Previously published on the Doctor Who Forum – contains spoilers for Series 8
Sometimes everything you read or watch seems to have a connection, a theme that’s so clear it feels as though it cannot be mere coincidence, even though it is impossible for it to be otherwise. It’s been that way lately with death. Obviously once one heads into middle age and beyond, intimations of mortality come thick and fast. But it really isn’t just that.
The theme that has been so inescapable over recent weeks is not just mortality in general. It’s the blurring of the boundaries between death and life, about attempts to make the barrier between the two permeable. I’ve just finished reading Stephen King’s Revival, about which I can say little without risking spoilers, but which, suffice it to say, explores this theme in compelling and haunting fashion. And then there was Lynn Shepherd’s latest literary thriller, The Pierced Heart, after previous works drawing on, variously, Austen, Dickens and the Shelleys, this time turning to Stoker and the Dracula mythos, subverting the genre tropes without losing the chills. So when I picked up Peter Carey’s Bliss, and read the first sentence: ‘Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him’, I was tempted to say, enough already with the whole thing.
Especially as this season of Doctor Who has had such a preoccupation with death. Death and regeneration/rebirth, death and afterlife. These themes have percolated through the episodes, with varying degrees of intensity, culminating in the series finale, whose first part saw the highly disturbing notion that the dead maintain consciousness, aware of what is happening to their mortal remains, and that the message they want to convey to us, the living, is ‘Don’t cremate me!’. Of course, this was a con, but it was unsettling, to say the least, and the thought, once planted, may prove difficult to uproot. Part two showed us mortuaries and graveyards giving up their dead, now encased in cyberman armour and awaiting orders to destroy and/or assimilate the living.
Not only this, but the finale presented us with the deaths of Danny, Osgood and Kate, to name only those who have had the chance to embed themselves in the consciousness and affections of regular watchers of the show. (The body count in previous episodes has been high too, whether significantly higher than in previous series I will leave to other Whovians to assess.)
However for some, death proved to be less than permanent. Danny Pink reappeared as a semi-cyberman, retaining enough of his humanity to resist the orders of Missy and lead his cyber army to suicide rather than to victory. Is he now gone, for good? Kate fell to earth but her dead father saved her. Osgood appears, as far as we know now, to be simply dead.
Sci fi and fantasy take liberties with the boundaries between life and death, on a regular basis. In The Walking Dead all who die, unless despatched in a particular way, will reawaken as zombies (walkers). The living are engaged in a constant battle against the dead. French series The Returned gives us more mysterious revenants, seemingly unchanged from their living selves, and seemingly not out to harm the living (though we will see, in series 2, whether that is really the case).
In the context of Who, however, I’d suggest it’s more relevant to look at the way in which the Buffyverse handles death. Doctor Who Forum contributor JimTheFish has already noted the nods to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the finale: ‘And again with the Buffy maybe? Plucky lone girl surrounded by gravestones as creatures rise from the grave. Not to mention tear-jerking goodbyes with her now-undead boyfriend.’
Clara rages about Danny’s death, that it should have been significant and instead it was mundane, ‘boring’:
It was ordinary. People just kept walking with their iPods and their shopping bags. He was alive, then he was dead and it was nothing. Like stepping off a bus’
This had echoes too, of the death of Buffy’s mother – a prosaic tragedy without supernatural cause and, particularly, of Anya’s speech about it:
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)
Osgood’s death, and Kate’s, whilst not mundane in terms of cause, are almost casual in presentation. No time for heroics, or farewell speeches. Joss Whedon killed Anya almost casually – she dies fighting the uber vampires, but blink and you’ll miss it, it’s not highlighted or dramatised. Death’s like that. Arbitrary, stupid, pointless.
Except that there’s another strand, of death as chosen, heroic, self-sacrificial. In Death in Heaven, Danny gets a crack at a less boring exit. He’s given the chance to choose death second time around (and to make a speech about it).
Attention! This is not a good day. This is Earth’s darkest hour. And look at you miserable lot. We are the fallen. But today, we shall rise. The army of the dead will save the land of the living. This is not the order of a general. Nor the whim of a lunatic…. This is a promise. The promise of a soldier. You will sleep safe tonight.
The speech may appear to be aimed at his cyber-comrades but clearly its real audience is Missy, the Doctor and above all Clara. It’s – perhaps deliberately – classic eve of battle rhetoric – think Idris Elba cancelling the apocalypse in Pacific Rim, or Leonidas sending his Spartans into battle.
We await the Christmas special to find out Danny will have a third go at some sort of life. I kind of hope not. Not that I begrudge Clara a chance to make a better job of loving him than she did first time around, or Danny himself a chance to redeem his past through living rather than dying. But where death is chosen, self-sacrificial, does its reversal squander the emotional weight of the sacrifice? Not necessarily – Buffy’s return in Season 6 was shown as something itself painful and traumatic, rather than just the cancellation of the pain and trauma of her death in the finale of Season 5. It can work, but Buffy, after all, whilst mortal, is kind of a super-hero, and they play by different rules. Danny, as far as we know, is just a bloke.
Kate’s rescue seems to me to make Osgood’s less likely. Along with so many viewers, I really wanted Osgood not to die, and there was much shouting at the screen when we realised what was afoot. But I’m not sure that I want another death to be overturned,
There are a number of issues here. The first is common to all long-running TV dramas – how to keep real suspense and tension when the audience knows that certain characters cannot be killed off. When the Enterprise crew beams down onto a hostile planet, we know full well that it is the red shirts that will be zapped or otherwise despatched into oblivion, not the captain or any of his core crew. Occasionally that confidence is misplaced. But mostly, if one of the core characters appears to be dead, we are pretty sure that some plot device is in motion to bring them back (see Spock, Tasha Yar, Buffy, Loki, the Master/Missy…). And of course the sci-fi/fantasy context means that a way can always be found, retro-engineered if need be into the cosmology of the show, to get around the problem of losing a character that is felt to be essential to its long-term success.
Not that the absence of timey-wimey or supernatural mechanisms prevents soap operas from playing fast and loose with death. News just in – Madge and Harold Bishop are back! Both of them have been previously killed off, but the writers are undeterred, it’s Neighbours 30th anniversary, and it wouldn’t be the same without them. And unless one has personally checked the corpse for vital signs and got a DNA match it would be unwise to believe in the demise of anyone on Hollyoaks. It might seem odd to claim a greater degree of realism for a programme whose protagonist is a two-hearted time travelling alien than for the soaps. But far happier to suspend my disbelief with regard to Who, Buffy and other dramas which play havoc with the laws of physics but at their best offer us emotional truths.
Doctor Who has the particular challenge of its status as a family/children’s programme. It’s never been just a kids’ show and certainly with each regeneration it has retained the children who first watched it into their adulthood and parenthood whilst gathering in their children, and so on. It is still a show that the generations watch together, but the adults are there not just to comfort and reassure their frightened offspring but to enjoy it for themselves. But the presence of the children is a constraint which Buffy did not have to work within. That’s why the deaths, when they occur, are off-screen, or else clean – people are vapourised rather than eviscerated. We rightly shield younger viewers from the kind of gore that The Walking Dead so delights in. We can’t and shouldn’t however skate around the issue of death.
Of course children’s stories have always brought us face to face with death. My own and earlier generations wept for Bambi’s mother, as my children’s generation did for Simba’s father. In fact, the child heroes of many of the classics had misplaced one or both parents, even if the manner of their loss was not dwelt upon. The generations contemporary with Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Lucy M Montgomery and their ilk were familiar with death, after all, with child mortality and perinatal maternal mortality at levels unimaginable to us today, at least here in the First World. Stories give us ways of understanding, of dealing with, the stuff that happens to us, and the best ones don’t just sugar the pill, cosying everything up, with rainbow bridges and happy ever afters, but acknowledge mortality in all its cruelty, that it takes whoever it wishes, pets, parents, friends.
I have no problem therefore with death – real, permanent, boring, pointless death – being part of the drama of Who, nor yet with the freedom that sci-fi/fantasy allows to take some of the sting of death away. But for the reversals to have any dramatic or emotional weight, we need there to be the possibility that this time it’s for keeps, that the danger is real, that we may lose someone we care for and that others we care for may be plunged into terrible grief.
We will not know until the Christmas special – if then – whether Danny Pink will return. We’ve been given the nod that things can’t be left as they were at the end of Death in Heaven. Quite right – that was bleak. Too bleak for the kids, too bleak for me. But I hope that there will be a different way of making things better, so that we can leave the Doctor and Clara in a more hopeful place, without simply erasing the loss and hurt that they’ve been through.
After all, what have we learned this series? OK, that there’s no such thing as an arboreal coincidence, which may or may not ever be a particularly handy bit of info. More importantly, we’ve learned that ‘stories can make us fly’. And we’ve learned about our ordinary human superpowers, not just the power to forget, but the most important one, fear. And all of the things that we fear come back to this – our own extinction, or the extinction of the people we love.
Fear is a superpower. Fear can make you faster and cleverer and stronger. … if you’re very wise and very strong fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly. Fear can make you kind. It doesn’t matter if there’s nothing under the bed or in the dark so long as you know it’s okay to be afraid of it. So listen. If you listen to anything else, listen to this. You’re always gonna be afraid even if you learn to hide it. Fear is like a companion, a constant companion, always there. But that’s okay because fear can bring us together. Fear can bring you home. I’m gonna leave you something just so you’ll always remember. Fear makes companions of us all.
Peter Carey – Bliss (Faber & Faber, 1981)
Stephen King – Revival (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014)
Lynn Shepherd – The Pierced Heart (NY: Delacorte Press, 2014)
We go back a fair few years, Charlie and me. Pretty much instant, the connection, the attraction too. We had things in common – places (I lived near Nottingham as a teenager, so my Nottingham wasn’t his – it was the Playhouse, Goose Fair, the City Ground, and the shops), music (listening to Miles as I write this), cats (ours was called Mingus. RIP), football (I was on the Trent End, still loyal to the Reds to this day, glory days long past, whilst he’s a County man).
Never very lucky in love, our Charlie. But attractive to women, no question. That crumpled, rumpled melancholy hard to resist – had we met in person, I’d have spectacularly failed to do so – but making it work in the long term, a lot tougher. He nearly found that, so very nearly, and it broke my heart when… but I won’t say, in case you don’t know, and if you don’t, you need to go back, as I’ve just done, to Lonely Hearts, and make his acquaintance for yourself, and follow him through the years, through to Darkness, Darkness.
I won’t say much about Darkness, Darkness, except that, as so many reviewers have already said, it’s a fitting coda to the series. It focuses on the miners’ strike – an event which still reverberates in Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire, so that Nottingham football supporters still get called scabs by Yorkshire football supporters, though in both cases their parents were toddlers, if that, at the time of the strike – but it encompasses so much more. It’s an elegy really, a blues for Charlie.
