Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Falling over a reminiscence: Only victims count

Let me set the scene. You are lounging about with other old people, making polite conversation.
In the beginning you swap stories about your physical ailments. After that you start talking about the past.

How long have you been together?
48 years.
Wow, that’s a long time. Was it love at first sight?
Then my partner tells her story.

She was sunbathing near the swimming pool with her travelling companion, the sister of a journalist who later became a junior minister in a Dutch government for three days. (That is another story).
The swimming pool, like the rest of the kibbutz, was built on strategically higher ground.

They looked down and saw a big cloud of sand approaching.
What is it?
At a certain moment the cloud started to fade and the surrounding air began to shimmer, like it does in the desert.
The first thing they saw emerging from the shimmering air was me, riding without a saddle and stirrups on a black Arabian horse. I was only wearing shorts and sandals.
Behind me was a large flock of sheep.

They looked at each other and said, “I want him”. They made a bet about it. My partner ends the story with, “I won”, and I smile sheepishly.
There are glaring inaccuracies in her account.
An example, the horse was brown, not black. But I let them ride, as it does illustrate how wonderfully independent and liberated my female peers were.

However, I have been having doubts about whether it is wise to continue telling the story.
Willem Melching, a Dutch historian whom I admire, wrote recently that we live in an age that reserves the most admiration for victimhood.
So, in the future my partner will get less admiration from young people, because she is not a victim in the story.

Besides that, I do not seem to fit the bill any more.
The last time she told the story was to a tipsy girlfriend, who then looked at me and burst out laughing.

No, the story has not aged well. 
It belongs to a different era. To the counterculture of the 1960s and the 1970s with its empowerment of the individual, not to the present culture of political correctness and empowerment of the mob.

Perhaps, I should forget the fun and excitement in Israel and stick to the Diaspora discrimination stories.


Saturday, 11 November 2017

Chanan

Chanan is podgy.
That is what I thought when I first met him in 1968. He looked like me when I arrived on the kibbutz.
He had come for a short visit during his school holidays. In a few years he was going to "make aliyah" (move to Israel).
Chanan was Dutch, from the next, younger European group of Hashomer Hatzair (Marxist-Zionists). Had a vibrant Italian girlfriend with him. She was always smiling.

We hit it off well. We were both very political-theoretical and had long discussions. Neither of us was Marxist.
He was a shy, optimistic young man. I think he looked up to me.
I was an ex-paratrooper who had fought in the war and was now on the board of the kibbutz. He treated me with a lot of respect.

He made aliyah with his girlfriend after I had left the kibbutz, and was eventually drafted into the army. 
The armoured car he was in was blown up by a roadside bomb. 
He lost both his legs.

We were living on the tenth floor of a flat in the Bijlmermeer, a district with blocks of flats on the outskirts of Amsterdam.
We were poor and our flat was furnished poor arty-farty. Our couch was the duo front seat of a "deux chevaux" (Citroen 2CV).
I received a call. Chanan was in Amsterdam and would like to come and visit. Fine, I said.

He was in a wheelchair. I sat down on our deux chevaux couch and he was seated opposite. My couch was lower than his wheelchair, so I was looking up to him.
I was looking up at two stumps where his legs should have been.
Every now and then he moved one with his hands. I do not know why.

He was bitter. Kept on making cruel jokes, mainly about himself. The shyness and optimism were gone. He explained that those discussions with me had taken away his last doubts about making aliyah. Was he blaming me? I do not know. 
After a few hours he left. 
I never saw him again.

Many years later I learned that he had picked up the pieces.
He had gone to university and later became a professor. He married his smiling Italian girlfriend. They had no children.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

An Indecorous Coming Of Age Story

1964. A-levels are over. Some school friends are going to university, some are doing an extra year. I am going to live like a modern-day Kropotkin on a kibbutz.

It is the summer holidays. My short stay on the Hashomer Hatzair “training” farm is coming to an end.
Graham, one of my school friends, has enrolled at a polytechnic, forgotten the name. Instead of commuting every day, he has rented a house near to his POLY with three girls. That was unusual then.
Some friends and I are staying over with him for the weekend.

It was a full house as his housemates also had visitors. Most of the people came from outside London. 
We had a pleasant first evening with lots of agitated discussions.
For a few of them I was a bit exotic. They had never met a Jew before and I was going to live on a communal farm in the desert.

Several of us slept in sleeping bags on the floor of the front room. I was still awake when a sleeping bag with one of the girls inside started shifting in my direction, in a kind of bouncing slither. As the sleeping bag covered her head as well, I had the impression of a giant caterpillar coming towards me.
She moved a bit, stopped, and then started moving again. Eventually she was pressing up against me.
I thought it must be something like sleepwalking and tried not to move a muscle, as I did not want to wake her, whoever she was. I fell asleep and when I woke up she was gone.

The next day I struck up a conversation with a girl who, like me, was visiting. She was the black stockings and black skirt type. A very intelligent and witty art student. It clicked between us.
She told me that her last boyfriend had been a Palestinian Arab.

In the evening we all went to the pub and came back a bit tipsy. The black stockings girl and I were lying next to each other in a corner of the room. The others had fallen into an after-booze sleep.
I plucked up my "Dutch courage" and kissed her. That was the start of our relationship. We did not do much then as someone might have woken up. 
She was not wearing underwear and explained that was because all her underwear was in the wash.
With hindsight, I think she may have been my caterpillar. At the time I did not think to ask.

The following day we did not tell people we were a couple. We left separately in the early evening, but met up nearby and went back to her place. She had a room in a big house and told me to be quiet because she was not allowed to have men in her room.
As we came in the phone began to ring. She picked it up. It was Booker, one of my school friends who had been at the house.

The evening before in the pub, he had tipsily confided in me that he was in love with her. He asked for my advice. I said he should go for it.
Now he was calling to ask for a date. I was standing next to her and could hear the nervousness in his voice. She was very nice to him. Said that she was too busy just now, but would get back to him.
The strangeness of the situation flashed through my mind. He was calling her on my advice, and after the call was over I was going to have sex with her.

Her room was very untidy with washing hanging all over the place.
I had read the necessary books, so I thought I knew what to do. Then she asked me to punch her in the stomach. This had not been in my books and was not really my thing. I patted her stomach a bit hard, which was enough for her.

My first sexual relationship was with a girl who often wore no underwear because it was in the wash and who got off on being punched in the stomach. 
You cannot get more British than that.

From then on we saw each other as much as possible. We could not go to her room as her landlady had heard us. Fortunately, she had lots of friends and always found a bedroom for us.

Time cannot be stopped and the day to say goodbye eventually arrived. It was the day before I left for Israel.
Besides being a warm, intelligent and witty person, she was also possessive and prone to hysteria and melodrama.
I suspected that she would break down when we said our final goodbyes.
So I planned the separation on a platform at Piccadilly Circus tube station and asked a friend to wait for me nearby. I hoped that a public place like a tube station and another person waiting for me would be a constraint on her hysteria.

It did not work. She started screaming and crying. I went to my friend and asked him to leave, and then I sat there with her for hours on that platform. Shades of Thomas Hardy.
When she was finally exhausted from crying, we did say our farewells. I got onto my train and we went our different ways. Or so I thought.

She wrote to me on my kibbutz. She wanted to come. I told her not to.
Then I received a long letter from her. She had tried to come.

She had taken the ferry to France and tried to hitchhike down to Marseille. 
It was very difficult for a girl on her own, she did not get far. Drivers groped and sexually assaulted her. One tried to rape her.
Besides that, the little money she had soon ran out.
She was really down, exhausted and very hungry. 
Fortunately, a British couple stopped to give her a lift. They took her back to where they were staying and looked after her until she had recovered her strength again. Then they gave her money for the fare back to England.

Back in England she had taken stock of the whole situation and decided to give me up and get on with her life. Her long, last letter was her goodbye,

I hope she had a fantastic life.
It is a pity I cannot remember her name.

Fare thee well.