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I’m in Bangladesh as I needed to put a few thousand miles between myself and the Hovel

So I had to go to Dhaka. To its literary festival, to be precise.

So I had to go to Dhaka. To its literary festival, to be precise. I was invited a few months ago, I’m not sure why. It was certainly before some maniac at the London Review Bookshop, probably desperate to drum up custom for an event I was chairing there, described me as “Britain’s most influential book critic”, a title that cheered me up, to be sure, but, for all the benefits that have accrued to me as a result, may as well have been “Ireland’s most unpredictable wasp”, or “Poland’s wonkiest ladder”.

My invitation to Dhaka arrived, instead, shortly before the July attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery by Islamist extremists, in which 29 people were killed. Before then, I had noticed that Bangladesh was becoming one of those countries where writers and atheists were hacked to pieces more than was strictly necessary, and had experienced some collywobbles, but an epic dinner at Rules given me by Ahsan Akbar, the festival’s director, made me snap my fingers at danger.

Really, it would have been rude to refuse to travel; besides, the threat I constitute to myself is at least on a level with the one posed by any militants. If you think I exaggerate, the state of my bedroom alone, which I have not allowed Martha the Cleaner to enter for the past three weeks, on the grounds that it is too shameful, is enough to make me want to kill myself. I had to get out of there before I did myself any further psychic damage by merely looking at it. It was time to put a few thousand miles between myself and the Hovel.

I have been in Bangladesh only a day now, but never, considering how I am being treated, has the title “Down and Out” been less applicable to the words beneath it. The journey started with an Emirates flight from Heathrow, and if what I was in was economy, then heaven alone knows what first class is like. Maybe it is heaven, and indeed the steps leading up to the next floor of the plane suggested something magical and other-worldly, like the staircase in A Matter of Life and Death.

I scanned the inflight entertainment brochure with awe. It covered several pages. I decided to watch La Grande Illusion, the Renoir classic, but then, realising that I actually have the DVD at home but just haven’t got round to watching it yet, settled on a binge-watch of episodes of M*A*S*H and a surprisingly fascinating documentary on the making of Star Trek: the Next Generation. This after playing the Velvet Underground for my take-off. The music selection itself, I must say, is incredible. It’s like flipping through the record collection of your coolest friend. Not just Unknown Pleasures and Never Mind the Bollocks: there’s Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, for crying out loud. I was aching for sleep, having pretty much not slept since the night of the US election, but it was almost too exciting.

And now Dhaka. We arrived in darkness, but this only made the lights of the police escort all the more visible. Having a police escort is a new experience for me, unless you count the more informally organised police escort I was offered after being caught with two tabs of LSD in the vicinity of Buckingham Palace in 1982. (Long story.) This time, though, the police were armed and, notionally, on my side, though one of them seemed to be giving us the evils.

“No,” said one of my fellow authors, “that’s just a sexy underlook.” (I hadn’t encountered the word “underlook” before, but from now on I intend to adopt one as part of my seduction technique, even if this might be a risky thing to try at my age.)

My fellow authors are delightful. They have to be. The English-speaking author abroad on a cultural jolly is bound by a firm obligation: to ensure that as much as possible of every conversation consists of a joke. I suspect that a convention of comedians would be notable for its seriousness of word
and deed; writers are happier to subvert themselves. Maybe. But even V S Naipaul, who opened the festival from his wheelchair, was able to crack wise a couple of times before and after cutting the ribbon.

The hotel is so luxurious that it fills me with guilt. As for Dhaka, I’ve not been here long enough, except to marvel at the traffic, which moves only at the exact moment you have given up all hope of ever moving again, and at the kindness of the people, and at the warm, soupy air. The city isn’t exactly tidy – but, as you might have gathered, that kind of thing isn’t going to bother me. l

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile

Gerald Wiener
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From the Kindertransport to Dolly the Sheep: a New Statesman subscriber's story

Gerald Wiener's life has now been turned into a biography. 

In 1997, Gerald Wiener, an animal geneticist, gathered with a group of friends in Edinburgh to celebrate the cloning of Dolly the sheep by one of his former colleagues. He was a respected scientist, who had contributed to the developments in research which led to this ground-breaking development – and a New Statesman reader.

It could have been very different. Gerald was born Horst, on 25 April 1926, to a German Jewish family. Raised in Berlin by his mother, Luise, he grew up under the shadow of the Nazi regime. He was forced out of his school, and left increasingly alone as friends and family fled to the United States and Britain. After Kristallnacht, when Nazis looted and vandalised Jewish-owned businesses, his mother was desperate for her son to escape. She managed to get him included in the last-ditch organised rescue of German Jewish children, which became known as the Kindertransport. At twelve, Wiener arrived in the UK, alone.

For many years, Wiener did not talk much about his past in Germany. Instead, he embraced a new life as a British schoolboy, and later travelled the world as a scientist. But when he met his second wife, the teacher and writer Margaret Dunlop, she began noting down some of his stories. Eventually she encouraged him to share so many details it has become a book: Goodbye Berlin: the biography of Gerald Wiener.

“I was moved by some of the stories, like his mother putting him on a train in Berlin,” Dunlop tells me when I call the couple at their home in Inverness. “I thought - what a terrible thing.”

“I rejected Germany totally for a long, long time,” Wiener, now 91, says. His mother, with whom he was reunited after she also managed to escape to Britain, threw herself into a wartime career as a nurse. “I had one friend from my school days in Berlin, and he was more like a sort of brother to me, but they also left Germany way behind.”

It was during this period of his life that Wiener first picked up a New Statesman. He spent the war years in Oxford, mentored by the Spooner cousins Rosemary and Ruth, related to William Spooner, who gave his name to the speech error.

Then, in the 1960s, his work took him to Germany, where he met fellow researchers. “They all detested the Hitler years,” he recalls. “I started feeling they are no different to me. I no longer felt bitter about Germany.” 

Still, the Nazis' atrocities had left Wiener almost completely without family. He lost his grandfather, aunt and uncle in the Holocaust. His paternal family fled to the United States. By the time Wiener found them again when taking up a fellowship to study in the US in 1956, his father, who survived the concentration camps, had died of a heart attack.

The next decades were spent patching his family together, and also reclaiming a connection to Germany. Wiener’s half brothers, who were born in Shanghai continue to visit. His American nephew, who works in the music industry, has a German girlfriend and lives in Berlin.

Wiener, too, went back to Berlin. In the early 1990s, the city invited former refugees to visit the city, all expenses paid. With some reservations, Wiener and Dunlop took up the offer. “It was quite exciting to go and see places that had been in my childhood,” he says. He also found the old people's home his grandfather had sought refuge in, before being taken by the Nazis.

Meanwhile, his career was taking him around the world, from India to North Korea. His belief in academic collaboration helped to build the momentum for the Roslin Institute, whose scientists eventually cloned the sheep known as Dolly. 

Wiener, who votes Liberal Democrat, wanted to remain in the EU, and he feels “very angry” that 48 per cent of voters have been ignored.

He adds: “I would be surprised if there was a single university or college who was in favour of Brexit.”

As for another of the great challenges of the present, the refugee crisis, Wiener feels a deep empathy for those living in wartorn regions. “Obviously I feel very, very sympathetic to refugees from more or less wherever,” he says. He sees the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who acted decisively on this matter, as “a bit of a beacon”. At the same time, he believes that in order to fully integrate, refugees must make learning English a priority. “When I go down the street, and I hear people who still don’t speak English, that is the one thing that upsets me,” he says.

If Wiener, a successful scientist, is an example of how Britain can benefit by continuing to offer sanctuary to the world’s desperate, there is, however, a dark undertone to his integration. As a teenager, he knew there was no way back to the Berlin of his childhood. “There was no young generation,” he says of that time. “There was no future.”

Goodbye Berlin is published by Birlinn Books.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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