Sunday 27 November 2022

Sharing and caring


A couple of weeks ago, St Martin’s Day was celebrated in Germany. I’ve always thought that the traditions surrounding this Saint’s day were rather more charming and heart-warming than the gaudy, ghoulish and horribly commercialised Halloween. 

St Martin was a Roman soldier most famous for an act of sharing and generosity. It is said that he came across a beggarman dressed in rags in the depths of winter. Martin took his red cloak, cut it in half with his sword and gave half to the poor man to keep him warm. This act is celebrated by children in processions with (often home-made) lanterns, songs and a reenactment of the noble act. This may all take place round a bonfire and a real horse may appear if you live in a rural area. 

St Martin’s Day is all tied up with the end of harvest and the beginning of the “winter revelling season” - with roast goose and the first wine of the season. 

I was new to all this when I came to Germany, and learned about the customs when my son was at Kindergarten - many hours were spent making lanterns (more hours on the part of the parents than the children, usually). The story of St Martin is a universal one, which teaches children the value of sharing.

Sharing” is one of those words whose meaning has shifted quite dramatically in the last twenty years. Going back to St Martin, the verb used regarding the cloak is teilen - which bears the sense of “parting”. St Martin divides his cloak into two parts, and he has to part with one of them to provide the beggarman with warmth. He makes a sacrifice -  sharing involves giving something to someone else that you don’t get back. This is sometimes a hard lesson to learn - I remember when my brother was in hospital as a child. All sweets that were brought in by parents were put in a communal tin, then divided out equally so every child got a fair share. My brother wasn’t happy at some other child getting his favourite sweets!

Sharing, when it comes to non-material things, has always had connotations of “having something in common”. But the word seems to be shifting from a meaning that’s about apportion, giving and generosity to one that’s about passing on, informing, making public. In this digital world, the sharer keeps whatever it is - photos, stories -unlike St Martin and his cloak.

“Sharing” sounds kind and generous - but is it really? Sometimes sharing feels like passing on a burden, or covering your backside.

I wonder, sometimes, when someone wants to “share some thoughts with me” whether they might be better keeping them to themself.


Wednesday 16 November 2022

Joy (and thoughtful dads) to the world


When I wrote this piece a couple of years back, we sort-of thought we’d soon see the back of Corona. Little did we think that over the next 18 months we’d be hit with a war on the doorstep and heating bills going through the roof (especially if said roof isn’t insulated).

I don’t normally get that excited about Christmas ads any more, but this year I have to admit that I was intrigued to see how the agencies captured the mood and dreams - or not. In my 2020 post, I hoped for a return to joy (or even better, glee, mirth, merriment and frivolous frolics as joy always seems a bit sanitised and churchy). And, lo and behold, “joy” plays a leading role in the ads from retailers Boots, Tesco and Amazon

Amazon’s theme of a dad going to great lengths to make his daughter’s Christmas special is also taken up by John Lewis - with a heartwarming twist. Could this mean ordinary, middle-aged men are no longer persona non grata in the ad world (unless they’re portraying a toxic sexist or a bumbling fool)? I do hope so!

Meanwhile, back in Germany, things are more serious. Discounter Penny’s powerful film Der Riss, which portrays the divisions in society and the need to talk our differences through, human to human, is the talk of the ad world and media here.

It’s a brilliantly-made film, no doubt about that. But is it right for Penny, and Christmas? I’ll stick my head above the parapet and say no. People do not need reminding of hate and misery, especially not this year. Despite the hopeful ending, the dramatic film ensures that it’s the negative images and feelings they evoke that stay with the viewer. Last year’s film Der Wunsch, about a mother and son, and how Covid has messed up young people’s lives was gentler, the focus on the two characters and their relationship, not “society out there”. I find it the better film for the client and context - and ultimately closer to real life.

Another big German advertiser, Deutsche Telekom, has also taken up encouraging us to talk, and ask each other how we are. Here’s Teacher, which has shades of It’s a Wonderful Life for me. 

And that’s one of my all-time favourite Christmas movies. 

Wednesday 2 November 2022

RETROWURST: Old People November 2004


This month’s Retrowurst is particularly interesting from a personal point of view. I wrote it while in my 40s and it concerned my perception of “old people” in Germany at that time. It’s full of observations about the 60+ age group, Nordic Walking, the Verein and Gutbürgerlich food. My conclusion was that I’d far rather grow older in Germany than in the UK - that Germany was a friendlier and more respectful environment for the old.


Having just clocked up another year, I am feeling a little sensitive about getting older so I thought I’d turn my attention to the older people in Germany and give you some idea as to why I’d probably rather get old here than back in the UK.


