Monthly Archives: March 2015

‘Girl with a White Dog’ and the occupational hazard of hypocrisy.

On Saturday I had a very strange (in a good way!) experience. A friend and neighbour told me that she had been in a queue behind two Eastern European farm workers in our local shop. Although they were both immigrants they seemed to speak different languages, and communicated in English. One told the other how he stored his loose change in a jar for when money was short. He then politely asked the lady behind the till if it was acceptable if he paid in small change, and she said she had no problem. However, the person in front of my friend in the queue made a big fuss about it. He sighed and complained loudly and rolled his eyes and generally made it clear he was very irritated.

Here comes the point I found startling, lovely and a bit disconcerting to hear. My friend said ‘I thought of your book, Anne, and I thought, ‘Anne wouldn’t stand by and hear these workers be harassed, so I said something.’

My friend went on to say loudly, so that the farm workers could hear, ‘Well, I think it’s absolutely fine to pay like that,’ and the complaining man said ‘ you’ve got a lot of opinions, haven’t you?’ , to which my friend said ‘I think you’re very rude’. She said she felt nervous but sure she was doing the right thing. He then replied angrily, in a stunning comeback, ‘well I think YOU are very rude,’ paid for his shopping and marched out. My friend paid for hers, worried slightly that he might be waiting for her outside to carry on the argument, but finding he had gone, went home, relieved.

My friend was v funny telling the story, and I know that two people telling each other they are rude is not exactly newsworthy, but I think she was extremely brave. She said ‘‘Girl with a White Dog’ sensitised me, Anne,’ and that makes me feel very proud.

But it was the bit where she said ‘I thought, ‘Anne wouldn’t put up with people speaking like this to immigrants ’ that made me go ‘oh no!’ to her. I am so relieved that she didn’t get into a physical fight because of my book.

You see, I don’t know what I would have done. I have days when I can be brave, and I have days when I am not. I am absolutely not sure I would have done the right thing, and I am flattered and touched that my neighbour has such faith in me, but I don’t have the same faith in myself.

So should we not write things we can’t live up to?

I think, as a human, I have to. I can’t live up to ideals of perfect love and goodness. I think humans are prone to all sorts of cowardice and selfishness – it’s part of the human condition. We all fall short. The people in Nazi Germany who turned a blind eye to unspeakably awful things happening were very wrong but human, like us. And the point of ‘Girl with a White Dog’ is that I want us – our country – our neighbourhoods – not to be put to the test, and for us to make sure that systems are in place which bring out the best, not the worst in us. We need politicians to be aware of what they say and the conditions that spark racism and encourage prejudice. We need to be aware of small issues and the seeds of racism and intolerance so we can deal with them on the ‘I think you’re very rude’, ‘Well I think you’re very rude’ level. If I am not sure I could have been brave enough even to have that simple argument, how on earth can I be sure I would be heroic enough to protect the vulnerable if a more extreme government got in?

So I feel very honoured and proud that ‘Girl with a White Dog’ made my neighbour want to make some farm workers feel welcome. I feel very proud that she was brave enough to speak out in public and to be kind, and even if I don’t personally rise to the occasion myself all the time, and am worryingly prone to tweet and post things I may not live up to, I think I’m going to keep on writing and live with the humbling realisation that
sometimes my words are better than me!

Who is my neighbour?

I wrote ‘Girl with a White Dog’ with the conviction that the Holocaust which took place under the Nazis, in living memory, in the beautiful, cultured, country of Germany is a benchmark of evil for all humanity. It is not the only evil thing that has happened, is happening or will happen, but it can teach us all about what we as humans living now are capable of doing to each other, and imposes on us the obligation to find out how such terrible things could have gone on under the noses of ordinary people, and so learn from that, how to prevent it happening again.

I went to Germany with a friend who is a fluent German speaker. We visited here:

and afterwards we visited here:

The women working there told us how a friend of theirs was working in the shop attached to the concentration camp, and was spat on by a visitor who blamed them for what had gone on, just outside and unchallenged by the town, many years before. It is really easy to understand that but I believe it is wrong, and doesn’t help prevent such things happening again. I wanted to appreciate the town of Dachau for the sake of everything that had happened before the Nazi legacy, but it was hard not to feel it was contaminated by its proximity to such a terrible place, especially after spending the morning in the camp.

I am glad, however, that after visiting Munich and the memorial to Sophie Schöll and the White Rose movement, and then the memorial to the camp at Dachau, we did not catch the train back to our Munich hotel but visited the actual town of Dachau. I wanted to do it as an anti-Nazi act after visiting the camp. I wanted to say that the Nazis had no right to dominate the entire history of this town with their evil, and I wanted to pay tribute to the wonderful legacy of women artists there.

I was struck by the lovely houses and the German market.

I went into the Catholic church of St Jakob and said a prayer there,

and thought about about my fellow Catholics, going to mass every Sunday whilst under their noses their fellow human beings were being killed.

Today I read this, an old report, with interest:

I looked up whether this twinning is still taking place. It seems that it is. I’d love to know more. I understand how controversial it is but I hope it brings Peace and reconciliation.

It is very easy for us to criticise the people of Dachau in the past for turning a blind eye to terrible things happening on their doorstep. Of course that was wrong. I would love to think that I would have been one of those brave people who protested against the Nazis, like the wonderful members of the White Rose movement, my heroes, but I am frightened that I would have been one of those law- abiding people, scared for my children’s own safety, who didn’t.

Dachau camp was very effective at stopping protest. It was specifically set up early on by the Nazi Government, long before ‘the final Solution’, as a warning to anyone in Germany who wanted to politically protest against the Nazi regime. Prisoners could be seen by the people of Dachau being marched through the streets and some were even were made to work as slave labour in some businesses in the town. The Nazis made sure that the camp housed criminals alongside political prisoners, so that people could feel justified in not criticising the camp and decide to take the easy path – to trust that the government were as benign as they said they were and that people must have been put in there because they had done something bad. Anyone who did protest against the camp was likely to get put in there themselves. Those people in Dachau who felt extremely distressed when they saw the state of the prisoners and tried to pass them extra food, for example, were arrested or threatened. There was no concerted uprising against the camp. The people of Dachau did not rise en masse to protest. Most went to church, as I do. Some may have been in favour of the Nazis, others, like the butcher here, were not.

I wrote ‘Girl with a White Dog’ in the knowledge that I am not a natural protester. I am a rule-keeper, not breaker, and that can be wrong. That is why I want to do all I can to make sure that the very first signs of intolerance, prejudice and cruelty in our country are dealt with as soon as they appear, so that they do not take root and become too difficult for ordinary non-heroic people like me to deal with, and lead to terrible, unimaginable suffering for my fellow human beings.

For me, the best way to honour those who died in living memory under the Nazis is to try to learn what made it possible for human beings to do such evil things, and to do all we can to make sure that such things never happen again, anywhere.

If we really want to learn from the Holocaust we all have to be a bit braver now, in our own time. We have to recognise and confront evil early on. We are just as prone to turn a blind eye to wickedness in the present, and we don’t have the excuse of being scared of an evil Nazi regime. Can we really hold our heads up and say we don’t turn a blind eye to bad things happening, paid for by our taxes?

This weekend I read about this:

Please read it and watch the video.

Then you will have the knowledge that something very wicked is being done with your taxes, in your name, in your country, in 2015.

It may be on a small scale in comparison with the overwhelming wickedness of what happened in Nazi Germany, but, as I try to show in ‘Girl with a White Dog’, such things are made of the same material – prejudice, contempt and cruelty – and what happened in Nazi Germany took years to grow, nurtured by the evil hate of some, the fearful selfishness of others and the wilful indifference of many.

And then please let’s share this Channel 4 investigation on twitter, facebook. It isn’t hard to do. Blogging isn’t dangerous in our country, unlike for the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, He is now apparently in even greater danger.

Write to your MP. Ask everyone who comes to your doorstep asking for your vote, about anything cruel that is happening in our country, or in countries which our country counts as friends, even if it doesn’t directly affect you. Because, like those people in Dachau all those years ago, it DOES affect you. We are all neighbours.