The great betrayal

The issue of Israel has become a terrible fault line on the British left but liberal opinion may soo

Over a kibbutz breakfast of boiled eggs, fresh salad, olives, hummus and bread in the glorious spring sunshine, Valerie Chikly voices her frustration with the usual left-wing hostility towards Israel. "We are always compared to South Africa. It upsets me deeply," she says. The common cry of the outraged western liberal, that Israel is an "apartheid" state because of its treatment of the Palestinians, carries a particular barb for Valerie. She herself left South Africa 32 years ago to make her home in Israel. Armed with her socialist ideals, a hatred of apartheid and the belief that the Jews needed a homeland after the experience of the Holocaust, she set up home on Kibbutz Nir Eliyahu and has lived here ever since.

"Growing up in South Africa, growing up under apart heid . . . one of the reasons I left was I never felt comfortable there. Part of the thinking was that it was OK to believe the white man was a better person than the black man," Valerie says. She tells me she was convinced that Israel's problem was conflict, not racism. "Israel is always fighting for its survival. If we were able to make peace with the Arabs we would live together."

It is difficult to imagine a more idealistic, open-hearted lefty than Valerie Chikly. She still describes herself as a socialist and a committed kibbutznik, although privatisation and the nuclear family have replaced the original dream of communal living. She worked on a joint project teaching puppetry to Palestinian and Israeli children until one of her Arab students was shot during the second intifada. But the conflict has taken its toll, especially on the next generation. Valerie says her eldest son's time serving in the Israeli army has marked him. "I think his mistrust of Arabs is greater than mine. He has the experience of searching people and finding bomb belts on their bodies."

In Israel, the conventions of the generation gap are reversed, with young people often more hardline than their parents. Military service (three years for men, two for women) means that the younger generation has had experience of far more violent times. The Israeli consciousness is ingrained with death and violence. I will never forget the roll-call of more than 200 dead alumni from Herzliya High School, flashed up one by one on a cinema screen to the whole school during national remembrance day. I was a special guest on the occasion and was also shown a shrine to the dead, with photographs of each fallen soldier or victim of terrorism, which serves as a year-round reminder of the duty of each Israeli citizen to fight for the state's survival. I found the ceremony deeply disturbing - it also involved watching film clips of Israel's military legacy and performances by schoolchildren on the theme of war.

Yet still this does not answer the question: Why do liberals hate Israel so much? That was the question I found myself asking throughout my visit to the country this month.

As the great Israeli journalist Amos Elon wrote eight years ago in the introduction to his essay collection A Blood-Dimmed Tide: "Zionism was a child of the Enlightenment and the ideas of the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the need to separate church and state. Its aim was to provide persecuted Jews with a safe haven, recognised in international law, a National Home." Elon left Israel in disillusionment in 2004.

On the face of it, the answer to my question is simple. The British left hates Israel because it has abandoned its Enlightenment principles and set about the systematic oppression of a people whose land it occupies. The invasion of southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006 was a new low point that caused international outrage. For most people on the left in Britain, support for Israel is out of the question. Solidarity for the Palestinians is synonymous with the anti-American, anti-imperialist stance of the movement that opposed the war in Iraq. Thousands of people who marched in London against British intervention carried Freedom for Palestine placards, even though these were provided by the Muslim Association of Britain, an organisation of the Islamic religious right that supports the terrorist group Hamas.

Mike Marqusee, an organiser of the Stop the War Coalition, wrote in If I Am Not for Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew: "The blame for the misidentification of Jews as a whole with Israel lies principally with the Jewish Establishment, with the Zionists, with the Israeli spokespersons who justify every lawless, brutal act as a necessary part of the battle for Jewish survival. And with all those who've installed the cult of Israel at the centre of Judaism and Jewishness."

Victors and colonisers

The Israel issue has become a terrible fault line on the British left and betrayal is felt on both sides. Israelis I spoke to dated the breach to the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Jews of Israel turned from passive victims to military victors and colonisers. There is something in the argument that the left loves a victim and the modern Israeli does not fit the mould.

But there is more to it than that. The internet has flushed out a whole subculture of left-wing hostility to Israel that should make even Marqusee uncomfortable. This has a regular and willing outlet on the Guardian's Comment is Free website and the New Statesman also suffers from it whenever we publish articles on Israel. Postings on our blog casually link Zionism to fascism or South African apartheid. The language is so unpleasant that it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that many of the comments are driven by anti-Semitism.

I was travelling in Israel with a group of four other journalists as a guest of BICOM, a British organisation set up to improve Israel's image in the media. Not an easy task. The trip coincided with the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the state, a time for reflection and reassessment. It also coincided with the latest round of peace talks between Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. While we were there, hopes of peace faded even further. Olmert found himself embroiled in a political funding scandal that weakened his hand and a deal by the end of the Bush administration looks unlikely.

In four days we were given a crash course in the modern Zionist narrative of Israel. At Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust museum, our guide told us in no uncertain terms that a Jewish state was necessary because we in western Europe could not be trusted. We were introduced to government officials, politicians and senior military officers on the front line in Gaza and the West Bank who demonstrated the reality of the threat to Israel as they saw it. We visited Ramallah to meet a senior representative of the Palestinian Authority, but for the most part it was the Israeli case being made.

Propaganda aside, there is an Israeli case. And it is one the west, including the British left, ignores at its peril. At the police station in Sderot, a southern town of roughly 20,000 inhabitants less than a mile from the border with Gaza, Barak Peled stood next to a collection of several hundred rockets fired by Palestinian militants over the past few months. The attacks began in 2001, but intensified after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza three years ago. Most of the missiles were the home-made Qassams fired by Hamas, but each faction has its own makeshift devices. "Once it was stones and Molotov cocktails," said Barak. "Now look at it. They have brought the war to us." Even now the technology is moving on. Among the gruesome artefacts, Barak found the smashed fuselage of a Grad missile, Russian-designed but supplied by Iran.

Besieged by neighbours

This may be just so much Zionist PR, but the events are real and real people's lives are destroyed by the constant rocket attacks. No children play outside. A rudimentary siren system gives the people of Sderot 15 seconds to run to one of the bomb shelters dotted around the town. Sometimes it doesn't work.

Geut Aragon, a 34-year-old nurse, described how no siren sounded as her house was destroyed by a Qassam rocket in January. She, her four-year-old son and a neighbour's child were trapped in the rubble. The young mother still has shrapnel from the incident in her head. Asked about the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, she told me: "It was not a good idea. We knew it - you don't have to be very smart. We knew as soon as they pulled out we would be under attack."

Now, with the introduction of the Grad rockets, targets further inside Israel have come within missile range of Hamas, including the city of Ashkelon on the coast, which has already suffered a handful of attacks. Israel has always felt besieged by its neighbours, but today Iran poses a different order of threat. At the same time, a strategic alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas is causing concern outside Israel. The Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram has reported that Hamas is already developing a pilotless drone with the Brotherhood for use in Israel. Whether or not this is true, it is a sign of a growing nervousness about the rising military power of the Islamists.

One senior Israeli military source in the West Bank told me: "If we go back into Gaza, we know we will be facing a trained army. This will be a very different type of conflict from what we have seen before."

Iran is now a constant source of fear in the Israeli psyche. Mark Regev, spokesman for Olmert, said that Britain, like the rest of Europe, needs to wake up to the reality of the threat: "The governor of the Bank of Iran needs to understand that because of the nuclear programme, his daughter can't study at Cambridge."

There are all sorts of good reasons for the left to fall out of love with Israel. At the same time, it is quite possible to un derstand how left-wing Israelis feel betrayed by international liberal opinion. Valerie Chikly reads the international media online from her kibbutz, and says she has given up expecting support. "One of the reasons I came here was because of the Holocaust," she says. "I really believe we have to have our own country and we have to defend ourselves. Who else is going to defend us?"

But the threat from Iran - not just the direct threat of a nuclear bomb, but its support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah - gives the relationship a different dimension. For a long time Israel has been accused of crying wolf over surrounding countries that want to "drive it into the sea". Now it has a neighbour whose president has not only made that threat explicit, but who intends to develop the capacity to do it. In such a conflict, which has already begun for the people of southern Israel, on whose side will British left-liberal opinion be?

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The love affairs of Stan Laurel: "If I had to do it over again things would be different"

A romantic who craved stability, the English comedian Stan Laurel led a Hollywood love life as chaotic as his films’ plots

The comedian Stan Laurel was, even by the standards of his time, a prodigious correspondent. The Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project contains more than 1,500 artefacts, and these are only the documents that have so far been traced, as many of his early missives appear to have been lost. He was, quite literally, a man of letters.

His punctiliousness about correspondence can be ascribed, at least in part, to his natural good manners, but letters were also a means of filling his long retirement. He outlived his screen partner Oliver Hardy – “Babe” to his friends – by almost eight years but refused all offers of work during that time. Instead, heartbreakingly, he wrote sketches and routines for the duo that would never be performed. It was, perhaps, a way for Laurel to speak with Babe again, if only in his head, until he followed him into the dark on 23 February 1965.

Though Laurel and Hardy have never been forgotten, they are currently undergoing an energetic revival. Stan and Ollie, a film dramatisation of their later years, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, is scheduled for release in 2018. Talking Pictures TV is to start showing the duo’s long features from September. Sixty years since Oliver Hardy’s death on 7 August 1957, the duo will soon be rediscovered by a new generation.

They were such different men and such unlikely partners. Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890, in Ulverston, then part of Lancashire, the son of AJ, a theatre manager, and Margaret, an actress. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 and never again considered an alternative profession, eventually leaving for the United States to act on the vaudeville circuit before finally ending up in the nascent Hollywood. Norvell Hardy, meanwhile, came from Harlem, Georgia, the son of a slave overseer who died in the year of his son’s birth, 1892, and whose first name, Oliver, Norvell took as his own.

Hardy, who had worked as a singer and as a projectionist, became a jobbing actor, often being cast as the “heavy”because of his bulk. Laurel, by contrast, was groomed for stardom, but it repeatedly slipped through his fingers. Unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, or the boater-and-glasses-wearing Harold Lloyd, he had no persona. Only when Hal Roach paired him with Hardy did he finally find a mask that fitted, and thus a professional marriage slowly grew into a friendship that would endure until Babe’s death.

Laurel was the creative engine of the partnership, creating storylines and gags, intimately involving himself in the directing and editing of each film, but Hardy was the better, subtler actor. Laurel was a creature of the stage, trained to act for the back rows; Hardy, by contrast, had watched countless films from his projectionist’s perch and knew that the smallest of gestures – the raising of an eyebrow, a glance flicked in the audience’s direction – would be writ large on the screen. Laurel recognised this and tailored his scripts to his partner’s strengths.

Thus – and unusually for such partnerships – they never argued with each other about either screen time or money, despite the notorious parsimony of their producer Hal Roach, who paid them what he could get away with and would not let them negotiate their contracts together in order to weaken their bargaining position. Indeed, apart from one contretemps about the degree of dishevelment permitted to Babe’s hair, it seems that Laurel and Hardy never argued very much at all.

And then Babe died, leaving his partner bereft. What was a man to do but remember and write? So Laurel, always a prodigious correspondent, spent much of his retirement communicating with friends and fans by post. It helped that he had a curious and abiding affection for stationery. During one of the many interviews he conducted with John McCabe, his first serious biographer, Laurel revealed a wish to own a stationery store. Even he didn’t seem sure exactly why, but he admitted that he was quite content to while away entire afternoons in examining grades of paper.

Since letters were Laurel’s primary source of contact with the world, much of his writing is quite mundane. He deals with repeated inquiries about the state of his health – “I’m now feeling pretty good,” he informs a Scottish fan called Peter Elrick on 8 June 1960. “I suffered a slight stroke in ’55, fortunately I made a good recovery & am able to get around quite well again, of course I shall never be in a condition to work any more.” He notes the passing of actors he has known (to Jimmy Wiseman on 29 January 1959: “That was a terrible thing about [Carl] ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer wasn’t it? All over a few dollars’ debt he had to lose his life. I knew him very well as a kid in Our Gang films…”), answers queries about his films and his late partner (to Richard Handova on 21 March 1964: “Regarding the tattoo on Mr Hardy’s right arm – yes, that was an actual marking made when he was a kid – he always regretted having this done”) and often writes simply for the pleasure of having written, thus using up some stationery and enabling him to shop for more (“Just a few more stamps – hope you’re feeling well – nothing much to tell you, everything is as usual here,” represents the entirety of a letter to Irene Heffernan on 10 March 1964).

In researching my novel about Stan Laurel, I read a lot of his correspondence. I had to stop after a while, because the archive can overwhelm one with detail. For example, I might have found a way to include Oliver Hardy’s tattoo, which I didn’t know about until I read the letter just now. But of all the Laurel letters that I have read, one in particular stands out. It was written to his second wife, Ruth, on 1 July 1937, as their relationship was disintegrating. It is so striking that I quote it here in its entirety:

Dear Ruth,

When Lois divorced me it unbalanced me mentally & I made up my mind that I couldn’t be happy any more. I met & married you in that frame of mind, & the longer it went on, the stronger it became. That’s why I left you with the insane idea Lois would take me back.

After I left you, I found out definitely that she wouldn’t. I then realised the terrible mistake I had made & was too proud to admit it, so then I tried to find a new interest to forget it all, & truthfully Ruth I never have. I have drank just to keep up my spirits & I know I can’t last doing that, & am straining every effort to get back to normal.

You’ve been swell through it all, except the few rash things you did. I don’t blame you for not being in love with me, but my state of mind overrules my true feeling. If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business. My marital happiness means more than all the millions.

Why has this letter stayed with me? I think it’s because of the penultimate sentence: “If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business.” Hollywood brought Laurel a career, acclaim and a personal and professional relationship by which he came to be defined, but all at a price.

Stan Laurel was a complicated man, and complicated men lead complicated lives. In Laurel’s case, many of these complexities related to women. His comic performances and lack of vanity on screen often disguise his handsomeness, and monochrome film cannot communicate the blueness of his eyes. Women fell for him, and fell hard. He amassed more ex-wives than is wise for any gentleman (three in total, one of whom, Ruth, he married twice), to which number may be added a common-law wife and at least one long-standing mistress.

Had Laurel remained in Britain, serving an apprenticeship to his father before assuming control of one of the family’s theatres, women might not have been such a temptation for him. At the very least, he would have been constrained by a combination of finances and anonymity. Instead, he left for the United States and changed his name. In 1917, he met Mae Dahlberg, an older Australian actress who claimed to be a widow, despite the existence elsewhere of a husband who was very much alive and well. Laurel and Mae worked the vaudeville circuit together and shared a bed, but Mae – who lacked the talent to match her ambition – was eventually paid to disappear, as much to facilitate Laurel’s wedding to a younger, prettier actress named Lois Neilson as to ensure the furtherance of his career.

Yet it wasn’t long into this marriage before Laurel commenced an affair with the French actress Alyce Ardell, one that would persist for two decades, spanning three further nuptials. Ardell was Laurel’s pressure valve: as marriage after marriage fell apart, he would turn to her, although he seemed unwilling, or unable, to connect this adultery with the disintegration of his formal relationships.

The end of his first marriage was not the result of Laurel’s unfaithfulness alone. His second child with Lois, whom they named Stanley, died in May 1930 after just nine days of life. For a relationship that was already in trouble, it may have represented the final, fatal blow. Nevertheless, he always regretted leaving Lois. “I don’t think I could ever love again like I loved Lois,” he writes to Ruth on Christmas Eve in 1936. “I tried to get over it, but I can’t. I’m unhappy even after all you’ve done to try to make me happy, so why chase rainbows?”

But chasing rainbows was Stan Laurel’s default mode. He admitted advertising his intention to marry Ruth in the hope that Lois might take him back. Even after he and Ruth wed for the first time, he wrote letters to Lois seeking reconciliation. It set a pattern for the years to come: dissatisfaction in marriage; a retreat to Alyce Ardell’s bed; divorce; another marriage, including a year-long involvement with a notorious Russian gold-digger named Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, known by her stage name of Illiana (in the course of which Laurel, under the influence of alcohol, dug a hole in his garden with the stated intention of burying her in it), and finally contentment with another Russian, a widow named Ida Kitaeva Raphael, that lasted until his death.

These marital tribulations unfolded in full view of the media, with humiliating details laid bare. In 1946, he was forced to reveal in open court that alimony and child support payments left him with just $200 at the end of every month, and he had only $2,000 left in his bank account. In the course of divorce proceedings involving Illiana, his two previous wives were also briefly in attendance, leading the press to dub Lois, Ruth and Illiana “triple-threat husband hazards”. It might have been more accurate to term Stan Laurel a wife hazard, but despite all his failings, Lois and Ruth, at least, remained hugely fond of him.

“When he has something, he doesn’t want it,” Ruth told a Californian court in 1946, during their second set of divorce proceedings, “but when he hasn’t got it, he wants it. But he’s still a swell fellow.”

Laurel’s weakness was women, but he was not promiscuous. I think it is possible that he was always looking for a structure to his existence and believed that contentment in marriage might provide it, but his comedy was predicated on a conviction that all things tended towards chaos, in art as in life.

Thanks to the perfect complement of Oliver Hardy, Laurel was perhaps the greatest screen comedian of his generation – greater even than Chaplin, I would argue, because there is a purity to Laurel’s work that is lacking in Chaplin’s. Chaplin – to whom Laurel once acted as an understudy and with whom he stayed in contact over the years – wanted to be recognised as a great artist and succeeded, but at the cost of becoming less and less funny, of leaving the comedian behind. Stan Laurel sought only to make his audience laugh, and out of that ambition he created his art.

“he: A Novel” by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 24 August