From the Gulag to the Killing Fields – notes on Totalitarianism

A few musings on totalitarianism, brought on by a work-related visit to Vietnam. I have juxtaposed this with a recent re-reading of Orwell’s “1984”. I read a lot of books at once, mind, and I am also ploughing my way through a collection called “From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States”. It has been put together by an academic called Paul Hollander, himself a victim of the political violence of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. It’s certainly not bedtime reading. It makes uncomfortable reading for me, much less for anyone with remotely left-wing sensibilities. We tend to look at Russia and China as the worst offenders in terms of the sheer volume and quantity of communist political oppression and violence, and this book tends to support that view. But reading books these upsetting personal stories, other places take the record for sheer horror and human tragedy (Cambodia and Vietnam). For the ill-treatment of political prisoners, I’d look at Cuba, where there was a peculiar and toxic mixture of Latin machismo and the malevolent foolishness of Marxism.

It never fails to be a pleasant surprise to me that books like this collection are in print in the UK at all. It is not beyond the bounds of darkest fantasy that a time will come for the UK when having a copy of such a book could put someone at risk of being sent to prison.

It’s always good to pick up a few points from Orwell. His character “Bernstein” who ostensibly writes the “book within the book” plot device allowing Orwell to lecture us on totalitarianism, says that the rise of machines has, “by producing wealth which is sometimes impossible not to distribute“, leads to an increase in average living standards. Our standard of living has indeed improved from the early 20th century (earlier really) until now, and should continue to improve all this century. This is not politics, nor economics, but technology – the rise of machines. Orwell notes that “an all-round increase in wealth threatens a hierarchical society” and “A hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance“. Amen. This truth lies at the very heart of “1984”, and at the heart of opposition to technology for it’s own sake. Opposition to “machines taking over men’s jobs” is at heart a desire for order and hierarchy, a vote for the established order, an endorsement of the status quo. And I believe the status quo is almost invariably worth upsetting. Technology and machines, of themselves, create wealth and hence threaten the status quo in hierarchical societies.

The frailty of human life

Three recent deaths, all juxtaposed, all very different, form a backdrop to the last few days and move me to put pen to paper. A murder, a suicide, a death from disease.

Knife murder: The murder of Jodie Chesney comes to mind first. A young person is snatched from us as a result of a deliberate act of deadly violence. It is doubly brought to my attention because she was an Explorer Scout: I am a District Commissioner for Scouts. We all wring our hands – what can we do? Some say, with strident tone, “This has to stop!” and of course, they are right. But these are empty words; those who say this have little if any power to prevent the rampant knife crime that racks our nation. I suspect that our government, realistically, lacks the political will to do anything really effective about knife crime. I was in Singapore recently and saw how it is quite safe to leave your wallet lying around. Singaporeans explained to me graphically what the state does to thieves in Singapore. I don’t expect there’s much knife crime in Singapore either. But just and appropriate treatment of knife criminals and indeed knife murderers will be too much for most of us in UK to stomach. Some rightly argue for a solution that is not penal in nature – addressing the root of the problem. But that is a long term solution delivering a safe Britain in the 2030s, and does not solve the problem we face now. Meantime, we look behind ourselves more often and stay more alert in public spaces – good if cynical advice at any time.

The suicide of Keith Flint of The Prodigy is the second death I would reflect upon. The Prodigy, if not actual rock’n’roll, follows the important rock’n’roll principle of scaring your mum and dad. I myself am drawn to The Prodigy precisely for that reason – their music is not nice. To some, it is offensive. I sometimes tire of “nice”. Say what you like about The Prodigy, you could not call them hypocritical. There are other musicians out there playing very listenable traditional blues rock’n’roll. Reputably and by commonly acknowledged anecdote, some of these players are rude and unpleasant men, however harmonious their music may be. Keith Flint and the music of The Prodigy may not have been harmonious to some of us. But for all that, he did have a reputation for being a friendly and helpful guy. And he took his own life, which points up the growing concern we have today for mental health: a vital issue that ought not be neglected.

The third death I would reflect upon, I only found out about by browsing a Christian magazine. The passing away on 6th February of the theologian Canon Michael Green, was a shame and a sad loss. You wouldn’t have heard about that on the BBC, I thought. He was and remains very influential as a thinker: I’ve read a number of his books; they are on my shelf still. I once heard him preach at St Alkmunds Derby, in the late 1990’s. He recounted in that sermon how he had met a guy in a car park at Euston station, and this guy asked him if he could break a fiver for change for parking. Michael Green had given the driver the few quid in change he needed – to which the driver’s response was a horrified refusal. Canon Michael replied – “Take it – that’s the way my Boss works…” which opened the way for a conversation about Christianity. As he himself noted, he was an academic who was also passionate about the Lord Jesus Christ.

I make no apology for mentioning all these three sad deaths in the same post. All were tragic: a murder, a suicide, a death from a dreaded illness. We do well to remember how frail we are, and as my wife’s late Aunt noted, we should live while we are alive.

Rocket Fighter, by Mano Ziegler

What a remarkable read! Mano Ziegler, a second world war fighter pilot with the Luftwaffe, published, in 1961, “Raketenjaeger 163“. This excellent little book was subsequently published in English as “Rocket Fighter”. It is the very readable story of the development of the Messerschmidt 163 rocket-powered interceptor during WWII. My copy came as a gift from a close friend of mine.

image: Wikipedia

It is wonderfully written. Lovely English – one may ask whether this is because it was well written in the original German (which I find more than likely) or is it an artifact of translation by someone who can write beautiful English? It comes across in waves of easy-to-read, rolling prose.

It’s worth mentioning, at a remove of seventy years since WWII, that the work is completely free of any political rancour or bitterness, and there is little mention of the war itself at all, except toward the end of the book when the onward juggernaut of the Soviets was making its way across eastern Germany. The war is seen always as an effect, a shadow, an influence.

The story here is about the airmen who worked to the best of their abilities to transform this innovative new rocket plane into an actual operational fighter. The heroes are the airmen. They are no different to American airmen, or British airmen. At one point, a pair of Mustangs fly over and strafe the airfield, causing the flyers and a number of their female colleagues (WAAFs of some kind) to fling themselves into a slit trench or ditch for shelter. Emerging from shelter after the raiders had gone, one of the airmen shakes his fist at the retreating Americans: “look at my bloody trousers – straight from the cleaners too!!” These men had an excellent custom of “birthdays”. if something happened to an airman where he ought by rights, to have died – but survives – that day, ever afterwards, becomes a new birthday, with cake and drinks and appropriate celebration.

The heroes are the men that lived and died working on the rocket planes, which were unreliable if amazing when they worked. And these brave men sometimes died hard, literally dissolved by the liquid rocket fuel, which was concentrated Hydrogen Peroxide.

The astonishing technology is the other hidden hero here. History is generally written by the victors: I was brought up in 1970’s Britain, and was taught in school that Frank Whittle invented the jet engine. German aviation technology seems almost like “alternative history” to me. Men like Alexander Lippisch, who pioneered the tail-less “delta” shaped aircraft (so iconic later in the Avro Vulcan) so nearly brought the Germans victory in WWII. To read or watch Philip K Dick’s nightmare vision of a 1960’s where the Nazis won (“The Man in the High Castle“) and see a world spanned by supersonic jets, and a manned mission to Mars, is to shiver. Terribly plausible, at one level, when you consider this frighteningly advanced technology, and the upright, honest and capable men, like Mano Ziegler and others, who were set by the Nazis to develop it and fly it.

There’s hope for Merrie England

In posh frocks and best suits, we took train in the rainy morning up to London Bridge. It was that kind of fine rain that gets you wet. The event we were invited to was not a wedding, but it proved to be more like a wedding than anything else. We were going to Southwark Cathedral for the Ordination and Consecration to Bishop of our friend and former rector, the Reverend Doctor Andrew Rumsey.

At the cathedral we took coffee with a lady we know who must use crutches to get about. She bears considerable pain and disability in her life with a very English stoicism and understatement, and she often looks rather tired and drawn. But today she had battled through on her crutches and was looking very well, pushing the boat out to join in this important celebration.

And then we were all seated. There was a short warm-up act, a deacon or dean or some such, who made everyone laugh while explaining how things would go during the service. In a more secular gathering, he would have been the person who had to start his short speech by saying “There are no planned fire drills today”.

Then there was a procession. There were dozens of richly robed prelates and lords spiritual. Bishops, deans, deacons, priests, acolytes and singers. A number of people carrying shiny sticks, or candles, or holding up Bibles. And amongst this procession, all our clergy friends. In all this colour, pomp and pagaentry, a connection to people we knew. A young priest I know touched my shoulder as he walked past. Hey Nick!!

The final person in the procession was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who took the service. Our former vicar was presented to Canterbury by two mentors, one on either side: the Bishops of Salisbury and Southwark. Questions were asked, “Do you believe him to be of Godly life and sound learning?“, using a form of words that must be centuries old.

Canterbury went on to cause a clerk – “the Provincial Registrar” – to read out the whole of the letter of authorisation for the ordination of a Bishop – the letter patent. Here was language linking the everyday of the here and now, to the sweeping arc of history; here were words from the seat of power, from the Queen herself, relating to someone I’ve sat and had a pint and peanuts with. Just remarkable. One might feel part of a nation, tribe or group as it exists across the land today, but less often, perhaps, might we feel that sense of belonging across time, stretching back through the generations. And listening to this letter being read out, we were all part of Merrie England. Someone else deserves the credit for saying this, but there is hope for Merrie England when people like Andrew Rumsey are appointed to posts like this.

The sermon was given by the Reverend Canon Chris Russell, the Archbishop’s Adviser for Evangelism and Witness, and parish priest in Reading. And what a sermon! Of the art and craft of sermons, my old vicar used to say, “always start with personal stories”. Chris Russell did just that and took us from the inessential (in his family’s case, a shower head that lit up) to what we really need. What do we really need? What do we really want? What MUST we have? God’s call on our lives: all of us are called by God personally, and by name. We are called by name because we all matter, each and every one of us. God has questions for us, which must be answered – again, because we all matter to God.

Later on, the college of Bishops laid hands on their new colleague Andrew at the actual moment of his ordination. There were dozens of them; not all could get near him. The further away Bishops laid hands on nearer Bishops who in turn laid hands on Andrew. To see this very physical act, this laying on of hands, right at the pinnacle of the Anglican establishment, was a remarkable sight. History, tradition and the teaching of Scripture brought right into the present. The laying on of hands is a common enough practice in house churches and in Charismatic churchmanship, but perhaps less common in the grass-roots Church of England.

There was a giving of appropriate and symbolic gifts. A Bible, a ring; a cross, a crozier – all the “stuff” a Bishop might traditionally use to exercise their office. A word on the crozier. My wife organised that. It was again, a moment of connection. We’d driven across all England, all the way to a former mining village near Durham to collect this fine piece of work, which was now in the hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A craftsman by the name of Tom Keers made the Cleek (that is, the curved part made of horn at the top) and another, named Roger Marwood, made the shaft of oak- from Acstede – “the Place of the Oaks.” Both will be proud to see their work in such hands.

And then it was over: the rector was become a Bishop. The gathered prelates and lords of the church started to process down the aisle with their newest colleague among them. As they did so, there was a spontaneous round of applause and cheering for Andrew Rumsey, which he acknowledged with a smile. It was another human moment in a big, portentous, important occasion when powerful forces for good were at work.

As the procession of lords spiritual, prelates, clerks, singers, acolytes and men carrying shiny sticks made its way out, I saw the Archbishop of Canterbury stop, greet and touch fists with a ten year old boy, who like me, had an aisle seat. Canterbury didn’t need to do that. In doing so, in stopping to greet that lad, he made his day. And mine too.

Extraordinary complexity

We live in times of extraordinary complexity. Perhaps it was ever thus: were there ever truly simple and straightforward times? Yet, our willingness and our ability to discern complexity is under attack as never before. It is under attack from social media; it is under attack from the rise in sentimentality we’ve seen over this last twenty years or so, and it is under attack because of the fashion for hyperbole and over-statement.

The deplorable rise of “spin” – the use of language to conceal, obscure or divert people from the facts – has much to answer for.  The use of carefully chosen, politically charged, and nuanced phrasing, has, paradoxically, eroded our capability to discern nuance.

We look back at events like the Great War, and perhaps see simple causes, straightforward effects, obvious and clear protagonists and antagonists.  We view such events through the simple lens of modern thinking.  Cliches such as “senseless slaughter” come to our lips; we take off our hats, and rightly, spend a moment in silence to remember the fallen. 

But it was never that simple: that war was no simple struggle between good and evil, nor even a titanic battle between two great empires, the British and the Austro-Hungarian.  Britain, even the British Empire, was part of an alliance, and not even the senior partner at that.   

And then, consider what else was happening at the same time as the Great War.  The struggle for female emancipation and women’s suffrage.  The Easter Rising and the struggle for independence in Ireland.  The Russian revolution.  The technical innovation happening as a result of the war; the changing relationship between the New World and the Old.  

All of it points to a time of complexity to which we don’t do justice by over-simplifying what happened. It is not less true today.  I’m minded to reflect on our shortening attention span.  My boss wants 3-5 bullet points, size 21 font, one slide in Microsoft PowerPoint – just the salient facts to present to the Board.  In the second war,  Churchill reputedly turned to his underlings and asked them to provide for him a “report on the current state of the Royal Navy – on one side of a sheet of paper”.  As writers we do have a duty to keep things simple, to use short words, sentences and paragraphs, and to cut out unnecessary waffle. There is a case for simplicity – but we have made the case for simplicity our idol. 

How are we going to comment meaningfully and profitably on the hideous complexity through which we are now living? Three bullet points won’t cover Brexit nor explain the reasons for and against it.  One side of a sheet of paper may not cover the reasons for our changing culture.  A few photographs will not explain the balance of power between the West, China and Russia.  The job of the commentator is made doubly difficult by the fact that everyday folk have lost interest in complexity.  Today we have Twitter and Instagram – but think of the walls of text in a Victorian newspaper.  Today we want to see things reduced to three bullet points, the sound bite, the black and white. We want to see the spectacle of wrong and right, of bread and circuses.  Who needs a judge and jury when you’ve got Facebook?

Lorien street

Plateroom 28

“In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien, there was no stain.” – Tolkien

A wave of grief washed over me as I crossed the street. Just as I stepped off the curb, I noticed a young woman walking along the other side. She couldn’t have been 20. She was showing a little too much leg for such icy weather, and she didn’t give a damn. The look on her face, at the same time confident and fragile, so reminded me of my daughter, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from crying.

It was that time of day in deep winter when the light was just starting to fade. When evening and late afternoon are one. The wind was harsh and unkind…

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Walk East Til I die, by Mike Pinnock

I like a good outdoorsman’s travelogue, and this falls into the same category as Nicholas Crane’s “Clear Waters Rising” or “Two degrees West”.  An Englishman of a certain age sets himself to do an all-but impossible adventure – what’s not to like? I’m an Englishman of a certain age myself – but Mike is older.  I should admit early on in the interests of transparency that Mike is a relative of mine.   

All that said, I liked the historical accounts in this work better.  There’s only so many pints of lager you vicariously enjoy.  Mike paints an interesting story of Eire today and in the past.  My wife and I visited Kerry on our honeymoon in 1990, and we were told that almost no-one lives within twenty miles of the west coast of Ireland, except for those whose living depends on tourism.  Mike’s account bears that out – there seems to be no-one there.  A far cry from queuing up to walk along Crib Goch in Snowdonia, as you’ll have to do on any fine weekend in summer.  

I learned much of Irlsh history.  You’ll not be learning this kind of thing in English schools, not this last 40-50 years. I’d heard of Michael Collins, of the Easter Rising, and of the Irish Free State, and few would not have heard of Eamon De Valera.  What Mike has done has coloured in the gaps a little, brought to life some of that fascinating past, some of the terrible suffering.  From the medieval saints, through the Norman overlordship, and onto Cromwell’s atrocities, then the Potato Famine and the emergence of Eire, Mike has provided some insights into Irish history without ever being partisan or taking an obvious side.