On the London Underground the unwritten rule is that you don’t talk. A fleeting smile across the aisle might just be in order. And, if you are old, you might get away with asking someone next to you if their interesting-looking book is a good read, if they would recommend it. A transient, non-transgressive book clubbish bonding. If the title is Satanic Paedophilia, avoid. The under-70s should prudently keep the rule of silence.
Walking along the beaches in East Anglia south of Lowestoft – where there are long stretches of firm sand at low tide – is another matter. You can, perhaps should, acknowledge passing people, chat to them, even enquire where they live. Admire their dog, or post-lockdown more frequently dogs, and have a few pro-forma, pro-canine words at the ready. Commenting on an owner’s failure to demonstrate control of their dog, much shouting at the unleashed pet which is ignoring all calls and nearly knocking you over, is not advisable.
This narrow strip where the North Sea meets land is a remarkably social space. You can talk to fellow walkers. It must be something to do with there not being many of us during January. There is mutual recognition, all members of a select minority who, when weather permits, quietly delight in the low Winter sun spreading a glittering triangle on the sea. Even the fishermen, here for quiet and contemplation, will briefly chat.
Apart from walkers, the most likely to stop and talk are the detectorists slowly sweeping the pebbles and sand for hidden treasure. The Detectorists (the comedy series BBC4 2014-2017) introduced Britain to two Essex characters Lance (Toby Jones) and Andy (Mackenzie Crook) and their metal detecting club. Filmed in Suffolk on location at Framlingham, Great Glenham and Orford, the series may have created a small local surge in detectorists. It would be interesting to know if viewers after watching found our real-life, local Suffolk searchers more endearing or more eccentric or both. If you stop them in mid-sweep on the beach, you are rewarded with engaging conversations with self-taught men who are both detectives and proto-archaeologists, who know their local history, and are not odd at all.
Our - truthful - approach to beach detectorists has been to explain first that we are looking for stories to put into emails to young grandchildren in North America who, blessedly, are spared knowing about Boris Johnson and the routinely newsworthy in Britain. Asking “What is the most interesting thing you’ve ever found?” is the prelude to a fascinating dive into the past: a bronze age axe-head and why they were stored underground (because they deteriorate in the air over time); gold coins – I looked up the find of an Henry VIII ‘angel’ and there was a 16th century golden Archangel Michael making short shrift of a dragon; the humble silver groat minted for five centuries until the 1860s; a mysterious gold ring with a Nazi Swastika on the inside – a drowned German sailor or a careless Mosley fascist signalling to a German submarine? One man had taken his kit on holiday to Bermuda and found a bit that had dropped off Apollo 13. All good story material. Though none of the detectorist I have spoken to shared Lance and Andy’s obsession with finding the burial site of King Sexred of the East Saxons.
There is something about the beach at Dunwich which specially attracts real-life detectorists. I’ve never seen them on North Sea beaches elsewhere. It may be because the port town featured in the Doomsday book with a population comparable to London at that time - at least 15 times greater than Dunwich today - but the town shrank as the mouth of its river finally silted up in 1328 and changed its course to Blythburgh and the sea. A number of huge storm surges in the 13th century and the St. Marcellus Flood of 16 January 1362, known as the Great Drowning, left most of what remained of Dunwich completely submerged. Today the sea offshore from Dunwich, ten metres below the waves, is a marine archaeological site. Who wouldn’t wonder whether artefacts from the depths might be washed up?
The detectorists I’ve chatted with enjoy digging and reaching back into the past. They express a certain awe when questioned. They have a historical humility, a sense that the past has something to say to us from which we can learn. There is also the expectation and hope that they will unearth something historically significant. But it is not like the Lottery a venal hope for an unearned fortune of a lifetime. The detectorists I have met are scrupulous about handing over any important finds to authorities and museums. The key word is ‘unearthing’. These men are in the very human business of revealing the hidden. You might even say - after a few pints of Adnams - they are the artisans of our apocalyptic 21st century humbly involved in apokálypsis, uncovering and revealing what has been hidden, lent us from the past. Though I’m not sure Lance and Andy would put it quite like that.
