Category Archives: Books

Baltic Lagoons and Ghosts on the Shore

The lagoons of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – the many Boddens that stand between spits of land, islands and half-islands – are a fundamental part of the Baltic landscape. The tourists may head for the long stretches of beach between Travemünde and the Polish border, but for thousands of years the focus of life has been the sheltered waterways, teeming with fish. The Bodden has a hold over the local imagination in a way that the open waters of the sea do not, and there is a certain poetic and melancholy appeal to the reeded banks that hide shy birds from all but the most patient of watchers: in the inlets and coves and sandbanks; in the fields of sheep and cows that run down to the water; and in the thatched villages and their small harbours that face not the Baltic but the Bodden. As I caught the bus from Ribnitz-Dammgarten it followed the single road that led on to the peninsula from the west. The Bodden approached and retreated when viewed through the right-hand side windows of the bus, across ploughed fields and wide expanses of marshland through which drainage channels had been cut in dead straight, unnatural lines. 

From Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast

Things have been a little quiet of late here on Under a Grey Sky, mainly because of a number of deadlines as different projects managed to come together at the same time. But I decided to break radio silence because last week we took delivery of copies of my new books Ghosts on the Shore, published by Influx Press. It was not only an incredibly exciting moment, to hold it in my hands for the first time, but it was a fitting day for it to arrive as that very evening we drove north for a weekend in Wustrow, on the Fischland-Darß-Zingst peninsula and the location of one of the chapters of the book.

As well as history, family memories, stories and the people that live along the Baltic shore, one of the reasons that the area became so interesting to me that I decided to write a book about it is the landscape. In particular, the bays, inlets and lagoons that can be found all along the coast have a particular feel and atmosphere that shapes my feeling about the area. It is very different to the rugged, rocky coastline of North Wales that shaped my ‘idea’ of the coast as a child, and it has its own haunting, often melancholy beauty. For the first time, we were staying in a house that looked out over the harbour and the Bodden beyond, and it seemed like a fitting place to celebrate the publication of the book.

We will be holding a launch event in London on the 21 June at Burley Fisher Books and in Berlin on the 16 June at FC Magnet. At the Berlin event we will also be screening a short film made by my good friend Eymelt Sehmer that is based on the book and which we travelled to Usedom to film earlier this year.

Zabriskie and a year in five books

advent6

One of my favourite discoveries of 2016 was Zabriskie, a bookshop focused on ‘culture and nature’ writing and a place where I am always certain to find something new and tempting and I know I am about to emerge back onto the streets of Kreuzberg a few euros poorer but as always with books, infinitely richer. They have been strong supporters of Elsewhere – we wrote about Zabriskie on our blog – and in November they hosted an evening of stories from the journal, and I read alongside my colleagues Saskia Vogel and Nicky Gardner.

This week Zabriskie sent out their newsletter, featuring the book selections of a number of writers who appeared at events in the bookshop over the past twelve months. I was delighted to be included, and also thought it would be nice to share my choices here. The books did not need to be published in 2016 but read in that year… an approach that more ‘best of…’ lists would be well-advised to take. When combined with the rest of the choices on the newsletter, I think there is at least a year’s worth of inspiration for further reading, so go check it out hereContinue reading

On Heinrich-Heine-Straße, Berlin

hhstrasse

I am early, so I take some time on the corner with the man who is always there, looking out across the junction towards the kebab shop and the U-Bahn station; to where the crowds gather waiting to gain entrance to the club; to the Plattenbau walls and their balconies; beneath the wintergarten windows still shining with the lights of a Christmas already past. The cars move along the street that bears the name of the man for whom this memorial – surrounded by trees atop a small plaza of crooked flagstones – was built. Beneath the ground the U-Bahn trains stop at the station of the same name, a station that was closed for 28 years when the wall divided the city and divided the street a few hundred metres to the south, complete with barriers, checkpoints and border controls.

Heinrich-Heine-Straße is one of those corners of Berlin I had never had any real reason to spend time in, although my daughter’s friend lives down the street so I have emerged onto this corner a few times recently, and usually too early. When I do, I spend some time at the memorial, following the man’s gaze as he looks out across the street and the traffic. Heinrich Heine lived in the first half of the 19th century, a writer of narrative poems, plays, essays and travelogues; a man who wrote the words “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people too” in 1821. In 1933, 102 years later, Heine’s books were among those burned on the Bebelplatz by the Nazis in Berlin, and those sadly prophetic words are now engraved at the spot.

