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Friday, 9 November 2007

Rocking la roche tremblante

My friend Nick Booth chats directly and through cyberspace - more public than the phone and e-mail - about how one gets involved. We were discussing How to build a village by Claude Lewenz. I got to thinking how vexed I'd been by the much publicised Channel 4 TV thriller Britz, especially the concluding episode, as its talented creators and actors took us on the personal journey of a young British Muslim women from frustrated public protest to a series of actions that concluded with her strapping on a pregnancy belt full of explosives and detonating them in a crowd at an open air concert beside Canary Wharf as the credits arrived. It was riveting viewing but failed to explain either the character of democratic action or the phenomenon of killing yourself for a cause - a road Nassima chose after abandoning the former. My argument is artistic. I cannot understand a real suicide bomber - here or abroad. My cautious suggestion is that Peter Kosminsky, an artist of talent, has not made Nassima's journey convincing. That may be my problem.
Kosminsky doesn't mess around. His CV of success in film and TV is extraordinary. For Britz he was supported by a team of researchers led by Ali Nausahi, daughter of immigrants from Bradford. To get evidence to support Kominsky's film they visited a British Muslim neighbourhood, interviewing people between eighteen and thirty five. Britz' cast and many of its crew were from the same background and faith. Kosminsky had access to a MI5. His screenplay deals with the multiplicative consequences of crassly ignorant treatment by officials of individuals better educated than themselves.
I understand the principle of dying for a cause (regardless of whether I'd have 'the spittle for it'). I read in the yellowing obituary in a 1940 Times for my aunt's fiancé - Bobby Jeff - that his fighter had last been seen diving towards a formation of hundred bombers over the English Channel. His body was never found. My grandmother once played me a recording of Churchill on 78 rpm records, so that she could let me hear, with her who'd heard them fresh in the war: "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour'" or on 4 June 1940, "...we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender" (He mentions "our Island" - I can almost touch the capital 'I'. he speaks of beaches, fields, streets and hills - impregnably and specifically imaginable in their detail to individuals - and then comes Churchill's way of saying 'we shall never surrender' - avoiding over-emphasis on 'never', avoiding bravado, leaving a choice as to who shall be 'we'. For one who's never had to be a soldier, this "we", this "shall", this "never surrender'' tap my ribcage like a drum across 68 years, touching the primal trigger that draws a feral growl from the sweetest dog*)
[The most resonant account of why someone might fight to the death against a threat to the flawed disoriented mess that can't and doesn't care about whether its flag hangs the right way up is Richard Hillary's The Last Enemy, especially his final chapter. "Thank you, sir," she said, and took my hand in hers. And then, looking at me again, she said after a pause, "I see they got you too."]
Had our country fallen to the Nazi; had we been occupied so that guerrilla war became our resort, or what some now call asymmetric conflict, then I can imagine though not embrace the choice we were shown in Britz. But I found it quite impossible, as I think did Kosminsky, to understand why Nassima abandoned democratic action so quickly. What did they think the latter involved? Britz certainly underrated the idea - juxtaposing a brother, Sohail, deeply engaged in the hi-politics of the state and a sister initially committed to the politics of civil protest over the treatment of British Muslims. Did no-one in this production understand that in such politics - the politics of democracy - you are always losing until you win and you may never win? The blows may be unendurable but you never never kill for democracy if the choice is still available to you to die for it. Few champions for any great principle live to see its realisation. Did Wilberforce see emancipation? Did Mary Wollstonecraft see female franchise? Did Martin Luther King see his dream realised before he was murdered? Did any campaigner for a principle who lived to see it recognised in law, not also see it blemished as Ghandi, wanting to see Indian Independence, saw the massacres of Partition and suffered the deadly hatred of Hindu nationalists? Democracy is no rose garden. It's often a poisoned chalice. It is, as Churchill observed (and many others know), the worst form of government - except for all the others, or as my ancestor Henry Maine noted 'just a form of government' arguing against its deification as an ideology, like the monarchist's faith in Divine Right. Yet it's still worth defending to the last - even when it's for the rights of a jackaltub of Sun reporters [Yet see Theodore Dalrymple stepping out of the mainstream 'In no country has the process of vulgarization gone further than in Britain: in this, at least, we lead the world. A nation famed not so long ago for the restraint of its manners is now notorious for the coarseness of its appetites and its unbridled and antisocial attempts to satisfy them.'] Britz ended, as other critics observed, suggesting that its main female character had not just chosen one way versus another. The tragic ending was more like that of Romeo and Juliet, only the conflict between two opposing houses was relived as a slowly sundered sibling bond abruptly reunited in death. Nassima was the object of disrespect. But I could not see the sequence of arrest at a demonstration, casual racist insult, slightly scornful professional request to remove a hijab (not a niqab) in an operating theatre, suicide of a dear friend, rejection by an angry father or death of a lover (after her course was chosen) as reasons for abandoning democratic action, let alone reasons for killing, unless her script team wholly failed to grasp the vicissitudes of democratic campaigning that Nassima decided to abandon for something else. It may not, for the majority, lead to Calvary (or its equivalent), but its substance contains a lot more sweat and tears than Nassima shed before she decided to blow herself up in the middle of a crowd. What lessons should be taught about political action? How do you combine a warning about the difficulties with a message of hope and invocation to endurance and courage? All my starting points - Beaudesert Road, Handsworth, Lozells, Birmingham - and all my points of leverage seem to present with such tiny opportunities, that the most I can ever do is help rock the local boat on Democracy Street, like an enormous stone I once encountered in Brittany which was said to be movable. It was ten metres long and nearly three high but balanced, so as to allow a human being to make it stir. I was confounded until I saw a local bend down beneath one end of the great stone and press up with his back. I watched bemused at the futility of his action – then as he beckoned me over, I placed my hand on the stone and realised it was gently but invisibly rocking. I had a go. Pressed up with my back. Nothing. tried again. Nothing. Tried again and then – delayed action – the mighty rock had begun to rock ever so gently like some enormous sea swell in the deep ocean that is too low to see but whose length carries the weight of vast acreages of water. I could feel but not see. I was exhilarated but I needed to be shown how to do it by the local Frenchman, who was palpably as delighted as I at my success. I needed to believe it was possible and that it was possible for me to do it. I needed time. In local politics I have been involved with two projects – Handsworth Park and the Victoria Jubilee Allotments. These involved many others. My participation started over 20 years ago. These projects continue. They rock. Now there are others that for the moment seem as immovable as that rock. I've loaded a photo of someone a lot smaller than me demonstrating the technique and the spirit that rocks ‘La Roche Tremblant’ at Huelgoat. [I did not take the photo, so please, anonymous photographer, allow me your permission, and thanks too to the rock mover. May you move the world, mam'selle.] * * * Isn't it amazing in this world of 'celebrities' when we turn from the communal dish in a locality from which we can gaze up at the stars to a dish on the roof to see the latest 'stars'? Thank goodness that the web via narrowcasting can be used to counter the distortions in perceptions of value and worth created by broadcasting. As celebrity chatter fills the airwaves, people far less known are more quietly but effectively campaigning on the complex issues of land use, sustainability, first world-third world dynamics, drawing on science and political skill on the ground. Here for instance is a piece about Farzana Panhwar. See also my blog on Prof Eleni Briasouli-Kapetanaki who also fights the good fight! What is so needed in Greece is a land register supported by high quality and easy accessible maps and a regional spatial strategy supported by law. This is the route to breaking the 'yearning, burning, earning' cycle that some now call Greece's version of 'disaster capitalism'. There is more political attention being given to this problem in Greece than ever. It is not just Greece's problem. Her land values are created by international yearning to own a place under the Greek sun. [Petition to Save the Forests of Greece] * * * On Friday morning I was working with the help of WiFi in a city centre coffee house including taking a look at some extracts from another Channel 4 programme - Undercover Mosque [A piece of investigative journalism about Grumpy Old Muslims (again I concur with Theodore Dalrymple) to counterbalance C4's recent barrel-scrape reputation]. In comes an old friend who promotes the 'crime and grime' programme here, started by the previous administration in 2003. I thanked him for the day his colleagues had organised for my Japanese students on various elements of community reassurance (note: June 2010. The new government is revamping links like this, abandoning some terms and substituting others). I said I was - at that moment - blogging my comments on Britz. He nodded, mentioned a previous day's meet with the Home Secretary on youth crime and a wrap-up today, gesturing towards a couple of suited senior police officers with who he was sharing a coffee. We got on to how het-up the Americans were about terrorism. I took it this had come up at the meeting in London, as it had when I chatted with one of the soldiers over here supporting the struggling Governorate of Basra back in 2005. 'Yes I know. Most of them don't have this assumption we've grown up with, that you could be having a chat over a cuppa about ordinary things and some educated person will blow you and your companions to little bits.' People think the USA is violent. It is - in parts. I was in Michigan and Pennsylvania including 'murder-city' Detroit for several years and I never saw a gun - except well holstered on the occasional police officer - nor a second of violence all that time. Read about it. Saw it on TV and in films. But the places I worked - near campus in Ann Arbor, Detroit and Philadelphia - was key-in-the-front-door land. True, I've not seen direct violence here either, but I've got friends of friends killed or injured by bombs. My son's been mugged a few times as are most teenagers in the inner-city. We've had burglaries. Lin's had two cars stolen. I was clubbing the night of the 1972 bombs in Birmingham. Close. My friend reminded me of the 1400 bodies stacked below the Council House, close to where we sat, after one WW2 blitz on the city. A colleague was on but not hurt on one of the tube trains on 7/7. I never stop touching secular wood, but we're almost instinctively acclimatised to this sort of thing. So of course are some Americans, but great numbers of them, especially in their vast steppes and hinterlands, live in tranquility - making violence, when it does happen, more horrifying. I've been desensitised from the times when, as a child, it made me almost nauseated to see a picture of the crucifixion - all that blood! To many American observers (not New Yorkers, whose experience is in a different category) the atrocity of 9/11 must have been traumatising, helping explain the insecurity that brought to power the gang of clever fools currently failing to lead the free world. I mentioned our pleasure that A. was joining the police as a West Midlands Community Support Officer and my friend bought over the Assistant Chief Constable he'd been with. We chatted about the close working of PCSOs, Specials and f/t Police Officers in the area '...and we've got a lot more officers on bicycles and out of pandas. CSOs like your daughter don't have powers of arrest in the WM which gets them closer to the public while saving them from getting tied up with paperwork.' 'My Marxist friend' I said ' thinks this networking between agencies and partners (but see earlier note on webpages rejigged post-general election 2010) is sinister.' Grins all round. I headed home having bought Dh's printer on Amazon ready for his move to campus lodging at the weekend.
_________________ *A rebuttal of the myth that Churchill's speeches were only made in parliament and later spoken by an actor on the radio.

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Simon Baddeley