This is the continuation from my previous posting, which was all about Ricky Gervais, the half-mad British comedian. This one does not even mention Rickie but is based on a phrase I came across recently in a novel by John Le Carré that aroused even my aging memory to dredge up things from the distant past, and this is what this posting is supposed to be about.
The phrase in question revived a memory of stereotypes that we almost all hold to in one way or another. My classic story of such a stereotype is of one day while I was waiting in the airport at Melbourne, Australia for an Alitalia plane bound for Rome. The large waiting room was jammed with passengers, talking nineteen to the dozen in Italian, and creating a hell of a racket with it. I had the impression that, against all regulations, many of the people were family come to see their relatives off. The public service announcement caused a momentary pause in the chatter as it announced seating would be by row, taken sequentially. The hubbub immediately resumed at full blast. Some time elapsed while I began to marvel at how a room of Italians, unlike the reserved people I had been travelling among recently, unlike Canadians willing to line up when told to do so, could create such a racket. Then came the first of the boarding announcements. “Would passengers in rows 26 to 32 please present themselves at the boarding gate?” I barely had time to examine my ticket before I was swept to one side by the rush of everyone in the room, except me, to get to the boarding gate. These Italians, boy oh boy!
John Le Carré, as most people interested in writing will know (real name, David Cornwell) was a member of the British Secret Service from 1958 to 1964 when he published s couple of novels under a pseudonym, one of which, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold became such an immense bestseller that it encouraged him to give up spying and become a full-time novelist. Thereafter he wrote almost exclusively about spying until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, whereupon it was thought he had lost his subject. But since then he has been more prolific than ever, has continued to produce almost a book a year, and to fine-tune his mastery of the novel to such a point that he is now regarded at the age of 87 as possibly the pre-eminent novelist writing in English today. I read his books with amazement at the brilliant structure not only of his sentences, but of his description of character and mastery of plot.
The particular book I am reading Absolute Friends was written in 2003, and is one of those I have had on my shelves for years without, apparently, having read it (I can’t be absolutely sure about that any more, my memory fading these days in such peculiar ways).
Anyway, the hero of the book is a character called Mundy, Pakistani-born of a retired British Army officer, a boy dragged up through various boarding schools and more or less without parents, who eventually gets himself some kind of education and a glamorous East European girl friend, who, when he decides to go to Berlin to improve his German, insists he must look up her friend Sasha. He does so and finds Sasha, a small, slightly deformed young man of indeterminate background, running a squat that is full of disaffected students of multinational and multilingual provenance. Sasha is a veritable compendium of hatred for authority of any kind, and leads his helpless followers, entranced by his personal charisma, into one violent scrape after another, until, finally, the West German police decide to break up their little nest, and attack one of their demonstrations with unrestrained brutality. They appear to be beating Sasha to death when Mundy, his Dad’s Indian Army background having a momentary effect on him, snatches the unfortunate little man up, hoists him over his shoulder, and manages to free him from the attack.
Sasha, who has been rather distant with Mundy, as with all his followers, is overcome, and declares that henceforth they are absolute friends --- the highest accolade he can pay anyone. “I am without words. What you did for me --- saving my life, no less – this was the gesture of a friend I do not deserve. How can I repay you? Nobody has ever performed such an absurd act of sacrifice on my behalf. You are English, and for you, all life is a silly accident. But I am German, and for me, if it has no logic, it is meaningless.”
It was this phrase, describing one of the stereotypes so often expressed about nationalities, that opened the floodgates of memory for me, especially in its reference to Germans. I grew up through childhood during the Second World War, in the intensely British country of New Zealand, at the far south end of the South Pacific, surely, if we had had any sense, far enough away from the hatreds of Europe to be free of prejudices. Such was not the case: we were schooled, even as children, to beware of the Yellow Peril, ready to strike south from Japan at any time, and when Britain declared war on Germany, our own dearly beloved little Labour Party Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, said, “where Britain stands, we stand,” giving the impression that if it had been possible we would have liked to have declared war even before Britain. I have always thought that kneejerk reaction was a foolish thing. Savage pledged our own young men and women to go to the war, which almost one in ten of us did, entering into the spirit of the war without reserve. In the event, New Zealand, with its tiny population of 1,600,000, provided a higher percentage of people killed in action than any other Commonwealth country, including Britain itself. (Of course, we got our reward when, in the early 1960s, Britain attempted to abandon the preferential treatment granted to New Zealand products so that they could enter the European Economic Community, which held out for them the prospect of greater profit. They achieved this in the 1970s, and are now embroiled in trying to leave it, holding out the remote prospect that the Commonwearh countries might rally round them).
We certainly grew up to hate the Krauts, or Boche, and the Japs, as we were taught to call them. I guess without that carefully cultivated hatred, we would never have flocked to the colours with such enthusiasm. To tell the truth, as I grew into adulthood, I developed a sort of countervailing dislike of Britain, probably as a reaction against the prevailing pro-British sentiment. When I finally did make it to Britain, where I lived for 11 years in two stages, I reacted very strongly against the class-based decision-making process that put scholars from Eton, Oxford and Cambridge into almost every Cabinet, whether Labour or Conservative.
Nevertheless, I was always hesitant about visiting Germany, and when I finally did so in 1954, at the age of 26, I was surprised to find most young Germans with whom I talked in campgrounds around their country seemed almost exactly like us.
Yet, stereotypes remained, and when my wife and I emigrated to Canada in that same year on a smallish immigrant ship, we found ourselves competing for elbow-room with the mostly German immigrants. We kept ourselves rather reserved from contact with them--- something one young German noticed, and accosted us with --- feeling they tended to be slightly boorish, definitely pushy, and ill-mannered, which, now that I think about it, were characteristics we had been brought up to expect.
When we arrived in Quebec city, immigration officers said they did not really want us to go to Toronto, because too many immigrants were heading there. They did not formally forbid it, and as soon as we were on shore we took the train for Toronto, where we arrived late at night, in the dark, and without a clue as to where to go next.
We walked slowly out of the railway station, looking, I imagine, rather lost, and as we were walking across the sidewalk a group of people approached and talked to us in German. We apologized for not understanding them. “Are you from the boat?” they asked in English.
“Yes, we are.”
“Do you have anywhere to stay tonight?”
“Not really, we were just wondering about that.”
“Come with us. We know a place where you can get a clean bed at a reasonable price.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes, come along,” they said, ushering us into their rather large car, and driving off.
We asked where they were from. "Well, we are from Germany. But we live here, and we come down to try to help people who might just have arrived by boat. You know, new immigrants. We knew this must be a boat train.”
“Wow! that’s good of you.”
“Well, we know how strange it is to arrive at night in a new country.”
They took us to a house just off Spadina blvd. “You go in there,” they said. “You don’t want to pay more than $12. Go ahead, we’ll wait for you to see it is okay.”
So we knocked on the door, rented a room for $12, and emerged smiling to tell them everything was fine, and thank you, thank you so very much. They drove away without leaving their names.
A group of people who turned our prejudices upside down with one simple act of kindness.