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Only Charlie remains at the checkpoint

Two decades after it was felled, Charlie is still at the checkpoint where the Wall stood parting East from West, gloved, hatted and wrapped in an outmoded US army greatcoat, holding the Star-Spangled Banner aloft in the freezing wind.

There’s little for Charlie to check now, but he may still have a point. At a euro a shot for shutterbugs, his act on the sandbags earns him a healthy daily wage. And for five euros more, he’ll emboss your passport with all the visas you no more require to go this way or that. “Original,” he says, as he assumes the concurrent consular authority of many nations present and gone. “Original and totally legal, and you won’t get it anywhere else.”

In half a minute of merry stamping, you have bought rights of passage from the USSR, GDR, West Germany, the US, the United Kingdom and France; hereon it’s a free run to the Brandenburg Gate and all the world beyond. Checkpoint Charlie is a metaphor turned on its head — no longer the forbidding barrier of fact and fiction alike, merely a breeze, albeit a bitterly wintry one. Sorry, John le Carre, Checkpoint Charlie can’t play stage to taut spy sagas any more, life has overrun your literature; where are you, Shah Rukh Khan, this is just where you should be boogeying to Om Shanti Om.

Hard history has, after all, given way utterly to gainful commerce. Klaus Winkler (Codename Charlie, the man in the American greatcoat) will happily tell you how, as he resumes his pose on the sandbags for another one-euro shot. “Come tomorrow,” he says with a mock conspiratorial wink. “And I will give you better pictures, in my Russian uniform.” They are all lying piled in the glass booth midstreet behind the sandbags, trenchcoat on top of trenchcoat, Russian, East German, French, English — the green room of a costume drama that was once a real and grim tale. Le Carre alone wove several unforgettable ones around the intuitive George Smiley of MI6 and Karla, his KGB counterpart and tormentor.

Close to 200 people died trying to cross the Wall west during the 28 years that it stood between Berlin and Berlin, German and German, East and West, ideology and counter-ideology — a cold, twisting dragon made of mortar and iron whose belly was known, and still is, as the zone of death. Parts of it were allowed to survive the heady two-pronged assault of the winter of 1989, but perhaps only as a reminder of what never to repeat. Perhaps for the same reason that the Nazi concentration camps of Dachau and Auschwitz lie preserved too.

One section of the Eastern Wall appears to have been a particular favourite of those that hammered and shook it down — it has a large and faded mural of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, the hated boss of the East German Communist Party, in liplock. “Suck!” says the graffiti on it. Nobody’s wanted to bring this stretch down; the graffiti has been embellished over and over with insult and expletive.

Most of the Wall, though, only survives underfoot, quite literally run into the ground. An embedded double line of grey and dun bricks describes its run through Berlin. Every few yards, metal tablets with “Berliner Mauer 1961-1989” (Berlin Wall 1961-1989) markings lie bolted to the streets. You will also find those tablets in the souvenir shops around Checkpoint Charlie. In case you can’t, ask Charlie. For a few euros more, he will go looking. There’s little to check at his Checkpoint, after all; and Smiley and Karla are probably having coffee at the streetcorner café over documents only they think important any more.

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