Friday, February 3, 2012

Photo Friday: Last of the Cold War

I thought I'd take a moment to explain this week's Wordless Wednesday and use one more image from that day in 1988 for Photo Friday.

In 1987, I was finishing journalism school but had hopes of becoming not a reporter, but a fiction writer. And at the time, my favourite genre of fiction was the spy novel. I wanted to become a great Canadian spy novelist.

I began writing very short stories about a nameless spy. My first story started in the middle of the action, where the main character was running from persuers: he had no memory of who he was or why he was running, a la Bourne (though I hadn't read any of those novels—I was influenced by the novels of Len Deighton). My stories were simple, very brief, and always involved the same character.

And they always had a dark ending. I'm not one for happy endings.

As I started to develop this spy, I needed a background. The character needed a name and an origin. I picked Roland as his first name and plunked my finger in a phone book to get his last name. I aimed for the Bs, so he would have the same initials as me, but missed: I landed on Axam.

For his origins, I used an atlas. Did you know that there's a lot of water and other uninhabitable places on our planet? After several unrealistic picks, I settled on a page that had the U.K. and Ireland. Anywhere there, I told myself, would be fine. I closed my eyes and dropped my finger.

And landed in water.

But very close to land. I had hit the mouth of the Firth of Forth, in Scotland. The closest town was North Berwick.

And thus, Roland Axam of North Berwick was born.

I decided that I wanted to write a longer story with Roland, one that took him to Europe. I had just finished reading Len Deighton's Game, Set, and Match trilogy, and had fallen in love with the city of Berlin. And so Roland's first big adventure would take him to the divided city.

In May of 1988, I travelled to Scotland, where I stayed with a friend who was studying at the University of Glasgow, and made my way to Roland's home town. There, I got a feel for Roland's roots and discovered a setting that would be the climax location for the story: Tantallon Castle.

I took a train from Glasgow to London and to Harwich, crossed the channel by ferry to Hoek van Holland, and then hopped another train that led me to West Berlin.

I was alone, didn't speak the language, and knew nothing about this city. And I had three days to gather as much information as I could, take as many photos as my film would allow.

And to cross into East Berlin in search of a spy.

But that's another story. Today is all about the picture.

Today's picture is the last photo I shot of the wall, on the night before I was to return to Glasgow. I decided to use a red filter and capture one of the many guard towers that lined the eastern side of the wall. The street lamps actually only shone down on the vast emptiness between the inner and outer walls, on the fields that were strewn with land mines. The photos that I used for this week's Wordless Wednesday were shot before I walked through Checkpoint Charlie—all of my photos of East Berlin were shot in black and white film, and some day I'll share them too.

I wanted my last shot of the wall to reflect the bold imposition of that wall that divided a city, that split up friends, family, and a sense of community. I don't know if I was able to truly reflect what I felt at that time. And I only took the one shot.

What do you think?

Happy Friday.

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