April 14, 2008

Templehof

Templehof Airport

For the past few weeks now, Berlin has been plastered with a series of garish posters, each attempting to evoke an emotive and quasi-patriotic response from those who view them. One side rams the grammatically-incorrect message, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ down your throat, whilst the other documents a series of indignant characters speaking Berlinerisch. Friends recounted how, on visiting a cake-market in the tranquil outskirts of South-West Berlin, they were harranged with information by the S.P.D, intent on canvassing their support; apparently there was also a pro-closure band. One side has even gone so far as to pepper the city with huge transportable-billboards setting out their credo and demanding that we vote in the referendum on the issue on the 27th April. Well I might just do that.

The source of all this postering: Templehof Airport. For many years now, the Berlin city senate has been attempting to close both Templehof and Tegel airports and consolidate the city’s air traffic in Schoenefeld, far South East of the city centre. This is a fairly rational plan of action: a larger Schoenfeld would create more jobs, make more money and keep air pollution out of densely populated residential areas.

Why you might ask, then, do so many people want to keep Templehof open? Partly manipulation and partly misunderstanding I would suggest.

Templehof was the main centre of the Berlin Airlift of 1948 when Russia shut off the power and natural resources to the Western part of the city in an attempt to force the allies to concede it. Not to be outdone, the allies flew in 16,000 tonnes of resources and kept the city going for a whole year. 72 pilots died in this magnificent effort and they are rightly remembered by the Luftbruecke Denkmal at Platz der Luftbruecke (just 200 metres from the main terminal building.)

The C.D.U posters all seek to emphasise this. Strangely invoking J.F.K’s gaffe, they state boldly, ‘Ich bin Berliner.’ If needlessly clinging to a knackered-out airport is a pre-requisite of Berlinerness, it’s not much of an aspiration. Further, one demands, ‘Weltstadt oder Provinz?’ I wasn’t aware that having an ailing loss-making airport in the middle of a residential area was a hard-and-fast way to gain super-city status; I’ll let Ken Livingstone know.

Unsuprisingly, this ‘Westalgie’ was evinced in the demographic of the people who signed the petition to keep it. Eastern districts such as Marzahn and Lichtenberg barely figured on the petition, whereas every man and his dog in Schoeneberg seemed to have given their name to it.

Whilst this is all well and good, it provides no real reason as to why Templehof should stay open as a commercial airport. It runs at a loss of tens of millions per year, and only provides flights to Brussels and a few minor German airports. Closing the airport and hosting a museum in the terminal building – as the Rot-Rot senate is suggesting seems like a far saner idea, and it allows the city to proudly display its history – a few knackered-out jets and expensive cafes does not.

Further, the site offers scope for a so-called ‘green lung’, unknown in major cities. The utilisation of such a space would bring major clout to Berlin’s claim to being a ‘green’ city – something attempted by, for example, the pledge to make the Reichstag carbon neutral by 2009.

So viva Berlin, yes, but Berliners don’t need a handfull of loss-making flights to do so.


January 26, 2008

Denglish

A phenomenon is sweeping Europe, well Germany at least. One can’t stroll through Berlin without being bombarded with a barrage of bizarre Anglicisms. Baeckereien (bakeries) are sometimes ‘Back shops’ and my pals are fond of ‘gutes Timing.’ Cafes no longer offer ‘Kaffee zum Mitnehmen,’ but rather ‘Kaffee to go.’ In a well documented case, one old lady misread the phrase and thought ‘Kaffee aus Togo’ (coffee from Togo) was being offered. Imagine her pain when she discovered that, far from getting some exotic variant of her beverage of choice, she received bog-standard Kaffee in a disposable paper-cup.

At the opprobrious ‘Fish and Chips’ stand at Friedrichstrasse station, they even display the entire menu in English. This might be acceptable – as one of the most important transport hubs in Berlin they could be excused for preferring English as their language – if, that is, they could spell or indeed use it correctly. Instead however, they offer ‘Potatoe Box’ (a word-for-word and wrongly spelt translation of the German ‘Kartoffelbox’.) The first time I saw it I wasn’t sure exactly what it was. A box made of potatoes perhaps? Each time I see it I’m tempted to point it out – only the desire not to appear as a pedantic dickhead holds me back.

Instead, when confronted with such phrases, I put on my arrogant au-contraire (forgive me…) hat and either reply: ‘to go where?’ Or, I simply use the German loudly and assertively. Why do these people seek to suppress their own language? It’s something to be proud of – they gave the world ‘Schadenfreude’, ‘Zeitgeist’ and a plethora of others we’re fond of lacing our conversation with.

Many German speakers with a predilection for this phenomenon think that they’re projecting themselves as urbane or cultured. Wrong. How does mincing your sentences with perfectly bland English words achieve this effect? More often than not, it just engenders confusion. It’s akin, I suppose to the journalists and academics who see fit to lace their work with French or Latinate phrases to assert their supremacy. You know what I’m talking about: ‘After their tete-a-tete, Blair and Bush agreed a quid-pro-quo agreement about de facto commitments on global warming.’ Ok, I’m exaggerating, but you get the picture.’

In some cases, Germans just take the word directly from the English. Often people speak of ‘Managers’ instead of the more German ‘Chef’ and the verb ‘managen’ has also gained common currency. Here one can legitimately ask: ‘what exactly is the point?’

Behind my abhorrence of such a trend is perhaps a fear of the homogenising nature of globalisation. Why, ignorant people ask, doesn’t the world just speak English? Lose your language and you’ll start to lose your culture – it’s a slippery slope. If we all spoke the same language, why should we not, by the same token, all eat the same food – McDonalds probably.

Some suggest taking the fascistic French approach of banning anything remotely English sounding. Computer – whilst recognised throughout the world by the same word – is ‘l’ordinateur’ in French. Slap a quota on radio play as well whilst you’re at it.

Such an approach, however, ignores the fact that languages develop on their own regardless of what a government says or does. My answer therefore, is to take the vigilante approach – and come up with my own German words for their anglicisms. My colleagues at school now know that I don’t start lessons with brain storms, but rather with ‘Gehirnstuerme’ (a cobbled-together translation which makes people laugh). Anyway, I’m off for a ‘Kaffee zum Mitnehmen….’


November 11, 2007

18th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

I decided a while ago to revive this blog and to post now-and-again on experiences/thoughts I’ve had since coming to Berlin. The rather amusing photo below seemed like a pretty apt starting point.

Jaunty Ossis

The photo was taken on the 9th November (exactly 18 years since the ‘Mauerfall’ – fall of the Berlin wall) on the Bornholmer Allee bridge between Wedding and Pankow (a key crossing point during the Mauerzeit). A sizeable group of us had gathered there to see a new memorial stone being unveiled. The jaunty old men in the picture each had a story to tell about their experiences in the old east and, indeed, had a lot to say about various current affairs – as old people like to when they get the slightest hint of an audience. And this was probably the one day of the year when they had a legitimate platform.

Anyone who has read Annie Funder’s book Stasiland will remember the story of the lady who attempted to cross the wall at this point – only to come a cropper after falling over a trip wire just inches away from freedom. It’s quite difficult to imagine that the spot where we were having a beer and chatting languidly was the spot where previously people had risked their lives for freedom.

The guy wearing the silver mac (a textbook armchair-general), preferred to rant both-barrells about American materialism and such to Tim. It wasn’t so much an argument as a lecture. The guy lurking in the background shared the same opinions and used that as a justification not to be pictured with us, asserting that, ‘Die Amerikaner glauben, dass sie die ganze Welt herrschen,’ (Americans believe that they rule the world.)

The chap with the stick was probably the hardest to size up. He made a rapid-fire series of unfunny-jokes and then asked/demanded to pray with us. They all showed signs of ‘Ostlagie’ for the sort of social security and cohesion which the D.D.R but agreed, indisputably, that the Mauerfall was a good thing.

On the same evening we also made a brief tv appearance on R.B.B., the local television station for Berlin and Brandenburg. After swallowing our line about being journalists, the reporter (a class a blagger) chatted to us and decided to include us in his report as people who wanted to know more about the wall. We’d all frantically prepared mini-speeches, but thankfully weren’t called upon to comment.

The wall concept remains something which I have trouble getting my head around; a constant source of interest and intrigue. The one remaining stretch is close to my apartment, but the colourful images now displayed there somehow fail to convey the true reality of its former influence.

esg


May 09, 2007

The N.U.S of today

When I was younger I had a fairly distorted image of students. And to a great degree this inspired me to aspire to going to university myself. Family and friends recounted their experiences nostalgically: inspired demonstrations, generous grants and a powerful student body. I naively conjured a utopia full of hugely intelligent idealists, fighting the good fight and generally having a good time. At the centre of such an image was the N.U.S, the lynchpin of the student movement. Though there are undoubtledly still a few people who mould nicely into the above stereotype, I’ve encountered vast amounts of apathy, and I’ll be frank plain ignorance of the N.U.S’s basic role since coming to Warwick.

I guess a large part of my image was created by the N.U.S’ high-profile status in the 1970’s. Following the election of the then radicalised president Jack Straw in 1968, the N.U.S followed a highly political path. In the 70’s the organization campaigned unceasingly for relaxed abortion laws and gay rights. As it entered the 80’s the organization fought a bitter fight with Thatcher’s administration, many of whom tried to restrict funds and limit the scope of N.U.S activity. Students proudly wore tee-shirts decrying At this point it must have been fantastic to be a student, filled with the passion of attacking the establishment. Even in its early days the organization had a powerful influence: in 1942 it played a key role in mobilizing students for the war effort.

But this image seems to have petered out somewhat nowadays. How many Warwick students could, for example, name the current N.U.S president (Gemma Tumelty)? Probably less than 5%; most of them Boar hacks or members of the Union Council. Even the recent demonstration in London against Top-Up fees failed to stir our apparently apathetic hearts. Held last October, only 7,000 students attended. Is such a state of affairs symptomatic of general changes or is the N.U.S becoming increasingly irrelevant to the students of today?

A short glimpse at the N.U.S website (www.nusonline.co.uk) shows that essentially the organization hasn’t changed much. The home-page is emblazoned with all one might expect: the Admission Impossible campaign against tuition fees, other links promoting the Womens’ Liberation Campaign, the L.G.B.T.U Liberations Campaign, a Black Student’s Campaign and a Disabled’s Students Campaign. A report published last year, and authored by Tumelty, claims that they seek to ‘constantly improve the lives and experiences of students in the U.K,’ and ensure, ‘democracy, equality and collectivism.’ Clearly then, the organizations raison d’etre hasn’t changed.

Or student union has long been a stalwart supporter of the N.U.S. Indeed, the 2000-2002 President was Warwick alumnus Owain James, and the incumbent Women’s Officer is none other than last year’s Warwick Student Union President Kat Stark. And this doesn’t look set to change at any point in the near future. Union President and Gemma Tumelty work together collaboratively on many issues; ‘my inbox has about 5 emails from Gemma today alone,’ Duggan informs me.

But Warwick’s interests are already strongly represented by the Aldwych Group (the Students Union members of Russell Group Universities), chaired this year by Brian Duggan. As the incumbent Duggan meets frequently with the head honchos of the Russell Group to voice student concerns and opinions on developments Recently, Duggan tells me, he met with Wendy Piatt (Director General of the Russell Group) to discuss the impact of the introduction of Top up Fees, as well as lobbying them to extend access to Russell Group universities from lower income backgrounds.

I put it to Duggan that if the needs of Warwick students are already adequately represented by the Aldwych Group then surely N.U.S affiliation is unneccessary? Raising his voice slightly, Duggan answers with an authoritative ‘no.’ ’’If we left we’d lose, office training, welfare services and the ability to helps direct a national movement. What’s more, we’d also be weakening the movement itself.’ Further to this, a report in 2004 (authored by then President Simon Lucas) found that disaffiliation would be financially inadvisable and politically disingenuous.

But the N.U.S doesn’t receive such sterling support from everywhere. Numerous universities, including Southampton, Aston and Glasgow have disaffiliated in the past. Glasgow Student’s Union President Johnny Hardman informs me of the rationale behind such a decision. For Hardman, N.U.S affiliation increases the price of food and beverage prices for students as well as stemming local based political activism which, ‘forced Glasgow banks to change their charges entirely.’

Would such benefits apply to Warwick? Probably not. Lucas’ 2004 report sought to address such issues. Indeed, a hypothetical quote on an individual deal with Matthew Clark Wholesales to provide the Union’s beverages. The result of the inquiry found that under such a deal Warwick would be 117k worse off than at present. The report also found that the University would probably be hostile to disaffiliation and might take away the affiliation fee money from the universities budget- rendering it financially inadvisable.

A frequent gripe of some students is that the N.U.S is unrepresentative of its members. John Collins (President of the recently re-affiliated Imperial College Students’ Union), however, offered me a fresh perspective on this issue. For Collins, ‘the NUS as a body that serves student unions and their officers rather than a body that directly serves the U K’s 5 million students.’ Recently, for example, Collins convened with other Union Presidents and met the Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell. Additionally, ‘his year our senior officers have benefited from NUS training, networking events, legal advice, elections support and a channel of communication to the government.’
Perhaps, therefore, the N.U.S has evolved into more of a support-based organization rather than the powerful campaigning force that it once was. Collins partially concurs with such a view, and is enthusiastic for the future of the N.U.S. He asserts that, ‘t is an interesting time for the NUS as affiliation fees have been cut and the politics seem to be moving away from the radical left and towards the moderate centre ground.’
But such enthusiasm is matched by equal cynicism from some parties. NO2N.U.S is probably the most prominent. The group’s credo is boldly stated on its homepage: ‘We think the NUS has failed to get to grips with the problems of student finance, housing, and standards of tuition.’ Amongst their other gripes is the allegation that the N.U.S is a body staffed by aspirant career politicians.

Are these views borne out by reality? Well, at surface value perhaps. A string of Labour politicians (most notably Jack Straw and Charles Clarke – two prominent current Cabinet members) have led the movement. Indeed, 1994-6 President Jim Murphy went straight from his N.U.S office to one in the Palace of Westminster. But this is not exactly a surprising find. Surely those that lead an organization such as the N.U.S with its decision making, necessity for debate, and propensity for passing directives are bound to incline towards politics in much the same way that those who enjoy reading and writing (presumably most people on English Literature courses) are likely to pursue careers in journalism or publishing. And, pragmatics aside, does such a state of affairs really matter? Surely those wishing to pursue a career in politics would want to demonstrate a strong level of competency and management so as not to disadvantage themselves for the future.

But are these cynical views shared by regular students? Are we really that apathetic? I decided to quiz a few students as to their views on the organization. Second Year chemistry student Richard Storr is enthusiastic: ‘I think it’s a good thing that an organization can get together and give students some power. ‘I like the 10% discount from Topshop chips in second year Maths student Verity Fisher enthusiastically. Whether the N.U.S is still a strong campaigning resource or not remains to be seen- but for these students the piecemeal contributions which the organization can implement to make life easier for students certainly seem to make its existence worthwhile.

Regardless of the polemics, the N.U.S seems set to stay; and so does Warwick’s affiliation. It offers a campaigning and lobbying clout unmatched in the student movement- and the gripes (not insignificant by any estimation)- are surely worth the collective power which the organization brings. We might not witness the inspiring scenes of the 80s (anti-apartheid demonstrations for example), but the organizations gains in recent years (the abolition of Council Tax to list but one) mean that I, at least, will always be a fan.


May 05, 2007

The Far Right in Western Europe.

The Far Right in Europe

A few weeks ago we staged the ever-obligatory student house-party. It was a fairly generic affair: cider by the gallon, ear-drum-breakingly loud music and stains on the carpet that we’re still unable to destroy. Yet in amongst the usual predictable shenanigans something happened which really shocked me. No, I’m not talking about the eye-brow shaving, deposit-losing destruction which usually characterises such events. At around 4am, whilst everyone was sitting bleary eyed on the sofa having various drunk-fuelled conversations about metaphysics or the best wine gum flavour, a friend of my housemate (who’d lived most of his life in Amsterdam), decided to share his political views with us. Nothing strange there you might think. Well there wasn’t, until he started outlining his views on race that is; and, no, these views could not be mitigated by his inebriation. He wasn’t parading the regular ‘asylum seekers are stealing our jobs’ style bigotry which I’ve become aclimatised to; rather, he shared his worries that Indians might some day rule the world economy. He, personally, could never subjugate himself to an Indian – it just wouldn’t be right to subvert the racial hierarchy like that. He actually used those words. What’s more, he added, (and to his credit he recognised this as a problem) the far right was gaining prominence in the Netherlands.

And the most worrying thing is that he was absolutely correct in this assertion. In the 2006 elections the P.v.d.V (Party for Freedom) gained 9 seats in the 100 strong main chamber, racking up just under 580,000 votes. The party rejects dual citizenship arguing that it ‘masks where one’s loyalties lie.’ One wouldn’t normally associate such views with the Netherlands, a country perenially associated with Liberalism and tolerance in the popular mindset. Bubbling under such an artifice, however, are some very serious social issues. Following the murder of controversial film-maker Theo Van Gogh in 2006 by a radical muslim these fears were brought to the surface. Some islamic fundamentalists attempted to justify the death, branding Gogh a, ‘free-speech fundamentalist’ who sought to ‘silence his islamic critcs.’ In contrast, many far right figure such as Geert Wilders demanded a five-year halt on non-Western immigration to the Netherlands. In such a polarised and indeed highly politicised climate, therefore, it is hardly suprising that extremist groups gain prominence.

This isn’t a problem confined to the Netherlands either. Indeed, in France the much maligned Jean Marie Le Pen (leader of the Front National) polled over 20 percent of the popular vote in the last French Presidential election. Thankfully Le Pen only gained 11.5 % of the vote in last week’s French Presidential election, but his continued powerful share of the vote is certainly something to be concerned about. To put this into perspective, the B.N.P gained only 0.7% of the popular vote in the 2005 General Election. It was only after a frantic national campaign last time that the French public rallied behind Jacques Chirac, the current incumbent. Amongst Le Pen’s catalogue of reprehensible remarks was the comment, ’”If you take a 1,000-page book on World War II, the concentration camps take up only two pages and the gas chambers 10 to 15 lines.’

Many of these parties don’t just confine themselves to racial bigotry. Amongst Le Pen’s bright ideas for ‘modern’ France is ‘censorship of the arts’, something Hitler keenly purused with the notion of ‘social realism’ (basically painting lots of bland pictures depicting disturbing Teutonic stereotypes.) At the last election the B.N.P suggested that compulsory military service be re-introduced, with those who refused having their right to vote removed. Those ‘fortunate’ enough to complete the military service, however, would be given a standard miltary issue assault rifle- possibly, like present B.N.P member Tony Martin did- to take the law into their own hands (Martin shot dead gypsy intruder Fred Barras at his Norfolk home in 1999.)

It’s important, however, to get the problem into perspective. These parties are not simply one and the same: many of them would probably be horrified to be tarred with the same brush as some of the others The Dutch Freedom Party participates in Dutch parliamentary democracy, and pales in comparison to the B.N.P (who, an investiagtive journalist has revealed, do not seek parliamentary representation, but rather seek to convert britain to a dictatorship.) However, that such parties (to group them together in crude generalisation) are gaining popular support with bile-filled electoral programmes is reason alone be worried.

Nor can we watch comfortably from a moderate paradise in Britain either. At present the B.N.P (British National Party) has 53 councillors and recently came in second at the Bedworth byelection (for those of you with a geographical age of 5 like myself Bedworth is just 6 miles north of Coventry.) They hold 12 seats on the Barking council in East London. In the forthcoming Local Council Elections on 3rd May the B.N.P will field 750 candidates (one in all but two of the Coventry wards and one in Kenilworth.) The B.N.P are no longer staffed by the vacous skin-headed thug stereotype one might associate with this brand of politics. Rather, taking a leaf from the Blair book of P.R they are fronted by professional looking men in suits- something which perhaps explained the optimism inherent in fielding a candidate in middle-class Kenilworth. Cambridge educated Nick Griffin fronts the group, articulating their hate in a fairly eloquent manner. Indeed, In 2006 Guardian journalist Ian Cobain infiltrated the B.N.P, discovering a party far from the skin-head image. Instead Cobain saw a party peopled by company directors and even some teachers. Yet as the attached story shows there remains a tendency for violence among some of their supporters.

The success of these parties in itself is perhaps not something to be majorly concerned about (we are protected, to a certain extent by the moderate implications of ‘First Past the Post’ voting; other European nations, such as Germany have a 5% minimum buffer zone which ensures that these parties rarely get a parliamentary platform) though we certainly shouldn’t be complacent. Instead we should probably be more concerned about what the rise of these parties signifies. Many people have argued as did Boar opinion writer Adam Alston that it is better for these parties to be visible: perhaps based on the ‘better the devil you know’ maxim. They’re probably right, but ‘knowing your enemy’ can only be the start of addressing such a problem.

But what is the solution to the problem? How can these fears be adequately assuaged? Prominent anti-racism campaigner and ex-Superintendent of Lewisham Police David Michael thinks that dialogue is the answer. For Michael, though there is a hard-core of evil at the centre of many of these organisations, many of the people who vote for them, ‘have genuine grievances [...] we shouldn’t fight hate with hate.’ Ex Cabinet Minister and Labour M.P Denis McShane concurs, arguing sternly that, ‘we’re not building enough social housing,’ something which will have dangerous effects. Obviously the government will need to do more to address some of the issues which aggrieve the people the B.N.P manipulate, whilst not pandering to their bigotry. The most worrying discovery of Cobain’s report was the clandestine and complex manner in which the B.N.P recruits and campaigns: the most important thing, then is not to underestimate them, or, indeed, to colour ones vision with skin-head stereotypes.

Students, comfortingly, seem to be at the vanguard of the opposition to these parties. The N.U.S has a Anti-Racism/Fascism convenor, and is a stalwart of the Rise Against Racism campaign. Warwick itself has a powerful anti-B.N.P campaign, headed by Student Union President Brian Duggan. As part if the Unite Against Fascism campaign in Coventry the group has been leafleting the local area, persuading people not to vote for the B.N.P. But all is not rosy on British campuses: there has been widespread press suggestion that the B.N.P has begun to infiltrate certain British univiersities, notably Oxbridge. Clearly then, we must not be complacent: the B.N.P seems to have learnt subtlty- and academic institutions should never see themselves as moderate paradises.

Such parties exploit turbulent times. Hitler came to power as the tremors of the Great Depression were being felt; Pinochet’s emerged at a time of great poverty in Chile. And now is as turbulent a time as any. With continued violence in Iraq, a polarised middle east and social tension in certain parts of Europe, as well as an increasing cluft between the rich and poor, conditions are ripe for the proliferation of such parties. It is the duty of governments and citizens a like to help solve these problems and thereby starve these denizens of hate of any oxygen the can grasp at.

The far right is in some ways much less of a powerful force nowadays than it used to be. In 1974, for example, the National Front- the B.N.P’s predecessor- polled 44% in the Deptford constituency, only narrowly losing to the Labour incumbent. Some of their policies gained eloquent (and consequently popular) support from the senior Conservative M.P Enoch Powell who predicted that blood would run in the streets if the Labour government’s anti-discrimination laws were passed. Thankfully this kind of sentiment is widely considered to be beyond the pale in most of Europe; the resurgence of these parties, then, should provide us with a wake-up call that all is not quite as well as it seems. The Dutch gentleman might not be as much of an anomaly as I first thought.


October 27, 2006

An Encounter with Lembit Opik.

As I arrive Lembit is standing casually in the middle of Cholo. Phone-to-ear, advising someone in mock serious tones, he seems completely at ease. He suggests that the caller should talk to the perpetrators of what I assume to be some fairly heinous constituency problem; instead, it seems, he was discussing a beehive with a close friend. This humour runs throughout the interview, rearing its head again when I ask him why he got involved in politics. The burning issue, Lembit informs me with a face which could almost certainly win him a game of poker, ‘was the 1975 Icelandic fishing controversy.’ And he’s not joking.

This first glimmer of humour dispelled my largely media influenced image of the Lib Dems: woolly idealists whose idea of a good time is reciting the Human Rights act by rote and buying a new pair of sand-coloured sandals. Lembit, in fact, combines the best of the each. Going on to criticise the ubiquitous rush for the centre, it soon becomes clear to me that Lembit is by no means a substance-less careerist. Öpik is clearly a card-carrying member of that near extinct political breed- the charismatic idealist. Labour and the Tories, he informs me, hammering the table with his index finger, ‘are now essentially the same party.’ ‘Why not,’ he asks, ‘simply merge the two, create a new badge and have Brown as leader and Cameron as his deputy?’

Will Brown really be the same as Blair though? I suggest to Lembit that a Brown Premiership would abandon Neo-Conservative foreign policy. He tentatively agrees, but then something strikes him. ‘Brown has pulled off a political miracle in not being associated with any of Labour’s errors.’ Whilst many used to regard Blair as ‘Teflon Tony’, Öpik thinks, in contrast, that we now have a ‘Teflon Chancellor.’ Thus far Brown has managed to avoid the poisonous splash back from Iraq and Top-Up fees whilst accruing all the praise for the economy and standing back from Labour’s ‘crimes.’

Does he not, I wonder, value the achievements which Labour has made since 1997?
‘In 1997 I was moved to tears that we’d got rid of the Tories.’ And there were, he admits, ‘some reasons to be cheerful after 1997. Gordon Brown had made museums free,’ and most importantly for the M.P from Montgomeryshire in Wales (like a good Lib Dem Öpik never forgets Localism, the Lib Dems’ sacred cow), ‘Labour had granted devolution to Wales and Scotland.’ The biggest thing which sticks in Öpik’s (somewhat encyclopaedic) brain is Mo Mowlam’s legacy: The Good Friday Agreement.

These achievements, do not however, outweigh Labour’s colossal errors for Lembit. Becoming almost apoplectic with rage, Öpik starts on tuition fees, encouraged along the way by this –totally unbiased- student interviewer. The government’s ‘tax on learning’ is the biggest incentive Lembit has ever known, ‘to be on the dole.’ How though, I wonder, would the Lib Dems have done it differently? ‘Well just look at Scotland and Wales,’ Öpik replies. Before I can get a word in, he continues: ‘I learnt more in my Philosophy degree than I ever would have done in engineering.’ For Lembit, Top-Up fees are a ‘home-grown policy crime’ and will not be repealed until the Lib Dems come to power- and he is so passionate about this that I’m forced to believe him; or at least believe that he believes himself.

Clearly then, Lembit is fairly driven man. But which political figures did Lembit draw inspiration from? ‘There were four, the most important of which was John F. Kennedy.’ ‘A serial philanderer?’ I ask. ‘Kennedy managed to separate the political from the personal, and that’s something we’ve all benefited from.’ The mention of personal life sparks off an alarm in my head and I realise that I’ve thus far forgotten the tabloid questions about a certain other Kennedy. ‘How is Charles Kennedy getting along these days?’ ‘As far as I know he’s fine,’ remarks Lembit. But the crucial question: ‘will he one day make a return to the Lib Dem front bench?’ With the hint of aggression characteristic of someone who has been asked this question thousands of times, Öpik trots out a well rehearsed answer: ‘If Charles wants to come back he will.’

I realise I’ve spent far too long in indulging in my personal political interests and unrelated scandal; on to some serious questions about the Lib Dems. ‘How do you think Ming Campbell is doing as leader?’ ‘I was never one of Ming’s men, but our poll rating has been steady since he’s been leading us. And that’s good enough for me.’ His use of the word steady sends sparks flying in my mind; is it not just a synonym for stagnant I muse. I’ve always regarded the Lib Dems as somewhat contradictory entity. I wonder if Lembit shares my view: ‘Are the Lib Dems a united force; or are they are two poles fighting for some common ground?’ ‘Rubbish,’ Lembit replies; this idea is one that has resulted from media laziness: the media have consistently targeted the Lib Dems. I can sense a media bashing is coming; and he doesn’t disappoint: the media gave the Lib Dems hell over the Mark Oaten saga and they are clearly not happy. ‘If the media want to make saints out of politicians, they can become saints first themselves.’ Surely, though I ask, ‘they have the right to criticise those who say one thing and do another- like, say, Simon Hughes?’ ‘Simon was never a hypocrite,’ Öpik replies: ‘Peter Tatchell came out and said that himself.’ (In a 1980’s election campaign, Hughes was accused of homophobia after a smear campaign against the openly gay Labour candidate, Peter Tatchell.) One senses that though Öpik must have wheeled out this answer on countless occasions, but it’s nevertheless a heartfelt one.

And that’s what I take away from the interview: in a substance-less political world dominated by chinless wonders such as Dave Cameron, Lembit Öpik’s sincerity is a breath of fresh air. Refusing to tow the party line on certain issues, he comes across as a realistic idealist- something this country needs far more of. I leave the interview believing, if nothing else, in his sincerity- a quality almost extinct in modern politics. I also wonder who his other three idols were…


October 22, 2006

Review of 'The House of Orphans'

Review of Helen Dunmore’s House of the Orphans

Prior to reading Helen Dunmore’s House of Orphans the prospect of trudging through a 330 page novel devoted to Finnish history was nearly as enticing as transferring to a Maths and Physics degree. However, these fears were quickly and deftly dispelled after the first few pages of Dunmore’s enthralling latest offering.

Beginning in 1902, this bildungsroman (novel concentrating on the development of a protagonist) traces the incredible tale of Eeva, a young girl from Helsinki whose fight against injustice and corruption mirrors the one fought by many in Finland. Centering on Eeva’s relationship both to the kindly old country doctor for whom she keeps house and a group of socialist revolutionaries from Helsinki, we witness Eeva’s oppression at the hands of the odious Finnish aristocracy.

Brimming with everything one wants from a historical novel, we see Eeva experience class tension, conflict and passion. Repeatedly discriminated against because of her class, Eeva recognises the insidious logic of her oppressors: ‘They won’t teach you anything that lets you escape.’ She develops into an idealistic and passionate young woman; through her Dunmore most clearly communicates anti-oppression thread that runs throughout the novel: Eeva’s situation seems to be a microcosm of the whole of Finland at the time. It is this oppression that ignites her contemporaries’ voracious desire for change.

Luckily Dunmore resists the temptation to stuff the novel with historical detail or arcane political comment. The rudiments of the situation are concisely communicated: Russia’s imperial leadership is tightening its oppressive grip on Finland and perpetuating the abuse of working people such as Eeva. This oppression leads Eeva to leave her job as a servant and move to Helsinki, a place which, in contrast to the stagnation of Eva’s orphanage and bucolic life, is portrayed as vibrant and full of ideas.

In Helsinki Eeva meet up with Lauri, a childhood friend who has been indoctrinated by some odious fantasists. Their insistence that he assassinate a high up tsarist official eventually leads to his capture by the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police. Eeva petititions Dr Erlkund, whose actions in securing Lauri’s release starkly illustrate the endemic corruption of the political system.

The real genius of the novel is Dunmore’s humane characterisation; this allows the characters to transcend their political circumstances. Jumping between streams of consciousness and dialogue, Dunmore exhibits highly developed characters. We see the impassioned and often distraught thoughts of Eeva, the idealist heroine, while also viewing those of her oppressors. At the end of the novel Dunmore shows us Bobrikov, the high-ranking Tsarist official whom Lauri was commissioned to kill. Now a decrepit and pitiful old man he is distraught at his poor blood circulation, and Lauri’s decision not to assassinate him seems vindicated.

With this novel Dunmore has humanised history and given us a studied portrait of the profound effect historical and political conflict can have on ordinary people, managing to breathe fresh life into Finish history in the process.


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