That shallow decade

In an article in the Times today Libby Purves assures us that the Tories have changed. What’s more so has Britain and we’re all the better for it. She’s talking about the Tories and the Britain of the 80s: the decade of Thatcherism, loadsamoney, Section 28, miners’ strikes and the Falklands War. She says:

[T]hat shallow decade can’t be repeated. Britain is — believe it or not — much pleasanter and more thoughtful than it was on emerging from the bruising, punkish, strikebound 1970s. During the 1980s, remember, hardly anybody in government gave a damn about the environment: debates about badgers and newts were confined to the backwaters of the House of Lords, and welfare organic farming — when we took it up in 1990 — was widely and viciously mocked. Homophobia flowered into Section 28 of the Local Government Act. Racial discrimination was technically illegal but dislike was open: who can forget Lord Tebbit’s weird remark on the Today programme about the Ugandan-Asian born Yasmin Alibhai-Brown :“This Miss Brown may think she’s British . . .”

I can’t help but admire the way Purves deftly palms off the blame for the aggressive atmosphere of ‘that shallow decade’ onto the one that preceded it, or rather its tail end when Labour were in power; but the 80s was a far more abrasive decade than the 70s. Where the 70s spat, the 80s bludgeoned. And bludgeoned and bludgeoned. It was as though Mrs Thatcher saw herself as Churchill in drag and her battles – with Argentina, with the miners, with anybody and everybody (even members of her own party) – as a second Second World War.

In a way it was a war, but Argentines aside, it was mostly a war with ourselves as we tried to work out who we were and what we believed in because this was the decade when the consensus around our national identity and culture broke down. The 70s might have been a decade of ‘socialism’ but it was also the last decade it was possible to talk unchallenged of Britain as a Christian nation. I remember the 80s as the decade in which my family stopped watching the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day; the decade in which it became acceptable, even in the more conservative parts of the country, to live together ‘outside of wedlock’ (what a quaint expression that seems now); and the decade in which we stopped thinking of non-white Britons as ‘immigrants’, or at least started the process. It was also, courtesy of AIDS, the decade in which we started to openly discuss (and accept) homosexuality.

It’s really only now that i can see, looking back, what a time of upheaval it was. Despite the way in which Purves contrasts the 80s and the more socially enlightened times we live in now, it was the 80s when, half-hidden by the belligerent materialism of the decade, the very developments she describes began to put out shoots. It’s ironic really that the things the Tories wanted to preserve – monarchism, Christianity, marriage and so on – are the very things their economic philosophy helped to undermine. The more individuals were ‘encouraged’ to be self-sufficient, the more their dependence on (and consequently attachment to) traditional institutions weakened.

Whether or not that’s a good or a bad thing depends on your point of view. It has certainly created problems for us as a society, problems we have so far failed to find convincing solutions to. Dispersed and disconnected families, buildings in which so-called ‘neighbours’ live side by side for years without so much as speaking to one another, an increasing fear of crime – of being robbed or short-changed by A.N. Other; these are less pleasant manifestations of our modern self-oriented culture.

I wonder if we really are more ‘thoughtful’? I think we are certainly more careful in what we say about one another. But how much does that reflect progress in our attitudes and how much does it reflect the fact that without a common culture it is hard to work out what the boundaries of the acceptable are? We over-censor or we fail to censor ourselves at all. The war with ourselves has gone undercover now: it’s waged mostly anonymously via comments on news articles, and to a lesser extent on blogs and social network sites. I don’t know about ‘pleasanter’. To my eyes it looks vicious.

Polish poetry & me

I discovered the poetry of Poland via the work of Ewa Lipska. I remember reading her poem Instruction Manual, with its insistent refrain “The nation’s dead”, when i was twenty or so. At that time i was at home with a young son, trying to keep my mind alive by reaching out to a world beyond the small commuter town in which i was trapped. Poetry more than anything was my lifeline: language distilled to perfection. Lipska’s work spoke to me despite, rather than because of, its focus on politics; I sought out more and – naturally? inevitably? – discovered her compatriots Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. For some reason lost in the mist of time however their work didn’t stick, at least not then.

