Thursday, 3 December 2015

Roaring for their ghosts

The dead have been spat on and I am roaring for their ghosts.

Last night Hilary Benn, Shadow Foreign Secretary and the son of the late, great Tony Benn, stood up in Parliament and said, " . . . what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why . . . socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It's why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice . . . It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. And that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for the option tonight." And to my horror, Hilary Benn was applauded for these words.

For the last four and a half years, I have devoted myself to researching and writing a novel about the Spanish Civil War. For the Right Honourable Hilary Benn to invoke the International Brigades as a justification to join others blindly bombing Syria is not only odious, it is historically inaccurate.

For those who know little about the circumstances of the Spanish Civil war, here's a hugely simplified timeline for the first nine months of 1936:
  • 16 February: The Popular Front, a left coalition, wins the election and forms a new Republican government.
  • 17 July: Several Spanish generals, including Francisco Franco, stage a coup d'etat to topple the democratically-elected government. This uprising occurs in Spanish Morocco, then a protectorate, and quickly spreads to cities and army bases on the mainland.
  • 20 July: Rebel sympathisers inside Madrid are defeated. The Republican government requests aid from France. The rebels request assistance from Germany and Italy.
  • 25 July: Hitler agrees to support Franco.
  • 26 July: German and Italian planes land in Morocco to fly the Army of Africa* to the Iberian peninsula to seize power. 
  • August: Great Britain proposes a plan of non-intervention that would refuse aid to either side.
  • 14 August: On their drive to Madrid, rebel troops massacre 2,000 to 4,000 civilians and Republican militia in Badajoz.
  • 9 September: The Non-Intervention Committee meets in London under the auspices of Tory Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, to draw up a treaty that bars the citizens of signatory countries from supplying men, or armaments, to either side. Ultimately, twenty-four nations sign including Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia. 
  • 2 November: Madrid is almost encircled by insurgents. The 2.5-year siege of the capital begins.
  • 8 November: The first members of the International Brigades arrive to help defend Madrid.
      *colonial army composed of Moors and the Spanish Foreign Legion 

The International Brigades were men and women from 56 nations who came to Spain to defend freedom, most of them against the wishes of their own government. The greatest numbers who enlisted were French citizens, followed by stateless Germans who were opposed to Hitler's National Socialism, Italians and Poles. There were British, American, Canadian and Yugoslav battalions. Some of those who volunteered came from as far away as Iraq and China. The Abraham Lincoln Battalion was the first US military unit to be commanded by an Afro-American.

The men and women of the IB did not fight for money or glory. Their daily pay was enough to buy a cup of coffee and a roll. Many, on their arrival in Spain, were surprised that they would receive any pay at all. They called it "the pure war" because those who came were not conscripts or mercenaries. They were idealists, terrified that Spain would mark the dress rehearsal for another world war, as indeed it was with the first carpet bombing of civilians rather than military targets.

Used as shock troops, more than half the International Brigades were killed. Men and women who were so dedicated to fighting the fascists that even those in their hospital beds—if they were able to walk—would voluntarily return to the front line when another battle was in the offing.

The war in Syria is not about fascism. It is about access to oil. Crude oil. The RAF bombers are part of a professional army co-opted to enrich the coffers of the arms' industry. It was truly shocking to discover on the Campaign Against Arms Trade website that Members of Parliament were among those on the guest list at the ADS (Aerospace, Defense and Security) Dinner on 2 February 2015. If you doubt me, here is the link.

Tony Benn must be turning in his grave, as surely as the dead of the International Brigades whose bones the Shadow Foreign Secretary opportunistically invoked. Dolores Ibárruri, "La Pasionara", wrote of the sacrifices those volunteers made not for "black gold", but for freedom. In her farewell address to them in October 1938 she said: "Recount for them how, coming over seas and mountains, crossing frontiers bristling with bayonets . . . these men reached our country as crusaders for freedom, to fight and die for Spain's liberty and independence threatened by German and Italian fascism. They gave up everything—their loves, their countries, home and fortune, fathers, mothers, wives, brothers, sisters and children—and they came and said to us: 'We are here. Your cause, Spain's cause, is ours. It is the cause of all advanced and progressive mankind.'

"Today many are departing. Thousands remain, shrouded in Spanish earth, profoundly remembered by all Spaniards. Comrades of the International Brigades: political reasons, reasons of state, the welfare of that very cause for which you offered your blood with boundless generosity, are sending you back, some to your own countries and others to forced exile. You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend. You are the heroic example of democracy's solidarity and universality in the face of . . . those who interpret democratic principles with their eyes on hoards of wealth or corporate shares which they want to safeguard from all risk. We shall not forget you . . ."

Hilary Benn, you may have forgotten why the International Brigades fought, and what they stood for, but I have not.

"What luck for the rulers that men do not think." —Adolf Hitler

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Failing better

I've just been preparing for a new course at Ernst & Young's UK headquarters. One of the exercises I'm planning to use will be centred on proverbs.

In creating the exercise I came across some wonderful sayings from around the globe, but this one from Japan particularly resonated with me as a writer: "Fall seven times, stand up eight." Which then reminded me of a quote by Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

This post is about failing and falling and then trying to fail better. In July 1994 I went to my first war zone. The Dayton Peace Accord had not been signed and the beautiful World Heritage City of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina was still under siege, their magnificent Ottoman bridge destroyed, the stones lying on the bottom of the River Neretva.

The experience of being in a country, and city, at war was overwhelming. While I was there, I kept a diary which resulted in my first attempt at non-fiction: a 5,000 word article entitled "Behind God's Back". My agent at that time, Rogers, Coleridge & White, did not handle journalism so they suggested that I submit it to The New Yorker and The New Republic. The New Yorker politely turned it down, saying they were swamped with contributions from their own correspondents and were not commissioning any new work. The New Republic said they might be interested in publishing it if was cut to 1500 - 2000 words and centred on the War Child bakery that was then feeding the town.

I looked at the story, again and again. I wanted desperately for "Behind God's Back" to be published. Not for vanity's sake, but to let people know about the war that was destroying a nation that, like Spain in the Thirties, had not been allowed to defend itself. If I did find a way to cut it, the story would be bowdlerised and, worse, that it would be a betrayal to the Bosnians I met who faced their terrible reality with such bravery, humour and, even more startling, forgiveness for their enemy. The only choice was to put "Behind God's Back" in my bottom drawer and forget about it.

Fast forward 21 years. My husband's book, Left Field: the memoir of a lifelong activist, was accepted by the publishers, Unbound. In it, he records his time in Mostar as the first director of the Pavarotti Music Centre. We both felt that my account of life there should be included in the book and, to our delight, Unbound agreed. All this time later, "Behind God's Back" can finally be read. A failure the first time round, but this time a better one.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

A box by Joseph Cornell

From 4 July - 27 September the artist, Joseph Cornell, will be having a long overdue exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. This shy, intriguing man led an isolated life with his mother and disabled brother in Flushing, New York. He became known for the dream-like boxes he built with treasures collected on his trips into New York City.

I am indebted to Joseph Cornell because it was because of him that I was finally able to choose the name for my first novel.

It was in Venice at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection when I saw one of his creations, "Swiss Shoot the Chutes" (1941). Fascinated, I stood in front of this box inspired by the penny arcades and pinball machines Cornell had loved as a boy. My eye was first drawn to the lithograph of a ballerina, then to the image below it of the wolf and Little Red Riding Hood. It was only later that I noticed the yellowed words pasted into another peephole: Hôtel de l'Ange. Angel Hotel. I don't know why, but the box conveyed a sense of loneliness and yearning. Coldness. Snow. I realised I had finally hit upon my title (with the addition of one more word), one that incorporated the name of a hotel that seemed to hold such happiness and promise. Not.

Stay turned . . .

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Who said this?

The idea for this post was borrowed by my friend, Roger Levy, a sci-fi author whose latest book is Icarus.

In an email to the Zens, our weekly writing group, Roger posed the challenge of identifying who first said this. No Googling. You have to guess first. The answer in another post.

Stay tuned . . .

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Life transmuted into fiction

Stories start in different ways. "The Double Happiness Company" began life on a napkin at a New Year's Eve party. I had no paper with me and was grabbing clean napkins to record the impressions and dialogue that was swirling around me. A band of old men who called themselves the Buffalo Chips. (A buffalo chip is not a potato. It's dried bison dung.) My father's bad jokes. A woman in a red dress with a butterfly tattoo on her hip. A deep family sadness that is pushed down during a time of celebration.

On that New Year's Eve I was sketching out what I thought was a story. It was only long after it was written did I realise that its true home was in a novel that came to have the same title, The Double Happiness Company.

Over the years it has had several reincarnations. The commission by BBC Radio 3 which was broadcast. (If want to listen to what became Chapter 46, you can hear it narrated by the excellent Toria Fuller or you can read it.) The novel version is essentially the same, but has references to earlier sections of the book that wouldn't make sense in a freestanding short story.

Much of what is considered "fiction" is rooted in experience. Ernest Hemingway is no exception: Frederick Henry's war experiences in A Farewell to Arms were his own, Hemingway's disillusionment about his second marriage to an heiress and the squandering of his talent is explored in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro". But he used his emotional wounds. "Forget your personal tragedy," he said. "We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt—use it—don't cheat with it."

Stay tuned . . .