Our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking. Ulrich Raulph
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…The opening of the film Gone with the Wind
The past is another country – they thought things differently there; and if the past shapes the present, the present also shapes the past.
With the spread of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the defacing and destruction of monuments to dead and dubious white men is back in vogue – not that the practice has ever actually gone out of style.
There is a certain historical irony that the statue of a 17th century slave trader (and on account of his wealth, philanthropist) Edward Colston has been consigned to the watery depths of Bristol Harbour from whence his ships sailed. He’d built his fortune as an influential member of the Royal African Company, a private company which branded its initials on the chests of some 100,000 men, women and children before shipping them to the Americas and the Caribbean. Thousandsnever made it, tossed into the ocean after drawing their last breath in the filth below decks. Ted and his fellow slavers have a case to answer. In the hundred years after 1680, some two million slaves were forcible removed from their homes in West Africa to the work camps of the West Indies. By 1750, the numbers of slaves had reached over 270,000 per decade, and by 1793, Liverpool handled three fifths of the slave trade of all Europe.Historian Peter Ackroyd wrote in his History of England: “No more than half of the transported slaves reached their destination; some plunged into the sea and were said to hike up their arms in joy from the brief sensation of liberty before they sank beneath the waves”.
Bristol owed its past prosperity to the slave trade – as did Liverpool. The statue had stood in the city centre for 125 years with a plaque that read: ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’. Streets and buildings were also named after Colton though most townsfolk have probably never have heard of him.
Activists have drawn up a hit list of 60 monuments in the United Kingdom that “celebrate slavery and racism”. London mayor Sadiq Khan paves the way for the legal removal of many of historic statues in the British capital and the changing of street names. Slave owner and West India Docks founder Robert Milligan has already been taken down. On the same day, Belgium’s bloody King Leopold, whose rule of the Congo – it was his private property – became a byword in colonial barbarity, was removed from his plinth in Brussels
As an Aussie and a Brit of Irish parents, and as a history tragic, I find the long runningmonuments furore engrossing. Statues of famous and infamous generals, politicians and paragons of this and that grace plazas, esplanades and boulevards the world over, and their names are often given to such thoroughfares. They represent in visual and tangible form the historical memory of a nation, and as such, can generate mixed emotions reflecting the potentially conflicted legacies and loyalties of the citizenry.
It is about the control of history – and who controls it. We all use history, incorporating perceptions of our national story into lessons that guide or confirm our present actions and outlooks. Our history is written not only in scholarly narratives, but also, in commemorations, in statues, flags and symbols, in the stories that children are taught about their country and their community from their earliest school years, and in the historical figure skatingthey are taught to remember and honour. History, it is said, is written mostly by the victors– but not always. So the inevitable tensions between different versions of the past fosters tension and conflict, and grievance and offense in the present. Particularly in onetime colonialist and settler countries, and the lands these once ruled and exploited.
Juxtaposing controversial British statuary, and those of American Civil War generals, against the empty plinths of the former People’s Republics of Eastern Europe, and the images of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein, I have always contemplated our own monuments to reputed bad boys past.
There are statues of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwellall over the place in England where his legacy is still debated. He stands authoritatively outside the Houses of Parliament and is remembered as one of the godfathers of that institution. And yet, when he died, and the monarchy he deposed restored, his body was disinterred and hanged. In Ireland, for so long “John Bull’s other island”, however, he is reviled. He did, after all, march through the land with “fire and fury”, to borrow Donald Trump’s hyperbole, and killed quite a number of Irish folk. In my southern Irish mother’s day, people would put his picture upside down, facing the wall. This may be apocryphal, but whatever.
A statue of Lord Nelson stood in O’Connell Street, Dublin until March 1966 when the IRA blew him up, celebrated by the Clancies in the song below. The IRA also blew up that other famous English mariner, Lord Louis Mountbatten, inveterate pants-man, victor of the Burma campaign and facilitator of Indian Independence). It wasn’t that Horatio had inflicted anything unpleasant upon the Irish, but rather his renowned Englishness that earned him the TNT. And yet, in the wake of intermittent US monuments barnies, beady British eyes were always focusing on the admirable admiral and his ostensible racism (not a word in use at the turn of the eighteenth century) and support for the slave trade. After Colston’s dip in Bristol harbour, it won’t be long before Horatio is harangued – not that anyone actually believes that Nelsons Column should be evicted from iconic Trafalgar Square, and it would be damn difficult to paint-bomb his myopic visage. The British attachment to Lord Nelson is long and strong. In Birmingham, my hometown, the city centre around the Bullring has been refurbished, redesigned and reconstructed numerous times during my lifetime, but the immortal mariner and his battleship stand still on their plinth of honour – as in the featured picture.
The ongoing controversy in England over statues of Cecil Rhodes, colonialist and capitalist, and ostensibly an early architect of apartheid, still rages with respect to his African legacy, with many demanding that he be demolished. his statue in Cape Town, South Africa, was removed after extensive protestsin 2015. as As I write, Cecil may not survive the week. There is a statue in Parliament Square, close to Cromwell and Winston Churchill (who some also abhor), of South African soldier and statesman Jan Smuts. His Boer War (on the enemy’s side) and segregationist sympathies were outweighed by his military and diplomatic record in service of the British Empire, and to date, none has called for his eviction. Perhaps he will be spared as he did not have a pariah state named for him, as it was with Cecil. Nor was he associated with the apartheid regime as it was decades before his time – although this wouldn’t satisfy some iconoclasts. But most likely, he is safe because most folk have never heard of him.
I have heard mumblings, however, of doing for General Smuts, and also for his Parliament Square neighbour Sir Winston Churchill, who has now been graffitied. Now, he might have saved Britain from Hitler’s hoards, but he did not like the Irish, nor Indians (and Pakistanis for that matter), and said some gross things about Arabs and Jews. And we Aussies, and Kiwis too, still blame him for the disastrous Dardanelles campaign – although he did give us our indefatigable and untouchable ANZAC legend and a long weekend. And whilst on the subject of the Middle East, an equestrian Richard the Lionheart stands close by. He did dastardly things to tens of thousandsof locals – Muslim, Christian and Jew –during the Third Crusade, almost a millennium ago. Watch out, Dick and Dobbin!
Richard the Lionhearted
Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the world scout movement, of which I was a relaxed and comfortable member for half of the sixties, sits on the seafront in Poole, Dorset, under twenty four hour CCTV protection. In a 2007 poll, he was voted the 13th most influential person in the UK in the 20th century. But critics say that he held racist views, and in 2010 declassified MI5 files revealed he was invited to meet Adolf Hitler after holding friendly talks about forming closer ties with the Hitler Youth. If old “bathing towel” as he was once affectionately called by us Boy Scouts, becomes persona non grata, what will become of Baden Powell Park in Coffs Harbour, our regional centre? It sits behind the Dan Murphy’s liquor mart, one of the town’s most popular retail outlets, and provides an opportunity for our discussion to segue DownUnder.
Dark deeds in a sunny land
In this strange, copycat world we live in, politicians and activists call for the removal of statues of our Australian founding fathers for the parts they played in the creation of our nation. In his challenging revisionist history of Australia, Taming of the Great South Land’,William Lines tells us that if we look up the names of the worthies who’ve had statues, squares, streets and highways, building and bridges, parks and promontories, rivers and even mountains named after them, we will uncover a dark history of which few are aware. Try it sometime; you’ll be surprised.
There has inevitably been much fuss about Captain James Cook, the renowned and courageous navigator who “discovered” the place two hundred and fifty years ago (notwithstanding that the Aborigines, Javanese, Dutch, Portuguese, and French had been here first). His “discovery”, many argue, led to genocide and the dispossession of our First Peoples (Columbus no doubt also gets more than pigeons shitting on him!). And also, there’s Lachlan Macquarie, fifth and last of the autocratic governors of New South Wales, who laid the economic and social foundations of the new colony. He is in the cross-hairs as responsible for initiating the ‘frontier wars‘ and for ordering the massacre of Aborigines.
Inevitably, right-wing politicians, shock-jocks andcommentators, came out swinging, venting against political correctness and identity politics, defending what they see as an assault on our “Australian values”. When Macquarie got a paint job three years back, for a moment it seemed that our intractable history wars” were on again – the “whitewash” brigade versus the “black arm-band” mob. Statues were vandalized, voices raised and steam emitted as opposing sides took to their hyperbolic barricades. But once the graffiti had been removed from the statues of Cook and Macquarie in Sydney, and The Australian got it off its chest with a week of broadsheet history and a swag of indignant opinion pieces by the usual suspects, things appeared to have calmed down.
But not for long, perhaps.
All sorts of emotions, hopes and fears lie behind our various creation myths. No matter the source of our different “dream-times” we are all correct in one way or another. People wheel out the wise old “blind men and the elephant” story to illustrate how blinkered we are; but in reality, if those blind men were given more time, they would have expanded their explorations and discovered a bigger picture.
In September 1599, as William Shakespeare was putting the finishing touches to Hamlet, in Southwark, a mile to the north across the Thames, a group of London merchants, artisans, adventurer and privateers formed history’s first joint-stock, limited-liability company with tradeable shares.
The East India Company developed over two centuries into “a state in the guise of a merchant”, to use English politician Burke’s phrase, with a private army 260,000 strong – twice as large as that of Britain at the time, and the proving ground of many celebrated British officers, the most famous of those being Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington and who at the time of his Indian service, was the capable younger brother of the equally capable Richard Wellesley, Governor General of the principality Bengal, the keystone of the British hold on the Indian subcontinent.
At its peak, it had built a third of London’s docklands, its annual expenditure was half that of the British government, and it oversaw a third of the country’s imports and exports. For Britain, the East India Company was a gift that kept on giving. Unwittingly and haphazardly, it established and solidified British power in India and China, seeing off their European colonial competitors – the French and the Dutch, who also coveted a piece of the Indian action – and overseeing the transfer west of massive wealth to the home country. It set the keystone for the British Empire, with India, “The Raj”, the jewel in the crown.
William Dalrymple, author, historian, Indophile and longtime resident of India, has written a page-turner of a book called The Anarchyabout the rise and fall of what became known as ‘The Honourable Company’ – yes, that’s what it was called with no hint of irony! It is a harrowing tale of how a small limited stock company managed to build an empire.
When the East India Company was first established, the Britain had about 1% of world GDP compared to 43% per cent for Mughal India. By the time it was wound down over one hundred and fifty years later, it had more or less inverted that. In co-opting, corrupting and conquering the powerful warlords of the fractious Mughal Empire, it effectively established the British Empire and in the process, destroyed India’s sovereignty, economy and society. The word “loot” is of Indian origin – it came to symbolize how the company drained the blood from India’s veins, sucked the marrow from out of Its bones, and sending its wealth back to Britain, many historians argue, substantially financed the nascent industrial revolution.
Sepoys of the East India Company
Granted the right to ‘‘wage war’’ in its royal charter, the Honourable Company was the first multinational corporation to run amok (a Malay word for unrestrained rampage) on a grand scale. Having established itself in eastern India, by 1765 it had control of a production and distribution network for opium that was illegally imported into China, sowing the seeds for the Opium Wars – and a Chinese animus that resonates to this day. It bought Chinese tea, which it sold in Britain and the continent, and established tea plantations in India. It was in fact company tea that ended up in Boston Harbour in 1773 – fear of what the company could do if it was granted access to the New World was one of the causes of the American Revolution.
The company effectively bankrolled the British economy, yet ironically, it was also the Bank of England’s largest creditor. It could also be said to have invented corporate lobbying. Members of the British Parliament were on retainers, and were offered shares in exchange for extending the company’s monopolies: some two-fifths of British MPs held stock, including most members of the cabinet. Many members were in fact former employees who had repatriated millions of pounds in ill gotten gains from Bengal. And yet, it overextended itself and its resources and was on the verge of insolvency. The contrast between the bankruptcy of the company and the vast riches of its employees was too stark not to be investigated, and indeed it was. but was deemed “too big to fail”, and was bailed out by the British government in 1773.
The Company’s premier enabler and exemplar was the first governor of the Bengal Presidency, Robert Clive, or Lord Clive of Plassey, as he was ennobled after a battle that demonstrated the aphorism that one should never enter a gunfight armed with just a knife. But wasn’t that just how the East – and West – was won?
Clive was a humble accountant labouring on the ledgers, but found his calling as a soldier (just like the Spanish conquistador Hernàn Cortéz “the killer” – as Neil Young called him), and rose to great heights of power and riches through remarkable grit and graft. When arraigned by parliament for his rapacity – and acquitted – he exclaimed: “My God, Mr. Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation!”
If ever you are in London, visit the small, quiet and shady Berkeley Square, where the fabled nightingale sang, and where Clive of India, as he became known, his mind curdled by corruption and conscience, and haunted by guilt and ghosts, cut his own throat with a blunt paper-knife. “How are the mighty fallen”. Leonard Cohen’s poet King David said that. “Not often enough!” I said that.
Eventually, the company – whose lobbying efforts saw its original fifteen year charter last for 274 years – became an embarrassment for the English government and establishment. Its Indian “subjects” rebelled unexpectedly and violently in the Great Rebellion of 1857, and it was only by considerable military effort and repression that the British Army was able to save the company and its Indian ’empire”. In the wake of what the British called The Indian Mutiny, which saw cruel atrocities committed by Indians and Britons alike, tens of thousands of rebel sepoys (Indian soldiers in the company’s employ) were executed in vicious reprisal. As George McDonald Fraser’s antihero says in Flashman in the Great Game, “there’s nothing as cruel as a justified Christian”. Assuming full control, the British government nationalized the company in 1859. Long outliving its purpose it was wound down in 1874. Read more about what the British did for India in Weighing the White Man’s Burden
Imagine today, a protection racket at the heart of government with the complicity of the British establishment, A company with the global reach of Facebook and Google, the economic tentacles of the likes of Halliburton and Exxon, and the military reach of Erik Prince’s mercenary armies. The corruption and criminality of the now defunct and disgraced BCAC (the so-called “Bank of Crooks and Criminals”), and the immunity and impunity of all the big corporates who took the world for a ride in the Global Financial Crisis, and not only got away with it, got governments to bail them out and we’re permitted to persist with their banditry. As Dalrymple himself has put it, The East India Company was literally Facebook with guns!
There was a checkpoint Charlie He didn’t crack a smile But it’s no laughing party When you’ve been on the murder mile Only takes one itchy trigger One more widow, one less white nigger Oliver’s army is here to stay Oliver’s army are on their way And I would rather be anywhere else But here today
Elvis Costello 1979
As Britain and the European Union agonise and argue over the terms of the Brexit divorce and “the Irish backstop”, we recall the fiftieth anniversary of “the battle of the Bogside”.
Historical memory is like a sieve. Give it a good shake and only the big chunks are left, and as Patrick Cockburn and other British commentators note with anguish, for many on mainland Britain, mired in the Brexit morass, Ireland is not one of these. These commentators, who often possess Irish roots or connections and are veteran correspondents with decades of experience in the volatile Middle East, lament how many people in mainland Britain are ignorant of, or worse, indifferent to Northern Ireland and to the centuries-old conflict that burst into fierce flames half a century ago.
The conflict was never primarily about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but about the civil and economic rights of the Roman Catholic minority in the north in relation to the Protestant majority. Had the Ulster Protestants shared power and privilege equitably with the Catholics, things might have turned out much differently.
Though nationalism and religion had been irrevocably and often violently intertwined for hundreds of years, Britain and Ireland’s entry into the EU arguably provided a catalyst for peaceful political change which led in time to the Good Friday Peace Agreementof April 1998.
It might seem unthinkable that anyone should willfully reignite a conflict never that was never really extinguished but merely reduced to a simmer. And yet, recent events in Derry – failed bombings and the New IRA’s murder of Lyra McKee, a working-class Catholic journalist and LGBT activist (during a riot that was apparently staged for a TV crew,), and political paralysis in Westminster over Brexit, including the controversial “backstop” to prevent the re-imposition of a “hard border”, have sparked fears that the centuries only Irish Question was not dead but only sleeping.
The problem of Ireland had never gone away – or was it, rather, the problem of England?
In 1921, Winston Churchill asked Parliament: “How is it that (Ireland) sways our councils, shakes our parties, and infects us with her bitterness, convulses our passions, and deranges our action? How is it she has forced generation after generation to stop the whole traffic of the British Empire, in order to debate her domestic affairs? … Whence does this mysterious power of Ireland come?”
He forgot – or never realized – that the reason for all of this Irish “bitterness” and “passion” was his country’s brutal legacy of colonialism beginning several hundred years prior, stretching at least as far back as the mid-1500s conquest of Ireland by King Henry VIII and the 1606 plantation colonization) of Ulster by King James I (whence the ancient town of Derry got its ‘London’ prefix – history can be reckless with place names), and all the way through Oliver Cromwell’s pogroms, the the ‘98, An Gorta Mór, and Padraic Pearse’s doomed intifada at Eastertide in 1916 and the Crown’s execution of the rebel leaders.
Just like the recent flare-ups in Kashmir over India’s unilateral rescission of its autonomy, and citizens in Hong Kong resisting tighter controls from China, the messy legacy of Britain’s colonial past continues to play out around the world.
Fifty years ago last October, a civil rights march in the historic city of Derry, the second largest city on Northern Ireland, was brutally attacked by police in front of the television cameras. It was the crucial moment in the rise of peaceful opposition to the one-party unionist state. When this failed to achieve its ends, the door was opened to violence and the rise of the Provisional IRA. It sparked widespread disorder and rioting across Northern Ireland.
By the end of the year, various ‘no-go’ areas had been established and walls built dividing major cities. Large population movement began that saw once mixed areas become exclusively one faith or another, polarizing not only people, but also opinions and attitudes. On both sides, paramilitary groups began to re-emerge, gaining in strength and status as widespread civil disorder quickly escalated into a bloody conflict that would last for nearly thirty years. With the police unable to cope with the scope and scale of the disturbances, the government decided to send in the British Army to restore order – the only ever peacetime deployment of British troops on British soil in modern times.
Increasing degrees of violence culminated in January 1969 when, in the aftermath of a march from Belfast to Derry, the Royal Ulster Constabulary rioted in the Bogside, assaulting Catholics in the streets and in their homes. Residents put up barricades and declared themselves citizens of Free Derry and outside the authority of the police.
In August, a much larger riot – the “Battle of the Bogside” – saw the police expelled from Free Derry by locals throwing petrol bombs, and nationalists and loyalists fighting hand-to-hand in the streets of the city they shared.
Just like flare-ups in Kashmir this week over autonomy and citizens in Hong Kong resisting tighter controls from China, the messy legacy of Britain’s colonial past continues to play out around the world.o, as nationalism and sectarianism dealt a coup de grace to Tito’s Yugoslavia; and in Baghdad as the ancient city sundered into confessional cantons.
Derry’s trials culminated in Bloody Sunday on January 30, 1972 when soldiers of the Parachute Regiment shot twenty eight unarmed civilians during a protest march against internment. Fourteen Catholics died: thirteen were killed outright, while the death of another man four months later was attributed to his injuries. Many were shot while fleeing from the soldiers, and some, while trying to help the wounded.
These were but a few of nearly four thousand people killed during the conflict, including some five hundred British soldiers, and some fifty thousand injured in ulster and on the British mainland in protests and firefights, executions and assassinations, beatings and bombings.
I republish below poignant and gripping feature by Australian journalist and author Mark Dapin about that day. It is a timely reminder that Northern Ireland is a knot that refuses to be untangled, and that for the families of the victims of the conflict, the wounds have never closed let alone healed.
Whilst I do not have skin in the Ulster game, I do have a connection. My father was a protestant from the town of Castlederg, County Tyrone, just south of Derry and east of the Irish border. He married a catholic from Enniscorthy, County Wexford, and I was born and baptized catholic in Birmingham, England – neutral territory. I used to sing the Clancys’ The Orange and the Green back in my old folkie days, and loved The Old Orange Flute. Serendipitously, a good friend and tradesman of choice in in our small Australian country town is from Castlederg, from a large catholic family. He learnt his trade on the building sites of Belfast and experienced the latter years of The Troubles first hand, including the dangers of working on protestant-only worksites. Another acquaintance on our coast is a protestant from Belfast. He too has many stories of those dangerous time, including how he would visit an actively paramilitary friend who had been banged up in the notorious Maze prison (where catholic and protestant prisoners would be segregated into separate wings.
Patrick Cockburn, The Independent 9th August 2019.
Fifty years ago, the Battle of the Bogside in Derry between Catholics and police, combined with the attacks on Catholic areas of Belfast by Protestants, led to two crucial developments that were to define the political landscape for decades: the arrival of the British army and the creation of the Provisional IRA.
An eruption in Northern Ireland was always likely after half a century of undiluted Protestant and unionist party hegemony over the Catholics. But its extreme militarisation and length was largely determined by what happened in August 1969.
An exact rerun of this violent past is improbable, but the next few months could be equally decisive in determining the political direction of Northern Ireland. The Brexit crisis is reopening all the old questions about the balance of power between Catholics and Protestants and relations with Britain and the Irish Republic that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 had provided answers with which everybody could live.
The occasion which led to the battle of the Bogside came on 12 August when the Apprentice Boys, a fraternity memorialising the successful Protestant defence of Derry against Catholic besiegers in the 17th century, held their annual march. Tensions were already high in Derry and Belfast because the unionist government and its overwhelmingly Protestant police force was trying to reassert its authority, battered and under threat since the first civil rights marches in 1968.
What followed was closer to an unarmed uprising than a riot as the people of the Bogside barricaded their streets and threw stones and petrol bombs to drive back attacks by hundreds of policemen using batons and CS gas. In 48 hours of fighting, a thousand rioters were treated for injuries and the police suffered unsustainable casualties, but they had failed to gain control of the Bogside.
Its defenders called for protests in other parts of the North to show solidarity with their struggle and to overstretch the depleted Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). In Belfast, Protestants stormed into the main Catholic enclave in the west of the city, burning houses and forcing Catholics to flee. The RUC stood by or actively aided the attacks. The local MP Paddy Devlin estimated that 650 families were burned out in a single night, many taking refuge in the Irish Republic
I was in Bombay Street, where all the houses were burned on the night of 14-15 August, earlier this year. The street was long ago rebuilt but still has a feeling of abnormality and menace because it is only a few feet from the “peace line” with its high wall and higher wire mesh to stop missiles being thrown over the top from the Protestant district next door.
The most striking feature of Bombay Street is the large memorial garden, though it is more like a religious shrine, to martyrs both military and civilian from the district who have been killed by political violence since 1916. A high proportion of these were members of the Provisional IRA who died in the fighting during the 30 years of warfare after Bombay Street was burned.
The memorial is a reminder of the connection between what many local people see as an anti-Catholic pogrom in 1969 and the rise of the Provisional IRA. It split away from what became known as the official IRA because the latter had failed to defend Catholic districts.
Pictures of the ruins of Bombay Street on the morning of 15 August show local people giving British soldiers cups of tea. But this brief amity was never going to last because the unionist government in Stormont had asked the prime minister of day, Harold Wilson, to send in the troops not to defend Catholics but to reinforce its authority.
It was the role the British army were to play in one way or another for the next 30 years. It was one which was bound not only to fail but to be counterproductive. So long as the soldiers were there in support of a Protestant and unionist political and military establishment, the IRA were always going to have enough popular support to stay in business.
British governments at the time never got a grip on the political realities of the North. Soon after the troops were first sent there, the cabinet minister Richard Crossman blithely recorded in his diary that “we have now got ourselves into something which we can hardly mismanage”. But mismanage it they did and on a grotesque scale. The Provisionals were initially thin on the ground, but army raids and arrests acted as their constant recruiting sergeant. Internment without trial introduced on 9 August 1971, the anniversary of which falls today, was another boost as were the hunger strikes of 1981 which turned Sinn Fein into a significant political force.
What are the similarities between the situation today and 50 years ago? In many respects, it is transformed because there is no Protestant unionist state backed by the British army. The Provisional IRA no longer exists. The GFA has worked astonishingly well in allowing Protestants and Catholics to have their separate identities and, on occasion though less effectively, to share power.
Brexit and the Conservative Party dependence on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for its parliamentary majority since 2017 has thrown all these gains into the air. DUP activists admit privately that they want a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic because they have never liked the GFA and would like to gut it. Sinn Fein, which gets about 70 per cent of the Catholic/nationalist vote these days, is pleased that the partition of Ireland is once again at the top of the political agenda.
“I am grappling with the idea of a hard border which I would call a Second Partition of Ireland,” Tom Hartley, a Sinn Fein veteran and former lord mayor of Belfast, told me. He is baffled by British actions that appear so much against their interests, saying that “they had parked the Irish problem, but now Ireland has moved once again into the centre of British politics”.
Would Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm to get rid of “the backstop” evaporate if he wins or loses a general election and the Conservatives are no longer dependent on the DUP for their majority? Possibly, but his right-wing government has plenty of members who never liked the GFA and their speeches show them to be even more ignorant about Northern Ireland politics than their predecessors in Harold Wilson’s cabinet half a century ago.
Ireland is not to blame for the disaster of Brexit
An example of this is their oft-declared belief that some magical gadget will be found to monitor the border by remote means. But any such device will be rapidly torn down and smashed where the border runs through nationalist majority parts of the border.
Northern Ireland may be at peace, but in a border area like strongly Republican South Armagh, the police only move in convoys of three vehicles and carry rifles, even if they are only delivering a parking ticket.
Catholics are no longer the victims of economic discrimination, though Derry still has the highest unemployment of any city in the UK. There has been levelling down as well as levelling up: Harland and Wolff, the great shipyard that once employed much of the population of Protestant east Belfast, went into administration this week.
Irish unity is being discussed as a practical, though highly polarising, proposition once again. Political and economic turmoil is back in a deeply divided and fragile society in which the binds holding it together are easily unstitched
Mark Dapin, Sydney Morning Herald, 3rd August 2019
Every week of every month of every year, Paul Doherty takes tourists on a journey around the death of his father, who was killed by the British Parachute Regiment (“the Paras”) on Bloody Sunday in Derry, the second-largest city in Northern Ireland, on January 30, 1972.
But this year, things are different. This month, Doherty hopes, a murderer will at last be held to account. He has already looked into the eyes of his father’s killer, and he hates him.
“I have a hatred for what the Paras did on Bloody Sunday,” says Doherty, 55, “and also a hatred for the individual soldier.”
He knows he’s not supposed to say that (and he also hates the British Army officers and British government of the day) but Derry is built on the banks of the River Foyle, one of the fastest flowing rivers in Europe, and the torrent of Doherty’s conversation far outpaces the waterway. He speaks like two people, one interrupting to annotate the other – “They do a good pint of Guinness in there, aye” – and push him to clarify his opinion in the rare moments he might seem guarded or vague. Doherty says his tour is “political” but not “politically correct”.
Derry is officially called Londonderry, although the “London” has been spray-painted out of many road signs (just as the “no” has disappeared from no-smoking signs). London has rarely been popular in a place where three-quarters of the population are Catholic, most of them republicans who would rather see their home part of the Republic of Ireland than the United Kingdom. After the Bloody Sunday massacre, Derry saw 26 years of concentrated shootings and bombings, until the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 began to draw the euphemistically named “Troubles” to a close with its newly codified recognition of both British and Irish interests in Northern Ireland. The Provisional IRA and the Ulster Volunteer Force, among other militia, eventually decommissioned their weapons – but in Derry there were always a handful of hardmen who wanted to keep killing for a united Ireland.
Some of these “dissident republicans” had already helped to form the so-called New IRA, which has admitted responsibility for thedeath in April this year of the young journalist Lyra McKee, who was shot by a sniper during an apparently staged-for-TV riot in Derry. Doherty has a bit to say about that, too.
Paul Doherty is a cheery man. He’s thickset and stocky and likes to make jokes – can’t help himself, really – and runs perhaps the least romantically named travel business in the world, Bogside History Tours. It takes a surprisingly large number of visitors (between two and 40 per tour) on twice-daily guided walks through Derry to the Bogside, a neighbourhood in the city’s west, where the ghosts of Bloody Sunday’s dead still march alongside his father, on murals the size of houses.
Paul’s younger brother, Gleann Doherty, is leading the walk on the morning I arrive, and Paul offers me a more exclusive “taxi tour”. It begins with an eccentric industrial history of Derry, whose docks were established before the famous shipyards of Belfast, where the passenger liner RMS Titanic was constructed by a largely Protestant workforce.
“The most celebrated ship in the world, the Titanic, never completed a journey,” says Doherty. “People say, ‘Why did it never complete a journey?’
“I don’t know,” he continues, “but people suspect it was because it was built by Protestants. There were very few Catholics building the Titanic. Someone asked me the other day, ‘What were the Catholics doing?’ I said, ‘We were building icebergs.’”
Doherty talks about the 17th-century Plantation of Ulster, in which Protestants from England and Scotland, who were loyal to the British Crown (“loyalists”) were settled in the north of Catholic Ireland, usurping Irish landowners and ultimately exercising political power through gerrymandered voting and a system which, until 1968, allowed (largely Protestant) business owners an extra vote in local elections while (often Catholic) renters had no local vote at all.
We drive over Craigavon Bridge, named for James Craig, the first PM of Northern Ireland and founder in 1912 of the Ulster Volunteer Force – “A modern-day terrorist and drug-racketeering operation; beside that, they’re okay,” says Doherty – to a lookout over a walled city of cathedral spires, council houses and dozens of boxy, repurposed shirt factories. We motor down from the hills and back into town, where Doherty’s taxi cruises the close, stony streets, stopping at corners that paid witness to the events that led to the death of his father: the rise of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) whose demands included an end to anti-Catholic discrimination; one man, one vote; and the reform of the heavily Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the country’s then police force.
Peaceful civil rights demonstrations were attacked by loyalists and the RUC with increasing degrees of violence until January 1969 when, in the aftermath of a march from Belfast to Derry, the RUC rioted in the Bogside, assaulting Catholics in the streets and in their homes. Residents put up barricades and declared themselves citizens of Free Derry and outside the authority of the police. In August, a much larger riot – the “Battle of the Bogside” – saw the police expelled from Free Derry by locals throwing petrol bombs, and nationalists and loyalists fighting hand-to-hand in the streets of the city they shared.
An end-terrace house, which had become famous internationally when its side wall was painted with the slogan “You are now entering Free Derry”, still stands as Free Derry Corner in the Bogside, although the other homes in the terrace have been demolished. “They were gonna redevelop the Bogside and build a roadway,” says Doherty. “They were gonna move the [Free Derry] wall and take the wall away, but the negotiations were very skilful: ‘Touch the wall and you’re gonna be disappeared yourself.’ So that was the end of that.”
After the Battle of the Bogside, British troops – including Paras – were dispatched from the mainland to restore law and order. The soldiers were widely seen to favour the loyalists and quickly became targets for a resurgent IRA, an organisation whose glory days were thought to have ended in the 1920s. The republicans particularly feared the Paras, the shock troops of the British Army, a death that falls from the sky.
I grew up in England in the 1970s, near the base of the Parachute Regiment. When I arrived in Northern Ireland recently, I was puzzled to see what looked like the regiment’s flag flying in parts of Belfast. I thought the outspread wings must stand for something else on this side of the Irish Sea. They don’t. Doherty says the flag was also raised a few weeks ago in The Fountain estate, a loyalist enclave near the heart of Derry, “in support of Soldier F”. (Soldier F is the man who shot Doherty’s father.)
“The people who want to do it must have sick minds,” he says. “In 2019, 400 yards [370 metres] from where the massacre of Bloody Sunday happened, these people feel the need to fly the flag of the Parachute Regiment, celebrating the murder of 14 innocent people in the Bogside in 1972.” To Doherty, it’s as if his neighbours are celebrating the killing. “There’s negotiations at the minute to bring [the flag] down,” he says. “The negotiations were begun by ourselves – the [Bloody Sunday] families – through our member of parliament and the loyalist terror and paramilitary groups here. They don’t seem to be working. So if you hear it was taken down in the middle of the night, by some guy on a ladder, it’ll be me that did it. And I mean that sincerely.”
It’s a very short drive to The Fountain, where every lamppost is painted red, white and blue, and the Paras’ flag hangs limp on a windless morning. Doherty scowls. “That’s hurtful,” he says. “It’s wrong. It degrades this community. So I’m just going to see what type of ladder we’ll need.” Mentally, he measures the distance between the banner and the ground. “We’ll need a 16- or 18-foot ladder,” he decides, eventually. “We’ll go up and get that down.”
Doherty does not believe anyone could truly support Soldier F, if they knew the facts. “I’ll tell you what Soldier F did in the Bogside …”
On Sunday January 30, 1972, the NICRA held a march through Derry, even though all marches and parades had been banned. In the month before, two RUC had been killed in Derry, and the British Army believed the planned demonstration would provide cover for the IRA. The 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment was brought in to Derry to police the demonstration and arrest rioters. They ended up shooting 28 Catholic civilians, of whom 14 were killed, 13 on the day and one later. A British tribunal set up in the immediate aftermath of the killings found that the Paras had been fired upon first, and largely accepted claims that the dead marchers were gunmen and nail bombers. The families of the dead refused to accept the findings and for decades argued that peaceful protesters had been massacred.
In 1998, in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, the British government established the Saville Inquiry, which culminated 12 years later with a 10-volume, 5000-page report. Saville found that the Paras had shot first and without warning; their victims had been all but unarmed and helpless, and posed no significant threat; that the IRA had maintained only a small, shadowy presence and loosed off a few ineffective shots; and that the Paras had lied.
It is this story, more or less, that Doherty tells at the Creggan estate among the heavily muralised roads around Free Derry Corner. While the area remains a working-class Catholic republican stronghold, the streetscape has changed: buildings have been demolished, whole blocks torn down. Doherty reaches into the past, to point to where things used to be, as he describes the last moments in the life of his father, Patrick Doherty, a 31-year-old plumber’s mate and member of NICRA, who joined the march from the Creggan.
The protesters set off mid-afternoon and were diverted from their chosen route by army barricades. Angry youths threw stones at the soldiers, who replied with tear gas and water cannons. The march organisers redirected the rally towards Free Derry Corner, and a group of soldiers fired live rounds in the direction of the rioters. Wounded men began to fall. Two civilians were knocked down by armoured cars. Soldiers broke through their own barriers to arrest the stone-throwers.
As the firing continued, the marchers ran for cover. There were already seven dead when Patrick Doherty sought safety around a small square named Glenfada Park, where today stand his son, Paul, and I. As the death toll mounted, the Paras’ brigade headquarters ordered the soldiers to cease fire. A radio operator – now dubbed Soldier 027 – passed on the order to men known at the Saville Inquiry as Soldiers E, F, G and H, but they ignored the command and set about hunting down and killing Catholics. “In here,” says Doherty, “in Glenfada Park they murdered four.”
He knows the ground where each man fell. “William McKinney was in a crowd running from here, across here,” says Doherty. “He was trying to escape right over here. And Soldier F, disobeying orders, went up that street, and he murdered William McKinney about here. Willy was shot in the back. The bullet raced through his body and went into the body of a teenager called Joseph Mahon. Joseph Mahon played dead when Soldier F touched him with a rifle to his head. Soldier F walked away thinking he’d killed him, and he shot Jim Wray in the back. Jim Wray hit the ground with such force that he didn’t get his hands in front of him.
“Soldier G walks towards him,” he continues. “Jim Wray was shouting, ‘Somebody help me! I can’t move my legs! Somebody help me!’ and G shoots him in the back again, executes him, then turns to his friend and says, ‘There, I got another one.’
“And F came out,” says Doherty, “knelt down at that lamppost right there and murdered my dad.”
Patrick Doherty was shot from behind as he tried to crawl away. A bullet drove into his buttock and ripped out of his chest. On its way through his body, it lacerated his aorta, diaphragm and left lung, tore his colon and bowel attachments, and fractured two of his ribs. “Soldier F knelt down there,” says Doherty, “observed by hundreds of people, killing my dad, and then very clearly watching a man walking towards him with a white handkerchief in his hand. Barney [Bernard] McGuigan said to him, ‘Don’t shoot’ and Soldier F shot him.”
There were six children in the Doherty family. Paul was eight years old. “We were home,” he says. “With my brother and my friends, we were all outside playing marbles. Our home suddenly filled up with people, and then a young guy came up and joined in with the marbles for about 10 minutes and said, ‘Oh, by the way, your dad’s dead. I seen him get taken into an ambulance over here.’ And my mum then came and told us he was killed.”
I have to ask Doherty how their lives changed, although I know it’s a stupid question. “It is,” he agrees, as is his way. “The death of a parent’s one thing, the murder of a parent’s another thing. I wouldn’t like to relive that in the heart of a child. We sort of individualised ourselves as a family. My mum was on medication. My sister had to really look after the two [youngest] children. And we all had to adapt to a different type of life. My dad was very regimentist [sic]. We had to do certain chores every morning: somebody had to do the dishes and somebody had to shine the shoes. It was a good way of being brought up. The discipline – that all went out the window. Education went out the window as well.”
Their loss affected them each in different ways. Doherty’s older brother, Tony, joined the IRA and spent four years in prison. Today, Tony’s the author of two well-received, lyrical memoirs. There was turmoil for all the children but, “We’re all very successful in what we’re doing now,” says Doherty.
Most of the Saville Inquiry’s hearings were held in Derry but certain witnesses, including Soldier F, were permitted to testify in London. Doherty travelled to London with his family and watched Soldier F on the stand. What was it like, ask I – the master of the dullard’s query – to be in the same room as his father’s killer? “Aye, it was strange,” says Doherty. “I can’t describe it. It just put a face to an armed thug who had no care for himself or his community he came from, and he came into this community and just shot it to bits.”
Soldier F confessed to nothing but a poor memory. Five hundred and seventy times, according to Doherty, he answered questions with “I can’t recall”. But Soldier 027 – speaking from behind a screen to protect him from being identified – said the soldiers had killed innocent people for no operational reason, and called their actions “unspeakable”. Soldier 027 had been trying to confess for years. “We were getting telephone calls in the late 1980s from a soldier who was crying down the phone,” says Doherty. “He left the Army, hit the drink, and then he told the truth.” As for Soldier F, “If there was any kind of remorse, you would have to deal with that, but there was no remorse at all. And, again, forgiveness – you can’t forgive anybody who doesn’t ask for it. They shouldn’t get it.”
Did Soldier F know who Doherty was? “He would’ve been made aware of who we were,” says Doherty. “I’m not sure if he would’ve individualised us. We gave him a wee stare every time he went past us, so he probably would have. He was 53, he’s got a tan, athletic, small, stocky. He looked like he looked after himself. He has a very light-spoken voice. But obviously he had killing in his DNA.”
Saville found Soldier F had shot dead Patrick Doherty and Bernard McGuigan – but, under the terms of the inquiry, any evidence heard was inadmissible in any subsequent prosecution. A separate police investigation led to Soldier F being charged in May only with the murders of James Wray and William McKinney and the attempted murders of four others.
The families are bitter that only one man, Soldier F – a lance corporal – will be charged over Bloody Sunday. In the years since the massacre, Soldiers E and G have died, and the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service has said there is insufficient admissible evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of convicting other soldiers: dead bodies are not enough.
“We’ve heard since that the Public Prosecution Service were split on whether they should charge anybody,” says Doherty. “So we think they gave us a token. We wanted the remaining soldiers charged in a joint enterprise. We wanted the officers – some of whom are still alive – but you don’t get that.”
The case is scheduled to begin this month in the imposing, neoclassical Bishop Street courthouse, which Doherty identifies as the most bombed building in Derry. In January, Doherty pointed this out to four young Dutch women on a taxi tour. “And the next thing, it was blown up by the New IRA,” says Doherty. “I met them down the street, and I said, ‘Aye, it was blown up last night.’ ”
The most recent bomb caused little damage, and the New IRA are seen by many republicans as bumbling clowns who cannot even blow up a courthouse. But the joke turned acrid, as Irish jokes are wont to do, when a New IRA sniper shot dead the highly regarded Lyra McKee, a working-class Catholic journalist and LGBT activist, during a riot that Doherty says was staged for a TV crew. Apparently, McKee was not targeted as a journalist. She was simply standing too close to a police van. The New IRA admitted responsibility and apologised.
“The statement that they came out with then, trying to defend this, was adding insult to injury: that the girl was ‘standing behind enemy lines’ and ‘ground forces’ and this. That’s a relic from the past. They will say, ‘Well, the IRA did this type of thing as well.’ Well, we can’t argue that for ever and ever. Sometimes you’ve got to say, ‘There was a time for war and a time for peace.’ But the dissidents have no support, they’ve got no strategy, they won’t debate with anybody, they won’t talk to anyone, and they get young guys into the ranks of their organisation and tell them they could be heroes for Ireland.
“Well,” says Doherty, “the heroes for Ireland are all lined up in the cemetery.”
Police have arrested four suspects for the shooting of McKee, including a 15-year-old boy.
The demonstrators who died on Bloody Sunday were never forgotten. In some ways, their memory has grown larger over the years. Huge murals in the Creggan, painted between 1996 and 2008, bear their portraits and those of the men who braved bullets to rush to help them. “These people were heroes,” says Doherty, “because they could’ve jumped over them, ran away, but they didn’t. They stayed with them. They comforted them until they died. The guy who helped my dad until he died was called Paddy Walsh – he crawled out to my dad, the bullets were flying over his head as he stayed with him.”
On display in the nearby Museum of Free Derry is a famous photograph of Paddy Walsh crawling over to the corpse of Patrick Doherty. It looks as if Walsh has lent his own head to Doherty’s broken body. A simple monument and garden dedicated to the victims of Bloody Sunday stands close to the museum.
“The garden was paid for by lawyers and barristers for the families,” says Doherty. “We asked them for money – and they were making plenty of money – so they gave us the money to do this garden. It’s lovely. Mostly old neighbours used to look after it, but most of them are dead now, so now and then we come over ourselves and do a bit of weeding.”
This isn’t my story – far from it. I’m just a journalist who asks stupid questions, tramples on hearts, trespasses on grief. But I went to school in Aldershot, England, the home of the British Army and – in those days – the base of the Parachute Regiment. We moved to the town because it was cheap, because nobody wanted to live alongside the Army. It was in Aldershot that the IRA planned to extract revenge for Bloody Sunday with a bomb attack on the officers’ mess of 16 Parachute Brigade. The attack was supposed to kill and maim the men – or perhaps just the kind of men – who ordered their troops to open fire in the Bogside.
Instead, a time bomb in a stolen car exploded outside the building at 12.40pm on February 22, 1972 and tore apart the bodies of a Catholic British Army chaplain, a civilian gardener, and five local women variously described as kitchen workers, waitresses and cleaners. One of the women was the mother of a boy who was eight years old – the same age as Paul Doherty on Bloody Sunday. There was so little left of her that she could not immediately be recognised from her remains. Eventually, she was identified by a tattoo.
I moved to Aldershot three years after that attack. The disappeared woman’s son was in the year below me at school. I knew him very slightly. I never knowingly met any of the families of the other victims, but another boy whose mother was murdered that day – Karl Bosley – signed up with the Paras (“with anger and hatred in my heart,” he said later) – just as Tony Doherty joined the IRA. Apparently, Bosley was not permitted to serve with the regiment in Northern Ireland.
The Troubles in Northern Ireland continued throughout my schooling, and the Paras were a fierce and terrible presence in the town. They departed for tours of the province and returned with fury in their eyes, prowling the streets like the jungle cats tattooed on their hamhock forearms, at war with the world. And, of course, some of them never made it back. In an ambush near Warrenpoint in County Down in August 1979, the IRA killed 18 British soldiers, 16 of them Paras.
In Aldershot, the survivors policed their own pubs. Most of the town centre was a no-go area for civilians, and the Paras’ pubs around the high street were “airborne” only. Even other soldiers – “crap hats” – copped a kicking if they walked into the Pegasus, the Queen or the Trafalgar. You wouldn’t send the Paras overseas to police a demonstration. You’d dispatch them to destroy it. There are no pictures of the body of the eight-year-old’s mum, because there was nothing left to photograph. A small memorial at the site of the bombing is hardly visited by people outside the families, and when I went back to Aldershot a couple of years ago, I couldn’t even find it. Apparently, the area is going to be redeveloped, and the new houses will look down upon a memorial garden.
While the Irish may have long memories, it sometimes seems as if the English remember nothing at all. There are no tours to retrace the last journeys of the cleaners, as they came from the council estates to the garrison to work for a wage. And there is fierce feeling in England today that men like Soldier F should be left alone, that the post-Good Friday justice system let many imprisoned IRA “volunteers” off the hook and the same courtesy should be due to every British soldier – although the provisions of the agreement specifically excluded the perpetrators of crimes that had not yet been prosecuted.
And anyway, prosecution will only open old wounds, claim those who cannot understand that in Derry – and in Aldershot – for the families of the murder victims, those wounds never for a moment closed.
Out came the thick thick blood, out came the thin Out came the bonny heart’s blood till there was none within She threw him in the old draw well fifty fathoms deep
Little Sir Hugh
On a visit to Lincoln Cathedral a few years back, we chanced upon a small memorial in the South Choir Aisle commemorating the long-dead ‘Little Saint Hugh’, the subject, I recalled, of a gothic folk-song resuscitated during the British folk revival and popularized by Steeleye Span back in the seventies. Little Sir Hugh, a tale of the death of a young lad at the hands of a mysterious lady, had been shorn of its true context – a fabricated ‘blood libel’ that led to the trial and execution of nineteen Lincoln Jews. It is believed that high churchmen exploited the incident to lure a profitable flow of pilgrims to the shrine of a martyr and saint. The mystery surrounding the boy’s demise was the first time that the English Crown gave credence to ritual child murder allegations with the direct intervention of Henry III. As a consequence, unlike other English blood libels – and there were many – the story entered the historical record, medieval literature and popular ballads that circulated until the twentieth century as the folk-rock song demonstrated. Read more here. See also below, in the last segment of this blog.
That northern summer, we’d spent a month in the historic northern city of York where we visited Clifford’s Tower, the remnant of a thirteenth century castle on the old city walls, and the site of a medieval pogrom. The English Heritage sign at the gate recalls how in 1190, 150 Jewish men, women and children fled thence to escape townspeople’s wrath, and when the latter had set the tower alight, chose to do a Masada rather than surrender to the bloodthirsty mob (the Masada analogy is my own – the iconic Jewish narrative was unknown in the twelfth century). The tourist spiel, reluctant to disturb the squeamish, does not call it out as murder – but the stone walls do, as does the city’s historical narrative: English Heritage; History of York.
In November 2019, the Times Of Israel reported on how after over eight hundred years, a Jewish community has re-established itself in York – it was as if there existed an unspoken herem or boycott on the city on account of what our indigenous people here in Australia would call “sorry business”. The article includes a good account of the deadly pogrom.
Mother mother make my bed Make for me a winding sheet Wrap me up in a cloak of gold See if I can sleep
Little Sir Hugh
The devil that never dies
England has long had an ambivalent, discriminatory, and often deadly relationship with its Jewish people, from medieval days to the present, as illustration, there is an arguably apocryphal story of how in 1290, when Edward 1 ordered the expulsion of all Jews from England, a sea captain taking a boatload of Jews to France, asked them to walk with him on the sand whilst the tide was out. He deliberately deserted them, swiped their stuff, and scarpered back to his ship before the tide came in, leaving them to a watery fate.
Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews to return to England in 1657; the Lord Protector saw no difference between Judaism and any other faith of ‘the Book’. But it took another two hundred years for male Jews in Britain to be granted equal civil rights, including the right to enter Oxford and Cambridge Universities, to join the public service, run for municipal office, and eventually, to stand for parliament. Just as catholics had to wait some three hundred years for emancipation, for jews, it was indeed a slow train coming …
But even thereafter, the living wasn’t easy. In the Nineteen Thirties, there were running battles as Oswald Mosley’s Nazi-styled Blackshirts marched through the Jewish neighbourhoods of East London. During the hot, austerity-pinched summer of 1947, there anti-Jewish riots throughout England following the hanging of two British sergeants in Palestine by the Jewish terrorist Irgun in response to the hanging of three of its members by the British Mandate authorities. Manchester witnessed its own mini-Kristalnacht. Ironically, one of the sergeants was Jewish.
I recall walking through London’s cosmopolitan Notting Hill with an Israeli friend in the summer of 1976. There were big swastikas daubed on a wall. “That is why we have Israel”, Miri said. A few weeks later, these very streets became a war zone as racial tensions escalated into violence as the August Bank Holiday Notting Hill Carnival gave way to running street battles.
Today, the British Labour Party is tying itself in literal and figurative Gordian knots with accusations and counter-accusations of antisemitism (whilst the US Democratic Party is likewise tossing and turning over the badly thought-through, naive comments of an ingenue congresswomen). Meanwhile, the transparent xenophobes and antisemites of the alt- and ofttimes mainstream right hide in plain sight in the corridors of power and preen on streets and social media.
It has been said, with reason, that antisemitism is the devil that never dies. And yet, is antisemitism a unique and distinct form of racism, or a subset of a wider fear and loathing insofar as people who dislike Jews rarely dislike only Jews?
Fear of “the other” is a default position of our species wherein preconceptions, prejudice and politics intertwine – often side by side with ignorance and opportunism. it is no coincidence that what is regarded as a dangerous rise in antisemitism in Europe, among the extreme left as much as the extreme right, is being accompanied by an increase in Islamophobia, in racism against Roma people, and indeed, in prejudice in general, with an increase in hate-speech and incitement in the media and online, and hate-crimes.
We are seeing once again the rise of nationalism and populism, of isolationism and protectionism, of atavistic nativism and tribalism, of demagogic leaders, and of political movements wherein supporting your own kind supplants notions of equality and tolerance, and the acceptance of difference – the keystones of multicultural societies. It is as if people atomized, marginalized and disenfranchised by globalization, left behind by technological, social and cultural change, and marginalized by widening economic inequality, are, paradoxically, empowered, energized, and mobilized by social media echo-chambers, opportunistic politicians, and charismatic charlatans who assure them that payback time is at hand. These days, people want to build walls instead of bridges to hold back the perceived barbarians at the gates.
Lately, I have been working my way through British historian Peter Ackroyd’s six-volume History of England. I’ve enjoyed a re-acquaintance with half-remembered names and places, moments and movements from long-gone school and university history classes. Given his arduous brief – he’d resolved to recount the story of England from its birth in the Neolithic Age to the dawn of the Twentieth Century -it is relatively lightweight but informative, family friendly with the nasty and naughty bits toned down, and inspirational precedents and premises accentuated to illustrate evolution and progress, whether it be of language or lifestyle,ideologies or institutions. He wears his liberal heart prominently on his sleeve, whether it is in describing the casual cruelty of the slave trade or the plight of children in the “dark satanic mills” of the industrial revolution. A recurring leitmotif is England’s unique and intractable Irish Question, and particularly its responsibility for and response to An Gorta Mór, ‘The Great Hunger’. An he confronts England’s medieval Jewish Question head on, describing a not so happy and glorious period in its history.
When this article was posted on Facebook, it elicited the following comment. The questions raised will most certainly be checked out and appropriate changes will be made.
“A slightly problematic piece (though I’d had no idea that Peter Ackroyd had read Robert Stacey’s work so carefully). It’s worth noting, however, that the story of how the captain forced the Jews to walk on the sand is anything but apocryphal – said captain spent two years in a Sandwich gaol on Edward I’s explicit order as a result (and probably died at the end of that period). There were to many holes in the Norwich documentary for it to be taken seriously. And, as with the other ritual murder ‘saints’, Little St. Hugh was never a popular attraction – that accolade goes to St. Hugh of Avalon in the case of Lincoln. The small one was, at best a distraction and it’s clear that the Chapter tried to avoid him as much as possible”.
Peter Ackroyd, Foundation – The History Of England Volume 1, Chapter 20
King Edward 1 was known as ‘the hammer of the Scots’ but he could more pertinently be known as the hammer of die Jews. He exploited them and harassed them; finally he expelled them. Their crime was to become superfluous to his requirements. The history of the ]ews in medieval England is an unhappy and even bloody one. They had arrivedfrom Rouen, in the last decades of the eleventh century; they were first only settled in London across a broad band of nine parishes but in the course of the next few decades they also removed to York, Winchester, Bristol and other market towns. The previous rulers of England, in the ninth and tenth centuries, had not welcomed them; Jewish merchants would have provided too much competition for Anglo-Saxon traders.
William the Conqueror brought them to England because he had found that in Normandy they had been good for business; in particular they provided access to the silver of the Rhineland. The Jews of Rouen may also have helped to finance his invasion of England, in return for the chance to work in a country from which they had previously been barred. Another reason can be given for the favour they found with the king. Since Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest, some other group of merchants had to be created. The Jews became moneylenders by default, as it were, and as a result they were abused and despised in equal measure. But they did not only lend money; they were also money-changers and goldsmiths. money; they also exchanged plate for coin. They provided ready money, a commodity often in short supply.
The Norman kings of England, therefore, found them to be very useful. They could borrow from them but, more profitably, they could tax them. They could levy what what were known as ‘tallages’, and succeeding kings were able to take between a third and a quarter of the Jews’ total wealth at any one time. As a result the Jews, in the twelfth centurywere afforded royal protection. No Jew was allowed to become a citizen, or to hold land, but the neighbourhood of the Jewry was
like the royal forests exempt from common law; the Jews were simply the kings chattels, who owed life and property wholly to him. They were granted the protection of the royal courts, and thier binds were placed in a special chamber of the royal palace at . Westminster. A Jewish exchequer was established there, with its own clerks and justices.
In return for royal favour the Jews brought energy and prosperity to the business of the realm; their loans helped to make possible the great feats of Norman architecture, and the unique stone houses of Lincoln and Bury St Edmunds are credited to them. Jacob le Toruk had a grand stone house in Cannon Street, in the London parish of St Nicholas Acon. The Jews also introduced the more advanced forms of medical learning, and were able to serve as doctors even to the native community. Roger Bacon himself studied under rabbis at Oxford.
More dubious legal tactics were also enforced. William Rufus decreed, for example, that Jews could not be converted to Christianity; he did not want their number to fall. That may not have If) been a very Christian act but William Rufus was never a very good Christian. He supported the Jews partly because it offended the bishops; he enjoyed causing affront to his churchmen.
That royal protection did not necessarily extend very far. At the time of the coronation of Richard I in 1189, some Jews were beaten back from the front row of spectators; the crowd turned on them, and a riotous assault began upon the London quarters of fresh outrages as the of Jewry. The incident became the cause of fresh outrages as the news of the attack spread; it emboldened native hostility, and gave an excuse for further carnage. 500 Jews, with their families, took refuge in in thecastle at York where they were n besieged by the citizens; in desperation, the men killed their wives and children before killing themselves.
Richard 1 was even then malting preparations for his crusade to the Holy Land; violence and religious bigotry were in in the air. His successor, John, renewed his protection in exchange for large sums of money. In 1201 a formal charter was drawn up, giving the Jews their own court. They were allowed to live ‘freely and honorably’ in England, which meant that they were here to make money for the king. Nine years later John took overall the debts of the Jews, living or dead, and tried to extract the money from the debtors for his own benefit. It was another reason for the barons’ revolt that led to the sealing of the Magna Carta.
Antisemitism was part of the Christian condition throughout Europe. The Jewish people were abused for being the ‘killers of Christ’, with convenient forgetfulness of the fact that Jesus himself was Jew, but other more material reasons account d for the racial hatred. By the middle of the twelfth century, several prominent Jewish moneylenders had extended very large loans to some of the noblest men in the kingdom; men like th famous Aaron of Lincoln were the only ones with resources large enough to meet the obligations of the magnates. If they could be attacked or killed, and their bonds destroyed, then the great ones of the land would benefit. The myth that they were engaged in the ‘ritual murder of Christian infants became common at times of financial crisis when the populace could be incited to take sanguinary vengeance. It is a matter of historical record that England took the lead in the execration of the Jews.
The first rumour of a ritual crucifixion emerged In 1144, with the story of the death of William of Norwich, and thereafter the tales of ritual murder spread through Europe. England was also the first country to condemn all Jews as criminal ‘coin-clippers’, and the iconography of antisemitism is to be found n the west front of Lincoln Cathedral.
In 1239, during the reign of Henry III, a great census of the Jews and their debts was carried out. The representatives of all the Jews in England were then obliged to convene at Worcester and agree to pay over 20,000 marks to the king’s treasury. This measure effectively bankrupted some of them, which meant that their usefulness had come to an end. Fourteen years later, Henry III ordained a Statute of Jewry that enforced a number of disciplinary measures including the compulsory badge of identification, This was or tabula of yellow felt 3 by 6 inches (7.5 by 15 cm) to be worn on an outer garment. it was to be carriedby every Jew over the age of seven years. Two years later Henry investigated the death of a boy, Hugh, in Lincoln; he believed or professed to believe that this was a crime of ritual murder and as a result, 19 Jews from the city were executed and 100 dispatched to prison in the castle.
Edward I was even more ferocious. He ordered that certain Jews, who had been acquitted of the charge of ritual murder, be retried. In November 1278, 600 Jews were imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of tampering with the currency. 269 of them were hanged six months later. In 1290 he expelled all of the remaining Jews from his kingdom; they were now approximately2,000. He did not take this step out of misplaced religious zeal; it was the measure demanded by the parliament house before they would agree to fresh taxation. In fact the expulsion was seen
by many chroniclers as one of the most important and enlightened acts of his reign. The antisemitism of the medieval English people is clear enough. Some have argued that in subtly modified forms it has continued to this day.
A unique form of religious persecution, the ‘Blood Libel’ or ‘ritual child murder allegation’, arose in England for the first time in Norwich in the 12th century when the body of a boy was found in the depths of Thorpe Woods outside of the city. Periodically, Medieval English Jews were falsely accused of ‘ritual child murder’ by local Christians. It was usually claimed they tortured and killed little Christian boys in a mockery of Christ’s crucifixion, and that they used their blood for magical purposes. The idea of Jews attacking children for blood may have been partly derived and adapted from East Anglian rural folklore, where evil fairies, called ‘Pharisees’, lived underground and sucked the blood of children. The children were probably the victims of accidents or lawless violence, while the accusers’ motives are now generally accepted to have been for financial, political, or religious gain. It set a pattern for future persecution.
In Lincoln, in 1255, ‘Little Hugh’ was found dead near the Lincoln Jewry. The Jews were accused of ritual child murder, not by popular hue and cry, but five weeks later at the instigation of John of Lexington, the brother of Bishop Robert Lexington (1254-58). He had traveled from the North, with the deeply impoverished King, who was desperately raising funds to pay to the Pope for his son Edmund to be crowned King of Sicily, partly by pardoning murderers for cash. Henry III was under threat of excommunication if he did not pay the money to the Pope. Lexington supported by the King secured a forced confession from Copin the Jew, who was then killed despite having been promised a pardon for his confession. In consequence 91 Jews were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Eighteen were summarily executed by the King, for the temerity of requesting a trial by Jury and not trusting the mercy of the King. The rest (including a convert to Judaism called John) were eventually released due to the intervention of the Friars. The boy was then venerated as a local saint (but never canonized) after a miracle was claimed, and he was enshrined in the Cathedral until the Reformation. There is little evidence that the shrine was popular and some doubt that there was ever a proper cult of Hugh. The King was clearly the prime mover in the Blood Libel, aided and abetted by John of Lexington and probably also by the Papal Nuncio. He took the lead in choreographing the rapid events over several days in Lincoln, leading to the confession and condemnation of the Jews. He was the main financial beneficiary. The Papal Nuncio, Rostand Masson, was apparently present with the King throughout the events as part of his retinue. Seven days afterwards he declared Henry’s son, King of Sicily. Therefore it seems that the Jews of Lincoln were sacrificed for the King’s Sicilian business. The motives of the Bishop and the Cathedral cannot be accurately determined, though they played their role in supporting and not resisting the drama. Joe Hillaby asserts that John of Lexington’s actions were extraordinarily timely and fortuitous in assisting his brother the Bishop in his task to magnify the existing cult of Hugh of Avalon and the task of building the Angel Choir, as well as establishing the new cult of the ‘Little Hugh’.
The boy martyr was later celebrated in numerous ballads and songs as well as in Chaucer’s ‘Prioress’s Tale’ (Canterbury Tales). The gruesome lyrics of the ‘Ballad of Little Sir Hugh’ (but usually without mention of any explicit Jewish identity of the alleged perpetrators) are still performed today in folk music circles, frequently without any explanation or apology. As such, ‘Blood Libels’ became one of the most pernicious and enduring of all anti-Semitic fabrications, spreading through Europe and beyond, even up to the present day.
During the 1290s, soon after the general expulsion of the Jews from England by Edward I, the remains of Little Hugh were translated to a new shrine intruded into the South Choir Aisle Screen, but there is little evidence that the cult was ever a success. The architectural evidence (as interpreted by Stocker and Hillaby) suggests that Edward I had a significant role in its construction. Two out of four original coats of arms on the shrine were Edward’s, and we know that he made a gift to the shrine in 1299 / 1300. The style of the shrine seems to be modelled on the architectural tabernacles for the statues on the original 12 Queen Eleanor crosses, erected by Edward I on the path and resting places of his wife’s body, on its way to London from Lincoln, rather than upon usual sepulchral design. It seems entirely likely that the shrine was intended to be linked to the visceral tomb of Queen Eleanor, at the end of the same aisle in the Cathedral. Hillaby asserts that the shrine may have also been intended as a symbol and a piece of royal propaganda, to deflect hostility from Edward and his wife who trafficked in Jewish debts, and to build on the gratitude of the nation in his subsequent action as ‘defender’ of Christianity in expelling the Jews in 1290.
The original plinth and raised back panel of the shrine of the c. 1290s still survive. There are also two broken stumps of the former canopy at the back that made what would have been part of a panel at the side of a small side arch forming the upper structure of the shrine. There are still visible traces of rich green and blue pigment used to decorate parts of the shrine. At the end of the 19th century it was said that there were remnants of gilding as well.
The pierced base of the shrine has gone, along with its ornate canopy, with tall side pinnacles, niches, and the decorative finial with a niche illustrated in Dugdale’s drawing. These were all removed in the Civil War. It seems that there was also a figure of Little Hugh in the shrine. Overall the shrine was a tall monument, reaching at least up to the top of the choir wall, if not higher.
In 1736 the painted, freestone figure of a little boy, about 20 inches high, still existed and was recorded by an antiquarian, Smart Lethieullier. It was by tradition part of the original shrine. The figure was supposed to bear the marks of crucifixion. The head had by that time been broken off and it had been removed from the shrine and was in ‘a by-place just behind the High Altar, where we found it covered with dust and obscurity’.
In 1791, the tomb was opened, when the Cathedral paving was renewed. The remains of Little Hugh were found in a stone coffin just below the paving and seen for the first time since the Middle Ages. The boy was apparently four feet and two inches tall and was thought to have a rather long thin face. No doubt modern forensic work, if available, would have been able to say something about the circumstances of his death. The skeleton provided a refutation of one allegation, as his teeth had not been smashed, as alleged in the blood libel stories.
A careful examination of the surroundings of the shrine shows other significant features. The former upper superstructure of the shrine was skillfully and well integrated into the screen wall of the choir and looks as if it had been carefully planned and positioned so as to be a focus of the aisle in which it stands, even though it was not part of the original design. An impression is gained that the canopy may have been rested, afterwards, above, and onto, an existing tomb, which was itself much more crudely inserted into the Choir wall. It rested on and above the base and back of the tomb (the surviving elements) and was structurally separate, and not built in one piece, which is why the dismantling of the canopy at the Reformation did not destroy the tomb beneath.
The evidence suggests that an original tomb of Little Hugh was significantly embellished to become a major feature of the south side of the Cathedral and in its day represented not only the cult of Little Hugh, but garnered a royal meaning and patronage as well and was quite imposing in its improved state after 1290.
The Cathedral for many years placed a notice by the shrine of Little Hugh to explain its meaning, but it is easy for the casual visitor to completely miss the remains. The notice has its own history and has evolved over the years. Before 1959, a notice largely repeated the traditional libel. But in 1959, it was replaced by the then Dean, the Rev D.C. Dunlop, who was reported by the Daily Telegraph as saying that the Chapter did not wish, ‘to see things that are not true up on the walls of the Cathedral’ and that a new notice would correct the record. This new notice, cancelling the libel, remained in place for a good many years, but recently has been further revised and then improved again, most recently through a collaboration project between the Cathedral and the Jewish community.
Between July 2008 and September 2009, the notice was entirely re-written in an interfaith collaboration, by Professor Brian Winston (for the Lincoln Jewish Community), Carol Bennett (for the Cathedral) and Marcus Roberts (JTrails) as part of the Trails Jewish heritage project in Lincoln, working in the first instance with the Lincoln Jewish Community. The American academic Elisa van Court had criticised the wording of the existing signage in 1997 and again in a publication in 2006. The new plaque refers to ‘Little Hugh’ without referring to him as ‘Saint’ since he was never officially recognised as such by Rome. Calling him a ‘saint’ confers false credibility for the blood libel in Lincoln. The new signage also draws notice to the terrible consequences for the medieval Jewish community (the most notable omission in the original signage as high-lighted by van Court) and the contemporary relevance of the shrine. The new notice is the result of excellent interfaith relations between the communities and a desire to show the real significance of the Lincoln Blood Libel today.
Well we know where we’re going But we don’t know where we’ve been And we know what we’re knowing But we can’t say what we’ve seen And we’re not little children And we know what we want And the future is certain Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads
To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.
The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.
The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.
And so, to the year in review:
During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its watch with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.
In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.
It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in Crisis, Milo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.
There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death ofStalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.
As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Home, and a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.
Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Bluesshone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.
I am not one who makes much of the festive season, but inspired by the example of my favourite blog, Thom Hickey’s Immortal Juke Box, here are five favourite Christmas songs. No Neil Diamond or Mariah Carey here.
The King, sung here by Canadians Loreena McKennitt and Cyril Smith, from Loreena’s Christmas album To Drive the Cold Winter Away, hails from a long tradition of “Wren King” songs. The king of the title is the wee wren, “the king of all birds”, as many old songs tell it. Through December until Twelfth Night (the sixth of January), it was common among Celtic-speakers in Brittany, Wales, Manx, Scotland, and Ireland for children and adults to cruise their neighbourhoods cadging food, money or booze in return for seeing a Wren that they had captured. This particular “King Wren” song dates from the eighteenth century, although the heavy weaponry was added in the nineteenth.
Health, love and peace be all here in this place By your leave we shall sing, concerning our King Our King is well-dressed in silks of the best In ribbons so rare no king can compare We have travelled many miles over hedges and stiles In search of our King unto you we bring. We have powder and shot to conquer the lot We have cannon and ball to conquer them all. Old Christmas is past, twelve tide is the last And we bid you adieu, great joy to the new
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown. Northumbrian Kate Rusby’s rendering of the old English carol The Holly and the Ivy is gorgeous. I reblogged Thom Hickey’s tribute to this lovely song earlier this month. It is worth another look and listen. The lyrics are so bucolic, so timeless:
The rising of the sun The running of the deer The playing of the merry organ Sweet singing in the choir
Loreena sings a lovely version of The Wexford Carol on her Christmas album. But Christmas songs don’t get much more beautiful than this beautiful version by American bluegrass diva Ali Krauss and cellist virtuoso Yo Yo Ma. The carol is believed to have originated in twelfth century Ireland in my mother’s home town of Inis Córthaidh.
In 1961, Dusty Springfield was but a young lass, but even back then, she had a fabulous voice! I was twelve years old and this was the first time I’d heard the Springfields, the Americanesque folk trio founded by her brother Tom. It was the beginning of unrequited puppy-love that ended when I heard the Bobster’s Love Minus Zero No Limit – see my reverie What’s Bob Got to Do With It? Dusty went on to become one of the greatest soul singers of all time, and Tom gave the world The Seekers. He adapted Bambino from a traditional Italian carol, just as he was later to transform a Russian folk-song into The Carnival is Over.
Santo natale bambino mio… To you and all mankind, To you and all mankind, maybe, And from strife we shall be free.
It’s been voted the best Christmas song of all time – in the U.K, that is, because Americans don’t get it, as The Independent discovered – and, yes, it’s my number one because it IS the best Christmas song of all time. And yet, it seems, the “bah humbug!” straighteners and virtue signallers are out to get it, as reported recently by Aussie writer Mark Mordue: Sanitize Clause would rob a Christmas ballad of its soul.
The irascible, untuneful, dentally-disadvantaged Shane McGowan and his hot ceilidh band hit the big time with this “Christmas Eve in the drunk tank” shanty, wonderfully aided and abetted by the gorgeous and doomed Kirsty MacColl, who could’ve been famous but for a rich Mexican in a speedboat. The repartee between these loser-lovers is up there with Burton and Taylor:
I could have been someone Well so could anyone You took my dreams from me When I first found you…
You’re a bum You’re a punk You’re an old slut on junk You scumbag, you maggot You cheap lousy faggot Happy Christmas your arse I pray God it’s our last
When it comes to a Christmas song, how low can you Go? And, as the band kicks in with the accordion and pipes, how high can you fly?
Of our elaborate plans, the end Of everything that stands, the end No safety or surprise, the end
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son. John 3:16
The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 saw an end to four years of carnage on the western front and the end of of the First World War. The armies were demobbed and men went home to lives that were changed utterly: British and French, Austrian and German, Belgian and Italian, Serbs and Bulgarians, Turks and Arabs, and also, soldiers from across the ocean – Americans and Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, South Africans and Indians. Friends and foes.
The victors retired to a restless peace, but the vanquished, Germany, Austria, and Hungary, descended into revolution and civil war for a time as gangs of former soldiers fought on the left and the right. In eastern Europe, the crumbling of empires, the Russian revolution, civil war and the struggle to establish the borders of newly established states meant that armed violence continued, leaving deep scars and bitterness that many ways set the stage for the autocracies of the 1930s and further bloodshed.
The Polish-Soviet war lasted until 1921. The Russian Civil War, ending in 1923, raged across most of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Baltic region. British, Australian, American and French soldiers were dispatched to Murmansk and Archangel to fight the Red Army; Poles fought Ukrainians and Lithuanians, and defeated the Soviets at the gates of Warsaw; pogroms were perpetrated against Jews just as they had been for years, decades, centuries prior, accelerating , with subsequent consequence, Aliyah to Palestine.
The Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922, which saw the Greeks, with British and French support, endeavouring to seize Constantinople, led to terrible massacres, and a forced exchange of populations that uprooted one and a half million Greeks and Turks from towns and villages they had occupied for a millennium. Armies marched back and forth across the Great European Plain, bringing devastation and starvation and destroying millions of lives. Central Asia, the lands now covered by the once Soviet ‘’stans likewise became battlegrounds for Reds, Whites and local warlords.
And in ‘John Bull’s Other Island’, as expat GBS Shaw called it, a “terrible beauty was born” – WB Yeats’ exquisite words – the doomed intifada that was the rebellion of Easter 1916, launched, opportunistically yet quixotically whilst English eyes were elsewhere, led exponentially into open rebellion, a qualified victory, and a civil war and partition that rested, roused and then resurrected in Derry in 1968 and decades termed somewhat innocuously ‘The Troubles’.
For some, there was light at the end of the terrible territorial tunnel. Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Finns, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, achieved statehood, or the restoration of nationhood, as did, fleetingly, Ukrainians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Poland reappeared on the map after over a century of having been carved up by empires. Hungarians lost two-thirds of their territory and more than half of their population. “Little” Serbia, which had ignited the Balkan powder keg in 1914, with Gavril Princip’s famous shot that ricocheted through complacent, twitchy and mightily armed Europe, was united with its Slav but religiously fractured Balkan neighbours in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia – and we now know how well that worked out.
Beyond Europe too, a bitter ‘Peace’ sowed dragon’s teeth. Last year, we commemorated the centenaries of the infamous Sykes Picot Agreement, the first draft of a colonial dispensation that established borders that remained unchallenged until Da’ish assaulted the status quo in 2014, and the Balfour Declaration, which set in train the rise and rise of the state of Israel and the long descent of Palestinian hopes for a land of their own. Ironically, the most militant Zionist pioneers and later, soldiers, terrorists and statesmen, emigrated from Poland and the Tsarist empire. These many legacies resonate today.
The end of WW1 saw the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and left Britain in control of Palestine and Mesopotamia. The peace conferences that followed led to the creation of modern Turkey, and, though for decades under French and British colonial rule, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. The Kurds turned up at the conference table but were denied a seat and thereafter, a state.
The war changed more than maps, frontiers and regimes. The needs of modern warfare brought women into the workforce, galvanizing the movements that won them the vote in many democracies. The pace of technological change already underway in industrialized countries was quickened by the demands of war, and advances in land transportation and aviation continued exponentially, as did the development of weaponry, together with the insatiable demand for fossil fuels. Economic privation precipitated the first successful Communist revolution and many failed ones, whilst the peace, resentments, reparations, and recession prompted many to turn to far-right authoritarians in Italy and then Germany. The mass movements of populations helped spread the deadliest epidemic the world has ever known: the 1918 influenza virus or Spanish Flu, which quietly killed possibly up to a hundred million souls – more than both world wars combined.
In the last decades of the Twentieth Century, historians would observe with the benefit of hindsight how the Second World War rose ineluctably from the ashes of the first, just as the division of Europe and the Soviet enslavement (and I say this as a lifelong leftist) of those Eastern European countries that emerged after 1918 led to the Europe of today, and as the peoples of the Middle East reaped the whirlwinds of both conflagrations. Many look back on the tumultuous decades that followed the Great War, and sensing signals and signposts in contemporary temporal tea leaves, advise is to be afraid, be very afraid.
We like to identify patterns in history that help us understand and explain our contemporary world. But we should exercise caution. To continue the hindsight riff, remember that things we see in the rear view mirror appear closer than they really are. The world is very much different today, as is our knowledge, our perception, our hopes and fears, and so also, our prognostications and expectations. If we can do it all over again, we’ll do it differently, and much more dangerously and destructively. Having learned so much, we have, one fears, understood so little.
As we remember that moment in Western Europe and the Levant when the guns at last fell silent, let us contemplate melancholy mathematics of the human toll poignantly described by American economist and academic Patrick Chovanec in a fine article in the New York Review of Books, which I have reproduced below:
“In the Great War itself, over sixteen million people died, including almost seven million civilians. The US got off relatively lightly, with 117,465 people killed, just 0.13 percent of its population. In Serbia, somewhere between 17 and 28 percent of the country’s population was killed. But even numbers like these leave little concrete impression on our minds … people would (tell) me about a grandfather or great-uncle who fought and died in the war, and is forever twenty-four-years old in some field in France, or Turkey, or Italy, or at sea. For most people, that absence is what defined the war: someone left and never came home. The world that they shaped, by their presence and their absence, is the one that we live in, whether we realize it or not. And we, like them, can only grope our way forward, day by day, into an unknown future”.
Four years ago, I went to war. Like many of the people whose stories I followed in my daily “live-tweets” on World War I, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. What began as an impulsive decision to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand’s death at the hands of a Serbian assassin, in June 1914, snowballed into a blood-soaked odyssey that took me—figuratively and literally—from the rolling hills of northern France, to the desert wastes of Arabia, to the rocky crags of the Italian Alps, to the steel turret of a rebel cruiser moored within range of the czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. And like the men and women who actually lived through it, now that the Great War is ending I find myself asking what, if anything, I’ve learned from it all.
In the American mind, World War I typically occupies an unimpressive place as a kind of shambolic preamble to the great good-versus-evil crusade of World War II, a pointless slugfest in muddy trenches for no worthy purpose, and no worthwhile result. Its catchphrases—“The War to End All Wars,” “Make the World Safe for Democracy”—evoke a wry and knowing chuckle. As if. But the war I encountered, as it unfolded day by day, was far more relevant, passionate, and unpredictable.
Posting daily newspaper clippings and photographs, found mainly in books and online archives, I began to see the Great War as a kind of portal between an older, more distant world—of kings with handlebar mustaches, splendid uniforms, and cavalry charges—and the one that we know: of planes and tanks, mass political movements, and camouflage. It snuffed out ancient monarchies in czarist Russia, Habsburg Austria, and Ottoman Turkey, and gave birth to a host of new nations—Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan—that, in their struggles to survive and carve out an identity, continue to shape our world today. The British declared their intent to create a national homeland in Palestine for the Jews.
The needs of the war brought women into the workforce, and helped win them the right to vote. The huge privations it inflicted triggered the world’s first (successful) Communist revolution, and the frustrations it unleashed prompted many, afterward, to turn to far-right authoritarians in Italy and then Germany. And finally—though many have forgotten it—the comings and goings of people caused by the war helped spread the deadliest epidemic the world has ever known: the 1918 influenza virus, which quietly killed an estimated 50–100 million human beings in their homes and in hospitals, more than both world wars combined.
I also encountered a cast of characters more varied and amazing than I thought possible. Rasputin, the dissolute Russian mystic who warned Czar Nicholas that going to war would destroy his dynasty, and was murdered in part because he was (falsely) suspected as a German agent. The Austrian Emperor Karl, who inherited a war he didn’t want, and tried fruitlessly to make peace. T.E. Lawrence, a scholarly young intelligence officer whose affinity for the Arabs helped turn them to the Allied cause, and shaped the modern Middle East. Mata Hari, a Dutch-born exotic dancer who played double-agent, seducing high-ranking Allied and German officers for valuable information, until she was caught and shot by the French as a spy.
Some of the names are familiar, and offer hints of future greatness—or infamy. A young anti-war journalist named Benito Mussolini, sensing the way the wind blows, changes his tune and aggressively advocates for Italy to enter the war, before signing up himself. A young Charles De Gaulle is wounded at Verdun and taken prisoner for the rest of the conflict. A relatively young Winston Churchillplans the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign and pays his penance by serving in the trenches, before making a political comeback. A young Harry S. Truman serves as an artillery officer on the Western Front, alongside (and outranked by) a young George C. Marshall (his future Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of State) and Douglas MacArthur (his future general in the Pacific and Korea). A young George S. Patton develops a fascination with tanks. A young Walt Disney doodles cartoons on the side of the ambulances he drives, in the same unit as a young Ray Kroc (the founder of McDonald’s). Another young ambulance driver, Ernest Hemingway, finds inspiration on the Italian Front for his novel A Farewell to Arms. A young Hermann Göring (later head of the Luftwaffe) becomes a dashing flying ace, while a young Erwin Rommel wins renown fighting at Verdun and in the Alps. Meanwhile, an odd young German corporal, who volunteered in the very first days of the war, is blinded by poison gas in its final days, and wakes up in hospital to the bitter news that Germany has lost. His name is Adolf Hitler.
The dramatic panoply of people, places, and events, however, only occasionally rises to the fore. For the most part, the war is a steady stream of ordinary people doing ordinary things: washing their clothes, attending a concert, tallying supplies, fixing a car. History books give us a distorted sense of time, because they fast forward to major events. A day may take a chapter, a month may be passed over in a sentence. In fact, there were periods where nothing much happened—plans were being made, troops trained, supplies positioned—and when you live-tweet, you experience that waiting. Sometimes, it led to intriguing surprises, like photographs of dragon dances performed by some of the 140,000 Chinese laborers brought over to France to lend muscle to the Allied war effort. Mostly, it was a matter of endurance. Each winter, the fighting came to almost a complete stop as each country hunkered down and hoped its food would last. The “turnip winter” of 1916–1917, when the potato crop failed, nearly broke Germany; the increasingly desperate craving for “bread and peace” did break Russia the following year.
The future president Herbert Hoover made his reputation by coordinating food relief shipments to German-occupied Belgium, and later as the US “food czar” ensuring Allied armies and populations were fed. The vast mobilization was effective: by 1918, the Allies were able to relax their food rationing, while Germany and its confederates, strangled by an Allied naval blockade, were on the verge of starvation. America’s war effort was accompanied by a vast expansion in the federal government’s power and reach. It nationalized (temporarily) the railroads and the telephone lines. It set prices for everything from sugar to shoes, and told motorists when they could drive, workers when they could strike, and restaurants what they could put on their menus. It seized half a billion dollars of enemy-owned property, including the brand rights to Bayer aspirin, and sold them at auction. The US government also passed espionage and sedition laws that made it illegal to criticize the war effort or the president. Some people were sent to prison for doing so, including the Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president for a fifth and final time from a cell.
Winning the war, however, was far from a sure thing. For three years, the Allies threw themselves against an evenly-matched enemy on the Western Front, without making any breakthroughs, while the Eastern Front gradually crumbled. An early Allied foray to take out Turkey, at Gallipoli in 1915, ended in bloody disappointment. Inducing Italy to enter the war on the Allies’ side, that same year, was supposed to swing the entire conflict in their favor; instead, the catastrophic Italian rout atCaporetto, in the autumn of 1917, put the Allied effort in greater jeopardy. When Lenin seized power in Russia, at the end of 1917, he took it immediately out of the war and ceded immense land and resources to German control. True, the US had by then entered the war, in response to Germany’s submarine campaign against merchant ships and its clumsy diplomatic scheming in Mexico. But with the war in the East essentially won, the Germans saw a window in which they could shift all of their armies to the West and crush the exhausted British and French before enough American troops could arrive to make a difference. Their spring offensive, or “Kaiser’s Battle,” in early 1918 drove deep into Allied lines, prompting the French government to evacuate Paris.
The Germans’ big roll of the dice failed. The Allies held, and the US mobilized much faster than anyone expected. By the summer of 1918, a perceptible change had taken place. Hundreds of thousands of American troops were arriving every month at French ports, and their first units were taking part in battles, piecemeal at first, to push the Germans back. Even in September, however, nearly everyone expected the war to continue into 1919. That was when a huge US army of 3 million men would be ready to take part in a big Allied offensive that would drive all the way to Berlin. It never happened. That fall, the German army—and those of Turkey, Austria, and Bulgaria—first buckled, then collapsed like a rotten log. By November 11, the war was over.
The fact that nobody saw the end coming, the way it did, highlights the value of going back, a hundred years later, and reliving events day by day, as they took place. What may seem obvious now was anything but so then, and we do the people who lived through it, and our understanding of them, a real disservice when we assume that it was. “Life can only be understood backwards,” the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed, “but it must be lived forwards.” The British historian C.V. Wedgewood elaborated on the same idea: “History is lived forwards but is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was like to know the beginning only.” We can’t entirely forget that we know what happened next, but when we at least try to identify with people who did not know, we shed new light on them, and on what did happen.
Take the Russian Revolution. We see it as the birth of a Communist superpower, and struggle to make sense of the seemingly half-baked, half-hearted effort by the Allies to intervene by sending troops, including Americans, to Russia’s ports in the far north and far east. People at the time, however, saw it almost entirely through the prism of the Great War. At first, the Allies welcomed the overthrow of the czar, and believed it would rejuvenate the failing Russian war effort. By replacing an infamous autocrat on the Allied roster with a fledgling democracy, it made “making the world safe for democracy” a more credible call to arms, and helped pave the way for the US to enter the war. When Lenin took over and made a ruinous peace with the Central Powers, he was seen as simply a German puppet. And when Bolshevik forces, augmented with released German and Austrian prisoners of war, attacked a unit of Czech soldiers crossing Siberia to rejoin the Allies on the Western Front, those suspicions blossomed into fear of a full-fledged German takeover of Russia. The Allies sent troops to key Russian ports to secure the war supplies stockpiled there and provide an exit route for the loyal Czechs. They considered trying to “reopen” the Eastern Front, but realized it would take far too many men. They assumed that when Germany was defeated, their proxy Lenin would eventually fall, and when the war ended, they naturally lost interest. It all makes sense, but only if you see through the eyes that people saw through at the time.
Did it really matter who won the war? In its aftermath, the Great War came to be seen as a colossal waste, a testament to the vanity of nations, of pompous older men sending foolish younger men into the meat-grinder for no good reason. War poems like “Dulce et decorum est” and novels like All Quiet on the Western Front have crystalized this impression. But this was not how people felt at the time. German atrocities in Belgium and on the high seas—some exaggerated, but others quite real—convinced many people that civilization, as they knew it, really was at stake. I was consistently and often surprisingly struck by the sincerity of support, not just on the home front, but among soldiers who had seen the worst of combat, for pursuing the war unto victory. The tone matures, but remains vibrant: these were, for the most part, people who believed in what they were fighting for. At what point the bitter cynicism set in, after the war ended, I cannot say. But at some point, that enthusiasm, and even the memory of it, became buried with the dead.
Though, in fact, in many places the war did not actually end. An armistice was declared on the Western Front, and the armies there were disbanded and sent home. But Germany, Austria, and Hungary all descended into revolution and civil war for a time, with gangs of demobilized soldiers fighting on all sides. In Russia, the Soviet regime and its multiple enemies would battle for several years, while trying to reconquer territory surrendered when it quit the war against Germany. The Greeks tried to reclaim Constantinople from the Turks, and would be massacred when the Turks succeeded in reconsolidating their country. The Poles fought wars with the Ukrainians and the Soviets to define the boundaries of their newly independent country. Jews and Arabs continue to fight over the new lands liberated from the Ottoman Empire to this day.
In the Great War itself, over 16 million people died, including almost 7 million civilians. The US got off relatively lightly, with 117,465 people killed, just 0.13 percent of its population. In Serbia, somewhere between 17 percent and 28 percent of the country’s population was killed. But even numbers like these leave little concrete impression on our minds. Some of the most touching parts of my experience live-tweeting were the times when people would tweet back to me about a grandfather or great-uncle who fought and died in the war, and is forever twenty-four-years old in some field in France, or Turkey, or Italy, or at sea. For most people, that absence is what defined the war: someone left and never came home. The world that they shaped, by their presence and their absence, is the one that we live in, whether we realize it or not. And we, like them, can only grope our way forward, day by day, into an unknown future.
In 1908, Kenneth Grahame retired from his position as secretary of the Bank of England. He moved to Berkshire, where he had lived as a child and spent his time by the River Thames doing much as the animal characters in his book do – “simply messing about in boats”. He elaborated on the bedtime stories he had earlier told to his son Alistair and created a children’s classic that has never been out of print. It was into its thirty-first printing in 1929 when playwright A. A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh, adapted the most raucous and rambunctious part of it for the stage as Toad of Toad Hall in 1929 – which in 1949 Walt Disney’s studio took to the highest heights of slapstick hilariousness with its animated featurette the same name.
This anthropomorphic of riverside animals was set in a pastoral version of Edwardian England, characterized by its mix of mysticism, adventure, morality, and camaraderie, and celebrated for its evocation of the nature of the Thames valley. It was an early precursor of late-century melodramatic morality tales such asWatership Down (rabbits) and Ducton Wood (moles) which contain none of its endearing magic and humour.
The Wind in the Willows is a strange book. It poses as an almost homoerotic Arcadian fantasy, and yet it is also an opaque upper middle-class tract preaching deference to and and support for the British class system and the established order. Mole looks up to Rat who looks up to Badger and they all kowtow to the ridiculous, pompous and self-indulgent Bullington ClubToad because he is the lord of the manor. The bad weasels and stoats, of course, were the socialist revolutionaries who wanted to wreck the joint. They had to be vanquished by the valiant – one could say vigilante – forces of righteousness and order – the stout burgers of the riverbank – and violently ejected from Toad Hall. The rule of law is restored, and Mole and Ratty resume their bucolic idyll.
Six years later, this shuttered Edwardian dreamtime shuddered to a terrible end in the carnage of the Great War, and in a decade, Red weasels broke the wheel of history and reset the clock for the rest of the twentieth century.
When I first read The Wind in the Willows as a child, it was a fantasy. When I reread it again as a left-wing teenager, living not too far from where the story was set and indeed, often rambling by Thames water’s edge, it was a fable – and a lame one at that. But I really must’ve must’ve been stoned or tripping when I reached Chapter Seven because I fell in love with it. It has been a favourite of mine ever since despite its twee, self-conscious encounter with the “divine”. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a most magnificent chapter. No wonder Pink Floyd chose it as the title of their first album back in the day!
Critics have not been so smitten. As Rosemary Hill notes in her excellent centennial review (see below) , it is “one strange, unsettling chapter … that abridgers of the book have always been quick to drop, though Grahame himself thought it essential. In it, Rat and Mole, searching for the Otter’s lost child, are granted a vision of the great god Pan, a muscular, horned god, “the Friend and Helper”, before whom the animals, “crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship”. Whether it is the latent homo-eroticism of the vision or simply the sudden change of tone that makes the scene so uncomfortable, it is certainly a failure. But while artistically it is the weakest part of the book, it is at the same time the key to it. Pan’s parting gift to Rat and Mole is “forgetfulness”. They will not remember the pure happiness of their vision because if they did the memory would grow until it overshadowed and spoiled the rest of their lives with the knowledge that it could never be regained. The “little animals” would never be “happy and light-hearted” again”.
Reproduced in full below are two excellent reviews of a centenary annotated edition published in 2009. They place Grahame’s story in the context of its time – an idyllic last summer bathed in golden sunshine before the storm that hit Europe in August 1914, and an equally golden age of children’s books. There is a certain consensus in both reviews – with which I concur: The Wind in the Willows is a above all a book about longing, but it also also a book about letting go, if only for a brief moment.
If Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank idyll inspires nostalgia, it’s because The Wind in the Willows is itself saturated in longing. The tale of Ratty and Toad was, Rosemary Hill argues, a product of its own uneasy times
If the Edwardian age is not remembered as a decade of social discontent and growing international tension when the cracks in the British empire began to show, but as an the reason is largely to be found in children’s literature. It was the age, if not of innocence, then of Jemima Puddleduck, Peter Pan and Mr Toad. Most of what became the canon of English writing for children appeared in a mere nine years. The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the first of the stories that Beatrix Potter modestly referred to as her “little books”, came out in 1902 and was rapidly followed by six more. Peter Pan was first staged in 1904, E Nesbit’s The Railway Children was published two years later, and then, in 1908, came Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, soon to become one of the best loved of them all.
The riverbank adventures of Mole, Ratty and Badger have now taken their place among the earliest memories of four generations and seem timeless, while the impossible, irrepressible Mr Toad got his own stage show, written by AA Milne, as early as 1929 and is still going strong. Yet Grahame’s story and indeed the whole Edwardian renaissance of books for and about children were peculiarly the products of their own uneasy time. If The Wind in the Willows inspires nostalgia now, that is because it is itself saturated in longing for other times and other places.
A year older than JM Barrie and a year younger than E Nesbit, Grahame was, like them, middle-aged when he produced his most enduring work. He was 49 when the book appeared, and described himself, accurately, as a “mid-Victorian”. His was the generation that had known no other monarch than Victoria and that felt with her death in 1901 that they had lost “a sustaining symbol”, as Henry James put it, adding, “the wild waters are upon us now”.
The Wild Wood and the Wide World are the twin menaces that loom over The Wind in the Willows. The sensible Water Rat wants nothing to do with either; it is only the Mole’s naivety and Toad’s hubris that force him to encounter them from time to time. The Mole soon learns his lesson. He is a creature, as he comes to understand, of the “frequented pasture” and the garden plot. “Nature in the rough” is not for him. The life of the riverbank, of messing about in boats, of ample picnics and long rambles, is essentially the life of suburbia, a rapidly growing but not entirely benign sign of the Edwardian times. The railway, which facilitates Toad’s daring escape from prison, had by now brought the branch lines deep into the shires, but with them came the commuters and the red-brick villas that Grahame so disliked. His typically English ambivalence towards suburban life runs like the river through the book. On the one hand, there’s the love of comfort and security, on the other, the chafing at its limitations and the sense that the pursuit of rural bliss may destroy the very thing that it desires.
Grahame was himself part of the phenomenon. Having spent the happiest years of his childhood at Cookham Dene in Berkshire, he returned, shortly before he started work on The Wind in the Willows, with his family and took a house there, grumbling, like Ratty, about incomers and over-crowding. In the episode where Toad’s caravan is overturned by a speeding motor car, the new Norton edition tells us that Grahame’s original version had Ratty shouting after it: “Stockbrokers!” Grahame changed it later to “road hogs”. As a recently retired secretary of the Bank of England he may have felt he was on thin ice.
Other social nuances of home-counties life in the early 20th century are reflected along the river bank. Toad Hall, with its secret passages and Tudor mullions, was given up some time ago by the original family and sold to a Victorian magnate. It is now in the hands, like Britain itself, of a spendthrift, headstrong eldest son who indulges one fad after another and is treated with the respect his pretensions deserve by the older tenantry. Rat points out to Mole the place where they will moor their boat at Toad Hall, next to “That creek on the left, where the notice-board says, ‘Private. No landing allowed'”. Toad blithely sees his non-ancestral home as a desirable commercial property. He describes it as it might be advertised in the new magazine, Country Life, founded in 1897 in London to cater largely to the aspirations of the stockbroking classes: “an eligible self-contained gentleman’s residence … dating in part from the 14th century but replete with every modern convenience … Five minutes from church, post-office, and golf-links.”
Like Beatrix Potter, Grahame was a keen observer of his characters’ domestic arrangements. The opulence of Toad Hall contrasts with Mole End, where the humble collection of prints and popular plaster busts, the outdated Gothic lettering on the house sign and the peculiar garden ornament made of cockle shells, mark Mole out as the Mr Pooter of the riverbank. Badger’s arts and crafts interior, complete with English oak settles and plain brick floor, shows a more cultivated taste. Indeed his home, with its central hall surrounded by “stout oaken comfortable-looking doors”, is in the old English style of suburban country-house design pioneered by architects such as Norman Shaw and admired by connoisseurs at home and abroad.
The trouble with Edwardian suburbia was that it was, as Grahame knew, an optical illusion. With its need for the golf club and the water closet as well as nature and history, it could best be found in the pages of Country Life where Gertrude Jekyll’s artfully planned landscapes dissolved the garden boundaries, while Edwin Lutyens’s houses turned newspaper magnates and mill-owners into county gentry. Great gusts of longing for something wilder and wider, whatever the risk, blow through The Wind in the Willows, as they stirred among many of Grahame’s contemporaries.
The fantasy of the “open road”, which troubles Toad and even sometimes Ratty, found expression in a fashion, which Grahame followed, for long cross-country walks. “Tramping”, as it was sometimes called, suggested a possible temporary change of class as well as scene. The poet WH Davies’s The Autobiography of a Supertramp was published in the same year as The Wind in the Willows and was also a great success. It told of Davies’s travels across thousands of miles of America, living rough and doing menial jobs, as he later recollected them in the tranquillity of Sevenoaks. For the riverbankers, however, there is no such possibility. Their caravan trip ends abruptly when they collide, literally, with modernity in the form of the car. Later, when Ratty is tempted by the sea rat to yield to the call of the Mediterranean, Mole rapidly talks him out of it.
England itself in the early 20th century was suffering from a similar timidity or failure of nerve – what Hermann Muthesius, the shrewd German observer of English life and architecture, called in 1904 “a certain hardening of the arteries”. The 1890s had been very different. Then it was possible briefly to belong to both suburbia and bohemia, and Grahame had. While rising smoothly through the ranks at the Bank of England to become its youngest ever secretary, he was also part of the literary set surrounding Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. He had written regularly for The Yellow Book, a magazine devoted to modern decadence in the persons of Max Beerbohm, Walter Sickert and WB Yeats. It was in its second issue that he published the story that made his name, “The Roman Road”, a narrative cast as a conversation between a child and an adult, its message that only the artist and the child are imaginatively free.
Reviewing Grahame’s collection of stories The Golden Age, which was about, but not for, children, the arch-aesthete Algernon Swinburne found it “too praiseworthy for praise” in its lack of sentimentality about its subject. Then came the arrest of Oscar Wilde, the demise of The Yellow Book and a change of mood. Grahame’s Dream Days, another collection of stories published in 1899, was followed by nine years of silence before The Wind in the Willows, which, when it appeared, disconcerted some critics who had admired his earlier work and were not expecting a children’s book.
The editors of the latest editions are not the first to detect a comic echo of Wilde’s tragedy in the rise and fall of Mr Toad. Grahame’s Berkshire home was not far from Reading Gaol, George Gilbert Scott’s turreted Gothic revival prison, where Wilde was incarcerated. Reading is undoubtedly where Toad is taken from court, loaded with chains, having been sentenced to 20 years for being rude to a policeman. “Across the hollow-sounding drawbridge, below the spiky portcullis, under the frowning archway” Toad recedes.
He is disappearing, though, not only into prison but into the Victorian fiction of the past that Reading Gaol represents. As he passes them, the prison warders sprout medieval halberds, there is a rack-chamber and a thumbscrew-room, and the police sergeant suddenly starts to talk in impenetrable Walter Scott Gothic: “Oddsbodikins … and a murrain on both of them!” Toad finds he is immured in the darkest dungeon in “the stoutest castle in all the length and breadth of Merry England”. Merry England, Grahame knew, was a fiction, and it was finished. It could no longer offer a resort for the imagination as it had to the writers of the early 19th century who sought respite from their own times in the pious middle ages. The Edwardians knew much more about history and they were much less sure about God.
Those of them who went on searching for the divine often found it enveloped in clouds of pantheism and neo-paganism, spiritualism and theosophy, the faiths of the doubtful. It is this diffuse but potent supernaturalism that appears in The Wind in the Willows in one strange, unsettling chapter, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”. It is a section that abridgers of the book have always been quick to drop, though Grahame himself thought it essential. In it, Rat and Mole, searching for the Otter’s lost child, are granted a vision of the great god Pan, a muscular, horned god, “the Friend and Helper”, before whom the animals, “crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship”.
Whether it is the latent homo-eroticism of the vision or simply the sudden change of tone that makes the scene so uncomfortable, it is certainly a failure. But while artistically it is the weakest part of the book, it is at the same time the key to it. Pan’s parting gift to Rat and Mole is “forgetfulness”. They will not remember the pure happiness of their vision because if they did the memory would grow until it overshadowed and spoiled the rest of their lives with the knowledge that it could never be regained. The “little animals” would never be “happy and light-hearted” again.
At Edward VII’s coronation in 1901 Kipling’s great fin-de-siècle poem, “Recessional”, was read with its tolling refrain “Lest we forget – lest we forget”. But for Grahame and his contemporaries the problem was that they couldn’t forget. The enemy without, the stoats and the weasels from the Wild Wood, might be driven from Toad Hall with sticks, but memory, the foe within, haunted them along with all that they had lost or might be about to lose. And so they turned aside, as one view of history has it, from modernism and went back to the nursery. What they found there, though, was not so much a second childhood as the first, the ideal one, which they preserved forever for their readers – childhood as we may all remember it and as it never was.
Second Wind for a Toad and His Pals
Charles McGrath, New York Times, July 9th 2009
The years between 1900 and the outbreak of World War I, it has often been remarked, were a golden age in Britain for the writing of children’s books. Among the books published then are most of what we remember of Beatrix Potter; several of E. Nesbit’s novels; Kipling’s “Jungle Book” and “Just So” stories, J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens,” which became the basis for the stage play; Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows”; and “A Little Princess” and “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who eventually became an American citizen but was born in Manchester, England. In hindsight these books seem to reflect the long, sunny afternoon of Edwardian England, a moment of arrested innocence before the outbreak of the Great War. Many of them also yearn for a rural, preindustrial England that was already vanishing. Part of their appeal is that they’re nostalgic, as we are, for childhood itself, or for a simpler past that seems to embody childhood virtue.
Of all these books “The Wind in the Willows” may be the oddest and most endearing. Too late for the centennial of its original publication in 1908, but a century and a half after the birth of the author, it has been reissued in two large-format annotated editions — one edited by Seth Lerer and published by the Belknap imprint of Harvard University Press, the other edited by Annie Gauger and published by Norton as part of its well-established series that already includes “Alice in Wonderland,”“The Wizard of Oz,” and three volumes of Sherlock Holmes.
“The Wind in the Willows” is probably most famous for a single line, Rat’s remark to Mole: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” But the boating adventures, charming as they are, are the least of what makes the book so singular. “The Wind in the Willows” is a children’s book that, unlike most, doesn’t describe a world without grownups; instead, it parodies the grownup world. The characters — Rat, Mole, Badger, Otter, Toad — aren’t just woodland creatures with a few anthropomorphic traits. They’re of indeterminate scale — Toad is toad-size in some scenes but in others big enough to disguise himself as a human — and they have full-blown adult personalities, more nearly Edwardian clubmen than rodents, burrow-dwelling mammals or amphibians. Toad, who has certain traits in common with the overweight, fun-loving King Edward, even parts his hair in the middle, a detail that Beatrix Potter famously took exception to. “A frog may wear galoshes,” she wrote. “But I don’t hold with toads wearing beards or wigs!”
The adventures depicted in the book include the famous riverine idylls and a couple of almost equally well-known scenes of cozy underground bachelor life, which Mr. Lerer says owe something to Ruskin’s ideal of British domesticity. There are also the much wilder episodes of Toad’s manic car theft and car smashing; a Bolshevik takeover of Toad’s great manor house, Toad Hall, by the lower-class stoats and weasels; and, most bizarre of all, a moment of sexual and religious ecstasy when Mole and Rat behold, in the silvery, creeping light of dawn, no less than a naked, shaggy-flanked goat god, Pan himself, taking a break from his piping.
This scene is so charged that Ms. Gauger detects an element of homoeroticism. But then she, by far the more extensive and detailed of the two annotators, is quick to find an erotic subtext throughout a work that Grahame declared to be “free of the clash of sex.” After Toad and Mole companionably spend the night together, she notes, “If this were a novel for adults, Mole and Rat would perhaps consummate their relationship amorously.”
This kind of observation is indicative of the problems inherent in annotating a classic text, even one as well known as this. On the one hand, parts of the cultural landscape that inspired the book are already lost to us, and there are echoes and allusions that we remain deaf to even after having them pointed out, others that we are apt to misinterpret from our habit of seeing sex everywhere. On the other hand, the book is still perfectly readable without pedantic notes or explanations, and Ms. Gauger’s edition, in particular, is so laden with commentary that it sometimes resembles the Talmud, with more commentary than text on the page.
Both editors devote vast amounts of space to defining words like “panoply,” “repast,” “provender,” “vouchsafe,” “sniffy,” “fusty,” “hummocky” that are all in the dictionary and whose meaning hasn’t changed much, if at all, since 1908. And neither is entirely reliable: both think that a “well-metalled road” is one literally paved with metal when a glance at Google would have told them that the term is a synonym for what we think of as tarmac.
Both editors, to be fair, are very good at picking up echoes of Romantic poetry, huge chunks of which were clearly swirling inside Kenneth Grahame’s head while he was writing “The Wind in the Willows,” and both illuminate the text by suggesting, among other things, that Toad — blusterer, aesthete, jailed prisoner — was inspired in part by Oscar Wilde. He probably also owes something to Horatio Bottomley, a flamboyant, gasbag journalist and politician of the time. Mr. Lerer further suggests that Toad’s mania, his grandiosity, his compulsive lies and self-deceptions may derive from Grahame’s reading in Krafft-Ebbing’s “Textbook of Insanity.” A simpler explanation of Grahame’s understanding of wild, unpredictable personality may be that he grew up with an unreliable, alcoholic father who eventually abandoned his two sons.
In general Ms. Gauger is more willing than Mr. Lerer to find the roots of “The Wind in the Willows” in Grahame’s biography, and though she sometimes overdoes it, or explains the parallels at tedious length, her commentary nevertheless provides a sad and illuminating subplot of sorts. In many ways Grahame resembles A. A. Milne, who in 1929 dramatized the Toad sections of “The Wind in the Willows,” which always remained his favorite book. Both, though they had little use for women, were married to remote, difficult wives (Grahame courted his by writing to her in baby talk), and each had a single son whom he both doted on and neglected.
“The Wind in the Willows” began as a bedtime story and evolved over a series of letters (reproduced in the Gauger edition) that Grahame wrote to his son, Alastair, during the long months when he was farmed out to a nanny. Alastair Grahame was born part blind (an inspiration for Mole?) and appears to have been emotionally disturbed. After a miserable experience at school he lay down on some train tracks while an undergraduate at Oxford and was decapitated.
Kenneth Grahame’s own early life was scarcely much happier. His mother died when he was 5, his father ran off, and he was raised by relatives who were too stingy to send him to university. Like P. G. Wodehouse, another aspiring writer with a blighted childhood, Grahame went into the banking business. Unlike Wodehouse, he stuck it out, and by the age of 39 had risen to become secretary of the Bank of England, a post that doesn’t seem to have required him to do a whole lot.
His ostensible life was that of a proper Edwardian gent, with lots of male bonding and messing about in boats, and yet privately he burned to write, to live in his imagination. For all its apparent celebration of neatness and domestic orderliness “The Wind in the Willows” is really a book about letting go. It begins with Mole, tired of spring cleaning, putting aside his whitewash brush and taking to the road, and its true hero is Toad, who is anarchy incarnate.
Officially the text seems to disapprove of him: vain, swaggering and boastful, Toad is reprimanded and briefly chastened, and at one point the other characters even stage what we would call a full-scale intervention to confront him with his car-wrecking addiction. But he nonetheless runs away with the book, just as he runs away from prison disguised as a washerwoman, and supplies most of its narrative energy.
Though Rat is supposed to be a poet, Toad’s Song of Himself, sung to an imaginary audience near the end, is the novel’s most exuberant creation. To say that he is Grahame’s alter ego is too simple. More likely he’s the alter ego Grahame wished he could have but was also a little afraid of. Like a surprising number of stuffy-seeming Edwardians, Grahame was half in love with, and half terrified of, the idea of Pan, who never grows old, never goes to the office, never even bothers to put on clothes, and yet embodies all that is magical about the world we imagined we grew up in.
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
The serpentine storylines of Nathan Hill’s astonishing debut novel The Nixconverge on the chaos and carnage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968, when Hubert Humphrey was selected as candidate to run against Richard Nixon that fall, and Mayor Daley set the city’s finest upon the thousands who had gathered to protest the Vietnam War, racial injustice, and other social and political ills in what contemporary reports described as a “police riot”.
Hill sets the scene beautifully…
“The day before the riots the weather turned. The grip of the Chicago summer loosened and the air was spring-like and agreeable…In the very early dawn there appeared on the ground a thin, slick dew. The world was alive and lubricated. It felt hopeful, optimistic, and therefore disallowable as the city prepared for battle, as National Guard troops arrived by the thousands on green flatbed trucks, as police cleaned their gas masks and guns, as demonstrators practiced evasion and self-defense techniques and assembled various projectiles to lob at the cops. There was a feeling among them all that so great a conflict deserved an nastier day. Their hatred should ignite the air, they thought. Who could feel revolutionary when the sun shined pleasantly on one’s face. The city instead was full of desire. The day before the greatest, most spectacular, most violent protest of 1968, the city was saturated with want”.
Indeed, for most of that year, the western world was full of unfulfilled desires and unsatisfied wants.
In this, the third in a series of posts recalling the tumultuous events of 1968, we review a year that breathless commentators have dubbed “the year that changed America”, and, drawing an even longer bow, “the year that changed the world”. It was indeed a year of seismic social and political change, from the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements in America, to protests and revolutions in Europe, and famine in Africa. And as the year ended, Apollo 8 gave us our first view of our sad, blue planet from space.
It was indeed a great year to be alive, young and engaged – although a very great many endured grief, misery and pain, and met violent deaths. Yet, it is in our nature to imagine and indeed, re-imagine our salad days as the best of times and the worst of times. But looking back through our back pages, the year was perhaps no better or worse, no more significant or seminal than any year fore or aft. Like cars seen through the rear-vision mirror, memories always seem a lot closer and bigger. Recall the last verse of Bobby Goldsboro’s tear-jerker Honey, released that February: “…see the tree how big it’s grown. But friend it hasn’t been too long. It wasn’t big”. But we do, however, enhance our depth of perception, and accordingly, our understanding.
1968 conjures up a kaleidoscope of searing images apart from those of police clubbing demonstrators on the streets of Chicago.
A South Vietnamese general blowing out the brains of a Vietcong prisoner on a Saigon street during the Tet Offensive. The Reverend Andrew Young Jr. and his colleagues, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis standing next to the body of Martin Luther King Jr. and point to where the assassin’s bullet was fired. Students at Columbia University taking over campus buildings, only to be hauled away, battered and bloody by police. Parisian protesters hurling tear gas canisters back at the police. Robert Kennedy felled by Sirhan Sirhan in the basement at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Soviet tanks rolling into Prague. Women dumping bras and girdles into a trash can on the boardwalk outside Atlantic City’s Miss America pageant. Protesters facing off against coppers and horses in a violent mêlée in front of the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square. Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic medalists’ platform in Mexico City, raising their black-gloved fists in the Black Panther Salute as second-placed Aussie Peter Norman stands tall and silent in solidarity (a stance which would earn him opprobrium in his still prejudiced and conservative homeland).
As young people in the UK, we viewed these scenes to an exciting and eclectic soundtrack of blues, rock and psychedelia as the pop music cavalcade of the ‘sixties rock ‘n rolled on.
The Beatles sang Hey Jude, and The Rolling Stones, Street Fighting Man, and Jimi Hendrix delivered simply the best-ever cover of a Bob Dylan song with his blistering, sinister All Along the Watchtower. Imagining we were Born To Be Wild, we were invited to get our motors running and head out on the highway, or else to “take the load off, take the load for free”. We could pointlessly ponder the mysterious meaningless of MacArthur Park, or just lay back in a hazy daze with the Hurdy Gurdy Man (a strange ditty that has enjoyed a brief comeback with the recent hippy, trippy Romans-versus-druids soap Britannia). Koo-koo-ka-choo, Mrs. Robinson!
Images and music aside, what was it really like to experience 1968?
Christopher Allen, in a piece in The Australian reviews an exhibition commemorating the events of 1968 at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. His is an original overview, advising caution when seeking signs and patterns in contemporary events. The past, as they say, is a foreign country – they see things differently there. “The signs 50 years ago were alarming, hopeful or dispiriting, depending on your point of view, but above all conflicting, as are the signs today. We will one day know where events on the Korean peninsula or the latest phase of tensions in the Middle East are leading. The shadowy, seemingly fluid future, with its dramatically different possible alternatives, will have become the ossified, unchangeable past.
In an entertaining and upbeat piece in The Guardian, Hendrick Herzberg rebuts that cliched putdown of how people who remember the sixties weren’t really there, recounts his own adventures, and claims that “In a modest way, 1968 was the kind of year that pushes history in some unforeseen, astonishing direction – a gentler little brother to 1492, 1776, 1848, 1914, 1945, and 2001”. I would add 1789, 1939, and 1989 and 2011. Check them out.
I too remember the ‘sixties, and I too was there, albeit not on the political, social or cultural front lines. But I was at Grosvenor Square, occupied the vice-chancellor’s offices, did drugs (soft, mind), dug Cream, read Oz and IT, and totally got into Hair, which opened in London that year. And today, I share Hetzberg’s reverie: “In 1968, the ‘sixties were almost over, but The Sixties have never fully gone away. For me, and no doubt for many others of my vintage, it’s hard to believe that half a century now separates us from that momentous, tumultuous year, and that 1968 is now as distant in time as 1918 – the year of the end of World War I, the consolidation of Bolshevik power in Russia, and the flu pandemic that killed 50 million people – was in 1968. Fifty years from now, it’ll be 2068. The ‘sixties again! I Can’t wait!”
In contrast, Tod Gitlin gazes through a glass darkly in a sober retrospective for The New York Review of Books: “When we fight over the meaning of the past, we are fighting over what, today, we choose to care about. In this way, the 1968 anniversaries stalk 2018, depicting scene after scene of revolt, horror and cruelty, of fervor aroused and things falling apart, and overall, the sense of a gathering storm of apocalypse, even revolution. Inevitably, the “iconic” images of the time feature scenes of brutality, rebellion, and tragedy”.
And indeed, the enduring historical memory of 1968 is one of a succession of seemingly disconnected conflicts and collisions, turmoil and turbulence, not only in the USA but around the world. Yet beneath the apparent chaos, Gitlin seems to suggest, there were patterns that can only be discerned with the benefit of hindsight or as visions from a great height – much like, perhaps, that iconic image of our blue planet.
“Public life seemed to become a sequence of ruptures, shocks, and detonations. Activists felt dazed, then exuberant, then dazed again; authorities felt rattled, panicky, even desperate. The world was in shards. What were for some intimations of a revolution at hand were, for exponents of law and order, eruptions of the intolerable. Whatever was valued appeared breakable, breaking, or broken”.
The pendulum was swinging away from the previous year’s Summer of Love into a darker place. The lyrics of Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride, released that September, seem, in retrospect, to describe the turning tide: “Last night I held Aladdin’s lamp, so I wished that I could stay, but before the thing could answer me, well, someone took the lamp away. I looked around, and a lousy candle’s all I found”. In November 1968, Jimi Hendrix sang: “Outside in the cold distance, a wildcat did growl. Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl”.
There lurked a new narrative, and this was one of backlash and counterrevolution. “What haunted America”, writes Gitlin, “was not the misty spectre of revolution but the solidifying spectre of reaction. As the right consolidated around an alliance of Christian evangelicals, racial backlashers, and plutocrats, the left was unable, or unwilling, to fuse its disparate sectors. The left was maladroit at achieving political power; it wasn’t even sure that was its goal”.
”This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, said in 1969. He spoke prematurely. And presciently. Fifty years on from this momentous year, all that is old is new again.
Read on and enjoy these articles and the accompanying pictures.
But first, a poignant memento of 1968 from the 1979 film version of the “tribal love-rock musical” (yep, that how it was marketed back in the day) Hair, which i saw in London in the fall of 1968.
Commemorations are the greeting cards that a sensation-soaked culture sends out to acknowledge that we, the living, were not born yesterday. So it is with this year’s media reassembly of 1968. What is hard to convey is the texture of shock and panic that seized the world a half-century ago. What is even harder to grasp is that the chief political victor of 1968 was the counter-revolution.
When we fight over the meaning of the past, we are fighting over what, today, we choose to care about. In this way, the 1968 anniversaries stalk 2018, depicting scene after scene of revolt, horror and cruelty, of fervor aroused and things falling apart, and overall, the sense of a gathering storm of apocalypse, even revolution. Inevitably, the “iconic” images of the time feature scenes of brutality, rebellion, and tragedy: a South Vietnamese general’s blowing out the brains of a prisoner on a Saigon street during the Tet Offensive; the Reverend Andrew Young Jr. and his colleagues, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, next to the body of Martin Luther King Jr., pointing at where the assassin’s bullet had come from; demonstrators at Columbia taking over campus buildings, then hauled away, battered bloody by cops; Parisian protesters hurling tear gas canisters back at the police; Robert Kennedy felled by Sirhan Sirhan’s shots at the Ambassador Hotel;Soviet tanks rolling into Prague; police clubbing demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; women’s liberation activists dumping girdles, hair curlers, and bras (unburnt) in a trash can on the boardwalk outside Atlantic City’s Miss America pageant; Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic medalists’ platform in Mexico City, raising their black-gloved fists in defiance.
A more thorough survey would take note of social collisions that, however violently repressive, failed to register in America with the same supersaturated significance. For example: the killing of three students in Orangeburg, South Carolina, by highway patrol officers after the students protested segregation at a bowling alley (February 8); the near-deadly shooting of the German radical student leader Rudi Dutschke in Berlin (April 11); Chicago police battering a wholly nonviolent antiwar protest (April 27).
As for less bloody demonstrations, there were so many, so routinely, that TheNew York Times regularly grouped civil rights and antiwar stories on designated pages. Neither does this rundown of calamities take into account images that did not see the light of day until much later, like the color shots of the My Lai massacre (March 16), not published until late 1969—by which time they were almost expected. Or the images that never materialized at all, like the slaughter of hundreds of demonstrating students by troops in Mexico City (October 2).
Images aside, what was it really like to experience 1968? Public life seemed to become a sequence of ruptures, shocks, and detonations. Activists felt dazed, then exuberant, then dazed again; authorities felt rattled, panicky, even desperate. The world was in shards. What were for some intimations of a revolution at hand were, for exponents of law and order, eruptions of the intolerable. Whatever was valued then appeared breakable, breaking, or broken.
The textureof these unceasing shocks was itself integral to what people felt as “the 1968 experience.” The sheer number, pace, volume, and intensity of the shocks, delivered worldwide to living room screens, made the world look and feel as though it was falling apart. It’s fair to say that if you weren’t destabilized, you weren’t paying attention. A sense of unending emergency overcame expectations of order, decorum, procedure. As the radical left dreamed of smashing the state, the radical right attacked the establishment for coddling young radicals and enabling their disorder. One person’s nightmare was another’s epiphany.
The familiar collages of 1968’s collisions do evoke the churning surfaces of events, reproducing the uncanny, off-balance feeling of 1968. But they fail to illuminate the meaning of events. If the texture of 1968 was chaos, underneath was a structure that today can be—and needs to be—seen more clearly.
The left was wildly guilty of misrecognition. Although most on the radical left thrilled to the prospect of some kind of revolution, “a new heaven and a new earth” (in the words of the Book of Revelation), the main story line was far closer to the opposite—a thrust toward retrogression that continues, though not on a straight line, into the present emergency. The New Deal era of reform fueled by a confidence that government could work for the common good was running out of gas. The glory years of the civil rights movement were over. The abominable Vietnam War, having put a torch to American ideals, would run for seven more years of indefensible killing.
The main new storyline was backlash. Even as President Nixon assumed a surprising role as environmental reformer, white supremacy regrouped. Frightened by campus uprisings, plutocrats upped their investments in “free market” think tanks, university programs, right-wing magazines, and other forms of propaganda. Oil shocks, inflation, and European and Japanese industrial revival would soon rattle American dominance. What haunted America was not the misty specter of revolution but the solidifying specter of reaction.
Even as established cultural authorities were defrocked, political authorities revived and entrenched themselves. In so many ways, the counterculture, however domesticated or “co-opted” in Herbert Marcuse’s term, became the culture. Within a few years, in public speech and imagery, in popular music and movies, on TV (All in the Family, M*A*S*H, TheMary Tyler Moore Show) and in the theater (Hair, Oh! Calcutta!), profanity and obscenity taboos dissolved. Gays and feminists stepped forward, always resisted but rarely held back for long. It would subsequently be, as the gauchistes of May ’68 in Paris liked to say, forbidden to forbid.
In the realm of political power, though, for all the many subsequent social reforms, 1968 was more an end than a beginning. After les évènements in France in May came June’s parliamentary elections, sweeping General De Gaulle’s rightist party to power in a landslide victory. After the Prague Spring and the promise of “socialism with a human face,” the tanks of the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact overran Czechoslovakia. In Latin America, the Guevarist guerrilla trend was everywhere repulsed, to the benefit of the right. In the US, the “silent majority” roared. As the divided Democratic Party lay in ruins, Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy turned the Party of Lincoln into the heir to the Confederacy. As the right consolidated around an alliance of Christian evangelicals, racial backlashers, and plutocrats, the left was unable, or unwilling, to fuse its disparate sectors. The left was maladroit at achieving political power; it wasn’t even sure that was its goal.
Counter-revolutions, like their revolutionary bêtes noires, suffer reversals and take time to cohere. The post-1968 counter-revolution held the fort against a trinity of bogeymen: unruly dark-skinned people, uppity women, and an arrogant knowledge class. In 1968, it was not yet apparent how impressively the recoil could be parlayed into national power. “This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, said in 1969. He spoke prematurely.
1968: the year that changed America
Hendrick Herzberg, The Guardian, April 15, 2018
Where were you in the 1960s? And what were you? A toddler, a grade schooler, a teenager? A young adult? Were you already old enough to form your own memories? Or were you old enough but in the “if you can remember The Sixties you really weren’t there” category?
Of course, if you’re like most people, you were nowhere. You hadn’t been born yet. You didn’t exist. But wherever and whatever you were or weren’t, it’s a safe bet that you’ve heard about The Sixties – quite enough, maybe. Ad nauseam, maybe.
There is a continuing theological controversy among sixtiesologists concerning when The Sixties can properly be said to have begun and ended. Tuesday 8 November1960 – the day Senator John F Kennedy was elected president – has a pretty good claim to the beginning. Kennedy’s campaign slogan, which appeared on every campaign poster, had been LEADERSHIP FOR THE 60’s. Out with the dull, conformist, priggish, crewcut, Eisenhowerish Fifties! In with the dashing, exciting, daring, sexy, slightly longer-haired, Kennedyesque Sixties!
A darker view – the view I take – sets the clock of The Sixties ticking three years later. The assassination of President Kennedy was a crack in time. Like Sunday 7 December 1941; and like Tuesday 11 September 2001; Friday 22 November 1963 was “a date that will live in infamy”. And, like them, it was a day that is remembered in vivid detail by those who experienced it.
I was taking a noontime shower in my Harvard dorm room, having been as usual up till dawn getting out the college daily, the Crimson. I heard a faint, muffled radio news bulletin coming through the wall from the neighboring room. As I dried off, I turned on my own radio. I can still see the edge of the shower stall and the little bathroom window next to it. On the grass below, a girl was standing under a tree, weeping. The Crimson put out an extra that afternoon, but without my help. It felt too much like a schoolboy stunt. Rightly or wrongly, I didn’t want to play newspaperman. I didn’t want to be distracted from the communal grief all around me.
So The Sixties, in this conceit, began either in 1960 or, like Philip Larkin’s sexual intercourse, in 1963. And the ending? That too has long been a subject of debate. There are plenty of nominees, two of which may be considered the frontrunners. Like the beginnings, one is light and one is dark. The light one: Friday 9 August 1974, the day Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, freeing the nation from a quarter-century of having had him to kick around. The dark one: Altamont. Sunday 6 December 1969. Google it. Or see the movie.
It is possible to build a narrative around two currents of the year’s events, currents that melded and crisscrossed and fed off each other, to startling effect: the music, mostly a kaleidoscopic, wildly imaginative explosion of rock’n’roll; and the politics, mostly a politics of protest – protest against the Vietnam war, against racial injustice, and, more broadly, against what was experienced as the joyless, stultifying blandness of mainstream American life.
Those two currents, the music and the protests, washed over me as they did over millions of others. In 1966, a year out of college and a newly minted cub reporter for Newsweek, I was lucky enough to land in San Francisco. Something was happening there, and I found myself in a position to absorb it.
The scene, cultural and political, was quite something. A new kind of music – rooted in blues, rock, and electronica, and supercharged by psychedelia – was drawing motley-dressed weekend crowds to a couple of repurposed old dance halls, the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom. For $2.50 you could spend hours listening and dancing to bands that were still unknown back east or down south in LA – bands still without record contracts but with wonderful names: Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service – often paired with iconic bluesmen like Muddy Waters and James Cotton. The walls were mesmerizingly alive with rhythmically pulsating, ever-changing liquid projections. It was, in the patois of the moment, mind-blowing. For the gentle dreamers that Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle’s gossip columnist, had dubbed hippies, the Fillmore and the Avalon were Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic.
Like every young man of my generation, I had to reckon with the draft. I was against the war, of course, but I didn’t think I had the stomach to go to jail over it. I had zero desire to go to any more schools, graduate or otherwise. I was unmarried and childless. Canada was not my country, my country was the United States of America. I wasn’t physically or mentally ill and was too proud to fake it. And I wasn’t a conscientious objector. On the other hand, I didn’t want to get killed either. My solution was the US navy.
I got a haircut and reported to the naval base at Newport, Rhode Island, for three months of officer training. From there I asked to be sent to Vietnam, but it wasn’t like it sounds. Unless you were a flier (like John McCain, the future senator), a Seal (like Bob Kerrey, also a future senator) or a member of the Riverine Force (like John Kerry, a future senator, presidential nominee, and secretary of state), being a naval officer in Vietnam, especially a “public affairs” officer like me, posed very little physical risk. Instead, however, the navy, in its wisdom, assigned me to a desk job in lower Manhattan.
As the year rushed on, the pace of events grew ever more frenziedI stole away from the office whenever I could, and devoted the time to salving my conscience. I pitched in at the ramshackle headquarters of the War Resisters League. In March, after Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race, I took to hanging around his Manhattan headquarters, doing layouts and writing headlines for the Kennedy Current, the campaign’s weekly tabloid.
As the year rushed on, the pace of events grew ever more frenzied: the bloody shock of the Tet Offensive; the electoral abdication of President Lyndon Johnson; the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and the riots that followed; the murder of Robert Kennedy; the chaotic, riotous Democratic convention in Chicago; Nixon’s hairsbreadth victory over Hubert Humphrey in November. And me? Well, at Christmastime I got the orders to Vietnam (as a “recreation officer” at the US base in Da Nang) I’d hoped for two years earlier. Only this time I didn’t want to go. My antiwar sentiments had hardened to the point that I decided I preferred jail to further military service, and I announced my intention to refuse the orders.
But before I could achieve fame as a martyr for peace an unexpected medical difficulty developed: I had a wisdom tooth pulled, the wound bled for days, and when I was diagnosed with a (relatively mild) form of hemophilia, the navy quickly mustered me out. I had managed to have it both ways: veteran (kind of) and resister (in a way).
Why didn’t I think of that?
In 1968 the sixties were almost over, but The Sixties have never fully gone away. For me, and no doubt for many others of my vintage, it’s hard to believe that half a century now separates us from that momentous, tumultuous year, and that 1968 is now as distant in time as 1918 – the year of the end of World War I, the consolidation of Bolshevik power in Russia, and the flu pandemic that killed 50 million people – was in 1968. Fifty years from now, it’ll be 2068.
In one of the most famous stories from antiquity, Croesus, the proverbially rich king of sixth-century BC Lydia, in what is now Turkey, was disturbed by the rise of the Medes and the Persians on his eastern borders. Thinking it might be wise to crush these potential rivals before they became a serious threat, he consulted the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, plying it with gifts to ensure a favourable answer. The oracle replied that if he made war on the Persians, a great empire would be destroyed. Croesus accordingly gathered his armies and attacked, but he was defeated and taken prisoner by Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire.
The oracle had a reputation for accurate yet riddling answers. A half-century after these events, Heraclitus, one of the most brilliant Pre-Socratic thinkers and famous for enigmatic aphorisms, declared: “The lord whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals but signifies.” It is up to us to read the sign he gives, and Croesus had fatally misconstrued that sign in his eagerness to hear what he wanted to hear.
The signs 50 years ago, in 1968, were alarming, hopeful or dispiriting, depending on your point of view, but above all conflicting, as are the signs today. We will one day know where events on the Korean peninsula or the latest phase of tensions in the Middle East are leading. The shadowy, seemingly fluid future, with its dramatically different possible alternatives, will have become the ossified, unchangeable past.
The political protests of May 1968 in Paris were among the most significant events of that year. Although partly emulating earlier student agitation in the US, the French protests were much broader in their implications. The term that the French use for this movement, la contestation, suggests its universal spirit of revolt and its nebulous sense of direction, if not nihilistic disorientation. It was a catastrophic time for many young people caught up in the hysteria and afterwards left to pick up the pieces of interrupted studies and broken careers, in an ambience of cynicism and disenchantment. Ever since the revolution of 1789, the French have been prone to political overexcitement, and throughout much of the 20th century communists continued to believe in their own kind of revolution in the same way Christians believe in the second coming.
The zealots thought 1968 heralded the end of days and the imminence of the dictatorship of the proletariat; but the grassroots movement, spreading from students to workers, was not supported by the Communist Party, which was still committed to a totalitarian and Stalinist model of central control. A few months later, a similar pattern evolved within the communist world: the opening up of Czechoslovakia to greater freedom, democracy and independence — the Prague Spring — was crushed in August when Soviet tanks invaded the country and occupied its capital.
The events of Paris and of Prague dealt a fatal blow to the credibility of communism in the West; the old left began slowly bleeding to death until its collapse with the fall of the Berlin Wall 21 years later. Thus May 1968, as in the story of Croesus, did indeed herald the fall of an empire, but not the one the student rioters thought they were going to bring down.
Much else happened in 1968, including the opening of the new National Library in Canberra, whose anniversary is the occasion for this exhibition. As we enter the exhibition, we are confronted by a wall of 21 tabloid bills, in the centre of which is one announcing the opening of the library. The remaining headlines sum up many other momentous events of the year, starting with the mysterious loss of prime minister Harold Holt, who disappeared, presumed drowned, while spearfishing off Portsea in December 1967.
America was shocked by two political assassinations: that of Martin Luther King in April and Robert Kennedy in June. Both events are covered in the exhibition by photographs, posters and copies of contemporary news magazines. Particularly interesting, especially today, is an article about the revulsion against gun culture that followed the death of Kennedy, whose brother, president John Kennedy, had been assassinated less than five years earlier. There are pictures of individuals willingly giving up guns at police stations: so many were handed in that the police, as we see in another photograph, ended up disposing of them by dumping them in the sea.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was growing more intense — it was the year of the Tet offensive — and provoking greater opposition at home, mainly because of the draft, of which fatal randomness we are reminded by a set of the wooden balls that were used in the birthday ballots. It was clearly a political mistake to send conscripted soldiers to Vietnam; professional soldiers expect to fight wherever their nation sees fit to send them, but conscripted troops should be reserved for national self-defence.
At the time, however, the spread of communism in Asia looked like a serious menace, which it would be smug to discount with the benefit of hindsight. Communism had only recently been suppressed by the British in the course of the Malayan Emergency (1948-60) and, more recently still, by Suharto in Indonesia, in a far bloodier struggle from 1965 onwards. So the threat of violent totalitarian revolution was real. At the same time, there was a prima facie moral justification in helping South Vietnam defend itself against the north. The way that North Vietnamese aggression was turned into a fight for freedom in the eyes of many in the West was one of the first examples of the self-destructive neurosis that has afflicted the Western intelligentsia for the past couple of generations. A map of Vietnam published in the US in 1968 includes an insert labelled “Freedom’s struggle in Asia”, with a pall of black covering Siberia, Mongolia, China and North Vietnam. It is easy to understand the fear of the domino theory in Southeast Asia, and clear that this had serious consequences for Australia.
And to argue that time was running out for the communist dream, and that even China would, within a generation, be starting to build its own unique model, combining capitalist profiteering with communist authoritarianism, would have seemed mere wishful thinking.
For the time being Mao Zedong, after killing 45 million people by starvation during the Great Leap Forward of 1957-62, had launched the almost equally disastrous Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 until his death in 1976, and posters showed beaming peasants and workers celebrating the foundation of new socialist regional committees.
This is the great difficulty in anticipating the future: we can imagine plausible scenarios but the really important things are often ones that seem entirely implausible until they happen. It would have seemed far-fetched to suggest that Southeast Asian countries racked with poverty and communist insurrection in 1968 would be booming capitalist economies by the early 20th century, but even more unbelievable that one of the most significant threats to security, freedom and human rights would one day be the rise of fanatical Islamic belief among the populations of several regional countries. Religion in general was assumed to be a long-spent political factor, of marginal relevance in the thinking of left and right.
Even in the Middle East, religion was not yet an important factor. Israel had spectacularly crushed its Arab neighbours in the Six-Day War of 1967 and extended its control over buffer territories in the north and east; its neighbours were angry and humiliated, but were all ruled by secular dictators. Iran was a prosperous, secular and modernising nation under the rule of the shah, even though there was growing opposition to his authoritarian rule. But a map of The Daily Telegraph motor marathon from London to Sydney reminds us how essentially peaceful the region still was: it is many years since such a rally could follow an itinerary from London through Europe to Turkey, then on to Tehran, Kabul and Bombay (as Mumbai was then called), before the cars were ferried to Fremantle for the final legs from Perth to Sydney.
Culturally, the period represented a new level of mass consumption of pop music and other media. At the time, pop groups often seemed to give voice to various forms of social and political dissent, but in retrospect their objective role was to channel and neutralise the malaise, turning it into harmless entertainment. Television had more or less completed its takeover of family life by 1968; people who used to play the piano or talk or read a book after dinner now sat glued to serials and talk shows. TV was a new form of addiction, whose damaging effects we now can begin to understand in the age of far more serious addiction to smartphones and other devices.
The final part of the exhibition is devoted to the conception, planning and building of the new library. Canberra, only 55 years old in 1968, was still in the process of growing into its ambitious urban design. An area from Capital Hill down to the lake had been designated as a special ceremonial triangle, destined to house not only the new Parliament House but also some of the most significant cultural edifices of the new city. These included the National Library on one side and the National Gallery, which was established in 1967 and opened in 1982. The new library was a favourite project of Robert Menzies as prime minister, and the exhibition includes correspondence and his speech in introducing the National Library bill in 1960. Although he retired in January 1966, his successor Holt invited him to lay the foundation stone in March that year.
In his speech on that occasion, Menzies expressed the hope he would live long enough to see the white marble structure reflected in the waters of the lake: this is exactly how Max Dupain photographed the finished structure in 1968. Seeking grandeur in the depth of distance, he takes a view of the new building from across the lake at night, so the library appears as a small but radiant temple-like form, its reflection shimmering silently on the dark waters.
1968: Changing Times. National Library of Australia, Canberra, Until August 12, 2018