In the summer of 2016, I was invited to LiteraTurm, a festival in Frankfurt am Main, as part of an exchange to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the city’s twinning with Birmingham. The trip was organised by Writing West Midlands, a regional development body. I was to read with Elizabeth-Jane, an ‘interdisciplinary poet with a focus on experimental writing.’
At Bimingham airport I met Elizabeth-Jane and our facilitator, Jonathan. We sat in the departure lounge and swapped anecdotes about literary festivals in Nicaragua and the States, readings in bookshops in Oxford and Manchester. I mentioned that my writing had recently begun to engage explicitly with modernism, with the essence of the word and its place in the world, and we joked – a little apprehensively – about how an audience for whom English was a second language might respond to our unapologetically rarefied offerings.
Frankfurt city centre was hot and hectic. Our hotel was a businessman’s joint, the Fleming’s Deluxe. It stood on top of a small hill, on the edge of the financial district, and by the time we checked-in we were grateful for its cool spaces and dispassionately conditioned air. We had an hour or two to kill before our event, so I went to my room and flicked through a festival programme. I saw it was sponsored by BHF Bank, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Morgan Lewis. After demolishing a Club Sandwich from the room service menu, I took a snooze.
That evening, we read in the Goethe-Haus. The floors were marble and there were richly oiled panels on the walls. The audience was numerous, had a mean age of fifty-something and no difficulty understanding English. Elizabeth-Jane was mesmerising, her work immediate and profound. Bold too, brought to life as it was with the help of rose petals, on which she wrote prompts before scattering them around the room. My contribution was a short story – one word and an endnote – that playfully excoriated the tropes of meaning. To our relief the audience was attentive, perceptive in their questioning and unsparing in their applause.
Further affirmation followed. After the event, our German host took us for a tour of the city centre. For a small city, there were an extraordinary number of art galleries. Galleries appeared down alleyways, on main streets, at the corners of squares. Just off the ‘premier pedestrian promenade’, The Zeil, we were shown the imposing Schirn Kunsthalle with its Miro retrospective. Around the corner, the Museum fur Moderne Kunst – a purpose-built receptacle that managed to both announce itself and integrate into the aspect of an otherwise unremarkable city centre street; it promised work by Joseph Beuys, On Kawara and the young French-Algerian Kada Attia. We were told about the Museum of Applied Art, the Icon Museum, the Frankfurt Art Association – which I later read wanted to ‘open itself up to critical dialogue…with current cultural questions’ – and the Stoltze Museum of Frankfurt Savings Bank, dedicated to the work of a poet. There were statues too, and ‘public art’. Down a side street I saw a disturbing biomorphic figure by Michael Croissant that transcended the banality of much stuff so defined and demanded a response beyond platitude.
Little of this had any direct relevance to my interest in the hither and thither of modernism of course, but it seemed as though Frankfurt had at least created an environment in which questions about the role of art were difficult to ignore. So taken was I by this, that I nearly failed to register its apparent ambivalence towards another contemporary discourse. Along with art, Frankfurt’s city centre was full of people in sleeping bags. They were everywhere, lying on benches or curled around plinths, sitting in the doorways of shops and galleries. They looked like they had emerged organically from the pavements of the city. Some held signs, and some of these were in English; others, having emerged, looked like they wanted to hide away.
Back at our hotel we were received by the festival organisers and sponsors, in a restaurant bar on the 9th floor. The festival had paid for food, drink, more food and drink. On arrival, our glasses were filled with wine; if we declined, we were given a bottle of beer. The sponsors were manicured, coiffed. They were enthusiastic about literature and wanted to know about the cultural scene in Birmingham. After an hour or so, I felt a little claustrophobic and went out onto the balcony of the hotel. It was a long way above the street. I was giddy with the booze and the air seemed thinner than at ground level. For a moment, I was mesmerised by the shiny glass towers of the Financial Quarter, lit-up in brochure co-ordinated blues and greens. Then, looking down the hill towards the darker corners of the city, I was assailed by questions about writing and literary festivals that I couldn’t begin to answer and by circular arguments that left me frustrated, in low spirits and ready for my bed.
Charlie Hill is the author of two critically-acclaimed novels, numerous short stories and a novella, Stuff.