Archive for the 'current affairs' Category

Literature and Auschwitz

January 23, 2020

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_ML3_  71l2--J+pSL._AC_UY218_ML3_  91Zrixmwg7L._AC_UY218_ML3_   An article by Dan Jacobson in The Guardian about Auschwitz appearing in the titles of many works of fiction, as well as my distaste upon reading that someone had decided it would be a good thing to colourise the film made at the time of the liberation of the extermination camp by the Soviet Army, crystallised the idea of this post. The 75th anniversary of the liberation comes up shortly, of course, hence the media attention.

I visited Auschwitz half a century ago, at the age of fifteen. It’s an experience I’ve never forgotten, never can and never should. Heaven only knows what my sisters, even younger than me, made of it, but I firmly believe my father was right to take us. At the time it was used as a piece of Soviet propaganda, with a stark memorial claiming that four and a half million people had been killed there (nowadays the figure is more accurately put at more than a million) and the focus was not on remembering extermination of Jews but extermination of human beings.

That last is an interesting point. It is well-known that the Nazis attempted to eliminate European Jewry; less-known that in Eastern Europe everyone’s life was cheap, if not of no value, and there is documentation pointing to the fact that after the Jews, and after an eventual German victory in the war, the Poles and Russians were next on the list for elimination. Read Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, set in a world where Jews are only a historical memory. Six million Jews were murdered; six million Polish citizens were killed in the war.

I have always felt that the use of the word ‘Holocaust’ (which only came into wide use after the film Schindler’s List) somehow both shifts the focus away from the viewing of groups of people as subhuman and also in a way sanitises what the Nazis did: most of the killings took place not in extermination camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka but in nameless fields, forests and ditches in the vast depths of eastern Poland (as it then was), the Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The previous term used was ‘Final Solution’ which was what the Nazis called their approach to dealing with the Jewish population of Europe; that also hides enormity behind a euphemism. Above all we need to remember that the Second World War, started by the Nazis, led directly and indirectly to the death of over fifty million people…

Somehow an awful place like Auschwitz has now become another stop on a tourist trail, and there is plenty of documentation of appalling behaviour there by unthinking visitors. And yet, people must continue to go there, and the horrors which that place symbolises must not be forgotten. Which brings me back to Jacobson’s article, and writings about Auschwitz.

There has been much written in terms of history and personal memoirs, very little (until recently) in the way of fiction. And that has seemed appropriate, to me at least: to try and use one’s creative imagination focused on such matters appear perverse, in a way. And somehow, the idea of marketing a book because it has the ‘A’ word in the title is just wrong. I used The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne once as a class reader while teaching; it may have been a brave attempt at bringing the subject within the scope of school age children, but it was too toe-curling for me. Hans Peter Richter’s Friedrich was a much more powerful introduction to the topic.

I found Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Kenneally, a very powerful read, but have never wanted to bring myself to watch the film; I was very moved by André Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of The Just, which traces a Jewish line down through generations until it is eliminated at Auschwitz. Vassily Grossman treads lightly in his novels Stalingrad and Life and Fate, and the result is very effective: the hero Lev Shtrum is haunted throughout by the death of his mother who was unable to flee the German advance whilst he was; he learns that she ended up dead in a mass grave, and he cannot forget this. Grossman is unremittingly truthful in his factual, journalist’s account of the liberation of the Treblinka extermination camp site by the Soviet Army.

Finally, I must mention Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) again. The opening chapters are truly horrific; a Nazi witnesses the blood and guts and the utter chaos on the Eastern Front as the extermination of the Jews in the East begins. It is mayhem, the stuff of nightmares, and the dedicated Nazi is determined that there must be a better, more efficient way to carry out the Final Solution.

Where I get to in my reflections on this appalling chapter of European history is that it must be taught so that it may never happen again, also that the events and the reasons (?) behind them are far more complex than most people can know, or admit or understand, and that there are people who will attempt to turn a profit or make political propaganda out of it. If it were possible, my view of our species is further diminished.

A tragedy and a shame

January 18, 2020

I was just about to turn 18 when the UK joined the Common Market in 1973. So I have lived my entire adult life (so far) as a European citizen, and have always thought of myself as European first, and English/Polish second. I will also admit, to my shame, that, swayed by Trotskyite propaganda, I voted for us to leave the Common Market in the 1975 referendum.

Shortly, against my will, I will cease to be an EU citizen. To all of my readers in Europe I say that for me this is a tragedy. In my years of travelling, pretty much all of which has been in Europe, I have grown to know and appreciate what we have in common as well as how we differ from each other as individual nations, and what we share feels so much greater than what separates or divides us. I have also learned the deeper meaning of the European project and its symbolism for those nations on the European mainland who suffered so much during the two world wars of the last century: this is at the root of Britain’s fateful decision to leave. We have never been occupied; we have not experienced such horrors as Auschwitz, Lidice or Oradour-sur-Glane on our soil.

There are times when I have felt that the EU was basically a neoliberal capitalist club; those aspects still anger me. And yet, the EU is not the unbridled capitalist chaos that is the USA, nor the thinly disguised dictatorship that is Russia, nor the surveillance and pollution nightmare that China seems to be; it is a wavering outpost of social-democratic, welfare state society that by and large seems still to espouse some of the freedoms and decencies hard-won after two world wars on its soil.

And so I do regard our departure as tragic.

But it is also a matter of national shame. Such a major decision, the full implications of which are still unknown, and the full effects of which will take several years to become clear, was taken by a minority of the electorate; in the recent election which allowed the steamroller to proceed, far more voters supported remain parties than those advocating departure: that is all history now, except for the disgrace that is our electoral system, and the disgrace of the liars who manipulated, cheated and deceived the nation’s voters.

Once we were a nation with a huge empire, built on conquest, racism and slavery. The price of US assistance in the last world war was the relinquishing of that empire. And yet, shamefully, we still try and behave like a world power, when we are only a small island off the coast of a continent, and now of far less importance, significance or influence than we have been for the last half-century or so. We are a country living in the past, unwilling to look at, never mind embrace the future. We can blame politicians of all hues for failing to engage with the European project properly, when, given our economic weight, we might have a major influence on the shape of the entire project.

So, shortly, our country severs the ties. I don’t accept that rupture. I will not ‘get over it’. I will not ‘make friends’ with the liars, idiots and crooks who engineered it all. I shall continue to see myself as a European first, I shall continue my travels in Europe and my encounters with its people for as long as I am able, and, as I always have done (bar that 1975 aberration) I shall continue to argue the case for the UK being a part of it all.

Friendly greetings to all my European readers!

Thirty glorious years?

January 1, 2020

The French, in their supremely French way, have long referred to the years 1945-1975 as ‘les trente glorieuses’, thirty years of success, happiness, greatness and I don’t know what else. And it’s an interesting window through which to look back over my lifetime.

There was a determination to improve everyone’s lot after the horrors of the Second World War, and, as Europe re-built (with American help) there was an economic boom; most people’s living standards improved immensely as did their housing, health and life expectancy, especially with serious development of welfare states and the creation of organisations like Britain’s National Health Service and the European Union.

I grew up during this time. Life wasn’t easy, but the state looked after our health (who remembers free NHS orange juice, rose hip syrup and cod liver oil?), promised retirement pensions of a sort, provided unemployment benefits, and gave me a decent education, including a free university education through which I was supported by grants not loans.

It was a period where there seemed to be some kind of parity between the two sides of the economy, workers and bosses, although there was much conflict, and eventually the bosses had had enough and brought in Reagan and Thatcher’s economic neoliberalism to smash the power of workers for good. We are all still living with the consequences of this.

I do recall some grim times towards the end of the seventies. But what I don’t recall are food banks and thousands of homeless people living (and dying) in the streets of one of the richest countries on the planet. I don’t recall it being incredibly difficult for young people to try and buy a home. I don’t recall people on non-existent work contracts, not knowing whether they would have work the next day or not. I don’t recall being fleeced by companies for the essentials of daily existence like water power and transport.

It’s a truism that as we get older we get more nostalgic about the past, and tend to see our younger days through rose-tinted spectacles: as we grow older, life nears its end and we look back to those earlier, more carefree times when we seemed immortal, and surely those were better days?

And yet, I do feel very strongly that as a society we have lost something since those remote and more innocent days. Increasingly I have the feeling that those 30 years may have been a blip in our country’s and the world’s history, a very happy and fortunate time for those (like me) who grew up and enjoyed their younger years back then. I’m not enjoying growing old, and yet I’d not swap my time for the life of someone thirty years younger today.

The Doomsday Book

December 29, 2019

61YJkcWyBfL._AC_UY218_ML3_   Way back when I was still a schoolboy I bought a remaindered book in a sale: The Doomsday Book, by Gordon Rattray Taylor. This must have been in the very early seventies, and I was reminded of this book and the way it shaped my life, when I came across a dusty and ancient copy of the book again a couple of weeks ago.

It was what would now be called popular science, and it was, as I recall, one of the earliest books to try and draw public attention to the problems of pollution, as these were known, seen and understood half a century ago. I remember being utterly shocked and horrified at the grim prognosis then, and vaguely recall a follow-up from the same author, called something like The Population Time-Bomb. For me, these were the first wake-up calls, the first awareness that as a species we were not innocent in our effects on the planet.

A few years later, as a student, I became a vegetarian, for health and ecological reasons, and began to try and be more careful about my impact on the planet. Over the years I have striven not to be wasteful and not to make trivial or unnecessary purchases; as re-use and recycling became more possible, I’ve tried to do these to the best of my ability, too. Lest anyone think that all I’m doing is virtue-signalling, I’ll admit to having owned and used a car for the last thirty years or so, although I’ll balance that by saying that I have never flown anywhere.

I know a good many people who have tried to operate in a similar fashion throughout their lives, too: I’m a member of a small food-buying co-op which comprises about a dozen households. And yet, as I read about the horrors of the climate emergency engulfing the planet, I feel increasingly that we’ve been pissing into the wind, or re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. I’m horrified at the world in which my children and grandchildren will have to live and grow old in. Where have we gone wrong? Because surely my generation bears a large share of the responsibility.

Our economic system has proved wonderful at making and selling stuff, and hiding its effect on our planet and on our individual health. And I’m not meaning to start an argument with feminists when I say that the system, over the past couple of generations, has engineered a shift in society and consumption habits which has meant that to support a family and a household and provide it with all the stuff it needs, it now takes both parents working.

Back in the days of the Cold War we used to talk about humans being the only species which had developed the means to destroy life on its home planet – and we meant through the use of nuclear weapons. Now we are managing to do it – a tad more slowly – through the manufacture and consumption of material goods.

I am incredibly pessimistic about our changing anything. First, the economic system will resist any attempt to curb its excesses: we can see that already. Second, we love the conveniences we are offered and don’t see the waste: the huge amount of energy needed to run data-centres so we can have everything in the cloud; the stupid waste of plastics in wrapping food, making one-use cups and bottles; the phenomenal amount of pollution created by cars… and so much more.

There is one factor I have identified and begun to think about over the last few years: the hippy movement of the late sixties and early seventies. It was all about self-liberation, breaking free of constraints, individual self-development – laudable aims in themselves, but so easily manipulated and perverted by the economic system into a chase after material objects and possessions, and the right to individual fulfilment and happiness through stuff. And because it was about individual happiness – allegedly – it gradually erased any reference to, or appreciation of anything shared or collective, including the shared planet. And it seems to me, once those floodgates were opened, the end was on its way. I’m as guilty as the rest of my generation here: the feelings of liberation were wonderful, and the costs only gradually became clear… and what we can now do about it, eludes me.

Living the nightmare

December 13, 2019

Warning: politics ahead

Like most of my friends and acquaintances, we went to bed last night feeling very grim, and woke up to our worst nightmare. Today, I do not feel that this is my country. Mr Johnson can say all he likes about uniting the country, but the fact for me that is most salient is that only 47% of the electorate voted for Brexit parties, so I’m not sure how he plans to square the circle. And, as we say round here, I wouldn’t believe him if he told me today was Friday.

The most basic insanity about Britain is our prehistoric electoral system. And both major parties defend it: winner takes all. You get the chance to wreck or demolish everything your opponents spent years doing. That’s not a recipe for successful politics, or running a country. We had a chance, in a referendum (!) to change the system, and the main parties wrecked it.

Then we have a mass media which is two-thirds owned by foreign billionaires. Enough said. I don’t know of any other country which allows this.

For years, we have lived in a one-party state, with no real or effective opposition. The Labour party has been hijacked by a leftist cult more interested in ideology than cultivating and nurturing its natural base of supporters, and the result of that is clear today. Those manipulating the party thought it was better to plan for a socialist Jerusalem one day, than deal convincingly with today’s issues. There was no clear policy about the EU or Brexit, and that vacillation helped poison opinion. Even as we went into the election, Labour and the Lib Dems were more interested in biting each other than the real enemy.

What are we faced with now? One thing I can lay claim to, and that’s my years; today I think we are in a far worse place than 1979, when the Thatcher nightmare arrived. The country is utterly and irrevocably divided. We are about to give up membership of the largest trading bloc, and attempt to go it alone, or maybe become the 51st state of the union. It has become fashionable to knock the 1970s. There were a lot of things wrong in that decade – I know, because that’s when I became an adult and first voted – but there were no food banks and no thousands sleeping on the streets every night. That is an appalling indictment of our society, and especially of all those who voted Conservative yesterday. Society was more caring of its less fortunate members in those days. And we weren’t fleeced left, right and centre by privatised companies owning the basic necessities of daily life like power, water and transport.

My generation wanted a better society. It has failed ignominiously, allowing inequality, poverty and racism to thrive. As for the future of the planet, do you think that will get a look-in during the mad, money-grubbing bonanza that will be unleashed as everyone tries to grab a bigger slice of the smaller post-Brexit cake? I try to find a bright side to look on, and the only one I can see is the younger generation today, who seem to have different ideas and different goals and commitments: I hope they are more successful than we were(n’t). But I have to end on a gloomy note: I fear for the future because I fear civil unrest and even violence lurk on the not-too-distant horizon. We are living in very dark times.

On rank insanity

October 25, 2019

Warning: politics ahead

When I read that there has been a survey of over 4000 people, that shows that over 70% of ‘leavers’ and nearly 60% of ‘remainers’ think that violence towards MPs would be an acceptable part of achieving the Brexit or non-Brexit that they want, I no longer recognise that country I was born in and have lived almost all of my life in. I am utterly ashamed to be part of it. My father found a haven here during the Second World War, and then eked out a difficult existence after it, when he and his compatriots were basically surplus to requirements for a lot of the British people. I cannot imagine what he would have made of the current situation.

I make no apology for saying that I have always regarded the idea of leaving the European Union as an act of rank insanity that will impoverish us economically and culturally, and further diminish our standing and status with the rest of the world (although that last may not be such a bad thing). I am proud to have been a European citizen for my entire adult life, and will feel the less when I am only a British one.

No British politician has behaved honourably in this entire proceeding, except perhaps the Speaker of the Commons. The referendum was only ever an attempt to reconcile warring factions in the Tory party, and Cameron was an idiot for allowing it, especially when the parameters were so vague. Farage is a racist and a hypocrite who can protect his family with citizenship of another EU state and fill his pockets with an MEP’s salary and pension. May was out of her depth, Johnson is another liar and hypocrite. Corbyn has dithered and played games just like his opponents, and the Lib Dems do not shine any whiter even if they do espouse what I ultimately hope for. Over my lifetime, our politicians seem to have become ever more self-serving and venal.

I honestly now have no idea what to hope for; although I’d class myself as reasonably intelligent, I find it almost impossible now to make any sense of all the permutations of possible outcomes, but unlike Johnson and his ilk, I don’t just want to ‘get it over with’. I would like the country to find its sense of tolerance again, and to treasure that which it can be proud of, especially the NHS; I would like us to be in the centre of the scrum, struggling to make our Europe a better place. At the moment, I honestly think that if I could rewind the clock some 30 years, I’d leave; certainly I’m rather envious of various friends and acquaintances who did…

Umberto Eco: Chroniques d’une societé liquide

October 1, 2019

81H7hoBex5L._AC_UY218_SEARCH213888_ML3_   This is the final collection of Umberto Eco’s brief, regular newspaper and magazine columns, and it has had me thinking more widely about the writer and his reputation.

Often his pieces are brief and laconic, frequently they are still relevant years after they were written; sometimes they have dated terribly, and sometimes they come across as the ramblings of an older man who doesn’t fully get the modern world. And certainly, whoever thought all the stuff about Berlusconi ten years later would be of interest to a non-Italian audience wasn’t really thinking very clearly…

Writing like this does come across as an art form which isn’t always successful: Eco is sharp on the current craziness of so many wannabees craving fame and stardom, via reality TV and the web. He’s good on technology in general, clearly demonstrating that almost everything that we use and/or rave about now actually has its origins in the 19th century. He sees our collective sense of the past and the idea of history gradually eroding, vanishing. And his musings on information overload and the almost impossibility of verifying and trusting any of it are even more relevant now, several years after his death. At the same time, while he’s fully cognisant of the astonishing speed of technological change, many of his responses to the internet and electronic communication are already outdated and surpassed. He’s also very interesting on our contemporary fear of silence.

It is journalism, which does date: the old adage about yesterday’s newspaper being only good for lighting fires or wrapping fish and chips in is still valid. When Eco casts his net wider, and when he’s reflective rather than just ranting (although very entertainingly), he is at his most provocative. Where are all the women philosophers? What do we mean by freedom of speech? At these times his columns show an awareness of the complexity of society. Only monotheisms seek to conquer others and impose their faith, and of the three, Judaism has never sought to do that. I’d never looked at religion quite like that.

Eco was a polymath, and someone whose writings I’ve admired greatly and for a long time. But I found myself briefly thinking about his reputation, and how long people may continue reading his works. A few of the essays may survive, the serious criticism and philosophy perhaps. To me, he remains pre-eminently a novelist, and a mediaevalist, which is why I think that only two of his novels will continue to be read. I did try re-reading The Island of the Day Before, and it was a chore; I haven’t attempted Foucault’s Pendulum again, and I don’t know that I will bother with any of the others, except Baudolino and The Name of the Rose, which I still believe are superb.

On peace and forgetfulness

September 26, 2019

When I reflect on my life, and seek the source of the contentment I feel in my later years, I am drawn back to feelings of gratitude for the greatest thing of all: that I was born, grew up and have lived in peacetime.

I have benefited from peace in Europe; I have been incredibly fortunate. Yes, I’m well aware that we had our own civil war in Northern Ireland for a quarter of a century, that Britain has been involved in wars in many parts of the world, and that Europe had its own extremely nasty conflicts when the Federation of Yugoslavia collapsed in the aftermath of the fall of communism. For me, and many like me, that was the stuff of newspapers and radio news bulletins. I’m aware that there was the Cold War: I think we also had saner and more intelligent politicians in those days…

I return to this idea of peaceful existence more and more often, because I see it under threat, by neglect, by those who should know better, by those who don’t think, and by those in positions of power who are acting irresponsibly. For example, many of those of the older generation, who support Brexit, are wont to bang on about the wartime spirit, the spirit of Dunkirk, that got us through those times and will get us through the coming chaos. And I think, not only were most of those people not alive during that war and even conscious of that alleged spirit – my mother who was a schoolgirl at the time, remembers sheltering under the kitchen table from German bombers on their way to and from Hull – but they will have grown up after the war in the times when everyone did pull together to rebuild the nation, and with the benefits of the greatest British achievement, the NHS. So yes, such people make me angry.

