Philip Oltermann, Keeping Up with the Germans

Philip Oltermann, Keeping Up with the Germans. A History of Anglo-German Encounters, Faber and Faber 2012, ISBN 978 0 571 24017 3

Philip Oltermann was still at school when his parents decided to move to London and take him with them. He was not too keen at first, but after trying England for a year he decided to stay, instead of returning to Germany to do the Abitur.

There’s an interview with Philip Oltermann at Granta in which he reads from his memoir piece for Granta, describing his arrival in the UK with his parents at the age of 16 and the gradual failure of the British sash window and absence of the German mixer tap. (I myself have suffered many years of visits to hardware shops looking at mixer taps with a brother visiting from England). He also talks about how English became his first language and about writing on the book which has now appeared. He says that he felt he was too young to write the book as a ‘memoir’ and so it is a history of Anglo-German relations. Here are the chapter titles (capitalization sic):

Heinrich Heine Can’t Bear William Cobbett’s Swearing
Christopher Isherwood Listens to Marlene Dietrich
Theodor Adorno Doesn’t Do the Jitterbug with A.J. Ayer
Kurt Schwitters Reinvents Dada by Grasmere Lake
The Beetle Overtakes the Mini
Freddie Frinton Teaches the Germans to Laugh
Kevin Keegan Runs past Berti Vogts
Astrid Proll Wishes She Wasn’t on Joe Strummer’s T-shirt
There’s also a preface, an epilogue, and a useful index.

In fact I can see what Oltermann means: perhaps the occasional nuggets about how he gradually became accustomed to British schools and schoolboys and life in Britain in general are more the material for a Sunday paper than a full-length book, but they were the most interesting part and I found myself searching them out.

It was a problem for me that the book is written for English speakers who don’t know much about Germany. And yet, the most likely readers might be those who do know something about Germany. Thus, in the chapter on Freddie Frinton, one has to wade through a lot of basic description and narration in order to get to the personal bits. And actually, the style gets heavy and routine when filling in the historical background. And it is, after all, a heavy task to describe the Baader-Meinhof Group to an English-language readership. I wonder how much of this is the fault of an editor who thought the personal experiences ought to be shored up with some heavier stuff.

Trivia note: I see Oltermann gives Watership Down as evidence of the British love of boats and water (it was incorrectly translated into German as Unten am Fluss).

Katy Derbyshire beat me to reviewing the book in her blog love german books, but I wrote the above before reading the review. She nails down as over-generalization some of what Oltermann says about the sexual obsession of teenage English boys. Read Katy’s review for a deeper discussion. She says his book is being translated and adapted for Germany.

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