Ukraine: why the post-war promise of ‘never again’ has failed

As a child of the Eighties I was introduced to the horrors of two world wars with the promise “never again”. Never again would a single despotic leader be able to invade another sovereign country with impunity; never again would an entire people face annihilation. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has shown these safeguards to be hollow.

As a child of the Eighties I was introduced to the horrors of two world wars with the promise “never again”. Never again would a single despotic leader be able to invade another sovereign country with impunity; never again would an entire people face annihilation. No – now we had structural safeguards to curtail malign power and protect peace: the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction that argued that surely no leader would actually fire a nuclear weapon, given that Armageddon would quickly ensue. 

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has shown these safeguards to be hollow. He has invaded another sovereign country claiming to “deNazify” it; an entire population is left vastly under-defended in the face of his relentless shelling and air raids. And yet, like the villain holding the heroine at gunpoint before her rescuer, he has warned Nato not to involve itself unless it wants to see consequences “you have never seen in your history”.

Effectively, his warning suggests, we are all being held at gunpoint, and looking on in horror as his forces – sluggish as they may have been – bomb endless military and civilian targets: residences, hospitals, a shopping centre, even the humanitarian corridors created to get unarmed Ukrainians to safety. 

What of the UN Security Council? Where are its condemnations? Its hands are tied because Russia is a permanent member and currently holds presidency of it. Could Russia be kicked off it, or even out of the UN? No. According to the UN Charter, “A Member of the United Nations which has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter may be expelled from the Organization by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” But Russia would never vote to be expelled.

Instead, Russia has obfuscated and misinformed, claiming at Security Council meetings that the US has biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine and denying it is targeting civilians. 

Some people would say the impotence of the UN institutions was already evident in earlier crises. Efforts to hold Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad responsible for crimes against humanity in 2012, early in his country’s civil war, failed because security council members Russia and China refused to back such efforts. (When an international chemical weapons watchdog found that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, the US accused Russia of blocking an investigation into their use.) And what sanctions did Britain and the US face for invading Iraq in 2003 without the backing of the UN Security Council? 

Sadly the worst damage inflicted by the Iraq invasion was not that done to the hundreds of thousands of displaced or ended lives, or the destroyed homes, infrastructure and cultural symbols that nurtured those lives. No, the most serious damage was that by ignoring the Security Council, the US and UK inadvertently opened the way for other nations to replicate such destruction in other contexts. 

With Ukraine, clearly it is vital that other routes to a ceasefire are found. Targeted sanctions are welcome and must be strengthened; European nations must somehow, quickly, find alternatives to buying Russian fossil fuels. Lord Alton, a human rights lawyer, also suggests blacklisting Russia as a terrorist state and suspending it from the World Trade Organisation, and getting the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog involved.  However, sanctions that punish the Russian people as a whole are risky – while they could turn their anger against Putin, he could instead goad them to turn it against the West.

Worthy discussions about how to hold Putin to account are also under way: Gordon Brown favours a Nuremberg-style trial; the International Criminal Court is investigating possible war crimes in Ukraine. These are all very well, but feel rather academic when the death toll climbs daily. Short of a coup, how would you persuade a man such as Putin to pop down to the Hague to attend a trial? All these steps might spare the next country in Putin’s sights – but what is there to stop the onslaught now? 

It is clear that the UN Charter – passionately and altruistically crafted to prevent another world war – did not envisage that a powerful, nuclear-armed member would actually want to return to the sort of destruction we are now seeing daily on our screens. It aimed “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, advocating “tolerance and liv[ing] together in peace with one another as good neighbours”. But as Putin has already ripped up the rules on what UN members can get away with, other member states need to rapidly recraft the safeguards that were supposed to ensure that violence on such a scale never happened again.  

Above: The port city of Mariupol, which the BBC has described as ‘the most heavily bombed and damaged city in Ukraine’s war with Russia’. Photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine

I despair of the maleness of the Bible

The confrontational military imagery leaves me cold; St Paul’s legal arguments for the reasoning of the Gospel likewise. Women have had to shoehorn their experiences of God into men’s descriptions of Him for too long


O Lord, let me not be overwhelmed.

From without and within I am surrounded.

Mocking men belittle me, they judge me by standards they do not keep.

