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To truly remember the Holocaust, we must stay alert to prejudice

The modern anti-Semite is more subtle than his great-grandparents.

The great Jewish novelist Aharon Appelfeld died in Tel Aviv on 4 January. He was 85. Not a bad age, given his childhood tribulations in the Europe of the Holocaust. But a loss is a loss whenever it comes. He described the Holocaust as belonging “to the type of enormous experience which reduces one to silence. Any utterance, any statement, any ‘answer’ is tiny, meaningless and occasionally ridiculous. Even the greatest of answers seems petty.” I cannot argue with that: I don’t have an answer. I’m not sure I even have the question.

Of the questions Appelfeld himself went on asking in his beautiful, strangely silent novels, one of the most pressing was what does one do with a life that has been saved. Not “do” in the sense of work; but do in the sense of make good, justify, realise – who knows what the word is when one doesn’t know the task?

“Survivors,” he said in an interview with Philip Roth, “have undergone experiences that no one else has undergone, and others expect some message from them, some key to understanding the human world – a human example. But they, of course, cannot begin to fulfil the great tasks imposed upon them… One has a feeling of guilt that grows from year to year and becomes, as in Kafka, an accusation.”

Those of us who aren’t survivors can’t know the guilt Appelfeld describes, and mustn’t pretend to. But we can understand it and are, to some degree – as fellow Jews old in the memory of countless afflictions – inheritors of its atmosphere. We feel the sadness of it all round us. So, however, do others who seek to make capital out of it, preying on our conviction that we owe it to the world to be a human example, and our fear that we too often fail.

The modern anti-Semite is more subtle than his great-grandparents. He doesn’t smash our windows or our bones. He insinuates himself into consciences that are already troubled and works on spirits that are already half-broken. And we are too responsive to his serpent insinuations. When the history of Jew-hating in our time comes to be written, Jewish collusion in it will feature heavily.

To the question I don’t have – but is something like, “How do any of us, as Jews, fulfil the great task imposed on us?” – here is my part-answer: stop apologising and resist the sirens who would lure you on to the rocks of guilt and self-dislike, singing of Jewish materialism, Jewish legalism, Jewish exclusivism, Jewish supremacism, Jewish imperialism, Zionism…

***

Holocaust Memorial Day is a solemn commemoration of the fact of survival. Solemn for several reasons. Solemn because while Jewishness as a faith and a cultural continuity remains, millions of actual Jews didn’t. Solemn because at no other time in our history was the attempt to remove all trace and memory of us prosecuted with such ruthless determination. Solemn, because although we intone the words “never again” – now as a prayer, now as a supplication, now as a commitment – we cannot rid ourselves of the fear that it, or something like it, might indeed happen again. Solemn because it could just be that we are bound – not only as a duty of memory, but as an existential consequence of who we are – to go on reliving the experience. They are not done with us yet – that’s a solemn fact.

In my first novel I joked about a Jewish mother living in leafy Prestwich in the 1950s leaping out of her chair in terror and getting the family to hide under the table every time the bell rang, in case the Nazis were at the door. I’m not sure I’d make the same joke today. Not because Nazis stalk the streets of Prestwich, but because we now accept that it was wild fantasy to hope that after the Holocaust we’d be left alone.

It isn’t that we expected the world suddenly to love us after the camps were liberated. We are wise in the ways of human psychology. We know that people turn against those to whom they feel obliged. It is hard to forgive those you have wronged, and we knew we would not be forgiven the Holocaust. But we thought anti-Semitism itself might take a short break – admit its errors, lick its wounds and go into hiding for a while. Embarrassment, if nothing else, would surely deter most anti-Semites from showing their faces. “Not yet,” we thought they’d say. “Not a good idea after what’s just happened.” What no one could have expected was the speed with which they found a way round any such compunctions, not least by denying that anything had happened at all. Holocaust – what Holocaust?

We needn’t rehearse the history of Holocaust denial. There is satisfaction in imagining deniers crawling over sheds and ovens with their rulers and their set-squares, trying to prove by geometry that Auschwitz was really a holiday camp complete with concert hall and swimming pool.

I like to think of people who hate Jews beyond endurance unable ever to get away from us, obsessed with who we are and our chicaneries; studying ancient Hebrew, pouring over our sacred texts to find the words with which they can finally refute us. They are down there now, in that circle of hell reserved for deniers, chained in some infernal Yeshiva of their imaginations, their noses pressed into a fiery Talmud, the word “Jew” dinning for all eternity in their burning ears. But denial has grown more sophisticated. Moral sophistry is now the enemy to remembering, bringing accusations that Jews exploit their sufferings and fail to learn from them, that whatever they were owed in the way of pity they have since forfeited. And after denial the thing Primo Levi dreaded: forgetting and indifference.

***

Decisive in Corbyn’s emergence as a folk hero is the triumphant amnesia of the young. Of the history of socialism in the 20th century, of the dogmas that still exert a hold on ideologues such as Corbyn, causing him to turn his face away whenever words such as Jew, Israel or anti-Semitism are spoken – some boast of knowing nothing. What does it matter? We weren’t there. “What you don’t understand about my generation,” one young journalist wrote after last year’s election, “is that we don’t know or remember who Gerry Adams or Hezbollah were – so when you tell us that Jeremy Corbyn was their friend, we don’t care.”

Considering how easy the Internet has made it to find out about the past, such ignorance is surprising. But every promise of enlightenment the Internet has made, social media has broken. It revels in the selfish minutiae of the now; having neither eyes nor ears, its stock in trade is malicious rumour. People retweet what they will not take the time to confirm – a slander; a conspiracy theory, of which the Holohoax is just one; or a malevolent meme such as that posted by a Labour politician three years ago – “I have often said the Holocaust victims who died with dignity must be turning in their graves at the horrors done in the name of Judaism.”

How are we to describe the obscenity of that? Can the tweeter truly be so ignorant of what went on in the camps that she can speak, nostalgically, of Jews dying in them  with dignity? Or is there method in the ignorance, truth playing second fiddle to propaganda – Jews dying with dignity in the horrorless Holocaust only to show up how little dignity Jews of our age grant those they kill in horror-filled Israel?

Thus the moral seesaw on which Holocaust relativists love to frolic – the contestable atrocity that was the Holocaust now rising, now falling, but always ultimately outweighed by the incontestable outrage that is Zionism. It was played upon again in a fringe meeting at last year’s Labour Party Conference where that prize catch, an Israeli anti-Zionist, argued for the necessity for the party to discuss everything openly, including the Holocaust. “Holocaust yes or no?” he posited, as though the truth of Auschwitz waited on a thumbs up/thumbs down decision. Holocaust: like or dislike? It was a line of enquiry that was given a definitive thumbs up later in the day when a distinguished British film director and member of the Labour Party appeared on the BBC to defend it.

I will not attach particular names to general villainies. Perhaps, respecting Appelfeld’s grave silence, I should not even allude to such a person. But if “never again” is to be more than the exchange of pious velleities, it has to encounter the brute realities of today. The reality, then, was this: after some preliminary bare-faced lying – insisting that charges of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party had “no validity whatsoever” but were made only to discredit the party leader – Citizen Z, as I will call him, spoke the following, now infamous words: “I think history is for us all to discuss, wouldn’t you?… The founding of the state of Israel, for example, based on ethnic cleansing, is there for us all to discuss… So don’t try to subvert that by false stories of anti-Semitism.”

There you have it in one easy lesson: how to toy with denial while not denying; how to associate the Holocaust with Israel for no apparent reason (though the emotional logic is clear enough: the one retrospectively drives out any sympathy for the other); how to affect an open mind even in the act of closing it; how to shut out all discussion of Israel’s founding while pretending a willingness to discuss it; how to scatter libels like confetti while protesting your innocence of all malign intent; how to refute the charge of anti-Semitism even as you’re accusing Jews of lying.

Later, Citizen Z wrote to the New York Times to deny he’d said what he’d said. Of course he would never question the historical fact of the Holocaust. I can believe that in the cold light of day his own words shamed him. But in the heat of battle, in defence of party, entramelled in that ideology, which demonises as imperialism even the first steps towards a Jewish Homeland, there was no calumny he wasn’t willing to support. Jews subvert the truth, falsely charge the Left with anti-Semitism, falsely steal another people’s land, so why shouldn’t they – just for the music of the argument –falsify history. This is how the poisons agglomerate and spread.

Historians ask what it took to make a civilised people consent to the slaughter of millions. Here is what it took: it took the language of exclusion. Jews threatened the healthy functioning of the national project. To even the most educated they could be represented as alien, inimical, inhumane and dangerous. Society is never more murderous than when it has an idea of itself to protect, an ideology of commonality, a rigid structure of shared belief, no matter whether its source is the extreme right or the extreme left, secular or religious.

“Never again” is the sacred promise we gather annually to reaffirm. It must be more than a mere wish. It binds us in the necessity to be strong minded and alert. And that means alert, above all, to the words those with hatred in their hearts employ to exploit the guilt in ours. 

This is an edited version of a Holocaust Memorial Day lecture delivered by Howard Jacobson at JW3 Jewish Community Centre London, on 26 January 

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration

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“We write about everyone that pissed us off”: siblings Daisy and Charlie Cooper on their hit hometown comedy This Country

The brother-sister duo behind the revolutionary BBC comedy on their childhood feuds, “the Mr Perkins scandal”, and stalking Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen in Cirencester.

The Crown Pub, which sits in the heart of Cirencester’s town centre, has been a favourite among locals for hundreds of years. For siblings Daisy and Charlie Cooper, it has particular personal resonance. “First drink. First date. First sick.” 28-year-old Charlie, in a bright orange Umbro sweater, leads us to a large wooden table hidden in a corner and stretches out his arms with pride. “There’s probably still microscopic particles of my sick in this table.”

It’s lunchtime, but as we’ve already descended into vomit chat, I get the ciders in – plus a lime and soda for 31-year-old Daisy, who is 37 weeks pregnant with her first child.

The sister and brother were born, raised and still live in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, and it was their time in the town that inspired them to write the BBC Three cult comedy This Country. In it, they play cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe – unemployed, bored 20-somethings living in a tiny Cotswold village, where a lack of opportunities has pushed them into a state of arrested development.

Entire episodes revolve around arguments over who gets the top shelf in the oven, a local scarecrow festival, and Kurtan’s big decision over whether to study for a GNVQ in Swindon.

Both insist that truth is stranger than fiction: bizarre plotlines include a house getting “plummed” (think “egged”… but with plums), a schoolboy taking a wheelie suitcase to school every day, and a health drink pyramid scheme that sweeps the local community. All are based on real anecdotes from their hometown.

I tell them that the first season’s opening lines, which see Kerry and Kurtan show the camera crew all the different places in town they’ve spotted Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, made me cringe in recognition – I grew up in the Cotswolds too, and worked in a branch of Waterstone’s where Llewelyn-Bowen was a regular local celebrity. Charlie responds by whipping out his phone.

“I used to follow him round town, and just film him,” he says, laughing with sheer delight as he shows me not one but several videos of the Changing Rooms presenter roaming the streets of Cirencester in a long leather coat. “He’s in The Matrix! Wait for this gust of wind that takes his coat... Look at him! Who does he think he is? Brilliant.” Daisy lets out an exasperated, “Fuck’s sake…”

Nostalgic memories of Cirencester and its characters are not just a key part of This Country, it’s also clear they form a kind of shared language for Daisy and Charlie. During our chat, they argue over the details of specific childhood memories.

“Remember when we went to go see Grandad in his cottage?” Daisy asks. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ve just seen my first ghost.’ We said, ‘Well, what’d he look like?’ And all he would say was, ‘He ‘ad a face on him like he was damned for all time.’” The two fall about laughing. “What does that mean? What does that even mean?!”

Daisy, too, has seen a ghost. Charlie reminds her of that with delight. “She did! She came back one night going, ‘I’ve just seen a ghost.’ I was like, ‘Really? Well, what’d it look like?’ She was like, ‘Well, I saw it on the side of the motorway. It was a man… and it had a high-vis jacket on.’” He cackles. “Like, of course that’s not a ghost! That’s the fucking maintenance guy!”


Daisy and her real dad, Paul Cooper, as Kerry and Kerry’s father Martin Mucklowe. Photos: BBC

Daisy and Charlie grew up with their parents, Paul and Jill (who met at 16 and have been together ever since), in Cirencester town centre, “near the big Tesco”. Daisy, the wilder, older child, was skipping school and sneaking out to clubs at 13. Charlie, three years younger, was quieter, staying at home playing Theme Hospital and Football Manager for hours on end.

Like most siblings, they found cruel and unusual methods of winding each other up. Daisy recalls swinging Charlie’s dead goldfish in his face, seconds after solemnly promising their father she would break the news to him gently. She would persuade him that the birthmark on the left side of his neck was, quote, “a city for lice” – leading a panicked Charlie to try and scrub it off with a flannel. Or, perhaps most elaborately of all, she’d wake June-born Charlie on a crisp November morning excitedly wishing him happy birthday, pointing towards the balloons she had blown up and left on the stairs.

“I used to be like, well, it has to be my birthday – there’s balloons on the stairs!” Charlie says. “I would run down to the living room expecting to see a pile of presents, and there’d be nothing there. By the time I’d turn round, she’d be like, ‘Ha ha! You fell for it, you little dweeb!’ You used to be evil. That is evil! Isn’t it?”

They still argue on set. When our interview finishes, some bickering flares. (“You always undermine me!” “No I don’t – you undermine me!”) But, light bullying aside, their memories belie the great affection they had for one another: Charlie would “worry to death” about Daisy returning home safe, Daisy left smarting when she couldn’t impress her younger brother by smoking. “I always wanted him to look up to me, and he never did.”

And even when they weren’t getting on, their shared sense of humour kept them banded together. 

“What connected us, from a such young age, was always funny stuff,” Charlie recalls. “We could hate each other, but we would find the same things funny. It was so important.”

The pair would make stop motion films and home videos together, “that would always start out really serious, and then just descend into pathetic, silly shit”. They’d bond over the weirdness of B movies they found in their local video shop – from Critters to Meet the Applegates.

Their parents were unusually happy for Daisy and Charlie to hang back from school and work to do things they enjoyed more. Daisy remembers their Dad (who plays Kerry’s detached, criminal father Martin Mucklowe in This Country) watching the 2003 Jack Black film School of Rock, about a group of overworked schoolkids skipping lessons to participate in a local Battle of the Bands competition, and seeing him moved to tears.

“He was crying at the end. He turned around to me and my brother, and he said, ‘That’s the evidence, kids. If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.’ He was that inspired by the film!” she says. “You grow up thinking what your parents say is gospel. And then you start to think, ‘Hang on a second. Our Dad is completely fucking bonkers.’”

Neither thrived at their local comprehensive, Cirencester Deer Park School, which Charlie calls “the most uninspiring place”. They weren’t popular with the teachers, and say that despite the success of the show, they haven’t been invited back. “Not after the Mr Perkins scandal.”

Ah, the Mr Perkins scandal. In the first series of This Country, Kerry and Kurtan hear that their old teacher, Mr Perkins, is dead. Shocked into silence, there’s a long pause. Then we cut to them shaking up a bottle of Lambrini and chanting “He’s dead!” around the town in celebration. Mr Perkins was the name of a real teacher at Deer Park – the school did not see the funny side. Um, he’s not actually dead, is he? “No, he’s not dead,” Charlie says. “He is a twat.”

“But yeah, they said the show was disrespectful to Mr Perkins.” He pauses for a moment. “Which it was, but–” He and Daisy burst into giggles.

“It was!” Daisy laughs. “Massively! But fuck Mr Perkins.”

“He’s a prick,” says Charlie, leaning into my dictaphone. “I don’t want you to change the name, because I want him to read that. That was quite therapeutic. That’s the thing: writing about a town that you grew up in means you can write about all these fuckers that piss you off.”


Kerry and Kurtan celebrate the death of Mr Perkins.

I first meet Daisy and Charlie at their office, a small room above the Corinium Museum (which exhibits locally found objects of historical importance); we swap anecdotes about the people and places we have in common as we climb the narrow stairs.

Their workspace is at once bare and cluttered – a single decorative plate and a lonely looking teapot sit on an empty set of shelves, but scripts and notes are piled on the desk, as well as a taxidermy magpie wearing an Innocent smoothie bobble hat. Framed fan art and Kerry and Kurtan finger puppets and dolls are perched on the mantelpiece. A newspaper board poster, proclaiming “RAVE REVIEWS FOR COTSWOLD COMEDY”, is stuck somewhat lopsidedly to an otherwise blank patch of wall. “I nicked that,” Charlie says happily.

Ideas for the show first began to form when Charlie, a recent drop-out of the University of Exeter, was living with Daisy while she studied at RADA – sleeping on the floor of her “crappy halls in the centre of London”. They had even less money than most students, thanks to a sweat-inducing financial cock-up Daisy, still the less responsible sibling, made in her second year. When she first moved to London, she lived with a boyfriend, and when they split up RADA made arrangements for her to move into their halls, but asked her to find a cheap hotel for a week to fill the gap. Daisy paid £300 up front for a week’s stay in central London. “It was this penthouse suite in Marble Arch. And I thought, ‘This is really weird. This is too good to be true! But this is great!’” When it was time to check out, the hotel informed her that £300 was just the deposit. “The hotel was actually three thousand pounds – for the week. So my student loan was all gone. I had no money to pay the rent, to get any food, anything.”

The pair ended up with about £20 a week to live on between them. Charlie was in charge of the finances, only letting Daisy do the weekly shop once. “She came back with a bottle of wine, a packet of fags and Tom Hanks’ Big on DVD. I thought, how am I gonna eat that?”

With no money, no computer and no internet, the two spent all their time together, bored and homesick. One of their main two sources of entertainment was a portable DVD player, which they’d use to repeatedly watch the 1993 BBC Beatrix Potter animation The Tailor of Gloucester, the bizarre story of an aging tailor struggling to make a wedding outfit for the Mayor of Gloucester by Christmas Day, with the help of several mice and his reluctant cat. (This sends me into frenzied delight, as it’s a firm family favourite in my own house.) “We loved that, because it was twee, and it reminded us of home,” Charlie says. “Why is the Mayor of Gloucester getting married on Christmas Day morning?” Daisy asks. “Who’s gonna turn up? Why is this guy making The Mayor’s marriage waistcoat all on his own? And why is his cat such an asshole?”

The other was swapping anecdotes from home. “We’d talk about people we knew from Cirencester,” Charlie explains. “We’d try and make each other laugh about, you know, what they’d be doing that night or what they’d be having for their Christmas lunch.”

Those stories eventually turned into an idea for a TV show. When Daisy graduated in 2010, the two moved back home to their parents’ house in Cirencester, which was no less bleak: their Dad had been made redundant, the family downsized to a two-bed house. “So all the money was going on rent, and we’d have no money left over for food, so we’d go through all the cupboards,” Daisy tells me. “There was literally just tins of prunes from like... We just had to make meals out of what there was.”

She recalls the anxiety of the financial gamble of spending the family’s last £9 on a coach to London for auditions. With no money for the tube, she would walk from Victoria to auditions in far corners of London – in broken shoes, held together with sellotape.

Looking back, this desperate period was key to the show’s success. “We had nothing else to do, no plan B, we just had to pour all that anger and frustration into the writing,” Charlie says. “If we had had money, we would never have done it.”


Daisy and Charlie as Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe

It’s only a two-minute walk between the pub and the Coopers’ office – but that’s still long enough for them to be stopped by affectionate fans. “How long you got, Dais?” one shouts, pointing at Daisy’s considerable bump. “Oooh – it’s coming!”

The road to getting the show made was long – the first series was six years in the making – and not without diversions. There was the pilot that was a “Glee-type version” of the show. There was the production company who envisioned the show as a country bumpkin version of Lee Mack’s Not Going Out. There were those who wanted to get other actors in to play the lead roles.

Then, Shane Allen, the Controller of Comedy Commissioning for the BBC, picked up the show, and pushed for a mockumentary format. Charlie and Daisy were given producer Simon Mayhew-Archer and director Tom George to work on the full series – Daisy explains that the four of them work together, in Cirencester, on plots, character arcs and episode structures right from the beginning stages of writing. “They do feel like brothers, really, don’t they?”

Daisy and Charlie’s lives have changed considerably since This Country was made. At home in Cirencester, they’re both regularly recognised. Daisy tells me of her surprise when she was seated next to Kim Cattrall at an awards dinner, and the pinch-me moment of her hero Kathy Burke tweeting praise for the show. But they insist that practically and financially, their lives aren’t totally transformed.

“People think, once they see you on TV, that you’re a millionaire,” Charlie says. “We’re fairly comfortable for now.”

Daisy says the biggest change is “being able to relax”. She lives with her partner, landscape gardener Will Weston, who she lovingly describes as “a big oaf”. (Particularly observant fans might remember the first episode’s scarecrow festival is held in aid of “The William Weston Foundation”.) Their first child, a girl named Pip, was born on 4 January.

Charlie still lives with his dad, his mum, who he describes as “a mad bird woman”, and “all the parrots and the finches and the budgies”. “She’s literally just adopted a parrot called Sidney that’s got one eye, one leg, and has never eaten anything other than sunflower seeds his entire life.” Daisy says.


Kerry and the Vicard, Rev. Francis Seaton (Paul Chahidi), on the Vicar’s allotment

Beyond Daisy, Charlie, and Paul Cooper, much of the cast are locals: Kerry and Kurtan’s irritating friend Slugs is played by the real aquaintance they based the character on, after long, boring conversations with him in Poundland drove them up the wall. (In real life, Charlie insists, “He’s the same – annoying.”) For the second series, they hosted open auditions in the Cotswolds. 

Did they ever fear that the show’s focus on two fairly clueless working-class characters would feed into stereotypes about “lazy” poor people? “Not really,” Charlie says. “I think we always approach the show from truth.”

Both acknowledge that, especially in comedy, working-class characters are almost never written or played by people with much experience of financial hardship, or the areas where they’re meant to be from. “That’s when it becomes a stereotype. With our show, it’s all about attention to detail, and being so specific with the characters to the point where we’re working out what their favourite film would be, or what they have for their lunch. As soon as you’re not doing those things, the character’s not 3D, it’s not real. You have to be here to write the show.”

The four had five months to write the second series – nothing compared to the six years they spent honing the first series. Charlie and Daisy both felt the pressure. “You’re worried you’re not going to be able to produce the work that you did in the first series,” Daisy says. “And you just totally forget how to write.”

“The first series was like a perfect storm – it was so spontaneous,” Charlie reflects. “And then, for the second series, you’ve got to work out what made that series so good.”

The new series deepens our understanding of the show’s major characters. We learn more about which relationships are most important to the characters – we get a greater sense of the importance of Kerry’s relationship with her dad, and Kurtan’s relationship with the village vicar. Kerry even gets a secret admirer who sends her bizarre, submissive letters. “Which is actually based on an ex-boyfriend from uni who used to send me letters about him being an inanimate object,” Daisy explains.“‘All I want to do is be your footstool and you’ll put your feet up on me and we’ll sit there watching Masterchef.’ It was really weird. Mum found an old letter from him that said, ‘I just want you to tie me to a tree in the forest and leave me there.’ How is that sexy? How does someone possibly get off on that?”

We learn more about what they actually want from their lives (beyond a SodaStream). We also learn about the time Kerry started a local fight club and gave herself a black eye. And we finally learn where Kurtan gets all his No Fear t-shirts. Most obvious of all in series two is Kerry and Kurtan’s genuine sense of belonging in the Cotswolds. They love where they’re from. It’s clear that Daisy and Charlie do, too.

“It takes a long time to realise that you do,” Charlie says. “I was so embarrassed about being from the Cotswolds. I used to say that I was from London. Until you move away, and then you start looking back and you appreciate it.

“It took us a long time to be comfortable with where we’re from. Now, I don’t have any desire to move. I’ll stay in the Cotswolds.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration