Sunday, 13 May 2012

Keeping Up with the Germans

Subtitled “A History of Anglo-German Encounters”, Philip Oltermann’s Keeping Up with the Germans is a collection of encounters and near-misses between “the British” and “the German”, intermingled with a certain amount of autobiographical reflection. We learn about Kevin Keegan and Berti Vogts tackling each other on a football pitch and shaking hands later, Theodor Adorno not pleasing English philosopher A.J. Ayer, Heinrich Heine not approving of radical publisher William Cobbet, Margaret Thatcher not liking Helmut Kohl, and other examples of hackles raised including the VW Beetle overtaking the Mini. Which is one reason why I wrote “the German” rather than “the Germans”, incidentally.

Yet what would have worked well as a popular history of Anglo-German relations is overburdened by Oltermann’s attempts to categorize and define the nature of Britishness and Germanness – a feat which, I would argue, is not only impossible but also unhelpful.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a great read, however. Oltermann, who I met briefly in Berlin not long ago, moved to London at the age of 16 in 1996 – incidentally the same time I moved from London to Berlin (although I was older, needless to say). Endearingly, his parents didn’t take him to some hip part of town but to somewhere on the south-western margins. I say this because recently all the Germans I meet who’ve stayed in London for a while have lived in Dalston and Bethnal Green. Before that it was Stoke Newington and before that it was Camden. Nobody seems to want to live in the endless suburbs where I come from; I can’t imagine why.

The historical encounters are accompanied by an entertaining narrative on young Philip’s attempts to fit in by imitating the boys around him. We follow his faux pas and surprise footballing and academic successes, which are cleverly related to the less banal historical anecdotes and (unfortunately for my taste) used to make generalizations. Thus the chapter on Christopher Isherwood and Marlene Dietrich tackles differences in attitudes to sex. That shocking moment for all pre-internet-era British teenagers lucky enough to come across a copy of German teen magazine Bravo – there are naked photos in it! – is used in a roundabout way to illustrate Oltermann’s theory that segregating the sexes at school age just makes them all the more fascinated by each other. Well, no surprises there; my teenage memories would corroborate that theory. But to then offer this teenage obsession as grounds that there are, “to my knowledge, no other people on this planet who are so passionately and privately devoted to exploring the wondrous connectivities of the male and female organs” is surely over-stating his case, based as it is purely on his own experience.

There are many things that ring true, raising mental cries of “Oh yes” and “On no!” Oltermann observes false modesty and a propensity for gambling in the British, a love of slapstick humour in the Germans and a shared passion for football – which becomes a nifty leitmotif after a while. I thought he was spot on with his analyses of how the British and the Germans tend to see each other and the toxic influence of World War II on the British attitude rather than the Germans’. Yet by repeatedly contrasting individuals and returning to himself he narrows the focus too much to make so many inadvisable generalizations.

One stand-out example is the chapter on politics, comparing ex-RAF terrorist Astrid Proll to Joe Strummer. The “encounter” in question occurred when Proll went to a Rock against Racism gig in 1978, where Joe Strummer (of The Clash, but you knew that, right?) was sporting a T-shirt with the name of her terrorist organization on it. You can see it in this video, with lots and lots of swearing so maybe don’t watch it at work. Thus the German left is presented via the RAF as wanting to take on the whole system with “ruthless efficiency”, whereas the British left is seen to be a bunch of inconsequential single-issue posers. I certainly don’t share Oltermann’s analysis of Rock against Racism as flirting with the right – the involvement of streetpunk band Sham 69 was their belated attempt to position themselves after tolerating fascists in their audiences for too long, not a sign of political inconsequence on the part of the organizers, and the Clash’s “White Riot” is more complex than he gives it credit for.

Aside from the fact that the Proll-Strummer comparison doesn’t tally up in the slightest, the book wastes a fantastic opportunity to investigate class in Britain and Germany. Joe Strummer, for God’s sake! The son of a diplomat who became a proto-punk! And Astrid Proll, daughter of an architect who blew up buildings (kinda). Think of all the fun you could get out of that. On the whole, Oltermann is really rather evasive about class, particularly when it comes to himself. It’s such an important issue in Britain, as Kate Fox points out in her similar attempt to sum up the English using social anthropology and self-experimentation, Watching the English. And while it’s not that he never mentions it, class remains mainly under the surface. I found myself having to guess at it – hmm, he went to a boys’ school, surely that must have been private… and then Oxford… And that felt rather intrusive of me but I’m afraid it couldn’t be helped. There is the odd nod to the issue, like in the epilogue on Unity Mitford’s friendship with Hitler (which fails to mention Oswald Mosley), but sadly very little indeed on class in Germany other than an interesting excursus into the concept of the Bildungsbürger.

I feel it’s time to state the obvious: Britain and Germany are two different countries with two different histories. The people who live there are different. But they’re also very similar, no matter how they may see it themselves – and of course they’re incredibly diverse within their respective sub-sets of humanity. I feel that Oltermann’s approach means he loses sight of this diversity, although he does mention German multiculturalism in his final chapter. I can see the temptation to try and define national characters – it’s terribly prevalent among ex-pats, all that fun with “German toilets are like this so the Germans must have this particular hang-up, the British like Marmite so they must think in this particular way.” But over the years I’ve found it very restrictive. Rather like in current debates on post-identity politics reflected in Olga Grjasnowa’s novel Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt and a new anthology edited by Nicol Ljubic, Schluss mit der Deutschenfeindlichkeit, I’d rather be seen as Katy than as English Katy. And while Oltermann finds it unpleasant to be known at university as German Phil, that doesn’t seem to stop him from trying to define “the German spirit”. And although he isn’t in the least bit prescriptive, that can only ever be a conservative project – also in that it can only ever capture what has been in the past and not what is – if ever there was one.

But – and this is a big but – what Oltermann does very well indeed is explaining German culture to British readers. The book is impeccably researched on the basis of interviews and archive material, with a list of sources and an index. It’s intelligently written with subtle humour, my loudest laugh-out-loud moment coming when he described Liverpool football fans as feeling “at ease with continental ways, their cosmopolitan side expressing itself in the Italian-inspired dress of ‘casual’ fashion and the daring avant-garde modernism of the bubble perm.” If you live in Germany and have problems explaining things to your family back home the book would make an excellent gift. The author’s actually translating it for German publication, but as he pointed out he’s changing it heavily as he goes along because quite a lot of the explanations will be absolutely superfluous for a German readership. So expect a very different book in German.

1 comment:

Jakob said...

Thanks for this wonderful post and your precise distinctions. However, the title "Keeping up with the Germany" reminded me of a short story of a German author I read a couple of weeks ago. He writes about an English author named B.S. Johnson. It's some kind of experimental piece of prose called "Keeping up with the Johnsons" and - because you may not know it - I feel free to link the English and the German version of the text.

I'm looking forward for the German translation of Olterman's book, but I'll read his english one first. It will be very interesting to see the differances of the two books. I think, that also will tell me a lot about the English and Germans and their mutual perception.