In their hearts are only lust and vanity.

Day after day I have tried to make peace. I seek no glory for myself; boasting is never on my lips.  

My thoughts swirl around me like a storm, and fear overtakes me.

My hormones crush me to the point of sorrow.

“Your God is good?,” they laugh. “Has he really prospered you?”

Silence them, O God.  

My body is weakened but my hope is in you. Restore my strength, O God.

Have you read this Psalm lately? Me neither. My pastiche may be humble but my point is that anyone reading the Bible is handed a book 100 per cent written by men. Not one single Biblical author is a woman. Not even the books named after women – Esther, Ruth (all two of them).

We know the reasons why: until the last century or so, women were less likely to write anything, or even to be taught to write. And Judeo-Christian traditions are historically built on male priesthoods. Female spiritual writers crop up by the Middle Ages, mystics such as Hildegard von Bingen, St Julian of Norwich, St Bridget of Sweden, later St Teresa of Avila. But they are still a tiny minority.

So what? Because over the centuries Christians have gone to the ends of the earth to ensure that believers can access the Scriptures in their own language, in order to demonstrate that the Messiah is for all and is close to all. And yet sometimes when I open my Bible its maleness sometimes feels like a foreign language to me. The confrontational military imagery leaves me cold; St Paul’s legal arguments for the reasoning of the Gospel likewise.

The Song of Solomon, which includes lines for the female lead (described in the passive as “the Beloved”), was not, as far as we know, written by Solomon and one of his hundreds of wives – nope, it was just by him. Would the “friends” of poor Job have been quite so lacking in empathy if they had been women? Even the Psalms, which I find more accessible than many of the books in the Bible – not a single one is written by a woman, so they all reflect the worldviews or faith-views of men. God is a Father, God is a rock, God is a shield, God is a horn – big, strong things. (They remind me of the imagery plastered all over my toddler son’s clothing: diggers and dinosaurs unlike the fairies and unicorns in the girls’ section.)

A few years ago there was a grave concern in that the charismatics were “feminising” the Church. There was a genre of contemporary song jokingly described as “Jesus is my girlfriend”. I’m not a fan of songs so vacuous that the word “Jesus” can be switched for the word “baby”, and would look at home in the charts. But if you are talking about songs that might speak to over half the congregation (and women usually make up way over half in churches) then why be so dismissive? Women have had to shoehorn their experiences of God into men’s descriptions of Him for centuries. Isn’t it time men did the same for a bit, without moaning?

Many people now read their Bible in inclusive language, so the most obvious instances of excluding women have been addressed. But these are small changes that don’t address the substance of what is written. If the Bible more accurately described the faith-experience of women, perhaps there would also be a better understanding of what a woman is. She is not simply a man with different bits. She has her own way of seeing the world and processing it, based on experiences unique to her. Therefore the Church cannot simply put male-written bits of Scripture into her mouth and assume they adequately express how she wants to relate to God.

I am not saying I don’t believe Scripture is divinely inspired. But I do wonder how it would read if those God had inspired had been women rather than men: female Psalmists, female chroniclers, female wisdom, an account by one of the educated women in Jesus’ or Paul’s circle in the first-century Roman Empire? Instead of Psalms to be sung on the eve of battle, how about a Psalm that described the fear around giving birth? That would at once be historically illuminating, spiritually honest, and would right a tragic historical wrong by showing women’s bodies to be incredible but frail, rather than sinful or intimidating and not to be talked about. (Giving birth is, of course, just one experience that’s more about woman than man.)

I would like to hear more from Miriam, Ruth and Esther; from Mary, the mother of Jesus; from Mary and Martha; from Mary Magdalene; from Pilate’s wife (whatever her name is); from Phoebe. It is too late, but let us at least hear from female authors and theologians today imagining what they might have said, or interpreting biblical authors such as David and Paul. A touching example I recall comes from Bridget Plass. In her book Dear Paul, am I the only one? she imagined a social worker of a teenage girl writing to the Apostle. The girl had destroyed effects to do with her birth family on the advice of the enthusiastic church she had joined, that had advised her to “forget what is behind and strain towards what is ahead” (Phil 3). I had always found that passage impossible, even irresponsible. Plass imagined Paul replying that he was writing only what he as a man on death row had found helpful.

