Category Archives: Books

New Book… The Idea of a River: Walking out of Berlin


The fisherman sits on a squat stool, rod resting on a stand between his legs, his hat pulled over his head. He looks at peace, eyes cast forward across the calm waters of the canal, his thermos flask of coffee on one side, a cool box filled with supplies on the other. I can see him an hour or so earlier, stepping out from his nearby apartment, walking along the river to his regular patch on the canal bank. He’s been coming here for years, since a time when no-one came to this corner of the city, when the neighbourhood was enclosed by the Wall and he could feel the eyes of the East German border guards on his back…

My new book is an essay based on a walk along the Panke river, upstream from where it tips into the Spandau Ship Canal in the heart of Berlin (and not far from my apartment) to its source in the town of Bernau, just beyond the city limits. Along the way the walk takes in city neighbourhoods and the path of the Berlin Wall, stories of would-be Kings and other wannabe royals, suburbs and edgelands, nature reserves and farmer’s fields, and the line of commuter towns stretched out along the S-Bahn that shadows the river for much of the way.

The book was released this month as part of a series of four mini-books published by Readux. Three times a year Readux publish such a series, of short stories and essays, often in translation. My book is part of the fifth such series, titled Urban Voids: Paris and Berlin, and we launched it last week at an event in Berlin-Kreuzberg with three writers and three translators, including readings and conversation (and a few drinks afterwards).

For my part I was joined on stage by my fellow walker-writer Marcel Krueger, and in order to prepare for the event we met a few days earlier to walk half of the thirty kilometre length of the river from Karow in the north of Berlin to Bernau. Walking it again I was struck once more by how much you can discover about a place through its more forgotten and ignored corners, and even though I have spent a lot of time on the banks of the Panke before before and during this particular project there were still more things to stumble across with each new walk along the path.

Readux Book CoverThe Idea of a River: Walking out of Berlin
Readux Books
ISBN: 978-3-944801-31-5
Print and EBook editions available

An Accumulation of Light


By Julian Hoffman:

“Everything beckons us to perceive it,
murmurs at every turn…”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Hearing that a pair of eagle owls inhabited a rocky gorge on the plateau, we decided it was worth trying to see them hunting about the cliffs at dusk. First we explored the area in daylight, getting a feel for it before evening. The gorge began at the sea in a small cove where a few fishing boats were dragged up on to the beach and a handful of people swam in the shallows. Our friends couldn’t be tempted into the late September water and so they left us, trousers rolled up to our knees, walking the crystalline edge of the Black Sea. We’d only been in the surf a few minutes when they called us over, hushing us to come quietly to the pool of water they were standing by.

A squacco heron crouched on a stone at the edge of the pool. It was water lit, absorbing the mirrored light until it glowed. The bird’s back was draped in ochre and violet; its breast laced with lemon that bloomed towards the emerald edges of its eyes. It seemed to be the reflected emblem of the day, a distilled essence of light. The green and black lance of its bill was steady, and its eyes unwavering. It appeared to be lost in a trance but was peering for fish in the shallows, as still as the reflecting water. One of us must have shifted our weight, because suddenly it unfolded the white flags of its wings and glided away.

Continue reading

A Favourite Place: Britzer Garten, Berlin


My friends at Slow Travel Berlin have just released the second print run of their most excellent 100 Favourite Places book… it is a collection of, well, a hundred of the Slow Travel Berlin writers favourite places in the city, from museums and bars to shops, parks, architecture… and more. Everyone I know who owns a copy – including Berliners such as Katrin – are impressed by the choices, the writing and the photography, so if you are coming to Berlin at any time soon it is the only guide you need.

I asked the founder of Slow Travel Berlin, Paul Sullivan, to select an extract from the book that he thought would suit Under a Grey Sky, and he choose one of his own favourite places, the Britzer Garten in Neukölln:

Given its reputation for industry, war and high-rise buildings, visitors are often surprised at how pleasantly green Berlin is. With almost a fifth of the city covered in trees, it’s quite possible to be diverted regularly from the city’s turbulent past by at least one of the city’s 2,500 parks and gardens. One of the loveliest is the Britzer Garten, which laps at the southern fringes of Neukölln.
Built in 1985 for the Federal Garden Show, the garden was originally designed to provide a green escape for local residents whose excursions into the countryside were, at the time, impeded by the Berlin Wall.

Continue reading

A Gift from the Road: Walking the Woods and the Water

walking the woodsA review of Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt

Review by Paul Scraton:

In 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor began a walk from the Hook of Holland that would take him across Europe, a journey he would later immortalise in three books – A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and (published posthumously) The Broken Road. The first two have, since publication, been long regarded as classics of travel literature. Reading them today you are struck with the sense that these are books written about a time when Europe was at a tipping point – much of A Time of Gifts for instance is set in a Germany where the Nazis are in the ascendant – but also and especially later in Fermor’s journey, in the lands to the East, where the books are filled with tales of aristocrats and peasants it is a world that became decidedly less “modern” the more he walked.

Continue reading

Ending the year on the small heart of things

small things

Just before Christmas I was invited once again by the lovely folks of Caught by the River to write my “Shadows and Reflections” for 2013 as the year comes to an end. I got down to it on the train back to Berlin from Munich, and my thoughts as the German countryside rushed beside me outside the window turned to this land and its landscape, and feelings of home and belonging:

Continue reading

Slow Travel Berlin’s 100 Favourite Places

Cover_Front_Hi-ResAs regular readers of Under a Grey Sky will know, I am closely involved with the Slow Travel Berlin project. What began as a website that “encourages us to slacken our pace, re-consider our motivations and embrace a “less is more” instead of a “fast is better” ethos,” has developed to become not only one of the best English-language resources about the city for travellers and Berliners alike, but also offers a wide selection of tours and workshops to help people engage directly with the city. I have been running a number of different tours for Slow Travel Berlin over the past year, including a neighbourhood stroll through my home kiez of Wedding and some walks along the Berlin Wall Trail, which also tie into my new project at Traces of a Border.

Whilst we were developing the tours, creating a weekly what’s on guide to the city, and the team of over twenty writers and photographers were keeping the website full of fascinating articles about the city, Paul, Marian, and Giulia were working with a good number of contributors to put together Slow Travel Berlin’s first book100 Favourite Places – which is available in print and e-versions and will be launched with a party in the city next week. From the outside looking in I have watched the three editors and the team work incredibly hard to pull the book together, and from the sample pages (follow the book link above) it is obvious that this is not only “not your normal guidebook” but something that should be on the shelves of anyone with an interest in the city, whether they live here or not!

The Slow Travel Berlin project is a wonderful thing. Not only is it a great resource, but it is a great community, from designers to illustrators, writers to photographers, and of course the readers and those who join us on the tours. There are so many website and projects that are based in Berlin, and in particular in English, that do not truly engage with the city, or if they do only within a very small, expat-dominated bubble, and I think it is to Paul and the rest of the team’s credit that Slow Travel Berlin covers such a wide variety of topics about life in the city and has, when you look at all the facebook fans and other commentators, a large amount of local readers, whether German or otherwise.

I will leave you with the encouragement to buy the book – especially if you are in or coming to Berlin – and that you should be safe in the knowledge that it is not only a beautifully designed object, well-researched, written and edited, but that you will be also supporting a truly marvellous project. And here are some of my favourite recent articles from the website including, if you will forgive me, one of my own…

A Short History of Turkish Berlin
Witnessing the Battle of Berlin
Tracing the Invisible Wall
Shakespeare and Sons Bookshop
Berlin’s Best Ice Cream

Sand, Starlings and The Small Heart of Things


Julian Hoffman writes the wonderful blog Notes from Near and Far, and last week he celebrated the publication of his book, The Small Heart of Things:

The two Prespa Lakes are split by a flat isthmus, a spur of sand which pelicans glide across in summer as they swap one body of water for the other. Those two lakes, though, were once one, a single blue bowl encircled by steep slopes. Over thousands of years, silt and sediment from the mountains were sluiced down their gullies and creeks into the river that drains the valley. As the river emptied, spilling its mountain hoard into the lake – all the spoil of sand and silt that had been worn down by wind, rain and time – those tiny grains built up in a slow process of accumulation until they spread out across the water, building a bridge one particle at a time, turning one lake into two.

Continue reading

Flâneur – Franz Hessel’s ‘In Berlin’


“Walking slowly down bustling streets is a particular pleasure. Awash in the haste of others, it’s a dip in the surf. But my dear fellow citizens of Berlin don’t make it easy, no matter how nimbly you weave out of their way. I always catch wary glances when I try to play the flaneur among the industrious. I believe they take me for a pickpocket.”

And so begins Franz Hessel’s The Suspect, the first of two essays that make up In Berlin, a flâneur’s view of the city by day and by night in the 1920s, translated by Amanda DeMarco and about to be published this October as part of a new series of small-but-perfectly-formed books from Readux, based here in Berlin.

Franz Hessel was born in 1880 and grew up in Berlin, before moving in his twenties to Munich and Paris. Into the 1920s and 1930s he worked back in his home city as an editor, whilst writing widely praised novels and essays, as well as translations of Proust, Casanova, Stendhal and Balzac. In 1938 he fled to France, where he would end up in an internment camp, passing away shortly after his release in 1941.

Continue reading

How I Ruined Hackney (& the Mystery of “The Hackney Slap”)


Gareth Rees, aka The Hackney Marshman, has been chronicling his explorations of the Lea Valley Nature Reserve and the secret life of the Hackney and Walthamstow Marshes since early 2011. With his book about to come out, he has kindly given us permission to re-publish this piece that explains how he has ruined his home neighbourhood and is single-handedly responsible for the gentrification of the area, and all before the book even hits the shelves…

On a bright afternoon I was on Walthamstow marsh with my dog Hendrix, walking beneath the brow of the old aqueduct path where the brambles grow. He was coming the other way, a stocky man, late 40s, with a collie.

“Watch out for her!” he said, pointing at his dog, “She’s on heat.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” I said, “he’s been done.”

The man’s head began swinging angrily from side to side. He held onto his thoughts for a few paces then blurted: “Why the hell would you want to do that? Why? Why? Why would anyone do that to a dog? You’ve ruined his life! Why take away his manhood? YOU ARE IN THE POCKET OF THE VET!”

Hendrix, poor sod, was castrated because he was born with a serious eye-defect. It was unethical to allow him to pass on his genes. But really it was none of this man’s business.

“It’s none of your business,” I said, as we crossed paths.

The man’s face darkened. By now he was walking backwards away from me, and I walking backwards away from him.

Continue reading

A place you can’t find – the Book Mill in Montague, MA


A few miles north of Amherst we found Montague, driving slowly through the sleepy town to try and find the Book Mill, a bookshop that we had heard about that claimed to offer the winning combination of “books you don’t need, in a place you can’t find.” In the end it was not too difficult, as we followed the map until we reached the point where it crossed the Sawmill River and there it was, painted red and clinging to the embankment above the rapids that rushed beneath the road.

Stepping inside we found a treasure trove of used books, in a number of different rooms that all seemed to be on different levels, with low ceilings and reading corners tucked away on window ledges or under the eaves. There were tables, where people spread out their papers and got on with some work surrounded by millions and millions of words, and when they were stuck, or in need of sustenance, they headed down to the pub on the downstairs level, for a sandwich and a beer and  a view over the river. The selection is large and varied, and it would take days to really work your way through the shelves. It is hard to imagine a more perfect bookshop.

Continue reading