Month: December 2014

The Way We Were

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East Berlin, 31st December 1986. Freezing cold. Dark. Great lumps of ice thrown up on the side of the road, like discarded rubble from a giant’s rampage. Stomping my way along the Karl Marx Allee in my cold leather monkey boots, not made for Berlin winters. The boulevard, so broad, so bright. The proportions aren’t right, I don’t seem to fit: this is a boulevard meant for warriors. For giants. But they are nowhere to be seen. I feel incongruous, so small and warm and full of blood on this strangely monochrome New Year’s Eve.

It is almost 1987 and I have just seen Die Fledermaus by Strauss at the State Opera House at Under den Linden. The delightful operetta seemed like slow water torture to me, the jaunty happy music anathema to a teenager’s soul. I am walking to the flat of a boy I am in love with, even though he lives in the GDR and I live in London. I am walking because I am too nervous to take the underground because everyone is going crazy shooting fireworks that ricochet off the turquoise tiled walls of the labyrinthine underground tunnels, and because I am better at finding my way above ground, where I can always be sure of turning to see the Fernsehturm behind me, glowing through the fug. I am still young and British enough to find the snow and the cold alarmingly beautiful. I am still naïve enough to think that the weather and my surroundings are portents, beckoning me toward my destiny, leading me to… to where I am supposed to be.

I ring on the doorbell of the old turn-of-the-century flat in Friedrichshain, with high soaring ceilings, dark-paneled wooden doors. He opens, with nothing but a towel wrapped round his waist. No boy of that age in Staines, London, England, would ever conceive of something so romantic, so disarming, so natural. He was bathing to get warm, and envelops me in his arms. His parents are away. We have planned this. Music, some grass to smoke, red sparkling Crimean wine that his parents left behind for us, making me dizzy. I try really hard to lose my virginity, but somehow it’s not as easy as they lead you to believe in Just 17 magazine or Mizz, both of which I read religiously in my other life, in London. They only talk about “taking precautions”, about only doing “what feels right”. No one explains how you go about it once you are sure. Surely, once you are determined enough to down Crimean red, to put on the record of your choice (Robbie Neville, C’est la Vie, extended version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22_gslQ4cS4) and lie down with a boy you like it should be easy? It is strangely mechanical and not at all romantic and the parts don’t fit where they are supposed to. We give up frustrated and disappointed. The music is right on the money. The scream of fireworks, the crescendo of noise outside announces that it is now 1987. Lying there, half cold, half hot, on a hard settee in the living room, it feels like the loneliest place on earth.

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27 years later. My own flat, one mile south. My flat has soaring ceilings and wood-panelled doors. I am drinking red wine again. But this time it is Spanish and not sparkling. It is the 31st December 2013 and Berlin seems to have grown smaller, or have I grown? It fits me like a glove. The cold is simply an interruption between warm cosy islands of activity; no longer a harbinger of fortune. This time it is my visitor who rings the doorbell. I wear perhaps more than a towel, I know now how the dance works. He cuts some white powder on my coffee table. He selects a song compilation on youtube. He leads me to the bed, smelling of snow and sulphur. The years have washed so much away and brought so much that is shiny and new, but the dance remains the same, every step, every kiss, every shiver. This time congress is not complicated by youth, expectations, or clouded by thoughts of destiny. I am sure I am where I’m supposed to be. The fireworks outside my window build to a crescendo, exploding and scattering in the night sky. It is 2014. I lie, half cold, half hot, on my broad soft bed; it feels like the loneliest place on earth.plz-friedrichshain-karl-marx

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MONEY ISSUES

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I have money issues. Major money issues. But not how you would think. I don’t have debts, I don’t run up crazy credit card bills. No, I am actually scared of money. I hate it. I don’t mind spending it; in fact I quite enjoy that part, especially if I can see the face of the person I am buying stuff of, like at a shop, or a market. It brings a feeling of relief. Because actually having it sit there in my bank account just makes me feel uneasy.

That’s my parent’s fault of course. I remember the first time that Marx’ concept of “surplus value” was explained to me by my mum. It was bed time and I can’t have been older than eight. Ok I feel I am losing you here but bear with me, it features diamonds and tinned fish and stuff.

You know how at some point, all kids ask that question, at the latest when you are in some toy store, they want something and you don’t want to buy it, and at a loss as to what reason to give (it’s ugly, it’s crap, you’ll only play with it for five minutes) you say “I don’t have enough money.” The kid looks up at you as if you are a few cards short of a full deck and says “But why don’t you just go to the bank to get some more?” This question then inexorably leading on to “But where does money come from?” and “Why doesn’t the bank just print enough for everyone then?”

