Formerly Reuters’ man in Eastern Europe, Peter Millar comes to Inverness Book Festival tonight (Wednesday) to talk about his recent adventures crossing Cuba by its rundown train service. And 25 years after winning foreign correspondent of the year for eyewitness accounts of the Cold War’s last days, Peter also shares some of the stories from his republished book 1989: The Berlin Wall (My Part In Its Downfall).
by Margaret Chrystall
YOU could say it was the jokes in the Asterix books that got international correspondent Peter Millar to the Berlin Wall the day it fell in 1989.
Thanks to the French cartoon books, the boy fell in love with foreign languages, studied them at Oxford, then spent time as a foreign correspondent for the Reuters agency in Eastern Europe.
Peter is coming to Inverness Book Festival on Wednesday to talk about his latest title based on travelling Cuba’s rickety train system.
For the event, Peter’s publisher is also rushing out some early copies of his next one, The Marrakech Express, in which he explores Morocco.
Peter was named foreign correspondent of the year 1989 for his coverage of the end of the Cold War.
But 25 years on from the event, the writer will also return to his earlier book – 1989 The Berlin Wall My Part In Its Downfall.
And after the Wall came down, Peter discovered what he had long suspected, much-feared East German secret service, the Stasi, had been keeping a file – and careful watch – on the journalist’s activities.
He laughed: "They listened to us all the time and had microphones in the wall. Eventually, after 1990, 29 microphones were found in our flat. They were controlled by a guy who lived in the flat next door – where all the tape recorders were.
"They would sometimes also do active surveillance.
"There’s a picture – which isn’t in the book because I couldn’t get hold of a copy of it – that had been taken from a camera hidden in the rear light of a Trabant. Real James Bond stuff.
"It shows our car parked outside the foreign currency shop, me twiddling the car keys and my wife carrying this huge box of groceries.
"The officer had noted ‘It appears that on shopping trips Millar makes his wife carry the heavy objects’.
"I’ve never lived it down," laughed Peter.
But when he headed to Cuba to write Slow Train To Guantanamo, he found that the communist society brought back a few memories.
"Of the old American cars, very few of them are still working, only about 40 or 50.
"But what is interesting is you are getting old Soviet-era cars.
"I saw an old Lada chopped in two with a part added in the middle to make a Lada limousine!"
With Peter’s travels on the Moroccan railway through the country to Marrakech up next – and his first travel book tracking the journey the American railroad has made across the history of the States, you have to ask...
"No I’m not a trainspotter! " he laughed.
"Some trainspotters are actually disappointed by the books because they are not trainspottery enough!
"But the great thing about trains is, if you want to see a country you don’t know and find out about it – and meet people – there’s nothing better.
"Also the trains determine your itinerary for you.
"Apart from my enjoyment of travelling by train, the Cuban one worked so well for me because it meant going back to see a communist country. The trains are a disaster, but – unlike the Moroccan trains where everyone is silent – people talk and argue about the ‘bloody government’.
"It’s funny because they seem to welcome Raul Castro’s changes, but there are two sides.
"There are people who, for the sake of material goods, would be content to see Cuba back to being about whorehouses and casinos for the Americans.
"But the majority of the population say ‘No, we got our dignity back – we don’t want to be something the Yankees can buy’."
More like buses than trains, two journeys for his next titles come along together next.
He said: "I have two in line for the next six months, both in relation to the BIG German book Deutsches Land: Europe’s accidental empire.
"First it’s to Kaliningrad – which was the former German city of Königsberg.
"And then I’ll be going to Oberwichau, one of the few ethnic German villages which have existed since the Middle Ages – in Transylvania!"
Peter’s event starts tonight (Wednesday) at 8.30pm at Eden Court. For full details of the festival supported by Inverness Courier: www.invernessbookfestival.co.uk