"LABOUR MP MEETS ATOM SPY FUCHS IN SECRET" shouted the newspaper headline.
The year was 1961. Six weeks earlier, the East Germans had suddenly built the Berlin Wall, plunging the world into some of the darkest and most threatening days of the Cold War.
They had built the Wall because the situation in Berlin had, in the previous months, become increasingly unstable. Although there were checkpoints between the Eastern and Western sectors of the city, before the Wall the border was only a nominal one. Some 50,000 East Berliners crossed into the West every day to work. According to the East Germans, the Western Deutschmarks they earned had come to cause severe dislocation of the East German economy, which was made worse by the activities of currency speculators and black marketeers operating in the East on behalf of the West. In addition, "revanchist elements" from the West could cross into the East at will to carry out "provocations" and "sabotage" and foment unrest. But the most serious problem of all was the one not mentioned by the East Germans: their state was haemorrhaging from the daily flood of people fleeing across the border from East to West.
So they built the Wall, and the West reacted with fury, and both East and West started sabre‑rattling and mobilising their troops in Europe, and once again the world seemed on the brink of war.
In this kind of atmosphere, it was hardly surprising that the newspapers made such a fuss about Betty Charrington's visit to Klaus Fuchs. That the left‑wing Labour MP for Deptford East should go on a fact‑finding mission to East Berlin at that time was unremarkable, if distasteful. But for her to visit the notorious atom spy Klaus Fuchs, who had gone to live in East Germany when he was released from a British jail in 1959 ‑ this was truly scandalous.
Betty Charrington tried to play down the significance of the visit when she returned to England.
"There was nothing sinister about the meeting," she told the newspapers. "I don't want any fuss over it... all that silly nonsense about espionage starting up again. All I will say is that I visited Dr Fuchs. He is not in Russia building super‑bombs, as has been reported. The meeting took place two days ago. It was a social call. One does not discuss one's friends in public, particularly when the interest is centred on quite extraneous details. That would not be in the best traditions of British good manners, would it?"
She went on to explain to the reporters that she had met Klaus Fuchs during the course of her visit to East Germany as part of a delegation to "hear the East Berliners' point of view about the international situation". She then gave the papers a list of the other members of the delegation. This was published the next day with her comments on the visit to Fuchs.
I have kept copies of those newspaper reports for the past forty-odd years, because I was one of the people on that list.
I met Betty Charrington at Gatwick airport on the day of our departure for Berlin.
There were four of us on the delegation. Two were trade unionists ‑ Bob Turney of the Transport and General Workers Union, and Mr A Carver of the National Union of Teachers, whose first name I never found out. Then there was Mrs Charrington, and then there was me. I was a member of the executive committee of the Youth Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at the time, and had been invited to go on the delegation as the CND representative.
My friends had asked me to try to avoid starting a third world war while I was in Berlin, please.
The group of us met up at the check‑in desk, where the formalities were taken care of by a woman from the British Peace Committee, which had arranged the trip to Berlin from the London end. Betty Charrington arrived a little late, with her husband in tow. When I was introduced to her, she shook my hand vigorously and said: "Good to see youth being represented."
She was a short, very plump, middle‑aged woman, with dark, permed hair, high‑heeled shoes and bright red lipstick on a decidedly lived‑in face, with rolls of fat round the neck.
After introducing us to each other, the woman from the British Peace Committee made a short speech. She told us that she had been on the phone to Berlin the previous night, and had been assured we need not have any worries about our safety. She finished by saying:
"On behalf of the British Peace Committee, I'd like to wish you a good trip, and I'm sure you'll look at the situation in Berlin objectively. I've been to the German Democratic Republic three times myself, and I think it's quite remarkable what they've achieved there. So, good luck, and I hope you'll have an enjoyable time."
Then Betty Charrington said a perfunctory goodbye to her husband, a mild-looking man who I found out later was a solicitor. The four of us left him and the woman from the Peace Committee and went through to the Departure Lounge.
Our plane was a small Soviet jet flown by Polish air lines, with rows of just two seats on either side for the passengers. Mr Carver, who said the plane was "natty" when we entered it, took a window seat up at the front. Instead of sitting beside him, Bob Turney hovered in the aisle. Betty Charrington, however, turned to me and said:
"Go on, dear. Take the window seat. I've flown in so many planes before I'm bored with them."
I took the seat behind Mr Carver and Betty Charrington sat beside me, forcing Turney to sit next to Mr Carver.
Mr Carver was a small, thin‑faced, grey‑haired man with spectacles. Turning in his seat to address me and Betty Charrington, he said:
"You notice there's no first class on this plane? Interesting, eh?"
Once we had taken off, Betty Charrington undid her seat belt, settled her fat frame into a comfortable position, rummaged in her handbag until she found a cigarette, lit it with a crisp clip of her lighter, and turned to face me.
"Right, John," she said. "Tell me all about yourself."
She grilled me about my political opinions, where I lived, what I was studying on my English course at London University ‑ she wanted to know exactly which authors I was reading and what I thought about them ‑ and what kind of life I led with my friends. Flattered by her attention, I told her all about myself, emphasising what I thought were the good bits, like my commitment to the YCND.
I also told her about a problem that was worrying me.
Two days previously I had received a summons to appear in court the day after we returned from Berlin, in a week's time.
As well as being involved in YCND, I was a member of the Committee of 100, the organisation that had been formed to conduct a civil disobedience campaign against Britain's possession of nuclear weapons. The committee had called a demonstration in Trafalgar Square later in the month. We were to sit down in the square and in the surrounding streets and refuse to move until the police carted us away. The summons stated that I was to appear in court in order to agree to be bound over to keep the peace ‑ in other words, not to have anything to do with the demonstration.
When I got the letter, I phoned a couple of other members of the committee, and found that 50 of the 100 of us had been sent the same letter, including Bertrand Russell, the committee's most eminent member. The others intended to refuse to be bound over, which would almost certainly mean being sent to prison.
Should I do the same?
Betty Charrington said she was in favour of the kind of civil disobedience Gandhi had conducted against the British colonialists in India, for example, but wasn't at all sure that it was the right tactic in a democracy like Britain. She advised me to agree to be bound over to keep the peace.
"I don't care what the others are going to do," she said. "You're too young to make a martyr of yourself."
Having pronounced her opinion, she went on to ask me what I thought about the trip we were on. I told her that I had never visited a communist country before.
"I think you'll find the GDR very interesting," she said. "They have a lot of problems, a lot of contradictions. Creating a socialist society in those conditions hasn't been easy, not with that history.... They had to put that wall up, you know. They didn't have any choice."
Throughout the plane journey, she kept up a stream of conversation. When she felt she had found out all she wanted to know about me for the time being, she started talking with Bob Turney over the back of his seat. She seemed to find everything he said tremendously interesting, just as she had with me.
They talked mainly about politics. Turney was a large, solid man with black hair and a slow, considered way of talking. He was worried about the number of resolutions condemning the Berlin Wall at the forthcoming T&GWU annual conference.
"It's a field‑day for anti‑communism, this business," he said.
By now I had realised that Mr Carver and Bob Turney were both communists ‑ and that Betty Charrington, though a Labour MP, was almost certainly what was known in those days as a "fellow‑traveller".
I knew about communists, because my mother and step‑father were communists, as I had told Betty Charrington when she was asking me about my life and opinions. So had my father been, before he got killed fighting the Germans in Italy in the Second World War.
I had grown up surrounded by communists, and many of them were people that I respected and loved. Communists, for me, were jolly trade unionists who got drunk at my mother's parties and sang "I'm the man, the very fat man, who waters the workers' beer" and told me that I represented the future they were fighting for. Communists were self‑taught intellectuals who introduced me to Bertolt Brecht and Dmitri Shostakovitch. Communists were Russians and Hungarians and Africans and Scotsmen who stayed in our house as lodgers and told me about their countries and hugged me and slapped my back when I went to bed. Communists were the best, most warm‑hearted, most decent people I knew ‑ yet the newspapers hated them and told me that they were evil, and so did almost everybody I met when I went outside into the world...
I looked out of the aeroplane window, at Europe spreading out beneath me, at the intense blue of the sky above the clouds and the plane's silver wings gleaming in the sunlight. We crossed over the Belgian border and started to fly into Germany.
I was about to find out what communism in practice was like.
I was also about to visit the capital city of the country that had killed my father.
We landed at East Berlin's airport outside the city. A row of square, scruffy buildings beside the airfield were bedecked with red flags. Across the top of the main one was a huge red banner with gold lettering on it, proclaiming "FREIHEIT UND SOZIALISMUS" (Freedom and Socialism). As we taxied along the runway, we passed three army trucks. Soldiers armed with automatic rifles were posted all over the airfield. Outside the main building there were police in dark grey uniforms, similarly armed and wearing high black boots.
A group of officials from the Peace Committee of the German Democratic Republic was waiting for us, led by a large, silver‑haired man with glasses who introduced himself to us in good English as Heinrich Becker, the chairman of the Peace Committee. A side‑kick was with him, a younger man called Hans Esslin, and a thin, straight‑haired woman who carried four bouquets of flowers.
Becker made a short speech welcoming us to what he called the "DDR" ‑ the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Then the woman presented each of us with a bouquet.
"Oh, these are delightful! Thank you so much!" Betty Charrington said effusively.
"Now, if you will please give me your passports, we will go through the customs formalities," said Becker.
Two large black Russian cars took us into the city. I found myself with Mr Carver and Hans Esslin.
"I couldn't help noticing that there was no first class on the plane," Carver said. "Would that be the same with public transport in the GDR?"
"Of course," said Esslin, who also spoke English. "There are no first class and second class citizens in the DDR."
We drove across a flat agricultural landscape and into the outskirts of Berlin. I looked out of the window in mounting alarm. The city was shockingly bleak and shabby. We drove over uneven cobbled roads past filthy, peeling apartment blocks above drab little shops with minimal window displays. Everything was grey and dilapidated. There were no advertisements. Round every corner there were large areas of waste ground which I recognised as bomb‑sites left over from the Second World War. Why were they still here? Why hadn't East Berlin been rebuilt?
I had never seen a place that looked so grim.
We passed queues of people waiting for trams. Although not as well dressed as Londoners, they looked less poverty‑stricken than their surroundings. I stared at them. Was that man there a communist? Was that woman with the child a communist?
We drove down a wide avenue with monumental, recently built apartment blocks on either side.
"My," said Mr Carver. "This is pretty impressive stuff!"
"This is Stalinallee," said Esslin. "It has been built by the Soviet Union as a gift to the people of the DDR. These are workers' apartments."
Carver nodded with satisfaction at this and I tried to think of Stalinallee, which I thought hideous, more favourably.
Now we were in the centre of town there were more girls to be seen in the streets. Several were stylish and attractive. I started to fantasise about having an affair with a German girl ‑ a communist German girl.
