Author Archives: Paul Scraton

Memories of a city: The afterlife of the Berlin Wall

This morning, as I rode the U-Bahn south with my daughter on her way to school, we passed beneath the old dividing line in the city at Bernauer Straße almost at the moment the news headline flashed up on the television screens in the train carriage. As of today, the Berlin Wall has been history for more days than it ever existed; a site of memory longer than it was a dividing line written in concrete and defended by guards with guns. For 28 years, two months and 27 days it surrounded West Berlin and split the city in two; from that August day when barbed wire was rolled out along city streets to that November night when Berliners danced in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate. The debate about what should be done with this symbol of a divided Germany began the very next morning.

Most of it was quickly removed. Memorials were erected to those who died attempting to cross the border and to other momentous events during those 28 years. The route of the Wall became the Mauerweg or Berlin Wall Trail, a waymarked hiking and cycling route running for 160 kilometres through the very heart of the city and out around the edge. Parts of the former security strip became parks and other public spaces. Some sections were gradually filled in as the city once more grew together. Yet other sections were returned to the forest, no longer offering any barrier to the deer and wild boar who cross the once-more invisible dividing line at will. In the past few years wolves have been spotted within Berlin’s city limits, for the first time in two centuries.

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Allowing the walls to talk, Erfurt

On the top floor of the exhibition, arrows guided visitors from the lift and through a heavy metal door. To the right: the guard’s office, still fitted with a small desk, a telephone and a seat. To the left: a corridor, floor polished by the footsteps of countless guards, remand prisoners, democracy protestors and today, visitors to the exhibition. It had been left as was. Exposed pipes and padded cell doors. Bars on the windows. Strip lights and a sink. The cell doors were open, but otherwise this was the view the guards would have had from their command post. Weak winter light shined in from the opposite end of the hall.

From the founding of the German Democratic Republic in 1949 to the dramatic events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall just over forty years later, the remand prison of the Ministry of State Security (Stasi) stood on Andreasstraße in Erfurt, within sight of the main cathedral square and the gingerbread half-timbered houses of the picturesque Old Town. Over those years some five thousand people were held there, awaiting trial for crimes that for the most part amounted to little more than political opposition to the GDR regime. A banner, requesting that the government abide by the human rights agreements of Helsinki. A satirical slogan, spray-painted on the wall. That was enough to land you in these cells. Men upstairs. Women downstairs.

After trials, prisoners would be transferred to the main prisons. For his Helsinki human rights banner, Gerd-Peter Leube was sentenced to three years and six months for “anti-government incitement”. For their slogan painted on the wall, six teenagers (Grit Ferber, Ulrich Jadke, Holm Kirsten, Jörn Luther, Thomas Onißeit and Andreas Tillmans) spent up to six months in prison for the crime of “hooliganism”. Continue reading

Return to the Black Mountain

It is good to be here again.

That’s what I think, but only once we have reached the top of the slippy slope. It is probably not the most sensible way to climb the mountain, but the other option is closed to us. A farmer’s gate has been moved. The alternative blocked off. Whose land is this anyway? That has long been the question on the Black Mountain.

Two years ago we walked in mist. Up the slippy slope. Across the Hatchet Field. To Terry’s cairn and along the path. Belfast was down there, somewhere, but we only caught the odd glimpse. A ghostly apparition as the cloud cleared. For a second. Two. A quick click of the camera shutter and the invisible city was gone again.

Today is different. Today the sun shines as we catch a cab to the last house in West Belfast, to the very spot where the city meets the mountain. Urb meets Rus. When we reach Hatchet Field, and hear the stories of the family who used to live up there – thick walls, great views and long walks to school – we can not only see the city laid out before us, but all the way to Scotland. Continue reading

The Cathedral of the North

A Berlin story:

Outside the church a young woman pushes her bike up the cobblestoned incline that leads from the street to the door, passing by flower beds cut back for the winter and a slender post covered in words and images that, if you press on one of the small, silver buttons, will tell you the history of this building and its surroundings in a number of different languages. She doesn’t have time, and anyway, she has heard them before. Her bike is laden with shopping bags – in the basket and hanging from the handlebars – and she needs to get home. These are not supplies picked up on this square around the church; she had to ride to the supermarket and push her bike back. There is a shop on the corner, its neon sign suggesting you might find stacks of fresh produce in crates on the uneven pavement beneath. But look below and the pavement is bare. No fruit today or any day. Behind the windows, headless dummies model elegant clothes.

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The wild white horses

All night the wind and the rain hammered at the windows and shook the walls, the story of the storm creeping into dreams and half-awake thoughts. The view down and across the field as it started to get light was of a sea beyond the cliffs that was thrashing and churning, banging off the rocks to throw explosions of spray high against the overcast sky. For a moment the sun came out, the patch of blue sky closing again almost as quickly as it opened.

