On my last visit to Berlin, as I was walking away from Ka De We, I became aware of a man in front of me behaving in a curiously unsettling way. I checked my money belt and took mild evasive action. My German companion, Gudrun, smiled and when I asked why, she said that he had said ‘Ein mann in der rose!’ It was my own bloody fault for stepping out in pink shorts – by Gant, if it matters – in the gay capital of the world. There are queens all over the bloody place. Not today, thanks, Sportsman; I’m trying to give it up.
Now the Queen is in town. It was quite a show the other night on the BBC and I enjoyed every bit of it. This country of ours cannot hold a more devout or desperate republican than me – I think I will die before we get independence and self-government – but it is hard not to admire the most complete civil servant the world has known since we lost George Smiley (and then Alec Guinness died). And then there is the ceremony. And the hats. And the troops.
Berlin is now my favourite city. I have been there often. First in 1967, when they were still adjusting to the Wall and getting over the death of JFK. (They loved him!) The West was like Las Vegas; the East was like a barren bombsite, where you picked up a tail in the Law Library, and you chickened out on your resolve to sell blood to ease the pressure on hitch-hiking at a pound a day at the thought of entrusting your body to a brawny Comrade Fraulein with B O and muscles. The Americans at Checkpoint Charlie – where real youth hostellers just had to get their passport stamped – asked for your address in case you did not come back. Bloody charming.
By the time of my next visit, the Wall was down, and the Berliners were coming to grips with the skeletons and relics of generations of a police state. Some jurists were given a tour of the Stasi HQ on Normanenstrasse. We saw miles upon miles of files. It was horrifying. I returned there more than once. It was eerie watching people trying to piece together the shreds of their own lost dignity. For some reason, I find that place more chilling than the HQ of the Gestapo on PrinzAlbrechtsrasse – which, like so much of this great city, is now a museum.
On a later visit, I spread some of the ashes of Mac and Norma in the Tiergarten, as I did on that swish promenade in Dresden, and on my last visit, Gudrun and I did what for me was my first canal trip from near its south east corner. It is terrific because you get to see their Toorak, the range of their architecture, and parts of the Wall. This is definitive tourism, but I suspect that I was the only one on the boat who was not German. I was not surprised that my companion, who comes from the West, got so emotional there, as she did at the old imperial Sloss. How would you feel if, say, the Japs had been sitting on one side of the Yarra for fifty years and not letting anyone across?
Gudrun is, I may say, just a bit older than me, having been born during the war and having had a father killed in action in it. I might say how I met her. It was at a Cambridge Summer School on Stuart Parliaments taught by Dr David Smith. I noticed Gudrun looking toward God each time David mentioned the common law. I gave her a run-down. One thousand years, sixteen volumes of Sir William Holdsworth’s History of English Law, over morning tea. The Germans are good learners.
David had previously led a weekend course I did at Oxford on Cromwell that changed my views on a few things. He is the best teacher I have known. He is a model of modesty and courtesy. He turns up a bit like his mum has dressed him. He starts on time and at each tutorial he hands out about six pages of printed notes from primary sources. During the tutorial, he will carefully read out loud all that material. He encourages questions and discussions and he rarely gives closed answers. But somehow or other, and without appearing to alter a step, he always manages to get to the end of the one and a half hour trip, and look up as if surprised and say ‘Well, and I see it is just time for lunch.’ Every time within a minute of the appointed time – within one minute. It is quite some party trick. This really winds up the Americans – and me. It is like a blackfella playing footy – no other bastard knows how it’s done.
Well, the Queen looked terrific, and so did the Duke. The German President is a tall strongly built man, and the lady with him – I am told not his wife – looked elegant in her hat. All the ladies were in hats, and the Guard had berets in light blue, a colour favoured by Her Majesty, we were advised, and carbines. The guards on the doors presented arms and turned eyes to the passageway. God only knows how many of the Guard are queens – the German Minister of Defence is Ursula von der Leyen, a woman of film-star good looks, seven kids, and an understanding husband (a professor of medicine drawn from the aristocracy) – and when your nation has the history of Germany, you do not buggerise around with the office of the Ministry of Defence. The show was not as florid or circus-like as at the Palace in London, but it was still bloody good theatre.
The BBC wheeled out one of those Palace gurus, an aging man with a peculiarly vulgar tie, who made the interesting remark that the Queen has been a lot more relaxed at these events since her mother died. We were told that the Duke speaks German – Gudrun’s grandma calls him Herr Von Battenberg – and that the Queen speaks French – and that would be a very rare double for representatives of the government of Britain in Europe. (We might put to one side that the House of Windsor got rid of the German in its name during one period of unhappiness.)
Then they went off to call on Frau Merkel (who is fluent in Russian), and we were invited to reflect that this meeting of two women could be a meeting of the two most respected government figures in the world. They are certainly the two sanest and smartest. And after walking on gravel paths through linden trees beside cream buildings that remind us that Europe finishes at the border after the next, they went by boat up the River Spee. As I had done.
It was wonderful television, and a good example of why sane Australians should avoid watching anything on TV that might bear on Oz politics. (I cannot understand why so many people who are fixated on the ABC spend so much of their time looking at it. I never watch Oz news and I have never seen Q & A, so most of The Oz at the moment may as well be in Greek; why doesn’t Gerard Henderson or Mr Shanahan or Mr Sheridan just get a weekly report from the CIA and spare themselves exposure to anathema?)
Does any of this show matter? I think it might. Europe is falling apart because, as happens across the spectrum, the ideas of the political drivers have become divorced from those of the people, and the centre looks like it will not hold. It will shortly face an issue much larger than the Greek tragi-comedy – will Britain stay in? I think it will, but the Germans are desperate that it does. Why? Because if the Poms drop out, the dominance of Germany will be unavoidable, and no sane German wants any form of European dominance. There is simply no good precedent.
So, this might be one of those rare moments where a little flag-waving does no harm. And in the name of heaven, compare what we saw yesterday in Berlin with what was happening there seventy years ago, shortly before I was born – VE day was on 8 May 1945. It was in truth like the arse-end of Mars, and some in Britain wanted it wiped off the map, and if you put all this nonsense about the Euro to one side, that is why we all have an interest in the Union being sustained.
And what bliss to watch two political figures looking so assured in their own skins. I have just mentioned my age so I will not be accused of putting my hand out for judicial preferment when I say that the collapse of the party system across the western world and the fearfully inane posturing of the men inclines me to the view that the women may be our best or only hope. (And, yes, Boys, that statement is far from universal. If I had to nominate a political leader who was in it for zero but ego to match Bill Shorten, it would be Hillary Clinton. But to return to the main point, check out Ursula, and try to banish the thought of a meeting between her and our Minister of Defence, Doctor Death.)
Finally, j’espere que vous restiez encore Australien or spero manere etiam Australiensis. Both are probably horribly wrong, but I mean to say that I hope that you still remain an Australian, and that a bad fairy has not come and stolen your citizenship during the night. Or that you have not been butchered in your sleep by an extremist before you had a chance to make a donation to the Party.
Come to think of it, if that very unattractive sometime walloper from Queensland, who looks to be a serial fool, were to cancel my citizenship, would I be discharged from my oath of allegiance to the Queen who is presently in the land of her ancestors? The oath did seem to me to be dangerously wide, especially given some very ugly German precedents of oaths of loyalty to a certain German head of state, but when I raised my problem with a senior and urbane judge, he coolly observed that they were just giving notice that you could still be hanged for treason. Neither he nor I had in mind someone quite as off-colour as the current Prime Minister.
I think that golf has finally found what it needed to replace the Tiger, and it took two of them. I asked a mate who plays and knows golf who he fancied between Spieth and McIlroy. He replied:
Well – Spieth is better at getting it around the course and into the hole day in day out. He really did not play that well in the final round but still got it done on a wicked course with greens not fit for a crappy public course.
When the Irishman is on song he hits as well as or better than Tiger in his prime (I am dealing with on course matters only) and that is the highest compliment available.
Spieth is Steve Waugh; the Irishman is Brian Lara.
That is about my view, and I have clear preference for Waugh, just about the steeliest cricketer if not sportsman I have ever seen.
If I was religious, I would ask God to save the Tiger from going out like Ali. It is just too painful to watch.