Monthly Archives: August 2011

Overheard on the 48 (it was hard not to, really)

So I was on the bus back from Borough Market yesterday, with a belly full of that holy trinity that no Michelin-starred restaurant will ever come close to – a Monmouth flat white, a rocket and chorizo roll and a crème caramel from the French buttery (and may I point out that I am doing the equivalent of 12 hours weight training a day, my son is not a small child) – when a man began yelling into his mobile about how quietly he had spoken.

I’ll call him Cyril as that’s the sort of man he was – crisp white trousers, a baggy blue chambray shirt, an older, yet curiously unaged face (confirmed bachelor, no children, I suspect) and a floppy sort of hat with a rustic little twig sticking out of it.

It appeared that his friend, a woman called Jillian, was ticking him off for talking too loudly about another neighbour – clearly a sworn enemy of them both – in what sounded like a communal garden. What was odd about the conversation was that although he denied talking loudly, his voice was reverberating through the entire bus.

‘I WASN’T talking loudly Jillian! He listens. That’s what happens, he listens and he watches. I knew he was there because I heard the curtains twitching, but I WASN’T TALKING LOUDLY.’

Silence as Jillian said her piece.

‘I DON’T KNOW WHAT HIS PROBLEM IS. It’s malicious, it’s gone on for years now. He’s homophobic, that’s part of it. And it will just go on and on. But I DON’T KNOW HOW HE HEARD ME.’

More silence.

‘Because I’m obsessed with him.’


‘Yes, I agree it doesn’t make sense. I don’t know how he can hear me. I never hear his parties.’

Aha. At this point he got off, still bellowing into the phone, and silence was restored. And of course, no one gave any indication of having heard a word.

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Berlin Wall 50 years on: Ingrid’s story

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall going up. I was vaguely commissioned to write a piece about my husband’s grandmother, who escaped from East Berlin, but in the end it wasn’t published, so I’ve decided to post it here instead. My husband – like many Berliners – gets a bit tetchy about visitors to the city wanting to see the remains of the wall, and has been known to scoff at tourists photographing it – ‘the wall’s gone guys, it’s over, move on!’ But his grandmother loves to recite the story of her escape, and I managed to get it all written down one day. Here it is:

I was working as a scientist in East Berlin when the wall went up overnight in 1961. My 15-year-old daughter was staying with my mother in West Berlin that weekend, so I didn’t see her for two years. Eventually she was granted a visa and visited me a few times, but it was very stressful. She had to queue for hours and go through a heavily guarded checkpoint, always dreading an interrogation or body search.

By 1967 I was desperate to escape. My sister, a ballerina, had committed suicide in West Berlin, and my request to attend her funeral was turned down without explanation. I realised then how cruel the system was, and I felt very lonely. All I wanted was to get out.

I was prepared to take the risk because even if I was caught and imprisoned I would be set free after a few years. It was widely known that the West German government paid a substantial amount of money per prisoner to the East Germans, who were desperate to boost their economy. Three years in prison was nothing compared to a lifetime in East Berlin surrounded by barbed wire and a wall. At the time no one thought that the wall would eventually come down.

My mother organised my escape. She contacted the Red Cross and through them found an American organisation that would smuggle me out for 30,000 DM (14,000 GBP) – all her savings. I had to meet the mediator at a café. As we talked we had to look relaxed, in case there were Stasi agents watching us. He told me to book a holiday at the seaside resort of Varna in Bulgaria, where I was to stand outside the post office every night at eight o’clock, wearing a white coat so the courier would recognise me. My daughter smuggled my important documents, such as my university degree and birth certificate, across the border under her clothes.

Because of my work as a scientist I was considered trustworthy by the GDR, and granted a travel visa. At Varna I stayed in a hotel for East German tourists. We all had meals in the hotel restaurant, which gave the authorities a chance to count people and ensure no one was missing. An undercover Stasi agent usually accompanied tour groups, posing as a guide or traveller. You never knew who it was, but you knew they were there.

To disguise my intentions I established myself as a party girl, staying out late in nightclubs so people wouldn’t immediately raise the alarm when I didn’t show up after a night out. During the day I rested. I shared a room with another woman and the lack of privacy was stressful, as I had no chance to reflect on what I was about to attempt. I felt exhausted from the effort of acting normal.

Each night I stood outside the post office in my white coat, a camera over my shoulder to look like a tourist and my DDR passport in my pocket. I felt very focussed on my escape, but after a week no one had come and I started to panic.

On the eighth night a young man approached me, and I recognised him as an old university acquaintance. He gave me directions to a meeting point, then I returned to the hotel for dinner so the alarm wouldn’t be raised. Afterwards I left as if going to a nightclub. It was a long, eerie walk past tobacco fields to the meeting point. It was getting dark and I felt very lonely. Suddenly along came a massive beige car with American diplomatic number plates. In the car was the boy I knew, along with a driver.

I sat in the back of the car and we drove to the Yugoslavian border. Just before we got there we stopped in a dark forest. The driver pressed a button on the dashboard and to my amazement it opened up, revealing a space just big enough to squeeze into. Once in, I found it bigger than it looked, with enough room to lie down.

When we arrived at the border I could hear the guards asking questions, and I felt ice cold, totally alert and immersed in the situation. Because the car had diplomatic number plates it was unlikely to be searched, but I knew that the alarm had probably been raised at the hotel.

We drove down many isolated donkey tracks and through fields in Yugoslavia, staying in cheap hotels along the way. It took about four days to get to the Austrian border, and whenever we travelled through a town or checkpoint I had to squeeze back into the chamber.

Finally we reached Munich, and I boarded a flight to West Berlin’s Tempelhof airport. I arrived with only my handbag, after a journey that would have taken less than an hour by train. I felt so relieved and happy to see my daughter and my mother.

I had to report to an escapee intake centre, where I was interrogated by the Germans and each of the Allies, first the Americans, then the British and finally the French. They all asked the same questions – where did you live in East Berlin, and what do you know about the Russian military?

I was granted refugee status, but the authorities advised me to leave Berlin because scientists were sometimes kidnapped back by the East Germans, so I registered with the job centre, and found work as a high school chemistry teacher in North Germany, where I still live today. Finally normal life could begin.

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Turning Japanese

The news is simply bilious with riot coverage at the moment, and there’s nothing I can add that hasn’t already been said with far more eloquence and devastating accuracy elsewhere (I thought this piece by Zoe Williams was particularly good).

So I thought I’d write instead about the Japanese domestic interiors exhibition at the Geffrye Museum (on until 29 August). I visited last Friday, and although it’s a little thin in parts I still liked it – ever since David Mitchell said something (or perhaps he was quoting someone else) along the lines of ‘all countries are different, but Japan is differently different’ the country has become something of an obsession. The Japan rooms at the British Museum only fuelled it, and just yesterday I received in the post, all the way from Shibuya Publishing, Japan, a copy of Art For All magazine, which featured a blog I wrote mentioning Gilbert and George. My bloggerly cup spilleth over.

Anyway, I learned a few things at the exhibition about Japanese homes. Firstly, toilets are considered unclean (obviously) so you would never have one in the same room as the bath or sink (or, presumably, carpet the loo, as I have seen here). And while you wear house slippers at all times in a Japanese home, you change these for special toilet slippers at the appropriate time. I like that.

Also, dolls are often given as gifts by grandparents (nothing new there). They are thought to protect the children as they grow up. Dolls must be treated well or they can cause bad luck; when stored, their faces must be covered, and old and unwanted dolls must be ritually disposed of at temples and shrines. Now this I also feel is very wise – like many people, I find some dolls disturbing, and I think the idea of treating them carefully is a good one. I remember reading a book set on the Welsh coast about a girl who is given a wooden doll – I think it was called Dodi – and it causes all sorts of trouble. I’d love to read it again actually, and see if it’s still as terrifying (editing it: it’s called A Candle In Her Room & the secondhand paperback is currently going for about 30 quid on Amazon. Hunting it down also reminded me of my whole teenage Lois Duncan phase – Killing Mr Griffin, Stranger with my Face, Trapped in Time – she wrote brilliant teen thrillers).

Finally, the entry of the home is considered spiritually hazardous, so lucky owls and cats are displayed on top of the shoe cupboard as protection.

Bugger. Baby squawking. Back to ball training (the kid’s got talent).


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