As she is Speiche

The column: Germans no sense of humour have, nein? Well, maybe ja, concludes Howard Jacobson after reading a note to his wife from Bochum- Shmochum
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By God, this colony is pedantic. You cannot turn on your television without encountering some would-be lecturer in media studies telling you what to look for in the programme you are about to see, or what you missed in the programme you have just seen. Last night a parsonical person versed in the arts of putting-you-off-film concluded his critique of Life ist nicht Ein Bowl of Kirschen, or something like, with the promise that we would find it "a delightful German comedy". Our little family exchanged knowing glances. German comedy? Ha! We stayed tuned, of course. For who can resist watching Germans trying to be funny?

In fact, Kirschen did manage to be comic some of the time, largely because it was about tensions on the border between the burgerlich world of straights and the unburgerlich world of gays - a strip of disputed territory Germans know well. But it was always more accidentally than deliberately funny. That's just the way German culture strikes the rest of us: let a German satirise himself back to front and inside out, there is always room for us to satirise him some more. Shapely, wouldn't you say, that at the fag-end of a century which Germany has twice tried to dominate with self-aggrandising myths of the most preposterous solemnity, we should still find the Germanic ludicrous.

Don't get me wrong - some of my best friends are Germans. Only recently, at a conference in Western Australia, we befriended one who now e-mails us with pleasing regularity from his home in Bochum. I don't doubt that many who read this column are themselves in correspondence with Germans. They make constant if not always comprehensible electronic pen-pals. Funny, don't you find, that their English should be so masterly when they speak it, yet such a dog's dinner on the Internet.

Our Bochum friend - Bochum-Shmochum we have taken to calling him, being careful to apprise him of all the nuances of that joke - was able to hold an audience of pedantry-loving Australians in thrall, hanging on every word, for the best part of an hour, but five minutes of him by e-mail and you think you're drowning. I take a risk saying this because he is dear to us and because he is a reader of these pages himself. "Since half a year I am reading your column with a lot of fun," he e-mailed me the other day. "I cannot wait til my scotish lash send me the last fotocopies of the Independent Magazine."

Isn't that sweet? It could hardly be sweeter if I understood it. What is his "scotish lash"? A lush, maybe? A drunk from Glasgow? To the German ear a lush might easily sound like a lash. A lersh. But would a Glaswegian lersh know how to buy an Independent every week, let alone have the presence of mind to fotocopy it, bag it, write Bochum-Shmochum on the package, and find a postbox to pop it in? Surely not, if she's so much of a lersh that our friend feels bound to comment on it. So what about a literal lash? A highland dominatrix? Oonagh McWhiplash. That would go with what one knows of the German temperament. Everybody in that delightful German comedy we watched, for example, was into pain in a big way, even the burgerlich characters. It's an easy enough cultural gaffe to make, if you're German, to suppose that the lash is something we all submit to as a matter of course. Mine's called Kirsty, and what is your scotish lash called?

In the end, though, I suspect that the mystery is to be solved, as my wife surmises, by a meaning as disappointingly prosaic as "lass". My Scottish lass. My wee lassie. An interpretation that has the merit of identifying a specifically German failing, namely that of trying too hard to appear idiomatically at home.

This would explain, as well, a request he made at the time he was applying for a new job that we "lighten a candel in the next church" for him, "though I am not sure if you do this in a mosque" (by which I take him to be groping considerately for the word synagogue); and his hope, meanwhile, that everything is "honky dory" with us.

It has, however, begun to cross my mind that he is only playing at having shonky English - shonky dory English - in order to get me to lower my guard. He spent time not long ago, in my absence, discussing with my wife her work in progress. I try to be liberal about this sort of thing. My wife is finishing a novel, I am away, a German friend known familiarly to us as Bochum-Shmochum wishes to talk plot-structure with her, I don't create a fuss. Urbane of me, nicht wahr? That he should thereafter go on asking after her work - "What about your novell, Ros?" - seems only natural. I hope you are with me so far because what I have to say next could be harmless or hair-raising depending on whatever conclusion we have reached as to Bochum-Shmochum's competence in the English language. "What about your novell, Ros," he e-mails, and then, and then - "You know I have to put my finger in the cut."

I have pondered that proposition long and hard. My wife, too. Did colour rise in her cheeks when she first read it on the screen? Did the colour fade when I finally offered it as my opinion that the allusion was to the European practice of publishing books with their pages uncut, and that Bochum-Shmochum meant only to express impatience to have the pristine volume in his hand?

He could, of course be, having it, mischievously, both ways. But that presupposes a degree of comic sophistication with which I have never credited a German. What, though, if I have erred and the Krauts have been pulling a fast leg over me all along? Who'd be the Bochum-Shmochum, then?

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