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).
The following story was written for the “Brexit Wake: And now what?” event held at the Literaturhaus Berlin on 29 March 2019:
TRANS EUROPA EXPRESS
By Paul Scraton
For Daša Drndić, Joseph Roth and away fans everywhere
I watch the spinning letters and numbers on the departure board and wait for them to fall. Times and platform numbers. Cities and towns. Places I have seen and others I have only imagined. From here the lines reach out, crossing boundaries and borders, of rivers and mountains, languages and culture. When I was a child I would look at my Playmobil train set and try to picture the places listed on the tiny, plastic departure board. PARIS. ROMA. HAMBURG. BEOGRAD. Every name offered something. Each place a potential story, waiting to be written. Back then they had not even started digging the hole that would link the island of my childhood with the rest of the world. But still I saw the possibility of the train and where it could take me.
Letters drop. Numbers too. Platform Six. I find my seat as the train eases out from the station, and we leave the city behind. Beyond the window the countryside unfolds. Villages of squat houses huddled around a church spire for protection. Ploughed fields and wind farms, blades turning in the late afternoon breeze. Forest plantations cut through with electricity lines and patches of older, mixed woodland. In recent years the fires have been burning with more frequency, the sky glowing red and visible for miles. A warning.
This train will take us through the night. I have company. She is here, waiting patiently for me to engage. Eventually I turn from the view out the window.
We don’t have much time, she says, even though the journey is stretched out before us. As I listen, she starts to tell me her stories. They are all connected, she says. The train links us to them all. This train. The tracks, laid out in long, connecting lines. I picture a map of the continent as she speaks, as she gives her lists of names. Lists of places, that echo like the destinations on my plastic departure board. Lists of people, the names of the dead and disappeared. Each story is another location to be marked on the map, linked by the black lines that reach out across space and time. Outside the window the trees seem to move ever closer to the tracks, a blur of trunks and branches and spiky pine needles.
We cannot allow the forest to swallow the stories.
Another train. The carriage was full of men and women in uniform. The Italians up the front, along with the British and the French. The Belgians in the smoking compartment. The Austro-Hungarians in the dining car, already drunk. My carriage was the domain of the Germans; Germans who spoke with Essex accents.
You can’t expect them to want to do it, a man told me, after lifting his canvas bag and replica rifle onto the luggage rack above our heads. It’s sensitive. You know? But we can’t do it without the Germans, so someone has to take it on. It might as well be us.
They were on their way to the battlefield, a journey they made each summer, to meet up with old friends and new faces, to rehearse and perform, and to pay their respects in a field lined with white crosses and at the chapel, the only building left standing in a village otherwise long abandoned. The forest had reclaimed the poisoned and cratered landscape, filling the empty, battle-scarred space where the village once stood. Outside the chapel, a statue of Mary was draped in a European flag.
It was the same every year, the man told me. The men and women in uniform came together on the battlefield and down in the town. The Italians and the French. The Belgians and the Austro-Hungarians. There was even an annual football match, between the English and the Germans. I asked him who would win.
We will, of course, he said with a smile. After all, for the next few days, we’re the Germans.
Our train slips across a river and over the border, from one country to the next. There is no announcement, no stop in some no-man’s land and no slow shuffle of guards along the train. The waters are choppy beneath the bridge. As we cross, she tells another story of another journey across the border. More than thirty years have passed but still she can reel off the names of the stations along the line. One after the other, ever closer to her destination, ever closer to him.
For eight summers they met and never once did their trains arrive in the small resort town by the lake at the same time. It didn’t matter, because they knew where to meet. It was planned when they said goodbye the year before. So she would walk down from the station to the promenade, and the beer garden by the jetty where the steamers left for the north shore. There she waited until his train came in and she spotted him walking the narrow street between the kiosks.
The way she tells it, it sounds romantic, this one week a year when they could walk the shore and swim together in the soft waters of the lake. But I know there is a lot she is not telling. About the half an hour each day they had to split up in order to return, via the telephone wires, to their respective realities. About all the different stories told. About the attempt to tell as few lies as possible.
We are across the river, able to spot the difference now in the road signs and billboards, in the shape of the houses that face each other across the water.
It was the border that kept us together, she says. Later, after everything changed, it just all got too complicated.
I leave her for a while and go to the dining car. The man at the next table speaks with my accent. It is the sound of my childhood in this place far away. He is on his way home from the match, he says, nursing a beer. It was going to take them 34 hours. 68 hours in total, there and back, just to watch your team lose. Still, he adds with a shrug, there is always the second leg.
I ask him why he didn’t fly.
It’s John, he replies, meaning his friend, who sleeps in his seat two carriages down the train. Ever since a trip to Thailand he refuses to fly. Like Mr. T. or Dennis Bergkamp. But we go to the match together. We’ve always gone to the match together. So now we have to go overland. By bus or train.
He gives me a list, for it is a night of lists. Marseille and Seville. Madrid, Rome and Prague. Athens. Minsk.
He shakes his head. Minsk was a long one. Then he asks me my story. It’s what you do on trains. And although I could tell him anything, and he could do the same, both of us speak the truth. Continuous movement. The darkness of the night. Full disclosure.
You must like it, he says, after I finish. He tells me his own tale of living in another country. Of five years in New York. After five years it was time to make a decision. Was that it? He liked the city, the life he had there, but it wasn’t enough. He missed his friends. His family. Going the match with John.
I remember sitting there, he says, and I was thinking: do I really want to grow old here? In this place that is not my home?
He looks at me and then drains his beer. It’s finished. I tell him that I’m not sure what home is any more.
Fair enough. He looks at his watch. Twenty hours to go, he says, with a rueful grin. He shakes his head. Dennis Fucking Bergkamp.
Beyond the carriage window, the black night. Inside, a dim light shines above the table. It will shine all night long, but it doesn’t matter. Not to her. My companion doesn’t want to sleep, and she doesn’t want to let me sleep either. More stories. More lists. More places to add to the map. Verdun. Guernica. Stalingrad. Dresden. Srebrenica. The uneasy waters of the Mediterranean. She speaks of responsibility. To the names of places and people. To the memory of what was done in our names. We have to own the stories, she continues. We cannot cut ourselves off from the past. Because those who do remember will not be around forever.
We are in danger of forgetting.
A page turns, and she is quiet now. Still, I don’t sleep. I watch the darkness through the window until it lifts above the villages and fields. They look just like the ones from yesterday, the ones we left behind. We pass through suburbs and the red-brick factories and warehouses of a long-passed industrial age. As the city looms larger beyond the window the train slows. We move between and below the city streets, crossing bridges and plunging into tunnels, before emerging for just a second to offer a glimpse of glass and steel towers shining brightly in the morning sun. It is journey’s end and I have reached my destination. She is quiet now, and yet I can still hear her voice.
We are in danger of forgetting. Here and now. Right at the wrong moment, we are allowing ourselves to forget.
I choose the station hotel. I want to wallow in nostalgia for a time I couldn’t possibly have experienced. I want to find the remnants of something long lost. I want to feel that it is indeed impossible to extinguish all trace.
I think of another travelling companion. He knew this hotel and the people in it. Deep down I know I will not find them here today. Not the Swiss chambermaid or the French receptionist, the Italian porter or the Austrian waiter. As for my travelling companion, he long ago drank himself into mythology. He prefered hotels. He liked their mix of anonymity and familiarity, and that they allowed him something that was always there, waiting, whether he travelled through choice or in exile.
I was a stranger in this town, he said. That’s why I was at home here.
It is nearly twenty years since I left the island of my childhood, and sometimes I feel a stranger both there and in the place that I now live. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are all strangers in this hotel and we are all at home. The floors creak and the pipes rattle. The paint peels and draughts blow. The hallways echo with half-remembered stories, and not all of them good. Yet the hotel stands. The hotel stands. And that’s something.
This story was written for the “Brexit Wake: And now what?” event held at the Literaturhaus Berlin on 29 March 2019.
Paul Scraton is a British-born, Berlin-based writer and editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. His books include Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic Coast (Influx Press, 2017) and The Idea of a River: Walking out of Berlin (Readux, 2015). His debut work of fiction is Built on Sand, published by Influx Press in April 2019, a novel-in-stories set in Berlin and Brandenburg. It is now available to order from the publisher and wherever books are sold.