Friday, 9 November 2012

One Moment in Time: the other 9/11 and how I fell in love with Berlin

The title of my blog is things that matter to me. And it’s all been quite serious of late. This post in contrast is really just a short story about one of the great loves of my life - Berlin. It’s quite long and a bit niche but here goes.

On the evening of 9th November 1989 I was at a trade union lesbian and gay conference at the Swallow Hotel in Peterborough. It was long before gay marriage was anywhere near the political agenda and the only other guests at the hotel were people attending a big straight wedding with all the trimmings. The juxtaposition was odd for sure. But things were about to get a lot more exciting than that.

Retreating to my room after a very long day of conference shenanigans, I switched on the television. Just as well. The Berlin Wall was falling. I watched in awe as what I still think of as the defining political moment of my lifetime unfolded on the screen in front of me. I was 28 and having joined the Labour Party at university in 1979 I was enjoying what turned out to be a brief sojourn in the Communist Party (I’ve long been back in the Labour fold).

That may seem odd now, but in the 80s the British Communist Party was where some of the most creative political debate on the Left was happening. Marxism Today’s analysis of Thatcherism and how the left might respond to it was as powerful and progressive as anything around at the time. That said, it certainly seemed odd to people in Berlin when I was there just a few weeks later.

By chance I’d planned to visit in December earlier that year to coincide with a trip to Stuttgart for a conference. And so just a few weeks after the fall of the Wall I travelled to Berlin on a sleeper train from Stuttgart. I vividly remember being rudely woken by East German border guards in the middle of the night, demanding to know where I was going.

It was exceptionally cold and had been for much of the previous month. In the early morning light as the train approached its destination East Berliners were making their way to work in the snow. I mused that it was now too late to defect. And as I arrived at Zoo station in West Berlin a stranger whom I asked for directions said to me ‘It’s warm here now’.

It was the beginning of one of the most memorable trips of my life and a love affair which still endures. There were so many moments like that encounter which sound like clich├ęs 23 years later. But they really did happen, including hearing the Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls on a tinny radio on a tram up the Prenzlauer Allee in East Berlin a few days later.

I’ve been to Berlin countless times since and the footfall and imaginings of that trip have stayed with me ever since. Most extraordinary was the visceral sense that though almost everything (except the Wall itself) looked the same as it had done just a few weeks earlier, in fact nothing would ever be the same again.

Whatever my political sympathies then and now, the fall of the Wall was an inspirational, necessary and ultimately unstoppable moment. And it was a great stroke of luck and a real privilege to be there at that time. Ten years later I was there again, on one of my many visits, for the tenth anniversary celebrations. The political giants of the ’89 era in Europe, Kohl, Gorbachev, Bush senior and Thatcher herself were all there as thousands crammed into the streets in the shadow of the Brandenberg Gate, one of the most potent symbols of a divided and but now reunited Berlin.

The razzmatazz on that night in 1999 was something to behold. But it didn’t feel quite enough and I went in search of something more nuanced and authentic. I found it at a much smaller more ad hoc event at Bornholmer Strasse. This was the street where ten years earlier an elderly couple had almost accidentally been allowed to cross the border early on the evening of 9th November 1989. Their crossing was one of a chain of events that a few hours later resulted in the iconic scenes of the Wall being smashed that we all remember.

It had been on Bernauer Strasee, just a few streets away, that Ida Siekmann became the first casualty of the wall when she jumped from her third floor apartment at no. 48 on 22nd August 1961 just after the Wall was built. Nine more people are known to have died trying to escape in the area of the Bernauer Strassee in the ensuing 28 years.

And so on 9th November 1999, I found myself a silent observer at Bornholmer Strasse amidst a celebration of no more than a couple of hundred people. A temporary portacabin bar was serving drinks and snacks. And a jazz band was playing accompanied by a woman with a fantastic voice who very movingly sang One Moment in Time. All around me small groups and couples were remembering, enjoying their own private celebrations with a bottle, a dance, an embrace and a handshake. It took me right back. It was the place to be that night.

Berlin has continued, just as it had done in the days before the Wall and the war, to reinvent itself. I still imagine the Wall when I’m there and though hardly any of it remains (the subject of a lot of debate in the city) you can still trace its path. If you haven’t been to Berlin, make sure you do. And go to Bernauer Strasse where a small but complete section of the Wall (outer and inner with the death strip in between) still stands. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

How adoption has changed and why it matters more than ever

Last Sunday I went along to Scottish Adoption’s Family Fun Day in Edinburgh. As chair Scottish Adoption's board it was an important reminder to me of the importance of us staying connected with adoptive families, children and young people.

Adoption has been under a lot of scrutiny lately. That’s quite right. Like any other sector we need to continuously improve. But there’s much to celebrate too. At Scottish Adoption for example we’re about to launch a new DVD on contact, a critical thing to get right for everyone involved in the adoption process.

As I came away I reflected on how much has changed since I was adopted back in the early 60s. My story was typical of its time: a child born out of wedlock. Staying with my birth mother wasn’t the done thing. I was adopted, with the minimum of process by today’s standards, by parents who thought they were unable to have children.

Luckily for me I got a soft landing. My adoptive parents introduced adoption to me earlier than I can really remember. I had been ‘chosen’.  And it wasn’t until my early 30s that I started to want to piece things together and set off on a journey to find out more. But that’s another story.

Being adopted back then was like pressing a reset button. Nothing that had happened before really counted. It was left in a mysterious box. I had an adoption certificate, not a birth certificate. There was no further contact with my birth family and all I knew was that I was from a Catholic family in Scotland.

Adoption meant being cut adrift, without the anchor you’d been born with or even an imprint of it.  Your new anchor was your adoptive family; end of. Every adoption story is different of course and whether and how much any of this really mattered varied a lot, not just for individuals but at different stages of the life course.

These days your new adoptive family is still the new anchor, but the old anchor isn’t forgotten. Life story books and contact arrangements mean that pressing the rest button is very different. Creating permanence no longer involves putting the past in that mysterious box.

The circumstances in which children are adopted now are very different too. Back then babies like me were adopted largely because of the attitudes of the day rather than the inability of our mothers to care for us. For many of them it was a heartbreaking story of enforced separation just because being a single mother wasn’t socially (or for some morally) acceptable.

Now kids are adopted, not just as babies, but right through the early years of childhood, because it simply isn’t possible or safe to leave them in their birth families. Drug and alcohol addiction, physical and sexual abuse may all be part of the story.

Back then adoption was deemed necessary even though it wasn’t necessarily in the child’s best interests. Now it often really is necessary even though parents may want to keep their children and sometimes those children may want to stay.

And while back then children were adopted because single parenthood wasn't acceptable, adoption has come full circle and it’s accepted that single people can adopt. In fact thanks to a huge change in attitudes it’s also accepted that same sex couples, older people and others can offer loving and stable homes too.

So a lot has changed. The biggest thing to strike me on Sunday was so many adoptive parents with their adopted children in one place. It was clear that they value the support they can give each other; and that Scottish Adoption matters to them long after a child has been adopted. There were adopted young people there too, another crucial facet of the after adoption work we do.

National Adoption Week’s slogan is ‘Rule yourself in’. The need for people to come forward to adopt has never been greater. So whatever your circumstances, if you’re reading this and wondering if you could adopt, get in touch with Scottish Adoption or another agency. BAAF and AdoptionUK can help you find one in your area. Ruling yourself in could make a big difference to a child's life.