Cold Case 1 – Ally Pally

Alexandra Palace
Alexandra Palace

For someone who mostly writes about walking, it is a challenge to write about a walk around the block. James Joyce could do it. Then again, people have walked on the moon: doesn’t mean I can.

I’m not saying you’re interested in my mental health. But if you were, I’ve now, tentatively – because you can’t really diagnose yourself – diagnosed myself with ADHD (I mean on top of the clinical diagnosis of autism I received in 2019). The key symptom, for me, is perhaps not being able to finish anyth … an off-kilter sense of humour. …tarting is also difficult. Oddly, the attention part of ADHD is not the worst part of it. I can attend minutely: some of the time. But finish a book? A job? A song? I will get so far with something – years, decades even, then drop it for what seem to me to be perfectly good reasons, and start something else, several things usually which will race along like barges greased with walnut oil until they too stop, fouled with pondweed or shopping bags or discarded knickers. Now I realise that this is perhaps not a personal preference, a personality trait or lazy complacency. It is just the unwritten law of ADHD.

There are upsides to this for a writer in lockdown. I have a filing cabinet and several gigabytes of half-finished projects. It doesn’t mean I can sit down and finish any of them. But at least I can burn some stored fat rather than wearing out my heels in a constant search for novelty (another symptom of ADHD, you won’t be surprised to learn).

Alexandra Palace has long been a place of unfinished business for me. The small amount of research I did – on its use as an internment camp during WW1 – only seems to have got more relevant in the five or so years since I tried and failed to wedge it into my (unfinished) book.

With not quite half of voters in the US and just over half in the UK pumped up with more or less racist nationalism, it is worth remembering where it has led in the past. One of the places is Alexandra Palace. It was home during the First World War to 17,000 civilian prisoners.

Locking up people for the duration of the war simply because they were, or used to be, German was – sensible or not – cruel for those on the receiving end. Many had been married to British women for decades. Some had sons in the colours. No one was above suspicion. An unblemished employment record could not keep them from a straw mattress in the exhibition hall, a couple of feet from their new neighbours, farting, yelling in their sleep, crying with homesickness for Surbiton or Chiselhurst and half-dead with boredom and the crushing oppression of an indeterminate sentence for a crime – being born somewhere or other – that they had no choice but commit.

I have enjoyed revisiting my notes on Rudolf Rocker taken partly from a typed essay in Haringey archives and partly from his book, The London Years. Rocker was a well known political activist in his day. A libertarian socialist, he taught himself Yiddish and, though not Jewish himself, was prominent in the Jewish labour movement in the East End before the war. He was interned at the start of the war, deported to Holland at the end of it. He returned to Germany only to have to escape the Nazis for the US in 1933. There he lived under the threat of deportation even after the Second World War: a man without a country.

As a well-known public figure, Rocker became a leader of the civilians interned in Alexandra Palace. He began an essay on the life of the prisoners in 1917 but didn’t finish it. But what I read in the archives was fascinating: especially a chapter on the psychology of internment. It sounds like the seventh circle of hell for an autist like me. One of the worst things for Rocker was that there was never any solitude. He wasn’t alone with his thoughts for four years. A particularly cruel symptom was his inability to concentrate. The minute he picked up a book, someone would start hammering, or jabbering, relating ‘for the hundredth time his same old hackneyed version of the war, with which he has already driven to distraction, innumerable times, hundreds of others.’ A cruel and unusual punishment for anyone, but particularly for a freethinker like Rocker.

No one could avoid ‘morbid irritability’ and frequent fights about the most trivial things. Some, Rocker tells us, even committed minor infractions of the rules in the hope of spending some time alone.

It is a shame the essay was unfinished, but the experience of incarceration informed his most important book, Nationalism and Culture, which I’ve just downloaded to my phone. I’m not promising to finish it, although it is currently at the top of the pile. Understanding the relationship between nationalism and culture, one feels, has never been more important.

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