I started my secondary schooling at Leith Academy almost three decades ago and still remember my first German classes in August 1989. One of the first things our teacher – a Mrs Morrison if I recall correctly – drummed into us were the formal names for the two Germanies, 'Deutsche Demokratische Republik' (East) and 'Bundesrepublik Deutschland' (West). Just a few months later the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and that geographical distinction was to become superfluous. By the time I was in my second year at secondary school, Germany had re-unifed.
I can also remember sitting in my history class as another teacher (Mr McLean?) told us with, I imagine, a hint of drama, that we were witnessing 'history in the making.' None of us, in all honesty, really comprehended what was happening; the ideological struggle between communism and capitalism meant little to 12-year-olds from Lochend and Restalrig. Of course, I find it all fascinating now. If only my formal education had taken place when I was ready for it.
This all came back to me on the train from Prague to Dresden last week where, after a cursory passport check, I arrived in the former East German city of Dresden. Strikingly, there still remain signs of the massive damage inflicted by Allied bombers more than seven decades ago, even though parts of the Old City have been faithfully reconstructed. Dominating the main square is the rebuilt Frauenkirche, a Lutheran church, only completed in 2005, having spent much of the post-war era as a mound of rubble covered in roses.
A visit to the Dresden City Museum also compelled me to consider the notion of inherited guilt. Although I have no direct connection with the controversial policy of carpet bombing that took place towards the end of the war (my grandfather served in the Navy), I still felt pangs of responsibility on gazing at appalling photographs of the destruction wrought in February 1945. Otherwise, parts of Dresden are now given over to what's known as 'Ostalgia', nostalgia for the former East German state, warts and all. Not only is there a DDR museum full of cars and cooking utensils, but the gruesome former Stasi HQ is open for self-guided tours.
This Ostalgia was present in Berlin, too, which has its own museums dedicated to the kitsch and internal security of 'Der DDR.' Having had my fill of that in Dresden, I instead hopped on the U-Bahn to what was until 2008 Berlin's main airport, Tempelhof. Constructed in the 1920s and rebuilt by the Nazis a decade later, it was deliberately situated in the city centre because its architects envisaged air travel becoming as routine as its equivalent on rails. Thus the vast hangers, big enough to accommodate planes and enable passengers to board and disembark without exposure to the elements.
The second world war, however, interfered with this grandiose plan, and instead Tempelhof housed the United States Air Force immediately after hostilities ended. Later, it proved crucial in the Berlin airlift, and later still served as a regular airport. Today, it's a refugee processing centre (the rest is a sprawling public park), which is quite something given its Nazi associations. Outside the main entrance are several imperial German eagles, and also the head of another in bronze, all that remains of the massive creature (standing, naturally, upon a swastika) that once loomed over arriving passengers.
That era continues to fascinate Brits and, sadly, some Germans. During my three days in the German capital newspapers were full of a regional poll which had shown the nationalist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party ahead of the SPD, the latter now part of a 'grand coalition' with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. Not by much, granted, but nevertheless a worrying advance for an outfit that just a few years ago would have barely registered.
In London at the weekend, I found myself indulging in nostalgia of a different variety. At the sumptuous Victoria and Albert Museum – soon to open a northern branch in Dundee – I took in the superb 'Ocean Liners' exhibition, dedicated to the golden age of sea travel. Clyde-built vessels were well represented, including art deco features from the Queen Mary (now permanently moored at Long Beach in California) and a wonderful painting by Stanley Spencer depicting Glasgow's shipyard workers in all their long-faded glory.
Also present were two rare relics from the Titanic, a sorry-looking deckchair and a decorative wooden panel, both of which had been retrieved following the disaster and, presumably, traded by collectors of such things ever since. What interested me more, however, was the experience of passengers in 'steerage' class, many of whom were economic migrants from Scotland and Ireland, headed to the New World on what must have been an uncomfortable, but nevertheless exhilarating week-long crossing.
Next up was the 'Mail Train' at London's Postal Museum which, like Berlin's Tempelhof Airport, ceased operation in the 2000s. This once transported mail all over (or rather under) London via a network of tunnels, a few of which still carry two little trains full of passengers past what look much like abandoned underground stations. The whole experience was drenched in nostalgia of the sort evoked by W H Auden's 'Night Mail,' which formed part of last week's Notebook.
The capital's post is now delivered by alternative means, for things move on, but a desire to preserve relics and traditions of the past, be it systems of government or ocean liners, says a lot about a contemporary thirst for escapism.