Google+ Followers

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Tears Water the Seeds of a Novel.

In 1981, when the Berlin Wall was still there, I lived in Germany for a year, in a narrow, damp room where I watched the wallpaper bubble and blister. My fellow lodgers drank too much and needed a cheap home, somewhere to sit with their bottles, not too far from the nearest street-corner cigarette machine, somewhere to talk to others who understood loneliness, who knew how it felt to have lost their way in life: Konrad, an enormous docker who rose at four in the morning to catch his bus to Hamburg, Eddie, a teacher no longer allowed to teach, and a decorator who worked day and night to provide for a child he no longer saw and for whom he cried at night.

Erwin and Uschi, my landlord and landlady, were also alcoholics. They fuelled themselves with spirits not only when they finished their day's work, but also before they began it. When Uschi once woke me at dawn, excited to show me the new-born rabbits in her hutch, I was overcome by the cloud of schnapps fumes. After she had heaped rabbit after endless rabbit into my arms, she wandered back to her kitchen, to her hidden bottles, leaving me to put them all safely back.

She and Erwin worked hard, however, and had a good standard of living. A ramshackle extension built onto their house provided the four rooms which they rented to waifs and strays who needed a home. There was one gas ring and a shared shower with plumbing issues. It regurgitated waste that appeared to emanate from the one dreadful toilet.

My new family were overjoyed to find a twenty-year-old English girl moving in. I was so unexpected, a living representative of one of the reasons for collective German post-war guilt.

I was so fortunate to meet them all and, after observing their struggles, equally fortunate to have my young and guilt-free life, my carefree future, my tiny measure of time as one of the waifs and strays.

Every single day, Konrad reminded me that during the war, with no choice but to defend himself to save his own life, he had shot dead a Soviet soldier barely old enough to shave. He thought of his mother before he pulled the trigger. "But that soldier," he said with remorse, "he also had a mother."

There was not one moment of his life when he did not suffer shame and guilt and not one day passed without him apologising to me for what his country had done to mine.

While I studied the literature of the divided country and sought to develop fluency in its language (although interpreting my friends' somewhat slurred conversation caused some confusion), I believe the seeds of Tying Down The Lion, to be published thirty-five years later with its theme of how we all must search for our true home, first began to be sown.


16 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing such an emotional experience, Joanna. War leaves such deep scars that rarely heal. My life in Germany has been blessed and I have many fond memories and forged many special friendships (as did you). Have you visited Berlin since? Cologne is on my doorstep and the 'Dom' still stands majestic, even though the city underwent severe destruction during war times. Buildings and cities are rebuilt but the history of horrific times still linger and is not forgotten. I just wish that the lessons learned were more effective. War seems to be a fact of life, which is extremely sad.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you so much, Nicola. It is so interesting that you mention the rebuilding of cities, the scars that remain and the lessons learned, yet forgotten, as this all struck such a chord with me and is a major theme in the book.

    I was in Berlin three years ago and was mesmerised by the way the specially laid tiles along The Wall's course mean it still tracks through the city, so that its presence will always be there. I also love the 'broken tooth' steeple of the Kaiser Wilhelm church, so badly damaged in the war and left that way to remind us of the horror of war.

    I would love to visit Cologne again, as I have only seen it briefly when I was a child. The Dom must be a magnificent sight. How wonderful for you to live nearby. I think the German people are very special too and my time there was made golden by the kindness I was shown. The bus drivers would always want to talk to me about England and speak English to me - even the bus inspector who pointed out my ticket was invalid and had to give me an on-the-spot fine was thrilled to be talking to an English girl who, he said, spoke German as well as he did - which unfortunately was the reason I couldn't plead ignorance about the invalid ticket!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I can't wait to read your book. I can't remember if I mentioned in a previous post comment that I visited Berlin for the first time only last year (in December so visited the Christmas markets) and I have to say I was surprised how much I liked it. It was different to what I had expected but I can't quantify why. I felt that Berlin remembered the past but had moved on with its future. It's city I hope to see again.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you so much, Lindsay. I know just what you mean about Berlin. It has retained so many scars, but is also really vibrant and has a youthful outlook now, a mixture of such pain, beauty, elegance and defiance. xxx

    ReplyDelete
  5. What a beautiful, moving post, Joanna - it proves again your sensitive understanding of people which comes through in your stories. Last summer, we were delighted to visit Germany for the first time on a River Cruise where we got the chance to see so many interesting places. One of those was Cologne, Nicola, and the Dom is magnificent! I was very sad, however, to hear our guide mention all the terrible destruction in many of the towns and cities.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thank you very much, Rosemary, for your really kind comment. I do appreciate it.

    I so agree with you that the sights are magnificent, but scarred by history and the terrible toll taken by the war. Berlin came across as a poignant setting for a novel because of the devastation that affected both the buildings and the people, each reflecting in the other, and then the awful sense of guilt that lingered.

    Your river cruise sounds wonderful. I would love to do that. We saw the Postdam area of Berlin from the river a few years ago and it was beautiful, steeped in history and so inspiring. xxx

    ReplyDelete
  7. This is a lovely and sad post. Your observation of the characters you met really drew me in, and I can imagine how your experiences must have influenced your novel - looking forward to reading it. Berlin is a place I would really like to visit

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thank you, Vikki, for your lovely comment. I really appreciate your kind thoughts.

    It was indeed a hugely influential year, although I didn't realise that at the time. it all seemed quite ordinary while I was there and it's only in the last few years that I have felt the impact of it. I could never forget those people I met and their stories seem sadder as time goes by. However, Berlin itself is so young and vibrant now. It has reinvented itself yet again and I would recommend it as an fascinating, atmospheric city to visit. xx

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi Joanna, your memories of the people you met are very moving, I just read your above comment too, I think when we're younger we just kind of take things as they are and breeze along, but when we're older we tend to look back and reflect, I know I have done that a lot lately and some things do feel sadder than they did at the time they occurred. x

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so very much, penandpaints, for your kind words and comments. I do agree that reflections can alter our perspective. I think when I was young, these people were just a part of the experience. I can even recall writing letters home to my parents that made my fellow-lodgers seem like comical characters, perhaps as reassurance that I was having a good time and that they didn't need to be concerned about me living in this strange house filled with middle-aged men!

      With the passage of time, I have thought about them much more deeply and wish I had taken more notice of what they said and made notes. How I wish that I had begun writing seriously back then, but as my father was fond of saying, you can't put old heads on young shoulders. x

      Delete
  10. This is a very moving post, Joanna. You write so beautifully. xx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Suzanne, for such kind words. That means a lot to me, especially as when I wrote the book, it was in the hope that the characters would move the reader. I have tried to make it humorous too - well, hopefully! - but I did want the poignancy of this particular situation to come through. Fingers crossed! xx

      Delete
  11. What a wonderful story and a wonderful photo to go with it. It's amazing where stories come from. I can't wait to read your novel! xx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Jo. It was such a sad little room for a gentle, sweet man of his age to live out his days. I think that ship painting on the wall was his pride and joy. He had little else. I had no idea then that I would ever write about this experience, but love the way that memories resurface and refuse to fade until you shape them into fiction. xxx

      Delete
  12. I was in Berlin in 1983 and I found it a rather sad, depressing place. It had a profound effect on me, though and I wrote lots of long letters to my parents about it. I still have those letters, so they could easily form the basis of a story or two!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, there is a sadness there. I think the joy and vibrancy that existed there long ago is returning, but the dreadful memories show themselves round every corner. You should definitely look out your letters - a brilliant source for stories. I used to write my parents letters too, always on that amazing flimsy blue airmail paper, and we still have some of them. Mine were terribly inward-looking because I was always holed up in my little room, reading Kafka and pondering the meaning of everything! xxx

      Delete