The friends I want to have, and the friends I don’t

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For people who read this site and have never met me, I thought it might be useful to try to explain some things about me you probably don’t know.

1. I’m Jewish (it’s weird having to be explain this stuff right now, but wait with me while and you’ll understand).

2. I’m not “really” Jewish. By that, I mean that I don’t conform to most people’s idea of what a Jew is. I don’t dress like a Jew, whatever that would mean, and Woody Allen’s not my thing. I only have one Jewish parent. And they were born in 1946. Like a lot of Jewish people in that era – and unlike their counterparts born 20 or 40 years later – that means we didn’t practice any religion at home and I’ve never been in a synagogue.

3. There’s another way that I’m really, really unlike most British Jews: in that my parents were the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Oddly enough, in some ways that’s possibly the most unusual thing about my Jewishness. Many British Jews are second-, third-, fourth-generation British. That means that their immediate family weren’t caught in Eastern Europe. Sure, in the small parts of Britain which Hitler invaded people were taken away and killed, but we’re talking hundreds of people that’s all. (And of course there were many people from Britain who were on holiday, staying with family etc, and were caught up in events they could barely understand). I’m here because as well as being a Jew I’m also a second-generation immigrant.

4. One way my experience is unusual is that, actually, few people survived the Holocaust. Of people who lived in Germany, Austria, Poland, etc – the numbers who got out are small, and the closer that people came to danger the fewer of them there were that escaped. If you don’t know this stuff, read Primo Levi, one of the very few Auschwitz survivors. It will give you a sense of how it was.

5. When I say that my grand-parents were Holocaust survivors, and I compare them to how Holocaust survivors are supposed to be, they were in some ways like and in some ways unlike Holocaust survivors. First, although the large majority of their relatives were killed, they were never that close to dying. They got out, from Austria, in late 1938, leaving behind parents (on both sides) and a sibling. But they in the younger generation were fine.

6. Where my grandparents get more typical is that, having escaped from Austria they (and the generation below) went through something like 40 years of emotional harm. This isn’t something I’m capable of writing about, not directly, but I’m talking the whole range of harm – suicides, mental health diagnoses that struck around for more than a decade, and a whole sense of self-hatred, desire to emulate the powerful, the oppressive, etc etc etc. That’s the thing about harm, it’s sticks around.

7. It’s the “gluey” character of suffering which explains why I am an anti-Zionist. Because if “we” have been suffering for forty years as a result of the harm that the Nazi inflicted, the dispossession, the being forced into camps, exile, the killings … it should be obvious to everyone that “they” (the people who have been disposed since 1945) are going through exactly the same process. And it takes a particular kind of cruelty-mixed-with-stupidity to say that “because the Nazis tried to annihilate the Jews”… “we” … are allowed to dispossess and harm someone else, the Palestinians.

8. I appreciate that my family’s proximity to genocide ought to make me exactly the sort of person that Zionism is supposed to be about. And yet the Zionists – especially the non-Jewish supporters of Zionism – are exactly the friends I don’t want. If someone is the ideological or actual descendant of the people who were blithe to the rise of fascism in Britain, then I don’t want them to tell me that they are on my side now. That goes for the Mail (which didn’t just run one pro-BUF headline but for several months operated as effectively the fascist party’s private press), the Royals with their several fascist salutes, the Tory Party which saw Mussolini and Hitler as people they could do business with. Even the Big Daddy of British conservatism Winston Churchill whose Zionism waxed and waned in direct proportion to his anti-semitism (if you don’t know this stuff, google him). I’m also not so keen on the sudden declarations of friendship which British Jews are getting from the likes of the Labour Right (one of whose MPs was detained in the war as a pro-fascist) and which spent the 1930s very happily demanding the outlawing and imprisonment of the relatively few people in British society who were trying to stop the fascists, mainly who were found (but not only) on the far left.

9. I’m also not keen on the sudden support I seem to be getting from all sorts of self-declared philo-Semites, the Hitchenses, the Burchills, whose support seems to be wholly dependent on the positions on they have already committed to in support of Israel and Israel’s global allies. They have a construct of what Jews are like and it’s not pretty.

10. Finally, while I’m not throwing anyone out: please think this through. I am in a Jewish family and all through my life I have spent time among other Jews. Some agree with me 100%, some 0%, and most, as you’d expect, fall somewhere in between. I argue with them. Sometimes, it’s my friends who are the ones doing the arguing and I’m left bolstering them when they’re doing ok.

But, telling me – repeatedly – that it’s not anti-Semitic to mix up Hitler and Zionists, it’s not anti-Semitic to suggest that the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if the Hitler hadn’t suddenly turned racist (to everyone’s surprise) in 1932 (why 1932?) … you’re just making it harder for me, and for people like me. Please stop now. Its because I want to be able to agree with you – and because I want to be able to argue with the people I dislike – that you, right now, need to raise your game. Thanks.

Originally posted here.

Alexandra Harris, ‘Weatherland’

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Alexandra Harris, Weatherland: Writers & Artists under English Skies. Thames & Hudson, £24.95.

We may like to think that the English weather, cold, damp and unsettled, has been here forever but if so it is strange how long it was there before anyone noticed it. Take the gentle “breeze”, for centuries sailors gave the word a specific meaning: a counter-current of any strength from land to sea. Our contemporary, idea of the gentle breeze Alexandra Harris in her study of English weather writing dates from James Thomson’s weather poem, ‘The Seasons’ (1730). As for clouds, it was only in 1803 that a Quaker chemist Luke Howard proposed the distinction between “Cirrus”, “Cumulus” and “Stratus.” For centuries, the prose and poetry of weather was concerned with other things.

In so far as the Saxons noticed the weather, it was to dwell on the cold: a typical tenth-century poet complained that “Sleet and snow fall and fetter the world / winter howls, then darkness draws on.” Early modern England was fascinated by rain: whether the sweet showers of April in The Canterbury Tales, the thunder that terrified Marlowe’s Tamburlaine or the “cataracts and hurricanoes” that King Lear imagines drenching England’s steeples.

Subtle changes in the climate itself and in our societies have altered the way in which we observe the weather. Harris notes a greater interest in the wind from the seventeenth century. For Milton, weather began with Adam and Eve’s Fall, causing winds that “confound sea, air and shore,” and bring with them further extremes, “cold and heat scarce tolerable.” The wind was the agent of transformation – whether in the form of the return of the Stuart monarchy, or the underlying transition to capitalism – change as destruction.

Two hundred years later, Shelley imagined a wind-powered balloon spreading its message everywhere and “annihilat[ing] slavery forever”. His ‘Ode to the West Wind’ developed the image, portraying the autumn winds as the carriers of revolution. After the defeat of the Chartists, clouds predominated, smoke, fog and pollution.

The characteristic weather of our times, Haris concludes is the flood. She writes of climate change and the end of what we think of as English weather. Her book ends with George Szirtes poem ‘English Apocalypse’ (2001), imagining the burial of land from Lincolnshire to Land’s End, a catastrophe that life itself seems to be set on copying.

First published here.

Han Kang, ‘Human Acts’

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Human Acts is set during and after the Gwangju Uprising of May 1980. Following the death of South Korea’s military ruler Park Chung-hee in 1979 and the seizure of power by another general Chun Doo-hwan, protesters called for the end of military rule. Paratroopers shot at the demonstrators, but the troops were resisted, with increasing numbers of people from across the city joining the demonstrations and the soldiers retreated. For five days the city was held by a Kwangju Commune, with citizen’s committees and a popular militia. South Korea’s army blamed the events on Communists and, with American approval, then retook the city, resulting in a final death toll of between 600 and 2,000 protesters.

The desire to write fiction about events of this scale hits against the limitations of the literary novel as a form. For two centuries, prose fiction has tended be about a certain kind of city-dweller, moneyed, articulate and cynical. In Britain in particular, literary fiction depicts private triumphs or defeats, not the ambitions of an insurgent crowd. The world gives us the War on Terror, the Arab Spring and the revolution in Syria; fiction’s answer is the self-satisfied vacuity of Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005).

[continues here]

The smell of a human

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Perfume

The base: half a spoon of cat-shit, several drop of vinegar, a thumbnail piece of pungent cheese, a something-or-other of sardine, rotten egg and castoreum, ammonia, nutmeg, horn shavings and finely ground singed pork rind. A relatively large amount of civet, alcohol. Then peppermint, lavender, turpentine, lime, eucalyptus. Disguised with geranium, rose, orange blossom and jasmine.

(from Patrick Süskind, Perfume (London: Penguin, 1987), pp 155-6)

Knut Hamsun, ‘Hunger’

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Hunger, republished this year to mark the 125th anniversary of its original appearance, is one of those rare and compelling books which feel like they were written decades out of time.

With its sparse writing, modest plot and starving and dishonest narrator, Hunger feels like it should have been written three decades later by a Kafka or a Camus, responding to the horrors of the trenches, the possibilities of a revolution or the threat of its defeat.

Even to speak of Hunger’s plot is to give the impression of substance when, for the majority of the book, the story meanders between seemingly unrelated incidents.

The narrator comes to a city, he starves. He offers articles to a newspaper, he worries about his rent. He sells an article but even this successful commission leads only to further moments of hunger. He is evicted from his room.

The narrator neither learns nor changes and the reader never has a sense of a mission for him to complete or fail. He flirts with a girl, unsuccessfully. At the end of the story and, without purpose, he leaves the city.

Two scenes give a flavour of the book. Near the beginning, the narrator encounters an old beggar. Drunk with hunger and despising the old man’s frailty, the narrator decides to pawn his waistcoat and give the money to the beggar. The recipient is stupefied by the gift and silent. The narrator shouts and swears at his ingratitude.

Returning to the pawnbroker, the narrator seeks the return of the pencil-stub which he has left in one of the waistcoat pockets. The broker lets him take the pencil. Filled with energy, the narrator tells him that it was used previously to write a three-volume philosophical treatise. The pawnbroker humours his blatant lie.

Many generations of readers have sought to impose a logic on Hunger by calling it an existential novel or portraying the narrator as a zero in search of meaning or the opposite: a person seeking to discard meaning by starving himself to death.

The process of giving the novel meaning is encumbered by the events of Hamsun’s life.
The older the Norwegian writer got, the more right-wing he became. Wooed by Hitler, he wooed the nazis back and although his eventual meeting with the fuehrer in 1943 disappointed the latter, Hamsun never disowned fascism.

A letter to Hamsun by his publisher in 1946 strikes a chord with many disappointed readers: “There are few people I have admired as much as you, few I have loved so. None has disappointed me more.”

The conventional response to Hamsun’s politics is to say that he adopted them later in life and that the novel should not be blamed for the author’s subsequent follies.

This is too simple. Hunger does have a philosophy and is coherent in its own terms. If not fascistic, it is certainly misanthropic.

Reading Hunger in 2016, it’s not hard not to feel that the “personality” of the book is hostile and yet the novel is a thing of beauty — a frosty winter’s landscape to watch and admire but not to live in.

Originally published in the Morning Star

 

On not running at all

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A couple of weeks ago I was thinking about not running a marathon, since then I’ve not been running at all. When  you see a physio, what they are usually looking for is evidence that you’ve been overworking your body, most often by running too far. If not, then by running too fast. The more memorable cases are ones where there has been some change of technique without increased effort. In runners, that might be something like a new pair of shoes subtly altering your “form”, ie your running technique.

The following (me at the start of this month) constitutes a kind of full house: new running shoes, increased mileage (60 miles in one week), two races in successive days, the second of which was a pb of sorts (10k on the road). In the same seven days which had seen all of these changes, I’d also been experimenting with running with music. Normally, that isn’t my thing at all but I was enjoying playing my phone on shuffle and seeking how even the dullest and most formulaic music (Fields of Athenry by the Dropkick Murphys, bless them) would give my tired muscles a jolt. Six kilometres into my last race, I could feel a soreness in the middle of my left calf. By the race’s final 100 metres my leg was a sniper’s victim taking bullet after bullet.

Three weeks with no running, the physio says. Three weeks at a minimum.

 

Hsiao-Hung Pai, ‘Angry White People’

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One way to understand the recent history of the British far-right is as a series of attempts to overcome the isolation of fascism, a form of nationalist politics, where among the prime candidates for a unifying national story is precisely the memory of a war against fascism. In the 1960s, John Tyndall tried to revive interwar Nazism, complete with uniforms and copies of Mein Kampf. After the National Front there was the British Movement, who wanted Nazism without Hitler and tried to promote Gregor and Otto Strasser as the revolutionary martyrs of the fascist victory.

The British National Party (BNP) calculated that if you could split the old fascist parties of the 1930s in two and lose the street-fighting half, the electoral remainder would be sure of a breakthrough. Indeed, so rapid was the march rightwards of the Labour Party in the 2000s that it left a space which the BNP was able to exploit, winning two MEPs and fifty elected councillors. The BNP had, however, nothing new to say about Islam or the War on Terror and its demise, as the Conservatives and UKIP filled the space available to right-wing electoral parties. This created a further opportunity, which was taken in 2010 by the English Defence League (EDL). Islamophobes with Israeli flags who sang the Dambusters tune in pubs, for a time they seemed to be much more successful than the BNP at articulating contemporary racism.

Although there are passages in Angry White People which connect the story of the far-right to that of institutional racism, and there are attempts near the end of the book to situate the EDL’s rise within a broader context, Pai’s book is essentially a study of the English Defence League between about 2010 and 2013, based on a series of interviews conducted principally in Luton, where the group was founded. Pai has spoken to EDL leaders and supporters, sometimes re-interviewing the same people repeatedly over time, and her main characters appear in the book as fully-rounded people, with lives both inside and outside the far right.

