Office 4.0

The television was a large-screen colour set – Japanese electronics in a homemade case with no remote. Larry Hagman’s voice drifted out into the night. Perhaps model citizens had stopped reporting neighbours who watched West German television. More likely no one was out there, not at that time of night with the temperature three degrees below zero. The windows were opened after the room filled with cigarette smoke, but the air outside wasn’t much better. Freezing fog that tasted of burnt lignite hung around the streetlights as we walked back to Wilhelmshagen S-Bahn station. The cobbled street had been dumbstruck by a layer of snow and the only sound was the distant rattle of the train we had just missed.

There had been plenty of time to reach the border crossing before midnight, but now, stamping feet and holding upturned collars against our faces, we realised it would be tight. The train carriage was empty, but even so my uncle was uncharacteristically quiet, obviously worried. What was going to happen? The question hung in the air because, at Freidrichshagan, a pale, pimply faced East German soldier swept past us and took a seat at the front of the carriage.

That morning, a taxi had been waiting for me when I crossed into East Berlin. Where was I going? ‘To visit a friend,’ I told the driver. ‘I’m going that way, I’ll give you a lift,’ he said without asking where the friend lived. It was 6am on a Sunday morning; perhaps the Stasi were short staffed. I accepted a lift to the Ost-Bahnof. It could have been anyone on S-Bahn who had drawn the short straw and was acting as my unofficial guide. But there was no one following me now – hardly necessary, with my uncle sitting next to me.

He looked out of the window and sighed; the lights of West Berlin were just a kilometre away. But between us and freedom was a strip of searchlight-lit sand, a barbed wire fence, guard towers and a wall. Silence, save for the rhythmic tap of my uncle’s wedding ring on the grip rail of the seat. All that nervous energy had to go somewhere; usually, it was the foot on an imaginary bass pedal, or a spoon against the coffee cup as we sat in a café or restaurant. Apparently, as a teenager, he spent his school holidays helping a shell-shocked First World War veteran defuse unexploded bombs that buried themselves in Brandenburg’s sandy soil.

‘The ticking never worried us,’ he would say. ‘It’s when it stops you’ve got a problem.’ I’m not actually sure that’s how bomb disposal works. And I say ‘apparently’, because it was never entirely clear how many of these wartime experiences were his own and how many were inherited from friends and work colleagues.

Known for a fact was that the whole family managed to reach the Elbe, with everything they could load onto a hand cart, only to be turned back by the Red Army. A terrifying road trip an impressionable young man was unlikely to forget. A chaotic dash for freedom during the transition from dictatorship to totalitarianism. He’s still staring out of the window, freedom and prosperity close enough to touch, or just a small turn of the radio dial. But not worth a repeat of 1945. We all dreamt of a Berlin without the Wall, except perhaps my father.

‘Not in my lifetime,’ he would say. But this was the ticking bomb my uncle was mentally trying to defuse …

… The Steinkrug Hotel lay at the eastern entrance to the Deister – a range of tree-covered hills stretching from Springe to Bad Nenndorf. The stucco timber-frame building, despite being less than thirty minutes by car from the Hannover fairground, had been closed for two years and was now being used to house refugees from Eastern Europe. Its restaurant occupied a cavernous vaulted room called the Knigge Salon. It had tall, Romanesque windows which, at the rear of the hotel, opened out onto a terrace. From outside, chairs and tables arranged on the first-floor gallery appeared to float in mid-air. ‘Knigge’ because this part of the forest was part of the Knigge estate. Baron Adolph Knigge was a freemason and member of the Illuminati, who wrote Über den Umgang mit Menschen, a sociological and philosophical treatise still used as a guide to German etiquette. The small, walled cemetery, where Knigge family members were buried, was just a hundred metres from the hotel. The nearby car park was a convenient place to leave my car when hiking in the forest. And I was parked there one winter’s afternoon, in 1989, clearing my head before continuing my journey to Berlin, en route to the first family reunion since the opening of the East German border.

The meeting at Buch Electronics ended just before midday. Had the Steinkrug been open, no doubt I would have eaten lunch in the Knigge Salon. Instead, I walked to a small restaurant two kilometres into the forest. On the return journey the fine mist, which drifted through the Deister on winter afternoons, dripped from the trees and, as I neared the Steinkrug, carried with it the smell of wood smoke. A group of children were warming themselves around a pile of blazing wood on the hotel lawn. The door of the Knigge Salon swung open and a young boy emerged carrying pieces of broken furniture. The remains of a chair were thrown into the flames and the children leapt back from the fire as sparks spiralled into the air.

Inside, the Knigge Salon washing lines were strung across the atrium. The few remaining tables and chairs had been arranged into open living spaces for the families camped around the restaurant and in the hotel reception. As I entered, people stood up from the tables and walked towards the stairs, retreating to their rooms. However, one young boy, noticing my camera, stood in front of me striking a defiant pose.

‘That’s you,’ said the ghost, who had followed me into the hotel from somewhere out in the forest.

As if looking in a mirror I was face-to-face with my younger self. The shutter clicked. The camera was loaded with black and white film, because, when I arrived in Berlin, I wanted one last chance to capture the East Germany I remembered in grainy monochrome before it was colourised and photoshopped out of existence. In the world of frenetic digital time, the Steinkrug Hotel seemed timeless; a clock with a slow, steady tick, rather than a racing multi-MHz processor. Outside, somewhere in the mist, was the Knigge cemetery. My grandmother, like many others who died in 1945, had been buried in an unmarked grave in one of Berlin’s forests. This is where the mind takes you when time stands still.

The next two weeks were spent performing the mental gymnastics required to justify purchasing the Steinkrug Hotel. It would be our office in north Germany – central Germany, now the border with the East had gone. Or perhaps a diversification, as IPR and solar energy had been. I knew people in the restaurant business and had plenty of contacts in Germany who could come up with a marketing concept to set the Steinkrug apart from competing hotels. Or maybe it would simply be a retreat; keep it until the refugees either move on or return home, then resell it. However, rationalising the irrational proved unnecessary.

Three weeks later, I visited Thorsten Hecht, the current owner of the Steinkrug. He lived in a castle on a wooded hillside outside Einbeck, a village ten kilometres north of Göttingen. Sat behind his large, heavy, oak desk Hecht insisted he had no intention of selling the hotel. He had inherited an engineering business, Volkswagen was a major customer, and was looking to diversify. His story sounded rather like mine. He also had plans for the hotel after the refugees left. A care home for the elderly, possibly – if reopening it as a hotel and restaurant didn’t work out. He pushed a brochure across the desk: members of the Hecht family in the roles of waiter, receptionist and guests. I made a final offer, a hefty premium over the market price, and he said he would let me know. On my return to Britain, there was a fax from Hecht, on my desk; he had turned down my final offer – irrelevant now, as I was going to steal his hotel.

Four years earlier, when Digithurst moved from Orwell to Royston, Hertfordshire Council offered us a piece of land on the north of the town which they wanted to develop as a business park. However, we chose instead to rent space above a row of shops in the centre. Having outgrown this office, we were again looking at the option of building instead of renting. Unfortunately, Hertfordshire Council had belatedly realised land was a finite resource and would only lease the site. Even so, here was somewhere to construct a replica of the Knigge Salon. Hecht’s brochure and the photographs taken inside the Steinkrug were used to recreate the Salon as an atrium rising into the pitched roof of a two-storey building. Offices and workshops built around the Salon gave the outward appearance of a conventional office block; however, inside was the Knigge Salon with its columns and first-floor gallery.

In the centre of the atrium, at the point in the Knigge Salon where the young refugee stood, there was a labyrinth designed and built by the artist Maggie Berkowitz. It was a scaled-down version of the one I had first seen in Chartres Cathedral, fired onto ceramic tiles. A large solid brass pendulum which, when static, hung directly over the centre of the labyrinth, was attached by a steel cord to a beam in the roof.

We claimed at the opening that our new offices had cost over £500,000, but in truth this included the IT equipment inside it. Ashe Construction quoted £350,000 for the building work, but I chose to manage the project myself and saved £150,000. It would have been £160,000, but those trips to the US and the Bahamas kept me off-site for a few weeks, so £10,000 was added to the budget for ‘wastage’.

We installed a server and a network of computers – which, like most IT projects, took much longer than planned to get up and running. Even then, one computer remained untested: the building itself.

There was already a virtual link of sorts between the atrium and the Knigge Salon, a touchscreen terminal in the reception area that displayed company and product information. It also morphed those black and white photographs of the Steinkrug Hotel into colour images of corresponding features within Digithurst’s new building. However, only in the evening, when the building was deserted, was it possible to test that other link. Standing at the entrance to the labyrinth, it was possible to perceive myself standing in the Knigge Salon. Wait long enough and I was neither in Germany nor Britain, but in some undefined space. An experiment in transcendence and temporality – hence, the pendulum ...

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... (Extracts from The Ghost in the Labyrinth by Peter Kruger)

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