Playground today

Half a century later, I returned to Mannheim, on an exchange visit with a Swansea choir. I was impressed by the city. Swansea seemed provincial and old-fashioned by contrast and the Mannheim choir’s singing was better than ours. On a free afternoon, I crossed the river and found my way back to the Ehrlenhof. In the main hall, there were tables set out for what looked like an Asian wedding feast. The playground was now largely overgrown with trees, but obviously still played in. I met the playleaders. One of them had got to know the playground as a child and still lived nearby. They showed me the remains of some structures I half-remembered, and a safe metal replacement for the death-defying suspension bridge. I climbed up a tree to show I still could and they gave me a CD copy of photos from the glory days. Some were from before my time, most of the finished product. One shows a mountain stream with children playing in it, strung along its length like coral on a necklace (though the picture above may make the simile redundant). There must have been a pump to keep the water flowing round. No water on my recent visit. One of the pictures shows Bob, half-kneeling to plant a tree. Another shows me, on the back of a lorry, passing a sapling down to scarecrow Mehdi on the ground. I don’t know whether the trees I saw a year or two ago were related to the ones we planted. It was so cold when we dug our saplings up and replanted them that we doubted if many would survive. Our saplings came from a city- or state-owned forest near the river. The snow was thick and the ground frozen so hard it was almost impossible to get the roots out intact. We cut down close to the little trunks and pulled them out like stakes, or the handles of witches’ brooms, to be stuck back in the ground when we got them home. My granny had a story about Joseph of Aramathea planting his staff on Glastonbury Tor, where, in the myth, it grew like Topsy.

The foresters who worked those German woods had gleaming giant tractors, and a warm hut where we went for our breaks. We clustered around the wood stove to get the circulation back in our hands and melt the snow in our boots.

The work and frost hardened our hands till they cracked and bled at the seams. James, with deep pockets in his incongruous city coat, also wore woollen gloves. Perhaps his palms were the only ones still legible.

With Karneval, we snapped from frostbite to bacchanalia. Basic foods from the stadtkuche were supplemented with cakes, cartons of cigarettes, and crates of white wine. This contrarian Fasching lent was marked by chain-drinking, chain-smoking, chains of revellers in silly costumes singing oompah oompah tunes. I soon learned that if I drank too much, or much too much, I got a sharp headache. A weakness of mine or a useful warning shot to pre-empt much worse the next day.

One occasion was rather different. Our team was invited to a buffet supper with the Stadtdirektor at his family’s home on the other side of town. Few of us had any decent clothes and I had to choose between down-at-heel slippers and broke-back working boots. It was strange finding ourselves in a civilised living room, with carpets and polished furniture. Not that we visitors came with the same memories, and this comfortable, cultured home may have been nearer to my default environment than, say, Bob’s. But the immediate contrast was the same for all of us, between this softness and the bareness of our living quarters at the Ehrlenhof. We were kindly received, the stadt-direktor friendly, and his wife motherly. When I noticed my team-mates pocketing savouries and cakes, I felt embarrassed.

The stadt-direktor’s daughter was about my age and seemed glad to practice her English, already a lot better than my school French. When we left, she came at least some of the way with us. I remember standing next to her on a bus, looking down at my old slippers and her neat boots. Perhaps I played hardbitten to impress her. We got on well but hardly met again, too far apart and each with too much else to think about.

I don’t think Bob’s Mannheim romance ended well and I’d like to think Mehdi turned his time-table exercises into epic rail journeys. I had one postcard from Helga. She hitch-hiked on her own to Ethiopia. In her pocket, she carried a folding knife which she took out to pare her nails with if a driver began edging in her direction. She and Franz must also have kept in touch. The last I heard was that they met up again and married. I hope they’re living happily ever after.

13.02.2012 A few days ago, on BBC radio Desert Island Disks, I heard a wartime recording of a nightingale, against a background of bomber-engines. I wondered if the record was made by Ludwig Koch, – a Jewish refugee who found a job as BBC sound-engineer and pioneered the recording of birdsong (his name was familiar to me because his daughter, Erica, stayed with us for a while at the end of the war). When I googled ‘nightingales and bombers’ I learned that this was indeed a BBC recording, but not who recorded it. The bombers overhead were Lancasters, bound for Mannheim.

When we worked on our playground, the Mannheim bombsites must still have been obvious, but made no sharp impression on me, probably because I was used to bombsites at home. It was only when I revisited the city in 2009 that I realised the extent of the damage. Mannheim now has a fine new theatre, but there’s a little garden where the old one used to be, and a sign that describes its destruction, along with a palace not far away, by British bombers in 1943. On other buildings around the city centre, there are plaques which describe what stood there before and the number of people who lost their lives.

Now I learn that in 1940, after the German bombing of Coventry, Mannheim was the target of a British experiment in ‘terror bombing.’ Mannheim too had been an important industrial centre, but the new policy, as developed in Hamburg, Dresden, and later Mannheim mission, was not aimed only or mainly at industrial or military targets.

On my last visit to the city, I stayed with a woman from the Mannheim choir which hosted us. She baked one of the biggest cakes I’ve ever seen and told me that her mother had been run over and killed just after the war by a British army truck. The man who later became her husband was a German naval officer who was ordered to scuttle his ship in the Black Sea and spend most of the war half-starved in a Soviet POW camp. He developed a lasting hatred for cabbage, and for some reason tomatoes, but remembers beetroot as a Christmas treat. Somewhere in Germany – Mannheim or Worms – I remember walking across a wide flat space one deep midwinter night. A bombsite, recreation space, or some other sort of vacant lot. It’s late and I’m on my way back to camp, arm in arm with a middle-aged German in a long leather coat. We’re strangers but happen to be going the same way. There’s no-one in sight, no street lighting in that empty space, just stars and sparkle of frost underfoot. We become friends, as you do when you’ve had a drink and don’t understand a word of what’s being said to you. We begin to sing. It may not yet be Christmas, or already New Year, but the song we sing with such feeling is Silent Night. Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.

Perhaps the ground we walked on was cleared by one of those British bombing raids. Neither that night nor at any time during these visits to Germany, barely 10 years after the allied victory, did we talk about the war. Not the agonies of defeat, nor the sometimes wanton destruction from the air. Unless we did and I forgot… When my companion put his arm around me that silent night, I thought what a sentimental old German, but didn’t pull away. The warmth that got through his leather coat was welcome and four legs are better than two on unsteady ground.