What makes someone give a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn? Giving a damn when it’s not their job, or when it’s a stranger who needs help rather than a friend or a neighbour, someone to whom they owe nothing?
The website of Yad Vashem includes the names and many stories of those who have been designated ‘Righteous amongst the Nations’.
These are people who sheltered Jews or helped them to escape during the Holocaust, often taking huge risks themselves to do so.
Most rescuers started off as bystanders. In many cases this happened when they were confronted with the deportation or the killing of the Jews. Some had stood by in the early stages of persecution … but there was a point when they decided to act, a boundary they were not willing to cross.
Importantly, these are the people we know about. We know what they did because the people they helped to save told their stories. But there were many, many more whose stories have not been told. Many of those who survived the Holocaust have never talked about what they experienced, and those who were children at the time may not have known who did what, who took what risks to keep them safe. The rescuers themselves have often been silent about what they did – in parts of Eastern Europe it was hardly wise to make a noise about it after the war, and others were too modest to promote themselves as heroes. It is also worth noting that some of those who chose not to stand by were themselves murdered, and some had to endure the knowledge of the fate that befell those who they had tried to save – in either case it is likely that their acts are and will remain unknown.
Nicholas Winton did not, as is sometimes reported, keep entirely silent about his work in organising transports of children out of Czechoslovakia, but he certainly wasn’t well-known for it, and it took a television programme in 1988 to bring it to worldwide attention. He is not recorded amongst the Righteous – but only because he himself was of partly Jewish ancestry. He was scrupulous in recognising that the achievement was not his alone, and his reticence may also have in part been prompted by the painful knowledge that many more children could have been saved, had the US and other nations been willing to take more of them in.
As the number of survivors dwindles year on year, we may never know how many more of the Righteous there were.
In Poland, the epicentre of the Holocaust, over 6,500 people are recorded on Yad Vashem’s database. This is the largest number for any of the countries listed – all the more remarkable since in Poland alone the act of saving or trying to save a Jew was punishable by death for the rescuer and their family.
Stefan Szablewski may have been one of the unknown Righteous. His grandson, Marek, has spent the last few years trying to piece together a remarkable story of life in Warsaw, of survival and resistance. This has been a significant challenge:
I realised that not only did I have a unique tale to tell, but that as an only child I was the sole keeper. My knowledge, however, was incomplete. I needed to find the missing parts of the jigsaw puzzle to verify the facts that I had, and to learn more about the bigger picture. All I had to go on were my memories of conversations, several boxes of documents, a handful of photographs and medals, a bookshelf of books about Poland, a few contacts, and three precious tapes recorded for me by my father, which told some, but not all, of the story.
What these fragments show is that Stefan’s third wife, Anna, was Jewish and that she and her daughter were kept safe during the occupation of Warsaw, living under a false identity. In addition, there are records which state that ‘he organised safe houses or accommodation for people who were hiding along with the fabrication of identity papers, and also hid resistance literature and medical supplies.’ But there’s no hard evidence – just handwritten testimonies, and the recollections of Witold, Stefan’s son. Witold himself went into the Ghetto before its destruction, smuggling messages to the Jewish Council, and did what he could to help his stepmother’s family. Both the necessary habit of secrecy about such activities, and the level of destruction in Warsaw make it very difficult to find out more, or to know with certainty what happened. The efforts of a second or third generation now are to gather the fragments that do exist, and build as much of a story as possible. However incomplete, however many question marks remain, these stories are vital and compelling, and a reminder that the worst of times can bring out the best in people as well as the worst.
In Rwanda, the speed and intensity of the genocide meant that the kind of acts commemorated at Yad Vashem are even less likely to be recorded, and the narratives may be disputed. We have the account of Carl Wilkens, the only American who stayed in Rwanda, against all advice, and did what he could to protect the lives of Tutsi friends, and by talking his way through roadblocks and negotiating with senior army figures (people who were heavily implicated or actively involved in orchestrating the genocide) to get supplies through and then to arrange the safety of the children in an orphanage.
Of course, the story of Rwanda is the story of a world of bystanders, and those who did stay, and did what they could, are haunted, tormented by the lives they couldn’t save and the knowledge that had the US and other nations responded to the warnings and the increasingly desperate pleas from those who were witnessing the slaughter, so many more lives could have been saved. Whilst the targets of the killing were clearly Tutsi and Hutus suspected of helping them, the murder of Belgian peacekeepers early in the genocide meant that Wilkens and others could not be certain that they would be safe, and as the militia at the roadblocks were frequently drunk and out of control, there is no doubt that they took huge risks. Hutu Rwandans who hid friends, neighbours and colleagues rather than joining in the killing, or handing them over to the mobs, were however taking much greater risks, and if discovered they were certainly killed.
The ending of the film Shooting Dogs has always bothered me. The film shows a young Briton who was evacuated on a UN transport, leaving around 2,000 Tutsi in the compound of the Ecole Technique Officiel in Kigali, surrounded by Interahamwe militia, almost all of whom were killed as soon as the UN trucks left. In the final scenes, he is asked by a survivor why he left and he says that he left because he was afraid to die. This is disingenuous (and not challenged by the film) – everyone in that compound was afraid to die. He left because he could. Wilkens’ fellow Americans, and the majority of the Europeans in Rwanda when the genocide began, left because they could. They had a choice, and – for reasons that any of us can understand – they chose to take the escape route offered to them. Reading these stories, most of us will ask ourselves, would I have left when I could? Would I have stayed and tried to help? If I’d lived in Occupied Paris, or Warsaw, would I have kept my head down, or tried to help?
If you were a gendarme, or a civil servant, or even a Wehrmacht officer, you could do your job, as defined by the occupying forces, and compile lists of Jews to be rounded up, or round them up and transport them to transit camps, and then on to cattle trucks, or carry out the murders yourself. Or you could use that position to get a warning out about an impending round-up, or produce false papers to enable Jews to escape, or take direct action to get people to safety.
It came down, as it always does, to individuals, to their ability to empathise, to see not the vilified ‘Other’ but someone like themselves, and to their sense of what is fair and right. Fear can overwhelm both, but somehow, wherever and whenever the forces of hatred are unleashed, there will be some who will refuse to stand by.
Think of Lassana Bathily, a Malian Muslim who worked in the kosher supermarket in Paris which was attacked after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. He took some of the customers to the cold store to hide, whilst the killers shot and killed Jewish customers in the shop.
Think of Salah Farah. When al-Shabab attacked the bus he was travelling on in Mandera in Kenya, the attackers tried to separate Muslims and Christians. Passengers were offered safety if they identified themselves as Muslim. The response from many was to ask the attackers to kill all of them or leave all of them alone. Muslim women on the bus gave Christian women scarves to use as hijabs. Farah was one of those who refused the offer of safety, and he was shot. He died in hospital almost a month after the attack.
There are always some who refuse to stand by.
Amongst the many Bowie tributes which have appeared on my Facebook wall and Twitter feed (indeed, there has been little else today), there was this poem, by a friend and former colleague. I know Katherine Inskip as an astronomer and University teacher – I had no idea she was a poet. And this, written as an immediate response to the loss that we’ve all been feeling, is just so right. Thanks Katherine.
He died at the dark of the moon
and I cannot help but wonder
if he knew, or if the change,
this once, was not his own.
For he lived as the moon does,
strange and bright, inconstant
as time itself, casting fluid
shadows into space.
And if we felt some echo
in his forms, his songs, his life,
the moon would not do less.
He died at the dark of the moon
at the moment when all things change.
And he died as the moon does,
with its face turned out, away.
Gone from our sight forever.
Gone, for a while.
Gone, but no less bright.
Fascinating Bowie tribute focusing on Bowie in Berlin, from That’s How the Light Gets In.
Just gonna have to be a different man…
In Berlin: Imagine a City, Rory MacLean writes of how, in 1976, ‘rock ‘n’ roll’s blazing star fell to earth in Berlin. Bowie arrived in the city a haunted, haggard wreck: barely six stones, sleepless and wired on cocaine, possessing little sense of his own self-worth. ‘I really did have doubts about my sanity’, Bowie wrote later. But, according to MacLean, Bowie found himself in Berlin (and he might know since, fresh out of film school, he was a young assistant to the director on the film shot in the city at the time, Just a Gigolo).
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Three moments from the early 1970s.
1972, the Cellar Bar at the Hutt, Ravenshead, Notts. The Hutt was a Berni Inn, purveyor of prawn cocktail, steak & chips, and Black Forest gateaux – but the Cellar Bar was a dark and crowded space where a 14 year old could get served with Babycham or Bacardi & lime, and where the juke box was turned up LOUD. I didn’t even know this was Bowie, I just knew it was exhilarating, intoxicating. And dangerous.
Seeing that clip now from Top of the Pops, it’s hard – impossible even – to make sense of how shocking, how ridiculously daring and provocative it seemed at the time when he draped his arm so casually around Mick Ronson’s shoulders and they sang together, close. There was no other topic of conversation the next morning at school in Mansfield. But for some of those boys and girls who knew they could never conform to the gender roles assigned to them, who knew they were different, and were scared and thought they might be the only ones who felt that way, it was a moment that changed their worlds, it gave them hope and courage.
Listening to Aladdin Sane on the record player in our living room, staying within arms reach of the volume control so that we could ramp it down speedily if the parents came within earshot at the point when the lyrics got seriously inappropriate.
Bowie was the unifying factor in the otherwise rigid musical demarcations of the time. I loved Motown, Simon & Garfunkel, and Bowie. My friends loved Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, and Bowie. My brother loved Gong, Hatfield & the North, and Bowie. And as for the boy who is now my husband of 38 years, who introduced me to Hendrix and Crimson, amongst others (and who I introduced to Motown and reggae) – Bowie was our musical meeting place. The fact that he could play some of the songs – well, reader, I married him…
It is those memories that are the most powerful, from those teenage years when everything was so intense, when we were trying to work out who we were and who we wanted to be. Bowie was part of that – he made us question, made us imagine possibilities, showed us we could reinvent ourselves if we wished.
That continued through the decades since – we backtracked from Ziggy to Hunky Dory and Man Who Sold the World, and even to the early singles when he was Davie Jones, with the King Bees, The Lower Third, and various other short-lived bands. No amount of nostalgia or grief will make me remember The Laughing Gnome with fondness, or some of the other early tracks. But even then, there was the sense of someone who would try anything, experiment fearlessly, take risks. And the variety was dizzying, from the heavy rock of Width of a Circle, to the delicate An Occasional Dream or the whimsy of Kooks.
We awaited each new album with a mixture of excitement and trepidation – would he let us down? would this one disappoint? No, and no. And how extraordinary that on Saturday night, just a day and a half ago, we prepared ourselves to listen to the new Bowie album, by playing the Ziggy Stardust farewell gig and Philip Glass’s Low Symphony. And he didn’t let us down. This one did not disappoint. I tweeted that night:
#musicnight No other artist that I’ve been listening to for > 40 yrs is still doing new stuff today, still sounding so fresh.
And then this morning I woke to the news that he is gone.
So tonight, we will play songs from across all of the years in which Bowie has been part of our lives. We will raise a glass to the Starman, and probably get a little drunk and sing along, and cry a bit. He may be gone but we have so much music, enough to sustain us, enough to inspire us.
Don’t let me hear you say life’s
taking you nowhere,
Come get up my baby
Look at that sky, life’s begun
Nights are warm and the days are young
This was the year we threw off the shackles of paid employment. Martyn first, in March, and me at the very close of 2015. It feels terrifying and liberating all at once.
For me, this new freedom will give me more time to do the things I care most about. My PhD, which I hope I will now be able to do justice to. And Inspiration for Life, in particular the 24 Hour Inspire. Of all the things I’ve done over the years, this is what I’m proudest of.
And I hope of course to have more time to do the other things I love, more time to read, write, listen to music, go to gigs, go to the cinema/theatre, meet up with friends, travel, watch some of the box sets which are gathering dust by our DVD player…
Below are some of the cultural highlights of 2015. I’ve been lucky to have access to Ensemble 360, Opera North, Tramlines, Sheffield Jazz etc, and to have wonderful friends and family to share these experiences with.
The best of the year, without a doubt, was Timbuktu. Abderrahmane Sissako’s film is both beautiful and harrowing, a passionate cry from the heart about the threat posed by fundamentalist jihadists to the people, the culture and the music of Mali.
