Truth, as the old cliché goes, is often stranger than fiction. Everyone remembers the classic Fawlty Towers episode, “The Germans”, where John Cleese’s eponymous character, Basil, receives a bang on the head and, suffering from concussion, proceeds to insult a visiting group of German tourists by making relentless reference to the Second World War. It is as much a comment on British obsession with the conflict as it is about German sensitivities. We laugh because the situation is so extreme, and we accept Basil’s ranting due to the bandages wrapped around his head. Sadly, my ex-colleague, E, had no such mitigating appendages.
E didn’t so much behave as if he didn’t know the war was over, he acted as if he wouldn’t be satisfied until the next one had begun. Like a deranged Basil Fawlty, the subject of his ire was everything German, the country, the people, the language. Even the German-speaking Swiss were condemned by association. The supreme irony was that E had in fact chosen to study the language at University and spent a year in Germany on an exchange programme. Given his bloodlust, we all took turns speculating on what calamity had caused the abrupt, hundred-and-eighty-degree shift in his perception of the Teutonic races, the wildest and most outrageous hypothesis being that he’d been arrested and subsequently subjected to unwanted, and almost certainly unexpected, sexual advances from an East German policeman.
E’s favourite story, repeated every summer to each new teacher (who clearly had no inkling of the depth of his obsession) recounted a trip that he’d made with a group of German schoolchildren to a certain city. Their teacher had told them, “You are forbidden to get lost”, admittedly a slightly odd statement, but hardly one that confirms the depravity of the entire German nation. E would sit there, fidgeting and rocking in his chair, wild-eyed and practically foaming at the mouth by the end of the tale, while his audience would chuckle politely and begin to wonder if he was dangerous. Ironically, his oratory smacked a little of Adolph Hitler, though I don’t think anybody ever pointed this out to him.
Joking apart, his reckless rants were an embarrassment to us all, and I was always surprised that he wasn’t disciplined or dismissed after some of the uglier episodes, such as when he bellowed at a young German student that he +should+ feel guilty about the Second World War when he’d just expressed an inability to feel responsible for something his grandparents’ generation had done. As with many prickly, unpredictable characters, often it is seen as easier to let it be than travel the long and winding road.