Early Sunday Morning
Chanan – Part 1
Some say they sense the moment someone they’re close to dies, but the morning after Bettie had been killed, he did wake to a feeling of extreme anxiety yet didn’t countenance even for a second that she might be dead. Instead, he reasoned she was now safe, outside the city. The night before, he had tried to get to the police station to meet her but had to give up when he wasn’t let through. After that ordeal, he returned to their evacuated, now unguarded apartment block, got into their bed alone, smelt her scent upon their pillows, and then slept.
The following morning, as he got out of bed, he noticed a trace of acrid smoke in the air. Worrying it might be coming from inside the building, he opened a window. The cold river mist touched his face, his skin felt tight. The smoke was in the wind and not from inside, relieved he pulled the window shut as the crack of distant gunshots went unnoticed.
He looked down into the street where, a couple of his co-workers stood with a group of men, wanting to know what was going on, he put his gloves and hat on, then made his way to them. As he approached, he asked, “Do any of you know what’s going on?” They shook their heads, but one who he’d chatted to at work a few times previously looked at him and said, “We’ve been told we can’t stay here anymore, and we’ll have to sleep in the bakery tonight.” So, Chanan went back to their apartment, collected some of their belongings then made his way to work.
* * *
Veronique – Part 1 – Summer 1983
I was still in bed when John called up to me at 11 am, “There’s a woman called Veronique on the phone for you.”
I made my way down as quickly as I could, where John handed me the receiver while laughing embarrassedly to the caller, “I’m very sorry, he’s only just got up, here he is.”
Not quite sure who it was, I enquired, “Hello, Veronique?”
I recognised the voice but couldn’t quite place it at first, it was high-pitched, almost childlike, “Hello, Simon, I don’t know if you remember me, but you lent me a book when you came to my place in Epsom a while back?”
As I realised who it was I knew this wasn’t just about returning the book, there’d been a thing between us that afternoon, something in the way our eyes had met that spoke of things to come. “Oh yes, of course, I remember you,” I said, “How are you?”
“Well, I’m as alright as I can be,” She paused, “I’ve moved to a flat a few miles from you, so I was just wondering if you wanted to pick the book up at some point?”
“Yes, that would be good”
“I would’ve sent it in the post or come to you, but I can’t really venture out much with, you know, my agoraphobia.”
“No, that’s fine, actually I, I could come this afternoon.”
“Really, that’d be lovely.”
So, she gave me her address and we made our arrangements.
* * *
The ideology of community – 1972
For many of us who lived on Roundshaw, there was an acute sense of being perceived as outsiders by those who lived in the surrounding areas. In a way, that was precisely what we were because a lot of the families who’d initially moved on to the estate had come from the East End of London, and their cultures were very different to those of the more genteel and mainly middle-class inhabitants of Wallington. This awareness of being perceived as outsiders caused us Roundshaw folk to see ourselves as connected to each other, even if in many ways we really weren’t, but being our enemy’s enemy meant we felt both stigma and pride when we identified as being from Roundshaw.
The word Wallington is derived from the Anglo-Saxon term for ‘village of the Britons’, (“Wealh” – Foreigner; Briton, Welshman “Ing” – Belonging to and “Tun” – Enclosure, settlement, town). To the Saxons, the Britons were strangers, which was ironic given the Britons were, comparatively speaking, the indigenous people.
* * *
Sunil and NF story
Diary entry 11th March 1981:
“At the bus stop, someone had stuck some racist National Front Stickers on the bus post. Sunil took them down for me. On the bus, I saw Penny, we carried on our discussion about equal rights and politics. I said I didn’t think there should be specific seats just for disabled people on buses. I thought all the seats should be available for anyone with greater needs.”
When I read this, 40 years later, I couldn’t help but laugh at the line, “Sunil took it down for me”. Wrong on so many levels. White saviour, white master, white victim.
* * *
Racism – Part 1
The term racism didn’t exist till 1902, which makes me wonder what terms will come about in the future for the bad things we’re doing now that we’re currently unaware of.
* * *
Racism had been a big issue in British society for a few decades by the time Sunil and I were confronted by the National Front sticker at the bus stop. While more nebulous views about race and racism existed within certain circles then, for most of us the idea of race was centred on skin colour and ethnic culture. Now 42 years on, racism is still one of the most important societal issues, but the views around it are far more generally accepted as being complicated. Not only are they complex, but for many, it has become an issue they’d rather avoid, not because they’re pro-racism, but because they’re scared of saying the wrong thing. Given racism of some sort or another is behind many of the stories in this book I wanted to touch on the subject briefly, no matter how uncomfortable it might be to do so. As you’ve probably realised, I like to live dangerously.
* * *
Veronique Part 2
To get to Veronique’s involved taking a bus to Hackbridge which wasn’t far, and from where I disembarked, I walked the empty streets to her place. The sun shone on these roads in such a way it accentuated their bleakness and as I went from one to the next, they all looked the same. As I searched, I felt as if I was walking within a surrealist painting. Many of the streets I’d walk in London back then were nearly always devoid of people, whereas now they’re often filled with passers-by, the majority of whom are so transfixed by their mobile phones, music, and digital worlds that the same surreal, dislocated, and desolate quality remains.
When I first saw Edward Hopper’s painting, Early Sunday Morning, I felt it illustrated this feeling perfectly, but I doubt the road in the painting, 7th Avenue, in Manhattan, currently ever feels as empty as it did back when hopper placed the first marks on the canvas.
Someone had spilt a bag of sand on the pavement, as I walked over it, I added a wavy line with the side of my shoe, I looked up from my great work of art and realised I was close to Veronique’s house, I noticed the front garden was over-grown, so, wondering if I’d got the right address, I stood at the gate while I checked. A man in his late 60s ambled out of the door to the left of hers and looked at me. I smiled and asked if Veronique lived there. He was holding a spade which he dug into the earth and leant on it.
“I’d keep away from her if I was you, she’s nothing but trouble.”
“Music to my ears,” I thought but decided it’d be better to tell him I was from the church and had come to help her. His eyes widened, “You’ve got your work cut out there, father.”
I was dressed in black but was a bit shocked he could so easily have believed me, but not wanting to discuss matters further, I bowed my head slightly and walked to the front entrance. When the door opened, I was tempted to look at the bloke and pretend I’d been violently dragged in, but I just smiled at him, which brought his presence to Veronique’s attention, who after greeting me pleasantly, huffed as we walked down the corridor and added, “He’s such a nosey old git, he keeps making passes at me, and doesn’t seem to be getting the hint.”
I smiled, “He thinks I’m a vicar”
“Does he?” she laughed, “he’s as blind as a bat, he probably looks in the mirror and thinks he’s good-looking.”
While the streets had been unusually empty, Veronique’s place was completely the opposite. The living room was full of stuff, every surface was covered in clothes, magazines, and boxes.
“Sorry it’s such a mess, I haven’t unpacked yet.”
Still in vicar mode, I said, “It’s ok, you should see my room.”
Although having now seen her place I realised I was quite tidy after all, relatively speaking.
“Sit down, sit down,” she said as she cleared some papers from a big red sofa.
“Oh, while I remember, here’s the book.” She handed me my copy of Chastity, Poverty and Obedience, “Thank you for lending it to me, it was very interesting. Mind you when it comes to poverty and chastity, I can’t say I ever got much choice in the matter.”
“What about obedience?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, without laughing, “being a feminist, I try to avoid doing what I’m told, especially by men, and as I’ve got cats, I don’t think I’m the kind to expect it from others. Do you want a cup of tea?”
“Yes please.” I was going to request 2 sugars but thought it best not to make any demands in case they were perceived as being too patriarchal, especially given I had just posed as a father of what some might deem one of the most male-controlled organisations in the world.
She smiled, the way one does at a dog who lifts its paw on command then said, “I’ll just put the kettle on.”
I was going to follow her but scared of what unsanitary conditions I might find, I waited and a few minutes later I was relieved to see her holding a little round tin tray with 2 very clean mugs, a small plate of biscuits and a bowl of sugar lumps. As she sat down, she placed the tray on her lap and passed me my tea, saying, “Let me know if it’s too hot,” I touched it and said it was fine.
“I’m so glad you’ve come,” she said, “I really felt you were the only one who showed a genuine interest in me when we met in Epsom, that day.”
I was thinking, “Well, that’s only because I fancied you”, but instead I asked what had happened with the church group who were praying for her. It was then she told me how they’d blamed her for things not working and accused her of being evil.
I don’t know why, and out of nowhere, I got the feeling she’d been sexually abused as a child, so I asked her if she had. If wasn’t anything psychic, it’s just she was very pretty, seemed to have boundary issues, and a whole host of psychological disorders, including anorexia, manic depression, (as it was known then) and agoraphobia. I wasn’t saying the abuse was the only cause, but in my mind, even at 18, I could see there was a link.
“Wow,” she said, “Yes I was, but I don’t want to talk about it if that’s ok, why do you ask?”
I shrugged, “I don’t know, I just got a feeling”
She sighed, “I know those people you met that day didn’t help much, but I do find my faith in God helps me a lot. Are you a Christian?”
I was tempted to say I’d very recently been ordained a vicar, but noticing a Cliff Richard record cover across the room, I said, “I’ve got that album.”
She shrieked, “What you like Cliff too?”
“Yes, I love some of his songs”
She looked a bit wary at my use of the word “Some”.
She stood up, then performed a jeté across the room to the album.
“Hold on, I’ll play you my favourite song.”
The first track she played was ‘Miss you Nights’
“Oh, I love this one so much, it’s so romantic,” she said, closing her eyes and throwing her head back. The strap on her red vest fell off her shoulder. I wanted to laugh, but I was also entranced as she started to slowly sway her hips and run her hands up and down the tops of her arms.
“Come here, Simon, don’t be embarrassed, come dance with me.”
Yes, I was embarrassed but I was turned on too, so I got up and stood in front of her. “Hold me,” she whispered, then put her arms on my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes and by the end of the song we were both naked next to each other on the sofa. We kissed and stroked each other for a while and sometime after the album finished playing she started talking to my cock as if it was an ice lolly, which disturbingly, yet again, was a bit of a turn-on.
Veronique’s face was stunning, but her body was so thin that I found it disconcerting. Maybe that was the reason we didn’t go much further but instead ended up chatting in each other’s arms for a few hours. As I got ready to leave, I was very conscious I’d come to use her for my own desires and wasn’t genuinely concerned about her, but even so, we arranged to meet up the following weekend, and just as I was about to leave, she joked, “More tea vicar?” So, we had one more cup for the empty surreal road.
* * *
Racism – Part 2 – Race and Racism
If we’re going to talk about racism then the definition of race would seem an obvious place to start, yet even that isn’t simple and to some extent is perilously contentious. For some, the notion of race is tied to geographically based gene pools which affect the physical appearance of those who share these genes. However, throughout the last 60 years, there have been fierce arguments within the scientific, anthropological, and political arenas countering such beliefs, with the main thrust being that racial identity is something that is constructed within a society to identify “others” as a separate ‘race’, while biologically speaking, the differences between each other may be far less significant. The notion of there being any biological differences between ‘racial groups’ made it possible to argue that in certain situations these may offer either advantages or weaknesses, but that viewpoint carried with it the potential for a return to ideologies that could well result in genocide, death and persecution, so, no matter whether there was any truth in it, it was shunned at all cost. Of course, the arguments go a lot further than those covered here, but in order to avoid going off on too great a tangent I think most of us would agree the concept of race is central to the issue of racism, therefore, in some way, it must exist, whether it be socially constructed or based in biology. The thing is believing which of those definitions is closer to the truth will have a profound effect on not only how we think racism comes about, but also which solutions may be most appropriate when it comes to eradicating it.
Compounding the matter further is the effect culture plays when it comes to how we categorise “others”, and while of course, this is wholly separate from gene pools, often the two go hand in hand. Likewise, other issues such as language have a profound effect on how we classify others. After all, if someone’s native language is not the same as ours, we can’t help but wonder if their ideas about the universe differ because language is so tied up with how we perceive the world around us, and that coupled with someone’s speech not sounding correct to us, indicates misunderstandings between us are more likely. For some, simply the notion of having a different view of the universe, especially as a result of culture or religion, may also be another way in which people may be racially classified.
As you can see, when it comes to how we identify “others” as a different race, it goes a lot further than just physical appearance, while simultaneously illustrating how transitory such classifications are within society as it evolves through time.
* * *
Latvia – 1941 – The Bakery
Soon after Chanan had turned up to work a meeting was called. The main manager stood on a staircase in front of everyone, while a few steps up from him an SS officer leaned against the handrail.
“Good morning, all, as you know we have been under siege and the German army has been kind enough to offer our families safe passage to less hostile areas. Meanwhile, I have been asked to inform you that they have arrived and are settling in nearby. Unfortunately, it has also been deemed necessary that all essential Jewish workers, such as your good selves, remain on site for the foreseeable future, and work double shifts, this way we can send food to our families as well as our liberators.”
One of the men shouted, “When can we see our families?”
The manager looked at the SS Officer who straightened his back and pointed one finger to the sky, “We hope, one week, but in the meantime, some of you will help with the deliveries, so maybe you will see them on your travels.”
There was a slight ruffle from the workers but the manager’s expression made it clear it was best not to ask too many questions. “Ok, everyone, let’s get back to work,” He wasn’t Jewish but didn’t harbour any overt anti-Semitic sentiments. To him, his Jewish employees were hard-working, honourable Latvians. So, when, after the first delivery run, the men he sent out did not come back he knew he had unknowingly become part of the Nazi apparatus. He wanted to call a meeting and tell the workers to escape if they could, but there were Nazi guards all around, and what good would it do, how far would they get?
Chanan did his work as normal, he avoided speaking to anyone, and walked away when it looked like someone wanted to talk to him, but this was not going to be enough. What the Nazis wanted was for Jew to turn on Jew. They were not just interested in keeping the supplies of bread coming, they also wanted to find out which Jews could be relied on to betray their brothers and sisters to stay alive and in time, these would become Kapos, also known as “prisoner self-administrators.” Kapos were renowned for being as vile or even more so than the Nazis themselves, and with them in place, far fewer SS guards would be required to deal with the day-to-day organisation of ghettos and concentration camps.
The next day there were 103 workers left and instead of a double shift, they were made to work for 18 hours nonstop. If anyone became too ill to carry on, they were marked for delivery duty. No one attempted to openly question what was going on or what had happened to their families, the idea they were being executed was unfathomable, so they preferred to believe that those who were ill had been shown mercy and were with their families nearby, and meanwhile, it was up to them to continue working to get as much bread to their families as possible. Within days though, they came to understand they’d lose everything if they didn’t comply, and though they’d joked before about being slaves, they now realised they were.
* * *
Racism – Part 3 – The importance of Slavery
As John Brown predicted the sin of slavery was washed away by a whole lot of blood (And treasure).
The issue of slavery has been interlinked with racism for a long time and is often used, legitimately, within arguments to do with racism. However, I wanted to bring it up here because slavery, in all its varying forms, has existed for millennia in all parts of the world and it’s only in recent times that it has been globally outlawed with the United Nations General Assembly adopting the declaration of human rights in 1948. Yet there are more slaves now than the total number of victims of the 400-year-long Transatlantic Slave Trade. My point is, we can accuse those in the past with links to the slave trade, and those in the present who still benefit from the profits made then, but very few of us have unbloodied hands because all of us are profiting from slavery now, at least, indirectly.
What people tend to overlook is the very uncomfortable truth, that every successful empire has relied on slavery, including our current ones. There are far too many to list here but for starters, the wage slaves of the black economy, foreign and local sweatshops, child mineral miners, extreme exploitation throughout the world and of course, a great amount of unpaid work, especially that provided by women in our own societies too.
Throughout the Trans-Atlantic slave trade era there were around 14 to 20 million slaves taken from Africa and 1.25 million white slaves taken from Europe to Africa, most of whom were treated abhorrently in every conceivable way, and please, I don’t want to diminish in any way their suffering of those back then, nor the affects this still has on people now, in fact, I’d prefer to use it to remind us of the plight of the estimated 50 million people enslaved throughout the world currently. Obviously, industries no longer legally pack tens of thousands of people into commercially designed ships, nor do people generally see slavery as acceptable, but, if we consider just one of the many hundreds of definitions of modern slavery then that may resonate a little.
“When an individual is exploited by others, for personal or commercial gain. Whether tricked, coerced, or forced, they lose their freedom.” Antislavery.org. Whether it’s Sex Trafficking, Child Sex Trafficking, Forced Labour, Bonded/Debt Bondage, Domestic Servitude, Forced Child Labour including using children to fight as soldiers, if force, threats of force, fraud, coercion, psychological coercion, abuse of the legal process, deception, or other coercive means compel them to work then this is slavery.
I have heard some dismiss this as not being the same as the enslavement of Black Africans by European and American Slave traders but is it possible our lack of focus on modern slavery comes from a form of guilt? If we were to see it as equally revolting, would we not have to face the fact that we, like our transatlantic slave era ancestors, will not only ask, “What can we do about it?”, but we’d also have to acknowledge that, maybe it suits us to turn a blind eye, after all, we benefit so much from these sacrificial lambs, probably far more than we’d like to admit. And as uncomfortable as that may be for us, it’s precisely the realisation that we need slaves, and we can’t deny this truth that’s possibly fuelling the rush towards the automation era. The robots are coming to save the day and they’ll be here very, very, soon, but probably not soon enough for the next 50 million slaves.
* * *
Technology – Ideology
Technology has already had a massive impact on our world. In the ‘80s we started to spend the night with it, in the ‘90s we became engaged, and sometime in the noughties, we kind of drunkenly got married, so now, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, there’s no practical escape. To some degree, many of us have signed up for the ideology of technology. We may argue technology is destroying the world, but because we wrote that argument on an electronic device it’s hard to take such beliefs seriously. And even if we did mean every word, will we refuse medical care in an emergency because it uses technology?
Just as with every ideology, there’s always a catch. For all its saving graces, will technology lead to the end of us, after all, if robots can do everything then what’s the point of having surplus humans? And if that’s the cookies crumble, will we shake our heads knowingly and say, “It’s a cruel, cruel virtual world”?
* * *
10th February 2023 – AI and I
There’s been a lot more talk about Artificial Intelligence lately, especially in terms of art, writing and computer programming. So, when an advert appeared on Facebook about AI chatbots, I clicked on it and was immediately taken to a Google Chrome Extension page where I could download the app to my internet browser. I did so and within half an hour a hacker had changed the phone number and email address of my Facebook account and locked me out. I quickly reported this to Facebook whose own AI bots disabled my account immediately. Four days later I still couldn’t get my account back and the only communication I had was with those AI bots, who seemed to have modelled themselves on brick walls.
AI may be the way forward one day, but not yet.
* * *
A week had passed and just as we had arranged, I was due to spend the night at Veronique’s. I gave her a call just before setting off to check all was ok and it was then she asked me to buy a bottle of something on the way to hers. Because I don’t drink I bought a bottle of port, it had the word wine somewhere on the label, albeit just after the word fortified and anyway, it was cheap and sounded posh. As far as I was concerned, I’d done what was asked of me, however when I showed it to her on my arrival, she laughed and told me she’d meant a bottle of wine. I tried not to look confused and changed the subject. We’d arranged for me to come over on Saturday night and stay till Sunday afternoon, but I informed her I had to visit a friend in East London on Sunday so would have to set off early. As you can imagine this didn’t start things off too well, but even so, we had a couple of glasses of port, which I actually liked the taste of, had a meal and a chat, then Veronique led me to her bedroom.
“Hold on,” I said, “I need a pee.”
She laughed, “You really haven’t got the hang of romance, have you.”
I laughed too and made my way to the bathroom. As I lifted the loo seat up, I was confronted by about 5 very small flower-shaped poos, which I have to admit did rather impress me at the time. Years later, I felt a little sad when, after I had cats of my own, I came to realise that they weren’t poos at all, but cat biscuits. After my loo interlude, still haunted by Veronique’s self-identification as a feminist, I carefully and silently lowered the toilet seat, then returned to the bedroom, where I got undressed and cuddled up with her.
“Finally,” I thought, “I’m going to have sex.”
* * *
Racism – Part 4 – Stereotypes
For decades throughout the last century and into this one too, a focus on issues especially around race, sexism, sexuality, disability, immigration, transgender, religions, the environment, globalisation and many other ideologies have been at the forefront of politics. Given these are all highly charged and divisive subjects, is it any surprise that humour, especially politically incorrect humour, also focuses on those same issues?
We are often very quick to point out that politically incorrect humour can reinforce our stereotypical views, and in turn, that can be very dangerous, but deep down we all know stereotypes are useful too. Yes, they’re harmful, especially when they go unchallenged and are taken to extremes but given we’re going to naturally form such ideas anyway, we probably do so because they have some evolutionary value too.
Sociological, psychological and market research involves forms of stereotyping because it often categorises individuals based on their group identity. Therefore, is what we do naturally our way of modelling the world around us so we can deal with it more successfully? Well, more successfully for us, even if it’s at the expense of those we stereotype.
We may shun the notion of there being common traits within groups, and even if we accept they exist, we may still get caught up in arguments about whether such qualities are due to nature or nurture. And on top of that, we’ll probably also struggle with our desires to either stereotype or dismiss such generalising, even though we know both are valuable and risky simultaneously.
In 2015 Trevor Phillips, the one-time leader of the equal opportunities commission in the UK, presented a television program for Channel 4 in which he confronted some uncomfortable truths about racial stereotypes. Yes, he said, Jewish people, who make up just 0.5% of the UK’s population, disproportionately make up the higher echelons of the business world with one-fifth of the UK’s billionaires being Jewish. Of course, such stereotypes make us feel uncomfortable because they were the same as those used by the Nazis to justify their murder of 6 million Jews, even though, by definition, such figures also make it clear most Jewish people are not billionaires too.
Phillips, who is black himself, then stated figures which show black men are far more likely to commit violent crimes against other black people in the UK, but of course, those same statistics also revealed most black men are not violent too. Likewise, many anti-establishment groups are quick to point out the police can often be trigger-happy, especially when dealing with people of colour. Yet most police officers do not commit such crimes.
Paradoxically, he concluded, a tide of racism against white people had come about, most likely as a result of more recent views about historical slavery, colonialism, and more recent waves of racism, especially within the police and other official institutions. This had led both people of colour and some white communities to formulate a new doctrine in which all whites are alike, all whites are guilty, and no white should criticise a non-white. And even when this was pointed out to those who perpetuated it as being just as flawed as any other stereotype, it was seen as justified because it gave white people a “taste of their own medicine” and was a vengeance for European colonialism, the fruits of which are still being enjoyed disproportionately by white communities today. [And obviously non-white ones too.]
* * *
When I put my first music album together, I was torn between calling the band Simon Smith and the Stereotypes or Simon Smith and The Useless Eaters, I went for the latter because around that time Nabil Shaban, a well-known disability issue-based activist, wrote an article about the law in the UK allowing doctors to terminate disabled neonates right up to the moment before their birth if the doctor delivering them felt their quality of life wasn’t worth living.
Had a doctor looked at me on an ultra-scan what do you think they’d have decided back in 1965? For most doctors, their stereotypical view of a disabled person’s life would most likely be one in which they wouldn’t be able to see a quality of life worth pursuing. Even in 1994 when me and my partner, who was pregnant, went to see the consultant obstetrician, his initial reaction was to look at my arms then look at us and state, “Surely this can’t be a planned pregnancy?” I was quick to tell him that firstly there was no evidence my disability was hereditary, and even if it was, I was living a much fuller life than many non-disabled people. He looked at me as if I was mad. This man was a consultant, but when it came to disability issues, he had no idea what he was talking about.
The Nazis initially targeted disabled people, seeing them as Useless Eaters, in other words, they consumed resources and offered very little in return. Such a Utilitarian approach might try to evaluate the gains and losses of making room for disabled people in society, but in reality, such an evaluation would be impossible. Even though history is filled with countless examples of very ‘useful’ disabled people, and many more useless able-bodied ones, the Nazis, decided to believe the return on investment wasn’t profitable enough so had the disabled murdered first. As you can imagine this is a bit of an issue for me, especially given there are many in our own culture who still believe disabled people are such a drain that maybe some should be euthanised for both their and society’s sake.
As we’ve seen over and over throughout history, it doesn’t take much for stereotypical views to cause persecution, cruelty, killings and genocides to take place and given I have often been the butt of cruel humour you might think I’d be one to want to banish it, but I’m not. In fact, the opposite is true, I often find dodgy humour very funny. So, how can I partake in something that I also believe is so dangerous?
* * *
Veronique switched her bedside light off, but the orange streetlight shone through her thin curtains. As I looked at her face, I thought how beautiful she looked, like some 1930s film star. We cuddled and she rubbed her thigh up my leg then wrapped her calf around my waste. I then went through a routine I was beginning to know off-pat. Kiss neck, move face to breasts, spiral tip of tongue slowly towards nipple, kiss down stomach, run tongue around the clitoris, but it was all still devoid of connection… Sure, there was an intent to please the woman I was with, but it was in the service of them thinking well of me, maybe making myself sought after, but it wasn’t about connecting to the person who was there for the sake of connecting, that was something that would take some time to discover, and possibly sensing where my mind was at, she put her hands around my head and pulled me up towards her face. As we started kissing again, she murmured, “I want you inside me.” She reached down and placed the tip of my cock in front of her vagina and as I pushed, not only did it not go in, but it hurt. This wasn’t what I was expecting, something was wrong, but it’d be a year or so later that I’d work out what the issue was.
Exasperated, I said, “I can’t get it in.”
“I’m not that small,” she laughed, “I mean I did give birth to my son.”
As I started to feel anxious I lost my erection.
“Don’t worry,” she reassured me, “This will help.”
As I wondered what she meant I felt her finger push into my anus, thinking I was about to be shown a secret tantric sexual delight I waited excitedly. After a few seconds though, I wasn’t sure what to make of it, it wasn’t pleasurable and certainly didn’t improve the situation, so given the expression on my face wasn’t full of ecstasy, she pulled it out. For a moment I felt relief but as she wrapped her arms around me in a tight embrace, the sudden whiff of shit coming from her finger was quite startling, to say the least. Needless to say, we didn’t have intercourse, and as the night wore on, I got a headache from the port. By the time I got up at 6 am, I’d barely slept, and poor Veronique had had a very disappointing experience.
* * *
Ain’t in Funny – Part 1 – Humour and Political Correctness
Humour is a serious business, and it’s no coincidence that the words strange and funny are intertwined, after all, what is strange is often simultaneously funny “peculiar” and funny “ha-ha”. In Japanese, the word O-Kashi means both funny and strange too which suggests this connection has more to do with human nature than individual cultures. Likewise, the words strange and stranger derive from estranger (foreigner), all of which are often perceived as both unnerving and comic too. Paradoxically, though, what often starts out as strange to us will eventually become familiar and normal, while as time moves on, what was once normal becomes strange again, after all, the past, as is so often said, is a foreign country.
I once viewed an exhibition of humorous art at the Tate in London. As far as I was concerned nearly all the historical exhibits weren’t funny at all, nor were they to most other contemporary viewers. Without understanding the context of what was being referred to, it was as if the jokes were in a foreign language. There is, of course, some humour that can survive time, but so much tend not to.
When I was a child there were lots of jokes about Irish people, but nowadays, they’d be considered irrelevant and crass and the fact that a joke can make the teller appear stupid also highlights that jokes project a certain light on the joker, and in turn, their audience too, and it’s this relationship of validation that’s so often at the heart of humour. We may laugh at the content of a joke, but we also do so to show we’re of the same mind. In this way, humour both develops and strengthens bonds between people, while weakening allegiances with others. Not only that, within a group, humour perpetuates comfort between the members, while at the same time picking on non-group members. The more they laugh the more they bond with each other and distance themselves from “the other” simultaneously. Even when members of a group focus on individuals within the group, it’s often done so as ritualised teasing, even mockery, but it still ultimately aims to bring the members closer together.
For some, these dynamics are the thin edge of the wedge that leads to a very dangerous place, especially when it comes to humour around stereotypes, because firstly if we treat people as stereotypes this might influence them to behave in a stereotypical way and secondly it makes us more open to noticing their stereotypical behaviour, all of which can be part of a journey that leads to mass suffering and genocide. While there’s a lot of truth in all of that, like most ideological stances, it’s probably worth taking a balanced approach, but I’ll come back to that shortly.
* * *
Chanan – Dec 8th, 1941
Just a week had passed since Bettie had gone away, but in that time, Chanan worked solidly, hardly slept, and was constantly cold. His daily ration was one small piece of bread and a cup of water. Tempting as it was to steal some of the bread they cooked, access to it was the privilege of the upcoming Kapos and guards only. But within days those who could not keep pace were noticed and removed. Chanan looked pale, moved slowly, and seemed dislocated. The manager came up to him, “Hey, Chanan, you don’t look too good. Do you think you could manage to walk to where your wife is staying, maybe she could look after you for a few days?”
Chanan perked up a little and at the end of the shift, the manager came up to him again and patting him on the back gently passed him some rolls. “For the journey and your wife”. Chanan thanked him and shaking hands, they smiled at each other
“The guards will show you the way.” The manager said comfortingly.
* * *
Veronique was asleep when I got out of bed, so I quietly showered, got dressed then made her a cup of tea. When she woke, she wanted me to get back into bed, so I did, but I kept my clothes on. Even though neither of us had had our way, I was still eager to leave and sensing it, she went straight for my Achilles heel.
“Let me make you some toast before you go.”
“Damn it,” I thought as I started imagining a butter and marmalade-coated doorstep slice
of hot toast. [Sorry, am I making you hungry?] Anyway, I relented, so we chatted and cuddled up together for a while and then I was gone out into an empty summer Sunday morning street in South London.
* * *
Sure enough, the guards were waiting outside and drove him to the prison. As he dropped out of the back of the truck, he noticed a large crowd of people lined up ready to start walking. One of the guards told him to follow the others. He asked the person in front of him where they were going, but the person replied in Yiddish, “I don’t understand, I am German”.
“Why are you here?” Chanan asked
“We have been relocated from Germany” He pulled his coat tighter around him, “Fuck, I thought Germany was cold”
Chanan pulled out a bit of the bread he’d been given, broke it in half and offered the man a piece. His reaction was to look at Chanan suspiciously but slowly he reached out and took it. Chanan laughed a little “You’ll get used to the cold, in time.”
The man smiled, “Thank you.”
They walked on in silence savouring the bread and the moment.
* * *
Julie – Part 1
The girl I’d planned to visit in East London was called Julie. I’d met her the year before on a school field trip to Brecon in South Wales. From then on, we’d written to each other occasionally and now she was living in London we thought it’d be an adventure to meet up, and as you know, when it comes to living in suburbia, one rarely misses an opportunity for an adventure.
So, after leaving Veronique, I spent several hours making my way to Hornchurch, which is a London suburb, situated on the far East End of the District underground train line. By 9:30 am I’d arrived. When I called Julie, she was still asleep and almost as shocked as I was by my ultra-early arrival.
“Don’t worry,” she said in her sweet Welsh accent, “I’ll meet you outside the station in 30 minutes.” And sure enough, she got there as promised, but the problem was, both of us had forgotten what the other looked like. Given I wasn’t going to waggle my arms at every stranger who walked past, I stood to the side of the entrance and decided to rely on Julie remembering me, and sure enough, one of the girls who’d passed me as they entered, eventually doubled back, and ok, I did make my arms apparent, at which point she asked, “Are you Simon?”
She was living in the local hospital’s nurses’ accommodation, so we headed back there and spent the morning in her room laying around, chatting, and putting make-up on each other. Before you go there, remember this was The New Romantic era, so this was what boys did then. Anyway, the atmosphere changed just as I was applying eyeshadow, to her eyes I mean, and as her tears started pouring, I wondered what I’d done, so I asked, “Sorry, did I hurt you?”
* * *
Ain’t it Funny – Part 2 – Humour and Political Correctness
In the past, people would joke together without questioning the consequences of their humour because we were not so self-aware nor was our culture as fragmented as it is now. However, with cultural boundaries being far less clearly demarcated in modern times, joking has become a far riskier preoccupation, but paradoxically, in some ways, this adds intensity to humour. Additionally, comedy’s ability to act as a pressure valve, which relies on shock, subversion and a little offence, means the attempt to curb certain types of comedy has just increased their popularity, especially away from the mainstream arenas which does its best to avoid anything that might upset some. Meanwhile, online, and private comedy messaging groups are widespread and rejoice in their defiance. While some people’s fear of causing offence might be “killing comedy” in the mainstream, this has only served to make it far more popular in other forums.
Humour has always partly relied on touching on taboo subjects and just as with any prohibition and censorship people will find an outlet, even if it’s kept underground and risks prosecution. Given society is so divided, it’s no wonder the humour is too. For most of us now, there’s a public and private persona when it comes to comedy and the public one is merely a face-saving façade.
Taboo is central to this, especially regarding jokes that revolve around taboo topics. Violating a taboo implies a risk, so the teller is seen as not only a freedom fighter but a bringer of truth. While censorship conducted by authorities and self-censoring becomes a yoke of oppression and untruth. It may be argued the stereotypes peddled within such humour are not truthful, but it’s the communion of a shared belief that there’s some truth to them that resonates so strongly with those who laugh. Of course, this doesn’t dispel dangerous tropes, and yes, it may well encourage them, but such humour comes from a recognition that these beliefs are already in us to some extent.
For all the language sanitizing initiatives that have been attempted for decades, most just created taboo topics which people laughed at and ridiculed behind closed doors because they were imposed on people who didn’t maintain those beliefs in their private lives. For those who still wish to go further and banish humour beyond closed doors, the results will be, as we saw with the Soviets, a system that’s hard to justify given the amount of fear, suffering and death it ultimately causes.
We no longer laugh at jokes about Irish people because our culture doesn’t see Irish people as being stupid. There was never any attempt by the media or authorities to change that, it happened because society’s perception changed naturally. So, given encouraging stereotypical views via humour can be extremely dangerous, and curbing such humour also carries great risks, one has to ask if there’s a halfway house where both sides can be accommodated.
Julie Part 2
As Julie’s tears fell, she managed to say between gasps, “No, no, it’s not you, it’s just, I’ve got, no one, to tell.”
I put on my best-concerned face, “It’s ok, you can tell me anything”, I lied, although I was pretty sure I knew what her next words would be, as you probably do too, and sure enough, the phrase, “I’m pregnant,” flew out as only those held in too long ever do.
“Blimey,” I said, “how far gone are you?”
I was tempted to add, “It’s not mine, is it?” as I had looked at her a little cock-eyed a bit earlier, but I didn’t think that’d be as humorously received as I was hoping. It was then I finally realised my aspirations to be a social worker were definitely a little ambitious.
“Two months,” she cried, “I don’t know what to do. My boyfriend is going to go berserk.”
From her saying that I imagined him angrily saying to his mates, “She’s only gone and got herself pregnant,” while punching a hole in the wall and simultaneously swigging beer from a pint glass in his other hand.
Of course, we then spent the rest of the morning going through different scenarios and eventually agreed, given he wasn’t really the killer type I’d initially envisioned, she ought to tell him while gathering up as much support from her friends in the meantime.
As her tears subsided and she started to laugh again I thought I’d try changing the subject, so asked if she was hungry, which really meant, “Excuse me, but I’m starving.”
“Yes”, she said, “I’m hungry all the time.”
I knew she was alluding to her eating for 2, but as we’d finally got off the subject, I didn’t take the bait. So, we scrubbed off my make-up and got some lunch at a Wimpy burger café, where I ate for 2 too, which suddenly made me wonder if Veronique was an alien and had surreptitiously got me pregnant when she stuck her ET finger up my A-hole a few hours earlier.
Like 2 snakes who’d eaten an elephant, we could barely move so we made our way to the park where we lay next to one another and chatted non-stop for a few hours till the feeling of being too full subsided into hunger again. At that point, we decided to go for a Chinese meal before parting. Firstly though, we went back to hers where I had a sleep, and she took ages getting ready. When I woke, she was stroking my face and looking into my eyes.
“Thank you for coming today, Simon, I’ve really loved being with you.”
I smiled and said I’d also loved being with her too. I thought, or at least I hoped, she was going to kiss me, but instead, there was a knock on her door. For a moment, given my experience with Bill and Evelyn, I imagined it was her boyfriend, beer glass in one hand, and a lump of wall in the other, but it wasn’t, it was one of her friends. I heard her say, “Can I come in, Andy’s just dumped me.”
To which, Julie replied, “Oh no, not again, he’s such a prat, come in babe, we’re just about to go get a Chinky, do you want to join us, that’s ok with you Simon isn’t it?”
Before I had the chance to say, “No,” I said, “Of, course, that’s fine.”
The girl came in, looked at me laying on the bed and said, “Oh, sorry, I forgot you had company, it’s ok, I can come back later.” She put her hand out to shake hands, “Hi, I’m Sally, what’s your name?”
I put my arm out and said, “Simon, I can’t really shake hands but if you want a cuddle.”
She leant towards me, “Oh, ok then”
Julie quickly intervened, “Stop trying to take advantage Simon, I’m sorry Sally, he’s a terrible flirt”
I laughed, “Eh, I thought I was a good flirt”
Sally laughed then said, “I’m so sorry, to gate-crash your meal, are you sure it’s ok Simon?”
“No, no, it’s not a problem, don’t worry about ruining a romantic moment and possibly my one chance at true love.” I didn’t say. What did come out though was, “Don’t worry, I know how you feel, it’s horrible being dumped.”
So, the three of us hit the mean streets of Hornchurch that sunny Sunday evening and went for round 2 of the feeding frenzy. I did, of course, stop myself from saying, “Who’ll be mother?” when the Jasmin tea pot was brought to the table and avoided any terms relating to breaking up, and fortunately, by the end of the evening Julie and I were still chatting continuously, so much so, I could see Sally was slightly perturbed by it.
When we got to the station though, Sally turned away as Julie cuddled me, then kissed me gently on my mouth and whispered, “Thank you, I loved today.” And as the train pulled off, we waved goodbye until we couldn’t see each other anymore and possibly knowing that would be the last time we’d ever meet, a sadness passed over me and continued to do so for a few days after.
What’s strange about this episode is I can’t remember what Julie looked like at all now, although I do have an image of her eyelid as I painted the eye shadow on it, the feel of her room, and the park. Somewhere in those moments together there was a brief connection, and though I didn’t think about those 48 hours much at the time, I would later come to recognise how much it illustrated the split in me between my romantic and sexual desires.
A few weeks later I got a letter from Veronique asking me not to visit her with sexual intentions again, so from then on, whenever we saw each other, which was rarely, it was for a chat, and tea and biscuits. Within both of our sexual dynamics, there was an element of cruelty, it wasn’t sadistic, but more inconsiderate, although, on closer inspection, maybe there’s more of a cross-over than meets the eye.
* * *
Ain’t it Funny – Part 3 – A Possible Answer
When philosophers tell us to know ourselves it’s often hard to see how that will really help, especially on a practical level, but when it comes to the quandary of humour being both inescapable and dangerous then knowing ourselves is probably the most realistic answer of all. If I don’t realise my reaction to something strange is part of a process, how will I ever move beyond that point? If I don’t take on board that I carry stereotypical assertions about people, how can I temper those thoughts with more realistic counterarguments, especially when it comes to recognising how potentially varied, we are as individuals, no matter what group we belong to? And finally, how can I be true to myself if I deny I carry prejudices that are both useful and dangerous?
When people say many a truer word is said in jest they’re striking at the heart of the issue of dangerous humour. If we deny who we really are, do we not risk as much as if we never questioned our laughter? If we believe the truth paves the best way forward, then we’re going to have to accept dangerous humour is a double-edged sword of truth and death.
Still, when it comes to dodgy humour there are of course some practical considerations that should be made. The first is there’s a big difference between using humour to directly hurt others, and even with indirect humour, we should also acknowledge it will cause harm because it encourages a negative view of those in the firing line. It is often argued that indirect humour should be avoided at all costs too, but if we accept that’s unlikely to happen, then using the thought processes set out above to temper our more negative beliefs we can do a lot to offset the potential damage that may ensue without it. Namely, see our dark humour as part of a process of bringing the strange into our realm of normality, recognise we have both useful and dangerous stereotypical beliefs, and finally accepting individuals are potentially so varied that our preconceptions of them may well be very inaccurate.
Many will argue that language needs to be sanitised, and jokes are often part of a far larger montage of other unfavourable portrayals in movies, television shows, News reports, memes, novels, video games and other media that perpetuate negative prejudices towards certain groups, and in many ways, this is all true too, but firstly, as already pointed out, such beliefs can’t be so easily irradicated, and secondly, as with most things, it’s a matter of degree. We all harbour prejudices, but while potentially even the smallest can be stoked up, there is a big difference between recognising these prejudices and having such strong ones we’ll commit hate crimes or vote for genocidal parties because of them.
The same can be said of those who experience persecution because of prejudice. There’s a big difference between being a victim of micro-aggressions, and indirect humour, and being massacred, enslaved, persecuted, violently attacked, and harassed. Somewhere, within these arguments, the issue of scale has to be recognised because if it is not then all sense of proportion is lost. I can accept you may well make jokes about me behind my back, but if you turn me away because you don’t like disabled people then that’s another matter. Yes, both are related but they’re still different.
I was once at a friend’s place, and she has short arms too, at one point I made a joke about their dog thinking my arms were sausages and wanting to eat them. Her husband couldn’t stop laughing at what I’d said. For me, it showed he had an issue with my arms, which was kind of telling, and likewise, maybe for my friend too it was a little revealing, but as long as he didn’t deal with me negatively it wasn’t a big deal. If he’d had some power over me, I’d have hoped he’d recognise his irrational thoughts about me and deal with them accordingly, and that’s the crux of the matter. It’s not the jokes or the negative beliefs, it’s whether we’re developed enough to deal with them because banning humour isn’t going to be a practical way forward, especially if we’re forced to repress what we truly believe and feel.
* * *
Chanan – The Road
A few minutes after breaking the ice and bread together there was the sound of a gunshot in the distance, and then a few minutes later another one. As they caught up to where this had happened, there was a trail of blood in the snow from the side of the path towards the woods. Everyone who passed tried to see who’d been shot but it was too dark, but by the time they got to the next one, no attempt to conceal anything had been made. An elderly woman lay curled in a ball, a pool of blood still enlarging around her head. Every few hundred metres along the road there would be other such scenes. Old people, war veterans with a leg missing who couldn’t handle the distance on crutches, and on a couple of occasions, there was more than one body, normally a disabled person and another who was trying to help them, maybe their wife or a family member.
By now, they’d passed the halfway point and though walking listlessly themselves they’d still overtaken a few even slower groups. Suddenly Chanan let out a loud cry of pain and said, “It’s cramp”, he stopped walking, “Shit, it’s gone into both my legs,” and dropping to the floor the other man grabbed him. “You can’t stop, quickly, get up. Try walking on your heels.” Chanan did as advised, and the cramp quickly dissipated, and somehow Chanan was able to walk faster. As they went on Chanan told his walking companion about his wife and how he hoped to find her. The man smiled and said she sounded wonderful and hoped to meet her too. They spoke of what was happening in Germany and Latvia, and what they had been before the war. In these moments Chanan felt the happiest he had in days. “Even in these darkest of times, there’s still some hope.” He thought.
After several more miles, Chanan started to feel weak again. His body was trying to digest the bread whilst also dealing with the exertion of walking, but at the same time, his mind could not take in seeing so many dead people along the road. Still, he knew there wasn’t far to go and was adamant he wasn’t going to become one himself.
Along the journey, there were checkpoints where the accompanying soldiers could change over with others and warm up and refresh themselves around oil drum fires. As they approached this final one people whispered back to each other, “Look it’s Herbert Cukurs, it’s the Latvian Aviator. He’s with them!”
Everyone went quiet as they passed him, trying to look without being seen. Cukurs relished his celebrity, and the soldiers around him enjoyed it too. As Chanan went by, he kept his gaze straight ahead and didn’t say a word. About 5 seconds after, Chanan started to vomit violently. He stopped for a second then tried to walk on. His new friend took him by the arm and helped him forward. Then as if he’d touched an electric cable Chanan jerked suddenly and appeared to stand to attention, but a part of Chanan’s head, just above his left ear disappeared and as a coat stand might topple to the floor, his body fell forward to the ground.
Chanan’s companion staggered back; his face covered in blood. He looked at Cukurs, still holding the gun and laughing, and stumbled backwards as the crowd reacted to the killing. The lines expanded then contracted and slightly expanded again. The soldiers reacted back, pushing and shouting. Cukurs made a joke, the soldiers looked over to him laughing and shouted in return. But, at that moment, they didn’t notice Chanan’s walking partner lurch into the verge and roll into a hollowed-out fallen tree. He waited for a potential Kapo to tell on him, or maybe a soldier to inspect the area, but they didn’t. He waited till the line of ending people frayed, till the trucks picked up Chanan and the other victims’ bodies until everything was silent. Then checking to see if there were any guards nearby, he crawled further into the darkness and through the woods he made his getaway.
* * *
When the war ended, he’d eventually make his way back home but swore to honour the brief connection he’d made with Chanan by presenting evidence against his murderer. Cukurs fled to South America before the Allies could capture him, but there were those who could neither forgive nor forget The Butcher of Latvia.
* * *
The Fate of the Jews in Latvia
Throughout the previous day over 15,000 Jews had been executed, and over the following few weeks, a further 15,000 would be murdered. Before the Nazis invaded Latvia, the Jewish population had been around 90,000. Within months nearly all the Latvian Jews had been killed, while tens of thousands more were imported to meet the same fate. By the end of the war, there were only a few hundred Jews alive in Latvia, most of whom had managed to survive by hiding in the forests and becoming part of the resistance.
By the end of the 1941-42 winter, the SS reported 481,887 Jews had been liquidated in Russia.
* * *
After the initial massacres of 30,000 of Riga’s Jews, Cukurs and many of the other Auxiliary Police travelled around Latvia rounding up and murdering any remaining Jews. Within five months, 60,000 Latvian Jews had perished. There were so few survivors that the file Mossad, the Israeli Intelligence agency, held on him was very thin. But the testimonies that did exist included, amongst many other things, sightings of him “shooting people in the ghettos like a hunter in the forest.” holding wild drunken parties where they tortured and murdered Jews, single-handedly beating to death between 10 to 15 people, and on November 30th personally shooting 500 Jews dead. There have since been some who’ve argued none of that happened, but I’ll come back to that in the next chapter.
As the war approached its final weeks Herbert Cukurs escaped to South America where he initially settled in Brazil and did not use an alias. He then almost immediately began seeking out members of the country’s Jewish community. Cukurs portrayed himself as both a political exile who had been targeted by the Communists and a man who’d rescued Jews during the Shoah. He even gave an interview to one of Brazil’s most popular magazines in which he was described as “the epitome of humanity.” However, despite his continuous attempts to get Rio’s Jews to accept his narrative, his past started to catch up with him. By 1950, the awful truth began to dawn on some of his newfound friends in Rio who consequently fed back information of his whereabouts to interested intelligence agencies. Even so, it would take at least another decade before attempts were made to extradite him, however, these failed due to official indifference. However, local Jewish protests against him led him to close his thriving business and leave the city and after a few years of keeping very quiet, he decided to run a small boat rental and air taxi business near São Paulo.
It is not unusual for a criminal to hide in plain sight. After all, having a public persona as a strong individual will often keep you out of harm’s way. But Cukurs initial attempt at courting the Jewish community left a trail for Mossad to follow, and as well shall see, they did.