Earlier this month some Polish workers called a strike rally – the first of its kind by migrant workers in the UK. Others – opposed to the action – took part in a mass blood donation. There are approximately 700,000 Poles living in the UK, and Polish is now the second most spoken language in England. Both events aimed to highlight the contribution of Poles to British society. Regardless of their perceived success or lack of it – the strike rally was poorly attended – or your views upon them, both events were evidence of a community finding its voice.

Anya Lipska [photo by Martyna Przybysz.]

Anya Lipska [photo by Martyna Przybysz]

And voice was the starting point for Angielski, in which each story offers a different take on the experience of Poles in London. The first story, Another Kind Of Mangoes out today on BBC Radio 4. Anya Lipska is best known for her series of crime novels featuring Janusz Kiszka – tough guy/fixer to the Polish community in East London, and young police detective, Natalie Kershaw. The latest, A Devil Under The Skin, was published in June this year.

Adam Hypki [photo by Jeremy Osborne.]

Adam Hypki [photo by Jeremy Osborne.]

Read by Adam Hypki, Anya’s story also features Kiszka, way back in 2006, lurking outside an East End cemetery. It’s a tale of an older generation of Polish immigrants, with dark roots in Poland during the Jaruzelski era.

A.M. Bakalar [photo by Marek Olszewski]

A.M. Bakalar [photo by Marek Olszewski]

The setting for Woman Of Your Dreams – read by Natasha Radski – is “a prestigious London hairdressing salon.” Actually, it’s Dorota’s living room in Hounslow, where Angelika sits in the chair having her highlights done and feeling dowdier by the minute as Dorota motormouths about beauty treatments and satellite Polish TV. The writer, A.M. Bakalar, is the first Polish woman to publish a novel in English (Madame Mephisto) since Poland joined the EU in 2004.

Agnieszka Dale and Natasha Radski [photo by Jeremy Osborne]

Agnieszka Dale and Natasha Radski [photo by Jeremy Osborne]

Born in Poland but now living in London, Agnieszka Dale is an emerging short story writer. Her tale – Fox Season, read by Anamaria Marinca – centres on a Polish family wrestling with identity. The tastes and smells of home remain, but now they co-exist the flavours of a multi-cultural city.

It’s too early to tell whether the likes of Agnieszka and Asia (Bakalar) are in the vanguard of something that evolves into a wider and fully-developed British-Polish written voice. Given the present volatility of our continent, I suspect this may be determined by history yet to be made. In the meantime, let us enjoy (as I hope you will) these three distinctive pieces of storytelling.

[photo by jeremy Osborne]

[photo by jeremy Osborne]

I’d like to thank Asia, Anya and Agi not only for their stories but for their help and insight when this project was in its earliest stages. (And additional thanks to Anya for introducing me to the fabulous Warsaw Village Band – who provide the soundtrack to these programmes.) Thanks also to Magda Raczyńska at the Polish Cultural Institute. I started this journey in considerable ignorance – I am, I hope, less so now.

[Angielski goes out on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays 28 August, 4 & 11 September 2015, and for 30 days thereafter on iPlayer.]

Posted in A Devil Under The Skin, A.M. Bakalar, Adam Hypki, Agnieszka Dale, Anamaria Marinca, Angielski, Another Kind Of Man, Anya Lipska, BBC, Fox Season, janusz Kiszka, Madame Mephisto, Magda Raczyńska, Marek Olszewski, Martyna Przybysz, Natasha Radski, Poland, Polish Cultural Institute, radio, Radio 4, short stories, storytelling, Warsaw Village Band, Wojciech Jaruzelski, Woman Of Your Dreams | Leave a comment

Wonderful, Creepy Copenhagen: the stories of Heidi Amsinck

For me, it began with the murder of a cat. And the murder of an old woman. And the cries of a ghostly baby coming from the panelled walls of a Copenhagen apartment. At the time we felt that “The Crying” – submitted for an early series of The Time Being – was perhaps too dark a story for a weekday afternoon, but we didn’t want to let go of the writer. So we aired another tale, “Detained”, in which a businesswoman has an epiphany of sorts at a snowbound airport. This was Heidi Amsinck’s radio debut, early in 2005.


Storytellers’ Union – Heidi and Tim McInnerny in studio. [photo by Jeremy Osborne]

Since then, we have commissioned and produced eight more of Heidi’s stories for radio – and “The Bird In The Cage”, the first story from a brand new series, Copenhagen Curios, airs tonight.

Heidi returned to Copenhagen – or rather the imagined, spooky Copenhagen that has become her trademark – for her second story, “Conning Mrs Vinterberg” (2007). Mrs Vinterberg is a seemingly frail old lady who lures an antique dealer to her apartment – with the promise of a Qing vase – and then drugs and smothers him with a cushion embroidered with the words Baltic Marine Conference 1957. 

I don’t know where the old lady thing comes from – you’d need to ask Heidi – but I do know that in the world of her stories the best thing to do if you meet a woman over 60 is run like blazes in the other direction. The von Trauen sisters (“Last Train To Helsingør”) capture and ‘farm’ people to work their estate; Mrs Hoffman kills the postman – as she has killed others before – to fertilise “The Climbing Rose”; and my favourite, Gudrun Holm, kills with her mushroom knife to protect the secret location of “The Chanterelles of Østvig” from big agriculture.

