Where were you when..?


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Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2017.

The current crisis over North Korea seems even more absurd when viewed through the umbrella of a pina colada. Gazing up at the palm trees, feeling the warmth of the Spanish sun and the breath of the breeze as I churn through paperbacks between swims, the idea of a crisis that threatens international stability seems very difficult to imagine.

Yet it is happening: thousands of miles away, a puffed-up incompetent is trying to bolster his ego with incoherent threats of the power and range of his nuclear arsenal. And apparently Kim Jong-Un is making some statements too. (Though I do want to know which ad agency focus-grouped #bereftofreason for the North Koreans: whoever it was, they scored, bigly. But then, as a character in Mad Men once observed, “Bombs are the ultimate product: they cost a fortune and can only be used once.”)

I have no way of changing whatever is going on in the Oval Office, but note that much of Trump’s rhetoric actually seems to be coming from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Since every day is a bad-hair day for the 45th US President, I assume the crisis stems from too much time in the sand traps: the only kind of bunker he should be allowed anywhere near, frankly. Or perhaps he’s having trouble swinging his wood. Either way, bringing the world to the edge of nuclear Armageddon is a drastic way to console himself.

But the golf club is a broader metaphor. A secluded and secure spot where the rules are predictable (if obscure), social interaction kept within limits (the faces on the website seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to his cabinet, being mostly male and white), and the most important qualification for entry is wealth. It’s effectively a womb with manicured lawns for the rich white male. The only difference between the golf club and the current White House is that the former clearly has balls (monogrammed with the Trump crest).

While our hotel is somewhat less exclusive than the Trump National, Bedminster, I can relate to the sense of security and predictability. I had a good breakfast, a nice swim and am writing this from a room just restored to pristine order by a smiling cleaner. I don’t want to leave, and can certainly relate to the rather remote view of the wider world that living in such enclaves year-round might engender. If asked to slide a paw out from the sun lounger to end life on Earth as we know it, it’s entirely possible that my first question would be whether I could order a cocktail with that.

But (thankfully) I’m not a world leader and the most complex choice I have to make this week is between varieties of cheese at the copious breakfast buffet. I am concerned, though, from my own recent tourist experience and looking at the reports of others via social media that we are shaping the world too much to suit the (relatively) affluent population’s notions of comfort and authenticity rather than engaging with the struggles of those around us.

Over dinner the other night, at a resort where every other vehicle seemed to be Italian and a phallus-replacement, African vendors passed among us at intervals trying to sell trinkets and knock-offs. Periodically they met to talk, their voices drifting over the sand, their shadows lit by flashing Minnie Mouse ears: their presence as disposable to many of the diners as the merchandise. They may have taken my refusal to engage in many ways, but essentially I was embarrassed (again) that people have to live this way.

In January, the body of a six year-old was washed up near Cadiz, though it didn’t receive the same coverage as the death of Aylan Kurdi two years ago. We’re not solving the problem, just ignoring it until it interferes with our summer holidays. There is footage this week of a boat of migrants/refugees landing in the middle of a tourist beach.

Across the world, the tension is rising and the spectre of another crisis is being evoked. This, we are told, is a rerun of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I’m reminded of the words of Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, describing the middle of the crisis in his memoirs:

It was a perfectly beautiful night, as fall nights are in Washington. I walked out of the president’s Oval Office, and as I walked out, I thought I might never live to see another Saturday

Similar hardware and strategic questions lend a superficial resemblance to Cuba: once again, the key question is whether missiles have sufficient range to reach an island target. To me, though, the current crisis seems much more similar to that of 1914 than 1962.

Firstly, the competence of the protagonists. Although JFK and Khrushchev both made mistakes, neither was unaware of the seriousness of the situation and measured their words and actions accordingly. In the back-and-forth of soundbites, threats and counter-threats, the US and North Korea are behaving like the monarchs of Europe in 1914: making policy on the spur of the moment and thinking they see how to ‘win’ Armageddon. Trump’s statement today that the US is “locked and loaded” reduces international politics to a bad TV cop show. Instead of taking tea at a palace, Trump is slicing into the rough in New Jersey.

Secondly, the complacency with which (from my bubble) this seems to have been received. Someone has put a giant chicken/Trump inflatable behind the White House, in the belief that the moment to tease an idiot is when he’s down. Or maybe they just want to be on the TV. When words and weapons are put together without thought, the result is bloody, as the leaders of Europe discovered a century ago.

Perhaps the answer is to give Trump a genuine bubble, in which he can be President of his own delusions in perpetuity, the burble of the (fake) news only just louder than the sprinklers. What seems certain is that if he continues in his current state of unreality while commander in chief of the most powerful military the world has ever seen, the end result will not be pretty.

The Menace of 45




Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2017. 

There’s been a post circulating through my echo chambers on Twitter and Facebook the last day or so enjoining readers to refer to President Trump by some sobriquet rather than his name. (In the interests of fairness, its text is reproduced as an illustration below.) I think this needs to be opposed.

I should make clear before doing so that I respect the source: the daughter of Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King would be worth listening to even if her mother’s words hadn’t been treated with such disrespect this week, along with the other brave woman persisting in being heard. There is much wisdom in what she says: I’m questioning its deployment by others as a deflection of outrage. It’s much too early to withdraw.

unnamedFirstly, the problem is his title. If Trump were in a post commensurate with his skills and aptitudes – say, Dogcatcher and part-time Village Idiot of Wherethefuck, Iowa (population 48) – he’d just be another of his voters, his misogyny and bad temper known only to an understanding television and a long-suffering dog. That he has the chance to shout his ignorance from the bully pulpit is exactly what’s so worrying rather than a side issue to be kicked into the long grass. The world must be acknowledged before it can be changed.  

People hating Trump being President is feeding his ego because it makes him feel important. His desire to feel important is what has brought us here. I acknowledge there is a circularity here. It is hard to draw attention to an attention seeker without giving him attention. He thrives on attention whether good or bad, so on some level, opposing him makes him feel just as wonderful as congratulating him does. 

But that’s no reason not to call him what he is. (And if the cost of calling him what he is, is making him feel a little bit more puffed up and preen his feathers, I can live with that).

Because the alternative is to imbue him with the magic of a taboo. He’s not Voldemort: he’s a dangerously unstable inadequate with the most powerful job in the world. If calling him President massages his ego a bit then at least his weirdly tiny hands are being kept away for a while from the big red button marked ‘Warning: ends all human life’. 

Calling him ‘The Menace of 45’ (as I’ve seen a few times) is also lending his inarticulacy an all-American grandeur that he conspicuously lacks. ‘The Menace of 45’ sounds like a movie starring John Wayne. The kind of square-jawed, lean-eyed man who wants to make ‘Merica Great Agin’: whose flinty eyes stare down the threat from beneath a stetson.

President Donald Trump, by contrast, is an obnoxious and boorish oaf in a baseball cap whose expression of vacuous and malevolent narcissism is more reminiscent of someone attempting to hold in a really, really bad fart on a big phone call. Or, more charitably, the non-speaking role in that notable presidential movie, Bedtime for Bonzo. 


Ronald Reagan advises a young Donald Trump on the set of Bedtime for Bonzo (1951)

Much of the rest of the advice in the post is take-it-or-leave it. Emphasising that Trump is joined by a band of under qualified bigots and enabled by people so rapacious they make the velociraptors from Jurassic Park look like the cast of Fraggle Rock is good; more of that please. This disaster has been brought to you by a Republican Party which couldn’t scrape around the bottom of the barrel to find a better candidate: we should definitely keep reminding them that their spineless venality is part of the problem.

Absolutely do argue with those who support him, however. If we allow lies to go unchallenged we have lost. There’s no point checking your facts and then keeping them to yourself, nor is preaching to the choir likely to make much of a difference.

And as for remaining positive: if the news is bad, it’s bad. Commenting on the way the band is keeping time isn’t much use if the boat is sinking. Address yourself to change but let’s be clear: racists, bigots and idiots are taking the controls of the most powerful nation on earth. There isn’t a positive spin on that fact: the only way of finding a bright side begins with acknowledging what is the case. Anger and fear are bad, but power can be found in identifying what must be challenged, however depressing that is.

And by all means, support the arts: sensitivity, kindness and beauty are vital, as well as powerful forms of protest. The subaltern voice is never so audible as when it expresses through art what logic can only hint at.

And we’re all going to need a laugh, as well as reminders of what we’re fighting for. Many of the brightest moments at the march on 21 January were the witticisms. The Devil is a sourpuss: if you want to make him mad, laugh at him. 

But use Trump’s name. In the interests of terminological exactitude, we need to be clear. A spade is a spade; a turd is a turd; and a turd is the President. Don’t let anyone forget that, because if we do we lose any chance of defeating him.

This is a revised version of this post.

Normalisation and its discontents


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Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2014.

I like it when my musings on Twitter are acknowledged. The sense that you’re just part of a vast crowd baying at each other subsides and you glimpse the original purpose: to find new ways to connect. Many of my favourite tweeters and I have linked through debate and the recognition that their voice is worth listening to.

I also – I have to be honest – like the micro-massage of my ego that a ‘like’ or a retweet gives. ‘Oh, I might be making some sense is the thought that goes through my mind, though I appreciate that using cyberspace as an arbiter of sense is not a strategy without drawbacks.

But I was nonetheless pleased that a comment I made regarding the Trump presidency and fascism seemed to be picked up, albeit in a small way. To use the rather concerning metaphor of infection that tells us so much about the internet, I was barely communicable, much less viral.img_2470

My opinion, by the way is based on the work of Roger Griffin and Roger Eatwell, as well as twenty years of trying to understand the Nazi regime and its murderous policies. I was pleased that the comment was acknowledged and therefore curious when I received a fairly bald refutation in response.

img_2471I stopped for a while and considered what he had said. Was I becoming obsessed? One of those people who relies on third-hand summaries of second-hand accounts of made-up comments? Or could something else be going on? I retorted and await a response.

I was struck, though, that already the ‘reasonable’ voice is starting to be heard. We should be practical, it says. We should be realistic. We should be sensible. This isn’t fascism because it doesn’t threaten concentration camps or wear a uniform other than cheap baseball caps with a vacuous slogan.img_2473

In the Observer this morning, John Daniel Davidson attempts to argue that this is the hysterical reaction (his misogyny, not mine) of a liberal elite whose grip on power has been shaken by “millions of voters [who] have felt left behind by an economic recovery that largely excluded them, a culture that scoffed at their beliefs and a government that promised change but failed to deliver.” Perhaps if the Republican Congress had passed a better and easier ‘Obamacare’ things would be different. Instead, they shouted ‘Socialism’ very loudly until the cries from the emergency rooms they underfunded were drowned by shots from the guns they wouldn’t control.

In the Sunday Express, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey warns of “hysterical overreaction that poses a danger to the kind of constructive relationship we should have with the President.” The newspaper resorts to its favourite bromide in its headline: ‘Keep calm and Carey on’. For myself, the idea of the world’s only remaining superpower abandoning basic standards of truth and decency makes it impossible to keep calm and hard to carry on.

Meanwhile, a US court has upheld the suspension of the immigration ban introduced into law on Holocaust Memorial Day is unconstitutional. A wave of consumers protesting against strike-breaking by Uber seems to have led to its CEO resigning from an economic council advising President Trump. You could be forgiven for thinking that things are settling down, that perhaps the forces of reason are on the move, marching to their inevitable victory.

As a teacher currently dealing with the Nazi era and the early English Reformation, I’m struck by the way my students struggle with the idea of belief. Looking at the persecution of the Observant Friars by Henry VIII, one of my students looked up and, with the dismissive confidence that only teenagers can summon, asked: “What’s the big deal? Why couldn’t they just change their minds?” The idea that people might have believed in these ideas so passionately that they were prepared to suffer or even die for them was utterly alien, to be greeted with rolled eyes and a complacent assertion of modern (or rather, post-modern) superiority. It is this sense of ideology as a joke and the importance of the subjective over the empirical that has paved the way for ‘fake news’ and the peddling of ‘alternative facts’ by senior members of the Trump administration.

Looking at the Third Reich and its maintenance of a peacetime regime, students’ initial responses have (predictably) focused on the terror state. After absorbing the fact that the Third Reich could not have enforced security without the consent and collaboration of large numbers of its population, I have struggled against the notion of brainwashing, as though pervasive propaganda removes the need for moral choice.

Only as we have started to look in more detail at the crimes committed against Jews, Sinti and Roma, the disabled, homosexuals and people of colour have students really considered whether passive acceptance of propaganda is sufficient to explain silence in these things, let alone the cooperation that was required. Lists do not make themselves; doors do not unlock themselves; cars and trucks and trains do not drive themselves. A bullet can only be fired after a finger pulls the trigger. Claudia Koonz wrote in The Nazi Conscience that “what is frightening about the racist public culture within which the Final Solution was conceived is not its extremism but its ordinariness”.

The widespread lack of awareness (see the result below from a nationwide survey of secondary schools) that there is no recorded instance of any perpetrator being punished following a refusal to kill is an important social fact with implications for educators across and beyond disciplinary boundaries. People have choices: the consequences of the perpetrators’ actions and choices were neither remote nor hard to discern.


Stuart Foster et al., What do students know and understand about the Holocaust? Evidence from English secondary schools, UCL Centre for Holocaust Education, London 2015, p. 163.

In February 1933, the Austrian-Jewish journalist Joseph Roth wrote to Stefan Zweig about the Nazi regime:

“You will have realized by now that we are drifting towards great catastrophes. Apart from the private — our literary and financial existence is destroyed — it all leads to a new war. I won’t bet a penny on our lives. They have succeeded in establishing a reign of barbarity. Do not fool yourself. Hell reigns.”

Roth died in Paris in 1939, an alcoholic émigré unable to find work. As I watch the way the media and others are circling to tell us what to think, how to be sensible, I’m reminded of the shattering end to Primo Levi’s essay ‘The Grey Zone’:

“…we too are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility: willingly or not we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death and that close by the trains are waiting.”

Yesterday, a friend of mine, the granddaughter on both sides of people who survived the Nazi era despite being marked for death as Jews, described how she was depressed by the constant flow of negativity, writing vividly of jogging through a Berlin forest to escape, finally stopping, hyperventilating into the icy fog of the morning. She concluded, though, by reminding us that “This may be bigger than us, but it is not stronger, nor smarter than our energies combined.” We keep shouting, keep focused on the truths that we can see are self-evident: that there were fewer people at the inauguration of 2017 than that of 2009; that there was no Bowling Green Massacre: this is not normal. We are not in the ghetto: though the lords of death may seek to reign they can only do so if we let them.

An earlier draft of this post disappeared without warning from the host server. 

Brexit: Now wash your hands


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I doubt I’m alone in having received an email from my MP last night explaining their vote to trigger Article 50. As my MP is Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit Secretary, his views – and indeed his speech – have been widely reported. I wanted to share my reply as a kind of protest against the failure of the Labour Party to do its current job and effectively challenge and hold the government to account. Voting for this makes that hard to envisage. One Labour MP reportedly told Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon that they “need a bath after that”: they appear to be their own shower. 

Dear Keir, 
Thank you for this email. I saw your speech in the Commons earlier today and was impressed as usual by your clarity, honesty and integrity. 

On the point at issue, however, I disagree. A majority of your constituents – myself included – voted clearly to Remain and I had hoped that you would follow suit, particularly since the government has a majority and there is no need to contradict the democratically agreed policy of the party – parliamentary colleagues such as John Mann and Gisela Stuart will likely ensure the electoral cowardice of the government achieves what pass for its aims. 

I’ve just seen another clip of your speech again. You are a democrat and have the backing of party policy, your constituents and most importantly your conscience to lead you into the ‘No’ lobby tomorrow evening.
Respectfully yours,
Jaime Ashworth 

On Tue, 31 Jan 2017 at 19:58, Keir Starmer <keir@camdenlabour.org.uk> wrote:

Keir Starmer 

Dear Jaime,

As you know, the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill is before the House of Commons this week. Since many of you have strong
views on the issue, I wanted to write to you to set out my approach to this Bill. I apologise for the lengthy email – but none of this is straightforward!

Having campaigned across the country – with many members
from Holborn & St Pancras CLP – for a ‘Remain’ vote, I was
saddened and frustrated by the outcome of the referendum. For me and for many Labour MPs the Article 50 vote now presents an agonising choice and I have thought long and hard about the right course of action.

Although I am fiercely pro-EU, I am also a democrat. The Labour Party voted in favour of the Referendum Act, which paved the
way for the referendum, and everyone who campaigned knew the outcome would be decisive. Some have argued that the referendum was merely
advisory. Legally that is true, but the arguments are not just legal –
they are deeply political and, politically, the notion that the
referendum was merely a consultation exercise to inform Parliament holds no water. Equally the argument the leave vote was only 37% of those eligible to vote loses its strength against the argument that less than 37% voted to remain. Neither side can claim that those who did not vote would have voted either to leave or to remain. We simply do not know.
There is a wider point. Since I was appointed to my current role, I have travelled all over the UK – including to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. I have met groups and individuals, held public events, talked to businesses large and small and discussed Brexit with different political parties and

From this, the evidence is clear: As a society we are more divided now than at any time in my life. The divide is deep and, in some instances, it is bitter. Labour must play its part in healing that divide: it cannot do so if it refuses to accept the outcome of
the referendum.

That is why I have repeatedly said that although I wish the outcome of the referendum had been different, I accept and respect
the result. 

It follows that it would be wrong simply to frustrate the process and to block the Prime Minister from starting the Article 50 negotiations. I will not therefore be voting against the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill this week.

The ballot paper on 23 June last year did not, however, give the Prime Minister power to act as she sees fit or to change our domestic laws or policy. That is why I have tabled a number of Labour amendments that would significantly improve the Bill and ensure Parliament can hold the Prime Minister to account
throughout negotiations. I will be taking these amendments through for Labour in the House of Commons next week.

First, these amendments would ensure MPs have a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal – that means the House of Commons has the first say on any proposed deal before it is considered by the European Council and Parliament. This would strengthen the
House of Commons’ ability to influence the negotiating process
and mean that MPs could send the Government back to the negotiating table if they are unhappy with the proposed final deal.

Second, the Government should report back to Parliament
regularly during the negotiations so that progress can be known and
checked. Labour has also tabled amendments that establish a number of broad principles the Government must seek to negotiate, including protecting workers’ rights and securing full tariff and impediment free access to the Single Market. We will also try to ensure that the legal status of EU citizens already living in the UK is guaranteed before negotiations begin – a point that is long overdue.

It is also important to recognise that the triggering of Article 50 is merely the start of the process for leaving the EU, it is not the end.

Any changes the Prime Minister seeks to make to domestic law would need separate legislation to be passed through Parliament,
whether through the Great Repeal Bill or more widely. Labour will
argue throughout for a Brexit deal that puts jobs and the economy
first and protects vital workers’ rights and environmental
protections. We also totally reject the Prime Minister’s threat to rip
up the economic and social fabric of the country and turn Britain into a tax haven economy if she fails in her negotiations.

As Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU I have been very clear that Labour will hold the Government to
account every step of the way. 

I know that many members have urged me to reflect the
75% Remain vote in Holborn and St Pancras by voting against Article 50 and resigning my post in the Shadow Cabinet.

I see the argument, but that would prevent me pressing Labour’s amendments, it would prevent me questioning the Government relentlessly from the front bench over the coming years and
it would prevent me fighting as hard as I can for a Brexit on the
right terms. 

It would be to walk off the pitch just when we need effective challenge to government. I believe that would be the wrong
thing to do.

I know that not everyone will agree with my approach,
but I hope that my explanation helps.

All best,


Keir Starmer

Labour Member of Parliament for Holborn and St.



Holborn and St Pancras Labour Party, 110 Gloucester
Avenue, NW1 8HX

On Holocaust Memorial Day, 2017


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It’s Holocaust Memorial Day today. The theme for this year is ‘How can life go on?’ I suspect many can relate to my growing alarm and sadness at the way the world seems to be twisting itself out of shape: questioning what ‘going on’ means.

For many at this time, ‘Going on’ at this time requires enormous courage – even more than usual – in the face of uncertainty and in some cases open hostility and violence. And I know that as a straight, white, middle-class male my position is privileged: I could largely ignore these threats if I wanted to.

I don’t encourage comparisons with the Nazi era as a rule: but the mendacity, arrogance and total disregard for truth that have characterised the Trump presidency thus far seem to me to justify them more and more.

Teaching my students about the Third Reich, we have reached the point at which we need to look at the question of resistance. Of when those who could pass by needed to stop; when petty advantage could and should have been outweighed by a duty to the other who is also ourselves. The words of Martin Niemoller are famous:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

But we’re also looking at the way the belief that they were alone stayed many hands from opposing what they felt to be wrong. As Emmi Bonhoeffer, the sister of the murdered Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said: “Resistance: we were like stones in a river as the torrent washed over us.”

We can, however, steer in the torrent, even ride it. The BBC journalist Nick Robinson tells of how his grandfather, a German Jewish doctor, was rung by an ‘Aryan’ patient to ask if they could have an appointment – but come in the back entrance to the surgery. His voice – his polished, professional, BBC voice – cracks with emotion as he tells the story, more than seventy years later. The patient wanted the treatment but not to take the risk that it would entail.  Many of us in the next while may be tempted by similar half-measures, similar compromises: by sending private messages of support or shaking our heads as we keep them down, out of sight.

But it won’t be enough. The rhetoric of the Trump campaign and the early moves by the administration indicate a desire to repress, to enslave and to torture that is chillingly complacent in its assertion of white, male, Christian identity. Shaking our heads won’t get the job done. Christabel Bielenberg – an Englishwoman who lived through the Third Reich and whose husband was arrested after the Bomb Plot of 1944 – wrote of how “each small demand for our outward acquiescence could lead to the next, and with the gentle persistence of an incoming tide could lap at the walls of just that integrity we were so anxious to preserve.” It is the characteristic of populism to try and make the private space so small that there is no room for dissent, and to reward inaction. 

We have to push back. The photos in this article were taken last Saturday at the London Women’s March: a carnival of peaceful, joyful opposition to the forces of compromise, with every kind of participant and every kind of cause emblazoned. (And yes, I realise a man taking pictures of women raises questions: all I can say is that I’ve tried to present powerful women in charge of themselves rather than passive subjects.)

As I marched, I wondered if this mood of defiant optimism in the face of petulant negativity would be sustained. Whether I could sustain it. And then I looked at the four defiant women I was marching with: all of them have the Holocaust in their family histories and all of them recognise the importance of adding their voice. All of them see the need to keep shouting.
More importantly, though, the march reminded me of the truth in the quote of Martin Luther King that has been over-used this week: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” He said many other things and – as many have pointed out this week – was in some sense speaking of peace in a space created by more forthright techniques. But it’s true, nonetheless.

