We mark our own roads

I revisited an old place last night, a thought and a memory from long ago, when I was a person… on the ebb-tide of Europe. Five years old, and recently returned to the UK to start again. I already missed the crisp mountain air and the silence around snow; the lean-dark nights and echoing silence beneath the pines.

Austria. Germany. Norway (sleeping with the blinds drawn against the pale light, with eye masks soft over our noses.)

When Dad left the RAF, we had settled in a small English town at the end of a railway line, an hour or so from the capital, a mile and many from the places I had once known as Home. I took to wandering off down the twisting paths, with their sun-cracked tarmac and aching sepia shadows.

I already missed that wider world.

It revisits me in dreams, which were once memories. They bleed into one another until I can’t tell what is false and what is real, as with everyday life. Some things I know for sure, with photographs in faded albums to back up their facts in a glossy sheen of my father’s deft camerawork. He carried that heavy thing slung about his neck on a strap, took it wherever we went on our holiday-travels in the car, which was all we could afford. I still, to this day, don’t know how much of those travels were to do with his work.

But we were a family of four. Climbing hills and camping beneath mountains made of dark glass and rock, under skies you could shatter with a pinprick. My mother wore her champagne hair in long curls, and carried me on her back. My sister’s hair was attempting to grow out from the rugged crop she’d got around age three; those straight pale locks were never the same again. We trudged up and down the white Austrian slopes with our steel-shod wooden sledges, which would never get past Health and Safety tests now; I wore a Michelin-Man suit of red and blue, with pink mittens and snow boots with white kid lining. I was so proud of these – they had been my sister’s, until she outgrew them. I got most of her hand-me-downs, unless we were “gifted” with identikit outfits by our grandparents. They loved to see little girls dressed in gingham and plaid.

I beg to differ.
But those dresses did stop me being mistaken for a boy all the time, with my short-cropped hair and skinny frame.

We’d race each other through plumes of silver breath, rolling and skidding, while our parents slid gracefully past on their skis. It was another world, another time, full of very straight roads with sharp right-angle corners, elegant steel ‘n stone infrastructure, mixed up with beloved architecture that told their own quiet tales of tradition. Soft gingerbread rooftops and quaint gables, gothic spikes and dark-eye windows. A world of Germanic and Slavic fairytales, forests and fate (lots of death) and magic.

Last night, I watched an old favourite film, firmly bound up in childhood but vague in terms of my full appreciation of it. I hadn’t seen An American Tail since I was eight, though it was often played at my Nanna’s house when we went to visit. The historical and political themes had gone quite over my head (as I’m fairly sure they would for most kids.) I had to blink and look again when it came to the stinging truth of the dangers and difficulties facing Jewish immigrants from central and eastern Europe, bound for America. Stuck among the singing and dancing, it all seemed a bit …
Well, you can fill in with your own words. I did laugh to recognize where “The Giant Mouse of Minsk” had got its name. But my skin riddled up to finally understand the opening scenes of violence that drove the Mousekewitzes and their human counterparts from Shoskta, as part of the anti-Jewish pogroms. I hadn’t known because no one had told me, no one in my family thought to mention it, though they couldn’t possibly have failed to notice the connections. Likewise, on the one occasion the film was shown in my old primary school, there was no mention of the protagonists being Jewish, or of the persecution they had faced.
It would have made a difference to know.

The film aside, this appears to be a recurring theme in adulthood. So much is missing in mind and memory – whether through daydreaming in class (likely) or the subjects being entirely omitted from each year’s history curriculum. Important dates have come up, I’ve been well enough to acknowledge them, but have found myself with empty holes where details should have been.

It’s true, we never stop learning. It’s only in recent years that I’ve managed to piece together more complete and complex pictures and timelines: of the First and Second World Wars, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire, the Cold War and the Soviet Union … among many other things, across the world.
I could have told you about spits and spots: about Egyptian hieroglyphics and Stone Henge, about the Victorians, how to use old teabags to brown-up paper to make “papyrus scrolls.” I could have told you about the war poets.
But I didn’t know about the significance of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or Yalta, or the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. I learned about the Holocaust mostly through my own research (with a lot of help from Art Spiegelman’s Maus) and about Weimar Germany and hyperinflation from A Level Film Studies – where it was necessary to have a grounding in the historical context of the Expressionist films we were studying.

But is it possible that I fucked around so much in classes that I missed some rather crucial points in human history? Were they even taught then – should they have been? Are these subjects the preserve of further and higher education? (I lasted nine weeks in University before dropping out. Health reasons, as ever.) I wonder, because they seem to be more relevant than ever. And, I’m getting well enough to look backwards as well as around, and forwards; at other people’s lives, rather than my own.

I study, taking time away from faces and noise, to read; to absorb what I can, to make more sense of Today. It’s also possible that whatever I might have learned in school has been burnt out of my brain by years of anorexia and malnutrition. I still find it difficult to retain key facts above the constant white noise, though there’s been a definite improvement in the past couple of years. Never underestimate the links between physical and mental health.

