Fever pitch and stiff upper lip
There are more glamorous occasions than a match between Middlesbrough and Coventry at the old Ayresome Park stadium but this one was an initiation for me. Like Nick Hornby I do not believe that you choose freely when it comes to your football club. The club chooses you. Middlesbrough chose me on that day. Town twinning had brought me to the Northeast of England, otherwise an unlikely place for a holiday. I went there twice with groups of German youths in my early teens. I felt at home from the start, not only because Oberhausen, my home town in the industrial Ruhr area, is like Middlesbrough minus the sea.
England was the land of football, “das Mutterland des Fußballs” as the Germans say. And England was also the motherland of pop. The mothers of our host families knew as much about the charts as their kids. Meanwhile, my parents at home listened to instrumental muzak by the likes of James Last or Richard Clayderman. I was particularly fond of Madness in those days. In a first lesson in idiomatic English, Keith, the oldest son of my host family, explained to me the ambiguity of the Madness song Tarzan’s nuts. Songs from the British charts from those days are still in my head: The Jam’s Going Underground, Turning Japanese by an obscure band called The Vapors, which everybody else forgot except me, or Together we are Beautiful by one hit wonder Fern Kinney (and I did not have to google any of these, I swear).
What impressed me even more were the spacious public lawns everywhere that were open to everybody to play football whenever they liked. It appeared to me that the English put the little boxes they live in as closely next to one another as they could in order to leave as much space for sports lawns as possible. Back home, even as a youth player in organized club football you were trying your best not to scratch up your skin on a clay pitch. Playing football on the lawns in a German park? Verboten! Not so in England, football paradise. Like so many things, this has become much more relaxed in Germany now. I sometimes think the English put up more “Verboten” signs these days than we Germans do.
In England, I liked the sports, the music, the sea. And I liked my new favourite football club, “Boro”, though I soon had to learn that since the prehistoric beginnings of English professional football they had not won a single title. And I learned later that a certain Herr Hitler had prevented Boro from becoming champion. He thought he had to have his war when Boro’s best team ever looked certain to win that title. I also learned that Coventry, famous for me only as my first opponent as a Middlesbrough fan, had another, a very violent relationship with Germany, a link from the times of the war that made Anglo-German projects like town-twinning and the youth exchanges that go with it so important.
It did not irritate me that my first Boro match was about as exciting as the subsequent visit to the Cleveland county fire brigade and the trip to the Scottish border with lots of sheep, green hills and stone walls to watch from the coach. I stuck with my club in true Hornbyean ethic. And I was gratified. My second Middlesbrough live match came close to a real Hornby moment, a moment of fever pitch. This was an exciting set-up. I had finished my Zivildienst (community service, an alternative to the otherwise compulsory military service) and had some months to spare before I would begin to study English in Berlin. I spend these months in London and cooked fish and chips in a hostel near Hyde Park. My boss, an Irish cook, took me to watch the relegation match between Chelsea and Boro at Stamford Bridge.
Middlesbrough got promoted, but what I remember most is the aftermath of that match. Violent Chelsea crowds stormed the pitch and pelted us with bottles and stones. This was a rather unpleasant encounter with English football enthusiasm. English hooligans were notorious in those years after the Heysel disaster when English teams were banned from the European cup and the lifting of this ban was discussed. But it was also an encounter with British humour and stiff upper lip: “Behave, we want to go to Europe next year”, a veteran Boro fan shouted while the bottles were crashing in all around him. That surprised and fascinated me. And I am not alone with that. Many Germans have a fascination with England and English humour. They want to be England experts and they want to show it.
In order to become an official German England expert I crossed “den Kanal” to visit “die Insel” many times and also spent two terms as a student at Reading University. But that had another effect: I learned a bit of healthy patriotism. My English friends would be very critical with their government or certain social and political issues. But they would always be loyal to their country. They would make a lot of jokes, sometimes cruel jokes, about Germany and the Germans. But they would also show a lot of respect for a country that had achieved so much in its history and came back from its ruins after total defeat. In England, I learned that progressive, internationalist thinking and patriotism do not exclude each other. And that it is quite inhibiting and top-heavy to constantly look for the negative in your own country as many Germans are inclined to do. The English have taught me to love Germany.
Markus Hesslemann was born in 1967 in Oberhausen in the Ruhrgebiet. In 1988 he went to study in Berlin. Shortly after his arrival there the Berlin Wall fell. In 1990 he went to study in England. Shortly after his arrival there Margaret Thatcher fell. Since 1994 Markus Hesselmann has been working for the “Tagesspiegel” in Berlin. Amongst other things he has edited the local news and sport sections of this newspaper. Since 2007 he has reported for the “Tagesspiegel” as a correspondent from London and writes his weblog at london.tagesspiegel.de under the heading of “British, all too British”.