Such contextualisation I had never heard from a male preacher. Plass’s pastoral touch made Paul more palatable and allowed compassion to be read between the lines. We need more of these voices today.  

Re-examining the slave trade is good for Britain

This week the statue of Lord Nelson was taken down in a dignified ceremony to be taken to a museum. The monument to the naval leader who had defended slavery had been a symbol of pain and humiliation, and its removal was described by culture minister John King as “a step towards the healing of the nation”. 

Despite the efforts of Black Lives Matter protestors, the statue wasn’t atop Nelson’s Column in London; it had been standing in the Barbadian capital Bridgetown for more than two centuries. 

Throughout the Anglophone world, calls are growing for the re-examination of the slave era. In Britain there is more public interest in Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and the industries that relied on slave labour now than at any other time in recent decades. This is partly because staggeringly little is known about it among certain generations and partly because attitudes have shifted away from the assumption that the Empire was simply a force for good, towards wanting to hear the experiences of the black and brown people who now call Britain home.  

And as historian James Walvin said in Enslaved, the recent BBC Two series with Samuel L Jackson, the reason that the British public tolerated involvement in slavery persisted so long was: “out of sight, out of mind”. 

Yet the newly rediscovered interest in Britain’s deep involvement with slavery has the power to disgust and revolt as it did 200 years ago, when abolitionists were travelling the country revealing to incredulous audiences the British-made iron shackles and torture implements being used in and en route to the Caribbean.  

After the statue of benefactor Edward Colston was dragged through the streets of Bristol and tipped into the city’s harbour in June, journalists reported that his employer, the Royal African Company, branded the West Africans it sold as slaves – men, women and children – with the initials of their owners. This detail was, to many people, news.

Portraits of the Georgian aspiring middle classes depict respectability. The Vigor Family by Joseph Highmore, 1744, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Just as Colston had a hidden side, so do many other figures and events we haven’t tended to associate with slavery. It was King Charles II who expanded British slavery into West Africa; it was the Industrial Revolution that enabled the mass production of restraints that were to be used on African slaves and the “manila” bracelets (often in factories in Birmingham) with which slaves could be bought. Our images of wigged noblemen dashing from stately homes to Georgian townhouses in pursuit of Jane Austen heroines all need serious updating. How did those noblemen make their money? What funded those mansions? The British economy was increasingly built around slavery, so even people not involved in human trade or forced labour may well have only been one step removed. 

Manilas such as these made in Birmingham were used as currency to buy slaves. Credit: Coincoin.com

The process of writing slavery back into our history is gaining pace. Last month the Financial Times told its readers about an “uncomfortable” walking tour of the City of London, a “financier of slave industries and a hotbed of abolitionism”. Institutions such as the Church of England and the Bank of England have apologised for their links to slavery. Other institutions’ links have been brought to light by recent academic work, while still others are hastily and nervously peering into their own archives.  

Of course, for this to become an academic exercise, or, worse still, just a reputation-saving one – would be a great shame. There is something deeply right, and therapeutic, about opening the door to reckoning when it comes knocking. Britain’s reputation here has not been good. Whenever someone (usually a black person) suggests reparations should be paid, some people (usually whites) roll their eyes and say history has moved on, and how would you know whom to pay and so on. 

Yet on the other side of the ocean, several institutions are just getting on with working it out. Let’s start with the Churches, whose historic involvement in slavery is particularly morally jarring. In the US, a number of Episcopalian (Anglican) and Presbyterian institutions have earmarked or collected funds for reparations. The diocese of Maryland has so far raised US$100,000 of a sought $1,000,000 and Long Island has pledged $500,000 to invest in education and training for local African-Americans. Georgetown (Catholic) University in Washington has undertaken a host of measures, partly under pressure from students, including raising tuition fees to support healthcare and education programmes in Maryland and Louisiana, which are home to many descendants of 272 slaves the university sold in 1838. 

These actions are striking because they reflect a heartfelt willingness to undo some of the long-lasting social and structural injustices erected by the slave era. What would the altruism seen at Georgetown achieve if it were replicated by banks, that have far more money than Churches, or governments? And what about the trade that continues today – how wealthy would the Caribbean be if every tonne of sugar or coffee it produces were traded at fair rates?

A fuller understanding of the black experience of slavery, along with the payment of reparations, could be an uncomfortable and costly process, but the result will be a more honest acknowledgement of possibly the most shameful chapter in Britain’s history, and an opportunity to affirm the rights of those who were so badly wronged.

Above: Nelson’s statue is driven away through the streets of Bridgetown. Via Sky News.

Letter from a Barbadian – topple structures before statues

The pulling down of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol by Black Lives Matter protestors has reignited the debate around Britain’s historic involvement in slavery as well as sparking fears of hasty revisionism and lawlessness. Here Barbadian blogger Safiya Robinson offers a different approach, calling for a deeper public understanding of the story at the heart of the controversy  

I had so many feelings when I heard that the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol had been torn down and thrown into the harbour. 

When I moved from Barbados to the UK in the 1990s, Bristol was the first place I lived, studied and worked. It was there I learned that my new university friends knew nothing of the enslavement and transportation of Africans to the Caribbean and Americas. Instead they had learned a whitewashed view of history.

As someone who studied Caribbean history in secondary school, I was puzzled. Isn’t history just facts of what happened when? Given the fact that so much of the history of former colonies is British history, I wondered how the historians had managed to gloss over this – especially given how much of the wealth in the UK was built from profits generated through the trading of enslaved Africans and their labour. 

It seems instead the focus was on the generosity of figures such as Colston, without mention of the source of his wealth. 

I have heard the arguments that slavery was legal, and that is why the economic and philanthropic contributions of figures like Colston were celebrated. However, not mentioning connections to the slave trade sounds more like shame than acceptance of their involvement.

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade is now an optional part of the British curriculum for 11-13 year olds, so I hope that the younger generation will consign the ignorance I encountered to the past. There is much that I hope is included, and much that I want anyone older to understand.

Teaching should include what took the Europeans to the Americas – a search for an alternative route to Asia, a search for riches and undiscovered lands, and how the people native to the Caribbean – the Lokono, Taino and Caribs – were enslaved to work in agriculture and largely eradicated by European diseases and firearms. It should include the use of indentured servants in the seventeenth century, often from Ireland, which was a precursor to slavery, and the sanctioning of the slave trade by the Church and government. It should include the triangle slave trade, the deaths of thousands of enslaved Africans en route, their bodies thrown overboard, and survivors traded as chattel. 

I would want people to understand that the measures used to maintain power and supremacy in the Americas were psychology and brute force, and that abolition campaigns were only one factor in the ending of slavery, alongside economic ones (a decline in sugar trade, the Industrial Revolution increasing cotton production in the UK) and resistance by the enslaved people throughout the Caribbean. The inequity that existed after slavery between the White Europeans, who still held the majority of power in the Americas, and the freed people of African descent who had fewer rights – this inequity continues. And the post-colonial legacy on the Caribbean islands left them largely dependent on the countries that previously ruled them. 

This should be basic learning for all Brits, not just an optional inclusion for children – an understanding that the wealth and power of an empire was built on the backs and work of enslaved peoples, who still fight to this day for equality with their White counterparts in the Americas, and in the UK, centuries after the end of slavery.

If we are unaware of our history, then we run the risk of it repeating itself, and speaking as a Black Caribbean woman, I have no interest in that. Instead, I hope for a greater understanding of the shared histories of the UK and the Americas, and the toppling of the structures that represent the whitewashing of history. I want more respect and honour for those whose lives were sacrificed through slavery and the slave trade, and for the descendants who play such a vital role in British society and are your neighbours, colleagues and friends. 

Safiya Robinson is an author and blogger who lives, works and writes in Barbados. You will find her blog at www.39andcounting.com. She is also a dentist and a keen world traveller. You can find her book “Everything is a thing – my journey to living a truly authentic life” on Amazon.

Above: The Parliament Buildings in Bridgetown, Barbados, were fashioned after those in London. The square opposite used to be called Trafalgar Square but in 1999 was renamed National Heroes Square.

What next after the toppling of Colston?

Edward Colston, the slave trader whose statue was toppled by protestors and rolled into Bristol harbour yesterday, was described the year after his death as “the brightest Example of Christian Liberality that this Age has produced both for the extensiveness of his Charities and for the prudent Regulation of them.” 

Colston’s wealth came from trade, including in slaves. It is estimated that while he worked for the Royal African Company around 84,000 men, women and children were forcibly transported to the Americans and the Caribbean as slaves on tobacco and sugar plantations, although around 19,000 perished en route, their bodies tossed overboard. 

During his lifetime (1636-1721) Colston was known as a generous philanthropist, supporting and founding schools. Yet his generosity extended only to those who shared his views. 

Only in the last two decades has the city begun to discuss its part in the slave trade and disentangle itself from bizarre array of traditions and church services that took place to maintain his honour. Councillors had got as far as to suggest adding a second plaque to the statue, addressing his slave links, but could not agree on what it should say

They have missed their chance. The Grade II-listed monument now lies at the bottom of Bristol Harbour following the actions of protestors of various ethnicities. Speaking yesterday, TV historian David Olusoga told the BBC: “Today should never have happened, because this statue should have been taken down. And it should have been a great collective day for Britain and Bristol when the statue was peacefully taken down and put in a museum, which is where, after all, we remember history properly.” Indeed – by all means display the statue in the city museum along with photographs and footage from yesterday, which are all part of Colston’s and slavery’s uneasy legacy. 

Disappointingly, Home Secretary Priti Patel viewed the incident only through a law and order lens, linking it unfairly with the few violent acts at otherwise peaceful protests in London. She descried the toppling of the statue as “utterly disgraceful”, adding that “it speaks to the acts of public disorder that have become a distraction from the cause people are protesting about”.

Does it? The protestors yesterday didn’t go on a looting spree through the city centre, they didn’t hit out at anyone. No arrests were made. They didn’t injure 27 police officers, throw glass bottles or light flares – that was in London. As for the statue, Bristol’s Labour Mayor Marvin Rees, who is of Jamaican descent, told Channel 4 News he “couldn’t support criminal damage or social disorder,” but he added: “We have a statue up to someone who made their money by sometimes throwing the bodies of his commodities, our people, into water. There’s a piece of almost historical poetry here.” 

And perhaps a sense of homecoming: after centuries of the most horrific forms of abuse of Africans, the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota arrived in the city from where some of the earliest British slave ships docked from Africa and set sail for the Americas and the Caribbean.

Colston’s fall needs to be followed by dialogue and constructive action, and Bristol could serve as a model for the country and beyond. It is vital that black citizens explain the way they would like to see wrongs righted, rather than having non-black leaders decide what’s needed. Which structures and institutions reinforce and legitimise a worldview that puts whites firmly on top? Which street names? What else needs to be moved to a museum before it gets ripped down in frustration?

What has become clear in the two short weeks since the Black Lives Matter protests began is that us white people don’t even realise how we perpetuate racial inequalities. So let’s learn. 

In this crisis, the Church needs to reach out

We are often told that in times of need or distress, people turn to religion. The nation, pretty much the whole world, has been stilled and quieted by lockdowns to prevent the further spread of the Coronavirus. As the Queen pointed out, people have time to “slow down, pause and reflect”. One might expect the Church to pipe up with a message of hope. But what exactly is it saying?

Quite a lot, it turns out, but you have to know where to look. It is not, as Jonathan Clark argued recently in these pages, “the dog that failed to bark in the night”. But anyone expecting an archbishop or senior theologian to be regularly on the news offering consolation and wisdom will have been disappointed. So far we’ve seen a handful of appearances by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on Newsnight. His successor Justin Welby and the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols have both appeared on ITV news.

BBC local radio are broadcasting “from-the-living-room” services by senior bishops, which the CofE is live-streaming on its website and Facebook pages. The Church says these have attracted some 2m viewers, not counting those listening via local radio. Unsurprisingly the most polished services come from the well resourced, well organised churches such as Holy Trinity Brompton. Other churches’ online offerings can be hard to find, variable in quality or both.

This article was first published on TheArticle.com. To continue reading, click here.

Photo: Pastorsline

Coronavirus and the common good

The coronavirus crisis has prompted a remarkable shift from the individual to the collective. It is incumbent on the government to recognise the power of this and ditch its Brexit-era rhetoric of division and scape-goating.

What were you doing on Monday, before the Prime Minister effectively introduced lockdown measures? Or a week ago before the pubs shut? Two weeks ago when employees were urged not to commute to work? One month ago when Coronavirus only seemed relevant to returnees from Italy and Asia? Freedoms have vanished at such a rate that it is hard to keep count of them.

Which freedom do you miss the most? One of the most unimaginable – at least until very recently – is the almost total lack of air travel. The effect of the pandemic on pollution is beyond an environmentalist’s dreams; the near constant hum of engines has been replaced by birdsong. Those most at risk from the grounding of air transport are not sun-starved travel junkies but the many thousands of airport and airline employees, caterers and taxi drivers. From the consumer perspective, freedoms such as travel and socialising in safety have been a great luxury that most of us took for granted. In Britain we may look back on the years leading up to 2020 and wonder why we spent them trying to “take back control”. We had more control than we knew what to do with, but didn’t realise it could so easily slip from our hands.

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Above: playgrounds and exercise areas have been locked as part of the measures to prevent people passing the virus on to others

What’s missing from the Christian creed

Christmas is behind us and the last leftovers have made their way from fridge to waist. Which means it is another 11 ½ months until we get to hear that festive wonder – of believers, agnostics and atheists belting out Charles Wesley’s exuberant Hark the Herald-Angels Sing: “Hail! the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings…”

Such lines have for me cast a shadow over other familiar words that inhabit our churches – the Creed. Every time I recite it, I feel more frustrated by it.

The Creed is clearly important in marking in stone the edges of Christian belief – what it is, and what it is not. Like a thick wall, it serves to safeguard the flock from non-Christian beliefs and distinguish Christianity from other belief systems.

But in all the times I have listened to Christians explaining their journey to faith, I have never heard anyone say, misty-eyed, they were attracted by Jesus’ being “begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father”. Instead they often talk about the help, comfort and hope they derive from their relationship with Him.

The Nicene Creed, adopted in the fourth century, or the older Apostles’ Creed, make sense when situated in the bustling marketplace of pagan and polytheistic beliefs of their day, and the Arian heresy that claimed Christ was effectively lesser than God the Father. But after centuries of monotheistic belief, our Western default setting hovers between Christianity and atheism, and the arguments against religion have changed.

As Rupert Shortt points out in his new book Outgrowing Dawkins, “by far the strongest argument against faith in a benign, all-powerful providence [is] the problem of evil and suffering.” Sometimes, underneath sophisticated arguments against the existence of God are highly personal ones about unmet expectations or unanswered prayers, leading to a conclusion that God either does not care or does not exist.

Another recent challenge to the idea of a loving God – possibly also borne out of grievance – has come from fundamentalist Islam. Muslims are the first to say that violent jihadists distort their religion; Christians likewise do well to reiterate that portraying God as murderous and petty is a modern-day heresy.

It is these cris de coeur I wish the Creed would address. My problem isn’t so much with what it contains as what it leaves out. God is creator, we are told, but his character – of mercy and generosity – are not mentioned. Much is implicit in a short phrase such as “for us men, and for our salvation, [He] came down from heaven,” but today that benefits from being unpacked. Could it not spell out that Christ came to bind up the broken-hearted, forgive sins, redeem mankind and destroy evil?

The Creed may have been written to fend off heresies but today its adversaries come in different forms. Maybe a new millennium warrants a revised version. I know we’re 20 years in already, but there are 980 left and these things can take a few centuries to agree. So I argue for a revision that is pastoral and poetic as well as didactic, to inspire and encourage, to engage heart and well as mind. The stone wall, if you like, muralled in enticing full colour interrupted only by a welcoming open door.

We need a remembrance fit for the twenty-first century

With cascades of ceramic poppies, torches in the Tower of London moat, Danny Boyle sandpainting Tommies onto beaches, a new Carol Ann Duffy poem, Peter Jackson’s retouched footage of soldiers in the trenches and no end of documentaries, no one could accuse the nation of underplaying Sunday’s Armistice. Indeed, a retired man whose grandfather fought in the trenches mused to me that the elegance of Britain’s remembrance ceremonies almost obscures the horror of what is being remembered.

Young soldiers going off to war faced terrors we cannot imagine and made sacrifices unimaginable in our comfort today. It is healthy to express grief and loss, and in our reserved British way, we do that in spades. Because we congratulate ourselves with having been on the right side in both World Wars, we can celebrate the fallen as martyrs to a noble cause. Whatever losses we suffered – and unless you’re a forces family, those losses are becoming ever more distant – are validated and dignified by solemnity and royals and monuments and archbishops and parades and lone bugles. We don’t need to worry that Grandpa might have committed war crimes or that Grandma might have collaborated with occupying forces.

I recently interviewed Elke Schwarz, a London-based political scientist for an article I have written about the aftermath of genocides. Germany has done commendably, from reparations to Israel just after the war to Holocaust memorials in many major cities and visits to concentration camps for school pupils. But in addition to this quite burdensome weight of self-criticism, I asked Dr Schwarz if Germans longed for some kind of public expression of their sense of loss. After all, according to US statistics, some 1.77 million German soldiers died in World War One and in all, just over half the German soldiers who enlisted were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. And some 4-5m German soldiers died in World War Two and up to 2m civilians – although these include German Jews and people with disabilities exterminated by the Nazis. In addition, after the war 12m ethnic Germans were uprooted from their homes in east-central Europe.

No, she said. “It’s possible that some people would have liked a public forum to express the pain they’ve gone through,” but she questioned how to express public grief. “The blending of guilt and shame and pain is so raw that anything like a parade or a public forum couldn’t really do justice to it … There’s always a danger that when’s there’s a parade there’s an element of celebration rather than solemnity.”

poppies sign.jpg
Ceramic poppies displayed at London’s Imperial War Museum were planted in memory of British and Colonial lives

Dr Schwarz had been able to ask her grandfather about the war, and she remembers her grandmother struggling with wartime photos of herself looking carefree. By contrast, my own grandfather, who fought Rommel’s troops in Libya, did not speak about the war for decades after he returned; whatever he had seen and survived was expressed in his emotional isolation. I’m going to use a twenty-first century lens here: perhaps a little trauma counselling would have helped my grandfather – and his young family – more than our stiff ceremonies.

What frustrates me about British remembrance is that it still focuses on those who fought “on our side”. Take one of the documentaries broadcast – BBC 2’s 100 Days to Victory. It was a fascinating look at the collaboration between Britain, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. What were the German military leaders doing at that time? The programme shed no light on that question, as if the script had been written in 1918. Where were the German historians explaining the strategies the Allied commanders could not have known? Instead, by not explaining the actions of the Germans, they remain faceless, mysterious, threatening. My nephews are half-German. Much as they enjoy films featuring big battles, I would be embarrassed for them to watch something that portrayed the Germans in such a dehumanised way.

It is deeply unfair to contemporary, self-critical Germany to remember their country as only a threat, especially as Brexit tears at the fabric that has held Europe together. Surely Germany has deserved our bridge-building rather than our defences – maybe some of our own healing lies in building those bridges. A century has passed since the guns fell silent – can we not remember war as a universal tragedy and allow space for the loss of all who died? Not to mention giving thanks for 73 years of peace in Europe, its rebuilt, enriched nations transforming from military threat to political allies and friendly, affordable leisure destinations.

12 November update … a fairly happy postscript. The presence of the German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier alongside the Queen at both the Cenotaph and a service in Westminster Abbey was a long overdue first. Meanwhile in France another act of remembrance looked forwards and was the most valuable of all. President Macron told the leaders of Russia, the US, Germany, Turkey and other nations gathered in Paris that nations had to find new ways to build peace together in the face of rising populism and “selfish” nationalism. That surely is the most meaningful way to honour the pledge to “never again” let the world slide into such terrible war. Just one question – where was a British dignitary? Could we not have spared one royal or senior politician?

Top photo: 100 Days to Victory (BBC). 

Review: The Jungle – rich in humanity, short on easy answers

If the past is a foreign country, then the galloping pace of change can render even the recent past a distant land. Cast your mind back to 2015, before the news was clogged up with fights over Brexit and outrage at Donald Trump’s latest burst of unpresidential behaviour.

Back then, our news was dominated by Europe in a different way – all those migrants trudging north through Greece and Italy, thousands of miles to Germany, some of them even reaching the dreary patch of mud outside Calais dubbed The Jungle.

Or not actually The Jungle, but zangall, a word in Pashtun meaning “forest”. But Brits, characteristically tone-deaf to language, misheard how its inhabitants were describing their temporary home and, in doing so, reduced it to a threatening place associated with wild beasts.

Yet this shanty town was organised into sections named Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Kurdistan, Sudan and so on, after the origins of their inhabitants. Dirt tracks were named after the British and French leaders on whom their hopes were pinned, David Cameron and François Hollande, and then-Home Secretary Theresa May (told you it felt like a long time ago).

And it is in an Afghan restaurant in the camp that Joe Murphy and Joe Roberston set their play The Jungle, a National Theatre commission directed by Stephen Daldry. Showing at London’s Playhouse Theatre following a sell-out run at the Young Vic last winter, performances continue until 3 November. Set designer Miriam Buether recreates the makeshift eatery by covering the stalls with hardboard and inviting audience members to sit among the cast.

The script is fiction, based on the writings of Jungle residents who took part in sessions run by the Good Chance Theatre, an initiative in the camp pioneered by Murphy and Robertson, who spent several months living there. We meet the proud restaurant owner Salar, who has lost two children to violence in Afghanistan; Safi, our narrator and a Syrian academic from Aleppo, and Okot the 17-year-old Darfuri who recounts his horrific journey to Calais and exclaims that “a refugee dies many times”. Then there is the eccentric group of Brits who take it upon themselves to try to help them, from Barbour-jacketed Sam, fresh out of Eton, to Boxer, the Georgie drunk who announces he is a refugee – on the run from his wife.

Its mix of real events is convincing and powerful. We see how the defining events of that autumn impact on the migrants’ lives. When the image of the three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Greek beach, hits the media, sympathy for Jungle residents rises. Three months later when IS-linked gunmen slaughter 130 civilians in Paris, it falls again: screens around the theatre show real footage of international news outlets speculating that the gunmen entered France as refugees in the exodus from Greece. Later that night, when a fire destroys numerous makeshift cabins, tensions are high as it emerges the damage is not the work of xenophobic French but of an inhabitant going to sleep with a candle lit.

Unexpected moments of light break into the characters’ desperate limbo: The Times’ late restaurant critic AA Gill visited in 2016 and praised the delights of the (actually Peshwari) restaurant. He quipped that while some people moaned that a theatre project in the Jungle was “a monument to bleeding-heart liberal pretension”, “If ever I find myself lost and penniless, I hope it’s the liberals with leaky valves and a penchant for quoting Shakespeare that find me, and not the sanguine, pity-tight realists.”

Murphy’s and Robertson’s play evokes the chaos and the moral ambivalence of the place – characters are volatile mixes of hope, anger, trauma, humour, solidarity. They are living in the Jungle’s squalor because they refuse to accept asylum in mainland Europe and are fixated on reaching Britain. The few women there complain that they have had to sleep in the Ethiopian Orthodox “church” because they were being harassed by men as they tried to sleep. The Kurdish trafficker is a necessary part of Safi’s mission to reach England. (He swears to Safi that part of his high fee goes to Erbil to fight IS.)

After two hours seeing the camp from within, I found myself willing Safi to make it undetected and unscathed; I longed for the oppressive French authorities – lobbing tear gas and bulldozing shacks – to leave these vulnerable people in peace.

At the time, I felt that the Jungle was an accusing finger pointing to Europe’s (well, France and Britain’s) unwelcoming shut door, but I acknowledged that compassion for war-scarred refugees could be turned into a roaring trade by wily traffickers. So I watched from the sidelines as others rushed to the mud and cold and helped. I found the moral ambiguity confusing – entering Britain hidden in a lorry is a criminal offence; crossing half of Europe before claiming asylum here is playing the system. Yet if it is a matter of playing fair, many of the residents could have argued that they had been badly failed at home, law and order being either deeply unjust or absent.

What stemmed the flow of migrants into northern Europe was the EU’s deal with Turkey, and Italy paying off several Libyan militias involved in people-smuggling. Big action by governments vastly reduced the flow of newcomers to the Jungle (which was razed in October 2016), not small actions by altruists. And yet the altruists can with clear conscience say that they did something. Two years on, northern France is still sheltering almost a thousand migrants, and populist movements against immigrants of many stripes are simmering in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. History will no doubt cast its judgement on our collective response to the Jungle and what it should have taught us by now. I wonder what clarity hindsight will bring.

Above: Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi. Photo: Marc Brenner