Sunday, 26 June 2016

Brexit




The Great British Public has delivered its verdict. 51.9% of those who voted on the EU referendum, voted for the UK to get out of the EU. This was described by Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), as a “victory for decent, ordinary people”. This suggests that Farage considers those like me, who voted to remain in Europe, as neither decent nor ordinary. I have to say that Farage is an entertaining character, a kind of buffoon who manages to say the most vile and dyspeptic things in a manner and style that makes you chuckle, even as the rant repels your sense of decency; intelligence, even. Try as one might it is difficult to take this buffoon seriously. The reality is, though, that in this instance the people (albeit with a tiny majority) agreed with the buffoon.  Now that Britain is definitely out of the EU one can hope Farage and his pestilential party will sink into well-earned obscurity.
David (“Call me Dave”) Cameron’s luck finally ran out. The referendum was held with the short-term expediency in mind: to stave off the threat of UKIP and also to end the Tory Party’s internecine decades-long war over Europe. It backfired, and “Dave” had to go. He did the decent thing; and within hours of the defeat of the Remain campaign for which, it has to be said, he had argued extensively, repeatedly and passionately, he announced his resignation. When you go to the people on quasi-constitutional matters and are unsuccessful in putting forth your case you don’t really have a choice. Cameron made a reckless decision and paid the price. I have no sympathy for him.

One of the many problems with such referenda is that complex questions, which, frankly speaking, are beyond comprehension of most people—ordinary or otherwise—get dumbed down to simple “Yes” or “No” type of answers. At the place where I work is a fifty-something, recently divorced woman (her face more powdered than an American donut) who, in line with the demographics of how people voted in the referendum, since published—majority of the middle-aged and geriatrics voted for exit (which surprises me; I would have thought that by the time one reaches middle age, one would have arrived at the considered position that all change of itself is unwelcome and ought not to be aspired for unless there are very clear and obvious advantages)—, wanted Britain out of the EU. In the coffee breaks she would bore everyone with sentences such as "there is a big issue that everyone is overlooking: 'we' are not leaving Europe; 'we' have not turned our back on the people of Europe; 'we' simply wanted to leave a poorly managed, corrupt institution, namely the European Union, which is in dire straits." She would then give examples such as how it was not a good business sense to link your flourishing business with fifteen other failing businesses, as the failing businesses were more likely to bring you down than you keep them afloat. This, I guessed, was the economic argument of the woman for getting out of Europe. You meet people like her (not excessively endowed in the brain department)—they have total conviction about their rightness; what they are right about is a secondary matter. The day after the referendum I tried my best to avoid her, but she ambushed me in the corridor and asked, with a broad grin—revealing a layer of slime on her buck teeth—whether I was planning to go out drinking in the evening. I told her that I might, or I might not. “Would that be to celebrate or drown your sorrows?” she asked,smirking. Another man—a rather pitiful character, who sports a more or less permanent shaving rash, which, I suspect, dents his confidence when he speaks to women—in his twenties, also voted for ‘exit’. He told me that he wasn’t really sure why he voted for ‘exit’. “I could have easily voted for ‘remain’,” he informed me. “Why didn’t you?” I asked him. He looked puzzled, intrigued, puzzled, intrigued and abashed. “Dunno,” he replied, finally, with the air of a man who had realised that the EU referendum was one of the myriad mysteries of the universe that was simply beyond his understanding and he was not even going to try. “I had to vote for something. Too many foreigners are coming here. Something needs to be done about it. I mean, we all feel sorry for what is going on in the Middle East, but it doesn’t mean they all have to queue up to come here. What about the local people?” I opened my mouth to tell him that civil wars in the Middle East, Libya, Afghanistan etc., to which Britain, by the way, has contributed in no small measures, had nothing to do with the referendum, but then closed my mouth. What’s the point? He had voted for ‘exit’ and we are ‘out’. As Lord Hill, the UK’s European commissioner, said before he resigned, what’s done is done; it can’t be undone. And, as the man candidly admitted, he could have easily voted to stay in the EU except that the two stray neurones in his brain (perhaps the only functioning ones) decided to fire at the precise time he was in the polling booth, and he decided to vote in favour of ‘exit’.

The tone of the debate was not balanced. Cameron was accused by the 'leave' campaigners of orchestrating ‘Project Fear’—depicting an Armageddon-type scenario if we were to leave EU. Economy would go into a meltdown; we would all be in the breadline, and would have to sell our children and push our wives into prostitution so that we could get a bowl of soup etc.. Cameron and his trusted friend, the Chancellor George Osborne, did not leave anyone in doubt as to what was likely to happen—reeling off names of a number of financial institutions, none of which, I guess, had predicted the 2008 global recession, to support their arguments—if Britain voted out. I think ‘Project Fear’ worked with a proportion of people—it certainly worked for me. (It may well become 'Project Reality' in the coming years.) The ‘leave' camp said that theirs was an optimistic project, by contrast. They all acted as if they were possessed by a rush of hope, with varying degrees of success, or, in cases of Gove and Iain Duncan Smith—both of whom have the air of bringers of bad news, and, to paraphrase a character from a Howard Jacobson novel, the further air of never having been bringers of anything else—no success): we were taking back control of our own affairs. The 'leave' camp had its own bogyman—the immigrants. The mendacious arguments put forth by the 'leave' camp were jaw-dropping. They would introduce a point system (already in place for non-EU citizens) which would stem the flow of immigrants from Europe (in particular former Soviet Bloc, Eastern European countries); more money would be available for public services, in particular NHS, as we would not be paying £ 350 million a week (or was it a day?) to the EU; and of course we would not have to worry about the seventy million Turks whom the Germans were all ready to welcome into the EU, and were lying in wait, explosives tied to their genitals, to blow themselves up on the London Underground.  Everything was a lie. Turks are not about to join the EU anytime soon (and even they did, so what?). There will be no appreciable reduction in the number of EU nationals coming to Britain; the free movement will continue for the foreseeable future; and, not only will there be no extra funding for the beleaguered NHS, more savage cuts in public services will follow. Farage announced cheerfully, within twenty-four hours of the exit that he fully expected Britain to go into a “mild recession”. (On the other hand, on the BBC's Andrew Marr show on 25 June, there was the pathetic spectacle of the Tory Business secretary Sajid Javed, who, incidentally, was with the Remain campaign, but has since discovered that his heart was actually with the Exit camp, and who just a few weeks back was issuing all sorts of doomsday warnings in case Britain left the EU, squirming and backtracking on those prophesies. He was followed by Iain Duncan Smith, who, without batting an eyelid, reneged on the Brexiters' pledge of reinvesting the £ 350 millions they will not be sending to sent to Brussels (a lie in itself) in the NHS, even when the poster of the 'leave' campaign was shown to him. (What does this show? It shows that in the admittedly high standard for shamelessness amongst the Tories, Duncan Smith has a thicker skin than Javed, who had at least the decency to squirm.)) I wonder how long it will be before the Great Unwashed realise that they have been swindled. The days are long, so little happens, and there, really, is nothing to do than park your bum on the sofa and numb your mind with day-time soaps (and chill out twice a month, when you get paid(!) the benefit money, in the company of your mates, with a joint or two of cannabis); but it is inevitable that there will be further cuts in the benefits, because we are going to be poorer, and how is one to cope? (And don't expect Boris Johnson to part with even a penny of the obnoxious sums of money he gets paid to shovel out his weekly tripe in the Telegraph).

