Embers of Compassion

Today, on World Refugee Day, Help Refugees‘ legal action against Home Secretary Amber Rudd goes to the High Court. It’s the last chance to re-open the Dubs Scheme and give hope to some of the 95,000 unaccompanied refugee children across Europe.

dubsAs a six-year-old in 1939, Alfred Dubs was one of 669 mainly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia who escaped to the UK thanks to a young stockbroker, Nicholas Winton, who has been described as Britain’s Oskar Schindler.  There were a number of such initiatives, known collectively as the Kindertransports, taking children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Danzig to safety in the UK – overall around 10000 children were rescued.   An American initiative saved another 1400 children.  Some of them were subsequently reunited with their parents, others were the only survivors from their families.   The transports took place between Kristallnacht, the point at which awareness of the grave danger facing Jews in Nazi territory became much more widespread, and the outbreak of war.

 

Even at such a time there were those who opposed any mass influx of refugees from Nazism, on the usual grounds (we’re full, we don’t have the resources, they’ll take ‘our’ jobs/houses etc) – but these objections seem to have been largely dropped when it came to the proposal to rescue the children.

The British government had just refused to allow 10,000 Jewish children to enter Palestine, but the atrocities in Germany and Austria, the untiring persistence of the refuge advocates, and philosemitic sympathy in some high places – in the words of British Foreign Minister Samuel Hoare “Here is a chance of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extend the terrible suffering of their parents and their friends” – swayed the government to permit an unspecified number of children under the age of 17 to enter the United Kingdom.  It was agreed to admit the children on temporary travel documents, with the idea that they would rejoin their parents when the crisis was over. A fifty Pound Sterling bond had to be posted for each child “to assure their ultimate resettlement.” (http://www.kindertransport.org/history03_rising.htm)

Alf Dubs, now a Labour peer,  sponsored an amendment to the Immigration Act in April last year that required the government to relocate to the UK a number of refugee children who had reached Europe unaccompanied. Though his proposed figure of 3,000 was not included in the law, many MPs and peers believed the government had committed to accepting something around that number.

However, Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, told MPs that the UK had admitted many children through other refugee schemes, amounting to a total of 8,000 in the year to 2016 (including those resettled directly from camps in or near Syria). But, she said, that “the specified number of 350 children … reasonably meets the intention and spirit behind the provision” of the Dubs amendment.

She also said

The Government have always been clear that we do not want to incentivise perilous journeys to Europe, particularly by the most vulnerable children. That is why children must have arrived in Europe before 20 March 2016 to be eligible under section 67 of the Immigration Act. The section 67 obligation was accepted on the basis that the measure would not act as a pull factor for children to travel to Europe and that it would be based on local authority capacity. The Government have a clear strategy and we believe this is the right approach.

Yvette Cooper’s response was robust:

This week, the Government cancelled the Dubs scheme after it had been running for less than six months. The Home Secretary said that it has not closed, but will she confirm what it said in the statement yesterday: that once those 350 children are here, that is it—it is closed? Where does it say in the Hansard record of our debates on the Dubs amendment that I have here that we will help lone child refugees for only six months? Where does it say that, instead of the 3,000 that Parliament debated, we will help only one tenth of that number? Where does it say that when we get the chance we will somehow turn our backs once again? It does not, because we did not say that at the time.

The Home Secretary knows that what she is doing is shameful. Not only has she closed the Dubs programme, but she has cancelled the fast-track Dublin scheme to help those with family here. The Home Secretary did very good work in the autumn of last year to help those in Calais and to make sure we could take as many children as possible, and I commended her for it. But she also knows that most of those have family here already and were entitled to be here. She has said local councils cannot do more; the truth is that many local councils have said they can do more with more support or more time. It takes time to set up these schemes, and they should not be closed down so quickly.

There are still so many children in need of help. The Home Secretary knows there are thousands in Greece in overcrowded accommodation or homeless, or in Italy still at risk of human trafficking, or teenagers in French centres, which are being closed down now, who have nowhere left to go. The Home Secretary talked about clearing Calais; they are heading back to Calais, and back to Dunkirk: back to the mud, back to the danger, back into the arms of the people traffickers and the smugglers, the exploitation, the abuse, the prostitution rings—back into the modern slavery that this Parliament and this Government have pledged to end.  …  We can do this; Britain can do better than this. Will the Home Secretary accept that and reinstate the Dubs programme now?

Clearly, the Home Secretary was unmoved.  Thus the legal challenge which goes to the High Court today.

All we’re asking for is the government to do their job properly and talk to local authorities about the actual number of spaces available. We know, and they know, there are hundreds more spaces available across the UK waiting to be filled.

How is it that, when there is evidence that we do have the capacity to support at least the number of unaccompanied minors proposed in the Dubs Amendment, the Government is unwilling to do any more?  Could it have anything to do with what they anticipate would be the response of certain newspapers, always obsessed with the threat posed by ‘migrants’?

Analogies with the Kindertransports are, of course, not precise.  As was pointed out by one Tory MP opposed to the scheme, today’s child refugees are already in countries that are deemed safe, having already survived the threat that they faced in their home country, and the perilous journey to Europe.   And the very real threat of Islamist terrorism makes it easy to demonise the adolescent males who would be eligible to come here under the Dubs scheme.  It’s not the same.

 

But at heart, it’s still just as simple as it ever was.   There are children and young people who have fled from unimaginable horrors, who are orphaned or have become separated from their parents in the chaos of flight, who are vulnerable because of their youth (even those boys in their mid-late teens who look almost like men, but aren’t).  Of course they are ‘our’ problem, ‘our’ responsibility, if we regard ourselves as members of the human race first and of a particular nation second.   It’s a moral question first, and only secondarily a political or even a practical one.  There’s a very clear and obvious right thing to do so we should do it, and deal with the political and practical impacts as necessary.

Tragically, and to our shame, that isn’t the way the government sees things.

Mrs May calculates that the acceptance of refugees in any numbers constitutes a political problem. She sees the provision of asylum not as a moral or legal duty but as a risk of contamination. She looks at Europe’s refugees as a continental affliction best managed by quarantine. And she will gladly suffer the opprobrium of liberal-minded MPs, charities and religious leaders – including the archbishop of Canterbury – if it means escaping wrathful tabloid headlines stoking fear of invading foreign hordes. The numbers actually involved in the Dubs scheme are tiny, the least the government could do after every effort had been made to prick ministerial consciences. Now even that ember of compassion is to be extinguished.

The manner of its snuffing out – the news buried in a statement issued on the eve of parliament’s recess – proves that the government knows what it has done is shameful. That does not mean the prime minister or home secretary are truly ashamed. They hope the moment will pass; that not enough people will care about the cold-blooded cruelty of their actions; that the political cost of callousness is negligible. For the sake of Britain’s reputation as a country that still knows some solidarity with victims of war and terror, we must hope they are wrong. Mrs May must reverse this decision or be haunted by it.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/09/the-guardian-view-on-the-dubs-amendment-a-glowing-ember-of-compassion

History is likely to judge us harshly for this failure.  Meanwhile, there are children and young people who could by now have been starting a new life here, safe and secure, with the chance to regain their health and confidence, make friends, develop their skills and fulfil their potential, but who will at best continue to live the half-life of a stateless refugee, at worst who will vanish for ever.

Those who do give a damn aren’t giving up though.  No chance.

“In February Theresa May put Britain on the wrong side of history.   To our country’s shame, she decided to shut down the Dubs Scheme, which promised child refugees a safe future in the UK.  We fought tooth and nail to win this last year. I won’t let it slip away.  Join me in saying YES – I want Britain to rescue the most vulnerable child refugees.  The Dubs Amendment was a promise to us – to honour our proud British tradition of welcoming those most in need.  I saw that compassion and courage in Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued me as a child from the Nazi regime, along with 669 Jewish children. Acts of heroism like this define our country. They characterise the values we hold dear. Now we are faced with another such turning point in our nation’s history. Will we choose to follow Trump, or to honour our tradition of generosity, compassion and courage? We’ll need to fight harder than ever, organising our communities in the days to come. In the streets, in the offices of MPs, by joining local actions. We’ve won before. We will win again.”

Lord Alf Dubs.

Refugee_week_2017_A2_poster_08-1

, , , ,

1 Comment

Migration Matters

Screen-Shot-2017-05-24-at-14.45.19

Migration Matters Festival 2017 is a five-day theatre and arts festival taking place in Sheffield during Refugee Week (20-24 June).  Its aim is to celebrate diversity, and recognise the positive impact migration has on the city.

Sheffield was the UK’s first City of Sanctuary and it is a city that remains rich with diversity and interconnecting cultures. This year’s festival seeks to celebrate this history and culture with a vibrant and inclusive series of events.

Screen-Shot-2017-03-22-at-13.37.46Opening on the 20th June,  Migration Matters Festival will run alongside the annual Refugee Week celebrated across the UK.

The festival takes place across a series of city centre venues, uniting Sheffield’s communities and cultures.

The 2017 line up features established companies, emerging artists, community arts groups and charitable organisations. It’s a rich and soulful programme that brings the diverse and global mix of Sheffield’s communities together with artists from all over the world in a celebration of food, culture and performance.

Check out the full programme – there’s truly something for everyone!

