CREATIVE Adam Somerset

NWR Issue 115

People, Places and Things: A Life with the Cold War

On the evening of Christmas Day, 2016, I watched Steven Spielberg’s film Bridge of Spies. The film has all the hallmark production values of the director: the art direction is rich in period detail, the script is strong and structured, and it has actors of class. Tom Hanks is the American protagonist, insurance lawyer Tom Donovan, and Mark Rylance is the captured spy for Russia, Rudolf Abel. The climax takes place at the Glienicke Bridge, the crossing over the River Havel that connects the city of Berlin to the town of history and the place of meeting of the victors of 1945: Potsdam. In 1962, the bridge was the only crossing that was controlled by the Soviet Union rather than the Government of the German Democratic Republic. The south-west of the city was in the American sector of Berlin’s four-power division. That made it a point where the two Cold War superpowers directly met each other. The climactic scene lasts for eleven taut minutes, the location for the filming being the actual bridge. To watch it was a surprise, an evocation of memory. I too, eleven years after the spy exchange of Abel for the pilot Gary Powers, had stood by the Glienicke Bridge and looked at its forbidden passage to Potsdam. The historic palace of Frederick the Great was just a couple of miles away. But it was the far side of wire and concrete barrier, watchtower and minefield.

‘Remember, I was the future once.’ That was our previous prime minister on his farewell to the House of Commons on 13 July, 2016. Every point of passed time was once its moment of presentness and, once gone, it takes on its condition of fixity. Each of us is born into a particular moment of history. We leave it little questioned. It makes the conditions that envelop. It is the all-embracing ‘is’ that is us; it eclipses the equally valid conditions that make the life of others. With the passing of years it gains solidity. The Cold War was omnipresent in my life. It was there from my first memory, to the first independent experience and into middle age. It took in people, places, things. It was the material for the social encounter where I first felt my own life had passed over into history.

The date is distinct. The event was a celebration of an eightieth birthday which gathered the family together. It was Easter 2004 and the guests included a fourteen-year-old recently returned from a school trip to Berlin.
‘And how was it?’ I asked. ‘I was there, a long while back.’
‘Really interesting,’ said the alert step-nephew. ‘We went to the museum at Checkpoint Charlie.’
Checkpoint Charlie was the codename given to the only street crossing for foreigners between the western and eastern sectors of the divided city. For me it was, it is, a real place of transit past the unsmiling members of the Volkspolizei. My right to pass the VOPOS was a blue passport. It was made of hard cardboard with dimensions that did not easily fit into a pocket. Checkpoint Charlie was for me my gate of entry to the other Europe; for my step-nephew, it was a museum.

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