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Auf Wiedersehen, Britain

A German radio broadcaster on what he’s learnt about the British

Artillery Row

As Friedbert Meurer prepares to return home after five years as Deutschlandfunk’s UK correspondent, the German radio broadcaster casts a caustic eye back on the very imperfect Britain he got to know (and love)…

One of my favourite David Bowie songs is the classic Five Years but even he could not have predicted just how eventful a five years I would have as British correspondent for Deutschlandfunk, Germany’s answer to the Radio 4 Today show. 

First there was Brexit. That was followed by the fall of David Cameron… and election after election. (I never guessed I would see three prime ministers during my stint in the UK; in contrast, Mrs Merkel is still German Chancellor, just as she was when I left Cologne for these shores in 2015.) And last but not least, we have the deadly coronavirus pandemic which has hit Britain so hard. Talk about a rollercoaster ride…

I’ve learnt a lot about Britain during the last five years. My wife Sandra, I and our two girls Pauline and Antonia – who now speak English pretty much like natives – have thoroughly enjoyed our time here, and visited the four corners of the British Isles. We’ve all acquired a taste for British delicacies like Victoria Sponge cake and I’ve become overly partial to English fry-ups and ale.

But despite growing up with British rock bands like The Who – getting to meet Pete Townshend was one of the highlights of my time here – and being a lifelong Anglophile (except when it comes to football), I’ve discovered that I didn’t really have the full measure of the country.

Take the language…

When a British neighbour cheerily said to me shortly after our arrival in London: ‘Let’s have a beer!’ I took him at his word. I thought he meant ‘Let’s do it!’ – but of course it’s one of those things people this side of the Channel sometimes say without really meaning. It’s a polite expression of intention, but no more. Correct?

Similarly, when an English university student, Laura, who was giving our daughters English lessons, said, ‘I’m not sure I can do tomorrow’, I thought, ‘Fine, she’ll let me know her final decision later.’ In Germany, ‘I’m not sure’ means ‘maybe yes, maybe no’. Now I know that she was politely saying, ‘No, I can’t’.

I wonder whether this linguistic slackness is the cause of some of Britain’s woes. In my view, the famous German efficiency is partly founded on more straightforward communication. And I believe that this imprecision of language – often embodied in ministers’ flippant, sometimes contradictory remarks in recent months – is one of the reasons for the UK’s poor coronavirus record.

As a friend of this country, it pains me to tell you that Germany, along with the rest of Europe, has been dismayed – no, shocked – by the Johnson government’s unsteady response to coronavirus, the result being that Britain has the unenviable record of being the European county with the highest Covid-19 death rate.

I feel that it is not my place to put the boot in – I’m happy to leave that to some of The Critic’s other contributors

How did this happen? What happened to the democratic good government we admired so much after the war: the Britain that appeared to weather storm after storm without being holed at the waterline? Arrogant as we Germans sometimes are, we half-expected a corona crisis to happen in countries like Italy and Belgium (apologies to my fellow Europeans) but not in the UK. And I’m afraid I’ve just about given up trying to defend my host country to friends back home.

As a foreign correspondent, I feel that it is not my place to put the boot in – I’m happy to leave that to some of The Critic’s other contributors – but I think it’s fair to say that Johnson and co haven’t covered themselves in glory, have they? (In contrast, there have been under 10,000 corona deaths in Germany and I think that explains why we have been able to bounce back economically so much faster from the pandemic than the UK.)

Being a good German, and European, I have to confess that I’m saddened that Britain is leaving the EU but the people have spoken, and we’re embarking on a new chapter in our relationship that I believe we have to make work in a world where democracy is increasingly under threat.

I will leave Britain with lots of happy memories – I’ll never forget seeing so many fine football teams in action at Craven Cottage, visiting the Lake District or climbing Sugar Loaf mountain (well, a hill to a German like me) in Wales – as will the rest of my family. But I too must embark on a new chapter in my professional life. However, to borrow a phrase from our French friends (the British and French are friends these days, right?), it will be a case of ‘au revoir’, not ‘goodbye’.

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