“the city will live and the Wall will fall”*

Even though I’ve lived in Berlin for more than a year and spent around 2 1/2 months here on two separate occasions before that, I’m often still struck, as though it’s my first day, by how amazing this city’s 20th century history is and how amazing it is to be living here amidst it all, a place that I grew up reading about: the wars, the Berlin Wall. Berlin is a story in my head, and it’s also a real place, and I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to get to know it even a little bit.

(“Do you know Berlin?” I asked a German friend living in the U.K. before I came here the first time. He laughed and said, “Does anyone know Berlin?”)

I think Berlin has integrated the past century of history into the cityscape so thoughtfully and intelligently, preserving it without glorifying it. There’s nothing to mark Hitler’s bunker, although you can go there–I have, it’s a car park. But there’s a street I was walking down one day and I realized there were little plaques set into the sidewalk, and I stopped and looked at them. They were the names and birth dates and death dates of the Jewish people who had lived in the apartments I was walking past. Entire families, extinguished in the death camps. Memorialized not with fanfare, just there. A street, bearing witness along with everyone who walked along it and looked down.

Today I went for a wander in Prenzlauer Berg, the neighborhood next to mine, and wandering brought me to a museum. “Museum in der Kulturbrairei,” the sign outside said, which wasn’t really very descriptive given that I was literally standing in the Kulturbrairei, but it also said admission was free and you know what, I love museums. So I went inside, where a man at the door told me that the museum was free and that I could leave my backpack in one of the lockers. I still didn’t know what the museum was all about, but I went over and struggled with the lockers for about five minutes until a couple came in and watching them I realized OH THERE IS A LITTLE SLOT INSIDE THE DOOR I NEED TO PUT A EURO COIN IN which was a really good thing as I otherwise might still be there, now, trying to get one to lock.

It turned out to be a really good museum! Museum in der Kulturbrairei is a museum about everyday life in the DDR/GDR/East Germany. It’s wonderful because it has loads of interesting items and a lot of video and is quite interactive, but also because it’s just a museum about ordinary people and their lives. I like a grand archeological find like the Staffordshire Hoard as much as the next person (and did I nearly die of excitement at seeing some of it? I DID), but there’s nothing like learning how people lived day to day. There’s something profoundly humanistic about making museum pieces of children’s essays, of the complaint book left for supermarket cashiers, of the longed-for Levis that could be bought in Hungary, if you could afford it and could manage to get a visa.

I wasn’t going to bother taking any photos because the battery on my regular phone needs replacing which means I am using my ancient phone with a broken camera, but I couldn’t resist a few shots–apologies for the dreadful quality.

I was, as ever, particularly interested in some of the displays on youth movements and artists’ resistance, especially efforts to circulate forbidden material. I’m a passionate believer in free expression, including free expression I dislike and disagree with, created by people I dislike and disagree with. I found myself thinking about all the ways that art and expression can be discouraged–it’s not always just about the government knocking down your door–and how often it begins from a well-meaning place, a belief that it is a good and necessary thing, to protect people and a way of life. There were some examples of samizdat literature, which I remember hearing about in the 1980s. I really wanted to be a dissident fighting against a totalitarian government–it sounded exciting and glamorous and meaningful. Vaclav Havel, the playwright-turned-revolutionary-turned-statesman, was kind of a hero of mine in those days, so I was struck by his name on the cover of this one. Too bad it was under glass!

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I saw photos of and read about youth movements, including the “hitchhiker” movement of the 1970s. This was all new to me.

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I loved this little window into the youth movement of the East exploding just as it did in the West.

Of course, as the Cold War raged, over in the West the story was that we were endlessly unfettered and free and They were miserable and oppressed. Neither of these is entirely true, of course, and as East Germans liked to go on holiday with the family as much as anyone, I was also quite taken with this display: the car tent. When you fold it up, it’s the shape of a double mattress on top of the car, a big rectangular box. The tents were easy to pop up. Apparently camping was a very popular pastime in East Germany. How much weight could you put in a car tent, a reporter asked the inventor in the video footage about the tent. A Trabi could take up to 250 kilos, he said, so three people of 70 kilos each, no problem. Unfortunately, the inventor’s company folded after reunification as he couldn’t keep up with demands as well as his competitors.

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(again, sorry for the terrible photo.)

There were some wonderful examples of what I think of as Soviet-style propaganda posters although of course they were East German (and I’m not really a fan of the word “propaganda” because I remember as a kid thinking of propaganda was something their government did and not ours, which is of course nonsense).

There was also this.

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History doesn’t so much repeat itself so much as it does, as someone who was almost certainly not Mark Twain said, rhyme. In other words, the cyclical juggernaut of history is deceptive: because now never looks quite like then, so surely, we are not repeating ourselves; perhaps there are parallels but we are not like them.

We are not just like them, we are them, being human, in our endlessly blundering ways. We keep making the same mistakes and we’re too myopic to realize it. But we also keep being wonderfully, endearingly, human, and a place like the Museum in der Kulturbrairei reminds us. The city of Berlin itself, the fact that it still exists, and thrives, and changes (and does not change, is still that city of artists and intellectuals and decadents and dissidents it was 100 years ago) reminds us, if we’ll just listen.

 

*title is from the memoirs of former Chancellor of West Germany and former Berlin mayor, Willy Brandt

Dublin Ghost Story Festival

This summer, over the weekend of August 19-21, I’ll be at the Dublin Ghost Story Festival in (where else?) Dublin, Ireland, the city of Bram Stoker and J. Sheridan Le Fanu (among others) along with many luminaries: Guest of Honor Adam Nevill, Toastmaster John Connolly, and assorted guests David Mitchell, Angela Slatter, Sarah Pinborough, A.K. Benedict, Paul Kane, Marie O’Regan, and John Reppion. Oh, and also me. Tickets are a mere €30 for what should prove to be a brilliant weekend of spooky fun including a performance of an M.R. James play by the legendary Nunkie Theatre Company.

There’s a limit of 150 attendees with no tickets sold at the door, and the festival is filling up fast! So book now to avoid disappointment. Dublin is a great city and who knows…maybe we’ll even manage to conjure up an apparition or two.

a trip to the North

Last weekend, I made a brief trip across the border to Northern Ireland for the 2D Northern Ireland Comic Festival in Derry, stopping off in Belfast along the way for a bit of (what else?) bookstore browsing.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been to the North. How long? Last time I was there, the streets of Belfast and Derry were full of British soldiers; in Belfast, you had to pass through police checkpoints just to travel around the city. I’d become friends with another American girl in Dublin and together we spent a few weeks hitchhiking round the Republic and the North. When we got ready to return to Dublin from Belfast, we decided to splurge and take the train. Except that we ended up not getting the train, we had to take the bus, because the IRA had called in a bomb threat on the track.

We never felt in any danger in the North, and in fact it was still quite a safe place for tourists to visit. We met lovely people and sometimes drank with them in pubs and chatted to them about various things — including politics, actually. Still, it was a relief to get back to the Republic where there weren’t soldiers everywhere.

I didn’t know a great deal about the Troubles at that stage beyond a broad outline of the situation. I know far more about all of it now, and I know and have talked to and am friends and acquaintances with Irish people who are all across the spectrum as regards the politics of it all. Ultimately, my position is that I am not Irish and thus, well, I don’t have a position. Only a general one, which applies more or less across the board to all situations: killing innocent civilians is a pretty bad thing to do whether it’s state-sponsored or not. Colonizing other countries is also bad. Undoing colonization can be easier said than done when the effects of said colonization are entrenched in a culture and economy. When people are made to feel powerless and marginalized from a social and economic standpoint, it’s more likely that they will ally themselves with an organization that makes them feel as though they belong to something. People often have the same reasons for joining their country’s military as others do for engaging in guerrilla warfare and terrorist activities, whether it’s the aforementioned marginalization or notions about honor and justice. Most people think they are doing the right thing, whatever it is they are doing; people also do right things for wrong reasons and wrong things for right reasons. A few people are sociopaths who will take advantage of any breakdown in the social order or any institutionalized opportunity for violence to act out their sociopathy. Ireland has a complicated history and if you are not Irish (and by that I mean Irish-Irish not “Irish American”) and you think you understand it you probably don’t.

All this is by way of saying, it was lovely to return to a de-militarized, as it were, North.

This is an excellent used bookstore I visited in Belfast. I could have easily spent hundreds of pounds in this store if I’d had it. All my favorite sections — general fiction, classics, science fiction, fantasy, and travel — were bursting with books I want to read. It’s a small shop, but whoever does the buying is only selecting the best stuff.

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I don’t have a photo of the shop next door, Atomic Collectibles, where for just a couple of pounds I scored these two paperbacks:

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Now my secret is out: yes, I have a weakness for Dennis Wheatley novels. Yes, it’s a guilty pleasure.

And I never pass up a chance to read a new-to-me John Wyndham novel, and that’s one I’d never heard of before.

Onwards to Derry. The soldiers have left the streets in the North, but the Union Jack still flies to mark Unionist areas while paint on road signs obscures the “London” part of “Londonderry.”

Derry was the site for the awful massacre of innocent civilians by British troops in 1972 known as Bloody Sunday. Conditions for the Catholic residents at the time were appalling, and nationalists had established an area known as “Free Derry.”

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Today, murals tell the story of the events in Derry at the time. These are just a few.

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The Museum of Free Derry is an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning more about these events, and I’d highly recommend a visit to anyone stopping off in the town.

It would be naive to simply say all that it is in the past now. The dead are far from forgotten.

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Tensions remain. Signs and graffiti reference “POWs” and demand their release. You’ll need to click on the photo below to enlarge it and read the graffiti that says “RIP DOLOURS PRICE IRA.”

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But Derry, and the North in general, is still a very different place now.

And the 2D Festival is a lovely one, across three excellent venues, friendly and fun — that’s the report from the Forbidden Planet blog. And Maura McHugh’s report is here. Here was no politics, no tragedy, no broken divided city, just kids and grown-ups, comics readers and artists and writers and creators mingling (like the legendary Herb Trimpe! who I did not know was legendary as I chattered away to him and his lovely wife in Sandino’s Bar on Friday night!). As someone who prefers my conventions small and homey and focused on literature, whose idea of hell is attending a massive media extravaganza like the San Diego Comicon, 2D with its mix of independents and big names, Irish and international titles, is the perfect size and atmosphere.

I feel like I should have a moral to wrap all this up at the end here, but the only things I can think of sound simplistic and patronizing. So: Time doesn’t heal all wounds, and people and places don’t always change, but sometimes they do. And it does give one hope.

Fantasycon 2012 and a little good magic

In 2010, I went to the best con I’ve ever attended, the World Horror Convention in Brighton, England. When I found out that the same team that was responsible for that awesome weekend would be running the British Fantasy Convention at the same hotel in 2012, I immediately put it on my wish list.

Well, the best laid plans, etc. etc., and as the date hurtled ever closer it became increasingly clear to me that for various reasons, I wasn’t going to be able to make it. I sucked it up, as you do; you can’t always get what you want, as the song tells us, and there’d be other cons (but I didn’t want other cons, I wanted this con). I’d spend the weekend writing furiously and resolutely not thinking about all the fun I wasn’t having.

But! At the last minute, some good magic happened–it does that sometimes, you know, when you least expect it–and almost literally before I knew what had happened with my reversal of fortune I was on a train hurtling back down to Brighton.

And a fine, fine, fine weekend it was indeed. It was lovely to see people I’d met two years earlier and not seen since; it was wonderful to make new friends (though I really missed those of you I met in 2010 who couldn’t attend this convention). I did a panel on blurring genre boundaries in place of Emma Newman, who couldn’t attend at the last minute, and there was a reading that wasn’t, and a terrific panel on fairy folk (where I learned it’s wisest to never actually utter that word) and an awesome Joe Lansdale interview and ice cream on a chilly beach and a few spins by moonlight on the Brighton Wheel and interesting rocks collected in a solitary walk along the shore and more kebabs than any human should eat over a four-day period and (permit me my single moment of name-dropping) getting to tell Robin Hardy that The Wicker Man is one of my favorite films of all time and then chatting with him about US presidential politics, and new friends and talking and talking and talking to some of the most wonderful and engaging people and not just about books and writing, either, but about film and football and feminism and music and more. Oh! And I got to hold the British Fantasy Award deservedly won (well, I would say that, wouldn’t it?) by Black Static. My solitary regret is the people I meant to speak to over the weekend and somehow missed, or those of you I managed only to speak to rather than having a substantial conversation. Next time I shall make a list and I won’t rest till I’ve tracked you all down like a demented scavenger hunter. (That sounds much more unsettling than intended, coming from a horror writer, doesn’t it? I only want to chat! And probably tell you how much I loved this one amazing story that you wrote!)

It turned out to be exactly what I needed and then some, a glorious writerly weekend in the very best company. And next year I get to do it all again! World Fantasy Convention in Brighton 2013, run by the same folks yet again (mustn’t they be worn out by now?), in a slightly more upscale venue (but I will forever have a deep love for the Royal Albion in all its faded seaside glory). And I have the bones of a Brighton story taking unsettling shape somewhere in the cellars of my brain. So thanks to lovely Brighton for showing me a good time yet again, to the Royal Albion Hotel, to the 2012 Fantasycon committee, to everyone who turned up and made every minute so much fun, and to the good magic that spirited me there.