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on 23 March 2012
I'm not sure that Philip Oltermann was going for charming when he wrote this book, but I was charmed by him and his experiences as a slightly bewildered and ernest teen arriving in Britain from Germany. As a Brit who first encountered Germany as a teen, I can identify with some of the bewlidering differences in cuisine and culture. For Philip's dreadful Sunday roast I will exchange the first, desperate taste of German Muesli, when sugar-coated Alpen had been the standard or rye bread in exchange for fluffy toast.I swapped irreverent cynicism for earnest discussion on the future of nuclear power and politics at the age of fifteen with my German friend's politically active father. My experience of the police was the occasional local bobby, not border forces patroling no-man's land. I could feel everything that Philip was talking about, only in reverse. But I loved Germany from an early age, and this book simply reminded me why.

It's a mirror to our own outlook. It reminds us what we could be capable of, both good and bad. It looks at the rivallry that sustains us, and the mutual, sometimes gruding, respect that means, for me anyway, Germany is the European country that we most dentify with as a nation. It has to pull from stereotypes, but it also steps beyond and shows us some snapshots of history that will never make it to a historical cirriculumn in schools.

Part education, part biography, I enjoyed this very much. My only regret is that it wasn't longer. Perhaps 'Keeping up with the Germans - the Euro crisis years' will follow. I, for one, will certainly be buying it!
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on 1 April 2012
He makes you laugh out loud now and again, and makes you smile even more. It's witty and perceptive about Germany but even more so about Britain. he clearly likes both countries. Charming and very readable.
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on 11 April 2012
Philip Oltermann's Keeping Up with the Germans, a charming blend of memoir and cultural history, provides a guide to Anglo-German relations quite in keeping with the eccentricities of the nations in question. Beautifully and engagingly written, it is far more entertaining a read than might be imagined from the title. Part of its considerable charm derives from its element of memoir: the author weaves his own experiences of moving to Britain from Germany as a somewhat awkward teenager and recounts his fascination and incomprehension with the culture he is plunged into. Some of these reminiscences are priceless: his description of the strange English veneration of the Sunday roast deserves to be endlessly quoted. Nevertheless, in the course of the book he moves from outsider to insider, foreigner to native, and as he comes to understand British culture so he comes to understand how Germany appears to outsiders. German culture too ends up looking odd: Oltermann ends the book rolling his eyes at the sight of an oompah band. It is this dual knowledge of how the two cultures appear both from the inside and the outside that gives the book its value, and allows Oltermann to illuminate the series of meetings between notable British and German figures that provide the book's frame. Rather than concentrating either only on intellectuals and artists or only on popular celebrities and sporting heroes, Oltermann reveals himself comfortable dealing with figures from across the cultural spectrum. In the pages of the book Heinrich Heine and Theodor Adorno rub shoulders with Freddie Frinton and Kevin Keegan, Joe Strummer and Marlene Dietrich stroll past Kurt Schwitters and A. J. Ayer. The result is memorable, funny, and thought-provoking - yet never hard work to read. A delightful book.
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on 13 September 2012
Thoughtfully written from first hand experience and and with creative German flair and intelligence. I learnt a lot, great imaginative research.
If you have ever struggled with relationships with Germans - insight is at hand.
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In 1996 the then 15 year old author moved with his parents from their home city of Hamburg to London, where Philip's father had been offered a post by his company.

At that time, he says, everybody hated Germany - even many of the Germans themselves: that year the German-born population of the United Kingdom was 227,900 - more than Pakistanis, Jamaicans, Americans or Australians. The Germans, on the other hand, had an admiration for England, especially in Hamburg, despite the destruction wrought on that city by British bombers during the war.

The book sets out to describe the differences between the two countries.

Food: British cuisine is described as dreadful (and his first dinner in a British home was indeed pretty grim. But, by and large, the worst of British cooking was by then surely behind us?).

The German emphasis on Gemeinschaft is compared with the British one on Gesellschaft.

He notes the traps of the ever flexible English language for those thinking in long, convoluted but structured German. He compares the clarity of Ayer's exposition of philosophical ideas with the obscurity of the pretentious (a typically English derogatory adjective) Adorno; the pragmatism of English compared with the metaphysics of German philosophy.

The crude British teenager's obsession with sex, the more active because of the single sex education the author experienced at his boarding school. The British had an image of especially Weimar Germany as more sexy than anything available in England (here his examples of differences are taken from the 1920s). Raucous and drunken British Christmas parties are compared with the solemnity with which Christmas is celebrated in Germany.

He discusses the German concept of Bildung and the immense pride Germans take in the high-status titles of Dr or Professor: 58.5% of chief executives in German businesses sport a Ph.D. (1.3% in the United States). The negative connotation of "clever" in England.

The countryside: the English love rivers and the coast, and for them the countryside is essentially gentle and civil; for the German it means vast forests (the English had cut their down for timber) or rugged mountains "to conquer".

English and German windows, toilets, thresholds come in for comparisons.

He contrasts the Beetle and the Morris Minor, and then uses car-manufacture in Britain and Germany to highlight differences in attitude to industry and industrial relations.

There is the obligatory chapter on the difference between British and German humour - humour being analyzed in descending order of ponderousness by Herr Adorno, Herr Freud, - and Herr Oltermann (though he is now Mr Oltermann and on the staff of the Guardian).

He is savvy about the media, films, pop music, football. (He took an interest in football late - but, boy, does he make a meal of it once he had!)

A book about the Baader-Meinhoff group had been called "Hitler's Children" and gave the appearance that violence was still endemic in the Germany of the 1970s, while left-wing radicalism in Britain confined itself to T-shirts and the punk lyrics of The Clash. On the other hand, Oltermann contrasts the noisy childishness of set-piece confrontations in the House of Commons with the sobriety of debates in the Reichstag: Germany has in fact undergone "a revolution of the mind" which asserted itself after the hysteria of the 1970s, and which has made Germany genuinely democratic. To that "revolution of the mind" he attributes the bloodless reunification of Germany (though I would have thought that this had - to put it mildly - at least as much to do with the mind of Gorbachev (not mentioned) as with that of the churchgoers of Leipzig.

In his epilogue, Oltermann says that "England has become more German in the last ten years", but "Germany has become more English, too": these days English politicians express the idea that Britain should be more like Germany (the only place in the book where its title seems to me to have some relevance). The young Englishmen he knows love Berlin, while the younger Germans have shed many "German" characteristics and has become more relaxed and ironic like the English. And yet, he suggests, the English may talk the talk, "but do they understand the grammar?"

The book is suggestive and often entertaining about national differences, though perhaps Oltermann sometimes makes certain incidents he recounts too representative of the two cultures in general. There are also a couple of historical slips: he has "Prince" Louis Philippe deposed in 1848, and the King of Prussia crushing the 1848 revolutions by joining forces with a "gang of aristocrats and generals led by [sic] Otto von Bismarck".
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on 18 September 2013
I really think every foreigner living in UK would get a lot out of this book as it describes the difficult and subtle changes that outsiders need to go through in order to settle into the British way of life.

The other reviews here give a good summary of what this book is about so I won't try and summarise the plot, suffice to say it's about a young lad who comes to UK from Germany and describes his settling in process.

He brings to life the "history of Anglo-German encounters" (the book's subtitle) by describing a series of lesser known meetings and fascinating Btitish characters who are famous in Germany but unknown in UK.

It also makes me reflect on the anti-German sentiment that I grew up with in the UK and still see today. I still see Brits who react to the word "German" with the Nazi salute or a mention of the Nazis, showing that we haven't moved on from our WW2 mentality. Without saying so directly, this book shows that the Germans have dealt with their terrible WW2 lagacy and have moved on in many different ways.

A final point: this book is ideal as a gift. It's easy to read, witty and interesting. I've sent copies to foreign friends living in the UK and a British friend who now lives in Austria which, as you know, is a German speaking country.
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on 22 April 2013
There are a number of things wrong with this work, measured against the claims implied in the all-encompassing sub-title "A History of Anglo-German Encounters". To begin with, Oltermann has a fixation about football and popular music which runs through the whole book, and this is curiously at odds with his repeated mention of the German philosopher Adorno and his own scarcely-concealed attempts to present himself as knowledgeable about philosophy. He doesn't in fact quite bridge the gap between what are often seen as highbrow and lowbrow culture, with very little in between.
In fiction the use of dialogue is a pre-requisite. However, when a man in his thirties has supposed verbatim recall of dozens of complex conversations that took place several decades earlier, this makes him appear as either a somewhat bumptious individual or someone who doesn't allow facts to get in the way of point-making. There are, quite simply, far too many factual errors in this book. Some of them can easily be explained. If you relocate to another country, you may think that things stay the same in your home country as you remembered them from your childhood, but that is not always the case. Newsreaders on the Tagesschau now make use of the tele-prompter and do not read from their scripts, as Oltermann maintains. He decries any suggestion that there is anything comparable to the Academie Francaise in Germany, but he has plainly forgotten all about the prescriptive nature of the Duden-Redaktion. And what then also happens is because he has not grown up with the culture, history and idiom in this country he presumes to understand things which are beyond his comprehension. He misunderstands the function of bonfires on Guy Fawkes Day, for instance, and the significance of burning an effigy of the Catholic terrorist, he gets historical dates wrong (the Education Act of 1870, for instance, introduced uniform elementary education and this did not occur later, as he maintains), his vocabulary does not extend to kale for the German Gruenkohl, calling it "green cabbage" instead (a direct translation) and he makes the absurd statement on page 215 that Labour won in 1997 because of "a new wave of cultural patriotism". A lot of the typographical errors and misprints as well as the factual inaccuracies could have been avoided, had he spent a little more care and attention on every precise detail.
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on 23 July 2015
I was brought up in Germany but as I have lived in England for the last almost 60 years, I think I can call myself English now. Reading the book brought back quite a few memories of the time when I first arrived and couldn't understand how people could be proud of things which seemed just awful, like the Sunday Roast - and some things that I had got used to doing without I can now buy in the shops anyway (even quark has recently appeared!). But apart from the memories, I think this book is excellent in letting readers see how they are seen by foreigners who have not yet acquired the social attachment. It could not have been doen in a better way.
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Anyone who has visited Germany will come away impressed by the similarities between our two countries. We Britons find much to admire in Germany but the Germans tend to admire British culture and our way of life also. When Philip Oltermann was 16, his parents told him that his father had accepted a posting to London and now, 17 years later, Philip has written this book, Keeping Up With The Germans - A History of Anglo-German Encounters, a collection of reflections, analyses and random facts about the friendly but often uneasy relationship between our two countries.

Philip did rather well in Britain. While at school he was selected to join an elite group of boys studying A-level in Philosophy. He eventually went up to Oxford University and is now a deputy editor on The Guardian. His book is a very wide-ranging mixture containing chapters which discuss some complex philosophical and linguistic ideas, and other chapters about football, humour and motoring. If you're prepared for this then it makes a thoughtful and entertaining read which I for one found very interesting.

Philip generally keeps away from denigrating Britain for the sake of it and soon moves on to analysing some of our national differences. He feels that the differences between the English and German languages are a key factor here. The German language with it's "slow-motion pile-up of subclauses and modal particles" and it's page-long sentences leads to a different way of thinking than the word-play, euphenism, adaptability and general "slipperiness" of the English language. Philip's discussion of the two languages occupies quite a lengthy chapter of the book and goes into considerable depth but I think his general thesis is right. The British can seem quick-witted, sarcastic and superficial compared with the more ponderous Germans who seem to us to take things more seriously.

The book progresses through a whole catalogue of German/British differences - football, cars, music, politics and humour, and Philip brings a great deal of original thinking to each topic. A whole chapter is devoted to the comedy sketch Dinner for One which is played on German Television every New Year's Eve. The sketch was originally performed by Freddie Frinton in the early 1960s and in it, a butler serves dinner to a solitary elderly woman, pretending that her table is populated by distinguished guests. The sketch was discovered by two German television people who were scouting around for new ideas and they persuaded Frinton and his female partner to record the sketch for German television. Surprisingly, Germany fell in love with the sketch since 1963 it has been screened 231 times to German audiences".

The book contains a long-list of references and acknowledgements giving it a mildly academic feel. In fact it's a bit of a mixture with some light-hearted thoughts about football on the one hand and an in-depth account of Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School of Philosophy (which probably needed editing down because few British people will have heard of it or have much interest in it). But there's enough witty and thought-provoking material in the book to make it a good read for anyone who has an interest in the long-lasting relationship between our two countries.
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on 1 April 2013
Great entertaining and informative book. Who says, Germans do not have a sense of humour??? Just love it! Will give it as presents.
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