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Integrity – or at least that is where this started

A thought that has been going through my head for a while now is integrity.

But I need to start somewhere else, with writing. I think that, for me, writing is in part a way of exploring something, of thinking through a question in my head that has been bothering me. And it tends to be something which has caused a strong emotional reaction in me, usually because it has run smack bang into something that I believe to matter. This is exactly what has happened today with this blog (one of the reasons it’s a lot later than normal!). I just went somewhere I had not expected to when I was writing it – East Germany and religion – and I now need to refine my thinking. But I needed to put it down in writing to get that far. So I am about to cut the next twelve paragraphs (a sure sign I’m working something out) and will come back to them when I’ve got it right. I might even put them in a later blog entry. [The subtitles to this film would now say “Sound of paper being cut”].

At the moment, my head spends much of its time in 1970s and 1980s East Berlin. But I also know that the questions I’m wrestling with about choice, about truth, about integrity, have another context for me personally. I’m spending time inside the head of people who had no safe way of escaping a situation which was not of their making. But what really interests me is the processes which caused that outward set of restrictions to become internalised, because that’s what can and does happen to us all – and it happens to my characters. We talk about becoming ‘institutionalised’ after being part of an organisation for long enough (and sometimes it takes no more than a few weeks). First our behaviours and then our thoughts start to change to conform to the way the organisation operates, or the way we perceive it as operating. If we are lucky, we catch ourselves doing this, but much of the time it goes unnoticed.

So the other place I am in my head is how I deal with a situation that feels somewhat like that experience of being trapped in East Germany, but where I know I do have a choice. And I find that the choice is intellectually easy but emotionally a lot harder. And that’s a place I have to stay for a while because it’s helping me to understand my characters a bit better. I do at least know how it ends for me, if not for my characters. I just can’t get to that point yet because I need it to stay real for a bit longer. And then I can write about integrity. But not yet.

So why have I included this jumble of thoughts today? Welcome to the head of a writer.





60 rolls, two book reviews and a new tradition

This week, I’m going to do how poor customer service leads to two book reviews, a new family tradition and how baking bread is good for the soul. It’s all connected.

For many months, we’ve been getting our bread from a local farm we’ve been going to for years. The bakery that supplied them was also local and we loved their bread. Last week, we heard the first rumblings of the bakery maybe no longer existing or supplying them or some other reason for our order not being there. But nobody was quite sure. They would let us know… Yesterday, also no bread, but this time, the bakery had definitely moved and there would be no more bread. ‘Maybe we should have let you know.’ Maybe indeed. So we had no bread.

Intermission for first book review. There is one book I recommend more than any other one to people I work with who are interested in their self-development. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is the book I return to most often for some often harsh reminders of the things I could choose to do better on. And that element of choice is the basis of the first of his ‘Habits’, our ability to choose our response. What I really appreciate about Covey’s book is that he is very clear throughout that he is not trying to give us a series of ‘if you do these things, great things will happen’ tips or techniques. What I think he’s doing instead is trying to help us to be the kind of person we want to be, or could be. Which is never easy.

So back to the bread. Choice: get annoyed. Or do something about it. By which I don’t mean complain. It was one of those things and nobody could do anything about the bakery moving, and I’m sure the bakery had good reasons for relocating. But even if they didn’t, there was nothing I could do about it. So, while we were in town, we bought some flour, some fresh yeast, and started a new family tradition. Bake bread on Sunday afternoons. There is a recipe I grew up with which makes perfect bread, and involves a magic spell half way through. The magic spell was always very important when we were growing up, and I’m pleased to say that it has been passed on to the next generation successfully.

RollsWe ended up making about 60 rolls, with a significant proportion disappearing within the first hour of them coming out the oven. There’s nothing like fresh bread. And it’s fun to bake (confession – it helps if you have a Kenwood to do the kneading for you.)

I had forgotten that it doesn’t actually take long to bake bread, the vast majority of the time is just waiting while it rises. And that’s an hour to go and write. Everyone’s a winner in this new tradition.

Second intermission, second book. I was reminded of a character in another book which is in my top [insert random number] books. Jodi Picoult is a writer I have loved since before she became really really famous. Many years ago, before most of her books were available in the UK, we were on a family trip to Boston. I checked with the hotel in advance if we could have packages sent to us there, and had every one of Jodi’s books sent to me. It does mean that they look odd on my bookshelf because the US ones are a different size from the UK ones, not to mention the hardbacks.


But after a good few more books by her, my interest started to wane. Each book was beautifully written, everything was right. But they started to become too similar in style for me. I even stopped reading one halfway through and haven’t returned to it. But then came The Storyteller, which retains all the amazing things she can do with her characters and plots, but is somehow written differently. And it’s all the better for it. It’s the story of a woman who bakes bread – hence the association. And it’s the story of her grandmother, who was a Jew in Europe in the Nazi period. The characters are what makes the story. Their doubts, their loves, their fears, and their experiences and what they make of them. Each of them has to make choices and live with the consequences. It’s what we tell our children, isn’t it? You can choose what you do, but you can’t always choose the consequences.

Most of us are unlikely to have to face the kinds of choices people in wartime had to or have to today, but for our own development and for those around us, the choices we make can be just as important. And we do always have the ability to choose how we act. I hope that we’ve turned a relocated bakery and somebody forgetting to tell us into a new family tradition which is also the continuation of the tradition my mum started with us a long long time ago. So long ago that the recipe is in pounds and ounces. The poor man in the supermarket had to ask a colleague when I asked for two ounces of yeast and came back very apologetically to tell me they only sold it in grams. I had to laugh. The youth of today…

9 November – Part 2

The backdrop to my childhood years is encapsulated in the Alphaville song “Forever Young” – “Are they going to drop the bomb or not?” The division of the world into East and West was just what it was, it had been in place for as long as I had been alive, and there was no reason to think it would ever change. Soviet General Secretaries came and went, American presidents came and went, and Erich Honecker had been the General Secretary of the East German party for almost all of my life. I’m still not sure if I like the fact that I was born while Walter Ulbricht was in charge, but he was. He was the one who said, just days before the first incarnation of the Wall was constructed, “Nobody has the intention of building a wall” – you can see him here.

When the Wall came down, I was living and working in Munich. I was washing dishes in a hotel there. We had a massive conveyor belt dishwasher for most items, but once a week it was our turn to wash the pots by hand. Three kitchens, a lot of cooks, none of whom had to clean up the mess they made. I still remember the first time I did it, I was far too slow, two of the kitchens were soon backed up and somebody probably had to rescue me. If you were the pot cleaner, you were there till you were done, which could have been well after the official 12:30 (am) finish time. By the time I finished working there, I was very, very efficient and looked forward to being the pot guy for the evening because I would get out earlier. Some of the German culture must have rubbed off of me. Or maybe it was just laziness.

Being 18 at the time, the end of the Wall meant I could travel to the Eastern bloc quite easily, and did so with three colleagues from the hotel in early 1990. There are two memories in particular which are still particularly vivid. The first is of driving through a forest at night to get to the Czech border (it was still Czechoslovakia back then). It was exactly as you imagine it from a spy film, no lights anywhere, no houses, snow on the road and the trees, and then you get to the border crossing where we and our car (an Audi 80, hired of course and standing out wherever we went in the East) were inspected. I don’t recall there being much conversation with the border guards, but they let us pass and we drove through a village which was as dark as the deserted roads we had been driving on. Prague was stunning, even back then. And of course incredibly cheap, even for a Western dishwasher. There were two prices in all the menus, one for the locals, one for the Westerners. It helped that the menus with the cheaper prices were only in Czech so we couldn’t have ordered from them anyway.

And then there was Berlin. I didn’t like it at all. We were staying in West Berlin and I hated it. Too over the top, too gaudy, too in your face. Even to this day, I tend to spend my time here in the Eastern part of the city. I don’t think it’s conscious, it just feels different. And we went across into East Berlin. Complete with the obligatory changing of Deutsche Mark into Eastern Marks (I so wish I had kept some of the Eastern money). We were warned against changing money on the street but there was no point in doing so anyway as there was nothing to buy and the restaurants would only accept our Western money anyway. For all the cliches about the East, it really did feel like a different planet.

At the time, it was just a trip with some friends, but when I look back on it now, I realise just how special it was. I was actually in the GDR. And we had to go to some government building in Prague to get our visas extended by a day or we would have had real trouble when we came to leave the country. I still have the passport with the GDR stamp and Czech visa in it.

To this day, I’m not sure what it was that took me down the academic line I took. I suspect the interest in ethics came from my Mum and Peter Singer’s book (which she recommended to me) Practical Ethics which proved that ethics is not just some theoretical discussion but something which affects real lives. Probably that appealed to my inherent interest in how to apply knowledge in practice. Goodness knows where the media bit came from. I had never met a journalist in my life. And, given my experience in Berlin in 1990, there was nothing pulling me back there to do my research. But I went anyway, and the Berlin I encountered bore no resemblance to what I remembered. Partly because it was a huge building site, partly because everything was changing around me, and partly because I had changed. But mainly because I got to know a good number of Berliners, from West and East, and the city was a proper home to me for the best part of a year. I found recently my notebook from when I was there. Apparently I met with a professor soon after I got to Berlin and recorded that he thought I wouldn’t get any journalists to open up and talk about their life before and after the Wall came down. For a while I thought he might be right. I got no reply to a couple of letters sent to Neues Deutschland, previously the flagship newspaper of the ruling Party in East Germany. I still remember going to their office building and speaking with the receptionist. Had they received my letter? Yes, and they had meant to get back to me. Could I meet with the editor? Yes – we set up an appointment. And from there, it snowballed. Another journalist there loved Scotland (the weather, of all things). And better still, he had been the editor of the main youth newspaper, a total hardliner, hated by the population in general. And I found them both to be thoughtful, reflective and open about their past, about their role in propping up the regime, about the sense of duty and commitment they had felt. They introduced me to other journalists, including at the Berliner Zeitung which, co-incidentally, is my favourite German newspaper, and within a few months I had spoken with over thirty journalists. All of which forms the basis of my book.

Unsurprisingly, the experience of living in Berlin as a twenty-something had an impact on me which far outlived my time there. One family in particular, from the East, and just a couple of years older than me, made the whole experience one of belonging in Berlin rather than just passing through. That feeling has never left me.

And now we are a generation older. Those of us who remember the Wall coming down are now middle-aged (allegedly). We lived in a time which is just history for our children. Things we grew up with are in museums. Including the GDR.

So, what is my fascination with the GDR? I’ve asked myself that over the years. My answer today might be different from my answer tomorrow. But for today, I think it’s because it wasn’t that different from what we still experience today, albeit in a different way. Last night, Klaus Wowereit, the outgoing mayor of Berlin, talked about the concrete walls and the walls in our head. The journalists in East Germany talked of the scissors in your head (die Schere im Kopf). To begin with, control of what they wrote was external, words or sentences would be changed or articles rejected in their entirety. It didn’t take long until they self-censored, knowing what would and would not be accepted. They no longer needed to be controlled, they did it to themselves. It wasn’t conscious, it just became part of who they were. They still tried to get things into the paper that were borderline, but it was small things. At the time, they seemed more significant because they were looking at it from the perspective of the walls in their own head which had limited their perspective.

And I wonder how different we are. I’ve written before about the ideology of the Scottish independence vote, and about the mindset which I might have implicitly adopted over the last few decades. Did I see that at the time? No. Did it limit my perspective? Undoubtedly. Can it be easily undone? That is perhaps the question I’m dealing with now.

It is a truism that we are shaped by our experiences, by our upbringing. School, religion, the values our parents taught us, mistakes we have made, paths we have gone down, choices we have made. They all contribute to who we are right now, and to how we view the world. It’s a gradual process and we don’t notice it. Remember the principle of the frogs? (skip this if you are squeamish) – if you throw a frog into hot water it jumps straight out again, but put it in cold water and heat it up and it will stay there until it dies. (As as aside, I really hope this is just a theoretical point and that nobody actually did it for real). So what does it take for us to make the big changes that we sometimes need but can’t always see we need?

In the case of East Germany, there were a number of factors. Gorbachev, running out money, Western TV, the ruling generation being out of touch with the population who were one or two generations younger. They all played a part. But I learned a new perspective last night from one of the speakers (as I predicted, there were speeches as well as music).

9 October 1989 (not a typo, a month before the wall came down) was the first unsanctioned demonstration in Leipzig, unsanctioned by the Party. Previous demonstrations had been smaller, this one included about 70,000 people.  The local population knew that water cannons were being brought in, the hospitals had extra blood supplies ready, the police and Stasi were out in force. And they went out anyway, knowing what could happen but knowing also that they had to. It was described as the day East Germany lost its fear.

And there it is. Losing our fear. I think that’s the thing that, however experienced and capable we are, holds us back again and again. Fear of what might happen, of what might not happen, of change.

And so, for me, the fall of the Wall, and what has become of Berlin, shows us what can happen when we lose that fear. It allows us to break through the limitations we have implicitly put on ourselves and discover something new, something better in ourselves.

The trigger, the thing that can push us to embrace something new rather than stay where we have been, can be external, but it always involves an internal choice. And, once again, I come back to my belief that books can be that trigger in our heads, give us a different perspective that allows us to see something new, or see something for the first time that has always been there. And then to decide to do something differently, to be better than we were before. Even when everyone says it can’t be done. Because until 9 November 1989, everyone said the Wall would never come down.


By the way, I decided yesterday during the concert that my novel needs to be written in the first person. I’ve been going back and forth on that for a long time and trying out different forms. Decision made.