Sunday, 29 May 2016

When the best lack all conviction

On a sunny day in September 2001 I answered the phone for a colleague who had stepped out. It was her mother. “When she comes back, tell her to look online or turn on the TV,” she told me. “Something is happening in New York.”  It was.  Since then I have sometimes felt that the world itself has been a plane that is out of control, spinning towards hell while the crew scream and curse at each other on the flight deck. People die in their thousands in the Mediterranean and are of no more account than sardines struggling in a seine net, so much sacred life extinguished every day; while in the Middle East there are constant acts of random cruelty. Across Europe people turn to far-right parties, while Britain seems set to turn its back on its neighbours altogether.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, ...
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats wrote those lines in 1919. It seems now too that everyone is either vengeful and angry, or cynical and defeated. But I am sure that is not so. In every generation there are people who have chosen to serve good over evil. They have not always been that good at telling the difference. Victor Gollancz, about whom I wrote here last year (Being Beastly to the Germans, January 2015), is a case in point. Heather Campbell, discussed below, is another. But both wanted to leave the world a better place, and were prepared to make sacrifices to do so.

I have just been reading two books, one by Campbell, the other by another woman who was also profoundly idealistic. Neither profited by it. The first turned her life upside down for an ideal that turned to ashes, and was forced to seek a different path.The second lost her life aged just 23.They belonged to different generations, but neither lacked conviction. And they remind us that we have a choice.

Heather Campbell: My Polish Spring
In 1949 ice skater Heather Campbell met her husband Ian on a tour to Paris. Both ardent Marxists, they took part in a Bastille Day celebration together. They married in England the following year. Then Ian Campbell, who was doing scientific research for the British Medical Research Council, met some Polish diplomats and conceived the idea of helping them build socialism by contributing to Polish science. Thus in 1951 he and Heather, now eight months pregnant, slipped away from England via Zurich and Prague.
“Slipped away” is the right phrase. It is difficult, now, to comprehend the gravity of the barrier that had been drawn across Europe. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s; the Iron Curtain was still very much there, but the worst excesses of Stalinism had gone. By the mid-1970s British families could and occasionally did go on holiday in Poland, or the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria, even if they were not Communist Party members. Even then, however, Warsaw Pact citizens could not travel freely. In 1951 the whole of Eastern Europe was locked down so tight, and relations between East and West so poor, that crossing that border was a very big deal. The Campbells did not tell their families where they were going. Ian did, it seems, have a guarantee that they would be able to contact them when they arrived in Poland, but this guarantee was not honoured, and they would not be able to tell their families where they were for years.

In their early years in Poland, the Campbells didn’t question this. They just decided it must be for the good of the Party. Only slowly did they realise that the convicts they saw working in the street were not criminals or “counter-revolutionaries”, but people who fought Fascism in the wrong uniform, then made the mistake of coming home. They were shocked when Poles started returning from Siberia, where they had been sent arbitrarily, and arrived exhausted and starving after hellish journeys lasting a month. They also started to sense that the Poles were not happy and would not abandon Catholicism. Meanwhile, they themselves were kept inactive in a Party guesthouse outside Warsaw, and Ian was unable to work until many months after their arrival. Bit by bit, the Campbells saw that they had bought into a sham. But as their disillusion with Stalinism grew, so did their love of the Polish people. Then Stalin died. At first the thaw was slow, but in 1956 Kruschev denounced Stalin, and the reformer Władysław Gomułka took control in Poland. Meanwhile Heather Campbell was thinking again about what she really believed, and that was her Polish spring.

Władysław Gomułka
My Polish Spring was written in the 1980s for circulation within Poland in “samizdat” (underground) form. Even now that the Eastern Bloc has collapsed, however, it’s a valuable historical document. There is no blow-by-blow inside account of the end of Stalinism, or the events of 1956; Campbell barely mentions the Hungarian Revolution at all, although she does talk of politics. Rather, it’s an eyewitness account of Poland in the 1950s. There must be plenty such accounts in Polish, but in English this is likely rare. Small details resonate – the Party moves the Campbells from flat to flat, and they don’t ask why; a kind Polish official smuggles out a letter home; a Pole who has returned, shattered, from years in Siberia is gently eased back into the world by a young girl working in the same shop. The sheer destruction that had been visited upon Poland is there too. Upon arrival, the Campbells are driven to a building in the middle of a wasteland. They ask how far they are from Warsaw and are told they’ve just driven through the city centre.
In the end, the Campbells were to be converted to a different belief system; no need to say here what it was, but it may not surprise the reader that much. It may be that they were people who needed to believe, and could not live with the element of doubt that most of us accept in the search for meaning. But they were clearly very decent, and likely left the world a better place than they found it. They returned to England in 1959 and devoted much of the rest of their lives to public service. Ian Campbell died in 2004 and Heather in 2014, aged 89.

Reading My Polish Spring, I did have mixed emotions about the Campbells themselves. I wondered how they could have been so deluded about Stalinist Europe, and how they could have adhered so unquestioningly to any ideology in a century torn apart by such things. But they belonged to a generation brought up against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the political failures and wars that followed it. Against that backdrop, it is not hard to understand why the “other side” might have looked better in 1949. Also, one must accept that in 1949 clear information about the East was not so easily available; there were no YouTubers, no fierce debates on Facebook or Weibo, no photos of tortured dissidents on Twitter. That is not to excuse the Campbells for their naivety; they should still have known better. But they had more excuses than we would for not doing so. I also sensed their integrity and unselfishness, and their personal warmth towards the people around them. Whatever one says of their judgement, they did not “lack all conviction”.

Neither did Rachel Corrie.

Rachel Corrie: Let Me Stand Alone
On March 16 2003, Corrie, a 23-year-old American peace activist from Olympia in the US state of Washington, was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while attempting to protect a Palestinian house in Gaza. The exact circumstances are disputed. The Israeli Defense Force has claimed that the driver did not see her. Friends of Corrie who were present claimed that he must have done. Either way, it would be easy for Corrie to be forever defined by her death. I wonder if her parents put Let Me Stand Alone together at least in part to reclaim her identity as someone who lived as well as died. This collection of her writings, notes, emails and other fragments does just that.

Corrie was born in 1979 and bought up in Olympia, Washington State, close to Puget Sound. The earliest entries in this book are from when she was about 10 (her parents can’t always date them precisely). She clearly loved to write from an early age, and some of her poetry is charming. A poem called Wind, written before she was 11, shows real talent.

As she gets older her poetry does get stranger, and less easy to understand. So do some of the prose pieces that she writes about her surroundings, and about deaths in the family. But there are also glimpses of a normal girl growing up; aged about 14, she describes going to a dance: “The good thing about dances is the darkness. They aren’t a showcase for fashion like the halls, and I can forget this body I loathe.” With this piece is a poignant little sketch of a tall thin girl clutching a handbag and saying tentatively, “I’ve come for the party?” An arrow points to her legs with the words, “Stupid pants”.

From early on she seems to have had a strong, idealistic sense of right and wrong. Aged about 12: “Dear Soldier, I guess I don’t really understand the world, because I don’t see …Why people can’t make compromises. Why peace is still a vision …I must be ignorant, because I believe that it’s unnecessary for forty thousand children to die every day. I know I am just a little sixth grader who writes poetry and worries about grades and makeup, but I worry about bigger things.” 

In early 1995 Corrie, then nearly 16, travelled to Sakhalin in Russia’s Far East as an exchange student and was profoundly impressed by the experience. Quite normal things – coal dust in the snow, drinking tea – became very vivid memories, as did the journey via Anchorage and Magadan; she had not left the USA before. From then on she became even more idealistic, and disenchanted with the American way of life. Three years later, by her own account, she bursts into tears in a supermarket in the US because she is surrounded by “every variety of dead cow you could ever want” and cannot rid herself of a strange image of people dying in Moscow because the heating pipes have burst and they fall into the water. Meanwhile Corrie does shifts as a social worker and relief-provider for carers, and advisor to the mentally ill.

It would be easy to get the impression, from this, that Corrie was someone who needed to get a life of her own as well as worrying about other people’s. But she had one. She writes with great warmth about her long-term boyfriend, with whom she eventually broke up, but who remained close to her until her death. She is also delighted by the details of the world around her, and often writes of the salmon that spawn in the local rivers, about water and sunshine, and about people seen on a bus, landscapes, the town at night. Sometimes, when the mood takes her, she can be pleasantly mad. In a piece written sometime after she was 18 (again, her parents can’t date it exactly), she writes that she wants to see “people in tutus. Cops wearing sombreros. Stockbrokers with horned Viking hats. Priests with panties on their heads. In the world I’m building …People have speakers attached to the their chests that pour out music so you can tell from a distance what mood they’re in …Football players get paid in hamburgers, senators get paid in scalps, first ladies carry handcuffs and bullwhips, and presidents wear metal collars.”

Neither is Corrie always so sure of herself. In a long plain-verse poem written when she was 23, she describes taking patients to Dairy Queen and having to admonish them for their behaviour:

And he cried some more
And called me a hairy little bitch sabotaging his ice cream day
So I refocused him
On his own anxiety

…and I said I hear that you’re feeling angry
But you’ll have to use appropriate social skills and language
Or there won’t be any more Dairy Queen

…asked me just exactly what I was threatening to do to Dairy Queen
You power-drunk little
Overeducated slut

Two months later, in late January 2003, Corrie arrived in Gaza, encouraged by a fellow-activist to join the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a group calling for peaceful non-violent protest against Israeli action against Palestinians that at that time included the destruction of Palestinian houses on the borders of Gaza that the Israeli Defense Forces stated was to prevent smuggling. Her emails and notes ooze anger over what was happening in Gaza, and are a vivid depiction of the fear and uncertainty confronting its people. Exactly what she felt about Israel, and the extent to which she tried to understand Israeli perceptions of the conflict, isn’t clear from her writings. However, in a long letter to her mother dated February 27 2003, she says: 

Speaking of words – I absolutely abhor the use of polarities like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – especially when applied to human beings. I think these words are the enemy of critical thinking. They are an escape from finding solutions and are an incitement to further violence.

Less than three weeks later Corrie stood in front of a bulldozer that was attempting to destroy the house of a Palestinian pharmacist and his brother; she knew the family. The bulldozer killed her. As stated earlier, exactly how or why is disputed. Meanwhile some people will always see her as a martyr, while others will feel strongly that it was not her quarrel and that she should not have been there. What does seem clear from this book is that she was not seeking martyrdom in any way; in fact, in her last emails, she was wondering what to do when she left Gaza. Neither does she seem to have been a fanatic; the Dairy Queen verses suggest a young woman questioning her own motives and character. What she does have, though, is that deep sense of right and wrong, and a feeling that she must act where she sees things that are wrong; and I wonder how many older people read this book and sense a gentle reproach from their younger selves.

There are several videos of Corrie on the web, including one of an interview with her very shortly before her death. But if you’ve read Let Me Stand Alone, one is particularly hard to watch. It seems to have been taken when she was 10, and attended an event to support publication of UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children. She is making a plea on behalf of children worldwide, but she is too far from the microphone. An adult puts her hands on Corrie’s shoulders and gently moves her in front of the mic.

This would be about the time she wrote a poem called For Gram with love:

Over a fence
by an old rusty rail
came the whispery
twitch of a cream-colored tail.

...Over the fence
In the tallest grass
Came the twitch of a whisker
Shiny as glass.


Heather Campbell’s My Polish Spring is available for Kindle for $1.99 in the US. It is also available as an eBook from some other online retailers, including Kobo and Apple iBooks. Rachel Corrie’s Let Me Stand Alone is available for Kindle for $10.99 but can also be found in hardback (secondhand), paperback, and other forms, including audio CD

Mike Robbins's account of his own life as a volunteer in Sudan, Even the Dead are Coming, is available as an eBook (ISBN 978-0-9914374-4-3) and paperback (ISBN 978-0-5780356-9-7) from bookshops and online retailers


  1. Interesting and contrasting books. Memoirs and memoir themed books seem increasingly in vogue. I've worked on a few and the two recent books I've been asked to review have also been memoirs.

    When I did a poll on my blog to find out what people preferred to read, I was surprised to discover memoirs came joint top. Age group of readers perhaps? Vampire novels didn't feature at all.

    1. It might be the age group, but I wonder; I think people might have had enough of vampire stories; they've always left me feeling a bit drained, ho ho.

      I do like biographies. (It would be a bit bad if I didn't, having written two memoirs myself!) Particular high spots for me have included Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches and - a long time ago - Halliday Sutherland's The Arches of the Years. The war accounts of Ève Curie and Richard Dimbleby also impressed me, though they're arguably more reportage. Two other journalists whose autobiographies I very much liked were Clare Hollingworth and Kate Adie.