Books 2018 – All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski


I discovered Walter Kempowski’s novel, All For Nothing, during a trip to the London Review Bookshop where I spotted it on the LRB Recommends shelf.  I hadn’t previously heard of the author but I was attracted to the story as it was described on the outside back cover which begins,

“It is January 1945.  The German army is retreating from the Russian advance and refugees are fleeing the occupied territories in their thousands, in cars and carts and on foot”.

I still harbour a deep interest in the war, developed during childhood through playing with Airfix models and Airfix toy soldiers and this was a story I was familiar with through the books of, amongst others, Anthony Beevor.

Walter Kempwski, I learned, was a chronicler of German history throughout the war and All For Nothing was his last book before he died in 2007.  It is translated which caused me to baulk slightly due to the last German book I read which was poorly translated from the German, Alone In Berlin by Hans Fallada.  I noticed the translator of AFN was Anita Bell who, through the power of the internet, I learned is the brother of Martin Bell, the former BBC war correspondent known as the Man In The White Suit during the time he successfully campaigned to become MP for the Tatton constituency as an Independent MP in 1997.  Ms Bell’s credentials are impeccable and I seem to recall reading she has received an OBE or was it an MBE?  I can’t remember but she provides an excellent translation.

What a story.  By 1945 the tide of the second world war in the East had turned decisively with The Red Army standing at the border of the German Frontier waiting for the order to launch a counter invasion and bring the war to an end.  Scores of refugees are already passing through the little town of Mitkau in Eastern Prussia, fleeing from the occupied territories in the face of the Russian onslaught.  The story centres on The Georgenhof, a once grand country estate now in semi-ruin where the beautiful but unworldly Katharina von Globig lives with her son Peter while her husband Eberhard has a comfortable desk job in Northern Italy supervising the sequestration of Italian produce to feed the Third Reich.  Along with the von Globigs lives a sinewy old spinster, the indomitable housekeeper ‘Auntie’ who keeps everything running, a pair of squabbling Ukrainian women and a former Polish army private.  The house is visited upon by a succession of characters who help make up the ensemble cast of the book and whose own stories intertwine with those of the refugees in their great trek west.

The pessimism contained in the book’s title provides an inkling of where the story goes as defeat for Nazi Germany looms and the family face the prospect of joining the refugees or staying to face the Russians.  Refugees are temporarily billeted in the house and each have their own stories to tell which pepper the book with interest and intrigue We often meet up with these characters somewhere else as the story progresses as we learn their fate, often seen through the eyes of a child.  It’s a story of epic movement and touches on the plight of refugees in the modern world and the human story of those millions of people who give up everything to flee in the face of something cataclysmically worse.

Here’s a great book, written around an extraordinary story from recent history by an author we really deserve to read more of in the English speaking world.

Berlin: Day 1

C informed me some months ago she was planning on taking me abroad somewhere as part of my impending 50th birthday celebrations but the window of opportunity of when and where we could go was limited due to it having to coincide wither her son’s school trip to Normandy and my son being able to be packed off to my b rother’s and parents’ for a few days (both 13 years old). C mentioned she’s booked the flights a few weeks ago but wanted tit to. Be a surprise but being unable to contain myself I teased it out of her and discovered we were heading for the capital city of Germany; Berlin. At first I was only mildly disappointed that we weren’t heading for my favourite country; Italy but as my research of Berlin increased I became gradually more and more excited at the prospect of visiting what appeared from the guide books, Internet sites and word of mouth on Facebook quite a happening and vibrant city. And so, as I made my lists, packed all my clothes in a rolled up sausage, dropped my son off in Nottingham following a 284 mile round trip and 6.30am return to my home town we set off to Liverpool John Lennon Airport in my Fiat 500C for a 12.50pm flight in the knowledge that Berlin was being affected by a Siberian weather front and we may face snow and temperatures as low as -11 degrees C.

I had overcome my laziness for this trip by being more utterly prepared than I ever had been for a trip previously. I had bought 2 pocket guide books on Berlin, one by the ubiquitous Lonely Planet and another I picked up in Manchester Waterstones by Wallpaper*, published by Phaidon in a plain brown cover, simply called Berlin.


I highly recommend the Wallpaper* books; they had an array of them set out on a table in Waterstones and they looked quite a site with there psychedelic range of coloured covers like a block of tiles but they make recommendations of restaurants, sites and hotels slightly off the beaten tourist track but with a more artful theme and for the restaurant on out 1st night, did us proud. As well as that, C has a friend on Facebook called The Social Traveller who is currently in Berlin and describes how he fell in love with the city (C’s brother went on a charity tandem bike ride with him through Thailand dressed in sailor suits!).

I like looking at other peoples’s travel experiences to pick ideas from to hopefully enhance my own travelling experience and I certainly pinch some suggestions from the very brilliant web presence of Sara Rosso who has blogs here there and everywhere. It was her idea I nicked to have an espresso at the airport, post security with a snack so I chose a slice of carrot cake to go with my espresso from the Ritazza coffee stall. My previous experience of Ritazza coffee was a cappuccino from Preston train station which was pretty grim and this attempt was equally as poor. The espresso was Luke warm at best and the cake had seen better days…quite a few days from the first bite. Still, here’s a glimpse of the coffee and cake which I chased with a glass of tap water provided gratis free.


One great thing about about having hand luggage only is that you don’t have to check bags in and queue up for ages although we were hit with quite a queue for security having to remove shoes, coats, the lot; but after a coffee the timing was pretty good because we were called to the flight practically straight away and I was on board reading my copy of Q Magazine and we were off!

C treated us to an over-priced on flight Easyjet snack and a small can of beer/wine and as I perused my magazine and saw photos people had sent in of themselves in worldwide locations reading the Q Mag, I wondered against which Berlin landmark I should have my photo taken to submit and hopefully get published in the magazine!

The flight was largely comfortable and in eventful apart from some young German who clearly didn’t like taking instructions from the female cabin crew and made a bit of an arse of himself to the point where after we landed the Captain came out and gave him a severe bollocking and rightly so!

Passage through Schonefelde Airport was easy enough and pre-preparation and notes made in the back of my Wallpaper* Berlin guide cribbed from our hotel’s website made it easy to find the train station which was the 2nd leg of our journey into Berlin. We bought a couple of 48 hour travel passes (note UK transport operators, 48 hour, not 3 day) and made the short walk to the S Bhan station where the train was already standing. With no bags to wait for we were quickly on the RB14 (or was it the RE7?) heading for the Zoologischer Gardens. For the first and only time throughout our trip, our tickets were checked by a guard on the train which we had necessarily validated before we got on board and after making good progress through the outskirts of Berlin we then found ourselves winding our way through the centre as landmarks made familiar by the guide books suddenly stood alongside out passing train as a foretaste of what was to come. Having arrived at the Zoologischer Garden station, we alighted for the next leg of the trip which was a no. 100 bus to Lützoplatz. The bendy-bus arrived after a few minutes but during the wait we were already applying scarves, hats and gloves as we were hit for the first time by the cold Berlin air before we hopped on. I haven’t really been on a bus in the UK for quite a while but not wishing to stereotype German efficiency, as soon as the bus passed a stop, the next one was electronically displayed so we knew exactly when to stand up and ring the bell. Right as planned, we found ourselves in Lützoplatz knowing our hotel was only a few steps away at Lützowufer 15. At this point I made my first tourist faux-pas trying to read a map while standing in a cycle lane and I was nearly knocked over by a cyclist walking his dog alongside…a narrow escape! C spotted the hotel and we walked to The 5 star Grand Hotel Esplanade with its huge and equally grand lobby. We were attended by a friendly English Speaking receptionist but as I was feeling a little tired and travel weary, in spite of her charm I just wanted to get the key and get into our room to chill out for a while. We were given the key card for room 505 which on opening was quite fresh until I noticed a window was open and after closing it the room soon warmed up. The room was spacious with a huge bed and modern bathroom plus ample cupboard and drawer space. I had a bath and checked in on Facebook.

We didn’t have long to relax though because C had booked us in for a tour of the Reichstag at 7.30pm so after a quick change we were soon hopping into one of the several taxis parked in the drop-off point and on our way. By the time we arrived at Germany’s seat of power it was already dark and to enter the building we had to pass a security check point that thankfully wasn’t as excessive as Liverpool airport and we picked up our free Audi guides to begin the tour. The tour begins as you enter an area covered by the huge glass dome with a circular photo-montage of the history of the Reichstag in words (English as well as German) and pictures. Without wishing to ‘mention the war’ this was my first encounter with Berlin and its National Socialist past, something I have an interest in as a period of history I studied at school and continue to read books about. The words were honest and appropriately critical of the 12 grizzly years when Nazi-ism held way in Germany with a particularly ugly photo of a meeting of SA members in their ghastly moustaches and uniforms. The audio piece was already over my ear and to reach the summit of the dome you have to walk up a spiral concourse which runs along the edge of the structure at which point the audio magically begins to start…in English. The audio talks about many of the buildings in view of the Reichsatg as well as its own architecture but unfortunately, as it was dark we were unable to see many of the landmarks it referred to. However, it was great to appreciate the juxtaposition of both the old architecture of the Reichstag against the modern glass dome, designed as much else of the building, by an Englishman …which I thought was ironic. As you walk up the ramp much of the inside of Reichstag reveals itself to you, particularly the main chamber of government, the German equivalent of our House of Commons but with cinema style purple chairs in receding crescents.


At the summit you are literally in the dome as more of the functionality of the architecture is described through the audio including recycling the hot air and a huge sail which revolved with the sun to provide shade in the chamber. All good stuff but the chamber seemed to lack the authority of the House Of Commons and looked a bit dreary with its uniform seats and bland walls. Nevertheless, I was pleased to see the flag of the EU flying high alongside the German national flag as it is a reminder there are many good social aspects borne out of the EU.


And so we left the Reichstag with a view to finding something to eat. I’d found details of a restaurant called Lokal recommended in my Wallpaper* guide which had only received 5 reviews on Trip Advisor all scoring 5 out of 5. On arrival in Berlin I decided to pay a fee of £5 per day to receive unlimited 3G Internet access and the Trip Advisor app really came in useful here as you find the restaurant and it points you in the right direction and tells you how far you have left to travel. In spite of the cold we decided to walk to Lokal and I think it was something like a mile away on Linienststraße (love using the German ß for double ‘s’. I was wondering if there were reasons for this symbol such as an avoidance of using SS and its sinister connotations?). Our walk took us along the banks of the River Spree and across a bridge and was pleasant if rather cold but most of the snow appeared to have been very efficiently ploughed from the centre to the edges of the pavements so there was no difficulty in walking at all. There are a few other boutiques and bars in this area recommended in ‘Berlin’ and as we walked along Linienstraße there seemed some fine looking shops which had we had more time we would liked to have discovered during daylight opening hours. I even saw a shop selling Moleskine notebooks and reminded myself I wished to buy one (thanks again and as we passed other attractive looking bars and restaurants we eventually arrived at Lokal.

In ‘Berlin’ Lokal is described as being at the forefront of Berlin’s farm-to-table movement serving local fare available at market which they publicise daily on their blog with updated menus. We found Lokal on the street corner and opened a white door into an ‘L’ shaped room full of mainly young people sitting in rows at tables tucking into their meals with the din of conversation adding to what appeared a vibrant and confident atmosphere. We were hailed by an English speaker behind the bar and asked for a table for two. He directed a waitress over to us who again spoke excellent English and was a little doubtful at first whether she could offer is a table but luckily another couple were 45 minutes late so we were offered the only available table which we duly accepted, it being exactly the one photographed in ‘Berlin’ with a rustic wooden table and chairs, the one C sat in covered in what appeared to be an animal pelt (sorry vegetarians). The restaurant is run by Berliner Maren Thimm and American chef and Marem’s partner Gary Hoopengardner who I assume we had the pleasure of meeting on mout arrival. The waitress provided us with German menus but translated for us the fare being seasonal meats and vegetables with game and offal to the fore. C chose steckrübensuppe karottengrünpesto which translates into turnip and carrot soup with green pesto while I had kalbsbries and leber bacon, spitzkohl aioli, topinamber karottengrünpesto which was sweetbreads with liver and sauces which was superbly cooked and tasted amazing. We also enjoyed a bottle of Reisling! I’m not going to continue to show off by using the German versions of our main course although you can read them on my Trip Advisor review here:

However, C chose white fish which we thinks was whiting, it was beautifully cooked and sweet white fish, I ordered Perlhuhn which is…guinea fowl. The presentation ofmthismwas quite amazing because the chef had taken the skin off, crisped it up and manipulated it into an egg shell shape with the top cut off and packed it with the guinea fowl meat with what I assumed was carrot purée in it to resemble a yoke against the white of the meat…superb. The dishes were served with seasonal veg and it appeared beet and fennel were to the fore. The meal was excellent as was the Lokal which if I could own my own restaurant would resemble it. A vibrant informal atmosphere serving Michael star quality local produce, no wonder the place was full of Germans enjoying local German food!

After Lokal we walked back in the direction of the city centre, took a few wrong turns and a u-bahn for a couple of stops and walked into a German bar called Alt-Berliner Kneipe – Treffpunkt Berlin (I’m getting the name from my Facebook timeline check-in). I liked this place because as soon as you walked in there was a line of German men sat at the bar with their beers in bulbous glasses with empty shot glasses adjacent to them, it felt like walking into an authentic German environment where these guys come for their social maybe once or twice a week or maybe every night to while their evenings away. The place was still servicing food and there were a few Brits and Canadians in too. We had a couple of blonde beers, very refreshing, and people watched for a while noting how some people look exactly like some of the people we see who regularly frequent pubs back home. After a couple of beers we walked back down a couple of streets before happening across a bus stop with a familiar number 100 on it and lo and behold a bus turned up within seconds and we were on it headed back to Lützoplatz and our hotel.

Exhausted, I had been awake since 5.30am, we hit the sack to discover the double bed had 2 single duvets (or continental quilts as my mum calls them) so assumed this was a German thing and went fast asleep.

Our first day in Berlin and what a day. Great food, great wine, architecture and history, a couple of beers in a German bar and a walk along the safe and snow lined streets. Ich bin ein Berliner?


Tomorrow C and I are off to Berlin for a 2 night City Break. Already booked a table for Thursday evening at the number 1 rated restaurant in Berlin on Trip Advisor, Restaurant Heising and have a tour of the Reichstag booked for tomorrow. I’ve got the day off today as well to sort things out and prepare and my lists are playing a blinder! The excitement is cranking up and tonight I’m driving to Nottingham to drop my son off while I’m away – he’s staying with my parents and also my brother’s family while C’s son is on a school trip to Normandy in France. Hope to post some great photos and travelogue. Watch this space!

List, at last!

The feeling! The freedom! The…the…the sheer joy! I’ve done it, I’ve made a list! OK, it may not be up there with Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ list but I bet he didn’t feel so blissfully empowered as I do having completed mine. You see, I am, after all, Lazy Bill. I don’t usually do things such as lists, I am, generally speaking, disorganised; I just do things when I have to with a minimum of preparation or pre-oganisation. But with my list in hand, I can say “I’m Prepared”, I have a plan and I’m going to make it work!

Right, I’ve calmed down a bit now, the euphoria is wearing off. So what is this list, I suspect you’re all wondering, that is causing such elation? Well, I’ll tell you. Next week, my wife is taking me to Berlin for a few days as part of the celebrations for my impending 50th birthday. We fly from Liverpool to Schonefeld Airport on Wednesday, spend a couple of nights at the Grand Hotel Esplanade and return on Friday. Now, normally when I go on a trip, I just get a large bag out the cupboard, scan my wardrobe, put a few clothing essentialls inthe bag, a shirt or two, t-shirts, toiletries and before I know it I’ve got enough clothing and accessories to last a month long cuise through the freezing Norwegian Fjords and crossing the Atlnatic for a sojourn across the Caribbean. But that’s not how it is this time…Oh no. this time I’m travelling light and I’m planning ahead!

Last Saturday we went to Manchester and I bought myself a 40 litre bag, just the right size to take into the cabin and this will carry my ‘stuff’ in its entirety.

My new North Face 'hand luggage' bag
My new North Face ‘hand luggage’ bag

The bag cost £120 and it has all the right dimensions get in an Easyjet cabin for free, so for a return journey that’s a saving of £50 so it’s already saved me about 40% of its value! And the list? Well, about 5 days ago during a quiet period at work I got a piece of paper out and made a list of all the clothing and toiletries I’m going to take. I’ve transferred it all onto useful little app called Wunderlist and I’m good to go! I’m even tempted to pack my bag now, a full 5 days before we set off just so I can feel doubly organised (and probably doubly smug).

It’s a little thing but in some ways means much to me that I’ve discovered, on the eve of my 50th birthday, that a little bit of forward planning and preparation has taken the stress out of a process I’ve always considered a dull and stressful chore which is one of those requirements that cause stress and anxiety which is at the root of my laziness and underachievement. Yes, it’s true, I avoid stress and anxiety like the plague so if its not worth doing I don’t do it and if it has to be done I do it at the last minute in a rush of stress fuelled adrenaline.

So, it’s goodbye stress and its goodbye anxiety. Lists are the future. If only I’d known 35 years ago.