Now I am ashamed to be British

My world view is broken, as finally and completely as the mirror I dropped that shattered into a thousand fragments each of which reflected back a splintered version of my shocked face as I gingerly attempted to gather them up without slicing the skin of my fingers.

I grew up believing that for all its faults (and it has many not least the blood drenched imperial past so beloved of the right wing) Britain had in the second half of the twentieth century come to stand as for a liberal, tolerant world view that was outward looking and inclusive. That it really did strive to ensure equality, fairness and justice for all. That vision of my country has been ripped up, trampled and spat on. Mirrors once broken, even if repaired, remain cracked and reflect a distorted view. In the eyes of the world and many of its bemused, dismayed and shocked citizens Britain is now broken as comprehensively as that mirror.

Birmingham this week has been brutal. Racist, xenophobic and disgusting speeches largely unchallenged by a supine, subservient and self-serving media. I remember Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968. Interestingly also delivered in Birmingham. It caused howls of outrage and his instant dismissal from the shadow cabinet. The conservative party leader at the time, Edward Heath stated “I dismissed Mr Powell because I believed his speech was inflammatory and liable to damage race relations. I am determined to do everything I can to prevent racial problems developing into civil strife… I don’t believe the great majority of the British people share Mr Powell’s way of putting his views in his speech.”

The Times newspaper declared it “an evil speech”, stating “This is the first time that a serious British politician has appealed to racial hatred in this direct way in our post war history.”
The Times response to equally nasty, if more subtle, incitement to hatred 48 years later is the feeble “May Takes Centre Stage in Appeal to Labour Voters”. Really? When did racist, xenophobic rhetoric become the centre ground of British Politics? I dare say if Edward Heath was alive today he’d be considered as unelectable as Jeremy Corbyn.

Powell’s speech was a more overt incitement to hatred but the vileness of the stuff Theresa May and Amber Rudd have been spouting is no less fascist, dangerous and incendiary. What happened to the 48% of people who voted remain? How can a 4% majority be overwhelming endorsement? A fair number (certainly more than 4%) of the Brexit camp was in favour of retaining membership of the EEC (the so called Norway option) and the concomitant commitment to freedom of movement. They, like the Remainers, have been airbrushed out. It was apparently always a  referendum on immigration and the people have spoken.  The hope that this is some kind of negotiating ploy for Brexit is rapidly receding over the horizon and we need to face the fact that Britain seems to have suffered a fascist coup. Not surprisingly the speech was applauded by Marine le Penn who is the current leader of the National Front in France.

Socrates (someone who knew a thing or two about Democracy) said “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” Theresa May said “A citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere” – right now that sounds better than being British.

In the space between heartbeats sundial

Do the dead lie in summer meadows
hear a lark singing; ribbons
of music drifting down
in the space between heartbeats?

Or feel the warmth of a lover’s breath
a soft intermittence caressing hair
and skin; unspoken promise
in the space between heartbeats?

Or drift along green-arched streams
catching the eddies of dreams,
the long slow swell of silence
in the space between heartbeats?

 

In Time of Breaking of Nations

Thomas Hardy’s poem was written in 1916 at the height of the Great War and just before  It seems very appropriate to use it as a title in the current circumstances of Brexit.

My Blog has been inactive now for over six months. Two reasons – firstly a complete though very positive upheaval in family circumstances meaning we now are immigrants in France. I refuse to be an Ex-pat. That to me is a word soaked in the dark heart of colonialism and empire and the fact that so many Britons living abroad use that term to describe themselves is probably a clue to the result on 23rd June.

The other reason is that sometimes it is just difficult to find words for how you feel. A feeble excuse and not what a writer should say? The truth is when I wrote my last blog entry ‘Whispering in a Hurricane’ I felt an overwhelming sense of  being a helpless spectator watching a catastrophe unfold but powerless to prevent or stop it.

I cannot in truth determine whether we stand at on the threshold of an unimaginably better or worse world. Our current global capitalist oligarchies are heading toward collapse through overexploitation, climate change and the ever widening gulf of inequality between have and have not. Could Brexit be the act that collapses it quickly before more damage is done and allows a new socially just, non-growth orientated sustainable civilisation to emerge?  Maybe, though on past performance I don’t hold out much hope. I was born at the end of the second world war. I grew up in a society that seemed to have changed irrevocably for the better. Health care, education, decent jobs and homes and not least the shared consensus that the weak and vulnerable needed protection and help. That has vanished. It lasted for about thirty five years which in hindsight was probably remarkable. The subsequent thirty five years have been marked by how remarkably easy it has been to undo all those gains for the ordinary average person.

On Friday when I felt quite desperately depressed and wanted to weep for shame at the sight of Farage triumphant I decided to retreat from the madness and read poetry. I had no particular poem or poet in mind but I turned to Yeats and the book almost of itself opened at the Stare’s nest by my window, a poem which I think speaks even more evocatively than Hardy’s about what it feels like to live in deeply troubling and uncertain times.
starling

The Stare’s Nest by My Window

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned.
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war:
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

Whispering in a hurricane

I haven’t been very active on my blog – nothing since August. Over the past few months from time to time I’ve been tempted to put finger to keyboard and post in response to the various events that have spiked above the median level of my disaffection with the current state of our so called democratic society and it’s drift towards Inverted Totalitarianism. (The name coined by by Sheldon Wolin to describe the place to where it seems we are unerringly headed. A place where you absolutely do not want to be – a dystopian future that promises to combine the worst of 1984 and Brave New World.)

I haven’t been short of material. The refugee crisis and Britain’s disgusting response. The misinformation and sniping that accompanied Corbyn’s unexpected victory in the Labour party leadership contest. Nuclear deals with China, TTIP and other madness. Our purblind response to the accelerating degradation of the planet and its natural resources. The yet more austerity imposed on us by Cameron and Osborne, men who readily understand that The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.”*

But each time I’ve sat down I’ve been overcome by the vision that all I’m doing is whispering in a hurricane. After all what can I add that others have not already said much better and more persuasively. Whose reach and audience is so much greater than mine. And I’ve deleted my words and posted a picture of a cat playing the piano on FB instead. I’d almost come to think that words were simply part of the problem and the solution might be to forget prose in favour of doing. Providing help to desperate refugees, marching to protest against the degradation of the environment or closer to home putting food in food banks for the hungry, etc. – pick your cause and get going.

Now the terrible bombings in Lebanon (hardly reported by our mainstream media) followed by Friday’s events in Paris have prodded me into writing this. It still seems like whispering in a hurricane but I came to the conclusion that the volume and reach of what one says is less important than the fact that one says it. No words can adequately describe the horror of bombing unsuspecting people who are going about the daily business of their lives (and by extension our lives). I lived in London at the height of the IRA bombing campaign. It had the same purpose of shock and horror. The idea of turning the inhabitants of Britain against the Irish who lived among them, their neighbours and work mates. Isolation and division. It didn’t work then because the strands between Britain and Ireland are old and deep and although there was some anti Irish sentiment in the immediate aftermath of each atrocity by and large it faded quickly.

Most of us live in the comfortable middle ground between secular and spiritual, good and evil, eschewing extremes and rubbing along with each other as best we can. The extremists call it the grey zone because it does not belong in their world of absolutes, of black versus white. Daesh want to destroy the grey zone. Daesh – I prefer that term to ISIS or the Caliphate or any other name they choose because it is an Arabic word meaning ‘a group of bigots who impose their will on others’ which perfectly sums up not only Daesh but every other extremist movement in history. They want only polarised extremes not the colourful, chaotic, holistic, tolerant centre where humanity flourishes. Unlike other extremists such as the the UDF and the IRA they won’t sit down and carve up the territory once they’ve removed all the moderates from the equation. What can you say to a man who tells you he prefers obeying God rather than men, and that as a result he’s certain he’ll go to heaven if he cuts your throat?” *

Before we get too complacent we should remember that it isn’t so long ago that we had religious intolerance, bigotry and hatred of that dimension in Europe. The religious conflicts that tore through Europe between 1520 and 1650 were on any interpretation bloody and brutal; every bit as appalling as anything Daesh are serving up in the so called Caliphate and elsewhere. Drawing parallels from history is always a risky business because history does not repeat itself – it would be too easy if it did – but we can look at what happened in the past and ask ourselves some searching questions.

The first must be, what is it about our way of life that makes it worth preserving? What is it that makes us sure that what Daesh stands for; the way it wants to shape society is wrong and abhorrent? The second must be, is the rhetoric of war is the right solution? If not then what is the right response? Each of us may answer these questions differently. I have no easy or complete answers. What is important is that we ask them and consider our answers to them. Then we should ask ourselves what consequences might flow from our action or non-action. Not just the ones we desire but all the ones that might occur.  What those responses say about us as people and about the sort of world we want to inhabit. 

It seems to me that extremism is born out of fear and hatred. Out of poverty and oppression and injustice. It is fed by ignorance. We created a vacuum with our ill judged war in Iraq and Daesh have filled it. Faced now with a force that clearly understands the value in war of shock and awe (videos of beheadings, mass killings) and who want to impose on us their world view rooted in the violent seventh century beginnings of the Muslim faith what should our response be? For me the answers to the questions I posed above lie in the essential difference between tolerance and humanity and their polar opposites. I don’t believe we should bomb Syria or put our troops on the ground there. We have already made enough of a mess in the middle east. That is the easy option that will lead only to Daesh recruiting more eager young people who want to be martyrs. I do think we should support the Kurds and the Iraqis and others who have no option but to fight Daesh because they are defending their homes and loved ones. Perhaps the only justification for war is the need for self defence in the face of an enemy who is hell bent on destroying you and everything you stand for.

In opposing the idea of ever increasing military action I am not saying we should wring our hands and do nothing. We can and should retaliate. Anonymous are taking down Jihadist twitter feeds through hacking. I may defend your right to free speech even though I dislike what you say but when you abuse your right and use it to incite hatred and violence I am entitled to exercise my right to stop you. We also need to cut off their supplies of money and arms. They trade in oil. How? We should concentrate on blocking that source of income rather than bombing Syria. We should above all welcome and help the victims of Daesh. The millions of desperate Syrians who are flooding across the borders into Europe. They are not the people we should be scared of. They are the people who we should help not only out of common humanity but also because they are our greatest allies against the threat posed by Daesh to all of us.

fuck daesh copyA friend of mine lives in the 11th arondissement not far from the Boulevard Voltaire. He took this picture and posted it on FB. A more wholesome and human reaction than that of media and politician’s calls to close borders and hate and blame ‘migrants’. One that neatly encapsulates why living in the ‘grey zone’ is the best place for humans.

Our politicians on the other hand seem hell bent on war. Those who aren’t are dubbed extremists. Why? Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” *

The only way to comprehend what mathematicians mean by Infinity is to contemplate the extent of human stupidity.” *

* Voltaire – it seems appropriate to quote him after last Friday.