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Reginald D Hunter: “Old and middle-class people, if you scare them, they vote”

The comedian talks about race, Republicans and why stand-ups shouldn't be nice.

Should good comedy challenge the audience?
It can do many things. If anybody says that it "should" be this or that, that's the first step towards extremism. Some nights, I'm pissed about something political; some nights, I'm pissed about something personal. Some nights, I'm thrilled about something weird.

You're from Georgia but you've worked mostly in Britain. What is it like going back to the US?
Recently, I did a lot of the black comedy clubs in LA and New York and they have a whole different value system to white, middle-class audiences. They feel like, "I don't have much money and I spent my money coming to see you. The least you could do is wear some nice shoes." And they mean it.

Do Americans see you as quite anglicised?
No. They think I'm this odd, Jamaican-looking dude who sounds really well-educated. People are comfortable with recognisable types, so I had to give them a few minutes. I had to open by saying, "I'm told I'm weird-sounding but suffice to say I'm a bit of country, a bit of 'nigga' and a little bit of Europe."

And did that relax them?
Stand-up comedy is about breaking that wall of polite company - calling out the elephant in the room. The audience didn't come to see you be nice; they can do that themselves. They came to see you do something they can't do.

How do you gauge how far to go with that?
With comedy, you can talk about anything you like. The deftness lies in how you talk about it. If a joke moves you, then work backwards and find a way to say it to uptight people who want to hear it but don't have the nerve to admit it.

You tour nine months of the year. What is that like?
In the US, I have to pull back on a lot of subject matter. Because of talk-show culture, we're conditioned to talk a lot but we're conditioned not to talk about anything. It's one of the reasons why we haven't made any headway with race issues. We talk in soundbites. There's no discourse between races.

What do you think of the Republican Party's challengers to Barack Obama?
The Republicans are suffering the aftermath of being infiltrated by something that looked like them, sounded like them and had a lot of money but didn't share their core values. Genuine Republicans love a certain vision of America and, to that extent, they're patriots. But something came into their churches and screamed, "Praise the Lord! More jails! The Mexicans are coming!" and it scared them. It happens in this country, too. Old people and middle-class people - if you scare the shit out of them, they vote.

So, you're no fan of politicians.
The political process has become absurd: I can only reach the highest levels of office if I can prove I've never done anything wrong, never said anything wrong. There's an insistence on getting perfect people to represent us, even though we admit we're not perfect.

What was your first stand-up show like?
It was only as the MC announced me that I realised I didn't have any jokes. All I had was an attitude and an accent. By the time I got to the microphone, I'd come up with my first joke: "I'm in Britain because I've gone against everything my family wanted me to do. They keep trying to control me. So I keep doing the opposite . . . That's why I joined the Ku Klux Klan." It got a big enough laugh to carry me through.

Do you have a comedy philosophy?
I see comedy as an art form. If you approach it with head, heart and balls, you'll be OK.

That must be a problem for female comics.
Oh, I know some female comics with balls! One of the troubles is that women are socialised to want to be seen as nice. Also, women are more insistent on having a life, whereas men are more, "Fuck it, man, I'll just tell jokes."

How do you deal with hecklers?
The trick is trusting that you have an innate ability to handle assholes. Some people, you have to drop the hammer on them. For that moment, in the auditorium, you're their dad.

Was there a plan?
I trained as an actor but I didn't love it.

Do you love comedy?
Yes. It's my religion. I feel like I'm part of an order of travelling monks.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?
Every night I'm alone in a hotel room, I'm remembering old gigs, jokes that fucked up.

Are we all doomed?
Systems are crashing all around the world - Islam, Christianity, even weather systems. I don't think seven billion people are too much for the earth, but it's too much for our social systems, and people haven't made the connection with the right to create a human being just because they're drunk and lonely.

Defining Moments

1969 Born in Albany, Georgia
1988 In court on shoplifting charges. His lawyer gets him acquitted, then hires him
1996 Travels to England to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
2002 Nominated for the Perrier Award
2005 Makes his television debut in Blackout, shown on Channel 4
2006 Wins Writers' Guild Award for Pride and Prejudice . . . and Niggas. Posters for the show are banned from the Tube

Reginald D Hunter is appearing at the HMV Apollo in Hammersmith, London, on 24 and 25 June. Tickets here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
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How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle