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  1. As I was finalising this entry I heard about the attack on the Breitscheidplatz Christmas Market in Berlin. It was one of the markets we visited just over a week ago. The whole place buzzed with light, colour, the sound of Christmas music and the aroma of Christmas cheer. Now that has been obliterated. I've decided to publish this anyway because we can't let violence silence us. 

    Here are a few highlights of my visit last week.

     A light at the end of the tunnel (or in this case, the top of the tower  of the 18th century Deutscher Dom on Gendarmenmarkt)


     Potsdamer Platz didn’t look like this 30 years ago!



    Neither did the Hauptbahnhof  (Main station)


    The Bundesrepublik did tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater when the country was reunified in 1989, eg the Palast der Republik, which was of immense historical importance. They blamed its necessary destruction on asbestos, but it’s much more likely that they simply couldn’t bear to have such a potent reminder of the GDR in their midst. Having said that, they’ve sensibly left the impressive statues of Marx and Engels on their Platz, even if the area needs a makeover ( and it’s getting one at the moment – the nearby Schlossplatz is a building site. )

    However, one baby that they not only didn’t throw out, but took to heart and allowed to become a trademark of reunited Berlin, is Ampelmann (Ampel = traffic light). Admittedly there was a move after reunification to standardise all traffic light men to the boring western  ones, but the result was an outcry, protests and so on. Ampelmann had been a beloved symbol of GDR Berlin – he even featured in an educational TV series. Now he has spread into the west and a huge merchandising industry has spread around him. He has also be the subject of serious art works, topiary and numerous books. Occasionally politically correctness has crept in and you may also come across a female version.


    So here he is lighting up the crossing near the Hauptbahnhof . The red and green don’t show up too well- you can see them a bit better on the Ampelmann store sign. 


    A detour out of Berlin to my father’s birthplace, Pasewalk up North-east near the Polish border. This glowing building is St Spiritus dating from the 18th century, now a retirement home.


    The streetlights bathe the gym hall of my father’s school in warm light.


    Back in Berlin the stalls on the Alexanderplatz Christmas market shone brightly too.



    And talking of shining, the Deutsche Oper’s Lohengrin put on a dazzling performance. Granted there were a few oddities – as usual the director had to stick his egoistic nose into the story. Lohengrin was decked out with detachable swan’s wings (which should have been attached to his legendary swan but the director had an unfortunate lightbulb moment). They caused sniggers in the audience, particularly when he got stuck exiting stage door left and had to remove them - as he also did during his thwarted attempt to bed Elsa.  During this scene also, when the glorious saviour knight (Lohengrin) was making a move on his frail and vulnerable maiden (Elsa) as they were sat on the bed, he edged a little closer, which apparently unnerved her and she fell off, landing awkwardly on the floor. She picked herself up and they both carried on as if nothing had happened. A most curious bit of stage directing. At least I’m assuming it was intentional. I could hardly control my giggles. Luckily Lohengrin had shed the wings by the glorious final act. The very ending was marred by another weird idea from the director but luckily it was fleeting.


    Once more the golden dome of the Oranienburgerstrasse Reform Synagogue has become a shining beacon on the Berlin skyline. The synagogue escaped destruction on Kristallnacht thanks to the courageous action of a  police officer, who drew his gun on the Nazi hoodlums and ordered them to disperse.  However, it did not survive the allied bombing of  1943-4. Now it has been restored and houses a small synagogue and the "Centrum Judaicum", a museum and archive of Berlin Jewish history.


    And finally: not quite the glorious covered courtyard of the British Museum, but this courtyard linking the old and new buildings of the fabulous Deutsches Historisches Museum is a light and peaceful space and really rather beautiful.


  2. Yesterday evening I attended the annual dinner of the Guildford–Freiburg Twinning Association. Naturally, the talk came round to the burning question of the year: to stay in, or to leave the EU. I don’t usually comment publicly on political affairs but this issue is so close to my heart that I feel I have to break my silence.

    They were a diverse but educated group at our table (four lawyers, two teachers and a health worker). Economics did not figure large in the discussion. I was pleased about this. I have always felt that any discussion on the economic outcome of “in” or “out” is futile as everything is guesswork and nobody knows what will happen in either event; both sides twist any spurious available “evidence” to suit their purposes.

    However, there are far more important considerations than whether we, as individuals or a country, will be “better off” or “worse off” depending upon the result of the referendum. Yes, honestly, there are more important considerations.

    The health worker at our table was at pains to point out that many of the nurses at his hospital are mainland Europeans from the EU. He could not speak highly enough about the quality of the care they provide and about the way that they have integrated into the UK system. He went on to say that without them many hospitals would have to close down. This is of course true in all aspects of society. Go to any restaurant or hotel in London and elsewhere and you will be served by charming, well-trained and well-mannered Poles, Spaniards, Italians and so on. And the reverse is also true. Our citizens can enjoy the right to live and work in any EU country and we can all enjoy the advantages of the European National Health Service, pain-free borders and so on.

    But for me there is one argument for staying in the EU that overrides every other consideration. The founding ideal of the EU was to end the threat of conflict on European soil. It has worked since its small beginnings in 1950 till now. Had there been a European Union in the 1930s, would Hitler have been able to carry out his invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia? Would Hitler have achieved power in the first place if a United Europe had worked together rather than regarding Germany as a pariah to be punished after the First World War?  Could the destruction of European Jewry and others have been prevented had there been a European Convention on Human Rights? 

    Of course, what happened may have happened anyway, but there is a chance that a united Europe could have prevented it. And if EU presents even the remotest possibility of curbing the ambitions of crazed dictators, I for one would certainly not want to slam the door in its face.

    Let’s look at it another way. Those of you who want to leave the European Union, do you really want our little country out on a limb next to a massive United European neighbour over which you have no control? You might say, we have little control as it is, but at least we have a voice. For better or for worse I would rather be part of this large group than a little speck on its doorstep. You may brush aside the possibility of another European war or genocide  but every generation has thought that “civilisation” has progressed beyond this prospect. It is a short-term view. Things change overnight. It is in our interest to be in a position to exert even limited influence over developments in Europe rather than to watch impotently from the sidelines.

    The only road to lasting peace is for countries to unite rather than to divide themselves into ever smaller factions. I am proud to be British, but I am also proud to be European. Let us please stay a part of the EU, rather than apart from the EU.