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Friday, 22 June 2007

Keronvel - pondering causes of harm

Thursday, June 21, 2007. Still raining. This place lends itself to strong light. Its absence flattens the broad acres of variegated granite and sand, removing perspective. Lacking contrasting shades giant boulders lose their striking scale. Wetness, which I like in a city - Corfu being a good example - especially when it goes with rain on canopies dripping off roofs into cascading gutters, and gloom, adding mystery to a Scottish glen, doesn’t suit Brittany. This is my subjectivity at work, but I like this coast edged by distant dangerous overfalls, while in-shore a gusting wind shifts shades of azure and darker blue across the rocky shallows, testing the hovering seabirds, driving cloud shadows which abruptly darken a foreground of rock and green shore while dazzling a strip of distant beach and as swiftly shading the horizon while flattering the place I’m standing with a surge of light and warmth.
We resorted to a supermarket to buy presents and wine. The rain drummed on the high roof above the busy aisles. Arthur’s even started to pack. Lin’s reading in the car parked outside the gîte. Dorothy’s listening to music through earphones. We phoned Amy at Glastonbury “Hullo mummee!” “Hullo mummee” echoed Liz, near Amy’s phone. “It’s wet here too but we’re in the tent.” “What do you want for presents?” “Danetta dark chocolate mousse and Mikado biscuits, pleeeeese”. For Richard it’ll be lager and saucisson sêche. Say’s Lin “I bet the weather will brighten as we leave France.” The forecasts say ‘No”.

* * * * * *

1230 pm Thursday The air is fresh with sea smell under a grey sky, the rain coming in gusts from the west - weather that seems to cover most of western Europe though an e-mail from Belgrade reports unprecedented heat. Now at 1230 in the afternoon Dot’s made up our picnic but we’re still in the gîte nattering and having cups of tea. At breakfast - Dot’s poached eggs on toasted baguette - I drew from Arthur more of his mining life before and during the war. He was 5 years down Hilton Main from 1934 and called up as a miner with threat of prison, disallowed from his attempts to join the army, to go down the same mine again for the duration. After that he worked at Goodyear making tractor tyres. The story continues. I hope Richard and Amy who have other things in their lives now will want to know about their grandparents early lives doing mining and factory work that has now dispersed to other parts of the world.

* * * * * *

I’ve been sent an essay about ‘harm in world politics’. It’s by one of the strategic managers from the Fire & Rescue Service who thought it might interest me. He suggests that de-civilising is ‘an almost complex form of barbarism coupled with the continual refinement of the civilizing process that aids rather than hinders the barbarism’. He suggests the sociologist Norbert Elias might see us as ‘late barbarians’. I replied:

Dear R. It is a privilege to be entrusted with your paper. I will now read it properly. Being on holiday is a good time to read in a relaxed and concentrated way. I have been intrigued, and some would say almost morbidly curious, about the subject that is the theme of your essay for almost as long as I can recall.

I started, this interest, when I was staying with the parents of a school friend when I was about 10 or 11 in 1952. His parents were the kindest hosts. I happened to wander in their house and saw on a desk a copy of Russell’s early commentary on the Holocaust ‘The Scourge of the Swastika’.

As you may know many English children were probably far more protected as a generation from knowledge of violence. No television and few images - nothing to compare with the exposure via film, TV, internet and magazine that today‘s children (and most parents) take for granted. Perhaps my parents immersed in a world war wanted us to be innocent for a while.

I leafed through this book. I’d never seen a corpse, not even a photo of one. The worst pictures I saw were pictures of the crucifixion, I found them pretty horrific but they were paintings. All of a sudden here were black and white photos of hundreds of deformed emaciated dead bodies being pushed into pits by men driving bull dozers with masks over their faces. I didn’t really understand what I was seeing. Then my friend’s dad came in and saw me with the book.

I realise now that he was horrified that I had been able to see it, that it had been there for me to view even though that was my fault for wandering into his study. My memory is not the shock of the photos but the shock and seeing this gentle man so emotional and disturbed. I took it for annoyance at me but it was more complicated than that, as I’ve said. The images had an effect that burned into my brain rather more slowly but I recall the moment, over 50 years ago, with clarity.

Many years later I was pondering not how to tell my son the facts of life. I reckon from looking at his text books that knew rather more than me so good was the primary school curriculum on sex education. My worry was how he should learn about the evil men do. When he was 9 I was delivering a paper in Vienna (on IT in local government) and took him with me for a treat – to enjoy the great wheel, the cakes and sweets, and the streets of a beautiful city. While there I had arranged to visit the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and, after the conference, while touring the city we arrived at the centre by appointment. It was an ordinary third floor flat with an Austrian policeman at the entrance. We were met by a sweet lady called Rosemary who greeted us, obviously well used to school visits. We saw no horror pictures but we did see many filing cabinets in a spacious office and on the wall in the reception area a vast and slightly faded map of Europe upon which were dotted the names of camps and railway routes between them and the various nations of Europe. I could hardly speak but we did get into conversation. I was told by Rosemary that Mr.Weisenthal was away but sent his best wishes. She gave Richard something to drink and we chatted about the work of the centre. We were only there about 20 minutes but I thought that if and when my son became curious on this subject he would recall a visit to an address in Vienna and the attention of a kind lady.

She explained before we went that Weisenthal was doing his work because of what happened to his mother. People asked if he could forgive to which his reply was that you can forgive something done to yourself but you cannot, and have no right to, forgive someone for what they did to someone else.

It’s a story about forgiveness that underlines the importance of your interest in the process of decivilising. I met an old man who lived near us about ten years ago who’s late wife was a Czech who’d survived the camps. An ex-marine, he’d met her in Europe in 1945. “She forgave them” he told me. “How was that possible?” He paused in his porch, where I was on one of my door-to-door campaigns for a local cause – Neighbourhood Watch, I think, if not the Park or allotments. “All the same people who got involved in those things live round here” he said. “How do you mean?” I asked anticipating for a second a fantasy of anonymous war criminals in Handsworth. “Our neighbours. Among them there are camp guards, people who’d join the underground, people who’d harbour you despite the danger, people who’d betray and collaborate, people who’d use the situation to settle old differences between neighbours. They’re all the same people.”

Mazower and his co-writers are doing fine work on events in Greece in the 1940s. I hope we may meet again and work further on current issues for the F&RS in xxx. A thought and a question (no need to answer): do you think people with a non-conformist tradition in their background are more alert to the sudden emergence of evil in their immediate surroundings, including in themselves, because of the message from the pulpit about the closeness of hell fire – the message that the devil goes round and about like a prowling lion searching for opportunity? My stepfather said that even though he was an atheist his Methodist upbringing had given him a life-long fear of hell even though he no longer believed in the religion that taught him about it. I recall that I didn’t really start to grasp what this was all about until I was forced to confront the possibility that it was I who could have been the perpetrator of genocide – not some other species of human. If I recall that insight came about 20 years after I’d seen that picture of the bulldozers at work at Belsen. Best wishes, Simon (in France until 24 June)
[Back to the future 19/07/07: Is it possible that Europeans in their dark century were the perpetrators and victims of greater racism than on any other continent (Nanjing and other atrocities notwithstanding) and so have learned a terrible lesson about the banality of evil - how it starts with quite small incivilities (hence our preoccupation with what some call 'political correctness' but which is also about assiduous politeness - verbal and non-verbal). We know how close to civilization lies its opposite - how easy it is to indicate lack of worth in another individual because they belong to another collective group (age, ethnicity, nation, gender, sexuality, faith, class, disability, the list is endless and always waiting reinvention). Because we fear our own potential for evil (a burdensome self-consciousness) we make jokes about all these things but they are seldom funny. What matters most is that we are human - or try to be. It is of course clear as day that by having such noble sentiments I am better than everyone else. Evil is as close and as lethal as current to the linesman on an electricity pylon and that to steer from it I must be as well insulated, well trained and consequently as alert about the energy of evil as he is about the energy of electricity - but I must never lose my sense of humour, since to be good requires wit as well as wisdom.]

* * * * * *

I got a letter from Alex in England for a fortnight before returning to the house in Nebias in SE France where she and Brian and daughter Zoë have part settled. They, like us, are working out how much to stay in UK and how much to make home in another very different place. I’d sent her some references as part of an upgrade of Compendium Learning’s website.

* * * * * *

The process of getting my Iraqi friend and his family to England to live and work is proceeding through different bureaucracies.
‘…Do you think that the seat may be offered in the next academic year? Or may be in September this year or later? Because, in case my travel will be delayed till sometime after the beginning of the new year, I may well need to register my sons in a Primary school before they are already filled. Registration has already started and only the private schools are accessible to Iraqis who have invalid residency in xxx. …’

The Middle East is overflowing with fugitives. My friend speaks of his good fortune at even having these circumscribed choices compared 'to most of my compatriots’.

* * * * * *

I am steadily filling my order book with paying work. I was 65 on 29 March, but I’ve delayed accepting my state pension for the next two years – preferring a lump sum around 2009 with interest. While I’m earning I don’t want to pay income tax on it either.

* * * * * *

This bloody chapter writhes in my head. It causes me more worry than anything. It’s a daily reminder of inadequacy - for all the pleasant displacement activities prompted by this familiar paralysis. It’s like making love in old age – the delightful ridiculous unreliable coincidence of presence, desire and potency.
There are various ways of looking at leadership ‘at the apex’. The intermingling of politics and management is granted - their separation a convenient myth practised by politicians and managers seeking to evade difficulties of government. Among the ways of commenting on the interconnection (or its avoidance) are Max Weber’s, Agneta Blom’s, John Stewart’s, Peter Self’s, Poul Mouritzen’s and James Svara’s and mine (drawing on these). I should describe each in brief and then expand on my three categories of relationship using examples, in the case of the last and most positive, from my film interviews of members and officer’s in conversation.
Where I can contribute is by discussing the fluidity and tension in the relationship between a politician and an officer. How it can shift from reciprocity to dependency. Though Self used the image of a bridge between politics and administration, he omitted Weber’s argument about a ‘profound source of tension’ between democracy and bureaucracy or, to stay with Self’s metaphor, the opposing pressures on the keystone – which are on the one hand the source of the bridge’s stability, but on the other a reminded of the violence of its collapse if the equilibrium of forces bearing on the keystone is disturbed, either by the crumbling of the keystone itself or the grounding of the bridge. An interdependent overlapping relationship - a tango - can become separate and co-dependent with a change of power and personality and external circumstances. The Jeeves-Wooster, and the Sir Humphrey-Jim Hacker relationships present themselves as attractive evasions of the tango. The challenge for a political leader and a senior manager recognising the possibilities that a relationship is ceasing or has ceased to be reciprocal, interdependent and overlapping, is how to recover the dance, how, jointly, to relearn its complex steps and rhythm. I have conversations that show the delicacy of this process of re-establishing, renegotiating and strengthening trust at the political-management interface.

* * * * * *

My interpreter friend is as ready as she is going to be facing complaints to which she is being required to answer to her profession’s disciplinary panel. I’m to be her ‘friend’ at a hearing in London in early July. It starts at 1600pm and I must catch a train from Paddington at 1803 for work in Devon next morning. She feels nervous. I’m thinking that by being there until 1715 I am helping as well as I can, on top of the arguments I’ve helped prepare with her. Neither of us is quite right.

* * * * * *

There are sunny windy intervals when the coast becomes lovely. Here Arthur, Dorothy and Lin gaze westward over the Anse de Guillec, about a kilometre NW of Kerblat, on one of the regular benches placed along the shores by the local council.

* * *

ATHENS, Greece, June 21
Sweltering weather blanketed much of southeastern Europe Thursday, bringing a deadly storm to Vienna and power problems in Greece.

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