A Day with 7yroldme We live in a world surrounded by all the stuff that education is supposed to be about: The great thing is that you really can use everything around you to learn more. The time has come to go on a little adventure back to our childhood home, in a lovely little village perched on top of a hill surrounded by the Italian Alps. We can sail across the Seven Seas through the pages of his favourite novel, Treasure Island, and then build swords out of tree branches and fight to save our treasure.
Will you come on a playdate with us? Nothing grand; just hanging out in our garden. You could help us sprinkle poppy seeds, then add the empty heads to our logpile to make more winter homes for the bugs.
Or we could show you how to make a paper star. Because you never grow out of loving to make things, you just stop having quite so much time and having a daughter is an excellent excuse! And what will you learn from all of this? That home is where it starts and where it ends.
You can travel the world — and you will — but if you look hard enough, everything you need is right here. Oh well, I know the perfect place to drift off into space and day-dream: The wisdom of childhood will be exchanged for the lessons of adulthood.
A giant pirate flag concealing a miniature treasure chest. Get involved on Twitter! She was partly the reason why, when asked what I was working on for my thesis, I announced that I was writing a collection of short stories. This was a lofty declaration, considering I had written only one decent short story to date, about a squabbling German couple with a baby, as observed by a character called Joe as he tended his farmers market stall in Chicago.
Carlos, his Mexican employee, got a story next. It was beginning to look a lot like a linked collection. Novels-in-stories, short story cycles, composite novels, polyphonic novels.
Whatever these sort of books were called, it had become clear that I was heading into novel territory. I investigated my bookshelves and, sure enough, it was territory I was familiar with: I liked these sort of books, and had long been attracted to them. But what was this attraction to novels which managed to be both disconnected and linked, to somehow contract and expand at the same time?
I remember coming out of the cinema thinking: In the 19th-century novel, omniscient narrators knew the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters. Other modes of narration grew in prominence, including fragmented tests, multiple perspectives, and the linking of multiple perspectives. Alternative methods of providing an overview were sought, and these could be combined with linked multiple perspectives to create a whole greater than its parts.
But, with all literature, overview is ultimately provided by the reader, and it would be a mistake to underestimate what she is capable of. Well-versed in a range of narrative methods from literature and film, the modern reader is used to making jumps in time and space, and filling the interstices between.
This is probably the single-most reason I am attracted to fragmented texts and linked narratives; I feel a little bit cleverer when the writer trusts in my ability to traverse the narrative, however difficult. But however insignificant we may appear when viewed from outer space or from the distant future, we are spared from a descent into nihilism, because we know that we still have our connections to each other, as well as to the generations which came before us, and which will come after.
It was a night of dramatic gestures: Angela Merkel and a cast of heads of state stood at the Brandenburg Gate and took a bow for the end of the Eastern Bloc. Everyone was here, the whole city. It was The Method. I was being Jess — the protagonist of my novel and a teenage believer — living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. When Jess steps onto a frozen lake and off the last page of Motherland, it is The Berlin Wall is intact and, as far as she knows, will stay that way forever.
It was one of the hardest parts of the project: I stepped off the plane as Jo McMillan, bringing with me a few ill-formed questions and lots of blankness. I rented a flat in west Berlin. An unrenovated tenement, hanging on by the thickness of its dust to the face of old Berlin. On the hottest days, I smelt gusts of warmed-up sewage; not the smell of socialism after all, but the stench of blocked drains. The border was at the end of our street, the Wall Trail marked in the tarmac.
If I leaned over the balcony, I could see into the East. My past was beyond that line, a hundred metres away. There is nothing else to say. DDR visas from my old passport. On the set of Motherland, nothing appeared to have changed. At a distance, the landmarks I knew were all still there. But then I got up close. At the Brandenburg Gate, you could now Segway past make-believe border guards.
The Marx and Engels on Alexanderplatz were put in a corner and turned to face West. There was a DDR Museum now. The GDR was in a museum. And a museum was where you kept dinosaurs and dead things. East Germany was gone, but I had to bring it back to life for Motherland. I needed witnesses and many of them had gone. But I tracked one person down: I sent her a card — one with red carnations — and told her I was writing about the GDR. Would she be willing to talk? Early the next morning — straight after the post — my phone rang.
And I will tell you everything. She had her role and played her part. I still live in Berlin. I rent a flat a hundred metres from the border, just inside the East. I stood on the steps of the amphitheatre to get a better view. I raised a glass of bubbly as lights lit the underside of clouds, as the balloons went up, as the Wall came down, as the curtain rose on Motherland.
Motherland by Jo McMillan is published on 2 July One day, perhaps, the whole grey mountain will slip down the autobahn and silently take its place in the wet car parks of the gutted Reichstag.
Thirty years later, that contingency was a reality. Politicians, diplomats and civil servants moved and journalists followed them. I was one of the journalists. In , I spent a fair bit of my time in the wet car park of the now-renovated Reichstag. Norman Foster had shown us round the new building before the German politicians took their seats: My BBC colleagues and I marked out our space on the metal grandstand that gave us a view of the opening ceremony and guarded our gaffer-taped demarcation fiercely.
As with the building itself, at that time Berlin was an intriguing mixture of the new and the uncovering and remembering of the old. The British Embassy was being topped-out — a modern building restored to its pre-war site. We talked to former dissidents and former spies. The consequences of the recent past often flared up in German politics: There was so much going on that it was easy not to follow some stories through, or never to be able to get to the bottom of them.
One such was the tale of the discussions between Britain and Germany over what should happen to Stasi files that Britain held; files which had been spirited away in the confusion after the fall of the Wall and the collapse of the old East German regime. The names contained in them hold the key to the identities of informers in the West.
As far as I know, to this day the files have never been returned. Instead, as I moved on and back to London, I almost forgot about it, in the same way I forgot about so much old news. What does it mean to have the mercy of that Western postcode? It was a place that created a nostalgia in the same way that other bars in the old East created theirs in Communist kitsch, red stars and bits of old Trabants.
But what I found I missed, as I wrote this book, was that sense of optimism about new beginnings, even in the knowledge that the past which lay beneath them was full of complications.