To Berlin, to see the American soprano Renée Fleming perform songs from Puccini, Strauss and Elgar in a “night of love.” The concert is at the rather splendid open-air Waldbühne, in the Olympic park, which we’re told is a reproduction of the 3rd-century BC theatre of Epidaurus. We have strawberries and Riesling, and afterwards go to the great diva’s dressing room where she chats about her friend Cherie Blair. This is a weekend bid for in a charity auction and it’s great to be in Berlin, a city I haven’t visited for years and wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for the prize. We stay in Soho House Berlin, which is remarkably like its Shoreditch equivalent, only filled with Germans.
The last time I was here was one year after the wall fell: the event was so recent that no one talked about it. Now it’s as vital to Berlin as Shakespeare is to Stratford-upon-Avon. The former border between east and west is marked by a replica of the guard house, overlooked by a big McDonald’s. Signs shout “this is Checkpoint Charlie” and there’s even an officer in the uniform of what was once East Germany, who for a couple of euros will smilingly stamp an “entry document” and give you some DDR marks. It’s fine if you don’t remember, but if you do it feels like a horrible trick on your memory. When I crossed the border in 1987 I felt terrified. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but I’m certain that the majority of tourists will leave the city thinking the only effect of the divide was that you had to have a stamp in your passport.
Twenty years ago this month – and less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall – The Word, a late-night television programme I devised, first aired. To celebrate, I am organising a party for everyone who worked on it. For those who don’t remember, The Word made a big splash every Friday evening with its mix of top guests, of-the-moment music, surprising journalism and items, often live, that shocked. Many people hated it but it was always talked about.
In particular, we loved surprising people – when champion boxer Barry McGuigan was reported to be depressed, we sent our presenter Katie Puckrik to “cheer up Barry McGuigan” with an orchestra and people from his past; on another occasion, we got the actress Margi Clarke to “come on” to our own presenters Terry Christian and Mark Lamarr as we secretly filmed their reactions just before a show. Two decades on, I’m having to convince people that this event is just a party – they are so convinced that there is to be some kind of situationist prank that some are saying they are too nervous to come.
Part of the organisation of this party involves looking at old programmes and sifting through my own personal archive – and wow, how the world has changed. The Word was a little glimpse of the future, the beginning of a period that changed Britain for ever – in some people’s mind for the worse.
With the success of The Word I could buy the first car I really loved – a 1990 Saab convertible classic in “Le Mans blue”. A few years later, I sold it, persuaded that I should replace it with a new-style Saab, a decision I so instantly regretted that I nearly paid the 100 per cent mark up the garage put on it and bought it back. I didn’t, but whenever I saw an old-style Saab I got a little stab of pain and interest. Just recently, I decided to get a run-around for my house in Kent and I instantly thought I’d get an old-style Saab. Incredibly, the first car I clicked on was the very same Saab I’d sold 10 years ago, two owners later and up for sale … I had no choice but to accept the call of fate. I took the train to Hampshire to get it. I kept my excitement to myself as I expressed surprise at the amazing and detailed service records kept by the previous owner (me). Despite the addition of a rather unpleasant boy-racer spoiler, the car was the same. It even had the same “old car” smell. The drive back was blissful.
On to a summer party, this time a country house charity event. We are served a cream tea, sit on chintz sofas and listen to 20-year-old girls with 1950s-style curled hair talk about the luxury tents at music festivals they’ve been to, before we sip cocktails served in mismatched floral china cups. This is retro reinvented: these are all things that were very much out of fashion but are now very much in. It is an edited version of the past (no avocado bathroom suites, thank goodness).
The reinventions are for the most part rather better than the first time round, but it is taking place so self-consciously I am not completely sure that participants realise it is a reinvention. I rather suspect they think this is how it was. For the record, my mother would never have had an unmatching tea service – except by accident. Nor would the curled hair be fashion-magazine perfect. How will the girls ever know that in England we didn’t used to have cupcakes with bright Day-Glo swirls but smaller fairy cakes, with white icing, and occasionally hundreds and thousands (or at best Smarties)?
The past is so fluid that I wish I could be certain what actually happened. This week some researchers from the University of Hull have found out that people can completely believe a past event happened when in fact it was entirely imagined. The other day, my younger brother told me how he found out about Father Christmas: he opened his stocking to find he was being given an orange pen that already belonged to him. I remember very well this same thing happening to me. Did he steal my memory? We will never know.
It’s a relief to go to the village fête where the past has not been reinvented, though sad to realise that this charity event will raise pennies to the millions of pounds made by the cream teas and chintz at the country house. After seeing a dog show and the Hastings Twirlers (teenage girls waving flags and batons – extremely odd), I finally come across the WI stall. A beacon of historical accuracy in a reinvented world! For sale: homemade fairy cakes with white icing and hundreds and thousands. 50p each. And, for the same price, one with Smarties. Bliss.
Charlie Parsons runs an investment fund