Jonathan Ross and his wife Jane Goldman, a former Hugo Award winner. Photo: Getty
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Jonathan Ross and the Hugo awards: why was he forced out by science fiction's self-appointed gatekeepers?

A Twitter campaign forced Jonathan Ross to pull out of hosting an awards ceremony for science fiction books. Was it purely a reaction to his controversial jokes - or were some people more concerned with keeping SFF "pure"?

The Hugo awards: have you heard of them? Until Saturday morning, if you didn’t have “SFF geek” or “SFF author” in your Twitter bio then it was probably a no. The Hugo award is a vaguely dildo-shaped silver rocketship awarded to the authors of the best science fiction and fantasy (SFF) works in the previous year. Past winners include Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson, J.K. Rowling, Michael Chabon, George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman – and the list of those who had to do “Leonardo DiCaprio at the Oscars Every Single Time” smiles is no less impressive. The awards have taken place every year bar one, since 1953.

On Saturday morning it was announced that Jonathan Ross would host this year’s ceremony at Loncon 3. By Saturday afternoon you might have heard of the Hugos, but not for the reasons that would have led you to finding new books, new authors, and new ideas. Bleeding Cool have a round up of what happened on Twitter: hurtful names were flung, people were “crying”, and the (vocal contingent of) the SFF community became a childish clubhouse hurling abuse from a crack in the door because they thought he would be mean to them if they let him in. They thought he would make fat jokes, be rude to women, disrespect the community and – as punishment not only for previous gaffes but for gaffes not yet made – he didn’t deserve the honour. Jonathan Ross resigned from his post after being called various words your office internet is likely to block and wished everybody a lovely convention. It was horrific to watch.

So what happened?

Four-time Hugo award-winner and past committee member Cheryl Morgan says while there is no simple answer to this, an obvious contributing factor is that convention committees tend to be fractious (they are volunteers, after all). Allegedly, the Chairs took the decision to invite Ross without consulting their colleagues. That is in contrast to the 2004 awards where Guests of Honour and the host were discussed amongst the entire committee (on which Morgan served) and members had to option to veto any suggestion for whatever reason. The theory was that if one person objected so much to seeing a certain person’s face peeping over the podium that they were willing to cast a veto, it was likely that option would make other people mad too.

Had this happened with the 2014 awards, someone on the committee probably would have vetoed before the idea was even put to Jonathan Ross himself and Twitter would have spent the past weekend complaining about something non-Hugo-related instead, as usual. As Morgan says: “If you are going to involve someone potentially controversial, you need to be sure that you have the support of the bulk of your team.” Telling (not asking) the rest of the committee that someone they may or may not like is going to host the awards when it’s too late for them to do anything about it equals a PR catastrophe. If opinions won’t be heard by those whose job it is to hear them, people will rant on Twitter. It’s what we do now.

There’s also a cultural shift at work here: books like Game of Thrones mean that even people who would ordinarily avoid the SFF section of the bookshop (always the most well-organised part of any bookshop, and I’ll eat my face if you prove me wrong) are now interested in the same stuff that SFF convention-goers are. “Parts of SFF fandom are still very defensive about their relationship with the outside world and would rather their community stay small and overlooked,” said Morgan. “Some people appear to have been concerned at the level of publicity that Ross's presence would generate. Others were insistent that high profile jobs at the convention should only be given to people with a long track record in the community.”

But Jonathan Ross does have a long track record in the community.

Everybody in Britain who has ever picked up a paper has seen Ross labelled as controversial in the past – the curious can read the entire chapter devoted to it on his Wikipedia page, or trawl through hundreds of Daily Mail articles hounding the guy – but these are by no means things that would make him a bad host, a bad person, or a bad fit for the SFF community: he is part of it. Ross has been part of SFF since he began. He reads comics, he now writes comics, and his wife, Jane Goldman, has won a Hugo herself. As fantasy author Sarah Pinborough put it: “If the genre is a community, then he has earned his place within it.”

Pinborough, who evidently sat on Twitter all day wearing an expression similar to my own, adds: “The material which seemed to ignite this backlash – which involved people calling him a misogynist and more personal insults – was based on an article written in the Mirror in 2008 and much relies on context and personal opinion of humour. Many of those – primarily Americans – who jumped on the bandwagon deriding him admitted they had not even heard of him until yesterday. I wonder if they were some of the same people who called Lynn Shepherd out for writing a piece about JK Rowling without having read Rowling . . . and if so, whether they have seen the irony yet.”

In 2007, when writer (and Hugo award winner/host) Neil Gaiman took Ross to the Eisner Awards at the San Diego Comic Con – the comic book industry’s version of the Oscars – nobody knew who he was there either. “He was just some English guy I dragged up on stage with me,” says Gaiman. He was so good that Jackie Estrada, the awards administrator, asked him back to host the whole event himself. (Heads up for anyone who missed that internet video: to celebrate the Eisners, Ross snogged Gaiman on stage Britney/Madonna MTV Awards-style and Gaiman’s face turned colours previously only described in Lovecraft stories. All footage of the event is shaky because it was so funny. You can see Gaiman and Ross talk about it at last year’s Eisners, where Ross was hosting, again.)

At Loncon’s request, Gaiman asked Ross to take the stage at this year’s Hugos. “I think Jonathan would have been an excellent host,” he told me. “One of the things Jonathan is great at is making a room full of people feel comfortable. To be a Hugo host you need to be genuine, funny, respectful – and he is respectful, while still being cheeky. Jonathan would do it better than I did. And he agreed to do it for free because he is SFF family.”

Despite this, a vocal contingent resorted to petty name-calling on the Internet. Does calling someone a “grating fatuous bellend” not count as bullying if your subject is famous? I call bullshit. Does saying horrible things about someone because you think they might possibly say horrible things about you make you the better person? In this tirade about insults and slights, nasty bullies with little self-awareness recast themselves as the victim.

“What was peculiar about the attacks was they had constructed an ad hominem straw man to attack, who was sexist, sizeist, hates women and likes making everyone feel bad,” said Gaiman. “It doesn’t bear any resemblance to Jonathan. While he has occasionally said things that make you go ‘Oh god, your mouth opened and that thing came out’, he is a consummate professional.”

(Regarding the “sizeist” accusation, here’s what Ross’ teenage daughter Honey Kinny tweeted to Seanan McGuire, the most vocal of the Twitter pitchfork mob: “I was horrified by your outrageous and unfounded assumption that my father would ever comment negatively on a woman’s body. I’m Jonathan’s overweight daughter and assure you that there are few men more kind & sensitive towards women’s body issues.” When I emailed asking McGuire to pinpoint a moment in which Ross had ever made a fat joke, I got no reply.)


Publisher and long-time SFF editor Jo Fletcher was appalled by the behaviour on Twitter. “Of course everyone has a right to his or her opinion, but when did that right give us carte blanche to fill the Twittersphere – and indeed, the Internet as a whole – with such vilification?," she wrote. "I do understand that some people feel very deeply that Ross was not a good choice to host the Hugos. I can see people are deeply offended by things he has done – but even more scarily, they are offended by things he is alleged to have done, which is not at all the same thing.”

Damning him for things he has allegedly done and might possibly be about to do but had not yet done? It’s all a bit Minority Report.

“They’re my people,” said Gaiman. “And it does make me feel slightly ashamed of my tribe.”

Business-wise, what the genre has lost in losing Ross is pretty much incalculable. If he had hosted, and had tweeted about hosting, he would probably have also tweeted a congratulations or two which would have brought publicity to the winning book itself and the awards in general. Because while the Hugo is a big deal within the community, they are still for the most part in-house kudos that don’t tend to translate into book sales. Says Fletcher: “I've had several Hugo-winning authors (at different publishing houses), so maybe I've just been unlucky that sales were not affected one jot, but I doubt it. Everyone knows the Oscars, and the Brits, and the Costa. No one outside the genre community knows what the Hugos are. When someone like Neil Gaiman wins, then other people say, 'what's a Hugo then'? But that doesn't happen very often. Whether Jonathan Ross was the right presenter or not is open to debate; we'll now never know. But he would have brought a great deal of mainstream attention to the award, and I can't believe that would have been a bad thing.”

Ewa Scibor-Rylska, a former SFF bookseller for Waterstones, spent years trying to translate awards success and nominations into actual sales, but it never worked. The local genre community will find the books anyway, but new readers (Ewa called them “normal”; in comic shops we call them “civilians”) rely on word of mouth. “The shop would have probably seen more business from Ross tweeting than from the awards themselves. I don't know how likely Ross' involvement would have made it a bigger, more open prize, but it would only have helped. He's mainstream. There's no miracle prize in SFF that does better than people with 3m followers tweeting/broadcasting positively about a title.”

We will never known what positive effect Jonathan Ross might have had on the public perception of the genre or book sales, because he was rudely kicked out of the ghetto. Jo Fletcher summed it up perfectly when she said: “Disagreeing with someone does not give us licence to start viciously attacking them. We of all people should know how powerful words are.”


Hayley Campbell is the author of a forthcoming biography of Neil Gaiman. Find her on Twitter: @hayleycampbelly

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis