Ironically, one of my favourite songs about working, Bruce Springsteen’s Factory, was written by a bloke who by his own admission has never done a day’s manual labour for wages in his life. But as for myself, I sometimes feel that I have worked all my life. When I’m busily shoveling soil into a wheelbarrow and tipping it into our garden beds, I imagine that I was born with a shovel in my hands. After all, that’s what my Irish father was doing on the building sites of Birmingham while I was being conceived, gestated, born, and brought up in the first decade of my life.
The Cubs and Boy Scouts’ Bob A Job Week taught me the basics of “working for others” and getting paid for it. Weeding and cleaning and shopping, mostly. I hated it, not least because it took up most of our Easter school holidays, but it was an early lesson in duty and toiling for a cause.
As a schoolie in sixties I just had to have hit parade LPs and singles and Airfix kits and the pocket money provided by my folks did not go that far. So while other kids did paper rounds and helped out in local shops, I worked Friday nights and Saturday morning stacking shelves and cutting boxes in a Sainsbury supermarket on Stratford Road. Later, when my existential needs extended to clothes, books, and beer, a school chum got me a gig on Saturdays and school holidays in the food hall of the now defunct Rackhams department store – it was snobbishly upmarket for Brum, being a division of the famous Harrods of London, and us weekend lads had to wear naff little white waiter’s jackets which did not flatter my then portly (by sixties standards, but relatively svelte today) physique.
Rackhams Department Store, Birmingham
On the recommendation of my uncle, I worked for Sheldon Industrial Cleaning on Sundays at various Midlands motor plants, cleaning toilets and floors before the beginning of the weekday shifts. Willing hands would stand outside the Sheldon office in Digbeth hoping to be selected by the foremen and bussed to our workplace, be that in Brum, Coventry or Rugby. Come the long summer school break, when the motor industry workers took their holidays, I and other students would be hired to help with the annual stock-take at the huge Austin plant at Longbridge. One time, I was assigned to help demolish a computer room that was being renovated and upgraded. The old computer was the size and shape of a larger container, and the new one wasn’t much smaller. The iPad I am writing this piece on has probably more processing power.
The Austin, Longbridge, Birmingham
By 1967, I was a fit and adventurous eighteen year old, but still in need of cash. Summertime in the outdoors was an attractive prospect, and labourers’ pay on building sites was excellent for the times – up to fifty quid a week depending on the work, and which, I soon found out, included “danger money”.
So, for four summers in a row, I spent three months a year working on the new housing estates that were going up all over the fringes of suburban Brum, and most conveniently, near where we lived, on the new estate on what was the old Bromford Race course near Castle Bromwich – high rise flats for Briant on the Bromford, system-built houses on the Chelmsley Wood estate (built on a redundant wartime airfield – there is still a Spitfire Way leading into the estate), and finally on the M1-M6 motorway link at Castle Bromwich with Marples Ridgeway. Inspired by the Clancy Brothers’ folk song, I wanted to join McAlpine’s Fusiliers, but that mob were working down the emerging motorway in what was to become Spaghetti Junction whilst M-R was operating right in from of my parents’ house, building the elevated motorway right on top of the River Tame. I built muscles, risked life and limb, and acquired a great sun-tan.
Bromford Bridge Racecourse
System-built housing on Birmingham’s fringes. I lived in one of these.
Chelmsley Wood council estate as God would have seen it
Another God’s eye view of Chelmsley Wood council estate
Work “on the buildings” was hard, and the hours were long, and I got to meet some great blokes and some right arseholes – my workmates came from all over the United Kingdom – particularly the Emerald Isle, the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean -the language was colourful and and conversation was often what we’d now describe as as racist and misogynist. I unloaded bags of cement and thousands of house-bricks by hand, dug trenches, and sledge-hammered survey stakes and learnt many things that most students did not, like using kangos and jackhammers, driving tractors, pouring skips of concrete and fixing reinforcement steel.
But those were dangerous days on the construction sites. There was minimal health and safety regulation – helmets were optional and hi-vis had yet to be invented – I witnessed many accidents during my stints on the sites, many serious and some fatal, and I narrowly missed a few myself. Job security was tenuous – most of us “navies” were hired “on the lump”, and could be “put off” on the spot, and if it rained, we weren’t paid.
Building the M1-M6 link motorway through north Birmingham
My folks were none too happy about it. My dad had come over from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland in the late forties and had worked on building sites in Birmingham for years before finding work in the motor industry. He still bore the scars and the aches and pains. Having worked so hard to give me and my brothers an education and opportunities that they never had, it was a disappointment for them to see my brother and I head off every morning in work clothes and with lunch boxes, and returning ten hours later tired, dirty and aching with blistered hands, tired limbs and sore feet. They couldn’t fully comprehend that we did it for quick money and not for a living.
But the money was good, and during my uni years, I was able to spend up big on books and clothes, booze and dope, with enough left over to finance my travels to the Mediterranean and then overland to India and back – it lasted until I finally reached Istanbul, when I had to call my folks for money to ge me back to England.
My days “on the buildings” inspired many of my songs, poems and prose, though few recordings and documents now exist. One song that has been uploaded to SoundCloud is The King of the May, and is published below. It tells how in the early ‘seventies, a man staged a ‘sit-in’ atop a tower crane. High over London Town, he was protesting against ‘the lump’, that exploitative form of casual labour then in use on British building sites as I noted abi ‘‘em there was no compo, no OH&S, no rights. They were tough times – men died. I was there. The title comes from Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Kral Majalis’. Allen was actually crowned thus in Czechoslovakia – before the Prague Spring of 1968 too. And thank you to WH Auden for the loan of his lyrics. I republish also below two poems I wrote about work when I was on the nine-to-five hamster wheel in Sydney during the eighties. And below two are two prose pieces I wrote about working on the Chelmsley Wood housing estate in 1969. They reflect on the kind of work I was doing, the people I worked with, and the stare I’d mind I was in at the time – which was decidedly under the influence of my politics and also my acid.
My short career as a labourer effectively ended on the motorway. In the years that followed I entered into clerical and then professional employment in the public and private sectors, although between jobs and also, to make some extra money, I cleaned, gardened, and even worked as a hired hand at Persian carpet auctions holding up beautiful artifacts that I could never afford for punters to lay their money down … And I sang and played my songs across Australia and Britain, including many about my work, my work, my working life …
Early in the morning factory whistle blows Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light It’s the working, the working, just the working life Bruce Springsteen
In 1839, in the midst of a half-century of post-Napoleonic political ferment and incipient revolution, English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword”, implying that the written word is more effective than violence as a tool for communicating a point. It’s no wonder that the straighteners, the autocrats and the fundamentalists want to ban and even burn books. In his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953 at the height of America’s McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunts, Ray Bradbury wrote: “The problem in our country isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them”.
But, encouragingly, reports of the demise of the written word in the form of the humble published book are exaggerated and premature.
Which brings us to keepers of the flame – the torch of knowledge and not the bearers of the fore-brands, the people who look after our public libraries. Oscar-winning documentary-maker Michael Moore once said admiringly that librarians were a more dangerous group than he had realized: “You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re, like, plotting the revolution, man.”
To the American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, libraries were temples of learning and self-improvement. “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people,” said Carnegie, who put his money where his mouth was. By 1929, he had paid for the construction of more than 2500 libraries, most of them in the USA.
Back in the day …
I reckon I was visiting libraries even before I could read, but that could well be my mind playing tricks on my memory. But once I commenced grammar school, the local library, but a short walk away, was a world of wonders. Yardley Wood Library, in south Birmingham on the quiet northerly extension of busy Highfield Road, between a small housing estate of postwar prefabs on the east and a large expanse of recreation field at its rear, was the fount of my early education and my general knowledge of the outside world. As a teen, I’d stay weekends at my Aunt Mary’s house in the inner city on the border of Moseley and Balsall Heath, and the Victorian grandeur and shadowy interior of Balsall Heath Library became yet another “garden of earthly delights”. This library is the featured picture of this post. The tall chimney on the left belongs to the immediately adjacent Balsall Heath swimming baths, where my uncles and aunts who shared our home would take their weekly baths (even if they didn’t need them, as the old saw goes), where I’d go in my weekend sleep-overs,and where when struggling with my Boy Scout swimming test, I’d push myself through the pool. Although I now live in a land blessed with beautiful beaches, I still hate being in water any deeper than my bath!
Yardley Wood Library, Birmingham
I’d browse the stacks, thumbing through art books and atlases, encyclopedias and illustrations, and I’d always have three or four books on loan, with a particular interest in history, biographies and historical fiction. My reading was eclectic ab initio, from the early adolescent “he went with … “ great explorer adventures by Louse Andrews Kent and the many books of H Rider Haggard, both quite politically incorrect and vulnerable to ‘cancellation’ in today’s prescriptive cultural climate, to the relatively anodyne French ‘soft-porn’ of Anne Golon’s Angélique series to Mikhail Sholokhov’s AndQuiet Flows the Don and its sequel The Don Flows Home to the Sea, which introduced me to Russian history and politics and a youthful dalliance with The Communist Manifesto and the Communist Party.
Eventually, as I studied for A Levels in the late ‘sixties, I entered Birmingham’s cavernous Central Library in the heart of the Second City. Opening in 1865 and rebuilt in 1882: it was a magnificent edifice within and without. I recall it when I rewatch the Game of Thrones episode in which would-meister Sam Tarly enters the Citadel in Old Town for the first time. This Victorian relic was replaced by a brand new, brutalist building in 1974 (which I never saw), and this too was closed in 2013 and replaced by the present Birmingham Library – which I visited when I was in Birmingham two years later.
Birmingham Central Library
The interior of Birmingham Central Library
The William Shakespeare Room reconstructed atop the new BirminghamLibrary, 2015
My alma mater, Moseley Grammar School boasted a small but diverse library that beckoned during lunch breaks, with its high, wooden-beamed ceiling, it’s wrought iron balcony and the spiral staircase that led up to the landmark school tower in subsequent years, the library was closed for safety reasons, but a recently completed renovation project has brought it back into use as the photo of former pupils gathered therein on the occasion of Heritage Day 2022 shows.
I’ve written fleetingly of this library before: “ It was one of those beautiful late-spring evenings that you would get in the England of youthful memory. The evening sun poured through the gothic stained glass windows of the school library – it was one of those schools. A group of lower sixth lads, budding intellectuals all, as lower sixth tended to be, gathered for a ‘desert island disks” show-and tell of their favourite records. Mine was Wishin’ and Hopin’ (by (Dusty Springfield). Then it was on to the next. Clunk, hiss, electric guitar intro, and: “My love she speaks like silence, without ideas or violence, she doesn’t have to say she’s faithful, but she’s true like ice, like fire…” I was gone, far gone. So was Dusty”. From Whats Bob Got To Do With It?
It is one of those instances of serendipity we encounter on our journey through life that the first serious love of my life was studying to be … drum roll! …a librarian, and in time became the chief librarian of a major English university, whilst one of my oldest London friends rose to a that position in the university I attended in the ‘seventies. How about that?
Moseley Grammar School, Birmingham
Moseley Grammar School library, 2022
Here in the now …
In Australia, if attendance figures are any indication, the public library is our most valued cultural institution. In the year to July 2018, about 7.6 million people visited Australian libraries – more than went to museums (6.7 million), art galleries (6.3 million), plays (3.9 million) or musicals and opera (3.5 million). But it was the return rate that really set libraries apart. Whereas at least half of those who visited museums or the theatre went only once in the year, three-quarters of library visitors went back at least three times, and one-third visited more than 10 times. Australians make about 114 million visits to public libraries annually.
Here where I now live in Australia, on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, Coffs Harbour library is the mother ship with satellites at the outlying townships of Woolgoolga and Toormina – latter is named for Taormina in Sicily, the site of one of the most famous theatres of Greek antiquity. Our own shire has libraries in Bellingen, Dorrigo and Urunga.
I get to the library every time I’m in Coffs Harbour, just to browse the stacks (there is something there for everyone) and check out the history books – as ever – and the large collection of cds. I almost always come away with something I had not intended to read or listen too. It’s a calm and peaceful space, with friendly and helpful staff, and yet always quite busy – particularly at its free computer and wi-fi benches.
As a volunteer with Settlement Services International, before Covid 19 closed our office and cut the flow of refugees to Australia, I often took newly-arrived refugee families there as part of their orientation. I’d help them enroll and give them a brief tour of the facilities, and particularly the computers and the children’s section (which hosts regular and free storytelling and craft sessions for preschools kiddies), and encourage them to return – it’s such an excellent introduction to our language, society and culture.
Coffs Harbour Library
As the following essay shows, libraries are much much more than their books and their educational and technical resources and facilities. They are not just a reference service but also a place for the vulnerable and the lonely, a “shelter from the storm” for people of all ages and circumstances. In a world where social and community services are being ground down, and loneliness and isolation are endemic, libraries provide vital lifelines for all manner of folk. from elderly people who value the human interaction with library staff and with other visitors, to the isolated young mother who enjoys the support and friendship that grows from a baby rhyme time session, to people who want to play the ukulele (visitors can actually borrow ukuleles as one would borrow books), to people like me just seeking time out time in a peaceful and welcoming space.
I wrote recently about Moseley Grammar School in an article on JRR Tolkien:
“Learning more about the author, I was to discover that he’d grown up in Birmingham, my home town, first in leafy Edgbaston (the home of Cadbury and the Warwickshire County Cricket Club), where he’d attended the prestigious King Edward’s Grammar School – my own school, Moseley Grammar, was not in its league. He lived near Sarehole Mill, in present day Hall Green, around the turn of century, between the ages four and eight, and would have seen it from his house. The locale at that time was rural Worcestershire farmland and countryside and not in the Birmingham ‘burbs. He has said that he used the mill as a location in The Lord of the Rings for the Mill at Hobbiton: “It was a kind of lost paradise … There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill … “ Sarehole Mill was just down the road from my school, and our sports field and cross country tracks were adjacent to it. On many a wintry, cold, wet and windy Wednesday afternoon, I’d stagger past it on a muddy track. How I hated wet Wednesdays; dry ones were for rugby, and I hated them too!” From: One ring to rule us all – does Tolkein matter?
With the rise of the internet, public libraries were supposed to be on borrowed time. But they’re thriving – their renaissance as much about community as the literary riches they contain. It’s enough to make you Dewey-eyed.
By Jane Cadzow, Sydney Morning Herald, September 28th 2019
Don Royce had an exceptionally happy marriage. “I was the luckiest person I knew,” says the 72-year-old former school principal. When his wife, Laura, died in 2016, Royce felt as if the ground had gone from beneath his feet: “We had been together for nearly 50 years, and suddenly my life … It was like I went over a cliff.” What saved him, or at least cushioned his fall, was his local library.
Australia has about 1500 public lending libraries. Royce, who lives in the Victorian city of Geelong, is one of the nine million of us – more than one-third of the population – who are card-carrying library members. When Laura was alive, he would duck in, grab a few books or magazines, and head home. After her death, he was in less of a hurry. “I wasn’t loitering at the library,” he says, “but I was spending more time there than I had.”
He discovered that his library and others in Geelong offered free tuition on a range of subjects, from tracing family history to efficiently operating a laptop, and he started signing up for classes: “They were useful information sessions. And they were valuable distractions.” Having somewhere to be at a particular time forced him out of bed in the mornings, and into the world. “It just got me up and about.”
Since then, Royce has recovered his equilibrium. He is back to being an occasional rather than constant visitor to the library, but whenever he goes, he is struck anew by how cheering the place is. “Young mothers with their babies meet there,” he says. “I walk past the open windows and see some old guy with a bunch of young people playing chess.” What Royce understands is that local libraries have many different purposes. People go to them for company as well as for literature. They’re centres for research, for recreation, for respite from the daily slog. They’re refuges for the broken-hearted. “They’re really important,” he says.
If attendance figures are any indication, the public library is our most valued cultural institution. In the year to July 2018, about 7.6 million people visited Australian libraries – more than went to museums (6.7 million), art galleries (6.3 million), plays (3.9 million) or musicals and opera (3.5 million). But it was the return rate that really set libraries apart. Whereas at least half of those who visited museums or the theatre went only once in the year, three-quarters of library visitors went back at least three times, and one-third visited more than 10 times. Australians make about 114 million visits to public libraries annually.
“Thirty years ago, people were thinking libraries wouldn’t survive the internet – that they’d just die out,” says NSW State Librarian John Vallance, who supervises NSW’s public library network. “A lot of city planners and council planners were actually planning for a future without local libraries, because the assumption was that everyone would be at home looking at their screens. It’s hard to imagine pundits getting something more wrong.” Far from losing relevance, “libraries are undergoing a renaissance”, says Vallance. It turns out that people love being around books. “And around other people. In fact, I would say the people are just as important as the books. That’s something the planners never really understood.”
Being with people in a pleasant indoor setting usually carries a price of admission, whether it’s $5 for a cup of coffee in a cafe or $100 for a theatre ticket. Even in shopping malls, security guards are likely to ask you to move on if you look like hanging about indefinitely without spending money. “The public library,” says Vallance, “is the one place where absolutely everyone – regardless of their background, their wealth, their status – can be assured of a respectful welcome and a friendly reception.”
Entry to the library is free. You need a (free) library card to borrow items, but anyone can amble in and stay for as long as they like, reading the newspapers, browsing through the books, using the computers, cramming for exams or just occupying a comfortable chair. “You don’t have to buy anything,” says Patti Manolis, chief executive of the Geelong Regional Library Corporation, who, like most librarians she knows, is driven by the conviction that every member of the community deserves access to knowledge and culture. “In Geelong, just under 40 per cent of our members are on incomes of less than $30,000,” Manolis says. “That makes me really happy, because it means our services are reaching those who I believe need them most.”
Oscar-winning documentary maker Michael Moore once said admiringly that librarians were a more dangerous group than he had realised: “You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re, like, plotting the revolution, man.” Manolis laughs when I remind her of the quote. “That’s right!” she says. “That’s us.” Chris Buckingham, president of Public Libraries Victoria, agrees that when it gets right down to it, libraries are about people power: “The pursuit of a just and fair society sits at the very core of what we do.” Buckingham thinks of librarians as subversives with big hearts. And a lot of patience. “I mean, they get a thousand questions a day.”
Some of which aren’t easy to answer. “The other day someone came to the desk and asked, ‘How do you have a good life?’ ” says Monica Dullard, who works at inner Melbourne’s St Kilda Library. The inquirer was a middle-aged woman. The librarians on duty found her some books and articles they thought might be enlightening. Also, “they had a nice chat to her,” Dullard says. “The thing is, we take the time.”
People phone with questions, too. “We had someone ring up and ask us how to make chicken soup, because he was feeling a bit poorly,” Dullard says. “We’ve got a huge collection of Jewish cookbooks, so we got a recipe from one of the books we knew was really good and talked this bloke through it, step by step. He made the soup and came in the next week saying he felt much better.”
Even now, in the digital age, the thousands of volumes that line a library’s shelves are its greatest asset. As NSW State Librarian John Vallance likes to point out, “the most cost-effective, long-lasting and energy-efficient form of data storage is paper”. People with library cards have the option of downloading digital versions of books, magazines, music or movies to their electronic devices. But of the 41 million loans a year from NSW public libraries, less than 5 per cent are in digital format. “People still love having something that they can hold in their hands,” Vallance says.
If it’s a real page-turner, all the better. The most borrowed books in Australian libraries in the 12 months to March were The Midnight Lineand Night School, both by bestselling British thriller writer Lee Child. (It was the third year in a row that Child topped the chart.) Next came two Australian novels: Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut and Jane Harper’s Force of Nature. The most borrowed non-fiction book – the 10th most popular book overall – was The Barefoot Investor, by money-management adviser Scott Pape
For those who visit libraries to use the computers and free WiFi – one in seven Australian households aren’t connected to the internet – the bonus is having someone on hand to help with, say, navigating a job-search website, preparing a resumé or filling in an online citizenship application form. Through necessity, librarians have become tech experts, says Dullard. “At Mother’s Day and Christmas, we get a flood of people coming in, 65-plus, who have been given an iPad as a present and don’t know how to use it. They’re too embarrassed to tell their children, so they sneak into the library and we teach them how to set it up.”
Sometimes staff have to intuit what it is that customers require. Hobart librarian Ryan Burley was shelving books one afternoon when a man who looked to be in his late 20s asked where he could find something to read on anger management. Burley led him to the right area and pulled out a few titles. Sensing that the man wanted to talk, he asked him if he was okay. The customer said he had lost jobs and girlfriends because of his inability to control his anger. Burley said he himself had suffered from depression. The ensuing conversation was long and candid, and by the end of it, the man seemed relieved. “It was like he had actually been heard for the first time,” Burley says. “One key thing stands out to me: libraries are safe spaces. We don’t judge. We don’t discriminate. What that guy needed was empathy, and to know that he wasn’t alone.”
At Burwood Library in inner-western Sydney, librarian Helen Kassidis formed an instant bond with a woman who, after asking for information on divorce, confided that she was going through a painful marriage break-up. “I said to her, ‘Look, I know how you feel,’ ” says Kassidis, who had been through a divorce of her own. Library visitors spill out their troubles quite often, in Kassidis’s experience. “Sometimes there are tears, theirs and mine. Sometimes all I can say is ‘I’m sorry’. ” But usually she can point them toward a possible source of assistance – be it a book title, a website address or the phone number of a government agency. Librarians are in the business of helping people make informed choices, she says. “Whether it’s a kid who chooses that they’re going to read Harry Potter or Enid Blyton, or somebody who’s making massive life decisions, you are, in a small way, empowering them.”
Burwood Library, like others around the country, has customers who practically live there. “Our regulars have formed friendships among themselves,” Kassidis says. “They read the papers and they all have a chat. It’s super-cool.” Over the years, this loose-knit band has contained some colourful characters. “One person we called Cardboard Man, because he made sleeves and collars out of cardboard and wore them every day. He also wore a black cardboard moustache, beard and eyebrows. We totally understood why he never came to the library in a downpour.”
The tide of humanity that washes in and out of the library engenders both fondness and fascination in Kassidis. “I think a lot of people are lonely,” she says. “And working in a library, there is the privilege of helping somebody not feel so lonely, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes.” Basically, she regards her job as a gift. “People and books! It doesn’t get much better than that.”
When John Vallance was a boy in Sydney, lending libraries were parsimonious with their books. “You weren’t allowed to borrow more than three at a time,” the NSW State Librarian says. Similar restrictions applied in Brisbane, where I grew up. My mother, a former librarian and voracious reader, would be at the library to swap her books for new ones the minute the fortnightly borrowing period elapsed. When my uncle died, my aunt kept the news from the library so that he could take out books on both their library cards. These days, the sky’s the limit for borrowers. When Vallance visited the NSW Hunter Valley town of Raymond Terrace, which is serviced by a mobile library, he saw an old man with a suitcase leaving the converted semitrailer. “He opened the suitcase and there would have been about 50 books that he’d borrowed,” Vallance says. “The suitcase was so heavy that he had it in a wheelbarrow.”
I admire that fellow’s style. The thrill of knowing I can borrow anything I like hits me every time I walk into my local library. I’m usually there to collect a book I have reserved online, having read a review of it somewhere, but I can rarely resist picking up a couple of extras. What’s most exhilarating is that the system runs on trust: I take the books on the understanding that I will return them on time, in good condition, for others to enjoy. The library lifts my spirits because it makes me feel that I live in a civilised society.
Most people do bring books back by the due date, says Public Libraries Victoria’s Chris Buckingham, who applauds a trend to abolish fines for late returns. The sums may seem low – about 25¢ a day – but some people are on such tight budgets that every cent counts, Buckingham argues, and if they forget to return a book, racking up a few dollars’ debt, it can be enough to stop them going back to the library. In places where financial penalties have been scrapped, he says, the number of people borrowing books has risen.
It seems to Jenny Thompson, of Wollongong City Libraries, that library patrons overwhelmingly want to do the right thing: “There’s a lot of respect there from most people.” In Wollongong, south of Sydney, the central library’s most loyal customers gather outside each morning, waiting to be admitted. On the days it doesn’t open, they have to find somewhere else to go.
“But one public holiday, something went wrong and the electronic doors opened anyway,” Thompson says. “The regulars were able to come in, even though the library was supposed to be closed.” The absence of librarians was barely noticed: “The people who use the computers just went upstairs and got themselves onto the computers. The newspaper-reading guys sat down and started the newspapers. It was really quite funny.”
Though well-ordered – the Dewey Decimal classification system still holds sway – libraries are less hushed and hidebound than they used to be. “We call it the community living-space,” says Monica Dullard, who doesn’t blink when backpackers use the bathrooms at the St Kilda Library to have a wash and rinse out their underwear, then emerge fresh and clean to Skype their parents on the computers. She loves that people now eat in libraries, even sending out for takeaway if they forget to bring a snack: occasionally a pizza delivery guy appears at the desk and asks loudly who ordered the margherita. “Sometimes you see people cooking,” she says. “There are power points all over the place, and we have people who heat up rice, or two-minute noodles.”
So relaxed is the atmosphere that when someone produced a foot spa, plugged it in and started using it, others presumed this was a new service the library was offering. According to Dullard, a queue quickly formed at the counter. “People were saying, ‘Where’s my foot spa?’ ”
To the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, libraries were temples of learning and self-improvement. “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people,” said Carnegie, who put his money where his mouth was. By 1929, he had paid for the construction of more than 2500 libraries, most of them in the US.
Six years later, a report funded by the Carnegie Corporation painted a bleak picture of the situation in Australia. We had subscription libraries, but they charged membership fees and their collections were pitifully inadequate (“Wretched little institutes which have long since become cemeteries of old and forgotten books”, the report called them). We had a public reference library in each state capital – the oldest and grandest being Melbourne’s, with its magnificent domed reading room – but borrowing from these was not permitted. The books had to be read on the premises. In all of Australia, there were fewer than half a dozen free lending libraries.
Concerned citizens responded to the report by founding the Free Library Movement, and in 1939 NSW became the first jurisdiction to take decisive action, introducing legislation that promised state government financial backing to local councils that opened free lending libraries. As a nation, we haven’t looked back. In the US, the Trump Administration has proposed eliminating almost all federal library funding. In the UK, funding cuts by the Conservative government have seen more than 800 libraries closed or handed to volunteers to run. Here, though, public libraries are not only surviving but thriving. Total government expenditure on libraries has risen to more than $1.2 billion a year, or just less than $50 per person. “In Australia, we’re actually in a very good position,” says Sue McKerracher, chief executive of the Australian Library and Information Association.
Librarians aren’t by nature publicity-seekers. “They go to work each day in the knowledge that they make a difference in people’s lives, and for them that’s enough,” says Public Libraries Victoria president Chris Buckingham. “They’re not necessarily big on making a lot of noise about it.” But when word goes out that this piece is being written, library staff across the country contact me, eager to pass on anecdotes.
From Port Stephens, north of Newcastle on the NSW coast, I get a message about Les, the library regular who brings a bunch of flowers for the desk each week, and Lorna, who brings the librarians baked goods, and Frank, the keen gardener who presents them with home-grown produce. From Tasmania comes the tale of John, the retired butcher, who asked the library for help earning to read and write. Assigned a voluntary tutor, John made good progress. Within a couple of years, he was whipping through Agatha Christie novels and writing his life story for his grandson to read.
From Darwin comes news of a refugee couple who took their daughter to story-time sessions at the library and asked if they could celebrate her birthday there, because the place meant so much to them. “They brought a cake and the father gave a speech and thanked everyone,” says Karen Conway, executive manager of library services in the Northern Territory’s capital city. Obviously there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
I get emails about libraries that host concerts, book club meetings, knitting circles, author talks, English-language classes, puppet shows and Girl Guides’ sleep-overs. Several correspondents impress on me that libraries are havens for the homeless – cool in summer, warm in winter and dry when it rains. Tracy Fraser, a librarian at Broken Hill, in far-western NSW, talks enthusiastically about the Outback Letterbox Library, a scheme that delivers parcels of books to people living in remote settlements across a 240,000-square-kilometre swathe of inland Australia. “We get letters saying it’s like Christmas every time the books arrive,” Fraser says.
Ed Oberg and Nathalie Fritzen met in the library at Thirroul, a suburb of Wollongong. Ed, a retired mechanical and industrial engineer, had long been an almost daily visitor to the library. On this particular morning, he arrived with his laptop a little later than usual and found all the tables already occupied. He asked Nathalie, an unfamiliar face, if he could share her table. She agreed, though he has since learnt she wasn’t happy about it. “She wanted to be working there by herself,” he says.
Ed noticed that Nathalie’s laptop was a Toshiba, like his. That was an excuse to strike up a conversation, during which he discovered she was visiting from France. “She had a few issues with her computer and I was able to help her,” he tells me. Romance blossomed, and 18 months later, in 2016, the two invited the Thirroul librarians to their wedding. Ed still spends most of his time at the library. Nathalie often joins him. “It’s fantastic,” he says. “We typically know everybody there, she and I.”
The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone,
When Durin woke and walked alone.
The Song of Durin, JRR Tolkien
In Innovation, the final installment of Peter Ackroyd’s entertaining and informative History of England, he writes:
“The post-war years had brought fables of splrltual or material collapse, from That Hideous Strength to Brave New World to Ninteen Eighty-Four. During the Fifties, the novel seemed to be settling back to its journalistic roots – quotidian in subject, unpretentious in style – but the zeitgeist is a wayward wind. Among writers of fiction, another response was offered to the bewilderments of the post-war world, which was to fly above it. In 1955, Return of the King, the last installment of R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, was published. It was the resurrection of heroic romance, tempered by its author’s memories of war. It tells of a small, unregarded race of Middle-earth, the ‘hobbits’,who ‘arise to shake the counsels of great’. The freedom of the world hinges upon the destruction of something tiny, beautiful and evil, evil, a ring forged by a fallen angel. While elves, men and dwarves fight, two hobbits are tasked with the destruction of the great destroyer. A whole world, formed of its author’s experiments in language came into being to the extent that if anyone were to point out that Middle-earth’ is only a translation of the Norse ‘Mittlegard’, the hearer would respond with a shrug. It was there, whatever its origins. For the English journalist Bernard Levin, it offered a beautiful and salutary reminder that the ‘meek will inherit the earth’; for the American critic Edward Wilson, it was “juvenile trash”, a story of good boys being rewarded. In spite of the naysayers, the popularity and influence of The Lord of the Rings grew to unprecedented heights. Tolkien himself, a scholar and devout Catholic, was later to find his work taken up as a banner by most unlikely allies, a group that came to be known as ‘hippies’”.
Whenever a survey or poll crowns JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as the public’s favourite novel – and there have been many during the past seventy years – and lauds the author as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, the reaction has always been the same from critics who have been sneering at his books since their publication. The Lord of the Rings has been dismissed as trivial, juvenile even, and not worth arguing about. It has been called archaic, backward looking, nostalgist and sentimentalist, and has been gaslit for misogyny and homo-eroticism, violence and and even racism (with its ethnocentric and androgynous elves and it’s Graeco-Roman Gondorians besieged by darker races from the south and east). Yet, most critics have probably never read it.
On the side of the angels (or is it the elves?) are the millions who came of age with and fell in love with the books, and adopted a Tolkienesque taxonomy for viewing the world as a perpetual dialectic between the forces of light and of darkness. Some have even studied the lineages and languages. The actress Liv Tyler, who plays a luminous Arden Evenstar in Peter Jackson’s award winning film trilogy is said to have learned elven, and I sometimes see people on the street with elven rune tattoos. Liv probably has one too. I recall that as we queued at the cinema to see The Fellowship of the Ring, young folk rhapsodized among themselves on the delights about to unfold before their very eyes. The Hobbiton film set on New Zealand’s North Island is one of that country’s premier tourist destinations – indeed, during the three years of the films’ successive release, a big sign at Auckland International Airport declared “Welcome to Orc Land!” The films’ casting prompted criticism in some quarters insofar as the elves, men and dwarves were played by predominantly white Anglo Celtic actors whilst New Zealand’s indigenous Māori portrayed the evil orcs and Uruk Hai. Nevertheless, hundreds of kiwis, Pakeha and Māori alike, were employed as extras, the scenery dazzled the world and the economy of Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud, enjoyed a Middle Earth boom.
In an opinion piece in the Unheard e-zine, republished below, British historian and author Dominic Sandbrook asks whether Tolkien’s works are indeed trivial. “Surely not”, he retorts. “Even if you can’t stand them, only a fool would deny that The Lord of the Rings occupies an extraordinary place in the modern imagination … he wasn’t just a man of his time; he remains a guide for our own … And his themes might have deliberately been chosen to appeal to modern readers, anxious about the consequences of science, the environmental costs of industry, the dangers of war and the fate of the individual in the face of the vast forces reshaping Western societies in the early 21st century. To put it simply, then, Tolkien matters. How many writers can you say that about, these days?”
Tolkien and me
The Road goes ever on and on Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with eager feet, Until it joins some larger way Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.
Walking Song, JRR Tolkien
My own life has intersected with JRR Tolkien on many serendipitous levels.
I first encountered The Lord of the Rings in my late teens when curiosity, imagination, and various substances bought me admission to his fantasy world, along with that of his fellow Inkling CS Lewis, creator of TheChronicles of Narnia. I read all three books in the trilogy over a weekend in the autumn of 1968, and when I’d finished, I felt bereft and out of sorts. I reread it soon after, and again, and again – but didn’t we all in the days when Tolkien was king, and elves and ents walked among us. I set many of the songs to music – now long forgotten – and an apposite quotation was always on hand. I recall reciting the opening lines ofThe Song of Durin, which prefaces this piece, as I was walking home from a concert under a full moon on the eve of the landing of Apollo 11 upon the moon in July 1969. And many times as I headed eastwards on what we now call the hippie trail, I would recall Bilbo Baggin’s Walking Song.
