Day 11: Sticks and Stones may Break my Bones…

…but cartoons will never hurt me. Today’s post will not be neither short nor sweet. Day eleven was one of the most sobering days of my life. We walked more than we have walked on any day of this challenge, with a conviction in each step that went beyond anything I have ever felt before.

Mrs Playmo and I went to Montpellier that day to march in the memory of those killed in the recent attacks in Paris. The anger and pain of the French is palpable. The distress, horror, incomprehension and the deep sorrow that I see on faces every day have turned my stomach and placed a brick in its depths since last week, when obscurantism defied the very principles on which France is based.

One of the 100,000 people walking on Sunday shows her commitment to freedom of expression.

One of the 100,000 people walking on Sunday shows her commitment to freedom of expression.

Tears have been shed for the victims. And also for the values at the very core of France, attacked by cowards who do not understand that freedom of speech is necessary for all societies, because everything can and should be criticised. A world that cannot question itself and others cannot evolve.

I suspect that the liberation of France was the last time this kind of turnout was seen across the nation. The overwhelming solidarity of the walkers was the biggest raspberry that anyone could blow at fundamentalist puppets and those pulling their strings. The crowd was made up of Muslims, Christians, Jews. Adults, children, old-aged couples with walking sticks, people in wheelchairs. All together, spontaneously applauding. On our arrival at the Place du Peyrou, I looked back and saw the dense black column of citizens, stretching away below Montpellier’s mini Arc de Triomphe with its flag at half mast, and disappearing on the horizon. A soprano took the microphone and starting singing the Marseillaise, and the collective voice of tens of thousands of people of all origins rose to the sky. They lifted pens, pencils, signs, fists and flags and bellowed that anthem with pride. Because beyond all their differences, they had one thing in common: they were all proud of France and the values it defends.

This scenario was repeated across France, with nearly four million people out in the street to show that they are all standing tall. It was echoed on an international scale. Forty representatives of other countries joined President Hollande –  many of whom had conveniently forgotten the attitude to the freedom of speech in their own countries.

In the media, in everyday conversations, on social networks and on blogs, I see people using their right to voice their opinions. Many have said that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo “asked for it”. To those who maintain that if you deliberately provoke, you get what you deserve, I would reply that satire is part and parcel of a normal society, and that nothing justifies killing for a drawing, however provocative it may be. I also ask the simple question: In what kind of world do they wish their children to grow up?

The famous 1831 caricature of Louis Philippe t...

The famous 1831 caricature of Louis Philippe turning into a pear would mirror the deterioration of his popularity. (Honoré Daumier, after Charles Philipon who was jailed for the original.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The satirical press has been a small but essential part of journalism for centuries. In 1831, Charles Philippon’s sketch transformed the face of King Louis-Philippe into a pear in four pictures. It landed him in prison for insulting the King – but even at that time in French history, no death penalty was applied for his cartooning “crime”. Philippon noted the impact his cartoon had on the French population:

“What I had foreseen happened. The people, seized by a mocking image, a simple image design and simple shape , began to imitate this wherever he found a way to make charcoal image smearing, scratching a pear. Pears soon covered all the walls of Paris and spread to all parts of the walls of France. ”

(Source: Charles Philippon, Lettres du 7 juillet 1846 à Roslje, Carteret, op. cit., p. 126).

The caricature is a direct and unambiguous form of public communication; it can be understood quickly by everyone and produces an immediate reaction. Political caricatures have always existed, and it is inevitable that someone’s nose will be put out of joint. But as artist Bob Mankoff from the New Yorker pointed out in a recent cartoon, a culturally, ethnically, religiously, and politically correct cartoon is no more than a blank page.

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Before claiming that cartoonists should bow to the demands of extremists who cannot accept criticism in any form, please imagine the day where political correctness and fear of reprisal removes all satire from the world in a bid to avoid insulting political figures, or attracting the ire of regimes, movements, and religions. Because not only journalists are concerned by this. All types of art are in danger of censorship, and your personal liberty is in danger as a result. If fear of reprisal leads to the international satirical press going under ground, what will they take down next with their Kalashnikov?

Books penned across the centuries contain satire or criticise religion, politics or culture. Could we burn Aesop’s fables, works written by Chaucer, Rabelais, Voltaire, Swift, Fielding, Poe, Dickens, Carroll, Twain, Wodehouse,  Shaw and Orwell, to name but a few, in the name of political correctness? You can forget Dr Seuss, Lewis Carroll, Hergé and Goscinny for your kids, too. Kiss goodbye to The Chaser, The Onion, Fritz the Cat and Private Eye. What about film and theatre? Goodbye Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Exit Shakespeare and Molière, Casino Royale, Douglas Adams, The Clockwork Orange. Oh, and those TV chat shows you loved so much for their irreverent sarcasm about current issues – Yes Minister, Seinfeld, Have I got News for You, This Hour Has 22 minutes, Not the Nine o’clock News..? Could they all be sacrificed for fear of awakening obscurantist monsters who don’t believe that politics, culture and religion can be laughed at?

The same applies to artists and singers – were hit men sent to silence Lily Allen when she sang “F**k You”, described by music critics as a direct attack on George W. Bush? Was Pink Floyd ever censored?

The crucial question of the right to expression and the use of censorship also concerns you, Joe Blogger. You can lay out your opinion on your blog, unless you hate-monger there, without being censored in any way. Except in some countries, where bloggers who brave their government’s control over the freedom of expression risk weekly flogging and even death penalties for expressing their opinion online. Should they have “put a lid on it” in the face of oppression? Should we refrain from pointing a finger at the absurd, criticizing what must be criticised, through fear of reprisal by those who have recognized that the pen may just be mightier than the sword? No. In the words of Franklin Roosevelt, translated into French on a piece of cardboard held above the crowd in front of me,  “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither”.

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Now France is not only mourning, but thinking and debating. Many of those advocating freedom of speech appear to have rapidly changed their version on social media to “I’m all for freedom of speech as long as you don’t vote for….”  I watched in horror as discussions became debates then mud-slinging matches, and virtual and real friends “unfriended” each other as they discovered that their personal (or rather political) convictions were not the same. Yet we all have the right to speak. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words, and pictures, will never hurt me. I’ll wrap these musings up with the words of Voltaire, who said:

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”.

 Vive la liberté, et vive la France.

 Erratum: The quote attributed to Roosevelt should actually be attributed to Benjamin Franklin, who was the first person to say it back in 1755. Roosevelt used the quote in a 1941 speech, and has henceforth been wrongly quoted as its author by many, including me. Mea Culpa.

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Why Kindle doesn’t light my fire.

This post is a reply to this week’s Mind the Gap on the Weekly Writing Challenge, which asked the following question:

How do you prefer to read, with an eReader like a Kindle or Nook, or with an old school paperback in hand? 

I am sick today. My kids have kindly passed on the dreaded lurgy to the family head nurse. My lungs are trying their best to turn themselves inside out and escape from a home that is rapidly becoming a sanitorium.

So I’m going to bed. With a book. A real book. I’ve never had a Kindle, and I could never use one, except perhaps as a beer mat. Read on, and find out why.

A statue in front of a Pezenas bookstore that caught my eye (My photo).

When I’ve finished this, I’ll go upstairs to the bookshelf and run my index finger across the spines of my protégés. They are all lined up haphazardly, a mini Manhattan skyline of different heights, sizes, shapes and colours, all jostling together and crying out to be taken in someone’s hands. Each of them contains an escape route:  an imaginary realm and a fabulous plot dreamed up by someone else who has a passion for the written word. I have a vivid imagination, and tend to anthropomorphise my books. They all seem to be holding their breath in the knowledge that the happy winner will be taken everywhere with me – throughout the house, on the bus or train, in the garden. My faithful book will never have a flat battery or break down before I reach the end of the story. Lost in the depths of my handbag, stuffed in my pocket or tucked under my arm, the Chosen One resists the trials and tribulations of being shaken around, dropped or soaked by mischievous children on the beach, and remains with me until I have devoured every last word and returned “him” or “her” to the shelf.

It is difficult to choose between a well-thumbed favourite and the yet-to-be-read orphans that I regularly save from lonely charity shop shelves. Should I pick humour, a classic or a well-thumbed favourite? The choice is always a pleasure. Choosing a book to read is like picking a chocolate from a box: should I take a story with a mellow, lingering storyline? A bitter-sweet or dark suspense? Or a light, airy plot that fizzes and snaps and makes my mind explode with new emotions? Maybe I’ll take a hardback with a soft centre, or a malleable novel that is as easy to read as pouring caramel over vanilla ice cream. Touching books is of paramount importance to me; deciding from a list on a screen makes the book frustratingly anonymous, ephemeral. I often hesitate and continue along the row before returning to my first choice, holding two paperbacks in my hands and dithering.

Once my choice is made, I’ll curl up under my quilt with my book. Books are a sensorial experience, more than the cold Kindle could ever be. First there is the visual pleasure of the cover. The colours, the choice of the illustration. Then I close my eyes, flick the pages below my nose and inhale the smell of the paper.  I rarely pick up on the odor of fresh ink and new paper, a sign that I am generally drawn to comforting books whose ageing paper releases the occasional tell-tale whiff of home and family.

Then I read, playing with the corner of the page and enjoying the suspense of the developments lying in wait on the other side. Since my childhood,  books have been my springboard out of the real world into an imaginary world where I can happily soak up the emotions escaping from the ink on the paper.

One shelf of my personal playground.

One shelf of my personal playground.

One last point before I sneak upstairs to see my babies. A few days ago, I met up with a wonderful friend I hadn’t seen for too many years. When we finally released each other from a long-overdue hug, I religiously took two books from my bag and gave them to her. I had bought one for her six years ago and forgotten to post it. The other was one that she had lent me years back. When she saw it, she clasped it to her heart with tangible emotion. When she was finally able to say something, she explained that the book had been given to her by a friend who had recently passed away. So for many of us, the humble book is much more than just a physical support on which an author places words. It is not just paper and ink,  it is a physical marker of events throughout our lives, a lasting link between people and their pasts. Long live the book.