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Memoir set in Berlin – Plus we chat to the author…
22nd October 2015
1989 The Berlin Wall – My Part in its Downfall by Peter Millar, memoir set in Berlin and the East Bloc (A fascinating and clear explanation)
This excellent autobiography of Peter Millar’s life as a reporter takes the reader through the years before, during and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in a clear, easy to read manner.
Although this book is primarily about East / West Berlin, it includes what was going on in the rest of the Eastern bloc before the Wall came down. In doing so Peter takes us through his early days working for Reuters at Fleet Street, before moving to East Berlin as their correspondent. There he meets many people, mostly at his local bar, who give him the story of the building of the Wall, and the appalling outcomes. He mentions, almost in passing, the surveillance and bugging of his flat – although this becomes much more scary when, many years later, he actually gets to read his Stasi file.
It is not all horror and misery though, we are given amusing anecdotes about the reality of Germans versus the British stereotype of them. There are some laugh out loud moments when the author returns to the UK and works for the Daily Telegraph foreign desk where life was not as exciting as he had imagined it would be, despite the revelation that they had “a special way of using paperclips”.
There are references to the marital strain that being a frequently travelling reporter brings, including an instance of attempting to put snow chains on their stuck in the mud vehicle in the -10C Soviet Union – and the annoyance that just when you need a surveillance team to be following you, there isn’t one. I would have been interested to hear more detail of what it was like for his wife living in East Germany, but this is very much Peter’s story and not seen from the perspective of his wife.
The story moves between Germany, Poland and the birth of the Solidarity Trades Union, to the Soviet Union plus many other countries in the communist bloc, giving the full picture of the lead up to the fall of the Wall and “The Domino Effect” the Wall’s coming down had.
For the visitor to Berlin there are lots of references to places and monuments, including the bar the author frequented which is, according to the book, still there, “substantially unchanged, and remains the best bar in Berlin.”
At a first glance into the book my heart sank at the print style used, but this was soon forgotten when I started reading. There are some great photos included. Any German words/phrases used are immediately translated afterwards (thank you!).
I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in how the Wall came to fall, and about the events going on around that time.
Emma for the TripFiction Team
It was great to catch up with Peter, who talks to us about the vagaries of accent and the dialect of Berlin … you can’t rely on people speaking English if you are a travel writer!
One thing a good travel writer should have – along with open eyes and a stout pair of shoes – is an ear for language. It is too easily assumed that ‘everybody speaks English’. They don’t. You can get by on it but never beneath the skin.
It is not just the language itself that defines a place and a people: local accents and dialect can be every bit as important. And every bit as confusing. I have a German friend who speaks fluent English who was nonplussed when he ordered a beer in a Glasgow pub and was asked, “Would that be a wee heavy?”
Similarly I point out that the football team I support, Charlton Athletic, has no ’t’s’ in it, when pronounced in the local South London patois as Charl’n Affleick”.
I encountered big problems like this when I first moved to Berlin way back in 1981. My German was decent but primarily what I had been taught at school: ’proper’ German. I had no idea Berlin had its own dialect as idiosyncratic as that of Sarf Lunnun. Having spent hours at school mastering the word for “I’ (ich) as neither Ick nor Ish but something in between, I was amused to find Berliners only ever said Ick, or occasionally Icke.
Also the letter ‘g’ barely existed, becoming instead a ‘j’ (by which I mean a ‘y’ in English). Somebody from out in the suburbs, which was of course about as far away as East Berliners ever got, was referred to as living `ganz weit draussen’ (a long way out). But what made it such a Berlin expression was that people only used the initials and changed the ‘g’ to a ‘j’, which meant it was pronounced not as ‘geh’ but as ‘yacht’: if you were from out of town you lived ‘yacht-weh-deh). Got it? It took me a while.
Eventually I became fluent, to the extent of falling apart when a large Bavarian came into a West Berlin bar and announced he fancied a beer as ‘I mog a Bier’, which would have been Ich möchte ein Bier in the German I learnt at school, and as likely as not Icke hätte jern a Bierchen, in the mouth of a Berliner.
Becoming the capital city again has, I fear, diluted the Berlin accent, with an influx of Germans from other parts of the country, but its still there: lurking just below the surface. Scratch it and see.
A big thank you to Peter for sharing his thoughts!
If you are a true Berlinophile (I probably made that word up) then do enjoy the stave of letters, each about a Berlin district, that pop up weekly from the good people at Pigeonhole (or if you prefer books set in, and about Berlin, just click here)