If I had to choose one picture that symbolised the current social climate in Germany this year then it would have to be this: a few weeks back I was in Aldi and the place was packed full of ladies aged 60 + in a bit of a rugby scrum. It was a very genteel rugby scrum with lots of helpful smiling and friendly joking and, once I managed a few polite Entschuldigungs, I was close enough to see what all the fuss was about. Aldi had Nordic Walking gear on offer. Not just the sticks, but special jackets, shirts and leggings, headbands, socks and gloves. Now, I still don’t have a clue how a Nordic Walking jacket might differ from something you might go jogging in, but there you go. Obviously, to these ladies, all these items were much sought-after. Not long after, while I was out jogging (no doubt passé amongst the older generation) I saw a group of similar ladies (and their men folk) striding towards me briskly, resplendent in their co-ordinating Aldi outfits. The self-confidence and general Lebensfreude of this group seemed a stark contrast to the continual whining and whingeing of the 30 and 40-somethings that I seem to know in Germany. And, generally, one can see that the 60+ group in Germany are less worried about the future than younger age groups. It may be selfish, but it also stems, perhaps, from a belief amongst this group that the bad times are behind them. For someone born just before, during or just after the war, childhood was tough with families depleted and also divided geographically for years on top of the shortages and rationing.


Somehow the whole education system and social structure of Germany means that everything is shifted 5-10 years upwards compared to the UK. Children don’t start school until they are 6 or even 7 and stay until they are 19. The compulsory military or social service means that further education may not be completed until the late 20s or early 30s. The result of this is that if you set foot in a German advertising agency, for example, and you’re the wrong side of 40, you wouldn’t get the same feeling of being totally out of place that you might in London. And ‘youth’ TV presenters regularly pop up who are pushing 40. All of this means, of course, that you are still described as ‘young’ well into your 40s and middle-age doesn’t really seem to set in until mid-50s.


In Germany, it seems more acceptable to be older. The whole country seems to be more set up for the tastes and needs of older people. Restaurants unashamedly offer Gutbürgerlich food and good wine in traditional surroundings, served by formal but friendly waiters and waitresses who address one with respect rather than the ‘Hi guys my name’s Max specials today are sauerkraut wraps and bratwurst with pesto mash’ approach. The independent butchers, bakers and greengrocers, along with the weekly markets where you can ask exactly which field the cow came from or whose apple trees your Cox’s are from do a roaring trade, especially with older people who have time for good service quality as well as the socialising opportunities that these shops provide. And one sees rather less of the mutton-dressed-as-lamb look and rather more independent ladies’ and gentlemen’s outfitters selling good quality classic clothes in dark greens and browns.


Older people seem to be present somehow in Germany, which is perhaps not surprising as the over 60s comprise 25% of the population currently, which is forecast to rise to 40% by 2050.TV is not dominated by youth – there are plenty of light entertainment and folk-music shows with jolly-looking 60-,70- and 80-pluses linking arms and singing along in the background – and none of this is tongue-in-cheek. In advertising, older models are often used – Nivea pioneered the ‘mature skin’ segment with Nivea Vital over 10 years ago and companies like Davidoff feature older men in their advertising campaign (‘the more you know...’).


Another unique feature of German life where the seniors hold much power is in the notion of Verein or clubs. Even a little village will have dozens of clubs, from rabbit-fanciers to carnival clubs, from handball to opera-singing. These clubs often have a long tradition and will play a major part in the social life of the town, organising local Fests and other events.


Many older people are also politically active. There is a political party called Die Graue Panther (see ) who are calling for a radical reform of the Social Security System, amongst other issues.


As in the UK, there are plenty of Internet sites hosted by and run for older people, such as or where you can even see a photo of my friends the Nordic Walkers!


What is extraordinary is despite the obsession of marketing trend reports with change and disruption, tearing up the playbook, smashing taboos and stereotypes, there being no “new normal”, a frankly terrifying VUCA world enveloping us and all the rest, things seem to have stayed comfortingly stable. 

Yes, of course digitalisation has happened in the last 18 years, but it has been assumed organically, almost naturally, as part of human progress. is still chugging along, but in the meantime Facebook and WhatsApp are where the older people are online. 

Germany is still a comfortable place for the old. I don’t hear the whinging about “older women being invisible” that seems to wail out of the UK. Maybe because, until recently, we had one in charge.

While Germany with respect to the old hasn’t changed, of course I have. My parents and parents-in-law are all gone now, so I am the older generation. I’m in a couple of Vereine, and have been known to buy comfy merino-wool loden-style shoes. There’s nothing quite like a plate of Gutbürgerlich food, especially at this time of year when the leaves are falling and nights are drawing in.

But I still haven’t succumbed to the joys of Nordic Walking. Not yet.