Sunday, April 23, 2017

Berlin Part 1: Lawton Reflects On A City That Won’t Let Go (at least in his novels)

As I write this, I am deep in the French Alps with limited wi-fi connection, so my friend and fellow author John Lawton, has very kindly stepped into the breach with the first of his impressions of Berlin, a city brilliantly explored in the first of his Joe Wilderness series, AND THEN WE TAKE BERLIN. I'll be back in a fortnight with my take on the south of France, boxing marmots, and icicles...

John Lawton

Berlin does not pall. No idea why. So much else does. After umpteen visits it still fascinates.

I first went there almost by accident, and at that by an odd route, in 1989.

I was in Prague, for Channel 4 (UK TV) covering a visit by Harold Pinter who was there to see one of his plays, Mountain Language, performed at The Magic Lantern and to meet fellow playwright Vaclav Havel, who was unlucky enough to be stuck with the job of president of Czechoslovakia – Havel told me he wanted out as soon as possible … that didn’t happen for another thirteen years.

I thought I’d wrapped the shoot when visas and carnets arrived with instructions to film at the premiere of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in West Berlin – a film Harold had scripted. Visas, carnets but no airline tickets … but the visas seemed to cover us for the rapidly collapsing DDR (East Germany) as well as Berlin so I got the cameraman and myself on a train from Prague to East Berlin and crawled across Prussia (quite the most boring stretch of countryside imaginable, and unlikely ever to be in anyone’s ‘Great Railway Journeys’) via Dresden and into the Lichtenberger Station in East Berlin.

It was way past midnight.

Cabs aplenty, but no driver willing to take us to our hotel on the Kurfurstendamm

“We’re the wrong side of the fuckin’ wall,” the cameraman said, unhappy about the journey from the start.

“It’s OK. I speak the universal language.”

I did what I had done in many a city, I fanned out a hundred dollars in twenties and waved them. I have known directors more blunt than that, who simply yelled out “Bribes! Dollars! Bribes! Who do I have to fuck to get out of here?”

After a few minutes a driver approached and said he’d take us but there would be no guarantees we’d get to the other side.

“A lot has happened,” he said. “The rules don’t work any more.”

He was right.

He brought the cab to a halt in Friedrichstraße, in an eerily empty car-marshalling yard, just to the north of Checkpoint Charlie.

“There’s no one here,” he said, incredulous.

We drove on. Reached the second barrier manned by the Americans – or in this case, unmanned by the Americans. They too had gone home.

“Must be summat good on the telly,” the cameraman opined. “Juventus versus Nottingham Forest.”

At the Kempinski Hotel, we unloaded our sizeable kit and I gave the driver his hundred dollars. He just stared at it and I realised it was probably an utterly over-the-top sum. I hadn’t a clue what the exchange rate was.

“Keep it,” I said.

“I think you just paid off his mortgage,” said my miserable companion.

The next day the cameraman pulled a few strings. He had a mate in the British Army of Occupation – and he got us a car with a Ministry of Defence registration … and a willing driver.

We drove back to Checkpoint Charlie, now fully manned. Both sides noted the number plate but no one asked for so much as a glimpse of a passport. We were ‘Military’. So we roamed around East Berlin, breathed in the rarified air of ten thousand farting Trabants, shot a few rolls of ‘general views’ and went back to the West, equally unmolested by authority.

In the evening … we were supposed to film the premiere. It just didn’t work out that way. The quiet of day erupted into the riot of night.

We found our way to Potsdamerplatz, where kids with sledgehammers were knocking holes in the Wall (Der Mauer), and East German guards were futilely trying to stop them.

The top of the wall wasn’t flat, it was more like a sausage. All the same dozens, if not hundreds were standing on it, taunting the guards. We filmed for a few minutes, then the cameraman said, “I’m not missing this,” strapped the camera to his back and shinned up the hand-chipped footholds in the side of the wall. I had the tripod. You think directing is the tops? No such luck. Directors mostly just carry the tripod. I couldn’t climb the wall with a fekkin’ tripod on my back, but by now one of the holes in the wall was big enough to step through. I followed half a dozen students through the gap, only to meet armed guards shoving us back. The cameraman waved at me. I just glowered.

The party went on all night.

I got fed up after a couple of hours, left the cameraman up there and went back to the hotel.

The next day I pointed out that the wall just didn’t run through the middle of the city, it wrapped West Berlin completely – and I wanted shot of the wall in the middle of the countryside. Something real but against the grain of most newsreel shots of the Berlin Wall.

It wasn’t hard to find a spot on the north side of the city, at the top end of the French Sector.

Already, Berliners had been out with their sledgehammers, and there was gap between the concrete plates just big enough to squeeze through.

I stood in an open meadow in the DDR. No stink of Trabants. Not a human being in sight. The cameraman stuck the lens of the camera through the hole. I walked to the brow of the hill, and as I topped it three Stasi with sub-machine guns ran up the far slope towards me. I have never been the sporty type – all sport bores me – but my one accomplishment in shorts and plimsolls at school had been sprinting. I shot back towards the camera, Stasi in pursuit, knowing full well that this would probably end up in the company’s Christmas Party video, an annual festival of embarrassment most commonly featuring news readers caught picking their noses or reporters using the lens as a mirror while renewing lipstick unaware the bastard cameraman was recording it.

I got away. Not a shot fired. Well, I never thought they would.

The day after we came to leave Berlin. Tegel airport. No film of Harold Pinter and Margaret Atwood, plenty of GV’s to keep us in TV ‘wallpaper’ for weeks if not months, and a few minutes of me evading arrest that the cameraman refused to let me destroy.

Our gear was ... hefty. It was probably worth around £120,000, so we travelled with a sheaf of carnet papers for customs simply to avoid paying the earth in import duty every time we boarded a plane. It was de rigeur to get them stamped every time you entered or left a country.

But … no one had seen us enter West Berlin.

The West German Customs were baffled.

“How did you get here?”

“Through Checkpoint Charlie.”

“But there are no stamps.”

“They’d all gone home for the night.”


“Both sides. No Germans, no Russians, no Americans.”

I was not believed. These were young men. The Wall was a fixture. It had been there before they were born and for the whole of their short lives. That it had days, if not hours to live, had not occurred to them. It was as if I had told them mountains moved.

The cameraman said, “We’ll end up like that mythical BBC crew. The one that keeps a kit permanently at Heathrow ‘cos they ain’t got the carnets to bring it into London. No kit, no ‘Arold bloody Pinter. Boss’ll kill you.”

Reason or, more likely, my gift of the gab prevailed.

“You may be waiting for re-unification,” I told them. “Most Berliners reckon it’s already happened. Go down to Potsdamerplatz and see for yourself. You could practically push the wall over.”

It was years before I saw Berlin again. Berlin united has changed so much and I am constantly grateful for two days spent in the Cold War, lukewarm as it was by 1989 … without them I would be a writer bereft of a subject.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Ten Years Ago Tomorrow


I’m not sure there is much I can say about the state of our world today that hasn’t been said before. Which prompts me to wonder, who will be around to say it next time?

With all the crises surrounding us—real, unreal, and delusional—not the least of which jingoism justifying genocidal prerogatives of every stripe everywhere, it’s ever more difficult to find a comforting symbol of what the future may hold.

This was prepared a year ago. There is much to add.

For some, it may be that photo of Kid Rock, Sarah Palin, and Ted Nugent taken in the White House this week in front of the portrait of Hillary Clinton during the group’s four-hour visit, tour, and lunch with President Trump.  According to Mr. Nugent (as reported in The New York Times), “the president and his guests engaged in a wide-ranging conversation that Mr. Nugent said included the following topics: ‘health, fitness, food, rock ’n’ roll, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, secure borders, the history of the United States, guns, bullets, bows and arrows, North Korea, Russia’ and a half-dozen other issues.”

Bizarrely, both critics and supporters of the President may find comfort in knowing that the leader of the free world took four-hours away from pressing matters of state to host the trio. 

Actually, I just smiled and went back to reading Anna Karenina.  “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  And, yes, quoting a Russian novelist is purely coincidental.

Leo Tolstoy

All of which leads me back to wondering about the future. Not worrying, mind you, wondering.  We are plainly living in interesting times, and as a writer I get to escape to wherever I wish, whenever I want, metaphysically speaking of course.

And for this moment in time I’m returning to Monday, April 23, 2007. 

What a glorious day to be in Orlando.   No, not just for Mickey and Minnie, but Jon and Jennifer, my son and his wife, for on that day they welcomed into our world their son, and my first grandchild.

Now, ten years later, Azi exemplifies the sort of loving, gentle, thoughtful soul our world needs to get back on track.  May you flourish, my love, and all the rest of us along with you.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY--and welcome to double digits!

Love you.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Miss me but let me go

Sometimes something that is very sad is also very uplifting.

Last week, an 18-year-old South African woman, Ontlametse Phalatse, died in a Pretoria hospital.  Shortly before, she complained to the driver of the taxi she was in that she was having difficulty breathing, and collapsed on the floor.  She was rushed to a local clinic, then to a Pretoria hospital, where doctors could not save her.

Obviously, it is tragic that a young woman should die so young.

What is uplifting is that Ontlametse was the first black person to be diagnosed with a rare disease called progeria, which causes a person to age rapidly.  On initial diagnosis, Ontlametse was told that she may see her fourteenth birthday, but wouldn’t live much beyond that.  So, she outlived that prediction by four years.

 It is how she lived her life that had such a huge impact on people.  Not only did she accept that her life was going to be short, but she vowed to live it to the fullest.  She used her celebrity status to get politicians to pay attention to the facilities of the school she attended; she provided sanitary pads to all the girls in the school, many of whom could  not afford them; she became a motivational speaker, trying to encourage others who were suffering to take a positive view of the world; and she created a bucket list of things to do and people to meet.

 It almost seems that her mind and wisdom also outran her age.  She was wise beyond her years.

One item on her bucket list was to meet the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma.  She used the occasion to make him promise the he would ensure that his foundation would build her mother a house.  She also received an invitation to be a Very Important Person at his 75th birthday party.  She died just before that happened.

With President Zuma

Ontlametse in the dress she was going to wear to Zuma's birthday.  With her mother.
 One can only be moved at the courage of this young woman who was physically so different from all her school mates.  One can only imagine how difficult that was for her.  She once said “Beauty is not the appearance of someone but it is their personality and how they are on the inside as well as their heart. 

As one would expect, her funeral was a celebration of a remarkable life, with people from all walks of life paying her tribute.

For me, a Whatsapp message she sent to the principal of her high school sums up who she was:  Miss me a little and not too long‚ miss me but let me go.”

What a woman!  What an inspiration.


Murder Is Everywhere
Author Recognitions and Events


April 28-26
Malice Domestic
Hyatt Regency
Bethesda, Maryland
Panel: The British Empire
(FYI- Sujata and I will be on the same panel!!!)

May 31
Janet Rudolph Literary Salon:
"The History of Hot Places: Clashes between Colonialism and Local Cultures”
Joint appearance with Michael Cooper


Murder in Saint Germain, Aimée Leduc’s next investigation, comes out June 6, 2017.


Paper back of Rat Run published 28th March.


"The Olive Growers,” appears in BOUND BY MYSTERY, an anthology edited by Diane DiBiasi celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Poisoned Pen Press, out in March.


Dying to Live (Kubu #6) to be released in May in UK & South Africa and in October in USA

May 19-21    
Franschhoek Literary Festival (Michael).

May 20          
Panel :One Voice, Two Authors with Alex Latimer and Diane Awerbuck 11:30 - 12:30

May 21          
Panel: The Author as Chemist with Joanne Harris and Ekow Duker 11:30 - 12:30

May 19-21    
Crimefest in Bristol UK (Stanley)

14:40 - 15:30:   What Are You Hiding?: The Dark Side Of Human Nature 

12:30 - 13:20:  Panel: Power Corrupts: Who Can You Turn To?