Book Review: Built on Sand

Built on Sand, by Paul Scraton, is centred on Berlin. It explores the varied effects of an ever evolving place on those who call it home for a time. Told through events in the lives of the author’s friends and acquaintances while he was living there, it looks at, amongst other things: shifting borders and beliefs, dispossession, those who leave and return across generations. It is a story of individuals, their relationships and psychogeography. It portrays the transience of people and what defines them, as much as the place.

The first chapter introduces Annika, a mapmaker whose products are sold in a small number of bookstores and galleries. Her maps are themed to well known historical figures who have links to Berlin, providing details on significant locations during their stays there. Many of the buildings they would have frequented have gone but the street layout remains largely the same. Annika walks the city to gain a feel for what she is attempting to recreate.

“Bad news. Her maps, as a whole, told the story of the city, from its medieval origins on a malarial swamp to fifteenth-century riots, reformation and industrialisation, militarism and nationalism, National Socialism and communism, the Marshall Plan and the European Union.”

This sense of history permeates the city – its numerous destructions and endless rebuilding. The author is interested in the ghosts of the past that linger and how they affect those who pass through today.

The second chapter introduces a trio of men who met as boys living in the GDR and remained friends despite taking very different political paths as men. The author’s girlfriend retains her disdain for Markus in particular as he worked for the Stasi. The author is more interested in learning why Markus chose this path and how what he was required to do has affected him long term.

Other key characters in the narrative include the two young men the author shared a flat with when he first moved to Berlin. Their’s is a story of a close friendship when young that does not survive the changes wrought by passing years. At its heart is a tragedy and its repercussions.

Interesting additions to the cast are young people who were raised outside Germany, whose forebears told them stories of the country as it was then, including the lives and lands lost when they fled as refugees. The children or grandchildren visit and find themselves connected to the place despite it bearing little resemblance to the shared memories.

These personal anecdotes offer a vision of a city that exists only in such memories. Each of the people passing through are creating their own version which they will then carry and polish.

Over time borders are moved, walls built and knocked down, housing provided for workers and subsequently renovated for incomers. Reminders of conflict exist in memorials or the scarring of buildings by bullets or shrapnel. The people who come and go follow changing social and political beliefs. They may fight for what they think is right but this too changes with hindsight.

People are shaped by the stories they grow up with and how they interpret them when exposed to wider thinking. Some will embrace new developments but many hanker after what drew them to settle, even if only for a short while, in any given place. They value its history and the ghosts of their past selves, echoes existing in the shadows of recollection.

The writing has a melancholy edge which befits the many horrors Berlin has witnessed. The diverse reactions to events offer a variety of perspectives to consider. Although a very personal account the narrative offers broad insights, not least the folly of trying to cling to what has already passed by. It is a compelling, humane and intelligent portrayal of a city, its residents and inevitable change.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.


Book Review: Fear

Fear, by Dirk Kurbjuweit, is a story of a murder and a marriage and of how far a man will go to protect the foundations on which he has constructed his adult life. Set in Berlin, the protagonist is Randolph Tiefenthaler, an architect living with his beautiful and intelligent wife, Rebecca, and their two young children. Their nightmare starts when they purchase a well located and spacious upper ground floor flat, perfect for family living. Randolph is now sitting at his desk writing an account of events that led to his seventy-eight year old father being imprisoned for manslaughter. Randolph’s father confessed to killing Dieter Tiberius, the tenant of the flat downstairs.

Based on true events, the author has created a thriller that questions how fragile the edifices of civilised life can be, and of the pressures a man feels to be a protector. Soon after moving into their flat, Rebecca starts to receive letters from Dieter. He is watching the family, listening to their movements from below. When the letters become threatening Randolph takes the matter to the police only to discover that no crime has been committed. Dieter’s reaction is to accuse his neighbours of sexually abusing their children.

Randolph writes of his childhood and of the disconnect and fear he felt due to his father’s gun obsession. He is determined to do better with his own children but has allowed his marriage to grow stale. As Dieter’s behaviour escalates Randolph and Rebecca are drawn back together. Their middle class confidence, bordering on arrogance, is pierced as they realise reasonable tactics to resolve the matter are ineffective. If Randolph is to keep his family safe he must consider more radical action.

The voice and behaviour of the narrator come across and honest and reasoned. He is writing to confront the truth which he tells the reader he has not yet fully shared, even with Rebecca. I found it harder to empathise with her. Rebecca had hysterical screaming fits even when her children were at home. For a medical professional this loss of control under pressure seemed strange.

The story though revolves around Randolph, the impotence he feels and the growing realisation that he will need to compromise his valued integrity to deal with Dieter. Despite knowing from the first few pages how things will end, the tension in the telling is skilfully maintained.

Events force Randolph to confront an aspect of himself that he had denied existed. I am curious about how he would cope with that in the afterwards. The child abuse allegation also puts thoughts in his head that he struggles to contain. In attempting to prove innocence his behaviour is affected, as is his confidence in Rebecca.