Our hotel, on a side road off Unter den Linden, had a big red banner strung across it saying "KOMMUNISMUS TRIUMFIERT" ‑ Communism triumphs. It was a large, solid building with an impressive marble entrance, but with the same dirty, grey plasterwork around it that we had seen everywhere else. Opposite was a large waste area and a pile of twisted girders and rubble, as if the bombs had fallen on it only recently.
We got out of our car and I looked down the street. About 400 yards away it came to an abrupt end where it was barricaded off by a rough construction of concrete blocks and barbed wire. Some way beyond this there was a large scaffolding arch supporting an electronic screen that flashed messages of some kind.
Betty Charrington's car had arrived before us and she was waiting for us on the pavement. She followed my eyes to the barricade that blocked off the end of the street.
"That's the Wall," she said.
So the buildings I could see in the distance, which were I now noted were taller and smarter than the ones around me, were in West Berlin--and the electronic screen was sending propaganda messages into East Berlin from the West.
"Do you know what that smell is?" Betty Charrington asked me.
I sniffed, and became aware of a faint acrid tang in the air. I shook my head.
"Tear gas," she said. "There must have been some trouble here today."
She paused, looking at me significantly.
"You realise, my dear, that the whole world is watching this place at the moment. And if there is going to be another world war, it's going to start right here. What's happening in this city could turn this beautiful world of ours into a charnel house."
She allowed her words to sink in, then became brisk.
"Come on," she said. "Let's go and see what our rooms are like."
The hotel seemed almost empty. The lift was broken, so we were taken up a wide carpeted staircase to the first floor. A porter carried our bags and showed us our rooms along a large, silent corridor.
After we had freshened up, we went downstairs to the hotel dining room. It was spacious and tall‑ceilinged, with marble pillars and tables laid with immaculate white tablecloths and expensive‑looking cutlery. Becker and Esslin translated the dishes on the menu for us. I had roast pork, sauteed potatoes and saurkraut. We drank as much beer as we liked.
The only other guests in the hotel seemed to be a group of six Russian men in grey suits, sitting in the corner away from us, and a solitary, thick‑set man who read a newspaper while he ate.
During our meal, Becker gave us a briefing about the crisis.
"On August 13th it was touch and go," he told us. "Is that the correct expression? It was touch and go."
He went on to say that by "safeguarding the frontier" (putting up the Wall), the East Germans had stabilised the situation and prevented a war breaking out. As he talked, he sounded genuinely frightened of the West. He believed the West was prepared to go to almost any lengths to destroy his country.
We talked about the Soviet resumption of H‑bomb tests, which had taken place soon after the Wall was built. Becker said this was absolutely necessary "to give the revanchists and militarists a clear warning".
As a CND supporter, I felt very uneasy about this.
The conversation went on for some time, carried forward by incisive questions from Betty Charrington. The plane journey seemed to have done nothing to abate her energy. She wanted to know everything Becker had to say about the crisis.
Occasionally, something he said struck her as amusing, and she would roar with laughter, her whole plump body shaking.
A waitress brought round a silver pot of coffee. Betty Charrington, who was sitting next to me, took a sip and muttered, "Yuk. Ersatz. Reminds me of the war."
Then Becker told us that the next day there was to be a rally to greet the Soviet cosmonaut Herman Titov, fresh back from circling the globe for a record seven days. It was to be addressed by Walter Ulbricht, the general secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (East Germany's Communist Party) and we were invited to attend. After that, our delegation was to be split into two halves. One half would go to a town called Gera in the south and on to Leipzig, while the other half would go to Dresden. After five days, we would all come back to stay another couple of days in Berlin before returning to Britain.
Betty, as she had now instructed me to call her, turned to me and whispered:
"Don't worry. I've arranged for us two to go together."
I was pleased. She seemed to have formed a kind of alliance with me.
Two young men came into the restaurant and were introduced to us as the interpreters who would accompany us on our journeys round the GDR. One of them was Chinese.
"This is Li Po Shun, who will go with you to Leipzig," Becker told Betty and me.
Li Po Shun was a tall, slender man with a beautiful pale brown face and watchful, intelligent eyes.
Betty shook his hand.
"How do you do. Pleased to meet you," she said.
Li Po Shun inclined his head.
"How do you do," he replied gravely, but with the hint of a smile.
"You're from China, of course," said Betty.
"From the People's Republic, yes," he said.
"Excellent!" exclaimed Betty. "Now we really are international!"
Becker said that he had to leave us to our own devices now, as he had a meeting to go to. Our interpreters, he said, would look after us and show us round the town if we wanted.
It was 8 o'clock, and outside it was still light.
"Li," said Betty. "May I call you that? Li, let's go and look at that Wall."
We set off down a side street, passing a group of soldiers guarding a U-bahn station. Then we turned into Unter den Linden, a wide, tree‑lined avenue with grand state buildings on either side. There were scarcely any cars, because since the Wall had been built, Unter den Linden didn't go anywhere.
Bob Turney and Mr Carver, who had decided to come with us, followed with their interpreter.
We stopped at the Brandenberg Gate. The Wall here was in better shape than near our hotel. It was about 10 feet high, and built of breeze blocks. It curved round the historic gate, isolating it from West Berlin. Stretching away on either side was a no‑man's land of waste ground, with the occasional tower occupied by soldiers looking out over East and West.
Betty marched over to a group of three soldiers beside the gate and started talking to them, using Li as interpreter. Two of them were about my own age, and looked both amused and embarrassed by Betty's questions. The third was older ‑ about 25. He told us that the three of them were just ordinary citizens ‑ "workers with guns".
"There will be no war," he said, "so long as we show our strength. A solution to the crisis will take time and will only come through negotiation. This means that the West must recognise the GDR and its national borders. That is the only way to a lasting peace."
While we were strolling back to the hotel, Li asked me about my first impressions of the GDR. I said that I was finding it very fascinating.
"I keep looking at people and thinking: are those people communists?" I told him.
He seemed amused.
"Oh yes," he said. "There are a lot of communists here. And there are also quite a lot of people who pretend they are communists, but actually they are not. It might be interesting for you during your stay to try to work out which people are which."
When I got to my room I took out my diary, a large, thick book bound in green cloth with a red spine.
"A few hundred yards away," I wrote, "is the most tense frontier in the world, a frontier that could reduce our beautiful world to a charnel house..."
I wrote for half an hour or so, then closed the book. I went over to the window and looked out at the city. East Berlin was dark, its dim street‑lights few and far between. How different, how foreign, how gloomy it looked! But West Berlin in the distance was light, its tall, brightly‑lit buildings even more enticing than during the day. Between the two sectors of the divided city, by the Wall down the end of the street, a searchlight stabbed the sky, tracing a pattern on the clouds.
In the morning, I woke to the sound of singing from the street. I got out of bed and looked out of the window. It was a sunny day. The singing came from a detachment of a dozen or so soldiers marching along the road towards the Wall. Despite their uniforms, they were a scruffy bunch. Instead of regulation boots, they were all wearing different shoes.
A girl in a summer dress walked past them along the pavement. A couple of them followed her with their eyes as she went by, and when she had passed one of them turned his head round to look at her from behind. From my vantage point above the street, I watched her too.
The hotel dining room was deserted again at breakfast, except for the group of Russians and the man who read the newspaper.
When we had eaten, we were taken to the rally in Marx‑Engelsplatz to greet Titov the cosmonaut. There were well over 100,000 people there, many of them carrying red flags, and the dirty old buildings round the square were draped with huge banners painted with slogans. The army was out in force as well, heavily armed.
Greeting the Soviet cosmonaut was only the excuse for the occasion, which was really intended to rally the citizens behind the government's handling of the crisis. Titov made a short speech saying that the Soviet people fully supported the decision to "secure the frontier", and then Ulbricht made a very long speech denouncing Western militarism and revanchism and adventurism. A section of the crowd at the front chanted and roared their approval as he spoke, but most of the people there seemed to be treating the occasion simply as a day out. Many drifted away before Ulbricht had finished, overcome by boredom and the heat.
I had been on many demonstrations myself in England, but they had always been against the government. This, however, was a demonstration in favour of the government, organised by the government, and everybody there, I assumed, was a communist. I found this unsettling.
At lunch we were joined by Horst, the blonde, square‑faced young driver who was going to take Betty, Li and me round East Germany.
After eating, we brought our bags down to the lobby. There was a delay of some kind over our documents. Li and Hans Esslin went into an office next to the reception desk with a window overlooking the lobby, and spent a long time there arguing with the man who read the newspaper in the restaurant. I realised he must be some kind of security official.
Eventually, Li came out of the office, putting the papers and our passports into his briefcase.
"Now we can go to the car," he said.
Horst picked up our bags, including Betty's handbag.
"Not that, dear," she said. "A lady always keeps her handbag with her."
He gave it back to her and carried the rest of our luggage out of the hotel. Betty and I said goodbye to Bob Turney and Mr Carver, wishing them a good trip to Dresden.
We went out and got into the car. It was another big black Russian one, well sprung and luxuriously comfortable, with pale cream leather seats. Betty sat in the back with me, and Li sat in the front beside Horst.
We left Berlin and drove through the GDR along long, straight roads lined with plane trees. The countryside was level and expansive and monotonous. The fields on either side were large and square, flanked by ditches or wire fences rather than hedges, and giving way occasionally to small woods of conifers. There was little traffic. The only delays we encountered were at occasional checkpoints, where Li had to show our documents to armed policemen.
Li spent most of the journey swivelling round in his seat so that he could talk. Betty grilled him about himself, like she had grilled me on the plane. He told us that he was a student at the Humboldt University in East Berlin, studying German, English and Russian. He had been a conscript in the Chinese People's Army, he said, and had been allowed afterwards to come to Berlin to continue his studies. He was now in his third year, and was sometimes asked by the state to help out as an interpreter. He was 24.
"Do you speak Russian?" Betty asked.
"Yes. Not as well as English and German," he said.
I was impressed.
"And I also speak a little French and a little Swedish," he added, smiling.
"Swedish? Why Swedish?" Betty asked.
"I think Sweden is an interesting country. I am interested in their social system."
"Are you indeed, comrade!" said Betty, pouncing. "You're something of a social democrat, then!"
Li smiled again.
"Primarily, I am a Marxist," he said.
Betty roared with laughter.
"Primarily!" she repeated with delight.
Betty also wanted to know about Horst. He didn't speak any English, so she asked him questions through Li. He said that he was single and lived with his parents. Their flat was very small, he said, but there was a housing shortage in Berlin. Now that he was working for the government as a driver, he had put his name down for a flat of his own and hoped to move into it before the end of the year.
He was curious about England and asked what life was like there ‑ how much money people had, and what young people did. Li's face, when he was translating these questions, indicated that he was interested in this too.
The journey lasted four hours, with one stop for ersatz coffee and cakes at a roadside cafe. Betty talked throughout the journey. She seemed to have an opinion ‑ and to be extremely well‑informed ‑ about absolutely everything, and always with an air of tremendous gusto and enthusiasm, her folds of fat rippling as she darted from one conversational topic to the next.
Li was more than a match for her, though. He too seemed astonishingly well‑informed, and anxious to know more when he wasn't. His face full of interest and curiosity, he turned to face us over the back of his seat, and argued with Betty about politics, about cultural differences between East and West, about the different brands of communism in China and Russia and Eastern Europe. Although I knew a bit of the territory they covered, I was left way behind for much of the talk, and could only listen and learn.
Li's conversational stance was quizzical and restrained, his enjoyment of the talk only showing in his raised eyebrows and the hint of a smile that seldom left his face. Once or twice Betty's remarks made him laugh openly, though. When that happened, I saw that he had extremely bad teeth. Several were missing, and those that he still had were stunted and discoloured.
Towards the end of the drive, while Li conferred with Horst about the best route into Gera, Betty somehow steered the conversation round to the subject of sex. She wanted to know about the sexual habits and attitudes of my generation in London, and what I thought about them.
It was new for me to talk to a middle‑aged woman about such matters, still less an MP, and the conversation excited me. I was still, at the age of 20, a virgin. My years at a single‑sex, Quaker boarding school had left me very shy of women, and though I had developed friendships with some girls since going to college, my shyness, coupled with a certain Quaker‑induced high‑mindedness, had prevented anything from happening with them. This was a matter of some distress to me, because I was terribly interested in sex.
I told Betty that I thought you should only go to bed with someone if you loved them. But although this seemed the correct view to have, I wasn't sure that it was what I really believed. In my heart of hearts, I always hoped that I might be rescued from my virginity by a woman who simply hungered for my body, in the way that I so often hungered for women's bodies.
The main problem with this scenario was that I was extremely skinny and had a large bony nose and big ears. This, coupled with my gaucheness and self‑consciousness whenever I came anywhere near a pretty girl, made it rather hard to imagine my body being hungered after by anybody.
Betty said she agreed with what I said. She told me she was hostile to sexual promiscuity and what she called "all this necking in public that goes on all the time".
"It loses the point of an important human relationship," she told me. "It reduces it to mere animal performing."
On the other hand, she didn't think it was necessary for people to be chaste until they married. In fact, she seemed rather to approve of people "living in sin".
Gera was an untidy little town of narrow cobbled streets with messy overhead wires and messy grey buildings. The hotel we were to stay in was modest and provincial, with reproductions of landscape paintings on the walls. Our rooms on the second floor were reached by a tiny trembling lift that approached every journey as if it was its last.
A Mr and Mrs Dubrowski and a Mr Leopold, three members of the Gera Peace Committee, met us and presented us with the inevitable flowers when we arrived. Betty, Li and I ate supper with them (Horst disappeared soon after we arrived) and stayed at the table until late, discussing the crisis. Mr Dubrowski was a bright‑eyed, enthusiastic little Polish man, aged 68. His Frau was twice as big as he was in every direction, a warm‑hearted, sentimental woman who went out of her way to be friendly to me. They were both Roman Catholics, they told us, while Mr Leopold, a wizened, sun‑tanned man who just could not stop talking, was non‑party. I found this interesting, having expected all the officials we met to be communists.
They were surprisingly honest about the role of the Gera Peace Committee.
"One," said Mr Leopold through Li, "we persuade and educate the masses to support the government. Two, we invite foreigners like yourselves to come here and we tell them the right things to say about the DDR when they go back home."
"Well, at least that's frank," said Betty drily.
I enjoyed observing Li at work as we talked. Although he did not contribute to the conversation himself, the intelligence and fluidity with which he translated what people said became a central part of it, even a dominant part. During the entire evening, he never once took notes, even when people spoke at length.
Shortly after midnight, Betty suddenly took advantage of Li's skill and the fact that our hosts didn't speak any English.
"Well, my friends," she said. "It's been a long day, and charming though you are, I'm afraid I'm beginning to find your company rather boring. I think it's time for you to run off home and get your beauty sleep so that I can spend a bit of time with my two travelling companions... Li, would you like to translate that for me, dear?"
Li looked at her sharply, startled, but also, apparently, amused. He turned to the Germans and started translating. The Germans became very animated, especially Frau Dubrowski, who looked at Betty and moaned and shook her head and tut‑tutted. Then they began to stand up, ready to leave, talking to Li in German as they did so.
"They are going now," said Li calmly. "They say they look forward to seeing you in the morning."
We said our goodbyes to them and shook hands all round and they left.
"Well, that worked like a dream," Betty said. "What did you tell them, Li?"
"I told them that you had an article to write for the English newspapers," he said. "And that you hoped they would not think it impolite if we stopped talking and continued the very interesting conversation we were having tomorrow. They said they understood that you had very important work to do."
"Ah! said Betty, looking at him with relish. "You're so intelligent!"
Li smiled at her, not denying it.
"Now," said Betty. "You've done wonders, my dear. You deserve a large vodka and so does John and so do I. Come on, let's go to that bar."
We went through to the bar, which had a red carpet, wooden chairs with red cloth seats and red velvet curtains. Betty bought us a vodka each and we went and sat round a small table.
She raised her glass.
"Let's drink to the good citizens of Gera!" she said.
She looked around the bar. A smartly dressed middle‑aged couple were sitting over the other side of the room, by the velvet curtains. The woman was large and sulky looking, the man was handsome, grey‑haired and slightly tanned. He was wearing a well‑pressed, light‑grey suit.
"I wonder about some of these people, though," said Betty, studying them. "That man, for example. I wonder what he did during the war."
The couple became aware of her gaze. The man inclined his head towards her and gave her a thin smile. Betty bowed back, smiling politely.
"Yes, you're smiling at me now," she said. "But I don't think I like your smile very much, to be honest with you. In fact, your smile gives me the creeps."
She turned back to Li, who was watching her, his eyebrows raised.
"What do you think, Li, about these Germans?" she asked.
They immediately plunged into another intellectual conversation, wondering whether there was such a thing as the German character and if so what its good points were and what its bad points were. While they talked, I studied Betty with a certain amount of perplexity. A naughty streak seemed to be emerging in her. Her facade with the people we had met so far had invariably been immaculate, but I was beginning to realise that underneath the facade she was operating on quite a different plane. It was as if she was up to something all the time.
Li seemed quite at home with her duplicity. It was as if he was used to people like that. Her naughtiness just made him smile.
Betty was in a skittish mood the next morning, cracking jokes over breakfast and then suddenly launching into an animated conversation with Li about Egyptology and the heretic pharaoh Akhenaton, who proclaimed there was only one God. It was Sunday, and the tolling of a solitary churchbell somewhere in Gera ‑ surprising in this Marxist country ‑ had got her going on the origins of the Judaeo‑Christian tradition.
As we were finishing our coffee, Mr Leopold and the Dubrowskis and six other elderly members of the Gera Peace Committee trooped into the dining room. They were led by their chairman, Herr Groben, a severe‑looking man with rimless glasses and thinning hair.
They stayed with us all morning and even took lunch with us, continuing the talk we had had the previous night about the crisis. What they said gave us a clearer idea of why the East Germans had put the Wall up and of the problems the country was facing. They also told us about the GDR's achievements in fields like education and health.
Groben did most of the talking. His approach was one of humourless sternness and formality, and he frequently cut across other people when they spoke to put them right if he didn't like what they were saying.
"God," Betty whispered to me. "I wouldn't like to sit on a committee with that one."
Apart from Groben, they seemed decent enough people. I was troubled, though, that most of what they said was simply a repetition of the things we had heard from Walter Ulbricht and Heinrich Becker and everyone else who had talked to us so far.
After lunch, Betty, Li and I drove out into the countryside with Horst. Mr Leopold and the Dubrowskis followed in another car. We were going to visit Dr Einsporn, a former nuclear physicist and the honorary president of the Gera Peace Committee.
Betty was in high spirits, continuing her intellectual sparring with Li. This time the topic was Marx and German philosophy and, following on from the previous night, what these revealed about the German character. Once again, I was out of my depth, but it was a treat listening to them.
At one point, Betty broke off and turned to me.
"I'm looking forward to meeting this Dr Einsporn," she said. "I like nuclear physicists, they're very interesting people. I was a girl‑friend of Klaus Fuchs once... He lives here in East Germany, you know."
Klaus Fuchs, as I well knew, was the British physicist who gave the Russians the secrets of the atom bomb after the war. He had been sent to prison as a result, serving nine years of his sentence before being released and coming to the East two years ago. "Traitors" like Fuchs and Philby and Burgess and MacLean were always treated with the utmost sensationalism by the British press, so the fact that Betty had been the lover of one of them was quite startling. However, through CND I had learnt that Fuchs was an idealist who became a so‑called "atom spy" because he believed that the world would be a safer place if both sides in the Cold War possessed nuclear weapons rather than only the West. The fact that a left‑wing woman like Betty had had an affair with him in her younger days wasn't, in the end, so astonishing.
I was still quite impressed, though.
We met up with Einsporn at a roadside cafe and bar, with wooded hills behind it. He was a big, plump old man with a large expanse of bald forehead, thick glasses and a shock of stiff white hair round the sides of his head. He was smartly dressed in a dark suit, a white shirt and a silver tie, with the suit jacket pulling at the buttons over his portly stomach. His features had a puffy, unhealthy look, and he moved slowly. He was obviously not very well. But he seemed pleased to meet us and Betty immediately took a liking to him, roaring with laughter at his jokes and, at one point, leaning over the table and bawling "typique!" at a story he told about Hungarian inefficiency.
We sat with him and talked ‑ he spoke good English ‑ while a waitress brought a constant supply of tea and cakes. Each time she came over to us, Einsporn said something flirtatious to her, in what appeared to be a ritual that had gone on for years. He lived nearby, but used this bar for all his meetings with people.
He revealed early on that he had been a pupil of Max Planck and James Franck. I asked him about Franck, who had ended up being one of the scientists who helped the Americans build the atom bomb at Alamagordo.
"Yes," said Einsporn. "He believed it was necessary, because he knew there was a possibility that Hitler could develop the bomb. But he never expected the bomb to be used, especially when Germany was defeated in the war...."
He suddenly started talking with great passion. His body shook and tears came into his eyes.
"...At that time the scientists were asked whether or not they considered the bomb should be dropped on Japan. Men like Compton said yes. James Franck showed the real German spirit and said no!"
There was a brief silence, during which I felt quite uncomfortable. But Betty was unperturbed.
"You consider that was the real German spirit?" she said. "How interesting."
"Yes," he said. "Hitler was not a true German. The true German is creative, not destructive."
Einsporn suggested we go for a walk. We went out and strolled down a narrow lane behind the cafe, which led into a little valley overlooked by steep hills covered in misty pine woods. At the bottom of the valley, intensely green fields ran down to a small river shaded by willows and hawthorns. Everything was damp and verdant.
We walked very slowly. By sticking close to Einsporn, Betty, Li and I forced the contingent from Gera to follow us at a respectful distance, out of earshot. Einsporn began to talk to us very seriously, measuring his words with great care:
"Science is the search for objective truth," he began. "When that truth is found, the scientist cannot be quiet about it. He must seek to realise it with all his power."
He went on to tell us that his son had been captured by the Russians in the war:
"He frequently wrote us letters from his prison camp saying his whole way of thinking had changed. And then, on the 23rd of December, 1945, he returned to me. We went to church together, but when we reached the gate he said he could not come in. He would go for a walk in the woods instead. My wife and I were very upset. He had not done this before. When we came out of church he took our arms and said: 'Let us enjoy Christmas together as we always have done. Then, when Christmas is over, we will have a discussion.' So after Christmas we had a real father‑and‑son talk. And my son told me: 'The tools you use as a scientist in your search for objective truth, Marx and Engels use to find the objective laws of society...'
"When my son told me this," Einsporn said, "My whole world collapsed. But since that time I have known where I stood. I am a Marxist, and I believe man's intellect can understand the laws of the objective world and then use them for his own betterment and for peace."
We stood by a bridge over the river at the bottom of the valley for a while, then turned and made our way up again, even more slowly than before.
"It is to make sure that scientists like James Franck never again have to make a decision of yes or no to a thing like that ‑ the use of the atom bomb ‑ that I am in the struggle for peace," Einsporn told us. And when we reached the top of the lane, he added: "My son is living in West Germany now. So how could I want a war with the West over Berlin?"
We said goodbye to him and walked back to our car. As we got in, Betty whispered to me:
"You realise that man is dying. That's why he told us all that."
Then she turned, and waved to Einsporn cheerily.
"Byeee!" she shouted.
The last we saw of him as we drew away was his portly figure standing stiffly outside the cafe, one arm raised in motionless salutation.
Driving back to Gera, we had a talk with our driver Horst, who had waited for us in the car for most of the time we were with Einsporn. He normally refrained from commenting on our business in East Germany, but now he questioned us about it and our impressions. When we asked him in turn what he thought about things, his replies were cynical and despondent. Nothing, he seemed to think, was likely to work out well, whether it was Germany and the world or his own personal life. He added that he wasn't really interested in politics, because he didn't believe it could change anything.
As we drew up at our hotel, Betty announced:
"Well, Horst, I think we should take you out this evening and give you a few drinks to make you forget about your troubles. Since we've got the evening off, I suggest that after dinner we go out and sample Gera's night‑life. We've done our work for today. Tonight I want to misbehave."
There were a couple of hours to kill before we ate. It was a chance to write my diary. I went up to my room and started scribbling.
I was in the middle of this when Betty knocked and came into my room. She saw immediately what I was doing.
"Do you keep a journal? Excellent. What sort of things do you write about?"
I blushed. At that moment I was writing about the conversation about sex we had had in the car the previous day.
"Well... I write about what happens to me, and my feelings about it," I replied.
She looked at me hard for a moment.
"The best side of a journal is the ideological side, not the personal side," she said. "Write down what you think about politics, dear. Write down what's going on in this country. That'll be the bit that's worth reading... I came to tell you I'm going down to have a drink before dinner. Do you want to join me?"
I closed my diary and followed her out of the room and along the corridor to the shaky old lift.
We were told that the liveliest place in town was a nightclub called Der Katzenschwantz (The Cat's Tail). It turned out to be more like a ballroom than a club. It was a long, large, brightly lit room with a bar at one end and tables and chairs down the sides. The few customers there tended towards middle age. They looked prosperous and self-satisfied, but unrelaxed.
We sat round one of the tables and got down to some serious vodka drinking. Horst sat slightly back from the table, legs apart, feet planted firmly on the ground, his handsome square face in a sulk. After a while his gloom began to get on Betty's nerves.
"Come on, Horst," she told, him through Li. "Cheer up. Your long face is spoiling the party."
Li translated, and Horst muttered something, grimacing.
"He says there are many problems in his life," Li told us.
"Yes, well, I gathered that," said Betty. "What else is there he hasn't told us about?"
Li translated, and Horst replied.
"He says his girlfriend is four years older than him," said Li. "He wants to marry her, but she won't agree. He says he is very much in love with her."
"Ah, so that's it. He's in love," said Betty, studying Horst sceptically.
Horst said some more.
"She says she won't marry him because he is too young," Li translated. "But he thinks it is because he is only a chauffeur. She is a teacher."
Betty leant over, speaking directly to Horst.
"How many times have you asked her to marry you?" she asked.
Li translated and gave us Horst's reply:
"Then ask her again!" said Betty. "Once isn't enough. Faint heart never won fair lady."
Li glanced at her, then translated. While he did so, Betty turned to me.
"He's a spoilt boy, our Horst," she said. "He thinks the good things in life should just happen to him, without him doing anything to deserve them. I don't think he's telling us everything, either. I think he's attracted to the Western way of life, that's what's at the bottom of it all. He would leave the East if he could, I bet you.... What did he say, Li?"
"He says he doesn't want to ask her again until he gets a better job."
Betty leant towards Horst again with a beaming smile.
"You're very sweet, Horst," she said. "But I'm afraid you're rather stupid."
Li looked at her mischievously.
"You want me to translate that?"
"I could say yes, but I know you won't. I'm sure you doctor everything I say."
"Oh no," said Li innocently. "I only make sure it has the correct political interpretation."
"Do you indeed!" said Betty. "You think that is what is meant by 'interpreter' do you?"
"Of course. Language is never neutral. It is always ideological. An interpreter cannot simply repeat what someone says in a different language. Inevitably, one must make an interpretation."
"Oh dear," sighed Betty. "You're far too intelligent."
Li looked at her, his eyebrows raised.
Betty laughed, then started rummaging in her bag, taking out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. She put the lighter on the table while she took a cigarette from the packet. Horst, who didn't realise the conversation was no longer about his depression, leant forward, picked up her lighter and attempted to light her cigarette for her. But he was unfamiliar with the lighter's mechanism and failed to ignite it. Betty took it from him and clipped it on fire.
"You need decisive actions, comrade!" she said.
She was in a strange mood. She was up to something again.
After the third round of large vodkas I began to relax, slumping back in my seat and finally putting a foot on a chair that was adjacent to mine, while I listened to Betty and Li performing their intellectual gymnastics.
The waiter who had been serving us our vodkas strode over to our table. Extremely coldly, he pointed at my foot and told me to take it off the chair. I hastily did as I was told.
"So now you know. Naughty boy," said Betty.
"I really don't like this place," I said. "It's so bourgeois!"
"Don't you start getting depressed as well," said Betty.
Li started talking to me gently.
"You see, people in the GDR are very anxious to combat the influence of the American way of life," he said. "They do not like people to do what you did. They consider it the same as wearing informal clothes like jeans, or listening to rock and roll music. And pornography, and promiscuous sex. They believe these things will undermine socialist society."
His tone was serious but uncondemning. He wanted me to think about the issue, to consider it from a different point of view. My embarrassment was replaced by an interest in the ideological implications of what I had done.
"And they're right, of course," said Betty provocatively.
"Perhaps they are right, in some ways," said Li. "The problem is, many young people want these things, and here in the GDR the West is very close. It is hard to avoid its influence. This leads some people to be inflexible and make mistakes. Perhaps after all it wouldn't matter if young people were allowed to wear jeans..."
This set us off again. We started discussing the cultural values of the East and the West. I defended rock and roll and jazz and claimed that the London youth culture of which I was a part was rebellious and progressive. Betty said I attributed too much significance to it, and that it was just another form of consumption. Li didn't really give away what he thought, but explained the prevailing view in the East.
We stayed there until past midnight. Betty started telling me scandalous stories about the House of Commons. She insisted that half the MPs there had tried to sleep with her ‑ "not just Labour, either" ‑ and claimed they were all having affairs with their secretaries. Meanwhile, her sparring with Li seemed to develop more and more of a flirtatious element, until at one point she suddenly said to him, while he was in the middle of explaining something to her:
"Oh dear, I can't hold hands with you in this place!"
Li glanced at her, then carried on talking as if he hadn't heard, and Betty replied in the same vein, as if her remark hadn't happened. But shortly afterwards she turned to me and said:
"I can work on two levels, you know."
And then, while I was taking this in, she clapped her hands and announced:
"I think it's time to go. Horst! You look tired. It's time you went to bed. Waiter! We're going! Bring us the bill! Li, tell him we're going."
Li summoned the waiter, who told him how much we owed. Betty started rummaging in her bag for her purse. Without looking up, she said:
"When we go back to the hotel, we must give Horst the slip. We'll all pretend to go to bed, and then meet up in my room ten minutes later. I'll get some vodka from the bar."
She took out her money.
"Is this right, Li dear? Count it for me, will you?"
We said goodnight to Horst and he went off to mope in bed in his room on the floor above us. I followed Betty's instructions and waited ten minutes in my room before crossing the corridor and knocking on Betty's door.
I felt a strange sense of excitement. It wasn't just that I was drunk. Betty's behaviour in the nightclub had stirred me up. She was plotting something, putting on a piece of theatre. What exactly my role in it was, I wasn't at all sure. But I was glad I seemed to have one.
Betty's room, like mine, had a single bed against one wall. To the right there was a modestly ornate fireplace surmounted by a mantelpiece and mirror. To the left there was a large wooden clothes cupboard and opposite, by the window, a low dresser with a second mirror and a couple of chairs. Betty and Li were slumped side by side on the bed, their heads and shoulders against the wall. I noticed immediately that they really were holding hands, Betty's plump white one placed over Li's slender brown one.
"How nice," I thought.
"Pour yourself a drink," said Betty. "And then come and sit down."
She patted the bed the other side of her from Li, indicating that I should join her there. I poured myself a vodka from the bottle she had put on the bedside table and sat beside them.
For a while we chatted inconsequentially about what kinds of drink we preferred. Betty told more stories about the House of Commons and the bar there, and how several MPs, including some quite famous ones, were more or less permanently drunk. But it was impossible for these two to spend very long together without embarking on an intellectual discussion. This time the topic they got onto was the English language. Li said he thought English was very expressive, but that its popularity round the world was not because of this so much as because of its tie-up with imperialism and capitalism.
"Ah," said Betty. "English may be the language of capitalism, but it is also the language of the greatest body of poetry in the world."
"Do you think so?" queried Li.
"Absolutely," said Betty. "Just think. Shakespeare, Donne, Milton... Pope and Dryden... Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats... T. S. Eliot, Auden... The list is endless."
"And Blake," I said, having recently discovered him at college. "Blake is fantastic."
"Haven't you studied English literature?" Betty asked Li.
"Yes, but more the novels than the poetry. Also, I think we only studied the poets who are widely translated, even though we read them in English. It was mainly Shakespeare, Byron and Shelley."
"No Donne?" asked Betty. "You'd adore Donne. He's an intellectual. He's also quite rude."
"Rude?" asked Li, not understanding this use of the word.
"Erotic, dear. His poems are sexy. Come on, John. You're an Eng. Lit. student. Quote some Donne for us."
I was pleased. It was my turn to perform.
"Busy old fool, unruly sun," I began. "Why dost though thus, through windows and through curtains call on us?..."
But I was too drunk to remember the next lines straightaway, and it was Betty who continued:
"Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run? Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide late schoolboys, sour apprentices; go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride; call country ants to harvest offices..."
By now I had caught up with her again, and we finished in unison:
"Love all alike, no season knows, nor clime; nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time."
Li was delighted, his face lit up by his grin.
"Did you understand it?" Betty asked.
"Yes. Most of it. I liked it," said Li.
I was now fired up. I had the opportunity to indulge my own intellectual passions.
"What about Blake, though?" I said. "He's amazing! His poems are all symbols. I'll quote you one. It's really short, but it's incredibly powerful. At least, I think so. Ready?"
Li nodded, and I quoted The Sick Rose to him. Then I told him what the symbols in it were supposed to mean, and how they fitted in with the other symbols in the Songs of Innocence and Experience, and how innocence in Blake's poetry meant both purity and passivity, while experience meant both corruption and progress.
Betty, slumped back on the bed, commented:
"He used to run around in the garden nude. He was a strange man."
Not to be deflected, I gabbled drunkenly on, quoting Blake's The Proverbs of Hell and saying, in passing, that Blake was also a socialist. Then, enjoying my captive audience ‑ they were just sitting there listening to me, still holding hands ‑ I went on:
"Another poet I really like is Wordsworth. People think of him as just a nature poet, but he's really much more than that. Some of his poems are very symbolic too. Like the Lucy poems. Do you know them?"
"No," said Li."
"Oh, they're great..." I began, intending to quote them to him. But Betty interrupted me.
"John," she said. "I know two things about a horse, and one of them is rather coarse... It's time for you to go to bed. Go on. Off you go."
I gaped at her for a minute, then at Li.
Then, at last, the penny dropped.
They were going to sleep together. That was what she had been plotting all evening.
"Oh. Right. Okay," I said, deeply embarrassed.
I stood up. They remained slumped on the bed, hands entwined, smiling up at me brightly.
I hastily left them, stumbling across the corridor to my room with my mind whirling. I felt a total fool for not having foreseen what was happening between them, not even when they were lying on the bed holding hands. I just hadn't thought it was possible. After all, she was 45 and he was 24! And she was married, and she was an MP!
I was shocked.Demotix/William Durie. All rights reserved.
When I went down in the morning, they were already having breakfast.
"How's your head?" Betty asked me cheerfully as I sat down. "Hung over?"
And once I had poured myself my ersatz coffee, Li calmly started to run through the day's schedule of visits, meetings and socialising. They were both behaving as if nothing unusual had happened.
It was Monday. When we had finished breakfast, we got down to the serious business of being a delegation. Mr Leopold arrived and took us off to see a new housing estate on the outskirts of town. We went on to the local war cemetery, where Leopold pointed out the rows of unmarked graves of the Russian soldiers who had died in the nearby concentration camp at Buchenwald.
In the afternoon, we went to the Gera Workers' Museum, where a splendidly enthusiastic old revolutionary took us round and told us about Germany's political struggles in the 1920s and 1930s.
Back at the hotel we had an early‑evening meal, and then saw a couple of anti‑fascist films at a local cinema. They were quite uncompromising about the Nazi period, and showed footage of the concentration camps. I wondered what the silent audience who watched them really thought about them.
Finally, back at the hotel again, we had what was billed as "drinks and friendship" with the Gera Peace Committee. It was rather a dull affair, but was enlivened towards the end when we were joined by a couple of the other hotel guests, a large, roly‑poly actor with an expansive sense of humour, and his small, doe‑eyed young companion who said he was a student.
I had by now developed a persona for these visits and meetings. The trick, I had discovered, was to be very polite, to appear very sincere, and to ask lots of questions all the time, even when I didn't particularly want to know the answer. With this persona, I passed muster as a genuine member of the delegation. Otherwise, I was happy to spend most of the time in Betty's shade, leaving her to gush and enthuse, ask her probing questions and give her snap summaries of the political situation in England.
Throughout the day, Betty and Li maintained their pretence that nothing had happened between them, and I'm quite sure that no‑one who met them had any idea what was going on. But sometimes, when no‑one else was around, the pretence would drop and they would start flirting again, if only with their eyes.
I was terribly aware of every glance between them, and continued to be disturbed by their relationship as well as fascinated and seduced by it. I couldn't get over the feeling that they made an utterly improbable couple. Quite apart from the disparity in age, nationality and social position, their physical appearances were so different. Betty was short, fat, white‑skinned and almost tarty to look at, while Li was tall, slender, brown and elegant, despite his cheap student's clothes. Their characters, too, seemed totally dissimilar. I found it extraordinary that this vulgar, middle‑aged Englishwoman and this graceful young Chinese man were having an affair.
I was also aware that the relationship was a dangerous one. Nothing was said, but their very dedication to behaving as if nothing was going on alerted me to the fact that if the relationship was discovered it could be extremely bad for Li. Betty may have been left‑wing, but as far as the authorities were concerned she was still a Westerner. And even if she hadn't been, the authorities would doubtless still have been outraged by what Li was doing. It would almost certainly have meant the end of his career - and worse.
Sensitive, perhaps, to the possibility that I might feel excluded or upset because they had become lovers, both Betty and Li were particularly friendly to me that day. After the "drinks and friendship" party, for example, when the good citizens of Gera had finally left the hotel, Li made a point of staying in the bar with me when Betty and the actor and his friend had all gone upstairs to bed. We had a long discussion about Marxism, with Li criticising people (he didn't say who, but the drift was clear) who made Marxism into a religion and a dogma instead of an objective system of analysis. We also talked a bit about London. Li wanted to know more about London youth culture and the kind of life I led as a student. It was 1 a.m. and the bar was closing before he finally said, with his usual hint of a smile, "Well, I must go and say goodnight to Betty."
I adored conversations like this with Li. He seemed so wise, so full of insight, so pure. His relationship with Betty was still a puzzle to me, but I certainly understood why Betty had fallen for him. I was a bit in love with him myself.
Betty, meanwhile, continued to explain politics and the world to me as we trailed from one visit to the next, whispering subversive remarks about our hosts when they were out of earshot or couldn't understand English, and generally taking me under her wing and continuing her alliance with me. For most of that Monday she was in an extremely good mood. Over our evening meal, for example, before we went to the anti‑fascist films, she encouraged Mr Leopold to tell us about himself ‑ but then, when he started getting nostalgic about his war experiences, she suddenly said to Li:
"Oh dear, we're going to hear his life story. Go on, darling, translate, though I know perfectly well what he's said."
Whether it was the "darling" or her cynicism, this was one of the few occasions when Li nearly cracked up and couldn't continue translating.
But a little later, after we had been to see the films and had returned to the hotel to wait for the Gera Peace Committee to join us for drinks and friendship, something happened which seemed to cast a shadow on things for her. While we were waiting, she and Li went off to make a phone‑call. It was the second of the day, the two of them going into a small phone‑box in the hotel lobby and staying there for a long time, discussing something private as well as making the call.
When they came back, Betty seemed worried and Li was looking withdrawn. Betty said nothing about the phone‑call, and I didn't ask her. Instead, she started chatting to two of the members of the Peace Committee who had arrived for the party, and instantly became all charm and cheerfulness with them. But after a while, she came over to me and, in another of those sudden switches of mood to which I was now becoming accustomed, she said:
"There are problems in Berlin. They say we might not be able to go back to England by plane. Something's up. I don't like it."
I had the feeling there was more, but she turned away from me and switched on the charm again. I was left with an obscure sense of alarm. Something was worrying her, spoiling her fun with Li.
The next day was even busier than the Monday. We went to the Peace Committee offices in the morning and had yet another discussion with them. Then we went on to the offices of the Free German Youth, the FDJ (pronounced Eff‑Day‑Yot). We had a meeting there with two young men in the FDJ uniform (bright blue, open‑necked shirts over black trousers), who talked to us like two middle‑aged men about the political situation and the need for peace.
In the afternoon, after a hasty lunch, we had a meeting at the town hall with 60 or so local dignitaries from Gera ‑ town councillors, party officials and bureaucrats. We sat at smartly laid tables and guzzled cakes while the meeting went on. Betty sat at the head table with Groben and a couple of other stolid‑looking worthies, while I sat at another table next to a huge and incredibly ugly old man who was completely bald and had an enormous nose. As he sat down next to me he said: "Ve vill heff moch fon together," and went on to translate everything that was said during the meeting in a loud but largely incomprehensible whisper.
It was a curious meeting. I did a little speech about CND which went down quite well ‑ Betty said I was "excellent" afterwards, which pleased me a lot ‑ and Betty talked about Britain and the Labour Movement with her usual incisiveness. Then the meeting was thrown open to the floor, and one after the other people got up and made speeches. None of them said anything we hadn't heard already. It was as if were they saying it for themselves rather than us ‑ getting the correct line fixed and consolidated, as though they were rehearsing for a part.
When it was over we were given flowers and people flocked round us and pumped our hands and gave us their addresses. The hand‑shaking was quite a trial. Each time someone said goodbye to me, they made a five‑minute speech, and then I made a five‑minute speech in reply to them, and then they made another five‑minute speech in response to my reply, and so on; and all the time my hand was clasped in theirs in a vice‑like grip and pounding up and down....
By the time we got away we were quite exhausted, but we only had time for a quick evening meal before yet another party at the hotel. This time it was with the ubiquitous Groben and a dozen elderly citizens of Gera, apparently highly respected members of the community who had to have the honour of meeting us. We sat round a large table in the hotel dining room and were brought a constant supply of drinks by the waiters while we talked.
Several of the guests were old revolutionaries, like the man at the Workers' Museum, and like him they told us tales of the struggles of the 1920s and 1930s. These were interesting at first, but after a while I began to feel bored. I noticed that Betty was drinking a lot of brandy and beginning to act strangely, telling the guests long details about her constituency Labour Party that couldn't possibly have interested them and generally losing her normally immaculate protocol.
Half way through the occasion an "interval" was announced, perhaps so that the old people could go to the toilet. While this happened, Betty and Li went off to make another of their phone‑calls.
When they came back, Betty was in an agitated state.
"They're using me," she told me. "I don't mind, you see. I don't let myself be used unless I agree to it.... Take that meeting this afternoon ‑ sitting up there at the front, with one lumpen proletarian, one man who could have been a fascist as much as a communist, and one who was only interested in my legs... I'm being used."
She looked round at the old people, who were reassembling. Her eyes fixed on Groben, who had cornered Li and one of the guests, and was talking to them in his usual stiff way. He noticed her looking at him and gave her a formal smile.
"Yes, I'm talking about people like you, Mr Groben," said Betty, smiling back.
She turned to me again, her eyes glittering.
"Mind you," she said. "I mix my pleasure with my work. And I've worked bloody hard..."
"Yes," I said. "I know."
"You know about my pleasures? Yes, you do, don't you, dear."
"I wasn't referring to that. I meant I know you've been working hard."
She smiled, but then, looking at Li, her face darkened again.
"If they touch him, I'll have them shot!" she hissed. "I can, you know. I've got power here. Through my contacts, I can have them shot... But there's a secret police here. You know that, don't you... I'm suspicious about Horst. I think he may be under instructions to keep an eye on us.... Mind you, there's got to be a secret police...."
I felt extremely uncomfortable at this. It was the first time she had put into words the fact that her relationship with Li was a dangerous one, and the idea that Horst might be spying on us was awful. But it wasn't only what she had said. It was her manner. Her over‑excitement disturbed me greatly.
"Well," she said, suddenly changing gear again. "Time to continue our fascinating discussion."
"Why do you keep going on about your local Labour Party?" I asked.
"Apart from those baby bureaucrats at the FDJ, everyone we've met here has been ancient," she said. "They can't get the youth, and I want to know why. And all those people going over the border. It hasn't been satisfactorily explained. The Party hasn't got all the answers, you see ‑ the Labour Party in England or the Communist Party here.... Well, these people are very nice, but I'm going to make them do some work for a change."
So we went back to the discussion, which went on until the old men were thoroughly exhausted and bored. By then, the actor and the wide‑eyed youth from last night had joined us again, so Betty abruptly terminated the "party". The old people went off into the night, and the actor, the youth, Betty, Li and I went through to the bar.
We sat at a table by the velvet curtains, noisily drinking vodka. The actor was amusing about the "party" we had just been to.
"This was rather boring, I think," he said. "But of course it is very important to be boring in the DDR. All our politicians study how to be boring, because when they are boring the people fall asleep. And people who are asleep do not ask any questions. This is how our system works here."
He said this sotto voce, but soon we were all shouting and laughing again. After a while, two middle‑aged men who had been watching us from the other side of the bar came over to us and introduced themselves self‑importantly, evidently confident that their positions as local industrialists fully entitled them to take up our time. They pulled up chairs and sat beside us, asking dull questions through Li about us and our stay in Gera. At first, by common though unspoken agreement, we tried to get rid of them by launching into a long conversation about the role of science in modern industry. Betty surpassed herself, producing a fantastic sentence about the distribution of molecules in organic carbon compounds, about which she knew absolutely nothing. The effect was spoilt, though, because Li, who was translating, finally lost his cool and started shrieking with laughter.
So we told the two hangers‑on that we were tired and were going to bed. Betty bought another bottle of vodka from the bar and told the actor and the student the number of her room. We went up in the lift and they went up the back stairs and we all got together again in Betty's room.
We got riotously drunk. Betty and I started gabbling about the English language again, and how wonderful Shakespeare was. This prompted the actor to occupy the middle of the floor and start declaiming "To be or not to be" in German. It was the most histrionic performance of the speech I have ever seen, and had us all weeping with laughter.
Shortly after that, I found myself lying on the bed beside Betty, occupying the same positions as two nights ago, but this time with Li sitting by the dressing table talking to the actor and the student.
"How come you're still a virgin?" she asked. "You are, aren't you. I can tell."
Her remark sent me crashing into an instant depression, which I came out of just as quickly when she started kissing me fully on the mouth. She kissed me for a long time. It was the kind of kiss that made the idea of not being a virgin seem quite a real possibility.
"Don't get too excited," she said, when she finally pulled away. "I was only doing that to make Li jealous... Li, I'm canoodling with John. Are you jealous, darling? Say you're jealous, damn you."
"I'm jealous," said Li.
"No, you're not. You're too bloody confident."
She suddenly became maudlin.
"Do you think I'm too old for him? I am, aren't I. I'm too bloody old.... I don't want to go back to England. I don't want to be Mrs Betty Charrington, Member of Parliament and respectable bloody married woman. I never want to see my husband again."
She glanced at me to see how I had taken this.
"It's not that I dislike my husband," she added. "It's just that he completely fails to interest me..."
She sulked for a bit longer, then said:
"You're a nice boy. Give me another kiss."
So we started smooching again, and once again I became aroused and I was astonished because until then, despite what had happened between her and Li, I had simply never considered her as being in any way an object of desire.
I felt quite disappointed when she pulled her soft mouth away again.
"My God, how I hate growing old," she said.
Not long after that I must have passed out, because the next thing I knew the actor and the student were leaving. Betty was saying goodbye to them, standing by the bed, and Li was behind her with his arms round her.
I managed to get up from the bed. The little student came over to me and embraced me and kissed me on the cheek and tenderly stroked my face. I found this entirely acceptable. It was nice to be so much in demand.
When the actor and the student left the room, I left with them and said goodnight to them in the corridor. I fell over twice in my room as I undressed and got into bed.
The next morning we all had hangovers. The drive to Leipzig passed in untypical silence.
Leipzig was altogether a more substantial town than Gera. Unlike East Berlin, its war damage had largely been repaired. One of the new buildings was our hotel, which was very smart and comfortable. Our rooms had bathrooms attached, unlike in Gera, where we had had to go down the corridor to go to the lavatory or wash.
Once we arrived, we plunged into being a delegation again. We had lunch at the hotel with our new host, a jolly little man called Mr Hensel. He told us that he was a proletarian and a member of the Socialist Unity Party. "I love our government," he said, "because it dragged me out of ignorance."
In the afternoon he took us round the Leipzig Technology Trade Fair. We spent three hours there, staring at tractors and cameras and toilet flush mechanisms, while Mr Hensel told us about production targets. Then, in the evening we went to see The Maestersingers at the Leipzig Opera House, a new building in the Stalinist monumental style, ugly on the outside but very plush and spotlessly clean within.
We had an early night, sending Mr Hensel off after the opera and going up to bed. I went on my own, of course, but I assume Betty and Li slept together again, though they made a show of going to their separate rooms first.
We were up early in the morning. Hensel came to have breakfast with us. He told us about a Western spy who had been uncovered working at the same factory as him. He told us that it happened all the time. There were hundreds ‑ no thousands ‑ of people all over East Germany who were in the pay of the West, he said.
For some reason, Betty was in a strangely brittle mood that day. After breakfast, Hensel took us to the textile section of the Trade Fair, where we came across a stand consisting of a collection of baby doll nighties. Betty was furious.
"What are these doing here?" she demanded. "Is this someone's idea of socialist nightwear?"
Hensel replied that the nighties were not for sale in the GDR. They were for export to the West.
"That's no answer. That's sheer hypocrisy!" Betty stormed.
Hensel tried to explain that the GDR needed Western currency to buy technology, but she wasn't satisfied.
"America has a Lolita complex," she said, mainly to me but so loud that Li and Hensel were bound to overhear. "And it's catching on in Britain. They want their women to be little girls, and I'll tell you why. It's because they're scared of women who might challenge their virility. That's what your Western sexual freedom is about. Fat‑balled old men who can only get excited by adolescent girls."
I understood the point she was making, but I didn't understand the vehemence with which she was making it.
After the Trade Fair, we went to the Georgi Dimitrov museum. Dimitrov was the communist who was framed by the Nazis in the Reichstag fire trial in 1938. As well as pictures and memorabilia of Dimitrov and his life, the museum included a room where you could listen to the tape‑recording of the trial itself. One of the witnesses for the prosecution was Goering, who lost his rag because of the skill of Dimitrov's replies and started screaming abuse at him. It was bloodcurdling to listen to.
"God, what a past this country has," Betty muttered grimly.
Finally, in the latter part of the afternoon, we concluded our stay in Leipzig with a two‑hour meeting with the Leipzig Peace Committee, during which the usual platitudes were exchanged. Then, at 5.30, clutching our bunches of flowers, we said goodbye to them, got into the car, and headed back to Berlin.
It wasn't until we were on the autobahn and Leipzig was safely behind us that Betty relaxed. The journey took five hours, and, as usual, we talked the entire way. Betty kept saying how happy she was at being alone with Li, Horst and me again.
"I'd like this drive to go on all night," she said. "Horst, it's lovely to be back in your capable hands again. I shall miss your gloomy face when we get back."
Her suspicions of Horst, it seemed, had been forgotten. Li translated the gist of what she had said, and Horst replied.
"He says he has enjoyed driving you," said Li. "He thinks you are good people."
"Thank you, dear," said Betty.
Soon we were discussing East Germany again. This time, Betty gave free vent to her criticisms of the country and its system, and this time, too, Li told us his own true feelings about the place. No longer feeling the need to hide his views, he told us about neighbours spying on each other, about the unimaginative sectarians who wielded all the power, about the impossibility of "educating" workers who didn't want to be educated, about bureaucracy and regimentation, about secrecy and blackmail, about the endless frustration of living in a coercive society.
He was, of course, a dissident. But I didn't fully realise this even now, because my idea of a dissident was an anti‑communist, and Li was not an anti‑communist. On the contrary, his tragedy was precisely that he was a very committed communist. He believed that communism could and should be made to work, which made his unhappiness that it plainly wasn't working all the more acute.
Once again, I found myself loving this man, as he turned round in his front seat and talked to us. His perpetual expression of amused surprise never left his face, even when he was telling us of his problems. He didn't actually want to be an interpreter, he told us. He had been forced into doing languages, he said, because the things he really wanted to do ‑ things that would fully involve his imagination and his intellect ‑ were impossible in China and impossible in East Germany, too. There was no place in communist societies for people with creative minds at the moment, he told us.
At one point, as darkness was falling, we stopped for a meal at a roadside restaurant. While we were there, Horst went to the toilet.
"You know that Horst and I will never work together again?" Li told us. "For security reasons."
Out on the road again, we drove with our headlights on, still talking. It began to rain, and for a while we felt cosy in our little car, protected both from the elements and from the sinister complexities of East German politics and the Cold War. But then, as we neared Berlin, we came to the checkpoints. At each one, the police spent a long time examining our documents, questioning Li in detail before waving us through without a smile. After one of the checkpoints, we passed a convoy of tanks drawn up beside the road. Our mood changed. We became subdued and anxious, returning to the crisis.
East Berlin looked dismal beyond belief when we entered it that rainy night.
Mr Carver was alone at the hotel to welcome us. Bob Turney had had to go back to England to attend a meeting of the executive committee of his union.
Mr Carver was full of his visit to Dresden and how impressed he was by the rebuilding there.
"Of course, the allied bombing completely flattened the place," he reminded us. "Worse than Hiroshima, it was. But do you know something? There wasn't a hint of resentment towards us. They couldn't have been more friendly. Remarkable."
While we were talking to him in the lobby, the receptionist called Betty over. A telegram had arrived for her during the afternoon. She went over to fetch it and read it, than came over and showed it to me and Li, looking extremely tense.
"PLEASE CONTACT HERR WILLI BRANDT REGARDING INVITATION TO WEST BERLIN TO DISCUSS PRESENT SITUATION. FRANK RIVERS."
"I don't know anyone called Frank Rivers!" she said. "What is this? What's going on? No‑one's said anything about an invitation to West Berlin..."
She and Li went back to the receptionist and had an agitated discussion with him. Then the secret policeman ‑ the one who read the newspaper in the hotel dining room ‑ appeared, and joined in the discussion. Everyone seemed very worried. Betty, the policeman and Li went into the office next to the reception desk. Through the window, I watched Betty and Li make a call, with the policeman standing over them listening in. For good measure, the receptionist picked up a pair of earphones off his desk, put them on and listened to the call as well.
Betty came back shaking.
"It's a hoax of some kind," she said. "I don't like it. I don't like it at all."
Mr Carver, who seemed nonplussed by the fuss, said he was going to bed. I stayed up a bit longer, and witnessed Betty formally shaking Li by the hand before he left the hotel to go back to his lodgings.
Betty was very quiet when we went up the stairs to our rooms. As we stood in the corridor before saying goodnight to each other, she said:
"A couple of weeks ago ‑ after this trip was arranged ‑ I got a letter from Cologne. It was from a man, he said he was 66. He said he admired me and wanted a signed photograph of me... You see? Everyone is watching us. On both sides."
I couldn't understand her paranoia. Why should she assume this letter was so sinister? Why did everything have to be a plot?
But perhaps she was right. The atmosphere here was beginning to get to me too. I was beginning to think that nothing was what it seemed, and that you had to be on your guard all the time, because nobody was to be trusted.
When I was getting into bed I became aware of a noise outside. I went over and opened the window. The rain we had driven through earlier had turned into a thin drizzle. As well as the searchlight by the Wall at the end of the street, a helicopter was patrolling the border, following the route of the Wall from north to south, shining a powerful light down through the drizzle onto the rubble‑strewn streets and the watchtowers and the no man's land below. Beyond, the electronic billboard flashed its messages extolling the freedom of the West. The streets and bombsites of the East were empty and dark.
I felt frightened, then ‑ frightened of that Wall down the road, frightened of Berlin, frightened of this country. I was out of my depth here.
The following morning, with Mr Carver, we were driven across Checkpoint Charlie and out of East Berlin to visit the Russian war memorial, anomalously situated just inside the Western sector near the Brandenberg Gate. There was a coachload of Cook's tourists from the West there, cameras snapping.
We went back across the Wall for lunch at our hotel, after which we were supposed to go to East Berlin’s Humboldt University to talk to some English‑speaking students.
Betty suggested I spend some time in my room thinking about what I was going to say to them.
"Do you mind, dear?" she said. "Or maybe you could write your journal for a bit. It's just that Li and I would like to spend a little time together on our own."
The two of them went into Betty's room, which was next to mine. An hour later, Betty knocked on my door. There was a maid in the corridor running a carpet sweeper across the floor, so she had had to come out of her room on her own. She said she was going to go back, and asked me to wait a few minutes and then go and knock on her door when the maid had gone, so that Li could come out without being seen.
The university building was smoke‑blackened and peeling, partly burnt down, we were told, by saboteurs from the West. The students were a bright bunch, and included several girls. My delegation persona deserted me in front of them and I was as self‑conscious and shy as I would have been in London. Betty talked to them about British Theatre ‑ John Osborne and Arnold Wesker and Harold Pinter, the Angry Young Men and the Absurdists. Then I stumbled through my usual oration about CND.
We had to leave at 5 p.m. and rush back to a press conference the East Germans had laid on at the hotel. It took place in the dining room, with everybody sitting at the tables eating cakes, like in Gera. There were three other delegations there who must have been staying in different hotels, one from Italy, one from France and one from Ireland, each with their interpreters. As far as I could see all the journalists were from East Germany, with the exception of a man from Reuters, who looked bored and didn't bother to ask any questions.
Like us, the other delegations were composed of communists and leftists. Speaker after speaker stood up and said how wonderful the GDR was, and how wonderful the Wall was, and how they would go back to their countries and tell everybody that everything Ulbricht did was dedicated to the cause of peace. The questions from the journalists were merely prompts for more speeches.
Betty had been very tense all afternoon and she grew increasingly so as the press conference dragged on.
"Sit close to me, dear," she said when we went in. "I need you beside me if I'm going to get through this."
She was fine when she was answering questions, which Li, sitting on the opposite side of the table, translated to her.
"When you return to England, what will you tell people about the Berlin Wall?" came the first question.
Betty stood up.
"I shall say that I understand the reasons why it was necessary to build the Wall," she replied. "The situation prior to August 13th was clearly one of extreme instability, and I have no doubt that elements within West Germany were fermenting and exploiting that instability. In fact, I think it is highly possible that there would have been a war if the situation as it was had been allowed to continue. No‑one likes barriers, whether they are physical barriers or other kinds. But the Wall had to be built. That is my considered opinion."
I knew that this was nothing like the full story of what she believed. But she sat down again, and Li, who had been taking notes this time, stood up and translated what she said.
While he spoke, Betty started whispering to me intensely.
"You're witnessing a tragedy here, you know," she said. "I think I'm managing bloody well.... Just look at him. Just look at that beautiful, intelligent man!... After tomorrow I shall never see him again, do you realise that?... I never thought that life would do this to me...."
Li finished. Another journalist asked a question, which Li translated again:
"Could you give us your impressions of the German Democratic Republic?"
"I think the GDR is trying to construct socialism under the most difficult circumstances, and I have great admiration for much of what has been achieved," replied Betty crisply. "I have been particularly struck by the attempts to educate the people about fascism and Germany's past. I didn't expect the Nazi period to be discussed so openly. The fact that this has not been shirked is extremely impressive."
She was forceful and definite. Yet only last night, in the car coming back from Leipzig, she had trashed almost everything that she had seen in East Germany, and Li had trashed it too.
Li stood up to translate, and once again Betty turned to me.
"I think I'm going to start screaming," she whispered. "I'd like to pick up that plate of cakes and smash it against the wall... I'm never going to see him again, and God knows what's going to happen to him. I won't even be able to write to him... Have you ever seen anyone so beautiful?... I'm going to explode, I can't stand it..."
I wished she would stop saying these things. I felt swamped by her melodrama.
Then, suddenly, after an hour, the press conference took a totally different turn. The hotel secret policeman came in with a note, which he handed to Heinrich Becker, who was chairing the conference. Becker stood up, and announced:
"We have just heard that Dr Klaus Fuchs ‑ I am sure you all know who that is ‑ has invited Mrs Charrington to visit him at his home tomorrow."
Pandemonium broke out. The Reuters man leapt to his feet.
"Are you quite sure about this?" he shouted. "According to the Western press, Fuchs is in Russia helping out with the H‑bomb tests."
"I can assure you it is true," said Betty. "He is an old friend of mine."
The Reuters man asked several more questions. What was the purpose of the visit? How long had she known Fuchs? Had she seen him since he had been released from prison and come to the East? Was she taking any messages to him?
But Betty clammed up.
"The visit is purely personal," she said. "I have no further comments to make on it."
I was deeply alarmed. When Betty had told me in Gera that she once knew Klaus Fuchs, I had felt relatively cool about it because, apart from anything else, she had been talking about the past. The fact that she was now, in the present, going to see the atom‑spy ‑ and in a blaze of publicity at that ‑ profoundly disturbed me.
When the press conference eventually ended, Betty took me through to the bar. She was now in a cold, angry mood.
"Do you see what I mean about being used?" she said. "They've set me up, the cynical bastards."
"I don't understand," I said. "I don't understand why they announced it."
"It's obvious," she said. "Because it will be in the British press, thanks to that Reuters man. So when we get back we'll have hundreds of journalists asking us questions. That way, if I say anything favourable about East Germany, it might get into the newspapers, which it certainly wouldn't do otherwise... They told me they were going to do this when I fixed up the visit to Klaus. In Gera. Don't you remember those phone calls? That was the deal. I told you then. They're using me. They've been using me all along."
Li had come into the bar, talking to Heinrich Becker. Betty stared at him.
"I don't even want to go any more," she said. "I'd like to see Klaus, but it means spending the whole of tomorrow without Li. And in the evening, we go home."
That night, we went to a nightclub. There were four of us ‑ Betty, Li, me and Heinrich Becker's brother Ernst, who had been commandeered to entertain us for the evening. Mr Carver had an upset stomach, and didn't feel like coming.
Ernst Becker was a strange man, not much to my liking. He was cool and cosmopolitan, and exuded success. In another of the contradictions that I found so hard to understand in East Germany, he was a private industrialist, owning and running a manufacturing company that employed over 100 people. That, and his being related to Heinrich Becker, seemed to mean that he could do pretty much what he liked with his life. He travelled regularly to the West, for instance, and even told us at one point what a good time he had had at the Epsom races.
Although jazz and rock and roll were banned in East Germany, the club we went to was a jazz and rock and roll club, which stayed open until 4 a.m. It catered, Li told me, only for the artistic and intellectual elite. When we went in, it was already crowded, mainly with young people. They looked very much like the crowd you would find in a London club, except if anything they were even more stylish and good looking. In particular, there was an exceptionally pretty blonde girl with a pony tail, wearing tight‑waisted, baggy black slacks and a wrap‑around blouse that hugged her upper body. When we sat down I watched her jiving expertly to Elvis and Little Richard. Noticing the direction of my eyes, Li said: "That girl is the Minister of the Interior's daughter."
I found it all utterly confusing. Was this corrupt, was it decadent, was it bourgeois? Despite the fact that it all seemed so familiar ‑ even the decor was like places I knew in Soho, and the lighting was similarly subdued ‑ I was ill at ease.
While Ernst was at the bar ordering drinks for us, Betty took my arm.
"Listen," she said. "I think that man wants to sleep with me. And I think he's suspicious of Li. I want you to keep him talking so that Li and I can have a dance. And then I want you to dance with me, so that he doesn't think I'm dancing with Li in preference to anyone else."
I did as I was told. When Ernst came back from the bar I started talking to him, while Li and Betty went off to dance. It wasn't a terribly successful conversation. Ernst seemed disappointed in the kind of life I lived in London when I answered his questions about it. I didn’t go to the best restaurants
Betty and Li came back and joined in the conversation. After a while, she made a sign to me, so I asked her to dance. We jigged around the floor for a bit, Betty spending most of the time telling me how much she disliked Ernst. When we went back to the table, she agreed to dance with Ernst ‑ and so it went on for the next couple of hours, by which time I had had far too much vodka.
"Why don't you ask her to dance?" Betty asked me at one point, when she too noticed how I kept looking at the Minister of the Interior's daughter.
I shook my head.
"Go on," she said. "Why don't you."
"Too shy," I said.
"Faint heart never won fair lady," said Betty. "I'm sure she would be delighted. I don't suppose she often meets interesting young English men."
I thought that it was likely that she met all sorts of young men who were a lot more interesting to her than I could ever be. But in any case, there was no way I was going to cross that room and try to dance with her. I had learnt my jiving in excruciatingly embarrassing dance classes at my single‑sex boarding school, and they had put me off it for life.
"I don't feel like it," I mumbled. "Anyway, I'm too tired. And too drunk."
