Field Report from Hannover

Henrike, my research supervisor, asked me to write a narrative, blog-style field report from my research trip for university and school documentation. Given that it was in a blog style, I thought it made sense to post a copy here too…

Name: Jack Deverson

Agent No.: B0031095

Mission: to research where, when and how Kurt Schwitters first learned English; also to ascertain how his language use developed over his lifetime 

On 9th June 2013, I was sent on a university research mission to Hannover with the brief as above. The first stage of my brief involved spending a fortnight at the Schwitters Archive in Hannover’s Sprengel Museum, after which I returned to Newcastle to continue my research for a further three weeks.

As pre-reading to prepare myself for the field, I had been given a copy of Gwendolen Webster’s Schwitters biography. I gathered a few leads from this. Firstly, and possibly most importantly, I discovered that his family was “neither proletarian nor middle class” and sent the young Schwitters to the Realgymnasium in Hannover (equivalent of an English grammar school). There, less emphasis was placed on classics than in a traditional Gymnasium, but education was solid in other subjects – among which were foreign languages. Secondly, that Schwitters would reply to his critics’ questions in their own language, even if they had been asked in German. This was apparently a case of “adapting himself to the query” and “casting doubts in the questioner’s mind” (whatever that actually means…). There was also strong written evidence of his natural flair for languages, though, including a letter written to a contact in a “bewildering mixture of French, English, German and Dutch” (the latter of which he learned especially to recite his poems while on a tour of the Netherlands). As well as particular grammatical points that he seemingly found difficult, I finally read of the so-called Hutchinson University, which was a cultural and academic programme set up by the various ‘enemy aliens’ (or foreigners, specifically German-speakers) in the camp where Schwitters was interned on the Isle of Man.

As well-prepared as I could be, I left for Hannover, armed only with a packet of wine gums and an electric toothbrush, given to me by my research supervisor on the advice: “use them wisely”.

There, I begun by meeting Isabel Schulz on day one, who was to oversee my research in the Sprengel Museum’s Schwitters Archive. I was given a snazzy red card, which granted me access to the behind-the-scenes areas of the museum – very secret agent-like, I thought… But no, I was brought firmly back down to earth on day two, when I begun looking through all of Schwitters’ English letters for interesting language usage, and on day three, which saw me scanning potentially important secondary sources. Not all the excitement it’s cracked up to be, this detective-type work…

Anyhow, my trail began to warm up on the Thursday, when I looked to follow up on the lead about the Realgymnasium. It turns out this is now known as the Tellkampfschule, and much useful information that would have been was most likely destroyed during WWII. Fortunately, a nice chap called Detlef Kasten in the City Library was happy to help. I met him on the Friday, by which time he had dug out some school yearbooks from the early 1900s, covering just about the whole of the decade I needed, apart from the year Schwitters left – bummer. They were still of use, though, as they contained timetables and curriculums/curricula (delete as appropriate, depending on your level of pedantry) from each subject, divided according to year group. Useful. But was there any way of finding the source from the year I desperately needed?

After a couple of hours spent on the phone and email, and a few dead ends, at about 2pm on the following Tuesday I finally got in touch with the right person at the Town Archive. Yes! They had the yearbook I needed! Only one catch: they were only open to new readers every Tuesday, and only until 5pm. Running shoes and vest donned, I traversed the city centre and its perilous one-way streets and trams, making it to the archive in 25 minutes flat. That gave me roughly two hours to get through the box of books they’d prepared for me, which I duly did (finishing about six minutes before closure). All in a day’s research.

The next two days, I was somewhat under the radar, honing my own language skills through translating and transcribing all of the letters I’d scanned from the Schwitters Archive. This was a fruitful task, as I was able to get through about 16 letters in the day and a half I had available, and Isabel Schulz was pleased with my work.

Soon enough though, it was time to part from my host family (who had been ever so kind in their hospitality) and return to Newcastle, which is where I’m writing this report from now. My tasks will continue in the next two weeks, mainly centring around reading and scanning some more secondary literature, as well as hunting down the Gesenius-Regel book used at the Realgymnasium to teach English. Oh, and trying to figure out what the electric toothbrush was for. (The wine gums didn’t survive the field mission.)

Over and out.



2 thoughts on “Field Report from Hannover

  1. Jack – so fascinating. Firstly I say ‘curricula’! Re the use of Schwitters answering in the questioner’s own language – is this not a very clever ploy to ‘wrong foot’ the asker of said question? Eg what message does it send to the questioner? Think ont, lad! (Yorkshire expression!). I have my views. Fascinated by the Isle of Man connection. I am going to research the Hutchinson University connection myself. Strange re toothbrush!

  2. Jack – just been on Wikipedia re Hutchinson internment camp. Fascinating re Schwitters and porridge! Thank you for such an interesting blog!

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