Ian Walker and Berlin
I am a great believer in serendipity in second-hand bookshops, and this definitely proved to be the case earlier this year in Brixton, when I stumbled across a very tattered (the right hand corner of the cover is flaking away in an attractive zig zag pattern) copy of a book called Zoo Station by a writer I'd never heard of, Ian Walker.
A little Googling, doesn't reveal much more, alas; it appears the bulk of his career happened in pre-digital days, and he died quite young, in 1990. You can find an image of him dancing, on an assignment about the New Romantics, here.
Zoo Station is sub-titled 'Adventures in East and West Berlin', and published in 1987, it in part functions as the last significant book about the divided city, as well as a series of dispatches from the alternative subcultures that had sprung up in the shadow of the wall. At one level it must have been a useful travel guide, explicitly detailing how it was possible to shuttle between the two halves of the city via U-Bahn, chancing it on the last train on a Saturday night.
The closest parallel I can think of for him is, journalistically, James Cameron, both being politically committed and seemingly much more worried about the ethics of what they did, how they reported the stories they brought back. He was unashamedly left wing, and one of the shocks upon reading Zoo Station is how red in tooth and claw it is - he has a point of view, a belief, and one that acts like an arctic blast, the shock that people actually wrote that - believed that - in the 1980s; and had jobs on The Observer!
Of course, none of this would matter if he couldn't write, but boy can he: a tone at once clear-sighted and expansive yet intimately confessional, sharp observations made fuzzy with booze, and a strong sense that something - the revels, him, maybe- is on the edge of ending.
Take this piece of description:
The bluish smoke swirled like storm clouds through Leydicke, staining ceilings and walls the colour of the autumn leaf. Tobaccanalians coughed their messages in the dark to others who drank and joked and felt sick after all that wine. One more Saturday night.Or indeed, this deft character sketch:
Al was straight, but he celebrated dancing as an end in itself. He hated those for whom dancing was a form of foreplay. He identified himself with the outsiders. He was a genuine hipster.
(See, there were hipsters in Berlin long before now.)
There's also a playful, restless interrogation of who and why he is doing this too:
When the bus finally arrived, after a thirty-minute wait, it was bound for Wannsee. Wannsee? What the hell. I liked travelling around. I sat on the top deck by the front window, kerbside, green boughs slapping against that window as the bus negotiated the narrow country lanes. I remembered boughs slapping against windows when my grandmother took me to the seaside in a bus one time. I wondered again how I was going to organise all this material. An odyssey through the two Berlins and the fractured state of my own consciousness? Berlin has meant a great deal to you, Johnny once said. You must explain why. How am I doing, Johnny?And of course, an acute awareness of class is present too:
Personally, I preferred sulky waiters to sycophantic waiters. I preferred the honest rudeness of Aeroflot air hostesses to the phony bonhomie of American Airlines. Rich people should be grateful enough they can eat in restaurants and travel in aeroplanes. Insisting on good service was to want the bread buttered on both sides.
Zoo Station is a book well worth seeking out, being both time capsule and memoir. And you can read some more of Walker's work here.