Andre Schwaz-Bart (2001 [1959]) The Last of the Just.

last of the just.jpg

I heard about this book in a kind of roundabout way. Richard Holloway had given a reading at Dalmuir Library and this was one of the books he said he re-read every few years. Well, that was good enough for me. I finally got around to reading The Last of the Just and was not disappointed.

Where is God? That is the question this book asks. In the final chapter, the narrator of the biography of Ernie Levy, the last of the just men, is in a sealed freight car travelling from Drancy to Auschwitz. He cradles a living corpse the body a young boy. A fellow passenger, a doctor, who is doing her best to relief the suffering of the children digs her fingernails into Ernie’s flesh and tells him the child is dead.   He rocks the child’s body, insists the child is merely sleeping.

‘Madame,’ he said finally, ‘there is no room for truth here.’

Where is God?  March 11, 1185 in the old Anglican city if York, Bishop William of Nordhouse sermonises and shouts to the mob below: ‘God’s will be done’.  Mobs have arms and legs and one voice and what has become, through the ages, a familiar refrain: Kill the Jews.

Rabbi Yom Tov Levy, one of the Just Men, gathered his followers and urges them to commit suicide: ‘God gave us life. Let us return to him by our own hands…’

Familiar lamentations. ‘ “When an unknown Just [Man] rises to heaven,” a Hasidic story goes “he is so frozen that God must warm him for a thousand years between His fingers before his soul can open itself to Paradise.”’

Is God a lullaby? Prayer books and Talmudic texts littered the Levy house in Stillenstadt. The infant Ernie learns his prayer at the feet of his ancient grandfather and Just Man, Mordecai, who has fled the pogroms in Zemyock, and followed his son, Benjamin, into the safety of Germany, Nazi Germany. There is no telling on which male child God will bestow his blessing and consolation of becoming a Just Man. He works in mysterious ways.

Is God a dream? Ernie seems to think so. The delicate little blonde girl, Fraulein Ilse, his classmate, who looks like a picture of a medieval princess, he gets to kiss and kisses him back. A Judas kiss.

Does God stand outside Drancy? Paris offers respite and God seems to be smiling on the Levy’s. Nazi Germany has been left behind. Even Grandfather Mordecai finds work and they have enough to eat and the French pastries are to die for. But Nazi Germany follows the Levy’s to Paris. Ernie a Jewish German joins a foreign division of the French army to fight against Germany, the country of his birth. He is one of the few survivors. God, he believes, has given him more lives than a cat. For a time, he imagines himself a dog and eats only raw meat. His marriage to Golda lasts but one night. He presents himself at the gates of Drancy, as a Jew, demanding entry. His love has no end.

Does God exist? Ernie cradles Golda’s broken body in the boxcar on the way to the concentration camp. His voice is a consolation to the children and his fabulous tales of the kingdom that will come, a balm to their spirit. When Doctor Mengele tries to send him right, he corrects the medic, he will go left with the broken and the old and those who do not want to die and demand the lie that the shower heads contain water. ‘Breathe it in,’ Ernie tells them. The last of the Just does not need to know that God exists, he needs to know suffering exists and he too must endure it and be broken too.

Advertisements

The Vietnam War BBC 4, iPlayer, Directors Ken Burns and Kym Novik, Writer Geoffrey C Ward

vietnam.jpg

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b096k8wz/the-vietnam-war-series-1-1-deja-vu-18581961

Déjà vu 1858-1961

The Vietnam War, in ten parts, is the best thing on television. Déjà vu seems quite apt, with the United States divided in a way not seen since those for and against the War and those that voted for the moron’s moron as President and those that hate everything he stands for. I’m not a citizen of the United States, but I’m in the latter camp. President Trump, like so many others, was a draft dodger. The metric used to measure military success against the North Vietnamese was body count. Poor and black Americans had the highest conscription and causality rate in Vietnam, but poor and white was next in line. Military hawks argued what was needed was more men and more resources and more firepower. Napalm, Agent Orange, and blowing everything up didn’t work because the American soldier was 8000 miles from home. Here the North Korean soldiers talk about their experiences and how the Ho Chin Min trail was repaired no matter how many times it was bombed, no matter how many lives were lost. It was their county. For all the talk of democracy South Korean was governed by one dictator after another and neither John F Kennedy nor successive Presidents believed in this war. Nor did they believe in the Cold War rhetoric of not allowing another country to fall into Communist hands, but to say so would make them unelectable. America paid the bills for De Gaulle’s French colonialists to take over their former colony after the second world war. Then they paid for a South Korean dictatorship that spiralled into internecine civil war between factions of Buddhists and the Catholic leadership.  Let’s just say we know how this ends – badly.

It’s perhaps also worth looking at Michael Herr’s Dispatches, described by John Le Carre as ‘The Best Book I Have Read on Men and War in our Time’.  This is how it is for the grunts. ‘Breathing In’:

Going out at night the medics gave you pills. Dexedrine breath the dead snakes kept too long in a jar. I never saw the need for them myself, a little contact or anything that even sounded like contact would give me more speed than I could bear. When-ever I heard something outside of our clenched little circle I’d practically flip, hoping to God I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed it.

Here we’ve got it first-hand interviews with who are drafted, press men, Pentagon staff, anti-war protesters and soldiers from the victorious North Korean army. Deakon W Crocker (Jnr) enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. His family remember him as being idealistic. Kennedy’s siren call ‘do not think what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,’ had him believing in a better world. One which he was prepared to die for. Only he wasn’t. He wanted to live. He was scared of dying. Wanted to go on leave. Wanted out of it. Wisdom came too late. Paul Hardcastle’s British pop number 1 hit, 19, showed the average age of those that died in Vietnam. Crocker was nineteen when he died in a pointless war. Spare a thought for the estimated one- million plus Vietnamese killed.

The draft-dodger President has the world gearing up for another war. One the hawks thing we can win. The North parallel in Korea has around 20 million people in it. All the commander in chief has to do is press a button. Problem solved. All the combined firepower of the second world war in one splinter of a warhead. He’s already boasted about using the biggest bunker-busting bomb. The moron moron’s President’s marshmallow problem.  There’ll be no return home. Only grunts.

Child in Mind, BBC 4, 10pm, directed by Sam Benstead

child in mind.jpg

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b097bkcy/child-in-mind?suggid=b097bkcy

I watched Men Who Sleep in Cars a drama, in verse, linking the lives of three men who, you’ve guessed it, sleep in cars, but one of them cheats, because he has the luxury of a Ford Transit van. It was OKish.

I didn’t really intend to watch Child in Mind, with poetry by Simon Armitrage, I’ve got stacks of things to do, and by that I mean, read. I write too and sometimes there’s a kind of synchronicity between what you read and what you write, or in this case see. Earlier I’d quickly sketched out Karen’s background in Grimms a novel I’m working on (https://www.abctales.com/story/celticman/grimms-95). Some of the other writers on the site had said she was the least developed character, and knowing the ending, as they did, and I do, it would be worthwhile giving her a bit more detail. And here it was, here she was in composite form onscreen, less than two hours after I’d posted online.

Every year a system of triage takes place and an estimated three-thousand children are taken from mothers by social workers. The authorities’ client is the child, often a new-born, and some of these women go on to have other children taken away from them. The mothers suffer from an extended kind of shock, in modern jargon, post-traumatic-stress disorder. Here three women are given voice to tell their story. There are commonalities that begin with poverty, a controlling partner, drug or alcohol addiction, self-harming, mental illness, a toxic blend that often leads to suicide attempts.

The charity Pause, co-founded by Sophie Humphreys, in Hull, who witnessed first-hand the trauma and loss caused by repeat removal of their children gives these women space and time, an eighteen-month programme to heal. With government funding being repeatedly cut for successful programmes such as Sure Start, Pause seems something of a miracle and good news amid welfare cuts.

 

Celtic 2— 2 Hibernian

lenny and rodger.jpg

This was Neil Lennon’s return to Paradise, the former manager and Celtic player’s summation of the game and Hib’s performance was absolutely right. ‘We didn’t take a step back the whole game. It was an outstanding team performance. A draw was probably a fair result but we are disappointed not to win.’

Brendan Rodgers got a bit of dig in about the pitch (no pun intended) a message to the Celtic board, and how ‘it was always going to be difficult’ after the heroics against Anderlecht.

One thing is for sure if Celtic plays like this against Anderlecht then they will beat us 3-0. There was a number of enforced changes to what we know is our best team. Dembele started ahead of Griffiths. Edouard played alongside his compatriot up top. Forest came in for Roberts. None of the stand-in players did very much to justify their selection. We know how good Dembele is and I think he’ll outmuscle Griffiths for the striker spot. Here he helped set up McGregor’s first goal, taking a measure pass from Tierney, holding off Ambrose and playing in McGregor. A wonderful goal in a half in which Celtic seemed lethargic and Hib’s players often took the initiative. Forest was booked for diving and then pulled the same theatrical trick again and was lucky to stay on the park. Hib’s players pressed Celtic high up the park and Ntcham as the water carrier sprung more than a few leaks.

John McGinn showed himself to be the outstanding midfielder on show with two second-half goals. It’s been the first time I really watched him and he rarely wasted a ball. With Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong out of the Scotland squad he must be a first pick for the do-or-die tie against Slovenia. A case can also be made for Callum McGregor, who never seems to disappoint and scored a cool equaliser here.

Celtic were lucky to get a draw but should have won. Save of the season from Craig Gordon from Hib’s player (and former Hun) Steven Whittaker allowed the usual barn-storming finish. Our old friend Eff Ambrose, who had a fine game, as did his fellow ex-Celts, McGeouch and Stokes – but, really, Hibs were better all over the pitch—pulled back Sinclair in the 87th minute when he was already passed the defender. He got his shot away but it was parried by keeper Laidlaw. Hibs escaped with a point. Celtic’s unbeaten domestic run carries on to 58.

We’ve got Hibs at Hampden in the League Cup, we wanted Rangers because of the Old Firm rivalry and also because they are a duff team. Hibs are far better and will give us a bigger test. I think we’ll have our first team out that day. And on whether McGinn would get into this Celtic team, yes definitely, I’m not sure Ntcham will, he needs to raise his game to stake a place.

Anderlecht 0—3 Celtic.

scott sinclair.jpg

Scott Sinclair’s goal in the ninety-third minute to put Celtic three up put the sheen on a fine team performance and, more or less, guarantees Celtic third-spot in the group table and a Europa League parachute. European football after Christmas is not something we’re used to and after getting hammered by PSG the doom-mongers (let’s call them Ranger’s supporters) were predicting, once again, zero points in the group stage and an embarrassment to Scottish football. After PSG hammered Bayern Munich, who, incidentally, sacked their manager, Celtic’s trip to the German champions isn’t exactly bringing us out in a cold sweat and thoughts of damage limitation.  Here last night Celtic players held their heads up, had most of the play, and did to Anderlecht what they usually do to inferior Scottish opposition such as Rangers.

The first goal was the pick of the bunch. Oliver Nitcham played a perfectly weighted pass in behind the Anderlecht defence, full-back Kieran Tierney higher up the pitch than midfield or forwards, overlapped, looked up and picked out Leigh Griffiths at the back post who had a tap in.

Brendan Rogers won’t be getting sacked any time soon. We now know who he sees as his first eleven. The same team started here as did against Rangers, with the exception of Nitcham for Stuart Armstrong. Ironically, Nitcham before that 38th minute goal had been the Celtic player most likely to misplace his passes.

The second goal after fifty minutes was an own goal, a deflection from a Patrick Robert’s shot, who claimed it.  Olivier Deschacht, the Anderlecht defender, dawdled on the ball and was robbed by Roberts and it was a pivotal moment in the game.

Celtic strolled the rest of the match, and it’s not often you can say that in Europe, and the substitutions followed a familiar pattern. Rogic being replaced after sixty minutes to give McGregor the last thirty minutes. Forrest, who prior to the Ranger’s game, had scored four goals in two games, replacing Roberts. And in the last few minutes an injury to Scott Brown meant Nir Bitton was given game time. The first away win in Europe for five years, hopefully, not the last.  There’ll be a shakeup of this team for Saturday’s game against Hibernian, but for now everything in the garden is green.

I, Daniel Blake, Director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty.

I, Daniel.jpg

I, Daniel Blake is one of those films everybody thinks I should see. A typical conversation, or text message, goes something like this,  sorry you missed the screening, you’d have loved it and the discussion afterwards in Dalmuir library. It’s one of those films I already know the story. Some old guy meets up with some young girl who has kids. They’re on the buroo and they get shat on from a great height because they’re poor and working class and powerless to do anything about it. Yep, that’s pretty much how the film worked out. The DVD I was loaned was still in the original cellophane. That’s like somebody saying that’s my favourite song, but I’ve not listened to it. You’ll love it.

It’s a heresy to say I was underwhelmed. we did have a cameo of Daniel Blake going about Newcastle asking employers ‘geez a job’, with echoes of Yosser Hughes, I much preferred Boys from the Blackstuff, (watched by upwards of 20 million viewers) or even Cathy Come Home, that Play for Today, all those years ago (watched by five people that had a new-fangled telly) which triggered a debate about housing and the setting up of the charity Shelter.  That’s an exaggeration; I didn’t see the original Cathy, because I was still in my pram.

I have, however, been to Jobcentre Plus. Here I,Daniel had good cop, bad cop benefit- advisor routine and meddlesome staff workers trying to talk sense to Daniel when we know the government premise of welfare is to penalise and punish claimants and make them suffer unnecessarily by taking away what little money they are legally due to live on. We all know about having an up-to-date CV, the blather that goes with it about standing out from the crowd and how every failure is an opportunity. Daniel and single-mother Cathy are the salt-of-the earth type that want to work, but can’t. They attend the local Foodbank together and she starves herself to feed her children. Caught shoplifting, she’s let off with a caution by a kindly manage, but pimped by the security guard and agrees to work in a brothel because her daughter has no shoes. She has dreams of that placebo we call education and is going to do an Open University course. Ho hum.

When Daniel does turn and sprays a message of defiance on the walls of the Jobcentre Plus asking to be treated as a human that’s the high point and denouement of the film. We’ve still got a bit to go, but you know what I mean. I am not a number. I am a person. I demand to be treated as a human, kind of thing. I much preferred a drinking buddies response which was to take a hammer from the workman fixing the stairs inside the Jobcentre and take it outside and started smashing small-minded bureaucrat’s cars in the Kilbowie Road carpark. I gave him £20 for that because I shared his frustration. It didn’t change anything.   I, Daniel Blake, ho-hum. We the working class lost the propaganda war to rich Tory bastards, the reality is this film is like putting on a duffle coat and saying I’m working class. Rich people don’t care and won’t watch it anyway. Did I learn anything? No? Snap.

 

Selina Todd (2015) The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class.

selina todd.jpg

I liked this book, it’s about us, the working class often portrayed standing outside history books adding a bit of colour to the stories of kings and governors, quietly happy to die for their country, or the working class portrayed as a Lemuel Gulliver lying down in the long grass and falling asleep and being tied down by Lilliputians who make theatrical speeches he doesn’t understand but he does what the little men, the 1% of the population want him to do, anyway. That’s not the case. If the working class were Gulliver he’s prone to poke himself in the eye. Tie down one foot and chop off a leg and dance the hornpipe. As Selina Todd makes clear the working class are not a uniform body. What they have in common, what we have in common is our relationship to the means of production. The working man needs to work to survive. Elite groups do not. Class is about who is holding the stick, how big is it and how hard are they going to hit us?

If you look at relationships this way things become a lot clearer. Take Teresa May, for example, a sluggish economy, just over 1% growth, because of the managed industrial decline of industry in the last fifty years we have non-jobs and the highest personal-debt ratio in Europe, common people are struggling,   Britain is dependent on selling its goods and services to the largest trading block in the world and if the EEC doesn’t want them, well, what stick is she going to hit them with? We import more than we export. We are a debtor nation.  Withdrawal, the longest suicide note in history springs to mind.

In the Afterword, Selina Todd quotes John Maynard Keynes, on the 2008 crisis applies equally here. Capitalism relies on ‘the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.’

She could equally well have quoted Owen the narrator of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist from almost 100 years ago:

The question is, what is the cause of the lifelong poverty of those who are not drunkards and who DO work? Why, if all the drunkards and wont-works and unskilled or inefficient workers who could be by some miracle transformed into sober, industrious and skilled workers tomorrow, it would, under the present conditions, be so much worse for us, because there isn’t enough work NOW, and those people by increasing the competition for what work there is, would inevitably cause a reduction in wages and greater scarcity of employment. The theories that drunkenness, laziness or inefficiency are the causes of poverty are so many devices invented and fostered by those who are selflessly interested in maintaining the present state of affairs, for the purposes of discovering the real causes of our present condition.

Todd charts the high points of the People, the working class after the Second World War up to around 1970 and the advent of neoliberal policies designed ostensibly to revive the economy but took money from the poor and gave it to the rich. Trickle-down-economics and the ideology or Thatcherism, everyman for themselves finds expression in quixotic Think tanks like The Centre for Social Justice which is the kind of sham that had Boris Johnson standing beside a bus and promising to spend £150 million a week on the NHS when we left the European Union. The sham of The Taxpayers Alliance, which demands value for money, which sounds laudable, but they don’t mean their money, they mean poor people’s money. The working class won the Second World War, but lost the ideological war and are now paying for that failure, but which is marketed as a success. We know, of course, right-wing neoliberals with double-barrel names don’t read books like this, but they do write government policy.

Here are some common myths Todd deals with.

Myth 1: The economic crisis was caused the welfare state.

What history reminds us is that targeting welfare at the poorest is not the answer. Instead we need wealth to be redistributed more equally.

Myth 2: We can only solve the economic crisis by all working very hard.

‘Hard work has never solved poverty. If it did, then no one would have been poor during the three decades after 1945, when work was more plentiful than before or since.’

‘Rather than dividing people between those who are and aren’t members of “hardworking families” we should ask why anyone should have to work at all.’

What Todd is saying here isn’t that much different from those on the far right, charting the rise of the robots and the mass unemployment which will ensure in the next ten years and whose talk once more turns to citizens being allocated an allowance.

Myth 3: Working-class people’s opportunities are blocked by women and immigrants.

‘By focusing on migrants, we move our gaze from the real culprits: employees and politicians, who turn migrant workers into cheap and exploitable wage slaves.’

‘If migrants are wrongly blamed for the economic crisis, so too are women…Far from “choosing” to go out and earn [pin] money rather than have babies, many women go out to work to support children, unemployed husbands or partners, and parents who, in old age, face poverty. In 1996, 67% of mothers with dependent children went out to work, by 2013, 72% of them were doing so.’

Myth 4: Social mobility, promoted by selective and private education, can solve inequlity.

‘It’s ironic that a political consensus exists that post-war Britain was a meritocratic society, given how clearly erroneous that claim is.’

‘A society as technologically advanced as ours, as rich in natural resources and wealth, could and should be committed to providing all children with the best possible start in life, not just a handpicked few.’

‘Since 2010 spending of education has fallen at the fastest rate since the 1950s.’

Myth 5: People’s greed and selfishness prevent us from creating a different sort of society.

‘What we have to do now is to start working out the first steps towards revealing an alternative way to live better than neoliberalism…class testifies to inequality and inequality has not worked or any of us.’

‘economic growth does not improve quality of life, but economic redistribution can and will. Britain was healthier and happier place in the post-war years because there was some re-distribution.’

We need to trust ourselves to find a more democratic and transparent way of creating an equal society.

We can do this because we’ve done it before.

We need to question why work is at the centre of our lives. There is no reason why so many of us should have to spend most of our lives working in jobs that achieve little or nothing…no reason why we should not be able to undertake meaningful work, organized for the benefit of society and not the 1 percent who live off profit.

Class, as a relationship of unequal power, shapes British society.’

The important thing is to recognise the shared experiences and build on it, not quibble over semantics.

If the past teaches us anything it is this: if the people want a better future, we can, and must, create it, ourselves.’