News that south London’s first official Oktoberfest is coming to Electric Brixton later this month is heartening for ardent Germanophiles like me. We are a tight-knit, resilient bunch, always convinced that the wider public is just on the brink of sharing our rarefied passion. We believe that not only has Germany done more than any other neighbouring nation to shape British history in the past 100 years, for better and worse, it is also the closest to us in temperament.
Yet while pro-European Brits have long conducted love affairs with the cuisine, culture and resorts of France, Spain, Greece, Italy and Scandinavia, Germany rarely impinges positively on our national consciousness. Leder-hosen and oompah music in SW9 may not exactly represent the breakthrough we hoped for, but it’s a start.
Oktoberfest is a strange and singular event, not least because the original celebration in Munich, and the spin-offs around the world, take place mostly in September. The final day falls on the first Sunday in October, so the celebrations were extended backwards as the event grew in popularity. It’s also very much a manifestation of Bavarian culture, so using it as a yardstick for the rest of this massive country is a bit like asking Essex to stand for the UK.
Germany has so much more: its Rhine towns, Hanseatic ports and aridly beautiful Baltic beaches. The music of Beethoven and the literature of Goethe. And you can keep your prettified, monocultural capitals like Paris and Amsterdam; earthy, scarred Berlin is the only European city that comes close to matching London’s hedonistic, teeming vibrancy.
Like Britain, Germany was shaped by its climate, its intellectual and industrial expansiveness and a bellicose spirit, now thankfully curtailed. The way Germany continues to confront and atone for its Nazi past should be a model for other nations, not least Britain’s attitude to its colonial history.
Doubtless, the fact that I learned German rather than French at school swayed my affections. The romance tongues may be more euphonious, but it’s impossible not to love a language that contains words like dudelsack (bagpipes), schmetterling (butterfly) and the perennially useful weltschmerz (pain caused by the state of the world). While others at my south London comp were fantasising about glossy, unattainable pen pals in Paris or Rome, I was smitten by hippy chicks from Bonn with names like power tools: Jutta, Ruba, Gitte.
I’d even make the case for the German palate being closer to our own than those of the southern European nations. Berlin has adopted the kebab from its Turkish post-war guest workers in much the same way that London appropriated fish and chips and curry from immigrant communities. The catering at Oktoberfest will be provided by fast food outlet Herman ze German, and embraces the twin pinnacles of Teutonic food and drink: beer and sausages. What’s not to like? Prost!