ignis, glacies et pertinacia

Review The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor

In Book Review, Department of History, Department of Politics on May 26, 2010 at 12:41 pm

New Year’s Eve 2009/2010 I wanted to be on my own, as I have many New Year’s Eves, but a few days before a good friend invited me over to be with his girlfriend and a female friend of theirs. Still reluctant, and ambivalent about the fact I was convinced they were trying to set me up, I accepted and drove over.

This friend of theirs was a teacher, was convinced of her own intellectual brilliance, and had a tendency to micro-manage conversation until the whole evening became one long, dread, succession of parlour games. Who would we invite to the ideal dinner party (I hate dinner parties), Barack Obama apparently, to which my unenthused response earned me the assured “Don’t you read Time”. No, I don’t. Another such game led somehow to us discussing what would be our Mastermind topic. Hers was Elvis, and she issued a torrent of facts (and those justifications masquarading as facts that are never far from a true fanatic’s lips). B_____’s would be Rallying in the ’90s. His girlfriend’s, I think, would be something to do with the Berlin Wall. At any rate, one thing I took away from the evening, aside from my own unsuitability for company of any kind and my desire to be a perfect recluse, as I had more or less managed that half year, was that, though I had many special interests as fiercely obsessive as our Elvis aficionado’s that night, I was master of none of them; the fact that I had managed one tenuously assimilated fact about the Berlin Wall that night, and that I had for many years had an interest in precisely this period of Central and Eastern European history, and the Cold War seemed particularly stark, and I played a game of Solitaire Humiliations with myself for a long while afterwards.

Soon after moving to North Wales I was walking around Bangor, a University town, and indeed, a university town I could have lived in had things turned out differently – for most of the summer, awaiting A-Level results, I had indeed believed I would end up at my second choice, studying English with Creative Writing, and looking back now I could see for sure it would have suited me better – and taking a look at the Oxfam, I could not hold back from buying Taylor’s book on the very subject I had proven myself to not understand. One thought I depolyed against the compulsive purchase of the book was that I would never in a million years finish it. I don’t do well with such long books. The faltering motivation and shifting priorities of my ADHD see to that. But it was no good.

Two, three months on, I am glad of that. The book was a slog. I stalled on it numerous times and, though I left myself notes and To Do lists, and though I picked up the book again and again and pushed myself on, my self conscious re-focusing sessions were difficult. Something changed perhaps when I got one hundred and fifty or so pages in and the wall was built. Suddenly the recondite machinations of the various political parties and cabals were thrown into sharp relief by the very real human stories of the individuals and groups on either side of the wall.

Unusually for me I zipped through the next few hundred pages, reading them quickly for me at any rate. The realities of events in the GDR and the larger than life characters of those such as Lyndon Johnson, Walter Ulbricht, John F Kennedy, Nikita Krushchev and, more particularly, those lesser known but, incredibly, equally rare individuals, are for me more enthralling than any political thriller.

It may well be that the events were enthralling enough to keep me reading despite the lacklustre text. There were few passages where Taylor’s prose or delivery stood out and it struck me that perhaps at times the scarcely believable events could have been better served. Still, I am glad I persisted, and feel no less determined, at the end of it, that any future games of Solitaire Humiliations will not find me so ignorant of an area of history I should by now be pretty sure of.

Outside of the text I have a few of my usual bugbears. Acronyms and abbreviations can be opaque at the best of times, and histories concerning the Cold War especially so given the fact that many such are taken from the already perplexing initials of foreign institutions. At the very least I believe a history such as this ought to have a list of abbreviations used. Equally useful, though, would be a list of the key figures. It is not only those with ADHD like myself who may find themselves putting such a book as this aside for a time. It needs an investment of concentration and energy many people lack over a prolonged period. It can be difficult to remember a large cast of characters at the best of times.

Overall, though, reading this book has made me less intimidated by serious historical texts, less liable to persuade myself that I would be unable to make it through them, and indeed, more likely to persist. I may well seek out Taylor’s more highly rated Dresden, and try again with such texts as Timothy Garton Ash’s We The People and The Polish Revolution. Whatever my reservations, this itself must be a high recommendation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: