Ashes to ashes

A couple of weeks ago we watched the Bowie documentary celebrating his life. When it ended I changed the channel and there was The World at War on. It showed the Warsaw ghettoes, where jews were imprisoned and slowly degraded and all the while lied to about what would come next. There was footage of impoverished, starving people, holding out their last coins to Nazis to pay for train fares out of the ghetto. The trains were to Auschwitz.

It has ever been that people have believed lies over the truth, gratefully giving over meagre coins in the hope of buying salvation, be it a ticket to some less hopeless destination: on a train away from the ghettoes; a raft across the mediterranean; tithes to secure a promised afterlife. The truth is hard to bear. The truth is buried in a mass grave somewhere far from your dinner table. Or beneath it. Or right outside your window. It makes no difference.

It was too long ago, and now you can believe whatever you want and find your own chorus of approval in this electric mirrorland of personal illusions. The American president is lauded by Nazi salutes  – the Vice Chair of Momentum echoes the KKK to make vicious and untrue antisemitic claims and people rally to her defence citing a global jewish conspiracy. Breitbart, the Canary….the hymn sheets to their true believers churn out their lies, the lies that harmonise with a chosen view of the world, lies that absolve the sinner of their sins. Forgetting is sweeter. Lies are sweeter. The ashes are bitter, the ashes of the truth are bitter.

Fight or flight

Sadly, I understand why many people, including some I know who have devoted decades of their lives to the Labour party, have felt they have no choice but to leave. I have not yet left. After Corbyn’s second leadership win, I vowed to focus on the positive and be constructive. I intend to stay and fight, until either all hope, or all poisonous ideology, is gone.

That is why I have written this message to Momentum, on Facebook. I expect no constructive reply, I expect to have to deal with a barrage of abuse, if anything, in fact, but you have to stand up and say what you think, sometimes, don’t you?  Or what else, stand by and do nothing? Walk away in mute defeat?

Zionist conspiracy


This is what I wrote, and asked:

Your vice-chair, Jackie Walker has recently made the following claims.

1. More ‘gypsies’ (sic) than Jews were killed, proportionally, in the holocaust. This is a lie. 67% of Europe’s Jews were murdered; 25% of Europe’s Roma.

2. She also claimed that Jews were the chief financiers of the slave-trade – an easily refuted lie from a publication, by the Nation of Islam, referred to by Henry Gates, head of the department of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, as “the bible of new anti-Semitism”

3. She recently attacked Holocaust Memorial Day for not commemorating victims other than Jews and other genocides. HMD does both those things. It commemorates all the victims of the Holocaust and of genocides since then. To attack it is a display of ignorance, and an ignorance that seems, in the context of all the above – which is a selection from numerous other instances – to be motivated by a hatred of Jews.

None of the above is legitimate criticism of Israel. It is purely anti-Semitic propaganda and lies aimed at the Jewish people, with the sole aim of delegitimising and scornfully belittling their history and suffering.

Her claims: some of my best friends are Jews! a familiar retort of the racist; I can’t be anti-Semitic because I am Jewish! But this is nonsense; every misogynist has a mother – for one simple example of why this logic fails. If you repeatedly spread anti-Semitic lies, you are an anti-Semite. A claim of cultural immunity means nothing in the light of your repeated words and actions, surely?

That is how we avoid being racist. We judge people not on the colour of their skin, but on the substance of their words and actions.

I’m anti-racist! She says. But it is not enough to fight against racism for everyone, except for one group, that is – in fact – what racism is.

The leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, recently stated:

“Let me be absolutely clear: anti-Semitism is an evil. It led to the worst crimes of the 20th century, every one of us has a responsibility to ensure that it is never allowed to fester in our society again.

“This party always has and always will fight against prejudice and hatred of Jewish people with every breath in our body.”

My question to you is what are you doing to embody the leader of our party’s words?

What actions are you taking?

How you can call your movement truly one of inclusivity and fighting against prejudice when you harbour so high up in your organisation someone who is repeatedly anti-Semitic?

Vietnum

Vietnamese soup simmeringBÚN BÒ HUE

serves 2

Ingredients:

Beef stock: can use cubes or condensed but best to use pork/beef bones, oxtail, chopped into chunks, simmered  down for 2-3 hours and skimmed of the majority of fat, you need about 3 pints stock.

Ideally, should also have Vietnamese staple, (pungent) shrimp paste, but I’ve substituted for slightly more available oyster sauce.
500g beef, e.g. bavette (from between ribs) steak

Rice noodles

1 cinnamon stick

3 garlic cloves

2 star anise

A thumb sized chunk of ginger

3 red chillies

2 sticks lemongrass

1 tbsp oyster sauce

1 tbsp soy sauce

Half red onion

Handful of holy basil

1 lime

Method:

Place cinnamon stick and star anise in large saucepan

Chop finely the garlic, the ginger, 2 of the chillies (remove seeds and rinse chillies under cold tap before chopping to reduce heat), slice the red onion, peel the outer skin of lemongrass stalks and finely chop the whiter ends. Add all of this to a tbsp of rapeseed oil in the sauce pan. Let it sizzle for 30secs then add stock. Add majority of torn holy basil leaves, leave a handful for garnish.

Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

7 minutes in, taste, add soy sauce and oyster sauce at discretion, remove cinnamon stick and star anise. Add rice noodles.

Slice the beef into thin strips, about two inches long and no thicker than a quarter of an inch, thinner if possible.

Place the uncooked beef into serving bowls.

Ladle hot soup into these bowls, divide the noodles into both.

Provide a side dish with optional garnish of half lime, bean sprouts, some finely chopped red chilli and holy basil leaves

Enjoy!

Lala Kahle

Margaret Smith, rest in peace

Gran asked me to speak at her funeral, and I said, laughing, at the time that I did not think I would be able to, but I would try. So, I will try:

The Garden she loved is still growing. But she is not here.

Spring and summer will come, and the chair, in the corner among the lush greenery and the white vine roses, will sit empty.

She will not be there, eyes closed, basking in the Sun’s light, a smile on her face as it warms her skin,

But the plants and flowers still will grow.

She was not a Christian, she was a humanist. An atheist. But she was the most ‘Christian’ person I’ve ever known.

The South African police who jailed and tormented her, who tried, we suspect, to assassinate her by crushing her car between two lorries, and who succeeded in killing many of her friends, they called themselves Christians.

They even gave her a King James Bible in prison (did they expect a conversion, she wondered. She was just glad of something to read, she told me). But they were cruel and unjust, not like the christ those pages tell of, they were not kind nor loving nor humane.

She was, kind and loving and humane, not for appearances, nor from fear, but from empathy.

She could have lived a privileged life in South Africa, but she chose instead to stand up against injustice, even though doing so cost her so much, caused so much anguish.

She gave. She sacrificed.

When I was a small boy staying with her, giving my young mum a break for weekends and school holidays, she gave me the most valuable things you can give to a child: Unpatronising attention, and encouragement, and later, when I was a selfish, foolish, troubled, older boy, she gave me a home.

I tried, in adulthood, to repay her kindness. In what small ways I could.

I’d take her to restaurants to give her a break from the endless fishcakes her frugal diet consisted of.

At one restaurant she gave me a note telling how the Secret Police had caused her, after thirty years of loyal service as a journalist, to be made redundant. She included two press cuttings: one celebrating her appointment as the first female News Editor in Africa, one about the Secret Police’s shaming of her as a ‘terrorist’, the good times and the bad, and the note ended:

“Left without work, far from home, and two daughters to support

“Wanted you – who have been so good to me – to know all the [details]”

She was keen that her struggle be understood, she felt such guilt and sorrow.

Another time, she recalled the ten days of hunger strike she underwent in prison. The uneaten trays of food would be taken back by her visiting family, so she would hide letters under the plates. Messages written with make-up on toilet paper and torn out pages of the aforementioned bible.

She was strong-willed. Strong-willed enough to shun the tantalising dreams of ‘Peri Peri Prawns’ and deny herself food, for her beliefs.

This strength never abated, right to the end. Even when it was so much trouble, she would drag herself out to the shops, bent with age, but driven by determination, out in the community she was committed to, a vital part of. Slow and sure as Aesop’s tortoise.

She was strong-willed and she was humane.

To each of us, to humanity, she gave all she could.

I write this among the piles of photos, in the chair in her flat where I used to sit and talk with her.

And she is not here.

Except in memory.

I see her at the zoo when I was small, hear her laughter at some stupid joke about the Piranha.

I see her, happy, with us last Christmas.

I see her, haunted by anxiety and depression, her ever beautiful face racked with worry.

I see her in hospital, giving a conspiratorial smile as she squeezes my hand.

Remember her fondly, as she deserves to be remembered.

She fought, fiercely, against indignity, for others.

She fought, fiercely against the suffering in the world.

Remember her proudly. We should be proud to have known her, proud to be her kin, proud to have been loved by her. She was bohemian and brave, intelligent, wise, talented. If you think that she was not perfect, then you are right, I am sure, but there are machines that make perfect objects, that can make the same thing over and over again without fault. And then there are craftsman who can only make unique and fragile, beautiful things, that can never be remade.

Margaret was the latter.

She was the heart of our family. And like any heart, if it was at all broken, it only loved more.

She tried, against the encroaching darkness, within and without, to keep us in the sun.

In prison she grew orange pips in the dirt, tiny sprouts grew up towards the light and gave her hope.

In exile, she made a home, she nurtured a garden and she sat there and closed her eyes to the capricious London sun.

Perhaps she felt then, for a spell, that she was home beneath the African sun. But in 1994 she was allowed to return to feel that sun for real. She felt home. She felt whole.

And she is not here, but we are like the garden she found such joy in. The plants and flowers that she tended, the stray animals drawn to her kindness, that she would love, even when, as with the eponymous Black Cat she adopted, that love was sometimes repaid with savage wounds. She loved, unabated. Strong-willed and humane was she.

Now we are left, like her garden. Without her.

But like her half wild, half tamed garden we will flourish, because we were loved.

Heading to South Africa to see her beloved brother in hospital, she wrote me a note:

‘When it comes to crisis time’, she wrote, ‘love really counts, more than anything’

When I think of what she gave, to you, to the world, to me, it was love.

If we can love, at all.

She is here.

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.

p_2048_1536_60403C10-4C91-428C-95DB-853778456412.jpeg

Peer Pressure

It was peer pressure that compelled, allegedly, the UK Prime Minister to post his private sex-parcel through the letterbox of a dead pig’s mouth, in order, again allegedly, to gain approval from the 11 other members of an upper crust sex, drugs and fancy dress loving Oxford University society.

It was also peer pressure, by which I mean pressure from disgruntled billionaire peer Lord Ashcroft, that saw the allegation distributed throughout the media. It came via reporting of the rumours contained in the book he commissioned as revenge for not getting what he wanted from the Tory party after donating millions to them.

Social media users squealed gleefully at their latest sensation, left right and centre, we were – to put it frankly – happy as pigs in excrement. This was my first reaction:

The thing is, there is as yet no real evidence for Cameron’s bacchanalia (baconalia?), someone says someone has a photo but it is all conjecture.

What there is evidence for is that we are doing the bidding of a billionaire with a grudge, but because we dislike Cameron, or just delight in the salacious nature of the allegations, or because they conform to the idea we have of the rituals of humiliation in which the rich indulge, we perpetuate the rumours.

Perhaps swept up in the reactive social media flow, enjoying the swell of shared derision, we relinquish our reason.

It has been demonstrated in psychological experiments that people believe things because they reinforce or confirm their prejudices. The phenomenon is known as confirmation bias [Confirmation bias – a ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises (PDF) – opens in new window]. Once someone has taken a fixed position, their capacity for balanced reason is replaced by selective reinforcement of the position held. In short, the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest [The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel – Youtube, opens in new window].

That fixed position can be induced by the society we live in,for instance we might live under a totalitarian ideology, such as that of Stalinist Communism or Authoritarian Theocracy, and then the state allows no other position to exist. Peer pressure then is a means of quelling dissent. People are punished, people are killed, for thought that contradicts the collective identity.

In Saudi Arabia, anyone who questions the religion that supposedly confers the right of the Saud family to own and govern the vast majority of the Arabian peninsula faces being tortured, imprisoned and killed. In Stalinist Russia purges of dissidents, the deaths of millions, were meant to protect the ideology, ‘the truth’, against those who might weaken it.

Weaken it how? By testing it with thought: Thought is questioning, questioning is treacherous. Traitors must be killed.

The fixed position, that authoritarianism, is not just implemented from without. We can impose it upon ourselves, adopting dogmatically an idea because it fits in with our idea of ourselves, or confers upon us an identity we wish to embody or simply quells the nagging existential uncertainty of living in a seemingly confused and chaotic universe.

This self imposed censorship creeps incrementally upon us, we choose our newspaper and thus our opinions, on social media we follow and like only that which we already agree with, we build an ideological fortress around us, into which dissent cannot enter.

It takes effort to entertain perspectives opposed to our own, to question not just that which you are opposed to, but that which you are drawn to, and why should we, when there is delight and relief in surrendering reason to the mob.  The reason why is because such conformity echoes some of the worst moments of human history.

Genocides and purges required the complicity of people like me and you relinquishing their capacity to question for the sake of belonging, the sake of identity, among other motives no doubt, too, including the fear and consequent relief in being the perpetrator rather than the victim that bonds the mob together against another.

Conformity protects us from attack.

Jeremy Corbyn was lambasted by the more jingoistic elements of the press for not singing the national anthem at a memorial service, and has now appeared to bow to peer pressure, agreeing to sing it in future.

You might think this a pragmatic acceptance of the role of leader of the opposition in matters of state ceremony, or you might think it means that peer pressure has forced him to be hypocritical. Singing an anthem in honour of a god he does not believe in and a figurehead of a power and class structure he may well think responsible for causing the deaths the service commemorates.

I sympathise with him, or at least my 8 year old self does, because I was kicked out of the cubs for refusing to pledge allegiance to god or to the Queen.

My then best friend, Denis, wanted me  to join him. We were to learn knots and do good deeds.  I went for several weeks and all was fine. Until the evening of the initiation.

We all gathered in a circle around the leader and the new cubs, one by one, pledged allegiance to god and to the queen.

When it was my turn, in spite of Denis’s eager face, and the expectant glare of the leader, I said timidly that I didn’t want to say it because I did not think I believed in those things.

I was made to leave and walk home alone, pondering my atheist republicanism and coming to terms with a woggleless existence.

As a child, I was able to consider what I thought was right over what I knew was expected of me, and growing up I realised that when one thinks one knows what is right there is the possibility that one has become dogmatic and therefore possibly wrong, so I have always tried to be aware of whenever I have become complacent in my thoughts.

When I have accepted something as true – including my childish atheism and republicanism – I try to seek out the best arguments I can against those adopted positions to see if they withstand such tests.  I do this not because I have some special capacity, but because I am just the same as everyone else, just as prone to self-deception and getting swept up with the mob and I hope somehow to counter the innate disposition we all apparently share.

I laughed and jeered over the pig’s head, but in the Lord of the Flies, a pig’s head is placed on a stick, as a sacrifice to ‘the beast’ the dark, unseen, monstrosity that haunts the stranded boys.  But the truth is that the beast is the darkness that lurks in the heart of them, of us all.

The Burger King

Jeremy Corbyn has taken the helm of the Labour Party and everything is going to be great!

He and Tom Watson embody some hopeful prospects. I expect they will be effective in opposition, and I would like to feel positive about Labour’s chances of being elected to power but I share the concern of the more pragmatic democratic socialists such as the Fabian society:

The quasi-religious fervour around him, this idea that he is different from other politicians, pure and good, and will be the saviour from the previous false messiah of Blair? Well that just seems naive to me. It is expected that he will somehow change politics for good. If you project so much unrealistic hope onto anyone or anything you will be disappointed. Look at Obama, the Phantom Menace or pictures of the food in Burger King.

A disappointing burger

I am willing to be cautiously optimistic but I want rid of the Tories and I would like a government that is able to implement a fairer society. I am not yet convinced there will be enough popular support across the country for this incarnation of New Old Labour.

But he’s different, you tell me, as if he was the latest closing time pick-up after a string of disastrous encounters, he has principles. Well yes, he’s principled, but he has appeared to be hypocritical, he said one shouldn’t share a platform with racists but then went on to do just that, repeatedly, with holocaust deniers and antisemites.

This is not a smear from the right-wing press, this is an observation of concern from the left e.g. Rafael Behr in the Guardian  or Left Foot Forward.

That’s not racism, you might say. That’s just legitimate criticism of Jews because they control the media, and secretly run the world, and are just more evil than well, all other humans on earth and if we could just eradicate Israel from the map the whole Middle East would be a joyous Sunni/Shia reach around. And I would take on board what you had to say, as you would have demonstrated your expertise in racism and it’s important to share a platform with racists, or isn’t…no further questions!

Anyway, I’d like to be enthusiastic about him so I hope to see him address this and to recognise – like his champion Owen Jones -that there is a problem of anti-semitism that exists in the left, embedded in, and therefore poisoning the just causes of Palestinian rights and the anti-war movement.

Particularly the Stop the War movement of which Corbyn is chair and which is very particular about which wars it wants to stop and which warmongers it wants to curb and which are just misunderstood teddy bears like Cutie-Wutie-Putin, bless him! Look at him sharing his military toys with lovely Mr Assad so that he can kill, maim and poison with chemical weapons his civilian population. Aren’t they both just adorable! Not like the awful west, urgh I *hate* them so much.

The Syrian refugee crisis is composed of people fleeing Assad AND ISIS, though Russia Today – the mouthpiece of the Kremlin, will tell you otherwise. The most appalling human rights violations have been recorded under Assad’s tyrannical reaction to mostly non-violent dissent. Read it and weep, literally. (Save the Children – untold atrocities PDF)

I understand the need to oppose ‘western imperialism’, particularly after such misguided, horrific and counter-productive wars as those in the Gulf, but not blindly, doggedly, dogmatically, excusing each and every other terrible ‘non-western’ agent of misery and terror and oppression in the process.

And further, In terms of policy – getting rid of our nuclear weapons would be something great if we could do so multilaterally with every country in the world. But if we alone get rid of Trident won’t that make us more, not less dependent, on the US?

Or is the proposed new relationship with Russia meant to supersede that? Are we to rely on Putin’s protection instead?

Ukraine had 2000 nukes and gave them up. Look what happened.

I’d like to be enthusiastic, but I’ve ordered a Whopper before, and it did not look like the picture.

Phosphene

When someone dies.

the branches of a single tree
bow heavy with dew
in forest shadow a twig snaps
beneath the black paw of a stalking cat
and a startled bird flies free

when someone dies

the seaweed wrings its fingers
fields of wheat wave
goodbye
a crow sharpens its beak
on porous stone

when someone dies

the wind mourns their name once
in old forgotten tongue
the stars flicker off for a sliver of time
the stones yawn
the ground grows fat

Michael Fredman,Skull print by Michael Fredman 2001.

Horror scope

Avijit Roy, atheist and advocate of secularism, was hacked to death by a mob of murderers wielding meat cleavers, in Bangladesh, after threats from Islamist hardliners.

This is a post from his daughter:

Avijit Roy

She talks of not being afraid to say what you think, and that is damn right. So this is what I think: Religion is like star signs – an erroneous folly that people cling to, to make them feel special.

It would be harmless enough if it had not been granted any power over the reality in which we all must exist. But unfortunately there are entire dynasties of wealth and power based entirely on the beliefs of people of the past more ignorant, or more deluded, or more cunning than we, perhaps. These dynasties are mighty and ruthless, they reign over and own notable chunks of the Earth

In these dynasties one of the worst crimes you can commit is to question the lies from which the great power is drawn. People are killed for doing so. But as long as you don’t question the lie, you can be assured that you are special – a member of the true believers, and will be granted a posthumous splendour to make up for the tyranny you must endure in life.

Unfortunately, feeling special is the underpinning concept of all fascistic movements, as well as all psychopathic notions of superiority. This superiority is defined by, and in turn decrees, the belief that others are inferior and therefore no more than meat or animals for exploitation and death(see the Koran for explicit description of the ‘kuffar’ or non-believers as lower than animals), so it is no surprise that inhumane acts like this murder, or the almost endless sickening parade of barbarism, subjugation and mutilation of women and general inhumanity perpetuate while stupid, self-serving ideas go unchallenged or revered.

You aren’t any star-sign. Those stars are illusions, many are long dead, as dead as many of the gods ancient peoples populated the same black and twinkling sky with.

You are not preferred by the creator of the universe, if there is one, simply because you submit to the will of an imagined tyrant and his earthly storm troopers. You are just a human being, equal in worth to all others. You are not superior and it does not matter how many thinking people you hack down with your weapons. You will never be so. Instead be equal with us all, we brothers and sisters in being and in thought, who wish to live in peace. Who don’t claim that we know all there is to know, but love the capacity to think and to question as a means to navigate those mysterious stars. Stars that don’t spell out your destiny, but that illuminate the darkness, as thought does ignorance.

Tiananmen Square: 25 years on

I was in China in 1994. I was acting over there, in the Shanghai International Shakespeare festival. I was young and wide-eyed. I still have quite big eyes.

Anyway, with my companions, I went to Tiananmen square, and had a small experience, about which I wrote a poem, that evening.

It isn’t very good, it approaches doggerel in fact, but I remembered that I had written it today, on this anniversary of the massacre that the Chinese government still refuses officially to acknowledge.

I reproduce the poem faithfully – doggedly – below:

There are pockmarks in the paving of
Tiananmen square
There are the young and the old
as the sun sets
behind the Forbidden City

We are tourists, with our votes
and our dollars
the bicycles fly past us, and

the soldiers march
across The Square

We met two young men,
by the flowers

built to depict a rising Phoenix.

Students, like ourselves,
at “the Peoples’ University”

We sat on the ground, cross legged
Louisa joked, it was “a sit down protest”

We all thought of tanks.

We sat and we talked
of our different worlds met there
and the crowds milled past

‘as westerners you will have heard of the massacre here no doubt, in 1989’

We looked into his eyes.

Two men in suits refused to mill
they stood nearby
listening and watching

He broke off and looked at the men.
Stopped speaking,

turned back.

‘It was not as bad as it was reported as being’ he said.

I looked down at the fresh paving stones,
at the pockmarks
on the old.

The men in suits and sunglasses conversed with a soldier

We offered to buy our new found friends lunch, and we walked the Beijing streets.

I saw a three year old girl
fall off her father’s bicycle
to the street below,

watched her get up without a tear, back onto the bike.

At McDonald’s they took their first bites
of Mcfreedom.

Both their first bites were their last.

‘This isn’t food’, they stated, matter of factly.

We said goodbye, outside.
With a plastic effigy of Ronald McDonald grinning from a bench.

They went off to unlock their bikes.

The two men in suits and sunglasses
were waiting.

 

First we must ask, does it have to be a whale?

This made me laugh.

From a publisher’s rejection letter to Herman Melville, on his submission of Moby Dick:

‘First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale?

…For instance, could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens? ‘

A Whale, yesterday

More rejection letters sent to notable authors, here