“The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich.”
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Listening to an Austrian German covers band called The Enzianer perform a heavily accented version of YMCA to a beer-hall full of Leondensians, whilst drinking a litre of lager from a stein and eating an enormous sausage, as an experience, has to rank highly on my personal weirdness quotient.
Continental markets – in the case of Millennium Square in Leeds, specifically German – are not an unfamiliar event in our cities during the festive season. The northern city upholds its reputation as a retail destination with a suitably seasonal setting of wooden stalls dressed up like gingerbread houses, selling items both genuinely German as well as ersatz European.
There’s a limit to the amount of time you can spend looking at nutcrackers and carved wooden frogs, or eating stollen and schokokuss without starting to feel like Augustus Gloop, so it’s soon time to retreat to the pastime enjoyed by both nations: drinking.
The hub of the square is the raucous beer hall, which looks across between a traditional krauthaus and a wild-west saloon, featuring, over the entrance, a group of mechanical monks and farmers. I find these kinds if dioramas disturbing, but fortunately for me these autokrauts are turned off today. Inside, rows of benches are filled with a mixture of locals and tourists swilling beer, shouting prost, banging tables and singing along to the entertainment’s suspiciously un-German set list. It’s not like you’re handed a pair of lederhosen at the door, and, at best, the room feels like an English bar abroad, with only token nods to authenticity. The band appears every hour, plays virtually the same forty-five minutes of songs, and then disappears for a break and presumably to slit their wrists. After a few hours of this I’m dizzier than if I’d been riding the carousel outside for a week.
The problem with these kinds of events is over-subscription. At the beginning of the 21st Century I’d hope us Brits are sufficiently sophisticated enough to understand the concept of a French loaf or German frankfurter, and of the comparative value of long bread or longer sausages well enough to know when we’re being fleeced in the name of fun. Mulled wine and giant pretzels are hardly precious and unknown delicacies on our shores but still the crowds flock to buy them. Is it just the novelty value and the rare opportunity to break-up the monotonous strings of high-street chains in the almost indistinguishable city centres we’re used to? When we go abroad we seek out home comforts like chunky chips and Sky Sports rather than sample the local equivalent, so why are we so eager to give them a go when they’re on our doorstep?
I’m all for anything different that adds a little spice to the bland and frustrating Christmas shopping experience, like the cinnamon and cloves added to mulled wine. As far as I’m concerned this fayre would be a welcome regular feature that would enliven any city centre, but I don’t know if they would have wide enough appeal. There are elements of the wider public that are stuck in a Britain of the past, and think themselves thoroughly sophisticated for eating a takeaway chicken tikka regularly every Friday night. There are others who are prepared to give things a try. I’m not going to try to imbue this short article with my pro-European, progressive agenda, but sometimes I wish we wouldn’t be so isolationist, and that doesn’t just go for waiting for other cultures to be brought to us before we’re prepared to sample them.
Leeds German Market is on in Millennium Square until 18th December.