Saturday, July 31, 2010

Missing Lives

Sarajevo cemetery - Image from Google

I'm suffering from a bad night's sleep; my restlessness made worse by the knowledge that I have to get on with the day. But you'd be wrong in jumping to the conclusion of 'one too many whiskeys' - it is way more complicated than that.

In fact it was words that sparked my insomnia; words and pictures to be more precise. For last night I stayed up reading Missing Lives, a new book by Nick Danziger and Rory MacLean. It recounts the atrocities of the Yugoslav wars, and its disturbing power is that it does so, not by historical essay, but by telling human stories, so simple as to be beyond misinterpretation.

Missing Lives is the stories of bereaved families searching for answers. It is the stories of survivors as much as victims: survivors and victims of the the ethnic cleansing, the teenage conscription, the religious bigotry, the political manipulation, the fear and the barbarity - survivors and victims of a conflict which claimed over 140,000 lives. Yet fifteen years after the Dayton Accord, nearly a quarter of those who died are still unaccounted for.

I have long thought that, to West European eyes, the Yugoslavian war was an unfathomable conflict. Most of us barely knew the location of the supposed countries let alone the towns and regions and subtle differences between the various quasi nationalist factions.

MacLeans words and Danziger's photographs transcend that complexity, focusing instead on the intuitively understandable anguish of its aftermath. And by telling much the same story from each and every side - Muslims, Christians, Bosnians, Serbs, farmers, judges, parents, orphans - they make it clear there were no winners and eloquently emphasise the pointlessness as well as the brutality of it all.

For when you think about it, the Yugoslav conflict was a particularly horrific war. So much so that the philosopher Jonathan Glover described it as being amongst the worst atrocities of the Twentieth Century. His reason is that it happened so late in the century, at a time when the protagonists ought to have known better and have learned from the past; when communication was such that we in the 'West' knew what was happening (remember those TV reports from Srebrenica and Sarajevo) in contrast to say, the sketchy knowledge we had of  the the regimes of Stalin or Mao in the Fifties and Sixties.

Thinking back, I recall my own feelings being that it all seemed such a long way off.  Somehow those strange sounding names - Srebenica, Kranska Gorja Banja Luka - gave it a distance that was greater than the geography. Not only that, but the whole religious and nationalist aspect was based on history I didn't understand. Even when British troops were part of the peace-keeping forces I don't think I understood who or what we were keeping apart. And I suspect I was better informed than most

If my feelings were typical - and I suspect they were - it is not only a sad indictment of our media. It also says something about our isolationist attitudes. The writer Tim Garton Ash has argued that the Yugoslav wars would never have happened in the European Union - partly because of the political structures, partly because of the shared values and history of 'Western Europe'. The Yugoslav wars, he argues, (together with other conflicts that followed the break up of the Communist Block) are perhaps the best demonstration of why the European Union should be cherished - and why it is so much more than the bureaucratic laughing stock the media delight in portraying.

For the disturbing truth is that the conflict was marked by its proximity rather than its distance. To think it took place just over the border from Austria is something worth reflecting on.  So too is the shamefully slow response of most European states -  though we often knock the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, it was the US that made the decisive interventions on what were largely humanitarian rather than political grounds.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Yugoslav wars is another sort of proximity. How close each of us might be, in similar circumstances, to losing our humanity; how little it takes for 'ordinary people' to tip over into barbarism. Fear and propaganda no doubt fuel that transition, and I'd like to think in our comfortable democracy we have better and deeper values.

Somehow I doubt it; the people whose stories are told in Missing Lives are much the same as you and me; so too are may who acquiesced or even perpetrated unspeakable horrors. As I lay awake last night I kept thinking of football matches I have been to: the chanting, the tribal behaviour, the nearness to violence - if more were at stake than a three championship points I'm not so confident of our better side winning out.

Missing Lives is a collection of stories, each astonishing and horrifying in itself; stories which, according to MacLean and Danziger, needs to be told. It is also a sharp reminder of how lucky we are and how fragile is so much that we take for granted. And it is that unnerving thought, which gave me the sleepless night.