We should expect no special treatment from the EU when we leave. As the much reviled Jean Claude Junker (whose presidency of European Commission was opposed by Cameron using every dirty trick in the book) cryptically commented, it is going to be a painful divorce, but it wasn't a tight love affair in the first place. If the leavers are hoping that Britain wold get a Norway-style deal, it's not going to happen. There are more chances of hair growing on Iain Duncan Smith's bald head than Britain being offered that kind of deal. Also, seeing as the 'leave' campaigners are pathologically averse to free movement of people across European nations, they would be wasting everyone's time if they attempted Norway-style deal when Britain leave the EU. It is also interesting that after telling tall stories and giving false promises to people, the 'leave' campaigners are suddenly in no rush to invoke article 50, which will start the process of Britain's exit from the EU. Why is that? If they really thought that the EU was really so demonic, get out of it quick. My guess is that there will be political pressure on the leavers to invoke article 50 by Christmas.

Lord Heseltine has suggested that the triumvirate of the Boris Johnson (an untrustworthy sleekit, a proven lier and a philanderer), Iain Duncan Smith (an uninteresting, thoroughly boring man; someone should slip prussic acid into his tea) and Michael Gove (a born mediocrity; also, he looks like he has taken a fatal overdose of rancour) must be put in charge of negotiating Britain's exit from the EU. For this reason alone I would like to see the fat clown Boris Johnson to be Britain's next prime-minister. These three have inflicted this gigantic con on the UK, telling the nation a truckload of lies, and they should be put in charge of the negotiations with the EU. They ought to be held fully accountable for all the consequences. (If they need help Farage could help). Boris Johnson will then find out that if you are trying to fuck a tiger, you'd better make sure that you duct-tape the back legs of the tiger (which he can't do; it is difficult to see what leverage Britain will have in these negotiations other than the vailed threat that a messy Brexit will adversely affect the EU countries); and you are a tiger (which Johnson isn't; he is a fat clown; he is worse than a bad egg; he is, like, bad chicken)).  

The whole ‘remain’ versus ‘exit’ debate was a vicious internal fight within the Tory Party. The main opposition party, the Labour, officially backing the 'remain' campaign, was virtually absent. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has the charisma of a dishwasher, ran a thoroughly spineless and dispirited campaign. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but the man is not capable. He does not inspire confidence. Only the deluded or gullible (and there aren’t many of those outside of the Labour Parry members) would trust him with running the country. You might as well put that chap Boycie from Only Fools and Horses in charge of the country. As long as this nincompoop is at the helm of the Labour Party, the Tories have nothing to fear. Jeremy is a loser with a capital L.
Coming back to the EU referendum, Britain has probably conformed to its world-stereotype, I am afraid: we are unique in our sense of (misplaced) self-importance and poisonous exclusiveness.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Book of the Month: The Eternal Philistine (Odon Von Horvath)



The Eternal Philistine, the 1930 debut novel of the long since forgotten Hungarian author Odon Von Horvath, is in three sections. The first section is about a car salesman on the make called Kobler; the second section is about an unemployed seamstress called Anna (who makes brief appearance in the first section), who, in the depressing years of the Weimer Republic Germany, turns to prostitution; and the third and final section is about one Herr Reithofer, an impoverished Austrian living in Germany who passes on a good job lead to Anna.

In the first section is the longest (and also the funniest) we meet Alfons Kobler. A failed car salesman, Kobler wants to be rich, and his mind is singularly devoted to relieving people of their money by various machinations. As the novel opens Kobler had sold off his dud of a car to the fat, enthusiastic (and very gullible) Portschinger, for six hundred marks. Kobler has never earned so much money at once. Egged on by his bitter and xenophobic landlady, Kobler embarks on a picaresque journey from Munich, his home town, to Barcelona, where a world fair is going to be hosted. Kobler is hoping to meet a rich Egyptian ‘lady’, who, he is further hopeful, will keep him in luxury after he has debauched During his train journey from Munich to Barcelona that requires frequent changing of trains and going through different countries, including Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, Kobler meets a series of characters, who, amongst them share the unappealing characteristics of dyspepsia, xenophobia, unscrupulousness, and holding sweeping, inaccurate and one-sided opinions. These men—they are all men—like Kobler, are philistines. And they are madder than a stadium full of boxes of frogs. Like the man who immediately identified Kobler (correctly) as a German (Horvath’s humour is at its satirical best, here) by the thickness of his skull. ‘You see,’ the man informs Kobler, ‘Germans all have thick skulls, but only in the true sense of the word.’ The train conductor of the carriage speaks to Kobler about a very nice accommodating German family he has met, adding that the family was of course not ‘pure German’ but ‘Russian German’. Another companion, a pompous alcoholic named Schmitz who has a special talent for eloquently quoting Goethe and who obviously fancies himself as a ‘Renaissance Man’ with a keen eye for architecture, advises Kobler to watch the splendidly traditional Spanish bull-fight. The omnipresent narrator’s description of the bull-fight depicts it as a grotesque murder-lust.

In the brief second section we meet Anna Pollinger. Anna is a young woman who has no parents (she is not shading any tears for them, as her father left the family when she was very young and she never got along with her mother who ‘had become very embittered about the lousy world’). Anna lives with her aunt, and, in the post-First World War Germany, having lost lost several jobs through no fault of her own, she loses yet another job. While Anna is not unduly perturbed by this, her aunt reacts to the news as though the Armageddon has arrived and seizes the opportunity to rant about the post-war period in Germany. Then a paying guest by the name of Herr Kastenr, who boasts of having connections in the film industry on the basis that he once played an extra in a film that was never released (and from the cast of which he was thrown out after he was caught taking naked photographs of an underage extra) offers Anna the role of a model with an artist friend of his named Achner. Achner, who is an etcher, of course, etches nude models, and is enthused to learn from Kastenr (who has rushed to him as soon as he heard that Anna had lost her job) that Kastenr could provide him with a dirty blonde model of medium built’ who could also take a joke.’ As Anna is undressing behind the screen, an acquaintance of Achner, called Harry Priegler, turns up in Achner’s atelier. Harry, a rich pig’s farmer, has no appreciation of arts, but abundant appreciation of young blondes. The etching is interrupted, and the next day Anna is in Harry Priegler’s car. When Harry pulls the car into a bypass in a park Anna knows what is coming, and she is ready for it. When Harry makes his intentions of making free with her loins makes clear, Anna informs him coolly that it does not work like that. Negotiations ensue and Anna receives her payment. In the post-war Germany, where unemployment has reached record high Anna Pollinger has turned practical, and has embarked on a new career .

In the third and the briefest section of the novel we meet Anna again; she has been kicked out by her aunt once the aunt came to know Anna’s new occupation. Anna meets an unemployed Austrian named Herr Reithofer. The impoverished Reithofer is also very naïve and mistakes Anna for the romantic love of his life. Anna, by now hardened in her attitude, makes him spend money he can’t afford taking her to a movie, and, when she realises that Reithofer really does not have any money sends him marching off. Later, Reithfoer meets an elderly man in a café who tells him about a possible job in Ulm on the Danube in the tailor shop of a rich pre-war Councillor of Commerce, except that the job is for a young woman. Reithfoer traces Anna and passes on the information about this employment opportunity which would be a ‘life-aver for her.’ As this short novel ends Anna is learning that the world is not full of evil and there are instances, admittedly small, which indicate ‘the possibility of human culture and civilisation.’

The Eternal Philistine is a satirical look at the middle classes in the Germany between the two World Wars. In its spirit the novel is not dissimilar to some of the novels of Hans Fallada (A Small Circus, Fallada’s satirical take on the politics in a provincial German town in the 1920s, has been reviewed on this blog earlier) and Stefan Zweig. Kobler, the protagonist of the first section of the novel is, as the title suggests, is a philistine. He has no time for architecture or literature, and he admits with bracing directness that he does not have much time for revolutions because the revolutionary leaders are by and large not good businessmen. When Kobler arrives in Italy on his way to Barcelona, he discovers that Fascism has arrived in Italy before him. Kobler has no trouble identifying with Fascism and, cheerfully and unhesitatingly introduces himself as a German Fascist. Many of his companions, despite their pretensions and airs are also philistines and bigots. While the reader may laugh at the philistinism of Kobler and his fellow-travellers, the reader feels little sympathy for them. By contrast, for Anna Pollinger who makes a practical and unsentimental decision to turn to prostitution (and once she makes the transition, goes about her business in a matter-of-fact, almost ruthless, manner), the reader feels a smidgen of sympathy. Anna has become a philistine by circumstances whereas Kobler is a philistine by choice, by nature if you will. The novel ends on a somewhat optimistic, if tentative, note, with a slimmer of hope being offered to Anna by her unexpected benefactor.

The Eternal Philistine is a sublimely comic novel, jam-packed with quiet energy. Horvath is at his best when he is a droll and wry observer of the human pretensions and inconsistencies, for example, the ‘cultivated gentleman’ Kobler meets on the train, after waxing eloquent about his preferences for eating  (salmon canapes) and holidaying (Southern Italy) shouts an order for ‘steak with tartar’. Horvath brilliantly lampoons Mussolini’s penchant for Italianization of all German names (one of the many unfortunate consequences of the First World War), and that too in a literal sense. However, ‘should a name lack a literally translatable sense, Mussolini would merely stick an ‘o’ at the end of it.’

I loved Eternal Philistine despite its drawbacks (in the main the three sections of the novel don’t gel together as a story, although they are thematically connected; also the unexpected upbeat ending of the novel which, until then is full of dark humour and pessimistic observations, is a tad unconvincing). It is quirky, Rabelaisian, suggestive, and very funny.

Odon (the author preferred the Hungarian version of his first name, Edmund), a son of a Hungarian diplomat, moved to Berlin in the 1920s where he lived for the next decade. He left Germany for Austria with Hitler’s ascent to power. Horvath left Austria for France in 1938 after the Anschluss. Within months of moving to Paris Horvath was dead, following a freak accident. Caught in a thunderstorm on the Champs-Elysees, while returning from a play, Horvath took shelter under a tree, and was killed when the branch broke and fell on him. He was thirty-six.

An equal credit of the enjoyment of The Eternal Philistine must go to the brilliant translation by Benjamin Dorvel. Melville House Publishing deserves kudos for bringing out this entertaining novel for the English language readers.








Monday, 23 May 2016

Book of the Month: The Graveyard (Marek Hlasko)


Franciszek Kowalski, the protagonist of The Graveyard, the 1957 novel Polish author Marek Hlasko (who, apparently, was described as the James Dean of Poland, because of the striking facial resemblance between the two), is an obedient member of the Polish communist party. A life-long communist, Kowalski has fought in the resistance for the underground during the German occupation of during the Second World War. After the end of the war Kowalski, a Communist party member, has obediently swallowed all the received wisdom: the evils of Capitalism; the ideological superiority of Communism over Capitalism, especially as espoused by Lenin and Stalin to which unwavering loyalty was expected from all the Eastern Bloc countries. Then one night, it all unravels spectacularly for Kowalski. Having met an old friend, a partisan fighter like Kowalski against the Germans, Kowalski drinks more vodka than is advisable and becomes merry. As he is walking down the street of Warsaw, singing loudly and, occasionally, shouting at passers-by, Kowalski is accosted by policemen. Kowalski, his judgment no doubt impaired by alcoholic beverage, makes a further error: he answers back to the policemen, and makes clear by his belligerent and insolent tone and manner that he does not much care for what the policemen have to say, based on the dubious reasoning that he has done nothing wrong. High level of inebriation gives Kowalski ideas beyond his station. He believes that as an individual he has the right to have a view, even if that view is to want to have the right to sing a song when he wishes. Kowalski is arrested and spends the night in the police cells in the company of individuals, who, it would appear, were labouring under the notion that in Communist Poland they had the right to not only hold opinions but express them publically. Kowalski is further aggravated in the cell by speculations of the other inmates that the real reason Kowalski was in the cell was that someone close to him must have informed on him. Kowalski takes offence at these conjectures, and unwisely gets into arguments with the speculator. He would pay dearly for this, too. The next morning Kowalski is summoned by the lieutenant in charge of the police station to the corporal’s office. There, Kowalski is informed by the police what he said the previous night in the cell, in front of witnesses. Kowalski, sober by now, can’t remember, try as he might, saying anything the police claim he said. What has Kowalski said? Kowalski, the police inform him, expressed doubt. Kowalski insulted the People’s Poland by expressing a wish to make a dash to the West. The language used by Kowalski was so vile the lieutenant was even ashamed to repeat it. The police have unmasked an enemy of the people: “what a sober man thinks in his heart a drunk says with his tongue.” Kowalski, nevertheless, is allowed to leave after he has signed the papers, knowing that he, from now on, is a marked man; the police have his number. Shaken, Kowalski, who still can’t believe that he actually said the things he was supposed to have said, decides that the only way to redeem himself is to put his case in front of the party members, about what happened the previous night, and seek their vote of confidence in him. Notwithstanding what the police claim Kowalski said when he was drunk, he wants an endorsement from the party members that his fealty towards the Communist principles is unfaltering (which just goes to show that Kowalski’s judgment is as suspect when sober as it is when he is drunk). At the end of the meeting Kowalski’s life and everything he has held dear lie in tatters. He is expelled from the party for his transgression against the party. When he informs what has happened to his son, Mikolaj, Mikolaj—a fervent believer in the party—informs Kowalsi, not without sadness, that Mikolaj going to have no truck with him. His daughter, Elzbieta, finds herself spurned by her fiancé, who wants nothing to do with the daughter of a traitor, even though she is expecting his child. It does not end, here, Elzbieta is chucked out of university, and decides, having considered her situation, that the best thing in the circumstances is to kill herself. Am I forgetting anything? Oh yes! Kowalski loses his job. As the novel ends we find Kowalski rip-roaringly drunk again, and meeting the same policeman who arrested him on the fateful night.
The Graveyard is a novel that is remarkable for a number of reasons. First published in 1958 (outside of Poland, in France, it goes without saying), it is a powerful portrait of the Stalinist dictatorship in the Communist countries, with the pervasive presence of police and thought control—an inevitable consequence of paranoia common to all dictatorships. “Do you like it, here, or don’t you,” is the question the police constantly throw at Kowalski and scores of innocent people like him who are arrested for the flimsiest of reasons. Hlasko presents a personal portrait of Kowalski’s journey—along which he meets his former comrades from the occupation era living life in fear or else disillusionment—with its inevitable destination: shattering of a man’s faith in the principles and ideology he has held dear. The story is very cleverly structured, with a cruel twist at the end, which, we now know, is the axiomatic truth at the rotten heart of Communist dictatorships: the regimes became so paranoid that they turned on themselves in the end.

The Graveyard (excellently translated from Polish Norbert Guterman) is a powerful depiction of a society where freedom of expression is suppressed and individuality is treated as poison. Hlasko went into exile before he was twenty-five, after The Graveyard and another novel were rejected by the Communist run Polish press. He died ten years later, before his thirty-fifth birthday, of an overdose—either deliberate or inadvertent—having spent the previous half-a-dozen years in the psychiatric hospitals or prisons of various countries. In his short life Hlasko published ten novels and a memoir. The Graveyard, long since out of print, was reissued in 2013, and is an essential reading, like the novels of Koestler and Orwell.


Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Dinner Party




I once read somewhere about the rule of 9 of American journalist Joe Alsop, famous for his influential dinner parties. According to Alsop when you are hosting a dinner party you can cope with one bore. And if you invite 9 people for a dinner party there is bound to be a bore amongst them. Invite more than nine people and you run the risk of being with more than one bore that could ruin the evening.

I thought of this rule recently when I was subjected to a vicious assault by bores in a dinner party; and there were only six of us including me (and I am not a bore): the couple hosting the dinner, a retired couple, and a common friend.

The retired couple: The husband, I was informed, used to work as a manager of a flour-mill while his wife was a telephonist. The husband was a bald, portly man with a weak chin with a dirty spot on it, which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be a beard. He had gone bald, I noticed, in a weird manner. There was the usual half-moon of the hedge of hair. Then there was a tuft at the apex which for some reason he had let grown long. The tuft came all the way down to the back of his neck. I figured he was a t**t by the excfement-brown jacket and a bow-tie (same colour) he was wearing. (Over the years I have come to hold the default position that men who wear bow-ties are, unless proven otherwise, t**ts.) He had an enormous belly and hollow ass—not a pretty sight. In the Neolithic era he might have been considered a catch; but at some point of time in the human history the parameters of beauty obviously changed and being defined entirely by roundedness had ceased to be considered as the finest specimen of manhood. The wife was, to borrow a phrase from a Tom Wolfe novel, Dorian-Greying: not allowing signs of aging to show, with anything approaching grace. She was very excited, she said, about her twin grandsons and, labouring under the notion that we shared her excitement, treated us through the first part of the meal to various physiological milestones achieved by the infants as well as their activities which she thought were hilarious (and therefore newsworthy) but struck me as banal, until her husband, the flour-mill manager, said, ‘I think people have heard enough of their [the twins’] bowel movements.’ This achieved the desired effect of shutting her up (especially when none of the others present disagreed with the husband and conveyed by the body language that they were not really interested in hearing more stories of regurgitated food). The husband then proceeded to give us his expert views on (a) Barak Obama (a disappointment; he was surprised Obama was elected in the first place; he, Obama, was all talk and no action; he had no solutions to the economic problems; he was ruining the health system; he, the flour-mill manager, would be shocked if he, Obama, left behind a lasting legacy); (b) ‘Brexit’ and whether we should be in or out (Out, of course; he, the flour-mill manager, was incensed that Gordon Brown had now entered the fray and come out in support of Britain staying in the EU, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, rich, seeing as it was all fault of Gordon Brown in the first place—Brown had wrecked the country’s economy; in a different (and no doubt more just) world the man would be facing a firing squad, and, while he, the flour-mill manager, was, all things considered, against that sort of punishment, he wondered at times whether that would not have been just punishment for the one-eyed Scot who, he, the flour-mill manager, was convinced was a crypto-Communist); and (c) their recent trip to Majorca, which they enjoyed so much—you can chill out in English style pubs run by expatriates and can even get Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, albeit a day later—that they were thinking of going there again, the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. The man pre-fixed his opinions with the caveat that he was not a well-educated man, as if the point was not already impressed.  

There is a certain type of Englishman that I call the braying type. He (it is usually a ‘he’, I am afraid) is usually deeply unattractive (ugly yellow teeth and body odour). He has an opinion on everything, which he insists on airing at a volume that would send the fans of heavy metal rummaging for ear-muffs. He is impatient; he interrupts others; and he is generally intolerant of views that are different from his. He is pig-ignorant and very proud to be English (the two are usually linked), and thinks that the best way to show his love for his country is to make offensive comments about other cultures and countries and rationalise them by crap like truth must be told. He is impervious to logic and abstraction; subtlety is wasted on him—indeed any form of communication other than a jab in the ribs is a challenge to him. The flour-mill manager was one these men; you take one look at them and you understand why half the world hates the English.

The common friend (although she is more of an acquaintance): She is a woman in her mid-forties and has been single for as long as I have known her. She was going through a divorce when I first came to know her. She divorced her husband a few years ago because he was apparently so boring he was sucking the life-juice out of her. After the divorce came through she went through the predictable phase of obsessional calorie counting, wasting money she couldn’t afford to waste on a gym, changing hair-style and hair-colour—all purported to propel her towards a new start, she announced. I felt, when she told me about this, that what she was really after was finding a new partner. It did not work out, of course it didn’t. Which, from what I know of the woman, did not surprise me: the woman might be mistaken at first, if you are not attentive, to be animated, witty (if somewhat loquacious) and well informed about what is going on in the world; but, upon further acquaintance, is revealed to be a bitter, vitriolic, and opinionated woman who is half-way down the mine-shaft of alcoholism. When this phase did not lead to the desired outcome she (predictably) dived into depression while her ex-husband dived into a busty work-colleague and moved to another city. In the last year or so she seems to have given up on meeting anyone who would be able to put up with her, and has resigned herself to a lonely, alcohol-sozzled middle age.  Alcohol abuse has had the expected effect—jowly cheeks, pouches below eyes, pillowy bosom, ass that would cover Iceland, and temperament which has become more obnoxious. The woman is part owner—along with a man who is always to be seen wearing t-shirts (that might have once been white) with slogans like ‘Save the Syrian refugees NOW’ or ‘Climate Change—Talk About It’—of a vegetarian restaurant. I have eaten a few times in her restaurant. The food is totally unappetizing and over-priced. I am not a voracious meat-eater (the sight of people chomping on practically raw beef oozing blood puts me off food). That however does not mean that I am prepared to part with eight quid for ‘braised white beans with zucchinis’ or ‘raw tofu marinated in sesame oil and ginger’. Both the owners wear smug expressions (that make you want to slap them) suggesting that by serving tasteless goo (that would be spat out by the starving tribals in South Sudan) at exorbitant prices they are somehow serving humanity.

The hosts: The husband is in his fifties; the wife 8-10 years younger than him. The husband is not very tall and is very gaunt. He has a stare that never fails to unnerve me. An ex-girlfriend of mine, after an evening dinner with them complained that she felt as if he was undressing her with his eyes. When I asked her what it was he did that made her think that she said that he was staring at her tits the whole time. I pointed out to her that she had non-trivial tits (hastening to clarify that it was not a complaint and I was very grateful to have been given the opportunity to handle them), which, given the difference between their respective heights plus the fact that she was sitting directly opposite the man during the meal, meant that her tits were at his eye-level or, if she wanted to look at it from another angle, his eyes were at her tit-level. The ex was not convinced; she pointed out that he could have lifted his gaze above her collar-bones and given a shot at looking at her face. This guy used to be a primary school teacher, but retired in his forties on health grounds, having been diagnosed with something called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Now I don’t know much about this condition, but I have noted that in his case it is serious enough to prevent him from going back to work, but not serious enough to stop him from kayaking twice a year. When I asked him about this once, he replied, with the indignation of a man wrongfully accused of shoplifting, that kayaking was part of his recovery. If he did not force himself to do some exercise his muscles would waste. His wife is so relentlessly jolly that you almost wish ovarian cancer on her if only to wipe out the grin off her face. There is something psychopathic about that smile, as if she wants to break your will with it, like a Jehovah’s Witness. She too presents a creditable cleavage for inspection (this was another reason I remember proffering to the ex-girlfriend why the husband couldn’t have been ogling at her breasts, seeing as he got an eyeful of them every day). The couple does not have children. I have never asked them why but having been subjected (by the wife) to the dangers  of overpopulation and the planet running out of its resources if ‘we’ are not ‘sensible’ about it, it is possible that it was a deliberate decision on her part not to have children. Or she was unable to conceive because of polycystic ovaries and this is all a giant rationalization.

So there I was, marooned for an entire evening amongst people that included a moron with political view to the right of Genghis Khan; his wife who nattered all the time about her grandchildren in whom no one was interested; a common ‘friend’ whom you wouldn’t want to be with if you were desirous of human connection; and the hosts comprising a husband who would creep the flies off a manure truck, and his giggly wife with her naïve utopian views.

The thing about aggressive bores is that they have cut and dry opinions on everything, and they go around looking for anything that would support their prejudices. And, if they are English with right wing views, then they invariably arrive at the conclusion—which they air at every opportunity—that Britain is being fleeced by the hordes of foreigners. They would have you believe that foreigners from every crevice of the developing world are arriving in their hordes at Heathrow with the express aim of getting a free council flat and claiming fraudulently millions of pounds in benefits. The flour-mill manager was one of these bores. During the main course he somehow launched into a lengthy diatribe against ethnic minorities, the immediate object of his wroth being the Somalis. He had read, he said, a story in the newspaper about a Somali family—neither husband nor wife working and claiming ‘loads of money’ in benefits—with a ‘litter of children’, who were living in Birmingham or Manchester (or some such place where no person in his right mind would willingly choose to live). The flour-mill manager droned on, his mind untutored by anything so trivial as evidence. The Somalis apparently successfully applied for a transfer to London on the grounds that they could not speak English and wished to be in London where there are lots of Somalis (who presumably can’t speak English) and they would be nearer to their culture. The family was now accommodated in a five bedroom house ‘most hard-working English people’ could not afford. The flour-mill manager ended his story with the rhetorical question ‘What do you say to that?’ and looked at me as he asked the question. I therefore felt that some sort of response was expected of me. ‘I say,’ I said, ‘that if you were a dog I’d get you checked for rabies.’  The flour-mill manager choked on his tofu. The half-chewed tofu flew out of his mouth, barely missing the cleavage of the hostess sitting opposite him. After he had calmed himself down with a hefty glug of wine and pats on his back by his wife he said, ‘You are being very rude and offensive. I demand an apology.’

‘I am sorry,’ I said, ‘that you are offended.’

Now the wife weighed in. ‘You called my husband a rabid dog. You are a very rude man.’ She too demanded an apology.

‘I honestly did not mean to cause offence,’ I said. ‘Also, I said that I would have him checked whether he had rabies. That suggested that I had doubts in my mind. And please remember that it was all in the context of a purely hypothetical situation. Your husband is very clearly not a dog.’

The wife turned to the hostess. ‘Are you going to allow this man to insult Walter?’

Did I mention the man’s name was Walter? I know of no Walter who is less than seventy.  The man had a name from another generation, which went some way to explain his views.

‘You are being very naughty,’ the hostess turned to me. ‘Say sorry to this nice man.’

‘But I already did. I’ll say it again: “I am sorry you are offended,”’ I said.

Walter accepted the apology, confirming that he was not bright.

There was a lull for a few minutes that was broken by Mary (the common friend) who started a story about an organic greengrocer’s shop which had recently changed its ownership. The old owner, who was a friend of Mary and an environmentalist, had decided that he was going to devote his creative energies full time to a charity which was doing ‘groundbreaking work’ to raise awareness about howler monkeys which were apparently at risk of getting extinct. I must say that I find it very difficult to donate money to such charities. Come to think of it I find it very difficult to donate money to any charity. I have strong views about charities, but that is a subject of another post. Suffice it to say, here, that I could not see the point of a charity raising awareness of the plight of the howler monkey. I mean over the millennia hundreds of species, if not thousands, have become extinct. That’s the way it goes. Survival of the fittest and all that. The mighty dinosaurs, who roamed the earth far longer than the humans have (so far), became extinct. Sabre toothed tiger, woolly mammoth, dodo, they all became extinct. Did the world come to a halt because these species disappeared? Did it make even an iota of difference to anyone that the world has lost dodo? I don’t think so. The world carried on; and it will soldier on when the howler monkey disappears from the face of the earth. These charities serve no purpose other than to line the pockets of their chief executives and managers who know how to exploit the collective guilt of the developed world citizens for the exploitation carried out by our forefathers that made our continent wealthy. Donate money to the howler monkey charity, and partake with good conscience ‘responsibly farmed’ salmon on a potato rosti and watercress salad in an obnoxiously hoity-toity restaurant at prices that would immediately put many in the mind of a second mortgage.  Or, as in my case, a godawful combination of runner beans and tofu (that would immediately put many in the mind of making a will). However, I kept my mouth shut: firstly, I did not want to risk offending all the guests in quick succession; secondly, Mary would have been a different proposition from Walter the retard. I take on shrill, waspish, shrewish guttersnipes only if I absolutely have to. And I decided I didn’t have to, on this occasion. Which meant I had to sit through the boring story of Matthew (the howler monkey rescuer) who was gyped by the guy who bought the greengrocer’s store from him. Apparently the new owner initially agreed to pay 250,000 pounds but in the end paid only 200,000 pounds for the store which is situated on the ground floor of a building that is so rickety it seems to be in danger of collapsing any time,. The site, I was informed, was a matter of dispute between its owners, ‘some Jewboys’ (a whiff of Xenophobia, here, from Mary) who wanted do demolish the eyesore and sell it to the developers, while the council wanted to develop it as a commercial complex; or it could have been the other way round; it was so bloody boring, I had to pinch myself—not to ensure that I stayed awake, but to check that I hadn’t fallen asleep. Why do people think it is appropriate to deluge guests at a party with totally irrelevant information? In some ways she was worse than Walter, the flour-mill manager: his topic of conversation was at least of general interest on which people might have had views. Why would anyone be interested in what Matthew-the-howler-monkey-saver got up to and whether or not he was duped? I wasn’t. Since the person who duped Matthew was not a Somali or a foreigner I reckoned Walter wasn’t interested either. And I had never known the hosts to have strong opinions on anything; so whom was this directed at? Finally the truth came out. The new owner had started a café in one section of the store, needless to say a healthy, organic café. And while the café did not pose any realistic threat to Mary’s vegetarian torture chamber I suspected its opening had triggered an acute attack of colitis.

At least Mary wasn’t venting her bile on God and religion. Mary, despite (sometimes I feel because of) her name, is a noisy atheist, driven by the desire to loudly express her hostility towards organized religions, with clichés like ‘religions are advertisements for goods that don’t exist’ (which I am sure she is not imaginative enough to have thought of herself and must have lifted from some book). She is particularly vicious towards the Catholics (needless to say she was brought up as one) who are the ‘most evil people on earth’ and the last Pope who was a ‘Nazi w**ker’.

‘So you are angry with the new owner because you think he managed to obtain the greengrocer’s shop at a bargain price and is thinking of expanding it,’ I said to Mary, forgetting my earlier resolution not to start another argument.

‘It’s the greed,’ Mary said with a sigh. ‘People will do anything these days to get a deal that is beneficial to them, no matter how unfair. The world is full of smooth talking psychopaths.’

‘I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘Unless you are holding back some vital information, all that the new owner did was he negotiated a deal that was beneficial to him. He didn’t kidnap your friend’s family and threatened to torture them, did he?’

‘Trust you to distort everything,’ Mary replied with mock-exasperation.

‘I am not distorting anything. What you are telling me is that a monitory transaction took place between these two guys, each wanting to get the best deal. In the end they settled on a price that was presumably acceptable to both of them,’ I said.

‘That’s precisely the point. Matthew was not happy about it,’ Mary replied.

‘Why did he agree to it then?’ I asked.

‘Because he is too nice,’ Mary said.

I took a decision not to pursue this line of inquiry which, from previous experience, I knew would not go anywhere; into the bargain I would be labelled a psychopath (like the new owner of the greengrocer’s store).

Walter, after the unexpected interruption when he was just getting into his flow, was ready to resume again. The Indians were now in his line of attack. As if the interlude of the story of Mary’s friend had not happened he said, ‘Honestly, I don’t know what is wrong with this country. The bloody Indian curry houses and takeaways have come up like mushrooms. They are everywhere. You go anywhere in England you will find one of these, stinking the street out. Half of the staff are probably illegal immigrants; and they can’t even speak English. Every day 80 pubs are closing in the country, but is anyone bothered?’

‘You obviously are,’ I said.

Walter looked at me with narrowed eyes. I could see in front of my mind’s eye the rusted brain circuits creaking into action as he tried to decide through the fog of alcohol (he had polished off a bottle and half all by himself by this time) whether he should take offence at what I had said. In the end he let my comment go unchallenged and continued: ‘I can’t understand this fascination with Indian food. It’s disgusting,’ He looked around him challenging anyone to disagree with him. When no one did he carried on, ‘And it is not even healthy. God knows what oil do they fry that stuff in. Eat that stuff if you want a coronary is what I say,’ he concluded, taking a swig from his wine glass and burping. ‘Oh! Excuse me,’ he said.

