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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY ONE HUNDRED AND ONE The Steps of St Martin's

You may be wondering why I am here already, given that I was in Hamburg yesterday. My pledge was to cycle for 101 hours – which is roughly what it would take to pedal from Berlin to London. As I think you saw from the posts, Germany has endless fascination and, at a key moment, impulse turned me north for the Ruhr, Bremen and Hamburg – rather than west along the Moselle to northern France and the ferry. The Race Marshal kindly consented to the new itinerary - so yesterday, replete with Hamburger Hummelsuppe, I believed that I had finished and got the train home.

But in a reverse of Around the World in 80 Days, the Race Marshal noticed that Hamburg was only Hour 100 – I still had one more hour's cycling to do. So there was a long, uphill pedal this morning around the top of Hampstead Heath before I was permitted to ascend the steps of St Martin's and receive signed authentication of 101 hours in the saddle.

Of course, I behaved well, and to thank the Race Marshal and her Harley for monitoring the ride, I offered lunch in the cafe in St Martin's crypt – a fest of sausage and mash, jam doughnuts and a cup of tea. The Race Marshal said how nice it was to be back to real food.

Just to say - your generosity over the last 101 days means that St Martin's homeless project has an additional £4,000 - which translates as two days' bed and board for all the people they look after. The people at the project have asked me to thank you for your kindness. They also wanted to say thank you to our American friends for their donations.

I wanted to thank the many people who sent suggestions for things to include and messages of support (thank you Barb, Kim, Aarfy and Catherine). Molly Marriner, who spent a month every year for three decades touring Germany with Neville, provided many of the stories that populate this blog – and I am sorry not to have included the ones about Weimar.

Particular thanks to the Reverend Fred Miller, Marcus Rees Roberts, Fred Sansom, Rick Morgan, Lizzie Gibson, David Taylor, Jean Taylor, James Norton and Maria Prinz for their kindness in donating guest posts to the endeavour.

And I am so sorry that I did not pedal through England so that we could have posts from Kathy Hill-Miller and Mary Barrie – and we missed Jamie Macdonald's piece on the wines of the Moselle (though we do have his splendid map of what should have been the route).

I also have some apologies: Stockhausen was a serious omission. A desire to get through Dresden meant no mention of Goethe or Schiller - and I should not have pedalled past the butcher’s shop in Friedrichstadt where Ludwig Kirchner and his Die Brücke friends began German Expressionism.

But perhaps my most heinous crime was not to include Maria Prinz's extraordinary account of a concert given in East Germany by von Karajan four decades ago.

So here it is:

As I already mentioned in my first guest text for this blog (Day Fifteen), I studied piano at the Hochschule für Musik “Hanns Eisler” in East Berlin between 1975 and 1980.

The situation in Berlin was very particular - a city, divided by a wall, a border as insurmountable (quite literally) as maybe no other one in the world. Almost every attempt to escape ended deadly.

Our Hochschule für Musik was in Otto Grotewohl Straße, the last street before the wall, a few steps from the Brandenburger Tor and the Hotel Adlon - a luxury hotel nowadays, a spooky ruin back then.

In 1960, on the other side of the wall was the building of the Berlin Philharmonie - still futuristic and impressive in 1975.

Studying music didn’t spare us lectures in Marxism-Leninism in a hall on the second floor, overlooking the wall and the Berliner Philharmonie.

I will never forget the longing, which I felt so often, when sitting through those dreary lectures, looking at the brightly lit concert hall and imagining how it would feel to be able to go to a concert there – perhaps with Herbert von Karajan conducting.

Herbert von Karajan! Born in Salzburg in 1908, he rose from first steps as Kapellmeister in Ulm to the Olympus for every conductor – principal of the Berliner Philharmoniker (1956-1989). A vibrant personality, politically far from proper in the Nazi era, liking fast cars and flying his private jet himself, incredibly interested in the latest trends of recording techniques - and at the same time one of the most inspired and inspiring musicians, enormously productive and creative.

At this time, it was more probable for one of us to fly to the moon than to be able to attend a live concert of the Berliner Philharmoniker under Herbert von Karajan.

But destiny is generous sometimes!

All of a sudden, in 1978, there were rumours that the orchestra with its illustrious chef would give a guest performance in East Germany. Of course not in Berlin (this would have been a provocation), but in Dresden.

Dresden had the reputation of an oasis, where art and tradition were more important than ideology. The concert hall there was the socialist version of the Berliner Philharmonie - the Kulturpalast, a modernistic building from 1969 with the biggest multi-purpose hall in Dresden.

My best friend – also a Bulgarian born young lady - her fiancé and I decided that we had to find a way to go to this concert.

We found out when ticket sales were supposed to start, travelled to Dresden the day before - only to find that there was already a long line at the box office. We spent all night there, sharing a camp chair, but when our turn came next morning, the few tickets available for sale were sold out.

We were far from giving up and simply travelled to Dresden again for the concert, determined to get into the hall one way or another. Everybody who knew about our action considered us completely crazy and predicted failure.

We waited in front of the hall, hoping that somebody would sell his ticket at the last moment, but nothing happened. It was already 5 minutes after the concert should have started, and we were still hanging around with just a few desperate people.

All of a sudden there was a movement in a small group in the direction of the hall and we just went with the stream and found ourselves inside the hall against the energetic protests of the ushers - who couldn’t intervene, because Karajan went out on stage at the same moment. It would have made a lot of noise and a real scandal if they had removed us with force.

So we stood there on the side of the hall and had the feeling of being in a dream. Very close, on stage, Karajan lifted his baton to conduct Beethoven’s 4th Symphony. And again - I will never forget this feeling of unbelieving happiness and triumph. We made it - we were listening to this wonderful orchestra and the great maestro is just a few meters away from us!

It was not easy to escape the severe ushers during the intermission, but we disappeared into the crowd and went again into the hall at the last moment, together with Karajan’s entrance on stage, rewarded by a fantastic performance of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.

For the audience in Dresden, this was a first ray of hope, a crack in the insurmountable wall dividing East and West, but it took ten more years until the Wall fell. And then in December 1989 it was another legend - Leonard Bernstein who conducted Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, celebrating the fall of Berlin Wall.

Thank you very much Maria – an extraordinary story to end with.

And I almost forgot: the Lancing of the Blisters Party will now be next year – but it will happen and it will be sensational. And we need to thank again Sheila Hayman and Marshall Johnson, chefs beyond compare, who are baking a Frankfurter Crown Cake for the winners of the raffle in, respectively, England and America.

Speaking of the United States, that's where we're off to next. The new blog will run alongside the book I am writing on American history and will produce two or three posts a week. Out of the schlag and into the ….

Donald Trump's America (c)meirion harries

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Aug 09, 2020

I do love that photo with RUMP lit up!

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