It's 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell, and five years since I completed this project to document the physical and mental remains along the old European divide. My bicycle ride along the Iron Curtain was one of the most intense and enlightening experiences of my life, and the resulting book is one of the things I'm most proud of. It was a struggle to compile it: I had to learn all the elements of photobook production and wrestle with an idiosyncratic self-publishing system while also making my first career change for a decade and buying my first home. It was as much as I could manage to create a finished product and set it afloat on the wave of interest that swelled on that twentieth anniversary.
Five years later I still feel straitjacketed by time. I would have loved to take a break and return to that fading line through the continent. To see how the people and places have changed, and perhaps to produce a follow-up publication. But again that urge is competing with new life circumstances: I am a few months into a hectic but stimulating posting from the European Commission's translation service to its Representation in London, where my role is to help promote language learning and the language industry in the UK. I'm still on a steep learning curve and there's been no chance to take out the time I'd have needed for 'Fragments: the sequel'. But if I had been able to visit the border zones again, there's one journalistic gap I'd have wanted to fill: on my original trip I was unable to communicate in Hungarian on that section of the route, and so the voice of its people is absent from the book. Today, thanks to a two-year on-the-job training course, I'd be able to converse with the locals on that stretch.
One benefit of working at the Commission's London office is access to the many cultural events held in our conference and exhibition space. A couple of evenings ago we hosted a discussion organised by the Royal Society of Literature to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary. The writer Colin Thubron interviewed Berliners Rory MacLean, author of Stalin's Nose and a new biography of the city, and Maxim Leo, author of Red Love, a family memoir (L-R).
MacLean: 'Berlin's identity is not based on stability but on change. It has constantly reinvented itself.'
Leo: 'This east-west separation is less and less important, and for the younger generation even less so. Berlin is becoming a normal city. When it becomes normal that is very sad. Young people make no distinction between east and west these days and I think they need to. It's getting more difficult to remember where the Wall was, where two Germanies, two Europes, came into conflict. It was the greatest disaster of the 20th century. The weeks before the Wall came down was more interesting than the weeks afterwards, because the power was on the streets. [In the early years of reunification] we missed an opportunity to learn more from each other. The East learned more than the West, and that's more sad for the West than for the East.'
Thubron: 'This is a celebration of reconciliation and of triumph, especially at a time of such European disunity.' After the event I asked Leo about his observation that the youth was forgetting about the past. On my own trip through Germany several people told me, particularly in rural areas, that the young from either side of the old divide were still not mixing, and that it would take several generations to overcome these barriers. We concluded that perhaps the process is happening more rapidly in the city than in the countryside.
Today's anniversary coincides with Remembrance Sunday in the UK, a day when the nation remembers its war dead, including those who fell in the conflict that led indirectly to the Iron Curtain. I have vivid childhood memories of watching the wreath-laying ceremony on TV, and crying without fully understanding why. Today I live within the sound of Big Ben, which strikes eleven to begin the service of remembrance each year. So this morning I rose early and cycled over to the Tower of London for sunrise, to see the display of 888,246 ceramic poppies in the moat, one for each British fatality in the First World War. Even at 7.30 in the morning there were already hundreds of people viewing this staggering work of art and remembrance.