Bit of my new novel – Syria

Chapter 1

Pakistan 2014

My name is Molly. Molly Ryan. That’s me. Well that was me. I need to tell you my story. I need to write it all down, to get it off my chest. I think it will do me good. I can’t believe this has been my life. How strange it seems. How little I imagined what would happen to me back then. So here it is. I hope you understand. Who would have dreamed I would end up living here in Pakistan? I am writing this, sitting in the garden, with a breath taking view of the mountains spread out before me like a quilt. My twin boys are playing an impromptu rackety game of cricket on the lawn. I am sipping English tea and writing with an old fountain pen in my new notebook. I am in love with the thickness of the pages and the purple embossed design on the front. I am twirling the pink page marker ribbon between my fingers. So many memories are flooding in my mind, jostling to be heard. Where to begin? Well the beginning might be a good idea stupid.
Begin at the beginning.
Deep breath.
Here I go.

Please don’t judge me too harshly.

Manchester 2012

Cold rain.
It had rained all day.
The kind of rain that soaks you to the bones, that gets right into you and chills you, the kind that makes you shiver. It was the kind of rain that made me want to up sticks and go and live somewhere sunny: anywhere. One day, one day I would manage this. Leave Manchester behind. Become an export.
So what else was new in Manchester? It seemed to be always raining that year. Being me I had come out unprepared. I had no waterproof coat, no umbrella, no hat. The rain had saturated my dark red hair, flattening it to my head and was dribbling down my neck. I raised the collar of my battered black leather jacket ineffectually against the deluge.
‘I bet I look a right mess,’ I thought.
I couldn’t face the library feeling like this. It was going to be horrible, sitting there, steaming away in my soaked clothes. I needed to go home. No, I needed to drink something warm first. Grasping this thought I headed for the university coffee bar which was in the basement of a tower block on the University of Manchester campus. I was studying computer science. It was boring but I had high hopes my degree, if I ever got it, would stand me in good stead for a job, a ticket out of here. The coffee shop was not exactly pleasant but cheap and full of my own kind. It was safe and there wasn’t much chance of being chatted up by passing chancers trying their luck with me. I might bump into one of my fellow students to talk to, one of my so-called friends. Company would be good today. I made the lift before the doors shut. There were two young male students in there and an old steel haired lecturer who avoided my gaze. The boys eyed me up in that leering way some males of the species have about them. Cocky. I stared straight ahead and was relieved when the doors opened at basement level. Being in enclosed spaces with the opposite sex made me feel uncomfortable for no real reason. Nothing really bad had happened to me but I was wary. I had learned to look out for myself, to avoid gazes, to appear more confident than I felt. I had had to. I had grown up in this city, right in the centre, in Hulme, which until recently had been widely regarded as a no go area by most people. Now it was gentrifying, full of gay men in spick and span apartments who wanted to be close to the centre and the gay village they adored. It was changing. Everything was changing. Manchester was changing. I was changing.
At the counter I ordered a hot chocolate from the server and looked around for someone I knew. Thankfully, I spied Abigail sitting on her own staring into her mobile phone. Abigail, Abbie, was the closest I had to a real friend at university: Bessie mates.
Her face lightened when she saw me.
‘Molly, Oh my God you are here. You look SO wet. You have saved me from terminal boredom.’
I smiled back and pulled one of the orange plastic chairs from another table to sit on. I wiped away someone else’s muffin crumbs and collapsed onto it. I took a swig of the hot chocolate and felt grateful for the warm richness sliding down into me. It was just what I needed. I inhaled the pleasant smells around me: fresh coffee and baked goods.
‘So what’s new in Abbie world?’ I said.
‘Oh Molly, I’ve been so stupid AGAIN. You know how I really like Jack. Well I went to Rockworld, you know to see if he was there and like of course he wasn’t. So I just thought what the fuck let’s just get drunk so I did. So Jason was there. I mean, my God, I don’t even like Jason but I was like so drunk so of course I go back to his flat and all his mates are there in the living room drinking Jack Daniels and pretending they are Nirvana, Well, they are all losers so of course we go in the bedroom and I am SO drunk. So I’m lying there and he says to me he wants me to walk down his back with red heels on. He actually got these scarlet stilettos out of the wardrobe. I mean, really. So I actually did it. Can you believe? How much of an idiot am I? I mean that was the foreplay, we won’t talk about the main act because it really was NOT that memorable.’
She paused for breath and stroked her hair down waiting for my opinion, her hands fluttering around betraying her nervousness underneath the veneer of brash confidence.
I laughed but with affection. This was typical of Abbie. She was in deep love with Jack who already had a girlfriend but used her occasionally when the mood took him. He was a grade A user but I didn’t tell Abbie this. The way I saw it it was up to her what she did. I tried not to judge. Abbie was loud, sweet and full of fun but she had a neediness in her which men took advantage of. She was tall and thin with long frizzy hair that was almost blonde. She was always trying to straighten the frizziness out of it but the damp weather meant it always managed to outwit her and make a comeback.
‘Well at least you have learned you don’t like Jason. Just forget it and if you see him again ignore him. Anyway, if you didn’t like such shit music you wouldn’t end up in these situations. I mean, come on, Rockworld, it’s so passé. They are all meatheads with no manners. You need a better class of guy.’
‘A better class of guy? Like round here. Where exactly am I going to meet one of those?’ Abbie said.
She rolled her eyes for effect.
‘We could try the student union. It’s supposed to be okay on a Friday.’ I said.
‘You are not serious. The fucking student union. Come on! Nerd central,’ Abbie said.
I laughed again.
‘Don’t be so harsh. At least they’ve got prospects. Nice boys who’ll treat you like a lady,’ I said.
‘I don’t want to be treated like a lady. I want to be a crazy cool rock chick you know like what is she called? Courtney Love. That kind of thing. I am not into all that cheesy rubbish you dream about. All that hearts and flowers bullshit. It doesn’t exist Molly. This is it. This is what’s real. You have to take your good times where you can find them. Anyway, I love a real man, a grungy guy, all down and dirty,’ Abbie said.
I was saved from arguing by Abbie’s mobile phone ringing. I could tell by her panicked face it was some guy. She went into full flow, talking at one hundred miles an hour at the top of her voice. Everyone in the coffee bar would know Abbie’s business in ten seconds. Not that Abbie cared for anyone’s opinion. A few people looked over curiously but turned away again when they saw my frown.
I took advantage of the break in conversation to look around the room. It was pretty full, lots of people sheltering from the downpour. Some were talking, huddled conspiratorially in groups, others poring over laptops or phones, permanently plugged into cyber space. It seemed to me there was too much of this. They would miss the love of their life walking past while they were staring at a screen. Poor souls. There was a large group of Asian students in the corner who had managed to commandeer the only comfy sofas. I observed them with interest. I loved to watch people, to try to work out what they were like, to guess from their appearance what made them tick. There were equal numbers of boys and girls, all well dressed in the latest fashions, designer labels probably unless they were fake. I wasn’t very good at telling. I couldn’t afford designer labels and to be honest they didn’t really interest me. I tended to shop in charity shops or looked for bargains in the supermarkets. I like to think I had my own style: a little quirky. I had a knack of putting odd things together quite well so I didn’t look the same as everyone else. There was one girl who was beautiful. She had long sleek hair, almost black, and lots of make-up, kohl emphasising her wide eyes. She had a patterned scarf tied round her neck and a black leather jacket twinned with black jeans and long boots. Her nails were long and painted bright blue. I assumed they had been done at a nail bar, artificial. She was glamour personified, the exact opposite of me. I could just make out her accent as she talked which went with everything else about her, the long vowels of received pronunciation suggesting an expensive, private education. I felt myself recoil somewhere inside like an instinct.
‘I mean honestly. At my school we were always engaged in political debates. Everybody knew about politics. There was a very vibrant debating society. It is so important to be aware, don’t you think? What is wrong with these people?’ she said.
Everything about her exuded confidence as she sat leaning back on the sofa with her legs crossed and her arms stretched wide, gesticulating as she talked. My attention was drawn to the man she was addressing. My eyes widened as I looked at him. I had to admit he was probably the most attractive man I had ever seen in real life, not in a magazine. What was he doing in the basement coffee bar of the University of Manchester? Why wasn’t he doing a photo shoot on a beach in St Tropez or something? Why wasn’t he walking down a catwalk in Milan enclosed in an over-priced suit? I felt something contract in me deep down inside and a deep sense of longing overwhelmed me. I was in lust at first sight. He was dark skinned, a walnut brown, and very tall and thin, over six feet. I couldn’t see his eyes because he was wearing big sunglasses, even though he was indoors. He also had on a black t-shirt and skinny jeans with red Converse boots. His mouth was shaped into an impish smile as he listened to the girl opposite him. His hair was longish, slightly curling around his shoulders and his seated position was relaxed, with his legs spread wide. Like the girl he exuded confidence. I wondered if they were boyfriend and girlfriend. His eyes wandered away from the girl and he saw me watching him. Our eyes locked for a fraction of a second and then I frowned deliberately and looked away. I didn’t want him to think I liked him.
My gaze returned to Abbie who was smiling at me delightedly.
‘Aha, I SAW you. Looking at him. MOLLY! You do not want to get involved with him,’ she said.
‘What are you talking about? I don’t want to get involved with him. I just glanced over for goodness sake. Anyway, even if I did why would you say that? What’s wrong with him?’ I said.


Review of the Skinnybitch diet

I have been on the Skinnybitch diet for a week. Here is what I ate.


Breakfast: Mango, banana, kiwi and soy yogurt 
Lunch: Spinach salad w/ shredded carrots, chopped almonds, red onion, fresh garlic, cubed tofu and sesame oil 
Dinner: Pasta with zucchini, tomatoes, garlic, fresh parsley, pine nuts and olive oil 

Breakfast: Fresh squeezed orange juice, whole grain muffin with soy butter, banana and strawberries 
Lunch: Tabouli salad with marinated tofu, eggplant, and red peppers 
Dinner: Veggie nachos – corn chips with veggie chili, soy cheese, guacamole, scallions and tomatoes 

Breakfast: Fresh squeezed grapefruit juice and slow-cooked oatmeal with blueberries, strawberries and raspberries 
Lunch: Veggie burger on whole grain bun with red onion, lettuce, tomato, avocado, and alfalfa sprouts. Served with vegan potato salad. 
Dinner: Fake chicken patty with brown rice, lentils and steamed kale. 

Breakfast: Fresh squeezed OJ, whole grain bagel with vegan cream cheese, sliced tomato and red onion 
Lunch: Soup and salad 
Dinner: Veggie stir-fry with peppers, onions, garlic, carrots, bok choy, and mushrooms served with brown rice and tofu 

Breakfast: Granola with sliced banana, peaches and blueberries with soy yogurt 
Lunch: Club sandwich with fake bacon, fake turkey slices, avocado, lettuce, tomato, sprouts and Vegenaise (fake mayo). Served with three-bean salad 
Dinner: Take out from your favorite Thai restaurant: vegan Pad Thai, emphasizing no egg or shrimp or fish stock 

Breakfast: Fresh squeezed OJ, blue corn and blueberry pancakes served with fresh strawberries 
Lunch: Salad with shredded carrots, couscous, cranberries and walnuts, dressed with citrus vinaigrette. Served with lentil soup 
Dinner: Veggie fajitas with sauteed peppers, onions and mushrooms, and fake chicken strips, topped with fresh pico de gallo 

Breakfast: Fresh squeezed OJ and tofu scramble with zucchini, peppers, onions, garlic, spinach and kale served with whole grain toast 
Lunch: Lentil salad with asparagus tips and walnuts in a raspberry vinaigrette. Served with an entire steamed artichoke and a vegan lemon-butter dipping sauce 
Dinner: No-cheese or vegan-cheese pizza loaded with veggies 

Skinnybitch is a diet book which came out a few years ago in the US and went on to be a bestseller. It extols the virtues of a vegan diet and has lots of information about animal cruelty in the factory farming system.

