'Have you just come from the conscientious objectors' gathering?' is not a question I am asked in most shops I can go into these days. It was a joyful delight to be asked the other day and it was completely in place. How wonderful it would be if similar enquiries were to be made of me in other places as a natural matter of course! In Housmans bookshop, just around the corner from London's Kings Cross station, it is as obvious as breathing. May that spirit flourish.
For about 40 years, I have enjoyed visiting Housmans, finding fresh perspectives ands alternative connections, some of them a little off-putting, and occasionally bizarre, but always stimulating. The bookshop was originally founded in 1945 as a mail order bookshop for pacifists. Named after Laurence Housman (brother of he more famous poet A.E), and donated by a clergyman for peace work, the shop was established in 1959 and has been a source of strength, interest and empowerment for generations of radicals as a whole, as well as maintaining a powerful continuing witness to peace.
Of course, its days are probably now numbered as a bookshop. Empires such as Amazon continue to crush the traditional book trade and small person. Kings Cross has also been transformed and many of its former intriguing as well as its less salubrious characteristics are almost gone. Across the road from Housmans for example is one of the last remaining traditional strip pubs in London. It, like Housmans, may not be long for this world, as contemporary values change. Why, there is even now a McDonalds outlet on the nearby main corner. As a gesture of support for another way forward, I look for books and items in Housmans and find many. My luggage is already enough so I settle for a novel by Leonard Cohen and Bob Holman's biography of Keir Hardie. I suspect all those three figures would be pleased: their souls dancing and singing in solidarity and in peace along the still defiant shelves of Housmans. There will be another dawn...
how soon we forget - seeking peace in Paris in 'Bloody Week', speaking of cooperation as EU elections struggle with it
It is a delight to be in Europe in beautiful spring weather. It is not a very happy political 'European spring' though. All over Europe, on the brink of EU elections, uncertainty prevails and doubt is common about the 'European project' of community. For an expatriate European like myself, immersed in many historical memories, it is a troubling sight. Ironically, I am in Paris this week, speaking at UNESCO with Toowoomban friends about our 'Building a Model City of Peace and Harmony' initiative. My own particular theme is Co-operation: something from which so many Europeans seem to wish to stand back.
Partly doubts about EU cooperation are understandable. The European dream seems rightly hollow to the millions who are unemployed, and to the poor and ethnic minorities struggling for recognition, for decent housing, work and living conditions. The EU can seem so distant to many, apparently overly bureaucratic and a feeble tool for more immediate concerns. Hence unhealthy right-wing parties have gained ground across the continent and even France, a founding co-pillar of the project, moves in the direction of British cynicism.
How soon we forget though! This coming week (21-28 May) is 'La semaine sanglante' - or 'Bloody Week' - in Paris, the anniversary of the final episode of the Paris Commune of 1871 (see photo above: from the memorial in Pere Lachaise cemetery in paris where the last stand of the Communards was made). Recent historical examinations of death and burial records suggest that the actual week's death toll (probably around 7 000) was significantly lower than the more outrageous figures (of 20-30 000) which have long been touted, and which were used (by notable figures such as Lenin) as an example of the true barbarous heart of capitalist 'order'. Yet even such reduced figures are a staggering witness to the deeply bloody past violence of Europe, consequent on deep national, social and economic divides.
The Paris Commune was a deeply ambiguous, but, historically, vitally symbolic, event. In one sense it was a magnificent act of faith and a living adventure of hope, created by some of the most wretched of people in the most wretched of circumstances. Karl Marx and others, then and since, have commended it for putting an abstract concept of freedom and justice into reality, however shortlived. Great contemporaries who lived through it, like Victor Hugo and Emile Zola, were also deeply moved by its genuine social idealism as well as shocked by its own internal violence, as well as the greater violence of its repression. What is sometimes forgotten however is that the Paris Commune arose out of the despair, anger and humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War. Indeed, the proclamation of Kaiser Wilhelm as Emperor even took place in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles in January 1871: a staggering affirmation of Prussian power at the heart of former French glory. Crushed by the rising, recently unified, German Empire, the Parisians refused however to accept the surrender made by their national leaders. Instead they proclaimed a new form of society in the Commune. It was thus a product of a century of such conflict and bloodshed all across Europe. Its legacy was also lasting. Among those caught up in the politics of the Commune was George Clemenceau, later so important in insisting on crippling reparations on Germany in 1918. One can but imagine the thoughts and feelings which flowed through him as he concluded the Treaty of Versailles, remembering the scenes and indignities of his youth. The outrages of the Commune's rise and fall, as an apotheosis of European divisions and violence, thus flowed right through to the second world war. The European Community project was an attempt to end it for ever. It still is.
How soon we forget. The EU is hardly perfect but it requires development not destruction. Its doubters, sometimes for self-interest, are looking in the wrong direction. Recent studies continue to state the reality that social and economic division is a much more genuine and difficult challenge than any migration of peoples or cultures which they bear. In Britain, 1% of the population own as much as the poorest 55% and their wealth is increasing by 15% a year whilst others struggle. Such statistics are reflected elsewhere. Hardly any European today would wish to replicate the politics of the Paris Commune, yet perhaps its uncomfortable ideals have something to say to us, lest Europe descend further into uncooperative and unnecessary division and violence. Australia, still buoyed by comparative economic advantage, might take note too.
I am delighted that the resources I have prepared for World Environment Day are now available form the Angligreen website (click on front page link to download). Putting them together brought back happy memories for working with Pacific Islanders, Pacific Calling and ecumenical groups in Sydney and NSW, and also powerful reminders of the deep challenges.
In Whitechapel Gallery at present there is a striking multimedia installation. Created by the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia, it uses the biblical story of Jacob's Ladder to address mind, memory, and meaning in our postmodern world. Indeed, it is is appropriately sited in the former Whitechapel Library, a significant 'crucible of British Modernism'. It explores what Michel Foucault called our human 'archaeology of knowledge': within which we live, move, shape and are shaped, whether we like it or not. Wandering through London, as I was on a brief transit visit, I had found myself wandering through features of my own life's memory and meaning and that of our wider world. Attia's work spoke powerfully of ways to engage fruitfully, not least through his concept of 'repair'.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.