Historically, the left has lacked a coherent approach towards interviewing fascists: some writers have refused to do this at all, but are then left dependent on interviews conducted by others. Some have spoken to activists from the far right and have been bowled over by them, and the books and articles they have written about fascism have absorbed the fascist version of the history (Stephen Cullen, Robert Skidelsky’s Oswald Mosley). Others, while remaining broadly sceptical of the right, have repeated select parts of the interviews naively, as if the mere fact that Nick Griffin says something distinct about why his party developed a certain way makes it true (Matthew Goodwin).

As a result, no-one on the left has spent as much time as Pai has done interviewing and then re-interviewing the same leaders of the EDL since Christopher Husbands in the 1970s. While Husbands’ book resulted in a collective academic and sociological portrait of a different generation, Pai’s approach is a journalist’s: she listens and relates and keeps her commentary brief.

Pai is very good on Luton, the town’s poverty and its diversity. She notices a steady influx of people from white minority ethnicities (Irish, Roma) into the EDL and the tensions that arise from the positions they took.

The most interesting character Pai interviews is Darren, a cousin of Kevin Carroll, Tommy Robinson’s deputy. Darren lived in Luton and became one of the EDL’s leaders. An anti-racist in the 1970s, he was motivated to join the EDL by intense localism combined with a dislike of the Muslim controversialist Anjem Choudary, whose 2009 protests against Luton troops provided the opportunity for the EDL’s launch. Darren saw the soldiers as workers like himself; he was pro-Palestinian and anti-war, but supported the anti-Choudary protests, understanding them as Luton residents standing up to outsiders pushing them around.

Darren mentions having bought Socialist Worker once and having read articles in it against the war in the Iraq but – unlike the 1970s, where the left usually had a base in the very areas that the National Front contested – there is never a sense in Angry White People of the left being any sort of option for potential EDL joiners. The choice is either the EDL or representative politics as usual.

In Pai’s book, Darren is a good introduction to the ideological blurredness of the EDL, which in reality runs through much of the organisation. Pai mentions the last book about the EDL, the participant-memoir ‘Coming Down the Road’, but perhaps could have made more of its author’s name “Billy (i.e. the poet William) Blake” and other, incompatible heroes, Bessie Braddock (the doyenne of the old Labour right in Liverpool) and Dave Nellist of Militant.

Darren was present on many of the early EDL marches. He listened to the EDL’s anti-racist critics and felt torn. He detached himself from the EDL’s social events, but continued marching. Darren attended the protests with a “black and white unite” banner, testing how much space there would be in this new movement for the diverse group of football supporters who he had thought were its original core. Darren was disgruntled to see Carroll taking his grandfather’s wartime medals to an EDL protest, in order to wave off criticisms that he came from a Catholic (i.e. Irish) background. Carroll was lying to himself and to his supporters, Darren thought. In such clashes, you can see the working out of the kind of tensions that sociologist Satnam Virdee has talked about in his work on the “racialized other”.

The liveliest parts of Angry White People are reminiscent of Inso Hasselbach’s book Führer Ex or Matthew Collins’ Hate in describing Darren’s journey out of the far right. By the end of the book he has joined the Labour Party, only to be disappointed by their unwillingness to tackle racism directly.

The EDL’s Tommy Robinson, of course, has been going through a more public process of reinvention after his own departure from the EDL. Pai is generous about the local activists who encouraged Robinson to leave. She is, however, gently scathing about the Quilliam Foundation, which was in some financial difficulty when it met Robinson and benefitted from the publicity that accompanied his departure. By the end of her book, you doubt that Robinson can stay away from the far right for long.

The third main interviewee after Darren and Tommy Robinson is Paul Sillett of Unite Against Fascism, who is quoted repeatedly without authorial comment. Pai also speaks much more briefly to activists from Sisters Against the EDL, but it is a shame that she saw no need to interview anyone from the Anti-Fascist Network, who have after all been so much more visible than Unite Against Fascism at Dover, in Liverpool, and at many other protests for two years now.

Overall, this is an exemplary account of the working class milieu in which a version of the far right began. The main thing I will take away from Pai’s book is the failure of socialists to build in the areas where the present government’s austerity politics have hit hardest. If we are ever again going to have a left of which we can be unambiguously proud, one place it would surely have to prove itself would be in the very terraces and on the same estates where the EDL was born.

Originally published by RS21