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

November 1918, the counterfeit peace

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
Jim Morrison

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.  John 3:16

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 saw an end to four years of carnage on the western front and the end of of the First World War. The armies were demobbed and men went home to lives that were changed utterly:  British and French, Austrian and German, Belgian and Italian, Serbs and Bulgarians, Turks and Arabs, and also, soldiers from across the ocean – Americans and Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders,  South Africans and Indians. Friends and foes.

The victors retired to a restless peace, but the vanquished, Germany, Austria, and Hungary, descended into revolution and civil war for a time as  gangs of former soldiers fought on the left and the right. In eastern Europe, the crumbling of empires, the Russian revolution, civil war and the struggle to establish the borders of newly established states meant that armed violence continued, leaving deep scars and bitterness that many ways set the stage for the autocracies of the 1930s and further bloodshed.

The Polish-Soviet war lasted until 1921. The Russian Civil War, ending in 1923, raged across most of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Baltic region. British, Australian, American and French soldiers were dispatched to Murmansk and Archangel to fight the Red Army; Poles fought Ukrainians and Lithuanians, and defeated the Soviets at the gates of Warsaw; pogroms were perpetrated against Jews just as they had been for years, decades, centuries prior, accelerating  ,  with subsequent consequence, Aliyah to Palestine.

The Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922, which saw the Greeks, with British and French support, endeavouring to seize Constantinople, led to terrible massacres, and a forced exchange of populations that uprooted one and a half million Greeks and Turks from towns and villages they had occupied for a millennium. Armies marched back and forth across the Great European Plain, bringing devastation and starvation and destroying millions of lives. Central Asia, the lands now covered by the once Soviet ‘’stans likewise became battlegrounds for Reds, Whites and local warlords.

And in ‘John Bull’s Other Island’, as expat GBS Shaw called it, a “terrible beauty was born” – WB Yeats’ exquisite words – the doomed intifada that was the rebellion of Easter 1916, launched, opportunistically yet quixotically whilst English eyes were elsewhere, led exponentially into open rebellion, a qualified victory, and a civil war and partition that rested, roused and then resurrected in Derry in 1968 and decades termed somewhat innocuously ‘The Troubles’.

For some, there was light at the end of the terrible territorial tunnel. Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Finns, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, achieved statehood, or the restoration of nationhood, as did, fleetingly, Ukrainians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Poland reappeared on the map after over a century of having been carved up by empires. Hungarians lost two-thirds of their territory and more than half of their population. “Little” Serbia, which had ignited the Balkan powder keg in 1914, with Gavril Princip’s famous shot that ricocheted through complacent, twitchy and mightily armed Europe, was united with its Slav but religiously fractured Balkan neighbours in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia – and we now know how well that worked out.

Beyond Europe too, a bitter ‘Peace’ sowed dragon’s teeth. Last year, we commemorated the centenaries of the infamous Sykes Picot Agreement, the first draft of a colonial dispensation that established borders that remained unchallenged until Da’ish assaulted the status quo in 2014, and the Balfour Declaration, which set in train the rise and rise of the state of Israel and the long descent of Palestinian hopes for a land of their own. Ironically, the most militant Zionist pioneers and later, soldiers, terrorists and statesmen, emigrated from Poland and the Tsarist empire. These many legacies resonate today.

The end of WW1 saw the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and left Britain in control of Palestine and Mesopotamia. The peace conferences that followed led to the creation of modern Turkey, and, though for decades under French and British colonial rule, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. The Kurds turned up at the conference table but were denied a seat and thereafter, a state.

The war changed more than maps, frontiers and regimes. The needs of modern warfare brought women into the workforce, galvanizing the movements that won them the vote in many democracies. The pace of technological change already underway in industrialized countries was quickened by the demands of war, and advances in land transportation and aviation continued exponentially, as did the development of weaponry, together with the insatiable demand for fossil fuels. Economic privation precipitated the first successful Communist revolution and many failed ones, whilst the peace, resentments, reparations, and recession prompted many to turn to far-right authoritarians in Italy and then Germany. The mass movements of populations helped spread the deadliest epidemic the world has ever known: the 1918 influenza virus or Spanish Flu, which quietly killed possibly up to a hundred million souls – more than both world wars combined.

In the last decades of the Twentieth Century, historians would observe with the benefit of hindsight how the Second World War rose ineluctably from the ashes of the first, just as the division of Europe and the Soviet enslavement (and I say this as a lifelong leftist) of those Eastern European countries that emerged after 1918 led to the Europe of today, and as the peoples of the Middle East reaped the whirlwinds of both conflagrations. Many look back on the tumultuous decades that followed the Great War, and sensing signals and signposts in contemporary  temporal tea leaves, advise is to be afraid, be very afraid.

We like to identify patterns in history that help us understand and explain our contemporary world. But we should exercise caution. To continue the hindsight riff, remember that things we see in the rear view mirror appear closer than they really are. The world is very much different today, as is our knowledge, our perception, our hopes and fears, and so also, our prognostications and expectations. If we can do it all over again, we’ll do it differently, and much more dangerously and destructively. Having learned so much, we have, one fears, understood so little.

 As we remember that moment in Western Europe and the Levant when the guns at last fell silent, let us contemplate melancholy mathematics of the human toll poignantly described by American economist and academic Patrick Chovanec in a fine article in the New York Review of Books, which I have reproduced below:

 “In the Great War itself, over sixteen million people died, including almost seven million civilians. The US got off relatively lightly, with 117,465 people killed, just 0.13 percent of its population. In Serbia, somewhere between 17 and 28 percent of the country’s population was killed. But even numbers like these leave little concrete impression on our minds … people would (tell) me about a grandfather or great-uncle who fought and died in the war, and is forever twenty-four-years old in some field in France, or Turkey, or Italy, or at sea. For most people, that absence is what defined the war: someone left and never came home. The world that they shaped, by their presence and their absence, is the one that we live in, whether we realize it or not. And we, like them, can only grope our way forward, day by day, into an unknown future”.

Qurba-n قُرْبان

Sacrifice  – Rayner Hoff, Anzac Memorial, Sydney

On the occasion of the centenary, read also, Dulce et ducorem est – the death of Wilfred Owen, and A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West, 


World War I Relived Day by Day

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Gavrilo Princip arrested after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Sarajevo, June 28, 1914

Four years ago, I went to war. Like many of the people whose stories I followed in my daily “live-tweets” on World War I, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. What began as an impulsive decision to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand’s death at the hands of a Serbian assassin, in June 1914, snowballed into a blood-soaked odyssey that took me—figuratively and literally—from the rolling hills of northern France, to the desert wastes of Arabia, to the rocky crags of the Italian Alps, to the steel turret of a rebel cruiser moored within range of the czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. And like the men and women who actually lived through it, now that the Great War is ending I find myself asking what, if anything, I’ve learned from it all.

In the American mind, World War I typically occupies an unimpressive place as a kind of shambolic preamble to the great good-versus-evil crusade of World War II, a pointless slugfest in muddy trenches for no worthy purpose, and no worthwhile result. Its catchphrases—“The War to End All Wars,” “Make the World Safe for Democracy”—evoke a wry and knowing chuckle. As if. But the war I encountered, as it unfolded day by day, was far more relevant, passionate, and unpredictable.

Posting daily newspaper clippings and photographs, found mainly in books and online archives, I began to see the Great War as a kind of portal between an older, more distant world—of kings with handlebar mustaches, splendid uniforms, and cavalry charges—and the one that we know: of planes and tanks, mass political movements, and camouflage. It snuffed out ancient monarchies in czarist Russia, Habsburg Austria, and Ottoman Turkey, and gave birth to a host of new nations—Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan—that, in their struggles to survive and carve out an identity, continue to shape our world today. The British declared their intent to create a national homeland in Palestine for the Jews.

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Russian infantry marching to battle, Poland, August 1914

The needs of the war brought women into the workforce, and helped win them the right to vote. The huge privations it inflicted triggered the world’s first (successful) Communist revolution, and the frustrations it unleashed prompted many, afterward, to turn to far-right authoritarians in Italy and then Germany. And finally—though many have forgotten it—the comings and goings of people caused by the war helped spread the deadliest epidemic the world has ever known: the 1918 influenza virus, which quietly killed an estimated 50–100 million human beings in their homes and in hospitals, more than both world wars combined.

I also encountered a cast of characters more varied and amazing than I thought possible. Rasputin, the dissolute Russian mystic who warned Czar Nicholas that going to war would destroy his dynasty, and was murdered in part because he was (falsely) suspected as a German agent. The Austrian Emperor Karl, who inherited a war he didn’t want, and tried fruitlessly to make peace. T.E. Lawrence, a scholarly young intelligence officer whose affinity for the Arabs helped turn them to the Allied cause, and shaped the modern Middle East. Mata Hari, a Dutch-born exotic dancer who played double-agent, seducing high-ranking Allied and German officers for valuable information, until she was caught and shot by the French as a spy.

Some of the names are familiar, and offer hints of future greatness—or infamy. A young anti-war journalist named Benito Mussolini, sensing the way the wind blows, changes his tune and aggressively advocates for Italy to enter the war, before signing up himself. A young Charles De Gaulle is wounded at Verdun and taken prisoner for the rest of the conflict. A relatively young Winston Churchill plans the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign and pays his penance by serving in the trenches, before making a political comeback. A young Harry S. Truman serves as an artillery officer on the Western Front, alongside (and outranked by) a young George C. Marshall (his future Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of State) and Douglas MacArthur (his future general in the Pacific and Korea). A young George S. Patton develops a fascination with tanks. A young Walt Disney doodles cartoons on the side of the ambulances he drives, in the same unit as a young Ray Kroc (the founder of McDonald’s). Another young ambulance driver, Ernest Hemingway, finds inspiration on the Italian Front for his novel A Farewell to Arms. A young Hermann Göring (later head of the Luftwaffe) becomes a dashing flying ace, while a young Erwin Rommel wins renown fighting at Verdun and in the Alps. Meanwhile, an odd young German corporal, who volunteered in the very first days of the war, is blinded by poison gas in its final days, and wakes up in hospital to the bitter news that Germany has lost. His name is Adolf Hitler.

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French troops under shellfire during the Battle of Verdun, 1916

The dramatic panoply of people, places, and events, however, only occasionally rises to the fore. For the most part, the war is a steady stream of ordinary people doing ordinary things: washing their clothes, attending a concert, tallying supplies, fixing a car. History books give us a distorted sense of time, because they fast forward to major events. A day may take a chapter, a month may be passed over in a sentence. In fact, there were periods where nothing much happened—plans were being made, troops trained, supplies positioned—and when you live-tweet, you experience that waiting. Sometimes, it led to intriguing surprises, like photographs of dragon dances performed by some of the 140,000 Chinese laborers brought over to France to lend muscle to the Allied war effort. Mostly, it was a matter of endurance. Each winter, the fighting came to almost a complete stop as each country hunkered down and hoped its food would last. The “turnip winter” of 1916–1917, when the potato crop failed, nearly broke Germany; the increasingly desperate craving for “bread and peace” did break Russia the following year.

The future president Herbert Hoover made his reputation by coordinating food relief shipments to German-occupied Belgium, and later as the US “food czar” ensuring Allied armies and populations were fed. The vast mobilization was effective: by 1918, the Allies were able to relax their food rationing, while Germany and its confederates, strangled by an Allied naval blockade, were on the verge of starvation. America’s war effort was accompanied by a vast expansion in the federal government’s power and reach. It nationalized (temporarily) the railroads and the telephone lines. It set prices for everything from sugar to shoes, and told motorists when they could drive, workers when they could strike, and restaurants what they could put on their menus. It seized half a billion dollars of enemy-owned property, including the brand rights to Bayer aspirin, and sold them at auction. The US government also passed espionage and sedition laws that made it illegal to criticize the war effort or the president. Some people were sent to prison for doing so, including the Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president for a fifth and final time from a cell.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A woman munitions worker operating a machine in an armaments factory, Britain, circa 1915

Winning the war, however, was far from a sure thing. For three years, the Allies threw themselves against an evenly-matched enemy on the Western Front, without making any breakthroughs, while the Eastern Front gradually crumbled. An early Allied foray to take out Turkey, at Gallipoli in 1915, ended in bloody disappointment. Inducing Italy to enter the war on the Allies’ side, that same year, was supposed to swing the entire conflict in their favor; instead, the catastrophic Italian rout at Caporetto, in the autumn of 1917, put the Allied effort in greater jeopardy. When Lenin seized power in Russia, at the end of 1917, he took it immediately out of the war and ceded immense land and resources to German control. True, the US had by then entered the war, in response to Germany’s submarine campaign against merchant ships and its clumsy diplomatic scheming in Mexico. But with the war in the East essentially won, the Germans saw a window in which they could shift all of their armies to the West and crush the exhausted British and French before enough American troops could arrive to make a difference. Their spring offensive, or “Kaiser’s Battle,” in early 1918 drove deep into Allied lines, prompting the French government to evacuate Paris.

The Germans’ big roll of the dice failed. The Allies held, and the US mobilized much faster than anyone expected. By the summer of 1918, a perceptible change had taken place. Hundreds of thousands of American troops were arriving every month at French ports, and their first units were taking part in battles, piecemeal at first, to push the Germans back. Even in September, however, nearly everyone expected the war to continue into 1919. That was when a huge US army of 3 million men would be ready to take part in a big Allied offensive that would drive all the way to Berlin. It never happened. That fall, the German army—and those of Turkey, Austria, and Bulgaria—first buckled, then collapsed like a rotten log. By November 11, the war was over.

