Friday, 25 February 2011

Who will cast the last stone?

Palestine Grafities
I was standing behind an old gent in the queue at Barclays a couple of days ago. He was talking at the woman behind the counter about current events in Libya and Egypt - how it's always been the same - the Muslims, fighting amongst themselves. He was out there in the forties apparently - in Suez. 'These Africans' he said 'they need a dictator to keep them in line.' (He didn't say 'These Fuzzie-Wuzzies' but I felt the term was in the air.)
As he turned to leave I wanted to say to him 'and yet the most mindlessly brutal wars in history happened only a few decades ago among us 'Christians', in Europe', but of course I didn't. He wasn't giving us a piece of penetrating political analysis. He was just having a go.
It wouldn't even be worth reporting if I didn't feel though that his views were widely held in this country and across Europe. Lady Warsi's point a few weeks back about the tacit acceptability of anti Muslim prejudice among otherwise respectable, intelligent, middle-class folk strikes me as having a lot of truth to it (although, here in Mid Sussex, where ethnic minorities are less obvious unless you visit a take-away, the role is generally reserved for the gipsys.)

I'm not saying that there isn't a heck of a lot of bad stuff going on in The Muslim World at the moment, and has been for some time. It's disingenuous to claim, as the more Politically Correct among us like to do, that anti-terrorist measures should not 'target' Muslims. At the moment, like it or not, if you meet a terrorist, they're likely to be a Muslim. (This is absolutely not the same as saying 'If you meet a Muslim, they're likely to be a terrorist'. Some people don't seem to be able to tell the difference between these two statements.) At this moment in history, what terrorism is being carried out is being carried out mostly by Muslims. At other times in other places it's been the Catholics or the Protestants or the Anarchists or the Communists or the Fascists (who could conceivably be lumped together under 'Atheists'). Nobody is exempt. Everybody has been at it at some point in history. At the moment it's Islam's turn. Likewise armed insurrection and brutal dictatorship. Oppressed nations today would have found Tudor and Stuart England remarkably familiar with it's political killings and brutal repression of ethnic and religious minorities at the whim of the local despot.

Probably the only blameless nation until very recently would have been the Jews - universally reviled and used as scape-goats throughout history - only after the end of World War two did the Christians finally in any serious way face up to what had been happening and even then we managed to lay all the blame on a couple of maverick regimes (Fascism and Stalinism) when in fact they were just the latest examples of something that had been going on for millennia - almost as long as the Jews had existed. After the war Judaism accrued an unprecedented level of good-will and sympathy from Christians which is why now there is a widespread sense of betrayal and disgust (though we do not admit it openly for fear of being seen as anti-Semitic*) at what is being perpetrated by the Israelis against the Palestinians. Apparently it is widely believed among ordinary Christians that the Israelis and Palestinians are more or less equally to blame for what has happened in the Middle East. (Some even seem to be under the impression that 'The Occupied Territories' are Israeli lands occupied by Palestinian Muslims.) The treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis during the founding of Israel included genocide, deportation and incarceration in prison camps and shows that the Israelis had learned nothing from the events of the previous decades except how to subjugate a weaker nation on the grounds that they were The Chosen People and that this was The Promised Land (as if that argument should hold sway over anyone of any other faith.) To this day Israeli casualties are a tiny fraction of Palestinian deaths (something like 100:1) - hardly surprising when the former are armed by the USA and the latter are armed with what amount to heavy duty fireworks.

The nations of Europe have been at each other's throats throughout much of recorded history. It was the Europeans that carried out The Crusades and the Inquisition, built the concentration camps and the Iron Curtain - genocide and torture comparable with anything anywhere else in human history. And then we exported it across the Atlantic and obliterated the people we found there and bought Africa into slavery. The Americans went in for racial segregation, anti-communist witch-hunts, eugenics, weapons of mass destruction and mass incarceration of ethnic minorities on a scale only seen in modern times in third-world countries. The greatest threat not just to peace but to life on earth came to an end only twenty-two years ago after more than forty years' stand-off between two 'Christian' nations and their allies. (I'm talking about The Cold War of course.) I'm not anti-American by any means but as the dominant nation on earth at present they must stand up and take most of the flak for how things are, both at home and wherever they meddle in the local politics abroad .

For a long period, when the Christians were squabbling and bickering (ostensibly about what Jesus wanted them to do, but in truth about who controlled what land) the Islamic world was a place of relative peace and civilisation. When the Christians took a break from the carnage it was the Persians who had kept safe the legacy of classical learning. Left to our own devices we probably would have burned the lot and dismembered everyone connected with it.

But I don't want to give the impression that I am an apologist for all things Islamic. They have plenty to answer for, including genocide, torture, oppression of women and religious minorities, despotism and war. (There's no need to go over the details.) Global terrorism is only it's most obvious and contemporary feature. But faith has been used to excuse violence everywhere and throughout history. Violent extremism is no more intrinsic to Islam than to Christianity or Judaism or indeed Atheism.

Of course the obvious retort is that none of that could ever happen again here in England. We're moved on haven't we -  civilised, democratic, affluent. We'd never stoop to that kind of intolerance and brutality. Of course not.
It's all these immigrants that's the problem...

* which I am absolutely not. I am against militaristic regimes and the oppression of minorities.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

An Only Child - part 1

Thru'penny Bit
Kingston Beach at low tide
I don't dislike children - contrary to what some may think.
I do dislike it when people are loud and selfish and don't put things away after they've finished with them, and when they insist they know what's going on when in fact they don't. I also have problems with people who make a huge fuss when things don't go their way. The fact that this describes a large proportion of most 'normal' childhood behaviour doesn't seem to bother most people but it's always struck me as odd. Indeed, most adults seem to see it as typical or even healthy and hardly worthy of comment. Why do I feel so differently about it?

I had a pretty good childhood back in the sixties and seventies by most standards. I was pretty content as long as I had some paper and pencils or plasticine or Lego to play with. I was mostly into dinosaurs. I had full and complex relationships with my cuddly toys. I spent hours hunting wildlife (mostly slugs and beetles), digging holes and building camps in the garden - a wilderness of nettles, brambles and raspberry canes and other miscellaneous junk. The soil was full of broken glass from a wrecked greenhouse but I hardly ever cut myself and never seriously. I never played on the lawn. Both the house and the garden were pretty immense by today's standards so it was easy to stay out of sight. I had collections of stamps, seashells, Airfix models, and then tropical fish and house plants (which got me into gardening just before I left home). I spent hours down on Kingston Beach hunting marine life. It was just across from the end of the road. I knew all the little twittens and wasteland around the town and then as I grew I spent a lot of time over the harbour and I walked and cycled as far as Steyning and Ashington. I looked at my dad's books (non-fiction - mostly wildlife) and listened to his music (from Louis Armstrong to Holst, from Westside Story to Tubular Bells). We had cheap camping holidays and big family Christmases. We didn't have a telly for years.
Don't assume from this that I come from a posh background. My dad was an electrical fitter and shop steward at the power station, like my mum's dad before. My dad's dad was a lorry driver amongst other things, and they were all from around Shoreham. Mum did home help and bar work. The big house on Victoria Road, Southwick was cheap because it was a mess. At the time it was cold and dusty and decidedly eerie at night. It was not an attractive house. Back then there was no housing shortage and everyone wanted the new bungalows on the Downs behind Shoreham. Dad fixed the whole thing up himself (with help from friends and relatives) because we couldn't afford to pay plumbers and electricians and carpenters. He learned to do everything himself. Today a three storey, four bedroom house with a lounge and a dining room and a conservatory and probably a third of an acre at the back would be a different matter. Nowadays you'd pay the better part of half a million for it, pull it down and start again.
And don't imagine that Southwick was a picturesque idyll. It has a rather impressive village green and some very venerable buildings near by, but the bulk of the town is fairly anonymous. Travelling from Brighton to Worthing along the coast road you'd hardly know it from all the other places along there - Hove, Portslade, Fishersgate, Shoreham and Lancing. Kingston Beach, which lies within Shoreham Harbour, is a mud flat at low tide with only shallow muddy pools among the pebbles and rubble. There was a remarkable variety of life down there none the less. Back then, without a property boom, demolition sites could sit empty and grow weeds for decades. I hunted grasshoppers and lizards among the rubble and played jungles in the Buddleia and Japanese Knotweed.
It's unimaginable now that a child as young as seven or eight would be let loose in that environment, but I was. I don't think I ever had a major accident. I was very careful. I knew my limitations. One day a man stopped his car near me in Southwick Square and asked me to get in. I simply said no and walked away. Mum had told me, if a stranger spoke to me to go into a shop.
Most of the time I remember I was left to my own devices. I don't remember particularly being lonely or feeling neglected. Sometimes I envied my younger brother because he always had friends around, but then, if he didn't have company he didn't really know what to do with himself. I on the other hand rather resented people interrupting and interfering.
I don't ever remember being deliberately naughty or mischievous. With my family there would have been little point in pushing it so I didn't try. They were not nasty about it - just firm. There would have been no point arguing. I did not live in fear though. I learned to be sneaky. My mum was somewhat anxious and controlling so it was best simply not to ask permission. She preferred not to be distracted from doing what she had to do so it worked both ways. My brother and I never really felt the need to fight and my parents never rowed so we weren't used to raised voices in our house and I still hate to hear people arguing. When we visited friends and relatives their children always seemed to be throwing tantrums or sulking. Everything seemed to be a battle for them and I stayed out of their way. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I was the eldest by many years of all the children in our family circle. My brother wasn't born until I was three and we  therefore had very little in common. All our friend's children came along after that. There was no child care or nursery school so I didn't meet another child my own age until I went to school aged five. That's probably why meeting 'normal' kids was such a shock and something I've never really come to terms with.