Rhiannon the Revelator – In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.
Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

Brown girl in the ring, raise your voice and sing

Rhiannon Giddens, a multifaceted singer, musician, folklorist and storyteller brings American history alive in her her drive to unearth the stories of forgotten people so that her audiences and listeners may remember them.

On Moon Meets The Sun, a defiantly joyous song, Giddens and her comrades of Our Native Daughters sing in the round over a polyrhythmic lacework of banjo and guitar, vowing not to let radical suffering diminish humanity. “You put the shackles on our feet, but we’re dancing”, she sings, “You steal our very tongue, but we’re dancing” “Ah, you sell our work for your profit, but we’re dancing,” she scoffs. “Ah, you think our home we have forgotten, but we’re dancing.” Then she recedes into the jubilant tangle of voices: “You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing). You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)”. 

As Leonard Cohen sang, “that’s how the light gets in”. 

Songs of Our Native Daughters is at once a harrowing ride through early America’s darkness and also, a celebration of resilience and resistance. As  Rhiannon Giddens describes it:

“There is surely racism in this country — it’s baked into our oldest institutions – just as there is sexism, millennia old. At the intersection of the two stands the African American woman. Used, abused, ignored and scorned, she has in the face of these things been unbelievably brave, groundbreaking and insistent. Black women have historically had the most to lose, and have therefore been the fiercest fighters for justice — in large, public ways that are only beginning to be highlighted, and in countless domestic ways that will most likely never be acknowledged.” (NPR – First Listen to Our Native Daughters)

‘… slavery is not a historical event but rather an intrinsic, dominating, and ultimately destructive part of everyone’s day-to-day reality’ (CE Morgan’s “great American novel”)

When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing
When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing

You put the shackles on our feet
But we’re dancing
You steal our very tongue
But we’re dancing

Brown girl in the ring
Raise your voice and sing
Sing us solace
Sing us freedom
Hold us steady
Keep us breathing
We’ll endure this
You can’t stop us
And we’re dancing

You steal our children
But we’re dancing
You make us hate our very skin
But we’re dancing 

We’re your sons
We’re your daughters
But you sell us
Down the river
May the God
That you gave us
Forgive you
Your trespasses
We’re survivors
You can’t stop us
And we’re dancing

When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing
When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing

Like the rabbit
We won’t bend to your will
Like the spider
The smallest will still prevail
The stories of our elders
We find comfort in these
We smile to the sky
We move to stay alive
And we’re dancing

You steal our work for your profit
But we’re dancing
You think our home we have forgotten
But we’re dancing

Step into the circle
Step into the ring
Raise your voice and sing
Sing freedom
Sing freedom
You can’t stop us now
You can’t keep us down
We’ll be dancing

When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing
When the day is done
The moon meets the sun
We’ll be dancing

You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now
You can’t keep us down
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t stop us now (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)
You can’t keep us down (We’ll be dancing)

Quasheba, Quasheba
You’re free now, you’re free now
How does your spirit fly?
Blood of your blood
Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength we have life

From the Golden Coast of Ghana
To the bondage of Grenada
You kept the dream of hope alive
They burned your body
They cursed your blackness
But they could not take your lights

Raped and beaten, your babies taken
Starved and sold and sold again
Ain’t you a woman, of love deserving
Ain’t it somethin’ you survived?

Quasheba, Quasheba
You’re free now, you’re free now
How does your spirit fly?
Blood of your blood
Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength we have life

You dreamt of home, you dreamt of freedom
You died a slave, you died alone
You came from warriors who once built empires
Ashanti’s kingdom carries on

You were forgotten, almost forsaken
Your children founded generations
Your strength sustained them
They won their freedom
Traced their roots to find you [waiting?]

Quasheba, Quasheba
You’re free now, you’re free now
How far your spirit’s flown
Blood of your blood
Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength we are home

Blood of your blood
Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength we are home
By the grace of your strength we are home
We are home
We are home
We are home

Also in In That Howling Infinite,  Soul Food – music and musicians, a collection of posts on matters musical, My Country ’tis of thee, a collection of posts on american history, politics and music, Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana, and The Sport of Kings – CE Morgan’s “great American novel”

Postscript

I am reminded of  Pete Seeger’s adaptation of the old Baptist hymn:

 My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real, thought far off hymn
That hails the new creation
Above the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing;
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?

and of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
They’re going to hear from me

Here is the wondrous Éabha McMahon of Celtic Woman:

 
 
 

A cowboy key – how the west was sung

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze,
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,
Send me off forever but I ask you please,
Don’t fence me in.
Cole Porter and lyrics by Robert Fletcher and Cole Porter.

Outlaw songs and cowboy gothic

“An old cowpoke went riding by one dark and windy day …”

In his informative and entertaining Way Out West series, in The Immortal Jukebox, British blogger and music chronicler Thom Hickey reminds us that the Western Writers of America declared Ghost Riders In The Sky the greatest of all Western songs.  I’m totally with Thom  here. Written and recorded in 1948 by Sons of The Pioneers alumni Stan Jones, it is probably the best of a glorious herd. The lyrics echo the Seer of Patmos’ four horsemen of the apocalypse …

Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry

It’s as far way from “Whoopee ti yi yo, get along little dogies” as Kansas is from Oz.

Stan Jones also wrote the haunting and evocative theme for John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers. It is a quixotically existential song

What makes a man to wander?
What makes a man to roam?
What makes a man leave bed and board
And turn his back on home?
Ride away, ride away, ride away

The Searchers is regarded by many to be the best ever western, and many modern filmmakers pay visual homage to it – recall Kill Bill and Westworld. I would argue that it is the second best, after Clint Eastwood’s redemptive avenger saga The Outlaw Josie Wales –  which also had a memorable song, the corny Rose of Alabama, which would not be in Thom’s or anyone’s else’s cowboy song pantheon.

The Searchers and Kill Bill

And there’s Marty Robbins’ fatal fight for the affections of flirtatious Feleena at Rosa’s cantina in the West Texas town of El Paso. Yes, El Paso of 1959 is up there near the summit. It’s a crowded peak, with these songs tussling for space alongside a swag of worthy contenders.

Western movies provided irresistible opportunities for city songwriters to try their hands at moralistic cowboy carols. These included the Tin Pan Alley ring-in written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung so well by Gene Pitney: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Those who tamed the wild west had cleaved to an ambivalent moral code …

But the point of a gun
Was the only law that Liberty understood
When the final showdown came at last
A law book was no good

From the moment a girl gets to be full grown
The very first thing she learns
When two men go out to face each other
Only one returns

The cowboy hero faced many challenges in his lonesome quest – none more so than Marshall Will Kane in Stanley Kramer’s showdown classic High Noon (1952) with its iconic theme song written by Ukrainian-born Dimitri Tiomkin and sung by the Chicago son of Sicilian immigrants Francesco Paolo LoVecchio – known to us as crooner Frankie Laine.

Oh, to be torn ‘tweenst love and duty
Supposin’ I lose my fair-haired beauty
Look at that big hand move along
Nearin’ high noon

The song is iconic. But rather than platy it here, here is something completely different – the Ukrainian version performed by a shadowy, iconoclastic Australian combo:

Frankie Laine became a master of the genre with a swag of hits, including Gunfight at the OK Corral, Mule Train, The Hanging Tree, Cool Water, and Rawhide.

And on the subject of films, let’s never  forget the luminous, numinous, pulchritudinous Jane Fonda as Cat Balou on that “hangin’ day in Wolf City, Wyoming”, serenaded outside her death cell by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kayes as celluloid Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs.

 Pancho was a bandit, boys –  outlaw chic

There is a multitude of latter day tributes to the genre. Many have tried their hand, and many have given us songs that endure. One is most certainly the mysteriously poignant, mariachi fever-dream Pancho and Lefty by the doomed Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt, a song that has been covered by Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan. Townes later said that when writing the song, he had in mind President Nixon – figure that one out (as Neil Young did when he declaimed in The Old Campaigner that “even Richard Nixon has got soul …”).

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel,
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel

“Dying outlaw’ ballads are a breed of their own, ranging from the maudlin and admonitory “take a warning from me” Streets of Laredo, to the syrupy Seven Spanish Angels sung so beautifully by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson:

There were seven Spanish angels at the altar of the sun
They were praying for the lovers in the valley of the gun
When the battle stopped and the smoke cleared
There was thunder from the throne
And seven Spanish angels took another angel home.
Troy Seals and Eddie Setser

Bob Dylan gave us an outlaw Romeo and Juliet on with Romance in Durango, not one of Desire’s outstanding tracks, but what a grand chorus.

No llores, mi querida, Dios nos vigila
Soon the horse will take us to Durango
Agarrame, mi vida, Soon the desert will be gone
Soon you will be dancing the fandango

El Paso, Pancho, Durango, those attendant Spanish angels it is passing paradox that notwithstanding America’s ambivalent relationship with its Latino demographic, a Hispanic mystic permeates so many gorgeous songs!

Cocaine canyon bad-boy Warren Zevon, never lost for a cowboy and rebel riff in his outstanding gothic oeuvre (think, his ingenue Frank and Jessie James and his ruinous Play It All Night Long), and his ballad of how two-timing Jeannie needed “a shooter, a shooter on her side”.

Neither songs’ protagonist came out alive. But not all our trigger-happy troubadours end up with a bullet or a noose. The Everly Brothers sent a Message to Mary from a cold cell where the failed stage-coach robber was doing a long stretch, advising Mary that she ought to court a better beau; and Marty Robbins’ would be lucky enough to be spared at The Hanging Tree.

Bob Dylan’s wonderful Blood on the Tracks included the cowboy-noir ballad Rosemary, Lily and the Jack of Hearts, a characters-driven saloon story of payback and pay-dirt which would not be out of place in decadent Deadwood and wired Westworld.

And, of course, there are the songs to the cowboy’s best pal, his Four Legged Friend. Roy Rogers blazed this equine trail, with that very song about his photogenic palomino Trigger. St. Leonard of Montreal, who had aspirations once upon a time to join a cowboy band, has given us his lyrically gorgeous paean to the pony and its desolate rider with the Ballad of the Absent Mare:

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray

And from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s Lyle Lovett calling up both Roy and Trigger and singing of how “… we could all together go out on the ocean, me upon my pony on my boat”.

And Lee Hazelwood, “the wayward guru of cowboy psychedelia” and onetime mentor of Nancy Sinatra (yes, he wrote The Boots Were Made For Walking – all over you), with his Great Plains drawl and his hankering for the outlaw Bad Girl who’d “took my silver spurs, a dollar and a dime, and left me cravin’ for more Summer Wine” with its “strawberries, cherries and an angel’s kiss in spring”. He was the inspiration for a kind of cowboy gothic that saw urban roustabout cos-play with Wild West dress-ups and bad-boy cowboy noir that found its apotheosis in the cover of the Eagles’s Desperado.

Emmylou Harris’ beau, Carolina coast-born Gram Parsons, who brought the Byrds eight miles down to the Sweetheart of the Rodeo,  pioneered “country rock”, Hes went on to muster Keith Richards into the rockabilly ambiance of the Rolling Stones’s Devils Banquet, and on the brink of stardom, he exited on an overdose at the Jericho Tree Motel, close to the primeval vegetation that provided the title for Irish band U2’s excellent album – but that is not part of this story.

As big as all outdoors

Lost my heart in the Black Hills
The Black Hills of Dakota
Where the pines are so high
That they kiss the sky above
Sammy Fain, and Paul Francis Webster

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,
There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,
The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,
An’ it looks like its climbin’ clear up to the sky.
Oh what a beautiful morning, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

It was inevitable that cowboys should infiltrate that most American of theatrical excess, the musical. And the contributions of the great musical songwriters – many of them urban Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe – have endured with countless outings on screen and stage. Oklahoma gave us songs  “as big as all outdoors” with the title song, its standout ballad Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’, and the hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’ The Farmer and the Cow Man  (“Territory Folks should stick together”). Seven Brides For Seven Brothers brought the backwoods to the city with its retelling of the old tale of “the sobbin’ women who lived in the Roman days (“… least that’s what Plutarch said!”) and songs like Wonderful, Wonderful Day, Bless Your Beautiful Hide, and Goin’ Courtin’. The rags to rodeo soapie Annie Get Your Gun gave us Doin’ What Comes Naturally and Anything You can Do. As they say, “there’s no business like show business”, and any excuse for a barn dance, shindig, hoedown or hootenanny.

My personal favourite is Calamity Jane. Doris Day could not be further from Robin Weigert’s foul-mouthed, drunk of Deadwood, but boy, could she “whip crack away” as she drove the Deadwood Stage into town. And didn’t we all yearn for “the Black Hills and the beautiful Indian country that I love” – notwithstanding the brutal irony that the seizure of that Indian country was the prelude to the annihilation of the Plains Indians.

Musical movies give film stars with terrible voices a chance to let it all hang out. Paint Your Wagon, was brought painfully and rib-ticklingly to life on the big screen by Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, who were not, to borrow Leonard Cohen’s word, “born with the gift of the golden voice”. Gruff Rod Steiger’s darkish Poor Judd is Daid  in Oklahoma gave Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris license to break out in dubious song in Man of La Mancha and Camelot. There is something evocative and timeless about Lee’s croaky I Was Born Under a Wondering Star: “wheels were mean for rollin’, mules were mad to pack; I never saw a sight that don’t look better lookin’ back”. One can’t help but like it.

And whilst we’re breaking out the corn that sometimes is “as high as an elephant’s eye”, I have to admit that I have also always had an inexplicable affection for Tony Orlando’s melodramatic, latter-day revenger tragedy and El Paso clone I Did What I Did For Maria, and the overblown, whip-crackin’ Legend of Xanadu by that peculiar British band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch (the video is below – very cowboy cosplay and “all a bit Zorro”). Which brings us ineluctably – to the irreverently awful, bowdlerized Rawhide by the strange Scottish The Chaps (as in blokes or cowboy leg coverings?) and Sting’s eminently forgettable Cowboy Song. Here’s Tony grooving it with the dolly-birds during the decade that fashion forgot. And we never did find out “what he did to Maria”.

My cowboy days

How many Aussies of a certain age did not thrill at the Banjo’s ballad of the bushman that is almost our national poem:

He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough.

Though I was immigrant and a townie, I had my ‘cowboy’ days. I was not a good rider, but I loved the craic. Not a natural like Adele. When we first met, she kept four horses and looked after a whole riding school of them, bringing them in bareback riding, stock-whip cracking, a proper jillaroo. ‘Western pleasure’, it was called. No jackets and jodhpurs – it was cowboy hats, boots and blue jeans – before helmets and Occupational Health and Safety. I rode her gorgeous chestnut quarter horse called Twopence, and she, a handsome palomino named Trigger (of course). A riding accident put me in hospital – and I never rode a horse again. See In That Howling Infinite‘s The Twilight of the Equine Gods.

My riding days are over, but as this post will aver, I am still into westerns, and as a onetime musician myself, I have, in days gone by, penned songs in a cowboy key.

The Ballad of The Drover’s Dog is twin to iconic Australian poet Henry Lawson’s Harry Dale The Drover, that wistful if overwrought tragedy of the homeward bound stock-man who, along with his faithful hound, comes to grief in the flooded creek. Playing at a pub in Pontadawe, in South Wales, we sang the story of Bluey, the brave blue cattle dog. As ever, the audience took the song seriously albeit sardonically. But this time it was different – knowing smile flickered across many faces. Afterwards, folk came up to us and asked if we heard of Swansea Jack. Read the notes that accompany the song. Greater love hath no dog. Inspired by Henry, this story references council by-laws governing Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach.

From The Ballad of The Drovers Dog, it is only a hop, step, and a boot scoot to that song that dares not mention its name, a rollicking cross between The Man From Snowy River and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, It is likewise loosely based on a true story, as is Capricorn Cowboy. We were doing a gig in cairns, in the tropical far north of Australia, against a backdrop of frogs and cicadas, street noise and broken and breaking glasses. One of the floor singers was Henry, a wannabe country & western singer. And country music of the cowboy variety is a thread that runs through most of these songs and stories. Three quarter time, regardless of the subject matter. I Still Call Mongolia Home, notwithstanding its title and subject matter, is a cowboy song through and through, dedicated as it is to The Duke himself. And Summer Is The Time, a Viking saga that meanders all over the map , resolves into a finale that would not be out of place in Oklahoma! Well, sort of. Listen to it and also the story of Henry below.

My Cowboy Days with Twopence & Trigger

Postscript – a cowboy like me

Americans love their outlaws and really love them running wild, and if that means going out in a blaze of glory, so much the better. We recall the closing camera pan of Bonny and Clyde, and the fade to sepia freeze-frame ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In part, this is because the world’s most powerful country, and indeed, as recent history has shown, most libertarian, cleaves to its foundational “don’t tread on me” and “us against them” identities. In the American noir series Justified, an inept backwoods criminal declaims “he who is not with us – is not with us!”

But it is not only America, the land of the free and the Boogaloo Bois. England has its perennial and ageless Robin Hood – “age cannot wither nor custom stale” his infinite screen resurrections (there’s another on the way in 2021). And aren’t we still fascinated by those East End bully boys, the Kray Twins, DownUnder, the ghost of Ned Kelly haunts our ethos still, alongside those our famed and favoured bushrangers Captain Lightfoot and Ben Hall.

But the fascination with the cowboy is much more than outlaw chic. It is a deep and colourful repository of folk memories and foundation myths where fact and fiction coexist. During the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. And it was always thus. As German cultural scientist Ulrich Raulff’s captivating “micro-history” Farewell to the Horse, “Like love and the stock exchange, our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known facts…This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”.  [See: The Twilight of the Equine Gods]

The sad irony is that even as these songs, films and musicals were being created, the world of the cowboy was fast disappearing. Films such as The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid saw its protagonists exit in a blaze of bloody glory. But the reality was more poignant: a slo-mo and allegorical lone rider heading into the sunset for one last time, an American archetype that is lost forever, as country singer Ed Bruce tells us in The Last Cowboy Song, the end of a hundred year waltz”, the video illustrated with a fine gallery of old photographs that recall Frederic Remington’s iconic paintings.

An Oklahoman friend reminded me of the famous Chisholm Trail, the rout for arduous cattle drives that traversed her state from Texas to Kansas. And there it is in Ed Bruce’s song too, together with references to Lewis & Clark, The Alamo, Custer’s Last Stand and other American epics. I had visions of visions of Rawhide and a young Clint Eastwood, but I also recalled our own  Long Paddock, the “travelling stock routes” where stockmen would walk their cattle to market over hundreds of miles exist today largely as tourist drives. Like the cowboy, our “drover” is a precious but passing of artefact of historical iconography.

We all get that cowboy vibe, the idea of a life lived on the edge. Though long “civilized” and sedentary, we harbour atavistic folk memories of running wild and free – from the law, from the tax man, from ‘civilization and its discontents‘. Even Taylor Swift has got the drift – albeit as image rather than actual.

© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

 

For more posts on matters America in In That Howling Infinite, see My Country ’tis of thee, and on music, Soul Food- music and musicians.

Arguments of Monumental Proportions


Our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking. Ulrich Raulph

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…The opening of the film Gone with the Wind

The past is another country – they thought things differently there; and if the past shapes the present, the present also shapes the past.

With the spread of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the defacing and destruction of monuments to dead and dubious white men is back in vogue – not that the practice has ever actually gone out of style.

Fallen Idols

There is a certain historical irony that the statue of a 17th century slave trader (and on account of his wealth, philanthropist) Edward Colston has been consigned to the watery depths of Bristol Harbour from whence his ships sailed. He’d built his fortune as an influential member of the Royal African Company, a private company which branded its initials on the chests of some 100,000 men, women and children before shipping them to the Americas and the Caribbean. Thousands never made it, tossed into the ocean after drawing their last breath in the filth below decks. Ted and his fellow slavers have a case to answer. In the hundred years after 1680, some two million slaves were forcible removed from their homes in West Africa to the work camps of the West Indies. By 1750, the numbers of slaves had reached over 270,000 per decade, and by 1793, Liverpool handled three fifths of the slave trade of all Europe.Historian Peter Ackroyd wrote in his History of England: “No more than half of the transported slaves reached their destination; some plunged into the sea and were said to hike up their arms in joy from the brief sensation of liberty before they sank beneath the waves”.

Bristol owed its past prosperity to the slave trade – as did Liverpool. The statue had stood in the city centre for 125 years with a plaque that read: ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’. Streets and buildings were also named after Colton though most townsfolk have probably never have heard of him. 

Activists have drawn up a hit list of 60 monuments in the United Kingdom that “celebrate slavery and racism”. London mayor Sadiq Khan paves the way for the legal removal of many of historic statues in the British capital and the changing of street names. Slave owner and West India Docks founder Robert Milligan has already been taken down. On the same day, Belgium’s bloody King Leopold, whose rule of the Congo – it was his private property – became a byword in colonial barbarity, was removed from his plinth in Brussels 

As an Aussie and a Brit of Irish parents, and as a history tragic, I find the long running monuments furore engrossing. Statues of famous and infamous generals, politicians and paragons of this and that grace plazas, esplanades and boulevards the world over, and their names are often given to such thoroughfares. They represent in visual and tangible form the historical memory of a nation, and as such, can generate mixed emotions reflecting the potentially conflicted legacies and loyalties of the citizenry. 

It is about the control of history – and who controls it. We all use history, incorporating perceptions of our national story into lessons that guide or confirm our present actions and outlooks. Our history is written not only in scholarly narratives, but also, in commemorations, in statues, flags and symbols, in the stories that children are taught about their country and their community from their earliest school years, and in the historical figure skating  they are taught to remember and honour. History, it is said, is written mostly by the victors  – but not always. So the inevitable tensions between different versions of the past fosters tension and conflict, and grievance and offense in the present. Particularly in onetime colonialist and settler countries, and the lands these once ruled and exploited.

