I have just been to Paris with Ian Jack, Granta’s former editor, to celebrate our 40th anniversary issue at Shakespeare and Co, the English language bookshop near Notre Dame. The house cat streaked across the podium as we spoke, and everyone was offered wine. At dinner, one of the waiters dropped a mustard pot, which splashed Ian’s brown jacket; I leaned over to help, napkin in hand, and draped my sleeve in beef broth; my neighbour dropped a bottle of water in the poet Karthika Naïr’s lap – by this stage we were in a state of helpless laughter induced by pastis and wine, but also by the warmth of our hosts and deep conversations about editing poetry and emotions in publishing.
The anti-social contract
Later, by contrast, Ian read me the contract and chilling “code of conduct” from another literary organisation:
We ask you to:
Interact in a respectful and professional manner with all staff, partners, participants and audience members, both at the event itself, and in the planning process.
Aid us in the efficient planning and running of the event. This includes responding promptly to correspondence and arriving punctually for all meetings and events with which you are involved.
Not share any confidential information about staff, partners, participants, or audience members that you learn either during your event, or via correspondence.
Report any discriminatory behaviour, or that which goes against our values of inclusion, diversity and respect perpetrated in the course of your business.
Not agree subsequently to any other work that conflicts with this event.
What hope Britain with this kind of language in the public space? I told some friends about it later. “But you support human rights,” one of them said, surprised, as though human rights advocates in repressive countries had these kinds of contracts in mind when they imagine the good society. To the contrary, the activists I know in Russia, Hungary, Turkey and other countries are dissidents by nature, critical of the state but also very funny about it. They care more about torture and systematic state discrimination than liberal failures of good manners, and know that all people at literary events belong to the same eco-system of the liberal elite, more or less. They have more important battles to fight than reporting breaches of protocols of inclusion at literary festivals. Come to think of it, so do we.
Six to eight pieces of bread per day
I got off the train at Ashford in Kent and walked through an empty tunnel. On each side were identical posters, maybe ten all in all, warning that the floor may be slippery. It reminded me of Sweden in the 1970s, dreary billboards stating that socialstyrelsen, the department for social matters, “wants you to eat 6-8 pieces of bread a day”.
Propaganda, even when driven by virtue, lowers the spirits. Think of Theresa May’s endlessly repeated platitude, “I think the people just want us to get on with it and deliver Brexit!” Did party officials discuss that phrasing, I wonder – “get on with it!” – or test it in groups? “Deliver” too is a depressingly transactional word, though it derives from old French delivrer, and Latin liberare, to set free. Brexiteers may feel that the country is about to be set free, but the nation, as Benedict Anderson wrote, is an imagined community. Nationalism always demands sacrifices for the abstract idea of the country – the sacrifices we are asked to make now are trivial compared to wartime, but perhaps the deeply unethical policy of a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants and the whispered promises to ease ethical regulations in farming are a taste of English nationalism to come.
Vile spies and murderers
When I came to this country in 1980 I was shocked by the casual anti-Semitism all around me, encoded in jokes and disconnected asides, in silences and in speech. That kind of anti-Semitism still lingers in public schools and in some conservative circles. People on the left, on the other hand, often argue that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are not the same thing, and that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitic. But political thought and emotions are formed more by historical association than by logic.
Anti-Semitism returned to Soviet Russia after the war. Vasily Grossman recorded its manifestations in his magnificent novels – Jewish professionals were sidelined, and anti-Semitic speeches and articles proliferated, culminating in the concoction of the Doctors’ Plot in early 1953. The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw staged an exhibition about Polish postwar anti-Semitism last year. Several framed cartoons from that era formed part of the exhibition. One of them, published at the height of the Doctors’ Plot, showed a muscular hand descending from above to grab a fat doctor by the scruff of his neck. His smiling mask – Gentile, to judge by the nose – fell, to reveal a dark man with a hooked nose grimacing hideously, gold coins falling from his pockets, claw-like hands dripping blood. In the background six or seven pale spectres in black sunglasses, doctors already exposed as Zionist agents, sit in a tall black hat adorned by a dollar sign.
“Vile spies and murderers in the masks of professional doctors,” said the caption. The museum sign by the cartoon cited another quote: “Today the Russian TASS agency made an announcement about the detention of a group of doctor-vermin… They were recruited by an affiliate of the American secret service, the international bourgeois-nationalist Joint Organisation. The filthy face of this Zionist organisation of spies has been fully uncovered.”
Anyone who doubts the historic association between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism should take note.
Granta’s 40th birthday special edition, edited by Sigrid Rausing, is available now
This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes