Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Defining Image of Great Britain

How to sum up this weekend? For anyone reading this post months from now or from some remote corner of the globe, it is the weekend of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Republicans have been snorting and chuntering about 'how much of their taxes have paid for the blah blah blah'; old people have been dewy eyed about dear old Liz; Huw Edwards has been up to his usual voice-over trick of stating the bleedin' obvious; and everyone has become an expert on the history of the British Monarchy.

Surely, it is on this weekend that we find the true essence of what it is to be British. Surely there will be one snapshot, one image, one face which can be plastered on billboards in travel agents from Washington to Wollagong to get people to travel to our glorious island nation; to visit our tourist attractions; to take photographs outside our discretely renovated ancient buildings; to buy our unimaginably crappy merchandise and souvenirs, covered in pictures of double-decker London buses and bulldogs. Well actually, there is.

It could be the Queen. An 86 (I think) year old woman stood on her feet in the driving rain for hours on end waving at soaking wet people drift past her on the world's least pleasant river. This after 60 years of life spent shaking hands and pretending to be pleased to see people. 60 years of uncompromising integrity, unfailing dignity, unflinching faith, boundless kindness, generosity, love, care and commitment to her nation and her people. I would dearly love to say that that is the essence of what it is to be British, but I think that would be overly optimistic. I would love to say the behaviour of a Nation and Commonwealth mirrors that of its Monarch. But it doesn't, and that image of her persevering through the wind and rain, literally and figuratively, is not that defining image we're after.

It could be the Duke of Edinburgh. He has 4 years on his wife, and he still stood there waving even more vigorously than her all afternoon. He has chuckled, grumbled, grinned and offended all manner of people for almost all of his married life, having sacrificed a naval career. You might think this thoroughly imperfect, rude, often obnoxious, often hilarious, committed, wholehearted and genuine bloke is perfect for our defining image of Britishness. But, without meaning to be overly pedantic, he is, in fact, Greek. Just saying...

It could be the thousands of people stood in the Mall, waving their Union Flags with 'The Sun' emblazoned across the middle, singing the National Anthem, and not knowing the second verse. Having a ball at the Jubilee concert. But I reckon nobody complained about much, so they are not authentic as our defining image.

No, for our defining image we have to rewind to Sunday morning. We have to zoom in to a soaking wet park in the Fifth Worst City In The World. My Church had long planned a 'Big Jubilee Lunch', with inflatable slides, cage football, climbing tower, face painting, coconut shy. When your budget comes from tithes and council grants, that counts as 'the works'. But then, 'Alex' intervened. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, try http://joshramble.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/maybe-next-year.html. If you can't be bothered, that means the weather took a turn for the worse.) It rained. And rained. And rained. The inflatable slides invoked the evil god of Elf and Safety, and refused to come. The coconut shy, the football, and the face painting gazebo lay derelict. In any other nation on Earth, they would have had a committee meeting, and decided to go home, and do something warm, dry and sensible.
Not here. No, these Britons obeyed every patriotic cliche in the book. They kept calm and carried on; they made do and mended.
Men were sent home to fetch tarpaulin to reinforce wind-battered marquees and gazebos. A man with a Ukulele played 'Here Comes the Sun'. A boy with a trumpet played 'Is This The Way To Amarillo'. Picnics were had under shelters, on tables which should have been filled with activities for the myriad visitors, who had decided to stay home. Terrible jokes were told over a waterlogged microphone, as anorak-clad, trenchfoot-suffering people trudged through the headwind across the saturated field, pretending to be happy and find the jokes funny. One kettle, between about a hundred people, went ten to the dozen for five solid hours, as men, women and children warmed themselves with the tepid fruit of its labour.
This, truly, was the Britain which has, throughout the centuries, looked the odds in the eye and shouted a resounding 'No!'. The Britain which has made a fool of common sense and logic. The Damp, Bankrupt Rock in the North Atlantic which no army, neither Hitler's nor Napoleon's has been able to overcome for 946 years.

So, what of the defining image? The organiser of the lunch was a woman called Julie. For months, Julie had planned and advertised and cajoled and persuaded this event into existence. In about 20 minutes on Sunday morning, it collapsed around her ears. The rain poured, the attractions cancelled, the crowds, after a collective net-curtain twitch, stayed at home, and the minions started grumbling. Whispers of 'cancel, cancel, cancel' rang around the park.

All of a sudden Julie disappeared, and we all thought that final discussions were taking place before she announced that enough had become enough, and it was all over. Instead, she emerged from a tent, and took our breath away. Stood there, with her soaking wet hair plastered to her forehead, a silly Union Jack hat on, a blue translucent waterproof poncho on over the top of a red fleece, and Union Flags protruding from her pockets at all angles, she was the ultimate image of Britishness. She was dripping with defiance, determination, and above all, rain water. With great ceremony and theatre, she looked round at all of us agape volunteers, drew a deep breath, and in as sonorous, booming, and Churchillian a voice as she could manage, announced, 'We are carrying on.'

And there, dear friends, we have the defining image of our country. Glorious, eccentric, ridiculous, lovable, defiant, damp, cold, honest, hilarious. Great Britain

Thursday, 3 May 2012

8 Steps

I paced them out twice. Once backwards; once forwards, just to make sure. 8 steps stood between genocide and freedom. 8 steps which 1.3 million men, women, and children longed to take but never could. 8 steps.

Two things hit you about Auschwitz Birkenau. The first is the vast scale of the evil which took place there. I stood at the top of the 8 step wide entrance tower and looked out on history's ultimate killing field. As far as the eye could see were fence posts, watch towers, and chimney stacks which marked where the now rotted wooden barracks had once stood.

This place could hold 90,000 people at any given time, almost all of whom were destined to die in a gas chamber, of exhaustion, starvation, disease, cold, or directly at the hands of an SS officer, before their bodies were burned. 
In this, and other places like it, 6 million Jews were murdered. 6 million is a number which cannot be visualised. I've tried- it's 10% of the population of Great Britain, a third of the pre-war Jewish population of Europe, but it just isn't imaginable. I stood in the only remaining gas chamber, and looked around at the disgusting, dirty room. I had half expected it to be clean, with polished metal; efficient looking, like a professional kitchen perhaps. But no, this bare stone floor, uneven walls and ceiling, with a few holes where the gaseous death entered, was the final thing so many hundreds of thousands of innocent people saw before they were butchered.
Walking along the main train track through Birkenau, I was mesmerised by the sheer size of the fields, filled with chimneys, fences, lights, and, 67 short years ago,  with malnourished, humiliated, desperate, lonely, abused, innocent people, waiting to die or else slowly dying whilst waiting. For the few who weren't gassed the moment they arrived here, the life expectancy was 4 to 6 weeks.

But the strangest thing is that the scale is not the worst thing about the place. No, the second thing about Auschwitz, which hits you 10 times harder is the fierce, unimaginable, sickening intensity of the evil that went on here.
Take those barracks, the ruins of which filled my vision. They look like this on the inside:
They were originally designed for horses to live in. About 50 horses lived in each block like this, but when the Germans used them to store human beings, 400 to 500 hundred were crammed into each one. That's more friends than I have on Facebook living in this hut. On the bunks you can see, each bed is smaller than a single bed, but two slept in each, putting 6 people on a hastily made bunk bed. Someone in my group asked whether they had mattresses, and the tour guide almost laughed. "No." She said, "the lucky ones had straw." Real people, like you and me, sleeping 2 to a bed on straw. The top bunk was the most coveted, because diarrhoea and dysentery were rife in the camp, and toilets were opened twice a day, so in the night there was a real danger of finding yourself sleeping in what the person above you could not control. Could they wash in the morning? There was rarely enough water to drink, never mind wash in.
Real people, like you and me, sleeping 2 to a bed on straw, covered in other people's excrement. It happened.

The next block was the toilet: a wooden hut with 200 small holes for people to sit almost touching each other. No dignity. No privacy. The most appalling thing of all about this hut was that one of the most popular jobs in the camp was being in the Sheissekommando. The shit group. People were desperate for this job because it was indoors, the nature of the work was warm, and no guards hung around to make sure they worked fast enough. Human beings, like me and you, reduced to begging to be allowed to shovel other people's waste.

Outside of the huts, I stood on the unloading ramp, where over a million people had fallen, half dead, out of cattle trucks, having travelled from as far as Greece without food or water. 70% of people were sent straight to the gas chambers; exterminated as soon as they arrived. The same place where I stood, so had so many men who would never see their wives again, brothers who would never see their sisters again, sons and daughters who would never see mothers and fathers again. I imagined my own family. Provided we all survived the journey, my mum would have been sent one way, and the rest of us another. I would never have seen her again. Ever. My youngest brother would have been told he was going for a shower, and never come out. Probably my dad too. Me and my other brother would have been taken, stripped off to check for any injuries which made us unable to work. We would then have had our entire bodies shaved and our clothes replaced by striped pyjamas, before being sent to one of the inhumane barracks, fed the calorific equivalent of a Snickers bar and forced to work 12 hours each day. We had 4 to 6 weeks before we would have died of exhaustion, provided no disease got us first. It could have been us. Born in another time in another place, it would have been.

At least we probably wouldn't have been selected for experimentation for Dr. Mengele. I walked past his block, where women were sent for him to test for efficient ways to sterilise them, often resulting in agonizing death. A doctor. A doctor.

Holocaust survivor Josef Perl said he saw a baby being born as is mother fell of the cattle truck. An officer grabbed the baby, cut the umbilical chord, and threw it aside, before sending the hysterical mother to the gas chambers. I could have been stood at the same spot that newborn life landed. A baby; a life, emotions, feelings, ideas, hopes, fears, memories, friends, a beloved child of the living God, that were never allowed to happen; tossed aside like an empty drinks can. This was a real person.

Back in Auschwitz I, I walked through rooms full of the belongings of prisoners. One room had a section filled with human hair, cut from the dead before their bodies were burned. The same hair which should have been caught by the sun, brushed, pulled, washed, smelled, stroked, kissed, was cut off. To make sofas. It ended up dry and matted, slowly fading in this room, for people like me to look at and feel broken, and cry for these people I never knew, for the things my race inflicted on them. It could have been my hair. It could have been yours.
The next room was shoes, of men and of little children. Shoes which were perfectly  fitted and trodden into the shape of their dead owners. Shoes with their first ever pairs of laces. I imagined little boys trying, with their faces screwed up and tongue out with the concentration of tying them up for the very first time. The joy when they first managed it and the knot didn't fall apart. Those shoes should have ended up in a box somewhere for them to look at years on, and marvel at how small their feet were. Not here.

And all of this evil was divided from freedom by 8 steps. They stood between that little boy and a lifetime of tying his laces in a perfect double knot. They stood between that woman and the baby she gave birth to growing old and happy together. Between her becoming a grandmother, and becoming a statistic. 1 in 6 million dead Jews. 8 steps between liberty and genocide, life and death.

And how dare I take those steps? How can I come here as a tourist to look at this place, put it down in the scrapbook of my life, a box ticked, an experience had? This is a place that no-one should ever see, which should be consigned to history forever. 
But Santayana was right when he said that anyone who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it. And this can never be repeated. Never ever. So the truth is that Auschwitz Birkenau is something that everyone should see. See and learn.

Rabbi Barry Marcus said that humans have conquered every distance conceivable, except for the distance between one man and another.  It's time we started focussing on that one. Jesus said that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. It's time we started listening to Him.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Second Worst Way to Spend A Day. After Watching Tennis

True, all the best things in life are free. Manners, salvation, smiles, whatever. But lots of good things are not. Steak and Cheese subs, clothes, crockery, electronic gizmos and so forth. All of these things require us to pay money, which one would always rather not do, but we consider it worth it in exchange for ownership of these bits and bobs. However, there is always what one might call, a hidden cost which we have to pay; an astronomical, extortionate, vast cost. If we want new stuff, we have to go shopping.

Case in point: Me. Today I became the proud new owner of a T-Shirt. I like it; it's nice. I parted with 5 English pounds (well its 4.99 really, but they're not fooling me!) which I considered to be excellent value.  But let me tell you a bit about the day which unfolded either side of the purchase.

I was woken up despite it being the holidays, so as we could 'beat the rush'. I then spent the best part of an hour in a car driving through a fairly uneventful part of southern England, guided by a Satnav which was completely oblivious to the presence of any satellites in the sky, and behaved like a sulking child all the way from the New Forest to Portsmouth. We arrived at a shopping centre in Portsmouth which will remain unnamed for legal reasons (we shall call it Bunwharf Quays), where gazillions of other people were intent on bumping into us and saying 'Sorry mate'. This is a message to all of those who bumped into me: I am not your mate, and I do not forgive you. Anyway, I then had to walk into very expensive shops, which will also remain unnamed (Superfly and Jock Wills) to look at clothes I couldn't afford.

Having extricated myself from these particular overpriced dens of iniquity, I had to spend hour after hour laden like a Bedouin camel with the purchases of my mother, younger brother, granny, two aunties, cousin, other cousin, along with my solitary T-Shirt. Their justification for treating me like this? I was the only man. Where the heck is feminism when you need it?!

But even having taken this weight away from them, it remains incredible how far women are able to walk when promised that Primark lies just beyond the horizon. I reckon, being conservative here, that we walked for one thousand miles. It occurred to me that maybe when the Proclaimers sang that they would walk 500 miles in order to fall down at her (whoever she is) door, it was because they were carrying her shopping, and falling down would be only thing of which they were capable. Just a thought.

I also had to visit the epicentre of universal evil. Rarely have I felt such contempt for a place as Cith Kadston (more legal proceedings there). It is the epitome of all it is to be a middle class, middle aged woman, or her daughter. Along with badly driven people carriers, fruit tea, and sporadic recycling obsessions, it is the ultimate hallmark of Middle England, and the ultimate folly of class mobility. Whoever this woman is, she has  gained enormous quantities of money by taking an everyday household object, such as tea towels or teapots, and adorned them with nauseating combinations of spots and flowers, and sold them to her adoring ladies-that-do-lunch for wildly inflated prices, who are in the process of busily constructing a life which looks like this: