My life: 1979-1982

1981 (5)

When I was 19 I decided to go to Germany because I wanted some adventure in my life and I knew about 20 words of German that I had remembered from school. One evening in my mum’s living room I looked at a map and found that the nearest big German city to England was Cologne so I decided to go there. That evening I packed a single sports bag, bizarrely including my brand new gut-strung Wilson tennis racket. I now find this very odd since I rarely played tennis and then quite badly.

The next morning I started out from my mum’s house on the outskirts of Leicester and caught a train to London. There I changed for Harwich where I took a ferry to the Hook of Holland and then on to Cologne by train.

On the train I got talking to an elderly German man. After the war he had moved to England and he was now going back to East Germany for his brother’s funeral. For this he needed a special entry permit. Had I known then what I know now about history I would have asked him more questions and listened more attentively to his answers. As it was I knew nothing about Germany or its history so what the old gent told me meant little to me. I don’t think I even knew that Germany was partitioned, nor who the leaders of either side were. (They were Helmut Schmidt in the west and Erich Honecker in the east, Erich being stuck with the Kafkaesque title of ‘General Secretary of the Central Committee’.) It is now strange for me to think that Karl Dönitz, Admiral of the German navy during World War II, was still alive and living in Hamburg while I was on that trian to Cologne. It’s like being told that Napoleon was still alive.

The train arrived in Cologne at about midnight and I said goodbye to the old man and got out. It was cold and dark. I was so careless in those days that it never occurred to me that I would arrive late at night. I went down the station steps and walked out into the freezing night. It was snowing and towering over everything were the twin spires of the huge Kölner Dom. I was virtually alone in the street and with nowhere to go I decided to go back into the station and spend the night there with the homeless men.

The next day I registered at the job centre and in the evening I booked into a youth hostel. There I got talking to five German girls who took me out on the town with them. When we got back to the hostel they invited me into their room and we sat chatting on their beds for an hour before I made my way back to my own dormitory. No girls in England had ever shown the slightest interest in me and had certainly never invited me to spend the evening with them. That night I lay down probably feeling as good as I had ever done.

A day or two later I went for an interview with Ford, the American motor company. There were job vacancies in the spare parts factory that required only minimal German language skills. There must have been about 50 men from different countries at the ‘interview’. We all had to strip off to the waist and were measured and checked for God knows what health problems. I was taken on and started the following Monday.

At work a very nice Greek man who spoke some English was assigned to show me the ropes. The job merely involved moving spare parts from one part of the factory to another. Dull but easy. At lunchtime I sat with my new Greek friend and his compatriots, all of them women. They wanted to know what such a young English boy was doing in Germany without his family. I think people from poorer countries generally imagine that everything comes down to money but that was not my case. I simply wanted to do something different with my life, like Reginald Perrin.

The Italians, Turks, Yugoslavs and other foreigners often seemed friendlier than the Germans but that could have been because we ‘Ausländer’ were all in the same boat. One big Yugoslav man could pick up a cage used for transporting spare parts that I could barely budge by pushing. He took great delight in picking me up, just to show how strong he was. And he was.

I worked at that factory for 6 months, doing lots of overtime because I really didn’t have much else to do. I lived at the Ford workers hostel (men only) and shared a room with an aggressive-when-drunk gay Irishman called Tony. I only realised he was gay when one night I wanted to go to the toilet and found our door locked. I walked over to Tony’s bed to ask him for the key and sleeping next to him was a swarthy, tussle-headed man. Oh great.

Keys played an important role in my relations with Tony. When out drinking he would often lose his house key and at 2 o’clock in the morning he would bang on the window, asking me to go round to the main entrance and let him in. This happened several times and one day at work I mentioned it to the other English men who lived next door to Tony and me. They all agreed that I should nip this in the bud and tell Tony to pack it in. So next time there was a bang on the window at 2am I got up, walked over to the window, opened it and asked, ‘Where’s your key, Tony?’ to which he replied, ‘Never mind where my f****** key is. Just open the f****** door. Now!’ Well, that didn’t go as I had hoped. There was nothing for it but to let him in.

