angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Brexit

Brötchen and Brexit

Just back from a trip to visit family and friends in Hamburg and Cologne. Whenever I am in Germany, I find myself indulging in the familiar, yet distinctly different, smells and tastes of fresh brötchen and good coffee; my body relaxes into the warmth of the modern apartments while my mind clicks into a different gear, re-structuring sentences and dusting down long-unused words and concepts that don’t exist in English. It’s a funny kind of home-coming feeling, away from home.

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I was, of course, asked about Brexit. It has dwindled in significance since the German elections, for Angela Merkel’s ensuing demise has given Germany a headache of its own. It felt strange being in a Germany that is punishing her for her open-arm policy to refugees. ‘Mutti’ has, after all, been such a solid rock and island of hope to us all in the choppy European waters. Nonetheless, the people I met – from bank managers to former colleagues and elderly relatives – all wondered how Brexit was going to work. “I don’t know, I can’t see it yet,” I’d say, trying not to be disloyal to the choices made by the ‘British people’. “The country is very divided on almost every issue involved,” I’d continue, and then change the subject. The impending split always pushes me into a bit of a national vacuum.

Nobody I talked to criticised or blamed anybody. Yet, viewed from the continent, Britain’s political forward stumblings look embarrassingly like insular self-centeredness. We are causing considerable upheaval and uncertainty on many layers of EU society and people would be in their full rights to be pissed off with us. But no, the overriding sentiment conveyed was sadness. The kind of sadness expressed recently on Radio 4 by the Swedish minister who is losing a valued negotiating ally at the EU table. The kind of sadness felt by team members when one of them leaves; or the sadness of losing a good friend who is relocating to another town or country. It’s personal.

We have so many friends in Europe, so many people who like and value us. I really hope, within the on-going discourse of “what’s best for Britain”, there will also be a big space for thoughts on what might make our departure from the EU easier and less sad for our friends.

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‘Shame’ and ‘Britain’ aren’t usually words we put together, but is that changing?

I have been uncharacteristically struck by a form of blog-writer’s block this month. My usual (dark) themes seemed weirdly irrelevant in this sun and blossom-filled May and most other areas of life have been hijacked by the impending elections and Brexit. And added to that I feel like I’m flat-lining, like my political passions are all but extinguished by my successive losses in all the things I voted for… or against.

Inspiration came just in time though, in the form of a passing conversation with one of my studio neighbours. Totally unprompted he quietly confessed to me that he had begun to feel ashamed of being English, to feel increasing shame in relation to Britain, his own country. “Shame”, well that’s something I can do, it is one of my prime subjects in fact. And asking him further, I discovered his shame was very related to my involuntary growing despondency in the face of our politics.

170508152731-banksy-on-brexit-super-169.jpgBanksy Artwork in Dover, May, 2017

With so many hideous Tory attitudes and policies in almost unhindered free flow, with Brexit uncertainties hanging like fog waiting to descend on top of us, Britain has all of a sudden become like a docked ship whose destination we don’t want to reach; a country whose values we can no longer identify with, let alone fully respect. The rhetoric is too self-centered and self-serving, almost embarrassing in the face of the team- and solidarity-building discussions going on between our European neighbours. Theresa May’s aggressive and alienating approach to getting the best Brexit deal – “FOR US” – is sickening in these times when random terrorist attacks and unpredictable world leaders could instead be bringing us all closer together than ever. Neither of us like her indiscriminate, hand-holding alignment with the twitter/trigger-happy Trump. And I am baffled by the unashamed hypocrisy of our morally impoverished, profit-focused arms sales to Saudi, compared to our distracted, feeble lament of the plight of the Yemenis.

I understand my neighbour’s unwanted but encroaching sense of shame. I feel it in my strange longing for the Mutti (Mum) they have in Germany; for Angela Merkel, a genuinely ‘strong and stable’ leader who, in my opinion, makes brave decisions that are individual but not all about “us”. Just like the German Remembrance culture is not only about their fallen soldiers but about victims and the fallen everywhere. I wish we had some of her ideas for what makes a country great. I wish we had opted for her policy of shutting down all nuclear power stations rather than teaming up with the Chinese to build Hinkley Point…

So as we all approach June 9th, where should we place our crosses, my neighbour and I asked each other? Follow your heart knowing your vote will not win, vote tactically to stop the Conservatives…? Most of the main parties have sides that are either plain nasty, slightly lost, idealistic, unreliable or weak. They play tug of war with old policies, pulling and stretching them to fit manifestos that promise little more than to sticky-tape together some sort of status quo. All promise to chuck (often non-existent) money at the ailing areas of our society – the NHS, social care, prisons, schools, infrastructure, railways – while expensive debates on Trident, Heathrow, HS2 drag on unresolved. But where’s the long-term vision, the Grand Plan? I wish the humane ideas that some of the smaller parties have for spending time getting to the root of the problems in order to build up a fairer and more equal society, would become more prominent. The Tory emphasis on profit and wealth for a small minority continues to sicken but in so many areas this country needs to stop and reflect, to think more out of the box on what will really make us great. Because right now I don’t think we are and we need to change radically, above all in attitudes, so we can travel in a direction that really will benefit us all – as human beings.

I’m not angry like I was after Brexit; I’m not really horrified, sad or even disappointed either. I’m just slightly detached and a little deflated, maybe disillusioned, in relation to our politics and politicians. And I think if there was a box called “Wha’eva”, it’s probably the one I would now tick.

There’s an unhelpful form of Tourette Syndrome lurking within certain British men…

What is it about some British men? It’s as if they have a form of Tourette’s that makes it impossible for them not to heed Basil’s advice and not mention the war. Smug winner syndrome, even 70 years on. I mean is it really a good idea, Boris Johnson, is it remotely mature or diplomatic to respond to a perfectly reasonable suggestion that Britain could not expect to get a better deal outside the EU than it enjoyed inside, by equating such an approach to “punishment beatings… in the manner of some world war two movie”? (The Guardian, 18.01.17)

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It honestly makes me wince, not because it’s insensitive, antagonistic or unnecessary, but because it is so unbelievably, pathetically childish. I once laughed at Will Self’s brilliant verbal portrait of Boris as “an enigma wrapped up in a whoopee cushion” but I don’t find him remotely enigmatic or amusing anymore. Just dangerously out of date and out of touch.

Then shortly after Boris had demonstrated his true nature once again, another national embarrassment came to his rescue in the form of Michael Gove tweeting: People “offended” by The Foreign Secretary’s comments today are humourless, deliberately obtuse, snowflakes – it’s a witty metaphor ‪#getalife

Witty? It’s such an old hat trick to try and stand on the head of ones opponent to make oneself taller when they are winning the argument, that any residual humour was sucked out of it decades ago. Are such British men – and I say men because (correct me if I am wrong) I’ve never heard a woman say such things – remotely aware of how stupid they look harping on about WW2 so long after the event? Especially at a time when our country is a total mess, while the losers of the war have long since brushed themselves down, built their country up, learnt the lessons of the past, apologised for it with deep earnestness and humility, and are now trying to move forward in ways informed by the kind of maturity that arises out of darkly, sobering experiences.

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An Antiques Roadshow episode on BBC 1 was recently dedicated as a Holocaust Memorial with survivors telling the stories behind the extraordinary, treasured and priceless ‘bits and pieces’ they had salvaged from those dreadful times. It was deeply moving and stood in such stark contrast to the flippant and thoughtless comments by our own homegrown, floppy-haired idiot.

So, apologies for not “#getting a life” in the way Michael Gove would like me to. I’ve tolerated such jokes and references since I was little and trust me they get very boring indeed. And we as a nation are made to look ridiculous, and have been for years, when allowing our integrity to be debased by cheap jibes at old wounds. I once felt ashamed of my German roots for obvious reasons. But right now, with some of the people we have front-lining our national face to the rest of the world, I feel fortunate to be able to look to Germany and Angela Merkel for some of my sense of national pride.

 

 

What are the collective nouns for a mass of unknowns or a pile of question marks?

I think I am politically depressed!

As a new academic year kicks off for another round of the seasonal clock, I find myself back behind the steering wheel and darting all over the country to deliver my talks. A busy lifestyle but it has always felt worthwhile. Even just knowing the next generation of school leavers will launch themselves into the world with at least a tiny awareness that our prison system is a disaster and most prisoners are not monsters but people, with stories and needs for help rather than punishment. That’s always been enough.

Something has changed though. In the rare moments of stillness between bookings I’m noticing the edges of a void appearing, a new blackness where the lights of the future once twinkled. It is as if the stars have been dimmed and the clanking sounds of activity muffled. I can’t hear a single strong voice of leadership I want to follow. I can’t see any sharp outlines defining a destination I want to reach. I can’t get a sense of where we are going and even the vocal activist in me feels subdued, as if there is no longer much point contributing to the discourse, it’s all happening as it is anyway. Does anyone else – or does everyone – feel like this?

1215231_origFrom the Life of Pi

A friend recently articulated that this is the first time in her politically aware life that she doesn’t feel represented in parliament. I feel the same. And I’d take it further. I don’t feel represented anywhere in the world. As I see it, there’s Trump and Clinton presenting a both farcical and terrifying picture of a Superpower gone mad; admirable, grounded Angela Merkel is slipping down the slope of political decline; humane Nick Clegg and the liberal Lib Dems have all but evaporated; and Michael Gove’s self-implosion lost him the position as the most forward thinking, compassionate Justice Secretary we have ever had. And with him go many of our excited hopes for imminent and radical prison reform. Then there’s unelected Theresa May offering an increasingly scary version of the right and Jeremy Corbyn a worthy but slightly lack-lustre left and hovering around them in the wings are Putin, Assad, ISIS, Chinese-controlled Nuclear Power Stations… But above all, there’s this thing, this – what is the collective noun for a mass of “unknowns”? Like the carnivorous algae island in The Life of Pi, the ground we have taken for granted for so long, has become a heaving jellyfish that consumes existing strategies and ideas; a bouncy castle that is hard to walk on without slipping down the sides; a brexit of unknowns.

Maybe that’s what it is! Maybe, above all, it’s this post-Brexit / pre-actual Brexit place we are now in that is preventing so many of us from moving forward with the confident strides we used to. We are collectively fumbling in the dark, uncertainty everywhere creating a fertile ground for hesitation and indecision, which can easily grow into inertia and despondency until a sense of helpless despair stops people dead in their tracks. We are facing years of disruption both to the enormous mechanisms of our society as well as the minutiae of everyday life. Change is good, I am so for change, and life is good in so many ways, but this, this blobby no-man’s land littered with question marks is distracting too much from the urgent issues affecting some peoples’ lives right now and temporarily shelving reforms for a day when the ground stops moving. Which is… when…?

Ok, I am definitely politically depressed! Take no notice of me. It’ll pass.

 

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