Then We Take Berlin
By John Lawton
Grove Press – £12.99
Interspersed with a most knowledgable and historical observation of the European theatre of the Second World War, Then We Take Berlin really is a stellar, roller-coaster of a read.
Having lived in Berlin for a number of years, it made reading this book all the more enjoyable, simply due to recognising so many of the landmarks and places – many of which, like the city itself, have obviously changed so much over the years; what with the (American, French, English and Russian) occupying forces, and eventual division of the now German capital, due to the existence of the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989.
But had I not lived in Berlin and come to read about the exploits of the book’s prime protagonist, John Holderness/Widlerness – an East London wide-boy, replete with relatively kind heart who falls for a Berliner by the name Nell Breakheart – I’d have still very much enjoyed reading its punchy pace and (many) intertwined stories.
Whether it’s Berlin after the war, or Berlin in 1963, author John Lawton has punctuated Then We Take Berlin with a fine assortment of terrific, almost intoxicating one-liners (”The people were… yellow… a poxy, wasted, vitamin deficient yellow,” ”the trivia of memory,” ”the beggar at her childhood’s end”), many of which, from a literary perspective at least, cajole the reader into clearly wanting to read on and on.
Moreover, that the book is also peppered with an array of historical references and seemingly profound viewpoints (”The Third Reich rendered into the costume of a circus clown,” ”On the one hand all the pent-up hatred of chocolate soldiers, Blimps who watched the war from an insurance office in Guildford,” ”It resembled a grotesque jamboree,” ”It was repellent and tempting. And he did not care to discuss temptation with her”) does much to entice the reader to fundamentally never departing, let alone be sidetracked, from Lawton’s rather suave storytelling.
Apart from some of the earlier pages that are anchored in New York City, war, and its entire despicable trajectory thereof, is never very far from any one page of this altogether marvellous book. It’s a constant reminder. A relentless confirmation.
Then We Take Berlin is, as Lawton so eloquently reminds us, both a place and a read where ”Discretion is a valuable commodity. You can get paid for discretion.”