‘Alone in Berlin’ and ‘Decency’

‘Decency’ is a word (and concept) at the centre of the outstanding novel, ‘Alone in Berlin’, which I finished last night. Based on real events, it is about an ordinary couple living in Nazi Germany who, upon discovering that their son has been killed in the war, embark on their own tiny campaign of defiance against the Third Reich. The campaign is almost comical in its insignificance – they write postcards denouncing Hitler and the Nazis and drop them in stairwells to be found by passers-by.  Yet it is a campaign which costs them their lives. We are left in no doubt that their actions were almost entirely ineffectual as propaganda. Instead, however, we are invited to see the campaign as a metaphysical victory. The couple are, like the sower in Matthew’s parable, sowing good seeds amongst the weeds. Once they refuse to acquiesce to the cruelty around them they reclaim their humanity and stand as testament to the enormous power of integrity and, yes, decency. Despite the small scale of their actions we are left in no doubt that they are giants amongst the petty, cowardly cruelty of the Nazis around them.

Much is made in the novel of how apolitical the couple were prior to being notified of their son’s death. ‘Politics’ is seen as something separate to their lives and they ‘keep their heads down’. I found myself thinking about this throughout. We all know the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ but Nazi Germany is such a ubiquitous signifier for it that I think we still believe it was a ‘special case’. Yet the stark truth is that the mass mania of Nazism took hold amongst human beings not much different to ourselves and the significance of the tacit acquiescence of many who ‘kept their heads down’ is enormous. As proud as Britain can rightly be for standing against Nazi Germany, it’s impossible to believe that as a society we are immune from ‘the banality of evil’. You need only look at how swiftly we as a population have unquestioningly accepted the inevitability of ‘austerity’ to see how easily we can be manipulated. In the pursuit of this austerity we are encouraged to dehumanise and denounce those around us who, we are told, are getting more than their fair share and (more often than not) by duplicitous means. At every turn we are encouraged to place our own material needs before all else – why should we who struggle pay for benefits of people who don’t work, pay for the university education of kids who’ll only mess about, pay for the pensions of workers when we’ll live our old age in penury? Whether we think it is inevitable, justified and/or morally right, we allow our society to be cruel.

This dehumanisation goes further and deeper, of course. Since 9/11 we are repeatedly reminded of our ‘enemies’, reduced to one-note caricatures of brutal barbarians. As a society we have a mass indifference to torture taking place in our name. We are encouraged to believe (and it seems largely accept) that it is an abomination for our ‘enemies’ to have human rights…even to be viewed as humans (instead they are ‘terrorists’, non-people). Those who speak out against our cruelty are troublemakers, a fey elite concerned only with their own voices.

On a macro-level, then, our decency is at least questionable. Yet how is our decency as a society dictated? As we see with the couple in ‘Alone in Berlin’, once we reduce this question to a personal level our own role becomes clearer. If we try to live decent, compassionate lives then we are contributing, in however tiny a way, to the decency of our society. Now, when talk turns to personal morality and personal responsibility, two things tend to happen – firstly, it is pointed out that humans are flawed and hypocritical and a perfect life is impossible; secondly, attention is drawn to the flaws of whomever raised the issue and they are seen as smug hypocrites. As night follows day, this happens. Yet no-one, surely, would ever argue that we can live morally perfect lives? This does not mean that the question of personal morality and responsibility is to be completely dismissed. We can always find excuses for our behaviour and narratives which allow us to feel comfortable with our choices but I think we also ultimately know, deep down, if we are being ‘decent’ or not. Keeping our heads down and tacitly acquiescing to everything around us  isn’t a dramatic thing, it’s something we do every day in the choices we make at work, with our friends, with the strangers we come into contact with. And we fail – we fail again and again and will keep doing so until the day we die. Yet we must try, we must reach for that basic decency and integrity which is inside of all of us but is compromised and hidden by our frailty, cowardice, ignorance and greed. Accepting that we are hypocrites and that we can never get remotely close to perfection, we must hold onto the sense that we as individuals are responsible for the world around us and try to live as we would like the world to be.

2011…again

So I’ve already written about some significant personal changes that took place in 2011 and I’ve made playlists of the music I loved. So a little odds and sods round up of the year.

There were two events which will stand out when I think back to 2011. The first was the death of my gran. She was the head of the family and devoted her life to the people around her. I’ll always be proud of my grandparents and their achievements make me always want to strive to be (and do) better. When I was home for Christmas my mum gave me a little toy bunny rabbit that was in my grandparents’ house. It is one of the abiding memories I have of visiting them throughout the years and it will stick with me wherever I go. Of course, the death of such a pivotal member of the family can make you feel closer to those left and I feel inordinately lucky to have such amazing parents and a great brother.

The second big event was that I got engaged. My boyfriend proposed when I was drunk and watching a Madonna dvd. ROMANTIC! I’d been sitting up waiting on him returning from New York. Initially I didn’t think I was very fussed about getting engaged or getting married. Then I slowly realised that I am madly in love and extraordinarily proud to be engaged to such a brilliant, kind and adorable man. In an added bonus, the in-laws seem darned alright.

I suppose what both of these things have in common is that they are traditional markers of getting older. I feel quite different today from how I felt as I entered the year. I’m content with my life and the people in it, at the stage where I want a few intimate relationships and am increasingly intolerant of facile ones. That sounds boastful but it of course involves some negative traits on my part. Make no mistake, I have been a twat many times. I’ll always fall short, be a hypocrite, be unnecessarily mean sometimes, fall into laziness and choose easy options. Instead of pretending this isn’t the case I am trying to embrace these facts and always remind myself that I can be better. No, that I owe it to the people I love and have loved to be better. 

(One of the lyrics that really struck a chord with me this year is from an old George Michael song – one I have listened to countless times but only really resonated with me now:

All those insecurities that have held me down for so long
I can’t say I’ve found a cure for these
But at least I know them, so they’re not so strong

Ooh this has all gone a bit self-help hasn’t it?)

In terms of gigs, the best was probably Noah and the Whale at the Roundhouse (thanks, David Miah!) which was the culmination of a beautiful day spent with the boyfriend celebrating our 3rd anniversary. Special mentions to: Elbow at St John’s; Taylor Swift, Kylie and Coldplay at the 02 (not together, alas); Katy Perry at Hammersmith Apollo; Suede and Janet Jackson at the Royal Albert Hall; Bright Eyes at the Scala and Adele at Shepard’s Bush Empire. Raspberries to Rihanna at the O2. She needs a break.

I’ll never remember all the books I’ve read but ones that stand out (read this year, not necessarily released) are: ‘At Swim, Two Boys’ by Jamie O’Neill; ‘Anti-Gay’ edited by Mark Simpson; ‘Being Wrong’ by Kathryn Schulz; ‘Non-Stop Inertia’ by Ivor Southwood; ‘Zeitoun’ by Dave Eggars; ‘How to be Alone’ by Jonathan Franzen; ‘The Debt Delusion’ by Mehdi Hasan; ‘Saint Morrissey’ by Mark Simpson; ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue.

Films I’ve liked: ‘The Skin I Live In’; ‘Rabbit Hole’; the ‘Harry Potter’ series (we watched them all this year); the John Pilger documentary series I bought; ‘Blue Valentine’; ‘Lars and the Real Girl’; ‘Half Nelson’ (a Gosling TRILOGY!); ‘50/50’; ‘I Am Because We Are’; ‘The Tree of Life’ and ‘The Illusionist’.

Finally, the tv shows I’ve loved: ‘The Good Wife’; ‘30 Rock’; ‘New Girl’; ‘Psychoville’; ‘All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace’; ‘Ringer’; ‘American Horror Story’; ‘Spiral’; ‘The Killing 1+2’; ‘Desperate Housewives’; ‘Party Animals’; ‘Mad Men’; ‘Roseanne’.

That’s enough lists now, isn’t it?

I’m probably going to have a rather sedate Hogmanay. It feels apt and I’m just not in the mood for a party. I hope whatever everyone does you all have a great time and here’s hoping 2012 is a great one.