Welcome to Words and Music with Luke McCallin, author of the Reinhardt series. The latest, book three, The Ashes of Berlin, is now out in paperback and can be purchased at all good bookshops and via Amazon.
Luke, could we start with a brief introduction to your novels? You refer to them as a ‘loose trilogy’ which feature the same protagonist, Reinhardt, and follow the themes of reawakening, resistance and redemption.
They follow those themes although they weren’t written with that in mind! Book 1, The Man From Berlin, starts in 1943 Sarajevo. Reinhardt is a broken man intellectually as well as in many other ways. He’s an astute character and realises he’s a coward, and that he’s turned inward in order to avoid making decisions. He can look no further than two steps ahead and prefers to hide in the shadows. But then he is asked to work on a murder investigation – and this is his reawakening. The investigation leads him to discover more and more things which make him decide that he’ll do this one last thing properly. He reawakens to himself and the book is an exploration of occupation and collaboration.
Book 3, The Ashes of Berlin, which is just out now, is a continuation of Reinhardt’s story and is about his reconciliation with his place in the world and also with his son – who has been a prisoner of war and missing in books 1 & 2. It is all about him coming to terms with his son and his son’s role during the war as well as his place in the new order. The Ashes of Berlin opens in 1947, Germany is defeated and Reinhardt has to reconcile or accept his place in the new order with masters he feels he can accept and work for.
Your job is with the UN as a humanitarian aid worker. Did you always want to write or have these stories come out of your experiences while working with the UN?
I’ve always written and always wanted to write. The books are inspired by my job but I’m not quite sure what led me to a middle aged German police officer! I think WW2 can be used as a mirror to events I saw in Bosnia. It’s not as simple as saying history repeats itself but there are similarities in any long running conflict whether it’s in Bosnia, Northern Ireland or the Basque.
I think what interests me most is the role of the occupier rather than the occupied. Being an occupier does something to you, it puts you at right angles to Society as you are not bound by their laws. And then once your work as an occupier is done, you have to go back to your home and your old job – we sometimes use police officers and they go from working with the UN to returning back to their previous role as a police officer- and that can be tough. It relies on someone having a firm moral compass and a firm moral network to reintegrate themselves with.
I’m interested in what happens when the institutions can’t hold that moral line, when the fractionalise, when people loose that moral compass, when their peer group start behaving in a way that is not morally acceptable in ‘normal’ situations but somehow becomes acceptable. And if your peer group think shooting gypsies and beating minorities is normal…..what happens then?
So yes, I always wanted to write, but my novels have helped me to explore some of the things I see in my job.
What is the first piece of words that you have chosen for us today?
I love reading SciFi and Fantasy so my first choice has to be my absolute most favourite book which is Lord of the Rings. It’s the first ‘big’ book I read and it’s a book I go back to again and again and again. It’s the first book which I shared as my mother lent me her copies when I was about 10 or 11 years old and that was really special as it started a new partnership – we had something special to share and talk about. I reread this book and always find something new it in. There is always another layer to peel back and see something more. There is a melancholy to the prose which is beautiful.
You decided to set your Reinhardt series in the past rather than in the present. Was there are reason for choosing WW2 rather than a more contemporary setting or even inventing your own world or more anonymous, semi real, semi fantastical place as Tolkien?
I love history. I like to see the past as a prologue and I think by writing about the past you can make more sense of the present. I don’t think I could have set my books in the present – that would have been too close but I hope that by holding a torch on the past, I have shone some light on the present.
I think in an historical novel you can also take your reader on more of a journey and by going back to WW2, I could go beyond the clichés of the Balkans and do something more challenging and more exciting.
And your second choice of words?
To Kill a Mockingbird. Again, I read it when I was younger but it was a very powerful book for me. It was a powerful book just in terms of enjoyment but also it was powerful in the way it conveyed ideas. I read it while I was growing up in Zimbabwe. My parents were kind of ‘do goody leftie liberals’ I guess, so we just had friends. It wasn’t about whether they were white or black, they were just people. It was about ‘content of character’ as Martin Luther King said. There were no boundaries around colour. Friends were friends. So to read a book set in America – a country we were led to believe was a kind of mecca – to read that this was happening or was part of their recent history, was eye opening. It had a massive impact on me.
And Scout has got to be one of the most fabulous characters ever written.
Again, your choice of words really reflects some of the things you are trying to explore in your own novels. To Kill A Mockingbird deals with themes that are particular to a certain time and place in history yet have resonance in our society today. Is that something you hope to do in your novels?
One of the best questions I was ever asked was by an American reviewer who asked what’s the difference between Reinhart in Yugoslavia and an American soldier in Afghanistan? Again, it’s this question of the occupier and the occupied and how that can really do things to some people – it can be very powerful as you are above the law of that country, you are not bound by their rules, their culture, their codes of conduct. I think also we are closer to the raw edges of life that we like to think and chaos is only a ‘Rizla paper away’ from us at any given time. So I guess yes, I do hope to hold a mirror up to the past to help us approach some of the issues facing us today.
And your final choice of words?
My third favourite book is All Quiet on the Western Front, but that’s not the choice I am going to give you! I’m going to choose The Wooden Crosses or Les Croix de Bois as it is a French book and symptomatic of a line of literature from WW1. It’s written in the 1920s by a WW1 veteran and is an unfailingly grim book but it encapsulates a whole line of French literature that gives a different perspective or point of view on history. Seeing the war from the French soldier’s point of view offers a different angle from the British war poets or writers like Sebastian Faulks.
Le Croix de Bois is about a man who survives the war – he never fires a gun or fights but he suffers. He endures. He loses his friends. And after the war he is haunted by their ghosts but he says, given the chance he would go back to being in the trenches, surrounded by murder and violence because the world was a better place with his friends in it.
I am lucky enough to speak a second language and to be able to read in a second language and I love that however much we read in one language, in another there is always more to dig down to, uncover, see and more culture to pool from.
Moving on to music, I read that you like to play the drums! Is this a traditional full drum kit?
A big, huge, traditional drum kit that I like to thrash away on just like I did with upturned ice cream boxes when I was a small child!
So which piece of music are you going to share with us first? Is it a piece with great drumming?
It’s The Police, Walking on the Moon. I love anything by The Police and their drummer Stewart Copeland is amazing. He’s an inspiration. He also writes monumentally complex drumming scores but he is a real inspiration. I remember growing up in Africa as a small child and watching The Police on Top of the Pops running around and just having a lot of fun and I just loved it.
And your second piece?
I also used to listen to a lot of Queen and love songs written by their drummer Roger Taylor. I like a lot of their music from the early days when they were more like a disparate group of collaborators.
The song I’d like to choose is written by Brian May and called 39. It’s a sci-fi song and after about twenty years of listening to it I realised it was a song about time travel and there was a whole deeper subtext of a story that was essentially a sci-fi story there. It was a real revelation! It’s an acoustic song and it’s just great.
Your choices so far reflect your interests beyond writing – playing the drums and reading sci-fi, what is your third choice and how does it reflect a little bit more about you?
My third choice is Kala Djula which was the last song recorded by Ali Farke Toure and Toumani Diabate. It’s played on the blues guitar and the Kora (a 21 stringed lute like instrument that sounds like a harp and is very popular in West Africa) and it is symptomatic of the musical richness and depth of Africa. When I worked in Africa, at the end of the day we would go back to the hotel and listen to a band playing – the music was always of such high calibre and quality. You can hear the cultural heritage of the American blues and jazz before it travelled over on the slave ships to America.
It’s the last song Ali Farke Toure recorded and at the end of the song you can hear him finish, put down his things and say “viola”, that’s it. He died a few weeks later and that I find very profound.
Thank you so much for such a fascinating choice of music and words and such a fascinating insight into the Reinhardt trilogy.
Before we finish, what’s next for you?
Book 4, which is also a Reinhardt story, is coming. It follows the villain into the refugee camps and explores the displacement of people after the way and the issues of migration. I have got very caught up in the theme of refugees and displacement so the plot escaped me for a while but it is all coming together now!
After Reinhardt I would like to write a novel about an aid worker with a past and perhaps explore some issues like climate change, corrupt regimes but we’ll see …..!
Thank you so much Luke, this has been a truly fascinating interview and taken me on a geographical, historical and philosophical journey! It’s been really thought provoking and interesting. Thank you!
EXTRA BONUS MATERIAL!!!
Luke enjoyed talking about his favourite pieces of music so much he has recommended a few more tracks and created an extended playlist. Here he his explaining his choices and why they mean so much to him! Happy listening!
And here is what Luke said about the music:
For a playlist to hang together, there needs to be some interconnectivity between the songs and some motivation to bring them together. So, in order to build on what I have already recommended, I’ve chosen not included some great tracks with drumming or drummers that have really influenced me (like ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover‘ by Paul Simon; ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ by Led Zeppelin; ‘Lonesome Day Blues’ by Bob Dylan; or ‘Rosanna‘ by Toto).
So, off we go…!
‘Lagartija Azul’ by Fonseca
Fonseca is a really interesting singer from Colombia, which is a bit of gold-mine for music and merging musical influences. A great song that really gets you moving!
‘Devil’s Tale’ by Adriano Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia
Off to the Balkans, via a bit of Canada! A good example of Balkan brass bands, often called ‘turbo’. You might have heard music like this on one of Emir Kusturica’s films, like Underground, or Black Cat, White Cat
‘Ayub’s Song/As You Were’, by the Afro Celt Sound System
A beautiful song sung in Gaelic and with a ton of influences and instruments running through it, and in fact it’s two songs in one. Another great one from them is ‘Seed’.
‘Bonheur’, by Vieux Farka Toure
This is Ali Farka Toure’s son and an example of Malian guitar playing at its rapid and edgy best.
‘Dangera’, by the Tout Puissant
Congolese soukous at its best, with a stellar line-up in the TPOK led by the colossal (in all senses of the term!) Franco Luambo. TPOK was a supergroup that dominated Congolese and indeed African music for about three decades. All three voices in this song are sung by the great, Ntesa Dalienst, with the legendary Dizzy Mandjeku partnering Franco on guitar. Soukous can go on for ever, changing tone and rhythm, letting you work up a total sweat, so just sit back and enjoy the ride! An honourable mention to ‘Doly’ by Les Quatres Etoiles.
‘Imoussanan’ by Alhousseini Anivolla
A Tuareg from northern Niger, very mellow, and I chose it for the style of desert rock which has the Tuareg merging the guitar with more traditional chants and rhythms and singing in Tamasheck. This style was made most famous by Tinariwen, who are still the ones to beat, but you can also listen to EtranFinatawa, or to Tamikrest, or Toumast…
‘Cumbia del Mole’ by Lila Downs
a fascinating artist, part Mexican-part American. I first heard her playing on an album by Ry Cooder and The Chieftans called San Patricios, a selection of songs about a semi-legendary battalion of Irishmen who deserted the US Army to fight with the Mexicans in the late 19th century.
‘Chouf’, sung by Samia Diar
A fearless Algerian! With the Orchestre National de Barbes, which is a musical collective based in Paris. Most of what they play is influenced by rai, but they’ve incorporated a lot of other styles over the years. (The name is a tongue in cheek reference to Barbes, a part of Paris that has a heavy immigrant character, particularly from North Africa. Hence the ‘national orchestra’ part of the name…!) Another great song by them is
‘Alaoui’, from one of their live concerts, which if you’re going to
play it you need to play it LOUD!
‘Yawlidi’, by Souad Massi
Another fantastic singer from Algeria, wraps it all up. I love this song partly because of the drumming (surprise surprise!) and because of the Congolese soukous guitar in the latter part of the song, which really takes it to a whole different level.
And in case you’re interested, below’s a few of the songs that didn’t make it in to the playlist!
‘Nelson Mandela’s Welcome to the City of Glasgow’, by Blair Douglas
I’m not too sure where this one came from, but I love the mix of African and Celtic rhythms and instruments.
‘Monkey Hair’ by Martin Carty
With his daughter, Eliza, on violin. Carthy’s been a huge influence on my music–as well as being a great storyteller–and as a taste of the pared and stripped down folk music that The Imagined Village (a folk collective in which he plays) re-imagines.
‘My Son John’ by The Imagined Village
An English folk collective that is re-imagining traditional songs with modern influences, in particular the multi-cultural nature of modern England. This one is a retelling of a folk classic, sung by Martin Carthy.
‘Soubour’ by Songhoy Blues
A group formed by young Malians who fled the north after the takeover by Islamists in 2013, and their music is quite hard and raw, partly because they’re very young but they’re also very open to expressing what they went through to seek refuge.