The past few weeks have shown as much. I’ve lost about a kilo, despite a serious increase in food and fluids (it only came home to me how much when I saw a friend’s tweet about his calorie intake for a marathon – it near enough matched my own. But I’m not training for a marathon. I just work, and work out.) I’m reduced to an insomniac with a constant low-grade burning appetite, a short fuse, lowered mental cognition and weaker muscles. My emotional state is a trip-hazard. This is another reason I’ve taken time away, so I don’t inadvertently start WWIII.

I’m going for blood tests next week, to rule out anything other than a long-running aversion to change (we’re slowly starting to pack up at the Nick, with some departments closing to move on), and stress.

The haunting strains of the violin call to a past that leaves an ache at the back of my throat. I once walked barefoot in snow without pain. Even then, there was the tingle of Bigger Things in my spine, and they came most often in dreams.

Once, I climbed hand-over-foot on hot stones the colour of sand, under a blazing blue sky; though I never reached the top, there was sight and sound, the burring whine of many insects, the pulsing heat from the overhead sun. Across the years, that element of wandering-away from familiar places to unexpectedly stumble upon a great looming presence – a monument, a temple, a building – has never died. But I didn’t link them all together until last week, when the latest rendition of the dream came with a lowering night sky, pale smudges at its horizon, as of storm clouds obscuring the dusky rose. The monolith rose up in glittering darkness like a fallen spaceship, with panels and a size to silence anyone. Silence all around, and no way in. I wandered about its hulk, feeling the ping from its cooling metal, seeing the faint swirl of beetle-back colours; that toxic beauty.

It was the jungle temple, all right. The same location, accidentally found, as ever, but changed. No way inside to find the cool darkness and the echoes – now, they lie without.
I am always leaving home. I always return, empty-handed, with bare feet and an aching heart.

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Marching for our future

Two themes mingled on the streets of Paris today. In the photographs and reports pouring in, I saw hope and hypocrisy: both will shape the future of this world. Crowds marched in defiance of the terror waged against them in the past week. Leaders went arm-in-arm in supposed solidarity for freedom of expression, after the recent attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket … while back in their home countries, those who stand for freedom of speech and democracy face persecution and imprisonment.

I don’t suppose any of this was far from the minds of more liberal leaders but then, within the context of the march – honouring the fallen – it’d be difficult to speak of other things. I must admit, I found myself hesitating before calling attention to the brilliant research by Daniel Wickham (@DanielWickham93) on the unique abuse of human rights / freedom of expression by many of the world leaders in attendance, if only because I didn’t want to dampen the moment. But then, there are so many moments in time, and they all add up to Change – or not. I thought of Tracy Chapman’s song, “If not Now…”
Then when? One voice among many.

With responsibility comes the shocker of having to give up a lot of what you might believe in. For the greater good, etc. Belarus, for example, is allowed a lot of leeway when it comes to human rights, just so the Lukashenka regime doesn’t kick up a shit-storm between the EU and the loudly-snarling bear, Russia. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

“The Lukashenko administration gives the EU chills from time to time. Belarusian officials make claims about Belarus’s exit from the Eastern Partnership. Belarus threatens to redirect its cargo transit routes from Lithuanian and Latvian ports to Russian ports. Belarus also promises to deploy Russian Tactical Ballistic Missile Systems against Poland. The message is clear: The West must turn a blind eye on the human rights violations in Belarus in order to cooperate with Lukashenka.” – Rethinking the EU Policies Towards Belarus, Andrei Liakhovich.

The world’s internet freedom is falling, with Turkey and Russia leading the descent. In Azerbaijan recently, the US-funded Radio Azadliq was ransacked by the Azerbaijani authorities, with twelve employees arrested and others threatened with the same if they chose not to comply with questioning.
The reason?

“The office raid and forced questioning come as prosecutors are investigating the Azadliq office as a foreign-funded entity. RFE/RL and its bureaus are funded by the U.S. government.
Siyavoush Novruzov, a high-ranking member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, defended the raid as a national security issue.

Speaking to local media, he said it was necessary to close the bureau to prevent espionage, adding, “Every place that works for foreign intelligence and the Armenian lobby should be raided.”

And still.

I found the scenes in France heartening for a number of reasons – most of them pointed out by other people, tweeting as they watched with me, or attended the march themselves. Jamie Barlett (@JamieJBartlett) of think-tank Demos, put it most aptly:
“In 20 years, there will be a new wave of fearless journalists, cartoonists, writers – who as children were moved by the events of last week.”

We can only hope, for this is what and who will stand against the hypocrisy seen today. We all of us have a common enemy, exemplified by the extremists who would like to stir up trouble between Muslims and the countries they call home, or those who would have online dissent (AKA freedom of expression) flogged into silence, or those who would brainwash a populace with disinformation about external persecution, while quietly raiding the home piggybank.

If we’re marching for something – in our minds on social media, with our bodies in the multicultural cities – then let it be for change. Real change. Not words produced today, in the pathos of the moment, but for all of our tomorrows, because we still have to live among each other, every day, and our lives are as intertwined as they have ever been. What comes next, will count the most.