I won’t rank my other favourites, but they are:
Inside Out – Pixar at its very, very best. Clever, imaginative, daring, funny and moving. As the Guardian review said, ‘In the film’s wildest moment, the wanderers enter a zone of abstract thought, where they are zapped into a series of increasingly simplified geometric shapes, as they – and the film itself – dizzyingly self-deconstruct (“Oh no, we’re non-figurative!”)’.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – Ana Lily Amirpour’s film has been tagged as ‘the first Iranian vampire Western’. Atmospheric and full of unexpected touches (including a skateboarding vampire), and a powerful feminist narrative. Sheila Vand has a fascinating face that can look very young and somehow ageless at different moments.
Love and Mercy – biopic of Brian Wilson, portrayed both in the Beach Boy years and in later life, by Paul Dano and John Cusack respectively. Cusack’s portrayal is fascinating – seeing the clip of the real Brian Wilson at the end of the movie, I realised just how perfectly he had captured him, despite the lack of obvious physical resemblance.
I Believe in Miracles – the story of Nottingham Forest’s astonishing European Cup success. A joy from beginning to end. And featuring a couple of brief glimpses of my kid brother who was a ball boy at one of those games, as well as glorious clips of my all-time footballing hero John Robertson at his best. And funny and poignant anecdotes from the players, and clips of Clough running rings around interviewers.
Mad Max: Fury Road – just a blast, possibly the best action movie I’ve seen, with a powerful female lead in Charlize Theron’s Furiosa (an action movie that passes the Bechdel test!), visually almost overwhelming and with an awesome soundtrack. And the Doof Warrior.
Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’ve written previously about how much I love the Marvel films. This was a joy, thanks in large part to Joss Whedon’s crackling dialogue (the script is often where costs are cut in big budget movies, but thankfully not here).
Lots of Marvel here too, with Agent Carter, Daredevil and Agents of Shield all delivering in spades. Daredevil was the darkest of the three, but the others had their moments and all had humour, well-drawn characters and moments of poignancy as well as action. In other sci-fi/fantasy telly, Tatiana Maslany continued to be astonishing in Orphan Black, The Walking Dead continued to ramp up the tension till it was almost unbearable, and left us at mid-season break with everyone we care about in mortal peril – again. The latter also spawned a prequel (Fear the Walking Dead) which showed the start of the crisis – the bit we missed as Rick Grimes was in a coma in hospital whilst society crumbled in the face of the undead onslaught. And Humans was a thought-provoking and engaging take on issues around AI and what makes us human.
As always we watched a lot of detectives. Two French series – old favourite Spiral was back (we missed you, Laure, Gilou, Tintin et al), and a new drama, Witnesses, was complex and compelling with an intriguing female lead (Marie Dompnier). River was something else – Stellan Skarsgaard’s broody Nordic cop haunted by ‘manifests’ of his dead partner amongst others. Nicola Walker was stunning in this, as was Adeel Akhtar as River’s actual living partner. Walker also caused considerable potential confusion by simultaneously leading in Unforgotten, which made one forget the implausibility of an entire police team investigating a very cold case (and nothing else, apparently) by the subtle and compassionate portrayal of the various suspects as their past actions resurfaced to disturb the lives and relationships they had built. No Offence was refreshing too (though we felt uneasy with some particular plot developments in the later part of the series) with Joanna Scanlan’s DI being startlingly rude, but also funny, forceful and warm, and a fab supporting cast.
This is England 1990
This is England deserves a much more in-depth consideration than I can give it here – one would need to re-view the whole series from the film to this final (if it is indeed that) instalment. But there’s no denying – they can be a tough watch, as brilliantly funny as they often are. It’s not just the moments of horrifying violence, I think the hardest thing would be to have to go through again with Lol her descent into despair in TiE 88. Vicky McClure’s performance was intense without any histrionics and all the more devastating for that. This final part had moments too, relating to Kelly, and to Combo, which stay in the mind. And whilst the ending was upbeat, with that long-postponed wedding and Kelly’s return to the fold, Milky’s separation from the group and the reasons for it, and the likelihood that Kelly’s recovery will not be as straightforward as all that, mean that the darkness is not far away. It’s been a hell of a series, with superb writing and direction and equally superb performances.
Raised by Wolves
When it comes to comedy I can be a hard woman to please. Not that I don’t like a laugh, GSOH, that’s me. But I’ve given up on so many sitcoms because they’ve made me cringe more than they’ve made me chuckle. However, despite feeling slightly neutral about the pilot, I did get into Raised by Wolves, and fell rather in love with the magnificent Della (Rebekah Staton) as well as with the writing, which as expected from Caitlin Moran (and sister Caroline) was rude and exuberantly funny.
We watched this back in the day (88-97) and rewatching it now is punctuated by cries of ‘OMG that’s George Clooney’, or spotting Big Bang Theory cast members (Sheldon’s mum and Lesley Winkle, with Leonard still to show). But what we also realised was how much of our approach to parenting came from this show, where family life is chaotic, temperamental, combative but always loving. And ‘our’ tradition of summoning family members to the meal table with a loud cry of ‘FOOOD’ appears to have been inspired by the Conners as well. As I recall, things went seriously off kilter in later series, but so far, so funny. Joss Whedon had a hand (probably just a fingertip in some eps) in the early series, which can’t ever be a bad thing.
French drama focusing on the activities of various Resistance groups in Occupied France – this was obviously a must-watch for me. I hadn’t expected it to be as close to real events as it was, which was a mixed blessing, as I quickly realised who was doomed and who might survive… The central female character, Lili, was a fictional construct, which seems to have annoyed some viewers, but I felt it was a valid way of providing a thread to link the early activity of the Musée de l’Homme group with the Maison de la Chimie and the Combat and Manouchian groups, taking us all the way through to the Liberation. It was a powerful, well constructed drama. And the renditions of the Marseillaise, ringing out in prison cells and in the face of firing squads, came back to us so intensely in November when that spirit of defiance was called upon once again.
If the idea of series 1 seemed in principle a bit odd, a second series was all the more so. But if anything, series 2 is even better, even madder, even wittier than the first. The film had Frances McDormand, who is always a very good thing, and series 1 had Allison Tolman, who filled those shoes admirably. In series 2 we root for her dad, Lou (we’ve gone back in time) and grandad Hank (played by Ted Danson), and her mother Betsy (I would like some time to see Cristin Milioti NOT dying of cancer, if that’s OK). And we do kind of root for Peggy too, with her passion for self-actualisation and ‘being the best me I can be’, even if it proves somewhat dangerous for those around her.
Honourable mentions to Homeland, Doctor Foster (Suranne Jones magnificent as a woman scorned), and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
And of course there was Doctor Who. This year’s Who was top notch. Capaldi really found his voice, the plots were rich and complex without being merely baffling, and the climactic episodes were powerful and moving. I will be writing more about Who in due course.
On the Crucible main stage, we saw Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time, with a stunning performance from Sian Phillips, and Romeo & Juliet, with Freddie Fox and Morfydd Clark as the lovers. The Miller play seemed stagey at times (an odd criticism, in a way, for a stage play) but the performances carried it and I reflected afterwards on the way in which the Nazi death machine was itself stagey, whether the intention was to terrify and subjugate, or to deceive. Romeo & Juliet was terrific, but reminded me of how bloody annoying those two are, and it’s no disrespect to the actors that I wanted to give them both a good slap.
Operatic outings this year included a fabulous Kiss me Kate, a powerful Jenufa, and a magnificent Flying Dutchman, all from Opera North.
I’ve written previously about the splendid Bassekou Kouyate gig at the University’s Firth Hall.
At the Crucible Studio, Ensemble 360 treated us to performances of Mendelssohn, Ives, Janacek, Watkins, Brahms, Berg, Boulez, Kurtag, Mozart and Bartok, amongst others. Such fantastic musicians, and particularly delighted to have had the chance to hear so much 20th century music this year. Same venue, different ensemble – Chris Biscoe’s Profiles of Mingus feat. Tony Kofi on sax (we’d heard him playing Mingus last year, with Arnie Somogyi’s Profiles of Mingus). More jazz, courtesy of Leeds Jazz Orchestra (feat. one Aidan Hallett) in Leeds Golden Acre Park.
And then there was Tramlines. Nothing much to add to what I said at the time, except that I can’t wait for the 2016 festival.
So, thanks to those who shared these highlights with me. I look forward to lots more in 2016.
I hope to blog more in 2016, of course. I managed a post most months in 2015, and the overall total looks more impressive thanks to eight in Refugee Week and a few reblogs from That’s How the Light Gets In and Nowt Much to Say. I blogged for Holocaust Memorial Day, wrote about the Hillsborough inquests, the 24 Hour Inspire, Marvel films, Tramlines, the phenomenon of the ‘fugueur’, the music of Mali, the ‘refugee crisis’, and the murderous attacks by Daesh in Paris and elsewhere. I also blogged for Inspiration for Life, and on the aftermath of the May General Election. Thanks to all who have read, liked, reblogged, commented, etc.
And for 2016, which may seem to hold so much threat and so little hope, I cannot do better than to quote this poem, by Sheenagh Pugh. Apparently she doesn’t rate it – scribbled it in a hurry on a card for a friend going through a tough time. I beg to differ.
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
May it happen for you, may it happen for all of us.
Once again I have been denied the chance to share with the readership of the quality newspapers my pick of this year’s reading. Ah well, the discerning audience that appreciates my blog will, I am sure, be grateful that I share it with them instead. You’re so very welcome.
Because my default response to a challenge (unless it involves serious physical activity) is ‘challenge accepted’, I aimed to read 80 books this year (as set by Penguin Books for some reason). That’s 80 properly read, cover to cover or the electronic equivalent, not mined for relevant info for the PhD. Of course I exceeded this arbitrary target, and enjoyed doing so. I’ve picked out some of the books that meant the most to me in 2015.
The Bear Comes Home – Ravi Zabor. Hard to explain this book – it sounds bonkers and indeed it is, but gloriously so, and it is some of the best writing about music I’ve come across, so vivid that, as Annie Proulx, who was on the panel of judges that gave it the PEN/Faulkner award said, ”Rafi Zabor somehow makes the reader hear music”. Yes, there is a bear. He plays alto sax. That’s all I can say really – as one of Zabor’s editors said, ‘you have to read it to get it’.
The City and the City – China Mieville. I should have read Mieville earlier, but having loved this one, I am looking forward to Perdido Street Station. It’s a detective novel, but with a kind of sci-fi premise, which I won’t explain in case anyone hasn’t read it and would like to. It’s a fiercely intelligent novel which works brilliantly as crime fiction as well as sci fi.
Two novels dealing with Alzheimer’s gripped, in different ways. Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is a tour de force by a young debut novelist, with a protagonist who is in the grip of dementia and gradually losing touch with the world around her. Because of her condition, her conviction that her friend Elizabeth is missing is dismissed by everyone – meanwhile another mystery from much longer ago keeps on surfacing and demanding answers. We see things from Maud’s perspective, so we share her confusion. This is quite exceptionally skilled writing. Elizabeth… manages to be funny, without one ever laughing at Maud’s confusion and muddle, because even without a functioning memory, she is a fully rounded character with a sometimes acerbic and sometimes bizarre take on people and events. Lisa Genova’s Still Alice was a heart-breaking read – again our perspective is that of the person with dementia although in this case when we first hear Alice’s voice she is still very much herself, before the first ambiguous signs of the disease occur. Whereas in Healey’s novel the dementia is context and sub-text, here it is the text itself, the narrative following the process of the disease as it robs Alice of so much more than her memory.
Memory was a theme too in Linda Buckley-Archer’s The Many Lives of John Stone. Again, it would be unfair to give too much away – it’s beautifully written, interweaving a vivid historical narrative with the present day. There’s no time travel, or supernatural/paranormal elements – as with some of the other novels I’ve picked out, it just uses a hypothetical genetic characteristic as the basis for the plot. It’s engaging, gripping and ultimately very moving.
Emma Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, about Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s time in Suffolk during WWI (reminiscent of Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness, about D H Lawrence in Cornwall)
Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, a hugely ambitious historical novel with an utterly compelling central character, 19th century botanist Alma Whittaker. It’s completely absorbing.
Owen Sheers’ Resistance is a cracking alternative history, where the Allies lost WWII, set in the Welsh valleys. It evokes something of Vercors’ Le Silence de la mer, or Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française in the portrayal of the interaction between occupying troops and the local population, but is also firmly rooted in the particular landscape and history of its setting.
Steven Alcock’s Blood Relatives evoked very different and more recent années noires, in the city of Leeds during the Yorkshire Ripper years. But the Ripper is not the subject, but part of the background. He’s what people are talking about, but the protagonist is more concerned, as most teenagers would be, with himself and Alcock exuberantly captures the tensions and the textures of this life in full on Yorkshire.
And Cath Staincliffe, primarily known as a crime writer (the Sal Kilkenny series, Blue Murder, and novelisations of Scott & Bailey) made me sob my socks off with Trio, which follows the lives of three young women who give up babies for adoption in the 1960s, the families who took those babies in, and the children themselves as they grow to adulthood.
I also enjoyed a heap of Laura Lippmann’s terrific novels featuring Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan, discovered a new series by Sarah Hilary with DI Marnie Rome, J K Rowling’s Robert Galbraith novels, and Peter May’s Lewis trilogy.
Viv Albertine’s fab memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys was fascinating and heart-breaking and funny. Peter Piot’s life battling Ebola, AIDs and the bureaucracy and politics which gets in the way of tackling those challenges was an inspiration. And – to return to the theme of Alzheimer’s – Andrea Gillies’ Keeper told the story of caring for her mother-in-law whilst attempting to run a B&B, and how the dementia gradually took over all of their lives and thoughts. It’s honest, sometimes brutally so, but there’s black humour too, and poignancy.
Oh, and I finally finished Proust’s La Prisonnière. Two more to go…
I also read and recommend:
Fiction: Iain Banks – Whit, Ann Cleeves – various Shetland and Vera crime novels, Teju Cole – Open City, Michel Faber – Under the Skin, Will Ferguson – 419, Richard Flanagan – Wanting, Andre Gide – Thesee, Paula Hawkins – Girl on the Train, Anne Holt – The Blind Goddess, Kazuo Ishiguro – Nocturnes, Susanna Jones – When Nights were Cold, Han Kang – The Vegetarian, Philip Kerr – Berlin Noir trilogy, Stephen King – Finders Keepers, Tiffany Murray – Happy Accidents, Catherine O’Flynn – What was Lost, Edward St Aubyn – Never Mind, Jim Shephard – The Book of Aron, Louise Welsh – Plague Times vols 1 and 2 (hurry up with 3!!), Markus Zusak – The Book Thief
Non-fiction: John Bayley – Iris, Alan Bennett – The Lady in the Van, Charles Dickens – Selected Letters, Robert Gildea – Fighters in the Shadows, Iain Hacking – Mad Travelers, Sarah Helm – If This is a Woman, Caroline Moorhead – A Train in Winter, Vladimir Nabokov – Speak Memory, Wladyslaw Szpilman – The Pianist
The grey zone. It’s an endangered space, according to the murderous zealots of ISIS/Daesh/Islamic State/ISIL (I’m going to stick with Daesh, since I believe they really, really don’t like it). It’s the space where people meet, talk, think, and maybe change their minds.
President Bush said after the 9/11 attacks that there were only two options, to be with ‘us’ (the US and its allies) or with the terrorists. Daesh essentially agree – you are either with the crusade or with the caliphate. There is no middle ground.
And of course in some senses there isn’t, not when it comes to the massacring of innocents, wherever that takes place. No ‘of course I condemn the killings, but…’, or ‘of course it’s terrible but the French (or anyone else) had it coming’. No way. I am passionately, profoundly, unequivocally, unambiguously against everything that Daesh stand for and everything that they do. I despise their murderous arrogance, their callous indifference to human life.
But the danger of Daesh and their ilk is their absolute certainty. They define everyone who is not unequivocally, unambiguously with them not as mistaken or misguided but as the enemy. The Quran condemns those who take innocent lives, but Daesh see all who are not with them as guilty – corrupt and degenerate westerners in the ‘capital of prostitution and obscenity’, ‘deviant’ Muslims in Beirut, on and on and on. This year alone, they have murdered ‘crusaders’ in Afghanistan, Yemen, Turkey, Chad, Nigeria, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria…
Are they evil? Individually, I doubt it. We have to distinguish the organisation from the individuals who, as Umair Haque says, have themselves been conquered and brutalised by it. But they’ve been carefully taught, taught to hate, taught to kill without mercy or remorse, and by the time they’ve strapped on the explosive belt and picked up the Kalashnikov it is probably too late for them to be persuaded or deterred from doing evil in the name of an evil ideology. It’s not too late, though, for those who are attracted by the certainties of that ideology, or flirting with fundamentalism, if we can reach them, if we could sit down with them in the grey zone and talk, and listen. Lydia Wilson did that, talking to Daesh prisoners on death row in Kirkuk:
They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity but cultural, tribal, and land-based, too. (Lydia Wilson, The Nation, 21 October 2015)
In the grey zone we can try to understand, and we can look into the eyes of another human being and draw on what we share whilst we explore what we don’t. The grey zone is full of the things that Daesh hate – music, art, football, laughter, friendship, conversation, love. The grey zone is where we live.
Justin Smith said of the targeting of the Eagles of Death Metal gig that ‘what the attackers hated in January [the Charlie Hebdo attacks], and what they continue to hate, is a sort of offense that we could not possibly promise to disown. It is the offense of happiness, of getting jokes, and loving oxymorons.’
‘life itself, the joy of living, was the target. … They did not attack infrastructure, politicians, military personnel, or sites of historical or cultural significance. They targeted innocent people, going about their lives, trying to make it through this difficult and complicated world with a modicum of fun and lightness. … It was, in every sense, an attack on multiculturalism; an attack on how we find happiness, outside the confines of a strict religious code of submission; an attack on the secular, enlightened spirit embodied by Paris’s vibrant, varied culture.’
Daesh tell us that the grey zone is on the brink of extinction, that it’s withering away. That’s what they want, of course, and that’s why we must protect it. Their intention in Paris was to provoke just that polarisation of views, to turn people against each other, to engender and encourage suspicion and prejudice, to make us afraid of each other. In Umair Haque’s words, ‘let’s be more courageous and wise than that’.
Billy Bragg said on Facebook:
We have to be careful not to mirror [Daesh’s] warped logic by declaring that all Muslims are enemies of the state. To do so would be to play into the hands of those who sent the murderers onto the streets of Paris. Jason Burke, writing in today’s Observer, points out that one of the main aims of ISIS is to polarise society. He quotes writings in which they state their wish to “eliminate the ‘grey zone’ between belief and unbelief, good and evil, the righteous and the damned.” … As the National Front begins to exploit the Paris attacks to gain votes in France, we must all be very careful not to divide our communities into those who are with us and those who are against us. ISIS wants to poison our society. If we hope to defeat the terrorists, we must also be vigilant against those who would help them achieve their aim.
So we have to continue helping the refugees, because they are human beings who are desperate and afraid and who are fleeing the same terror that struck at Paris, and we have to stand up against those who would turn them away on all sorts of spurious grounds but particularly now because they might be terrorists.
Kate Norlock wrote on the feministphilosophers blog:
Note the immediate interest on the part of some powerful actors to close borders and prevent refugees from moving, and consider helping those refugees. France’s leaders are already stating their intention to respond to these attacks. I’m no politician and I don’t know what nations should do, but I know that some refugees are in Europe now because they were trying to flee deadly attacks like those in Paris. Don’t let tonight be a night that hardens hearts against refugees. Let tonight be a reason to reach out.
We have to refuse to be bystanders when anyone – on social media, on the street, in the workplace – demonises or harasses Muslims or those who look as if they might be Muslims. We have to have conversations across the various divides of age, ethnic background, religion, politics – find out what other people think, share what we think, find the common ground. We have to counter and debunk the lies that are routinely told about refugees, immigrants, Muslims, and the propaganda that xenophobic political movements such as the Front National, EDL/Britain First etc. and their equivalents across Europe will make of the Paris atrocities.
None of this will stop Daesh. I’m not sure what will. How do you stop someone with an explosive belt and a Kalashnikov, who cares nothing for the lives of the people they will mow down, and nothing for their own life, indeed who is ‘seeking to be killed’ in order to gain martyrdom? Perhaps we cannot afford to be pacifists in any absolute sense. These are the moral quandaries that face us and perplex us, and we cannot take refuge in absolutes, because absolutes are a huge part of the problem.
We’re all looking for a ‘magic bullet’ to use against this big bad. There may be political and/or military solutions (just as likely, I’m afraid, there will be political and/or military reactions that will hurt Daesh’s victims more than they hurt Daesh itself).
For myself, what I want to do most of all is to fight – not with Kalashnikovs but with words and the way I live my life – for the grey zone.
Because the last thing the grey zone is, is grey. It’s every colour under the sun. And it’s beautiful.
Enjoy your life.
Make it count.
And don’t let the murderers win.
PS I am aware that the term ‘grey zone’ was used by Primo Levi in The Drowned and the Saved to describe a territory of moral ambiguity, or the suspension of morality, specific to the world of the concentration camps. My use of the term in this piece is based solely on its appropriation by Isis as described above.