Fugitive Moments of Compassion

The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Howard Zinn

After I got home on Friday I was so tired I lay down on my bed and went to sleep.  The phone woke me.  Cathy was coming home: should we get takeaways?  I lay back down on the bed afterwards and waited.  Soon there was the sound of the car at the curb, and the always urgent and high, light voices of my daughters, and the sound of the gate and the hard metallic bang of the knocker on the front door.  I pulled myself out of bed again and let them and let in too all the relentless energy and now-ness of children bursting into the hall.  They left a pile of discarded clothes, and bags, and toys for daddy to pick up as they swept towards the kitchen crying out for food.

I know now why I was so tired.  It was because of History.  Between my regular classes I had taught three hours of scholarship History for four students.  At the end of it I was exhausted, and for my last class of the day with my Year 9 students I was mostly a spent force.  I managed to prod a few students further down the path towards a better mark, but that final class of the day was not my finest hour as an educator.

Teaching scholarship history reminded me of Howard Zinn again.  I never teach my brightest, senior students to be objective about history, I teach them to be passionate about it.  You should, if you’re going to write history, write about something that moves you, or offends you.  You should research it fairly, and understand that nothing is black or white, but you shouldn’t kid yourself that History is all science with no art.  The best and the worst history follows these rules.  If you are a historian I believe it is your duty to sing.  Here is a song by Zinn that might be called You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train:

If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.

*****

Later, and after a fortifying sandwich, I felt awake enough to go into the city with Cathy, Eleanor and Rosamund to the launch of the latest issue of JAAM.  We parked at one end of Tory Street and walked to the other end through the couples and co-workers heading out for an early bite to eat on a Friday night.  19 Tory Street is an old, brick office block across the road from a newer, concrete car parking building.  The ground floor has been converted into a large empty, concrete space with high street-front windows, and some awkwardly placed pillars.

Because it was the launch for a journal there was a lot of booze on one table and a lot of copies of the journal on another.  As the room filled up the booze and the journals were depleted.  By the time there was only room to move sideways in the room guarding your glass of wine in one hand and murmuring “excuse me, excuse me” as you chased your three year old away from the chippie bowl, the editors took to the very slight stage to explain themselves and ask a couple of writers to read.

On reflection three year olds past their bed time are not ideal at a book launch.  When Rosamund wasn’t rolling on the floor playing with bits of broken chip she was demanding to be taken to the toilet.  A very small piece of paper stuck to a door at the back of the room said THE TOILET and then, in tiny writing “is up two flights of stairs and be careful because this door often locks behind you”.  I took Rosamund up and down two flights of stairs three times which gave the readings a very disjointed quality.

Sometimes, when I was actually in the room of the launch, I kept an eye on Rosamund as she puttered about on the floor completely indifferent to the words and the silences floating a few feet above her head as the adults paid attention to each other.  When there was clapping she perked up and clapped too.  Mind you, trying to explain what we were doing to the almost seven year old Eleanor was difficult too.

“I wrote a story, and it’s in a book.”

“You wrote a book?”

“No.  I wrote a story.”

“We’re having a party for a book?”

“Yes.”

After the party for the book Eleanor was ropeable.  I can’t remember why.  At one point on the long walk back up Tory Street it was because I wouldn’t give her a piggyback.  When Eleanor is cross her face looks like a thunder-storm about to burst.  Cathy and I were negotiating with Eleanor as Rosamund thrashed about in my arms wailing, and I happened to see one of my students across the road.  She was dressed up for a night out and she seemed very happy.  I saw her see me and then pretend that she hadn’t.  It was better that way.  I went back into my hostage negotiations with Eleanor, as Rosamund bucked and wailed in my arms.

We sat in the car on the way home each stewing silently.

But these things don’t last.

There were kisses and cuddles at bed time.

*****

Before Cathy and I went to bed we reread my story in JAAM 31.  I’m glad it’s there, and I am thankful to Helen and Clare for getting it there.  I’m glad it is there because of who it is about.  His death altered things; as death does in the lives of the living.  Life can be hard indeed, but let’s find time to resist, to join together, and occasionally to win.

Let’s write, or sing, or dance our fugitive acts of compassion.

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3 thoughts on “Fugitive Moments of Compassion

  1. ‘I never teach my brightest, senior students to be objective about history, I teach them to be passionate about it.’ I love this. Go you. Also, I’m so glad you came to the launch, I thought your kids were great (though I didn’t know about the going up the two flights of stairs to the loo three times!) and I’m so glad your piece is in JAAM because it is amazing. Everything you write on here is amazing too, but I was so pleased that you polished it some more, made it shine some more. And while more people will probably find your work on the internet than in one issue of a literary journal, some different people will have an opportunity to read it in JAAM, and y’know, there’s something nice about print.

  2. Thank you. I’m glad you left a comment because it allows me to thank you (slightly) more publicly. The whole reason it is in JAAM is because of you. I think you have a gift for quietly going about the business of encouraging writers, and creating spaces for people to put their work, and neither thing is easy to do, or sustain over decades. It was great to be there (even if my children went nuclear on the way home). JP

  3. Thank you JP. Sincerely. I tend to be pretty low-key, and sometimes get a bit discouraged feeling like no one is paying any attention, but to know that I’ve encouraged writers such as you is really important.

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