Achtung! is the title of my monthly column in Blueprint magazine that I have been writing since October 2008. That headline has to do with the Brits’ continuing stereotyping of us Germans as heel-clicking, orders-shouting men in jackboots. I have long since learned that the best way to live with that preoccupation is to go along with it, even bring it up before they do. So when the editors came up with the title, I rolled my eyes but agreed. This was written in September, before the size of the financial crisis became to be fully known. My condemnation of people producing “invisible earnings” could have been much harsher.
THESE DAYS, even cities and countries are branded like washing powder. When I hear a line like ‘London is the creative capital of Europe,’ (or was it ‘the World’?), the first thing I ask myself is whether this is the result of objective research, a tabloid invention or another government campaign to take peoples’ minds off increasing inflation, prohibitive property prices, terrible traffic and weird weather. Yet there is some truth behind the slogan. I live and work in Berlin, San Francisco and London, and there is something different about the British capital.
Berlin today is made up of many cities: the old Prussian capital, leftovers of Nazi pomposity, ruins from the War with patched-up bullet-holes on every surviving building, post-war capitalist planning in the West and socialist architecture in the East, plus 18 years of post-post-war developments. A history of disruptions. Low prices attract artists and would-be artists, but hardly any corporate headquarters or serious businesses. Nobody in Berlin has jobs, but everybody has ‘projects’.
London, on the other hand, is the product of centuries of continuity. Everything that has ever happened on the British Isles, from the Roman occupation to the days of the Empire, from Nazi bombing to Thatcher’s hardcore capitalism, has manifested itself in this city. You get to live in one of the centres of the known universe if you are prepared to put up with all the inadequacies, bad air, horrible traffic, atrocious services and ridiculous prices. If you survive in London, nothing will scare you. And having managed to do so is a great boost for anybody’s self-confidence. Walking (or, in mycase, cycling) through the streets of Clerkenwell, I notice that the average age of everybody out there must be half mine. The way they go about looking busy while stroking their iPhones, the fashion they pretend not to wear and the bars, cafes and restaurants they frequent all suggest that nobody earns their money making anything physical anymore. Which leaves ‘invisible earnings’ as their main contribution to the economy. That term was invented for the City, where people make their money by betting other peoples’ cash on anything that grows, flows or might one day be manufactured. However, the Square Mile turned out to be fuelled by greed more than by expertise, and the sex appeal has disappeared with the bonuses.
Enter the creatives. If we place anybody in this category who works in film, TV, publishing, advertising, fashion and design, we realise that practising these occupations poses no danger to anybody. In other words: if all the creative businesses went on strike tomorrow, we wouldn’t immediately notice. Electric power would still be generated, breads baked and concrete mixed. Trains might still leave platforms (which, looking at Britain from a German perspective, is a small miracle in itself), the Congestion Charge would be enforced, newspapers printed and hearts transplanted. But what of the newspaper features? The pictures? The different styles of headlines, the characteristic look of your favourite magazine? If you’ve ever been to a country without advertising (I used to live next door to Eastern Germany), you may have realised how drab everything looks, and developed a longing for even the most stupid washing powder advertisement.
Imagine, for a moment, a typical high street without any advertising at all. An attractive thought at first, until you realise that even neon signs and advertising hoardings deliver crucial information, perhaps decoration and sometimes even amusement. And who would want to go back to the undesigned objects from the past? The complexity of technology may need to be hidden from us for our own good, but the look and function of surfaces and interfaces cannot be left to the engineers and marketing people alone. Things may just about work without designers, but don’t we also derive pleasure from using objects, physically and aesthetically? Without fashion we’d all be forced to wear the same practical gear, Mao-style. Refreshing for some of us for a while perhaps, but every man knows what women are capable of if they haven’t bought a new pair of shoes for awhile. You get my drift: us creatives may not save lives, and mankind would certainly continue to exist without our involvement.
However, we have important roles to play. The first one is to put icing on the cake of capitalism, no doubt about that. The other one could befor us to use our unique talents to actually solve real problems. We can visualise thoughts, ideas, issues. That is a very powerful gift. Also, in spite of all the iPhoning, teleconferencing, button-pushing and Facebooking going on, we like to be around each other. The more creative talent you have in one place, the more you attract. We’re not afraid of moving into ‘bad’ areas, we like to try exotic foods, hang out with interesting people from faraway places, listen to strange sounds, read material that is incomprehensible to outsiders and generally treat bugs as features. Where could there be a better environment for this species than in London? One good thing about Britain’s colonial past is the fact that half the world speaks English as their first language, while the other half takes courses. Many smaller countries are already bilingual. Try learning Dutch or Swedish: impossible – they’ll always answer back in English. Still, nobody speaks it as well as you do here in Britain. If you could be bothered to learn another language, you could appreciate that there are other ways of seeing and saying things. If you could get your tongues out of your cheeks now and again, the contribution London makes to the creative trades, industries and businesses could be even greater. Nobody is asking you to become German and actually make things.
BLUEPRINT OCTOBER 2008