22 October 2016

Baden-Württemberg - Travels in Germany - 7

Dinner for One?
No laughing matter.....

An English couple have a child. After the birth, medical tests reveal that the child is normal, apart from the fact that it is German. This, however, should not be a problem. There is nothing to worry about. As the child grows older, it dresses in lederhosen and has a pudding bowl haircut, but all its basic functions develop normally. It can walk, eat, sleep, read and so on, but for some reason the German child never speaks. The concerned parents take it to the doctor, who reassures them that as the German child is perfectly developed in all other areas, there is nothing to worry about and that he is sure the speech faculty will eventually blossom. Years pass. The German child enters its teens, and still it is not speaking, though in all other respects it is fully functional. The German child's mother is especially distressed by this, but attempts to conceal her sadness. One day she makes the German child, who is now 17 years old and still silent, a bowl of tomato soup, and takes it through to him in the parlour where he is listening to a wind-up gramophone record player. Soon, the German child appears in the kitchen and suddenly declares, "Mother. This soup is a little tepid." The German child's mother is astonished. "All these years," she exclaims, "we assumed you could not speak. And yet all along it appears you could. Why? Why did you never say anything before?" "Because, mother," answers the German child, "up until now, everything has been satisfactory."

I am driving around a select part of Germany, seeking reassurance that despite all the wars, and despite our current turmoil, it may yet be possible to raise a laugh….

Stewart Lee, a small-time hero of mine and part-time intellectual, researched the German sense of humour for The Guardian in 2006, and provided the above  offering by way of a starter.

It is a curious thing that the German people have a reputation for a lack of humour, but Lee accurately pointed out that the problem lies at least partly in the language, with its rigid sentence construction which does not allow for a jokey reveal at the last moment, and which disadvantages punning with its composite nouns. 

What doesn’t quite add up is that, apparently, every New Year for over 40 years, Germans have been laughing hysterically at a black-and-white TV version of a sketch entitled Dinner for One, written in the 1920s by Laurie Wylie. It was recorded (in English) in 1962, with Freddie Frinton (who I remember used to do his drunk act as a stooge to a prim Thora Hird) as the butler and 72-year-old May Warden as 90-year-old Miss Sophie.  Since 1963, the sketch has been screened at least 231 times to German audiences, making it the most repeated show on German television, and, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most popular show in TV history. In 2004, 15.6 million Germans watched it.

You can see the sketch on YouTube, but the gist is that Miss Sophie celebrates her 90th birthday in the imagined presence of dead friends; the Butler drinks all the absent friends’ drinks, and then escorts the lady to her chamber.  The recurrent question is, "Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?" to which she replies: "Same procedure as every year, James."

And therein lies a clue.  History. In an extract from Keeping Up With The Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters, published in The Observer in 2012, Philip Oltermann wrote that By the time I moved to Britain, there was a commonly expressed view in the German press that England was a country tragically stuck in the past, obsessed with its glorious role in the second world war, unable to shake a German's hand without making some daft joke about the Nazis – all true, to an extent, just not the whole truth. In many ways, one British comedy had already come up with a much more convincing explanation for this. John Cleese's Basil Fawlty desperately tries to be serious when he meets his German guests at Fawlty Towers, yet he cannot stop himself from reverting to the English instinct of black-humoured wordplay: "That's two egg mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Herman Göring and four Colditz salads." Basil Fawlty reminds us that postwar Anglo-German relations weren't just complicated by changing economic fortunes and a rapidly unfolding European project, but also by increasingly divergent ideas of what humour could and should do…..

Should we be laughing today?  Should we be backslapping our German friends despite our loss in the Brexit war?  Or are the Germans laughing at us, with our backward ways?

So, in short, I recently visited some of the southern parts of Germany, including Tübingen, which, according to its own website: lives from the complementary interaction of the old town, the university and the civil community, that Tübingen lives between professors and wine growers, and gains its peculiar attraction and its unsurpassable "genius loci". Still, today Tübingen is…. an "Athens on the Neckar". Tübingen is the small big city, "the place for which one is vainlessly in search on earth."  It is also where Joseph Ratzinger (later, for a while, Pope Benedict XVI) fell out with colleagues and undisciplined students in the late ‘60s, but we won’t go into that. It is certainly a fine place, with a colourful punt-filled riverside, delicate washed timber framed houses, and hip-hop filled beer halls. 

Perhaps typically for a town where about a quarter of the residents are students, it is quiet in the morning.  A street violinist plays the love theme from The Godfather

and wooden burghers pray silently in the Stiftskirche St Georg

I don’t get a strong sense of humour from the damp cobbles of the Markt, but the Altstadt seems happy enough.

After Tübingen I attempt to scale the tallest church steeple in the world, that of Ulm Münster, which is 161.6m tall.  

I have to admit that at about 135 metres, feeling that I had had enough steps and vertiginous open stone work for one day, I decided to paraglide back down the narrow spirals to prefer the 15th century wooden congregation 

and stony statue of Bach below in the quiet gloom. 

But then Fränkische Bratwurst mit Senf in the lively market brings a smile to my lips, as does a bottle of Erdinger Weißbier Dunkel in a beamed Weinstube, where conversation with a generous lady sipping Riesling from a half pint jug turns on the calamitous nature of English beer…..  Is that a joke?

Tübingen survived the second world war almost unscathed because it had no industry.  Much of Ulm, however, was destroyed by bombing in 1944, and many of the places we visit on this trip were subject to all kinds of violence and destruction during the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) which may have caused as many as eight millions casualties (three quarters of the population of Württemberg died during this conflict).  The war was essentially between the Protestant Union and the Catholic League, though it also involved Spain, France, Bohemia, Sweden, Denmark, England and the Netherlands, and it raged all over what is now this part of Germany.  Not much to laugh about there.

But then, as they say, shit happens.  On the road from Ulm to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, we veer into Northern Bavaria and pass the Nördlingen Ries, a 25 km wide meteorite crater, where Apollo 16 astronauts trained.  This was caused slightly before the thirty years war, and was not, as I first thought, divine intervention to resolve the crisis on behalf of the Calvinists.  This particular meteorite had a diameter of about 1.5 kilometres and it  impacted the target area at a velocity of about 20 km/s (45,000 mph). The resulting explosion had the power of 1.8 million Hiroshima bombs. Not much to laugh about there either…..

We then admire Dinkelsbühl, where the moat and walls seem to have survived all conflicts,  and where Tessie Bear drives Noddy round and round the cobbled streets vainly trying to find a parking space.

Then we breech the traffic laws to enter Rothenburg, passing the bus park and narrowly avoiding having the car crushed by the press of mondial visitors…..  

It’s no joke!  I thought that, during the school holidays, off the beaten track, there would be hardly anyone here!  But, despite the Wars and the Meteorites, the place is packed…..

Rothenburg was badly affected by both the Peasants’ War of 1525 and the Thirty Years War - so much so that it slipped into insignificance and so was preserved by ignorance. 

It was then pulverised in 1945 by allied aerial bombardment.  But, miraculously, a spirit survived, and the town has re-emerged, phoenix-like, from the dust.  We stay at the rather fine Hotel Eisenhut on the uniquely preserved Herrngasse, and dine at the warmly welcoming Weinhaus Zum Pulverer

where a smiling hostess serves us cheese soup in an edible bowl made of bread, and we learn what a Bembel is – twice!  I begin to laugh….

In the morning, thick mists shroud the valley and swirl up above the walls and towers.  

The sun burns like a cigarette through the silky vapours and gradually the scene clears.  

Across the cobbles a cohort of good protestants step briskly to take up their positions in the choir of St Jakobs Kirche

while outside the Rathaus a number of peasant types prepare to blow their bagpipes and squeeze their wolf skins to amuse the day-trippers….  

It is interesting to note the different factions here, even in such a short stay.  No obvious antagonism, but a simple divergence of preference.  Nothing to be alarmed about.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  Nothing to laugh at either…..

We make our way across country, through the Odenwald, to Heidelberg.  On the way we happen on the Bikers’ Café, 

where, being Sunday, every biker with more than 500cc of nickel chrome, oil and rubber within 100kms is necking Bitburger Pils and inserting French fries into its beard, but, despite an EasyRider frisson with our hostesses, we survive, to arrive in Heidelberg before it, whatever, is too late.  Almost nothing to laugh about….

Heidelberg, according to its official website, is a cosmopolitan city and has a real culture of welcome and acceptance. Even though the city’s population is becoming more diverse all the time, people feel at home here.  

And it’s true.  It would seem that most of the world has moved here, to live in the epitome of romantic ruins, the semi-derelict Schloss

where in the late seventeenth century French explosives split seven metre thick walls and left whole sections of towers forever lurching into the ditch, which so moved Mark Twain that he wrote of it as deserted, discrowned, beaten by storms, but royal still, and beautiful.  

The castle was at one time the palace of Frederick V, the Winter King, who built the Elisabenthor in 1615 as a present for his young wife, the daughter of James I.  Only a few years later, however, calling himself King of Bohemia at the age of 24, he enraged the mighty Hapsburgs, and lost all his titles, and the Thirty Years War kicked off.  Not a lot to laugh about…..

Despite the impress of visitors and students, crowding the funicular and swelling across the Alte Brücke, the city quietens at night, and we are well looked after in both the Hotel Weisser Bock and the Heidelberger Kulturbrauerei, where Hausgemachte Bratensülze with Remouladensauce, Bratkartoffeln und Salat goes extremely well with their home-brewed Oktoberfest beer….  Something to make you smile….

Henning Wehn, regular representative of Germany on Radio 4, attempts to explain German humour in his own way:  Having performed up and down the UK, I know for a fact that there is a severe lack of yodelling, gnome-juggling, wurst-eating, thigh-slapping and rabbit-in-and-out-of-a-hat routines – the foundations of good entertainment. Hence I have teamed up with Berlin-based German TV entertainer Otto Kuhnle, who is an expert in all those fields. The quality of his set-pieces varies between precise and very precise. Between us we have 87,687 minutes of stage time and can draw on years of experience in intercultural field studies. Herr Kuhnle and I developed ‘A Beginner’s Guide to German Humour’ especially for British audiences. In order to impress them, we add stereotypical props such as lederhosen (short leather trousers), Maßkrug (beer stein) and Gartenzwerge (garden gnomes) to our repertoire.

The show is based on the six iron regeln of the Fatherland’s hilarity bible ‘Lachen, Lachen, Lachen’ (‘Laugh, Laugh, Laugh’).

Regel 1) Be arrogant.
This is why Germans like Australians. It’s just their attempts of coming across as jovial that isn’t consistent with German humour.

Regel 2) No self-deprecation.
How can trying to laugh off failure be regarded as a positive character trait? Nobody deserves to stay in their job simply because they tell the tale of their underachievement in an entertaining way.

Regel 3) Never ever laugh with failure.
Only ever laugh at failure. For example: Stuart Pearce 1990, Gareth Southgate 1996 and Paul Robinson 2007. You get the gist.

Regel 4) Don’t mention the war.
Because we lost. Admittedly we were the moral winners, but merely winning the sympathy vote simply isn’t good enough. We’re not Scottish.

Regel 5) Physical humour is best.
Vorsprung durch slapstick. An old codger falling over or getting a cake in the face is always funny. Even during a famine.

Regel 6) Stand-up comedy is pointless.
The best-case scenario is leaving the stage after plenty of hard work to the same level of applause to which you were initially brought on to the stage. Excitement can only be lost. What a waste of time.

Aren’t all these regeln refreshingly common sense? Definitely a lot more than that mantra of British wit: ‘laughing about everything indicates a great sense of humour’. It doesn’t. It indicates mental illness. Hence, be sane and join Herr Kuhnle and my laughter revolution. You will visit us or we will visit you. Auf Wiedersehen!

This brief tour of Baden-Württemberg has been a delight, even though in seven hundred kilometres I haven’t heard a single joke.  Apparently the rest of Germany characterises the Swabians as hard-working, frugal and rather boring.  Maybe, but I have also found them to be kind and hospitable.  There may not have been a great deal of laughter, but there was plenty of smiling, warmth and welcome.  

In fact, I almost felt that our hosts were sorry for us, in a small way, and that takes me back to Dinner for One.  I suspect that the real reason the Germans love this particular curiosity is that the joke is on us.  We now sit alone at our table with places set for absent guests. The procedure in all its pomp is the same as it ever was, but no one else is present.  I can just see a white haired, stork-like Theresa May sitting at the head of her table, toasting in turn the empty places of Angela Merkel, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and François Hollande while David Davis, in white tie and tails, trips over the tiger-skin rug and spills the lemonade. You've just got to laugh....

In our imaginations all will always be the same; but from the outside looking in, it is a very comic, though somewhat sad, spectacle. The Germans have a very good sense of humour, but the laugh is on us…..

To twist Bertolt Brecht’s epigraph to his poem Deutschland:

Mögen Andere von ihrer Schande sprechen,
Ich spreche von der meinen

Let others speak of her shame
I speak of my own.

Or, to put it another way:

Up until now, everything has been satisfactory

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