The young filmmaker tries to cross back from East to West Berlin with forbidden goods


(Part of the novel Friends & Enemies included in a different form in published version)

I reached the Friedrichstrasse crossing point just before midnight.

I was well-oiled with cheap East Berlin beer and schnapps, but not drunk. My friend Lothar – DDR museum worker, passive dissident and surface conformist – had given me something, though he had not said what, to take across to West Berlin and I had to be on my guard.

There was no queue.

The guard checked my battered blue British passport with its imperious request to allow the bearer to proceed without let or hindrance and stamped an empty page. I returned it to my coat, donated my unspent East Marks to the orphaned children of North Vietnam and walked towards the remotely controlled doors that accessed the S-Bahn trains to West Berlin.

But they did not open and, as I stood waiting for them to do so, a voice behind me shouted: “You! Come back!” And then more than one voice, “Zurueck, bitte! Zurueck!”

I turned and saw two guards approaching. They asked me to remove my coat – an old trench coat loaned to me by Lothar to ward off the late November snow that had started falling as I left his flat, and, presumably, to hide the goods, which, Lothar had said, it was better I know nothing about.


The older guard took the coat, while the other, a rotund youth with acne, led me back across the hallway to a room beside the passport desk.

“Please sit!” he said, indicating a chair in front of a scuffed, Formica-topped table.

I sat and surveyed the cream coloured walls stained with nicotine and, in my imagination, the faded blood of previous detainees.

After a minute or two, another guard entered. He was tall, blonde-haired and judging from the insignia on his uniform, an officer.

He stood for a moment and then perched on the edge of the table opposite my chair

“Good evening!’ he said in perfect English.

“Good evening,” I replied, disconcerted by the fact that my first line of defence – ‘I don’t speak German’ – had been undermined.

“As you were walking way,” the officer continued, “my guards noticed something moving in the back of your coat.”


“Yes. I think you know what I mean.”

“I have no idea,” I said, shaking my head.

“Then,” snapped the officer, unrolling a sheet of card in his hand, “what is this?”

I stared in amazement at the image in front of him: Lothar’s favourite collage; the one that had hung on the wall above his bed in the Prenzlauerberg apartment – a gem of humorous subversion and light-hearted satire.

I rubbed my eyes and shook my head, feigning ignorance and innocence.

“Never seen it before.” I paused and tried a polite English smile. “Not bad. Where did you find it?”

“In the lining of the coat,” snapped the officer, unimpressed by the smile or my misplaced flattery of a subversive piece of art. “Are you telling me, you did not know it was there?”

“No idea,” I said, dropping the smile but upping the level of Michael Caine nonchalance in my voice.

“I find that hard to believe. Where did you get it? ”

I thought fast.

I must not involve Lothar, if I did he would lose his job at the museum and most probably be charged with subversion.

“At a shop,” I said, improvising a beginning without middle or end in sight.

“You bought this picture, this piece of counter-revolutionary propaganda in a shop? I don’t think so. No one would want to sell you something like that.”

“Not the collage, the jacket.”

“And the picture was inside it?”


“Without your knowledge?”


The officer stared at the image and then at me.

Sweat formed on my forehead, perhaps from the heat, perhaps – in the interrogator’s eyes – from the effort of lying.

“And where was this shop?”

“In the centre… near the television tower.”

“There are many shops near the television tower. Which one?”

The officer stood up and paced around the room. The youth with acne left and I felt panic pinch the pit of my stomach and tighten the edges of my brain. Could they arrest me? Hold me indefinitely? There were no official diplomatic relations between the GDR and Britain, artists on the DAAD programme had been reminded of this in a circular from the British Council: ‘All visits to East Berlin undertaken at own risk.’

My heart palpitated, the sweating intensified.

“I can’t remember.”

“Convenient,” laughed the officer, going to the door. “Well, I have time. So please, over the next five minutes, try and improve your memory!”

He left the room.

I stared at the picture on the table and despite the feeling of anxiety chuckled.

The collage showed Karl Marx and Lothar – both bearded, both middle-aged – sitting at a table for two in an East Berlin bar drinking People’s beer with People’s schnapps chasers. On the wall above, portraits of Lenin, Stalin and the DDR’s first leader, Walter Ulbricht, stared down in stony silence and obvious disapproval. Beside them a blank fourth canvas indicated where Mr Marx should have been if he had not been having such a good time with the hoi polloi below: imprisoned in a frame, a grey-bearded, graven image painted to look as stern and impassive as the three successors who had co-opted and corrupted his name.

The door opened and the youth with acne entered, a cup of coffee in his hand.

“Thought you could use this,” he said.

Nice cop, hard cop routine, I thought, but the youth did not stay.

I took a sip of the hot but tasteless liquid and tried to think through the shop story.

But I didn’t know any clothes shops near the television tower.


My brain misted over and before I knew it, before I could step on the brake of adult self-control, I started crying. Crying like a small child who has lost its mother and doesn’t know how to get home. No, not crying – wailing.

The door swung open and the officer stood on the threshold.

“What is the matter, Mr Cruft?” he demanded.

I shook my head and continued to wail.

“Have we treated you so badly?”

Again I shook my head.

“Then where is your famous stiff upper lip?”

I shook my head for a third time.

The officer turned on his heels, slammed the door shut and disappeared.

I continued to bawl.

The exhaustion of a hard night’s drinking with Lothar, the long walk in the cold night air from Prenzlauerberg to Friedrichstrasse, persistent worries about my new film in West Berlin, and my girlfriend’s sudden defection to a Maoist had all combined to reduce me to an infantile state of self pity and despair.

If I could have got up and danced, if I could have shaken a leg, waved my arms and screamed ‘Star Fucker!” with Mick Jagger then dropped dead-tired into bed, the hopelessness I now felt might have sweated itself out and been flattened by the overriding need to sleep. But here I could not sleep and I could not dance, so I howled. The officer had been right: where was it – that symbol of British sangfroid and cold civility? Gone with the wind, gone to a graveyard every last bit of it. When will they ever learn? Boys cry too. They do. They do.

“Mr Cruft?”

I looked up and through my tears saw a man in a suit with a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose.

“Mr Cruft,” said the man in a soft, heavily accented voice. “We are sorry you are so upset. On January 1st, 1974 – tomorrow as we speak – a new Four Power Agreement comes into effect regulating all matters related to Berlin. We hope this agreement will improve understanding between East and West and in the light of its imminent enactment and your obvious distress we have decided to overlook this unfortunate incident.”

He pointed to the collage on the table and without further comment tore it into little pieces and threw the resulting remnants into a waste paper basket beneath the table.

“You are free to go. Auf wiedersehen!”

The destruction of Lothar’s work led to a new bout of tears from me, but this time the guards were ready. They lifted me from my chair and walked me out of the room and across the hallway to the automatic doors where the youth with acne held out Lothar’s trench coat.

“Expect you could use this,” he half-whispered, a pimply smile on his round face.

I took the coat, but before I could say thank you the door released and the guards deposited me on the far side: somebody else’s baby, a wimp for the West to whip into order.

And by the time I had rattled over the wall past the burnt out ruins of the Reichstag and the floodlit modernism of the Academie der Kuenste to Zoo station – staring into the neon-lit night sky from my empty S-Bahn like a dropout on Valium or a hippie on lysergic acid – I had recovered. Thin skin healed over, emotions in custody, British upper lip stiff as a military crease. And when, after leaving the train and braving the snow covered streets, two West Berlin policemen stopped me near the Tiergarten, asked me for my passport and searched me – out of boredom or on the off chance of finding a red terrorist from the Baader Meinhof gang – I accepted the intervention as meekly as a lamb and as quietly as a mouse.

Governments were always obsessed with something, always on guard against subversion, always under threat. In East or West, there were always enemies, enemies within, enemies without; the skill of a good citizen lay in reading between the lines and recognising friends.


The young filmmaker shoots an experimental  film in a West Berlin commune, but proceedings are disrupted by a surprise, anti-formalist demonstration. 

Image - Still from subtitled version of Inside and Oustide

(Part of the novel Friends & Enemies included in a different form in published version. Though events described are partly fictional, a version of the film Drinnen und Draussen exists and is included as an extra on the BFI boxset An Unflinching Eye)

On the 30th December 1973, snow fell. I stood at the window of the commune’s front room in the Stephanstrasse, Moabit, West Berlin and sighed with relief as – despite the cold – a crowd began to form. I had finished editing my window film, Kniephofstrasse, and was now shooting a project using two performers, a pianist and people on the street. Scripted action was located inside, unscripted on the pavement outside where passers-by would, I hoped, stop and watch the actors in the same way that an audience watched them on screen.

“Ready to go in five,” I said turning from the window to Franz Schmidt, the Academy technician now acting as my cameraman.

The DAAD, my bursary benefactor in Berlin, had designated the German Film Academy (DFFB) as my support base, but since my visit there in September to show my early work and talk about Structuralism, the students – Maoists to a man and in line with their Helmsman as anti avant-garde as ever – had voted to withhold assistance from my ‘elitist’ projects. They said I should make agitprop documentaries using conventional cinematic language, not muddle the masses with experimental pieces about how they were being manipulated by Hollywood. Franz had ignored them and persuaded Brigitte, the academy secretary, to act as production manager and a colleague from SFB to sound record. The actors were participating free of charge and Edith from the commune was doing art direction. The other communards, including my friend Reinhardt, were away.

“Director!” the actress called to me. “How real do you want this kiss?” 

The high point of the film, and the scene we were about to shoot, involved the two performers kissing each other to the accompaniment of a Mozart slow movement played live by the on-set pianist. Given the crowd outside, I had decided not to do any prior rehearsal, but allow the action to develop of its own accord.

“How real can you make it?” I replied, walking over to a tall, blonde-haired woman in a beige blouse, three-quarter length brown skirt and sensible shoes.

“That depends on Wolfgang,” whispered Ulrike, nodding her head in the direction of the male actor. “And on what you want. You’re the director.”

“I want a real movie kiss that moves the viewer to tears,” I replied. “Bacall and Bogart; Leigh and Gable; Crawford and that violin player in Humoresque.”

“John Garfield,” exhaled Ulrike, rotating a shoulder to relax her diaphragm. “I will be Dietrich. Distant but determined, detached but passionate – ice and fire rolled into one.”

“Good! Shall I warn Wolfgang?”

“No, let him be surprised. I take the initiative, no?”

“Yes, Mrs East kisses Mr West. But make sure your lips come together slowly – in the classic Hollywood manner. I want maximum pre-touch tension.”

Jawohl, Herr Regisseur.” 

I crossed the room to Wolfgang, a man of twenty-six with Cary Grant features.

“All set, Wolfgang?”

Wolfgang glanced at the crowd outside.

“It will be difficult in front of them.”

“Imagine you’re on stage,” I soothed.

“I can’t see the faces on stage.”

Wolfgang had been harder for me to deal with than Ulrike. He worried that the characters had no personality, that they were cardboard cutouts without motivation or emotions.

“Why are we kissing?” he asked now.

I glanced at my notes.

“‘To signify the similarity of social codes in East and West; to cement – seal with a kiss – two systems that, despite surface differences, seduce and cajole their citizens into obedience and passivity; to emphasise the common bond of bourgeois family values and traditional role-playing prevalent in consumer capitalist and state socialist countries.’”

Wolfgang raised his eyebrows.

“Doesn’t help much.”

“Follow Ulrike’s lead,” I coaxed, giving him a pat on the shoulder. “And relax! Imagine it’s your first kiss, the first time a woman’s lips have touched yours.”

“Ready to go in one,” Franz shouted, as he switched on a two-kilowatt light and bathed Wolfgang in a golden glow.

I crossed to the camera and squinted through the eyepiece. The frame was set just as I had requested: Wolfgang in chair, centre left; Ulrike at doorway, far right; pianist at piano in the room behind; fifty odd faces pressed to the window in the background. Perfect! I made my way between Franz and the soundman and plopped down on my haunches beside Theo the piano player – a tall, sixty-year old Prussian junker’s son with tufts of grey hair and a twinkle in his eye that put him somewhere between Einstein and Harpo Marx.

“Give it all you’ve got, Theo. Elvira Madigan and then some”

Theo nodded.

“All set!” shouted Franz.

“Right!” I called, returning to my position by the camera. “Let’s go for one!”

I put a finger to my lips to quieten the crowd, waited for the boom to steady above Ulrike’s head and then raised my hand.

“Roll sound!’

“Sound rolling!’

“Roll camera!’

“Camera rolling!’

“Scene ten, take one,” Edith called, clapping the board and ducking out of view.

I let her settle and glanced at my leading lady. She gave a nod and my hand fell.


Ulrike dusted. Wolfgang opened a beer and sat back to watch the woman at work. Ulrike turned and their eyes met. A moment’s pause, then Theo sounded the opening arpeggios of the Mozart – gently, seductively. As the melody developed, Ulrike sidled across to the table where Wolfgang sat. The crowd behind the window held its breath. 

“May I, schaetzchen?” Ulrike whispered.

Wolfgang patted his knee. Ulrike lowered herself onto his lap. The melody swelled, chords cascaded towards the dominant. Ulrike’s face approached Wolfgang’s. The 10-120 Angenieux Telephoto eased inwards. And, finally – as the melody hit high C, the chord modulated to the tonic and Franz reached the limit of his lens’ prying capacity – the two sets of lips met and the crowd let out an enormous cheer.

“Bravo!” “Long Live Love!” “Brilliant!” “More!” “Encore!”

Staring eyes streamed tears or twinkled with the titillation of an erotic act at one remove; children giggled or buried their faces in parental legs. A collective release beyond my expectations and, as the final chord faded, I experienced the moment in triplicate – as a future cinemagoer on the camera’s side, as a participant centre stage and as part of the crowd beyond. Quadraphonic emotion bouncing back and forth and melding in the middle; feel, touch, weep and wallow – the essence of a movie’s manipulative power exposed, exactly as I had intended!

Then trouble started.

Chanting on the far side of the street and banners waved above the crowd’s head: ‘Reflect workers’ struggles – NO art for art’s sake!’ ‘Down with dilettantism and the DAAD!’

The Academy Maoists had arrived. Not content with boycotting the film’s shoot, they had now decided to disrupt it. Shit! Franz, still zoomed in, remained unaware of the disturbance and awaited my signal to cut. I hesitated. The banners and placards advanced, the crowd parted to let them through, the front row turned to check the action behind.

I reviewed my options at stop-frame speed and then tapped Franz on the shoulder.

“Don’t cut! Pull out! Smooth and fast!”

Franz nodded and signalled to the soundman to raise his boom. Ulrike and Wolfgang broke their kiss and turned to the window.

“Keep staring out!” I hissed. “Don’t look at me!”

The crowd, disconcerted by the Maoist presence, began to drift away. The demonstrators lined up along the window, placards and banners pressed to the glass. The chanting began in earnest:

Imperialism is what we hate, make films workers can appreciate.”

“Theo, open the door!” I shouted at the pianist

Theo’s willowy, aristocratic figure stood up bowed and then opened the door to face the revolutionaries’ wrath. The volume of the demonstrators increased, their gestures grew fiercer. I tensed. Would the mob enter? Rip the film from our camera and beat me – the errant formalist and recipient of imperialist DAAD funds – up? Or demonstrate at a distance and provide a backdrop against which we could continue to film?

A new chant began:

Stop this dilettante crap, leave Berlin and don’t come back!”

Theo retreated to the piano and struck up Mozart’s Marche a la Turque. Ulrike and Wolfgang glanced at each other – too professional to turn and scream ‘Help!’ at the camera, too nervous to outstare the thirty or so demonstrators.

 “Go to the door,” I hissed, deciding to up the dramatic ante. “Invite them in.”

 “What?” retorted Wolfgang without moving his lips. “You must be joking.”

“Please,” I persisted. “They’re not dangerous, just deluded.”

 “Come on,” said Ulrike, pulling at Wolfgang’s arm.

 Wolfgang stayed put. Ulrike headed to the door. She listened to the chants and then leant across and planted a kiss on the cheek of the nearest demonstrator.

 “Please,” she smiled, “come in and discuss with us.”

 The man continued to chant. Ulrike stepped outside and, squeezing along the front row, repeated kiss and invitation to each of the demonstrators. She then turned to the window, shook her fist and joined in the chanting:

 “Imperialism is what we hate, make films workers can appreciate!”

 “Stop this dilettante crap, leave Berlin and don’t come back!”

I watched. Perhaps this was the ending I needed. Mrs East joins Maoists in condemnation of decadent art, while Mr West looks on with disdain and the stoicism of repressive tolerance.

Theo completed his march. I prepared to call ‘Cut!’

But just then, sirens sounded. The Maoists glanced from left to right. Ulrike hurried along the frontline, re-entered the commune and closed the door.

“Darling,” she said to Wolfgang. “The police are here.”

A megaphone became audible. The Maoist leader scowled at me, assuming I had called the police. I indicated my innocence with a shrug of the shoulders, pointed at the door and invited the demonstrators to use it. This time there was no hesitation and the nearest man ran in followed by thirty colleagues. Edith guided them through to the courtyard, whilst I shouted at them not to look at the lens – I wanted orchestrated drama now, not fly on the wall documentation. 

When the last one had passed through, a policeman appeared, baton drawn.

“Can we proceed?” he asked, raising his visor and wiping sweat from his face.

“Proceed with what?” inquired Ulrike from her position at the table – a born improviser I thought to myself, a performer cool under fire when the curtain fails to fall.

“With the arrest of the people disturbing you,” the policeman panted. “We were called by a neighbour.”

Ulrike bent and whispered something to Wolfgang, who nodded and stood up.

“These people are our friends,” he said, “their presence here is intentional.”

The policeman glanced at the microphone and pointed to the hallway.

 “You’ll be all right, then?”

 “Yes,” replied Ulrike and Wolfgang together. “Thank you.”

The policeman shrugged his shoulders, mumbled something into a radio and retreated.

“Cut!” I shouted, when he had closed the outside door and disappeared. “That’s a wrap!’

“About bloody time too!” Wolfgang exclaimed.

“I enjoyed it,” said Ulrike. “Let’s do another take!’

I hugged them both.

“Brilliant! All of you,” I added, turning to the crew. “Fucking brilliant.”

Franz stood up and stretched.

“One meter of film left!” he whistled. “But we got it. The whole thing.”

“Brilliant,” I repeated. “Fucking brilliant!’

Edith appeared and announced that the Maoists were now assembled in the courtyard.

“I told them we had to lock the doors to stop the police getting in,” she grinned.

“Are they chanting again?” I asked.

“No, quiet as mice. What shall we do with the bastards?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“Let them go, I guess.”

“No punishment?’ Edith pouted. “No hosing naked bodies with cold water?”

I laughed and turned to Franz.

“What do you think, Franz?”

Franz did not reply. He sat unloading the camera’s magazine, his hands moving inside a black changing bag, his forehead furrowed in concentration. When he had transferred the exposed film to an empty can and taped it up to ensure no light could get in, he removed his arms and unzipped the bag.

“A ten minute single take,” he said holding up the can. “Brigitte!”

Brigitte took the can and went to the table to fill in a lab report sheet.

“And the Maoists?” inquired Edith.

“I’ll talk to them later,” replied Franz. “Their action is most unprofessional.”

I sat on the floor, leant back against a wall and glanced outside. Snow falling again; flakes drifting down past street lights, their fluorescent lamps triggered by encroaching darkness: winter in Berlin, Berlin in winter. The filming had gone better than expected – the final scene a vindication of my original idea, the comments on the Maoists banners a neat example of self-reflectivity. And later tonight, a wrap party to reward the team: raucous reminiscences of the shoot’s ups and downs; food, alcohol and wild dancing to the Stones and Lokomotive Kreuzberg. I felt exhausted, but ready to enjoy myself – to be the life and soul of the party, my last duty as director.


