For many a year, as regular readers of my blog can attest to, I have acknowledged and written about Armistice Day, Remembrance Sunday and the need to remember. But this year, 11.11. passed me by unnoticed. I was definitely silent at 11am, but not because I was remembering. I was in the depths of Cornwall deeply immersed in the increasingly final (final final x 10) Final Edits of my book.
I feel bad for forgetting, because I do think it’s important that we remember and commemorate. Just listen to the repeat of Radio 4’s 2014 programme Commemoration to hear some of the main reasons we do. But I also find it curious that I did forget. For this dance between remembering and forgetting is a healthy one. I should know. I have been dancing it a long time.
On Thursday 11th November, the only glimpse I caught of a world beyond the war narratives constantly unfolding in words on my laptop screen, was the sound of the shaky-voice of South Africa’s last white president, FW de Klerk. He had died in Cape Town aged 85, and his office had issued a prerecorded posthumous video apology for the pain caused by his country’s discriminatory system of white rule. On reflection, this collision in time between his apology and our Armistice Day, revealed what, to me, might actually be the essence of why we still need to remember.
“I, without qualification,” said the man who, together with Nelson Mandela, had overseen the end of apartheid, “apologise for the pain and hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in SA.”
I cannot comment on his speech or his former role in the painful history of his country – you can read a bit about them on some of the links below. But, whatever sceptics and critics say about his motives or timing or whether what he said went far enough, I did feel the power of apology in his words. Genuine apology is that all too often underrated act that can set into motion so much of what we try to achieve through remembrance: restitution, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. For many victims of wrongdoing or harm, such acknowledgement of their pain and a heartfelt apology for it is all they really want.
Of course, on Remembrance Sunday of all days, we first and foremost want to honour and show gratitude to the fallen and to hold their loved ones in our thoughts and hearts. But, if you don’t know any soldiers who have fought, let alone died in contemporary wars, or if you have never met a veteran of the World Wars, as is increasingly the case, it is hard to actually ‘remember’ in more than a slightly abstract way. For many school children, the Second World War exists in a last century time warp, as I found out at one of my recent talks when one of them asked me whose side I had been on! (Really? Have you not listened to a word I have just said? Or do I just look like I am 95-years-old?)
That is why I am wondering if Remembrance could shift some its emphasis on the past, to include more about the present and the future. The act of apology innately requires an understanding of the lessons history can teach us. Embedded within an apology is more than just a hope for ‘Never Again’. A genuine apology is ‘Never Again’ in action. So today, Britain’s Remembrance Sunday, I am not only going to remember the sacrifices and losses of war. I am going to imagine a time when the hands of heartfelt apology are extended between nations both in acknowledgement of past mistakes and in renewed agreement to act in ways that assure such mistakes never happen again.
If it wasn’t so serious, the idea of a 96-year-old going on the run to escape trial would be quite comical. But behind the image of an old lady hopping into a cab at her retirement home and fleeing for the subway station in the early hours is a quagmire of deeply complex and emotive issues.
Irmgard Furchner stands accused of having contributed to the murder of 11,412 people between 1943 and 1945 when she was an 18-year-old typist and former secretary to the SS commander of the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland. She is the latest of several nonagenarian Nazi war criminals to be brought to trial, some of them in youth courts because they weren’t adults at the time of their alleged crimes.
The reason this particular case captured my attention is partly because it coincided with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the final day of the Nuremberg Trials that saw twelve senior members of the Nazi establishment sentenced to death by hanging. And partly because the hearing Furchner was due to attend was in Itzehoe, the same north German town that I have been going to all my life. I have been looking Nazism and the Second World War in the face for several decades now, but my countless happy memories visiting relatives there had completely insulated it from the chill of Germany’s wider history.
Now it is in the spotlight as the face of retribution. So, is it a total no-brainer that even seventy-five years later, such people, nonagenarian or not, must pay for their part in some of the worst mass killings in history? Or is this more a rush by prosecutors to seize the final opportunity to redress the failures of the previous decades? Will sentencing these last Nazis to time in prison achieve justice for the victims? Or are these trials there to serve the broader objective of Never Forget? Is a ninety-year old even the same person as their eighteen-year-old self?
The last guilty verdict issued was to former SS guard Bruno Dey, who was handed a two-year suspended sentence in July 2020 at the age of 93. The 2019 trial against 95-year-old Johann Rehbogen for his service as a guard also in Stutthof Concentration Camp, had to be terminated as his organs were failing. The only successful conviction was of 96-year-old Oskar Gröning, the so-called ‘bookkeeper of Auschwitz,’ who was sentenced to four years in 2015 but died in hospital after his several appeals failed. I wrote about him at the time in my blog. In his case he had not tried to evade justice. Driven by a desire to counter Holocaust deniers and prevent something like Auschwitz from ever happening again, he had been openly talking about his time as an accountant in the death camp. His testimonies, however, were used against him in court with the unintended outcome that other low-level perpetrators and bystanders went silent.
For some people, the greatest justice to all victims of Nazi persecution that these trials can provide is to keep the crimes fresh in peoples’ minds and prevent them from being forgotten, denied or trivialised. They force Germans, including younger generations, to listen to the testimonies of survivors and to rake over the whole disturbing and uncomfortable past once again.
It is so important that we never forget; that we all learn the lessons that Germany’s descent into barbarity and atrocity teaches us, not least about the vulnerability of democracy today. But survivors often declare that legal retribution is not the main outcome they are after. That they are more interested in shining light on unresolved or overlooked crimes and contributing to Holocaust remembrance and education.
So, are we now at a time when imprisonment is a less effective response than a more direct dealing with the aftermath of the offence? Is there now another way that serves justice to the many victims of the Third Reich and their descendants AND sends a powerful message to would-be perpetrators of mass crimes that they will never get away with murder AND contributes to remembrance and education AND offers possibilities for healing and reconciliation?
The past cannot be changed, but the present can. Might communication between those harmed by and those implicated in Nazi crimes, within the safe frameworks of Restorative Justice or mediation initiatives, offer the possibility to fulfil all the outcomes desired by the survivors? Could the excrutiating discomfort of acknowledgment of past wrongdoing be the punishment? Would talking together create an opportunity to resolve some of the harm and nurture the shoots of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation that can sprout from really listening and really being heard?
Talking with friends – an admittedly unreliable study on which to base objective conclusions – I am wondering if you too are experiencing a dull grey weight to your days. If your thoughts are slightly befuddled, your energy levels subdued, your feelings a kind of bland beige. Whether it’s mild depression, Long Covid, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the impact of eighteen months of restrictions, worries and losses caused by a perfect storm of Covid, Brexit and long-term neglect, the usual palette of life seems, for many, to have mixed itself into a nondescript yuk of a colour.
September inevitably brings change. As the nights steal increasing light from our mornings and evenings, we pack away those hopeful but unworn summer clothes, watch leaves crinkle and kickstart jobs, studies or projects. From soaring energy prices and fuel shortages to cabinet re-shuffles, we are rocked by uncertainty. Even in Germany it’s all change as Mutti, the very face of stability, tries her best to retire.
Meanwhile, our sclerotic prison system resists change as it plods through the ebbs and flows of the outside world. In the ten years since 2011, the Right Honourables Clarke, Grayling, Gove, Truss, Lidington, Gauke and Buckland have tried, but largely failed, to stop the relentless rhythms of ineffectiveness. Will Dominic Raab, our new Secretary of State for Justice, who didn’t exactly shine in his role overseeing the evacuation of Afghanistan, be able to re-direct its course? Just looking at some of the more recent headlines, I don’t think so.
Albert Einstein said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” At my Wednesday morning dance group, I experienced firsthand why. Change does not always come about through control and enforcement. It comes about through compassionate attention, movement, connection, acceptance and love.
Everybody wants to be seen for who they truly are. Because in our essence, we are all beautiful. By only seeing and judging the outer product of a person’s upbringing, education, tragedies and choices, we miss their inner selves with all their original hopes and dreams and unique offerings to the world.
I recently attended a webinar of Ian Hislop, Editor of Private Eye, in conversation with Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform. She is stepping down after 30 years as one of Britain’s leading and most respected voices on prison reform. That’s pretty much the same length of time I have been involved in teaching prisoners or campaigning for better prisons, albeit with considerably less impact. The conversation was actually more entertaining than depressing, though the facts never cease to confirm Britain’s role as an excessively punitive nation. Did you know, for example, that we give out more life sentences per year – around 13,000 – than all European countries (Turkey excluded) combined?
Just for fun – or to add another dollop of grey to any minor depression – let’s do a little quiz based on their conversation and my on-going research.
How many people are currently in our prisons?
What percentage of those are women?
How much does re-offending cost the government and taxpayer?
What happened recently in HMP Bronzefield?
What almost always works?
If we start with that last question – the answer according to Frances Crook is: education. Education nearly always works. It can be beneficial to everybody. Life-changingly so. We all know that, not least because those who can afford it are prepared to invest £40,000 a year to get the best for their child. You no doubt want your children and grandchildren to have a good education too. It’s natural. So why is no more than a tiny fraction of that same sum (which is what it also costs to keep an adult in prison for a year) invested in as much education as possible for those who have so little?
One of this week’s headlines pointed out this neglect.
This ‘Prisoners not taken to lessons…’ thing is precisely why I stopped running the Learning to Learn through the Arts scheme that I set up in my capacity as Arts Coordinator to Koestler Arts from 2002-2006. Having raised the funds, sourced appropriate artists, bought materials, liaised with prisons and organised all the many other practicalities involved in running a 4-6 week art project, all the prison had to do was deliver the men to the allotted room at the appropriate time. But more than often they didn’t. Or couldn’t. Staff shortages was one reason. Old-fashioned punitive attitudes, a risk-averse governor, bad organisation were others.
You might know the answers to the rest of the questions.
80,000. We lock up more people than anywhere in Western Europe.
Roughly 3000 or up to 5% are women.
Re-offending costs £18 billion. In contrast, to run an educational course costs a few hundred pounds per person.
At HMP Bronzefield, the private prison run by contractor Sodexo, an 18-year-old gave birth alone in her cell . When her calls for help were ignored, she passed out in pain. The baby died. She bit through the umbilical cord, climbed into bed and cradled it for 12 hours.
Looking at Answer Nr. 4, Chief Inspectors, charities, pressure groups can all point out the failures behind such a traumatic incident. They have been there for so long.
Yet ministers repeatedly ignore facts, common sense, morality, humanity and even kindness.
When our prime minister quips behind closed doors at a Conservative party fundraiser that the UK could become ‘the Saudi Arabia of penal policy’ under his current ‘hardline’ home secretary, Priti Patel, you know for sure that there is little sensitivity towards the grim levels of stress, pain and discomfort experienced by those living or working in some of our prisons. Little understanding of how growing up surrounded by violence and fear has an impact on a person’s nervous system and brain functioning. Little understanding of the strain on a mother of three who has to choose between putting food on the table or heating the room for an hour.
I believe the plethora of such unempathetic attitudes and policies towards those who are less advantaged, less educated, less fortunate are massively contributing to the current ‘yuk’ colour of life. Understanding is one of the paths to a compassionate and restorative Criminal Justice System. A lack of understanding mixed with emotional immaturity is one of the surest paths to an unjust and failing prison system. And the latter is costing us all dear, on many levels.
They/We are squandering the precious opportunities incarceration could offer to nurture and rebuild rather than waste and destroy human potential.
So who is really the guilty party and the danger to society here?
In the light – or should I say pitch darkness – of the horrors and tragedies that have been unfolding in Afghanistan as the USA, UK and other countries withdraw, my recent visit to the National Army Museum in London felt strangely apposite. One of its current exhibitions – Foe to Friend: The British Army in Germany since 1945 – covers the final withdrawal of British troops from Germany in 2020. It traces Britain’s 75-year military presence there, first as occupiers and administrators of a destroyed country, then as reluctant but necessary Allies confronted with escalating Cold War tensions, and on to its current relationship as friends.
I can’t stop thinking about what is happening in Afghanistan. It feels beyond catastrophic, beyond imagination, but of course, I am in no position to comment. Except maybe to point out the contrast of our withdrawal from Germany, which passed effortlessly and without incident. Presumably that is the mark of an original mission reaching its intended positive conclusion and outcome, though I have to say I was surprised when I first learned that we even still had a presence there! A second exhibition in the foyer of the museum makes one realise, however, just how alive that period still is in many people’s lives.
Long Shadows of War has been created by the German photographer, Susanne Hakuba. Susanne lives in England and has been a friend ever since she invited me to participate in her brave and on-going examination of how the Third Reich still casts shadows on Germany, its people and her own life. Any person who is familiar with my blogs or talks will be all too aware of how much Germany has already done to deal with its Nazi heritage at a national and political level. But this exhibition shows how the personal level can be another story, quite literally.
Susanne’s haunting photographs, quotes and poems draw on the testaments of others to reveal the differing attitudes between three generations: those who witnessed the times, those who lived in their parent’s and grandparent’s trauma- or guilt-filled silences immediately after the war, and those who carried the heavy contents of that silence with its ensuing emotional absence without realising it.
The third generation – born in the sixties and seventies – have been gradually and carefully breaking through the silence to discover what lies behind familiar narratives that don’t quite add up. It’s no longer about uncovering the facts, many of which will never be known or knowable; it is more about the emotions attached to them. For it is these that coloured and flavoured most German childhoods, often leading to inexplicable symptoms, confusions about identity and self-destructive behaviours as they advanced towards adulthood.
This phenomenon is called inter- or transgenerational trauma. It describes the transmission of unresolved issues from one generation to the next; a form of emotional inheritance seeking resolution. I talk about it in my TEDx talk and it is widely acknowledged in Germany. For all sorts of reasons, however, we don’t know much about this in Britain. But seeing the interest visitors to the exhibition display, Susanne is hopeful – as am I – that her/our work can be a catalyst for people – of any nationality or history – to look at the gaps in their own family stories in order to discover what is lurking there unrecognised, unspoken but potent.
What is happening in Afghanistan will leave many people traumatised and many others guilty. The impact of both so often gets buried in silent withdrawal as people try to cope. But suppressed traumas and wrongdoings can lead to misery, dysfunction and, all too often, to devastating actions and crimes. I sincerely hope that growing coverage of this subject through exhibitions, talks, books and the media will raise our collective awareness of how important it is to acknowledge and treat trauma before it is allowed to fester and pollute the lives of generations to come. As Afghanistan will no doubt teach us, it is in everybody’s interests to do so.
I was going to divert from the usual themes of my blog and write about something light and summery. But then the government published its Beating Crime Plan and, though I can’t face going through all of it, I feel compelled to point out a couple of things. Because its showy, populist, tough-on-crime bluster and glaring ignorance of the real issues is a smack in the face for anyone who dared hope for a different, progressive or even a building-back-better or levelling-up approach.
You can read the full paper here if you really haven’t got better beach or staycation reading. Or just get an idea from the different views on its content in some of the links below. For now, I am just going to take two examples that come straight out of Boris Johnson’s mouth to illustrate my point. Which is basically that little of this is going to work… because it never has.
The first quote is from the foreword:
“None of us can fulfil our potential if we live in fear, none of us can rise up if we’re held down by those who would do us harm. If we as a society, as a country, are to truly flourish then we have to start by beating crime – and I’m proud that this Government has the plan to do just that.”
So, the first sentence, while true, is also an own goal. Living in fear is precisely what so many children and young people are forced to do in their early lives. It’s what drives them to join a gang for supposed safety-in-numbers; to reach for the perceived protection of a knife; to become an aggressor rather than a victim.
The second sentence, also off. ‘Beating crime’ is the not the way for a society and country to truly flourish. Crime, like drugs, is a largely a symptom, not the cause of failure. To thrive as a nation, we need to give the most disadvantaged more of a chance to fulfil their potential; to educate and support them to become the person that deep down they know they could be, but can’t find a way to be. As for the government’s plan Johnson is so proud of…
The second example is what Johnson said to reporters:
“If you are guilty of antisocial behaviour and you are sentenced to unpaid work, as many people are, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society.”
I am kind of assuming that all my readers can see reasons why this might not just be wrong, but also deeply offensive? Is it progressive, or even remotely appropriate to bring back what amounts to little less than medieval public shaming? Basic psychology, the Treaty of Versailles, no doubt your own experience of shame all demonstrate how humiliation, even if ‘justified’ usually leads to counter-productive outcomes. As for ‘chain gangs’… really?
And what ‘debt to society’ is he talking about? The debt of having been failed by the education system, of having lived in poverty due to the absence of a living wage, of having been a victim of systemic disadvantage / racism / drug addict parents / trauma / lack of opportunity? Not all criminals fall into those categories, but a great many do.
The plan continues with ideas that blatantly ignore recommendations, previous experience, the expertise of those on the ground… and even logic. More stop-and-search powers, even though these are known to disproportionately target black people. More prisons, even though their £37,000 per person per year merely results in the £18.1 billion bill for high re-offending rates, usually within 12 months of release. You just have to read the below paragraph and compare with the statistics to see how deluded and detached from reality the reasoning behind these plans are!
If prisons worked you wouldn’t have to embark on the largest prison building programme… you could spend all those millions of pounds on mental health therapies and drug addiction treatment and prevention; on building soft social skills; on support for dyslexia, jobs, housing… Anyway, I could go on, but it is too frustrating and fruitless to. Maybe next month I will find something lighter and more summery to write about… as long as the government don’t publish any more of their plans.
Related links – not all representative of my opinions
What is the difference between ‘I had no idea’ and ‘I didn’t know’?
I ask this question in the wake of what must be one of the best television series in the past year: BBC One’s deeply uncomfortable and disquieting three-parter, Time.
It is described as: ‘Jimmy McGovern’s hard-hitting, brutally honest portrayal of a failed public service which gets everything right about prison life – minus the tedium.’ If you haven’t seen it – and sorry to my readers abroad if you can’t get BBC – I would like to invite you to watch it, even to dip into it for ten minutes. I’ll tell you why.
Having worked in many prisons in England, I feel everybody needs to know what is going on in them. In our name. There was nothing in the series that I didn’t recognise from my years inside. As I am up against a tight writing deadline for my book (and this blog actually!), I am going to allow the three episodes to speak for me and bear witness to the sheer illogic, and all too often, inhumanity of our current system.
This doesn’t apply to all prisoners, but if we recognise that many addictive, violent and destructive behaviours derive from childhood trauma; if we fully comprehend the impact of untreated traumatic incidents, then the cruelty of locking up people, who were first and foremost victims, in what are often little more than hell holes, becomes very clear.
My admittedly provocative opening question stems from a genuine desire to understand the answer.
For decades, the adult-generation of Germans living through the Second World War have not been believed when they say, ‘we didn’t know’ (about the concentration camps). And people around the world often blame them for having looked the other way. I don’t want to get into that debate here. There is a consensus among historians that some would have known, some would have heard about them and not believed it, and others would not have known. Most of the camps were miles away in the east and there was little access to free press. There was also a deadly dictatorship controlling thoughts and actions. Yet not knowing, or knowing and not doing anything, allowed the deadly system to persist for as long as it did.
I have been talking to a wide range of audiences about my experiences of working as an artist in prisons for nearly three decades. The most common thing I hear afterwards is a shocked “I had no idea.” It’s totally valid, I make no judgment. There are loads of things I have no idea about. But why don’t more people know about this? There are prisons in nearly every major town. The shocking statistics of failure, the appalling conditions and the tragic stories of many of the people locked up in them are reported on all the time, in every form of media. How can we not know about them?
There is obviously a wide spectrum from having no idea, to knowing but looking away, to knowing and acting. I would just like to use this month’s blog to encourage you to become more informed, specifically about the system in which we warehouse prisoners. Not just for their sakes, but for all of us who live in the communities into which they are returned… usually worse.
When enough people ‘have an idea’, things can and will change.
Watching this series is a start. It’s tough watching, but the reality is much, much tougher.