A Marxist in Merton
Keeping Up With the Germans by Philip Oltermann Faber £12.99
Does Merton still keep a book for comments and suggestions in the Porter’s Lodge? I remember a plangent entry in the late 1960s when David Jessel, later a distinguished BBC journalist, wrote an appeal for soft loo paper instead of the standard issue Bronco, hard shiny sheets of paper which the hardier bottoms of earlier generations had to put up with.
Now the Guardian journalist and writer, Philip Oltermann, who came to London as a 16 year old from Germany has been digging into the Merton comments books of the 1930s and discovered some early entries from Theodor Adorno, the luminary of the so-called Frankfurt School of German philosophers and critical theorists who had to be quit Nazi Germany because they were Jews.
In a wonderful book, Keeping up with the Germans, about how the Germans see England and vice versa Oltermann was guided by his tutor at St Peter’s to the treasure trove of the Merton comment books in the 1930s. One undergraduate protested about “females making themselves seen and heard in the college bar. Is this necessary?’
But then, in February 1935, a more sober entry from Adorno: ‘Sir, I suggest that we get further supply of those cards with the Merton blazon crest. They seemed tome to be much nicer than the present ones.’
A year later, July1936, and he urged: ‘What do you think of writing paper with a crest, like the cards you got again in such a kind way after my suggestion on the subject.’
The great Marxist left soon after for California where he wrote his Dialectics of the Enlightenment, one of the key works of post-1945 philosophy and critical theory. Adorno had come to Merton in 1934 on the recommendation of John Maynard Keynes and in the world before emails and mobile phones, the card or letter sent within the college or to other colleges was the way everyone stayed in touch or arranged a rendezvous.
The sensitive 30-year-old German who had completed a PhD aged 21 and was a musical prodigy clearly enjoyed writing his little notes and messages on elegant college cards and letterheads.
His fellow if younger undergraduates sent him up with a scrawl in the Porter’s Lodge book. ‘Oh, vere, oh vere, mein lieber Herr, are our leetle envelopes gone?’
Oltermann uses Adorno’s Merton stay as an introduction to a mini-essay on Adorno’s central presence in the mental furniture of the educated post-war German. His other chapters cover the importance of football or a truly unfunny British TV sketch ‘Are You Being Served’ about a Christmas dinner in an English country house. This sketch is shown every New Year’s Eve on German TV. I even saw it on a 31st December Lufthansa flight to Asia. It is weak slapstick from a bygone age but every German has to watch this odd English 5 minute comedy as a national ritual.
At a time when the German question is again rising to the fore – whether as Europe’s dominant economy, its best football team, as a nation edging away from its Atlanticist anchor to a semi-neutralist pacificism, with a foreign policy that excuses Russian aggression, and a EUpolitik that may encourage Brexit, Britain exiting the EU, Oltermann’s book is the best guide into what makes modern Germans tick.
Adorno did not enjoy Merton. To explain ‘the true basics of my philosophy (was) practically an impossibility’ as he had to talk at a ‘child’s level’ to fellow undergraduates. Dining in hall was ‘like going back to school, in short: an extension of the Third Reich.’ He denounced jazz using Merton letterheads to write to his fellow Jewish left philosopher exile, Max Horkheimer.
He left in 1937 for sunny California and future notoriety. Oh-so-English Merton was just a transit camp.
Dr Denis MacShane was a Labour MP and Minister for Europe. He was at Merton 1966-1969