Thursday, 26 March 2009

A spot of poetic justice

Families are funny. They try so very hard to inculcate you with all their own beliefs – and prejudices. It’s downright Jesuitical: ‘Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man’, which itself is based on a quotation by one Francis Xavier, a Spanish missionary.

As Oscar Hammerstein II so eloquently put it in South Pacific:

    “You've got to be taught before it’s too late,
    Before you are six or seven or eight
    To hate everybody your relatives hate,
    You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

My parents had plenty of prejudices to impart. Well, particularly my father, whose personal repertoire included pretty much any group that he could think of from outside England (plus a few inside), with suitably deprecating (if unimaginative) terms for all of them. Never let it be said that he allowed his vocation as a clergyman to interfere with those prejudices. Rather, as he explained to me once about matters political, one had to take into account ‘real life’. His faith could never be allowed to permeate all areas of his existence – just those that he decided were convenient.

He also, of course, has spent years protesting that he didn’t really mean the things he said – that when actually meeting people from foreign climes (or homosexuals), he had no difficulties. That, however, has long felt like rather tawdry pleading.

But he reserved a special hatred for Germans. He’d stood on a hill near the Cornish backwater in which he grew up and watched the fires of the Blitz over his beloved Plymouth. He carried the detestation for many, many years afterwards.

When he retired in 2000, his parishioners gave him and my mother a 10-day holiday to southern Germany, with tickets for the millennium staging of the passion play at Oberammergau thrown in for good measure. He went into panic – partly at the thought of flying, but primarily because it was in Germany. Yes, I had to hear the old stuff about the war all over again and how he didn’t really want to go.

I suppose that, once you believe in the ‘sins of the fathers’, you can go on blaming people for something that they personally had no involvement in – whilst conveniently having a burst of forgetfulness over the ‘sins’ of one’s own ‘fathers’. That is how it seems to work.

In the event, they enjoyed themselves. And even, in succeeding years, returned to that general area of the world.

But his detestation had a peculiar impact on me.

Some of my first clear memories of football are of him screaming abusively at the television as England faced West (as it was then) Germany in the 1966 World Cup final (one of my first memories), and then again in the 1970 tournament. It reduced me, a young child, to tears – not least, I assume, of fear. My mother would tell him off, but to little avail.

He still rants and raves, but his powers have waned to nothing, and any aura of authority that once he had has evaporated. I watch him now and see that he is small and that he knows that his time has passed; that I have grown beyond his control and that I harbour – how shall I put this delicately – ambiguous feelings toward him.

But, perhaps strangely, his bellicosity did nothing to dissuade me from developing a personal passion for football.

And over the years, whilst I wouldn’t dare say anything, I’d watch such matches, in his presence, and silently hope that the Krauts, the Bosch, the Hun would win. I had learned to take pleasure in his bilious disappointment. Schadenfreude. How delightfully German.

In the 1970s, I took music as one of my study options at school. That in turn introduced me to Beethoven – and Haydn and Schubert and Bach and … Well, you get the gist. The music that I loved was German.

Then there was history. It was a compulsory subject, but I found it, for the most part, pretty dull. Corn Laws aren’t really very sexy. A solitary area of our two-year ‘O’ level course interested me, actually claimed my imagination: Bismarck and German unification. Goodness knows why, but it did.

Fast forward over 20 years. I was working at the Guardian, subbing an article from the paper’s German correspondent about Prussia, Potsdam and the Lange Kerls, Friedrich Wilhelm I’s 17th-century regiment of extraordinarily tall soldiers. A different period perhaps, but it reminded me of that interest in 19th-century Prussia. I went out the next day and bought a history book.

A few more such volumes have been added since. Indeed, it’s now become one of my tests of how good a bookshop is to check the history shelves and see if German history covers anything other than the years 1933-1945. Most shops fail, not least because the British (primarily the English, I think it's fair to say) remain obsessed with that period – probably because it’s the last real time we were really important on the global stage, and for once we actually managed to be unambiguously on the side of the angels.

My history reading has expanded, all the way back to the Thirty Years War and into the early 20th century, but it remains an ongoing and developing passion. Explaining it to others, The Other Half has referred to me more than once as “a romantic Prussian”.

Then I discovered foreign-language films – and shortly thereafter, silent film. I’ve got quite a nice little collection of Weimar cinema now.

And literature, of course.

Shortly before that Guardian experience, I’d been working for a company where I’d met a German colleague. Old prejudices go far deeper than we sometimes realise. I remember being astonished to discover that he had a sense of humour. Deep down, and never challenged by actually meeting any Germans until then, I had retained an unquestioning faith in the idea of the humourless Teuton.

He became my closest friend and, upon being asked, offered up various suggestions for reading. Indeed, he introduced me to Thomas Mann – although without realising quite the impact that that would have on me.

We were travelling across London one day to go shopping at a specialist Spanish deli near Notting Hill Gate, sitting atop an old Routemaster bus, when I happened to mention that I’d got a colleague called Brunhilde (amazingly, I’ve met a number of Germans since I first met him). He asked if I knew anything about the name. I didn’t. So he told me the story of Brunhilde and Siegfried and Kriemhild.

I was in my late thirties, yet nobody – absolutely nobody – had ever sat down and related a story to me like that. When he reached the climax, as Kriemhild orders the burning of the hall with all the Burgundians in it, I was utterly shattered. It was the moment at which I finally understood that the UK's soppy excuse for romanticism is not what romanticism really means.

There’s a word in the Concise Oxford Dictionary for the sum of all this (as you might fairly expect): ‘Germanophile’.

It reached an apotheosis when, a couple of years ago, I started digging around for information about my family background. Neither of my parents knows much or cares enough, it seems, to set down a family tree of even the most casual sort.

My Cornish father (with Devonian blood) is a Celt (his red hair darkened before I was born), whose only interest in his ancestors is pride in the knowledge that one was hung as a smuggler. How very Cornish.

On the other side, her mother's mother’s maiden name was ‘Ingham’. With no other information to go on and a complete lack of parental interest, I started trying to find out the origin of this unusual name.

Some time after, I discovered that it meant ‘Ing’s hold’, which didn’t leave me feeling much better informed.

It took an age (I wasn’t very good at this sort of research) to discover that ‘hold’ was ‘home’, and then that ‘Ing’ was one of a number of old Germanic names for the goddess Freya. (It’s also an old English dialect word for a water meadow, but ‘water meadow’s home’ doesn’t really make a lot of sense)

Now I’m guessing here, but it suggests to me that one strand of the family comes down from the Saxon period. It’s probably only a few drops by now, diluted many times over, but I can probably claim a bit of Germanic blood.

What I cannot do is convey to you quite the level of my amusement at this discovery. Schadenfreude, anyone?

Tickled pink, I told my parents. Oh, the horror with which this information was greeted. It was like some form of divine retribution.

Like so many other inconvenient things in our family (my authorship of a collection of erotic short stories is another perfect example), it was quickly and quietly brushed under the proverbial carpet. But I know. And I know that they know. And that they know that I know that they know.

Your parents, as Philip Larkin so eloquently put it, may “fuck you up”. But it’s nothing by comparison with the revenge that you can, so sweetly and in oh so many ways, exact in later life.


  1. heeey. germans, eh? you'd fit right in here. ;)

  2. Why thank you, Shigekuni. :-))