Sunday, 27 September 2009

Is nothing sacred?


Reports suggest that the city council of Kyiv, capital of Ukraine, faced with a dearth of hotels as the Euro Cupfest of 20012 approaches, is planning to allow hotel development on or near the site of Babi Yar.

At this spot, over a period of two days in September 1941, over 33,000 Ukrainians Jews were lined up along the ravine of Babi Yar and executed by the SS Einsatzcommando, assisted by Ukrainian Nazi sympathisers. Near on 100,000 more victims followed, their bodies to be tipped into the gorge below and buried.

Later, the Soviet government resisted calls for the establishment of a memorial to the dead and when one was finally erected in 1976 there was no mention that the majority of those murdered were Jewish.

Boasting bronze

Meanwhile, in Senegal, a vast bronze family ensemble rises 49 metres above Dakar, the capital. In its shadow reside the poor of a country on the very edge of starvation. In the case of Dakar, the purpose has not been one of remembrance but of aspiration (for Africa as a whole) over actuality, of propagandist history being written before it has happened.

Visitors to Britain cannot mistake reading in the cityscape of London the narrative of the country’s military past, the symbols of victory and conquest. Here, as elsewhere, public art speaks of priorities, values, assumptions, and sometimes of misreadings of, or at least glosses on, historical events, by the established elite.

Cueing recollection

The past, to some, may be another country, but for good or ill it is there to be exploited, commercialised, reconstructed, swathes of fact omitted, cut-and-pasted and, in all sorts of ways, faked. Nevertheless, what breaths through the record is human memory carried forward through recollection, so long as that recollection can be captured and preserved in time.

Do monuments and sacred spaces serve the aim of true remembrance? Does it matter if the Ryurik Regency, the Grand Cossack, the Shevchenko Imperial, the Pushkin Astoria, the Lobanovsky Towers eventually, as 2012 dawns, cast their ten-storey shadows over the site of Babi Yar? Surely life has to move on? The price might be history itself.

Questions of identity

The issue is not whether we should acknowledge history in case we repeat its mistakes; rather it concerns how we see ourselves in the light of history. The name Ukraine means ‘land without borders’, suggesting both the immense transformations that characterise the country’s history and doubts about a clear and recognisable identity.

To compromise the sacredness of memory in the interests of international finance, tourism and sport certainly suggests a kind of progress, with a guarantee thrown in of shared affluence for Kyiv, the state and its people. But it may put at risk an advance of another sort, that of the national identity of a country emerging from the strictures of Soviet hegemony.

Egotism, authority

Senegal’s Dakar statue actually resembles in size and heroic expression similar monuments of the Soviet period, and it serves a similar purpose, glorifying the spirit and vision of those in power. It will undoubtedly be a tourist attraction. It will bring in the cash, whether it is deemed great art or crass propaganda.

It will also be a constant reminder of the contradictions between publicity and reality; a £17 million statement not about equality but elitism. And talking of reminders, it can be argued that the memory of Babi Yar does not solely belong to Kyiv or to the people of Ukraine as a whole: it is a stark symbol of the necessity of universal remembrance; one that resonates wherever Nazism and other evils were suffered and fought against.

Gilt-edge investment

Babi Yar is our monument and we should support those who object to plans to build on, and over, the place where humanity was seen at its worst. In contrast, there is no unbuilding of the Dakar monument. Of course, as with most great monuments, the future will forget the details – the fabulous expense, the human sacrifice; after all, the poor are always with us while investment in art, despite the ambiguities of its message over time, largely secures its lordly bonuses regardless of recession.

However, as far as Dakar is concerned, objectors might at least condemn the decision of Senegal’s 80-year old president, Abdoulaye Wade, to top-slice for himself 35% of the profits derived from tourism attracted by Africa’s answer to the prestigious monuments of the West.

PS: Within days, the leader of Kyiv Council put a block on such plans.

Recommended reading Ukraine’s Forbidden History by Tim Smith, Rob Perks and Graham Smith (UK: Dewi-LewisPublishing in association with the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit, the British Library Sound Archive and the University of Sheffield, 1998).

Black Sea: The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism by Neal Ascherson (UK: Vintage, 1996). This is a compulsive read but is shamefully out of print.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


No. 2

Benign bulls, deafening ducks

James Watson blogs a literary prize with a difference

One of the most picturesque towns in North Germany, a half an hour’s train ride from Hamburg, Buxtehude has for over 40 years awarded an annual prize for books written for Young Adults. It was originated by a local bookseller who was inspired by a peace-not-war tale, The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.

This was published in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, often described as a brutal rehearsal for the 2nd World War. Big and strong though he is, Ferdinand lacks the natural ferocity of contenders in the bullring. In fact he is happy to sit in the shade of his favourite cork tree and smell the flowers – until, one day he does not look where he is sitting and plonks himself on a bumble bee.

El Torro Ferocio
And wow, does that sting hurt! Suddenly Ferdinand is puffing and snorting and pawing the ground, so impressing his owner that in no time at all he is promoted as El Torro Ferocio, Ferdinand the Fierce. Everyone, from the banderillos and the picardores not to mention the matador himself are afraid of him.

But will Ferdinand fight? Alas, no, for as soon as he sees flowers in the lovely ladies’ hair, he just sits down quietly and smells. He wouldn’t fight and be fierce no matter what they did: ‘So they had to take Ferdinand home. And for all I know he is still sitting there, under his favourite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy’.

A bull statue
The book is beautifully illustrated byRobert Lawson and slim as it is, it speaks volumes on the priorities of life. Ferdinand became the cast iron statue which each winner of the Buxtehuder Bulle Award receives, along with a victory garland and a generous monetary prize.

The best thing about the Buxtehuder Bulle is that authors are invited to the town, feted, encouraged to give talks, interviewed on radio and TV; in short, made a real fuss of. In my case, because Talking in Whispers* was set in Chile, the evening had a Latin American theme, with the Simon Bolivar Duo providing the entertainment.

German only
Sadly, the Buxtehuder award is less well-known than other literary prizes. It’s not because it’s less generous and it deserves more attention if only because half of jury is made up of young adults. No, I think it is simply because not a word of information is published in English.
On a few occasions I’ve argued in letters to the Burgomaster for dual language publicity, especially as the list of prize-winners includes British and American writers; at present, to no avail.

Ducks in the night
Buxtehude is made up of canals, ponds and triangular houses. The canals criss-cross the town centre which is fairly quiet during the day, but at night - beware of the ducks. Around two in the morning, the ducks seem to assemble for parties or political barnstorms. Either way, in the small hours they are loud enough to wake the dead.

Swans to the rescue
Shortly after I’d returned home from Buxtehude I saw a picture in the paper of a motor launch carrying a dozen or more swans, and heading for Hamburg. The caption explained that the swans were being taken to warm winter quarters. It’s a custom in the landes region that continues despite global warming.
I was looking to express my thanks for the warm welcome I’d received in Buxtehude: the noisy ducks and the silent swans suddenly connected and a story was about to be hatched.

Silencing the quacks
The Burgomaster cannot sleep for the ducks; neither can the rest of the population: how about, in dead of night, sweeping up the ducks, shipping them out, replacing them with swans –and for once getting a decent night’s sleep?
The result was The Noisy Ducks of Buxtehude (Entenlarm in Buxtehude), a dual-language story for young readers. This was taken on by a local publishing company, Verlag an der Este, translated into German by Heike Brandt and brilliantly illustrated by Bjorn Holm. it's in its second edition.

Ducks’ hotel
Of course in the story the Burgomaster’s cunning plan goes awry. Yes, everybody in the town gets a good night’s sleep, but they are all still in the land of nod when a distinguished visitor arrives – and nobody is awake to greet her. In hot water, the Burgomaster realises the ducks are the town’s vital alarm clocks. He makes amends by building them their own Ducks’ Hotel.

Life imitating…
On my second visit to Buxtehude I was strolling through the town with my wife Kitty only to stop, amazed, for there, in the centre of a large ornamental pond, was a brand new Duck House.
I like to think that the town’s real burgomaster and corporation had been reading The Noisy Ducks, and decided to do the decent thing; perhaps even eliciting a quack of thanks.

* For further details on TALKING IN WHISPERS (available in CollinsEducational Cascades), see the author's website:

Thursday, 3 September 2009

First Footer(ings)


Well, I don't know whether I should be above or below Dan Brown. As for Michael Crighton, I'd better read him to find out. FAIR GAME: THE STEPS OF ODESSA (Spire Publishing, ISBN 1-897312-72-5) joins the others, I think, as a thriller.
It is about uneven playing fields - that represented by women's soccer, and the dodgy ground of human rights.
In 2000 the decapitated body of Internet journalist Guya Gongadze was found in woodland on the outskirts of Tarascha, some 80 miles south of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. That, and other cases, prompted the organisation Reporters Without Borders to rank Ukraine as the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists; and proved a motivator for me to write this novel.

In FAIR GAME Natasha is a talented footballer, ambitious to play for her country. Her ambitions are put at risk by revelations of government corruption made by her father, campaigning journalist Victor Kaltsov. Neither Natasha nor her brother Lonya can escape the danger her father's discoveries put them in.
The story begins with a kidnap in snow-bound Kyiv and reaches a dramatic climax on the Steps of Odessa, scene of the 'most famous five minutes in the history of the cinema' - the slaughter of protesters in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin.
A key subplot sees Monika, a tour guide with a mysterious past, enter Natasha's life, at first it would seem, a rescuing angel, but who is she really, and what connection has she with Victor's enemies - the SBU, Ukraine's secret police, and the oligarchs whose manipulation of power and business corruption threaten to cripple the country?

It's long been a preference of mine to take readers beyond our shores, and to places 'of which we know little'. TALKING IN WHISPERS is set in Chile, NO SURRENDER in Angola, JUSTICE OF THE DAGGER in East Timor. The 2nd biggest country in Europe, Ukraine remains, I think, something of a mystery. Its very name seems to suggest something of an identity crisis: it means 'land without borders'. Over the centuries it has been the victim of innumerable invasions and occupations. It was devastated by the Nazis, pulverised by Stalin's purges; and it has still not entirely emerged from the shadow of the Russian Bear.
Like her country, Natasha struggles to assert her identity. As Jock, her football trainer says, she will only succeed at the game if she focuses; and she realises she will only survive at the 'game of life' if she keeps her eye on the ball, fights every tackle. There will be those to help her, those who would threaten and obstruct - even destroy - her, and there will be those, like Monika, who will love her.

For more information about FAIR GAME and other publications, please visit my website, designed by my daughter Francesca:

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