Missing Lives is published in conjunction with major exhibition of Nick Danziger's photographs at the South Bank in London, sponsored by the International Commission of the Red Cross. The book is produced in an unusual format with the pages connected at the leading edge to create a fan-like strip. I wrote to Rory about this and he replied:

It's called Japanese binding.  A single piece of paper on which all the stories are printed, the concept being to link all fifteen stories – a people united in suffering on the page as on the land. The book's fragility is part of the same concept; an echo of the frailness of human life.
All these elements, as well as the carefully chosen format (size) and paper, and to ensure that the reader is not distanced from the events, that he or she holds the stories in their hands, that there is no coffee-table-book distancing.  The deign features - like my text and Danziger's images - are all aimed at making the reader stop and think about the events portrayed.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


The view west from my house

Imagine how it would feel to lose your first born son. Worse, imagine him committing suicide; your golden boy kneeling into a noose, choosing death over any comfort you might offer. And as the tide of grief engulfed you, imagine learning that your partner and lifelong love has terminal cancer. Imagine she dies within a year.

The truth is I can't imagine how that would feel.

Sure, I can string some words together, probably clich├ęd -  curl up and die, cry my heart out - but the reality is I have little conception of the visceral hurt, the psychological trauma such losses would bring. The losses I have experienced seem trivial by comparison- or at least more natural and in their proper place.  I have no idea what I would do; how I'd respond; where I would go.

My friend Jim Perrin faced these horrors, and more. And he went West - drawn to the Atlantic shores of Ireland, his instinct to reach out for the recuperative power of landscape. He went West, he writes in his new book, because the West is the landscape of loss; because the West is where the light dies. But going West was as much a mental as physical journey; in the landscape of the West he found not only solace, but also the strength to take the first faltering step out of grief's labyrinth.

West is an extraordinary book: beautifully written, heartfelt, nauseating; it is poetic and scholarly, bawdy and funny; it is the story of unimaginable grief, a story we would never wish on ourselves. And yet it is also a love story; as much about life as it is about loss - if not exactly embracing his sorrow, he at least shows us the possibility of  facing it, and even finding joy in our memories.

Because I know Jim and his story, I have thought a lot about his central theme of looking West. Is there something about The West I wonder, that draws us and provides solace for loss? In a literal sense, I think not, though I suspect Jim would counter that I am missing the importance of our myths and cultural subconscious. Perhaps, but to me it is as relevant that he turned to the sea. I was brought up on Tyneside, where the idea of  Coast and East are synonymous - and yet the sea has always, in my mind, represented a place of escape, and to some extent of pilgrimage too.

But I agree with Jim in a broader sense. I agree that landscape, and wilderness in particular, has the power to heal, and also to reveal - often showing us to be stronger than we might imagine. Being 'in' the landscape is more than the journey or the view - it is about finding ourselves as much as finding the way; about looking inward as much as outward, and thereby glimpsing truths to which we are otherwise blind.

All my adult life I have climbed and walked and kayaked and cycled, often in extreme and wonderful landscapes; but I have done this as much for what I bring back to my 'normal life', as for the excitement or beauty that is always inseparable from any particular spot. Along the way I have found special places; places to which I habitually return. It is only conjecture, but if faced with a similar loss to Jim's, I suspect these are the places I would go.

Perhaps we each have our own West, it's position on the map less relevant than our memory, preference, history... Jim's West may be more literal than mine, but then his need was more compelling, his life-journey more bereft. But the triumph of his book, is that it transcends the personal and introspective - West is no writing as therapy dirge- to become something not only poignant, but relevant to us all. Ultimately, West is the story of how we might come through.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Past imperfect 3 - private schools and personal prejudice

It is interesting how our values are formed. 
The philosopher in me would like to think reason holds sway; that disinterested reflection can show us the moral standards we should live by, and be happy to do so – because we know them to be fair and just. When we deviate from those values, it does not necessarily make us evil, but it we know in our hearts that we are falling short.  And if new evidence or better reasoning comes to our attention we should adjust our judgements; change our values accordingly.
But I know too that life isn’t like that.

More often our values are intuitive; a gut response to right and wrong that is coloured by past experience and shaped by personal prejudice. We are victims of what philosophers call emotivism - searching for logic to support our likes and dislikes rather than taking an objective, disinterested view. And as a result we all of us have inconsistencies, little hypocrisies and hobby horses that don’t quite fit with the bigger picture, with the values and standards we expect from others or hope to see elsewhere.

In most cases, if we reflect enough, we can recognise this trait and make allowance. We know, for example, that our dislike of next door's dog has more to do with our being bitten as a child than anything about the animal itself.  But sometimes our gut reaction is so strong, and so entwined with our beliefs, that disentangling it from rational thought can be next to impossible.
For example, I have long held the view that private education (or independent schooling as it now prefers to be called) is fundamentally unfair. In a meritocratic society - in which opportunities are limited and positions awarded on merit - I believe it is unjust that the richest in society can effectively buy an advantage over those who cannot afford to do the same. Education is the gateway to future opportunity and as such it is different to other goods and services; buying advantage in education undermines the whole principle of merit as the basis for rewards and progress in society.
I have reflected on this conclusion for over thirty years; I have read extensively on the subject, considered the arguments for and against as best I can; I have written essays and corresponded with great thinkers on the issue – and always I came to the same conclusion: that private education is unjust, or more bluntly, wrong!
But the point here is not to argue too much about the ethics of private education (I’d fall out with too many friends), rather it is to declare a truth about my own reasoning and perhaps illustrate its limits.  For the fact is, my intense dislike of the public school system is not entirely objective; it is also a gut reaction to my first term at university.
I went to university from an above average but hardly excellent state school.  I worked hard to get there; had the benefit of a few great teachers and the handicap of many poor ones – the route that I naively presumed everyone took. In the town I lived, barely anyone went to private school and if I gave the morals of the issue any thought, I probably concluded it was unimportant, because it affected so few people.
How wrong I was.
At university I quickly discovered that nearly half of my peers had been to private schools. Many had received privileges and support that no one could regard as even vaguely equitable. Some were clearly bright young people; other had palpably been crammed beyond their ability; virtually all would agree they did ‘better’ as result of their privileged education.
And I remember feeling how unfair this was; more than that I had a deep and visceral reaction to what I perceived as an astonishing injustice.  I thought of my friends who, for the sake of a few grades, had missed out on degree placements; how others had only found places at polytechnics (no disgrace but frankly not as good), and I compared them to what I saw as the undeserving, upper class, uber-privileged, give-me-all-the-help-possible, students in my class..
That wasn’t all  – perhaps it was coming from the North, the sense of being a small town boy; I still don’t fully know – but I would find myself taking a jaundiced view of anyone who had been to private school, no matter what their merits. And the truth is, that thirty years later, I still do. Regardless of how clever or worthy anyone is, if I learn they have been to a private school, my instinctive reaction is that they have been ‘helped’ and their achievement is somehow diminished in my eyes; at its extreme I can (quite unreasonably) actively dislike them as people too. 
Sometimes though, that isn’t hard. I remember one chap at university, - I’ll call him James - he’d been to Harrow, flunked his A levels the first time round, been crammed for a year to get the necessary grades and was now at Leicester University with the express intention of getting no more than a ‘pass’ degree. When we first met, I hated him.
But the trouble with disliking James was that he was a nice bloke: he was personable, funny and a hit with the girls; and he had the inner confidence which comes from knowing that life would be fine regardless - after all, his father was a millionaire. The truth was I liked James, a lot; what I hated with a passion was the unfairness he represented.
And still today, I find myself in that same dilemma.

Many of my friends and colleagues think of private education as the norm. They don’t view it terms of fairness; to them it is about giving their children the best chance in life, of maximising opportunity and fulfilling potential. As one of them said to me the other day ‘I want my children to have the best, and if I can afford to give them a head-start, why not?’  I empathise with that position – as a parent I have instinctive desire to see my children thrive, and it is hard to restrict their opportunities in deference to the niceties of ethics.
But ultimately values do matter. They matter not only in a general sense of fairness throughout society; they matter also to how we see ourselves and our sense of achievement. When I asked my acquaintance why he used the expression ‘head-start’ rather than advantage he replied, ‘Look, I know independent schools are unfair, but having a head-start isn't as bad as cheating.’
I beg to differ. When my son raced his bike it was fundamental that everyone started from the same line, had the same gears and equipment and didn’t receive a push off – any transgression resulted in disqualification.  The analogy to education is not quite correct but it is not far off. There comes a point when the best coaches, the best equipment, the best facilities, the inside connections.... amount to a clear and unfair advantage. We all know this; it’s precisely this advantage that parents are paying for when they send their children to private school.
But returning to the bike racing, the interesting thing is that had my son sought advantage, my pleasure in his achievements would have been diminished.  His too, because I know of no one who is more alert to what is fair than him. And that isn’t about reason either – it is an intuitive understanding of what is worthy and what is less so.
I can’t resist finishing with another anecdote. Recently I was talking to someone I am close to, whom I like very much and know to be a good and caring parent. He said of his son, ‘The thing about X is that he just isn’t bright; frankly, most of his education is a waste, but if we didn’t send him to private school, there’s no way he’d get to university.’ That’s my point entirely! ‘I know,’ he replied, ‘but we’re not all philosophers or saints and, hey, wasn’t university great?’
I laughed and let it pass.  He’s a nice guy, and I didn’t want to argue. What's more, I know that for all my reasoning, my quoting of ethical theory and supposed objectivity, it is really that first term at university, and the shock it gave me,  that I’ve been reflecting on all these years.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Life skills

When I was a teenager my mother made a comment in passing about skills for life.  It wasn't particularly insightful and I doubt if she remembers, and yet I've long pondered what she said: 'There are three skills I wish I possessed: to be able to type, to play a musical instrument and to speak a foreign language.'

Why don't you learn then, I thought.

But of course that is easier to say than to do, especially when you have a family to look after, a job to hold down, a house to clean...  And whilst we know that children have an innate ability to absorb knowledge, we also know their capacity to learn has peaked long before they are teenagers. By the time most of us have reached our twenties, tackling new skills is all too difficult.

Perhaps that explains why it was, by the time I came to Wales in the Eighties, I'd not mastered any of my mother's wish-list. To be fair, I had other skills: I could draw and paint and climb and tie knots and paddle a kayak and navigate in the dark...  And I suppose I knew lots of 'stuff' that others might not: the names of moths, philosophy, economics, even how to sell advertising (boy, does that feel long time ago).

But still it niggled that I couldn't do any of the 'the list'.

It was the coming of computers that taught me to type; that and a pirate copy of a Mavis Beacon program.  Despite her stern warnings, I still look at the keys out of habit, but I'm better than a two finger basher and can manage about fifty words a minute on a word processor.  I'm convinced that I couldn't write seriously if I didn't type, largely because editing and re-editing, and re-editing, and...  is the way that I craft my words. My mother was right; it was a useful skill to master.

I often wonder if there is something about our twenties - a reaction to school; a need to get on with our careers - that turns many of us away from formal learning.  I was certainly like that; and I notice many of the young people at work seem still to equate learning with 'studying' and all its negative connotations. In truth we continue to learn whether we study or not: becoming parents, getting promoted, coaching the soccer team... But these things are not quite the same as the lifelong skills implied by my mother's list.

For myself, I was in my thirties before I returned to formal learning. It happened gradually: I read more widely, painted more seriously, started to write. I became more introverted too; I'd say more creative and aware as well. But most importantly, I came to enjoy the process for itself.  So it is strange that it took me so long to tackle number two the list.

This January I started playing the banjo. It's been a revelation. I'm not much good, but the process is so different to anything I've done before - the gradual coming together, the sense of achievement - and to some extent the sense of loss that I didn't try when I was younger - has fascinated and pleased me. I shall never be great player, but with diligence (which I have in abundance) I might be almost as good at plucking as I am a typing. And if I can mange that, it will no doubt give me immense satisfaction. Yes, my mother was right again.

So what of the third item on the list?

I should probably ignore it; accept that foreign languages are not for me. After all, in my last French exam, aged 13, I scored 2% (for spelling my name correctly) - and that was better than my mark for Latin! I could use the same energy and learn something different - just as valuable, probably more useful.

Yet something about that list still niggles.

And every time I go to Wales it niggles me all the more.  They do special courses for beginners; it would be more useful than French; my English teachers thought I couldn't write either.  Maybe when I retire, I think. I'd have more time then...

Just maybe.

Nos da.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Land of Lost Content

Two things snapped this week.

Usually I’d regard this as a problem – snapping not being associated with matters going to plan. But whilst neither break was something I'd have wished for, after some reflection, I’d like to think there is a brighter side.

On Wednesday I met my old and fine friend Ian. We’d planned a short cycle tour that would take us from the village of Clun in Shropshire over the Marches to the wonderful Elennydd Mountains in Wales. The route wasn’t long (about 120 miles), though with only sixty miles cycling in my legs this year I wasn’t expecting an easy ride.

In my twenties and thirties, cycle touring (alongside climbing and kayaking) was a simply a part of what I did: I rode the Pyrenees on a tandem, the Alps many times over; long tours in Britain, France, Germany. To cycle a hundred miles was no big deal.

And for the last eight years I’ve supported my son, training with him for his races, taking him abroad, mountain biking in the woods, riding the velodrome...

But it’s easy to kid yourself.

I may have remained close to cycling, but in truth I have practiced it less and less. As I reached my forties I took up other interests; as my son got faster I rode in his wake; faster still and I cheered from the stands.

To be fair my lack of miles this year was largely the result of breaking my ribs – more painful and debilitating than I ever imagined. Nonetheless, the general point stands: as we readied to leave Clun I had the distinct feeling that my cycling pedigree was more historic than contemporary.

But hey, it was only a hundred or so miles; we had two and a half days; I could get through that couldn’t I?

And of course I did. What’s more as the miles passed I began to enjoy it too. The first day was a hot but short hop to Kington. The second was damp and tougher, but always we were heading toward the mountains I consider the most special and lovely part of Wales. Indeed, as we neared the Abergwesyn Pass I felt bold enough to say, ‘It’s interesting but even though I’m out of shape, I know I’ll make it.’ That inner confidence, I speculated, comes from a deep core of experience; without it your doubts would be overwhelming and you’d just give up.’

About five miles later that core snapped. 

At the foot of the Devil’s Staircase – an aptly named hill with a 1 in 4 gradient – I got off and walked; no disgrace in itself, except I didn’t even try. The excuses I could make (the broken ribs, the wine in our panniers, the ridiculous gradient, fifty miles that day) – all of them counted for nothing. I had ridden this hill only two years previous – admittedly with more grunt than grace – but least I had done it.

I recalled the lines from Housman’s poem, that two days earlier I had recited to Ian in jest – it was written not far from Clun and seemed appropriate to two old gits setting off on a cycle ride better suited to younger legs.

.... The happy highways where I went  
And cannot come again.

As I looked down from the top of the Staircase I realised this was the first time in thirty years I had voluntarily walked my bike up a hill.

The next morning, after a night at the gas-lit Dolgoch hostel, we set off for Llanwrtyd Wells. Again I walked the hill; this second time less painful than the first; reflecting how quickly we adapt to our limitations and taking comfort that that old age might be like that too.

Freewheeling down the other side, something else snapped.

This time it was my chain – the first time in forty-nine years never mind thirty! We fixed it at the side of the road, using tools and knowledge that younger riders would be unlikely to have. I thought of the Tortoise and the Hare (Dylan’s favorite story) and I knew – from a deep core of experience – that we’d still make it in time to catch the train that would shorten our journey home.

But most of all I thought ‘Thank God I didn’t cycle the hill’.  For the torque of my weight on that chain would undoubtedly have snapped it as the gradient steepened. I remembered the chap I knew who did something similar, his forks collapsing and him crushing his bollocks into the bars - the scars on his face, the bruises on his thighs and the bandy legged walk.  Perhaps there was a brighter side to failure after all.

As it was I finished our cycle route in reasonable style. We hitched the short train ride to Llandrindod Wells – wheeled out of the station into a bike shop opposite, bought a new chain and cycled for thirty or so miles above the delightful Ithon Valley before the deceptively steep climbs on the outskirts of Clun.

Ian had been impressed when I’d recited the Houseman poem. As I sped down the final hill and into Clun I recalled it in full.

Into my heart an air that kills 
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,  
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,  
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went  
And cannot come again.

Pulling to a stop at the packhorse bridge, my brakes hot from the descent and my heart gradually slowing, I couldn’t help but smile. Maybe that second verse wasn’t quite as apt as I’d thought – at least not for few years yet.