angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: war

War… what is it good for? (Absolutely nothing?)

Over the past 4 weeks, I have been listening to this year’s Reith Lectures “The Mark of Cain” by historian Professor Margaret MacMillan. They are all about war and they are brilliant. Personally, as someone who is equally comfortable / uncomfortable with creativity and destructivity, I find the questions she is exploring absolutely fundamental to what it is to be human.

To briefly summarise:

In her first lecture, Margaret MacMillan asks if war is an essential part of being human. Are we destined to fight? In her second lecture, she explores the role of the warrior in history and culture and asks why both men and women go to war. In the third lecture, she discusses the relationship between war and the civilian and the impact of conflict on noncombatants. And in her fourth lecture she assesses how law and international agreements have attempted to “manage” war. There is a fifth still to come, on war and art.

All of what she says is fascinating, but for me there are a few key points she makes that are vital if we want to understand war. And, as she herself emphasises, we have to understand war if we want to stand a chance of containing it or even preventing it.

The first point in her own words: “We like to think of war as an aberration, as the breakdown of the normal state of peace. This is comforting but wrong. War is deeply woven into the history of human society. Wherever we look in the past, no matter where or how far back we go, groups of people have organised themselves to protect their own territory or ways of life and, often, to attack those of others. Over the centuries we have deplored the results and struggled to tame war, even abolish it, while we have also venerated the warrior and talked of the nobility and grandeur of war. We all, as human beings, have something to say about war.”

It is true. Just as night and day, life and death are integral components of the whole human experience, so are war and peace. Destruction is a necessary part of the process of creation and creativity, aesthetics, design are part of the theatre of destruction. War and peace are intrinsically related and bound to each other.

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The second point she makes is: “We are both fascinated and repulsed by war and those who fight.” This is exactly what I have found while researching and writing my book about my German soldier grandfather. I have felt almost guilty for feeling both those things, and more. War is utterly repulsive, devastating, appalling but it is also exciting, glamorous, awe-inspiring. There is exhilaration in destruction as well as opportunities to reach new heights of bravery, comradeship, adventure, honour, compassion. It is the intensity of living in life/death situations that many people yearn for in times of peace.

A third point is that war also can bring about advances in and benefits to a society. Social change, like women getting the vote having proved their capabilities at filling the male roles left vacant when the men went away to fight; or divides between the very rich and poorest of society being reduced; or the establishment of organisations such as United Nations. Wars often make old structures crumble and corrupt leaders topple. Would total pacifism allow these necessary ruptures in society and their ensuing benefits to happen?

War is usually justified by those who start it. It is “the application of organised violence to gain ends and get others to do what you want” (MacMillan). Machiavelli said “War is just when it is necessary”. Aristotle wrote that the aim of war should be peace. There used to be rules that set bounds on how wars were to be fought: organised truces, the ring fencing of those who were not to be attacked or killed, rules about surrender or the treatment of POWs. But… war, by nature, gets out of control. And now, more than ever, it targets civilians.

It was Sir Arthur (“Bomber”) Harris who declared in the 1940s, “The aim of our bombing is not to knock out specific factories. The aim is the destruction of the German citizen, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilized community life throughout Germany.” Just as the rape of the enemy’s women has been seen as a legitimate reward for soldiers, in total war it becomes legitimate to attack civilians.

Modern developments on so many levels are resulting in wars across the world becoming increasingly out of control and deadly. To me, full-blown pacifism now feels inadequate and out of reach as an immediate solution. And yet striving for peace has to be the way forward. But how? I think my basic approach is largely in line with Professor MacMillan’s when she says that we have to understand ‘the others’ as well as ourselves. We need to recognise that people on ‘the other side’ also suffer. We need to see each other as humans.

 

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Germany losing – at wars or football – brings out the worst in us!

Germany’s shock World Cup exit yesterday – the first time the German team has been knocked out in the group stage since 1938 – naturally started a tsunami of Twitter wisecracks and news headlines.

“Germany’s World Cup 2018 downfall made everyone else pretty happy…” said one.

Oh dear, I thought, here we go. Germany’s homegrown term ‘Schadenfreude’ was coming back to bite them with a vengeance as people free flowed expressions of their ‘pleasure in another’s misfortune’.

“Just re-watched Germany getting knocked out of the world cup. There are very few greater pleasures! ‪#GermanyOut”

Twitter’s full 280-character allowance was filled with two letters: ‘AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…’

Others asked:

“World champion now?!” followed by a punching fist and hysterically laughing emojis.

Of course the age-old war references were also wheeled out:

“Germany went to Russia 3 times unprepared

1) World War 1

2) World War 2

3) World Cup 2018

It seems they never learn from their past”

(Actually they probably have learnt more from their past than anybody else in the world, but anyway)

Even the Telegraph headlined with the old fav:

“Don’t mention ze Var”.

 

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Germany, meanwhile instantly, and in many cases tearfully, agreed it deserved to lose:

“That was just shit – and totally deserved too,” admitted one fan. “A lethargic and sad appearance,” said another.

And they were right. South Korea deserved to win. The reigning champions had lacked the obvious passion of other teams. Their tactics were old and mechanical, completely outdated in the face of the raw hunger to win displayed by so many other nations. And their long downfall from the position of winners naturally creates welcome hope and space for others. Maybe they had become too complacent and their emotional defeat will finally soften, even humanise, their robotic reputation.

While all this was going on, I was at Chalke Valley History Festival near Salisbury listening to two historians, whose books on the Second World War and Germany I had recently read. Keith Lowe’s The Fear and the Freedom gives a brilliant insight into the aftermath of the world conflict that touched every sphere of life in some way and created so much of the world that we know today. James Hawes’s The shortest history of Germany rattles through the centuries of upheaval at breakneck speed exposing Germany’s volatile past, fluid borders and a great deal more.

The contrasting attitudes to the Germans presented by these two occasions couldn’t have been starker. I realise now that my disinterest in competitive sport and my interest in history stem from the same fundamental dislike… of the winner / loser mentality. Both war and more recently sport are wholly about winning, the latter often at the cost of sportsmanship. Gloating is something we British love to do. We hold tightly to the glories of our past so we can readily produce them at any opportune moment, often as grudges or gripes. As one disappointed German said to an English gloater last night:

“We used to admire your sporting fair play in Germany. You are shamefully disregarding this. Maybe it sounds old-fashioned and conservative, but maybe you should think about it when you get back to your keyboard. Sometimes it’s good to play fair play in life. Best wishes and I keep fingers crossed for the English team.”

After the lecture about German history, a question arose about Germany today. It carried a whiff of the old British triumphalism, the kind that dozes just below the surface. (I appreciate you might have to have German blood to fully notice how often it is stirred.) James Hawes responded by saying he had no time whatsoever for the “spitfire” mentality. To my, and actually his, surprise, half the audience broke into spontaneous applause. I felt proud of my fellow, very English audience.

In sport, the black and white division into winners and losers changes over the course of each tournament, but always leaves the world divided. Into those that are happy and those who are devastated. The ‘other side’ is always the foe, to be ruthlessly beaten. As in war.

In the study of history, the past changes face. As you deepen your relationship with nations, events and wars, you gain understanding. The popular myths shift until a more rounded picture emerges. The winner / loser mentality is replaced by nuance, empathy even. As Keith Lowe suggested as a way forward for us all, the separate victim, hero and villain archetypes into which individuals and whole nations fall, merge to become just human beings being human in all its forms.

Germany’s fall from 2014 winners and oft-times finalists or semi-finalists, may be making many people happy. Personally, I derive more happiness from the levelling approach of history than the peaks and troughs of win-lose competitive sport. So I am with the tweeter who said:

“Sending hugs to German fans in Berlin who are definitely not having a good day”.

It’s time to remember… and this year even German footballers wore poppies

It’s Remembrance time. Red paper and enamel poppies are blooming on lapels all over the nation as people remember those who fought in conflict, and the huge sacrifices they made. Last night, the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall opened with a stunning rendition of “I vow to thee my country”. First, just three slow and quiet brass instruments; then violins joined in; then drums, voices, and finally the whole orchestra played, while flag- and oversized headwear-bearing members of the forces, marched into the hall in step with the music. We were only four minutes into the hundred-minute programme and the lump in my throat was already swollen and wobbling out of control. Gosh we do this so well.

