A Culture of Fear

greatuncles

As church bells sounded across Britain on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, my family celebrated the fact that, by some miracle, all six brothers shown in this photograph survived the Great War.  Second Lieutenant Mick Michael, King’s Royal Rifle Corps; Leading Aircraftman Joe Michael; Sergeant Harry Michael, 40TH Royal Fusiliers; Sergeant John Michael, Royal Army Service Corps; Private Maurice Michael, Manchester Regiment.  And, the youngest of the six, my grandfather, Rifleman George Michael, Queens Westminster Rifles.

I don’t usually post, blog or tweet about politics.  Political discourse has become frighteningly tribal in the last couple of years and I believe there should be some tranquil public spaces immune to the virus, especially in a blog dedicated to fiction and entertainment.  This blog is to be no exception.  However Britain’s decision to quit Europe, the growing acceptability of vilifying “the other” in our midst, the refusal of FIFA to permit British footballers to wear poppy armbands, and my own family history have together combined to produce this reflection.

My father’s family left Cordoba in what is now southern Spain in 1492, Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition.  I must assume they were, at least in the fifteenth century, devout Jews, preferring to flee what had been their homeland for hundreds of years rather than face forced conversion or auto-da-fé (burning at the stake).  They landed in the East End of London, where they remained for the next 450 years, contributing in an undistinguished way to the commercial and cultural life of the city and, finally, integrating fully.  By the twentieth century they wore their Judaism lightly and considered themselves Londoners, albeit with a Jewish cultural identity.

All six brothers volunteered to fight during the 1st World War.  Two of the eldest found themselves in the same theatre of war, Salonica, Greece, during the Jewish High Holy Days, and for a few days were billeted with a Jewish Greek family named Cohen which also had three sons, two of whom were in the Greek Venizelist army fighting Germany and the Central Powers.  The friendship created between the four young soldiers lasted the duration of the war and continued thereafter when the Cohen brothers, now named Jacques and Nico, moved to Paris between the wars.

After the 1st World War the families continued to keep in touch.  All those young enough to do so fought again in the 2nd World War.  When I first met the third brother, Michel, I was astonished to find that he spoke French not with a Greek accent but with that of a Glaswegian.  He had not been in Thessalonica during the 1st World War.  The Greek monarchy had been formally neutral but de facto pro—German and Michel, a hotheaded political young man, had wanted to fight against the Germans.  He had run away, hidden aboard a cargo steamer, and landed up in Glasgow, where he joined the Black Watch and fought with the Scots in northern Europe.  He was in Paris when war broke out again, and became an organiser in the FFI (the French Forces of the interior – the Resistance).  At the end of August 1944, two days before the German garrison surrendered Paris to the Free French and the advancing Allies, he watched as his wife and daughter were captured by the SS and shot dead on the street.

After the war, when all the men were again demobbed, the friendship continued in correspondence.  My parents married in 1949, and took the boat train to the south of France for their honeymoon.  They knew no one in France, but my father was given the address of Nico Cohen in case of emergency.  On the return journey my mother suffered a bad bout of flu and could travel no further than Paris.  They got off the train and my father found a telephone to call the name on the piece of paper my grandfather had given him.  How he managed to communicate the problem remains a mystery, because my father has never spoken a word of French or Greek in his life, but within a short while Nico Cohen had arrived in his old Citroen, collected my parents from the station, and taken them to his flat.  There he and his wife, Odette, gave up their bed to the newlyweds.  The Cohens slept on the couch for a week until my mother was recovered.  Thus was formed a second generation of friendship between a Greek/French family and an Iberian/English family.

Letters continued to travel backwards and forwards across the channel over the next 25 years.  Nico was particularly fond of Marks & Spencer T-shirts, underwear and marmalade, and every now and then a parcel would be sent to Paris.  In return, several unlabelled bottles of red wine would periodically be delivered to London, the produce of a vineyard in which Nico had a share.

In 1973, at the age of 18, I was about to go to university when my first serious relationship ended, and I decided the best way to mend my broken heart and forget the young lady concerned was by deferring my place and travelling for a year.  Realising with some disappointment that the French Foreign Legion was unlikely to accept me, I decided to take my entire savings of £50 (presently worth just less than £600) and travel to the nearest capital city, Paris, and see what came up.  I spoke poor O-level French degraded by two years of disuse, and I knew no one in France.  The only assistance my parents could give me in case of emergency was a scrap of paper on which were written the names Nico and Odette Cohen, and an address.

At that time there was a bureau at the Gard du Nord to place students who arrived in the city in appropriate hostel accommodation, but I was unlucky.  No beds could be found for me on the day I arrived, having made no plans whatsoever for my first night, and I was given the choice of a park bench or a room in a hotel in the 15th arrondissement.  I chose the latter (you will have suspected that a young man who needs his creature comforts was never likely to have been happy in the French Foreign Legion).  Only after my first night did I appreciate that the rooms in the small hotel were all, with the exception of mine, used throughout the night by prostitutes.  The room I occupied was immediately next to a large flashing neon sign which put the punters off their stroke.  More about my first few weeks in Paris will be the subject of another blog.

After four weeks in France and most of my money gone, I had been unable to find a job or a flat.  Not only was my French poor, but I was a very young and innocent 18-year-old who looked barely 16.  In retrospect it’s hardly surprising that no landlord or employer was prepared to take a chance on me.

Eventually I had no choice but to phone the name on the piece of paper.  I fully expected to be packed off back to London with my tail between my legs.  I called, and Nico arrived at my “working girls’ hotel” later that day.  He was a little man, no more than 5’6” in height, wearing a beret and a raincoat with a turned-up collar.  He was exactly what I expected Commissaire Maigret to look like.  I knew nothing of his background or the fact that he had been born and grown up in Greece, but he spoke French very fast and, at least to my ear, had no accent except that of a Parisian.  He was scandalised that a teenager had been allowed to run around Europe on his own without a proper home or parents to care for him, and he promptly took me under his wing.  I had to resist hard the suggestion that I should live with him and Odette, and so he set to finding me a job in a relative’s textile business.  Having secured a job working in the warehouse where I found myself amongst a group of other non-Anglophone foreigners, he telegraphed my parents and insisted they came over to countersign a lease of a tiny flat he had found in the 19th arrondissement just opposite the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

During the nine months I lived in Paris, Nico became my adopted grandfather, making sure I ate a proper Sunday lunch every week in his tiny flat, trying, in vain, to teach me something about wine, and keeping an eye on me from a distance via his relative’s fierce wife who ran the textile business in a manner of which Napoleon would have been proud.  He remained my friend for the next fifteen years until his sudden death, making mine the third generation to enjoy the friendship of this remarkable Greco-French family.

My books are about alienation and people who don’t fit in.  Charles Holborne, the antihero of The Brief series, faces daily prejudice, anti-Semitism and class prejudice.  He wants to be accepted, but is not.  Whereas in British society it used to be the Jews, now it is the Muslims.

The European Union was a deeply flawed project but it nonetheless brought 28 nations of Europe together in a way which had never occurred before.  Whatever one thinks of the overall project, its underlying themes were of cooperation and shared democratic values.  It took the position that what unites us as humans is greater than what divides us, and in allowing so many Syrian refugees into Germany, Chancellor Merkel put those principles into practice.  It might have been a mistake in political terms but, in my opinion, it was undoubtedly right in human terms.  It spoke to the best we can be, and not the worst.

Globalism and the birth of global terror are making people afraid again.  Brexit, Donald Trump and his Mexican wall, Marine Le Pen – all are just examples of what can happen when politicians prey on the fear of “the stranger”.  The story of my great-uncles and their friendship with the Cohen brothers, all immigrants at different times, and their willingness to fight for a unifying human cause, tells me we can be better than that.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Me (aged 24) with Nico Cohen, M&S bag in hand, on his return to Paris from a London trip c. 1979

Time and Place Interview – Jill’s Book Cafe

Jill Doyle of Jill’s Book Café, published the following in October 2016, and with her permission I reproduce the interview here.  Go check out her blog at Jill’s Book Café – it’s well worth it!

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I’m delighted to welcome author Simon Michael, who kindly agreed to be my first guest to discuss ‘Time and Place’ in his life and work.

During Simon’s years of practice at the Bar he has prosecuted and defended enough murderers, armed robbers, con artists and other assorted villainy to provide him with a lifetime of true crime stories. Simon had several books published in the UK and the USA in the 1990s and his short story Split was shortlisted for the Cosmopolitan/Perrier Short Story Award. Four children, two divorces and lots of therapy forced him to spend the next 20 years in full-time practice as a lawyer, but in 2016 he was finally able to retire from the Bar to devote himself to full-time writing.

The Brief (2015) and An Honest Man (June 2016) are the first two books in the Charles Holborne series, set on the dangerous gangland streets of 1960s London. (See end of article for full links)

So without further ado, over to Simon

piccadilly-circus

Your books are courtroom dramas set in 1960’s London featuring criminal barrister, Charles Holborne. Why did you decide to set your books in the 1960s?

Multiple reasons.  Firstly it was the “Wild West” of British justice.  The criminal gangs, for example, the Krays, Richardsons and Messina brothers, were fighting for control of the proceeds of vice, pornography, gambling and drugs in the big cities.  There was widespread police corruption, particularly in the Metropolitan Police, which meant that officers were taking a cut of the proceeds rather than trying to prosecute the criminals.  There was also significant bias in the judiciary.  I’m not suggesting the judges were corrupt, but they were from a previous generation.  Born at the turn of the last century, they believed that they and the police were the last bulwark against a tide of corruption sweeping the country.  The arrival of sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll was viewed by the establishment with horror.  Many in the judiciary simply would not believe that police officers could be corrupt – that they might beat a confession out of an innocent person; that many of them would take bribes.  The result was that trials were weighted in favour of the prosecution and against the defence.  Prosecuting for the Crown at that time was like sailing with the wind full in your sails; defending was like wading up to your thighs in a swamp into the teeth of a gale.

In addition there were no mobile phones, DNA or any of the scientific advances which enable modern day detectives to solve cases.  Detectives from a previous era like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe had to detect.  I want my investigators, including Charles Holborne, to do the same.

So the 1960s is the perfect period to set my novels.  When the Charles Holborne series is finished (probably around Book 5 or Book 6) I’m going to have to think of another hero to put in the same period.

What made you choose London over say Manchester, Birmingham or Liverpool for your location?

I know London.  My father’s family came to England in 1492, settled in the East End and for the next 500 years lived within 20 mile radius of where they first landed.  I was born, grew up, went to university, and practised at the Bar in London.  It’s my “patch”. I know it very well.

1492 stands out as a seminal date in history (coinciding with the discovery of the New World and the Re-Conquest of Spain). Was there a specific reason that the family arrived in that year and is there a family historian in the family or is it family lore?   

One of my great-uncles, who has since died, apparently spent a great deal of time and money researching the family tree at Somerset House and in the records held by the Jewish community in the East End before the Second World War.  It had always been family lore that my father’s family was part of a group of Jewish refugees from Cordoba who left as a result of the Spanish Inquisition rather than face conversion or death.  Indeed it was said that they were part of a group of refugees in ships sent by Christopher Columbus to supplicate the British crown for money for the westward expedition which eventually resulted in the discovery of America, and Columbus paid for the trip as far as London with fee-paying Jewish refugees, including the Michael (probably then called Miguel) family.

My father as a young boy actually saw some of the records produced by his uncle which supported the part of the story that the family had arrived in Whitechapel in 1492 with a group of other Spanish and Hebrew-speaking families.  Unfortunately however both my great uncle’s house with his researches, and the records at Somerset House, were destroyed during the war and all the documentary proof has disappeared.  I have often thought that I should try to reconstitute the evidence, but I have never had time.

It’s a great story, and I’m sure it’s true; unfortunately I can no longer prove it!

(When I asked the question I didn’t expect the answer to have such a direct link to it. I love this story it exemplifies how family research can really bring history to life.)

Did your research confirm or confound the commonly held perceptions of the period and did it throw up anything that surprised you?

This is a very good question.  In retrospect I think we tend to regard the 1960s as a time of flower power, Carnaby Street, Mary Quant, the Stones, the Beatles and mods versus rockers fighting on the beach in Brighton – exciting, brightly-coloured, and raucous.  In fact the beginning of the decade was very different.  Britain was very definitely post-war in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  People were poor, the housing stock was dreadful, immigrants, homosexuals and women were unfairly treated – you could argue that in some respects things have changed little, 50 years later.  I had to adjust the pictures unfolding in my head for the beginning of my series to paint a much grittier and greyer scene.

How do you think you would have coped had you had to operate under the same conditions as Charles Holborne? 

This is another very interesting question bearing in mind the character of Charles Holborne.  I try, with as much realism as possible, to put Charles under stress.  For example in The Brief I make him falsely accused of a murder which requires him to go on the run from the police.  I want the reader to ask him or herself the question: “What on earth would I do if that were me?”  At the same time however, Charles is, in part, based on me, my history and that of my family, and so not only am I asking the reader, but I am posing the question of myself.  The answer to that is, unfortunately, I would probably have believed in the honesty of the police, and been wrongly convicted.  Charles is an ex-boxer, ex-burglar, for whom violence and crime come easily.  I, on the other hand, am a middle-class professional who has never committed a crime in his life, and I don’t have Charles’s resourcefulness or daring.  I’d have caved, no doubt about it.

I’m aware that in addition to further books featuring Charles Holborne you are planning a novel set in New Orleans. New Orleans seems a far remove from London. Why New Orleans and how do you think you’ll adapt to the cultural/language changes?

I have visited New Orleans and I love the city.  It seems to have its very own atmosphere, an evocative blend of jazz, poverty, drugs and death.  So it gets my creative juices flowing.  I am a perfectionist and making even tiny mistakes in the Charles Holborne novels makes me cross with myself (I was recently taken to task for having Sally wearing a Mary Quant miniskirt two years before it was designed).  I know therefore I’m going to have to be very careful indeed if I set a novel in a city I don’t know well.  I think the only way to overcome the problem is to go and live in New Orleans for a few months.  (I haven’t started negotiating that with my family, so I’d be grateful if you would keep this answer between we two and your readership).

Do you have any preference for reading books with a particular time or place context?

I do like books set in the past, both the recent past and the distant past.  I think it makes the narrative more interesting, even if you’re writing about human nature which in my opinion does not change much.  I’m not trying to educate, but I think if you set your books in an unfamiliar landscape or time, it provides an additional interest to the reader.  For example, the third book in the Charles Holborne series, provisionally entitled “The Lighterman” and almost finished, includes flashbacks to Charles’s time in the war when he was a teenager effectively running wild on the bombed London streets and working as a lighterman on the River Thames.  I knew very little about work as a lighterman but my research has revealed a fascinating and now largely extinct occupation which had existed since Roman times, and the reader will learn, unwittingly, something about that.

Is there any time or place in history that holds a particular interest for you?

I am particularly interested in the underbelly of old London.  For example I adore Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.  I think the reason is that I feel connected to London because of my family’s long history there.  It’s where my roots are deepest.

Where is your favourite place?

Having banged on about London so much, my answer may surprise you.  I love Gascony, and I am very lucky to have an old farmhouse there.  It’s probably one of the least fashionable parts of southern France and it lacks the grandeur of, for example, the Loire valley with its great châteaux.  But the countryside is incredibly varied, caused by a fan of rivers bringing melt water down from the Pyrenees.  So in the space of a fifteen minute drive you see hilltop villages, wooded escarpments, clear fast-running rivers and small fertile plains of crops.  It has the largest concentration of châteaux anywhere in France but they are usually small, almost domestic in size.  The Pyrenees line the southern horizon, those in the foreground with white glistening tops and those in the background receding into purple misty shadows.  The people are wonderfully friendly (I’ve written about that in some of my blogs on my website), even to Brits who totally mangle their language.   The food in the area is wonderful, focusing on duck, wild boar and Armagnac, and the light! The quality of the light at dawn and dusk is simply ravishing.  I could talk about my love of le Gers forever, and you might have to edit some of this rather long winded answer.

With no time and money constraints, where would you like to visit that you haven’t already been?

I have been chasing the Northern Lights for the last five years.  It is right at the top of my bucket list and despite several trips to Iceland and elsewhere they still evade me.  Lapland is likely to be the next destination.

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Despite what I felt were possibly quite basic and obvious questions, Simon has more than done them justice with interesting insights and fascinating revelations. I’m really grateful to Simon for taking the time out to indulge my idea for a feature and I hope you enjoyed reading Simon’s responses as much as I did.