Friday, 15 August 2014

Berlin dispatch

Friday evening yoga in Berlin, feisty yoga lady next to me: "Well I never join in with all the chanting because what if I chant one of those mantras and then I find out it means Heil Hitler." ‪#‎ThatsOneWayOfLookingAtIt‬

Thursday, 12 June 2014

German task force reveals history of lost Matisse

Femme Assise / The Sitting Woman.
Source: The Art Newspaper

The German task force investigating the provenance of potentially Nazi-looted paintings has concluded that one of them, Femme Assise by Henri Matisse, painted in 1921, was originally owned by art dealer Paul Rosenberg. Rosenberg's granddaughter, the French journalist Anne Sinclair, has made a claim on the painting, saying the Nazis stole it from her family.

I received the task force's German press release this morning and will summarise the gist in a few bullet points, see below. The paintings were part of a stash discovered in the flat of the late Cornelius Gurlitt. Gurlitt had inherited the paintings from his father, Hildebrand, art dealer to the Nazis. In the 1930s and 40s, the Nazis seized thousands of art works from Jewish families through forced sales or direct confiscation - the biggest art theft in history. They also confiscated modernist art works from museums as the style was deemed "degenerate". 

Paul Rosenberg with Matisse's "Odalisque" in 1937

Paul Rosenberg was a friend of Matisse and an early champion of his work. He fled the Nazis in 1940, leaving France for Spain and then New York, but had to leave behind 162 paintings. A year later, the Nazis confiscated the entire collection. Gurlitt senior, it seems, was charged with selling some of the confiscated paintings on behalf of the Nazis, but kept some for himself. (Again, this seems to be the gist - I don't fact-check blog posts as thoroughly as I fact-check my other pieces, so apologies in advance for any inaccuracies). As the press release explains, the task force couldn't fully clarify how Femme Assise ended up in Gurlitt's hands.

Gurlitt junior came across as a tragic figure rather than a scheming villain. He lived a secluded, lonely life. In an interview with Der Spiegel, he said that he talked to his paintings every night, and that their confiscation had hurt him more than the death of his sister. Before he died, he declared that he would abide by the groundbreaking Washington Principles on the restitution of Nazi-looted art. Legally, he did not have to do this - the paintings were his, as the claims had expired under German law. Morally, it was of course the right decision, and set an important precedent for other private owners.

It's interesting that the task force sees Gurlitt's decision as binding for his own heirs, and also, that so many open questions remain regarding the work itself. You'd think it would be quite easy to seamlessly construct a famous painting's history from 1921 to 2014, less than a century. The fact that it's difficult shows just how many hidden stories are still there to be uncovered.

Here's what the task force said about investigating the history of Femme Assise (my translation, quick and dirty). I thought it might be interesting for people trying to track down their family's lost art:

- Research was difficult and complex, particularly clarifying the work's identity. There was mismatching data on the size of the work, as well as gaps in the timeline of the provenance.

- Investigators had to do extensive research in German, French and US archives, as well historical sources provided by the claimants.

- Not all questions regarding the work's history could be answered

- But overall, they concluded it was from the collection of Paul Rosenberg

- This expertise will be used as the basis for the decision regarding restitution of the work to Paul Rosenberg's heirs.

- Just before his death, Cornelius Gurlitt declared he would abide by the Washington Agreement (legally he didn't have to do this as any claims had expired under German law).

Quote from the head of the task force:

"Even if we could not document with absolute certainty how Hildebrand Gurlitt acquired the work, the task force has reached the conclusion that the work constitutes Nazi-looted art from the collection of Paul Rosenberg."

- Task force says a fair and just solution should be found "in the spirit of the Washington Agreement".

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

On not reading reviews

Dear readers,

I'm trying out a new review-reading strategy. It involves not reading any reviews.

The main reason is that I found Love and Other Wars incredibly hard to write.

It was a great privilege to interview former conscientious objectors, read letters and diaries in archives all over London and spend time with Quakers to learn about their pacifist beliefs. But at the end of my research I felt rather crushed by the sadness of it all: so many lives wasted, so many people killed along with their hopes and plans.

At the Imperial War Museum, I read the letters from a young RAF pilot to his parents and saw him mature from wide-eyed teenager (off to Rhodesia!! First solo flight! Elephants! Fifteen exclamation marks per page!!!) all the way to calm, unflappable RAF ace. When I reached the bottom of the box, after the last letter, there was nothing but a telegram to his parents: We regret to inform you...  

In the University College London archives, I leafed through old copies of the student newspaper. There, between an ad for a lecture by an eminent birth-control expert and a witty spat over a work of modern art in the cafeteria, was an appeal for British sponsors to help a Jewish student leave Berlin. What was the outcome of this desperate bet on the kindness of strangers? Did he make it out?

And so on. Every day brought a new encounter with some brave, optimistic, life-loving person who had been born at the wrong time, in the wrong place. It seemed pointless to turn away and invent a story about fictional characters when all these true and important stories of real people were still untold.

