Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sydney’s mounted police salute 150 years

  • 29 Feb 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald

Modern-day troopers stand and deliver for a challenge

Sydney’s mounted police salute 150 years of law and order, writes Steve Meacham.
‘Bushrangers were the bad guys. No one ever gives the mounted police credit for taking them on.’
Joseph Mcglennon
 Joseph Mcglennon was perplexed. At 54 and still relaunching his first career as a fine art photographer after a gap of several decades, he had been issued a challenge he was not sure he could deliver.
Photo: Joseph McglennonMane event . . . Senior Constable Sandi Palmer on police horse Hannah.
Could he create a suite of images celebrating the cultural significance of 150 years of Nswpolicing?
‘‘It was an open brief,’’ recalls Mcglennon, a branding consultant who divides his year between homes in Singapore and Sydney.
‘‘My first thought was to use some of the museum’s superb collection of old glass plate negatives of convicts,’’ he says of the creative process which led him to come up with the arresting image at right.
‘‘That led me to thinking about bushrangers, which in turn made me think of horses.’’
The results are spectacularly beautiful photographs which cast present day members of the mounted police in guises that might have been painted of their forebears in 1862.
Tomorrow seven mounted police will participate in the Sea of Blue Parade along George Street to kick off celebrations commemorating the creation of one of the world’s oldest police forces – in 1862 – replacing the old civilian night watches that had existed since Governor Phillip’s day.

Even more pomp will come in May when 19 members of the mounted police unit and their horses will fly to England to perform in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant at Windsor Castle. They will be among 500 horses and 800 humans invited from all the countries Queen Elizabeth II has visited during her reign.
But Mcglennon knew nothing about that when he opted for horse and rider as the emblematic image symbolising 150 years of continuous service to law and order.
‘‘In Australia, for some reason, the police are treated with suspicion,’’ explains Mcglennon, who was born in Scotland but moved to Australia when he was nine, and went on to study fine art at Adelaide University.
Like most Australians, he grew up hearing stories about bushrangers like Ned Kelly and Captain Thunderbolt, who are treated as heroic figures in the country’s mythology.
‘‘But in reality the bushrangers were the bad guys, ’’ says Mcglennon. ‘‘No one ever gives the mounted police credit for taking them on, for protecting the settlers who were struggling to make a living. Even in Waltzing Matilda , the troopers are cast as the villains.’’
As he researched the history of the Nswmounted police, he discovered that, in many ways, they do epitomise both the changes and the continuity in the police over 150 years.
Today, he points out, the mounted police unit has two main duties and they are are poles apart. The horse-and-rider teams are seen in public usually on either ceremonial duties (such as the Sea of Blue parade) or on occasions which could degenerate into public disorder or even riots.
These days they are mainly deployed in urban situations, whereas in the era of the bushrangers their theatre was the endless plain.
Mcglennon talked to Inspector Kirsten Mcfadden, head of the mounted unit, asking if he could take some photos. He also gave her a copy of the Strange Voyage catalogue which accompanied his first Sydney exhibition in decades at Dank Street Galleries last year – highly stylised photographs of kangaroos and other ‘‘weird’’ Australian fauna which echoed European paintings of the early 19th century when such creatures were still a novelty.
He painted backdrops which he felt would best show off the horses, arrived with his cameras at the stables, and prepared for the shoot.
‘‘The officers were all dressed in contemporary uniforms and we started talking about the old days when the mounted police were called troopers,’’ Mcglennon remembers. ‘‘And they said, ‘We still have the uniforms, which we use on ceremonial days.’ So they put those on instead.’’
The photographer showed the officers his first shots. But still they had little idea of the finished images. Later he added up to 30 different layers of detail, shot under the same light conditions and married, he says, ‘‘with as little Photoshop as possible’’.
The finished articles are highly theatrical and totally staged, reminiscent of the European tradition of painting subjects on horseback surrounded by symbols of their grandeur.
Here, Mcglennon points out, he has used many. Pomegranates: ‘‘In the Bible, Moses is given pomegranates when he’s seen the Promised Land. That’s what lots of immigrants thought they were buying into when they came to Australia.’’ Foxes: ‘‘Symbolising the immigrants who were brought over here and then treated like vermin’’. Blackberries: ‘‘I suppose that is the English notion about trying to tame the land.’’
So what does Inspector Mcfadden think? ‘‘It is something totally out of the realm of what we normally do. But they look fantastic.
‘‘They don’t look like our horses. He’s made them look manly. Our horses don’t have manes like that, but he wanted that historic effect.’’

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Debunking the Gallipoli Anzac Myth

Gallipoli; I Found No Peace

from History Today By Gary Sheffield | Posted 21st February 2012, 9:10
Peter Hart
Profile Books   534pp   £25
I Found No Peace: A Journey Through the Age of Extremes
Webb Miller
deCoubertin Books   297pp   £9.99
Gallipoli stands almost alone among battles of the First World War. This campaign, fought at the Dardanelles in 1915, has a romance almost entirely missing from the attritional struggles on the Western Front in spite of the fact that this attempt to knock Turkey out of the war was a far greater failure than Passchendaele or the Somme. It is instructive to compare the vast number of books on Gallipoli with the handful on the battles of the hundred days of August-November 1918 when a highly effective British army made a mighty contribution to winning the war.
The romance is associated with four factors. It is often said that it was at Gallipoli that the performance of Anzac troops set Australia and New Zealand free from the weight of their British colonial pasts on the path to emerging as nations in their own right. The historical veracity of this simplistic nationalist narrative is dubious, but the myth remains powerful in modern-day Australia and New Zealand. Moreover, Gallipoli was an early episode in the career of the ‘greatest Briton’ Winston Churchill; and it took place in an area soaked with significance for classically-educated officers such as Rupert Brooke. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there remains a notion that the campaign somehow offered a short cut to winning the First World War and that the failure condemned a generation to suffer in the trenches.
Over the last two decades historians have comprehensively debunked the latter belief. In his new book, Gallipoli, Peter Hart of the Imperial War Museum has no truck with what might be described as the ‘lost by a narrow margin’ school. He states that his aim is to ‘expose the futility of the campaign’ and to illustrate the experience of fighting on the peninsula. Hart does both in a highly effective fashion. The campaign was ‘doomed from the outset’, he argues; moreover an objective staff study of the initial proposal would have ensured that it would never have advanced beyond the point of being a bright idea. Hart is far from the first historian to make this case (Robin Prior’s 2009 Gallipoli: The End of the Myth, for instance, sets it out in remorseless and compelling detail) and yet does so in a particularly readable fashion.
Hart’s writing style is not to everyone’s taste but he has shrewd historical sense and the knack of interweaving analysis with a narrative founded on telling quotes from participants. He has an impressive record of writing books of this type, illustrating the experience of war by extensive use of first-hand accounts. Gallipoliis well up to his usual standards, though it adds little to his previous account of the campaign, co-authored with Nigel Steel in the 1990s, especially in regard to the Turkish side. Beyond acquaintance with some interesting ‘I was there’ sources, specialists are unlikely to learn much that is new, but a more general audience, brought up on the idea that the campaign was a near-run thing, may well be shocked by Hart’s pitiless dissection of the ‘lunacy’ of Gallipoli, an ‘idiocy generated by muddled thinking’.
A rather different take on the war comes in Webb Miller’s I Found No Peace. Miller (1891-1940), an American journalist, published these memoirs in 1935. I’m not wholly convinced that it is ‘a forgotten classic’ fit to stand alongside Hemingway and Orwell as the publisher’s blurb proclaims, but it is certainly very interesting. Miller gives some graphic accounts of his involvement in events as diverse as the US army’s pursuit of Pancho Villa across the Mexican border, the independence campaign in British India, an interview with Hitler, the 1935 Italian invasion of Abyssinia and, of course, the trench warfare on the Western Front. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and reading this book it is easy to see why. His description of the Verdun sector near the end of the First World War and how he broke the news of the Armistice is a particularly fine piece of journalism made more entertaining by Miller’s less than modest style: the words ‘I’, ‘my’ and ‘we’ make frequent appearances. Miller’s book is a curiosity, but it is certainly highly readable and it is good to see it back in print.
Gary Sheffield's The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army will be published by Aurum later this year.

Colonial Art Collection

  • 22 Feb 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald
  • Ben Smee

Colonial gems on display after 200-year trip home

WHEN Captain James Wallis sailed back to Britain almost 200 years ago, he took a collection of sketches and paintings that documented life in NSW.

