Timesong: searching for Doggerland

Just treated myself to a copy of Julia Blackburn’s latest book, Timesong, Searching for Doggerland.

In the introduction she says,

I wonder if it makes sense to imagine infinity going backwards in time rather than forwards. When you look at it that way round, you no longer have the vague dread of what the future holds, instead there is the intimation of the enormity of everything that has gone before: a solemn procession of life in all its myriad forms moving steadily towards this present moment. You can almost hear the songs they are singing.

There is something else. My husband died a few years ago. He has vanished and yet he remains close, beneath the surface as it were, so perhaps I am also trying to catch a glimpse of him within the great jumble of everything else that has been lost from our sight.’

As an epigraph she quotes the last few lines of a poem by Charles Causley, called Eden Rock. I thought it was worth sharing the whole:

They are waiting for me somewhere beyond Eden Rock:
My father, twenty-five, in the same suit
Of Genuine Irish Tweed, his terrier Jack
Still two years old and trembling at his feet.

My mother, twenty-three, in a sprigged dress
Drawn at the waist, ribbon in her straw hat,
Has spread the stiff white cloth over the grass.
Her hair, the colour of wheat, takes on the light.

She pours tea from a Thermos, the milk straight
From an old H.P. sauce-bottle, a screw
Of paper for a cork; slowly sets out
The same three plates, the tin cups painted blue.

The sky whitens as if lit by three suns.
My mother shades her eyes and looks my way
Over the drifted stream. My father spins
A stone along the water. Leisurely,

They beckon to me from the other bank.
I hear them call, ‘See where the stream-path is!
Crossing is not as hard as you might think.’

I had not thought that it would be like this.
Charles Causley

Timesong: searching for Doggerland

Lost Europeans

This is a sort of footnote to my blogpost about the Dreyfus Affair and anti-semitism.

One of Rose’s points was that Dreyfus showed French Jews (and reminded Jews everywhere) that even the most assimilated, the most loyal, diligent and dedicated servant of the state could become in an instant the other, the outsider, the Jew.

For Jews themselves it gave added impetus to the drive for a Jewish state – where else could a Jew truly be safe? Many liberal minded Europeans – guilty by association – felt the need too, in part at least as a way of saving European Jews from ourselves.

Now that Israel exists, it all feels a more complicated. In my lifetime Israel has morphed in liberal (my) consciousness from embattled underdog (Democratic, western, like us) into an oppressor, justifying every terrible action by that first promise – that Israel should be the place Jews must be able to be safe.

It clouds our understanding of what anti-semitism is and how we understand it. I feel it myself.

When, recently, Margaret Hodge said that the rise of anti-semitism within the Labour Party put her in mind of her father’s advice, telling her that, “you’ve got to keep a packed suitcase at the door, Margaret, in case you ever have to leave in a hurry.” She added, “when I heard about the disciplinary action, my emotional response resonated with that feeling of fear”.

In my own mind, my response was equivocal. I heard a wealthy privileged woman, close to the heart of power in this country, and part of me was suspicious that this was a sort of over-statement for political effect. Like many Labour politicians, Hodge has never made any secret of her distaste for Corbyn or the Labour values he stands for.

The feeling was also coloured by a concern that anti-semitism and a wish to challenge Israel’s actions in the Middle East were being conflated, making criticism of Israel that bit more difficult – and I wanted to resist the link (most clearly seen in the definition of anti-semitism that Labour was being pressed to adopt) being strengthened.

I still feel that humanity demands that we challenge Israel over its treatment of Palestinians until a proper settlement can be found, but I read a book recently that led me back to Margaret Hodge’s feeling of unease with a lot more sympathy and understanding.

Dennis Litvinov’s first novel was called, The Lost Europeans and describes the experience of a young Jewish man who goes back to Berlin after the war to set in motion a claim for restitution of his family’s property.

He himself was a child in the 30s. His family were wealthy bankers, secular and assimilated until the rise of the Nazis threatened them. Then, like Dreyfus, they became suspect, ‘other’. They suffered tragic loss – his sister experimented on and killed, his mother’s suicide – before his father escaped the country bringing him to England.

In every outward sense he goes to Berlin a middle class, public school educated Englishmen – but he is a Jew and Berlin helps him understand what this will always mean. He reflects:

‘After all, was he so English? How would they be remembered in London, he and his kind? As temporary residents among the many thousands who occupied furnished rooms in the big, hospitable metropolis? As one species among a host of refugees from every land of intolerance, a class apart, with a voice, a manner, a shrillness that belonged nowhere in the strictly stratified society of England? As something of a burden on the conscience of liberal socialists; too-many-of-the-chosen-people-in-the-professions to the strident housewives of the Conservative Association; white Negroes to the league of Empire Loyalists? The kind and sentimental might think of Daniel Deronda. The others, the enemy, of Shylock, or Eliot’s Jew squatting on the windowsill of the decayed civilisation he owns, or of Colleoni in Brighton Rock – The Tempter who looked like a man who owned the whole visible world, cash registers, police, prostitutes, Parliament, and law, and whose face was the face of any middle-aged Jew, the mythological Wanderer trapped, as they saw it, in the web of his own evil. Judas.

That’s how it was written into the civilisation of Europe. It was the classic Jewish dilemma. Once they offered you conversion, the forgiving embrace of an alien church; then the chimerical brotherhood of man. But all roads led to Auschwitz, to the Warsaw ghetto.

The truth, it said, is that you have been condemned to homelessness. Each generation passes onto the next its virus of insecurity. You learn the technique of survival, fearing ostentation as if it were a vice, censoring the act or gesture that may be pilloried as strangeness, observing yourself constantly through the eyes of an enemy. In a fortunate time a hundred years may pass and you will remain unmolested. You become incautious and show a coloured feather, a hand with six fingers, and another King arises to say: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: Come let us deal wisely with him; lest they multiply…and join also unto our enemies.’ You who survive go out to the wilderness for 40 years, space of a generation, until a new, hard people advance upon another land of promise.’

The book was published in the late 50s and it’s been a long time since I have read such a clear expression of the experience of European Jews. Of the insecurity that is bred in the bone – the deep knowledge that achievement and wealth and even access to power will not protect (and may even harm) you, that neither assimilation or difference matters, that, sure as the sun rises and sets every day, when the wheel turns persecution will come again.

In this context Margaret Hodge was only saying what every European Jew must know in their bones.

For liberals now, even though we challenge Israel – and we must – we must not forget that this is also true, or that we, have been, are still, responsible for that turning of the wheel.

Lost Europeans

Clog dancing

There was a fascinating exhibition at Compton Verney this summer all about ingenious automata and different mechanical models. There’s a good review – with links – here.

Lots of fun but, underneath, there was also a strand which explored our relationship with the machines we make. C and I were riveted by a video of clog dancing – steps learned from an elderly mill worker – demonstrating the dances that developed in counterpoint to the machines the women worked amongst. Here’s the video now. There are some introductory scenes (which are worth watching) but if its the dancing you’ve come for start at two minutes in.

Clog dancing

Mad dogs or Englishmen

One thing leads to another and this morning I found myself listening to one of the 1955 Reith Lectures from the BBC. They were given by Sir (then Doctor) Nicolas Pevsner on the subject of Englishness in Art. It’s not nearly as jingoistic as it sounds. Pevsner tells a nuanced tale but, early in the first lecture, he lists what might at that time have been a list of ‘English’ characteristics. Englishness, in the popular mind is about:

“Personal liberty, freedom of expression, and wisdom in compromise, the two-party system not shaken by communism or fascism, the democratic system of negotiating in parliament as well as on boards and committees, the distrust of the sweeping statement (such as mine are) and of the demagogue.”

I paused and thought about the state of political debate in the country at the moment . I thought of Twitter (for goodness sake) and wondered about where that pragmatic and generous spirit of compromise had gone to. No matter, Pevsner goes on:

“Then the eminently civilised faith in honesty and fair play, the patient queuing, the wisdom in letting go in Ireland, in India, in Burma, a strictly upheld inefficiency in the little business-things of every day, such as the workman’s job in the house, windows that will never close, and heating that will never heat, a certain comfortable wastefulness and sense of a good life, and the demonstrative conservatism of the wig in court, the gown in school and university, the obsolete looking shop-window in St. James’s Street, the Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds, the Keeper of the Queens Swans, the Portcullis Poursuivant, the City Companies, and £-s.-d., and yards and acres, and Fahrenheit. All those things seem as eternal as the rock of Gibraltar.”

I recognised it at once as the picture of England and Englishness that my father believed in and loved. Pevsner, in the lecture, does offer different, historical, perspectives but concludes:

Now that I have said so much to show what is not permanent in the national characteristics of England, may I indulge in a few examples of how surprisingly much after all does appear to be permanent. Paul Hentzner, the German tourist who came to England in 1598, already says the English are ‘impatient of anything like slavery’. Misson in about 1690 says they ‘eat a huge piece of roast beef on Sunday…and the rest cold the other days of the week’.
Their idea of vegetables, says Karl Philipp Moritz in 1782, is ‘a few cabbage leaves boiled in plain water’. The English do not work too much, says Sorbière in 1653, they believe that ‘true living consists in knowing how to live at ease’. And one more example, Antonio Trevisan, Venetian Ambassador to Henry VII in 1497, remarks that the English say, ‘whenever they see a handsome foreigner: he looks like an Englishman’. Saussure, who was a very shrewd observer, says the same: ‘I don’t think there is a people more prejudiced in its own favour than the British’.

And go to Ogden Nash, and you will find this:

Let us pause to consider the English
Who when they pause to consider themselves they get all reticently thrilled and tinglish,
Because every Englishman is convinced of one thing, viz:
That to be an Englishman is to belong to the most exclusive club there is.

My father to a T.

It helped me realise that, child of the sixties that I was, when I came home from grammar school head filled with notions of English bad behaviour abroad and fallibility at home – all narratives that challenged this charming, white, middle class view of the people we were, I wasn’t just debating a point, I was challenging a faith.

I also wonder now, 63 years later, what has stood the test of time and what Englishness means now.

 

Mad dogs or Englishmen

The Unwomanly Face of War

I’ve always enjoyed reading about war: the bold – or daft – decisions taken, the soldiers tales – hardship and heroism, the comradeship – the sense of the sweep of history. Once wars are done this is what they become. Historians, politicians, even the survivors themselves seem to conspire in trying to make sense of what has happened, casting the waste and horror of it all seem necessary, worthwhile even, conformable somehow to the norms of peace.

Even the famous memoirs of the First World War – which lives in popular imagination as the most futile and bloody of conflicts – are removed from the fearful reality of what was actually experienced. We are cushioned and protected from the physical reality by literary convention,  reticence, or perhaps by the sense that those bloody experiences are stories are not only untellable, they are not fit to be told.

The Unwomanly Face of War is different. Svetlana Alexievich spent years collecting the stories of women who took part in the Great Patriotic War against the Germans, serving in every part of the armed forces.

The memories of the women interviewed are unmediated, funny, heartbreaking, truly horrifying at times. They are drenched in blood. The women staunch it when they can; work and fight in clothes so stiff with dried blood that the cloth cuts you; they bleed themselves – as soldiers and as women. For the first time, in these stories, blood isn’t incidental, it is the war itself. This is Maria Yakovlevna Yezhova, a Lieutenant of the Guards and Commander of a Medical Platoon who, on her first day at the front rushed straight to the trenches because the quicker she started, the sooner the war would be over.

I would come to the medical platoon, wash up, grab some clean clothes – and go back to my trench.At the front line. I didn’t think about myself. You crawl, you run…Only the smell of blood…I couldn’t get used to the smell of blood…
After the war, I became a midwife in a maternity ward – but I didn’t stay there for long. Not for long…For a short while…I’m allergic to the smell of blood; my body simply wouldn’t accept it…I had seen so much blood during the war that I couldn’t stand it anymore. I left Maternity and went to Emergency Aid. I got nettle rash, I was suffocating.
I sewed a blouse from a piece of red cloth, and by the next day some of sort of red spots had spread all over my hands. Blisters. No red cloth, no red flowers – roses or carnations, my body wouldn’t accept it. Nothing red, nothing that had the colour of blood…Even now I have nothing red in my house. You won’t find anything.
…Human blood is very bright, I have never seen such a bright colour, not in nature, not in any painting.
Pomegranate juice is something similar, but not entirely. Ripe pomegranate.”

After reading this I searched out those pictures of poppies flooding the moat around the Tower of London (walls hiding its own Bloody Tower) and saw them again more mindful than before of what they stood for – that ‘blood dimmed tide’ we loosed upon the world. I also reflected that, over the years since it was first adopted, the poppy – symbol of spilt blood – has itself helped normalise the idea that the sacrifice – the blood price – was worth paying. Always a dangerous illusion because a price wort paying becomes by easy steps affordable.

Alexievich’s book is written as an antidote to that sort of complacency. Talking about  her six year old daughter, Alexievich writes:

‘how am I to explain war to a child? To explain death? To answer the question of why people kill? Kill even little children like herself. We, the adults, are as if in collusion…I would like to write a book about war that would make war sickening, and the very thought of it repulsive. Insane. So that even the generals would be sickened…

§

You read this book slowly, wanting time to reflect on each woman’s story, not to rush past any of these hard won histories. We are privileged to share in truly untold memories. This is an unburdening.

§

The title points to one of the tensions that runs through the book and through the stories the women tell.

War is ‘unwomanly’. It is man’s business. Women don’t find glory it, as men do. They are not fascinated by it. If they fight it is only for peace.

The army asserts its intrinsic manliness in all sorts of ways.  It will accept women as soldiers, but cannot accommodate them. Women are always non-conformists. In a real sense – whatever their qualities as soldiers – they cannot fit into the uniforms the army provides.

The consequence is that, although their comrades acknowledge their contribution, you could never trust them to stick to an agreed line or tell the right stories. Even 40 years after the war Alexievich was told she shouldn’t publish her book, because women’s memories would be unreliable. They would make things up. They would focus on the wrong things.

Alexievich resists this. Women’s testimony she says (and every story attests) is uniquely important because it is different. She writes:

There is a concept in optics called ‘light-gathering power’ – the greater or lesser ability of a lens to fix the caught image. So, then, women’s memory of the war is the most ‘light-gathering’ in terms of strength of feelings, in terms of pain. I would even say that ‘women’s’ war is more terrible than ‘men’s.’ Men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them as action and conflict of ideas, of interests, whereas women are caught up in feelings…They are capable of seeing what is closed to men. I repeat once more: their war has smell, has colour, a detailed world of existence: “They gave us kit bags and we made skirts out of them”; “I went into the recruiting office through one door wearing a dress, and came out through the other wearing trousers and an army shirt, with my braid cut off and only a little lock left on my forehead…”; “The German’s gunned down the village and left…We came to the place: trampled yellow sand, and on top of it one child’s shoe…”

§

And sometimes all you can do is laugh: listen to the irrepressible Anastasia Leonidovna Zhardetskaya, Corporal, Medical Assistant:

And my husband…It’s good he isn’t here, he’s at work. He told me strictly…He knows I like to talk about our love…How I made my wedding dress out of bandages overnight. By myself. My friends and I spent a month collecting bandages. Trophy bandages…I had a real wedding dress! I still have a picture: I’m in this dress and boots, only you can’t see the boots. But I remember I wore boots. I concocted a belt out of an old forage cap…An excellent little belt. But what am I…going on about my own things…My husband told me not to say a word about love – no, no, but to talk about the war. He’s strict. He taught me with a map…For two days he taught me where each front was…Where our unit was…I’ll tell you, I wrote it down. I’ll read it…
Why are you laughing? What a nice laugh you have. I also laughed…What kind of historian am I! I’d better show you that photo, where I’m in that dress made of bandages.
I like myself so much in it…In a white dress.

§

Sasha Dugdale has written some verses in response to these stories, published in her collection, Joy. This is one of them:

I have no right to grief
I am whole
I have no right to grief
I am whole
I have no right to grief
I am whole
From Days by Sasha Dugdale

The Unwomanly Face of War

Wowski

In our morning’s drive poor little Wowski (Mr Wynn’s little dog, bought at Wansford Bridge) was run over by the phaeton, and his leg much hurt.

That was in 1788, but it still is news. John Byng notes the incident in passing in the journal he kept of his tour around Sussex* We have never met Wowski before and we never discover if this little dog – a terrier surely – recovers to yap and leap and bother passing carriages again.

Dogs are so often our unacknowledged companions, a call on our heart, but rarely considered important enough to figure in published histories – until poor Wowski leaps into view. He may have been dead for well over 200 years, but I winced when I read about his accident and can’t help hoping  he did eventually recover.

*Published in John Byng’s Rides Around Britain

Wowski