Each of these strands offer food for thought but it is the basic premise that is the most disturbing. In a civilised society it is assumed that wrong-doers will be punished, the innocent protected. How to define wrong-doing and innocence are perhaps more complex than is generally accepted.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orion.

Book Review: The Butchers of Berlin

The Butchers of Berlin, by Chris Petit, is a crime thriller set in the city in 1943. Germany is no longer in ascendancy. The effects of the Second World War have resulted in a thriving black market and deprivation for all but the wealthy and powerful elite. Fear and betrayal are rife as the authorities work towards their stated aim of creating a Berlin that is ‘Jew free’. The remaining population have set aside many of their peacetime principles in order to survive.

The protagonist is August Schegel, the son of a wealthy English aristocrat now married to a German businessman. Schegel is a junior detective despised by his boss. Working in financial crime he cannot understand when he is called upon to investigate a double homocide. As the victims appear to be Jews, found dead on the morning of a major exercise to round-up and deport all remaining ‘undesirables’, he finds it odd that any effort is being put into an investigation.

There is an atmosphere of distrust amongst Schegel’s colleagues who are eager to provide the results that will please their superiors. When Morgen, an SS officer, is assigned to assist Schegel it is unclear what is now required of the younger man. Schegel is aware that there are irregularities in the investigation and that corruption is rife at all levels. Attempting to uncover the truth would be a dangerous path to take.

Sybil Todermann, a Jewish seamstress, has escaped the mass round-up and is in hiding with her girlfriend. They have friends in common with Schegel but all favours come at a price. The women now require false papers yet this puts them at the mercy of dangerous men. When more bodies start appearing, grotesquely mutilated and some containing forged currency, paths intersect.

In a vast slaughterhouse in the city Schegel finds what he believes is a killing room for people rather than animals. The shortage of manpower, food, and the dehumanisation of the Jews has allowed sadists to get away with barbarism. The Gestapo become interested in Schegel’s findings as do informers originating from several of the occupied territories. Who their taskmasters are remains unclear. Morgen is still not sharing with Schegel what his remit may be.

This is a lengthy story with a convoluted plot and disturbing desriptions of calculated viciousness. That it reads as a true depiction of life at the time makes for discomfiting reading. The writing is assured, the threads well constructed and managed, but still I struggled to engage. The accuracy of the horror and knowledge that so much of what is related happened detracted from my ability to feel entertained.

Reading a war story from the German perspective was interesting, also the views of the English, Irish and Americans who in some way supported the regime. I admire the author’s ability to craft a convincing tale even if I struggled to quell my revulsion and enjoy the unravelling of the mystery. It is a timely reminder of the true horror of war and the depravity such conditions unleash.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

There and back again – ghosts

The original inspiration for our recent trip to Berlin was an expensive school trip that my son was eligible for as part of his GCSE history curriculum. Normally I will stump up for these trips if the children wish to take part as they provide experiences that I am unlikely to be able to provide, such as skiing or exchanges with foreign students. However, with the outstanding offer of accommodation at my friend’s Berlin flat, I was able to take the three of us to the city for less than the cost charged by the school for one student.

It turns out that we visited the same tourist sites as the school and a lot more besides. Whereas they had some down time activities such as bowling, we spent just about every waking moment making the most of the unique aspects of Berlin. It is, of course, much easier to do this in a small group. Nevertheless, I am glad that we opted to eschew the school’s offering and do it for ourselves, not least because I personally got so much out of the trip. Despite not being with friends, my teenage children enjoyed our time away too.

Berlin has so much interesting and educative history to offer. This includes but is not limited to the politics and conflicts of the twentieth century, which my son is studying in school. We visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Jewish Museum and Sachsenhausen concentration camp. I was particularly keen that my children should experience this last place for themselves for several reasons.

When I was a student in my early twenties I spent a month travelling around Europe by train, including a visit to Munich and the Dachau concentration camp. Although I had studied twentieth century history for O Level I was not prepared for the impact this place would have on me. The profound sense of despair that I experienced; the understanding of humanity’s ability to inflict such horror on fellow human beings; these have stayed with me through the intervening years. I wanted my children to comprehend what can happen if governments are allowed to impose their will whilst good men look the other way or deny, perhaps even to themselves, that these things are happening.

I cannot say if I believe in ghosts, but these places retain a shadow of the horrors that were perpetrated within their walls all those years ago. I have no wish to indulge in some sort of macabre sight seeing; that these things happened is appalling, but it is the potential for it to happen again that I find truly disturbing.

In 1933 the Nazi party enacted a law which allowed for the forced sterilisation of the mentally deficient. In Britain today, the secretive Court of Protection has the power, under law, to force the mentally impaired to undergo sterilisation or have terminations if it is believed to be in their best interests. The court may also impose “experimental” treatments on mentally impaired patients without their consent. I guess there may be some who benefit from this court’s workings, but there are many who do not (see Court of Protection — Anna Raccoon for more on this). Personally I would never be able to fully trust a secretive, government agency to act in anyone’s best interests.

The Nazi party used propaganda to incite hatred against minority groups. The British media regularly runs stories suggesting that the current economic problems that our country is facing can be partially blamed on minority, immigrant groups. When times are hard there are too many looking for scapegoats to take the blame for their pain. The Nazi party rose to power because it enacted policies that initially improved the lives of many at the expense of a few. That it all went so horribly wrong should be remembered.

As well as the Jews, Sachsenhausen housed homosexuals (recent Russian laws are starting to criminalise this group’s activities) and the work shy. The British media does love to run negative, hate inducing stories about the long term unemployed. These articles generally ignore the fact that most long term benefit claimants are actually in work but are so badly paid that they require subsidies in order to survive.

Economic policy is complex and convoluted with no easy answers to the mess that has been allowed to develop by political parties of all persuasions over many years. I believe that visiting somewhere like Sachsenhausen is of value in gaining an understanding as to why we should never just go along with the soundbites and propaganda of governments who seek to control the way we think and then turn us off from thinking too deeply by distracting us with entertaining pap.

I am fortunate in having intelligent children. I think it is important that they should be exposed to political tactics and the lessons that can be learned from history. The four hundred inmates of the barracks hut that we visited at Sachsenhausen, built to house one hundred and fifty and the scene of unimaginable torture and violence, were classified as undesirables by their government but were as human as you or I. We need to consider people as individuals, not numbers; we need to look at their stories, not judge them on biased statistics.

The next British general election is scheduled for May 2015 by which time my daughter will be eligible to vote. Choosing a candidate in our skewed system is always tricky, but if she considers the aims and track record of those standing at least she will be thinking for herself. It is important to stay engaged with how the country is being run, however much it seems that we cannot influence decisions made. We owe at least that much to those who died because others chose to look the other way.


“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

There and back again – an overview

No matter how exciting or fun a trip away is, it always feels good to come home. After five days of full on activity I spent much of yesterday recovering. I am not used to coping on five or six hours sleep a night, especially when the days are so busy and active. With much to see and the company of a good friend to enjoy I did not wish to waste a minute of my time away. This did take it’s toll when I stopped. It felt good after all the excitement to have a quiet and restful day at home.

I have experienced so much in such a short space of time. Learning about the city we were staying in was fascinating, but the lessons to be learnt about myself will also be of value. I feel as if I have been frantically filling up on facts and now need to sit back and process all that I have taken in. This was no ordinary holiday, not least because I did it without my husband. I was absolutely myself rather than his wife for the first time in many years.

I was away with my two older children who I hope got as much out of the trip as I did. I made a deliberate decision to try not to mother them while we were away. My aim was to allow them to be themselves with my friend; four people enjoying each other’s company and learning from each other along the way. Ian was a truly excellent host and tour guide; he was also a fabulous teacher of alternative culture. The late evenings and early mornings spent at his flat, where he backed up his pedagogy with music or cartoons, were as illuminating as the history of many of the sights he took us to see. Even when our disparate views meant the discussions became uncomfortably heated at times I felt that I was learning.

Berlin is a city packed full of contrasts, history (ancient and modern), vibrancy and colour. As well as being filled with wonder at the more obvious tourist attractions, buildings, and museums, we were offered background knowledge on more quirky sights that would have gone unnoticed without a resident host who had obviously put significant effort into preparing for our visit. Ian coped admirably with our invasion of his flat and his life making us feel welcome and valued throughout.

Having fitted so much into our short time away I now wish to give myself time to consider all that we have seen and done slowly that I may fully process my reactions. Although we visited the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag I was more moved by the nearby Jewish Memorial. Our lunch outside the Hansa Studio and subsequent discussions about Bowie’s musical development gave me more food for thought than the typical tourist destination Bellevue Palace (official residence of the German President that has no actual living accommodation inside). The stunning architecture of the city is not confined to the surviving older buildings, but the city offers so much in addition to the incredible sights.

We spent two full days travelling around the city being tourists plus one challenging and thought provoking day at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. I felt it was important to take my children here, but the discussions the place provoked between Ian and I probably brought our views of current government practice closer than I thought possible. It is not a place one can visit and forget.

The remaining days of our time away were spent preparing for and travelling, with much waiting around as seems necessary these days when trying to get from one place to another by public transport. The many train journeys we took allowed us to view the more ordinary aspects of the city so were not wasted. We also ate out a great deal, trying to find a restaurant or cafe that offered cuisine from a different country or culture each time. I was grateful that such activity costs much less in Berlin than it would here at home.

I am immensely grateful that Ian offered us the opportunity to get under the skin of a city that, as he put it, grows on you. Although our visit was necessarily short, the time was used with maximum efficiency without feeling rushed. I do not normally warm to city life preferring the peace and space of rural locations. I think that Berlin could well prove to be an exception.