‘I hopped up on the wall and got my sax out’: the fall of the Berlin Wall

Stephen Ellery plays the saxophone on the Berlin Wall, 10 November 1989

My obsession with the Eastern bloc, particularly the Soviet Union, started when I was doing my A-levels; inspired by cold war spy stories, I wanted to be a nuclear physicist in Moscow. In the end, I studied composition at Birmingham Conservatoire. When the distinguished Polish composer Marek Stachowski visited the department, we got talking and I managed to persuade him to let me study with him. That’s how I ended up, aged 23, living in Krakow, studying composition and conducting.

To make ends meet during my two and a half years there, I played saxophone in Hamburg. With only two lessons a week at college, I had long weekends, so I’d catch the sleeper train to East Berlin, cross the city, then hitch to Hamburg – it was easy and encouraged, and you never had to wait more than 10 minutes. I’d find a jam session in a jazz club, and join in with the hope of being asked to gig with them. I’d often earn 200DM, which was a fortune.

I’d sometimes spend time in East Berlin on the way back; my Krakow resident’s permit allowed me to stay longer than western tourists. It was very neat and orderly. The official exchange rate was one East German DM to one West German DM, but nobody paid that. If you bought them in the west, it was 11:1. So I’d stuff my pocket with notes and live like a king – ballet, opera, champagne, caviar, nice dinners. East Berlin restaurants were really good compared with the rest of the country.

I was aware of the changes afoot in the region for a few months: travel restrictions easing in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, mass protests. But no one would have predicted what happened on the night of 9 November.

I was in West Berlin the following morning; I went to Checkpoint Charlie, my usual crossing point into East Berlin, to catch the train back to Krakow. Instead of orderly queues of people showing their papers at the border, East Germans were streaming through, hugging and crying.

People were sitting on the wall, drinking champagne and beers, so I hopped up to join them. I always had my sax with me, so it seemed natural to get it out. I played Misty, In The Mood, Autumn Leaves, and a few blues and rock numbers. I climbed down when I started to get chilly, and caught the sleeper train back to Poland.

I usually slept with my saxophone, but that night, after a few too many beers, I put it on the empty bunk above me. When I woke up, it had gone. It was funny, because I’d been thinking of donating it to someone (a young student, say) when I got back to Krakow, so I could focus on my conducting. It was my dad’s saxophone.

A few months later, at the end of December, he called to say this photograph was in the Independent, part of a huge supplement on the momentous events a few months earlier.

I did eventually get to the Soviet Union, just as it was collapsing, and stayed for four years, studying and working as a conductor, which I still do today. I never did make it as a nuclear physicist.


Hannah Booth

The GuardianTramp

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