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What drives the yearning for the return of the ghastly GDR?

Plus: the dangers black travellers faced in 1930s America and a female riposte to all those aggressive male drivers who want us off the road

3 December 2016

9:00 AM

3 December 2016

9:00 AM

‘We’re going to get lots of negative attention from environmentalists,’ he cackled, great puffs of blue-grey smoke emerging from the exhaust of his two-stroke car. Will Self was crossing Tower Bridge in a Trabant, that most potent symbol of the East German socialist state, bending almost double to fit himself round the steering wheel (he’s six foot five inches in his socks) and cursing the lack of wing mirrors. Things could only get worse as he and his old friend Michael Shamash set off on their 700-mile trek across the Channel to Zwickau, in the former GDR, home of the Trabant car. Imagine trying to merge on to a German autobahn in a car made of resin and cotton that has no mirrors and starts vibrating in an ‘ugly way’ as soon as you reach 80km/h.

Self was doing penance for once having insulted Shamash by mocking people of restricted growth on a BBC1 chat show: Shamash is half the height of Self. Shamash, an enthusiast for the socialist ideals on which the GDR was founded, wanted to find out what it was really like to live in a country where everyone drove the same car. They were both using the Trabant as a vehicle for understanding ‘Ostalgie’, hoping to meet people on the road who are still nostalgic for life in the former East Germany, which boasted cheap childcare and full employment but involved up to a quarter of a million of its people in spying on each other. Self Drives: The Trabant on Radio 4 (produced by Laurence Grissell, who also helped Self and Shamash survive the rigours of their journey, no small feat) squeezed us inside that car with them, filling the post-lunch, pre-Archers slot with just the right blend of intellectual argument and comic realism.

Self is introduced to the daily challenges faced by the disabled. After one night in a hotel Shamash admits he wasn’t able to wash because all the soap bottles were stuck to the wall, well above his height. He’s thrilled when, in a small town deep in the German countryside, they come across a museum of beautifully preserved Trabants until Self notices in one corner a strange montage of Checkpoint Charlie, which even has a dummy guard in the uniform of the Stasi. ‘It was a nasty, ghastly regime,’ said Self, ‘and there’s something super weird about hanging on to it.’ Shamash insists the GDR ‘had the promise of something good, that was fair and egalitarian’. But will their Trabant make it home to Zwickau?


There was no light relief in Alvin Hall’s journey across Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee on the trail of The Green Book (Radio 4, produced by Jeremy Grange). This was first published in 1936 by a black postman, Victor H. Green, who lived in Harlem and wanted to ‘give the Negro traveller information that will keep him from running into difficulties and embarrassments…’ As Hall was told by the people he meets on the road, Green was putting a fine gloss on the very real danger of being attacked if you were a black stranger arriving in a small town after dark, and especially if you were driving a ‘fancy’ car. They recalled how, before going on the journey back home to the South, their parents would pack a picnic and drive non-stop until they reached their destination, scared of stopping somewhere they didn’t know. As children they thought it all an adventure; now they realise what their parents were hiding from them.

In Alabama, Hall visits a new museum housed in a former slave warehouse, dedicated to all the victims of lynching in that state. From wall to ceiling there are rows of gallon jars filled with earth, each jar with a name on it. ‘There’s sweat in that soil, the sweat of enslaved people,’ says Hall. ‘There are tears, the anguish of the people who mourn. There’s blood, from the broken bodies of those who were lynched or maimed.’

Green continued to update his guide annually until the late 1960s, listing motels, bars, restaurants, even gas stations that would welcome black customers. We grew up with terrorism, says Hall. It did not arrive with 9/11.

Morris Minor, Ford Cortina, Rover 2000 are names to thrill the heart of any petrolhead, cars from the 1960s and 1970s that were once the ultimate consumer product. Victoria Coren Mitchell’s new series on Radio 4, Women Talking About Cars (produced by Gareth Edwards), is a timely riposte to all those aggressive male drivers who want us off the road. Coren Mitchell’s first guest, Dawn French, has been driving since she was 17 and once boasted a TVR Cerbera with a four-litre engine and top speed of 180mph, bought on the recommendation of Jeremy Clarkson. She had to go to the factory to be measured for her driving seat, fitted in between the engine, which took her from 0 to 60 in under four seconds, she insisted, roaring mightily. ‘When it makes that kind of noise at traffic lights,’ she said, ‘competition happens. Especially with men…You feel the need to win at all times.’


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