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.




Freundin or Freundin?

So, my time in Hannover is almost up. 19 hours until I head back home, and I’ve really enjoyed it to be honest. I’ve found out a fair bit of stuff for my dissertation, I’ve met a really nice family, I’ve spoken German for two weeks, and the weather’s been outrageously nice. To give you an idea, I woke up at 3am as I needed the loo last night, and the thermometer in my room (with windows open all night) read 28 degrees Celsius.

Tomorrow, then, it’s back home for two months of a proper summer holiday – bowls, cricket and proofreading (of which I may have quite a lot I think, as I’ve had four enquiries whilst I’ve been here…) – before China.

Learning foreign languages is great. This trip has been totally justified by the fact I’ve been immersed in German for a fortnight, and at least four people outside of my host family have said how amazed they are: firstly, that I chose to learn German; secondly, that I have learned German to such a good level. Good stuff, I suppose! And they’re right – when you think about it, it’s not the easiest language to study, as demonstrated by a confusing few minutes a couple of days ago…

I came back in from the town, just as a girl was leaving the house. As it turned out, she was in the orchestra with Simeon, and they’d been practising for a concert this weekend. I went in, put my bag down and got chatting. “War das deine Freundin, denn?” I asked. The meaning, I thought, was clear enough (“Was that your friend (female) then?”). What I hadn’t thought about was the fact that the word for a friend, who happens to be a female, is exactly the same as the word for a girlfriend. So when Simeon answered in the negative, I too was a little confused. About a minute later, I twigged. “Aaah, also sie war nicht deine Freundin, sondern deine Freundin!” (“Aaah, so she wasn’t your female friend, but she was your female friend.”) See what I mean?

The moral of this story is thus. To avoid any confusion at all, if you want to ask about someone’s girlfriend*, say “deine Freundin” with the appropriate emphasis (and potentially raising of the eyebrows). However, if it’s about someone’s friend who just so happens to be a girl, say “eine Freundin von dir” (literally “a female friend of yours”). German – it’s a simple language.

* In case you’re wondering, by the way, there’s exactly the same problem when talking about boyfriends…

The Damned Red Man!

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in front of a red man at traffic lights while in Germany, and it’s definitely made me appreciate my little time-efficiency measures (such as revising listening whilst out jogging, or crossing the road diagonally – when nothing’s coming, of course). So, after returning from the train station at 2:30pm to find an email welcoming me to the Town Archive at 3pm (it was 45 minutes’ walk by the way, and goes directly past the train station…), I was pretty wound up to be honest! Well, more precisely, I had already been angered before that by some outrageously rude service in an ice-cream-cum-coffee-shop.*

Funny, considering Simeon (the 17-year-old of the family I’m staying with) started a debate about how he feels Germans are cold, not open and impolite last night. He had pretty strong views, but at the time, I had to say, my experiences had been generally good. I mean, Germans don’t greet strangers in the street like I would at home, but in the grand scheme of things, I’d had no issue. Until today.

Two scoops of minty heaven!

Two scoops of minty heaven! Shame about the service…

I generally am a pretty friendly, easy-going guy, but a waiter at such an informal coffee shop has four jobs, in my view:

  1. Take orders
  2. Carry food and drink to tables
  3. Clear up
  4. Smile and be friendly

The fourth is the least hard work, and also the most important. If someone messes up my order, as long as they deal with it with a smile, apologise, and offer to redeem their error, I couldn’t care less! But this German guy was out-and-out rude. So rude, in fact, that I was compelled to write a TripAdvisor review about it. (I’ve never written such a review before, and hadn’t ever intended to.) Shame, I guess. However, I dealt with it calmly and well – a sign of the changing times I think; had that happened while I was away on my own in Tuebingen last year, I’d probably have just melted into the ground and given up on all humanity. But that was quite an extreme downer…

Back to reality. Research has gone well here. My time in Hannover is almost at an end, but I’ve found some really useful yearbooks from Schwitters’ school, which are so detailed that they even tell me which texts he studied to learn English. Otherwise, I’ve just been translating and transcribing, while gathering texts and stuff for what will eventually be my dissertation in two years’ time. Plan is, however, to have it written while I’m in China. Advantages of that are two-fold: I can keep up my German whilst abroad, through Skype calls with my supervisor and all the readings being in German; also, I would have one-sixth less work to do in fourth year. WIN.

On another note, it’s my sister’s 18th today. Gutted I wasn’t there to spend it with her, but I’ve been busy here, and we’ve got a family curry out on Friday night. Can’t beat a good curry…

Happy birthday Soph :)

Happy birthday Soph 🙂

I’m pretty much finished my research now, so the last two days will be spent typing up and slacklining (but mostly slacklining).

* As a footnote, isn’t it funny how ice cream is a typical holiday (or simply not-in-England) activity? All told, I eat very healthily, and though there are good ice cream places in the North-East of England, thinking back, I reckon it must have been about four years since I’ve had one at home. Even so, only two in the space of a week whilst abroad is still small-time consumption!

Coffee, bus stops and other miscellaneous items

Hi guys!

Almost halfway through my research stint here now… I’m almost struggling to find more relevant stuff to be honest! I’ve been through the things I need to in the archive, and though there’s lots there, very little of it is about what I need to know. I’ve got quite a lot of useful stuff done though, so if würst comes to würst (see what I did there?…), I will do the research that I can do here and then have a couple of quiet days at the end. Tomorrow, however, I have an appointment at the Town Archive, where a nice man called Detlef has found me some annual general reports from the school where Schwitters studied. There are specific yearbooks too, but seemingly the year I need is missing. Ach!

Anyway, that’s tomorrow, so hopefully it’s a successful trip, after which I either will have more searching to do, or a fairly quiet next week. In other news, I have a few more anecdotes:


Those of you who know me at all will know that I do like a good coffee. Never more than two cups a day, but a fairly regular and steady consumption, nevertheless. I found a nice little coffee shop today – Cafe MOCA – where you can actually select from a range of beans, and they roast them in front of you, before making your drink. Weather was nice too, so I had a bit of a sit outside and tanned for a while. And there was a Chinese restaurant next door – I’ll class looking at their Chinese language menu as revision…

At Cafe MOCA, they roasted my chosen coffee beans in front of me

At Cafe MOCA, they roasted the coffee beans I wanted, in front of me

Bus stops

Okay, so Hannover was one of the most bombed towns during the war, with it lying on the crossroads (in railway terms) from North-South and East-West. (As an aside, I know we Brits often say “don’t mention the war”, and I’m in a way pretty embarrassed even to mention it, but I have found that the three or four people I’ve had dealings with actually are more than happy to talk battles and air-raids!) It’s quite an arty town too, so in the 60s and 70s, someone decided to get a load of modern artists together, and ask them each to design a bus stop for the town. Some of them are pretty funky – I’ll try and find more over the weekend – but the below one was the nearest to where I’m living…

Funky yellow bus stop

Funky yellow bus stop


Had to give it a mention, really. I had a couple of these in Tübingen last year, and found them really nice, so I went and got myself another one yesterday 🙂 Sitting by the Maschsee, eating a massive pretzel with a drink in the other hand – I guess research has its upsides too… The lunch breaks.

The Maschsee in Hannover. Beautiful.

The Maschsee in Hannover. Beautiful.

Anyways, not much else has happened really, but my German seems to be coming along nicely (good job as well, seeing as how I’m going to come back from a year in China and have to start from scratch again!) and the research is okay – though it could be more fruitful. I’ll leave it at that for now!

P.S. Can’t wait to get back for my sister’s birthday curry, at the finest Indian restaurant Sunderland has to offer 🙂 (They’re not paying me, otherwise I’d tell you the name!)

And so it begins…

The adventure has begun… I’ve arrived in Germany!

An outrageous coincidence occurred on the way though. My friend – and Chinese, German and Dutch – classmate, Josie, was off to Heidelberg to undertake a language course. I knew she was leaving fairly close to my departure date, so I sent her a message on Saturday evening. Turned out she was also on the 0910 to Amsterdam, before heading on to her connecting flight. Snapchat has been a wonderful addition to my life, providing 10 seconds of fairly pointless time-wasting at spontaneous intervals; on this occasion, I received a picture of Josie’s boarding pass, to read that she was in seat 05A. I thought that sounded familiar, so I glanced at mine – my seat was 05C (it was a smallish plane, so A was next to C, with D and F across the aisle). Of all the seats on all the flights to Amsterdam, we’d been randomly assigned two next to one another!

Anyhow, at Schiphol, we went our separate ways, and I made it to Hannover Airport, where I successfully navigated the endless walk to the Bahnhof (train station) and its ticket machine. Half an hour, and a U-Bahn, later, I arrived at the Christuskirche, where I was made very welcome by the family I’m staying with. Brief introductions and a cup of coffee dealt with, Hans-Peter (the father) took me on a short walking tour so that I could get my bearings, as well as see the university campus and Herrenhauser Gardens. It turns out the family lived in Perth, Australia, for six months, so we had more chat over our evening meal before retiring for an earlyish night.

Herr Braun took me for a wander around the area, and showed me how to tell the old from the new by the height of the storeys. These houses are the same height, but (to rebuild cheaply) the yellow house has five floors, while the grey (older building) has four.

Herr Braun took me for a wander around the area, and showed me how to tell the old from the new by the height of the storeys. These houses are the same height, but (in order to rebuild cheaply) the yellow house has five floors, while the grey (older building) has four.


Today I made my first foray into the Sprengel Museum. Isabel Schulz, my contact there, was available from lunchtime onwards, so first I took a brief wander around the city centre, which seems very pleasant – lots of green space. Everything is just about within walking distance; I’d say it’s slightly bigger than Newcastle, which is a comfortable size for me! I’ve found out what I’ll be doing more accurately too: some transcription of Schwitters’ letters, and basically identifying anything that may be of use to me for further research. The Archive itself is fairly vast – cupboards full of files – so I have two weeks to sift through and decide what I’ll need!

I’m back in tomorrow from about 10am until 4pm or so for my first proper day there. For now, I best dash – a couple of bits and bobs to do whilst online, then I may well head out for a run to practice my route to the museum for tomorrow. Will write again soon! (Also, keep an eye on my “photo-a-day” page, which I hope to update at least weekly.)

Eats, shoots and leaves

A panda walks into a restaurant, sits down, and orders a sandwich. He eats the sandwich, pulls out a gun, and shoots the waiter. As the panda stands up to go, the manager shouts, “Hey! Where are you going? You just shot my waiter and walked out, without even paying for your sandwich!”

The panda yells back at the manager, “Hey, man, I’m a PANDA! Look it up!”

The manager opens his dictionary and sees the following definition for panda: ‘A tree-dwelling marsupial of Asian origin, characterised by distinct black and white coloring. Eats, shoots and leaves.’

Aahh. The comedic value of misplaced commas.

I digress… As I’ve told you all, I’m off to Hannover in less than a fortnight. Up until now though, I’ve not been entirely clear on what I’ll be doing whilst I’m there. I had a meeting with my research supervisor during last week to clear it all up though, so here’s the lowdown!


At the university, the German department was involved in a translation and transcription project, called Schwitters@Newcastle. Kurt Schwitters was a German artist/poet, who was interned in PoW camps during the war. He wrote letters to his friends and family throughout the time, but most of these documents had remained unpublished. Also, most of the study done on him was done in German, based on his German works, or from an artistic viewpoint.

Being a linguist though, I’m taking the tack of looking at his English in some of the letters – how it develops, and analysing some of the ‘mistakes’ he makes to see whether they are in fact mistakes, or whether Schwitters may have used poetic and creative licence. Then I hope to write a dissertation on it – well, that’s the plan anyway!

Preparation week

In Newcastle, next week, I’m doing some preparatory work: namely reading through a biography of Schwitters, and making a few contacts in Hannover. I hope to register with a couple of libraries and archives, and to enquire about the English-learning situation in the early- to mid-20th century. This will hopefully open up some avenues for research whilst in…

… Hannover

The Sprengel Museum in Hannover has the world’s largest Schwitters archive, so it’s probably a fairly good place to be. However, from what I’ve gathered, I don’t think I’ll be doing too much actual work, although that sounds pretty lazy 🙂

From what I’ve gathered, it’s more of an exploratory mission – I’ll be looking through the archive, scanning important materials that may be of use, in order to build up a catalogue for myself. The other benefit of going there, of course, is direct and intensive research into life in Hannover at that time – how would Schwitters have learned his English, for example?

Anyway, enough of the boring stuff!

Hopefully I’ll be able to hop on a train and visit my friends in Duesseldorf for a day or two while I’m there.

The Olive & Bean in Newcastle with my awesome mentees :)
The Olive & Bean in Newcastle with my awesome mentees 🙂

And on a more China-related note, I had afternoon tea in Newcastle with two of my lovely mentees, Grace and Sherry, today. Grace is from Beijing, and Sherry studies there, so when I mentioned my wish to visit the Chinese capital during the Spring Break early next year, they both very kindly said they would love to meet up, show me round, and maybe even accommodate me for a day or three. Very kind of them – I feel my plans are beginning to come together!

That’s all the news I have for now… Back to Chinese revision for my exam tomorrow afternoon :S