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Waving to the world

January 11, 2015

We stood, in sleet and biting wind, for two minutes of silence, with pens and pencils held aloft. We had heard read out the names of seventeen victims of last week’s horror in France. Ahead of us, the huge Edinburgh New Town windows of the Consulat Général de France and the neighbouring l’Institut Français d’Ecosse, were almost hidden behind posters declaring “Je suis Charlie”. The tricoleur was at half mast.

At the same time as the millions in Paris, we were gathered – en solidarité, defiance, and support for Scotland’s French community and to declare the right to a free press and free expression.

The silence was followed by a heart wrenching lament of the Skye Boat Song from a solo bagpiper, the notes rolling round the square, on a breeze which flattened them on to the cold grey stone of an Edinburgh winter’s afternoon.

As we gathered, the voices had been predominantly French, calm and studied, but also there were a lot of local and English accents. Eastern European, Scandinavian, and unfamiliar languages whispered around the crowd. There were young and old, people on bikes, and people with babies. Some looked like veterans of many a demonstration, others as if they had stepped out of the background scenes in Downton Abbey. Ian Rankin passed by, then Fiona Hyslop ; there were folk who looked like rock stars and others who looked like university professors. Mahmood, a life long cricketing friend appeared, with his daughter, and we stood close, as if friendship can overcome all. It is unusual to see such a mixture in Edinburgh’s douce and often socially segregated streets.

The piper’s notes died away to echo, and the tears stopped rolling down my cheeks, and I wondered why I was there.

There is a danger for bloggers and tweeters and social media followers that they feel the need to attach themselves in some way to every major news story, whether they have a connection or not. That always seems to me to be a kind of self aggrandisement, and an urge to place themselves at the centre of things – and I have no doubt I have fallen prey to the urge from time to time – but the Paris attacks were different – it felt personal.

Yes, there are connections with France – married to a teacher of French, family in Normandie, holidays there for over a decade – times of sun, discovery, and relaxation, and our son growing and making friends with French children and those from other countries. From the north to the Pyrenees, in the Luberon, and along the Cote d’Azur: a hundred cafes, beaches, forests, and town squares; fireworks at the Hotel de Ville, and long rambling walks through the backstreets of Paris and along the Seine.

So I have enough experience to say I love France but that I don’t know it. How can you categorise it in a phrase or even a paragraph? It is noble and egalitarian, and racist and parochial. Its people are sophisticated and uncomplicated, open to change and hide bound by tradition. The banlieues around the Periphrique in Paris reflect the poverty of post colonial immigration, the farms of Pyrenees Orientales have the scent of Catalunya and summer; the Breton coast could be Ireland, the mountains round Grenoble could be Switzerland. A French woman said on Friday: “In France, we welcome people but we don’t embrace them”

However, I do know that nobody, in any country, far or near, deserves to die for expressing their views, or serving as a police officer, or shopping for their lunch.

And, really, I was at the Rassemblement today, not just to express solidarity with the French community, or with those who lost loved ones, but because words are so important to me.

I am not a physical person, I’ve never had a fight in my life. I have never been remotely convinced that violence solves anything – though there have been times when I have accepted that others had their justifications.

When I want to make a point, when I have an argument to make, or if I want to persuade, I use words, because words, rather than fists or cartoons, are what I use best.

I’m not a professional writer and I have never earned my living with words. I have had, and still do have, the privilege of being able to write because I enjoy it and because I want to, not because I have to. It’s a privilege of which I am keenly aware and which I try hard not to abuse. While I may disagree with the views of others, and attack their methods, I try very hard not to attack them personally. And I hope I defend their right to differ from me, whatever the situation.

I was happy to claim ‘Je suis Charlie” as a token of support and solidarity – but I’m not. I have never read Charlie Hebdo and, frankly, I don’t agree with the mocking of people’s religion. I know, as a person of Faith, that my beliefs have grown with thought and reflection and choice. I am neither an idiot nor a fanatic, and I believe that my faith in God is no more idiosyncratic than the faith in science or humanity or existentialism which sustains others. I don’t understand why some people feel the need to sneer at those who profess a belief, but neither  would I ever attack those who do not. It is a private matter. I remain convinced, as a Muslim friend said to me today at the rally, that all religions at heart preach peace. It seems to me short sighted to blame religions for conflict, when generally the cause is flawed human interpretation of their faith or a deliberate misreading of its demands. I don’t need my faith to be perfect, I just need it to show me a way I can be a better person and contribute positively to the world around me.

So, the brand of satire practiced by Charbo and his colleagues was not always to my liking, but at least they cared enough to attack the pompous and the self inflated with their humour, at least they used pens not guns, at least they sought to make a difference.

Not favouring the way they went about things made it all the more important that I attended today’s rally. To take offence at those from whom we differ is to offer them a victory and to presume our superiority, and anger damages the angry more than its object. If people misuse words or art  to hurt and offend, they should be pitied or ignored, or their motives should be understood. Those at peace with themselves seldom find the time or energy to take offence at others. I believe passionately that words can free us – in so many ways, and that we only learn by allowing all views and beliefs to be openly expressed. Words, and art, are the path to sharing our emotions – and neither should be repressed. Words and art are the magic we are given by our human intelligence – God given, or fluke of the universe, and we have the ability to promote thoughts in others, urge reflection, and open up horizons.

When that opportunity is taken away – whether by governments or self appointed zealots, the world becomes a lesser place, our humanity is diminished.

So I was at today’s rally out of grief and anger for those actions in Paris last week which made us less as a species, which sought to narrow our abilities, and tried to divert us from the open fields of possibility to the backstreets of despair.

In a window at the top of the Consulate building, there were two small children, a girl and a boy, watching the rally. Eventually an adult came and took them away. As they turned to go, the wee girl looked down at the crowd for one last time, and waved. It seemed to me like a symbol of hope, a gesture of innocent and unknowing optimism.

I don’t know who they were, or how the day’s events could be explained to them, but I hope, in years to come, they will have some small memory of the day when Edinburgh said: “Nous sommes tous Charlie – whether we agreed with him or not.”

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