Letters lost and found

Back in 2016, when I was researching Writers, Lovers, Soldiers, Spies: A History of the Authors’ Club of London, 1891–2016 for the Club’s 125th anniversary, I was surprised that we didn’t have more correspondence from the early period. It turns out that the reason was that Algernon Rose, the Club’s Secretary from 1908 to 1934, took much of it home with him.

In February of last year, the Authors’ Club received an email from a member of the public who had inherited a collection of letters addressed to Rose, offering to donate them to our archive. Naturally, we accepted. Arriving at the Club one evening in March, I was handed a Jiffy bag at the porters’ lodge. I waited until I got home to open it; inside was an old cardboard stocking box from Green & Edwards department store in the Finchley Road, containing far more letters than I had anticipated.

The signatories included Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, J. M. Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells and other notable writers of the period. Often candid and informal, they offer a fascinating glimpse of the personal and professional connections among writers in early 20th-century London.

Given the potential public interest in the letters, the Club has decided to publish a small book containing a full catalogue of the letters, with a narrative text by me explaining the circumstances of their composition and relating the extraordinary life and career of Algernon Rose, musician, author, journalist, world traveller and networker. The Foreword is by the eminent literary journalist and Authors’ Club President John Walsh.

Don’t miss the opportunity to own this piece of history – a handsomely printed and bound 76-page hardback with colour illustrations throughout, one of a numbered, limited edition of 200 copies – by contributing to our Kickstarter fund. We are already almost three-quarters of the way to raising the money needed to print the book..

Founded by Sir Walter Besant in 1891 to provide a congenial central London venue where authors could relax and socialise, the Authors’ Club was a home from home to many leading figures of English letters in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Its Presidents have included Thomas Hardy, J. M. Barrie and Compton Mackenzie, while Emile Zola, Mark Twain, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Veronica Wedgwood and T.S. Eliot were among the guest speakers to address the Club’s dinners.


Unpacking My Grandparents’ Books



It is one of life’s ironies that when we are young, and keen to establish our own identity and place in the world, we have little interest in the experiences of older generations; by the time we come to find their stories fascinating, it is often too late. I remember my paternal grand­parents as a rather severe elderly couple who, on their annual visits from Frankfurt, seemed to cast a pall of gloom over the household. After my parents’ divorce we lost contact, so I had little idea of who they really were or what they had experienced in the course of their eventful lives. Then, a few years ago, I inherited a small collection of books that had belonged to them. Along with some old photo albums and other family mementos, they revealed a rich inner life.

The family were originally from Breslau (now Wrocław in Poland) but moved to Dresden in 1922. My grandfather, Alfred Schüler, was working as a lawyer for a pharmaceutical company when, in September 1935, the political situation in Germany persuaded him to take his wife Hedwig and their younger son Andreas to Barcelona. After the Spanish Civil War broke out the following year, they were forced to move once again, to Genoa, where my father joined them in 1938. After a brief return to Spain in 1939, they obtained permission to emigrate to the USA, and for eleven years Alfred worked as a night auditor at the Hotel Plymouth in New York. In 1955 he was offered a position with the United Restitution Organization, the legal aid service set up to help victims of Nazi persecution seek financial compensation from the German government. They posted him to their office in Frankfurt am Main, where – one of the few Jews to resettle in Germany after the war – he worked until his retirement in 1973.

As I unpacked the books in our London flat, blew the dust from their tops and read the inscriptions and dates on the flyleaves, I became aware that each one embodied a narrative beyond the one printed on its pages in heavy German black-letter type; that of a cos­mopolitan literary and artistic culture that was obliterated in Germany by the rise of fascism but which, carried into exile, greatly enriched the wider world.

The family was not deeply observant, but here were the two vol­umes, bound in dark blue cloth, of my grandfather’s German-language Bible, with his signature on the flyleaf over the date, ‘1.12.1934 (Channukah)’. It seems astonishing today that nearly two years into the Nazi regime, the Hebrew scripture could still be published in Germany (by Kauffmann Verlag), with the authority of the Jewish community of Berlin. One of its editors, Harry Torczyner, had already settled in Palestine by the time it appeared, while his colleague Georg Salzberger – a relative of my grandparents who had won the Iron Cross at Verdun – was rabbi at the liberal Westend Synagogue in Frankfurt until 1937. After a year’s incarceration in Dachau, he was released and emigrated with his family to London, where he estab­lished the Belsize Square Synagogue.

From left: Three volumes of Stefan Zweig’s stories, Paul Heyse’s poems, my grandfather’s German-language Torah, and three volumes of Josephus’s ‘Jewish Antiquities’ andHistory of the Jewish War‘.

The perplexities of Jewish history were represented by a three-volume set of the works of Flavius Josephus, comprising his Antiquities of the Jews and History of the Jewish War. Translated by Dr Heinrich Clementz, they were published by Benjamin Harz of Berlin and Vienna in 1923.

My grandparents were avid readers of contemporary German literature. A three-volume set of Stefan Zweig’s novellas and short stories, with leather spines and marbled boards, bore my grandfather’s signa­ture on the flyleaf, along with the date 24 December 1930. By that time, the Austrian writer’s books could be found on the shelves of every educated German-speaking household. In this collection, tales written over many years were retrospectively assembled into a sequence Zweig called The Chain, in the manner of his hero Balzac’s Comédie humaine. I had discovered Zweig’s work for myself more than a decade earlier thanks to the championship of Melissa Ulfane at Pushkin Press and the superb translations of Anthea Bell (see SF no.6). In his haunting stories of dislocation and loss I found a world that seemed strangely familiar, like a half-remembered dream. I real­ize now that it was part of my cultural DNA.

Another household name at the time, though little remembered today, was Paul Heyse (1830–1914); a red clothbound three-volume set of his Poems (Berlin: Wilhelm Herz, 1901) had belonged to my grandmother. Heyse was an acclaimed poet, dramatist, novelist and short-story writer, whose verses were set to music by Schumann, Brahms and Hugo Wolf, and who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910.

Among the other major literary figures of the period, Thomas Mann was represented by his novella Mario and the Magician, a lovely little hardback from Fischer Verlag in a beautifully decorated slipcase. Between the pages was a bookmark from the Dresden book­seller G. A. Kaufmann, and on the flyleaf was pencilled the date 7.6.1930.

Soft maroon leather blocked with rich gold lettering encased a German translation (by H. Bock-Neumann) of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne. One of the most celebrated works of Danish fiction, and much admired by Thomas Mann, this 1880 novel tells of a young poet’s struggle to make sense of his existence. On the flyleaf, over the date ‘Am 26 Mai 1911’, was written a quotation from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

O my soul, I have given thee everything, and all my hands have become empty by thee – and now! Now sayest thou to me, smiling and full of melancholy: ‘Which of us oweth thanks? – Doth the giver not owe thanks because the receiver received? Is bestowing not a necessity? Is receiving not – pitying?’

Then there was an antiquarian curio, A Description and History of the Bastille during the Reigns of Louis XIV, XV and XVI, translated from the French and published by Herold Bros of Hamburg in 1790. The book was a gift to my grandfather from a friend: on the flyleaf was inscribed, ‘To my dear Dr Schüler, as a lasting memento of E. M. Simon, July 1933’.

‘The Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke‘, by Rainer Maria Rilke, published by Insel-Verlag in 1912

There were also many of the slim hardbacks produced by the Leipzig publisher Insel-Verlag which, according to Allen Lane, pro­vided the inspiration for the King Penguin format. Launched in 1912, the series was instantly recognizable by its stiff cardboard bindings covered with bold patterned paper, on to which a label was pasted bearing the author’s name and the title. Among my grandparents’ collection were the very first of the series, Rilke’s prose poem The Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s verse drama The Fool and Death and Zweig’s Decisive Moments of Mankind, a collection of five ‘historical miniatures’ ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to the California Gold Rush.

A selection of miniature books.

I was surprised by the number of miniature volumes my grandparents possessed, until it occurred to me that their portability enabled them to survive the frequent jettisoning of personal effects that must accompany a life in exile. They included a handful of tiny books from the Zwickau publisher Schumann Brothers’ ‘Portable Library of Italian Classics’: two marble-bound volumes containing Giovanni Battista Guarini’s The Faithful Shepherd (1819), along with one-volume editions of Giuseppe Parini’s satirical poem ‘The Day’ and Tasso’s Selected Poems (both printed in 1821). The Berlin publisher Friedberg & Mode’s ‘Théâtre Français’ collection contributed a miniature edition of Molière’s Le Malade imaginaire, while the English-language titles included a tiny Merry Wives of Windsor bound in orange leather and – between tartan boards – Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, both published by David Bryce & Sons of Glasgow.

It didn’t seem right to keep all these books myself – though I would hang on to the Zweig and a few others – so I posted some to my cousin in Hawaii, a painstaking and indefatigable researcher to whom I owe much of my knowledge of family history. Others, along with a couple of the photo albums, I decided to deliver in person when I next visited another cousin in Dresden. I took the Eurostar to Brussels, and then the Thalys train to Cologne, where I spent the night in an old-fashioned hotel overlooking the Rhine. Carnival was in full swing.

From Cologne, I travelled via Frankfurt, Fulda and Leipzig to Dresden; nearly thirty years after reunification, west–east train jour­neys in Germany can still be circuitous. As the train crossed the bridge over the Elbe, a Baroque symphony of cupolas and pinnacles unfolded. When I first visited, only a few stumpy towers arose from the blackened ruins; now, virtually the entire historic skyline has been recreated. My cousin met me at the Hauptbahnhof and drove me the short distance to her flat. After supper, I brought out the books, including several of the colourful Insel titles, and photo albums. My cousin and her husband were particularly captivated by the photos taken by my father on visits to them, which conjured back into being the lost world of the GDR: the street signs, the lampposts, the Trabants.

‘Monument’, by Manaf Halbouni in front of the Frauenkirche, Dresden. Photo: Thomas Skowron (Wikimedia Commons)

The next morning, we took the tram to the Altstadt. In front of the Frauenkirche, the great domed church destroyed in the Allied bombing raid of February 1945 and painstakingly reconstructed between 1994 and 2005, three red buses had been set on end. Used to ferry Syrian civilians from Aleppo before it fell to Assad’s forces the previous autumn, they now formed an installation by the artist Manaf Halbouni. Entitled Monument, it was a message from one war-ravaged city to another, and a stark reminder that the saga of exile and loss is far from over.

© C. J. Schüler 2022. This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 75, Autumn 2022.

The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach, Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary review magazine. Single issues from £12; annual subscriptions from £48. For more information please visit www.foxedquarterly.com

A Yorkshire cliffhanger


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White chalk cliffs descending to a blue sea at Bempton, Yorkshire
Bempton Cliffs, East Yorkshire. Photo © C.J. Schüler

For the past few years, we’ve taken a summer break at Bridlington, on the coast of the East Riding of Yorkshire. From the harbour, you can see a long line of white cliffs to the north. This is Flamborough Head, a lighthouse-topped promontory projecting into the North Sea, where the chalk hills of the Yorkshire Wolds crumble into the waves. On its north coast is the RSPB Reserve at Bempton Cliffs, home to one of the largest seabird colonies in mainland Britain.

Bempton station, a small halt on a single-track railway, is one stop from Bridlington. Bempton village, with its low, grey 13th-century church and White Horse pub, is a quarter of a mile to the north; the cliffs are a mile further, along Cliff Lane, a narrow, up-and-down road running between fields, bounded by hawthorn hedges. Its verges are fringed with cow parsley, nettles, celandine and herb-robert, and here and there the earth has been turned up by moles. A drift of feathers is evidence of a sparrowhawk’s lunch. Butterflies dance amid the roadside vegetation: ringlets flutter restlessly, while red admirals spread their wings on the path as if waiting to be admired.

On entering the reserve, you reach the cliffs across swaths of chalk grassland and scrub dotted with blue cranesbills, field vetch and bird’s-foot trefoil, that shelter tree sparrows, skylarks, linnets and small mammals such as stoats and weasels, while peregrines, kestrels and short-eared owls patrol the sky in search of prey. Several wooden observation platforms have been built along the cliff edge, which descends a dizzying 400 feet to the sea. There is nothing between here and the North Pole but water. The chalk is striated with horizontal lines of sediment and fissured with deep vertical crevices; in places it has fallen away leaving tall stacks and even an arch.

A razorbill (right) and puffin (left) on the white chalk cliff at Bempton.
A razorbill (right) and puffin (left) on the cliff at Bempton. Photo © C.J. Schüler

Along its ledges perch thousands of seabirds: herring gulls (Larus argentatus), kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis), puffins (Fratercula arctica), razorbills (Alca torda) and guillemots (Uria aalge), and – ruling the roost – gannets (Morus bassanus). The largest seabird in the North Atlantic, with a six-foot wingspan and formidable beak, they glide and bank above the waves like jet fighters, and manoeuvre on to their cliffside perches. The air is thick with their guttural cries, somewhere between the football rattle of a magpie and the churr of a nightjar. The juveniles are blotchy grey and black, which gradually fades until they reach maturity at five years, leaving only dark wingtips and the characteristic blond cowl on their heads.

Three puffins perch on the white chalk cliff at Bempton. To their right is a kittiwake.
Three puffins on the cliff at Bempton. To their right is a kittiwake. Photo © C.J. Schüler

The central viewing platform, Grandstand, offered a close view of a chalk outcrop, on which a small group of puffins perched near a hole in the rock that formed their burrow.

A puffin investigates its burrow in a hole in the chalk cliff.
A puffin investigates its burrow in the cliff. Photo © C.J. Schüler

Like razorbills and guillemots, they are members of the auk family, and spend most of the year at sea, only nesting in the cliffs in March or April to breed and rear their young. By the end of August they will have gone, shedding the bright orange covering of their beaks once the breeding season is over. All three auk species fly rapidly if awkwardly above the water, hunting for sand eels, their paddle-like wings – better adapted for swimming than flight – flapping frantically, in contrast to the few lazy, powerful wingbeats that propel the gannets into an elegant glide.

Many gannets sitting in the grass on top of the cliffs at Bempton, while others fly overhead
Gannets on the cliff at Bempton. Photo © C.J. Schüler

Near the easternmost platform, Staple Newk, a large colony of gannets were roosting in the vegetation at the top of the cliff, while others hovered above, jostling for position or snatching clumps of dry grass to build their nests. There is also a significant population of jackdaws, which swoop over the waves with the seabirds. They are not aquatic feeders, so I can only imagine that they do this purely for fun.

Despite their appearance, fulmars are not actually gulls, but related to albatrosses and petrels. Their name derives from the Old Norse fúll, meaning foul, and már, or gull, and refers to their habit of spitting a foul-smelling oily liquid when threatened. In the past two years they have been joined by an actual, black-browed albatross (Thalassarche melanophris).Blown thousands of miles off course from its natural habitat in the South Atlantic, it seems to have found a congenial home among the gannets, though it did not put in an appearance the afternoon I was there, to the disappointment of a small crowd of expectant birders armed with telephoto lenses the size of artillery pieces. For me though, the gannets and puffins were enough excitement for one day.

C.J. Schüler’s most recent book, The Wood That Built London: A Human History of the Great North Wood, is published by Sandstone Press, and is available in paperback from 1 September 2022.

Covid’s Metamorphoses


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The Covid-19 pandemic has been a disaster – but will it also be a lost opportunity?

An electronic display normally used for traffic management displays COVID19-related advice on an almost deserted street in Belfast city centre. Photo: Gerry Lynch/Wikimedia Commons

In the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was much talk that the necessary precautions would encourage us to rethink how we conduct our lives, and what we really value. Traffic noise subsided, birdsong rang out in cities, wild animals roamed town centres, and ecosystems began to heal. Aircraft noise all but disappeared, the sky was no longer criss-crossed with con trails, and air pollution was significantly reduced. Having learned that meetings and conferences can take place online, we would travel less. We would walk or cycle to work. We would value nature more.

A hundred days on and 55,000 dead, the soul-searching, the solidarity, the ‘Blitz Spirit’ and the applauding of health workers have crumbled. Politicians bluff and bluster, the streets are as busy with traffic as ever, while large swaths of the public behave like toddlers throwing a tantrum because Mummy and Daddy won’t let them play outside, crowding into parks and on to beaches, strewing them with litter and defecating into Styrofoam takeaway boxes.

It’s beyond my understanding. I’ve been no further than the local shop in three months, and do you know what? It’s perfectly OK. ‘All of humanity’s problems,’ wrote Blaise Pascal in the 17th century, ‘stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ Sadly, it seems that many people lack the patience, the imagination or the inner resources to heed his advice.

Last week, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that ‘our long national hibernation is beginning to come to an end’, despite the reservations of the government’s own medical advisors. In the interests of reviving the economy, ‘non-essential’ shops and pubs will reopen and restrictions on holidays abroad will be eased – if you can find anywhere willing to admit a horde of drunk, disorderly and potentially disease-ridden Brits. This week Johnson announced his ‘New Deal’ under the slogan ‘Build, build, build’. Aside from the fact that the sum available was widely criticised as inadequate, it was typical, pre-Covid hard-hat thinking, promising to relax planning laws with a jibe at ‘newt-counting delays’.

While the construction and airline industries are considered too important to fail, arts organisations are forced to make sweeping redundancies, with some facing closure. Last week Sir Simon Rattle, conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, the violinist Nicola Benedetti, the trumpeter Alison Balsom and the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason had an online meeting with the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to discuss the perilous situation of the UK’s orchestras. These world-renowned musicians got just 40 minutes – does the DCMS budget not run to a professional Zoom subscription? – and received little in the way of reassurance.

The arts contributed £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy, and £2.8 billion to the Treasury through taxation last year, though our government clearly considers the sector even more ‘non-essential’ than, say, scented candles. But then philistinism is deep-rooted in the British public, and Johnson is adept at playing to the gallery.

Meanwhile, the Arctic is on fire, scientists have warned that UK temperatures could reach 40C regularly by end of the century, and a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has concluded that a historic disregard for the destruction of nature has left Britain ‘acutely vulnerable’ to its effects and entirely unready to meet the challenge.

Of course we need to save jobs, but in the longer term we need to think hard about what sort of jobs we should be creating. Last autumn, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern challenged the tendency to measure success by economic growth and GDP. ‘Economic growth accompanied by worsening social outcomes is not success,’ she told the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. ‘It is failure.’

We need to find a better way of ensuring the health of the economy than persuading us to go on buying more and more stuff we don’t actually need, and taking three or four foreign holidays a year.

The Covid-19 crisis has been described as a huge opportunity to rethink the way we organise society. But on the present evidence, I fear it will be a missed opportunity. The best I can manage is Gramsci’s ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.

But when the so-called developed world really begins to feel the effects of climate change, Covid-19 will look like, well, a walk in the park.

To Hell With Community


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‘Big skies and tough people’: Grant Wood’s American Gothic, 1930 (Public Domain)

In his maiden speech to the House of Commons on 29 January, Danny Kruger, the newly elected Conservative MP for Devizes, extolled the virtues of tradition, Christianity, patriotism and strong local roots.

‘Brexit is about more than global Britain,’ he argued. ‘It is a response to the call of home. It reflects people’s attachment to the places that are theirs… The main actor in our story is not the solitary individual seeking to maximise personal advantage… [it] is the local community.’

With its lyrical evocation of his Wiltshire constituency’s ‘big skies and tough people’, the speech has been hailed as heralding a new ‘post-liberal’ politics. But when he goes on to say that ‘We are children of God, fallen but redeemed,’ it sounds not so much post-anything as pre-modern. There’s nothing new about the rhetoric of blood and soil, either: it is just what Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński have advocated in Hungary and Poland – not to mention a few other politicians in the first half of the 20th century.

Red Tories and Blue Labour

Nor is the reaction against modern liberal values, and nostalgia for the sense of security afforded by old-fashioned communities, new in British politics. Communitarianism is an idea that first gained traction in the 1990s in response to the effects of economic neoliberalism. Since then, the idea has been co-opted by politicians of all shades. David Cameron was once taken with the ‘red Tory’ ideas of Phillip Blond, while Jeremy Corbyn’s election defeat last December, and the attendant loss of the party’s northern heartlands, has given new impetus to the ‘Blue Labour’ faction championed by Frank Field, David Goodheart and Stephen Kinnock.

In a post on Unherd last year, the clergyman and columnist Giles Fraser argued that social mobility was the enemy of social cohesion and the family itself; people should stay in their home towns to take care of their elderly parents rather than expecting the state to do it.

The New Statesman, meanwhile, found a poster boy in the French urban geographer and social commentator Christophe Guilluy.  Sympathetic to the gilets jaunes and to Brexit, Guilluy makes some valid points about growing economic inequality and the way people on ordinary salaries are being priced out of the city centres, but there is a chilling undercurrent to his ideas which, though he writes from a left perspective, has found favour with Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement Français

Know Your Place

Theresa May, in her notorious speech to the Conservative Party Conference in 2016, asserted that ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’ Leaving aside the fact that this was rich coming from someone whose husband was a former fund manager for Deutsche Asset Management and that, having just done my annual accounts, I find the idea that I am part of some international elite pretty laughable, why on earth shouldn’t I feel more in common with a creative, broad-minded artist or entrepreneur from Lisbon or Ljubljana than with some wilfully ignorant old bigot who happens to have been born down the road from me? Freedom of association – to choose the people with whom you wish to make common cause – is protected by Article 11 of the Human Rights Act.

Traditional communities are invariably viewed through a lens of sepia-tinted nostalgia: ‘You used to be able to leave your door open round here,’ ‘A neighbour would always pop round to see if you were all right…’ ‘Robbed of their most go-ahead young people,’ Fraser lamented, ‘working class communities become ghost towns.’ What he omitted to mention is that there is a push factor away from such communities, as well as a pull factor towards the cities, which forces anyone with any get-up-and-go to… well, get up and go. As Lou Reed and John Cale put it in Songs for Drella, their elegy for Andy Warhol, ‘There’s only one good thing about a small town, You know that you want to get out.’

Close-knit communities, where everyone knows your business and thinks they know your place, can be oppressive, an impenetrable fortress against those outside and a prison for those within. They preserve themselves by the exclusion of others – those who look different, act differently, and think differently. They enforce social conformity and punish those who step outside their norms through stigma, ostracism and abuse, stifling enterprise, creativity and social mobility. Try being LGBT or an unmarried mother in one of these warm-hearted, neighbourly societies. Immigrants are seen as a threat, and Jews will never really belong. No wonder that since the Second World War young people have fled these communities in huge numbers, not just to seek work or to go to university, but simply to be themselves, free of wagging fingers and twitching curtains.

Freedom of the City

How many people, having moved to the big city to escape the censorious tongues of the Ena Sharples of this world, actually live in a state of alienation and anomie, as if there were no moral values? In my experience the great majority are as concerned and caring as their forebears – if not more so. But their values, and the objects of their concern, have evolved. They care less about people’s ethnicity or sexual orientation and more about whether someone is unhappy or in need. This is as is should be, and our world is the better for it.

Of course we all need communities of some sort, but I would argue that we need more open, tolerant, flexible and inclusive communities. Such communities may be local, but they may also transcend locality, based on a shared interest, workplace, voluntary association or leisure activity. Those who – bewildered and threatened by the complex choices of the modern world – wish to force us back into foetid, claustrophobic small-town lives are choosing passivity over progress, comfort over courage, fear over hope.

Do we seriously want to go back to the world of Angela’s Ashes, to huddle together in the frowsty warmth of the extended family, with its rancid stew of frustrations and resentments bubbling away for generations? Do we want to go back to a world of curtain-twitching, suspicion and malice, where decent, ordinary men lived in fear of blackmail, imprisonment and ruin because of their sexual orientation, where healthy women were locked up in mental hospitals for having children outside marriage? Where’s the humanity and compassion in that?

So, two cheers for heartless Western individualism. Of course the modern city can be a lonely place, and our competitive society can be unforgiving to those who fail. People’s lives are still too much determined by their background. But that is not because we have gone too far in our pursuit of individualism and social mobility. It is because we have not gone far enough.

What our ‘lonely’, ‘alienated’, ‘atomised’ society offers – as no other has done – is the opportunity for people to escape the stultifying expectations of their families and communities, to use their talents to the full and to forge their own destinies. It’s called progress, and we should never, ever apologise for or be ashamed of it.


Remembering Deborah Orr


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One of the most striking passages in Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk describes the memorial service for her father, a press photographer, at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street. The scene resonated with me: although the press has long since decamped from the area, Wren’s wedding-cake church remains its spiritual home, to which we return when one of our number has died. I was there just a few months ago, when the place was packed with journalists from the Guardian and the Independent who had come to remember our friend and colleague Simon Ricketts.

Now, on the journalists’ altar, there stands a tribute to another departed friend: the brilliant Scottish writer, editor and columnist Deborah Orr, who died a fortnight ago of cancer, just a few weeks after her 57th birthday.

As the tributes poured in, it became clear that many people who had never met her felt that they knew her through her columns, and her rebarbative comments on Twitter, where she had more than 62,000 followers. In a way, they were right, because the woman and her writing were of a piece: fiercely intelligent, sharply funny, disconcertingly honest and deeply humane.

I had the privilege of sub-editing Deborah’s column in the Independent for several years, and her professionalism made work a pleasure. She filed beautifully crafted copy, on time, and usually slightly over-length because, as she said, it was easier to cut than to fill, so she always included a few lines that could easily be removed without injury to her argument. I soon learned to tell which they were.

Her professionalism wasn’t just a matter of taking pride in her work, though she had more grounds to do so than most. It was born out of consideration for her colleagues. She knew we were under pressure, and no columnist was so important that they could turn in a shoddy job and expect others to tidy up after them.

Having been an editor herself, she thoroughly understood the mechanics of production journalism, and was never precious or defensive about her copy. She once told me that she never read her articles in print because life’s too short (ah, who could have known?) to worry that someone had moved a comma. It was a fib, but kindly meant – she was letting us know that she trusted us with her words.

Deborah was a model of journalistic integrity. In 2007, she steadfastly refused to join the voyeuristic media frenzy over the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, despite pressure to do so. In the absence of further evidence, she wrote, ‘These commentaries add nothing to anyone’s understanding of what has happened, or to anyone’s sense of what might happen differently in future, because they do not educate, inform or entertain – except, perhaps, the dissociated or the ghoulish among us.’

A few days later, a duty editor came up to me and asked if I found Deborah difficult to work with. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Why?’ Apparently he had phoned her on her day off, when she was in Selfridges looking for a birthday present for one of her sons, to ask her to write just such an article. She had given him a piece of her mind.

In the spring of 2008, she was sent to Afghanistan to write a feature on the country’s rug-makers, who were incorporating symbols of modern warfare into their traditional designs. I remember her storming into the newsroom on her return, furious that the photographer she’d been assigned had insisted that it was too dangerous to travel to the carpet-weavers’ village and that she, as a mother, should not put herself at risk by going. Her rage at his sexism in using her motherhood as a smokescreen for his cowardice, as she saw it, and the fact that he had endangered the lives of the weavers by obliging them to travel to Kabul for the interview, was volcanic.

Deborah did a magnificent – and magnificently funny – impression of being a cynical, hard-bitten hack. You could compile a book of her withering put-downs. I remember the (then) rising young star of the Indy Comment desk standing by my computer wondering why, when (for once) he had written only the 850 words asked of him, his copy was still over-length. Deborah stalked over and said, ‘Not a lot of people know this, Johann, but there are short words, medium words and long words. And 850 long words take up more space than 850 short ones.’

Colleagues who did not know her that well sometimes fell for this act and found her intimidating, even scary. Behind that seemingly fierce exterior, however, she was the kindest of people and the most loyal of friends. Since she died, I have found myself recalling her many small – and not so small – acts of kindness towards me, and I know that many friends and colleagues have similar memories of her.

In March 2009, I agreed to take redundancy from the Independent. I had been there ten years, had other projects I wanted to pursue, and I suspected that the generous severance package would not remain on the table much longer. (It didn’t.) Less than an hour after the redundancies were announced, the phone rang. It was Deborah. Was I all right? How did I feel about it? What was I planning to do next?

My leaving do took place at the Gun, an old riverside pub on the Isle of Dogs. Deborah wasn’t in the office that day, so she came all the way from her home in southwest London to be there. We sat out on the terrace, overlooking the great bend in the River Thames and the O2 dome on the opposite bank, talking. As was the custom, I had put money behind the bar, and she insisted, very forcefully, on contributing. Naturally I refused, but when I finally crawled out of bed the next day I found, in the top pocket of my jacket, a crisp, neatly folded £50 note, which she must have put there when I wasn’t looking.

Gore Vidal famously remarked, ‘Every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies.’ Deborah was the exact opposite. She wanted her friends to succeed and be happy, and would go to great lengths to help make it happen. She was there to cheer them on when it did – and to commiserate when things didn’t go so well.

It is all the sadder, then, that she did not live to celebrate the publication of her memoir Motherwell: A Girlhood, which will appear in January. Fortunately her publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, printed advance copies, so she was able to see and hold the book, and take pleasure in the glowing early reviews by Tracey Thorn in the New Statesman and Caroline Sanderson in The Bookseller. Her last-ever tweet was a photo of that double-page spread, with the message, SO HAPPY!

Deborah’s creativity, charisma and rare gift for friendship blaze through the moving tributes by Suzanne Moore in the Guardian, Simon O’Hagan in the Independent, and Louisa Young on Radio 4’s Last Word. Her untimely death leaves an aching void in British journalism, and in the hearts of her many friends.


There is no such thing as ‘The People’. Only people


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Within minutes of the Supreme Court ruling that the Prime Minister’s prorogation of Parliament was unlawful, the hard-core Brexiters predictably swung into action, brandishing their favourite slogan, the ‘Will of the People’. Leave.EU launched a digital campaign of personal attacks on individual Supreme Court judges, while the columnist and clergyman Giles Fraser posted on Twitter that ‘The establishment will do everything in its power to frustrate the will of the people. These are dark days indeed.’

Dark days, perhaps, but not in the sense Fraser means. It would seem that Boris Johnson and his puppet master Dominic Cummings are gambling that a sufficient number of voters will applaud him for cutting though red tape and pettifogging legalistic objections to ‘just get on with it’ and implement the ‘Will of the People’. Despite the judgment, they may well succeed. A Hansard Society survey recently found that 54 per cent of voters agreed with the statement, ‘Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules’.

We’ve seen it all before, of course, with the Daily Mail’s notorious 2016 front page that branded High Court judges as ‘enemies of the people’ after they ruled that the government needed the consent of Parliament to invoke Article 50. Since then, we have heard a great deal about the ‘Will of the People’.

I am deeply sceptical about the very existence of such a thing as ‘The People’, a homogenous mass with one will. This is the language of totalitarianism: of Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong. Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer. When James Madison and his colleagues began the preamble to the US Constitution with the words “We the People’, they didn’t include the slaves on their Virginia plantations. They didn’t qualify as people.

If Brexit is the ‘will of the people’, what does that make those who oppose it? Unpeople?

But then the phrase ‘the people’ has always been exclusive. It means ‘people like us’.  If Brexit is the ‘will of the people’, what does that make those who oppose it? Enemies of the People? Unpeople? Untermensch? Modern representative democracy is not the same as crude majoritarianism. The philosopher John Stuart Mill made this clear back in 1859, in On Liberty:

  • The will of the people, moreover, practically means, the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this, as against any other abuse of power.

You cannot have a healthy society when almost half the electorate – or any sizeable minority – is effectively disenfranchised. That is why it was necessary to have a power-sharing agreement to end thirty years of bloody civil conflict in Northern Ireland, where a slim majority was able to overrule a large minority for decades. Modern democracy cannot be a matter of winner-takes-all. It depends on a complex system of checks and balances such as parliamentary procedure, an independent judiciary and the rule of law– the checks and balances that Johnson and his supporters deride as arcane, legalistic pettifogging.