Are there any old ladies in Copenhagen Curios? You’ll have to listen to find out. What I can tell you is that, as the series title suggests, antiques feature prominently, and some pretty strange things happen.

[photo by Jeremy Osborne]

[photo by Jeremy Osborne]

The way Tim McInnerny brought the sinister Mrs Vinterberg to life all those years ago has long passed into Sweet Talk folklore. Here, as he did with Danish Noir in 2011, Tim reads all three tales with a mixture of perfect pacing, dark humour and more than a little menace.

Heidi has lived in England for more than twenty years now, which has freed her to ‘make things up’ about the city of her birth, and there are echoes of Tales Of The Unexpected in her work. As with the previous series Danish Noir and Copenhagen Confidential, the world of Curios  ‘is Copenhagen – but not as we know it’, and is the setting for three very assured pieces of storytelling.

Copenhagen Curios broadcasts 15, 22, 29 March 2015 on BBC Radio 4, Sundays, 7.45 pm and thereafter on iPlayer.




Posted in antiques, BBC, Conning Mrs Vinterberg, Copenhagen, Copenhagen Confidential, Copenhagen Curios, Danish Noir, Detained, Heidi Amsinck, Last Train To Helsingør, radio, Radio 4, short stories, storytelling, Sweet Talk, Tales Of The Unexpected, The Bird In The Cage, The Chanterelles of Østvig, The Crying, The Time Being, Tim McInnerny, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Not Till Tomorrow …

In ‘Energy For The Nation’ a few months ago, I implied that I’d spare you my thoughts about Ralph McTell. And at the time I meant it. But a recent FB thread changed my mind – sorry.

IMG_3565Not Till Tomorrow Ralph’s fifth album – was released in 1972 and for several years was part of the ‘wallpaper’ sound of my childhood. I can’t remember now whether both my sisters had copies or whether it was ‘passed down’, but I know they both listened to it. But it wasn’t just wallpaper. When no one was around to worry about me scratching the disc, I played it too. When I listen now, it’s hard to banish the idea that I’m somewhere between 10 and 12 and it’s a hot summer in the Thames Valley.

Having ignored the album for the best part of forty years, what made me suddenly return to it and – since it’s not on iTunes – order a CD? I’m not sure, but I think I had a loud thought about ‘the one about the tulips’.

Which is a sad and lovely piano song called “Sylvia”. Back in 1973 I had no concept of Sylvia Plath or Ariel or anything like. So I was left with a guy singing a song about a woman called Sylvia who was a) troubled and – because I was a romantic ten-year-old – beautiful and b) most likely dead. I probably heard it – wrongly – as an ‘if only you’d known me, I could have saved you’ lament.

Also misheard: I had no idea what “Zimmerman Blues” was on about because my ‘Bob phase’ – as yet unfinished – hadn’t started then.

In general, then as now, the more ‘English’, intimate songs spoke to me more than the more bluesy ‘American’ songs, though if you listen to “Birdman” you’ll know that, as well as being a good songwriter, Ralph McTell is a damn-fine geetar-player. “Nettle Wine” sounds – in a good way – like something that Brian Cant might have picked for a Camberwick Green for grown-ups. “Another Rain Has Fallen” is a lovely piece of English pastoral. “First Song”, I now realise, is one of my favourite love-songs ever. And “Barges”, even if it’s about the ‘wrong’ bit of Oxfordshire, is so nostalgic that I can smell the nettles and dock and cow parsley and get hay fever just listening to it.

And the album ends with  “Gypsy”, an epic song about the Roma. Even now, the 15- second guitar intro gives me goose-bumps.

For a better and more detailed account of how the album came into being, click here for Ralph McTell’s own website.

IMG_3564Ironically, I consigned Not Till Tomorrow to the past at precisely the moment when it would have chimed very well with my own life, taking solitary walks along the river and discovering Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and, inevitably, Sylvia Plath.

Which brings me back to ‘the one about the tulips’. Ralph, I can’t say whether you said it ‘for the many’ or ‘for the few’. But you said it for me, and now, in middle-age, I find you’re saying it for me again.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m sharing this.








Posted in Abingdon, Another Rain Has Fallen, Ariel, Barges, Birdman, Bob Dylan, Brian Cant, Camberwick Green, First Song, Gypsy, Nettle Wine, Not Till Tomorrow, Oxfordshire, Ralph McTell, Seamus Heaney, Sylvia, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Thames, Uncategorized, Zimmerman Blues | Leave a comment

Goodnight, Vienna

IMG_2447For most of us, Vienna is less of a place and more of a state of mind. It doesn’t offer up its secrets on a first or second date. Denied intimacy, we outsiders can only imagine. And our three writers in Goodnight, Vienna have fertile imaginations.