In the end, a good friend reminded me that a novelist's task is to write a novel. Which I did. Since the writing part of the job is now finally done, since there is nothing I could have done differently about this particular book, and since the people whose judgement I am most curious (and perhaps most worried) about are dead, it's probably best to let others get on with the reading and reviewing part, and not interfere. Having said that, I am very grateful to have you as my readers and do hope you enjoy the book.

Best wishes


Monday, 2 June 2014

World's best book-staircase (with tiger)

Seen at the Hackney Pirates, an excellent organisation in East London that aims to make reading, writing and learning in general more fun. I've been volunteering for them for a while so I'm completely biased, but still, their new book-staircase is just amazing. I'm trying to find out the names of the artists who made it - all their work is stunning, they made an excellent pirate-themed fake book-case with a secret door as well.

When I first volunteered with the Hackney Pirates, they were running a summer school for local children on a rooftop in Dalston. I then followed them through a series of unconventional classrooms: a room with a chicken coop just outside the window (gawk gawk gawwwwk), an empty building transformed into a pirates' ship, a make-shift beach shack next to a kebab shop with incredibly supportive owners who let the Pirates hold volunteer meetings in the shop. This year they've finally got a permanent ship, a building on Dalston high street complete with a shop, a cafe and a lovely educational space. And a book-staircase.

Instead of the rooftop summer school, there are now daily afternoon sessions. During the first half of the session, children do their homework or read a book; during the second half, they work on a creative project. Each child is paired with a volunteer to help and encourage them. It's a very simple formula and it works. I've seen so many young Pirates gain confidence, improve their reading and develop a new enthusiasm for learning over the years. I used to be quite a cynic about these things so it's been a good learning experience for me as well. If you're interested in becoming a volunteer, just visit their website and sign up for a training session. See you on the rainbow-coloured steps!

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Five common myths about conscientious objectors

Source: Peace Pledge Union archive

Today is Conscientious Objector Day, and I thought I would use the opportunity to debunk five common myths about conchies here in the UK. My facts are drawn from interviews with former conscientious objectors, the Peace Pledge Union archive, the Quakers and the Imperial War Museum in London.

1. Conscientious objection is a World War One issue. In WW2, everyone fought.

There were 60,000 conscientious objectors in World War Two. After the horrors of World War One, public opinion became much more receptive to pacifist ideas. In 1935, an Anglican priest called Dick Sheppard founded the Peace Pledge Union along with Aldous Huxley and others. They received 100,000 postcards from men across Britain pledging not to fight, though some of these men later changed their minds.

2. Conchies are basically cowards and shirkers

During World War Two, conscientious objectors risked their lives as ambulance workers, as hospital workers, as human guinea pigs for new vaccines, and in many hazardous jobs fighting fires and clearing rubble in British cities during the Blitz. So many young pacifists wanted to serve in ambulances and hospitals that there was a waiting list.

Clifford Barnard, a young Quaker working for the Friends Ambulance Unit, risked his health and life as one of the first aid workers to enter the liberated Sandbostel Concentration Camp in north-west Germany, caring for the inmates in the midst of a typhus epidemic.

Bertha Bracey, a Quaker, helped organise the Kindertransport, which rescued 10,000 mainly Jewish children from the continent and brought them to Britain. Another woman, Gertrude Wijsmuller, personally confronted Eichmann when he was head of emigration in Vienna, and negotiated the permit for the first Kindertransport.

Indeed, many WW2 pacifists had fought in the previous war. As one conscientious objector wrote in his application to be exempt from military service, in 1941: "The sufferings I observed during the war of 1914-1918 caused me to reflect upon the horror and futility of it all." (See picture - archive material from the Peace Pledge Union).

I interviewed Sheppard's daughter, Rosemary, who recalled that many veterans attended his services, glad that someone acknowledged their trauma rather than trying to glorify it. 

3. They were all Quakers, or posh

I have read archived tribunal applications from Quakers, Socialists, Jehova's Witnesses and Anglicans, from university students, printers and window cleaners. One of the former conchies I interviewed, Noel Makin, decided to be a pacifist because of one formative literary experience: he read All Quiet on the Western Front as a boy.

Applications on religious grounds did stand a better chance at being approved than applications on political grounds (eg Socialists, "brotherhood of man"). Jehova's Witnesses were sometimes given a quick exemption because they had a tendency to use the tribunal as a preaching opportunity, and tried to convert the judges.

4. Conchies in WW2 did nothing to fight the Fascists

I have already mentioned the Kindertransport and humanitarian aid workers. Something else struck me when I read certain grassroots publications from the 1930s, such as student magazines, which reflected a wider range of opinions than the big newspapers. Pacifist student societies were very active in supporting refugees from the continent, trying to find sponsors for Jewish students stuck in Germany and later, Austria. This was at a time when many right-wing editorials ranted against letting in so many refugees. 

The WW2 pacifists did not always get it right: many simply underestimated the German threat. With hindsight, their efforts can seem naive. But one things we can learn from them is that humanitarian work and support for refugees is never just a footnote to "real war" - it's a crucial part of fighting against evil.

5. Conchies are a source of shame

Are they? If so, they shouldn't be. Britain ought to be proud of its conchies. In Germany, where I am from, pacifists were brutally persecuted by the Nazis. Many were arrested and thrown into concentration camps.

Every single totalitarian regime has hounded conscientious objectors as traitors, saboteurs, the enemy within. The fact that Britain in principle provided an official status for them during WW2, and the opportunity to serve in a peaceful capacity or even opt out altogether, marks a proud moment in British history. It is testament to Britain's liberal tradition. Whether you agree with conchies or not, their stories show the value of freedom of conscience in a democracy.

A note from a pacifist window cleaner in WW2. "My heart was not in window cleaning." World peace through Esperanto. Naive, maybe, but heart-breakingly sincere. Source: Peace Pledge Union

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Don't judge a continent by its cover

A few years ago an author told me about the cover they first suggested for her novel, to her dismay (novel was set in Africa - keeping it vague to avoid identification). It featured an acacia tree, a goat, a drum, a slender African woman AND a bit of kente cloth for good measure. 

Well, here's more on the subject of Lion King book design:

"Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, whatever kind of writing you do, if you write a novel “about Africa,” chances are you’re going to get the acacia tree treatment. And the orange sky... In short, the covers of most novels “about Africa” seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King."

Simon Stevens @SimonMStevens and Africa Is A Country on the dangers of a single cover: 

Thursday, 8 May 2014

How To Be A Writer In Paris

Charles Baudelaire. This is the facial expression you should be aiming for as a writer in Paris. 

One great advantage of being a writer in Paris is that Parisians love writers. This is unusual, and to be savoured, because it's generally not very Parisian to love stuff. Showing too much enthusiasm is considered a bit dumb, or fake, or American, or all of the above.

If you told someone at a party in London that you worked as, say, a snail tamer, they would try very, very hard to find some fascinating angle ("So what kind of snails do you tame?"). In Paris, that kind of smiley, positive response would mark you out as someone who's a bit too easy to impress = loser.

But being a writer is seen as a good thing. When I quit my job as a journalist in Paris to write novels full-time, I had the strange and unexpected experience of suddenly doing something Parisians respect.

My first taste of this lovely new world came when I got my library card and the grumpy librarian asked what I did for a living.

Me (proudly): I'm a writer!

Librarian (suddenly delighted): Ah, let me enter that right away! (looks for the right box to tick) Hmmm... sorry, we don't have a "writer" category.

Me: It's ok, you can just tick "media" or "journalism"

Librarian: No, we don't have that either.

Me: That's a shame, for a library!

Librarian (genuinely sorry): I know! Let me see.... (brightens up) Ha, I know! I'll tick... "INTELLECTUAL".

 So with one click, I was a library-certified Parisian intellectual.

Journalism also gets a certain degree of respect in Paris (because it's badly paid and has to do with words), but financial journalism, not so much, especially not if it's for a big news agency.

Here's an example from my journalism days. A random party, "what do you do" etc:

Me: I work for Reuters.

Parisian woman: I don't like Reuters. In the past, every newspaper had their own correspondents, and now when you look at a front page, all the stories are by Reuters and the AP.

 ...because the decline of journalism, and the fact that people don't pay enough money for quality news, is obviously *the fault of Reuters*. (French logic - if in doubt, blame the multinationals).

Now, the same French logic holds true for writers. The more obscure you are as a writer, the more they respect you. Because it means you didn't sell out. 

Whereas if you're a global bestseller, it probably means you're part of the creeping homogenisation of culture that starts with news agencies and ends with the Da Vinci Code.

Here's what happened when I told an aspiring Parisian screenwriter at another party that I didn't want my readers to labour their way through my novels; the author should shoulder the hard work of making the book readable and enjoyable. He on the other hand was proud of never having sold a screenplay because this *proved how good they were* (= too clever for the market).

Parisian asp. screenwriter: Tolstoy said that art should be used to educate the masses. The artist should be above them.

Me (dumbly): But for all I know, the reader might be more educated than me. I don't see myself as above them - I see it more as a shared experience.

Parisian asp. screenwriter (smugly): Moi, I'm more with Tolstoy.

It's like an inversion of the writer's usual social nightmare in London or New York, where someone asks how sales are going and you have to cringe and mutter that you don't keep an eye on them because, erm, cringe, it's literary fiction.

In Paris, if you're a bestselling writer, it means you're low-brow trash. If you're unpublished - boom, you're avec Tolstoy. You're an intellectual. You get the special intellectual card in the library.

So here's how to be a writer in Paris: brag about your low sales. Complain about the illiterate oafs who don't get your work. Use your library card whenever possible. Wear black. Actually, wear grey, which seems to be the new black. Smoke. Quote Tolstoy. Hang out in dive bars. Then go home and quietly - without telling anyone, especially not your adoring, rent-paying partner/muse - work like crazy to produce the next bestseller.