The young film maker joins illegal and violent demonstration in West Berlin to protest at death of Red Army Fraction (Baader Meinhof) member Holger Meins

Berlin (West) Demo image 2

(Part of an early draft of novel Friends & Enemies not included in published version)

After a year in Berlin, I had reached some sort of alternative Cloud Nine. I had friends in the West and friends in the East and when I stood in the control hut at Checkpoint Charlie with East German guards staring at me and my passport – back and forth, up and down – I felt a heightened sense of being somewhere, of being someone, of being here and being now.

And it wasn’t just the Wall. In Berlin, I had, at last, came across like-minded people; people, with a serious approach to life, trying to understand how they fitted – or had been fitted – into society and how they could break out. In autumn 1974, West Berlin was a place for discussion and practice of everything from revolution to relationships and communal living to open sexuality: ‘Need for tenderness’, ‘Compul­sion to orgasm’, ‘Whole body relating’, ‘An end to genital fixation’ – the list was end­less and, in many ways, far ahead of its time. Everyone, women and men, felt oppressed by the sexist adverts on the hoardings and in the U-Bahn; everyone accepted that things would have to change, inside and out. Marx had met Freud and women had stated their case; the notion of simple futures where wives would nurture hard working husbands had been blown away. The uphill climb by me, the lone male mountaineer with an over-sensitive take on gender and life in general had become a communal caravan across the desert of capitalism. Now people saw where they were going, helped each other on the way and did not doubt they would get there in the end.

Some, of course, wanted to take a short cut – Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof sat in cells in Stammheim, condemned for blasting their way through the sand – but I did not support violence and saw it as a form of capitulation to the psychotic ways of the ruling class. I had, however, demonstrated against the prison conditions of Holger Meins, another member of the Red Army Fraction. He was not in Stammheim, but in Moabit jail in West Berlin where he had gone on hunger strike in protest at his solitary confinement. He had not eaten for three months, the authorities refused to transfer him to a hospital and his death was expec­ted soon.

It finally came on November 10th, a grey and unpromising day. I was reading a book on semiotics in my room at the back of the commune, when the news broke. The door burst open and Gisela bounced in. She was a round woman with red cheeks and a permanent air of enthusiasm. Along with my friend Dieter, she was the founder of the commune where I lived and had roped me into her Sponti political movement after a Sunday seminar on undogmatic Marxism a few weeks earlier.

“Come on, Joe! We’re meeting at Turm­strasse and marching down to the prison.”

“What? Why?”

“Haven’t you heard?” Gisela’s eyes gleamed as she warmed her hands on the tiles of a brown coal oven. “Holger Meins is de­ad.”


“Last night. They only let the news out this morning. The Senate’s banned marches so we’re keeping the meeting place secret, spreading it by word of mouth. I’m to tell sympathisers round here. Will you help?”

“Of course.”

We ran through courtyards, climbed staircases and left notes informing people where to go. We hammered on doors, cajoled and persuaded, and, at our last port of call, dug out Stefan, the lover of Gisela’s best friend Hanna and a man more into movies than Marx.

By the time we reached Turmstrasse, the demonstrators were forming into rows. I spotted Hanna and waved. She ran over and gave me a hug.

“My favouri­te Englishman!” she cried.

Then she saw Stefan attempting to hide behind Gisela.

“You’ve come? You told me you were ill?”

Stefan shrugged his shoulders.

“You told me you couldn’t get off work and you’re here.”

“That’s because I was speaking from the teachers’ common room.”

Gisela pushed her way between the lovers and linked arms with them both.

“Come on, you two. No arguments today. All right?”

A police bus – light flashing, siren wailing – screeched past the demonstrators and pulled across the road. Riot police jumped out and positioned themselves in front of the first row. The way to the prison was blocked.

“Someone must have informed,” said Hanna, taking hold of my right arm.

A loud-hailer declared the demonstration illegal and ordered all participants to disperse. A group at the back began shouting. Somebody threw a bottle.

“RAF,” said a voice to my left. “They provoke on principle.”

I turned and found a tall man with blonde hair standing next to me.

“Your first demonstration?” the man asked as he linked arms.

“Oh no,” I replied.

“But the first with action, yes?”

“Well,” I said, ducking as another bottle smashed in front of the police, “I was nearly in Grosvenor Square in ’68.”

The man laughed.

“Nearly in Grosvenor Square in ’68. I like it. English humour, no?”

“Yes. Yes.”

I laughed, too.

The police gave a second warning and said they would charge if the crowd did not disperse. I was in row six. I turned to see how many were behind us and was surprised to find people complying with the order. Row by row the demonstration was dissolving.

“We’re not moving,” hissed Hanna to the tall man. “Right, Manfred?”

But someone had tapped Manfred on the shoulder.

“New tactic,” a voice whispered. “Pretend to cave in. Regroup at the Ku’dam.”

Manfred passed the message on to me and peeled off.

“Manfred, you shit!” yelled Hanna.

I explained the tactic to her and soon everyone was heading for the Ku’dam – ambling off in twos and threes, pretending to be out for a stroll.

Near the entrance to Tiergarten, Manfred glanced up at the sky.


I followed his gaze and saw helicopters approaching from the south.

“Should we scatter?” asked Stefan hopefully.

“No, we should not,” said Hanna. “Straight on for the Ku’dam!”

“I only asked,” whined her boyfriend.

“If you don’t want to come, don’t,” snapped Hanna. “Go to a stupid film instead.”

“Hanna!” hissed Gisela.

At the junction of Kurfurstendam and Joachimstaler­strasse, demonstrators had already occupied the pavements. Reinforcements were emerging from the U-Bahn and spilling on to the road. A whispering began, like wind in the willows.

“Make a circle. Block the traffic.”

People formed into lines of five and walked round the centre of the junction – one after the other, closely packed, column after column. Motorists hooted. A policeman blew his whistle. But they were powerless to break the human wheel.

My group linked arms and squeezed in behind five Red Army men in crash helmets.

“The state has murdered Holger Meins – Holger, Holger, Holger Meins!”

A white Mercedes tried to push its way through. An RAF man forced open the driver’s door. Manfred pulled him back. The driver reversed away.

“That’s what the authorities want us to do,” said Manfred, rejoining the line. “Beat people up, behave like animals. It doesn’t help our cause. We must win the public’s sympathy.”

I nodded and joined in the chant. I had never felt better, never felt so much. Acting for justice with no self doubts, a rebel with a cause – no dream of what might be, just action now.

“The state has murdered Holger Meins,” I shouted at the top of my voice, “Holger, Holger, Holger Meins!”

Hanna laughed and yelled in my ear:

“Your accent is atrocious.”

Then the sirens began. A chill ran down my spine. Tank-like vehicles clea­red a path through the cars – blue mon­sters with blank faces.

“Water canons,” Manfred shouted.

The line in front stopped. A helmeted man turned and yelled.

“New formation. Rows of twenty across the Ku’dam!”

He indicated that my group should move forward and link arms with his.

“Oh no,” wailed Stefan. “We’re in the front line.”

“That’ll make a change for you,” said Hanna, but her voice sounded nervous too.

The cannons halted behind a phalanx of shield-wielding riot police with visors down. I glanced over my shoulder. Row upon row of demonstrators stretched back towards the ruined shell of the Gedaechtniskirche – faces alert, tense, determined.

Die bullen sind bloed!” yelled a Red Army man.

Police are stupid.

“Don’t provoke,” said Manfred.

“Shit liberal!” the man replied, but stopped his chant.

Night had fallen and a cold wind from the East cut through the seams of my worn sheepskin coat. The advertisements flashed and winked, mocking the protesters with their message of stabi­lity. In Kempinskis, ladies in fur hats sipped coffee and toyed with cakes, faces turned towards the street waiting for the show to start. Press photographers positio­ned themselves near the police, flashguns firing. TV cameras took aim from rooftops or patrolled – tape recorders in tow – up and down no-man’s land. One reporter argued with her direc­tor about where to stand. She wanted to be in front of the demonstrators, the director wanted her with the police. In the end, she and the camera walked around in circles.

Then the space between the front-lines was cleared. A new chant rolled for­ward from the back of the demonstration, picking up momentum and volume as it approached us.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demonstrate!”

The Red Army men added ‘Holger, Holger, Holger Meins’ and as the chants met they doubled in force and surged across no-man’s land to the waiting police, drowning out an officer calling on the demonstrators to ‘Disperse or face the consequences!’

“This is it,” hissed Manfred.

The police moved forward followed by the water cannons. Slowly. Steadily.

Then they fired.

“Stand firm!” shouted Manfred, as water slammed into his stomach.

I bent to help him but was hit too, a block of ice smashing into my skull.

“Turn your back!” Hanna shouted.

I couldn’t breathe, could­n’t move.

Another jet of water smashed into my groin. The police were only yards away – truncheons high, shields out. The crowd surged forward, pushing me towards the truncheons that now began battering batons on shields in a deafening cacophony of terror.

“Fall back and regroup!” came the command.

I turned and ran. Manfred ran. We all ran. Retreating head over heels in front of the drums, lines disintegrating as the din approached. I glanced back and saw a policeman beat a Red Army man across the back – not once, but on and on and on. A woman was hit between the legs and dumped into a van that moved forward with the canons picking up human refuse as it was clubbed into submission.

My coat felt heavy – soaked through, weighing me down. But I kept on running.

Suddenly a pair of arms grabbed me. I ducked, ready for a blow to the head, the back, the balls. The arms held me, but didn’t abuse me.

I turned. It was Manfred.

“No good running. Police are everywhere. We must regroup.”

I locked arms with Manfred and counted a dozen rows ahead of us – we were no longer in the front line.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned. It was Hanna. Her long hair soaked with water, her face blue with cold. She locked arms, too, and huddled close.

“Stefan’s been hit. Gisela’s taken him home.”

“Is he all right?”

“I think so.” She wiped away a tear. “He was trying to stop a pig hitting me.”

“And Gisela?”

“Cut in the face – best for her to go with him.”

With the column reformed, the chan­ting swelled again. We surged forward as one – at a run this time – charging headlong at the state’s protective wall, the words of the chant coming fast and loud.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demon­strate!”

I kept my eyes on the front line. When it hit the police, it would stop dead.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demonstrate!”

I concentrated on the words – spitting out each sylla­ble, fighting off the cold.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demonstrate!”

Shots broke across the chanting. Four rows in front of me, lines scattered as a plume of smoke rose from the ground. More shots and a canister landed by my feet.

“Tear gas! Cover your mouth and nose!”

Manfred thrust a scarf at me. I pressed it to my face, but gas had already reached my lungs. I wretched. I no longer cared what happened, as long as I could stop and lie down. I tried to cover my mouth, but the gas numbed my brain and my hands would not move. I collapsed to the ground coughing.

“Get up!” – Manfred’s voice – “Get up! Head for Zoo Station!”

I struggled to my feet, fighting off nausea, willing myself to move.

All around people coughed and screamed. Beyond the fog, sirens wailed.

“Can you walk?” Hanna yelled.

“I think so,” I replied.

“Good. Keep your face covered and follow us.”

Figures loomed from the shadows clutching scarves to mouths. Red Army men ran past with iron bars, guided by the sound of breaking glass. Onlookers cowered too terrified to move.

One old lady crouching by a kiosk on the corner of Kantstrasse held a cardboard carton over her head with the word ‘Hilfe!’ scrawled on its side. Men in suits, emerging from the peep shows behind her – eyes stained with prurience, expressions blank and empty – ignored her plea, fastened their trousers and ran for safety.

I struggled across the street and took hold of the woman’s hand.

“Where are you headed?” I asked.

“Anywhere,” she stuttered.

“Want to come with us?”

The woman nodded.

Manfred took her other arm and we pressed on.

Baton-wielding policemen appeared from an alley and charged. Manfred pointed at the woman. The police took no notice. Manfred and I hoisted her onto our shoulders and ran as best we could.

The police pursued. A flashgun fired. Aimed at us, I hoped: ‘Demonstrators save granny from police!’

“Ought to be ashamed,” the old lady mut­tered into Joe’s ear.

“Who ought?” I gasped. “The demonstrators?”

“No! The police.”

Near Zoo station, the pursuers were diverted by a fire and gave up. Manfred and I, out of breath from our exertions, lowered the woman to the ground and entered the station. It was packed. Wounded demonstrators lay in rows tended by medical students. Unhar­med protesters huddled in corners discussing tactics. Members of the public wiped eyes and dusted down clothes, unsure what to do next. The station regulars – junkies and unemployed Turkish workers – stood in front of the exchange office too bemused to ask for money. Beyond them a crowd pushed up against the ticket counter, desperate to get home.

Hanna bent down to the woman.

“Where do you live?”

“In the East. Prenzlauer Berg”

“In the East?”   Hanna queried, and then burst out laughing. “You can tell them it’s true then. We are oppressed and brutalised.”

“I know,” said the woman. “I was here in ’68. I always come for the riots.”

I wondered how she could have crossed the wall, and then remembered that pensioners were free to travel back and forth.

“The East – that’s a good idea,” said Manfred, as a group of policeman arrived to block off the entrance to the street. “Let’s go to Friedrichstrasse.”

“Coming too?” I asked the woman.

“No thank you, but I’m grateful for your help.”

I squeezed her hand and ran after Hanna and Manfred.

At the S-Bahn entrance Man­fred ducked under the barrier. Hanna and I followed suit. On the platform most people were heading west, and when a train for Frie­drichstrasse clattered in we were the only ones to board. We collapsed on to the slatted wooden seats and sighed with relief when the doors shut and the train pulled out.

As it rolled through the Tiergarten, we saw blue lights flashing in the trees and a gas cloud hanging low over the Ku’dam Ecke. The cross on the Ge­daechtnis­kirche shone forth, the Mercedes sign winked.

We win, it said. You lose.

Hanna took my hand and squeezed.

“You all right? You were in a bad way back there?”

“A bit cold.”

“A bit cold? Is that all? You English understate everything. Aren’t you exhilarated, terri­fied, exhausted, happy, sad?”

“Yes, that to.”

 Hanna leant across and hugged the sheepskin coat. I put an arm around her and an arm around Manfred and together we rattled past the ruins of the Reichstag, over the Spree and across the wall – today a welcome barrier against the hypocrisy and conflicts of capitalism. When the train reached Friedrichstrasse – with its East German guards on gantries above and kiosks selling duty free goods below – we found a bench and declared it free of East and West. Manfred bought whisky and Swiss chocolate and we sat getting drunk against the cold – happy to be in no man’s land, happy to be alive, happy to wait a little longer for the revolution.

HELLO TO BERLIN, 1973 – Part Five

The young English filmmaker goes East with his East Berlin friend to meet a Goddess of the Steelworks, and very seductive socialist, in the DDR hinterland

Goddess of the Steelworks - off duty

(Part of an early draft of novel Friends & Enemies not included in published version)

Lothar waited beside the sealed up Metro station of Berlin Mitte on the northern side of Checkpoint Charlie – or Grenzuebergang Kochstrasse as his government called it. The sky hung low and cold, and he wore a woollen scarf and fur-lined Russian hat.

Jon the filmmaker, who Dieter had reintroduced to Lothar at the Berliner Ensemble, had, at last, got in touch and agreed to meet up today, Sunday the fifteenth of November. The Englishman, with a visa for travel outside East Berlin, would bring Dieter’s old Mercedes and drive with Lothar to the East German hinterland for an inspection of a steelworks under the guidance of Lothar’s secondary, proletarian lover, Brigade Leader Almuth Wietz.

A car hooted. Lothar glanced towards the checkpoint: a Trabant stalled at the crossroads, guards coming off duty, an American military Jeep asserting – like a child from the wrong side of town – its right to drive in the Russian zone. Not much traffic at three o’clock on a Sunday – too late for tourists wanting to view the Red Threat, too early for Turkish guest workers seeking prostitutes priced in East Marks. The horn sounded again, and this time Lothar saw a figure climb out of a mud-spattered vehicle across from the Metro entrance. The figure wore a scarf, blue jeans and an anorak longer at the back than front. A Westerner, thought Lothar. Lost or wants to sell me his jeans.

He turned back to the checkpoint, hoping to catch a glimpse of Dieter’s Mercedes. He was cold and impatient for the warmth of a comfortable car.


A hand tapped him on the shoulder. Lothar swung round and found himself face to face with the Westerner.

“Yes?” he snapped, preparing to lecture the young man on the importance of clean cars and respectable clothing in a socialist country. “How can I help?”

“It’s me. Jon.”

Lothar put out a hand and pulled down the scarf covering the stranger’s mouth.

“My God,” he said. “So it is. Where’s the car?”

“There,” replied Jon, pointing to the wreck across the road. “The mini-van. The one you found me in on the Berliner Ring.”

“Mini-van?” exclaimed Lothar. “What about the Mercedes?”

“Reinhardt had to go to Karlsruhe. His father’s ill. So…”

“We’re going to Schwedt-an-der-Oder, number one new town of the GDR and the country’s most model of model socialist communities, in that?”

“Afraid so,” laughed Jon. “Not the same as a Merc. But it drives all right.”

Lothar shook his head, straightened his hat and followed Jon. He should not be making a fuss, he knew, but he had looked forward to drawing up at the steelworks in a Mercedes. Looked forward to Almuth’s expression of amazement as he stepped out, held the rear door open and invited her to step inside and feel the luxury of leather seats. She was more of a socialist than him, but would still have been impressed – still have felt her fading sensibility for glamour and the world of the rich and famous touched.

“You all right?” Jon asked, as Lothar attempted to close the passenger door with a piece of string doubling as a handle. “That side’s a bugger to shut.”

Jon leant across and slammed the door, breaking the string in the process.

“Damn! You’ll have to use my side, now.”

“And in an emergency?”

“Not sure,” replied Jon with a grin. “Hope for the best, I guess.”

The car started. They swung left into Kochstrasse, took a right down Unter den Linden and after circling the television tower twice found the road to Schwedt.

“Hopefully, the Vopos won’t stop us”, Lothar remarked in a piqued tone, as they swept through the outer suburbs of North Eastern East Berlin. “I’m not sure they could deal with you, the car and the presence of a leading GDR citizen inside it!”

Jon slowed to let an old lady cross the road and, as he did so, leant over to Lothar.

“Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Super-Gran!”

Lothar’s demeanour of disgruntlement remained in place for a moment and then cracked, as a chuckle broke free from its straitjacket. The Englishman was irresistible and he had remembered his host’s interest in Western comics. A kindred spirit, an anarchist at heart, an oddball artist with a sense of humour. He was also young – Lothar’s junior by twenty years – and his youth infectious, an invigorating tonic for an ageing alcoholic. Why be grumpy? Why carp? Who cared what car they were in? Who bloody cared? Status was stultifying, keeping up appearances a game for mugs and party hacks. Together, Jon and he would have fun and if they frightened a few Vopos in the process, so what? Conformity be damned! Long Live the Marx Brothers!

Lothar leant forward and thumped the dashboard with his fist.

“Or this!” he yelled. “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Super-van!’

The two men roared with laughter, waved at the old lady, now safely across the road and – on Lothar’s prompting – burst into a dual language version of the Internationale.

By the time they reached Schwedt, it was dark. But Lothar’s spirits were light as a feather, his soul full of a joie de vivre normally associated with drunkenness or that moment where orgasm is in sight and assured, but not yet paid for in prostate pain. As they approached Almuth’s workplace, sparks from the smelter lit up the night sky.

“The heartland of our socialist republic,” exclaimed Lothar, as they drew up at the gates of the People’s Own Steelworks.

Jon climbed out and gazed up at the smelting tower.

“Amazing!’ he cried. “In the West, steelworks are monsters – blots on the landscape. But this…this is beautiful…a Cathedral!”

“Perhaps, because here it is the workers we worship,” Lothar said, putting an arm round his friend’s shoulder.

Jon nodded and the two men stood in silence watching the miracle of molecular fusion forge steel from the stone of iron ore.

“Lothar!” cried a female voice behind them. “Is that you?”

Lothar and Jon turned. A tall, well-built woman in hard-hat, heavy-duty boots and green overalls with a small red star above the left breast was approaching from the gates.

“Almuth!” shouted Lothar, moving to meet the Wagnerian apparition. “Jon, meet the High Priestess of our Workers Cathedral, Brunhilde of the Bronze Smelting Process, Mother Superior of Steel Ingots and Iron bars, the Goddess of…” – Lothar reached Almuth, planted a passionate kiss on her burnished lips and turned back to Jon – “Meet Brigade Leader Comrade Almuth Wietz.” Jon moved forward and shook the outstretched hand.  “Almuth, meet Mr Jon Cruft, our artist from the far off land of Anglo-Saxons.”

“Hello, Jon,” said Almuth, pointing back at the works. “A fine moment to arrive.”

Jon nodded, overcome with admiration for a woman he had only just met and about whom he knew next to nothing – the overalls, the grime, her man’s job.

“Shall we go round the works, now?” she asked. “What do you think, Lothar?”

“Whatever Jon wishes,” replied Lothar. “I’m merely the facilitator of this field trip.”

“Fine, let’s go,” she said, heading back to the gates. “You coming with us, Paul?”

“I’d love to, but as a lowly intellectual, I must at all times and in all places remind myself of how real workers, live, think and drink! I’ll be in the works bar when you return.”

Almuth laughed, took Jon by the arm and led him off through the pearly gates.

Jon enjoyed the tour – not so much for what he saw, but for what he heard. Almuth was no propagandist paid to persuade dignitaries from the third world of the East’s superiority, but a woman who believed in the system. A system, she said, that may not have bought people the wealth of the West, but had ensured there were no fat cats, few criminals and a ruling party which – though not a paragon of virtue in its sometimes paranoid perception of duty – outlawed self-aggrandisement along with the speculators and Mafioso who, in the West, had turned the making of money into a religion of death and destruction. Yes, there were disappointments and frustrations and, as a brigade leader, she knew all about them. Socialism, in her book, should not claim to be able to cleanse the human condition of suffering. Existence, physically and psychologically – getting from birth to death in one piece, as she put it – was tough, regardless of where a government stood on the political spectrum. But helping people live together in moderation and with a common purpose – rather than playing them off against each other for bigger cars and better houses – was feasible and eminently practical. Not everyone had a car, but those who did shared. Not everyone had a television, but those who did allowed others to watch.

Like in the war, suggested Jon, as they watched molten steel flow across the floor into massive moulds and acknowledged the waves of workers overseeing the procedure. Yes, agreed Almuth, in a way. The solidarity that scarcity brings; coming together in a struggle where defeat of the enemy is more important than individual comfort; the sharing of resources and personal good luck for the good of all. Yes, that was socialism.

“But surely,” Jon persisted as they headed to the canteen. “Surely the disaster is past, the war over, the struggle won. You have your republic and now you can reap the rewards.”

“Yes,” said Almuth. “And life is better. But we still have a common enemy – the enemy you in the West, despite the sacrifices of your soldiers, have given into.”

“And that is?” inquired Jon.

“Greed. The wish to have more than your neighbour, the right to have more than your neighbour, the duty to have more than your neighbour. The motor of capitalism.”

Jon stopped and stared back at the glow of the smelter.

Was it that simple?

HELLO TO BERLIN, 1973 – Part Four

The young English filmmaker is (re)introduced to an East Berliner…

(Part of an early draft of novel Friends & Enemies not included in published version)

Lothar stared at the clock and held his breath. One minute to go and he would be free. Free to smoke, free to drink and free from the hordes of children and Young Pioneers that he had to show around the Pergamon museum everyday. He would also be free from the watchful eye of his partner of five years, and boss of ten, Ruth – she had a party meeting.

“Have a good evening, Comrade Schiewe!” a colleague called as she passed the door of his ground floor office – or cell, as he preferred to call it.

“The same to you, Comrade Orbanz!” Lothar replied, trying not to release too much breath. You’re thirty seconds early and I could report you to Comrade Ruth, he continued to himself. But I won’t.

He coughed into the undergrowth of his Karl Marx beard and was forced to exhale. He should cut back on smoking, and drinking, but as they were two of the three vices that gave him pleasure in life, he persisted – out of hours, of course. He was not allowed to smoke in his cell, nor drink at lunchtime (Ruth breathalysed him under the pretence of a kiss) and the third vice, sex, was not a viable option within the hallowed walls of the German Democratic Republic’s premier people’s museum. Anyway, Ruth – along with a Brigade Leader in Schwedt, where he gave lectures on socialist realism to steelworkers – provided enough entertainment in that area. There was, however, a fourth activity he enjoyed that was not a vice, approved of by Ruth and on the agenda for tonight. Going to a performance. It didn’t have to be a play, it could be an opera, classical concert, cabaret or even – with enough alcohol to numb aesthetic sensibilities and cotton wool to reduce decibels – one of the rock bands, now officially approved to keep youth ‘Back in the DDR’ and bopping to a dialectical beat.

He put on his coat and peaked Lenin cap, locked the door to his cell and exited the building by a side door that opened on to the banks of the Spree. He lit a cigarette, crossed a footbridge and walked along the river until he reached Friedrichstrasse station, already crowded with homebound commuters. He ordered a beer and Bratwurst from a kiosk by the ticket office, lit a fresh cigarette and stared at the departures board:  S-Bahn services to Mueggensee, Pankow, and Babelsberg; expresses to Warsaw, Prague and Moscow; but no mention of the trains leaving from an inaccessible platform above his head, trains that trundled across the Spree and the wall, past the burnt out Reichstag and into West Berlin – that grey area denoted by a blank on all street maps in the East.

Not a blank to Lothar, though. Before the wall, he had been there many times, but never thought of switching his blue East German passport for a green West German one. For him, East Germany offered security, a steady job and protection from the harsh competitiveness of capitalism – a system that cut no special deals for ageing curators. When the wall went up, he briefly cursed his luck, but soon settled down to the reality of life in a large, reasonably provisioned prison. Having your options reduced, he told friends, did not necessarily make you unhappier. We are, he reasoned, all imprisoned by life, the human condition and the limitations of mortality. Being able to go to Paris and Moscow had its plus side, but also risked diverting a person from more important tasks..

Lothar bit into his sausage and smiled at his erudition and capacity for self-delusion. He did sometimes fancy a coffee on the Ku’dam, of course. And, perhaps, if he lived in the West, he wouldn’t drink so much, or, then again, fearful of losing his job, and seduced into penury by the myriad temptations of capitalism, maybe he would drink more. Either way, thanks to his friend Dieter from West Berlin, he now had the best of both worlds. The state paid him and Dieter brought him catalogues, news of the Western art world and all the material he required for his project ‘Representations of Capitalism in American Comics’. Ruth had obtained official approval for the research, but waiting for Superman to arrive through official channels would have condemned Lothar’s magnum opus to the fate of many things in the DDR – death by inertia. Dieter delivered on time, the party didn’t. In fact, it was Dieter who had bought tickets for tonight – a performance of Goethe’s Faust presented in the Brechtian manner by the Berliner Ensemble. He was coming with a young English filmmaker and Lothar was looking forward to the evening.

He popped a last morsel of sausage into his mouth and stuffed cardboard carton and paper beer mug into a bin beneath the counter. Litter was not a problem in the East – less packaging, better internal policing. That self-regulating mechanism, which ensures people stay in line with the law, functioned more effectively in the land of Marx and Lenin than in the West. Lothar (anarchist by choice, conservative by nature) approved of the sense of social responsibility instilled by the state in its citizens (especially the young) and was glad he did not have to put up with the dirt, noise, disrespect and physical abuse that, according to Dieter and the official party newspaper, plagued some Western cities.

He left the station, followed the direction of the railway as it wound its way westwards on a brick-built viaduct and then, with the wall and a guard tower in sight – floodlit to counter the dying day – turned right into a street that contained the Berliner Ensemble and little else apart from rubble. He entered the building of concrete and stone – a mixture of pre-war decadence and post-war utility – walked across the red-carpeted foyer and entered a dining room, whose high-ceiling, oak tables and upholstered chairs still reflected the artistic freedom and over indulgence of the Weimar Republic. He ordered a beer with a Korn chaser, and sat down at a table near the door. Dieter had not arrived and the only person in the room he knew was a psychiatrist from Pankow – a friend of Ruth’s and a party member. Not suitable company when Western visitors were due. Lothar lit a third cigarette, turned his back on the doctor and surveyed the room.

The Government, he recalled, had presented Brecht with the theatre as part of a package to entice him back to the motherland. Unlike fellow exiles Weil, Eisler, Wilder and Stroheim, Comrade Bert had not enjoyed America.  He had produced some good work there – Mahagonny, for example – even tried his hand in Hollywood, but despite the money on offer he had stuck to his ideals and refused, unlike Comrade Faust, to sell his soul. The founding of Germany’s first socialist state in 1949, and an invitation to work there, gave him the chance of combining art and politics in a practical way and he headed back east with enthusiasm to reap the rewards of Nazism’s defeat by the Soviets.

“And why not?” Lothar mused, as he downed his Korn. “I’d have done the same.”

Of course, there had been difficult moments – especially after the uprising of 1953, when the party ordered Brecht to issue a statement condoning its brutal crackdown. And, were he still alive today, he would have hated the wall and castigated the current conservatism of the party on social, moral and artistic issues. Above all, he would not have approved of the dogma and reverence now attached to his theatrical methods and preferred styles of performance. He had spent his life forging new forms and criticising old ways – the last person to accept fossilisation and the polite applause of party hacks.

“A free spirit, like myself!” Lothar concluded, raising his glass to a portrait of the bard recently repositioned beneath Marx and Lenin. “To your eternal memory, comrade!”

Just then Dieter walked in accompanied by a long haired man in jeans and denim jacket.

“Welcome,” Lothar declared, rising to greet Dieter with a bear hug

As the two friends embraced, the long haired man stared at the bearded East Berliner, a puzzled look on his face. Then, as Lothar turned from Dieter to shake his hand, he smiled.

“Of course, the man in search of vodka. You said we would meet if we were meant to. Extraordinary.”

Lothar took a step forward, peered at Dieter’s friend and then laughed.

“The Englishman from the Ring, who eats no beans – the honourable emissary from Greater Britain! Welcome to our people’s paradise, comrade!”


