Review: Keeping Up With The Germans – Philip Oltermann

keepint up with the germansAnyone who has visited Germany will come away impressed by the similarities between our two countries. We Britons find much to admire in Germany but the Germans tend to admire British culture and our way of life also. When Philip Oltermann was 16, his parents told him that his father had accepted a posting to London and now, 17 years later, Philip has written this book, Keeping Up With The Germans – A History of Anglo-German Encounters, a collection of reflections, analyses and random facts about the friendly but often uneasy relationship between our two countries.

Philip did rather well in Britain.  While at school he was selected to join an elite group of boys studying A-level in Philosophy.  He eventually went up to Oxford University and is now a deputy editor on The Guardian.  His book is a very wide-ranging mixture containing chapters which discuss some complex philosophical and linguistic ideas, and other chapters about football, humour and motoring.  If you’re prepared for this then it makes a thoughtful and entertaining read which I for one found very interesting.

It would be easy to write this review entirely by quoting some of the more memorable passages from the book.  To see British culture through German eyes is not always an experience which makes you feel proud of your country, especially when for example, you read of Philip’s induction into the tradition of the British Sunday lunch.

“One of my father’s new colleagues had invited us for a welcoming meal which she announced as ‘a Sunday roast’ when we stepped into her house. We had barely taken off our jackets when our host – all wavy coiffured hair and buck teeth – hugged us emphatically and tried to kiss me on my cheeks. She had accompanied the words ‘Sunday roast’ with a showy movement of the hands, like a butler lifting a silver dish cover, conveying an impression of ceremony and theatre. A Sunday roast, this hand movement tried to say, was not like any other meal”.

This did not go too well;

“The contents of my plate looked something like this: three thin, very well done slices of beef, four stems of broccoli, eight roast potatoes, all collapsed on top of each other like weary travellers at the end of a long journey. Spread around the plate, a pool of very thin brown sauce. Copying our hosts, we had dropped generous spoonfuls of horseradish sauce and bright yellow mustard onto either side of the plate. Mixing these pastes (they called them ‘condiments’) . . . Our hosts tucked into the roast as if it was manna from heaven. ‘Yummy yummy in my tummy’, the son of the family said after he had put the first forkful in his mouth. As he threw himself with glee into the pile of limp flesh on his plate, I noticed that the boy’s face looked both bloated and slightly bloodless. Was this what English cuisine did to you?”.

This sounds like a throw-back to the 1970s, but I know from experience that relatives are still quite capable of serving up a Sunday lunch like this with all the pride of a great artist displaying a master-work.  Fortunately, most of us have moved on to at least a better-cooked and more inventive take on the national dish.

Philip generally keeps away from denigrating Britain for the sake of it and soon moves on to analysing some of our national differences.  He feels that the differences between the English and German languages are a key factor here.  The German language with it’s “slow-motion pile-up of subclauses and modal particles” and it’s page-long sentences leads to a different way of thinking than the word-play, euphenism, adaptability and general “slipperiness” of the English language.  Philip’s discussion of the two languages occupies quite a lengthy chapter of the book and goes into considerable depth but I think his general thesis is right.  The British can seem quick-witted, sarcastic and superficial compared with the more ponderous Germans who seem to us to take things more seriously.

But there are other things than language which cause national characteristics to emerge. I enjoyed reading about way landscape influences us, and in particular how Germany forests have shaped the national character.  I didn’t know that about 30% of the German land-mass is covered with forests, and that it is often said that “a German squirrel can travel from the north to the south end of the country without ever having to touch the ground”.  The Germans are accustomed to the dark mystery of this occasionally terrifying woodland which, for example, gave rise to the tales of the Brothers Grimm.  Britain on the other hand seems to be a far more domesticated landscape with even our Lake District being “a landscape which was rugged and wild, but at the same time habitable and cosy, dotted with small villages that made you feel like you hadn’t strayed too far from the civilised world”.

Inevitably Philip contrasts the history of the British car industry with the story of BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, and needless to say, we do not come out well in comparison.  During the 1970s, a party of workers from British Leyland’s Cowley plant visited a Volkswagen factory and found that “the main hall was bright and clean; there was an open space in the centre of the factory, where the entire workforce would assemble for general meetings. A third of the machinery used to build the German car was regularly taken out for overnight maintenance, substantially lowering the chances of faults and accidents. In Cowley, it took between fifteen and twenty men to equip the Mini with a door. In Wolfsburg, the Beetle was placed on a mechanical crucifix and turned on its side: the door-fitting process required one operator”.

It took the complete collapse of the British car industry and it’s restrictive practices before it could be re-born under the hand of more agile and quality-conscious foreign companies like Nissan, Honda, BMW and Tatra.

The book progresses through a whole catalogue of German/British differences – football, music, politics and humour, and Philip brings a great deal of original thinking to each topic.  A whole chapter is devoted to the comedy sketch Dinner for One which is played on German Television every New Year’s Eve.  The sketch was originally performed by Freddie Frinton in the early 1960s and in it, a butler serves dinner to a solitary elderly woman, pretending that her table is populated by distinguished guests.  The sketch was discovered by two German television people who were scouting around for new ideas and they persuaded Frinton and his female partner to record the sketch for German television.  Surprisingly, Germany fell in love with the sketch and,

“People put down their plates of potato salad and left their frankfurters to cool on their plates; entire parties huddled around the television set to watch Frinton and Warden perform their strange ritual. The following year each of the regional channels showed ‘Dinner for One’ at 6 p.m., and a few showed a repeat four hours later. Since 1963, the sketch has been screened 231 times to German audiences”.

You can watch Dinner For One on YouTube and most British people will be unable to understand why it is so popular in Germany.  Philip tries to work out why the sketch no longer has much appeal to the British, but the main reason seems to be that since Monty Python, British humour has become so much more radical and scurrilous that Dinner For One seems as old-fashioned as a sketch from the Benny Hill Show.

The book contains a long-list of references and acknowledgements giving it a mildly academic feel.  In fact it’s a bit of a mixture with some light-hearted thoughts about football on the one hand and an in-depth account of Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School of Philosophy (which probably needed editing down because few British people will have heard of it or have much interest in it).  But there’s enough witty and thought-provoking material in the book to make it a good read for anyone who has an interest in the long-lasting relationship between our two countries.

9 thoughts on “Review: Keeping Up With The Germans – Philip Oltermann

  1. Though I am not British or Germain this sounds fun, charming and enlightening.

    It looks like there is a fair amount of food culture included in the book which is also an interesting thing.

    By the way, I love both horseradish and mustard on my meat!


  2. I spent 6 years in Germany & like Stu, love the country, have also experienced German humour, having been on the receiving end of it. When I first worked in Germany I was a hodcarrier (labourer), turning up on a building site with my hod, I was asked what it was, I then explained, after they had picked themselves off the floor having suffered a severe bout of laughter asked had I not heard of cranes. I rapidly learnt to adjust to all things mechanised & left the hod forgotten in some corner.


  3. Fascinating Tom … I’ll forward this to my husband. He is currently brushing up his German in a conversation class as we are planning to visit Germany later this year. (Unfortunately we won’t get to England – just Spain/Portugal and Germany for nearly 7 weeks). I loved the description of the German language with its page long sentences!


    • Sue – This one is really good actually- very mixed in content – one moment discussing football, the next he’s talking about logical positivism. You seven weeks in Europe sounds wonderful


  4. Yes, we’re looking forward to it … we haven’t been to Europe for over 20 years! That’s terrible – we’ve been to the US, Canada, Japan and Hong Kong (and explored remote Australia in the intervening years so I’m greatly looking forward to it.


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