Saturday, 5 July 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 5 Into Germany (3)

Max and Freddy and their half-dozen friends, assembled in an Aachen bar whose name I've forgotten, turned out to be good company. The only conceivable reference to the war was the slightly militaristic tone of the songs they sang. I remember particularly three that I've scribbled down lopsidedly above: Herr Leutnant, Herr Leutnant, was gibt's mit ihre Frau (Mr Lieutenant, Mr Lieutenant, what's up with your wife: evidently her inattention to personal hygiene discouraged admirers). Chiefly notable, apart from the scurrilities, of this song and its fellows Bums! Da fiel die Lampe um, und alles war Petroleum (Whoops! The lamp fell over, and there was oil everywhere) and Schon wieder eine Seele vom Alkohol geret-tet-tet (Yet another soul rescue-cue-cued from alcohol) was their jaunty swagger, their quick-march tempo and basic tonic-and-dominant harmony.

I could imagine Bismarck's Prussians singing march songs like these on their way to take on the Habsburg Emperor Franz-Josef's troops in the Seven Weeks' War of 1866, and being met at Sadowa by Austrians who had marched to the defence of their frontiers singing exactly the same songs. Nor was it difficult to imagine the same soldiers singing the same songs as they marched to confront Napoleon III four years later, nor indeed Kaiser Bill's armies sweeping through Belgium and north-east France in 1914, closely followed by Hitler's troops in 1940.

Where had these songs come from? It likely to me that the words of Herr Leutnant had been tacked on to an existing march tune (a tune whose exploitation of the submediant as a kind of alternative dominant indicated the 1850s). It wouldn't be the only time that a march tune had become celebrated through the words later associated with it. After all, some unknown barrack-room and NAAFI genius had taken the spit-and-polish rhythm of Kenneth Alford's march Colonel Bogey, named, bizarrely, after an Inverness golfer, and had added the following immortal ditty:

He only had one ball:
Goering [pron. 'goring']
Had two, but very small:
Had something sim'lar,
But poor old Goebbels [pron. 'gobles']
Had no balls
At all.

I discovered later that there existed commercial recordings of these German street, bar and route-march songs, tracks with sequences of half-a-dozen such songs recorded by scratch oom-pah bands and ad hoc bar choirs. There was very little like it in British song literature. Obscene songs apart, maybe Cockney songs came closest, Knees Up, Mother Brown and Where Did You Get That Hat? and the like, essentially music-hall songs, an innocent and artless genre recently resuscitated - in fact in the previous April, when George and I were revising for A Levels, and when Adèle's school was fixing up her exchange - by a guitarist calling himself Lonnie Donegan with a song called My Old Man's a Dustman.

This was the song George and I contributed to the evening's entertainment. (In the circumstances we felt songs about Hitler's monorchism were hardly suitable.) My old man's a dustman, we sang, 'E wears a dustman's 'at, 'e wears gorblimey trousers, an' 'e lives in a council flat. The Germans found this song problematical. With great earnestness, as though it would reveal deep insights into the English character, they asked for a translation, and of course we fell at the first hurdle with 'old man' as a familiar term for 'father'. (Is your father an old man? Why you say he is old? You are young. My father is 43.) As for 'gorblimey', we could only register dismal failure.

- It is a colour, yes?
- No, Max, not really. No, it doesn't mean a colour, more a...
- I know, I know! It is a style of trouser, no?
- Yes, Freddy, I suppose so. A style. You've got it, mate.
- It is not a very beautiful style, I think?
- It is not a very beautiful song, definitely.
- Why the English make songs about their trouser?
- Why the English make songs about their Strassenfeger? [dustmen]
- Why the English make songs about old men?
- Why the English make songs?

Clearly there were gaps to be bridged. Maybe the same cultural impasse occurred to Joan Littlewood, doughty founder director of the Theatre Workshop, in Oh What A Lovely War, first produced about three years later: in the famous World War I Christmas fraternisation scene, German soldiers in sentimental mood are heard singing Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht (Silent night, holy night) in their trenches. In due course they request a seasonal song from the Tommy Atkinses in the trench opposite. The British soldiers oblige with:

It was Christmas day in the harem,
The eunuchs was standing round,
And hundreds of beautiful women
Were stretched out on the ground,
When in strode the Bold Bad Sultan,
And gazed on his marble halls,
Saying 'What do you want for Christmas, boys?'
And the eunuchs answered...
Tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.

So the evening passed. George and I felt honoured when they toasted us towards the end of the evening Hoch soll'n sie leben, hoch soll'n sie leben, dreimal hoch (roughly Long may they live, long may they live, three times long). Max left before anyone else, presenting us with his card. (A card! At nineteen! We'd never heard of such a thing.) Here was his address, if we wanted a bed for the night, or anything. It was in the city centre, we'd find it easily. The pleasure would be his. He bowed and clicked his heels.

The party broke up, overflowing with beer-fellowship. Outside, I glanced at Max's card. Maximilian Hoffmann, student, it read. Schumanngasse 17. We could do with a bed for the night then and there: suppose we took up Max's offer straight away? So we set off to search for the Schumanngasse all round central Aachen. We stopped to ask: nobody had heard of it. After the best part of an hour's wandering about, George asked to look at the card.

- What's it like, being a complete cretin and bloody fool?
- Huh?
- Look at this card. What does it say?
- Maximilian Hoffmann, student. Schumanngasse 17...

I paused.

- Go on, read it out, George said. Read it all out. Read out the name of the town.
- Stuttgart, I said. Bloody Stuttgart. I'm sorry. I just assumed he lived in Aachen.

We made our way back to the Westpark, found our oak tree, unrolled our sleeping bags and settled down for the night. At least we didn't have the problem of stumbling about in the middle of the night in a strange house trying to find the bathroom.

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