Tuesday, 29 December 2015

York Floods

I love my city. This Christmas it has been all over the telly, and for all the wrong reasons.

We were lucky. So many - thanks to the catastrophic failure of the Foss flood barrier - were not.

This is how near the river came to our house

Because a) York folk are who they are and b) the telephone exchange flooded and cut off all our phones and internet, people went out on to the streets to see what they could do to help each other.

The army were incredible, delivering thousands of sandbags and lifting in spare parts to the Foss flood barrier by Chinook helicopter.

The kindness of strangers has been humbling and heartwarming. Farmers drove to our street late at night, delivering a pump to a family battling to keep the Ouse out of their house.

David Cameron turned up in wellies and denied he or his government's policies had in any way contributed to the problem.

Shortly before Dave got there

Now we are on the eve of Storm Frank.

The bridge in Tadcaster has just collapsed.

I don't know how much more the people can take.

Just hoping we all get through this.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Back In Time For Christmas

My favourite TV family of the year - the Robshaws - came back for two Christmas specials. Hooray!

To explore Christmas dinner, obviously, and how it - and the day itself - changed between the 1940s and 1990s. For each decade they moved to a different house that looked the part in its furnishings and architectural design. With the odd added grand piano.

They start off in World War II. They have to make their own Christmas tree out of scraps of wood and paint it green. They also have to make their own Christmas presents - a spinning top, a seed driller, and sticky carrot fudge. They are given asbestos snow to play with. (Well, not really, but pity the poor 1940s sods who genuinely were.) Dinner is stuffed ox heart. Dad Brandon looks relieved to be called up for Home Guard duty immediately after it is dished up. Pudding looks like our "traditional" family recipe, which includes carrot, apple and potato. Ours is delicious, but the Robshaws' is somewhat spoiled when the girls make a sauce for it that mistakes salt for sugar. Still, at least it means their extra Christmas sugar ration will last into January.

And then - since we are in the Blitz - it's off to the local air raid shelter, where Lionel Blair is waiting. Brandon excitedly gets out his ukelele and they have a little sing-along while Lionel reminisces about performing on Piccadilly Line platforms as a boy. The air raid siren still sends a chill down his spine. The bombing stopped for Christmas in December 1940, but it could hardly have been construed as Peace on Earth in London that year. 100,000 incendiary devices were dropped on the city just a few days later. The stress must have been unbearable. It puts the scrum of panic-buying parents desperate to get their hands on a Tinky Winky 60 years later rather in perspective.

In the 1950s, the Robshaws get a real tree, albeit a slightly threadbare one. Rationing is over. The house is light and colourful - the blackout curtains, and the gloom, have gone. There is a cocktail party, where Rochelle serves canapes of anchovies, olives and Spam, washed down with Snowballs. The olives have apparently been popularised by an influx of Italian migrants. The Spam (opened by the world's scariest tin opener) presumably hasn't. On Christmas Day the family - like most would have done - go to church. They eat ham and tinned peaches for dinner, wheeled in on the world's wobbliest trolley. Mum is given a new pinny, the girls get books on ladies etiquette and "old lady" scarves. Then (while Mum does the washing up) the boys head off on the bus (yes, the bus, on Christmas Day!) to a football match. Apparently the last full bus service on Christmas Day was in 1979. By then the traditional Christmas Day footie matches had moved to Boxing Day. The Robshaws also see the Queen's first Christmas television broadcast.

In the 1960s, the house and hair go all Mad Men on us. It may be properly cold out (ice skating and everything), but there are plenty of luxuries inside as it is boomtime. The Robshaws get their first artificial tree and go to the panto, which in the 1960s would have starred the likes of Cliff Richard or Sid James. They have to make do with Christopher Biggins in Greenwich. Turkey makes its first appearance at the dinner table, thanks to factory farming making it affordable. For presents, they give each other cigarettes. Even the kids get smoking-themed chocolate. Rochelle also gets a new hoover, and Fred the son a Johnny Seven full weapons kit, which just looks so wrong through 2015 eyes. Brandon is very jealous.

This wish-fulfilment for the adults continues into the 1970s, when Giles Coren (dressed as Santa) finally gets the Evel Knievel toy he so coveted as a boy. (It turns out to be a bit of a disappointment.) The amount of presents being given has risen sharply, and the children choose their wish list from the Argos catalogue - a Polaroid camera, a chopper bike, a lava lamp. (Man, I LOVED the Argos catalogue as a kid.) Though Fred is unimpressed when what he is actually given is a Battleships game, deeming it to be far too "Boring!". The 1970s games of Frustration and Mastermind and an Etch-a-Sketch get a warmer reception, though mostly from the nostalgic adults. A pop-a-matic dice! But nobody can remember what exactly was frustrating about Frustration. Can you?

All this despite the 1970s being another time of austerity, with frequent power cuts and the government urging restraint on the Christmas lighting.

The 1970s were also when the race for the Christmas number one started. The Robshaws go to meet David "Kid" Jensen, the only 1970s DJ still allowed to appear in public, at a record shop. When they get home they dance to Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody. More shivers down the spine, but not quite the same level of dread. Brandon wants to learn the chords on his ukelele. He certainly has some dance moves.

Real trees are back in vogue, now they have been sprayed with fire-proofing chemicals. But the tinsel is out of control. And ooh, those garlands. We had loads of those in our lounge. So bad.

The turkey for dinner is now frozen, which results in days of defrosting in a bucket and a much higher risk of food poisoning. "Maybe I won't have any," says Mum Rochelle, "In case anyone needs medical assistance." On the plus side it means that the sprouts are pre-prepared and frozen too, saving Rochelle much time in the kitchen. Sprouts it seems are the only constant of dinner every decade. As is Rochelle being in the kitchen. And goodness me, they are eating off the same circular white dining room table that we had at home!

Still very much in use in the 1980s

The 1970s also sees the first starter at Christmas dinner - deep-fried avocado stuffed with Brie. There are 4000 calories in the dinner - in the 1970s we ate 40% more saturated fat than we do today. There is a deep fryer actually integral to the kitchen. The house is full of nibbles - chocolates, sweets and nuts, so that people can graze all day. Time to veg out in front of the television - but only three channels to choose from, all showing comedy. Mike Yarwood, The Two Ronnies, and a Morecambe and Wise classic that got 28 million viewers when first broadcast and still makes us laugh today.

The 1980s mark the switch from comedy classics to the soap opera cliffhanger on Christmas Day. "Merry Christmas, Ange!" snarls Dirty Den as he serves up her divorce papers. The Robshaws go off to meet Pat Butcher/Evans in the Queen Vic. She says that seeing everyone being miserable in EastEnders helps people put their own problems into perspective. As does seeing people starving in Ethiopia on harrowing news footage presented by Michael Buerk. The images still shock today. As do the appalling haircuts on the Band Aid video.

My second ever single. I won't admit to the first.
Back in their "squishy and pink" 1980s house which is big enough for their shoulder pads and hair, exotic fruit is on the menu. Mango! Kiwi fruits!

The house is now supposed to be decorated according to a theme suggested by a magazine. The Robshaws choose one in Tory blue. For gifts, there are executive toys, fluorescent earrings, power beads, Trivial pursuit and a genuine fur coat. "It's the dog!" wails Rochelle. And the family get their first computer. Just like our BBC Micro B, plugged into the television. They rustle up a turkey salad and a trifle using the aforementioned exotic fruits. But somebody forgets to make them taste nice. "Underwhelming," complain the teenagers, to the sound of the Pogues.

Home sweet home

Finally the Robshaws are back in their own house for the 1990s. The Christmas season is getting longer and starting ever earlier. The Spice Girls switch on Christmas lights on Oxford Street in November. And people are switching on lights outside their homes as well as inside.

An average of 135 pounds is being spent on presents for each child. Most of it on credit cards. The stocking, still there with its tangerine, is now mostly an aside to the enormous games consoles being bandied around as gifts. The Robshaws say they are going to need a new house to store all the presents: it's too much.

A billion Christmas cards are being sent every year. The first e-Card appears in 1992, but as only about 20% of households have internet access at the end of the 1990s, most still rely on the traditional envelope in the post. The Robshaws sit and type their first "round robin" letter on the computer. They get into the spirit of the thing, telling big show-offy lies about how great and successful they are. They are of course great and successful - they have their own TV series for starters, although they don't mention this. Instead the letter starts with "We had a big extension with a lovely patio" and ends with "Brandon won Eurovision". And they pity the recipients for their lesser achievements.

Gary Rhodes turns up to cook the Robshaws a Christmas breakfast - Eggs Royale. The Christmas dinner comes from a massive supermarket shop (plainly not being done on Christmas Eve since the supermarket is empty and civilised). The 1990s is the decade when everyone's Christmas dinner starts to taste the same, as more and more people rely on all the trimmings (and there are a lot of trimmings) being ready-made and mass produced. Only unlike in the 1970s or 1980s, it all tastes pretty good.

Depressingly, most Brits name drinking as their favourite Christmas activity.

Mulled wine for Mummy

And Amontillado for Santa

Mum Rochelle claims at the start of the show that she is not a fan of Christmas as she finds it stressful. Taking it back to simpler times when it was just a short-term holiday rather than something vastly overcommercialised that lasts for weeks takes the stress out of it. It also shows us how to appreciate it more, and to see the traditions that lie behind everything we do today. Brandon says that every decade has has its own social problems - war, power cuts, unemployment - but that Christmas is always a light shining in the darkness to give people something positive to focus on.

And it ends with them dancing in the snow. We always want snow. "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas..." Our daughter EXPECTS a white Christmas. She was sorely disappointed last year and I expect this year will be the same. She will be the one shouting her parents out of bed early in the morning, just like the Robshaw children.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

The Bridge/Bron/Broen III

Hollow talking and hollow girl
Force it up from the root of pain
Never said it was good, never said it was near
Shadow rises and you are here
And then you cut
You cut it out
And everything
Goes back to the beginning

I remember visiting a family in Denmark in 1990 who over dinner told me of the plan to build a bridge between Copenhagen and Sweden. This completely blew me away. Build a bridge over the sea? Really? It seemed preposterous. Unbelievable. Remember that this was a time before the Channel Tunnel opened. Plus my geography was more than a little skewed and I had no idea just quite how near the south of Sweden was to the Danish capital. I imagined gigantic suspension arches strung sky high across hundreds of miles of ocean waves, with a road flailing to and fro in the air between them. Which wasn't quite what they had in mind. Obviously.

The double-decker High Level bridge across the River Tyne
is in the background
Nonetheless, the Oresund Bridge, which was finished about ten years later, is an undeniably impressive structure. It's double decker for starters - top deck for cars, bottom for trains. (Though Robert Stephenson did this first in Newcastle in 1847, with the trains on top.) And it does have a couple of very tall suspension towers, even if they aren't quite on the scale I imagined. But it doesn't actually go all the way across the strait - only as far as a manmade island in the middle, then it plunges into the water to become a tunnel, which looks more than a little freakish when viewed from the air. This is presumably to prevent planes landing or taking off from nearby Copenhagen Airport crashing into anything.

I have never seen The Bridge in the (concrete) flesh, only on the television series it has given its name to. And thanks to The Bridge, I am not sure I ever want to see it. Or even go near it. A lot of terrible things happen on that bridge. Boat collisions. Shootings. Corpses severed in two. A mustard coloured Porsche permanently speeding across it.

How did the Copenhagen and Malmo police cooperate before the Bridge was built? Did they row across the water to meet up? Or take a helicopter? Maybe they just phoned each other. Or perhaps they didn't need to cooperate at all, since if there was no Bridge, it probably meant that people didn't keep getting murdered on each other's soil.

But anyway, here we are again, our addiction fuelled and our Saturday nights once more lost to Saga Noren. The background's washed out to match her Porsche. There's another set of grisly, creepy murders to solve, involving mannequins, missing body parts, scarecrows, spotlights and lipstick. No sign of a Michael Gove look-a-like suspect this series yet, although there are gangsters, gamblers, vloggers, art collectors, surrogate babies and a scary stalking undertaker. And no sign of Martin either, since Saga got him sent to prison at the end of series two. I miss him, the great, flawed cuddly Danish bear that he was. His immediate replacement - a grumpy woman called Hanne who reminded me of Hanne Holm in Borgen - was quickly blown up by a caravan. The second - pill-popping insomniac Henrik - is lingering a little longer. He has a shirt that matches Saga's car. He seems to see dead people in his house, like Bruce Willis before him. He has also introduced Saga to the Copenhagen singles club scene. They wear green stickers begging FIND ME, though Saga's attempts at pick-up lines ("Do you want to have sex?") make these seem comparatively subtle.

The Little Mermaid

We are finding out more about Saga's past in this series. The mother with Munchausen By Proxy alluded to in Series 2 turns up to tell Saga her father is dying. She is armed with medical files which supposedly prove her innocent in whatever want on during Saga's childhood. But I don't really want to know. Just like I don't want to know exactly what part of the autistic spectrum Saga is meant to be on, if she is at all. I just want Saga to be Saga and do what she does best - working too hard, adhering to police protocol, making blunt remarks, finding poison in coffee cups, and unmasking killers called Gertrud. May she hold it together despite all that is being thrown at her this series (two dead parents - yes, two now, a lot can happen in the span of a single paragraph! - ill boss, crap new boss, her competence brought into question) so that long may she reign.

Dodgy summerhouse in Swedish woods,
where mosquitoes commit crimes against humanity

Friday, 4 December 2015


It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to write a novel about the people living on a typical 21st-century London street. Unfortunately, John Lanchester beat me to it. No great surprise, since anything at the back of my mind is invariably sat in a swamp of inertia, like the dirt behind the fridge or those pictures that never get hung on the wall. Kids happen. Novels don't. So I can hardly be cross that someone else had the same idea as me, poured themselves a coffee, sat at a desk, turned on their computer, opened a blank Word document, typed out a story and got it published. Especially as they did such a mighty fine job of it. Capital is a rollicking read, full of well-drawn characters who are in turn funny and poignant, likeable and unlikeable, rich and poor. They are either foreign to, adopted by, or born and bred in that magnificent melting pot of cultures that make London so special - and so frustrating.

A typical London street?

Corner shop

There's the Polish builder. The out-of-touch banker. The banker's ghastly spendaholic wife. The Eastern European nannies raising the banker's children. The exuberant corner shop family with the matriarch in Pakistan. The parking official posting tickets onto Range Rovers, an asylum seeker working illegally. Her gospel-singing boyfriend. The policeman accused of being racist by one side of the street and overly politically correct by the other. The old lady who's lived there for 60 years and long been priced out of the property market. The old lady's distant daughter seeing the pound-signs on the walls of her inheritance. The old lady's grandson, a Banksy style street artist. There's also - in the book - a Premiership footballer, but it seems that they couldn't afford his transfer fee to television.

We want what you have?

For yes, now there's a mighty fine television adaptation of Capital to enjoy too, with a brilliant cast and the atmosphere of the novel captured perfectly - the greed, the anger, the sadness, and the different senses of family, whether close, distant, interfering, aloof, loud, or lonely. There isn't much joy - a pilates class for Arabella, a hot date for Bogdan, a curry round the Kamal family table - and what little there is seems to always have a darker, bitter side. And yet somebody is sending every resident on Pepys Road postcards saying "We Want What You Have", and photographing their windows and doors. They are indeed enviably beautiful doors of stained glass, with porches and paths of Victorian tiles. Who wouldn't want to afford one of their own on a desirable Clapham street, just round the corner from the Common, the cafes and the Tube?

I have been known to go round photographing London doors and windows
But if the sender of the postcards is desiring wealth, then take heed, for the most moneyed residents are definitely not happy with their lot. The banker, Roger Yount, finds his world is slowly unravelling. It all starts when his bonus is a mere 30,000 pounds, as opposed to the two million that he was predicting and that his wife Arabella was already spending on renovations. "What on earth can anyone do with 30,000 pounds?" he roars at his dour German boss. (Well, if it was me, quite a lot actually.) Arabella refuses to believe that they may need to cut costs on such essential items as second homes, prep school fees and pomegranate molasses, and takes herself off to a spa for Christmas, leaving Roger alone with the children, their poo, their Lego and an unexpected sofa delivery. Although it's nothing that a quick call to a nanny agency can't resolve.

But the postcards may be wreaking havoc with the property prices (currently spiralling upwards literally in front of our eyes as the months go by). And Roger's upstart junior has also hacked into the bank's systems and is doing some dodgy trading which can only lead to crash. Crash and burn.

Clapham Old Town, where I rented a room for half my salary

Clapham High Street

There is drone footage of familiar South London suburbs - Clapham, Wandsworth, Balham, Streatham - and their avenues of plane trees, their commons and lidos. There is a double decker bus on Tooting Broadway, an MRI scan at St George's Hospital. There are ice creams in Battersea Park, near the Peace Pagoda and Albert Bridge. And a Merry Christmas wished between strangers on the greenest Clapham Common I have ever seen in the depths of winter. with the trees in full foliage. That's global warming for you.

Clapham Common in full foliage

For me, it always was the green spaces like Clapham Common that made London bearable. Otherwise you find yourself craving, if not screaming for, the countryside. It seems you cannot spend your life without grass. If you can't afford that second home in the country, then eventually you move away to the country. But you will very possibly long to return to London, our great Capital, as soon as you get there.

Friday, 27 November 2015

On Stage at the York Theatre Royal

I persuaded my husband to watch this on iPlayer with me last night only to find him appearing in it - there he was, a blurry stooge, lurking at the back of the stalls. And then goodness me, some blink-and-you-miss-them shots of our daughter too, flitting across the stage in her pink coat and running between the seats. I had completely forgotten that there was a camera crew present when we went to the York Theatre Royal open day in March. The theatre threw open its doors to the public the weekend before it closed for a multi-million pound refurbishment. We had a fun afternoon trying on costumes, playing with panto props, seeing the Green Room, chatting to the stage door manager and standing on the stage seeing an actor's view of the world.

My husband released his inner David Leonard...
The Dreaded Lurgi?

And our daughter enjoyed being the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg...

Back then, they expected that the work would be finished and the theatre open again by now. But unfortunately, as soon as you take up a floor up in York you inevitably find archaeological remains, if not a Roman legion or two, and the Theatre Royal was no exception. Once the excavators had dug through several tons of panto sequins and 1930s cigarette packets, they unearthed the medieval foundations of the St Leonard's Hospital. It was previously thought that these had been demolished by the Victorians. So archaeologists had to have their field day, and the theatre refurbishment was delayed by several months.

So for one year only, the famous York Christmas panto has had to move to the National Railway Museum. Dick Whittington And His Meerkat is about to open, and it's going to be an interesting one. Berwick Kaler will have had to rethink his standard routines in order to stage them on what is basically a long railway platform. The NRM has been hosting the Theatre Royal all year, but only for train-related plays like The Railway Children and In Fog And Falling Snow. Hence the set design, as both involved, er, trains. Real, proper, live, huffing, puffing engines. In Fog And Falling Snow, which told the story of railwayman George Hudson, also featured in this BBC On Stage documentary. The only professional in the cast was George Costigan - the 200 others were all members of the community. Playing Mrs Hudson was none other than Rosie Rainbow, one of York's stalwart children's party entertainers, who does an excellent line in bubble and snow discos.

Now that our daughter has started school, we no longer go to the Railway Museum every other week. I kind of miss it, and I kind of don't. It's an amazing place, with free entry, and the streamlined Duchess of Hamilton is still my favourite train in the whole world - a thing of great beauty. But, truth be told, over the past five years I have probably run up and down the ramps beside the Bullet Train just a few times too many. It's been nice to see my daughter not only grow taller (so I don't have to lift her up to see the model railway or inside the Royal Carriages any more) but actually grow interested in trains. At first it was all about the ramps. Then the Thomas Ride-On machines. Then the wooden Mallards for sale in the shop. Then riding on the Road Train to the Minster and back. And then one day, it was about the real Mallard. And the gigantic engine transported home from China. And the operation of the turntable. And the fact that the Queen could have a bath between stations whenever she felt like it.

Thomas Ride-on



Model Railway

The big engine from China
 (never paid enough attention to learn its name, sorry)

So we have all grown up a little, and learned a lot. Stripey the Monkey usually stays at home these days too. (Apologies for him blocking the view of the trains there.) He is as dirty as an old firebox these days anyway, and I doubt he'd be allowed in.

The next episode of On Stage was about the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. I half wondered if my husband and daughter would appear in this too, since we usually end up on the beach outside the theatre every time we go to the Lake District, feeding the ducks or skimming stones. Although never with a film crew behind us, so no, they didn't. We don't get to go in to the theatre and watch a play, since our daughter doesn't really do Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare yet. But I am glad that, thanks to this series of documentaries, our unique but cash-strapped northern theatres are getting some much deserved screen time.

The beach outside The Theatre By The Lake, Keswick

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Great Continental Railway Journeys: Freiburg to Hannover

German Romantic poetry 
Michael Portillo arrives in Freiburg liked the well-heeled public school boy that he is, adorned in a racing green blazer with white pinstripes. He is here to discover the meaning of Germanness. In 1913, the year of his Bradshaw's, Germany was still only recently unified. It was still trying to carve out a national identity, and hadn't yet started the First World War. Shame on me, four sentences in and I've already mentioned "the war" in the same breath as Germany, like Basil Fawlty and The Sun newspaper before me. Back then it seems that we Brits liked Germany as a holiday destination a lot more than we do now. Schiller and Goethe had filled our heads with Romantic nature poetry, and we had fallen for the Brothers Grimm, whose disturbing tales from the forest had been made a lot more wholesome in translation. In fact, we liked travelling to Germany so much that around 6,000 of us were trapped behind enemy lines when World War I broke out.

Most of us were after a cuckoo clock. Some of us still go all the way to Germany to buy one, as evidenced by the customers in a shop in Triberg in the Black Forest. In the shop, Portillo has a go at carving a leaf under the watchful eye of the master carver. Afterwards the carver allows Portillo to keep the leaf as a "souvenir", too polite to say that it's because the result is too shit for him to use. Apparently, the traditional triangular shape of the Black Forest cuckoo clock was inspired by the roofs of new houses built along the Black Forest railway. And originally the cuckoo clock was intended to be a "cockerel clock", but this involved the internal bellows having to play too many notes.

Soon Michael is tucking into a Black Forest Gateau, at pains to point out that we leave out the most important ingredient - the boozy Kirsch - in the English translation. However, the most significant ingredient in his slice appears to be thickly whipped cream, which of course makes it very authentically German. The slab is gigantic, mouthwatering, covered in dark chocolate shavings, and sums up so much of what is marvellous about the world. "Yummy," as Portillo says.

Soon Portillo is heading north to Heidelberg, where I lived for a year in my early twenties. (I always knew this slide of Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof, taken while changing film rolls en route somewhere, would come in useful one day.) Here Portillo's theme of Romantic poetry continues. He wonders why the city has been such a pull to artists over the years, inspiring emotionally charged dramatic works from the likes of Turner to Brahms. An academic claims it has something to do with ruins being fashionable, and Heidelberg's ruined Schloss halfway up the Koenigsberg is certainly spot-on as far as ruins go. What Portillo doesn't know is that there is another ruin directly above where he is standing on the Philosophenweg - it's a former Nazi open-air theatre known as a Thingstaette, built to put on plays of Norse legends for the Volk of the 1930s, now abandoned and overgrown, and beyond creepy.
Heidelberg Schloss, spot on as ruins go

View of Heidelberg from the Philosophenweg
Nazi Thingstaette on the Heiligenberg

Portillo moves on via double-decker train to Frankfurt Main Hauptbahnhof, Germany's busiest railway station, which is a lot more architecturally appealing than Britain's busiest railway station, Clapham Junction. Portillo thinks we need more double-decker trains in Britain. He is possibly right. They could go a long way to solving commuter overcrowding.

Frankfurt Rathaus

In Frankfurt, Portillo visits the surprisingly silent and hi-tech stock exchange, meets a patronising TV journalist charged with explaining finance to the masses, and looks thoroughly undignified trying to get his chops round a Wurst. He also visits the Goethehaus to learn more about the man billed as Germany's Shakespeare.


"Mainhatten" skyscrapers

European Central Bank

And then on to Goettingen, which is famous for its university. Most of what Portillo sees there he could have covered in Heidelberg, since that is also a city with an ancient university (older than Goettingen's) that has produced a number of Nobel-prize winning scientists and has a tradition of Borschenschaften (fraternities). Heidelberg also has a Studentenkarzer (prison) with the same black heads silhouetted on the walls by naughty students of the bygone age. And it has pubs full of pictures of fencing matches and men with facial scars.

Gaenseliesel, Goettingen, kissed and decorated by graduating students

But it turns out Portillo is really there to see Goettingen's wind tunnel, built in 1907 to aid the study of aerodynamics, so people could build aeroplanes less likely to fall out of the sky. Now the research centre has a model railway where people use a catapult to fire engines along a track at 400km/hour. They make the sleek high-speed ICE trains Portillo is using seem like clanking old steamies.

Hannover Rathaus

Portillo's final stop is Hannover, where I have only ever spent an afternoon. Portillo visits its spectacular Rathaus (city hall), which signifies Hannover's importance at the time of the Kaiser, when it was built. Given that I have a photograph of the view from the top of the Rathaus dome, I must also have travelled up the unusual curved lift with sloping floor that Portillo rides. Yet I have absolutely no memory of doing so. Maybe my host was feeling stingy and made me take the stairs. Maybe the lift was closed for refurbishment. Or maybe my vertigo just means I have blocked the experience out entirely.
View from Hannover Rathaus

My afternoon in Hannover was at the end of a month-long interrailing trip I took aged 25, finally done with study but not yet in the world of work. I was trying to brush up my German ready to seek employment. I travelled by train all the way from Luebeck in the north of Germany to Lugano in Italian-speaking Switzerland, which makes this the first of Portillo's railway journeys that I have covered in its entirety, and more. Thanks to the kindness of friends, I didn't pay for a single night's accommodation during the whole trip. I mostly slept on floors, with the odd blissful night on a futon (if such a thing is possible). In Lugano, I had to cram into a narrow single bed with a Danish architecture student. As it was the days before wifi and mobile internet, I finalised my itinerary by sending postcards from one destination to the next and making fleeting calls from coin-guzzling payphones. Yet I was always met on time at each station by whoever I was visiting: it seems that in the pre-Instagram era somehow we coped.

I always refer to the trip as "the march for open windows" owing to the Germans' fear of draughts and penchant for stuffy rooms, which made some of the long train journeys unbearable. In answer to Portillo's quest, for me, Germanness is about strange dichotomies. It's Ordnung surrounded by decadent cake. It's an open-door policy in the midst of blinding bureaucracy. It's the vegetarian health freak in a country whose restaurants serve up the Schlachtplatte (slaughter plate). It's the hypochondriac who on the one hand regularly takes a Kur, peers obsessively into a Flachspueler (stage toilet) and plays team sport, but chain smokes on the other. It's the cultural hybrid of someone who loves David Hasselhoff for his music as much as they do Beethoven. It's rimless glasses to see with, and men wearing jackets so brightly coloured that it's clear they don't use them. (Heck, some of them make Portillo's look if not stylish then at least very much at home.) But for all this, it's a place I love - and miss. If only for the cake.