Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 45 seconds
When Highbury local Sarah Matthias isn’t busy as membership secretary of the Islington Choral Society she’s writing books. Here she talks about life in Islington and the inspiration for her latest novel, ‘A Berlin Love Song’. Interview by Nicola Baird & photos by Kimi Gill
A Berlin Love Song follows the story of Lili, a Romani girl, and Max, a Berlin schoolboy who is forced to join the Hitler Youth and ultimately conscripted into the German Army. It’s Young Adult (YA)/Adult fiction with a strong plot wrapped around Romani persecution and the mass indoctrination of ordinary Germans and in particular, the Hitler Youth.
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“I was always interested in the war,” says Sarah Matthias who has family roots in Yorkshire but because her father was a clergyman, she moved around a great deal as a child. “My father was in the RAF during the war and when we lived in Hull our next door neighbour was Mr Adler, a Jewish refugee who had been in Auschwitz. He was a dentist and a good friend to our family – he’d look after our hamsters and rabbits if we were away. He’d occasionally talk about Auschwitz and become really shaky and tearful. As a child it seemed strange that a dentist’s hands shook. My father was also involved in a Post War Reconciliation Project (see more about this here) and became friends with Pastor Knott who had also been forced to join the Hitler Youth (like so many Germans including Gunter Grass and Pope Benedict). Pastor Knott had tried to become a conscientious objector in 1939 and somehow ended up as chaplain to German POWs living in the Midlands.”
Sarah’s interest in Germany was given another boost when she met and married her husband, David. “He was a tank commander in the British Army patrolling Berlin in tanks and armoured cars in the 1970s when it was a divided city. When our children were little – there are four who’ve grown up in Islington – we’d go to visit the places in Germany where their Dad used to work.”
Places Sarah Matthias likes around Islington
- Clissold Park – I’ve got three dogs so know a lot of people from dog walking. The launch of A Berlin Love Song at Ink 84 was packed with choristers and dog walkers. It helped too that co-owner Tessa Shaw’s boys were at school with my children and Tessa’s husband, Peter Strivens, is in the choir.
- Highness Café & Tea Room – It’s a family run café with really good wifi, coffee and delicious cake. I did a bit of writing for A Berlin Love Song at Highness Tea Room, and I get all our birthday cakes from there.
- The Brewhouse and Kitchen at Highbury Corner has become a big part of my life because after rehearsals that’s where we go. There are a lot of interesting beers but I have wine.
- The Baptist church, 40 Highbury Place, on Highbury Fields – it’s really difficult to find a place with two rehearsal rooms, both with pianos, and a kitchen which is also close to bus routes and the tube station, so the Baptist Church is perfect for the Islington Choral Society.
- Central Library – I’ve got very fond memories of taking all my family when they were children to the library on 2 Fieldway Crescent. We lived in it!
- Sacre Coeur, 18 Theberton Street, N1 – it’s really good value and I love the cod with mashed potato.
A Berlin Love Song is Sarah’s fourth published book – she’s known for her time slip novel, The Riddle of the Poisoned Monk and also for the lively Medieval series following Tom Fletcher, a reluctant novice and supersleuth.
Sarah went to Oxford University, joined the BBC and then retrained as a barrister, so it’s no surprise that she is passionate about getting the research for her books right. But don’t worry she doesn’t force that on the readers. “I see myself as a storyteller first and foremost, not a historian. My passion is to use history as the backdrop so I did a huge amount of research about the home front in Germany, but the story has got to be plot driven.”
Then in 2011 Sarah says: “I was travelling with my husband and went to the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin and saw their first blockbuster show about Hitler and the Germans: a nation and crime which tried to show how Hitler had seduced a nation. I was shocked by the dolls’ houses with their tiny china tea services decorated with swastikas. Even the dolls’ house wallpaper showed scenes of Hitler Youth campsites. There were just three showcases about the fate of the Romanies. I hadn’t realised that up to half a million Romanies were killed. Some people say there might have been more, since no records were kept of the mass shootings in the woods, and concentration camp records were often destroyed by the Nazis as the Allies advanced. Nobody was called to testify on behalf of the Romani victims at the Nuremberg trials and no war crime reparations were paid because the Germans insisted they had been persecuted as asocial thieves and criminals, not on grounds of race.”
That visit helped Sarah develop Lili and Max’s story which became A Berlin Love Song. Islington Faces has read A Berlin Love Song and plans to pass it to my teenage daughters when exam season is over as I’m certain they’ll love the romance, coming of age. I’m also hoping my book group will read it. It was recently chosen by the Historical Novel Society as their Editor’s choice for their quarterly magazine. Whether the book group go for it or not, already A Berlin Love Song is proving a popular choice in Islington thanks to Sarah’s book launch being held last month (April) at her nearest book shop, Ink@84 on Highbury Park. And Ink@84 is also an ideal place to buy a copy. Just remember to keep a tissue by you because the ending has to be bleak.
- Find Berlin Love Song by Sarah Matthias on Amazon here
- More about Sarah’s books on her website at http://www.sarahmatthias.co.uk/
- Info about how to join Islington Choral Society (and their concerts) which rehearses every Tuesday is on its website and facebook. Next concert is on Saturday 1 July – choral music by Vierne, Fauré and Franck.
- See more Kimi Gill Photography on her website here.
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com.