Sunday, 24 April 2022

Why trying to stay alive is political

 It's easy to think of politics as the stuff they talk about on politics shows. Being ill at a time of national crisis, has brought me face to face with the fact that politics is about the everyday thing of being alive or - as in my case - trying to stay alive or finding that other people are trying to keep you alive or helping you get on your feet again (rehab). So it is that I've found that at every stage of coming home, there has been a constant political conversation and row going on about - for example - funding of the NHS, how the government approached the idea of an epidemic (social health policy or leave it to the market?), our attitude to old people, sick people, disabled people and vulnerable (so-called) people.

Then again, the partygate scandal has ripped a hole in the idea that the government is on our side when it comes to wanting to protect us. It shows them as thinking of themselves as a special case, as people who don't need to abide by the rules they set for us. I see that as analogous as to the way public health and education are run: - largely by people who are looked after by private medicine and who are educated in private schools. There is an inbuilt separation (or that they build in the separation) between them and us whilst at the same time giving themselves the right to run our health and education according to their world view.
Meanwhile, it doesn't take long to hear people on phone-ins or on social media slagging off the NHS, nurses, doctors, schools, teachers and conjuring up images of the people working in this sector as lazy, unfairly rich, unfairly leisured. In fact, the people who talk this way have turned any praise of nurses, doctors, teachers, assistant teachers into political statements. Believe it or not, there's a journalist who has posted a picture on twitter of nurses and doctors having a pizza together and claimed that in doing so they were doing just what Johnson did with Partygate. One problem: the photo of the nurses and doctors having a pizza was before lockdown! I'm particularly enraged by this because the nurses and doctors in the photo are the very people who helped save my life. What this makes me think is that this person's sneering tweet has made a statement by me like 'I"m grateful to people at the Whittington who saved my life' into a radical political statement! That's where we're at.

Saturday, 23 April 2022

Interview with me from Ant Group

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Friday, 8 April 2022

Review of 'What is a Bong Tree?'

 By Chris Malone:

"I will try to put my finger on what I loved about What is a Bong Tree. I loved reading it so much that I carried it round the house, allowing myself a break from chores to read another chapter. I engaged in conversation by commenting in pencil in the margins; ‘Yes!’ ‘Haha!’ declaiming, underlining and asterixing.

Michael Rosen says you need stamina to read the ‘whole lot’ but I disagree with him on this point only. The collection is an easy read, especially if, like me, you are interested in the wide-ranging subjects of education, culture, politics, art, poetry, interculturalism, words and relationships. In my view, you simply need time to read the whole lot, and as the chapters are short, your pleasure can be spread over as long a time as you like. No hurry. I was aiming for the final section, ‘Politics, Education, Culture,’ as this attracted me most, but I started at the beginning and indulged in the autobiography, literature and poetry on the way. When I reached the penultimate chapter, ‘Languages of Migration,’ I stopped. I didn’t want the book to end.

The collection of 41 talks and articles in What is a Bong Tree is a luxuriant read with recurring themes and ideas grounded in real (unprivileged) life, with a consistent air of authenticity. Great to read aloud as the words on the page emanate from Michael’s own voice. The storying of the everyday.

So why did I love this book so much?

Firstly, the conversational tone (many of the chapters form written records of speeches and lectures) invites the reader’s participation. The oxymoron of oral writing. I liked this because it made me feel powerful as a reader. I was gifted autonomy. I was enticed to become a literature activist too.

Secondly, I know that I have become a changed person after reading it. Thirty years in the education machine, especially inspecting and working in local authorities, had drummed closed questioning into me. Michael’s ever-present cry that we ask the questions we don’t know the answers to, will stay with me. Embedded. As will his plea for children to choose their own reading material, and for classes to dance the words. We can hope that we will see an end to the stultifying extracts for counterproductive and indeed discriminatory SATs. Exam questions and the need to decode the code … not many of us have seen all this play out as a school parent non-stop for over 40 years, or noticed that the spinners in the newsagent used to be full of ladybird books, but now house spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Throughout the book, numbered lists of suggestions enrich the debate, for example in School Rules, the 10 Elements of Successful Arts Education.’ This book is no mere cerebral indulgence, the collection offers a wealth of practical approaches to effective teaching, at home and in the classroom.

Dive in, and this book might change you too …

Thirdly, as I am sure there will be for many readers, there were several personal hooks which propelled me into my own memories and values. Reading the book was reminiscent of those wonderful Open University units of the 1980s. My TMA (tutor marked assignment) would be entitled, What is a Bong Tree? and they would all laugh. I stormed out of a good traditional university literature degree, to study through the OU. I never felt as proud of my naïve life-changing decision as when I read Michael’s words about the lack of connection being made between English literature and the battle of ideas. Until we read Orwell. That was me, too. The Elizabethan World Picture didn’t provide me with the insight I needed into Greenham Common. Orwell did. And Steinbeck. And D102. And of course, having proudly taught innumerable children to read using a dynamic combination of techniques adapted to each child’s learning style, I revelled in the chapters that lambasted synthetic phonics. The good old days overlayed by Nick Gibbs got a ‘Haha’ in the margin. I passed the eleven plus, attended a secondary modern, and am proud of this. It was the year grammar schools were meant to end, and it grounded me. ‘Emil and the Detectives,’ ‘Junior Voices’. My childhood.

Fourthly, I loved the inclusion of Michael’s poetry, and the well-argued claim that literature is for adults and children together, when books come off the page, become social and belong to everyone. The hot potato poem, the torch, the lift, corned beef, the homework book … and the threads joining today’s experiences to Gradgrind, Miss Havisham, Trabb’s boy. These all resonated with me, as did the claim that English poetry books for children have traditionally featured dead, white, English men.

I also learnt lots of interesting things, about Michael’s unusual Jewish home experiences, peppered with Yiddish, and about the real meaning of Heim. Domestic life as a home university. How many fathers read Great Expectations to their children in a tent? I am sure that many mothers, like mine, ‘collected bits’ for school on walks. This selection is intensely and overtly personal, and gains impetus from that, but it also recognises the equal value of the full range of home experiences. In fact, by the end of the book, Michael upends it all. ‘I mean, just who is culturally deprived?’ ‘Teachers educated away from vernacular and oral working-class cultures have a unique chance to make up for this deprivation in our lives.’

Finally, I revelled in a disrupter’s portrayal of words: words don’t just bob about like lottery balls, they stick together, have secret strings. We can indeed subvert the power relationships between texts and utterances. The current education system in England is, we know deep down, all about ‘conform, conform, conform.’ As Michael says, ‘My son Joe did streets last term and the teacher didn’t even take them into a street.’

So, what is a bong tree? Now I understand, as I wallow in my bath of ideas, it is not only a nonsense, it allows the reader power. Agency. Brilliant!"

Tuesday, 1 March 2022

As if in a dream I hear the radio playing Ukrainian patriotic songs

As if in a a dream

I hear the radio playing Ukrainian patriotic songs

and lovingly produced discussions

about the history of Ukraine

and admiration pouring out of my radio and TV
for the brave people of Ukraine
daring to stand up to this terrible invasion
and I felt warm and sad at the same time
wrapped in the care and kindness of it all
and I was pouring out my admiration too,
and images from the TV came to me from last night
of hundreds of people squashed into a station subway
trying to get out on a train to Poland
and more sounds from the radio
of people on the border shivering and hungry and crying
not knowing if they could get out
while arcs of light flashed over apartment blocks
and the morning showed the cold grey ruins of people's homes
and I heard the words of sympathy
from our leaders
while they explained that Ukrainians
would need visas or relatives in Britain
if they want to come here
and I wasn't sure that people crushed
into the subway would have visas
or relatives here, would they?
so if they don't have visas and relatives
what happens to them in the freezing cold
on the Polish border?
and I thought about the care and kindness
coming out of my radio
and I felt uneasy
that I remember other invasions
other bombings,
and the same radio and TV stations
pouring out hours of words
on why similar bombings and invasions
were necessary and good bombings and invasions
and why those resisting were crazy and bad
and of course - as always -
why there wasn't room for people of those countries
to get out and come here
and I was left looking for the principle being defended here.
This principle can't be that it's wrong to invade
other countries.
The principle can't be that it's wrong
to bomb civilians.
The principle can't be that we must help
those who resist invasions.
The principle can't be that we must help
But then I thought,
what's the matter with me?
what is the matter with me?
why am I looking for a principle?
Well, not a principle that lasts
or a principle that is valid in all places.
Our leaders' principles are things
they pick up, boast about
and then drop
in the hope that we can't remember anything
from before last week.
Or that we don't notice what else they do
in other parts of the world.
One moment they are friends with people
who are tyrants or backers of tyrants
and the next they are explaining to us
that the tyrants are tyrants
and friends of tyrants are the friends of tyrants
as if we didn't know that the tyrants are tyrants
and that they themselves are friends
with the friends of tyrants
as if we hadn't noticed this
as if we had now forgotten this.
And this is a cycle
that goes on and on turning,
it's turning in my mind
remembering my parents
talking of the leaders of their time
chumming up with Nazis
corporations selling oil to the Nazis
oil they would use to bomb us
and my parents talking of uncles and aunts and cousins
who criss-crossed the very same land
that the refugees are crossing now,
one who escaped
the rest who didn't
and it's a cycle
it's a cycle that grinds millions into the ground
burnt, dismembered, starved, maimed
and I am listening to the radio.
And I am listening to the radio.

Thursday, 3 February 2022

'The Responder' - tragedy, comedy and 'genre'

 I watched 'The Responder' and it got me thinking about tragedy, comedy and genre. Traditionally, tragedy involves such elements as a flawed hero (or more than one main protagonist), who comes into conflict with the customs/culture/politics of the time or, for some reason, is plotted against. The end usually involves the death of the hero/heroes, and possibly some or even many others. While the tragedy unfolds we probably have a sense of doom and danger. There will be transgressions and/or fatal errors along the way. Revenge may be involved too. Traditionally, at the very end, after the deaths, there may well be the expression of renewal. 

Comedy may or may not be particularly comic. The defining characteristic of tradition comedy in drama is that all the plot lines resolve. If it involves love and sex, many of the people will end up as couples. On the way, there may well be ironic or even sad or tragic moments but they are, as I suggest, 'on the way'. 

There are interesting political differences between the two genres. Tragedy traditionally involves the hero in conflict with the social norms or even the politics of whoever is in power. Comedy may well involve conflict but quite often this is social and will express tensions to do with class or social expectations around the behaviour of men and women.  

The main way we have absorbed ideas about tragedy and comedy in Britain has been through Shakespeare and/or films or TV dramas that adopt the motifs and tropes from Shakespeare. Shakespeare, it is said, used Roman tragedy as his model but the plays are said to work some interesting variations on the genres. 'Romeo and Juliet' has two tragic heroes who come into conflict with the social and class ambitions of their parents and the rules of the governing power,  but Juliet is more dominant in that respect. 'Twelfth Night' is a comedy but the fate of Malvolio and the commentary from Feste offer us something different.

Shakespeare also created 'problem plays' that don't seem to fall into the traditional categories. 'Measure for Measure' is regarded as a prime example of this. (Aside: I'm not quite sure who the problem plays are a problem for. I rather like 'Measure for Measure'. It doesn't seem to me to be a problem.)

Now to 'The Responder'. As I was watching it, it seemed to be unfolding as a tragedy: we had a flawed hero, who was going against society's norms. There was danger, plenty of error and doom. There was a nasty death (murder), in the later part of the series which seemed to suggest that there was more to come. But no! The series ended with resolution, the main pair and a sub-plot pair overcame their problems and got together. Whatever transgressions there were, (ie crimes), were washed away in the resolution. There was no punishment - actual or metaphorical - for the crimes. 

So, was it a mix of traditional genres? We could easily envisage other endings - either the hero gets killed and/or some innocents who got caught in the crossfire. Why did the film-makers not go down that route? 

But those questions are irrelevant if it worked. So, did it work, dramatically, emotionally, socially, politically? There seemed to be a social commentary going on to do with people living on the edge, being hard up and trying to solve things illegally. Traditionally, that might well have ended up in death but instead it ended up in the ending we think comedy...hmmm....conundrum. 

I'm left with questions and a sense of unease.

(Great acting throughout, though! I was gripped.)

Sunday, 30 January 2022

My father's uncle Martin and the Holocaust


Here's a third piece that I have recently written for History Works and Professor Helen Weinstein to be used by school students for their presentations. It was for this year's Holocaust Memorial day. 

