of anarchism, weissbier and bongos


I’ve never really ‘got’ anarchism. All that bad press about bombs, random violence and monochrome dress sense. Things that admittedly self proclaimed ‘anarchists’ often seem to have internalised. And Germany which takes so much pride in ‘ordnung’ that there’s only one direction you’re allowed to park in on each side of any street, would seem a strange place to have an epiphany about anarchism. But maybe Berlin, ‘poor and sexy’, as my friend Stefan told me it is, isn’t.

Meet Victor. A Berliner, a’ Wessie’, that is from the old West Berlin, in his mid fifties, greying straggly hair, cowboy boots, jeans and a black leather jacket that has seen better days, but with a smile that hopes to see better still. He and his dog drink Weissbier by the beautiful, and now beautifully autumnal, lake, WeissenSee, that gives the area we live in its name. And he’s an anarchist. Which he says was down to the Bishop.

‘i was kneeling before the altar. I was fourteen. I was a nervous, nerdy kid, bottle bottom glasses and suppurating spots…… It was the sacrament of Confirmation…so I’d be a grown up in the Church…and responsible, like I had any idea how to be irresponsible!…..and the Bishop rustles up to me and makes the sign of the cross on my forehead with his thumb, and looks me laser like in the eyes, and I manage to squeak out I’m taking the name Peter, and he looks at me, dilating pupils, and says,…absolutely not what he was supposed to say…… ‘you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.’ Bang! An existential moment! Silence and stillness throughout the known and unknown Universes! Smiles to himself and then he rustles on, before going back to the sacrisity to put his hand up the cassock of some unsuspecting novitiate or other….who knows?…… But that was it I’ve been an anarchist ever since!’

Victor takes a long slurp from a pleasingly still heavy bottle, leans forward and drips a little more in the saucer for the dog, and leans back on the bench.

OK, at this point, you’re probably suspecting, and you’d be right, that he only said approximately that, ‘cos after three weeks my German really isn’t going to be that good. But the gist and the spirit are there I think.

Although it wasn’t apparent to me, and probably isn’t to you, why he wasn’t a Catholic then and not an anarchist….

‘I am a Catholic,….I’m a Catholic in waiting……. waiting for the Pope and the rest to catch up….What it meant was that I was never going to want to be anybody else. The Bishop made me feel so big, so strong, so incredibly…..'(…he struggles for the word, shaking his head slightly as he does so…)’…… central……that I came away knowing that I was never going to want to be anybody else. And I never have! When I score a goal playing with the kids across the way on the grass there. I know it’s just as good a feeling as when Ballack or Podolski scores in the Olympia Stadion, or when I kiss my girlfriend,….’  (Victor lolls forward, conspiratorial, among men.)’ ……it’s as lovely a kiss as any man is going to get today, and this beer….(he holds the bottle with one hand and, palm upward, taps the can with one of the many rings on the fingers of his other hand)…is as charming a snifter as any Sommelier anywhere in his dark cellar will be sniffing today.’

He takes a long swig, as the browning palmate leaves of the horse chestnut swirl and dapple the sunlight at our feet.

‘But that just makes you a hedonist, not an anarchist..doesn’t it?’

‘No…..hedonism is for wimps, I’d say I’m a jihadi of enjoying myself and…. If you really take yourself seriously then you just reject….you just don’t buy lots of crap….(in translating the following examples are adapted for a largely English audience….this gives Victor a moment to get his breath..)…like that the best fun you can have every night  is watching other people doing things on the telly, or that Robbie Williams is talented, or that kids should pay thousands to educate themselves, or that Trident isn’t a waste of money, or that the poor will always be with us, or that David Starkey knows anything, or that Simon Cowell is a good thing for music, or that you should do a job that’s an insult to your intelligence for 48 hours a week, for bugger all, until you drop dead from exhaustion….or whatever,’ (loud) ‘WHATEVER!’ (sweeping arm gesture across the arc of the pale blue sky) ‘..OR WHOEVER!’……(maybe Victor’s getting a little bit drunk)….’whoever or whatever is better somewhere else…..God how I hate….hate….(pauses for effect and raises his head to look at me…the Bishop isn’t the only one who can do laser eyes… and then slowly, contempt for each syllable…. )…aspiration.’

The dog tries to get up but its back legs give away beneath him and he slumps back to the ground. Victor slumps back on the bench. I think maybe a change of subject…

‘So do you not work?’

‘I wipe old people’s arses. Part time.’

‘Part time?’

‘Part time. I love the old people and they love me. And I stay there much more than I’m paid for, chatting to them, hearing about their lives, because…’

I interrupt…’because if you were paid for it, it would take away from it, it would make it less valuable, not more…’

Victor smiles and says as he closes his eyes to enjoy a quick kip…

‘You’ll make an anarchist yet.’

Ok so as an introduction to anarchism as a rich political and philosophical tradition this rather wonky conversation leaves a lot to be desired. Hell,… it doesn’t touch at all on crucial issues like the vexed question of how the systemic problems of polycentric governance systems are only partially resolved by the development of confederations of libertarian municipalities as promoted in contemporary anarchistic social paradigms…..but that is a question to return to another day….no, I really will return to it another day.

For now what I got from Victor was the sense that maybe mainstream culture (for want of a better phrase) sells us all short. It gives us people to feel superior to, like the endless contemptuous abuse of the underclass, the chavs, in England that is also here in Germany, with those who claim the Social Security benefit called Hartz Vier, who are contemptuously known as ‘asis’, or antisocials. And people to admire, mostly millionaires, business people and obsessives, like the UK athletic chief who has just resigned because he’ failed’ to hit his target for gold medals despite the undoubted huge success of the Games and the team.

The problem with cultural arbiters, like Simon Cowell, is not that they’re horrible people…who knows?….. (although German has a great word, the ‘Ichidiot’, the Iidiot, for the egotism that ‘succesful’ people in our cultures so often must have to ‘get ahead’) , nor that popular mainstream culture is terrible, its just that its not popular culture at all. A popular musical culture is not on television. It is, as in Ireland, down the pub, any old pub, on a Saturday night where people naturally sing and play, or any old club or bar in Lisbon or Andulacia where people dance not to be better than anybody else, but because they can. Too much in our culture distracts from expressing our individual spirit. Or too much crap gets in the way of having a really good time. ‘I’m a bit of a bongos man myself’. As the Anarchist might have said to the Bishop.