World War Two: silence is deadly.

Watching the final episode of Andrew Marr’s* History of the World on Sunday, I was shocked by his manipulation of the events leading up to World War Two. After describing Nazi persecution of the Jews, there was a mere pause before he moved on to discuss the ensuing war. This pause should have wielded tales of pacts, appeasement and expansionism. Instead, it assumed the form of a knot, tying the two ideas together, persecution and war; a bond of causation.  The persecution of the Jews + war = Allied intervention on humanitarian grounds. On reflection, I realised that this implication has been perpetuated within Britain for decades. It has taken me until now to recognise this simply because, until now, I was under the same illusion as many others. Although nobody has ever explicitly said to me ‘Britain waged war on Hitler with the aim of ending the Holocaust’, their silence on matters of appeasement and protectionism have, just as Andrew Marr succeeded in doing, implied exactly that.

Andrew Marr’s History of the World. Credit: theguardian.co.uk

The fact is that the Jews had absolutely nothing to do with Allied action against Hitler. Otherwise, there would have been war in 1935 when Hitler laid out his Nuremberg Laws which removed, among other rights, German citizenship from the Jewish population. But at this time, Britain and France were far too busy appeasing Mussolini’s use of mustard gas against civilians in Abyssinia to give a thought to the civilians of Germany. Although this was done in order to retain a key ally against Hitler (it was feared that resistance would drive Mussolini towards the Nazis), Allied motivation lay in self-interest, rather than humanitarian concern. Neither country could afford another war and Mussolini’s friendship made war less likely. Sorted.

And it wasn’t only Mussolini that was subjected to the desperate caresses of Allied politicians. Hitler too, in spite of his anti-Semitic campaign, was essentially receiving encouragement from Britain in his every endeavour, namely his dismemberment of the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler wants to rearm? Good on you, old boy! An Anschluss with Austria? You deserve it, my friend! Concentration camps? It’s nothing to do with us.

Admittedly, Hitler’s peaceful portrayal of Germany at the 1936 Berlin Olympics may have misled Britain as to the extent of Jewish persecution. Yet it can’t have been too difficult to see beyond the facade of a single part-Jewish fencer, generously permitted to represent Germany at the games, at a time when human rights were being violated so blatantly. Essentially, German domestic affairs held no interest for Britain and, whilst Chamberlain did relax immigration controls in order to accept the Jews fleeing the Nazis, this was proactivity at its least active. The predominant concern of the Allies was for foreign policy and the effects that Hitler’s extreme ideology might have on them.

Even in 1942, when evidence of genocide within Germany had become so overwhelming that it could no longer be ignored, Allied governments merely issued a declaration of condemnation. There was a hint of promise at the resultant Bermuda Conference, where Britain and America toyed with the idea of evacuating the persecuted to safe havens. However the US Foreign Office feared that Germany “may change over from the policy of extermination to one of extrusion, and aim as they did before the war at embarrassing other countries by flooding them with alien immigrants.” Best not then- what’s a few Jews, gassed and burned, against the embarrassment of saving them?

It is true that the Bermuda Conference came during a time of uncertainty, a time when any diversion of resources could have cost the war and all hope of salvation for those fenced inside concentration camps across Europe. However, when in 1944, Jewish leaders implored Churchill to bomb the gas chambers and railways leading up to Auschwitz Birkenau, Germany was on the defensive and the Allies, certain of coming success. Yet still they refused help.

This evidence exposes Andrew Marr’s assertion that ‘Nothing was worse than what the Nazis did, but their job here [the extermination of Ukranian Jews] had been made easier by what the Russian communists had already done’ as limited. Rather, the Nazi’s job was made easier by what Western Allies did. Or didn’t do.

Silence can be as implicating as words yet somehow escapes the reproach levelled at verbal wrongs. It is difficult to accuse that which is unsaid, so something as small as a pause  has the power to corrupt history, unchecked.

* Preempting his readership of this blog, may I point out that I generally boast clear skin, an adequate social life and a womb.
 “bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting**.” Andrew Marr, 2010
** I’ll give you ranting.

FREE FALL

PROLOGUE

Crusted with rust, the track waits. I follow its path with my eyes, out of the miserable station, choked with goodbyes, to the emerald landscape beyond, its plane dotted with sparse trees, somewhere between life and death, stretching their recumbent limbs in anticipation of a long sleep. And then I lose sight of it. It merges discretely into its surroundings, as if to evade the question I am trying not to ask, yet am desperate to know the answer to…
I wrap my arms around myself; whether for warmth or comfort I’m unsure. Is it the faint breeze that makes my eyes water? Or the knowledge that my life is being dragged away from me?
A hesitant sun peers out from behind a cloud, apologetic, as if she knows she shouldn’t be here. Her rays attempt to thaw the frozen air, lancing down and casting spotlights on the platform. Even through my mosaic vision, I pick his face from the stagnant crowd in a matter of moments, leaning as far over the bridge’s railing as gravity will permit; our three years of marriage have yet to dull the explosion at my core, triggered by his presence.

The train arrives at the platform.

FRANCE, NOVEMBER 1918

I was too impatient to wait for the maid. I flung my legs out of bed with surprising energy, considering I had barely slept, and skipped over the cushioned carpet, barefoot, to draw back the curtains. Miniature suns glimmered in each bead of condensation on the window pane, their rays infusing me with unseasonal warmth.
After dressing with a careless rapidity, I bounded down the stairs, crashing into the maid at the bottom. She stuttered a few words of contrition which, to her confusion, were met with a glowing smile. ‘Breakfast is on the table ma’am,’ she whispered as she passed me with a curiously unreadable expression.  Perhaps it was the excitement seeping through my every pore, pumping from my heart, coursing through my veins, which enabled my mind to skate over the atmosphere clogging the house: that of a wake.
Breakfast, in the scheme of things, seemed unimportant, and I flirted with the idea of skipping it. However, the grandfather clock in the entrance hall decided otherwise: I had another hour until his train arrived.
My eyes were trained on the long hand of the clock face as I picked at the bread before me. Forty minutes to go, thirty nine, thirty eight… I let them wander for a moment, hoping that the next time I looked it would be time to leave. They skimmed the room, absorbing articles which held no interest for my otherwise-occupied mind: the daily newspaper, a sheet of paper torn to haphazard pieces, a vase of fresh flowers. Thirty seven.
I grabbed my coat.

Impatience crawled and wriggled beneath my skin. I tapped my foot, tattoo. I bit my lip. I pulled at the skin on my finger. Drew Blood. Boom boom.
And then my breath caught in the back of my throat as the shrill cry of the train’s whistle swept over me, through me. I stood up instinctively as if propelled by the fizzing, bouncing, dancing particles now vibrating within me. Immediately, I wished I hadn’t: the platform whirled before my eyes and the party in my stomach threatened to toss out the little food I had managed earlier. Breathe Marie.
Eight million screams issued from the track as the train stopped.  The door nearest slid open, pushed by a familiar hand. And then he was there: olive skin, dark hair, chiselled jaw, Roman nose, squared shoulders, muscled arms, broad hands, black eyes, blazing. I wanted the moment to stretch out; I wanted time to take all of him in, inch by inch. But the crawling beneath my skin won out as he took me in his arms and the years apart were obliterated his touch.

Days which had previously been filled with menial tasks- going to the florists, visiting the theatre with friends, reorganising the wardrobe for the fifth time- were now filled with him. Slipping back into our old life was like sliding into a warm bath: all the aches, repressed for the sake of ‘being a good, patriotic wife’, were soothed.
I looked at the other women in the street, swathed in black, their bewildered, red eyes on the ground, and guilt pricked at my skin; it could easily, so easily have been me. But more than guilt, I felt the habitual panic, built through years of suspense. Each time there had been news of a death, the village had held its collective breath, then pitied the newly-blackened figure, then thanked God it wasn’t them. Even worse, when the deceased was verified, there was an overriding, yet irrational, contentment that you were safe for a while; probability ruled that there would be a gap of about two weeks between each death in the area. Inevitably, as the time dwindled, you were desperately looking at the other parents, wives, children, hoping they would be next- anyone but you.
‘Ben?’ I whispered, suddenly.
‘Mmm?’ he murmured somewhere between the sleeping world and this.
‘Am I selfish?’ I asked, searching his face, almost pleadingly, for reassurance, ‘I mean, is it wrong that I should be so happy, whilst everyone else around me is grieving?’
His eyes flickered open, gluey with dreams, and he rolled over to face me, ‘Of course not. You didn’t fire the bullets that killed those men; you were just as likely a victim as anybody else. You were under so much strain. Your body has a right to be relieved,’ he smiled crookedly, adding, ‘Anyway, I would be offended if you weren’t.’
I snorted and rolled my eyes at his mock vanity, the eddying current of worry now stilled by his words.

The next morning I was awoken by a dream, immediately erased from my mind at the opening of my eyes. A nightmare, I was sure. A relentless pulse throbbed in my ears; sharp, shuddering breaths shook my whole body; sweat stuck, cold and clammy, to my nightdress. It took a moment for me to calm myself, to reassert my breathing. When I was quite still, I realised I was crying.
I reached my arm across to the other side of the bed, searching for the comforting contours and heat of Ben’s body. But it was cold. And empty.
I padded downstairs. All of the curtains were drawn shut so it must have been early. What was he doing up?
I went to the dining room first, then the drawing room, then his old study, then the bathroom. My movements were steady, my thoughts rational. Yet I was still crying. Hot tears gushed over my cheeks and onto my night dress, leaving darker patches on my chest where they fell.
‘Ma’am?’ A voice, trickled with trepidation, drew me from my confusion, ‘Are you quite alright?’
Embarrassed, I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand and gave a mechanical nod. The shock of being interrupted had halted my free-flowing and unfounded tears. The maid made to turn away.
‘Have you seen Ben?’ I asked, hastily.
Something akin to panic flushed her face, red, ‘No, ma’am.’
I closed my eyes and drew in an audible breath through rounded lips, ‘I shall take breakfast in an hour.’

Each bite of croissant was an effort. My throat was tight so the lumps of dry bread which squeezed through caused me to wince.
I concentrated on organising the turbid thoughts churning in my mind, attempting to pinpoint the sense of foreboding which lay heavy in my every cell. It was futile. A blanket-like smog clouded whatever it was that lay beyond my reach; each time I tried to penetrate it, I felt myself reclining, basking, in its all-too comforting warmth.
Frustration ebbed below the surface of my skin. It was ten ‘o clock and Ben still hadn’t returned. On impulse, for no conscious reason, I grabbed my coat and left the cosy haven of my home in exchange for a biting December morning.

The air was alive with brisk hands, slapping my face awake as I walked, seemingly with purpose, although there was none which I could find. Blood poured forth to my cheeks, protection against the clarity of the winter wind. I breathed through my mouth and the unwelcome icy drink which froze my insides made my eyes sting with water. Recoiling, I nuzzled my head to my chest where I discovered its warmth was dwindling.
‘Good morning Mrs Bernard.’
I looked up. The face only barely registered, drawing out a watery memory of a dinner party. One of Ben’s friends, probably.
‘Good day…’ I avoided supplying a name, ‘How are you?’
I hated such formalities; pointless exchanges of hollow, rehearsed words. How many hours of my life had been taken by such ridiculous conventions? I itched to get away, to continue with my directionless pursuit.
‘Very well, thank you,’ he replied, and then tilted his head to the side, with what could only be described as sympathy, ‘How are you holding up?’
Ice crept from my core, stretching out its brittle, frozen web to my arms, my legs, my throat. ‘What do you mean? Do you know something?’ I choked.
The man shrank a little, beneath the confrontational barrel of my words, ‘I only meant… what with Ben being gone and all…’
Biting back on the acrid bile in my throat, I tried to placate the waves of ridiculous dread building in my stomach with soothing thoughts, but none came. And then my hands were on his jacket, desperately grappling at his tie, ‘Is he having an affair? Has he left me?’ I was almost begging, as he shook his head, wide-eyed. My voice trembled an octave higher, ‘Don’t pretend… don’t act like you don’t know. Don’t…’

Air came into my lungs sharp and fast. As did the memories.
The maid’s panic at my questions. The caution with which she regarded me around the house. The torn up letter on the table. The letter. Delivered on a glorious, silver, shining plate. A thick envelope. My address on the front. Sharp slanted writing. The grating sound of the knife as it sliced it open.
Dear Mrs Bernard,
I am most sorry to have to inform you that your husband has gone missing in action. He was…

An oppressive blackness roared around me as I soared through the barrier in my mind, free fall.

EPILOGUE

The troops board the train, a collective mass of khaki moving in unison. My eyes are trained on him, only him. For a fleeting moment, I think he looks up at me; I raise my arm in greeting but let it fall as he reaches the train door. Ben.
The vision falters, blurs like a mirage, then slips away. A family stands on the platform, waving eagerly to someone in a nearby compartment. The youngest, a small, blonde girl, stretches up on tiptoes and cranes her neck to get a better view. Funny, I’d never thought about having children. I suppose it would have happened someday, were it not for…
A rumble from below shakes me from my reverie. Lethargically, the train pulls away.

And I follow, free fall.

The Story of Burnt Njál

My first journey down the Rangriver of the Icelandic Saga hasn’t been easy. Chapter One of The Story of Burnt Njál greeted me with…

Thorgerda was the daughter of Thorstein the Red who was Olaf the White’s son, Ingialld’s son, Helgi’s son. Ingalld’s mother was Thora, daughter of Sigurd Snake-i’-the-eye, who was Ragnar Hairybreek’s son. And the Deeply-wealthy was Thorstein the Red’s mother; she was the daughter of Kettle Flatnose , who was Bjorn Boun’s son, Grims’s son, Lord of Sogn in Norway.

I literally gasped aloud. And then began a family tree which, two chapters in, had run off the page, onto my duvet.

Íslenska : Möðruvallabók (AM 132 fol.13r) Bren...

At this point, I reached a dilemma: panic and reason began an internal battle, the former telling me to slam closed the hideously-confusing book, riddled with aeons of genealogy, and never return; the latter gently ordering me to get a grip. Which I did.

Twenty ‘Sigurds’ later (this bloke is the ‘John’ of the tenth century), my initial reservations have quieted. I have come to the realisation that, unless you are studying Icelandic lineage, the footnotes can be overlooked; the plot remains unharmed. And the plot is fantastic.

Again, I was initially worried that the sparseness of the prose would be uncomfortable but, to the contrary, the pages turn as fluidly as those of an elaborately-crafted thriller.

Perhaps it is the idea that this actually happened that spurs me on, into the night, pursuing Hrut’s travels, Hallgerda’s marriages and Gunnar’s feuds. Not only is Njál’s Saga a piece of prose, it is a piece of history, ‘handed down by word of mouth, told from Althing to Althing, at Spring Thing and Autumn Leet, at all great gatherings of people, and over many a fireside, on sea strand or riverbank.’ (George Webbe Dasent)

Read it!

Is war poetry ‘all the same’?

AN IRISH AIRMAN FORSEES HIS DEATH

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
 My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
W.B.Yeats

A photograph of William Butler Yeats on 24 Jan...

A photograph of William Butler Yeats on 24 January 1908 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Almost a suicide note, An Irish Airman Foresees his Death perversely juxtaposes inevitable death with a lighthearted tone, engendered by its use of iambic tetrameter and alternate rhyme.

As an Irishman during a time of sectarian tensions within Ireland, we could assume that the persona is a nationalist, which may explain his lack of British patriotism: ‘nor duty bade me fight.’ Yet there is just as little Irish pride as there is British; the only sense of duty he betrays is that to his hometown of Kiltartan: ‘My country is Kiltartan’s cross.’ Therefore, to so rashly pigeonhole the persona may be misguided.

We are thus left with the question: if not for patriotic fulfillment, why has this man signed up to what he acknowledges will be his end? The answer: for ‘A lonely impulse of delight.’

Having just stomached an anthology brimming with jingoism and sickly English pride, such frivolous sentiment is somewhat refreshing. On the one hand, the persona’s twisted outlook is repulsive (whilst he aims to satiate a selfish desire for excitement, those below are willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believe to be the good of their nation), yet on the other, it is strangely compelling. The frankness with which he declares life as no more worthwhile than death- ‘In balance with this life, this death’- stamps a unique fingerprint, unburned by the glory of war, on Stallworthy’s anthology.

Also striking is Yeats’ avoidance of the persuasive tone perpetuated by most war poetry, whether in the aim of recruitment (Brookes, McCrae, Housman) or the exposure of its horrific truths (Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg.)

An Irish Airman… implores us to construct a character for its narrator in ways unattainable by the impersonal tones of, for example, Sassoon’s The Rear-Guard, whose persona epitomises all 100% of soldiers who, at some point, actually quite detested the perilous squalor that had come to define their lives. For me, the Irishman is an introvert who has become disillusioned with life, having watched the object of his affections fall dazedly in love with a newly-enlisted soldier down the road; suddenly the world is mundane and shallow: ‘The years to come seemed waste of breath / A waste of breath the years behind.’

After Auschwitz: Next Steps… The Jane Elliot Experiment

As ambassadors of the Lessons From Auschwitz Project, Lilly (lillyraining) and I were asked to engage in a Next Steps project, with the aim of sharing what we had learned from our visit to Auschwitz with a wider community. We chose to imitate the Jane Elliot experiment.

The Experiment

AIM:

– To enable deeper understanding of how it feels to be either a bystander or a victim of discrimination.

METHOD:

– A Year 8 Religious Studies class was given a survey (see below) which enabled us to determine the number of students with particular eye colours.

– The following week, we took over one of their lessons and explained that the government had decided to pilot the Nuremberg Programme (bear in mind that these pupils had not yet learnt about the Nazis so were unaware of the name’s origins) which aimed to segregate brown-eyed children from the rest of the school on the basis that they were socially and academically inferior. We argued that this would benefit both the brown-eyed pupils (who could now work at their own pace) and those with ‘superior’ eye colours (who would no longer be hindered.)

– Fabricated statistics were provided, all explaining the detrimental effects of the brown-eyed gene on society.

– It was stressed that if the pilot was successful, the Nuremberg Programme would go on to affect society on a wider basis meaning both higher education and job prospects would be implicated.

– The class was then separated, with the six brown-eyed pupils being placed on a cramped table in a corner whilst their classmates were able to sit where they pleased; the former received scrap pieces of paper and poor resources whilst the latter used Netbooks; their teacher focussed predominantly on helping those in the class with ‘superior’ eye colours. Having brown eyes ourselves, myself and a fellow ambassador were ‘allocated the job’ of working with the six excluded pupils.

– Everyone in the class was given a sheet to fill out ‘for government purposes’ in which they were asked to give feedback on the programme.

– At the end of the lesson, a presentation was given which revealed the true experiment, explained its aim and gave some background on the Holocaust.

– We ensured that every pupil understood that both the research and the Nuremberg Programme were fabricated.

RESULTS:

– Initially, there was a high level of disbelief and protest with one girl questioning: ‘Isn’t this discrimination?’

– Then came a degree of fear amongst the brown-eyed pupils as they realised the wider implications of the programme. What seemed most important to them was that their friendship groups would change. One boy became distressed at the idea that his younger, also brown-eyed, siblings would be affected too. A couple began to express a feeling of injustice: they were amongst the highest achievers in the class. When we explained that we understood there would be exceptions yet the measures were still necessary, they became frustrated: they were outraged at the idea that their once-bright futures were effectively ruined.

– It wasn’t long before the brown-eyed children began to act up, began to put on ‘stupid’ voices and neglect their work; the principle seemed to be: if you’re going to treat us as inferior we will become inferior.

– Meanwhile, the majority of the ‘superior’ pupils appeared to have recovered from the initial furore, had accepted the change and were getting on with their work.

Some feedback:

“I feel sorry for them.”

“I agree because not everybody works at the same pace… its probably in there genes.”

“We won’t see our friends and we won’t be able to sit with them.”

“You have got 99% of the diversity correct.”

“I don’t want to get treated different because of the colour of my eyes.”

“If it works then great!”

“If it does work I refuse to go along with it.”

Personal Response

I found the whole experiment very difficult and emotionally draining. Particularly upsetting was having to prevent the students from talking to their blue-eyed or green-eyed friends; such incidents were used as examples of the ‘disruptive nature of brown-eyed people’ and the ease with which both groups accepted such discriminatory chastisement was disturbing.
As we called the class for de-briefing, the tightening knot of tension- caused a) because the whole thing was just so horrible, and b) because I was worried that someone would suddenly shout ‘It’s all a lie!’- was released. Cruelly perhaps, I let out a laugh of relief as their faces became a spectrum ranging from anger-annoyance. I was grateful that they no longer wore expressions of the suppressed and apathetic.
Several of those directly affected remained indignant though, which worried me: had we actually done something worthwhile, or was the whole thing simply unethical?
This doubt was only fleeting, however. After some initial confusion, the feedback received was largely positive and one student managed to summarise what, for me, was our objective: the experiment gave an ability to understand discrimination on a level far beyond the capacity of any PowerPoint presentation.

The Jane Elliot Experiment

My nan and the Three-Day Week: ‘Why I loved it’

Three day week: Coalminers strike, Britain 1974

In 1973, demand for coal soared as the international oil price rise saw British oil imports fall by 15%. Grasping this opportunity for a pay increase, the National Union of Mineworkers called a ban on overtime.

In January 1974, Heath responded with the Three-Day Week in which ‘most industrial and commercial premises’ operated for only three days a week. The maximum speed limit was reduced to 50mph and television went off at 10.30pm. He calculated that Britain could survive for longer on these rations than the miners could in unemployment.

During this time, loud complaints declaring a return to the Age of Austerity rang through Britain, masking the quieter and arguably more Northern tones that were, well, having quite a knees-up. Amongst this chorus of jubilant voices was my nan.

Here’s what happened when I managed to secure an exclusive interview with her…

– How did life change for you during the Three-Day Week?

I was working at the sewing factory then and I used to work five days a week, nine o’ clock till three, because I used to have to get the children to school then go to work, then be out of work at three in time to go and pick them up from school.

So when we came on this Three-Day Week we thought it was, well I thought, and a few women that I worked with thought it was, wonderful because quite a few of us had young children. When we first heard we was going on three days a week we thought  ‘I hope it’s not split’ you know, but when it was Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday it was brilliant because it gave us a long weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday off. So it was ideal, it was ideal for me, because with your Granddad being a bus driver he wasn’t on three days a week, they just worked normal hours. So I was lucky because the main breadwinner, so to speak, of the family was still bringing a full wage in. It made it easier all round for me because I had those two extra days a week to sort of do more.

How did your pay cut affect you?

We were on piece work, you see, so we only got what we earned in those three days, which was quite a big cut in money, but it didn’t bother me because it was more important to me to have more time with the children, you know? Because we could have nice long weekends- quality time, you know? So I really enjoyed it but, like I say, a lot of people did suffer very badly from it because if they’d got like their mum and dads that were on three days a week it was a big come down in their income coming in. So I was lucky in that respect. So I really really did enjoy it because money wasn’t the important thing to me, it was having a bit more time at home, a bit more time with the children. But I know a lot of people did suffer, very badly.

What about the power cuts?

It was nice that I was at home, with the power cuts, cause I was there, cause your mum, Jacky, was quite frightened when we had a power cut, [laughs] she didn’t like it at all, especially after tea when it was dark when we had to have candles, she didn’t like that at all. I remember our Alison was at Brownies at the end of the road and, with the power cut, there were no street lights so I had to pick her up. Jacky refused to come so I left her at home, Hobson’s Choice, but when I got back she was standing on the doorstep, terrified. I remember she said ‘I thought the candle was going to burn out and I’d be in the dark.’

How were you affected by the speed limit and television restrictions?

I don’t remember either of those. Well, we didn’t have a car in them days, did we? We did have a little black and white tele but [laughs] we would have been in bed by that time.

What was life like when the Three-Day Week was over?

When it finished and we had to start working five days a week again I hated it, really hated it, because it just seemed… it wasn’t as nice a home life, really. So I didn’t stay [at the sewing factory] very long after that. I think that Three-Day Week made me realise how valuable it was to have more time at home so I left after a while and I got a job at the college. I did work five days a week but it was only nine till one. So I was more at home, a bit more time at home, more time to spend with the children.

Me and Nan

Thanks to Ann Palmer

You’re well gay

The etymology of the term ‘gay’ is very interesting. Originating in the late fourteenth century, it initially denoted happiness and frivolity. By the seventeenth century, however, it had adopted negative connotations with the Oxford English Dictionary defining it as ‘addicted to social pleasures and dissipations… Of loose and immoral life’, and by 1890 it had become interlinked with female prostitution. The year 1935, though, saw it edging somewhat closer to its contemporary meaning with ‘geycat’ referring to young male homosexuals.

   Today, ‘gay’ is defined as: ‘(of a person, especially a man) homosexual.’ And yet it is quickly becoming a pejorative term(predominantly amongst young people) to replace ‘rubbish.’ Thus, ‘gay’ no longer exclusively relates to sexuality; it is also an insult. 

   So how long will it be before this derogatory definition appears in our dictionaries? And, more importantly, should it?

   Whilst ‘gay’ is rapidly adopting negative connotations, no other word has as yet offered to assume the definition of ‘homosexual.’ There was a push recently, notably involving human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, for ‘queer’ to do just that, but this is generally accepted as having a much broader meaning, encompassing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people alike. Moreover, the reclamation is only regarded as appropriate for exclusive use within the LGBT community due to its harmful past. So, for now,  we have a homonym (excuse the terrible terrible pun.)

   We can presume that the two definitions once went hand in hand, with homophobia transforming the once-neutral term into an insult. Today however, the majority of young people argue that ‘gay’, as an insult, has no sexual connotations whatsoever, suggesting that its use is not consciously homophobic. Nevertheless, many people argue that this negative evolution shouldn’t be allowed as it is possible that the lexical ambiguity may still introduce or reinforce homophobia in children. After all, a seven-year old child who has been calling broccoli ‘gay’ since he could speak cannot then be expected to accept his uncles’ civil partnership without question. There may even be some transference of meaning, either consciously (with the rationale that the two definitions must be interlinked as in many other cases, for example ‘nurse’, in either sense, refers to the act of caring) or subconsciously (it may be difficult to shake off the word’s negative associations.)

   The alternative view is that lexical evolution is vital to the progression of language; it shouldn’t be interrupted.

  

 

It would be interesting to conduct an experiment to ascertain the relationship between the derogatory use of the word ‘gay’ and homophobia. I would hypothesise a positive correlation but this doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with the latter argument: I am not homophobic and, as far as I know, it is not a low exposure to the derogatory version of ‘gay’ in childhood which has caused this. Rather, I consciously choose to avoid the word ‘gay’, in the negative sense, for I am aware it can cause offence. Therefore, any such experiment would need to establish the causal mechanism between the two variables before coming to a conclusion as to whether or not we should allow the term ‘gay’ to adopt a second, and negative, meaning.

Image 1: https://punchaday.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/fanny/

After Auschwitz

‘Nothing can ever prepare you for Auschwitz’ we were told.

And yet as we walked around the camp, each of us plugged into headphones, listening to our guide’s rapid, rehearsed jabber, I simply rolled my shoulders which were aching from the weight of the water in my rucksack and shifted from one tired foot to the other.

Yes, the hair was shocking. The mounds and mounds of hair. And the glasses. And the shoes…

But there was no reaction: I’d heard it all before, seen the pictures countless times.

We listened to the stories of the escapees whose friends paid the price: up to twenty could be killed for their associations with the wrongdoer. We saw the places where they were punished: the starvation cell, the standing cell, the wall of death. Bang. Bang. Bang. All through this, I begged for a reaction, tried to imagine myself in the same position. I was disturbed by the calmness which held me. A coping mechanism? Perhaps. But I didn’t feel numb; I just felt normal.

Auschwitz was a film set. I was walking through a Granada studio, next door to Coronation Street. The ‘Arbiet Macht Frei’ gate was just a prop. That’s how I felt.  I couldn’t connect with any of it. Not even the gas chamber in which millions had suffocated and then burned.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the same. Barrack upon barrack upon barrack could be seen from the watchtower window through which I knew murderers had once peered. Of course, I was struck by the vastness of the place, and shocked by the figures: 1,000 to a barrack, 8 to a bed (a euphemism for the shelves on which the prisoners slept.) Yet when walking the same walk that so many others had taken as their last, I couldn’t feel anything.

What did affect me, though, were the family photographs, accompanied by brief biographies, taken before Auschwitz destroyed everything that they had. In particular, I remember a picture of three girls, about my age, proudly playing their musical instruments for the camera. I didn’t have time to read their biography so am left wondering whether they made it out.  A face touches far deeper than a number.

The finishing ceremony, given by Rabbi Barry Marcus, at the point where the train track to Auschwitz-Birkenau ends, also provoked some response. As darkness fell and his prayer, sang in Hebrew, echoed over the vast expanse which once pulsated with feeble life, anger and fear ebbed dully within me. My main thought was of how reminiscent the contemporary cliche, ‘they’re stealing our jobs’, seems of the attitude held by many in the lead-up to the Holocaust. Did it ever really go away? Or did it just transfer from one minority group to another? Yet rather than it being those who hold with such a skin-crawling sentiment, I think that it is those of us who aren’t ignorant and bigoted and cruel that could pave the way to the next Holocaust. Our blind belief in ourselves is fast leading to a complacency which is sure to assist the spread of prejudice. We cannot allow a loss of urgency. To think ‘Oh, it will never happen again’ is just as dangerous as the contemporary myths being spouted about immigration and Islam.

Nevertheless, on the plane home, I was left selfishly pondering what was wrong with me. How was I supposed to feel? Was I heartless? Did I lack imagination? And then I went home and slept, where not a thought of the preceding day disturbed me.

But today, on my way to school, I passed a woman and a child. The boy, with a cunning smile, was obstinately refusing to follow her, secure in the knowledge that his mum would never abandon him here in the park. Yet after a couple of warnings, she began to walk away. The smile faded into a scowl and then into an expression of terror. The child was subsumed with tears as he tottered after his mother screaming ‘You left me, you left me!’

In that moment I was taken back to the train track at Auschwitz-Birkenau where mothers and children were separated with the gesture of a thumb. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, friends. Split into two categories: indefinitely prolonged life and death. The child’s screams continued long after his mother had scooped him up, back into the safety of her arms.

At Auschwitz, it was difficult to connect with that which happened nearly seventy years ago. To me, it didn’t feel real. It was just a place. The people that died there were just a number. History GCSE, ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, have all allowed me to explore the Holocaust, to come to terms with the horror and the suffering and the evil. Thus I argue that you can prepare for Auschwitz.

But sat here, with the image of that panic-stricken child chasing his mother who was only a few metres away, tears fall onto my hands and I realise that what it is impossible to prepare for is coming home.

And so, as the time between us and the Holocaust expands, we become less and less connected to it. This distance is becoming especially profound as the number of survivors dwindles. Yet we must remember. We must continue to visit and continue to educate others. We must always grieve the loss of life and put faces to those who suffered at the hand of the Nazis. If not for the victims, we must do it for ourselves and those that will come after us.

‘The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again’ George Santayana

Thank you to Lessons From Auschwitz
Another interesting article: Bystanders