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Rule, Britannia! Do we want peace with Europe or victory?

The bad thing about iPlayer is that we all end up watching something different. The good thing about iPlayer is that we all end up watching something different. You stumble across gems at the back of the digital cupboard with little idea of when they were broadcast or why. So it was that I found myself gripped by two-part drama The Sinking of the Laconia (which I’ve since discovered was first broadcast in 2011). Rather like Titanic, it relies on the writer’s skill to weave enough surprise and humanity around the inevitable plotline. And these writers did – a refreshing Anglo-German team involving the BBC, ARD and SWR – who told the aftermath of the torpedoing of a British cruise liner carrying PoWs and British civilians … from both sides.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a war film told from both sides before. Of course, when characters on both sides are humanised, there’s no clear line dividing goodies from baddies. There are more and less noble people on both sides, who behave well and less well at different moments. In other words, it’s like real life.

I was reminded of Afua Hirsch’s recent Channel 4 documentary, The Battle for Britain’s Heroes, in which she persuasively argued that Britain needs to re-examine its heroes and for a more rounded national narrative. She asked questions about the slave trade’s links to Nelson and Bristol benefactor Edward Colston. We saw her asking about Churchill’s role in the Bengal famine. Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and founding director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, was the first white man she interviewed who agreed with her unreservedly. She then highlighted Germany as a nation that has re-appraised its heroes. I wanted her to take her ideas further, but it was clear she had had as much Twitter abuse for them as she could take.

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Afua Hirsch called for a closer examination of Britain’s heroes

The more I look back at my history education the more I’m embarrassed by the gaps in it. Having gained an A at GCSE and then taken an MA in Middle Eastern studies 20 years later, I feel qualified to generalise, given that 30-40 per cent of pupils take history as far as GCSE, while only 40-50,000 get to A-level and beyond.

My GCSE covered the Tudors, and the history of medicine, so my pre-Year 10 knowledge of other episodes went like this: First World War = trenches; Empire = ¼ of the globe; Second World War = Blitz and Holocaust. One contemporary GCSE syllabus, for example, teaches about Germany from 1890 to 1945 – the turbulent, violent decades without the arguably more astonishing cultural, physical and spiritual rebuilding that followed.

The postwar period cropped up during my German A-level, which fewer and fewer pupils take now. I learnt about the slave trade while living in Bristol, stumbling across the appalling diagrams of how-to-fit-the-most-bodies-in-a-hull in the university library. The church I attended wrestled with the legacy of the trade, and later films such as Amazing Grace celebrated the reformers who fought and fought to get it abolished.

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Humble: Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt during a 1970 visit to the site of the Warsaw Uprising

In Britain we have crafted ourselves not only a narrative of military victory, but also of moral one. We allow ourselves nationwide Remembrance with all its pageantry and solemnity. We don’t worry about the damage we inflicted during the wars because we were fighting evil, so it was in a good cause. Neither do we readily recall that we won only with the Empire-wide coalition of Allies and Stalin’s Russia. We should know better.

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Another view of Empire

Watching Laconia brought home to me just how dangerous a simplistic narrative is. The drama tells the remarkable story of the U-boat commander who rescues hundreds of survivors from the liner he torpedoed, and invites Allied forces to pick them up, promising not to attack. He has a Red Cross flag draped over his sub. Italian and Vichy-French craft collect the Italian PoWs. The British in Freetown tell the Americans to look for remnants of the liner but cynically neglect to mention the sub or the mainly British survivors in need of rescue, some of whom are sitting pathetically in lifeboats. The Americans send out planes with pilots who, despite seeing the flag, drop two bombs on the sub, sinking two lifeboats, killing dozens of survivors, damaging the sitting-duck sub and potentially committing a prima facie war crime.

Who were the goodies there? Who were the baddies?

Towards the end of the dramatisation of the Laconiastory, the character of the hero, Commander Hartenstein, says he looks forward to peace. “Not victory?” asks a British junior officer.

The distinction could not be more important. And I wonder what our country still hankers after. Peace with the nations all about it, or a sense of victory over them, bolstered by an isolationist, even supremacist, outlook?

If we believe that our goal is victory over our threatening neighbours, we will see the EU as a threat to sovereignty and Brexit a blessed release. If we believe our goal is peace with our flawed neighbours, we will see the EU as a modern-day miracle and Brexit a potential tragedy.

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‘It has felt like a house under siege’

 

My piece published in the Church Times, 1 June:

Abigail Frymann Rouch speaks to clergy victims of stalking, and asks whether enough is being done to support them

IT WAS trauma that brought the Revd Graham Sawyer into closer contact with one of his female parishioners: she witnessed her husband killing himself, in front of their children.

“I then exercised the pastoral care that would be expected of any priest,” he recalls. “Unfortunately, she became very dependent on me, and it became a sort of infatuated obsession. . . Her demands on me became impossible for me to meet, which gave her a pseudo-legitimacy to turn her obsession into hate.”

Continue reading “‘It has felt like a house under siege’”

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Barry Humphries, the Nazis and the revealing generation gap

Every so often you start on a project believing to be about one thing, and end up miles past your original destination having discovered a totally different story. I had that pleasure when I saw advertised a programme of music that had been banned by the Nazis. Continue reading “Barry Humphries, the Nazis and the revealing generation gap”

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The real culprit in the Rudd deportations scandal

So Amber Rudd has resigned, saying she had “inadvertently misled” MPs over whether she knew the Home Office set targets for deportations of illegal immigrants. Cue unusually widespread outrage. This could only have happened right after the Windrush scandal had come to light. Thanks to the diligent reporting of the Guardian, alarming stories emerged of long-term tax-paying, law-abiding, UK residents being treated like illegal immigrants: facing eviction; withdrawal of benefits, eligibility to work or NHS access; and being threatened with forced returns to countries they had not lived in for decades.

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The man wearing this rather striking top was a Kurd I met at the camp at Dunkirk shortly before it burnt down last year. He was hoping to reach Dover by hiding in a lorry. But using ‘migrant’ as a general term fails to distinguish between legal and illegal arrivals, and the many reasons behind them

Theresa May said yesterday that regarding illegal immigrants, the Government was “responding to the need that people see for the Government to deal with illegal immigration”. Her “hostile environment” comment followed an election pledge to reduce net immigration to the “tens of thousands” annually – that was not an example of her going out on a limb, but formed part of her party’s manifesto in 2010 and again in 2015.

Former home secretary Ken Clarke on yesterday’s BBC Radio 4’s World at One [13’07”] said: “There are hundreds of thousands of people here who get smuggled in on lorries or overstay their visitors’ visas and work in the black economy, get sent to prison sometimes, and still don’t leave. The Home Office doesn’t talk very much about the illegals that we have, mainly from the Middle East, some from the Sub-continent and a lot from Africa, and to persuade ordinary, sensible, civilised people that we do have some control, you need to tackle that.”

What if Rudd had done more to explain that last week, albeit with more temperate language and precise figures, and making the distinction between the various categories, instead of trying to deny that there were targets for deportation?

Certainly, the usually anti-immigrant parts of the press made that distinction, expressing outrage at the appallingly unjust treatment of Windrush citizens.

Last night Tory MP Oliver Letwin, grandson of refugees, told BBC Newsnight that politicians had for decades downplayed the benefits that migrants bring to this country.

What is the reason that successive governments have instead pledged to reduce (totally legal) immigration – and then not done so? At the most mercenary level, because they appreciate the economic argument for migrants’ labour and skills, given our own ageing population, skills gaps, low birth rate and so on.

A positive legacy from last week, as Sajid Javid takes over from Rudd, would be a more nuanced public discourse on immigration that includes the humanising and informative distinctions of who, when and why. Ken Clarke’s breakdown didn’t give the full spectrum of why people come here: work, study, family, or to claim asylum because of war or persecution – or that some people who are trafficked may be victims of modern slavery in need of rescue, not arrest.

Anti-migration pledges have long felt like crowd-pleasers – and that’s just it. Why have politicians made such pledges? Because that’s what they think will tickle voters’ ears. Why do right-wing tabloids put negative stories about migrants on their front pages? Because that’s what they think their readers want to read. So the villain of the piece is not Amber Rudd, or even Theresa May before her. Politicians were doing what they believed a substantial chunk of the electorate wanted, and this, whether we like the result or not, is what it looked like.

Top photos via Wikipedia 

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The free speech – hate speech dilemma

Populism is fuelled in part by political correctness that tells people their views cannot be aired. That was one conclusion of a panel of experts last week at a launch of a report by the think tank Demos. Those discussing the report, “Mediating populism”, thought that if views are silenced, they do not disappear, they only go underground to reappear more vigorously in the future, trampling on bounds of “acceptable” discourse. For example in Germany, where the Third Reich is taught as the most sombre warning, the suggestion that ordinary soldiers could be remembered well has morphed into a recommendation from a far-right leader that alarmed many Germans. The co-founder of the increasingly popular Alternative für Deutschland said Germans should be proud of soldiers’ actions in the two world wars just as Brits are proud of Nelson or Churchill.

Continue reading “The free speech – hate speech dilemma”

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What the snow isn’t telling us

The thermometer outside my window this morning read minus 3 degrees Celcius, or so I discovered once I had dusted off the overnight snow fall from it. A mile from central London.

People say we’re experiencing a winter “how it used to be”. One could dream that Nature had forgiven us our decades – centuries – of burning excesses and had graciously turned the clock back.

Continue reading “What the snow isn’t telling us”

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Archbishop Welby’s Lent author rejects ‘lazy’ formula of God as ‘He’

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book this year comes from an Italian academic and Benedictine monk called Luigi Gioia, who chided himself as “lazy” for not finding ways to describe God other than “He”.

The book itself, Say it to God: In search of prayer (Bloomsbury), is an insightful and thought-provoking meditation on dialogue with God, which Lord Williams, presenting it in his successor’s absence (Welby was in Switzerland), hoped would become an “instant classic of the English-speaking world”.

Continue reading “Archbishop Welby’s Lent author rejects ‘lazy’ formula of God as ‘He’”

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Priests, Savile, Weinstein, Oxfam: What do the abuse scandals have in common? And it’s not sex

It happened in the Catholic Church and the Catholic Church was blamed.

It happened in the Anglican Churches and the Anglican Churches were blamed.

It happened in the BBC and its most loyal defenders cried, “Surely not!”

It happened in football clubs and a helpline for victims was quickly overwhelmed.

It happened in Hollywood and people began to talk of a culture of exploitation.

Now it has happened in the aid world and reports this week are urgently examining why.

Continue reading “Priests, Savile, Weinstein, Oxfam: What do the abuse scandals have in common? And it’s not sex”

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What’s curious about the Presidents Club dinner

Forgive me for being late to the afterparty with this, but the now-notorious the Presidents Club charity dinner touches on more issues than first meet the eye.

It’s easy to be appalled by the dinner, where women working as hostesses were instructed to wear skimpy dresses, and its afterparty, at which some of the guests – wealthy business leaders – harassed and groped some of them.

Continue reading “What’s curious about the Presidents Club dinner”

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Why do people say stupid things on Twitter?

If you had 140 characters with which to say write something that would be visible across the whole internet, why would you say something petty or offensive? Yet our habits on Twitter, which has 330m users, suggest we often do just that.

Toby Young, journalist, schools pioneer and Twitter abuser, enjoyed a reign shorter than Lady Jane Grey’s before quitting as non-executive director on the board of the new regulatory Office for Students.

His comments about women’s breasts, lesbians, another man’s breath (guess you had to be there) and apparently underworked teachers, ranged from vile to unfortunate-given-his-new-role-involving-students. He has since deleted thousands of tweets, but opponents have treasured up a choice few and republished them. Nothing really dies in cyberspace – except dignity.

Continue reading “Why do people say stupid things on Twitter?”

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Brexit: why a rematch is democratic

When is the will of the people not the will of the people? Daniel Finkelstein argued in The Times yesterday that a second referendum on Brexit could not be held because “the damage done to trust in democracy would be huge”. He also characterised the June 2016 vote as when millions of people “challenged the interests and attitudes of the political establishment”.

But he depicts a simpler picture than – and the politicians he cites failed to foresee – the fractious muddle we have ended up with. For a start, we are talking about the will of 52 per cent of voters. And it has since emerged that more than 400 fake Twitter accounts believed to be run from St Petersburg put out tweets about Brexit. So we may be falling over ourselves to uphold a result that reflects the will of some wily Russian hackers.

Continue reading “Brexit: why a rematch is democratic”

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ISIS and the Reformation

This morning’s Times contains a heartening piece that reports that a statue smashed up by members of ISIS at the ancient site of Palmyra in Syria has been reconstructed using laser technology. The same wizardry, which has been pioneered by the Oxford-based Institute of Digital Archaeology means that reconstruction of other artefacts destroyed by the group can be “done in an afternoon, while a traditional reconstruction can involve years of research, academic argument and highly skilled craftsmanship”.

And, the Times article continues, the technique is being used to recreate buildings and religious objects smashed during the English Reformation, including Newstead Abbey, ancestral home of the poet Lord Byron.

Ron Inglis, of Nottingham city council, said: “The destruction during the Reformation has parallels to how Isis dealt with religious monuments. What we want to do is to try to recreate what the interior of the priory church would have been like.”

Continue reading “ISIS and the Reformation”

Is secularisation fuelling violence and threats against Christian clergy?

My story for the Sunday Telegraph:

Growing secularisation is leading to an increase in violence and verbal abuse against Christian clergy, experts fear.

Priests told of experiences including discovering a witchcraft symbol sprayed on a church door and being followed home as academics launched a mass survey of priests to find out the scale of the problem.

There are also concerns that sex abuse scandals and a growing number of female clergy is contributing to a growth in threats and violence against priests.

Academics at Royal Holloway, University of London, are to survey around 7,000 Church of England clergy using £5,000 in funding from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

The survey, which is to be circulated online this month, will ask clergy whether they have experienced verbal abuse, threats or physical violence in the last two years, and how often church property is damaged.

Read the full story here:

Easter cards, Crucified Stormtrooper and the Watership Down takeover 

Given that Holy Week and Easter are about many superlative things – the heights of divine grace, the depths of human betrayal and cruelty – I will resist the urge to join in with making it a time of moaning (Easter eggs not having the word Easter on them etc.)

But I will indulge in a little tale of my search for tasteful, meaningful Easter cards. I have got to that stage in life where Easter cards seem like a good idea. Continue reading “Easter cards, Crucified Stormtrooper and the Watership Down takeover “