The Instant by Amy Liptrot review – an intimate memoir from Berlin | Autobiography and memory
OWhen Amy Liptrot moved to Berlin, she never expected to spend so much time birdwatching. “I came for the people, not the birds,” she wrote in her new memoir. But she buys a second-hand pair of binoculars and sets off in search of hooded crows, known as “hoodies” in Scotland, and hawks, whose numbers have recently increased across the city. For Liptrot, birdwatching is the ultimate antidote to scrolling on his phone, forcing his eyes to refocus and stare into the distance.
The Moment is the author’s follow-up to his Wainwright Award-winning debut film The Outrun (being made into a feature with Saoirse Ronan), and ostensibly recounts a year spent living in Germany, though it’s not is not a simple travelogue. It’s a thin, impressionistic, often melancholy work that, in addition to following his adventures in a new place, struggles with ideas of loneliness, romance, and a life lived simultaneously online and offline. This book is not as substantial as its predecessor, although this is not a review. Where The Outrun chronicled her battles with addiction and her recovery on the Orkney Islands where she grew up, it feels like a more experimental project, a document of a preliminary year in which her inner lives and exterior are keenly felt and recorded.
Liptrot moves to Kreuzberg, an artistic district of Berlin where, in addition to birdwatching, she can be found doing yoga, hanging out in cafes, looking for raccoons and obsessively following lunar cycles. “I ran away but I find the moon everywhere I go,” she wrote. She does not hide her loneliness and her need for physical connection: “Asking for a new friendship is difficult. Hearts and futures can turn into a single afternoon or an accepted invitation – but more often than not, they don’t lead to much.
Liptrot takes the same sharp look at the cityscape that she took on the wild surroundings of Orkney, reporting both on what she sees and how it is filtered through her imagination. She remembers how, while getting sober at home, she took boat trips around the islands and swam in the sea to gaze at the underwater life. Berlin is 600 km from the sea, but it still fetches water from swimming pools, lakes and saunas. In the vast Berghain nightclub, which was previously a power station, she finds that “the dancefloor is the seabed and I go diving”.
His writing is contemplative, but comes with pleasant flashes of courage and humour. It is with growing mortification that she dissects modern dating rituals, observing “the semblance of first dates when talking about where her first apartment was in town or how sweet the winter, anything but sex or reproduction or love or the unfathomable pain that made you sign up on a dating site in the first place and willingly endure the indignity of walking into a bar with a nervous stomach and d ‘go to the bathroom and look in the mirror at your sorry fucking face’.
In the spring, Liptrot meets a man and falls in love, and his account of their affair is lively and heady. When they go camping in the forest, her phone battery drains and for once she doesn’t care. They plan to move to Scotland together; babies are even mentioned. But at the end of the summer, he breaks things off over email and she is devastated and becomes umbilically attached to her phone again.
The book says a lot about the effects of growing up online: Liptrot likes to “travel in bed,” referring to his hours spent wandering cities on Google Street View. But she also finds that the case that left her heartbroken is not easily left behind. Her agony is compounded by her addictive tendencies, which prompt her to search for her former lover in old texts, WhatsApp messages and on her social media accounts.
At the heart of The Instant is a desire for new experiences, love and connection, with all the vulnerability that entails. At first glance, these are mundane impulses but, in this intimate memoir, Liptrot’s achievement is in making them feel remarkable.