We´re sitting in our local jazz club, the Steinmetzhöf, a former masonry workshop in Weißensee. A couple of friends have come over from London, visiting Berlin for the first time. They can feel that this is, in its way, quite a special place. The singer, Üschi Brüning, her husband, the saxophonist, Ernst-Ludwig Petrovsky, and the band, Take Five, are some of the greatest jazz musicians of the old East German Communist Republic and they remain important figures in the German jazz scene.
Observing the mainly senior citizens around us, Bob asks.
“So these people would all remember living in the old Communist East?”
“Of course,” I say.
“What do they think about all that now?”
“Well,” I give my standard reply, “I´ve yet to hear anyone say they want it back.”
The band strikes up. Dave Brubeck´s Take Five. A succession of jazz standards, beautifully played, and then Üschi joins them, even at sixty nine years old, her voice is still a wonderfully flexible instrument weaving between the sounds of the other players.
They take a break and my wife and Laura go for wine. Bob says,
“It feels generally like quite a local crowd?”
“Yea, it is.”
“And there wouldn´t be many here who would have been less than thirty, say, when the Wall came down?”
“So in a way,” he says, weighing his thoughts, “they´d be kind of what´s left of the DDR.”
“Well, yes.” I say, “not politically, of course. As jazz fans they´d have been a bit alternative. But yea, I´d say lots of them have grown old with the band. Maybe this is one of the places where you can still feel some continuity with that past.”
Laura and my wife are back with wine and something to eat.
“What´s that?” Bob asks, suddenly appalled.
“Hackapeter,” my wife replies, “raw mince, raw egg and onion, on toast. Delicious.”
She tucks in. Bob doesn´t.
Pushing me home along the Lehderstrasse Bob asks,
“So how did people feel when the Wall came down?”
“Lots of things, I think.” I say, “ above all, liberated. But then, anxious about the future, and then maybe, for some, a little ashamed …defeated, maybe.”
“Well, they knew, yea, it was a corrupt, spy ridden, bankrupt little state, but it was their corrupt, spy ridden, bankrupt little state. And some people didn´t want it to just disappear, they hoped to make something new, something different. But that wasn´t really on offer.”
“But people managed and got lots of support from the West.”
Bob is a look on the bright side kind of fella. Me not so much.
“Well, no one seems to talk about it. But I think women managed much better than men.”
Bob pauses and breathes in the night air beneath the Linden trees, their leaves a yellow glow in the street lamps. I think he´s still listening.
“Yea, the percentage of women in the workforce in the DDR was higher than anywhere else in the world. `Cos they had money, women could be more independent and so the divorce rate was high too.”
“So communist men were all feminists then?”
“No, ´course not. I mean women were expected to work. But they were also expected to do all the housework. But they got…easier to support women than change men… an extra day holiday a month to help them do it.”
“Not sure I´m buying this.”
“Ok, but some women in the DDR got self-confidence from somewhere. `Cos when the Wall came down they were off. Two thirds of young women between eighteen and thirtyish left the East between 1993 and 2008.”
“And your good lady wife amongst them. And the men?”
“Well, lots of men left too. The population dropped in the ten years after the Wall fell by about three and a half million, not far off a quarter of the population.
“But I think there was a particularly dramatic loss of traditional men´s jobs. In just a few years after reunification there was the kind of industrial decline that Liverpool or Detroit or the Rührpot had over decades. Shipyard workers in Rostock, potash miners in Bischofferode, textile workers in Apolda, factory workers in all kinds of industries in Sachsen, Berlin , Brandenburg…all gone.”
“They weren´t competitive.”
“Not sure a lot of time was spent working out if they were or not.”
“I´m sure they can´t have been.”
Laura and my wife have caught us up. Bob says,
“Anyhow, it´s all ancient history, now.”
My wife is looking at me closely, maybe regretting giving me that last glass of wine.
“No, we have a last chapter of the old DDR going on right now,” I say, avoiding my wife´s gaze. “It´s called the Alternative for Germany, like UKiP, except even more hostile to foreigners and refugees, a middle class party, representing business interests but gaining support among working class, unemployed and poor, middle aged and older, men from the old East”.
“But the jazz was good.” My wife says emphatically as she puts the key in the door. “And Üschi can really sing.”
On that we can all agree, as we settle down for a nightcap, Üschi can really sing.