At mealtimes

our father would say to us:

‘You know - I had two French uncles

they lived in France.

They were there before the war

but they weren’t there at the end.’

We sat there 

not knowing what to think.

‘What happened to them?’

We’d say.

‘I don’t know,’ he’d say

‘They probably died in the camps,’

he’d say.


What camps?

We didn’t know about camps

where people went 

and never came back..

It was mysterious

and awful.

It made us sad

and afraid.

My brother said

it gave him nightmares…

l thought of the Tower of London

dark grey, 

the prison

the torture chamber in there.

I didn’t know what they were really like.

As years went by

I found out about these camps.

I started to research

to find out what happened to my father’s uncles:

I went to libraries

I looked online

I wrote emails.

I went to America

to talk to relatives there.

More libraries

more searching online

more emails.

Bit by bit

I started to find things

about my father’s two uncles.

Martin and Jeschie.

It’s like I was tracking them down.

I found out that Martin and Jeschie 

lived in eastern France

but when the war broke out

they - like millions of others

took to the roads.

they fled to the villages and towns of western France

They called it The Exodus.

Let me tell you about what happened to Martin.

I found a trace of him

first in a little seaside place

with a group of others from the east.

Because they were Jewish

they had to wear a yellow star.

One document said that Martin

refused to use his clothing ration 

to make the yellow star.

Then he moved to a village inland.

I wondered:

did he run away?

Was he in trouble because he protested about the

yellow star?

He was with his brother-in-law - who was not Jewish - 

and they were staying with a landlady.

I wondered

were they hiding?

It was 1943.

Everyone knew that Jews were being rounded up

and deported.

No one knew where they were being deported to

but they knew that no one was coming back.

They called this place Pitchipoï.

One day,

the German Kommandant in the nearest city 

issued a command.

‘All Jews present in the region must be arrested in the first hours of January 31, 1944 and they must be transferred as soon as possible to the closed camp of Drancy’. 

The command went to the Prefect.

The Prefect gave the command to the Sub-Prefect.

The Sub-Prefect gave the command to the French police:

the gendarmes.

On that One Day

January 31, 1944

at 2.30 in the morning

four gendarmes called at the door of Martin’s landlady.

Martin opened the door, 

the gendarmes arrested him

and they took him to the nearby town

where other gendarmes gathered together

all the Jews of the region.

Then the gendarmes wrote up their report.

I wonder did they do this back at the police station

or in the village cafe, perhaps? 

They wrote that Martin Rozen

was born on 18 August 1890

in Krosniewice in Poland.

They wrote that he was naturalised French

they wrote that he was of the Jewish race.

They wrote that he was 1m 62 tall.

with dark brown hair,

brown eyes

he had a scar

he had an oval face.

He was wearing yellow cotton trousers

and a grey cotton jacket.

Were these his pyjamas, I wondered.

It was the middle of the night.

He was wearing a Basque beret

  • had he put it on to be polite? 

I wondered.

He was wearing flat shoes on his feet.

Were they his bedroom slippers?

I wondered.

All four gendarmes signed the report.

That’s what they did on that One Day.

That was their work. 

Martin was taken to the Drancy Camp

from there he was taken to Paris Bobigny station

where he was put into a cattle truck

on a train that went straight from Paris

to Auschwitz 

This was Convoy 68, 

carrying 1500 Jewish men, women and children

on one day February 10 1944. 

Out of the 1500, 42 came back.

Martin was not one of them.

I often look

at the gendarmes’ report.

It’s careful.

It’s neat.

it has a lot of detail.

The details of what happened

on that One day 

January 31 1944

That’s why my father said to us,

‘You know - I had two French uncles

they lived in France

They were there before the war

but they weren’t there at the end.’

But my father didn’t live long enough

for me to tell him

what I had found out about 

what happened to Martin. 

He never knew. 

Family history and the holocaust

 Further to the previous post about Professor Helen Weinstein asking me to write poems for school students to work on as part of Holocaust Memorial Day. This one is for a narrated mime-dance sequence performed by secondary students. I wrote it a few days ago.

Helen will post up the links of me reading these pieces very soon.

