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When in a strange city, ich spreche Fußball

Hunter Davies' "The Fan" column.

I find that when I am abroad the quickest way not to be feel abroad in a strange land is to go to a football match. Failing that, find a football shop. Failing that, talk football – to anyone willing to talk football.

So when I arrived at Berlin’s amazing main railway station – which was completed in time for the World Cup in Germany in 2006 and is about the size of King’s Cross and Euston combined and drove Berliners mad, as it was trillions over budget – I was delighted to see that among the rows of gleaming shops was the club shop of Hertha Berlin.

I have heard of Hertha Berlin, like most football fans round the world, for are they not one of Germany’s oldest, most famous clubs and the leading side of its capital city?

I chose some postcards, which showed their home, the Olympic Stadium, capacity 74,500, and a programme for their last game, against Dynamo Dresden, which also included the Saisonmagazin. I took that to be the season’s magazine, being incredibly fluent in German after only 24 hours. It was a handsome, glossy production of 130 pages with a fold-out poster – price €2. In England, even at Carlisle United, the programme is £3 these days.

The smell was the same as any club shop anywhere and I have been to loads. The crap clothes in the club colours, the silly toys and corny souvenirs. Hertha play in blue and white vertical stripes, so the overall effect was at least quite pleasing.

When I was paying, I asked the girl on the till where Hertha was in the Bundesliga. “They’re not,” she said, turning away, as if I had asked a deliberately horrible question.

It turns out Hertha are currently languishing in the second division, which is obviously a matter for deep shame. Don’t know how I missed their fall, having boasted to myself how knowledgeable I am. In fact, there is no Berlin club in the top division – the other local team, FC Union Berlin, is even further down the second division.

Strange, that – when you realise that Berlin, with a population of 3.5 million, is by far Germany’s biggest city, almost three times the size of Munich. I can’t think of another capital or biggest city without a team in its nation’s top division.

Later that day, talking to a woman from the distinguished German publishing firm Piper, based in Munich, she suggested the reason was probably to do with the flight of wealth from Berlin when the Wall went up. Long-established rich Berliner firms and families moved to the south of Germany, especially around Munich. This could help explain the success of Bayern Munich.

However, several Berliners told me that Munich, despite its famous football team, was seen by most Germans as boring and lumpen, if economically successful; whereas Berlin, though practically bankrupt, is exciting, with its clubs, theatres, art and music.

When I reached Hamburg, I got talking to the director of the Literaturhaus, which I guessed right away means “Literature House”. (God, German is so easy, especially now they’ve stopped using that funny old gothic script.) The house is a large, handsome mansion with a library, study centre and restaurant, and it puts on loads of high-class literary and artistic events.

Funnel vision

I was giving a talk, though not about football. Afterwards, over supper, I turned the conversation round and found to my surprise that the director, Rainer Moritz, had written a book about football. And on a subject I had never ever seen a whole book about before. He kindly gave me a copy and I will give you the full title, as I know you will immediately work it out: Abseits: das letzte Geheimnis des Fußballs.

Yes, it is a history of the offside rule. How on earth did he manage to get away with such an arcane subject? I have tried for years to get a publisher interested in a history of football strips – and totally failed.

Rainer explained that he wrote it in 2006, when, because of the World Cup, there was a lot of interest in Germany in football books. It’s a learned volume with a bibliography of about 100 titles, one of which I noticed was by Desmond Morris.

Even someone as knowledgeable as me can always learn something about football. Hertha, by the way, is not a suburb of Berlin. The name, which dates back to 1892, was taken from the name of a ship that had a blue and white funnel. Thank you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.