Berlin: Imagine a City

Why are we drawn to certain cities? Perhaps because of a story read in childhood. Or a chance teenage meeting. Or simply because the place touches us, embodying in its tribes, towers and history an aspect of our understanding of what it means to be human. Paris is about romantic love. Lourdes equates with devotion. New York means energy. London is forever trendy.

Berlin is all about volatility. Its identity is based not on stability but on change. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful, and fallen so low. No other capital has been so hated, so feared, so loved. Today Berlin has emerged from centuries of conflict and decades of heinous division to be Europe’s most extraordinary, transformed, creative capital.

Over the last five years I’ve been writing a history of this city, as many of you know. In the coming days Berlin: Imagine a City will be published in the UK, Canada, the Netherlands and Poland. The US edition comes out in November on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. In the book I tell Berlin’s story through portraits of two dozen Berliners, from the wild medieval balladeer whose suffering might explain the Nazi’s rise to power to an ambitious prostitute who refashioned herself as a royal princess, from a Scottish mercenary who fought in the Thirty Years War to the fearful Communist Party functionary who helped to build the Wall. Alongside them are Dietrich and Goebbels, Riefenstahl and Speer, Bowie and not a few Berghain’s techno DJs. They are among the 24 people who made Berlin, as Berlin made them.

Some of you may have seen my FT Weekend piece on David Bowie’s Berlin or my Top 10 Berliners in Literature in the Guardian. For those of you in the UK, I’ll be talking about the book on Radio 4’s Saturday Live!, at the Bath, Hay and Edinburgh Book Festivals, and in London at the Goethe Institut at a special ‘Imagining Berlin’ evening event with the glorious Rosie Goldsmith on Monday April 28th. You can keep up with latest news via Facebook, Twitter or my new-and-improved website.

Plus — fanfare of trumpets – the Washington Post has chosen it as a Book of the Year, its reviewer Gerard De Groot writing, “Berlin is the most extraordinary work of history I’ve ever read. To call it history is, in fact, reductive. There’s some historical analysis, quite a lot of fiction, some philosophizing, lashings of wit and a fair dose of invective. It’s a work of imagination, reflection, reverence, perplexity and criticism that reveals as much about the author’s precocious mind as it does about the city he adores. The book’s most profound feature, however, is its stunningly beautiful writing – phrases of transcendent rhythm force the reader to reverse and read again.”

I hope to see you at one of the events, or online, or simply to hear from you. As ever, do feel free to email me. I hope you’ll join me on a journey to Berlin.

February 2014