Q/A: Rory MacLean

Paul Sullivan chats to Rory MacLean, author of “Berlin: Imagine A City”…

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Despite the continuous glut of newspaper and magazine pieces, academic articles, literary fiction and historical tomes, there are a notable lack of sizeable works – the occasional ambitious essay and German authors like David Wagner notwithstanding – dealing with contemporary Berlin.

The reason, of course, is that writing about the now is notoriously difficult. “One writes about today and, by the time the book comes to print, it’s history,“ muses long-term Berlin resident and travel writer Rory Maclean. “Karl Scheffler’s declaration, ‘Berlin ist eine Stadt, verdammt dazu, ewig zu werden, niemals zu seine’ (‘Berlin is a city doomed to forever become, never to be’) is overused because it remains true. Perhaps that’s why blogs and portals, with their immediacy, are so important here.”

In his latest book, Berlin: Imagine A City – released earlier this year via Weidenfeld & Nicolson – MacLean digs deep into the past to gain insights into the present. By selecting 23 personalities spanning five hundred years, and merging hard biographical facts with literary imagination, the book serves as both a historical overview of the city and a paean to its “essence of perpetual reinvention”.

Given most books about the city tend to focus on a specific period in recent history (usually Weimar, WW2 or the GDR), Imagine A City‘s more extended reach is refreshing. Opening with a striking story of a 15th century Minnesänger (singing minstrel), MacLean patiently works his way through the Thirty Years War, Prussian and Industrial Berlin, all the major events of the 20th century, right up to 2011.

Many of the Big Guns are here, from Frederick the Great, Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Walther Rathenau through to Isherwood, Brecht, Dietrich, Kollwitz and Bowie (with whom MacLean worked with in the 70s), though these are interspersed with lesser-known and even anonymous figures: an unmarried mother in 19th-century Berlin; a Vietnamese ‘guest worker’ in East Germany; and Ilse Phillips – a Jewish lady who escaped Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport and returned in 2011 to attend a Stolpersteine ceremony.

There are also a few less comfortable profiles, such as that of Fritz Haber, the Janus-faced Nobel prize winner who developed both ammonia for crop fertilisation and the poison gas used in concentration camps, to notorious Nazi bigwigs like Goebbels and Speer. (Curiously, although there is a profile of a soldier who helped build the Berlin Wall, there are no parallel profiles of Mielke, Hönecker or Ulbricht to represent the darker side of the East German regime).

MacLean’s methodology of bringing his character profiles alive by ‘inhabiting their minds’ and scattering invented details and dialogue throughout the researched facts may occasionally be overwrought, but mostly it serves its purpose in bringing to life the characters and events that continue to haunt today’s Berlin.

“Yesterday echoes along today’s streets and the ideas conjured up by Berlin’s dreamers and dictators seem as solid as its bricks and mortar,” writes the author in his introduction. “The hypnotic and volatile city comes alive in the mind.”

Even more so, thanks to his book…


How did the idea for the book originally come about?

A lifetime ago I was a teenage traveller ‘doing’ Europe. During a happy, footloose summer I climbed the Eiffel Tower, tripped down the Spanish Steps and then -on the last week of the holiday – saw the Wall. The sight of it shook me to my core. There at the heart of the continent were watchtowers, barbed wire and border guards instructed to shoot fellow citizens who wanted to live under a different government.

I knew the history of course. I understood what had happened. But I couldn’t conceive how it had happened. The individuals whose actions had divided Germany and Europe – the wartime planners, the Soviet commissars, the Stasi agents – weren’t monsters. They were ordinary men and women. I longed to understand their motivation, how they came to act as they did, yet at the same time I was repulsed by their crimes and needed to feel their victims’ suffering. So that is where and when the book began.

Five years ago when I started to write the book, I wanted to create a different kind of history. In my eight travel books I’d learned that that the simple parochial representation of a place — or time — was no longer an achievement. You see, I believe it’s only from experiencing the world from another person’s point-of-view that we can understand. or feel empathy for, that ‘other’ person, that corner of the world. In Berlin: Imagine A City I wanted readers to feel like it was like to be alive during the Thirty Years War, or during the Nazi years, or how it felt to stand among men and women building the Berlin Wall.  For me, that is most powerfully achieved through characters, through stories.

At the heart of this line of thinking is a moral question – how would I have behaved in the Thirty Years War, under Nazis or Communists? It’s a question we all should ask ourselves.

Something that struck – and impressed me – about the book was the chronological range and also the diversity of characters you chose. What was the process for selecting these characters?

The choice was personal and subjective. I chose the people who I believed imagined, and created, Berlin. I wanted their stories, and hence Berlin’s history, to be burned into the reader’s imagination, as much as received by reason.