Time leads us to forget. We’ve been at peace in our corner of the world for a very long time: three quarters of a century next year. Most people now only know from history books where vile racism and nationalism lead. They do not imagine, cannot imagine, such perils ahead of them now.

My own family history, which I’ve referred to often enough in my blog, also makes me aware that most Britons’ notions of war are not those of other Europeans, who experienced occupation, starvation, deportations, persecutions and executions. You only have to visit battlefields anywhere in continental Europe, and memorials in any country to discover the traumatic effects of war, to see where entire cities and towns had to be rebuilt. Wherever I travel, I see and hear evidence of European nations determined to collaborate, to ensure that the horrors of the past do not return, their determination not to forget. Dad’s Army, the Blitz, and ration books are not how the rest of Europe experienced the Second World War.

Because in a sense peace is an absence – the absence of war – it’s hard to see its benefits. Then I visualise these advantages disappearing overnight, as, for example in former Yugoslavia or in Ukraine, and I can see how truly fortunate I, my family and almost everyone I know has been.

On being alarmed by the state of the world

July 25, 2019

I don’t think I’m the only person alarmed by the parlous state of the world. And, as this is a literary blog, instead of launching into a political piece straight off, I turned my thoughts to my reading.

I’ve always read a lot of science fiction, as regular readers will be aware; it’s mainly of the type called speculative fiction, the ‘what if?’ kind of story and novel, and in my time I’ve devoured the writings of John Brunner, who back in the 1970s was warning about the dangers of pollution and overpopulation, and Ernest Callenbach who pictured ecologically sensible futures. Then there was the great Ursula Le Guin, who pictured humans and human-type races trying to live harmoniously with the nature of the worlds they inhabited. And I read scientific writers – popular science, I suppose – who outlined the dangers our planet would face in the future, if we failed to make changes to the ways in which we were harming our only planet.

And, sadly, we have not learned, either from the facts of the scientists or the imagined futures of the novelists, and it really does feel as if we are truly wrecking our planet. I can selfishly think two things: one, I’ve always tried to do my bit in terms of living responsibly, and two, my time will be over relatively soon in the grand scheme of things and so I won’t be too badly affected. The problems with those two points are so blindingly obvious I hesitate to point them out, but I will. One, individual humans cannot make the difference: concerted, collective action is needed. Two, I have children and grandchildren whom I love, and what sort of world will they have to cope with after I’ve gone?

Secondly, I’ve always read a lot of fiction about war. The First World War literature was mainly about preparation for teaching students; the Second World War was because I am a product of the outcome of that war, which was allegedly started to protect my father’s country and ended with his not being able to return to that (rather different) country… So I have multiple pictures of what an appalling thing war is, that only our species visits on itself, and through my reading of history – another passion – I have the factual details and information with which to appal myself. In my later years my reading and my experience of the world have repeatedly brought me to the conclusion that humanity is not really a very intelligent species. Yes, a lot of us may be very clever, but that is far from being the same thing.

I lived through the rank insanity of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis; there was eventually enough common-sense and intelligence in the Soviet and US leaders eventually to lead them to slow down the arms race and reduce the danger of mutually assured destruction. Today I feel I live in a far more precarious world, where terrorism is rife, and the possibility of war is far more likely, because we have politicians and leaders who are – to put it mildly – pretty clueless.

There was a phase in science fiction, particularly from writers like H G Wells, where it was imagined that by the end of the twentieth century we would have a World Government which would, in an enlightened but probably not democratic way, protect the planet and the interests of all its citizens, and abolish forever the plagues of warfare and want. We should be so lucky. And yet it does strike me that we could desperately do with some form of rule that was outside the remit of selfish nation-states and greedy business interests. It’s interesting that, in various future visions I’ve read, the kind of ‘democracy’ that we are currently blessed or benighted with does not figure terribly prominently: it is very limited and cannot cope with the complexity and scale of the modern world. Different models are needed.