Soon afterwards i came across another Polish poet whose work did stick: Anna Swir (or Świrszczyńska). I’ve long since forgotten the name of the anthology in which i found her poems and only remember that it was a book showcasing women poets. More frustrating is the fact that i have no idea who did the translations; they (and presumably the original poems) are marvellous – deft, sensual, acerbic, poignant. Three of them i copied out and cherish to this day: A Spring, She Doesn’t Remember and Her Hand. The third of those is short enough to quote in full:

When my mother was dying
I held her hand.
When she died i burnt everything
her hand had touched.
Only my own hands
I couldn’t burn.

A few more years passed and i found myself unemployed and back in my hometown. Up on the city walls there was a little second-hand bookshop and whenever i had a bit of money i’d go up there and spend it on poetry books. Actually, i went up there whenever i got the chance, not just when i had money; but the rest of the time i had to come away empty handed. One of the books i found there was by Tadeusz Różewicz: Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems*, a bilingual selection of his work translated by Adam Czerniawski. This is dark stuff. Forever marked, it seems, by his experience of the Second World War, Różewicz makes lists; he mistrusts beauty. The typewriter-like font (green for the Polish and black for the English) and the delicate paper only emphasises the feeling of austerity. One poem in particular haunts me. It’s called Beyond Words (in Polish: Nad Wyraz) and begins:

What are you doing
emerged from darkness
Why don’t you want
to live in full light

Its final words are even more powerful:

One tear
inexpressible
beyond words

After that – a long while after that – came Zbigniew Herbert, ‘a spiritual leader of the anticommunist movement in Poland’ according to the brief biography which prefaces his Collected Poems 1956-1998**. Herbert’s work is thrilling – comic and grave – yet curiously difficult to quote from; the poems work beautifully, yet if you try to pull out lines to show to people they fall apart. I do like this stanza from I Would Like To Describe, however:

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

(Translation: Alissa Valles)

I too would like to be free of that dusty lion.

Finally, we come to a poet who arrived in my life just a month ago, courtesy of yet another anthology: Anna Piwkowska. The anthology is called Six Polish Poets*** and I found it in the same second-hand bookshop where many years previously i discovered Snow and Summers by Solveig von Schoultz. There is one poem in particular, about the sudden death of young woman as she is getting out the bath, which i think is incredible. It’s called Lament Of That Summer (or in Polish: Tren Tamtego Lata):

She stepped onto the side of death.
Here, one wet foot on the floor,
hair dryer, towel around her hips,
the other foot into the water,
into death, straight from the summer bath.
She managed just once more to run
the wet hand through her tangled hair.
The tea was cooling in the room;
she planned to hang the lingerie,
the light blue nothing, woven
out of fine silk threads.
Summer. Hot quivering morning.
The day had promised joy, and haste;
behind the wall her son called out
about the puppy’s nose in milk.
The dress hurriedly thrown
across the chair, cinnabar, absorbed
the drops of sunshine. The organ
music of Johann Sebastian
flowed across the room, a woman
or some strange furry animal.
The day brought joy. She managed
nothing. Not even a single shout.
Fear or a contraction
as if before a battle or
a trip. But why with no preparing
or good-byes did she let out
this tiny drop of oxygen
like laughter? A small wooden cross
above the mirror. Brief lapse
of attention. Behind the wall
The boy was playing with the dog.

(Translation: Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese).

There you have it: the story so far, spanning two decades, of Polish poetry and me.

* Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems: ISBN 83-08-01777-0;  Tadeusz Różewicz; trans. Adam Czerniawski; pub. Wydawnictwo Literackie (1991)
** Collected Poems 1956-1998: ISBN 978-1-84354-833-6; Zbigniew Herbert; trans. Alissa Valles; pub. Atlantic Books (2008)
*** Six Polish Poets: ISBN 978-1-904614-50-0; ed. Jacek Dehnel; pub. Arc Publications (2008)

More trouble in the land of penguins

Interesting that a furore has erupted over the Falkland Islands again. Apart from bringing back memories of the war in the 80s it set my mind thinking about territory and territorial claims. Who has the right to make territorial claims and why? When do the rights of those who live in a territory give way to those of others? Where does the principle of self-determination begin and end?