HELLO TO BERLIN, 1973 – Part Three

The young English filmmaker joins a commune – and visits a sauna

(Part of an early draft of novel Friends & Enemies not included in published version)

I awoke, bladder bursting, and peered over the edge of my eerie to see if the coast was clear. My mattress – seven feet above the floor and four feet below the ceiling – lay on a raised platform made of timber from a demolition site with a homemade ladder for ascent and descent. I put a foot on the top rung, but retreated again as the bathroom door opened.

“Morning!” a male voice grunted, as it passed beneath the bed.

I lay back and pretended to sleep. The mattress felt lumpy and – according to Dieter – came from a demolition site too.

“Good morning, Englishman,” called a female voice, sailing under my bed in the opposite direction. “Breakfast in thirty minutes.”

“Good morning,” I replied, still not sure which voice belonged to what person.

The room that I occupied had a high ceiling and overlooked a dank courtyard. It had two doors and acted as a passageway between the only bathroom and the bedroom of a woman called Christa. The room’s previous occupant had left a week earlier and I had moved in. Not an easy decision, but I needed the company. Dieter had explained my situation to the commune committee and the committee – on the basis of an interview dominated by a man called Hubertus – had approved my admission..

Lying in bed, waiting to pee, I wondered whether I had done the right thing. No lack of company, but also no solitude and a strict roster of duties: cook once a week for six, wash up for same, clean communal areas, shop at weekends. And no privacy: ‘locked doors represent repression and the bathroom must be accessible to all at all times’. This meant trying to pass water (or more) while Dieter and Sasha shared a bath; bathing as Christa fitted a tampon and talked about her periods; and shaving to the background grunts and groans of Hubertus and Erwin – the sixth member of the household – engaging in oral sex on the toilet seat. I raised the matter, but received little support. Learning to perform and observe private acts in a public context would help purge petit-bourgeois peccadilloes from my system. So far, however, no purge, just constipation.

I pulled on my jeans, shimmied down the ladder and bolted to the bathroom. I wanted to urinate before Dieter or Sasha or Hubertus or Erwin or Christa put in an appearance and stemmed the flow. On weekdays they went to university or work, but today was Saturday and after shopping – part purchase, part theft, to reduce supermarket profits – a breakfast meeting was being held to consider a new candidate for the commune. Erwin, a psychology student, had received a grant to study a lunatic asylum on the Greek island of Leros and – despite protests from Hubertus – had suggested a female as his replacement.

Half an hour later, at ten o’clock sharp, we seated ourselves around an oblong table in the front room and prepared to breakfast: Hubertus at one end, Erwin to his left and Dieter to his right, Sasha next to Dieter and Christa next to Erwin; me next to Christa and on my left, at the end of the oblong opposite Hubertus, a chair for the candidate. The room was lined with books and boasted a floor to ceiling window with a door to the street at one end. Our landlord let the property as accommodation, but previous owners had kept shop and passers-by would still stop to sample the wares within. Commune members acknowledged this audience and invited poorer members in for a drink. ‘Socialism in practice’ Hubertus explained. I did not contradict him, but – given his background – sensed the gesture owed more to old-fashioned alms giving than alternative politics.

The table lay buried under a mound of food: rye, wheat, and sourdough bread; eggs, ham, salami and liver sausage; Emmenthaler, brie and Tilsiter cheese; tomatoes, celery, apples and bananas; yoghurt and muesli; tea, coffee and juice, as well as bottles of beer and a carafe of wine. The fruit and vegetables represented the Catholic South – Dieter from Baden, Christa from Bavaria and Sasha from the Tyrol; the leg of ham, boiled eggs and stiff salamis mirrored the no nonsense approach of the Protestant North – Hubertus from Bonn and Erwin from Hamburg. I had contributed a pot of marmalade.

Hubertus banged the table.

“Fellow commune members, before we eat” – I wanted to laugh; this man with his long face, aristocratic nose and perfectly enunciated Hochdeutsch reminded me of a paterfamilias insisting on grace before gluttony – “let us first table matters for discussion.”

“Isn’t the candidate invited to the meal?” asked Sasha, pointing at the empty chair, her singsong Tyrolean accent adding to the old world homeliness of the scene.

“She’ll be here shortly,” Erwin said. “I told her to come at ten fifteen.”

“Satisfied?” Hubertus queried, raising his eyebrows at Sasha.

Sasha shrugged her shoulders.

“Not very friendly, starting without her.”

My stomach rumbled and I wondered which kind of bread to eat first, the hard Vollkorn or the soft white French ‘lifted’ that morning from the supermarket.

“Start or wait,” Hubertus summarised. “Shall we vote?”

“Hubertus!’ Dieter exclaimed. “This is a breakfast for undogmatic Marxists and associated artists not a plenary session of the KPD.”

“Well…” began Hubertus.

“I propose waiting and vote for my proposal,” chimed in Sasha, breaking ranks with her partner’s libertarian approach despite a dig in the shoulder.

“Me too,” seconded Christa, putting down a half-peeled banana.

“I abstain,” Erwin mumbled too under the sway of Hubertus to offer opposition.

“Against,” sighed Dieter, closing his eyes and sinking his chin on his chest.

“And you?” called Hubertus down the table.

All eyes turned to me.

“I propose an amendment,” I said. “Let’s wait with food, but start on drinks.”

The others laughed. Hubertus banged the table with his knife.


“British fence-sitting,” cried Erwin. “What do you say Hubertus?”

Hubertus took a deep breath.

“I support the amendment and as chair have the casting vote. Motion – as amended – carried.”

Hands reached for tea, coffee and juice – apart from Dieter’s, which went for wine and Erwin’s, which settled on beer. I poured an apple juice, downed it in one and waited for the glass teapot. My eyes moved to the street, focused on a Turkish child playing with a dog on the far pavement and then refocused on a woman peering in at us through the shop window.

I gasped.

Mathilde? The mad seductress from Kreuzberg, had she followed me here?

Erwin saw her too.

“Ah!” he said, rising from his seat. “Our candidate. Now we can drink and eat.”

He crossed to the window, opened the door and stood back to let the figure in.

“This is Mathilde Merkel, an old sparring partner of mine.”

He led her to the table.

“Hubertus… Christa… Dieter… Sasha…”

Each person took her hand, welcomed her to the commune and said what they were doing in terms of work or study. Dieter stood and gave her a kiss, apparently unaware that he had met her before.

“And last but not least, our newest member.”

Mathilde held out a hand to me, no hint of flirtation or flicker of recognition.

“Hello. What do you study?”

“I make films,” I replied, taking her hand and recalling what it had held the last time we met. “An artist.”

“Then we have something in common,” laughed Mathilde. “I paint.”


I watched her sit down and my dismay subsided. In her sailor-front trousers, velvet top and sleeveless Afghan, she appeared to be a sane, intelligent and attractive woman, not someone to be confronted with the wisdom or otherwise of past actions.

“Tea, coffee…” I began and then hesitated – “Or wine?”

But the alcoholic had reformed, too.

“Apple juice, please.”

She smiled and bent down until her mouth was next to my ear.

“I do remember you, but thanks for forgetting me! I was very drunk!”

I felt a hand, a gentle hand, pat my knee and then withdraw.

Later that day, we went to a mixed sauna. The expedition had been proposed at the meeting, which, despite all the food and drink consumed, managed to merge the chores of washing up and cooking (‘Christa washes up as she goes, Dieter leaves everything’), reject my request to reopen the bathroom lock issue (‘discussion of a topic twice is forbidden by the commune’s constitution’), accept a reversion to shopping in pairs (‘to streamline profit reduction’), and approve Mathilde’s candidacy.

At the sauna, I discovered what ‘mixed’ meant. Changing rooms separate, but pool, hot cabins and showers shared – with swimsuits and trunks not recommended.

“Nothing to be ashamed of,” Hubertus said as we strode from changing room to pool. “Acceptance of nudity is a key principle of our commune – and of many people in Germany. One of the nation’s few saving graces. Whether fat, skinny, crippled or crazy we are all humans underneath and must accept each other’s bodies as well as each other’s minds. Been to a nudist beach?”

“No,” I said.

“I will take you.”

We entered the pool area. I felt the eyes of men and women – fat, thin, old and young – survey the new bodies and then return to reading or sleeping or minding their own business. The looks were not voyeuristic just curious, fellow members of the species registering new specimens and assessing assets as others did clothes. A man coughed, his fat rolled up and down. A woman rearranged a breast and took a sip of wine. Nudity as normality – a new experience for me, whose English heritage had consisted of changing beneath damp towels on freezing beaches or sniggering at pin-ups in the school bog.

The commune women – including Mathilde – were in the water, three sets of white buttocks rising and falling in unison as they swam from one end of the bath to the other. Dieter dived in and surfaced beneath Sasha, who screamed and, along with the other two, ducked and re-ducked the invading male until he begged for mercy. Hubertus seemed more interested in my behind and suggested a drink at the bar before swimming.

“Do you have a girlfriend?” he asked, after ordering two beers.

“Not in Germany, no.”

“In England?”

“Sort of. But not really.”

Hubertus lent across and put a hand on my thigh.

“I’ve never had one,” he confided. “Too much flesh and too… soft!”

I glanced down at the hand and noticed something else: Hubertus’ erect penis. Was that allowed, in a mixed sauna?

“You prefer men, then,” I said, tearing my eyes from the phallus. “Like Erwin.”

Erwin was back at the commune packing for Greece, but I felt a mention of the name might calm things down.

“I prefer you,” hissed Hubertus. “Shall we go to a cabin?”

“But the others…” I protested.

“They horseplay for hours. Dieter likes many women. Hopelessly heterosexual.”

I panicked. A commune that had seemed like a serious attempt to counter the worst aspects of dominant culture and consumer society and provide a refuge from the rat race of capitalism was turning into a News of the World exposé: “Commune Capers” – “Queer goings on!”

“Can’t we just talk?” I said.

“Of course, but in the sauna, no?”

Hubertus’ tone was urgent and, despite misgivings, I agreed. We slipped off our stools and descended a stairway. I had no idea what to expect as I followed him down into the underworld, and, despite a determination to stay in the here and now, found myself recalling a similar experience eight years earlier.

In Germany then, too, because my father  – terminally ill, but determined to do his best by the youngest son – had sent me off for a term to the University of Freiburg to improve my German. Being April, and late in the academic year, the only accommodation available was above a shoe shop in the outlying village of Wolfenweiler, breakfast included but no evening meal. So, after classes and before taking a bus home, I ate a meal in town. I was, I suppose, quite an attractive man – my hair soft, my eyelashes long, my body slim and well proportioned – and on the fourth evening of the second week I found a restaurant situated in a curtained-off ground floor room of a seventeenth century house. I ordered scrambled eggs with ham and salad and had almost finished the meal when an elderly German man accompanied by a Turkish boy joined me at the table.

“I’ll pay for that,” the man said when the waiter brought my bill. “And, please, another beer for the young man.”

I said I should go, but the man insisted. After a second beer, the boy – like me, in his late teens – drew closer and rested a hand on my knee. The older man smiled.

“In Turkey, no distinction between the touch of man and the touch of woman.”

I nodded and noticed the absence of females in the restaurant – older men and younger boys, but no women. The hand on my leg moved.

“Ahmed” – the man used the boy’s name for the first time – “can be a woman for you. He is gentle, experienced. And I would watch to see that you came to no harm.”

I repeated that I must go. I had a lecture the next morning. The man laughed.

“Upstairs is a room where you can forget studies, enjoy yourself and then sleep soundly until the cock crows – with Ahmed by your side. I will wake you for the class.”

The boy lent across and kissed me on the cheek.

“What do you say?” the man cooed, leaning forward.

I felt nervous, but curious.

“Until you have tried you cannot know,” the man added. “Girl, boy, man, woman, the touch of a fellow human is the closest we get to paradise. Is that not so, Ahmed?”

Ahmed nodded, took my hand and helped me up from the table. The older man led us across the lamp-lit restaurant to a curtained stairway.

“Please,” said the man, drawing the curtain aside and standing back to let us through.

Ahmed smiled and again kissed me on the cheek. I glanced from boy to man and back again, hesitated and then – perhaps because the man resembled my father in some way, or out of a sense of filial duty to the patient back home – turned and ran out of the restaurant, past the cathedral and into the safety of a bus bound for Wolfenweiler.

Now, descending the stairway behind Hubertus – the stairway not ascended then – I wondered if I would run again.

“I use the last cabin on the left,” said Hubertus, as we padded along a corridor with cubicles on both sides. “More privacy.”

He reached the door, opened it and – like the man in Freiburg – stood aside to let me through. Hot air hit my face, searing my lungs, and it took me a moment to accustom myself to the heat. When I had, I found myself in a low-lit space with raked benches ascending into darkness at the back and a basket of coals in the foreground.

“Please,” said Hubertus indicating the second bench up, while laying his own towel out on the lowest one. “That is a good place for you, I think.”

I did as I was told and, when settled on the hard slats, found myself directly behind Hubertus, who lent back and rested his head on my knees.

“And now we talk, no?”

Heat penetrated my pores, sweat streamed down my body. My legs were as slippery as eels and, if they opened, Hubertus’ head would slide into my groin. I concentrated on keeping my knees closed, frightened they might part of their own accord.

Hubertus reached back and moved a hand up my calves.

“Warm, yes?”

“Mm,” I mumbled.

Why had I agreed to come to this cabin? Why wasn’t I swimming in the pool or cutting my film at home? Why was I letting Hubertus stroke my legs?

I wiped moisture from my eyes. I must get my priorities straight. Experiencing everything that crossed my path was risky. Without shape and order, without a chart from past to future, the present tended to take control and sweep you, willing or unwilling, into its more treacherous currents and then drown you in its endless voids and vacuums. Make a map and stick to it; don’t dawdle in doorways, or dillydally on the way; keep the big picture in view. That’s what my father always said.

“You don’t want to talk?” inquired Hubertus.

“No,” I replied. “Perhaps not.”

“Then,” he said, turning to face me, “I think we should play.”

He opened my knees and thrust his head into the void between. At the same moment, the door swung open silhouetting a figure against the neon light.

“Hubertus!” the figure called. “Hubertus Ziegler!’

Hubertus turned and peered over his shoulder.

“Yes? Who is it?”

“Me!” said the figure.

“Erwin?” stammered Hubertus, shading his eyes and peering into the light. “What are you doing here? I thought you were packing?”

“I thought you were taking a sauna. But please… carry on.”

The figure retreated and Hubertus grabbed his towel and ran off in pursuit.

“Erwin! I was just…”

The door swung shut.  I lay alone in a pool of sweat and confusion. Saying Hello to Berlin in the manner Isherwood had bid it Goodbye? Becoming a Bi in Berlin? Was that what I had come here for? Had I allowed Hubertus to open my knees? Had I intended to let the moral-minded chairman of the morning’s meeting proceed with whatever immoral activity it was he intended to proceed with? And was it immoral? No more so than with a woman, surely? And had I wanted it to proceed? My mind bubbled and boiled with the ‘what ifs’ of an incomplete piece of the future that had bypassed the present and, as in Freiburg, ended up as part of my imaginary past. I closed my eyes and laid my head on the bench behind. Whatever the meaning of the episode it seemed homosexuality was not to be in my book of life – at least not in this chapter.  I would, perhaps, be an adventurer with adventures that never quite took off; one whose escapades never progressed beyond the first act, never made it to acts two and three; a man with a future less exciting than imagined and a past of might-have-beens. Could I accept such a fate? Was the world of imagination enough to honour the sense of otherness that had dogged me since childhood? Would art be a sufficient outlet for an oddball like me? Not art perched on a plateau of present perception as the formalists demanded, but the art of an artist weaving stories from past and future, a yarn-spinner mixing fact with fiction – a maker of new clothes who bonded visible and invisible threads into the memory of something that had never happened. That might be enough. Yes. So my next film would be different: a story not a painting; set in a sauna, spectators on benches behind watching from within, the audience in cinema seats in front watching from without; a story set in the here and now, but retold as then; a tale of two perceptions dovetailed into one. Yes…

A while later, I awoke to find another body beside me, a feminine body. I rolled my head to the left. Mathilde lay gazing at me, a quizzical expression on her face.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” she whispered. “But I’ve turned the heat down.”


“You all right?” Mathilde asked.

“All right?” I retorted. “Of course. Why not?”

“Erwin made Hubertus confess. In front of everyone.”


And ask forgiveness for his betrayal of Erwin.”

“I thought we were Communists not Catholics.”

“It was Dieter’s idea. We formed a circle round Hubertus in the swimming bath, heard his confession and then held him under water for more than a minute while Erwin did something horrible to his balls. He won’t try again.”

“And you,” I laughed. “Will you try again?”

“No. Christa and I have decided to become lesbians.“ She paused. “Starting tomorrow.”

HELLO TO BERLIN, 1973 – Part Two

The young English filmmaker meets a man – and a woman…

(Part of an early draft of novel Friends & Enemies not included in published version)

Shortly after arrival in West Berlin, I found myself a small flat.

I had spent the first few nights in my friend Dieter’s room at a Moabit commune and would have preferred to move in there. But Dieter, on a trip to Moscow to research revolutionary posters, had notified the other communards that he was returning with a new woman called Sasha. She would become the commune’s sixth member and six was the maximum allowed under its constitution. Dieter and I had met in London in 1968 and got on well  – as friends and as people with similar artistic interests. So, on his return from Moscow, it was to him I turned for advice on a film I had dreamt up while driving to Berlin. We arranged to meet at an alternative bar in Kreuzberg. I arrived early and surveyed the low-lit interior with approval: dilapidated sofas, longhaired students, a handful of pensioners – the serious but comfortable feel only Germans can achieve.

Wie geht’s?”

Dieter, with ankle-length Afghan coat and Trotsky-style beard, appeared from nowhere and, embraced me.

“You like the bar?”

“Excellent!” I replied, a little overpowered by the Russian greeting. “West Berlin is amazing. And you? Safely back from the steppes?”

Wunderschoen! Unglaublich! You have to go!”

We took our drinks to a sofa and as Dieter recounted his Russian adventures, enthused about his new Austrian girlfriend and informed me of an upcoming revolutionary poster exhibition at the Academy of Arts in Bellevue, I sipped my beer and listened. Then we turned to my film idea. Dieter was impressed by the discipline of the schema and sympathetic to the notion of exposing the manipulative nature of cinema, but wondered whether it might all be a little too serious. I acknowledged the risk, but felt the games I planned to play with sound would give an audience room to chuckle.

We had just moved on to Dziga Vertov and the revolutionary minimalists, when a woman threw herself onto the sofa and wrapped her arms around Dieter.

Schaetzchen!” she sighed, burying her face in his shoulder. “Du bist es.”

Dieter returned the embrace and winked at me.

“An old friend?” I mouthed, in English.

“Never met her before,” Dieter whispered, as the woman closed her eyes and began to snore. “Tell you what,” he added, reverting to German, “Let’s change places. I promised to give Sasha a call. See if she wants to join us.”

Lifting the figure from his shoulder Dieter eased along the sofa allowing me to slip into the vacated space. The woman was repositioned and Dieter, putting a finger to his lips, disappeared. I stared at the slumbering form. What should I do? Wake her or let sleeping strangers lie? She wore an open-necked top of crushed velvet, flared trousers and platform shoes. Her black hair was cut close to the head, her make up dominated by dark mascara, her body slim but not skinny. She sighed and let her hand slip between my legs. I felt myself blush. Stay calm. Dieter would know what to do.

But when he returned, he did not refer to the woman.

“Problem at the commune,” he grimaced.

“Oh dear,” I said. “Can I help?”

Dieter shook his head.

“The others don’t like the way Sasha has arranged my room.”

“But it’s your room?’

“What’s mine is theirs, what’s theirs is mine. You know. I’d better go. Sorry. I’ll take you to East Berlin next week. Someone I’d like you to meet there. Tschuess!”

I tried shifting the hand on my crotch. The woman moaned. I tried extricating myself from the arm on my shoulder. She moaned again. I glanced around. Two pensioners were observing the scene with a mixture of prurience and fascination. What would he do next? What would she do next? I turned back, emptied my glass and decided to leave sleeping beauty asleep. I would slip out, walk home and start work on my film. I began to disentangle myself with more determination and had just managed to cast off, when the woman awoke, jumped up, grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the door.

Kom’ Schatz! We’re going home!”

Her action was so sudden and the grip so tight, I had no choice but to follow. The pensioners smiled, a man winked, but most drinkers took no notice.

“Excuse me,” I said, when we were outside. “I don’t know your name?”

“Mathilde, Dummkopf!” she replied. “You have the car?”

“I walked here.”

She shook her head in disbelief, hailed a taxi and dragged me inside. I did not resist.

“Where do you live?” I asked.

“With you, Dummkopf!” she replied.

I raised my eyebrows and gave the driver an address. Mathilde re-assumed her slumped position on my shoulder and went to sleep.

When the taxi stopped, she awoke, told me to pay and then pulled me out of the car and across to the building’s front door.

“Wouldn’t you be better off at home?” I asked.

“I am home!” she said. “I pee and then we make love, yes?”

Was she a hooker with a clever line or just representative of the bohemian lifestyle that – according to Dieter – flourished in West Berlin? As I had never slept with a prostitute and was new to Berlin, I could not answer either question and decided to go with the flow. The here and now was what I had come to experience, and worrying about someone’s motives, past identity or future intent did not seem appropriate.

I let her into my flat and showed her to the bathroom. I went to the living room and collapsed on the sofa. I heard the toilet flush and a door slam. Then silence. I crept into the hallway. Perhaps she had gone to sleep and would disappear from my life in the morning as quickly as she had entered it in the night – the drama of the evening coming to a quiet but satisfactory end without any need for the conventional climactic bed scene. We would talk in the morning; something might develop, it might not. I found a sleeping bag, cleaned my teeth and emptied my bladder. Then I stopped. I should check on her first. People who were drunk or under the influence of drugs could choke on their vomit; Jimi Hendrix had died that way. I opened the door to my bedroom.

Mathilde lay naked – legs apart, staring at me.

“Well?’ she said. “Zur Sache, Schaetzchen – down to business!”

Sex completed (lovemaking seemed the wrong word for the one-sided but pleasurable wrestling match she subjected me to), I found myself pinioned beneath a snoring Mathilde now back in sleeping beauty mode.

Schlaf schoen!” I mumbled and closed my eyes.

But a combination of delayed shock and sexual exhaustion kept me awake. I opened my eyes and thought of my film; of my friend Dieter and the invitation to go to East Berlin; and then – for no particular reason – of my father. Had I been conceived in a frantic battle like the one just experienced with Mathilde, or in a serene moment of lovemaking? I couldn’t imagine my father being serene or frantic – my mother, yes, but not my father. He had been such a cautious man; a civil servant, working out his days until the pension was due then dieing too soon to collect it. I yawned and wondered whether my mother had known other lovers before him. I imagined her in Berlin, in the thirties, ignoring the Nazis and having a good time. I closed my eyes again and smelt the alcohol on Mathilde’s breath – vodka or brandy or both. In bed in Berlin, September 1973. Now it was my turn.

HELLO TO BERLIN, 1973 – Part One

A young English filmmaker approaches the divided city

(Part of an early draft of novel Friends & Enemies not included in published version)

After two hours, I reached the Berliner Ring, built by Hitler to encompass the expected expansion of the Third Reich’s capital over the next thousand years.

No signs for West Berlin, so I headed on towards the East German capital, Hauptstadt der DDR – East Berlin. Western cars disappeared, East German vehicles increased. Had I missed a turning in the twilight, my progress tolerated because of the military look of my khaki-coloured mini-van? Working for the Warsaw Pact, police had assumed – a Pole returning home, a Russian on R&R. But I wasn’t a Pole or a Russian, I was a British citizen, in a British car and it would soon be night. My British bravado turned to English angst. Should I stop and ask the way, make a U-Turn and head back to Helmstedt or keep going and hope Hitler’s Ring brought me back to the missed exit? My visa stated that there should be no deviation from the transit route, no stopping except at indicated service stations and no communication with military or civilian personnel; ‘in the event of breakdown pull off the road, stay in your car and await assistance’.

“Alright,” I said out loud, as a sign for a picnic spot loomed up in the darkness. “That is what I will do. Pull off the road and wait until somebody comes.”

I turned into the parking area, cut the motor and doused the lights.

In the gloom, I made out wooden tables, an advertising hoarding with no advertisement and a concrete litter bin. I sat in silence and then realised that silence meant no traffic. Perhaps no one stopped here, perhaps West Berlin had been sealed off and declared a no go area with all signs removed to confuse the enemy – perhaps World War Three had started. After all, in 1973, despite Vietnam, Berlin was still number one flashpoint in the Cold War and the Four Power Agreement aimed at regulating access to West Berlin was not due to be signed until next year. I had checked my history books, read my newspapers and done my research but failed to bring a radio. Not out of forgetfulness, but because I felt I should experience history firsthand without any intermediaries. Now I regretted the decision, realising how reliant people had become on radio and television: ‘Here is the news:  death will arrive on a missile from the East (or West) in four minutes. Bang!

I turned to the luggage area. Guitar cases, camera cases, tripods, books and LPs piled high to the roof. One emergency stop and you’ll be headless, my sister had said when waving me off. But I am a budding filmmaker and occasional musician and need the tools of my trades. I pulled a Coke can from a box of film journals. At least I had something to drink – as well as a packet of Smith’s Crisps, a banana and five fruit gums. I’d survive.

I left my car and walked to the litter bin. Empty apart from a cardboard container with a half-eaten Bratwurst inside. Not a popular spot, I deduced, and stepping behind the bin opened my flies and urinated into the undergrowth. My mind fixed on a new film idea: car parks up in picnic area, dusk turns to night, suspense grows in the audience’s mind; sound of owls hooting, footsteps approaching, voices whispering and then… Nothing happens. Nothing happens, for half an hour – or even an hour, if I could afford the film stock. People progress from passive expectation of a story to active awareness of the act of viewing and the intermittent sound effects. Oh, the joys of formalist film-making – no narrative to get snarled up in, just…

Suddenly I jumped – heart palpitating, palms sweating, pupils dilating. Sound of motor mower approaching – no lights, but noise increasing. Not in my imagined film, but in the picnic area where I stood. I zipped up my flies, ran to the van and locked myself in.

A car pulled up. A Trabant. I had read about the two-stroke cars developed when the West walked off with Volkswagen, but never seen one in close up…


I jumped again and – in line with the rigour expected of a formalist film viewer – tried to concentrate on the here and now, on the act of being rather than the fact of being scared. But the here and now of my van in the middle of nowhere was not as conducive to present awareness as the National Film Theatre at a screening of Michael Snow’s Region Centrale.

I closed my eyes and opened them again.

A bearded man in an anorak was banging on my window with one hand and waving a can of Heinz baked beans in the other. More Warhol than Snow, I thought.

Wechseln? Polnische Vodka?’” the man shouted.

Beans for Vodka? I pulled open my window. The man peered in, destroying the viewer/screen dichotomy and involving me in the story.

Ich habe americanische Bohnen. Sie haben polnische Vodka. Wechseln, ja?”

Nein,” I said and reverted to English. “Not Polish. No vodka. British and lost.”

Nicht Polnisch?’ said the man, moving to the rear of the van to examine the number plate and my brand new ‘GB’ sticker.

 “Gross Brittanien!’ he yelled into the night, and then returned to the window and repeated, with emphasis on the first word, “Gross Brittanien. Wie Gross-Deutschland.’

“Not quite the same as ‘Greater Germany’,” I replied, deciding to use German after all. “Hitler’s concept of a Greater Germany was…”

“Like that of your Queen Victoria – Victoria’s Greater Britain, Adolph’s Greater Germany, two of a kind. Only Victoria had more of the world than Adolph. Nicht wahr? And that is why the German people went to war for the Kaiser, lost and voted for Adolph and why I now live in the German Democratic Republic. Wars and tyrannies of the twentieth century have all been caused by greed, ‘Gross-ness’ and the glib tongues of Anglo-Saxons. Nicht wahr?”

A point worth considering I had to admit, for, even if Victoria herself had been more German than British, it was British ministers and British soldiers who built the Empire, colonised half the world’s people’s and settled ‘empty’ lands at the expense of indigenous inhabitants.

“You may be right,” I mumbled, happy to appease a man who – in the land of Bertolt Brecht – seemed more Good Soldier Schweyk than frustrated Fuehrer.

But politics was not the issue.

“No vodka? Maybe cigarettes? Marlboro, Kent, Lucky Strike…?”

I reached into the back of the van and produced a carton of Benson and Hedges bought on the ferry from Dover to Ostende. I removed the packaging and handed over three packs of twenty. The man passed through the baked beans.

“No, please!” I said. “I’m vegetarian” – and then realising my mistake, added – “but don’t eat American beans.”

“I insist,” said the man. “For a friend, if not for you. For Queen Victoria!”

He laughed. I laughed.

“If you’re sure…”

“Of course! But now I depart before the Vopo’s catch me…”


“Volkspolizei – People’s Police. Harmless, but diligent.”

The man darted back to his Trabant. I leant out of the window.

“Can you tell me the way to West Berlin?”

A chuckle in the darkness.

“That is what all corrupt elements in our republic ask. Nicht wahr?”

The mower coughed into life and, for a moment, I thought the man would leave, but instead he reversed his car until the driver’s window stood level with mine.

“West Berlin? Yes, I will show you the way. But remember: gloss in the West, substance in the East. Scratch the surface and you will see.”

“And your name? Perhaps I can look you up?’

“We will meet if we are meant to. Auf wiedersehen!”

The Trabant jolted on to the deserted Ring. I followed and five miles down the road saw a sign with black letters on a yellow background indicating the exit for West Berlin. Easily missed and dwarfed by a sign above it signalling that other Berlin to the East.

I waved and swung off to the right.