We could do with a World Government which would take a long-term approach – over fifty years or a century, say, to address our profligate and polluting energy use which is what will make the planet uninhabitable eventually. And it would put an end to the scourge of the world arms trade, which silently and obscenely makes fortunes of billions for those involved in it, and kills millions in faraway countries that we do not worry our pretty little heads with, but which creates all the problems associated with refugees and economic migrants who are so desperate to reach our shores…

Where I end up, in my own little microcosm, is with the awareness that my lifetime of reading has perhaps enabled me to understand the issues that face us, and yet relatively powerless to do anything about them: certainly the ‘democratic’ possibilities I’m offered every few years are not calculated to allow me to make the choices I want to be able to make. And so, I end up with the feeling of sadness that a species which has so much individual talent, cleverness and intelligence, is unable to use it collectively in an effective fashion.

On my newspaper collection

May 29, 2019

I have collected newspapers since I was a child. I don’t know where the fascination came from, but I think my early exposure to foreign languages developed it. I loved to look at the different mastheads, comparing what information they showed, the colours they used, how modern or antiquated they looked. Friends and relatives found the idea just a little cracked, I think, but they humoured me, often bringing a paper back from their travels; teachers at school did the same.

Different countries and languages did things differently; there were newspapers that completely eschewed photographs – Le Monde until the 1970s being one of them – or carried advertisements on the front page instead of news – The Times did this until the mid 1960s. When we travelled to Poland for the first time in 1970, I was astonished by the newspapers of Eastern Europe. Most of them only had four very flimsy pages, with absolutely no advertising. They were all published by the central committee of the national or local communist party or equivalent, and almost all carried the slogan “Workers of the World, Unite!” in their respective languages as part of the masthead. I still find the notion of newspapers and magazines without advertising very attractive today, although they exist almost nowhere, now.

I gradually became more fascinated by two things: newspapers in different languages and different scripts than the Roman alphabet, and newspapers from the past. When I was a teacher, my students were always ready to bring back a paper from their travels or holidays. It took me a long time to get a school student to bring me back a newspaper in Maltese, which is the only Arabic language that uses the Roman alphabet, and I’m still hoping to get to know someone heading to Mongolia, for I’d love a newspaper in that script… Some of the alphabets and scripts from the Far East are absolutely beautiful. Of course, I can understand very few of the languages, but it’s amazing how much logic, photographs and knowledge of what a newspaper is for, will allow one to deduce. My copy of Al Ahram (from Cairo) came in very useful when we were studying poems from other culture and traditions, as part of GCSE English – it was a graphic prop to show the class how the language and news of another culture could be completely inaccessible to us Westerners, and brought a sense of perspective, reminding us that there were other worlds and cultures out there, which were not ours.

As time passed I became increasingly fascinated by newspapers from the past, how different they were, and how they presented events with immediacy, unlike reading about those events in a history book. I had a phase of scouring derelict buildings for old newspapers, and was once lucky enough to come across a huge pile of them from 1939, before and after the outbreak of war, in a shop that was being refitted: no doubt the builders thought I was crackers but they happily gave me them…

Equally I realised that newspapers recording major events were worth keeping – all those reporting the first moon landing, various royal weddings and deaths, 9/11 and the like. Also I kept first and last editions of various newspapers as they appeared in and disappeared from circulation.

So, I’ve indulged an oddball hobby for most of my life, and have several crates of newspapers of some value in the attic, though whether I can ever bear to part with them is another matter. Printed newspapers are slowly dying out in the internet age; even I no longer buy them in order to keep up with the news. I toyed with the idea of journalism as a career possibility, having worked on the students’ union newspaper at university, but ultimately decided against it as a less safe one than teaching, and I cannot say that I regret my decision.

%d bloggers like this: