Today I am teaching in Düsseldorf. The subject of the discussion turns to immigration. It often does in Germany. Immigration and assimilation cause huge problems here, despite what the Chancelor tells the foreign press.
One of the biggest headaches is the existence of so-called “ghettos”: suburbs of cities which have been settled by immigrants in such numbers that German is no longer the language heard in the shops or on the street. Little incentive exists to learn it; little integration takes place. Little Istanbul. Little Ankara. Little Beirut.
I joke that there is no “Little Croydon” in Germany. I am lying. My students must never learn the truth.
There are only about 100,000 or so British citizens living in Germany (there are 1.5 million Turks) but Little Croydon is everywhere. You find Little Croydon where you least expect to: cream tea shops in the nameless suburbs of Dortmund, Welsh restaurants in the valleys of the central mountains, Burns’ Nights in the miners’ chapels of the Ruhr valley.
On Saturday mornings in Frankfurt and Düsseldorf, the gentle crack of leather on willow can be heard as play starts in the cricket leagues —though these days the players complain that there are too many Indians. The Royal British Legion in Dortmund opens its doors to members only: Dortmund was always a soldiers’ town. Wiesbaden’s Highland Dance Society rehearse for their next gig.
Little Croydon is very different to little Ankara. Little Croydoners do not always associate with other little Croydoners. Most of them are married to partners who are not from Little Croydon. They speak German fluently and form their social contacts with their German neighbours. Little Croydoners are possibly the best-integrated community in Germany.
But Little Croydon is there alright. In Düsseldorf, Little Croydon is the Düsseldorf Cultural Circle. Their mission is to persuade the world of Britain’s greatness through the medium of amateur dramatics. They recite Edward Lear and Lewis Carrol, they perform Shakespeare. They endeavour to show Germans the timeless beauty of morris dancing.
The last time we met, I performed some Burns’ poems while a lady from Cornwall in her mid sixties ran around the stage dressed as a witch, toy cat in hand. We even had an Irish dancer with a broken foot. How did she perform? Duh! She sat on a chair and sang a song. But we didn’t know that was her plan until she arrived ten minutes before the curtain went up.
During the breaks the talk was of British cooking. Most of them are much older than I; they can talk about “spotted dick” and “toad in the hole” with straight faces, I always start laughing when I hear these worlds. Many of them also belong to the Düsseldorf Womens’ Circle and have passionate opinions on recipes. When they write to me they address me by my last name. Gavin, my 28 year-old bank manager in North Yorkshire could learn a thing or two from them when it comes to manners.
It is old and it is cliched. Britain has moved on and we have not. Many is the time I feel that when we leave Britain, the clock stops whevener we think about our country. I own no music that postdates Blur and Oasis. In my mind’s eye, Sheffield Wednesday are still a force in English football. When I think of Britain, a taxi ride costs no more than a fiver.
My view of Britain is modern compared to most at the Düsseldorf Cultural Circle. The organiser is silver-haired and ever alert to the mechanics of sensibilities. I am a “big strong chap” so she asks me to help shop for refreshments. There is confusion at the checkout and she is offended. She turns to me and asks: “Brian, what’s the German for “forgive me if I speak out of turn’?”
I have no idea what the German translation is for “forgive me if I speak out of turn”. I don’t even know what that means in English. I am too young to have ever used such an antiquated phrase. But it reminds me of a simple fact: my fifteen years here are nothing compared to most. I am still an infant.
Lives have been built here from the most unusual of beginnings. Love seems to be the biggest motivator in bringing people here, the British Army a close second. Few people planned it this way. Risks have been taken, challenges accepted. Houses have been built, fortunes and children raised. Little Croydoners are tough and they are versatile. Don’t mistake the nostalgia for softness.
Each has a unique story. Old soldiers’ tales in Dortmund, old wives’ tales in Düsseldorf, tall tales on the cricket fields of Frankfurt. Stories full of colour and everyday heroism.
They are wise, too. Little Croydoners are not Little Englanders. They are open to new experiences. They have to be. They have seen a lot of the world and learned many hard lessons. Mrs Speakoutofturn was a war journalist in Colombia before she fell in love and moved to Düsseldorf. They deserve respect.
The word “immigrant” has negative connotations. I hate to use it but can find no acceptable substitute. It is a collective noun, even in its singular form. Before the last syllable is out of your mouth, an opinion has been formed, a category selected. Little Croydoners are not collectivists. I doubt Little Ankarans are either. Every chapter, every paragraph, every line of the human story can be found among them.
Please don’t drop the curtain Mrs May. Forgive me if I speak out of turn.