Whenever we three met again it spells trouble for someone.
The thunder and lightning have stayed away but the rain is coming down in buckets.
Where’s the place? Ah — the place is a problem. The place is always the problem.
Peter, Stefan and I have knocked around some of the most far-flung parts of the Ruhr for the best part of a decade and a half now. The cold, wet winters drive life indoors here but not for us the joys of an armchair by the fireside or the cosy pub at the end of the street. Our metropolis is much too interesting for that.
Much of what people do for fun round here goes on behind closed doors. Stop sniggering at the back there — we are talking about serious cultural events here and not what you’re thinking. Anybody’s welcome to join in fact — the more the merrier. The only problem is, you’ve got to know where the door is.
There is life in every nook and cranny here — not that you would necessarily know it from the outside. Bars in cellars, gothic discos in abandoned warehouses, art films in old railway stations, poetry slams in the back rooms of dimly lit restaurants — every facet of life is catered for if only you know where to find it.
The streets are quiet at night here but that doesn’t mean that nothing is going on. Quite the opposite in fact — the best things always take place away from prying eyes. The Ruhr’s underworld is one of our biggest assets.
Knowing where to find things requires contacts, experience and a good nose. You also need perseverance and dedication. It stands to reason that the most interesting places are hardly likely to be in the centre of town with busses running every five minutes throughout the night.
Rolling up at the door is also less than half of the equation. Having got there, the next challenge is to get back. If life here starts to get interesting when the sun goes down and the shutters are closed then it becomes a positive adventure when the busses stop running.
In this respect, Peter, Stefan and myself have an astoundingly poor track record. We’ve been to most of the events described above and many, many more — and thus have bagged just about every bus route, branch line and subway station of our urban cluster as a result.
We have a fine grasp of the theory as far as public transport is concerned. We use it every day for work after all. Come the evening, routes to and from venues are carefully researched in the internet then printed out, written down or memorised. An extra ten euros is factored in to the evening’s budget for an emergency taxi. Smartphones are fully charged in the unlikely event that a plan B should ever be required.
Theory and practice are two different things. Two or three drinks, a laugh and a joke later the timetables have been lost or forgotten. The extra ten euros goes for the next round. Another ten goes for the next one. The venue gets warmer and more inviting while the damp air coagulates in the cold night sky.
There is talk of a night bus. Often the proposition is put forward to remain where we are until the sun comes up and weary bus drivers begin another day. We could stop at a cash machine — if only we knew where to find one. There’ll be a solution. Surely. One more round and then we’ll find it.
Then the lights go on, the organiser tells us it’s time to go home and we are cast out onto the grey and inhospitable street. Pleasures are like poppies spread, You seize the flower, its bloom is shed. Our Burns’ nights are just the sort of event where this sort of thing can happen. Small are the hours, dark is the night and long is the road home.
We get there eventually — but not without sustaining casualties. Often enough one or more of us will end up sleeping on a bench at a bus stop or railway station or putting his hand into his pocket and parting with a small fortune for a taxi. Once in the relative warmth and comfort of a vehicle, the danger has not quite passed. The temptation to fall asleep must be avoided at all costs. Hours can be lost if stops are missed.
Tonight’s venue has presented a challenge for all of us. We all three arrive late, having gone straight past the closed gate that leads to the building. There to meet with a former colleague now living in England.
He’s back in his home town to see family and friends and has brought his guitar. An evening of music and football anecdotes, entrance free with a hat to be passed round afterwards.
His home town is not the sort of place you want to be hanging around in after dark, especially not wearing the football scarf that I am. They eat their young in Wanne-Eickel. You’ve heard the name before. Wanne-Eickel is the twin sister of Herne where I had to go to hand in my citizenship application.
It certainly doesn’t look inviting to the first time visitor. The bus terminus is a masterpiece of seventies overoptimism; whoever built the train station didn’t even care that much. The shops along the main street sell cheap clothes, Turkish groceries, mobile phones on payment plans and not much else.
Anywhere, Lower Germany. Population: falling — and changing in its tastes. The only clue that you are actually somewhere special is the information boards giving you insights into a much grander past.
Coal was king here, as it was in Herne, and mining certainly had its compensations. The centre of Wanne-Eickel might be no beauty but in the suburbs where we are now the miners’ rows have a latter-day rustic charm which is pleasing to all but the most critical of eyes.
Mining towns in Germany are seldom as spartan as they are in Britain. The scale of the operations here just wouldn’t allow it. German miners who worked in Britain often joke about the “toy trucks” that served as machinery in British pits. Here, there was a time when you could walk thirty miles underground in any direction.
There is a certain grandeur to mining communities here as a result. Fortunes were made and lost here. Labour conditions were appalling by modern standards but better than anything you’s ever have found in Cowdenbeath or Ferryhill. Miners cottages are solid and stylish and now that the mines have gone they have become desirable places to live. As elsewhere in the region, gardens are reclaiming the streets.
Suburbia, but suburbia with a soul. People are still born and bred round here and there’s still more than a whiff of the old camaraderie that made people proud to call it home. Anywhere, Lower Germany might be down on its luck but it is still alive and kicking.
I check my invitation one more time. Yes, I am in the right place — an hour late but otherwise as instructed. Dress code: football colours. Check. Timidly I push open my gate and follow the garden path round to the main entrance.
He’s been gone a few years now, our old pal, but he’s obviously not been forgotten. Once inside, it’s a familiar mix of old stories, familiar faces and happy reunions. There’s a good turnout of local residents in the blue-and-white of FC Schalke 04 and I am the only one in the black-and-yellow of Borussia Dortmund.
Peter has invited one of his customers. I turns out I used to teach his brother. I know this because his brother is sitting next to me. Old faces pop up all the time in this part of the world, one of the unexpected the beauties of living here as a Scotsman from Dortmund.
Songs are sung, jokes are traded. The catching up process is a long and joyous one. Trays with foaming tankards plonk down on pristine white tablecloths. Watches and mobile phones are deliberately ignored.
“Go to the toilet” says one of the brothers “you’ll thank me for it”.
I look at him quizzically.
“No” he says “seriously. The toilets are the most beautiful in all the Ruhr.”
He’s right you know. It’s not just the toilets either. The whole building is beautiful: high ceilings, three-quarter length lattice windows looking out onto the lawn. The toilets are in the lobby, cut into the dowelling and panelling. The old oak staircase twists upwards into the rooms above.
Impossibly grand. This used to be the foremen’s club for the mine down the street. It’s a wonder they ever got any work done –it’s more like a country mansion than a miners’ club. And yet from the outside you would never know it was here.
The hat is passed round, the landlady reminds us that if we go now then we will still catch the last bus. Before we are turfed out into the cold, the brothers have one last treat in store. We get to see the garden.
Both have lived their lives a bike ride away from this place and know it like the backs of their hands. You could spend an entire summer here and often, they say, as kids they did. There’s a beer garden, tennis courts, a summer house, a swimming pool.
Even in the dead of winter and the black of night the verdance rings in your nose. I’m stunned by just how immaculate it is — and that from the street you would have no idea of its existence.
A German Godfrey’s cottage. You know the episode of Dad’s Army of course. The cottage with the thatched roof and the white fence and the roses round the door. The quintessential symbol of England that makes the struggle against Hitler worthwhile.
In modern Germany, in the thick of the struggles of global economics, anglicisation, digitalisation and multiculturalism it’s often very difficult to find something quintessential. It’s still there if you know where to find it but the question is for how long. Perhaps no other country in the world is as progressive as this one but we will miss places like this if ever we lose them.
The brothers take their leave — hopping onto bikes and parting at the crossroads in opposite directions — and we trudge to the bus stop. The bus left two minutes ago. The next one is in an hour. Peter has left his walking stick inside. When he goes back, the door is closed. The secret garden is no more; the wormhole has closed.
The rain is hanging into the air and seeping into our lungs with every breath but we have a consolation prize. Peter has prepared for the worst.
“Close your eyes”, he says “and put your hand in the bag.”
I plunge my hand into his rucksack and feel something cold, hard and wet. A beer bottle. There is one for each of us. Cheers!
Fifty-three minutes to go. We feel like beer bottles, shivering in the cold night, warmed only by alcohol and a conversation that will not have found its end in 52 minutes’ time. An almost perfect evening — in Wanne-Eickel.
A chance to catch up, a privileged insight into a lost world, an adventure on the busses.
And a reminder that sometimes, just sometimes, it would be good if we could turn back the clock.