This might come as a surprise to you.
After living the Gay Liberation/socialist leftie life in Sydney, London and Colchester from 1972 until 1978, I moved to Germany to take up a job as a Sociology/Modern Studies teacher in a secondary school for – wait for it – the children of the families of British military who were stationed in Germany.
My decision did not go down well with some of my Gay Leftie/socialist friends. They thought I was selling out to the Establishment – and to the military at that. They were right, in a way. So why did I do it?
Here’s the story:
It’s 1978. At 28 years of age, after completing my MA in Sociology at Essex and deciding I wasn’t PhD material, I looked for a teaching position back in London. Jobs weren’t particularly scarce at the time and I did apply for a few there. But after several interviews in colleges, including one where I was offered the job, a feeling came over me that I wanted something different. So I turned it down and kept looking.
Why? In retrospect, I think I was still in the “I’m exploring the world” mode. After most of that decade living in England, I wanted to again try something different in another country.
While scouring the teaching ads in the weekly Times Educational Supplement, one caught my eye. It was a job posting for a teacher of Sociology and Modern Studies at a secondary school located within the Joint Headquarters British military operations, near the Dutch border in northwest Germany, called JHQ Rheindahlen.
Well, that certainly would be something different.
I will confess that my decision also had something to do with the fact that I discovered that Rheindahlen was close to Düsseldorf in one direction, Köln (Cologne) in another and, most importantly, Amsterdam to the west – all with very active gay scenes.
On top of that, I would be closer to the rest of Europe for more adventure seeking.
Not to forget that the school’s name was Queen’s School which would be a nice followup to my undergraduate Queen’s University. There’s a message there, I thought.
So I applied, was invited to an interview in London and, somewhat to my surprise, I was offered the job – a three year posting from 1978 to 1981.
But it meant that I would be stepping away from the many friends I had and from the kind of gay and socialist activity I’d been engaged in in London and Colchester. I told myself that I was only a ferry ride away from it all.
I bit the bullet and accepted the job.
If you click on this small arrow on the left, a new section will open up and you can learn the details about why the UK military – and teachers – were in Germany in the first place. If you know your WW2 history, you won’t need to click! (I love discovering new WordPress features, as this is.)
On its unconditional surrender in May 1945, Germany was divided into 4 military occupation zones (US, Russian, British and French), and Berlin (in the Soviet zone) was divided likewise.
The British Zone took up most of northwest Germany and its Air Force and Army were stationed there as an occupying force, appropriately called the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR).
By early 1947, the US and the British, in an effort to begin the economic recovery of Germany, combined their zones into a single economic unit with the French joining a few months later.
This was the time of the beginning of the Cold War and the Soviets were suspicious about the speed of this centralization. This led them, in March 1948, to walk out of the 4-power Allied Control Commission.
In June 1948, the Western Allies introduced a new German currency, the Deutsche Mark (DM), in the Western zones. In response, the Soviets carried out a separate currency reform in the Eastern zone (using what was eventually called the Ostmark) and insisted on the use of this for the whole of Berlin. The Allies refused, so the Soviets cut off gas and electricity supplies to the Western sector, then stopped all rail, road and canal traffic from the West. This – the Berlin Blockade – was the first trial of strength of the Cold War.
The Western Allies organized an airlift to Berlin, which succeeded in keeping West Berlin supplied for a full year before the blockade was eventually lifted.
The blockade completed the division of Germany: by the fall of 1949, there were de facto two separate German states and two separate municipal administrations in Berlin: the German Democratic Republic (DDR) or East Germany and the German Federal Republic (BRD) or West Germany, both of which were formally established by the end of the year.
Therefore the Western Allies, rather than occupying, turned their attentions to defending their territories against a possible Soviet invasion from East Germany. It was called the Cold War because both sides held back from using their “hot” nuclear weapons, although the situation was often tense. If a hot war ever did start, we would certainly have been right in the line of fire.
The defense of West Germany required large numbers of military and civilian men and women to be posted there. Those who were posted to Germany from the UK were allowed to bring their families with them and the postwar Labour Government of Clement Attlee said that plans had to be in place to educate their children.
Those children needed teachers for the schools across the British zone and the British Families Education Service (BFES), later called the Service Children’s Education Authority (SCEA) in my time, was set up to do just that.
And now one of those teachers was going to be me.
Here are staff photos from two of those years. Can you pick me out of this crowd? I seem to be wearing the same jacket in both photos. But a different tie. Yes, tie!
Getting Set Up
So I said many tearful goodbyes to my friends in Colchester and London and I took off in my fully packed Renault 4 taking the overnight ferry from Harwich to the Dutch port of Hoek van Holland. I drove through the Netherlands and almost missed the turnoff to Germany because I hadn’t yet learned that the word for Germany in Dutch was Duitsland.
I drove straight to the military base of JHQ Rheindahlen, my new home.
I instantly felt like I had been transported right back to where I’d started from. JHQ was a Little England town (population ~10,000) with its terrace houses, English street names, a NAAFI superstore with British products, two cinemas, a BP petrol station, a Catholic and multiple Protestant churches, a YWCA Bookshop, libraries, a swimming pool, cricket and soccer fields and a tea shop.
It was apparently modelled on the Garden City concept with lots of green space and dead end streets to control traffic flow.
I nervously drove to the School and met the Principal, Jim Lovegrove. The Deputy, Geoff Bailey, showed me around and put me at ease. My first impression, at least, was of a modern, well-run welcoming school.
Next I needed to head to where I was going to live. As I was single, I was boarded in a room at No. 2 Civilian Mess (whereas families and married couples got their own homes!) Our mess fees included meals in its dining room with waiters. Which felt weird. The formality of the place wasn’t what I had wanted or expected.
- As a side point, I’ll mention now that I moved out of that mess at the end of my first year, renting an apartment in this house in Mönchengladbach (MG). Being 10 km away, it gave me some distance from the garrison immersing me more in German and Germany with the bonus of a busy cruising area and a gay bar. My landlady was the very hospitable Frau Krüsman.
My uncertainty was eased a bit more as I began to meet the other single teachers in the mess with me. I was intrigued that some had taught in other service schools in Malta, West Berlin, Cyprus and Singapore.
No gay men or lesbians as far as I could tell, but it did include fellow single teachers Norah and Sybil. We ending up hanging out together for my three years at the school which included taking several trips together. They were “old hands” as they’d worked at several other service schools so they taught me all the tricks – including giving me the news that all our purchases on the base were tax-free, including petrol and new cars.
Forty years later we’re still in touch and reminiscing about the old days.
Exploring the Area
The next day, with a few other single teachers, we drove into Mönchengladbach (MG), that nearby city, for a walkabout. As a result of being extensively bombed during WW2, there were many 50s style buildings and a modern shopping precinct. Many of the streets were pedestrian-only zones, common in most German cities at that time – decades ahead of other countries.
On this first visit, we passed by a park where Willy Brandt was giving a speech to his supporters. He had been a popular West German Chancellor and, at this time, he was the Chair of the SPD (Social Democratic Party). Now I knew I really was in Germany.
First Day At School
I was delighted to learn that I had my own classroom at Queen’s School – Room 104, in the school’s brand new wing with a view of the adjacent forest. And the smell of fresh paint.
Banned in the first week!
But this positive beginning was accompanied by my first shock when, just one week after being at the school, the Principal called me into his office. He told me, in the nicest way possible, that my denim jacket had to go – it was banned! Because students couldn’t wear denim, teachers couldn’t either, he told me. That certainly annoyed me but this wasn’t the hill I was going to die on. I do wish, though, that I had a photo of me looking cool in that jacket. But I don’t.
That’s enough for this post. My next one will be a self-examination of my teaching style and how effective I was – or wasn’t – at this secondary school. You’ll also get to read about my exciting life as one of the school’s minibus drivers escorting groups of students to over ten concerts of the great rock, punk and ska bands of that time.
And whether I came out as gay or not. Or hooked up with gay soldiers. And who that guy is with me in the photo by the Queen’s School sign. And when I grew that beard.
Can’t wait, eh?