Friday, 27 February 2009

Going home to Hegenheim

Hegenheim is a village in the Alsace region of France, just outside Basel in Switzerland. Germany used to claim Alsace as its own, so when the German army arrived without so much as a by your leave in 1940, Hegenheim found itself part of the German Reich, an honour it had never sought.

The men of Hegenheim were granted a further honour. Viewed as German citizens, they were liable to conscription to the armed forces of the Reich.

Now Hegenheim matters to me because it is where my wife Danielle was brought up and where much of her family still lives. That includes her maternal uncle. Let’s call him René, since that’s his name.

René’s elder brother took off soon after the invasion. Later tales have him leading a heroic existence in the French resistance, though the reality may have been somewhat more comfortable. The German authorities made clear to his relatives that another disappearance would be viewed with disapproval, swiftly followed by the deportation of the rest of family for the ultimate – probably terminal – honour of serving the Reich at forced labour.

So when René was called up, he offered no resistance but reported for service. He became one of the tens of thousands of Alsatian ‘malgré nous’, the ‘despite ourselves’, who fought for the Reich without enthusiasm and only because the alternative was even worse.

René was no fool and he had an intelligent plan. He joined the Luftwaffe as ground staff, and set out to do as much as was necessary to avoid being sent off to any of Hitler’s killing fields, but as little as he could to be of any actual value to the Reich or any nuisance to the Allies. He took all the exams he was required to, and always contrived to get a mark just good enough to pass and avoid the Russian Front, but too poor to be promoted. The Reich was keen to see men from Alsace become officers and endorse their reincorporation into the fatherland. René was keen to avoid giving them that satisfaction.

René's programme worked fine until early 1945. But then the fuel ran out and there weren’t many planes left. It was hard to justify having an air force at all. René’s worst nightmare was realised: he was sent to the Russian front.

Specifically, he was sent to Königsberg. Today it’s called Kaliningrad and is an enclave of Russian territory sandwiched between Poland and the Baltic republics. Once it was the city of the philosopher of the categorical imperative, Immanuel Kant. It also gave birth to a famous logic challenge, itself at the source of the study of topology, the Königsberg Bridge problem:

René got there just in time to witness the collapse of German resistance to the Soviet Advance. He was in combat for just eight hours, the worst eight hours of his life. Then the German line broke and men began to stream towards the rear.

That’s when René came up with his personal plan for emancipation from the Reich. He turned to his friend, with whom he’d been assigned to operate a heavy machine gun, and told him ‘We’re going to Hegenheim’. It was 1200 kilometres away. They decided it was a good plan. I suppose that, once again, the alternative had little to commend it.

For some reason, they couldn’t bear to part with the machine gun. They weren’t planning on doing any more fighting and they hadn’t any ammunition for it anyway, but for some reason they kept carrying it with them.

It will come as no surprise that the journey was far from uneventful. At one time, they reached a farmhouse in a forest clearing as night was falling. The farmer was away in the forces, and his terrified wife told them they could sleep in the barn. The place was already inhabited by several German soldiers. In the morning they were awoken by the sound of shooting. Outside they saw Russian soldiers coming across the clearing, shouting ‘hurrahs’ and firing at anything that moved. René found himself stumbling behind the others as he struggled to get back into his boots while zig-zagging to avoid the Russian bullets.

The fate of the farmer’s wife doesn’t bear thinking about.

Some days later they reached one of those desperate lines of last defence, manned by sixty and sixteen year olds. The local commander was delighted to acquire two men of military age, with a machine gun to boot, and immediately pressed them into his service. This didn’t fit in at all with René’s plan of going to Hegenheim. Fortunately, a little later they were ordered into town with a sergeant to collect bread from a bakery. As they emerged, a little behind the sergeant, René said to his friend, ‘come on – we’re going to Hegenheim’. They put the loaves down on the pavement and headed again for the woods.

A few days later they woke to a day with no sound of guns. René turned to his friend and said, ‘It’s over.’

They walked into the nearest town and surrendered. By good luck, the second Allied soldier they saw was French, and René was able to explain to him who he was and where he was from. The Frenchman looked after them and made sure they got into the custody of an American unit.

From there he was sent to Paris, where he was held in the cycling stadium, the Vel d’Hiv′ where so many Jews had been assembled before being shipped off to their fates in the extermination camps. But when he was there, the gates were open, and he was able to walk out and around the town, something he found strange in his German uniform. But no one challenged him.

Finally, he was shipped back to Alsace. He arrived in the market town next to Hegenheim, St Louis on 14 July, Bastille day. He had to push through a crowd celebrating the French national day, with speakers proclaiming their patriotism, where his uniform made him feel still more out of place. But he got through and walked the last few kilometres to Hegenheim.

His family had given him up for dead and thought he was a ghost, thin as he was. They nearly killed him as they overfed him in the following days, trying to fill out his emaciated frame. But he survived, and survives today. And he was home.

He had got back to Hegenheim.

For the sequel to this story, see:

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Finally, I can take some pride in country

It’s brilliant to see that a meeting in Berlin today brought together the leaders of the major European economies, to take action over our economic difficulties. Given the calibre of the people there, how could we be anything but enthusiastic and optimistic?

From Britain we had - drum roll - Gordon Brown who is now fifteen months away from what looks like practically certain defeat in a general election. He and his predecessor Tony Blair led British governments which did precisely nothing about the legacy of Reagan and Thatcher, of ‘light touch regulation’ and banks allowed to do more or less anything they liked with our money. It was this approach in the so-called Anglo-Saxon economies that led to the problem in the first place. Perhaps that's what qualifies them to be leading the hunt for a solution.

Next, from across the Channel – trumpet fanfare – we have Nicolas Sarkozy. His unerring instinct for identifying the key economic questions of the day has led to his more than doubling his own income. Now he’s willing to invest £5 billion to rescue the car industry – on condition that the money is spent on French jobs only. ‘Community’, meaning the EU, is a word that is particularly common in the mouths of French politicians, so it’s heartwarming to find that as soon as the going gets tough they reveal the real extent of their commitment to both the letter and the spirit of European legislation.

And finally, at the other end of Europe, we have – sound of a single hand clapping – the visionary leader of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi. You may have noticed that last week David Mills, British solicitor and estranged husband of Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell, was convicted by an Italian court of accepting a bribe from Berlusconi. He has been sentenced to four and a half years in gaol, though he is appealing (well, I don’t find him appealing, but he’s appealing to someone). Interestingly, as Prime Minister, Berlusconi is exempt from criminal prosecution. So we have one man guilty of taking a bribe from Berlusconi, but Berlusconi is presumed innocent of having paid it.

Brown, Sarkozy, Berlusconi. What a trio of success, integrity and exemplary ethics.

Interestingly it’s an important trio for me personally. Born in Rome but of British nationality, I have since been naturalised French. These are the leaders of my three countries.

Who could deny me the right to walk with a particular spring in my step, my head held high, knowing that these giants are bending their powerful minds to the solution of the problems of the world?

Monday, 16 February 2009

Submarine dodgems and Scotland's gift to England

So a French nuclear submarine collides with a British one in the middle of the Atlantic.

Ah well, the seas are so crowded these days. Difficult to avoid the traffic in what is, after all, only the second biggest ocean.

But was it really an accident? Or is this a new and far more exciting variant on the game of chicken? Were the two captains heading for each other to see which of them would blink first and swing out of the way of the other?

Or it could be something simpler still. Maybe the French were simply keeping to the right while the British were trying to keep to the left. Which side are you supposed to be on when creeping along the bottom of the Atlantic?

Fascinating, anyway, to see what can happen when you’re just passing the time with 600 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb along with you. Perhaps what was really going on was an ingenious, indirect blow for the nuclear non-proliferation cause. After all, if they’re going to start playing bumper cars with submarines, I for one would really appreciate it if they could take the nuclear warheads out first.

Totally unrelated postscript

What a boon Andy Murray is for English sports fans!

Murray has always been at pains to make it clear that he is a Scots tennis player, not an English one. He declared that he would ‘support anyone but England’ in the 2006 football world cup.

As an Englishman, I find that kind of statement profoundly liberating. It means that when Murray wins I can bask in the reflected glory of a victory by a fellow Brit. When he loses, it’s just another well-deserved humiliation for an arrogant Scot.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Don't know the lingo? No problemo

‘The English are no good at foreign languages’. That isn’t the kind of news likely to shock anyone. In fact, it isn’t news at all. But when the BBC told us this week that fewer and fewer school students are choosing to study languages, with the result that standards are in rapid decline, that came as more of a revelation. Given how low the starting point is, the idea of decline is pretty extraordinary.

It’s rather like announcing worrying news that bankers may no longer be able to hit the standards of generosity and social conscience we’ve come to expect of them in recent years. It may not always be possible to take the good faith of lawyers on trust. Or the England football team may not be able to maintain the high level of performance it has been achieving over the last three or four decades.

What intrigued me was learning that the drift away from modern languages in schools may have been an unintended consequence of a deliberate government policy. Estelle Morris, who was Education Secretary at the time, told the BBC that they had decided to make languages optional as a measure against truancy. She felt that modern language classes were causing some students to skip school, and also making it more difficult to bring them back in again later, after they’d got too far behind their class mates.

It hasn’t worked, of course. Truancy is as high as ever. But the measure was never going to give the results Morris hoped. Obviously, German irregular verbs or the French imperfect subjunctive are enough to drive most kids out of school. But just think how much is still left on the curriculum that would be at least as deadly. You get rid of languages, but you leave fractions? You do nothing about all those boring dates in history? What about geography, the subject that according to teachers tells us so much about real life? A few years ago I stumbled across – or more precisely into – an ox bow lake. I took pictures of it, I got my family to come and look at it, I’ve talked about it endlessly. Why? Because I learned about those lakes in Geography when I was twelve but never actually saw one for the next forty years. And they call that preparation for the real world?

I can’t actually remember when I last had to solve any simultaneous equations, draw a lopsided picture of a vase of flowers or remember the atomic weight of Beryllium. There are so many things that could be dropped from the curriculum to make school less repellent. And imagine replacing them with sessions on a Wii or even Nintendo: kids would be positively queuing up to go to school. OK, they might not come out being able to talk Dickens or recite pi, but they’d be off the streets.

Meanwhile, the English are becoming even less competent in foreign languages than before. What’s more, the BBC pointed out that a class divide is emerging. In the nice schools, private schools or grammar schools, they’re still learning languages; it’s in the ordinary state schools that language studies are doing their vanishing act.

Now that really is an interesting piece of information. What we’re saying is that in places where they retain the grammar school system – nice counties like Buckinghamshire where people like to sip their white wine in the refined company of their friends – it’s still regarded as adding a bit of cachet to be able to place the odd French bon mot here and there.

In the rest of the country, we’ve realised that thanks to enlightened American foreign policy, all we have to do when abroad is speak a little more slowly or raise our voices a bit for the natives to understand. It may be in their interests to get a pretty good grasp of English sharpish, specially since the Rumsfeld/Cheney school took the education of the world in hand.

In any case, the word for ‘beer’ is sufficiently similar to its German equivalent to be understood in Germany. Even the French word isn’t that different. So all we really need is to be able to say ‘Oona serbesa’ in Spain, and we’ve got the main bases covered.

As it happens, Spanish barmen are pretty smart. Faced with an Englishman rambling incomprehensibly, I suspect they would just automatically put a beer in front of him. They must know that in four cases out of five, they won’t be far wrong. Besides, if the Englishman did actually speak Spanish, he would probably find himself involved in a conversation. And that would almost certainly lead to the revelation that Spain had just humiliated England in some sporting encounter. How would that enhance the quality of his life?

So let’s just leave our Englishman, with the sun at his back and a beer in his hands, blissful in his monolingual ignorance. Let the BBC worry about language teaching. To the rest of us, just how much does it matter?

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

England: a plague of locusts next?

It’s one scourge after another in England at the moment.

Last week, as I reported, it was the snow. The other night, the elements made a valiant effort to blanket us with snow again. However, as is not unusual in England, there was a planning failure: the element with the job of reducing the temperature had taken the evening off, so it was altogether too mild for much to settle. Instead we got rain and therefore floods.

Next the news bulletins were telling us that the rat population has gone up by 50% in the last decade. At a time when the economy has been wrecked by bankers who have taken public money to save their rotten concerns and are using it to pay themselves bonuses, a plague of rats seems peculiarly apposite.

Also, given the state of the nation, it feels strangely like rats joining a sinking ship.

Snow, floods, rats. You might think that someone up there had got in for the poor old English.

It’s hard to understand why. We’ve gone round the world bringing benighted foreigners peace, culture and some wonderful new games. The response? Insurgency, incivility and a stubborn refusal to be defeated on the field. Not exactly a proper sense of gratitude.

And it feels particularly unfair that the heavenly powers now seem to have conspired against us.

Of the three scourges, I particularly resent the flooding. We have a real problem with water in this country. We have enough of the stuff to get really sick of it in the autumn, winter and spring. Then in what we loosely call ‘summer’ we’re told there’s a drought.

It seems that what we get is the wrong type of rain. This is a classically English problem. Back in 1991, there was a magic moment when the rail network was disrupted by the wrong kind of snow.

Picture the engineers at work.

‘Ah,’ says one of them, ‘I’ve got this system here, see, that allows the whole network to deal really well with this kind of snow.’

‘Oh, that is neat,’ chorus the others. ‘Beautifully designed too.’ So they go for his plan.

Then another kind of snow falls. ‘Don’t blame us,’ they all say, ‘we didn’t design the system to cope with that type of snow. We didn’t work on the cold, white kind, you know.’

Maybe that’s why we’ve attracted the wrath of the gods. Not because they don’t see what nice people we are. Just because they have no patience with bumbling amateurs.

No wonder we get beaten at the games we invented.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Drama in the snow

Exciting times with the snow in England this week.

I know my Canadian friends will say ‘snow? You call that snow? You need to come over to Canada and its ten foot drifts and then talk about snow.’ But that’s not the point. The Canadians take snow in their stride.

Or so they say. Because actually, I’m taking all this on trust. The tales I hear of desperate Canadian conditions, and the general harshness of nature, aren’t borne out by my personal experience. I’ve been to Canada three times in the winter – the period the rest of us call September to May – and I encountered mild temperatures and even, occasionally, blue skies. But of course Canada is a nation of truth tellers, so I’m sure that just before I got there and just after I left, wolves were roaming streets blocked by ice sheets and snow drifts.

Either way, I’m prepared to concede that Canadians know how to deal with snow. In Britain, it’s always a shock. It happens every year, but that doesn’t stop people being startled by it. It’s like those colleagues of mine who told me in December how surprised they were that Christmas was nearly on them. ‘Yes,’ I’d say, ‘it’s on the 25th this year.’

The better analogy is people at supermarket checkouts. I’m consumed by admiration for the magnificent efficiency with which they pack their bags. Not for them the strawberries crushed by the bananas, the coffee packets burst by the weight of jam jars. But when it’s time to pay, all is suddenly consternation. ‘Oh, yes payment,’ they seem to be saying, ‘You want me to pay? Of course. Only too happy. Hold on. I’m sure I’ve got some money in here somewhere.’ And, as though they’re having to deal with a strange and novel experience, they start the hunt for their wallet.

Now, these people nearly always seem to have enormous handbags, with multiple compartments, but no rule as to where they put the money. An extended search is launched through every part of the handbag. Eventually they give up and look in their jacket, where they’ve actually put the wallet.

You think the process is over? Not a bit of it. Because the wallet also has compartments. And, usually, a little pouch for coins. They look there first.

Let’s be clear that the pouch has space to contain enough coins to cover the price of a newspaper, as long as it isn’t a particularly expensive paper. They still carefully inspect the coins. When they’re finally forced to recognise what was obvious to everyone the moment they started looking, that they don’t have the coins for the purchase, they switch their attention to the notes, checking first that the said notes aren’t behind their driving licence or the picture of their grandchild’s christening. Examining their notes involves looking at each of them separately and slowly adding up the total, their lips moving in time with the arithmetic. ‘Five,’ you can see them mouthing, ‘and another five makes twenty. No ten. Then ten. That’s twenty.’ Finally they decide they don’t want to use the notes and pay by credit card instead. But which one? Well, they select one and put it in the machine, but not fully in. The till operator reaches round to push it in for them.

You know what’s going to happen next. They can’t remember the PIN.

Enough of that. Let’s just say that the English react to snow in the same way. ‘Oh, boy,' they say. 'This white stuff is falling from the sky. Shouldn’t we be doing something about it?’

What they used to do in the past was nothing at all. They kept driving as though nothing had changed. Within the first ten minutes of any serious snowfall, there’d be accidents on every main road and the whole country would be gridlocked. Today they’ve learned to cope better. They cut down their speed to under 20 kph. Things don’t grind to a halt any more. They just slow down horribly. Like a supermarket queue.

To reinject a sense of crisis we have the media. The first twenty minutes of a twenty-five minute TV news bulletin will be devoted to the weather, including anecdotes. We are told uplifting stories about schoolkids building snowmen to entertain pensioners in Hampshire or border collies towing their master to work on skis in Lincolnshire. Then we get ‘In other news, fighting between Greater Bassetia and the breakaway province of Lower Beagliana is now estimated to have cost 28,000 lives. The epidemic of Kilimanjaria in Equatorial Africa is now threatening 78 million people and World Health Organisation officials fear it may spread into the Mediterranean basin. And now for the sports news.’

So we understand the priorities correctly.

Officialdom also springs into action. Emergency meetings take place in council offices to assess the problem and plan a response. Unfortunately, the meetings are between officers who have to get to work on ungritted roads. So the meeting starts at 10:00. It then follows the structure of the news bulletin: anecdotes about the snow followed by last night’s sports. Then the emergency debate gets under way. Then there’s lunch. Action happens in the afternoon, to ensure that the gritters are out on the roads just in time to hold up the evening rush hour.

So what by Canadian standards might seem to be mild conditions become the source of quite an entertaining catastrophe. Unpromising material provides the basis for drama.

The Canadians may be better at dealing with wintry conditions than the English. But when it comes to using them to fuel some real excitement for a few days, England is in a league of its own.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Win some, lose some

It’s good to be quiet. Away from all the briefers and advisers and assistants who want to brief me, drain me, tell me what to do.

Now there’s just me. And the TV. And a match to watch.

The only trouble is I want a drink. But then I always want a drink. That’s how it’s always going to be. I’m going to be wanting a drink but can’t have one. Because of all that trouble all that time ago.

Now it’s ‘just say no’.

Dad’s so painful about all that. So superior. So ‘told you so’.

And of course so damn high and mighty. And he was always like that, even before. He was always going on about how disappointing I was. College. The drinking. The business troubles. Each time he came up with a bit more money, or his friends did, but it wasn’t exactly free. He’d make me pay with all his talk, about how anyone could make money with all the advantages he’d given me. How could I lose money. Again. And then there’d be the new job in the new company with the new money and the whole thing would start over.

No wonder I need a drink. With memories like that, you’ve got something to drown. Haven’t you? Anyone would want a drink. Wouldn’t they?

Boy! I suddenly remembered. There’s an icebox in here. It’s built into the wooden panelling, next to a bookshelf. Just over here. Yes, here it is.

And look at that. Just like a hotel minibar. A couple of cans, looking fresh and tempting. And some nibbles too, on a shelf.

Wow. Looks good.

What the hell.

It can’t do that much harm. Just once. They’ve left me to watch the match. You can’t really watch a match without a can in your hand.

I’ll have just one of them.

Hey. Just pulling back a ring pull. What a great feeling. It brings it all back. Brilliant.

And the taste. The kick. It’s just a beer and a pretty feeble one at that, but when you’ve not had anything with any kind of kick in such a long time… well, you feel it.
Now I can watch the game properly.

I’m feeling good.

But of course they’re going to find the can. And there’ll be hell to pay again.

It’ll be like when my daughter got into trouble. ‘Like father like daughter’ my Dad said. ‘So what makes you think I’m not like you?’ I answered. ‘You are, son, you are.’ But I know what he meant. The same but not so good. The same college, the same secret club. But he shone on the games field and the exam hall. I – well, I didn’t shine.

What the heck. Two beer cans are no more difficult to get rid of than one. And two beers feel twice as good as one. I’ll have the other.

It’s not as though he did that well, my Dad, anyway. Yeah, he got this job before I did, but now I’ve got it.

Now I’m going to show him. What he didn’t finish, with that raghead dictator, I’ll be the one to finish it off. That’ll wipe the grin off his face.

And we’re going to do it too. Dick and Rummy have all the plans in place. That’s the upside of the briefers and advisers. They bug you to death but they get things done for you. Then I’ll be the one laughing. I’ll be the high and mighty one. The one with the airs and graces, the superiority. Dad may have been the youngest fighting airman ever, while I just dodged Vietnam in the Texas Air Guard. But I’m going to win the war he couldn’t finish.

So now I can settle down and watch the game. With my second beer. And – I know. Something to nibble on. I think I saw pretzels. Yes, they’ll go down well. A football game, a couple of beers, some pretzels.

Time to show them that even a commander in chief can be really cool.

With my apologies to Jorge Luis Borges for shamelessly ripping off the structure of his great short story La Casa de Asterión and my thanks to Serena Olivieri for introducing me to it