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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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Oltermann stayed on to become a true Anglophile, even marrying an English girl; he writes as a man who feels at ease in both cultures and who wants to explore what – if anything – can be learned from the unlikely connections that he describes.
Oltermann kicks off with politics, an unfortunate meeting at a tavern between the ultra-sensitive Heinrich Heine and the famously outspoken William Cobbett (Heine, horrified by Cobbett’s red face and obscene language, made an early departure). He then moves on to sex. A brisk meditation on The Blue Angel and a prudish Marlene Dietrich results in the observation that ‘This particular German angel wasn’t blue at all’ and leads – somewhat tangentially – to the notion that gender confusion might be blamed upon the grammar of a language that grants more sex to a turnip than to a young girl. Did America, Oltermann next wonders, once offer special appeal to the sexually repressed, and might this have contributed to that country’s attraction for Marlene herself, and also for Christopher Isherwood? (By this athletic leap of Alice logic, Isherwood is squeezed
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in at the tail end of a chapter appealingly headed: ‘Christopher Isherwood listens to Marlene Dietrich’.)
Oltermann does a good line in catchy chapter titles: ‘Theodor Adorno Doesn’t Do the Jitterbug with A J Ayer’ shifts the focus to academia. Here, in one of the book’s best sections, Adorno’s remarkable 1937 definitions of the word ‘ragtime’ as a tearing of the flesh and of the ‘jitterbug’ (more curiously still) as evidence of the deprivation of autonomous will, are compared to the off-duty antics of that friskiest of logical positivists, A J Ayer.
Such frothily elegant analogies make for light reading and good mental fun; the fact that Adorno and Ayer were both briefly tutored by Gilbert Ryle justifies (just about) the link. Less happy, however, is Oltermann’s off-piste departure, in the same chapter, to discuss The Verve and Britpop; to reveal the unsurprising axiom that Germans take pride in academic status; and to offer news of his own graduate excellence (‘I had one of the top marks in my class’). While doubtless true (Oltermann airily compares the experience of reading Ayer to that of chewing on bubblegum), a bit of English reticence might have sweetened the information.
Bright, breezy and a little more confident than he is wise to show, Oltermann loses the reader’s faith in his judgement when he reaches the dread, familiar subject of the Mitfords. Surely, Oltermann suggests, we can’t believe that a girl who called Hitler the ‘poor sweet Fuhrer’ was serious about politics; surely Unity, as an English girl of her class, always saw events in Germany, just like her sister Nancy, ‘through a thick film of irony’? Irony plays a big part in Oltermann’s entertaining work, but irony and Unity Mitford? I’d sooner credit a cow with the ability to read the Koran than find irony in the mind of a young woman obsessed enough to put a bullet in her brain.
Enjoy Oltermann’s book for its lively cameos, for its brio and some nicely chosen counterpointing (Kurt Schwitters at Grasmere; Kevin Keegan running past Berti Vogts) – but readers might also be well advised to keep a salt-spoon handy. To order this book for £10.39, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 9
P R I Z E C R O S S W O R D ACROSS 1 Open with Anne (5)
6 Advantage to pass on agreement (8) 7 Kind nature (4) 9 Students back paper (3) 10 Little support for male swarm (4) 12 The Spanish step by old Texas city (2,4) 13 One deserting during period of mistakes (6) 15 Vehicle let out in rush (6) 17 Plant juice on chart brought back from treeless plain (6) 18 Invest as knight without a smear (4) 20 Block lawyers (3) 21 Info on European unit that can be passed on (4) 22 As dirt is dished by book-keepers? (8) 23 Little woman points to Bridget (5)
This month, Atlantic Books are sponsoring the crossword with five copies of TheTraveller’sDaybook:ATouroftheWorldin366Quotations by Fergus Fleming. The book is an invitation to cross ocean, desert, mountain and ice-cap in the company of the world’s greatest explorers.
Send your entries to 44 Lexington Street, London, W1F 0LW by 16 April. Last month’s winners, who will each receive a copy of Anna Keay’s TheCrownJewels, are: Mrs Judy Aitken from Lancaster, Mr P Boswell of Hampshire, C J Ellis of Rochester, Anna Somers Cocks in Torino, and Tom Uren in Hastings. SolutiontotheMarchpuzzle: ACROSS: 1 Patois , 4 Ar i e l , 9 Neptune, 10 Noise, 11 E l aborate, 12 Lu t e , 13 Ti t he , 16 Spat, 19 Pronounce, 21 Draco, 22 Echelon, 23 Noyes, 24 Edi t o r. DOWN: 1 Pencil , 2 Typis t , 3 I nure 5 Ransome, 6 E l i j ah , 7 Legal t ender, 8 Betel , 13 Twosome, 14 Spode, 15 Monaco, 17 Pal l e t , 18 Tenner, 20 Ephod.
DOWN 1 Protect from hardship with bath and feeder perhaps (10) 2 Indicate agreement for English junction (4) 3 20 strap-hanging fellows (12) 4 Charles has poor grasp of Lawrence (6) 5 Spy on Adrian (4) 6 Father, Mick and Keith meeting with defeat over the hill (4,4,4) 8 Samuel provides energy for disheartened William Butler (5) 11 Masses involved with nett financial investigations (5,5) 14 A quiet entreaty finally failing to bear fruit (5) 16 Small amount needed to cover 20’s jerkin (6) 19 Drivers cross state for a song (4) 21 Serving American men up for benefits cheque (4)
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