Marcus Hammerschmitt: General Wonder

19 November 2019

Marcus Hammerschmitt is a German author, journalist and photographer who is based in Tübingen. In 2019 Durham Book Festival, supported by the British Council,  commissioned Marcus to spend ten days exploring Durham and to write about his impressions of our region.

General Wonder

Some observations on various topics

I arrive via Amsterdam. Touching down at Schiphol airport, it hits me: I was here 50 years ago. My parents brought me for plane watching in 1969 while we were on vacation in the Netherlands. Yes, there are pictures of me as a two-year-old in front of a tower viewer and a fence denying and providing us access to the tarmac and the planes. Huge planes they were. I don’t remember properly. I suspect my memories are rather about the photos than the actual event. I certainly don’t remember watching the moon landing on Dutch TV, something my parents later never forgot to mention when talking about this vacation. We watched them land on the moon, we did.

My first actual flight didn’t take place until 1989. Of course, I went to America (San Francisco no less). Two days after my arrival the Loma-Prieta earthquake hit, but actually I was shaken much more by an aftershock which woke me the following night, heart pounding, thinking: this is it. You’re going to die now. There was a faded art deco print on the wall across the room which somehow exacerbated the situation: the earth moves, you die, art deco (faded). Well, the earth didn’t move too much that night. But on November 9, I was still in America. And I watched the Berlin Wall coming down on American TV. This I can clearly remember. To say I was confused would be an understatement. The country I was going back to would not be the same as the one I had left roughly a month earlier. I didn’t celebrate. Pretty soon I feared Germany would become drunk on itself, once again, which it did, eventually.

Dutch customs are pretty efficient in 2019. The officer asks me where I am going to. “Durham, England, aha. And for what purpose? Recreation or business? Business, well, well. What kind of business, sir?” “I’m a writer”, I say, “I’m invited to speak in Durham.” As if that explains everything. And just like that he allows me to leave Schiphol again. I have tasted administration during my 30 minute stay in the Netherlands. But I have also seen humanity. Like two construction workers play-fighting over a rock on the ground, because everything can be a football. Somebody has used chalk to draw a smiley face on the wheel of an airplane parked right next to the one which will take me to Newcastle.

Later I sit in my Durham hotel. The moon hasn’t come any closer in half a century.

*

On my first evening, I meet other authors and the lovely organizers of the festival. We talk about many things. I mention the war first, I’m a good German, I’m a bad German. What is a German, mother? If worst comes to worst I can still claim I’m not even a proper German, because I was born so close to France my heritage is dubious. In Hamburg I’ve been asked why I speak German so well. I was born in Saarbrücken. Ich bin ein Saarfranzose. The evening grows late and sees us talking about what rock bands influenced us when we were young. We are middle aged people of considerable taste. I see rock ´n´ roll is not only the world language of desire like Chris Marker observed in Sans Soleil.  It also provides people like us a way of discussing their very personal desires and afflictions without saying too much. The lingua franca is code as well.

The historical Mediterranean lingua franca, Wikipedia informs me, was also known as “Sabir”. The lingua franca in James S. A. Corey’s science fiction saga The Expanse is obviously based on Sabir. I should mention things like that more often. It would make science fiction look more respectable.

*

In Durham’s botanical garden, there is a tree whose leaves smell like candy floss come autumn. Engulfed in decay’s sweet perfume I photograph the helpful description fastened to the tree’s trunk, but the shot is so out of focus I can’t read the description anymore. I turn to the internet, because it knows everything. Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum). The German name “Kuchenbaum” means “cake tree”, because Germans didn’t think of candy floss (Zuckerwatte) but of Lebkuchen (ginger bread) when they first met the tree . I like how Katsura challenges our senses and languages. Then again, “Katsura” sounds like a Japanese superhero.

*

At Durham cathedral we are being asked at the entrance: “Are you here for prayer and worship or just for general wonder?” Unfortunately, I’m not quick-witted enough to reply: “No, we’re looking for Major Amazement.“

*

Peter Ackroyd talks a lot about genius loci in London:The Biography. I don’t have direct evidence but wandering about in Durham in the evening I think the place has tons of genius loci, which is of course tradition turned geographical. There should be a Durham map of genius loci. On a Saturday night I think: If there’s one thing spread out across the center of town, it’s partying. People make the best of what may be the year’s last bearable open air night. The difference between a Durham and a Tübingen Saturday night on the town couldn’t be clearer. Here, not only the young lads are drunkenly singing like football fans practising for the next match. It’s the old geezers too. Obviously there have been some weddings during the day, and celebration has spilled over to the bars and clubs around Elvet Bridge. I’m quite sure this was a lively place in the Middle Ages, minus the smart phones of course. Women are partying the hardest. The word “boisterous“ comes to mind. Genius loci: isn’t a city without a river just a lot of houses? The river is murmuring. All the drowned students are in denial. Every last one of them says “Help me. I can’t remember my name. This is only temporary. But you have to help me out here, mate.” Death makes them poor, makes them beg for impossible things. Night doesn’t fall so much as it’s being inked on the faces of the living by a steady professional.

*

I’m learning things. Readings, book presentations, award ceremonies in Germany go like this: people talk to the audience until everybody is too tired to talk back in the end. Curiosity is an evil to be smothered by text. The exhaustion of the audience is the true measure of success. Not here. Things last for an hour, period. A reading doesn’t replace reading the book. A joke can’t be funny if It takes too long to develop. You are allowed to laugh. A huge improvement over the German state of affairs.

On the other hand there’s a dangerous elephant in Durham. It goes by a strange name reminding me of historical Persian rulers, like Xerxes or something. Didn’t the Persians use war elephants? Not sure, but Hannibal did, and people remember him. They also remember how Hannibal’s elephants were made aggressive with fermented fruit and sometimes took to attack the Carthagenians instead of the enemy. This contemporary elephant is also a shifty character. If people talk about the beast at all (they’d rather not, it seems) little hard knowledge is to be gained. Nobody can tell me where it came from or what it wants. At first, I get the impression the elephant has not too many fans in Durham, but in my hotel’s lobby I find free newspapers musing about how a good old elephant rampage could be the best thing to happen in a long, long time. This is confusing.

*

The new students walk up and down New Elvet and Church Street in an unrelenting flow of youth. To camouflage their insecurity, some of the young women wear too much perfume and some of the boys wear too much confidence. “Confidence” should be a perfume by Christian Dior or Cacharel. As an act of resistance I slip into the cemetery of St. Oswald’s Church and start to photograph the gravesites. “What are you doing?”, the sandstone asks me, “you’re such a spoilsport!” Youth will not be denied and sweeps me up again the moment I step out of the cemetery’s secure confinement. The new students deliver me to the Oriental Museum. Seeing the heartbreakingly beautiful plates and vessels from the Song dynasty, I ask myself what the Chinese students think about them, about Malcolm MacDonald and other collectors.

When I came to Tübingen in 1985, I was even younger than the new students of Durham. I was so young I hadn’t properly thought about essentials like how to use a washing machine or having friends. But only by leaving home I would become a Saarfranzose. Somebody who doesn’t fit, neither here nor there.

*

My new shoes are brilliant. As light as a feather, they let me climb the Durham hills with ease. Their kindness to my back and knees is priceless. I can only marvel at what they’re made of. Three things come to mind: an inordinate amount of research, some respectable form of foot fetishism really. Slave labour, capitalist style. Plastic. Curiously this combination is helping to kill the planet. It makes shoes like this swirl in giant galaxies of garbage somewhere in the Pacific. My shoes tell but a tiny part of the whole story. The mechanism setting the story in motion first created the jobs of the European miners and then took them away again. It created the town where I went to school and then destroyed it.

Would I buy those shoes again if they were more expensive to help the children and women stitching them together? If the plastic they’re made of was recycled? Yes, I would. Would that really change anything? Please mark one of the following options: a) Yes b) No c) Not sure d) What do you mean by “really”?

*

Layers and layers and layers of history. Bridges built in the Middle Ages. Memorial plaques for the dead of the Great War. Which one was that again? The earth over all our good deeds rises slower than the sea. According to Margaret Thatcher there is no society, only individual men and women and families. According to Marx the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. This might be especially true in the case of the Durham Miners Association. I’m being given the Redhills tour, I see the room where the decision was made to go on strike in 1984, and I see the pitman’s parliament, my head swirling with politics I can only imagine. Coalitions and feuds, betrayal and loyalty, profits, pain, resistance, organization and coal. The dirt that burns. And fools like us who use it to burn themselves.

My Redhills guide says he has no room for despair. He is focused on preserving the place and telling about the struggles, values, lessons learned that are part of its history. He hopes clues lifted from the self-organization and self-defence of the miners can be used to confront the elephant.

I read about the battle of Orgreave in 1984 and think about the battle of Hamburg in 2017.

My grandfather was a miner. He died from the long-term effects of a rockfall at the mine 15 years before I was born. I’m happy to never have met him because by all accounts he was a terrible person. Prone to random bouts of extreme violence he damaged my father, who damaged me in turn. My other grandfather was a farmer. He was sent to kill Russian farmers, and in defending themselves, they killed him in 1944. In the photos I know of him he doesn’t look like a terrible person, but you never know about the dead. Often, they carry secrets. I’ve made a short film about him called kehle (Throat).

While I’m in Durham, a nazi in Germany tries to shoot up a synagogue. By sheer luck the body count stops at two. What is a German, mother?

*

Newcastle and me, we’re not made for each other on the day of the buskers. It’s chilly and windy, the sky continuously threatening rain, and the people out and about are in the same mood as grumpy Londoners. A bored policeman guards an enormous monument for somebody who did good things in his time. I wonder about achievements that justify a monument like that. The policeman texts somebody on his smart phone. A taser’s yellow grip on his belt is a statement. Buskers are out in force, and they’re determined to be heard. One of them is having a blast with his guitar. Skinny, long hair, Fender amp. Amazing technical prowess, I think, as his fingers fly about the neck of his instrument. But somehow nothing of it rings true. After a couple of minutes he’s starting to sound like a well programmed rock ´n´ roll robot. What a strange thing to develop musical skills on this level and yet have nothing to say. Was Paganini different?

The Newcastle Metro takes me to the sea. Tynemouth provides: sand, fish shack, breakwater, lighthouse. The camera sees it all, because I’ve brought various lenses. My new shoes ensure carrying the equipment doesn’t break my back. I’ve come here with a special mission in mind. My partner wants sea shells as a souvenir, and after a while my search yields results. A Tynemouth café offers delicious things with white chocolate on them, and I take two. One too many, just the right amount. On my return to Newcastle, the city seems to have somehow lost its grumpiness. Maybe it was my own after all. Could I live in the mountains? No. Could I live at the sea? Yes.

*

While I wait for the check in at my next destination, I take the stairs down to the crypt of time. Walking in along the Bailey I’m asking myself: how old is this city really? Two years ago I was in Canterbury, and I saw a house which had been in continuous use since 1250. Some of the buildings here look even older. I’m not sure why but I have to think about the Abrogans, the oldest book in German, a copy of which might have been in the possession of Charlemagne. I fantasize about some of the houses on the Bailey standing when Charlemagne was Emperor. All these people were real. I would like to talk to them, but they wouldn’t understand me, neither in English nor in German. Just taunting bits and pieces. I step through Watergate and into October greenery. Here’s Prebend’s Bridge. Even the graffiti is old, I see some that reads “C. P. 1876.“  It’s sunny and warmer than the day before, and immediately the cityscape turns into a garden of young people bustling about, shiny modern cars clearly built as ready made extensions of their drivers’ egos, and all kinds of antique looking structures in yellowish grey. How beautiful is this city really? People commute to and fro as if everything is normal. I know how this works. Routine will make you blasé literally everywhere. In Tübingen, for instance. I walk, I sit, I take photos. There’s a partly flooded little cemetery where I find not only Martha’s grave who died on October 26 in a year obscured by fresh arrangements of flowers. I also happen to see the headstone erected for the Scottish remains from the Battle of Dunbar that had to make room for a new café up on the hill.

Back at the castle, I have been thoroughly upgraded. I’m no longer staying in the Chaplain’s Suite, instead I’ve been moved to the Bishop’s. Of course I knew I would stay at the castle for a few nights, but the actual place catches me largely unprepared. The four poster bed is from around 1760.  The walls in the sitting room are hung with Flemish tapestries from the 17th century – just what I need to feel comfortable. But it’s the mantelpiece of the sitting room’s fireplace – of course the bedroom sports it own – that is the icing on the cake. Naturally it’s got the Bishop’s arms in blue, white and black. Five golden lions, four smaller, one larger, representing the five boroughs of Durham, I presume, with the Bishop’s Borough being the most important. I see mask-like faces of girls, I see birds and all kinds of flora, but most prominently I see two winged dragon-like things with voluptuous female breasts, the one with the more impressive rack unfortunately missing the toothed snout which the other, she of the smaller bosom, still can intimidate you with. The internet gives me “wyvern“ and “cockatrice“ but neither of them is a perfect match.

What is this? Where am I? How did I get here? Where is the camera recording my reactions? I send my friends and my kids pictures, and they laugh. I tell my partner I want to be called Prince-Bishop Marcus I from now on. Apparently Queen Elizabeth II once used the bathtub here. It feels like I’m being made fun of in a very British way, and I’m loving every minute of it.

The main event I came here for is smooth and friendly, not least because the one hour rule applies. Jasmine Simms and I discover we basically write about the same things: railways, cemeteries, the absurd. So there was no need for coordination beforehand. Caitríona Ní Dhúill is chairing the reading, and she really knows how to do this. I even meet somebody I know from my first stay,17 years ago. The poet who helped me to translate my pieces couldn’t make it, because London is far away. Later on, I feel the power of Raymond Antrobus. The reading in St Chad’s Chapel is a smashing success, and after that I’m filled with poetry to the brim. Wind and sun rule Palace Green. The tapestries in the Bishop’s sitting room have a small elephant as well. It’s out to pasture and looks cute and definitely non-threatening, but above it, segregated from the elephant by a lovely copse, we see a city burn.

In the night I start giving back to Durham in an unforeseen way. The Bishop stands beside me, while I kneel at the porcelain altar of the toilet bowl. “Marcus, Marcus, Marcus“, he says. “How often do I have to tell you junk food is bad for you. In my time …“Please, your excellency, don’t. Don’t be like your religion. I wanted a quick bite, and I got something else on the side. Just let me finish here.“ “Ha“, he says and I can hear he’s miffed. He not simply vanishes but ascends straight to heaven, as bishops are wont to. I hope he has adequate accommodation up there and can’t be harmed by junk food.

So my last day in Durham I spend in a haze, in that peculiar state of uneasily swimming within your own body when it decides to be really annoyed. I doze, I blink. I lie in the Bishop’s bed and I look up at the canopy which has a strange organic colour and structure to it. Seeing myself lying there inevitably leads me to remembering Dave Bowman during the last minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and I make myself laugh by stretching my arm out to the monolith. But I can’t laugh too hard, because my body is still annoyed.

The night brings partial recuperation, the morning brings a taxi. Driving past the Angel of the North on my way to the airport I can clearly see how much the trees around it have grown since my last stay in 2002. It shouldn’t take me as long as 17 years to come back, it really shouldn’t. Durham, England, United Kingdom – I like you. Thank you so much for everything. Please don’t let the elephant run amok. Please.

General Wonder © Marcus Hammerschmitt, 2019

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