Monthly Archives: April 2016

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


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’



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’



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]