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Posted in Politics on December 7, 2013
It seems that everyone had something good to say about Mandela, the day that his light finally went out. Everyone admires, respects, venerates the man. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way.
There was a time when you would not have found politicians of all stripes queuing up to contribute their eulogies. There was a time when the evil, brutal apartheid system had its defenders outside of the extreme fringes of white suprematism. There was a time when some world leaders saw white South Africa as a bastion against Marxism, and opposed sanctions aimed at undermining the apartheid regime. There was a time when the public schoolboys in the FCS produced t-shirts saying Hang Nelson Mandela. (Some of them are in government today, paying their respects, and hoping that those past statements and actions don’t surface.)
There was a time when it seemed hopeless, impossible that South Africa could ever be a place where the black majority and the white minority could live together, without bloodshed. For all the problems it has today, there is are generations who are and will be born free, and for that Mandela must be thanked, because he was probably the one man who de Klerk could deal with, a man forged by his long imprisonment, who had mastered his anger and bitterness and who was prepared to risk the accusations that he had ‘sold out’ in order to win freedom for his people.
For all the reasons to despair – and there are many – we have to recall how far we’ve come, in my lifetime. I would not have believed, in my twenties, anyone who told me that, before I reached old age, we would have a black President in a democratic South Africa, where there had been no bloody civil war. That there would be a black President in the White House. That the Berlin Wall would have fallen. That gay men and women would be free to marry, in so many parts of the world and, soon, here. These things haven’t come about through violent revolution but through the Mandelas of the world, some well known but many quite anonymous, against the odds, in the face of the haters and the threats, insisting on justice. As Richard Stengel’s Time tribute to Mandela says:
deep in his bones was a basic sense of fairness: he simply could not abide injustice. If he, Nelson Mandela, the son of a chief, tall, handsome and educated, could be treated as subhuman, then what about the millions who had nothing like his advantages? “That is not right,” he would sometimes say to me about something as mundane as a plane flight’s being canceled or as large as a world leader’s policies, but that simple phrase — that is not right — underlay everything he did, everything he sacrificed for and everything he accomplished.
A Jewish shop in Berlin on 11 November 1938, after the anti-Semitic violence of Kristallnacht.
On this night 75 years ago, the Nazis unleashed a series of riots against Jews in Germany and Austria. In only a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. For the first time, tens of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps simply because they were Jewish.
As I only knew Norman Geras – Norm – through his blog, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to him on my own. He was one of the writers who inspired me to use this form to write about whatever mattered to me, and he was kind enough to invite me to complete one of his profiles.
I cannot speak of his life, except as revealed through the many entries on Normblog, and now through the obituaries that have started to appear. A life of conviction and passion, of family and friendship, of music and books and film, of cricket… His very last entry was a list not of books that you must or should read, but of ‘books you might enjoy’ – no browbeating or pressure, just the suggestions of a friend, who wants to share their pleasure with other people.
He also used his blog for a series called Figures from a Dark Time. This was a response to those who argue that we all go on too much about the Holocaust, that it’s all been said often enough. Each entry was composed of testimonies of individuals who were engulfed by that darkness, some who survived, many who did not, and some too who risked everything to help those who needed it. He wrote ‘contre l’oubli’, restoring to some few of those individuals their names and their stories.
atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale
- Norman Geras: 1943-2013 (blogs.independent.co.uk)
- In praise of Norman Geras (1943-2013) (nickcohen.net)
- Norman Geras, 1943-2013 (outsidethebeltway.com)
- RIP Norman Geras (samirchopra.com)
- Bye bye Norm (harrietdevine.typepad.com)
- Pioneering blogger Norman Geras dies of prostate cancer aged 70 (theguardian.com)
- Norman Geras: Rest in peace, comrade (blogs.spectator.co.uk)
Posted in W G Sebald on September 19, 2013
Part of the disorientation of Sebald's characters can be viewed as precisely an attempt to go astray, to resist compulsory heterosexuality and to transgress the borders of Germany and Europe in search of a queer affinity that might provide a source of resistance to the straightening and oppressive orientation of bourgeois society and family.
Helen Finch's new book Sebald's Bachelors: Queer Resistance and the Unconforming Life…
Posted in Feminism on September 7, 2013
I’ve been lucky, so far, on the internet. I’ve been the recipient of ridiculous spam, Facebook has insulted me with ads about unsightly belly fat, and I did have one or two spats with a particularly truculent contributor to the comments on the Guardian’s Dr Who blog . But nothing nasty. I use pretty much my real name, and I’ve not consciously steered clear of controversy, but I’m not high profile and I haven’t attracted any vitriol or hate for anything I’ve said. Mostly, I’ve heard from and talked to nice, interesting, funny people, and its been a positive experience. I love the internet, I love the possibilities that blogging, Facebook, Twitter etc offer for communication, for making unexpected connections, for finding stuff out.
But lately some people have had an entirely different experience here. So different that they’ve had to at least temporarily close down and cut off those possibilities, because what they’ve been getting is so unbearably vile, so vicious, so hate-filled. And whilst there have been plenty of people out there to offer solidarity and support, others have been rather quick to suggest that they’ve over-reacted. They’ve mostly avoided the word ‘hysterical’ – always a bit of a give-away – but it’s been there, in the sub-text. How like a woman, to get her knickers in a twist just because someone, or several people, are threatening repeatedly and in very explicit ways to rape and murder her, and sending messages to her parents’ home to show that they do know how to find her if they wanted to carry out those threats. How like a woman, to get upset and angry, and maybe use a bit of bad language when people tell her that her reaction to those threats is all wrong, and all out of proportion.
Some of them are repeating the old advice to not feed the trolls. Now a troll as I’ve understood it, and I have met one or two, is someone who deliberately tries to wind people up, being provocative and inflammatory. They vary from being irritating to being malicious, but by and large, if you ignore them, they go away. Those who have inundated Caroline Criado-Perez and others with threats of horrific, sadistic sexual violence are of a different order. Their message is that women who speak out should shut up, or be made to shut up.
So if we respond by not responding, far from thwarting their mischief-making, we’re doing exactly what they want. We’re shutting up. Retreating.
The recipients of this kind of abuse have no way of knowing whether the threats are real, in the sense that they will be acted on. That uncertainty is part of the intention – to make us think twice about speaking out, to make us look over our shoulders and jump at shadows. To make us afraid.
Those who’ve been in the forefront of the abuse are entitled to take a step back. But their message is clear – we need to shout back, and keep on shouting back. Women, and men who support women, refusing to shut up, refusing to retreat, refusing to make ourselves invisible and inaudible in order to be safe.
So this is me, adding my voice to the shout back.
I’m not on my own.
- Caroline Criado-Perez says culture must change as rape threats continue (theguardian.com)
- Don’t feed the trolls AKA silence yourself. (thenotsoquietfeminist.wordpress.com)
- Caroline Criado-Perez’s speech on cyber-harassment at the Women’s Aid conference (newstatesman.com)
In summer 2012, occursus – a loose collective of artists, writers, researchers and students that coalesced around a weekly reading group I had set up with Laurence Piercy from the School of English at the University of Sheffield – organised a series of Sunday-morning walks along unplanned routes in Shalesmoor, Kelham Island and Neepsend. As we looped through the chaotic mix of derelict Victorian works, flat-pack-quick-build apartment blocks, converted factories and student residences, sharing stories and sometimes, quite simply, wondering what on earth we were doing there, without umbrellas, in the rain, we came across the acre and a half of brownfield scrubland we’ve named Furnace Park.
…. and nowhere more so than in the haunting (in so many ways) French drama The Returned which recently left viewers on tenterhooks (or alternatively furious and vowing never to darken its doors again) with a final episode that left more questions than answers, and a long wait for series 2.
The dead return, apparently unchanged (at least initially), and unaware of their deadness. Camille walks through her front door as if nothing untoward had happened (she’d died in a coach accident a couple of years previously), demanding food and complaining bitterly that her room has been rearranged. There’s no overt horror in her re-appearance, which allows a much more subtle take on its effects upon her family. The pattern is repeated elsewhere as the newly undead attempt to find their old lives and slip back into them, only to be confronted by the fact that other lives have moved on in the meantime.
Where do these revenants fit in, in the literature and mythology of the undead? They are not ghosts, which tend to be seen only fitfully and not by all, and to have no physical substance – Camille and her fellow returners are absolutely here, physically, ravenously hungry and startlingly randy too. Ghosts often have a purpose too – like Banquo they are here to shake their gory locks at those responsible for their untimely demise, or to seek a way of resolving their unfinished business in this world – but if these have a purpose it’s not clear what it might be – at least not yet. They are not zombies, whose physical substance has been reactivated without the personality, the mind, the soul (if you will) that previously accompanied it - an ex-person, reduced to a body and a hunger – these returners know who they were, who they loved, and have the full range of human thought and emotion.
Dramatically, there is much that recalls those stories of individuals believed to be dead, and reappearing unexpectedly to cause consternation and conflict as they try to reclaim their lives (Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, Martin Guerre, Rebecca West‘s Return of the Soldier). However, Rebecca West’s returning soldier and Balzac’s Colonel Chabert are not instantly recognisable as the people they once were. Chabert, who has clawed his way out of a mound of corpses, looks like what his former wife would wish to believe he was, a madman and an imposter. Those who made their way home across Europe, as he did, over a century later, were often changed beyond recognition too, their health (mental and physical) permanently damaged, skeletal and haunted both by what they had witnessed and by their own survival. The return of the deportees was a ‘retour a la vie’, and some at least, with care and medical treatment, did begin again to resemble their previous selves. Like Dickens’ Dr Manette, ‘recalled to life’ after years of incarceration, and gradually establishing a fragile hold on life again.
In The Returned, Camille’s father says to his estranged wife Claire that ‘you prayed for this’ – it’s an accusation rather than a statement, even though in his own way he too had sought a continuing connection with the daughter he’d lost. That reminded me of the episode of Buffy (‘Forever’, Season 5), where Dawn attempts to use witchcraft to bring back her mother, realising as she hears the footsteps approach the door that what has come back will not be the person she is grieving for. She breaks the spell, just in time. This thread is picked up in the following season as Buffy herself crosses back over that threshold between death and life, and feels that she isn’t quite as she was, that she has ‘come back wrong’.
Stephen King explored this too, in Pet Sematary, where the knowledge that one could bring back the deceased is too powerful for the protagonist to resist, even having tested the water, as it were, with a cat (who most decidedly isn’t the creature it was before)
and in the madness of terrible loss and grief does not turn back as Dawn did from bringing back his lost son. The returned in King’s narrative look and sound almost like themselves. Almost. They know stuff though, that they should not know, and they are malign, clearly demonic. Some of The Returned’s revenants seem to know stuff in the same way and to be able to use their knowledge to challenge or goad the living. But whether they are on the side of the angels I would not want to say. Ask me in a year or so, when I’ve seen Season 2.
The Returned‘s revenants were not (despite Claire’s prayers) brought back by the living, they appear to have simply returned. But throughout literature the appearance of the dead amongst the living has always been associated with a threat – with the terror or destruction of the living, or with the exposure of past crimes and injustices. Or, at the very least, the confrontation of the living with the trauma of death, in the person of those who have inhabited the liminal space between death and life. Thus neither the unexpectedly alive nor the undead can simply be reintegrated into society, even if the living can accept them. They haunt us, and are themselves haunted,
What these various narratives address is the sense of unfinished business that is inevitably part of bereavement, and the notion that death is a threshold that might, just, be permeable. There’s a moment in an otherwise entirely negligible children’s film, Caspar the Friendly Ghost (yes, I know, bear with me) where the dead mother entreats her husband and daughter: ‘I know you have been searching for me, but there’s something you must understand. You and Kat loved me so well when I was alive that I have no unfinished business, please don’t let me be yours.’ That one line justifies the existence of the film, for me. Because so many of these narratives are really about how impossible it is for the living to deal with death.
Which takes me back to Buffy, and the extraordinary words that Joss Whedon puts into the mouth of Anya (she’s a thousand-year-old vengeance demon, but don’t worry about that, the point is that she says the stuff that we feel, and think, but don’t say):
I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s – There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And – and Xander’s crying and not talking, and – and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (‘The Body’, season 5)
So the unfinished business is not theirs, but ours. And they come back, in dreams, but we know that their presence is not quite right, that time is out of joint if they are here. I’ve dreamed so often that my mother is alive. But never without that sense of unease, which could not be further from the feeling that I associate with her, of warmth and comfort and of being loved. She has gone, and we haven’t got over it, and we won’t, but we know it is real.
Still, that boundary, that threshold, is always disturbingly present, just on the edge of our field of vision, and so we will continue to be fascinated by the notion that sometimes they do come back, and how that might be, even if it is and will always be the stuff of nightmares.
Related articles (beware spoilers)
- The Returned (2004) (rantbit.wordpress.com)
- some further thoughts on Colonel Chabert here: http://cathannabel.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/sebald-and-balzac-quests-and-connections/
Posted in Refugees on June 23, 2013
As Refugee Week draws to a close, my thanks go to the bloggers whose posts I’ve republished here - Manchester Archives, Futile Democracy, Cities@Manchester, Bristol Somali Media Group, and to Pauline Levis for sharing her father’s story of the Kindertransport.
I’ve also flagged up campaigns from the UNHCR and Amnesty, and celebrated particularly the work of CARA on their eightieth anniversary.
Thanks too to all of those who have retweeted and shared my posts with their own contacts and reached a wider audience.
Finally, a plug for one of the organisations that work to provide safety in a hostile world, Refugee Action:
and for one particular project close to my heart: