War and Peace

With not much more than two weeks to go until the Midterm elections in the USA, a ‘migrant caravan’ of more than 7000 people has crossed the border from Guatemala to Mexico. Apparently the migrants are planning to then storm the US border in order to ‘find work’. Also this week a score of homemade pipe bombs have been sent through the mail to prominent people associated with the Democratic Party, except that they weren’t real bombs and the guy who we’re told is responsible for it has now been arrested. This guy, we’re told, is a hardline Trump supporter and is from Florida, except that he can’t spell Florida on the return address label on the packages he sent the bombs in, packages that have no postal marks on the stamps, to name just a few anomalies. What to make of it all..? It’s hard to say in the post-truth Alice In Wonderland world that we now live in.

Buried amongst all this criminal political theatre are the remains of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF), as President Trump announced that the USA is going to withdraw from it, saying that Russia has not honoured the agreement, although Trump offered no evidence of this. Conversely, the US has been breaking the INF treaty at least since 2012, when Obama announced a trillion dollar upgrade of US nuclear weapons, including intermediate range weapons, starting with 10 billion dollars worth of death. This has continued under President Trump, when earlier this year it was announced that The US is to spend billions of dollars upgrading 150 nuclear bombs positioned in Europe, although the weapons may be useless as a deterrent and a potentially catastrophic security liability, according to a new report by arms experts.

Amidst the marauding migrants and the bozo bomber this startling news about the INF treaty has barely received a mention in the media. Neither has President Putin’s reaction to the news…

The Doomsday Clock is edging ever closer to midnight. It’s all depressing stuff. So, a more lighthearted take on things with an excerpt from my memoir When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn. This excerpt is set in the 1980s during the height of the old Cold War. I should add that the now withdrawn Ost-West Express was my favourite train, because at the time it crossed Europe’s ideological divide (the Iron Curtain) and went to the heart of the ‘evil empire’, Moscow. The train used to run in two sections, from London/Oostende and from Paris, and via Berlin they would join in Warsaw for the journey on to Moscow (From London, including the Channel ferry, the rail journey to Moscow used to take just over two days; from Paris a little under two days – I’ve done this journey from both Paris and London). The track gauge in the USSR/Russia is wider than in Europe, so at the border the entire train would be hoisted on hydraulic jacks. to allow them to change the carriage wheels to accommodate the wider gauge.
________________________________________________________

Ersatz Bond

The girl watched the comings and goings on the platform. The poetry of departure. I smiled at her as the Ost-West Express began to leave Berlin Zoo station. It was a brisk November day. I asked the girl if she could watch my bag while I went to the restaurant car. There was little point asking her to save my seat. The train would remain half empty until we crossed into western Europe. In the restaurant car I bought some snacks and a beer. The idea was to get rid of my remaining East German marks, which were worthless in the West.

West Berlin became a memory as the Ost-West Express passed beneath the Berlin Wall and came to a halt at the Griebnitzsee border post. The border guards gave the train the once over. Going in this direction (east-west) the inspections were never that rigorous; after all, who would want to smuggle themself into East Germany. Within 15 minutes we were on the move again. It was now 106 miles to the frontier with West Germany, the Iron Curtain. I bought two bottles of beer and returned to the compartment. The girl thanked me for the beer and we chatted as the grim scenary of East Germany went by.

At nineteen years old, the girl was just two years younger than me. Her name was Agnes, a student who lived with her mother in Liege, Belgium. The parents were separated and her father lived in West Berlin. From the clothes and jewelry it was obvious she came from a wealthy family. Her long blonde hair was tied-up in a bun at the back of her head. Agnes laughed a lot and seemed quite intelligent. Gawd knows what she saw in me.

By the time we hit the frontier we were each on our third bottle of beer. When crossing the Iron Curtain from east to west you got the full works. The train remained stationary for more than an hour as every inch of it was searched and the passengers were questioned. Our compartment door was thrown open. Two border guards stood there. Their machine guns were not just for show.

“Reisepass!”

Agnes handed over hers first. She was asked a few questions and then had her passport stamped. When the guards saw my British passport they didn’t look very pleased. They asked me lots and lots of questions; then, still holding my passport, they stepped out into the corridor for a consultation. I couldn’t understand German very well. Agnes could, and I saw from the look on her face that things were going badly.

“Come. Bring your luggage!” It was an order.

The guards frog-marched me off the train, then across two railway tracks and into a dingy building that served as the customs hall. I was told to sit on a chair in front of a long trestle table. There were three other border guards lounging around. They looked totally disinterested. An air of boredom hung over the entire place. I was neither bored nor disinterested, because three years earlier a friend and I had been given the third degree by the Stasi in East Berlin (see An Incident at Friedrichstrasse Station). I knew what these people were capable of.

One of the guards lifted up my suitcase, turned it upside down and let the contents tumble down on to the trestle table. I was told to turn out my pockets. Then they frisked me. While my possessions were being minutely searched the other guard disappeared with my passport. After five minutes the search was completed. The guard seemed disappointed. I had to wait another ten minutes before my passport was returned.

“Come!” Great conversationalists, these GDR border guards.

As always happens, people were leaning out of the windows of the train, watching the soldiers and their dogs search the underside of the carriages. They were also waiting to see if I was going to come back out of that customs building.

The name’s Godfrey, Rob Godfrey.

Agnes waved at me as I walked across the tracks. The conductor was less joyful, because I had delayed the train. As soon as I stepped on board, the Ost-West Express began to move. After my close encounter with Smersh I eyed Agnes’ three pieces of luggage: which case contained the Cipher Machine?

We crossed Europe’s ideological divide. The Ost-West Express raced towards Hannover, trying to make up for lost time. It was now well into the evening. The train wasn’t very crowded. Agnes and I were the only people sitting down to dinner in the restaurant car. I had a vodka martini, shaken not stirred, while Agnes asked me more questions about what I’d been doing in Berlin. Did she work for Rosa Klebb? I needed to be careful here, so all I told her was that I’d been over in East Berlin to see the sights. We ate a sumptuous meal. Afterwards, Agnes said that she would pick-up the tab. From Russia with love. It was close to midnight when we got back to our compartment. As soon as the door closed we were in each other’s arms, kissing passionately. My beautiful spy.

By the time we reached Cologne it was three o’clock in the morning. In the warmth of the compartment, Agnes and I were snuggled-up along one of the seats. Outside the picture window it was bitterly cold, with sleet driving across the landscape. Agnes stroked my hair. I breathed in her scent. I started to feel very, very tired. I remember seeing the flashing lights of a passing train, and then I slipped into unconsciousness.

When I awoke everything suddenly became harsh. Our intimate world of semi-darkness, the seductive song of the wheels, the faint hiss of warm air being circulated, all of it had gone. Instead, my head ached intolerably and daylight that was much too bright for its own good flooded the compartment. The train was standing at the platform in Oostende. My beautiful spy had also gone. She must have slipped some knock-out drops into my vodka martini, and then made off with the Cipher Machine. M would be furious. I looked down and noticed a card pinned to my chest. Agnes’ contact details. There was handwriting on the back of the card: Goodbye Mr Bond.

From When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn, Rob Godfrey’s memoir of 20 years of travels, available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon

Share
This entry was posted in Politics. Bookmark the permalink.