can hardly be described as heaven

I never saw the play, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book The Tailor of Inverness. The universal is found in the particular story of one Polish immigrant to Scotland.  Matthew Zajac recounts what he thought he knew about his father and his discovery of an even more complicated truth as he travels back to Poland and Ukraine.  It’s remarkably honest and thus all the more moving in its redemptive conclusion.

Post-Brexit , Zajac’s story of how one family endured the tumult of war and political wrangling outside their control felt relevant.  The war is still not that far from where we sit now.  In some of the darkest moments of Nazism and Stalinism that Zajac delves into, the very existence of an EU appears miraculous.  Also apt are Zajac’s reflections on the casual anti-Semitism he encountered during his travels.

A few passages I underlined:

[on visiting Birkenau] Members of my own species had done this and because of this stark fact, I was tainted, responsible.  Every living, mature human being is responsible.  Perhaps this is the real meaning of what I have always considered to be the most evil, objectionable Christian concept, that of original sin.  Maybe this really refers to the fact that we humans are capable of terrible acts and this has been distorted into the idea that we are guilty from birth.

Through history, particularly during the 19th century partitions, some Polish artists, theologians and philosophers have equated Poland’s suffering with Christ’s, propagating the idea that Poland is Christ.  The crucifixion has become a national symbol.  Poland has been crucified, and has risen from the dead, though this new land of cars building sites and advertising hoardings can hardly be described as heaven.

As we read the play, Misha became restless.  He seemed tired and jaded, harder, and burdened by his grim experience… I think he found our enterprise an indulgence, perceiving us then as a group of comfortable middle-class Brits pontificating about a war we knew little about, wringing our hands from a safe distance and the comfort of our kitchens.

In 1984, one couldn’t escape the fact that they served two opposing ideologies, that they represented the architectural apogees of the two versions of contemporary German society. Alongside the buildings, the centre of East Berlin was decorated with socialist murals and slogans, West Berlin was decorated with the neon signs of multinational corporations, crowing from the top of its skyscrapers.  It all seemed designed to make the individual feel small, insignificant in the face of such powerful organised forces.


a typical 21st-century citizen

I happened across Andrew O’Hagan’s The Missing (2004) in the library one day and read it nearly one sitting.  It’s an brilliant and odd read, part autobiography and part reflection on missing people and what this says about community (and its breakdown).  His recent essay in the London Review of Books, “The Lives of Ronald Pinn,” is like the other side of the coin.  Rather than missing, O’Hagan’s Ronald is created out of nothing.  His ‘existence’ is virtual, but still has real world implications — if it’s still possible to draw that line.  The essay is remarkable as it is unsettling, as well as beautifully written. A timely reflection on the nature of our identity in an age of digital construct.

Here are some lines that stood out:

“The technology is now a surveillance machine, a lying tool, a handheld marketing device, a corporate pinboard, a global platform for ideologues and zealots, as well as a handy life-enhancer. If Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest bring people together, they also complicate our notion of what a person is, and it’s very different from former notions of reality and privacy.”

“There are more social media ghosts, more people being second people, or living an invented life as doppelgängers, than there are citizens of the UK…. In many ways my Ronnie was a typical 21st-century citizen. Not least in his falseness.”


even those unsympathetic

“Although the ethnic and social grounds for the difference between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are obvious, the religious factor cannot be ignored, and several leaders of the loyal unionists with Britain are Protestant ministers.  Even those unsympathetic to the violence in Ulster do not characterize it as ‘Christian terrorism.'”

M F Osman, “Islam, Terrorism, and Western Misapprehensions” in The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought

one for the frowning zealots

For others, it suggests a mandate to live in a manner that, while not impossible, is uninviting to all but frowning zealots.  Most writing on sustainability is aimed at those who enjoy being lectured, but the subject is too important to be framed so unattractively… The real issue is that the condescension and finger pointing of too much environmental writing is not helping our most important cause.

So says Thomas McGuane in his introduction to Dylan Tomine’s wonderful book Closer to the Ground.  The context here is obviously writing on environmentalism and sustainability and the point is fair enough.

It did get me thinking: try substituting  the words ‘sustainability’ and ‘environmental’ with, say, missional whatever, or whatever personal hobby-horse I harp on about and am convinced the world needs to know.  It’s easier to communicate within my own echo chamber of frowning zealots than trying to communicate in a way that makes more sense to those who are not already on side.  Tomine’s book is refreshing in that while not skirting around the urgency of the environmental crisis, the books is infused with a palpable but realistic joy, invitational by example, not off-puttingly pushy.

I spend a lot of time with refugees and asylum seekers.  They’re often misunderstood and blamed for so many ills of society.  In attempt to counter the swathe of misinformation, many charities engage in ‘myth-busters’ — these lovely little tracts that point out that asylum seekers, upon entering the UK, are not put up in the Hilton with a free BMW to drive while a decision on their case is pending (a stupid example, but trust me, I’ve heard worse).  Myth-busters are useful tools, but do they really work?  The think-tank British Future suggested that:

‘Myth-busting’ exercises can boost the morale of those already onside but they struggle to persuade others and risk actively hardening attitudes against immigration, especially as official migration statistics are widely mistrusted – because people don’t believe the system works.

Their report How to Talk About Immigration points out that:

We won’t develop a shared sense of identity by debating the contested concepts of policy experts and academics but by taking practical steps to create contact between people.

So, in other words, it turns out that relationship is key.  Didn’t we already know that?  Thing is, that’s more difficult than riling up the frowning zealots.