One evening I was going out so before having a bath I asked Tony if he wanted to use the bathroom. He gave me a quizzical look and hesitantly said ‘Er, no’. Once I was in the bath there was a knock on the door and a voice asked if I wanted my back scrubbing. I said no and lay there soaking and wondering if his alcohol befuddled brain had interpreted my earlier question as a come-on.

I used to look forward to receiving letters from home or from my brother in Holland and these would be put in the pigeon-hole near the main door. One day one of the other Englishmen asked me if I had picked up the letter that he had seen in my pigeon hole when he went past. I said there hadn’t been any letter when I went past. We all surmised that Tony had opened it and thrown it away. I questioned him about it and he neither denied it nor admitted it.

Tony would often talk about going back to Paris where he used to live and I would encourage him in this, without making it too obvious I couldn’t wait to see the back of him. He always threatened to go but never actually did until one glorious day when I came back from work he was gone. I didn’t quite believe it at first and for a few days expected him to return but he never did. I don’t remember if I danced a little jig around my room but it’s not impossible.

I met Tony many years later by chance in Victoria train station. He spotted me, walked over and asked if I remembered him. I told him I did. We talked for a minute or two about what we were now doing and he invited me back to his flat for tea. I said I had a train to catch.

Tony’s replacement in my room in hostel was a very nice Mexican doctoral student called Jorge. He was tall, 28-years old and used to take me with him to the centre of Cologne where we drank and talked and danced with German women. Well, maybe it was Jorge who talked and danced. I probably just looked on in admiration. One night we stayed out all night and were too tired and drunk to go to work so Jorge said, “Let’s just take the day off”. He phoned Ford to tell them that neither of us would be in that day and that was that. So simple.

The Dire Straits album Communique was in all the record shops at the time but since I didn’t have a record player I just gazed at the cover from the window. I didn’t even know who Dire Straits were but I soon found out back in my room while listening to British forces radio on my small cassette-radio. However, the most requested song by squaddies stationed in Germany, or by their girlfriends, was Take Good Care of Yourself by the Three Degrees.

I liked looking round shops for clothes and one day spotted a silky wine red shirt in a posh-looking shop. Perfect for discos with Jorge! In those days clothes seemed so important. Now I don’t care what I wear since middle-aged men don’t look good in anything. Even so, I still remember what clothes meant to me so I can understand why young people foolishly squander their money on brand clothes that are indistinguishable from something a quarter of the price.

While in Cologne I discovered the novels of Graham Greene and read many of them. I liked his early ones best. Most of the protagonists of his stories were single men living abroad so I could relate to them. I liked Greene’s cynical, bitter outlook on the world. I thought it was very grown up and realistic and I too wanted to be as world-weary as his heroes.

I used to lie on my hostel bed and listen to Steve Harley songs. In one he mentioned the writer Virginia Woolf so I started reading her books. I became a fan but now wonder what it was I saw in her books. After all, nothing ever happens in them except the odd visit to a lighthouse and a long drawn-out description of some woman tossing back her hair. Nowadays I prefer books that are about something. I think it was precisely because nothing ever happened in Virginia Woolf’s books that I thought they must be deep.

I rarely bothered buying a ticket for the Cologne tram that I took to and from work. I couldn’t see how the tram company made any money if everyone was like me and never bought a ticket. And no one ever checked. That is, until one morning as I idly watched a group of unremarkable people get on my tram. Once on, four of them turned in unison to the passengers and started asking for their tickets. But these are plain clothes people! That’s not fair. Shouldn’t they be wearing uniforms? Soon a lady inspector asked me for my ticket and I went through the pretense of fumbling in my pocket for something that, surprise surprise, wasn’t there. I was young and stupid enough to imagine she might be taken in. She wasn’t and fined me 20 marks on the spot. The lady sitting next to on the tram kept muttering ‘Stupid boy. Stupid boy’. Hmm, a telling off was just what I  needed now after paying a hefty fine. But at least the mystery of how the trams made money was solved. There were indeed inspectors. It was just that I hadn’t come across them before.