My mum was a pretty clued up kind of gal having known great wealth and also great poverty within the first 7 years of her little life (she had also spent 3 nights in prison before she hit the three-week mark but that’s another story) so didn’t do things by halves: she just jumped straight in and introduced me to Marx’ theory of surplus value.

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She told me about the diamond miners in South Africa, and talked me through the whole product chain, the dirty raw diamond becoming shinier and prettier as it passed from black hand to increasingly whiter hand until it landed in Antwerp at the diamond centre of the world, and onward to adorn some elderly rich lady’s wattle (ok, I might have just added that detail myself).

The process of actually mining the diamonds and cleaning and selling them on brings a mere 0.4% of added value; in contrast, the retail end, the polishing and the cutting EACH add 25% of added value*. So broken down it means that the miner risking his life is getting paid a pittance, whilst the guys in Antwerp, even considering the skill involved, are getting paid a ridiculous amount. We could argue about which person in the chain contributes more added value, but let’s be honest: Without the guy going down that black hole risking his life, there IS no diamond to cut and polish.

But my favourite example of surplus value (which also doubled as a bedtime story: an example of two-for-one if ever there was one) was a very practical and visual tale of my own family history.

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My mum was born the daughter of a rich industrialist in Czechoslovakia. A fish factory owner to put it baldly. I know. Go on, have a giggle. Yes, apparently there was money to be made in kippers. But not just normal fish fresh from the sea. That’s where the issue of surplus value comes in.

My great-great grandfather Anton Kalla figured out that it was cheaper to import raw fish from the Baltic Coast down to the ore mountains of Czechoslovakia where he lived, and then salt, smoke, and marinate it and then finally fill it into pretty tins. If he had done the canning in Germany where the fish was caught, the price of importing tinned goods was much higher, thus reducing the profit margin substantially. So, instead, he built a smokehouse, a cannery, a large factory with 400 workers. All those women standing in rows cutting gherkins and onions (300 tonnes of each a year!), pouring vinegar (200,000 litres a year). THEY were the adding value.

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The factory tinned 1 million tins of fish a year and his house, set apart on a small hill, presiding over the whole village and factory was a manifestation of this surplus value.

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To his defence he was apparently not a bad geezer, as capitalists go. He was what we like to call a benevolent capitalist, the kind that apologists of free market economy are always hoping will some how magically multiply, turning the world of rampant capitalism into a kind of Victorian idyll, with well-fed peasants walking round (barefoot but only in the summer) with baskets of flowers tugging their forelock as the capitalist lord, fair but strict, walks by.

Anyway, that was the sobering moment when I realised that money really doesn’t grow on trees. Someone somewhere is doing double the hard graft for half the pay, to create that surplus value. Someone is going without, so that someone else along the line can afford that extra side of wagyu tartare (ok I invented that, but admit it, it’s making you want some). So now, every time I pick up an object that screams “Reduced! Only £2!” or “Three for the price of one!” at me, I wonder in what part of the production chain that surplus value was created.

I get that someone who takes risks (financially and otherwise) to found a business, to employ people, someone who has great innovative ideas, deserves to be paid for it. I am not suggesting that the fish cutter should earn exactly the same as the guy doing the book-keeping. But why does the scale have to be tipped so drastically in favour of the cushy warm jobs where no physical risk is involved, no stink, no eye-watering onion cutting? Because the spectre of being an onion cutter myself is so completely unattractive, and my discomfort around money makes me a bit of a liability when it comes to paying bills and raising two kids, I have made a compromise: I allow myself to earn good money by exploiting only myself. Oh and then I go out and spend it all on Karl Marx biographies for my friends for Xmas. Yes, I am going to spread all that surplus value all over town.

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So when I see the crazy pre-Xmas rush for presents, and all the advice doled out for “The Woman/Man who has Everything” (diamonds, or tinned fish anyone?) I wonder what kind of group hysteria we have managed to manoeuvre ourselves into as a society. You want to give me a present? (I know, you won’t want to after reading this!) Bake some cookies and be done with. My re-gifting present draw is already overflowing. (and let me know if you’re interested in a can of kippers or the Victorian cast iron nut cracker I have in there…)

*http://www.bain.com/publications/articles/global-diamond-report-2013.aspx