The Berlin Handshake

In Salman Rushdie’s luminous and musical novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, our protagonist Ormus Cama is standing in a Bombay record store. He is seventeen years old and he has just met someone who will change his life forever, his future collaborator Vina Apsara. In a few short years he will ascend with her into unparalleled stardom when they move to England together and become the most famous musical act the world has ever seen.

But today they are looking at records and a new song starts playing over the store radio: I Want to Hold Your Hand by The Beatles. Ormus is upbeat and charming until he hears the song and then immediately throws his hands up in the air and starts pacing around the store in anger whilst Vina asks what’s wrong.

“They stole my song!” he bellows. Vina steps back in shock as Ormus casts a flurry of insults and gesticulates wildly in the air. “How dare they! I wrote this song months ago and I can prove it, too! All of the lyrics, the chorus, the style. All of it. It’s mine! Why did they steal this song from me?”

Ormus storms out and into the street where Vina is left thinking that he is entirely mad – she knows he’s never touched a guitar or a drum kit in his life and yet he’s taking credit for a song by the most famous band in the world. Something must be terribly wrong with this strange man.

Years later though, Vina learns that Ormus wasn’t lying at all. He did write I Want to Hold Your Hand.

Well, sort of. Instead, he stole it in a dream.

Each night Ormus would relive the same dream where he is standing at the end of a long corridor with his dead twin brother, Gayomort, on the other side. Ormus would chase his brother through his dreams and along that dark hallway until he finds himself descending a staircase that never ends. When Gayomort eventually disappears at the bottom of the stairwell, Ormus is then surrounded by the most beautiful music – holy music – music from some other place and some other time, perhaps from another realm adjacent to this one. Eventually Ormus discovers that the music changes each night and soon he learns how to descend the stairwell faster, how to listen carefully when he gets to the bottom, and he learns how to steal this music that echoes all around him in the dark.

But Ormus never finds his brother.

I love this tale and the suggestion that beautiful music cannot be written or invented. Instead, music must be so heavenly that it has to be stolen from another place that we don’t understand. John Lennon and Ormus Cama just happen to find themselves stealing music from the same place that is, for whatever reason, inaccessible to the rest of us.

And the reason why I mention this story from Rushdie’s novel is that I feel the same way when I see certain typefaces – that they cannot possibly have been drawn or programmed but they must be stolen instead. When I see a typeface I wonder how a type designer could possibly clutch such beautiful letters out of that higher plane.

In fact, some type designers appear to be like Lennon or Cama to me as they so consistently rob from the same bank of letters. The rest of us are stuck here though, locked off from that ethereal and endlessly creative realm.

When I was in my late teens and growing up learning about the typographic community there was one name that stood up amongst the rest for me: Erik Spiekermann. I was in awe of the typefaces he designed, FF Meta in particular, and how they seemed...effortlessly graceful. It was just the sort of work that inspired me because it wasn’t flashy or showy. Most folks wouldn’t notice FF Meta in use at all.

But if you looked a little closer and tilted your head you knew that someone had cared deeply if they had used it.

After college I had the opportunity to work at Erik’s web design agency in Berlin for a couple of weeks and despite what everyone had told me about the city I had a thoroughly rotten time. I had no money and I was stressed to find myself in a foreign country in the middle of a heat wave. Not only that but I had accidentally rented a hotel in the red light district and each morning I found myself covered in a swarm of mosquito bites.

These are hardly the best circumstances to fall in love with a city.

In the second week of my freelance gig I was working on a project when I see Erik in the corner of my eye enter the office: an intimidating and frightening man for sure and just the sort of person that could crush you with a well placed look. The silly thing is that although I was twenty years old and six foot tall I felt that this relatively small bespectacled German man towered above me in intelligence and raw wit. Erik was certainly as frightening as he was inspiring to me.

After a few moments of sweating profusely in the corner of the room and trying to ignore him as much as I could, I summoned the courage to stand up and say hello: this is my hero, goddammit! If I want to contribute to the design community as much as Erik and I want to build a legacy where people throw me into their documentaries where I can dunk on typefaces, then I have to be able to walk over and shake someone’s hand at the very least. It would just be a quick hello, a lightning fast how-you-doin as I had memorized what I would say precisely, beat for beat and word for word:

“Hi Erik – my name’s Robin and I’m an enormous fan of your work. Thanks. Cool. Bye.”

So I nervously walk over to him where he is stood in the middle of the room and not talking to anyone. Perfect. As I approach I excuse myself of course, say my scripted line, and extend my hand for him to shake so that I can get the heck out of there as soon as humanly possible.

But Erik doesn’t shake my hand.

He looks down at the two books that he’s holding and then he looks at my hand. Then he looks down at the books again. There are two tables next to us that are empty. He smiles. And then says something along the lines of “okay” before walking away.

That's it, but I think of this moment often. And not because Erik was being mean, he was probably tired or extremely busy or perhaps I was so socially anxious that I said something goofy in front of him without thinking about it. Not shaking my hand and walking away isn’t a thing to call the police about.

But it was at this moment that I realized that intelligence and wit are not the most important qualities of being a good person – it’s grace and kindness that are the qualities I admire the most. I always had assumed that to be a good person you just had to be good at what you do. That if you create something as wondrous and beautiful as FF Meta then you have a license to be an asshole because you have people to see and a dazzling number of worlds to crush in the palm of your hand before breakfast.

Now I feel quite differently though. It would have taken half a minute to put those books down to shake my hand and it would have caused Erik no harm or bother. Yet those thirty seconds would’ve meant the world to me. It would’ve given me a tiny jolt of confidence that someone so good at what they do would acknowledge that I’m trying – someone so entirely beneath them – even for the briefest flickers of a moment.

And so this handshake that never happened is perhaps one of the few important moments in my life. It showed me that no matter how many typefaces you happen to steal from that creative realm and no matter how talented or skilled you are, it’s not possible to steal the qualities of kindness or grace. You have to work at it independently to become a good person, to learn to care for others as much as yourself.

And I also learnt that there’s always time for a handshake or a high five.