"Suit yourself," she said. She wasn't really interested what I did. All she cared about were these last moments with Li.
Shortly afterwards, she was obliged to dance with Ernst again, leaving me and Li alone at our table. I wondered how Li knew this place, which he seemed quite at home in.
"Through my girl‑friend," he said, surprising me greatly ‑ I had assumed from what had happened between him and Betty that he was unattached. "She was a former Miss West Germany," he went on. "But she came here to study with the Berliner Ensemble, and partly because of me she decided to stay. She works for the Ministry of Education now. She decided not to be an actress in the end. She said you have to sleep with too many people."
Here, too? I was surprised again. It wasn't how East German morality had been presented to me.
"She is one of the reasons why I am not a sectarian," Li went on. "When she came to the GDR they tried to educate her with the usual rigid approach. It failed. I had to use a more flexible approach, and I learned a lot in the process."
He suddenly smiled ‑ not at me, but at Betty, who was rolling her eyes and pulling faces at him over Ernst's shoulder on the dance floor.
We left at 2 a.m. Li headed off towards his lodgings, which were nearby. Betty looked terrible after he had gone. I thought she was going to faint. Ernst got a taxi for us, and said he would come back to the hotel with us.
"I want to buy you a present," he told Betty.
"At this time of night?" Betty asked.
"It is no problem. I will get them to open the hotel shop. The goods there are very high quality."
"No, no, you mustn't," said Betty, quite disturbed. "I really must go straight to bed when we get back."
"I insist," said Ernst. "I shall be insulted if you don't accept."
"Oh well," said Betty wearily. "If you'll be insulted...."
At the hotel, there was now a woman behind the reception desk. Ernst went up to her and simply ordered her to open up the shop, which she promptly did. He took Betty in, and despite her protestations bought her an expensive leather handbag.
Then he wanted the receptionist to open the bar, but this time Betty was adamant.
"Really, I'm terribly tired. We've had such a long day. I would love to have another drink with you, but I honestly think I would fall asleep. Then you really would be insulted."
And so we finally got rid of him.
Upstairs, Betty insisted on me going into her room with her. She was in a bad state.
"I hate fat‑balled old men!" she cried, throwing herself on the bed. "They think I'm a pushover because I'm getting old, so I'll take anything on offer. Well I'm not that bloody old, and I hope I never will be. I'd rather be dead."
She made me sit down and started talking. Most of it was about Li.
"I'm worried what'll happen to him," she said. "They're bound to find out about him in the end, even if they haven't already. And once they realise what his views are... They'll send him back to China, at the very least. If he's lucky... Have you noticed how bad his teeth are? That's the result of poverty, you know. That's what growing up in China did to him."
She took a puff of her cigarette, inhaling sharply and blowing the smoke out in a slow stream.
"I think I might be pregnant," she said suddenly. "That would be something, wouldn't it. The MP for Deptford East with a slit‑eyed baby."
I thought this was ridiculous. How could she be pregnant at her age? And in any case, how could she possibly know so soon? She was over‑dramatising, as usual.
She started telling me about her life.
"When I was 15 I was seduced by my maths teacher. He was a communist and a part‑time artist and a part‑time homosexual. He married me, then he walked out when I was 18 years old and had had his child. So I became promiscuous, though never with old men, thank you very much. I hated it. Promiscuity doesn't make you happy, you see, it makes you feel cheap. I was rescued by my second husband and I was faithful to him for 15 years. Until I realised that I was dying of boredom. So now I take lovers, as you have noticed. And very nice too. Except that sometimes it can hurt, when they're young and you're not and there can't be any future in it. It can bloody well hurt then, I can tell you... I don't know how I'm going to get through tomorrow."
She paused, struck by a thought.
"Do you know what I found out this afternoon?" she said. "We've been calling him by his surname all this time. In China, they give the surname first, then the personal name. His personal name is Po Shun. That's what we should have been calling him. Po Shun Li, not Li Po Shun... It's as if he had been calling me Charrington. Come to me, Charrington! I want you, Charrington!"
She started shaking with laughter, which quickly turned into tears.
I decided I couldn't take any more. Her emotion was too much for me. I stood up and told her I was very tired and wanted to go to bed.
She stared at me.
"Go to bed, then," she said. And then, for a moment, she became the friendly Betty I liked again:
"Goodnight, dear," she said. "Give me a kiss before you go."
I leant towards her, and she kissed me, a soft, lingering kiss. Then she said:
"I like you, John. You're a nice boy. You should push for what you want more. Don't let life slip you by. You'll never get a second chance... Go to bed now."
I started to leave the room. As I reached the door, she called after me:
"When you write your book about all this," she said, "don't put me in too bad a light, will you? No. I know you won't. You're too sympathique..."
She was off early in the morning to see Klaus Fuchs.
I spent the morning with Li and Mr Carver, going round East Berlin. I bought some Russian recordings of Shostakovitch symphonies and a bottle of vodka in a drab department store. We drank coffee at the Warschau Coffee Bar, where we had to queue for 20 minutes for a seat.
In the afternoon, Mr Carver and I passed through the rows of black‑uniformed volkspolizei at Friedrichstrasse station, got on an S‑Bahn train, and got off at Zoologischer Garten in "the free air of West Berlin".
A week in the East had acclimatised me to its slow rhythms. The West was a shock ‑ a blaze of glistening steel‑and‑glass buildings, wide, smoothly surfaced roads, fast cars, American films, advertisements, pornography... The people here walked fast. Hard‑faced women in expensive clothes pushed you aside if you got in their way. Drunken youths hung around juke boxes in the bars, overlooked by posters announcing jazz concerts. Neon lights winked and raced across the buildings. It was garish, frenetic, cosmopolitan, rich.
I found myself listening sympathetically to Mr Carver, who said he thought West Berlin was disgusting.
Back in the Eastern sector, with police wherever you turned, I had a last talk with Li over another coffee after another queue at the Warschau. We wondered whether people in East Berlin were happy, and decided that they weren't. I told him my impressions of West Berlin and we started talking about puritanism, and whether this was an essential feature of communism or not. Li went on to talk, again, about sectarianism and dogmatism and his despair at the lack of imagination of the East German communists.
He also told me a little about his life. He had grown up in Shanghai, he said. His parents were intellectuals ‑ his father was a university lecturer in pharmacology. Somehow they had survived the war ‑ his father's medical knowledge had been useful to the Japanese. But in secret they had supported and helped the communists, and welcomed Mao when the war was over and Mao chased out the Kuomintang. Li had grown up an enthusiastic supporter of the Chinese Communist Party and its reconstruction of China ‑ but he had also mingled with intellectuals and, occasionally, foreigners, through his father's university connections.
"Perhaps that is another reason why I am less rigid in my attitudes," he said. "Most Chinese people know nothing about the rest of the world, but I grew up among people who did. Shanghai is an interesting city, you know. It is the most cosmopolitan city in China and there are people there with open minds, intellectuals and artists, people who have travelled and have a wider view of things. That is one reason why I hated being in the army. I couldn't accept the regimentation, being told what to do by people who were more stupid than me. I missed Shanghai and the cultural life there. I miss it now, sometimes, even though I was very poor there. One day I will go back there. But I want to travel first, as much as I can. I want to learn about different places and different cultures. Also, things are changing in China. Many intellectuals have been purged, including people I knew. It will be different when I go back."
"Would you like to visit England?" I asked.
"Of course," he said. "I would like that very much. But I doubt if it will ever happen."
"I have enjoyed our conversations, you know," he said. "This has been a very good week for me, and not only because of Betty. I have learnt a lot from both of you."
I was moved. I had thought the person who had done all the learning was me.
"Enjoy your freedom when you go back," he said, as we were about to leave. "Never take it for granted. But think of us here, sometimes. Think of our situation, and what we are trying to do."
Betty came back at 7 p.m. She was reluctant to talk about Fuchs. All she would say was: "He's growing old. It's a terrible thing. You know a man in his full vigour, a man with an agile body and a razor‑sharp mind. And then you meet him again, and he's on the way out. The mind is still there, just about, but his body is cracking up..."
We had a last meal at the hotel. Betty kept saying, "I don't want to go home." Rummaging in her bag, she announced that she had lost her lighter as though this was a major tragedy, then found it a couple of seconds later. Then she started worrying about our tickets home, though this was all taken care of. Li was self‑effacing and quiet, glancing attentively at her occasionally, but mostly keeping in the background while Heinrich Becker wound up the business of our visit.
As Betty had been told in Gera, the crisis had caused problems for air traffic over Berlin ‑ it was something to do with the numbers of military flights coming and going from the city ‑ so we were to return to England by train. At 9 p.m. we were taken to Friedrichstrasse station. Half the platforms there were in East Berlin and the other half, the S‑bahn platforms behind a tall metal screen topped with barbed wire, were part of the West ‑ as Mr Carver and I had discovered that morning. It was an old‑fashioned railway station, with a curved roof of blackened ironwork. At the far end, the end that pointed to the West, the upper part of the exit from the station was made of grimy frosted glass. A walkway ran above the trains from one side to the other in front of this glass, commanding a view of the whole station. Two border guards stood on the walkway, Kalashnikovs at the ready. The station was ill‑lit, so that they formed silhouettes against the fading light of day the other side of the glass.
Betty, Mr Carver and I were given presents ‑ bunches of flowers, books about the GDR's achievements, books about West German revanchism. Then we said goodbye to Heinrich Becker, Hans Esslin and Li, who had come to see us off. Betty and Li shook hands with each other stiffly.
"Thank you so much for all your help, Mr Li," said Betty.
I shook hands with him too. Though he smiled, his eyes were sad.
"Goodbye, John," he said. "I hope that one day we will meet again."
Then the three of us turned and walked down the platform.
My last image of East Berlin was the black silhouettes of the soldiers up on the walkway, overlooking the train we boarded it to go back to the West.
When we got back to England, the papers were full of Betty's visit to Klaus Fuchs. Betty gave several interviews, and although the papers published everything she said about Fuchs, they said little about what she thought of the Wall and East Germany. One paper, however, commented:
"Mrs Charrington talked of her surprise at what she found in East Berlin. The people there, she said, enjoyed low rents, plentiful and fairly cheap food, a fine social service and very cheap education."
The papers also tried to interview me to find out if she had said anything to me about her visit to Fuchs. They phoned up often over the next few days. Their interest was extremely unnerving, and I was relieved when the calls stopped.
The day after I arrived back in London, I went to Bow Street Magistrates Court for the Committee of 100 trial. It lasted two days. Of the 50 who appeared there, I was one of only five who agreed to be bound over. The other 45 members of the committee, including Bertrand Russell, were sentenced to two months in prison. "Earl Russell", as the papers called him, had his sentence commuted to seven days because, at the age of 89, it was believed his health would not stand the full two‑month sentence.
I was ashamed of my part in the trial. Not going to prison may have been the sensible thing to do, as Betty had insisted, but I still felt like a coward.
The rest of the pictures are thanks to Wiki-commons. Most of these images were provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license, many taken in 1961.
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