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Thursday, 6 August 2015

The shadows of war

One of many signs warning that the border between East and West Germany was directly alongside the path.


I invented the Bishop family for Tying Down The Lion, but the genesis of the novel probably came from my father's fascination with Germany since the war, having lied about his age to join up when it was in its last throes.

In 1968, he took us on a driving holiday to Bavaria, in the intense heat of a Ford Corsair, our legs velcroed to the vinyl seats. My father quietly swore about the dwindling petrol and diminishing money, boiling over when his cigarettes ran low. My brother and I squabbled in the back seat and learnt to accommodate bladders stretched to full capacity. Every time we spotted Toiletten, my father said, "Ooh, sorry, too late. Gone past now."

I was obsessed with asking where Hitler was buried until my exasperated father pointed vaguely at a mountain, saying, "Somewhere up there." After that, the F├╝hrer’s face stared at me from every slope.

During the trip, we were plucked from our hotel and taken in by a German family who insisted on showing us—total strangers and English to boot—incredible hospitality and showered me with presents when they found out it was my birthday—a fact my parents had been hoping to ignore until we were back home and they could draw out the Family Allowance.

I made several exciting discoveries: continental quilts meant sleeping beneath a cloud, potato salad didn't always come from a Heinz can, and the thrill of playing German whist. It was similar to the Knock-Out version I knew, just slightly more aggressive.

Years later, on a school trip to Germany, I was old enough to realise that the spectre of war still hovered. The first question the father of my host family asked me the moment I set foot over his threshold, was, "How old is your father?"

But The Cold War was casting the longest shadow. 

We were taken to see the barbed-wire border dividing the country into east and west. All the English students climbed out of the coach and stared at the warning signs. Despite the bright summer weather, the atmosphere was chilling. Our German counterparts opted to stay in the coach. The girl I was staying with chose not to go on the trip at all.

“I'm sorry. I find it too sad,” she said.

Even the livewire English boys fell silent. For all our group photographs, at least one of them could be expected to raise one arm in a Nazi salute and hold their little black Instamatic cameras, moustache-fashion, above their upper lips. On this occasion, the mood was sombre, the photographs hastily taken, and soon we all wanted to leave the barbed wire and the sorrowful strip of no man’s land, beyond which lay this other place, where villages were—as Jacqueline Bishop describes it—sliced apart like Battenberg cake, only they look less pretty

It was a place where watchtowers grew out of the soil. Where fields cultivated from the same batch of seed were crudely divided. A farmer’s own land had become suddenly out-of-bounds. If he took one step too far, he would be shot.

The only harmony was underground, where, like the warm air of the West Berlin subway drifting up through the ventilation shafts onto the pavements of East Berlin, roots free to travel at will could spread unseen. 

The armed guards patrolling the strip were also invisible, but our guide assured us they were there.

Since that day, recalling the final glance we all made over our shoulders as the coach rumbled into life and the boys' Hitler jokes softly resurfaced, I have imagined the East German guards watching us leave, their tension lifting.

I think of them lighting cigarettes in the stillness, relieved that nothing came to pass, the thump of their hearts slowing as they stood in the shadows to watch our coach disappear into the sun setting in the west.

Unsure if I was allowed to take a picture, I snapped this view of the border fencing with my Instamatic. It may not look much, but for me it captures the loneliness of the divided country.

15 comments:

  1. That is so fascinating yet poignant, Joanna. I really must get on and read your book, although I'd rather wait to start it until after our family visitors next week. A treat to look forward to.

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    1. Thank you very much, Rosemary. I didn't realise until I started trawling through my old photographs just how much this visit to the border had stayed with me. Have a lovely time with your visitors and I hope you enjoy the book. It's exciting to think of you reading it and I really appreciate the interest and support you've shown. xxx

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  2. A most interesting post. I learned so much from your book, and interestingly quite a few books I have read recently have linked in some way to the war or Berlin or the cold war, even when this was not evident from the main content! Your picture says it all perfectly.

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    1. Thank you so much, Lindsay. I'm very glad I kept the pictures, despite the way they have curled up and discoloured over the years. In fact, I feel more attached to them now they have faded. I'll never forget that day at the border and how it affected everyone, even the loudest and most extrovert in the group. It was the absence of sound, I think, and the loneliness.
      It is so interesting how books often link to the subject of Berlin. It holds a fascination for people, I think, especially while the Cold War is still relatively recent history and in light of how spectacular the city is now after all it has suffered. And I think both WWII and the Cold War are poignant because no world wars will be conducted that way in the future. I also find it compelling that some East Berliners are nostalgic for their old way of life and would like it back. I would love to write a book about that subject one day.
      Thank you enormously, Lindsay, for all the interest you have shown and for all your help with promotion - and for your brilliant support during Not the Booker. What an exciting week! I was thrilled beyond measure at all those fantastic reviews. xxx

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  3. Beautifully written. My husband was stationed in Germany with the US Army starting in 1990 and he told me how depressing East Germany was. I've yet to go to Germany, though it's on my bucket list, and I can only imagine the profound emotions I'll experience when I visit.

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    1. Thank you so much, Melissa. I can imagine your husband must have some deeply-ingrained memories of that time. I was shocked by the way one half of the country became so grey, exhausted and subdued in comparison with the other, but also very struck by how badly the people in the west were affected by the presence of the Wall, as well as those suffering behind the Iron Curtain. It cast such a long and ghastly shadow.
      I'm sure that when you have the chance to go to Germany, it will deeply affect you and I would love to know about the emotions you experience. Thank you so much for commenting. xx

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  4. An interesting and well written post, Joanna. Thank you for sharing. Wishing you a lovely weekend.

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    1. Thank you, Nicola. I hope you have a lovely weekend too. xx

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  5. This is a fascinating and evocative post. The photos capture the atmosphere well. I can see how your experiences have fed into the threads of your book - I am part of the way through your book and your characters and description jump off the page. I'm learning a lot about things I had no knowledge of x

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    1. Thank you so much, Vikki, for your kind comment, and also for reading the book. That's so lovely to know. xxx

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  6. I so enjoyed Tying Down the Lion, Joanna - I couldn't put it down. I was even having a sneaky read in bed in the mornings when I should have been getting up! Definitely one I'll read again. I knew it was going to be special and it is.

    The photos are haunting xx

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    1. I'm so very thrilled, Teresa, that you enjoyed it. That is wonderful to know and thank you so much for telling me. It's also absolutely fantastic that you plan to re-read it too. I couldn't possibly hope for a lovelier response than that. I shall treasure your kind words. You've made my day! xxx

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    2. Thank you for writing it, Joanna - I felt I knew the Bishop family so well when I'd finished and I grew very fond of them all (even the car!) and there were times when I felt quite frightened for them, but then I'd be laughing at something Nell said. Lovely balance of light and shade xx

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    3. Oh and Joanna, I meant to say thank you for reminding me about Sunny Smiles - I remembered them, but couldn't remember what they were called until I read your book (I will leave you in peace now!) xx

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    4. Thank you so much, Teresa. I was always worried in case there was too much of the comic, or too little, so it is really helpful to know that the balance of light and shade did work. I'm ecstatic that the Bishops came alive for you - nothing could please me more. And I'm delighted to have reminded you about Sunny Smiles. I remember having to sell them door to door and being in despair about it because I was so shy about the knocking and asking and being glared at!

      I so appreciate your comments, Teresa. You truly have brightened the day for me and for the very grateful Bishops. xxx

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