Sometimes you can be so surprised by the unexpected links you make with people.
I always keep an eye on normblog and long before I started my own blog, I would often exchange email comments with Norm on his posts. I sort of thought of him as a friend, and it was even nicer to find he thought that way of me too. Obviously we have a great deal in common, amongst which is our shared age group, which means we experienced the zeitgeist in more or less the same way. We have quite a lot of political common ground-- and almost as many differences too. Like, I regard myself as totally cured of marxism, but Norm (as far as I know) remains committed to his version of it.
Then there's religion, with Norm a committed atheist and me? Well, if you're a normal left wing type, you might regard me as a raving fundamentalist nut. Or if you're from a particular strand of strict orthodox Jewish practice, you might regard me as not quite .... Anyway, you can form your own opinion of my religious orthodoxy by reading my posts on Jewish life and learning.
Then there's the small matter of cricket. I wrote the odd chutzpadik email to Norm about his love of cricket because I couldn't resist pointing out that every Jewish man I ever met from South Africa or Zimbabwe is besotted with cricket. This is not matched by the Jews of other former British colonies. On the whole, British, Australian and Indian Jewish men I know do not share this intense interest in cricket, despite it being an important national game.
I have a theory that the reason for this is that being into cricket was the only way they could reconcile the combination of anti-semitism in the imitation English public schools they went to with their ambiguous status as whites. This is because as Jews with a very strong tradition of being conscious of slavery and freedom, they were also spiritually and emotionally kindred to the black people who were their servants.
For the boys in the context of those schools, being brainy was no way to win status. Normal athletics was something few Jews ever shone at. But cricket seems not to demand the same level of athleticism, so that many South African Jewish men I know of did bat in their school teams. And becoming a cricket maven and a total fan seems to have done the trick too.
Norm was having none of this analysis, and was polite but clearly impatient. I gathered he saw this as crude reductionism. But despite these differences, we've come to an accommodation around it. Why, I even wrote him an erudite footnote on the subject of his application of the Theses of Feuerbach to select an ideal all-time cricket team, in which I pointed out he had ignored both the luminary Marxist revolutionary-cum-cricket writer , C L R James and the immortal cricketing hero W G Grace. He graciously commended my diligent homework and tactfully refrained from answering my question about which he thought I knew less about, marxism or cricket.
So I was very struck by Norm having put up a post over Rosh Hashona, the Jewish new year, about a dream, and that he asked for people to try to explain how one can know one is dreaming inside a dream. I've not known Norm write about dreams before, though he tends to choose any subject that catches his fancy. Now the really strange thing was this: the very day he was writing his post, amongst the prayers I would have been saying is this one, which you are supposed to read in an undertone during the eerie and awe-inspiring cohanic blessing.
Master of the World, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours. I have dreamed a dream but I do not know what it means. May it be Your Will.....that all my dreams regarding myself and regarding all of Israel be good ones--those I have dreamed about myself, those I have dreamed about others, and those that others have dreamed about me. If they are good, strengthen them, fortify them, make them endure in me and in them like the dreams of the righteous Joseph. But if they require healing, heal them......
It was interesting that of the posts which Norm got back in response to his request, there was one which I thought was extraordinarily insightful, from a reader in Minnesota. This reader thought Norm's dream, about a mislaid phone, was about his inner anxieties as a blogger, at living up to the expectations his thousands of readers have of him. When we exchanged emails about my link with the prayer, Norm wondered how the reader had focused on that anxiety, rather than one about family or friends. How could anyone know?
Having been in touch with bloggers who have recently signed off from blogging, like Harry and Imshin, I have a very clear sense of how oppressive the expectations of others can seem, especially if you have a big international reputation, but your own situation and concerns are changing. And to each of them, I've tried to say that nothing can take away the quality of what they've done. But sometimes, you just need a break.
So today, I got another surprise about Norm's posts chiming with some of my more idiosyncratic concerns when he linked up to a series of photos from somewhere in China I'd never previously heard of called Wenxue City in Guangzhou.
China's been on my mind for various reasons including the comparisons in my mind lately between different societies which appear to be open to variants on capitalism and democracy, but are actually controlled by or contested by totalitarian parties and "liberation movements". And I was yesterday in a long cafe conversation about the high days of my involvement with marxism in the late 70s and very early 80s. That was because I knew lots of the old marxist lags of those days who are these days leading the various movements to boycott Israel and Build Solidarity with the Palestinians. Those were the days when the Cultural Revolution was still seen as some sort of Woodstock on speed, culturally exciting and even glamorous. I even had a little Mao-style jacket myself. More fashion statement than true allegiance. I never joined any of the parties (political or otherwise).
Norm doesn't provide any view on what the photos show, but they fascinate me, because they do show what looks like some sort of capitalist society-- VWs, Japanese trucks, brand names, and people dressed in western styles. The most fashionable of all is a young woman actually throwing herself in front of a truck to commit suicide in her despair over her boyfriend problems. (Don't do it, sweetie, he's not worth it. No one's worth that.) But look at those four inch heeled gold shoes. She certainly dressed carefully for her attempt. At least, I hope it was no more than an attempt.
Then the rest of the photos show us a what looks like a very unhappy society, almost the war of all against all. We have people trying to steal railway lines, prospect for buried metal on a landfill site, make off with dumped condemned food, and indulging in high level road rage. Most strikingly, two people, a man and a woman, are using bridges not to cross over or get to somewhere, but to draw attention to their misery by threatening suicide.
The picture of me that's at the top of my blog is me standing on a very striking little bridge in Paddington Basin, which I had to cross in August every time I visited my mother when she was in hospital. When my daughter was feeling a bit down about my mother's state, I suggested she bring her camera and she could do some photographs. We had such fun doing that that most of the time one or other of us was falling about laughing, and it took the tension out of the hospital visit.
The next day, I visited in the evening. I crossed the bridge to go home quite late at night. There was a beautiful moon up, and the moonlight in the water and across the buildings was magical. I noticed a little woman from south-east Asia walking behind me, wearing the uniform of a hospital orderly. Isn't it beautiful, she said. And I smiled warmly and said, yes, it really is. And I thought then how touching it was that she had, despite what must have been a very tiring day, reached out to talk to a stranger and share some warmth on that bridge. And--there you go-- I had written this when I saw that Norm just happens to have a post up on Bridges. Which in his case is on some efforts at making bridges between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
So that's total of three suicide-related images in a set of fifteen from this little town in China. There is only one image which shows people engaging in anything other than a hostile exchange. But who photographed and made the selections? How representative are they of that society?
I don't know if Norm knew about this, but Guangzhou was in the news over the last day or two because of this report about a pro-democracy activist apparently being beaten to death there. But today, the Guardian contradicts its report, and finds the activist alive and well. And then there's a report by Martin Jacques describing the convulsions going on in China which the photographs seem to bear witness to. Reading this, I am curiously reminded of what's going on in Gaza.....
UPDATE: Norm takes issue, as I knew he would, with my view of what I think is the uniquely strong obsession of South African and Zimbabwean Jewish men with cricket. He asks, why not Australian Jewish men? My view of this has to do with those white southern African Jewish communities existing within a particularly racist system of white domination over a very substantial black majority indigenous society. The situation of Jews relative to the wider white society of Australia was very different, despite the presence of the indigenous Australians; Australian society did not depend on that particular racially determined form of economic organization. Not all Jews are "white" of course, but in those societies they counted as whites, albeit with the sort of ambiguous status I've referred to.
Norm asks this question:
Why, for that matter, is there any call for a special explanation about Jewish men? Must Jewish men have become devoted to cricket for a different set of reasons than, say, Englishmen of various denominations (or none)?
Well, in my case, because I have been so struck by the remarkable uniformity of the passion. Say, like in my case 100% of the men I know of. May well be a totally unrepresentative sample. But it is actually far greater than the number of English non-Jews or any other group that I know of.
My fitness club shares its premises with a cricket club. I am very struck by the huge proportion of Hindu and possibly Muslim boys who come for cricket practice compared with other ethnic groups in London. I suspect that their involvement with cricket has a comparable social/sociological meaning, which I think has to do with alignment with English-influenced home culture in their countries of origin.
However, I hope the post doesn't get too diverted into the sociology of cultural/ethnic determination of sporting affinities. It's really about a wider cluster of issues. But thanks for taking it on, Norm.