How strange are those different moments or episodes in our past that somehow remain intact and which, for any number of reasons, remain forged and fixed – as if embalmed in the amber of our memories. How strange, too, that these precise memories are so varied in nature and so faithful a companion.
I can still recall, clearly, an unfolding moment on a summer’s day outside a Jacobean mansion during which a police officer declared to me that, ‘principles don’t pay the rent’; Or my father opening his newspaper and showing me a photograph of a burnt-out tank and the charred head of an Iraqi soldier: ‘Look at this poor blighter,’ he said. I looked. Or, a colleague standing in front of me in my study at work simply asserting that I was ‘damaged goods’. I remember particular moments from my school days – such as the remark made by my maths teacher on seeing that I had a black eye: ‘Did she scratch you as well?’ he joked. Or an elegant, strangely poetic, passing move in a football match in which my older brother came to score a goal. Or the moment I more or less successfully stained the ear-drum of a locust during a Zoology exam at University.
Yes! A great number of specific disparate ‘things’ come to be etched in memory. A greater number of details are forgotten.
One very clear memory I have concerns an evening to which parents were invited at the Weydon Secondary School in Farnham, Surrey. Weydon School was (and is) a large comprehensive school – a typical, rather utilitarian school, which, at best, had (and has) a limited aesthetic appeal. That didn’t matter though: it achieved good academic results. (Both my daughters attended the school.)
The long-ago evening featured a show by the pupils of art and drama and performance. (The English are very creative and very strong in these forms of cultural expression and the pupils at the school were impressively good. )
At some point in the middle of the show, a boy, aged about 16, silently walked along a dimly lit central catwalk that jutted out and into the audience. His style of walking was resolute; somehow, he looked determined but resigned. He looked into the distance. He stopped at the end of the catwalk – a lone figure. Now he was lit by a single spotlight. He paused. He made a defined – almost emphatic gesture – that was deeply ambiguous. His silent gesture struck me forcibly.
Then, unaided and completely alone, he recited the poem ‘Refugee blues’; It was stark, remarkable, desperate and telling. His recitation was perfect. At the end he paused; he looked down, turned around – and then left. At no point did he look at the audience. The audience remained silent. It was a perfect performance.
Here is the poem.
Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.
Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.
In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.
The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.
Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?
Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.
Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”:
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.
Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.
Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.
Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.
Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.
Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.
Of course, day by day, the news tells me and shows me that there is a deadly thunder rumbling in the sky. It is an unspeakable thunder. The thunder rumbles over Ukraine and its cities. And there are streams of refugees who hear the verse:
‘Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.’