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A German Dream: Some Day My Prince Will Come (June 2006)

This article was first published on openDemocracy

In all the proliferating articles about English-German relations ahead of the month-long soccer world cup which kicks off in Germany on 9 June 2006, the "apprehensive we" seems just a little too widely-scattered. After over a quarter-century spent teaching in a German university and enjoying every moment of it, I find it difficult to see my own experience in much that's been described.

Maybe it's being Scots that does it – though I remind my German friends that they owe their opportunity to host the tournament to one Scot in particular: a wee bauchle from Glasgow called Charlie Dempsey (brother of only slightly less obscure Jimmy, Labour member of parliament for Coatbridge). In July 2000 it was Charlie, as leader of the Orwellian-sounding Oceania Football Confederation, who was ruthlessly schmoozed by Franz Beckenbauer (der Kaiser), the renowned former footballer who headed Germany's bid. The Scot's abstention meant that Germany prevailed over South Africa, which had in terms of justice a far better case.

That's enough football. It's gone badly downhill since the Tommies and the Boche played it on Christmas Eve, 1914. Let's talk about trains.

They are something Germans and the English (more than the other British islanders) have totally in common, as I realise from squiring bunches of enthusiasts round our local railways: a combination of modernised commuter lines and the remote branches of the Swabian Alb, which spring to life once a week on summer Sundays, and on which you can travel from Ulm almost as far as Basel. The English still find it hard to come to terms with why all German steam engines have red wheels and are called Fiery Elias but in no time they and the locals will be talking boiler pressures and tractive effort, expanding to local breweries (we have lots) in Germlish.

The Alb is a complex, enfolded landscape, with great English-style deciduous woods, heaths perforated with juniper bushes, more-than-vertical cliffs plunging into the upper Danube, monasteries, castles, countless Gasthöfe offering Swabia's fusion food: pork with cherries or apricots, and a pasta tradition which came north with the Gonzaga bride of Graf Eberhard im Bart (Eberhard the Bearded), who founded my university in 1477. The railway is a route in – and those who find it, come back.

In fact, visitors return to the United Kingdom purposive and furious when they see what "we" have done in terms of the supertrams of Karlsruhe and our new regional railways, compared with the fate of the "customer" on commercialised, overpriced, Private Rail. And they get incandescent when they cross the Rhine and see wonderful space-age trams gliding down the Strasbourg streets, which were built at York before the railways were wrecked by the idiot John Major (Conservative prime minister, 1990-97) and York carriage works starved to death through lack of orders; and not much has changed under Gordon Brown (Labour chancellor of the exchequer, 1997- ) and his transport munchkins. Infrastructure technology requires craftspeople, not outreach officers or facilitators. Whitehall should count itself lucky that enough of the English, whatever they're paid to do, teach themselves the real thing.

The railway enthusiast (or Anorak pur) is English, although the others have long caught up. The French and Germans (even in the old German Democratic Republic [DDR]) were always pretty keen, and now the Italians have discovered that steaming into the countryside and sloshing back quantities of vino and eating olives and salami to the sight of olive groves, white roads and hill villages, and the sound of bells, whistles and exhausts is as good a way to pass a weekend as can be imagined.

II The men of the Kingdom

Actually playing football might be another, as would sorting out interesting cars and motor-bikes. My brother Steve makes long trips across Europe to confer with cycle-speedwayists and Triumph freaks. Others converge on the ancient paddle-steamers of the Austrian Traunsee or the Swiss Vierwaldstattersee, brandishing photos of the paddle-steamer Waverley on the Clyde.

I like to think of this lot in terms of Louis MacNeice's poem The Kingdom:

"Go wherever you choose, among tidy villas or terrible
Docks, dumps and pitheads, or through the spangled moors
Or along the vibrant narrow intestines of great ships
Or into those countries of which we know very little –
Everywhere you will discover the men of the Kingdom:
Loyal by institution, born to attack, and innocent."

Where there's shop to be talked, common lines to be taken against crooks, shysters (in transport there are plenty of both), faintheart politicians and little men compensating for something embarrassing by driving Very Big Cars – this practical social democracy prospers. It will continue to do so as long as we believe our society is kept going, not by focus-groups, computer-screens and City of London loudmouths in blazers, but by what that wise regional planner Patrick Geddes called the "makers, movers and menders".

There is a big difference between the politics of making and moving and those of identity. Vorsprung durch technik makes the Germans good at the first, while the English have had a bit too much of the latter. To Germans, on the other hand, "identity" (like "folk") is something that only depresses. Football, which neither country is much good at these days, resembles a crutch fought over by two one-legged men, their memories lodged in 1954 and 1966. Remedies for football, of an urban rest-and-recreation, beer-and-noise, "Love Parade" sort, aimed at yoof, are if anything worse.

The German middle classes, like their British counterparts, escape south. They have gated communities in their heads, in which cinquecento landscapes echo to talk of house prices and schools. Merchant-Ivory have a lot to answer for. But in fact that old superwimp EM Forster had a lot to say about the Europe to come, through the father of the Schlegel sisters in Howards End:

"Pan-Germanism is no more imaginative than is our imperialism. It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled with bigness … That is not imagination. No, it kills it. Your poets too are dying, your philosophers, your musicians to whom Europe has listened for two hundred years. Gone. Gone with the little courts of that nurtured them, gone with Esterhaz and Weimar."

English literature, "EngLit", showed a remarkable understanding of Germany's regional cultures: not just Forster but Thackeray, Browning and Meredith in the 19th century, and in our own day Richard Hughes's The Fox in the Attic, Sybille Bedford's A Legacy and James Buchan's Heart's Journey in Winter. In the 1970s the BBC did some fine adaptations and documentaries by the likes of Michael Frayn and Robert Müller. More recently Frayn has returned with his play Democracy. An antidote to the drivel of the British tabloids, and the dim self-obsession of the London literati, is possible.

III "The Land of the Little Princes"

There's just the chance that some of the solidarity that one finds on the rails might get somewhere this summer. It will be possible for football fans of the thirty-two competing nations to travel by train all over the country, pretty cheaply, and find places far different from the usual stamping-grounds of Munich, Mönchengladbach and Gűtersloh. Notably the massif of the Harz and the woods of Thűringen, out of bounds until 1989, thinly-populated, cyclable between tiny court-towns and spas: the sort of delectable country you get in Robert Louis Stevenson's sharp but playful satire Prince Otto (1888).

Networks of steam trains climb the Brocken and wind southward via stations with ominous names – Sorge (Care) and Elend (Poverty) – to Nordhausen. At Benneckenstein station some Scots and German conservationists led by Petra Biberbach and David Spaven are starting on an imaginative scheme for an eco-tourism centre (see www.wanderlustcentre.net).

This heart of Germany, however, is sick. Unification was accompanied by British-style retailing in out-of-town malls or shopping trips across the old frontier, and Wessis preferred the Himalayas and Rockies to their native woods, leaving Sachsen-Anhalt and Thűringen as among the most depressed of the Neuen Bündesländer. The Mittelstand of small firms and local retailers had been ruthlessly eradicated under the communists – Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker really did want to take over the last corner-shop – and the impact of Aldi and Lidl gave it little chance to regrow itself as a sort of green micro-capitalism.

But the more you look at the place, the more it promises the potential of a northern Tuscany, and one particularly attractive to the English. The little court-town of Meiningen, for example, was one of the great cultural centres of the 19th century, under its liberal ruler Prince George, whose theatre premiered new ways of Shakespearean production and premiered Ibsen, and who had Brahms as a frequent guest in the habitable bit of his rambling palace. The theatre is still important, but the too-quiet city cries out to be promoted Europe-wide – not just for its culture but for Europe's largest works devoted to maintaining and rebuilding steam locomotives.

Anorak country, and why not? The person who could do something to remedy this, and rebuild an important bit of the Anglo-German relationship, is surely that reluctant star of the Regenbogenpresse (the knit-your-own-royal-family-magazines devoured by German grannies): HRH the Prince of Wales. Thűringen and Sachsen-Anhalt lie just north of his ancestral Duchy of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, the last redoubt of the small princedoms which vanished in 1918. The Duchy Original would fit rather well into the more conservative German green scene. The Prince's Trust could send kids over to learn crafts and engineering as well as German (they don't "all speak English", and German is the language of the eco-hi-tech engineering we have to relearn).

With only a few exceptions, Britain's industrial skills are these days nearly all in foreign hands. If they survive, they're more likely to be found in the voluntary than in the private sector. But we have often thought better on our feet, and improvised effectively. Festivals are a case in point, with Edinburgh far more effervescent than the introverted cabal of Bayreuth. Innovation in the Open University was notable (German academia has yet to learn its lessons) and we've often been much cleverer at marketing our heritage than Germany, where the tourist offices tend to close at the weekends.

So what about a foundation devoted to promoting cooperation on the environment, sustainable transport, and eco-tourism in general, centred on the "Land of the Little Courts", its British connections from Albert the Good on, and its cultural inheritance from the omnipresent Brothers Grimm to Goethe at Weimar and Brahms at Meiningen? The headlines insist that, whatever my compatriot Bill Shankly might have said, some things are more important than football: life and death for a start.

 
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