Friday, May 20, 2016

I Hear There's a Lot Of Terrorism

I've been swithering for days over whether to write about this, which is usually a sign that I'm about to annoy somebody or to make a damn fool of myself, or both.  Since I have a few minutes free though...

Anyway, I was thinking this week about my student days.  When I was there in the mid-to-late nineties, the university I went to had the highest proportion of Northern Irish undergraduates on mainland Britain, so pretty much everyone's classes and social circles would feature a relatively large number of people with sharp accents from the various counties, usually mercilessly mocking each other.

Which may seem like an odd point to raise, but I think it might be mildly useful in making sense of the circumstances around the Royall inquiry into anti-semitism at the Labour Club at Oxford, for people who like me who haven't been students for a very long time.  The inquiry has now concluded with a rough verdict of - no institutional racism, but several issues that need to be urgently addressed.

So what are the similarities?  Well, on any given night out, I'd say that there was a reasonable chance that any Northern Irish friend would bump into somebody who would drop something pretty crass or daft or just plain offensive about Northern Ireland into the conversation.  Northern Ireland may now be better known for Game of Thrones and the European Championships, but bombings and shootings were still big news back then, especially after one of our fellow students was killed in the Omagh bombing in 1998.

Mostly, this was of the Oh, you're from Bangor?  I hear there's a lot of terrorism in Northern Ireland variety - basically well-meaning chatter from people who have grown up on BBC News broadcasts and crap Hollywood action movies, and are just saying the first thing that comes into their heads.

Other people probably just had some thoughts on the topic that they wanted to bounce off someone who could tell them how right they were, and I get the impression that some folk found Northern Ireland a bit dangerous and exotic.   I think others maybe just really liked U2 and didn't have a very good grasp of geography.

Most of the Northern Irish folk I knew had a story to tell about the daftest things that people had said to them - my mate Gavin, for example, once had a guy relate a story about how his soldier uncle had nearly been blown up in Belfast by "the UCLA", which is news that would've shocked the administrators at the University of California.  The same guy later backed up and announced that actually, the terrorist organisation in question was "the ULA", i.e. the one that Sean Bean belongs to in the movie Patriot Games.  Either way, quite a surprising amount of Scottish people had friends and relatives who had nearly been blown up, at one time or another.

On the other hand, there were quite a lot of people around with some very daft ideas, and more than a few with some outright unpleasant ones.  This was Scotland after all, and even twenty years ago people were less reticent about unexpectedly raising touchy sectarian issues than they are now.  As you can imagine, there were plenty of zoomers knocking about with extremely wacky ideas about Ireland, Britain and the paramilitaries, and I can remember more than one occasion where some guy from Glasgow or Ayrshire decided that a random Wednesday night out was the perfect time to get into a deep discussion about e.g. who blew up which pub in which county in nineteen-diddly-five.  And this could get quite heated, if the drinks had been flowing, or if some idiot started up with the old traditional tunes.

Most of the people I knew used to basically dick this stuff off as an annoyance by silly folk, employing the level of biting sarcasm that you'd expect.  For the most part, this stuff really was daft and even occasionally aggravating, but perfectly survivable.

Apply this to the kind of issues that Lady Royall is talking about however, and I can see why people would be far less inclined to treat this type of behaviour with equanimity.  There are major differences between the situation I'm talking about, and the one that she investigated, not least

- Most Northern Irish people are distinguishable as Northern Irish because of their accents, whereas most Jewish people aren't.  If I was Jewish and people kept striking up conversations with me about the Palestinians out of the blue, I'd probably start to wonder what people were saying about me when I wasn't around.

- Northern Ireland is a country, whereas Judaism is a religion.  I doubt whether any of the people I knew had any direct experience of terrorism beyond being huckled out of the swimming baths after a phoned-in bomb threat, but they were at least from the same geographical location as the issue being discussed.

If folk regularly showed great enthusiasm for talking to me about the same godawful conflict on the other side of the planet, one that had nothing to do with me...  Well, that's the kind of thing that would get my goat in pretty short order and I doubt I'd be inclined to be polite about it either.  

(Note here: It's certainly true that the current Israeli government is one of the world's most egregious conflators of religion and nationality, but that's no excuse at all for not showing discernment yourself).

- And, annoying as all of these enthusiasts could be to the average Northern Irish student, there was at least a variety of political theorist to speak to.  Whenever some joker opened his cakehole to talk about The Troubles, there was at least a little mystery as to the content of his chat. 

On Israel/Palestine, I imagine that the patter is a bit more predictable.  British universities are full of young, weakly leftish people and demographically speaking, it's likely that any of them who have political views about Israel as a country are going to have quite negative ones*.  Additionally, for all that talk about Northern Ireland may have been hotter and nastier in 1996 than it is now, the average student then probably got their information from the Beeb or the newspaper, rather than from the type of poisonous nonsense that proliferates online these days.

Hell, I'd only been bickering about wars on the internet for a short while before I learned to heave a sigh of exasperation whenever somebody decided to arbitrarily crowbar Hamas or the Israeli Defence Force into a conversation, and that's with "faceless people communicating with strangers using text", rather than face-to-face chats at the Student Union about very touchy political and personal issues. 

Anyway, I could go on.  My point here is that I can see precisely why some Jewish students might find British universities less than congenial places, and I'm talking here about apolitical types who are just trying to get through an average day like the rest of us, rather than people who arrive there with an axe or two to grind, or who find themselves sharpening a couple after a few months.

In the end-up, I'm not at all surprised to find that Lady Royall found issues to be addressed, and I'd be even less surprised if they extend further than the Oxford Labour Club**.  A lot of this is just people being people but I suspect that a lot of it is people being insensitive or unpleasant arseholes, and occasionally a good bit worse.

As for what to do about this, well, I have few ideas about how we go about improving this situation.  The Northern Ireland one kind of sorted itself out after a mere few hundred years of war, recrimination and negotiation, and it certainly doesn't look much like any amount of inquiries are likely to help in the short term.

(Generally speaking, I'd close this type of Oh-Why-Can't-We-All-Get-Along post by recommending greater accuracy and mutual understanding.  Given that I've just wilfully smashed together two wildly different conflicts in entirely different contexts in very different eras however, that's probably a bit of a hypocritical request to be making today).

*I don't think there's much need to get into why this is here, but I'd guess that Dan's view on the matter is closer to reality than most other commentary I've seen has got.

**Although this really has been an odd issue, this Oxford story - one that apparently tells us a great deal about the Labour Party but one that, surprisingly, tells us very little about Oxford itself or the type of person that studies there.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Something Stirring

Right everyone, I need to tell you a bit about And The Land Lay Still, a 2010 novel by James Robertson.  I need to tell you about it because it's one of the best books I've read in years, but also because it's jam-packed full of in-depth political thought, and those politics are absolutely mental from start to finish.

Twenty pages into it, I asked if it was just decades of men complaining in pubs before joining the Yes campaign, and it is.  But it's so much more than that.

It's a state-of-the-nation book, covering over fifty years of life, laughter, sadness, love and loss in Scotland, from the end of the war through the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and onwards.  Theoretically it's about the decline of Scottish industry and the intentional immiseration of entire towns, and its depiction of fictional mining communities in Fife chimes almost exactly with my experience of their real-life equivalents [1].  What it's really about is the rise of Scottish nationalism, told with astounding sweep and grandeur: it's emotional, epic, incredibly ambitious.

If you want a literary analysis of the book, there's plenty of it about.  This is an intentionally political book though, so I'm going to talk about the politics, because they are utterly deranged in the most entertaining way imaginable.

The book is split into sections, each introducing new characters.  Twenty pages after meeting each one, we're given their thoughts on home rule, independence and the SNP.  Whether for or against, each one is full of angst and confusion about the constitution.  Is Scotland a proud nation, they cry endlessly, or merely a diddy backwater?  They doubt, they brood and they question us - what are we doing, where are we going, and what do we want to be - at punishing length.  I've lived here for thirty-eight years and can confirm that this type of thing is very much a minority pursuit, but in And The Land Lay Still, it is everywhere and within everyone.

There are three types of proto-nationalist in the book.  The first is the enthusiast, long since sold on the need for home rule.  These characters are forever feeling something stirring within them as time and events awaken long-repressed desire for independence and a better nation.  When they listen to folk music, they find that the songs were already in their hearts [2]; when they learn Gaelic, they discover that the words had been within them all along, just yearning to be set free.  Patriotic longing is always exploding out of them like a chestburster in the movie Alien, or they have sudden gut-feelings impelling them to urgent action, like a two-flush dump.

One character, a traumatised ex-soldier, is so horrified by our rampant consumerism that he leaves home one day and spends the rest of his life wandering the fields and streams of Scotland, connecting with the land and handing out stones to children.  The tone of these chapters is much like a Kate Bush video, but with Kate mooning and swooning and hurling herself around to Runrig, rather than Wuthering Heights.

The second type is the reluctant holdout, decently but wrongly putting his faith in socialism and solidarity [3].  These men ponder Scotland's plight like the rest but misplace their hopes with Labour blowhards and bickering union bosses, and are worked into the grave for their pains.  Think - like Boxer the horse in Animal Farm but with Thatcherism rather than the glue factory.