My Father’s Cousin Michael

Family stories
come to us in bits and pieces.
They are told and retold.
Sometimes they are the same.
Sometimes they change.
Sometimes I remember.
Sometimes I forget.
I try to hold on to these stories.
I write them down.
I gather together copies of documents
letters, photos.
Sometimes the stories are in my head.
Sometimes they are in the bits of paper.
Sometimes they are in the things
I’ve seen or imagined I’ve seen.
It begins with a station
in Dąbrowa Gornicza.
There must have been a train ticket
or, some say, two.
There is a woman
she is my father’s aunt Stella.
There is a man, Stella’s husband Bernard.
There is a teenager, their son, Michael.
Michael gets on the train.
Does his mother go with him?
Michael is going to Lvov - some call it Lviv.
They think it’ll be safer for him there.
Why safer?
Because the Nazis
have ideas about what they want to do with
the Jews.
Some people are saying
that the Nazis want to deport the Jews.
Some people are saying
that the Nazis want to make them slave labourers.
Some people are saying
that the Nazis want to send them to prison camps.
Some people are saying
that the Nazis want to shoot them.
Everyone has stories.
Everyone has an opinion.
Michael goes to Lvov.
His mother and father
are in Dabrowa Gornicza
He is a teenager
without his parents.
Is he with relatives or friends?
His mum and dad write to him:
are you alright?
we are desperately worried about you.
please write back.
Write to your uncle in America
Uncle Max.
Maybe you can stay with him.
In this part of Poland
there are no Nazis.
There are Russians.
The Russians say that this is Russia now
and Michael must become Russian.
He refuses.
So they take him to a labour camp
in Russia,
where he must work all day
cutting trees and lugging timber.
Then the Nazis invade Poland
and then on into Russia.
The Russians talk to the Poles
and they agree there can be a
Polish Free Army
some call it Anders Army
because it is led by General Anders.
Michael joins the Polish Army.
The letters from home stop coming.
Now begins a long march
out of Russia, through Iran
through Palestine
sometimes fighting
sometimes just moving on and on.
Then on to boats
to Italy.
Up through Italy
to a place called Monte Cassino
Here there is a very famous battle
lasting many days.
The German troops are in a monastery
at the top of the mountain called
Monte Cassino.
The Polish army fights its way all the way
up the mountain to the monastery
and they win.
Many men die.
But Michael lives.
When the war ends
Michael travels by boat
with the Polish Army to England.
All the Poles are put into
special camps in England called
Polish Resettlement Camps.
Michael lives here for two years.
He doesn’t hear from his mother or father.
He hears that
there were ‘ghettos’ where parts of towns
were turned into prisons.
And there were camps
where people were put to death
or died of starvation, disease or overwork.
He hears that nearly all the Polish Jews
have been killed.
He can go back to Poland if he wants.
He decides to stay in England.
He has some addresses that he remembers:
his uncles in France
his uncle Max in America
his aunt in London.
He decides to go and see his aunt in London
and arrives at her house one day in 1948
8 years after that day
he said goodbye to his parents.
He stays for a while
he trains to be a London cabbie.
He marries.
He has two sons.
He lives for a long, long time.
One day Uncle Max’s grandson
in America
finds some old photos in a box in a cupboard.
One of them is of Michael
in Poland, as a teenager, walking down a street
with his mother and aunt.
When Michael sees it
he is amazed.
‘Mesmerised,’ his son says.
When he is very old
he begins to be forgetful.
He goes to live in a Jewish Care Home in London.
With him, he has a photo of his mother
he has the letters
in a little canvas bag with a flap
that tucks into a strip of canvas.
The letters are faded
and some of them are worn.
Maybe worn from his finger and thumbs
turning them over and over and over
again and again.
At the end of his life
sometimes he speaks with all the languages he knew:
Polish, Yiddish and English.
Michael died in 2021.
This was a time when there were Covid restrictions.
We couldn’t have the service inside.
The service was outside.
Some of us were cold.
We thought of Michael
and all that he’d been through.
I thought that even if I was cold
I was not as cold as Michael was
in the Russian labour camp in winter
wondering if he would ever see his parents again.
I wondered what it would be like
to live the whole of the rest of your life
only having those letters and the photo…
and not knowing exactly what happened
to your own mother and father