Leah, the little girl at the heart of Jo Baker‘s story, The Last Train, must say goodnight to Vienna literally, as her mother drags her through the streets to make the last Kindertransport out of the city. Some of you may have read Jo’s most recent novel, Longbourn, but if you haven’t, I recommend that you do. (I tend to steer clear of Jane Austen ‘reworkings’ – but this is a fine, honest and subversive novel in its own right.)

IMG_2402James Hopkin has spent so much time in Mitteleuropa over the years that he is – at the very least – on footsie-under-the-table terms with Vienna. In Jonke’s Schnitzel, the Narrenturm or ‘Tower Of Fools’, once a mental institution, has been reopened, its new inmates charged with learning grace. This is very much a radio piece: give yourself up to the rhythms of the piece, and the strange chanting of the names of Vienna’s 23 districts. As luck would have it, James’s earlier A Georgian Trilogy is being repeated on Radio 4 Extra from Christmas Eve onwards.


photo by Lisa Osborne

Last year, Louise Stern transported us to contemporary Mexico in Latido, and her forthcoming novel Ismael And His Sisters will return there. But here, in A Bird In Vienna, she takes us back to the 1930s tapping into the spirit if not the detail of her own grandmother’s past. This is a pared-down tale of wonder and self-discovery, in which a young deaf girl goes awol in the city instead of going to school.

So, we have three fine writers with three fine readers to match. Bryony Hannah inhabits the emotions of both children and adults superbly and with so much invention in The Last Train. While having lost none of his comic timing over years, Tim McInnerny also brings an edge, bordering on menace, to Jonke’s Schnitzel. Eleanor Bron gives us an austere and beautiful reading of A Bird In Vienna.

We were spoiled for choice for possible music for the series. While we nicked the title, I didn’t buy into the version of Vienna in the Maschwitz and Posford song (performed here by Jack Buchanan.) Ultravox was off-limits, too, not least because the temptation to pace the house during post-production yelling ‘This means nothing to me!’ would have been too strong and would have prompted my family to take drastic action. Strauss? The Second Viennese School? In the end – at the risk of sounding like Maureen Lipman in Educating Rita – it had to be Mahler. We’ve used snatches from the first two symphonies, arranged for piano four hands by his associate, Bruno Walter.

Special thanks to Sylvia Petter for helping me with pronunciations, and to Bianca Jasmina Rauch and her team of chanters (Lukas von Abegdeuden, Daria Lukić and Fran J. Nikolić) for Jonke’s Schnitzel.

That’s all for now. Until 2015, maybe …

Goodnight, Vienna will be broadcast on Sundays 21, 28 December 2014 and 4 January 2015 on BBC Radio 4.

Posted in A Bird In Vienna, A Georgian Trilogy, BBC, Bianca Jasmina Rauch, Bruno Walter, Bryony Hannah, deaf writing, Educating Rita, Eleanor Bron, Ismael And His Sisters, Jack Buchanan, James Hopkin, Jane Austen, Jo Baker, Jonke's Schnitzel, Kindertransport, Latido, Longbourn, Louise Stern, Mahler, Maschwitz and Posford, Maureen Lipman, Mexico, Mitteleuropa, Narrenturm, radio, Radio 4, Radio 4Extra, Riesenrad, Second Viennese School, short stories, storytelling, Sweet Talk, Sylvia Petter, The Last Train, Tim McInnerny, Ultravox, Uncategorized, Vienna | Leave a comment

In Love And War

In my view, any novel which opens at Croydon Aerodrome is off to a good start. In April 1937, Esmond Lowndes – looking out of a Dragon Rapide, with only the pilot for company – is waved or, rather, saluted off by his ferociously Mosleyite parents. Sent down in disgrace from Cambridge after an affair with a male student, he must redeem himself on a mission for the British Union of Fascists. His destination: Florence.

But this isn’t the beginning of just any novel – this is the beginning of Alex Preston‘s In Love And War.

Alex Preston [photo © Katie Hall]

Alex Preston [photo © Katie Hall]

Esmond steps into the rarefied atmosphere of the British Institute and is soon embraced by the expat community: a curious mix of aesthetes, retired colonels, the former mistress of a king and a priest who is rumoured to be not as he seems. But their version of Florence – in which there will always be a villa or a corner of an olive grove that is forever England – is being cut away from under them. For all the beauty of the city’s architecture and art and the beauty of its people, Esmond sees, even in those early, heady days, that there is brutality, too.

IMG_3369At Mosley’s behest and with the personal backing of Mussolini, Esmond’s task is to set up Radio Firenze, a Fascist, English-language wireless programme broadcasting, mostly, ‘cultural’ propaganda. But is Esmond really a Fascist? – he seems vague on this point – and what kind of Fascist is he? These days, we use the term mostly pejoratively. But In Love And War sheds light on some of the nuances of opinion within the movement. Some were once seduced by Irredentist poetry and stay true to a vision of order emerging out of the cataclysm of the First World War. Others, in Britain, see Mussolini as a busted flush and believe Nazism is now the only game in town. And then there is the Florentine Blackshirt leader, Mario Carità, for whom Fascism is what he sees on the streets: violence and blood, most of it instigated by him.


On screen is “La Toschina” – Tosca Bucarelli, who features in the novel – talking in Liliana Cavani’s 1965 documentary, ‘La Donna Della Resistenza’. You’ll get more out of the film if you speak Italian – I don’t – but the intensely-captured faces of these brave women tell a story, too.

But while Florentine-style Fascism is particularly brutal, not everyone in Florence is Fascist. As Europe sinks into war, Esmond finds himself drawn more and more into the world of the Resistance, whose activities progress from the helping of refugees to espionage and – after German tanks appear on the streets – to full-blown violence. Many of the partisans are Communists. And many of them are women, principal among them, to Esmond, “the admirable stroke terrifying Ada Luizzi”. Rather than to go into further detail here, better to click on this link to hear Alex talk about his book in more depth and with greater eloquence.

What we have is a historical novel, an adventure yarn, a Bildungsroman and a love story. Ultimately, it is the story of Esmond and Ada, but with a large and fascinating supporting cast. And because of all this – while I absolutely loved immersing myself in the world of In Love And War – I did find it a ‘mare to abridge.

But serving redundancy notices to 70,000 words is the easy bit. In studio, reader Carl Prekopp, producer Rosalynd Ward and sound guru Lucinda Mason Brown have collaborated to make In Love And War a compelling listen. Carl has characterised a varied cast with great colour and delivered an impressive all-round piece of storytelling. And as a radio man himself, I think Esmond would approve of the production values.

Happy listening …

In Love And War by Alex Preston is Book At Bedtime on BBC Radio 4 from 24 November to 5 December (weekdays, 10.45 p.m., GMT)



IMG_0072I hope you’ll forgive a personal note. The novel ends with an epilogue in which Esmond’s younger brother Rudyard arrives in Florence with the 8th Army in August 1944. The Italian Campaign was the major, probably defining part of my father’s war, and he would have entered Florence in much the same fashion. Unsurprisingly, I’ve thought about him a lot while working on this production.


Posted in "La Toschina", abridgment, Ada Luizzi, Alex Preston, anti-Semitism, BBC, Benito Mussolini, Bildungsroman, Book at Bedtime, British Institute, British Union Of Fascists, Croydon Aerodrome, Dragon Rapide, Esmond Lowndes, Fascism, Florence, In Love And War, Italian Resistance, Katie Hall, La Donna Della Resistenza, Liliana Cavani, Lucinda Mason brown, Mario Carità, Nazism, Oswald Mosley, Propaganda, radio, Radio 4, Radio Firenze, Rosalynd Ward, storytelling, Sweet Talk, Tosca Bucarelli, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Speed Merchants: Short Rides In Fast Machines

Perhaps it was a form of mid-life crisis, but a while ago – conscious of the slowing of my own body – I began to think about speed.

IMG_3355It must be many generations since anyone felt the world around them was decelerating. Global communication is virtually instantaneous. Given an empty road or track (rare, admittedly) our cars and trains are faster than ever. And as every world-record on the track confirms, human beings are still getting faster. Even a child in a buggy – propelled at speed by a lycra-clad parent on Tooting Common – can now be a fast machine.

For a long time, our new series of stories Short Rides In Fast Machines was in development as ‘Speed Merchants’, which probably tells you all you need to know. Later, after listening to John Adams‘ exhilarating piece ‘Short Ride In A Fast Machine’, we borrowed a better title which also gave focus to the writer’s brief.

So what have our three speed merchants come up with?

Without giving too much away, the title of Adam Marek‘s story, The Bullet Racers, isn’t a metaphor. A reporter – voiced expertly by ‘our own correspondent’ Ben Crowe – arrives to investigate an unusual annual event held in the sleepy village of Thaxted-cum-Shyne, and gets more than he bargained for. Earlier this year, we were lucky enough to record some of Adam’s published work for Radio 4Extra. His stories are like controlled explosions, the reaction caused by slapping together in equal parts the everyday and the absurd or strange. The Bullet Racers is no different in this respect, and every bit as wonderful.

The internet is the fast machine in “The Fall Of Paris” – in some ways a cautionary tale about instant and improbable global fame. The narrator in this brilliant story by Toby Litt is less than sympathetic, which sets particular challenges for the actor reading it. Make him warmer, make him ‘nicer’, and you lose the black humour and sadness and much of the point of the story. Make him too cold, and it’s possible the listener will simply switch off. But Julian Rhind-Tutt captures the nuances perfectly, and the narrator, for all of the emotional ‘want’ about him, remains all-too-human.

Stephen Hogan during the recording of 'About Time'. [photo by Tania Hershman]

Stephen Hogan during the recording of ‘About Time’. [photo by Tania Hershman]

And time flies at ever-more alarming speed. I can’t believe it’s ten years since I read a submission by a creative writing student at Bath Spa – for an early series of The Time Being – and was temporarily blinded by the dazzle of The White Road. Since then Tania Hershman has become a doyenne of and evangelist for the short story. We’ve collaborated a number of times on radio over the years, including Flash! – a selection of Tania’s short, short work (which featured My Mother Was An Upright Piano). Some of you may recall that I spilled coffee over Tania in Vienna not so long ago, but thankfully, she didn’t bear a grudge and instead delivered About Time, a tale about the fastest vehicle of all: the time machine. Stephen Hogan – as the struggling writer whose research goes off at a very strange tangent – narrates and brings out all the warmth and wit of Tania’s story.

IMG_3359The recordings feature musical snatches from Brooklyn rockers Heliotropes and, principally, from John Adams, which is only as it should be. I hope you can steal 15 minutes from your turbo-charged lives to give each of these short rides a listen.


Short Rides In Fast Machines will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays 21, 28 November and 5 December 2014. 3.45 pm (GMT) and thereafter on BBC iPlayer.

Posted in "The Fall Of Paris", About Time, Adam Marek, BBC, Ben Crowe, flash fiction, Flash!, Heliotropes, John Adams, Julian Rhind-Tutt, My Mother Was An Upright Piano, radio, Radio 4, Radio 4Extra, Short Ride In A Fast Machine, Short Rides In Fast Machines, short stories, Stephen Hogan, storytelling, Sweet Talk, Tania Hershman, The Bullet Racers, The Time Being, The White Road, Toby Litt, Tooting Common, Uncategorized, Vienna | Leave a comment

The Officer At The Bus Stop: Karlshorst 1989

We watch the fighting – close-quarters, house to house – from the safety of the top of the street. Someone makes a crouching dash across the road protected by covering fire from a comrade in a doorway. But this isn’t Stalingrad. The soldiers are small boys, the machine-guns are plastic, and the buildings of Karlshorst are undamaged by bullet or shellfire. It’s a misty, November, Sunday afternoon: play time.


On Thursday evening we arrive in Berlin. Unaware that we’ve landed in the middle of a seismic global event, we check in at the Pension Nürnberger Eck and go to bed. Things become clearer the next morning – Friday, later declared the Day Of German Unity – though even then we are slow on the uptake. We are children of the Cold War who simply don’t believe what’s happening. But then we see people standing on the Wall by the Brandenburg Gate; see lines of East Berliners queuing for welcome money at the banks; watch Trabants and Wartburgs crawl slowly through the checkpoints to heroes’ greetings. The Kurfürstendamm that night is one very long street party. Dance music thumps out in some places. A pair of old Berliners – gap-toothed and Schnapps-soaked – dance and sing to a hurdy-gurdy.

Saturday – 11 November, Armistice Day, St Martin’s Day – is calmer. We try to cross into East Berlin at Friedrichstraße. There’s a semblance of order at the S-Bahn station – and we are suitably intimidated by Volkspolizei patrolling the gantry with machine-guns – but at ground level it’s chaos. A crush of people forces itself from East to West, with a similar crush going the other way. Without orders to respond to the situation, the guards are simply brushed aside. At which point, our Cold War instincts kick in. It’s one thing to arrive in the East unchecked, and without Ostmarks (though Deutschmarks would take us a long way). But to try to return to the West later that day might be another matter. Would they let us out? We turn back.


Potsdamer Platz, 12.11.89. In West Berlin for the first time in 28 years [photo by Lisa Osborne]

Potsdamer Platz, 12.11.89. In West Berlin for the first time in 28 years [photo by Lisa Osborne]

So back to Sunday. In the morning we go to Potsdamer Platz, where another part of the Wall is breached. The Mayors of the two Berlins meet symbolically in the gap, and thereafter more people from the East, many carrying flowers, walk into the West to have Sunday lunch with family or friends for the first time in 28 years.

We decide to have another go at visiting East Berlin. We try Checkpoint Charlie this time and here, it seems, normal service has been resumed. We queue for a while. In the line, by way of conversation, a man from Sri Lanka berates us for Britain’s colonial past. A officer of the Grenzpolizei looks at our passports, looks at us over his glasses. Then he pauses – which makes me want to confess to crimes I haven’t committed. We are directed first to a kiosk – to change a prescribed amount of money into Ostmarks – and then into a deserted street. It seems like a time-portal taking us back to 1945, but we are now in the East.

Unter den Linden is also a time-portal, but with the controls set for the heart of 1953 or thereabouts. Whether it’s because of acid rain or absorbing the metallic fumes of too many two-stroke engines, the lindens themselves are in bad shape. This was the grand imperial thoroughfare of Bismarck’s time and before, but it’s very quiet. Alexanderplatz is even quieter. Perhaps every Sunday in the capital of the GDR is like this. Or maybe it’s because so many of its citizens are visiting the West.

Karlshorst is home to the Soviet ‘Berlin Brigade’ – you might loosely describe it as the “Russian quarter”. We’re not sure what we expect to find but think it might be an interesting place to wander. Which brings us back to the boys with their toy machine guns.

But as the light fades we hear singing. A procession of children with lanterns, a few adults at the front, the rest bringing up the rear. We follow from across the road until the line of light stops outside a church and everyone files in. Silhouetted under the arch, a man is about to close the door but, seeing us watching, he stops. A hand reaches out to us from the light, beckoning. We hesitate. He beckons again. We make our way into the church.

St. Marienkirche, Karlshorst, 12.11.89. [photo by Lisa Osborne]

St. Marienkirche, Karlshorst, 12.11.89. [photo by Lisa Osborne]

No longer in silhouette, a portly man in a sober suit welcomes us. He explains that the procession is for the Feast of St. Martin. They have already walked and sung their way to the Lutheran church for a short gathering and have now – with a few Lutherans in tow – returned here, to the Roman Catholic church.

St Martin of Tours: friend to the child, friend to the poor man. The most common story about him involves his encounter with a beggar by the roadside. He takes his fine cloak, slices it in two with his sword and hands one half to the beggar. At the front, the priest takes the tale as his starting point. My future wife, who has good German, whispers translations in my ear.

“Many of you will have visited West Berlin in the last few days,” the priest says. “You will have been excited by the lights, all the goods in the shops, received your welcome-money. Some might see our friends in West Berlin in the role of St. Martin, with ourselves in the role of the beggar. But do we see ourselves this way?”

It’s little more than a murmur, but the answer is unanimous – an indignant, defiant “No.”

“Of course not,” the priest continues. “There are many, so many, people less fortunate than ourselves. Can anyone think of somewhere where people are less fortunate than us?”

A pause. A small boy shouts out “Romanien!” A couple of people snort. Most of the adults smile indulgently.

On leaving, the portly man hands out pastries. We hold back, feeling we are not part of this, but he insists we take one. The atmosphere is gentle, friendly, communal.

It’s properly dark and much colder when we step back outside, and the mist which has never entirely lifted today is getting thicker. As we head back towards the S-Bahn we pass a Soviet officer – I don’t know of what rank, probably a lieutenant or a captain – standing on his own at the bus stop. He looks lost in his own thoughts. I wonder, this weekend of all weekends, what he’s thinking.

Back in the centre of the divided city it’s even quieter then when we first arrived. We pass the ruin of the Synagogue on Oranienburger Straße and in the darkness it gives us the shivers.  Back on Unter den Linden there’s a glow in the distance, as if part of the city is on fire. But it’s only the lights of West Berlin. By evening we are more than ready to return to its less alien, walled enclosure.

* * *

IMG_0120I’ve mentioned this before in posts (c.f. Building The WallAngels And Acrophobia, Pt. 1.) but we went back to Berlin in May 1990. The Wall was still neatly white-washed on the Eastern side, but whole swathes on the West were simply no longer there. The mines had been removed from the death-strip, presumably, since rabbits were breeding happily without blowing up.

The Synagogue in Oranienburger Straße, May 1990. [photo by Lisa Osborne]

The Synagogue in Oranienburger Straße, May 1990. [photo by Lisa Osborne]

Restoration work had begun on the Synagogue in Oranienburger Straße. Officially, the GDR was still intact at this, without formal plans to dissolve, but it was clear that it was only a matter of time.

And even in those strange, strange days of November 1989, you didn’t need to be Nostradamus or Eric Hobsbawm to work out that the unification of Germany was most likely inevitable. But even now I still find the speed of the change that coursed through Europe breath-taking. Czechoslovakia followed a similar course within weeks. The little boy in church was all too prescient – a bloody civil war in Romania and Ceaușescu’s bullet-ridden corpse on TV on Christmas Day. By October 1990 Germany was a single state. Just over a year later, the Soviet Union would itself unravel.

And I still wonder what the officer at the bus stop was thinking …

Posted in 'Berlin Brigade', Alexanderplatz, Angels And Acrophobia, Berlin, Berlin Wall, Ceaușescu, Checkpoint Charlie, Cold War, Czechoslovakia, Deutschmarks, Eric Hobsbawm, Feast of St. Martin, Friedrichstraße, GDR, Karlshorst, Kurfürstendamm, Neue Synagogue, Nostradamus, Oranienburger Straße, Ostmarks, Pension Nürnberger Eck, Potsdamer Platz, Romania, St Martin of Tours, Uncategorized, Unter den Linden, Volkspolizei | Leave a comment

The Restoration Of Otto Laird

“Otto was a great fan of concrete. He considered it to be among the most beautiful of all materials, and he waged a constant battle against those who believed otherwise.”
 These lines are taken from a novel about a tower block: not a neglected masterpiece of Soviet socialist realism but the debut novel by Nigel Packer, The Restoration Of Otto Laird.
IMG_3320For the last 25 years, elderly architect Otto Laird has lived a secluded life with Anika – his sophisticated, protective second wife – in the Swiss Alps. In his heyday he was regarded as a visionary, an optimistic driving force in a time of post-war reconstruction. But times change. Few people now share Otto’s love of concrete. His landmark building in South London – Marlowe House, a 60s residential tower block – is now scheduled for demolition. As part of a campaign to save it from the wrecking ball, Otto flies to London to make a TV documentary.
But in so doing, Otto returns to everything that made him flee to Switzerland in the first place. It’s the first time he’s set foot in London since his first wife died.
This is also a novel about a marriage. Otto – the brilliant refugee from Vienna who emerged blinking from a cellar in Antwerp not only with a vision of the future but with an old-world European sense of civilisation intact. And Cynthia – the Home Counties beatnik, architect and designer in her own right, with a passion for the natural world. With a personal soundtrack that includes Schubert, Mahler and Sonny Rollins in his head – Otto retraces his personal A to Z of the city and is overwhelmed by memory, much of it painful, as he finds Cynthia everywhere.
The book is shot through with the power of memory and place and the symbiosis between them. We all carry with us our personal, psychic maps of the places we’ve lived in. I’ve lived in London for about 30 years now – so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised – but all the same I was struck by how many of Otto’s ‘places’ were also significant to me, or my wife, or both of us. To name but a few: the Oval, RIBA (a favourite lunching spot for Sweet Talkers until they moved the restaurant out of the spacious Florence Hall), the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, the hospital in Queen’s Square and, further afield, the absurdly beautiful city of Nafplio in the Pelopponese.
IMG_3321Given that affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges facing London if it is to remain a city actually populated by its citizens, and thinking also of the brave and resilient young women of the Focus E15 Group, this seems to me a very timely book, too.
So why the pictures of blackberries? You’ll have to listen to Book At Bedtime and/or read the novel to find out.
The Restoration Of Otto Laird by Nigel Packer – read by Allan Corduner and produced by Rosalynd Ward for Sweet Talk Productions – starts on Monday 27 October at 10.45 pm.
Posted in Allan Corduner, BBC, Book at Bedtime, Everyman Cinema, Focus E15, London, Mahler, Nafplio, Nigel Packer, radio, Radio 4, RIBA, Rosalynd Ward, Schubert, Sonny Rollins, storytelling, Sweet Talk, the Oval, The Restoration Of Otto Laird | Tagged | Leave a comment

Energy For The Nation

For the last few weeks I’ve been abridging our next Book At Bedtime. There’ll be more details nearer to broadcast but for now, let me tell you that it’s called The Restoration Of Otto Laird, it’s written by Nigel Packer and you can find memory and place on every page like the letters in a stick of rock. Oh, and it made me cry once or twice.

So I’ve been on my bum a lot, staring at a screen, and the recent holiday already seems aeons ago. But I’m still feeling the benefit of all that sun and fresh air, and I haven’t yet forgotten that I enjoy walks (as opposed to runs) as an end in themselves.

Here’s one I took, following a meadow-path downriver:

A rowing eight disappears under the town bridge. It must be years since anyone used the fuel-pumps at the old boat station. I leave behind the cricket and rugby fields, the stunted birch trees and the moored pleasure-boats to reach an open meadow.

Things get more rural (and less Jerome K Jerome) in the next field. Pigs are grazing. The cooling towers of Didcot Power Station come into view. I skirt the barley fields on ploughed up footpaths, pass the 15th century Manor House and cross the river at Culham Lock.

Here a meadow-path leads to the remains of a wartime pill-box, to a small weir and then into the next village. Here I stop to rest in All Saints’ churchyard. It’s peaceful and pretty and so English that the old maids beloved of George Orwell and John Major would lycra up and nick bikes from the Olympic team’s Marginal Gains Unit just to cycle faster to Holy Communion. John Major is still with us, of course, but another former prime minister, Herbert Asquith, rests in this churchyard, as does Eric Arthur Blair himself.

Except this isn’t a walk we took. We were in Barcelona first and then went up into the Pyrenees. I haven’t made the short and gentle journey from Abingdon to Sutton Courtenay for nearly thirty years. Some things have changed, probably, and others I’ve misremembered.


See credit at foot of post.

Recently they started blowing up Didcot Power Station. It was a blow to my sense of myself and to begin with made me sad. For Buck Mulligan in Ulysses, it was the Irish Sea; for me, Didcot’s cooling towers were the ‘grey sweet mother’. Only recently did I learn that the power station was a work in progress, still under construction in the 60s and early 70s, and wasn’t the fixed point in a changing world I thought it to be as a child. Visiting home as an undergraduate, the first glimpse from the train window was always special. And the bus from the railway station used to pass close up to the towers, past signs with the slogan ENERGY FOR THE NATION. Even in the early 80s this seemed archaic, a relic of the dying post-war consensus. But enough of that.

IMG_2005The power station aside, it’s a walk that both Orwell and George Bowling – his mouthpiece in Coming Up For Air – might have related to. Prompted by the sight of primroses on a road side,  suburban insurance salesman George Bowling goes ‘missing’ for a few days, escaping to his childhood home, the sleepy Oxfordshire town of Lower Binfield: “… it wasn’t that I wanted to watch my navel. I only wanted to get my nerve back before the bad times begin.”

It’s spring, 1939. Unsurprisingly, Lower Binfield has become a very different place over the last twenty years, and the ‘golden country’ of memory is both tarnished and built-over. George’s last nostalgic reveries are atomised when an RAF bomber on manoeuvres accidentally drops part of its payload on the town.

As a student, I found Coming Up For Air the best of Orwell’s ‘conventional’ novels. It seems much more a period piece now, and while the raps on bombs and rubber-truncheons make for curious reading as a dry run for 1984, it’s all a bit beaten to death with, well, a rubber-truncheon.