The Wallis album, bought by the State Library of NSW for $1.8 million, has just been revealed at Newcastle Art Gallery.

It has been a long journey back to Australia for the album, which came to light only last October – stored in a cupboard in Ontario, Canada, by a descendant of Wallis.

The collection was part of a deceased estate, says Richard Neville, librarian at the Mitchell Library. ‘‘One could see immediately how important [the album was] and how vital it was to purchase it,’’ he says. ‘‘The last time the album was in Australia was on the 3rd of March, 1819, when Captain Wallis put it on a ship and took it back to England.’’

The Wallis collection comprises 35 watercolours and drawings of Sydney and regional views of NSW, portraits of Aborigines and natural history illustrations made in Newcastle in 1818 by both Wallis, who was the commandant of the city’s penal settlement from 1816 to 1818, and the convict artist Joseph Lycett, who was transported to Newcastle from Britain for forgery.

The NSW state librarian, Alex Byrne, describes the album as a major addition to the library’s collection. “This remarkable album is the most significant pictorial artefact to have been made in colonial NSW during the 1810s,’’ he says.

The Arts Minister, George Souris, says it was important to bring the album back to where most of its works were created.
The director of the Newcastle Art Gallery, Ron Ramsey, says that the album, which will be on show at the gallery until Sunday, is a treasure ‘‘greater than the jewels of Elizabeth Taylor – and so much cheaper’’.

Ice Age flower

  • 22 Feb 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald
  • Nicholas Wade
  • The New York Times, Associated Press

Blooming miracle: Russians give life to Ice Age flower

LIVING plants have been generated from the fruit of a small arctic flower, the narrow-leafed campion, that died 32,000 years ago, a team of Russian scientists reports.
The fruit was stored by an arctic ground squirrel in its burrow on the tundra of north-eastern Siberia and lay permanently frozen until excavated by scientists a few years ago.
This would be the oldest plant by far that has ever been grown from ancient tissue. The present record is held by a date palm grown from a seed some 2000 years old that was recovered from the ancient fortress of Masada in Israel.
Seeds and certain cells can last a long time under the right conditions, but many claims of extreme longevity have failed on closer examination. Tales of wheat grown from seeds in the tombs of the pharaohs have long been discredited.
Lupins were germinated from seeds in a 10,000-year-old lemming burrow found by a gold miner in Canada. But the seeds, when later dated by the radiocarbon method, turned out to be modern contaminants. Despite this unpromising background, the new claim is supported by a firm radiocarbon date.
The report is by a team led by Svetlana Yashina and David Gilichinsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences near Moscow, and appears in Tuesday’s The Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences.
‘‘This is an amazing breakthrough,’’ said Grant Zazula of the Yukon Paleontology Program at Whitehorse, Canada. ‘‘I have no doubt in my mind that this is a legitimate claim.’’ It was Mr Zazula who showed the apparently ancient lupin seeds found by the gold miner were modern.
But the extraordinary report is likely to provoke calls for more proof. ‘‘It’s beyond the bounds of what we’d expect,’’ said Alastair Murdoch, an expert on seed viability at the University of Reading in England.

When poppy seeds are kept at minus 7 degrees, the temperature the Russians reported for the campions, after 160 years just 2 per cent of the seeds germinate, Dr Murdoch noted.
The Russian researchers excavated squirrel burrows on the bank of the lower Kolyma River. They were 38 metres below the present surface in layers containing bones of large Ice Age mammals, such as mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, bison, horse and deer.
The scientists grew 36 ancient plants, which appeared identical to the present day narrow-leafed campion until they flowered, when they produced narrower and more splayed petals.
Stanislav Gubin, one of the authors of the study, says it demonstrates tissue can survive ice conservation for tens of thousands of years, opening the way to the possible resurrection of Ice Age mammals.
‘‘If we are lucky, we can find some frozen squirrel tissue,’’ Mr Gubin said. ‘‘And this path could lead us all the way to mammoth.’’

Monday, February 20, 2012

Walls close in on Tibetan nomads

  • 20 Feb 2012
  • The Sydney Morning Herald

Walls close in on Tibetan nomads promised better life

Losang, a dark, stocky man with a shock of jet black hair and a beaming grin, is known as the happiest man in his village. The former nomad cackles with infectious laughter after almost every sentence, even when telling the story of his own misfortune.
Chinese authorities told him if he gave up herding his yaks and sheep in exchange for a house in a Tibetan nomad resettlement camp, he could buy a car, open a business and get government support. He has the house – two rooms each about three metres across and four metres long – but not much else. ‘‘We were happy to move, but now there is nothing,’’ Losang, 46, says, laughing loudly at his own expense.
Having moved into his new house in Maixiu, Qinghai, three months ago, he quickly found employment opportunities were much more limited for him and his 25-year-old son than he was promised. He now survives on the odd construction job during the summer, where he can make about RMB70 ($10.40) on a good day. ‘‘There are no good jobs, we just dig holes,’’ Losang says. ‘‘We’re nomads, we’re not used to that work.’’
Losang and his family are one of more than 100,000 families who have been moved from the grassland plateaus into permanent homes in government-commissioned nomad resettlement camps in Qinghai, as part of a scheme involving the Tibetan-populated regions in the mountainous and remote western reaches of China.
Since 2009, Sichuan has ordered the construction of 1400 new communities for 100,000 households, enough to eventually resettle all of its Tibetan nomads. In Tibet, or the Tibetan Autonomous Region, 1.85 million herdsman and nomads, or 60 per cent of its total population, had been resettled as of last year.
In a recent article, a senior Tibet policymaker, Zhu Weiqun, indicated the party was now looking at the adoption of more overt assimilation policies. He identified reserving privileges for ethnic minorities as an obstacle to cohesion.
The resettlement policies stem from Beijing’s stated wish to preserve the area’s environment. Qinghai’s Sanjiangyuan is China’s largest nature reserve containing the headwaters of the country’s three main rivers, the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong. But it is suffering under the effects of climate change and the government says overgrazing by Tibetan nomad herds is exacerbating the problem. But rights groups say mining in the area should be stopped first. They also claim that nomads are actually being moved so their land can be mined in the future.
Another underlying motive is the desire to boost the region’s socio-economic standing in much the same way as the rest of the country – through rapid urbanisation of its people.
Robert Barnett, the head of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University in the US, lived in Tibet for six years until 2006. He says it is a blunt onesize-fits-all approach to think the only way forward is to put people in houses near roads and turn them into consumers.

‘‘They are very clumsy in China at recognising that you can have different kinds of development and modernisation,’’ he says.
One particularly large village, in Tongde, has row upon row of identical one-storey houses. And with space running out, Tongde is now building dozens of high-rise dwellings, similar to mediumdensity apartments in inner-city Sydney. There are also plans to provide centralised healthcare and education (in Mandarin). Tibetan nomads roam the grasslands at high altitudes in summer, usually in communities of up to two dozen, travelling wherever the grass is lush and weather fine. Their yaks are essential, used to carry tents and equipment and for their meat and milk, which is in turn used for butter and yoghurt. Even their dung is dried and burnt for fuel.
For Losang, a lifetime in the expansive grasslands of Qinghai’s mountains has ended abruptly. He knows he is never likely to earn enough to accumulate a self-sustaining herd again, having spent most of the money he got from selling his herd on the RMB6000 payment for the house. The government covered the remainder (about RMB14000).
He finds he has greatly underestimated cost of living in a world where nothing comes free. ‘‘When I was a nomad I ate meat everyday, drank yak milk tea and wore sheepskin robes, now I can’t. I have to buy everything. And I even have to eat [vegetables],’’ he says. THE colourful Tibetan New Year festival of Losar usually means two weeks of song, dance and merriment with family and loved ones. But for many ethnic Tibetans, this year’s Losar, which starts on Wednesday, will feel more like a wake.
‘‘Everything is cancelled this year,’’ Sonam, a 62-year-old nomad village elder in Zeku, tells the Herald over cups of yak butter milk tea and fried dough, both traditional staples of the Tibetan diet.
‘‘Usually we burn incense in the morning and set off firecrackers at night, but this year we feel very sad about those who lost their lives for us, so we won’t do it.’’
The cancellations come amid intensifying unrest – and increasing military presence – in the Tibetan areas in Qinghai, Gansu, and especially Sichuan.
While much of the focus has been on the dramatic and desperate acts of those driven to set themselves alight, the mass protests, including a recent one in Yushu, Qinghai, have been made up mostly by villagers – and not just purely in solidarity with their respected monks.
Emotions in the numerous government-commissioned resettlement villages visited by the Herald ranged from silent frustration to barely-contained anger over a consistent range of issues: treatment of their monks, perceived restrictions on their own freedom to travel and practice their religion, and their loss of quality of life after being moved from herding yaks in the mountains into nomad resettlement camps.
‘‘We heard what was happening [the protests on January 23] and were thinking of doing the same, but then we heard there were more than 3000 soldiers in the area, so we decided not to,’’ says Namkha , a 55-year-old villager from Tongren, Qinghai. ‘‘The temple leader told us not to for our safety, so we resisted our anger.’’ Barnett says while it is important to point out that there was no deliberate attempt to destroy Tibetan culture, China’s self-proclaimed record in preserving it has been ‘‘erratic and uneven’’.
‘‘To modernise nomad lifestyle is to bring it to an end,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s very hard to describe the nomad settlement policy, which is huge, as not an attack on a major aspect of Tibetan culture.’’
Wilful or otherwise, the net result is the spectre of an ultimate eradication, possibly within the space of a generation, of a way of life that has existed for more than 4000 years. Names have been changed to protect those interviewed for this report.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Carnival in Germany

Carnival - Crazy, Zany Winter Days

Rose Monday in CologneEnlarge imageDancing girls are carried through the streets of Cologne during the Rose Monday parade.(© picture alliance/dpa)
If you visit a town in Germany’s Rhineland or in the southwestern region during the supposedly dark days of winter you’re likely to find the whole place thrown topsy-turvy. That's because the period before Ash Wednesday is known as Carnival or the fifth season.
Carnival - known in German as Karneval, Fastnacht, Fasching, Fassenacht, or Fasnet, depending on the region - has its roots in the spring celebrations of pre-Christian times, when people wore masks to scare away winter spirits and welcomed the rebirth of nature with singing and dancing. Today it is observed mainly in Catholic regions as a season of feasting and fun before the fasting period of Lent.
Organized revelry in the Rhineland
Politicians catch Carnival spiritEnlarge imageParliamentarians in Erfurt get into the spirit of Weiberfastnacht or women's Carnival.(© picture alliance / ZB)While some localities like Cologne mark the beginning of the season on November 11 at 11:11 a.m., the highpoint always occurs in the six days before Ash Wednesday when everyone from government officials to school children give themselves over to organized revelry. People may be laughing and having a good time, but for the hundreds of Carnival societies in the region, the season of festive sessions, balls and parades is serious business.

The Thursday before Ash Wednesday is  known as “women’s Carnival” in some regions. Women literally assume power and symbolically storm the town halls in many places. Men are advised to wear an old tie since the women are liable to cut it off on and compensate the bereft wearer with a kiss.

This particular Thursday is known in other regions as fat or dirty Thursday. The name goes back to the tradition of slaughtering an animal on this day for the last meal before the fasting period. To prevent the fat from going bad people cooked food which was particularly rich in fat or else used the grease for baking.

Parade floatEnlarge imageRose Monday parade floats poke fun at politicians and the issues of the day, like this one in Düsseldorf aimed at bankers.(© picture-alliance/ dpa)Sooty Friday gained its name from an old custom according to which children daubed their faces with soot. Fewer festivities are held on this day.
Rose Monday is the climax of the Rhineland Carnival, with huge parades held in n the cities of Cologne, Düsseldorf and Mainz. Millions of people line the streets singing, dancing or just rocking too and fro. The day is not an official public holiday, but few people are expected to show up at work or school.
The parades feature floats that poke satirical fun at politicians and their policies or otherwise comment on the issues of the day. Costumed musicians, dance troupes and mounted guards are also part of the fun. 
Fools with rules
Carnival in RottweilEnlarge imageCarnival in the southwest town of Rottweil has long-standing traditions.(© picture-alliance/Uwe Gerig)Each city and town has its own Carnival traditions, but in Southwest Germany, the Swabian-Alemannic Carnival differs considerably from the Rhineland version. In 1924, the Association of Swabian-Alemannic Fools’ Guilds was formed with the aim of reducing the influence of the Rhineland carnival in the areas of Freiburg and Tübingen as well as part of German-speaking Switzerland.
The Swabian-Alemannic carnival is governed by particularly strict rules. Generally speaking, only those who have lived in the city for more than 15 years can take part. The masks and the costume also have to conform to historical precedents – unlike at the carnival celebrations in Cologne or Mainz. Accordingly, every fools’ guild has carnival masks, usually intricately carved from wood, which are handed down from generation to generation.
Mainting Sorb traditions
Zapust in the Spreewald regionEnlarge imageThis pair of four-year-olds is all dressed up for Zapust celebrations in the Brandenburg village of Neu Zauche.(© picture-alliance/dpa)In eastern Germany, the Sorbs, a Slavic nation that settled in the Lusatia region, celebrate the Zapust or Shrovetide at this time of year. Zampern, which means going from house to house and collecting gifts, is an important part the festivities. A noisy procession wends its way through the village with the aim of driving out the spirits of winter. The merry group in fancy dress stops at every farm to ask for gifts of bacon, eggs and money. To show their gratitude the revelers treat the farmer to a glass of schnapps and invite the lady of the house to a dance.
The boisterous celebration is held every year on a weekend between mid January and the beginning of March. Another aspect of Zapust is a procession of girls dressed in traditional costumes and boys in suits who go around the village visiting those residents who have contributed most to the community such as the mayor, the pastor or local craftsmen. In the evening the young people gather in the village pub for a bumper egg feast and all those taking part tuck in to a hearty meal of bacon and scrambled egg.

What makes Germans laugh

What's German for funny?

What makes Germans laugh – and why is it so different from what amuses the British? The answer may lie in a slapstick English comedy that became a TV favourite in Germany
Freddie Frinton and May Warden in Dinner for One
Freddie Frinton and May Warden in the 1963 television film Dinner for One. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar
The sketch is called Dinner for One, and it is easily described. The curtain opens on butler James laying a lavish dinner table. The lady of the house, Miss Sophie, wearing an elegant evening dress, descends a flight of stairs, and sits at the head of the table. We soon realise that it is her 90th birthday, and that something is not quite right. "Is everybody here?" Miss Sophie asks. "They're all here waiting, Miss Sophie, yes," James says, gesticulating towards the empty seats around the table. "Sir Toby?" Sophie asks. "Sir Toby is sitting here," James says, patting the back of the chair on Miss Sophie's right, and continues to assign seats to the imaginary guests named by his mistress: "Admiral von Schneider", "Mr Pommeroy" and "my very dear friend, Mr Winterbottom".
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The evening continues in this vein. James serves four courses: mulligatawny soup, haddock, chicken and fruit. With each, Miss Sophie requests a different drink: first sherry, then white wine, then champagne, then port. In the absence of any actual people around the table, James impersonates the different guests and toasts the host on their behalf. With each course, James's walk becomes less stable, his tour around the dining room more haphazard.
Much of the comedy in Dinner for One is slapstick, knockabout stuff: James spills wine, drops food, crashes into furniture and downs the water in the flower vases instead of what's in the port glasses. But the most memorable comic moment in the sketch is verbal. Before each change of wine, James stops short: "By the way, the same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?" The mistress of the house looks accusingly at her servant: "The same procedure as every year, James." At the end of the sketch, Miss Sophie decides to retire to her bedroom. James, now completely drunk, offers his arm. For a final time, there is the catchphrase – but this time, the effect is different: "Same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?"
"Same procedure as every year, James."
"Well, I'll do my very best."
As he is dragged offstage, James winks at the audience, baring his gappy teeth for a Cheshire-cat grin.
Originally scripted by the variety playwright Lauri Wylie in the 1920s,Dinner for One, also known as The Ninetieth Birthday, used to be a staple in the music-halls of seaside resorts from Blackpool down to Brighton: a very British kind of pleasure. Very British, that is, until German TV show host Peter Frankenfeld and director Heinz Dunkhase watched the sketch at Blackpool's Winter Gardens in August 1962. Straight after the show, Frankenfeld convinced the two performers – veteran comic Freddie Frinton and 72-year-old May Warden – to record their act for German TV, even though it took the show almost another 10 years to find an audience there.
On New Year's Eve 1972, NDR, northern Germany's regional television channel, screened the sketch at 6pm, and something clicked. In fact, something amazing happened: Germany fell utterly in love with it. People put down their plates of potato salad and left their frankfurters to cool; entire parties huddled around the television set. The following year, each of the regional channels showed Dinner for One at 6pm, and a few showed a repeat four hours later. Since 1963, the sketch has been screened 231 times to German audiences, making it the most repeated show on German television, and, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most popular show in TV history. In 2004, 15.6 million Germans watched it.
I grew up in the north of Germany and know Dinner for One practically off by heart. The first time I watched it I was five – it must have been either the first New Year's Eve that I was allowed to stay up late, or the first time I actually had the stamina to. Through my teens, the sketch stayed with me and continued to reveal new layers of interest: when puberty stirred, the double entendre of the line "Same procedure as every year" mystified me. "I'll do my very best." Best what? He didn't mean that, did he? They're so ... old. And if so, where? And how? And for how long? The ambiguity drove me insane. Perhaps the fact that Dinner for One dealt in such universal taboo subjects as sex between the elderly accounted for some of its cult status. But then why was the sketch so particularly popular in Germany?
One reason might be that there is so little talking in the film. By wooing the audience for laughs with physical gestures rather than words, the sketch managed to tap into a specifically German distrust of language – the same mindset that had made it the natural home of silent cinema in the 1920s.
Spike Milligan famously said that "the German sense of humour is no laughing matter", and it will take time to shift that cliche: a poll last yearrevealed the Germans are still considered the unfunniest nation in the world. Of course, it's not as simple as that: it's just that German comedyspeaks its own language. Even today, most comedy in Germany is generally more physical and knockabout than in Britain, though this is not to say that it is all as crude and basic as a Benny Hill sketch.
I was reared on a wide range of comic acts: at one end of the spectrum was Otto Waalkes, a modern version of the circus clown, with oversized dungarees, a bald pate, a trademark bunny-hop walk and goofy laughter. At the other end was the late Vicco von Bülow, better known as Loriot: a more subtle act, whose sketches were usually set in the socially awkward realm of the upper middle class, a world of fine dining, book clubs and boardroom meetings. And yet the core of Loriot's act was essentially physical. One of the most popular Loriot sketches is reminiscent of Dinner for One: a couple are at a table in a restaurant, eating soup; the man noticeably nervous. As he wipes his mouth with his napkin, a noodle gets stuck on his chin. The woman tries to point this out, but the man interrupts her. For the rest of the sketch, the rogue noodle travels from his chin to his finger to his forehead to his earlobe. The comic effect is heightened by the fact that the man is trying to have a serious conversation about their relationship, but the popularity of the sketch is essentially all down to the noodle.
German humour's reliance on the physical is not just apparent on television, but also in the way Germans act on a day-to-day basis. After or before they have made a joke, many Germans will make a physical gesture to signpost their intention: sometimes just an expressively raised eyebrow, sometimes something more emphatic. Not for nothing are jokes also known as Schenkelklopfer, "thigh-slappers".
The decorum of English joking couldn't be more different. When I first moved to London in 1997, and the boys at my school made jokes, there was nothing in their body language to demonstrate it – no funny voice, no grimacing, no slapping of thighs. Particularly in my first year, I was caught out innumerable times by this. There was the vocabulary test that my classmates had warned me about that never happened, the boy who said his father was the prime minister who wasn't, the teacher who said he had been drafted into the Oxford and Cambridge boat race at the last minute who hadn't. They had all told blatant lies without raising an eyebrow. Deadpan joke-telling seemed to come from the same mentality as the British art of understatement: the point was that you would by all means avoid making an outward show of what was going on inside your head.
In Germany, the signposting of puns and punchlines is particularly common in the gigantic beer tents of the Munich Oktoberfest and the cities of Mainz and  Cologne, where people dress up in clown costumes every November to celebrate Karneval. Büttenreden are a staple of the German carnival tradition. Historically, they used to involve a comedian standing on an upturned tub (a Bütt) telling a jokey story in rhyming iambic pentameter.
Here is a particularly unfunny example that I heard a few years ago, at a carnival party in Cologne: "Ihre Gesichtszüge sind ihr total entglitten, Sie dachte wohl jetzt an ihre Titten." Without the rhyme on the last syllable, it translates as: "She had lost control of her facial features/ She was probably thinking of her tits." In case someone in the audience should have missed their cue, a trumpet will sound after each punchline: da-doo da-doo da-doo. They might as well hold up signs reading: "Please laugh now!"
The ultimate reason that Germans love Dinner for One may be that it is a funny sketch about something that isn't very funny at all. It is, after all, a comedy that deals in death and meaningless rituals: what has happened to the British and German gentlemen who are no longer with James and Miss Sophie? It allowed Germans to chuckle at a very sinister thought: that history was only ever repeating itself in meaningless loops, that nothing was ever changing. And in a roundabout way, to break the greatest German taboo of them all: to laugh about the war.
The question remains why Dinner for One has been ignored in its country of origin – it has, for example, still never been shown on the BBC. On the occasion of the sketch's 40th anniversary in 2003, Der Spiegel published an article called "Why the BBC is still shunning Dinner for One", in which author Sebastian Knauer suggested that social anxiety might have played a part, since the sketch subversively poked fun at the English class systemvia the portrayal of heavily intoxicated aristocrats such as Sir Toby and dangerously seductive aristocratic figures such as Miss Sophie. At best, that argument strikes me as badly researched. Class has always played a central part in British comedy, from Hogarth's A Rake's Progress through PG Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster novels to Roy Clarke's 1990s BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances featuring Hyacinth Bucket, or as she would have it, "Bou-quet".
In March 1998, I brought a VHS tape of Dinner for One along to an after-school film club at my new English school. Many of my schoolmates chuckled, some of them thought it was genuinely funny, but none of them were overwhelmed. Slapstick, once the height of comic inventiveness, is now considered passe, the stuff of dusty Benny Hill collections, not primetime TV. Standup was a descendant of the music-hall tradition, of course, but it was a slimmed-down version, which relied almost exclusively on the verbal. With the slippery, bendable qualities of English, the evolution of comedy from physical to verbal was a much smoother transition in Britain than in Germany. German, with its suspension-bridge structure and modal particles, is poorly equipped to create moments of surprise.
"A German comedy is like a German sentence," George Eliot once remarked. "You see no reason in its structure why it should ever come to an end." English, on the other hand, with its malleable sounds and one-syllable words, feels custom-made for comedy. An English sentence can be flipped upside down like a pancake, its meaning completely changed by the mere variation of a syllable. The pay-off at the end of Dinner for One – "Same procedure as every year, James" – gives a hint of what the English language can do, but the Eddie Izzards, Jo Brands or Bill Baileys who found fame in the 1990s were so much faster, so much slicker than that. In my first year in England, I remember watching an episode of Have I Got News for You in which Paul Merton said: "There are various ways to give up smoking – nicotine patches, nicotine gum … my auntie used to pour a gallon of petrol over herself every morning." This sort of thing makes the ending of Dinner for One look very safe and toothless.
Perhaps the main reason why Dinner for One never found a following in Britain is not that it deals with awkwardness about class relations, but that TV sketch shows were no longer the only places where that awkwardness could be dealt with. Comedy in 21st-century Britain is no longer an exception to the norm; it is the norm. In Germany, comedy still patrols the closely guarded border between seriousness and silliness, between work and leisure; in post-industrial Britain, however, those borders are increasingly being broken down. Here, comedians write newspaper columns, they host political discussion shows and campaign for reform of the voting system. Comedy has become the British gut reaction to anything big, clever or vaguely intimidating.
By the time I moved to Britain, there was a commonly expressed view in the German press that England was a country tragically stuck in the past, obsessed with its glorious role in the second world war, unable to shake a German's hand without making some daft joke about the Nazis – all true, to an extent, just not the whole truth. In many ways, one British comedy had already come up with a much more convincing explanation for this. John Cleese's Basil Fawlty desperately tries to be serious when he meets his German guests at Fawlty Towers, yet he cannot stop himself from reverting to the English instinct of black-humoured wordplay:"That's two egg mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Herman Göring and four Colditz salads." Basil Fawlty reminds us that postwar Anglo-German relations weren't just complicated by changing economic fortunes and a rapidly unfolding European project, but also by increasingly divergent ideas of what humour could and should do.
This is an edited extract from Keeping Up With The Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters, published by Faber & Faber on 16 February 2012 at £12.99.