‘England is perceived by my Continental friends as being a country that is all about belonging or not belonging’
I moved to London as a student the day after 9/11, having decided not to live a sheltered life behind ancient walls, but to experience what I expected to be a contemporary, cosmopolitan Englishness. When I unpacked in a tiny room painted in the kind of pale green I had previously only seen on trips to Eastern Europe, in a flat off a busy road full of pound shops with hideous neon signs and pubs that drew their clientele from the local council estate, it dawned on me: this was London, not England.
England has always fulfilled fantasies for foreigners — in particular for Germans such as myself. Writers and thinkers — Heine, Goethe, Hegel, and Marx — all famously wrestled with the heady mix of admiration and disdain they felt for a people that expressed its national pride both openly and quirkily. In the second half of the 20th century, the English people’s nonchalant attitude to being English — an attitude to nationality the Germans had lost for good reasons — attracted the attention of those familiar with both cultures who had endlessly to explain why the English still so much enjoyed poking fun at the Germans and why the Germans still weren’t ready to take it lightheartedly.
In short: Germany and England always had a special relationship, the source of mutual attraction being never fully to understand the other.
Today, however, the peculiarity of this relationship is as worn-out as the good old “Don’t Mention the War” joke: while an interest in Germany is rising in England, at least among young people, the German fascination with England is decreasing.
When you mention that you work in England, you are met with a certain friendly indifference: a respect for the fact that you made it somewhere else, but also a sense that England doesn’t have much political and cultural influence. Despite successful exports of mainstream popular culture, from the Beatles to Kate Moss, the notion of a dominant, influential, thriving “Cool Britannia” seems all but absent: the perplexed admiration Germans used to have for Englishness and English culture has lost its strength. Why?
On the Continent, people would wonder whether I had made any friends in England. After all, the English “always kept themselves to themselves”, thought a German, they were “reserved and a bit arrogant”, said a Hungarian, there was “little community spirit”, complained a Dutch friend. In their eyes, England was a country determined by a prevailing sense of knowing your place amid all kinds of divisions — class, race, wealth — in short: a country that was all about belonging or not belonging. While this may be true in that English society doesn’t call itself open — as, for example, Holland and some Scandinavian countries do — what I encountered when I came to London was something else. In the busy streets, I found on display an innate sense of community which showed itself in the most simple behavioural pattern of moving in space: not bumping into each other even in large crowds, not being overly pushy on escalators and yes, not jumping queues.
Now, this may be painting too rosy a picture or rehearsing old clichés about polite English gentlemen (and indeed restricting them to this small group of society), but I believe that having a clear sense of yourself while considering others is a root of the uniquely English common sense — which has suffered in the past couple of years, or so it seems. For when I left London having completed my studies, I left a country full of rules and regulations — where a mobile phone company would let you sign a contract only when you could provide the details of your bank account, which you could open only when you had proved you had lived at your address for more than half a year, for which you needed a bill from your mobile phone company. Or where “health and safety” would not allow you to open a window in a stuffy lecture hall. It was a place full of Catch-22 situations.
I had almost learned to accept this as the absurd other side of the coin of common sense, when I returned to London this autumn and found the country had changed yet again. Regulatory concepts like health and safety had become the subject of universal ridicule and there was a fresh tone in the debates that didn’t tiptoe around political correctness.
Is this shift to do with the change promised by the Conservatives who want to lead the way to a more flexible England? I believe that what drives this subtle, tentative and protean shift is not politics, but the English trait most admired by German writers and thinkers: to have the courage to express bold opinions, without shouting them from the rooftops.