A glittering party was given last Saturday by Sabrina Stoppard in the Chelsea Physic Garden to celebrate the 80th birthday of her husband Tom. Sir Tom Stoppard, OM, CBE, benign and dignified, mingled with his guests like the Sun King, Louis XIV, moving among his courtiers in the gardens of Versailles. The enchanting Sabrina seemed to have stepped out of a painting by Watteau; and among the guests there was a bevy of stars and celebrities, today’s equivalent of the noblesse de robe.
My friendship with Tom Stoppard dates from 1964 when we enrolled in an academy for creative writing in West Berlin, the Literarisches Colloquium. The idea of teaching creative writing was then almost unknown in Europe, but the director of the Colloquium, Walter Hasenclever, had come across it in the United States where he had taken refuge from the Nazis during the war. At the time, the Ford Foundation was funding an attempt to raise the profile of the then beleaguered West Berlin by enticing artists and writers with generous stipends to come and live in the city, and so make it a glittering centre of culture like Paris during the Belle Époque. Hasenclever persuaded the organiser of this enterprise, Shepard Stone, who happened to be his brother-in-law, that a school for creative writing should be included in the programme.
Berlin at the time was a fascinating city, not for its Isherwoodian decadence or the night life for which it is famous today, but as a historical anomaly: half communist, half capitalist, with a wall dividing it, barbed-wire fences running through the forests in its suburbs, and its centre, into which a British subject could enter through the wall, still in ruins. It was only 19 years since the end of the war.
I was already living in West Berlin, writing my first novel, when I was invited by Dr Hasenclever to enrol in the Literarisches Colloquium. I moved from my rented room in Zehlendorf to the large turn-of-the century mansion on the Wannsee which had been done up like a comfortable hotel, joining 15 young Germans and five Anglo-Saxons – three from Britain, two from the United States. The two Americans were Tom Cullinan and Peter Bergman: the two other Britons, Tom Stoppard and Derek Marlowe. Our “tutor” was the playwright, James Saunders, whose play Next Time I’ll Sing to You was then playing at the Criterion Theatre in London.
The Germans, imbued with the spirit of experimentation and communal endeavour, embarked upon a novel with each chapter written by a different author. The Anglo-Saxon group lacked that spirit and, quite quickly, James Saunders gave up the idea of any group enterprise. We were left to get on with own projects, with the occasional tutorial in which he would offer criticism and advice.
There was almost no contact with our German fellow students, but we made occasional forays into communist East Berlin to the opera or the Brecht Theatre. There was a plan to visit Prague, but Tom pulled out, fearing he might be conscripted into the Czech army: he had been born Tomáš Straussler in Zlin in what was then Czechoslovakia.
How to describe Tom at the time? Slim, gangling, with a long face and curly hair; kind, humorous, speaking with his tell-tale lisp. He showed little interest, as I remember it, in Germany or the Germans, determined to use the time provided by the Literarisches Colloquium to develop the sketches that eventually became Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
When our time at the Colloquium came to an end, Tom, Derek and I returned to England and for six months or so shared a flat in Pimlico. In January 1965, in an article in the TLS, an anonymous contributor described the work of the Colloquium, pouring mild scorn on the English-language contingent. “The Anglo-Saxon writers remained untouched by the atmosphere of Berlin and Germany. It meant nothing to their insular sensibilities that it was at the Wannsee Conference of 1942 that the Nazis first decided upon the Final Solution for the Jews or that the home in which they lived and worked for five months had been an SS stud farm for Ayrans during the last war.”
This judgment was to be proved false. Some of Tom’s later plays, and his concern for human rights, undoubtedly stem from his first encounter with the Iron Curtain in Berlin. Derek Marlowe went on to write a bestselling Cold War thriller, A Dandy in Aspic; and in 1966 I published my second novel, The Junkers, which follows the experiences of a German family from the 1920s to the present day. There are passages graphically describing the horrors of the Final Solution, and even a scene set in an SS stud farm in a house on the Wannsee.
Piers Paul Read is a novelist, historian and biographer