One day coming home from work our tram stopped. I could see that some other trams had also stopped and a few passengers got off our tram to see what the hold-up was. I followed them off. A young girl was lying on the tracks with a huge gash in her thigh and the tram seemed to have come to rest on her back. It was hard to tell if it was pressing down on her or if she was slim enough to fit under it. She was not conscious but making small groaning noises. Her friend was kneeling next to her, as was the driver of one of the trams. I think the injured girl and her friend had seen their tram coming and had tried to vault over a low fence to catch it but had tripped and fallen in front of the tram. As we stared at the injured girl the driver turned round to us all and angrily said, ‘Have you all seen enough now?’ Knowing that there was no point in getting back onto the tram I decided to walk home and try to forget about the girl. I couldn’t and still haven’t.

After a few months working in the factory we had a week off and another English worker was driving back to England for a week and offered to take me with him. I still remember the wonderful feeling of seeing the white cliffs of Dover again and making my way to my grandmother’s house in Kent: walking through the English suburban streets with their semi-detached houses, their hedges and familiar names and feeling very happy to be home again. I have absolutely no memory of how I spent the rest of the week before driving back to Cologne.

After my six-month contract with Ford was up I was obliged to move out of the hostel until I was given a new contract. Then I could move back in and resume work. Rather than wait around I went to Berlin for a couple of weeks. If decided that if I found a job and a flat in Berlin I would only return to Cologne to pick up what I couldn’t carry with me now: basically my tennis racket and a few books. I left these with Joe, an Englishman living in the hostel. When I finally returned to Cologne several months later Joe was gone and there was no trace of any of my stuff. I don’t blame Joe for this. He probably just had to leave. But that damned racket cost me about a week’s wages back in England and I never used it once! Even now, 40 years later, I’m still annoyed about it. The Divine Comedy song ‘Lost Property’ sums up my feelings. After all his life letting things slip through his hands at the end of the song the singer is reunited with everything he has ever lost:

Then one night in a dream
I passed through a sheepskin screen
To a green, pleasant land
I found them all piled up into the sky
And I cried tears of joy

I find this both hilarious and strangely moving. It reminds me of that strange philosophical idea that the past is not actually past but still with us. Then my mind gets tired trying to imagine this and I do something else.

Once again, Kate Bush might have been responsible for my decision to go to Berlin. ‘Saxophone Song‘ begins with the line, ‘You’ll find me in a Berlin bar in a corner brooding’. I liked that line. Or maybe we had a jigsaw of old Berlin at home. I can no longer remember clearly.

I loved Berlin from the start. I liked the fact that it was an island in a sea of East German communism. It was also the most cultured place I had ever been and that atmosphere infected me. During my first few evenings there I went to musicals and plays, something I had never done anywhere else. I drank coffee outside posh cafes and tried to read German newspapers. I wanted to do things that sophisticated people do and I was amazed that as long as I had the money I could pretend to be sophisticated. Nobody in the theatre asked me to leave and no one in the posh cafe asked me to drink up as it was clear I didn’t belong there. I was shy and very conscious that I was playing the part of an adult that I wasn’t.

I waited for the first newspapers to be delivered in the early afternoon, turned to the ‘Rooms to let’ section and ran into a phone box to start calling. Most people didn’t want to rent to a foreigner. They probably assumed I was Turkish, as were most of the foreigners there. For this reason I registered with an estate agent who supplied me with the address of a possible flat. Yet even they wouldn’t even let me see the flat after they heard my foreign accent. It was only after I returned to the agency and told them what had happened that the agency called the people and assured them that I was English foreign, not some other kind of foreign. I finally viewed the flat but didn’t like it.

I decided to try a slightly more expensive room from the newspaper because the cheap ones always went so fast. This flat was in next to Kleist Park underground station in Schöneberg. To my surprise, even after hearing my foreign accent, the lady told me to come round and look at it so I did. The room was very nice and clean. There were two other rooms in the apartment which were occupied by single German men. The lady had no objection to an out-of-work Englishman who spoke poor German moving in but she did insist that I must puff up the pillows every morning or the feathers inside would become matted. Reader, I took the room.

I went to the job centre to look for work but initially there was nothing. The official suggested I apply for dole money until I found a job. I told him I didn’t want dole money and would live off my savings until I found work. He said this was foolish and talked me into applying for dole money. When I got my first dole cheque I couldn’t believe it. It was almost as much as I had been earning with Ford. Apparently dole money was calculated on how much you had contributed in tax and because I had done so much overtime at Ford’s my dole cheque was huge. I could afford to eat out at a different restaurant every evening, occasionally go to see a play and still have more than enough money left to pay Frau Zimmermann the rent. I thought I was in heaven.

Since I didn’t have a job I spent a lot of time at home with Frau Zimmermann. She spoke pretty good English but wanted me to learn German so she often switched into German. She was a widow in her 70’s and we used to sit and drink coffee together and play chess. Both of us were a little bad-tempered and we often used to have heated arguments though about what I can no longer remember. (Who started the war, perhaps?).

Whenever I got into one of these arguments I had to revert to English because I couldn’t marshal my thoughts in German while the part of my brain that wanted to do a Raskolnikov on Frau Z. was active. She would then sneer at me for putting her at a disadvantage, linguistically speaking. Fair point.

A Turkish family lived next door and Aisha, the 9-year-old daughter, would sometimes come round to see if there was anything Frau Zimmermann needed. Occasionally Frau Z. would ask Aisha if she would go to the shops with me or show me where a certain restaurant was and Aisha always did.

One day Aisha was given the task of escorting me to an outdoor swimming pool that Frau Zimmermann thought I would like. I believe I have just pinpointed it on an internet map and it is called ‘Sommerbad am Insulaner’. Strange that I can remember the name after so long. Looking at the map more closely I find that even the names of the various underground stations and streets that I haven’t heard for 40 years are still amazingly familiar to me. Berlin must really have made a strong impression on my young brain and nostalgia is threatening to carry me away so back to the story.

At the pool Aisha showed me where I should get changed and what I should do and who I should pay and we spent a very pleasant afternoon swimming, sunbathing and reading. Due partly to Aisha and Frau Zimmermann my German started to improve.

Sometimes I would go out with one of the German men who lived in the same apartment. Once he and his friends took me bowling with them. He was nice but after I had been there a month or two Frau Zimmermann threw him out. I think he was behind with the rent. She said he was ‘labil’, a new word for me which I think meant ‘of weak character’. I didn’t see him again.

My dad had been in the navy when he was young and had always liked travelling so I wasn’t surprised when he came to visit me for a few days. He had first gone to stay with my brother in Holland and then came on by train to Berlin. I took him to Checkpoint Charlie where we passed through to East Berlin. After a day in the Dreadful Deutsche Republik we tried to get back through a different checkpoint but were told we would have to go back through the crossing we came in. At first my dad thought we were not going to be allowed to leave and this put him on edge. When we finally passed through Checkpoint Charlie and for half an hour found ourselves wandering aimlessly through the ugly, rainy, deserted backstreets that were typical of the streets surrounding the Wall my dad asked in all seriousness, “You don’t think we’ve accidentally walked back into East Germany do you?” I assured him that people got shot trying to break out so stumbling into East Germany by accident was unlikely. In the end we got back to the reassuringly bright lights of the exploitative capitalist West.

The job centre finally found me a job. The official title was ‘gardener’ but in reality most of what I did was to dispose of the rubbish amassed by the students in their halls of residence. In summer I had to mow the grass and in winter I cleared the paths of snow. Winter in Berlin was quite severe. I drove a small tractor onto the front of which I could attach a snowbrush in bad weather. Most of the time I just attacked a trailer to the back of the tractor into which I threw all the bags of the students’ rubbish. I would then drive to a press container and throw the rubbish inside, close and lock the door and push a button that set the contraption in motion, compacting all the rubbish into a tiny space. Men would regularly turn up and offer to give me 10 or 20 marks if I would let them throw a bag of their own rubbish into the container. I always refused. This always made them angry and they invariably told me I was a fool since they would simply come back at night when I wasn’t there just dump it. I said that was up to them. They went away, swearing yet sure enough, most mornings when I arrived for work someone had dumped their rubbish all around my container. Then there was nothing I could do but throw it into the container. I wanted to be uncorruptible, like a British colonial officer!

My boss was an old man called Herr Grobelny, who I liked a lot. He was small and dignified with a gentle kind of authority. He invited me round to his house once to have dinner with him and his wife. It was Herr Grobelny that made me want to do the job well: I wanted to sprinkle to lawns properly, make sure the paths weren’t slippery and not take bribes. Unfortunately he retired after I had been there for 6 months and his successor wasn’t nearly so nice.

There were four of us working there: the boss, Reiner the plumber, Klaus the carpenter and me. Sometimes I helped the plumber whenever I had nothing else to do and a drain needed unblocking. I was interested in learning new things but unblocking drains seemed a really hit and miss affair to me: sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t and I couldn’t see why. When one of the foreign students died, through suicide I believe, my co-workers cleared out his room. They gave me the student’s very good German-English dictionary, saying that if I didn’t take it it would just be thrown away. I took it and kept it for decades. I think the student was from Africa and was perhaps suffering from home sickness. Or maybe I am just imagining that.

Sometimes I would sit with the Carpenter in his workshop during our breaks and try and finish the German crossword puzzle in his newspaper. I got better and better at it.

When it was raining I would sit in the garage with my tractor, parked in front of me, and read Aldous Huxley novels: Chrome Yellow, Brave New World, Point Counterpoint and Antic Hay. I also read some George Orwell books: Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four and a little later Homage to Catalonia and Coming up for Air. I think it was around this time that I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which I had seen on my brother’s table while visiting him in Holland. This book influenced my thinking a lot, though I now think it has little value as philosophy. As a novel though I still think it’s very good.

There was a great bookshop somewhere off the Kurfürstendamm, the main shopping street in Berlin, and I used to spend hours looking round the English section. I sometimes bought a book mainly on the strength of its cover. Books with Impressionist covers were my favourite. Occasionally I read a novel in German like The Nazi and the Barber by Edgar HilsenrathThe German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz and The Clown by Heinrich Böll. I no longer have the mental energy to read novels in German but I used to enjoy doing so.

When I had first arrived in Berlin in the evening I often took the underground train to some random station and walked around until I found a tempting-looking bar to dive into. It was in this way that I met a young German barmaid called Ingrid. She spoke very good English and I would often sit at the bar and talk to her. Also working there was a Polish waitress and when she wasn’t busy she’d come and sit with me and chat.

Ingrid’s father had recently died and in his will had left her and her brother his apartment so Ingrid was looking to give up her cheap student’s flat in Kreuzberg. She wondered if I would like to move into it because she thought my present room at Frau Zimmermann’s was far too expensive. All I would have to do was pay the rent by standing order every month and no new rental agreement need be made. I would of course have to register my new address at the police station, the first thing you always had to do in Germany. Anyway, I agreed and moved out of Frau Zimmermann’s house.

My new flat was on the fifth floor of an old house in Kreuzberg and it had no lift. I used to enjoy leaning out of the window and watching life – mostly Turkish life – going by below. I was still amazed that I was living in another country. The problem was that in my new flat there was no one for me to talk to and I often went whole days without exchanging a word with anyone.

Also there was the problem of the tiled stove, the only way of heating the room. Every time I tried to get the apartment warm by putting bricks of coal into the oven and lighting them the only thing that happened was that the room filled with smoke. The oven itself barely heated up at all. I thought I must be doing something wrong but what? Had I closed a flap that should have been open? I often had to lie on the floor so as not to inhale too much smoke. After a while the coal bricks would just give up their smoldering and then the smoke would clear and the room would be just as cold as it was before.

Nothing worked until someone suggested that the oven chimney might be blocked and need cleaning. I called the first chimney cleaning service I found in the telephone book and two very old men promptly arrived. Even to this day I feel sorry for them. They must have been in their 70’s and had probably worked at cleaning stoves and chimneys all their lives. Even so, they claimed they had never seen a chimney so blocked with soot and I believe they were telling the truth and not just trying to up the price. Since there was no lift they had to keep trudging up and down the five flights of stairs to empty their buckets of soot. Still, who cares about them! I now had a clean chimney, my tiled oven worked and I no longer had to lie on the floor all evening to avoid smoke inhalation while almost freezing to death.

While I was out one day the flat was burgled. When the police arrived they told me that top floor flats were favourite targets for burglars since only the people who live there go that high. My passport and a few hundred marks were stolen. The policeman said I didn’t seem to be particularly bothered by the whole thing and strangely I wasn’t. Since I was earning more money than I was spending I didn’t worry much about money. Of course it was annoying that my door no longer locked properly but even that didn’t worry me much. Strange. It would now.

After a while the student organisation where I worked said there was a room free in the students’ residence if I wanted to move into it. I would pay the same rent as the students, which was very little. This would save me having to travel so far in the morning and evening. I could just fall out of bed in the morning and be at work in one minute. I jumped at the chance and moved out of Ingrid’s flat and into the halls of residence.

The foreign students sometimes played football on the grassy area between the buildings and I started playing with them. I had always been pretty good at football and so was one of the foreign students, Karim, a student from Iraq. The two of us soon became friends. Sometimes he invited me to his room and he would cook something Iraqi or he would come to mine room and I would cook goodness knows what. What I do remember is that the concept of drying-up was new to Karim. He said his mother would think I was mad.

I think Karim was against Saddam’s regime and that was why he had left Iraq. However, since I wasn’t remotely interested in politics I never really asked him about it. This was in 1980, the year of the Iran-Iraq War, so maybe he was also trying to avoid getting drafted into the Iraqi army.

The students on my floor didn’t mind Karim’s visits but they were less keen on my newly-found young German friends. While doing my job a group of local German teenagers from poorish families had befriended me. I think they found it interesting that a young Englishman, who spoke poor German, was doing the job I was doing. Also I was only a few years older than them.

These teenagers were of all ages. There was one young woman whose husband was in prison and she let her young son roam around outside where I used to work. This little boy was only about 4-years-old and I used to feel sorry for him so sometimes I let him climb into my tractor cabin and we would drive around the grounds of the students halls together. On some mornings, after working for a couple of hours, I went for breakfast in the university canteen and if the boy was around I would take him in with me and buy him breakfast. The lady behind the counter who served me every day asked if the boy was my son. I laughed and said no but I couldn’t help feeling a surge of pride at the idea. Being a father had never crossed my mind but suddenly I could see the attraction of it. However, one day my colleagues informed me I was not allowed to take anyone for a ride in the tractor in case I had an accident so that was the end of that.

I bought a second hand BMW that I loved driving around. I went to see touring British bands bands like The Specials, The Selector, The Boom Town Rats and Stiff Little Fingers. At home I listened endlessly to groups like Fischer Z and Fehlfarben but can no longer rekindle even a little of the fascination they once held for me. I occasionally went to see New German Wave bands like Ideal or I went to a nightclub where they played ‘Follow the Leaders’ by Killing Joke and ‘Der Mussolini’ by DAF. For me the latter was just a song but to Ute Stein, the German-Jewish woman who ran the youth centre where my young friends and I went once or twice a week, there was something more sinister to it than that. I now understand what she meant.

Soon my teenager friends were visiting me in my room, first in ones and twos and then in sixes and sevens. We all liked pop music and I was the only one with the money to buy records so they used to pile into my room and we would talk and listen to Elvis Costello, the Buzzcocks and the Stranglers. Later this became Simple Minds, Depeche Mode and Duran Duran. They were always well-behaved but I am sure the students on my floor didn’t want these teenagers hanging around near their rooms. I think the student organisation must have received some complaints because after a few months of living there they doubled the price of my rent. I think I surprised them by saying that that was fine. I even thought it was fair that I pay more than the students. However, I don’t think the cost was the real problem so finally they asked me to move out altogether. Fair enough.

Just thinking about having to look for a new flat and travel to work every day rather than already being there made my heart sink. Apart from this, my initial enthusiasm for the job was waning. After one and a half years of throwing rubbish away the novelty was had worn off. So when I gave up the room I decided to hand in my notice, too. There was a large element of ‘cutting off my nose to spite my face’ in this.

I never did find or even look for another job, even though I stayed on in Berlin for another year. I moved in with my German friend Mischa, who was living in an attic room with a German family: father, mother, a 6-year-old daughter, a 3-year-old son and an Alsatian that used to eat whole tubs of margarine if you were careless enough to leave it out on the table. I think the family was pleased to have some extra rent and perhaps even felt I would be a civilising influence on Mischa. He was a few months older than me and with more of a confrontational personality.

Both Mischa and I lived off the dole. We spent our days listening to music, talking and riding our bikes. Occasionally he did a spot of removal work for his friend and I sometimes tagged along, too. For one week I worked as a builder’s helper but it was too hard for me. Digging holes in the ground with a pickaxe was no fun, neither was carrying heavy loads up the outside ladders of buildings. I used to fall asleep on the train going home I was so tired. The thing I was most useful for was to drive one of the builders around who had just lost his driver’s license through, I think, drink driving. However, that proved not reason enough to keep me on and to my great relief the small group of builders paid me off at the end of the week and told me I needn’t come back the following week. Or ever.

Werner, the father of the family I lived with, was a sound engineer for ZDF, the second German TV channel, and once he took me along on a job. We were to record some not-famous pop group making a video. During one of the many breaks I went into the toilets and one of them was snorting some white powder. He just looked at me in the mirror as I walked in. The whole day was chaotic and by evening nothing of any use had been recorded. As far as I know it never was recorded. Of course, Werner still had to be paid and to my amazement insisted that his ‘assistant’ (me!) should also be paid half of his fee. “But he didn’t do anything!” they all objected. Werner held firm and I got my money for moving a cable two inches to the left on one occasion.

At some point I moved into my own flat and though I had my own car and was sort of enjoying myself I realised my life was going nowhere. So having spent 3¼ years in Germany, in the Spring of 1982, just before my 23rd birthday, I said goodbye to my German friends and went by train and boat back to England. Argentina was just about to invade the Falkland Islands and I was about to start a new life as a postman.

My story continues here.

8 thoughts on “My life: 1979-1982”

  1. Entertaining stuff, please do a part 3! I loved reading about your German adventures. Actually, we were both there at the same time: As the child of an RAF dad, I was also in West Germany from 1978-1983 at a British army base in Soltau in Luneberg Heath. My dad was “seconded” from the RAF to the 7th Armoured Brigade, and I have so many pleasant memories of living in Germany as a kid…I was almost oblivious to the realities of the Cold War and the fact that should things have kicked off, bases such as the one we lived near would have been hit with Warsaw Pact tactical nukes within the hour. Ignorance truly is bliss! Btw, will you be in Tokyo over xmas/New Year’s?

  2. Thanks, this is very interesting. One thing never changes: the contempt and indifference that most British women have towards ordinary British men. That hasn’t change at all, it’s still true. The moment you go to any other country, even one that is supposed to be more obsessed with feminism like Sweden or Denmark, you find the women there are more polite and willing to talk to you than British women are. It’s always a shock when you return to the UK to be greeted by their unfriendly attitude, even when you’re expecting it in advance. The other thing is that these days a British person wouldn’t be able to turn up in a place like Cologne without anywhere to stay because all the places to stay, and indeed all the sympathy of the local people, would be directed towards politically correct groups like immigrants and single mothers. As a white man, you wouldn’t stand a chance of getting anywhere to stay like you used to be able to. Well, at least that’s my strong impression.

  3. I’m not so sure about that. I have always had faith in the capitalist system and the fact that people in business want to make a profit. Therefore anyone who turns up with money will probably find a place to stay. It just so happens that at present western governments have decided to provide for various immigrant groups and treat them like pets but this doesn’t means that all, or even most, native Europeans feel particularly well disposed to these new arrivals. I suspect that in the privacy of many European homes there are conversations going on like the one you and I are having now.

  4. I’ve read this once again, and I’m looking forward to reading part 3 if you’re going to post it sometime. I was born right at the end of the 1970s (just when you moved to Germany in fact) and I’ve always been particularly fascinated by that period — the late 70s and early 80s. I think it’s one of the most interesting periods of recent history, although that may be a biased opinion. I think people are quite often fascinated by the period when they were born and just afterwards. My Dad was born in the early 1940s and he’s obsessed with the Second World War, so it’s the same thing for him. My earliest memories are from either 1981 or 1982. I can definitely remember 1982 but I’m not sure whether my 1981 memories are “real” or not. My younger brother was born in that year and I seem to have memories of seeing him in hospital but I’m not convinced those are real memories or just based on what people have told me.

  5. I suspect that it’s as you say; people are fascinated by the age they grew up in (or just before). I went through I phase of loving all things 1950s, even though I was born in the last year of that decade. My dad, like yours, was obsessed with the war. The more I learn about it the more I can understand why. Even to me it has come to look more interesting than the sheer awfulness of socialist Britain in the 1970’s or the power dressing and Duran Duran of the early 1980’s.

  6. Thanks for the replies, it’s always nice to get feedback. Thinking about your time in Germany, I really wonder whether that sort of lifestyle would be possible today. I find it difficult to believe that getting dole money would be as easy now as it was then, and whether it would be enough to pay for a flat in a place like Berlin, and also whether finding a job in the first place would be easy these days. It could be that the only easily-available jobs and cheap flats available now are in places where most of the people are from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, etc, and that it wouldn’t be particularly pleasant for a white British person to be in constant contact with those types of people, although I’m sure a fair number of them are nice people, it’s always wrong to generalise of course. Would the Germans be as happy now to have an English person around them as they were then? I’m a bit cynical so maybe it wouldn’t be quite as difficult as I seem to think. (I very much admire what you did, going over there at such a young age without any idea of what you were going to do, and just finding things to do as you went along. I wanted to do something like that when I was about 19 although I didn’t actually do it, probably because life was too cushy for me at home).

  7. Actually, my brother lives in Germany and has done for the past 25 years or so. He gets on very well with the Germans and the other various nationalities he comes into contact with: Turkish, Croatian etc. Another English friend is married to a German and he also raves about life in Germany (he lives away from most of the asylum-seekers/immigrants).

    Your right, the world is a different place today: jobs are harder to find and I’m sure dole money is less (stupidly) generous than it was. Even so, I’m sure there are still mini adventures to be had in Europe if you go looking.

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