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April 17, 2011

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» Tour de France (5) – Sharif Gemie

Presentation - Photograph

Miles of Aisles

To Albi, way down in the south of France and a twelve-hour train journey from Nancy. I’m going in order to attend a meeting of the EXILIO network: a small research project which links researchers in Britain, France and Spain who are studying refugee history. Ideally, we’d just like to get together and chat, but in order to get funding for a meeting, we have to do something more spectacular, so we’ve organised one day of public papers, to be followed by a morning of private debate.

Albi University is gaining quite a reputation in France: it’s one of France’s newest universities, one of its smallest universities and – as all French academics comment – probably also one of its cleanest. It’s based in a converted barracks, dating from 1880: big, symmetrical, three-story buildings, typical of Third Republic (1870-1940). Today, the sun is shining, and the University certainly seems to be gleaming in order to meet the EXILIO network.

There’s an unpleasant shock as we arrive: the – for want of a better word – ‘leader’ of the EXILIO network, Scott Soo, has sprained his ankle very badly, and is unable to attend. The organisers of the conference are unwilling to just drop one paper, and so they ask me to provide a paper in French. I have just given one paper twice in Nancy and Rennes, but it’s not really on the conference theme: Anti-Fascist Refugees. I spend the day before the conference tinkering about with my powerpoint presentation, setting myself the question of considering whether UNRRA could be considered as ‘official anti-fascism’. I think I’ve got enough material to last twenty minutes.

The conference starts: Laure Humbert, who was my research assistant in 2007-10, gives one of the first papers. Her title suggests that she is going to talk about Displaced Persons in the French zone of Germany: in practice, she talks at some length about UNRRA, asking whether this organisation could be considered as anti-fascism in practice. Although she approaches the topic from a different angle, and although she doesn’t show illustrations, I can’t help thinking that her paper is quite similar to mine. Over the lunch hour, I look again at my paper, and decide that I could say more about The Search, a film produced in 1947-48 with the help of UNRRA. I speak last, and most of the conference audience is not looking for a long paper at that point. I feel quite nervous at the beginning. Afterwards, everyone is very polite about my paper at the end: Laure herself comments that I sound more confident in French. I’m not entirely convinced.

Albi University, France: Photograph

The conference as a whole seems to suggest some problems with ‘anti-fascism’ as a concept. Many refugee groups were positively attracted towards elements of Nazism in the 1930s, and many turned anti-communist after 1947 or 1948. Even those who were motivated to become anti-fascists had very varying motivations. I find myself thinking that there seem to be two interpretations present: a political analysis of refugees, and a social analysis of refugees. How can the EXILIO network survive?

By the next morning we’re all tired. There’s a certain amount of administrative formalities to complete, but we finally get on to discussing the main themes. We all like each other, and nobody is going to say anything openly critical of anyone. Normally, discussions are tri-lingual (English, French and Spanish), but as I’m the only Brit present, and as everyone can speak French, we tend to speak in French most of the time, with a few comments in Spanish. I do comment that I think we had all been rather naive before the conference in assuming that the concept of ‘anti-fascism’ would be a simple, unproblematic term. There seems to be some agreement that we could look again at the term. Things look up as the delegate from Santiago de Compostela (in Galicia) says that he thinks he could obtain funding for another conference, with Spanish as the principal language.

We’re all keen to meet again: we leave with the firm intention of meeting in the City of the Way in summer 2012.

Sharif, 16 April 2012

April 14, 2011

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» Tour de France (4) – Sharif Gemie

Five years ago I visited the Chateau of Lunéville, located in the east of France. It was an extraordinary sight: this wonderful eighteenth-century building had been devastated in a fire in 2003. We walked through enormous, high rooms, with cinders and burnt timber on the floor and no roofs. Although the fire had taken place two years ago, we could still smell the smoke in the air. Well over half the chateau was ruined. Walking through this fine, elegant building, built in 1730, and seeing the evidence of recent destruction was a bizarre, striking experience.

I went back to the Chateau yesterday to give my lecture on UNRRA. It has been transformed. Five years have been spent in trying to re-create an eighteenth century building: the original plans have been located, and there has been a sustained effort to follow these in the re-construction. Once again, it’s a striking sight: an authentic eighteenth-century century building, but now looking as if it was built yesterday. Lunéville was built after the great royal palace at Versailles, which it closely resembles: the same vast scale, the same symmetry, and same sense of space in its rooms. The chateau is now once again open the public.

Although such buildings were the preserve of immensely wealthy aristocracy, I can’t help admiring them: I particularly like the formal French gardens, which present such a contrast with the gardens of the British aristocracy. While our national myth is rooted in the organic, natural and spontaneous. Eighteenth-century British gardens attempt to present an idea that they ‘just happened’: that they grew almost by themselves, as part of the natural world, the French aristocracy operated to a quite different code, in which they wanted their gardens and their houses to demonstrate the control over nature.

While the chateau was being restored, my friend Didier Francfort created a centre for European Cultural History in its building: he invited me to give my lecture. We were not in one of the vast rooms which were designed for entertaining crowds, but in a small, purpose-built lecture theatre. I think that I probably spoke as well as I did in Rennes, but this time the audience was more mixed, and while they were interested in UNRRA, they had less to say in response – although one woman did say that she would definitely buy our book when it was published.

Sharif, 13 April 2011

April 9, 2011

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» Tour de France (3) – Sharif Gemie

Tour de France: Blog 3

Speaking in French

I’m in the Breton capital of Rennes, enjoying an unexpected heatwave. I’m here to give a lecture in French on some of the research carried out by myself, Fiona Reid, Laure Humbert and Louise Rees for Outcast Europe. Despite the fact that I’ve been learning French for 45 years, I still find speaking French in public very difficult. The golden rule seems to be that about half your ability to speak a foreign language in an approximately correct manner disappears once you stand up in front of an audience. I’ve also learnt that the idea of just reading out a written text absolutely does not work: I just get more tongue-tied. So, my current strategy is to come with lots of pictures and almost no notes. I’ve rehearsed the paper three times, and I do know the material well: I’m going to discuss UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (1943-47), arguably the great-grandfather of all international relief agencies.

I’m attending a small research workshop, organised by Ronan Le Coadic, an old Breton friend of mine. The first speaker talks about Aimé Césaire, a theorist of Black culture in the Caribbean. There’s then a two-hour lunch break, with wine (this is France). Then it’s my turn. Surprisingly, I’m not really nervous. There’s a slight hitch when I realize that the powerpoint images will be projected via an Apple not a PC, but even this only takes a few seconds. As I speak, I do stumble frequently: sometimes I just forget words, and I have to think quickly of different ways to say the same thing. Quite often I forget how to say words, even though I’ve got a type of mental record of their pronunciation. But the idea of using pictures works well: while I stumble, the audience looks at the pictures.

The discussion afterwards is surprisingly positive and very long (over an hour). None of the audience has ever heard of UNRRA: they’re intrigued by my stories of earnest middle-class idealists arriving in Germany to solve all the problems left by the Second World War. They’re particularly interested in the contributions by the Quakers. It’s all over by 4.15pm; we pack up and then I walk round Rennes with Ronan.

On Monday, I’ll be doing the same thing again in Lunéville, right on the other side of France, way out east.

I’m now off to catch a TGV, one of France’s 30-year-old high-speed train network, which is thankfully air-conditioned.

Sharif, 9 April 2011