Between the ages of two and five, I lived with my parents in a maisonette close to the racecourse in Krefeld, a small industrial town in north western Germany. A Jack Russell called Lummell lived in the back garden–he was my best friend–my mother and I used to go to Hortons for breakfast every Wednesday, and I would spend my days playing in the spielplatzen with the children of the other jockeys at West Germany’s racecourses.
Yes, that’s right. West Germany. This was the early 1980s and the Berlin Wall was still physically dividing homes, families, and a city, and ideologically dividing a country, a continent, and the world.
The Berlin of my childhood imagination was an exotic, far-flung place shrouded in mystery. Visiting west Berlin was an undertaking; east Berlin was entirely off-limits. It was a closed, grey world that demonised my four-year-old dreams. How does one explain communism to a four year old?
Following re-unification in 1989, the image of Berlin formed in my memory remained, and remained fast. It had somehow cemented itself, entrenched, and I struggled to overcome the fear associated with it. For another twenty-five years, Berlin existed as an exotic, untouchable world in my mind.
Then I was invited to attend the EyeEm Festival and Awards. This wasn’t just an opportunity to visit a city that had plagued my thoughts and thereby banish the demons of stone-cold communism, but to do so in the most fitting way possible. EyeEm is a highly successful photography start-up, a phoenix of the bright young things who shimmered and glittered in pre-war Berlin reanimated for the twenty-first century. Where east Berlin once existed in miserable isolation, EyeEm connects anyone with a phone and an eye for a photo across the globe. Where Berlin was once the chicest, trendiest place to sip champagne and dance the Charleston, EyeEm is part of the start-up culture helping to re-elevate the city to its former glory.
The Festival lasted for two days; I took the opportunity to spend a few more wandering the city, exploring what remains of the wall, walking across Tempelhofer Park, cruising the Spree, and drinking coffee and beer and eating cake and pommes. I was somehow able to reconcile the Berlin or my mind’s eye with Berlin as it is today. The fearsome, barbed memories remain. As do the feelings of jubilation, and relief, on seeing pictures of the wall falling. But now I have my own vision of Berlin, not that projected with mutual fear and loathing in the 1980s.
I think I’ll be going back.