Friday, June 09, 2006


Our Friends The Germans

The other week, there was an enormous article by a man named Richard Johnson in the Sunday Times Magazine about basically, whether or not we should take the piss out of German people, and also quite a bit of stuff about the state of Anglo-German affairs. Since the article is far too long for me to go through with a fine toothcomb, I should like to address a couple of issues it raises.

Firstly, our most invincible stereotype about the Germans - that they have no sense of humour. This gives me the chance to reveal to you something I've been working on:

Steve's Iron Law Of Stereotypes

'All stereotypes contain a grain of partially-reasonable summation inside an awful lot of nonsense.'

If we examine some traditional stereotypes that we hold, and that others hold about us, then you may see what I mean. So, for instance, the Spanish are traditionally stereotyped as lazy. Why? I guess beacuse they start work later in the morning and doze off in the afternoon, but they also carry on going late into the night, and anyway, this is the only reasonable reaction to the climate.

We see Americans as being fat, and quite often as being greedy. In noting that America has a higher proportion of obese people than most European countries, we are correct, but the reason for this is not so much greed as that in America life is cheap and its fruits plentiful. That a large percentage of its population can afford to live comfortably is hardly a bad thing.

We stereotype the French as arrogant, and, to be fair, sometimes they are, although its worth noting that French people in general have become very good at trading ironically on this image. And if they are, why shouldn't they be? France has produced a weight of philosophical thought far out of proportion to its population, and any number of great artists, essayists and film-makers. French culture is an embarrassment of riches; why shouldn't they be proud of it?

What of us? Well, I suspect most people see the British as prudes. After spending the last six months reading Victorian novels, where sex is carefully consigned to the gaps between chapters, I can see why. In 'Jude The Obscure', for instance, Hardy continually negatively contrasts the carnal, fleshy Arabella with Jude's mostly intellectual attraction to Sue Bridehead. Indeed, though Sue bears children with Jude, the actual process by which this is achieved is so studiously avoided that you begin to suspect that Hardy might have preferred it if she could have had an immaculate conception.

Yet what a contrast to today. People talk about sex most of the time. People read about sex much of the time. People buy videos depicting sex frequently. And when people have sex, they discuss it afterwards, with each other, with their friends, with the world. A Channel 4 TV series shows films real couples having sex and employs experts to tell them how to enjoy it more. The agony aunt of the nations most widely-read newspaper suggests starting sex education as early as possible, and I agree with her. Queen Victoria famously told her daughter to 'lie back and think of England'. These days, she'd be giving her son-in-law tips on how better to satisfy her.

So, what of the Germans? It's hard to work out at exactly what point in history our conception of Germans as humourless began. Probably it has its roots in Germany's lack of a stand-up comedy culture. That's certainly the direction Richard Johnson takes:

'Germans know the problem with German humour. They make fun of it in their adverts. In one, a young blond man walks on stage at a dimly lit comedy club. He walks up to the microphone and says in a dull German accent: “Good evening, ladies and gents, I just flew in from Berlin. And, boy, are my arms tired.” Silence. He flaps his arms like a bird. More silence. As he prepares to continue, the voice-over intervenes, sparing the audience any more routine. “Germans don’t do comedy,” says the voice-over. “They do beer.” It was an advert for Beck’s.'

Still, this is far more likely to be a cultural difference than a humour one. Germany has no history of stand-up comedy. It does have a history of cabaret, and of communal drinking. Unlike Britain, where drinking is becoming increasingly Sovietised - buy lots, take it into a corner and drink it on your own or in a small group - drinking in Germany has always been communal, and much better for it it is too. If you go to a bier keller in Munich, you won't find individual tables, but long tressle benches, and those sat there are just as likely to be cheerily singing the 'Horst Wessel Lied' as they are to be sat there moodily without talking.

Of course, time and internationalisation has brought familiarity. In Manchester, there is a place called the 'Bier Keller', which has the traditional long wooden benches. Familiarity, however, can't necessarily change habits - the only night people I know go there is Wednesday night when they clear the benches to the side of the room, and have a very popular electro night with great music and cheap drinks.

There has been the usual squawking protest from the Comment pages of The Guardian as to how English people flying English flags before the World Cup shows how nationalistic, racist and xenophobic we are. In reality, English football fans don't object to modern Germany, which is much the same as modern Britain but with cheaper beer, better scenery and signs in a funny language. Indeed, I would go so far as to guess that most will be impressed by the quality of the stadia, the friendliness of the people, the cleanliness of the streets and any number of other civic virtues. Instead, as our chants reveal, we mock the Germans for old Germany - so we sing songs to the Dambusters theme, and we sing 'Two World Wars and One World Cup', etc etc. This may conceivably be called nationalism, but it's hardly dangerous.

Some well-meaning soul at the Foreign Office even suggested English fans should sing in German at the World Cup. They would be wasting their time - last time Germany beat us at Wembley, their fans burst into a chant of 'You're shit and you know you are' in perfect English.

I'm really tired of people who are reading too much into the World Cup. Their concerns about our alleged 'nationalism' spring from the same impulse as do those of Mediawatch. They assume that everything is meant in deadly earnest. They ignore the pageantry that is 95% of football chanting. Above all, they have a very dim view of human nature, particularly the sort of fan who will travel abroad to see England play. We should ignore them. Other than that, all I have to say is: COME ON ENGLAND!

Traditional German culture.


Matt has, as usual, many interesting thoughts about the flag as symbol.

about those in the US being overweight: '...the reason for this is not so much greed as that in America life is cheap and its fruits plentiful. That a large percentage of its population can afford to live comfortably is hardly a bad thing.'

from my very unscientific observations, mostly in NYC but scattered all across the country over 30 years or so, i believe that the majority of obese Americans don't live very comfortably as they're really struggling to make ends meet and the cheapest food is the most fattening (full of sugars and carbs). a lot live on junkfood and McD's (but i could be wrong). when the wealthier people i knew gained weight it was off to the gym or the surgeon for stomach reduction or whatever.
I'm sorry, but that whole "poor people are obese because they can't afford healthy food" argument is rubbish. The cheapest foods here in the US at the market are fresh fruits and vegetables. American people are overweight because they eat too much and don't exercize enough. Food portions in most restaurants are enormous; I can't remember the last time I ate out and actually finished my meal. It's more expensive to live on junk food like McDonalds than it is to prepare a healthy meal at home. Things were tight for my family growing up and eating out, even at a cheap place like McD's, was a treat, not a staple. Nearly all of our food was made at home and we always had a healthy, balanced diet.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?