A fortress but not yet a home

On the seventieth anniversary of the foundation of Israel and of the Palestinian Nakba, acclaimed Israeli author David Grossman reached out across the many seemingly irreconcilable, intractable, and atavistic divisions that sunder this tortured land, appealing to what Abraham Lincoln once called “the better angels of our nature”. 

It carries a message for all of us, of a universal longing for a world beyond the reach of the long arm of history with its monuments, myths and memories:  “Home, where we will live a peace and safe life; a clear life; a life that will not be enslaved — by fanatics of all kinds — for the purposes of some total, messianic, and nationalist vision…That life in it would be measured in its humanity. That suddenly a nation will wake up in the morning, and see that it is human. And that human will feel that he is living in an uncorrupted, connected, truly egalitarian, non-aggressive and non-covetous place”.

Israel Is a Fortress, but Not Yet a Home

David Grossman’s Memorial Day Speech to Bereaved Israelis and Palestinians, Haaretz Apr 18, 2018   at the Alternative Memorial Day event in Tel Aviv, April 17, 2018.

Author David  Grossman, whose son Uri was killed in the 2006 Lebanon War and who on Thursday will be awarded the 2018 Israel Prize for Literature, addressed bereaved Israelis and Palestinians at an alternative Memorial Day event on April 17, 2018. Below is the full text of his speech

Dear friends, good evening.

There is a lot of noise and commotion around our ceremony, but we do not forget that above all, this is a ceremony of remembrance and communion. The noise, even if it is present, is beyond us now, because at the heart of this evening there is a deep silence — the silence of the void created by loss.

My family and I lost Uri in the war, a young, sweet, smart and funny man. Almost twelve years later it is still hard for me to talk about him publicly.

The death of a loved one is actually also the death of a private, whole, personal and unique culture, with its own special language and its own secret, and it will never be again, nor will there be another like it.

It is indescribably painful to face that decisive ‘no.’ There are moments when it almost sucks into it all the ‘have’ and all the ‘yes.’ It is difficult and exhausting to constantly fight against the gravity of loss.

It is difficult to separate the memory from the pain. It hurts to remember, but it is even more frightening to forget. And how easy it is, in this situation, to give in to hate, rage, and the will to avenge.

But I find that every time I am tempted by rage and hate, I immediately feel that I am losing the living contact with my son. Something there is sealed. And I came to my decision, I made my choice. And I think that those who are here this evening — made that same choice.

And I know that within the pain there is also breath, creation, doing good. That grief does not isolate but also connects and strengthens. Here, even old enemies — Israelis and Palestinians — can connect with each other out of grief, and even because of it.

I have met quite a few bereaved families over these past years. I told them, in my experience, that even when you are at the heart of the pain you should remember that every member of the family is allowed to grieve the way they want, the way they are, and the way their soul tells them to.

No one can instruct another person how to grieve. It’s true for a private family, and it’s true for the larger ‘bereaved family.’

There is a strong feeling that connects us, a feeling of a joint fate, and the pain that only we know, for which there are almost no words out there, in the light. That is why, if the definition of a ‘bereaved family’ is genuine and honest, please respect our way. It deserves respect. It is not an easy path, it is not obvious, and it is not without its internal contradictions. But it is our way to give meaning to the death of our loved ones, and to our lives after their death. And it is our way to act, to do — not to despair and not to desist — so that one day, in the future, the war will fade, and maybe cease completely, and we will start living, living a full life, and not just subsisting from war to war, from disaster to disaster.

We, Israelis and Palestinians, who in the wars between us have lost those dearer to us, perhaps, than our own lives — we are doomed to touch reality through an open wound. Those wounded like that can no longer foster illusions. Those wounded like that know how much life is made up of great concessions, of endless compromise.

I think that grief makes us, those who are here tonight into more realistic people. We are clear-eyed, for example, about things relating to the limits of power, relating to the illusions that always accompany the one with the power.

And we are warier, more than we were before the disaster, and are filled with loathing every time we recognize a display of empty pride, or slogans of arrogant nationalism, or leaders’ haughty statements. We are more than wary: we are practically allergic. This week, Israel is celebrating 70 years. I hope we will celebrate many more years and many more generations of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, who will live here alongside an independent Palestinian state, safely, peacefully and creatively, and — most importantly — in a serene daily routine, in good neighborliness; and they will feel at home here.

What is a home?

Home is a place whose walls — borders — are clear and accepted; whose existence is stable, solid, and relaxed; whose inhabitants know its intimate codes; whose relations with its neighbors have been settled. It projects a sense of the future.

And we Israelis, even after 70 years — no matter how many words dripping with patriotic honey will be uttered in the coming days — we are not yet there. We are not yet home. Israel was established so that the Jewish people, who have nearly never felt at-home-in-the-world, would finally have a home. And now, 70 years later, strong Israel may be a fortress, but it is not yet a home.

The solution to the great complexity of Israeli-Palestinian relations can be summed up in one short formula: if the Palestinians don’t have a home, the Israelis won’t have a home either.

The opposite is also true: if Israel will not be a home, then neither will Palestine.

I have two granddaughters, they are 6 and 3 years old. To them, Israel is self-evident. It is obvious to them that we have a state, that there are roads and schools and hospitals and a computer at kindergarten, and a living, rich Hebrew language.

I belong to a generation where none of these things are taken for granted, and that is the place from which I speak to you. From the fragile place that vividly remembers the existential fear, as well as the strong hope that now, finally, we have come home.

But when Israel occupies and oppresses another nation, for 51 years, and creates an apartheid reality in the occupied territories — it becomes a lot less of a home.

And when Minister of Defense Lieberman decides to prevent peace-loving Palestinians from attending a gathering like ours, Israel is less of a home.
When Israeli snipers kill dozens of Palestinian protesters, most of them civilians — Israel is less of a home.

And when the Israeli government attempts to improvise questionable deals with Uganda and Rwanda, and is willing to endanger the lives of thousands of asylum seekers and expel them to the unknown — to me, it is less of a home.

And when the prime minister defames and incites against human rights organizations, and when he is looking for ways to enact laws that bypass the High Court of Justice, and when democracy and the courts are constantly challenged, Israel becomes even a little less of a home —for everyone.

When Israel neglects and discriminates against residents on the fringes of society; when it abandons and continuously weakens the residents of southern Tel Aviv; when it hardens its heart to the plight of the weak and voiceless — Holocaust survivors, the needy, single-parent families, the elderly, boarding houses for children removed from their homes, and crumbling hospitals — it is less of a home. It is a dysfunctional home.

And when it neglects and discriminates against 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel; when it practically forfeits the great potential they have for a shared life here — it is less of a home — both for the minority and the majority.

And when Israel strips away the Jewishness of millions of Reform and Conservative Jews — again it becomes less of a home. And every time artists and creators have to prove — in their creations — loyalty and obedience, not only to the state but to the ruling party — Israel is less of a home.

Israel is painful for us. Because it is not the home we want it to be. We acknowledge the great and wonderful thing that happened to us, by having a state, and we are proud of its accomplishments in many areas, in industry and agriculture, in culture and art, in I.T. and medicine and economics. But we also feel the pain of its distortion.

And the people and organizations who are here today, especially the Family Forum and Combatants For Peace, and many more like them, are perhaps the ones who contribute most to making Israel a home, in the fullest sense of the word.

And I want to say here, that half of the money from the Israel Prize that I will be receiving the day after tomorrow, I intend to donate and divide between the Family Forum and the Elifelet organization, which looks after the children of asylum seekers — those whose kindergartens are nicknamed “children’s warehouses”. To me, these are groups who do sacred work, or rather — do the simply human things that the government itself should be doing.

Home.

Where we will live a peace and safe life; a clear life; a life that will not be enslaved — by fanatics of all kinds — for the purposes of some total, messianic, and nationalist vision. Home, whose inhabitants will not be the material that ignites a principle greater than them, and supposedly beyond their comprehension. That life in it would be measured in its humanity. That suddenly a nation will wake up in the morning, and see that it is human. And that that human will feel that he is living in an uncorrupted, connected, truly egalitarian, non-aggressive and non-covetous place. In a state that runs simply on the concern for the person living within it, for every person living within it, out of compassion, and out of tolerance for all the many dialectics of ‘being Israeli’. Because ‘These are the living words of Israel’.

A state that will act, not on momentary impulses; not in endless convulsions of tricks and winks and manipulations; and police investigations, and zig-zags, and flip-flops backwards. In general — I wish our government to be less devious and wiser. One can dream. One can also admire achievements. Israel is worth fighting for. I also wish these things for our Palestinian friends: a life of independence, freedom and peace, and building a new, reformed nation. And I wish that in 70 years’ time our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, both Palestinian and Israeli, will stand here and each will sing their version of their national anthem.

But there is one line that they will be able to sing together, in Hebrew and Arabic: “To be a free nation in our land,” and then maybe, at last, it will be a realistic and accurate description, for both nations.

https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/full-text-speech-by-david-grossman-at-alternative-memorial-day-event-1.6011820

See also: Is an Israeli-Palestinian Confederation possible?  and Oh, Jerusalem

Author’s Note: 
Whenever In That Howling Infinite posts commentaries such as this, people ask why I rarely forward my own opinion on the issues I am presenting or discussing. On the contrary, I would argue that my views are fairly transparent in in the subjects I chose to engage with, the words I use, and the vein in which I use them.
With respect to my numerous posts about Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, I  come to my conclusions from a political science and sociology perspective – that’s where my academic experience came from – and a background in conflict resolution, supported by study and travel. If I do on occasions display any particular bias, it. originates in my longtime interest, understanding and affection for the history, politics and culture of the region, of its geography and archeology, and  of its people of all faiths and nationalities that I make my observations.
I am presently working on a piece that encapsulates my thoughts on this complex and controversial subject. But meanwhile, here is a brief exposition.
I do believe that the systematic dispossession of almost a million Palestinians and the destruction of half of their towns and villages in 1948 is Israel’s original sin. It is the primal stain that colours and corrupts all that followed. And yet, if not for the actions, often daring, often brave, often questionable, and often deplorable, of the politicians and soldiers of 1948 – and of the generations that followed –  Israel would not exist today. This paradox is addressed sympathetically by Avi Shalit in My Promised Land, referred to above, and scathingly by ‘new history’ scholar Ilan Pappe in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.   
The Occupation, fifty years old this year, which grew out of the unexpectedly total victory of June 1967, has taken on strategic, ideological and indeed messianic dimensions by many in the  Israeli government and political elite. It compounded the original sin, deepened the primal stain, released the demons of messianic fervour, and wounded Israel’s soul. The settlements locked the nation into the the colonialist project. With the close-call of the Yom Kippur War, the violence and murder of the first and second Intifadat, and present Palestinian jaquerie, Israel’s heart has not just hardened, it has become sclerotic.
I admit that I have always been sympathetic towards Israel – from my first visit in 1972. But it is not a blinkered viewpoint. I am deeply critical of Israeli politics and policies, and have no respect for many of its leaders.
Ayelet Shaked, the nationalist’s La Passionaria, and her boss Naftali Bennett do not not represent ALL Israelis! They hold extremist views just like we in UK, US, and Australia have parties and individuals with extremist views. But there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose the present government and long for justice and peace. And if – a very big “if” – Arab Israelis and the Israeli left could work together, they could obtain a majority in the Knesset and change Israel’s politics.
Yet meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu and his nationalist allies call all the shots, the Israelis continue to control and exploit the land, its people, and its resources, whilst varying degrees of annexation are on the cards. The settlements are an abomination, as are the policies and practices of the state and its occupying army, as described by Lyons and others. There’s no escaping these facts.
But I am likewise critical of Palestinian governance, politics and politicians. Hamas and the PA are on the nose in their respective fiefdoms, and if a moderate “third force” were to arise – and survive, because sure as hell, they would risk being murdered – Palestinians who just want a quiet, normal life, adequate services, and opportunities for their children, and Israelis who want likewise, might – just might – reject their extremist, dogmatic, entrenched leaders and reach some form of modus vivendi.
Palestinians themselves have to take control of their own lives, kick out their corrupt leaders, cease inculcating their children with hatred and jihadism, and use all that international good will and dollars to build a viable economy that can provide jobs, opportunities, and security, economic and physical to the people. Only this way will they be inoculated against cronyism, corruption and extremism. And yet, the dead hand of a moribund, patriarchal, conservative and ethnocentric culture holds them back –  but that is the subject of another, future discussion for In That Howling Infinite.
Today, the ‘powers that be’, defenders and beneficiaries of a status quo that looks more like a cul de sac, predominate over a dispiriting array of competing, clamouring factions, left, right, nationalist, secular, tribal, Haredi, and Islamist alike. New, young, brace, local voices in both Israel and Palestine, are not heard.
So what happens next?
I get that question too. And I am perennially reluctant to venture an answer beyond one that runs like “on the one hand…but then on the other”.  I inevitably fall back on Robert Fisk’s response to the same question with regard to the calamitous freezing over of the Arab Spring and the fall and rise again of the same old autocrats and tyrants: “my crystal ball is broken”. It’s a cop out, really, but just as cogent as that famous line in that UK spy drama Spooks: “What’s gong to happen to me?” “Bad things!”
One thing is for sure: as songwriter Warren Zevon sang, “the hurt gets worse, and the heart get harder”.
October 8th 2017
For more posts on Jerusalem, Israel and the Middle East, visit:
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Peace train, holy roller. Ride on the peace train

 

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Encounters with Enoch

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood

Fifty years ago, conservative British MP Enoch Powell got himself sacked as a shadow minister after he controversially warned that Britain would face “rivers of blood” if it did not reduce immigration. The BBC has now kicked off a shit-storm by announcing that Scottish actor and erstwhile Stars Wars emperor Ian McDiarmid will recite Enoch’s incendiary speech in full for the very first time.

What Powell said back then, at closed gathering of Conservative Party faithful in Birmingham on 20th April 1968, was regarded as unacceptably over the top, rhetorical hyperbole. But we get stuff like this all the time these days. Every Tom, Dick and Himmler on the right of politics from Brixton to Brisbane, from Galveston to Gdańsk, from Hopkins to Hanson, come up with this and worse every day – to the delight of dog-whistling shock-jocks, populist politicians, and angry white men and women who want somebody or other to go back to where they’re came from – which quite often happens to be just around the corner: comedian Lenny Henry, raised in the Midlands’ Black Country (just west of Birmingham) which many wanted to make white, would satirize such white delusions: In a gig at West Bromwich , he said the National Front wanted to give black people £1,000 to go home. Fine, Henry said: after all, that would more than cover his bus fare back to Dudley.

After what was regarded at the time as Britain’s most racist election in 1964, Liverpudlian bard Brian Patten penned the wistful, unseasonable I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick (just down the road from Brum and Dudley) in response to the the mood of certain sections in the population about immigration, a mood which entered the national dialogue in odorous array once Enoch let slip the hounds of woe, and which, as the Brexit referendum and its fallout continue to demonstrate, has never dissipated.

Immigration debates are running hot in western democracies, including down here in Australia, and on the neo-authoritarian eastern edges of the European Union, as fringe and mainstream parties defend and propound their invariably conflicting and flawed understanding of western civilization against disparate and often doomsday scenarios of mass migration and islamification. .

This is not, however, the time or place to engage with these issues.  The fiftieth anniversary of Enoch’s seminal “Rivers of Blood” speech has been greeted with many articles and reminiscences. This one in the New York Review of Books, Enoch, Bageye and Me, I found particularly informative and also entertaining. A piece in the Guardian on that infamous Smethwick by-election is also worth reading. I reproduce Brian Patten’s poem below.

But right now, I want to leave the commemoration and commentary to the pundits and recall my own encounters with the phenomenon of Enoch Powell. I never actually met the man – the nearest I ever got to him was about twenty metres – let’s just say  that on several occasions, our paths intersected

Vox Pop!

Back in the day, the words that Enoch had made flesh were not to be said in polite company. And yet, they could not be unsaid, and in pubs, parlours and playgrounds across Britain, he strummed a power chord long before these were invented.

In the summer of 1968, I had completed my final school year in, yes, Birmingham, of all places!

Those hypothetical rivers of blood had a particular resonance in the industrial West Midlands with its motor industries and variegated populace a long-time home of immigrants and their descendants from all quarters of the coloured commonwealth. As I have written earlier, the bleak and bland streets and suburbs of our English and Irish Birmingham were already rocking with new sounds and flavours, from the ska and reggae beats of Sparkhill to the spicy aromas of Balsall Heath and Alum Rock. There was prejudice, there was discrimination, there was at times violence, but as Britain emerged from the austerity of the war years, as the bombed cities were rebuilt, and a resuscitated economy created a consumer society, labour shortages persuaded politicians to facilitate mass immigration from the empire – and particularly, from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent (See: Weighing the White Man’s Burden)

And Birmingham was at the heart of the kalabash. But scratch its skin, and you find…Ron Simcox.

I spent the summer of ‘68 working as a labourer on a building site in Chelmsely Wood on the outskirts of Brum. Back then, my back was strong, eye was keen, and my ears were sharp – and my memory for conversations, well, it must’ve been good, because a few years later, I was able to recall almost verbatim the world according to Simcox, a dark angel washed in White Tide.  Warning, but!  Some bad language follows.

Ganger-man, foreman, industrial spy, jack of all trades, agent provocateur, martinet, scourge of the to bureaucrats, friend of the workers, champion of the oppressed, bless his soul and damn his eyes in the same breath. The man’s an institution – like prostitution. Big mouth, big belly, very big. Look, look at my tan, my body beautiful, “all muscle 18 stone and still as fit as a 18 year old!”

“Go to the other shop – not to the black man’s. You don’t know what filth he has in that place. Mind you, his bird could do with a good seeing to…”

“Bleedin’ wogs – we never should’ve let ‘em in now. Old Enoch Powell’s dead bloody right, int’e. We should kick ‘em all back to fucking India. If I had my way, I’d shoot the bleeding lot of them filthy cunts, coming over here and spreading their diseases, an’ fillin’ up all our hospitals, and taking the money and sending it all back home, and getting the fuck out of here when they get it…”

“We should offer to pay to pay ‘em a thousand quid each to go home, then put them in a boat and send them all to Jamaica or wherever the black monkeys come from. And when they’re in the middle of the ocean, torpedo the lot of them buggers. Anybody who gets to Jamaica after that would deserve the thousand bloody quid, I tell you!”

Ron couldn’t brook the shirkers, could Ron. But that was easy as he was always heard before he was seen even, and even if you had pleasure of gazing upon this Adam, he would rarely see you as he was for ever distracted by the body he was always admiring in car windows or or by the local talent of the estate across the way.

“How would you like those thighs around you, eh? Corr! I could take that one from behind!”

Ah, Ron, a way with words. “What are you doin’ Enoch? Come ‘ere bollock-cops. Fucking stoodents – good for nothing bastards. If I had my way, y’know what I’d do to these stoodents if they caused trouble? You know what I’d do. I’d turn the fuckin’ sewer hoses on ‘em, I would, cover ‘em in shit. Then they’d have to wash to get rid of the smell. Turn the noses on ‘em. Cover ‘em in all the shit and rubbish, and all the jonnies and the jammies and the slime. That’d really shake ‘em up and give ‘em some sense it would!”

Always a one for words was Ron. All this and the big blue tractor to. Nine hours a day, six days a week and thirty quid at the end of it…

From Tabula Rase – Early Years: Poems of Paul Hemphill Volume One

Street Fighting Man

Among the Left, of course, Enoch was the fifth horseman of the black apocalypse. Even his name, with its Old Testament pedigree, was vicariously baleful. I recall his patrician mug on the cover of many a Private Eye, and artist Gerald Scarfe’s visceral caricature of the metaphorical hornèd recoiling from a jar of Robertson’s Marmalade (golliwog and all – and, did you know that you can still buy golliwogs in Australia?)

Soon after Enoch’s incendiary oratory, prime and minister Harold Wilson chose a wet and windy Sunday afternoon in Spring to attend a Labour party function at Birmingham’s Victorian town hall. It was just over a month since the memorable melee in front of the American embassy in Grosvenor Square, and many of us, students, unionists, anarchists, and a raj taj and bobtail of South Asian organisations, anticipated a confrontation with Birmingham’s finest. We were, predictably, outmaneuvered and outnumbered, and in an early incarnation of what is today we call “kettling”, the “wabble of woudy webels” were hemmed in, facing uphill on Bennett’s Hill, a wind-swept side street of Birmingham’s finance district. We learnt here, as we did during those Vietnam demonstrations in Grosvenor Square that there’s no greater killer of revolutionary passion than the sight of a wall of fat horse’s arses backing towards you with those nervous hooves a’twitching (see: The Twilight of the Equine Gods).

Children of the Revolution

But I digress. Enoch! He was like catnip to the young and not so young of what was then the idealistic, radical, and what with Vietnam and Paris providing the fuel, fired-up left. What was it Old William Wordsworth said? “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven”. As Marc would warble, “you can’t stop the children of the revolution, oh, no…”

Later that year, I had gone up to Reading University, and as one would in those dynamic days, and, as a political ingenue, was soon involved in sundry sit-ins and soviets. Enoch Powell, now a backbencher, and at lose end. He had yet to be born-again as an Ulster Unionist MP, this most Churchillian – in a turncoat sense – of politicians. And like many career-truncated pollies nowadays, he had embarked on what was then a not so lucrative speakers circuit, and he was addressing the Conservative Club on the subject of…economics!

Naturally, we arrived well in advance, and totally packed the lecture hall. The Young Tories were left out in the cold in their tweeds and twinsets (really, thats what straight folk wore in those days). When Enoch entered, there was shear pandemonium. Cat-calls, wolf-whistles, swearwords, and those corny couplets that folk chant at marches. You couldn’t hear a bomb drop. The antichrist just stood there at the lectern, cool, calm and collected as the vitriol poured over and around him. In retrospect, knowing as I do now that he’d “had a good war” as a decorated, veteran combat officer in WW2, he was ice-cool under fire. Stock-still, silent, that famous, disdainful mug of his calm and expressionless. As the hubbub subsided, people got bored, tired, and impatient, muttered and mumbled, and shut up. And he gave his prepared speech. On economics. No old Roman aphorisms. No allusions or innuendo. Plain and simple, dry, ecomomics. And gave it well. Cogent, it was, the odd joke, even, and informative. He had our interest, had our attention, and we listened. And when he’d finished, he was given a standing ovation. In recognition of his courage, I would like to think. Daniel in the lion’s den, cool as a cucumber.

I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick
(An old, never-to-be-forgotten song by Brian Patten)

I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick,
One I didn’t want to know,
Where they’ll have allwhite, allright children
And the White and White Minstrel Show.
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick
Where they’ll have a brandnew dance;
Teach their kids to close their eyes
And forget that once
Strange men came to Smethwick
With slogans whitewashed on their minds,
They campaigned about a while
And left their shit behind.
I saw black father christmasses
Burning in the snow,
Protesting to the Opposition
About what happened a while ago.
The last blackbird’s been shot in Smethwick
And the council’s doing allright,
The M.P.’s in the Commons
Making sure his words are white.
Chorus: May all your days be merry and bright
And may all your citizens be white.

Poet’s Note: As in numerous folk songs, the words may be improvised on to suit the present.

And here are other posts in In That Howling Infinite with regard to the ‘sixties: Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968; Recalling the Mersey Poets; The Strange Death of Sam Cooke; Looking for LehrerShock of the Old – the glory days of prog rock; Window on a Gone World; Back in the day; The Incorrigible Optimists Club.

Looking for Lehrer

Happy Birthday Tom Lehrer

Years ago, American humorist Tom Lehrer was said to quip: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize”. This is most probably apocryphal. But as contemporary American politics (and our own, to a lesser degree) increasingly resembles a political satire, Lehrer’s back catalogue is welcome light relief.

Lehrer is ninety years of age this week. It is sixty years since the release of An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, the first of his three live albums. This one-time mathematician at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, was, for a few short years, a concert performer. In his own words:  I’m sure you’ll all agree without hesitation that Tom Lehrer is the most brilliant creative genius that America has produced in almost 20 years  (and this was forty years ago). But for two years in the United States Army, he was a teacher of mathematics, and indeed until the 21st Century,  taught at UC Santa Cruz. Here is an excellent summation of his career: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-03922-x

For sixty years, Tom Lehrer has had an enduring influence. There were other musical comedians of similar sardonic and satirical mien, Victor Borge and Alan Sherman, for example, but none had Tom Lehrer’s infectious, eternally youthful appeal.

The late ‘fifties and early ‘sixties. They were the best of times, they were the worst of times.

The United States was a culture on the cusp of change. The country still enjoyed postwar economic prosperity. The Cold War, with all its fears and uncertainties, with its sanction of mutually assured destruction , with its chosen enemies and innate hypocrisies, where any dictator opposed to the Soviets was a friend of the “free west” (now there’s a phrase we haven’t heard for years!), had been simmering for over fifteen years with no conclusion in sight. Americans (or more specifically, the Marines and the CIA) were the “cops of the world”. Kennedy had been assassinated, sending shock waves through the American psyche. Thanks to that same JFK, the United States was wading well into the morass that would become Vietnam. Knee deep in the big muddy as Pete Seeger was to put it. Rock ‘n’ Roll and “Popular” Music were elbowing out the crooners. No protest, no rebellion, no drugs (well, not that sort), no race riots (a bit of trouble in Alabama, but), no positive discrimination, no ride-by-shootings, no premarital sex (as far as decent people were concerned, and besides, good girls didn’t), no AIDS, no faxes, no mobile phones, no personal computers, no Internet. And America was relaxed and comfortable.

England, where I was born and grew up, was much the same. The postwar austerity had given way to a new found prosperity and national self-confidence. Working class kids had brass in their pockets and smart clothes. More of these (the kids, that is) were getting an education, and were gate-crashing the cultural establishment. The “Angry Young Men” were breaking down all sorts of barriers with their iconoclasm. And the pop music of America provided anthems for youth to live by.

Robert Zimmerman still lived with his folks back in Hibbing, Minnesota, and the Silver Beetles had yet to play in Hamburg. The times were not a changing just yet.

I can remember the ‘sixties, and I was there! What I can’t remember is listening to Tom Lehrer. That pleasure had to wait until the early ‘eighties when my friend and partner in artistic crime, Yuri the Storyteller,  sat me down to listen to The Man. But I do remember the times which created Tom Lehrer, and to listen to his songs and the soliloquies that accompanied them on his live recordings, is to be put aboard a Tardis and sent back to those days.

For Lehrer was a product of his times and his class: the liberal, pinkish intelligentsia that constituted America’s cultural elite. Harvard, Yale, ivy covered professors in ivy covered halls, as Lehrer put it. His audience was an educated and erudite mob, well read, with a wide vocabulary. They understood Lehrer’s jokes and puns and his witty double entendres. They appreciated his droll delivery and his often risque sense of humour. He was theirs’ and they were his. Shared experiences, shared schools, shared professions, shared pastimes, shared politics, and shared prejudices.

There was also a shared condescension to the less cerebrally endowed (or, as we would put it nowadays in the declining years of political correctness, the more intellectually challenged): Rock-n-roll and other children’s records…and: the usual jokes about the army aside, one of the very fine things one has to admit is the way the army has carried out the American democratic ideal to its logical conclusion in the sense that not only do they prohibit discrimination on  the grounds of race,creed, and colour, but also on the grounds of ability.

So, Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put in.

Lehrer flirted with the big issues of the day.

Race:  “I Wanna Go Back To Dixie”. I wanna talk to Southern gentlemen and put my white sheet on again, I ain’t seen one good lynchin’ for years. “National Brotherhood Week”.I’m sure we all agree that we ought to love one another, and I know there are people in the world that do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that.

Nukes: “We Will All Go Together When We Go”. Down by the old maelstrom, there’ll be a a storm before the calm. “MLF Lullaby”, and “Werner Von Braun”. Don’t say that he’s hypocritical, say rather that he’s apolitical.”Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down”.

Environment: “Pollution”. Wear a gas mask and a veil. Then you can breathe, long as you don’t inhale (where have I heard that before?).

America’s place in the world: “Send the Marines”. They’ve got to be protected, all their rights respected, ’til somebody we like gets elected.

He sparred affectionately with time-honoured American icons: “Be Prepared”, “Fight Fiercely, Harvard”, The Hunting Song”, “The Wild West Is Where I Want To be”, “It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier”. He put culture and those with pretensions to it under a spotlight whilst pushing the boundaries of morality and taste: “Oedipus Rex”, “Masochism Tango”, (the singer exhorts his partner to haunt him and taunt him and, if at all possible, to consume him with a kiss of fire),”I Hold Your Hand In Mine”, “The Old Dope Pedlar”, “Smut”. He poked fun at the nostalgia of the popular music of his day: “She’s My Girl”, “When You Are Old and Grey”. “Bright College Days”, “My Home Town”, “A Christmas Carol”.

He took a swipe at the nascent folk song revival, the particularly fashionable form of idiocy among the self-styled intellectual: “Clementine”, “The Irish Ballad”, “The Folk Song Army”….the theory I have held for some time to the effect that the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people. And at times, he verged on the manic in a manner that was almost Pythonesque: “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, and “Old Mexico”. I hadn’t has so much fun since the day my brother’s dog Rover got run over.  And like Python, rather daring and yet safe at the same.

I know it’s very bad form to quote one’s own reviews, but there is something the New York Times said about me [in 1958], that I have always treasured: ‘Mr. Lehrer’s muse [is] not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.

Lehrer has said of his musical career, If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.

So, I’d like to take you now on wings of song as it were, and try and help you forget perhaps for a while your drab, wretched lives. Without further ado, here is a selection of Tom Lehrer sites:

First of all, by way of an entree, there’s The Tom Lehrer Home Page, and wikipedia. Very highly recommended for main course is Jeremy Mazner’s excellent paper, “Tom Lehrer: The Political Musician That Wasn’t“, a detailed analysis of Lehrer’s life, times and music. And for dessert, Paul Lehrman’s conversation with Tom Lehrer, taped in September 1997. Finally, with the coffee and a brandy, the songs of Tom Lehrer, together with the introductions that were often as memorable as the songs themselves.  From our own Sydeney Morning Herald, “Stop Clapping – This is Serious“. And in this US Election year, a recent appraisal of  Leherer as a political satirist from AV Club.

And here are a few samples of the wit and wonder of Tom Lehrer:

Oedipus Rex

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mScdJURKGWM

I Wanna Go Back to Dixie

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAwhC_btAUU

In Old Mexico

474px-Tom_Lehrer_-_Southern_Campus_1960

Small stories – the odyssey of Assid Corban

Dhour  al Choueir ( ضهور الشوير ), or Shweir, is a small town on the flanks of Mount Lebanon, looking down on Lebanon’s capital Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea, some thirty kilometres to the west. ‘Dhour’ means ‘summit, or top of a mountain. Illustrative of Lebanon’s diverse demography, half of it’s inhabitants are Eastern Orthodox and the other half Melkite and Maronite. It lay on the front line of during Lebanon’s long and bloody civil war (see Pity the Nation).

Today, it is one of Mount Lebanon’s favoured summer resorts where well-off Beirutis keep apartments and enjoy the cool fresh air during the hot summer months. It is called the city of skyscrapers, due to its many tall buildings and also because up there on the mountainside, these literally touch the sky. But in the last century, people from al Choueir migrated throughout the world – and they and their descendants have retained close ties with their hometown through family contacts and visits home. The town is now famous for its annual August carnival, honouring Lebanon’s emigrants.

Assid Abraham Corban was born in Choueir, then but a village, on 25 August 1864, the son of Abraham Hannah Corban, a vigneron from a family of stone masons and wine-growers, and Helene Hannah Bousader. In those days, there was no Lebanon. Predominantly Christian Mount Lebanon was  a Mutasarrifat or governorate of the Vilayet of Beirut, a province of the Ottoman Empire. The empire had another fifty four years to run after which the mutasarrifat and the four others that were to become the Republic of Lebanon in 1943 became part of the French mandate of Syria. Young Assid worked principally as a stonemason, but he also pruned and ploughed the family vineyard. On 22 October 1887, he married Najibie Tanyus Ataia, the daughter of another respected local family. They had two children Khalil (1889-1975) and Wadiye (1891-1982).

In the winter of 1890 both of Assid’s parents died. Inspired by the tales of Lebanese emigrants of fortunes to be made in the New World, he set out on his own in 1891 for Australia, leaving his young family behind in Choueir. After waltzing through the outback as a pedlar, he crossed the Tasman Sea to New Zealand in 1892 where, still toting his pedlar’s pack, he travelled around the mining towns of the Coromandel Peninsula, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. After working for a time as a haberdasher in Waihi, and later in Thames, in 1895, he opened a shop in Queen Street, Auckland, advertising himself as an ‘Eastern Importer of Fancy Goods, Jewellery, Drapery, etc.’ In the same year he became a naturalized British subject, and in 1897 sent for Najibie and the boys to join him.

Aetearoa – New Zealand, on the far side of the world, became the new home of the Lebanese stonemason turned haberdasher. Three further three children were born whilst the family lived in Queen Street. They named their first childborn in New Zealand, Zealandia (1898-1993) to celebrate their new home, then came Corban (1900-1974), Zarefy (1901-1978), and Annis (who died in infancy in 1903).

 In western Auckland,  at at the foot of the North Island’s scenic Waitakere Range, lies the suburb of Henderson. The land once belonged to the Te Kawerau ā Maki, the mana whenua (people of the land) of West Auckland, a distinct tribal entity since the early seventeenth century  when their ancestor Maki conquered and settled the Auckland isthmus and the land as far north as the Kaipara harbour. They sold much of their land of European settlers during the last decades of the Nineteenth Century.

And in 1902 Assid bought a scrubby ten acres of this land for £320 and planted a vineyard beside the O Panuku stream, on what is today the Great North Road. He named it Mount Lebanon Vineyards after the mountains of his birth. This became the celebrated Corbans Winery, one of New Zealand’s oldest. The property had a two-roomed cottage, an orchard and vines of the native American variety Isabella. Assid’s first 3½-acre vineyard was planted in a mix of wine grapes which included the classic red varieties Syrah, Meunier and Cabernet Sauvignon, and dual-purpose table grapes such as Black Hamburgh. It’s reputation was established swiftly. Romeo Bragato, government viticulturist from 1902 to 1909, was very impressed with Mt Lebanon Vineyards, praising it as ‘the model vineyard of New Zealand, and an object lesson to vine-growers’.

Assid, or AA as he was now known in the area, and his growing family first lived the cottage.  work on a three-level wine cellar started in 1903 and was completed in 1907. The first grapes were crushed by hand with a wooden club, and an open hogshead was used as the fermenting vat. By 1908 Assid had a simple crusher and two small presses for his first commercial vintage. Wine-making, however, was an extremely precarious pursuit in early twentieth-century New Zealand. In those early days, the family supplement wine-making with other forms of income: vegetable crops and tobacco were planted between the vines. A produce stall sold from the front gate and a handcart went out to sell fresh goods around Henderson. The industry’s most formidable foe was the temperance movement. Henderson became ‘dry’ in 1909, possibly due to alcohol-related problems at the local Falls Hotel. Assid built a small brick building outside the railway lines bordering his land which formed the dry boundary, and he was able to sell his wine legally from the small whitewashed building that still stands today.

 

The Corbin Winery’s first recorded sale, in September 1909, was to James Cottle of Taupaki who purchased two gallons of wine in his own jar at 10 shillings per gallon. Recognition of the quality of Corban’s wines came swiftly. The company won first prize for unsweetened red grape wine at the 1910 Henderson show. At the 1913–14 Auckland Exhibition, competing against wines from other countries in the British Empire, it won gold medals for its sherry and port and silver medals for its claret and red wine.

The Corban holdings steadily expanded. In 1909 Assid bought a neighbouring 20-acre property, planting the first five acres in vines in 1912. Eight years later he opened a wine depot in Auckland city and in 1923 built a two-storeyed, 17-room family homestead on the Great North Road. By the 1920s the firm was called A. A. Corban and Company.  In 1925 the Department of Agriculture’s vine and wine instructor, J. C. Woodfin, wrote that in the previous year ‘only twenty acres of vines were planted and one brave man was responsible for eight of these’. Corban’s had clearly become the largest winery in the country. It was also very much a family concern and in the 1930s became known as A. A. Corban and Sons Limited.

And there were indeed many sons. Four other children were born in Henderson: Annis (1905-1974), Annisie (1907-2002), Najib (1909) and Helena (1911). Other than Zealandia, all the Corban children lived in Henderson throughout their lives. The size of the family grew progressively as each of the children married and brought their spouses time to live in the homestead. Eventually some family members moved to other houses around the Henderson area. But they still maintained daily contact with the family, and the homestead remained a busy center for the family as well as for the wine business. The cooking of meals and other chores was shared, and all income was pooled. As the families grew, a system developed to fairly manage income and expenses. The costs were allocated with each adult counting as one unit, and with two children as one unit.

Although the arrival of a rotary hoe in 1934, and a caterpillar tractor soon after, greatly eased the vineyard toil, Assid Corban remained a patriarch in the Old Testament mould and a strong believer in the virtues of hard work. His work ethic inextinguishable, he never retired – every day of the year was a working day – except Sundays. His son Corban later described him as ‘well versed in the Scriptures and a staunch adherent of the Greek Orthodox Church’. He used to ‘bring out his treasured Bible and read to the family in Arabic’.

The end of an era came on December 2 1941when Assid suffered a stroke on his way home after a day working on a newly acquired property in Henderson Valley Road. He was in a coma for 12 days before finally passing away. His embalmed body lay in state in the homestead for a week whilst visitors filed past to pay their respects. In January 1943 work was completed on a classical tomb that had been erected in Waikumerte cemetery. And so, in a second funeral ceremony Assid Abraham Corban, villager, traveller, wanderer, immigrant, and pioneer was finally laid to rest. The respect this man commanded was evident in the large numbers who attended ceremonies in New Zealand and his hometown of Choueir where he still retained firm links.

Najibie became the head of the family, and just as her husband had been a powerful patriarch, she become the family’s powerful matriarch, leading it through some difficult times. The company continued to grow as the Corban family pioneered many new wine-making techniques. For much of the first half of the twentieth century the winery Corban founded dominated the New Zealand wine scene. When she passed away in 1957, the family had grown to include 32 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren. As a mark of respect, on the day of Madame Corban’s funeral, the shops in Henderson closed for half a day.

The growth of the winery continued as the Corban family pioneered many new wine-making techniques. With the ongoing expansion of the family owned winery, other companies began to buy shares during the 1960’s and 70’s. The business became a public company in 1963 and passed out of the family’s hands in the 1970s.y 1978, the Rothmans Corporation owned 78% of the company and took the company over. It remains one of New Zealand’s wine-making giants. The sturdy figure of Assid Abraham Corban, with his magnificent walrus moustache and trademark waistcoat and chains, gazes sternly down from a wall in the entrance to the head office of Corbans Wines Limited.

The Corban Winery continues to play a vibrant role in the cultural life of Henderson. Many of the extended Corban family became key figures in the local community. Most notable is Assid Abraham’s grandson, Assid Corban (Junior), who became the Mayor of Henderson Borough from 1974 to 1989, and the first Mayor of Waitakere City in 1989. When the Corban Estate site was sold in 1992, it was purchased by the Waitakere City Council and by the end of 2001, the Waitakere Arts and Cultural Development Trust had taken on the lease for much of the estate and established the Corban Estate Arts Centre. The land and winery buildings have been converted into a large multi-disciplinary arts centre that is visited by thousands of Aucklanders each year. The homestead is currently home to the galleries and reception area. Members of the Corban family contributed to the formation and development of the arts centre, and Brian Corban remains the Chair of the Trust Board.

References:

Assid Abraham Corban, Michael Cooper, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Corban Estate Arts Centre (CEAC) 2004. A Brief History of the Corban Winery 

Photographs are sourced from the Corbans Wines website.

Adele and Elly amidst the wine vats at the Corban Estate Arts Centre

For other posts in our Small Stories series of ordinary folk doing extraordinary things, see:  A Tale of Twin Pines  , the story of a Lebanese migrant to New Zealand, and The Monarch of the Sea, the rollicking tale of an unlikely “pirate king”.

On a dry note:

Whilst New Zealand’s iconic band Split Enz once sung “history never repeats”, an official Auckland strategy to minimize alcohol related harm saw predominantly working class “Hindersin” once again designated a “dry zone” in August 2016. The public consumption of alcohol is banned. Only the Waitakere Licensing Trust can operate pubs and bottle shops, whilst supermarkets sell no alcohol. The trusts, administered by publically-elected trustees, return surplus profits to the community through grants, rebates to clubs, sponsorships and other support for community activities. One of the West Auckland-based Waitakere and Portage Licensing Trust’s most significant investments in the “The Trusts Stadium”. It attracts events from fashion shows to rock concerts, community gatherings to local sporting competitions. The venue has hosted several million visitors since opening in September 2004, attracting 600,000 visitors a year, thus making it one of the most accessible stadiums in New Zealand.

“The Death of Stalin” is no laughing matter

When do satire and comedy cross the line and become tasteless? Some find this black comedy hilarious, whilst others think otherwise. Many whose families lived and suffered under totalitarian regimes, and those knowledgeable of the events might have a different view to those whose knowledge and experience is limited. And those who’ve actually lived under the Soviets might display the wry gallows humour of the oppressed. As a Ukrainian friend commented: ‘I think the film is better dubbed into Russian – they really worked on the dialogue. The English version is somewhat farcical. But watching it in Russian, you want to cry and laugh at the same time (not easy to do – it takes practice)”.

In the small, beautiful Art Deco Capitol cinema in Auckland, New Zealand, we watched this blackest of black comedies: the wise-cracking, slap-sticking, foul-mouthed, Machiavellian maneuvering of the Soviet politburo on the death of venerated and feared dictator for life Joseph Stalin in 1953. The shorts promised a cinematic treat, a “comedy of terrors” replete with malice aforethought as great actors have a good time with sharp one-liners, language worthy of The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker (the same script-writing and production team, after all) and gags of dubious taste. The cast includes Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), Michael Palin (Monty Python) and Robert Friend (Homeland’s Peter Quinn). Critics have acclaimed it as uproarious and wickedly irreverent, and devastatingly funny (that’s the Sydney Morning Herald).

But I personally didn’t find it funny at all. A friend commented that there was little difference  between the black humour of this film and that of, say, Black Adder and Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Quite so, but it is a matter of degree, content, the descriptions of sexual assault, and the  explicit depiction of violence. From the opening scenes, the NKVD, the all-powerful Soviet internal security service, was a constant, threatening presence. Against a predictable, seedy but picturesque backdrop of Red Square, the Kremlin and Saint Basil’s cathedral, dingy and darkened apartments, incongruously inappropriate rococo dachas, and brooding pine forests, and a soundtrack of soulful Russian music, midnight arrests, brutal interrogations and summary executions were an ongoing leitmotif for this comedy of Soviet bad manners.

My primary emotion was one of sadness – for the victims, so many nameless, who perished during the Soviet Union’s two decades of terror, and for the millions – from the Baltic to ththe Crimea- who were transported to the labour camps of the distant Gulags, to work, to starve, and to die.

By strange symmetry, I had been rereading historian Robert Conquest’s tombstone of a book, The Great Terror: a relentless narrative of arrests, trials, fabricated confessions, hostage-taking, deportations, torture and executions as Stalin consolidated his rule, eliminated enemies real and imagined, and created his own model of a socialist state.

It commenced with the elimination of the Old Bolsheviks, his former comrades in arms, and then expanded to embrace all in the party and society at large who may or may not have shared his vision. Intellectuals, philosophers, writers, poets, musicians, priests, scientists, academics, teachers,  civil servants, workers and peasants, and the Red Army’s Officer Corps – a contributing factor to the Soviet Union’s need to make a pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 and its disastrously slow response to Hitlers invasion in June 1941.

An estimated death toll is difficult to determine. In those dark days, people simply disappeared, and the NKVD covered its tracks well. The official number for the “Great Purge” of 1936 to 1938 stands at 1,548,366 detained persons, of whom 681,692 were shot – an average of 1,000 executions a day. Various historians claim that the real number of victims could be twice as much.

But the the arrests, executions, and deportations commenced as early as 1930 and continued right up until Stalin’s death in 1953. Conquest, in his The Great Terror: A Reassessment does the gloomy math: 1930-36, 7 million; 1937-1938, 3 million; 1039-53, 10 million. The number of deaths in the Soviet Union that were explicitly ordered by someone – in other words, the number of executions – is actually relatively low at around 1.5 million. The majority of the deaths were caused by neglect or repressive policies – for example, those who died in the Soviet gulags, those who died while being deported, and German civilians and Prisoners of War are believed to have perished while under Soviet guard.

The numbers who were transported, exiled, displaced, and scattered to concentration camps or far-eastern towns and villages were likewise incalculable. as the brother of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago comments in the final scenes of David Lean’s beautiful but flawed movie)

There is a myriad of books and films about these events. Wikipedia is as good a place as any to start. Robert Conquests is the most acclaimed – and rightly so. Then there is Arthur Koestler’s chilling novel, Darkness at Noon, published in 1940, which recounts the thoughts of an Old Bolshevik as he awaits death in the execution cells.

As for movies, there’s always David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, which realistically albeit melodramatically portrays the choices and compromises confronting ordinary, intellectual Russians in the years of revolution and civil war. But I would highly recommend the poignant but powerful Burnt by the Sun, a 1994 film by Russian director and screenwriter Nikita Mikhailkov and Azerbaijani screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov. The film depicts the story of a senior officer (played by Mikhalkov) and his family during the purge of the Red Army.

On our return from New Zealand, I retrieved from my archive a paper I wrote as an undergraduate at Reading University in 1970, under the wise tutorship of eminent Sovietologist, historian and former political prisoner Tibor Szamuely, entitled How Rational Was The Great Purge?  My writing style, the content and the conclusions I drew have changed little over the years. I shall publish it soon on Into That Howling Infinite.

See also these posts: Thermidorian Thinking  and Sic Semper Tyrannis