Jaw Jaw and the Censure


The Hindustan Times reports that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to address the senate of the University of Cambridge during his three-day visit to Britain in November. This has caused considerable consternation among those currently attending the University, whatever their capacity, and among alumni. The letter at the end of this link is addressed to the Vice Chancellor of the University requesting that he withdraw the invitation. It cites the reasons why such a person should not address the University, among which are his complicity in mass murder, and his systematic silencing of dissenting voices. As an alumnus I have signed the letter. I urge any fellow Cantabrigians reading this blog to consider doing so also.

When I promoted the letter on Facebook it drew two interesting observations from two friends of mine, both men of letters and learning, and in friendships that persist and thrive despite significant differences in our political leanings. The first observation was on whether this action constitutes an act of censorship. This friend is unwavering in his belief that freedom of speech should never be constrained, no matter how hateful the message, or the messenger, as this is a route to, and symptom of a more insidious tyranny. My other friend brought a considered tone of both treating a foreign dignitary with respect, and tempered this with a healthy dose of real politik. Alienating India, a key regional ally, and economic power would be damaging to our self interest. My friend and I learned the phrase “jaw jaw not war war” from the same history teacher decades ago. He went on to argue that by engaging with Mr Modi we have the opportunity to extend our influence over him, and over time draw him closer to our standards of openness and democracy.

I responded to both thus:

In the first instance the stance we are taking is not one of censorship, but censure. I admit though to relishing the irony of not letting a man who suppresses voices air his own. But as PM of India Modi does not lack for platforms from which he can spread his messages. The action is not to silence, but to withhold the cachet and implicit acceptance that goes with speaking at Cambridge when the speaker’s mores are so horribly at odds with the tolerance and intellectual freedom we so value.

Modi will undoubtedly speak at dinners hosted by Cameron and will be toasted by business leaders. The ballrooms and convention centres of Southall and Birmingham will be filled with Indian diaspora hanging off his every word, blind or willfully ignoring the atrocities in which he is complicit and hate mongering of which he is culpable.

Nor are the freedoms we love so cheap that we will hawk them in the bazaar to whoever passes with a purse full of copper. Have you been to India? The inequality there is of a scale you cannot comprehend if all you have seen is the local tragedy of the western homeless, sleeping in the rain shadow of skyscrapers. There an abject, withering poverty sits beside wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Is it to those vaults of hoarded rupees we should sell our self respect.

Are we the world’s penniless drunk, sitting at the bar hoping the brash new money that walks in will buy a round for everyone? Are we the dissolute master returning to his suddenly wealthy manumitted slave with a shy smile, saying “I raised you up and only flogged you gently, and see how well you learned my lessons of violence and entitlement. Take me to lunch and tell me how you did it”?

I am not so readily bought. My Alma mater’s most precious asset is the ennoblement of mind it confers on those who pass through its halls and cloisters. People come to speak there to bask in its reflection. I hope the institution listens to the voices it has nurtured and withholds its light from this murderer of masses, from this silencer of voices.

And yet should we not hold him close? Talk to him rather than shun him, allow our sensibilities to seep into his own? It is a sentiment so self evidently true and right that it should immediately raise the hackles of suspicion. Look carefully at those who eschew estrangement from the things we despise and argue that we should bring our influence to bear. And then follow the sickly sweet scent of the money. It is as self serving a position to take in this instance as it is in our Prime Minister’s toadying with Saudi Arabia, and it is just as fruitless. I have not seen any evidence of influence bringing lasting political change to bear. More than that I think our influence in Britain is a myth we have spun to fill the emotional chasm caused by the loss of an empire. We keep close to other nations to pick their pockets or sell them our silver. Hard money and the consumption of things talks louder than the abstraction of influence. I suspect Churchill knew that in 1954 and his famous quote is just another pillar in his personal myth creation. Perhaps if he had been truthful he would have said, “more, more, not war war”.


More of my writing here


The Door I Never Opened

The Door I Never Opened

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden.

TS Eliot – Burnt Norton

I cling to my regrets. They are milestones and millstones, showing where I have been, or the doors I did not open. Keepsakes, chains on snowflakes that bind my failing memory.

There are things I would change. Most are actions or decisions of such monumental personal proportions that I cannot unravel the consequences. Life, death, love and loss are contingent on those turning points. Best left alone, I think.

Little moments, almost inconsequential incidents also haunt me: a choice of words, a second’s hesitation. Given the chance to do these over I would take a different path.

This is one.

There is much I regret about that final year. My glittering academic career, punctuated with awards and scholarships, came crashing to earth. I ignored the syllabus and threw myself into night-long discussions on metaphysics, maths, syntax, and the recipe for the perfect mozzarella salad. I wrote a lot of bad poems. A lot, and really bad.  I spent hours tapping them out two-fingered, but I could not bring myself to spend a fraction of that time in the library reading about my course.

All that is set. Let it stay.

I’d change the two words I said to you one summer afternoon before we sipped elderberry cordial in the shadow of Woolf and Wittgenstein.

There is a lot I don’t remember about that year, twenty and some have passed since then. I do remember you. We smoked on the window seat in my room, our legs dangling towards the river and the Bridge of Sighs three storeys below. I should have been revising for my finals.

You asked me to turn you into a vampire. I bit your neck.

I remember how much you loved those windows. I remember I didn’t kiss you.


I remember the night four of us walked across the scholar’s garden. The moon through the branches striped the lawn. I took off my shoes and went third, it was our Abbey Road, or Belsize Park. “Do you remember, barefoot on the lawn with shooting stars?”

And I remember the day you were going on a trip upriver, and either I invited myself, or you insisted I go with you. There was a gang of your friends. Of them I remember nothing at all.

We watched the trees pass overhead from the bow of the boat, wading through the unreal beauty of Cambridge. You pulled me back as the others strolled to The Orchard tea room and said, “I do love you, you know.”

I said, “I know.”

Those words cut me today, while you have undoubtedly forgotten them. I don’t know what I was trying to prove, or what coolness and aloofness would achieve. A moment to be anyone but Han. I should have said anything else, I still don’t know what.

Who knows what it would change. I forget now if I ever saw you again after that day. Perhaps once in a fleeting goodbye and a promise to write. Perhaps not. Those facts might remain unchanged. But the burden of two careless words in my memory would be lifted, and I would tread a little lighter.



If you are interested in my storytelling look here

More memories from college collated here