Munich Interlude, 1938 (a novel extract)

To Fish, Munich looked dreary and sordid in a clean, central European way, so unlike any of his sights of the Spanish war: poor Iberian towns half-collapsed into rubble gave an impression of poor, lice-ridden dignity under fire, often in yellow and hue tones; Munich appeared like a menacing, picturesque concentration of danger; colorful too, albeit in a different palette, due to the ubiquitous red-white-and-black Nazi flags with the slanted Swastika in the middle, and the various shades of brown and bottle-green in the uniforms worn by the different strands of Nazi officials to be seen around.

“The Swastika looks like something they got out of a cartoon,” Fish told Barrymore as their taxi took them to a hotel in the city downtown, hoping to God that the taxi-driver was some sort of spy who understood English perfectly. “Like they held a contest among a bunch of retarded children and they picked the simplest design they could get.”

“They say it’s a sort of Indian cross, actually,” said Barrymore; he always played the role of straight man with full confidence, unaware that there was any other.

“This regime is all just make-believe. We could put Mr. Hitler out of business in three months if we had the guts to.”

The hotel was wide and modern, convenient, and had a well-stocked bar. Fish was there early after dinner; from his seat on a corner, he watched the slow accumulation of foreign correspondents on the other side of the bar: one by one, they deposited themselves next to each other, like so many layers around a core. And the core seemed to be a lean, dark-haired man with spectacles, whom Fish didn’t know; in fact, Fish (who had never worked in Germany) didn’t know anyone there.

After a while, he started to feel fidgety: surely there was much gossip being spread among the ever-growing group, maybe even real news about the Chamberlain-Hitler meetings; yet he lacked an introduction. He quickly downed another whisky and reviewed his options, knowing that his head would soon stray away from the task at hand. Then, he saw a bulky man with a boxer gait and a large smile approach the group at ease, as if it was entirely composed of his pals from the kindergarten. He wasn’t surprised to recognize Hathaway, with slightly more hair and a slightly more expensive attire.

Fish had drunk too much to be picky, and told himself that surely the rules that applied to women applied to reporters, they being creatures even more whimsical and devious. He strode all the way to Hathaway, and extended his hand, as he spoke in a booming tone, impossible to ignore:

“I would have thought that you were still in Spain, Hathaway.”

Hathaway’s smile froze as he turned to his old acquaintance. He shook his hand vigorously though, as Hathaway was not one to be fazed easily, and vigor was his default mode.

“The last straw for me was when the government banned bullfighting in Madrid — Fish,” he said, remembering his name just in time.

“I can’t believe they did that,” said a small man with a goatee and the crumplest suit around, a rare feat. “That is amazing.”

“Believe it,” Hathaway said. “Only the rebels are holding bullfights now.”

“That is so strange,” the small man said.

“A stupid move, if you ask me,” Hathaway went on. “It just gives Franco an added reason to call himself the savior of Spain’s traditions facing Bolshevist assault.”

“Next we’ll see him earnestly dancing flamenco,” Fish said.

Hathaway grinned, relieved to see that — what was his name again? — Fish was a good sport about the business with Smith, whom he had so obviously and clumsily chased down the Spanish geography. He introduced Fish to the small man with the goatee — Ralph Pinkerton, the Reuters man on the spot — and a few others. By the end of that night Fish was a proud member of the reporting herd gathered at Munich, and he still hated Hathaway.

The next day, Fish woke up after mid-day; to Barrymore’s admiration, he was steady as a rock despite his heavy alcohol consumption. They had lunch together at a nice expensive cafe not far from the hotel; Barrymore said breathlessly he expected there would be war: there was no other way, what with Hitler’s ultimatum that he would accept nothing but a change in borders so the Czech Sudetenland would be transferred to Germany.

Fish shook his head.

“I wish there’s war,” he said. “We would look more important if we were to report on the outbreak of war, instead of a silly diplomatic concoction.”

“But war is a horrible thing, Mr. Fish.”

“War destroys things so we can create new things. And it would save the Spanish Republic.”

“With all due respect, perhaps the Spanish Republic doesn’t deserve to be saved.”

Barrymore’s eyes had a remarkable spark as he said so. He had his opinions too, as everyone does; Fish respected that.

“There won’t be war because otherwise we wouldn’t be here,” Fish said. “War is not started by gathering journalists and politicians. There has to be some sort of understanding on the Sudetenland on the works – ready to be signed, I’d say. They’ll just keep up the intrigue for a while, to make things interesting. The more drama, the better show – the better show, the more votes.”

By the time the leaders started their meeting at a large official building in central Munich, early in the evening, every accredited journalist in town was there. For about an hour, the Nazi officials, unused to work with real reporters, didn’t really know what to do with them, so they kept them in three groups in small waiting rooms, under the curious watch of local secretaries and janitors. Then a decision was made, and the hundred or so journalists where herded into a large, high-ceilinged meeting room dominated by a huge eagle holding a Swastika seal under its claws, as if uncertain of where to drop it. Tables and chairs were moved from other pieces in the building; water and a few sandwiches were distributed. But no alcohol, so Fish produced his emergency flask from the inside pocket of his jacket.

Hathaway, who had hitherto attempted to stay away from Fish and Barrymore, approached at the sight of the little metallic wonder. Fish was left with no choice but to spare some whisky for him. Then a Greek journalist appeared, and politely asked for a taste; Fish reluctantly gave way.

The Greek, encouraged by the alcohol, choose to throw in a little joke and wonder aloud why the English were so fond of drinking warm beer instead of whisky, such obviously nice beverage.

“It’s not beer but ale,” Fish snapped. “And it’s not warm, no matter what idiotic foreigners think — real ale is kept cool in cellars, and served straight out, not artificially chilled, like lager.”

The Greek stayed silent for a few minutes, and then scurried away. Hathaway nodded in silent admiration: perhaps he had underestimated Fish.

Time was slow: as the leaders’ discussions dragged on for hours, some journalists started to get nervous and asked the Nazi officials whether some sort of official communiqué would be issued. Shoulders were shrugged all over the building, in the finest bureaucratic tradition. Nobody knew anything. The reporters in the room formed cliques and groups were Germans and Germany were trashed, and politics or women were discussed, in different languages. More hours passed, and the night fell, so the groups were broken and rearranged; feet were lifted on top of empty chairs, a dense, stable cloud of smoke formed just below the room’s ceiling. One Irish reporter told everyone who would listen that Hitler’s mustache (thick but small, growing only under the tip of the nose) was technically what mustache connoisseurs called an “11”. He didn’t know why, but then he did know that there were other mustache styles that also deserved recognition, such as the “Pretzel” (rolled like a pretzel), the “Two Swords” (tips curved upward, scimitar-style – preferred by Islamic rulers with large Harems, as well as by flamboyant homosexuals with literary interests), the “Carter” (both thick and long, like a sturdy piece of carpet covering the flesh above the upper lip) and the “Douglas,” whose shape the Irishman ignored. Hathaway mentioned the well-known “walrus mustache,” an easily identifiable classic, and the Irishman appeared to be intensely offended by his addendum; he wasn’t placated when Fish asked how Franco’s mustache should be technically defined — and he declined to provide his learned opinion.

A small committee of concerned, hungry reporters of several of the main language groups was formed to request more sandwiches, just before midnight. A long, tense negotiation with Nazi officials followed, and a small quantity of sandwiches was handed. Barrymore secured one and gave Fish a half. Hathaway, who had always taken pride on covering his assignments alone, felt a pang of resentment. As the world held its collective breath, terrified at the prospect of yet another European war, the journalists in Munich focused their concerns on, by order of preference: access to toilets, lack of cigarettes, the room temperature (felt to be excessively cool by most) and, casting a large shadow among a group of men often older than thirty, and already growing their middle-age paunches on meager journalistic salaries, always the sandwiches.

Right after a long, supervised trip to one of the toilets, Barrymore winked an eye to Fish.

“I found a telephone that we can use,” he whispered, unable to contain his excitement. “I think the secretary is gone for the day.”

“We can get shot in this country for using the wrong phone for an international call, you know.”

“Or we can get a world exclusive, Mr. Fish. Imagine – ”

One hour after midnight, a stiff little man with thin spectacles coughed next to the main door, seeking the journalists’ attention.

“I wish to inform you that the meeting has concluded,” he intoned in heavily-accented English. “The leaders of Germany, Italy, England and France have reached an agreement so that a referendum will be held in the Sudetenland so that the population will be allowed to decide whether it wishes that it be peacefully ceded to Germany. A detailed note will be handed out soon. Thank you.”

Mayhem broke as the journalists tripped over each other towards the door, in a mad search for telephones. Fish let Barrymore go looking for glory, and remained sat on his chair, next to Hathaway — none of them were about to join the rush for that scoop, or any scoop for that matter. One Scottish reporter was overheard complaining about the description of Chamberlain as the leader of the non-existing, and yet insulting, sovereign state of England. Fish picked his words with care, and spoke solemnly. One never knew when History would be listening:

“Well, the Spanish Republic’s fate is sealed, Hathaway.”

“Or, as we say, the gig is up.”

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About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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2 Responses to Munich Interlude, 1938 (a novel extract)

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