This week has reminded me of not just how I can do this – by encouraging and modelling the values of compassion, curiosity and exploration of moral complexity – but also why: because someone who is compassionate will feel for others; someone who is curious will ask questions; someone who sees moral complexity is more likely to be sceptical of simplistic explanations. But mostly because, in the words of the late Elie Wiesel:

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

These were the words that drove the Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations last year, when the theme was ‘Don’t stand by.’ Perhaps this was a kind of prophecy, a warning of things to come, a reflexive twitching in response to approaching thunder. Or perhaps the the time is simply out of joint. Whatever our answer, we must put it right. Love trumps hate, and if we doubt if we can change things, well: yes we can. 

None of the Above


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Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2016.

In David Hare’s play The Absence of War, about a privately charismatic Labour leader unable to connect with voters through a web of political advice and spin, a senior political adviser bemoans the diversity of opinion that is a feature of Labour politics. “It’s easy for the Tories,” he complains, “They’ve got money and power to unite around. What have we got? Bloody justice. And no two definitions of that are ever the same.”

While it might be argued that a progressive politics necessarily stems from vigorous debate informed by passionately held principles, the last few months have demonstrated the other side of that: an emphasis on ideological purity and groupthink at the expense of the party’s alleged political goals of either holding the government of the day to account (the job of the official opposition) or winning power to implement change (pretty close to a textbook definition of a political party). As a follower of two Twitter accounts (@GentlerPolitics and @LabourAbuse) devoted to chronicling the abuses of both sides, I can testify (with many others) to the intensity and abusiveness of the debate. It has, however, generated much more heat than light. While I regret saying this (but not as much as I will once this piece is available to comment on, I suspect) I can’t see how I can vote for either candidate.

Let’s start with Jeremy Corbyn. I didn’t vote for him, because I think that fundamentally he’s wedded to a political model that has passed its sell-by date and is temperamentally a (frequently principled and often right) rebel rather than a unifier. Poachers can turn gamekeeper but they have to be wary of shooting themselves in the foot. He has discovered the hard way why Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Brown and Milliband would all have preferred him to toe the party line at various points. For his supporters to complain about parliamentary disloyalty is as hypocritical as the actions of many in his Shadow Cabinet were craven as they fled the coop when they became afraid the liberal sheen was about to come off him post-Brexit. Though in fairness Corbyn has, in regard to Trident, proved himself capable of criticising his party’s policy while leading it.

And then there’s antisemitism. Ken Livingstone’s comments were misinformed and offensive, and the failure to respond decisively was damaging. The response in the Vice.com documentary to an article by Jonathan Freedland was frankly bizarre: describing it, without any obvious foundation or subsequent explanation, as “disgusting” and “subliminal” suggests some agenda I can only guess at but many others have concluded about. The figures for his appearances in support of the Remain campaign are contested, but his reluctance to appear alongside those he disagreed on other issues with – like David Cameron, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown – is clear and puts his relationship to Hamas and Hezbollah back on the table as indicating his point of view rather than (as claimed) his desire to explore issues with those he disagrees with.

As for the response to the incident… I think Shami Chakrabarti has done more than enough in her career to justify a peerage but her report was anaemic at best, as some of the abuse chronicled in the Twitter accounts mentioned above has shown. Corbyn’s remarks at the launch were incompetent rather than malicious, but suggested a failure to take the issue or the audience seriously. The offensive remarks addressed to a Jewish MP by an activist who was later greeted warmly by Corbyn reinforce the view of him as one of the following: a fierce holder of principles with very limited ability to maintain focus when an issue doesn’t interest him; someone who didn’t understand why the remarks were offensive; or someone who agreed with the sentiment. Any of these are deeply problematic qualities in a potential Prime Minister (which is what Corbyn allegedly is): sometimes, annoying and frustrating as it is, you do have to accept the premise of the question. To govern is to choose, but you can’t always choose the issues you govern on, or the choices available.

Choiceless choice leads neatly to the candidacy of Owen Smith. While he may offer an alternative, and is certainly the most defiant spectacles-wearer to run for major political office since, well, John Major, he shares with the former Prime Minister a kind of anti-charisma. Major’s fashion sense combined with Tony Blair’s hand gestures and just a hint of predatory scoutmaster is not an appetising package.

In terms of his policy views, his soundbite on Newsnight that “There are too many immigrants in parts of Britain” suggests that Smith needs to learn when the premise of the question does need to be challenged. His statement in the leadership debate that “The Prevent strategy, that is grossly undermined and under-resourced in this country, ought to be at the forefront of Labour’s policy, making sure we foster better community relations in Britain” is even more troubling. Prevent, which is the unholy love-child of Theresa May as Home Secretary and Michael Gove at Education, mandates (among other things) that teachers report potential radicalisation to the authorities. Salma Yaqoob has described in the Guardian how her son suffered sleepless nights after being reported for participating in a WhatsApp group and suggested that Prevent “fosters the very climate of division and fear in which extremism grows.” A senior member of staff at a prestigious home-counties FE college described to me at an interview how a talented student had been interviewed for ninety minutes about her plans to visit family in Iran and how, as one of the approximately 20% of British teachers from BAME backgrounds, he was profoundly uncomfortable with the policy and the barriers it placed between staff and students in reporting genuine concerns. A far cry from the “cohesive, integrated multi-faith society [and] parliamentary democracy” it claims to be defending. Smith’s support of Prevent suggests that he is more interested in raising the level of social control than addressing the root causes of social problems. It signals a mixture of opportunism and limited vision that is less the dawn of a new era than the dusk of liberal politics.

As Richard Pryor’s character discovers in the 1980s classic Brewster’s Millions, “None of the Above” is a seductive slogan. Many reading will suggest that I too have to accept the premise of the question and vote one way or another, or that I am making politicians scapegoats for problems that extend well beyond their – or anyone else’s – control. They may also ask how I intend to vote in a General Election: thankfully, under the present circumstances, I’m unlikely to have to worry about that for a while. In any case, living in a safe Labour seat occupied by an MP I respect, the democratic deficit is likely to work in my favour.

But the leadership of the Labour Party is not a contest that requires my participation in the way a General Election does: it is what Anthony King has termed the “democracy of the fervent few”. It is the job of political parties to present coherent, practical and reasonably attractively packaged policies so that I can exercise my right in a democratic society to choose who to vote for: in my case for policies that try to thread the (perhaps impossible) needle of retaining and advancing social justice without descending into statism. It is also a question of presenting the ability to execute policy; to legislate as well as agitate, with the compromises and attention to boring detail that entails. Democracy of the fervent few requires a fervour that neither candidate inspires, and therefore: I’m out.



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The attacks in Belgium this week have brought with them a fresh set of images showing the immediate effects of the bombs, commemoration on the streets of major cities, of those responsible and of those killed and injured. At the same time, cartoonists and illustrators have responded to the challenge of summarising the day in a single graphic response.

One image singled out in a Guardian article was that of an Indian air stewardess, Nidhi Chaphekar, sitting stunned and bleeding in the departure hall of Zaventem airport in the immediate aftermath of the explosions. Taken by Ketevan Kardava, a Georgian journalist, the image made the front pages of several newspapers the following morning and the hashtag #PrayforNidhi started trending on Twitter. So far, so understandable: I hope she’s alright and wish her a speedy and full recovery.

What has struck me is the tone of some of the stories about the image and its subject. A Guardian article by Nadia Khomami described the image as ‘The photograph that has come to define the horrors of the Brussels attacks’. A piece by Olivier Laurent for TIME said that ‘In just a few hours, her portrait has come to define the March 22 terrorist attacks’: the title of the article described the image as ‘iconic’. Similar sentiments and phrasing ran through the tweets and many of the articles: a Times of India article drew a comparison with other ‘seminal photographs that define historic episodes’, comparing it with ‘the picture of a naked Vietnamese girl running away from a napalm explosion in 1968’ or the picture of Aylan Kurdi drowned on a Turkish beach in 2015 which (reportedly) ‘seared the conscience of the world and moved the West to finally act on Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the World War’.

