I can only remember the period from 1963-67 as a tentative determination to lose my virginity without getting anyone pregnant. This was the epoch I think of as in between the Lady Chatterly trial and Peace, Love and if it feels good, do it. During those four years, Britain leapt from Victorian post-war inhibition to the permissive society in one mighty bound.
It was just about getting under way – with Dylan going electric, Motown music to dance to and California lyrics to try and interpret – when, in 1965, my chum Shaun and I discovered a chance to get away to the Sin City pleasures of West Berlin. An organisation called Christlich Jüdische Zusammenarbeit (Jewish-Christian working together) was offering bed and board in a Berlin park, in return for upkeep duties that sounded less than onerous. Being a do-gooder project sponsored by the Bundesrepublik (and we being students of German) this was a perfect excuse to skive off the last two weeks of Summer term, and get away from the POW camp of parental scrutiny for three whole months.
In 1965, there was a myth doing the rounds among hormone-directed teenage boys in Britain. The myth was, “German birds do it”. Not as casually as Swedish birds, but still without the myriad lies required to get English girls to do it. Also – it was alleged – you didn’t require furtive indecision when purchasing condoms, because free-living German pharmacies regarded such a purchase as socially responsible, as opposed to evidence of incurably depraved Devil worship.
The Berlin Park involved was in Glienicker, whose bridge over the River Havel was the scene of many spy swaps at this, the height of the Cold War. The Havel was the border between West Berlin and East Germany – a Soviet satellite State run with ruthless privacy invasion by the deeply unpleasant Erich Hönecker.
The suburb overall was referred to as Wannsee – the location for the conference of the same name which, in 1942, worked out the grisly details of the Final Solution to the ‘Jewish Problem’. Shaun and I – along with forty or so other kids of varietal nationality – worked on pulling weeds and tending pathways in the park, as well as turning over huge mounds of meticulously laid compost mountains. But after six pm, we were free to catch the bus into the centre of this ideologically divided city.
The nominal centre of the centre back then was the Zoo Bahnhof, a major railway station infamous as a meeting place for homosexuals. But within easy walking or U-Bahn (Underground) distance were a number of eateries, bars, dance clubs and other assorted dives proffering fast food, strong alcohol and German birds.
In reality as opposed to erectile fantasies, Berlin girls turned out to be very Anglophile – but equally, traditional. There was none of this “Yer dancin’ then?” vulgarity: it was necessary to ask “Darf ich bitten?” …. ‘May I have this dance?’ But most of we English gardeners being Mods – and groovy movers around the floor – we were never refused. Those who were teenage English pop fans and suitably stylish in 1965 West Berlin ticked most of the boxes.
Our favourite haunt was a place called The Big Apple. The DJ played all the very latest US and UK imports, including one track even we didn’t know. This was the debut single of a band that became massive around the world: its title was Can’t Explain.
On hearing it, I went into leap-about mode – and then approached the DJ to ask (in German) who the band was. It went like this:
Me: What’s the name of this group?
Me: No, I’m asking you – who are this group?
Me: Parlez-vous francais?
DJ: Bien sur…Ils s’appellent The Who.
And so, comprehension having dawned, I became a lifelong fan of The Who – Roger Daltrey (vocals), John Entwistle (bass), Keith Moon (drums) and Pete Townshend (guitar).
Astonishingly, at Berliner Strasse 77, The Big Apple is still going strong 54 years later.
There were many other experiences wasted on the young: watching East Germans escape across the River Havel while being machine-gunned by DDR soldiers….as if it might be a video game; getting drunk and catching the wrong UBahn train, thus arriving in East Berlin to face many frightening questions from the Völkspolizei; and taking a day trip via Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin, during which I was offered 5000 DDR Marks for a five pound note.
But the last night in West Berlin was something special.
A cockney among our midst – he was known as ‘Del-Boy’, you couldn’t make this up – somehow acquired a major-league stash of Dortmunder Schultheiss beer and litre bottles of schnapps as the chaser. That night, the park camp was, as you might say, All Lit Up. Swiss, French, Dutch, Germans and Brits came together, united by the mind-altering effects of toxic recreational drugs.
By mid evening (and for us, that was midnight) it seemed like an excellent idea to stagger down to the River Havel and provoke our nasty Communist enemies on the other side of the watery divide. We stripped off, skinny-dipped, splashed about and yelled a great deal in an act of protest against the flunkey Ostis brainwashed by the USSR.
The uniformed citizens of the DDR displayed rather more focus than us by switching on a bright yellow spotlight, and firing a hail of machine-gun bullets in our direction. It was the one and only time I have been subject to deadly gunfire, and I vowed within seconds never to let it happen again. The world has rarely seen so many spoilt Western drunks take refuge in deep water diving exercises.
Surfacing again on the Free Europe bank, we were alarmed to see US patrol boats speeding along the line of buoys along the river, while employing loudspeakers to suggest to the People’s Army that any more bullets would be met with returned fire.
So it was that your correspondent and others very nearly caused the outbreak of World War III.
I did not mislay my virginity in West Berlin. I gave it instead to a fellow student at Liverpool University in 1967. On the whole, the lady concerned took very good care of it until 1970….at which point she left me for a bloke from one of the outer London suburbs. This was a very wise move on her part. Half a century later, we are still in touch.
Time puts everything into perspective. There is no point in living in the past. But there is every advantage to be had by learning from it.