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

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Don't judge a continent by its cover

A few years ago an author told me about the cover they first suggested for her novel, to her dismay (novel was set in Africa - keeping it vague to avoid identification). It featured an acacia tree, a goat, a drum, a slender African woman AND a bit of kente cloth for good measure. 

Well, here's more on the subject of Lion King book design:

"Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, whatever kind of writing you do, if you write a novel “about Africa,” chances are you’re going to get the acacia tree treatment. And the orange sky... In short, the covers of most novels “about Africa” seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King."

Simon Stevens @SimonMStevens and Africa Is A Country on the dangers of a single cover: 

Thursday, 8 May 2014

How To Be A Writer In Paris

Charles Baudelaire. This is the facial expression you should be aiming for as a writer in Paris. 

One great advantage of being a writer in Paris is that Parisians love writers. This is unusual, and to be savoured, because it's generally not very Parisian to love stuff. Showing too much enthusiasm is considered a bit dumb, or fake, or American, or all of the above.

If you told someone at a party in London that you worked as, say, a snail tamer, they would try very, very hard to find some fascinating angle ("So what kind of snails do you tame?"). In Paris, that kind of smiley, positive response would mark you out as someone who's a bit too easy to impress = loser.

But being a writer is seen as a good thing. When I quit my job as a journalist in Paris to write novels full-time, I had the strange and unexpected experience of suddenly doing something Parisians respect.

My first taste of this lovely new world came when I got my library card and the grumpy librarian asked what I did for a living.

Me (proudly): I'm a writer!

Librarian (suddenly delighted): Ah, let me enter that right away! (looks for the right box to tick) Hmmm... sorry, we don't have a "writer" category.

Me: It's ok, you can just tick "media" or "journalism"

Librarian: No, we don't have that either.

Me: That's a shame, for a library!

Librarian (genuinely sorry): I know! Let me see.... (brightens up) Ha, I know! I'll tick... "INTELLECTUAL".

 So with one click, I was a library-certified Parisian intellectual.

Journalism also gets a certain degree of respect in Paris (because it's badly paid and has to do with words), but financial journalism, not so much, especially not if it's for a big news agency.

Here's an example from my journalism days. A random party, "what do you do" etc:

Me: I work for Reuters.

Parisian woman: I don't like Reuters. In the past, every newspaper had their own correspondents, and now when you look at a front page, all the stories are by Reuters and the AP.

 ...because the decline of journalism, and the fact that people don't pay enough money for quality news, is obviously *the fault of Reuters*. (French logic - if in doubt, blame the multinationals).

Now, the same French logic holds true for writers. The more obscure you are as a writer, the more they respect you. Because it means you didn't sell out. 

Whereas if you're a global bestseller, it probably means you're part of the creeping homogenisation of culture that starts with news agencies and ends with the Da Vinci Code.

Here's what happened when I told an aspiring Parisian screenwriter at another party that I didn't want my readers to labour their way through my novels; the author should shoulder the hard work of making the book readable and enjoyable. He on the other hand was proud of never having sold a screenplay because this *proved how good they were* (= too clever for the market).

Parisian asp. screenwriter: Tolstoy said that art should be used to educate the masses. The artist should be above them.

Me (dumbly): But for all I know, the reader might be more educated than me. I don't see myself as above them - I see it more as a shared experience.

Parisian asp. screenwriter (smugly): Moi, I'm more with Tolstoy.

It's like an inversion of the writer's usual social nightmare in London or New York, where someone asks how sales are going and you have to cringe and mutter that you don't keep an eye on them because, erm, cringe, it's literary fiction.

In Paris, if you're a bestselling writer, it means you're low-brow trash. If you're unpublished - boom, you're avec Tolstoy. You're an intellectual. You get the special intellectual card in the library.

So here's how to be a writer in Paris: brag about your low sales. Complain about the illiterate oafs who don't get your work. Use your library card whenever possible. Wear black. Actually, wear grey, which seems to be the new black. Smoke. Quote Tolstoy. Hang out in dive bars. Then go home and quietly - without telling anyone, especially not your adoring, rent-paying partner/muse - work like crazy to produce the next bestseller.

Friday, 2 May 2014

New York and "Degenerate Art"

Nazi art and "degenerate" art: which is which?
Image: Neue Galerie, New York.

Today in Hell's Kitchen: the guy in front of me crossed the street while chatting on his phone. He got hit by a car (loud thump and he was thrown to the ground). Everyone including me ran to him and asked if he was ok. He just got up, phone in hand, waved us away and continued down the street, while *still chatting into his phone*.

In other news, the "Degenerate Art" exhibition at Neue Galerie is excellent. They show (modernist) paintings that were banned by the Nazis as well as paintings that were endorsed by them (naked blondes, naked athlete, glorified soldier, peasant with cow etc etc). When I went, half the visitors were German and the other half seemed a bit unsure which were the Nazi paintings and which were the anti-Nazi ones. To be fair, unless you're familiar with the topic, you wouldn't necessarily know. It's not as if all artists promoted by the Nazis painted soldiers and swastikas. Some simply painted ordinary subjects in a stiff and stuffy kind of realism. I couldn't help but eavesdrop on the other visitors, it was fascinating to hear what they made of it all.

One sweet and slightly befuddled American lady, standing in front of one of the Nazi-endorsed paintings ("The Art Newspaper"): "You know... I kinda like this one."