Grave of the fireflies

Red sky, black trees
Red sky, black trees

‘Once again the howl of the air-raid sirens.
Then the distant drone of the war-planes.
Then the bombs; incendiary bombs.

The sky, so blue and beautiful, glows red,
Glows orange – and then turns grey – with ash.
A black rain falls.
The city – now in the executioner’s hour.

A boy and his tiny sister survive.
So too a jar of plums, a tin of sweets –
And a raggedy doll with big big eyes.

Their mother – a vapour now in heaven.
Their father missing; their home a warmth of embers.

Someone says: “You cannot live outside the system.”
But through the looking glass of hope they try.

They try and try – until the tin of sweets is empty
And all the plums are gone.

A week, a day, a final hour goes by.
The little girl – pale as the moonstone – sleeps her endless sleep –
And heartbreak takes the boy – sometime in September.

They died – like lovely fireflies – even before the sunrise.’

Footnote: These lines were written after seeing the film, ‘Grave of the fireflies‘. The film was directed by Isao Takahata and released in 1988. Among other things, the film refers to the firebombing of the Japanese city of Kobe in the final days of World War 2.

Building a nation is an intimate affair

I was searching for an old edition of Dazed and Confused on one of my daughter’s bookshelves and, as I was doing so, I re-discovered a booklet that had been published in 2006 to accompany Jimmie Durham’s exhibition, ‘Building a nation’. I liked the cover photograph on the booklet and so I began reading the accompanying text that was written by Richard William Hill. I’m interested in the way identities are constructed and Hill’s short introductory essay had something important to say about the way we fabricate (we make) persons. He wrote:

Jimmie Durham and I both collect horrible genocidal quotations by famous Americans. Our collections are substantial because there is no shortage of musings on the mass-murder of Indians once you go looking. Perhaps, despite the lessons of experience, we believe that with enough evidence the rest of humanity might abandon the dreadful mythology of cowboys and Indians and recognise that the United States (and the other settler colonies of the Americas) were built on theft and genocidal racism towards Indigenous peoples …

And the booklet includes reference to a number of the genocidal quotations that Jimmie Durham used in his exhibition. But Hill continues:

Some of the quotations are from well-known American political figures, but the most sinister, in my opinion, are songs for children. They are a reminder, despite the Anglo-American penchant for categorically distinguishing public and private life, that nation building is an intimate affair, completed one mind at a time in the ‘privacy’ of your home as you do the things you most enjoy, often in a state of childish innocence.

Immediately opposite Hill’s essay are printed excerpts from two hymns that may well be sung in school. The first, ‘Stand up Stand up for Jesus’ was written by George Duffield. It begins:

Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
Ye soldiers of the cross,
Lift high His royal banner
It must not suffer loss;

From vict’ry unto vict’ry,
His army shall he lead
Till ev’ry foe is vanquished,
And Christ is Lord Indeed.

The second is ‘Onward! Christian soldiers’ by Sabine Baring-Gould. It has a similar call to arms and begins:

Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus Going on Before:
Christ the royal Master Leads against the foe:
Forward into Battle, See, His Banners go.

As I read the booklet and looked at the illustrations I paused and gazed out of my window. I could see a school:it’s a primary school and each morning the parents bring their children to the school and everyone waits for the gates to be unlocked by a caretaker. Then, once the gates are unlocked, the children and many of the parents enter – and walk across a large playground towards the various school buildings. Occasionally I can hear fragments of conversation between the parents and their children or simply between the parents themselves. In mid-afternoon the parents return to collect their offspring. And this gives me another chance to hear bits and pieces of conversation. Culturally it’s an ambiguous space for the parents and the children because it is neither fully public nor private. But it’s clearly somewhere in which some very definite nation-building occurs…

How does one live a life full of nothing?

At some point in my working life I came across one of the most interesting but little remarked features of the psychology of police. It happened during one of those moments when I was exploring group dynamics with some experienced police officers. I was trying to uncover the patterns of power and influence that were at play in the group and I was asking a number of questions.  No one in the group wanted to speak: everyone seemed to be more or less uncomfortable. So I decided to examine this by asking another question or two. Then, one of the police officers said: ‘The trouble is our unfamiliarity with this whole situation: you see, we’re the ones who ask the questions.

Over the years I’ve often thought about this remark. I’ve thought about who gets to ask the questions, about the content of questions and about the statements behind questions. But I think that it has also helped me to appreciate some really good questions that happen to come my way. So, the other night I was watching the terrific film El secreto de sus ojos*  (The secret in their eyes) and I became fascinated by a question that the lead character, Benjamin Esposito, wanted to answer: Esposito was writing a book about a terrible crime that had been committed. A young married woman had been raped and murdered. The crime had left an indelible impression on all those concerned – and especially on the life of the murdered woman’s husband: formerly his life had been filled with his love for his wife. Now he had nothing. Esposito wanted to end his book by finding an answer to the question: How does one live a life full of nothing?

The film suggests at least three answers:

We can revenge ourselves on whoever (or whatever) it is that reduces our lives to nothing.

We can give ourselves up to a passion. It doesn’t matter what the passion is.

We can live through an underlying hope – a hope that one day we will achieve something we really desire but have not yet attained.

There are a number of other responses: denial is one; resignation is another.

I think it’s an important question to ask because it may well be that many people are, in fact, living lives full of nothing. I say this because some of the retired people I meet are desperately trying to give meaning to their existence – now that their lives are filled with far less than before. And more generally Esposito’s question relates to Soren Kierkegaard’s striking remark that ‘most men lead lives of quiet desperation‘.

But the film El secreto de sus ojos (and the particular question it raises concerning how to cope with ‘a life full of nothing’) reaches out from any specific case and  highlights the terrible difficulties facing so many people in Argentina who experienced the horror and tragedy of ‘the disappeared’.**

*El secreto de sus ojos is an Argentine crime thriller film that was released in 2009.

** This was highlighted in  ‘Who am I?‘, a documentary by Sue Lloyd-Roberts in the BBC series: Our world which was broadcast on April 6 2013 and which examines the ongoing struggle in Argentina of those families trying to find the children who were stolen from their mothers in the 1970s.