Heaven packed and heaving with party animals bopping till the tiny hours, mostly Werner's age or younger. His eyes widen: it's a far cry from anything in East Berlin, though the insistent electrobeat seems alien and oppressive. He spots still more machines in the washroom. This one's a hand dryer, that one sells condoms.
Worst job my stepbrother ever had was opening Richard Branson's personal mail shortly after the launch of Mates. Though all condoms are subject to occasional failure, the furious victims seemed to hold Branson personally responsible - often posting him the sticky and gruesome evidence.
Sunday: Breakfast at Macdonalds for a taste of capitalism: appalling packaging waste and delicious cheap food. Anyone who calls it junk has clearly never eaten in the DDR, but there even the yoghurt comes in returnable jars. Driving out beyond the M25 in search of open countryside, Werner marvels at smoothness of our roads and undisciplined way we drive. Why, people change lanes without even indicating! In Prenzlau that'd mean a spot fine and endorsement from the ever-watchful Volkspolizei. And British drivers are so courteous - all this flashing of headlamps to let people in or give way to pedestrians. Back in the DDR you waits your bloody turn, mate.
Service station at South Mimms makes a great impression - huge automated forecourt run by two cashiers, where the DDR would employ a staff of twenty. But surely it must also be worth having personal service and full employment ? All you get, snorts Werner, is pissed-off people stuck in useless jobs and totally unproductive use of labour. He'll vote SPD in next week's elections - that is, if he's still there. At least eight friends from Prenzlau have already fled and settled in the West; as soon as they've found him a flat he plans to join them. If housing's anything like here, don't hold your breath, we warn him.
Quiet vegetarian dinner at Pizza Express. Those black things ? Olives. Werner reckons a vegetarian literally couldn't survive in the DDR - nuts, pulses and fresh vegetables just aren't to be had. East Berlin, well maybe, but Prenzlau, no way. Staple diet is wurst and salt potatoes. Rest of evening spent writing copious postcards home.
His overwhelming impression has been shock at homeless British people sleeping rough on the streets. Don't we have hostels or charities ? Yes, and they're swamped. Doesn't Frau Thatcher care ? Probably not. In the DDR you'd first be jailed - and then given accomodation and a job like any other ex-convict. It's the law. Petty crime was one way to jump the housing queues; the other used to be joining the Party.
Monday: Heathrow Terminal One, 6.30am. Hugs and farewells, jostled by impatient eurocommuters. Werner delighted by massive queue for departure gates: finally feels like home. And yes, the place is teeming with police - in flat caps and flack jackets, armed to the teeth with machine pistols and automatics.
Wednesday: Crackly call from the DDR. Werner's mates have found him a room and a job near Mönchen Gladbach: experienced bricklayers, it seems, are in massive demand. He's leaving tonight in great excitement for the promised land. We wish him luck - he might need it.
Tom Robinson (b.1950) is a UK songwriter & broadcaster first known in the 70s as an anti-racist and LGBT campaigner. He
released 19 albums between 1975-2001 with various bands and has co-written songs with Elton John, Peter Gabriel, Dan Hartman and Manu Katché. He's an award-winning presenter at BBC Radio 6 Music, and released Only The Now (his first album in 19 years) in October 2015....more