Continue reading

The forest compound and the lake, Wandlitz

wandlitz1

During the first years of the German Democratic Republic, the leading members of the Socialist Unity Party took homes in Pankow, in a crescent of villas close to the Panke river and the palace at Niederschönhausen. After 1953, when Soviet tanks rolled onto the streets of East Berlin to quell an uprising of the workers, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, which ended in much the same way, those head honchos, including Walter Ulbricht, Erich Mielke and Erich Honecker, decided things were not secure enough even in the leafy Berlin suburbs. Five years after Brecht had written his Buckow Elegies as a response to the events of 1953, the leadership – unable to dissolve the people / And elect another – moved north, to a fortified compound in the woods, just outside the town of Wandlitz.

They remained there until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the eleven-month transition that followed, resulting in German reunification on the 3rd October 1990. Not long after the Wall came down, at the end of November 1989, the first journalists were admitted into what had become known as Volvograd, after the Swedish cars the Politbüro members drove along their special motorway between Wandlitz and East Berlin. Although the myth and rumour of the GDR had created an impression of the leaders of the GDR living in unimaginable luxury in the Waldsiedlung (‘Forest Settlement’), the reality of life in the compound was, like so much in the GDR, a little more banal. Continue reading

Germany: Memories of a Nation

memories-of-a-nationPhoto: The Baltic Shore

Yesterday the publishers Influx Press announced the release of my book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast, which will be published in June 2017. The book is an exploration of the shoreline between the old inner-German border just north of Lübeck and the boundary with Poland on the island of Usedom. The idea behind the book was to tell the stories from the shore, from folklore, art and literature to the history of the 20th century, as well as personal memories of Katrin and her family and their time living on the Baltic coast during the GDR.

So the subject of place and the importance of memory, particularly in this country I have now called home for fifteen years, has been consuming me for the past couple of years as I have been writing the book and it was therefore with great interest that I headed to the Martin-Gropius-Bau on Friday to see the exhibition Germany: Memories of a Nation. The exhibition, which first appeared in London alongside a Radio 4 series and an excellent book by Neil MacGregor, has been subtitled in Berlin as “the British view” because of its origins. On the day we were there our fellow visitors in the gallery were overwhelmingly German. I had already read the book, so most of the objects and the reflections in the accompanying text were not new to me, but nevertheless it was a fascinating exhibition that in its essence asks of us the question: what is a nation anyway?

Continue reading

Elsewhere No.04 – With essays from Prague and Rhoscolyn

simg_3825

I am extremely proud to report that we have just launched the fourth edition of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. Long-term readers of Under a Grey Sky will know that I am the editor-in-chief of Elsewhere and founded the journal in 2015 with the incredibly talented Julia Stone as the Creative Director. In the journal you will find writing, interviews, photography and reviews all relating somehow to the topic of place, and one of the most striking elements I feel are Julia’s illustrations which can be found throughout.

We have had a great response to previous editions, including nice reviews and quotes from the likes of Robert Macfarlane and Monocle magazine, and we have published some very talented writers that it has been an absolute pleasure to work with. In Elsewhere No.04 I have two essays; one on the subject of memory, literature and memorials on the streets of Prague; and one on memory, nostalgia and landscape on the headland of Rhoscolyn. Aside from my feelings about the journal as a whole, I am very proud of both of these pieces of writing. Here are a couple of brief snippets from both:

Continue reading

Democracy without populism: Reading Joseph Roth


There are certain memories, and certain moments, that linger longer than others. I can remember clearly the first evening, some time around 2007, that I went to the Joseph Roth Diele for the first time. I was there to meet Nicky and Susanne, editors of the wonderful hidden europe magazine who would soon become my close friends. They had chosen the venue for our meeting, and for three people for whom wandering through and writing about central Europe is something of a calling, it was the perfect location.

The Joseph Roth Diele is a cafe bar on Potsdamer Straße, in Berlin Tiergarten, a short walk from Potsdamer Platz and close to where the Tagesspiegel newspaper used to have its offices. It is next door to the house where Roth – a newspaper man himself – lived when he was a working journalist knocking out page after page of incomparable prose in articles that should have been destined for the chip wrapper but which are still being read almost a hundred years after they were written.

Inside the Joseph Roth Diele there is a lot of wood; wood panelling and wooden tables, covered by red and white check table cloths. The floor is covered by black and white tiling, the walls with black and white photographs… when they are not lined with books. Those books are, of course, the ones written by the man whose name is above the awning and who used to live next door. Continue reading