Brussels April 2014 003

A day trip to Brussels for day two of the 18th Congress of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.

Brussels April 2014 042

I was travelling with Sara Chandler of Caravana – an organisation working for human rights in Colombia – who was to give a paper on the current situation there.  It’s dire.  Lawyers are imprisoned, death threats are issued particularly to those working in the area of human rights, such as land rights, when people are shifted out of their homes for the purposes of big business.  And lawyers are killed.  Caravana organises trips of lawyers to Colombia which brings international scrutiny to the situation and provides some small protection for the lawyers there.

It was a bright sunny day in Brussels, and we walked through the park to the Vrije University where the conference was being held.  It was an inspiring event – lawyers from all over the world, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, Haiti, Japan, Vietnam, India, the Philippines, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Cameroon, Australia, the USA, Canada, Turkey, Portugal, France – you name it.  There were head-sets and interpreters of French, English, Spanish, Arabic and Dutch, with other languages as necessary.  On the day we were there sessions were held on the Independence of the Judiciary and the protection of lawyers,

brussels April 2014 012

the crisis of international law, and trade union rights as well as the rights of migrants and the right to protest.

Brussels April 2014 017

Other days would cover the new international economic order, the Human Right to a clean environment, promoting people’s rights and the struggle for gender equality.  There was also a commission on Iraq covering sanctions, invasion, torture, and the violation of international law.  Another workshop would be held on Palestinian Human Rights and another on the activities of transnational companies.

There was also time, in our short day, for meeting other delegates and sharing experiences, making contacts and catching up with old friends.  The Progress Lawyers Network, the firm in Brussels with responsibility for most of the organisation, had done a tremendous job, the firm members and the many vounteers made for a smooth machine.

On top of that, lawyers from several countries signed up for the next Caravana to Colombia in August, which was a great response for Sara.

We went home tired but happy, inspired to fight another day.


Berlin Brandenburg from Unter den Linden

What a strange and fascinating place it is.  I last went to Berlin in about1983 for a conference in West Berlin about European Nuclear Disarmament. We talked about Greenham Common.  We walked about in the city.  We visited the Wall.

Berlin Wall 1983

Then we had a free day, a day-off from the conference, and we went to East Berlin.  It felt so radical and brave, my first visit to a communist country.  But because we had conference papers with us we were stopped at the checkpoint and asked many questions and had our papers taken away and were required to sign a document – all in German, my O level had not prepared me for this – before we could leave.  But a good lesson for a defence lawyer – you will sign anything even if you don’t understand it, to get out of custody.  And all I wanted to say was – but we’re on your side!

But now, at leisure, relaxed, what you see in the city everywhere are memorials to war – WWI, WWII and the Cold War.  The fact of the new buildings, the still empty bomb sites, Checkpoint Charlie, the endless stream of tourist buses (we went on one), the statues of men on horses, all come back to the conflicts this city has seen.

Berlin the American sector             Berlin Checkpoint Charlie

Berlin East

There was the moving and unsettling Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, there was the site of the burning of the books.  There were the memorials to the gays and lesbians murdered by the Nazis and there was the memorial to the Roma who also died.

There were pieces of the Wall and there were jokes about Trabant cars – sometimes together.

Trabant and Wall

But then there were little pockets of otherness.  On Saturday morning we walked around in the north of the Mitte district (in the old East section) and saw crumbling old buildings that had been converted into artist studios, or restaurants, or small concert arenas.  And interesting graffiti.

Berlin April 2014 255

Berlin April 2014 233

We hadn’t had breakfast.  Then we found a a small arty cafe, Cafe Bravo, in a courtyard in an unassuming street.  As we dived into freshly cooked pancakes and maple syrup with strawberries and apple, our waitress told us that she was from West Germany and although there was unification there was still a strong sense of what was West and what was East.  And she preferred the East because things were happening here, art, film, music.  The West was just about money.

Berlin every other quality

And then there was Isherwood’s Neighbourhood walk.  We hadn’t organised this but a couple of texts were sent and received and we had a date for the next day.  Isherwood lived in the south of the city, away from the main tourist drag, and the walk took us to all the places he would have known and visited.  When you have loved Cabaret for as long as I have – a student of mine from 1972 remembers me telling the class if they did one thing in all of their lives, they had to go and see Cabaret (I was at that time an English teacher) – it was wonderful to stand for a moment outside the house Isherwood lived in, the basis of his novel Goodbye to Berlin and the starting point for Cabaret.   What I loved about Cabaret was the way it effortlessly and effectively combined comedy, drama, music and the politics of the time, the rise of the National Socialists.

Berlin April 2014 363

Berlin Isherwood plaque

To imagine Isherwood knocking on the front door, being welcomed by the landlady Fraulein Schroeder and being shown round the apartment, and introduced to all the strange individuals who lived there, just there, across the road, at those windows, was fabulous.  Brendan Nash who created the walk was a great guide, knowledgeable, accessible, patient and passionate about his subject.  If you do one thing in Berlin, go on this walk.

All change

Crouch End April 2014 014

Crouch End

Where once was Blockbuster video is now a hip new coffee shop.  The shelves where we would hover and scrutinise film titles, seeking an evening’s entertainment, have been replaced with chandaliers and easy chairs.  But a rather good flat white, albeit in a glass rather than a cup.

Crouch End April 2014 005 (1)

And so on to Arthouse – a new cinema!  In Crouch End!  In the old Salvation Army Hall!

Crouch End Arthouse

Crouch End April 2014 017

It’s been adapted in an inviting fashion, concrete floors, wooden mismatched tables and chairs with a bar selling coffee and alcohol, and another small sitting area up some wooden stairs.  And two cinema screens.  All looking very good and eminently supportable.

And so we booked to see The Double. Jesse Eisenberg, James Fox, Mia Wasikowska, Chris O’Dowd, based on a Dostoesvsky story – it was so promising.  Unfortunately,  it was not as good as it should have been.  It was not a story I was ever going to enjoy, a pathetic man being trodden down by his confident doppelganger, but it was irritating, the silences, the dark depressing set and the predictability of it all.  However, the cinema was full, and there were trailers for some very good looking films.  A positive development.

Next time – artistic creation.  An attempt at cake making.  Should this be the cover of A Sense of Occasion?

A Sense of Occasion 018