With ever-accelerating globalisation, an escalating refugee crisis, and, of course, Brexit, issues of “place” have been on people’s minds a lot recently. SAND #19, titled “Out of Place,” is testament to that, and so is the work of Paul Scraton. Here’s a chance to read a conversation he had with us on questions of place, history, and writing about them both, followed by his original short story “Trans Europa Express.”
Alexandra Gunn: “Britain First,” “Make America Great Again”: ideas of national identity seem to define modern politics. How do you think issues of “place” – in all its diversity of meaning – have come to the fore and/or altered in the public mind in recent years?
Paul Scraton: I think this is fundamental and a key question. And it is not only in the UK and the USA. This rise of nativist and nationalist movements can be observed in Italy and Sweden, Germany and Poland, France and Hungary (and that’s just in Europe). What they stand for varies from country to country, but one common thread appears to be the idea that there is a rootlessness not only born out of but encouraged by the globalised world we live in, and that it is has fractured communities that were once solid and whole. There was, the argument goes, a better world once and it could be better again, if only we could go back to it. It’s nostalgia and dangerous nonsense, but it is extremely persuasive, especially for those people who are struggling right at the time when the social safety nets seem to be fraying all around them.
The issue for those of us who are interested in “place,” and how it relates to ideas of identity and belonging, is whether or not it is possible to engage with this topic in a way that is inclusive and does not, step by step, automatically lead to the kind of exclusive understanding of identity and belonging that can be observed in all the political movements mentioned above. I’d like to think it is possible (but I am also only too aware that I might be wrong). It is crucial, I think, that we do forge or re-establish connections to the places that we live, because beyond the political movements gaining strength at this time, we are also facing environmental catastrophe. It is only by understanding these processes – the historical, the ecological, the societal – through the many and varied stories of place that I think we can find positive solutions. At least, I hope so.
Alex: In an interview about your previous book, Ghosts on the Shore (2017), you mentioned Christopher Isherwood as one of your early literary introductions to Berlin. Now you know the city well – how much of Isherwood’s Berlin can still be experienced today?
Paul: Much has changed in the city since Isherwood called it home, but of course you can still find traces, and part of the interest I have in exploring places is trying to find those links to the past. I’m not an expert on what physical remains there are of Isherwood’s Berlin, as I think what appealed to me when I read his books was the atmosphere he was invoking, and I liked to think I could feel that as a younger person, staying up late in the bars and riding the night bus or the U-Bahn in the early morning. I’m sure that still exists, but maybe I’m just too old for it now!
In general though, I think lots of people have an interest in not only hearing stories of a place, but also hearing them “on location.” So there are Isherwood tours of Berlin, and Bowie tours, and Cold War tours, and Rosa Luxemburg tours… whatever the topic of interest, you can find someone to take you on a walk and tell you about it (and I should know as I have led some of them!). Quite often they are as much a tour of the imagination as they are of actual places that can still be experienced today. The Berlin that we see today was basically built from the late 18th century on and has always been a sandbox for whoever is in charge to make their vision of the city real, in concrete and stone, steel and glass. So you can see the Kaiser’s vision of a European capital along Unter den Linden, Nazi megalomania in the Tempelhof terminal building and the Finance Ministry, GDR-grandeur along Karl-Marx-Allee and the brave new reunified world built along the Spree with the new government district. The city changes, always changes, and the layers are built alongside and often on top of each other.
Alex: What says “Berlin” to you? Where can you see “the real Berlin”?
Paul: Everywhere and nowhere. However we engage with the city, as someone who lives here or is just passing through, we are engaging with the “real” Berlin. But yours will be different to mine, and mine will be different to my neighbour’s. We all have our personal geographies of place – the walk to work, the tram-stop, the bakery, the supermarket – which are our authentic version of that place. But the idea that Neukölln, for example, is more “the real Berlin” than Alexanderplatz, or Marienfelde, or Hohenschönhausen is ridiculous. And the idea that people who are living in one area as opposed to another are having a more “authentic” experience is too. I think the same is true for the tourist, or the short-term visitor to the city. Even if you spent your entire stay in a combination of Ku’damm, Potsdamer Platz and Hackescher Markt, it is still a true Berlin experience. My Osloer Straße, with its tram-stop, its bakery and the Lidl around the corner, is no more “real” than Hauptbahnhof, Rosenthaler Platz or the Sony Center.
Alex: Built on Sand (Influx Press, 2019) will be your debut work of fiction. What encouraged you turn away from nonfiction for this book?
Paul Scraton: I would say it was more a “next step” than a “turn away.” In Ghosts on the Shore, a predominantly nonfiction journey along Germany’s Baltic coast, I also included three short stories which told the tale of a German family through four generations. The reasoning behind that decision was that I felt I needed to use a different technique in order to tell those particular stories, that it allowed me to discuss certain themes – around how history weighs on individuals, on the moral choices faced when living in totalitarian regime – that could be explored better through fiction than otherwise.
I knew my next book was going to be about Berlin, and perhaps because it has been my home now for over 17 years, I felt like I needed a bit more distance in order to write about it. And I had received some positive feedback on the short stories in Ghosts on the Shore, which gave me the confidence that I could write a novel and still explore the themes – history, memory, identity and place – that more interest me. So although many of my earlier readers seem convinced that the narrator of Built on Sand is me, and that most of the characters that appear are real people in my life, it is most definitely fiction and the decision for that was simply that it seemed to me the best means of telling the story and stories that I wanted to tell.
Alex: What different joys and challenges come from writing fiction compared to nonfiction?
Paul: It is hard to compare, and ultimately it comes back to what I just mentioned: what do I think allows me to tell this particular story best? It might be fiction, nonfiction or something in between. Indeed, I am not sure whether “Trans Europa Express” – the text I wrote for the Brexit Wake in Berlin that is accompanying this interview – should be called a short story or an essay. It is certainly fiction, but I think this time I am most certainly the narrator. And at least some of what happens in it is true…
Alex: I’ve long been intrigued by the concept of “place memory,” the belief that places that have witnessed violent or otherwise momentous events can become haunted, so that the event plays out there, in ghost form, over and over again. Of the places you’ve been, where do you think is the best candidate for being haunted in this way?
Paul: I don’t believe in ghosts and I don’t believe that places have a memory, but I do believe that people have a memory, both personal and collective, and it is this that makes somewhere “haunted.” It is what we know about a place that can give it a power. Early on in Ghosts on the Shore I stand at the water’s edge and look out over the Bay of Lübeck. In and of itself it is a typical, coastal scene. In the winter it was dull and grey. In the summer, I am sure there is a beauty to it. And all those beaches and small stretches of sand will have positive connotations for so many people. Places they went as children to play and swim. First kisses on a long summer night. Walks with friends. But once you know that it was in these waters that boats containing the survivors of concentration camps were mistakenly attacked from the sky by RAF planes only day before the end of the war, and that the bodies would be washing ashore for months on those same beaches that are also places of fun and games, then it cannot but have an influence on how we take in the scene.
The ultimate example of this is, of course, those places that we as societies have decided to formalise as “sites of memory” in some way. Berlin is full of these, from the former Forced Labour Camp at Schöneweide to the entirety of the Berlin Wall Trail, all 160 kilometres of it. But it is not that they are ‘haunted” places that interests me, so much as what they represent insofar as we as individuals and a society come to terms with our history, and perhaps more importantly, how we can use the stories of the past to both inform the present and serve warning for the future. Storytelling is crucial, and right now it feels perhaps more urgent than ever, whether it is done through memorial sites that we then visit, the films that we watch or the books we read (and write).