Juxtaposing controversial British statuary, and those of American Civil War generals, against the empty plinths of the former People’s Republics of Eastern Europe, and the images of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein, I have always contemplated our own monuments to reputed bad boys past. 

There are statues of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell all over the place in England where his legacy is still debated. He stands authoritatively outside the Houses of Parliament and is remembered as one of the godfathers of that institution. And yet, when he died, and the monarchy he deposed restored, his body was disinterred and hanged. In Ireland, for so long “John Bull’s other island”, however, he is reviled. He did, after all, march through the land with “fire and fury”, to borrow Donald Trump’s hyperbole, and killed quite a number of Irish folk. In my southern Irish mother’s day, people would put his picture upside down, facing the wall. This may be apocryphal, but whatever.

Oliver Cromwell, Parliament Square

A statue of Lord Nelson stood in O’Connell Street, Dublin until March 1966 when the IRA blew him up, celebrated by the Clancies in the song below. The IRA also blew up that other famous English mariner, Lord Louis Mountbatten, inveterate pants-man, victor of the Burma campaign and facilitator of Indian Independence). It wasn’t that Horatio had inflicted anything unpleasant upon the Irish, but rather his renowned Englishness that earned him the TNT. And yet, in the wake of intermittent US monuments barnies, beady British eyes were always focusing on the admirable admiral and his ostensible racism (not a word in use at the turn of the eighteenth century) and support for the slave trade. After Colston’s dip in Bristol harbour, it won’t be long before Horatio is harangued – not that anyone actually believes that Nelsons Column should be evicted from iconic Trafalgar Square, and it would be damn difficult to paint-bomb his myopic visage. The British attachment to Lord Nelson is long and strong. In Birmingham, my hometown, the city centre around the Bullring has been refurbished, redesigned and reconstructed numerous times during my lifetime, but the immortal mariner and his battleship stand still on their plinth of honour – as in the featured picture.

The ongoing controversy in England over statues of Cecil Rhodes, colonialist and capitalist, and ostensibly an early architect of apartheid, still rages with respect to his African legacy, with many demanding that he be demolished. his statue in Cape Town, South Africa, was removed after extensive protests in  2015. as As I write, Cecil may not survive the week. There is a statue in Parliament Square, close to Cromwell and Winston Churchill (who some also abhor), of South African soldier and statesman Jan Smuts. His Boer War (on the enemy’s side) and segregationist sympathies were outweighed by his military and diplomatic record in service of the British Empire, and to date, none has called for his eviction. Perhaps he will be spared as he did not have a pariah state named for him, as it was with Cecil. Nor was he associated with the apartheid regime as it was decades before his time – although this wouldn’t satisfy some iconoclasts. But most likely, he is safe because most folk have never heard of him.  

Cecil Rhodes, Cambridge University
Winston Churchill gets a paint-job

I have heard mumblings, however, of doing for General Smuts, and also for his Parliament Square neighbour Sir Winston Churchill, who has now been graffitied. Now, he might have saved Britain from Hitler’s hoards, but he did not like the Irish, nor Indians (and Pakistanis for that matter), and said some gross things about Arabs and Jews. And we Aussies, and Kiwis too, still blame him for the disastrous Dardanelles campaign – although he did give us our indefatigable and untouchable ANZAC legend and a long weekend. And whilst on the subject of the Middle East, an equestrian Richard the Lionheart stands close by. He did dastardly things to tens of thousands  of locals – Muslim, Christian and Jew – during the Third Crusade, almost a millennium ago. Watch out, Dick and Dobbin! 

Richard the Lionhearted

Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the world scout movement, of which I was a relaxed and comfortable member for half of the sixties, sits on the seafront in Poole, Dorset, under twenty four hour CCTV protection. In a 2007 poll, he was voted the 13th most influential person in the UK in the 20th century. But critics say that he held racist views, and in 2010 declassified MI5 files revealed he was invited to meet Adolf Hitler after holding friendly talks about forming closer ties with the Hitler Youth. If old “bathing towel” as he was once affectionately called by us Boy Scouts, becomes persona non grata, what will become of Baden Powell Park in Coffs Harbour, our regional centre? It sits behind the Dan Murphy’s liquor mart, one of the town’s most popular retail outlets, and provides an opportunity for our discussion to segue DownUnder.

Dark deeds in a sunny land

In this strange, copycat world we live in, politicians and activists call for the removal of statues of our Australian founding fathers for the parts they played in the creation of our nation. In his challenging revisionist history of Australia, Taming of the Great South Land, William Lines tells us that if we look up the names of the worthies who’ve had statues, squares, streets and highways, building and bridges, parks and promontories, rivers and even mountains named after them, we will uncover a dark history of which few are aware. Try it sometime; you’ll be surprised.

There has inevitably been much fuss about Captain James Cook, the renowned and courageous navigator who “discovered” the place two hundred and fifty years ago (notwithstanding that the Aborigines, Javanese, Dutch, Portuguese, and French had been here first). His “discovery”, many argue, led to genocide and the dispossession of our First Peoples (Columbus no doubt also gets more than pigeons shitting on him!). And also, there’s Lachlan Macquarie, fifth and last of the autocratic governors of New South Wales, who laid the economic and social foundations of the new colony. He is in the cross-hairs as responsible for initiating the ‘frontier wars‘ and for ordering the massacre of Aborigines. 

The captain, his chopsticks and his lunch.
James Cook, Whitby, Yorks
Lachlan Macquarie, Hyde Park,Sydney

Inevitably, right-wing politicians, shock-jocks and  commentators, came out swinging, venting against political correctness and identity politics, defending what they see as an assault on our “Australian values”. When Macquarie got a paint job three years back, for a moment it seemed that our intractable history wars” were on again – the “whitewash” brigade versus the “black arm-band” mob. Statues were vandalized, voices raised and steam emitted as opposing sides took to their hyperbolic barricades. But once the graffiti had been removed from the statues of Cook and Macquarie in Sydney, and The Australian got it off its chest with a week of broadsheet history and a swag of indignant opinion pieces by the usual suspects, things appeared to have calmed down. 

But not for long, perhaps.

All sorts of emotions, hopes and fears lie behind our various creation myths. No matter the source of our different “dream-times” we are all correct in one way or another. People wheel out the wise old “blind men and the elephant” story to illustrate how blinkered we are; but in reality, if those blind men were given more time, they would have expanded their explorations and discovered a bigger picture.

For more on our Aussie worthies, see, for example, from The Guardian, on Australia, Statues are not history, and regarding former Soviet monuments, Poles Apart – the bitter conflict over a nation’s history.

And, in In That Howling Infinite, read also: The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness, and America’s Confederate legacy, Rebel Yell 

Land of the fearful – home of the heavily armed

Vladimir Lenin once remarked that “there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen”. As the leader of the Russian revolution, he was a bit of an expert on sudden upheavals following long stasis. We are living through such weeks now.  The worldwide reaction to the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer has all the hallmarks of one of those momentous weeks.

Predicatively, such outbursts of outage, where peaceful protests are often accompanied by mayhem and wanton destruction, are a magnet for opportunists of all persuasions. It’s a revolutionist’s dream. Lenin called moments like this a “revolutionary situation”. Most self-respecting Bolsheviks and Nazis never let such volatile circumstances go to waste. One mob’s crisis was always some other mob’s opportunity – I’m talking in the Aussie vernacular here, by the way, a ‘mob’ is a bunch of folks, or livestock, sheep or roos, mainly – and not necessarily a Pythonesque “wabble of wowdy webels ”  – although the featured photograph would suggest this this might indeed be so. The smiling chappie with the brolly looks like he was doing a Hong Kong “umbrella revolution”. Maybe He was just an accidental tourist caught in the camera’s gaze. But his nonchalance belies the seriousness of America’s turmoil.

David Kilcullen, Australian author, strategist and counterinsurgency expert refers to these agents provocateurs as ‘accelerationists’. In the following article, He writes of how the rise of militias and armed protesters across the US is sometimes seen as a fringe right-wing issue, but argues that it is much broader. Armed groups have formed across the political spectrum, reflecting divisions in American society that the coronavirus and it’s social and economic impacts have exacerbated. There are, he says, “already hundreds militias of varying political complexions across the country. Donald Trump is as much a symptom as a cause of America’s toxic polarization. Thus, far from being a purely right-wing phenomenon, rifts within US society that are most stressed by the coronavirus — urban versus rural interests, racial and class tensions, state overreach versus anti-government militancy, far left against alt-right, “collectivist” coastal elites versus rugged individualists in “flyover country” – align with pre-existing grievances. And heavily armed ­actors across the spectrum are poised to exploit them’.

Kilcullen writes: “One reason for the overemphasis on right-wing extremism  is that analysts often characterized armed actors as “hate groups”. It is absolutely true that the intense hatred from right-wing extremists dwarfs most other groups. But the focus on hate is a misunderstanding of what drives violence in internal conflicts … the worst atrocities are driven not by hate but by fear. Fear of other groups, encroachment of those groups into one’s territory and collapse of confidence in government’s ability to impartially keep the peace are the key factors that provoke communal violence. Hate follows and rationalizes fear, not the other way around. And fear of the coronavirus, alongside the demonstrable inability of government to keep people safe, is driving today’s growth in armed militancy”.

Commentators on the left and right have for a long time now been discussing the the prospects of a second American civil war; and its has been particularly talked up during the reign of the incendiarist in chief. in the White House. but Kilcullen begs to differs, suggesting a less dystopian but nonetheless disturbing outcome:

“In ‘contested areas’ – where the territories of left and right-wing militants overlap – we can expect violence irrespective of the outcome. Whether it spreads will depend on level-headed political leadership – and today’s hyper-partisan coronavirus debate offers little hope of that. If violence does spread, it will not be a re-run of the American Civil War. Rather, given the multiplicity of groups involved, their geographical overlap and loose structure, we can expect something much more diffuse”.

In the land of the fearful, the home of the heavily armed, matters can very easily spiral out of control get out of hand. Conflict resolution expert and mediator Lawrence Susskind encapsulated it thus: when two sides are locked into an apparently intractable conflict, “you must engage the constructive middle. When you lose the constructive middle, extremists on all sides are empowered” (from 51 Days at Waco, Paul Hemphill September 2003 – see below ). When the going gets tough, the mild get going. As the indestructible but fictitious Agent Jack Bauer, said between 11 and 11.14 am in the turn of the millennium series 24:

If you bring in the CTU (Counter terrorism Unit), they could screw up and there’d be another Waco”.

See also, Salon’s piece on the subject of America’s militias,  Soldiers of the Boogaloo -the far rights plans for a new civil war and the Washington Post’s  What is antifa and Why does Donald Trump want to blame if for the violence in the US?

For other posts on world politics in In That Howling Infinite, including several articles by David Kilcullen, see: Political World – thoughts and themes. 

Home of the hateful, fearful and heavily armed

David Kilcullen, The Australian, 30th May 2020

The rise of militias and armed protesters across the US is sometimes seen as a fringe right-wing issue, but it is much broader. Armed groups have formed across the political spectrum, worsening divisions the coronavirus has exposed in American society.

Protesters, some heavily armed, are out in force to demand reopening of the economy. The husband of one leader posted a Facebook video this week expressing his readiness to take up arms against the government to prevent a “new world order” being imposed through lockdowns.

Protesters in Lansing, Michigan, during a rally earlier this month organised by Michigan United for Liberty to condemn coronavirus pandemic stay-at-home orders. Picture: AFP
Protesters in Lansing  during a rally earlier this month organised by
Michigan United for Liberty to condemn coronavirus pandemic stay-at-home orders. AFP

As I write, there are 1.7 million coronavirus cases in the US and more than 100,000 deaths. The little county where I live — only a half-million people, in a part-urban, part-wilderness area of the Rocky Mountains — has a death toll higher than Australia and New Zealand combined. And this is one of the safe places, positively benign compared with hot spots such as New York or New Jersey with deaths in the tens of thousands.

Second to its health impact, the economic crisis wrought by ­government-imposed lockdowns has grabbed the most attention: 40 million Americans were forced on to the dole in the past 10 weeks. The job market, strong until mid-March, has fallen off a cliff. A flood of bankruptcies is sweeping US business; analysts expect a wave of municipal bankruptcies as tax ­revenue collapses. Congress has committed $US2 trillion ($3 trillion) in crisis spending, even as public debt nears $US30 trillion, or roughly 120 per cent of gross domestic product. If the first wave of the coronavirus tsunami was its health effect, the second — economic devastation — may be worse. But there is a third wave coming: the possibility of armed conflict towards the end of this year, when the combined health and economic impacts of the crisis will peak amid the most violently contested presidential election in memory.

READ MORE :President vows to send in army|Trump faces a dangerous test|Race riots spread after death of unarmed black man|Why the US is in serious trouble

There were already many militias of varying political complexions across America — one pro-militia website lists 361 groups across all 50 states. Membership surged after the 2008 financial crisis, then accelerated as thugs from both political extremes fought each other with baseball bats, ­bicycle chains and pepper spray in the streets of Washington, DC, Seattle, Portland and Detroit. The deadly “Unite the Right” rally in the normally sleepy university town of Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 brought the danger home to many Americans, but the trend was longstanding.

Rioting among groups such as Antifa (on the anarchist left), Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys (on the alt-right) and mass demonstrations by issue-motivated groups such as Black Lives Matter, ­Extinction Rebellion and the Women’s March kicked into high gear after Donald Trump’s election.

Far-left militias such as Redneck Revolt and the John Brown Gun Club emerged, copying the methods and military-style weapons of right-wing militias while opposing their politics. Both far-right and far-left armed groups were at Charlottesville, with ­cadres of gun-carrying militants guarding protesters on both sides and a third-party “constitutionalist” militia, the Oath Keepers — composed mainly of military and law-enforcement veterans — standing by as self-appointed umpires.

In the west, a separate rural militia movement had already coalesced around “sovereign citizen” groups that rejected federal authority. Despite media portrayals of its leaders as racially motivated, in fact the sovereign citizen ideology is neither left nor right in a traditional sense — it might better be described as a form of militant libertarianism with roots in the self-reliant cowboy culture of the old west. In April 2014, a dispute over grazing rights in Nevada triggered an armed stand-off between militia and federal agencies including the Bureau of Land Management and the FBI. This dispute — over federal attempts to impound the cattle of a rancher named Cliven Bundy — brought hundreds of militia members from across the country to Nevada where they surrounded federal agents, trained weapons on them and forced them to back down.

The 2014 stand-off ended in a bloodless militia victory, but almost two years later Bundy’s son Ammon led an armed occupation of the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge in southeastern Oregon. This time, things went the other way. The occupation prompted a six-week siege by federal and state agencies in January-February 2016. It resulted in the death of LaVoy Finicum, a charismatic Arizona rancher whose killing, captured on government aerial-camera footage that appears to show him with hands raised in surrender before being shot, made him a martyr.

Though Trump is as much a symptom as a cause of America’s toxic polarisation, the passions he inspires among friend and foe alike have exacerbated it: during the 2016 election campaign, ­Arizona militias mounted armed patrols to support his border wall. In response, Redneck Revolt held a heavily armed show of force in Phoenix, Arizona, later posting a YouTube video showing members shooting semiautomatic rifles at targets displaying alt-right symbols. A few months later, Antifa convened an “anti-colonial anti-fascist community defence gathering” near Flagstaff, Arizona, that included weapons training and coaching in anti-police tactics. Today, far-left and far-right groups operate within close striking distance of each other in several border states and in “contested zones” including the Pacific Northwest, parts of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas.

A Youtube still of Neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division training outside Seattle.

A Youtube still of Neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division training outside Seattle.

The pandemic — and the grievances inspired by heavy-handed responses to it — have brought these tensions to a head. Camouflage-clad militia sporting semiautomatic rifles and body ­armour and riding in military-­surplus trucks joined an armed protest against the governor of Pennsylvania in April. Similar protests took place in Ohio and North Dakota. A week later demonstrators, some carrying AK-47 rifles, swarmed into the state ­capital in Lansing, Michigan, to confront politicians.

A racial edge also emerged: a week after the Lansing incident a group of African-Americans, armed with AR-15 rifles and automatic pistols, mounted a show of force outside the Michigan State Capitol building to support a black member of the legislature. Class inequities, which track closely with racial disparities here, have prompted socialist groups — notably Antifa but also traditionally nonviolent Trotskyist and anarchist networks — to arm themselves for an incipient revolutionary moment.

In Minneapolis, the killing by white police officers of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, brought thousands of protesters on to the streets for several nights of rioting, with multiple buildings and cars burned and shopping malls and restaurants looted. By Thursday, militarised police were on the streets firing tear gas and rubber bullets against vociferous opposition. At least one person has been killed in the riots and the Minnesota National Guard is expected to join the police in attempting to restore order.

Thus, far from being a purely right-wing phenomenon, rifts within US society that are most stressed by the coronavirus — urban versus rural interests, racial and class tensions, state overreach versus anti-government militancy, far left against alt-right, “collectivist” coastal elites versus rugged individualists in “flyover country” — align with pre-existing grievances. And heavily armed ­actors across the spectrum are poised to exploit them.

One reason for the overemphasis on right-wing extremism, I believe, is that analysts often mis­characterise armed actors as “hate groups”. It is absolutely true that the intense hatred from right-wing extremists dwarfs most other groups. But the focus on hate is a misunderstanding of what drives violence in internal conflicts.

As Stathis Kalyvas demonstrated a decade ago in The Logic of Violence in Civil War, the worst atrocities are driven not by hate but by fear. Fear of other groups, encroachment of those groups into one’s territory and collapse of confidence in government’s ability to impartially keep the peace are the key factors that provoke communal violence. Hate follows and rationalises fear, not the other way around. And fear of the coronavirus, alongside the demonstrable inability of government to keep people safe, is driving today’s growth in armed militancy.

Like Iraq, like Somalia

To me, current conditions feel disturbingly similar to things I have seen in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia and Colombia. Indeed, the theory of guerrilla and unconventional warfare fits today’s situation all too well.

If we visualise an armed movement as a pyramid, then the thousands of protesters on the street (and the tens of thousands who support and sympathise with them but stay home) represent the mass base. A smaller group of organisers and support networks (physical and virtual) plays an auxiliary role further up the pyramid. The armed, gun-toting element is smaller still, but higher in skill, weaponry, organisation and motivation. It’s worth remembering that almost three million Americans served in Iraq and Afghanistan, coming home familiar with urban and rural guerrilla warfare to a country where 41 per cent of people own a gun or live with someone who does.

A militia group with no political affiliation from Michigan stands in front of the Governor’s office after protesters occupied the state capitol building on April 30.
A militia group with no political affiliation from Michigan stands in front of the
Governor’s office after protesters occupied the state capitol building on April 30.

The US has no national firearms register, so only estimates are possible, but analysts believe around 100 million firearms are in private hands in the US, and hundreds of billions of rounds of ammunition. Given widespread com­bat experience from the war on terror, this reservoir of military potential sets the US apart from any other Western democracy.

The pandemic has seen a surge in gun purchases, with background checks spiking to their highest number. Many of these are first-time buyers from the ­pro­gressive end of politics, who traditionally shun firearms and have little knowledge of weapon safety.

Racial war, class war

More worrying, on left and right, are underground groups including so-called “accelerationists”. These tend to be small, secretive and far more violent than the militias or mass movements. They follow a decentralised command-and-­control philosophy known as “leaderless resistance” that was pioneered by far-right groups in the 1980s but has since been taken up by terrorists across the political spectrum, including jihadists. Their goal is to accelerate the collapse of a social order they see as doomed, by bringing on a racial war, a class war or both.

Underground networks operate using a clandestine cell structure, and communicate via the deep web and tools such as Telegram or RocketChat, secure-messaging apps that have become havens for extremists as more open channels, including chat rooms such as the neo-Nazi forum Iron March, have been shut down.

Language policing on social media has not only pushed accelerationist groups underground; it has created a whole new language.

The term “Boogaloo” is widely used for the coming civil war. Variants — coined to avoid Twitter censors — include “The Big Igloo” or “The Big Luau”, the last explaining why Hawaiian shirts are popular among militias. Memes from television (“Winter is Coming”, “Cowabunga”) are popular, as are meme-based references such as “Spicy Time” or acronyms such as BAMN (“by any means necessary”) and BFYTW (“because f..k you, that’s why”). Some call the urban guerrilla aspect of the Boogaloo “Minecrafting”: Twitter threads seeming to discuss the game may actually refer to the coming conflict — context is everything. Some discussion hides in plain sight on social media: more open, practical and gruesome conversations are left to the deep web, Telegram or neo-Nazi sites such as Daily Stormer, which ­resides on the orphaned former Soviet “.su” internet domain as a way to avoid censorship. Doctoral dissertations could be written on the kaleidoscope of visual symbols used by groups, left and right, to signal allegiances.

Accelerationism has a long history on the Marxist left and among environmental activists such as Earth Liberation Front or Earth First! It has since been embraced by right-wing extremists including 2019 Christchurch killer Brenton Tarrant, whose manifesto included environmentalist ideology and was celebrated by neo-Nazi ecoterrorist group Green Brigade.

Other right-wing accelerationist groups include Atomwaffen ­Division (which has a presence in Australia) and The Base, a white-supremacist group founded in mid-2018 whose name is a play on al-Qa’ida (“the base” in Arabic). FBI agents targeted The Base after its members allegedly sought to ­attack a massive pro-gun rally outside the Virginia State Capitol building in Richmond in January. In a classic accelerationist move, they planned to infiltrate the rally, start shooting both protesters and law enforcement officers, provoke a massacre and thereby convert a peaceful ­(albeit armed) demonstration into a militant uprising.

A heavily-armed young man poses for a photo with his assault rifle during the protest at the State Capitol in Salem, Oregon on May 2.
A heavily-armed young man poses for a photo with his assault rifle
during the protest at the State Capitol in Salem, Oregon on May 2.

The group’s leader, until recently known by his nom de guerre “Norman Spear”, was unmasked in January as Rinaldo Nazzaro, a New Jersey native based in St Peters­burg, Russia, from where he directed cells in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. There is no public evidence of any relationship between Nazzaro and Russian intelligence, though his presence in Russia triggered speculation in the media and within The Base itself. But this highlights another risk factor for 2020: the possibility of foreign interference astride the upcoming presidential election.

A new cold war

The US and China are fast descending into a new cold war, as recriminations over the pandemic heighten conflicts that were already acute. Each is seeking to improve its military position against the other: the Chinese navy has ramped up activity in the South China Sea, for example, while US forces mounted more incursions into the area in the past three months than in all of last year. China’s history of sponsoring agents of influence in the US and other Western countries (including Australia) and its track record of cyber-espionage and technology theft make it a reasonable assumption that some (with or without official backing) may be considering ways to exploit America’s internal tensions. Indeed, it would be intelligence malpractice if they were not.

Likewise, Iran — which lost Qassem Soleimani, head of its Revolutionary Guards covert action arm, the Quds Force, to a US drone strike in January — has been on a path of military confrontation with the US for years. A ­series of incidents in the Middle East and the increasing pain of US economic sanctions motivate Tehran to create internal distractions for the US, relieving pressure on itself. The regime has a history of sponsoring lethal covert action inside the US — most recently in 2011, when Quds Force members recruited a criminal gang in an ­attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador by bombing an upscale Washington, DC, restaurant.

Again, there is no public evidence of such activity at present, but ­Iranian operatives watching the US today would be remiss not to consider it.

If interference does occur, US armed groups probably would not know it. Just as members of The Base were dismayed to discover their leader living in Russia, militant groups in the US — many of which are patriotic, albeit opposed to the current character of government — would likely spurn any overt foreign approach. But anonymous funding, amplification of online messaging, offers of training or equipment through “cut-outs” such as tactical training companies or non-government organisations, or “false flag” operations (where agents of one organisation pretend to belong to another) would allow ­hostile foreign actors to inflame tensions.

It is, of course, impossible to say with certainty whether significant violence will occur this year. All we can conclude from the available evidence is that the risk is real and growing. We can also make some judgments about where and when violence might break out and what form it might take.

Given the pandemic health crisis, widespread economic disruption over the northern summer, then a predicted second wave of infection in October-November, peak compound impact — when the combined health, economic and security effects of the coronavirus will be at their worst — will likely run from late October until March-April next year, astride the next election and transition to the next presidential term.

Even without the virus, the election was already set to be a flashpoint; the combined health, economic and security effects of the pandemic could make it far worse. If Trump is re-elected, mass protests are a given, while factions within the militant left might undertake what they term “direct action”. As The Base’s targeting of January’s Richmond rally showed, street protests are fertile ground for provocations. If Trump is defeated, elements of the militia movement or street protesters might also engage in violence.

In “contested areas” — where the territories of left and right-wing militants overlap — we can expect violence irrespective of the outcome. Whether it spreads will depend on level-headed political leadership — and today’s hyper-partisan coronavirus debate offers little hope of that. If violence does spread, it will not be a re-run of the American Civil War. Rather, given the multiplicity of groups involved, their geographical overlap and loose structure, we can expect something much more diffuse.

Remember Colombia

Perhaps the best analogy is ­Colombia, which saw 10 years of amorphous conflict from 1948 to 1958, a decade known as La Violencia. Starting as rioting in Bogota — driven by pre-existing urban-rural, left-right, class and racial divisions — violence spread to the countryside as the two main political parties, the Colombian Liberal Party and the Conservative Party, mobilised rural supporters to attack each other’s communities. Local governments weaponised police to kill or expel political opponents. Extremists joined in and “conflict entrepreneurs” emerged to prolong and profit from the violence. In the end 200,000 people were killed, two million were displaced and the Colombian Army — after initially staying out of the conflict — eventually stepped in to end the violence, seizing control in a coup in 1953. External actors, including the Cold War superpowers, also interfered.

Colombia is not the only precedent. Last month marked the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in US history. The bomber, Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh, claimed to be enraged by government over­reactions at Ruby Ridge (1992) and Waco, Texas (1993), which between them saw law ­enforcement kill 78 civilians including 26 children. He bombed a building that housed the federal agencies he blamed, along with a childcare centre. His comment after his trial — that the 19 children killed, of 168 dead and 680 injured, were “collateral damage” — highlighted his military mindset and intent to trigger an anti-­government uprising. There was indeed a huge rise in militia ­activity. But the callousness of McVeigh’s attack made most militias condemn him, and — by ­tarnishing the self-perceived righteousness of their anti-­government cause — undermined the movement he hoped to inspire. He was executed a few months ­before 9/11.

Protestors try to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber.
Protestors try to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber.

In retrospect, the risk that Ruby Ridge and Waco would trigger a terrorist backlash seems obvious. Analysts warned this year that extremism poses as much risk today as it did in 1995. Ahead of time, McVeigh’s attack was far harder to foresee and its specifics impossible to predict. But far from a fringe issue of neo-Nazi nut cases, the pandemic has made the risk of ­violence in 2020 far more widespread, larger in scale and more militarily serious than we might imagine. America may well be in a “pre-McVeigh moment”.

https://howlinginfinite.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/51-days-at-waco.pdf

The view from the grassy knoll – the resilience of conspiracy theories

Plots he has made, so ingenuous.
Dangerous follies and schemes
For he has stage-managed quite strenuous
Drunken prophecies, libels and dreams.
Lucifer, Paul Hemphill, after Shakespeare’s Richard II

Everybody who was alive when JF Kennedy was assassinated remembers where they were, just as we remember where we were when Neil Armstrong made that “great step for mankind”, and when we’d heard that the Twin Towers had been hit. And there is an almost universal consensus as to how, why and when these events occurred.

But many beg to differ, and cynical or suspicious, curious or just plan mischievous, they say “Ah, but …” and ascribe ulterior motives, describe oblique patterns, and maintain that they possess clear sight whilst the rest of us sport white sticks and dark glasses.

So, it was inevitable that some folk would some how find a link between COVID19, atmospheric chemtrails and the roll-out of the 5G telecommunications network. Before the coronavirus outbreak even began, 5G was being blamed for everything from cancer to infertility. Now, there are hints of deep state” plots and Illuminati plans to control population growth.

Many of the people spreading such theories are the same that share unfounded warnings about the dangers of vaccinations.​ indeed, folk who grasp conspiracy theories tend to go for the buy one, get five free deal – and the rest! Antivax, chem trails, JFK, 9/11, Apollo II, climate change, Illuminati, deep state, white replacement, the Rothschilds, George Soros, Satanic cults, black helicopters, Freemasons, Jews … Yes, it always come back to the Jews …

Although many common conspiracy theories flourished – some would say festered – in back streets and bedsits, the advent of social media has energized and amplified them. Facebook groups that act as petri dishes for new viral rumours to spread can be easily found by searching for ‘5G’ or ‘coronavirus’ on the social network.

Opportunistic political groups stir the pot, often for subversive and strategic ends. For example, RT, the Kremlin-backed broadcaster, has given a platform for 5G conspiracy theories long before coronavirus existed. The New York Times recently suggested that consistently reporting the “5G apocalypse” through its foreign media channels could all be part of a ploy to slow the roll-out of the technology so that Russia won’t be left behind.

Fear, suspicion, insecurity, resentment, powerlessness and a feeling that things are out of our control have much to do with it, rendering people of a bitter, misanthropic or nihilistic disposition – or a compendium of such traits – susceptible to unproven facts, untethered rumours, and in some cases, outright fantasy, and subscribing to alternative narratives, histories and universes.

In Contagion, a 2011 film about a deadly worldwide pandemic that has killed seventy million, a public health official retorts to a conspiracy theorist: “In order to get scared, all you have to do is come into contact with a rumour”.

Below, In That Howling Infinite provides links to three recent articles that endeavour to cast a light into the shadowy world of conspiracy theories and its inhabitants. But first, the irrepressible Sybil Fawlty’s excruciating exposition on fear and loathing:

“Old people are wonderful when they have so much life, aren’t they? Gives us all hope, doesn’t it? My mother on the other hand is a little bit of a trial, really. You know, it’s alright when they have the life force but Mother – well she’s got more of the death force really. She’s a worrier. She has these, well, morbid fears they are, really. Vans is one. Rats. Doorknobs. Birds. Heights. Open spaces. Confined spaces. It’s very difficult getting the space right for her really, you know. Footballs. Bicycles. Cows. And she’s always on about men following her, I don’t know what she thinks they’re going to do to her. Vomit on her, Basil says”.

Lies travel faster than facts

“Lies travel faster than facts and, perversely, efforts to debunk a conspiracy theory can end up reinforcing it …  Increasingly, authorities treat such misinformation contagion like their biological equivalent – proactively pushing out the right facts to inoculate people against unfounded theories or encouraging good information hygiene (such as checking sources) … such theories more as symptoms of a bigger problem, whether it be lack of transparency or a failure of communication … For most people, the more consistent and clear the messaging is from the people higher up, the better – even if that information is “we don’t know yet”.

How conspiracy theories about COVID-19 went viral, The Sydney Morning Herald

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story

“Conspiracy theories aren’t fueled by facts; they are fueled by attention. Twitter in particular, as the platform of choice for many national journalists as well as Trump, has become the perfect vehicle for conspiracy theories, misinformation and racist screeds to find massive audiences; messages grow from a few viral tweets, to a trending topic, to news coverage … When you ask experts about ways to limit the reach of racism and conspiracy theories on platforms such as Twitter, they’ll tell you to watch how it’s amplified: Sharing a meme to condemn it is still a share. Retweeting a racist tweet to shame its writer still gives the tweet more eyeballs … Even though many journalists and media organisations have gotten better at realizing that trending hashtags are often more representative of the weaponization of attention rather than a reflection of popular opinion, trending hashtags are still an effective tactic for courting news coverage of fringe ideas – even if that coverage is intended to debunk it”.

A dangerous cycle of conspiracy theories circulate around Donald Trump, The Sydney Morning Herald

The internet’s dark spaces

Christopher French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London explains in a Scientific American article. “As a species, one of our greatest strengths is our ability to find meaningful patterns in the world around us and to make causal inferences. We sometimes, however, see patterns and causal connections that are not there, especially when we feel that events are beyond our control.”

Voting for Brexit and Trump was found to be associated with a wide range of conspiratorial beliefs, with researchers uncovering that these groups are more likely to believe climate change is a hoax, vaccines are harmful, and that Illuminati-style groups rule the world. They also found that 33 percent of British and French people believe their governments are obscuring the truth about immigration and that many also supported a theory known as “the great replacement” which posits that Muslim immigration is part of a plan to make Muslims the global majority …

… As is the case with the Holocaust and the Second World War, as time passes, truth and fact often become distorted and replaced with myth and alternative stories to support new, disruptive thought. Although many common conspiracy theories flourished – some would say festered – in back streets and bedsits, the advent of social media has energized and amplified them. In the dark recesses of the Internet, all amplified by the likes of QAnon and 8chan which are only loosely tethered to reality, and para-State organs like RT which have more subversive and strategic motives.

How moon landing conspiracy theories influenced the far-right, The Independent

Read other posts about politics in In That Howling InfiniteA Political World – Thoughts and Themes

The Bard in the Badlands 2 – America’s Shakespearean dreaming

Two years ago, we published The Bard in the Badlands – Hell is empty and the devils are here,  a contemplation on the part played by William Shakespeare in the history and society of the American West – and more specifically in those original and excellent HBO series Westworld and Deadwood. It quotes Daniel Pollack-Pelzner  in Slate Magazine::  

“What these portentous allusions don’t seem to register … is the actual role that Shakespeare played in the American West…(Settlers) performed Shakespeare from Missouri to San Francisco in the Wild Frontier. Gold-miners queued up to land a plum part in favorites like the bloodthirsty Macbeth or Richard III. “Traveling through America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” An army scout in Wyoming traded a yoke of oxen for an edition of Shakespeare; mines named Cordelia, Ophelia, and Desdemona dotted the Colorado mountains. More recent evocations of this period link the Bard to territorial conquest…When the United States prepared to defend the newly annexed state of Texas from Mexico in 1846, Ulysses S. Grant was cast as Desdemona in an army production of Othello in Corpus Christi”.

President Abraham Lincoln used to love reciting, and was particularly enamoured of Macbeth, the play, not the disturbed anti-hero; ‘Nothing equals it’, he confided, “I think it is wonderful: he confided. John Wilkes Booth, his murderous nemesis, was also an aficionado. Booth, from an acting family, had a particular liking for Henry IV’s fiery and treasonous Geordie rebel, Hotspur, and was impressed in a less theoretical way by the regicidal Brutus in Julius Caesar.  

Whilst Shakespeare  and his plays attracted countless aficionados of high and low estate, he also found himself involuntarily conscripted into the young nation’s contentious race and immigration debates. eminent abolitionist and and former president John Adams believed that Desdemona was a “wanton trollop” for falling in love with a blackamoor”. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge opposed immigration and used the Bard as one of his weapons against the ‘Calibans” from Southern or Eastern Europe.

These are just a few examples of how The Bard of Avon popped up in at times in American history like a figurative and literary Doctor Who as guide, mentor, exemplar and even catalyst. in his new book, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro informs us that when great (and small) things happened in the United States, someone, somewhere, was brushing up their bard – as the following review from The Times illustrates. These do not include, however, the present resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who “may be the first American president to express no interest in Shakespeare”. Or else, as the reviewer remarks, “maybe we’ll see a tweet soon revealing that at private school his Desdemona was accounted the most fabulous Desdemona ever seen”.

See other posts on American history from In That Howling Infinite: Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana, Rebel Yelland The Bard in the Badlands – Hell is empty and the devils are here,.

Androids Dolores and Teddy enjoy the Westworld view

Deadwood’s wild bunch

The Bard in America’s Uncivil Wars

David Aaronovitch, The Australian, 14th March 2020

On May 10, 1849, outside the Astor Place Opera House in New York, more than 10,000 residents turned out to try to stop the great British Shakespearean actor William Macready giving an interpretation of Macbeth that they didn’t care for. The militia and the hussars were mobilized, artillery was deployed and in the ensuing riot more than a score died and twenty thousand were injured. This was arguably the most extreme event in the history of drama criticism.

This was just one example, according to Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, of the way in which the playwright turns up at critical moments in American history as guide, mentor, exemplar and even catalyst. When great things happen in the US, someone, somewhere, is brushing up their Shakespeare.

In the case of the 1849 riots, the Bard was largely a pretext. The poor of the city were being roused by populists to attack the wealthy who exploited them, and the blacks and newer immigrants whom they despised. But the bard was a crowd magnet – on one turbulent night, ten thousand New Yorkers saw Macbeth in three separate productions.

Shakespeare in a Divided America

As Shapiro explains in his new book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, the theatre then was cheap and became a place where people of all classes gathered. The public battle about how to play Hamlet between Macready and the much more masculinist American actor Edwin Forrest was taken up by partisans as being a matter of tribal importance.

When demonstrations (including the flinging of animal carcasses on stage) led to Macready being invited to perform more safely in a new, smarter, more expensive venue — the Opera House — the “mob” took it amiss. So Shakespeare became a proxy for the war between the wealthy and cosmopolitan on the one hand, and the poorer and angrier on the other.

Indeed, it was a contention of more sophisticated exponents of American nationalism and nativism that Shakespeare was more like the Americans than like the British. His spirit was more authentically represented by those pioneers who left England for the New World than by the descendants of those who remained.

Certainly it is true that some of our best, most popular Shakespearean scholars have been American, and Shapiro is one of them. Readers who have invested in his two books about seminal years in Shakespeare’s creative life, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare and 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, know what a lucid, lively joy he is to read.

And his dissection of the controversy over whether the Elizabethan Mr S wrote his own plays, Contested Will, settles the issue for any sensible reader.

Shapiro is the erudite tip of an American iceberg. He tells us that there are no fewer than 150 summer Shakespeare festivals in the US. I looked them up and decided that the Fairbanks Festival in Alaska looked particularly committed.

This enthusiasm is not universal, however, for, as Shapiro points out, the present incumbent “may be the first American president to express no interest in Shakespeare”. Or maybe we’ll see a tweet soon revealing that at private school his Desdemona was accounted the most fabulous Desdemona ever seen.

This was a fate narrowly avoided by Ulysses S Grant, who as a young officer was slated to play opposite Othello in an army production. His Civil War boss, Abraham Lincoln, though never called to act a part on stage, adored Shakespeare, had a particular affection for Macbeth and would recite long and apposite chunks when he felt moved to.

It was ironic, then, that his murderous nemesis, the actor John Wilkes Booth, was also an aficionado. Booth, from an acting family, had a particular liking for Henry IV’s Hotspur and was impressed in a less theoretical way by the regicidal Brutus in Julius Caesar. Indeed, he was playing as Mark Antony opposite his brothers to 2000 playgoers in a large theatre on lower Broadway in 1864 when Confederate sympathizers set fire to the building next door, hoping the flames would spread. Had the plot worked, it would have been the biggest death scene in theatre history.

Booth’s murder of Lincoln was animated by Lincoln’s promise to give limited suffrage to American blacks. And Shapiro writes a brilliant chapter on how Othello was interpreted in the first part of the 19th century as America’s original sin of slavery began to dominate the nation’s politics.

He focuses on the writings of the former president John Quincy Adams, who in 1836 published an essay on The Character of Desdemona. In it Adams wrote of Desdemona that “when Othello smothers her in bed, the terror and the pity subside immediately into the sentiment that she has her deserts”. Why?

As Shapiro tells us, two years earlier Adams had been at a dinner in Boston with the visiting British actress Fanny Kemble. According to her journals, he told her much the same thing, “with a most serious expression of sincere disgust that he considered all her misfortunes as a very just judgment upon her for having married a ‘n***er’ ”. Kemble had married a Texan slave owner. And she noted the Southern hypocrisy about “amalgamation”, given that, as she now knew, “throughout the South a large proportion of the population is the offspring of white men and coloured women”. One of those instances in which British bluntness punctures US social hypocrisy.

This isn’t a long book and it’s easy to read, elegant, to the point and with well-chosen quotes. Other chapters range from how the character of Caliban informed immigration debates in the early 1900s, to the way in which the screenplay of the movie Shakespeare in Love was watered down because of concerns about positive gay themes and Will’s unpunished adultery.

Possibly my favourite chapter convincingly links the musical Kiss Me Kate (based on The Taming of the Shrew) to the post-war situation of American women. During the war, when Rosie was a Riveter, American women went into occupations previously only held by men. And they liked it.

With those men due back from serving abroad, social psychologists and marriage experts expected trouble. Their answer was clearly that women needed to go back into the home and re-become pliant wives.

That many didn’t meekly accept their lot may be measured in the soaring divorce rate, and possibly in the hugely increased incidence of domestic violence. And it’s at this point that one of America’s most successful Shakespeare-inspired productions, Kiss Me Kate, appears, first on stage and then on film. In the film, one of the most famous scenes is when Petruchio puts Kate over his knee and “spanks” her. It’s even on the poster (see the featured image).

This spanking scene, though it had never occurred in any of the previous productions of The Taming of the Shrew, was by now common in US movies. Shapiro tells us there were five films featuring men spanking grown women in 1945 alone. Now Google the words of that most famous song from the show and you’ll see that Brush Up Your Shakespeare is practically a hymn to wife-beating. Someone really should tell the President.

David Aaronovitch is a columnist at The Times.

Shakespeare in a Divided America, James Shapiro Faber, $39.99

 

I hear America singing – happy birthday Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs. 

America’s national bard set the song lines for a young nation, and what was seen at the time as its  promise and its bold, independent identity. He reflected his country’s growing up and coming of age to his own personal awakening and awareness, in his seeing and being enlightened. “Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose” (Song of the Open Road).

From his rural roots on Long Island, where, in youth and early adulthood, he lived and worked as an itinerant schoolteacher and newspaper editor, Walt Whitman would go on to become one of the most influential and significant American poets. He’s viewed today as a modern voice even though he lived two centuries ago, a poet of the people for the people, without pretension or pomp, who wrote verse that captured everyday speech, both its fluency and its clank. “The best writing,” Whitman would say, “has no lace on its sleeves.”

Whitman scholar Brenda Wineapple has written of how the poet was unequivocally declaring his own independence from poetic conventions and niceties:

”In 1855 no one had yet heard anything like the raw, declamatory, and jubilant voice of the self- proclaimed “American, one of the roughs, a kosmos” – Walt Whitman, who in Leaves of Grass, his dazzling poetic debut, announced, ‘I celebrate myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For  every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’.”

Whitman’s reputation as an innovator, she says, is partly based on Whitman’s then-radical use of free verse – poems that are not developed around a rhyming structure. “Every poet that comes along is looking for his new voice, and their own tradition and they look to Whitman to see how he did it”.

Regarding his “American-ness”, author Karen Karbenier asks us “… to approach Whitman and his work not as a hero or a villain but as a mirror. “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes),” announces the narrator of “Song of Myself.” Walt Whitman the man was as conflicted and complex as the country he sought to embody. He may still be regarded as a representative American — but representative of who we have been and continue to be, not just who we claim we are … When examining Whitman’s racial slurs alongside his most egalitarian poetic lines, we should feel discomfort and regret and the need for renewal and change. This complicated and conflicted American also envisioned, described and celebrated a truly democratic society that neither his era nor our own has yet realized. What could America need more right now than a poetic figure whose work spotlights the chaos and division that have long defined what it means to be an American?”

Celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of his birth, I republish here one of my favourite Whitman poems, Out of the Cradle Restlessly Rocking.

The poem contained three intertwined motifs: the boy, awakening to nature and himself; the bereaved mockingbird, futilely hopeful and lost in his loneliness; and the sea, it’s waves forever breaking on the shore. It is a bittersweet song, an aria transforming, expanding, transcending into a pantheistic opera. That encompasses the wheel of life: the child, the youth, the lover, the man, the poet awakening – discovering, uncovering, and learning, sensing and seeing and being.

When first published in 1859 (it was included in the 1860 and subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass), A reviewer called it “unmixed and hopeless drivel” and a disgrace to its publisher.

Such is the lot of the poet …

See also, Walt Whitman – Citizen Poet; and,  in In That Howling Infinite,  The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad, and The Sport of Kings – CE Morgan’s “great American novel” ; and, listen to my musical tribute to Walt Whitman; Valances (early in the morning at break of day)

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.
Once Paumanok,
When the lilac-scent was in the air and Fifth-month grass was growing,
Up this seashore in some briers,
Two feather’d guests from Alabama, two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown,
And every day the he-bird to and fro near at hand,
And every day the she-bird crouch’d on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.
Shine! shine! shine!
Pour down your warmth, great sun!
While we bask, we two together.
 
Two together!
Winds blow south, or winds blow north,
Day come white, or night come black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing all time, minding no time,
While we two keep together.
Till of a sudden,
May-be kill’d, unknown to her mate,
One forenoon the she-bird crouch’d not on the nest,
Nor return’d that afternoon, nor the next,
Nor ever appear’d again.
And thenceforward all summer in the sound of the sea,
And at night under the full of the moon in calmer weather,
Over the hoarse surging of the sea,
Or flitting from brier to brier by day,
I saw, I heard at intervals the remaining one, the he-bird,
The solitary guest from Alabama.
Blow! blow! blow!
Blow up sea-winds along Paumanok’s shore;
I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me.
Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.
He call’d on his mate,
He pour’d forth the meanings which I of all men know.
Yes my brother I know,
The rest might not, but I have treasur’d every note,
For more than once dimly down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the shadows,
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.
Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
Following you my brother.
Soothe! soothe! soothe!
Close on its wave soothes the wave behind,
And again another behind embracing and lapping, every one close,
But my love soothes not me, not me.
 
Low hangs the moon, it rose late,
It is lagging—O I think it is heavy with love, with love.
 
O madly the sea pushes upon the land,
With love, with love.
 
O night! do I not see my love fluttering out among the breakers?
What is that little black thing I see there in the white?
 
Loud! loud! loud!
Loud I call to you, my love!
 
High and clear I shoot my voice over the waves,
Surely you must know who is here, is here,
You must know who I am, my love.
 
Low-hanging moon!
What is that dusky spot in your brown yellow?
O it is the shape, the shape of my mate!
O moon do not keep her from me any longer.
 
Land! land! O land!
Whichever way I turn, O I think you could give me my mate back again if you only would,
For I am almost sure I see her dimly whichever way I look.
 
O rising stars!
Perhaps the one I want so much will rise, will rise with some of you.
 
O throat! O trembling throat!
Sound clearer through the atmosphere!
Pierce the woods, the earth,
Somewhere listening to catch you must be the one I want.
 
Shake out carols!
Solitary here, the night’s carols!
Carols of lonesome love! death’s carols!
Carols under that lagging, yellow, waning moon!
O under that moon where she droops almost down into the sea!
O reckless despairing carols.
 
But soft! sink low!
Soft! let me just murmur,
And do you wait a moment you husky-nois’d sea,
For somewhere I believe I heard my mate responding to me,
So faint, I must be still, be still to listen,
But not altogether still, for then she might not come immediately to me.
 
Hither my love!
Here I am! here!
With this just-sustain’d note I announce myself to you,
This gentle call is for you my love, for you.
 
Do not be decoy’d elsewhere,
That is the whistle of the wind, it is not my voice,
That is the fluttering, the fluttering of the spray,
Those are the shadows of leaves.
 
O darkness! O in vain!
O I am very sick and sorrowful.
 
O brown halo in the sky near the moon, drooping upon the sea!
O troubled reflection in the sea!
O throat! O throbbing heart!
And I singing uselessly, uselessly all the night.
 
O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!
In the air, in the woods, over fields,
Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!
But my mate no more, no more with me!
We two together no more.
The aria sinking,
All else continuing, the stars shining,
The winds blowing, the notes of the bird continuous echoing,
With angry moans the fierce old mother incessantly moaning,
On the sands of Paumanok’s shore gray and rustling,
The yellow half-moon enlarged, sagging down, drooping, the face of the sea almost touching,
The boy ecstatic, with his bare feet the waves, with his hair the atmosphere dallying,
The love in the heart long pent, now loose, now at last tumultuously bursting,
The aria’s meaning, the ears, the soul, swiftly depositing,
The strange tears down the cheeks coursing,
The colloquy there, the trio, each uttering,
The undertone, the savage old mother incessantly crying,
To the boy’s soul’s questions sullenly timing, some drown’d secret hissing,
To the outsetting bard.
Demon or bird! (said the boy’s soul,)
Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it really to me?
For I, that was a child, my tongue’s use sleeping, now I have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake,
And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours,
A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die.
O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me,
O solitary me listening, never more shall I cease perpetuating you,
Never more shall I escape, never more the reverberations,
Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me,
Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before what there in the night,
By the sea under the yellow and sagging moon,
The messenger there arous’d, the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me.
O give me the clew! (it lurks in the night here somewhere,)
O if I am to have so much, let me have more!
A word then, (for I will conquer it,)
The word final, superior to all,
Subtle, sent up—what is it?—I listen;
Are you whispering it, and have been all the time, you sea-waves?
Is that it from your liquid rims and wet sands?
Whereto answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper’d me through the night, and very plainly before day-break,
Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death,
And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.
Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper’d me.

The ghosts of Gandamak

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
TS Elliot, The Hollow Men

It’s like the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

When in the wake of 9/11 the US and it’s allies invaded Afghanistan, critics and cynics invoked the long arm of history to declare that the venture was a forlorn hope. Many questioned latter day imperial hubris. Others asked what were the long term goals, and what was the exit strategy. Reference was made to the Soviet Union’s destructive, demoralizing and ultimately debilitating invasion and nine year occupation (some 15,000 Soviet soldiers died, and 35,000 were wounded whilst about two million Afghan civilians were killed) which left the land in the tyrannical thrall of competing warlords; and to America’s own Vietnam quagmire. And then there were the British history buffs who reminded the world that Afghanistan was indeed the graveyard of empires, so well illustrated in the famous painting of the last stand of the 44th Foot on the bleak hillside of Gandamak during the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842. Inevitably, we dust down Rudyard Kipling’s well worn rhyme:  

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

After more than 17 years, Afghanistan is the longest war in American history, with over two thousand soldiers dead and some twenty three thousand wounded. And yet, US forces are no closer to defeating the Taliban, who ruled most of Afghanistan before 2001 – than they were a decade ago. Indeed, In fact, the proportion of the country under the full control of the elected, American-backed government is humiliatingly small. A war which has caused over 31,000 civilian deaths due to war-related violence and 29,900 wounded (over 111,000 Afghans, including civilians, soldiers and militants, are estimated to have been killed) has staggered to a bloody stalemate.

Whilst a American force that once reached 140,000 soldiers America could not wipe out the Taliban, a mere 13,000 troops bolstering the Afghan army today, seems capable keeping the Taliban more or less in check. Whilst the Taliban appear to control the arid, countryside But 10,000 Afghan police and soldiers, 3,400 civilians and an unknown number of insurgents died in 2017 alone. 

The US is now endeavouring to come to a peace deal with the Taliban, and its efforts are all the more urgent in the wake of President Trumps decision to extricate American troops from this expensive and dangerous entanglement. The Taliban appears happy to deal – and may be willing to accede to the US’ conditions  to rid themselves of the Americans knowing that if they renege on their word, the GIs are unlikely to return. 

Before America toppled the Taliban regime, Afghanistan was a violent theocratic despotism. Women were not allowed out of their homes unless covered head to toe and accompanied by a male relative. Any departure from the Taliban’s barbaric version of Islam, such as dancing or shaving or educating girls, could earn floggings, imprisonment or even death. Ancient statues were dynamited as pagan idols. Keeping such zealots at bay, for as long as they try to impose their beliefs by force, is an incalculable benefit to the two-thirds of Afghans (about 24 million people) who live in government-controlled areas.

Hearts and Minds

A US withdrawal could jeopardize all this If the Taliban were to overthrow the Afghan government after an American withdrawal, it would be a humiliation on a par with Vietnam when Nixon’s administration hung its South Vietnamese allies out to dry (read Max Hastings recently published Vietnam – an American Tragedy for a chilling account of the US’ cynical, cold-blooded duplicity). 

Even if the Afghan government staggered on, a US withdrawal without a solid peace agreement would cause chaos. In a 21st century replay of The Great Game, neighbours India, Iran, and Pakistan, and regional powers China and Russia would be tempted take advantage of the vacuum for their own strategic and economic ends, but to would all struggle to fill it. There could be a surge in fighting, as warlords once again reassert their influence and as ISIS and al Qaeda take advantage of the situation. The whole region could be further destabilized, and America and its allies could be sucked back in – on other’s terms. 

And Afghanistan, at war with itself for 40 years, would be condemned to continuing conflict and carnage. 

Click on the picture below to read the New York Times’ commentary on the negotiations. And below that is a recent piece by David Kilcullen, Australian author, strategist and counterinsurgency expert. He argues that talks between the US and the Taliban are not new. He asks: “What’s different now? A cynic might say that one reason the war has dragged on so long is that most sides have been achieving their objectives by letting it continue”. In essence, he argues, three new factors are driving the latest set of developments. Donald Trump and the shifting, unpredictable nature of US foreign policy; the growth of Chinese influence and engagement in Afghanistan’s political and economic development; and the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State terrorist group, and now the Taliban’s is an arch-enemy. Kilcullen is, as ever, well worth reading.

In In That Howling Infinite, read also: The Devil Drives, and  One Two Three what are we fighting for?  

Ghost of a chance in talks with Taliban

David Kilcullen, The Australian, 16th February 2019

Training Wheels

The recent announcement that US and Taliban negotiators had agreed a framework for peace talks was greeted as a breakthrough in the 18-year war. But the twin issues around which those talks will be framed — a withdrawal pledge by Washington in return for a Taliban promise to never again let Afghanistan ­become a threat to any other country — are far from new.

These have been consistent Taliban demands since December 2009, when (as part of the headquarters team in Kabul) I met insurgent leaders who asked for the same deal in almost the same words. Likewise, I have heard these demands from many Taliban-aligned elders in Afghanistan over the years, and Taliban representatives proposed the identical quid pro quo during talks with the Obama administration in 2011-14.

What’s different now? A cynic might say that one reason the war has dragged on so long is that most sides have been achieving their objectives by letting it continue.

Since rebuilding Afghanistan was always recognized as a multi-decade project (akin to the US presence in South Korea, Japan and Germany), Washington was effectively telegraphing an intent to never leave — US forces are still present, after all, in all three of those countries more than 75 years after occupying them.

For coalition partners, and allies including Australia, the aim has been to demonstrate commitment, strengthen ties to Washington and thereby increase access to the political, economic and security benefits these ties offer. This goal, too, was achieved as soon as coalition forces entered Afghanistan: our hypothetical cynic might observe that we gain “alliance points” simply by being there and doing a decent job.

No coalition partner would be fighting in Afghanistan without Washington, and none can win or lose the war on its own. Thus, for the allies, whether the war is won or lost is, strictly speaking, irrelevant: having succeeded in being seen as a valuable ally, the only thing that could now undo that success would be to leave before the US does. Winning the war is, of course, a real objective for coalition capitals as it is for Washington — but it’s a secondary one.

Thus, for the coalition, given the open-ended nature of the Afghan commitment, the focus has been on calibrating troop levels, expenditure and other inputs to make the effort sustainable for the long haul. There are about 14,000 American troops in country (less than half the number stationed in Korea for the past several decades) and US spending on Afghan security forces is tracking at about $US3.7 billion ($5.2bn) a year — a tiny fraction of the overall US ­budget).

On Australia’s part, after peaking during 2010-11 with reconstruction and stabilization forces in Oruzgan province and a special operations task group that ­achieved widespread respect for its ­professionalism, our commitment now stands at about 300 ­personnel.

Most Australians are in headquarters roles in Kabul, at Camp Qargha (the officer academy near Kabul), as advisers to the Afghan Air Force, and at the training, advisory and assistance command for Afghanistan’s southern region in Kandahar. There is no doubt the Australians are performing a valuable role and enhancing our reputation with Afghans and allies — but again, we would achieve this effect whether the war is won or simply drags on; the only thing we could do to undermine ourselves at this point would be to withdraw ahead of the allies.

Coalition casualties are also relatively low — the coalition lost 18 personnel last year, dramatically down from 2010, the worst year of the war, when 711 US and allied troops were killed. Australia has suffered 41 fatalities, with more than half killed in 2010 and 2011 at the peak of our commitment. Our last fatality occurred in July 2014, while our last combat casualty was in June 2013.

While any loss of life is a horrendous tragedy, in the harsh logic of defense planners the US casualty rate is sustainable. In short, at the current level of financial and human cost, there is no strictly military (as distinct from political or humanitarian) reason why the US could not simply continue the war indefinitely. Of course, for the Afghan military and police — which have lost 45,000 killed since September 2014, compared with the coalition’s 72 — the war is far from sustainable, and its impact on civilians is both horrific and increasing. So while the coalition can essentially keep this up forever, the Afghan military and ordinary Afghans can’t.

For the Afghan government, another key stakeholder, our imaginary cynic might say that the main goal is to maintain the benefits of international presence including military aid, funding, donor engagement and reconstruction effort. Again, although winning is a real objective for Kabul, until its capture of Kunduz in October 2015 the Taliban showed no ability to seize provincial cities or do deep damage to the capital, so losing to the Taliban seemed an impossibility. And under those circumstances, winning the war was desirable but continuing it was mandatory, since it was the war that guaranteed international engagement.

This is no longer the case: given rising civilian casualties, the high loss rate of Afghan forces, the deadly string of Taliban bombings now afflicting Afghan cities and the fact that the Taliban are now capturing and briefly holding provincial capitals every few months, the Kabul government wants to reduce the war to a far lower level of intensity.

Containing the Taliban as a remote, rural threat, grave enough to stop the international community abandoning Afghanistan yet able to be gradually overcome as a long-term national project (with international money and help) would be ideal.

On the Taliban side, winning has always been the ultimate goal but, like other stakeholders, the insurgents have been willing to let the war drag on without a resolution. In the first few years after 9/11 the Taliban was in disarray — its senior leadership group, the Quitta Shura, wasn’t even founded until October 2003, two years after the US-led invasion.

Then after a resurgence in 2005-06, it suffered severe setbacks in the south and east of the country and its fighters were forced to bide their time as they rebuilt, recruited and rearmed in Pakistan, and stealthily recaptured territory in remote parts of Afghanistan. Then Barack Oba­ma, in announcing his surge in December 2009, also (very helpfully for the Taliban) announced its end date, later extended by NATO but still resulting in a rigid timetable for withdrawal.

As a result, Taliban leaders wisely decided their best course was to withhold most of their combat troops in Pakistan, do enough to stay in the public eye in Afghanistan, and wait for withdrawal, which duly took place right on schedule. After the International Security Assistance Force departed at the end of 2014, the Taliban immediately began ramping up its activity, and within a year it was gaining ground, taking the fight to Afghan cities, and projecting force into Afghanistan from its haven in Pakistan.

For Pakistan, which has historically seen India as its principal threat and feared encirclement by an India-Afghanistan alliance, keeping Afghanistan unstable is an important means of preventing that encirclement and achieving strategic depth. Pakistani decision-makers have long been extraordinarily open about this.

From their standpoint, the Afghan Taliban (as distinct from the Pakistani Taliban, which Islamabad sees as a real threat and has fought hard to contain) is an insurance policy, to be preserved in case of a need to crank up the pressure on Kabul and New Delhi. A Taliban victory would be problematic for Pakistan, as would an outright Taliban defeat, so keeping the war on a low boil and letting parts of Pakistan become a haven for the Taliban has made sense through much of the war since 2001.

This might be why, during the tentative talks in 2009-10 that I mentioned earlier, Pakistani intelligence officers arrested a key Taliban figure — Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, brother-in-law to Taliban founder Mullah Omar, a former deputy defense minister and a highly respected combat leader who had expressed willingness to talk with the coalition.

With Baradar out of the picture, the talks collapsed, but Pakistan now had a controlling hand in the resumption of talks, at a time and in a manner of its choosing. That’s why Baradar’s release by Pakistan last October — and his participation in the most recent talks in Doha last month, by far the most productive to date — was such a big deal. For the first time in years, the Taliban now has a negotiator at the table with the power to deliver on agreements, and the fact that Pakistan released Baradar to participate suggests that Islamabad, too, is serious about finding a path to peace in Afghanistan.

This brings us back to our original question: what’s different now? In essence, three new factors are driving the latest set of developments.

The first is Donald Trump.

I mentioned that two key assumptions have underpinned the enduring international presence, namely the fear of a Taliban takeover if we withdraw, leaving a weak Afghan government behind, and the expectation that such a takeover would result in terrorist attacks from Afghanistan. Trump doesn’t seem to care much about the first issue, and his answer to the second is that if an attack took place, he would order massive retaliation.

Given his generally mercurial approach to foreign policy and the fact that he has indeed ordered strikes in Syria and raids in Yemen and Africa, this threat is probably credible enough to give the Taliban pause — and, more importantly, reassure some in Kabul. The US President — who campaigned on getting out of Afghanistan as part of a broader policy of extricating America from its Middle Eastern wars of occupation — has been remarkably consistent in fulfilling his campaign promises. In his recent State of the Union address he repeatedly emphasized the need for a political solution in Afghanistan.

But while he seems entirely serious about settling (as he calls it) with the Taliban, his attitude is sharply at odds with that of the US foreign policy establishment, the Defense Department (where secretary James Mattis resigned in protest over the Afghan and Syrian withdrawals), the Democratic opposition, and even his own Republican Party in congress, which passed a bipartisan resolution calling on him to maintain forces in Afghanistan and Syria.

So, with a US presidential election next year and its guerrillas gaining ground, Taliban negotiators know that this is the best offer they are likely to get, while by January 2021 there could be a very different occupant in the White House and Washington’s Afghanistan “forever war” project could be back on.

A second factor is also preying on Taliban minds — the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State terrorist group. Having lost 98 per cent of its territory in Iraq and Syria, the group is looking for greener pastures in Africa, The Philippines, and particularly Afghanistan. IS-K has been very active since its first appearance in September 2015, launching a series of horrendously violent bombings and massacres, and the Taliban is an arch-enemy of the group.

Still, the group’s reach and influence are growing, leaving the Taliban with the choice to make peace this year under relatively favourable circumstances or face a war on two fronts with an emboldened IS-K in the future. Again, this puts pressure on Taliban negotiators to find a solution.

The final new factor is that Pakistan seems to have finally decided its interests are best served by peace in Afghanistan — hence the release of Baradar and the willingness to support talks.

The reason for this change might partly be the new, tougher line on Pakistan adopted by the Trump administration, or a policy shift by the civilian administration in Islamabad. But for my money, the most plausible explanation has to do with Pakistan’s major ally, China.

Chinese business and political influence in Afghanistan have been growing significantly in recent years through investments in mining and infrastructure, aid money, diplomatic activity and a limited military presence (with troops often disguised as security contractors working for Chinese companies in country).

Afghanistan is also an increasingly important market for Chinese goods. This matters to Pakistan because, if the key factor driving Islamabad’s behaviour has been fear of encirclement by India, then one solution is for a major Pakistani ally, China, to play an important role in Afghanistan and thereby counterbalance Indian influence.

This would reduce the requirement for Pakistan to tolerate the Taliban, since there would no longer be a strategic rationale to destabilise Afghanistan. While many in Washington see Chinese influence in Afghanistan as a threat, in fact a greater Chinese role in the region is probably inevitable in the long term and is likely to be quite constructive.

All this means that — after 18 years in which everybody wanted to end the war, but everybody also wanted some other objective even more and was willing to continue the war rather than risk that other goal — things might finally be changing for Afghanistan. While I am not as cynical about this as my hypothetical observer, I am very sceptical about the prospects for peace anytime soon. This is not the first time that talks have been mooted, it’s not the first time the stars have seemed to align for peace, and it’s clear that the Taliban is both far from defeated and incapable of winning outright.

There is also the not-so-minor matter of the sovereign independent government of Afghanistan, which strongly resents being cut out of negotiations, has defense and interior ministries led by highly competent hard-line adversaries of the Taliban, and is highly unlikely to acquiesce in its own abandonment.

So, time will tell, but at this point, colour me sceptical but not entirely cynical about prospects for peace in Afghanistan.

 

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

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