Brexit, Bereavement, My Dad and Me.

For the first time since he died, back in 1995 - far too young at the age of 68 - I find myself with a sense of relief that my dear dad isn't around today. I'm especially glad he wasn't around on 31st January, to see groups of idiotic but dangerous xenophobes decked out in union flags, cheering as they burnt EU flags or jumped up and down on them in the mud, or told anyone with a 'foreign' appearance and a 'foreign' accent to go back where they came from.

My dad was a post war refugee alien and that made me half alien too. Proud citizen of nowhere, me. He came to Yorkshire via Monte Cassino in Italy, and the dreadful battle that was fought there and that he survived.

When he married my Leeds Irish mum, he was marrying into a family that already knew a bit about prejudice and hatred. My nana's own grandmother had come to Yorkshire fleeing famine, at a time when the incoming Irish were both exploited and insulted in equal measure by the native population. They were accused of being filthy layabouts, 'coming over here' but stealing English jobs at the same time. The people who make those accusations never, then or now, seem to notice the contradiction at the heart of what they are saying.

'Don't you think they should send all those Poles back where they came from?' somebody asked my mum, in casual conversation. That must have been about 1949, well before I was born. 'Not really,' she said, never exactly a shrinking violet. 'Seeing as how I've just married one.' You can read more about that time here.

The truth was that there was nothing and nowhere for dad to go back to. His mother was missing. His father had been imprisoned by Stalin, along with so many Polish officers. Most of his extended family were dead, killed by Nazis or Russians. Released when Uncle Joe changed sides, but forced to trek east, my grandfather died of typhus and is buried in Bukhara on the silk road. 'Lancer Wladyslaw Czerkawski' it says on his grave.

Later, Churchill, Eisenhower and Stalin came to an agreement. It didn't involve much regard for Poland at all and doomed them to years of misery.  Dad's home was now in the Ukraine. All the borders had shifted. So if you try to tell a Pole that Scotland isn't a real country, you'd better remember that Poles never ever confuse state and nation. They know the difference all too well.

Nowhere to go back to. Dad with his parents.

Dad made the best of things. He was a hard working, clever, kindly man. His contribution to his adopted countries, England and then Scotland, which he loved, and the good he did, is not really the subject of this blog, but it is real enough. All these years later, I still meet people who tell me of the small but positive ways in which he influenced their lives.

All the same, he had enough experience of fascism, of the lies that are told, of the fear that is imbued, of the way in which people can be groomed into evil, to be able to say with absolute certainty 'It can and will happen anywhere, if the conditions are right.'

So he would have been sad and worried about our disunited kingdom, but he wouldn't have been remotely surprised. He would have seen the signs long ago. Today, I read a harrowing account from a young black woman travelling on a London bus at night. A group of white men boarded the bus and racially harassed any passengers that they perceived to be 'other' - black, foreign, Muslim. Everyone else looked away. Nobody dared to defend the victims. Nothing to do with them, was it? Not yet, anyway.

It happened before. But now, it has been legitimised and the elected government do nothing to challenge it. Instead we're treated to gung-ho flag waving, the validation of 'England for the English' (unless you're wealthy) and the myth of a united country.

All of which helps to explain why I wake up every morning with the feeling of living in a nightmare. It feels like a bereavement except that it is compounded by a sense of helpless rage. I'm certainly not alone. Scotland neither voted nor wished for this and it is being imposed on this nation without compromise and in the most contemptuous way possible.

Too many people are sleepwalking into the kind of fascism, here and in the US, that my wise dad said could happen anywhere. And he would say too, that large numbers of people wouldn't realise it was happening until it was too late to do anything about it, and maybe not even then. Every cult has its adherents who will go to their graves refusing to admit that they were duped.

It all seems so ordinary, so harmless.
'Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.'
So says Hannah Arendt.

The US has its own intractable problems. So do parts of the EU. Now we seem to be governed by banal but fundamentally (and openly) dishonest people from whom a rational person would hesitate to buy a used car, never mind a policy. So I'm left wondering, did people sit at home like this in pre-war Germany, making the best of things, not wanting to rock the boat, shrugging off each successive outrage, each official lie, reassuring each other that 'everything will be fine. Because they wouldn't do anything too bad, would they?'

Until ... what? A slow descent into totalitarianism - or the kind of chaos that will result when the whole project collapses under the weight of its own contradictions?

What interesting times we live in, to be sure.










Happy Saint Bride's Day - The Coming of Spring.

Today is Imbolc, St Bride or St Bridget's Day and an important day in the Celtic world, marking the beginning of spring. I was reminded of it this evening, sitting at my desk, brooding on Brexit, when I realised that not only had the day lengthened considerably, but the birds in the garden were singing and sounding distinctly spring-like. It was very cheering.

Coincidentally, I'd been rereading my own novel, the Posy Ring, and deciding that I was still very fond of these characters and really would like to revisit them and find out what happens to them next. I've been asked to chat to a local book group about this novel, among other work, so I thought I'd better refresh my memory.

I suddenly remembered that I had written about the young women of the Scottish island where the novel is set, celebrating the festival of Bride in 1588.

'In February there was a brief respite when the young women of Achadh nam Bl├áth and the nearby clachan celebrated St Bride’s day. They took a sheaf of oats from the previous year’s precious harvest, formed it into a rudimentary figure, dressed it in some scraps of wool and linen, and trimmed it with whatever decorative items they could find: a handful of glass beads from broken jewellery, small shells from the seashore, a garland of daisies, snowdrops, coltsfoot as well as hazel catkins, culled from sheltered parts of the island. The figure was supplied with a slender white wand formed from a piece of birchwood with the bark scraped off. Ishbel had made a bed of rushes covered by a baby blanket close to the house door. There, Bride was welcomed in and laid down comfortably for the night with a couple of candles burning to keep her company. 
               
‘She was the foster mother of Christ,’ explained Lilias. ‘And so we honour her in this way. But she brings the springtime with her as well. Soon, soon it will come.'

A little later on, Lilias tells the stranger about the cailleach who brings winter - no bad thing, unless she lingers too long. To everything there is a season.

‘I am always forgetting how very little you know. The cailleach is the wise old woman. She walks the fields, bringing winter in her wake. A good thing too. The land needs to sleep and we need to rest for a time, while she walks and renews, walks and renews. Only now, she’s growing weary. It’s her turn to lie down and sleep. Then the springtime will come. You can feel her clinging on. Soon, she’ll not be able to resist. She will lie down and take her rest, and the blessed Bride will come and bring the springtime with her all over again.'

If the snowdrops massed on the roadsides as I drive in and out of this village are anything to go by, Bride seems to be well on her way.