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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 30 - No laughing matter


DONííT letís, Noel Coward sang, be beastly to the Germans. Tall, blonde, blue-eyed - well, some of them - they are an orderly, sentimental, industrious, enterprising and courageous race. Once given to wearing steel helmets with spikes or shaped like coal-scuttles as well as saluting, heel-clicking and singing in chorus while beer-drinking or jack-boot-marching across Europe, the nation, once perceived by us as baddies, have now become our European Union buddies and, by the Prussian hair-crop and sabre scar of Erich von Stroheim, as Hollywoodís version of Rommel, a good thing, too.

Despite our differences - many in our syntax-loving nation deplore their insensitive persecution of verbs and consider that their language, noble and expressive though it is, often sounds like a motor-bike backfiring - Germany and the Germans exercise a continual fascination for us.

Hardly a night passes without some TV film or reminiscence series showing Hitler haranguing Seig-Heiling hordes, tanks massing, troops marching, bombers diving and children with flaxen hair and teeth like pearls presenting the Fuehrer with enough flowers to sink the Bismarck.

The last shots have been fired in the First and Second World Wars and it is about time we declared an armistice on TV and Hollywood hostilities and acknowledged that the Germans are our worthy allies that we trust not to be part of an alleged racket with the French to take over all Europe and not to aid and abet any attempt by Spain to plunder our traditional fishing grounds and sweep British fishing boats off the seas.

Although our Teutonic cousins, Germans - as many in Britain still suspect - are unlike us, they have, it seems, a character defect, possibly genetic, and it shows, according to a press report, in their seeming inability to produce self-deprecatory humour. The phrase, blood and iron, once epitomised Prussia, but irony, never.

The Germans, as one would guess, have means for making dour top Teutons, as well as the morose masses, laugh. A German humorist has set up an academy to teach his nationís captains of industry how British wit and humour can win clients and boost profits.

Dirk Stiller, 32, a former TV sketch writer and lecturer at the German radio academy in Dortmund, reveals to managers from companies including, Lufthansa, German Railways and DaimlerChrysler, the secrets of "winning humour".

"Foreigners," he says, "are often appalled at the serious lack of humour among professional Germans. People worry about laughing and this can affect an entire company. We also fear spontaneity because it does not by definition obey any rules."

He tells his students that a British bulldog spirit, laced with irony and self-deprecation, can work wonders in raising business morale and be particularly useful, I suppose, at producing nervous hilarity on seeing companies imploding and shares plunging like dive-bombers.

He admires self-deprecating British humour, and claims it enables us to get through lifeís storms and stresses without being negative. True, we pride ourselves on producing high-grade, finely-wrought irony, self-lacerating satire and finely-tooled wit which, for us, is used as a rapier and, of course, for the Germans, as a sabre.

In fact, the British are uneasy with wit, preferring the jesterís bladder-bashing humour, not unlike the hearty unsubtleties said to have Germans weak with mirth.

Frankly, I do not believe Germans do not laugh at themselves, although they may not do it often. One of the most biting satires of the national tendency to obey orders and respect authority, especially if uniformed, was Captain of Kopenick, written by Carl Zuckmayer in 1931, while Berlin cabarets between the wars were cockpits of comedy, steeped in satire and stiffened with irony.

Now, Germans are, daringly, adopting a humorous attitude to politicians. A recent chart-topper, the Tax Song, satirised Chancellor Gerhard Schroderís economic policies; regrettably, he failed to see the joke.

In a country, once Europeís powerhouse, where unemployment is around 4.25 million, the governmentís caving-in to the pay demands of almost five million public sector workers threatens efforts to control the budget deficit, businesses are collapsing at a record rate and taxes are increasing, there is little to laugh about.

If British-brand satire and irony steels the Germans to face a possible bleak future, I know Britain - once the economic "sick man of Europe" - will wish them the best of jocular luck: ironical, isnít it?


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