For a long time I thought that the gentle walk along my personal stretch of the Thames, from Abingdon to Sutton Courtenay, might be my ‘Lower Binfield’ – the place I might retreat to in preparation for the bad times. There was a time when I imagined retreating there, Bowling-style, to make sense of things if the Cold War was about to turn hot. I’m not sure now. Mountains have enormous appeal -although I still have to press myself against the rocks sometimes to avoid confronting the drop on even the most walker-friendly routes (cf. Angels And Acrophobia, Part Two.) But at least the experience is uncomplicated.

I’ve made several false starts at a post based loosely along these lines over the last eighteen months and no doubt this is all to the good. If I’d written it last year it would surely have been underscored with grief (the death of my father) and/or mid-life gloom or rage (turning fifty). You’ve been reprieved from, among other things, my Proustian encounters with cow-parsley and stinging nettles, and the rediscovery of an album by Ralph McTell. Best of all, you’ve been spared my thoughts on Orwell’s essay Poetry And The Microphone.

IMG_2124I hope, like Mr Bowling, to remember to notice the primroses next spring. As for Didcot Power Station – sentimental attachment to one side – it was no longer useful, having stopped belching and farting goodness-knows-what into the atmosphere to power the grid – sand God knows it wasn’t beautiful. Removing it with a controlled explosion, when there are so many lethal explosions, controlled and uncontrolled, in the big bad world, really is neither here nor there.

But in its widest sense, I do think energy for the nation could be a good idea.


photo credit: <a href=””>Daveybot</a&gt; via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;




Posted in 1984, Abingdon, abridgment, All Saints' Sutton Courtenay, Angels And Acrophobia, Barcelona, BBC, Book at Bedtime, Buck Mulligan, Cold War, Coming Up For Air, Culham Lock, Didcot Power Station, Eric Arthur Blair, George Bowling, George Orwell, Herbert Asquith, Jerome K Jerome, John Major, Lower Binfield, mid life crisis, Nigel Packer, Poetry And The Microphone, Pyrenees, radio, Radio 4, Ralph McTell, Sutton Courtenay, Thames, The Restoration Of Otto Laird, Ulysses, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Run Geezer Run

There’s a first time for everything, and this week I found myself in a ‘running shop’.

On the wall there are shoes of many brands and colours. They are classified: racing, neutral and stability.  I definitely don’t need ‘racing’. The assistant comes over to ask if she can help. I explain that on and off – with plenty of off – I’ve been running/jogging/staggering for about two years. My bog-standard trainers are wearing down and I wonder what might be best for me.

I’m as old and fat as I look, I say.

She smiles, a tad uncertain. OK, she says. She’s a tall girl, leggy. I imagine her kicking on at the bell to shred a quality 1500m field. She wants to assess my feet. She finds me a standard pair of running shoes and leads me to the treadmill.

I’ve never been on a treadmill before and it shows.  She gradually increases the speed and encourages me gently to stay as close to the front as possible. I don’t fall off, thankfully, and walking/jogging becomes a little easier. Trouble is, it’s neither my walk nor my jog – it’s more of an unsteady trot, a prance even, like a Lipizzaner on the day they spiked the water trough with schnapps. When she turns up the speed again I become seriously out of kilter and have to stop.

She looks thoughtful. The treadmill having failed to bring forth the secrets of my feet, she asks me to walk up and down the shop while she squats down and studies my arches. She concludes that my right foot has a tendency to roll inwards and fetches an appropriate range of shoes. As I’m sitting on the bench, lacing and unlacing, she asks what prompted me to take up running. Her tone is friendly, not incredulous.

Oh you know, I say. Fatness. Lack of fitness. Age. A growing sense of mortality …

She gives me that uncertain smile again. I don’t want her to feel uncomfortable so I talk instead about Couch To 5K. And I confide to her that – while I feel better in body and soul for doing it – I don’t actually like running.

After trying on several, I find the pair which gives the best combination of toe-comfort and support for my  flat arches. I wonder if I can carry off lemon-yellow feet.

IMG_3222The next day, I try them out on Tooting Common. Like many joggers I listen to music while I’m on the move and have a ‘running playlist’. Mostly this features very loud guitars to drown out the sound of my breathing, which always makes me feel twice as tired when I hear it. But there are other things, too. The theme from The Killing works well on a cold and foggy morning. Songs from Run Lola Run – where Franka Potente intones her wish to be, among other things, a hunter or forest or starship – used to make me run too fast. (If you’ve seen the film you’ll know that Lola always runs flat out.) Now, I imagine myself as part of the film: a slow, out-of-breath jogger who she burns up in a blur of red hair as she passes on each of her almost-identical runs.

I haven’t been running much lately, so it’s a short route. ‘Skyfall’ comes on as I start the final stretch. The orchestra is epic. Adele’s London l’s are comforting. I don’t feel we’re standing tall and facing it all together, but I could picture her sitting on the bench where I finish, shouting ‘Go on, my son!’ to encourage me. My lungs are working hard now but there’s a little left in my legs. I manage the briefest parody of a sprint finish.

It’s a small start. And I still don’t like running. But at least the shoes are good …

Posted in Adele, Berlin, Couch to 5K, Franka Potente, Lipizzaner, Run Lola Run, running, running shoes, Skyfall, The Killing, Tooting Common, Uncategorized | Leave a comment