‘From Corbyn to Brexit, UK politics gave me a heart attack’

Guardian political columnist Rafael Behr on the impact upheavals in Westminster had on his life


Tanya Gold speaks to The Guardian journalist Rafael Behr. 24/04/2023

Rafael Behr’s book is called Politics: A Survivor’s Guide, and the name is not hyperbolic. On New Year’s Eve 2019, after covering the Brexit referendum and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party as a political columnist for the Guardian, he had a heart attack while jogging in Brighton, where he lives.

He was 45 and the fragmentation of politics had felled him. He is a writer, and he became a metaphor. It could have been what cardiologists call “a widow-maker” because Behr’s first instinct was to run on.

But he writes: “Then I remembered Eric Rink.”

Eric Rink was his maternal grandfather, who died at 45 playing golf. Behr went to hospital, and he recovered, but he needed an emotional renewal.

Politics had consumed him, even if — no, because — he is the most subtle writer on the left today. He decided to write his political testimony, drawing together his experience as a second-generation immigrant — his family moved from Lithuania to South Africa to Finchley, where he grew up — and the polarisation of British politics after 2016: the winnowing out of the liberalism he cherishes.

Recent politics has been agony for everyone but authoritarians, but Behr has peculiar insight and peculiar grace.

“Some of us were suffering in metric units,” he writes, “and some were measuring their outrage in imperial yards.”

He felt like “a cartographer in the middle of an earthquake, where the ground you want to map is moving and the landmarks you note are at constant risk of tumbling down”.

We meet in the Goring Hotel near Buckingham Palace, a flurry of flounces and gilt. It was the Queen Mother’s favourite hotel. It pleases me to meet Behr in the centre of the British establishment, because we’ve met here before.

I last saw him at Oxford University in the late 1990s, where we studied at the same ancient college and where we both, in very different ways, were navigating the British class system as young suburban Jews.

I was noisy and dramatic, while he was shy and bookish. But I realise now we were both, as he writes, “un-British in a way that was private, invisible to the naked eye… in a half-adapted state between belonging and pretending”.

Now he says: “Being interviewed brings out a level of imposter syndrome I didn’t know I had.” But he smiles; his way is to start a thought softly, and then speed up. Elegant paragraphs spool from him. I ask about the heart attack.

He likes talking about it. “In a perverse way, I am kind of fond of it as an episode in the story of my life,” he says.

“Because I survived it. For me, it had a happy ending.” His rehabilitation, he goes on, insisting I include the caveat “this is going to sound very weird”, reminds him most of bringing a baby home from hospital. (He has two daughters.)

“That dramatic, enforced shrinking of horizons where you have to nurture something very intimate and close to you. And included in that was an incredible sense of relief that I suddenly no longer had to care about anything else.”

I ask him what his favourite novel is. He sips his tea and tells me it is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize-winning Japanese-British writer: a spare, exquisite rumination on the British class system written by an immigrant.

He experienced antisemitism as a child — a teacher at his school [City of London] joked that Jewish children would be good at prising a coin off a desk — but he became more aware of class at Oxford.

He enjoyed Oxford, but he marvelled that a fellow student, an old Etonian, called him, “a cockney, as if I walked off the set of EastEnders”. Behr wondered: “Have you ever been east of Berkshire?”

He understands now that Oxford “grooms people to become adjuncts, to become fluent in the dialogue. But we will never have the blithe self-confidence to gain entry to the inner sanctum.” He remembers people who “radiated a phenomenal sense of entitlement.

“They hummed with the magnetism of self-belief that no amount of working hard could ever substitute. It’s a different commodity you’re trading in.”

Even so, he got a First in French and Russian and, during his year abroad, worked at the Guardian’s Moscow bureau. He never got a byline to himself, “but I definitely sorted out their filing system”.

And he found his obsession.

“I got that taste for knowing the news before everyone else,” he says. He thought about doing a PhD but feared that no subject would interest him for four years “because I’m basically a journalist”. He worked at and took the risk of going freelance to become a foreign correspondent in the Baltic.

It was there, when he was 27, that he began to consciously negotiate the past. He travelled to Linkuva, the Lithuanian town his paternal grandfather Jacob Behr had fled with his parents for South Africa in 1912. “It was a very abstract homage,” he says. “Looking back, I don’t think I was inquiring enough.

"Maybe I was still at that stage too ambivalent about how much I wanted my Jewishness to be a really defining part of my identity.”

He was told what all returning Jews are told in Lithuania: No one knows anything. No one remembers anything.

The Germans arrived on June 28, 1941. Locals rounded up the small Jewish population and shot and buried them in the forest.

Eventually, he found a friendly woman who directed him to the Jewish graveyard at the outskirts of the town.

“There was no boundary,” he writes, “where the grassy roadside verge ended and the cemetery began.” That is the question of all diaspora Jews: where is the boundary? He asked himself: “What was Linkuva to me?”

He didn’t yet know, but he understood that the national story of Israel, which he visited every year as a child, “was about me in a way that the one I was taught about Britain was not”.

The Israel of his childhood, he writes, had, “a quivering tautness… as if the whole country were a temporary structure, a canopy pegged into the desert, the guy ropes clenched in the knotted fists of the generation that dreaded annihilation”.

He remembers seeing a survivor who would sit on the wall outside the apartment block they stayed in, and whose eyes “showed the reflection of some unfathomable void”.

There is a fascinating dimension to Behr’s immediate family. While his side are refugees, his non-Jewish wife’s grandmother, Ilse Buch, was a Berliner, evacuated from the Sudetenland to a camp run by the Hitler Youth.

She met a British soldier called Clive Campbell at the end of the war and he took her home to Derby.

“The existence of those children [his daughters] would have been illegal under the Nuremberg Laws,” he says, and this is partially why he was for Remain. The EU was “trying to bind Europe together so that the previous centuries — people butchering each other non-stop — would be made impossible.

"My own children are a product of the possibility of reconciliation: the idea that you can cross continents.”

He thinks this is miraculous, “not letting enmity sit there, recycling through the bloodstream all the time”.

He never asked Ilse, who renamed herself Liz, about her childhood. “It was never quite the moment to ask: how did you feel about Jews circa 1938?” She adored her half-Jewish great-granddaughters, and she died in 2011.

Behr understood that as a member of the Westminster lobby, he is perceived as being a member of an elite, and in some ways — the child of a doctor — he is. But he is also the child of émigrés.

The realisation of its meaning came in instalments. One was Oxford. Another was Moscow, “where everyone you met identified you as Jewish before you opened your mouth”.

People would ask him: “Why are you pretending you are English?” Another was Linkuva. The third was Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

He realised then, “that the Jewish component of my identity would never not be political at some level. Once you have an identity like that, there will come a time when that identity has got to come out of the background and into the foreground. I think I had been naive about that before.”

He compares it to a mixing desk when the equaliser is pushed up. “That background music that has informed your identity is suddenly the dominant melody,” he says. “I had thought, ‘I can write about politics and the Labour Party and never have to make what it means to be Jewish a part of that.’”

But that was over. He says it was “incredibly inconvenient” for the Corbynites that the victims of the Holocaust were Jews.

What upset him most, though, was not the deranged conspiracy theorists but “the people able enough to perceive there was a problem [with antisemitism]. And when they saw what the price was for supporting Labour, they said, ‘Well if that’s the price, that’s the price.’”

He was a Jewish leftist but, in the 2019 election, he “wanted them both to lose [Labour and the Conservatives]. I imagined them colliding and cancelling each other out, like something from a science fiction movie.”

He knew that this was dangerous: “The most toxic state is the fusion of fury and despondency, when it feels that the democratic process itself has become the engine of grievance and disharmony.” His job was to filter and analyse “the toxic substance flowing through Westminster”.

Instead, “I carried it in my pocket, brought it home, spilled it on myself.” And when he recovered from the heart attack, he held a photograph of Rink, who “had nudged me to the hospital.

He looked out from the photo, asking me what I planned to do now that, unlike him, I had survived.”

He chose to write a book repudiating extremism: a plea for knowledge and for tenderness. “I had to go back to working for a living and politics is all I know,” he says. “But I couldn’t possibly go back to engaging with it the way I was before. Instead of unpicking the knot, I was just pulling on the ends, just making the knot tighter and tighter.

“Someone once said to me,” he adds, “that the only book you’ll get to the end of is one you can’t not write.”

He wrote this one because, “if you felt alienated by [politics], that chipped away at your sense of belonging. If it is making you ill, that is a corrosion of belonging.

"If you are an immigrant, anything that corrodes your sense of belonging is immediately more existentially threatening. In the worst-case scenario where would you go?”

He talks about “the fibres of cultural attachment. Some of it is the politics and when the politics starts to sever and ping and pick away at those fibres of attachment — as they did for a lot of Jews when they imagined Jeremy Corbyn being Prime Minister, as they did for a lot of people when the Brexit campaign accused them of being saboteurs and traitors for having voted Remain — that fingernail picking under the seam where you feel joined to the country. That is what is causing the tumult in your soul.”

Behr has written a haunting and singular book about the essence of the diaspora Jew and his longings, and it will stay with me.

He treasures this line from the Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak: “Motherlands are castles made of glass. In order to leave them, you have to break something. To be an émigré, therefore, means to forever bear shards of glass in your pockets. They will cut you deep.”

Politics: A Survivor’s Guide, by Rafael Behr, is out now (Atlantic Books, £15)

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