Lest We Forget

Last week it was the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. There were a number of programmes I watched on the television. Terrible times. The survivors’ stories never cease to shock and appal. The ritual humiliation, removal of citizens’ rights, rampant propaganda, extreme nationalism gradually increased until no one could be in any doubt what the Nazi attitude to the Jews was.

The television programmes include scenes of concentration camps being liberated by British troops, the words of Richard Dimbleby reporting on what he witnessed at Bergen-Belsen. Ordinary soldiers spoke of the shock and horror they felt. This is a story with which I am familiar: Allied troops as heroes, liberators, saviours. And indeed they were.

I have only recently become familiar with another story, thanks to a meticulously researched biography by Jack Fairweather, of a former Polish cavalry officer Witold Pilecki. He was a member of the Warsaw resistance. When his group learned of the existence of Auschwitz he volunteered to be captured so that he would be taken there so he could learn what was going on and organise a break out. He managed to smuggle a message out and was hopeful help would come. It did not. He persevered, continuing to document and pass on details of the barbarities he witnessed: the creation of the first gas chamber, the creation of a new camp called Birkenau. His comrades in the the resistance passed the information to the Polish government in exile who shared it with the allies, begging them to act. They did not.

Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill believed the genocide of Jews merited a direct response, and one British diplomat even said the Poles wee “being very irritating over this”.

Perhaps it is because we find it hard to believe stories of acts of such evil if we do not see them for ourselves that we can shut our ears and minds to them. In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing he writes “He said the wicked know that if the evil they do is of sufficient horror men will not speak of it. That men have only stomach for small evils and only these will they oppose.”

But small evils gathered together become large ones. As John Dryden wrote of ill habits, they “gather by unseen degrees, as brooks make rivers, rivers run to seas” until something on the scale of the Holocaust happens. Continue reading

A Dickens of a Farrago

This morning, as is my habit, I scanned the email I receive daily from the Guardian media group that gives me details of the top stories. One headline caught my eye: a shadow cabinet minister had resigned because of a tweet she had sent during the Rochester by-election. Ed Milliband, her party leader was said to have been furious, or some similar adjective, about the tweet. Rochester is a city of two halves, and one where people will shortly be donning bonnets, shawls and loud waistcoats for the annual Dickensian Christmas festival. I clicked, wondering idly if she had called Nigel Farage a farrago, or some such thing, and saw a picture of a house where someone’s idea of exterior decoration appeared to be flags over the windows. St George’s flags. St George being the patron saint of England. Actually he’s the patron saint of various other places too, including Barcelona, but excluding Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so a pretty strange flag for a supporter of a party purporting to stand for the whole of the UK to display. She’d tagged it Image from #Rochester. That was it. Yet apparently some people, including members of her own party, thought it “derogatory and dismissive of the people”. Others have accused her of snobbery. It’s the sort of picture I might take myself. Continue reading

Of Chilled Water, Cider and The Scottish Referendum

Why is chilled water, particularly if it has ice cubes in it, suddenly so much nicer to drink than water straight from the tap? This summer I became addicted to ice cubes in glasses of water. Now I have revived my water filter jug and chilled water from the fridge is available all day.

But I have also found a new pleasure; bottled cider. It’s not really new. when I was a child we would often have cider with Sunday lunch, drinking it from my grandmother’s cut glass goblets that my sister now owns. It is a drink I sometimes enjoy if we stop at a pub when we go walking. But not a drink I buy to have at home.

That changed a few weeks back when I wanted a cold drink on a hot evening and decided to open the bottle of cider that had been resident in the fridge door since Christmas. The opening took a few days, as I realised I no longer had a bottle opener.

Eventually I noticed that the can opener had a hooked thing on the end, and correctly matched this to the bottle top. I can’t say I had high expectations, but it was delicious. More time passed, and then I saw there was an array of ciders in M&S, and they were on offer. Counties in the north and south of England trumpeted their claims as the land’s chief cider sources, though I admit I was checking closely that none said the word sweet. Sweet cider is an abomination; an alcoholic equivalent of Coca Cola. So Hereford cider and Somerset cider have found their ways onto my shopping list. It would be better for my waistline, liver and pocket if they hadn’t.

I strogly suspect they are more calorific than wines, so I am not reading the labels too carefully. Someone who had enrolled at WeightWatchers told me mournfully that a glass of wine is the calorific equivalent of a cream cake. I imagine a fact like that is supposed to make you stop drinking wine; seeing mille-feuilles and choclate eclairs in each glass. I rarely eat cream cakes, so somehow, I felt I was already being sufficiently restrained.

A friend joined Scottish Slimmers (WeightWatchers north of the border) several years ago. The pounds fell off, but hearing her quote from the manual reduced her social circle. There is something very depressing about conversations that all incude references to weight loss. We haven’t had much communication recently. Although the holder of a French passport, she’ll be able to vote in next week’s referendum, and I strongly suspect she’ll be voting Yes. She has taken to talking scathingly of ‘down south’, as if it is some lesser place of dubious culture and vision. Continue reading