Thursday, May 31, 2018

Weddings, spies, dads who might or might not have been spies, lunch with aunts, dancing in the moonlight (although there wasn’t any in fact on the night) - it’s all too, too much. (Part One - The Teaser)

Back from a very pleasant few days at my sister’s in the far North-West of Germany (as in ‘pretty far North’ but ‘very far West’ - you couldn’t get closer to The Netherlands without getting very wet wading through a stretch of water called Dollard which is also the estuary of the River Ems/Emse). I was there for my niece/goddaughter’s wedding and the baptism of her second child, Klara. Booze, as always, flowed freely, though that is not to say it was some kind of bacchanalia, with many folk getting rat-arsed and some even disgracing themselves, just a steady flow of whatever you wanted and then some.

Flew there eight days ago from Heathrow after visiting a friend in Eastbourne (and being rather taken with the town and local countryside) and would liked to have stayed longer in Germany, but I had arranged to be back at Heathrow airport at around 3pm last Monday to meet my son who was returning from six weeks in Central America to drive down home together. As far as his little trip is concerned - he only turned 19 three days before he returned - he told me all kind of stories, and I asked him not to repeat some to his mother. She is something of a control freak and clingy to boot, and his accounts would have so scared the shit out of her that she would never have allowed him out of her sight again.

That, of course, would have been impossible, especially as he is due to start a university course at John Moore’s University in Liverpool in September, so simply keeping schtumm about this, that and t’other seems the most practical solution.

. . .

There were two events which marked my stay a little. One was looking up a distantly related aunt, Helma B. and the other was a spontaneous dance-about with my nephew and his girlfriend and their friends in the fields beyond my sister’s farm which began at about 2.30am and ended at about 4.30am, though I stayed up, saw the sun rise, chatted for many hours to one of my niece’s schoolfriends, and then finally hit the sack at about 9.30am. (I woke and got up at 2pm and felt like death).

At the dance-about - I can’t think what else to call it - I played the music from tracks on my iPhone (not Mahler, Beethoven, Berg, Bach, jazz or The Boswell Sisters, none of which would quite have had the club oomph demanded by the dancers) and one of the guys there just happened to have a small but powerful bluetooth speaker with him, why I really don’t know. As the seven were, apart from my niece’s younger brother, all her and her husband’s friends, I don’t believe any were over 30 and one or two might even have been under 25. I, of course, am neither.

What I especially like was that our dancing into the dawn - literally - simply came about and was spontaneous. You couldn’t plan anything like that. Outside on one of the many grass areas around the barn wedding guests, many with young children between two and seven years old, had set up their caravans and tents and close by was a roaring fire around which ‘the young ones’ had been sitting with a guitar or two singing songs. Not my scene, so I was inside sitting around a table with 12 of the older generation (as quite possibly one of the oldest of the older generation) having a laugh, having a drink, chewing the fat and generally enjoying life.

We had started the reception with Kölsch und Häppchen (nibbles). This was then followed by Sekt and at the meal we had red or white wine, and on it went, with the parents of young children taking off to put them to bed and I and the 12 others sitting round that table. I mention the booze because at some point when I was off somewhere, my brother-in-law poured everyone a stiff gin and tonic, each glass followed by another. Me, I stuck to wine, and although I was round when the gin was on offer, I wouldn’t have had one: I’ve had far, far too many bad, unpleasant hangovers in my time to ever want another.

At some point I wandered out to the fire, saw that das Volksliedsingen was still in full force and returned. I am hazy on the details - despite my disclaimer about not taking the gin on offer, I wasn’t exactly sober - but in the meantime all the other old farts had pissed off somewhere, presumably to bed. A little while later, I wandered out again to find the young group reduced to seven and doing very little. That’s when I took out my iPhone and struck up, for a starter, with Innocent by Alexander O’Neal. Give it a listen:

Innocent - Alexander O’Neal

At some point the bluetooth speaker appeared and the music got louder. A young mother emerged from one of the caravans and asked us to turn it down - I’m sure she really meant ‘off’. The group was about to break up when I occurred to me we could easily carry on simply by moving away into a field, so we all walked, or rather danced, our way several hundred yards up a path and carried on. And on, and on and on. It was full daylight, though the sun

hadn’t yet come up, when everyone seemed to decide they were getting rather tired, so we drifted back to the farmhouse, where I decided I wasn’t all that tired and could do with another glass of wine and a cigar.

In time I was joined by a schoolfriend of my niece, a very interesting chap, chalk to my cheese, who was - is - completing an engineering Phd at Cambridge but who is obviously far more interested in following a philosophy degree course, and in that very German way (and undoubtedly also Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, French and Dutch way, so let’s just settle on European) ‘wir haben diskutiert’, though at this juncture I would only be vaguely able to recall the broad outline of what we were talking about. I was urging him - to be blunt he was young enough to be my son or even grandson - to stick to engineering as a day job and take a philosophy course on the side, urging him not to let slip through his fingers the young woman he is so obviously keen on, and I don’t know what else.

Finally, one glass of wine too many, we decided to call it a night. I went to make myself a mug of coffee in a kitchen already full of sisters, nieces and great-nephews and nieces - it was, after all 9am - and discovering there was no sugar, I announced I was off to Holland to buy some more at the supermarket in Bad Nieuweschans (by half a kilometer closer than those in Bunde, but they wouldn’t have been open on a Sunday morning). At that point my sister asked me to hand over my car keys, and to my credit I did so without a peep. So I couldn’t have been that drunk.

. . .

More interesting was a lunch I had with Helma B. She is nominally an aunt in that generations ago her family and my mother’s family (which then lived in the same town as Helma, Papenburg) intermarried. But in that neck of the woods (and in many other German necks of the wood) Verwandschaft is loose and but pretty much always celebrated - the Germans, or at least the ones I know, are nothing if not sociable. So when I first met her, in about 1961, I was ten and she was 29.

Her father - who will play a central role in the rest of this entry and who I have mentioned before - one August Löning, owned and with his wife Johanna ran a draper’s in the small - then smaller - Emsland village of Lathen. He also owned what was known as das alte Wehrhaus. That was nothing to do with Wehr as in ‘force’ but as in a ‘weir’ across a river in this case the River Ems. It was where, in the 19th and early 20th century the Wehrmeister lived, the man who worked the weir. Latterly, a new weir had been built further down the river and the Wehrhaus was used as a weekend retreat by his extended family and, in this case, my father and his family.

My father and mother and my sister, then about five and my younger brother, then just over one, spent a few weeks there during the summer of 1961, and I was farmed out to stay with Helma - then ‘Tante Helma’ - and my older brother with the family of her brother-in-law Josef Meyer, who owned the Meyer-Werft, then a large shipyard and now considerably larger. Mind, in those days I knew nothing of wealth and to be fair the people in that neck of the woods, das Emsland and Ostfriesland, are very down to earth and egalitarian. It’s one of the things I like about them. But that is all just background.

In a previous entry, one about a very short trip I made to Freiburg in October 2010 for the 65th birthday of my cousin Paul Meyer, Josef’s oldest son, I mentioned how I was rather bemused when Paul, jocularly, referred to my father as der Spion (the spy). I had over the years gradually come to know that my father had, in some obscure ways or another and in his words ‘helped out’ with the British security service, more usually known as MI6, but as far as I was concerned he was first and foremost a BBC journalist. As he and I grew older, I obliquely questioned him about what had done, but it never went beyond ‘helping out a little’. And that, as far as I was concerned, was that. He had ‘helped out’. That’s what he told me and that is what was the case. But chatting to Helma over our lunch last Friday, she told me something which cast a completely new light on it all, and then some.

NB A friend who reads this blog and who I saw and stayed with in Eastbourne the evening before I flew out to Amsterdam and then travelled on to Germany for the wedding, let slip that my blog entries are ‘too long’. Well, perhaps they are, but I take the view that no one is in the slightest bit obliged to read my ramblings and can quit at any time they like if they get bored halfway through. So you are warned, because this one, this entry and because of this, the second half to it, has quite some distance to go. I suppose I could always, a la a fucking gogglebox drama series, throw in a few teasers to keep you hooked - of if not ‘hooked’ at least keep you reading - but I’m buggered if I’m going to do that. Sorry (though not really, I’m just being polite in the way we middle-class, public-school educated twats were brought up to be, an upbringing furthermore which is not to be disparaged: I can spot an antique sherry glass at 50 paces. Can you? No, thought not). Where was I?

. . .

My father had always been interested, if not even obsessed, with the military, and although he didn’t become a professional soldier like my Uncle Pat (latterly just ‘Pat’, after whom I was named and with whom I seemed to have so much more in common than with my father that we always got on very well), he joined up after taking a ‘wartime’ degree at Kings College, Cambridge, at sometime halfway through the war. He enlisted with (he told me once) The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry and took part in D Day, when he - born on March 21, 1923 - was only 21. He received a ‘field commission’ and, I seem to remember he told me, at one point he was the youngest captain in the British Army.

He was always very gifted at languages and soon he was transferred to the Intelligence Corp, tasked with interrogating captured German soldiers. A little later he was attached to the French forces - he spoke German and French - and at some point was involved in a motorbike accident and at another received a piece of shrapnel in his cheek which was never removed. But that is all by the by.

When the war ended, my father, like all other students who had taken a two-year wartime degree, was offered the chance to return to university for a third year to complete his course. He didn’t bother, so he didn’t actually have a proper degree and when I graduated (something of a fluke as I pointed out in a more recent post) I was the first Powell to get a degree. (My older brother had, by this time, already succumbed to the various mental troubles he suffered from all his life and, he told me, didn’t write a word in his finals. He just sat there for three hours each time. And he was ten times as bright of me.) Instead, in about 1946, he joined the ‘British Military Government of Germany’.

His job at first was to ‘mingle with the population and sniff out Nazis (and the socialising that involved - he was always a sociable man, which is why he was so attracted to Germany led him to meet one Elfriede Hinrichs, later my mother, in Osnabrück). Later he was employed on some British Military Government press commission, helping to sort out who might be ein tadelloser Nicht-Nazi (or something) and could granted a licence to set up a newspaper or magazine to operate in the British occupied zone.

The British, unlike the Americans who were intent on destroying Germany from now until kingdom come, took the view - the immensely sane and enlightened view - that if we wanted prolonged peace in Europe, a properly functioning and democratic German state under the rule of law was quintessential. How right they were, and so, for example, the old Volkswagen works was speedily revived by one Ivan Hirst, a Yorkshireman (thank goodness for Wikipedia) who saw the potential of the company, helped to re-establish it and thus helped to lay they foundations of the future West Germany.

. . .

I have now glanced below to the foot my screen and Bean, the word processor I am using to write this, tells me I am quite close to having written 2,600 words. Well, maybe I should heed the advice of Barry Mc. and not push my luck as much as I intended and end this blog entry here. But there will be a Second Part, which will - God willing - get to the point of the second half of this entry. So with that in mind here are a few teasers. I mean, shit, I’ve got to get you guys and gals coming back, surely to goodness.
  • Working for the BBC’s Caversham ‘monitoring service’, was my father really simply just another BBC drone working night shifts because the money was better or . . .
  • Those trips to Germany: was it my father who went there to see August Löning as Helma recalls - she says she first met him in 1956, but we didn’t move to Berlin until 1959 - or was it someone else as her now dead sister Irmgard told me?
  • The ‘anti-Nazi’ August Löning was not quite the liberal hero I thought he was until my chat with Irmgard, but an enthusiastic member of Der Stahlhelm, a far-right rival to the NSDAP. So why was he
    a founder member of the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU)? And what was this West German government in exile he, my father and - obviously - many others were setting up?
  • Why exactly was there a radio transmitter at Das Wehrhaus, operated (Helma tells me) by Heinrich, her brother and August’s oldest son?
  • Why did my father, a life-long anti-communist who later described himself to me as a ‘right-wing radical’ (whatever that means), campaign for the Liberal Party in the 1951 General Election? Youthful idealism or . . .
This and more will be looked at in the Second Instalment of This Blog. Tune in . . .

Not much any more to do with my niece’s wedding but, well, what the hell. Oh, and by the way, with the last word of this entry, it has now reached 2,925 words, as close to 3,000 as is barely decent. That’s as many as your going to get this side of Britain Has Talent - The REAL Story or The Kardashians Unveiled! Sorry (well, once again, not really). I could, of course, blether on to make it the full 3,000, but, well, what the hell. Let’s stick to 2,925.

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