It will come as a surprise to some to learn that the function of a representative democracy is not to enact the ‘will of the people’. That way totalitarianism lies. Its function is to reconcile the conflicting interests of as many people as possible. MPs are not delegates, mere mouthpieces for the views of their constituents, however ill-informed, prejudiced or contradictory.

MPs are representatives. Their job is to represent the interests of all their constituents, not just the majority

They are representatives, and their job is to represent the interests of all their constituents, not just the majority, not just the ones who voted for them, and certainly not just the most vociferous. Sometimes the interests of different groups may conflict, and then MPs must exercise their judgement as to how far the interests of one group may be satisfied without too much detriment to those of another.

That, on a much larger scale, is what is meant to happen on a national level. The results will not always be popular. They will not be exactly what anybody wants, but what most people are least unhappy with. No unicorns, no sunlit uplands, no utopia. Just the patient, tedious horse-trading that keeps society functioning tolerably well and prevents us from killing one another.

If the result of a referendum defined as advisory by the legislation that established it can be considered a mandate for anything, a narrow majority of less than 52 to 48 percent can only be a mandate for a middle course.

That may not be good for the blood pressure of the ‘just get on with it’ brigade, but sounding the car horn repeatedly doesn’t get the traffic moving. Life is complicated. Get used to it.

There is no such thing as ‘The People’; only people, in all their maddening, exhilarating diversity.

The Unbearable Lightness of Brexit


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I have been struck recently – somewhat belatedly, I admit – by a curious aspect of the campaign to leave the European Union: a refusal to take seriously things that are demonstrably serious, creating an air of almost hysterical frivolity in the tradition of ‘Up Yours Delors’, ‘Allo ‘Allo and the Carry On films. A consistent theme in the rhetoric of Leave campaigners, for example, has been to compare the European Union to a totalitarian state or occupying power. For Jeremy Hunt, it was the USSR; For others, it was the Third Reich; and most recently, they have invoked the Chinese crackdown on the democracy protests in Hong Kong. The political and moral irresponsibility of such comparisons is only matched by the disrespect for those who have lived, or are still living, under real political oppression. But of course, it’s a figure of speech, an exaggeration, a joke. Where’s your sense of humour?

Who Do You Think You’re Kidding, Mr Juncker?’

Another comparison trundled out ad nauseam is the Second World War, the Blitz, Dunkirk… We heard it from Theresa May in her negotiations with the EU last April, prompting the Danish PM to whistle ‘We’ll Meet Again’. Back in 2017, Michael Howard even suggested that Britain would be prepared to go to war with Spain over Gibraltar. Those who wish to remain in the EU have been branded traitors, and just last week, Boris Johnson accused MPs seeking to avoid a no-deal Brexit of ‘collaboration’ with the EU. Collaboration? We are not – yet – at war with our European neighbours, as far as I know.

Here again, the lack of proportion and self-awareness would be astounding had we not been drip-fed this nonsense for decades. Few people who actually experienced the horrors of the Second World War wanted to relive them; even half a century later, many could not bring themselves to talk about it.

The sabre-rattling reached a new decibel level in an article by Rod Liddle in The Times  last week, arguing that ‘a peaceful, easy life hasn’t made us happy,’ and that war ‘increases social cohesion and integration’. Liddle is of course a professional wind-up merchant, and it wouldn’t do to take him too seriously, but he shrewdly tapped into a strain in the Leaver mentality, which might best be summed up by Samuel Johnson’s observation that ‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ Not all the Doctor’s contemporaries would have agreed; John Scott of Amwell certainly didn’t.

Oh! What a Lovely War

But perhaps we have grown bored with 75 years of peace and prosperity, and forgotten how lucky we are. It has happened before. Until now, the longest interval of peace in Europe was from 1871 to 1914, when the imperial rivalries of Britain and France, Russia and Germany were fought out in far-off places at the expense of far-off people. It seems inconceivable now, in the knowledge of the catastrophe that followed, but towards the end of that period, people started to tire of peace and yearn for war. Politicians, the press and artists such as the Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti began to argue that society had grown decadent, and that war would be cleansing, heroic and regenerative. As the title of a pamphlet published by Marinetti in 1909 put it, war is ‘the world’s only hygiene’.

Melodramatic stuff, but there is a strong element of narcissism, self-regard and self-pity to the current national psychodrama. ‘There seems to be an ingrown psychological thing about it,’ the writer Lawrence Durrell noted in an interview with the Paris Review  as long ago as 1959. ‘You can see it reflected even in quite primitive ways like this market business now – the European Common Market. It’s purely psychological, the feeling that we are too damned superior to join this bunch of continentals in anything they do.’

We don’t seem to have advanced much since then. The idea that we could be an ordinary, decent, middle-ranking country on amicable terms with our neighbours, sitting on boring committees painstakingly working out the humdrum details of food standards, workers’ rights, fishing quotas, Regional Development Grants and the Common Agricultural Policy – let alone the huge challenge of climate change – is just not grand, glamorous or exciting enough for the Leaver ego.

Carry On England

Instead, ever since the referendum campaign, Leavers have called for a return to Britain’s ‘buccaneering spirit’. Let us think for a moment what this actually means. The Collins English Dictionary defines a buccaneer as ‘a pirate, esp. one who preyed on the Spanish colonies and shipping in America and the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries’. Buccaneering, then, is simply a romantic word for demanding money with menaces. Is this how a supposedly civilised country ought to conduct itself in the modern world? Even taken metaphorically, it glorifies a predatory mode of doing business that would not meet any current standards of ethics and corporate governance.

But then it’s not meant to be serious. Just like the Irish border isn’t serious, the shortage of medicines isn’t serious, the haemhorrage of capital and skilled workers isn’t serious, the spike in hate crimes isn’t serious. British pluck will see us though. Chin up, what ho!

Of course, some of the actors in this farce are serious – deadly serious. For Vladimir Putin, Steve Bannon, Arron Banks and the financial speculators who have already made fortunes short-selling the falling pound and the shares of struggling British businesses, this is a cold, calculated exercise in self-interest. But what characterises their cheerleaders and puppets, the little men like Nigel Farage, Mark Francois and yes, Boris ‘Bananas’ Johnson, is the fundamental lack of seriousness of their Carry-On vision of history. But they will not be the ones to suffer the consequences of their jolly japes.

From Generation unto Generation


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Kim Sherwood: Testament (Riverrun)

Joseph Silk, a world-famous painter, has died. His grand-daughter Eva, the custodian of his legacy, travels to Berlin, where the Jewish Museum has obtained a questionnaire – the testament of the title – that the young József Zyaad, as he then was, completed on his release from a concentration camp.

But having reinvented himself on arrival in postwar Britain, Silk had no desire to revisit his traumatic past – a stance that brought him into bitter conflict with his Zionist brother László, who devoted his life to memorialising the Shoah.

Moving skilfully between past and present, London, Budapest and Berlin, Testament is a hugely ambitious first novel. So assured is its control, so rich its frame of reference, and so sensitive its handling of unspeakable horror, that is hard to believe it is a debut, let alone the work of an author under 30. The prose is spare, precise, elliptical and richly evocative, and has a resonance and power that makes much contemporary fiction seem flat and lifeless on the page.

The novel is clearly founded on extensive research: into the Hungarian labour divisions of the Second World War, the Lake District refuge for young Holocaust survivors who became known as the ‘Windermere Boys’, the ‘University of the Ghetto’ that flourished at the Passmore Edwards Library in London’s East End, and the groundbreaking 1945 exhibition of American Abstract Expressionists at the Whitechapel Gallery next door. Yet however fascinating in itself, the historical background always supports and drives the narrative forward, and is never allowed to overwhelm it.

There are, perhaps inevitably, echoes of Sebald, particularly The Emigrants, which also deals with a painter-survivor, and Austerlitz, which is haunted by the ghosts of Theresienstadt, but Testament is a strikingly original achievement with its own singular insights.

With great psychological acuity, the narrative explores fundamental issues of identity, survivor guilt, and the way trauma extends down to the second and third generations. As Eva’s search for the truth leads her inexorably towards her estranged and embittered father John, we discover how he in turn was damaged by all that remained unspoken in the shadow of his father’s overpowering personality and unhealed psychic wounds – and a startling family secret is revealed.

Carless Whispers


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I’ve been without a car now for more than a year. After I discovered that the new catalytic converter needed to make my ageing Chrysler PT Cruiser roadworthy again would cost more than the vehicle was worth, I decided it was time the old charger was put out to grass. I’m glad it went to a good home – a nice chap from Wanstead who converts them into customised off-road rally cars – rather than a breaker’s yard.

I thought about getting a replacement, but as the weeks turned to months, I realised I was managing perfectly well without one. I had rarely driven into central London, as parking – if you can find a place – is prohibitively expensive, and as of 8 April, my car would have been subject to the new emissions levy, in addition to the congestion charge.

Most of my car journeys were short local runs that I could have made on foot or by public transport. And if I need a motor for a weekend jaunt, I can rent one for less that it used to cost me to park outside our house for a year.

Of course I miss the car occasionally, especially waiting for a bus on a cold, rainy night. The sense of movement within a space that’s your own, the power of the 2-litre engine, the lights glowing on the dashboard, the radio, the comfortable seat with the armrest down…

But there are compensating benefits. You can’t read while driving, as you can on public transport. Walking, or travelling by bus, you notice things you wouldn’t from behind the wheel; snatches of conversation, street markets, curious architectural details, ghost advertisements fading on walls, small signs of the changing seasons…

And then there is the financial saving: insurance, road tax, MOT, servicing, repairs, AA membership, petrol and parking permits added up to something in the region of £2000 a year. That was a significant burden lifted.

Nor could I ignore the environmental impact of driving: the carbon emissions, the air pollution, the contamination of soil and groundwater by fuel and particulates, the flooding caused by people paving over front gardens to create off-street parking, and the hideous mess that traffic congestion has made of our towns.

To escape from the computer, get some exercise in the open air, and do something to help the environment, I volunteer once a week at a local nature reserve. I could hardly be unaware of the irony of driving the 4km there and back.

Now I get the train. It’s just two stops, and takes only five minutes, followed by a pleasant 1km walk through the woods from the station to the containers where the volunteers meet, so I’m getting some exercise before I even start work.

Of course, it is easy to manage without a car if you live in a major city with decent public transport. A fascinating map posted on Twitter by David Ottewell, head of data journalism at Reach, shows the proportion of commuters across the UK who drive to work compared to those who walk, cycle or use public transport. It’s very revealing: outside the big cities, most people drive.

They don’t really have much choice. Public transport in rural areas, and on the margins of our smaller towns and cities, is sparse, infrequent and unreliable. If we want to persuade people to be less dependent on cars, we need to provide viable alternatives.