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I felt very differently two nights ago, however. I had just finished giving my unavoidably somber talk Counter memorials: Germany’s post WWII culture of apology and atonement, when an elderly audience member told the hall about FIFA’s recent decision to allow players to wear poppies (last year it had forbidden them). And, he continued, the German team had also agreed to wear them. All the players would wear black armbands sporting a red poppy for the England / Germany friendly match at Wembley, on the eve of Armistice Day. I honestly wanted to cry, right there and then. But I couldn’t tell if I was deeply moved, deeply angry or some uncomfortable combination of the two.

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On the one hand, I felt awe at the magnanimity of the Germans, showing willingness to adopt the wholly British symbol, whose origin was about remembering – crudely put – all those killed by their forefathers in World War One. I know, I know, Remembrance today extends well beyond that, but nonetheless, the poppy is a singularly British image of our war dead, a huge amount of which died at the hands of the Germans. I wholly support the German decision, but I wonder, would we wear a German symbol that commemorates fallen German soldiers? ‘Bloody good on you, Germany’, I felt but didn’t say, that irritating lump having lodged itself too profusely in my throat.

On the other hand though, I felt furious. Just how much further do Germans have to go in acknowledging the wars? Now they even have to mourn our dead, while their dead soldiers barely get a nod! They, as the losing nation, didn’t, and still hardly, honour their soldiers, even though they lost 4-5 million in WWII alone, compared to the 1.7 million that the British (and Commonwealth) lost in both world wars combined. Of course it’s not about numbers, but that’s a lot of bereaved German families who have none of the comfort that their men will be remembered. For decades there were no memorials to German soldiers at all. They were all looked on with shame and silence. And yet many of them would have been no different to ours: men fighting for their nation. Very few people in this country have thought about what it is like for the losing side, for which stirring patriotism and national pride are anathema. I know that because I talk to audiences, of all ages, all over the country about this, and the overwhelming reaction is: “Gosh, I had no idea. That’s so sad / moving / wrong…”

Untitled.png‘In memory of the dead…’ A WWII memorial in Itzehoe, Germany

You can see I get disproportionally emotional at this time of year! My Anglo-German roots wrestle and strangle each other in my chest as I try to work out what Remembrance should, or could, be about, and to what end. It is wholly right to remember all those we do, but has our little red poppy symbol become so distractingly potent, that it can knock, or raise, public figures off and onto their perches, simply through its absence or presence? Surely that kind of “poppy fascism” (to use Jon Snow’s controversial words) isn’t the right way forward? To me, the difference of sentiments expressed in the words of the English and German football representatives respectively, sum up both what is good, and what is missing, in our culture of Remembrance.

Martin Glenn, the FA (Football Association) chief executive, said: “Remembering and commemorating the men and women who have served this country is ingrained in our nation. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice and we will be honouring them, both on and off the pitch, for our match against Germany. I would like to thank the German Football Association for also agreeing to wear the poppy for the match, in a show of solidarity and unity at this important time.”

Reinhard Grindel, the DFB (Deutscher Fussball Bund) president, said: “I positively welcome the decision to allow both the English and the German national teams to wear poppy armbands, because these are not about political propaganda in any way. They’re about remembering the kind of values that were kicked to the ground in two world wars, but are cherished by football: respect, tolerance, and humanity.

2008_0825Berlin080016.jpgKäthe Kolwitz: ‘To the victims of War and Dictatorship’, Berlin

The main distinction between the World War ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ in their approach to Remembrance, is that the winners look back, to all that was. And the losers look forward, to what we should strive for. I think we need both. German WWII remembrance culture is a 365 days a year affair. Their memorials are visible and active reminders of the futility of war, loss, destruction, and discrimination, and they serve to help people learn from the past. Maybe, within the extraordinarily beautiful choreography and largely heart-expanding music (I’d personally prefer a little less of the Spielberg-esque sentimentality) of our Festivals of Remembrance, we too could include more of the gritty reality of war that Harry Patch, the last WWI veteran, knew all too well: “It was not worth it. It was not worth one, let alone all the millions.”

 

 

Standing in their footprints…

What is it that makes standing in the exact location of something historical, momentous or simply in the footprints of someone famous, so thrilling? Or horrifying? On Tuesday I was standing on a stage in the beautiful east coastal town of Aldeburgh ready to give one of my talks on Germany’s WW2 memorial culture when someone said, “You’re standing exactly where Bill Nighy stood last night”. It was tiny but there it was, a subtle tingle, a flutter of excitement. I like Bill Nighy and I liked knowing that I was so hot on his heels, talking in a venue in which he too had talked. But what’s really happening, what are our bodies or minds reacting to when we are in the presence even of such tenuous claims to fame or significance?

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This visceral reaction to places or objects that are linked to certain people or events has always fascinated me. The idea that the physical world can hold the memory of something or someone is not new. It is what lies behind the religious culture of relics and its modern day equivalence seen in the inflated profits that arise at auctions of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag or Princess Diana’s Versace dress. Holding my deceased father’s hairbrush is for me a way of feeling him close. People just do feel more strongly connected to other people via “things” or places.

IMG_0284.jpgscene of the Beer Hall Putsch, 1923

Three weeks ago I was in Munich, both to visit friends and cousins and to do research for my book about the long shadows of WW2. There is probably no other city in Germany in which visitors can bump so casually and frequently into the hefty pillars that supported the rise of Nazism. On a two-hour walking tour we visited the beer hall, scene of the famous 1923 Beer Hall Putsch; the site of the ‘Brown House’, now destroyed but then headquarters of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Worker’s Party); the Gestapo Headquarters; the Führerbau, now a Music School, where the 1938 Munich Treaty was signed by Western leaders in a hopeful attempt to halt Hitler in his tracks. And just outside the city, is Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, site of infinite suffering, cruelty and death and home to the infamous sign Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free).

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With my now well-trained imagination, I find it easy to superimpose the black and white photographs of the 1930s and 40s onto the vibrant, colourful scenes of contemporary Munich and bring them to life. The cobbled streets and stone walls of the massive buildings seem to whisper me some of their memories. I can ‘hear’ the synchronized march of Nazi boots, the cheers of jubilant crowds that once filled the vast squares. I can ‘see’ the bombed devastation behind the renovated facades. Nothing, however, prepared me for Nuremberg.

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It’s a medieval town, home to Albrecht Dürer, Kaspar Hauser… and the Nuremberg Rallies of 1923-38. I visited the Rally grounds with the now almost obligatory Information Centre, one of hundreds around the country casting an unflinching gaze on every aspect of Germany’s Nazi past. I walked past the unfinished Congress Hall where a young couple was posing in full wedding attire for a camera.

IMG_0574Nuremberg Congress Hall

I walked around the edges of the Zepplin Grandstand with its countless entrances enabling people to stream in with the greatest ease and fill it to maximum capacity. I walked along the now overgrown rows of stone seats that had once looked out onto the spectacle…

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and then onto the small platform from which Hitler had addressed the people.

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The scale of the place, the vastness of the now empty space bar a few parked lorries, it was nothing less than completely horrifying. I felt terror fill my body. I felt sick. I hurt from the ache of pure dread. Never have I stood in such a powerful place, the exact place from which Hitler had fired his deadliest poison arrows into the minds and hearts of ordinary Germans.

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The air echoed with his evil words disguised as virtue and full of empty promise; the space filled with the theatrical displays of military might. I could see the whole force of the Nazi movement in all its ugly, popular power. And for that moment, standing in that place, I understood it all. How it had happened. How it had worked so effectively. But far worse, I understood the hitherto unthinkable thought, that it could, one day, all happen again.

But it won’t, not it we don’t let it. Not if we don’t forget that it did.

 

 

Munich in March

A city in which the ruins of history survive to serve as warnings for the present and pointers to a different future…

German memorials honour the brave resistors of Nazism, unreservedly condemn the perpetrators, apologise to the victims and warn us all to remain vigilant so these things can never happen again.

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A video installation outside the former Nazi headquarters

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In honour of Georg Elser, who tried but failed to single-handedly blow up Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi leaders on 8th November 1939. Elser was held prisoner for five years and then executed in Dachau.

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A large open square with benches created in the heart of Munich in 1946, dedicated to remembering the reasons why the victims of Nazism were targeted: for their politics or religion, for their sexual identity, disabilities, race, for being Jewish or for not doing the Hitler salute…

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An eternal flame has been burning since 1985. A warning as much as a commemoration

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Dachau concentration camp, one of the first, started in 1933. Birdsong filled silence seemed to say what words can’t.

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Infront of the Staatskanzlei / State Chancellery…

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a memorial to Munich’s fallen soldiers in WWI. After WWII few if any memorials were built honouring Germany’s soldiers, but gradually inscriptions were added to remember the fallen and missing.

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Remembering Sophie Scholl, the 21 year old student, and the White Rose Resistance members who were arrested and executed for distributing anti-war leaflets.

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In memory of those citizens who risked their lives taking this alley in order to avoid walking past the Nazi Commemoration of the Beerhall Putsch, where it was obligatory to do the Nazi salute.

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Jewish memorial at Dachau

“Lest we forget”… what? Surely not just the fallen soldiers, but also the futility, waste, destruction and misery of war?

After my talks on Germany’s unique culture of ‘counter memorials’, I am often asked what I would do differently within our British culture of Remembrance. I am always reluctant to pass any kind of judgment on what is one of Britain’s most poignant occasions, for we are true experts in creating meaningful and visual spectacles of solemn ceremony, national pride and gratitude. But now, as the last witnesses of the two World Wars disappear, is it time to shift the emphasis of our remembrance culture from an almost exclusive focus on the fallen soldiers of those two wars to include a broader picture of the casualties and victims of war in general?

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The Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal seemed to think it is time, and this year asked the nation to Rethink Remembrance by recognising the sacrifices made by today’s generation too. I would go even further and shine a spotlight onto the ordinary women, children and elderly who are less obviously “heroic”, but no less brave, casualties of war. For they too pay the ultimate price. Then there are all those whose lives will be impacted for years to come by the losses of their soldier spouses, children or parents, plus the innocent victims of our wartime aggressions – the civilians of the enemy caught in the cross fire of our military strategies and sometimes dubious political decisions. And there are those who have been left physically or mentally scarred for life… who have lost homes, jobs, loved ones… the list is so long.

With our beautiful solemn rituals and sanitizing language, are we in danger of justifying war in a way that makes it an attractive option today? By calling all soldiers who died “fallen heroes” are we mis-using the words ‘heroes’ and ‘fall’, because thousands of them were just young men who were simply following orders to run into a storm of bullets and die a certain death as part of an ill-conceived campaign? Is that heroic, or could we now own the painful facts that it was a tragic misjudgment on the part of those in power with catastrophic results?

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Shrouds of the Somme, a moving new memorial by the artist Rob Heard, first displayed in Exeter and now on in Bristol, seems to me to get closer to the imagery and reality of war that can redress the gulf between the glory of victory and what in reality is generally a bloody, muddy mess. If our rhetoric could include a broader victim awareness along side our wholly justified practice of remembering and honouring those who died defending their countries, I wonder if we would be reminded of the futility, waste, destruction and total sadness of war and seek to avoid it with even more resolve ?

 

 

An abundance of plays at the Edinburgh Festival revealing the shadow side of the alpha male psyche

Two shows at this year’s Edinburgh Festival left me feeling… well, strange. One was about a male ex-prisoner, the other about a female victim of rape. Light, cheery subject matters for me as always, but actually, intense and personal story telling abounded.

The first play was Doubting Thomas, created by multi-award winning director Jeremy Weller. The listings said: Thomas McCrudden, a man with a tortured and violent past but with hope for a different future, tells his own complex and moving story about abandonment and the stress of being forced to take on multiple roles, in Thomas’s own words, “…none of which were me! When I was growing up, I wasn’t able to accept love, and that created not just a man without a conscience or empathy. It created a monster.” 

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I sat in the front row of the little theatre, on the same level as the actors. Extreme violence was played out at my feet – at one point I had to move them in order not to inadvertently become part of the script and another of Thomas’s victims. Then, at the end, Thomas faces the audience and tells us to ‘ignore people like me at your peril. If they are released without having changed, without having been really seen, they will come to get YOU’. And with a jab of his finger he pointed at me and a couple of others in the front row to emphasise his point.

To be honest he picked the wrong person to jab his finger at as, what he said has of course been part of my message for decades, albeit expressed differently. And “seeing” prisoners is an essential part of my work. But coming from him in the wake of his displays of all too realistic anger and violence, I found myself suddenly devoid of any feeling towards him or his story and was left with a sense of discomfort instead. Why though?

The next day I saw Fabric. A Guardian Review described it thus: Nancy Sullivan is completely engaging and utterly heart-breaking as Leah who grew up dreaming of marriage and who thought she had found her prince in Ben. Abi Zakarian’s script for this one-woman piece is beautifully observed and funny too. What initially seems to be a whip-smart contemporary version of an Alan Bennett Talking Head turns into something far darker as romance gives way to reality and Leah’s life is stained in many different ways. Clever set and sound design, too, in a show that brings dirty little male secrets out into the light.

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Again I was in the front row. This time the violence inflicted on her was alluded to through brilliant use of the stage sets and story-telling by “Leah”. But I still felt like I was right there with her as she was anally raped in a filthy toilet by one of her husband’s friends. The people I was with left raving about both plays, and they were both genuinely good, but also after this one, I left feeling numb.

“… as romance gives way to reality”. Is a woman’s original vision of her life really so “romantic” and “reality” really so brutal? Maybe it is and maybe that is why now, on reflection, I realise I am full, like a Hoover bag that cannot take in any more. Like a brain that has fused through overload, a suitcase whose lid cannot close. All rendered useless. The violence of men that fills the news stories – from Isis and Boko Haram, to the war in Syria and terrorist attacks; the widespread rapes and treatment of women; the sexual abuse of children in the refugee camps… Then there are the stories of greed, egos and abuses of power – Philip Green, Putin and Boris Johnson; the counter-intuitive decisions on our planet, health and general well-being made by our largely (in this current government) male politicians…

I am tired of hearing about yet another cock-up or atrocity as a result of the largely patriarchal structures and values that exist in so much of the world. I am tired of seeing the on-going neglect and abuse of so much of what it means to be female. Of course I am not painting “men” per se as violent perpetrators, scammers and dickheads, nor “women” as delicate, innocent victims. And maybe my involvement with prisoners (95% of which are male) naturally exposes me more. But, as a woman who likes to keep informed, I feel a genuine sense of despair at being constantly confronted with the shadow side of the alpha male psyche as it is played out on the world stage, and the stages of our land, with women, children, the elderly, vulnerable and sick paying the price.

I clearly need a holiday…!

Loss… just that. A little exploration of losing.

Since my father’s death exactly a year ago I have experienced an extraordinary storm of additional albeit unrelated losses in almost every area of my life. His death became like a bullet ricocheting around the architecture of my world felling furnishings and humans alike. I now look around me and see a distinctly changed landscape, a series of voids in the shapes of people, things, plans; a mini war zone of collapsed structures through which I find myself wandering dazed and dusty, functioning but exhausted.

What is Loss? The Oxford Dictionary definition says it is “the fact or process of losing something or someone”. As far as definitions go that really doesn’t say much. It makes loss sound so harmless, kind of accidental, the result of a moment of absent-mindedness or brief neglect. It imparts nothing of the potentially huge and devastating impact loss can have, nor of the vast range of subjective responses to it. It doesn’t suggest loss’s innate and prominent role in Life and Death, in war and crime, in love and faith – all existential foundation stones of our human world. Actually, linguistically, it seems massively over-ambitious to even try and cram everything, from loss of keys to loss of a child, into such a tiny, single word. The list of what we as humans can lose as we live our lives is after all infinite. Everything we have or value can disappear in an instant and become a loss: a parent, a friendship, a partner; money, work, an argument or a war. There’s the loss of a home, country, identity or liberty; of health, sight, face, or the ultimate loss – life.

2_BACON-1981.0001-Study-from-the-Human-Body.jpgFrancis Bacon: “Study from the Human Body” (1981), a painting of loss, that I feel beautifully depicts the crossing of the one-way threshold between Life and Death

Rarely is loss experienced as a positive. Loss of weight maybe, when it refers to excess, unwanted weight, or the loss of inhibitions when they are negatively impacting on us. Usually loss is associated with pain, sadness and disruption, each in varying degrees. Big losses knock you off balance, they precede and precipitate the wobbly journey of grieving, a period of forced transition out of which one can eventually emerge… changed.

For me, being lurched from one loss to another has been like being tumbled by a set of waves, never quite making it back onto the board before the next one breaks. In the beginning certain losses felt inconsolable, like entering a long dark tunnel without the proverbial light at the end; or bobbing in a black hole of emptiness. Maybe the o’s in loss and hole and void hint at that sense of absence. But recently I have noticed that loss brings with it a paradoxical gift in the form of its opposite: gain. I have learnt that, with time, the empty void becomes like fertile ground offering the potential for new growth. I saw this happen countless times in prison where prisoners, through making art, began to see possibilities even in the face of their huge loss of liberty. It seems there may be after all some truth in the words my dear friend loves to (mock-)quote from The Sound of Music: Where the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.

I haven’t worked with many terrorists during my prison years but there was one who for years I, and my class of eight male prisoners, called ‘Habibi’ – the word for ‘my darling’ as we later found out.

Behind every terrorist act is a human being with a grievance. Some will probably call me a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ for saying that, but one of the most important lessons I learnt from working and talking with countless criminals is that people themselves are not innately evil. Their deeds might be, but they themselves are not. That’s why many of the over-simplified, dualistic discourses in the recent ‘To bomb or not to bomb in Syria?’ debate really got under my skin. Action vs. Non-Action, Good vs. Evil, Right vs. Wrong…

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I have no first-hand experience of today’s terrorists (thank goodness) but in the nineties I did work closely with a Lebanese man awaiting trial for his major role in one of Germany’s biggest terrorist attacks in which five Kurdish politicians were blown up in a restaurant in Berlin in 1992. As a terrorist he was considered a potential danger and security hazard and kept in enforced isolation. So for him my art class became his only excursion from his cell. Why the authorities found it fitting to place him in my care when I myself was locked in the room with no beeper, no key, no guard, still puzzles me! He asked the group to call him Habibi, so obligingly we did. It was only many years later that I discovered that was the word for “my darling”.

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Back then you would have never associated Habibi (I will stick with that name for potential legal reasons) as looking like a typical terrorist. Today his big dark beard would possibly arouse an involuntary prejudice against a stereotype, but other than that he had smiling eyes, a polite and gentle demeanor and wore shorts and sandals. In an introductory exercise to my mural workshop I got the men to plant a painted seed into a painted earth and let it grow up into the (painted) sunlight. Habibi’s seed blossomed into a beautiful, expansive, healthy looking shrub with red flowers.

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He subsequently translated it onto the wall and then, with a newly found artistic confidence he painted another tree, and added birds. But these birds looked war torn with tatty feathers as if they were fleeing exploding bombs – the bombs that were tearing his country apart, or the bomb that he himself had helped plant? One bird painted with special care was sitting on a nest of five eggs. I couldn’t help but make a link to the five for whose deaths he was in part responsible.

One day Habibi entered the classroom looking like a freshly shorn sheep. He was trembling, in shock and somehow horrifyingly naked. I encouraged him to tell me, and subsequently draw, how he had come to lose the big dark beard that was both his religious and personal identity. This proved to be the trigger for a huge release of pent-up rage first against the prison guards, thirteen of whom had frog marched him out of his cell, chained him to a bed and, pinning him down, shaved off his beard. His rant didn’t stop there however. He raged on about the war in his country and how “they” were killing “his” children. He clearly felt his bombing activity to be justified. It was self-defense derived from a sense of total injustice and helplessness, a state in which he and his people were the victims not the perpetrators.

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Does this ring any bells? Is this not part of what is happening today – for both sides? Reacting to violence with violence perpetrates… well, more violence. And more innocent victims whose deaths need to be avenged. Of course it does, and as this progresses each side feels ever more justified in their violence. So when “taking action”, in itself a potentially positive thing, becomes synonymous with bombing and every other attempt to solve the problem is seen as taking no action, don’t our leaders too become advocators of the very eye-for-an-eye Old Testament mentality that we are trying to combat?

Armed with more national self-reflection, basic human psychology and a genuine will for peace, our leaders could become real leaders in their quest to find solutions for some of the worlds’ massive and complex problems. But for them to be that they need to act completely differently to the real terrorists.

 

 

 

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