I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down: Summertime sadness

A programme full of comedians talking about their worst gigs allows Antonia Quirke briefly to believe that the summertime malaise is at an end.

I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down
Radio 4
 
August is a melancholy month, an antechamber you hang around in, drumming your fingers. Usually Radio 3 is the only station that comprehends this, programming huge wodges of Chopin through the night, letting the Nocturne in C minor go on until what feels like dawn; the notes, as someone once said, “not flowing, but falling – amid rests – like words of existential weight”.
 
Occasionally, the unspellable name of a Slavonic maestro is spoken by the announcer, whom you picture with shirt open at the throat and cigarette clinging to lower lip, followed by a moment of, if not quite silence, that perfectly gloomy, pronounced Radio 3 quiet. And then another bloody nocturne.
 
Usually Radio 4 programmes a tonne of repeats during August but so far this month it has been unseasonably keen, airing rambunctious interviews with the Clash and original plays about Joan Littlewood’s enlivening friendship with a wine baron. But one programme perfectly fitted the August sorrow – comedians talking about their worst gigs (19 August, 4pm).
 
At a coffee shop somewhere, Jack Dee and Jo Brand discussed their toughest moments on stage, a low canteeny clatter in the background contributing to that late-summer, lost feeling of other people being otherwise occupied. Dee said that the moment you start making jokes that begin with the word “anyway”, you are in deep trouble. Anyway stinks profoundly of fear. Brand described once inadvertently making what was interpreted as an outrageously racist joke – her embarrassment complete when she was complimented by the dreaded Roy “Chubby” Brown. She also made the point that no matter how celebrated or experienced, a comedian can still mess up horribly, making comedy the most democratic of forms.
 
“Didn’t Billy Connolly die recently?” she asked in awe, referring to his walking off stage after being faced with persistent heckling from crowds in Blackpool and Scarborough this year. (The inference was that if it can happen to Connolly, it can happen to anyone, so imposing is he as a character and so over-revered, even among comedians.)
 
The one stand-up mentioned who apparently has never died is Peter Kay. A friend tells me that many years ago he saw a thenunknown Kay at Edinburgh and that the comedian walked on to the tiny stage in a completely OTT cloud of dry ice, spluttering through the fog.
 
Even before he had said a word, the mood was hysterically cheerful, and everything from that point accelerated further into the insane good humour of a revival meeting. For some reason, we just have immediate faith that Kay will be funny without any kind of material whatsoever.
 
Back at the café, Jack Dee sounded resigned, thinking squirmingly of past disasters. He said he used to wear a motorbike helmet if he was working his way back through an unappreciative crowd at the Comedy Store, hoping that everyone might assume he was a pizza delivery guy. It was a nice confession and had people around his café table hooting. It sounded almost like September.
Billy Connolly. Photo: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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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