All events are Pay-What-You-Decide though you are recommended to reserve tickets for high profile events – follow the link and search for Migration Matters to see everything that’s on offer.

Refugee_week_2017_A2_poster_08-1

 

,

Leave a comment

Refugee Week 2017 – Different Pasts, Shared Futures

Refugee_week_2017_A2_poster_08-1

Since I started this blog, back in 2012, I’ve given myself the challenge to publish something every day during Refugee Week addressing some aspect of the refugee crisis past and present, in all parts of the world.   There are so many stories, and no matter how many Refugee Weeks come around, there seems little prospect that one year I will find there is nothing to say.

This year’s theme sets me a different kind of challenge, however.  Many of my posts over the years have focused on the past – specifically on the refugees escaping Nazi genocide, whether through the Kindertransport or the activities of the AAC, or through the actions of individuals such as Varian Fry or communities such as Le Chambon sur Lignon.  Which is fine, and I will be revisiting some of those topics this week.  But the theme is ‘our shared future’, and I don’t want to neglect that.

There are as always many examples of generosity and hospitality being shown to refugees, by organisations and individuals.

In Edinburgh, Dr Amer Masri and Nadin Akta, both refugees from Syria who came here in 2011, have worked with the University’s Chaplain and student volunteers to support newly-arrived Syrian teenagers.  The Teenage Syrian Refugee Tutoring pilot project aims to help with the disorientation and sense of isolation that the new arrivals will experience.  The programme is focused specifically on the needs of young people, fitting in to school, making decisions about their futures and facing the kinds of challenge that are common to their age group but with the added pressure of cultural and language barriers and the trauma of their past experiences.

Meanwhile in Madrid, a project linking refugees with local mentors has been overwhelmed with volunteers.  Rescate ‘s befriending programme again helps to address the disorientation and isolation that refugees face, as well as working with them to solve practical problems about housing and education, finding their way through the system to access the help they need.

But it is not just a one-way process.

Liverpool-based rapper Farhood fled his home country Iran after facing persecution as a result of his political activism.   He will play M.I.A.’s Meltdown festival at Southbank Centre, London, 9-18 June, and launch Refugee Week on 18 June.

Farhood

Across the world there are thousands of people who are displaced and seen as just migrants, not people with skills, abilities, talents and stories. I want to help change this situation. I want to help change the way we think and talk about this global crisis. Whose crisis is it anyway? Crises for Europe and the developed world which needs to ‘cope’ with refugees? Refugees in the UK are facing harder times now, with issues like Brexit and racism, and I want to show them hope in the face of depression, which I experience myself. … It shows that a refugee can make a transition, from being unheard in a prison in the UK to a point where I can talk about the problems in Iran and the UK to the world. I can be a voice for the voiceless.

Online magazine Vice has just published an issue edited by young refugees from across Europe.  They’re not talking about being refugees, or at least not just that.

1489072794179-metalvice2Vice’s editor says:

We wanted to show that just like all our writers and every single neighbour you’ve ever had, these young people have multifaceted personalities that cannot be defined merely by them being refugees.

The result is a collection of 16 articles that today we are publishing simultaneously in 12 languages and 14 European territories, in collaboration with UNHCR. Highlights include How to Be Fashionable on a Budget, All the Gaffes I’ve Made Since Arriving to the UK and A Playlist of the Songs I Listened to While Trying to Get from Syria to Europe.

And poet Malka Al-Haddad is crowd-funding publication of a collection of her work which she hopes will raise funds for Baobab Women’s Project in Birmingham, Leicester City of Sanctuary and East Lindsey Area of Sanctuary.

malka_al-haddad

She says:

I know that there are many people that need help and this what they do. Therefore I’m willing to support them. I would like to help people as much as I can, that is my love, it makes me feel like a better person, I want to help the community in some way …. When I was in Iraq I was working very hard to get good salary to support disadvantaged people and protect women’s rights. I am now in the UK but I can not earn money or have job because I have not been recognised as a refugee. I’m glad that I have written a poetry book that, I hope, will go on to raise some funding to these small charities/organisation that support refugees and asylum seekers. They aim to make individuals’ participation positive and help people be themselves again after they lost  hope and their home land.

Once we see refugees not as ‘other’, but as people like us, ordinary people (if there is such a thing) whose circumstances happen to be extraordinary and traumatic, we should not be surprised when they are not only refugees but also poets, musicians, artists, engineers, lawyers, writers, footballers, nurses, teachers and so on.  Whilst they are in flight, it may be impossible to be anything other than a refugee, but what people will hope for, long for, is the chance to be those other things, to find others in their new home with whom they can share their interests and skills.  As Malka says, to be themselves again.

That way, we all win.

Refugee_week_2017_A2_poster_08-1

 

 

, , ,

Leave a comment

Dark Tower

grenfelltower

We don’t know how many.  We don’t know who.  We don’t know why.

In this vacuum of information, anger is building.

Some of this anger will be misdirected, as people lash out in their pain and grief.  That’s inevitable.   Since the early hours of Wednesday morning, those living near Grenfell Tower, those who escaped from it, those who have friends and family unaccounted for, will not have slept, will have been obsessively checking phones and ringing hospitals and begging for answers, at the same time as they figure out how to cope without their most basic possessions, how to deal with the practicalities of life in this new chaos.  Under that intolerable pressure, those we have heard speak have shown remarkable dignity and calm.

That may not hold.  Even if the bigger questions cannot be answered immediately, there needs to be a more coordinated, coherent response to the desperate need to know the fate of those still unaccounted for, and to the practical questions about rehousing and resources for those left homeless.  And even if those are the most urgent questions, the community needs to be convinced that the bigger questions – what caused the fire?  why did it spread so quickly?  why was the material used for the cladding in the recent refurb of a standard that is currently banned in the US and Germany because of its flammability?  – will be answered without obfuscation.

Answers need to come, and come swiftly.  And with them, practical help. Voluntary generosity has been overwhelming, and almost unmanageable – it must now be matched by an ‘official’ response.  That official response must be generous, if it is to defuse the tension, the gut feeling that had the inhabitants of Grenfell Tower been white, been wealthy, the building would have been designed to be safe, and any refurbishments would have made it even safer.

We have in the last few weeks alone logged so many unnecessary deaths.  The murders of (mainly) young people attending Ariane Grande’s concert in Manchester,  and  (mainly) young people in Borough Market and on London Bridge.  And now unknown numbers of all ages, dead because a fire that started accidentally (as far as we know) spread with unimaginable speed through a high rise block of flats.

What those of us who have tried to honour the dead by recording their names and something of their story quickly discovered was that there is no such thing as an ordinary person.   The three names that have officially been released from Grenfell Tower confirm that.

_96496057_47472e41-ab21-4ddb-89c8-3b9a282e9b7e

Khadija Saye was 24.  A remarkable artist, her work is currently exhibited at the Diaspora Pavilion during the 57th Venice Biennale.   Her death has been confirmed; her mother is missing, presumed dead.

_96508608_9440b75c-6bd9-4667-ba94-3f140264954d

Mohammed Alhajali was 23, and had been living on the 14th floor with his brother Omar.  He came to the UK in 2014 and was studying civil engineering.  Syria Solidarity Campaign said: “[He] undertook a dangerous journey to flee war and death in Syria, only to meet it here in the UK, in his own home.”  The brothers had been due to join the Syria Solidarity Campaign on Saturday to take part in The Great Get Together, celebrating the life of murdered MP Jo Cox and marking Refugee Week.

_96520643_isaacfacebook

Of the third confirmed fatality, what can we say?  He was five years old.  Isaac Shawo has been described by his mother as a “beautiful boy”.  He was a pupil at Saint Francis of Assisi Catholic Primary School and lived on the 18th floor of Grenfell Tower with his parents and three year old brother Luca, all of whom have survived. He gazes out from this photograph, and one can read so many possibilities into that gaze.  Possibilities that will never be realised.

Only three stories so far.  There will be so many more.  Their deaths are as arbitrary as those of the Manchester and London terrorist murders, even if no individual or group is as directly culpable.  They should not have died, they need not have died.

We have to change, we cannot continue to value property over humanity, to dismiss ‘health and safety’ which has saved the lives of so many as ‘red tape’, to denigrate the poor, the unemployed, benefit claimants and asylum seekers as scroungers and skivers.  We have to change.

David Lammy MP: “For your middle-class viewers, this is about whether the welfare state is just schools and hospitals or whether it’s about having a safety net. I get quite emotional as I say that. We need to live in a society where we care for the poorest and the vulnerable. And that means housing. It means somewhere decent to live. It was a noble idea that we built… and it’s falling apart around our eyes. That’s what it’s about.

 

You can’t contract out everything to the private sector; the private sector do some wonderful things, but they have for-profit motives, they cut corners. If you haven’t got the officers to check on the enforcement of buildings, don’t expect it to be done.

You know… are there fire extinguishers? Where are the fire extinguishers on every corridor? Where are the hoses? Are the fire doors really working? Where are the sprinklers? If you want to build these buildings, then let them at least be as good as the luxury penthouse buildings that are also being built.

But these buildings aren’t …. So you either demolish them and house people in a different way, or you absolutely refurbish them to the best quality that we can do.”

Jackie Long: “Do you think this says anything about the value that is placed on the life of people who cannot afford to buy their own property; to live in some of the nicer bits of Britain?”

David Lammy MP: “This is a tale of two cities. This is what Dickens was writing about in the century before the last, and it’s still here in 2017. It’s the face of the poorest and the most vulnerable. My friend who lost her life was a talented artist, but she was a young, black woman making her way in this country and she absolutely had no power, or locus, or agency. She had not yet achieved that in her life. She’d done amazing things: gone to university, the best in her life. But she’s died with her mother on the 22nd floor of a building. And it breaks my heart that that’s happening in Britain in 2017. Breaks my heart.

Lammy refers here to Dickens.  A tale of two cities, a tale of two tower blocks.  Different worlds, existing cheek by jowl, not recognising or understanding each other.  In Kensington, some of the wealthiest people in our land live alongside some of the most deprived. The top quarter earn at least £41 per hour, three and a half times the level of the lowest quarter at £12 per hour or less.  Within the smallest borough in London, and the second smallest in England, we can see starkly and uncompromisingly the divisions in our society.

These words are from perhaps Dickens’ finest novel, Bleak House, as he marks the death of a nobody, a boy called Jo.

Is there any light a comin?”

“It is coming fast, Jo.”

Fast. The cart is shaken all to pieces, and the rugged road is very near its end.

“Jo, my poor fellow!”

“I hear you, sir, in the dark, but I’m a gropin — a gropin — let me catch hold of your hand.”

“Jo, can you say what I say?”

“I’ll say anythink as you say, sir, for I knows it’s good.”

“OUR FATHER.”

“Our Father! — Yes, that’s wery good, sir.”

“WHICH ART IN HEAVEN.”

“Art in Heaven — is the light a comin, sir?”

“It is close at hand. HALLOWED BE THY NAME!”

“Hallowed be — thy—”

The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead!

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.

I do not pray.  At times like this I almost wish I could.  But my faith is not in any god but in humanity.  In the kindness of strangers, the coming together of communities in a crisis, the refusal to tolerate those who want to use such a crisis to disseminate hatred and suspicion.  I don’t pray, but I hope, I hang on to my hope. And my heart hurts for the people of Grenfell Tower.

 

 

 

 

, , ,

3 Comments

It was fifty years ago today….

The release of Sgt Pepper’s Hearts Club Band, fifty years ago today, is one of those moments in musical history.   So much has been written about the album over the years since.  But this personal account, from Mike Press, is for me the perfect tribute to Pepper, to what it meant and what it means, and to the power of music.   Thanks, Mike, for letting me share this.

============================================================================

My Mum, my Dad, Sgt Pepper and me – Mike Press

Unusually, I remember exactly what I was doing 50 years ago today at around 6 pm.

It all began with She Loves You.

My Dad ordered it in advance of its release and picked it up from the Record Room in St Albans on his way home from work on the day it came out. And he did the same with every Beatles’ release up to the White Album. It was a family ritual. Part of this same ritual was that we would play the new record over and over at least six times as soon as he got home (to be honest, it was six with a single and at least twice with an album). She Loves You was a revelation, in part because after we’d played it half a dozen times he says “right, shall we play the B side now?”. THERE’S A B SIDE??? You mean they actually give you another song for free? I was stunned with both the concept and the clear generosity of the recording industry, which was perhaps one reason that I gave them so much money in return over my extended adolescence. In this case the B side was even better than the A side.

Thursday the First of June 1967 was just another school day at Fleetville Junior Mixed Infants. We were coasting down towards the end of our primary schooling with the first year of Grammar School just a few months away. Dad and I had been Beatles fans since their first hit. He bought all the records, which we played relentlessly the day they came out, and every so often he’d say “fancy a Beatles’ session?” and we’d play the whole lot in one go. These sessions often drove my Mum to distraction. Mind you, she had a far better grasp of the interpretation of the lyrics than either of us did. When she first suggested that Ticket to Ride was about the Isle of Wight ferry I remember us firmly dismissing this as the overly literal interpretation of a geographer. When John Lennon was asked some years later what the song was about he replied that it was about a friend who ran away to the Isle of Wight.

He drove home from London and stopped by the Record Room, a small shop on Chequer Street run by Mark Greene. Donovan, The Zombies and others reckoned that his was the best record shop outside London. Back then we didn’t have chain stores, we just had people who loved music who simply wanted to share it, and make an honest profit in the process. He knew his music, did Mark, and over the years a fair bit of my pocket money went over his counter. He sold records, and around the corner his brother Sol ran the town’s drapery business, both playing up their Jewishness to give their shops a real character and passion for what they sold. Mark had a humour that was so deadpan that you often weren’t sure if he was quipping or just naive. Like the time a couple of years later I went in to buy John and Yoko’s first album. He scoured the shelves, went down to the cellar, was clearly rattled that somehow it had been misfiled, and then shouted over to his assistant “Mac, I can’t seem to lay my hands on Two Virgins.”

So the old man got home from Mark’s shop with a record in a brown paper bag.

I distinctly remember taking the record out of the bag. It was the most beautiful and wonderful object I had ever held. This was no album cover. As you opened the then unique gatefold sleeve, it suggested opening a door into something unearthly and wonderful. A front cover which immediately engaged my Mum and Dad into a competition on who they could recognise, a back cover with – again uniquely – all their lyrics, and the inner gatefold with the fabs in all their acid drenched glory. Then there was the insert of cutouts, and the inner sleeve, normally white, which was presented in washes of pink.

My Dad took out the record, placed it on the platter, lowered the needle and we listened.

Well it was twenty years ago today…

I simply cannot describe the sense of wonder, of illumination that I experienced as we listened. The next week Kenneth Tynan in The Times described it as the high water mark of human civilisation. At the time people suggested that he was perhaps over egging it a bit, but in retrospect I think we can probably all agree that he’s broadly right. It’s up there with the Mona Lisa and the the Brandenburg Concertos – if not actually just a wee bit better. The sixties were a rollercoaster for all of us, but especially when you were a child. From She Loves You to A Day in The Life. Four years. Culture has never moved with such a frenetic pace or passion.

It was a record that was liberally peppered with wonderful characters, all vividly portrayed. There was Billy Shears, the Sergeant’s bandmates, Rita being tempted with tea, the girl meeting a man from the motor trade, the poor guy who didn’t notice that the lights had changed. And to this very day every time I meet somebody called Henderson I have to bite my lip not to ask how Pablo Fanque is.

I remember my dad saying many years after that first listening that Day In The Life was the best song of the century – and he was a Sinatra fan. Phil Collins said that the song helped him to learn how to drum, because of Ringo’s complex fills – so there is a downside to the album after all. But my first listening of it I remember as a surreal, cinematic experience.

We got to the end (and of course the enigmatic final groove). He didn’t need to ask. Flip over, and back to the start. And again.

That record taught a ten year old to always push the boundaries, to break rules, to take people on journeys, to turn people on, to try to be the best you can be. And with the encouragement of my folks that’s all I’ve ever tried to do.

Nothing musically has ever bettered that evening with my Mum, my Dad, Sergeant Pepper and me.

Oh boy.

 

Image may contain: 34 people, people smiling, people standing and indoor

,

2 Comments

Containing the blast

Today I woke to more news of horror.  So close to home – just across the Pennines, a city where I’ve worked, where I have friends, a city whose history and culture I have studied for years now.  And as I saw the first reports I wept, for the children who have been murdered and hurt and terrified, for the parents who are still desperately waiting to find out what has happened to their kids, or who are lost in unimaginable grief.  My heart hurts.

Manchester is resilient.  It has had to be.  We all have to be in this dangerous world, if we’re to hold on to what really matters, if we’re to love and hope and laugh, if we’re to bring children into this world and bring them up to love and hope and laugh.

jpgWhilst the usual suspects have been swift to inject their poison into social media, to encourage hate and violence in response to hate and violence, many more are trying to do the opposite.

Always after attacks like these some rush to help and some rush to hate. The helpers try to contain the blast, the haters help to spread it.

Ian Dunt, on the politics.co.uk website:

Our response will be to try to contain the blast, by showing that the overwhelming majority of people remain kind, decent, and big-hearted. This is not a platitude. It is a political response.

But of course we feel anger.  Of course we feel scared. Of course we feel loathing for the person who hated life so much that he could go into an arena full of happy, excited kids and commit mass murder.

The point is, what do we do?

If we let that anger be channeled into hostility to anyone other than the perpetrator and whichever group he claims to represent, they win.

If we let fear prevent us from living our lives to the full, or push us to allow our freedoms and the freedoms of others to be curtailed, they win.

Terrorists, of whatever political or religious persuasion, want to provoke fear and anger.  As the UN defines terrorism, it is ‘intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act’.

In other words, whatever anger and fear we feel, however desperately sad we feel, we must not be compelled by their actions to do anything that is not in itself just, fair and right, nor to abstain from doing what is in itself just, fair and right.

When we (those of us who argue in this way, as well as expressing our solidarity via social media with the victims) are berated for just waiting for the next atrocity, I wonder what it is that we (or our governments) should be doing instead.  What form should our rage take, that could make us and our children safer?

The voices of hate were quick to speak up, as always.  They claim to be fuelled by righteous anger, but in their words there’s a hideous kind of glee.  They call for action, but what they have in mind is closing the borders,  or worse.  The responses which would, of course, be exactly what the terrorists hope for, and would make us less rather than more safe.

I do understand that changing one’s profile pic, claiming that ‘je suis wherever’, and all that, seems useless and inadequate.  Of course those things in themselves do not change the situation.   They’re easy to ridicule and dismiss.  But as Stig Abell says:

It is easy to dismiss the commonplaces, the impossibility in using words to deplore the lack of words.  But the very fact of reaching for words – of trying to talk about it – is an appropriate response.  And, at moments of crisis and trauma, the use of comprehensible and familiar phrasing is itself a sign of something important: it is a bid for connection.  Cliché demonstrates community, our intention to understand one another.  It does not matter that “standing in solidarity” has no practical import, or that prayers may be just so much shouting into a void.  It does not matter that there is unresolved tragedy in a violent world that makes consolation a commonplace.

Because by using cliché, we are trying to employ common currency, we are grasping for tokens – however smoothed by over-use – that we all recognise, we all can handle and share. We are using language to be inclusive. …

So we should abandon any knee-jerk response  … to hashtags and platitudes, to prayers and placards.  There are always words, even over-familiar and trite ones.  And they tell us something about our desire to connect and collect ourselves, to take the time to try at least to “think of the victims and the families”.  That desire is a good thing. Clichés are good things when pressed into the service of communication in the aftermath of the incomprehensible and the traumatic. They often reveal the good intentions we share, and they are more valuable than ever.

So I refuse to be embarrassed about the inadequacy of my own words.  I believe that however feeble they are in the immediate aftermath of something which hurts my heart as much as this does, I can and must keep saying what I believe.

Daesh divide the world into Crusaders (that this definition includes pre-teen girls at a pop concert tells you all you need to know) and the Caliphate.  George Bush used similar rhetoric after 9/11, telling us that we were either with the US or with the terrorists.  I’m not proposing any equivalence of those two approaches, other than that this polarisation, this reduction of the complexity and diversity of life into two opposing absolutes, has done and continues to do immeasurable harm.

In the wake of the November 2015 Paris attacks, Jonathan Freedland wrote about Daesh’s onslaught against the ‘grey zone‘ :

The grey zone is where I want to live. Islamic State hates it, that place between black and white, where nothing is ever either/or and everything is a bit of both. Those who have studied the organisation tell us “the grey zone” – Isis’s phrase – is high on the would-be warriors’ to-eradicate list, along with all those other aspects of our world that so terrify them: women, statues of the past, the pleasures of the present.

Specifically, the grey zone refers to the sphere of coexistence where Muslim and non-Muslim might live together. That’s anathema to the frightened young men of Isis, who yearn for a world divided on binary lines, with room for only two categories – them and the infidel. Such a world would be as clean and neat as computer code, with Isis the ones and the rest of us reduced to zeros.

I made my own contribution on this blog.  Looking back now, I am not certain that my interpretation of the grey zone was correct.  It may be that it should properly be defined as the place inhabited by Muslims who have not signed up for the caliphate and for jihad.    For Daesh it is a state of hypocrisy, and their hatred of it explains why the vast majority of their victims are Muslims – the wrong sort of Muslims.  So whilst their murderous attacks in Kabul, Baghdad, Ankara and so many other locations are attacks on the grey zone, Paris and Manchester, Brussels and Nice, were attacks on the Crusaders.

But we don’t have to accept any of their twisted, hateful definitions.  The grey zone for me is where people of all faiths and none meet, talk, share music and food and laughter.  It’s where in the wake of tragedy people of all faiths and none offer whatever they can – a free taxi ride, somewhere to stay, a blood donation.  We must defend it.

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. 

 

 

there is a light

https://www.thejc.com/comment/comment/manchester-a-city-united-1.439057

https://33revolutionsperminute.wordpress.com/2017/05/23/teenage-dreams/

, ,

1 Comment

The Proust Project

Around ten years ago, I decided that it was simply not on to be a student of 20th century French literature and to have read only the first volume of A la recherche… and that only in English translation.

And so it began.

I trotted reasonably swiftly through Vol. 1, largely because I had already read it in English, and because I was reading it in conjunction with a friend and fellow student – but things then slowed down rather dramatically.  Finally, a couple of days ago, I reached the final sentence of the final volume.  Fittingly, I had made some splendid progress whilst staying in the Hotel le Marcel, in one of their Chambres St Loup, after long walks through the streets of Paris.

chambres saint-loups

I’m normally a fast reader.  But not in French.  In English, I can see large chunks of text and absorb them easily, but in French I have to read each word, and I cannot be sure I have the meaning of a sentence until I get to the end of it – and with Proust that full stop could be several pages away.  So my reading speed slows down dramatically whenever I’m reading in my second language.  That’s not all of it, however.  Roger Shattuck acknowledges (reassuringly) that:

both in translation and in the original, Proust slows most readers down.  His sentences move through long spirals that will not be hastened and deserve to be savoured.  He offers few paragraph breaks to declare the steps and stages of his thought.  In contrast to most nineteenth-century novelists, he does not construct out of short chapters that divide the story into conveinent mental mouthfuls.  One simply cannot force one’s speed and hope to register the prose.

But there were certainly times when I thought I might pack it all in, were it not for the fact that my original rationale was still valid – how can I study Butor without having read Proust? – and a certain bloody-minded stubbornness that those who know me will recognise.  I said I was going to read all of Proust in French and I would do so.  Even if it was the last thing I did.  Thankfully it didn’t quite come to that.

Ten years of reading – albeit with some rather long gaps.  Was it worth it?  Emphatically yes.  It’s an extraordinary work and its influence is so enormous, not only on the French writers who came after Proust, but on literature across the world.  I expected that, however.  What was unexpected (apart from the fact that it was a great deal funnier than I’d anticipated) was that in many ways it did not work as a novel, because it’s not, or not just, a novel.

Earlier this year, I read Clive James’ wonderful Cultural Amnesia, a collection of short essays on writers, film makers, musicians, political thinkers and philosophers, chosen on the  basis that they interest him rather than, necessarily, that he admires or loves them.  It’s a book that makes you feel desperately un-well-read, but rather than that being alienating, you feel at the same time that any steps you can take towards being the kind of reader that James is – including simply having a bash at reading in languages in which you are far from fluent – are eminently worth taking.  His piece on Proust, which I read before I’d finished Vol. 7 because spoilers aren’t really that much of an issue here, is particularly enlightening.

A commonplace book in the classic sense, it is, itself, a set of annotations to all the works of art that Proust has read, looked at, listened to or otherwise enjoyed, and to everything he knows about nature, natural science, love, sex and the workings of the mind.

A la recherche du temps perdu is never done with, because it keeps growing while you are reading it.  Like no other book in the world, Proust’s book leads everywhere: a building made of corridors, and the walls of the corridors are made of doors.

There are people who read Proust just for the clothes.  But those of us who read Proust for his remarks about life will always be wondering whether A la recherche du temps perdu is really a work of art at all. A work of imagination: yes, of course, and supremely.  But is it a novel?  Isn’t it a book of collected critical essays, with the occasional fictional character wandering in and out of it?

These qualities of non-fiction are useful to remember when we realize how many qualities of fiction the longest of all novels does not possess.  It has, for example, no structure worth speaking of, and probably would not have attained to one even if Proust had been given another ten years to work on it.  Characters would still have shown up twenty years too young at the last party, or twenty years too old, or simply still alive when they should have been dead.

Bloody brilliant.  I rather wish I’d read this at the start of my project, rather than as I approached its final stages.  There were so many moments when I was frustrated by the pages of rumination, distractedly wondering when something was going to actually HAPPEN, rather than realising that the rumination was what was happening.  what mattered, what the book was about. (In this context I could not help but recall Monty Python’s  All England Summarise Proust competition…)   And I wouldn’t have wasted any energy trying to work out how much temps had actually passé, when it really wasn’t about chronology at all.

Readers and critics of Proust reach for comparisons and metaphors, as James does.  Roger Shattuck says that ‘Reading Proust bears many resemblances to visiting a zoo’.  It’s commonly referred to as a roman-fleuve, a river that flows on relentlessly and the only way to read the roman is to abandon oneself to that flow (though I note that it also has a more critical connotation – a discours-fleuve is an ‘interminable’ speech…).  It’s a web (Malcolm Bowie uses this metaphor), in which everything/everyone is connected to everything/everyone else.

530px-Proust_Main_Characters.svg

It’s an unfinished cathedral (this draws on a passage from the final pages of Le temps retrouvé) – but James suggests that it is instead ‘a sandcastle that the tide reached before its obsessed constructor could finish it; but he knew that would happen, otherwise why build it on a beach?’.  For me, it is a labyrinth, a labyrinth in time and space.

Reading the final pages, I wished that my memory of the earlier volumes was clearer.  I want to see how the threads relating to the nature of time and to the Dreyfus affair, and so many more, run through the whole tapestry (another metaphor…).

I could always go back now, and start again at the beginning…

Malcolm Bowie, Proust among the Stars (Fontana, 1998)

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time (Picador, 2012)

Roger Shattuck, Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time (W W Norton, 2000)

 

 

,

Leave a comment