So many of the cops whose investigations we follow on screen or on the page seem to be constructed according to a formula. A bit of (preferably traumatic) back story, a few quirks (an addiction, past or current, an obsession), and a tendency to go off piste, to break the rules. That can work – Rachel Bailey comes storming off the screen and the page (in Cath Staincliffe’s excellent novels) and into real life, so that when she (inevitably) does something monumentally daft, we, along with her long-suffering colleagues and friends, want to yell at her, shake her into common sense. The best ones, the ones we re-read even when we remember exactly who dunnit, where, why and how, turn that formula into someone we can invest in, not just in their ability to put the bad guy behind bars, but in their humanity, their vulnerability, their emotional life. And Charlie is one of the best, no question. Of course he has a back story (a broken marriage, nothing out of the ordinary), and a few quirks (his tendency to wear his most recent meal on his shirt front or his tie, for example). But he’s a rounded (and that’s not a crack about his waistline), nuanced, complicated character,
And so many of the narratives of crime and punishment that we consume rely on convoluted plots – plots not just in the sense of the narrative arc, but machinations, devilishly clever serial killers, hidden identities, etc. All very enjoyable, but bearing, one imagines, little relation to the day to day of policing. We suspend our disbelief, accept for the duration that in the picture postcard villages of Midsomer a deranged serial killer lurks behind every cottage doorway, or that the academics of Oxford are busier plotting their next murder than preparing their next research bid. The volume and the type of crime here is a tad more realistic, Charlie’s cases are more likely to involve cock-ups than conspiracies, individuals with chaotic lives committing chaotic crimes, often with consequences they could never have imagined. It’s not that there aren’t any serial killers, or any conspiracies, but they are interwoven with the mundanity, the banality, of ‘normal’ urban crime.
The other trope that those of us who watch the detectives can get a bit weary of, or even sickened by, is the reliance on sexual violence as a plot device. Again, this does feature in Charlie’s caseload over the years, as you’d expect. But there’s nothing sexy, nothing titillating here. The reality of rape and the fear of rape, the murky areas of human sexuality, the casual violence of language used towards women, are all shown clear-sightedly and compassionately, through Charlie’s eyes. It’s not that he’s so very PC. But his attractiveness to women isn’t just about his crumpled melancholy, it’s about his instinctive respect, his empathy. Even when he’s getting it wrong (as he does, often), fundamentally he’s a good man, someone you could lean on, trust. Those murky areas, and how fiction deals with them, are not just sub-text either – in both Living Proof and Still Water we confront them head on.
There’s so much humanity in these stories. And there’s music of course, flowing through them. There’s Millington’s regular assaults on the Petula Clark songbook, the bands at the Polish Club where Charlie dances with Marian, or the Otis Redding track that was playing when he met Elaine… But it’s the jazz that’s vital. It’s integral, it’s the atmosphere, those blue notes echoing Charlie’s melancholy, bringing out the noir on Nottingham’s mean streets. It’s the soundtrack to what we see of his life, to the daily grappling with petty crime, dysfunctional families, and the viciousness and brutality of which human beings are capable, and with the politics of policing, the admin, the power play. He goes home, and he finds a record, a track, that echoes his mood and as the music is described we can almost believe we’re hearing it too, the descriptions so vivid, so perceptive.
And so it seemed fitting, as I re-read the books, focusing less on the plot and more on the atmosphere, the background, the soundtrack, to put together a little playlist. One song for each novel. I hope Charlie would approve.
‘He’ll be okay. He’s got a flat white and yet another version of ‘Blue Monk’ to keep him warm’ (Darkness, Darkness, p. 416).
I’ll not worry about him then, and lord knows I have done sometimes, wondering if the sadness and the loneliness in him would take him over. But he’ll be okay. Cheers Charlie.
A Resnick playlist
Lonely Hearts (1989) Billie Holiday – (I don’t stand a) Ghost of a Chance (with you) (Music for Torching, 1955)
Rough Treatment (1990) Red Rodney Quintet – Shaw ‘Nuff (Red Rodney Returns, 1959)
Cutting Edge (1991) Art Pepper – Straight Life (Straight Life, 1979)
Off Minor (1992) Thelonious Monk – Off Minor (Monk’s Music, 1957)
Wasted Years (1993) Thelonious Monk – Evidence (Thelonious Monk at the Blackhawk, 1960)
Cold Light (1994) Duke Ellington Orchestra – Cottontail (The Carnegie Hall Concerts, 1943)
Living Proof (1995) Stan Tracey Duo – Some Other Blues (Live at the QEH, 1994)
Easy Meat (1996) Billie Holiday – Body and Soul (Body and Soul, 1957)
Still Water (1997) Miles Davis – Bag’s Groove (Bag’s Groove, 1957)
Last Rites (1998) Sandy Brown – In the Evening (In the Evening, 1970)
Cold in Hand (2008) Bessie Smith – Cold in Hand Blues (1925, The Bessie Smith Story, Vol. 3, 1951)
Darkness Darkness (2014) Thelonious Monk – Blue Monk (Thelonious Monk Trio, 1954)
The truly great women of history are not celebrated as they should be. Look at the furore when a number of women campaigned to get one – one! – of our bank notes to commemorate Jane Austen, a writer universally acknowledged (pretty much) to be one of the giants of English literature. Whilst statues and street names grant immortality to men whose deeds have been pretty much forgotten and would hardly be celebrated today – ‘heroes’ of war and empire for the most part – very few women make the grade.
Josephine Butler certainly has been consigned to the shadows for far too long. She was once described as ‘the most distinguished Englishwoman of the nineteenth century’ (by Millicent Fawcett). There have been a number of books about her, and the Church of England commemorates her, appropriately enough, in prayer on a dedicated day in the church calendar. The University of Durham has named a College after her, and there’s a Josephine Butler Primary Campus also in Northumberland, her birthplace. But still, we should know more, we should celebrate this truly remarkable woman.
As her latest biographer, Helen Mathers, says, ‘her achievements had lasting impact. Her name deserves to be remembered by all who value women’s struggles to improve their lives’. Helen’s book both justifies that claim, and explains why she is so much less well-known than her contemporary, Florence Nightingale, for example.
Because Josephine Butler, whilst epitomising many of the virtues expected of Victorian womanhood (piety, purity, motherhood and devotion to her husband), also broke all the rules. She went into places where respectable women should never venture, precisely because that was where she found the women she spent her life defending and supporting. Not only that but she spoke in public about their plight, about the abuses of the system which forced internal examinations – ‘steel rape’ – on suspected prostitutes in order to protect their male clients from disease, and the inequalities which trapped so many women in situations where prostitution might seem their only option. A contemporary journalist described her as ‘an indecent maenad, a shrieking sister, frenzied, unsexed, and utterly without shame’. She minded that, terribly.
Josephine was driven by her convictions to go on, despite the cost to her family, to her health, to her reputation, because she believed utterly in her crusade. She saw not only the immediate injustices but the underlying systemic ones that allowed these abuses to continue – the separate spheres for men and women which kept so many women ignorant and denied them a voice, the lack of educational opportunities, of voting rights, of rights for married women. And she was part of all of those campaigns – all of the movements which laid the foundations for the legislative and cultural changes which swept through the twentieth century.
But her support for the most despised of women was at the heart of her life’s work. She ‘made no distinction between “respectable” and “fallen” women’, identifying with those whose bodies were subject to abuse by men, the men who had forced them on to the streets in the first place and/or abused them whilst they were there, and the doctors who enforced surgical treatments to control them.
Helen Mathers vividly describes how Josephine’s own desolate sense of loss after the death of one of her children drove her to ‘find some pain keener than my own’. She wasn’t some pious do-gooder, despising the very people she set out to help – from the start she risked her reputation, her dignity, her health and her personal safety by going into the workhouse, sitting on the floor of the oakum shed with the women and girls who worked there (prisoners, or workhouse inmates) and talking to them, alone with them.
Her faith was integral to her campaign, and her marriage was essential to it. In many ways, George Butler was as remarkable as Josephine. He must have been dismayed, surely, by her campaigning, by the effects of her work on their sons, by the cost to her health, and the damage to his own career of having such a notorious wife. But he stood by her, supported her unshakably and she could not have done what she did without him.
If she were with us now, what would she be doing? She would be in Rotherham, and Rochdale, where vulnerable young girls have been abused on an unthinkable scale and ‘the authorities’ have turned blind eyes. She would be working with refugee organisations to help protect young women who arrive here after terrible trauma and find themselves destitute, or threatened with removal to the country where they were subjected to violence. She would be campaigning against trafficking and sex tourism. Wherever the struggle is, she would be there.
I wondered what Josephine herself might have wished for as a memorial to her achievements. A University College would certainly please her, and a day of Anglican prayer. She would be happy that the Josephine Butler Society continues to campaign on the issues closest to her heart. Would she want to be commemorated on a bank-note? Would she want a statue? Perhaps not, who knows. But for us, who have inherited the world that she fought for, but who see around us daily the evidence that her victories were not absolute, and that the fight must continue, it would be good to see reminders of her in Liverpool, perhaps, where her work really began. And if that prompted people to ask, who was Josephine Butler, and what did she do, then this book will provide the answers.
It’s a profoundly moving story, astonishing and inspiring. We can despair that the evils Josephine Butler poured all of her energies into fighting are still with us, or we can hope that there are and always will be people who will take up those battles on behalf of the most vulnerable, the excluded, the despised. As a humanist, I believe passionately that this is so, that knowing that this life is all we have makes what we do with it matter more, not less, that it can make us kinder, and braver. Josephine Butler was no humanist, believing that both the struggle and her strength to pursue it came from God, and in her honour I will, just this once, conclude with a prayer:
God of compassion and love,
by whose grace your servant Josephine Butler
followed in the way of your Son
in caring for those in need:
help us like her to work with strength
for the restoration of all to the dignity
and freedom of those created in your image;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Patron Saint of Prostitutes: Josephine Butler and a Victorian Scandal by Helen Mathers was published by The History Press on 11 August, 2014. ISBN: 9780752492094 It is currently available from all UK booksellers and will be published in the USA in November.
A Kindle edition is available from Amazon. Order a Kindle edition
Signed copies are available from the author at:
£11.50 + postage. Email email@example.com.
As I get older, I haven’t moved to the right, politically, not a millimetre. I haven’t reneged on the feminism that I embraced in my early twenties, or the anti-racism that I learned from my parents as a young child. I’m as idealistic as I ever was, despite all that I know, have seen, have learned in over half a century. But I’m less likely than ever to subscribe to any hard-line view on anything. I don’t reject all -isms – I have no hesitation in declaring myself as a feminist and as a humanist, but both (to me) are pretty broad churches (if you’ll pardon the expression).
One reason for this is empathy. I suspect that the more empathetic one is, the harder it is to sign up wholeheartedly to any ideology, because sooner or later one finds oneself looking into the eyes of another human being, signed up just as wholeheartedly to a different ideology, but yet with whom one feels affinity.
That isn’t to say that all values are relative and that ‘everyone’s entitled to their own opinion’ or any such vacuous non-thought. Just that all moral and political questions, every issue that rears its head and demands that one take a view and take a stand, must be viewed through that lens, the one that allows you to feel what the people on the other side might be feeling. You might not shift an inch, you might be confirmed in your own convictions but they will be tempered and informed by that insight.
In Caitlin Moran’s marvellous and deliriously rude novel How to Build a Girl, her protagonist says:’Perhaps I haven’t yet learned the simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.’
Just be kind.
I know, I know. Far too simple. But as a starting point, as a touchstone, it’s actually pretty radical.
Everything I’ve learned in my working life has suggested to me that departments, organisations of whatever kind, run better for a bit of kindness. A recognition that all of us, whether we’re the cleaner or the VC, are breakable, and that for all of us the world is difficult. That if people aren’t achieving what we expect them to, a bit of kindness, a bit of empathy, may unlock the reasons and enable us to see a way to help them. It’s not always going to work, and sometimes what the person needs and what the organisation needs is not reconcilable. But I absolutely believe – and this is based on thirty years experience of managing people, fifteen years of dealing with harassment cases, and nearly forty of being managed myself – that we have nothing to lose by being kind.
I’ve seen, and have been on the receiving end of, styles of management that pride themselves on being tough, that hide behind procedures rather than engage with people, that imagine that tacking the mantra ‘we recognise that this is a difficult time for you and that you may wish to ring this helpline…’ on to a message is sufficient to fulfil a duty of care. And I know how counter-productive these approaches are. They destroy trust, they batter confidence, they damage health.
Beyond the world of work, I see the viciousness of some of the current internecine struggles within the feminist movement, and I despair, because so much energy seems to be being expended on being unkind, on attributing the worst motives to the other side, and – or so it seems to me, from the sidelines – doing anything other than look into the eyes of another human being and recognising that they, like you, are breakable, and just being kind.
Of course I’m not daft enough to imagine that this approach will end the horror in Gaza, or in Iraq. It’s too late for kindness alone. But in the worst places, the most appalling situations, in the face of real evil, kindness can still do something powerful. In occupied France, the citizens of Le Chambon sur Lignon took it upon themselves, inspired by their pastor Andre Trocmé, to provide a hiding place for refugees, most of them Jews.
There does not seem to have been any coordinated discussion of whether or how they would do this. It seems to have developed organically – as people arrived, initially more or less at random, and then increasingly as word spread that this was a place where they might be safe, the community found space for them, worked out systems for alerting everyone to impending raids, trained up forgers and guides to prepare false IDs and to escort people over the border to Switzerland. Around 3,500 people were saved. A drop in the ocean, obviously, but there were others – in Nieuwlande in the Netherlands, the inhabitants resolved that every household would hide one Jewish family or at least one Jew.
Even where the rescue of Jews was supported by governments and/or organised resistance movements, or inspired by an influential and charismatic leader within a community, it was hugely dependent on individual acts of kindness, on individuals choosing to help people rather than to obey orders or save their own skins. When there was no such structured support, individual acts of kindness were all that kept many people alive. Ronald Rosbottom’s recent account of occupied Paris says – rightly – that there is no record of individual police officers protesting or refusing to cooperate with the Vichy government’s plans to arrest and deport Jews. However, given that the police had detailed records, knew where all the Jews were, and had planned the raid meticulously, how is it that the total arrested and deported was so far below target? How is it that resistance groups were able to circulate flyers around the city warning of the impending raid? That can only have been because individual police officers decided to do what they could, discreetly, and pass on what they knew, and even as the round-up progressed, to create opportunities for people to hide or escape. What made them take this risk? Their actions don’t amount to much in the scheme of things, when compared with other acts of heroism, they’re compromised and limited in their effects, but it seems to me that they are examples of people trying, in an impossible situation, to be kind, In Yolande Mukagasana’s compelling account of surviving the Rwandan genocide, it’s striking how some people that she might have expected would help her turned her away, and others, who had no particular reason to help, did what they could, from choosing not to see or recognise her, choosing not to alert the interahamwe, to hiding and feeding her, whilst the killing went on all around them.
What made the difference? I find myself far more interested in what makes people do the right thing, what prompts those acts of generosity and kindness in situations where such things are dangerous, rather than what makes people do evil. We know that hatred is infectious, that it can be taught, that when it is fed insidiously into the language and images that we absorb without even realising, it can begin to seem normal. But generosity and kindness can be taught too, and can be just as catching.
Just as the people who go along with evil are not monsters, those who won’t aren’t saints. Some of them have religious faith, others don’t. Some have strong political beliefs, others don’t. Whilst those things may provide motivation, and may provide a rationale for doing the decent thing, I don’t think that’s a sufficient explanation, as this behaviour crosses all such divides, just as evil does. They may have a more strongly developed sense of fairness, that instinct that makes one feel ‘that is not right’. They may be more empathetic and find it impossible not to feel what it would be like to be hunted, threatened, vilified. But these are not purely innate qualities – we start off identifying unfairness when it is unfair to us, and as we mature we learn to extrapolate that to others, if we’re encouraged to do so. And empathy can be nourished, if it’s seen as something valuable, something powerful.
We need to nurture those qualities. We need people who give a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn, who care about other people because they are people, whichever side they’re on. And we need idealism, because that opens us up to the possibilities of hope, and joy, and people being the best they can be. To go back to Caitlin Moran, ‘when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. … Cynicism is, ultimately, fear. Cynicism makes contact with your skin, and a thick black carapace begins to grow – like insect armour. This armour will protect your heart, from disappointment – but it leaves you almost unable to walk. You cannot dance, in this armour.’ And you can’t love either.
When we empathise, we can’t be deliberately cruel, because it hurts us to hurt someone else. That may not in itself be morality, but it teaches us morality. We know that harsh words cause other people pain because we feel that pain. We may cause pain in anger, but we regret it, it haunts us if we have done so. That doesn’t mean we’re always nice, that doesn’t mean we can’t have hard conversations with people, and tell them things that we know will hurt them, but the way we do that will be informed by our understanding of what it will feel like to be them, hearing this.
I’ve quoted this before, from Joss Whedon’s Angel:
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
So it’s not daft, soft, or naive. It’s vital, it’s difficult and it can be dangerous.
Just be kind.
Peter Grose – The Greatest Escape: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives from the Nazis (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2014)
Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl (Harper, 2014)
Yolande Mukagasana – N’aie pas peur de savoir (Robert Laffont, 1999)
Ronald Rosbottom – When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation (Little, Brown & Co, 2014)
Once a year, for the last four years, my city has been taken over by music. In the parks, the pubs, the squares, the cafes, the galleries, even the Cathedral, bands known and unknown have played, and Sheffield people – and visitors from further afield – have listened, cheered, and danced.
I love this city anyway, for its hills, its green places, the way in which it manages to be not just a metropolis but a collection of villages grouped around a vibrant cultural centre. Fill it with music and I am besotted.
It used to be free, and it couldn’t stay that way, sadly. But lots of it still is, and I paid £15 for the privilege of seeing 18 bands last weekend, constrained only by my own stamina, the necessity of spending a little time on boring necessities such as shopping and laundry, and the logistics of getting from one venue to another to see everyone I might have wanted to see.
The sunshine helped of course, and the mood, wherever we went, seemed to be as sunny as the weather. The police reported – well, nothing really. There were grumbles from people who’d bought tickets and didn’t get in to see the big names on Devonshire Green – but if you buy a Glasto ticket (at a somewhat greater cost), does that guarantee you’ll see the headliners? I don’t think so. And there were some late timetable changes which inevitably meant disappointments too. But it was a blast, and a thoroughly joyous weekend.
And the best of it? Unquestionably Malian band Songhoy Blues, playing in the Millennium Gallery on Saturday night. I’d resisted the calls from most bands I’d seen to tell them if I was having a good time, or if I was ready, or to clap along. But when Aliou Toure asked us all ‘You like?’, we told him in no uncertain terms that yes, we did, we liked.
West African music moves me so deeply partly because of my childhood in Ghana, and later in Nigeria. As a small child living near the University campus in Kumasi, we heard the highlife music drifting over from the student residences, a hypnotic blend of Latin sounds and indigenous Ghanaian rhythms. And in Northern Nigeria at the end of Ramadan I watched Tuareg horsemen in blue robes and headdresses charging down the main drag, magnificent and unforgettable.
Over the years I’ve listened to music from all over that continent – many years back I saw the Bhundhu Boys from Zimbabwe and S E Rogie from Sierra Leone live at the Leadmill, and the CD collection (and my iPod running selection) includes King Sunny Ade, Youssou n’Dour, Baaba Maal, Salif Keita, Habib Koite, Tinariwen, Ali Farka Toure and others.
More than any other African music, I come back to the sounds of Mali. Partly it’s because I love the blues, and in Malian music you hear that, the source of the blues, its DNA (as Martin Scorsese put it). There’s immense variety in the music of Mali, the soul of Salif Keita, desert blues from Tinariwen, hints of flamenco in Habib Koite or Toumani Diabete – rich in influences from and on other musical traditions, but always clearly Mali.
This sublime musical culture has been threatened in recent years but on the evidence of last weekend it is strong, gorgeous, joyous. Songhoy Blues made me dance, made me smile like an idiot, made me cry a little, when Aliou Toure spoke about his country, his continent, and what the music stood for – peace, love, unity.
My Tramlines 2014 was:
Friday 25 July – Shy Nature (Sheffield Cathedral), Allusondrugs (Millennium Gallery), The Wedding Present (Leadmill)
Saturday 26 July – Nordic Giants (City Hall), John T Angle & the Spirit Levels, Laurel Canyons (Cathedral), The Indecision, KOG (Peace Gardens), Juffage, Songhoy Blues (Millennium Gallery)
Sunday 27 July – Max Restraino, Kane’d, Dresden Saints, Broken Saints (Western Park), Woman’s Hour (Cathedral), Blossomer, Neil McSweeney, TOY (Leadmill)
To all of the musicians, and to everyone who made it happen,
I’ve written quite a bit about football over the couple of years that I’ve been blogging. But I’ve said next to nothing about what happens on the pitch. I’ve talked about what happened on the terraces one day in April 1989, and the quarter-century aftermath. I’ve talked about the various nations competing in the World Cup and their history and politics in terms of the displaced people across the globe. But the game itself?
I can talk about music, though I’m not a musician, I can talk about art though I’m no artist. But I can’t talk about football, the playing of the game, without it sounding second-hand, words and phrases borrowed from the pundits on the telly or the pundits in my own life.
