Given 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 several 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.