Ich bin ein Englander

Six months with the German cultural attache

It was October. We were guests at some launch party. When the speeches were finished, Frank Burbach explained what he did for a living – and I tell you, I pitied him.

As cultural attache to the German embassy, Frank is responsible for promoting German culture to the British. Could anything be more hellish? Not a lot, because there are few words less inspiring to the British than culture. And one of those words is… German.

Shortly before our meeting this miserable truth was implicitly acknowledged by the outgoing German ambassador. Gebhardt von Moltke, departing for a new post at Nato, criticised the British for “profound ignorance” about modern Germany: “I regret and am deeply concerned by the lack of interest and curiosity I detect among young British people.” When he arrived in Britain, he said, “I was horrified by headlines about the Krauts… I want the British to start liking the Germans as much as I like the British.” Unless some miracle occurs, Von Moltke’s replacement as ambassador, Hans-Friedrich von Ploetz, seems likely to finish his stint with much the same doleful outlook.

But Frank seemed cheerful. “We do have some press coverage that is so uninformed about Germany,” he acknowledged. Then he added archly: “But only in the other papers – not the FT.” Frank has a slightly camp manner of speaking and a habit of putting his hand on your arm which some British people, I subsequently learned, have mistaken for signs of homosexuality. The truth is, he’s just uncommonly friendly (or perhaps in Germany these particular manifestations of friendliness are common ).

To put Frank’s exacting employment into context, it’s worth distinguishing between aspects of German culture. First, music. Nobody seems to mind that Beethoven was German; and it’s not too hard to get people along to concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (certainly not now that it is fronted by a British conductor, Sir Simon Rattle). Nor do visual arts incur our outright hostility. German painters, architects and fashion-designers – nor indeed models such as Claudia Schiffer – enjoy the same chance of making it in the UK as do their competitors from any other country.

Food and drink are less readily accepted. So far as I can tell, London boasts only one German restaurant, Die Jägerhütte in Queensway (“Great value lunch for just £5.95!”). A couple of Alsatian restaurants have opened in fashionable districts, but Frank correctly points out that Alsace, a territory much disputed over the centuries, belongs to France. As for drink: in the 70s millions of Brits cheerfully glugged German wines such as Black Tower and Blue Nun, ideal accompaniments for prawn cocktail, lasagne and Black Forest gateau. But subsequently those brands have become irredeemably naff. Even Frank doesn’t bother to support them. Everybody in Germany thinks Blue Nun is awful, he says.

But the real problem starts with words. Across Europe, substantially more people speak German as a first language than English. “But language is difficult,” says Frank. “People here [in the UK] don’t see the need to study German.”

Indeed, most of us don’t want to read German books even translated into English . We really are narrow-minded: on the continent, it’s not uncommon for 80 per cent of a publisher’s output to be work in translation; here, the figure is rarely one tenth as high. Barbara Schwepcke, an editor at Harvill, says people usually assume that German books are “dreary and introspective”. To prove that’s not true, she sends me a Harvill publication, Heroes Like Us, by Thomas Brussig: “It’s a novel about German reunification – but also funny!” Having subsequently read it, I can vouch for both these points, but even good German work performs poorly in retail. The Tin Drum, by the German Nobel-winner, Gunter Grass, ranks a lowly 8,122 on amazon.co.uk. More successful is WG Sebald, whose biggest-seller ranks 3,010 on amazon.co.uk, and whose latest has already sold 15,000 copies in trade paperback. But Sebald has an advantage over other German writers: he has lived and worked in the UK.

Film and theatre too are handicapped by their traditional reliance on the spoken word. German-speaking directors, from Billy Wilder to Roland Emmerich, and performers from Marlene Dietrich to Klaus Maria Brandauer have tended to achieve their greatest success only after moving to the US and making films in English. There are occasional, encouraging exceptions. Last autumn the German-language thriller Run Lola Run appeared to some acclaim at cinemas across the UK, and a new work by the experimental German composer-director Heiner Goebbels was staged in West London. This, Frank insisted, was something I could not miss. My education in German culture had begun.

28 Oktober. The Lyric, Hammersmith

The show, which has baffled British critics, lasts little more than 60 minutes. As it happens, the solo performer – playing a mad scientist, Max Black – speaks mostly in French. At one point he becomes extremely excited, shouting equations and general propositions relating to, for example, shaving. Later, he loudly and repetitively queries the most appropriate angle for holding one’s head while thinking. But ultimately the performance does not rely on language. Wandering about the prop-filled stage the actor pulls off a series of extraordinary effects: he makes music by plucking the spokes of an old bicycle; he manipulates a tea chest to blow giant smoke rings across the stage; and every so often he sets off fireworks.

I want to ask Frank if this could be considered typical of German theatre, but when I find him, in a roped-off section of the bar downstairs, he is busy schmoozing important guests. This is how a cultural attache works. He’s an intermediary, encouraging relationships between artists, businesses and opinion-formers from his own country and the country where he has been posted. I leave him to it.

But Frank isn’t going to let me get away that easily. Some weeks later, I receive an invitation to a pre-Christmas party at his home in Knightsbridge, opposite Harvey Nichols.

15 Dezember. Frank’s apartment

At the apartment, provided by the embassy precisely so that Frank can hold sophisticated parties, I am greeted at the door by his wife, Eva. Waiters in formal dress take my coat and hand me champagne. In the living room, where the walls are covered in brightly coloured abstracts, guests sit around tables, on sofas and even on the floor.

For the most successful parties, Frank accepts, it is less important that the guests meet him than that they meet each other: “They don’t need the food. These are interesting people looking for entertaining company.” A British guest present this evening, he says, once waspishly advised him to invite two bores to each party: they will always gravitate towards each other, thus saving other guests from a distressing evening.

Among the Brits present tonight are a well-known newspaper critic and a Labour peer who has written a biography of Konrad Adenauer. At a similar party two months later, Frank’s British guests will include Hugo Young, chairman of the Scott Trust which owns the Guardian and the Observer, and the writer Alain de Botton. The Germans include an up-and-coming pianist and a sad-eyed representative of the Christian Democrats whose job sounds even worse than Frank’s. (He liaises with his party’s British counterparts; and the Tories, let’s face it, are not generally known for their love of Germans, nor anybody else from continental Europe.) Peering glumly into his wine glass, this man talks about Vodafone’s then-recent hostile bid for Mannesmann. He does not relish the cut-throat, low-security ethos of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Fascinating, I reply – then seize the first possible opportunity to refill my glass.

Between the main course and the dessert, Frank introduces me to a young man wearing a leather scarf. This is Markus Lupfer, a London-based designer who will enjoy a great triumph at London Fashion Week in February. As we chat, they try to explain to me the difference between German humour and English. German humour is from the belly, says Frank, while English is more sophisticated. Really – but what about toilet humour? “Yes, it’s true you have your toilet humour, but mostly English humour tends to be about small differences between people, their language and culture and background.” And German? “It’s more slapstick.”

Germans, he adds, speak to each other in a direct manner that would startle the English. “For example, I might say” – he waves at Markus and Markus’s assistant Rachel – ”’So, you two have been having sex now for how long?” Marcus, unshaken, perkily elaborates: “And if I want to, I can say to Frank: ‘It’s none of your business!’ – but neither one would be offended.”

In the German diplomatic service – as in the British – senior figures routinely transfer from one discipline to another. The idea is to provide the widest possible training for ambassadors of the future. Frank, who trained as a lawyer, has previously been responsible for legal matters; and when he transfers to his next job later this year he will cease to deal with culture. This seems a shame, because Frank obviously loves art. In his spare time, he’s a keen painter. A couple of his pieces hang in the dining room; there’s another in one of his daughters’ bedrooms. The paintings – in acrylic on canvas – are abstract, the colours bold. Somebody once told him he would not be a true artist till he learned to mix his colours, but Frank does not believe it. His elder daughter, Julia, tells me Frank disappears every weekend, immediately after breakfast, to paint in his East End studio. He would like to paint full-time, she says – and perhaps with that ambition in mind he frequently buys tickets for the British National Lottery.

Still more appropriately – or perhaps implausibly – Frank’s wife turns out to be a professional singer. Soon after Frank was posted to England, Eva began to rebuild her career with performances at fringe venues in London, and at the Edinburgh Festival. Over the years this has cost a great deal of money, because despite earning next-to-nothing Eva always pays her accompanists. But finally things have started to take off. A forthcoming performance at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury theatre, alongside the likes of Ute Lemper, will be broadcast on TV.

Does Frank’s job come in handy? Absolutely not, he insists. “If I went to the National Theatre and told Trevor Nunn he must book Eva, I would be discredited. People would think it’s impossible for the wife of the cultural attache to be a good singer.” He doesn’t even mention her performances to colleagues at the embassy. “People would say: ‘Oh, I’ve spent £10 on these tickets which I don’t even want’,” he says. But there is one small benefit. When Eva meets people through Frank’s work she mentions upcoming performances: if anybody happens to express interest, she writes to them herself. And that’s how – a month or so later – I find myself invited to yet another milestone in my German cultural education: Eva’s Cabaret -style rendition of songs by Kurt Weill at the Pizza on the Park.

11 Januar. Pizza On The Park

Turning up on the second night, I sit alone at the front near the stage. Behind me, the tables are filled with middle-aged diners – not a few of them, I suspect, taking advantage of the basement’s candle-lit obscurity to hold some extra-marital assignation. Fidgeting with my glass of wine as I look about this louche congregation, I feel a sudden affinity with Christopher Isherwood.

Eva puts tremendous force into her performance, alternating between songs in German and English. She closes the first set with a blackly witty piece by Brecht about a boy who kills both his parents, only to be rumbled by the postman who smells their decomposing bodies. The applause is warm: everybody really does seem to have enjoyed the show so far – but the management insists on an absurdly long interval, and by the time Eva returns the room has become frighteningly empty. What’s more, the tone of her songs is more subdued, melancholy. By this time, Frank has come over to join me at the front, and together we make up for the depleted crowd by applauding violently at the end of each song.

Afterwards, Eva drags us to the apartment across the road for a glass of fizzy wine. Sitting around the large walnut coffee table, before bookcases crammed with a mixture of German and English classics, I listen to them analyse her performance. Frank suspects the minor-key second-half may have been a mistake. But Eva insists the audience “should not be fed too much sugar”.

2 Februar. Frank’s office

From an artistic point of view, Eva may be right. But Frank does understand art’s commercial imperatives – not least because a large part of his job involves bringing together artists and sponsors. He mentioned this the first time we met: “Classical music is the easiest to ‘sell’, because there is no risk [for sponsors],” he told me at the time. Then he arched an eyebrow and placed a protective hand on my shoulder: “Modern theatre is more dangerous – you might have people running round the stage naked!”

He addressed the issue again, in February, at a meeting in his office with people from Sadler’s Wells. Some months into our acquaintance, Frank has become anxious that I might conclude his job consists of nothing but parties. So for the first time I am allowed to watch him in his office.

The German embassy, off Belgrave Square, does not immediately strike the visitor as a place of great charm. A blockish modern construction, it boasts formidable security arrangements at the front and internal walls of white-painted concrete. Frank’s office is enormous – about the size of the penalty boxes in which the German soccer team so frequently humiliates the English. In one corner is his desk, set off by three abstract paintings in bright colours (guess who painted those). In the opposite corner is a coffee table, disguised as a messy pile of books and magazines, and a suite of easy chairs. Two of those chairs are currently occupied by Nigel Hines and Emma Davidson, representatives of Sadler’s Wells.

Frank has worked with Sadler’s Wells before, on a German season which coincided with a visit by the German president. Nigel and Emma have come today for advice on raising money for future projects. By way of preamble, Frank announces that he recently saw something at Sadler’s Wells that he didn’t like. He’s not being rude, just exercising the German bluntness he described to me at his party. “I wanted to like it, but I couldn’t. It was boring as hell.” Nigel diplomatically argues that “the whole point about Sadler’s Wells is that there can be one event every year that everyone can hate”.

One of the projects they wish to discuss is a repeat of the German season. Leaning back in his chair with a hand clamped to his brow, Frank asks how that worked out, financially.

“We didn’t lose money,” says Nigel. “We met targets. But this is not a profitable exercise – if it was, we wouldn’t need to get sponsors.”

“What are you looking at, sponsorship-wise?” Nigel names a price. Frank asks: “Do you have any ideas how to raise this money? Who should be the sponsor?” Tentatively, Emma replies: “We wondered if maybe the ambassador had any ideas…?”

“The best sponsors,” says Frank, “are the ones that produce goods. There is a Bauhaus exhibition coming up that is sponsored by Audi. And you know that BMW is permanent sponsor at the Serpentine Gallery.”

Nigel says: “BMW did come to [see Sadler’s Wells’] Dick Whittington…”

“That is good!” says Frank, suddenly overcome by an access of camp. “Sponsorship, as I’m sure you know, is about personal relationships. Keep it warm! I think you have to groom these people [sponsors]. They believe the tiger is rather tame and then suddenly – Gnargh! – there is lots of blood!” Having described the fundraising process in this dramatic fashion, Frank adds more seriously: “If you find sponsors who are willing, and you need embassy involvement, we will see what we can do. The ambassador could write letters of endorsement, and give a lunch for artists and sponsors; maybe get a high-ranking German visitor.”

10 Februar. The German Embassy

A few days later, Frank invites me back to the embassy to attend a function of great sensitivity: a 60th anniversary party for London’s Wiener Library, one of the world’s oldest Holocaust memorial institutions, which has been generously funded for many years by the German government. Tonight, the embassy plays host to some of the most eminent figures from the community of Jews who fled the Nazis in the 30s. “This is serious stuff,” says Frank, “and it gets more serious since the Austrian election.”

Earlier this afternoon, for instance, a group of protestors assembled in Belgrave Square to express their outrage at the inclusion of far-right extremists in the Austrian government. The police would not permit them to gather in the mews outside the Austrian embassy, so they protested outside the Germany embassy instead. Given the nature of tonight’s party, that does seem richly ironic. “But what can you do?” asks Frank reasonably. “We can’t tell them to go away. How can we?”

Until now, my guiding principle has been: don’t mention the war, or the Nazis. That’s not to say I haven’t thought about it. After all, I’m British. I’ve grown up in a country where jokes about these matters have become something of a cultural reflex. You think I didn’t snigger when I found out that mad performance at the Lyric was devised by a fellow called Goebbels? I’m afraid you’re mistaken. But that was in October, before Frank had worked his magic. He has a theory about this British obsession: “It’s understandable. You – the British – having been the winners [of the war], want to remember that big hour. But for us it is different. We want to forget our loss, and the horror.”

So saying, Frank takes a small machine from his desk-drawer and plugs it in. Before the party begins, he must dictate a speech for the ambassador to deliver next week. Frank does this a lot: “Tonight you will hear a speech that has been written by me and changed by various people. Sometimes when I listen I think, ‘Oh, you should have left that bit in!’ or, ‘You should have left that out!’ Once I said to the ambassador: ‘Good speech!’”

But there’s no such repartee this evening. The ambassador’s audience, after all, consists of many ancient and frail figures who would once have considered entering a German embassy hazardous and extremely unpleasant. In his speech, Herr von Ploetz acknowledges this – and other matters relating to Germany’s dark past – and in doing so he seems to win respect from his audience.

Afterwards, I speak to several of the elderly guests. Most have been in the UK for more than sixty years, but continue to subscribe to German cultural traditions: several combine archaic English schoolboy slang with a German accent. (One man with white hair – telling me about the library’s founder, Alfred Wiener – says: “Und so, in sirty-sree, he had to hoppit!”) Surrounded by these survivors of the worst possible form of prejudice, I find myself asking one of the tall German officials – a man in his late 30s – if he’s ever experienced hostility in Britain. “Not personally, no,” he says. At once, I’m overcome with the proud satisfaction of a man who knows his compatriots to be good-neighbourly and open-minded. Only, that smugness does not last long, because he adds: “My wife has.” At a chemist’s in London, he says, his wife once dared to question the price of certain items. The pharmacist’s response? “He gave her the Hitler salute.”

3296 words. First published 25 March 00. © FT Magazine