Primo Levi and Holocaust Memorial Day

Primo Levi

Torture works, said the leader of the free world this week. Perhaps, but it’s also jolly sore. And that is civilisation’s objection to torture: nothing to do with whether it gets the job done.

Deceit also works. Intimidation works. Cocaine, coercion and corruption work: demonstrably so. But you don’t get to use those things and still call yourself human. No: the decoupling of ethics from efficacy is the sole achievement of civilisation. Everything else is just ways to pass the time.

This week began with President Trump’s inauguration and ends, neatly enough, with Holocaust Memorial Day. The Holocaust was the starkest expression of the surrender of ethics to expediency, and as we reflect on this it is well – as always – to acknowledge the undeniable first line of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man:

“It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German Government had decided, owing to the scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average lifespan of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals.”

That so many millions of souls could be extinguished on the altar of political expediency, and the flow of their extermination modulated by the faucet of economic necessity, is an enduring benchmark for evil.

Holocaust Memorial Day is a moment to remind ourselves and our children about where evil comes from. Because far more disturbing than the notion that Hitler was an unknowable madman is the recognition that he was a most familiar kind of pragmatist. For it is in those compromises with expediency – those glib accommodations that we also find in ourselves, in our own protean transgressions of corruption, of enabling, of appeasement – that we see the path from us to him, from here to there, from then to now.

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions” – Primo Levi

When we remember the Holocaust, it isn’t only the ideology or the architecture that turns our blood to ice. It’s the walls of looted suitcases. It’s the gold teeth extracted for profit. The whole in-crowd got rich. It worked.

It is facile to compare Trump with Hitler, a slim man who owned sixteen thousand books and murdered six million Jews. Instead we remember the dead, who don’t tweet. We can remember them through the work of writers like Levi, who survived the Holocaust in a manner of speaking only to “die at Auschwitz forty years later”, as Elie Wiesel put it.

Instead of making easy comparisons, on this of all days, we can simply remember that there is always a path from here to there. It is a familiar path that begins at our own feet and ends in enduring horror. There is an old, familiar path, and we shiver when we hear the groan of its great iron gate swinging open.

Hate is the .zip file of emotions

Transcript of keynote speech to the first New Zealand National Writers’ Forum – Chris Cleave – 17th Sept 2016


I’m excited to be here at the start of something tremendous: the first National Writers’ Forum for a country internationally renowned for its writing. New Zealand punches way above its weight in literature. You change the landscape, you bring out your big guns, you win the Man Booker Prize. And this National Writers’ Forum is to deepen the foundations of that strength, to develop new talent faster.

This is a space for writers and publishers and book people to meet and support each other because – guess what – it’s a long game, and some years the dice will roll for you and other years they’ll get stuck in the cup, and so we must love and support one another.

I want to thank the New Zealand Society of Authors for helping to bring me here – I heard Joan Rosier-Jones’s lecture last night and I was astonished at the range of support available for writers here – you’re in very good hands, I think. Thanks to all the sponsors of this weekend – Creative New Zealand, Copyright Licensing New Zealand, South Pacific Pictures, Kobo, Lowndes Jordan and Time Out Bookstore. Their generosity and forward thinking is the reason we can all be here, and we can applaud them from the heart.

Thanks to the University of Auckland for hosting us. Thanks to my publishers, the wonderful Hachette, who have supported my writing from the get-go. And last but not least, thanks to the organisers of this National Writers’ Forum – thank you especially to Claire Mabey – and also Andrew Laking – both of them were kind enough to come to one of my events in the UK and I suppose they can’t have hated it too much.

One of the nice things about living in London, where I am with my wife and children, is that you do meet a lot of great New Zealanders. I used to assume that you people couldn’t all be so terrific. I thought that maybe you had some kind of quality control procedure before a New Zealander was allowed to leave the country and be seen, overseas, by foreigners like me. Perhaps you had to present yourself to an emigration official at Auckland airport, and do five minute show – maybe a tap routine or a hundred one-armed pushups – to prove that you were terrific. Otherwise how was it explicable that I never meet a bad New Zealander in London?

And then I came on tour here – I’ve been over a few times now – and I learned that the truth is much more straightforward. I’ve travelled all over both your islands – by the way, I like that you named them so imaginatively. I can tell you’re a nation of wordsmiths.

I’ve travelled all over both your islands and I’ve talked with people in bookstores in towns like Matakana, through to great festivals like Christchurch, via all kinds of hospitable and diverse communities like Nelson and Hamilton and Dunedin, and I’ve still never met a New Zealander who wasn’t charming. And so finally I asked about it and one of the festival organisers explained it to me. She said, “Oh, it’s really simple, we just send all the bad apples to Australia.”

Well, I know the Australia thing isn’t entirely serious but you do have an entirely great country, and a very senior person at Whitcoulls yesterday made me promise not to write a word about it, so that the rest of the world won’t notice what a neat thing you have going on. But, well, you do keep writing about it – and I have to say that you keep doing these things that are extremely inconvenient to me personally (did I mention winning the Man Booker Prize, more than once?) and yet however envious I am of your country, and jealous of the success of your writers, I can’t find it in my heart to hate you.

We live in an age where hate is on the rise. The last time the world looked the way it does now, the last time demagogues could incite people to hatred and fear and be elected for it, rather than jailed for it, was in the 1930s. And our parents’ and grandparents’ generation fought against that hate, and they won. New Zealand, America, Britain, France, Australia, Canada and the rest – there was a grand alliance against evil, and that alliance prevailed.

Well, now the evil is back, and as part of the literary community, all of us in this room are going to find ourselves involved in dealing with it. Some of us might find ourselves on the other side – I make no presumptions, and god knows the other side is seductive. In France, in Germany, in Austria and Poland and Greece, the hard right is resurgent.

In my own country, since June this year, there has been a startling takeover by a right wing cabal who won a referendum by invoking the language and imagery of the extreme right. I’m certainly not saying that the people who voted for Brexit are evil, but the leaders who lied to get that result certainly are.

Meanwhile, wars fought over ideologies have produced refugees by the million. Everywhere you look, people are talking about building walls again, and putting up razor wire. In only 51 days, in America, we get to find out whether fear has prevailed there too.

Let’s not delude ourselves by imagining this is an evil that cares what we writers think of it. It is a strutting and chauvinistic evil, and it mocks our careful craft. Donald Trump put it best when he put it thus: “You know, it really doesn’t matter what they write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”

I’ll just leave that out there for you.

This kind of evil does not listen to reason, does not acknowledge science, does not defer to expertise or experience, does not doubt its own convictions, does not read books. And this is the world we writers are working in now. We who grew up to cherish empathy and compassion and beauty and precision. We who learned, over thousands of meticulous hours, to encode those things not just into our plots and our pages and our paragraphs, but into every careful sentence.