‘Are you interested in Morris dancing?’ I asked Walter.

He looked at me suspiciously. ‘Why do you ask?’

‘It seems the only way to get you off the subject of offensive foreigners without offending you. I did not want to cause offence,’ I said.

‘That’s very kind of you,’ Walter said. I wondered whether he was being sarcastic.

‘So are you?’ I asked.

‘Am I what?’ Walter asked back.

‘Interested in Morris dancing.’

‘No.’

‘Oh!’

‘Are you?’ Walter asked.

‘Am I what?’ I asked back.

‘Interested in Morris dancing.’

‘Why do you ask?’ I asked.

‘You asked me. So I am asking you back,’ Walter said.

‘No,’ I replied.

‘So neither of us is interested in Morris dancing,’ Walter summarised.

‘That would appear to be the case,’ I agreed.

‘Glad we established that.  Can we now move on to another topic?’ Walter asked. He was being sarcastic when he thanked me.

‘Not if,’ I replied, ‘you are going to talk about Indian takeaways.’

Walter’s wife appealed to the hostess. ‘Susan, he is doing it again.’

‘I don’t care. I shall say what I think. I am not scared of some namby-pamby liberal tosh,’ Walter declared.

‘Good for you, sir; your mother will be so proud of you.’

At this Walter’s wife started snivelling. Walter took a deep breath and gazed at the ceiling with pursed lips, looking as if he was trying to control his emotions or suppress a fart (or both).

‘Walter’s mother passed away last week,’ Susan informed me.

His mother’s death hadn’t stopped Walter from socialising within a week of her death, even though he was now acting as if he had suffered a mortal wound. ‘I am sorry to hear that,’ I said, turning to Walter, ‘Were you talking to her about the Somalis and Indian takeaways when she died?’

‘That’s it,’ both Walter and his wife stood up. ‘I am not prepared to be insulted by this twerp. Manner-less fellow.’

‘Oh, don’t go,’ I pleaded, ‘We were enjoying your company so much.’

Susan got up from her seat and followed Walter and wife into the hall, revealing, from beneath her tight trousers that stretched across her fleshy buttocks, the outline of an alarmingly skimpy underwear. I looked at Mary and Susan’s husband, and shrugged my shoulders. ‘Sorry,’ I said.

I don’t think I’ll be invited back to their house for a while.


Saturday, 30 April 2016

Anti-Semitism in British Politics



Ken Livingstone (who should always be referred to by the prefix ‘controversial’), the former mayor of London, has been suspended by Livingstone’s old rabble-rousing pal, Jeremy, who now heads the British Labour Party.
A Labour MP from Bradford (a piss-poor Northern town in England), called Naz Shah (I hope I won’t be called racist for mentioning, here, that Ms Shah is a Muslim, whose parents were migrants to the UK from that cradle of democracy and secularism in South East Asia, called Pakistan, and she herself spent her teen-age years in that country, no doubt imbibing liberal attitudes and tolerance towards all faiths), before she became an MP in the UK general elections of 2015, shared on her Facebook page (with dozens of people) a poster that suggested that Israel should relocate to America as the transportation cost would be worth it. The poster further commented that Americans would welcome the Israelis with open arms and it would also bring peace to Middle East by ending foreign interference.  Alongside the poster Ms Shah posted her own comment: “Problem solved.” And, in order not to leave any doubt in the minds of the people with whom she shared this poster on her Facebook page about how she felt about this proposal, Ms Shah added a smiley face. (Was Ms Shah ironic when she posted ‘problem solved’, the renowned British irony which the Americans don’t get because they are not very clever? Did she mean exactly the opposite of what she posted and the smiley face represented an emotion exactly opposite of that which she was experiencing at that time (anger, despair, sadness)? Impossible to say. It is not easy to express irony effectively when you are posting on Facebook.) Ms Shah's Facebook poster was unearthed by a right-wing blogger with a ridiculous sobriquet, in April 2016, almost two years after Ms Shah posted it (I am guessing this is the full time job of the right wing blogger with the ridiculous sobriquet—not obsessively following Naz Shah on Facebook, as that would be stalking—but blogging). Predictably politicians whipped themselves into a frenzy. Naz Shah issued several apologies, including one in a Jewish rag, which, if you are of a gullible nature, you would say were sincere and from the heart of her bottom—I mean the bottom of her heart—and not a last-ditch attempt by a desperate politician to save her skin. It did not work. Pressure mounted on Jeremy Corbyn, the man who exudes the charisma of a Batchelor soup packet, to do something about it, and eventually Ms Shah was suspended from the Labour party for bringing it into disrepute; but not before Jeremy’s spokesperson provided some unintended entertainment to public. This is what the spokesperson said: “We are not suggesting that she [Naz Shah] is anti-Semitic. We are saying she’s made remarks she does not agree with.” How is that possible? There are a few instances when someone says things they do not agree with. For example, people might be forced to say things they secretly do not agree with. Since this post is about Jews and anti-Semitism, I shall follow Ken Livingstone’s example and give a historical instance to illustrate this point. On the eve of the Second World War, the Nazis finally allowed Sigmund Freud to leave Vienna and go into exile in England, but not before they fleeced Freud off his wealth. And that was not enough. Freud had to sign an affidavit before he left Vienna that he had been treated very fairly and with courtesy by the Nazis. Freud signed the affidavit (I suspect he did not have a choice). After he signed the affidavit, Freud added a comment: "I recommend the Gestapo to everyone." (Now that is irony for you). Another example: people might say things they do not actually believe in because they feel that saying such things will bring rewards. Like the Tory Prime-minister of the UK, Cameron, saying that he deeply cares for the poor people of his country, even though he knows (he does; don't ask me how; he just does) that they are a bunch of selfish, boorish, stupid people who have not done an honest day’s work in three generations. David ("Call me Dave") says these things which he probably does not believe in himself because he also believes that that is the thing to say to project an image of compassionate Tories. Sometimes people might say things they do not agree with just to irritate the other person (I have done this many times). However, I can’t think of a single instance when someone would knowingly say things they don’t agree with without a reason or motivation, when they are in full control of their faculties. So the explanation given by Jeremy Corbyn’s spokes-person to explain Naz Shah’s Facebook comment was strange at best, disingenuous at worst, and ridiculous at all times.

You would have hoped that that would be the end of it; the nutters on the Labour’s left would keep their traps shut and let the controversy die, which is what, you will remember, the Tories did when Boris Johnson made comments about the ancestry of the American President, Barak Obama.

However, to expect the lefties to act and talk sensibly, when there is an opportunity to embarrass everyone with their deranged wittering, is like expecting a raging bull to ignore the China shop as it charges down the high street.  Ken Livingstone decided to come out in support of the suspended Naz Shah. The nicest thing one can say about Ken is that he is unbearable; his very existence is an affront to everything that is decent. The man does not have many sensible ideas in his head, and, to compound the problem, little to no control over his mouth: there is no filter between the muscles of his brain and mouth.

Never shy of offering his opinion, Ken went round giving interviews the day after Ms Shah was finally suspended from the Labour party. What did Ken say? He was dismissive of the claims that there was anti-Semitism in Labour. Never in his 47 years in the Labour party did Ken hear “anyone saying anti-Semitic.” Ken had “heard a lot of criticism of Israel and its abuse of Palestinians”, but he had “never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic.”  You hear that, and you think to yourself, well, that’s is, like, Ken’s view. If Ken never heard anyone in the Labour Party say anything anti-Semitic, that could be because either no one in the Labour party said anything anti-Semitic, or because what they said was not deemed to be anti-Semitic by Ken because—some might argue; indeed, John Mann, another Labour MP with impulse-control issues, has suggested this publically—Ken himself is an anti-Semite and (to quote John Mann, again) a “disgusting Nazi apologist.” On a general note, I have come across hardly any racists who accept that they are racists; it’s others who think they are racists. Most racists are shocked and deeply offended when it is suggested that they are racists. Anyway, coming back to Ken’s interview, you might say that so far what he said might be interpreted as denial, lack of insight etcetera, but not in itself deserving of suspension from the party. Next, Ken offered his insight on Naz Shah’s Facebook comment. Ken gave Naz Shah the moral X-ray and concluded that everything was ship-shape. “It [Naz Shah’s Facebook comment] is over the top but it is not anti-Semitism,” declared Ken, in his nasal tone. (To say that Naz Shah’s Facebook comment was just ‘over the top’ is a bit like saying Jeremy (Clarkson) was a bit over the top when he threw punches at the producer of Top Gear and inflicted ABH on the poor Irish man, because there was a 4 minute delay in the steak or the curry or whatever disgusting food Clarkson shoves down his gullet, after a day's filming of the Top Gear.) Back to Ken and his interview. To emphasize his point that Naz Shah was not an anti-Semite, Ken obviously believed what he needed to do was to bring Hitler to the discussion (thereby revealing his magnificent grasp on the fabric of the universe). “Let’s remember,” Ken reminded, “when Hitler won his elections in 1932, his policy, then, was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism—this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” It was this comment which landed Ken in hot waters and left his mate Jeremy (Corbyn) with no choice but to suspend him. Ken made a few more comments in the interview, which, interestingly (though not surprisingly) enough, sought to support Corbyn: Ken saw deep conspiracy in all this to smear Corbyn and “his associates” (presumably Ken included himself in this group, though he did not say this explicitly) as anti-Semite, neglecting to mention, somehow, that Corbyn himself had suspended Naz Shah, and Shah had issued grovelling apologies. (This suggests that Ken questioned the judgment of his mate, Jeremy, or else, he was suggesting that Jeremy did what his spokesperson said Naz Shah did, when she posted her comment on the Facebook: took an action he did not agree with.)

Coming back to Ken’s comment about Hitler and the Jews, it must strike those amongst us who have got a shred of decency as offensive and wrong on so many counts. Even George Galloway thought Ken’s comments were poorly judged (which is saying something; when it comes to making poorly judged insane remarks Galloway is the world-leader). Taking at face value, Ken seems to suggest that in 1932, when Hitler was elected, he was this nice, sensible, humane person, who was deeply compassionate towards the Jews; he supported Zionism, and was supportive of their wish to be relocated to Israel (which did not exist then, and would not come into existence for sixteen more years); until, regrettably, a few years later, he was struck down by mental illness (what was it? Schizophrenia? Bipolar Disorder? Adult ADHD?), and somehow ended up killing six million Jews. (Perhaps, Corbyn's spokesperson, if asked for a comment, will say Hitler did things he did not agree with.) If Hitler had not blown his brains away in 1945 and was captured instead, continuing with Ken’s logic, all that the man would have needed was a good barrister who would have put in a successful plea for manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility. Leaving aside all this, I fail to understand the logic of bringing in Hitler when Ken, for all outward appearances, was bleating about how Naz Shah’s comment was not anti-Semitic, not even offensive, but just “over the top”. Ken’s logic seemed to be as follows: “Look, even uncle Adolf, that paragon of humanity (before he went mad, of course), was supporting Zionism and doing what he could to “transport” the Jews to Israel, so what’s the problem with Naz Shah’s support to the suggestion that Israel should be relocated to America?

Here is a suggestion: if you are a public figure and are trying to defend your friend against the accusations of anti-Semitism, it is advisable not mention Hitler. Leave Hitler out of the debate. Chance are your comments will be misconstrued (or worse, people might see you as a racist); you will get suspended from the party; and you will end up dragging the party you purportedly hold so dear into unnecessary and wholly avoidable controversy.

Ken shows no signs of regret or repentance (which is entirely in keeping with the man's character: he has no insight) and is saying that everything he said about Hitler and Jews is a historical fact, which he can prove (Ken has George Galloway's support in this, which, if you ask me is a kiss of death). John Mann, the aforementioned Labour MP, publically confronted Ken after Ken's interview, and, when he managed to take a breather from hurling abuses at Ken, suggested that Ken needed help. (The consensus seems to be that Mann did not stage this performance; he just lost the plot, something which, ironically enough, he declared Ken had lost when he shouted at Ken. It was, to say the least, an unedifying spectacle.) My assessment is that Ken cannot be helped. (Come to think of it John Mann is beyond help, too. I think that both Mann and Livingstone have lost the plots. The kindest thing for them, and for the British public, is to throw both of them in a deep dungeon (and leave them to fight it out between them (with George Galloway as the referee)), and then throw the key in the sea.

Are Ken Livingstone and Naz Shah anti-Semite? The problem, here, is that racism, like most prejudices, is mostly subconscious for most people. What you are left with is a deep dislike for a group or people, which you try to rationalise using a variety of means. It is also worth keeping in mind that a racist person need not be prejudiced against all races. You may go on marches with the Africans and the Asians and the Arabs; and could be racially prejudiced against the Jews or Americans or Europeans or Russians or Scandinavians (either singly or in combination).

To paraphrase Brecht, when the Labour dies by its own hand (the next general election, in 2020) Corbyn, Ken Livingstone (I am sure he will be reinstated) and John McDonnell will be that hand.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Book of the Month: The Emperor of Lies (Steve Sem-Sandberg)




Steve Sem-Sandberg’s Emperor of Lies was a huge success in his native Sweden when it was published. It won Sweden’s most prestigious literary award, the August Prize. Since then the novel has gone on to become an international bestseller, and has been translated into 25 languages.



Emperor of Lies is a Holocaust novel; it can also be described as historical fiction. It gives the reader a view—that is panoramic and intimate at the same time—of the Jewish ghetto the Nazi established in 1939 in Lodz, a Polish city 70 miles from Warsaw (which the Nazis renamed Litzmannstadt, after Karl Litzmann, a German general who defeated the Russians near the city in the First World War). The ghetto, at one time, had a quarter of a million Jews—both Polish and those deported from other parts of Europe—living in it. It was liquidated in August 1944.



A dominating figure in the novel is Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the eponymous emperor of lies, the ‘eldest of the Jews’ and the ‘Chairman’ of the Lodz ghetto, who presided over it and its inhabitants (with the conniving eye of the Ghetto’s civilian German administrator, Hans Biebow, the real power in the ghetto), in the four years of its existence, in a manner that ensured that he (Rumkowski) would, forever, remain, a controversial figure in the history of the Holocaust.



Rumkowski, it should be noted, is only one of the many real life (and fictional) characters that populate this behemoth of a novel (640 pages). Indeed there are so many that after a while you lose track of them, especially those who make periodic appearances and zoom in and out of the narrative.



Rumkowski might be the central, even pivotal, character, but the novel is—despite its title—not about him; or not only about him. There are large sections of the novel where he is completely absent, as Sem-Sandberg goes into the minutiae of the lives of other characters. What Sem-Sandberg has attempted here, for the best part with great success and panache, is to create for the reader the day-to-day existence—if it could be called that—of its benighted Jewish residents. In his endeavours Sem-Sandberg was no doubt helped by the extensive records (more than 3000 pages) of the life in the Lodz ghetto, created, bizarrely enough, at the behest of Rumkowski, which survived the liquidation of the ghetto (and which, in addition to the accounts of the survivors of the ghetto, made him a villain, a Nazi collaborator, in the eyes of some). It is clear that Sem-Sandberg has painstakingly researched the novel. One of the consequences is that on several occasions the dividing line between facts and fiction gets blurred. Indeed there are instances when the writer makes it clear that he is telling a fact within the fiction (by quoting references). Some of the speeches delivered by Rumkowski—for example, his now infamous speech to the first departing families when the Nazis began liquidating the ghetto in 1943—and Biebow seem to have been quoted directly and are printed in a font that is different from that of the rest of the novel.  



There are so many characters in the novel, each with his own riveting story, that it is difficult to do justice to all of them in a single review. As the reader reads the travails of the ghetto’s denizens, their daily struggle for survival, and the unspeakable misery that pervaded what passed for their lives in the Lodz ghetto, the overriding feeling you are left with is of numbness. Sem-Sandberg’s achievement is that with only very occasional tendency towards melodrama, he depicts the full horror of the ghetto life. Indeed at times Emperor of Lies reads less like a novel than an account of the daily lives of Jewish families living in the Lodz ghetto. Some of the stories, like that of Adam Rezpin, are dealt with in some detail, whereas stories of some others, like that of Vera Schulz, the daughter of a Czech Jewish doctor, who is plucked out of Prague and deported to Lodz, are left without a closure. As a result the novel does not have an organized, concise feel to it. Only those readers with interest in and knowledge of the Lodz ghetto would be able to tell whether the wide cast of characters in the novel were true historical figures (who lived through those times) or whether they are the products of the writer’s creativity. Does the distinction matter? The answer is yes, but probably not a great deal. The stories of the several characters in the novel are variations of a single theme: the depredations of the human mind (in this case the Nazis) that make people commit abominable crimes against fellow human beings. If one assumes that the characters in the novel are purely imaginary (with the exception of the obviously historical characters such as Rumkowski and Hans Biebow to name just two; Heinrich Himmler, too, makes a guest appearance), then one wonders whether the theme couldn’t have been conveyed as powerfully with a smaller cast of characters. Their stories, however, are told extremely well, and have a kind of appalling fascination about them. Sem-Sandberg has created some bravura characters, such as the fat Jewish smuggler in the ghetto who is nick-named ‘The Belly’ in reference to his overhanging gut ‘between his flabby arms’, and Princess Helena, the highly eccentric bird-loving sister-in-law of Rumkowski. 



Sem-Sandberg goes in and out of the minds of the novel’s myriad characters with great ease. The exception is Rumkowski. Strangely enough he does not come alive for the reader the way many others, even the German administrator, Biebow, do. Sem-Sandberg does not attempt to enter the head of the man who presided over the lives of a quarter of a million Jews in a manner that—you are encouraged to conclude by the end of the novel—was autocratic to say the least. The inner world of Chaim Rumkowski does not lighten up for the reader. The reader is left to draw his own inferences about the character of the man from what he sees of his action through the prism of Sem-Sandberg’s prose.



The Rumkowski that emerges from the novel is a mixture of vanity, grandiosity, ruthlessness, perversion and pathos. Not a great deal of information is provided about his past. He is a failed businessman, and a ruthless and unscrupulous seller of insurance certificates. He is childless. When his first wife dies in 1937 (Rumkowski was 60 by this time) he has a kind of religious conversion, and he opens an orphanage for Jewish children, which, at its peak, houses several hundred children. The novel depicts Rumkowski as a paedophile, who sexually abuses his son whom he adopts in 1943.  (The son, along with the rest of Rumkowski’s family, was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and was murdered on arrival.) I do not know whether the paedophilic element introduced in Rumkowski’s character is based on historical evidence or is a product of the author’s imagination. If the latter is the case, one wonders whether it was necessary to make the man a paedophile in addition to his other myriad character defects—for which there is historical evidence is a-plenty. Rumkowski is chosen by the Nazis to run the ghetto (which lasted the longest, although all but 900 of its 230,000 inhabitants—Rumkowski included—were eventually murdered by the Nazis. When the Russians ‘liberated’ the Lodz ghetto there were only 877 inhabitants left in the ghetto.) Rumkowski has his own Jewish police force, headed by the wily and corrupt Dawid Gertler (who, the novel’s Afterward informs the reader, incredibly and unlike Rumkowski, survives the liquidation, and emerges in 1961 to testify against Fusch, the German commander in charge of ghetto). The Jewish police force is scarcely less ruthless than the Germans and, when the deportations begin, goes to great lengths to ferret out the hiding Jewish families so that they could be sent to their deaths. Corruption is rife (as are infectious diseases), and those in the good books of, or are close to, the ‘Chairman’ are higher in the pecking order. The ghetto has its own currency, called ‘Rumki’, and even postage stamps that bear the face of Rumkowski! There is no doubt that Rumkowski is a man fully convinced of his importance in the order of things.



When the novel opens, the ghetto has been ‘functional’ for almost three years. The war is turning against the Germans, although they will not accept it, at least not outwardly, and certainly not to the Jews. As Biebow informs Rumkowski matter-of-factly, Germans have to feed their own first. The dictate has come from Berlin that 20,000 of the ghetto’s Jews will have to be deported to the incinerators of the concentration camps. It is Rumkowski’s job to do that for them. Rumkowski gives a speech to the ghetto denizens and tells them that the only way to ensure that the ghetto exists is to give the Germans what they want. That means the old and the infirm and the children will have to go. In a speech (quoted in the novel verbatim from Rumkowski’s original) that is an odd mixture of pathos and grandiosity (“For 66 years I have lived and not yet granted the happiness of being called Father, and now the authorities demand to me that I sacrifice all my children”) Rumkowski ‘demands’ that the parents volunteer their children younger than 9 years to the German administration. That, he says, is the price the ghetto has to pay if the rest want to survive.



This seems to have been Rumkowski’s position all along. He would appear to have convinced himself that if only the Jews made themselves indispensable to the Germans by their ‘hard work’ and ‘production’, they would be allowed to survive in the Third Reich. Indeed he even imagined—so the novel tells you—that the Nazis would allow an autonomous Jewish state (of which of course he would be the ruler, the satrap of the Nazis) in their Reich. Hence perhaps his acquiescence to the German demands, and his constant mantra that only labour and hard work would save the Jews. Hence also perhaps his insistence that children as young as nine should do hours of back-breaking work to support the Nazi war-machine. That, he probably felt, was the only way to make sure that they did not end up on the transport carriages to incineration camps.  In this, as in his many other suppositions, Rumkowski was tragically wrong. While the Lodz ghetto survived longer than other ghettos (and made profits for the Nazis worth millions of deutschmarks), the Nazis liquidated it eventually, and Rumkowski’s life (as also the lives of his family members) ended like hundreds of thousands of Jews: in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. However, since the Nazi civilian administrator Biebow—who fought an increasingly desperate battle to keep Himmler’s SS from taking control of the ghetto—put Rumkowski and his Jewish police in charge of what he euphemistically put as organizing transport, it meant that the once-failed businessman was deciding who amongst the denizens of ghetto would stay back and have hopes of surviving and who would be transported to the death camps. And the novel suggests that he was ruthless about it.



In the Afterward to the novel Sem-Sandberg asserts that he has not taken any ideological position as to whether Rumkowski was a monster, a corrupt administrator who collaborated with the Nazis, or whether he—despite his character faults—did what he did with the genuine belief that that was the best way to ensure the survival of his people. That said the novel drops large hints that Sem-Sandberg belongs to the ‘Rumkowski is a monster’ camp (clue is in the title of the novel). His distinction lies in the fact that at no stage does he forget (and does not let the readers forget) who were the real villains: the Nazis. Rumkowski might preen as much as he wants, presiding over the fates of his fellow Jews, but the Nazis step in whenever they choose and put him in his place, such as the instance when Biebow slaps Rumkowski publically. They were the ultimate monsters who reduced a race to sub-human level.


As one finishes reading this absorbing, if somewhat rambling, account of a Jewish ghetto in Poland and its elderly Jewish administrator, one is left with indescribable feelings of sadness for the human condition. A remarkable novel on a tragic episode in the twentieth century European history, translated in faultless English by Sarah Death.