Defectors, neon and Electric Dreams. My holiday snaps at the Berlin Wall.

In 1984 my boarding school organised a trip to Berlin to allow us to do some light shopping – and stand for a few days on the front line of the Cold War and reflect that we might all soon be eviscerated in a thermonuclear armageddon.

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Berlin war as snapped by author 1984

A few months before our departure my father took me aside and said yes it was great I was going and everything and he was happy to pay – but there was a family secret and a black sheep and perhaps we should inform the school – especially given that my best friend’s father was currently Colonel in Chief of the British army in West Berlin. The secret, it transpired, was that my father’s cousin, a former Reuter’s correspondent called John Peet, had defected to the DDR in 1950 and was still living in East Berlin where he was churning out anti Western propaganda.

The head of my school’s History department was duly informed and rather than being taken aback that one of the boys in the 5th had a treacherous commie spy in the family – begged for Peet’s address and asked if we could all go and meet him for a cup of tea.

In the meantime I struck up a bit of a correspondence with my estranged family member and he posted me some of the propaganda bulletins that he had spent the past 30 years firing off. They variously excused the Berlin Wall, communism, the restrictions on freedom to travel imposed on those behind the Iron Curtain – and naturally himself.

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East Berlin neon

Getting to Berlin involved a night ferry to Hamburg and then a sealed train across the flat East German landscape and into the city. I remember particularly crossing from West Germany into the East and being taken aback by the humourless DDR guards who checked our passports and issued us with transit visas. West Berlin seemed thrilling and neon. A young city full of discos and pretty girls some of who we even convinced to go dancing with us but then just as you were beginning to enjoy yourself you’d spot the wall and frankly it was a bit of a downer as the whole ‘shit we’re going to die in a third world war’ thing kicked in.

One day my history teacher and I crossed Checkpoint Charlie and went and met my second cousin. The old man, replete with Marxist beard, looked me up and down and demanded to know why I wasn’t wearing a tie. At first I thought he was joking – but it seemed that humour wasn’t his thing. Black sheep of the family indeed.

East Berlin was as drab and empty as our conversation as we walked to a bar. He asked politely after my father and my aunt and made some snide comments about ‘public schoolboys on ghoulish sightseeing holidays.’ He asked my history teacher when the next trip to Northern Ireland was.

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Ceremonial DDR Guards at the Neue Wache

The only building that sticks in my mind was the Fernsehturm television tower which I was later to go up with a couple of school friends – as I remember it you had to ‘get off after two revolutions’.

The three of us finally found the beer hall and to my astonishment my teacher bought me a beer. And then another. The two men began to have a fairly intense political conversation – none of which I can remember on account of those beers. There wasn’t much laughter going on so I asked John whether he had a car and he seemed to take umbrage – so we left.

At some point the whole group crossed and I met Peet again, who told us all about how fantastic communism was, while we listened politely. We went up the TV tower and ate some lunch and had our two revolutions and tried to spend the rest of our DDR money which felt like plastic – but there was nothing to buy and when we tried to give it to passers by they looked at us suspiciously and scurried away.

The Western half of the city couldn’t have been more different – it felt like it was waiting for something. We visited the Reichstag – then a semi empty building with no actual purpose and new carpets which gave us all electric shocks. We visited the old Olympic stadium and tried to work out if we were standing where Hitler had once stood. We visited the wall (actually two walls). We stood by the western side and took photos – you weren’t meant to. We climbed up on to little wooden viewing towers and looked out across the no man’s land. We took the U bahn and travelled to deserted stations on the Eastern side where you could buy cheap cigarettes and vodka. We swore undying love to those German girls whose names I can no longer remember and went and watched Electric Dreams with them in a cinema in a shopping centre.

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Memorial outside Reichstag to those who died trying to cross the wall

And it was only after returning – only after the passage of time – only after two, perhaps three years had gone by that the banal horror of it all began to sink in. To this teenage boy at his school in Northamptonshire, the Cold War was no longer an abstract idea or a Frankie Goes to Hollywood song. It was real. There – just a few hundred miles away – the ugliest of brutal human divisions – carved like a grotesque scar across the face of Europe and I had the Kodak prints to prove it. It seeemed so intransigent – so permanent – human estrangement – moulded in concrete and barbed wire. And my father’s cousin had dedicated his life to defending it.

In November 1989 I was a student living in a little cottage off the M2 near Faversham. We had no telephone or even TV but we had long hair and cigarettes and life stretching out before us. And that morning – which must have been the 10th of November – I remember sitting on my bed chatting to my girlfriend when my housemate unexpectedly reappeared and shouted up ‘mate! Mate – they’re pulling the Berlin wall down.’

It seemed impossible.

There was a story going about campus that a group of students had piled into the Union bus and set off for Berlin to help dismantle the carbuncle – the rest of us found a television and watched and drank coffee and smoked cigarettes and cheered the news. Can you remember when you last cheered the news?

If this could happen – then anything could – or so it seemed back then. In a trice the Cold War was gone. And yes the formalities of reunification and the end of the USSR trickled on for years but when I think of that November day – it feels like 9/11 in reverse.

Cousin John had died a year before. Did he regret a life spent in the defence of totalitarianism? Quite probably. But he had made his Faustian pact and was obliged to live with it. He was on the wrong side of history and while I perhaps feel a little sorry for him and his footnote in it – when I think about it now I’m mostly very glad I didn’t wear a fucking tie.

As of this week the wall has been down longer than it was ever up. A reunited and largely succesful Germany leads Europe and despite all our travails we are safer and more united as a continent than at possibly any time in our history – yes – despite Brexit. While some talk of the ‘risk Russia poses’ to the West it is in no way comparable to the dark days of the Cold War. There are those who say that we dropped the ball after 1989 and that the new world that could have been carved out of the possibilities that presented themselves never materialised. I would argue, perhaps optimistically – that they still can.