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Back Where You Came From

A new art exhibition ‘Back Where You Came From’ examines how ancient stories about migration preserved in the biblical book of Genesis are helpful in considering the current migration crisis. The project seeks to promote open dialogue about migration through reading ancient sacred texts about migration in groups that include people from different faiths and cultures. Sanctuary seekers in the city have reflected on their movement, transience, and migration from their homes by responding to stories about the figures of Abraham, Hagar, Isaac, and Jacob from the book of Genesis.’

‘Back Where You Come From’ will run from 15 to 26 June at The Gallery @ 35 Chapel Walk, in the centre of Sheffield, from 10am to 6pm. Download the exhibition brochure.



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A Pocketful of Passports

Decades before the refugees from Vietnam were given the name of ‘boat people’, and before the more recent tragedies in the Med, a group of refugees were desperately hoping for a ship to take them away from Europe, to the US, the UK, anywhere. They went through official channels, or at least they tried, applying for visas and waiting, waiting. Russian author Victor Serge described the temporary community gathered in Marseille:

Here is a beggar’s alley gathering the remnants of revolutions, democracies and crushed intellects… In our ranks are enough doctors, psychologists, engineers, educationalists, poets, painters, writers, musicians, economists and public men to vitalize a whole great country.

Many of them had already fled across Europe. Some made it to safety in another continent. Others didn’t – they left it just a little too late.

Many of those who did make it owed their survival to the work of American journalist Varian Fry, and Harry Bingham IV, the US Vice-Consul in Marseille, who provided forged visas particularly to artists at risk in Occupied France, Mary Jayne Gold , a Chicago heiress who helped to fund the operation, Albert O Hirschmann and Miriam Davenport, along with Robert Dexter , the founder of the Unitarian Service Committee.

Davenport-FryVarian-Fry-002Thanks to their collective effort, Marc Chagall (originally from what is now Belarus) and his wife Bella sailed in May 1941. Their daughter Ida and her husband left on another ship, the SS Navemar, chartered by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The refugees who managed to get to Seville found themselves taking bunks in its filthy cargo holds (unless they had the funds to pay the captain for more salubrious quarters) – many passengers contracted typhus en route, and six died.


Even on the Navemar the conditions and the dangers faced by these ‘boat people’ were very different to those encountered by today’s boat people. But some similarities remain – a number of such ships were turned away, and had to return to Europe, a terrible prospect for their passengers. In February 1942, the Turkish police cut the anchor of the SS Struma, carrying 767 Jews, and towed it into the Black Sea, where it was set adrift without a working engine. People ashore could make out a large banner that read, “Save us.” A torpedo from a Russian submarine sank the vessel six miles from shore early the next morning. There was one survivor.

Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins wrote this haunting passage about the Struma in their book Death on the Black Sea:

Standing on the polished deck of a British Royal Navy cruiser in January 1942, Olivia Manning experienced a moment of utter confusion. She and her husband, a British journalist, had joined a party of diplomats and officials for an evening’s pleasure cruise along the Bosporus and around Istanbul harbor. The city lights sparkled in the chill air, and the ship’s forward searchlight played across the night water. The guests danced and sipped martinis and gin and tonics. The festivities stopped abruptly when the searchlight paused on what appeared to be a derelict ship, illuminating rows of faces, white and unsmiling, as they stared back at the partygoers. “Who are they?” asked one of the shocked guests. “What are they doing there?” asked another. Someone suggested it was a prison ship. “The light shifted and the party forgot its grim audience hidden in the dark,” Manning, a novelist who had lived in Romania briefly before the war, later wrote in a newspaper article. “The ship was the Struma.” The images of gaunt, ghostlike men and women from the Nazi death camps were not yet stamped on the world’s consciousness: The hair-raising atrocities were proceeding largely behind closed gates at the end of 1941. In the harbor of one of the world’s largest cities, though, a place teeming with diplomats and journalists, the panorama of Jewish suffering was visible to anyone who cared or dared to look.

As grim and hazardous as the voyages were, for those who didn’t get visas (real or forged) the alternative was clear. Walter Benjamin committed suicide at Portbou in Catalonia, having heard that his application had been refused and that he would be deported back to France. He was not the only one to make such a choice, though the bitter irony is that had he not done so, or had he, like his friend Arthur Koestler, survived the attempt, the following day he could have got the papers he needed.

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Varian Fry found himself in a bizarre position. He wrote home:

‘Among the people who have come into my office, or with whom I am in constant correspondence, are not only some of the greatest living authors, painters, sculptors of Europe . . . but also former cabinet ministers and even prime ministers of half a dozen countries. What a strange place Europe is when men like this are reduced to waiting patiently in the anteroom of a young American of no importance whatever.’

This young American of no importance whatever helped Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, Thomas Mann’s brother Heinrich and son Golo, Claude Levi-Strauss, Alma Mahler, Arthur Koestler, amongst many others who were and remain significant cultural figures – and many whose names are unfamiliar, but who nevertheless got their chance to contribute in less public ways.

For Fry this contribution was far from enough. He said “In all we saved some two thousand human beings. We ought to have saved many times that number. But we did what we could.” And he continued to make impassioned pleas to the US government, to anyone who might listen, to do more, to do everything they could in the face of ‘systematic extermination’. In an article in the New Republic, entitled ‘The Massacre of the Jews in Europe’ in December 1942 he said:

There are some things so horrible that decent men and women find them impossible to believe, so monstrous that the civilized world recoils incredulous before them. The recent reports of the systematic extermination of the Jews in Nazi Europe are of this order… we can offer asylum now, without delay or red tape, to those few fortunate enough to escape from the Aryan paradise. There have been bureaucratic delays in visa procedure which have literally condemned to death many stalwart democrats… This is a challenge which we cannot, must not, ignore.

new republic

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We heard you shouting for our freedom and it gave us hope! Women from Yarl’s Wood speak


Refugee Week 2015 – Refugee Women

Originally posted on Women for Refugee Women:

Hundreds of protesters came to Yarl’s Wood on 6 June to demand justice and dignity for women who cross borders, and the closure of Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Before the protest, throughout it and afterwards Women for Refugee Women has been in touch with women who are locked up in the detention centre, and we talked to them about how they felt. We have changed the names of all current detainees in this blog.

‘We were waiting and waiting and hoping that we would hear you from the morning. Then when you walked around the back of Yarl’s Wood and we saw how many people cared we were crying and waving out the window and shouting so you could hear. It helps us to know how many people care because it often feels like we are forgotten in here. It gave us hope and raised our spirits.’ Sonia, 34, asylum seeker…

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Occasionally people seem surprised at my enthusiasm, my geeky love, for the world of Marvel on the big and small screen. I read Proust, I love enigmatic French arthouse movies where nothing happens, very stylishly, for hours on end. I have argued elsewhere that one can love Proust AND Stephen King, and I see no reason why one cannot also love Alain Resnais or Michael Hanecke’s Caché, AND Thor, or Captain America. Who would want to be limited to just one brow?

In any case, it’s an open secret that I’m a Buffy obsessive and a Whovian, so no one should really have to reach for the smelling salts when I get giddy about heading off to Cineworld to see Avengers Age of Ultron in 3D.

It seems to me that there’s a direct line from a lot of what I read during my bookworm childhood to these more recent passions.   As soon as I could make the squiggles on the page into words in my head, I read everything I could reach. I read children’s classics (Nesbit, Lewis, Tolkien, Alcott, Burnett), grown-up classics (Dickens, Malory, Bronte, Shakespeare), newer children’s writers (Garner, Sutcliffe, Garfield, Treece). And in many of these I found ways into other worlds.

Tolkien and Garner both drew on Norse and Celtic mythology, one to create his own world, the other to imbue ours with magic. Lewis led his child protagonists through mundane portals into his alternative world where they became heroes and battled with evil.   Malory, Sutcliffe and Garner gave me different takes on the ultimate British hero, the once and future King, a medieval knight or a celtic warlord, or a sleeper under Alderley Edge waiting for our hour of need to awake. And in Roger Lancelyn Green’s vivid retellings I got to know the tales of Greek heroes.

The notion that our everyday world can slip its mask and reveal another reality, darker or brighter, bigger and badder, invading and intervening as the gods of old always have done, is often terrifying, always compelling. That’s why my greatest fondness is for those narratives which start with the world we already know. Think of how a certain episode of Doctor Who has rendered statuary decidedly uncanny – the familiar become strange and scary.   Think of how Buffy subverted the teen high school movie, so that being grounded really was potentially the end of the world. Think of how Stephen King’s It showed the adult world oblivious to the terrors that the children had to face unprotected.

age of ultron

Marvel movies are bigger and noisier than the above. They’re sillier, perhaps. But they’re tapping into those old, deep stories, and reinventing, representing them in bright and shiny ways, with (particularly where Joss Whedon has a hand in the script) wit and humour. They’re not scary, but they’re exciting, exhilarating. In the Avengers ensemble movies, in one glorious superhero binge, we have elements drawn from an eclectic range of sources – from myth and legend, from Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Shelley, even an American King Arthur, woken from sleep to defend the world in its hour of need.

weirdstone cap frozen

I’m not arguing for the Marvel movies as the most profound examinations of moral questions, or of the human psyche. But neither are they devoid of interest on those planes. They are never quite as simplistic as one might expect, with all the exploding and the fighting. The very daftness of the idea of these very disparate characters coming together is part of its charm. The humour, and sometimes poignancy too, often comes from their disparity, whether it is the cynicism of Iron Man playing against the moral uprightness of Captain America, or the straightforward warrior sensibility of Thor against the conflicted, tortured Banner/Hulk.

Thor: The gates of Hel are filled with the screams of his victims!

[Natasha glares at him while Bruce groans and puts his head in his hands]

Thor: But not the screams of the dead, of course. No, no… wounded screams… mainly whimpering, a great deal of complaining and tales of sprained deltoids and… gout.

And once one has suspended one’s disbelief and accepted the premise, that humour and poignancy makes you care about the outcome, root for the good guys, not just for their victory but for their wellbeing. Their superhumanity comes from different sources – technology, programming, divinity – but there’s always humanity there too. And it’s the flawed and fragile beauty of humanity that the Avengers fight for:

Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. … A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.

Echoes of the Doctor there, I think. Amongst all of the forces that see the weakness of human beings and want to destroy, some stand with us. The Doctor said that in 900 years of space and time he’d never met anyone who wasn’t important. He tells us again and again that we are in our very ordinariness extraordinary, in our bloody-minded going where angels fear to tread, our curiosity and our moments of courage.

These stories, these new/old stories may not change the world. But stories are vital. Stories are the way we’ve always tried to make sense of the inexplicable and the unbearable, and to infuse the everyday with magical possibilities. Marvel’s gloriously epic and gloriously daft stories give us moments of startling beauty and poignancy (we are Groot), massive explosions and battles, deadpan humour and heroes we can root for. Pretty damn marvellous.

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2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 4,400 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 7 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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