Mr. Norris Changes Train

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“Today, however, I had a pupil waiting for an English lesson and had to cut him short. ‘Very well. In the Troika. At eleven.’ ‘That will suit me admirably. In the meantime, I shall be careful what I eat, go to bed early, and generally prepare myself to enjoy an evening of Wein, Weib, und Gesang. More particularly Wein. Yes. God bless you, dear boy. Goodbye.’”


I found myself in one of the back streets near the canal, not far from the Möckernbrücke Station, about half an hour from my lodgings. I had no money for the electric train. And, anyhow, a walk would do me good. I limped home, along dreary streets where paper streamers hung from the sills of damp, blank houses, or were entangled in the clammy twigs of the trees.


We got talking, somehow, about Berlin night life. Arthur giggled and became arch. Helen, who dealt in statistics and psycho-analytical terms, regarded him in puzzled disapproval. At length Arthur made a sly reference to “the speciality of the Kaufhaus des Westens.”

“Oh, you mean those whores on the corner there,” said Helen in the bright matter-of-fact tone of a schoolmistress giving a biology lesson, “who dress up to excite the boot-fetishists?”


“Then Sally rang up, as she had promised, to invite me to tea. She lived a long way down the Kurfürstendamm on the last dreary stretch which rises to Halensee. I was shown into a big gloomy half-furnished room by a fat untidy landlady with a pouchy sagging jowl like a toad. There was a broken-down sofa in one corner and a faded picture of an eighteenth-century battle, with the wounded reclining on their elbows in graceful attitudes, admiring the prancing of Frederick the Great’s horse.”


He paused for a moment, enjoying my astonishment. “What is more, I asked you here this evening to witness what I may call my Confessio Fidei. In an hour’s time I am due to speak at a meeting held to protest against the exploitation of the Chinese peasantry. I hope you’ll do me the honour of coming.”

“Need you ask?”

The meeting was to be held in Neukölln. Arthur insisted on taking a taxi all the way. He was in an extravagant mood.

“I feel,” he remarked, “that I shall look back on this evening as one of the turning-points of my career.”


One day, perhaps, I should be with it, renegade from my own class, my feelings muddled by anarchism talked at Cambridge, by slogans from the confirmation service, by the tunes the band played when my father’s regiment marched to the railway station, seventeen years ago. And the little man finished his speech and went back to his place at the table amidst thunders of clapping.

“Who is he?” I asked.

“Why, don’t you know?” exclaimed Anni’s friend in surprise. “That’s Ludwig Bayer. One of the best men we’ve got.”

The boy’s name was Otto. Anni introduced us and I got another crushing hand-squeeze. Otto changed places with her so that he could talk to me.

“Were you at the Sport Palace the other night? Man, you ought to have heard him! He spoke for two hours and a half without so much as a drink of water.”


When we had got out of the bus on the Alexanderplatz, poor Arthur was so shaky that I suggested going into a restaurant and drinking a glass of cognac. Seated at a little table we regarded the immense drab mass of the Praesidium buildings from the opposite side of the roadway.


Outside in the street, he hailed a taxi and told the chauffeur to drive to the Hotel Kaiserhof, adding, as he nearly always did:

“There’s no need to drive too fast.”

“The Kaiserhof!” I exclaimed. “Are we going to pay a call on Hitler*?”

*A meeting of large German industrialists with Hitler took place in his suite IN 1931. In 1932 Hitler lived permanently in this hotel. From here he designed and coordinated the election campaign. The upper floor of the hotel became the provisional party headquarters of the NSDAP.


Bayer’s office is also in the Wilhelmstrasse. It didn’t seem altogether discreet to drive directly from here to there.”

Bayer inhabited a large untidy flat on the top floor of one of the shabbier houses beyond the Zimmerstrasse. It was certainly a striking enough contrast to what Arthur called “the camp of the enemy,” the padded, sombre luxurious hotel we had just left. The door of the flat stood permanently ajar. Inside, the walls were hung with posters in German and Russian, notices of mass meetings and demonstrations, anti-war cartoons, maps of industrial areas and graphs to illustrate the dimensions and progress of strikes. There were no carpets on the bare unpainted floor-boards. The rooms echoed to the rattle of typewriters. Men and women of all ages wandered in and out or sat chatting on upturned sugar-boxes waiting for interviews; patient, good-humoured, quite at home.


Thinking all this over carefully, in the neighbouring Lokal, Otto had come to the conclusion that he was the injured party. Pained and angry, he began drinking Korn. He drank a good deal. He was still drinking at nine o’clock in the evening, when a boy named Erich, whom he knew, came in, selling biscuits. Erich, with his basket, went the round of the cafés and restaurants in the whole district, carrying messages and picking up gossip. He told Otto that he had just seen Anni in a Nazi Lokal on the Kreuzberg, with Werner Baldow.


Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs, or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines. In the middle of a crowded street a young man would be attacked, stripped, thrashed, and left bleeding on the pavement; in fifteen seconds it was all over and the assailants had disappeared. Otto got a gash over the eye with a razor in a battle on a fair-ground near the Cöpernickerstrasse. The doctor put in three stitches and he was in hospital for a week. The newspapers were full of deathbed photographs of rival martyrs, Nazi, Reichsbanner, and Communist. My pupils looked at them and shook their heads, apologizing to me for the state of Germany. “Dear, dear!” they said, “it’s terrible. It can’t go on.”


And morning after morning, all over the immense, damp, dreary town and the packing-case colonies of huts in the suburb allotments, young men were waking up to another workless empty day to be spent as they could best contrive; selling boot-laces, begging, playing draughts in the hall of the Labour Exchange, hanging about urinals, opening the doors of cars, helping with crates in the markets, gossiping, lounging, stealing, overhearing racing tips, sharing stumps of cigarette-ends picked up in the gutter, singing folksongs for groschen in courtyards and between stations in the carriages of the Underground Railway. After the New Year, the snow fell, but did not lie; there was no money to be earned by sweeping it away. The shopkeepers rang all coins on the counter for fear of the forgers. Frl. Schroeder’s astrologer foretold the end of the world. “Listen,” said Fritz Wendel, between sips of a cocktail in the bar of the Eden Hotel, “I give a damn if this country goes communist. What I mean, we’d have to alter our ideas a bit. Hell, who cares?”


Brüning spoke in the Sport Palace. We must vote for Hindenburg, he told us, and save Germany. His gestures were sharp and admonitory; his spectacles gleamed emotion in the limelight. His voice quivered with dry academic passion. “Inflation,” he threatened, and the audience shuddered.

Tannenberg,” he reverently reminded: there was prolonged applause.


The dear old Tauentzienstrasse hadn’t changed. Looking out at it through the taxi window on my way from the station, I saw several Nazis in their new S.A. uniforms, now no longer forbidden. They strode along the street very stiff, and were saluted enthusiastically by elderly civilians. Others were posted at street corners, rattling collecting-boxes.


The remarkably handsome chauffeur saluted pertly, tucked us into the depths of the vast black limousine. As we slid forward along the Kurfürstendamm, Kuno took my hand under the fur rug.


“Ah, yes. Symptomatic. It is symptomatic of the phase through which we are at present passing. We are not yet ready to cross the Wilhelmstrasse.” He made a humorous gesture of his hand, indicating, through the window, the direction of the Foreign Office and Hindenburg’s residence. “No. Not quite yet.”


Our street looked quite gay when you turned into it and saw the blackwhite-red flags hanging motionless from windows against the blue spring sky. On the Nollendorfplatz people were sitting out of doors before the café in their overcoats, reading about the coup d’état in Bavaria. Göring spoke from the radio horn at the corner. Germany is awake, he said. An ice-cream shop was open. Uniformed Nazis strode hither and thither, with serious set faces, as though on weighty errands. The newspaper readers by the café turned their heads to watch them pass and smiled and seemed pleased.



Isherwood, Christopher. Mr Norris Changes Train. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2008.