A meditation on a dark and evil heirloom following the proroguing of Parliament yesterday

My uncle's signature on the flyleaf
The last three years of the whole Brexit affair, Boris Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament yesterday and a heated family argument about it and its meaning have all caused me to reflect this evening upon something that has continued to hang very darkly over me since my very early teens.

My uncle Ed was in so many ways a wonderful man. By all accounts (I have heard or read) he was fine chiropodist who truly cared for his elderly patients. He was also a great supporter and promoter of amateur athletics. Additionally, he was passionate about the natural world and on occasional walks on the North Norfolk coast he taught me many wonderful things about the local flora, fauna and geology, things for which I will remain eternally grateful.

But during the late 1970s and 1980s, especially at Christmas, I began to see and understand that his presence at family events brought into our circle a dark and evil spirit. At some point during the festivities he would start to spout various bits of racist nonsense, the most ludicrous and offensive example of which was his theory (got from God knows what insane source) that ‘we’ white people were descended from dolphins whereas ‘those’ backward, black people were descended from apes. ‘Our’ descent from dolphins ‘proved’, or so he thought, that ‘we’ were the superior, master race. His views were shocking to me then and they remain deeply shocking to me today.

Anyway, by the time I was fourteen or fifteen (1979/1980), whenever he started down this track I felt uncontrollably compelled to challenge him, an action which, inevitably, descended into a very heated exchange. I was distressed enough by his words but what was equally distressing to me personally was that it was always me who was ticked-off, clipped round the ear and sometimes sent out of the room in disgrace for having ‘ruined the family Christmas’ whilst he was left unchallenged. Well, ‘fuck ruining the family Christmas’ was always my response because it was clear to me that here was a man set upon attempting to ruin everything that seemed to me be decent about the way I believed ‘we’ were now in a modern United Kingdom, a nation which, after all, had successfully fought fascism and brought an end to the dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini. Why was I not being supported in challenging my uncle and his blackshirt inspired ways? Why, why, o why was not having a family argument more important than challenging his racism and fascism? I just didn’t understand.

By my early twenties I had pretty much rationalised the situation by persuading myself that my wider family had, in fact, (more wisely than me) somehow come to believe that my uncle represented a strand within British culture that was definitely dying out and would, very soon, be consigned to the history books. In short, I told myself my family’s actions were really a form of saying, ‘just let it go, for his is a view that will soon be gone for ever.’ And perhaps that was, and is, how they truly saw things.

Then, one day in the 1980s (I forget the exact date), he was gone. Shortly after he died I was given — for what reasons I know not — five things from his estate: his Book of Common Prayer, his King James Bible, a presentation walking-cane from the Norfolk and Norwich hospital, his captain’s chair and, to my horror, his copy of ‘Mein Kampf’ by Adolph Hitler, on the flyleaf of which he had written his own name (see photos in this post — click on them to enlarge).

I still remember the profound chill of seeing his name — it seemed to me proudly — placed so close to that of Hitler’s. Holding the book that day it was almost as if, from beyond the grave, he was still goading me. So what to do? Well, I chose to confront this darkest of ‘gifts’ head on and to read it. Consequently, I came to know, first hand, what a pernicious and evil book it is and that my uncle knew this too yet still chose to value and promote the message it contained.

I took the decision to keep the book always to remind me that I was, indeed, right to have challenged him every time he spouted his racist hate. Of course, it’s a volume that has always been tucked away out of sight on my bookshelves but, I told myself, there it could function as a reminder of something evil within British culture that was, thankfully, past, gone, dead.

Many years later, between 1997 and 2000 whilst I was training for the Unitarian ministry and studying theology at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, I had the pleasure and privilege of getting to know the historian Alan Bullock who was, himself, a Unitarian. Lord Bullock wrote a book which I first read when I was about sixteen or seventeen called ‘Hitler: A Study in Tyranny.’ It had an incredibly powerful influence upon me and was one of the major reasons I felt empowered both to continue to challenge my uncle and also to become more and more involved in avowedly anti-fascist politics.

One Sunday after service in the college chapel over a cup of coffee I asked Lord Bullock the question, ‘What, after all your years of academic study of Hitler and Nazism, is it the single thing you'd like to pass on to someone like me?’ He replied immediately by saying something along the lines of ‘Whenever you hear someone spreading fascism, even if it is in the queue in the Post Office, challenge it.’ In other words, he was saying to me, draw a line, don’t let it spread, never let it become quietly normalized. I was, unsurprisingly, profoundly grateful that, at least with regard to my uncle, I had challenged it in the family situation.

But, as I have already admitted, I thought that the dark and evil spirit that inhabited my uncle — that was my uncle — was dead to us, but the last three years have made me realise that it seems I was sadly, badly, and perhaps culpably, wrong; it was not dead but only dormant. It is clear to me that the events of the last three years have only served to give it the opportunity to begin to flicker and flit back into life within certain though, thankfully, still very limited sections of our culture.

Now, I want to be clear, absolutely clear, that most people who voted for Brexit and who continue to support it via the undemocratic means currently being employed by Johnson, Cummings et. al are NOT racists or fascists. Their reasons for voting the way they did and continuing to support Brexit in the way they are, are very, very complex and often rooted in many real economic, political and social injustices and inequalities. But the nasty and polarising way the whole situation is unfolding (and sometimes being encouraged to unfold) is, to my mind, serving to revivify the same dark and evil spirit that I saw burning in my uncle all those years ago. To be frank with you, seeing it makes me both very angry and very frightened.

It is very clear to me that Lord Bullock’s warning needs to be heeded by us as it has never been heeded before:

‘Whenever you hear someone spreading fascism, even if it is in the queue in the Post Office, challenge it.’

And not only that, under no circumstances must we allow our liberal democratic parliamentary structures to be so weakened that this dark and evil spirit could ever gain even the slightest foothold within them.

Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand . . .

Comments

The following comment by Iain Brown was made on my post called Exiting the Vampire Castle" by Mark Fisher but I think it makes sense that it should also appear here.

—o0o—

If I may introduce myself, I am a worshiping atheist and an internationalist Scottish Nationalist, a bundle of what to many, may seem an impossible and paralyzing tribe of savage ferrets in a sack of crippling contradictions. I also happen to be an acknowledged lay preacher within the Unitarian tradition but a Post-Christian. Oh dear, what a mess! How can I meet myself coming or going as I exercise my late-octogenarian body before breakfast? I am also a retired academic, a social entrepreneur, a trainer of psychotherapists and still an active pursuer of enlightenment and understanding. Oh dear!

I was moved by the family story of the uncle who followed Hitler and by the strong affinities and echoes that arose within the developing political situation.

I suggest that, in our present multiple dilemmas, we need to free ourselves from the emotional power of our tribalism, the inescapable inheritance of evolutionary past, and adopt what the leaders of the EU recognised and understood as the principle of subsidiarity. Some problems are best dealt with at global level (for example an attack from another planet and, now, the threats arising from global warming), others are best dealt with at regional level, possibly, but only possibly at the level of European government, and others at local level, for example whether Edinburgh should regulate its AirBandB.s differently from Glasgow because the problems arising from the international success of its festival are different from those of Glasgow. The most enduring and emotionally inflaming problems arise where there are not just geographical or economical/commercial clusters of interests but also historical and cultural issues of identity.
At the moment we have a severe case of localised English Nationalism (remember the doctrine of economic autocracy (or was it autarchy?) of nineteen-thirties fascism) and all the echoes of old conflicts and wars are raised.

Iain Brown
Dear Iain,

Thank you for taking the time post your perspicacious comments. Much appreciated. I think you are right to point out the whole problem of English Nationalism. Given this you may be interested in watching the following talk byAnthony Barnett - Albion’s Call: Brexit, democracy and England

Best wishes,

Andrew
Derek Starkswood said…
Brexit has awoken similar fears and observations in me. Sometimes the real difficulty is not in challenging the racists but identifying them, even to themselves. I can give an example of what I mean: there is a person I know who - like your uncle - has many positive qualities. I socialised frequently with them, and liked them. Then they voted to leave the EU, 'for our sovereignty' and Brexit seems to have legitimised their boldness to say bigoted things. Since then, the alarm bells go off for me because of the frequency with which they now mention that they, 'have lots of black friends' and, 'all the foreigners I know personally seem very nice'. The need to even notice another's colour and the patronising tone already suggests their default attitude is that foreigners are not usually nice. But put them on the spot and they dance around the issue and move the goal posts - it was really about something else. These are the most dangerous types of bigots in my experience, the ones who do not know they are bigots. They may suspect others see them as 'a bit right-wing' but they are in denial. They describe themselves as, 'proudly English' (not even inclusive enough to be British) or 'patriotic' so how could they possibly be connected in any way with that old German Fuehrer? However really push them about their politics and they are extreme nationalists.
Now someone who is outwardly fascist - such as Tommy Robinson - is easy to ridicule and identify for their hate speech. But talking round those ordinary, quiet, polite xenophobes is a different matter.
I have several such as friends on facebook, and I would never 'unfriend' them. To do so would be to make their echo chamber even more sound tight. I tread very carefully when they write something 'semi-unintentionally' racist. trying to get them to concede to my point in small increments. But all I can do is be a quiet nagging voice. If I challenge directly, I'm blocked - and then who knows who else might be whispering evil, with no-one left to present the counter arguments.

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