Tracey Thorn's Twitter
Show Hide image

Tracey Thorn: How my parents met

They’d been introduced as pen pals through an uncle – my mum and her friend had written to this lonely young man, who was training in Jordan, and had each sent a photo. 

Just before Christmas I booked this short holiday in Tenerife with my sister and her husband, our only worry being whether or not Dad would be OK while we were away. Then, just a few weeks ago, and not entirely unexpectedly, he died. And now, with the shock and the funeral safely out of the way, we’ve come on holiday anyway, and it is infused not with worry, but with a strange mix of relief and regret, not least because the last time we were here, Dad was with us, too.

It was about five years ago. He was in good form, having rallied better than any of us expected after Mum’s death, and he had rented a mobility scooter, on which he’d bomb up and down the prom, stopping at cafés along the way to have a Spanish brandy. He enjoyed doing nothing much at all on holiday; eating, drinking, “watching the world go by”, as he used to say. Like in most seaside places, there’s lots of world-going-by to watch here.

The narrow, flat stretch between the barren hills and the sea, into which the hotels and apartments are crammed, has nothing picturesque or classy about it, but a resolute cheerfulness pervades – the simple enjoyment of the sun, of daytime booze, of no work to go to. The holidaymakers are either professional sunbathers with skin like a tan leather sofa, or those whose legs have never seen the light of day and are, as my youngest used to say, “as white as a sheep”.

There are lots of walkers, like me and my sister, and lots of users of mobility scooters and wheelchairs who have found, like Dad, that the flat surface is ideal, and they’re interspersed with local hippies – a bunch of dreadlocked white boys with acoustic guitars, one singing a supper-club version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, another sprawled in a shopping trolley with his fully plastered broken leg resting on the handles.

It’s touristy, and the sandwich boards outside the cafés advertise paella, fajitas and mojitos, and “lasagne of the house”, but then you round a headland and hit upon a stretch of black, rocky beach and a sea full of surfers, and the scent of salty air replaces the smell of salty chips. I remember that when we were here with Dad he decided he wanted to buy a pair of shoes, the same as the ones he was wearing, which he’d bought here a few years before. And so we set off into the streets back from the beach, the only thing approaching an “old town”, and searched for the exact lightweight, beige or grey leather shoes he liked to wear. Which apparently could only be found in Tenerife.

This single-mindedness was pretty typical. The other memory that now comes to me is that during that same trip I had a full-scale, teenage, blazing row with him one night over after-dinner drinks, which resulted in me storming up to my bedroom, shouting “Good NIGHT” over my shoulder as I went. I was almost 50 years old at the time yet he could still make me feel 16 and infuriate me like no one else.

But on the front page of his funeral order of service we had printed a photo of him in his RAF uniform, aged 19, the way he looked the day my mum met him. They’d been introduced as pen pals through an uncle – my mum and her friend had written to this lonely young man, who was training in Jordan, and had each sent a photo. He chose Mum, and kept that very photo in his wallet for the rest of his life. They had exchanged letters and, when he was back in the UK, arranged to meet. He arrived in his RAF blues, gliding up the escalator at Holborn Tube, where she was waiting at the top. And I think of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. David Niven in that uniform, and the staircase to heaven. Wartime romance. Does anything tug at the heart more strongly?

Back at home after the funeral, I put that photo of him up on Twitter. It’s the most popular thing I’ve ever tweeted, getting over a thousand likes. He’d have been proud.

Well, he’d have said, “What the hell’s Twitter?” and rolled his eyes, and we’d have had a row about it. But still.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496