In subsequent years as I evolved from naïf to cynical, and thence to other passions, the rereads slowed and then stopped, although I read and enjoyed TheSilmarillion, and still treasure the opening chapter describing in a manner reminiscent of the St. James Bible of how the world was created by music. I began to pick holes in The Lord of the Rings’ story line, with its derivative ‘hero’s quest’, a monomyth popularised by Joseph Campbellin his celebrated book The Hero with a Thousand Faces; what I now viewed as stereotypical characters; the outdated and anachronistic perspectives of earlier generations; and what I perceived as old-school English prejudices. But, as Sandbrook points out, Tolkien was of his times, and those times were not kind to diversity and dissent.
And yet, The Lord of the Rings is ever present in my cultural and literary consciousness, and is often referred to and quoted. Here us one of my favourites:
It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” The Return of the King
I have never lost my love for the poetry and the songs that complement the narrative – the archaic syntax, rhyme, rhythm and balladry that I’ve incorporated into my own writing. There was a wonderful lyricism and, indeed, musicality to them that I still love. It’s as if they are just waiting for a tune to accompany them. Compare Tolkien’s Song of Ëarendilwith own No Bull – the style, that is, not the subject matter:
In panoply of ancient kings, in chainéd rings he armoured him; his shining shield was scored with runes to ward all wounds and harm from him; his bow was made of dragon-horn, his arrows shorn of ebony; of silver was his habergeon, his scabbard of chalcedony; his sword of steel was valiant, of adamant his helmet tall, an eagle-plume upon his crest, upon his breast an emerald.
With massive head,
And shoulders broad,
As lean and mean as Rambeau
(That’s Sly, and not that fey French bard
This bruiser was no bimbeau!).
His hide as dark as ebony,
As tough as old mahogany,
His horns shone like chalcedony,
This massif of solidity
Was built like a Pajero.
Years passed without a revisitation, but working for a publishing company that ‘owned’ the rights to his work, I collected the latest editions and often gave them away to young people who had yet to enter the magical world of Middle Earth. For all my later cynicism, I still regarded it as a book all young people ought to read. I read the whole thing once more prior to the release of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy. The films were excellent, although I found the hobbits increasingly irritating, wishing that they’d all jump into the fires of Mount Doom, and the ents were a disappointment, a mob of corny and badly conceived muppets (they were indeed conceived by Jim Henson, the ‘father’ of Kermit and Miss Piggy). I am looking forward to the upcoming, uber-expensive television series – but I don’t reckon I’ll reread in preparation this time around. As for Jackson’s three part Hobbit extravaganza, in my opinion, it was a travesty.
Learning more about the author, I was to discover that he’d grown up in Birmingham, my home town, first in leafy Edgbaston (the home of Cadbury and the Warwickshire County Cricket Club), where he’d attended the prestigious King Edward’s Grammar School – my own school, Moseley Grammar, was not in its league. He lived near Sarehole Mill, in present day Hall Green, around the turn of century, between the ages four and eight, and would have seen it from his house. The locale at that time was rural Worcestershire farmland and countryside and not in the Birmingham ‘burbs. He has said that he used the mill as a location in The Lord of the Rings for the Mill at Hobbiton: “It was a kind of lost paradise … There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill … “
Sarehole Mill was just down the road from my school, and our sports field and cross country tracks were adjacent to it. On many a wintry, cold, wet and windy Wednesday afternoon, I’d stagger past it on a muddy track. How I hated wet Wednesdays; dry ones were for rugby, and I hated them too!
Tolkien died aged 81 on September 2nd 1973 in Bournemouth, Dorset, a town that I’ve visited infrequently. But I was actually in Bournemouth on that day to meet an old friend. Perchance his spirit swept passed me. On 2nd September 2017, the Oxford Oratory, Tolkien’s Roman Catholic parish church during his time in Oxford, offered its first Mass to advocate for his beatification, the first station on the road to canonisation, as an evangelist for nature, beauty and love. A prayer was written for his cause:
“O Blessed Trinity, we thank You for having graced the Church with John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and for allowing the poetry of Your Creation, the mystery of the Passion of Your Son, and the symphony of the Holy Spirit, to shine through him and his sub-creative imagination. Trusting fully in Your infinite mercy and in the maternal intercession of Mary, he has given us a living image of Jesus the Wisdom of God Incarnate, and has shown us that holiness is the necessary measure of ordinary Christian life and is the way of achieving eternal communion with You. Grant us, by his intercession, and according to Your will, the graces we implore [….], hoping that he will soon be numbered among Your saints. Amen.”
Just imagine, Saint John Ronald Reuel of Middle Earth!
It’s exactly 20 years since I stood in line to see a film I had dreamed about since I was a little boy. Ever since I had first turned the pages of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I had wondered what it would be like to see it on the big screen: the hobbits, the battles, the sweeping landscapes, the blood and thunder. When I read that the director Peter Jackson was filming a trilogy of Tolkien’s masterpiece in New Zealand, I felt almost sick with anxiety. Would it be terrible? Would they sound like the All Blacks? What were they going to do about Tom Bombadil?
I need not have worried, of course. From the moment the lights dimmed in the Odeon, Leicester Square on 10 December 2001, the Lord of the Rings films were a phenomenal success. And although poor Tom B. never made it onto the screen, Jackson’s trilogy carried all before it, grossing a staggering $3 billion and winning a record-equalling 11 Oscars for the final instalment alone.
Two decades on, the films stand up remarkably well. As for the wider Tolkien industry, the bestselling books just keep on coming: The Fall of Arthur in 2013, Beren and Luthien in 2017, The Fall of Gondolin in 2018. And next autumn sees the release of Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel series – at a cool $1 billion over five seasons, the most expensive television project in history. Not bad for a writer who’s been dead since 1973.
To some people, all this could hardly be more infuriating. For as we all know, Tolkien is still associated in the public mind with a sweaty, furtive gang of misfits and weirdos — by which I mean those critics who, for more than half a century, have been sneering at his books and their readers.
As far back as the mid-Fifties, the American modernist Edmund Wilson published a comically wrong-headed review dismissing Tolkien’s work as “juvenile trash”, marked by — of all things! — an “impotence of imagination”. Decades later, Philip Pullman, never happier than when sneering at his Oxford forebears, called Tolkien’s efforts “trivial”, and “not worth arguing with”. And whenever some new survey crowns The Lord of the Rings as the public’s favourite novel, the reaction is always the same.
“Another black day for British culture” was Howard Jacobson’s verdict after a Waterstones poll put Tolkien’s work well clear at the top. “Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964,” agreed Germaine Greer, “it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century. The bad dream has been realised.” Yet by her own admission, she had never even read him.
So are Tolkien’s works “trivial”, as Pullman claims? Surely not. Even if you can’t stand them, only a fool would deny that The Lord of the Rings occupies an extraordinary place in the modern imagination. Indeed, in his trenchant defence of Tolkien’s reputation, the literary scholar Tom Shippey suggests that much of the criticism is rooted in pure social and intellectual condescension, not unlike the rank snobbery that Virginia Woolf directed at Tolkien’s fellow Midlander Arnold Bennett. Shippey even argues that in the future, literary historians will rank The Lord of the Rings alongside post-war classics such as Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lord of the Flies and Slaughterhouse-Five. Who’s to say he’s wrong?
One reason highbrow people dislike The Lord of the Rings is that it is so backward-looking. But it could never have been otherwise. For good personal reasons, Tolkien was a fundamentally backward-looking person. He was born to English parents in the Orange Free State in 1892, but was taken back to the village of Sarehole, north Worcestershire, by his mother when he was three. His father was meant to join them later, but was killed by rheumatic fever before he boarded ship.
For a time, the fatherless Tolkien enjoyed a happy childhood, devouring children’s classics and exploring the local countryside. But in 1904 his mother died of diabetes, leaving the 12-year-old an orphan. Now he and his brother went to live with an aunt in Edgbaston, near what is now Birmingham’s Five Ways roundabout. In effect, he had moved from the city’s rural fringes to its industrial heart: when he looked out of the window, he saw not trees and hills, but “almost unbroken rooftops with the factory chimneys beyond”. No wonder that from the moment he put pen to paper, his fiction was dominated by a heartfelt nostalgia.
Nostalgia was in the air anyway in the 1890s and 1900s, part of a wider reaction against industrial, urban, capitalist modernity. As a boy, Tolkien was addicted to the imperial adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard, and it’s easy to see The Lord of the Rings as a belated Boy’s Own adventure. An even bigger influence, though, was that Victorian one-man industry, William Morris, inspiration for generations of wallpaper salesmen. Tolkien first read him at King Edward’s, the Birmingham boys’ school that had previously educated Morris’s friend Edward Burne-Jones. And what Tolkien and his friends adored in Morris was the same thing you see in Burne-Jones’s paintings: a fantasy of a lost medieval paradise, a world of chivalry and romance that threw the harsh realities of industrial Britain into stark relief.
It was through Morris that Tolkien first encountered the Icelandic sagas, which the Victorian textile-fancier had adapted into an epic poem in 1876. And while other boys grew out of their obsession with the legends of the North, Tolkien’s fascination only deepened. After going up to Oxford in 1911, he began writing his own version of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. When his college, Exeter, awarded him a prize, he spent the money on a pile of Morris books, such as the proto-fantasy novel The House of the Wolfingsand his translation of the Icelandic Volsunga Saga. And for the rest of his life, Tolkien wrote in a style heavily influenced by Morris, deliberately imitating the vocabulary and rhythms of the medieval epic.
But there’s more to Tolkien than nostalgic medievalism. The Lord of the Rings is a war book, stamped with an experience of suffering that his modern-day critics can scarcely imagine. In his splendid book Tolkien and the Great War, John Garth opens with a rugby match between the Old Edwardians and the school’s first fifteen, played in December 1913. Tolkien captained the old boys’ team that day. Within five years, four of his teammates had been killed and four more badly wounded. The sense of loss haunted him for the rest of his life. “To be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years,” he wrote in the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”
Tolkien arrived on the Western Front in June 1916 as a signals officer in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, and experienced the agony of the Somme at first hand. In just three and a half months, his battalion lost 600 men. Yet it was now, amid the horror of the trenches, that he began work on his great cycle of Middle-earth stories. As he later told his sonChristopher, his first stories were written “in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candlelight in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire”.
But he never saw his work as pure escapism. Quite the opposite. He had begun writing, he explained, “to express [my] feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalise it, and prevent it just festering”. More than ever, he believed that myth and fantasy offered the only salvation from the corruption of industrial society. And far from shaking his faith, the slaughter on the Somme only strengthened his belief that to make sense of this broken, bleeding world, he must look back to the great legends of the North.
Yet The Lord of the Rings is not just a war book. There’s yet another layer, because it’s also very clearly an anti-modern, anti-industrial book, shaped by Tolkien’s memories of Edwardian Birmingham, with its forges, factories and chimneys. As a disciple of the Victorian medievalists, he was always bound to loathe modern industry, since opposition to the machine age came as part of the package. But his antipathy to all things mechanical was all the more intense because he identified them — understandably enough — with killing.
And although Tolkien objected when reviewers drew parallels between the events of The Lord of the Rings and the course of the Second World War, he often did the same himself. Again and again he told his son Christopher that by embracing industrialised warfare, the Allies had chosen the path of evil. “We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring,” he wrote in May 1944. “But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs.” Even as the end of the war approached, Tolkien’s mood remained bleak. This, he wrote sadly, had been, “the first War of the Machines … leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines”.
Dominic Sandbrookis an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982
Soho (needless to say) I’m alone on your streets on a Friday evening I’ve been here all of the day I’m going nowhere with nowhere to go
Al Stewart, 1972
… it felt like we had one toe in the Mediterranean, even though it was January and our fingers were numb under our gloves …
Deborah Levy, The Man Who Saw Too Much
Sometimes, out of the blue, a message from the old country triggers happy memories and sends us wandering through “the foggy ruins of time”. An old friend from my London days emailed me the other day, recalling how back in the day, I’d frequent a cheap and cheerful Italian café in Soho – what was then “swinging” London’s seedy, sexy and infinitely interesting red-light, hip-boutique and cool restaurant mecca. She’d laid down one wintry English afternoon to relax with a novel, and to her surprise, two pages were dedicated to that very same café.
So, as often happens these days, I was son flicking through my back pages and disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind.
.“… that motorway from Brum to London was a road well-traveled. In my final year at Moseley Grammar, I’d often hitch down to London for a weekend with pals who’d gone there before. We’d hang out at cheap and cheerful Pollo’s Italian restaurant in Old Compton Street in Soho and the Coach and Horses across the road, and go to Cousins folk and blues joint in a cellar in nearby Greek Street, and the 101 Jazz Club off Oxford Street. Bunjies folk cafè and Ronnie Scott’s jazz club were just around the corner. After a meal or a pint, I’d often catch the last tube to the end of the line closest to the M1. I can’t recall how many times I headed off into the night; and there were always drivers on the road at the witching hour. I guess many folks “get the urge for going”, as Joni sang back then, “and they had to go …” And in those generous times, people were happy to offer a lift to a wayfaring stranger – gentle souls who would not leave strays stranded by the dark wayside; lonesome folks seeking company and conversation in the dark night of the soul; curious people wondering why a young man would hitch the highways in the middle of the English night”.
Yes, Café Pollo was indeed a significant landmark of my London days.
I discovered Café Pollo in the Spring of 1966 when I’d first hitched to London with school friends to take part in a Campaign for Nuclear Disbarment march. From ‘66 through ‘71, I’d go there whenever I was in town, and regularly when I ended up living there – right up to my departure for Australia in 1978. When I was studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies, I’d go there for lunch after Friday classes with my best mate and soul brother Mike (we were born on the same day in the same year in a British city beginning with B).
So, for years and years I’d hung out at Pollo’s. Dined there, boozed there, courted there – almost always on spaghetti bolognese and Chianti with a sticky rum baba to follow. It was crowdy, noisy and smokey, and in winter, steamy and clammy – and “cheap as… “
Though I’d left Old England’s shores, I’d visit Pollo’s whenever I returned and catch up with old pals. When I became vegetarian, the bolognese was replaced with pesto pasta liguria or arrabbiata. When The Evening Standard and Time Out recommended it as an excellent “cheap eats”. I thought its glory days of low-key popularity were over. But it was always there, the same as it always was. The feature picture of this post was taken, I think, when Adèle and I were in England in 1987 – I still have that old Chinese denim jacket and use it for sitting around our bonfires in wintertime.
We continued to go there until 2005, when we were denied service as we just wanted a cup of coffee. The next time I popped by, in September 2008, it was gone. Indeed, it had closed soon after our disappointing coffee quest. Having served the impecunious for generations, it was, in the words of a classic London cafés blog, dismantled and dumped, to be born again as a classier, impersonal, cut-out trattoria – La Porchetta Pollo Bar.
But at least, the name and the memory live on …
Cheap, cheerful and unchanging …
Classic Caféspublished an excellent obituary to this Soho icon. Here are some extracts:
“The Pollo, at 20 Old Compton Street, with its ox-blood booths, lapidus beanpole railings, contemporary ceiling, murals, top notch signage, and perfectly preserved light fittings always had hungry queues waiting outside. It remained the proverbial Soho institution for as long as anyone could remember. A proper bargain Italian with perfect ‘60s decor, friendly banter and a worryingly high turnover of chefs (there always seemed to be a ‘chef wanted’ sign in the window). “Cheap and cheerful” remains the operative term at the long-standing Italian café Pollo …
… The almost endless hand-written choice of pastas has now been typed up for easier interpretation, but otherwise the menu remains much the same as I remember it being 20 years back. The food is still hearty, the prices are laughable for central London, the coffee is rocket fuel – and the waitresses still insist on doubling you up in the booths with complete strangers …
… Plenty has changed in London. Fortunately, Pollo hasn’t … The Pollo often finds its way onto the ‘top cheap London eats’ lists, and it was the Evening Standard listing under budget eating that first nudged me in its direction a few years ago… It isn’t fancy. It is an Italian restaurant. The inside looks something like a truckers’ caff, with formica tables and little booths, and there is more room downstairs if it looks full. There isn’t a lot of space and the tables are packed in, but the food is good. The main courses consist of a variety (unsurprisingly) of pasta and pizza dishes, again the price range for these tends to be between £3 – £5. There are some risottos as well, and some meat dishes, such as chicken with rice or veal which are a bit more expensive”.
One toe in the Mediterranean …
As for the book my London friend was reading, which inspired her email and my jaunt down the rabbit hole (a pleasant one), The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy, here’s what the protagonist had to sat about about our café de coeur:
“In late January 1989, Jennifer and I were sitting in a cheap Italian restaurant called Pollo in Old Compton Street, Soho. It was always full of students from Saint Martin’s our school around the corner because it offered its loyal impoverished customers three courses for a fiver. Jennifer had introduced me to Pollo when we first met. Once we discover spaghetti vongole and penne arrabbiata, it felt like we had one toe in the Mediterranean, even though it was January and our fingers were numb under our gloves … She devoured a plate of spaghetti bolgnese even though she was supposed to be a vegetarian. While she drank water, I knocked back carafe of red wine and ordered another one …. it was warm inside Pollo. Everyone was smoking and shouting us the waiters thumped plates steaming pasta on the formica table. A young man with a blue mohican was stubbing his cigarette in the avocado that had arrive on a plate. it was stuffed with something pink’.
Al Stewart’s Soho (needless to say …)
Apropos the song quoted at the beginning of this memories, whenever I recall Soho in the sixties, I always think about British singer-songwriter and musician Al Stewart’sover-orchestrated debut album of 1967, Bedsitter Images.
Maybe it’s about what here in Australia that, borrowing from our indigenous compatriots, we might call “spirit of place” – the association with the streets within a hop, skip and an amble from Old Compton Street out into Shaftsbury Avenue and that bookshop in Charing Cross Road, the opening verse of the second track Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres, and that flat in Swiss Cottage, a suburb I used to frequent in the seventies. Maybe it’s the seedy, needy, greedy vibe of the priapic songs on Al’s follow up albums. An old friend and Al Stewart fanboy called them aural masturbation. Me and my flat mates were all fans of Al back then, and went to most of his gigs.
In the early seventies, when a girlfriend started going out with him, I actually got to know him for a brief while. Indeed, one time, when he played in Birmingham Town Hall, me and a couple of pals drove up to my old hometown to see him, and after the show, invited him back to my folks’ place for a late night fry up. My mom reckoned he need fattening up. And afterwards, she and Al sat in the kitchen for a couple of hours talking about pop music. “I love Cat Stevens”, mom said. “Oh, I much prefer the Incredible String Band”, said Al. “Oh, they’re very weird, but Paul like them!” She said. Then they got talking about Mick Jagger. And my dad, in the sitting room, said to us others gathered there, and referring to Al’s stature, said “there’s not much to him is there!”. Strange but nice how you recall these little things. The folks have both passed on …
May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, The rains fall soft upon your fields And until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
An old Irish blessing
You just picked up a hitcher A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway
Joni Mitchell, Coyote
Whilst hitching has lost much of its allure in the west, it remains very popular in Israel. From my very first visit, There are always young people waiting by the roadside – it has always been so for young conscripts travelling home on leave, and motorists have traditionally been comfortable with picking up soldiers waiting with their rifles and kit bags (all non-Haredi or ultra orthodox Israelis must complete national service when they reach 18, and are required to carry their weapons with them at all times if these can’t be securely stored). It is also a popular mode of travel in the occupied West Bank where settlers regard hitching a ride as a political statement of sovereignty and freedom to travel through all of HaAretz, “the land”, and as an economical means of reaching scattered and often isolated (not to mention illegal under international law) settlements. Many drivers regard picking up fellow-settlers as a political and religious duty.
This attachment to hitchhiking harbours a strong sense of community, but also, a delusion of safety – it can and does have deadly consequences.For example, in June 2014, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by Hamas operatives at the bus/hitching stop at the Alon Shvut settlements in Gush Etzion and subsequently murdered. The atrocity precipitated Operation Protective Edge, an Israeli bombardment of Gaza which resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, and the kidnap and murder of a Palestinian boy by Jewish extremists. But that is not what this story is about …
In the second decade of the 21st century, hitchhiking is widely viewed as an edgy, even dangerous, activity to be avoided by both a potential hitcher and a prospective motorist contemplating whether to pull over or to drive on. For some, it also carries undertones of bludging and of indigence, although in rural areas like where I live, during these straightened times with high youth unemployment and poor public transport, many young people hitch out of necessity.
But the practice flourished for several decades, particularly during the fifties and sixties when few people owned vehicles and catching a ride with a friendly stranger was means of adventure as well as a mode of travel. Hitchhikers did so for a variety of reasons – a combination of thrift, expedience, and necessity, but also, a sense of romantic adventure – buoyed by what seems in retrospect, a naive sense of invulnerability.
More than just a means of transportation, it was also about social interaction and the opportunity for conversations with strangers. Jack Kerouac, American beat poet and secular patron saint of hitchers. begged to differ. In his seminal On the Road, a book revered more than read, he whinged: “One of the biggest troubles hitchhiking is having to talk to innumerable people, make them feel that they didn’t make a mistake picking you up, even entertain them almost, all of which is a great strain when you are going all the way and don’t plan to stay in hotels”.
In his recent Roadside Americans – the rise and fall of hitchhiking in a changing nation, North Carolina historian Jack Reid writes: “The waning of hitchhiking in the 1980s was a result of social change, but the main reason was related to the economy and to engineering. The highways changed. At the exits from cities, there are now huge interchanges rather than simple junctions, where it was easy to stop a car. Added to that was a sense of alienation, a growing fear of strangers and a loss of intimacy. Another reason was that years of economic prosperity and a significant reduction in car prices enabled many young people to buy their own cars”.
Allons! the road is before us!
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me, The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Strong and content I travel the open road.
Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road
I was thumbing lifts before I’d even heard of Jack Kerouac, It seemed like the easiest and cheapest thing to do when cash was scarce and modes of carriage were few, and the open road and the horizon beckoned.
.In the days gone by, when money was tight and adventure beckoned, I hitched all-over England – visiting friends in far-flung towns and villages, attending music festivals and anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations, and often, simply for the joy of travelling and exploration.
Looking back, my hitching was destination focused, getting to where I wanted to go and the route that would take me there rather than exploring the highways and byways, the towns and village in between and the folk therein – although I would take in appreciatively the landscapes and cityscapes I would pass through. The roadside and the adjoining nature strip, were, on the other hand, a world of their own. Between rides, standing at a place I’d never been and to which I would not return, I’d note the micro-milieu – the grass and the wildflowers, the flotsam and jetsam, the discarded bottles and butt ends, the empty cigarette packets and the candy bar wrappers. Vehicles whizzed by and I’d observe their type and frequency to calculate when I’d likely be picked up. And then, destination in mind’s eye, like stepping into a cold pool,or breaking into a run, I’d extend my arm and raise a thumb, gingerly at first and then with bravado.
Living on the northeastern edge of Birmingham, close to the motorways heading north and south, I’d simply pack a bag, walk to the nearby roundabout, and put out my thumb. It was, after it own fashion, a kind of commuting between hometown domesticity and the great beyond.
When first I roved out, the M1 started on the outskirts of London at Watford, and ended between Coventry and Rugby. The Coventry Road in south west Birmingham was my launching pad. Watford Gap services was like a transit lounge, as was Newport Pagnell. The large road sign Hatfield and the North was a landmark on the road to home. Daytime, nighttime, the wee small hours, in spring and summer sunshine or winter rain, it didn’t really matter – the M1 never slept.
In time,the road system extendedand the M1-M6 link lay just a hundred metres in front my family home. One summer, I worked on that section of the motorway as an “on the lump” casual navvy. No workers comp,or occupational health and safety in those days. Helmets and gloves were optional. My blood, and that of many others, including some who clocked one fine summer morning and never clocked off, is in that concrete.
As a sixth former, I’d often hitch to “swinging” London for the weekend, to explore the capital and visit folk and jazz clubs, kipping in shop door-ways and underground car parks under cardboard and napping wrapped in newspapers, and eating at Wimpy bars and Lyons teas houses.
A few years later, whilst at Reading University, the M4 began near Maidenhead and finished at Chiswick, and every few weekends, I’d stand opposite the cemetery in eastern Reading and hitch a ride to London and back – for sit-ins, marches, happenings at The Roundhouse, free open-air concerts (including the famous Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park), and to hang with my London girlfriend.
When first I roved abroad, I thumbed my way from Budapest to Athens via Yugoslavia and thence back to Blighty, and the following year, on a side-step from the famous hippie trail, from Beirut to Aqaba and back via Petra and Wadi Rum. I slept a night in Petra itself – in those days, a deserted and un-restored hideaway for fugitive Palestinian fedayeen after the Black September intifada. For reasons that I can not fully explain, I took my future first wife down the same road two years later, including sleeping out among Petra’s Nabatean tombs. And this was to be the end of my gypsy ways and hitching days. They lasted eight years. Thereafter, the famous “open road” was replaced by planes and trains, buses and cars – and one agonizingly crippled Ford transit van (to … an old saying, when life gives you a lemon, you’d wish you’d’ve been willing to spend more on a reliable motor).
If you’ve taken all you need from this post already, off you go … What follows now are an assortment of self-indulgent reminiscences of my hitchhiking days.
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines, Going where I list, my own master total and absolute, Listening to others, considering well what they say, Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me. I inhale great draughts of space, The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
Walt Whitman,Song of the Open Road
Well I left my happy home To see what I could find out I left my folk and friends With the aim to clear my mind out Well I hit the rowdy road And many kinds I met there And many stories told me on the way to get there So on and on I go, the seconds tick the time out So much left to know, and I’m on the road to find out
Cat Stevens, Tea for the Tillerman
The toad road licked my wheels like a sabre. Marc Bolan
And what should they know of England …
There’s always a first time. We’d all like to daydream that we’d be picked up by Joni Mitchell, like she picked up that scallywag Coyote on her sublime Hejiraalbum. Mine, alas, was as as stocky sixth former with long hair (long for those days) and horn-rims, heading down to London to meet meet up with school chums for the CND Easter March (that was a first too). Standing at the roundabout where the M1 and the world began, having already thumbed from the Coventry Road roundabout opposite the old Swan public house at Yardley, It wasn’t long before a Rolls Royce pulled up. “WTFl!” is what I’d say today A handsome bloke with shades and sideburns who looked like Englebert Humperdinck asked me where I was heading. “London”, I replied. “Of course – where else? Get in”, he said. It was all the way to Marble Arch with pop star Don Fardon – whom I’d never heard of at the time – he later entered the hit parade with a cover of John Loudermilk’s song Indian Reservation. Not a good song, I would say – with many similarly empathetic ballads, it is long on heartstring-pulling and fucked on imagery and lyrics. If you want to listen to a good song, check out Bruce Cockburn’s evocative Indian Wars and the Australian Goanna Band’s anthemic Solid Rock.
Henceforward, that motorway from Brum to London was a road well-traveled. In my final year at Moseley Grammar, I’d often hitch down to London for a weekend with pals who’d gone there before. We’d hang out at cheap and cheerful Pollo’s Italian restaurant in Old Compton Street in Soho and the Coach and Horses right across the road, and go to Cousins folk and blues joint in a cellar in nearby Greek Street and the 101 Jazz Club off Oxford Street. Bunjies folk club and Ronnie Scott’s jazz Club were just around the corner. After a meal or a pint, I’d often catch the last tube to the end of the line closest to the M1. I can’t recall how many times I headed off into the night; and and there were always drivers on the road at the witching hour. I guess many folks “get the urge for going”, as Joni sang back then, “and they had to go …” And in those generous times, folks were willing to offer a lift to a wayfaring stranger – gentle souls who would not leave strays stranded by the dark wayside; lonesome folks seeking company and conversation in the dark night of the soul; curios people wondering why a young man would hitch the highways in the middle of the night.
It is now early spring of 1968. I’d repeated my last year at Grammar School, and with assignments completed, an amenable headmaster let me take a week off to travel. This time, I headed northwest across Brum to Darkaston, near Walsall, and what was then the beginning of the M6 – it ended at Lancaster. Travelling through Lancashire, Cumbria and the Lowlands, I reached the outskirts of Glasgow by nighttime. Hitching across the city, I was picked up by a young couple who insisted that I spend the night at their place – they reckoned the green scarf I’d worn around my hat was a risky proposition in that part of sectarianist Glasgow. I loved that old brown fedora; it traveled with me all over England, to Greece and Yugoslavia, and the Middle East until it was stolen along with my harmonica at Wadi Musa, near Petra. Next morning, I was on the road to Edinburgh, crossed the silvery Tay of bad poet William McGonagall fame, transited the granite city of Aberdeen, and by nightfall, I was on the road into Inverness, where I slept by the roadside and woke up covered in snow. Next morning, I was on Culloden field, and thence, continued on my journey. It took me through the Great Glen where I’d caught a local bus that delivered the mail to isolated homesteads, a journey so slow that I was hallucinating mountains and braes for days, and thence to to Loch Lomond and beyond, southering homewards.
During my first year at the University of Reading, I kept on hitching – many more journeys to London and back and day trips to nearby Oxford and Windsor. In a cold and rainy April, with first year exams done, I headed east to London and north to the Humber and the port of Hull, to drop on a good friend who had dropped out of uni and to visit an former school chum. In a student share-house near the university, I took my first mescaline trip to the soundtrack of Roy Harper’s sang McGoohan’s Blues’, a twenty minute digression from the concept if not the plot of an iconic if indecipherable television series. “The Prisoner is taking his shoes off to walk in the rain”. For 1,200 blissful seconds of cosmic consciousness, I found the meaning of life down that wonderful rabbit hole – and had forgotten what I’d found when I’d resurfaced the next morning. Peyote is a very colourful hallucinogenic. I still recall the Fantasia images that passed before my eyes as Roy sang:
Daffodil April petal hiding the game Forests of restless chessmen life is the same Tides in the sand sun lover watching us dream Covered in stars and clover rainbows downstream … Under the toadstool lover down by the dream Everything flowing over rainbows downstream Silver the turning water flying away I’ll come to see you sooner I’m on my way
As I headed back down south, the wet and windy old weather changed and as I rode through rural Oxfordshire, all a sudden, the sun came out for behind dull English clouds and and Springtime came in verdant glory – as doomed young Robert Browning once declaimed
Oh to be in England now that April ’s there And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware, That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf, While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough In England—now!
On arrival at my digs in Reading, there was a note from friends telling me that they’d headed off to Devon to spend a weekend with a fellow student’s farming family, and that me and my friend Jean should join them. So within minutes of arriving home, we were off into the west. Navigating Bristol where, I recall for no apparent reason, that on impulse. I’d bought a copy of The Beano comic) and Somerset. Late that night, we arrived in the tiny town Cullompton in the heart of rustic Devon. After some now forgotten but fun times, including a trip to the seaside and getting blotto on local cider, we hitched home. I don’t recall too much of the journey except that it took us through Basingstoke.
One glorious English summer I arranged to meet up with my late pal Dave Shaw in Cambridge, where he was attending a summer school at the University, and go to the celebrated Cambridge Folk Festival. I clocked off from my work on the motorway, got home, just ten minutes away – I said we were close! – showered and packed, and headed to the Clock Garage roundabout and put out my thumb. I took the M1 to London’s North Circular, and cut across to the A10 (there was no M11 in those days) and, And, my stars were alignment on this night ride, arrived at Dave’s digs in time for breakfast.I don’t remember much of the festival bill, but American folk diva Odetta was singing, and also, our idol, Roy Harper, England’s high priest of angst.
I had to leave Cambridge around Sunday lunchtime, after Roy’s last set, to return to Brum for work on Monday. Rather than head back down to London, to save time – a quixotic idea when you are hitching – I decided to cut cross-country to connect with the M1 at Newport Pagnell – in those days before GPS and route planners, a cheap, creased road map from WH Smith was the best we had, plus a good sense of direction, fair weather and loads of luck. And such are the movements of the cosmos, that my one and only only ride took me to, yes, what was then the bucolic village of Newport Pagnell. It was one of those summer evenings in England, when the days are long, the air warm and languorous, and the light, luminous. Birds were singing and church bells were ringing for evensong, and in my mind’s ear, I’d like to imagine that cows were lowing and sheep were bleating. One could almost feel an ode coming on. So there I was, once more, at the services on-ramp, hitching a ride to Birmingham , and hopping aboard an old Land Rover for what was the slowest and noisiest ride ever – which took me almost to my door.
… who only England know
The above header is the second half of Rudyard Kipling’s well known if oft misunderstood poem The English Flag, in which the old Imperialist exhorts his insular countrymen to go forth and conquer … In later and less jingoism times, it has been given a more benign slant, along the lines of the adages like “travel broadens the mind” to which I readily subscribe, or as Cat Stevens was to sing at the time “the road to find out”.
And so it was during the holidays before my final year at Grammar School that I tried my thumb on the Continent. With another school pal, I hopped across La Manche to Belgium with the idea of hitching to Amsterdam. Why we chose Belgium, I can’t recall, but my brother had been there shortly before and he reckoned it was a great place for art and architecture (that was his thing – he scored a rare First in architecture at Uni and went to become the chief architect for Nottingham City Council, designing the international ice rink in partnership with Jane Torvill of of skating icons Torvill and Dean fame). We did a lot of beer and chips and saw a lot of great art and architecture in Bruges, Ghent and Brussels – and we visited the Waterloo battlefield, as one would. As for the Netherlands, we got as far as Antwerp but gave up on Amsterdam after a long day of futile thumbing. We were, however, adopted by a young Belgian lass who took us home to meet her ma and pa. We enjoyed a bucolic Sunday picnic on the banks of a tributary of the Scheldt before heading back to Oostende and England. In retrospect, I regretted that hadn’t turned south south and set a course for Paris, a pleasure which would have to wait several more years.
My next “big hitch” was by happenstance in Eastern Europe. I’ve written of this before in In That Howling Infinite in Tanks for the Memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Therein, I recalled how I’d flown to Prague on the first anniversary of the Soviet Invasion for Czechoslovakia, only to have the flight diverted to Budapest in Hungary.
“Given the circumstances of our arrival, and the atmosphere prevailing in the Bloc on the anniversary of Prague invasion, the authorities had given me a visa for four days only. I had therefore to depart the country quick-smart. I had effectively two choices of non-Soviet countries – westwards to Austria, or south to what was then Yugoslavia. In a split second decision, I took the road less traveled – south to Szeged and the Serbian border. Wondering through the rural outskirts of Novi Sad, I was taken home by a pair of Serbian boys. I spent my first evening with their most hospitable family and slept that night on a bed of furs. “Novi Sad, Beograd” the lads had chanted, and so, instead of setting my direction home, I hitch-hiked south to the ancient Danube city of Belgrade. In the Yugoslav capital, I resolved to keep going southwards. Over the next two weeks, I transited Yugoslavia to Thessaloniki, where decided to continue with my southern odyssey – to Athens and the Greek Islands. At journeys end, I hitchhiked back the way I’d come, only this time, reaching Austria via the Croatian capital of Zagreb”.
My Balkan and Aegean adventures included that aforesaid sleepover in Novi Sad; sleeping by the highway south of Niš where I was awoken in the middle of the night by military police who reckoned I was a security risk; being propositioned – solicited more like – by a gypsy girl whose favours I forsook as she mustn’t have showered for a week; picked up by a Greek lorry-driver near the famous pass of Thermopylae who insisted we skinny-dip in the aquamarine Adriatic; and heading out of Thessaloniki on the road to Macedonia (the Slav one), I was picked by a bus load of frisky young Greek conscripts – I jumped out quicksmart into the night.
By the time I reached Zagreb, I’d had enough of the road and took the train to Vienna and thence to Calais and Albion. But, as I wrote in Tanks for the Memory, my southwards diversion to the Mediterranean fixed my gaze on other pastures and inspired a lifetime interest in the Middle East. For that is where I roved next: “… the clear Hellenic sky and the cobalt blue of the Mediterranean, the parched hills and pine woods of the Peloponnese, the dazzling light and the warm sun on my body, and the ruins and bones of antiquity sang a siren’s song. As Jack Bruce warbled: You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever, but you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun. And the colours of the sea bind your eyes with trembling mermaids, and you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses. My thoughts and dreams no longer ranged eastwards. My next journey took me back to the Mediterranean, and thence, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great – the golden hero of legend, not the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” destroyer – through the Middle East and on to the famous well-trodden Hippie Trail to India”.
I’d never intended to hit the Hippie Trail back then, in the northern summer of 1971. In fact, I didn’t even know it existed.
I’d just finished my final exams and graduated with a good degree, and after three exciting and formative years, it was as if everything had suddenly ground to a halt. Uni was over; a romantic relationship was on the rocks; I was footloose and free, floating and feeling the urge to escape elsewhere, somewhere, anywhere. I’d no idea at all what I would do next, other than an inchoate plan to undertake post-graduate study – guided by my tutor and mentor exiled Hungarian academic Tibor Szamuely, my academic interest was Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but that was to be down the track.
When the finals results came out, I spent the evening at the student union with friends, unwinding and getting pissed; and the very next day, I walked into the Student Travel office and booked a one-way air ticket to Athens, passage by steamer from Piraeus to Alexandria via Limassol, Cyprus, and from Egypt to Piraeus and thence to Tel Aviv, Israel, with no bookings for onward travel.
Seized by the idea of visiting the two principal antagonists of the almost recent Six Day War, I’d a naive and uninformed notion to view both sides of the Arab-Israeli puzzle. Within a few weeks, I’d bought a second-hand rucksack and sleeping bag, converted my savings to traveller’s cheques – there were still currency restrictions in the UK on how much cash you could take out of the country – packed a few things, and in the words of Cat Stevens, I was “on the road to find out”. That road took me through the Middle East, and on and on, until I reached Kolkata in Bengal. What was planned as but a two month holiday to “clear my mind out”, to quote Cat again, extended to over six months as the appetite grew with the eating.
And so I travelled through lands of which I knew little, picking up fragments of history and heritage, parables and politics as onwards I roamed
My final hitching hejiras were played out in the Levant – an Indian traveller I’d met in a Cairo youth hostel had told me that if I thought the slums of Cairo were bad – and to a naive Brummie, they were – I should see those in Kolkata. So that is what I resolved to do. Leaving Egypt, I found my way to Damascus by way of Beirut, with a side-trip to Israel via Cyprus, and on a quixotic notion, I resolved to visit Aqaba, and also Petra, the ancient “rose” city. Back then, I knew next to nothing about the Middle East. I’d recalled Aqaba from the film Lawrence of Arabia; and I’d been told that Petra was a “must see” by a fellow traveller in my Damascus hostel. So, I set off south, to Dara’a, a border town where Lawrence was allegedly captured and buggered by the Turks, and which was, in recent times, the spark that ignited the Syrian civil war.
The Jordanian border lay just beyond Dera’a, but all traffic thereto was forbidden – the Syrian and Jordanian army had just fought a desultory tank battle in one of the many ricochets of the latter’s suppression of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation after the failed Black September intifada the year before. The border checkpoints were still open, however, to traffic from Jordan only. So I walked across a kind of no man’s land, past tank tracks and the occasional military wreck. There was a large concrete marker at the actual borderline, with “welcome to jordan” on one side and “welcome to Syria” on the other. It was a surreal space. It’s was twilight and high summer. The air was hot and still and there was almost total silence. No birdsong, an imperceptible warm wind. And of a sudden, there was a buzzing of flies which which swarmed all about me and the marker. I walked on and before too long, passed through passport control with a tourist visa, and thumbed a ride to Amman, the capital.
I slept that night on the outskirts of Amman and continued on to Ma’an, the jump-off point for the village of Wadi Musa and Petra. Onwards then to Aqaba where, having paddled in the sea and walked about the town, I headed back straightaway the way I’d come, to Ma’an, Amman, Dera’a and Damascus – from whence I took the fabled Nairn Bus across the desert to Baghdad. From there, I traveled by bus through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and finally, by train, to Delhi and journey’s end, Kolkata, in the midst of a cholera epidemic and a refugee crisis that was a prelude to the Indo-Pakistan war that led to the birth of Bangladesh.
If you never go, you’ll never grow
With that, I’ll conclude these travellers’ tales, observing in the present how in all my journeying, I never came to harm, whether by accident, misadventure or malignancy.
As noted in opening paragraphs, there was the “combination of thrift, expedience, and necessity, but also, a sense of romantic adventure – buoyed by what seems in retrospect, a naive sense of invulnerability” .
Back in the day, hitchhiking in Britain and on the continent was taken for granted and hitchers were commonplace, even if the practice was frowned upon by the straighteners and the fearful. In the Levant, it was a rare thing. Passers-by would often ask what I was doing, and why I traveled thus. Saving money, I’d reply, I was on a budget and had a long way to go – which was indeed the case in the days when credit cards had yet to be invented and the cash and travellers’ cheques in your body belt were all you had to get your thousands of miles. But you come from a rich country, they’d say, adding that there were cheap service-taxis and buses, and that it was dangerous and there were men out there who would rob you or do you harm. Yes, but I have a long way to go. A policeman in Jerash in northern Jordan served me Arab tea and cakes and sat me down on a bench outside the police station whilst he flagged down a driver he considered to be a decent man.
Like those Israelis hitching between towns and villages in Israel and between settlements in the Occupied Territories, we who traveled the world before jumbo jets and cruise ships understood that bad things could happen and that they sometimes did whether you journeyed by thumb, van, bus or train. In hotels and hostels from Beirut to Baghdad, Kabul to Kolkata, you’d pick up word-of-mouth “travel advisories”, warnings and “war stories”. In India, I’d been told of a chap who’d been robbed and stranded in Afghanistan, and I actually met him when I bunked down in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, on my way back to Britain.
So yes, there always was a risk; but if you think too much about it, you’d never go, and if you never go, you’ll never grow.
Fifty years ago this month, on August 20, 1968, troops from the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance formed in 1955 between the Soviet Union and seven Eastern European nations in its thrall invaded Czechoslovakia to crush liberal reforms enacted by communist leader Alexander Dubçek in the brief era known as the Prague Spring. In ex post factum justification, the following month, LeonidBrezhnev, General Secretary if the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, expounded what became known as The Brezhnev Doctrine: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries”.
The Brezhnev Doctrine was meant to counter liberalization efforts and uprisings that had that challenged Soviet hegemony inside the Eastern Bloc, considered by Moscow as an essential defensive and strategic buffer in the event hostilities were to break out with NATO, the western alliance. In practice, it meant thatbloc members enjoyed but limited independence. Any challenge to the cohesiveness of the Eastern Bloc, whether, by either threatening the communist parties’ grip on power, or Lenin forbid, actually attempt to secede, the Soviet Union assumed the authority and the power to define “socialism” and “capitalism“, and to act militarily to defend the status quo.
With Dubçek detained and Prague occupied, the country was subsequently taken over by a hard-line Communist regime subservient to Moscow. In 1968 alone, 137 people were killed by Warsaw Pact soldiers, and a total of more than 400 died during an ccupation of that ended only after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, when veteran dissident poet Vacláv Havel became the first and last democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia – he served from 1989 until the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992 when he became the first President of the Czech Republic.
The events in Prague in August 1968 are described and appraised in an recent, informative ‘long read’ in The Independent, republished below.
With friends like these…
But first, as part of a continuing chronicle of the events of 1968 in Into That Howling Infinite (see below), here are some recollections of my own.
The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was in many ways a seminal event in my own journeying. Until then, I was a political ingenue and a naive communist (yes, a member – the only party I have ever joined!) fellow-traveler, although my evolving perspectives were transforming and expanding as I studied the history and politics of Russia and the Soviet Union, under the tutelage of exiled Hungarian academic Tibor Szamuely.
The summer’s events in what is now-bisected Czechoslovakia occurred against a backdrop of anti-war demonstrations in the US, including the Kent State shootings (“four dead in Ohio”), the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the tumultuous evenementsde Mai ‘68 in Paris. These came as I was writing a dissertation on the Hungarian Rising of 1956 – a tragic precursor to Prague and to Brezhnev’s doctrine – and provided a pertinent background narrative and also, a coda for my story.
The shock-waves of the Prague pogrom rippled through my own world the following August when I was contemplating how to spend my summer vacation once I had earned enough money on the motorway construction site to pay for my travels.
I had a Czech friend – self-exiled Camille –who encouraged me to visit his country that summer and to drop in on his folks in Prague. Having completed my dissertation, I was pretty keen to visit such a historical and controversial city. So I booked a one-way ticket to Prague on British Caledonia – my first-ever aeroplane flight! It was my intention to visit the place where “Good King Wenceslas last looked out” and then head home to England via Austria and Germany.
But, as they say, man proposes, God disposes. Or life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. The date I’d chosen to travel just happened to fall a year to the day of the Soviet invasion. Our turboprop plane headed east into what was still the Soviet Bloc – that had twenty yeqrs to run – and flew OVER Prague! The first we happy travellers – students mostly – knew was that we were circling to land in the Hungarian capital of Budapest.
So there we were, in passport control, without visas and accommodation, our itineraries awry, amidst border officials who were wondering who the hell we were and what the f@$£ we were doing there in their portal to the Iron Curtain. Eventually, things were sorted, visas issued, money exchanged (exorbitantly, as was the way in those days), and a bus provided to take us to a Communist Party Youth hostel, bleak, spartan, and crowded with enthusiastic, gorgeous Young Communist lads and lasses.
So there I was, in my first communist country. And, you know what, “they who know only England, who only England know”. I walked through old Buda and Pest, strolled by the Danube and the Sejm, the famous parliament building, walked the boulevards of my dissertation, and saw the scars of battle still there in the brickwork twelve years after the doomed Intifada of 1956.
I’d heard and read about how the affluent and decadent west was an altogether different and better world than the drab, depressed and depressing cities of the workers’ paradises to our east. And yet, to my ingenue eyes, the look, life and life-style of Budapest appeared no better or worse than my Birmingham and Berkshire backwaters.
Maybe it was because of my youth, inexperience, and background – maybe I hadn’t traveled enough to interpret and to judge. Apart from brief Boy Scout and schoolboy excursions into Europe-lite, Brit-friendly Belgium and Luxembourg, this was my first foray into distinctly ‘foreign’ lands with histories, cultures, governance, and world views quite different to the fields that I had known.
I’d like to think that perhaps it is something intrinsically part of my software – an ability to adapt, accept, empathize, and, as far as it is indeed possible for a stranger, to become one with the scenery and slip into the machinery, and, to put it bluntly, take it all at face value. As a “stranger in a strange land”, I accepted what I saw, observed, heard and learned, moved on – to quote American beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti – like “a mirror walking down a strange street’. For this is how I traveled in thise roving years, leaving very little by way of words and pictures of my travelling. All I saw, heard, observed, felt and learned was mostly stashed away on my hard-drive to be accessed in latter years – waiting, perhaps, for the advent of social media, blogs and highly portable electronic devices.
Given the circumstances of our arrival, and the atmosphere prevailing in the Bloc on the anniversary of Prague invasion, the authorities had given me a visa for four days only. I had therefore to depart the country quick-smart. I had effectively two choices of non-Soviet countries –westwards to Austria, or south to what was then Yugoslavia. In a split second decision, I took the road less traveled – south to Szeged and the Serbian border. Wondering through the rural outskirts of Novi Sad, I was taken home by a pair of Serbian boys. I spent my first evening with their most hospitable family and slept that night on a bed of furs. “Novi Sad, Beograd” the lads had chanted, and so, instead of setting my direction home, I hitch-hiked south to the ancient Danube city of Belgrade.
In the Yugoslav capital, I resolved to keep going southwards. Over the next two weeks, I transited Yugoslavia to Thessaloniki, where decided to continue with my southern odyssey – to Athens and the Greek Islands. At journeys end, I hitchhiked back the way I’d come, only this time, reaching Austria via the Croatian capital of Zagreb.
That impulsive decision in Budapest led me into new pastures. Back in Britain, an Indian summer gave way to bleak autumn and dark and damp winter, and my compass re-calibrated. I had been focused on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, on deep history and the Russian ‘soul’ (whatever that might be), on ideologies, betrayals, and Cold War skulduggery. But the clear Hellenic sky and the cobalt blue of the Mediterranean, the parched hills and pine woods of the Peloponnese, the dazzling light and the warm sun on my body, and the ruins and bones of antiquity sang a siren’s song. As Jack Bruce warbled:
You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever, but you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun. And the colours of the sea bind your eyes with trembling mermaids, and you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses.
My thoughts and dreams no longer ranged eastwards. My next journey took me back to the Mediterranean, and thence, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great – the golden hero of legend, not the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” destroyer – through the Middle East and on to the Hippy Trail to India. There and back again, to quote JRR Tolkien, so fresh in my undergraduate canon. I traveled through lands of which I knew little, picking up fragments of history and heritage, parables and politics as onwards I roamed.
Through the lands of antiquity and of empire: Greece and Cyprus; Egypt and Israel; the Levant (old French for the lands of the rising sun – Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan; Iraq before Saddam, and Iran under the Shah; Pakistan and India, who went to war with each other whilst I crossed their frontiers (a story for another time); and then back to Britain by way of Turkey and the fabled Pudding Shop.
I stood beside the great rivers of ancient stories – the Nile, the Jordan and the Orontes, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and the Ganges. I traveled though deserts and mountains, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. I climbed through the Kyber Pass, immortalised by imperialendeavour and hubris, and the valley of Kashmir, a betrayed and battered paradise. I stood atop ancient stones in Memphis and Masada, Baalbek and Babylon, Jalalabadand Jerusalem.
On my return, I resolved to learn more about these lands, their peoples, and their histories, and this I did. The Middle East has long-since captivated and colonized much of my intellectual life, Imbuing it with a passion that has found expression in my persona. my politics, my prose, my poetry, and my songs.
In these troubled times, much of the world I once traveled is closed to the casual and the curious. I mourn for those dear, dead days when the map of the world was a signpost and not a warning. But today, I go wherever and whenever I can go, and I feel a wonderful sense of homecoming when I touch down in the bright sunlight. I get the thrill of fresh adventure when I arrive in new places with their sights, sounds and aromas. I reclaim and revel in the curiosity and wonder, knowledge and understanding, awareness and wisdom that was born back there in Budapest.
And that is how Leonid Brezhnev changed my life!
