Monday, 8 December 2014

Geisha-stalking in Kyoto

When I lived in Tokyo, the local correspondents used to have a joke about the to-do list of the visiting, 48-hours-in-Japan journalist: a feature about the yakuza, one about Mount Fuji, and one about geishas. So I decided it would be a bit tacky to go geisha-stalking during my short stay in Kyoto. Or rather, geiko-stalking - here, they're called geiko and maiko (trainee geisha). Surely I was too cool for that.

Anyway, one of the great things about Japan is that you need never feel shy about a photo fetish. Or any kind of fetish, for that matter. After deciding to be all aloof and dignified about the geiko/maiko thing, I passed a little throng of Japanese men and women in front of one of the little tea houses in Miyagawa-cho, where I'm staying. I asked what they were waiting for. A maiko! I think one of the maikos was having a coming-of-age party, hence all the attention. But one of the women and I quickly decided to look out for other geikos as well. And we spotted quite a few.

"They're very quick on their feet," my new friend said. So quick that we didn't manage to take pictures of the others. But anyway, I just wanted one picture. And seeing them clip-clopping through the lantern-lit alleys was better than any photos.

Speaking of Japan and photos, I walked past a lot of engagement photo sessions earlier in the day, around Shimbashi. Most of them were quite traditional: sweetly smiling couples in kimonos, portrait-style. But then I saw these guys. They were having so much fun! I loved it. Dear newly engaged couple, I hope you don't mind seeing your picture on this blog. May you enjoy many more years of happiness and laughter.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Magical Koya-san in the Snow


The temple town on the holy mountain of Koya-san is my new favourite place in Japan. The fact that women have only been allowed to enter this site for a hundred years or so, made my stay here all the sweeter. We're here now, sisters! 
If there's any way you can go and visit Koya-san in December, do it. It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that will change the way you think about life, death and central heating.

I came to this ancient place on a bit of a whim. I'm in Asia to see friends, clear my mind and finish my current novel, and a temple retreat seemed like a good way to help with the second and third part. Otherwise I would just spend the entire trip chatting and drinking. Which is great in terms of catching up with friends, but not all that conducive to writing.

I'm not going to lie - Koya-san in December is not an easy trip. To get here from Tokyo, you need to take a bullet train to Shin-Osaka, then a subway to Namba, a local train to Gokurakubashi (changing at Hashimoto, which is funny if like me you suffer from Hashimito's thyroditis), then a cable car and finally, a bus. 

Other downsides: the monks don't really do central heating, or indeed any kind of heating. I stayed in two temples, and in the first, there was snow in the hallway in the morning. 

However, in a concession to the tourists whose good custom keeps the temples from rotting away, they've put little electric heaters in every guest room, and heated low kotatsu tables. One of the monks assured me that they also use heaters in their own dorms - I was worried the monks were forced to shiver all night as part of the whole austerity and spiritual purity thing, while the guests were sleeping snugly. Apparently, in the old days there was really no heating of any sort, and the older monks used to flee to another monastery the valley when their bones could no longer take the mountain cold!

Some bloggers have described Koya-san as expensive, but right now now it's actually amazingly good value as the yen is so weak. A night at Eko-in, the second temple where I stayed (and my favourite of the two), costs about 12,000 yen including dinner and breakfast. That's about 65 quid. For that, you get to stay in a tatami-matted room in beautiful ancient temple, with a view of snow-topped rooftops; sleep on a comfy futon and relax with your feet unter a heated, duvet-covered kotatsu table; take part in a guided afternoon meditation session; and have a delicious vegetarian feast served by a friendly monk in a dozen pretty bowls (for dinner, and a lighter version for breakfast). Plus, a steaming hot soak in a lovely communal bath, after which you can wrap yourself in one of the yukata (cotton kimonos) they provide, sit by your window and contemplete the bittersweet brevity of life and the beauty of the passing moment. 

You also attend the morning service, which at Eko-in (one of the two temples where I stayed) includes the fire ritual. I may suggest this to my local rabbi to liven up the shabbat service. It should be ok, halachically speaking, as long as you light the fire before sundown on Friday.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that it's all worth it. Even if I had left Koya-san with pneumonia and not a single new chapter, it would have been worth it. The beauty of the place is impossible to capture in words or pictures. Maybe you're looking at the photos and thinking, oh that temple is pretty - but the point is, the entire town looks like that. There are a few modern buildings, little shops and cafes, but the site is really dominated by the dozens of temples lining the streets. You can step away and take it all in a one big temple feast for the eyes, and it's beautiful, and then you walk close up and see a carved stone sculpture, or a charm dangling in some incense smoke, or a red bridge flashing in the snow, and it takes your breath away.

Ok, enough cliched travel writing. Koya-san in spring, summer, autumn is probably stunning as well, and more comfortable. But I cannot imagine it looking any more spectacular than this. 

(Footnote: my Japanese was never great, even when I lived here, and once I moved away, what little I had fell out of my brain. However, in a wholly unexpected, delightful bit of travel magic, I now find I can suddenly speak Japanese! Sort of. I can book a room, order a meal, praise the prettiness of the snow, agree that it's very cold but the onsen is very hot, tell them I'm from Germany via London and working on a book, exclaim "omoshiroi-desu, ne!" and "sugoi!" and "honto!" while tilting my head and widening my eyes just so, and check if the Eko-in temple is after the next set of traffic lights and then to the right. And so on. All of this seemed pretty lame when I was living here, the kind of functional level it's so easy to get stuck on, but now, as a tourist, it feels GREAT.)

Friday, 5 December 2014

A Visit to the Umbrella Revolution


I'm a bit of an accidental protest tourist. Last year, during the Gezi Park protests, I attended a dear friend's henna night in Istanbul complete with a big "Occupy Henna" banner. This year, visiting some friends in Hong Kong, I stumbled into one of the pro-democracy camps, the one at Admiralty. Intrigued, I took a stroll around and chatted with the activists.

Christmas at the protest camp

When they heard I was German, they reacted with delight (when does this ever happen?). 
Seriously, they got very excited about that. Several of them said the fall of the Berlin wall was a huge inspiration and proved the power of peaceful protest. Yay.

I for my part always find it moving to see a peaceful pro-democracy campaign, precisely because it reminds me of one of the few good things my country is known for.

I liked the protest art inspired by the humble umbrella, which turned into a revolutionary symbol after demonstrators used it to shield themselves from tear gas. The characters on the yellow sign say: "I want universal suffrage." The Occupy activists are demanding free and fair elections for 2017, with the people choosing their own candidates. Beijing on the other hand insists on vetting any candidates first. After two months of protests, the student leaders are now considering ending the occupation, and activists at the site expected police to come in soon and dismantly the camp anyway. So here are some more photos before it all goes.

How about some Occupy Origami:

And some very orderly Occupy graffiti:


Keeping fit for the revolution:

While studying hard:

Why there are no pictures of people in this post - "Protect student, please don't take photo of the face!"

The protests are student-led, and an older man I spoke to expressed great concern for them.
"I'm old, if I go to jail, it doesn't matter," he said. But many of the students, including the leaders, are only 17 or 18. He pointed out that risking their future in this struggle. Which is why it's so important that the rest of the world doesn't forget about them. In any case, they keep reminding us to listen:

Mini-camp at the British Consulate in Hong Kong, reminding Britain that guarantees for Hong Kong's democracy were part of the handover to China

Also, in case you forget we're in Hong Kong. Occupy tents reflected in a fancy car dealer's window:

Despite their perseverance so far, the people I spoke to at the camp were not very hopeful. China is unlikely to give in, especially since it would probably fuel people-power movements elsewhere. Think how the average Tibetan or even Beijinger would react to the umbrella revolution triumphing over the central government. 

But regardless of who will win this particular stand-off, just the fact that the movement has come this far, gathering global attention and defending the right to protest right under the nose of a dictatorship, should be a point of pride. 

As activist Benny Tai wrote in the New York Times: "The Umbrella Movement has awakened the democratic aspirations of a whole generation of Hong Kong people. In this sense, we have achieved much more than what we could have hoped for."


Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Big-eyed art fraud

Margaret & Walter & children

I'm looking forward to the Tim Burton biopic on the big-eyed art fraud of the century. Walter Keane's 1960s paintings of big-eyed children were apparently really created by his wife, Margaret. The Guardian did a very nice story about it. There was one passage in particular that struck me:

"This story begins in Berlin in 1946. A young American named Walter Keane was in Europe to learn how to be a painter. And there he was, staring heartbroken at the big-eyed children fighting over scraps of food in the rubbish. As he would later write: “As if goaded by a kind of frantic despair, I sketched these dirty, ragged little victims of the war with their bruised, lacerated minds and bodies, their matted hair and runny noses. Here my life as a painter began in earnest.”"

The bit about his life as a painter is a lie, apparently, but the bit about the children rings true to me. As it happens, my mother was one of those ragged post-war children in Berlin. She doesn't have any stories of fighting with the other children, but she does have plenty of stories about running along trains full of GIs throwing sweets and sliced white bread from the windows. And picking crumbs of coal from the gravel, then carrying them home in a tin to heat their little flat. Knowing how fastidious my grandma was, I can't see my mother's hair being matted, no matter how poor they were. But as for the bruised minds, yes, that's probably quite an accurate description. So amid all of Keane's lies, there are some little coal-crumbs of truth.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Do you know this woman?

Whenever I research a novel, there comes a point where I arrive at a little green door. It's not actually a little green door, I just think of it that way. On the green door is a plaque with a startling historical fact that challenges all my assumptions and changes the way I think about the world. Most likely it'll be something seemingly small and subtle, as well as counter-intuitive and improbable. For example, I could be reading about two people who were friends or lovers at a time when such a connection should not have been possible, according to the social codes of the era.

So I arrive at the green door, I'm intrigued, I open it, and guess what? There's a whole party going on, a room full of people, conversations, connections that somehow haven't made it into mainstream history. This party tends to be so fascinating that I forget all about my novel and spend a few weeks or even months there, catching up on all these stories I never knew existed. After a while, I decide to go back to writing my novel, knowing that some of what I saw at that party will make it into the story, but most of it won't.

For my current novel-in-progress, the little green door is actually a painting. It was created by Pan Yuliang, a brave and unusual woman who was born in China in 1895 and went on to become a celebrated avantgarde artist in Paris. There are hundreds of accounts of Pan Yuliang's life on the Internet. Most of them say that she was sold into a brothel as a child and ended up marrying one of her clients, who then paid for her to go to art school in Shanghai. Apparently this story is not true. Sadly, there's a lack of reliable accounts of her life, thought over the past few years, scholars seem to have taken a renewed interest in her.

Well, I was noodling around on the Internet, looking at Pan's Parisian paintings, when I came across the one shown above.

Who is this woman?

The painting seems to be from the 1930s. Most artists in Paris at the time were white and male, most models were white. Yet here was an Asian woman painting a nude portrait of a Black woman. The drawings in the background seem to hint at some African connection, though that doesn't mean the woman would have necessarily been African - she could have been African-American, or a Frenchwoman from somewhere like Martinique. I couldn't find any reference to her, though I did come across another Pan Yuliang portrait of possibly the same woman.

From Flickr

Were they friends? Acquaintances? Was the black woman also a painter? A professional sitter? A celebrity of some sort, or just someone Pan Yuliang met by chance and found inspiring? It's a beautiful portrait, and without going too deeply into the "male gaze" debate in art, I think it's noticeable how different it is from most traditional (and indeed avant-garde) female nudes. The model is not offering herself to the viewer in the traditional full-frontal, available way. She is naked, but not exposed. Her gaze is sceptical rather than flirty. It's a very sensual painting, but there is also a sense of ease and familiarity.

Well, I looked and looked but I could not find out who this woman was. So I checked out possible candidates. There was a boom in black entertainment in Paris in the 20s and 30s, and the most famous artist in that scene was obviously Josephine Baker. I found plenty of photos online of Baker wiggling her hips and rolling her eyes, and then I came across this one:

Look at the eyes, the mouth and the facial expression. Now take another look at the nude:

I thought the resemblance was pretty striking.

The other portrait seems to hang in China's Capital Museum. I used to hate people who walk through museums snapping all the paintings, but now I'm grateful. Again, the eyes, mouth and expression kind of match the photo of Baker.

From Flickr

Sadly, the museum's website doesn't seem to have any information on the painting or the model. If the paintings are indeed of Baker, the connection between the two women becomes even more interesting. After all, Baker was known to be close to many avant-garde artists. Apparently, she had an affair with Frida Kahlo when the Mexican painter was visiting Paris. Baker also had affairs with other women. Even if Pan Yuliang did paint Baker in the nude, this obviously doesn't mean they were romantically involved. But still, it's an intriguing possibility.

So that was the green door. I opened it. I spent far too much time trying to find out who the woman in the painting was. And then I started looking up other European avant-garde paintings of people of colour. There are more than you might think. An excellent project called The Image of the Black in Western Art has made it its mission to document this hidden seam in art history. Once you start noticing it, you will never think of European art history - or indeed European society - the same way. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, Europe was much more multi-cultural than is often assumed. But many of these paintings were lost or forgotten because of the Nazi persecution of modern artists. Other paintings were preserved but clearly not considered important enough to identify the sitter. There is also a self-reinforcing narrative bias, whereby later writings and works of art tend to refer to the dominant cultural model of the time and ignore artists and models who seemed to be outliers. Anyway, here are a few examples:

Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, model unknown? Kirchner was labelled a "degenerate artist" by the Nazis and committed suicide in exile. He worked with several men and women of colour, mostly circus performers. 

Elfriede Lohse-Waechter, "Jealousy", 1929. Lohse-Waechter was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and murdered by the Nazis under their euthanasia programme.

Christian Schad, "Agosta and Rasha", 1929 (Tate Modern). Unlike most of his contemporaries, Schad was not persecuted by the Nazis, possibly because he was not that famous, or because his style was relatively traditional.

Felix Vallotton, La Blanche et La Noire, 1913. So mysterious and intriguing, but sadly, nothing is known about the models.

Shalva Kikodze, Paris 1920. I thought the woman in the centre could be Baker but it doesn't fit with her biographical dates. Model unknown?

Josephine Baker by Picasso's friend, Kees van Dongen. I'm not a big fan of this painting. When you compare it with Pan's painting, it's almost as if van Dongen captures the stage-Josephine - all banana skirt and rolling eyes - whereas Pan captures the woman behind the mask. I know, I'm getting carried away, it may not even be Baker.

Jan Sluiters, Tonia Stieltjes, 1922 or so. Sluiters was a Dutch painter, Stieltjes was his mistress.

That's it for today. Time to get back to work. But if you've come across any striking portraits of men/women of colour in the pre-1945 period, do get in touch. And if you happen to know anything about a possible friendship between Pan and Baker, definitely get in touch.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Another thing women can't do, apparently

Look, Tom! Medieval female celebrity chefs.

Infuriating headline of the day: Michelin-starred chef says women don't have the "fire" to make it to the top.

It amazes me that in every single career, but really every single one, there's a man saying women can't excel in it. Not in the Middle Ages, but now. 

Georg Baselitz - "Women can't paint". 

VS Naipaul - "Women can't write." 

Larry Summers: "Women can't do science." 

And most recently, this Tom Kerridge chef character: "Women can't be top chefs." 

Is there anything we can do? Ah, right, we can be muses, models and little helpers. 

You'll never make it to the top, dear, but there's something so soothing and pretty about watching you pose for my painting, help me with my research, wash my petri dishes and chop some onions for my molecular kidney pie.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Yom Kippur in A&E

Yom Kippur was a bit different this year as my husband's appendix started bursting half-way through Kol Nidre. The good news was that he was ready to be operated on as he'd been fasting anyway. The bad news was that there was no one around to operate him as we were in a super chaotic A&E with plastic bottles of stale pee left in the corner to ferment, and nurses asking him if he could remember how much morphine he'd been given as they were worried about overdosing.

When I went off to find a nurse for more morphine, I spotted a young Hasidic couple. The Hasidim  always seem to exist in some parallel world, certainly some parallel time, with their big hats and beards and shiny black coats and, for the women, wigs and headscarves. But we were all in A&E, and all going through the same experience of dealing with the A&E chaos on an empty stomach, so I wished them a loud and cheerful Shana Tova. They stared at me as if a Martian had just opened her mouth and started speaking Hebrew.

On my way back from the nurse, they had overcome their initial shock, and after confirming that I was Jewish, started to share their woes with me. The woman was pregnant, had started bleeding a little, was waiting for someone to confirm that the baby was okay.

"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "You must be so worried. Is this your first pregnancy?"

"No," she said, "My seventh."

By the time we had covered each of her pregnancies, births, and various other child-related subjects, my head was spinning a bit and I also remembered that poor Dan was sitting there in his cubicle, craving more morphine. The Hasidim decided that they should wish him a happy new year and generally cheer him up a bit, so they came along as well. Dan looked very happy to see me, and very surprised to see I'd brought two Hasidim with me.

Their baby was fine in the end, and they went back to Stamford Hill and their own little universe. Dan and I stayed - it took another 24 hours until they eventually whipped out his bursting appendix. We missed all the other Yom Kippur services. But somehow a hospital seemed a pretty suitable setting for atonement. After all, it's not often that you get to fast with the Hasidim.

(Note: apparently 15,000 Hasidim live in Stamford Hill! Europe's largest Hasidic community.)

Friday, 3 October 2014

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Ways of Seeing

I've started a PhD in creative writing at Goldsmiths College, which happens to be a great fit for my next novel on art and art forgers. The campus has a strong arty vibe (Damien Hirst et al went to Goldsmiths). Every time I attend a lecture or seminar there, I find myself scribbling down lots of intriguing fine art references. Last night I went to a talk on women and theatre in the 1970s. An actress read a passage on the male gaze in art by John Berger - it was brilliant and finally prompted me to look up his groundbreaking TV series, Ways of Seeing. Turns out they made pretty good television in 1971. The special effects are low-tech but very clever. I particularly like Berger's existential earnestness, the way he clarifies right away that we're not just going to be watching a programme about pretty pictures:

"We shall also discover something about ourselves and the situation in which we are living."


Friday, 15 August 2014

Berlin dispatch

Friday evening yoga in Berlin, feisty yoga lady next to me: "Well I never join in with all the chanting because what if I chant one of those mantras and then I find out it means Heil Hitler." ‪#‎ThatsOneWayOfLookingAtIt‬

Thursday, 12 June 2014

German task force reveals history of lost Matisse

Femme Assise / The Sitting Woman.
Source: The Art Newspaper

The German task force investigating the provenance of potentially Nazi-looted paintings has concluded that one of them, Femme Assise by Henri Matisse, painted in 1921, was originally owned by art dealer Paul Rosenberg. Rosenberg's granddaughter, the French journalist Anne Sinclair, has made a claim on the painting, saying the Nazis stole it from her family.

I received the task force's German press release this morning and will summarise the gist in a few bullet points, see below. The paintings were part of a stash discovered in the flat of the late Cornelius Gurlitt. Gurlitt had inherited the paintings from his father, Hildebrand, art dealer to the Nazis. In the 1930s and 40s, the Nazis seized thousands of art works from Jewish families through forced sales or direct confiscation - the biggest art theft in history. They also confiscated modernist art works from museums as the style was deemed "degenerate". 

Paul Rosenberg with Matisse's "Odalisque" in 1937

Paul Rosenberg was a friend of Matisse and an early champion of his work. He fled the Nazis in 1940, leaving France for Spain and then New York, but had to leave behind 162 paintings. A year later, the Nazis confiscated the entire collection. Gurlitt senior, it seems, was charged with selling some of the confiscated paintings on behalf of the Nazis, but kept some for himself. (Again, this seems to be the gist - I don't fact-check blog posts as thoroughly as I fact-check my other pieces, so apologies in advance for any inaccuracies). As the press release explains, the task force couldn't fully clarify how Femme Assise ended up in Gurlitt's hands.

Gurlitt junior came across as a tragic figure rather than a scheming villain. He lived a secluded, lonely life. In an interview with Der Spiegel, he said that he talked to his paintings every night, and that their confiscation had hurt him more than the death of his sister. Before he died, he declared that he would abide by the groundbreaking Washington Principles on the restitution of Nazi-looted art. Legally, he did not have to do this - the paintings were his, as the claims had expired under German law. Morally, it was of course the right decision, and set an important precedent for other private owners.

It's interesting that the task force sees Gurlitt's decision as binding for his own heirs, and also, that so many open questions remain regarding the work itself. You'd think it would be quite easy to seamlessly construct a famous painting's history from 1921 to 2014, less than a century. The fact that it's difficult shows just how many hidden stories are still there to be uncovered.

Here's what the task force said about investigating the history of Femme Assise (my translation, quick and dirty). I thought it might be interesting for people trying to track down their family's lost art:

- Research was difficult and complex, particularly clarifying the work's identity. There was mismatching data on the size of the work, as well as gaps in the timeline of the provenance.

- Investigators had to do extensive research in German, French and US archives, as well historical sources provided by the claimants.

- Not all questions regarding the work's history could be answered

- But overall, they concluded it was from the collection of Paul Rosenberg

- This expertise will be used as the basis for the decision regarding restitution of the work to Paul Rosenberg's heirs.

- Just before his death, Cornelius Gurlitt declared he would abide by the Washington Agreement (legally he didn't have to do this as any claims had expired under German law).

Quote from the head of the task force:

"Even if we could not document with absolute certainty how Hildebrand Gurlitt acquired the work, the task force has reached the conclusion that the work constitutes Nazi-looted art from the collection of Paul Rosenberg."

- Task force says a fair and just solution should be found "in the spirit of the Washington Agreement".

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

On not reading reviews

Dear readers,

I'm trying out a new review-reading strategy. It involves not reading any reviews.

The main reason is that I found Love and Other Wars incredibly hard to write.

It was a great privilege to interview former conscientious objectors, read letters and diaries in archives all over London and spend time with Quakers to learn about their pacifist beliefs. But at the end of my research I felt rather crushed by the sadness of it all: so many lives wasted, so many people killed along with their hopes and plans.

At the Imperial War Museum, I read the letters from a young RAF pilot to his parents and saw him mature from wide-eyed teenager (off to Rhodesia!! First solo flight! Elephants! Fifteen exclamation marks per page!!!) all the way to calm, unflappable RAF ace. When I reached the bottom of the box, after the last letter, there was nothing but a telegram to his parents: We regret to inform you...  

In the University College London archives, I leafed through old copies of the student newspaper. There, between an ad for a lecture by an eminent birth-control expert and a witty spat over a work of modern art in the cafeteria, was an appeal for British sponsors to help a Jewish student leave Berlin. What was the outcome of this desperate bet on the kindness of strangers? Did he make it out?

And so on. Every day brought a new encounter with some brave, optimistic, life-loving person who had been born at the wrong time, in the wrong place. It seemed pointless to turn away and invent a story about fictional characters when all these true and important stories of real people were still untold.

In the end, a good friend reminded me that a novelist's task is to write a novel. Which I did. Since the writing part of the job is now finally done, since there is nothing I could have done differently about this particular book, and since the people whose judgement I am most curious (and perhaps most worried) about are dead, it's probably best to let others get on with the reading and reviewing part, and not interfere. Having said that, I am very grateful to have you as my readers and do hope you enjoy the book.

Best wishes


Monday, 2 June 2014

World's best book-staircase (with tiger)

Seen at the Hackney Pirates, an excellent organisation in East London that aims to make reading, writing and learning in general more fun. I've been volunteering for them for a while so I'm completely biased, but still, their new book-staircase is just amazing. I'm trying to find out the names of the artists who made it - all their work is stunning, they made an excellent pirate-themed fake book-case with a secret door as well.

When I first volunteered with the Hackney Pirates, they were running a summer school for local children on a rooftop in Dalston. I then followed them through a series of unconventional classrooms: a room with a chicken coop just outside the window (gawk gawk gawwwwk), an empty building transformed into a pirates' ship, a make-shift beach shack next to a kebab shop with incredibly supportive owners who let the Pirates hold volunteer meetings in the shop. This year they've finally got a permanent ship, a building on Dalston high street complete with a shop, a cafe and a lovely educational space. And a book-staircase.

Instead of the rooftop summer school, there are now daily afternoon sessions. During the first half of the session, children do their homework or read a book; during the second half, they work on a creative project. Each child is paired with a volunteer to help and encourage them. It's a very simple formula and it works. I've seen so many young Pirates gain confidence, improve their reading and develop a new enthusiasm for learning over the years. I used to be quite a cynic about these things so it's been a good learning experience for me as well. If you're interested in becoming a volunteer, just visit their website and sign up for a training session. See you on the rainbow-coloured steps!

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Five common myths about conscientious objectors

Source: Peace Pledge Union archive

Today is Conscientious Objector Day, and I thought I would use the opportunity to debunk five common myths about conchies here in the UK. My facts are drawn from interviews with former conscientious objectors, the Peace Pledge Union archive, the Quakers and the Imperial War Museum in London.

1. Conscientious objection is a World War One issue. In WW2, everyone fought.

There were 60,000 conscientious objectors in World War Two. After the horrors of World War One, public opinion became much more receptive to pacifist ideas. In 1935, an Anglican priest called Dick Sheppard founded the Peace Pledge Union along with Aldous Huxley and others. They received 100,000 postcards from men across Britain pledging not to fight, though some of these men later changed their minds.

2. Conchies are basically cowards and shirkers

During World War Two, conscientious objectors risked their lives as ambulance workers, as hospital workers, as human guinea pigs for new vaccines, and in many hazardous jobs fighting fires and clearing rubble in British cities during the Blitz. So many young pacifists wanted to serve in ambulances and hospitals that there was a waiting list.

Clifford Barnard, a young Quaker working for the Friends Ambulance Unit, risked his health and life as one of the first aid workers to enter the liberated Sandbostel Concentration Camp in north-west Germany, caring for the inmates in the midst of a typhus epidemic.

Bertha Bracey, a Quaker, helped organise the Kindertransport, which rescued 10,000 mainly Jewish children from the continent and brought them to Britain. Another woman, Gertrude Wijsmuller, personally confronted Eichmann when he was head of emigration in Vienna, and negotiated the permit for the first Kindertransport.

Indeed, many WW2 pacifists had fought in the previous war. As one conscientious objector wrote in his application to be exempt from military service, in 1941: "The sufferings I observed during the war of 1914-1918 caused me to reflect upon the horror and futility of it all." (See picture - archive material from the Peace Pledge Union).

I interviewed Sheppard's daughter, Rosemary, who recalled that many veterans attended his services, glad that someone acknowledged their trauma rather than trying to glorify it. 

3. They were all Quakers, or posh

I have read archived tribunal applications from Quakers, Socialists, Jehova's Witnesses and Anglicans, from university students, printers and window cleaners. One of the former conchies I interviewed, Noel Makin, decided to be a pacifist because of one formative literary experience: he read All Quiet on the Western Front as a boy.

Applications on religious grounds did stand a better chance at being approved than applications on political grounds (eg Socialists, "brotherhood of man"). Jehova's Witnesses were sometimes given a quick exemption because they had a tendency to use the tribunal as a preaching opportunity, and tried to convert the judges.

4. Conchies in WW2 did nothing to fight the Fascists

I have already mentioned the Kindertransport and humanitarian aid workers. Something else struck me when I read certain grassroots publications from the 1930s, such as student magazines, which reflected a wider range of opinions than the big newspapers. Pacifist student societies were very active in supporting refugees from the continent, trying to find sponsors for Jewish students stuck in Germany and later, Austria. This was at a time when many right-wing editorials ranted against letting in so many refugees. 

The WW2 pacifists did not always get it right: many simply underestimated the German threat. With hindsight, their efforts can seem naive. But one things we can learn from them is that humanitarian work and support for refugees is never just a footnote to "real war" - it's a crucial part of fighting against evil.

5. Conchies are a source of shame

Are they? If so, they shouldn't be. Britain ought to be proud of its conchies. In Germany, where I am from, pacifists were brutally persecuted by the Nazis. Many were arrested and thrown into concentration camps.

Every single totalitarian regime has hounded conscientious objectors as traitors, saboteurs, the enemy within. The fact that Britain in principle provided an official status for them during WW2, and the opportunity to serve in a peaceful capacity or even opt out altogether, marks a proud moment in British history. It is testament to Britain's liberal tradition. Whether you agree with conchies or not, their stories show the value of freedom of conscience in a democracy.

A note from a pacifist window cleaner in WW2. "My heart was not in window cleaning." World peace through Esperanto. Naive, maybe, but heart-breakingly sincere. Source: Peace Pledge Union