Nonetheless it’s played an important part in my life, still does. I barely knew the game existed until the early 70s, when the family moved to Nottinghamshire, and my brothers determined that our loyalties would henceforth belong to Nottingham Forest. And I went along on a Saturday, wearing the scarf that I knitted myself (the only piece of knitting I ever finished, at one time embroidered with the names of the players) at least until the final whistle blew and we hid our scarves away and legged it to the bus station. I stood on the Trent End, being pushed one way and another, pressed up against the barriers till it hurt, sometimes. I went along to watch them train in between home games, to watch the reserves play, to get their autographs. I loved the atmosphere, until the violence – always simmering – seemed to come every week to the boil, and I was too afraid and too sick to love it any more.
Reading Danny Rhodes’ Fan brought it all back. He writes about following Forest, and I recognise everything he describes. But at the same time my experience of being a football fan was so different – being a girl, a swotty, geeky girl at that, I could never have been part of the beery sweary scrappy bloke culture.
I never lived for it, but I loved it. Time was I knew all the names, the numbers, the fixtures, the results. Time was I could recognise every player on the cards my brothers collected (the Panini stickers of their day) – and I was tested on this regularly and rigorously. I lost that over the years, lost touch with the minutiae of the team and the game, but never stopped checking the results, and feeling a glimmer of excitement if we were doing well in a Cup or league, or – at least as often – frustration and gloom if we weren’t.
Looking back, I’d thought that ‘my’ Forest era was the glory years of Clough, European cups and league triumphs. But in fact, the years when I was going most Saturdays, when I was the most engaged and invested, were before that. In fact, I supported Forest under three managers before Clough & Taylor arrived (Gillies, Mackay and Brown), and saw them relegated in ’72 to the then 2nd division.
Clough came in ’75, the year I went up to University in Sheffield, and my match attendance plummeted. But I still went, when I could, and saw two League Cup finals (victory over Southampton, defeat to Wolves), and a European cup tie against Grasshoppers Zurich. And I saw the players who Clough inspired to greatness, many of whom I’d been watching in the reserves before Clough saw what they could be capable of and gave them the chance to achieve it. It’s been a pretty bumpy ride since then, and most seasons I apologise to my son for making him a Forest fan – I may have seen some dire, desperate games and some crushing defeats, but I also saw the team when they were the best.
So I can reminisce, but I can’t pontificate about the game. I know genius when I see it – old clips of Best, new clips of Messi, and my memories of seeing John Robertson, short stocky guy, invisible on the left wing until he suddenly took off and scored before the opposition had even registered his presence. Clough said ‘give him a ball and a yard of grass, and he was an artist’, but also that he was (or had initially appeared to be), an ‘unfit, uninterested waste of time’, perhaps the supreme example of Clough’s own genius.
But the offside rule is something I understand only fleetingly and I never spot an offside before it’s called. And I can’t analyse – I’m always kind of surprised and pleased when my general impressions of possession and dominance are confirmed by the ‘experts’ and the on-screen stats. Instead I get caught up with the ebb and flow, the swell of the crowd’s noise and the dying away when the moment is lost, the grace and athleticism, the exhilaration and despair. I can share in that, and I’ve wept over results before now, most recently when Ghana were knocked out of the last World Cup thanks to a certain Uruguayan’s blatant hand-ball.
But when the City Ground crowd invites me to join in and assert that I hate Derby, or Leicester, or anyone else, I can’t do it. I don’t recall racist chanting on the terraces at Forest – and I do recall leaflets on the seats at a reserve game vigorously opposing the National Front and their calls for Viv Anderson to go back where he came from (as Clough pointed out, that would be Clifton, about 15 mins drive from the City Ground) – but I know that black footballers in Britain were subjected to vile abuse, and that this still happens in many European countries. I know that there are aspects of the game that are profoundly ugly.
I saw that in the violence that became endemic in the game – people who turned up for the fight, not for the football, driving other spectators away, and creating the vicious circle of aggressive policing, media contempt and political rhetoric that led us inexorably to Hillsborough. I know that the tribal loyalties that make following a football team so emotional can be dangerous, and are dangerous when they’re linked to other loyalties – religious, ethnic, political. And there’s a dispiriting cynicism in the way the game is played (nothing new, whenever I see the perpetrator of a blatant foul turning to the ref with an expression of affronted innocence, I think of Leeds’ Allan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke).
Yet, despite all that, there’s something wonderful about it all. The experience of being at a match (Premier league, championship or Sunday junior league) is unlike anything else I do. If I’m at a gig, probably the closest thing, where one is caught up in the collective experience, responding emotionally and vocally to what’s happening on stage, still, I know that it’s not going to end with the band I’ve come to see being humiliated and defeated. Every football match presents that possibility.
And all of the above is why Hillsborough is seared into my soul. I wasn’t there. But I stood in my kitchen, just across the valley, watching Grandstand, trying to figure out what was happening. And later, watching as the death toll crept higher and higher. And then hearing the way the narrative twisted – so soon – into the familiar territory of blame. I wasn’t there but it haunted me, and still does. Because it sums up what British football had become – the adversarial policing, the pens that crushed the life out of so many, and the contempt for the fans that allowed the lies to be believed, in the face of all the evidence, for so long.
I do feel some nostalgia for the days when I stood on the Trent End. It is so much safer now, so much tamer. And I’m glad of that, even whilst I feel the loss of the visceral excitement that was part of the experience then. Because that’s forever associated with the reasons I stopped going to matches. And, overwhelmingly, with 96 football supporters who never got home after the match, and the families who’ve had to fight for 25 years for the truth of what happened .
Can we find a middle ground? Can football be family friendly, safe, without being bloodless and corporate? The contradictions will always be there, I think. And I will always have this ambivalent relationship with the beautiful game but will be – can’t help it, couldn’t change it if I wanted to – Forest till I die …
Danny Rhodes, Fan, Arcadia Books, 2014
As this year’s Refugee Week draws to a close, I’m reflecting on what effect the experience of displacement has on the children who have been the focus of this year’s event, children who have lost so much that is familiar and reassuring in their lives, had to face hunger, physical danger, separation from family. The photos of children in refugee camps, smiling for the camera, like children anywhere, should not lull us into believing they are and will be fine. They are safe, for now at least, they will be fed, and have access to medical attention, maybe even some chances to learn.
But what about their future?
Children are resilient, they’re tougher than you’d think, as all parents remind themselves on a regular basis. But how do those early experiences, that exposure to death and danger and horror, affect them as they grow?
We can draw upon the stories of an earlier generation of children whose parents entrusted them to strangers, to be transported across Europe and to be taken into the homes of other strangers, to be kept safe, in the hope of a reunion that for many was never to happen. We know of the confusion that many of them felt, about their past, their identity (not all Jewish children were fostered in Jewish homes); and of the trauma of separation from parents and family, and in so many cases, of the discovery post-war that parents and family had been swallowed up in the barbarity and were lost to them for ever.
Some of the children wrote and talked about their experiences, e.g. Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses (1964) fictionalised her experience growing up in five different English households, from the wealthy Orthodox Jewish Levines to the working-class Hoopers. There are a number of collections of memoirs, e.g. Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2008, Bloomsbury/St Martins, New York & London) (edited by the daughter of a Kindertransport child). A collection of personal accounts can be found at the website at www.quaker.org.uk/kinder.
The artist Gustav Metzger’s work responded directly to the experience that would have been his, had he not escaped in 1939 – in 1961 when he was on trial for civil disobedience, he made an unusually personal statement:
I came to this country from Germany when 12 years old, my parents being Polish Jews, and I am grateful to the government for bringing me over. My parents disappeared in 1943 and I would have shared their fate. But the situation is now far more barbaric than Buchenwald, for there can be absolute obliteration at any moment. I have no other choice than to assert my right to live, and we have chosen, in this committee, a method of fighting which is the opposite of war – the principle of total non-violence.
Alison Jones’ introduction to his auto-destructive art, and particularly his Historic Photograph series, makes the link very clearly:
In 1961 on the South Bank in London he painted hydrochloric acid onto nylon canvasses wearing a gas mask and protective clothing, so that eventually the canvas disintegrated South Bank Demonstration. The demonstration was of an artwork being simultaneously created and destroyed. His second manifesto on Auto-Destructive Art stated ‘Auto-destructive art re-enacts the obsession with destruction, the pummelling to which individuals and masses are subjected…Auto-destructive art mirrors the compulsive perfectionism of arms manufacture – polishing to destruction point.’ (3)
The language and metaphors Metzger uses clearly have reference to the military machinery of the capitalist state. Writing about Metzger’s performance, Kristine Stiles describes the temporal structuring and timing of ‘South Bank Demonstration’ as symbolic of the artist’s personal relationship to the Nazi gas chambers.
Metzger formulated his theory precisely 20 years after he was sent to England as a child of 12 in 1939, following his family’s arrest by the Gestapo in Nuremburg. 20 seconds then is a temporal analog for the time it took to destroy his personal world by killing his family; 20 years, the time of gestation in his own auto-transformation.
Metzger has also been stateless since the 1940s, another clear political response to what was done to his family, first by removing their rights as citizens, and forcing them from their home, him to safety in England, his parents to death in Poland.
Stephanie (Steve) Shirley’s philanthropic activity – as a highly successful businesswoman, she used her money to fund pioneering work on autism, and her influence to counter sexism – is something she explicitly relates to her experience as an unaccompanied child refugee, which she says ‘gave me the drive to prove that my life had been worth saving’.
Writing about the ‘One Thousand Children‘ initiative, the American equivalent of the Kindertransport, Iris Posner comments that they have been ‘inordinately successful’. Perhaps the combination of the challenge of those early experiences and the sense of debt that Steve Shirley speaks about, have led such children to have a greater drive to succeed, and to give something back.
However, the Kindertransport and OTC children were lucky not just in being saved from destruction. They came to affluent, safe countries where they had access to the best medical care, the best educational opportunities and employment prospects. Many of their contemporaries, displaced in the chaos and brutality of wartime and postwar Europe, were not to have those chances. Like many of today’s child refugees, they lost everything.
Even those who are most cynical, who believe the lies and distortions disseminated almost daily it seems by sections of our national press, would surely see that the fate of these children must be a collective responsibility. UNHCR report that:
Almost half of the world’s forcibly displaced people are children and many spend their entire childhood far from home. Whether they are refugees, internally displaced, asylum-seekers or stateless, children are at a greater risk of abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation, trafficking or forced military recruitment. They may also have witnessed or experienced violent acts and/or been separated from their families.
It’s a huge task, so daunting that one could throw up one’s hands and say, what can we do?
There are many organisations, around the world, who are doing what they can. Working in war zones and refugee camps, working to support children wherever they are re-settled, trying to give them the chance of a life.
To quote Sir Nicholas Winton, who himself was responsible for saving around 700 children from Nazi Europe, ‘If it’s not impossible, there must be a way to do it’.
With the resources we have, collectively, it’s not impossible. It can’t be.