Johnny Clegg’s “Impi” – the Washing of the Spears

Under African Skies

A decade or so ago, British born South African singer and songwriter the late and much lamented Johnny Clegg (he died of cancer in July 2018) performed with his band at Newtown’s antique Enmore Theatre in inner Sydney. Renowned worldwide for his fusion of western and South African township music, the “White Zulu” as he was called, had captivated us and thousands of others with his bilingual songs and anthemic choruses – and he danced! The high kicking Zulu warrior dances of rejoicing, of rites of passage, and of war. And his choruses! Could he write choruses. They didn’t rise –  they soared like African eagles and they made the hairs on the back of our heads stand up. The audience would sing along entranced, enthralled and seemingly word-perfect in a language they could not even begin understand. Towards the climax of his concert, when such was the energy you could sense an ascension to heights of glory, he’d introduce Impi, his story of the battle of Isandhlwana on January 22nd 1879, a battle considered the greatest ever defeat of a modern army by an indigenous people. A thousand voices joined him in song …

Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?

War, O here comes war!
Who can touch the lions?

It was an ironic moment in time and historical memory.

The South Africa’s apartheid regime has long since fallen, and Johnny Clegg was world famous for his decades-long anti-apartheid stand and for his fusion of western and African music and lyrics. Paul Simon had cited Clegg’s early band Juluka as an influence in his own iconic album Graceland. Whenever Clegg played in Australia, white South Africans made up a large proportion of the audience. And they and us, again mostly white, would sing along and even dance in the aisles. But very few there that night would have much of an awareness of the historical and cultural backdrop to his songs – particularly the events described in Impi, those leading up to it, and the aftermath.

Indeed, few westerners are aware let alone knowledgeable of southern Africa’s history. It is a faraway land, distant geographically and culturally from the northern hemisphere, and we known more for its wildlife and its troubles. For a long, long time it was called “the dark Continent”.  In the excellent British espionage thriller Spooks, the Foreign Secretary declares contemptuously: “The continent of Africa in nothing but an an economic albatross around our necks. It’s a continent of genocidal maniacs living in the Dark Ages”.

Moreover, few people actually interested in the British Empire and the imperial wars of conquest of what is now the Republic of South Africa are aware of the fact that the military disaster at Isandhlwana and the heroic defense of Rorke’s Drift in the southern summer of January 1879 were the chaotic prelude to the conquest of the powerful and independent kwaZulu, a kingdom established half century earlier by the charismatic and canny but brutal, paranoid and arguably psychotic warlord Shaka Zulu.

I do not profess be an expert although cognizant of African History and politics from my own reading over the years, ranging from studying sub-Saharan politics in the late sixties to reading James A Mitchener’s sprawling novel The Covenant (1980), which traces the history, interaction, and conflicts between South Africa’s diverse populations, from prehistoric times up to the 1970s. Recently, I read Australian author Peter Fitzsimmon’s The Breaker in which he relates the story of Boer War, and Donald R Morris’s critically acclaimed The Washing of the Spears – the Rise and Fall  of the Great Zulu Nation (1966).

The Washing of the Spears

American historian Donald R Morris’s seminal work on the rise and fall of the Zulu nation is near on sixty years old, and it shows in both the archaic lyricism of his prose – a style characteristic of his academic peers – and that mid twentieth century conservative mindset of shifting presumptions and prejudices that was so much part of the sixties, that inform his point of view of events so long ago that shaped the development of modern Africa.

The book takes its title from the Zulu idiom for shedding the blood of enemies with the short tabbing spear developed by Shaka himself from the traditional Bantu assegai – an onomatopoeic word for the sound made when the spear was extracted from a wound.

While hardly the book to consult for a fast grasp of the outlines of Zulu history, it provides a sweeping, all-inclusive military, political, and personal record. It is a rousing narrative and highly informative, although it does get bogged down in the minutiae of political, administrative and military matters. The book is a close-typed 612 pager. The first 214 describe the rise of Zulu power – Shaka, Dingaan, Mpandi and Cetshwayo.

The battles are done and dusted in just seventy six pages. The remainder is taken up with the preparations for the invasion of Zululand, the second invasion, the defeat of the Zulus at Ulundi and the annexation of Zululand to the colony of Natal.

But this does not detract for one moment from the quality and detail, and also, the empathy and objectivity of Morris’s narrative. He treats the Zulu, as well as the Boers and British, fairly, portraying both admirable behaviors and the foibles of all parties. Whilst some readers might conclude that despite its evenhanded approach, it fails to meet the high standards of contemporary political correctness, I am highly impressed by the author’s undisguised empathy for the Zulu people as demonstrated by the depth of his research into Zulu customs and etymology and the degree to which he describes by name and in detail the Zulu regiments arrayed against the Crown.

When it comes to the timeline of the battles of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift, which occurred almost in tandem, it is a riveting re-enactment of the combat – a timeline that spoke to the the big screen films, Zulu released in 1964 and Zulu Dawn which depicted Isandhlwana and was released to coincide with its centenary in 1979.

Saving The Colours, Isandhlwana

Here they come, black as hell and as thick as grass!

Long story short, the Zulu War of 1879 was an unprovoked, preventive war waged by an expansionist imperial power against an independent kingdom. After the initial disaster at Isandlwana, the native state was broken in a conquest that largely determined the place of the indigenous population within the European civilization of southern Africa, and it freed that civilization from any imperative nor the willingness listen to the voice of black Africa for nigh on one hundred years.

The Zulus did not want war, and were in effect enticed into it by colonial authorities who desired to break Zulu power once and for all. Morris describes in great detail the depths of skulduggery Britain’s representatives on the ground were pro armed to descend to. Pertains were in plain view, both the gathering of military and paramilitary forces and the supply chain and logistic required to sustain them in the field.

Once committed, the outcome was inevitable. The first invasion ended, however, in disaster – the massacre at Isandhlwana. But this was more due to the mistakes made by British commanders than to the undeniable overwhelming numbers and resolve of the Impi deployed against them. Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford divided his numerically inferior forces. The relatively small force left behind at the base camp at Isandlwana as poorly deployed, denying them the advantage of concentrated fire. critical ammunition boxes that could not be opened quickly because the tools were inadequate, and scouting that was lackadaisical in the extreme –  so much so that 20000 warriors were able to gather in a ravine close to the camp undetected until it was too late.

The rest, as they say, is the study of military history. The defense of the border mission at Rorke’s Drift at about the same time as the battle was reacting its climax, itself a sideshow as thousands of warriors stormed the beleaguered outpost. The quotation at the head of this section is the cry of Chaplain George Smith on lookout on the ridge behind the mission. Rorke’s Drift was an opportunistic target for a small army of Zulus who had not engaged in the main battle, and probably had no intention of proceeding onward into Natal – Cetshwayo had expressly forbidden it. In the wake of the disaster, it became the stuff of legend, More Victoria Crosses were awarded here than in any other engagement by the British Army.

The next time, General Chelmsford took no chances. Thousands of soldiers and horsemen supported by thousands of wagons and tens is tens of thousands of draught animals slowly traversed miles and mile of uncharted bush to array before Cetshwayo’s Royal kraal at Ulundi. Maximum force was applied on a chosen field of battle and massed firepower of combined arms – Henry Martini rifles, cannon and Gatling guns against waves of Zulus attend with assegais and cow hide shields with cavalry of the flanks to harry the foe once he was broken and scattered.

Morris’s conclusion to the battle of Ulundi is a poignant synopsis of the rise and fall of the Zulu nation. It is well worth reproducing in part:

“The camp on the the White Umfolozi was quiet that night. The war was over, and the battalions would soon be sailing to England. Chelmsford slept the sleep of the just. He had successfully concluded two arduous campaigns in a year and a half. Providence has been very good to him and he could hold his head high in the future. Sir Garnet Wolsey  was welcome to whatever remained of the Zulu campaign.

The flames across the river died away, and the drifting black smoke was hidden by the soft night. A few miles to the west of the sleeping camp stood th kwaNabomba kraal, where Shaka had arrives 63 years ago to claim his inheritance. He had found an apathetic clan no one ever heard of, who numbered  less than the Zulu dead that now lay and buried across the river, and out of them he had fashioned  an army, and that army,  he had built an empire.The proud and fearless regiments had carried that assegais south to the Great Kei, west to the high wall of the Drakensberg Range, and north to Delagoa Bay. He had smashed more than 1000 clans and driven them from their ancestral lands, and more than 2 million people had perished in the aftermath of the rise of his empire, which had survived in by a scant 50 years. The last independent king of the Zulus was now a homeless refugee without a home, and his capital lay ashes. His army had ceased to exist, and what was left of the regiments had silently dispersed to seek their own kraals. The house of Shaka had fallen, and the Zulu empire was no more …

… The cost has been high. The house of Shaka had been overthrown and Zulu kingdom fragmented. Some 8000 Zulu worries it died and more than twice a number had been wounded, to perish or recover without medical attention. Thousand of Zulu cattle had been runoff into Natal or slaughtered to feed the invaders, scores of kraals had been  burned and the fields in fields had gone untended …

… Over 32,400 men and taking the field in the Zulu campaign. The official British returns listed 76 officers and 1007 men killed in action and 37 officers and 206 men wounded. Close to 1000 Natal kaffirs had been killed; the returns were never completed. An additional 17 officers and 330 men had died of disease and 99 officers and 1286 men had to be invalids home. In all, 1430 Europeans had died, over 1300 of them at Isandhlwana. The war cost the crown £5,230,323 – beyond the normal expense of the military establishment: the naval transport alone cost £700,000. A tremendous sum gone for the land transport which has employed over 4000 European and native drivers and leaders, more than 2500 carts and wagons, and has seen as many as 32,000 draft animals on the establishment at one time. No one ever counted the tens of thousands of oxen that had died.”

The Defense of Rorke’s Drift

The captains and the kings depart

The world at large took little note of the war – except perhaps for France. In a brief chapter entitled The Prince Imperial, Morris recounts the story of how the son of the deposed and exiled Emperor Napoleon III of France, a graduate of Woolwich military academy had joined the invasion force and had perished when his scouting patrol was was ambushed. As Morris describes it, the displays of mourning by the British establishment and also the public far exceeded their reaction to the deaths at Isandlwana.

But the breaking of Zulu power, removing the threat it posed to the emerging Boer republics, and Britain’s halting progress towards the confederation of the South Africa colonies, was to have a critical influence what came afterwards: two Anglo-Boer Wars, the creation of the Union, and the emergence of the white supremacist Apartheid republic with its system of racial segregation which came to an end in the early nineteen nineties in a series of steps that led to the formation of a democratic government in 1994.

As for Cetshwayo, he was tracked down and captured after Ulundi. In an early form of home detention, he was detained in Capetown. In time, he became in the eyes of the British public, a tragic, less the bloodthirsty Bantu as he’d been portrayed during the war, and more the noble savage as victim of predatory imperialism. He journeyed to England and was well received by all, and even enjoyed an audience with Queen Victoria who treated him with respect and amity. On his return to Capetown, moves to restore him to his throne were truncated by his death – ostensibly poisoned by rivals. Shaka’s heirs are recognized as kings in kwaZulu to this day.

In a memorial wall at Ulundi, the battle that ended the way and the Zulu nation, there is a small plaque that reads: “In memory of the brave warriors who fell herein 1979 in defense of the old Zulu culture”. From what I can gather, it the only memorial erected to honour the Zulu nation.

A cinematic coda 

Reading Morris’s book recently, I succumbed to the urge to watch both Zulu and its later prequel Zulu Dawn.. Their cinematic technology, character development and acting have not stood the test of time – and few of the lead characters are still with us – one cannot fault their faithfulness to the author’s narrative.

What the films miss, however, is what I perceived as Morris’s oblique perspective of the Zulu war. They present the conflict in literal black and white – the mission civilatrice, white man’s burden, whatever, bringing justice and order, not in that order, to bloodthirsty savages. In Zulu, the doughty British soldiers are well led and respond with courage and resilience. In Zulu Dawn, those soldiers are badly led by their snobbish and ineffectual leaders, and most particularly by General Chelmsford portrayed with smarmy insouciance by Peter O’Toole, and his supercilious staff. The “good guys”, Denholm Elliot’s Colonel Pulaine, Burt Lancaster’s Colonel Dunford, and Simon Ward’s Lieutenant Vereker and others are cardboard cutouts. Lieutenants Chard and Bromhead,the commanders at Rorke’s Drift, played by Stanley Baker and Michael Caine respectively, are the acme of bulldog spirit and stiff upper lip, and poster boys for many an imperial Facebook page.

The rest of a large cast of extras, be they the Boer and native auxiliaries or the massed Zulu regiments chanting “uSuthu! USuthu!”, the war cry of the Shaka dynasty, are the backdrop to imperial derring do and disaster. In both movies, the scenes at the Zulu kraals present the cinematographers with an opportunity to indulge in a bit of National Geographic soft porn with dusky, lithe and bare-breasted maidens dancing in lines towards long-limbed and youthful Zulu warriors. Men march, men charge, men stand, men run, and men die. The action is not graphic by modern standards – no Vikings or Game of Thrones blood and gore here.

Mark Stoler’s Things have changed blog spot provides a brief but informative review of The Washing of the Spears, including a synopsis of the story line, including some interesting facts about the author. I have reproduced it below for your convenience- but the eclectic blog, similar in content and diversity to In That Howling Infinite, is worth checking out.

© Paul Hemphill 2022. All rights reserved

See also In In That Howling Infinite: The ballad of ‘the Breaker’ – Australia’s Boer War 

Impi

John Clegg

Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?
Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?
Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?
Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?

All along the river
Chelmsford’s army lay asleep
Come to crush the Children of Mageba
Come to exact the Realm’s price for peace
And in the morning as they saddled up to ride
Their eyes shone with the fire and the steel
The General told them of the task that lay ahead
To bring the People of the Sky to heel

Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?
Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?

Mud and sweat on polished leather
Warm rain seeping to the bone
They rode through the season’s wet weather
Straining for a glimpse of the foe
Hopeless battalion destined to die
Broken by the Benders of Kings
Vainglorious General, Victorian pride
Would cost him and eight hundred men their lives

Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?
Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?

They came to the side of the mountain
Scouts rode out to spy the land
Even as the Realm’s soldiers lay resting
Mageba’s forces were soon at hand
And by the evening the vultures were wheeling
Above the ruins where the fallen lay
An ancient song as old as the ashes
Echoed as Mageba’s warriors marched away

Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?
Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?
Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?
Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?
Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?
Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza
Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?
Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza

Zulu: The Washing Of The Spears

Things Have Changed blogspot, Mark Stoler, 24th September 2016

I first came across the tale of Rorke’s Drift in a long-forgotten collection of stirring deeds written for children.  I could not have been more than ten years old at the time . . . 

from the Introduction to The Washing Of The Spears: 
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/20/Alphonse_de_Neuville_-_The_defence_of_Rorke's_Drift_1879_-_Google_Art_Project.jpgThe Defense of Rorke’s Drift, Alphonse de Neuville, 1880

Donald Morris (1924-2002) began research for The Washing of the Spears in 1956, completing the bulk of it between 1958 and 1962 when, according to the 1965 introduction to his book, he was “a naval officer stationed in Berlin“.  Fascinated by the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, which occurred on January 22-3, 1879, and the stunning defeat of the British Army by the Zulus at Isandhlwana, earlier that same day, he planned to write a magazine article on the battles, until persuaded by Ernest Hemingway to compose an account of the entire Zulu War of 1879, as none had ever been published in the United States.
http://lowres-picturecabinet.com.s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/109/main/1/424960.jpgIslandhlwana, 1879,

The mention of Hemingway, alerted me that Morris might be an interesting person in his own right.  I originally read the book in the mid-1970s on the recommendation of an acquaintance who had been enthralled by it.  At that time, there was very little information available on the author.  More recently I’ve read the 1998 edition (the book has gone through several printings over the years), as well as Morris’ 2002 obituary and found that, indeed, he was quite an interesting character.

Educated at the Horace Mann School for Boys in New York City, he entered the navy in 1942 and then went on to the Naval Academy, graduating in 1948, remaining on active service until 1956, and retiring as a Lieutenant Commander.  It turns out that his assignment as a naval officer in Berlin was a cover; from 1956 through 1972 he was a CIA officer in Soviet counterespionage, serving in Berlin, Paris, the Congo and Vietnam.  From 1972 through 1989 he was foreign affairs columnist for the Houston Post.  Morris spoke German, French, Afrikaans, Russian and Chinese, held a commercial pilot’s license and was a certified flight instructor.
https://pictures.abebooks.com/isbn/9780671631086-uk-300.jpg
Once Morris took up Hemingway’s suggestion and began research on the Zulu War, he realized he needed to find out more about its origins.  It was a process that ended up taking him all the way back to the early 17th century, when both the Dutch and the Bantus (of whom the Zulu were a subgroup) first entered the lands that later became the Republic of South Africa, the Dutch in the southwest via the Capetown settlement and the cattle-herding Bantus migrating from the north.  The result is a 603 page epic (excluding footnotes), encompassing almost 300 years of history, and all of it accomplished without visiting South Africa.

Morris tells us of the fate of the Bushmen and Hottentots, most of whom were destroyed, caught between the advancing Dutch settlers (who came to call themselves Boers) and Bantus.  We learn of the coming of the English in the late 18th century, which accelerated the migration of Boer farmers, north, northeast and east of Capetown in order to escape British control.  We learn of the emergence of the Zulu nation in the 1820s under Shaka, and of his brilliant in leadership, tactics and strategy as well as his erratic behavior and brutality. http://img.webme.com/pic/t/the-south-star/zuluattack.jpgZulu impi)

The innovative military system he developed and the incredible endurance and bravery of the Zulu warriors, made Shaka’s kingdom feared across the land, among both natives, Boer (who had also come to consider themselves natives) and English. Under Shaka and his successors, the Zulu controlled most of the coastal strip of southern Africa, eventually coming up against the Boers, who began their Great Trek in the 1830s to escape the encroaching English; a journey which took them to what was to become the Orange Free State, the Transvaal and Natal.

 

http://www.britishempire.co.uk/images4/anglozuluwarmaplarge.jpg
As the British consolidate their control we learn of the confinement of the Zulu Kingdom to a smaller area and then of the manipulations that led to the 1879 war.  It culminates in Morris’ thrilling narrative of the events of January 1879.  First, at Isandlhwana, where a British and native force of 1,800 was overwhelmed by the Zulu impis (the equivalent of a division in a western army), resulting in the worst defeat Britain ever suffered in Africa at the hands of a native force.  Of 960 Europeans only 55 survived (every one of the 602 soldiers and officers of the British infantry perished), along with only 300 of the 850 native troops.  Then came Rorke’s Drift, the mission station that had been converted into a supply station to support the British invasion of Zululand, where 140 soldiers (of whom more than 20 were incapacitated with sickness or wounds) faced 4,000 Zulus, who had crossed into Natal despite Zulu King Cetshwayo’s order that they not enter British territory.  In fighting that was hand to hand at times, and went from 4 in the afternoon until after 2 the following morning, the Zulu were repulsed.  Seventeen of the British soldiers were killed, eight severely wounded and almost all of the remainder were injured in some manner.  Eleven Victoria Crosses, Britain’s highest military honor, were awarded to participants. It was the most awarded to one regiment in a single action up to that time. Among the recipients was a cook, Private Henry Hook, who took up arms and enabled the evacuation of the patients from the mission hospital while he battled Zulu warriors from room to room as the building burned down around him.
(Map by Lt 

https://sites.google.com/site/victorianmaps/_/rsrc/1298181713829/home/africa/zulu-wars/3407021582_6e01780390.jpg

Map made by Lieutenant Chard, co-commander at Rorke’s Drift

Morris takes us through the conclusion of the war in which the British regrouped and reinvaded, finally conquering the Zulu, and of the sad decline of Zululand over the next decades.

The book is a rousing narrative and highly informative.  My only criticism is that it does become bogged down at one point in the minutiae of the formation of the Natal Colony and the very confusing religious disputes among its European settlers.  About 50 pages could have been edited out.

The author treats the Zulu, as well as the Boers and British, fairly, portraying both admirable behaviors and the foibles of all parties.  Given the times it was written in, my guess is it would not meet with the full approval of today’s social justice crowd, despite its evenhanded approach.

I’ve read a bit about more recent historiography of the Zulu and this general period in South African history to get a sense of how the book is regarded today.  In the decades since its publication much new information about the Zulu kingdom has become available that provides a more complete explanation of their thinking in the run up to the 1879 war and their strategy in conducting it.  Some different takes on the campaign and battles have also become available.  Nonetheless, the book remains highly regarded.

The 1988 edition of the book contains an unusual introduction from Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Chief Minister of kwaZulu, and descendant of King Shaka.  In it, Buthelezi gives tribute to Morris’ efforts,  placing it in the context of its time:

Forced to use the only sources available in the vast amount of research he undertook in order to write the book, he nevertheless could not entirely escape the clutches of a very biased recording of the past.  It is, however, not the extent to which some of his observations could be questioned that is important, for at the time of its publication in 1966, The Washing of the Spears was the least biased of all accounts ever published about kwaZulu.

He traces the process of colonial domination over the Zulu people and step by step shows how the British occupation of Natal led to the formation of what the world now knows as an apartheid society. He writes with indignant awareness of how today’s apartheid society was made possible by brutal conquest and subjugation during British colonial times, and he had attributed historically important roles to the Zulu kings in his awareness of the Black man’s struggle against oppression.

He undertook a mammoth task and acquitted himself brilliantly.  The Zulu people owe a debt of gratitude to Donald Morris.  He saw the world through our eyes and he was at his brilliant best in writing about the major White actors who shaped events in South Africa during the nineteenth century.  He stands with us as we revere the memory of people such as Bishop Colenso; he stands with us in the knowledge of what Sir Bartle Frere did; and he stands with us in an intense awareness of how people like Sir Theophilus Shepstone turned traitor to the people who had befriended him and about whom he talked as his friends.

Of course no account of the Zulu War, or at least no account at THC, would be complete without mention of the 1964 film Zulu, about the fight at Rorke’s Drift.  Starring as the two young officers in charge of the defense were Stanley Baker as Lt. John Chard and newcomer Michael Caine as Lt Gonville Bromhead.  King Cetshwayo was played by his great-grandson Chief Buthelezi!  I quite enjoyed the movie as a teenager.  Here’s a nice piece on the film from an historical perspective.

The year that changed literature


Australian literary critic and cultural studies writer Peter Craven has been described as both a “literary hack” and “one of the most prolific, erudite and opinionated voices in Australian literary circles”. In 2004 he was awarded the Pascall Prize for Australian Critic of the Year. whatever subject he applies his keyboard to, be it for iconic poets and authors or literary contemplations on the legacies of Easter and Christmas, he turns out admirable pieces that are eclectic, erudite and empathetic. We have republished two of his articles in In That Howling Infinite ; The Magic of Dylan Thomas, and  Go ask Alice. I think she’ll know,  celebrating Alice in Wonderland’s 150th birthday.

Recently, he celebrated the centenary of the publication of three works he considers to be very near the summit of the western canon. 1922, he writes, was  the annus mirabilis, the miracle year – 1922, – the year  that modernist literature, by common consent the greatest writing the 20th century and its aftermath would witness, caused its greatest splash. 

James Joyce’s Ulysses celebrated its centenary on February 2 this year. In Craven’s opinion, it is ‘the greatest demonstration of what can be done to the English language in the name of fiction’. It was also the year of the death of Marcel Proust, the French author of what would become in English the 12-volume Remembrance of Things Past, and when his English translator began the great English translation of A la recherche du temps perdu (literally, In Search of Lost Time), which Craven considers one of the greatest modern works of fiction in any language.

And in October 1922,  English-American poet TS Eliot published The Waste Land, ‘the modernist poem that sounds like nothing on earth and that is in some ways the easiest entry point to the weirdnesses and wonders of modernism because it is short but easy to be seduced by the beauty of its music and the kaleidoscope of its imagery’.

As a teen I’d read Joyce’s’ short A Portrait of the Artist as a young Man, attracted by its Irishness  – my parents were from the Emerald Isle – but I gave up on Finnegan’s Wake, although I could sing by heart the song that is said to have inspired Joyce to write it, as recorded by that grand old band The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. The sheer size of Ulysses rendered this literary mountain unassailable even though the controversy that swirled about increased its attractiveness to an adolescent contrarian.

But in a boarding house in Delhi at the end of my outward journey on the Hippie Trail, I casually picked up a paperback copy of Ulysses. And for the next two months, Leopold Bloom’s figurative odyssey became my own as I journeyed back to Britain.

That dog-eared, spine-creased paperback  visited Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey as I headed westwards through the Kyber Pass, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. I finished it at last in a boarding house in Sultanahmet in Istanbul, just across from Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, and I dip into it to this day. As Craven writes: ‘The rule with the miracle works of 1922 is to listen to them if your eyes reel. Just as Ulysses will continue to unfold its mysteries if you put on your best stage Irish and force yourself to read aloud’. And that, for me, is the best and only way to appreciate its magic – although being of Irish parentage, I don’t need stage Irish. Small wonder that folk around the world celebrate “Bloomsday” by marathon readings.

As a self-indulgent teenage poet in Birmingham, I’d already been sucked into TS Elliot’s dark universe. In reading Rhapsody on a Windy Night, I believed that, for me  personally, I’d cracked the code of poetry. The Hollow Men has long served me as a political morality play: ‘Between the idea and  the reality,  between the motion and the act falls the Shadow”. And, as a longtime student of the Middle East, I still read The Journey of the Magi to ground my conflicting thoughts about this ever-intriguing part of the world.

As for The Waste Land, to use the language we used back then in that dear, dead decade, it was, well, ‘mind-blowing’, ‘far-out’, and ‘too much’ – and a ‘great trip’. Today, young folk would call it “awesome”. Back then, in bedsits, guitar in hand, I put cantos of it to music – unfinished songs that have never see the light of day.

Craven encapsulates it thus: ‘The Waste Land, which can be read aloud in an hour, is the great circus show of modernism. The collage of languages, the snippets of Dante, and all the many death had undone  … this is an Alice in Wonderland world at the edge of madness: dislocated, disturbed and with an extraordinary dramatic power’.

Who am I to blow against the wind?

Marcel Proust, I could never get into to. As the song goes, ‘I tried, oh my god I tried’, but it went on like wallpaper and was like watching paint dry. Life is too short now, and there is too much to read and too few days to fill, so that land will have to remain unexplored.

Again, Craven comes to my aid. He adores Proust, but acknowledges that he can be hard going: ‘Think of Camus’s remark, “The monotony of Melville, the monotony of the Old Testament, the terrible monotony of Proust.”  I love Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and for all its length and digression, I consider it one of the best novels ever. The title of this blog is actually taken from it. I regard The King James Bible as one of the most beautiful books ever. But I’ll  defer to Albert Camus’ summation of Marcel.

For more in In That Howling Infinite on books and reading, see:  Better Read Than Dead.

How to read Ulysses in 5 easy steps (according to those who have read it):

1. Read it aloud and reread it.
2. Take your time (years, not months).
3. Start at chapter four.
4. Try to read it without trying to understand it on first go. Let go of the bits you don’t understand.
5. Skip the boring parts and go straight to the racy final chapter of Molly Bloom’s sexual musings (then, if not too shocked, you can go back to the masturbation, fisting and defecating chapters).

The year that changed literature

Peter Craven, The Australian, 25th February 2021
Irish writer James Joyce. Picture: SuppliedIrish writer James Joyce

They call it the annus mirabilis, the miracle year – 1922, a century ago now, was the year that modernist literature, by common consent the greatest writing the 20th century and its aftermath would witness, caused its greatest splash.

James Joyce’s Ulysses celebrated its centenary on February 2, and it is the greatest demonstration of what can be done to the English language in the name of fiction. And 1922 was the year Marcel Proust, the author of what would become in English the 12-volume Remembrance of Things Past, died and when his English translator CK Scott Moncrieff began the great English translation of A la recherche du temps perdu (literally, In Search of Lost Time) one of the greatest modern works of fiction in any language.

On top of this, in October 1922 TS Eliot published The Waste Land, the modernist poem that sounds like nothing on earth and that is in some ways the easiest entry point to the weirdnesses and wonders of modernism because it is short but easy to be seduced by the beauty of its music and the kaleidoscope of its imagery.

But let’s stick to the three anniversaries. Ulysses was published on Candlemas, which also happened to be Joyce’s 40th birthday.

It’s called Ulysses as a kind of clandestine joke on the classicism of the world because the hero, Leopold Bloom, is an Odysseus, a Ulysses figure who wanders around Dublin brooding with his own kind of wisdom, even though he knows his wife Molly is having it off with a character called Blazes Boylan. This saddens Bloom but it doesn’t stop the “cultured all round man”, as someone calls him, of acting not only with his own kindness but courage as he distracts himself and feels the depth of his sadness. He enjoys the sight of a girl exhibiting herself for his benefit on the beach, he goes to a funeral and he confronts a benighted patriot, known as the Citizen, the one-eyed Cyclops of this quasi-comical densely encyclopedic retelling of some meta-version of Homer’s Odyssey.

No one, of course, would have cottoned on to the fact Homer had anything to do with this were it not for the title and that Joyce allowed himself to collaborate with Stuart Gilbert (later to be the translator of Albert Camus) about all the obscure parallels. At some Paris party Joyce said to the young Vladimir Nabokov that it had all been “a terrible mistake” and that it was “an advertisement for the book”.

Poet and dramatist TS Eliot (1888-1965).Poet and dramatist TS Eliot (1888-1965).

He was a great leg-puller whichever way you looked at him. What calling the book Ulysses advertised was that this was an epical endeavour Joyce was engaged on that used the fullest possible resources of language in an intrinsically if ambiguously poetic way, but it had something to do with the idea of fidelity in a woman and with the idea of a son-figure.

When Bloom confronts that one-eyed Citizen, he speaks on behalf of love: “I mean the opposite of hatred.” Bloom is a deeply civilised man in his bumbling way, but the son figure he stumbles on – Telemachus to his Odysseus – is Stephen Dedalus, whom readers may have encountered before in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is a self-portrait on Joyce’s part of his younger self, “with a great future behind him”, and Stephen is as brilliant as the day is long. Stephen is acrobatically smart, flypapered in the glories of the language of the world. He is proud and quick, and what you cop from the get go is the sheer blinding power of a mind that is Homeric in the compositional sense: this is a talent, it’s insinuated, that might rival Homer and who at first glance is likely to be Greek to anyone who tries to follow him.

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, sought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot.” Stephen’s voice, like the other two major ones – Bloom and Molly – talks to it without any concession of making things easy for the reader, but if you hang on all the main drift of the action, the innuendo and humour and sudden bits of something poignant, will be nakedly clear. It’s a portrait of a city, among other things, and the action is confined to one day. There’s a Nighttown chapter where everything is nightmarish as Stephen gets more and more drunk and where he cries, “Nothung” like a latter-day Siegfried from Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Bloom, full of kindliness, takes him back to his home where Molly (who can be a seductive witch, is also a faithful wife in a fallen world) is in bed, and Bloom asks Stephen if he wants to stay the night.

“Was the proposal of asylum accepted?

“Promptly, inexplicably, with amicability, gratefully it was declined.”

This second last chapter of Ulysses is in question and answer form like a Catholic catechism, and perhaps in secular terms the voice it is couched in represents the spirit that personifies the feeling (love’s too big a word) between Bloom the father figure and Stephen the son. “What spectacle confronted them?” the wholly ghostly voice asks them. And the answer?’ “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.”

Marcel Proust.French novelist Marcel Proust.

There is an extraordinary grace in the stiltedness of this parody of a Q&A but everything in Ulysses works by principle of parody because the book is deeply comical and it constantly sends up ways in which words fail while also being intent on the well-worn ways in which common garden language is the only language we have to express the things in the heart.

And this is all turned on its head by the grandeur of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy because Molly is also the muse and she can say anything in the most uninhibited way. She can say anything as she mixes everything together. She thinks about sex and then about lions and says, “I imagine he’d have something to say for himself, an old lion would.” And she says, “With him never embracing me except sometimes the wrong end of me.”

The great Irish actor Siobhan McKenna recorded the last half-hour of Ulysses with Molly’s unpunctuated drowsy and erotic ramblings, and she makes the syntax clairvoyantly clear and it remains far and away the finest introduction to Ulysses. A hundred years after its first publication the great climactic “Yes” remains breathtaking. “I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

The rule with the miracle works of 1922 is to listen to them if your eyes reel. Just as Ulysses will continue to unfold its mysteries if you put on your best stage Irish and force yourself to read aloud, so Proust with his extraordinary long sentences (all those jewel-laden subordinate clauses) can sometimes be easier to read aloud than for the eye to comprehend. Among Proust performances the Ralph Richardson reading of Swann in Love is the parallel miracle to McKenna’s Molly Bloom.

But when Proust died in 1922 having left behind a completed (though not fully revised) text of the great work he’d changed fiction forever. “For a long time I used to go to bed early” is the first sentence of it and before we know where we are we are brought up close, with the greatest intimacy, to this exquisite sook of a child who is obsessed with being kissed goodnight by his mother and who as an adult narrator sees a lost past rising up for him simply because of the taste of that madeleine and that cup of tea.

Proust is the most essayistic but also the most lyrical of novelists and you can see why William Emp­son, one of the founders of modern criticism, could say his masterwork sometimes reads like criticism of genius of a lost masterpiece because part of the clairvoyant aspect of Proust is to make the interpretative unfolding part of the narrative drive of a book that can seem to make the earth stand still. Think of Camus’s remark, “The monotony of Melville, the monotony of the Old Testament, the terrible monotony of Proust.”

But the terrible monotony of Proust can be a chimera, an illusion. When you try to find it in any individual passage it fades away. The Proustian effect is a monumental thing created out of the book’s cumulative power.

A statue of poet and author James Joyce in downtown Dublin.A statue of poet and author James Joyce in downtown Dublin.

Yes, it’s a quest for time lost. Yes, it narrates a hero’s infatuation with the Guermantes aristocrats – no one has ever captured the besotted fascination with mindless glamour so effectively. Yes, it is also one of the greatest works to depict the power and enfeeblement of helpless, blind obsessive passion. Hence George Steiner saying, “No one could read Proust without feeling a frailty at the heart of their sexual being.”

At the same time, to read A la recherche du temps perdu is to feel you’ve experienced something like the totality of what the novel as an art form can express and represent, the novelistic power of a created world that is also blindingly and absolutely compellingly a recapitulated world.

And what a world. There’s the gay girl who spits on her dead father’s photo. There’s the fact he’s actually a great composer. There’s that extraordinary couple of lovers of the artistic, Madame and Monsieur Verdurin, and she is the greatest portrait of a vulgarian in history. There’s Gilberte with whom the hero – occasionally called Marcel – loves to wrestle. There’s his grandmother, a woman of absolute sincerity and culture and depth of love. There’s Albertine, who’s no better than she should be but can look like the abiding memory of everything. And then there’s the tremendous figure of the Baron de Charlus, gay and growling, an immense comic creation, black and brilliant and unforgettable.

Proust has a sustained treatment of the Dreyfus case that rocked Paris just as in Time Regained the characters are shadowed by the Great War. There is no greater memory of life than Proust. It falls on the reader like a revelation of what? The power of art, the power of life.

The Waste Land, which can be read aloud in an hour, is the great circus show of modernism. The collage of languages, the snippets of Dante, and all the many death had undone, the music of the Rhinemaidens, the cockney speech and the terrible dialogue of the woman who is mentally distressed and the man answering with what might be dispassionate hatred from inside his head. All that summoning up of a world where the gestures of lust are unreproved and undesired and then the kind of word salad where the French poem about the prince in the ruined tower blends with the injunctions of classical Indian precept and right at the end the repeated “shantih” is a token of peace or music or nothing.

But this is an Alice in Wonderland world at the edge of madness: dislocated, disturbed and with an extraordinary dramatic power.

If you don’t know the masterpieces of the annus mirabilis or need to revisit them, the centenary of 1922 is a good excuse

Menzie’s Excellent Suez Adventure

Many historians claim that the Suez Crisis of late 1956 was the end of the beginning of Britain’s retreat from Empire and its decline as a Great Power. Britain’s divestment of its non-Anglo-Celtic empire began with its withdrawn from Palestine and the independence of India in 1947 and 1948 and proceeded apace through the sixties and seventies until today when but a handful of dependencies remain.

Why Britain reacted as it did to the rise of Gamal Abd al Nasser and his seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956 has long fascinated scholars. Watching ‘The Crown’, recently, and its portrayal of Sir Anthony Eden, and recalling Dennis Potter’s marvelously surreal take on the Suez Crisis in ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’, I discovered one possible explanation (though It doesn’t quite explain the decision of France and Israel to join Britain’s last imperial adventure). 

The Suez Crisis had far-reaching consequences – though none as catastrophic on a political and human scale as when Britain and Australia joined America’s Iraq crusade in 2003. The humiliating withdrawal from Suez accelerated Britain’s slow decline from “great power” status, and the US’ steady ascent to world leadership. It was the harbinger of the end of an empire on which the sun never set. It burnished Nasser’s revolutionary credentials and gave rise to an anti-western, secular, and socialist Arab nationalism that challenged and, in many countries, toppled the established order in the Middle East. It led, in a short time, to the rise of the Ba’ath regimes in Syria and Iraq, which, it can be argued, set these countries on the road to ruin half a century later. And what might have been the consequences for Eastern Europe is “the West” had not been so distracted on the canal during Hungary’s quixotic revolution and its brutal suppression by the Soviet Union.

The Suez Crisis in brief

The Suez Crisis came to a boil with what Arabs called the Tripartite Aggression, and Israelis, the Sinai War. Historians refer to it as the Second Arab–Israeli war –  between the war that commenced with the conclusion of Britain’s mandate over Palestine, and ended with the establishment of the state of Israel and expulsion of over a quarter of a million Arabs from within the battle-won borders of the new state, and the Six Day War which has changed utterly Israel’s geography, politics, culture, society, identity and international standing.

It commenced with an invasion of Egypt in October 1956 by Israel, followed immediately by the United Kingdom and France. The aims were to regain control the Suez Canal a majority British owned strategic international waterway for the Western nations who depended upon it their oceanic commerce, and also, to remove Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had just nationalized the foreign-owned Suez Canal Company, which administered the canal. After the fighting had started, political pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Nations led to a withdrawal by the three invaders. It humiliated the United Kingdom and France and enhanced the reputation of Nasser. Although the three allies had attained a number of their military objectives, the Egyptians scuppered forty ships in the canal rendering it useless. As a result of the conflict, the United Nations created the UNEF Peacekeepers to police the Egyptian–Israeli border, British prime minister Anthony Eden resigned, and the Soviet Union, taking advantage may have been emboldened to invade Hungary.  

Fun in the sun

As with all international conflicts, the causes are much more complex than the actual casus belli that precipitate it, and beyond the intention and scope of this article.  Issues geopolitical, strategic, tactical, historical, cultural and indeed, psychological proliferated, aggregated and aggravated, converging on one or more ignition points. The Cold War, the rise of Arab nationalism, the Arab Israeli conflict, the decline of the British Empire and Britain’s need to hang onto its status as a world power, and the personalities of the players, particularly the Egyptian leader and the British prime minister.

Sir Anthony greets his troops

And into this complex and volatile maze stepped longtime Australian Prime Minister monarchist and empire loyalist Sir Robert Menzies.

But first …

The view from Down Under 

When many British folk of a certain age remember the Suez Crisis in the fall of 1956, they think of the “ Gyppos”, the jumped-up Arabs who defied then embarrassed Great Britain, brought down a prime minister, and dropped the curtain on the empire on which the sun never set. They might also at a stretch imaging a connection from this to Dodi al Fayyad and his dad, Muhammad, the one time owner of Harrods and the creator of that infamous shrine to his lad and the people’s princess who both perished in the Paris car crash that launched a thousand conspiracy theories – one of which was the the establishment’s fear that Diana would would bring forth an Egyptian baby.

As a youngster in Birmingham, the events in Egypt passed me by – I was however quite excited by the revolution in Hungary and the Soviet invasion that followed soon afterwards, and would spend hours drawing pictures of street battles, of tanks and fighters and security services men strung up on lampposts. But many young men doing their compulsory national service, including the sons and brothers of my friends and relatives, were fearful of being sent off to a foreign war, the last one being barely over a decade. This anxiety, and also the imperial angst of crusty ex-army civil servants, is beautifully portrayed in Dennis Potter’s brilliant Lipstick On Your Collar, and also the very commendable drama series The Hour. I have friends and acquaintances of British, Italian, Maltese and French descent who had been born in Egypt but had to leave with their families in during and after the crisis as the Egyptian government, vindictive in its victory, showed them the door.

When Aussies remember the Crisis – well, probably very few do. But way back then, in the days of the White Australia Policy (yes, we really did have that) and the early closing Six O’clock Swill (and yes, we had that too!), apart from many former soldiers who had memories of Egypt in both world wars, we just got on with the matters that preoccupied us in a year that Australian academic and author Hugh Richardson recounts in his highly informative and very entertaining 1956 – the year Australia welcomed the world. Richardson recreates the events of the year surrounding the Melbourne Olympics of November and December 1956,  including the introduction of television in Australia, the arrival of Rock Around the Clock, the British nuclear test in the South Australian outback, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary, and immediately before it, the Suez debacle.

Nowadays, many commentators and writers looking back on the fifties paint Australia as an insular, inward-focusing and churlish nation which many now internationally famous Australian abandoned for greener, more cerebral and creative British pastures. Richardson acknowledges this too, but contends that the country was in fact changing, in the early stages of our development into the worldly-wise, technologically connected, creative, cosmopolitan and multicultural nation that we imagine ourselves to be today. Undoubtedly, we are, but some disreputable skeletons still rattle around at the back of our national cupboard and sometimes fall out into the public space to the embarrassment of ourselves and the discomfort of our friends and neighbours.

This is not to say that Australia was detached from world affairs. Our innate conservatism, and religiosity, a traditionally strong emotional attachment to Great Britain, the homeland of most immigrants to Australia in the since the days of the first settlement, and a firm commitment to our alliance with the UK and the US, saw us drawn into the mindsets and machinations of the Cold War.

We signed up for the United Nation’s euphemistically termed “police action” in Korea, a war that concluded with a forever armistice, and contributed troops to the Malayan Emergency, a guerrilla war between Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army, the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party, from 1948 to 1960 in today’s Malaysia and Singapore. Australia’s commitment lasted 13 years, between 1950 and 1963 and until Vietnam and Afghanistan, was the longest continuous military commitment in our history.

 On the home front, Robert Menzies endeavoured to ban the Communist Party in an Antipodean echo of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s inquisition in America. There were other similarities with the USA as an adolescent ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Agency, encouraged dobbers and snitches to shop their neighbours and colleagues. The actual extent and effectiveness of this is unknown to this day. The Labor Party fractured as fervent anti-communist Catholics walked out to establish the Democratic Labor Party, a rift than kept Labor in the political wilderness where it had  … for a  further sixteen years. And in April 1954, Vladimir Petrov, a Soviet security officer in the Canberra embassy defected to the West with his reluctant, patriotic wife, Evdokia, a valued cryptographer at the embassy, much to the ire of Comrade Khrushchev. In 1956, therefore, Australia was very much on the radar of what President Robert Reagan would later call The Evil Empire.

When Robert met Gamal

In Richardson’s narrative, it appears that unbeknownst to the ordinary man or woman on the Bondi bus, Australia played a significant role in the Suez Crisis, and indeed,  there might’ve been a fair chance that our government would have volunteered our soldiers to join the party, much as we’d answered the old country’s call oft times before. But, as far as we know, Britain never asked and Australia never offered. It would appear that longtime Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies main preoccupation that summer and fall was Britain’s imperial anguish, and how he might help assuage it.

The following narrative is quoted directly from Richardson’s book.

“During the build-up to the Crisis, British prime Minister Anthony Eden became consumed with an obsessional hatred for Nasser, and from March 1956 onward, was privately committed to the Nasser’s ousting. The American historian Donald Neff has written that Eden’s often hysterical and overwrought views towards Nasser almost certainly reflected the influence of the amphetamines to which he had had become addicted following a botched operation in 1953 together with the related effects of sustained sleep deprivation (Eden slept on average about 5 hours per night in early 1956).

Increasingly Nasser came to be viewed in British circles—and in particular by Eden—as a dictator, akin to Benito Mussolini. Ironically, in the buildup to the crisis, it was the actually the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and the left-leaning tabloid newspaper The Mirror that first made this comparison. . Anglo-Egyptian relations would continue on their downward spiral.

US President Eisenhower and Gamal Abdel Nasser

During World War II British prime minister Winston Churchill asked Anthony Eden who was foreign minister, to help him identify an appropriate candidate for to be minister of state in Cairo, Egypt. The position was strategically important because of the war in North Africa, but the candidate did not have to be British. Robert Menzies by this time had lost the prime ministership in Australia to John Curtin and was therefore able to be considered. He did not get the job. Eden actually even admitted later Menzies had not been accepted because “he probably would not get on with the people of of the Middle East, being a somewhat difficult person“. Now, Eden as British Prime Minister, was about to send Menzies on a far more difficult assignment.

Edens original observation was perhaps born out several years later when Menzies was in Cairo on a different mission – an international delegation sent to meet Colonel Nasser himself in an effort to persuade him that the canal to be placed under United Nations stewardship). “These Gyppos are dangerous lot of backward adolescents, full of self-importance and basic ignorance”, Menzies wrote in his diary. The attitude, not uncommon at the time, extended beyond the Egyptians. A former Australian High Commissioner to India Indonesia Italy and Kenya, Sir Walter Crocker, noted in 1955: “Menzies is anti-Asian; particularly anti-Indian… he just can’t help it”.

… While race proved challenging for Menzies, perhaps the more confronting charge was his apparent lack of curiosity about other nations, his unshakable faith in English superiority, and his lack of engagement with European languages.

Menzies believed that a strong response might be required to get Nasser to appreciate Britain’s point of view. Menzies was, in the public eye, a “Commonwealth man”. He had walked that stage, found a spot of obeisance near the crown, and felt like a valued elder statesman within the Commonwealth club of nations. But this mission to Egypt propelled him into a new kind of universe where the old verities no longer applied. He was about to embark on a delicate international mission of diplomacy, trying to negotiate with a new leader who was driven by forces Menzies could not fully comprehend, in a region about which had little interest ….

… Menzies had worked assiduously in London to get command of the brief for his mission. He and four advisors had nine meetings exploring the finances of the canal, and had spoken to the canal’s directors and even an engineer who was an expert in the area. Yet there was no discussion about the social and personal elements he needed to understand: why the Suez Canal was so important to the Egyptians, and why Nasser felt it now is the time to express his independence of thought and action.

The consequences of this shortsightedness became clear early on during Menzies meetings with Nasser. Menzies conducted the discussions like the barrister he once was, laying out the evidence, interrogating opinions, prosecuting a case, just as us Secretary of State Dulles had expected him to do. Nasser, Menzies confided to his staff, was naive and uncertain. Menzies believed he could influence him. Menzies base view was far less hospitable. He told Eden that Nasser was “in some ways a likable fellow but so far from being charming, he is rather gauche … I would say that he was a man of considerable but immature intelligence”. Menzies had more generalizations to make: “like many of these people in the Middle East (or even India) who I have met, his logic doesn’t travel very far; that is to say, he will produce a perfectly adequate minor premise , but his deduction will be astonishing”.

Nasser had his own description of Menzies – he was ‘a mule’.”

Coda – “I did but see her passing by …”

Robert Menzies love affair with Britain has opened him to posthumous ridicule in some quarters. Many would not know remember that in 1952, he  ordered charges against the communist journalists Rex Chiplin for criticizing the coronation. That came to nought but Chiplin was later hauled before the Royal Commission on Espionage (1954-55), a copycat version of Senator McCarthy’s Committee of in-American Activities

usually connected to his public comment during the visit of the young Queen Elizabeth and her consort to Australia in 1952 when quoting 17th century poet John Ford, he said: “I did but see her passing,  and yet I’ll love her ‘til I die”.

And yet, Sir Robert was not alone in his adulation. As the Sydney Morning Herald wrote on the fiftieth anniversary if the Royal tour:

“Royalty can have a strange effect on people who come into contact with it. It had an extraordinary effect on an estimated 7 million Australians who flocked to see the young Queen Elizabeth 50 years ago …The estimated figure was about 70 per cent of the Australian population of nearly 10 million. Nearly one million people were thought to have crowded Sydney’s foreshores and streets when the Queen arrived on February 3, when the city’s population was 1.8 million. About 150,000 crammed around Sydney Town Hall and neighbouring streets when she attended the Lord Mayor’s Ball. A newspaper reported that 2000 collapsed in the crush”.

Until the abolition of royal honours by the Whitlam Labor government of 1972-76, Australian worthies were rewards with British knighthoods and were also entitled to sit in the British House of Lords as life-peers. It was Menzies’ fervent wish that he be accorded that honour, and after his retirement in 1966, prime minister William McMahon endeavoured to grant it – but he lost office to Gough Whitlam before he could satisfy Sir Robert’s hearts desire.

Sir Robert Menzies, monarchist, Empire Royalist,and consummate politician kept his hand on the steering wheel of a conservative and complacent Australia from 1949 until his retirement in 1966. Some believe that it was a stultifying hand. Others praise him – and praise him still – him for upholding traditional Australian values, and keeping us relaxed, comfortable and prosperous. But in his influential 1964 book The Lucky Country, academic, social critic and public intellectual Donald Horne wrote: “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise”. It wasn’t meant as a compliment.

But the times they were a’changin’. Political, cultural and social change was already in motion at the time of the Melbourne Olympics, and continued apace through the sixties, reaching top speed with the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972.

I first arrived in Australia in December 1976 for a month’s vacation in my first wife’s home country, and immigrated a year later. Gough had gone by the time I landed, inauspiciously sacked by the Governor General at the instigation of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies’ creation. But the country that became my home of over forty years was no longer that of 1956. That past was, to quote the much-quoted LP Hartley, “another country”.

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

For posts in In That Howling Infinite on the Middle East, see A Middle East Miscellany, on Australian history and politics, Down Under, and on history generally, Foggy Ruins of Time – from history’s pages.  

O’Donnell Abú – the Red Earl and history in a song

There is history in old songs, and particularly in the songs that tell the story of a nation’s resistance to invasion and occupation. Ireland’s long and troubled relationship with its powerful neighbour across the water has inspired a compendium of such songs of rebellion.

One of my favourites, Let Erin Remember, encapsulates it: “

On Lough Neagh’s banks as the fisherman strays
In the clear cold eve declining
He sees the round towers of other days
In the waters ‘neath him shining
Thus shall memory often in dreams sublime
Catch a glimpse of the days that are over
Thus sighing, look through the waves of time
For the long-faded glories they cover

In That Howling Infinite has published two essays about old Irish songs and their colourful history, Mo Ghile Mear and The Boys of Wexford. What follows is a song contemporary  to these in composition, but takes us back a century and a half to Ireland’s struggle against the Tudor crown in the late sixteenth century.

O’Donnell Abú (Ó Domhnaill Abú) is a traditional Irish song. Its lyrics were written by Michael Joseph McCann, a Fenian, in 1843. It tells of the Gaelic lord Red Hugh O’Donnell who ruled Tyrconnell (present day County Donegal) in the late sixteenth century first with the approval of the Crown authorities in Dublin and later in rebellion against them during Tyrone’s Rebellion.

Hugh Rua O’Donnell (Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill), also known as Red Hugh O’Donnell (30 October 1572 – 10 September 1602), was a sixteenth-century Irish nobleman who, with his father-in-law Hugh O’Neill of Tyrone, led an alliance of Irish clans in the Nine Years’ War against the English government in Ireland. He led an Irish army to victory in the Battle of Curlew Pass, but after defeat in the Siege of Kinsale, he travelled to Spain to in an unsuccessful effort to obtain support from King Philip III. He never returned to Ireland and he died in Spain.

There is no extant portrait or visual representation of Red Hugh though a contemporary suggested that he was “above middle height, strong, handsome, well built”. An idealised image of Red Hugh is this post’s featured image. Romantics picture the youthful Red Hugh as fiery, headstrong, quick-witted, passionate, committed to Catholicism, and to the preservation of the values, language, and culture of the Gaelic world into which he had been born and reared. Above all, he is determined to rid Ireland of its English overlords.

Though limited and often biased against him, extant historical records largely validate this portrayal. They also recapture the complexities of Red Hugh’s highly militarized world, where local lords raided for cattle and reduced neighbouring lords to submission, and show Red Hugh to be a wily negotiator, an effective and pragmatic power broker, and a brave soldier.

Hugh Rua O’Donnell
Hugh Rua O’Donnell
The Flight of Red Hugh

The title refers to the Gaelic war cry of “Abú,” “To victory,” which followed a commander’s name, and is the rallying cry for the O’Donnell clan, called to assemble at a location on the banks of the River Erne in Donegal. The Bonnaught and Gallowglass were Irish and Scots mercenaries employed by O’Donnell to guard the mountain passes. They were now summoned to join the rest of O’Donnell’s forces, who await the arrival of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone and the Borderers who protect his lands.

Stylistically O’Donnell Abú draws on the romantic nationalism of the mid-nineteenth century, similar to those of Michael McCann’s contemporary Young Ireland nationalist Thomas Davis. who composed a number of songs, including The West’s Asleep“, A Nation Once Again“, and the Lament for Owen Roe O’Neill  set to an 16th Centryu compoition bt celebrated harpist  

The song’s martial melody is proud and energetic, and its descriptive imagery is striking. You can almost visualize the war wolf and the eagle, the fires of the marauders, and the serried ranks of horsemen and foot soldiers in their chain mail advancing to avenge “Erin” with trumpets and war cries. To modern ears, the neo-Gothic romanticism of the lyrics and the aggressiveness of the melody may come across as jingoistic and over the top, but passionate nationalist McCann was probably endeavouring to emulate the bards of old. A stirring rendering of the song follows in a spirited live performance by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. This world famous folk group was an especial favourite of mine back in my teenage and folkie days.

Proudly the note of the trumpet is sounding;
Loudly the war cries arise on the gale;
Fleetly the steed by Lough Swilly is bounding,
To join the thick squadrons on Saimears green vale.
On, ev’ry mountaineer, strangers to flight or fear,
Rush to the standard of dauntless Red Hugh.
Bonnaught and Gallowglass, throng from each mountain pass.
On for old Erin, “O’Donnell Abú!”

Princely O’Neill to our aid is advancing
With many a chieftain and warrior clan.
A thousand proud steeds in his vanguard are prancing
‘Neath the borderers brave from the Banks of the Bann:
Many a heart shall quail under its coat of mail.
Deeply the merciless foeman shall rue
When on his ears shall ring, borne on the breeze’s wing,
Tír Chonaill‘s dread war-cry, “O’Donnell Abú!”

Wildly o’er Desmond the war-wolf is howling;
Fearless the eagle sweeps over the plain;
The fox in the streets of the city is prowling–
All who would scare them are banished or slain!
Grasp ev’ry stalwart hand
Hackbut and battle brand–
Pay them all back the debt so long due;
Norris and Clifford well can of Tirconnell tell;
Onward to glory–“O’Donnell abú!”

Sacred the cause that Clan Connell’s defending–
The altars we kneel at and homes of our sires;
Ruthless the ruin the foe is extending–
Midnight is red with the plunderer’s fires.
On with O’Donnell then, fight the old fight again,
Sons of Tirconnell, all valiant and true:
Make the proud  Saxon feel Erin’s avenging steel!
Strike for your country! “O’Donnell Abú!’

The hyperlinks in the song link specific names to their Wikipedia references, but here is a brief glossary:

Bonnaught is type of billeting or a billeted soldier. From Irish buannacht, billeting or billeting tax. A gallowglass (from gallóglach) was a Scottish Gaelic mercenary soldier in Ireland between mid 13th and late 16th centuries. A hackbut is a harquebuss or arquebus, the first long-arm gun fired from the shoulder. John Norris and Conyers Clifford were English commanders who fought O’Donnel and O’Neill, whilst Tír Chonaill, a kingdom of Gaelic Ireland, associated geographically with present-day County Donegal the home of the the Ó Domhnaill clan. It was the location of fighting during the Nine Years’ War

The Red Earl and the Dark Daughter

“It is hard to think, looking at the peaceful countryside of modern Donegal, “writes Ciaran Conliffe in an excellent post on his Scribbler blog, “that in days gone by men fought, bled and died on these hills. But the history of Ireland, up until relatively recently, was one of almost constant strife”. So begins his enthralling tale of Red Hugh and his feisty mother Iníon Dubh. Read it HERE

An impassioned ballad, entitled in the original Roisin Duh (or The Black Little Rose), was written in the reign of Elizabeth by one of the poets of Red Hugh’s entourage, and translated by nationalist mid-19th Century Irish poet James Clarence Mangan. It is an allegorical address by Hugh to Ireland, represented in this and many other Irish songs as a beautiful woman, of his love and his struggles for her, and of his resolve to raise her again to the glorious position she held as a nation before the irruption of the Saxon and Norman spoilers – for that’s how the romantic poets saw it: “Sons of Tirconnell, all valiant and true: make the proud  Saxon feel Erin’s avenging steel! Strike for your country! “O’Donnell Abú!'”

Donegal, Norther Ireland

The Red Hand

Red Hugh’s soldiers had their war cry with O’Donnell Abú. That of the O’Neill clan, led in O’Donnell’s ally Hugh O’Neill of Tyrone, was Lámh Dhearg Abú! – The Red Hand to Victory!

The Red Hand symbol and the war cry are believed to have been used by the O’Neills during the Nine Years’ War (1594–1603) against English rule in Ireland, A contemporary English writer observed: “The Ancient Red Hand of Ulster, the bloody Red Hand, a terrible cognizance! And in allusion to that terrible cognizance—the battle cry of Lámh Dhearg Abú!”

The motif of the Red Hand is a common one in Irish and particularly Ulster folklore. It originated in in Gaelic culture and, although its origin and meaning are unknown, it is believed to date back to pre-Christian times. There is a theory that the ancient Phoenicians may have brought the symbol to Ireland. able seamen and adventurous traders that they were, the Phoenicians of the Levant did indeed venture as far as what are now the British Isles.

A story is also told that the Red Hand symbol originated in a legendary ancestor who put his bloodstained hand on a banner after victory in battle. Bards and balladeers argue its origins, harking back to real and legendary heroes and kings, and commonly relating to shedding the blood of enemies. It was adopted by the O’Neills around 1335. Whilst demonstrating their ancient lineage, they may also may have regarded it as signifying divine assistance and strength.

The Red Hand is present in the arms of a number of Ulster’s counties, such as Antrim, Cavan, Londonderry, Monaghan and Tyrone. Itt also appears in the Ulster Banner, and is used by many other official and non-official organisations throughout the province. It can be regarded as one of the very few cross-community symbols used in Northern Ireland (which makes up six of Ulster’s nine counties) crossing the sectarian political divide.

For other historical posts in In That Howling Infinite, see: Foggy Ruins o Time – from history’s page

Let Erin Remember

Tradional

Let Erin remember the days of old
Ere her faithless sons betrayed her
When Malachy wore the collar of gold
That he won from the proud invader
When her kings with standards of green unfurled
Led the Red Branch Knights to danger
Ere the emerald gem of the Western World
Was set in the crown of a stranger

On Lough Neagh’s banks as the fisherman strays
In the clear cold eve declining
He sees the round towers of other days
In the waters ‘neath him shining
Thus shall memory often in dreams sublime
Catch a glimpse of the days that are over
Thus sighing, look through the waves of time
For the long-faded glories they cover

Dark Rosaleen

James Clarence Mangan

O my dark Rosaleen,
Do not sigh, do not weep!
The priests are on the ocean green,
They march along the deep.
There’s wine from the royal Pope,
Upon the ocean green;
And Spanish ale shall give you hope,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My own Rosaleen!

Shall glad your heart, shall give you hope,
Shall give you health, and help, and hope,
My Dark Rosaleen!

Over hills, and thro’ dales,
Have I roam’d for your sake;
All yesterday I sail’d with sails
On river and on lake.
The Erne, at its highest flood,
I dash’d across unseen,
For there was lightning in my blood,
My Dark Rosaleen!

My own Rosaleen!
O, there was lightning in my blood,
Red lighten’d thro’ my blood.
My Dark Rosaleen!

All day long, in unrest,
To and fro, do I move.
The very soul within my breast
Is wasted for you, love!
The heart in my bosom faints
To think of you, my Queen,
My life of life, my saint of saints,
My Dark Rosaleen!

My own Rosaleen!
To hear your sweet and sad complaints,
My life, my love, my saint of saints,
My Dark Rosaleen!
Woe and pain, pain and woe,
Are my lot, night and noon,
To see your bright face clouded so,
Like to the mournful moon.
But yet will I rear your throne
Again in golden sheen;
‘Tis you shall reign, shall reign alone,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My own Rosaleen!
‘Tis you shall have the golden throne,
‘Tis you shall reign, and reign alone,

Over dews, over sands,
Will I fly, for your weal:
Your holy delicate white hands
Shall girdle me with steel.
At home, in your emerald bowers,
From morning’s dawn till e’en,
You’ll pray for me, my flower of flowers,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My fond Rosaleen!
You’ll think of me through daylight hours
My virgin flower, my flower of flowers,
My Dark Rosaleen!

I could scale the blue air,
I could plough the high hills,
Oh, I could kneel all night in prayer,
To heal your many ills!
And one beamy smile from you
Would float like light between
My toils and me, my own, my true,
My Dark Rosaleen!
My fond Rosaleen!
Would give me life and soul anew,
My Dark Rosaleen!

O, the Erne shall run red,
With redundance of blood,
The earth shall rock beneath our tread,
And flames wrap hill and wood,
And gun-peal and slogan-cry
Wake many a glen serene,
Ere you shall fade, ere you shall die,
My Dark Rosaleen!

My own Rosaleen!
The Judgement Hour must first be nigh,
Ere you can fade, ere you can die,
My Dark Rosaleen!

The ballad of ‘the Breaker’ – Australia’s Boer War

The Breaker Morant story is back in the news here in Australia with the investigation of our SAS for the unlawful killing and torturing of Afghanis.

Every once in a while, the matter of the trial and execution by firing squad of Harry “the Breaker” Morant for killing unarmed prisoners of war during the 19th Century fin de siecle Anglo-Boer War surfaces as his partisans push for a pardon. The war was Australian troops’ fourth overseas military adventure in the service of British Empire (the first was New Zealand’s Maori Wars, and later, in Sudan and during The Chinese Boxer Rebellion – with few engagements and no battle casualties (see Postscript below).

The argument goes like this: Lieutenants Harry Morant, an immigrant to Australia from Devon, England, and Peter Handcock, Australian born, were tried by a military court and executed unjustly as scapegoats of the British Empire. Some partisans are more nuanced. Celebrated lawyer and human rights advocate Geoffrey Robertson questions whether there was due legal process and not whether the two were guilty as charged.

The general consensus here in Australia, however, is that the two men received a fair trial (by martial law standards, that is ) and got what they deserved. It’s a similar “hero or villain” debate to that which has persisted for a century about our most famous bad guy,  bush ranger Ned Kelly. The consensus here too is that Ned received his just deserts for the shooting of the policemen at Stringybark Creek. As Ned said just before dropped through the trapdoor at Melbourne Gaol, “such is life”.

But back to “the Breaker”, Harry Morant, and the subject of the latest book from Australian author Peter FitzSimons, Breaker Morant. Morant earned his sobriquet for his superb horsemanship. Most folk know him only from Bruce Beresford’s excellent 1981 film, Breaker Morant and particularly, his famous last words: “Shoot straight, you Bastards! And don’t make a mess of it!”

Fitz is a “popular historian” and a fine storyteller – and Bob Dylan tragic (I once asked him to write a book about the Bobster, but he hedged with his answer). He has written prolifically on subjects as diverse as Captain Cook, the gruesome Batavia mutiny, and Ned Kelly, and particularly Australian military history, including books about Gallipoli, Pozières, Tobruk and Kokoda. He is an ardent republican, and that comes through strongly in his writing. He is excellent at drawing characters out of history and describing events in detail. I enjoy his tales very much, but I do not like his style – he writes in the vernacular, which is not a bad thing, but embroiders the story much to much, putting words into his historical characters’ mouths and retelling the event, be it a battle or a horse race, as if they were a contemporary action novel.

His Breaker Morant is true to form. Fitz bulls up his voluminous text with extraneous aphorisms and superfluous intrusions “of shreds and patches, of ballads, songs and snatches” (I can be as guilty as he) as if they were intrinsic to the narrative. And his sub-paragraph headings, employing puns and tabloid catchphrases seems to me as contrived and, well, naff.

He has little affection for his subject. “… that ragged, red faced charmer, the ever garrulous Breaker Morant” is introduced to us in the Australian bush as a Pommie, a compulsive liar and cheat, con-artist and impostor, faker and fantasist, one step ahead of creditors and the law. But man, he ride and shoot! There is no colt he cannot tame nor race or polo game he cannot win. And he can drink any man under the table.

Morant is a story teller non parièl – mostly about himself and his much embroidered exploits. He is able to impress and ingratiate himself upon people of all genders, classes and occupations, not the least, our celebrated poet lorikeet Henry “Banjo” Paterson. They bond over a shared accuity for penning bush ballads – and by the standards of that genre, The Breaker holds his own among Australian poets:

There was buckjumping blood in the brown gelding’s veins,
But, lean-headed, with iron-like pins,
Of Pyrrhus and Panic he’d plentiful strains,
All their virtues, and some of their sins.
‘Twas the pity, some said, that so shapely a colt
Fate should with such temper endow;
He would kick and would strike, he would buck and would bolt
Ah! – who’s riding brown Harlequin now?

From starlight to starlight – all day in between
The foam-flakes might fly from his bit,
But whatever the pace of the day’s work had been,
The brown gelding was eager and fit.
On the packhorse’s back they are fixing a load
Where the path climbs the hill’s gloomy brow;
They are mustering bullocks to send on the road,
But – who’s riding old Harlequin now?

Style aside, Fitz’s take on the Boer War is well researched, and his narrative is gripping and colourful in descriptions and language, and also characters. His is a cast of hundreds, including entertaining walk-on roles for the likes of young Winston  Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and The Banjo, all of whom served as newspaper correspondents at one time or another during the conflict, and also, the celebrated Daisy Bates, remembered still for her work in remote indigenous communities, who was married to Harry for a short while up Queensland way until she tired of his drinking and gambling.

A dirty little war

The Anglo Boer War (October 1899 to May 1002), second of its name, was a dirty little war, fought for gold and diamonds and sold to the public throughout the empire as a “just war” to defend the interests of the non-Boer Uitlanders (‘outlanders’, who were predominantly British residents of the legitimate Boer republics) and to uphold Imperial honour (the Boers attacked first – a preemptive strike like Israel in 1967). Some sixty thousand Boers and their African auxiliaries (bribed or conscripted) faced off against six hundred thousand British and colonial soldiers, and again, African auxiliaries.

Most of the Imperial forces were British, including militias from Cape Colony and Natal, but Australians, Kiwis, Canadians, and Rhodesians served as eager volunteers in defense of the “home country”, and Indian soldiers were “volunteered” by the Raj, whilst indigenous people served as auxiliaries, and also as porters and servants who were often in the firing line. Mahatma Gandhi served as a stretcher bearer, again, in the line of fire, and established an “ambulance” service for the British army.

Boer (meaning “farmer”) is the common name for Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans descended from the Dutch East India Company’s’s original settlers at the Cape of Good Hope who adhered to the fundamentalist strictures of the Dutch Reformed Church.The Boer forces were citizen soldiers, but small numbers of Irish, Scots and English also served in the Boer commandos, and even some Americans and Frenchmen. Most were often long time settlers who fought to defend their farms and families and also, their country, and others were soldiers of fortune attracted by the Boers’ defense of their liberty.

The Imperial forces were commanded by the ageing but highly respected Lord Roberts, but operational command lay with General Kitchener, a man who was not averse to stringent measures and also to sacrificing his own men if it served his tactical or strategic purpose. Whilst he decreed that once a combatant had laid down his arms he was to be taken prisoner, his directive was sometimes ignored, as the tale of  The Breaker illustrated. In the conquest of the Sudan, Kitchener sanctioned cold-blooded murder of tens of thousands of captured and wounded mahdists in revenge for the death of General Gordon.

In his excellent Empire, economic historian Niall Ferguson’s has no kind words for Cecil Rhodes, who had an influential part to play in the events that led to the war, and he is quite iconoclastic with regard to imperial icons like Gordon, Kitchener and also, Baden Powell, the “hero of Mafeking” and subsequent founder of the Boy Scout Movement,  all of whom he characterizes as eccentric and potential nutcases. He likes Lawrence and Churchill, however, for all their faults, foibles and fables.

Once introduced in the opening chapter, the eponymous Breaker does does not figure prominently in the narrative until the second half of the book – the first half is taken up with the “formal” war – the military campaigns that conclude with the capture of the Boer capitals of Bloemfontein and Pretoria after the conquest and annexation of the independent Boer republics of The Orange Free Sate and Transvaal.

Thence follows the guerrilla war waged by the “bittereinders” that compelled Generals Roberts and Kitchener to resort to extreme measures to subdue the hold-out Boers, including a scorched-earth policy of demolition and confiscation, barbed wire and blockhouses, and herding civilians, including women and children into concentration camps – their African servants and workers were confined in separate camps. Thousands perished of starvation and disease.

Compelled by the inability of regular military Kitchener authorized the establishment of irregular formations to counter the Boer guerrillas with like-tactics – which is where colonial volunteers, like Harry Morant and his comrades, used to living in the saddle and off the land, came into their own. The latter part of the Boer war thus became one of the first instances of modern counterinsurgency operations, setting a president for further colonial wars – for example, the French in Indochina and Algeria, the British in Aden and Cyprus, and the Americans in Vietnam.

When Roberts returns home to retirement and his chief of staff assumes total command, Kitchener is implacable, vengeful and ruthless in his determination to bring in the bittereinders dead or alive, and to collectively punish their womenfolk and children and their African servants and field hands with the destruction of their livelihood and transportation to the camps outside the main towns. Captured combatants receive the punishment often meted out to rebels against the crown – they are transported – to India, Ceylon, Bermuda, and even Portugal and Madagascar – and ironically, St. Helena, the last exile of Napoleon Bonaparte. In their own way, the exiled Boers were the heirs of the Fenians and trade unionists who ended up in Australia where so many of Kitchener’s bushmen originated.

As peace talks were initiated and ended in stalemate, Kitchener dialed the brutality knob to full. He and his soldiers would refer to Kitchener’s “bag”, the tally of Boers killed or captured – a grim precursor to General William Westmoreland’s fixation with the “body count” during the Vietnam War.

Boers at rest

Boers in action

Dark deeds in a sunny land

Enter the infamous Bushveldt Carbineers. The recruiters were by now literally scraping the barrel; as FitzSimons puts it, “a motley crew, a mix of the old and the bold, the young and the desperate, and those with no better options than joining an outfit destined to be operating in such dangerous realms. No fewer than a third of the new recruits have no military experience whatsoever, and some have never even ridden a horse”. “Rangers, rogues and renegades”  and “the rough and the rowdy, the wild and the woolly, and sometimes the demonic and dangerously”, and whilst in the field, as often as not, drunk – both officers and men. And among them, down on his luck in England and almost destitute and desperate, Harry Morant.

In control though not in command is Captain Alfred Taylor, Intelligence Officer and District and Native Commissioner, known to the natives as “Bulala”, killer. A psychopath is on the loose, appointed and sanctioned by Kitchener himself, and he finds willing henchmen in recently promoted and opportunist Lieutenants Morant and Handcock.

Half way through the 500 page book, FitzSimons changes pace. What had up to now been a largely historical narrative interspersed with colourful and entertaining vignettes, becomes a tale of dark deeds in a sunny land.

As Fitz tells it, encouraged by the sinister Taylor, who believes the only good Boer is a dead one, an increasingly delusional and unhinged Morant and the psychotic Handcock embark on a murder spree. As Moran would admit to the court, “we got them and we shot them under Rule 303”, referencing the Lee Enfield, the standard-issue British Army rifle.

Based on transcripts of their subsequent trial and letters and memoirs of fellow carbineers, Fitz reconstructs the events that conclude with Morant’s downfall and death. Reluctant members of firing squads and outright refuseniks put together a dossier and petition detailing the cold-blooded murder of surrendered Boers, children, an unfortunate priest, and also, a carbineer who’d threatened to blow the whistle.

Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and third from left with the 2nd South Australian Mounted Rifles during the Boer War, circa 1900. .

The book becomes a page-turner as the petition is dispatched up the chain of command, the prospects of a cover-up being high. But no. There are indeed men of integrity in higher command who will see justice done – not the least because they wish to see the dangerous Taylor removed. The more pragmatic view the alleged crimes as impediments to bringing the Boer leaders to the negotiating table.

But the outcome is far from certain. As court martial proceedings conclude and sentences are handed down, including an acquittal for the nefarious Taylor, and a recommendation for clemency by the court after it sentences Moran and Handcock to death for multiple murders – they were in a war zone and under serve strain and provocation after all – Kitchener refused. How could he enter the peace talks that would soon come if the killers were let off the hook?

He dies almost two years to the date of his landing in South Africa with the second Contingent

The war winds down 

By war’s end, Britain’s claims to moral supremacy, already questioned by its waging a war of aggression against two small states, was irreparably damaged. Public opinion which had in the beginning embraced jingoism and righteous anger, once informed of the true nature of the war by returning journalists and also soldiers’ letters, and fired up by clergymen and humanitarians, began to question the purpose and the morality of the war. In Australia, the new narrative was championed by none other than Banjo who had early on developed an admiration for the Boer fighters, likening them to the resilient and resourceful folk of the Australian bush.

Many consider the Boer War as marking the beginning of the questioning of the British Empire’s level of power and prosperity; this is due to the war’s surprisingly long duration and the unforeseen, discouraging losses suffered by the British fighting the Boer citizen soldiers; and repugnance with regard to the ruthless treatment of non-combatants. Many parts of occupied Boer republics with their burned farmsteads and plundered lands resembled more a desert than a once prosperous agrarian economy.

Not that the Boers were exemplars of moral rectitude by our enlightened twenty-first Century standards. Their’s was a conservative and indeed fundamentalist society that regarded the indigenous people as inferior and destined to serve their needs. The British regarded the Boers attitude towards the kaffirs as unacceptable – and yet they too regarded the indigenous Africans as their inferiors – but their’s was a righteous though none the less prejudiced and patronizing “white man’s burden” mentality that characterized Victorian Britons’ view of Empire.

By the end of 1901, the British are physically and morally exhausted. Attrition has turned to atrophy. Kitchener craved an end to the conflict. “I wish I could find some way of finishing this war”, he writes to the Secretary of State for War. Especially now that it is is believed that ordered the execution of Boer prisoners “found in khaki” – wearing items of British uniform.

And so it comes to pass that two months after Morant and Handcock are laid in their un-shared un-hallowed grave, the Boer leadership, wanted to end the devastation and human misery, and the British unable to go forward of back, agree to terms, including ceding Boer sovereignty to Britain, an amnesty for all combatants, the return of the far-flung  transportees, and the emptying of the camps.

At the end of the day, after twenty months of conflict, some twenty two thousand British forces soldiers perished, whilst five thousand were sick and wounded.  Six thousand Boers were killed and twenty four thousand captured whilst twenty one thousand bittereinders surrendered. There were over forty six thousand civilian fatalities, and of 115,000 people incarcerated in concentration camps, twenty seven thousand women and children died, and twenty thousand Africans. Thirty thousand Boer homesteads had been destroyed and tens of thousand of those of Africans, and forty towns had been razed.

By 1910, the Dominion on South Africa had been established with English  and Afrikaans as its co-equal languages. The next stage of South Africa’s eventful history had begun.

Butchered To Make A Dutchman’s Holiday

-In prison cell I sadly sit,
A d__d crest-fallen chappie!
And own to you I feel a bit- A little bit – unhappy!
It really ain’t the place nor time To reel off rhyming diction –
But yet we’ll write a final rhyme Whilst waiting cru-ci-fixion!
No matter what ‘end’ they decide – Quick-lime or ‘b’iling ile,’ sir?
We’ll do our best when crucified To finish off in style, sir!
But we bequeath a parting tip For sound advice of such men,
Who come across in transport ship To polish off the Dutchmen!
If you encounter any Boers You really must not loot ’em!
And if you wish to leave these shores, For pity’s sake, DON’T SHOOT ‘EM!!
And if you’d earn a D.S.O., Why every British sinner
Should know the proper way to go Is: ‘ASK THE BOER TO DINNER!’
Let’s toss a bumper down our throat, – Before we pass to Heaven,
And toast: ‘The trim-set petticoat
We leave behind in Devon.’
At its end the manuscript is described –
The Last Rhyme and Testament of Tony Lumpkin

Postscript – Australia’s 19th century wars

Between 1845 and 1872 just over 2,500 Australian volunteers saw service in New Zealand during the wars between the Maori and Pakeha (white colonists) over the ownership of Maori lands. Though Australian born, troops all served in British regiments. The majority of these volunteers came from the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.

In the early 1880s the British-backed Egyptian regime in the Sudan came under threat from local supporters of Muhammed Ahmed, also known as the Mahdi. In 1883 the Egyptian government was sent south to crush the revolt but instead of destroying the Mahdi’s forces, the Egyptians were soundly defeated. On March 29, 1885 a New South Wales contingent, an infantry battalion and an artillery battery, totalling 758 men. arrived in Sudan, It spent three months there  with no major engagements or battle casualties. there were three wounded soldiers and seven deaths from fever or dysentery.

In 1900, a contingent of mainly naval reservists was sent to China to restore order after the Boxer Rebellion. It didn’t take part in fighting and there were no battle casualties. The few fatalities were from disease.  The first Australian contingents, mostly naval reservists from New South Wales and Victoria, sailed in August 1900. Australian personnel sent to northern China were not engaged in combat. Six Australian’s died of sickness and injury and none were killed as a result of enemy action.


Read more about Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite: Down Under ; and British history in Foggy Ruins of Time

Many Australians past and present view Harry Morant as harshly dealt with, a  folkloric antihero  sacrificed on the alter of empire, as the following article by Fitz himself explains. But first, a word from an Australian country music icon.

They still sanctify the monster Breaker Morant – and insult the true heroes

Peter FitzSimons, Sydney Morning Herald,  September 14, 2021 

Edward Woodward as Breaker Morant

 The idea that Breaker Morant should be given a posthumous pardon is a persistent one, as is the idea that he should have his name added to the Boer War Memorial in Adelaide – the latter idea getting a new lease of life in a strong article published in The Advertiser in Adelaide on Saturday.

For the legend is a beauty: Breaker Morant was a Man From Snowy River in Australian uniform: a brilliant horseman, soldier and bush poet who was cruelly put up against the wall by those Pommy bastards, merely for following their orders.

Yes. So strong and seductive that the article in the ’Tiser records that 70 per cent of their respondents are in favour of Morant’s name being added to the Boer War Memorial. In terms of iconic status, it is of the ilk of the Anzac legend that Education Minister Alan Tudge is insistent must not be questioned in any way in the national history curriculum. As Tudge said last week, the Anzac legend is “not going to be a contested idea on my watch”.