I had already been a vegan for a few months before I started this diet so veganism wasn’t a shock to my system. I wanted to shift the last ten pounds to get to my ideal vanity weight of 50 kg. I combined the diet with exercise: twenty minutes of yoga and Jillian Michael’s Thirty Day Shred DVD.

I felt great on the diet. I had  some energy and my skin felt really clear. I spent about £70 on the ingredients and that was enough for two so it wasn’t expensive. I stuck to it rigidly but I did cheat by having a couple of glasses of red wine on Thursday and Saturday. I really enjoyed making the meals, many of which were delicious. I didn’t like the reliance on fake meat products as I prefer to avoid processed foods.

I found the diet was balanced for fat, carbohydrates and protein though the protein intake is below recommended limits. The calories averaged about 1200 per day. This should be enough for most people to lose weight but it isn’t for me. I normally only eat 1000 calories so I actually gained weight. It didn’t work for me as a diet but it is a healthy vegan maintenance diet.

Next week I am going to stay vegan but have smaller portions and cut the carbs.

Here’s hoping.


Breakfast: muffin with fruit

Dukan if you want to. Review of the Dukan Diet.

As a child I didn’t ever have a problem with my weight. In fact I was positively skinny. So skinny that nasty comments used to be made towards me in school. Funny how it is now fashionable among young girls to be very thin. Eating disorders are rife and a few want nothing more in life than to have a thigh gap. Well I had a thigh gap – big time. The waif look had not hit the north of England in the 1970s. I was not in fashion. Girls with chunky thighs seemed to be popular. So I didn’t ever think about what I ate. I could eat anything. I toyed with the idea of stuffing doughnuts into myself every day to see if I could stop being so skinny.

I was like this until I hit my early twenties. Then I started to get heavier. I discovered a love of food. I loved ethnic take aways and then when we were finally more affluent, fancy restaurants. I didn’t eat much meat so like many vegetarians I think my diet may have become too carb based. My job was stressful so I ate for comfort and for pleasure and I drank way too much wine, self-medicating myself away from stress and depression.
So I was a little too heavy. I was never fat though my mother and sister would often tell me I was. I recall one occasion my mother saying, “I have never known a fat vegetarian apart from you.” In fact, she doesn’t know any vegetarians and never has done. Annoyingly, my husband can eat and drink anything he likes and never puts on a pound. So I kind of ignored my twenty pounds over vanity weight and bought bigger size clothes. I decided I was curvaceous and sexy like Nigella Lawson. I pretended I was ok with it. Interestingly, men don’t seem that keen on super skinny. “I like a woman with a bit of meat on her bones,” being a common sentiment.

When I finally jacked in the proper, professional career I decided to do something about it. I had the time now. So I explored some options and decided to give the Dukan diet a go. It had been invented by Dr Dukan, a French doctor, and he had amazing success with it. Celebrities raved about it. It was known as the Princess Diet due to a certain Kate Middleton supposedly having gone on it before the Royal Wedding. Well she was skinny and classy so that was me decided. This was the diet for me.

I bought the book. There is also a website and you can sign up for coaching and get motivational emails and what not but I decided against this as it was very pricey. I would just manage with the book and it was actually fine. You don’t need anything else. I enjoyed the first reading of the book immensely. Dr Dukan has a very kindly tone and the information is very clear. He states that EVERYBODY loses weight on this diet. Quite a claim.

The main thing in the Dukan Diet is to be mostly eating protein. This is the rule of thumb. As a non-meat eater this was going to make it more tricky for me but I decided I could go with fish and tofu. I also had Quorn products, the meat substitute.

The first stage is Attack. This can last from two to five days depending on your start weight and how long you can stick it. You can only eat protein and absolutely nothing else. There is a list of approved foods in the book. I felt totally weird but I managed it and I lost about three pounds straight off after a few days. I was very chuffed as most of my attempts at dieting in the past had failed.

You then go on to Cruise phase. This involves alternating all-protein days with days that allow protein and some vegetables from an approved list. You alternate like this until you reach your target weight. I took about two months to get to my target weight so I had lost about twenty pounds in total. I was amazed at my success and how fast it was. Dr Dukan only suggests walking for twenty minutes each day. I ignored this and did much more exercise. In fact my weight only really started to plummet when I started heavy circuit training each day.

There is then the consolidation phase where you can add in lots more foods from an approved list.

Finally you are in the final phase where you can supposedly eat anything you like apart from one day a week when you just have protein. This is where the Dukan diet fell down for me. My weight started creeping back up as soon as I started eating normally. One day a week of protein only just wasn’t enough to keep my weight down. I could only maintain if I kept to the more draconian early phases.

Pros: This diet works. I lost the weight and reached my goal weight and it was quite fast. I didn’t need to spend a lot of money or have a lot of fancy equipment. It was simple to follow. I didn’t have to count calories. I had my bloods done at the doctor and they were excellent. I had low cholesterol.

Cons: I felt ill and lifeless throughout a lot of the diet. Eating only protein seemed to make my energy low. After daily exercise all I could do was collapse exhausted onto the sofa and read. My mood was often low as well. The diet made me constipated to the point it was quite uncomfortable. I had to buy fibre tablets. It just didn’t feel normal to make your body feel like this. In the later stages I felt better but then I gained the weight back as soon as I added more food groups. I didn’t feel ethical about eating so much fish as fish stocks are declining. I missed my vegetarian meals.

I went on holiday to Brighton, ate normally and put a lot of the weight back on though not all of it. I came back and started another diet. Cycle.

I would definitely recommend you to try this diet if you are struggling with your weight. It has worked for lots of people and it did work for me in a way. It would suit anyone who is a big carnivore. I just didn’t feel it was right for me, my ethics and my body in the end though it was effective as long as I stayed on the strict stages. The last stage just doesn’t work.

Dukan if you want to!

Scotland, the independence referendum, Twitter and me.

On 18th September 2014 Scotland will vote on the independence referendum. They will either vote yes to break up the union of England and Scotland or no to stay in it. The United Kingdom would cease to exist. The enormity of this decision is terrifying to me.

It is traditional in these articles to state your Scottish heritage. Well I have plenty of that. I was, before marriage, called McGurk which is both a Scots and Irish name. My father was born in Dundee and spent his childhood there. His family have lived on the East coast of Scotland for generations in different places both rural and urban depending on what work they were doing. His father was a steeplejack. Before that he had been at sea I think in the merchant navy. His father before him had been a whaler, travelling up to the Arctic to hunt. His father was a blacksmith. So hard men doing whatever needed to be done to get by in the north of Scotland. My father was a steel erector, now retired. For those who don’t know what that is think of the men who sit on the beams building the skyscrapers of New York in the old black and white photos. You will have seen them. That is what he did. Now he lives in England and has done so since he was sixteen. He went, like many Scots before him, looking for work. Eventually, the family history leads back to Ireland as it does with many Scots. It has been traced back to Tyrone but there the trail goes dead and nothing more can be found. No doubt my ancestors moved to Scotland looking for more prosperity. I am not Scottish. I was not born there. I was born in England in the north-east, in Middlesbrough, a Victorian industrial town. A family story I remember is that Dad wanted me to be born in Scotland so I could play for Scotland if male but Mum wisely refused to be budged and I was born at home in Middlesbrough. Of course I was born a girl… a disappointment from the start perhaps! So I am not Scottish because I was not born there.I spent every summer visiting my Gran in Dundee and going on day trips around the place, often up to Arbroath for smokies. Gran was great fun, smoked like a chimney, liked a drink and a song and always had a good story. I remember she had a real fire in winter which I loved. I married a Scot, someone born in Rosyth in the Kingdom of Fife, not so dissimilar from the north-east of England in fact. I have lived in Scotland for half of my adult life: first in Edinburgh at University, then Fife and also my favourite, the West Highlands. I live in the south of England now so I won’t get a vote in the referendum and neither will my husband. I have taken an interest in the independence debate from the beginning, following stories in the papers, television and the internet.

I started off feeling that I was firmly in the No camp, against independence and pro the continuation of the Union. Like many people, my reasons were largely romantic. In spite of not being Scottish, Scotland holds a special place in my heart. I love the scenery, the sense of space, the clear air, the soft water, the lichen on the trees due to lack of pollution, the quality of the seafood, the Highland cattle, the soft water, the grandeur of the mountains, the sea lochs…Of course this only describes a part of Scotland, the Highlands that I grew to adore in my years there. It doesn’t speak to someone living in a tenement flat in Edinburgh and Glasgow and the people of the central belt have more in common with the denizens of Liverpool or Leeds than they care to admit. There are many Scotlands, as diverse as one region of England is from another. It is not one homogenous whole and this is what makes debating independence so tricky. What is relevant to the Glaswegian may not be so important to the farmer of the north or the island crofter. It just seems sad to lose the Union, to lose half of the land mass of our country, this sceptred isle, to break up the successful nation we have had for three hundred years, the shared history, the battles fought together, the good and bad times. It would truly be the end of an era. But enough of romance, romance won’t get the bills paid.

Following the practical, economic arguments made by various “experts” on Twitter, there is no clear agreement about whether Scotland would be better or worse off after independence. The SNP supporters, like Lesley Riddoch, suggest a land like that of Norway, a socialist utopia where the oil wealth pays for everything. There are no food banks, generous welfare payments and good pensions for all. This sounds fantastic. It is almost enough for one to change to become a Yes supporter. Who wouldn’t want this? But is it true? The No campaign suggest the oil is running out, SNP sums don’t add up and lack detail, ordinary Scots will be worse off. As a lay person it is impossible to know whose argument is true. The historian Tom Holland, a No supporter, is a good source of articles backing up his claims. Are they true? Who knows? George Galloway, entertaining as ever, suggests many arguments maintaining England and Scotland are better together. I like his appeal to old fashioned socialism; that the working people of the world should be joining together to fight for better things, not separating. The ruling elites are the enemy, not your brothers and sisters in the northern cities who would be condemned by Scotland leaving to an eternity of Tory government. The argument is emotional and persuasive, a clever mixture of romance and facts.

The arguments on Twitter have often been robust, some say abusive but that’s too strong a word for me. Everyone has the right to their view however offensively they state it. I am quite an admirer of passion though this seems a very un-English trait where being measured is more lauded. Boring I call it! I don’t mind a bit of swearing and rough language. After all, it is only what you hear in the streets in many parts of the British Isles. What is sadder is the anti-English sentiment that runs through some people, thankfully not all. They like to rewrite history, pretend they are oppressed and in slavery, that they took no part in the atrocities of Empire but they would still like to be able to watch Dr Who after independence and even more bizarrely keep the Queen. To these kind of people I would like to relate an anecdote. I went down to England and worked as a teacher in Moss Side in Manchester at one point. As I took the register, I noticed that every single black child had a Scottish name, a Scottish slave name given to them on the plantations of Jamaica by Scottish overseers. If there is blood on the hands of the English, and there certainly is, then it is also on the hands of the Scots, willing partners in the British Empire and all its darkness. There is anti-English sentiment in Scotland though many Scots deny it. I have experienced it myself. On arriving for my first day at Edinburgh University a young man said to me, a flower of Alloa, that I sounded English, very English. I was in no doubt that he meant it as an insult. It comes out often in conversation, often subtly, often not so subtly. I remember being told by a friend that I wouldn’t appreciate the comedy of Billy Connolly as I was not Scottish. In fact, I find him hilarious. On opining to my husband’s mother’s second husband that I would like to go to Midnight Mass at Christmas in the Highlands he declared I would be strung up there for suggesting such a thing. In fact, there is both a strong Roman Catholic and Anglican Church community in the west of Scotland and I attended Midnight Mass many times. He is as ignorant of other parts of his own country as many Scots are. A movement built on blind hatred of another does not seem a positive vision for the modern world. I remember someone telling me that all English people are rich. The ignorance of this statement is breathtaking and even more so when I tell you it was spoken by an undergraduate at Edinburgh University. Well I am not rich and never have been. My English family are not rich and never have been and they have never enslaved nor oppressed anyone.

It seems to me that in a modern, global economy facing many challenges, not least of them climate change, the people of the world should be coming together, not tearing apart. As the campaign has worn on I am not so certain that I would vote No even if I was able. I have become a Don’t Know. Some days I am even a Yes.

But in the end my heart still says Better Together. Brothers and sisters of Scotland:
Don’t leave us this way.

Book Review of Harriet by Jilly Cooper

My Review

Jul 01, 2014

rating 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this. It’s quite old, first published in 1976. It’s refreshing to read about everyone smoking and drinking like crazy. It is really an old-fashioned romance. The sex which takes place is not described so erotica fans would be disappointed. It has lots of stereotypical elements but this does not detract from it being a fun, easy read. Harriet is at Oxford when she is deflowered by the ghastly arrogant actor Simon who reminded me strongly of another Simon I have known. Accidentally pregnant she decides to keep the baby and is disowned by everyone. Desperate, she takes a nannying job in Yorkshire to look after the children of a moody writer. She is introduced to the country hunting set with many hilarious moments. Spoiler alert: after many twists and turns the ending is delightfully happy but you knew that already 😉 .

Impressions of Berlin

Recently, I went to Berlin for the first time in my life. I had always meant to go but somehow it had never happened until now.

I first fell in love with Berlin from books and television. It seemed to be a place people ran away to. I have always been keen on the concept of running away. I have been running all my life. You could go there if you were a misfit – poets, gays, trans, musicians, heroin addicts, writers, artists… Belin would take you all. This is where I felt I should be in my pretentious youth – dressed in black, bleached blonde hair and no idea how to make a living. I haven’t actually changed much. John Peel used to play bands from there with amazing sounding names like Einsturzende Neubauten. I saw the film Wings of Desire. Angels hang around the Berlin library trying to save people from committing suicide. One of them falls in love with a woman and falls to Earth. Nick Cave plays in a subterranean club and there is a beautiful, mysterious trapeze artist. Then there was the Berlin Wall which was still up for most of my youth and the long shadow of the war. Berlin: dark, brooding, mysterious, beautiful, tragic… yes Berlin was definitely my spiritual home.

Of course much has changed since those days. The Wall has gone and Berlin is a united city at the heart of a united Germany. I wonder if it will feel different, have a different spirit to the one I imagined in my head. Will it be gentrified, spruced up, dull?

I arrived at the airport and took a train to the centre of the city. The train left exactly on time and was clean and efficient. I looked out of the window, drinking it in. So far it didn’t disappoint. I love railway journeys into cities. You get to see the rear of everything, the unloved places, the industrial detritus, the ripped backsides as Iggy Pop would have it. Berlin’s backsides were full of graffiti, covering almost every surface giving it an old New York kind of feel.

My hotel was in Kurfurstendamm. This was definitely gentrified Berlin with designer shops and broad boulevards. It was like a cross between Paris and London. It was very pleasant but not the Berlin in my head.

I did all the sights: museums, galleries and significant buildings. Old Berlin structures, what is left of them, are beautiful. New Berlin architecture is sharp and funky. The old and new mash together really well.

It was in Kreuzberg I finally almost found the Berlin in my head. This is the Turkish quarter also full of aspiring creatives. It was full of bars, cafes and restaurants, every inch covered in arty graffiti. It was a kind of East London with fewer wankers and less money – and much more street art. This was a place you could get lost in, drinking coffee in cafes with the Bertolt Brechts of the future.

I saw many beautiful young people, carefully hip and stylish, perched on the underground. In middle age people seemed to give up, wear comfortable clothes and let their middles get wide. They were kind of like the British and also not like us at the same time. I felt at home. People spoke to me in German and then switched to flawless English when they saw my confused looks. I felt ashamed of my lack of knowledge. Berlin was full of vegetarian and organic (bio) eateries many of which were cheap which suited me just fine. There were bars selling German beers which were almost like our pubs. Then there were bars which felt much more European. This city was made for me.

I only scratched the surface in the few days I was there. I want to go back… maybe forever. I loved Berlin.