I don’t usually eat much bread, if any at all, or biscuits or cakes, but while I was at my sisters I joined in breakfast, and although I stuck to pumpernickel, I did have the occasionally fresh Brötchen. Then there were the snacks and the gins and tonic, beer and several Brazilian caipirinhas courtesy of the bottle of cachaça (sugarcane spirit – don’t worry, I didn’t know what it was, either, until about 13 days ago) I found Lidl selling for a very attractive price.
In fact, like the price of halfway decent cigars (which in my book is everything which isn’t a Castella), boozes prices on the Continent – except Scandanavia of course, which chooses to plough it’s own furrow when it comes down to getting pissed – are also a damn sight more rational, not to say more acceptable, than here in Britain. And although the Germans don’t actually drink less than the Brits, cheaper booze has not yet led them to drinking more, either. My niece’s boyfriend prepared the caipirinhas and they were very nice indeed. I recommend them, though it has to be said they are more of a summer drink. I can’t imagine they would go down too well in sunny Scandanavia.
Calling myself an English German might sound — and undoubtedly is, sadly — ever so slightly pretentious, but it also happens to be true. I was chatting with my sister last night and she told me something which echoed what I have long ago felt: that she belongs somewhere in the middle of the English Channel (or ‘The Sleeve’ as we rootless, though gentile, cosmopolitans like to call it.) And I know exactly what she means.
Years ago I was chatting to a guy who was half Burmese, half English and he confessed he didn’t know what he was and in the long run felt neither Burmese or English. Our case is not quite as marked in that the English and the Germans have a great deal in common, but we both, my sister and I, know what he feels. In some ways my sister’s and my histories are different: born to the same German mother, we moved to Berlin when I was nine and a half and she was just under three. I was almost immediately packed off to German schools with my older brother, learnt the language and then returned to England four years later, more or less a German.
She would have been seven when we came back and although she had been to a German Kindergarten, whatever German she learnt she (I think) forgot and didn’t learn to speak the language until she married a German. But our histories differ in that in 1965 our father was posted to Paris by the BBC, and she and our younger brother were enrolled in a French school and learnt French, whereas I and our older brother were locked away in a Roman Catholic boarding school, the Oratory School. (We’d both already been there for, respectively, two and three years, but for a year we were ‘day boys’, as we only lived eight miles away and, I should imagine more to the point, it was also a damn sight cheaper. To this day I wonder exactly how my dad was able to afford the Oratory’s fees, unless he had something of a second income packing a Gestaetner 404 dual action for the ‘security services’.
Actually, I think the BBC helped out with fees while we were in Paris, and Oxfordshire County Council helped out with my brother because he had passed his 11-plus, but was not taking up a grammar school place.) So my sister and our younger brother grew up in France, spending their formative years there, to the extent that my younger brother feels more French in many ways. Me? Well, I can’t say I ‘feel German’, but nor do I ‘feel English’, and like my sister I ‘feel’ I belong somewhere in-between.
At my advanced age - 109 in November, but without, I hope, coming across as too vain, I know I could easily pass for 102 - and knowing myself a little better than I did when I was younger, I suspect my character is more German than English, but as I speak English without a trace of a foreign accent, no one ever notices. For example, as a rule the Germans are not ones for fannying around with euphemisms and polite replies, which, together with the fabled ‘guttural accent’ they are all by statue law obliged to adopt when they speak English - and none of them has a ‘guttural accent’ when they speak their native German - makes them come across to we British shrinking violets as ‘arrogant’.
In fact, all they are being is ‘direct’: ask a German what he thinks of something and he’ll tell you. But what he tells you is not always what the questioner wants to hear. That is not to say Germans are not polite, it’s just that their politeness manifests itself in different ways, not all, it has to be said, to my liking. They are not shy of giving you advice, a trait which might, in German, be described as Überheblichkeit.
So, for example, you might find yourself doing something — folding together a folding-together bicycle or using a spade — and, often a perfect stranger will come up to you and announce ‘Das machen Sie aber falsch!’ and proceed to tell you how to do it correctly. My point it that he is sincerely trying to be helpful — usually — and has no other motive at all, whereas for many foreigners he simply comes across as an interfering Kraut.
Indeed, he would probably be rather taken aback at the suggestion that he might well care to mind his own business because as far as he is concerned all he wants to do is to help you get things right: you’re not doing it as you should and he, gracefully, has decided to show you a better way of doing it. It does not occur to him that you might not want his advice because his fellow Germans, in fact, appreciate his concern.
As for ‘not having a sense of humour’, well forget it: the Germans, or most of them — remember that your North German is as different to your South German or East German as your Scouser or Tyke is to your average (and, to be honest, they are very average) southern jessie have a great sense of humour. Not all of them, certainly, but then there are as many po-faced Brits as there are po-faced Germans. Take it from me, the Germans have a great sense of humour.
I’ve got to say that I prefer by a long shot German food to English/British food. A very cheap shot would be to add that as seaweed is regarded as the national dish of Wales, the Scots make a great deal of a concoction of sheep’s intestines and stomach lining mixed with oats call haggis, and the English are immensely fond of offal of any kind as long as it is served with a pastry crust, it might not be difficult to understand why. But, as I say, that would be a cheap shot.
There are, of course, some very tasty British dishes. The only trouble is far too few folk here in Britain can be bothered spending more than the few seconds it takes to turn on the microwave as it cuts back dangerously on TV-watching time, so they put up with shite and pigswill. Another giveaway that Britain’s relationship with good food is remarkably flexible is that when, as does on occasion happen, a gastro-pub or restaurant does push the boat out and offer good food, it invariable costs you an arm and a leg even to take off your coat and sit down to enjoy it. Every so often I take my family and the occasional friend to a gastro-pub a few miles away, the St Tudy Inn. It is by no means exceptionally expensive, but picking up the bill for the four of us does mean the treat is necessarily an occasional one.
My week’s stay brought home to me yet again something I have long suspected: that although I speak English with an impeccable English accent and, at the moment, my German is not as good as it was (though I am confident I could again become truly bi-lingual if I spent a little more time there again), I am, as I said, in character more German than English. (NOTE to pedants: this entry is being written in stages, and most of the above was added after what is now to come, but I can’t be arsed to go through it all and make sure it reads coherently. Sorry, but this isn’t a PhD treatise.) But I should add the proviso that were I to live in Germany again, I am certain I would, sooner or later, come unstuck a little.
A German cousin who is spending the next year or so living in St Leonards and has sent his truly bi-lingual daughter – her mother is English – to a boarding school in Cambridge (his extended family is not short of a pfennig or two tells me that there are aspects about living in Britain he prefers, not least a certain free and easiness which can often be lacking in Germany. And he was not the first to tell me that.
Life can be very sweet in Germany if you follow the rules, but not quite as sweet if you step out of line or exhibit a certain bolshiness. And that’s why I suspect I might in time come unstuck a little. I can be very polite when I need be, but I like to be courteous and polite because I think it makes the world a more pleasant place for everyone and because I choose to be, not because I have to be. Germany is, of course, not just ‘Germany’ like England, Scotland and Wales are as different as they are the same.
My mother’s family and my brother-in-laws family all come from the North-West of Germany (although her children all grew up in the Rhineland), and the folk in Ostfriesland are very different indeed to the Bavarians, or Swabians, or Berliners. And what is ‘German’ in me is the traits found there, I suspect. Ideally, I should like to spend half the year living in Germany and the other half in Britain, just for the crack, although it would not be for the television, which is as dire as a lot of British TV.
. . .
While I was in Germany, I again looked up two elderly aunts, two sisters, though if you met them, you would agree that despite their ages – 80 next week and 90 quite soon – ‘elderly’ most certainly isn’t a good way of describing them. Both, especially the 90-year-old have more life in their little fingers than a great many folk I’ve met 30 years younger than they are. Both are now widows, though the younger sister was only widows a few years ago, whereas her sister, who lives in a village about 20 miles south lost her husband more than 26 years ago.
She was always lively and sociable and is still lively and sociable, but over the years many of her friends have died. I found it rather sad that the two substantial tables in her large living room are both decked out as though there is to be a party in a few hours time, though, of course, none is to be held. She also showed me what the large garden ‘hut’ which also had two tables laid out as for a party, and in which she and her husband did a great deal of socialising before he died. But no party is on the cards for the hut, either.
It was her father who would have nothing to do with the Nazis during the 1930s and who refused to allow is daughters to have anything to do with the Bund Deutscher Mädel, a decision rather resented by his daughter, who felt she was missing out on all kinds of sports and activities and, as a ten-year-old, couldn’t understand why her father was so against her joining. She told me all this last August when I saw her again after something like 47 years, and I rather admired the old man for what I thought was a brave and principled political stance.
This time I wanted to find out a little more about my father’s dealings with him after the war and during the late 1950s and 1960s. All I knew was that he had been recruited – by whom I am no longer sure – to be part of an ‘underground’ government should the Soviets invade what was then West Germany. Although he was a cousin of my mother’s through her mother, my father’s interest involved his activities – well, as I don’t know: just how close were his links with MI6? I’ve touched upon the question before and I still can’t suggest and answer.
As for Onkel August, as we called him (my father called him August) what I thought was enlightened opposition to the Nazis was nothing of the kind. Irmgard, his daughter, now 90, who I was pressing for more details had few. She remembers my father coming round and having long discussions with her father from which everyone else was excluded and the last time I saw her she told me of some mysterous Brit who regularly used to visit her father in the 1950s. She also remembers (who was it her sister Helma who told me this?) that once on a trip through the Emsland, which is still pretty rural, flat and remote, but was even more so then (can it be any ‘flatter’? Answers on a postcard, please) that it would be ‘good guerilla fighting country’.
Well, that comment would make sense if the Allies were preparing for a possible invasion of Western Europe by the Soviet. But to get to the point about ‘Onkels August’s’ opposition to the Nazis (he was apparently arrested and locked up in Hanover for six days at one point) it had nothing to do with being either enlightened or liberal as I had supposed. For Irmgard told me he had been an active member of Der Stahlhelm.
Hearing the name rang half a bell, but even without knowing much about the organisation at all, something told me it wasn’t a club dedicated to making jam and getting more folk interested in barbershop four-part harmony. Then I looked it up (on Wikipedia, sorry, I have vandalised the site often enough myself to take what appears there in its pages with more than a grain of salt. Der Stahlhelm, or to give it its full name Stahlhelm, der Bund der Frontsoldaten, was (and I quote from Wikipedia, which offers a succinct description was ‘one of the many paramilitary organizations that arose after the German defeat of World War I.
It was part of the ‘Black Reichswehr’ and in the late days of the Weimar Republic operated as the armed branch of the national conservative German National People's Party (DNVP), placed at party gatherings in the position of armed security guards’. In short a more right-wing equivalent of the NSDAP’s Sturmabteilung (SA), although describing it as such is not quite the smartarse comment it might appear to be, because many in the SA and the NSDAP were avowedly socialist (though they didn’t like the communists, and one of the factors which lead to the Night of the Long Knives in June/July 1934 when a great many of SA leaders were murdered was the growing disenchantment of some in the SA which felt Hitler and his NSDAP had abandoned the socialist underpinnings they favoured.
Der Stahlhelm, in the other hand, was monarchist and backed and funded by industrialists. Here’s another revealing quote from the Wikipedia entry: Although
the Stalhelm was officially a non-party entity and above party politics, after 1929 it took on an open anti-republican and anti-democratic character. Its goals were a German dictatorship, the preparation of a revanchist program, and the direction of local anti-parliamentarian action. For political reasons its members distinguished themselves from the Nazi party (NSDAP) as ‘German Fascists.
When looked it up, I discovered to my surprise the sheer number of Freikorps there were in the Weimar Republic, of which, I suppose, Der Stahlhelm might be regarded as one. Even the saintly socialist party of Germany had its Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold and the communist party, the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, had its Rotfrontkämpferbund.
So Onkel August was not who I had so far assumed he was: he was anti-Nazi for all the wrong reasons. My father’s job after World War II was to vet folk who, for example like Rudolf Augstein who found Der Spiegel, Axel Springer, the future newspaper magnate and Henri Nannen, who founded Stern, to see whether they had any kind of Nazi past. So he was surely well aware of Onkel August’s political stance and must surely have known about his previous membership of Der Stahlhelm. On the other hand he most certainly wasn’t a Nazi, and given, as I assume, my father was engaged with organising a potential resistance in West Germany among Germans should the Soviets, as was feared, invade, August Löning’s anti-communist sentiments were most certainly useful. What a strange world it is.
But it’s getting cold (this is, after all, England, and there, dear reader I must end until I next feel called upon to pontificate at length, sorry, write my next blog entry. Good night. (Lord, almost 3,000 words according to the word count. A brief 144-word Twitter synopsis will shortly be available, though there will, sadly, necessarily be no room for jokes.) Oh, and just for the craic, a picture of fishing boats in Ditzum:
And finally, again just for the craic, another piccy. The woman on the right was German, the woman on the left is one-quarter German and half-Cornish: