Stephen Hawking, a fellow alumnus of my adolescent alma mater, St Albans School, has just died, over 50-years after he was forecast to by doctors upon his diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease. Stubborn and resilient to the last, he also added humour to help overcome his physical and mental health challenges.
“Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.” – Stephen Hawking
“Keeping an active mind has been vital to my survival, as has been maintaining a sense of humour.”
Even in his older years he still regarded himself as a “child, who has never grown up”, maintaining his curiosity till the end. Best known for A Brief History of Time – on many people’s shelves but less often read, we were lucky to have had his challenging mind and courageous heart on this planet and in this universe for so long.
“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
Hawking was a profound thinker who found women more complex than the universe, questioned religious and scientific views alike, but for all his deep wisdom and intelligent theories, I like his saying that –
“It matters if you just don’t give up.”
At school, apart from traditional studies, he messed around manufacturing fireworks and building computers, the latter inspired and aided by his British-Armenian Maths teacher Dikran Tahta, of whom Hawking said:
“…behind every exceptional person, there is an exceptional teacher”.
Although intelligent, Hawking was initially not very hardworking nor academically successful and used risky tactics in both his studies and when coxing an Oxford University boat crew resulting in a few scrapes and crashes. Too busy “enjoying himself” rather than working, he spent an average of just an hour-a-day on his degree.
“I was never top of the class at school, but my classmates must have seen potential in me, because my nickname was ‘Einstein.'”
He described himself as essentially an introvert yet needing the stimulation of others. Speaking on Desert Island Discs, Stephen Hawking said:
“I need discussion with other people to stimulate me. I find it a great help in my work to describe my ideas to others. Even if they don’t offer any suggestions, the mere fact of having to organise my thoughts so that I can explain them to others often shows me a new way forward.”
He did not see progress as inevitably leading to utopian improvement, instead, he cautioned that greater inequality could result.
“Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.” – Hawking on Reddit
Given that the announcement of his death came on the same day as the reigniting of Cold War tit-for-tat expulsions between Britain and Russia, and sitting alongside the incendiary dialogue between North Korea and the US, one hopes that Hawking was wrong that:
“I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth.”
To most people, it is Stephen Hawking’s mind that inspires or his positive attitude in overcoming disability. To me, it was his attitude to life and his mental health that encourages me.
“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”
His changing health being the biggest adaptation he had to choose to deal with. He recognised that you could not be angry with the world and be a part of educating it.
“People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.”
Focus on the good, on what you have, be a glass-half-full person:
“My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.”
Not only intelligent but wise Stephen Hawking used humour to help overcome his physical and mental health challenges, his legacy is his spirit as much as his mind. He chose Je ne regrette rien, on Desert Island Discs, and that is as inspirational an attitude as all his writing.
Carrie Fisher will be mostly remembered for being Princess Leia in Star Wars as the Space Western princess with a gun and rapid riposte to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo when he needed a put-down. It didn’t stop them having a recently revealed off-screen romance. Also, off-screen was her battle with the darker forces of addiction and bipolar mental health. Her website records her in the way she’d prefer to be remembered as an “actor, author” and shamelessly, a “mental health advocate”, her site listed mental health resources, and she was active in promoting mental health awareness.
For the record, she starred in 44 films from Shampoo (1975) to Star Wars: Episode VIII (2017), wrote 7 books, and well over half-a-dozen plays, scripts and screenplays.More a signature action than her Leia buns and Avenger/Charlie’s Angels-style with
Even more a signature action than her Leia buns and Avengers/Charlie’s Angels-style gun-aloft pose, her middle finger was often shot up at the press. She was a hero for her honesty, humour and heart, the media needs to treat mental health better.
As someone who battles and “sur-thrives” with Bipolar Affective Disorder, aka manic depression, myself, I find so many echoes in her statements on mental health, and her activism in helping others through honesty and sheer guts – or clitzpah, female “courage bordering on arrogance”, as a friend puts it.
RIP Carrie Fisher 4 fighting the patriarchy, sexism, #bipolar#mentalhealth, addiction & Darth Vader, may the force be with her in death
A fitting tribute is, therefore, to remember her in her own words:
Carrie Fisher Quotes – In Her Own Words
“I really love the internet. They say chat-rooms are the trailer park of the internet but I find it amazing.”
On Writing as Therapy
“I have a mess in my head sometimes, and there’s something very satisfying about putting it into words. Certainly it’s not something that you’re in charge of, necessarily, but writing about it, putting it into your words, can be a very powerful experience.”
“I always kept a diary – not a diary like, ‘Dear Diary, we got up at 5 A.M., and I wore the weird hair again and that white dress! Hi-yeee!’ I’d just write.”
“Writing is a very calming thing for me.”
I can echo those thoughts, totally! Writing slows my racing pacing thoughts down, coming up with the language that accurately and emotional reflects my thoughts on myself, life, the universe and everything, is a process that is cathartic, creative, and better than CBT.
Whether scripted stand-up comedy or unscripted ad-lib, Carrie was quick witted, sharp, funny and could turn the tables on an interviewer. A vital skill in the harsh world of Hollywood and media criticism.
“I brought along Gary” (Carrie Fisher’s dog) “because his tongue matches my sweater” … “I think in my mouth so I don’t lie” … “what music makes [weight loss] worthwhile?” Not to mention some beautiful flirting with “DNA jackpot”GMA’s Amy Robach!
The humour, the jokey OCD matching, the flirting, she was my kind of inappropriate unboundaried, humourous getting-into-trouble, woman.
“There’s no room for demons when you’re self-possessed” via Twitter (2014)
“I googled myself without lubricant. I don’t I recommend it.” on David Letterman (2009)
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve got my nose pressed up against the window of a bakery, only I’m the bread” – Postcards from the Edge (1987)
“I am a spy in the house of me. I report back from the front lines of the battle that is me. I am somewhat nonplused by the event that is my life.”
“I don’t want my life to imitate art, I want my life to be art.”
Again, one feels like an actor in one’s own drama, there is sometimes a feeling of distance from the actions one takes, as if one were only playing a part, however grand a role.
On Body, Weight and Aging
“I don’t like looking at myself. I have such bad body dysmorphia.”
“I think of my body as a side effect of my mind.”
“I’m in a business where the only thing that matters is weight and appearance. That is so messed up. They might as well say ‘Get younger,’ because that’s how easy it is.”
“There were days I could barely struggle into a size 46 or 48, months of larges and XXLs, and endless rounds of leggings with the elastic at the waist stretched to its limit and beyond – topped with the fashion equivalent of a tea cozy. And always black, because I was in mourning for my slimmer self.”
“…when I do lose the weight, I don’t like that it makes me feel good about myself. It’s not who I am.”
“Along with aging comes life experience, so in every way that is consistent with even being human.”
On Mental Health & Bipolar Mood State
“I’m very sane about how crazy I am.” – Wishful Drinking, (2008)
“I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill. It’s better than being bad at being insane, right? How tragic would it be to be runner-up for Bipolar Woman of the Year?” – Wishful Drinking, (2008)
“Anything you can do in excess for the wrong reasons is exciting to me.”
“I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital.”
“Drugs made me feel more normal.”
“I went to a doctor and told him I felt normal on acid, that I was a light bulb in a world of moths. That is what the manic state is like.”
“I have two moods. One is Roy, rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood. And Pam, sediment Pam, who stands on the shore and sobs… Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it’s out.”
The manic mood ride that is Roy and the pessimistic panic that is Pam, is very familiar. I’ve not heard anyone else echo my experience of drugs making one feel normal. I tried weed, ecstasy and minor drugs like that, even smoking and drinking, but they didn’t do anything for me, indeed ecstasy made me responsible, hyper-sensible!
On Surviving and Thriving
“Ive [sic] stopped trying to take things a day at a time. I now take 2 or 3 days at once—hoping it’ll cause a blur effect & I might look younger.” via Twitter (2015)
“I don’t want to be thought of as a survivor because you have to continue getting involved in difficult situations to show off that particular gift…”
“If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That’s my word for it.”
“The world of manic depression is a world of bad judgment calls.”
“I’ll never be known for my work with boundaries.”
“Mistakes are a drag, because you get in the area of regret and self-pity.”
Fortunately, it’s not all bad boundaries and manic mistakes, and the following day come-down into reality and realisation that one has overstepped, overdrawn, overdone it, and occasionally overdosed. Manic can be fun, or at least hypomanic can, with just enough awareness to feel empowered, energied, extrovert and not yet into the territory of relationship, finance and employment self-destruction.
“The manic end of is a lot of fun.”
She was the brightest, funniest, bravest, kindest, cleverest and sweetest person I ever knew. A crushing blow to lose @carrieffisher
“One of the great things to pretend is that you’re not only alright, you’re in great shape. Now to have that come true – I’ve actually gone on stage depressed and that’s worked its magic on me, ’cause if I can convince you that I’m alright, then maybe I can convince me.”
“Stay afraid but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”
“I’m fine, but I’m bipolar. I’m on seven medications, and I take medication three times a day. This constantly puts me in touch with the illness I have. I’m never quite allowed to be free of that for a day.”
She is free now, “drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra“. Whilst she was “nonplused” about her life, we are far from nonplused at her death and feel the disruption in the force in 2016, which has been a traumatic year of loss. RIP Carrie, Princess, Queen, General and very human being, “May the Force be with you.”
Postscript: Carrie Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, star of Singin’ in the Rain, died aged 84 of a stroke within 24 hours of Carrie.
2016 is racing to lay claim to as many great names as possible, Zsa Zsa Gabor, who died yesterday, had a great 99-year 9-marriage innings, and Rabbi Lionel Blue at 86 has just downed his pen and mic. He fell in love with Judaism, Marxism and even Christianity, but will be remembered for his love of life and for being the first British rabbi to admit to his love of men. The grandson of Jewish Russian immigrants he grew up in the East End of London during the racism and hatred of Oswald Mosley and Adolf Hitler.
One of his several autobiographical books was titled “Hitchhiking to Heaven” and with grace and good humour he’s finally arrived there, if and wherever that is. A question he himself asked having explored doubt and faiths extensively in life. Another book of his was entitled “My Affair with Christianity“. It was not his only flirtation with other beliefs and ideologies, and his home testified to many stops along the journey in Hinduism, Islam and more.
“I began to discover that heaven was my true home and also that it was here and now, woven into this life.”
Judaism and Homosexuality
When he came out as gay, people were more interested in the affairs of his heart, not his soul. He’d been open about his homosexuality since the late 1960s and many knew about his private life through the 1970s, but it was in 1980 that he officially confirmed it, so becoming the UK’s first openly gay rabbi. He did so partly out of shame at not having supported a troubled gay contact of the manager of the sauna he frequented, nor having attended her funeral, for fear of a spilling over between his spiritual and sexual, sacred and secular, separated lives.
Of Judaism’s attitude to homosexuality, Rabbi Blue said in a 2004 interview:
”Well, the Orthodox Jewish tradition used to regard homosexuality as a terrible sin, but now it’s looked on as a sickness. Progressive Jews, though, accept it as a reality in varying degrees and most try to find a blessing ceremony for couples which is inclusive.”
So, has he never been threatened with excommunication? ”No. But for 15 years I ran the religious court for the Synagogues of Great Britain which meant that I would have to be part of any excommunication machinery, and I’ve never been so masochistic as to excommunicate myself.” – Sunday Herald, 2004
As a student at Oxford, his hidden homosexuality had led to loneliness, depression, and a suicide attempt. Possible refuge in Christianity had led to his mother threatening to do the same!
“‘Lionel, you’re doing this to spite us. I’ll kill myself and your father will kill himself too.’ I realised that I wasn’t quite up for murdering my mother and father, so I backed out.” – Independent
Later, he’d visited Amsterdam and found sexual freedom there, but it was his third faithful relationship with Jim, a former undertaker, that became his longest lasting of over 30 years until his death in 2014.
He combined the sacred and the secular, with a pan-spiritual, homosexually inclusive, here-and-now society, syncretic faith that in a way, he once said, was his own made up religion. Indeed, he irreverently addressed his God or guardian angel as “Fred”.
Thought for the Day
Described by Radio 4’s presenters and book reviewers alike as “engagingly meandering”, Blue was down to earth in his search for heaven and happiness. On the introduction of same-sex marriage debate in 2012 the leader of Scotland’s Roman Catholics, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, described it as “grotesque” and immoral on Radio 4, even akin to slavery. Rabbi Blue had the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot not long after and used it to poke gentle fun at heterosexual marriage as “mixed marriage”! On Twitter, he was regarded as having disarmed the Cardinal’s comments and having countered “bigotry with a gentle dignity that you just can’t beat”.
On another ‘Thought for the Day’ he spoke to students about success and failure, stress and faith:
“I remember asking a God I didn’t quite believe in to turn my failure into goodness. To my surprise my worldly failure opened a spiritual door in me. It’s when you lose your footing in life and your false pride goes down the drain that you learn mercy and compassion and what it’s like at the wrong end of the stick. My advice to my students and you dear listeners is Make friends with your failures – they may be the best teachers you’ve got.”
“I had the mother of breakdowns in my second year. Being gay was criminal so I rejected my body, and as a Marxist I no longer believed in my soul. So my mind had to bear life’s burden alone and it cracked. I even toyed with religion, asking a friendly prior what I needed to become a monk and forsake the world. A low sex drive he said frankly and another fantasy hit the dust.” – BBC Radio 4, Thought for the Day, 6 June 2011
Fears for the Future
Despite growing up in the 1930s and witnessing anti-Semitism, he remained hopeful, and yet “frightened”, of what he saw as recent echoes of those times now.
“I see the same signs that accompanied the end of the Weimar republic and the rise of the dictators. Currencies in trouble. Swastikas at football matches. Massacre at Srebrenica. The search for scapegoats, the rise of media demagoguery. Loving ourselves but not our neighbours as ourselves. The endemic problems of European tribalism, economic and spiritual. Heaven and hell are very close, and the devil is in the detail.” – BBC Radio 4, ‘Thought for the Day’, 10 June 2012
He finished that particular ‘Thought for the Day’ with a joke and a “foody spiritual note” with a misquoted saying from Lao Tzu:
“Govern a state as you would make an omelette, with care.”
The Chinese Taoist philosopher actually referenced a “small fish“, but the point is well made, and perhaps enhanced by Blue’s updated version.
Humour and Scripture
Having once taught classes on humour in the Hebrew Bible I know full well how much satire, sarcasm, innuendo, and punning, there is in Jewish scripture. Blue saw humour as a way to counter economic and personal depression. In a 2010 interview he told the Jewish Chronicle:
“Humour is the unofficial scripture of Jewish life. It takes away the anger and bitterness and replaces it with kindness and charity. That was the scripture my audience could accept”
He joked about death as brushes with mortality, and he had a fair number of those from suicide, to two cancers, and a couple of heart attacks. He described himself in old age as “crumbling nicely”.
“God comes closest to me in the comedy and tragedy of human life.” – Independent
He will be best remembered for his gentle honesty and genial humour.
Over the last year, Brexit, Trump and the Right have been winners, the liberal Left losers this year. Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy is coming to the USA” is darkly ironic. Apart from Cohen, the arts world has also lost Alexis Arquette, David Bowie, Prince, Lou Reed, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder and many more including too many comedians, just yesterday, Napoleon Solo – Robert Vaughn. Cohen died aged 82, the day before the American Presidential Election. At least, he now joins 1960s partner Marianne, to whom he wrote shortly before her death a few months back:
“Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine…. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
So Long, Marianne, 1967
Cohen met Marianne Jensen on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, whilst seeking some healthy sun, as recommended by his dentist! A woman of wisdom and beauty, she captivated him and had recently been left by her Norwegian novelist husband, and so began a love affair that lasted the 60s.
Spanish love affair
Cohen sang that before he fell for Marianne he “used to think [he] was some kind of Gypsy boy”. He was inspired by the Spanish poet Lorca, assassinated, aged just 38 during the Spanish Civil War.
At an awards ceremony in Spain, he said that in search of a voice, “It was only when I read, even in translation, the works of Lorca that I understood that there was a voice.”
“It is not that I copied his voice; I would not dare. But he gave me permission to find a voice, to locate a voice, that is to locate a self, a self that is not fixed, a self that struggles for its own existence. As I grew older, I understood that instructions came with this voice. What were these instructions? The instructions were never to lament casually. And if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.” Leonard Cohen’s acceptance speech at award of Prince of Asturias literature prize, 2011 (Other awards)
Musically, Cohen also learned just five or six Flamenco chords from a Spanish guitar teacher who killed himself before his fourth lesson.
“Journalists, especially English journalists, were very cruel to me. They said I only knew three chords when I knew five!”
Nonetheless, they became the musical basis of his mournful music – that, and the gravitas of his gravelly “golden voice”.
It was, however, the combination of his sounds with the poetry of his own soul searching that leant it real depth, despair, darkness and désolé.
Your letters they all say that you’re beside me now. Then why do I feel alone? I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web is fastening my ankle to a stone. Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began … For now I need your hidden love. I’m cold as a new razor blade. (So Long, Marianne)
(So Long, Marianne)
Cohen once joked that his record company should package razor blades with his records. His sometimes subversive humour amidst the angst and anxiety, strangely softened the pervasively painful lyrics.
“Any startling piece of work has a subversive element in it, a delicious element often.”
He sought in his own way “to be free” (‘Like a bird on the wire‘) and his writing in all forms drew you in if you were among the “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.”, as he wrote to his publisher.
More positively, he said and sung:
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Recent Nobel Literature Laureate, Bob Dylan, would probably acknowledge that he could have shared the prize with Cohen. The pair were discovered by the same music scout in the early 1960s, and whilst many – including himself, regarded Dylan as the number one, (Dylan joked he was number zero to Cohen’s one) Cohen was a strong contender for the number two spot as greatest songwriter for a generation.
“Second only to Bob Dylan (and perhaps Paul Simon), he commands the attention of critics and younger musicians more firmly than any other musical figure from the 1960s who is [was] still working at the outset of the 21st century.” – Bruce Eder
Annoyingly, for Cohen at least, he worked hard at what came more easily to Dylan. What took Cohen five years to write Dylan could knock out in hours or less. Most famously, ‘Hallelujah’ took 5 years to write, probably down to the near-infinite number of verses, and almost a generation to rise to its modern reputation and dubious honour of being on the Shrek soundtrack.
Faith and Drugs
Cohen came from a Canadian-Lithuanian-Polish line of successful and literate Jews, Talmudic scholars, businessmen, and synagogue founders. He practised his Judaism, but that didn’t interfere with his spiritual exploration of other beliefs from Scientology to Buddhism in the 1970s, leading to his ordination as a Zen Buddhist monk in the 90s. Of Jesus of Nazareth he said:
“I’m very fond of Jesus Christ. He may be the most beautiful guy who walked the face of this earth. Any guy who says ‘Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek’ has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness…A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. His position cannot be comprehended. It is an inhuman generosity. A generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion. I’m not trying to alter the Jewish view of Jesus Christ. But to me, in spite of what I know about the history of legal Christianity, the figure of the man has touched me.” Leonard Cohen: In His Own Words (1998)
Perhaps he was a depressed Spock-lookalike figure, at times, but he also pursued life in all its fullness. From drugs to drink to women and wisdom, he ploughed life’s lows in search of its highs. In the end, he was neither a pure Buddhist nor a “really good junkie” but somehow the former, even as a drug in some way itself, held off the latter.
As he turned 65, he finally felt at peace with himself and the world, to some degree at least. He described it as acceptance and learning to ignore rather than solve himself.
Kurt Cobain wrote in Nirvana’s ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ (1993)
“Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld So I can sigh eternally.”
After his suicide, Cohen wished he’s been able to speak to Cobain:
“I’m sorry I couldn’t have spoken to the young man. I see a lot of people at the Zen Centre, who have gone through drugs and found a way out that is not just Sunday school. There are always alternatives, and I might have been able to lay something on him.”
Democracy and Darkness
He leaves behind, millions of devotees, missing the mournfulness and aged adolescent agonising of his search for meaning. Even now, his songs remain poignant, if somewhat ironic, like ‘Democracy‘, and it still feels like ‘You want it Darker’ (2016) lies ahead, but perhaps too, we’ll also find the peace, that he found and now rests in.
“I’ve seen the nations rise and fall, I’ve heard their stories, heard them all. But love’s the only engine of survival.”
“Sail on, sail on O mighty ship of State To the shores of need Past the reefs of greed Through the squalls of hate Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on”
Monday evening, just as the heavy rains stopped, 200 people – LGBT and allies, gathered on the steps of Norwich City Hall, to stand with the 100 fallen, killed or maimed in a hail of hate and bullets at Pulse, Orlando. The Vigil against hate was organised by Norwich Pride and featured speakers: Katy Jon Went, Julie Inns for Norfolk Police and the Chair of Norwich Pride, Andy Futter.
Norwich again shows its support for diversity and freedom of expression, as it did with its Charlie Hebdo vigil, demonstrations against the EDL and many more political but peaceful assemblies. The Norwich vigil was marked by a minute’s silence and the lighting of candles on the steps of City Hall. [See below for the texts of the speeches or photos of the event]
Norfolk local and LGBT poet laureate, Trudy Howson, at the Soho event, told Sky News:
“It is very important to show solidarity … we’re all part of the same community and it’s very important that we show love and solidarity. We’ve all been victims at some point of homophobia – we need to stand up to hate and evil and fight for respect.”
One woman held up a sign that said Every Life Matters: “Queer, Black, Muslim, Latino.” Next to me in the crowd a white man in his forties held a sign that said “I’m Gay And Religious – Get Over It.” Squeezed in beside him was a young man in a taqiyah, standing with a girl. “My friend is Muslim,” said the girl.
The London event took place outside the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton Street, Soho, where three people were killed and many injured in a nail bomb attack in 1999, just showing that homophobic terrorism need not be of religious origin. The perpetrator, David Copeland, was a far right BNP neo-Nazi extremist who targeted diverse communities in Black, Bangladeshi and gay areas of London in three bomb attacks. He was known to have mental health conditions including paranoid schizophrenia but insufficient, perhaps due to the public outcry, to warrant diminished responsibility as a defence plea.
Orlando Massacre explanations aplenty
As family, media, and commentators explore the reasons for Omar Mateen‘s mass killing spree, families and lovers mourn their dead, who no amount of analysis can bring back. It has been said that Mateen was bipolar, was a wife-beater, had joined several Islamist extremist groups including ISIS (at the last minute). His father says that Omar had recently witnessed two men kissing and had been disgusted by it.
The most recent reports suggest that he’s actually patronised the club and been drinking there – hardly very devout Muslim behaviour, indeed many said he was barely religious at all. Apparently, he’d also been seen on gay dating sites, so the possibility of internalised homophobia, self-hate, and sexuality identity repression seem very strong motives, with the tacking on of Islamic State, more of an afterthought seeking some kind of redemption and forgiveness in the afterlife for his, considered sinful by his faith background, sexuality.
Muslims, Gun Control and the Blame Game
Scapegoating and stereotyping have hit the headlines, making it all about IS or immigrants, religion or lack of gun laws. Some on social media have perpetuated the hate and homophobia by rejoicing in the slaying of sinners – sick! Yes, the US right to bear arms and easy access to not just a pistol or shooting rifle but an automatic weapon are accountable – but not solely responsible, for the extent of the massacre. Getting off 24 shots in 9 seconds was facilitated by the type of gun that was readily available. It was not purchased for self-defence, unless one was expecting a war. The AR-15 style assault rifle – the Sig Sauer MCX, is described by its maker as a “battle-proven weapon system”.
US Presidential candidate Donald Trump has adopted an “I told you so” type of approach, taking credit for seeing this coming and calling for an immediate suspension of Muslim immigration. Some are happy to label it terrorism, others a hate crime, yet more that it is a gun control or immigration issue. Not so many, focus on the fact that this was a very real attack on an LGBT safe space, a gay bar, some have even gone to great lengths to condemn Muslims and avoid reference to LGBT, how else can right wing nationalists stir up Islamophobia whilst avoiding any reference to their own homophobia? The crime does not fall into a neat explanatory box. Journalist, Owen Jones, walked out of a Murdoch-owned Sky News discussion because it failed to acknowledge it as a specific attack on the LGBT community.
FBI Report in US Mass Shooting Incidents
Between 2000 and 2013, 486 people were shot dead, and even more wounded in mass shooting attacks in America. The frequency of incidents has only got worse, more than doubling in the last 7 years of the analysed period, to more than 16 incidents a year. The Orlando attack was the worst mass shooting in peacetime American history.
A Mother Jones investigation going back 33 years shows 670 killed and 650 injured in 80 incidents, with mental health a factor in between 60% and 80% of cases.
The vast majority took place at commercial workplaces or schools, by disgruntled employees or students, or over things as irrationally minor as arguments over a CD player or driving ability. By far the majority were carried out by white males, not foreign immigrants or Muslim extremists. Out of 160 incidents, barely 2% could be described as Muslim perpetrators, a couple were clearly anti-semitic.
“You are no more likely to be shot by a Muslim than by a Christian or an atheist in America.”
If killing 50 LGBT people, and maiming as many, is your response to witnessing a kiss, an expression of love, between two people of the same sex, then you need help not hate, to get open minded not offended, and a change of religious interpretation. I can’t help but think there might have been some internalised homophobia going on besides mental health, anger and other issues already raked up by media, before this individual jumped on the ISIS bandwagon to tag his heinous act.
We forget that London, Brighton and elsewhere have had their own homophobic atrocities, that were not done in the name of ISIS, that Los Angeles Pride just had another violent attack on it averted, nothing to do with alleged Islamic extremism, that Prides in Israel have seen LGBT people attacked and killed by Jewish Orthodox extremism. There is no place for ill-informed Islamophobia now – people of all faiths and none, Communists and Fascists in recent history, have all targeted LGBT people.
Anger is no less a legitimate response than many others at this time. Forgiveness, albeit a healing one, can never be asked or expected of anyone unless freely given and only by the victims and their loved ones. Understanding, love, mercy, and worldwide calls for an end to homophobic judgement and violence are needed, people to challenge bad religious interpretation and attitudes, and show better alternatives. I’m pleased that many faith groups march with Pride, and historically just one small one, against it, here in Norwich.
Religious groups are all over themselves with prayers at the moment but no recognition of the hypocrisy that their slowness to accept LGBT people counts towards the fear and hate that drives confused and conflicted people to carry out these acts. The victims don’t need prayer they need acceptance, the only justice would be churches, mosques and temples overturning their hitherto homophobic attitudes, policies and doctrines. This may sound offensive but so was Jesus. Prayer without doctrinal change and better practice right now is like blessing the homeless with words but not with a blanket and some food. People of faith need to offer more than prayers right now.
I’ll put my hand up in the air, 30 years ago I was a fundamentalist Christian, opposed gay rights etc, years later several members of my University Christian Union, that I’d helped found, came out as gay or lesbian. My views changed, when I had my own coming out and Damascene conversion to LGBT acceptance. Others can too.
Will we see the same international condemnation and responses as in Paris? I doubt it, as the victims were LGBT.
Amidst the EU referendum debate, US presidential campaign and escalating immigration and Islamophobia issues, we don’t need blanket condemnations but change. People in the US and UK have hijacked Orlando as an excuse to condemn migrants, religion etc, but not to call it homophobia.
Hate and fear need naming but the responses need to be love and, ‘out and proud’ confidence.
As Martin Luther King said:
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Julie Inns, Norfolk Police
Good evening everyone it’s so wonderful to see so many people supporting this event tonight. I’m immensely proud to be standing here tonight; I stand here on behalf of Simon Bailey, Chief Constable of Norfolk Constabulary and Lorne Green our new Police and Crime Commissioner who unfortunately at short notice were not able to be here tonight, although they send their best wishes for a successful event.
I am very privileged to be standing in front of you tonight with so many familiar faces some of who I know quite well and some who will be new to me, supporting this Norwich Stands with Orlando Vigil to support our LGBT brothers and sisters across the pond who have suffered this weekend and for which there are no words to describe what went on in Orlando this weekend. I just can’t think of the words to describe it. But from the Constabulary and Police and Crime Commissioners Office our thoughts do go out to the family and friends of those effected but this atrocity.
Now we all know that Norwich is statistically a safe place to live, it’s a safe county and we encourage people to come here to live, to work or come on holiday and visit and we say to you, you can come and you can bring your religion, your sexuality, you can eat your food and wear your traditional clothes and come one come all and we are really accepting of that. However we must be mindful that unfortunately in this day and age that terror can strike anywhere.
But for this to happen to them during their PRIDE celebrations in a club where they should have felt free, welcomed and happy to be who they wanted to be, I don’t know about you guys but I find that even more heart-breaking and gut-wrenchingly awful that I have no words to explain it.
So I’d like to think that we would be lucky enough in Norfolk never to have to experience anything like what happened in Orlando over the weekend and our county will never see such an atrocity. But we have to remember that it does go on and we all have a part to play in keeping all our citizen’s safe. So with that in mind let’s not blame the actions of a small minority of the people who commit these acts on the majority. And when we talk about what happened in Orlando and bandy the word hate crime around it doesn’t quiet cut it for me, it just seems to be a bit beyond that. But I want to be really really clear on this and this is important for me. Norfolk Constabulary is absolutely committed to the LGBT community in Norfolk that we will keep you safe and we will shield you from harm wherever possible. But in order for us to do this, people have to come and talk to us and sometimes that can be difficult. But we want you to be who you are, to be authentic at work and out in the community and to be safe while you are doing that, but for us to do that if there is a problem you need to come and tell us about it and I know for some of you that is going to be difficult so I’ll be here afterwards if you would like to come and talk to me or take my contact details so we can talk in private, that would be really great.
The one thing I would like to reassure you on is that when anyone reports incidents of hate to us whether it be about your sexuality, your race, which religion you follow or if you live with a disability, whatever the issue is I can assure you now, we will believe you, we do take it seriously and with your help do whatever is possible to pursue the perpetrators through the criminal justice system until we get a conviction and that is my personal promise to you on behalf of Simon Bailey and Lorne Green. So I’d like to say that Norfolk Constabulary and the Police and Crime Commissioner wholeheartedly support this vigil tonight and say no to hate. But not just no to hate, No to hate in our county, No to hate in our fine city, No to hate across the world and finally we believe in hashtag #loveislove.
Andy Futter, Chair of Norwich Pride
In the early hours of yesterday morning, at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a 29-year-old man carrying an assault rifle and a handgun and began shooting and murdering individuals before taking hostages.
Once the horrific event had played out, fifty people lay dead and a further fifty-three were hospitalised.
These people were a part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. They were enjoying a weekend night out with their friends at a venue in which they should have been safe.
I ask those of you who do not have to experience this particular brand of hate to understand that – despite it being 2016 – the LGBT+ community – my community – still needs these spaces.
They are our sanctuary.
And if you can’t understand the concept of a bar or nightclub being a sanctuary, then be grateful. It means you’ve probably never been afraid to hold someone’s hand in public. It means you’ve probably never been afraid to tell people that you met someone new – simply because of the gender of that new partner. It means you’ve probably never been afraid to leave your house for fear of being mistaken for another gender and the violence that so often goes hand in hand with that ignorance.
I mean that utterly sincerely. Be grateful if you have experienced none of those things. But try to reflect on the experiences of those who have and understand that we need those safe spaces – just like the Pulse nightclub.
That should have been a safe space. But yesterday, that peace; that sanctuary, was shattered in the most brutal way.
Those individuals were no longer safe. They were targeted for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered; or for being a friend of the LGBT+ community.
Being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered is not a choice. Getting out of bed and deciding to walk into a bar to target those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered is most definitely a choice. But so is being an ally.
So for those of you here tonight who are not L,G,B or T, I thank you for your support.
Our community is strong and across the world right now and the coming days, you will see how just strong this worldwide family is; but we are all the stronger for having you on our side.
We are all the stronger for you understanding that despite huge legal steps forward – lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people still face hate on a daily basis, for simply loving the people we love and expressing our true selves.
We are all the stronger for you understanding that, so I would ask you to understand something further. Yes – every life matters; every act of terror and murder should be condemned; but make no mistake: this was an attack directed squarely at the LGBT+ community.
Right now we are scared.
But we are also empowered by our love and solidarity.
Right now we are vulnerable.
But we are also strong in ways which may surprise many – including ourselves – and we will not be beaten.
Right now we are upset.
Right now we are angry.
So when you reach out to your LGBT friends, loved ones, brothers, sisters, colleagues: hold us closer and hug us tighter than before.
Right now, we need it.
Every one of us here tonight owes it to every one of those who died at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando to stand taller. Be prouder.
We will not hide in the shadows.
We will not quietly clamber back into the closet. We will not stop living our lives.
So for all of those who died on Sunday in Orlando; to those who still lie bleeding in hospital; to those who have had loved ones ripped mercilessly from their lives, I say this: the people of this fine city stand with you.
A belated obituary of Marisol, who died 2 weeks ago. She was a Bohemian enigma, speaking rarely; described as the Latin Garbo. As a muse of Warhol, she appeared in two Andy Warhol movies – The Kiss and 13 Most Beautiful Girls, “the first girl artist with glamour”. But it was as an artist and sculptor in her own right, that she was the disputed “undisputed queen of pop art”, including by herself and Grace Glueck (New York Times, 1965) – not whether she was queen, but whether it was even Pop Art she was creating.
Marisol abandoned her father’s family name Escobar to make a name in her own right, to “stand out from the crowd”. A Venezuelan, born in Paris, made famous in New York, who was inspired by pre-Colombian art, she was international in her influences. Whilst she started out in painting, in the 1950s she shifted to sculpture, becoming well known only in the 1960s after 5 years travel abroad, despite a well-received first exhibition in 1958.
“Marisol’s sophisticated aesthetic immediately linked her to the new Pop Art movement, but her work remained in a category of its own, displaying a myriad of influences from sources as diverse as Pre-Colombian art and Surrealist imagery. Even today, Marisol’s art resists any linear curatorial reading.” – Review of Sotheby’s Lot by Carter B. Horsley, (2005)
One such art work, which might be described as a mixed media sculpture or installation was the ‘The (Cocktail) Party’, consisting of 15 freestanding figures and ‘accessories’ carved, cast, collaged, photographed and printed. Created during 1965-1966, it sold 40 years later for nearly a million dollars, double its estimate, at Sotheby’s, New York.
The work, like many of hers, bore her face on each figure. Curious for someone whose background personal angst, since her mother’s suicide when she was aged 11, led to a lot of self-analysis and self-enforced silence. Her creations instead were her voice, her image, her projection into, and of, the world, giving it depth, “form and weight”.
“I began to make self-portraits because working at night I had no other model. I used myself over and over again. At time making these self-portraits, I would learn about myself” – Marisol (1968)
“a kind of rebellion. Everything was so serious – I started to do something funny so that I would become happier – and it worked.” – Marisol (1965)
She regularly used humour and “social satire” in her work poking satirical fun at the possessions and personalities of her subjects, or the strict parameters of the art world’s curators and critics.
“What endures in Marisol’s work is the universality of the impulses she captures. Truly a sculptor of modern life, she evokes the venality of social climbers, the integrity of great artists, the contradictions of the powerful and the quiet dignity of the dispossessed. She feels both their absurdity and their pain and encourages us to do the same” – Eleanor Heartney (2001)
Portraits and Self-Portraiture
Her subjects included migrants and street children, but also those she admired. Willem de Kooning became a friend, brief lover, and ended up in an oak and ash wooden sculpted ‘portrait‘ himself.
Other artists and personalities also ended up as portraits – Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe, Hugh Heffner, John Wayne, the Kennedys, and others. It is her own face, nonetheless, that so often appears in works, even in an homage to Leonardo da Vinci, in an installation that includes herself viewing a three-dimensional carved Last Supper.
“Whatever the artist makes is always a kind of self-portrait.” – Marisol
The enigma that was Prince Rogers Nelson, whose African-American family hailed from Lousiana originally burst onto the pop scene as a 17-year-old teenager, in the late 1970s. Aged just 20, in 1979, he performed his first gig with his band, who became, ‘The Revolution‘. His death, this week, leaves behind dozens of songs, lyrics, statements, and beliefs, that not everyone understood.
His own path navigated 3 engagements, 2 marriages and divorces, and the death of his only child. In 2001, he became a Jehovah Witness and said he was turning to monogamy after prior romantic links to Kim Basinger, Madonna, Sheila E., Carmen Electra, Anna Fantastic, Sherilyn Fenn, Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, Susan Moonsie of Vanity 6, and Vanity, herself, another singer who underwent a Christian conversion and also died this year.
Prince, the Genderbending Rule-breaker
“A strong spirit transcends rules”, Prince said in a 1999 interview.
Steven W Thrasher, writing in the Guardian, writes of Prince’s genderbending and gender-busting allure:
Prince broke all the rules about what black American men should be. The musical genius captivated both men and women with his high heels, tight butt and playful sexuality – and he refused to be anyone’s slave…
…letting go of all those rules he seemed to have dispensed with? That purple clothing, those high heels and ruffled shirts: was he proudly feminine, or so secure in his masculinity he didn’t mind others questioning it? That small frame and that tight, small butt that seemed to leave him “shaking that ass, shaking that ass” for men and women alike?
Prince was a paradox in that he expanded the concept of what it meant to be a man while also deconstructing the entire idea of gender.
It was, in retrospect, the first time I experienced someone refusing to live under the oppressive binary regime of gender, or to submit to the dominant power’s rules.”
In 1982, Prince said that “What’s missing from pop music is danger – there’s no excitement and mystery”. Well, he certainly provided that mystery, much as David Bowie did.
I wanna be your lover
Wanna be your mother and your sister too
“Prince brazenly blended rock, R&B, funk, pop and jazz like few artists before or since. He pushed the envelope on sexuality and androgyny in music, dared to take on the corporate music industry…” – Star Tribune
Freedom and Fascination
From a rare interview in 1996 with, among others, NME, on the release of his ‘Emancipation’ triple album comes these quotes from Prince on freedom, life, experience and people:
“I find freedom sexy. I find freedom so sexy I can’t even explain it to you. You wake up every day and feel like you can do anything.”
“Everyone has their own experience. That’s why we are here, to go through our experience, to learn, to go down those paths and eventually you may have gone down so many paths and learned so much that you don’t have to come back again.”
“I’m no different to anyone. Yes, I have fame and wealth and talent, but I certainly don’t consider myself any better than anyone who has no fame, wealth or talent. People fascinate me. They’re amazing! Life fascinates me! And I’m no more fascinated by my own life than by anyone else’s.”
Prince, Mystery or Madness?
“America still believes Prince to be mildly insane…’Why does everyone think I’m mad?’ he once asked his British press person. ‘Because,’ the PR replied, ‘you do weird things and you don’t explain them.’ Prince does do weird things, but he also performs live with a stage presence and a charisma that’s unrivalled in American entertainment.” – Guardian(2006)
His refusal to bow to the corporate line of either the music industry or journalists meant that he came across as ‘odd’, but his response was that he didn’t care:
“I don’t really care so much what people say about me because it usually is a reflection of who they are.”
“Despite everything, no one can dictate who you are to other people.”
Being yourself and not worrying about what others thought was one of the ways he inspired others to break out.
“Cool means being able to hang with yourself. All you have to ask yourself is ‘Is there anybody I’m afraid of? Is there anybody who if I walked into a room and saw, I’d get nervous?’ If not, then you’re cool.” – Rolling Stone Magazine
Prince, Song Lyrics
Stand up everybody/This is your life
Let me take you to another world, let me take you tonight
You don’t need no money, you don’t need no clothes
The second coming, anything goes
Sexuality is all you’ll ever need
Sexuality, let your body be free…
I’m talking about a revolution we gotta organize
We don’t need no segregation, we don’t need no race
New age revelation, I think we got a case…
No child is bad from the beginning, they only imitate their atmosphere…
Stand up, organize
We need a new breed, leaders, stand up, organize
– “Sexuality” (1981)
Whenever I feel like givin’ up
Whenever my sunshine turns to rain
Whenever my hopes and dreams
Are aimed in the wrong direction
She’s always there
Tellin’ me how much she cares
She’s always in my hair
The Queen’s Birthday & the other Queen: Freddie Mercury
Royalty is trending, no not the 90-year-old Queen, nor the pop star Prince, who died today aged 57, but the great entertainer Freddie Mercury, who died at half the Queen’s age, 25 years ago. He spoke only days before his death of his contracting of HIV/AIDS back in 1991. The reason Freddie is also trending on the Queen’s birthday is that a scientific study into his renowned three-to-four-octave vocal range, far from merely a “little high, little low”, was published this week. The “acoustic analysis of speaking fundamental frequency, vibrato, and subharmonics” appeared in the ‘popular’ journal, Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology.
In a 2005 poll organised by Blender and MTV2 Freddie was voted best male singer of all time, and in 2009 was selected as the best rock singer of all time by Classic Rock. AllMusic described him as having “one of the greatest voices in all of music.”
“Mercury’s voice was a force of nature with the velocity of a hurricane.” – Guardian
The range of Freddie’s voice, whether the study demonstrated 37 semitones – approximately 3 octaves, or other sources that suggested nearly 4 octaves, was immense either way. His vocal tremors and “vibratory pattern of vocal folds and ventricular folds” were similar to Mongolian “throat singing”.
One song that exhibited Freddie’s talents was Bohemian Rhapsody (1975), written by him with even the guitar parts being first planned and played on the piano by him. It was also responsible for one of the first music videos, created to avoid actually appearing on Top of the Pops.
“the piano Freddie recorded with was the same one Paul McCartney played when the Beatles recorded “Hey Jude.”“
“Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine
Body’s aching all the time
Goodbye everybody – I’ve got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama, ooo – (anyway the wind blows)
I don’t want to die
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”
So much lies hidden in the mock opera and rock anthem lyrics that entertained us but sometimes tortured Freddie. The last line above, “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all” certainly tortured me, when I was at a low point.
Today is the 4th anniversary of one such low point in my life and music brings back so many memories. Friends once told me you shouldn’t have a suicide playlist on your iPod. Life can be cruel and people taken or take themselves from us, earlier than we’d wish, without saying goodbye or finishing what might have seemed to be their life’s work.I have no answers, only songs.
I was lucky enough to be at Queen’s last ever full line-up concert, at Knebworth, in 1986, along with 120,000 other fans. Status Quo were merely a support act.
God Save The Queen
Whilst the Queen continues to reign, Freddie’s reign ended 25 years ago, and Prince’s ended today. Their music left many indelible rock anthems on our playlists. Indeed, in 1974/5 they covered a version of THE National Anthem, “God Save The Queen” and sang it as an outro at most concert finales. Brian May did a solo live version from the roof top of Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002.
Who want to live forever?
We keep losing Rock legends like Lemmy and David Bowie, but their voices and magic will last forever. Music and celebrity mean more to current generations that tradition or royalty. Many will mourn the passing of Prince, as if he were a monarch, and many more still miss his highness Freddie Mercury.
A day of beauty and soul, World Poetry Day, falls on the same day as the South Africa’s Human Rights Day, which remembers the fight against Apartheid and particularly the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of 69 black South African demonstrators and further killing of another 21 on the 25th anniversary of that day in 1985. It also became the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1966 and today still says, “We need to fight racism everywhere, every day”. It is fitting that we celebrate human writes and rights together. Whether it’s the campaigning of organisations like the United Nations and Amnesty International, or the placards of activists, or poems of voices of discontent and history, we cannot be silent to ongoing racism, its history, and its continued scourge.
Yes we need action more than just words, but 15 years ago, at a World Conference Against Racism in South Africa, the Durban Declaration sought to combine words with action:
“People of African descent have for centuries been victims of racism, racial discrimination and enslavement and of the denial by history of many of their rights… they should be treated with fairness and respect for their dignity and should not suffer discrimination of any kind.” – Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, 2001
“Fifteen years after the Durban Conference very little progress has been made in tackling racism, afrophobia, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”
Maya Angelou – be part of “the possible”
Maya Angelou died in 2014 but 45 years before that, in a decade of American civil rights activism, she wrote the first of her autobiographical books, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). The book describes her early years including racism, and a rape which led to a traumatised silence for 6 years, it goes on to document her rise from child victim to young woman, mother and adult voice.
“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom”
She has become renowned as a woman full of inspiration, and love not hate, reminding us how to be better humans through her best-loved poems which she would write from a motel with, nearby, “a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room”.
Watch Maya Angelou read her poem “A Brave and Startling Truth“ which she wrote for the United Nations 50th anniversary in 1995, here is a section of it:
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness …
… We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
It would be great if we, “the possible, the miraculous, the true wonder of this world”, would stop hating and discriminating.
Maya Angelou – Still I Rise
In Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise”, are the words: “Out of the huts of history’s shame”. She’s said before, the truth is that:
“A person who does not have a clue to his or her history stands a very poor chance of mapping out a future.” – Maya Angelou interview (1m40s)
She was not one to be cowed or subjugated, instead, she found her voice and gave hope to others.
The full text of her poem, “Still I Rise”:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Be amazing, A rainbow in someone else’s cloud
Maya Angelou also said, echoing a similar sentiment of Albert Camus:
“If you are always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.”
Perhaps, we could also paraphrase that, if you are always following the crowd, buying into cheap national and racial stereotypes you will never discover not only how amazing you could be but also how amazing others are, irrespective of the colour of their skin or some other characteristic of difference. “Human beings are more alike than unalike”, she has said.
“The thing to do, it seems to me, is to
prepare yourself so you can be a
rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.
Somebody who may not look like you.
May not call God the same name you
call God – if they call God at all. I may
not dance your dances or speak your
language. But be a blessing to somebody.” – Maya Angelou
She wasn’t all “turn the other cheek” love, she also saw humour as a defence, and since “life’s a bitch”, the need to “go out and kick ass”.
Last 27 January I went to two Holocaust Memorial Day events. No I am not Jewish, nor were all the victims of Hitler’s Endlösung “Final Solution”, Mengele’s experiments, and the Nazi Aryan utopian dream – which was a dystopian nightmare for everyone else.
I did however study and teach Hebrew and aspects of Judaism in my past. I also visited the concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, when I was 15. Today marks the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviets and Holocaust Memorial Day.
One internee at Belsen was Josef Čapek from Czechoslovakia a Cubist painter, cartoonist, writer and playwright. He wrote the utopian play “Land of Many Names” and is credited by his brother as being the first to invent and use the word “robot”. He was critical of Hitler and Nazism and was arrested in 1939. Whilst interned he managed to write “Poems from a Concentration Camp” but died in 1945, shortly before liberation.
Joe Stirling, A Jewish teenage escapee from Nazi Germany, whose parents died in Sobibór concentration camp, lives in Norwich and continues to tell his survival story. Recently published as “Escaping Hitler“, it is a reminder to people of the Nazi Holocaust and the triumph of the human spirit. Joe has led an interesting and fulfilling life since arriving in England and is part of the Human Library project where he regularly regales people of all ages with his wit and wisdom.
Genocide of the different and ‘deviant’
As an LGBTI person and outspoken human rights activist, I could well have ended up in a concentration camp alongside Jews, Slavs, Roma, disabled people and many more. Sexuality, mental health, religious non-comformism, criticism of the state, ethnic origin were all factors that could have had one sent to a concentration camp and/or exterminated by bullet or Zyklon B gas – as hauntingly revisited in Philip K. Dick’s novel and now Amazon series, ‘The Man in the High Castle‘. Yes, Hitler singled out the Jewish race for a very particular and poisonous genocide, but others suffered too.
Many people don’t realise that Romany gypsies, those with mental and physical disabilities, abortionists, Jehovah Witnesses, non-conformist pastors and clergy, certain intellectual opponents, communists, and tens of thousands of homosexuals were sent to concentration camps by the Nazis, of which there over 1000, possibly many times that number spread across occupied countries, at least a dozen of which were extermination camps – to remove Lebensunwertes Leben “life unworthy of life”, especially the Jews.
Hundreds if not thousands of people were experimented on by Mengele, with castration, forced sex change interventions, growth hormones. Those born different, disabled, intersex or twins, were especially targeted for his torturous experiments.
Labelled vice, degenerate, a plague, gay and bisexual men, many of whom were also Jewish, ended up incarcerated, experimented on, castrated, or killed.
“We must exterminate these people (homosexuals) root and branch… We can’t permit such danger to the country; the homosexual must be entirely eliminated.” – Heinrich Himmler
Furthermore, in 1945, they were not released but transferred to civil prisons as their sexuality remained illegal until 1968/9. Paragraph 175 outlawing homosexuality had rarely been enforced until Hitler took power in 1933. Germany only apologised in 2002 to the homosexual community for what happened to them before, during and after the Second World War.
Labeled as Different, less deserving
Pink triangles, like the yellow star of David patch for Jews made by two yellow triangles, were sewn on to the camp clothes of homosexuals, but the same symbol also marked out rapists, paedophiles and other “sexual deviants”.
Black triangles were used for Roma, mentally ill, pacifists, anarchists and more. Later Roma badges were brown. Numerous other groups of people were classified, badged, and interned, or killed.
Fear of difference drives prejudice. This week Trevor Phillips, former EHRC chair, has said that we should accept that British Muslims are “different” from the rest of society, and respect that, others have responded that we should not have to accept their difference.
A memorial, to Jews shot and dumped in the Danube in Budapest, 1945, is a poignant image that is also beginning to symbolise the plight of migrants and refugees from current wars and genocides. “Shoes on the Danube Bank” was created by Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer and shows just the left-behind shoes of the Jewish victims. Empty shoes have come to symbolise both silent protest at the Paris climate conference, and the positive response of communities to asylum seekers by offering shoes, including in Budapest.
Ethnic Cleansing not uniquely Nazi
Sadly, history and Hegel teach us that men and nations learn little and we do end up repeating the mistakes of the past. That is why the Holocaust and other genocides should be remembered. It’s easy to complain about human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing when it’s happening but wisdom is spotting the signs that it is about to happen. That means highlighting the laws and language that begin to scapegoat and marginalise, to discriminate and criminalise based upon sex, gender, faith, health, colour, race and ethnicity.
We can already see it in the political invective against “a bunch of migrants” (David Cameron in PMQs today), Donald Trump and Sarah Palin’s calls for American Muslim expulsion, and in the extremist cleansing by Islamic State of Yazidis, Christians, gays and non-Sharia Muslims. Meanwhile Syria continues its own purge, Turkey, Saudi Arabia subtly try to target Kurds and Shia, Israel treats Arab Israelis and Palestinians as second class.
Remembrance may avoid Repetition
As Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Sadly, most often, history teaches us that we do forget, repeat, and only learn from it after exhausting all other possibilities, as Aldous Huxley, Hegel, George Bernard Shaw and Abba Eban, all said in various ways.
“The most effective way we can combat this intolerance and honour those who survived and those who perished is to call on each other to do what the survivors have already done, to remember and to never forget.” – Steven Spielberg
We need to remember the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin’s similarly large-scale ethnic expulsions in Russia, state eugenics policies, Polpot’s purge in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, or the ethno-religious cleansing policies of ISIS or Boko Haram, and many more genocides and democides besides. It has happened more than once before and could, if not, is, happening again. That is why we remember Holocaust Memorial Day, so as not to repeat.
“First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.” – Pastor Martin Niemoller