From David Maughan Brown in York: Dehumanising the victims

Napier barracks in Folkestone

January 28th

January 27th being Holocaust Memorial Day, we attended the annual civic commemoration of the day, this year via Zoom.  York has more cause that most UK cities to be highly sensitive to Holocaust Memorial Day, having been the site of anti-Semitic riots which culminated on 16th March 1190 in the murders or suicides of the entire one hundred and fifty or so Jewish community of York when they sought refuge in the wooden keep of what later became Clifford’s Tower, which was then burnt to the ground.

Yesterday’s very well put together commemoration was Zoomed from the University of York and introduced by the Vice Chancellor, the Archbishop of York and the Lord Mayor.  The major part of the ceremony featured a very moving talk by Ariana Neumann who told the story behind her memoir When Time Stopped, which recounts  her gradual uncovering, as she grew up in Venezuela, of the past her German-speaking Jewish father would never ever talk about.  Ariana discovered that 25 of the 29 members of her father’s extended family had perished in the Nazi concentration camps and that, although he had managed to escape being sent to the camps himself, her father’s experience had left him so traumatised that he was never able to speak about it.   As is the case every year, if the appalling horror of the murder of the Jews, travellers and others in the concentration camps was the one very striking aspect of the import one took away from the commemoration, the other was the recognition that it took years of incremental dehumanization of the victims to enable their mass murder in the gas-chambers to take place.

All facile analogies or comparisons of other circumstances and events with the Holocaust itself are rightly regarded with suspicion as potentially anti-Semitic tropes, but it is clear that all genocides such as those in Rwanda, in Cambodia, in Bosnia and in Darfur begin with the dehumanization of the victims that characterized Nazi Germany in the years leading up to World War II.   So it is greatly heartening to see that President Biden recognizes the importance of an immediate reversal of his predecessor’s insistence on demonising and dehumanising asylum-seekers and other immigrants.  Putting a stop to the building of Trump’s wall, and decreeing that government documents cease using the term ‘alien’ and speak of ‘non-citizens’ instead, may be largely symbolic, but reuniting immigrant children with their parents, and calling a 100-day halt to deportations, are much more than symbolic.  ‘Non-citizen’ is, of course, only halfway to being acceptable terminology, given the ‘non-White’ term beloved of apartheid functionaries and still used with such casual thoughtlessness in contemporary political and media discourse in the UK.

All the more reason then for dismay when, on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, firstly, our Trumpian Home Office, in this instance fronted by Chris Philip, the immigration Minister, announces that unaccompanied child refugees will no longer be given sanctuary in the UK, in spite of the fact that the Home Office takes ‘responsibility for the welfare of children very seriously.’   So seriously that their welfare can happily be left to the people-traffickers.  Secondly, an article by May Bulman in The Independent[1]exposes the extent of the Covid19 outbreak at the Napier Barracks in Folkstone, one of the “camps” being used to house asylum seekers in the UK.  Bulman reports that by Tuesday over 100 positive cases had been recorded with at least one asylum seeker having resorted to rough sleeping in the camp to avoid having to sleep in a dormitory with up to 27 others, any of whom might be infected.   On 11th January Chris Philip responded to a parliamentary written question saying that the Home office was reviewing the recommendations of a ‘rapid review’ of asylum accommodation.  Ten days later the Home Office was still reviewing the recommendations.

Given the Windrush scandal, the ‘hostile environment’, and the callous indifference to the fate of asylum seekers exhibited by the Home Office and its current figurehead, Priti Patel, it is not stretching too much of a point to wonder whether confining asylum-seekers under such conditions in the first place, and the unconscionable delay in reviewing the findings of the ‘rapid review’ of their accommodation and doing something about it, is not deliberate, rather than just yet another manifestation of our government’s inveterate incompetence.   If we can’t generate waves in the English Channel to swamp the asylum-seekers’ dinghies, and we can’t send them all to St Helena, by way of deterrents, let’s just not worry too much about whether some of them die of Covid.   That might put an extra burden on the NHS, but it could stop them wanting to come here.  If that sounds unduly cynical I would, once again, cite in my defence the striking similarity of attitude and mode of operation of our Home Office to that of apartheid South Africa’s Department of the Interior.   

The relatively good news is that even the most cursory research will show that it isn’t only the Guardian and The Independent that have carried this story sympathetically. Even the Sun and the Daily Mail have done soboth of which have reported on a petition to shut down the site, along with a similar facility at a barracks in Wales, which had already by last Tuesday amassed more than 10,000 signatures.  So, much as the behaviour of the Home Office would suggest that it sees its role as being to take the lead in the incremental dehumanization of the victims of an inherently xenophobic government, it would seem that it still has some way to go if even the populist mouthpieces and opinion leaders of the tabloid press are still able to view the victims of the Home Office’s bullying sympathetically.


From David Maughan Brown in York: Not just another Birthday


29th November

Yesterday saw yet another lockdown birthday come and go.  This time it was my own.  In many respects the contrast from one year to the next could hardly have been be starker.  Last year I spent the day with my younger son, Brendan’s, family in Cape Town, enjoying the already significant warmth of early summer two days before we flew back for Christmas in York.  The last week of November in South Africa always saw the first lychees coming into the shops and one of my annual birthday rituals, which was duly observed, was to enjoy our first lychees of the season.  Yesterday the temperature in York didn’t rise above two degrees Celsius at any point during a murky winter’s day.  Not only did it not feel like lychee weather but I didn’t set foot outside the house all day.  Being all too well aware that I wouldn’t really get to see, never mind hug, my York and Sheffield grandchildren or their parents, and that the day would see us feeling very isolated, I hadn’t been looking forward to it with any great enthusiasm.  But I hadn’t been taking due consideration of my wife and family’s determination to make sure it was a memorably enjoyable, and paradoxically social, day.

It started with breakfast/brunch shared with the family in Cape Town.  Brendan had organised a globalised breakfast for us with Anthony doing the buying and Zoom overseeing the sharing.  The main component was a nostalgic fruit salad consisting of mango, grapes, strawberries and passion fruit.   During the course of the breakfast, I unwrapped presents intended, according to the accompanying card, for ‘a relaxed afternoon’, consisting of a 1kg bag of dry roasted peanuts, four assorted bottles of craft cider and perry, and a copy of Barack Obama’s 750 page long memoir A Promised Land.  Not being a speed-reader, never mind a speed eater or drinker, the relaxed afternoon will extend into very many more than the single one envisaged.  I’ve already dipped very fleetingly into the Obama memoir – humane, articulate and elegantly written – which will keep me going for several weeks and raises, again, the question of how on earth the same country could elect two such polar opposite Presidents within four years.

Breakfast was followed by morning tea, again courtesy of Zoom, with Sarah’s family in Sheffield, with the opening of more presents, some exquisitely crafted birthday cards and a copy of a strikingly mature poem about winter written by the eight-year old younger of my two granddaughters.  I was told to expect a similar Zoom call with Sheffield in the afternoon, but when Susan called me over to her laptop at tea-time I was surprised to find the screen filled with an even more globalised gallery-view of all my siblings and their partners as well as Anthony and Sarah’s families: Johannesburg, Washington DC, Exeter and Swakopmund in Namibia being represented, as well as Sheffield and York.  Last year our interactions consisted of brief phone-calls and/or WhatsApp messages; yesterday we spent a very pleasant  hour catching-up, and agreed to do the same at Christmas.  Over the course of the day a couple of phone-calls had come in from friends and 10 greetings messages had come in for me on the extended family WhatsApp group from various nephews and nieces.

Dinner was again shared on Zoom, scheduled to allow the Cape Town contingent to get home from the party that had kept them from being included in the afternoon’s gathering.  Anthony had circulated a menu in advance (see illustration), I had made my choices which he had prepared, in the case of the excellent Irish chowder with our eldest grandson, twelve-year old James, as leading chef.  Anthony had sent the same menu, with recipes, to Brendan and Sarah so that they could prepare their own choices.  We all dressed as we would to go out, enjoyed a great meal, and spent two hours in each other’s company.  It didn’t take long before one simply stopped noticing that the company was ‘virtual’.   

The day was, on reflection, a testament to people’s capacity to adapt to changed circumstances.   I saw members of our children’s families in person for perhaps five minutes during the day when Kate and two of the children came round to give birthday wishes from a safe distance in person, and Anthony and James came to deliver the dinner.   But far from its being an isolated-feeling lockdown birthday it was probably the most sociable and, where members of the extended family are concerned, inclusive birthday of my adult life – thanks to the good offices of Zoom and WhatsApp, and the love, care and thoughtfulness of close family and friends.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Widening horizons

May 13th

Our physical horizons for the past seven weeks in York have been limited to the three-quarters of a mile route to our allotment, and a circuit, about mile and a half long, of the riverside path along New Walk (260+ years old but that is still shiny new for York), across the Millenium foot and cycle bridge, back past Rowntrees Park, over the Ouse again via Skeldergate Bridge and so back home.  We have been luckier than our family in South Africa who were confined to their house and garden for much of that time, but taking our one daily form of exercise close to our house has felt a bit limited.

All the more reason, then, for me to celebrate the extent to which the continuing process of reviewing the bids for “arctivist” grant funding (projects combining the energies of Human Rights activists and artists) for the Centre for Applied Human Rights that I wrote about on April 25th is continuing to widen my horizons and introduced me to people I would be unlikely to meet promenading along New Walk.  How otherwise would I ever, for example, have encountered an activist with the memorable name of Ohms Law Montana, or two East European drag artists who bill themselves respectively as “the one and only super trooper macho heartbreaker drag king” and “a fatal seductress, bastard of a Russian revolutionary and a German aristocrat”?

I would never, otherwise, have come across a project in Brazil that has already teamed up 1200 waste pickers with 1100 street artists and 2000 volunteers around the world in decorating the hand carts, “Carroças”, used by informal waste and recycling collectors to haul off junk and recyclables. The intention behind the brightly coloured paintings on the carroças is to “make invisible superheroes visible – not only in the streets but in the media.”  The official name of the project, presumably translated from the Portuguese, is “Pimp my Carroça”, but I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that what was intended was “primp” rather than “pimp”.

The bid that widened my horizons most strikingly this time was one from a representative of the self-declared (after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1997) Lithuanian artist republic of Užupis, ‘a part of Vilnius that belongs to everyone and to no one personally’ where the ‘community is governed by customary law, inspirational examples, dreams, insights, mythologies.’  That sounded like a community I could identify with, so I spent far longer than I had intended exploring their website, which includes the Republic’s one-page, but 41 clause, constitution.  The first clause sets the tone:  ‘Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelé, and the river Vilnelé has the right to flow by everyone.’  

There isn’t space here to quote the somewhat idiosyncratic constitution in its entirety, but other thought-provoking clauses include: ‘Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation’; ‘Everyone has the right to love’; ‘Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily’; ‘Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat’; ‘A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need’; ‘Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies’; ‘A dog has a right to be a dog’; ‘Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation’; ‘Everyone has the right to understand’; ‘Everyone has the right to understand nothing’; ‘Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance’; ‘Everyone has the right to be misunderstood’; ‘Everyone has the right to cry’; and ‘Everyone has the right to have no rights.’   Anyone can become a citizen of the Republic ‘who has become acquainted with the Constitution and decided so.  Every citizen of the Republic must visit Užupis at least once.’  Definitely one for the bucket list, once the locked down airlines manage to get their planes into the air again.

from David Maughan Brown in York, UK: Isolation and Cold-calling. April 1-2

Having spent some time learning how to post these blogs myself (thanks to Anne for her excellent fool’s-guide instructions), I turned my attention this morning to transmogrifying into one of my own least favourite creatures – a telephone cold-caller. Isolation is for many of our members precisely what the University of the Third Age (U3A) provides an antidote to: what it offers by way of companionship and friendship being for some people more important than the mental stimulation or physical exercise. As Chairman, I have been particularly concerned about those members of our York U3A community who don’t have email and with whom we can’t, as a consequence, easily keep in touch.  We have been sending out weekly information updates to the 1,550 or so members who do have emails, and our very long-standing practice has always been to post letters to those who don’t have email whenever we send out emails.   But that is totally impractical in present circumstances.  Besides which who knows whether the local constabulary might not think buying stamps and posting letters to be on a par with buying Easter eggs when it comes to being “essential”?

So three of us from the committee have set out to phone all our 230 or so members who don’t have email, working our way down the list on the basis of their membership numbers.   Today I’ve been phoning the ones whose membership numbers are in the 300s and 400s.  Given that the number of the last person on the list to be phoned is just under 4700, the ones in the 300s are clearly very long-standing members, all in their eighties or nineties.   Once the initial suspicion about the credentials of yet another cold-caller have been overcome – April Fool’s Day was probably not the ideal occasion for this exercise – I have found it a heartening experience.   Although many of them live entirely on their own they have, with one exception, all been cheerfully philosophical and said they are being well supported either by family or, more frequently, by neighbours.  I’ve made a note to phone the one exception again next week.  Although time-consuming, it is a worthwhile exercise to the extent that all the 30 odd people I’ve spoken to so far have said how pleased they are that we had contacted them.  It has also been useful to discover that several of them do, in fact, have email.

2 April:  So our sick Prime Minister (using the term literally in this instance) has made an announcement, quoted in this morning’s news bulletins, to the effect that ‘testing, testing, testing’ is what will enable us to conquer coronavirus.  This insight was accompanied by the promise to ramp up the number of tests being carried out.  So Boris has undergone a Damascene conversion in his illness and arrived at a dazzling new insight which just happens to be what the WHO has been saying for the last six weeks.  As it also happens, Boris has himself been promising for a week or two to ramp up testing, with no discernible effect whatever on the number of tests being undertaken.  Perhaps amnesia is another of the symptoms of the virus.

The same broadcast also carried a gem for the collectors of absurd World War II Covid analogies.  A spokesman for some chemical company or other has apparently asserted that small companies can contribute to the war effort in the same way as ‘the little boats at Dunkirk.’  The government effort is like the big destroyers but the little boats can also assist.  Admittedly it was an early broadcast and I was half asleep, but my imagination is not fertile enough, particularly at that hour, to dream up an analogy like that.  If one were to follow it through one would have to conclude that the destroyers have, in fact, been holed below the water-line and have sunk without trace.  Good luck to the little boats.

Where much less far-fetched and jingoistic analogies with war are becoming all too apparent they are, for obvious reasons, being suppressed.   The parallels are with the pain and fear-filled deaths of the many who are dying essentially alone, out of reach and out of touch of those they love; with the loved ones left behind who have not only been unable to watch over or be with them as they die, but are unable to hold anything resembling an appropriate send-off; with those whose loved ones are simply being taken away and burned without any send-off at all.  Those who invoke World War II need to be careful what they wish for.