Images are powerful. Photographs in particular have an immediacy and truth-value which derives from a core belief, unshaken by the ironies and post-ironies of postmodernism that they constitute something ‘stencilled off the real’, as Susan Sontag put it. At the same time, as arrested moments, they solidify into symbols terrifyingly quickly, as the overblown claims of the Times of India demonstrate. Working with Holocaust imagery, I am often struck by the way in which photographic images move between evidence and symbol, often in the same moment. The photograph below of the unloading of a transport of Jews from (what is now) Hungary is a case in point. Here is the original:

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USHMM 77241: ‘Jews from Subcarrpathian Rus undergo a selection on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau’, May 1944.

Just a short walk from where I sit writing this, the Holocaust gallery of the Jewish Museum London is organised principally around the life of Leon Greenman, born in the East End but raised in Rotterdam, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1943. His wife and son were murdered on arrival but he survived, living in London until his death in 2008, aged 97. The photograph is used here: this time, though, it is captioned as depicting ‘Guards separating new arrivals at Birkenau’. With a different caption the image moves a step away from its particular context into the general. In the moving video testimony by Greenman which is the central feature of the gallery, the image becomes a backdrop to his testimony of arrival and separation from his family. From evidence to symbol, in the blink of an eye: there are no photographs of the Judenrampe between Auschwitz and Birkenau where the Greenmans arrived. The siding the photograph depicts would not be built for another year. Else and Barney Greenman made their way to the gas chamber in a truck along with other women and children: as Leon’s memoir states, ‘Most of them were tired from the journey and a ride was very welcome.’ But this was not pictured, so the transport from 1944 must take its place, allowing us to picture an old man’s pain, narrated in front of us.


The process by which Holocaust imagery has developed and changed is one which has taken seventy years – so far. The possible number of images is huge – browse the collections of the Imperial War Museum in London, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington or Yad Vashem in Jerusalem – but very often we see the same images used again and again. Sometimes because they are powerful images; sometimes because they are the only images we have. Sometimes because, having been shown so often, they signify the event to such an extent that the event might be said to describe them. The gate of Birkenau – one site in the Holocaust, albeit a crucial one – overtakes its context.

But this is a process which happens over time. The coverage of the coverage of the Brussels attacks twenty-four hours later allows no space for reflection, absorption, sifting of the facts, knowledge of the story. Mistakes get made in the rush for an icon: Nick Ut’s photo of Kim Phuc screaming in the distress of her injuries was taken in 1972, not 1968. Did the photograph of Aylan Kurdi really move the West to finally act to end the refugee crisis? Or did it provoke a wave of public sympathy that was bought off by a few quick headlines? Time will tell, but a report by Philippe Fargues for the Migration Policy Centre is laconically titled ‘2015: the year we mistook refugees for invaders’ and suggests the continued ‘wars and conflicts that produce forced migration’ leave ‘little doubt that the refugee movements will continue in Europe’s neighbourhood.’ What is needed, says Fargues, is the political courage to address long-term problems rather than a continued search for a short term fix. There is, he says, little to be found.

At the beginning of researching this piece, I entered ‘Brussels attacks’ into a Google image search to test whether the image of Nidhi Chaphekar was a particularly prominent image. In fact it is one of many, some way down the page.

Brussels Capture 1

Sample of Google Images search: ‘Brussels attacks’, 24 March 2016

Other images included the grainy footage from airport security cameras of the three bombers, wheeling trolleys. Or of Pauline Graystone scrambling on the floor of the airport, ‘keeping small’ as advised by a Guardian article the previous day on how to survive a terror attack, as she told The World at One.

Reading the articles about Nidhi, I was reminded of the coverage of the July 2005 attacks in London. In particular, the image of John Tulloch, a Professor of Media Studies, bleeding and dazed after the bombs, anchored to a headline on the front page of the Sun: ‘TERROR LAWS: TELL TONY HE’S RIGHT’. As with Nidhi, his image ‘somehow seemed to capture the particular horror of a very banal everyday life interrupted in the most shocking way imaginable.’

But Tulloch’s opinion on the ‘terror laws’ the Sun made him the poster-boy for was the opposite. His brave and fascinating memoir, One Day in July: Surviving 7/7, makes clear his opposition to the process of othering and his commitment to understanding the attackers.

Perhaps Nidhi, once the shock and pain has passed, will embark on a similar journey and believe similar things. Perhaps she won’t: the question is, will we keep asking, once the initial shock is over and absorbed into memes that mix sentiment with a quick moral fix? For now, we have appropriated her image but not heard her voice.

And what questions will we ask of those who did this? Will we ask why they did this, what agenda they thought they pursued in this carnage? Or will we just add their images to the roll call of similar pictures from London, Paris, and New York?

‘Keeping small’, said Pauline Graystone, was the advice from the Guardian on how to get through an attack. Perhaps: but if we are to survive, we need to look for the biggest possible meaning, the most appropriate symbol as related to the fullest and most complex account of the facts we can find, not the instameaning – the portable and disposable short-term framing based on insufficient time and excess adrenaline. The depiction of events such as the Holocaust or World War 1 illustrates that symbolism does become fixed – I argue that it is an element of recovery to ritualise the trauma, locate it within unfolding meaning, turn it, in fact from endless process to limited event – but it must be allowed to do so at its own pace, not turned from breaking news to icon within a news cycle.




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Where’s my coffee (from)?

It all begins with a coffee at Starbucks. As I waited for my latte, I noticed a map on the wall: a map of coffee history, from the discovery of coffee berries (c. 800 CE) to the establishment of Starbucks in 1971. The lines tracing Atlantic voyages caught my eye, taking me back to an early lesson in my PGCE placement last year looking at how the demand for tea, coffee and sugar in the eighteenth century had stimulated the British economy. Tea, coffee and sugar grown on plantations in the Caribbean, South America and the southern United States (as they had recently become): plantations where the work was done by slaves. Of this trade, which carried millions over a period of 315 years, not a trace remained.

Starbucks map of coffee

Starbucks map of coffee, July 2015. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

I didn’t have to teach the following session on the Middle Passage, but the accounts of those voyages between Africa and the slave markets have remained with me. As Olaudah Equiano describes in his ‘Interesting Narrative’, first published in 1789:

At last, when the ship we were in, had got in all her cargo, they made ready with many fearful noises, and we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel. … The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome…. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died — thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. 

It is a measure of the awfulness that one of the most famous images of the abolition campaign, the Brookes illustration, shows conditions on board after legislation in 1788 to regulate the numbers ships were allowed to carry. The Port Cities: Bristol website explains that while the illustration shows 295 slaves packed into the vessel (with barely room to move), a previous voyage had transported 609. Borrowing a term from Terrence des Pres’s The Survivor on the degradation in the camps of the Third Reich, this was an ‘excremental assault’. Conditions reduced the slaves’ estimation of their own worth as ‘defilement was a constant threat, a condition of life from day to day, and at any moment it was liable to take abruptly vicious and sometimes fatal forms’ (des Pres, 1978: 57). As Equiano narrates: ‘with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together. I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing. I now wished for the last friend, Death, to relieve me’ (Equiano, 2003: 56).

As in the Nazi camps, the assault kept others at bay. Other ships could smell the slavers for miles and avoided them and the miasma they carried: literally distancing themselves from the terrible reality, ‘stifling in common loathing the impulse toward solidarity’ (des Pres, 1978: 61).

The legislation of 1788 was introduced partly in response to the case of the Zong: a ship which left Africa in August 1781 with 442 slaves aboard. After 62 slave deaths from malnutrition and disease, the captain ordered that a further 78 be thrown overboard: the terms of the ship’s insurance were such that ‘natural’ deaths would not be compensated (to the slaver) but slaves jettisoned to save the rest of the (human) cargo could be. The conditions had done their work; ‘murder [was] less terrible to the murderers, because the victims appeared less than human’ (des Pres, 1978: 61) and ‘death could be administered with the conviction that so much rotten tissue had been removed from life’s body’ (Ibid.: 62).

Brookes illustration

The Brookes Illustration

Furthermore, although the Zong featured in abolitionist literature just as in contemporary curricula as a milestone on the road to abolition, the facts are less reassuring. The case was brought by the insurers out of a sense of financial rather than moral outrage and never properly resolved.

The connections between slavery and British wealth are well documented, not least in the National Maritime Museum‘s superb galleries on the Atlantic and the East India Company, the Liverpool International Slavery Museum and the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project at UCL. But the gap in everyday discourse represented by the single reference in Starbucks to the Caribbean was striking.

While on leave in Paris, a naval officer took a sprout and transported it back to Martinique. Once returned to the Caribbean [it?] thrived and is believed to be father of many Coffea arabica trees alive today in Central and Latin America.

The web of imperial and colonial power that took the plant from Africa to Paris and thence from Paris to Martinique is obscured by the statement itself. It is an example of what Barthes termed the privation of history, in which historical language ‘is a kind of ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them, lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from’ (Barthes, 2000: 178-179).

Am I not a man and a brother?

Wedgewood anti-slavery medallion copied from the seal of the Anti-Slavery Society.

It is not coincidental that this project begins with a link between the past and addictive consumption: eeven imperial defender Niall Fergusson notes the importance of the new stimulants in British imperial expansion: the Empire, he writes ‘was built on a huge sugar, caffeine and nicotine rush’ both commercial and physical (Fergusson, 2003: 15). Christopher Keep and Don Randall have read the ‘relationship between the imperial imaginary and the psychic economy of addiction’ (Keep and Randall, 1999: 208) into the Sherlock Holmes story The Sign of Four as one of the ‘stories which the Empire told to itself’ (Ibid.: 207) in order to ‘authorise, legitimise and mythologise its campaigns of material and economic exploitation’ (Ibid.: 219). The Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh depicts this process from the perspective of the colonised, drawn into a global web of trade, power and exploitation.

History consists of both voices and silences, and the latter are hard to address. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously and despairingly noted, ‘the subaltern cannot speak’ (Spivak, 1988: 308). Hugh Thomas, in his magisterial history of the slave trade, comments: ‘The slave himself is a silent participant in the account […] an unknown warrior, invoked by moralists on both sides of the Atlantic, recalled now in museums in one-time slave ports from Liverpool to Elmina, but all the same unspeaking, and therefore remote and elusive’ (Thomas, 1997 : 799).

The gendered language as Thomas comments on the gaps in the record is ironic testimony to the problem he identifies, his formulation eliding the possibility of an alternative which recovers the voices and histories of women and children. The question posed by the abolitionists – Am I not a Man and a Brother? – is once more problematised: certainly a man (not a woman or a child) but still not a brother, or at least only a younger, subservient one to be pitied. The figurehead carved for the Royal George yacht in 1817 stands in the National Maritime Museum. The information notes that its figures (copied from the Wedgewood medallion) ‘indicate[s] how much anti-slavery imagery and language had pervaded British society by the early 19th century’ but I can’t help seeing in it the persistence of a hierarchy: grateful supplicants to royal mercy.

Royal George figurehead

Detail of the ‘Royal George’ figurehead, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2015.

The silences of the Starbucks map set me thinking about the need for educational resources to fill these silences. As a history teacher, I am very aware that as Alison Kitson and Chris Husbands put it, ‘the selection of what we teach, as well as how we teach it, directly confronts our assumptions about ‘usable’ or ‘significant’ knowledge’ (2011: 133).  If we see the construction of curricula as ‘a selection and organization from the available knowledge at a particular time’ (Young, 1971: 24), justified by assumptions about culture and ‘fields of knowledge’ (Stenhouse, 1975: 19) and who can be seen as a ‘legitimate author’ (Apple, 2000: xxviii) we can also see ‘disciplines’ and ‘subjects’ as social constructs which serve to replicate power relations. One does not have to be a Foucauldian to partner ‘discipline’ with ‘punish’ or to see the linkage between the elision of historical slavery and the obscuring of the nature of the supply chain to the modern consumer: I can’t answer the question that acts as a heading to this section.

These elisions are what Heidi Safia Mirza terms ‘embodied intersectionality’: the physical manifestation of ‘patterns of power and ideology that reproduce inequalities based on race and gender differences’ (Mirza, 2009: 2). Silences of the type embodied in the Starbucks map are perhaps the most insidious practices which go toward creating ‘gendered, raced, classed, colonised, sexualised ‘others’’ (Mirza, 2009: 3) since it is difficult to become aware of them, much less confront or challenge them. #missinghistories is intended to be a way for different voices to express themselves. The conundrum of whether a white middle-class heterosexual male can even raise this without being patronising is probably irresolvable: the reader will have to trust my goodwill.

Practically, an INSET training by Mirza helped me articulate the power of educational resources in addressing these patterns by exploring and exploiting the gaps created in the language of history itself. I had already designed a session intended to problematise the use of the word ‘mulatto’ in a historical analysis in response to comments by students of Afro-Caribbean descent at earlier material, and continued to draw attention to the language in which (in the Barthesian formulation) the past was spoken. Looking at Indian participation in WW1 from the perspective of work by David Olusoga (2014) and Santanu Das (2014) both challenged the dominant narrative that reduces it to a ‘tragic but monochrome European feud’ (Olusoga, 2014: 424) and allowed students to make links between historical writing and empire.

Samples of all these resources (suitable for AS History) are available to download on the #missinghistories page, along with an elaboration (missinghistories) of the project’s concrete outcomes.


IMG_0888Amitav Ghosh has written that “the only people for whom we can even begin to imagine properly human, individual existences are the literate and the consequential . . . the people who had the power to inscribe themselves physically upon time”. In his novels, he inverts this significance by making the coloniser speak in a historical patois that is hard to comprehend while his ‘colonised’ characters are narrated in lucid and limpid prose. Supplying #missinghistories helps us to perform a similar inversion where ‘alternative’ sites of memory (Nora, 1989) can become part of the narrative of the city and so change it. In the recent documentary Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, projections of the registers of those who claimed for compensation were superimposed on contemporary London: #missinghistories allows us to do this over time and for many other stories. A tweet from my placement colleague John Siblon is a model of how twitter might be used to do it: why was the East India Company formed? How did the growth of the port affect the coffee shop? What was the role of the Bank of England? We can ask these questions on the move.

More broadly, therefore, these rewritings of the problematic representation or non-representation of the past change the city in which they are found. Michel de Certeau described the city as composed of ‘unrecognised poems’ (de Certeau, 1988: 93) of meaning in relation to space and time. The voices of Londoners could rewrite this poem, creating new ‘trajectories and alterations of spaces’ (Ibid.) that send thoughts and everyday habits along new figurative as well as literal avenues. If you attended the London Open Garden Squares event earlier this year, you will know the way your eyes are opened in new ways by finding somewhere you’ve never been before. If you went to the Clay Cargo event at King’s Cross, you’ve seen the power and beauty of Londoners literally remoulding the fabric of the city in their own image. By filling in #missinghistories we are actually creating a new history which in turn opens up a new future. Hopefully, by rewriting and remapping the city in which we live, we can change the lives that are lived within it.

composite landscape

Stills from ‘Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners’. Copyright of originator.

What we want…

From the public: photos of representations or non-representations of the past that fascinate, infuriate or just simply amuse.

From educators: teaching resources designed for use in addressing representations or non-representations of the past, or linking local points of interest to the formal curriculum.

From institutions and organisations: links to the resources designed already for use with exhibitions and sites, with as much detail about the exhibition or site as possible.  

Post to Twitter (@missinghist) with the hashtag #missinghistories or post direct to the page on this site. 

Truth and Memory, 1914-2014


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Detail from Paul Cummins, ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, July – November 2014. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2014.

In The Missing of the Somme, his 1994 meditation on the legacy of the First World War, Geoff Dyer suggested that ‘in terms of remembrance the years 2014-2018 will represent the temporal equivalent of a total eclipse. By then no one who fought in the war will be alive to remember it.’ While the concrete prediction was unsurprisingly accurate (though Harry Patch, ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’ died only in 2009) the weight of coverage and number of memorials mean that it can hardly be considered an eclipse. Visiting the newly renovated Imperial War Museum London and its new First World War Galleries and the installation by Paul Cummins at the Tower of London, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, I have been struck not just by the sheer numbers (the IWM galleries have timed tickets to cope with demand) but the intensity with which people have engaged. For an event which has passed out of living memory (for combatants at least) it is remarkably emotive still. Even allowing for the degree to which media attention will amplify/produce/manufacture interest the response has been impressive. According to 1418Now, three million homes turned out their lights and lit candles to mark the centenary on 4 August.


The ‘Truth and Memory’ logo. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2014.

There is no shortage of pieces explaining/asking ‘What WW1 did for us’, nor is there any dearth of historical research exploring the origins and significance of the conflict. What I want to do here is look at the way this is happening in relation to the terms ‘Truth’ and ‘Memory’ – employed by the IWM as the title for an incredible exhibition of their First World War art collection.

The exhibition is in two parallel galleries separated by the chasm of the central atrium. The first contains works produced during or very shortly after the conflict while the second houses works produced after, incorporating the major works produced for the Hall of Remembrance project abandoned in 1919 by the British War Memorials Committee. The tensions in this division are acknowledged by the logo: ‘truth’ dissolving upward and ‘memory’ resolutely solid beneath. As the introductory panel notes, the ‘truth’ gallery contains works that ‘challenged established ideas of war and in turn redefined notions of the “truth”’. The gallery for ‘memory’ is intended to display evidence of ‘the central role envisioned for British art in commemorating the First World War’ – apparently underpinned by ‘the belief that art alone could convey the legitimacy of Britain’s cause and the nation’s sacrifice.’

Walking through the exhibition, my respect for the art itself was only slightly offset by disquiet at the ideas behind it. If there was a redefinition of ‘truth’ then how did that work? Did William Orpen’s use of biblical motifs redefine or reinforce them? Iconoclasm or even theodicy can be the sincerest forms of worship. Was the ‘grizzly truthfulness’ of Percy Delf Smith’s The Dance of Death a challenge to established ideas? Employing the medieval allegory of the Grim Reaper seems to emphasise continuity rather than challenge. Conversely, can anyone stand in front of John Singer Sargent’s Gassed and see ‘the legitimacy of Britain’s cause and the nation’s sacrifice’ without any hesitation or question? These questions, of course, are in the context of a breathtakingly thorough exhibition that needs to be seen and reflected upon.

The tensions between the concepts are nonetheless there, and unsurprisingly so. Truth will always require formulation and to that extent will be partial, at least in its expression. Memory presupposes that something is being remembered – which means that the scope of the imagination will come up against the facts of what happened. As Barthes put it, there is ‘stupefying evidence of this is how it was, giving us, by a precious miracle, a reality from which we are sheltered’ – the reality being the truth which can only be partially expressed.


From the IWM London First World War Galleries. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2014.

Rather, therefore, than seeing a binary, on/off relationship between truth and memory, I see a spectrum of what I term mythology. Building on the work of Barthes, I see our engagement with the past as resulting from a tension that starts with an awareness that there is always ‘a language in which we speak of something’ which creates and defines the gap between what happened and how (or whether) we can speak of it – or if in fact we can sometimes stop speaking. This is about resonance and allusion, conscious or unconscious, of the period and/or anachronistic. Thus the title of William Roberts’s 1918 The Gas Chamber summons associations that are at once anachronistic and relevant. The chamber Roberts depicts is for training soldiers in the use of gas masks but at the same time the experience of gas attacks as both perpetrator and victim had a legacy in the death camps of the Third Reich, though it would be a mistake to join the concepts as though with a ruler. We need to remember Johan Huizinga’s injunction (quoted by Dyer) to ‘put ourselves at a point in the past at which the known factors seem to permit different outcomes’ and simultaneously know that it did happen a certain way and not another. In short, an awareness that we are not dealing with the object ‘memory’ but the act of remembering. Not mythology but mythologisation.

To achieve this, a museum needs to tread a path between explanation and play-acting that explains and illustrates the experience without confusing it with the reality that is being described. Not “I have been in a trench from the First World War” (which is patently false) but “I have enough insight to know what I can never experience”. The Blitz Experience and Trench Experience that used to occupy the parts of the building that are now the First World War Galleries used to fall into the trap of trying to recreate a reality which could not be recreated. The Dutch journalist Geert Mak wrote of sitting in a ‘fairy-tale air-raid shelter listening to the howl of the sirens and the thudding of the Heinkel bombers’.

More recent exhibitions such as the permanent Holocaust Exhibition and In Memoriam (commemorating the ninetieth anniversary of the end of the First World War) have succeeded, however, in precisely the terms I am talking about, using installation and artful display spaces to suggest the experience of what is being described rather than indulging in theatrics that leave the visitor aware that it was just a fairground ride. In clearing out the ramshackle dioramas and glass cases of the First and Second World War exhibitions the challenge was to produce a space that provided information and experience in ways that are accessible and thought-provoking. The new galleries succeed in this with remarkable sophistication.


Paper soldiers go to war. IWM London First World War Galleries. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2014.

A phenomenal array of exhibits and artefacts fill an exhibition space which crawls with explanations and questions, not asking you to imagine you are there but challenging you with the question; can you imagine this? Making your jagged way through the exhibition, the structure allegorises ‘The Trench’ while the lapidary scansion of the information panels constantly draws attention to the language in which they speak. One of the final panels reminds us that ‘Different generations/ have taken different standpoints/ as to what the war meant/ and we still grapple with its meaning today’. It is a brave choice to end a historical exhibition in such a significant location with questions about what is contained therein but this is what the IWM has done. In keeping with the awareness in its Corporate Plan that there is no end in sight to its role as ‘a global authority on conflict and its impact, from the First World War to the present day’ it offers questions. The present day is a moving target and answers are therefore provisional.


A visitor to IWM London engages with ‘Queen and Country’ (Steve McQueen, 2006). Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2014.

And this is not isolated but clearly a strategy that the future will maintain. In the post-1945 galleries, bringing Queen and Country by Steve McQueen into the body of the museum does this: on the day I visited, two staff members were watching visitors explore the work and murmuring approvingly at the interaction – in contrast to its previous splendid isolation next to Sargent’s Gassed. On the same floor, Mark Neville’s Bolan Market – footage taken from inside an armoured vehicle on patrol in Afghanistan – puts the visitor uncomfortably into the shoes of an occupier, the scowls and fear-struck faces leaving you in no doubt of the relationship between watcher and watched. And all through the ‘temporary’ Galleries, the thoughts of curators, designers and historians emphasise the constructed nature of the museum, forcing a confrontation with the means by which the story has been spoken. There is always emphasis on the work of memory, returning the responsibility to find answers to the visitor.


‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ (Paul Cummins, 2014) at Tower Hill. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2014.

It is this kind of work that I missed when visiting Tower Hill to see the installation by Paul Cummins, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, which is slowly filling the moat of the Tower of London with 888, 246 ceramic poppies to remember ‘every death among the British and Commonwealth forces between 1914 and 1921’. No crowd of the size that was there will ever be silent – life, after all, goes on – but many individuals were. Many wiped away tears.

But the novelty will fade. The weather will be less conducive to standing and watching this creeping static tide. And at that point the questions come. For a start, British and Commonwealth? Surely you mean Empire? David Olusoga’s passionate and critical The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire has told the stories of some of those whose tomorrows were not ‘given for our freedom’ but rather mortgaged by their Imperial landlords. Talking of the Boys’ Own retelling of Paul Lettow-Vorbeck’s brutal campaign in Africa (entitled Heia-Safari!), Olusoga fixes the camera in the eye and says very clearly: “But I can’t see it like that. Because I was born here.” In the previous episode he was seen to physically recoil from some of the aggressive racism in propaganda about the colonial troops. It’s this kind of aggressive and visceral counter-narrative that installations like Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red negate in their scale and pure emotional appeal, smoothing away problems with a form that renders all casualties in one colour, blending all, servant and master, officer and soldier, ruler and ruled, into one egalitarian mass.

And over the road from the Tower, a memorial to the Merchant Navy of 1914-18 stands all but ignored by the crowds. Have you forgotten yet? This question begins Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Aftermath’, which goes directly on to describe how ‘the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,/ like traffic checked while at the crossing of city ways’.

Solid and reassuring answers are in many ways the best indicator of a problem. Like the mannequin in Colin Self’s 1966 The Nuclear Victim (Beach Girl), answers and questions should be textured and challenging rather than smooth and accommodating. The IWM renovation works because it demands engagement from the visitor: as I looked at the work by Self, I heard a boy (maybe twelve) ask ‘Dad, what’s happened to her? What’s happened?’ his alarm increasing with repetition. The other reason the IWM works (and why museums in general can work)  is because finding out demands from the boy and his father (and others just like them) an active enquiry.

The confrontation between those who favour ‘smooth’ interpretation and representation and those who reject such in favour of more ‘worked’ or ‘textured’ answers has been in the offing all year.  Michael Gove’s sniping contempt for ‘left-wing historians’ indulging in ‘misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country’ can (for me) be detected in passive-aggressive form in many of the injunctions to ‘remember’ “all those who gave their lives for us to live free” which fill Twitter feeds and Facebook pages and newspapers and all the other ways that ‘public opinion’ asserts itself. I remember them. As brave men who were scared. As good men who did terrible things. For a good cause, for a bad cause, for no cause at all. Because they wanted to and because they were compelled or even forced to. But I try to do so in as many of these ways as possible, knowing that all (and none) are true. But in the trying, I remember.


A detail from the IWM London First World War Galleries. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2014.

What kind of people will we be? On Gaza, 2014


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Part of the wall from the Pawiak prison in Warsaw. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2013.

‘What kind of people will we be?’ This question from the diary of Fella Scheps, a young Polish Jew who died in 1945 shortly after her liberation from the concentration camps, has been running through my head lately as, along with the rest of the world, I’ve watched Operation Protective Edge burn its way through Gaza and into our living rooms, poisoning further any chances of a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that is short of apocalyptic. My social network feeds have, like yours, been full of the horrendous images and awful facts that are the stuff of life in Gaza. It is clear, as Jeremy Bowen writes in the New Statesman, that ‘from Gaza to Damascus, the Middle East is on fire – and no one knows how to put it out.’

I have no practical solution to the broader political problem, chiefly because there is no real need to present one again. As an article by Bronwen Maddox in July’s issue of Prospect suggests, there is broad understanding that the practical steps are what they have been and always will be until somebody (ideally everybody) steps up: an agreement by both sides to abjure violence; cessation of Israeli settlement building and an easing of the economic blockade of the Palestinian Authority; recognition on the part of the Palestinian leadership that whether or not they think Israel should exist it nevertheless does exist and will continue to do so in the event of any peaceful solution. And then we can get down to the substantive issues of Jerusalem, refugees and everything else. Assuming we’re interested in a peaceful solution, the steps are as well-worn as the streets in the city that both sides have claimed for as long as memory.


But to what extent is anyone interested in a peaceful solution? The government of Israel clearly isn’t, preferring to bring the temple down on their own heads, chipping away at the pillars of the international support it has more or less enjoyed for sixty-five years: one more shell, one more broken ceasefire, one more dead child at a time. As someone who has spent his adult life studying the Holocaust and its aftermath, I understand (I think) something of the case ‘for Israel’: on this occasion, the bloodshed seems so disproportionate, the consequences so predictable, that I cannot find the words to make it. I have just started Shani Boianjiu’s novel The People of Forever are Not Afraid and shudder inwardly at the title. Please, be afraid. Please, don’t bank on the memory of your sufferings to shield you from the realities of what you’re doing. Please, stop banking on forever. Please, ask what kind of people you have become. Please: stop.


To a much lesser degree, this can be applied to the Palestinian side of the equation. A two-state solution will require a recognition of the other state. The fact of being oppressed and threatened and attacked is no guarantee of exemption from the scale of moral values. If there is one thing to be learnt (indirectly) from the Israeli rhetoric of existential threat, it is surely that suffering does not automatically ennoble.


In many ways, the real burden of Fella Scheps’s question may – unfairly – fall on the citizens of Gaza. If there is to be a peace that lasts without even more bloodshed, it will come from you, the current victims, deciding on a magnanimity in defeat and despair that has eluded your oppressors. One aspect of the Israeli insanity is that, in the words of Avraham Burg’s impassioned The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise from Its Ashes, ‘All is permitted because we have been through the Shoah and you will not tell us how to behave.’ If the bombing stops, if somehow a moment comes where you have the choice of what to do with your enemy, what kind of people will you be?


And for those of us watching, heartsick and angry, wondering if there is an end in sight worth seeing, Fella Scheps’s question holds lessons also. In this moment, the brutality with which Israeli forces are prosecuting this campaign deserves our condemnation and the resilience of the people of Gaza deserves our support. I have been struck, however, by the way in which the comment on the crisis on my newsfeed has at times been almost calculated to make the opposing view harden its position, has seemed to be intended to antagonise rather than persuade, has degenerated into personal abuse. Reinforcing the views of those who see themselves as friendless with no recourse but further violence (and they exist on both sides) will not make anything better.


Yes, everyone is entitled to a point of view and, yes, these events are extreme and horrifying. We should be outraged, we should be sad, we should be angry. But we also need to be humble. Because we all know, however impassioned we are, that we are fundamentally sitting on the sidelines. And from that position, any exhortation of either side to violence, any abuse of those who disagree, is irresponsible and simply not helping. If we insist that those who do not agree with us are wrong a priori, we leave them only submission or retaliation as responses. And the cycle continues, spinning around the globe: the swiftness of the digital ‘like’ and the cheapness of the half-formed comment becoming flywheels that lose control, spinning us all into nothing.


I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling helpless in the face of both the situation itself and the anger it generates. But if hatred and anger can be transmitted instantly across the globe so can anything else. Marianne Williamson recently promoted the idea of a wave of love across the world – all over the world, for a day, people simply saying ‘I love you’ to friends, family and especially to perfect strangers, especially to those whom we mistrust, especially to those whom we hate. This is of course a tall order: what, one might ask, does one do when there is no love to give? I have no answer but paradox. At the front of my copy of Yosl Rakover Talks to God, a classic statement of Jewish post-Holocaust theodicy, there is an inscription from a cellar in Cologne where a group of Jews remained hidden for the duration of the war:


I believe in the sun, even when it doesn’t shine.


I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it.


I believe in God, even when he is silent. 


I am tempted to say that ‘even’ should probably read ‘especially’. At moments like these, the only route to long-term survival is crossing the boundary of otherness with nothing but tenderness: precisely because it is hard, precisely because it eludes us. Perhaps we should bring the day Williamson suggests forward: otherwise, what kind of people will we be?