Growing up in an intensely wooded London suburb, I had a strong suspicion that our neighbours played a big part in the plan for grand conformity. “What would the neighbours think?” was a question often posed by one or other of my parents. Such questions made it clear to me that, on every topic, their neighbourly judgement should be considered trustworthier than our own. They governed our lives. If they wouldn’t do something, we couldn’t either. And sadly, they wouldn’t do much. They certainly weren’t up for anything interesting, only in doing what they’d always done; getting their children into good schools, spending a fortune relandscaping their quaint gardens, patronising the golf club and supporting the Queen. I was suspicious of all of it.
When I came out in the mid 70s, my mother’s appalled reaction was to ask me how I expected her “ever to face the neighbours again?”. Her second was to declare that, since this devastating revelation, shopping locally would no longer be possible. Instead, she and Dad would have to drive to the next town for the groceries, and this was an awful prospect because people in our town looked down on the next town and thought their shops inferior. Three decades of acrimony and unhappiness later, Mum and Dad finally got on board with the idea of a gay son, so the story has a happy ending. But the tortuous journey started with the anticipated disgust of our neighbours. Ruth across the road, Abby’n’Peter, Deborah at number 78, etc.
These people were material lions and intellectual mice; gushing, avaricious, competitive, hyper-polite but fundamentally dishonest. One was never (ever!) supposed to reveal anything to any of them, especially ‘personal’ things, and each of them imposed the same censorship on us. Intimacy was discouraged. The closer you got to a neighbour, the more the confidences were withheld. My father’s favourite phrase was “We consume our own smoke”, which, even now, makes me feel physically sick whenever I hear it. Nothing in, and nothing out. To ask for help was a sin. A crime.
At the height of ‘Gay-gate’, when I suggested we all go together to see a family shrink, they genuinely assumed I’d gone mad, for they considered the idea of paying money to share secrets with a stranger the acme of insanity and bad taste. The angriest my father ever became with me was when, as a ten-year-old, I came across one of his payslips and told the boys two doors down what he earned. In fact, I’d read it wrong and what I actually told them was the amount of tax he paid that month. Incandescent with rage, Dad was less incensed that I’d undervalued him than that I’d said anything at all. Though he finally accepted my gayness, I don’t think he ever forgave me for the payslip incident.
Perversely, though we weren’t allowed to tell anybody anything, talking was all we ever did. Naturally, our ambition was to avoid actual contact whenever possible. English people will cross the street to steer clear of an acquaintance, and, lonely widows aside, they’d rather take labyrinthine detours to avoid actually having to say “Hello” to anyone. But if a meeting with a neighbour was inescapable, one would be obliged to converse for ages and ages, and during these chats absolutely nothing of any value would ever get said.
I believe this repression of candour turned me a bit Tourettesy. As a child I would never fail to scupper a public conversation by uttering some vulgarity, find a way to shoehorn in a gynaecological reference or put on a working-class accent specially to undermine my mother (who always employed her posh voice when dealing with the locals). In fact, it wasn’t until quite recently that I was able to sustain a normal conversation with anyone, even a trusted friend, without blurting out something inappropriate.
I don’t think writers need neighbours. They need silence, a boring view and regularity. I don’t want you knocking on my door to borrow something or, when I’m out on an errand, waylaying me to pass the time or spread gossip. That’s why I’ve never owned plants or pets or a newspaper subscription. They’d threaten my self-sufficiency. I mustn’t ask you for anything, because you will, at some later date, ask me for something in return, and get in my way, rupture my rhythm and oppress me with your tedious ‘Alltag’. I have inherited my parent’s island mentality, I see that.
The neighbourhood I live in, currently Kreuzberg 36, has never been and could never be my only neighbourhood. I claim more than one, because I’m more than one person. For a start, I’m a recovering addict, and my fellow addicts and I meet to support each other by sharing our stories of survival in dreary church halls and community centres all over town. If neighbourhood is about mutual support, then my recovery-neighbourhood eschews Berlin’s formal district boundaries. Then, as a Brit in Berlin (another identity of mine), maintaining a network of English-as-a-first-language contacts is important, ever more so now I find myself clinging to a life-raft, adrift in the dangerous ocean of Brexit and an eminently disavowable hard-right government back home. Not that I’ve come to Berlin to surround myself with Brits. Far from it. I generally try to avoid them. But every now and then I feel a bit stateless or simply need a bit of banter, and those Brits I choose to hang with don’t tend to live where I do, more likely wanting to meet in a coffee house in Neukölln or under a tree in the Tiergarten. I’m also an artist and I must go where the work is. If I get a job in Milan or Stockholm, I might set up a temporary home there to work on a project for three weeks or three months. As a gay man, I seek out an even farther flung web of connections. Clubs I’m interested in might exist across town or, before corona came along, across continents. All my neighbourhoods are unruly, feathered webs of exchange, geographically broader and bigger, though perhaps thinner than the tiny Kiez.
I am no massive fan of the family, but in my estimation, it stands several rungs above the neighbourhood in terms of groups of people to whom I feel connected. Perhaps it goes something like this: husband, friends, family, work friends, unfriendly work colleagues, business and administrative associates, neighbours. And the Kiez, it seems to me, can be an especially hellish subcategory of the last item on that list.
In English, there’s no proper translation for the word Kiez. ‘Neighbourhood’ simply doesn’t do it. Of all the things that exist in Germany and not in England, in my mind the Kiez is one of the most exotic and impenetrable. I’m drawn to it in a way – but only in a way in which I exist in a movie of my life, a movie in which I’m a much more sociable and relaxed person. In reality I’m not drawn to it at all. Anyway, as I say, I didn’t grow up with it, and suspect I don’t fully “get” it, so I won’t try and say anything clever about it.
If it were possible for the Kiez to exist in England, it would, but it isn’t, so it doesn’t. You see, we just don’t live like you do – I mean, in private, self-contained apartments within large, gardenless houses. These densely populated Berlin structures account for the communitarian Kiez just as the semi-detached suburban life in England explains (and reinforces) the Brit’s ferocious island mentality. My experience is that people who live in flats in England tend to be either the poor, who inhabit badly serviced, potentially hazardous social housing (think Grenfell Tower), the transient, who occupy shoddily converted apartments in nineteenth-century mansions, or the hyper-rich (see those lovely 1920s blocks in Knightsbridge for example, or the 70s brutalist Barbican). But on this side of the Channel, from Chancellor to cheesemaker, more or less everybody lives in flats.
In the movie of my life, Berliners are wonderful people, robust survivors with a rough-edged, gallows humour and a real, if somewhat hidden, warmth. In real life, I find that my Berlin neighbours are just as awful as neighbours I’ve encountered everywhere else. And because we all live on top of one another, I’m compelled on a daily basis to get intimately involved with the fact that the occupants of the other apartments in the house in which I live in Lausitzer Strasse do not know how to park their bikes, do not know how to divide their trash, do not know that one is not meant to pile the communal areas full with old furniture and shoes. Living in this semi-communal manner, I am furious that I’m obliged to have an opinion about them and their antisocial habits. I find myself wasting energy getting angry about them. My partner and I spend an excessive amount of time preparing what we might say to, for example, the first-floor family about their bloody shoes, should we bump into them, not that we ever do for they seem to be nocturnal. What a safety hazard they’re creating! How unthinking they’re being when they hold midnight barbeques directly under our terrace! Yes, of course, Eid in July is as important as Christmas in December and we must make cultural allowances. But all summer long? I think not!
Ours is an intensely kiezy Kiez, especially at the end of the street in which we live. Round the corner there’s a cooperative store selling products without packaging, a fair-trade clothing market and a vegan shoe shop. To one side of our building is a grungy neighbourhood help centre that does a roaring trade in waifs and strays and, on the other, stands a business enterprise which seems more concerned with political correctness than business. You can hardly see what it sells for the stickers decorating the window: “The best things in life aren’t things”, “Black Lives Matter”, “You are safe here”, “Airbnb fuck off”. The deafening message that rings jubilant in the air is “We take care of each other”, and who can complain about that?
Our Hinterhof is not a beautiful thing. The tank-grey walls and hostile windows create shade all day and all year. Drab and austere, it speaks of Communism to me, though we’re in the old West. The ground never seems to become completely dry, nor the light completely clear. A diseased chestnut tree that blooms early and turns a deathly orange before summer has reached its height, overhangs a ragged collection of bikes that lurk among frayed mounds of dried leaves. This involuntary piece of arte povera is home to an army of disaffected, straw-coloured insects that appear to turn more aggressive with the years. Yet, in the very middle of this anonymous, truly unremarkable square stands a beautiful Asa, a ‘Japanischer Ahorn’ in German. It rises proudly to a very modest height in a handsome purple pot. Everything about it is perfect. Its magnificent aubergine-red foliage lasts from early spring till the November frosts, and it looks chic in every season, stark in winter or surprised by early snow. Asas are miniature trees by design that love the shade and, with its delicate maple-like leaves and its few gently curving branches, it’s a picture of elegance and pastoral economy. Though perhaps lonely in splendid isolation, it’s thrived as long as I’ve known it.
However, a few weeks ago, a five-year-old boy, who lives in a large flat on the second floor with his Mum, took a knife to the asa and hacked off all its branches, leaving its featureless trunk covered in unhappy wounds. This violent de-limbing process seemed to turn grey what remained of the tree. The gashes glowed a horribly light brown, almost green, and spoke of a wilful surgical operation. The boy must have known what he was doing even if he didn’t know what it meant.
Arriving with my bike that evening, I stopped in front of the damage aghast – devastated really, for in the whole place it was the only thing of beauty on which to rest one’s eyes, and now there was nothing. For the first time, I wanted to ring on my neighbours’ doors, ask them what on earth had happened and share in our mutual grief. I didn’t, though. I waited for my partner to get home in the hope that he would have somehow unearthed the mystery on the way up the stairs.
As the dust settled and the truth emerged, our next-door neighbour commented that it takes a village to raise a child. Did she mean she felt partly responsible for the delinquent behaving in this way? Or did she mean that he would be spoken to about his wrongdoing by everyone in the building? That he would be required to atone in a kind of re-education process? Would a five-year-old ever understand the full significance of his crime?
The mother of the wicked child is the only one in the house with a car and often finds herself out of step with everyone else, spiritually and politically. She got off to a bad start the day she arrived, somehow managing to nab her generously apportioned apartment by jumping the queue of neighbours in smaller flats who’d had their eyes on it. It was clear she knew what her son had done to the community, and what it meant, for she immediately went out and returned with a new tree in a fake-wood box. She hauled the stricken Asa into a corner, and she replaced it with her new guilt-tree. I cannot begin to describe to you the ugliness of the thing she purchased. Ersatz of the worst kind. Before I saw it, I never thought a tree could look cheap.
Since then, it’s grown, and now appears ridiculous as well. Dominating the centre of the Hof, it’s outgrown its thin container and threatens to tumble over in the slightest breeze. The Asa, meanwhile, still lurks in the corner where it was put to die. But it hasn’t died. Despite the fact that it must compete for resources with other plants – weeds really – that have been allowed to grow alongside it in its handsome ceramic pot, it has been busy sprouting leaves like crazy all summer and it has even developed fragile and lovely new branches. It has begun, in a slightly scaled-down way, to look beautiful again.
But earlier this week, after unlocking my bike on my way to work, I gave the thing an inspection and saw that it has become diseased. The delicate spikey leaves are covered in white spots. Stuck in its corner, it may be dying after all. Now it is sick, will anyone drag it out and put it back where it belongs? Would it be too much of a statement against the unpopular neighbour to do so? Two trees can’t occupy the middle ground so it would mean replacing her great ugliness, and perhaps she would feel insulted and belittled? “A diseased Asa is preferable to your poor idea of beauty”, we would be saying. If we all take care of each other, must we also take care of the feelings of the unpopular neighbour?
However, I believe – bugger what anyone thinks – why not? – I’m going to swap them round and put the Asa back where it belongs.
Ihm aus dem Fenster nachzusehn wie von Bäumen
Mit zunehmender Entmischung und Gentrifizierung bleiben schließlich einige wenige benachteiligte Stadtgebiete zurück, in denen aufgrund mangelnder Ressourcen nachbarschaftliche Beziehungen umso wichtiger zur Bewältigung des Alltags und für den sozialen Austausch werden.
Der (unterstellte) Widerstreit von Kunst- und Meinungsfreiheit auf der einen und political correctness bzw. „Zensur“ auf der anderen Seite wurde so mit dem Gegensatz von Zentrum und Peripherie verschränkt…
.…die 1923 bei einem Spaziergang durch den Berliner Tiergarten ihre differierenden Visionen einer afroamerikanischen Ästhetik über den Rückgriff auf deutsche (männliche) Künstler diskutierten…
Wenn Nike stirbt, muss dann wieder ein neuer Partner für das Verbliebene her. Der Anfang einer unendlichen Meerschweinkette.
So legt euch denn, ihr Brüder,
In Gottes Namen nieder;
Kalt ist der Abendhauch.
Verschon’ uns, Gott! mit Strafen,
Und laß uns ruhig schlafen!
Und unsern kranken Nachbar auch!
Matthias Claudius, Abendlied, 1779
Über das Projekt
Die Anthologie NACHBARSCHAFTEN, herausgegeben von Christina Ernst und Hanna Hamel, ist eine Publikation des Interdisziplinären Forschungsverbunds (IFV) „Stadt, Land Kiez. Nachbarschaften in der Berliner Gegenwartsliteratur“ am Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung in Berlin. Seit 2019 erforscht das Projekt das Phänomen der Nachbarschaft in der Gegenwartsliteratur und bezieht dazu auch Überlegungen aus unterschiedlichen wissenschaftlichen Disziplinen mit ein. In der im November 2020 online gestellten Anthologie können Leser*innen durch aktuelle Positionen und Perspektiven aus Literatur und Theorie flanieren, ihre Berührungspunkte und Weggabelungen erkunden und sich in den Nachbarschaften Berlins zwischen den Texten bewegen.