Shirking from home this week; I have a very bad back, and lots of manuscripts to read and edit. There is also a Test match on, but that is irrelevant. (The great Malcolm Marshall must be revolving in his grave at around 95mph at the idea of Darren Sammy rolling his dibbly dobbly, all-you-can-eat-buffet medium pacers down the Lord’s wicket.)
So apologies if I’m late replying to emails; I have no internet at home, and my BlackBerry is impossible to type on. I will respond later in the week, or possibly earlier. (I’m uploading this on an iPad but don’t know how to get email to work on it.)
Meanwhile, a reminder that life in Britain in 2012 is pretty tough, but it could be an awful lot worse.
A new Theodore Dalrymple eBook has just gone live on Kindle. The Wilder Shores of Marx – originally published in 1991 under his real name, Anthony Daniels – was a critically-acclaimed travel book about a series of short trips he undertook to countries labouring under the Red yoke in the last throes of the Soviet Bloc.
Dalrymple visits Albania, North Korea, Romania, Vietnam and Cuba. What he finds is chilling – at least, if you grew up during the Cold War years. One of the O level English books we read was 1984; at the time, 1984 was only two or three years in the future, and I well remember the irrational sense of unease I felt as the months slipped by. Would we all end up living our lives under state surveillance, in fear of the knock on the door, afraid to voice any dissent? Of course, in the countries mentioned above, people were living, and dying, like that, even as we indulged ourselves.
Dalrymple – whose own father was a hardline Communist, at least theoretically-speaking – travelled to North Korea as a member of the British delegation to the World Festival of Youth and Students (‘I was accepted as a member because, though neither a youth nor a student, I was a doctor who had practised in Tanzania, a country whose first president, Julius Nyerere, was a close friend and admirer of Kim Il Sung, Great Leader of the DPRK (as the country is known to cognoscenti). It was therefore assumed I was in sympathy with what was sometimes called, rather vaguely, “the movement”.’).
We were put up in a vast new complex of apartments in Kwangbok Street, which itself was thirteen lanes wide (the thirteenth, central lane solely for the sole use of the GL). The complex had been built in the expectation that North Korea would be host to some of the events of the 1988 Olympics, but when it failed in its effort to attract any such events, the history of Kwangbok Street was changed, and it was decided that it was built not as an Olympic village but specially for the World Festival of Youth and Students. This illustrates the way North Korea lives in triumph and avoids humiliation. No historical event is too insignificant to be re-written.
The apartments were well-constructed, a long series of towers on both sides of the street that might have reminded me of Miami had there been any neon. There were five of us to each apartment; I noticed that the blacks and whites, except for a charming young physics student of Nigerian descent who was as interested in fun as in politics, stayed as separate as if there had been a law against fraternisation. We were given coupons for all our meals, which we ate in a canteen looking out on Kwangbok Street. The Korean waitresses who served us had enchanting smiles and moved with a natural grace that made our movements appear gross and clumsy.
At our first meal a young woman of clearly middle class origin, who wore only black shapeless clothes and had owlish round spectacles, startled everyone by announcing that she was always shocked how left-wing people, who called themselves caring, could eat meat. She was a person of very definite opinions, including a rather poor one of the male sex in general: when she signed her name, she appended a cross to the o it contained, to turn it into the biological symbol for female. Her reproach was of limited effect, though; for many of our ‘delegation’ were not the kind of people to wax sentimental over the fate of dumb beasts. They were hard-faced communists, who dressed tough and cut their hair short so that their heads should appear as bony as possible. I overheard one of them describing a demonstration he had attended in England, in which there had also been a member of Amnesty International with a placard.
‘I went up to him and said, “I don’t believe in that bourgeois shit,” and he said, “Do you think political prisoners should be tortured and killed, then?” “Too fucking right, I do,” I said.’
The person to whom he related this charming little exchange laughed. What I found frightening about the pair of them was that their faces were contorted with hatred even as they laughed, and when they talked of killing political prisoners they meant it. They were members of a little communist groupuscule for whom Stalin was a god, not in spite of his crimes but because of them.
In Albania, he has a chance meeting with two students.
We met in the Boulevard of Martyrs but moved into the pitch darkness of a side street. Was this melodrama or sensible precaution? Whenever the nearby headlights of a car cleaved the darkness and seemed to approach us, the students grew nervous and asked us either to move further into the blackness of shadows or to walk away from them until the car was no longer visible. They said that every car in Albania belonged to someone of political consequence, loyal servants of the regime, by definition therefore informers and spies.
They told us of the material deprivations of Albanian life, of the overcrowded apartments, the shared kitchens and bathrooms, the vigils against interruption that have to be posted while young people attempt to make love, the bad plumbing and universal dilapidation, the ‘voluntary’ work days at weekends (the guidebook written by Bill Bland, secretary of the Anglo-Albanian Society, says of the 273 miles of railway track in Albania ‘All the lines have been built by youth volunteers under professional supervision’), the food rationing which in winter frequently includes bread made of rough fibrous flour of unrecognisable provenance, the meat ration (a kilo per family per week) that is mainly gristle and bone, the absence of sugar and other simple commodities that everywhere else have been taken for granted for centuries and the general unremitting struggle for a meagre subsistence that leaves everyone halfway between hunger and satiety.
Yet they said that all this might have been bearable had it not been for two things: the knowledge that essentially nothing will change, and the triumphalist lies which everyone must not only hear and see, but learn by heart and repeat.
Then why, one asks naively, do not more people attempt to escape? After all, Albania is a small enough country with long borders to Greece and Yugoslavia…
This question alone proves that one comes from another planet entirely, that one knows nothing of life here, that one has lived in a comfortable cocoon.
In the first place, the borders are heavily guarded. Anyone caught trying to leave the Brave New Albania is shot. Sometimes people try to swim the Corfu Channel, which at its narrowest is only two or three miles wide. Many of them drown; others are caught by patrol boats and ploughed under into the sea. Besides, as we saw when we stayed the night at the Channel port of Saranda, a searchlight sometimes scans the coast, and it is assuredly not searching for Greeks desperate to reach Albania…
But it is not the physical obstacles to escape that prevent larger numbers of Albanians from fleeing; rather, it is the consequences of doing so for relatives and friends. For, as the students informed us, there is no concept of individual responsibility in Albania. If a man deserts his homeland, his family and some of his friends will be held responsible. They will be sent down mines under conditions that will make it unlikely they will ever return; at best, they will live in perpetual internal exile, half-starved and with no rights. They, the students, knew people to whom this had happened.
In my mind’s ear, I could hear at once the justifications that western sympathisers might compose for this system of ‘justice’, Man is a social animal, they would say; no man is an island, entire of itself. A man’s values and aspirations are formed not abstractly or in isolation, but socially, from his family, his friends, his workplace. If a man were a traitor, then, if he reverted to bourgeois individualism by escaping to the outside world, there must have been something unhealthy about his upbringing, his social milieu. It was only right, therefore, that those around him should be punished.
But what, I wondered, does this system of collective responsibility do to personal relations? If you are held responsible for what I do and I am held responsible for what you do, does that make us not friends but mutual spies? Normal human bonds are dissolved by collective responsibility, to be replaced by distrust, fear, dissembling and withdrawal. Surely it requires no great effort of imagination to see that this is – must be – so, yet how many western intellectuals over the last half-century or more have constructed ingenious arguments to deny it?
I should have liked to correspond with the Albanian students, but it would have been impossible. According to them, if an Albanian should receive a letter from abroad whose contents appear suspect to the police in the slightest respect (naturally, they read all letters from abroad, and almost all are suspect), it will not be delivered in the normal way, but the addressee will be called to the police station and asked whether he wants to receive the letter. Sometimes the police even offer to read it out rather than hand it over. It is not difficult in such circumstances to guess the ‘right’ answer to their question; those who fail this test are likely – as happened to one of their friends – to be exiled to the mines.
As for their aspirations, the students looked blank. When they completed their courses, the government would send them wherever they were needed, a decision against which there was no appeal. Personal aspirations were not for young Albanians; everything was decided for them. In a certain sense, they had achieved that liberation from desire which Buddhists seek.
‘We are already dead,’ one of them said, and we parted.