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.”

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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

Five things you need to do if you’re going on holiday anywhere

Should we care about the human rights record of the country whose beaches we’re about to bake ourselves on? That is the question posed by the latest issue of the Index on Censorship, which pokes a light into the murkier side of some popular tourist destinations. Mexico’s drugs war and murder rate cast a shadow over its idyllic beaches; Sri Lanka has renewed powers to jail journalists; the Maldives has allowed radical Islam to flourish and democratic gains to wither.

A panel of travel journalists explored the ethics of travel journalism, and whether glossy, picture-led features should also mention a country’s dirty laundry. The popular format of ‘Ten Mexican resorts on a budget’ was considered too narrow a format to get into such things. In the discussion that followed it emerged that the flowers and candles left in Valletta in memory of the assassinated Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia have been cleared away at least 12 times; the number of tourists visiting Turkey not fallen since President Erdogan has clamped down on press freedom; in Sri Lanka efforts to offer tourists the experience of life on a tea plantation backfired when the local press savaged an initiative whereby tourists could spend a night in the home of a poorly paid, marginalised tea picker.

One problem panellists identified was in challenging a deeply carved narrative. Picking tea is not romantic. If section editors (and fat-walleted advertisers) want sun and flip-flops then they won’t want a piece complicated by mention of human rights abuses. Conversely, a section editor who believed Cambodia = genocide, an example cited by Harriet Fitch Little, was reluctant to hear how the country has stabilised over the last 20 years. Then there was the charge of “pink-washing”, mentioned in relation to Tel Aviv – where a destination’s self-promotion as gay-friendly distracts attention away from a complicated human rights record, in this instance Israel’s in the Palestinian Territories.

Benji Lanyado, the male panellist, recommended using Airbnb and spending time chatting to locals to find out what they considered to be the big local issues. In many cultures this is far more straightforward and less risky if you are male. Sri Lankan-born Meera Selva added that offering to listen to someone’s story can do more harm than good if you hear a tale of hardship, thank them and walk away.

Engagement is challenging. But among panellists and audience there was a strong desire for ethical, thoughtful travel that left consumerist escapism far behind.

Many holidays are marketed as one or two weeks of sunshine / pool / peace and quiet or [fill in the blank] in a mythical paradise which could be anywhere hot and affordable. But commodifying a place reduces it to its heat, its beach, its clubs. The people who live there become almost immaterial, reduced to staff, strangers or threats. Engaging with a place helps to ensure the people who live there are not dehumanised. True, it’s not easy to strike up conversation with a stranger that goes beyond directions or sales – especially across a language barrier. But such a conversation allows the humanising process to go both ways; Westerns are not just cash cows (however daft we get when we don a sun hat).

The most meaningful place I’ve found for engaging with people in a holiday destination was on a particularly difficult overseas trip. I was with my father, we had run out of motivation to be away, and on the Sunday we went to the local church, and stayed for its pot luck lunch. It was by far the best meal of the trip, though I couldn’t tell you what we ate. I do, however, remember home-cooked food from people who accepted us as we were. I’ve repeated that experiment on happier trips, and even without the free lunch, a humble, ordinary church service has offered a snapshot of a community and a way of hearing its concerns. But you don’t have to go to church; for me talking to a restaurant owner on a struggling Greek island in 2015 made the country’s economic crisis tangible.

So five things, if you like:

Before you go, look up a destination’s human or religious rights record (the consensus was against boycotting countries because engagement was considered more valuable). There might be heroes to celebrate, as well as white-washed narratives to look out for.

When you’re there, buy a local paper, assuming it’s in a language you can just about understand.

Don’t depress yourself with disaster memorials you’re not in the mood for but do stimulate your brain with a curiosity for what’s around you.

Try the local church/synagogue/mosque – whatever you’d attend at home.

Look for ways to have more meaningful conversations and let me know where you find them.

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.

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.

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:

‘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’”

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”

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.

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 

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 “

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”