These characters are the heart of the book: miners and factory workers.  Deep down they know that the SNP are right about everything, but their traditions and allegiences prevent them from acknowledging it.  Their role is to despair of their heroes, while being gently prodded and ticked off by their friends and family members for not getting with the Nationalist programme.  At one point a Pakistani family move into town and within two pages, the father of the family is gently chiding a shame-faced character for not demanding freedom for Scotland [4].  It is mad as fuck.

The third type of protagonist is where the book really comes alive, though - the villains, a Tory MP, an MI5 spy and other assorted bastard Quislings and apparatchiks of the hated British deep state.  Even these characters spend an eternity bemoaning The Scottish Question, but from the opposite direction, striving to prevent home rule and hating themselves for doing so.

Both the spy and the MP loathe themselves for their anti-Scottish treachery, which is the result of early infection with the virus of Britishness.  The spy is recruited by MI5, an organisation that mainly exists to disdain and despise Scotland and the Scots, and is used to undermine the Nationalist cause by making them look like nutters.  The MP suffers from a crippling hidden shoe-fetish, a perversion that - I kid you not - may or may not be the result of a childhood meeting with Thatcher herself.

And we really need to talk about the English here because, with the exception of one fruity nurse, the English in this book are irredeemably horrible braying bureaucrats, rampaging snobs, treacherous snakes, effete bell-ends and Thatcherite Loadsamoneys.  Their sole activities in life are extorting money out of decent, hardworking people; disrespecting Scotland and thinking up ways to fuck Scotland over.

I'll do a bit of violence to Robertson's dialogue here with an impersonation of his style, for effect:

SIR SIMON TWIDDLINGE-MOUSTACHE, MI5 BOSS:  MacTraitor!  Why are you wasting your time with real, important espionage work?  Don't you know we have to fit up a lot of Scottish Nationalists and convict them of terrorism, in order to discredit their drive for devolution?

BOABY MACTRAITOR, QUISLING BASTARD MI5 AGENT:  Sorry, master.  How may I serve the British establishment's insane hatred of my countrymen?

TWIDDLINGE-MOUSTACHE:  Get on a train to Glasgow.  We need to maybe-murder or maybe-not-murder a Scottish MP, for reasons that are hinted at but are left opaque, because openly stating them would make the author look like a maniac!

MACTRAITOR:  But why should we murder or not murder a Scottish MP, master?

TWIDDLINGE MOUSTACHE:  Because we need to crush Scotland's desire for freedom, so that we can steal all of their oil and spend all of their money on hookers and cocaine, MacTraitor!  And because that's exactly the kind of thing that the corrupt, venal swines of the British state would do!

MACTRAITOR:  (Drinks self to death because of his self-loathing)

And so on.  In a twist, it turns out that the Twiddlinge-Moustache character is Scottish himself, but was raised out in the hinterland of the Empire, which explains why he hates and wishes to destroy his own nation.

Britishness and Englishness in particular in this book infect and undermine Scotland and the Scots - they are insidious, sneaky, all-seeing and all-powerful.  London is a venal, corrupt Babylon filled with cackling capitalists, creeping perverts and the dirty prostitutes who serve them.  This is some crazy shit, right here, and it goes on like this for about a hundred and fifty pages.

I've been reading all this with rising astonishment and really, I couldn't wait to share it with you.  In terms of broadening your understanding of how others think, it's been like Rowdy Roddy Piper putting on the sunglasses in They Live and suddenly seeing all the aliens walking amongst us.  It's a cracking book, but utterly deranged - like if War & Peace had the Rostovs stop every few pages to eulogise the glory and dignity of Protestantism and to denounce the baleful influence of Rome.

[1]  The caveats I'd add here are that in Robertson-land, working class people don't much e.g. vote Tory, buy the Sun or rage against immigration and political correctness, and their communities are mainly welcoming of outsiders and difference.  I grew up in a small ex-mining village and now live with the daughter of five generations of miners, and I can tell you that this doesn't reflect my experience.  It's a small objection, however.

[2]   I felt this way about Enter The Wu Tang, but I doubt that this portends an ingrained affinity for New York.

[3]  And when I say "His", I mean it.  Women are mainly secondary or supporting characters here, offering guidance and support but rarely impelling the action.  Maundering about the fate of the nation is man's work apparently, as they do all the political heavy-lifting.  For a book about a movement filled with strong women, this book is a sausage-fest.

[4]  Because a man who has been forced to flee a country that was bloodily born in partition would definitely be attracted to the idea of his adopted country separating from its cousins, innit.