We learned to respect the reader, didn’t we? To give them a little space to think and to dream. We learned to acknowledge that people might come to our pages with a bigger life than our own. We learned to be humble and to use tiny little things, like commas, to give readers a great big thing, like, a pause, for breath.

But we write in a breathless world now. Furious reaction follows outrageous event without a moment for reflection. By the time any of us can write a thousand considered words about a thing, the agenda has long moved on. In this climate reason is redundant, beauty skin deep, memory obsolete. And so hate becomes the dominant voice simply because hate takes far less time to express.

This year I published a book about love, and by no means all of love, just the very beginning of people finding each other and trying to make that subtle thing work under difficult conditions, and I stripped that book down to the absolute minimum and I still needed four years and 140 thousand words. But you can do hate in ten seconds and under 140 characters. Hate is so much more readily compressible. Hate is the .zip file of emotions – it’s incredibly efficient. Hate is a message perfectly adapted to the new medium.

What has happened is that the world to which we dedicated our slow and patient craft has undergone a sudden and startling temporal acceleration. The clocks, as Orwell put it, are striking thirteen, and we have to ask ourselves what a writer can usefully do in a world where it’s suddenly thirteen o’clock. Because the only legitimacy we have as writers is that we exercise a craft that is socially useful.

If we no longer believe that we are useful in this accelerated society, then any other writerly questions – How do I get published? How do I sell more books? How do I stop my cat chasing my fingers when I’m typing? – all those other writerly questions are irrelevant, because if I don’t believe in my heart that my writing is socially useful, then my writing will wither and shrivel up.

It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Now, I’m not someone who unequivocally reveres Orwell. I liked it when our colleague Alan Moore said, “Orwell thought the world would end with Big Brother watching us, but it ended with us watching Big Brother.” That’s funny, and sort of true of course, but I’m sure Alan Moore intended it pithily and he wouldn’t mind if I said that it’s only half the truth.

1984 is worth reading again, if you haven’t done so for a while. What you may notice, reading it now, is not so much Orwell’s structures of social control – those systems that we have learned to call Orwellian – but the flashes of emotional insight with which the author invests his protagonist.

If you put Orwell’s words into the context of a Trump rally, or a Brexit speech, or a storm of righteous outrage on Twitter, they seem startlingly modern. Here’s what Orwell writes:

“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.”

He could be talking about today, couldn’t he? Rage is the sudden and surprising and defining emotion of our era, and its most frightening aspect is that it has no greater agenda than to continually feed itself.

The flame of hatred, as Orwell describes it, moves promiscuously from one object to another. This is why each of Trump’s pronouncements, for example, has to be more incendiary than the last – because hate is like any other fix: humans get habituated and so the dose must be increased. Hate does not cool down when it gets what it wants, because hate doesn’t want anything except the next instalment of hate.

And so hate hates Mexicans, then women, then Moslems, then the European Union, then Obama, then gun control, then me, then you. But you could give hate the exact things it was screaming for – and you could annihilate all those things that hate hates – and hate would just hate you for doing it.

That’s why hate is dangerous – because it can never stop. It’s a shark and it drowns if it ever stops swimming. Britain isn’t in trouble because of Brexit. Britain is in trouble because its leaders released hate in order to get Brexit, and now hate is in the tank with us, and swimming.

The world isn’t in trouble because of Donald Trump personally. Donald Trump isn’t actually bright enough to be that kind of evil mastermind. Hate is just wearing that man like a glove. Because he’s an easy man for hate to wear in these times. He’s a man who is never going to have a train of thought that can’t be expressed in 140 characters, and so hate is taking Donald Trump for a swim. And hate will cheerfully eat all of us, and it won’t even spare Donald Trump. Hate ate him first of all, truth be told, and hate is just wearing his face. He’s as much of a victim in this as we all are, which I’m sure he’d hate me for saying.

Well then, what’s the cure for hate? How can we as writers make ourselves useful in this changed landscape? What does all this mean here, and now, for this community of writers operating out of New Zealand, in simple and practical terms?

I have five ideas to suggest to you, and I’m expecting to learn a lot more by listening to all of you this weekend. Here in this forum there is such a depth of integrity and experience. Patricia Grace is with us. Nalini Singh is going to talk about the role of a writer today. Tusiata Avia will speak about the writer’s job as one of bringing the unseen into the world. Kate Pullinger will talk about the changes in the medium itself. I could go on and on – there are too many good writers here to mention.

The only thing I bring to this party, I think, is the fact that I have very recently come through the incredible shock of my own country going through the temporal acceleration we’ve spoken of, and I’m still wide awake with how that feels, and I hope my perspective is useful to you.

So, my first very practical suggestion, for how we as writers can make ourselves useful in these new times, is that we should make sure we stand for something, rather than against everyone else.

A positive example for writers is the Black Lives Matter movement, which began in America and is now reaching out all over the world. Black Lives Matter is not a hate movement, and I know that because I’ve been reading its writers and they make sense. We can learn from them. Black Lives Matter is a rational argument and it will be satisfied when – and only when – America, and the whole world for that matter, starts acting as if black lives matter. And then – for all I know – there might be no further need for the movement. It’s not hate, because it knows how to stop. Black Lives Matter is an eloquent and reasonable proposition, and it wants one particular thing that it is well defined and consistently articulated, and it has a lot of gifted writers in its service. That’s one example of how writers can use their talents constructively in these hate-fuelled times.

My second practical suggestion is to stay open and curious in spirit. Something big in the New Zealand psyche is that it explores its own diverse cultures while still managing to direct curiosity outwards, over the ocean. For example, I’ve always admired your concept of the Overseas Experience, or OE.

Now you’ll already be aware that my own country, which once rather insisted on its right to move freely over the earth, has begun to feel that the free movement of people is a bad thing, and it’s pulling up the drawbridge and insisting that many of its problems come from foreigners, coming to Britain and taking British jobs.

A dozen years ago in London I met a New Zealand dentist, after my tooth had got infected and two British dentists had ummed and ahhhed and put off doing anything about it. And this new dentist, originally from Auckland, took one look in my mouth and said: “Oh yeah, I reckon if we act fast I can probably save your jaw.” And she did. Typical immigrant, really – coming to our country, saving our facial bones.

This dentist told me that she had originally come to England on OE – I didn’t know, back then, so I asked what it was. “Oh,” she said, “OE stands for Outrageous Ending. We all do it. We go abroad, spend a couple of years, and there’s a competition to see who can end the trip most dramatically. There are regional heats and then a national final that’s televised on TVNZ.”

Which brings me to suggestion number three: as writers, we should keep our sense of humour. The antidote to hate probably isn’t love, it’s probably laughter. And book people are pretty useful for that.

When I was in Melbourne last week I mentioned that I was going out for a walk in the city’s ornamental gardens, so my publisher said, “Fine, but just be bloody careful of the drop bears.” Drop bears, in case you don’t know, are urban koalas that have learned to attack humans. They wait until you walk under their gum tree and then they drop down on you and they can give you a really nasty bite. So naturally I gave every eucalypt a wide berth until I thought… hang on.

You do start to get wise to these stories people tell to strangers. When I flew from Melbourne to Adelaide the next day, a bookseller told me I should put my watch to the local time, which was 30 minutes behind. Well you can’t fool me twice – I mean, “drop bears” are one thing, but Australians are an intelligent and pragmatic people and there is no way they would invent something as wilfully problematic as a half time zone, right? So I got the joke this time, and I left my watch where it was, and that’s why I showed up for my first interview half-an-hour early.

This thing is, you can tell a stranger a story – and in fact, as a writer, that’s your only job. It comes with responsibilities and it comes with accountability, but essentially when you are the writer and I am the reader I come to your pages with a joyful naivety, and you can tell me that you’d like to be called Ishmael, or that the sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel, or that Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself – you can tell me those things & I will believe you.

More precisely, if you do your job with skill and humility, then I as a worldly and grown-up and widely-read reader might wilfully suspend my disbelief. You have my trust and you can, and you must, take me on a journey that I would never have embarked on by myself – and that journey may very well change my mind forever. Even after your characters’ voices have faded, if those voices led me – the reader – to discover for myself an emotional truth, then that emotional truth will endure.

That’s why people sometimes cry at the end of good books.

And so this is my fourth very practical suggestion: in a world that suddenly won’t listen to science or reason, won’t follow an argument with multiple steps, and won’t acknowledge statistical fact, tell people a story instead. Believe it or not – and it’s hardly an ideal state of affairs – but storytellers are now the most powerful opinion formers we have. Use the power humbly and with reverence for accuracy and truth, but use it. Use the power while welcoming and actively soliciting people’s right to reply with stories of their own, but own it. Use your gift of empathy and subtlety to tell the gentler human story, in fiction or non-, to soften this world’s hardening hearts.

My fifth and final suggestion follows on from that, I think, and it’s one that is often overlooked by the writing community. My suggestion is to cherish one another. Gandhi, who was a prolific writer himself of course, gave us the advice that we should be the change we wished to see in the world. You’re not that change if you’re trashing another writer’s work just to make your own name heard. That’s something we might reserve for a private letter, not a public review. Let’s criticise each other to each other’s face before anything else, and try to do so with love.

If it helps, when writing a review, my rule of thumb is always to benchmark a fellow writer’s novel against cluster munitions, rather than against the work of Marcel Proust. However bad a book is, it’s honestly not as bad as shrapnel – although you’d never know it from the tone of half the reviews you read these days. And more and more, the most disingenuous reviews are written not by professional critics but by our own fellow writers. So let’s not go there. Let’s cherish each other’s work, and help each other out with shoulders to cry on and sofas to crash on, cash loans in the hard times, and raised glasses in the good.

That way we can learn from each other, as we will over the weekend of this forum. And that way we can also learn a habit of mind that will affect the way we write, and make our stories part of the solution. When we do what we as writers can do at our best ­– which is to make our egos small and our eyes and ears big – then a particular gravity accrues to our work. That gravity draws readers out of the new superfast, event-reaction cycle in which only hate is quick enough to win, and into our own more thoughtful worlds – our storied worlds – where subtlety and complexity and precision and patience are restored to their rightful place.

In other words, when we act like human beings we write like human beings. And when we write like human beings, people are drawn to read us. Because people are not bad. And whoever they vote for, they’re certainly not stupid. It’s just that evil is too quick for us. People are mostly good, but they have day jobs and money worries and health problems just like we all do, and all of that stuff makes us slow, relative to the hatemongers who rush to fill our thoughts.

And so, as writers at 13 o’clock, we have the same craft, the same legitimacy, the same useful social purpose we always did. We must still learn to be humble, and still use tiny little things, like commas, to give readers a great big thing, like, a pause, for breath.

This forum is our own pause for breath and it’s been an honour to address it. I’m looking forward to learning from all of you – I’m sure you’re as excited as I am about this weekend we’re about to have ­– and so without further fuss I will let you get on with enjoying it. Thank you for your kind attention, and thank you again to all of the visionary organisers and generous sponsors and hardworking volunteers and fellow participants of this first New Zealand National Writers’ Forum – long may it continue.


How will we know when you mean it?

When he meant it, Gandhi stopped eating. When she meant it, Boudicca charged.

When the cardinals sat to take their socks off, the new pope knelt – perhaps to show humility but also because frankly it is easier that way – isn’t it? – to get properly involved with the bucket. And he used soap and warm water because the cardinals’ feet were filthy, and he meant it.

When you mean it you will say: while my people still need to use food banks, that’s where I’ll get what I eat.

When you mean it, an aide (silenced by your look) will google the route and you will walk the half-mile to the nearest food bank yourself: cutting across the corner of St James’s Park if you like. Who is going to stop you?

When you mean it you’ll fill in the forms when you get there. When you mean it you will join the back of the queue. When you mean it you will take what is left.

When you mean it you will struggle back to Downing Street, with the cartons of instant mash and concentrated orange juice going soggy on rainy days. Tins of peas will fall out and dent. No one will think less of you if you get your security people to help. No one is looking for a saint. (Heaven is empty, you know this better than we do: they left a note in your drawer. We’re sorry, there are no miracles left.)

When you mean it you will need to fit the trip to the food bank into every third day. Between breakfast and PMQs. Between Fisheries and Farms.

When you mean it the repeated weight of the cartons will make your arms ache, a chronic and sullen throb that a doctor, upon examination of the clinical and intrinsic symptoms, will diagnose as your mandate.

When you mean it the journey to the food bank will be a burden, but our cameras will follow you every time, and our cameras are heavy too. Did you know that it takes the full strength of us all to carry even one of them? They are desperate with our sight.

When you mean it we will watch you with the last hollow strength it takes to keep our eyes open, like children too wary to sleep.

And when we’re finally sure that you mean it, we will kneel, perhaps to show humility but also because frankly it is easier that way – isn’t it? ­– to really, properly weep.


On the folly of only blaming Blair

Beneath the nation’s self-exculpatory fury at its former leader, there is something rotten and frightening about the reaction to the Chilcot Report.

Yes, Chilcot has Blair bang to rights. Yes, Blair is unreformed and solipsistic in his conviction that belief trumps reason. Yes, it is right that a nation should acknowledge the sins of its past to guard against repetition.

But it is in this last respect that the reaction to Chilcot should terrify us. There is knuckle-dragging primitivism in the vehemence with which the nation seeks to vest in the person of Tony Blair all causality, all blame and all transformative possibility of redemption. These are dark and divided days for our kingdom. Our harvest has failed and finally the culprit has been decried by a powerful sorcerer: the devil is our former king and as soon as he is burned in the public square, the gods will favour us again and our crops will flourish.

And yet it is wilfully wrong to pretend that Blair, singlehanded – powerful though he was – forced a reluctant nation into a war of choice. It is beside the point that he exaggerated the case for war, because the whole decision making apparatus of the country knew that case to be confected. The press was full of it, dinner parties buzzed with it, Charles Kennedy nailed it, and Robin Cook resigned over it.

Fully aware that the rationale for war was missing, the Commons voted for war anyway – the majority of MPs animated by realpolitik and the belief that their constituents largely supported the war and would not punish them for it at the next election. In this belief they were confirmed correct two years later, in 2005, when both the ruling party and the opposition that had supported the war were returned largely intact.

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If we really want to learn from what went wrong then this one awkward result, not the 2.6 million words of Chilcot, is the smoking gun. Although the liberal part of the country opposed the war and famously marched against it in great numbers, it is an act of honesty to remember that this was (and arguably still is) a minority of the electorate, safely ignored by most MPs. When it came down to it, tacitly on the eve of invasion and formally two years later, the most significant decision of Blair’s premiership was overwhelmingly endorsed by an acquiescent public who must now reflect in private.

Blair was Britain’s bellwether and its talisman. The nation’s blood seemed to flow through his own arteries. From “education, education, education,” via “she was the people’s princess” to “shoulder to shoulder with our American friends,” he enshrined and embodied the public mood. We deceive ourselves, and condemn our nation to future disasters, if we now pretend that Blair, but not Britain, lost the plot. Our tragedy and Iraq’s is not that Blair misjudged the British public’s modern appetite for recklessness, but that he judged it perfectly.

Everyone these days claims to have opposed the Iraq war, just as ten years from now it will be hard to find anyone who admits to having voted for Brexit. (Like Woodstock, if everyone who claims to have been on the march against the war actually had actually been, they’d have had to find a bigger venue.)

The truth is that a substantial part of the public in 2003 and 2005 chose to believe what they were told by the media players who, even today, continue to be the kingmakers in Britain’s democracy and the architects of British policy. If we sincerely want to safeguard against another Iraq war – or another Brexit – then hanging Blair out to dry is not the same as washing our dirty laundry.

Until Britain is brave enough to clean up its Bermuda triangle of money and media and power – that undemocratised space where rationality mysteriously disappears – then a working majority of us will continue to be willingly led into calamitous decisions by knaves and holy fools.



When is a writer a racist?

I sometimes get asked if I am a racist, by people taken aback at the vocabulary that Everyone Brave is Forgiven uses.

I think it’s a reasonable question to ask, and I will give a short and a long answer.

The short answer

Am I a racist? No, I am not a racist.

The long answer

There are two reasons why Everyone Brave is Forgiven uses racist vocabulary, and they are both straightforward. The first is the duty to historical accuracy. Having discovered in my research for Everyone Brave is Forgiven that white people in the 1930s and 1940s used words like “nigger” casually and with abandon, it would have been a racially loaded act on my part to exonerate them by whitewashing their words. Rather, I prefer to use the language of the period with precision, since that is the best way to understand the mind set of the time. The novel’s use of the word “nigger” is reportage, not racism.

The second reason for using historically accurate vocabulary flows from the fact that any historical novel is really a commentary on the time in which the writer is living. I don’t believe that racism crawled away and died sometime between the 1940s and the present day. Rather, I think it is still a deep and divisive evil that continues to harm individual lives and shape national politics. By being upfront about the ubiquity of racism, and not seeking to soften its language or its acts, I hope to show its historic weight and its continuing influence on the way we live now. I write about racism and xenophobia without pulling any punches, because I think we need to talk about it now, and with urgency.

Having explained the use of racial epithets in my novels, I hope I can now make some observations on the context in which my work is presented. Here also, I have two straightforward points to make. The first is that I acknowledge I am a white person, writing about race, and that some people think my identity disqualifies me from using certain vocabulary even in the frame of reportage. Others go further, denying that a person of one heritage has any right to narrate the experiences of those with another.

I have sympathy with this point of view, but I don’t share it and I don’t think it is healthy when followed to its logical conclusion, which is that each of us may only imagine things from our own point of view. I think that leads to self-convinced world views and a Balkanisation of the human experience. I think it leads to fanaticism.

By contrast, I think that the job of researching how others feel is a useful vocation. In trying to understand and narrate the lives of others, artists hope to bring about the small leaps of empathy that allow societies to bridge divides of heritage.

My second observation concerns the vocabulary and semiotics of people who really are racists. White supremacists these days are specifically trained not to use words like “nigger”, which would get their social media accounts shut down automatically. If I may I will give you an example from this morning. This is, I suppose, a vaguely intimidating tweet I received from a person who was taking exception to my support for refugees:

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The first thing I would call attention to is this person’s use of reversed triple parentheses around their presumptive pseudonym. This requires a little decoding: in response to an anti-Semitic browser plug-in that automatically placed triple brackets around typically Jewish names, some Jews and gentiles alike last month began voluntarily to place these “echoes” around their own names, to express solidarity with those targeted. By reversing these echoes, “don johnson” signals a polar opposition to Jews and to those who act in solidarity with Jewish people.

This person’s second signifier is their Twitter avatar, of which I can give you a close-up view:

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Again, this might require explanation for those not familiar with British political history. As a Conservative MP, Enoch Powell made a divisive speech in 1968 in which he warned, on the subject of black immigration, that he foresaw “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”. To present Powell as a visionary in one’s Twitter avatar is to lionise a figure who is widely considered an apologist for racial hatred, and whose inheritors today find themselves emboldened.

Out of curiosity I looked down this person’s timeline, and found much in this vein:

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Again, this person is not using any racially loaded vocabulary that would automatically trigger blocking or police investigation – and yet the intent is clear. (In this case, the unambiguously racist contention that to be non-white is to be non-English.)

That racism is an endemic, root-and-branch evil is shown by the unbroken continuity of the xenophobes’ presentational methods, all the way through from this small time bigotry on Twitter to the populist campaigns that swing a whole nation’s vote. Here, for example, is UKIP’s recent EU referendum poster, using exactly the same technique – the message visually encoded, rather than made explicit in words:


The point I hope to illustrate is that today’s racists and xenophobes are to be recognised not by their public use of racially charged vocabulary as reportage in a curated historical context, but by their use in real time of a rich and shifting symbology that stays ahead of governments’ ability to legislate and service providers’ inclination to filter. In the exploration of society’s values a writer hopes to be a fixed point, while a racist makes themselves a moving target.

This shiftiness extends beyond presentation to the whole issue of truth. A racist seeks to continually revise and rebrand events, twisting words and facts to suit their monomaniacal world view. A writer, by contrast, seeks to present history with precision, both factual and linguistic, because they know it to be the foundation of the present.

I hope this has been a useful explanation and that there is now no confusion about what I stand for. If this piece has made my books sound very stern and serious, I hope they’re not. Rather, I hope that readers can enjoy the immersive experience of my work, including its laughter and emotion, secure in the knowledge that my novels are well researched, truthfully presented and relevant to the world we live in. I have never thought that reading ought to be a punishment, and I hope people will enjoy my books.



The five stages of Brexit grief

In the week since the EU referendum I now realise that I have gone through the first four of the five classic stages of grief. It surprises me that my mind automatically processed the result the way it would a bereavement, rather than a political event. It explains much – and so here I will outline how it has felt, in case it helps as you navigate your own process.

“Denial” was over in minutes, and then came an incandescent “Anger” phase that consumed me for three days and two rather sleepless nights. I gave some uncompromising interviews and literally trembled with rage. I also wept with frustration. Perhaps with hubris, I considered that I had a greater personal understanding of what had been surrendered than did the people who voted to surrender it. This was a difficult emotion. I tried to find solace in sentiments such as “forgive them, for they know not what they do,” but I have never really got on with the supercilious tone of that jazz, and in any case I was not ready to forgive.

The “Bargaining” stage corresponded with my signing the petition for a second referendum, and then I spent a couple of days deep in Stage Four – “Depression” – which the Wikipedia entry on the Kübler-Ross model describes as being characterised by thoughts such as ‘I’m so sad, why bother with anything?’

I began to swim back up towards the light. As DH Lawrence put it, “We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

Finally, today, my mind turned to the question of “Acceptance”: whether I should, whether I can, and whether there might be a mode of acceptance that is also beautiful and constructive. Because that, after all, is what a writer should stand for: beauty, and the belief that we can always rebuild.

I do think I have found a constructive mode for acceptance – and I hasten to add that I do not equate acceptance with submission. Also, I must admit that acceptance involved me first articulating my anger in the most explicit terms. I’m finding that it helps to write down exactly what is happening to the country that raised me, and into which I’ve poured my lifelong energy and devotion, and which has now voted to the effect that people like me, and my EU immigrant wife, and our three French-passported children, are the problem.

Anger, then. Look at the winners now, striking their statesmanlike poses, feigning reluctance to take up the greatest office. Listen to them, quoting from Julius Caesar as if they were stabbing each other for the throne of a heartland that stretched from Tingis to the Euphrates, rather than from Bognor to Basildon. Now look behind them at the lonely tycoons, flaccid with age and a surfeit of pleasures, who bankrolled the coup for the last dry thrill that the treachery gave them.

It is easy to see how one might remain in the anger stage forever, and I daresay some people will – because for the moment insult is still being added to injury.

The cabal’s most insulting deception is to make us believe there was no plan for the country after the Leave vote. This is nonsense, of course. The usurpers are high achieving sociopaths with four-hour-a-night sleep habits, obsessive focus on their personal ambitions, and unusually low levels of sentimental attachment to their mistresses and families and friends. It is wishful thinking to believe that they are public school twits treating life as a game or a joke. No: they are very talented people who are so serious that we can barely comprehend it, and we are the chumps making jokes about them on Twitter.

The winners are inveterate schemers who don’t make a cheese sandwich, let alone destabilize the whole world to profit from the ensuing chaos, without first establishing plans for all contingencies – including success. Of course they have a plan. Their design has been years in the making and very clearly telegraphed: it is to raise a country in their image, while reserving for the least favoured among them the prize of bestraddling its awkward and bucking throne.

Along the way their backers in various sectors, including broadcasting, health care, security and detention provision, will get richer still. If they have their way they will deal with the BBC and the NHS by strangulation. They will do little for science, education, universities, charities, farming, fishing, or the arts, and certainly not for technology, infrastructure and construction. The conspirators have never had a feeling for the constructive. They have always made their way by the breaking up and selling off of other people’s achievements. So, for the avoidance of doubt: that’s still the plan.

The winners’ skill this week has been to present themselves as if in disarray – like a bird feigning injury to distract us from its nest. The insult is their insistence that we should accept at face value the picture they make now, as they shriek and scrabble blindly in the dust for the eye they used to share.

Anger, again. It is unarguable that the referendum held fewer risks for its instigators than it did for the nation. If they lost, there was no downside for the Brexit backers: they were simply principled men, making a stand. But they won and now, whatever the stage of our grief, we are in the next stage of their triumph. The plotters have sold a bill of goods to a narrow majority, and now they will invoice all of us for delivery.

And so now, like anyone faced with a bill from a state monopoly, I begin to contemplate “Acceptance”.

How to even begin? Well, by putting my own mind in order first. We should react as we think our heroes would, and a hero of mine is Gandhi. I think he would suggest that we look to the outcome we hope for (in my case, I hope for a reunified British people before we can begin to discuss our new relations with the world). Having identified the object of hope, Gandhi might suggest that we should prepare our minds to behave responsibly in that struggle.

So, the first step for me is to control my own pride. However much Remain voters might dislike the result, it is important for us in the Remain camp not to imagine that we are superior. If the Remainers really were cleverer, Remain would have won.

Oh – and yet! When we watch the behaviour of the victorious camp, it is hard for Remain voters not to feel that we inhabit a more reasonable world. The public leaders of Leave now mire themselves ever deeper in each other’s blood. And of the trusting foot soldiers of Brexit, Remainers can only ask: where is their red, white and blue bunting now? Where are their street parties with cake and trestle tables? In this, the week of their triumph, where are their plastic Union Jack hats held on with loops of elastic?

It is so tempting to feel superior on noting that, in the week since the referendum result, the winners-in-the-street have been awfully quiet. Seventeen million victors are not acting like liberators who have freed their enslaved country. Instead they cower like serfs who have done their masters’ bidding, only to watch their masters being put to the sword.

Now they wait nervously for the next unknown fear to be announced. The people have already stopped asking about the 350 million pieces of silver they were promised. A few are still strutting and crowing, of course, but they are the lapdog columnists and small time collaborators giddy on the miniscule aliquots of power they were given. They are the ones who have forgotten that history is always auditioning for faces to place above its picture caption, “The weak minded fell under the spell”.

Well, let’s not be too sure that those photos won’t also be of the 48 per cent. Remainers might flatter themselves that they have reason, technology, science, economics, art and sometimes money on their side – but these things only insulate against false argument. They offer no immunity whatsoever against the method that the conspirators learned in the cradle of their twisted families, which is the dark art of division.

The plotters will certainly have won if we, the Remainers, allow ourselves to despise the half of the nation who, until a week ago, were just thought of as our nation’s business owners, our paramedics, our military, our farmers, our fishermen, our police forces, and our families. Ours.

Each side would be quite wrong to scorn the other even if it was believed that they voted against their own interests. If we actually thought that 17 million people were stupid or evil, then we all ought to just stay in “Depression” and say “why even bother with anything?”

But the other half of the British public is not stupid or evil. The worst we should accuse them of is also the worst accusation we should accept from them: that the two sides in the EU referendum were basing their decisions on completely different sources of information. We should admit that we still have no idea what it feels like to be them, just as they still have no idea how it feels to be us.

Remainers are doing the conspirators’ work for them if they stay angry at the voters who, by reason of their locality and demographic, will suffer worst in the great social divisions that this coup has as its goal. Having perceived a mandate for the view that foreigners – and not bad government – are the reason for hard working people’s travails, there is a terrible likelihood that bad government will now crack down on foreigners. (Including, for example, my wife and children.) But as soon as that particular well has run dry, the least empowered in our society will be issued instructions on how to hate one another. We can’t be angry at people who are about to suffer so badly.

The Remain camp, too, will be manoeuvred into finding divisions within itself. Already the gaps are opening. Those who want a second referendum versus those who grudgingly accept the result. Those who will allow a Tory coronation to decide the future of the country, versus those who will demand a general election. Those who are still full of fight and fury, versus those who feel they must now move on.

(For what it’s worth, we are a free people with no written constitution, in an unprecedented situation for which there is no jurisprudence or tradition – and so, whatever your opinion about the most legal and desirable way to interpret the referendum’s result, you are absolutely correct.)

Wherever we stand, it is worth noting that our democracy was so structured that it allowed a dozen wealthy and emotionally damaged people to abuse it to destruction. The leaders of the coup probed for the weakest part of the system, and they found it when they offered up the promise that globalisation could be avoided through immigration controls and self-isolation.

Because of our first-past-the-post electoral system, gerrymandered for years to create parliamentary seats for traditional parties, there was no parliamentary forum in which the practical problems of globalisation could be effectively debated and solved. Missing from parliament were perhaps a dozen green MPs, several score of liberals, and maybe as many  single-issue Eurosceptics who would have been present under proportional representation.

Not enough pro-Europeans stood up, when there was still time, and insisted that the people whose views they found distasteful should nevertheless be represented in the Commons. I know I didn’t. I just looked at the number of people who voted UKIP at the last general election, versus the number of seats they won, and I thought “thank god for first past the post”. As a democrat I’m ashamed of that reaction now, and I offer this as my acceptance of my own part in the referendum result. Because that vital national conversation was excluded from Parliament, of course it took place in the street.

As a consequence, a referendum has delivered a verdict that has atomised our democracy in a way that almost no one is happy with.

It’s a shame that it all came down to the issue of foreigners. In an ideal world a great many people would agree that the best response to globalisation is excellence. I don’t think either side would deny that it is exactly Britain’s excellence which once minded our European partners to treat our exceptional country exceptionally.

Before the Brexit vote we were Europe’s mad and brilliant cousin, allowed our free range existence on the edge of the continent, taking the ingredients that helped us, and giving energy back. We did not count the cost any more than the sun counts the cost of radiating light. It was in our nature to shine, being so full of bright fuel.

Now our star has been turned inwards and is in danger of burning itself up. A cabal of self-serving careerists has done something worse than taking us out of Europe. This tiny clique of people with no understanding of creation or invention or compassion has turned us against each other. The least of our worries now is that our economy will cool. Instead we must fear that our streets will burn.

How, then, do we halt the downward spiral? Well, first we must save each other and then we must save our politics.

To rescue one another we must be careful to restrict our fury to the very small group of people who put personal ambition ahead of the safety of a nation. Anyone outside that cabal must be respected and admired, whether we agree with them or not. Democracy is the acceptance that life is very hard for everyone, and that it is therefore possible to respect the views of almost any fellow citizen who is still standing after multiple years on earth.

Our own leaders, astonishingly, have tried their utmost to divide us. Let us therefore be resolute in our mindful efforts to love and to celebrate one another across this great divide of opinion. We should carry on, with neither hatred nor violence, as if we were still British.

Next we must all be positive and generous with our energy. We shouldn’t be small in our anger, or wear the badge of our vote to signal our virtue. We should look for symbols that unite us, now that no flag – either European or British – quite does that trick at the moment.

We should also feel strangely lucky. Times of great instability are rare opportunities for change, negative but also positive. We will not all agree on the nature of the changes we wish to see, and nor should we. But there has never been a better time to join a political party, to write letters explaining our views, to volunteer for charities, to be the change we want to see. We’ve arrived in a time when living according to our principles will really make a difference, and that is exciting. That is a truth I can accept.

Finally, we can remember what it is that we like about our country. It is a good exercise to think of a British person you admire so much that you would not think any less of them even if you learned that they had voted for the other side.

My own starter-for-ten comes from a few years back when, researching a novel about a sick child, I spent some time interviewing medical staff at Great Ormond Street Hospital. I met a nurse named Sue Snaith, Sister on Elephant Ward. I have absolutely no idea how she voted in the referendum, and I don’t care. She was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met.

In her job, Sue cared with exquisite skill and compassion for very sick and sometimes terminally ill children. She rode a huge motorbike to work. She answered my questions thoughtfully, with precision and a bright sense of humour. The ward was extremely intense, and I couldn’t understand how she managed the emotional stress of her job. So I asked her what she did on her holidays. She replied that she volunteered as a trauma nurse with the British Army on deployment in the Middle East. With her deeply held conviction that life was about service and healing, that was what this amazing woman did to relax.

As I begin to think about acceptance, it is helping me to remember why I still like Britain. I do think it is surprisingly full of people like Sue Snaith. You never see them in the newspapers and you don’t ever get to vote for them. They’re too busy to talk about themselves, and too modest to tell you what you should think, but together they make up one Britain, which is still a country I think is worth fighting for.

It is also a country I think I can accept, and by this I mean that I accept to continue living here and fight for a more enlightened politics, rather than going to live abroad. I hope in return that one day, in the not-too-distant future, Britain will find it in its heart again to accept me, and my EU immigrant wife, and the three kind, helpful and industrious children of our little European union.



Why I’m not boycotting the Emirates Lit Fest 2016

I will attend the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature next month, despite a sincerely argued call from the Think Twice Campaign to embargo it. Boycotting the festival, they say, “would send the message that the Dubai government must stop suppressing free thinking and free speech.” I think a boycott would send the opposite message: that free thinking and free speech are quite capable of suppressing themselves.

I admire Think Twice and feel that their campaign highlights human rights in an effective way. And I hope it goes without saying that I have undiminished respect for any authors who do choose to boycott. Though I dissent, I don’t for a moment deny either the magnitude of the issue or their moral conviction in choosing to react to it in this way.

I follow the news and I knew what Dubai was like when I signed the agreement last year to attend the Festival. In a volatile region the UAE is at a crossroads, able to move towards the West or away. It is making up its mind, which marks it as a significant place to engage with at this time. I took advice from journalist friends who cover the area, and from friends who live and have lived there. Their view is that Dubai is one of the more tolerant states in the Middle East, and that if we turn up our noses when engagement is on offer then we should not later complain if engagement is withdrawn. A festival, anywhere on earth, is held under a flag of truce.

I choose to believe in dialogue, and my starting point is that my own opinions may be in need of reform as much as those of my interlocutor’s. Festivals create opportunities for dialogue, formal and informal, on the record and off. If I were a country solely bent on suppressing free thinking and free speech, then there are several festivals I might sponsor over a literary one. I could host a symposium on surveillance methods, or an extrajudicial jamboree, but I probably wouldn’t invite a couple of hundred international writers to make unscripted and live-streamed comments in front of a paying audience.

The deeper issue, then, is whether one’s participation in any state sponsored festival equals an endorsement of the sponsor. Does the international writing community, by its engagement, sprinkle a sugar frosting of free speech on an excrescence and thereby disguise it?

The danger of selectively applying that absolute logic, of course, lies in falling into the trap of Western paternalism. I don’t boycott the French government’s cultural invitations because they bulldoze a refugee camp at Calais. I don’t shun the British Council’s outreach programmes because the UK subsidises jet fuel and sells arms to oppressive regimes. I don’t eschew the Edinburgh Book Festival because a sponsor, the Scottish Government, allows asylum seekers to be detained without trial in South Lanarkshire.

Instead I write books about these things, and I talk about them when I’m offered a platform, perhaps even if it is imperfect. I don’t use the festival to signal my position – I use the stage. At festivals, I engage. On the assumption that every country on earth is a more-or-less polished turd which its citizens must nonetheless inhabit, I engage.

I am not sufficiently sure of my worth to believe that my silence has any special weight. I don’t believe that a writer’s silence is worth more than a nurse’s or an architect’s. And in any case silence is safe, silence is easy, silence is the same default setting selected by the people who consciously boycott a conversation and by the people who merely don’t join it. My only legitimacy is as a communicator, so when I choose silence I am not being brave, but remiss.

By muzzling myself I do not claim the moral ground but surrender it to louder voices which – and here I do flatter myself – may have less of value to say. I shan’t stop touring the United States, for example, if they elect Donald Trump to the office of President. I shall continue to believe that there are hundreds of millions of Americans who deserve to remain part of the world’s cultural conversation even if they find themselves in a minority. I engage. Even after Abu Ghraib, even despite Guantanamo, even though it still has to be daily pointed out that black lives matter, I engage.

There is a whole set of presumptions in boycotting a speaking event. You presume that the speaker is unsubtle. You presume that the audience is naïve. You presume that the sponsors are inhuman and therefore immutable. But the fact is that you don’t know what I’m going to say on any given stage, and with which nuance, and to whom. You don’t know who will be in the audience, and what they will hear or understand, and what they will go on to do. You can’t evaluate the inclination of the powerful to make up their minds upon judging the arguments they hear, nor can you guess their agenda in the first place.

Furthermore, to decline to speak brings an attendant refusal to listen. In previous years, by attending Dubai, I’ve discovered things about my own country that I hadn’t learned elsewhere. What is unique about the Festival is its rendezvous between the writers of the Arab and the Western worlds. This year in Dubai in addition to presenting my own body of work I will be interviewing the Palestinian exile Ghada Karmi on stage, in front of an audience of Emirati writers and guests drawn from over 100 nationalities in the local population. I don’t know of anywhere else that could happen. I plan to speak my mind and I suppose that Ghada does too.

I will also be visiting local schools, as I do every time I go to Dubai, and where I hope I provide an inspiration – or at least a cautionary tale ­– for a large number of kids who might not otherwise get a writer visit from one end of the year to the other. I will also be teaching master classes for local adults who are at various stages of their journey with writing, and perhaps I will help in that way to speed a new and important voice towards publication.

In whatever downtime this packed – and unpaid – schedule will leave, I shall be available in the Festival’s lobby, as I am every time I attend, to enjoy hundreds of unticketed, unpredictable one-on-one conversations with readers of all stripes. If the net effect of all that is to bring darkness then I really ought to be doing more than boycotting the Festival: I ought to be boycotting myself.

It’s wrong to presume that writers attend festivals only to present our books. We go to engage with the diaspora of readers, wherever they find themselves in the world. We assume they have a good reason for being there. We go to learn from them, and from our fellow writers – and this becomes a festival’s big attraction as we age, as hustle gives way to curiosity.

I hope I don’t go to any festival unthinkingly. Nor do I go for the wine (I don’t drink) or the sun (I’ve had chunks of my skin cut out) or the relaxation (I just don’t) or the gossip (I’m interested in my fellow writers, but only really in what they write, and how they talk about their writing). Mostly I go where I’m invited, with the assumption that my hosts are complex. And in the countries that have urgent progress to make on human rights – which is all countries – I assume they’ve invited a bunch of progressives through the door because they can see some benefit in people listening to one another.

Above all I keep in mind how important it is – in an era in which dark forces on both sides seek to precipitate a clash of civilisations – to support these peaceful meetings between almost unimaginably different cultures. I wish there were a British literary festival that flew 200 Arab writers over here for a week – but until such a time, anyone curious will have to go in the other direction instead.

For Western writers to boycott Dubai would merely be well meaning self-censorship. But if Dubai ever chose to boycott Western writers – well, that would be a much more ominous occurrence. That isn’t happening, and we should soberly acknowledge the fact. My readers will know that I am not an apologist for any regime – least of all my own – but so long as our hosts have the refinement to invite us, I hope I shall have the grace to speak my mind, not turn my back.

Chris Cleave

London, 24th February 2016

Three writing tips

Here are three questions I was asked today, with my responses in case they’re of interest:

1.       What inspired you to write?
Do you mind if I respectfully turn your question on its head? Imagine that the natural tendency of a person is to examine their short life, to be curious about the lives going on all around them, and to be compelled to explore the beauty and the horror and the wonder of it all – either in writing or music, science or art – as much as we are compelled to eat, sleep or breathe. Then you could ask: What would inspire someone NOT to write, as soon as they knew their ABC? What else were they planning to use the letters for?
2.       Share 5 hacks to write better
The best writing advice I can give is not to think in terms of “hacks”. Writing is not about short cuts to reach a result. It’s about putting your mind onto a page, then reading it back to yourself, seeing how you feel about it, and redrafting. In the process both your mind and what’s on the page will be changed – sometimes by adaptive evolution, sometimes by grinding attrition, sometimes by exhilarating revolution. Recognising that a line writes you as much as you write the line is neither a spooky metaphysical statement nor a trite aphorism. It’s a radical acceptance that writing is a feedback loop, and that any finished pages spat out of the loop are a happy by-product, or spent fuel. It’s a solemn acceptance that writing is a vocation and not a profession, an end and not a means. Because the thing with a loop, of course, is that you can never get out. So, finally, it’s a lonely acceptance that readers can’t rescue you from the fire but can only witness the scorch marks it leaves on the page. The flames will consume you all alone. You need ask yourself whether you’re really after a short cut to that. On the other hand, I suppose you do have to die of something.
3.       Which is the one book that changed your life?
I’d be cheerfully suspicious of anyone over the age of thirty who claimed that one book had changed their life. Show me an older person in that state and I will show you someone who needs to read a dozen more “life-changing” books as soon as possible. Like everyone, I’ve read more-or-less widely in the canon of books that are more-or-less widely read, and I’ve been bewitched and transported as all of us have. Each time it happens, I’m reminded that life is inexhaustibly mysterious: that there is always another perspective, another way of seeing things, from some new author just around the corner. That’s why it’s important we should keep expanding the literary franchise, never allowing our minds to be dominated by one age, language, nationality, gender, sexuality or race – and certainly never by one book.

“Calais” (a short story)

By Chris Cleave, February 2016

This is an English version of a story I wrote for the French weekly “Le1”, in their special edition on the refugee camps at Calais and Dunkirk.


And so I moved to London, like half-a-million other French. The Eurostar must have passed through Calais but I didn’t notice the exact moment. I spent the journey in the bar, drinking lager from cans like the English. One must respect a nation’s culture and values.

I paid rent in advance and no one complained when I moved into my flat in Clapham. Perhaps if you are white and your migration sufficiently pathetic (from the IXème where everything reminds you of your ex-wife, to this petit-Paris where forgetting is no easier) then nobody protests that you aren’t a genuine refugee, or that you are just doing it for a better life.

The year after I arrived, an Englishwoman moved in next door. This was really a French arrondissement of London by now, but I didn’t protest. In matters of the heart I am very Schengen: I believe in the free movement of people who move me. My neighbour is attractive if you are impressed, as I am, by a look of patient sadness. (I feel nothing now for people who have never drowned.)

When I watched my new neighbour carry her life up the path in her own hands – five cardboard boxes and a weeping fig – I thought: this is one of those London films, where we mend each others’ broken heart in 115 minutes, using voiceover and montage.

My neighbour has a teenage daughter who is named after a city to which neither of them has a connection. I know this because I said, ‘That’s a cool name.’ (I really used the word ‘cool’). I said, ‘Is there a story behind it?’

She stared. ‘What?’

‘Calais. Your name. Do you have history there?’

She rolled her eyes and went inside.

Her mother said, ‘I just liked the sound of it. Paris was taken.’

It took me a moment to realise that she didn’t mean Paris was taken by Bismarck, or Hitler, but by the Hilton family.

The neighbour’s daughter inhabits her name but she has no territorial claim to it. She huddles inside the word, in squalid conditions, in a tent donated by volunteers.

Each evening a moped brings pizza for the two of them. The pizza firm is called Domino’s, and indeed the logo on the pizza boxes depicts two stylised domino pieces. My neighbour told me about a game she owns that involves matching wooden tiles, which look just like that logo. She told me the game is called Domino’s, after the pizza company. For her it’s a brand extension – like her phone case, which is styled on Disney’s Frozen. You pay extra for the branding – she tells me she knows this, she’s no fool – but you can’t help yourself if you like the brand, and that’s how they get you, isn’t it? She points to her temple, and winks, and I’m glad to be included in her ever closer union of savants.

My neighbour is not able to work, as she suffers with one of the officially recognised forms of melancholy. In consequence she receives social security. She has her daughter’s name as a wrist tattoo. The daughter goes to school but more often she stays in bed. In time she will have her own diagnosis but for now she is medically stateless, since she has left vivacity behind but hasn’t yet been granted indefinite leave to remain in either anxiety or depression. The Domino’s delivery is free because they are on a voucher scheme from the local authority. Every evening between 18:00 and 18:30 my neighbour and her daughter eat their pizzas straight from the box, watching the TV news. Afterwards they come out on the front path together to smoke.

This week the Calais refugee camp has been on TV incessantly. They asked me about it, on our shared path, while they were lighting their cigarettes and I was arriving home from the bank where I work as an analyst.

I shrugged. (I really shrugged.) I said I thought the UK would refuse the refugees, not because Cameron lacks compassion, of course – who could fail to be moved by the images, etc, etc? But because he would claim a domino effect (by which I meant that accepting these angry refugees might create a locus for more, thereby breeding more anger, even terrorism). My neighbour looked worried: did I mean it would affect her Domino’s vouchers?

When I first saw her, though – just for that minute as she walked up the path with her bruised life in cardboard and mine already unpacked – just for a moment, I believed in our shared humanity.

I have lived in London three years now and perhaps I am drinking too much. I miss my ex-wife. Sometimes I wake up thinking I am home, and then I remember it’s gone. We pass through Calais but we do not notice the exact moment.


Six things we get wrong about refugees

After initial public sympathy for drowning asylum seekers, the backlash has begun and it’s been a week of anti-refugee rhetoric in Europe. There are more than 50 million forcibly displaced people in the world. More than 27,000 refugees have died on their way to Europe since the year 2000. Why do we so quickly forget our first, instinctive feeling of empathy?

(1) We’ve forgotten that migration is heroic

We have to keep going. This is the pulse that beats in our blood as human beings. The drive to set out for some distant idea of home: this was the howl of the wind in Odysseus’s sails and the creak of the timber in Noah’s ark. It was the crunch of the gravel under the sandals of Moses’ followers as they crossed the bed of the Red Sea.

We are all the offspring of refugees. We are the descendents of those who fled from danger, and thus survived. We are an adaptable species, and our survival comes from our ability to imagine a condition of refuge, and to set out for it. We are all, as I’m sure Noah remarked at the launch ceremony, in the same boat.

Continue reading “Six things we get wrong about refugees”