The fact that nobody saw the end coming, the way it did, highlights the value of going back, a hundred years later, and reliving events day by day, as they took place. What may seem obvious now was anything but so then, and we do the people who lived through it, and our understanding of them, a real disservice when we assume that it was. “Life can only be understood backwards,” the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed, “but it must be lived forwards.” The British historian C.V. Wedgewood elaborated on the same idea: “History is lived forwards but is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was like to know the beginning only.” We can’t entirely forget that we know what happened next, but when we at least try to identify with people who did not know, we shed new light on them, and on what did happen.

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Leon Trotsky with the Soviet delegation to negotiate a peace treaty with Germany, Brest-Litovsk, 1918

Take the Russian Revolution. We see it as the birth of a Communist superpower, and struggle to make sense of the seemingly half-baked, half-hearted effort by the Allies to intervene by sending troops, including Americans, to Russia’s ports in the far north and far east. People at the time, however, saw it almost entirely through the prism of the Great War. At first, the Allies welcomed the overthrow of the czar, and believed it would rejuvenate the failing Russian war effort. By replacing an infamous autocrat on the Allied roster with a fledgling democracy, it made “making the world safe for democracy” a more credible call to arms, and helped pave the way for the US to enter the war. When Lenin took over and made a ruinous peace with the Central Powers, he was seen as simply a German puppet. And when Bolshevik forces, augmented with released German and Austrian prisoners of war, attacked a unit of Czech soldiers crossing Siberia to rejoin the Allies on the Western Front, those suspicions blossomed into fear of a full-fledged German takeover of Russia. The Allies sent troops to key Russian ports to secure the war supplies stockpiled there and provide an exit route for the loyal Czechs. They considered trying to “reopen” the Eastern Front, but realized it would take far too many men. They assumed that when Germany was defeated, their proxy Lenin would eventually fall, and when the war ended, they naturally lost interest. It all makes sense, but only if you see through the eyes that people saw through at the time.

Did it really matter who won the war? In its aftermath, the Great War came to be seen as a colossal waste, a testament to the vanity of nations, of pompous older men sending foolish younger men into the meat-grinder for no good reason. War poems like “Dulce et decorum est” and novels like All Quiet on the Western Front have crystalized this impression. But this was not how people felt at the time. German atrocities in Belgium and on the high seas—some exaggerated, but others quite real—convinced many people that civilization, as they knew it, really was at stake. I was consistently and often surprisingly struck by the sincerity of support, not just on the home front, but among soldiers who had seen the worst of combat, for pursuing the war unto victory. The tone matures, but remains vibrant: these were, for the most part, people who believed in what they were fighting for. At what point the bitter cynicism set in, after the war ended, I cannot say. But at some point, that enthusiasm, and even the memory of it, became buried with the dead.

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Boys wearing bags of camphor around their necks to ward off influenza, 1917

Though, in fact, in many places the war did not actually end. An armistice was declared on the Western Front, and the armies there were disbanded and sent home. But Germany, Austria, and Hungary all descended into revolution and civil war for a time, with gangs of demobilized soldiers fighting on all sides. In Russia, the Soviet regime and its multiple enemies would battle for several years, while trying to reconquer territory surrendered when it quit the war against Germany. The Greeks tried to reclaim Constantinople from the Turks, and would be massacred when the Turks succeeded in reconsolidating their country. The Poles fought wars with the Ukrainians and the Soviets to define the boundaries of their newly independent country. Jews and Arabs continue to fight over the new lands liberated from the Ottoman Empire to this day.

In the Great War itself, over 16 million people died, including almost 7 million civilians. The US got off relatively lightly, with 117,465 people killed, just 0.13 percent of its population. In Serbia, somewhere between 17 percent and 28 percent of the country’s population was killed. But even numbers like these leave little concrete impression on our minds. Some of the most touching parts of my experience live-tweeting were the times when people would tweet back to me about a grandfather or great-uncle who fought and died in the war, and is forever twenty-four-years old in some field in France, or Turkey, or Italy, or at sea. For most people, that absence is what defined the war: someone left and never came home. The world that they shaped, by their presence and their absence, is the one that we live in, whether we realize it or not. And we, like them, can only grope our way forward, day by day, into an unknown future.

Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

British artillery at the Somme, France, 1916

Martin Sparrow’s Blues

You cannot stop the birds of sadness from passing overhead, but you can sure as hell stop them nesting in your hair. 

It is late summer in 1806, in the colony of New South Wales. After he loses everything he owns in a disastrous flood, former convict, failed farmer, and all-round no-hoper and ne’er-do-well Martin Sparrow heads into the wilderness that is now the Wollemi National Park in the unlikely company of an outlaw gypsy girl and a young wolfhound.

The Making of Martin Sparrow, Historian Peter Cochrane’s tale of adventure and more often than not, misadventure, is set on the middle reaches of the Hawkesbury River, north of Windsor, and the treacherous terrain of the picturesque Colo Gorge.

But first, some background history …

Between 1788 and 1868, about 162,000 convicts were transported by the British government to various penal colonies in Australia. It had began transporting convicts to the American colonies in the early 17th century, but the American Revolution had put an end to this. An alternative was required to relieve the overcrowding of British prisons and on the decommissioned warships, the hulks, that were used to house the overflow. In 1770, navigator Captain James Cook had claimed possession of the east coast of Australia for Britain, and pre-empting French designs on Terra Australis, the Great Southern Land was selected as the site of a penal colony. In 1787, the First Fleet of eleven convict ships set sail for Botany Bay, arriving on 20 January 1788 to establish the first European settlement on the continent. Botany Bay, named by Cook for its abundant and unique flora and fauna, was deemed unsuited, and six days later, the fleet hove to in the natural harbour to its north and established Sydney, named for the fleet’s commander.

Other penal colonies were later established in Tasmania – Van Diemen’s Land – in 1803 and Queensland In 1824, whilst Western Australia, founded in 1829 as a free colony, received convicts from 1850. Penal transportation to Australia peaked in the 1830s and reduced significantly in succeeding decades. The last convict ship arrived in Western Australia in 1868.

Convicts were transported primarily for petty crimes – serious crimes, like rape and murder, were punishable by death. But many were political  prisoners, exiled for their participation in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the nascent trade union movement. Their terms served, most ex-convicts remained in Australia, and joining the free settlers, many rose to prominent positions in Australian society and commerce. Yet they and their heirs bore a social stigma – convict origins were for a long time a source of shame: “the convict stain”. Nowadays, more confident of our identity and our national story, many Australians regard a convict lineage as a cause for pride. A fifth of today’s Australians are believed to be descended from transported convicts.

A wise man doesn’t burn his bridges until he knows he can part the waters

In the young colony, for free and unfree, men and women alike, life  could be nasty, brutish and short, beset by hard labour, hard living and for many, hard liquor, cursed with casual violence, and kept in order by a draconian regime of civil and military justice. Particularly so for the felons, formerly of the convict transports, and only moderately less for free settlers and the expirees, former convicts endeavouring to make a living on hard-scrabble blocks on the outer fringes of the Sydney Basin, far from  young and barely civilized Sydney Town.

Sydney Society 1800

Cochrane’s history credentials are evident in his feel for the time and the place, the lifestyle and its accoutrements. And it’s a good pitch for a motion picture. A colonial “western” indeed, for the book echoes those fine films that portray the sordid and seedy side of the pioneer story, like Altman’s chilly McCabe and Mrs Miller, and latterly, the magnificently decadent Deadwood, with less brutal elements of Alexandra Iñárritu’s The Revenant. I noted at least two lines borrowed from classic westerns – Clint Eastwood’s avenger tale The Outlaw Josie Wales, and Arthur Penn’s  frontier drama The Missouri Breaks – and there are probably more.

Cochrane has assembled a cast that is as representative and as colourful of the transplanted populace as it undoubtedly was, although some may come across to readers as a tad stereotypical and over-the-top. Loyal and honest servants of the crown like dour, Scottish Chief Constable Alister Mackie and his erudite sidekick American Thaddeus Cuff, who is never lost for bon mots and folk wisdom; whores that would not be out of place in Deadwood’s seedy Gem; cruel; corrupt soldiers who are a law unto themselves; and veterans of the Indian wars (waged by the East India Company, that is). Some are soberly righteous and others less so, given to either producing or consuming in excess a hooch named for its after effects: “bang-head”); unscrupulous and violent sealers, hunters, bushmen, and escaped convicts; and a wise and inquisitive doctor and an eccentric and obsessively peregrinating botanist intent on determining how the platypus produces its young. And, that unlikely trio at the commencement of this piece.

For many of the characters, and particularly the melancholy Martin Sparrow, it is a tale of hope and renewal, survival  and redemption – again like those iconic westerns. There is something about “the frontier”, on the lawless and dangerous edges of civilization, that tries and proves a man or woman’s soul. Cuff declares that “all life turns on a pitiless wheel”, but, he adds, “we ain’t stuck in brutishness. We got a choice”.

Damnation and redemption walk hand in hand. It is perhaps no coincidence one of the river’s most righteous settlers, the former Redcoat Joe Franks, has a passion for seventeenth century Puritan preacher John Bunyans A Pilgrim’s Progress, that allegorical saga of faith in adversity written whilst the author was doing a twelve year stretch for his religious beliefs. Hope springs eternal on the Hobbesian frontier, and we are constantly reminded of this by the sardonic constables: “hope is the poor mans bread”, but he who lives on hope dies fasting.  Whilst hope might be “the mainspring of faith, it is also “physician to misery” and “grief’s music”. And yet, to the irrepressible Romany girl, who has seen and suffered much, it might also be the “little songbird in the well of our troubled soul”.

… the search for happiness can be like the search for your spectacles when they’re sittin’ on your nose. 

The country into which most of the cast venture is not, as we now acknowledge, an empty land. It was a peopled landscape, a much revered, well-loved, and worked terrain, its inhabitants possessed of deep knowledge, wisdom and respect for “country”. Cochrane acknowledges the traditional owners as they roam the fringes of his story and often venture into it, mostly as a benign presence, aiding and advising the protagonists in the mysterious ways of the wilderness.

Whilst many colonists, particularly the soldiery, regard the native peoples as savages and inflict savage reprisals upon them for their resistance to white encroachment, others, in the spirit of the contemporary ‘Enlightenment’ push back against the enveloping, genocidal tide with empathy and understanding. “It’s the first settlers do the brutal work. Them that come later, they get to sport about in polished boots and frock-coats … revel in polite conversation, deplore the folly of ill-manners, forget the past, invent some bullshit fable. Same as what happened in America. You want to see men at their worst, you follow the frontier”. “They don’t reckon we’re the Christians, Marty … We’re the Romans. We march in, seize the land, crucify them, stringing ‘em up in trees, mutilate their parts”.

But they know in their hearts that this ancient people and its ancient ways are helpless against the relentless tide of the white man’s mission civilatrice. “It might be that the bolters have the ripest imagination, but sooner or later, an official party will get across the mountains and find useful country, and the folk and the flag will follow, that’s the way of the world. It’s a creeping flood tide and there’s no ebb, and there’s no stopping it. No amount of … goodwill”. To paraphrase Henry Reynolds, acclaimed chronicler of the frontier wars, they can hear that uneasy whispering in their hearts.

It is Cochrane’s description of the landscape that makes an otherwise entertaining but derivative “quest” narrative soar to literally panoramic heights:

“They heard the sound of frogmouths and boobooks and night birds unknown to them, and heard the whoosh and splash and smack of fish jumping in the shallows and the constant sound of the tide chafing the banks and far off a dingo howling, and they saw the river rats scurrying for cover and myriad shapes in the dark recesses of the forest, and higher up they saw great bands of ancient sandstone, moonlit, cracked and fissured by the chisel work of ages”.

“They stood atop a cliff wall that ran north to the dense green line that marked the horizon, above a point where the valley was lost in the braided folds of mountain spurs and  patches stone and a wash of the darkest forest green … The far cliffs were fractured by heavily forested gullies and slot canyons carved deep through stone. To the north he could see open patches of grassland on the valley floor, the lumpy shapes of marsupials grazing, smaller things foraging, clustered together, wood ducks and a flock of black cockatoos in full flight following the line of the far wall, the stone there fissured and scarred like the hide of a dragon”.

“Soon they were there, standing four in a line atop the stone cliffs, a sheer drop to the thickly  timbered slopes that flattened to a valley floor perhaps a mile away, the river there flanked by irregular patches of forest and grass meadow and game feeding on the grasses – emu and wallaby, a wild dog loping along, and wildfowl breaking from the reeds. They saw a flock of parrots skimming the canopy, their colours coursing down like windswept rain. They saw a wedge-tailed eagle, those ragged wings, wheeling, slow, hypnotic, in the heavens above”.

Landscapes such as these are familiar to me. I view them from high places and walk the forests, and I have seen and heard the myriad birds and animals that inhabit the lands east of our Great Dividing Range. Indeed, many of them I view from my home in the forest. I felt the thrill of recognition as Cochrane’s adventurers ventured forth.

Breathtakingly beautiful it might be, but, then and now, it’s a hard and dangerous land. “… deadly cruel if you’re lost in there. I tell you both this: the wilderness in the west begs a certain reverence and demands a certain humility”.

The weather swings from searing heat to devastating floods – it is such a deluge that propels Martin Sparrow on his odyssey. The terrain in treacherous – one careless misstep and a fall can be deadly. The flora and the fauna might be exotic and magical to behold, but not everything is benign. There are snakes, funnel webs, wild dogs, eels, and bull sharks, and a particularly unpleasant wild pig. The travelers are constantly checking for mosquitoes, leeches and ticks. And the deadliest of all, the humans.

Well, these days it seems all the wilderness does is abet a multitude of crimes and occasionally a smidgen of restitution I suppose. Small mercies. 

A perilous place the bush may have been, but that did not deter those who sought to venture there and indeed, find a path through the Great Dividing Range. In ensuing decades, many explorers would weave their way westwards to view that “vision splendid of the western plains extended”, as our national bard described it. But in convict days, the vision splendid was one of freedom, from slavery’s metaphorical chains -actual irons were not required in the colony because the dense and impenetrable forests that covered the lowlands and the slopes of the ranges were as “iron bars all the way to the sky” and the nomadic “savages”, de facto guards, so to speak, and for freedmen, from backbreaking toil of the their meagre farmsteads. “… it’s the misery of this mercantile tyranny … or the sovereignty of the commonweal, fire of the brutish parties that govern us here”.

Tales of an inland haven, a sanctuary from the military despotism and the rigours of pioneering  were part of the convict “dreaming”.  Some say this was a rhetorical ploy to throw the Law off the scent as the real escape route was by boat along the coast. The authorities dismissed it as a fantasy, a fable, or, to quote Robbie Robertson, “a drunkard’s dream if ever I did see one”. All that lay out yonder was trial and tribulation and death by a thousand stings, bites, or spears.

And yet, the magical thinking of a happy land far, far away is part of our human storytelling. “Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dream of really do come true”. Even Westworlds androids, who yearn, like Pinocchio, to be human, roam relentlessly towards the freedom of “the valley beyond”.

The notion of becoming a “bolter”is the primary theme of the story, and indeed the “making” of the luckless, lovelorn, indebted and hence perennially, melancholy Martin Sparrow who was ever wont to “stagger from one calamity to another”. A paradisaical village of free folk beyond the mountain fastness and the long arm of the constabulary, on the banks of “a river of the first magnitude” that winds its way to a mighty, whale-splashed ocean far to the west of the unknown continent, as they note, the celebrated  Mr Flinders himself had surmised, their wants satisfied by bevies of copper-coloured women:

“And there it is, the most beautiful grassy woodlands that you are ever to see, and way below, a small village, embosomed in a grove of tall trees, by a most majestic river, flowing west, as far as the eye can see, and small boats gliding the channels between little islands, and women, knee-deep in the  shallows, casting their nets … Olive-skinned, well-favored by nature and most pliable and yielding in all regards”.

Give a man his wish, you take away his dreams. 

And so, amidst Cochrane’s historical and political exposition – and he wears his historian heart on his sleeve – and remarkable scenic descriptions, a mob of folk of widely disparate authority, status, means, temperament and ability head off in twos and threes into the wild. Some are driven by duty; for others, it’s a living; and for our unlikely duo and dog, it’s a quixotic leap in the dark. Some perish, others sicken, and several arrive at their own epiphanies and apotheoses. I recall Paul Simon: “Some have died, some have fled from themselves, or struggled from here to get there”; and also, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s observation that often, “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour”.

Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated—so:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!
Rudyard Kipling, The Explorer (1898)

Orphan Girl

This beautiful song was written by Brendan Graham for the Annual Great Famine Commemoration at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks in 2012 to commemorate the immigration to Australia of over four thousand female orphans who, between 1848 and 1850, were brought from Ireland during the Great Hunger. It is performed by the celebrated Choral Scholars of University College of Dublin, featuring soloist Abby Molloy


For wider reading about Australian history, I highly recommend William Lines’ challenging Taming of the Great South Land, the late Robert Hughes’ magisterial The Fatal Shore, and David Day’s Claiming a Continent Posts in In That Howling  Infinite include We got them Australia Day Blues and Outside Looking In.

As part of its marketing strategy, publisher Penguin Books, has seen fit to share extracts from the opening chapter of The Making of Martin Sparrow.  I have republished them below.

1.

Sparrow woke on wet sand somewhere downriver with a terrible stink in his nostrils, the smell of death and decay, rot and ruin all about. At first he did not stir, there in the pre-dawn, pale light to the east beyond the river, the tide on the turn, ebbing now, the flow yet a faint murmur in his ears.

Confusion held him still, as did the formidable lassitude in his bones and the damp cold on his skin. The sound of his breathing con­firmed the likelihood that he was alive. He raised his head and looked about, sucked up a wad of gritty phlegm and spat onto the sand. He wondered if perhaps his deliverance was the work of a kindly fate, a chance to make good his miserable existence. Hard to know.

The sand was strewn with muck and wreckage. The hen coop was there, his hens dead, in company with tangles of lumber and thatch, fence posts and scoured saplings, a big, raggedy cut of wagon can­vas and a lidless coffin, the muddied panelling infested with yellow mould that glowed bright in the soft dawn light.

He sat up and brushed himself off, noticed a long cut on the inside of his forearm, but it wasn’t bad. If it was bad, deep, he might have bled to death while he lay there in the dark, half drowned. But it wasn’t and he didn’t. That was lucky.

He studied the coffin; reckoned sooner or later he’d have to take a look, in all probability stare rotting death in the face. A crow alighted on the rim, shuffled one way then the other, then hopped in, keen to join its companions. Sparrow saw a flurry of black wings as the disputatious gathering settled to its work.

There was a blood-soaked tear in his britches and a hungry leech on his thigh, like a small, fat velvet purse. He flicked the greedy little sucker onto the ground, took a twig and pierced it, watching his own blood spill out and colour the sand to russet.

In the shallows he scooped up a fragment of the Sydney Gazette, but the newspaper dissolved in his fingers as he tried to unfold the sodden sheet.

Sparrow surveyed the farms beyond the river, the flooded fields; wildfowl feeding on the flattened corn, flood-wrack washing seawards on the flow. He dropped to his knees and laved water onto the little puncture wound on his thigh and the cut on his arm. Quite why he did that he did not know for he was otherwise layered in muck all over.

Memories washed about inside his head dispelling some of the confusion – the lightning storm, the torrents of rain, the hen coop caught in the violent flow; wheat stacks coursing the river; the unremitting fury of the waters, crops awash, the bottoms gone; the exodus of reptiles; the dismal cries from distant quarters, the sound of muskets dangerously charged.

He got up and turned about, scanned the lowlands to the west, the mountains far off, full of mystery and foreboding, and full of promise too.

The sound: the ebbing tide, the pecking crows.

Sparrow stepped quietly from the water. Stood. Listened some more. He crossed the sand, took hold of the wagon sheet, heavy with wet, and edged towards the coffin until he could see the beaks spear­ing into that shrunken face riddled with wounds, a fledgling on the old man’s chest, pecking at his coffin suit. He did not hesitate, for their pleasure had filled him with an unfamiliar wrath and rendered him vengeful. He hurled the wagon sheet across the coffin. The cap­tive birds panicked and leapt into the cloth and flapped and squawked and leapt again, like hearts beating in some hideous thing.

Sparrow took hold of a heavy stick and began to beat the cloth with all his might. A wing appeared askew the panelling and he smashed at it and heard the creature scream. And he kept on just so, until the canvas lay sunken in the coffin and the birds were all but still, dead or dying, their frames faintly visible. He leant on the stick, suck­ing for breath, awaiting further movement in the coffin, watching as blood seeped into the cloth. The birds made a few pitiful sounds, now and then a ripple or a shudder or the flap of a wing.

Sparrow stood over the coffin until the cloth stopped moving. He looked west to the mountains. Tiredness took hold. ‘Maybe it’s true, maybe I don’t got the mettle,’ he said.

He crossed the sand, stood over his coop, dropped to his knees. His hens in death, his good, sweet, giving birds, were naught but a lumpy pile of dirty feathers and claws.

He reached into the coop and gently palmed his birds apart, set­tling his hand upon a muddied wing; recalled the signs: the lightning storm in that inky blackness over the mountains, the discolouration of the flow and the rapid rise of the river.

But the waters had receded, briefly – a most deceptive interval that filled Sparrow with a false notion of security and he had not then seized his opportunity. He had not got in his crop, not one ear of corn; nor had he got his scarce possessions off the floor of his hut, nor moved the coop to higher ground, thus condemning the hens to a most frightful expiration, such an end as filled Sparrow with dread for reasons he did not care to contemplate. For all that, he was truly sorry.

More than once Mortimer Craggs had told him to stop being sorry. ‘Sorry for this, sorry for that,’ said Mort. ‘You got to stop being sorry, Marty, you gotta stop forthwith and seize the dream, for therein lies our path to an unfettered liberty, y’foller me?’

Sparrow did not quite follow, but he’d said yes anyway for he did not want further badgering from Mort, who was a fierce badgerer and a most indiscriminately violent man once roused. Mort might well whack a man; or he might take a filleting knife and slit his nose. You never did know what Mort might do.

Sparrow felt the sun on his back at last. Once more he looked west across the water-logged lowlands to the foothills and thence the mountains. He recalled his last conversation with Mort Craggs, before Mort took off with Shug McCafferty, before they bolted for freedom.

‘I just ain’t ready to go,’ he’d said. He was uncertain as to why Mort had invited him to join the bolt, for they were not friends, just acquaintances, a lethal acquaintance dating back to the years of his youth in the village of Blackley on the river Irk.

‘I think you don’t got the mettle, Martin,’ said Mort, fingering the ridge of proud flesh on his cropped ear.

‘I have things to say to Biddie first,’ said Sparrow.

‘Forget the whore, there’s women on the other side, there’s a big river, there’s a village, women aplenty, copper-coloured beauties, the diligence of their affections something to behold.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Can’t say, not till you commit to the venture, swear a binding oath.’

‘I cannot swear an oath, binding or otherwise, not yet.’

The very idea of copper-coloured women on the other side of the mountains puzzled Sparrow, deeply. He was somewhat lost for a per­spective on this startling infomation. ‘Like the Otahetians?’ he said.

‘No, nothin’ like them and I can say no more Marty, not another word.’

And that was the last conversation he’d had with Mort Craggs.

Sparrow had to wonder if perhaps his yearning for Biddie Happ was a foolish dream. If it was not a foolish dream before the flood it most likely was now. His thirty-acre patch was swamped, his corn crib gone, his corn crop flat in the mud, the wildfowl, the borers and the mould most likely hard at work this very day. His hut might well be gone too, lost to the flood. His hens were dead, he was deep in hock, mostly to Alister Mackie, and would have to beg for seed for another crop and that meant more hock, regardless of the weather to come. In short, it was now most unlikely that Biddie would see any chance of elevat­ing her prospects by joining with him, Martin Sparrow, former felon, time-expired convict, failed farmer on the flood-prone bottoms of the Hawkesbury River. Fool of a man.

He sat on the sand, bowed his head and ran his fingers down his forehead, over the faint indentations that continued onto his eyelids and cheeks, the all but faded scars that folk took to be the remnants of small pox.

He tried to sort his pictorial thoughts. That wasn’t easy with Biddie presenting herself in one instant and the copper-coloured beauties in the next. ‘I should have gone with Mort,’ he said aloud. He thought about the birthmark on Biddie’s face, the mark she tried to hide with that lovely sweep of hair, pinned just so. He wondered if copper-coloured women ever got birthmarks. As to that, he just didn’t know. The mysteries, numberless.

2

Alister Mackie sipped his Hai Seng tea, treading the porch boards by the tavern door, treading to waken his bones as the pale grey light of dawn brought the distant mountains into view and the mass of hud­dled humanity on the village square came to life, the refugees from the flood stirring from makeshift tents on rickety frames, tattered paniers lumpy with tools and keepsakes, waifs bedded in carts and barrows, piglets trussed and tumbled in the mud, game dogs on tethers and crated fowls crooning their disquiet.

He held the mug in his two hands, sniffed at the steam com­ing off the brew, searching the scene: the double guard on the stone granary and the commissariat store; soldiers by the barracks door in various measures of infantry undress; washerwomen in and out of the washhouse; the butcher, busy on his scaffold, a hundred pounds of pork on the hook; the little church, the smithy, the stone gaol. The village they called Prominence.

The drudge called Fish joined Mackie on the porch. He wiped his hands on his apron. ‘You want I take the mug?’ he said.

Mackie handed him the mug.

‘They’re hammered, like castaways, every last one of them,’ said Fish.

‘They are, yes.’

‘I seen floods, but I never seen a flood like this one.’

‘Nor I.’

‘Here and there the tops of trees, otherwise an ocean.’

‘Yes.’

Mackie stepped off the porch. He weaved his way through the bivouac to the commissariat store on the far side of the square and from there he followed the ridgeline past the granary to the top of the switchback path, where he paused by the doctor’s cabin to scrutinise the work of the floodwaters below. The government garden, gone, an acre of greens torn from the slope as if scythed away by some pale rider’s mighty blade; the cottages on the terrace, squat and sodden, the weatherboard swollen and warped. Felons in the shallows, gathering up the ruins of the wharf, the guards perched on their haunches.

Mackie joined his constables, Thaddeus Cuff and Dan Sprodd, at the foot of the switchback path and together they stepped from spongy duckboards into the shallows and clambered aboard the government sloop. Packing away the mooring lines, they drifted into the current and settled at their ease. A light westerly, a port tack, the wind and the tide obliging.

Cuff patted the planking beneath the rowlock, looking up into the big gaff rig as the sail took the wind. ‘This tub reminds me of Betty Pepper,’ he said. ‘Deceptive quickness in stout disguise, charms you’d never guess first off.’

He glanced back at the cottages on the terrace and there she was, Bet, watching them go; her porch strewn with soaked possessions, the high-water mark like a dirty wainscot on the cottage wall. The young strumpet Biddie Happ was there too, squaring a muddied rug on a makeshift line. Cuff raised his hat and Bet responded with a curt swish of her hand and took a broom and set to sweeping the mud off her porch. Biddie patted at the swathe of red hair that covered the birthmark on her face.

‘They’ll miss me,’ said Cuff, ‘they cannot help themselves.’ He grabbed the wicker handles on a gallon glass demijohn, upended it, took a swig, then another, and then he passed the receptacle to Dan Sprodd.

Sprodd took a swig and passed it back to Cuff who took another swig, knowing it would aggravate the chief constable.

‘Hardly underway, you set a fine example, Thaddeus,’ said Mackie.

‘Thank you!’ said Cuff.

‘You should ration that.’ Mackie wagged a finger at him.

‘I don’t go with the shoulds, the shoulds are a tyranny. I see no joy in rationing bang-head, or anything else for that matter,’ said Cuff.

‘Americans take their liberties very seriously,’ said Sprodd, as if Mackie was sorely in need of the information.

‘Indeed, we do!’ said Cuff.

‘As do I,’ said Mackie.

‘I’ll tell you now, spirits put clout and vigour in a man. You’ll get honest toil from a pint of bang-head, miracles of effort from a quart.’

‘That or the fatal dysenteries!’

Cuff quite liked the sound of the chief ’s lowland brogue but it was too early to argue with any persistence. Sleepiness, briefly, had the better of his contrarian temperament. ‘Hear that Dan?’ he said, ‘We are not to be trusted with the drink; we, the meritorious constabulary.’

The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir

We are the boys of Wexford, who fought with heart and hand
To burst in twain the Saxon chain, and free our native land!
The Boys of Wexford, RD Royce 1898

Glory-o, Glory-o to her brave men who died
For the cause of long down-trodden man.
Glory-o to Mount-Leinster’s own darling and pride
Dauntless Kelly, the boy from Killane.
Patrick Joseph McCall, 1898

It was on this day in 1798, during the first great Irish rebellion against British dominion, that the Battle of Vinegar Hill took place at Inis Córthaid, now the second-largest town in County Wexford.

The Rebellion of 1798 (Éirí Amach) also known as the United Irishmen Rebellion, was an uprising against British rule in Ireland during the summer of ‘98. The United Irishmen, a republican revolutionary group influenced by the ideas of the American and French revolutions, were the drivers of the rebellion. It was led by Presbyterians irate at being shut out of power by the Anglican establishment whilst Catholics became increasingly involved. Plans called for significant French support, which never eventuated. The uprising was poorly organized, uncoordinated, and quickly suppressed by much more powerful British forces. Both sides indulged in bloody reprisals. Between 10,000 to 30,000 souls perished, most of them Irishmen and women of all denominations.

The rebellion raged Ireland-wide, but County Wexford was its heart. Overlooking the town, Vinegar Hill was the site of the largest camp and the headquarters of the Irish rebels who held County Wexford for thirty days against vastly superior English forces; and it was there, after inflicting several defeats upon the insurgents that the English sought to finally destroy the rebel army. Battle raged on Vinegar Hill itself and in the streets of Enniscorthy with considerable loss of life among both rebels and civilians. It marked a turning point in the rising, being the last attempt by the rebels to hold and defend ground against the British military.

The famous statue in the market square of Enniscorthy shows the doomed Father Murphy, a leader of the ’98, pointing the way to Vinegar Hill for a young volunteer, ‘The Croppy Boy’.

Father Murphy and The Croppy Boy

The Battle of Vinegar Hill, Enniscorthy

History – and indeed, our lives – have a way of echoing across the world and down the years. In 1804, Irish convicts in the far-away penal colony of New South Wales, raised the flag of rebellion against the British soldiery and the colonial masters they served. It was the only convict rising in Australia. Many of those convicts would have been involved in the ‘98, and transported to Botany Bay for their part in it. Their quixotic Intifada was crushed at a place they called Vinegar Hill after the Wexford battle. In 1979, having migrated to Australia, I visited what is believed to be the site of the convicts’ revolt, the Castlebrook lawn cemetery on Windsor Road, Rouse Hill, where a monument commemorating the revolt was dedicated in 1988, Australia’s bicentennial year.

The Battle of Vinegar Hill, New South Wales

Myth and memory often embellish the stories and the glories of oppressed people rising up against the power, but when we recall these oftimes forlorn hopes, from Spartacus to the Arab Spring, it is difficult to imagine ourselves, in our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consquences of heroic failure.  We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

And ponder Seamus Heaney’s poignant Requiem for the Croppies:

The pockets of our greatcoats, full of barley
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people, hardly marching on the hike
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until, on Vinegar Hill, the fatal conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.

Father Murphy and me

I’ve always felt a connection with Vinegar Hill and “the boys of Wexford” who fought there.

In Birmingham, back in the early fifties, we lived with our aunt in a cold-water, back-alley walk-up on the border of Balsall Heath (just inside Moseley, a ‘better’ suburb). Aunty Mary was my mother’s mother’s sister. Her family had lived through Ireland’s war of independence and the civil war that followed, and she carried with her the memory of those times when she migrated to Birmingham before the Second World War  – after her husband had run off “with another woman” (these things happened in Catholic Ireland). She lived in that same old house right through the Blitz when German bombers regularly targeted The Second City’s engineering, motor and arms factories, and not a few public buildings including the Piccadilly and Waldorf cinemas on nearby Stratford Road which were destroyed with considerable loss of life. When her sister died and daddy Paddy had decamped – he’d found a new Love – Mary brought their six children over to Birmingham from Enniscorthy one by one. I never met nor learned what became of my grandfather. My aunt and mother would say that if Paddy Whelan died, the devil himself would come and tell us. Old Nick never did.

I was born in Mary’s house. She had a friend who had once given birth so that friend was the midwife. My brothers followed over the next two years. By then, the National Health Service had kicked in, and they were born in hospital. Childbirth, forever dangerous, was now rendered less life-threatening. There we all lived, three kids, our folks, Aunty Mary, three uncles, two aunts, a dog called Monty, named for the famous field Marshall, and a cat. Three bedrooms, girls in one, boys in another, and our family in the third. Outside loo and coal shed, no bathroom or hot water (we kids bathed in the kitchen sink and grown-ups went down to The Baths). Cold and damp, and close to the shops. And there we lived until 1956 when a council house in Yardley Wood became our first family home. Cold and colder running water that froze in winter, but it was at least inside the house; a bathroom with hot water heated in a big gas boiler; and an outside flush lavatory that was nevertheless immediately adjacent to the backdoor and not down in the garden. A big garden it was too, for winter and spring vegetables, snowmen and summer camp-outs.

There we grew, with free medical treatment for all our ailments, and free optical and dental care. I still have crooked teeth – no fancy orthodontics on the NHS – but I have all my teeth still. And my eyesight. We were educated for free. This came in during the war with the Butler Act. So, thanks to the Welfare State, we were housed and healthy enough to get to primary school and beyond. Once there, we had free books, free pens and paper and compulsory sport, and doctors and nurses would turn up on a regular basis to check our vitals. And thus, we were able to reach the glorious ‘sixties ready to rock ‘n roll.

In 1956, my uncle took me “across the sea to Ireland” to meet our family – my mother’s, that is. Dad was a proddie from County Tyrone, and we didn’t talk about them. We stayed in the tiny terrace house in Patrick Street where my mother was born in 1928, a crowded place with an outside toilet and a whitewashed back wall that looked out onto windswept fields beyond. Uncle Sonny (Philip, really, but knicknamed for Al Jolson’s famous song), took me to the top of Vinegar Hill, and it’s lonely ruined round tower, used then as a shelter for cattle. We visited the statue of Father John Murphy and the young volunteer, and I learned the story of The Croppy Boy. Today, the term “croppy” is used derogatively to refer to a country bumpkin. Back then, it also referred to the young patriots who answered to the call “at the rising of the moon”. Their name came from their cropped hair – interpreted by some at the time as symbolic of the rejection of the powdered wigs of the gentry and also of the style popularised by French revolutionaries. Sonny took me to The Bloody Bridge on the outskirts of town where Father Murphy was tortured and executed by the English soldiers, the ‘yeos’ (or yeomen). I put my fingers in the groove in the  bridge’s stone parapet, said to have been made by the dying priest himself. We walked across the bridge in Wexford Town where so many martyrs perished at the hands of the foe – and, alas, so many innocents were murdered by the rebels. Little matter that the bridge we now trode was the third built there since those fateful days.

History was alive, and it was black and white. People remembered, as if it was yesterday, how Oliver Cromwell cut a bloody swathe through Catholic Ireland and massacred the innocents of Wexford town. It was said that people hung Cromwell’s picture upside down in their living rooms, and turned his face to the wall for good measure. Relatives would recount how the Black and Tans, the English paramilitaries raised to terrorise the populace, held their bayonets to women’s throats demanding “where’s your husband?”…or father…or son…Even the English teachers at my English grammar school would remark that the ‘Tans were war veterans who’d survived carnage of the Western Front and wanted more.

In the summer of 1969 my brother and I and an old chum spent several weeks in an Enniscorthy that looked and felt felt like it had not changed since Aunty Mary’s day – so well portrayed in the academy award nominated film Brooklyn. Dressed as we were in hippie garb and sporting long locks, we cut incongruous figures in the pubs and at the local hop, and were so unsuccessful hitchhiking around the county that we walked many a long Irish mile. We hiked to Killane, Sean Kelly’s country, and inspired by the song, climbed upwards though heath and hedge to the top of Mount Leinster. We stayed at 13 Patrick Street, and spent a lot of time sitting up on Vinegar Hill, beneath its round tower, looking down on the River Slaney and the town beyond. My brother was a keen photographer, and he took the following pictures:

The Croppy Boy 1969

Enniscorthy from atop Vinegar Hill August 1969

Enniscorthy Sunset August 1969

Fast forward into another century, and I was “on the Holy Ground once more”. Adèle and I attended the wedding of an old pal and cosmic twin (born on the same day as me at about the same time, in English town beginning with B) we were the only Brits in a seminar at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Back then, SOAS was known to many Arabs as the school of spies, a status I was reminded of by the owner of our hotel when we all visited Damascus in 2006. But I digress. The wedding was held at an old pub in right in the heart of Ireland, and in getting there, we did a whistle-stop tour of the south, including Enniscorthy, Wexford and Ross, the heartland of the ‘98 rebellion. When I first visited Enniscorthy, you could lie down in the middle of the Main Street and not be disturbed by traffic. This time, you could still lie down in th middle of Main Street – we were stuck in a traffic jam as we wound up the hill past Saint Aiden’s Cathedral to Patrick Street, which was no longer on the edge of town. The old house was still standing, as the song goes. Clean and crisp and pebble-dashed. As we stood outside number thirteen, a young goth girl in a multicoloured hoodie with tattoos and piercings opened the door. I told her how my mother and her brothers and sisters were born in this very house a long, long time ago, and that we’d come all the way from Australia to see it. “You don’t say!” she said.

13 Patrick Street, August 2004

Vinegar Hill August 2004

I was best man at that wedding, and in a speech largely devoted to the groom and our mutual, lifelong appreciation of Bob Dylan, I was able to relate to guests young and old tales of my Irish childhood, taking us all “down the foggy ruins of time”, and sang extracts from songs I actually did learn at my mothers knee.

When I was little, mother Mary would march us up and down the parlour as she sang Enniscorthy’s songs of rebellion: Kelly the Boy From Killane, Boulavogue, and the eponymous Boys of Wexford. We were told that such songs were banned in Britain, and that we must never sing them in public. There’s nothing so tempting as forbidden fruit. A relative brought us over Irish Songs of Freedom, sung in a sweet tenor by Willie Brady – a daring deed indeed, listening to it was,   and perhaps my first act of rebellion. We know now that this was all a cod. The Clancy Brothers were singing those rebel songs to packed houses the length and breadth of the British Isles and North America. And today, of course, you lose count of the collections and anthologies of Irish songs of freedom, rebellion or resistance, sung with vim, vigour, and nostalgic gusto from the Clancy Brothers and Dubliners back in the day to Sinead O’Connor and Celtic Woman.

In true men, like you men – songs of ‘98

So, on this, the two hundredth and twentieth anniversary of Vinegar Hill, let us remember the patriot men with a few of those old songs.

At Vinegar Hill o’er the pleasant Slaney
Our heroes vainly stood back to back
And the yeos at Tullow took Father Murphy
And burnt his body upon the rack
God grant you glory, brave Father Murphy
And open heaven to all your men
The cause that called you may call tomorrow
In another fight for the green again
Boulavogue Patrick Joseph McCall 1898

The song commemorates local parish priest Father John Murphy, he of the statue in he market place, who led his parishioners into battle in Wexford. Father Murphy and the other rebel leaders were captured and executed. He was hanged, decapitated, his corpse burnt in a barrel of tar, and his head placed on a spike as a warning to other rebels.

Enniscorthy is in flames and old Wexford is won
And tomorrow the barrow will cross
On the hill o’er the town we have planted a gun
That will batter the gateway to Ross
All the Forth men and Bargy men will march o’er the heath
With brave Harvey to lead in the van
But the foremost of all in the grim gap of death
Will be Kelly, the boy from Killane
Patrick Joseph McCall 1898

Sean Kelly was one of the leaders of the ‘98, celebrated for his role in then Battle of Ross, where he was wounded. After the fall of Wexford on 21 June, he was dragged from his sick bed, tried and sentenced to death and hanged on Wexford Bridge along with seven other rebel leaders. His body was then decapitated, the trunk thrown into the River Slaney and the head kicked through the streets before being set on display on a spike as a warning to others…Bad times for brave men.

Some on the shores of distant lands
Their weary hearts have laid,
And by the stranger’s heedless hands
Their lonely graves were made;
But though their clay be far away,
Beyond the Atlantic foam,
In true men, like you, men,
Their spirit’s still at home.
Who Fears to Speak of ‘98, John Kells Ingram 1843

See also, Irish Rebel Music, and A Selection of songs of ’98.

And in In That Howling Infinite, see Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody

We’ve got them Australia Day blues … again

Australia Day has always been celebrated on 26th January – except when it wasn’t …

Today is our national day. We celebrate the first settlement of white settlers on Australian shores. Captain Cook had been here a decade before, and Dutch, Portuguese and English mariners had touched land at various point earlier in the century, but didn’t find the amenities attractive enough to stick around.

Many people, particularly rightwing politicians and opinionistas, and white Anglo-Celtic nationalists regards this seminal moment as “a good thing” to borrow a phrase from “1066 and All That”. After all, it brought the benefits of European civilization to those whom Rudyard Kipling might later have referred to as “fluttered folk and wild, half demon and half child”. After two centuries of dispossession, enslavement, massacre, and, in recent times, gradual steps towards recognition and restitution, many descendants of the first peoples think otherwise and regard 26th January as Invasion Day, a time of mourning.

It has become a time for debating our history, and also, our  identity. It is also about memory and myth. As American author CE Morgan has written, “Repeated long enough, stories become memory and memory becomes fact”. German academic Ulrich Raulff put it this: “ … 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”.

And so  around this time every year, people argue about moving the date to one that is less divisive, and indeed, to one that more realistically commemorates the founding of the Commonwealth of Australia. January 1st for example. is put forward as the day six states came together as one Commonwealth under a federal government. The problem with January 1st is of course that being News Day, and already a fireworks and hoopla greeted day off, no one would notice.

As if responding to Pavlov’s bell, folk of a conservative persuasion evoke the irrevocable sanctity of January 26th as a commemoration of how we became who we are – that is, a mainly white and Christian but increasingly multihued and multifaith democracy at the fagend of the earth. The conservative media seize upon it as an opportunity to serve up overblown, meretricious flimflam not withstanding the fact that the story of the First Fleet is thrilling enough without over-leavening it with patriotic flagwaving, triumphalism, and a big serve of manifest destiny.

The idea celebrating the acknowledged virtues of our country – its tolerance and openness, its acceptance of immigrants of all colours, cultures, and religious beliefs, its mythical values of “mateship” and a “fair go” are sound. In citizenship ceremonies across our island continent, migrants from all over swear allegiance to our nation and it’s English queen (but we won’t go there). And yet, the day itself has evolved into a shibboleth, a caricature, a bombastic, jingoistic carnival of flags and fireworks, partying and posturing. It’s as if we forget that on January 26 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip established a penal colony – not a nation. Of the 1336 souls who landed, over half of them were in chains.

Ironically, the day is not at all sacrosanct. For most of the century of our existence as a nation, most Australian states did not see a reason to celebrate this Sydney-centric beano with such gusto.  indeed, as the picture below shows, the date itself was quite portable. the It was only on the occasion of our bicentenary in 1988 that it officially donned the aura of a secular holy day of obligation – and, of course a public holiday conveniently placed between the hot and lazy Xmas holidays and the commencement of the school year. Recent polls have show that a majority of Australians wouldn’t be too fussed if the date was moved. A significant proportion are hard pressed to say what it is we are actually commemorating.

Perhaps one good reason we ought to abolish Australia Day is that we are not grown up enough as a nation to deserve it.

[I have included at the end of this post what I consider a reasonably well-nuanced appraisal of the culture wars being fought out over Australia Day. Paul Kelly of The Australian  is a conservative commentator, and is obliged to recite form the News Corp song sheet when it comes to repeating the cliched mantras of his mother-ship – or is it ‘fathership’?) but he weighs well the tired arguments of left and right and argues for what would, could or should pass for the ‘reasonable middle’]

And so, today is our national day. A day when the “black armband” and “white armband” tribes leave off their month-long cage-fight that has dominated the media during the Xmas holiday doldrums, and just enjoy a day off.

And we can have a break from self righteous patriotics until our next official day off: Anzac Day, when we celebrate our defeat the hands of Johnny Turk at Gallipoli, and when, of course, The Australian and it’s hired hacks will get carried away by all the Anzacery bluster, and express their indignation with all who criticize that shibboleth. The irony of Anzac Day is that whilst it rightfully remembers the cost and futility of war, its commercialization has meant that more money is spent on political and patriotic posturing than on our serving soldiers and on those who return home injured and traumatized. As Samuel Johnson quite rightly (is said to have) said, “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”.

For more in In That Howling Infinite on Australian history and politics, see Down Under


We’ve had those Australia Day blues for a long time as this report from the ABC demonstrates:

We thought they were going to be massacred’ 

ABC Broken Hill. Aimee Volkofsky, 25 January 2018

Watch the  video here:  Eighty years since forced First Fleet re-enactment (ABC News)

WARNING: This story contains images of deceased Indigenous people.

Aboriginal men perform a dance at a 1938 re-enactment of the landing and proclamation of Captain Arthur Phillip at the 150th Australia Day celebrations.    (State Library of NSW)

On January 26, 1938, as the first rally against Australia Day was held, 25 Indigenous men were told if they did not perform the role of ‘retreating Aborigines’ in a re-enactment of the First Fleet, their families would starve.

Government officials had selected the best dancers and singers from Menindee mission in far-west New South Wales and told them they were required to perform cultural dances in Sydney. What they were sent to take part in was a re-enactment of the landing and proclamation of Captain Arthur Phillip at the 150th Australia Day celebrations.

Ngiyaampaa elder Dr Beryl (Yunghadhu) Philp Carmichael, born and raised on the mission, was only three at the time, but her memory of the fear in the community never left her.

Ngiyaampaa elder Dr Beryl (Yunghadhu) Philp Carmichael,

My grandfather protested Australia Day in 1938

The inescapable reality is that Australia’s current national day excludes and alienates Indigenous people — 80 years after my grandfather marched the streets in a fight for equality, writes Ngarra Murray. “All I can remember is the crying, all the women were crying,” she said.  “Whether they were taking them away to be massacred or what, no-one knew. The community went into mourning once they were put on the mission truck.”

The men returned a week later, but Dr Carmichael said it was many years until they would talk about their experience. ‘They came back very quiet,” she said. “It was only in the late 70s they started saying something about what it was like down there. We knew whatever happened down there really hurt them and we didn’t question them.”

Hidden from friends and family

It is speculated that part of the reason for bringing Indigenous people all the way from Menindee was because those in Sydney refused to take part. In Sydney plans were afoot to hold a rally on Australia Day; the Aborigines Progressive Association would declare it a ‘day of mourning’.

Aboriginal rights leaders William Ferguson and John Patten published the Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights! pamphlet on January 12, 1938. In it they declared, “We do not ask you to study us as scientific freaks … the superstition that we are a naturally backward and low race … shows a jaundiced view of anthropologists’ motives”.

Those in power at the time seemed eager to keep the Menindee men well away from activists, keeping them locked away in police barracks.

The incident was detailed in a biography on William Ferguson, written by Jack B Horner in 1974. “The Secretary of the Protection Board had a shrewd idea that Ferguson would try to prevent the Menindee men from taking part in this re-enactment. The Board was taking no chances. Nobody could meet the Aborigines in the coming week in Sydney, without … obtaining personal permission.” — from Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal freedom: a biography by Jack B Horner
Dr Carmichael said there had been whisperings of the movement on the mission, and a direct link to Mr Ferguson.

“Most people on missions couldn’t read and write; that made it really hard for them to understand the government documents they were throwing around,” she said. “Old Bill [Ferguson], because he knew his brother Duncan was back on the mission, he used to send messages back to him. But in the end the mission manager found that out, picked the old fella [Duncan] up in a truck and dumped him over the hill [outside the mission boundary].”

Mr Ferguson attempted to get word to the Menindee men while they were in Sydney but, as elaborate as they were, his efforts were unsuccessful.  “Then followed in the week before the celebrations an amusing battle of tactics between the Protection Board officers and the executive of the Aborigines’ Progressive Association….Some Sydney relatives of a Peter Johnson from Menindee tried to see him at the barracks.  The relatives had been sent by Ferguson, of course, in order to pass to Hero Black (the leader of the Menindee party) a message not to take part in the mortifying ‘retreat’ from the ‘first party of Englishmen’.” (From Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal freedom: a biography by Jack B Horner) . They were eventually allowed a closely supervised visit from two female relatives.

The men soon discovered their duties would include playing the part of Aboriginal people fleeing British soldiers.

Threatened with ration cuts

While the activists may have gotten their message through to the performers, discouraging them from taking part in the re-enactment, the men were left with little choice.

Dr Carmichael said when it came to performing traditional dance, the men were troubled to find they would be led by an Aboriginal actor who did not speak their language or know their culture.

“The government unknowingly or knowingly put up a big Aboriginal, good looking fella as the leader of the dancers and they didn’t even know him. He wasn’t from Ngiyaempaa,” she said. “That really devastated the people and they refused to dance. [The government] threatened them and threatened them; if they didn’t perform they’d cut off the rations to their people on the mission. It was the toughest time of their lives, I think.  I’m just happy we survived’

Eighty years on, as debate continues around whether January 26 is celebrated or mourned, Dr Carmichael said she was happy to have survived, even though she was sad about the past. “We were brought up to tolerate a lot of things and to give thanks for being alive,” she said. “I’m just glad I survived with my culture intact and am alive to teach and pass it on. We should strive for peace, between all nations. We need to come together as people.”

Australia Day: we must face the two truths about January 26

Paul Kelly, Editor-At-Large, The Australian,  
Illustration: Eric Lobbecke
Illustration: Eric Lobbecke

Australia Day is getting bigger, brighter, more celebratory and stained by the rising tide of culture war hostility. The transformation of January 26 from a sleepy public holiday two generations ago into a boisterous party and civic commemoration has provoked a political backlash conceived in two different sentiments — grievance and exploitation.

The debate is not just about our national day. It’s really about who we are, what symbols we honour and, ultimately, the legitimacy of our civilisation. This debate can break one of two ways: robust differences can generate a better understanding of Australia and its national day or the upshot can be a destructive orgy of self-interested identity politics leading to a diminished and divided country.

The progressive crusade to ­remove January 26 as Australia Day has won fresh momentum for a movement bent upon imposing its views on the nation. Nobody should be surprised.

The volatility of social media, the power of negative politics and the emotional manipulation around “invasion day” constitutes sufficient warning that things could go badly wrong.

A nation ignorant of its history or simply unable to handle its history is heading for trouble in the present age of populist and cheapjack disruption.

Those pledged to “change the day” underestimate the popularity of the late January public holiday before the kids return to school, when barbecues abound in parks and backyards, fireworks make a spectacular night, the Australian flag adorns cars and front verandas, the sense of community is tangible, and civic and citizenship ceremonies at the local level testify to a beating patriotism.

In every such event there are tributes to the first Australians. This is embedded in our civic ­culture. More indigenous peoples are participating and being recognised on Australia Day, with its ­official emphasis on multi­culturalism and diversity. Since governor Lachlan Macquarie nominated the public holiday in 1818, the day has seen enormous and essential reinterpretation.

Beware, however, the emerging malaise — a culture war between the green-identity, politics-progressive left determined to destroy the current day and the hopelessly unpersuasive conservatives who defend the status quo, speak and listen only to one another and lose every battle because they cannot find a language to appeal to a ­diverse mainstream.

There are two truths about January 26, 1788. It was the threshold moment for one of the most audacious experiments of the ­Age of Enlightenment seeding a British settlement and society on the continent most distant from Britain under the practical yet visionary leadership of Arthur Phillip, in many ways the true founder of Australia who, against almost every prospect, had the ­insight to believe this convict ­colony at the ends of the earth would one day be “the most valuable ­acquisition Great Britain ever made”.

Those who say the story of the First Fleet and settlement are boring and uninspiring are dead in their imagination and blind in their vision.

The associated truth is that the oldest civilisation on earth, isolated for thousands of years from the rest of the globe and hence ­extremely vulnerable, was unable to defend ­itself and suffered dis­possession of its lands, ravage from disease, loss of life in conflict and loss of its way of life.

Despite the ­initial good ­intentions towards the Aborigines displayed by Phillip, the great moral failure in Australian polity was the belief there was no place, no dignity and, indeed, no life for the original Australians.

Both truths are authentic. Neither can, nor should, be denied. This is our inheritance and, in its soaring achievement and murderous squalor, it constitutes the unique meaning of Australia. One of the central purposes of our existence is to find a way of living with these truths and ensuring the peoples who embody such different traditions can live together and thrive together. There is simply no alternative.

We should exist neither in perpetual grievance nursed by the ­indigenous peoples and those, like the Greens, who recklessly exploit their grievances, nor in the complacency of those Europeans who still pretend there was no dark side to the civilisation we enjoy.

The issue is whether we have the maturity to hold together conflicting truths and sort things through, or whether we choose ideological indulgence and cynical zero-sum politics.

Australia Day needs to stand because the nation cannot run or hide from either the glory or ­tragedy in its duality. The answer to indigenous feelings about January 26 is to construct, not destroy — if there is sufficient agreement, then construct a new day of indigenous commemoration, suffering, survival and triumph. That will take time but over time it may emerge as one of the constructive solutions for Australia.

Declaring that January 26 must be shut down as a day of shame, genocide and mourning offers no solution to anyone. Telling the ­descendants of Arthur Phillip that the origin of the British civilisation and prosperous multicultural democracy they have built lacks sufficient legitimacy to be honoured as the national day is dishonest and destructive. How could it not be?

In this paper today, indigenous leader Noel Pearson says the blackfellas were here 65,000 years before whites arrived and it is vital we “recognise and honour this”. Pearson also says the whitefellas aren’t going away, they created something and it is also vital to “recognise and honour this”.

Tearing one truth down in the cause of another is the road to ruin for Australia. Both truths need to be confronted and engaged. “Trying to erase January 26 is denying the very history we want Australians to face up to,” Pearson says. “There is no other relevant time or date other than those 24-48 hours when ancient Australia passed into the new Australia.” It is this transition the nation must face.

The enemies of this obligation are thick on the ground as radicals and conservatives, often peddling phony mantras. The self-interested cynicism in the stand of Greens leader Richard Di Natale is gobsmacking. With his eye on stealing future votes in inner-city Melbourne, Di Natale announces changing Australia Day will be a priority for the Greens during the rest of the year since the day is about theft and genocide.

What will replace January 26? Why should Di Natale bother with such trifles when there are ideological axes to be swung and votes to be purchased through cultivating national self-abasement under the fraudulent cover of morality?

In response, Labor leader Bill Shorten was just pathetic: he won’t defend Australia Day, he won’t abandon Australia Day and he doesn’t like another day of ­Aboriginal commemoration. In the end he says the day itself is not what really counts. Yes, this is the alternative PM on our national day. Perhaps we should be grateful he didn’t line up with Di ­Natale’s view that the flag should be flown at half mast on the national day.

Malcolm Turnbull, unsurprisingly, said he’d like to hear Shorten speak “proudly and passionately” about Australia Day. But Shorten has a problem, given the embrace by much of the Labor rank and file of a progressive orthodoxy ­towards changing the national day anyway and at odds with majority public opinion.

Indigenous ALP frontbencher Linda Burney stepped into this confusion, criticising the Greens, saying Australia Day won’t be changing any time soon, but highlighting the difficulty it poses for Aborigines as a day of celebration. Aware that NSW ALP policy calls for consultation about a new and separate public holiday devoted to indigenous commemoration, Burney put this idea on the table. It is not ALP policy but Burney was being constructive and her proposal merits serious consideration.

Turnbull preaches an Australia Day that brings people together and celebrates our multicultural diversity. The government has properly removed the right of local councils to hold citizenship ceremonies if they refuse to recognise Australia Day and hold citizenship ceremonies on that day. But the ­reality cannot be avoided: division over Australia Day will mount in the future and this will require astute leadership and management.

For many Aborigines, January 26 will remain invasion day, and that is understandable. But any alternative national day that commemorates British settlement or the foundation of Australia has a similar problem. The logical ­alternative of January 1 — the ­inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia — would honour an event that denied any role or existence for Aboriginals and assumed they were a dying race.

In truth there is no escape from the history — yet the historical story must be authentic, not convenient mythology. Australia was always destined to be settled by a European power. The force of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution would never be denied from the great southern land. There are few inevitabilities in history and this was inevitable.

We are fortunate the European power was Britain, not France or Spain. This was an 18th-century blessing. We are fortunate the British came not just to establish a convict colony but to bring their values and institutional ethos.

Phillip had an 18th-century faith in improvement, a belief he was founding a new British society and serving the cause of humanity. With slavery still not abolished in the empire, Phillip declared from the inception of Australia that “there can be no slavery in a free land and consequently no slaves”.

The Aborigines he encountered were not a nation state. They were a collection of hundreds of tribes speaking different lan­guages, devoid of collective political purpose or leadership, often at war with each other and without the structures to allow sovereign negotiations or dealings.

To say the British should not have come is a ludicrous denial of reality and makes as much sense as saying the early explorers should not have advanced inland to ­discover the continent. To pretend the Aborigines could or should have retained their possession of the continent forever is delusional and is a device to avoid historical reality.

The encounter between the British and the Aborigines was without precedent in human history. The idea that good intentions were enough for success is absurd. Historian Geoffrey Blainey says in first volume of his The Story of Australia’s People: “The racial conflict in Australia — nearly all would agree today — should have been handled more wisely and firmly but the British leaders lacked the political and cultural experience needed to handle a ­dilemma that was exceptional in world history. Furthermore, London at one end of the globe and Sydney and Hobart at the other end viewed the dilemma and their duties and powers, differently.”

The idea that the British ­arrivals should have negotiated a treaty is nonsense. With whom and on what basis? There is no ­answer. During the 70 years after settlement many thousands of ­Aborigines were killed by Europeans — though far more died from diseases — creating a moral legacy the nation cannot deny and must confront.

Efforts to do this have been substantial while incomplete. Witness the Reconciliation process, the Mabo case and granting of native title rights, huge though flawed public funding, and the continuing process of constitutional ­recognition.

The first Australians lost much from the events of 1788 yet they also gained much, eventually — proving that indigenous peoples could live and thrive in a modern urban society. Aborigines are poised to become more prominent in every facet of Australian life.

The related truth, however, is that as a nation we cannot pretend there is full atonement for the ­dispossession. We cannot say: “Sorry, let’s leave.” We could not do this in 1808, let alone 1901, let alone 2018. There can be no full rendering of justice, no full recompense after dispossession. History cannot be reversed.

We must honour and reflect on the history, restore Aboriginal rights, and strive for justice as much as practicable. But it cannot serve indigenous Australians to engage in perpetual grievance, to magnify the sins of the past in an endless demand for atonement and more atonement still, part of a futile quest to deny any legitimacy to January 26. That is the road to a self-defeating misery.

The bulk of the Australian population, including the millions of post-World War II immigrants and their descendants, will neither accept nor tolerate the idea that the British founding of this country was a shameful and illegitimate event. When the Greens and other progressives promote this sentiment — exploiting indigenous ­resentment for their own ideo­logical and electoral gains — there is no upside for our polity, just ­counterproductive bitterness with the risk of violence.

Where is the legitimacy in January 26? It lies in the society that evolved and continues to evolve, a nation that, for all its faults, is democratic, egalitarian, tolerant and, in per capita terms, has opened its door to immigrants on a more sustained basis than ­virtually any other developed country. This constitutes a powerful legitimacy.

It was Noel Pearson more than a decade ago, in a famous letter to John Howard, who offered the most honest and enduring framework for presenting and understanding contemporary Australia. For Pearson, the nation embodies three traditions: the indigenous peoples, the first Australians, who roamed this continent for 65,000 years, long before the ages of Babylon, Athens and Rome, finding a way to live and thrive in this environment; the British inheritance dating first from the voyages of James Cook and then from the ­initial colony under Phillip, followed eventually by Lachlan Macquarie and more settlements across the continent that led to a polity of British-derived laws, values and institutions that still operate today; and the immigrant tradition, the ethnic input from so many nations that broadened and deepened the culture and led to a multicultural nation, one of the most successful on earth.

These three traditions need formal embodiment. Pearson’s vision was adopted by Tony Abbott as PM. But it needs a more declaratory form authorised by the parliament or the people. This is a critical step in finding a national identity that is shared and inclusive and can win wide support ­because of its validity.

The issue of constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples needs to be reopened with a new process. This time there needs to be greater realism on all sides. The Turnbull cabinet rejected the final recommendation for an indigenous advisory body to be inserted into the Constitution because it believed such a referendum had no prospect of success. Those ­attacking this decision have singularly failed to offer any explanation or strategy of how such a referendum could be passed.

There have been some suggestions that the Australia Day issue can be postponed pending the ­inauguration of an Australian ­republic. That is a tempting but most unwise proposition. The ­republic will not provide the ­answer and, moreover, it is probably many years or decades away.

While the republic is a necessary step in Australia’s evolution, its cause is currently weak and devoid of energy. This is because of the ­destructive transformation in progressive politics to embrace change based on individual and group rights around sex, gender and race, a combination of tribal and narcissistic imperatives.

The republic has no voice or ­appeal in this world. It won’t change your personal life, it won’t relate to how you live, it won’t speak to your gender, sexual or ­racial identity. Paul Keating once lamented the republic had been consigned to an after-dinner conversation; these days it doesn’t even win that rating. When was the last dinner party you attended where the republic got anything more than the briefest mention?

Shorten pledges that in office he will launch a path to the republic. But that will prove immensely difficult in today’s Australia. The republic is now a token of progressive politics, nothing more. The emotions, energy and priorities of progressive politics lie ­elsewhere.

The nation must face the Australia Day issue and competing historical truths as a constitutional monarchy or not at all.

The Twilight of the Equine Gods

The horse has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability. Our story resonates with an equine leitmotif – in our dreams, our fantasies, our histories, our literature, and our movies; in our aesthetics and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty.

Hey and away we go
Through the grass, across the snow,
Big brown beastie, big brown face,
I’d rather be with you than flying through space.
Mike Oldfield, On Horseback

Pastorale

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare

What is there not to love about a horse?

Its big, brown, doe eyes; its earthy, sweaty aroma from a land somewhere between babies and barnyards; the warmth of its neck on your palm; the rough feel of its mane in your fingers; the smell and the squeak of saddle leather; the jingle-bells of the bridle. The strength you sense through your thighs; an exhilaration that is close to fear as you kick his flanks into a trot, a canter, a gallop, and whoa! and you’re never one hundred percent sure she will obey you. And then, when it’s over, the radiated heat, the damp hide, the glow of sweat, almost a mist of equine energy as you dismount after the ride. You feel wired, alive, and at one with the horse, with the land, with nature.

I first rode a horse in the late seventies, on my first visit to Australia with my first wife. Her old man was a doctor on locum in Coolah, ‘beyond of the Black Stump’, which is to say, the back of beyond (and there really WAS a black stump on the outskirts of town, for the infrequent tourist to be photographed by in pre-selfie days). A local farmer had invited us out to ride his large property, and so we rode, in the heat haze of high summer, through wide, dry, open, paddocks, mobs of roos scattering as we approached, flocks of cockatoos roosting riotously in the branches of dead trees, and flies. Yes, I learned about the “Aussie salute” that summer. I fell in love with the Australian bush then and there, the “wide brown land” of Dorothea Mackelllar’s sunburnt country“. A few years later, as a newly arrived immigrant, I would go riding again, this time with country friends in the Dungog cattle country north of Sydney.

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.

Twopence & Trigger

That was a decades ago, but living in the bush, I still feel pleasure when I see horses in their paddocks. The sight, sound, and smell strike a melodious, atavistic chord that many would  recognize as distinctively Australian. How many Aussies of a certain age would 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’.

In this centennial year of the Palestine Campaign of WWI and the gallop of the Australian Light Horse towards the strategic Beersheba wells – praised, inaccurately, as history’s last great cavalry charge, the Light Horseman and his hardy “Waler” (from New South Wales) have achieved iconic status in a media supercharged on “Anzackery”. Calmer voices have argued that on the scale of the carnage on the western front, where Diggers died in their thousands, and indeed the Gaza battle itself, where the Anzacs were a very small part of a very large army, it was really no big thing, But never let the facts get between a politician and a photo-opportunity. 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 academic and cultural scientist Ulrich Raulff’s tells us in his captivating “micro-history” Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship: 

“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”.

Farewell to the horse

It is an easy segue from my Australian pastorale to Raulff’s illuminating canter through the story of the “Centaurian Pact” between humans and horses. it is at once a ride, a revelation, and a reminiscence of my short-lived ‘cowboy’ days.

“The horse” Raulff begins, “has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant into which we have entered has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability”.

He then recounts how over the span of a few decades, a relationship that endured for six millennia went “to the dogs” – excuse my awful pet-food pun. And it happened almost unremarked, unnoticed, and unsung. “For a century, the oat-powered engine was the universal and irreplaceable power unit of the forced mechanization of the world”. And then it was gone, replaced by the internal combustion engine. And yet, the term “horsepower” is to this day a measure of the performance of vehicle engines (although now mostly replaced by kilowatts) – a horse was the equivalent of seven men.

“The twilight of the equine gods”, as Raulff describes it, was a long goodbye indeed, and in the realm of myth, memory and metaphor, horses are with us still; or as he so lyrically expresses it: “ghosts of modernity” (echoes of Dylan, in my mind, at least) that “haunt the minds of a humanity that has turned away from them”.

Like its subject, Farewell to the Horse is a handsome, wide-ranging, beast. More elegy than epitaph, eclectic and imaginative in scope, viewing the horse as muse, as mount, and as metaphor, Raulff sings the song of the horse – and if ever there was a ‘horse opera’, this is it.

Eloquently and at times poetically translated, and generously illustrated with pictures from galleries, libraries, and photo archives, Raulff takes the reader through the many worlds of the relationship. On his academic home-turf of sociology and psychology, his references are primarily German, but straying from his academic stable, he ambles into a lush and diverse pastureland of history and mythology, politics and philosophy. economics and geography, industry and commerce, physics and biology, science and medicine, sport and recreation. And art and literature: how artists and writers brought their perspectives, personas and passions onto canvas, Kodak and the printed page. In many ways, its infinite variety reminded me of English historian Simon Schama’s fascinating Landscape and Memory.

Raulff has divided his book into four broad thematic sections, each with an evocative title – The Centauran Pact, A Phantom in the Library. The Living Metaphor, and The Forgotten Player – each exploring a particular aspect of the horse’s story. But he allows himself much extempore stream of consciousness as he periodically wanders off-script with childhood reminiscences and collected anecdotes, and dips into favourite paintings, books and films. And time-travels through six thousand years, and traverses the globe too in his long ride – from the Steppes of Eurasia to the Great Plains of America, from the cities of MittelEuropa to those of the Midwest, with side trips to the Middle East and Andalusia.

It was contagious. I too got to thinking beyond the page, recalling and contemplating a miscellany of ideas and images that came to mind whilst reading, and indeed, whilst writing this review, wandering down forgotten bridle-ways (literally, a horse riding path, or trail originally created for use by horses, but often now serving a range of travelers). And is this not what a good book should do?

The Song of the Horse

The horse, the intelligent mammal, the great vegetarian, a prey animal whose strength is in flight, who has no desire or need for confrontation or quarrel. It’s speed, its main asset, enabling it to flee its predators, is also what attracted it to the attention of man, with whom it entered into a long-lived, unequal devil’s bargain. “They were able to turn the inconspicuous potential energy of tough prairie grasses, inedible to almost all other animals into the spectacular energy of a fast endurance runner. Thanks to its natural properties as a converter of energy, the horse could bear kings, Knights, female lovers and rural doctors, draw carriages and cannons, transport hordes of workers and employees, and mobilize entire nations”. And indeed, Raulff takes us on a jaunt   through these tableaux.

He quotes historian Ann Hyland: “it was a small step, albeit a brave one, for man to mount a horse”, and writes: “The comparison with the moon landing is certainly not exaggerated. The moment when man began, by domestication and breeding, to connect his fate to the horse – not with a nutritional intention, but with a vectorial aim – may have been, before the invention of writing, the narrow gate through which man entered the realm of history”.

And lo, our story resonates with an equine leitmotif.

The horse is in our dreams and our fantasies, in our literature, and our movies, in our aesthetics, and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty. From the diverse mounts that conveyed Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury to that paragon of American folk culture, the cowboy. From the rambunctious centaurs of Disney’s’ Beethoven Fantasia to the gaunt quartet bearing the seer of Patmos’ horsemen of the Apocalypse. From the teenage innocence of National Velvet and Black Beauty to Thomas Hardy and Carey Mulligan’s sensual and photogenic jaunt in the recent remake of Far From the Madding Crowd. From the patriotic jingoism of Alfred J Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and Rudyard Kipling’s East is East and West is West to Banjo Patterson’s blokey bush ballad The Man From Snowy River, which I have quoted above (and will reprise below). The horse has even entered into the invented worlds of science fiction, with Joss Whedon’s rollicking space-pirate adventure, Firefly, and more recently, Westworld with its Wild West theme park populated by lifelike android cowboys and Indians on their robot horses.

Westworld

[If I have one small quibble about Farewell to the Horse, it is in its Eurocentricity. The Land Down Under doesn’t rate a mention even though the horse has played an important role in the evolution of Australia’s perceived national identity – “perceived” because here too, we are captive to that “powerful myth” that Raulff believes subverts fact]

Whilst drawing cleverly on the arts – and the book is well-furnished with illustrations that are  well spoken to in the text – Raulff does not venture into poetry, where there are to be found many wonderful images. Take but a few examples drawn from just one poem, and marvel at the metaphors in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Boys Own’ tale of a young British officer tracking down a daring Pathan bandit:

The Colonel’s son has taken horse, and a raw rough dun was he,
With the mouth of a bell and the heart of Hell and the head of a gallows-tree”.

“It’s up and over the Tongue of Jagai, as blown dust-devils go,
The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe.
The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above,
But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove”.

“They have ridden the low moon out of the sky, their hoofs drum up the dawn,
The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the mare like a new-roused fawn”.

And, of course, there are the songs. There’s the doomed Texan troubadour Townes van Zandt’s enigmatic anti-hero:

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
Pancho and Lefty

And whilst Raulff includes a poignant picture of a lone, pedestrian cowboy carrying his saddle through the scrub like a mariner lost on the land, he doesn’t mention Leonard Cohen’s bereft and distraught cowpoke :

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

But more from St. Leonard of Montreal later…

Frederic Remington’s Bronco

A Phantom Limb

The horse’s glory days may be over, but the echoes of a long and fruitful relationship linger in our lines and in our language – in our idioms and our figures of speech: like, “getting back in the saddle”, “pulling the reins” and “taking the reins”, “champing at the bit”, “gaining the whip hand”, and the timeless put-down, “get off your high horse!” Phrases such as these are used everyday by people who have never been physically close to a horse let alone ridden one, and whose visual encounters are limited to country outings, circuses, televised equestrian events and westerns (in Australia, as in the US, we can still enjoy country fairs and carnivals that feature rodeos and endurance rides).

And note that these usages are somehow connected to power, control, and aggression – and often, casual, almost matter-of-fact violence (the idea of being “horse-whipped”) – violence inflicted not only on humans but on the animals too.

Raulff asks: Why is it that the most powerful visual images of horses are in their warrior role?  Does it not say more about ourselves than what was genetically a passive, docile, tame-able (we call it “breaking”) grazer?

Equestrian Statues

Salah ud Din al Ayubi, Damascus

The horse has a complex and varied curriculum vitae. For six millennia, it has been our dependable beast of burden, the bearer of people, packages and progress, shrinking distance and opening up new lands. But it has also been the agent of power, politics and pogroms. A bearer of great ideas, and also of great tyrants.

The horse has long been a living metaphor of power – the absolute political metaphor, indeed.

“The combination of horse and rider is a powerful symbol of domination, and one of the oldest in the book”. The caudillo, the martial “man on horseback” so beloved of painters and sculptors – and of putative dictators (although Stalin and Hitler, Raulff reminds us, despised horses). There’s Alexander the Great on Bucephalus, defeating Darius; David’s conquering Napoleon crossing the Alps; bodacious Boudicca reining in her chariot steeds on The Embankment. To be physically and violently unhorsed is to be taken down literally and figuratively. Hence Richard III’s anguished “my kingdom for a horse”, and George Armstrong Custer and the men of the Seventh Cavalry demountd and doomed on Last Stand Hill.

The rise of the horse changes the position of the people and along with it, their view of the world around them – what Raulff calls the ‘cavalier perspective’. It is rooted in an age-old fantasy of the fusion of man and beast, from centaur to chevalier. The unfortunate Aztecs believed the mounted conquistadors to be half man half beast. That dismissive rebuke “get off your high horse” echoes a primal fear of the mounted marauder, be he the Scythian archer, the Mongol warrior, the rogue knight or the Red Indian (“savage” he was called back in the day) of the Great Plains. Recall the Cossacks lining up on the snow-covered square, about to charge the defenseless marchers in David Lean’s Dr Zhivago. Recall the Dothraki, screaming their war cries, thundering down on the doomed Lannister infantry. “We still see traces of horses’ archaic role as inspirers of terror when required to intimidate picketing workers or to drive rallies of protesters out of shopping precincts”.

Something wicked this way comes – Clive Owen’s Slav King Arthur

During his travels, Raulff visited Israel, where he chanced to observe ultra-orthodox Jews protesting against their youth being conscripted into the Israeli Defense Force. Jerusalem authorities mobilized mounted police officers against the recalcitrant religious. He indulges in pogrom projection, imagining the Haredim being intimated by a Cossack Shtetl flashback. Fanciful, perhaps, but as a young man during the Vietnam demonstrations in London’s Grosvenor Square, I learned that there’s no greater killer of revolutionary passion than the sight of than a wall of fat horse’s arses backing towards you with those nervous hooves a’twitching.

And yet, the use of the horse in this manner forces it to go against its nature, trained to stand its ground in dangerous circumstances when all its instincts are to flee danger. Ostensible police brutality in Grosvenor Square was juxtaposed by the reality that police horses were stabbed by banners and tripped and stoned with glass marbles. Several were so injured that they had to be euthanized.

Horse meets Haredim in Jerusalem

…and meanwhile, in the other side of town

 The Wide Open Spaces

The power bestowed upon men by horses is much more than such authoritarian, martial muscle. The horse enabled landsmen to conquer what Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey called “the tyranny of distance”. For Rudyard Kipling’s “fluttered folk and wild”, it ushered in a tyranny of a malevolent kind.

The horse-led conquests of European and Asian empires during the second millennium BCE by the chariots and later, cavalry of the horse-people disgorging from the steppes like some equestrian blitzkrieg, transformed world history. They brought their political structures, their warfare, their masculine, spiritual character – their “asabiyyeh” or, literally “muscle” as famed Arab historian Ibn Khaldun put it. The Eurasian nomadic warrior, “that ‘natural born’ combatant, who, as tough and austere as his resilient horse, emerged as the terror of the sedentary populations of Europe and the orient”. The same could be said of the warriors of Islam as they erupted out of their Arabian heartland and reached the walls of Constantinople and the frontiers of the Franks.

One powerful factor in these invasions was the horsemen’s speed. “In every contemporary account of the Mongols, great stress is laid on their speed: suddenly they were there, only to vanish and appear somewhere else even more suddenly”. The alliance between man, horse, and the arrow was likewise significant, providing the ability to kill from a distance, whilst moving, on horseback.

“Thanks to the horse, distant territories could be conquered and vast dominions could be established. The horse and its rider made the land they traversed tangible, recognizable, and able to be taken”. The horse became indispensable in terms of control of the land, subduing its inhabitants, and enabling Its exploration. In America, it brought the conquistadors, and in time, ensured that The West was won with catastrophic consequences for the native Americans with the loss their land and hunting grounds .

A Day at the Races

Our pact with the horse was much more up more than the power and the glory, the conquest and the trail-blazing. Horses’ fleetness, stamina and beauty satisfied other, more hedonistic yearnings, and today, their days on the field of battle long over, they serve to give us pleasure – and profit.

And they have always done thus – particularly in the antecedents and descendants of the Ancient Greek hippodrome (named thus for horses and the racing thereof). In the downtime between warring and raiding, hunting and horse and chariot racing attracted many a warrior’s energy and enthusiasm, and provided  less martial spectators with, vicarious thrills. We have been racing horses for as long as they have been our companions, and wagering on their speed and stamina. This passion fostered complementary endeavours in breeding, training, thieving, and gambling.

The racing carnival still exerts an atavistic, ofttimes addictive spell over riders, owners and punters alike. “The spectacle of race day echoes times and indeed conflicts past, the jockeys’ bright colours, representing a return of heraldry, a way of distinguishing otherwise indiscernible participants”.

It’s there you’ll see the jockeys and they’re mounted out so stately,
The pink, the blue, the orange and green, the emblem of our nation,
When the bell was rung for starting, all the horses seemed impatient,
I thought they never stood on ground their speed was so amazing
Galway Races (Ireland, traditional)

In horse racing, nothing and no one is hunted, only the shadows of time”, Raulff notes prosaicly.

American author EC Morgan is similarly lyrical: “Time is a horse you never have to whip”,

In That Howling Infinite recently published a review of Morgan’s masterwork The Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about an old Kentucky horse-breeding family. She displays an unerring instinct for metaphor and music. A horse’s neck shudders under its rider’s hands “like a dreaming dog”. Of the racehorses, she writes: “they exploded out of the gate like doves from a cote”; and, “now the school of horses swung round the turn as if caught in a sweep net”.

Raulff explains why horse racing was indeed ‘the sport of kings: Britain emerged as the world power of thoroughbred racing under the racIng-mad Stuart Kings who transformed the sleepy village of Newmarket into the Mecca of the turf, supplanting hunting with punting as the favourite pastime of the idle rich and the indolent upper classes. When Scots King James wasn’t corralling and coaxing the best minds in the land into producing his beautiful Bible, he was both patron and participant with a keen eye for quality horse-flesh.

Teenage Daydream

Did I mention that horses can be dangerous? They are large, high, broad, heavy, and for all their tameness in the hands of a seasoned rider, they can also be excitable, unpredictable, and wild.  When you take up the reins, you literally put your life in your hands. In My Early Life , his biography of his cavalry days, Winston Churchill wrote: “No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle. Young men have often been ruined by owning horses, or through backing horses, but never through riding them, unless, of course, they break their necks, which, taken at a gallop, is a very good way to die”.

But danger can come in other guises.

There was probably no way a cultural scientist trained in sociology and psychology could or would avoid how in its variegated pedigree, the horse has also figured as a sexual metaphor, conjuring up thoughts erotic with images of fair maids carried away by amorous riders. Raulff’s copious images include those famous abduction scenes beloved of renaissance painters, but there are many encounters in literature, art, cinema and song that are much less violent. It is as if the rider’s skill with his mount presages his prowess in the sack. There is titillation, there is temptation, and perhaps, surrender. Picture Ross Poldark cantering broodily across the Cornish clifftop, and lifting his Demelza up onto Seamus’ back (that is indeed his name).

True you ride the finest horse I’ve ever seen,
Standing sixteen one or two with eyes wild and green,
And you ride the horse so well, hands light to the touch.
I could never go with you no matter how I wanted to.
Jimmy McCarthy, Ride On (listen to the song at the end end of this post)

Ross Poldark and Seamus

Ulrich gets into his stride, so to speak, when he commits to print his daydreams of the object of many a teenage baby boomers’ longing, the androgynous, pony-tailed cow-girl. He ponders also the puzzle of pubescent girls and horses – that tom-boy world, temporary “islands in the flowing river of time”: “Somewhere between a doll and a real-life partner, the horse is the ultimate sex toy. It’s the largest, most beautiful and final plaything before the transition from home and family to a new relationship with a sexual partner”.

Arwen Evenstar

Having raised the subject of women on horseback, there no ignoring the Amazons. Legend says that they were adept horse-women. As are the heroines of the literary canon who express their subversive sexuality in equestrian interludes – Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene. Each are subjected to the author’s affectionate attention. When JRR Tolkien wanted to present a strong and wilful heroine in his ostensibly homoerotic epic, he placed Éowyn on a horse, albeit incognito. But she was the exception to JRR’s macho rule. He would never have sent elf princess Arwen Evenstar out like that. But director Peter Jackson, sensing how well it would translate to film, substituted the luminous Liv Tyler for elf lord Glorfindel to confound the Nazgul riders at the ford of Bruinen.  Here is a Carey Mulligan in glamorous array as Bathsheba:

The Unequal Bargain

There are wealth of emotions associated with horses, such as pride and admiration, a desire for power, fear and joy, compassion, and companionship, and a lust for freedom. The pony is the cowboys’ closest pal. Western star and crooner Roy Rogers described it best:

Who carries your burden, who carries your load
On tumbleweed land or a long dusty road
Who asks you no questions, who tells you no lies
That four legged friend with the two honest eyes
A four legged friend, a four legged friend
He’ll never let you down
He’s honest and faithful right up to the end
That wonderful four legged friend
Roy Rogers, A Four Legged Friend (listen to the song at the end end of this post)

Over two millennia  we have lavished depthless emotion, boundless affection and unlimited treasure upon horses. But we have also been capable of great cruelty both casual and calculated,  – from willful neglect and senseless whipping to silent sacrifice as expendable extras on battlefields and motion picture sets. Raulff documents in prose and picture the violence inflicted upon our “four legged friend”, and also how pathos and sympathy for the horses’ plight evolved into a worldwide movement for the prevention of cruelty to all creatures great and small.

That very same Banjo Paterson who gave us the Snowy Mountain man’s famous ride also glorifying the race track – and yet the annual Melbourne Cup,  Australia’s ‘race that stops a nation’, sees horses killed every year. we as a nation continue to praise and perpetuate what many see as animal cruelty. In Paterson’s day, horses were valuable and relied upon for transport and pleasure – theft was common – yet they were treated appallingly. Read The Man From Snowy River and reflect on the agony the hero inflicts upon his mount, which could barely move by the end of the ride and ‘was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur’. Yet Banjo, like apologists for the deaths on the track today – suggests that the horse was reveling in the chase.

But  horses’ iconic place in our hearts and souls are sealed by their status as mobile metaphors of speed, of grace, of the wind in one’s hair, of wild, exhilarating, uninhibited freedom: “Run wild, run free”, like the troubled teen and the wild blue-eyed white colt in the 1969 British film of that name.

And it is with this in mind that Raulff concludes his epic ride, for it  is one of the most poignant paradoxes that the idea of freedom and movement associated with horses and being on horseback, the image of the wild mustangs in The Misfits and Banjo Paterson’s Colt from Old Regret, is juxtaposed with the reality that this “creature of the wind”, as the Arabs described him, has surrendered her freedom and free will in the service of man.

Quoting the poet Albrecht Schaefer, Raulff tells of how “the horse knows that it would like to be free … but the burden is never ending, and it is rarely allowed to run and has to stand there even when it is frightened and when it is seized by the urge to return to its nature, to flee … It is trapped in eternal captivity, always overshadowed by an inescapable will to which it resigns itself without ever realizing”.

This magnificent animal, Raulff  writes, “held in perpetual captivity, is seen by us as the epitome of all in nature that embodies nobility and magnanimity, stature, pride, and courage”.

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare


 Epilogue

The Troubled Trail – an equine parable 

When the white man came into the new world, he brought his horses. He conquered the land and broke it – its ecology, its  pre-Colombian history, and its people.

In the early years, the horses of the conquistadors humbled and harried the Native Americans. In time, many horses scattered and ran wild, and on the open prairie grasslands, they prospered and multiplied. The free people of the plains captured and tamed those feral mustangs, and so mounted, were better able to travel over great distances to fresh pastures and to the wide grazing grounds of the vast herds of buffalo, a rich source of food and fashion.

The horse gave the Native Americans mobility and speed, and an economic asset of value. They began trading horses with their neighbours, and also horse stealing, whilst their mounts gave them the edge in their territorial vendettas with neighbouring tribes. They bought steel axes and knives From the white traders who ventured into their lands from the east, and also, firearms which augmented their already effective mounted archery. This gave them a tactical edge when they first came up against the mounted soldiers of the US Army.

They were a formidable foe, their speed and maneuverability and their skill with bow and rifle, were more than a match for the clumsy, old-school heavy cavalry, and these, indeed, were compelled to adjust their own style and tactics to match their guerrilla adversaries, taking up light weapons – carbines and revolvers – and fighting on foot as circumstances dictated.

The irony of the Battle of Little Big Horn is that George Armstrong Custer and his men rode on to a battlefield in which they were out-horsed, outgunned, and outmaneuvered by their numerically stronger foe. But the US Army exacted a terrible revenge for Little Big Horn. The days of the Plains Indian were numbered as the army and the hunters destroyed the buffalo herds that fed and clothed the tribes, and killed their horses, ending forever their wandering ways. As Neil Young was later to sing in Pocahontas:

They killed us in our tepee
And they cut our women down
They might have left some babies
Cryin’ on the ground
But the firesticks and the wagons come
And the night falls on the setting sun

Frederic Remington’s Braves


The Ballad of the Absent Mare

Leonard Cohen 

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray
But the river’s in flood
And the roads are awash
And the bridges break up
In the panic of loss.

And there’s nothing to follow
There’s nowhere to go
She’s gone like the summer
Gone like the snow
And the crickets are breaking
His heart with their song
As the day caves in
And the night is all wrong

Did he dream, was it she
Who went galloping past
And bent down the fern
Broke open the grass
And printed the mud with
The iron and the gold
That he nailed to her feet
When he was the lord

And although she goes grazing
A minute away
He tracks her all night
He tracks her all day
Oh blind to her presence
Except to compare
His injury here
With her punishment there

Then at home on a branch
In the highest tree
A songbird sings out
So suddenly
Ah the sun is warm
And the soft winds ride
On the willow trees
By the river side

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky

And she comes to his hand
But she’s not really tame
She longs to be lost
He longs for the same
And she’ll bolt and she’ll plunge
Through the first open pass
To roll and to feed
In the sweet mountain grass

Or she’ll make a break
For the high plateau
Where there’s nothing above
And there’s nothing below
And it’s time for the burden
It’s time for the whip
Will she walk through the flame
Can he shoot from the hip

So he binds himself
To the galloping mare
And she binds herself
To the rider there
And there is no space
But there’s left and right
And there is no time
But there’s day and night

And he leans on her neck
And he whispers low
“Whither thou goest
I will go”
And they turn as one
And they head for the plain
No need for the whip
Ah, no need for the rein

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair

But my darling says
“Leonard, just let it go by
That old silhouette
On the great western sky”
So I pick out a tune
And they move right along
And they’re gone like the smoke
And they’re gone like this song

 

Grosvenor Square, London 1968

Poll Tax Riots, London 1990

Grosvenor Square 1968

The Watchers Of The Water

A song about Gallipoli, sung by a Turkish soldier

Back in the last century, before ANZAC Day became the secular Christmas that it has become, before marketing people and populist politicians saw its commercial and political potential, before the fatal shore became a crowded place of annual pilgrimage, my Turkish friend, the late Naim Mehmet Turfan, gave me a grainy picture of a Turkish soldier at Gelibolu carrying a large howitzer shell on his back. Then there was this great film by Australian director Peter Weir, starring young Mel Gibson and Mark Lee. There were these images of small boats approaching a dark and alien shore, of Lighthorsemen sadly farewelling their Walers as they embarked as infantry, and of the doomed Colonel Barton humming along to a gramophone recording of Bizet’s beautiful duet from The Pearl Fishers, ‘Au fond du temple saint’ before joining his men in the forlorn hope of The Nek.

There were other melodies I could never quite get out of my head. One I first heard in a musical in Beirut before that magical city entered its Dark Ages  –  Al Mahatta, written by the famous Rabbani Brothers and starring the Lebanese diva Fayrouz. And The Foggy Dew, one of the most lyrical and poignant of the Irish rebel songs:

Right proudly high over Dublin town, they hung out the flag of war. ‘Twas better to die ‘neath that Irish sky than at Suvla or at Sud el Bar…Twas England bade our Wild Geese go that small nations might be free,  But their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves or the fringe of the grey North Sea.

Over three thousand Irishmen died at Gallipoli.

The song grew out of these many inspirations.

It was first performed in public by HuldreFolk in the closing concert of Coffs Harbour Folk Festival at the RSL on Australia Day 1984. When we had finished, there was absolutely silence in the hall. Then a voice cried out “the sky didn’t fall down!”, and the hall erupted with applause.

Some Notes on Gallipoli and the Anzacs for readers unfamiliar with the history. 

Monday 25th April is Australia and New Zealand’s national day of remembrance for all Anzac solders killed and wounded in their nation’s wars, and to honour servicemen and women past and present. At first, the Anzacs fought in the British Empire’s Wars, beginning with the Boer War, and then through two World Wars. From the mid -twentieth century, they have fought and died in what could ostensibly be called America’s wars even though these were waged under UN, EU or western alliance auspices: Korea, Gulf Wars II and III, Afghanistan, and the current interventions in Syria and Iraq. Incidentally, Australian veterans are presently commanding mercenary forces hired by the Gulf coalition that is laying waste to towns and villages in Yemen (with the help of American and British weaponry).

At the heart of the Anzac Day remembrance is the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ role the Dardanelles campaign of 1915-16, Winston Churchill’s grandiose and ill-conceived plan to take the Ottoman Empire out of the war by seizing the strategic strait between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, thereby threatening Istanbul, the Ottoman capital. It was a military failure. From the initial seaborne assault to the evacuation, it lasted eight months and cost 114,000 lives with 230,000 wounded.

Gallipoli is cited as the crucible of Australian nationhood, but the Anzacs’ part in the doomed campaign was but a sideshow of the wider campaign. Although it is celebrated in Australian song and story, it was the Ottomans’ most significant victory in the war that was to destroy the seven hundred year old Ottoman Empire secure the reputation of its most successful general Mustafa Kemal, who as Ataturk, became the founder of modern Turkey.

Some thirty four thousand British soldiers died on the peninsula, including 3,400 Irishmen, and ten thousand Frenchmen – many of these latter being “colonial” troops from West and North Africa. Australia lost near on ten thousand and NZ three. Some 1,400 Indian soldiers perished for the King Emperor. Fifty seven thousand allied soldiers died, and seventy five thousand were wounded. The Ottoman army lost fifty seven thousand men, and one hundred and seven thousand were wounded (although these figures are probably much higher). An overlooked fact is that some two thirds of the “Turkish” solders in Kemal’s division were actually Arabs from present day Syrian and Palestine. Gallipoli was indeed a multicultural microcosm of a world at war.

Whilst the flower of antipodean youth is said to have perished on Gallipoli’s fatal shore, this was just the overture. Anzac troops were despatched to the Western Front, and between 1919 and 1918, 45,000 Aussies died there and 124,000 were wounded.

There are abundant primary and secondary sources relating to the Dardanelles campaign and the Anzacs, but here is a wiki primer: Gallipoli Campaign

And here is HukdreFolk’s rendering of Russian poet Yevtushenko’s account of the parade of German prisoners of war through the streets of Moscow in 1941, juxtaposed with The Watchers of the Water.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.