The Berlin Wall, a brutal, iconic structure made of concrete and barbed-wire, rose to split a city overnight in August 1961. Then just as quickly, and again overnight, it was breached in November 1989 when glasnost spread through eastern Europe. As an impressionable student in the Eighties, hungry for icons, not brutality, I found that the Wall cast a compelling spell. And if my grant couldn’t get me to Berlin at the time, then cultural touchstones worked instead. There was the music of David Bowie (whose albums Low and Heroes were made at the famous Hansa studios, by the Wall). There were certain fashions to follow (baggy coats and macs, surely the attire of spies). And, of course, there were books to devour, with accounts of the Wall covered by most genres. So, with twenty years approaching since that momentous breach, what would I read again to mark the event?
Perhaps a weighty history, describing how two Berlins eyed each other across a barrier that came to symbolize, potently, the Cold War era. Or a memoir, celebrating Berlin’s distinctive counter-culture and enduring ‘decadence’. Or even one of those many thrillers, written in the ’60s and ’70s, which fed on the Wall’s myth and mood – on Checkpoint Charlie and matters of surveillance.
My book of choice does open in thriller-ish style, with echoes of Len Deighton. The twilight approach to Berlin is unpredictable, mysterious:
In order to land against the wind, a plane from the west must cross the city and the wall dividing it three times: initially heading east, the plane enters West Berlin airspace, banks left across the eastern part of the city, and then coming back from the east, takes the barrier a third time . . .
But in Peter Schneider’s short work, The Wall Jumper, no Harry Palmer or Colonel Stok jumps down on to the runway. It’s post-Cold War now, and th
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