Every now and then you find a little treasure, in this case it’s a book. A while ago, my friend Mark Reeder commented on something on FB, one of his friends once wrote a book about the last days of the divided Berlin. Being originally from Berlin I got this obsession about everything related to this city, and so I’ve read most of the German publications about the youngest history of Germany’s capital, from the first wave of Berlin books that got published by the end of the 90s like “Die Tickerlady“ (“The Dealer Lady“), a book about a young girl dealing drugs in one of the hardest techno clubs in the mid 90s “Bunker“, to personal favorites like “Der Klang der Familie“ (“The sound of the family“) and “Die Ersten Tage von Berlin“ (“The first days of Berlin“), books about the rise of subculture and techno in Berlin in the early 90s against the backdrop of the now reunited city. But all these books are about what happened after the Wall came down in 1989 - which makes “Once upon A Time In The East“ such a stand-out. It was published in 1992, it’s only available in English... and unfortunately it has run out of print a long time ago already.
The book was written by Dave Rimmer, a British music journalist who worked for Smash Hits, a very influential and successful pop music magazine in the UK in the early 80s. His first book “Like Punk Never Happened“, published in 1985, is about this era, when the UK ruled the pop world and the London-based Smash Hits was in the epicenter of it. In 1988 he felt he needed to “detox from celebrity“ and followed an invitation to West Berlin. In Berlin he met Mark and Trevor, two other British Berliners. Mark Reeder was already an old friend and quite a character to say the least, always dressed in a wild mix of military clothes and basically involved in seemingly everything (West) Berlin’s subculture had to offer. Trevor Wilson, a friend of Mark, was well-known in Berlin for publishing the fanzine “Ich und mein Staubsauger“ (“Me and my vacuum cleaner“) and had, in the words of Dave Rimmer, “a knack for wearing clothes that could make the most immaculately tailored item look like some moth-eaten rag from a second hand shop“. Very soon one of their favourite activities became Rimmers’, too: traveling excessively to East Berlin, followed by making lengthy holiday trips to Eastern Block countries like Czechoslovakia, Hungary or Romania.
Dave Rimmer describes his fascination with Berlin as “a city that had been hit by just about everything the twentieth century could find to hurl at it“, and further “I was born a decade after the end of World War Two, but in my Newcastle childhood it was still around me. Sunday afternoon television was always showing patriotic war films full of Nazis. We read comics where Germans shouted “Achtung, die Engländer!‘ Later the war was replaced by the Cold War, I had read every Ian Fleming book.” James Bond in cinemas, Man from U.N.C.L.E. ion TV later, then Lou Reed made his “Berlin“ album and Bowie and Iggy even moved there. The divided city in the centre of the Cold War became more and more a mystique, or in other words: “Berlin offered an evocation of both childhood games and teenage fascinations.”
Have you ever heard the story of senior US diplomat Allan Lightner and the standoff at Checkpoint Charlie? A really crazy story that resulted in a little rule: allied citizens, as long as they were not registered as residents of Berlin, could pass the border unmolested when provided with a military escort. And Mark and Trevor knew some military escort in the form of a few G.I.s, who also happened to enjoy going East. So they drove like VIPs with US allied forces cars straight through Checkpoint Charlie, unchecked and without paying the usual fee everyone else had to pay. The iron curtain became their looking glass and they were breaking through.
The book is full of fantastic stories of what they experienced on these trips. A gang of crazy Brits and their G.I. friends invading the East - and in the beginning it was mostly fun, thanks to lots of hash cookies and the luxury of feeling angst-free, provided by the backup of their British passports (and sometimes their US army license plates). And everything was so unbelievably cheap! One of the main attractions were all these needless goods the East produced, they were literally looting the city on their shopping sprees through East Berlin’s department stores. Then there was their obsessive search for every Eastern Block or military thing they could get a hold of, from blank documents to Mongolian flags, decoration medals or fake hand grenades - you could actually get these grenades in regular “sports and free time“ accessory stores, imagine how excited they must have been! At one point they even thought about how they could manage to get a Kalashnikov, the ultimate communism gadget. However, wherever they were, their biggest challenge was to get a vegetarian meal in a restaurant. This was a world where no one had ever heard of vegetarian, let alone knew what that meant.
One of my favorite episodes is the story of the “Eastie Boys“, a fake band they tried to sell to the UK hype press, made up of two of their East Berlin friends. The Face bought the story right away, of course, as Dave Rimmer was a trusted music journalist. The only condition requested by the magazine was a picture of the band that showed they were actually in East Berlin. So they styled them as a Communist version of the Beastie Boys, with self made Trabant chains - the emblem of the most common car in East Germany - trucker caps, track suits of an East Berlin football team and so on, and took the photos in front of a very large Lenin monument. Unfortunately, the story was canceled before it really had the chance to take off. Shortly after, both of the “Eastie Boys“ ran into some trouble with the Stasi, the feared East German secret police. They were interrogated and released a little later - but from that point on the mood had changed drastically, the Cold War was getting real. The nothing can happen to us naÏvete of our British adventurers was gone - even though they knew nothing could happen to them, they realized that a lot of bad things could happen to their friends. Until that incident, they had basically simply ignored the fact that getting in contact with a citizen from a Western country was not welcome and could actually cause a lot of trouble.
The story ends in November 1989, but not in Berlin. On November 9th the Wall came down, aonly our friends missed it. A day before they took off to a long planned and already paid trip to Romania. Where they were headed, no one knew or cared about what had happened in the opposite direction. Somewhere in Slovakia they learned from a newspaper, that three days earlier the Berlin Wall had come down.
Dave Rimmer finished the book in 1991, it was published in the UK in 1992, and even though he still lived in Berlin at the time, a German version never came to be. Besides the great and sometimes unbelievable stories, he wrote it with a great love for detail and many on point descriptions of both parts of the divided Berlin. Dave Rimmer was there, he was an eyewitness of the last days of the Wall, he experienced these last days in his very own way and did his fair share of mischief - and he didn’t wait long to write it all down. This makes this book so special.
25 years later, Dave Rimmer is still - or again, to be precise - in Berlin, so Lodown sat down with him over a drink to chat about the book and how he remembers the events that triggered writing it.
How did you end up living in Berlin at that time? I came to Berlin in 1988 - and I already knew the city at that point as I was coming here since 1980 because my brother and a close friend had moved to Berlin. Anyway, in ’88 I was in a weird state, I was coming here for no reason except to get away from London. I wasn’t convinced I was about to stay either, but then it ended up being eight years. Meanwhile I had no money or job or anything... so going to East Berlin with Mark Reeder and Trevor Wilson was our recreation, really. I found the whole situation kinda amusing that you were piss poor in West Berlin but just had to cross the border in order to feel as if you had more money than you could ever spend. That was a strange situation.
You took notes long before the wall came down, did you do that because you already had the idea of writing another book? I was used to taking notes because I worked as a journalist for quite some time already, but at this point I wasn’t really thinking about doing a book based on our adventures in the East... mainly because it would’ve gotten our friends beyond the border into trouble, and some of our G.I. friends as well since they were our accomplices to a certain degree. The following year, when we went to Romania, it became clear that things were about to change politically... and that at some point it would be safe to write about the whole experience, even though the whole trip of exploring the East in the beginning did just happen for the sake of exploring.
The first chapter was written in the summer of 1990, in order to pitch it to my agent. People soon got interested because it was very topical... the problem was that I wasn’t writing it quickly enough. They wanted to publish it in 1991, but I wasn’t able to finish it on time. And they were right in a way, because when it eventually came out there already were a lot of personal books and stories on that topic. (laughs) I remember a book about a guy who had traveled Romania with a pig, that was his gimmick... and I guess my book was just not gimmick-y enough, it was too weird. It delivered a view on the world people who usually review books wouldn’t understand at all. A German friend of mine at that time told me that they didn’t get it because I was writing about real people, you know... and not about what journalists think of real people. And that’s exactly why it took me quite a while to finish the book - because I was writing about real people, about close friends of mine. And obviously it was very important to me, even though it became kinda nerve-wrecking to make sure that they would recognize the story as well. (laughs) I remember that I had to stop talking to Mark about the events because our memories were slightly different all the time. I was relieved though that they liked it when the book finally came out in 1992. There was a point when rororo wanted to publish it in German, but I was very exhausted from writing it and they wanted me to change quite a lot, so I refused their offer.
The actual reception of the book wasn’t that great, unfortunately. Did that bother you since it was such a personal project? The British newspapers hated it, but I got good reviews in other places. Sometimes people who read the book even showed up at Schöneberg’s “Pinguin Club“ in order to look for either me or Mark... I got slammed by the Guardian because they didn’t like our attitude towards Czech dissidents... which felt strange because these people never had a problem with us in the first place. And we were hanging out with some really high-powered people back then as well, people who later made it into government.
What happened to the Eastie Boys? It started out as a joke, which then became slightly bigger than originally planned, I guess. We stopped working on it as soon as the Stasi intervened.
You missed the day the Wall came down, because you were on the way to Romania... how did that feel? We were all completely pissed off and we wished we were able to turn the car around in order to experience how it felt in Berlin in that moment… (laughs) but then again we already missed it by days, so there was no point. Looking back, we weren’t in Berlin when the Wall was coming down, but we went through Hungary and Czechoslovakia while it was still Communist, we were in Romania a month before the end of Ceasescu - which was a very vivid experience - and then we passed back through Czechoslovakia where the Velvet Revolution was happening... so, yeah, we experienced plenty of other things instead which were completely unrepeatable - including returning to a city that’s completely different to the one you’d left. I remember driving back through the Drei Linden checkpoint, and in front of us was a Trabant on its way to West Berlin, which felt incredibly weird at the time.
Your view on all things Eastern was a surprisingly positive one... It was. And still is in retrospect. It was a weird vibe back then because when you traveled to these countries, you soon realized that there was an atmosphere of things opening up to a rather drastic degree for the local people... so people were probably also a lot more optimistic than they were ten years prior to that. I think it also helped that I wasn’t only going on holiday, I was traveling to find out more... and having a journalistic background might have helped to have this ability to deal with these kinds of sensitive issues.
Once Upon A Time In The East / originally published in October 1992 by Random House
words: André Langenfeld
PS: Torsten, one half of the Eastie Boys, recently died unexpectedly at the young age of 50. I met him in the 90s when he was working for Marks Reeder's MFS Records. The last time we saw each other was in 2002 when I stayed for a few days in his new home in San Francisco. We were in loose contact via facebook and I was sure, if I ever visit California again, I’ll say hello. I still will, promise.