Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Hopes for 2018. Or are they just blinkers?

One of the aspects of 2018 that appeals to me personally is that it will be my second calendar year in a job I actually enjoy.

That may sound pretty unimpressive but when you’ve spent ten years moving between six jobs, five of which were lousy fits – or, to be fair, to which I turned out to be hopelessly unfitted – finding one that I actually like is a remarkable uptick.

So it’s good to be starting a new year in it.

One of the aspects I enjoy of the job is that it involves quite a lot of work in Italy. Why should that appeal to me? It’s where I was born, but in the course of a long career, I’ve never had the opportunity to work there. Now, however, I’ve been working with Italian colleagues and developing relations with Italian clients, and it’s wonderfully rewarding.

As a child, I spoke Italian pretty well. Perhaps to near-native level. Today – well, it’s half a century on and things get rusty. So one of the things I’ve been doing is working on the language. Reading is one of the best ways of doing that.

Do you know Primo Levi’s book The Periodic Table? I liked it so much that I’m re-reading it. The beauty is that it’s extremely funny, which only intensifies the harrowing poignancy of the life story of a man who was one of the few survivors of the extermination camp at Auschwitz.
Primo Levi: an extraordinary history for an outstanding writer
The book’s title is derived from the profession Levi first chose, long before he became a writer. He was a chemist. Each chapter is associated with the name of an element from the Periodic Table. Near the end of one of the early chapters, Zinc, Levi explains that:

…I had always considered my origins a negligible if curious fact, a little amusing anomaly, like someone whose nose is bent or who has freckles; a Jew is someone who doesn’t decorate a tree at Christmas, who shouldn’t eat salami but does anyway, who learned a little Hebrew when he was thirteen and then forgot it.

That struck a cord, because it is so close to the way I feel about being a Jew myself. If I were more religious it would matter much more but, since I’m not, it remains for me simply a cultural idea – or, more importantly, a cultural emotion – which is far from defining who I am. It’s as essential to my character as is my imposing height (167 cm or 5’7”) or my spectacular hair colour (six decades to get it to this particular white, though it was well under way in just three).

That’s surely how these characteristics should be. Of some interest, maybe, but not the basis for any kind of real judgement. Sadly, for Levi, in the late 1930s, his origins wouldn’t long remain a mere curiosity. As racial laws were promulgated by the Fascist government, walls began to go up around him, with the doors in them closing one by one.

These days, of course, while anti-Semitism is hardly dead, it isn’t the force it once was. Nor is it by any means the main cause for the persecution of people on the basis of what they are, rather than what they have done. Today the groups suffering the most are Muslims or Blacks.

Something that brought this home to me particularly strongly was when I asked a black woman I’d just met, where she was from. It was an innocent question. Her accent said loud and clear that the answer was ‘Luton’, the town to which my wife and I had just moved. That was the answer I was expecting. But that’s not an innocent question to a black person.

She replied, “I’m from Cheltenham”.

Now Cheltenham and Luton are about as far apart as any two towns can be in England. Not geographically, though they’re hardly neighbours. The real distinction is social. Cheltenham is nice, a word you should pronounce ‘naice’. It’s wealthy. It has a fine girls’ school. It has a major British spying centre. It has a Tory MP. House prices are, I doubt not, astronomical.

Luton has two Labour MPs. It’s just a tad dust-blown. Its great advantage is that, for being this close to London, its house prices are amazingly cheap – perhaps a third to a half of the capital’s.

It’s hard to imagine anyone with her accent coming from Cheltenham.

Still, that was her answer, and we chatted a little about the town and her upbringing there before moving on to other subjects.

By the afternoon, she’d got to know me a little better. And suddenly, unprompted, she turned to me and said, “actually, I was born in Jamaica. I came to Cheltenham when I was five”.

All the weight of blackness was suddenly laid bare for me. Ask a white Englishman where he’s from and he tells you. Ask someone black, and there’s a moment at least when he has to be wondering, “are you checking on whether I’m an alien? Whether I don’t belong here?”

The attitudes that would ultimately inflict terrible suffering on Levi are still there. They just have different targets, for the most part, today.

Back to Levi’s book.

The following chapter, Iron, starts with the words:

Outside the walls of the Chemistry Institute it was night, the night of Europe: Chamberlain had returned outplayed from Munich, Hitler had entered Prague without firing a shot, Franco had subjugated Barcelona and was sitting in Madrid. Fascist Italy, a minor pirate, had occupied Albania, and the premonition of catastrophe was condensing like a viscous dew across the houses and in the streets, in careful talk and muted consciences.

Well, we’re not there yet. Reading those words on the brink of 2018 reminded me how much less bad things look today than they did in 1939. But then, they didn’t look so bad in 1930, but the 1939 catastrophe came anyway.

And yet, if we wanted to live, Levi tells us later, if we wanted in some way to take advantage of the youth that was flowing through our veins, there was no other resource… than voluntary blindness.

Yes. That’s what stops us preventing that kind of slide. And yet, if Levi chose voluntary blindness, with what he was facing, what’s to stop us doing the same?

I’m looking forward to another year in a job I like. It should be fun. But is that just me choosing blindness too?

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