As someone who often struggles with the inexpressible, I’ve long admired the German language’s succinct vocabulary. No, not going back to GCSE German, but to the point at which I learnt about Kummerspeck. Kummerspeck, literally translated into English, is ‘grief bacon’ and is used to refer to the excess weight one puts on through emotional overeating. There’s also Weltschmerz, meaning depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state. And, of course, Shadenfreude.
My point? Well… early in Paul Scraton’s Ghosts on the Shore he references the German word Heimat:
Germans often speak of the idea of Heimat, loosely (but inadequately) translated into English as Homeland. Ultimately, it means the place where you feel at home, for many an almost spiritual sense of belonging – a linking of personality and place – that is rooted in culture, in language, in family and in traditions.
Ghosts on the Shore (out today from Influx Press) is a book about the untranslatable sense of place – with the particular place being Germany’s Baltic coast. Paul Scraton is a writer from Lancashire, but who has lived in Berlin since 2001. Inspired by his wife’s childhood – born in Berlin, but spending her first eleven years (coincidentally also the final eleven years of the German Democratic Republic) on the Baltic coast – Scraton sets out to explore and write about the sense of place elicited by that coast.
The route Scraton decides to take traverses the old inner-German border to the west, and the Polish border to the east – allowing him to imaginatively explore “that country that no longer exists.” This fascinating premise opens up an evocative and enthralling narrative, encompassing a huge range of stories, history, memories and ghosts. He is prompted along the way by some old family photographs of his wife’s; the people he meets and observes; the history and literature of the areas he visits. But, equally important, are his own senses: the foods which remind him of other places and other journeys making the unknown seem familiar; the music he listened to (Roxette and Shaggy) and his eclectic and perfectly pitched range of references – including Gunter Grass, the Mann brothers, Jan Morris, Phillip Hoare, W. G. Sebald and Christopher Isherwood.
As much as this book is about a specific part of Germany – and its past, present and future – it’s also about the wider world and what personal knowledge brings to our understanding of that world, its places and our place(s) within it. It delights as travel writing but resonates as writing about the purpose and consequences of travelling.
(9781910312100, p/b, 387pp, £9.99)