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.

Peirene Stevns Translation Prize

Congratulations to Peirene Press and Martha Stevns for launching a new prize for fiction in translation. The prize is open to unpublished translators, and the winner will receive £3500 and a writer’s retreat in the Pyrenees. The focus of the first year’s prize will be the novel Neve, Cane, Piede by Claudio Morandini, already a bestseller in Italy but not yet translated into English. The winning translation will be publication in full by Peirene. The judges for the first year’s prize are the novelist Amanda Craig, the editor and translator Gesche Ipsen, and Peirene’s founder and publisher Meike Ziervogel.

Translation has never been more important: today’s climate of nationalism and closing borders makes it vital that we see beyond our parochial concerns, learn how people live elsewhere, and perceive the world through the lens of other cultures. It is also wonderful that the prize will enable a new generation of translators to continue the work of the late and sadly missed Anthea Bell in making the rich literatures of other countries accessible to Anglophone readers.

The winner will be announced on the 1st of March, and the residency will take place between the 18th May and the 20th July 2019.

Bridge Over Troubled Water


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I was delighted last week to receive a copy of A Country to Call Home, an anthology of specially commissioned short stories, poems and flash fiction responding to the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers. Edited, like its predecessor A Country of Refuge, by Lucy Popescu, it is published by the crowd-funding pioneers Unbound.

The brilliant array of contributors includes Hassan Abdulrazzak, David Almond, Moniza Alvi, Simon Armitage, Adam Barnard, Tracy Brabin, Tony Bradman, Sita Brahmachari, Eoin Colfer, Brian Conaghan, Kit De Waal, Fiona Dunbar, Miriam Halahmy, Peter Kalu, Judith Kerr, Patrice Lawrence, Anna Perera, Christine Pullein-Thompson, Bali Rai, Sue Reid, S.F. Said, Jon Walter and Michael Morpurgo. The former Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell has provided haunting illustrations for every piece, while the beautiful painting that forms the cover is by Haymanot Tesfa.

There are stories of home and of homesickness; about people trafficking and life in the refugee camps; about persecution and imprisonment; about prejudice, indifference and official inhumanity; and about the fortitude needed to survive these experiences.

Written for Alan Kurdi, the Syrian Kurdish boy whose body, washed up on the shore of Turkey, momentarily aroused the conscience of many in the UK, Kit de Waal’s ‘Did You See Me?’ imagines the dreams, aspirations and day-to-day reality that preceded a life lost at sea. Simon Armitage’s darkly poetic reworking of the passage in Virgil’s Aeneid on the crossing of the Styx evokes the grim sea journeys undertaken by many refugees, while Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Locked Up’ chillingly depicts the gratuitous brutality of the UK’s immigration officers.

Difference can be the source of richness: something to be celebrated, not feared

Brian Conaghan’s poem ‘Just Another Someone’, with its parallel voices juxtaposing the experiences of refugees from Nazi Germany with those of today’s asylum seekers, reminds us that exile is not a new phenomenon. The comparison is reinforced by Popescu’s interview with Judith Kerr, the celebrated author of the Mog stories and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, who came to this country as a child in the 1930s. Kerr’s recollection that ‘people were so kind to us during the war’ chimes with my own father’s experience, and makes one wonder what has happened to this country in the intervening decades.

Aimed at both children and adult readers, this courageous book counters the negative stereotypes propagated by some politicians and sections of the press to demonise the most vulnerable people on the planet, which is why I am proud to have supported it. Instead, it challenges us to look, to see, and to recognise our common humanity.

In his contribution to the anthology, S.F. Said, author of the best-selling children’s novel Varjak Paw, recalls his delight as a child reading Watership Down to discover that the mythical rabbit hero El-ahrairah had an Arabic name with which he could identify.

‘Children’s books can be bridges connecting people,’ he reflects, ‘showing them that however different someone else might be, the things that unite us are greater than those that divide us. And that difference can be the source of richness: something to be celebrated, not feared.’

A Country to Call Home: An Anthology on the Experiences of Young Refugees and Asylum Seekers is published by Unbound, price £9.99

When skylarks sang in Sydenham


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Recently, a charming little book I bought online arrived in the post. Illustrated with delightful engravings, W. Aldridge’s A Gossip on the Wild Birds of Norwood and Crystal Palace District (1885) was a collection of articles that had originally appeared in the Norwood Review. Inside the front cover is the bookplate of Camberwell Public Libraries Reference Section, and the title page bears the inscription ‘With Author’s Compts’. No doubt what are left of our public libraries have little use for such Victorian curios, but I was glad to repatriate the book to its south London birthplace.

A little research unearthed the facts that Aldridge was a cabinet-maker and upholsterer with premises on Westow Street, and keen amateur ornithologist; he judged the stuffed bird category at the Crystal Palace Bird Show in 1887. His book reveals this Norwood tradesman to have been a keen pipe-smoker, angler, painter and amateur taxidermist, well travelled – he had visited Paris, Holland, Switzerland, Norway and Prussia – well read, and a believer in a benign Creator; he quotes approvingly Izaak Walton’s remark on birdsong:

‘Lord, what psalmody hast Thou provided for Thy saints in heaven when Thou affordest bad men such music on earth?’

In all, he listed 51 species of birds, which he considered ‘a very respectable quantity for a suburb of London within a few miles of St. Paul’s’. The only raptors he reported were the ‘much persecuted’ kestrels, occasionally sighted hovering on the air currents between Westow Street and Beulah Spa, and on South Norwood Hill. One evening, smoking his pipe in a friend’s garden on Belvedere Road, he saw a barn owl glide silently over the ground.

He also reported rooks and jackdaws in the taller trees from Dulwich to Beulah Spa; green woodpecker in Sydenham Hill Wood; nightingales nesting in Sydenham Woods and at Elmer’s End; cuckoos, goldfinch and bullfinch in Grange Wood; redwing and fieldfare in winter between Central Hill and Beulah Spa; and skylarks in the open fields that still existed on either side of Wells Road between Sydenham Hill and Sydenham town.

‘The oldest inhabitant,’ he reported, recalled that thirty years previously there was ‘a small Heronry in the old Norwood woods’, the nests ‘as large as bushes, at the tops of trees’.

By August 1887, when Aldridge wrote to the London Standard to report the rare sight of a cormorant perched on the steeple of the Wesleyan chapel at Upper Norwood, his tally of birds had increased to 56 – though sadly I can find no record of the four intervening species.

Aldridge took a melancholy view of the future of bird life in the area. ‘In a few (very few) years,’ he wrote, ‘when, by the increase of population, Norwood will be a part of London, undivided by fields and hedges, most of the birds will have retired beyond our district, and be as extinct in Norwood as the Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus – nay, more so, for these monsters, or, rather, their restored figures may still remain in the [Crystal] Palace grounds…’

He was perhaps too pessimistic, underestimating the capacity of many species to adapt to urban conditions. While it is true that nightingales and skylarks have long since disappeared from the suburbs of southeast London, the swifts and swallows, thrushes, finches and tits have held out, while other species, absent in his day, have reappeared. In addition to kestrels, buzzards, sparrowhawks and hobbies patrol the skies over Sydenham Hill Wood; magpies, made scarce in Victorian times by persecution from gamekeepers, staged a recovery in the 1970s and are now ubiquitous; the green woodpecker has been joined by the great and – more rarely – lesser spotted varieties; and goldcrest and firecrest, absent from his list, are now frequent winter visitors.