She was an Oxbridge undergraduate in the 1950s and part of the pleasure in receiving her letters is in savouring the diction and idiom that fill them. Her stories are full of people who don’t avoid booze, but “forswear” it, and travellers who bought “boat tickets”.
There’s a brevity to her writing which mirrors her personality. In person, she is direct to the point of being peremptory. She epitomises a generation who didn’t – and still don’t – lace their conversation with euphemisms or comforting circumlocutions. What, I wonder, must she make of the snowflakes. With their upswings that turn every statement into an inclusive question? And their reported reluctance to send text messages which include full-stops – lest they sound excessively blunt.
More Britons know the name of a senator in Georgia (the state, not the state in the Caucasus), than do the name of the German president.
My friend spent several years lecturing at a West German university. That must’ve been quite a formative experience. Was she drawn there in the 1960s because it answered a need in her to be part of a plain-speaking culture? Or, did she grow bluffer once she got there? Perhaps it made no difference, and she’s just the way she is for all the myriad reasons that make us who we become. But one thing’s for certain: she remains an admirer of German culture and feels that Britain has much to learn from the land she once called home.
In that spirit, she recently sent me a book published last year entitled Why the Germans Do It Better. It’s written by the journalist John Kampfner, who I’ve interviewed several times over the years in my job as a presenter for a news channel.
As his name suggests, Kampfner is of mixed Anglo-German heritage. And, as the book’s title suggests, Kampfner thinks Germany provides a superior model for societal organisation. Is he right? Who knows? But one particular verity emerges as the book unfolds. At least it did for me. And that is how ignorant many Britons are of their nearest European neighbours. How, for instance, Germans run their lives; their recent political history; how they seek to resolve their cultural conflicts; even how they keep their homes warm.
Kampfner relates the simple story of a journalist friend, German, but based in London. “She wanted to replace the draughty windows of her London home with proper German Kippfenster, ones that can swing open horizontally or vertically, depending on how you turn the handle. She couldn’t find British workers who could do it to the quality that she wanted, so she imported some.”
So far, so trivial. But Kampfner points to an interview that turns a story of windows into a symbol that helps us understand what makes Germans tick. He cites an interview given by Chancellor Angela Merkel in which she was asked what emotions Germany aroused in her. “She replied, ‘I am thinking of airtight windows. No other country can build such airtight and beautiful windows.’ Kampfner goes on: “This was about more than buildings. It is a metaphor for constructing a country, a society, where reliability is the most prized asset.”
[We have] a blinkered mindset that cuts off continental Europe behind a wall of unknown unknowns.
The book is full of these gems. And the more I read it, the more I felt my ignorance grow. It hadn’t always been this way. In the early naughties I spent some time reporting from Germany, not least covering the rise and subsequent re-election of Germany’s answer to Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroder. What I didn’t know was what had become of Schroder since. His closeness to Vladimir Putin. His willingness to defend the actions of Russia and his financial dealings with the Russian energy sector.
Of course, you may know all about this. You may have a strong sense of how re-unification changed Germany. Or how some Ossis are increasingly nostalgic for the old East Germany and their revulsion for those they call Besserwessi, know-it-alls from the former West Germany who they stereotype as noisy, materialistic, superficial and supercilious.
But I didn’t. And I’m not alone. More importantly, the book underlined a sense that’s been growing in my mind for years. An awkwardness about Britain’s cultural orientation towards America and away from continental Europe. A cultural posture that borders on an obsession. That means more Britons know the name of a senator in Georgia (the state, not the state in the Caucasus), than do the name of the German president. A blinkered mindset that cuts off continental Europe behind a wall of unknown unknowns.
Perhaps you can think of your own examples. Here’s another of mine. A few months ago I read about soaring handgun sales in France. Many were being bought by women who felt threatened following a recent wave of Islamist terror attacks. It was the sort of story that, had it happened in the USA, would’ve sparked media debate. There’s a strong possibility it would’ve prompted radio phone-ins. Perhaps you’ve listened to the sort of thing I mean. The shows where callers rant about the need to change gun laws – as if they have a vote in a country which, at its nearest point, is 4,255 miles away from the UK.
For the record, I adore America. I’ve worked in Washington and, had life turned out differently, would’ve been quite happy making my life as an immigrant there. This is not about reflexive anti-Americanism, which I abhor. It’s simply to observe, as Kampfner reminds us, that by gazing so fixedly westwards – we allow our nearer neighbours to lie, unexamined, in lengthening eastern shadows.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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