Evoking place is a mysterious skill. It is quite possible to paint a perfect picture for the reader but still somehow leave the image dead on the page. And then, magically, one single detail can bring it all alive. Writing The Silent Child presented a challenge as two thirds of the narrative unfurled in Berlin – in 1961 – and a Nazi death camp in Poland in 1944. Both demanded time travel as well as the more traditional variety.
For the camp – an entirely fictional creation – I had to rely on the testimony of the very few witnesses who had survived the death camps at Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and others. That trip to Auschwitz (see previous post), and an earlier visit to Belsen-Bergen, near Hamburg, also provided a sense of place: a kind of emotional electric cable, running into the past. I walked around Belsen with a coachload of German school children. The mixture of denial, guilt, sympathy, even empathy, was tangible.
But building landscapes is a bit like building characters – you can draw inspiration from those you know. I live in the Fens and conjuring up its special atmosphere has been my trade for twenty years. I know its odd misty moods and panoramic skies. The picture left was taken in Ely, where I live: a giant eye appears to hover overhead. This one image was a source of inspiration, and in the book I transposed it to Poland – another flat, watery, world dominated by its horizons and a vast sky.
In one of my favourite scenes in the book my hero – Leo Stern – is waiting in line to have his hair shorn in the camp, contemplating his own fate and those of his children and wife. He looks up and sees a great swirl of birds – vultures in fact. It is as if God had stirred the sky – a thought inspired by that great eye over Ely. There is – I hope – an overwhelming sense of the powerlessness of a single man, beneath this vast panorama of Fate.
Berlin was trickier – especially as part of the action had to take place in the secret world of East Berlin. But – luckily – I knew the city well, even before German unification.
In 1982 I was working in York – for the then Yorkshire Evening Press. We covered a lot of stories related to the Army, which had a major base at Imphal Barracks. I was invited with three other journalists on a trip to West Berlin to meet army commanders and discuss the role they played in the city – then an ‘island’ in East Germany divided into four zones: French, British and American on one side, the Soviet Union on the other. We were taken to Brooke Barracks after flying in, from where we could see Spandau Prison. Its one occupant was Rudolph Hess – the last of the Nazi leaders still under lock and key. We visited the cafes opposite, looking at Spandau’s grim façade, while Soviet jets produced sonic booms overhead, shaking our glasses of wine and beer, and prompting jeers from diners along the pavements.
Being journalists we all decided that what really wanted was to go East – through the checkpoints, through the wall. Each of the Four Powers were allowed a small fleet of ‘flag cars’ which could enter each zone. We were asked what we would like to see: three voted for a posh restaurant where our currency (dollars) would buy us a banquet. I wanted to see an ordinary East Berlin bar – I thought this would give us a real feel of life on the other side.
Our chances of going unnoticed were soon scotched – our guides were officers, and under the Four Power Agreement they had to wear uniforms when out of their own zone. Ours wore dress uniforms, including spurs. The Flag Car had – not surprisingly – flags. We drove to Checkpoint Charlie and I had to press my passport against the window so that a Russian guard could make a point of examining it carefully. We drove to the Moskva restaurant – then a favourite with senior Soviet officers. Striding across the dining room we were greeted with complete silence, except for the metallic clatter of the spurs. Wanting to avoid a ‘scene’ the management gave us an alcove out of sight. The meal was typical: meat, pickles, more meat, excellent champagne, and awful coffee. It cost a pittance.
The restaurant was several floors up and I remember looking out of the window at one of the city’s roundabouts and noting the almost complete lack of civilian traffic, and advertising hoardings. Occasional military trucks drove past, but otherwise the city was pleasantly serene, even untroubled.
It was dark by the time we got back in the car and drove out of the old heart of the Imperial city – past the ruined cathedral, along the stark grandeur of Under den Linden. The time had come for my selected destination – a back street bar.
The selected venue was in a side street, cobbled, with little light. It could have been a scene from The Third Man (Graham Greene’s atmospheric story of post-war underworld, set in Vienna – another divided city in 1945). I expected a light to reveal Orson Welles in a doorway.
One of our guides led the way down a staircase into a basement bar. There was smoke, neon light, and an ominous silence. We were not welcome. Apparently, our flag car carried little authority here, on the outskirts of the city. There was a hasty retreat. We drove back to the Brandenburg Gate – then a ruined shell. A kiosk sold beer, another curry wurst (yes, we were still hungry). We stood in a gentle rain and looked at the distant line of the floodlit wall dividing us from the Tiergarten.
I’d fallen for Berlin: it was the city of noir, haunted by a past pictured in black and white, locked in a time warp, and – someone said – haunted by old women who ceaselessly hunted for scraps of food in the piles of rubble left in the bomb sites which still dotted the cityscape.
I went back to Berlin several times – but gradually the magic faded with the onset of modernisation and wealth. I hope I’ve brought it back to life in The Silent Child.