The current settlement dates to 1833 and is now into its sixth generation in some families. Can these people still be described as colonialists – and if so why is that not also true of the Argentines themselves? Most of the current population of Argentina descend from immigrants who arrived in the country in the late Nineteenth Century (or later) after the Falkland Islands settlement was established. The lands that many of them settled in the south of Argentina were already inhabited by indigenous peoples who were absorbed into the new state regardless of their own identities.

By contrast, there was no indigenous population on the Falklands. Certainly, there had been other settlements on the islands – the first being that of the French in 1764 – but these were all attempts at colonisation. There was no particular moral or historical claim behind them.

If the Falkland Islanders choose to identify themselves as such then why should that not be respected? Why should the islands’ real name by asserted to be Las Malvinas? If the islanders choose to speak English and choose a status as an overseas dependency of Britain (or whatever the term is) then why should that choice be disputed? Is it because they are too few of them: how many inhabitants does a place need to have a right to have a right to self-determination? Because the islands are close to Argentina: is 300 miles close? Because they are not a nation? What is the special quality of the nation state – a relatively recently developed political structure – that allows it to ride roughshod over the rights of actual people?

Here as in many other cases nationalism seems to me a covert imperialism. Where empires claim that a territory belongs to it, nations claim that a territory forms a part of it. But in both cases these claims may be made irrespective of the actual feelings of the people who inhabit it. Some South American countries assert that the failure to surrender the Falkland Islands to Argentina is imperialism. On the contrary, the settling of the islands might have been an act of imperialism, but then the same is true of the original settlement of Argentina. The settlement as it exists now though – almost 180 years later – is a society, small as it is, in its own right.

Turkey & the meaning of ‘Europe’

Turkey, it seems, wants to be part of the EU but the EU isn’t equally keen to accept it. A recent article in the Guardian explored this ambivalence and its possible consequences. As interesting as the article itself were the comments from readers. These were strongly negative on the whole – much more so than i’d normally expect from a ‘progressive’ newspaper like the Guardian.

I was particularly struck by the claim that Turkey is apparently “not part of Europe either culturally or geographically”. Taking the geographic part of this first: why does this matter? There is no particular reason why Europe the political entity need be an exact match of Europe the geographical entity. States and federations of states are not naturally occurring phenomena like rivers or mountains.

This is something the commentator should have been aware of himself actually as his name indicates he’s from Poland, a country whose geographical expression has been very variable over time. Part of Turkey is in Europe geographically and – rather ironically – the coast of the Asian part of its territory was historically home to some of those Greek states which form part of the ‘common European historical narrative’ which is used to legitimise a pan-European identity.

The second part of the claim is more complicated: is Turkey part of Europe culturally? I find this hard to answer because i honestly don’t know what European culture is. Western Classical Music? For the elite maybe. Indo-European languages? What about Basque?

Many of those who object to Turkey’s candidature lay great stress on a shared Christian history. This is yet another beautifully ironic moment: apart from the fact that many of the “Pro-Christians” who argue this are atheists who are hostile to Christianity in most other circumstances, there’s also the sheer hypocrisy and/or historical ignorance of suggesting that Christianity has been some kind of unifying force in Europe. I’m not one of those people who thinks Christianity or religion in general is bad, but let’s be honest: Christianity has been a factor in some of the continent’s bloodiest wars.

As far as i can tell, all ‘a shared Christian history’ really means is ‘not Muslim’. Yet, hang on for a minute, Bosnia and Albania, both of which lie entirely within Europe geographically, have large Muslim populations – and, more importantly, have had them for centuries. In Albania’s case, Muslims probably make up a majority of the population, although it’s hard to be sure because the data is so poor.

I was going to ask how much cultural unity there is in Europe, but given how hard it is to define what our common European culture is supposed to consist of, i’m not sure there’s any point. I will ask however: how many western Europeans for example feel any deep kinship with eastern Europeans? The article’s comments are telling in this respect, with much hostility being displayed towards new eastern European member states such as Bulgaria and Romania. When i was a child this sort of hostility was rare because these countries sat behind the so-called Iron Curtain and frankly, beyond occasional moments of sympathy for the plight of people living in Communist dictatorships, i can’t remember ever being very aware they existed. Even now, i bet many Western Europeans would struggle to locate their Eastern neighbours on an unlabelled map.

The elephant in the room, which few people seem to want to acknowledge, is the idea that Europeans share a common ethnic origin, or to put it even more crudely are ‘white’. Leaving aside where this leaves the many citizens of modern European nations who are most definitely not ‘white’, how non-European are the Turks ethnically? Here i think the great irony is that the Turks’ own ‘common historical narrative’ works against them, because it tends to encourage the idea that Turks are unambiguously the descendents of the Turkic invaders whose language they now speak. Yet, it’s obvious when you look at modern Turkish people – especially if you’ve also met people from Central Asian Turkic nations – that the Turks are more European – and more Levantine – than they care to admit. The genetic evidence* i’m aware of backs this up. In fact, this is just what you’d expect in a country which was previously the hub of a multi-ethnic empire.

I honestly don’t know if it’s a good idea for Turkey to join the EU: it seems to me that being admitted so grudgingly would poison their membership from the start. I do, however, think that the debate over its candidature could be useful in challenging assumptions about identity on both sides.

* I have seen a few summaries of papers which look at this in more detail via anthropology blogs that i subscribe to, but i don’t have time to track them down right now. Hopefully, i’ll be able to post details in the near future.

Why does Afghanistan spell war?

The recent furore over Gordon Brown’s apparent misspelling of a dead soldier’s name has left me baffled. Of all the things to get worked up about: an “m” where there should have been an “n”! Not only that but the soldier’s name, “Janes”, is one I’ve never even heard of before, whereas “James” is common (my own surname gets misspelt all the time for similar reasons). I can understand the mother’s reaction – she just needs a target and a trigger to allow her to vent her grief – but the way in which the Sun ran with this story is bizarre*. Instead of inventing scandals, how about some attention to the real issues? Here’s six questions for a start:

1. What proportion of the UK’s resources can and should be channelled into the Armed Forces? One aspect of this story that has almost got lost amidst the obsession with handwriting is the suggestion that the soldier might have survived had he and his comrades been better equipped. I have a relative in the British Army and I know that it’s nowhere near as well provided for – in any sense of the word – as are US troops. Where do people propose to get the money from to fund the Army better however – other than cuts in the Public Sector, the savings from which will largely be eaten up by existing budget deficits. Do people propose paying higher taxes? Thought not. Should the scope of our Armed Services be scaled back to a level we can fund adequately from the existing defence budget? What would that mean: practically – not just now but also in the (perpetually uncertain) future; in terms of national pride; and in terms of international standing? What is the attitude to these questions in other European countries? Is military power really the most important factor in the 21st Century; or does economic strength count for more?

That’s a general question. The others concern this war in particular:

2. Who is the war against? We seem to have gone into Afghanistan with Al-Qaeda (global terrorist organisation) as our quarry, following the 9/11 atrocity; and ended up fighting a war with the Taliban (local terrorist organisation). I grant you the Taliban are reactionary and despotic, but so are many other organisations and regimes with whom we are not at war (Mugabe’s Zimbabwe anyone?). No-one even bothers to pretend we’re after Osama Bin Laden and his cronies any more, yet his presence in Afghanistan was the original justification for the invasion.

3. Why are the Taliban so important? What threat are they believed to represent which other extreme Islamist groups don’t? What is the evidence for it? Yes, Al-Qaeda found sanctuary in Afghanistan but they had also previously found it in Sudan. Is it not the case that in Britain the greatest terrorist threat is from people who are already in Britain (people who are as often as not citizens of our country); but who are disillusioned, disoriented and, consequently, easily radicalised? How does the war in Afghanistan mitigate this threat? Globally, are not Saudi Arabia and Pakistan of more importance than Afghanistan? It can be argued that the war in Afghanistan has strengthened extreme Islamism in Pakistan.

4. What are we fighting for? Are we trying to prevent the Taliban from imposing undemocratic rule on Afghanistan? If so, why do we not take a similar view with Hamid Karzai? Are we trying to secure a better life for the Afghans: healthcare, education, religious freedom, rights for women, etc? If so, is warfare the most productive way to go about it? Are we trying to protect the UK and, if so, are we achieving that aim? Or are we just hitting back so that the Islamist extremists won’t see us as weak? In which case, is the war achieving that aim? Could it not be argued that we are allowing the extremists to determine the rules of engagement (blood, blood and more blood) and in that way shoring up their sense that they call the shots?

5. What is the Islamist threat which we are seeking to avert? Are we trying to avoid another 9/11? The radicalisation of Western Muslims? The Islamisation of the West (demographic? cultural?) The polarisation of the world into spheres conceived in terms of ‘civilisations’? How many different anxieties are getting mixed up in this war – anxieties which in almost all cases concern things that can never be resolved on a battlefield.

6. What is the endpoint for this war? At what point will we be able to say it’s been won, it’s over? If there is no defined endpoint then how are we ever going to say it is over? Are we just going to fight it forever, each year sending more young men to die for this mysterious ’cause’? And that’s in addition to the thousands of ordinary Afghans who have been killed as a result of the conflict.

I’m not asking these questions rhetorically; nor am I a pacifist. I know there are situations in which it is both right and necessary to fight (WWII for example). I just do not understand the current war or our attitudes towards it. The Scandal of Gordon Brown’s Handwriting is just the latest in a line of stories which seem to focus on anything other than the war itself.

* And then again, this being the Sun we’re talking about, maybe not so bizarre.

The black and white world of Marjane Satrapi

In the past week i’ve watched the film Persepolis and read the book on which the film is based. This is the autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, who was around ten years old when the Iranian Revolution took place, ultimately bringing the Islamists to power. In both the book and the film she describes the initial optimism of her middle class but left leaning family. It sounds almost absurd now but it seems many such people seriously expected Iran to become a Communist state.

For Marjane, her family and for many other Iranians the actual outcome was a tragedy: her Uncle Anouche ended up executed, the Iran-Iraq war claimed the deaths of thousands of young men and the women of Iran, Marjane included, found that they were expected to dress and behave according to the dictates of the Islamists’ puritanical code.

I don’t dispute any of this. What i do find puzzling is that nowhere in either book or film is there any consideration of what Iran’s fate would have been if the Communists had come to power. Are we to imagine there would have been no executions of political opponents by the Communists, no curtailments of freedom? Maybe Marjane’s family would not have experienced these things. If they were part of or connected to the ruling elite – rather than in opposition to it – then perhaps they would have been protected. But another family might have suffered – an Islamist family perhaps?

Uncle Anouche, the most important Communist ‘character’, is a weary, gentle man. He is also a survivor of torture under the oppressive regime of the Shah. Of course we warm to him but surely, among those who returned from the prisons, there were also weary, gentle Islamist men? The point is: it’s rarely these naive individuals who end up in power, but rather their harder, much less innocent comrades.

In fact, even Uncle Anouche shows us a glimpse of something which doesn’t seem to sit right with his talk of democracy. In a conversation with little Marjane he tells her about his uncle Fereydoon who “proclaimed the independence of the Iranian province of Azerbaijan” and “elected himself Minister of Justice in this new little republic”. Elected himself?”

I wonder what Marjane’s feelings about freedom and leftist politics would have been if the Communists had taken power? Would she still have left? Would she have ended up an apologist for the regime? Or would she have eventually rejected it, just as some Iranian Islamists have rejected the Islamist regime? Might she even have rejected leftist politics altogether? (Note if you’re reading this that i’m not judging the left or the right. I am suspicious of all politicians).

Those who have never had power do have this sad luxury: if you have never had the chance to act then your actions by definition cannot be judged. But Marjane Satrapi, the adult, has lived abroad and seen other countries, other regimes, other possibilities, yet she never shows any awareness of this issue. The politics of Persepolis are as black and white as the illustrations themselves.