See TheArticle 21/02/2022
In 2008, the world’s financial and banking systems, vividly portrayed in the 2015 movie The Big Short, narrowly avoided destroying the global economy. Gordon Brown, our then Prime Minister, assured his place in history by leading a rescue operation. Conservatism under David Cameron was drawn into an ideological reset that would never work. His Big Society required and expected the little platoons – different voluntary associations, ‘families, individuals, charities and communities’ – incidentally not those Edmund Burke meant - to ‘come together to solve problems’. At the same time drastic austerity measures were creating new socio-economic problems and intensifying inequality. Big crises, not surprisingly, require big governments.
The Big Society, and a corresponding commitment to the local, were intended by Cameron to be a defining antidote to Margaret Thatcher’s ‘there is no such thing’ as society while maintaining a belief in the Small State. In practice, the 2011 Localism Act proved to be dysfunctional and incoherent. It gave Local Authorities and local political leaders minimal financial flexibility and control, and therefore minimum room for manoeuvre. By default, the little platoons were drawn into the space opened up by declining public services.
Fast forward to the current global crisis and we again find the little platoons once more battling with the consequences of government policies. The BBC programme More or Less found that it is true that there are more food-banks than McDonalds in Britain, over 2,000, double the number of McDonalds. Many more according to the Anglican Church taking the figure of those they support of nearly 8,000. For some, led by the campaigning Trussell Trust that supports 1,200 centres, the need for food-banks is a national scandal, to others simply a charitable opportunity for active volunteering, to those in need a last resort.
Most Catholic churchgoers will have been given the details of their nearest local food-bank to support, what work they do, information about collection days and what to donate. Few will have heard from their bishops any questioning of how and why an economically developed and wealthy Western European country has thousands of its citizens too poor to buy sufficient food for their families even if they are in work.
Huge sums of money were spent shoring up the British economy during the pandemic, much of it wasted in buying over-priced goods and services or lost by downright fraud. We have ended up with not a small State but with a big State reluctantly addressing problems so pressing it cannot avoid them. Johnson’s precipitate lifting of all COVID regulations signals his sympathy with the small-State faction of Conservative parliamentarians whose support he badly needs.
In contrast to the subdued reaction to food-banks, yet other secular little platoons and faith communities are often openly in conflict with government about national policy towards refugees and migrants. “Welcome, protect, promote, and integrate.” Pope Francis’ four points of guidance go unheeded by the Home Office. But as Angela Merkel discovered, admitting over a million refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq between 2015 and 2017, carries significant political penalties. The UK government dealing, or not dealing, with numbers of asylum seekers and migrants that would barely be noticed in Lebanon or Turkey, continues to treat their arrival as a threatening crisis… and to earn an electoral reward.
The past is another country, and after BREXIT so is Europe. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Europe was awash with displaced people and refugees. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) through which came the UN Refugee Convention, which today has 149 State signatories, was set up on 14 December 1950. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), began work in 1951. Initially both were Europe focussed and grew into large global bodies. The British Refugee Council emerged from organisations set up in the UK at the same time. Lord - Alf - Dubs, its director from 1988-1995, who came to Britain from Czechoslovakia on the Kindertransport which rescued 10,000 mostly Jewish child refugees from the Nazis between 1938-1940, is a living link with this past.
But, accompanying the growth of the big refugee agencies and before them, what is truly remarkable is the plethora of small local organisations and innovative individuals helping refugees. Not least the contribution of Christians.
Two examples can stand for thousands: The Amazing Story of Alexander Glasberg (Brown Dog Books), written by his great-nephew Nick Lampert, tells one such story. When the UNHCR and IOM were just getting started, Glasberg was already setting up homes in France for asylum seekers, the elderly and disabled. His Paris-based Centre d’orientation sociale des étrangers (Centre for Social Integration of foreigners) came out of his work in the Second World War with both Jewish, Catholic and secular organisations, rescuing and housing Jewish, Polish, Spanish Republican, and anti-Nazi German refugees he had succeeded in getting out of Vichy internment camps.
Glasberg, alias Father Elie, stares out from the book cover, posed for the camera with beret and soutane, round pebble-lens spectacles, cigarette in hand. Fathe Elie turns out to be a Zionist Russian-speaking Jewish Ukrainian, fluent in several languages, a great fixer, social pioneer and, for the last years of the war an active member of the French resistance sought by the Gestapo, hence his cover name. He had converted to Catholicism before the war, was seminary trained, ordained as a priest and dedicated his life to the care of vulnerable refugees. The Amazing Story is biography as a charming textual collage of different verbatim sources including every colleague of Glasberg plus their photograph, and the names of many he helped. Many voices, not just the biographer’s, tell his story.
At the other end of the scale, some of the Church’s mainstream organisations have had a major impact on refugees’ welfare. Fast forward again to 1978-1979 as the Vietnamese boat people come into the headlines. The Superior-General of the Society of Jesus, Pedro Arrupe, asks his local Jesuit leaders to respond to the crisis. A year later he commissions a study of the growing refugee crisis in Africa and sets up the Jesuit Refugee Service. Today it operates from Rome with ten regional offices serving more than 800,000 people in over 50 countries providing everything from advocacy to health-care and education for refugee children.
Social media have opened up new opportunities for organisations and networks to form, find members and expand organisationally. Not all of them are benign. We are developing some ugly associations along the lines of those leading the insurrection in the US Capitol on 6 January 2020, active citizens as threat.
Glasberg’s story is of a man of courage who, both during Nazi occupation and after, worked with the grain of French majority public opinion. For the little platoons and larger organisations supporting today’s asylum seekers and migrants in the UK, it is a different matter.
See TheArticle 14/02.2022
“Sorry seems to be the hardest word’. The public could sing along with Elton John during the rolling Partygate scandal right until the Prime Minister’s statement to the House of Commons about Sue Gray’s cut-back Report. Last Monday, Johnson finally, said it: “I want to say sorry and I’m sorry for the things we simply didn’t get right and the way this has been handled. It isn’t enough to say sorry….” and so on.
As Nick Robinson pointed out on the next day’s Today programme, after this solemn introduction an apologetic “I” became a collective “we”. Or is the Prime Minister now using the royal “we”? He was probably trying to diffuse responsibility. The public have to wait for the Met’s Day of Judgement and the full Report to find out, or not, who the “we” are. Meanwhile, “….we must look at ourselves in the mirror and we must learn”, Johnson told the Commons. I am not sure exactly what Mr. Johnson wants them to learn, what all those civil servants and young Special Advisers, the No 10 spads, are going to see in the mirror, other than someone with an imminent career change.
What does Johnson expect to find when he himself looks in the mirror? He had baptismal water poured on him as a baby and married in a Catholic Church. Who knows, he might see a Catholic. Or at least he might wonder if Catholicism could give any guidance on escaping his troubles.
When it comes to apologies, the Church has significant things to say and some useful guidance to give. For example, that an apology to be meaningful requires what used to be called “a firm purpose of amendment”, in other words stopping doing damage and remedying the damage done. Or as bishop and theologian St. Augustine put it (writing in the 5th century in Latin): “The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works. You do the truth and come to the light”. Not easy advice to follow most Christians would agree, there are all too many reasons for not reforming. It would require the Prime Minister to take full personal, individual - as well as institutional or organisational - responsibility for the dire straits his government now finds itself in as well as for specifically Partygate. It would require his grasping the moral values that should inform and inspire politics encapsulated in the Nolan principles. This would require a heroic degree of personal transformation.
Perhaps because it has become increasingly difficult to put the future right, with its pandemics, Climate change, inequality and poverty, we have recently been getting apologies from all sorts of people about all sorts of past wrongs, almost as if they are trying to put the past right. Most of these apologies come across as honest, heartfelt and valuable. A small number of them form part of a negotiation of self-interest.
Johnson’s Commons statement will have gone through several drafts. The opening with its switch from “I” to “we” deserves attentive parsing after all the hard work that went into it. It purports to be an apology bringing closure, time to move on. Though, as reported in the Daily Mail, telling MPs outside the Chamber “they (the Met) won’t find fault with what I’ve done” immediately puts its sincerity into question. What made Tory apologies for Partygate particularly striking is that they came in the wake of the public, and a significant number of MPs not all on the other side of the House, asserting traditional moral values, fairness, integrity, truthfulness, and solidarity. That is why Boris Johnson, a promoter and shaper of that political culture from which they have fast disappeared, doesn’t “get it” and so won’t be able to “fix it”.
When interrogated by Nick Robinson, Dominic Raab, Deputy Prime Minister, Justice Secretary, and Lord Chancellor, taking his place in the demeaning procession of Cabinet Ministers defending the Prime Minister, used the word ‘contrition’ to describe Johnson’s apology. Looking at the public record, it is hard to imagine contrition being part of Boris Johnson’s repertoire of feelings or an accurate description of the motivation for his Commons statement.
Contrition still retains much of its Christian meaning: feeling remorse, regret, repentance and penitence. Catholics – and Johnson at least nominally is one – have the prayer of contrition at the end of Confession, an apology to God would be one description, knowing that they are only absolved from their sins if the contrition is sincere. The prayer has three main elements: recognition of the wrong done and the failure to do good, sorrow and regret for both, plus commitment to actions of self-denial done out of repentance for the wrong committed. In Johnson’s case the last would entail the restoration of a healthy political culture for which his resignation would be a first step.
So, apologies to Elton John but sorry is not the hardest word. Genuine contrition is harder - particularly for a personality such as Boris Johnson. The hiatus while the Met’s investigation runs its course is an opportunity for the Prime Minister. He now has a clear choice: he can resign with dignity taking personal responsibility for his own failings as well as what he sees as his successes and this might alter how his political legacy is seen. Or he can brazen it out and suffer the humiliation of being forced from office.
The House of Commons is not a confessional but there is a message for the “we” with which Johnson peppered his Commons statement. Contrition for the damage done to this country, its people and its politics should now also motivate the “we” who are defending the indefensible and who believe lying, gas-lighting and misplaced loyalty are more important than truth, integrity and the Common Good. Rediscovering such a moral stance would be in their own self-interest and, long-term, in the interests of the Prime Minister but, above all, in the interests of the country.
See TheArticle 06/02/2022
Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s death over Christmas felt like the end of an era. For millennials the story of how apartheid was ended is history. Idris Elba in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom joins Michael Caine in Zulu, both movies about a fading past. The change, from white to black hero, is relatively recent. The screenplay of Cry Freedom, released in 1987, portrayed the life and murder by security police of Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko seen through the eyes of his journalist friend Donald Woods. Journalists’ ‘first drafts of history’ are now giving way to second drafts with their selective memories and erasures.
In 2013, news of Nelson Mandela’s death reached London as Long Walk to Freedom premiered – for a film company the financial equivalent of a miracle. The British establishment finally deemed him respectable enough for a Royal Film Performance attended by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Twenty-five years earlier the non-racial African National Congress (ANC) was on President Reagan’s list of terrorist organisations when Margaret Thatcher at the Commonwealth Conference adamantly refused pleas from Commonwealth leaders to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime. She characterised African National Congress (ANC) threats against British companies trading with South Africa as ‘typical of a terrorist organisation’. Prince William had the good sense to describe Mandela as ‘extraordinary and inspiring’.
There are other easily forgotten, perhaps ‘inconvenient’, facts about the struggle against apartheid that are worth re-stating. The conflict was inevitably drawn into the Cold War between the superpowers and seen by them through that prism. Mandela was believed to be a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and therefore a danger to Western interests. A few weeks before the 1962 Cuban missile crisis a CIA-linked US diplomat tipped off South African security police about Mandela’s whereabouts; disguised as a chauffeur he was arrested at a road block.
The ANC’s decision, after the Sharpeville massacre by police of unarmed protesters in 1960, to form a military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and begin a sabotage campaign, hardened Cold War stances. Sabotage evolved into what the ANC called ‘armed propaganda’, attacks on prestigious targets such as the Sasolburg oil refinery, the Koeberg Nuclear station and Vortrekkerhoogte, the Pretoria command centre of the South African Defence Forces (SADF), attempting, with varying degrees of success, to avoid civilian casualties. The Communist Parties of the Soviet Union, East Germany and Cuba were inevitably drawn in and Communist States were soon supporting MK guerrilla training camps in Angola and Zambia. A great diversity of other actors became involved.
The global anti-apartheid movement was much broader than the well-respected, and effective London-based Anti-Apartheid Movement, of the same name. Compared with other nationalist and liberation movements of the time an extraordinary combination of protagonists actively resisted the apartheid regime. Liberals as well as socialists and communists, the schoolchildren of the 1976 Soweto uprising, the scores of organisations in the 1980s popular front United Democratic Front (UDF), minority religious communities as well as Christians and Church leaders, a broad coalition of ethnicities. Within and without South Africa from civil disobedience to sports and consumer boycotts from campaigns for economic sanctions to mobilising ANC front-organisations, from diplomacy to strategic planning by the exile leadership as well as guerrilla infiltration, there was a huge variety of active resistance. A broad, heterogeneous movement fighting apartheid operated in the midst of the Cold War.
In the Catholic tradition the bishops denounced apartheid as ‘intrinsically evil’. There were special theological reasons for Protestant Christian resistance to ‘the system’. They confronted an ideology similar to that facing the ‘Confessing Church’ which produced the Declaration of Barmen in Nazi Germany. Not only a national security state that tortured and murdered its opponents – as in Latin America - but the heresy of a perverse form of Christian Nationalism, the ideological justification for apartheid promoted by the Nederduiste Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK), the Dutch Reformed Church.
Many different hands dismantled apartheid. But two principal factors brought it to an end. By the mid-1980s sanctions were biting, business CEOs, including powerful multi-nationals, began putting pressure on the Afrikaner government to negotiate. Concurrently in Angola in 1988, Cuban and Angolan troops with East German pilots fought an overstretched SADF to a stalemate at Cuito Cuanavale using the same tactics that had defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The South African National Security State suddenly seemed much less secure.
In 1982, Sweden’s Social Democrat government, the first and only non-communist State to do so, had begun clandestinely to fund the ANC internally – but not MK. Sweden’s Prime Minister, Olof Palme, who initiated the funding, was assassinated on 28 February 1986, most likely by the apartheid regime’s notorious - Orwellian - Civil Cooperation Bureau. In contrast, UK government strategy was to divide what they imagined was an ‘Africanist’ ANC from the SACP. When this failed hopes remained that Inkatha, a tribalist Zulu Party with German backing, might stop the ANC sweeping the board in the 1994 elections.
Finally and sadly, South Africa’s peaceful transfer of power is a myth. In the early 1990s hundreds died in clashes between Inkatha and the ANC, and members of the unreformed security forces continued to assassinate ANC and MK returnees for several years. It might have been worse had Archbishop Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission not totally discredited the Afrikaner extremist right-wing and thus avoided more organised violence against the incoming ANC.
There have already been many touching encomia for Archbishop Tutu. He became the recognisable voice and face of non-violent opposition to apartheid violence. He made work for human rights a key part of the life of the South African Council of Churches which he led from 1978 to 1984. For many journalists his was the only name in their address book if and when they sought a newsworthy Christian leader for clear and courageous comment. In the repression of the mid-1980s, when the internal leadership of the ANC were almost all jailed, his national leadership became even more important. In New York in 1986 following a failed UK visit to change Margaret Thatcher’s mind on sanctions, Tutu publically challenged Reagan’s refusal to exert economic pressures on the apartheid regime. Despite Presidential vetoes, Congress later that year passed an Anti-Apartheid Act including some economic sanctions.
Six weeks before Tutu confronted Reagan, the apartheid regime had begun secret meetings with Mandela - moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in 1982. The ANC were particularly anxious that in his isolation Mandela might make concessions they could not accept. They needn’t have worried. In triumphant scenes few will forget he was finally released in February 1990. Then the Soviet Union imploded. Funding for the ANC was cut off almost overnight. Negotiations in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa in 1991 resulted in free and fair elections in 1994.
It was prolonged sanctions that proved to be the proverbial last straw – more a heavy bale - which broke apartheid’s back. A unique case of God and Mammon serving a common cause?
See TheArticle 02/02.2022