It was off to Freiburg last Saturday for the 65th birthday party a distant cousin. The call came eight days ago, and as I was due to work the following day, I thought a flying visit would be cutting it too fine. But my cousin assured me that Freiburg’s local airport was only a 45-minute drive away (it wasn't) and I would most certainly be able to catch an 8.30am plane to get back to London in time for work. I did manage to do just that, but only by driving the 60-odd kilometres to Basel-Mulhouse airport at a hair-raising 150kph. And for once I am not exaggerating.
My mad dash came after just three and a half hours sleep and having spent the seven-and-half hours before that steadily drinking Sekt. I also took an immediate wrong turn on my way out of Freiburg and found myself well on the way to a town called Merzhausen. I'm sure it's a very nice town and well worth a visit at some time, but at that particular moment it wasn't exactly where I wanted to be. At the other end of the journey, I overshot the exit to the airport - there are two just to keep things simple: a French one and a Swiss one - and found myself negotiating the, mercifully very empty, streets of Basel, looking for the fastest way out again and back to the airport.
I arrived with about 20 minutes to spare before take-off, but the check-in desk had long closed. But by a stroke of good fortune, I had checked in online two days earlier, and so was allowed straight onto the plane. The following day’s work was, however, hell, and how I stayed awake I really don’t know.
. . .
Paul Meyer, my cousin, is a cousin in the way that we choose to be related to those we should like to be related to. The nominal relationship is based on the fact that – and I think I’ve got this right – my grandmother, nee Maria Tholen, was a first cousin of his grandmother. Or something like that. His mother was nee Beckman, my great-grandmother was nee Mammes, and so it goes on. I'm sure someone somewhere knows the full story.
Paul grew up in a small town called Papenburg in the Emsland in Germany’s far north-west where his father owned a quite substantial shipyard which, I should imagine employed everyone in town who was not engaged in agriculture and who did not supply any of the services a small town might need – teaching, law, medicine, shopkeeping, that kind of thing. Paul was the oldest son, but as he was more academically inclined, the next youngest son, Bernd, took over the shipyard and still runs it very successfully. Given that, as far as I know, not one Belfast or Glasgow shipyard is still operating, the Meyer Werft is something of a roaring success. The shipyard was founded at the end of the 18th century and naturally was not building ships the size it is today.
The thing is that it is around 20 miles inland from the sea, sitting on a canal which links it with the river Ems. Every so often the canal has to be widen, then widened again to allow the finished vessels to get to the sea. The picture (below) should give you some idea how odd it can look when a
rather large ship apparently sails across the countryside. The third son, Wilm-Rolf, became a banker. He was - is - a little younger than me and was the one I remember knocking around with before we were teenagers.
When we lived in Berlin, my family often used to visit that neck of the woods, with my brother Ian and I sometimes staying with relatives in Papenburg, or joining my parents and younger brother and sister for holidays in a small riverside weir house near a hamlet called Hilter, which is about two miles south of a village called Lathen, which is about ten miles south of Papenburg. Lathen was also full of distant relatives, and Ian and I, about 10 and 12 at the time, would spend our days there just mucking about.
The party was especially enjoyable because I met up with people I had not seen in, sometimes, more than 40 years. I also got to know the children of cousins, and, in some cases their grandchildren. It also reminded me that in many ways I am more German than English, especially in the way the Germans like to socialise. But I should add the my nephew Johannes, who recently spent six weeks working for the pharma firm Bayer in Newbury and who I saw a few times while he was in Britain, what he likes about Britain is the greater informality. I suppose it's swings and roundabouts. Oh, but I'll choose German food over the swill English call food any day.
. . .
The one surprising thing was that it was apparently almost common knowledge among the extended gang to which my mother was related, and I through her, that my father worked for MI6. The odd thing is that they seem to think that he was primarily an secret serviceman and that his work with the BBC was his cover, whereas I always thought - and still think - that he was primarily a journalist who did occasional work for MI6. But either way none of it really adds up.
My father was always a gifted linguist and after joining up during the war, was commissioned in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. He took part in the D Day invasion of Normandy. But quite soon, though I don’t know quite how soon, he was working for the Intelligence Corps, and it is that connection which will have led to his links with the secret service, although, as I say, I have no idea how formal or otherwise they were. After he was demobbed, he stayed on in Germany and was engaged in vetting Germans who wanted to start newspapers and magazine. In that way he got to know a chap called Rudolf Augstein, who founded Der Spiegel, and another chap called Henri Nannen who founded Stern. (Both magazines are going strong, and Der Spiegel even publishes an English edition online which, as far as I know not even the Economist does.) In fact, I think his acquaitance with Nannen must have been quite close because as a baptismal present, I was given a free subscription to Stern up until my 21st birthday (although my mother benefited from it, not me).
When my father, now married with one young son and another child on the way, returned to England in 1949, he joined the BBC and worked at its monitoring service in Caversham (which coincidentally had turfed my school, the Oratory School out of its premises to that it could move in. That’s when the OS moved to Checkendon).
I really can’t say exactly what work the ‘BBC monitoring service’ did, but I think it is generally acknowledged that its work benefited the government rather than the BBC. My father worked there (eventually working nightshifts because, as he once told me, he thought it might be a way to ‘get on’, which was hell for my brother and I because we always had to be as quiet as mice when we got in from school as he was still sleeping, although we almost always work him up and then there was hell to play).
Finally, in 1959, he joined the BBC German Service and was appointed the Berlin representative. My years later I began to wonder why the BBC had a ‘German Service’ when it did not have a French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish or Greek Service, and it was then, a few years before my father’s death in 1991 than I began to ask him questions about his work.
I do remember one or two rather odd incidents. For example, after the Berlin Wall was built, there were still quite a few men and some women who managed to escape from East German to the West. One of them managed it by hijacking an East German river Havel pleasure steamer and having it sailed into Western waters in West Berlin. At the time there was only my father and myself I Berlin as the rest of the family was back in England, and this chap came around for supper. It didn’t strike me as odd, but later I wondered why
he, of all those who got through to the West, was of interest to my father. I now think it likely that he was a British agent (who, if I recall, looked very much like the chap pictured here).
In the years before my father died, I managed to get a bit out of him, but, as I say, I got the impression that he was primarily a BBC man who did things for MI6 rather than the other way around. We left Berlin in 1963 and in 1965 he was appointed Paris representative. Quite how that would fit in with him being an MI6 man I really don’t know. Oddly, I should think. He returned from Paris in 1972 and didn’t retire for another 11 years, during which time he did various things with the BBC, none of which, I gather were of much importance. There is a suggestion that at the time the BBC looked after its own and more or less invented posts and work for loyal senior staff who were otherwise supernumary. So when he did retire, he had spent the previous years working in (as I think it was called) the Department of Foreign Affairs. Just why the BBC should need such a department I really don’t know and can’t say.
The most likely explanation is that he was neither wholly a BBC man nor an MI6 man, but a little bit off both. And I suppose from the point of view of the security services it would be worthwhile having a sympathetic contact in the BBC who could indicate which way the wind was blowing, although, the problem with that theory is the MI6 does not concern itself with domestic matters. He did once tell me that the head of the KGB in London would send him a cheery Christmas card every year, which irritated the hell out of him.
Anyway, the gang up in Papenburg and Lathen seemed to know - or thought they knew - that my father was ‘ein Spion’, though quite how, I don’t know. He loved going up there and socialising with them all. They were great drinkers and extremely hospitable.
. . .
That neck of the woods is quite singular. The landscape and buildings are very Dutch, many of the farmers still speak Platt Deutsch, which is a kind of halfway house between German and Dutch, and one chap at the party, a doctor called Heinz-Bernd Dohmes, who is Paul's direct cousin, told me that the people from the Saterland, where my grandfather was from, had their own distinct language. But Papenburg is a small town, and all the 'young ones' I spoke to (as I am 61 in less than four weeks, 'young' is pretty flexible) said they were glad to get away and now live all over the place - in Berlin, in the Rhineland, in Hamburg, everywhere. My sister married a guy from that town and knows many of them better than I do (although I met several of those she knows, the sons and daughters of distant cousins I knew years ago, for the first time at the weekend). Because I went there as a child and always on holiday, perhaps I see the town through rather rose-tinted spectacles. A small town is always a small town.
The town is built along two extremely long canals, the Hauptkanal, then another with goes off at an angle. In the Seventies, I believe they filled in the canal but a decade later reinstated it (it it is possible to 'reinstate' a canal, which, after all, is just a long hole filled with water). The picture is admittedly touristy and was obviously taken on a nice day, but it does give a good idea of what parts of the town look like. The name 'Papenburg' is said to derive from something like 'borough of the Papists'. 'Burg' usually means 'castle', but also shares its roots with our English word 'borough'.