I know from my own experience that life can be hard for a Brit in Hamburg. Whilst we are admired for our teapots, phone boxes, red buses and royals, we are laughed out of the kitchen, played off the football field, and on the Autobahn we were overtaken a long time ago and hitched a ride with the Germans instead.
So it was a pleasant surprise to find that one of the people shaping the brand identity of leading German car manufacturers – almost an Ersatz for the flag that Germans are very reluctant to fly – is my compatriot Paul Watmough, from Bradford, UK. He had a lot to say that cheered me up.
My first meeting with Paul is exactly what you would expect of two Brits: we meet in a pub (or at least a café that serves beer). Paul orders a Rotbier (a dark beer that at least optically resembles an ale). Neither of us thinks twice before ordering half a litre (only sixty-eight millilitres short of a pint). We exchange the short versions of why we are in Hamburg whilst beating about a bush as rich and voluminous as Paul’s luscious beard.
At our second meeting we get the the point, namely: Why Hamburg?
A hangover changes everything
There can’t be many people whose life story was changed by a well-timed hangover, but Paul is one of them. His journey to Hamburg began in Thailand mid-way through a world tour. On the morning after the night before, he had arranged to travel to Cambodia. Most of us know how a hangover can throw our priorities into sharp relief; the bus journey lost out to a lie-in in the small hut in which Paul was camped up.
Instead of going to Cambodia, Paul travelled with friends to the island of Ko Tao. Nearly stranded on a rocky beach as the tide and an electric storm rushed in, he sought shelter with other tourists in a nearby restaurant. He found a seat next to a young lady from Hamburg, they struck up a conversation and stayed together for several years.
From beaches to Barmbek in five days
Within a week, Paul was on the bus from Hamburg airport to Barmbek. Feeling the cold and dressed in little more than his new girfriend’s waterproof, this was the only time he had any doubts about coming to Hamburg:
The place I flew in from was sunny and everybody was happy. In Hamburg it was grey, the weather was bad, and the people on the bus looked quite miserable. This was the only moment I thought “shit”!
Thus began a six-month period of trying to find work mostly in vain.
I didn’t know where to turn, and didn’t want to go to a careers advisor. I applied at all the well-known agencies without success. Even the Irish pub turned me down.
Just as he was about to take up work sanding ships on the recommendation of a guy he met in the Irish pub, a chance presented itself: a friend of his girlfriend had an illustration job for a skateboarding shop and the volume of work was too large for him to take on alone. He asked Paul to help, Paul said yes, and since then he has moved on to ever bigger and more prestigious jobs.
Life before Hamburg
I must say I was surprised that Paul had such difficulty getting a job here in Hamburg because his CV previous to taking time out to travel the world is very impressive. He had been a hip-hop DJ, establishing one of northern England’s most well known hip-hop nights called Original Heroes and working with artists such as Dynamo and Shlomo. He set up a successful media agency, The Hive Project, with his friend Tom. He studied Fine Art Drawing, Graphic Design and Photography. He worked at a high level for Bench in Manchester. If nothing else, it seems like a huge waste of potential for him to be working behind a bar or sanding ships. I’m sure many others in a similar situation have given up and moved elsewhere.
Amongst all the talk of attracting highly qualified internationals and recognising foreign qualifications, what could the City do to make sure creatives like Paul get into employment more easily? Paul didn’t really know what the public authorities could do better. Only later did it occur to me: perhaps the question should be, what can we, people who are already established here, do? Besides, he doesn’t regret his time getting to know Hamburg:
I kept myself occupied, making use of the space to be creative by sketching and painting. I didn’t understand how the scene worked to begin with. I had no idea that Hamburg is the media capital of Germany and spent too much time looking for jobs online – that’s not the way it works over here.
Branding made in Germany (by Paul)
After that first opening, Paul went from strength to strength.
Since I started getting work here, Hamburg has been very good to me.
Paul has worked on design and corporate branding for major brands such as Adidas, various streetwear labels, Coca Cola, and the Olympics. He has done important work for the brands for which Germany is best known internationally: Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen. He thinks his own national identity has played a role in getting some of these jobs:
When I went from being the Paul who doesn’t understand German to English Paul in Germany, that was a defining moment for me. I turned my nationality from a weakness into a strength.
For the record: Paul does speak German now.
Paul did a stint as the Head of Design for a major advertising agency in Hamburg before returning to working indepenently. He was responsible for leading large teams of designers, who enjoyed the approach to creativity that he brought with him:
If someone comes from the UK, it’s something the creatives enjoy being part of – different education, background, perspectives.
One of Paul’s most prestigious jobs, of which he is most proud, is his work for BMW designing an iconic brand element for the world market. He described how he overcame the constraints of the orthogonal BMW logo to deliver a concept that – by altering the angle at which the lines intersect – can represent emotion, life, safety, speed and much more. This is a kind of template that can be applied to all manner of objects from keyrings to architectural masterpieces. Given the competition between the British and German car industries, which we ultimately lost, it was heartening to hear about a Brit at the heart of the German identity.
“Ich bin ein Hamburger”
Like previous “Why Hamburg?” interviewees, Paul enjoys the diversity of his local area, the Schanze – one of Hamburg’s best known and most lively areas.
International people and their cultures make the Schanze what it is – not everyone is German here, but in that moment when we live together in such a quarter we all play our part in shaping a modern Germany, a Germany rich in cultural diversity and open mindedness.
On the topic of gentrification, Paul was happy to court controversy by saying that he likes the direction the Schanze is going in. (Gentrification is a common complaint in Hamburg, with the Schanze a persistent example of where it is most noticeable.)
People talk about gentrification, but at least the Schanze is on the map. I believe in a place that brings people together and gives people a chance. The chance to flourish, spread ideas. Coffee shops, cross-pollination. That’s what I love about living in Hamburg.
Aside from his work, Paul does his fair share of introducing people to British culture:
There are lots of things I miss from Britan, and now I’m abroad I’m more proud to be British. I think things like proper beer, pub culture, curries, Indian food, afterwork drinks would make the city even better. I often cook Sunday lunch and curries for friends to show them that British food isn’t like it was ten years ago. I might even set up a microbrewery in the future …
Paul misses these things from back home but is nevertheless very happy living in Hamburg and cannot imagine returning to his old life back in the UK. Of the places he would most like to live in, Hamburg is up there with the best:
The cities I would like to live in are Berlin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Hamburg. They remind me of the European films I saw at the Pictureville cinema back in Bradford: cobbled streets and conversations taking place in hidden pockets within small streets.
So the world trip that ended so abruptly years ago is in reality ongoing: here in Hamburg there is a whole wide world of nationalities and cultures to discover and explore.