A Life with Books Pt. 1 ‘From ‘Heidi’ to Heidegger’ ( Memoir)

There wasn’t  much for an English child to read in post-war Germany.

In the tiny ‘book corner’ of the Foreign Office school I attended, there were only a few precious copies of the ‘Rupert Bear’ annuals ; a scattering of comics ( all for boys);  and a  much-loved copy of ‘Heidi’, translated in to English ( for the girls).

In spite of the  paper shortage during the war, the British Government had allowed the ‘Rupert Bear’ annuals to continue to be published on ‘war economy’ paper, as a concession to British children. Perhaps it was hoped that Rupert would offer a semblance of normality, continuity and solace in these times  of upheaval and chaos.

How extraordinarily far-sighted and gentle was that decision.

I was devoted, like many other children, to the antics of this little bear and his’ pals’ : Bill Badger, Podgy Pig,Bingo the Brainy Pup,Freddie and Ferdy Fox -all living in this impossibly idyllic place called Nutwood.

To a lonely and troubled child, like myself, his world seemed surrealistically bonkers, almost exotic;  but there was something reassuring about Rupert himself : iconic and comforting, there he was, unknowingly, doing his bit for the ‘war effort’. The England he lived in was so  far-removed from the landscapes of war-torn Germany that we kids were living in. A world of bombsites, starving  people with bootlace-less shoes, ragged clothes, ravaged lives.

Allied-occupied Germany,  for the British people working there in 1945 – onwards – was a comfortable place to be. My father, like many others, worked for the Control Commission ( British Element) in the Transport division. This meant that he was physically absent from my life most of the time. He was travelling all over Germany: Bremen, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Essen. My mother and I trailed after him, like camp followers, living a life of comparative luxury. Beautiful houses – mansions- with vast marble staircases, grounds –   were seconded for us to live in.  We had troupes of servants to look after us: cooks, nannies, gardeners.  Malnourished, good people desperate for work. The flourishing black market provided whisky and de Reske cigarettes; and encouraged a louche ‘party’ atmosphere.  Left to the various Hildegards and Irmgards who looked after me, I’d look through the bannisters in my nightie, at the adults below, partying, flirting, drinking, wreathed in cigarette smoke.

Occasionally, I’d   beg my emotionally-absent  mother to read to me from a copy of Grimm’s  Fairytales, found in one of the houses, but was constantly rebuffed with the phrase: ‘Go away, and leave me alone’.

it’s the only phrase I can ever remember her saying to me.

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