Notes on...

Wealthy, cosmopolitan – and sometimes rough: the secrets of Hamburg (and my grandmother)

The devastated city she loved and left now has Germany’s largest population of millionaires

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

15 August 2015

9:00 AM

‘What was it like growing up in Liverpool?’ a journalist asked John Lennon. ‘I didn’t grow up in Liverpool,’ he replied. ‘I grew up in Hamburg.’ My father grew up in Hamburg too, at the end of the second world war. The city had been bombed to smithereens. Cigarettes were the only currency, and my grandma had to trade her jewellery for food. When she met a British soldier who offered to take her to England, she grabbed this lifeline with both hands. If only she were alive to see her smart home town today.

When the Beatles came here in 1960, they stayed in St Pauli, the dockside red-light zone. When I first came here in 1990, St Pauli was still sleazy. Now it’s the height of chic. Some of the old strip-clubs have survived, but they’re outnumbered by swish coffee shops. Sight-seers forage for Beatles souvenirs amid the sex shops of the Reeperbahn. Through a friend, I met an old man who’d been a bouncer at some early Beatles gigs. He said Lennon was a loudmouth, Ringo Starr was easygoing and George Harrison never said a word. He liked Paul McCartney best.

You can see why Liverpool lads would have felt at home here. A Hanseatic port, Hamburg has always been cosmopolitan, Germany’s gateway to the world. The huge container ships in the harbour are a looming, thrilling presence. I like to walk along the waterfront, from Landungsbrücke to the Fischmarkt, and stop off at the quayside stalls for cold beer and pickled herring. Hamburg’s hearty street food reflects its rugged heritage; this is a city built on trade.

Hamburg’s centrepiece is the Alster, a large lake crisscrossed by ferries, right in the heart of town. The cries of greedy seagulls carry across the water, and the horizon is flecked with the sails of distant yachts. My grandma had a painting of this scene, one of the few mementos she brought to England. Some winters this lake freezes over: when he was a child, my dad walked across it.

My grandma’s old house is on a hill above the Alster. The house next door belonged to a nice Jewish doctor who disappeared. He nursed my aunt when she was small. Then one day an ambulance arrived and took him away. His house was handed over to the chief of police. After the war the police chief vanished too, and it was requisitioned by British soldiers. My grandma fell for one of them. By the time my grandfather returned home from the Wehrmacht, she’d already made up her mind.

My grandparents had first met at the Vier Jahreszeiten, Hamburg’s grandest hotel. It’s palatial, with a wonderful old ballroom, but I prefer the Atlantic, on the other side of the Alster. Built for first-class passengers en route to America, it still feels like an ocean liner. The surrounding area, St Georg, is a bizarre blend of style and squalor: its leafy avenues boast some of Hamburg’s best bars and cafés, while its station is a rendezvous for every sort of down-and-out. A lifetime since my grandma left to try her luck in England, her forsaken heimat has more millionaires than any city in Europe. But, as John Lennon understood, it wouldn’t be the same without a bit of rough.

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  • Sue Smith

    I was in Hamburg in the last week of February and was very impressed – except for the vile immigrant ghetto clustered around the Haupbahnhof; a no-go zone, practically. (Unfortunately, this is a feature of most large modern German cities now! Munich is the worst; to be avoided!!)

    A bus tour through the flash parts of Hamburg instantly telegraphed huge wealth. I’ve never seen such magnificent (opulent) homes concentrated in one area. The whole city suffers an identity crisis as do most of Germany’s large cities – a blend of old and new, neither of which really complements the other. But, Hamburg is fascinating.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      Of course you are so afraid of seeing a black face that you avoid areas. That’s your issue, of course.

      As you take your armed bus…protected by your bodyguards…

      • Sue Smith

        The internet troll!! Trolls are the real enemies of anything good and decent. Each time you post your ravings on the net you tell us why you have absolutely no friends!! Sad individual. The jails are full of types like you. On second thoughts, that’s probably where you are!! In a prison of your own making.

        Back in the days before the net people would avoid types like you as if they had the plague. Now you can force yourself into a ‘discussion’ by root and branch internet trolling – like the drunk who keeps coming to the table to disrupt the conversation. You wouldn’t know about this, of course, because you’ve had no social life.

        Keep taking your pills, or I’ll tell nurse you’re out of bed again.

        • Leon Wolfeson

          Keep making up nonsense about me to justify your bigotry.

          As you scream “UR MENTALLY ILL” over and over.

          • Sue Smith

            A projection of yours, which I’m sure everybody has recognized as the classic sign of mental illness.

            And you are stalking me.

            Rule No. 1: DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS.

          • Leon Wolfeson

            Don’t starve yourself over this!

            As you now try again to claim you’re everyone – that is, your personalities are equal to the number of people in the world. That IS classic mental illness…of yours.

            As you whine about replies, showing paranoia.

      • Charles Lufkin

        Germany is being inundated with third world scum.Why don’t you adopt some of the third worlders–and invite the trash to live with you.

        • Leon Wolfeson

          Never mind the facts, of course, like the Blue Card scheme.

          Nope, you need to spew your PC garbage at everyone outside your far right, and at the Other.

    • Trini’s dad

      Ma’ wha’you on? In di Seventies an Eighties St Georg is where di kids got all di ganja for cheap. Christiane F remember? Now dem aal go to ‘legal’ highs.

  • global city

    Liverpool had that complex web of commercial activity and ownership (and the wealth that creates, of course) until the era of big government, then they started pulling the layers apart.

    Sadly ironic!

    • Jambo25

      I think it was more to do with a gross failure of the British industrial and commercial managerial class.

      • Kennie

        Yes I quite agree.
        Much is said about how wonderful is German engineering etc. But I don’t think it is any better than British engineering (used to be). The problem in UK is bad management and governments that can only see as far as today.

        • Jambo25

          I think the problem was summed up by a statement made by a prominent German businessman to a BBC interviewer (I think it was Gavin Essler). “We Germans are good at making things and growing firms. You British are good at realising value.” Greed, under investment in capital and training and short termism. The downfall of British industry. Its funny how British car workers who were inefficient, lazy scumbags while under British management suddenly became world beaters when working for Japanese, French, German and Indian firms.

          • Kennie

            Exactly my point Jambo. Thank you.

          • Jambo25

            There’s an even better example on this in an interview with Andy Haldane of the BoE on Newsnight a few weeks ago. Haldane noted that for every £100 of profit a British company made in the early 1970s £10 was distributed in dividends. By the present day that figure had gone to £60 of dividends for every £100 of profit made with a concomitant drop in investment. Haldane mused that the laws governing companies might need to be changed in order to rectify this. Haldane is Chief Economist at the BoE.

          • Frank

            Haldane was too polite to mention that part of this change over this period was due to the influx of American bankers, experts in “monetising” assets!

          • Jambo25

            I think it also has to do with the 18 year long reign of a certain Mrs. T and her successor who wanted ‘our’ capitalism to become far more American and far less ‘Rhenish’ in its character.

          • Frank

            Totally agree. It is a deep pity neither of them had a clue about what they were encouraging, and what the implications would be for Britain.

  • Jabez Foodbotham

    Hamburg is an impressive city. Liverpool is a dump.

  • Jambo25

    I like Hamburg. My son gets dragged off to the odd St Pauli game by a German friend who lives in England. However, I prefer some of the smaller N. German cities, particularly Lubeck. Wismar’s on the up a bit as well.

  • smspf

    and unlike Liverpool, Hamburg did not find it difficult to convert their former harbour into a HafenCity with Wirral Waters only a distant fantasy.