Camellia bud primed for bursting

Even if it seems like it will never end, winter doesn’t last forever. The first harbingers of spring still arrive with a very welcome sense of regularity

An early bee goes looking for lunch

I was cradling a cup of tea in my hands, letting the heat penetrate into them, when I couldn’t ignore that background noise any longer. Was someone driving a flock of geese up the narrow lane which, when it’s on duty, doubles as the high street of the village?

I opened the door, looked up and down, there was no life form of any kind to be seen. Unless you want to count the skeletons of weeds along the side of the road – frozen, dried out and left for dead by a merciless winter. Glancing down the intersection, there was evidence of life: three humans, all facing skywards. I followed their gaze and saw … the pale, late-afternoon winter sky filled – and when I say filled, I mean filled – with migrating birds. They were flying in V-formation, and as high up as they were, their screeching and honking filled the air as though they were padding up and down the high street, looking for trouble.

That morning we had just been stacking another delivery of firewood. Without any other effective way of heating the house we, like almost everyone else here, still spark up the reliable wood stove, which magically fills the home with warmth and the air with its caramelly, spicey perfume. The logs clunked one after the other on the pile made a xylophone music of their own.

Yet winter is obviously beginning to weaken its frozen hold on the landscape. The air is no longer dry and biting but smells of leaf mould and damp soil in the mornings. The sound vacuum has been breached by a hundred different melodies of birdsong. Plant life, while still not at its vigorous, verdant best, looks fuller, plumper, gathering strength for an imminent profusion of green and colour. Buds swell on stems, on shoots, on green protrusions everywhere – some green, some silvery, some already a sassy shade of pink.

And those birds. They were cranes, I was told by Miguel, the Portuguese potter and general savant who lives down the other road leading down, then up the hill and out of the village. There were thousands of them, squawking as they flew from south to north, in V-formations that undulated sinuously across the sky. Occasionally an individual bird here and there would detach itself from one V, then join another, no longer distinguishable from any of the others. For some 20 minutes,  these birds, pointing like arrows forming bigger arrows towards their secret destination in the north, kept coming from one horizon, to disappear into the opposite one. Always with the same unerring, unveering, relentless sense of purpose. How they know what to do, where to go, when to depart, and how to arrange themselves – in fact, why the V-formation? A good question for Google. Or, rather, the very aptly-named search engine Duck Duck Go.

But that is for another day. At the moment, I’m just enjoying being filled with the sense of awe at the immensity of it all, the sense of imminent, momentous change. And soon not having to warm my hands on too-rapidly cooling cups of tea.

Fan fiction

Can a third-generation Bertie Wooster get out of his impending marriage to Penny Dreadful? Only Jeeves, great-great-nephew of the original famous Jeeves, can save the day

THERE WAS NO TIME TO LOSE. “Jeeves!” I called out. “Jeeves!”

“Sir?” He was in the front sitting room. I burst through the door like an express train being chased by rocket in an angry mood. I mean, I’d never seen an express train burst through a door, but I was in one once. If something could burst through the door like Bertram Wooster III did just now, it would be an express train in fear of its life. I imagine steam was even coming out of my ears.


“Yes, Sir?” My man Jeeves was, as ever, as cool as a slice of cucumber in a freshly-made glass of Pims. He was busy, standing on a stepladder and calmly adjusting a philodendron in the corner.

“Jeeves!” I said. “This is no time to be fraternising with foliage!”

“Sir?” He climbed down from the ladder and came to face me.

“We’ve got a devil of a crisis!” 

“Indeed, Sir?” said Jeeves. He glanced back in the corner at the philodendron as though, in a housefire, it would be the first thing he would protect. Sherlock Holmes said that once, and I’ve no doubt he was right on the money. I mean, that in case of fire the first thing you glance at is your baby, or something like that. Baby being a metaphor for the philodendron you might like to save.

“This is no time to be worrying over houseplants, Jeeves! We’ve got a crisis on our hands!”

“Indeed, Sir?”

Really, the man could sometimes be infuriating. If I didn’t know he had the brainpower of a supercomputer, I’d think the man was a bit dim. But, like his great-great-uncle Jeeves, who used to be the valet of my great-great-grandfather Bertram Wooster – the first, although his parents didn’t know it at the time they named him – he had oodles of the grey stuff between the ears. Much more than most people would know what to do with.

“Pay attention, Jeeves! I need your help. Otherwise, I’ll find myself walking down the aisle with Penny Dreadful!”

“Miss Penelope Purbright? I was not aware there was such a closeness, Sir.”

“Nor was I, Jeeves. But she seems to think I have proposed tying the knot.”

‘Dearest Bertie, I’d love to go down the aisle with you! Your love-bunny, Penny’

“And this was not your intention, Sir?”

“Indeed not! I was just tootling out of the Drones Club, thinking how jolly it would be to get another jar or two into me before returning home for a bracing whiskey and soda and the sleep of the innocent. So I sent old Pongo a test message, asking him to come down for an ale.”

“And did Mr Pendragon involve you somehow with Miss Purbright, Sir?”

“No, the bally Mr Pongo never showed up! So I had my pint of ale and came home for the evening ritual as usual. But I’ve just woken up to see this message: ‘Dearest Bertie, I’d love to go down the aisle with you! Yes, let’s get married, the sooner the better. Your one and only love-bunny Penny’.”

“Most disturbing, Sir.”

“She must have intercepted my text message to Pongo, and read it wrong or something.”

Jeeves glanced back at his old pal the philodendron, making sure it was still there and hadn’t fainted from shock. Then he turned back to me. “Strange things do happen, Sir. If I might be so bold as to to ask to have a look at your mobile phone?” 

‘Jeeves, this is no time to be making eyes at potted plants!’

“Do, Jeeves, and have it sent back off to the company or Elon Musk or wherever it came from. There’s something wrong with it.”

He took the thing off me gingerly like it was a dead but particularly interesting-looking newt and stared at the screen. Then he looked back around at the philodendron and raised an eyebrow at it. 

“Jeeves, this is no time to be making eyes at potted plants!”

“No, indeed. If you’ll permit me, Sir, I notice that there seems to have been a miscommunication. Your text message was mispelt, no doubt due to the peculiarities of the autocorrect function. It asks the recipient to come down the aisle with you. And perhaps for the same reason it was mistakenly sent not to Mr Pendragon but to Miss Purbright, who thought you wished to lead her down the church aisle to matrimony.”

“Gosh, Jeeves, what am I going to do?”

Dashed if my man Jeeves didn’t turn around and look at that philodendron again like he expected to find an answer hanging there like ripe fruit. 

“What are you staring at?” I roared at Jeeves. I looked at the plant. There was nothing particularly notable about the damned thing. It was green and tall, just like a philodendron should be, if it plays its cards right.

“If you’ll permit me to explain, Sir,” Jeeves said, and then did a rummy thing. He stared back at the plant, raised that eyebrow again, and said to it: “I think it’s time, don’t you?”

“Time? Time for what? I’m the one with the problem, not the bally plant!” I shouted. “I don’t imagine it would mind being eternally bonded to Penny Dreadful. I mean, she’d probably water it with vodka, but maybe that would be a welcome change for it.”

‘“Have you indeed?” And I meant it to sting’

“If you’ll take a closer look, Sir, you’ll see that here, just under this upper leaf, there is a small video camera. I have for some time been filming our interactions, as I believe they are of significant educational benefit for the greater masses. So our conversations and problem-solving encounters are being streamed straight to the TikTok video application and watched in real time by millions of the deserving public, eager for instruction.”

I was dumbstruck. I mean, what? What? And I retorted in no uncertain terms: “I mean … I say … what? What?”

“I have for some time been quite sure that you would find this practice entertaining and profitable.”

“Oh, have you, Jeeves? Have you indeed?” And I meant it to sting.

“I should mention that you have now become an international TikTok star. I – we – have millions of followers, Sir. Fans who are keen to watch and learn. This also means that I – we – have attracted a great volume of sponsorship.”

“What the bally heck are you babbling about, Jeeves?”

“Your internet stardom has attracted the attention of purveyors of many luxury goods, who would be very happy to offer you a gift or the use of their products if you would care to demonstrate them in your video channel. You have, Sir, become an Influencer.”

“What are you drivelling about?” I said, then paused, as what Jeeves said entered the old grey matter and sank in. “What luxury goods?”

“Just this morning, Sir, I received a request from a representative at Maserati car manufacturers. They were very intent upon offering you the use of a vehicle from their house for a limited amount of time.”

“How limited?”

“They suggested a month, but I convinced them that nothing under a year would be acceptable to a gentleman of your standing.”

I thought about this. I mean, sometimes Jeeves gets a bit too big for his breeches and oversteps the boundaries of valet something or other, valet-ness. On the other hand, his big brain does get me out of the odd scrape that fate dishes up.

“But what about this marriage with Penny Dreadful?”

Jeeves gave a gentle cough. 

I believe that it has already been cancelled, Sir. This episode is still currently streaming and … ”

My mobile phone pinged with a text message.

“If I’m not much mistaken, that will be Miss Purbright now, retracting her acceptance. You see, this episode – interlude – has already been streamed to your millions of fans. No doubt Miss Purbright … ”Jeeves glanced down at the screen. “Yes, she has done it. Shall I read it out to you, Sir?”

‘The hashtag #PennyDreadful is now number 2 in the trending list’

“Certainly not! I’ll take your word for it. Just delete the whole thing. Delete her from the phone entirely.”

“I’m afraid I can’t delete her entirely, Sir. She is one of your three million followers.”

“Even though she now knows that I call her Penny Dreadful?”

Jeeves coughed delicately and handed the phone back to me. “The hashtag search term #PennyDreadful is now number two in the trending list. And I believe she has just changed the name of her Twitter identity to match that epithet.”

“But she still doesn’t want to marry me?”

“No, Sir.”

“A narrow escape, Jeeves.”

“Indeed, Sir.”

I peered up into the philodendron. It wasn’t such a bad old plant, really. “Will Maserati throw in some leather motoring gloves and goggles?”

“I’m sure they can be prevailed upon to provide them.”

“Well, sign us up, then! When can they deliver?”

“I believe the car is waiting for you outside the front door, Sir.”

What can I say? “Jeeves,” I said, “you’re one in a million.” I turned to Philly the Philodendron. “One in a million!” I repeated.

Jeeves turned to the plant as well, and a corner of his mouth just flickered, but then maybe I was imagining it. He looked back at me. “Thank you, Sir. I aim to give satisfaction.”

A version of this story first appeared in the anglophone German magazine Spotlight in October 2020

Resolute on New Year’s Eve

How can we stay positive as we anxiously enter an uncertain 2023?

NEW YEAR’S EVE this year – or rather, last year, or yesterday – was spent in the company of friends in the village in southwest France. It was a convivial occasion during which I drank far too much crémant (it was chilled, abundant and I helped myself), cheated at a pub quiz that had far too many questions about sport and nearly won a card game until it was interrupted by midnight and the necessity of drinking more crémant while we wished each other a happy and healthy new year.

Earlier that evening, I was seated by two women who discovered that they had both been born the same year: 1939. (One joked that she was younger when she heard the other had been born in January of that year, and she in February.) It was a grave year for France, and I asked if they had any memories of the war. The woman who had joked about being younger told me that she had come from Lorraine. Her family had fled to Blois but there still had to endure the cruelty of the Nazi army. For example, she said, German soldiers ordered them at rifle point to open their cupboards and show them what they had concealed there. The other woman’s father had been a prisoner of war at Auschwitz, but had managed somehow to survive.

The emotion in their voices, contained but still audible some 80 years later, sunk into my chest and made me teary-eyed. I considered the horror of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, not far from the village where I was currently sitting, listening to these stories and drinking too much crémant. Four days after D-Day in 1944, Nazi soldiers brutally killed all its inhabitants but one and destroyed the village. It also made me think about my German uncle who as a teenager was a prisoner of war in Bordeaux, a bit further away in the opposite direction. He had nearly starved and had learned to scavenge rubbish bins, desperately scraping and eating mashed potato off whatever surfaces they were smeared.

Speaking to these women, it was impossible not to think of those suffering in our current European war

It’s become increasingly hard to feel positive about the coming year, never more so than this New Year’s, as a 2022 tainted by war, disease, climate and other emergencies cedes to to the great uncertainty that is 2023. Speaking to these women, who had been lucky to survive that last great European war, it was impossible not to think of those suffering in the Ukraine, the violence forced on populations by armies of young men forced to inflict it, all of them traumatised for the rest of their lives (if they survive) and likely to pass that trauma in some form or other to coming generations. It could make you lose heart and hope entirely.

Nevertheless, there we sat, these women who survived the war in France, and myself, whose mother survived the war as a child in a Bavarian village: laughing, chatting, sharing bisous and toasting the new year. Time, the desire for peace and understanding, the human drive for shared happiness and communal experience – these things can and do bring about change for the better.

In this light, a happy and positive New Year to all of us! Let us all allow human generosity of spirit, and care for others, including the super-organism that is our Earth, to forge better times for ourselves and future generations.

Discovering BB’s mysteries

Welcome sign to Bussière-Badil
You are now entering Bussière-Badil in southwestern France.

Not everything is what it seems, or what you expect, in Bussière-Badil, well off the beaten track in France. But what can you expect from a village that has been on the maps since 768 CE?

When I open the front door, I’m a bit taken aback by whom I find there. 

I’ve got 20 minutes until my appointment with Monsieur le Maire of Bussière-Badil. The previous week I arranged to have an interview with him. I don’t know who’s at the door, but I don’t have a lot of time to chat, as I still have to get ready for my appointment. The weather has been hot, and I’m still in my old and fairly flimsy Patti Smith T-shirt and pair of cut-off denim shorts. Half of this outfit is my summer pyjamas.

It takes me a while to register who’s rung at the door as I can’t be quite sure that it is who I think it is. “Do you recognise me?” asks the man. Of course, I say, in that voice every teacher knows is a cover-up. “I’m Monsieur le Maire.” I had thought so, but I also thought, that can’t be him, I’ve got an appointment with him in 20 minutes, and I must be hallucinating him at the door.

Any worries I had about my inappropriate clothing are assuaged. M le Maire is also wearing a T-shirt, as well as a pair of jeans and a baseball cap. Last week, when I stopped by the mairie (town hall) to make the appointment, he was wearing the same configuration: T-shirt, jeans, baseball cap. It was a different T-shirt and cap, and the jeans were definitely different from today’s as they were unmistakably torn at various stress points. It is a small village, and the informality is quite endearing – or, as they say in France, sympathique.

He’s too busy to be able to speak with me today and came round to cancel. He’s just recovered from the coronavirus, he says, which is why he is standing well away from the door with his mask covering his face, although he has tested negative, in an abundance of caution. He has a lot of work to catch up on, especially before the holidays, so he hasn’t the time for the interview today. 

The ox pulling the plough fell through the ground into a secret passage

But as he does then briefly launch into what he knows about the history of Bussière-Badil, which is what I was going to see him about, he steps back further to increase the safe distance and removes his mask.

M le Maire is my first point of call in trying to research the history of this mediaeval French village. At an earlier meeting of the patrimoine (heritage) society (which I fortuitously attended after having my arm twisted), his wife began to recount extraordinary things about this once important, now dwindling village. For example, that below the existing church, which was built in the 12th century, there lie the remains of a previous church that dates back to 768 CE. That this Romanesque church was once part of a Benedictine monastery in Bussière-Badil, of which today nothing else remains. That there are subterranean passages in the village that connect this monastery with another a good few kilometres away, also no longer in existence. That someone in the village has entrances to one of these passages in their basement, which they had bricked up for security reasons.

View of 12th century church in Bussière-Badil
Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, the 12th-century Romanesque church in Bussière-Badil


I’d heard some of these things before. I was even told that one of these tunnels runs under my garden. As he goes through the few things he says he knows, M le Maire recounts that, maybe a century ago, when farmers still tilled the soil with ploughs and beasts of burden, someone was once working his field when the ox pulling the plough fell through the ground into one of these passages. 

There’s much more to be discovered here. Before he hurries back to the mairie, M le Maire mentions the name of someone who would know more. Surprisingly, it’s my neighbour, the Portuguese pottery artist. Next call on the road to discovery.

Can we still give peace a chance?

In the face of the rapid escalation of the war in the Ukraine, tens of thousands come together in Berlin to protest for peace

People at the anti-war demonstration near Berlin’s Brandenburger Tor express their opinion of Putin’s aggression. Photograph: Christine Madden

Twenty thousand were expected. But then more than 100,000 people massed in the centre of Berlin on 27 February to show solidarity with the Ukraine. On a day when Russian president Putin issued a not so veiled nuclear threat in retaliation, he says, for NATO aggression.

Angry demonstrators chant anti-war and anti-Putin slogans in front of the Russian Embassy on Unter den Linden in central Berlin. Photograph: Christine Madden

According to the Russian media, who are not allowed to use the word “war”, what is going on in the Ukraine is an “operation to secure peace”. Still, in about 50 Russian cities, people also came together to protest the “operation”. 

Protestors at the anti-war demonstration at Berlin’s Brandenburger Tor. Photograph: Christine Madden

Shortly before the demonstration started, the German government, in a special convocation of the Bundestag (parliament), announced a number of measures to isolate Russia and block its aggression, many of them complete turnarounds from policies they had held even days before. 

More than 100,000 protestors gathered on the Straße des 17. Juni to show solidarity with the Ukraine. Photograph: Christine Madden

Not far away, more than a hundred thousand people streamed from the U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations, cycled or walked into city centre with their signs and flags. Infants, children, young adults, the elderly, they came pushing bikes and prams, some accompanied by their dogs, to show solidarity with the Ukrainians, anger at Putin, and hope and desire for peace. In this anxious, fraught moment, where we all hope politicians will hold their nerve, make wise decisions and avert catastrophe, the ability to come together (especially after years of covid-enforced isolation) felt like a hymn to humanity.

Wings of peace: demonstrator at the Brandenburger Tor. Photograph: Christine Madden

No future for Zukunft am Ostkreuz?

Zukunft am Ostkreuz, a much loved arthouse cinema and cultural venue, has not been able to renew its lease. Its demise would represent a huge loss to the local community as well as the city of Berlin

Entrance (before opening hours) to Zukunft am Ostkreuz, mid-January, mid-Covid-19 pandemic

Another casualty of gentrification – Berlin’s most viral pandemic, if not for the current exploding numbers of corona cases. Zukunft am Ostkreuz – the name now conveys a certain irony, as it means “future at Ostkreuz” – is soon to be no more, unless its landlord can be convinced to spare it.

Once a film warehouse during the DDR era, Zukunft is one of the cultural hubs of the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district. The building in the east of Berlin, near the city’s Ostkreuz train station, houses an arthouse cinema, theatre stage, exhibition area and music club. Its premises also includes an open-air cinema and stage as well as a beer garden. Zukunft even brews its own beer in an eponymous microbrewery.

Yet, on top of the many hardships of covid and its restrictions, the landlord of Zukunft has not renewed its lease, which was “terminated in an already difficult time, in the middle of the pandemic”, manager Manuel Godehardt told Berlin news agency rbb.

No reason was given for not renewing the lease. But looking around, it’s not hard to draw conclusions. The venue is surrounded by construction sites for high-end office buildings. Luxury apartments are being built nearby, as well as a new tourist attraction: an aquarium for exotic fish and coral, with an accompanying hotel. Property in this rapidly changing part of the city is likely too mouth-watering to be left untouched by developers.

‘We will not and cannot accept this’

Daniel Bartsch, spokesperson for culture administration, Berlin Senate

Many residents, however, feel the pain and deplore the soulless expansion of their neighbourhood. Several demonstrations have taken place in the area to protest building projects. And there is fear for the existence not only of the treasured Zukunft, but also for the clubs About Blank and Wilde Renate. 

If Zukunft goes, it’s likely to take its local affiliated small cinemas – Tilsiter Lichtspiele and Kino Intimes – with it, as much of their income derives from the selling of Zukunft’s craft beers: Goldene Zukunft (golden future) and the sadly prophetically named Dunkle Zukunft (dark future).

Poster near the venue Zukunft am Ostkreuz calling for its preservation: “No future without Future!!!”

A local organisation concerned about the explosion in development, Baustelle Gemeinwohl (“public welfare construction site”) has formed a workshop to create a cooperative vision for a possible new building on the site. Together with its partners, it has entered negotiations with the owners of the site, Groß-Berliner-Damm GmbH & Co. KG and Grundwert AG (represented by Orion Hausverwaltung GmbH) to come up with solutions for a building compromise that serves all sides. Results of the negotiation are expected at the end of January, with possible next steps to be discussed.

Let’s hope, for the sake of the future of the neighbourhood, that discussions are fruitful. As Daniel Bartsch, speaking for Berlin’s Senate culture administration, told rbb, every cultural institution that disappears in the city is a loss for Berlin’s cultural landscape, and “We will not and cannot accept this”.

The lease is up on 31 March 2022. People who wish to preserve Berlin’s unique cultural landscape and make their voices heard for the future of Zukunft can sign a petition.


Christine Madden is an Irish-German writer, editor and writing coach based in Berlin and southwest France. Her journalism has appeared in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, The Local Germany, the Guardian and the magazine ExBerliner, and she has been broadcast on BBC radio.