Christopher Isherwood and His Twink: How to Date a Gay Novelist Who Is Older Than Your Dad
When I was 25, I moved to Berlin with a beat-up copy of Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories tucked in my bag. Like many hobosexuals and fagabonds before me, I considered the book a lodestone, a guide to transmuting aimless searching and polymorphous desire into meaningful experiences. So when I heard that Farrar, Straus, and Giroux was releasing The Animals,a collection of the letters of Isherwood and his longtime lover, artist Don Bachardy, I knew I had to read it.
Bachardy met Isherwood when he was 18 and Isherwood was 48 (a year older than Bachardy’s own father). Despite the age difference, the couple spent the next 33 years together. Though love affairs and artistic exploits frequently sent them ricocheting around the world, they maintained a deep and unbreakable connection. They expressed this affection (and frustration) through “the Animals,” personae the two adopted in their letters. Bachardy acted as Kitty and Isherwood called himself Dobbin, Kitty’s faithful horse.
Bachardy, now 80, still lives in the house the couple shared in Santa Monica. Shaking with faggoty fan boy excitement, I called Bachardy to discuss The Animals and what it’s like dating a famous old man who was older than his dad.
VICE: How did your letters become a book?
Don Bachardy: It was my idea. I’d saved all of Chris’s letters, and after his death, I found that he’d saved all of mine. Reading through them just made me think the material was too good not to share it with others. There’s almost nothing, no letter in the book, that is missing, except one, though I can’t remember now where in the sequence it is.
Did you ever discuss publishing something like this with Chris before he died?
No, no, no. And the animals at the time would have been horrified at the suggestion that they would ever be revealed and their letters [would be] published in a book. They would have been quite shocked by such an idea.
What changed your thinking?
I came across both sets of letters and it was very strange reading them again, but interesting too. There were even some laughs in the material, our attempts to entertain each other. There were things I would have liked to have changed—would have changed if I could—but then it’s always a mistake to tamper with any mementos of the past.
Talking to Berlin’s Hipster Defense Squad
Berlin is often hailed as a mecca for ex-pats and creative types fed up with New York and its stratospheric cost of living. Now, as hordes of graphic designers and writers have begun gentrifying the city, locals have started a concerted attack on members of the German capital’s young “creative class,” who are being blamed by natives for the rising property prices. Bar owners have started anti-hipster viral campaigns, and some locals have begunopenly calling for physical violence to be visited upon the invading hordes.
A group called Hipster Antifa Neukölln have formed to counter this rhetoric, using slogans such as “Tourists, hipsters, everybody is welcome—party like it’s 1945.” Speaking from Berlin, Hipster Antifa’s spokesperson Jannek, explained why his group is doing what they’re doing and why gentrification is a global phenomenon that needs to be seen in a new context.
VICE: When did Hipster Antifa Neukölln start?
Jannek: I guess it began about two years ago when anti-hipster and anti-tourist graffiti started appearing around the city. What was being written just seemed too serious to be a joke, so we decided to make a Facebook page and start a counter-offensive. We had a good idea of who was behind this, and we wanted to criticize them and make people aware of what’s going on.
What sort of graffiti?
Stuff like, “Tourists go home!” and “Kill all the hipsters!”… that sort of thing. There was so much of it. A lot of people thought it was just a joke, but then in the summer of 2011, there were a lot of anti-hipster attacks and there were more and more incidents of people getting thrown out of bars for dressing like a hipster. Some bar owners even started putting signs up in their windows saying “No Hipsters, No Tourists”, stuff like that. Things started to boil over, to get really nasty. That’s when we decided to do something about it. We just thought, ‘Berlin should not be this way.’ And we wanted to know why people were doing this. My friends all had a background in left-wing activism and anti-fascist movements, and we kind of knew that the people writing this anti-hipster graffiti were also from a leftist background. Their idea about gentrification is that it’s the fault of tourists, which is a very simple-minded explanation. So we decided to found a group to defend ourselves.
Berlin’s Suicide-Proof Nuclear Fallout Shelter
Anyone who grew up during the Cold War can recall the strangely placid, everyday terror that came along with the constant threat of global nuclear annihilation. Today, we fear that terrorists or a rogue state will get their hands on a nuclear device. This would not be the end of the world—humanity could survive a nuclear terror attack or two, devastating as these might be. Mutually assured destruction was a different kind of thing all together, and in some ways a more palatable fear. You didn’t have to be born-again to believe in Armageddon; everyone could see that it was right around the corner.
Berlin was a particularly surreal place to experience the Cold War. With Western and Soviet bloc forces literally staring each other in the face, the city was a tinderbox waiting to explode into World War III. The citizens of West Berlin understood that they were expendable: if the Soviets were to invade, the NATO plan was a strategic withdrawal, followed by the deployment of 23 tactical nuclear warheads. West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt signed on to this plan, green-lighting the total obliteration of the German people in the name of containing Communism.
The city of West Berlin eventually built 23 nuclear bunkers, employing hundreds of scientists and researchers to design and construct these facilities. Paradoxically, these shelters only provided enough space to house less than one percent of the population. It was a placebo contingency plan, so the government could claim that they were doing something.
Today, at the Pankstrasse stop on the U-8 subway line in Berlin, you can venture into a fallout shelter that was built for about 3,000 people. Though technically still functional, it is doubtful that the facility would actually be usable in an emergency—the plumbing, for instance, has not been overhauled in 40 years. The practical function of the shelter is as a destination for tourists and history buffs.
Resist Control: A Guide to Riding on Berlin’s Public Transportation for Free
Berlin public transit runs on the honor system. I’m on the U-8 line, on my way to work, when a group of controllers board the train. I don’t know what else to call them. The German word Kontrolleur is derived from French, and the passive verb, to be kontrolliert, has gone into colloquial English usage in a rough direct translation, i.e., to be “controlled” (as in: “God damn it, I got controlled on the train today”). The Kontrolleurs are the people assigned to ride the rails all day, randomly entering train-cars as if administering a pop quiz, to check that everyone on board has a valid ticket. As it happens, today I do, but the guy standing next to me clearly does not. You can tell by the way he feigns inattention as the doors close and the two plain-clothes guys pull out their identification badges; he acts as if he is too lost in thought to notice them, staring blankly ahead, his body gone nervous and tense. The other riders, meanwhile, grumble and fumble in wallets and pockets and purses. The controllers begin circulating the train car, repeating their low-intoned mantra: “tickets, please… your tickets, please…” The guy next to me continues to pretend he’s oblivious, even as he inches slowly towards the faraway door, hoping to stay inconspicuous and make it to the next stop. I decide to play defense for him, moving to block the aisle a bit and resolving that when they get to me I’ll take an extra bit of time fumbling around looking for my ticket, to buy him some time.
Riding without a ticket, or schwarzfahren, is something of a national pastime in Germany, and probably nowhere more so than in Berlin, whose citizenry the reigning mayor, Klaus Wowereit, once famously described as “poor but sexy.” Germans have a reputation for being law-abiding and rule-oriented– schwarzfahren is one of the only social arenas in which order is routinely flaunted, where otherwise law-abiding adults feel free to get crazy and thumb their noses at the powers that be. “Poor but sexy:” while the financial benefit of shirking the honor system is obvious, if you’ve ever been waiting at the back of a long tedious line to buy a U-Bahn ticket just as the train arrives, only to have the person you’re with impulsively take your hand and pull you on board ticketless, you’ve realized that schwarzfahren is a lot sexier, too. You can’t get that kind of romantic spontaneity with turnstiles.
Story and painting by Al Burian.
Summer is in full swing in Berlin, and my neighborhood is crowded with tourists. For the most part I don’t mind that, though the walk down the hill to the subway can be aggravating if you’ve got to be somewhere punctually and have to navigate your way through gawking, spacey hordes of vacationers with no particular agenda, loitering in front of their hostels, staring at the sky and blocking the sidewalk. There is a homeless guy hanging out by the Rosenthaler Platz U-8 stop– a real grizzled, spittle-dribbling, wigged-out looking dude, whose face is all furrowed skin, matted white beard and bloodshot abysses for eyes, but whose outfit, a snug denim jacket and highwater pants, is unintentionally hip, as if it is left over from another life. Perhaps he is some legendary Krautrock bassist from the 70s you’ve never heard of. In any case, this guy must be making a decent turnover at this spot, because he is always here, on the corner, raking in the change, and he sees all. He never misses a single person. Once you catch his eye, there is no way to avoid him, nothing you can do. You have to steel yourself for the confrontation.
I’ve lived in this neighborhood for three years, so by now he recognizes me, and no longer treats me like a tourist. Instead he has pegged me as a gentrifier. One look at me and he switches to the English-language dubbed version of himself: he greets me holding up a shaky index and middle finger V.
“PEACE, Brrrohhh-zahhh!!” he enunciates loudly, in the timbre of a loudly creaking door. His English is sarcastic, meant to assault the senses; he wields it like a blunt weapon. I have heard this guy speaking German plenty of times, when he assails other pedestrians, and in his native tongue his diction is good, his vocabulary is inventive, and his banter is witty. It is only for the non-native speakers that he adopts his foaming-at-the-mouth, spitting out the syllables routine. Many a casual passer-by hands him a coin out of pity, mistaking him for schizophrenic, when in reality he is mocking them, making ironic commentary on present social circumstances in exchange for beer money.
I don’t know what exactly it is about my appearance that screams “gentrifier.” Shoes? Hair? He never fails to spot me. No matter how earnestly or articulately I answer him in my best German, he tunes it out, unwavering in his opinion that I can’t speak a word.
“New York Zzzity isss NICE, YES??” he screams at me. Who knows what the punch line is in this private joke of his; perhaps he is one of the thousands of former East German citizens walking around with a PhD that is no longer recognized in unified Germany, a person who could quote me Tolstoy in the original or give a lecture in highest hochdeutsch on Dostoyevsky, endlessly amused by the thought that someone such as he is reduced to communicating with these crass cretins in the coarse language of commerce. As for me, I resolved years ago to give my spare change exclusively to street musicians, to spare myself time and the mental effort of assessing such requests on a case-by-case basis while traversing from point A to B. In this way I feel that I’m putting my resources into bolstering the positive, productive energies of humanity, rather than trying to randomly counter misery and misfortune. That system has worked well for me for years, but now I’m at an impasse: my moral code is beginning to be a hassle on a day-to-day basis, as his attacks have become more pronounced, his accent totally unbearable. I swear I can see him, from a distance, perking up when he spots me coming down the hill, his lips twisting into a malicious, snaggle-toothed grin, as he unfurls his fingers and screams, “PEACE! Brrrrahhhhh-zahhhhhh!!!”