If we needed a demonstration that the current President of the USA has no moral compass, it has been amply provided by his response to the events of last weekend in Charlottesville, VA. After initially offering a (typically incoherent) statement referring to an ‘egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides’, which was roundly condemned, he came back with something a little less equivocal:
To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence, you will be held fully accountable. Justice will be delivered. […] Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.
only to backtrack the following day:
You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say that right now. You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent. … Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me, not all of those people were white supremacists. … You had some bad people in that group, but you also had very fine people on both sides.
Some of those ‘very fine people’ can be seen on this report from Vice News:
The interviewees here are not random marchers but the organisers and instigators of the Unite the Right event. The purpose of the marches is explicit – to bring together the various white nationalist/white supremacist organisations who they say currently lack the cohesion and ‘camaraderie’ of the left, and to strengthen the movement to the point that they can clear the streets of the ‘degenerate filth’ which they identify primarily as Jews, blacks, Communists.
There is no real pretence here that they are not Nazis. If you want to claim that you are not a Nazi, you don’t (at least in public) use Nazi slogans such as ‘blood and soil’, you don’t use the Nazi salute, you don’t call your website The Daily Stormer, and you don’t march around with ginormous swastika flags.
It doesn’t neutralise any of this if some of the ‘antifa’ protestors were violent. It doesn’t create the kind of moral equivalence for which Trump seems to be arguing. Because the sole purpose of the events in Charlottesville were to propagate a Nazi ideology of racial superiority and hatred. As Simon Schama put it on Twitter, to attempt that equivalence is ‘like looking at Kristallnacht and blaming Jews and Brownshirts equally’.
This is open and clear and unequivocal, and the condemnation should have been unequivocal too. Trump is too much in hock to the far right to risk that. There were ‘Make America Great Again’ hats amongst the fascist flags and slogans. David Duke of the KKK objected even to Trump’s initial statement, saying that Trump should “take a good look in the mirror and remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists”. The Stormer editorial meanwhile interpreted it as tacit approval.
What has not yet been mentioned, of course, is the murder of Heather Heyer, a 32 year old legal assistant and civil rights activist.
She was mown down by a car deliberately driven at speed into groups of anti-fascist protestors. The organisers variously claimed that this was an accident, that the car was driven by an ‘antifa’, that it was self defence, and that the driver was nothing to do with them. None of these claims stand up and indeed once that was evident, a truer response emerged, one of jubilation.
This is racism.
This is domestic terrorism.
This is religious extremism.
This is bigotry.
It is blind hatred of the most vile kind.
It doesn’t represent America.
It doesn’t represent Jesus.
It doesn’t speak for the majority of white Americans.
It’s a cancerous, terrible, putrid sickness that represents the absolute worst of who we are.
Against the vicious, sickening rhetoric of these contemporary Nazis we have to set the courage of the small groups of young people at the Friday night torchlight march, surrounded but resolute, the unity of citizens of all faiths and none
and the vision of Heather Heyer, whose last online words should ring out across the world.
If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.
Well, someone forced me to do it. In so far as they challenged me to do it. Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on. Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:
So, 60 books in 60 days.
Starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September. I originally thought I’d just do one mammoth post at the end of the challenge, but judging by the length of this first entry, it seems more sensible (and kinder to my reader(s)) to post every 14 days.
Rules? Well, I’m making these up, obviously, since there is as far as I am aware no national or international case law relating to such things. But I think I have to exclude any re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago. For practical purposes I’m favouring short (obviously), relatively straightforward in narrative terms (nothing too Proustian) and in English as my reading speed in French is far too slow for this exercise. Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition. I’m including fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), and there’s no reason I can think of to exclude playscripts, or a volume of poetry, as long as I read all of the poems and don’t just dip in, or a collection of short stories. That raises a question though. I have on my Kindle some books that are described as short stories – are they too short to count? How short is too short? The list will include all brows, high to low, but everything I read will, I hope, have real merit and will bring real pleasure, over and above the satisfaction of achieving the challenge.
31 July. Day 1 – already underway: Anthony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain, and David Boyle’s Dunkirk: A Miracle of Deliverance. Started today, Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective.
1 August. Day 2 – finished The Last Detective. That was my first Lovesey, I don’t think it will be my last, not groundbreaking but thoroughly entertaining. Started and finished today, Jo Furniss – All the Little Children, a bow drawn at a venture, a freebie from Amazon Prime, which turned out to be a cracking thriller (her debut – will watch out for her next book). Meantime continuing with Beevor. Fascinating, but so dense with names and facts and places and dates that it’s not going to be a quick read.
2 August. Day 3 – finished the Dunkirk book. This was background reading for the brilliant Christopher Nolan film, which gives the audience an immersive experience of survival on the beaches, at sea and in the air, but quite deliberately no context in terms of the strategy or the politics of it all.
