Monday, 15 August 2011

Rolf-Dietrich Ratzmann and a summer to remember.

Rolf and I first met in the etching studio at Leeds College of Art. He stood behind me, peering over my shoulder as I brushed away the bubbles forming on a zinc plate in the acid bath. He was a great hulk of a youth, transferred from Dortmund Art School on a scholarship to study at Leeds.

The life room at Leeds College of Art

Josie, Cliff, Alan, Dave, Val and Hazel.

Rolf was very intense, with a forceful personality and a great capacity for enjoyment. Whilst he could be exhausting and annoying, life was certainly never dull in his company. I introduced him to Peter and the three of us formed a close friendship that we imagined would last for ever.

Peter and I traveled to Rolf's home just after England had beaten Germany in the World Cup. The train was full of disgruntled German students having plenty to say about Nobby Stiles, none of it polite! No one else appeared to be English, so we kept a low profile!
We were met at the station by a sheik in flowing robes, together with his chauffeur in peaked cap. Rolf was the sheik. He drove ahead in his battered old Va Wa and we followed in style in the chauffeur-driven car. It took most of the journey to his parents' home to discover that the 'chauffeur' was actually Rolf's school-friend, Norbert, now a medical student.
After five years of study this was going to be our last long summer break. In the autumn Peter and I were to start work as art college lecturers in different parts of the country. Before then we intended to enjoy a memorable summer.

Our destination was 'Franchieux', a half-derelict farm in the south of France. Peter, Rolf, Norbert and I were joined by Eckart, another former school-friend of Rolf's, who was studying architecture.
'Franchieux' and its abandoned valley were beautiful. The only evidence of any other human being was the distant sound of a woodcutter. He started work in the early morning and stopped before the heat of the afternoon, leaving us to perfect silence.

What did we do? 
We painted and drew, we talked and sang, we cleared the water storage of plants and silt so that we could swim. We picked plums in the deserted orchard and drank from our barrels of 'everyday' and 'special' wines. Eckart worked on the building, repairing walls.

Eckart walling.

At night I could hear rustling in the eaves of the farmhouse which I thought must be rats. "No!" said the German boys, "it's a sebenschlaffer." According to them it was an innocent creature, something like a squirrel. I remained unconvinced so they set about trying to catch it - with no success. Was I merely being humoured?

We were invited to the holiday home of a German art tutor where we ate an excellent supper. To my surprise, Rolf, usually an ardent anglophile, became very disparaging of English cooking. (He had eaten very well on numerous occasions at my parents' home!) 
The following week we returned the invitation and shopped for a couple of chickens at the local market. I jointed the portions with care. Cooked in herbs and wine those chickens smelt divine! Everyone ate well, apart from Rolf. He could find no meat and complained that the birds were all bone. 'French birds,' I told him quietly.
Only when our guests had gone home did I point out to Rolf that it was not a good idea to be rude about English cooking when I was the one preparing the food. I had jointed out two boney pieces of back and served them up, just for him!

One evening we went to the amphitheatre in Vaison la Romaine where the gypsy guitarist, Manitas de Plata was performing. We sat under the stars and listened to his music and the strange, disembodied bird and animal calls made by his appreciative audience.

Every day we woke to warmth and sunshine. I swam in the cleared water storage, a dammed stream, with my pet duck, bought as  duckling at the market. 
It was a magical summer.

Our friendship continued and our lives followed a similar pattern, teaching art, happily married, both households with two daughters. We met often and I was always greeted by being lifted off my feet and swung in the air. It was no surprise to me when an article was written in the German newspapers about Rolf having successfully grappled a large brown bear that had been attacking a woman!
Rolf was always keen to reminisce about our student days. There was strong competition between the Leeds art school and the university students, which involved gatecrashing balls, raves and parties. Rolf's favourite memory was of the end of a party where the three of us were sitting in a room when a university student walked in, trying to look as though he should be there. He studied us, then gave up the pretence and left without a word being said. Pure Pinter! Rolf never tired of recounting this, while slapping his knees and guffawing.

Ulla, Mrs Ratzmann and Julia at Hogenbogen

Rolf died suddenly at the age of forty-six. No one since has swung me off my feet and some of my own past has gone with him.
This week I looked on google and discovered that a street has been named after him. I expect it to be a big street, and colourful!


  1. Memories of our youth and the people who were part of it remain precious in our mind. It sounds like you had a very good friend who's spirit will always be with you. How sad that his life was so short.

  2. Rosemary, I so enjoyed reading your beautiful post. I can tell, through your words, this was a wonderful relationship. To find someone capable of leaving such a footprint on our lives is special. Thanks for sharing your beautiful memories and pictures. Bonnie

  3. Dear Starting Over and Bonnie, it is so good to know from your responses that you understand exactly how I feel. Rolf's death was a profound shock for us and it took a long while before I could even mention his name. It is a pleasure for me now to be able to capture and hold the past by means of blogging.

  4. I so enjoyed your wonderfully evocative story of your early lives Rosemary. What a shock then to discover that Rolf died at such a young age.
    I think you are right to say that blogging about it 'captures the past', Have you ever been to the street?

  5. Dear Weaver, No, I have only just learnt that a street was named after him. I tried looking for it on google earth, but with no success.