Thursday, 15 September 2011

Post Chamberlain, the Clash Years

Cologne at 5.30am for geo-spatial reasons which don't involve being a Time Lord, though I have been in conversation with a pair of Afrikaans who tease me about the riots and the rugby. It is a good time to see the Cathedral, which I know quite well. Tom Coryat devotes ten pages to its splendours and it was only half finished when he saw it. There are no tourists, just the very early workers emerging from the hauptbahnhof and the old streets behind the kunstmuseum are deserted all the way to the river, which is lacking its usual oom-pah-pah, but is nevertheless full of cafes and bars that will wake up soon enough. Always guilt in Cologne, the bombing and all that, and taking a very early morning wrong turn soon finds me in canyons of brand worship and modernity and it's hard to be a believer.

I take a kebab-smelling room in a hotel on the river, sleep a while and wake up for coffee outside with bright sunshine and an Aussie at the next table who's just flown in, via Singapore, for a show at the Messe. Hasn't slept yet, his Europe tip. Biggest Outdoor Equipment show in the world (just as walking from Dusseldorf, I'll experience the biggest shoe show in the world at its messe). These shows clog up the lone traveller's hotel options, closing down towns - which is good for business but bad for planning. So I am in the hotel kebaberee, where the phones don't work and the wifi is wilful and from my room, which keeps changing for no obvious reason the back street bar by my window echoes to karaoke 80s rock....I am a saint.

Soon we are onto sport and how, even when we have a good sporting team in England, we don't have the "arrogant, killer touch." No surprises for the country that does. I mention the Ashes; Robert mentions the number of South Africans in the England team. We move onto rugby, but Robert is an Aussie Rules guy. I say I've seen Irish Rules, hurling. "Yeah we play an exhibition game against those guys, but last time it got out of hand...they don't do blindside tackling off the ball there. There were a few fights....in the end we had to tell the guys stop the blindsiders or we'll ban you back at home."

Robert's company is Chinese; he spends a lot of time there. In the next hour I learn more about the economy, and the Chinese take-over. "You know we were in Vegas for a show and I walked over to an American company and the guy said, we're not talking to you, you're with them." Well, them seem to be doing nicely. its hot, I feel I am burning, so wander off for art, but get weigh laid by just watching the Cologne riverside, on a Thursday, as the small patches of grass fill with people catching the last days of summer. Buskers sing in English....and soon enough men in identical shirts, stags who knows, are singing songs and the music is blaring. Over the next two days I'll watch this part of Cologne a lot; as the brass bands and the rockers, and the disco boaters, and the generally soused enjoy this part of town. There is never a hint of trouble, except when dogs get a bit frisky.

Often, for large swathes of the day, there isn't a cafe seat to be found. "Empire State of Mind" does well with the punters, and there is a gymnastic healthy vibe to the small stretches of grass; not a description for those who lounge the cafes knocking back the local beer, the Kölsch, which I've known from other Time Lord Lives and will ignore all weekend in favour of enigmatic red wine (a conversation starter later in the outdoor club Underground). But the booze kicks, the brass band romps (generously) through Neil Diamond and that song about Alice that I thought had died out in 1608, and well, you know the repertoire. There is much singing along; later a rockabilly band does some decent Elvis...

This is the populist core of Cologne, but I am now obsessed, and not because of Rory Stewart, with the spaces in between.

Thomas Coryat may have had many problems on his walk, but he didn't have to find the coolest cocktail bar in Cologne, with the beds downstairs and the best vibe etc etc. And as it is on Mozart street, a schlep and a half even for such a seasoned walker in the humid evening, he wouldn't have found it even if he'd had Latin GPS. It is literally, well not literally, thousands of kilometers away and I walk across town for two hours, past malls, then into residential districts, dodgy estates; I ask local after local and decide this place must be in Copenhagen, so cool and discrete it obviously is. I try again in a park where some guys are fooling' around and others playing boule and I find Beethoven street, but not Mozart. I find hosts of places, a KGB club (always bad). I console my heavily sweaty self that I now know another Cologne, but of course I'm wrong. I've passed student places and Charles Eames stores, and then finally when I hit - after more directions and bemused looks - Mozart street my bar is deader than Leninism. I end up back in the park with the boule and the university crowd talking cultural materialism and conferences in Dublin and drink very bad red wine thinking: I could do this in Bloomsbury, which is not the objective. I wanted to see "Media Cologne." Across the river the satellite dishes and steely modernism of "Vox" channel declares its power, so where are its players? It's not unpleasant, but really Russell Square sur Cologne? There are, perhaps, one too many sets of red clogs for my liking. Tom probably went boozing about 20 metres from the cathedral, where if my nose for this sort of thing is good, which it is, he'd now be singing Take Me Home Country Roads, in Latin of course.

Hair is un-reconstituted here, which is a blessing, and discussion on the intense side. One of the downsides of academic globalism is that the lingua-franca English that glues the Germans, Irish, English, Danes etc. is the inevitability of conversations about world music...I know, sorry. It must have been the same with Tom, not surprised he was hooked up with fellow Latin speaking Englishmen by now, there is only so long you can tap your foot to pan pipes. I could wander back to the self printed group t-shirts of the riverfront, but I am in a sort of post Chamberlain mountain English guilt, post riot, hacking, mood. I keep going in honour of smorgasbord Cologne. I am lucky not to have found the Friesenstrasse demimonde, tomorrow is that joy, as by now I am a middle-aged sweaty, and would look strange taking an aperol spritz and noodling on my IPad. Luckily my wanderweg takes me to a student street that shouts: "No" and texting, but there is Stipel: ancient monument to German's punk movement and in the space of a couple hours with pierced social workers (drugs, teenagers, "not here in Cologne, the smaller towns, that's where the problems are") I learn a little about another Cologne. The artist who graffiti-sprayed the front of the bar wants to talk about success, which he feels is corrupting - for everyone. "They become arseholes," he reminds me, talking first of Damien Hurst, but then moving on to pretty much everyone. There's a game of pool which is pretty intense and then I think well sod the cocktails. I have found a tiny part of Cologne. Later I will watch older Germans passing the Stipel (the boot). They always - always - smile in recognition of earlier days when they once came here, when their generation had hope - and kein cocktail. But by then they are playing The Clash, perhaps for me as I have met the DJ, though I cannot remember his name. And maybe my memory is playing a few tricks. I have recommendations for tomorrow night, some institution of metal and otherness...By the time I get back to the river even the oom-pah has gone to bed. My room smells like a group of Oil riggers have speed vomited a kebab house. I paint my nose with "Kiehls" shaving foam and fall asleep. In the morning I have culture to consume.

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