We walked out, down the headland path towards the coves at the bottom of the island where we have rock-pooled and swum off the rocks, built fires on the sands or spied birds and sea rescue helicopters off the rocks. Now there was just water, a violent, flailing mass of water, swelling and crashing, the huge waves making the normally impressive cliffs seem small in comparison. The wind stung and the spray soaked us, leaving us with a strong, salty taste on the lips. One wave caught the wind and, although we were a long way from the edge of the headland, soaked us like a bucket of cold water had been tossed across the path. It was impossible to look into the wind without it hurting your face and eyes.

Beyond the rocks, the sea was like something out of folklore, like one of those vengeful seas that rises up to swallow whole a town of gluttons and hedonists after nature cannot take the debasement any more.

Down on the main beach there was no main beach, the high tide and the storm lifting the waves up to the very top of the shingle and onto the dunes. Seaweed had landed high in the grass, along with plastic debris – bottles and face-cream pots, half a petrol canister – that suggested the seas and oceans had finally had it with us dumping all our crap and had decided to throw it back at us where we walked. The spray had been joined by rain now. At the end the beach, a family stood a little bit too close to the waves. The dad took the kids by the arm and pulled them back, away from the seventh wave. The sea was not to be messed with.

A friend from university was staying at the next village up the island. Back inside – soggy clothes hanging from door frames and in the shower – I saw her videos posted on social media, the waves rolling straight in off the sea and crashing over the beach wall onto the street beyond. She told me the road to her village had been closed off. It seemed odd that we could still write to each other in the middle of the storm. The rain had closed in now. It was no longer possible to look down across the field and beyond the headland. Nothing but a grey wall. But the wild white horses were still there, the fury not yet exhausted.

Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton

From the Baltic to the Irish Sea – Readings and Events in November 2017

It is extremely exciting to announce a series of events taking place on either side of the Irish Sea during November 2017.

November 1st – Bangor University
Journeys through Memory: The German Baltic and the Berlin Wall

I will be talking to Dr Anne Saunders about the German Baltic and the Berlin Wall at an event that is free and open to all on Wednesday 1 November at 2pm. We will be talking about the writing of both Ghosts on the Shore and Mauerweg (co-written with Paul Sullivan). I will be reading from both books and there will be a Q&A.

Event poster

November 21st – The Winding Stair, Dublin
Journeys through Memory: The German Baltic and countries that no longer exist
with Marcel Kreuger

Marcel is the author of the upcoming Babushka’s Journey and we will both be reading from our books, talking about our travels through central and eastern Europe and discussing the related themes in Babushka’s Journey and Ghosts on the Shore, from family memory to how we tell the stories of the past.

Event Facebook page

November 22nd – Spirit Store, Dundalk
the corridor no.3 – Borders, Walking and Writing
with Evelyn Conlon, Garrett Carr & Marcel Krueger

I am really pleased to have been invited to take part in the third event as part of the new multidisciplinary arts project in Ireland exploring “the corridor” between Dublin and Belfast. I will be talking about the importance of borders and how we explore them in our writing with novelist and short story writer Evelyn Conlon, my good friend and fellow walker-writer Marcel Krueger, and Garrett Car, author of The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border.

Event info on the corridor website

November 23rd – No Alibis, Belfast
Journeys through Memory: The German Baltic and countries that no longer exist
with Marcel Kreuger

Marcel and I will bringing our discussion from Tuesday in Dublin to Belfast on Thursday (via our Dundalk interlude along the corridor) at the ever-wonderful No Alibis bookshop. We will once more be talking about both our books as well as giving a reading and answering (hopefully interestingly) any questions you might have.

Event Facebook page

On Friday 24th November, I will be sleeping.

I hope to see some of you in Bangor, Dublin, Dundalk or Belfast in November… hopefully there will be some more events to announce soon…

Paul

After the storm

(Or, the story of a Grey Sky Walk)

It was only a few days after the winds hit the city, toppling chimneys and uprooting trees, tragically taking a couple of lives. Despite the increased frequency of extreme weather – the summer was marked with floods from torrential rains and an overwhelmed drainage system – there is still something unsettling about experiencing a storm like that, one which had blue lights flashing and sirens sounding long into the night.

There was little indication of damage done as we headed north. The U-Bahn was running again and we could see, once the train emerged from its tunnel to the elevated tracks, the planes taking off and coming in to land at the airport. In Tegel, the Saturday shoppers were happily pounding the streets and down at the promenade there was no sign of the storm, except for the piles of fallen leaves that might have been larger than usual. It was only on the path that follows the river across the northern edge of the city we saw proper evidence of the power of the wind.

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