September 2022 has been a momentous month, and already it seems more than two weeks since my recent lecture tour to Germany. This was my sixth such tour since 2001 –all of them undertaken for the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft (D-BG) – and it will be my last: after December, I shall be ‘retiring’ from giving public lectures and talks. Why? Well, to be honest, I am beginning to tire of the sound of my own voice addressing an audience, and I want to stop before other people tire of it too.
The lectures I’ve given during these tours have reflected the three subjects – literature, architecture and stained glass – on which my post-career career (if such it has been) as an itinerant lecturer has been based. On my first visit, I spoke on ‘The idea of Englishness in the Modern English Novel’; in 2014 I offered two topics: ‘If Armageddon’s On: British Poets and the Outbreak of the First World War’ and ‘The Architecture of Remembrance: Memorialising the First World War’. This last, contrasting as it did the different approaches to war cemeteries and memorials adopted by Britain and Germany during 1914-1918 and for the century since, was a sensitive subject and I was nervous about how it would go down. I was struck, though, by the number of people who thanked me for opening up a subject barely mentioned in Germany: ‘No one has had the courage to talk to us about this before,’ I was told at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
I have particularly enjoyed visiting cities in the former East Germany. I shan’t readily forget giving a seminar to a group of students from the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena and afterwards joining them for a tour of the city’s bars. But how I got back to my hotel and how I caught my train the next morning I can neither remember nor imagine. Another time I spent a weekend in Schwerin, that beautiful city not far inland from the Baltic Sea. Our genial host served curried banana soup and explained how he still missed the pre-Reunification era. ‘We’ve lost the old sense of looking out for each other,’ he said.
űsseldorf, housed in the 18th century Schloss Jägerhof, is perhaps the most exotic building in which I have lectured, speaking in a room lined with vitrines full of fine Dresden porcelain. More often, however, my talks have been given in university seminar rooms, none more august than those at the Humboldt; but the building I have most admired is the Essen Volkshochschule. This strikingly glass-fronted building stands in Burgplatz, the very centre of the city, facing the ancient cathedral. The idea of a community college of adult education in Britain being given such prominence and held in such esteem by the city it serves is hard to imagine. I was very touched to be given this time, as a memento of my five visits, a medallion depicting the famous Golden Madonna who sits in Essen’s Cathedral and about whom I have written before.
I shan’t forget the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft, nor the friends I have made. For this ‘farewell tour’, travelling with my wife, I chose to talk about stained glass in British Cathedrals. I began with the earliest windows in Canterbury, the magnificent ‘Ancestors of Christ’, and I quoted the Cathedral’s Director of Stained Glass, Leonie Seliger, who has argued that these windows ‘would have witnessed the murder of Thomas Becket, they would have witnessed Henry II come on his knees begging for forgiveness, they would have witnessed the conflagration of the fire that devoured the cathedral in 1174. And then they would have witnessed all of British history.’
Nor shall I forget the last evening I gave this lecture, on Thursday 8th September. I was in Műnster, a small city heavily bombed between 1943 and 1945 but today rebuilt and at ease with itself and its past. After enjoying a meal of blutwurst mit sauerkraut with our hosts before the lecture, I was anxious that time was pressing and eager to get to the University to check the A-V equipment. Just as we were leaving, the restaurant manager rushed out to tell us the Queen had died.
Witnesses to history: only two days earlier, in Dűsseldorf, we had seen a large crowd waiting outside the Rathaus to cheer the Sussexes, Prince Harry and Meghan. That same day we had watched on TV Her Majesty standing before a roaring fire at Balmoral, beaming as she saw Boris Johnson out and Liz Truss in. Now, in an instant, the old order had changed: Charles III was King. As one commentator would soon put it, with the Queen’s death, the post-war era really was at an end. Suddenly, my lecture on stained glass seemed rather irrelevant, and indeed the small audience who turned up suggested others might have felt the same. But the A-V worked, I was introduced and began talking.
I like to keep an eye on my audience when I’m speaking and, after ten minutes, I noticed an elderly and diminutive lady sitting at the back who had fallen asleep. Not even the repeated attempts of someone trying to phone another member of the audience disturbed her. I carried on but soon there was a clatter and a crash as she slid off her chair and hit the stone floor. The ensuing commotion forced me to stop as almost everyone else in the audience crowded round her to help, if help were needed. The owner of the ringing phone rushed outside – to call, I assumed, an ambulance.
But I was wrong. Happily the old lady was not hurt, just surprised and apologetic for disrupting my lecture. Another member of my diminishing audience assisted her home, and the owner of the phone came back and whispered to me that WDR (West-Deutscher Rundfunk) wanted to do TV interviews with me and members of the D-BG about the Queen’s death as soon as possible. Could they wait until I’d finished the lecture? Yes, but please would I end promptly, because the janitor needed to lock the building by 9 o’clock, and the TV crew would be waiting for us at a café in Prinzipalmarkt.
And indeed they were. It was an unexpectedly memorable way to end my long and happy association with the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft: sitting, beer in hand, with friends old and new, staring into a camera and trying to answer the awful inevitable question, ‘How did you feel when you heard the Queen was dead?’
© Adrian Barlow
Illustrations: (i) The Essen Golden Madonna medallion; (ii) Friedrich-Schiller University, Jena.
Note: I have written before about two previous tours undertaken for the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft: