Connecting with X-Men

As we begin a new year, my iPhone is very keen I remember new years past. ‘You have a new memory,’ it tells me, insistently, like an automated pensieve conjuring up old dinner parties and the lurch back to work. Presumably it’s worried I myself am incapable of remembering relevant memories at relevant times. Or maybe this is an act of benevolence on the part of our phones, an understanding that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. It works, of course. The anxious ding-ding-ding of memories does make me look back. New Years Eve 2016, we were all thankfully bidding farewell to Brexit and Trump. Now, the cheer we all felt as we said goodbye to 2016 seems quaint. Oh, to live in less interesting times.

As I write this, news is breaking – a powerful phrase, for the news itself is the kind that seeks to break us. Pawel Adamowicz, mayor of the Polish city of Gdánsk, has died after being stabbed on stage at a charity concert by a young man with a history of violent crimes. Adamowicz has held the post since 1998. He was a staunch defender of liberalism, minority rights, the LGBT+ community, and a vocal critic of the rising far-right in Poland. The Guardian reports that Adamowicz ‘showed solidarity with the Jewish community when windows at Gdánsk synagogue were broken last year’.

This is part of a broader pattern. On the 14thof December, 2018, thirty-seven tombs and a Holocaust memorial were desecrated with swastikas in the Jewish Cemetery of Herrlisheim, north of Strasbourg, France. In July, The New York Times reported that in France, ‘[n]early 40 percent of violent acts classified as racially or religiously motivated were committed against Jews in 2017, though Jews make up less than 1 percent of France’s population.’ The charity Community Security Trust in the UK similarly reports that anti-Semitic abuse has tripled in the UK over the last decade. These deeply concerning events are evidence of a resurgent extremism, and leave me with a feeling of despair as Holocaust Memorial Day approaches.

A scene comes to mind from X-Men (2000). The film stars Sir Ian McKellen as Magneto, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, and Sir Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, leader of the X-Men, and headmaster of a school for the ‘specially gifted’. (Bear with me, I promise this is relevant, and not just me taking comfort from art – though of course it’s that too.) For those who don’t know the X-Men (and what a treat you’re in for), the comics centre around the emergence of mutants – superpowered people – who are hated and feared by the majority human population. The X-Men (and women) are a metaphor for any minority battling for equality and acceptance.

Magneto and Xavier were once close friends, but are now enemies, on opposite lines of the same battle. Xavier believes in the decency of people. But as the US government seeks to pass a registration law “outing” mutants, Magneto tells Xavier: ‘I’ve heard these arguments before.’

By the end of the film, Magneto is imprisoned, after trying to assume power. He and Xavier face each other over a game of chess (of course).

Magneto asks, ‘Doesn’t it ever wake you in the middle of the night, the feeling that someday they will pass that foolish law, or one just like it, and come for you – and your children?’

‘It does indeed.’

‘What do you do, when you wake up to that?’

‘I feel a great swell of pity,’ says Xavier, ‘for the poor soul who comes to that school, looking for trouble.’

When I wake up in the middle of the night, I wish had Xavier’s confidence. Instead, I am left with Magneto’s question: what do you do, when you wake up to that? What can we do, walking into a 2019 that remains as troubling as 2018, if not more so, a clock seeming to only tick down?

What saves humanity in the X-Men, time and again, is connection, whether connection between mutants or humans, or the bond between Magneto and Xavier. The moments of 2018 that I will treasure – and will need no help remembering – are those of connection, from meeting authors I admire (read: worship) at literary festivals, like Ali Smith and Dame Hilary Mantel, to meeting readers. It has been a joy to join in with book clubs and chat with people in signing queues. I have been particularly struck by the willingness of people to share their memories with me: memories of seeing camp survivors on news reels at the cinema, memories of the Blitz, memories of Berlin as it was divided.

I think these conversations are important because they bring us together, reminding us of where we’ve been, and inspiring us to change where we’re going. One of my heroes died last year: Harry Leslie Smith, the world’s oldest rebel, who shared stories of his childhood before the NHS to galvanise a movement to save it, as well as stories of Jewish refugees, to galvanise a movement to help the many refugees who need our humanity now. The response to his illness across Twitter and elsewhere was heartening, because it revealed how many of us his activism had touched. The connection will live on.

In August 2018, a group of extremist far-right men – including three UKIP members – attacked Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop in London. Five hundred of us gathered in solidarity. I was honoured to read a scene from Testament about a far-right attack on the Left Book Club in 1945. The atmosphere across the day was electric. In that room, I felt that our energy was boundless, our conviction limitless, our hope unshakable. I began the day nervous about attack, but when far-right men did shout abuse, a column of calmly marching people drove them back.

All of the moments of 2018 that have left me inspired, energised, and joyous, have been those in relationship with others. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I’ll remember that, and look forward to sharing ideas and memories with more people in 2019.

Kim Sherwood is a novelist and essayist. Her debut novel, Testament (riverrun, 2018), is about the impact of the Holocaust on three generations of a family, spanning from 1944 in Hungary to London in the present-day. @kimtsherwood

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