That was the year that was – the road to nowhere

Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads

To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.

The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.

The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.

And so, to the year in review:

During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its  watch  with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.

In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in CrisisMilo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.

Southern Discomfort.

The year’s leitmotif was the ongoing fiftieth anniversary of 1968, a tumultuous year for the world, and a formative one for myself personally. Stories of the events of that year are interspersed my own recollections – what I was doing at at the time, and what was going through my youthful head.  In Encounters with Enoch, I revisit English politician Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Then it’s Springtime in Paris as I recall les Évènements de Mai. And thence to Prague and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Finally, there was the year in review with Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited.

2018 was also the centenary of the armistice that ended The Great War. November 1918 – the counterfeit peace discussed how for many countries and peoples in Europe and beyond, the conflict and the bloodshed continued. We also shared a poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon  to all the “doomed youth” of all wars with Dulce et ducorem est – the death of war poet Wilfred Owen

There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death of Stalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck inspired The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl Blues. This featured the complete first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, describing the unfolding of an environmental disaster. Two other posts also covered ecological bad news stories: The return of the forest wars in Australia, and Losing Earth – the decade we almost stopped climate change.

As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Homeand a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed  the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.

Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song  Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Blues shone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods  – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.

And that was the year that was.

And the top five?

Number five was that slap that resounded around the world – the story of young Ahed Tamimi and her family. Four, the tale of melancholy Martin SparrowThree, the Jacobite love song Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. Two, the reverie of 1968. And, number one, my very, very favourite and indeed, a labour of love, The Twilight of the Equine Gods

Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Our reviews of previous years: 20172016 2015

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The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad

The highway is alive tonight
Where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad
Bruce Springsteen

In the last of our posts commemorating 1968, we pay tribute to author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck who died fifty years ago this month.

Back in the day, The Grapes of Wrath was included in our GCE A level curriculum, nearly thirty years after its publication and its iconic status. It was, to our formative minds, a pleasantly surprising choice. In the mid ‘sixties, before Vietnam became the quagmire that sapped America’s blood and treasure and trashed its post-war reputation as a force for good in the world, the land of the free and home of the brave was also was a beacon of bright consumerism, great movies, and pop music. The idea of an American novel in English Lit, so long the preserve of Britain’s literary canon, wonderful though it was, has a certain excitement to it. It gave to us a new literary language, a different sensibility, a fresh perspective.

But Steinbeck’s America was new to us, an America far removed from of the hope and glory that we’d been accustomed to in the years following what was seen as the US’ triumph in World War Two (the costly and critical contribution of the Soviet Union, now our ostensible foe, was singularly downplayed during these years). The Grapes of Wrath was a revelation, an eye-opener, a primer, indeed, for a youthful awareness and politicisation that would be further nurtured by the escalating war in Indochina and the rise and rise of the civil rights movement in the US.

The inevitable examination question in the summer 1967 was exactly that: why were studying an American novel? Any discerning reader taking in the opening pages of chapter one can answer this in a trice. The simple beauty, the lyrical and descriptive power, the gradual but relentlessly unfolding narrative is such that I can recite parts of it from memory over half a century later.

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

I have reproduced chapter one in full below. In a few short pages, it describes how the the last rains fell on Oklahoma’s cornfields and how the searing summer sun rendered the land to dust, creating the dust bowl so chillingly portrayed by filmmaker Ken Burns in his singular documentary of that name, and propelling tens of thousands of destitute ‘Okies’ “on the long, hard road of flight” (as Bob Dylan would describe it in Chimes of Freedom)  to California. As a literary record of an unfolding environmental disaster, it is without equal.  It is poetical, powerful, and profoundly unsettling, and there’s worse to follow.

There are few books that strike such a chord with me – books that I reread in whole or in part once in a while, often aloud, just for the verbal and lyrical thrill. Moby-Dick is such a one, Herman Melville’s classic treatise on seafaring, whales and obsession – from which this blog takes its name – particularly chapter forty one which brilliantly describes the demented and doomed sea captain’s descent into madness.

Whilst few writers can lay claim to have written the “great American novel”, Steinbeck and Melville cracked the code. My own personal contender would also be CE Morgan’s Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about a old Kentucky horse-breeding family – the “kings” of the title. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it is a harrowing journey through America’s dark soul. Morgan’s debt to Steinbeck  is transparent in her descriptive power.

Far across the road, cattle moaned with longing for a night coming in fits and starts. The air was restless and the crickets thrummed. The hot, humid breath of August was lifting now from the ground, where it had boiled all day, rising to meet the cooler streams of air that hovered over it. Airs kissed and stratified, whitening and thinning as the sun slipped its moorings and sank to the bank of the earth. 

Following the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath, I republish an informative essay from The Independent with regard to a new biography of Steinbeck on the anniversary of his death. He was a gifted, complex and at times, unpleasant man. His stories of the lives of migrants and workers during US’ Great Depression, most notably in The Grapes of Wrath, and his short stories Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men, resonate today, prefiguring as they do the mass migration of populations due to climate changes, infrastructure collapse, the heartless hypocrisy of trickle-down economics, the reluctance and even refusal of the powers-that-be to help those cast by the wayside or onto the scarp-heap, and the demonisation of those are forced to take to the roads and oceans of the world in search of a better, safer life for themselves and their children.

In a 1952 radio interview, Steinbeck said:

“People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California. They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

I recall Tom Joad’s parting words in the 1940 film adaptation when he leaves his family to fight for social and economic justice:

“You don’t aim to kill nobody, Tom?”
“No. I been thinkin’, long as I’m a outlaw anyways, maybe I could — Hell, I ain’t thought it out clear, Ma. Don’ worry me now. Don’ worry me.”
They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines. Ma said, “How’m I gonna know ’bout you? They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’ know. They might hurt ya. How’m I gonna know?”
Tom laughed uneasily, “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one – an’ then -”
“Then what, Tom?”
“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build –  why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”

And now, let Steinbeck set the scene for why Tom Joad and his family abandon their farm, pile their possessions on on old truck and head into the west …


The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter One

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.

In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.

When June was half gone, the big clouds moved up out of Texas and the Gulf, high heavy clouds, rainheads. The men in the fields looked up at the clouds and sniffed at them and held wet fingers up to sense the wind. And the horses were nervous while the clouds were up. The rainheads dropped a little spattering and hurried on to some other country. Behind them the sky was pale again and the sun flared. In the dust there were drop craters where the rain had fallen, and there were clean splashes on the corn, and that was all.

A gentle wind followed the rain clouds, driving them on northward, a wind that softly clashed the drying corn. A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by gusts. The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way. Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound. The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky.

The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields. The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air. During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.

The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.

When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes. The people brushed it from their shoulders. Little lines of dust lay at the door sills.

In the middle of that night the wind passed on and left the land quiet. The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does. The people, lying in their beds heard the wind stop. They awakened when the rushing wind was gone. They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness. Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning they knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth it settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.

The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break the children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust.

After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break. Then they asked, What’ll we do? And the men replied, I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the Watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves That no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole. The women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, but cautiously at first. As the Day went forward the sun became less red. It flared down on the dust-blanketed land The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and Little rocks. The men sat still—thinking—figuring.


John Steinbeck: A flawed genius

Martin Chilton, The Independent 20th December 2018

It’s the 50th anniversary of the death of Steinbeck, who will be the subject of a new biography in 2019. The Nobel Prize-winning author of The Grapes of Wrath was a complicated and controversial man, explains Martin Chilton in The Independent 20th December 2018 

New light was shed on the writer when interviews given by his second wife were found in a loft in Wales last year

“I have left a lot of tracks in my life,” said John Steinbeck, a giant of 20th-century literature, who died on 20 December 1968 at the age of 66. Novels such as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden made him world famous, yet some of the truth about his past has taken half a century to come to light. Steinbeck was a complicated and contradictory man – and weirder than you might have thought.

Mad at the World is the title of a new biography to be published in 2019, and there is little doubt that Steinbeck was an angry man. He was outraged by injustice, poverty and prejudice, as his books make clear. He was also capable of more personal animosities, whether that was towards Adolf Hitler, his second wife or even book reviewers (“what lice they are”).

The quirkiness of his character was evident at a young age. Steinbeck was already dreaming about becoming a professional writer when he enrolled as an English major at Stanford University at the age of 17. He tried to sign up for a practical course in how to dissect corpses. “I want to learn about human beings,” he told a clearly unimpressed dean of the medical school. His application was rejected. Medicine’s loss was literature’s gain, and he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in the novel category (1940), the Nobel Prize in Literature (1962) and the United States Medal of Freedom (1964).

Although he never got the chance to cut up bodies, he was to spend a lot of time in hospital, because illness and freakish accidents were a recurrent theme in his life. The pattern started at high school in Salinas, the Californian town where he was born on 27 February 1902. At age 16, Steinbeck contracted pleural pneumonia and came close to death. A doctor saved him by cutting through his rib cage to drain the fluid. Around a year later, he was seriously ill again and had to have his appendix removed.

Things were little better in adulthood. He had a serious kidney infection that required hospital treatment. He had an operation on a detached retina, an operation to remove varicose veins and another to repair a shattered knee cap after a balcony rail gave way on the second floor of his Manhattan home. In 1959 he suffered a stroke, in 1960 he had a suspected heart attack. At the end of his life, he was poleaxed by a back injury that required complicated surgery.

As fate would have it, an injury to a stranger was one of the decisive factors in pushing Steinbeck towards full-time writing. After leaving Stanford without graduating, he had spells working on farms and as a painter’s apprentice before moving to New York in the mid-1920s. In New York, he worked on a building site, ferrying wheelbarrows loaded with 100 pounds of cement, during the construction of Madison Square Garden. Six weeks into the job, a co-worker fell to a bloody death near where Steinbeck stood. The horrific sight made Steinbeck throw up. He quit his job that night.

His uncle helped him land a job as a reporter for the New York American, a William Randolph Hearst newspaper, but he quickly became disillusioned by journalism and returned to California. He worked as a tour guide and it was in that job he met his first wife Carol Henning. His wedding came shortly after the publication of his first novel, 1929’s Cup of Gold. It was the start of a career that would produce 16 novels and novellas, two sets of short stories, 11 non-fiction books, two plays, two screenplays and a large volume of letters.

Steinbeck sometimes played up to the image of a struggling writer whose upbringing was hard financially. Throughout the 1920s, however, Steinbeck was getting an allowance from his father, the treasurer of Monterey County, of $50 ($700 or £550 in today’s terms) a month. “Most people imagine that Steinbeck came from an impoverished background and was almost one of those workers in The Grapes of Wrath, but his family home in Salinas was a beautiful Victorian house with maids and servants,” said his biographer Jay Parini in 1994. “His was a self-conscious identification with working people, but he always travelled first-class and stayed in suites at the Dorchester in London and the Georges Cinq in Paris,” Parini added.

After a series of well-received novels, including 1935’s Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck won critical acclaim in 1937 for his novella Of Mice and Men, the moving portrait-in-miniature of 1930s California, seen through the friendship of oddball ranch workers George and Lennie. Two years later came The Grapes of Wrath, one of the defining novels of the 20th century, a work of rich descriptive power, in which Steinbeck showed his ability to summon poetry out of poverty in the lives of the “Okie” Joad family.

This deeply affecting story about the oppression of migrant workers, who were fleeing from the Dust Bowl states to California, struck a chord with an America reeling from the Great Depression. By February 1940, the novel was in its 11th printing, having sold nearly half a million copies. More than 15 million copies were bought in the next eight decades and around 50,000 copies are still bought in America every year.

The impact of Steinbeck’s work on the American people was momentous. When I met the singer and actor Harry Belafonte, he told me Steinbeck “was one of the people who turned my life around as a young man”, inspiring “a lifelong love of literature”. Arthur Miller wrote of Steinbeck, “I can’t think of another American writer, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, who so deeply penetrated the political life of the country.”

The 1940 film adaptation of the novel, starring Henry Fonda, is considered a Hollywood classic. Only a bitter legal dispute over the writer’s estate (between Steinbeck’s stepdaughter Waverly Scott Kaffaga and his daughter-in-law Gail Steinbeck) prevented Steven Spielberg from going ahead with his proposed remake of the movie in 2017.

Steinbeck rarely gave interviews, but in 1952 he spoke to the radio network Voice of America about how he had been “filled with anger” at the ill-treatment of migrant workers. “People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California,” Steinbeck said. “They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

Many years later, it emerged that the FBI file had begun to keep files on the writer at this time, justifying it with claims that “many of Steinbeck’s writings portrayed an extremely sordid and poverty-stricken side of American life”. Thankfully, more enlightened minds than FBI director J Edgar Hoover were in positions of influence when Steinbeck won literature’s most illustrious award. It is notable that the Nobel committee praised his “keen social perception”.

The Grapes of Wrath was making Steinbeck world famous just as the 41-year-old began to fall for a 22-year-old nightclub singer called Gwyn Conger, whom he married in 1943. Three decades later, as a divorcee in her late fifties, Conger gave a series of interviews in Palm Springs to a show business writer called Douglas Brown. These interviews remained unpublished for more than four decades, until they were discovered in a loft in Wales in 2017.

After they had two children together – Thomas, born in 1944, and John Steinbeck IV, born in 1946 – the acrimony became unbearable and she divorced him in 1948. “The impulse of the American woman is to geld her husband and castrate her sons,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend shortly after his marriage ended. “American married life is the doormat to the whorehouse.” He would exact his revenge a few years later when he based Cathy, the wicked alcoholic character in East of Eden, on Conger. He would also fight her in court throughout the next decade to avoid paying child support.

Steinbeck, a heavy drinker, was not blind to his own failings and mood swings. “I know of no sadder people than those who believe their own publicity,” he said. Steinbeck had suffered from bouts of depression in the 1940s and even after meeting and marrying his third wife, Elaine Scott, he was frequently brought low by what he called his “what-the-hell blues”. Steinbeck said he “hit the bottom” in October 1953, a year after the publication of East of Eden, when he was treated at Lenox Hill Hospital by psychologist Gertrudis Brenner. “A sad soul can kill quicker than a germ,” he remarked.

In this period of mental health problems, he produced some of the strangest work of his career. In 1955, he published a short story called The Affair at 7 Rue de M, a horror-like tale about a child who is unable to get rid of a piece of bubble gum. Wherever he puts it, the gum keeps finding its way back into the boy’s mouth. In desperation, the father cements the gum to a dining table and it takes a week for the piece of gum to die. Steinbeck later burned dozens of stories from this period. He also abandoned a novel about a man who watches one too many westerns on television and then puts on a cowboy hat and heads out to be an urban vigilante.

Poet Ezra Pound once dismissed accounts of a writer’s life as a mere “laundry list” and Steinbeck shared this disdain for focusing on the personal life of an author. Perhaps he has a point. What can we ultimately conclude from the knowledge that Steinbeck preferred writing with pencils (using up to 60 in a day), that he liked jazz, enjoyed playing the harmonica, laughed at jokes by Bob Hope, preferred smoking small cigars and regularly snacked on tuna-covered crackers, washed down by red wine?

“The fact that I have housemaid’s knees or fear yellow gloves has little to do with the books I write,” he said. He derided the public’s need to “create a Steinbeck out of its own imagination” and insisted there were more important matters on which to focus. In 1938, for example, shocked by reports of the Nazi looting and burning of Jewish homes and synagogues in Germany, he was among a small band of writers, including Dorothy Parker, who sent a telegram to President Franklin D Roosevelt urging him to cut all ties with Hitler. Steinbeck became a war correspondent for The New York Herald during the subsequent conflict, reporting from England, North Africa and Italy.

Steinbeck was certainly a progressive in a backward era of race relations. He asked for his name to be taken off the screenplay for the wartime Alfred Hitchcock film The Lifeboat, because he was furious that the “dignified and purposeful” black character he had created had been “distorted”. He wrote to 20th Century Fox to complain about the addition of “a stock comedy negro”, blaming them for “strange and sly obliquities”. Not only did the Fox bosses deny his request, they actively stepped up a publicity campaign that highlighted Steinbeck as the screenwriter. The Oscar nomination he received simply added salt to the wound.

Despite these laudable actions, he was not above his own dirty tactics. In 1958, he was asked by Adlai Stevenson’s fixer, William McCormick Blair Jr, to write a novel that featured a corrupt version of presidential candidate Richard M Nixon. Steinbeck rejected the idea and instead suggested attacks on Nixon’s character, “kidney punch” zingers as he called them, such as starting rumours about Nixon and wife-beating. “All of these are dirty, but as I said, the man who tries Queensberry against gutter fighting is going to get the hell kicked out of him,” Steinbeck wrote to Blair.

John Updike said that for most Americans in the post-war era, Steinbeck’s reputation was as “a best-seller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent”, but during the 1960s Steinbeck’s politics moved away from the liberalism that had earned him a reputation as America’s social conscience. He became friends with President Johnson (helping him to write his acceptance speech) and reported sympathetically on the Vietnam war from late 1966 to early 1967.

Observers in Vietnam noted Steinbeck’s fascination for American weaponry, especially the Douglas AC-47 Spooky gunship, nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon”. It could fire a hundred rounds of 50-calibre bullets every second. The writer loved going target practice shooting with the same type of M16 rifle the troops carried. He even manned a US army outpost during a night of sporadic fire.

His sons Thomas and John were on active duty in the US army at the time of his visit. John later became a fierce opponent of the war, a stance that put him at odds with Steinbeck, who wrote publicly about how Vietnam peace protesters gave him “a shiver of shame”. Steinbeck derided the hippie demonstrators for their “dirty clothes, dirty minds and their shuffling drag-ass protests”.

It is a characteristically odd twist that the 64-year-old who was able to survive a night taking on the Vietcong – and an attack on a helicopter in which he was a passenger – did himself irreparable harm with the innocuous action of lifting some beer. In Hong Kong, travelling back from Vietnam with his wife Elaine, he helped a Chinese delivery man. As he lifted the case of beer, he ruptured a spinal disc. Six months later, still in agonising pain, he had a five-hour operation on his back. The last few months before his death from a heart attack at his East 72nd Street home in New York were deeply miserable.

Biographers Jackson Benson (1984) and Jay Parini (1995) have previously battled with the character of Steinbeck and that challenge has now been taken up by William Souder, whose biography Mad at the World: John Steinbeck and the American Century will be published by WW Norton & Company in 2019.

There is no shortage of fascinating material for Pulitzer finalist Souder to re-examine. As well as Steinbeck’s writing (the prize-winning novels and less-well known masterpieces such as Cannery Row, The Pearl and Sweet Thursday), there is his sometimes madcap life, such as his drunken treasure-hunting escapades in the Bahamas. Even his friend, the noted psychological novelist Sherwood Anderson, admitted that he couldn’t “figure out Steinbeck”.

With Steinbeck, the unexpected was the norm. When his New York house was burgled in 1963, for example, the police report listed the stolen items as “a television set and six rifles”. The writer enjoyed the idiosyncrasy of humans. When he was asked for his “rules for life” by a friend in Vietnam, Steinbeck replied with his four mottos: “Never make excuses. Never let them see you bleed. Never get separated from your luggage. Always find out when the bar opens.”

Souder says he is excited by the challenge of writing about such a complex figure. “One of the things that attracted me to Steinbeck is that he was far from perfect – as a man, a husband, a writer, he had issues,” Souder told the website Steinbeck Now. “He had a permanent chip on his shoulder. He got side-tracked by ideas that were a waste of his time and talent. Some of his work is brilliant and some of it is awful. That’s what you want in a subject – a hero with flaws. Steinbeck was a literary giant who wouldn’t play along with the idea that he was important. I love that. He was mad at the world because it seemed somehow mad at him.”

Steinbeck wasn’t always mad at the world, though. Ten years before his death, this conflicted genius wrote a memorable letter to Thomas Steinbeck (the full version is available here), after his 14-year-old son revealed he had fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan.

“There are several kinds of love,” he wrote, signing the letter as “Fa”. “One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness and consideration and respect – not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had … don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens – the main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

These tender and optimistic words of advice remain, like Steinbeck’s best writing, an absolute joy, despite the flaws of the man.


Here are other posts in In That Howling Infinite with regard to 1968:  Things fall apart – the centre cannot hold;  Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968Phil Och’s Chicago Blues ; and Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life

And the ‘sixties: Encounters with Enoch; Recalling the Mersey PoetsThe Strange Death of Sam CookeLooking for LehrerShock of the Old – the glory days of prog rockWindow on a Gone WorldBack in the day; and, The Incorrigible Optimists Club

Free Speech, One Each

At the root of all this is freedom of speech. If we wish to preserve and extend our liberties or maintain our democracies, we need to understand this. We must equip ourselves to practice it well, educate our young to understand how unusual such liberty has been in human history and how difficult it is to maintain.  Paul Monk

Every once in a while, The Australian commissions an articulate and respected conservative commentator to pen a piece on a topic dear to its editorial heart. He (these worthy souls are invariably old, white blokes) duly oblige, for kudos or cash or both, and yet are careful not to become ensnared in the NewsCorp echo-chamber that houses the more virulent and predictable of its opinionistas. Historian Geoffrey Blainey recently managed such as arabesque when writing about the controversial Ramsay Centre (see The Oz’s Lonely Crusade). Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson did likewise in a tribute to Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (see Ghosts of the Gulag).

Australian author Paul Monk has done likewise when invited to ruminate on free speech in western universities. Instead of laying into left-wing uni students and the so-called Green Left, the bêtes noir of columnists like Chris Kenny, Gerard Henderson and Janet Albrechtsen, Monk refused to sing their song. Instead, he reminds us of our history and of our responsibility as democrats and reasonable folk to maintain dialogue with and endeavour to understand the reasoning (or its dearth) of our ideological opponents. History has shown us that once the shouting stops, the shooting often starts.

Often, I am disappointed, saddened even, by the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices.

Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation.

Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

Monk’s piece is a timely reminder as he enjoins is to teach our children well.

Five Rules for Civil Engagement

Paul Monk, The Australian, 8th December 2018

There seems to be an extraordinary amount of confusion around these days regarding freedom of speech in our universities and more generally. But civil society and constitutional government ­require freedom of speech. And freedom of speech requires sound meta-rules regarding the way it is conducted.

Suppress freedom of speech and you move towards authoritarian government. Without sound meta-rules you move towards ­anarchy and violence.

Around the world right now we can see a disturbing drift in each of these directions.

Ever since the Greek city-states pioneered democratic government and freedom of speech 2500 years ago, there has been a long struggle over the nature of the rules and how to uphold them.

Our present debates about freedom of speech, “hate speech”, censorship and “deplatforming” belong squarely within this tradition. It was, after all, the Athen­ian democracy that condemned Socrates to death for “impiety” and “corrupting the youth”; but we tend to admire him rather than those who condemned him.

The meta-rules we need now, in the interests of science as well as democratic governance and civil peace, are five in number.  1. That there is such a thing as truth and that the whole point of civilised and patient discourse is to elicit the truth. 2. That, since this may prove difficult and time-consuming, we agree to disagree while the inquiry and discourse are pursued, rather than simply insisting on our prior opinion being the truth. 3. That the search for truth itself be conducted according to workable principles of reason and evidence, not dogma or vehement assertion. 4. That we strive to see the distinction between opinion and truth and accept that truth, once grasped, will generally require that we alter our opinions. 5. That we agree to open contentious subjects up to discussion under the above four rules, not shut them down.

These are pretty basic ideas. One would have hoped that they would not be challenged in any 21st-century liberal democracy. Yet, as Michiko Kakutani has written in The Death of Truth, even the first rule — accepting that there is such a thing as truth — is now under challenge from a bewildering variety of sources.

Holding the scientific and philosophical line on this is made more difficult by the fact human beings generally are prone to confirmation bias and other cognitive weaknesses, which ­obstruct the search for truth even in the best and most important cases.

Anarchic social media exacerbates these problems, creating thought bubbles, viral “road rage” and avenues for the rapid dissemination of confused, mendacious or inflammatory claims.

There are also deliberate ­attempts to sabotage the factual and philosophical foundations of truth seeking. Michael Lewis’s latest book, The Fifth Risk, in his ­gentle and lucid manner, exposes the institutional vandalism of the Trump administration in this ­regard. Contempt for or shameless denial of fact and truth is endemic in undemocratic governments around the world in our time: ­Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia.

But our liberal democracies should be bastions of the meta-rules. This is especially so in our universities, which are supposed to be the schools of reason and the havens of open exploration of ideas. George Orwell famously wrote: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

But that gets us only to the starting gate. All too often people insist on telling us things that we do not want to hear for the good reason that it is abusive, ignorant, banal, degraded or otherwise ­objectionable.

Are we obliged to listen, much less agree? And if we are not disposed to do so, what happens next?

That’s where the meta-rules have to come in. We must be prepared to uphold them and call our interlocutors on them when they are ­violated. That’s demanding work; but it is the indispensable work of democratic politics and a scientific culture.

It is for this reason and not ­because one has any sympathy for bigoted or harebrained ideas that many of us are dismayed by the rise of “grievance studies”, the ­insistence on “safe places”, “trigger warnings” and the suppression of lines of “hate speech” at all too many of our universities.

There seem to be a growing number of things one cannot be ­allowed to say publicly or teach, or say within teaching, at universities. Is this what the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s has come to at universities? Is this the proving ground for well-informed and articulate practitioners of free speech and democratic principles?

I attended university between 1977 and 1987. My purpose was to learn enough to be able to participate intelligently in public discourse about the forces shaping our world. I didn’t go to university to agitate but to inquire, though I was aware of the student radicalism of the 60s.

I encountered people, including teachers, of many different opinions and ideological or ­religious persuasions and read as widely and deeply as I could concerning where these different ­beliefs had come from and why anyone would adhere to them. No political correctness or ideological straitjacket was in evidence. That appears to have changed.

I did, however, encounter individuals with strong opinions. I ­recall a tutorial during the 1979 course Classical Social Theory (on Marx, Weber, Durkheim and other modern social theorists) in which a fellow student declared bluntly and humourlessly that “come the revolution” people who thought as individualists like me “will all be shot”.

He didn’t threaten to assault me on the spot, though, and it never occurred to me to insist that he be expelled from the class or the university for saying such a thing. The meta-rules were in place and I disagreed with his politics. I was bemused by what these days one might dub his “hate speech” but not intimidated. I knew perfectly well that my classmate’s attitude was not ­merely some strange fantasy on his part.

Pol Pot had been overthrown in Cambodia only very ­recently, after having huge numbers of his country’s educated elite tortured and shot. Deng Xiaoping had just crushed the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing and had Wei Jingsheng imprisoned for — as the trial judge put it — “using so-called freedom of speech to stir up trouble”. The ruthless practice of Marxist-Leninist tyrannies throughout the 20th century was well known to me.

But being at a university in a liberal democracy, I felt safe enough to absorb such violent language in the tutorial room.

This extended to public lectures. In 1980, I attended a forum in the famous Public Lecture Theatre at the University of Melbourne, at which several well-known speakers addressed an audience of hundreds on the subject of Malcolm Fraser’s economic policies and the problem of relatively high unemployment.

David Kemp (Liberal), Tom Uren (Labor Left), Don Chipp (Australian Democrats) and Albert Langer (Monash University Marxist radical) all spoke. None was shouted down. Langer, however, gave a decidedly inflammatory address. The first three had all advocated various competing approaches to macro-economics and unemployment relief. Langer declared openly: “Those are all bourgeois solutions. If you want to do something useful, go and learn how to use a rifle. What this country needs is a revolution.”

There’s freedom of speech for you: used to advocate violence rather than the deepening of ­inquiry and debate. Langer was not so much a far-right Proud Boy as a Proud Leninist.

Afterwards, I approached him and asked would he care for a coffee. He cheerfully agreed and, as we strolled over to the Student Union, I conducted an exercise in freedom of speech. “Albert,” I said to him, “let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that you were able to organise the revolution you’ve just called for and seize power in this country. What exactly would you then do?”

“That’s a good question,” ­Albert responded.

“Sure, it’s a good question,” I ­replied, “so what’s your answer?” He remained silent. “OK,” I went on, “let’s assume you pursued a standard policy of nationalisation, state planning and indoctrination, but things got gummed up and the economy hit the skids. What would you do then?”

“Oh,” he said airily, “we’d have to have another revolution … And why not? After all, if things worked out, it’d get boring. Revolutions are fun.”

We proceeded to the Student Union and ordered our coffees. He described himself as a “Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist”, which struck me as absurd and ­objec­tionable but not sufficiently so as to derail the conversation. I have never since, however, been able to take Langer seriously. He remained at liberty, carrying on with his ratbaggery for years. Fortunately, though, he wasn’t able to organise an armed revolution and I was able to pursue my studies without being purged or shot.

The year after that public forum, curious about student radicals such as Langer, I undertook an honours thesis on the student ­rebellion and general strike in France in May of 1968. The soixante-huitards (sixty-eighters), as they have been dubbed, had quite ­anarchic ideas about freedom of speech and social change. “All power to the imagination,” was one of their most fetching slogans.

From a conservative point of view, they were assorted imbeciles, suffering from various Castroite or Maoist fantasies and Marcusean delusions. Charles de Gaulle ­derided them as “bed wetters”.

I was interested in the wellsprings of their revolt and how it played out in advanced industrial society. My inquiry was unhindered and I drew my own conclusions, critically evaluating the full spectrum of ideological opinions about les evenements de Mai. It was a valuable learning experience.

The Free Speech Movement as such had arisen at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964-65 among restive students who had come to believe that learning at university was not enough. Agitation for social change was ­incumbent upon them and should be accommodated by the academic authorities.

There was a struggle over this. The FSM was part of a groundswell of such ­activism in the early 60s, not least through the nationwide American movement called Students for a Democratic Society. As the problems of war in Vietnam and racism heated up, elements of the SDS threw the meta-rules of democratic social order overboard and opted to attempt violent revolution. They formed the Weather Underground Organisation, inspired by the insurrectionism of Che Guevara and Carlos Mari­ghella in Latin America. I studied all of this in the 80s when it was still a matter of recent history; during doctoral studies on American counterinsurgency strategy throughout the Cold War.

I identified to some considerable extent with Tom Hayden and the founders of the SDS and ­empathised with armed rebels in countries such as El Salvador and The Philippines. I was wary of the Marxist-Leninist brand of violent revolution, given its appalling history in the 20th century, but ­appalled by the death squads that plagued Central and South America in those years. My investigation itself, after all, required the meta-rules of liberal democracy.

Robert Redford’s 2012 film The Company You Keep, starring Redford, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Sam Elliott, Chris Cooper and Shia LaBeouf, romanticises the Weather Underground and its radical politics. The film’s worth seeing, but it’s not a good ­introduction to what happened back then.

Brian Burrough did a vastly better job in Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence(2015). Crucially, for our present purposes, he shows how the FSM and SDS struggled with the meta-rules regarding freedom of speech and civil society and how the impatient and “radical” wing threw away those rules and opted for violence of the kind Langer extolled.

Such would-be revolutionaries, like neo-Nazis or violent anarchists or religious fanatics, pose a direct threat to the meta-rules. It’s all very well, after all, to seek truth in congenial, intelligent, well-­informed and professional company. But what do we do when we confront venom, ignorance, hostility, entrenched resistance — when we confront one kind or ­another of what Churchill called “the fanatic”: someone who cannot change his mind and will not change the subject?

Well, that’s exactly when ­defence of the meta-rules, including by police protection if necessary, is most important.

Nadine Strossen, the first female national president of the American Civil Liberties Union and professor of constitutional law at New York University, has just given us a fine reflection on this challenge: Hate: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship. She makes a powerful case that when we find ideas objectionable, we need to have the courage to stand up and challenge them, not merely shout them down or try to ban them.

An unimpeachable “liberal” on race, class and gender, she states forthrightly: “On many campuses … students complain that they have been ‘assaulted’ when they are exposed to ideas that offend them, or even if they learn that a provocative speaker has been ­invited to campus. This false ­equation between controversial ideas and physical violence fuels unwarranted calls for outlawing and punishing ideas, along with ­violence.”

For reasoned debate and fruitful inquiry to take place, it is necessary that violence be outlawed, but it is counter-productive for ideas to be outlawed. What’s required is to foster the opportunity for strenuous debate and what may often be painful and difficult learning. If we cannot agree on that, our political and intellectual culture is in trouble.

Unfashionable as it is to state this these days, the ideas of freedom (eleutheria), political equality (isonomia), equality of speech (isegoria), freedom of speech (parrhesia) and democracy (demokratia) derive from classical Greece. They were imperfectly realised in the ancient world and the Greek and Roman republics gave way to autocratic rule. But we derive our key modern ideas about freedom and responsible government from those beginnings.

Plato, Aristotle and the School of Athens

As Josiah Ober wrote in The Athenian Revolution: “Some 2500 years after the revolution that made it possible, democracy is widely regarded as the most ­attractive form of practical (as ­opposed to utopian) political ­organisation yet devised. Among democracy’s virtues is its revisability — the potential of the political regime to rethink and to reform ­itself, while remaining committed to its core values of justice, equality, dignity and freedom.”

At the root of all this is freedom of speech. If we wish to preserve and extend our liberties or maintain our democracies, we need to understand this. We must equip ourselves to practise it well, educate our young to understand how unusual such liberty has been in human history and how difficult it is to maintain. Doing these things itself ­demands that we adhere to the meta-rules that make it possible. And here’s the kicker: so will building any realisable “utopia” be worth striving after? Martin ­Luther King Jr knew that and spoke faithfully to it, calling for the American republic to live up to its founding meta-rules.

Paul Monk (paulmonk.com.au) is the author of 10 books. The most recent is Dictators and Dangerous Ideas: Uncensored Reflections in an Era of Turmoil (Echo Books, 2018).

Songs to drive the cold winter away

I am not one who makes much of the festive season, but inspired by the example of my favourite blog, Thom Hickey’s Immortal Juke Box, here are five favourite Christmas songs. No Neil Diamond or Mariah Carey here.

Five

The King, sung here by Canadians Loreena McKennitt and Cyril Smith, from Loreena’s Christmas album To Drive the Cold Winter Away, hails from a long tradition of “Wren King” songs. The king of the title is the wee wren, “the king of all birds”, as many old songs tell it. Through December until Twelfth Night (the sixth of January), it was common among Celtic-speakers in Brittany, Wales, Manx, Scotland, and Ireland for children and adults to cruise their neighbourhoods cadging food, money or booze in return for seeing a Wren that they had captured. This particular “King Wren” song dates from the eighteenth century, although the heavy weaponry was added in the nineteenth.

Health, love and peace be all here in this place
By your leave we shall sing, concerning our King
Our King is well-dressed in silks of the best
In ribbons so rare no king can compare
We have travelled many miles over hedges and stiles
In search of our King unto you we bring.
We have powder and shot to conquer the lot
We have cannon and ball to conquer them all.
Old Christmas is past, twelve tide is the last
And we bid you adieu, great joy to the new

Four

Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.  Northumbrian Kate Rusby’s rendering of the old English carol The Holly and the Ivy is gorgeous. I reblogged Thom Hickey’s tribute to this lovely song earlier this month. It is worth another look and listen. The lyrics are so bucolic, so timeless:

The rising of the sun
The running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

Three

Loreena sings a lovely version of The Wexford Carol on her Christmas album. But Christmas songs don’t get much more beautiful than this beautiful version by American bluegrass diva Ali Krauss and cellist virtuoso Yo Yo Ma. The carol is believed to have originated in twelfth century Ireland in my mother’s home town of Inis Córthaidh.

Two

In 1961, Dusty Springfield was but a young lass, but even back then, she had a fabulous voice! I was twelve years old and this was the first time I’d heard the Springfields, the Americanesque folk trio founded by her brother Tom. It was the beginning of unrequited puppy-love that ended when I heard the Bobster’s Love Minus Zero No Limit – see my reverie What’s Bob Got to Do With It?  Dusty went on to become one of the greatest soul singers of all time, and Tom gave the world The Seekers. He adapted Bambino from a traditional Italian carol, just as he was later to transform a Russian folk-song into The Carnival is Over.

Santo natale bambino mio…
To you and all mankind,
To you and all mankind, maybe,
And from strife we shall be free.

One

It’s been voted the best Christmas song of all time – in the U.K, that is, because Americans don’t get it, as The Independent discovered – and, yes, it’s my number one because it IS the best Christmas song of all time. And yet, it seems, the “bah humbug!” straighteners and virtue signallers are out to get it, as reported recently by Aussie writer Mark Mordue: Sanitize Clause would rob a Christmas ballad of its soul.

The irascible, untuneful, dentally-disadvantaged Shane McGowan and his hot ceilidh band hit the big time with this “Christmas Eve in the drunk tank” shanty, wonderfully aided and abetted by the gorgeous and doomed Kirsty MacColl, who could’ve been famous but for a rich Mexican in a speedboat. The repartee between these loser-lovers is up there with Burton and Taylor:

I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you…

You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

When it comes to a Christmas song, how low can you Go? And, as the band kicks in with the accordion and pipes, how high can you fly?

Happy Christmas.