Quite a change of pace, style, genre – everything really – for my next read, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s The Unforgotten Coat. A lovely, quirky, funny and sad children’s/YA book, with mysterious Polaroid illustrations that aren’t at all what they first appear to be. I’m familiar with some of FCB’s work, of course – Brookie, 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, 24 Hour Party People, Who (what variety is displayed there!) but hadn’t come across this one. A delight.
Started on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Years ago I read The Haunting of Hill House, which Stephen King regards as one of the most important horror novels of the 20th century, and this one is apparently reckoned to be her masterpiece.
3 August. Day 4 – finished We Have Always Lived in the Castle. That was brilliant! Gothic and charming and deeply disquieting at the same time. Must read more Shirley Jackson.
Next up is The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid.
4 August. Day 5 – just finished The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Fascinating, ambiguous, with a compelling narrative voice. I’ve been faffing about since finishing that one, trying to find the next thing to go for, and opening one after another without being convinced. Finally decided on Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry.
Wow, that was powerful. A psychological thriller, where the tension and the anguish build up and up, where you want to scream at the protagonists not to make the mistakes they seem to be inevitably about to make, but where you (at least I) could identify intensely with the female protagonists. I felt almost physically that hot, awful sense of panicky stress that comes with trying to manage a screaming baby on public transport. Not going to say any more for fear of spoilers.
5 August. Day 6 – having been recommended to read something by Andrea Levy, I found Uriah’s War already on my Kindle. It’s described as a short story though – hmmm. I might have to work out a rule of thumb and count something as a fraction of a book. This was written for the WWI commemorations, inspired by Levy’s discovery that her grandfather fought at the Somme.
This was indeed a short story. A good one, albeit not unfamiliar territory if one has read or watched anything about the role of colonial troops in either World War. I thought in particular of Rachid Bouchareb’s Les Indigenes (Days of Glory) which tells the story of a group of North African soldiers in the latter days of WWII.
On to Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, a collection of personal memoirs. The first part is a delightful, funny, and often very moving account of his Mam and Dad and the wider family. His is such a distinctive voice that one can hear it as one reads, and his famed ear for dialogue brings the various family members to vivid life.
6-7 August. Day 7-8 – Oh no, I’m falling behind! 7.5 books (counting the Levy as .5) at the close of Day 8. Will have to up my game…
8 August. Day 9 – Still reading the Alan Bennett. It must be a big book! One of the perils of the Kindle, of course, is not being able to weigh the book in your hand, flick through the pages, and judge how long it might take to read. I’m loving it, anyway. Still also reading The Battle for Spain but I think I must put that to one side if I’m to have any chance of meeting this ridiculous challenge.
9 August. Day 10 – I found at my mother-in-law’s house the other day a Daphne du Maurier novel that I’d never heard of, let alone read. I thought I’d read the lot, obsessively and repeatedly, as a teenager. This one, Julius, had escaped my notice completely. I’ve liberated it from Mum’s bookshelves and just started it this morning.
10 August. Day 11 – finally, that’s Alan Bennett sorted. I seemed to be making such slow progress, despite enjoying it enormously, but the reason became clear when all of a sudden I’d finished the book, with about 25% still to go, the remainder being illustrations (delightful) and index etc. I thoroughly approve of indexes (indices? or is that something different?) and would ideally like every book to have one, along with a thorough bibliography, but it’s another way in which the Kindle is inferior to the ‘real’ book, in that it’s very clunky to actually make use of such things when you can’t (easily) flick back and forth to check things. Anyway, the first memoir, focusing on his parents and aunties, was the best bit of the collection but there was a lot more to enjoy, even if ‘enjoy’ seems somewhat the wrong word in relation to his account of being beaten up in Italy, or of treatment for cancer. And the word ‘splother’, to describe a lot of fuss and to-do-ment, is now firmly a part of my vocab, thanks to Alan’s Dad.
Beginning to get properly into the du Maurier. I begin also to see one possible reason why this is so much less well known than her other works, which I will probably comment further upon when I’ve finished the book.
Donal Ryan’s The Thing about December was a grand read. The writing is beautiful and there’s humour and tragedy and ambiguity in Johnsey’s view of the world, lonely and naive, trying to work out how to be a man, how to be a good person, how to connect with the world and the people in it, who may be genuine or duplicitous or a mixture of the two.
11 August. Day 12 – Valentina Giambanco’s first Alice Madison thriller, The Gift of Darkness.
12 August. Day 13 – continuing with Julius – a decidedly uncomfortable read, whilst sharing with du Maurier’s better known work a compelling narrative style. More anon.
The Giambanco is a cracking police procedural and I shall be adding her to my list of favourite current crime writers. Her protagonist is Alice Madison, who herself now joins my list of favourite current fictional female cops and PIs (Laura Lipmann’s Tess Monaghan, Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome, Cath Staincliffe’s Sal Kilkenny, Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan, and Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw). Alice has a quality of stillness and steeliness that I love, and there are passages of vivid and economical writing that made me think of Chandler (without being pastichy).
13 August. Day 14 – finished Julius. It’s the portrait of a monster, a man who has to own and control and would rather destroy something than let it get away from him. Someone who has power but doesn’t understand love, friendship and affection. Someone who likes to cause pain but doesn’t understand it. What makes the book so problematic though is not that Julius is a monster – du Maurier has created other monsters, male and female, and her work is never mere bosom-heaving romance but dark, brooding, ambiguous and even nightmarish. The problem is that Julius is a Jew. This isn’t mere incidental detail, his Jewishness is referred to on page after page after page. In so far as he is capable of feeling any real connection with others, it is with other Jews, and at least at moments in the synagogue. Thus Julie Myerson in her introduction to this edition argues that his monstrosity and his Jewishness are not linked, that ‘if Julius has a benign side, a sensitive side, there’s no doubt that it’s the Jewish side’. That is so, but I can’t quite buy her statement that du Maurier ‘always avoids the easy racist cliche’. Julius becomes immensely wealthy – through hard work but also through manipulation and exploitation of others. He’s not, at the beginning, ostentatious in his wealth and remains careful with his fortune, always in control, always pulling the strings. Nina Auerbach in her study of du Maurier’s work (Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress, Pennsylvania UP, 2000), describes him as ‘unsavory (and unpleasantly stereotyped)’, as radiating ‘hunger and hate’. Julius was written in 1931 (published in ’33), and it’s not uncommon in reading work from this era to find language about and treatment of Jewish characters that grates horribly (not only Jewish, of course, but other racial groups). Du Maurier evidently came under some pressure later in her career to revise the book and tone down or take out some of the references to Julius’s Jewishness. Ultimately, however, nothing in the book feeds into the most dangerous narrative, gathering strength and toxicity even as she was writing, of the Jewish race as loyal only to each other, as subverting and undermining the nations that they inhabit, as preying on the gentile community. Though Julius feels some tug of humanity in relation to his Jewishness it is not enough – his ‘own’ people find him as strange and troubling as everyone else, as impossible to comprehend. So it is possible to read it as the portrait of an individual, shaped by a brutal early life, driven and consumed and consuming. Possible, but not easy, and not comfortable.
Also finished The Gift of Darkness, and have already got hold of the second in the Alice Madison series. Will save that for later though, and start on Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, and Jarlath Gregory’s The Organised Criminal.
The Organised Criminal is darkly (very darkly) funny, as well as kind of bleak, but with glimmers of hope in friendship – family is a lot more problematic in this exploration of morality, complicity and masculinity.
On to John le Carré’s ‘memoir’, or stories from his life, The Pigeon Tunnel.
That’s my first fortnight. I’ve read 12.5 books in 14 days (if the Andrea Levy counts as 0.5) so technically I’m slightly behind. However, I’ve also read a significant chunk of the Anthony Beevor, and made a start on the John le Carré, so it’s not a bad start. Onwards!
Master: Is the future going to be all girl?
Doctor: We can only hope.
With hindsight it was obvious this regeneration was going to be the one. The one that brought us a woman Doctor.
We’d seen it established that Time Lord regenerations can involve a change of gender as well as of height, hair colour, apparent age and so on. We’d engaged with the Master/Missy conundrum.
DOCTOR: She was my first friend, always so brilliant, from the first day at the Academy. So fast, so funny. She was my man crush.
BILL: I’m sorry?
DOCTOR: Yeah, I think she was a man back then. I’m fairly sure that I was, too. It was a long time ago, though.
BILL: So, the Time Lords, bit flexible on the whole man-woman thing, then, yeah?
DOCTOR: We’re the most civilised civilisation in the universe. We’re billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.
BILL: But you still call yourselves Time Lords?
DOCTOR: Yeah. Shut up.
With lines like the above, we were being set up to welcome (or not) a woman to the role. Still, at some level, at least until a couple of days before the announcement, I really thought they might row back from that and say no, not yet, not this time. I really wasn’t sure they had the bottle to do this.
There’s been a lot of rather predictable frothing at the mouth, harrumphing and incipient apoplexy, with claims that this is the BBC surrendering to some mysterious all-powerful Political Correctness lobby (‘Murdered a part of our culture for feminazi political correctness ideology!’ ‘Doctor Who … didn’t die nobly as you might expect. He was murdered by Political Correctness’). That’s best ignored, by and large. I fear that Jodie Whitaker will have to contend with worse than that, and with personalised unpleasantness, but I’m sure she’s well aware and will be ready for the haters.
Not everyone who dislikes the change is of this breed, of course. There has to be a core of Doctorness with each regeneration, and some feel that maleness is a part of that. I disagree, but I suspect that many of those people, if they genuinely love the programme, will continue to watch and will be won over. Another response was that whilst of course boys have far more heroic role models in popular culture to emulate and be inspired by than girls do, the Doctor is different, and valuable because of the ways in which he is different. I do see the need for boys to have role models who aren’t all about action and fighting (even fighting for Good against Evil), but part of what makes the Doctor different, for me, is that gender roles and stereotypes simply aren’t (or shouldn’t be) relevant.
A plethora of girls and women have regarded the Doctor as a role model, and identified with him, over Doctor Who’s 50 year span, whilst he’s regenerated, repeatedly, as a man. The Doctor is still, no doubt, going to be the Doctor as portrayed by Jodie Whittaker – alien, two hearts, both of gold, funny, witty, snarky, capricious, kind, adventurous. (Juniper Fish, Doctor Who Forum)
The Doctor can and should be a role model for both boys and girls, in a way that Captain America or Batman can’t quite be – and probably Wonder Woman and Buffy can’t quite be role models for boys either. So, the Doctor can continue to inspire boys whilst giving girls and women a whole new image of how to be wise, and brave, how to save the world, to do what’s right, to be kind. Girls need to develop the confidence to take the lead roles, not to assume that a hero/a protector is by default male.
Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
Funnily enough, whilst the Outraged/Betrayed/Will Never Watch Again lobby were as loud and silly as one might have expected, overall what I found on Twitter was a mix of sheer delight, excited anticipation – and a different kind of silliness. See the #TardisFullOfBras hashtag, for example – someone took a hostile Daily Mail comment and turned it around, so that it’s full of fan art and daft jokes (and bras). That’s the way to go, I think.
There’s little point in trying to engage with someone who throws ‘feminazi’ into the conversation simply because someone gives a job to a woman that has been previously held by a man. There’s little point in trying to unpack the hotchpotch of false analogies and fake news and mythology that is evoked whenever the term ‘political correctness’ is used. And if someone believes that ‘social justice warrior’ is an insult, we don’t really have a lot to talk about.
What matters here, to me, is the delight that this news has brought to so many of us. It’s only a story, but stories are the most powerful things in the world.
Stories can make us fly.
We need stories, and we need heroes. And if we can’t immediately see around us the heroes we need, we build them. It seems that we are having a real moment here.
When I wrote about Wonder Woman, only a week or so ago, I did not know – though I hoped – that the 13th Doctor would be a woman. They’re quite different of course, but what is so glorious is that now, right now, there are two more in the pantheon of women who can, women who can stand up, will stand up. We have a woman (OK, a demi-god) who uses superhuman physical strength, courage and a fierce sense of what is right, in the service of humanity, and another (OK, a Gallifreyan Time Lord) who uses the wisdom of centuries and galaxies, wit and invention and intellect, courage and a fierce sense of what is right, in the service of humanity.
without hope, without reward, without witness
I felt when I was watching Wonder Woman like punching the air and having a bit of a cry at the same time, and when I think about the Doctor’s next regeneration, I feel much the same. Of course it is vital that the stories are well written, that the wit and humour is there, as well as the thrills and chills. Of course it is vital that the gender thing is dealt with intelligently, that stereotypes are undermined or dismissed with humour and that the Doctor is and remains Doctorly, demonstrating both difference and continuity as each new incumbent has done over the last 50 years.
It is perhaps even more vital that the stories are strong because there are those who (even though they may have vowed never to watch it again) will be waiting for it to fail, wanting to say that they told us so, that it could never work, that the Doctor can’t be a woman. If Jodie kicks it out of the park, as we hope and believe she will, then each regen that follows can be whoever seems right at the time and whoever takes it on will be critiqued for their ability and not for their gender.
Meantime, we’re loving this moment. Loving it for ourselves and for our daughters, nieces, granddaughters, all the young women who can now enjoy Doctor Who in a different way, who can take on the lead role in playground games. Not just companions or assistants but The Doctor.
My love for Doctor Who is, I realise, a bit ridiculous but I don’t bloody care because we all need escapism sometimes and, as my often tested loyalty to lost causes show, my love is nothing if not tenacious. At primary school I distinctly remember the humiliation of a school assembly where some of us were asked to share our pictures of what we wanted to be when we grew up. A Timelord was not an appropriate aspiration for a girl apparently and the piss was duly ripped. Not the first, worst or only time youngling (or indeed “grown-up” me) encountered sexism and ridiculous gender stereotypes but, because as a troubled kid my fantasy life was a refuge and a solace, one of the hardest stings. Anyway, fuck that nonsense because anything can happen with a Tardis and hooray for progress and little girls being allowed imaginations. And no, that does not come at the expense of little boys at all, and yes, I am really sorry Capaldi and Bill are gone because when they got the scripts they were brilliant and that, actually, is the heart of what I want. Good writing, please, please, please (and obviously for me to get a ride in there somewhere with them, because what is the Doctor if not an intergalactic anarcho-flaneuse who needs a bit more glitter?) (Morag Rose)
Doctor Who is a different sort of hero. The Doctor solves problems not by being the strongest, the fastest or the one with the biggest army, but by outthinking everyone else in the room. Far too many female characters are two-dimensional. I’m ready for one that can travel in four. I’m ready to watch a woman save the world again and again by being very, very clever and very, very moral, without having to have a man sort anything out or come and save her. I’m ready for a woman hero who’s older than recorded history and weirder than a three-day bender in the BBC props cupboard. I’m ready for a female super nerd. And so is the rest of the world. (Laurie Penny, The New Statesman)
MASTER: Is the future going to be all girl?
DOCTOR: We can only hope.
Steve: “This war is a great big mess, and there’s not a whole lot you and I can do about that. I mean, we can get back to London and try to get to the men who can.”
Diana: “I am the man who can.”
NB What follows contains some spoilers… Caveat lector.
It mattered a great deal that Wonder Woman was, well, wonderful. I can cope with Batman v Superman being a bit meh, or the odd entry in the Avengers cycle being less than stellar. But she needed to kick it out of the damn park.
And she did.
It’s not that she’s the first or the only. She herself has been around since 1941, and there have, of course, been other women superheroes (and supervillains) in the comics and on TV and in the movies. But it’s very rare for the one who carries the whole movie, the centre and focus, the one on whom everything depends, to be a woman.
And as much as I love the current Marvel series, a lot of the time they are really quite blokey. The blokes are great – funny and noble (mostly) and gorgeous, so I’m not complaining, not really. But there’s not enough of Black Widow and Scarlet Witch to balance things out. There’s a fine tradition of women heroes – think Ripley, Sarah Connor, Katniss Everdene – human, but with outstanding courage and strength. And there’s always and forever Buffy.
Wonder Woman is different. First off, she’s a half-god. Not an alien, or an inhuman, not technically enhanced, but a straight-up, bona fide, god-almighty daughter of a god. Second, her upbringing on Themyscira sets her in a context where women are powerful, strong, brave, not exceptionally but as a norm.
The opening sequences of Amazonian women training, and then fighting on the beach made me want to weep and cheer at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a bit of a pacifist on the whole, but the simple fact that this small army was comprised of glorious women was somehow very moving.
Of course all these women are beautiful. But they’re beautiful athletes, not beautiful models. They’re magnificent in the way that Serena and Venus Williams are magnificent. Their bodies are toned and lean and powerful and they are in control of them.
Gal Gadot herself is mesmerisingly gorgeous. That Chris Pine spends much of the movie just gazing at her in awe is perfectly understandable – when she is on screen one would need a damn good reason to look elsewhere. (Of course, the men in the movie also spend a lot of time saying variants of ‘just wait here’, ‘leave it to us’ and so on, and Diana doesn’t bother to argue, she just gives them a bit of a look and then does what she has to do. The phrase ‘nevertheless she persisted‘ came inevitably to mind.)
She’s presented, in some ways, as naive. That’s justified by what we know of her origins – what she’s been told, and not told, about the world beyond Themyscira. That doesn’t diminish her – she is rocked by the realisation that things are not as straightforwardly binary as she’d believed, but she recovers from that, regroups her forces and fights on.
“I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. And I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. A choice each must make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know, that only love can truly save the world. So I stay, I fight, and I give, for the world I know can be.”
I wrote a while ago about the Marvel universe and why I love it so:
It’s the flawed and fragile beauty of humanity that the Avengers fight for:
“Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. … A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.”
Echoes of the Doctor there, I think. Amongst all of the forces that see the weakness of human beings and want to destroy, some stand with us. The Doctor said that in 900 years of space and time he’d never met anyone who wasn’t important. He tells us again and again that we are in our very ordinariness extraordinary, in our bloody-minded going where angels fear to tread, our curiosity and our moments of courage.
Diana Prince, like the Doctor, like Captain America and all the other heroes, does what’s right because it’s right.
without hope, without reward, without witness
What we see in the movie is her first encounter with the world beyond Themyscira. It baffles her (to comic effect as she struggles to comprehend why a woman should tolerate clothing that hobbles and constrains her), and it troubles her as she begins to realise that the people she encounters cannot be divided simply into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. She is not yet weary as Buffy is, so often, saving the world yet again. She has not yet lost battles, has not got centuries, aeons, of attempting to protect humanity from the forces that would destroy it. But nonetheless she would understand the Doctor.
Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do, because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point in any of this at all, but it’s the best I can do, so I’m going to do it. And I will stand here doing it till it kills me. You’re going to die too, some day. How will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
I was surprised at first at the choice to set Diana’s first encounter with the messy, murky world of humans in the first, rather than the second World War. But I think actually that’s right. The second is too simply a confrontation with evil, with the absolute worst that human beings could be. The first portrays more effectively the messiness and murkiness of it all – the moral questions about who started it and why, who joined in when and why are complex and still generate heated debate today (as was seen in the recent centenaries of the start of that war and of the Battle of the Somme). So the great evil that Diana confronts is not the Kaiser’s forces but war itself. Steve refers to ‘the war to end all wars’ but that description acquires layers of ambiguity, as it becomes clear that it is potentially also the war that never ends.
Interestingly, whilst the humans who represent that evil – chemical weapons scientist Isabel Maru (aka Doctor Poison), and General Ludendorff – are on the German side, the God of War himself is introduced to us as Sir Patrick Morgan, a British politician who is, it appears, attempting to negotiate an armistice. Murky, messy, or what…
We need Diana’s fierce kindness, her innocent clarity, to cut through all of this. We can’t aspire to her physical perfection, her power and strength. But we can be inspired by her moral strength. That kind of integrity is easy to dismiss as naive or po-faced – Captain America is its embodiment in the Avengers, and of course he is mocked by Iron Man, who himself embodies a more complex and troubled morality (Rick Blaine to Cap’s Victor Laszlo?).
But the simple fact that it is a woman who represents all of this – physical power, moral integrity, compassion – takes us to different places. That those men looking both for direction and guidance and for the power to follow through look to a woman still rocks our world a little bit. We’ve come a long way, baby, but not far enough, not so far that we can see the Amazons fighting on Themyscira, and Diana taking on the patriarchy and the God of War without a thrill, a shiver down the spine, a lump in the throat.
And whilst we cannot aspire to Amazonian strength, we can still draw strength from the Amazons. From Diana, Buffy, Katniss, Ripley, and all of the women who stand up when it’s right to stand up.
From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power will have the power … can stand up, will stand up. … Are you ready to be strong?
We’re living in strange times. Last year’s Refugee Week took place in the aftermath of Jo Cox’s murder, and midway through, we found out the outcome of the EU referendum, which for so many of us, perhaps falsely reassured by the predominance of Remain sympathies in our social media bubbles, was profoundly shocking, as well as filling us with dismay and fear about the future. Our world was further shaken in November by the outcome of the US election – again, we were unprepared for a Trump victory, and fearful of the impact it would have – we still are, although straightforward incompetence and inefficiency seem to have mitigated some of the potential harm so far.
This week Refugee Week takes place in the aftermath of terrorist attacks which have claimed innocent lives in Manchester, on Westminster and London bridges, in Borough Market and Finsbury Park. And then there’s Grenfell Tower, a human tragedy of unbearable proportions. That’s not even to mention a General Election and the start of the Brexit talks.
This time last year I wrote these words, which are still pertinent:
I said a week ago when I started my annual Refugee Week blogathon that it felt different this year. As Refugee Week draws to a close it feels unimaginably different again. We are in, as so many people said during the long hours as the result of the referendum emerged, uncharted territory. We are in uncertain times.
For refugees and asylum seekers there is no charted territory, there are no certain times. But as anecdotal evidence mounts of racism and xenophobia seemingly legitimised and emboldened by the vote to leave the EU, as we wait for those who would lead us into this brave new world to give us a clue as to what it will be like, I know I am not alone in being afraid. … But many of us do share the belief that how we treat people who seek sanctuary from war, persecution and starvation is a measure of what kind of country we are, what kind of people we are. And many of us do believe that generosity, empathy, compassion are qualities that represent the best that we can be, individually and collectively.
So as this Refugee Week ends we will be continuing to say that refugees are welcome, saying it louder if we need to, if the voices against us are more numerous or more vociferous.
I’ve returned this year to some of the themes I regularly write about. I’ve revisited the work of Cara with at-risk academics, for example, prompted by my own University’s engagement with their current campaigns and its funding of scholarships and fellowships for refugee academics and students. I’ve talked again about child refugees – remembering the Kindertransport in light of this government’s shameful reneging on the Dubs amendment.
I’ve tried to celebrate the work of so many superb organisations, large and small, who are working to support refugees around the world and here in the UK, addressing the politics and the practicalities, making a huge difference against the odds.
Each year I approach this entirely self-imposed task – to post every day during Refugee Week about some aspect of the crisis faced by so many millions of people forced to flee their homes – with a certain amount of trepidation. Who do I think I am, really, to speak about these things? I’m no expert, I’m merely a keyboard activist, I have no direct personal experience of the things I write about. And who am I writing for? Preaching to the choir, surely, given that my readers, my social media contacts, by and large are people who share my world view.
But as much as I berate myself for hubris in taking the task on, I cannot relinquish it. I write, that’s what I do. I use this blog to talk to whoever might be listening – and if I change no one’s mind, perhaps the information and ideas and links that I gather for each piece will be useful to someone else, somewhere along that chain of communication that we build as we share and retweet – about the things I care about and the things that trouble and grieve me. And this issue is something I care about, passionately.
Perhaps it is personal, after all. My first Refugee Week blogathon recalled events which, even though I cannot claim to have directly witnessed them, or even to truly remember them, still shaped me:
During the series of coups and counter coups leading up to the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, thousands of Igbo people were killed in the northern territories of Nigeria. Many more fled to escape the massacres. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a harrowing account both of the pogroms and of that flight, from a number of perspectives – the Igbo heroine, in Kano as violence explodes, who escapes on a train along with many others, traumatised, lost and bereaved; the Englishman who finds himself at Kano airport as Igbo staff and travellers are identified and killed; the people meeting the trains as they arrived, searching for their own friends and family afraid to find them and not to find them.
As I read her account, I found myself shaking and weeping. I lived in the north of Nigeria at this time. I was a young child, 9 years old, and my parents shielded me and my younger siblings from as much as they could. But I knew that people were being killed because of their ethnicity. I saw the mob which approached our home looking for Igbos, knew that my father and a friend had gone out to speak to them, to try to calm them and deter them but without success. I knew of westerners arriving at Kano airport, to witness scenes of horror, some of whom got back on the plane as Richard does in the novel. I learned later of the people who my parents found hiding in the unoccupied house across the road from us, who my father took in the back of our car, covered with blankets, to the army compound where others had taken refuge, and of the train organised by another expatriate to take them all to safety but which was ambushed, its passengers dragged out and killed.
As a teenager I pieced these stories together, from the recollections that my parents were finally willing to share without holding back, and the fragmentary memories that I did have suddenly made sense. And I’ve been piecing it together ever since, as I see the people who fled from the town I lived in over and over again, in the faces of those seeking refuge from war and persecution today, as I see them in the faces of those who fled war and persecution generations ago.
And once you do that, you become aware of the connections, of the way in which everything that is happening around the world is interlinked.
As Daesh suffer military defeats and the loss of their territory, they increase their terrorist attacks in the west but far more often in the Middle East and Africa, killing ‘Crusaders’ but far more often Muslims who happen to be the wrong sort of Muslim. And as one of the major forces creating refugees, they are also used as a reason to mistrust those very refugees. Because, so they say, they could have pretended to be refugees, paid a fortune to traffickers, risked drowning in the Med, lived on minimal rations in a refugee camp, simply in order to launch attacks in European cities… The uncomfortable truth, that attacks in European cities have been carried out by long-term residents of those cities, isn’t allowed to disturb the anti-refugee narrative, and the call in the wake of every attack for borders to be closed, etc.
The first officially confirmed casualty of the Grenfell Tower disaster was Mohammad Alhajali, a refugee from Syria, who had survived civil war and the perilous journey to the UK, only to die in his own home as a result of an accidental fire and the criminal neglect of fire safety in social housing.
And we learned that one reason for the difficulty and delays in identifying the dead, or even coming up with a reliable total of those who perished, was that there may well have been people living in Grenfell Tower who were ‘off the radar’, worried about their immigration status, unable to afford their own accommodation and so unofficially staying with friends or family but not on any list of tenants. People like asylum seekers (those waiting for a decision, and those who have been refused), and those newly granted refugee status who have not yet got the paperwork together to get a place of their own. Grenfell Tower sheds a harsh light on so many aspects of our society – the calls for a ‘bonfire of red tape’, the mockery of ‘health & safety gone mad’, the contempt of the wealthy and privileged for those on the margins – the culture of ‘us and them’.
I think of this, from a rather wonderful Twitter account:
“I am a citizen of the world.““Citizen of nowhere. You must pick an ‘us’ to be.”“I did.”“All humanity? Nonsense. That leaves no ‘them’.”
There is no us and them. It’s us and us. It’s all us.
That really is the heart of it all. We can refuse the ‘us and them’, we can assert that it’s all us. It’s the only way to be human, really.
The refugee crises which have characterised our age (as if there has ever been a time when people were not forced by war, persecution or natural disaster to leave their homes and seek safety in strange lands) have inspired artists throughout the generations to attempt, through different media and in different styles, to portray the plight of the refugee.
Tamara de Lempicka portrays two women refugees from the fighting in Spain, in something of a departure from her normal high society subject matter. Felix Nussbaum painted The Refugee drawing on his own experience. As a German Jew, Nussbaum was studying in Rome when the Nazis came to power, and spent the next ten years in exile in Belgium, going into hiding during the Occupation. He and his wife were arrested in 1944 and were murdered in Auschwitz. His painting powerfully depicts the desolation of exile, and the sense of a world of potential freedom and safety (the globe and the open window) that is visible but out of reach.
In much more recent times, we can see the work of Syrian women refugees, working with visual artists Aglaia Haritz from Switzerland and Abdelaziz Zerrou from Morocco, on a project Embroiderers of Actuality. They asked women in different locations to create embroidery, which they then use as inspiration and/or material for their own images and sculptures.
One of the images exhibited by the Refugee Art Project is Alwy Fadhel’s instant coffee painting, Endurance, by Alwy Fadhel.
The technique of painting with instant coffee powder diluted with water was started by an Iraqi refugee in Australian immigration detention who enjoyed painting and used the resources available in detention to do so. He taught the technique to fellow detainee Alwy Fadhel, who became the principal coffee artist and contributed to making the technique a tradition inside the detention center where he was held.
Syrian artist, Abdalla Al Omari, who has refugee status in Belgium, has re-imagined US President Donald Trump and 10 other world leaders as refugees in a series of paintings (The Vulnerability Series) currently on display in Dubai. The images draw on his own experience with displacement.
Giles Duley, a photojournalist, has recorded some of the stories of the refugees travelling from the Middle East to Europe in 2015.
The UNHCR gave me the greatest brief ever given to a photographer – just follow your heart. So, rather than try to cover the whole crisis, I tried to cover a few stories within it and that was how I kept my focus. There is no such thing as truth in photography, which is why the book has the title I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See. As soon as I go to one beach and choose one person to photograph, I’ve made a decision and I’ve ruled out thousands of other stories. Politicians and the media often try to simplify the narrative, but the fact is, if you have a million people crossing into Europe, you have a million different stories. … I’ve worked in Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq, and have seen some of the worst of humanity, and yet I found myself standing on those beaches in floods of tears. It was hard initially to work out what was different. What was it I was seeing that I hadn’t seen before? I’ve seen a lot of refugee camps, but they are generally static places. What I’ve never seen is people moving en masse like that, putting their lives on the line, risking everything for freedom, for safety. To see the fear on their faces, but also the relief that they’d finally made it, was completely overwhelming.
Alketa Xhafa Mripa was living in the UK and studying Art at Central Saint Martins when the war in Kosovo broke out in 1998.
As a result, she had no choice but to seek refugee status in the UK. While Alketa didn’t flee her country, she faced the very real issue of being removed from her home. This fostered her fascination with the themes of identity, history and memory, with a unique focus on women’s issues. Her most recent project, Fancy a tea with a refugee?, is a mobile installation that tours the country, inviting people to share their stories and thoughts about migrants, refugees and displacement.
And under the sea, a powerful image of the fate of so many refugees attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, in Jason deCaires Taylor’s sculpture The Raft of the Lampedusa, a sculpted boat carrying the figures of 13 refugees. It’s part of an underwater museum, Museo Atlantico, in Lanzarote.
From painting to sculpture, embroidery to installation, and finally (in this brief and inadequate review of the refugee crisis in art), to the graphic novel.
French author and illustrator double act Bessora and Barroux share their new graphic novel Alpha, the story of a migrant desperately searching for his family.
one man – another refugee – said to us, ‘This is my story.’ With comics, people can project their own experiences on to these simple drawings and make them their own.
Home to 80,000 people. Intended as a temporary, transitory place, but evolving in to a long-term home for so many displaced by war. It’s Jordan’s fourth biggest city. Seen from above, as it is often is, to emphasise its sprawling scale, it’s easy to forget that in that city, as in any city, people are living their lives.
We use the refugee camp as a symbol of the challenge of mass migration, and of the desperate needs of those who live there. The people who did, once, lead lives very much like our own, until war drove them out. They were farmers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, nurses and builders. They still can be.
Within the camp, babies are born, children grow up, people get sick, women have periods, all of the normal events of life take place here too. All of these things present greater challenges when you’re living in a place that wasn’t intended to be a city, that was only meant to house you for a short time, until you could safely go home, or until some other place was found for you to move on to.
And so those agencies working within the camp are trying to address these everyday problems, to provide for health and education, to ensure access to basic facilities. But this isn’t a one-way process. Because to solve the everyday problems in the camp they are working with, and not just for, the people in the camp.
Obviously not everyone living there has the kind of skills that can be pressed into service to help build the resources that the communities need, and not everyone is well and strong enough after the physical and mental traumas of flight to contribute in this way. But as a transit camp becomes a city the people living there can become again the people they were at home, can be part of the process of building and healing and problem-solving.
That’s what researchers from the University of Sheffield have found. The Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures is an ambitious and innovative collaboration between the University of Sheffield and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment. Their sustainability research creates knowledge and connects it to policy debates on how to build a fairer world and save natural resources for future generations.
And under the auspices of the Grantham Centre, innovative solutions to everyday problems are being developed, in collaboration with the people of Zaatari. Tony Ryan, the Director of the Centre, has been working with Helen Storey from the London College of Fashion, on resource use and repurposing in conflict zones, and on specific questions from the UNHCR about the design and manufacture of all kinds of things that we take for granted, like sanitary ware, make-up and bicycles. Resources are scarce in the camp, where 80,000 people share 6 sq km of space, and nothing is left to waste.
One farmer collected pots of the salty local soil and washed it repeatedly till the salt crystals were cleared away, so that he could use it to grow herbs. And polymer foams from old mattresses are being developed for use as artificial soil to grow crops.
Make no mistake, the people who end up in these camps face daily struggles that many of us cannot imagine. But those I met embodied values that are often forgotten by those of us in more privileged parts of the world: an adaptable approach to solving problems, an aversion to waste, a sense of community. As hard as we must fight to live in a world where no one is forced to feel their home, there is much we can learn from Syria’s refugees.
Tony Ryan, Director of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, University of Sheffield.