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Dorothea Obergfell (Leeds, 1973-4)
“Of Small-talk, Hall, and Marxist Thought, and Elland Road and Things”.

I arrived in Leeds on a rainy October day in 1973. I felt quite miserable when I arrived since I had been terribly sick on the ferry to England. I had been led to the deck by a helpful steward who then even brought me a cup of tea, which I thought really nice of him. But after a while he came back to where I was sitting (and suffering) with some strange wishes – most inadequate for the state I was in anyway – so it took some effort to get rid of him and finally off the boat.

Tetley Hall, the place I was allowed to stay during my time in Leeds, was quite a revelation to me and soon made me feel better – my huge sitting-room, my spacious bedroom, a kitchen of my own and the whole wonder of an old Victorian house. I got submerged in a very British atmosphere I had not known until then, including the honourable institution of High Table, where the meals were celebrated for the upper class of students and tutors. I somehow felt important – coming from a German “mass” university – even more so when I became aware of that board with my name on it on the door to my room in the German Department! I had changed sides since I had left Tübingen – and this was the obvious proof of it!

My high spirits didn’t last too long as it dawned on me how incapable I was of having a normal conversation with the polite and helpful members of staff. Just consider the normal small talk you have at tea-break (and there were two of them every day!) You couldn’t always talk about literature and the vowel shift in Middle English. I had some rather difficult moments then, and sometimes, as we Germans put it, I’d have preferred “to sink into the ground” or “to disappear in a mouse hole”.

This however didn’t prevent me from inventing the most sophisticated topics for the essays the students had to write. It was the year of 1973. The students’ rebellion in Germany was still at its peak, and its impact on me was reflected in topics such as “Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert – es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern. Nehmen Sie Stellung zu diesem Zitat von Karl Marx!” I got wonderful essays to correct: some full of Christian ‘confessions’ and spiritual ideals, and some which showed a sound knowledge of Adorno’s theory of negative dialectic. Quite a few were perfect in language and style – e.g. those of Mark Wood who is now Head of ITV News, as I learned.

It was an interesting job, including the German Beginners’ class for students who did not actually study German. I particularly remember two students who wanted to learn German so that they could read Adorno in German. Now this was quite a challenge to me (and them) as you can well imagine! Not to forget the German lessons I gave to a Welsh Professor in the Spanish Department. Unfortunately I have forgotten his name [Gareth Davies … see also Petruschke] but we certainly had great fun. He learned a lot about the burden of the German working class according to Günter Wallraff, and I learned some Welsh words in exchange.

A real inner conflict turned up for me when the Duchess of Kent visited Tetley Hall for the yearly Guest Dinner. We as residents of the Hall were told to curtsey for her. Could I, should I, as a follower of the pure doctrine of Karl Marx, bow to a member of the Royals? In the end I shook her hand, and she didn’t mind one little bit as far as I can remember.

I do remember marvellous parties and invitations. Douglas Cossar took me to Stratford for a Shakespeare Festival (an extremely cold bedroom, but fantastic performances!) Richard Byrn and John Wilkie invited me to the Playhouse to see Brecht, while Raymond Hargreaves, Fred Bridgham and Helen Chambers gave wonderful parties.

I immensely enjoyed my life in Leeds – and even more so when I got to know Stephen Rodley, a student in the German Department. He now lives in Esslingen and is still a good friend of mine. He did a great job, improving my command of English in many ways. He also introduced me to the wondrous world of Leeds United fans (this was the year they won the Championship). I shiver to remember my first and last visit to Elland Road. Leeds scored a goal, everyone jumped up and I went down, disappearing amidst a seething mass of roaring Leeds fans. I was terrified.

When I returned to Germany to do my Referendariat I felt I had returned to barren wasteland, as far as social life was concerned.

There are countless more stories to tell. For instance, the visit of the German Professor from Leipzig who had come with his Party watchdog, and gave a strictly linguistic lecture on Shakespeare. We went dancing in the evening. I think it was Richard, Lilias and me and the two of them. The watchdog danced ‘freestyle’ with me as proof of the openness and nonchalance of the GDR system. “Wir sind nicht so dogmatisch, wie man im Westen denkt.

I have fond memories of the friendly and caring cleaning ladies at Tetley Hall who always called me “luv”, and of Mr Dexter, the night watchman who passed by whistling every night and often came in for a cuppa with me. Now and then he sang German songs to me. He had learned them during the War.

I remember so many nice people, and I’d like to say thank you to all of you!