Alone in Berlin

Hans Fallada, 1947 

Hans Fallada is one of those accomplished, poignant and engaging authors that hardly anyone has heard of. A lack of translations cannot be given as an excuse: even mainstream bookshops occasionally have at least one of his novels on the shelves. Libraries likewise. But as a book that so chillingly and with such accomplishment examines the attempts of an ordinary German couple to undermine the crushing effects of Nazi rule in Berlin, it deserves to be read at least once.


The story is based on fact. Elise and Otto Hampel, poorly educated, living in Berlin, and as unlikely a couple to work on the subversion of the Nazi machine as it is possible to conceive, nonetheless turned from being inoffensive, scarcely noticeable citizens to the engineers of a three-year campaign to change the minds of other ordinary – decent – people. What they did was not earth-shattering: they secretly dropped handwritten notes in public places. In doing so, their hope was that the ordinary German, not aligned to the Party, would see the senselessness of what Chancellor Hitler was doing and help to begin a mass movement that would dislodge him from power.


Elise Hempel seems not to have been engaged in any kind of political activity before her brother was killed early in the war. Following his death, she and her husband left hundreds of postcards all over Berlin, urging workers to sabotage their work-places, engage in civil disobedience and refrain from giving to the Winter Fund, a so-called charity that in effect contributed to the Nazi war effort. Their cards generally found their way to the police, but the Hempels were so successful that they were believed to be part of a sophisticated resistance movement.


The beauty of Fallada’s story lies partly in the detailed psychology of the main characters, Anna and Otto Quangel, and subsidiary ones such as Inspector Escherich, who is charged with the task of apprehending the Quangels.  The atmosphere of bullying and menace in which they are all forced to operate – even Escherich is beaten up and thrown into a cell for failing to find the Quangels quickly enough – pervades the whole book. As minor characters are implicated in various ways in the Quangels’ activities, the plot also becomes an example of the finest kind of thriller writing. The device of the dropping of the postcards, combined with the fear or fury with which those who read such messages as ‘Hitler’s war is the worker’s death’ respond, help pull the reader inexorably through the narrative.  We sympathise with everyone who encounters the cruelty and sadism of the Nazi officials, even as we realize that, sooner or later, the Quangels will be caught.


Why is this book worth reading? Because it manages to terrify and uplift at the same time. Because it reminds us that, faced by the kind of mechanical violence which seems endemic where Fascism and totalitarianism reign, there are people like the Quangels, and Jewish ex-magistrate Judge Fromm, who not only hides a suspect in his flat but helps the Quangels when their need is most acute. Primo Levi called it ‘The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’.


Hans Fallada spent much of his life in prison, or in psychiatric care, but he never left Germany. Somehow combining the writing of ‘inoffensive’ texts with more overtly political and humanistic ones, he managed to escape the concentration camps even as he was condemned by Nazi commentators. The life he led finds its way into Alone in Berlin. We can only hope that, in the face of the toxic forces that threaten to overwhelm our contemporary world, there are enough Quangels and Judge Fromms and Hans Falladas working to keep morality alive, to engage in those small acts of quiet resistance that barely shake the world, but allow it to maintain some degree of principle and integrity.  


May 1968


Next May is the 50th anniversary of ‘May ’68’. ‘May ’68’, for those not old enough to have been around at the time, appeared to be a second French Revolution, gathering momentum before our very eyes. Paris, particularly the Left Bank, was in turmoil. Students at the universities had gone on strike. Both they and, often, their professors occupied universities, holding impromptu rallies and talks, discussing politics and feeling, in the euphoria of rejecting the status quo which had dominated French intellectual life for decades, that the political system would change forever. To add to the strength of student numbers, an estimated 11 million workers had also gone on strike and, in many cases, occupied factories and work-places throughout France. The two groups formed a loose coalition – or at least a force – that startled the authorities. Paving slabs and cobbles were torn up (‘Beneath the Pavement, the Beach’), cars became barricades, fires were lit. Slogans were generated, poetry was chanted, songs were bellowed into the night, exuberant pictures, graffiti and political statements were painted and posted on walls and trees. Famous notaries, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, showed their support on the streets.
Then, as must happen when populist movements frighten those in power, there were pitched battles between the ‘revolutionaries’ and the police that resulted in many injuries on both sides. President De Gaulle, a war hero in the eyes of many, and representative of the stiffest and most intransigent of the ‘old guard’, left briefly for Germany. The pro-activists thought the war was won: with De Gaulle gone, elections could be held and a left-wing government put in place.
Indeed, when De Gaulle came back, he not only dissolved the National Assembly, but initiated parliamentary elections, to be held on 23rd June. But the Gaullist party won. Made anxious, perhaps, by the idea that France might be run by Communists and anarchists, the voters returned them to power with an even stronger mandate. The ‘revolution’ was over.
As an eighteen-year-old just about to leave school for Art college, the events were breathtaking. I was still in school uniform, including blazer and tattered cap, and my years in education had culminated in stultifying boredom. To watch the news – Paris University at Nanterre shut down; Sorbonne University students join in protest; prolonged rioting and violence; a million people march through Paris – was intoxicating and inspiring. Freedom was already in the air: the doings (dope, communes, ‘free love’) in the nexus of hippiedom (San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district) were being imitated by the young folks of Britain, myself included. Instead of reading Jane Austin and John Buchan, I was into Russian authors, the Beats, Hesse, Charles Bukowski, Knut Hamsun, Chinese poetry. I truanted from school, changing out of my uniform in the public toilets and into a strange black blouson (the like of which I have not seen since), jeans that I rolled up past the ankle, sandals, a faded corduroy shirt and a blue-and-yellow neckerchief. I would make the bus-journey into Birmingham, where I would walk around for a bit then sit in a shop doorway eating bread pudding and reading Jack Kerouac. The ‘summer of love’ that was to come had not yet turned sour, though its leaves were beginning to curl a little at the edges. So far as we were concerned, the world (our world) was about to change forever, the old cast aside, the newly-reborn breathing fresh life into a moribund society.
The events in France, as astonishing and exciting to us, its close neighbours, as they were, had been prefaced by the news that, only a month earlier, on the 5th April, Alexander Dubček had initiated what became known as the Prague Spring.
Dubček had become First Secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, and began to put in place a programme of reform that would include amendments to its constitution. These amendments, increasing political democracy and recognising citizens’ rights to greater personal freedom, were astounding to everyone who had witnessed or read about the repressive measures that, up until then, had been a feature of Soviet rule. Censorship was to be abolished, Trades Unions were given greater powers, people were allowed to openly criticize the government, and farmers were encouraged to organize their own collectives, amongst other reforms. Of course, as with May ’68, the euphoria was short-lived. By the end of August, Warsaw-pact troops had invaded Czechoslovakia and Dubcek’s reforms were overturned.
I remember 1968 as being a strange year, one of contrasts. There was I, about to leave school, heading for Art College, and elsewhere revolutionaries and reformers were changing the tenor of society. We would hear, in that same year, of a group that became known journalistically as the Baader-Meinhof gang, a group of extreme left-wing activists who were happy to translate their discontent with German society and capitalism into violence. As The Red Army Faction, they engaged in a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies, and shoot-outs with police. On 2 April 1968, two of their members, joined by  others, set fire to two department stores as a statement against the ‘imperialist’ Vietnam war, which itself was the focus for violent protests in the USA. Just over a week later, Rudi Dutschke, a spokesperson for burgeoning student protest in Germany, was shot in the head by a right-wing sympathizer.
Although no-one could have foreseen the extent to which the ‘love’ vibes of the hippies, their music, their ‘happenings’, their social freedoms, would change, the hard-edged political realities of power and its use of force to keep the lid on such potential – and threatening – upheavals were becoming evident. A matter of months after I had started at Wolverhampton College of Art, content to be a scruffy and experimental student, Charles Manson and his acolytes had murdered several people, including the pregnant film-star Sharon Tate. On December 6th of that year (1969), at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, California Hell’s Angels had brought violence into what was meant to have been a festival to rival that of the ‘Summer of Love’ in Woodstock. As it turned out, there was little love that day: a man was murdered, several festival-goers were badly beaten, and Mick Jagger’s appeals to the Hell’s Angels to ‘cool it’ were met with jeers and threats.
In the years following what many people had hoped would be a turning-point in the history of the (Western) world, so many internecine wars, religious conflicts, attempted revolutions have occurred, that the onlooker is left bemused and shell-shocked. Tiananmen Square, Beijing, in 1989, comes to mind: Chinese troops stormed this popular meeting-place, firing at students gathered there to support democracy, and running over their tents in tanks. Many people will have their own list of horrors, of famines, destruction, brutality and abuse, whether directly caused by the actions of governments or not.
Yet, even today, we still have tastes of that year, 1968. San Francisco Zen Centre still exists, communes are evident around the world. Recently, there has been a deluge of publicity concerning the attempts by Catalonians to be in charge of their own destiny. People danced, sang, smiled, waved banners, became intoxicated (again) by the prospect of Change. And then…
It is bound to happen, repeatedly, the call for a better system, a better life. The powerless, the disenfranchised, feeling the monolithic weight of entrenched government upon them, are bound to join together and protest, eventually. The hope might be that, as even older members of society, not just young students, feel that they are constantly being short-changed by those who are meant to work for their benefit, a quiet revolution will take place when the sheer weight of numbers, and votes, public opinion, activism in the streets and on line, will serve to at least modify some of the structures that allow for such inequality in our society, such squandering and pollution and destruction of our planet’s resources, such acquisitiveness and greed.
‘May ‘68’ will not occur again, but, half a century on, the disturbances in our world might yet lead to a mass movement of protest and positive alternatives. If not, while entertainment and consumerism are powerfully engaging our attention, the good things we take for granted might suddenly dissolve, and a charred and soundless wasteland be everyone’s inheritance.

Yoga Freak

(A story, for a change, while I am preparing my next blog…)

Yoga Freak

Simon’s architectural work was killing him. He ate too little, drowned in a stream of office coffee, and slept and dreamed and woke in a turmoil of incomplete projects.

Unfortunately for his wife, she still shared their bed.

‘For God’s sake, can’t you lie awake quietly?’ This, followed by her speech about how impossible it was to get back to sleep, before seguing instantly into rhythmical breathing.

‘Must do something,’ he said one Monday morning, pushing aside a bowl of remedial muesli. His wife silently chewed on her own spoonfuls of bowel-grist.

‘Caroline. I saw this in the paper.’ He slewed it round to let her read it. She didn’t, but nor did she not listen, as he read: For peace of mind and body. Hatha yoga… experienced teacher… village hall, Thursdays, 7.30. How about we give it a go?’  She munched on, resolutely.


Simon was reminded of how attractive his wife was as she approached the door of the village hall. She had a new tracksuit for the occasion, shaped but not too shaped, comfortable and subtly coloured, various blues with a hint of lilac. She hadn’t wanted to stand out, but she need not have worried. In the front row of five mats, a bright red figure that they recognized even from the back was teasing her tobacco-coloured hair. Next to her, a younger woman in lemon manipulated her ankles. Caroline chose the row farthest from the front and sat, sniffing the floor’s wax polish.

‘Is this all there are?’ she whispered, indicating the single minute before the seven-thirty mark.

‘Looks like it,’ said Simon, just as a sizeable group of local women, the stalwarts of every village event, pattered respectfully in. A faint cough sounded from behind the kitchen

shutters. The women quietened. A small man appeared, straggle-haired, glasses, tracksuit bottoms, scruffy jumper. He seemed abstracted, and Simon scrutinized him for signs of spiritual depth. He smiled, welcomed everyone, conjured up a meditation cushion and sat, cross-legged. Not quite the lotus posture, though. Could this teacher be pukka?

‘Let us simply sit for a moment,’ he said, in measured rhythm. ‘Let us be still, and discard the noise of the outside world. Let us attend to the restlessness within ourselves, aware that all our distractions, sorrows, anger, yearning, gossip, our thoughtless thinking, are exactly what we are. They are us.

‘Let them appear, don’t push them away. Let them drift out again, without holding on.

‘When they lie in the spotlight of our attentiveness, they are the food that will nourish us. How so? Because they are the only thing we can work with. Without this compost, we cannot grow.                        Now, quietly and mindfully, observe your breath.’

He fell silent, as though he had woken up into a dream in which he was addressing a group of Yoga practitioners, and had dropped off again. Simon found some purchase in his words. They intrigued him just enough. But he was slightly, habitually, anxious. What exactly was he supposed to do? Then, after what seemed like a day, the teacher got up, a little stiff-kneed, and stood before them, palms together in a Namaste.

He smiled. ‘Although it is evening, let us begin with the Surya Namaskar, our homage to that sun which gives us light and life. Thank you.’ Everyone rose. From the back, Simon

and Caroline could see the degrees of smoothness and awkwardness with which people assumed their positions. Some spines were arched to an impossible degree, others were twisted, arthritic. In truth, though, the idea of consciously shaping the human body appealed to his sense of form. He adjusted his posture and mirrored the teacher. Their first evening sped by, slowly.


‘I felt so…energized!‘ said Simon. ‘I felt like I’d been cleansed.’ Caroline was checking her handbag.

‘I need to go shopping,’ she said. ‘Can you clear out the dishwasher?’

Simon waited for the front door to slam, opened the French windows and inhaled the spring’s promise of warming air. He took one of the plumper cushions from the settee, placed it near the sill, lowered his forehead onto it, formed a tripod of head and arms, and launched himself carefully upright. For a second or two he swayed a little off-centre, then was still.

With the blood filling his head, breathing deeply, he thought that this must be the best self-help system ever invented. He couldn’t imagine or plan, otherwise he would fall over. So he breathed and kept upright. Then he let his legs down in controlled fashion and sat on his heels. As the heat drained from his head, Simon experienced the sense of elation that accompanies this kind of activity and duly noted it. His body felt light, his brain washed through with breezes. Roll on Tuesday.

He was peering into a definitive Hatha Yoga manual when he heard the rattle of crockery. Caroline was back and emptying the dish-washer.

‘Been rather busy, have we?’ she said, somewhat coldly.

‘I’ll make us a cup of tea,’ he said.


Buoyed by the possibility of salvation from his job’s quotidian turbulence, and signed off by his GP, Simon increased his one night a week by three afternoons. He travelled several miles for these classes, run by the same teacher in different towns. At first, he was disappointed that, as a regular, he was not accorded a friendlier greeting; then he accepted it

as a lesson in ego-deflation, and was satisfied that he had begun mastering the appetites that preoccupy most human beings. Caroline stopped going.

‘Always the same,’ she said. ‘Start something one week and it becomes all-consuming the next. Then you drop it and go onto something else. Another little addiction.’

She had been peeved because he spent whole lessons practising, without acknowledging her at all. She had felt like a stranger. That was how she had begun to feel, much of the time, with him.

One evening, he prodded the television journal he’d been reading.

‘There’s something I’d like to watch at nine,’ he said.

‘Watch away, I’m going out.’

‘It’s about the fakirs of India. The yogis and the holy men, and their feats of endurance.                You’re going out?’

‘Don’t sound surprised,’ she said. ‘I told you there was a Ladies’ Night tonight. Don’t

wait up for me.’ He perceived her uncustomary make-up, and her most flattering clothes.

‘What about dinner?’ he said, more edgily than he had intended. Attempts to subdue hurt and dependency tussled for a few seconds with the knowledge that phenomena were empty of self and that all things must pass.

‘What about it? Enjoy your programme.’ And she was gone, neat little evening bag, car-keys in hand.

For the opening minutes of the programme, he exhaled snorts of anger. Off to some ladies’ evening. Then he grabbed a beer, smeared a pork-pie with Dijon mustard, and settled into the screen.

The presenter was strolling in a Kolkata street. People were draping garlands over near-naked sadhus who crawled, hopped, rolled. One had clipped chains through his ear-lobes

and Simon stared, open-mouthed, as the camera focused on the car-engine that he was towing behind him. He absorbed this procession of superhuman beings subjecting themselves to the most painful proofs of devotion. Their very grotesqueness stimulated his appetite. If he, the epitome of rush and burn-out, could flourish on four Yoga sessions a week, perhaps he might show everyone that he was more than just a soft-arsed architect.

Another beer. The programme continued as he sifted possibilities. No piercings, no burning coals, no pulling twenty-ton trucks with improbable body parts. He didn’t actually want to harm himself.

Now they were inside a cave. A yogi had been buried in a box. Normally, said the

voice-over, all oxygen would have been depleted within hours. But he emerged, healthy, after

three days. Implausible, but clearly achievable. Now there was something to aim for. A couple of hours, perhaps, in a tight space. In truth, he balked at the idea of being closely confined, as in a coffin. But that was what, by the end of the third beer, he had resolved to do.

The important thing was, this was not ego-connected. It would demonstrate that he could go beyond normal expectation. Of course, there was no back-up crew, no years of training, nor unusual resources. He would have to press into service whatever was available. What that could be he had no idea until, the next evening, he was tying the kitchen rubbish-bag. The wheelie-bin! Big enough, dark enough. A bearable smell. It put his intention within reach.

A few days’ secret practice with his head in a polythene bag and a holding of breath was preparation enough. He didn’t know how to tell Caroline: she had long since cast his latest obsession into eternal darkness. If he told her he was going to spend the night in their wheelie-bin, she would probably divorce him. But it was necessary. Through mastery of the body’s automatic drives he would become stronger, more effective, in the world.

Caroline—’ She had just entered the kitchen, and was wearing lipstick and her favourite ceramic necklace, not one of his gifts, but bought herself, she said, from a craft shop.

‘Ladies’ Night?’ he said.

‘Ladies’ Night,’ she concurred.

‘Look, Caroline, if you get back and don’t find me in the house, I’ll be in the garage.

Just go to bed and don’t worry about me.’

Caroline shrugged as if she anticipated stupidity. He watched as she walked, self-assured and very upright, to the car. He felt an unusual pang as she drove off, but scotched it immediately. He had to prepare.

In the bedroom, curtains closed, he sat for an hour, breathing deeply from the belly. Then he rose slowly, rubbed his knees, and chose a thick jumper for both garment and padding. He stuck a piece of masking tape over his mouth. One step down from utility room to garage.

It was already gloomy in there, with just enough evening light below the door to illuminate the box he had positioned to stand on.

It was not easy: even against the wall, the stout polypropylene threatened to overbalance; but he shifted his weight, perched on the edge, and dropped in.

He was aware that, in town, homeless people sometimes slept in bins, but this was a tighter squeeze than expected. His knees were pressed against the side, so he could not sit.

This will be agony, he thought delightedly, settling into position

and lowering

the lid.

At first, the discomfort in his knees was no worse than an hour’s kneeling. Then the

pain increased. But there was no going back. Simon placed his mind, as practised, into the

most insistent spot and eased into it. Strangely, it diminished, then transmuted into a pulsating

cave. It’s only pain, he thought. It doesn’t matter. And he repeated a short chant he had found on the internet.

He must have dozed, and now awoke, with searing joints. His body knew instantly that it was enough, that more might mean long-term damage. As he slowly, excruciatingly, tried to free his arms, he could feel that he was now not upright, but laid on hip and shoulder. He stretched to raise the lid with his head: it would not budge. Foul odours seared his nostrils. The gag was a football in his mouth. An intense headache competed with another vibration: the engine of their other car, next to him, pulsating quietly. He tried again to shift the lid.

‘Oh, terribly, Caroline!’ A man’s voice, laughter, a dozen miles behind the garage.

Dark crimson under the eyelids.

‘Well, Roger –’

Short, shuddering inhalations of poison.

‘Carolabbleabble –

Two voices together, like the murmur of traffic, or birds, or the gentle burble of a      stream.

In the dark, hot, helpless tears; searing limbs; brain and skeleton suspended. Afloat. And submerged. Like drowning.


‘Sedentary Activism’, or: The Art of Taking to the Streets From Your Chair

It is a truism that the internet has increased the ease with which we locate information and communicate with other people. It is also obvious that a great deal comes to our attention that we might otherwise never have discovered. This is particularly true when we do not simply stick rigidly to those areas that please us, but occasionally venture, via a chance link, a chance mention, to other realms.

Here, I am focusing on four sites that I have come across (almost by chance) that encourage us to act positively, as opposed to simply scanning information or clicking a Facebook button. I want to mention a few of my favourites that have become particularly successful in what they do.

Firstly, and in no particular order (as they say on Strictly Come Dancing), there is AVAAZ, Launched in 2007, its Home tagline has the words ‘…the campaigning community bringing people-powered politics to decision-making worldwide.’ It’s stated membership, at the time of writing, is 45,715,591 members.

Although based in the USA, Avaaz is active globally, campaigning on issues (usually suggested by members) such as ‘climate change, human rights, animal rights, corruption, poverty, and conflict.’ Although it is not without its critics, whose comments regarding its possible ineffectiveness and the ‘slacktivism’ of its participants are very pertinent to all such engagement, the issues raised are often ones that had not necessarily been covered in the mainstream press.

For example, some years ago, I was not aware of how far the Monsanto chemical company had moved in monopolizing the use of its products, which in some cases have been deemed carcinogenic or harmful to the environment; and how, recently, this same company have tried to renew a licence for a product scientifically considered to be unsafe. Along with many thousands of others I signed the petition to stop the company from doing this, and it may be that this petition has had an effect. Crucially, I had researched a little beforehand, so that I was not simply ‘clicking’ before moving onto something else.

I think this is an important point. The ease with which someone can click a response might indicate very little real engagement with the subject, or even a misunderstanding of the information. At the very least, and as far as possible, ‘armchair activism’ should be founded on ‘fact’, tricky as this can be to verify. ( – ‘The World’s Platform for Change’ – was founded in 2007. Its core activities are that of petitioning, i.e. the enabling of ‘over 100 million users’ to express their concerns over a range of issues, and the hosting of other organizations such as Amnesty International. Its stated mission is to “empower people everywhere to create the change they want to see.”

To that end, they have been party to hundreds of campaigns, covering justice, human rights, education, environmental protection, animal rights, health, and sustainable food.

‘Victories’ include an end to eggs from caged hens in certain supermarkets, to the tax on tampons and female sanitary products. Campaigns are many and varied: currently there are hundreds across the world. is ‘an American progressive public policy advocacy group and political action committee.’ Formed in 1998, has raised millions of dollars for candidates it identifies as “progressives” in the United States. Like, it also runs a petition Website and has a membership of 7 million.

Although its actions are directed primarily at ‘American’ issues, these may frequently impact –economically, ethically, morally or politically – on the rest of the world.

A recent example is the call for Congress to ‘deliver a clean Dream Act to provide legal protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants so cruelly impacted by the Trump administration’s decision to end DACA.’ Another is encouraging the creation of ‘a bipartisan independent commission to investigate Donald Trump and his administration’s foreign entanglements, business conflicts of interest, and violations of federal ethics laws.’
SumOfUs is ‘a community of people from around the world committed to curbing the growing power of corporations.’ Their stated objectives are to have dealings with only those companies that ‘respect the environment, treat their workers well and respect democracy.’ Other issues are raised, however.

A recent campaign concerns the welfare of horses. The introductory statement reads: ‘Big pharma is making huge profits from the torture of horses. Thousands of horses are raised purely for the purpose of having their blood extracted and sold.’ Emotive material, but supported by information that can be researched and checked. Others cover action to reduce the amount of plastics pollution in the world; transparency in political decision-making regarding UK trade; the banning of harmful insecticides; Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.

Here are just four examples of the kind of organisations that can be followed and supported. There are many others, but linking to any one of these opens access to information on others.

There is one problem, though: through joining this type of site, you are laying your in-box open to daily issues, updates, calls for action. They can become overwhelming and sanity-threatening. The only remedy, it seems to me, is to ‘unsubscribe’ from some of them, but visit their web-site as frequently as you wish. This way, you have some degree of control.

Happy keyboard petitioning!

Rohingya: ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ in a Buddhist country?

Occasionally, those with an interest in Buddhism make the comment that Buddhists are peaceful and peaceable, that they are the only ‘religion’ that has never started a war or engaged in violence. Unfortunately, this is a predominantly Western-idealistic view, and there are countless instances where it is plainly not true. Tibetan Buddhist activists have ambushed and killed Chinese soldiers for decades. Zen Buddhist monks and priests took up arms during WWII, becoming soldiers, naval officers, kamikaze pilots. Burmese kings throughout the centuries have aggressively expanded their territory, whilst guaranteeing support for Buddhist monasteries and the ethos that is supposed to underpin them.
Now there is the continuing persecution by Buddhist monks and the military of the Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar. Their villages are being destroyed and their populations murdered and abused; those tens of thousands that survive have been forced to become refugees and internees. The documentary evidence would appear to be indisputable, despite protests that Rohingya activists themselves are destroying Rohingya communities to discredit the government forces. It is difficult to judge from a distance whether there might be some truth in this. It would seem unlikely that Rohingya activists could gather in the numbers needed to drive out over a quarter of a million  Rohingyas, even assuming they would want to destroy their own people – although in the mercenary and ruthless world of arms sales and political power, almost anything is possible. But the shocking behaviour of militant monks filmed ferociously attacking, burning and beating men, women and children is as shocking as it is mystifying, given that Buddhist tenets are meant to be a guiding force for the highest ethical conduct, for Good.
Equally mystifying to many is that State Counsellor and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, previously so steadfast in her commitment to non-violence and her support of all the people, has not been more vociferous in condemning what is now being termed ‘ethnic cleansing’. Since August 15th, when Rohingya militants organised attacks on Myanmar military positions which saw an escalation of violence against the Rohingyas, she has apparently been silent. Other Nobel prize-winners such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai have called upon her to condemn outright such actions against a persecuted minority, and now there are growing calls for her to renounce her Nobel Prize. Such comments as she has been quoted as making – ‘fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well’; ‘…there are many Buddhists in refugee camps’; ‘This is the result of our sufferings.’ – do not go down well with observers of this ‘ethnic cleansing’. Effigies of Aung San Suu Kyi are being publicly burnt. Her supporters are turning away in disappointment. The explanations offered in her defence – that she is powerless to influence the military, that she is working quietly behind the scenes – do not bring back the people who have already been massacred and displaced. As always, a lack of clear and verifiable fact allows speculation and condemnation to proliferate. What does seem beyond dispute, however, is that a system that helped develop one of the world’s most potent and effective forms of Buddhist practice (including Vipassana meditation, widely taken up by the West) has degenerated to the point where orange-robed human beings have stepped outside their monasteries and taken up arms against a largely-defenceless group of other human beings. Is there anything Aung San Suu Kyi can say that doesn’t appear to be simply a clinical re-statement of the results of a people’s karma? If so, will she say it, categorically, unambiguously, and will she say it soon?

Publicity: A few thoughts…

Having recently published my first novel, I have entered the strange world of blogging, of, amongst many other things, letting-people-know-that-I-exist. The intention is that someone other than family and friends will read my story and even pass constructive comment on it.
In many ways, this ‘entering the stream’ – which I have borrowed from Buddhist terminology signifying liberation from the suffering that arises through wrong views about the ego – means partaking in the bizarre construction of a moveable and Chimeric market-place somewhat different from the traditional, more solid and geographically predictable one. For a ‘newbie’, it is bewildering: possibilities, choices and connections appear endless. Links engender more links, the social media landscape emerges like a multi-faceted metropolis, almost unrecognizable when compared with the formerly proscribed view from a tiny window. How can I follow it all? And who is the most worthy to be followed? So many variables…
Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, in the ‘real’ world, there are people and organisations that still rely on traditional ways of communicating information. These can be successful, particularly where there is a dedicated publicist who understands that many people still prefer the well-organised, clear and uncluttered paper poster to the virtual one. Unfortunately, though, too often the publicity for many events that have been planned, organised, set for a particular time and place, potentially exciting, or useful, or intriguing (I am thinking of irregular markets, exhibitions, even talks) appears to have been left to someone who is unfit for anything else. Torn cardboard, the backs of old table-tops, brown paper, plastic boxes, anything can be the support on which the message is written. But ‘written’ does not describe the almost illegible lettering that is meant to direct, inform and encourage. ‘Vide-Greniers’ says the notice, in white paint on cream-coloured card, miles from anywhere, on a main road, so the only people who will spot the sign are driving by at 90 kph. The time and place are lost in minuscule writing that has been squeezed into the remaining space.
My wife and I recently visited Davejean, a small village in the Corbières hills, where an art weekend had been organized. There were human-sized sculptures on street-corners, houses had been opened to make exhibition spaces, alleyways and gardens invited people to view photographs, space-delineating ribbons, figures in trees, constructions of bones and metal bits and pieces, collages, montages, assemblages. But the most astonishing piece was an installation in the church of Saint-Saturnin, by artist Bernard Alain Brux. We both said, ‘Wow!’ as first impressions were overwhelming: hundreds of human figures dangling in space, illuminated by natural and artificial light, inviting visitors to both view them and walk amongst them. Here’s a link to their website:
Yes, there is a website, but nothing you would be likely to stumble across accidentally. So how did we get to know about the event? From an A4 printed sheet of paper, attached by two pieces of Sellotape to the door of the local tabac, and visible only when the place was open. The sheet was flapping in the wind: we happened to be passing by. Otherwise, there were no other notices, anywhere, in the local area. Not until approaching Davejean itself did we see evidence that something might be happening.
This village is certainly not atypical of an approach that seems to say: it’s on, but don’t let on. This is a pity, particularly during the ‘season’ when visitors are hungry for markets, vide-greniers and other open-air events.
So: two extremes of the publicity-engine.
As for myself, I feel a bit like a child in an inflatable buoyancy-aid suddenly tossed amongst the white-water kayakers of the Colorado. It’s terrifying (but exciting, new and challenging). It certainly demands more than just quietly waiting for visitors to be attracted to the fragile poster flapping fitfully in an errant breeze.


‘Seeing’ by José Saramago (1922 –2010)

Now and again, it is possible to come across a book that instantly launches itself to the top of one’s ‘to read’ pile. This happens most frequently in the ‘For Sale’ section of my local library, where children’s stories, Wild West adventures, history, fantasy and romance stand shoulder-to-shoulder with award-winning works by European and Asian authors whose novels rarely achieve the publicity-status they deserve. Sometimes this may be because they have not been translated into English. In the case of Jose Saramago, though, there is no lack of multi-lingual versions of this Nobel Laureate’s work.
‘Seeing’ is a novel published in 2004, a few years after its ‘prequel’, ‘Blindness’, which is about a society most of whose population become blind and where the ‘powerful blind’ of the institution they are housed in terrorize the ‘weaker blind’. I have not yet read ‘Blindness’, but it has been described as a microcosm of the abuse of power and the immorality that seems endemic in those who have fought their way (or been voted) to the highest positions in the land.
‘Seeing’ is about the same group of people, some years later. Who it is and what is seen does not become clear until some way into the story, but what is clear is that the corruption and abuse of power of those in charge is recast under a different set of circumstances.
It is election day in an unnamed city. The people charged with manning the polling-station are waiting for people to arrive. For most of the day, no-one does. Then, after a rainstorm when the custodians of the ballot-boxes have almost given up hope, there is a surge of voters: everyone is relieved. When the votes are counted, however, it becomes clear that 87% of voters have returned blank papers. This throws the council into a panic.
They are forced, by the rules, to hold a second vote a few days later, and the results are even worse. From then on, the panic of the government takes the form of recriminations against the population. A State of Emergency is declared, the government absconds (for security reasons) and barriers are set up to prevent the population from leaving. A curfew is put in place, but even the emergency services and the police are withdrawn, so that the potential for lawlessness is increased. Soon, spies are sent in to find out who specifically did not vote, and why; but we gradually become sympathetic to one police superintendent whose feelings for the people begin to override the demands of his task. From there, events darken further and reach a shocking (but, in a way, unsurprising) conclusion.
There is little punctuation and almost no paragraphing in this book. Description, speech, thoughts, speculations, are spun out together: it takes patience to pursue the first part of a tale that may or may not reward the reader. The temptation is to read quickly, ignoring the subtleties, simply because the customary visual signposts are missing. But slow down, appreciate the shifts of tone, viewpoint, import, and the rewards are there. The tension is deftly managed so that the police-superintendent’s situation, beginning, is at does, with the impression that he is simply just another tool of repression, changes into one where he becomes the victim, and his conscience is unable to influence the behaviour of his superiors.
In his Nobel Laureate acceptance-speech in 1988, Saramago said that he works ‘to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures.’ Indeed.

Thoughts on a book: Yann Martel’s ‘101 Letters to a Prime Minister’.

I have just finished reading Yann Martel’s 101 Letters to Prime Minister. The Prime Minister of the title was Canada’s Stephen Harper, and the letters take the form of personal recommendations of novels, short stories, poetry and drama, together with the added spice of  Martel’s tangential thoughts and comments.

Stephen Harper was reputed never to read novels, short stories, poetry or drama. In that respect he was not unlike many in this world, but unlike them he was someone with a certain amount of power, a high-profile public figure whose decisions affected countless Canadians for better or worse.

That Yann Martel loves writing is evident, not only in his own work — Life of Pi being probably the best-known internationally — but also in the joy with which he read and re-read the selection he sent to Stephen Harper, every two weeks for four years.

The purpose of his dogged, patient, generous, driven project was to try and encourage a man with a considerable effect on other human beings to become more of a human being himself. And if such a goal might sound like the fantasy of an insufferably arrogant writer with ideas beyond his station, then the tone, the humility and the genuinely humane tenor of these pages ought to convince the reader he is not. And that is not to assume that Prime Ministers (or politicians, or bankers, or Chief Executives, or Presidents) cannot also be readers, or attentive to the human condition: TS Eliot was a banker, Kafka an insurance clerk. And Barack Obama, a President of the United States as sane, balanced and compassionate as anyone in power can be in this unsettled world, actually wrote personally to Yann Martel to let him know how much pleasure the reading of Life of Pi had given him and his wife, Michelle.

The 101 Letters is a fine, eclectic carpet-bag of novels and short stories — from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych to Junot Díaz’s Drown; Animal Farm to A Clockwork Orange; Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse to Anaïs Nin’s Artists and Models; children’s books, graphic novels, poetry, Waiting for Godot, the Bhagavad Gita, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Niebelungenlied: the list could go on to the end of all 101choices.

Sadly, though,  this sender of books, with their attendant thoughtful,  enthusiastic and humane observations and exhortations, received not a single reply. Not a thank-you, not even a hastily-scribbled Post-It note to say: Very kind of you, pal, but I never read a damn thing that isn’t to do with being Prime Minister of Canada. No. The nearest Yann Martel got to any kind of response were a few acknowledgements from a Prime Ministerial secretary that could just have well have been issued by a semi-educated Satnav.

I have to say, however, in the interests of fairness, that I have only Yann Martel’s word for all this. Being no more acquainted with Stephen Harper than I am with Kim Jong-un, I can’t be certain that he was not an avid reader who simply objected to being sent unsolicited material by an upstart Canadian Mann Booker Prize-winning author and literary celebrity; or that he  never came within sniffing distance of the books, which were spirited unseen onto the shelves of the Governmental Library, or passed on by the secretary to family and friends as Christmas gifts.

Whatever the destiny of these chosen works and their commentaries, I think we should be happy that writers such as Yann Martel blow the trumpet for literature and the expansive effect that encountering  others’ cultures, emotions, proclivities, spirit, can have on us human animals. Henry Miller did something similar for me many years ago, when I was but a long-haired and bearded trog. His The Books in My Life  introduced me to such writers as Blaise Cendrarswhose work I have not seen in a British bookshop or library to this day. Thank you, both.


A bit of self-publicity…

Just to let people who may be interested know, I have my first novel on Amazon, printed and Kindle versions. Having waited in vain for agents to even acknowledge my e-mails, I have decided to self-publish because I would like people to READ it.

It’s called Zazou and Rebecca, and is set in Southern France, in the Languedoc, where my wife and I spend several months each year.

Now, doing it this way and in this area may have completely gone against blogging protocol, and, if so, I would be very happy to put this info. in the right place. Please advise!

Ready, get set…

All I know about this post is that I am going to introduce myself and lay down what I might write about.
My name is David Pearson. I was born in Dudley, in the West Midlands (formerly the glorious county of Worcestershire) at a time when the streets could be smog-bound and the canals were slicked with oil and choked with all manner of industrial and domestic debris, including unwanted pets. This was not long after WWII. 1950, to be precise. On the birth-date of Thomas Hardy, to be even more precise.
I wandered the streets of Dudley and Birmingham until I was eighteen, then travelled further afield to Europe and Asia. In 1973, my wife and I moved to Jersey, Channel Islands, where I wrote and painted, intending to write or paint as a career. Instead, I became a non-qualified teacher with three children. From there, we decided on Somerset, where I became a (now-qualified) teacher of English, Drama, Art and French, writing in my ‘spare’ time and amassing hundreds of pages of poetry, prose and jottings, most of which I didn’t have the confidence to send out for publication. I also **** Buddhism. (I need to insert a word or phrase here that suggests I took a keen interest in/was absorbed by Buddhism, but that I didn’t formally commit to ‘being a Buddhist’). That personal involvement has not diminished, though the Sangha (Buddhist community) aspect has always felt a bit tricky. More on that in my ‘Buddhist Musings’.
The time to retire from full-time teaching arrived after I fell down the school steps and shattered. Although I continued with Somerset County Council, I worked in a centre comprising small groups and individuals for whom school was no longer an option. I also became part of the Virtual Classroom, communicating through the internet with those who could not even face going to the centre. Some of them were unable to leave their bedrooms or talk to their own parents, but these very ones did, in many cases, achieve qualifications in the ‘core’ (or their own choice of) subjects via the wonderful Virtual classroom platform.
Once I had become a full-time retiree, I was able to finish a novel that I had been working on when I could. Again, more about that elsewhere. And to tackle a trek across the Pyrenees. There are things to say about that, too.
But that’s more than enough for the moment. I shall try and ‘blog’ quite regularly: it’s a case of getting into the habit. I shall, as all good bloggers do, discuss what I have read and seen; link to, and recommend others’ blogs, books, poems, exhibitions, activities, organisations; issue the occasional left-wing pinko liberal diatribe against political and institutional stupidity (plenty to mention there) and neo-fascism and white supremacy and sexism, ageism, youngism, tongueism, even, when necessary (eg the treatment by some harm-no-living-creatures-and-work-for-the-welfare-of-all-sentient-beings Burmese Buddhist priests of the Rohinga people is beyond despicable) Buddhism. Bye for now.