Becontree. Photo: Getty
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Will Self: forget the wilderness, true adventurers should head for the housing estate

Public relations flacks should understand this much: any old Prince Harry can take a well-organised trip into the wilderness, but the true contemporary adventurer strikes out for the known.

Waiting for the District Line Tube out to Becontree, I gazed at the poster curving up the sooty wall. “Wake up to the Wild”, a slogan daubed on a stylised piece of driftwood read, and beneath it, hovering over an illustration of a rocky, sandy beach, was this come-hither: “With one of the largest tidal ranges in the world, Guernsey’s coastline offers a new experience each visit.”

This I didn’t doubt – I’ve been to Guernsey and walked its entire coastline (not difficult: it takes a long morning), but then surely visiting anywhere in the world a second time entails a different experience? Also, to make even this strictly accurate claim about Guernsey’s “wildness” seemed to be stretching things; true, it is the thinking person’s Jersey, but with a population density of 840 non-taxpayers per square kilometre – most of whom, so far as I could see, spend their days roaring along the lanes in their Porsches – it’s hardly the Yukon.

Or Becontree, for that matter. This humongous east London council estate was built in the interwar period, and in 1935 it housed 100,000 people in 26,000 homes. The largest public housing development in the world at the time, it was a byword for mod cons that didn’t altogether work, and a civic pride that kept every privet hedge clipped at precisely the same height. I’d never been to Becontree, unlike Guernsey, so I was intent on remedying the deficiency. The Channel island’s public relations flacks should understand this much: any old Prince Harry can take a well-organised trip into the wilderness, but the true contemporary adventurer strikes out for the known.

For this kind of expedition it’s a good idea to have a qualified guide, and mine was one of the pre-eminent: Nick Papadimi­triou, the self-styled “deep topographer”. I’ve known Nick since the mid-1980s, and seen him change from a markedly eccentric urban wanderer into a still more markedly eccentric urban wanderer. His has been a life spent kicking his heels along neglected suburban verges and rummaging through the 50p-or-less boxes outside remote charity shops. At his council flat off the Finchley Road, Nick has spent 30 years assembling an astonishing archive of London’s hinterland, the fruit of which was his amazing book, Scarp (published in 2012), an account of his intense – even mystical – relationship with a landmass called the Middlesex Tertiary Escarpment.

I liaised with Nick in Parsloes Park and we strolled through the leafy roads of Becontree and into Valence Park, where we found Valence House, the only manor house still extant in Barking and Dagenham and now a rather fine local museum. The best thing about walking with Nick is that he resists anything as obvious as a defined route or objective; he is the arch-flâneur, impelled from one place to the next because he wishes to compare the concrete flanges of manhole covers, or the kinds of trident fencing used to segregate waste ground. At Becontree we were both taken by the ornate stone cladding that had been added to many of the houses, together with uPVC window frames and sections of aluminium siding sprayed white to resemble clapboard. Where one of the semis had not been altered, we admired the granolithic façades and curved, recessed porches, which together gave the buildings a curiously organic feel.

The museum was full of interesting stuff, such as a Neolithic wooden idol dug up from the Thames mud, but it being four in the afternoon on a weekday the place was closing. We didn’t mind; Nick had a vague desire to visit the riverside at Dagenham Dock, so we trudged back south through streets teeming with manumitted schoolkids, stopping for a tea at the Castle Green Leisure Centre before crossing the A12 by a footbridge. Alongside an arterial road being hammered by lorry traffic, we observed a particularly rich collection of wild flowers. Nick, knowing his botany, reeled off the names of the plants; I, being an ignoramus, immediately forgot them. Nick speculated about whether the meadow had been seeded, or if these had been dormant seeds germinated once the earth had been churned up preparatory to the establishment of the SUSTAINABLE INDUSTRIES PARK (“Over 125,000 Square Metres of High-Quality Business Space”), a phenomenon that thus far consisted solely in this stentorian hoarding.

Towards Dagenham Dock, the roadway grew quieter and the air of desuetude greater – off to either side stood lowering steel hangars and semi-defunct industrial buildings; buddleia burst from walls; two men struggled with a giant socket wrench and a gianter lorry wheel. Hemmed in by corrugated iron walls, we were funnelled towards a couple of enormous dumps (or “waste treatment centres”, as they’re now euphemised), and it became clear we couldn’t gain the riverside in this direction. Nick didn’t mind; he’d landed on a small traffic island, and so began to rhapsodise, “Isn’t it amazing – perfect in its way, and utterly without a discernible function.” He was right: the lozenge-shaped island was marooned at the edge of a roundabout that no one much ever circumnavigated. With its filthy-white bollard, tidal wrack of automotive wreckage and beaches of compacted dust, it offered me an experience quite as novel as anything Guernsey could. I liked it so much I went back again the following day.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster