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Posted in Uncategorized on April 28, 2016
On the 15th April 1989 I was nine, and I can remember playing a game with my younger brother Sean. We were in the bedroom of our house in Burscough, messing around on the bunk beds. At some point we wandered downstairs, to get a drink or a ‘Toronto Snack’ – a fruit salad like the ones I used to get at nursery in Canada when Dad was teaching there for a year and Sean was just a baby. In my memory we came into the living room to find him watching the television.
“Something’s happened at the match,” is what I remember him saying. I remember the green of the pitch and the blue of the sky and the people milling around on the grass. People running as they carried others on makeshift stretchers. A line of police. As the afternoon progressed we learned of the deaths. 10, 20…
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Posted in Uncategorized on April 27, 2016
Europe is facing a wave of migration unmatched since the end of World War II – and no one has reported on this crisis in more depth or breadth than the Guardian’s migration correspondent, Patrick Kingsley. In today’s Guardian, Kingsley offers an impassioned overview of Europe’s collective response to the refugee crisis. This is how he begins:
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Posted in Football on April 9, 2016
The best thing I’ve read about football in a long time. For those who share my despairing love for Forest, or for other football clubs with similar histories, you’ll understand. For those who don’t get it, read this, and try. Forest ’til I die.
No one knows why he chose Nottingham.
Arthur ‘Artie’ Scattergood had it all. His parents – my great, great grandparents – were textile merchants. They lived in a big house, on a grand Georgian square, in one of the nicest part of London.
And one day, it’d all be his. The house, and the factory, and the money. The life.
But Artie didn’t want it.
Why, we never knew. When he rocked up at Bestwood Village in 1920, he had no friends, no prospects, and no reason for being there. Maybe he’d taken the first train out of St. Pancras; maybe he just closed his eyes, and pointed at a map.
Whatever the plan was, Artie worked hard. He made himself a life—a life of his own, for the first time. He got a job at Bestwood Colliery. He found himself a woman, and a home. And soon…
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Once again I’m naming the dead. Listing the names of the latest victims of murderous fanaticism. But whilst the names of the dead in Brussels are emerging, gradually, and will be published in our news media as they do, I have trawled the internet in vain for the names of those who died at Grand Bassam, as I did for those who died in Ouagadougou and Bamako, in Ankara and elsewhere. I’ve found a few – usually those of foreign nationals – but only a few. I want to honour them too, they merit that as much as those who died in Brussels or Paris. But I don’t know who they are.
So if I list the names of those who died this week in Brussels, as I listed those who died in Paris, it is not because I think European lives are more important or that terrorist attacks on European soil matter more than atrocities in Africa, Asia, the Middle East.
What listing the names of those murdered in European cities does is to show the cosmopolitanism of those targets. The names tell their own stories of migration and mobility – those who travel freely for pleasure or work or family, as well as those who have travelled to escape desperate poverty, persecution or war. That’s exactly what Daesh hate, of course. That on those city streets those of every faith and none mix freely, travel together, work together, eat together, enjoy music together.
But whilst the attacks on Paris and Brussels are explicitly aimed at the western cosmopolitanism that epitomises the grey zone, ‘that place between black and white, where nothing is ever either/or and everything is a bit of both’, the majority of their victims are Muslim. After all, most of their murderous attacks take place in predominantly Muslim countries – Daesh hate those who espouse what they regard as the wrong type of Islam as much if not more than they hate those who espouse a different faith or none at all.
How we respond on social media to these atrocities does matter. It may be easy to retweet, like, share, sign and so forth but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. It’s not enough, of course, but for many of us it’s all we can immediately do.
So what do we say? Do we change our profile pictures to the flag of the country where the latest murders have taken place? Do we assert that ‘je suis/nous sommes/we are all…’? Again, it’s important if we do those things that we do them for Mali, Ivory Coast, Turkey or Pakistan as readily as we do for France or Belgium.
Whatever we say, we need to say and keep saying that refugees are welcome. Because even before the names of the dead or the backgrounds of the killers are known, the usual suspects here and in the US are telling us that we’re to blame for letting ‘them’ in. Even before we know who died, and who killed them, we’re told that it’s the refugees fleeing war and terrorist brutality who are the cause of ‘our’ losses. We have to reject that othering which is, after all, exactly what Daesh want. In their world everything is polarised, and most of humanity is that Other that can be slaughtered without compunction. As terrorists they want us to fear and to hate, and governments to react with repressive and prejudicial legislation, to drive people out of the grey zone and into crusadership or caliphate.
Of course we may well be afraid, however much we assert otherwise to show our solidarity with each other against the murderers. We will be angry, we should be angry, that so many lives are being taken, that such brutality is being unleashed on so many. But alongside those emotions, we need to inform ourselves, to try to comprehend. As Jason Burke says, in his important and fascinating book, The New Threat from Islamic Militancy,
Trying to understand does not imply any sympathy. It simply means we need to set aside our very natural anger, disgust and fear in order, as dispassionately as possible, to learn. We need, above all, to avoid the trap that the extremists have fallen into: that of shutting ourselves off, of closing our minds, of succumbing to the temptation of wilful ignorance. In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, victims, the maimed and the bereaved, always ask a very fundamental, very human question, ‘Why did this happen?’ We owe it to them to make the effort it takes to find the answer.
We honour the dead by naming them, when we can. By refusing to shut our minds and our hearts – or indeed our borders. By asserting our shared humanity, that what unites us is so much greater than what divides us. By trying to understand.
Posted in Michel Butor on February 29, 2016
‘and I haven’t even time to set down something that happened on the evening of February 29th, something that seemed very important and that I shall forget as I move farther away from you, Bleston, as you lie dying, Bleston, whose dying embers I have fanned, for now the long minute hand stands upright and my departure closes this last sentence’ (Michel Butor, Passing Time, p. 288)
What happened on that Leap Day we will never know. We have some details of some of the events and developments of that month – the diarist, Jacques Revel, dines with the Bailey family for the first time (whilst noting that he was spending less time with their elder daughter, Ann, as his affections begin to drift towards her sister Rose), and meets George Burton for the first time, not knowing at that stage that he is the author of the detective novel which plays an important role in events. He buys a second copy of The Bleston Murder, having lent the first to Ann.
None of this suggests that February 29 would turn out to be an especially significant date. Of course, February 29 is always going to seem significant, by virtue of its rarity. It’s a day that only exists once every four years, and thus one that can be, in effect, hidden for three out of four years. Almost a ‘jour fantome’.
Is it the centre of the labyrinth that is the narrative of Passing Time? Some have said so – describing the date as the ‘geometrical centre’ of Revel’s year in Bleston. If you do the sums, it’s one month short of the halfway point of Revel’s year in Bleston. However, his final month is a month of tying up loose ends and saying his ‘adieux’ – with the announcement of Ann’s engagement to his friend and colleague James (her sister Rose has already become engaged to his friend and compatriot Lucien) he is merely passing time in Bleston until the pre-ordained departure date. Indeed, he feels himself reduced to a ghost, a Sunday-afternoon ghost, revisiting the places he has known during his life in Bleston.
Revel’s diary is an attempt to master the city which has bamboozled and disoriented him from the moment of his arrival, by creating with his own narrative the Ariadne’s thread to guide him through the labyrinth. In doing so, he creates his own labyrinth, as what is initially a straightforwardly linear account twists and turns, as he reflects on more immediate events, reminds himself as he records the events of one day of the later developments that they foreshadow, and so on.
So his failure to record what happened on 29 February is, firstly, indicative of the failure of this enterprise. The time of writing and the time written about will never be reconciled and this gap is the evidence of that disjunction. It’s a blank space, an empty centre, an enigma. The final page is a record of other failures. He notes that he ‘had not even been able to visit the old church of St Jude’s on the other side of the Slee’, St Jude the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes. St Jude’s is close to a small synagogue, which Revel has also failed to visit (having forgotten that he’d wanted to do so), and to the sinister prison, itself described as ‘a sort of hole’ within the tissue of the city.
He describes ‘those sinister days in February’ when his longing to leave the city is at its most intense, but which he would prefer not to think about, ‘but which on the contrary I ought to be able to pick out from among the tangle of my winter memories with strong supple pincers of language, which I ought to keep firmly before my eyes’ (p. 286). So rather than being unable to recall what happened on 29 February, perhaps Revel chooses not to.
It’s not just a generalised recognition that he ran out of time to fill in the gap, it’s a deliberate blank, which draws our attention to a significant absence. Like the blank space on the back of the detective novel, where the author’s photograph should sit, like the missing pieces in the sequence of stained glass windows, the blank spaces on the frontispiece map, the ‘terrain vague’ on the outskirts of the town, the incomplete New Cathedral building… ‘an incomplete alphabet of which I know one letter is missing, a keyboard of which I know one note is missing, a Tarot pack of which I know one card is missing’. That the missing day is the one that only occurs every four years (it occurred in 1952, the year in which Butor arrived in Manchester) obviously draws even more attention to it.
That we cannot know what happened is part of the fascination of the book. It is at the same time an entirely closed narrative structure – we have no knowledge of anything that happened prior to Revel’s arrival in Bleston, nor what he will do or where he will go next – and an open one which tantalises us with the many mysteries of the text, drawing us back in to wander the rain-drenched streets again in search of answers. The disparity between the mundane events which Revel records and the intensity of the language in which he describes them suggests that the gaps – the things that aren’t said – are of deep significance, that all is not as it initially seems, that maybe we aren’t (just) in a fictionalised version of Manchester after all…
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.
Posted in Music on January 11, 2016
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.