“After only a few words, we were overcome by hilarity. Conversing in German seemed to us not only comical but also strangely liberating”
Being able to speak German, if one was a schoolchild in the decade or so after the Second World War, was an embarrassment — something to keep quiet about. Or so I felt at the time. So did the only other child at my school who, like me, spoke German as her first language. We were both children of German Jewish parents who had left Germany in the 1930s, after Hitler came to power. We never spoke to each other in German, even though at the time my English was almost non-existent.
Children like to see the world in terms of goodies and baddies. Germans, at this time, were very much still baddies. I remember how mortified I was when my mother, with her German accent, came to visit, or when I was given a longed-for bicycle — because it was a German model, with bulky tires.
About 30 years later, in the late 1970s, I was having a lunch with a friend, John Clive, who had a similar background — his first language was also German. He had become an award-winning author (in English, of course) and a professor of history at Harvard.
For some reason we decided to see what it would be like if we spoke to each other in German. After only a few words, we were overcome by hilarity. Conversing in German seemed to us not only comical but also strangely liberating.
I have often wondered why that was. Maybe it was because all our efforts over many years to forge an English identity and fit into English society seemed suddenly to have been airbrushed away. It was as though our voices were only tangentially related to our personalities. Or maybe it was just the incongruities of history that made us laugh.
Would various friends of ours who had made their lives in England in a similar way find speaking in their “native” tongue equally enjoyable? We decided to ask two of them to join us for a German-speaking lunch.
One was Gabriele Annan, the wife of Noel (Lord) Annan who was then Provost of University College London. She had belonged to a prominent family of newspaper proprietors based in Berlin and had arrived here at the age of 11, becoming a distinguished literary critic. The other was Claus Moser, at that time the chief government statistician (and later to become Chairman of the Royal Opera House, Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and Lord knows what else). He had also arrived in England from Berlin as a teenager.
The four of us had such a droll and convivial lunch that we decided to do it again, inviting the Hobsbawms — Eric, the Marxist historian and his amusing wife Marlene — to join us. Both had German backgrounds. Again, we all found that leaving behind our customary modes of communication was oddly exhilarating.
It wasn’t the act of speaking German as such which produced this effect on us — we had all talked to German people many times in the intervening years. It was the fact that we had become so thoroughly Anglicised that we had never dreamed of speaking anything other than English to each other.
We resolved to meet for German-only lunches on a regular basis. In fact, we formed a German lunch club. The plan was to meet once a month in one or other of our homes. Only people whose mother tongue was German but who had become happily English were eligible. Delicatessen-type food would be served: sausages, sauerkraut, apple torte.
My German was not nearly as good as that of the other core members. Unlike them, I had never lived in Germany or gone to school there. But luckily our table talk consisted mainly of chit-chat and gossip. The medium was what mattered, not the message.
I suppose we must from time to time have touched on such topics as the election of the first woman Prime Minister in 1979. We were all Labour voters at that point and thought Mrs Thatcher was an absurdity — she could never last. (My leftist fellow-lunchers would have been aghast had they foreseen that I would soon become an enthusiastic Thatcher supporter.)
When the novelty of our lunches began to wear off a bit, we started occasionally inviting other people we knew who had similar backgrounds, mainly academics. And from time to time someone would bring a spouse, who usually stayed fairly shtum. Eventually we decided to relax the rules and include one or two thoroughly English-born German-speakers.
One of these was a longstanding friend of mine, the comedian John Wells, joint creator, in Private Eye, of the “Dear Bill” letters. His German was flawless. Another was the poet Stephen Spender, who had spent several years in Germany in the 1920s. His German was totally ungrammatical, but he made up for this handicap by his extreme eagerness to speak the language. These two delightful men became regulars, adding much merriment to the proceedings. Our “club” lasted for nearly two years and then gradually petered out.
What had been its meaning, if any? Looking back on it now, it seems to me that our meetings were a way, not just of recalling our shared histories, but also of registering our good fortune in finding a home in a tolerant and open society.