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.