f o r e i g n p a r t s
Barack Obama beams through his declaration in a Chinese advert that he loves his ‘Blockberry Whirlwind 9500’. A copycat of the widely watched Network News television appeared on the Internet with the two anchors announcing that the regular ones had been poisoned by contaminated milk – a reference to a genuine 2008 scare involving powdered milk containing melamine. But this is not all fun. Because of what Yu terms the ‘moral bankruptcy and confusion of right and wrong in China today’, a situation has arisen where ‘plagiarism, piracy, burlesque, parody, slander, and other actions originally seen as vulgar or illegal have been given a reason to exist’. Yu doesn’t mention that Western universities know that the essays Chinese students write to apply for admission are as likely as not to have been written by hired hands. They are admitted because they pay the huge tuition fees. When Yu confronted a reporter who had fabricated an interview with him, the man replied, ‘That was a copycat interview.’
‘Bamboozle’, from the same stable as ‘Copycat’, ‘carries shades of dishonesty, misrepresentation, and fraud’. Just before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 – the opening ceremony of which, Yu doesn’t say, was a giant bamboozle (for instance, the cute little girl who appeared to be singing was just miming) – a local newspaper stated that Bill Gates had rented a penthouse near the stadium for an annual sum of 100 million yuan (about £10 million). Many millions of Chinese live on 800 yuan annually. This made ‘an obscure housing development into an apartment complex famous all over the country’. It was soon rumoured that a Hollywood film would be shot at this fabulous location. Once the media had figured out the cost of the flat per square yard, the story was labelled ‘the supreme bamboozle of 2008’. Here’s a bamboozle that will echo in the UK: in Yu’s city, where his children are examined almost daily in school, teachers were suddenly told that they, too, were to be examined. They panicked, and when they learned that widowed or divorced teachers were exempted, a flood of divorces resulted. Local people admired this, remarking, ‘that’s the wisdom of the masses in action’, and teachers began greeting each other in the street with ‘divorced yet?’ Yu doesn’t need to explain to his Chinese readers why this is funny: the standard greeting in China is ‘Have you eaten yet?’
Yu records his own supreme bamboozle. As a child he had taken to telling his father, a doctor, that he was ill, in order to avoid punishment for childish transgressions. But once, as he relates, ‘I was too smart for my own good.’ He complained of a pain in his middle. His father carefully examined him and before long Yu was on the operating table, where his father removed his appendix. Years later, when he asked whether his appendix had needed removal, his father replied: ‘Absolutely … It did look a little puffy.’
I confess to the same bamboozle. Desperate to avoid a primary school maths test, I complained of the symptoms of appendicitis I had looked up in my father’s Gray’s Anatomy. I expected a day or two in bed. But soon I was on the operating table with Ralph, my scalpel-wielding surgeon uncle, looking down at me. The next day, when I asked him if the operation had been necessary, he assured me my appendix had been badly infected and I was lucky it hadn’t burst. Had your operation yet? r m i r a n da s e y mour
Stuck in the Mittel Keeping Up with the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters
By Philip Oltermann (Faber & Faber 268pp £12.99)
In a book that presents a range of improbable juxtapositions between two nations and two cultures, brightly narrated and pulled together by Philip Oltermann – a youngish German who can’t quite decide whether he’s an Anglophobe (the food) or an Anglophile (the jokes, the tolerance, and weirdly, the warm beer) – one item shines out. That particular treat is a gift to the reader, and one for which Oltermann deserves the gratitude of anyone who relishes end-ofthe-pier-style comedy at its finest.
Every year on New Year’s Eve, German families gather around their blessed box for the near-religious ritual joy of watching a black-and-white 18-minute comedy sketch from England. Dinner for One presents, in one single flawless take, the ninetieth birthday of a frisky old lady and the four admirers whom she has long outlived, but whose toasts to her charms are single-handedly drunk and proffered, with ever-increasing incoherence, by her tireless butler, James (played by Freddie Frinton, a man once famed as the prince of stage drunks). A well-positioned and largeheaded tiger skin provides his main prop.
Analysing humour is a dangerous business, and Oltermann’s comparisons to Beckett’s Endgame fail to convey what it is that the Germans, above all, adore so much about the swift disintegration of a stately supper into slapstick farce that is screened, each New Year’s Eve, across most German TV channels. (Dinner for One’s beloved catchphrase, ‘Same procedure as every year,’ has passed into the German language.) Harder still to understand is the reason that such a blissful example of English comic acting is never shown back here, where it was born.
Germany’s favourite English comedy sketch occupies one of eight chapters that (in the style recently displayed to perfection by Craig Brown in One on One) find food for thought in the presentation of unlikely Anglo-German encounters. Brown allowed the occasions to speak for themselves; Oltermann takes the process a stage further by garnishing the mix with his own experiences.
The author of Keeping Up with the Germans was seventeen when he first came to England from Hamburg. Initially, as Oltermann candidly admits, he was baffled by the enthusiasm with which his parents tucked into just about everything that England could spread upon their plates. Unaffectionate reference is made to his first attempts to choke down stringy beef, brown sauce, and watery broccoli. But
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