Did you always intend the time span to be so broad – from the city’s beginnings to present day – or was that an idea that developed afterwards? 

I wanted to understand why Berlin has fascinated and obsessed me for so many years. Hence I felt the need to reach right back to its foundation, and then to let the characters chart the development of the city, marking the turning points in its history, collectively telling its story.

Did any of the characters you chose ‘surprise’ you in any way?

In one way or other, every one of the individuals portrayed surprised me, especially Frederick the Great, Dietrich and Bowie.

Can you explain why these surprised you?

Because of their determination. All of them worked incredibly hard, which was never a characteristic that I attributed to Dietrich and Bowie, or for that matter to Schinkel, Käthe Kollwitz or Isherwood. It’s a myth the great art is created through spontaneity alone. What’s the old joke? ‘He became an overnight sensation – after 20 years of perfecting his art’.

You worked with Bowie, right?



I was a young assistant director on a Bowie movie, fresh out of film school. Bowie wanted to initiate me in the ways of the city, so invited me and others to his favourite transvestite club, the Lützower Lampe. The club’s star, a sixty-year-old drag queen named Viola, sat on my knee and crooned German love songs in my ear. ‘Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo, denke nicht mehr an die Zeiten…’

​I’d heard the gossip about Bowie before we met of course, the stories of a paranoid, egotistical thin white duke who flirted with fascism and the occult. But over the months that we worked together I saw only a gentle, articulate, warm and affable man, filled with self-effacing good humour, and on the cusp of finding his own true self. Over the three month shooting schedule he danced with Maria Schell, woke up in bed with Kim Novak and – on Day 51 – was shot by a nutty Nazi (with blanks).

Early one morning, after the director and I had spent the night reworking dialogue, I knocked on his trailer door and delivered a wad of new lines for him to memorise. Bowie scanned the list, smiled weakly and said, ‘Now melody I can handle…’

​Above all, two memories endure for me from those days. The first was the evenings spent in his Hauptstraße apartment: Bowie played records for me and others, explaining how musicians and groups come together then break up in the pursuit of creative goals, likening the process to Die Brücke artists earlier in the century, as well as the Beatles and Lennon, Roxy Music and Brian Eno, Der Blaue Reiter and Kandinsky.

​The second was Christmas together: Bowie and my boss with partners, children and add-ons like me. At a secluded restaurant in the Grunewald, the deep and dark urban forest which hugs the city’s western fringe, we ate and drank too much and Bowie gave me a copy of Fritz Lang’s biography. At the end of the happy evening I followed him downstairs to the huge, ceramic lavatory where – as we stood before the urinals – we sang Buddy Holly songs together (or, at least, a line-and-a-half from ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’).

This is the most literary of your books so far. As a ‘travel writer’, how was tackling that process for you?

I see myself less as a geographer of place, more of the human heart. So the move from travel writer to time traveller seemed natural. The real challenge was writing about modern Berlin and keeping the text contemporary. The city is changing so fast. After a day’s writing I’d go for a bike ride or walk along Ku’damm and feel that the chapter I’d just completed was already dated, already a part of history.

But I also believe that the past is not a place from which we must escape, it is a dynamic living continuity which is to be given to our children. In every city the past and present cohabit, but in Berlin that intimacy is particularly profound, and dynamic.

You mention in your book that certain parts of the stories within are fictionalised. That’s apparent in terms of many of the vivid descriptions you use to bring these characters and their surroundings alive, but are some of the people and their stories invented or are they all based on real people?

William Golding once wrote, ‘Courteous historians will generally concede that since no one can describe events with perfect accuracy, written history is a branch of fiction.’ A biographer who pretends to be timelessly objective is lying, or at least deluding him or herself. Truth is elusive and any story can be told any number of ways. To tell Berlin’s story I aimed for a greater truth through the use of facts, trying to make the city and its history accessible to the reader, to enable him or her – and myself – to better understand the human condition. All the portraits in the book, including that of Else, are based on a real person, or persons, known to me, introduced to me or discovered through extensive historical research.

Did you make use of any Berlin establishments for your historical research?

Is there any library or museum which I didn’t visit? I used the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the Jewish Museum, the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer, the Stasi Archives and the wonderful film archive at Potsdamer Platz.

What was the toughest thing about writing the book for you?

Finishing it! I find Berlin endlessly fascinating. After every new discovery, after every new character met or read about, I end up kicking myself, wishing ‘If only I’d known that before….’

Given there are so many Berlin-themed books on the market, did you worry yours might get lost in the mix? 

Only once did I write a book with an eye on the market, and it sold about six copies. The experience taught me the importance of writing from the heart, about people and places which move me. I wrote my book to discover why the city has obsessed me for so many years. I hope that readers who share the fascination will be interested in what I’ve found.