Five Days in Hamburg and a few books

SpeicherstadtGiven my ‘bah humbug’ attitude to Christmas it may seem a bit odd to fly off to the country which pretty well invented many of the UK’s most beloved festive bits and bobs: markets, fairy-lit trees and mulled wine come to mind. Hamburg might seem an even stranger choice – hardly top of most tourists’ lists – but four years ago, just before our first Berlin Christmas, Al Murray – aka The Pub Landlord – spent some time exploring the country lampooned by his xenophobic alter ego in a two-part documentary. Hamburg was one of the cities he visited, waxing lyrical about the beautifully ornamented red brick Speicherstadt – the city of warehouses. It stayed in my memory and that, together with the fact that we could fly from Bristol rather than tangling with Heathrow and all its misery, is the reason we spent this Christmas in Hamburg.

It’s an interesting city, proud of its place at the heart of the Hanseatic League which lasted from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries and stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea. The striking Rathaus harks back to that time with its fine Gothic clock and statuary. It’s also very much a working city proud of its industry. Upscale apartments in London’s Docklands look out at the City, stuffed with bankers and brokers, while the equivalent Hamburg apartment view is a port teeming with container ships. There’s lots to see besides wandering around Speicherstadt – we went to a very fine arts and crafts museum and had Kaiserschmarrnseveral lovely walks in the many parks around the city – but probably only enough for four rather than five days although H’s horrible end-of-term cold meant that we needed the full five to do it justice. We ended the holiday with an excellent lunch at a bustling city café topped off with a plate of kaisershmarrn, no finer way to end a winter break.

As for books, I finally got around to two I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The first was Herman Koch’s The Dinner which put me in mind of The Slap with its cast of particularly nasty characters. Its premise is the extent to which the wealthy privileged will stretch the bounds of morality  to protect their children regardless of the horrendous crimes they may have committed, and it’s a good one but giving the narrator a mental illness, gradually revealed during the dinner, possibly inherited by his son seemed to me to be a cop-out. The second book was John Williams’ Stoner which was everything The Dinner wasn’t: subtle, understated and poignant – a beautiful book, fully deserving of its word-of-mouth success a year or so ago. Sadly, my holiday reading ended on a sour note. Having saved Jennifer Close’s The Smart One for the plane home I found that I’d already read it – not the ditsy middle-aged mistake that I’m perfectly capable of making these days. It turns out that the hardback edition was published under a different title – Things We Need – which I reviewed here last year. Pah! Seems like pulling a fast one to me.

I hope you all had an enjoyable break, unspoiled by coughs, colds and travel mayhem, and that your New Year’s Eve will be a good one.

21 thoughts on “Five Days in Hamburg and a few books”

  1. It’s so irritating when they change a book title and you spend money on it again only to discover you’ve already read it. Hamburg sounds lovely though – I’ve only spent one night there at a conference many years ago, never got any time to explore. Happy New Year!

    1. And, to add insult to injury, you find yourself trapped on a plane with nothing else to read! I think Hamburg’s well worth a longer visit if you get the chance, Annabel. A very happy New Year to you, too!

  2. Now I want to visit Hamburg, it sounds lovely.

    I reviewed the Close paperback but it took me a while to realise it wasn’t a new novel but one I’d had on my pile for a while. I wonder if the publishers thought the title change would generate more sales. It certainly seemed to be (mis)marketed as more of a ‘holiday read’ for the PB.

    1. I think Hamburg in the spring would be lovely – it’s such a green city.

      I bought the Close having greatly enjoyed Things We Need and was very puzzled to find it so familiar when I started reading. It wasn’t until I checked the title page that I realised why. The original title makes more sense to me, too. Grr….

  3. Sounds like a fab trip; have long been fascinated by Hamburg because of the Beatles connection and once passed through it en route to the ferry terminal, but that’s it. We chose to stay at home this year — usually we rent a cottage somewhere in the UK — but I fancied a lazy one doing nothing but sleeping and reading.

    I’m yet to read Stoner (I bought it about 6 years ago, when it first got “discovered” by bloggers) and only recently found it squirrelled away at back of my shelves (which are three books deep).

    I loved The Dinner (it’s on my Top 10 reads of the year) because it was so dark and morally dubious. I also loved the way it was structured around a meal in a pretentious restaurant and the writer took the piss out of the whole gourmet foodie snobbery, which is something that gets right up my nose. Hee hee.

    Here’s to another year of fabulous reading & literary discoveries!

    1. Sleeping and reading was how I used to spend my Christmases through my decade as a bookseller – too shattered to do much else – so now I like to escape it when I can but holing up in a cottage sounds a nice way to do that.

      Given that we both seem to share a predilection for restrained writing I think you’ll enjoy Stoner, Kim. Just for once it lives up to the hype. I thought The Dinner was very clever – lots of slow reveals – and I liked the premise but felt that the illness became an excuse for appalling behaviour.

      A very happy New Year to you, reading and otherwise!

    1. Well worth digging out Stoner, Vicki. I thought it might have been talked up but was pleasantly surprised. A very happy 20015 to you, too. I’m sure we’ll find lots of books to explore and share.

  4. Hi Susan, Loved this post as it brought back happy memories of a trip to Hamburg a few years ago. Our sole reason for going there was cheap flights and some folk commented that it might be a let down compared to other more ‘exotic’ city breaks. They were wrong! Just as your post describes, Hamburg has a lot to offer and I’d highly recommend it to anyone.

    1. I doubt I would have gone there had it not been for the winning combination of avoiding Heathrow and Al Murray’s documentary but I’m very glad I did. Those warehouses, alone, are wonderful. Delighted to have brought back happy memories, Helen!

  5. It sounds like a lovely trip – isn’t Hamburg one of the cities that features in a James Bond movie – Tomorrow Never Dies? Well, I think. My knowledge of Bond is not extensive! And I have a copy of Stoner to read that I’m so looking forward to. How annoying to have a retitled book trip you up at the end – there ought to be some big notice plastered over the blurb at the back, along the lines of ‘The book formerly known as…..’ Here’s wishing you a very happy, peaceful and wonderfully book-filled 2015, Susan!

    1. Oh, I didn’t know that – perhaps I need to seek out the DVD. Not a Bond fan although that may change with Idris Elba in the frame! A very happy reading – and otherwise – New Year to you, too, Victoria.

  6. I’m glad you enjoyed Hamburg, Susan. A little like Annabel, I’ve only been there on a brief business trip with little time to look around the city, but I’d like to go back for a short break. Stoner’s a wonderful book, isn’t it? A very moving story.

    1. Thanks, Jacqui. Great place for a short break and a little different from the usual destinations. I loved Stoner and will be interested to see how Butcher’s Crossing compares.

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