My ‘On the Road’ read – Funeral in Berlin

Whenever I travel I always have a book in the bag, whether it’s to cope with those long moments stuck waiting for the flight to be called or just chilling on the beach. Looking back most of my choices bear little relation to their ultimate destination – Swedish Noir in Cuba or Charles Dickens in the Cape Verde spring to mind.

Enjoying a Wallander moment – Cuba 2010

I grew up during the 1960s, when the Cold War between the Communist East and the West was at its height. Without any real understanding of what lay behind it I lapped up films featuring secret agents like James Bond and more particularly Harry Palmer played by Michael Caine in three movies, The Ipcress File, Billion Dollar Brain and Funeral in Berlin. The adventures of Caine’s Palmer, being grounded more in the gritty real world than Bond’s fantasies (with the exception of Billion Dollar Brain, but then it was directed by Ken Russell), appealed far more to my formative imagination. There were no super villains lurking in underground bunkers, only the stark brutality of totalitarian regimes and double-crossing traitors driven by greed. Deighton’s MI6 was run by public school toffs and staffed by crooked former soldiers, given the choice of becoming a spy or going to jail. As the fall of Communism, cheap air travel and the internet opened up eastern Europe we avidly took up the opportunity to explore cities that we’d previously only dreamed of visiting and in 2009 I packed a copy of Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin into my bag on the way to Luton Airport.

Deighton’s hero (who is never actually named in the books, the Harry Palmer identity was created just for the films) arrives in a city divided not by a river or a bridge but by ‘bricked up buildings and sections of breeze block that bisect the city…’ , well the wall that divided east from west finally crumbled in 1989, but we found enough of it still standing for a group photo.

up against the wall

before exploring the lively bars and nightclubs of the former Soviet east – a far cry from the bombed out grey wilderness of Deighton’s novel.

The Funeral in Berlin is sold to the intelligence services as a ruse for smuggling a scientist from east to west, disguised as a corpse in a coffin. The crossing point is the infamous Checkpoint Charlie.

Checkpoint Charlie

Aside from a moving set of display boards outlining the history of the divide and those who tried and died trying to cross it, Checkpoint Charlie has become a theme park attraction where you can have your photo taken with an actor dressed as either an American MP or a Russian border guard for a couple of Euro. But things are rarely what they seem in espionage fiction either and the coffin turns out to contain nothing more than Communist propaganda. We found our own piece of the Communist east outside a nearby cafe in Friedrichstraße, a Trabant with a for sale sign on it – a modern-day antique rather than the automotive joke that Eastern-bloc manufactured cars were in the 1970s.

Trabi for sale

Looking back the Berlin of Deighton’s novel seems more displaced in time than many of its contemporary dystopian science fiction novels were, ultimately the desire for blue jeans, the Beatles and Baywatch overcame the ideological divide that for so many years had defied the militaristic posturing of Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and Thatcher, and the icons of a totalitarian past became just another tourist attraction. All hail the might of TV and the internet!

Engles, Marx and two other blokes is celebrating the film release of Kerouac’s legendary ‘On the Road’ by asking book-loving travel bloggers to share their travel reading experiences. Thank you to Suzanne  from the-travelbunny for my nomination.  Do have a read of her great Gardens of Water entry.

My nominations which are a bit late I know (sorry folks, jet lag, adjusting back to UK time and stuff) are to Sherry from Fabulous  50s, Dan and HJ from Waterfalls and Caribous and Andrew  at Have Bag Will travel. I’m looking forward to reading your entries folks.  The competition is open to anyone and for details on how to enter see the competition page:

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