These are the lands of testament and prophecy, of sacrifice and sacrament, of seers and sages, of vision and vicissitude, of warriors and holy men. The spiritual and the temporal have melded here since time immemorial. We still see the remnants of ancient empires and the echoes of their faiths. We can chart their decline and fall in the fortunes of their monuments and their mausoleums, in the “tumbled towers and fallen stones, broken statues, empty tombs” where “ghosts of commoners and kings walk the walls and catacombs of the castles and the shrines”. Histories carved in stone,mysteries locked in stone, as “canyons and castles pass ageless and ageing and captive in time”.Forward to East – An Arab Anthology.
The Prague Spring: 50 years on what can we learn from Czechoslovakia’s failed attempt to reform communism?
Mick O’Hare, The Independent, 19 August 2018
Fifty years ago this week, on 21 August 1968, the citizens of Prague awoke to find tanks on their streets. For some it came as no surprise. Student activist Pavel Kamenicky was sleeping. “At first I thought it was the university bus trying to find the right gear,” he says. “But I realised it was way too loud. I jumped up thinking, ‘they’ve come’.”
Czechoslovakia had dominated news bulletins throughout the summer after its premier, First Secretary Alexander Dubcek, had begun reforming his communist government’s structures earlier that year. But now, what had become known as the Prague Spring, or Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face”, was lying crushed beneath the tank tracks in Wenceslas Square.
The Soviet Union feared its grip on the satellite states of eastern Europe was loosening and its patience had finally run out. Czechoslovakia and Dubcek had fallen foul of USSR leaderLeonid Brezhnev’s eponymous doctrine, espoused retroactively in justification the month after Warsaw Pact troops took to Prague’s streets: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries,” Brezhnev said.
Soviet forces, alongside those of Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria, crossed the Czechoslovakian border at 11pm on the evening of 20 August. East Germany withdrew at the last minute when it was realised that, just over two decades after the end of the Second World War, the presence of German troops on Czech and Slovak soil could lead to unintended repercussions. The following morning, the foreign soldiers were in the capital, offering fraternal support to loyal comrades in Czechoslovakia.
Soviet tanks had intervened in post-war eastern Europe before. Towards the end of October in 1956, Hungarians revolted against their Marxist-Leninist governmentand declared a new administration, withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact and disbanding the communist-run state security apparatus. But barely two and half weeks later the western world watched aghast, but impotent, as Soviet forces entered Budapest to restore one-party rule.
Yet there had been real hope that Czechoslovakia could be different. 1968 was, of course, a year of revolution and political protest across the planet. But the Czechoslovak version was in many ways a rather gentler form of dissent. Dubcek had never set out to overthrow communism, merely to reform it.
The nation’s planned economy had been in decline throughout the 1960s. Dubcek had replaced previous first secretary, Antonín Novotný, in January 1968 and had attempted to liberalise communist party rule by tolerating political institutions and organisations not directly controlled by the party. Even multi-party government was mooted. More repressive laws were loosened, travel was made easier and freedom of expression, especially in media, accepted.
Leonid Brezhnev shares a joke with US president Richard Nixon in 1973 (AP)
Unwittingly though, Dubcek had created either a vicious or a virtuous circle, depending on one’s political viewpoint. Reform emboldened progressives and led to demand for further liberalisation. Dissidents, especially students, but also the wider population in numerous Soviet satellite nations, began to push for similar freedoms.
He was wrong: 2,000 tanks and a 250,000-strong Soviet-led force of men invaded on Brezhnev’s orders; 137 Czechoslovak civilians were killed resisting; and, pleading with his citizens not to fight back, Dubcek was flown to Moscow.
Some citizens used the power of argument to voice their opposition, engaging troops in discussion to make their point – until photographs were used in Soviet propaganda to suggest the locals were making friends with the invaders. Dubcek returned as little more than a puppet of the Soviet regime and was replaced early in 1969. Half a million of his supporters were expelled from the Communist Party.
The members of Nato, especially the United States – already involved in conflict in Vietnam and aiming to broker a disarmament agreement with the Soviet Union – condemned the invasion but had no intention of intervening. In the aftermath, 300,000 Czechoslovaks, many highly qualified, emigrated to the west, although the authorities soon clamped down on their ability to leave.
The period between 1969 and 1971 is known in Czechoslovak history as the era of “normalisation”. The country returned to the Soviet fold; opposition both within and without the country faded; and the Communist Party returned to the hardline position it had held before the onset of the Prague Spring.
So, 50 years later, what does the anniversary offer today’s Europeans still struggling with political upheaval and, certainly in the east of the continent, getting to grips with increasingly nationalistic, repressive governments? Apart from the sense of betrayal felt by Czechs and Slovaks, both towards their own government and their supposed allies, and the reminder that totalitarianism brooks no dissent, are there lessons to be learned from the Prague Spring; and what became of Dubcek, its architect? Unsurprisingly the legacy is complex – as legacies are wont to be.
Perhaps the key to understanding Czechoslovakia in 1968 is that, unlike similar uprisings against the establishment, both in communist Europe but also elsewhere around the world – witness the Arab Spring of 2010 and 2011 – the Prague Spring was not a movement of only liberals, students (among other young people) and political intellectuals fighting a conservative establishment. It had wider cross-generational support drawing on the strong traditions of democracy that had developed in Czechoslovakia between the two world wars, after its formation in 1918.
Czech-born writer Milan Kundera, author of the Unbearable Lightness of Being, who lived in exile in France from 1975, argued that it was a movement falling back on the “best traditions” of Czechoslovakia’s brief history: a “higher quality of democracy not based on the ills associated with capitalism”. By contrast, the later revolutions that would finally overthrow communism in Europe at the end of the 1980s were driven as much by the “victory” of Reaganism, free-market economics and monetarism as they were by the right to vote freely and express opinions openly.
It has become fashionable, with hindsight, to blame the suppression of the Prague Spring on “communism”. But let it not be forgotten that it was fervent communists who were carrying out Czechoslovakia’s reforms. Whether the Prague Spring was a “purer” revolution than those that followed is probably an argument for political ideologues alone, but a glance across the border towards Viktor Orban’s Hungary shows that the spoils of the “freedom” won in 1989 might not always manifest themselves with good intent.
Two decades after Dubcek’s attempt to reform communism from within, the then premier of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, issued an apology on behalf of all Warsaw Pact nations, stating that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was a mistake, and that the USSR should never have interfered in the internal affairs of another sovereign state. (It should be noted that both Romania and Albania had refused to participate in the 1968 intervention; and Albania ultimately withdrew from the Warsaw Pact in the aftermath.)
It was the culmination of a number of apologies from Warsaw Pact nations throughout 1989 and it seems reasonable to argue that there was a direct link between these acknowledgements and the overthrow of communist governments in East Germany, Poland, Romania and, most poignantly, Czechoslovakia, that same year. Protesters realised that their actions would no longer lead to Red Army interference, and the Soviet bloc of eastern European nations had replaced their communist rulers within months of one another.
Perhaps 1968 showed us, if 1956 had not already, that the post-war façade of communist interdependence, internationalism and fraternal allegiance was broken, if indeed it had ever been more than a charade at all. The alliance was built on flimsy foundations and maintained by suppression. Czech historical novelist and writer Ivan Klíma has said that – for good or ill – the most important legacy of the Prague Spring was the delayed but ultimate destruction of the international communist movement.
But warnings must still be heeded. In a world where a nationalistically invigorated Russia under Vladimir Putin increasingly looks beyond its borders for a bulwark against Nato and the EU, the demise of communism and the Warsaw Pact does not mean a concurrent diminishing of militarism: the annexation of Crimea by Russia has shown us that very clearly. And – even putting aside the Brexit debate – illiberal governments in Slovakia, Poland and Hungary threaten to overturn the European Union’s free-market liberal consensus. The threat, while changed in ideology, still lurks.
And what of Dubcek? After he was ousted as first secretary he worked for the forestry service near Bratislava, in his native Slovakia. And after the final overthrow of communist rule in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution of 1989 he briefly returned to political prominence as chairman of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly, and later as leader of the Slovak Social Democrats.
Pavel Kamenicky, now 70, says: “We were idealistic. But Dubcek should have realised what was going to happen. Did he really think Brezhnev would shrug and say ‘carry on’?” On the other hand, Dubcek’s son Pavol has defended his father’s position, once saying: “I don’t know if people really understand what it meant to have your fate in Brezhnev’s hands.”
For right or wrong, however, Dubcek had in truth become more or less a political irrelevance by the time of the Velvet Revolution. Václav Havel, the poet and statesman who played a prominent role in the events of 1989 and became Czechoslovakia’s first post-Soviet era president, said: “Dubcek is a symbol of our nice memories, but nobody thinks he can influence the situation now.” Dubcek himself rarely spoke of 1968.
Although a Slovak, Dubcek was opposed to the 1993 split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia and maintained his belief in the idea of a single, united nation. He was killed in a car crash in 1992, declared in an official investigation to be an accident. Conspiracy theories abound and even today 50 per cent of those Slovaks who know of him believe his death was almost certainly not an accident.
The crushing of the Prague Spring continues to echo down the ages, its eventual legacy yet to be determined.
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. Once open farmland, a place of market gardens and horse riding (back in the day, Adèle and I would canter across its gently rolling paddocks), it is now a suburban sprawl of McMansions.
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. Mary would serve tea to the bomb-disposal lads as they carried out their dangerous work. When her sister died and daddy Paddy (Patrick Joseph, my middle names) 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, but my brother Robert recently chased down the records. Paddy also crossed the water, passing on in Leicester – not that far from Brum – in 1985 at the age of eighty.
My father arrived in Brum by another road. He was born in Castlederg in County Tyrone. An Ulster man, indeed, and Protestant too, He and several of his brothers has likewise crossed the water in search of a new life. Most Ulster ‘Proddies’ migrated to Glasgow in those days – the original homeland of the the Protestant settlement of Ulster initiated by King James I of England and consolidated with Orange King Billy’s victory over the forces of catholic ex-king James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. you can read more about all that here, and its legacy in Northern Ireland here. How he and my mom got together is another story and quite unrelated to this one. But it had a lot to do with the times. geography, coincidence, miscommunication, innocence – and romance.
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 pekingese called Monty, named for the famous field Marshall, and an ancient white cat called Gorgee. Monty was flattened by a bus on Moseley Road, right outside our home.
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. “In comes the captain’s daughter, the captain of the Yeos …” – I’ve always wondered what became of that young rebel lass. Transported to Australia with hundreds of others, maybe? The songlines of my Celtic twilight.
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
As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood
Fifty years ago, conservative British MP Enoch Powell got himself sacked as a shadow minister after he controversially warned that Britain would face “rivers of blood” if it did not reduce immigration. The BBC has now kicked off a shit-storm by announcing that Scottish actor and erstwhile Stars Wars emperor Ian McDiarmid will recite Enoch’s incendiary speech in full for the very first time.
What Powell said back then, at closed gathering of Conservative Party faithful in Birmingham on 20th April 1968, was regarded as unacceptably over the top, rhetorical hyperbole. But we get stuff like this all the time these days. Every Tom, Dick and Himmler on the right of politics from Brixton to Brisbane, from Galveston to Gdańsk, from Hopkins to Hanson, come up with this and worse every day – to the delight of dog-whistling shock-jocks, populist politicians, and angry white men and women who hanker after the “good old days’ and want somebody or other to go back to where they’re came from – which quite often happens to be just around the corner: comedian Lenny Henry, raised in the Midlands’ Black Country (just west of Birmingham) which many wanted to make white, would satirize such white delusions: In a gig at West Bromwich , he said the National Front wanted to give black people £1,000 to go home. Fine, Henry said: after all, that would more than cover his bus fare back to Dudley.
After what was regarded at the time as Britain’s most racist election in 1964, Liverpudlian bard Brian Pattenpenned the wistful, unseasonable I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick (just down the road from Brum and Dudley) in response to the the mood of certain sections in the population about immigration, a mood which entered the national dialogue in odorous array once Enoch let slip the hounds of woe, and which, as the Brexit referendum and its fallout continue to demonstrate, has never dissipated.
Immigration debates are running hot in western democracies, including down here in Australia, and on the neo-authoritarian eastern edges of the European Union, as fringe and mainstream parties defend and propound their invariably conflicting and flawed understanding of western civilization against disparate and often doomsday scenarios of mass migration, islamification, and ‘white replacement”.
This is not, however, the time or place to engage with these issues. The fiftieth anniversary of Enoch’s seminal “Rivers of Blood” speech has been greeted with many articles and reminiscences. This one in the New York Review of Books, Enoch, Bageye and Me, I found particularly informative and also entertaining. A piece in the Guardian on thatinfamous Smethwick by-electionis also worth reading. I reproduce Brian Patten’s poem below.
But right now, I want to leave the commemoration and commentary to the pundits and recall my own encounters with the phenomenon of Enoch Powell. I never actually met the man – the nearest I ever got to him was about twenty metres – let’s just say that on several occasions, our paths intersected
Back in the day, the words that Enoch had made flesh were not to be said in polite company. And yet, they could not be unsaid, and in pubs, parlours and playgrounds across Britain, he strummed a power chord long before these were invented.
In the summer of 1968, I had completed my final school year in, yes, Birmingham, of all places, at what was then emphatically white-bread, boys-only Moseley Grammar School.
Those hypothetical rivers of blood had a particular resonance in the industrial West Midlands with its motor industries and variegated populace a long-time home of immigrants and their descendants from all quarters of the coloured commonwealth. As I have written earlier, the bleak and bland streets and suburbs of our English and Irish Birmingham were already rocking with new sounds and flavours, from the ska and reggae beats of Sparkhill to the spicy aromas of Balsall Heath and Alum Rock. There was prejudice, there was discrimination, there was at times violence, but as Britain emerged from the austerity of the war years, as the bombed cities were rebuilt, and a resuscitated economy created a consumer society, labour shortages persuaded politicians to facilitate mass immigration from the empire – and particularly, from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent (See: Weighing the White Man’s Burden)
And Birmingham, the Motown of the north, was at the heart of the calabash. But scratch its skin, and you find … Ron Simcox.
I spent the summer of ‘68 working as a labourer on a building site in Chelmsely Wood on the outskirts of Brum. Back then, my back was strong, my eye was keen, and my ears were sharp – and my memory for conversations, well, it must’ve been good, because a few years later, I was able to recall almost verbatim the world according to Simcox, a dark angel washed in White Tide. Warning! Bad language follows.
Ganger-man, foreman, industrial spy, jack of all trades, agent provocateur, martinet, scourge of the to bureaucrats, friend of the workers, champion of the oppressed, bless his soul and damn his eyes in the same breath. The man’s an institution – like prostitution. Big mouth, big belly, very big. Look, look at my tan, my body beautiful, “all muscle 18 stone and still as fit as a 18 year old!”
“Go to the other shop – not to the black man’s. You don’t know what filth he has in that place. Mind you, his bird could do with a good seeing to …”
“Bleedin’ wogs – we never should’ve let ‘em in now. Old Enoch Powell’s dead bloody right, int’e. We should kick ‘em all back to fucking India. If I had my way, I’d shoot the bleeding lot of them filthy cunts, coming over here and spreading their diseases, an’ fillin’ up all our hospitals, and taking the money and sending it all back home, and getting the fuck out of here when they get it …”
“We should offer to pay to pay ‘em a thousand quid each to go home, then put them in a boat and send them all to Jamaica or wherever the black monkeys come from. And when they’re in the middle of the ocean, torpedo the lot of them buggers. Anybody who gets to Jamaica after that would deserve the thousand bloody quid, I tell you!”
Ron couldn’t brook the shirkers, could Ron. But that was easy as he was always heard before he was seen even, and even if you had pleasure of gazing upon this Adam, he would rarely see you as he was for ever distracted by the body he was always admiring in car windows or or by the local talent of the estate across the way.
“How would you like those thighs around you, eh? Corr! I could take that one from behind!”
Ah, Ron, a way with words. “What are you doin’ Enoch? Come ‘ere bollock-chops. Fucking stoodents – good for nothing bastards. If I had my way, y’know what I’d do to these stoodents if they caused trouble? You know what I’d do. I’d turn the fuckin’ sewer hoses on ‘em, I would, cover ‘em in shit. Then they’d have to wash to get rid of the smell. Turn the hoses on ‘em. Cover ‘em in all the shit and rubbish, and all the jonnies and the jammies and the slime. That’d really shake ‘em up and give ‘em some sense it would!”
Always a one for words was Ron. All this and the big blue tractor too. Nine hours a day, six days a week and thirty quid at the end of it …
Among the Left, of course, Enoch was the fifth horseman of the black apocalypse. Even his name, with its Old Testament pedigree, was vicariously baleful. I recall his patrician mug on the cover of many a Private Eye, and artist Gerald Scarfe’s visceral caricature of the metaphorical hornèd one recoiling from a jar of Robertson’s Marmalade (golliwog and all – and, did you know that you can still buy golliwogs in Australia?)
Soon after Enoch’s incendiary oratory, prime and minister Harold Wilson chose a wet and windy Sunday afternoon in Spring to attend a Labour party function at Birmingham’s Victorian town hall. It was just over a month since the memorable mêlée in front of the American embassy in Grosvenor Square, and many of us, students, unionists, anarchists, and a raj taj and bobtail of South Asian organisations, anticipated a confrontation with Birmingham’s finest. We were, predictably, outmaneuvered and outnumbered, and in an early incarnation of what today we call “kettling”, the “wabble of woudy webels” were hemmed in, facing uphill on Bennett’s Hill, a wind-swept side street of Birmingham’s finance district. We learnt there, as we did during those Vietnam demonstrations in Grosvenor Square, that there’s no greater killer of revolutionary passion than the sight of a wall of fat horse’s arses backing towards you with those nervous hooves a’twitching (see: The Twilight of the Equine Gods).
Children of the Revolution
But I digress. Enoch! He was like catnip to the young and not so young of what was then the idealistic, radical, and what with Vietnam and Paris providing the fuel, fired-up left. What was it Old William Wordsworth said? “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven”. As Marc would later warble, “you can’t stop the children of the revolution, oh, no…”
Later that year, I had gone up to Reading University, and as one would in those dynamic days – though not so many working class lads like myself – and, as a political ingenue, I was soon involved in sundry sit-ins and soviets. It was what young students did. Enoch Powell, exiled to the back bench, was at lose end. He had yet to be born-again as an Ulster Unionist MP, this most Churchillian – in a turncoat sense – of politicians. And like many career-truncated pollies nowadays, he had embarked on what was then a not so lucrative speakers circuit – and he was addressing the Conservative Club on the subject of … economics!
Naturally, we arrived well in advance, revved up and ready for revolution, and totally packed the lecture hall. The Young Tories were left out in the cold in their tweeds and twinsets (really, that’s what straight folk wore in those days, particularly Reading University which boasted a reputable college of agriculture that attracted the sons and a few daughters of the rural shires). When Enoch entered, there was sheer pandemonium. Cat-calls, wolf-whistles, swearwords, and those corny couplets that folk chant at marches (“Yes, we are all individuals!”). You couldn’t hear a bomb drop. The Antichrist just stood there at the lectern, cool, calm and collected as the vitriol poured over and around him. In retrospect, knowing as I do now that he’d “had a good war” as a decorated, veteran combat officer in World War 2, he was ice-cool under fire. Stock-still, silent, that famous, disdainful mug of his calm and expressionless. As the hubbub subsided, people got bored, tired, and impatient, muttered and mumbled, and shut up. And he gave his prepared speech. On economics. No old Roman aphorisms. No allusions or innuendo. Plain and simple, dry, economics. And gave it well. Cogent, it was, the odd joke, even, and informative. He had our interest, had our attention, and we listened. And when he’d finished, he was given a standing ovation. In recognition of his courage, I would like to think. Like Daniel in the lion’s den and the three amigos in the fiery furnace cool as a cucumber.
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick
(An old, never-to-be-forgotten song by Brian Patten)
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick,
One I didn’t want to know,
Where they’ll have allwhite, allright children
And the White and White Minstrel Show.
I’m Dreaming of a White Smethwick
Where they’ll have a brandnew dance;
Teach their kids to close their eyes
And forget that once
Strange men came to Smethwick
With slogans whitewashed on their minds,
They campaigned about a while
And left their shit behind.
I saw black father christmasses
Burning in the snow,
Protesting to the Opposition
About what happened a while ago.
The last blackbird’s been shot in Smethwick
And the council’s doing allright,
The M.P.’s in the Commons
Making sure his words are white.
Chorus: May all your days be merry and bright
And may all your citizens be white.
Poet’s Note: As in numerous folk songs, the words may be improvised on to suit the present.
By all ye cry or whisper, By all ye leave or do, The silent sullen peoples Shall weigh your Gods and you.
And where the crazy whiteman And his teargas happiness Lies dead and long since buried By his own fantastic mess
As a young lad in Birmingham, my school chums and I would be enthralled by a world map covered in red – the empire upon which the sun never set. As Britain turns its back on Europe, it would seem that quite a few folk are still enamoured of the defunct Imperium. A 2014 YouGov opinion poll that found 59% British people polled believed the old British Empire was something to be proud of. 34% wished they still had one.
Back in the day, we’d do school projects about cocoa cultivation on the Gold Coast (now Ghana, not our Australian schoolies’ mecca), rubber trees in Malaya and East Africa, and tea plantations in Assam and Ceylon – enhanced by attractive, child-friendly posters and other educational aids provided gratis by the likes of Cadbury, Dunlop and Typhoo. That these household names had factories in our industrial ‘second city’ which encouraged school outings rendered the wonders of empire all the more tangible.
In the Britain of my childhood, the “silent sullen peoples” of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem were beginning to “colour-up” (pun quite intended) our monochrome, white-bread, demographic cityscape. The bleak and bland streets and suburbs of our English and Irish Birmingham were already rocking with new sounds and flavours, from the ska and reggae beats of Sparkhill to the spicy aromas of Balsall Heath and Alum Rock. There was prejudice, there was discrimination, there was at times violence, but as Britain emerged from the austerity of the war years, as the bombed cities were rebuilt, and a resuscitated economy created a consumer society, labour shortages persuaded politicians to facilitate mass immigration from the empire – and particularly, from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent
Words like imperialism and colonialism, economics and exploitation, were yet to enter our vocabularies. The colonies and dependencies spread across all continents, and the ‘grown-up’ white ‘commonwealths’ and ‘dominions’ like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and Rhodesia, were the friends, partners, and indeed, children of the mother country.
It was, we perceived, in the innocence of youth and the blinkers of our school curricula, a benign and fruitful partnership of mutual benefit to all. “To serve our captives’ need”, we gave them our civilizing, Judeo-Christian, Anglo-Celtic values, our able and empathetic if patronizing and prejudiced administrators, our gallant soldiers, pious pastors, selfless doctors and inspiring teachers. They in return yielded up their natural resources and an abundance of cheap labour, and when the Empire was imperiled, they despatched their young men in their thousands to perish in our wars.
We were not to know that the mournful notes of the Last Post were sounding across a changing post-war world. The Union Jack was was descending on buildings and parade grounds the world over as unfamiliar new flags were raised in their stead. Tired, broke, and damaged Britain was retreating from Empire, as were France and the Netherlands, and a new imperium was rising in the west. Within a decade, India, and Pakistan and Ceylon were joined by Indonesia, and a score of young nations emerged throughout Africa. France fought long and bloody wars in Vietnam and Algeria to cling on to its colonial patrimony, and it too finally let go of its “fluttered folk and wild”.
And we were not to know the reality of Britain’s “mission civilatrice”. From the seventeenth century, the European colonizing powers were enmeshed by trade, greed, and national aggrandizement in what today we would define as “mission creep”. Distant posts morphed over three centuries into vast bureaucracies, mines and plantations that underwrote the North’s industrial and commercial hegemony, and into societies ruled by white, expatriate elites and segregated by class, caste, clan and colour.
How all this played out in The Raj is described in detail by politician and historian Shashi Tharoor in Inglorious Empire: What the British did in India. This is reproduced below, together with a video, whilst the full Kipling poem, a song by Roy Harper, and a review by Australian author Christopher Kremmer follows.
Read also my earlier posts on India and the passing of Empire:
But what about the railways…? The myth of Britain’s gifts to India
Shashi Tharour, The Gusrdian, March 9, 2017
Many modern apologists for British colonial rule in India no longer contest the basic facts of imperial exploitation and plunder, rapacity and loot, which are too deeply documented to be challengeable. Instead they offer a counter-argument: granted, the British took what they could for 200 years, but didn’t they also leave behind a great deal of lasting benefit? In particular, political unity and democracy, the rule of law, railways, English education, even tea and cricket?
Indeed, the British like to point out that the very idea of “India” as one entity (now three, but one during the British Raj), instead of multiple warring principalities and statelets, is the incontestable contribution of British imperial rule.
Unfortunately for this argument, throughout the history of the subcontinent, there has existed an impulsion for unity. The idea of India is as old as the Vedas, the earliest Hindu scriptures, which describe “Bharatvarsha” as the land between the Himalayas and the seas. If this “sacred geography” is essentially a Hindu idea, Maulana Azad has written of how Indian Muslims, whether Pathans from the north-west or Tamils from the south, were all seen by Arabs as “Hindis”, hailing from a recognisable civilisational space. Numerous Indian rulers had sought to unite the territory, with the Mauryas (three centuries before Christ) and the Mughals coming the closest by ruling almost 90% of the subcontinent. Had the British not completed the job, there is little doubt that some Indian ruler, emulating his forerunners, would have done so.
Far from crediting Britain for India’s unity and enduring parliamentary democracy, the facts point clearly to policies that undermined it – the dismantling of existing political institutions, the fomenting of communal division and systematic political discrimination with a view to maintaining British domination.
In the years after 1757, the British astutely fomented cleavages among the Indian princes, and steadily consolidated their dominion through a policy of divide and rule. Later, in 1857, the sight of Hindu and Muslim soldiers rebelling together, willing to pledge joint allegiance to the enfeebled Mughal monarch, alarmed the British, who concluded that pitting the two groups against one another was the most effective way to ensure the unchallenged continuance of empire. As early as 1859, the then British governor of Bombay, Lord Elphinstone, advised London that “Divide et impera was the old Roman maxim, and it should be ours”.
Since the British came from a hierarchical society with an entrenched class system, they instinctively looked for a similar one in India. The effort to understand ethnic, religious, sectarian and caste differences among Britain’s subjects inevitably became an exercise in defining, dividing and perpetuating these differences. Thus colonial administrators regularly wrote reports and conducted censuses that classified Indians in ever-more bewilderingly narrow terms, based on their language, religion, sect, caste, sub-caste, ethnicity and skin colour. Not only were ideas of community reified, but also entire new communities were created by people who had not consciously thought of themselves as particularly different from others around them.
Large-scale conflicts between Hindus and Muslims (religiously defined), only began under colonial rule; many other kinds of social strife were labelled as religious due to the colonists’ orientalist assumption that religion was the fundamental division in Indian society.
It is questionable whether a totalising Hindu or Muslim identity existed in any meaningful sense in India before the 19th century. Yet the creation and perpetuation of Hindu–Muslim antagonism was the most significant accomplishment of British imperial policy: the project of divide et impera would reach its culmination in the collapse of British authority in 1947. Partition left behind a million dead, 13 million displaced, billions of rupees of property destroyed, and the flames of communal hatred blazing hotly across the ravaged land. No greater indictment of the failures of British rule in India can be found than the tragic manner of its ending.
Nor did Britain work to promote democratic institutions under imperial rule, as it liked to pretend. Instead of building self-government from the village level up, the East India Company destroyed what existed. The British ran government, tax collection, and administered what passed for justice. Indians were excluded from all of these functions. When the crown eventually took charge of the country, it devolved smidgens of government authority, from the top, to unelected provincial and central “legislative” councils whose members represented a tiny educated elite, had no accountability to the masses, passed no meaningful legislation, exercised no real power and satisfied themselves they had been consulted by the government even if they took no actual decisions.
As late as 1920, under the Montagu-Chelmsford “reforms”, Indian representatives on the councils – elected by a franchise so restricted and selective that only one in 250 Indians had the right to vote – would exercise control over subjects the British did not care about, like education and health, while real power, including taxation, law and order and the authority to nullify any vote by the Indian legislators, would rest with the British governor of the provinces.
Democracy, in other words, had to be prised from the reluctant grasp of the British by Indian nationalists. It is a bit rich to oppress, torture, imprison, enslave, deport and proscribe a people for 200 years, and then take credit for the fact that they are democratic at the end of it.
A corollary of the argument that Britain gave India political unity and democracy is that it established the rule of law in the country. This was, in many ways, central to the British self-conception of imperial purpose; Kipling, that flatulent voice of Victorian imperialism, would wax eloquent on the noble duty to bring law to those without it. But British law had to be imposed upon an older and more complex civilisation with its own legal culture, and the British used coercion and cruelty to get their way. And in the colonial era, the rule of law was not exactly impartial.
Crimes committed by whites against Indians attracted minimal punishment; an Englishmen who shot dead his Indian servant got six months’ jail time and a modest fine (then about 100 rupees), while an Indian convicted of attempted rape against an Englishwoman was sentenced to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment. In the entire two centuries of British rule, only three cases can be found of Englishmen executed for murdering Indians, while the murders of thousands more at British hands went unpunished.
The death of an Indian at British hands was always an accident, and that of a Briton because of an Indian’s actions always a capital crime. When a British master kicked an Indian servant in the stomach – a not uncommon form of conduct in those days – the Indian’s resultant death from a ruptured spleen would be blamed on his having an enlarged spleen as a result of malaria. Punch wrote an entire ode to The Stout British Boot as the favoured instrument of keeping the natives in order.
Political dissidence was legally repressed through various acts, including a sedition law far more rigorous than its British equivalent. The penal code contained 49 articles on crimes relating to dissent against the state (and only 11 on crimes involving death).
Of course the British did give India the English language, the benefits of which persist to this day. Or did they? The English language was not a deliberate gift to India, but again an instrument of colonialism, imparted to Indians only to facilitate the tasks of the English. In his notorious 1835 Minute on Education, Lord Macaulay articulated the classic reason for teaching English, but only to a small minority of Indians: “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”
The language was taught to a few to serve as intermediaries between the rulers and the ruled. The British had no desire to educate the Indian masses, nor were they willing to budget for such an expense. That Indians seized the English language and turned it into an instrument for our own liberation – using it to express nationalist sentiments against the British – was to their credit, not by British design.
The construction of the Indian Railways is often pointed to by apologists for empire as one of the ways in which British colonialism benefited the subcontinent, ignoring the obvious fact that many countries also built railways without having to go to the trouble and expense of being colonised to do so. But the facts are even more damning.
The railways were first conceived of by the East India Company, like everything else in that firm’s calculations, for its own benefit. Governor General Lord Hardinge argued in 1843 that the railways would be beneficial “to the commerce, government and military control of the country”. In their very conception and construction, the Indian railways were a colonial scam. British shareholders made absurd amounts of money by investing in the railways, where the government guaranteed returns double those of government stocks, paid entirely from Indian, and not British, taxes. It was a splendid racket for Britons, at the expense of the Indian taxpayer.
The railways were intended principally to transport extracted resources – coal, iron ore, cotton and so on – to ports for the British to ship home to use in their factories. The movement of people was incidental, except when it served colonial interests; and the third-class compartments, with their wooden benches and total absence of amenities, into which Indians were herded, attracted horrified comment even at the time.
And, of course, racism reigned; though whites-only compartments were soon done away with on grounds of economic viability, Indians found the available affordable space grossly inadequate for their numbers. (A marvellous post-independence cartoon captured the situation perfectly: it showed an overcrowded train, with people hanging off it, clinging to the windows, squatting perilously on the roof, and spilling out of their third-class compartments, while two Britons in sola topis sit in an empty first-class compartment saying to each other, “My dear chap, there’s nobody on this train!”)
Nor were Indians employed in the railways. The prevailing view was that the railways would have to be staffed almost exclusively by Europeans to “protect investments”. This was especially true of signalmen, and those who operated and repaired the steam trains, but the policy was extended to the absurd level that even in the early 20th century all the key employees, from directors of the Railway Board to ticket-collectors, were white men – whose salaries and benefits were also paid at European, not Indian, levels and largely repatriated back to England.
Racism combined with British economic interests to undermine efficiency. The railway workshops in Jamalpur in Bengal and Ajmer in Rajputana were established in 1862 to maintain the trains, but their Indian mechanics became so adept that in 1878 they started designing and building their own locomotives. Their success increasingly alarmed the British, since the Indian locomotives were just as good, and a great deal cheaper, than the British-made ones. In 1912, therefore, the British passed an act of parliament explicitly making it impossible for Indian workshops to design and manufacture locomotives. Between 1854 and 1947, India imported around 14,400 locomotives from England, and another 3,000 from Canada, the US and Germany, but made none in India after 1912. After independence, 35 years later, the old technical knowledge was so completely lost to India that the Indian Railways had to go cap-in-hand to the British to guide them on setting up a locomotive factory in India again. There was, however, a fitting postscript to this saga. The principal technology consultants for Britain’s railways, the London-based Rendel, today rely extensively on Indian technical expertise, provided to them by Rites, a subsidiary of the Indian Railways.
The process of colonial rule in India meant economic exploitation and ruin to millions, the destruction of thriving industries, the systematic denial of opportunities to compete, the elimination of indigenous institutions of governance, the transformation of lifestyles and patterns of living that had flourished since time immemorial, and the obliteration of the most precious possessions of the colonised, their identities and their self-respect. In 1600, when the East India Company was established, Britain was producing just 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was generating some 23% (27% by 1700). By 1940, after nearly two centuries of the Raj, Britain accounted for nearly 10% of world GDP, while India had been reduced to a poor “third-world” country, destitute and starving, a global poster child of poverty and famine. The British left a society with 16% literacy, a life expectancy of 27, practically no domestic industry and over 90% living below what today we would call the poverty line.
The India the British entered was a wealthy, thriving and commercialising society: that was why the East India Company was interested in it in the first place. Far from being backward or underdeveloped, pre-colonial India exported high quality manufactured goods much sought after by Britain’s fashionable society. The British elite wore Indian linen and silks, decorated their homes with Indian chintz and decorative textiles, and craved Indian spices and seasonings. In the 17th and 18th centuries, British shopkeepers tried to pass off shoddy English-made textiles as Indian in order to charge higher prices for them.
The story of India, at different phases of its several-thousand-year-old civilisational history, is replete with great educational institutions, magnificent cities ahead of any conurbations of their time anywhere in the world, pioneering inventions, world-class manufacturing and industry, and abundant prosperity – in short, all the markers of successful modernity today – and there is no earthly reason why this could not again have been the case, if its resources had not been drained away by the British.
If there were positive byproducts for Indians from the institutions the British established and ran in India in their own interests, they were never intended to benefit Indians. Today Indians cannot live without the railways; the Indian authorities have reversed British policies and they are used principally to transport people, with freight bearing ever higher charges in order to subsidise the passengers (exactly the opposite of British practice).
This is why Britain’s historical amnesia about the rapacity of its rule in India is so deplorable. Recent years have seen the rise of what the scholar Paul Gilroy called “postcolonial melancholia”, the yearning for the glories of Empire, with a 2014 YouGov poll finding 59% of respondents thought the British empire was “something to be proud of”, and only 19% were “ashamed” of its misdeeds.
All this is not intended to have any bearing on today’s Indo-British relationship. That is now between two sovereign and equal nations, not between an imperial overlord and oppressed subjects; indeed, British prime minister Theresa May recently visited India to seek investment in her post-Brexit economy. As I’ve often argued, you don’t need to seek revenge upon history. History is its own revenge.
Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor is published by Hurst & Company at £20
Rudyard Kipling published his famous poem to salute the US’ conquest of the Philippines in 1899, although he had originally written it to celebrate Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee.
The White Man’s Burden
Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Take up the White Man’s burden –
In patience to abide
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.
Take up the White Man’s burden –
And reap his old reward,
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard –
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah slowly !) towards the light:-
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
“Our loved Egyptian night ?”
Take up the White Man’s burden –
Ye dare not stoop to less –
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.
In 1970, Roy Harper, Britain’s high priest of lyrical angst Roy created a counterpoint with this song from Flat, Baroque and Berserk.
Shashi Tharoor’s indictment of the British in India
Christopher Kremmer, Sydney Morning Herald, August 18, 2017
Remember the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when a Judean rebel leader fumes as his gormless but practical comrades detail the benefits of oppression under their powerful and technologically advanced Roman oppressors?
“Orright,” concedes the leader, Reg, played by John Cleese. “But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
In Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, Shashi Tharoor, writer, politician and United Nations-based diplomat for 30 years, asks a similar question to the one posed by Cleese’s beleaguered revolutionary.
In doing so, he seeks to remind misty-eyed Raj romantics that colonialism was no joke. As empires go, he says, Britain’s was uncommonly ruthless, devious and rapacious in its quest to enslave a people whose leaders failed to see how free trade, unwisely managed, can undermine a country’s long-term sovereignty and prosperity.
In the process, Tharoor accuses a number of historians, most prominent among them, Niall Ferguson, of being apologists for the racial discrimination, violence, economic sabotage and denial of liberty embodied by centuries of British rule in India.
It all began as a harmless commercial enterprise, Tharoor reminds us. In 1600, the British East India Company was formed under royal charter. Its aim was to compete with colonial rivals such as the French and Dutch for lucrative trade opportunities with India, an industrial and cultural superpower that under its Mughal emperors would account for 27 per cent of the world economy.
Awash with gems, natural resources, shipyards and a sophisticated cultural life, the Mughals were happy to trade. By the end of the century, however, they were tired, divided, and overextended. In 1739, the capital at Delhi was sacked by the Persians.
Meanwhile, in the expanding coastal trading posts, the initial presence of armed guards to protect the company’s staff and premises had evolved into a fully fledged army that by 1757 under Robert “Clive of India” had toppled the independent nawab of India’s richest province, Bengal. By 1800, the company had 260,000 men under arms and a talent for regime change that brought 200 million people under its control.
In 1857, after Hindu and Muslim rebels joined in a bloody revolt, India came under direct rule from London, and the company was eventually dissolved. The new Raj survived two world wars and the Great Depression, extending British rule for another 90 years until Gandhi’s Freedom movement triumphed in 1947, albeit at the terrible cost of Partition.
It is unusual, but not unheard of today to meet Indians who believe their country was better off under the Raj. Muddle-headed history is much more prominent in soon to be Brexited Britain. Tharoor cites a 2014 opinion poll that found 59 per cent of British people polled believed the old empire was something to be proud of. Thirty-four per cent wished they still had one.
Tharoor marshalls a formidable array of research to make the case that such attitudes are anachronistic and poorly informed. All the old chesnuts, for example, that the British modernised India, bequeathed it a tradition of parliamentary democracy and civilised the locals by teaching them the gentlemanly sport of cricket, are lined up and skewered, or at least plausibly challenged.
The company smashed India’s advanced textiles industries, literally by demolishing factories and imposing tariffs of 70-80 per cent on exports to Britain. In doing so, they turned a manufacturing, shipbuilding nation into a source of raw materials with little scope for value adding industries. The railways, he argues, were developed principally to more efficiently ship out those raw materials, and were financed by an elaborate and shonky racket that enriched British investors by inflating the cost of Indian rail track to twice that of Australia and Canada.
Meanwhile, ordinary Indians were taxed 50 per cent of their incomes, far beyond their experience and capacity to pay. Defaulters were tortured and jailed or, in the case of two-thirds of Indians under British rule in the late 18th century, fled their lands.
“The bones of the cotton weavers were bleaching the plains of India,” as one colonial administrator observed. The treasuries of princely states such as Bengal were systematically looted by coercive and corrupt methods, while prices for basic commodities were driven up by the opulent lifestyles of expatriate Britons.
Indian taxes not only paid the salaries of the British army of occupation, but also of the hundreds of thousands of Indian troops who became cannon fodder for British interests on the Western Front, at Gallipoli, and in Mesopotamia.
Behind the entire rip-off, as Ferdinand Mount, has observed, “lay the hard calculus of the City of London”. The Indian currency was manipulated to British advantage, and its trade with Europe was forced to go through London. Specifications were set to ensure that Indian steel could not be exported to Britain. India did not miss the bus of the Industrial Revolution – it was forcibly prevented from boarding it.
Discrimination against Indians in civil service employment was rife. Even the arch-colonial writer Rudyard Kipling observed that the bureaucracy was “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service”. The “justice” British rule gave India meant it was almost impossible for a white man to be given a serious term in jail for murdering his Indian servant, which happened rather a lot. The racism of the occupiers gave the lie to the fiction of modern, enlightened and benign British rule. As one viceroy put it, “We are all British gentlemen engaged in the magnificent work of governing an inferior race”.
Tharoor acknowledges the sincere efforts of many British expats to ameliorate the harsh realities of colonial rule. But even in the 20th century, when the sun was setting on the Raj, enlightenment attitudes took second place to the desire to crush the Indian independence movement. The same people who condemned the nationalist leader Nehru to 10 years in British Indian jail cells also labelled Gandhi’s non-violent campaign for freedom as terrorism. Newspapers that alerted the public to such injustices, particularly the vernacular press, were often censored or shut down.
For all its claims to superiority, the British Empire was in charge in India during no fewer than 11 famines in which 30 to 35 million people died of starvation, Tharoor notes. Ultimately, he believes, Britain’s desire for wealth trumped all other values and considerations. The rhetoric of uplifting the benighted brown man was always a self-serving, grotesque and conceited pose to justify a regime that bribed and murdered, annexed and stole to enrich a certain class of Briton.
This book burns with the power of intellect married with conviction. It ends with Tharoor commenting that the way the Raj ended was its greatest indictment. The collapse of British rule amid devastating sectarian violence and creation of a Muslim “homeland” in Pakistan can be seen as the logical conclusion of 90 years of divide and rule strategies as London clung desperately to power in the subcontinent.
As they washed their hands and packed their carpet bags, the British departed an India in which 84 per cent of people could not read or write their own name in any language. What an achievement. In 1600, Britain produced 1.8 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product, compared with India’s 23 per cent. By the end of the Raj, Britain’s share had multiplied fivefold, while India had been reduced to penury.
But in 70 short years, India’s proud republic has made enormous strides in literacy, numeracy and poverty reduction, and is now the world’s fastest growing major economy.
Yet there are contradictions in the new India’s rise, some with their roots in the British period, like the ruling Hindu nationalist movement’s proclivity to cast the Indian identity in sectarian terms. At times, Tharoor’s determination to resist such trends leads him to downplay the injustices of earlier empires to more graphically illustrate the failings of the British one.
Yet overall, this is erudite, well-written, thoroughly documented and persuasive history that focuses varied sources into a coherent critique of colonialism in the Indian context. Tear up your copies of Ferguson’s neo-liberal mind rot and get angry like Tharoor.
Born in the early years after the end of World War II, I was aware that the dominant mood was relief that it was over, sadness at those lost and most importantly a forward looking attitude to improve things and not simply to get back to what life had been like before. The traces of the conflict were all around me in once blitzed Birmingham – in the barren, levelled ‘wastelands’ where streets had once stood, in the austerity, and the monotonous and monochrome drabness of couture and cuisine. To my boyish mind, “the war” was a shared community experience, a shadow which few, I now recall, talked about; but also, the stuff of puerile fantasies fostered by comic books, Airfix models, and patriotic movies that were literally and figuratively black and white.
Life was not all roses in those immediate post-war years, but better by far than what went before. Rationing was still in place when I was born in Birmingham in 1949, not ending until 1954. Young men still had to do their national service (the last call up was in 1960, the year I started Secondary school). 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. When her sister died and daddy Paddy ran off with another women, Mary brought the six children over to Birmingham from Enniscorthy, County Wexford one by one. She had come to Birmingham from Ireland before the war, after her husband had run off (these things happened in Catholic Ireland). And 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.
I was born in her 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, National Health Service had kicked in, so they were born in hospital. Childbirth, forever dangerous, was now rendered less life threatening. There we all lived, three kids, our folks, three uncles, two aunts, a dog 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, in 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; bathroom with hot water boiled in a big gas boiler; and an outside flush lavatory that was nevertheless immediately adjacent to the backdoor and not down the garden. A big garden too, for winter and spring vegetables, 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.
Which brings me by a circuitous route to British director Ken Loach’s 2013 documentary, The Spirit of ’45, a celebration of the radical changes that took place under the Labour government of Clement Attlee which came to power in 1945.
What a year that was! No sooner had the war ended, than the British electorate voted out its esteemed and beloved war leader, Winston Churchill, and bought Labour’s promise of a democratic socialism. Drawing on archive footage, and presented in black and white with contemporary interviews with dockers and miners, doctors and nurses, politicians and economists, Loach describes the nationalisation of the public services, and their subsequent privatisation three decades later. His interviewees provide poignant anecdotes about the poverty of the 1930s, dangerous and exploitative working conditions, poor housing, and abysmal health care, and the renewed sense of purpose and optimism after the end of the war and Labour’s landslide victory. He recounts the subsequent expansion of the welfare state, with its free to all medical service, and the nationalization of significant parts of the British economy, most notably, electricity, the railways, and the mines.
The Attlee government was elected due to a general belief that nothing would or could be as it had been before. Britain had pulled together to win the war; now, it would transform the peace. This was The ‘Spirit’ of ’45.
But whilst ‘spirit’ can imply ‘esprit’ and elation, it can also mean ‘ghost’ insofar as Loach rages against the death of all that hope, optimism, and vision in the decades that followed.. It is a call to arms for a return to the public unity of those heady post-war years and against the policies of subsequent governments, and most particularly those of Margaret Thatcher, that have progressively demolished the Britain that Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan strove to build. And it is a reminder that the NHS is worth fighting for at a time when it is being progressively dismantled. With stills of modern soup kitchens and the Occupy movement camped outside St Paul’s, Loach clearly believes that Occupy inherits that spirit of ’45.
Viewing The Spirit of ’45 was exhilarating. It was full of Wow! moments. The footage of the poverty of the depression years, the slum dwellings, urchin children playing on the streets or on the slag heaps, the unemployment queues, the scavenging for coal, the Jarrow March. Diseases now preventable or eradicated, then mortal. Five in a bed, and two of them dead. Malnutrition and rickets. Bread and dripping sandwiches? You needed beef for dripping. Fat chance. It was bread and jam, thank you (and grateful for it, one was tempted to respond – there were indeed some Monty Python moments there, particularly the one-down-manship sketch “when I was a lad, we were so poor…”
Relying so heavily on memories and reminiscences, the film is nostalgic, sentimental, and simplistic even, with little in-depth analysis. A tick-a-box of the many innovations that greeted the arrival of the baby boomers. Presented in such a clear and uncluttered fashion, it was quite stirring. That is Ken Loach for you. What you see is what you get: a one-sided history lesson.
The film leaps from the Attlee government straight into the darkest days of the Thatcher government, with no discussion of the political, economic and social changes and challenges in between. The road from Clement to Maggie was an eventful and for many, a traumatic one. The Counter Revolution took decades to establish itself. The great experiment of 1945 contained the seeds of its own destruction.
Loach’s focus on the years of nationalization and privatization makes narrative and dramatic sense.
But the years in between were dramatic also. Read Dominic Sandbrook’s great quartet. The titles say it all: Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles; White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties; State of Emergency; The Way We Were: Britain 1970–1974; and Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979. These were best of times, these were the worst of times, as the Great Man might have said. And the worst was to come, when Britain apparently went down the gurgler, and Thatcher had to break it to fix it. And like Dr Frank’s monster, it did not quite come back together right.
The Spirit of ’45 received favourable reviews (one follows), most writers qualifying their praise with Loach’s unapologetic partisanship – he is Ken Loach, after all, and you either dig him or you don’t. My favourite film is his 1995 Spanish Civil War drama,Land and Freedom. And you most certainly don’t get a balanced view of that conflict from this. As with The Spirit of ’45, you just sit back and go for a revolutionary ride.
See also othet memories in In That Howling Infinite:
Ken Loach rarely makes documentaries, and when he does, they’re usually about an urgent topical issue, such as the 1980s miners’ strike (‘Which Side Are You On?’) or the 1990s Liverpool Dockers’ strike (‘The Flickering Flame’). On the surface, ‘The Spirit of ’45’ takes a longer view than those films. This rousing and saddening film reminds us of the air of progress and reconstruction that took hold in British politics immediately after World War II. It takes us right back to the founding of the welfare state and, with it, the nationalization of the health service, transport, energy, housing and other areas of public life, as initiated by Clement Attlee’s 1945-1951 Labour government. The faces we see at the beginning of the film of young Britons celebrating in the fountains at Trafalgar Square in May 1945 symbolize the hope of a nation: that things can only get better after six years of war.
But Loach, the director of ‘Kes’ and ‘Looking for Eric’, is equally concerned with the spirit of modern Britain. For him, the socialism of our past – of Attlee and his comrades Nye Bevan, Herbert Morrison and others – could teach the present a thing or two. And so the second part of ‘The Spirit of ’45’ ponders an altogether different mood than that in the 1940s: Thatcherism and the more recent failure of organised labour to live up to its founding principles. If ‘The Spirit of ’45’ might provoke David Cameron to raise his eyes skywards, it might also have Ed Miliband cowering behind an unwritten manifesto. Loach’s quiet, unforced position is that the left is equally guilty of abandoning the promise and passion of the post-war years.
Yet, as political essays go, this is a tender, soft and humane film. It’s a compelling mix of interviews, old and new, with archive footage, much of it from old newsreels and public information films. There’s no voice-over, just faces and voices – the voices of ageing nurses, doctors, miners, union officials and others, alongside a handful of economists and historians. Some of Loach’s arresting interviewees, like Sam Watts from Liverpool and the former Welsh miner Ray Davies, recall what poverty looked like in the 1930s, reminding us why the welfare state was necessary in the first place. Others, like a trio of nurses from Manchester and the Welsh GP Dr Julian Tudor Hart, remember the excitement and the work of the early NHS. In fact, the NHS emerges as one of the film’s chief concerns: it’s both the great survivor of the welfare state and the institution of that age currently facing the biggest threat from political decisions.
Ninety-odd minutes is not enough for this subject. There are inevitable omissions (no education, for example), and Loach makes a slightly jarring leap from a chronology of nationalization that speeds through the 1950s and ’60s to the 1979 election of Thatcher. But always apparent is his clear thesis and the infectious commitment and fervour of his interviewees. The film works all at once as a lament, a celebration and a wake-up call to modern politicians and voters.