Wednesday, 16 May 2018

A day of two halves

My life today was split into two sections which really couldn’t have been any more contrasting. The first part was spent visiting Holocaust survivors, all of whom had gathered for an afternoon of tea, cakes and klezmer music, stunningly and authentically performed by the London Klezmer Quartet. The band is fronted by the coolest singer with the deepest voice, who performs in Yiddish whilst playing an upright bass. It doesn’t get much better than that! I think she might have been Australian.

My new friend, Ivor, who’s in his late 80s, took me aside and said “what do you think the future holds? It doesn’t matter for me. I’m reconciled to that. I’ve only got a few years left. But what sort of world am I leaving behind?”

I thought for a while, before telling him that I felt the world worked in 100-year cycles and that, sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if another world war might be around the corner. If I’ve learned nothing else from survivors it’s that they don’t feel the need to sugar-coat anything. Vera used to routinely describe herself as a victim rather than a survivor. Sometimes I think a war is the only way that we’ll learn genuine compassion again and discover the difference between that which we want and that which we need. Another chap told me he’d arrived in the UK after the war with “a blanket and a cardboard box.”

Chillingly, I also saw my first concentration camp tattoo today. I was chatting merrily to a woman about music, and she suddenly raised her sleeve and showed it to me. It was faded like an old bruise. An ancient scar which had somehow never managed to heal. I don’t quite know why the moment hit me so hard, but it sent me into something of a spin.

The second half of my day was spent in the shiny, soulless surroundings of Canary Wharf, where I was running a quiz on the top floor of one of the skyscrapers there. The views, as you might imagine, were astonishing. The sun slowly set as I asked my questions. I remember looking across at one of the teams who were sitting in a glorious pool of late evening sunlight, and glancing behind me to see the sun sinking behind a building. And then it was dark. I’m not sure I was aware of anyone turning the lights on. I delivered the quiz in front of a floor-to-ceiling window, periodically losing my balance, and peering down on the matchbox DLR trains snaking along Meccano tracks, whilst waiting for the blast of vertigo to cease.

The two worlds couldn’t have been more different. There I was, surrounded by besuited city slickers, nibbling on olives and fancy, purple carrot sticks, when, just two hours before, I’d been drinking tea from a mug in a 1960s community centre talking to people who’d literally witnessed the worst things that human beings are capable of doing to one another.

Why don’t we learn?

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