Letters from a merry critic

Clive James, who's mellowed with age, is a worthy successor to Alistair Cooke

The radio talk belongs to the era of the Third Programme, announcers in dinner jackets and a cultural hierarchy in which a nation would listen gratefully to Professor Joad, J B Priestley and the radio doctor - and not interrupt. Nowadays even the Reith Lectures end in a Q&A. On Radio 4, I suspect, the talk as a format would have died out years ago save for the longevity of Alistair Cooke, responsible for 58 years of his mostly inspired Letter from America and hundreds of hacks exercising their literary egos on From Our Own Correspondent.

When Cooke died three years ago, Radio 4 had a real problem - what to do with the 15 minutes he had occupied before the 9am Sunday news bulletin (the talk was actually a repeat from Friday night) - for Letter from America was as much a Radio 4 icon as The Archers and the shipping forecast.

Some of us had hopes that Christopher Hitchens, who succeeded Cooke as Britain's most famous journalistic export to America, would fill his shoes. But Hitchens was too fizzy a product for Radio 4. Its controller, Mark Damazer, decided he was not looking for another letter writer from America. The slot was trimmed and renamed A Point of View and the talking was divvied out: 13 weeks to Harold Evans, who knows as much about America as Cooke but has a voice like a burbling drain; 13 to Brian Walden, allegedly one of Britain's cleverest men, but here a master only of the obvious; another 13 to David Cannadine, an academic. And so on (I frankly forget who else has held the fort).

But now a solution has presented itself. It is not fashionable to praise Clive James, a clever dick who became famous for his criticism in the Seventies and for a chat show in the Eighties. His recent interviews with cultural figures on Sky Arts have been offensively oleaginous. But his contributions to A Point of View early this year were promising and his return pure joy.

Eight weeks ago, when the series restarted (Fridays, 8.50pm; Sundays, 8.50am), he called himself a "caped cultural critic" who swung "high above the teeming streets on the lookout for fallacious arguments to counter and damsel-like humanist values to rescue from durance vile", but acknowledged that, like the dark knight himself, he was prone to pessimism. In this run his determination is to praise - and to praise, as most critics know, is harder to make entertaining than to damn. But James has not let us down, celebrating precisely those things that you would expect him to excoriate and praising them in ways no one else would think to.

So he looked at the paintings of Jeffrey Smart and realised the built world had made the universe more, not less, beautiful. Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull was a symbol of celebrity culture - and that culture was not so bad either, for even Britney Spears's existence had a point, if only to prove that wealth for its own sake is pointless.

Glider shoes? A triumph of technology which had come too late for him but made him realise that the secret of later life was to learn to enjoy the fun you might have had if you had been born in a different age. The Wimbledon TV commentators whom in the Seventies he would have ridiculed in his Observer column? They possessed such wisdom that it informed us about not just tennis, but life in general. J K Rowling? He couldn't read her stuff himself, but he acknowledged the deep well of imagination she drew from and contrasted her with those journalists who delude themselves that "a thick volume of chick lit written a paragraph at a time before breakfast" would make them rich.

Sunday Worship, which precedes the slot, asks us to thank the Lord for the world. James suggests we give this crazy old civilisation of ours some of the credit, and not to believe those who warn that it will leave us under 20 feet of water dotted with the corpses of polar bears. James, who is 67, has assumed the modest voice neither of a has-been, nor of a never-was, but of someone who attained less than he hoped. "At my age, achievements become few and small," he says. He walks slowly to minimise his impact on the environment. He claims to be at an age when he can't remember anything. There is a valedictory tone to his talks. Mark Damazer must not allow it to lead to a formal farewell. He must give him Cooke's gig permanently.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis