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Learning German Because of Brexit

British playwright Tim Luscombe lived all over the world––Sweden, Italy, Thailand––before settling on the German capital. A passionate European, Tim’s relationship to the city was deeply questioned when Britain voted to leave the European Union. A self-confessed ‘dabbler’, he had never before been forced to choose a country and a language. Now, Brexit––and its threat to limit freedom of movement––forced a choice. I sit down with the author whose debut book in prose, Learning German (badly), is being published this month by Claret Press.

Tim Luscombe. Photograph by Marga van den Meydenberg.

Joseph: What brought you first to Germany?

Tim: I’d been coming to Germany for years, specifically to Berlin, before I decided to settle in the city seven years ago. Living in Bangkok, I’d begun to miss Europe, but the idea of returning to the UK, where I’m from, was never really on the cards. Too expensive for a mere writer! Anyway, I wanted to live ‘on the continent’, and Berlin offered everything I sought back then – a great club scene, an efficiently run city, a more compassionate atmosphere than London, and all in a country that sat at the heart of Europe and the European project in which I’ve always fervently believed. However, the specific trigger to move here was when I met someone, fell in love and moved in with him in Kreuzberg! We got married a couple of years later, and here I am.

Joseph: What made you want to write a book about learning German?

Tim: To be honest, the trigger was my husband. He would come home from work to be regaled with my stories about what had happened in German language class at the VHS  that day [the Volkshochschule or adult education institution]. He’d laugh his head off (much to my surprise) and tell me I should write it down. I think he was fascinated by the idea that I was spending time with a bunch of what he called the New Berliners. Their world and his hardly ever overlapped, but he was aware that they represented Berlin’s future. He thought I could say something about Berlin itself by telling the stories of my classmates, whose migration stories reflected current patterns of global change.

Joseph: With the Brexit referendum, things altered for Brits living in Germany. And, in your book, you learn German around the time of the Brexit referendum. How did this change your attitude to learning German?

Tim: I tried to learn Swedish when I lived in Stockholm, Dutch in Amsterdam and Italian in Rome. My attitude to learning languages was similar to my attitude to relationships in those days. I was a dabbler! So when I came to Germany, that was how I approached German. But, with Brexit, it suddenly got very serious indeed. I realised that if I wished to remain in Germany and continue enjoying the benefits of EU citizenship, I would have to actually do some work and get real about it.

Joseph: Your experience learning German is an opportunity to reflect on other aspects of German life, your life in the city, and the scenes and people you have met here. What were you prompted to write about and why?

Tim: Having spent most of my adult life working in theatre, I was fascinated to discover in Berlin that theatre making is an utterly different art form from theatre making in England. Here it’s all about politics, experimentation and subsidised good-for-you art. In England it’s much more of a tits-and-teeth, commercially-minded business. I wanted to write about that, but also about the art scene more generally. Additionally, I’ve tried to describe the mark that history has left on the city, in terms of the way it currently functions and how it sees itself, and I’ve done that in a variety of ways, for example through a (hopefully spirited) review of the language’s challenges and the stories of Berliners I’ve met along the way.

Joseph: What did you hate most about the German language and like most about it?

Tim: I hate a great deal about the German language, and struggle with it terribly. I appear to have no talent for it whatsoever, and have failed, having attempted to learn it on and off for about 8 years, to get beyond B1. I’m not even sure I’d qualify for B1, to be honest. I can’t quite believe that agreeing adjectives and getting to grips with the clauses can really be that important when it comes to expressing yourself interestingly. Then I learn, and learn again, that in Germany you can’t be interesting unless you’re also being accurate. But my brain refuses to properly engage with the fact. It’s like, there must be better ways to spend your time.

Joseph: What do you hope people reading your book will take away from it?

Tim: The book is about what happens in class at the VHS, but also what happens between me and the people around me. It also deals with the death of my father back in England – all this against a background of a political union crumbling as the UK votes to leave the EU. So there are personal and political aspects to the book, and I hope the reader will initially be attracted to it because it’s funny and stay to finish it because it moves them.

Joseph: What are your feelings regarding the future of Britain in Europe? And of British people in Berlin?

Tim: I feel, and I argue in the book, that blame for where we are now must initially lie with the arrogance of PM Cameron and his team who blithely imagined they would win the referendum because they’d won everything else in their privileged lives. To ask a binary question of a population who’d just experienced eight years of austerity (which resulted in real misery across large swathes of the country), and to expect the people to vote for the status quo was to ask for trouble. And that’s what we’ve got.

Britain suffers from eurosceptic syndrome. It’s a mixture of misplaced pride in an imagined past, the comfort of isolationism and a wholesale pig-headed, wilful ignorance about ‘foreign’. There are plenty of racists in England. But perhaps the bulk of those who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum weren’t being consciously racist. However, they did, lazily and peevishly, express their dislike of and distaste for the outsider. But one shouldn’t end a list of the causes of Brexit without attributing much of the lies and misinformation, as well as much of the fomenting of xenophobia, to the English press, a great deal of which is perniciously right-wing.

But your question was about the future. Deep down, I retain some optimism. Brexit is a spasm, although it may be a long one. Britain’s natural home, I’ve always felt, is with the rest of Europe, not as a satellite of the USA or within some kind of maverick alliance of regulation-free traders who have a greater connection to Singapore than to France, Germany or Spain. I firmly believe that the strategy going forward has to be to educate people. There has never been a grass route attempt to explain the benefits of EU membership to the British people, to convey the important message about the continent’s history or to engage with the danger that lies in our path if we ignore the lessons of the last century.

Learning German (badly) (October 2019) is available to order as a paperback or ebook from all usual digital outlets or through your local bookshop.

Featured picture on Needle’s front page by Dirk Naguschewski.

Tim Luscombe (book cover). Photograph by Marga van den Meydenberg.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.