Hay Book Festival 2018 – Philippe Sands

The Hay Festival, as always, delivers. Tuesday (29th May) was a warm and cloudy day, shirt-sleeves after midday, which means the fair can be an outdoor as well as in-tent affair, and that always helps.

My first stop was Philippe Sands. His title, ‘Words, Memory and Imagination – 1945 and Today’. The title didn’t entice. It was enough that it was Philippe Sands.  What follows are expanded notes I took during his talk, with a few interpolations of my own.

Sands recounts the story behind his book, East-West Street, on which I’ve posted before. East-West Street is a street in a then Polish (now Ukrainian) town where his Jewish grandfather’s family had lived for centuries. He discovers how his grandfather’s life intertwined with that of Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, two great lawyers and key figures  behind modern, and recent, notions of the pre-eminence of human rights, genocide,  crimes against humanity, and limitations on state sovereignty.  They studied at the same university in Lvov as Sands’ grandfather.   

Sands has spoken about the book on many occasions before. This time he puts it in the context of a letter to his friend Ahmet Altan, a Turkish novelist recently sentenced to life imprisonment by a Turkish court. ‘My dear friend, Ahmet,’ he says from time to time, as if his talk is addressing him directly.

[I’m adding here Ahmet’s own words before his trial: ‘I am writing these words from a prison cell … But wait. Before you start playing the drums of mercy for me listen to what I will tell you … They may have the power to imprison me but no one has the power to keep me in prison. I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not.’]

Why, Sands asks, did his book, East-West Street, appeal to so many?  

1] We like in the context of the big picture small details which we can connect to. Often those small details have a personal connection.   

One such is that Richard Strauss (a favourite composer for many of us) composed a song for Hans Frank in 1943. Frank as Hitler’s controller in Poland was directly responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Jews. He was a fine musician, a classically-trained pianist.  

2] The issues surrounding identity, so brutal in his grandfather’s time, and still so powerful today, across Europe and America – only a few brave Federal judges stopped a complete ban on all Muslins entering America. The assumption that someone who is a stranger to me must also be my enemy. 

3] More broadly, the connection to our own time. The authoritarian regimes of the 1930s, and the rules-based order that established itself after 1945, and how that order is under threat.

Hinterland – we all have our hinterland, and for writers it’s out of that that comes our writing. Ahmet has his readers, Sands has his. 

(What it would feel like to be incarcerated? That’s what I asked myself. And for life? For only speaking words… That’s what I asked myself as Sands spoke.)

Ahmet takes great delight in knowing his readers are still out there, he feels it like ‘a cloud touching his face’, as he put it, or something similar. Sands had to be taken through eight locked doors to meet him. He was Ahmet’s first visitor: his wife is only allowed to talk to him, on the phone, every two weeks. Sands gets to see him (and Ahmet’s brother, also incarcerated, who ‘only wanted to talk about globalisation’) in person. He’s representing the international court in The Hague, that’s how he gets access.  

Ahmet smuggles writings out. He and Sands meet and laugh at the absurdity of his situation. He’s lost weight – he has weights to work out with. (Where does civilised life begin, where end?) 

Ahmet implied that money moved out, and moved in, or something similar – enough to suggest someone high up was taking their cut. That was enough.

Judges – Appeal Court judges – are ‘enemies of the people’, in the Daily Mail’s language. Compare the UK and Turkey, where judges serve the president. Is this what the Mail would like? Remember we are the country who with the USA provided the leading lawyers at the Nuremberg trials. We established the European Convention on Human Rights, which Theresa May would now have us leave. ‘Citizens of the world are citizens of nowhere,’ she insisted. Does she, Sands asks, really understand what she’s talk about? (How much was she simply being fed lines by her team?) Compare also Boris Johnson’s reference to ‘half-Kenyan Obama’, as his explanation for Obama’s attitude to Brexit UK. Africans ‘with melon smiles’ – Johnson’s words. ‘Piccaninnies.’ And it’s he who represents us.

Johnson and May welcome Turkish president Erdogan a few days ago: the talk was only of trade, not the fate of novelists, teachers and journalists. We no longer have influence in the world, not least because we need trade deals too much – our trading partners know that.

The Chagos Islands – we lost a UN vote last year on whether or not the islanders have a right to return, which the our own Supreme Court has asserted they do not. Our main European allies abstained rather than support us. The case will now be referred to the International Court of Justice. And as for the ICJ – after ninety years of being represented there we now have no judge. It’s powerful evidence of our declining influence.  

Regarding Brexit, Sands believes the best we can hope for, and the likely outcome, is a Norway-style agreement – single market etc, but no influence. The idea that we could use arbitration effectively instead of the European Court of Justice is absurd. Arbitration at an international level, which is a specialist area for Sands, is both slow and unpredictable. 

Thousands of people have written to Sands. The Scotsman who voted yes to the union, but no wonders whether he wants to stay in an isolationist UK? How would he vote now?

Are we facing a breakdown of the post-1945 rules-based order? Ahmet still has hope. Turkey is not done for yet. But, worldwide, authoritarian and identity-focused politics are an ever-more-powerful threat. Europe and America need to take the lead, but is there out there a clearly expressed alternative scenario? Compare the current edition of the Economist on the subject of the Democrats in the USA. The Democrats are strong on race and gender issues, but what is their position on the America First agenda, resentments toward the rest of the world, trade with China, blue collar jobs, immigration – the agenda which helped Trump win the election? How can the Democrats regain some of that support which went to Trump?

How shallow is the support for Trump? Salman Rushdie in an interview later in the day at Hay recalled addressing a meeting in Florida recently. They were mostly Republicans, but they were civilised and courteous. ‘Didn’t he agree that the New York Times was simply telling lies?’ No. ‘The evidence for climate change is simply not there.’ But it is, argued Rushdie. ‘Where’s the evidence?’ he’s asked. His answer – just because you believe the world is flat, doesn’t mean that it is flat – it will still be round.  

Sands received a standing ovation at the end of his talk. Maybe from two-thirds of the audience. His talk was one hour long, no time for questions. Applause lasted at least a minute – maybe more like ninety seconds – I’ve never known anything like it at Hay.

And yet – for a couple chatting next to me as I left – ‘it didn’t seem to be going anywhere,’ he argued, though it did have a clearer focus at end. His partner agreed. Yes, Sands does range widely – but he never loses coherence.  It’s funny how what might seem heroic to me might be a matter of a shrug and indifference to others.

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