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Berlin, Bowie, and the wall

From the very first few minutes of chatting with travel author and adventurer Rory MacLean, it was clear this was one of the most genuine, friendly people I’d met. Rory’s wanderlust has taken him all around the world in the hunt for interesting stories and absorbing journeys- and as we talked I began to realise how he’d got so far and built friendships with so many different travellers. This empathy and understanding comes across clearly in his writing. Rory’s work slips along the border of fact and fiction, mythologizing the journey taken and weaving history and fact in with his own fiction. This creates an absorbing tangle of narrative that becomes a world of its own. His style, as far as I can tell, is utterly unique- and completely captivating. “I aim to reach a greater truth through the use of facts”, he explains. “I want to make a place, a history and a people more accessible. One of the reasons I concentrate on the individual, bringing fictional devices into non-fiction, is to make the reader empathise- to help them understand the whole human dimension of a historical event.”

We were discussing Rory’s latest work: ‘Berlin: Imagine a City’, – chosen as the book of the year by the Washington Post – which explores the tumultuous city throughout its varied history, viewing famous events through different angles and bringing the past to life. This way of experiencing other places through different eyes and through different times is at the heart of MacLean’s writing: “only then can you understand another person or society. The simple parochial representation of a place is no longer an achievement – other perspectives are essential.” This is what makes MacLean’s writing so interesting- it stretches and plays with the concept of ‘travel writing’ to encompass both factual reporting and imagined journeys, bridging the gap between the reader and the place- and showing them what it may have been like to live in a certain place, at a certain time.

But this book is more than that- it’s also Rory’s attempt to understand his own experiences in that city. “I first saw the Wall as a young Canadian at 17 ‘doing Europe’”, he tells me. “The sight of it shook me to the core. 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. How had they have grown blind to their human experience, clouding it with dogma? I longed to understand their motivation, yet at the same time I was repulsed by their crimes and needed to feel their victims’ suffering. In a way it was these questions that led me to want to be a writer- to know how those people had come to act as they did.” So Rory traced the descendants of the Wall-builders and warmongers through Berlin’s history- “in that city, I could hardly avoid it. Everywhere you turn there simply oozed history and stories. You could feel the weight of it all around you.” But when asked if he believes events can stay in a place’s ‘residual memory’, he replies that he wished it were so- but he can’t quite bring himself to. “Perhaps it’s because my life became entwined in larger historical events: I’ve knew Berlin during the Cold War, and after it. Is there a collective memory of it? Or is it just a kind of nostalgia? I don’t know.” This curiosity, and a sense of questioning the very fabric of the city, is partly what makes the book so enthusing and gripping.

‘Berlin: Imagine a City’ mirrors Rory’s other adventures: from following the ‘Hippy Trail’ across Asia in ‘Magic Bus’ to exploring the culture of repression in Burma in ‘Under the Dragon’, Rory has always been on the hunt for stories. “It’s easy to think that the world is homogeneous: but look just below the surface and you find it’s so rich, so full of variety. I try to live and work in the places that I find individual and exciting- there are still so many to visit and I’m running out of years!” But Rory says he’s never actively gone out to find anecdotes to write about. “I just enjoy the deep richness of experience. I love learning how individuals live, and experiences come attached with that.” And it’s certainly paid off: Rory is full of stories and quips. At one point he tells me how, amongst other things, he worked with David Bowie. “I was a director’s assistant, and was sent to work in Berlin on Bowie and Dietrich’s film. In that city at the height of the Cold War, overlooking the Wall, working with Bowie… I realised then I’d been gifted something really special in life.”

But these adventures stretch far beyond the geographical. Rory is also the writer in residence at the Archive of Modern Conflict, writing a collection of fictional short stories based on some of the 4 million photos of war held there. When asked why he writes so frequently about conflict, he replies it’s as much about disbelief as fascination. “I find it almost beyond understanding what the individual is capable of- it’s like I’m back in Berlin looking over the Wall, and trying to understand why we – mankind – has to be this way.” Having written also about the missing civilians of the Yugoslav Wars for the ICRC, Rory is now working on a similar project with the UN, writing about the missing of Cyprus between 1963-74. “Over 2,000 men, women and children simply vanished.” He tells me. “There are so many heartbreaking stories- people can’t accept loved ones have gone, they’ve been waiting for 50 years for news of their fate. These are stories that need to be told.”

And this is what is so wonderful about Rory’s writing- it illuminates all sides of human experience, whatever historic period, whatever situation. “I look at the individual life to illuminate a broader historical trend. This lets me focus on the ‘wonder-voyage’ of everyday lives. I find art is a catalyst for this, it lets us celebrate other people’s richness and potential, but it also reminds us of the wonder-voyages taking place in yours and my and everyone’s everyday lives, showing us all to be – in one way or another – extraordinary.”

Has Rory always had this open- minded view of people and their experiences? “I did a lot of reading when I arrived in the UK- I felt illiterate, so I began to devour all the books I could find. I’ve been keeping a quote book for years!” He tells me. And Rory certainly shows his knowledge: our conversation is peppered with references and names, and I find myself jotting down notes to be researched later. “Reading is so key for me- it lets me easily slip into different personas. The past is not a place from which we must escape: it is a dynamic living community to be given to our children.” This lets him explore turning points in history- those moments we are constantly drawn back to. “But there is magic in the small events, too- the everyday as well as the unexpected,” he hastens to add. And, as our discussion winds its way through his various adventures, I find I’m agreeing with Rory: sometimes the everyday, such as a routine interview or conversation, can turn into an unexpected joy that you find yourself coming back to, again and again. ‘Berlin: Imagine a City’ is a wonderful book. But the figure behind the words is even more interesting.


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