Tag Archives: cafe tales

Of Books and Berliners

I have a small child who likes to rearrange my bookshelves. It’s a habit that involves pulling as many volumes as possible onto the floor before I intervene. As it happens, I like the game as much as her. Albeit for different reasons. While she thrives on the anarchy of the moment, I am excited by the way that anarchy fills the room with the very real possibility that I will find an old letter or a thought scribbled on a scrap of paper and carelessly filed away between the pages of books. Last week I found a newsletter from a bar in Putney I evidently once went to – so long ago, however, that the phone number on the back bears the old London dialling code and a complete absence of any digital identity.

And then a couple of days ago a book I have not seen for ages and didn’t remember I had, landed at my feet. It was a skinny little “guide to the Germans” I received as a Christmas present during my earlier days in Berlin. I didn’t exactly devour it at the time, and I doubt I will now, but I did flip through it, and read the apparently compulsory chapter on sense of humour.

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“The Germans take their humour very seriously,” it begins. “It is not a joking matter.” It goes on for a couple of pages about how German jokes don’t translate into English, about how irony is not part of daily life, and how humour is not only prescriptive but often pre-scripted.  “Disorderly humour is not only nothing to laugh about,” the section concludes, “it is often not even recognised.”

The generalisations are, of course, greater than the reality. I was thinking about that reality yesterday, when  ensconced in my local cafe for some quiet writing time, a rather nervous looking man in his mid-thirties walked through the door. There were plenty of free tables, and he hovered around them for a moment before choosing the one immediately to my left.

He came up close, pulled out a chair,  then tutted to himself, and moved to the table on my right. This time he was there for the duration. He dumped his stuff  – coat, hat, scarf, briefcase etc. – on the bench and asked me if I would keep an eye on it all for a moment. “Like a hawk,” I promised with a smile, as he strutted off towards the toilets. And although nothing was going to happen to his stuff during his absence, I watched it… a small black mound of inanimate objects. They looked so dark and dull, and I was suddenly hit by an overwhelming desire to hide – just temporarily – one item. Sadly he was faster than my thought, and was back before I could act on my impulse.

When he approached our corner of the café, he looked at me questioningly. “It’s all still there,” I told him. He nodded his approval or his recognition of a job well done and took off his suit jacket. “Although I did consider hiding it,” I confessed. He did a kind of double take before releasing a limping bout of wooden laughter  into the gap between his table and mine.

It hung in the air for a moment, before he cut it off dead, turned to me square on and said: “That wouldn’t have been a good idea.” And somehow, judging by the look of earnestness gripping his face, I don’t think he was joking.

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