There can’t be many people who approach a museum with undiluted excitement. The thought of rows of dusty objects in glass cases, though of course interesting, still has the
aura of school about it. So a visit to the unexcitingly titled Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin came as quite a surprise. It’s set in the old Armoury – the Zeughaus – just off Unter den Linden, and the permanent exhibition is a brilliant tour through several hundred years of Germany history, featuring paintings, domestic objects, armour, fashion and even toys. Trawling as I was for information about the lives of women and girls in the Third Reich, I was fascinated by this little Nazi doll’s house – pictured here – which even had Hitler toile de jouy wallpaper, featuring little groups of BDM girls and brown shirts in bizarre pastoral groups. Just as exciting was finding a cigarette case with a special brand of cigarettes named after Ernst Udet – the flying ace who appears in my second Clara Vine novel, provisionally titled The Pilot’s Bride.
I just spent a cold, exhilarating few days in New York, seeing my great friend who edits a magazine there, walking around Greenwich Village and spending hours talking about the differences between life in the US and the UK. When I first started visiting New York my holy grail was the Strand Bookstore where I would come away with stacks of second hand books. But things have moved on. The publishers I met talked incessantly about e books, and it was interesting to see a lot more of the same titles in the bookshops as you see in Britain. Given that I also spend a dinner obsessing about Murdoch and the Leveson inquiry with an American media journalist, the distance between America and England seemed to have shrunk even more. But I always come back from America excited and energised. No matter what British Airways does to prevent it.
Just back from a wonderful, cold, engrossing and solitary week in Berlin, exploring locations which will feature in the next Clara Vine novel. One of the loveliest places I visited was Schwanenwerder, a tiny enclave at the tip of the Grunewald where the Goebbels’s had their home, not to mention Speer and a few others. You can see why the Nazis liked it – it’s a little peninsula that reaches into the Wannsee, surrounded with trees, and containing just a few, luxurious private villas. Just the place for a murder! More accessible places to visit in Berlin are the Babelsberg studios – which have their own studio tour now – and the Einstein Cafe in Kurfurstenstrasse, which used to belong to the actress Henny Porten, banned from the screen by Goebbels because she refused to divorce her Jewish husband. It’s incredibly atmospheric. Don’t miss it.
I’ve recently returned from Berlin where I was researching my new novel. It’s an incredible place, though to the visitor the effects of the wartime devastation and the subsequent division of the city are still shocking. It’s a surprise to come across great tracts of land that are still rubble strewn and thick with weeds. The remnants of momentous events are all around you and it’s hard not to be constantly aware of the history beneath your feet. Sitting in the Adlon hotel, once the epicentre of Berlin high society, and looking out at the Brandenburg Gate was an weird sensation. But it’s also a place that feels hopeful and forward focused. The absolute highlight was visiting Prenzlauer Berg, to the north east of the city, which was a revelation, much younger, more relaxed than the staid Mitte, with lovely old buildings full of bars and restaurants, street markets and children’s playgrounds.
Here I’m standing outside the restored Neue Synagoge in Orienburgerstrasse, which was the largest in Berlin and was destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938.