I have recently been reading Nigel Cox’s posthumous collection Phone Home Berlin, a fantastic assortment of essays, articles and musings. Nigel’s non-fiction is so eminently readable and it’s easy to dip into it and end up getting lost. I have now read his story about his early writing experiences and encounter with a mentor-figure twice and enjoyed it just as much the second time around. It reminds me of a very good novel or short story by one of those incredibly smart British male authors of yesteryear, with characters that are so interesting and perfect, it’s hard to believe they’re not actually made up. But that is the secret to engaging non-fiction – the ability to turn real events into a bloody good yarn.
I wouldn’t even mind if I’d heard that he’d embellished it somewhat, like Paul Theroux embellished a lunch party at VS Naipaul’s that was attended by my old English lecturer, Michael Neill. CK Stead wrote a wonderful article comparing the two events, reported and actual, which unfortunately is not available online, but let’s just say that Neill didn’t recognise himself or the events, and Stead’s article is easily as entertaining as the chapter, (from Theroux’s Sir Vidia's Shadow, a memoir of his friendship and rivalry with VS Naipaul) that it criticises.
It just goes to show though, that people can, and do, and perhaps even should, fiddle with the ‘facts’ a little bit for the sake of some good reading.
But back to Phone Home Berlin – reading the Berlin chapters transported me to my own time in Berlin last year on my honeymoon. A strange destination for a honeymoon, people have told me, but I’d been wanting to go for a little while (German was my best subject at school and despite having been to Europe four times, I’d never been to Germany); my husband had been there and loved it, and when we decided to go happened to coincide with getting married, so presto! It became our honeymoon. We had been planning to do a whiskey tour of Scotland as part of the same trip, but pregnancy dealt with that little dream.
Berlin is a blast. Especially if you are young and like going out to bars, and even more especially if you like smoking in bars. I have been known to do both of these things, and if I had gone there even as recently as three years ago I know I would have had a much different (yes, probably better) experience. But being four months pregnant is not the best state to be in to visit Berlin. The bars were fantastic, the best I have seen… homely and shabby and characterful and full of interesting people you’d like to get drunk with… but I wasn’t drinking and to make things worse the bars were all so smoky I nearly gagged when I walked into them. And by about ten, when people were just starting to go out, I was tired and ready for bed. I had an overwhelming feeling that I had come to Berlin just too late.
Of course there were other aspects of interest there, but I have to admit that the things that draw me to a foreign country are its romance factor, its art, its food, its drink. And the reason I had never been to Germany before was because I had never felt that it would quite provide what I was looking for in those departments. While I like sausage as much as the next person (unless that person is vegetarian), I can’t really get excited about three weeks of sausage and Spargel (white asparagus). When I went to Thailand a few years ago, I would wake up very morning excited thinking – what will I eat today?
So with no exciting food and no bar action, we just did the usual tourist things and looked at lots of castles and war memorials. Now I’m not saying that German history isn’t interesting – it most certainly is fascinating – it just doesn’t inspire a sort of languid dreaminess like, say, Spain.
There were a couple of places in Berlin, however, that did blow me away, and those were the Holocaust Memorial and the Jewish Museum that Nigel Cox worked at and that he talks about in the book. Again, being pregnant made it not quite the experience I would have hoped for (being attacked by a sudden and voracious hunger when I was in the middle of the museum which takes about 15 minutes to walk through – designed so you have to go past every single bit of it, no shortcuts. I wanted to grab the nearest staff member and say in my seventh form German that was last spoken 20 years ago: “Achtung! Wissen Sie nicht, ich schwanger sein! Geben Sie mir Essen!”) but it was moving and fascinating and upsetting and beautiful and exhausting nonetheless.
I read and enjoyed Nigel’s novel Responsibility last year and was taken back to those Berlin trams, with the incredibly sexy recorded announcements (“Alexanderplatz” had never sounded so much like foreplay), and now I get to read the real life experience of the city as well as the fictional one.
I’ve talked more about me than the book of course. I never pretended to be writing reviews on this blog, I just bring up books when they get me thinking about things I want to write about (OK, ramble might be a more accurate word). But Phone Home Berlin is a great book, and just so sad that it’s the last we’ll hear from a unique New Zealand voice. I wish he’d got to write all those books he would have written.