But, based on the book I wrote on Morant, with the help of strong researchers who were able to dig fine detail, let’s contest the Morant legend and look at just one episode of his war career, this one while commanding the roving unit, the Bushveldt Carbineers, in the latter part of the Boer War. The first thing to note is that rather than being Australian, Morant was English and had joined the war effort from Australia after being here for a couple of decades – while the Bushveldt Carbineers was a wholly British unit.

On September 7, 1901, Morant hears of three unarmed, non-combatant Boers heading their way and wanting to surrender. Morant goes out to meet them in the company of one lieutenant and two other troopers. And there they are, up yonder: Boer farmer Roelf van Staden and his two sons, the youngest of whom, Chris, is 12 and desperately ill.

Morant takes immediate action, using a procedure he has previously developed to get through such matters most efficiently. He tells his men that when they get to the clearing up ahead, they must wait till he says “Lay down your arms”, and as soon as they relax, shoot ’em. Arriving at the clearing, Morant barks: “Dismount.” His men do so, and quickly bring up their rifles. The Boers look at them, horrified. “Lay down your arms!” Morant commands.

As planned, the father and his sons relax just a little . . . only for the Troopers to shoot them dead.

How do we know Morant committed these and other atrocities in which a dozen non-combatants were gunned down? There are many reasons, but they include 14 brave Australian soldiers and a Kiwi soldier risking their lives – for the first two soldiers in the Bushveldt Carbineers to publicly dissent had finished with a bullet in their heads – writing a letter to their commanding colonel, asking for Morant to be court-martialled. He was, during which Morant famously boasted of the atrocity of lining up eight unarmed Boer prisoners and shooting them by the side of a road. “We got them, and we shot them, under Rule .303!”

Of course, Morant was a practised hand at shooting prisoners by this time, having ordered a firing squad to execute a lone, injured prisoner, Floris Visser, to the disgust of men and officers alike. At least Visser was given the farce of a “drum head” court-martial, a kangaroo court improvised by Morant to justify murder as revenge for his friend Captain Percy Hunt.

Quoted in the Advertiser on Saturday, the Melbourne lawyer James Unkles said: “Injustices in times of war are inexcusable and it takes vigilance to right wrongs, to honour those unfairly treated and to demonstrate respect for the rule of law. How we respond to this case remains a test of our values and is vitally important.”

Was he speaking in sympathy with the dead Boers? He was not. He was pushing the case for Morant’s posthumous pardon, and for his name to be added to the Boer War Memorial in Adelaide, just as he was a prime agitator behind the Australian Parliament in 2009 voting in favour of petitions being presented to Queen Elizabeth II to review and posthumously overturn Morant’s convictions. Three years later, on the 110th anniversary of the execution of Morant and co-accused Peter Handcock, the Liberal member for Mitchell, Alex Hawke, rose in the House to make a claim for Morant and company’s pardon.

“It is timely for the Australian government to do everything it can to assist the modern-day descendants of these men to access a judicial review of this case. It is the case that the executions were conducted with extreme haste and without appeal.”

(A point of order, Mr Speaker, if I may. An appeal is something they had in civilian courts, but did not exist with courts-martial.)

”I think it is important,” Alex Hawke continued, “that we seek British government’s assistance in releasing all of the available records in relation to this case so that the modern -day descendants can know what happened and rightly, if necessary, receive a judicial review and pardon. It is an episode that appeals greatly to every Australian because of the doctrine of fairness which says that no-one should be treated differently because of their birth, rank or status. We do know that these men were treated differently because of their birth, rank and status. We certainly need legends in Australian history.”

We do. And we have plenty of bona fide ones, without the need to gloss over the record of a war criminal. But still it goes on!

In February 2018, the Australian Parliament passed a motion expressing “Sincere regret that Lieutenants Morant, [et al] were denied procedural fairness contrary to law and acknowledges that this had cruel and unjust consequences; and . . . sympathy to the descendants of these men as they were not tried and sentenced in accordance with the law of 1902.”
Any mention of sympathy and sincere regrets for the defenceless Boers, including children, that Morant had gunned down? None at all. Justice for them? No mention. Just an obsessive focus on aspects of the court-martial where t’s weren’t crossed and i’s weren’t dotted. And equal insistence, despite a lack of any evidence at all, that Morant did what he did under British orders.

Bottom line?

Some historical legends, like that of Morant, are so seductive they live on because people want to believe them. And it’s so powerful you even have serious people pushing the tragic absurdity of an Australian Parliament petitioning the Queen and the British Parliament to posthumously pardon an Englishman fighting for a British unit who committed the worst war atrocities of the Boer War!

But how much more inspirational is the truth? Morant was not the Man From Snowy River put up against the wall by those Pommy bastards. He was a vicious Pommy bastard put up against the wall by the men from Snowy River and others who risked their lives to bring him to justice to stop the atrocities.

There are heroes in this story. They are those troopers who risked their lives to turn Morant in. Imagine their thoughts at his name being next to theirs on the Adelaide Boer War Memorial.

There are victims. They are unarmed Boers ruthlessly gunned down on Morant’s orders.

How monstrously unjust to both heroes and victims to simply go with the legend, unexamined, uncontested.

Of course history must be always examined, contested, reviewed, told from diverse sides. Anything less is indoctrination.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow – coda in Kabul

I once wrote that the twenty year war in Afghanistan was like the Hotel California:  you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Recent events have shown otherwise – or have they, really? I am recalling those lines from David Byrne’s dystopian song, Once in a Lifetime: “same as it ever was, same as it ever was”. But perhaps Burning Down the House is more apt.

Desperate people scramble to escape, over the borders and over the airport walls. Afghans from all walks of life, including officials, soldiers, and policemen, former employees of the allies, women, and human rights advocates, fear the worst, as do ethnic and religious minorities who suffered horrific abuses at the hands of Taliban 1.0. Governments, NGOs and concerned folk all over the world wring their hands in vicarious anxiety, and for some, in shame. Europe. meanwhile, braces for another flood of refugees as displaced Afghans seek sanctuary

The US president declares that the America gave most of it’s all to save Afghanistan whilst the blame game as to “who lost Afghanistan?” commences, just as it did decades ago when the US ‘lost China” and then, Vietnam. The Chief Security Adviser says there’s no way of knowing how much American military hardware has been gifted to the Taliban, but it looks like a veritable bonanza.

America’s allies ponder the reliability of its erstwhile protector, fearing that the giant might have feet of clay – in choosing to give up on Afghanistan in order to confront China, Biden might actually have undercut America’s position everywhere. China and Russia, always happy to see America squirm, but always anxious about instability in neighbouring countries, eye up economic and strategic opportunities. And extremists all over the world, of all colours and creeds, are emboldened as yet another apparently rag tag militia humbles the world’s mightiest military power.

As Afghanistan slides into insolvency and famine, necessitating enormous amounts of aid, the question facing foreign governments is whether or not to recognize the new regime and to release the funds so urgently required. The appetite for isolating Afghanistan on human rights ground is diimishing. Pretty much all of Afghanistan’s neighbors are also guilty of the principal human rights violations that the Taliban are accused of. Minority rights have long been violated with impunity Pakistan and much of the Arab world, and most of Central Asia has been a showcase for ethnic nationalist authoritarianism for decades.

On the ground, and away from the besieged air[port, with the Taliban now well equipped and in control of the main towns and cities, many of the old politicians and warlords have chosen to work with them in the hopes of creating an inclusive transitional government. Former presidential aspirant and reconciliation council leader Abdullah Abdullah, disingenuous former president Hamid Karzai, and  that vicious and powerful old warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have formed a council that seeks a political settlement with the Taliban, rather than join any nascent budding insurgency.

The old Afghanistan, divided along tribal, ethnic and religious lines, and governed by deals, compromises and the divvying up of the spoils may even reassert itself. All that is old might be new again!

Meanwhile our mainstream and non-mainstream media is awash with coverage and commentary , including contributions from a good number of Afghanistan/Iraq hawks – the ones who brought us those twin disasters in the first place _ who have been called on by major media organizations to offer their sage assessment of the current situation. Whether it’s retired generals who now earn money in the weapons industry, former officials from the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations who in many cases are directly responsible for the mistakes of the past two decades, or war enthusiast pundits with an unblemished record of wrongness, we’re now hearing from the same people who two decades ago told us how great these wars would be, then spent years telling us victory was right around the corner, and are now explaining how somebody else is to blame for Afghanistan.

As a counterbalance to all this, In that Howling Infinite republishes below  two excellent pieces by commentators of repute.

Sarah Cheyes, a journalist and political adviser with long experience in Afghanistan, identifies four elements contributing to the failure of America’s Afghan Project: corruption at the highest levels of government which the US chose to ignore – it also ignored the many billions of dollars ended up in the bank accounts of American arms manufacturers and contractors (a recent government report found that between 2011 and 2019, the US spent nearly $100 billion on private contractors); the role played by Pakistan’s intelligence organization, the ISI, in creating and nurturing the Taliban – and the allies refusal to call out Pakistan encouraged its impunity; the dubious maneuverings of former America’s onetime-favourite and former president Hamid Karzai, who appears to have a foot in both camps ; and America’s self-delusions about these and other matters.

Commentator and counterinsurgency expert   is always worth reading – and below is his latest piece  for The Australian. Whilst Cheyes looks back to determine how it all  came to this., Kilcullen ponders where it will it will go. But first, he denounces the blame-shifters and buck-passers: “Those pinning the entire blame for the collapse on the Afghan military should hang their heads in shame. The Afghans have been fighting desperately to survive, losing thousands killed every month, ever since President Joe Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April kicked off the final campaign. They have been carrying the main combat burden of the war since late 2014, losing close to 70,000 casualties in that time against a few dozen on the coalition’s part”.

None of the elements identified by Cheyes and Kilcullen is new news. Old Afghanistan’s hands like Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, and many others have been saying this for decades. The big question, which I am sure will be answered soon is whether Taliban 2.0 will be an improvement on Taliban 1.0 vis a vis women, human rights and even modernity.

But Kilcullen does not see the war as a misbegotten  and forlorn hope. Far from it:

“Some will say the war was unwinnable, that it could never have succeeded. But deep down we all know that is not true. We were sustaining the effort with minimal expenditure and zero casualties, and could have continued it forever had we chosen to do so. We did not. The war was winnable, but we did not win it. Rather, we screwed it up and we have been defeated”.

That much is true.  And with an America smarting from humiliation and a China swaggering with hubris. What could possibly go wrong now?

Addendum

An old friend, Charles Tyler, wrote to me apropos this post:

“The last couple of weeks have certainly seen major shifts of power, but things are so very far from being settled, and probably never will be. Indeed. events as they unfold will defy all predictions, as they always do, and the commentary, informed and shallow, will continue as always. And all will need revision in the light of what actually transpires.

As several commentators have noted the US is now likely to become closer in military and strategic cooperation to India, while China and Russia will become closer to Pakistan and Afghanistan, with all the risks these shifts entail for every country involved.  But in this three-dimensional chess game the field of military and strategic action is just one layer. The layers of religion, tribalism, ethnicity, nationalism and plain human emotion – not to speak of even broader considerations like climate and demographic change and economic development – overlay and play into every other field, and can only be controlled or manipulated or predicted so far. So the consequences of moving any particular chess piece are unknowable”.

Well said, Charles!


For the history buffs, we also republish below an excellent history lesson from American academic and author Priya Satia; and  in In That Howling Infinite, read also: The Ghosts of Gandamak; The Devil Drives, and  One Two Three what are we fighting for?  

Taliban 2.0

Sarah Chayes, August 15, 2021

I’ve been silent for a while. I’ve been silent about Afghanistan for longer. But too many things are going unsaid.

I won’t try to evoke the emotions, somehow both swirling and yet leaden: the grief, the anger, the sense of futility. Instead, as so often before, I will use my mind to shield my heart. And in the process, perhaps help you make some sense of what has happened.

For those of you who don’t know me, here is my background — the perspective from which I write tonight.

I covered the fall of the Taliban for NPR, making my way into their former capital, Kandahar, in December 2001, a few days after the collapse of their regime. Descending the last great hill into the desert city, I saw a dusty ghost town. Pickup trucks with rocket-launchers strapped to the struts patrolled the streets. People pulled on my militia friends’ sleeves, telling them where to find a Taliban weapons cache, or a last hold-out. But most remained indoors.

It was Ramadan. A few days later, at the holiday ending the month-long fast, the pent-up joy erupted. Kites took to the air. Horsemen on gorgeous, caparisoned chargers tore across a dusty common in sprint after sprint, with a festive audience cheering them on. This was Kandahar, the Taliban heartland. There was no panicked rush for the airport.

I reported for a month or so, then passed off to Steve Inskeep, now Morning Edition host. Within another couple of months, I was back, not as a reporter this time, but to try actually to do something. I stayed for a decade. I ran two non-profits in Kandahar, living in an ordinary house and speaking Pashtu, and eventually went to work for two commanders of the international troops, and then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (You can read about that time, and its lessons, in my first two books, The Punishment of Virtue and Thieves of State.)

From that standpoint — speaking as an American, as an adoptive Kandahari, and as a former senior U.S. government official — here are the key factors I see in today’s climax of a two-decade long fiasco:

Afghan government corruption, and the U.S. role enabling and reinforcing it. The last speaker of the Afghan parliament, Rahman Rahmani, I recently learned, is a multimillionaire, thanks to monopoly contracts to provide fuel and security to U.S. forces at their main base, Bagram. Is this the type of government people are likely to risk their lives to defend?

Two decades ago, young people in Kandahar were telling me how the proxy militias American forces had armed and provided with U.S. fatigues were shaking them down at checkpoints. By 2007, delegations of elders would visit me — the only American whose door was open and who spoke Pashtu so there would be no intermediaries to distort or report their words. Over candied almonds and glasses of green tea, they would get to some version of this: “The Taliban hit us on this cheek, and the government hits us on that cheek.” The old man serving as the group’s spokesman would physically smack himself in the face.

I and too many other people to count spent years of our lives trying to convince U.S. decision-makers that Afghans could not be expected to take risks on behalf of a government that was as hostile to their interests as the Taliban were. Note: it took me a while, and plenty of my own mistakes, to come to that realization. But I did.

For two decades, American leadership on the ground and in Washington proved unable to take in this simple message. I finally stopped trying to get it across when, in 2011, an interagency process reached the decision that the U.S. would not address corruption in Afghanistan. It was now explicit policy to ignore one of the two factors that would determine the fate of all our efforts. That’s when I knew today was inevitable.

Americans like to think of ourselves as having valiantly tried to bring democracy to Afghanistan. Afghans, so the narrative goes, just weren’t ready for it, or didn’t care enough about democracy to bother defending it. Or we’ll repeat the cliche that Afghans have always rejected foreign intervention; we’re just the latest in a long line.

I was there. Afghans did not reject us. They looked to us as exemplars of democracy and the rule of law. They thought that’s what we stood for.

And what did we stand for? What flourished on our watch? Cronyism, rampant corruption, a Ponzi scheme disguised as a banking system, designed by U.S. finance specialists during the very years that other U.S. finance specialists were incubating the crash of 2008. A government system where billionaires get to write the rules.

Is that American democracy?

Well…?

Pakistan. The involvement of that country’s government — in particular its top military brass — in its neighbor’s affairs is the second factor that would determine the fate of the U.S. mission.

You may have heard that the Taliban first emerged in the early 1990s, in Kandahar. That is incorrect. I conducted dozens of conversations and interviews over the course of years, both with actors in the drama and ordinary people who watched events unfold in Kandahar and in Quetta, Pakistan. All of them said the Taliban first emerged in Pakistan.

The Taliban were a strategic project of the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI. It even conducted market surveys in the villages around Kandahar, to test the label and the messaging. “Taliban” worked well. The image evoked was of the young students who apprenticed themselves to village religious leaders. They were known as sober, studious, and gentle. These Taliban, according to the ISI messaging, had no interest in government. They just wanted to get the militiamen who infested the city to stop extorting people at every turn in the road.

Both label and message were lies.

Within a few years, Usama bin Laden found his home with the Taliban, in their de facto capital, Kandahar, hardly an hour’s drive from Quetta. Then he organized the 9/11 attacks. Then he fled to Pakistan, where we finally found him, living in a safe house in Abbottabad, practically on the grounds of the Pakistani military academy. Even knowing what I knew, I was shocked. I never expected the ISI to be that brazen.

Meanwhile, ever since 2002, the ISI had been re-configuring the Taliban: helping it regroup, training and equipping units, developing military strategy, saving key operatives when U.S. personnel identified and targeted them. That’s why the Pakistani government got no advance warning of the Bin Laden raid. U.S. officials feared the ISI would warn him.

By 2011, my boss, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Taliban were a “virtual arm of the ISI.”

And now this.

Do we really suppose the Taliban, a rag-tag, disjointed militia hiding out in the hills, as we’ve so long been told, was able to execute such a sophisticated campaign plan with no international backing? Where do we suppose that campaign plan came from? Who gave the orders? Where did all those men, all that materiel, the endless supply of money to buy off local Afghan army and police commanders, come from? How is it that new officials were appointed in Kandahar within a day of the city’s fall? The new governor, mayor, director of education, and chief of police all speak with a Kandahari accent. But no one I know has ever heard of them. I speak with a Kandahari accent, too. Quetta is full of Pashtuns — the main ethic group in Afghanistan — and people of Afghan descent and their children. Who are these new officials?

Over those same years, by the way, the Pakistani military also provided nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea. But for two decades, while all this was going on, the United States insisted on considering Pakistan an ally. We still do.

Hamid Karzai. During my conversations in the early 2000s about the Pakistani government’s role in the Taliban’s initial rise, I learned this breathtaking fact: Hamid Karzai, the U.S. choice to pilot Afghanistan after we ousted their regime, was in fact the go-between who negotiated those very Taliban’s initial entry into Afghanistan in 1994.

I spent months probing the stories. I spoke to servants in the Karzai household. I spoke to a former Mujahideen commander, Mullah Naqib, who admitted to being persuaded by the label and the message Karzai was peddling. The old commander also admitted he was at his wits’ end at the misbehavior of his own men. I spoke with his chief lieutenant, who disagreed with his tribal elder and commander, and took his own men off to neighboring Helmand Province to keep fighting. I heard that Karzai’s own father broke with him over his support for this ISI project. Members of Karzai’s household and Quetta neighbors told me about Karzai’s frequent meetings with armed Taliban at his house there, in the months leading up to their seizure of power.

And lo. Karzai abruptly emerges from this vortex, at the head of a “coordinating committee” that will negotiate the Taliban’s return to power? Again?

It was like a repeat of that morning of May, 2011, when I first glimpsed the pictures of the safe-house where Usama bin Laden had been sheltered. Once again — even knowing everything I knew — I was shocked. I was shocked for about four seconds. Then everything seemed clear.

It is my belief that Karzai may have been a key go-between negotiating this surrender, just as he did in 1994, this time enlisting other discredited figures from Afghanistan’s past, as they were useful to him. Former co-head of the Afghan government, Abdullah Abdullah, could speak to his old battle-buddies, the Mujahideen commanders of the north and west. You may have heard some of their names as they surrendered their cities in recent days: Ismail Khan, Dostum, Atta Muhammad Noor. The other person mentioned together with Karzai is Gulbuddin Hikmatyar — a bona fide Taliban commander, who could take the lead in some conversations with them and with the ISI.

As Americans have witnessed in our own context — the #MeToo movement, for example, the uprising after the murder of George Floyd, or the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — surprisingly abrupt events are often months or years in the quiet making. The abrupt collapse of 20 years’ effort in Afghanistan is, in my view, one of those cases.

Thinking this hypothesis through, I find myself wondering: what role did U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad play? And old friend of Karzai’s, he was the one who ran the negotiations with the Taliban for the Trump Administration, in which the Afghan government was forced to make concession after concession. Could President Biden truly have found no one else for that job, to replace an Afghan-American with obvious conflicts of interest, who was close to former Vice President Dick Cheney and who lobbied in favor of an oil pipeline through Afghanistan when the Taliban were last in power?

Self-Delusion. How many times did you read stories about the Afghan security forces’ steady progress? How often, over the past two decades, did you hear some U.S. official proclaim that the Taliban’s eye-catching attacks in urban settings were signs of their “desperation” and their “inability to control territory?” How many heart-warming accounts did you hear about all the good we were doing, especially for women and girls?

Who were we deluding? Ourselves?

What else are we deluding ourselves about?

One final point. I hold U.S. civilian leadership, across four administrations, largely responsible for today’s outcome. Military commanders certainly participated in the self-delusion. I can and did find fault with generals I worked for or observed. But the U.S. military is subject to civilian control. And the two primary problems identified above — corruption and Pakistan — are civilian issues. They are not problems men and women in uniform can solve. But faced with calls to do so, no top civilian decision-maker was willing to take either of these problems on. The political risk, for them, was too high.

Today, as many of those officials enjoy their retirement, who is suffering the cost?

My warm thanks to all of you who have left comments, for taking the time to write, and for the vibrancy of your concern. A number of you have asked some excellent questions. Please have the kindness to stand by. I will try to provide what answers I can when I can.


Much as the Taliban may like to claim the war is over, it is far from finished. Afghanistan is collapsing in real time and a new bloodbath beginning. Now the world has a choice to make.

By Weekend Australian ,

Taliban fighters sit over a vehicle on a street in Laghman province on August 15. Picture: AFPTaliban fighters sit over a vehicle on a street in Laghman province on August 15. Picture. AFP

Afghanistan is collapsing in real time. Two decades of effort down the gurgler, trillions of dollars and many thousands of lives lost, and a new bloodbath beginning inside Afghanistan. US credibility – like that of every American ally, including Australia – is on the line.

Approaching the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we are back to square one. What happened? Describing the full debacle would take more space than I have, but let me try to answer some obvious questions: Why did we fail to foresee the fall of Kabul? What is happening on the ground and what does it mean? What will others do now, and what should we do next?

I promised a mea culpa, and here it is: I was dead wrong about the fall of Kabul. I am on record just weeks ago saying “it would be a stretch to imagine the Taliban capturing Kabul anytime soon”.

Of course virtually every other analyst got it wrong, too, but I can speak only to my own thought process. Thinking it over, examining my conscience, I realise my lack of imagination rested on a critical but flawed assumption.

I simply could not credit the possibility that the US government and the entire international community would just abandon Kabul overnight without a fight, leaving their own evacuation plan in disarray and surrendering both the Afghans and many thousands of their own citizens to the mercy of the Taliban. I took it as given that the US, UN and global institutions (all of which repeatedly promised ongoing support to Afghanistan) meant what they said. I mistakenly believed our major ally possessed a modicum of moral fibre and basic competence, and would muster the will to fight rather than see decades of effort down the drain.

I was wrong, and I apologise.

In the end Kabul fell as described in my last piece and the world’s response was to do – nothing. Not one airstrike; not a single attempt to blunt the Taliban offensive (even as guerrillas gathered in the open on Kabul’s approaches, presenting the juiciest target since 2001); not even a harsh tweet. Instead we saw excuse-making, blame-shifting and victim-shaming of the most nauseating kind from many (not all) American military and political leaders, and hand-wringing impotence from the UN.

A baby is handed over to the American army over the perimeter wall of the airport for it to be evacuated, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 19. Picture: OMAR HAIDARI/via REUTERS

A baby handed to the US  army on the perimeter wall of Kabul airport,  Aug 19. Omar Haiudari

Those pinning the entire blame for the collapse on the Afghan military should hang their heads in shame. The Afghans have been fighting desperately to survive, losing thousands killed every month, ever since President Joe Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April kicked off the final campaign. They have been carrying the main combat burden of the war since late 2014, losing close to 70,000 casualties in that time against a few dozen on the coalition’s part.

The Afghan forces – which the coalition built to our own specifications – were like a stack of Jenga blocks in which certain critical pieces, by design, could be provided only by the US. Principal among these were air support, intelligence, logistics and maintenance. Suddenly in early May, with no warning, we whipped away these pieces, having promised Afghans for a decade that this was exactly what we would never do.

Of course the Afghan army collapsed – it was designed by us to function only with the parts we provided. To quote British explorer and author Rory Stewart, blaming Afghans now is like removing the wheels from your car, then complaining that it can’t drive.

Once the air support, intelligence and logistics were gone, the Afghan forces rapidly began to lose ground in an accelerating collapse of control across the countryside. As each successive district garrison fell, the government grew weaker and more isolated while the Taliban gained weapons, vehicles, defectors and ammunition. More than 200 such garrisons were lost in May and June alone. The loss of assets was bad enough but the blow to morale was deadly – no more so than early last month when US forces bailed out of the vast Bagram air base without even bothering to tell their Afghan partners, who woke up to find the Americans gone.

By early this month, the first provincial capitals began to fall. Within a week multiple provinces were falling each day, and by last Friday Kabul was the only major city in government hands.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting politicians in June, scoffed at the need to evacuate at-risk Afghans who had worked with the coalition, saying: “We are not withdrawing. We are staying. The embassy is staying … If there is a significant deterioration in security, I do not think it is going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday.”

He was right: it happened from Friday evening to early Sunday afternoon. That is cold comfort for the 86,000 at-risk Afghans now running a gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints to reach the sole remaining runway at Hamid Karzai airport (soon to be renamed, one would think) in downtown Kabul. That multi-runway air base at Bagram we abandoned last month would be nice to have right now.

Taliban enters the presidential palace in Kabul. Picture: AP

Taliban enters the presidential palace in Kabul. AP

Like many other veterans, I have received hundreds of mes­sages and dozens of frantic calls for help during the past few days from Afghan friends now stranded – some being hunted house-to-house by the Taliban. There will be time to be angry about this later. For now, it’s most important to share their perspective as objectively as possible. So, what is happening now across the country, and what does it mean?

In Kabul, a Taliban delegation in the presidential palace is negotiating with Hamid Karzai and other leaders, seeking to form a transitional government. On the streets, Taliban forces are securing government buildings and patrolling in green Afghan police trucks or captured armoured vehicles.

While Taliban leaders have announced that they seek no revenge, they have put the security of Kabul under the control of Anas Haqqani, known for his deadly 2018 attack on the Kabul Serena Hotel and other civilian targets.

Civilians are being disarmed, since according to the Taliban the war is over now so nobody needs a weapon. In fact, special Taliban units have been going house-to-house, “disappearing” former military, intelligence and government officials.

Some have been shot in the street, others tortured to death. Taliban checkpoints are stopping all Afghans, and witnesses say they have pulled special-visa holders from the airport queues and beaten them with chains. Remnants of the Afghan army and intelligence service are hiding from death squads or trying to make their way to the Panjshir Valley, 160km north of Kabul. Some stragglers, and a few formed units, are still fighting outside the city.

In the Panjshir, first vice-president Amrullah Saleh, citing the escape of former president Ashraf Ghani, has declared himself acting president and is rallying opponents of the Taliban to join a government in internal exile. (Ghani has appeared in the United Arab Emirates, living in an expensive hotel and claiming he was forced to flee to avoid lynching.) In the Panjshir a coalition of local militias and army remnants is forming to defend the valley. Their size and capability are still vague.

Afghan people line up outside the Iranian embassy to get a visa in Kabul on August 17. Picture: AFP

Afghan people line up outside the Iranian embassy to get a visa in Kabul, on Aug 17. AFP

Access to the valley is easy – for now. One Afghan officer, in plainclothes, made it from Kabul to the Panjshir on Monday carrying a message, then turned around and drove back to Kabul, unmolested by the Taliban. As any soldier knows, just because a district is Taliban-controlled does not mean there is a Talib on every square metre of it. In fact, Taliban forces have flooded into the cities, leaving parts of the countryside relatively open. Those cities will be a handful to control.

Already there have been deadly protests – met by brutal beatings and Taliban shooting of protesters – in several towns, and reports of 1000 trusted fighters from Helmand and Kandahar heading to Kabul to help secure it.

What this means is that, much as the Taliban may like to claim the war is over, it is far from finished. Afghanistan is still at war, and revolutionary regimes that are at war and facing potentially disloyal populations are legendarily lethal. It also means the international community has a choice to make.

This choice will strongly influence what others do now. Pakistan – despite a history of some elements in its intelligence service backing the Taliban – is looking warily at the potential for mass refugee flows or spillover of violence. Central Asian states such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are stepping up border security. Russia is working with these states, activating a military base in the region, but simultaneously attempting to shape Taliban behaviour by dangling the possibility of recognition, aid and trade if the regime shows moderation. China’s leverage is more economic, with discussions on trade and investment starting as early as Monday when the Taliban held a press conference calling for an international donors’ conference and foreign direct investment.

A Taliban fighter holds a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city. Picture: AFP

Taliban fighters Herat, Afghanistan’s third biggest city. AFP

America’s European allies have been stunned and alienated by the speed of the collapse, and offended by Washington’s unilateral withdrawal, on which they were not consulted. French, German and British politicians have all criticised the US this week. The UN Security Council has strongly condemned the violence, calling for respect for women and human rights (presumably such harshly worded statements were what the UN meant when it promised “ongoing support”).

What, then, should we do next? Initially, the answer is crystal clear: save as many Afghans as can be saved. The evacuation is the critical activity of the moment and the only way to salvage some self-respect from this debacle. After a horrifically chaotic start, the airport is finally under control, though the Taliban maintains an outer cordon preventing civilians getting through. This is creating a massive logjam, with crowds surging around the airport perimeter and few getting through. Many evacuation aircraft have departed almost empty as a result.

More important, the crowds are a tempting target for terrorists such as Islamic State-Khorasan, the local ISIS group, which hates both the Taliban and Westerners, and deplores Afghans who have worked with foreigners. It is only a matter of time before a suicide bomber or a truck bomb gets in among the crowds and stops the evacuation in its tracks. Clearing the backlog is thus a humanitarian as well as a strategic necessity.

Inside a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III flown from Kabul to Qatar on August 15, evacuating some 640 Afghans from Kabul. Picture: AFP

Inside a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III  Aug 15, evacuating some 640 Afghans from Kabul. AFP

Allied commanders recognise this, but political constraints – the US government has promised the Taliban its troops will not leave the airport, according to sources in the State Department – have prevented them expanding the perimeter or pushing the Taliban back.

Creating landing sites away from the airport, from which evacuees could be flown by helicopter over the Taliban checkpoints, is another obvious military move that will likely be blocked on political grounds. Beyond the obvious humanitarian imperative, resettling refugees (many of whom initially are being flown to Qatar) will be a huge and protracted task, one for which many countries are stepping up to assist, though few seem prepared to take anywhere near the number of evacuees needed.

Bigger choices loom. Should the International Monetary Fund release Afghanistan’s funds to an interim government that will be dominated by the Taliban? Should the US support Saleh’s government-in-exile in the Panjshir and back his fighters, or accept defeat and deal with the Taliban? Should airstrikes (so conspicuously absent when they could have made a difference) now resume against terrorists and, if so, who on the ground is left to spot and designate targets? Should there be a post-mortem to analyse what went wrong and allocate (or evade) blame, or should we move on?

All this will become increasingly important in coming weeks, but for now the focus needs to be the humanitarian crisis – and potential bloodbath – unfolding on the ground.

Some will say the war was unwinnable, that it could never have succeeded. But deep down we all know that is not true. We were sustaining the effort with minimal expenditure and zero casualties, and could have continued it forever had we chosen to do so. We did not. The war was winnable, but we did not win it. Rather, we screwed it up and we have been defeated.

Last weekend, as the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared Aug. 14, the eve of Indian independence from British rule in 1947, “Partition Horrors Remembrance Day”—a day to remember the violent Partition of British colonial India into the separate countries of India and Pakistan, which produced the largest migration in human history. Millions of people died or lost their homes, livelihoods, and ways of life and suffered rape and other atrocities in harrowing months of sudden displacement as Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew a largely arbitrary border dividing Punjab and Bengal. But Modi’s pronouncement, made with typical blindsiding precipitousness, was also deeply disingenuous.

It is lost on no one that Aug. 14—the day chosen for this gruesome remembrance—is the day Pakistan marks its independence. (Independence came to British India at midnight on Aug. 14, with India marking its independence on the 15th and Pakistan on the 14th.) Modi’s designation of Pakistan’s Independence Day as an anniversary for Indian mourning is calculated to deflect blame and serves to aggravate rather than heal old wounds. It elides the reality that the violence of 1947 was not the work of neighbors in villages and towns turning against one another but of well-armed paramilitary groups bearing the imprint of Western fascism—including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a group that Modi joined as a child and that remains a pillar of support for his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government.

His call to remember Partition’s horrors appears decidedly cynical against this historical reality. But its coincidence with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan created an unintended opportunity for more honest reckoning with one often forgotten aspect of this haunting past. 1947 marked not only the creation of a new border between Pakistan and India but also, equally disastrously, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. As Afghans flee across borders today, remembrance of the dotted line from that past to our present, of the continued reboot of colonial-era partition, is essential for South Asians and for meddlers in Afghanistan, past and present.

Before the Radcliffe Line, there was the Durand Line. The British, having seized territory from Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878-80 and annexed it to British India, dispatched Mortimer Durand to formalize those gains with a treaty in 1893. Afghanistan was not fully sovereign: The British controlled its foreign affairs in a semicolonial arrangement common to British practice in many parts of the world. The treaty was thus coercive (and possibly duplicitous under the cover of faulty translation), as was often the case with colonial-era British treaties. Indeed, the Durand Line was drawn just shortly after European powers had, with similar arbitrariness, etched borders across the map of Africa.

The line divided a large region inhabited by Pashtuns, many of whom Afghanistan had permitted to remain self-governing, with a western half included in an Afghan sphere of influence and an eastern half in the British sphere. The British took direct, formal control of the most eastward districts and informally influenced those abutting the line, like Waziristan, by providing tribes there with subsidies and arms. Since the line was not a physical border but a demarcation of spheres of influence, considerable freedom of movement persisted. But it was disputed by those on whom it was foisted, prompting an uprising in 1897.

After putting down this rebellion (a young Winston Churchill took part), the British reasserted control over disputed parts of the demarcated area and worked to stop the flow of arms into the region. In 1901, they incorporated the directly controlled eastward districts into the North-West Frontier province of British India. That year, a new emir came to power in Afghanistan and again questioned the British partition of the region, prompting the British to attempt to renegotiate arrangements in 1905. Still the line remained disputed. That year, the British also partitioned Bengal on India’s eastern frontier along religious lines with a view to undermining intensifying anti-colonial sentiment there. (By 1911, anti-colonial pushback forced the undoing of that partition—though Radcliffe would partition the region again in 1947.)

During World War I, Indian and Afghan affairs remained entangled, with anti-colonial activists establishing an independent Provisional Government of India in Kabul, plotting with the Turkish and German empires to free not only India but all Islamic countries from British rule. Its members worked with Bolsheviks, Pan-Islamists, Pan-Asianists, and other anti-colonial activists as far away as California, embracing humanistic ethics of internationalism and love. They saw this joint struggle as an end in itself, regardless of its political results.

Having encouraged these anti-colonial forces, Afghanistan also asserted its own full autonomy after the war and attempted to retake the disputed areas abutting British India, including Mohmand and Waziristan. The resulting Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, however, again left the issue unresolved. Anticipating the U.S. drone strategy of today, the British resorted to the new technology of aerial policing in the region, which Chief of the Air Staff Hugh Trenchard deemed suited to “the psychology, social organization and mode of life of the tribesmen and the nature of the country they inhabit.”

Indian anti-colonial activists with wartime ties to Kabul remained influential in the massively popular postwar Indian anti-colonial struggle. But while they dreamt federal dreams, the British practice of drawing hard lines to divide peoples acquired new force and purpose. Partition was asserted as a “solution” to political conflict between different groups across the empire—the division of Ireland in 1921 as the price of independence (Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom) became a template for recommending a similar “solution” for Palestine in the 1930s. By the 1940s, partition was a standard part of Britain’s decolonization toolkit. And the British justification for colonialism in South Asia—that its Hindus and Muslims constituted distinct nations requiring a mediating presence—had been built into the society’s political fabric in the form of separate, religiously based electorates that encouraged separate political movements as Indians incrementally wrested greater autonomy from the British. A push to partition British India into Muslim and Hindu states emerged, predictably, but struggled for support among many Muslims. These included the Pashtun Khudai Khidmatgar movement in the North-West Frontier, a nonviolent anti-colonial organization closely allied with the Gandhian Congress movement and staunchly opposed to partition.

When the plan for partition was announced in June 1947, the Khidmatgars—a word that means servant—feared that geography would automatically dictate their membership in Pakistan, whose creation they had vehemently opposed on principle. They pushed instead for an independent Pashtunistan, as did the Afghan government. After August 1947, as Punjabis and Bengalis fled for their lives across the new Radcliffe Line, the Pakistani government defended the ever contentious Durand Line, too, as Pashtuns and the Afghan government denied its legitimacy and rebuffed Pakistan’s claim to the Pashtun areas abutting it. Despite Pakistan’s strenuous efforts to crush the Pashtunistan movement, it survived, finding loyal support from Afghan President Daoud Khan in the 1970s.

Pakistan’s U.S.-backed support of mujahideen against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan was aimed, in part, at solidifying the border at the Durand Line. (The communist governments during the Soviet occupation refused to recognize the Durand Line as the border.) But even the agents Pakistan cultivated to intervene in Afghanistan refused to serve that end. The border was more or less moot during the conflict itself, but the mujahideen, recruited primarily among Pashtuns, maintained loyalty to the Pashtun position against the Durand Line. So it went with the Taliban: Pakistani backing didn’t trump the Taliban’s Pashtun loyalty to historic opposition to the Durand Line.

Pashtuns on both sides of the border deny the validity of the Durand Line, but the Pakistani government, in the hands of a Punjabi elite perhaps hardened by the violent partitioning of their own community in 1947, has relentlessly repressed the Pashtun desire for unity and autonomy. It has clung with increasing desperation to the principle of territorial integrity, especially after losing the Bengali half of the country, now Bangladesh, in 1971. The colonial U.S. presence in Afghanistan has abetted this effort. Of late, Pakistan is disrupting cross-border life by building up the frontier in a manner that is likely to rival the India-Pakistan border to the east—a border so fortified that it is one of the few man-made structures visible from space. In holding on to Pashtun land claimed by Afghanistan, the Pakistani government, with U.S. support, has extended the outlook of the past British colonial government toward the land and its people, twisting a knife in the wounds of 1893 and 1947. Meanwhile, the Modi government, in stoking the notion of the Muslim “other”—both inside and outside India—also twists a knife in the wounds of 1947.

In a region characterized by syncretic cultures that are the product of long intermingling, both colonial and postcolonial governments have engaged in endlessly destructive efforts to partition people into boxes defined by language, religion, and ethnicity, rather than afford them the freedom of coexistence fostered by the looser, federal structures that many anti-colonialists proposed. But the intermixing persists. Afghan refugees reside in Pakistan by the millions, and the specter of an undetectable Pakistani and Bangladeshi presence fuels the Modi government’s bigoted policies for proving citizenship. Who is Indian and who Bangladeshi? Who is Pakistani and who Afghan? The difficulty of answering such questions stems from the artificiality and violence of the hard lines that have been drawn between people entangled in what the Congress leader Maulana Azad called a “composite culture,” in which nonviolent anti-colonial struggle easily encompassed both Muslim Pashtuns and Gujarati Hindus.

India’s Punjabi farmers have been challenging the Modi government’s assertion of the central government’s authority for a year now in what has been one of the biggest protests in history. All around South Asia’s borderlands—from Kashmir to Kerala, from Bengal to Pashtunistan—we see resistance to the centralizing power that is a legacy of colonial rule and struggles for greater local governance, federalism, and layered forms of sovereignty promoting coexistence with the other, as envisioned by the anti-colonial thinkers and activists of the Provisional Government of India in Kabul, the Khidmatgars, and Mahatma Gandhi.

While the Cold War helped spur the federal unification of a Europe reeling from the horrors of nationalist violence, the neocolonialism it unleashed simultaneously abetted South Asia’s fragmentation into fortresslike nation-states sustained by the continual demonization of enemies within and without. Still, as the masses of farmers encamped at Delhi show us, alternative futures are never foreclosed. South Asians can still dream beyond those fortresses and promote enduringly composite cultures focused on the shared protection of water and land that is critical to survival in our time. As memory of the horrors of colonial partition fuel fascist Hindu nationalism in India and the Taliban’s expansion in Afghanistan, it has never been more important to remember and amplify the khidmatgars of anti-colonial coexistence.

Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance professor of international history at Stanford University and the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East and Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution. Her most recent book is Time’s Monster: How History Makes History.

Tel as Sabi’ – Tarkeeth’s Anzac Story

The 25th April is Anzac Day, Australia’s national day of remembrance, honouring Aussies and Kiwis who perished in foreign wars from South Africa to Afghanistan. It takes its name from the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign – on this day in the spring time of 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed under heavy fire from Ottoman forces entrenched in the heights above what was later to be called Anzac Cove on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula. 

The Anzacs were just part of a wider campaign devised by British Secretary of the Navy Winston Churchill to knock The Ottoman Empire out of the war with one decisive blow by seizing the strategic Dardanelles Strait and occupying Istanbul, the capital. It do not go well. The Ottoman soldiers commanded by Mustafa Kamal Pasha, the future founder of modern Turkey, Kamal Atatürk, held the high ground and fought stubbornly and bravely, and ultimately, victoriously. 

The bloodshed ended in stalemate. The Allies withdrew eight months later leaving behind over eight thousand dead Australians and nearly three thousand New Zealanders (along with over thirty thousand English, Irish, and Frenchmen, Indians and North Africans, and close on ninety thousand Ottoman soldiers, Turks and Arabs, Muslims and Christians), without, historians say, having had any decisive influence on the course of the First World War. 

The rest, as we say, is our history. 

The Anzac Trail

Whenever we visit Israel, our friend and guide Shmuel of Israel Tours drives us all over tiny beautiful and vibrant country (travelling through the West Bank, we use Palestinian guides). During the pandemic year, most Israelis had been locked down three times and like in many countries, the all-important tourist trade barely has registered a pulse. When permitted to travel beyond his home in Jerusalem, Shmuel has spent the year exploring and learning, visiting places he has never guided to before. He believes that he has exited the plague year a better guide, and we are already making plans for our next Israel adventure, including recently excavated Herodian palaces and further travel in the Negev Desert. 

Shmuel recently told me that he had visited Tel Sheva, Tel as Sabi’ in Arabic, in the Negev, five kilometres east of the city of Beer Sheva, a site inhabited since the fourth   millennium BC. The ancient fortified town dates from the early Israelite period, around the tenth century BC. The walls, homes, storage warehouses and water reservoir system have been excavated and opened to the public. Today, Tel as Sabi’ s also known as the first of seven Bedouin townships established in the Negev as part of the Israeli government’s policy to plant the once-nomadic Bedouin permanent settlements. 

It was from the foot of this stark desert hill that the Light Horse Brigade launched its famous charge towards the Ottoman lines at the strategic rail-head and wells of Beersheva on October 31st 2017. 

Today, it is the ninth (not seventh) stop on The Anzac Trail which traces the route of the Light Horse Brigade from Gaza on the Mediterranean coast to Beer Sheva. For obvious reasons, it begins beyond Gaza’s wire and concrete encirclement and trail culminates at the Anzac Memorial Centre In Beer Sheva, inaugurated on the 100th anniversary of the battle. 

Tel as Sabi’ to Tarkeeth 

As we commemorate Anzac Day this Sunday, few folk in Bellingen Shire would know that there is a link between that hill in the heart of the Negev and Tarkeeth on the north bank of the Kalang River just six kilometres west of Urunga as the crow flies.  

In A Tale of Twin Pines, the first of our Small Stories, I wrote of how researching the history of the Urunga area where we live, I came across Lloyd Fell’s story of the Fell Family Farm. This was located close to the present Twin Pines Trail, just east of Fells Road on South Arm Road, and west of the Uncle Tom Kelly motorway bridge over the Kalang River. Click here to access TwinPinesStory.pdf

Lloyd tells the story of how in 1926, New Zealand farmer, solo-yachtsman, and returned ANZAC Chris Fell first saw the land that became the family farm, purchasing it from a deceased estate for a thousand pounds. Chris was impressed by the two mature hoop pines that stood on either side of the track leading to a rough timber house that already stood there – and these gave the farm its name. He cleared the bush, felling and hauling timber until he had sufficient land and capital to run cattle. In time, he built up a prosperous dairy business and cattle stud where he and his wife Laura, a Sydneysider from a well-to-do Vaucluse family, raised their three children. The house has long gone, but the two magnificent pines are still there. 

On October 31st 1917, Chris Fell and his comrades in the New Zealand Mounted Infantry fought on Tel as Sabi’. 

Tel as Sabi 1917, showing Ottoman trenches (AWM)

Chris Fell and the battle of Beer Sheva

As told in Short Stories – a tale of Twin Pines:

in his ebook The Twin Pines Story, Lloyd Fell tells how his father served as a mounted machine gunner with the New Zealand forces in the Gaza campaign of late 1917. His war record reports that he was one of the machine gunners who fought through the day before the famous charge to knock out the Turkish machine guns on the strategic Tel al Saba, east of the strategic desert town Beersheba.

The strong position the Ottomans had established on the hill was a key obstacle to the conquest of the town and the ANZACs had to seize it before storming Beersheva itself. The Ottoman soldiers fought valiantly, and it was only at around 3 p.m. that the fighters of the New Zealand Brigade, primarily the Auckland regiment, succeeded in capturing the hill in a face-to-face battle. Had these fortifications not been overrun, the Light Horse would have been prevented from advancing on the wells. Afterwards, the machine gunners and their Kiwi mates took part in a bayonet charge against the enemy.

As Jean Bou wrote in The Weekend Australian:

“The New Zealand brigade was sent against Tel el Saba’, but this steep-sided hill with terraced entrenchments was formidable. The dismounted horsemen, with the limited fire support of their machine-gunners and the attached horse artillery batteries, had to slowly suppress the enemy defences and edge their way forward. Chauvel sent light horse to assist, but as the afternoon crawled on, success remained elusive. Eventually the weight of fire kept the defenders’ heads down enough that the New Zealanders were able to make a final assault. The hill was taken and the eastern approach to Beersheba opened, but nightfall was approaching”

Major-General Harry Chauvel, the ANZAC commander faced a dilemma. The light was fading and there wasn’t enough time to properly regroup to assault the town. An unsuccessful attack would mean withdrawing far to the south, whilst delaying ng the attack until morning would deny him the element of surprise and and also give the Turks time to destroy the town’s vital wells. He decided to attack, and assigning the  the mission to the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade. 

Epilogue

The 31 light horsemen who fell are buried in the Beersheba War Cemetery along with 116 British and New Zealand soldiers who perished in the Beersheba battle. There are 1,241 graves in the military cemetery, soldiers being brought in from other Great War Middle East battlefields. We visited it in May 2016.  It is a tranquil, poignant, and beautiful place in the Negev Desert, where the bodies of young men from Australia and New Zealand and from the shires of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were laid to rest. “Lest we forget”

See also, : The Taking of Tel el Saba

In In that Howling Infinite, see also, Tall Tales, Small Stories, Obituaries and Epiphanies,  The Watchers of the Water, and Loosing Earth – Tarkeeth and other matters environmental

Read in In That Howling Infinite more stories about Israel, Palestine and the Middle East: A Middle East Miscellany

 

Song of the Road – my hitchhiking days

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
An old  Irish blessing

You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway
Joni Mitchell, Coyote

On the road

A recent story in Haaretz brought back memories of my hitchhiking days.

Whilst hitching has lost much of its allure in the west, it remains very popular in Israel. From my very first visit, There are always young people waiting by the roadside – it has always been so for young conscripts travelling home on leave, and motorists have traditionally been comfortable with picking up soldiers waiting with their rifles and kit bags (all non-Haredi or ultra orthodox Israelis must complete national service when they reach 18, and are required to carry their weapons with them at all times if these can’t be securely stored). It is also a popular mode of travel in the occupied West Bank where settlers regard hitching a ride as a political statement of sovereignty and freedom to travel through all of HaAretz, “the land”, and as an economical means of reaching scattered and often isolated (not to mention illegal under international law) settlements. Many drivers regard picking up fellow-settlers as a political and religious duty.

Hitching in the West Bank

This attachment to hitchhiking harbours a strong sense of community, but also, a delusion of safety –  it can and does have deadly consequences. For example, in June 2014, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by Hamas operatives at the bus/hitching stop at the Alon Shvut settlements in Gush Etzion and subsequently murdered. The atrocity precipitated Operation Protective Edge, an Israeli bombardment of Gaza which resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, and the kidnap and murder of a Palestinian boy by Jewish extremists. But that is not what this story is about …

In the second decade of the 21st century, hitchhiking is widely viewed as an edgy, even dangerous, activity to be avoided by both a potential hitcher and a prospective motorist contemplating whether to pull over or to drive on. For some, it also carries undertones of bludging and of indigence, although in rural areas like where I live, during these straightened times with high youth unemployment and poor public transport, many young people hitch out of necessity.

But the practice flourished for several decades, particularly during the fifties and sixties when few people owned vehicles and catching a ride with a friendly stranger was means of adventure as well as a mode of travel. Hitchhikers did so for a variety of reasons – a combination of thrift, expedience, and necessity, but also, a sense of romantic adventure – buoyed by what seems in retrospect, a naive sense of invulnerability.

More than just a means of transportation, it was also about social interaction and the opportunity for conversations with strangers. Jack Kerouac, American beat poet and secular patron saint of hitchers. begged to differ. In his seminal On the Road, a book revered more than read, he whinged: “One of the biggest troubles hitchhiking is having to talk to innumerable people, make them feel that they didn’t make a mistake picking you up, even entertain them almost, all of which is a great strain when you are going all the way and don’t plan to stay in hotels”.

In his recent Roadside Americans – the rise and fall of hitchhiking in a changing nation, North Carolina historian Jack Reid writes: “The waning of hitchhiking in the 1980s was a result of social change, but the main reason was related to the economy and to engineering. The highways changed. At the exits from cities, there are now huge interchanges rather than simple junctions, where it was easy to stop a car. Added to that was a sense of alienation, a growing fear of strangers and a loss of intimacy. Another reason was that years of economic prosperity and a significant reduction in car prices enabled many young people to buy their own cars”.

Allons! the road is before us! 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Strong and content I travel the open road.
Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

I was thumbing lifts before I’d even heard of Jack Kerouac,  It seemed like the easiest and cheapest thing to do when cash was scarce  and modes of carriage were few, and the open road and the horizon beckoned.

.In the days gone by, when money was tight and adventure beckoned, I hitched all-over England – visiting friends in far-flung towns and villages, attending music festivals and anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations, and often, simply for the joy of travelling and exploration.

Looking back, my hitching was destination focused,  getting to where I wanted to go and the route that would take me there rather than exploring the highways and byways, the towns and village in between and the folk therein – although I would take in appreciatively the landscapes and cityscapes I would pass through. The roadside and the adjoining nature strip, were, on the other hand, a world of their own. Between rides, standing at a place I’d never been and to which I would not return, I’d note the micro-milieu – the grass and the wildflowers, the flotsam and jetsam, the discarded bottles and butt ends, the empty cigarette packets and the candy bar wrappers. Vehicles  whizzed by and I’d observe their type and frequency to calculate when I’d likely be picked up. And then, destination in mind’s eye, like stepping into a cold pool,or breaking into a run, I’d extend my arm and raise a thumb, gingerly at first and then with bravado.

Living on the northeastern edge of Birmingham,  close to the motorways heading north and south, I’d simply pack a bag, walk to the nearby roundabout, and put out my thumb. It was, after it own fashion, a kind of commuting between hometown domesticity and the great beyond.

When first I roved out, the M1 started on the outskirts of London at Watford, and ended between Coventry and Rugby. The Coventry Road in south west Birmingham was my launching pad. Watford Gap services was like a transit lounge, as was Newport Pagnell. The large road sign Hatfield and the North was a landmark on the road to home. Daytime, nighttime, the wee small hours, in spring and summer sunshine or winter rain, it didn’t really matter – the M1 never slept.

In time, the road system extended and the M1-M6 link lay just a hundred metres in front my family home. One summer, I worked on that section of the motorway as an “on the lump”  casual navvy. No workers comp,or occupational health and safety in those days. Helmets and gloves were optional. My blood, and that of many others, including some who clocked one fine summer morning and never clocked off, is in that  concrete.

As a sixth former, I’d often hitch to “swinging” London for the weekend, to explore the capital and visit folk and jazz clubs, kipping in shop door-ways and underground car parks under cardboard and napping wrapped in newspapers, and eating at Wimpy bars and Lyons teas houses.

A few years later, whilst at Reading University,  the M4 began near Maidenhead and finished at Chiswick, and every few weekends, I’d stand opposite the cemetery in eastern Reading and hitch a ride to London and back – for sit-ins, marches, happenings at The Roundhouse, free open-air concerts (including the famous Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park), and to hang with my London girlfriend.

The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm

When first I roved abroad, I thumbed my way from Budapest to Athens via Yugoslavia and thence back to Blighty, and the following year, on a side-step from the famous hippie trail, from Beirut to Aqaba and back via Petra and Wadi Rum. I slept a night in Petra itself – in those days, a deserted and un-restored hideaway for fugitive Palestinian  fedayeen after the Black September intifada. For reasons that I can not fully explain, I took my future first wife down the same road two years later, including sleeping out among Petra’s Nabatean tombs. And this was to be the end of my gypsy ways and hitching days. They lasted eight years. Thereafter, the famous “open road” was replaced by planes and trains, buses and cars – and one agonizingly crippled Ford transit van (to … an old saying, when life gives you a lemon, you’d wish you’d’ve been willing to spend more on a reliable motor).

If you’ve taken all you need from this post already, off you go … What follows now are an assortment of self-indulgent reminiscences of my hitchhiking days.

From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Travellers’ Tales

Well I left my happy home
To see what I could find out
I left my folk and friends
With the aim to clear my mind out
Well I hit the rowdy road
And many kinds I met there
And many stories told me on the way to get there
So on and on I go, the seconds tick the time out
So much left to know, and I’m on the road to find out
Cat Stevens, Tea for the Tillerman

The toad road licked my wheels like a sabre. Marc Bolan

And what should they know of England …

There’s always a first time. We’d all like to daydream that we’d be picked up by Joni Mitchell, like she picked up that scallywag Coyote on her sublime Hejira album. Mine, alas, was as as stocky sixth former with long hair (long for those days) and horn-rims, heading down to London to meet meet up with school chums for the CND Easter March (that was a first too). Standing at the roundabout where the M1 and the world began, having already thumbed from the Coventry Road roundabout opposite the old Swan public house at Yardley, It wasn’t long before a Rolls Royce pulled up. “WTFl!” is what I’d say today A handsome bloke with shades and sideburns who looked like Englebert Humperdinck asked me where I was heading. “London”, I replied. “Of course – where else? Get in”, he said. It was all the way to Marble Arch with pop star Don Fardon – whom I’d never heard of at the time – he later entered the hit parade with a cover of John Loudermilk’s song Indian Reservation. Not a good song, I would say – with many similarly empathetic ballads, it is long on heartstring-pulling  and fucked on imagery and lyrics. If you want to listen to a good song, check out Bruce Cockburn’s evocative Indian Wars and the Australian Goanna Band’s anthemic Solid Rock.

Henceforward, that motorway from Brum to London was a road well-traveled. In my final year at Moseley Grammar, I’d often hitch down to London for a weekend with pals who’d gone there before. We’d hang out at cheap and cheerful Pollo’s Italian restaurant in Old Compton Street in Soho and the Coach and Horses right across the road, and go to Cousins folk and blues joint in a cellar in nearby Greek Street and the 101 Jazz Club off Oxford Street. Bunjies folk club and Ronnie Scott’s jazz Club were just around the corner. After a meal or a pint, I’d often catch the last tube to the end of the line closest to the M1. I can’t recall how many times I headed off into the night; and and there were always drivers on the road at the witching hour. I guess many folks “get the urge for going”, as Joni sang back then, “and they had to go …” And in those generous times, folks were willing to offer a lift to a wayfaring stranger – gentle souls who would not leave strays stranded by the dark wayside; lonesome folks seeking company and conversation in the dark night of the soul; curios people wondering why a young  man would hitch the highways in the middle of the night.

It is now early spring of 1968. I’d repeated my last year at Grammar School, and with assignments completed, an amenable headmaster let me take a week off to travel. This time, I headed northwest across Brum to Darkaston, near Walsall, and what was then the beginning of the M6 – it ended at Lancaster. Travelling through Lancashire, Cumbria and the Lowlands, I reached the outskirts of Glasgow by nighttime. Hitching across the city, I was picked up by a young couple who insisted that I spend the night at their place – they reckoned the green scarf I’d worn around my hat was a risky proposition in that part of sectarianist Glasgow. I loved that old brown fedora; it traveled with me all over England, to Greece and Yugoslavia, and the Middle East until it was stolen along with my harmonica at Wadi Musa, near Petra. Next morning, I was on the road to Edinburgh, crossed the silvery Tay of bad poet William McGonagall fame, transited the granite city of Aberdeen, and by nightfall, I was on the road into Inverness, where I slept by the roadside and woke up covered in snow. Next morning, I was on Culloden field, and thence, continued on my journey. It took me through the Great Glen where I’d caught a local bus that delivered the mail to isolated homesteads, a journey so slow that I was hallucinating mountains and braes for days, and thence to to Loch Lomond and beyond, southering homewards.

The brown fedora, Giza 1971

During my first year at the University of Reading, I kept on hitching – many more journeys to London and back and day trips to nearby Oxford and Windsor. In a cold and rainy April, with first year exams done, I headed east to London and north to the Humber and the port of Hull, to drop on a good friend who had dropped out of uni and to visit an former school chum. In a student share-house near the university, I took my first mescaline trip to the soundtrack of Roy Harper’s sang McGoohan’s Blues’, a twenty minute digression from the concept if not the plot of an iconic if indecipherable television series. “The Prisoner is taking his shoes off to walk in the rain”.  For 1,200 blissful seconds of cosmic consciousness, I found the meaning of life down that wonderful rabbit hole – and had forgotten what I’d found when I’d resurfaced the next morning. Peyote is a very colourful hallucinogenic. I still recall the Fantasia images that passed before my eyes as Roy sang:

Daffodil April petal hiding the game
Forests of restless chessmen life is the same
Tides in the sand sun lover watching us dream
Covered in stars and clover rainbows downstream …
Under the toadstool lover down by the dream
Everything flowing over rainbows downstream
Silver the turning water flying away
I’ll come to see you sooner I’m on my way

As I headed back down south, the wet and windy old weather changed and as I rode through rural Oxfordshire, all a sudden, the sun came out for behind dull English clouds and and Springtime came in verdant glory – as doomed young Robert Browning once declaimed

Oh to be in England now that April ’s there
And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

On arrival at my digs in Reading, there was a note from friends telling me that they’d headed off to Devon to spend a weekend with a fellow student’s farming family, and that me and my friend Jean should join them. So within minutes of arriving home, we were off into the west. Navigating Bristol where, I recall for no apparent reason, that on impulse. I’d bought a copy of The Beano comic) and Somerset. Late that night, we arrived in the tiny town Cullompton in the heart of rustic Devon. After some now forgotten but fun times, including a trip to the seaside and getting blotto on local cider, we hitched home. I don’t recall too much of the journey except that it took us through Basingstoke.

Cullompton 1969

One glorious English summer I arranged to meet up with my late pal Dave Shaw in Cambridge, where he was attending a summer school at the University, and go to the celebrated Cambridge Folk Festival. I clocked off from my work on the motorway, got home, just ten minutes away – I said we were close! – showered and packed, and headed to the Clock Garage roundabout and put out my thumb. I took the M1 to London’s North Circular, and cut across to the A10 (there was no M11 in those days) and, And, my stars were alignment on this night ride, arrived at Dave’s digs in time for breakfast.I don’t remember much of the festival bill, but American folk diva Odetta was singing, and also, our idol, Roy Harper, England’s high priest of angst.

I had to leave Cambridge around Sunday lunchtime, after Roy’s last set, to return to Brum for work on Monday. Rather than head back down to London, to save time – a quixotic idea when you are hitching – I decided to cut cross-country to connect with the M1 at Newport Pagnell – in those days before GPS and route planners, a cheap, creased road map from WH Smith was the best we had, plus a good sense of direction, fair weather and loads of luck. And such are the movements of the cosmos, that my one and only only ride took me to, yes, what was then the bucolic village of Newport Pagnell. It was one of those summer evenings in England, when the days are long, the air warm and languorous, and the light, luminous. Birds were singing and church bells were ringing for evensong, and in my mind’s ear, I’d like to imagine that cows were lowing and sheep were bleating. One could almost feel an ode coming on. So there I was, once more, at the services on-ramp, hitching a ride to Birmingham , and hopping aboard an old Land Rover for what was the slowest and noisiest ride ever – which took me almost to my door.

… who only England know

The above header is the second half of Rudyard Kipling’s well known if oft misunderstood poem The English Flag, in which the old Imperialist exhorts his insular countrymen to go forth and conquer … In later and less jingoism times, it has been given a more benign slant, along the lines of the adages like “travel broadens the mind” to which I readily subscribe, or as Cat Stevens was to sing at the time “the road to find out”.

And so it was during the holidays before my final year at Grammar School that I tried my thumb on the Continent. With another school pal, I hopped across La Manche to Belgium with the idea of hitching to Amsterdam. Why we chose Belgium, I can’t recall, but my brother had been there shortly before and he reckoned it was a great place for art and architecture (that was his thing – he scored a rare First in architecture at Uni and went to become the chief architect for Nottingham City Council, designing the international ice rink in partnership with Jane Torvill of of skating icons Torvill and Dean fame). We did a lot of beer and chips and saw a lot of great art and architecture in Bruges, Ghent and Brussels – and we visited the Waterloo battlefield, as one would. As for the Netherlands, we got as far as Antwerp but gave up on Amsterdam after a long day of futile thumbing. We were, however, adopted by a young Belgian lass who took us home to meet her ma and pa. We enjoyed a  bucolic Sunday picnic on the banks of a tributary of the Scheldt before heading back to Oostende and England. In retrospect, I regretted that hadn’t turned south south and set a course for Paris, a  pleasure which would have to wait several more years.

My next “big hitch” was by happenstance in Eastern Europe. I’ve written of this before in In That Howling Infinite in Tanks for the Memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Therein, I recalled how I’d flown to Prague on the first anniversary of the Soviet Invasion for Czechoslovakia, only to have the flight diverted to Budapest in Hungary.

“Given the circumstances of our arrival, and the atmosphere prevailing in the Bloc on the anniversary of Prague invasion, the authorities had given me a visa for four days only. I had therefore to depart the country quick-smart. I had effectively two choices of non-Soviet countries –  westwards to Austria, or south to what was then Yugoslavia. In a split second decision, I took the road less traveled – south to Szeged and the Serbian border. Wondering through the rural outskirts of Novi Sad, I was taken home by a pair of Serbian boys. I spent my first evening with their most hospitable family and slept that night on a bed of furs. “Novi Sad, Beograd” the lads had chanted, and so, instead of setting my direction home, I hitch-hiked south to the ancient Danube city of Belgrade. In the Yugoslav capital, I resolved to keep going southwards. Over the next two weeks, I transited Yugoslavia to Thessaloniki, where decided to continue with my southern odyssey – to Athens and the Greek Islands. At journeys end, I hitchhiked back the way I’d come, only this time, reaching Austria via the Croatian capital of Zagreb”.

My Balkan and Aegean adventures included that aforesaid sleepover in Novi Sad; sleeping by the highway south of Niš where I was awoken in the middle of the night by military police who reckoned I was a security risk; being propositioned – solicited more like – by a gypsy girl whose favours I forsook as she mustn’t have showered for a week; picked up by a Greek lorry-driver near the famous pass of Thermopylae who insisted we skinny-dip in the aquamarine Adriatic; and heading out of Thessaloniki on the road to Macedonia (the Slav one), I was picked by a bus load of frisky young Greek conscripts – I jumped out quicksmart into the night.

By the time I reached Zagreb, I’d had enough of the road and took the train to Vienna and thence to Calais and Albion. But, as I wrote in Tanks for the Memory, my southwards diversion to the Mediterranean fixed my gaze on other pastures and inspired  a lifetime interest in the Middle East. For that is where I roved next: “… the clear Hellenic sky and the cobalt blue of the Mediterranean, the parched hills and pine woods of the Peloponnese, the dazzling light and the warm sun on my body, and the ruins and bones of antiquity sang a siren’s song. As Jack Bruce warbled: You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever, but you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun. And the colours of the sea bind your eyes with trembling mermaids, and you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses. My thoughts and dreams no longer ranged eastwards. My next journey took me back to the Mediterranean, and thence, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great – the golden hero of legend, not the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” destroyer – through the Middle East and on to the famous well-trodden Hippy Trail to India”.

My final hitching hejiras were played out in the Levant – an Indian traveller I’d met in a Cairo youth hostel had told me that if I thought the slums of Cairo were bad – and to a naive Brummie, they were – I should see those in Kolkata. So that is what I resolved to do. Leaving Egypt, I found my way to Damascus by way of Beirut, with a side-trip to Israel via Cyprus, and on a quixotic notion, I resolved to visit Aqaba, and also Petra, the ancient “rose” city. Back then, I knew next to nothing about the Middle East. I’d recalled Aqaba from the film Lawrence of Arabia; and I’d been told that Petra was a “must see” by a fellow traveller in my Damascus hostel. So, I set off south, to Dara’a, a border town where Lawrence was allegedly captured and buggered by the Turks, and which was, in recent times, the spark that ignited the Syrian civil war.

The Jordanian border lay just beyond Dera’a, but all traffic thereto was forbidden – the Syrian and Jordanian army had just fought a desultory tank battle in one of the many ricochets of the latter’s suppression of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation after the failed Black September intifada the year before. The border checkpoints were still open, however, to traffic from Jordan only. So I walked across a kind of no man’s land, past tank tracks and the occasional military wreck. There was a large concrete marker at the actual borderline, with “welcome to jordan” on one side and “welcome to Syria” on the other. It was a surreal space. It’s was twilight and high summer. The air was hot and still and there was almost total silence. No birdsong, an imperceptible warm wind. And of a sudden, there was a buzzing of flies which which swarmed all about me and the marker. I walked on and before too long, passed through passport control with a tourist visa, and thumbed a ride to Amman, the capital.

I slept that night on the outskirts of Amman and continued on to Ma’an, the jump-off point for the village of Wadi Musa and Petra. Onwards then to Aqaba where, having paddled in the sea and walked about the town, I headed back straightaway the way I’d come, to Ma’an, Amman, Dera’a and Damascus – from whence I took the fabled Nairn Bus across the desert to Baghdad. From there, I traveled by bus through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and finally, by train, to Delhi and journey’s end, Kolkata, in the midst of a cholera epidemic and a refugee crisis that was a prelude to the Indo-Pakistan war that led to the birth of Bangladesh.

By the rivers of Babylon, August 1971
Agra September 1971
Srinegar, October 1971
Petra 1973

If you never go, you’ll never grow 

With that, I’ll conclude these travellers’ tales, observing in the present how in all my journeying, I never came to harm, whether by accident, misadventure or malignancy.

As noted in opening paragraphs, there was the “combination of thrift, expedience, and necessity, but also, a sense of romantic adventure – buoyed by what seems in retrospect, a naive sense of invulnerability” .

Back in the day, hitchhiking in Britain and on the continent was taken for granted and hitchers were commonplace, even if the practice was frowned upon by the straighteners and the fearful. In the Levant, it was a rare thing. Passers-by would often ask what I was doing, and why I traveled thus. Saving money, I’d reply, I was on a budget and had a long way to go – which was indeed the case in the days when credit cards had yet to be invented and the cash and travellers’ cheques in your body belt were all you had to get your thousands of miles. But you come from a rich country, they’d say, adding that there were cheap service-taxis and buses, and that it was dangerous and there were men out there who would rob you or do you harm. Yes, but I have a long way to go. A policeman in Jerash in northern Jordan served me Arab tea and cakes and sat me down on a bench outside the police station whilst he flagged down a driver he considered to be a decent man.

Like those Israelis hitching between towns and villages in Israel and between settlements in the Occupied Territories, we who traveled the world before jumbo jets and cruise ships understood that bad things could happen and that they sometimes did whether you journeyed by thumb, van, bus or train. In hotels and hostels from Beirut to Baghdad, Kabul to Kolkata, you’d pick up word-of-mouth “travel advisories”, warnings and “war stories”. In India, I’d been told of a chap who’d been robbed and stranded in Afghanistan, and I actually met him when I bunked down in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, on my way back to Britain.

So yes, there always was a risk; but if you think too much about it, you’d never go, and if you never go, you’ll never grow.

© Paul Hemphill 2021. All rights reserved.

Also in In That Howling Infinite, read: Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my lifeBack in the Day ; and A Window on a Gone World

Hitching in the West Bank

Song of the Open Road

Walt Whitman

1
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)

2
You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.

Here the profound lesson of reception, nor preference nor denial,
The black with his woolly head, the felon, the diseas’d, the illiterate person, are not denied;
The birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar’s tramp, the drunkard’s stagger, the laughing party of mechanics,
The escaped youth, the rich person’s carriage, the fop, the eloping couple,

The early market-man, the hearse, the moving of furniture into the town, the return back from the town,
They pass, I also pass, any thing passes, none can be interdicted,
None but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me.

3
You air that serves me with breath to speak!
You objects that call from diffusion my meanings and give them shape!
You light that wraps me and all things in delicate equable showers!
You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides!
I believe you are latent with unseen existences, you are so dear to me.

You flagg’d walks of the cities! you strong curbs at the edges!
You ferries! you planks and posts of wharves! you timber-lined sides! you distant ships!

You rows of houses! you window-pierc’d façades! you roofs!
You porches and entrances! you copings and iron guards!
You windows whose transparent shells might expose so much!
You doors and ascending steps! you arches!
You gray stones of interminable pavements! you trodden crossings!
From all that has touch’d you I believe you have imparted to yourselves, and now would impart the same secretly to me,
From the living and the dead you have peopled your impassive surfaces, and the spirits thereof would be evident and amicable with me.

4
The earth expanding right hand and left hand,
The picture alive, every part in its best light,
The music falling in where it is wanted, and stopping where it is not wanted,
The cheerful voice of the public road, the gay fresh sentiment of the road.

O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?
Do you say Venture not—if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?

O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you,
You express me better than I can express myself,
You shall be more to me than my poem.

I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all free poems also,
I think I could stop here myself and do miracles,
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me,
I think whoever I see must be happy.

5
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently,but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.

All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.

6
Now if a thousand perfect men were to appear it would not amaze me,
Now if a thousand beautiful forms of women appear’d it would not astonish me.

Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Here a great personal deed has room,
(Such a deed seizes upon the hearts of the whole race of men,
Its effusion of strength and will overwhelms law and mocks all authority and all argument against it.)

Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.

Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.

Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied—he realizes here what he has in him,
The past, the future, majesty, love—if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.

Only the kernel of every object nourishes;
Where is he who tears off the husks for you and me?
Where is he that undoes stratagems and envelopes for you and me?

Here is adhesiveness, it is not previously fashion’d, it is apropos;
Do you know what it is as you pass to be loved by strangers?
Do you know the talk of those turning eye-balls?

7
Here is the efflux of the soul,
The efflux of the soul comes from within through embower’d gates, ever provoking questions,
These yearnings why are they? these thoughts in the darkness why are they?
Why are there men and women that while they are nigh me the sunlight expands my blood?
Why when they leave me do my pennants of joy sink flat and lank?
Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?
(I think they hang there winter and summer on those trees and always drop fruit as I pass;)
What is it I interchange so suddenly with strangers?
What with some driver as I ride on the seat by his side?
What with some fisherman drawing his seine by the shore as I walk by and pause?
What gives me to be free to a woman’s and man’s good-will? what gives them to be free to mine?

8
The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness,
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged.

Here rises the fluid and attaching character,
The fluid and attaching character is the freshness and sweetness of man and woman,
(The herbs of the morning sprout no fresher and sweeter every day out of the roots of themselves, than it sprouts fresh and sweet continually out of itself.)

Toward the fluid and attaching character exudes the sweat of the love of young and old,
From it falls distill’d the charm that mocks beauty and attainments,
Toward it heaves the shuddering longing ache of contact.

9
Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Traveling with me you find what never tires.

The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.

Allons! we must not stop here,
However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here,
However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here,
However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.

10
Allons! the inducements shall be greater,
We will sail pathless and wild seas,
We will go where winds blow, waves dash, and the Yankee clipper speeds by under full sail.

Allons! with power, liberty, the earth, the elements,
Health, defiance, gayety, self-esteem, curiosity;
Allons! from all formules!
From your formules, O bat-eyed and materialistic priests.

The stale cadaver blocks up the passage—the burial waits no longer.

Allons! yet take warning!
He traveling with me needs the best blood, thews, endurance,
None may come to the trial till he or she bring courage and health,
Come not here if you have already spent the best of yourself,
Only those may come who come in sweet and determin’d bodies,
No diseas’d person, no rum-drinker or venereal taint is permitted here.

(I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes,
We convince by our presence.)

11
Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,
You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,
What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,
You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.

12
Allons! after the great Companions, and to belong to them!
They too are on the road—they are the swift and majestic men—they are the greatest women,
Enjoyers of calms of seas and storms of seas,
Sailors of many a ship, walkers of many a mile of land,
Habituès of many distant countries, habituès of far-distant dwellings,
Trusters of men and women, observers of cities, solitary toilers,
Pausers and contemplators of tufts, blossoms, shells of the shore,
Dancers at wedding-dances, kissers of brides, tender helpers of children, bearers of children,
Soldiers of revolts, standers by gaping graves, lowerers-down of coffins,
Journeyers over consecutive seasons, over the years, the curious years each emerging from that which preceded it,
Journeyers as with companions, namely their own diverse phases,
Forth-steppers from the latent unrealized baby-days,
Journeyers gayly with their own youth, journeyers with their bearded and well-grain’d manhood,
Journeyers with their womanhood, ample, unsurpass’d, content,
Journeyers with their own sublime old age of manhood or womanhood,
Old age, calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breadth of the universe,
Old age, flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death.

13
Allons! to that which is endless as it was beginningless,
To undergo much, tramps of days, rests of nights,
To merge all in the travel they tend to, and the days and nights they tend to,
Again to merge them in the start of superior journeys,
To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,
To conceive no time, however distant, but what you may reach it and pass it,
To look up or down no road but it stretches and waits for you, however long but it stretches and waits for you,
To see no being, not God’s or any, but you also go thither,
To see no possession but you may possess it, enjoying all without labor or purchase, abstracting the feast yet not abstracting one particle of it,
To take the best of the farmer’s farm and the rich man’s elegant villa, and the chaste blessings of the well-married couple, and the fruits of orchards and flowers of gardens,
To take to your use out of the compact cities as you pass through,
To carry buildings and streets with you afterward wherever you go,
To gather the minds of men out of their brains as you encounter them, to gather the love out of their hearts,
To take your lovers on the road with you, for all that you leave them behind you,
To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.

All parts away for the progress of souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments—all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.

Of the progress of the souls of men and women along the grand roads of the universe, all other progress is the needed emblem and sustenance.

Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best—toward something great.

Whoever you are, come forth! or man or woman come forth!
You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you.

Out of the dark confinement! out from behind the screen!
It is useless to protest, I know all and expose it.

Behold through you as bad as the rest,
Through the laughter, dancing, dining, supping, of people,
Inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those wash’d and trimm’d faces,
Behold a secret silent loathing and despair.

No husband, no wife, no friend, trusted to hear the confession,
Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes,
Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the parlors,
In the cars of railroads, in steamboats, in the public assembly,
Home to the houses of men and women, at the table, in the bedroom, everywhere,
Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones,
Under the broadcloth and gloves, under the ribbons and artificial flowers,
Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,
Speaking of any thing else but never of itself.

14
Allons! through struggles and wars!
The goal that was named cannot be countermanded.

Have the past struggles succeeded?
What has succeeded? yourself? your nation? Nature?
Now understand me well—it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.

My call is the call of battle, I nourish active rebellion,
He going with me must go well arm’d,
He going with me goes often with spare diet, poverty, angry enemies, desertions.

15
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!

Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

Over the sea to Skye

Many’s the lad, fought in that day
Well the claymore did wield;
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden’s field.

There are many folk songs that we are convinced are authentically “traditional”, composed in the days gone by an unknown hand and passed down to us by word of mouth and then, perhaps, by broadsheets and handbills, rustic kitchens and Victorian parlours, until finally pressed into vinyl during the mid-twentieth century folk revival. And yet many such songs were indeed written by poets and songwriters of variable fame. One such is The Skye Boat Song. 

This famous song is one of many inspired by the Scottish Jacobite Rising against Protestant England’s rule in 1745. It recalls the journey of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonny Prince Charlie”, from Benbecula to the Isle of Skye as he evaded capture by government troops after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The Jacobite Rebellion was sparked by many political, cultural and economic factors. but essentially, it was a dynastic civil war. 

He was aided in his flight by minor aristocrat Flora MacDonald who was subsequently arrested for her role and consigned to the Tower of London, but later amnestied. She married an army captain also named McDonald, and they later emigrated to the American colonies. Her captain served with the British forces during the American War of Independence, and as a result, their property was confiscated. They relocated to Canada and soon, after, returned to Scotland.

Flora and Charlie

Songwriter and philanthropist Sir Harold Boulton, 2nd Baronet composed the lyrics to an air collected by Anne Campbelle MacLeod in the 1870s. According to Andrew Kuntz, a collector of folk music lore, MacLeod was on a trip to the isle of Skye and was being rowed over Loch Coruisk (Coire Uisg, the “Cauldron of Waters”) when the rowers broke into a Gaelic rowing song “Cuachag nan Craobh” (“The Cuckoo in the Grove”). MacLeod set down what she remembered of the air, with the intention of using it later in a book she was to co-author with Boulton.

It was first published in 1884 Around 1885 the famed author Robert Louis Stevenson, considering Boulton’s lyrics words “ unworthy”, composed verses “more in harmony with the plaintive tune”. Purged of Jacobite content, these mentioned neither Charlie nor Culloden.

Boulton’s is the one that endured, along with the sentimental perspective Bonny Prince Charlie

Charles Stuart was the “Young Pretender” to the Protestant Hanoverian English throne that once belonged to the Roman Catholic Stuart clan, who after the bloody failure of the ’45 rebellion, fled into exile in France. And that’s where he remained, although his last resting place is in the crypt of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome – an ironic ending for this could’ve been champion of Catholic hopes.

He had many romantic and rousing songs written about him. But in reality he wasn’t the dashing, gallant leader that the songs portrayed and that the Scots and their Celtic Irish allies yearned for. He was an indecisive and vacillating leader, who thought himself much cleverer and popular than he actually was, and when the going got rough, he got going – and left the the Scots and Irish who supported him with blood and treasure to the tender mercies of the Sassenach foe.

But historical fact has never dimmed the popularity of the song. It is often played as a slow lullaby or waltz in many and varied contexts including soundtracks (including Highlander), pipe bands and weddings. It entered into the modern folk canon in the twentieth century with renderings by singers as diverse and indeed betimes idiosyncratic as Paul RobesonTom Jones, Rod Stewart,  Esther & Abi OfarimThe Corries and Tori Amos. James Galway and The Chieftains recorded an instrumental version, as did The Shadows, whilst Roger Whittaker whistled it as comedic crooner Des O’Connor sang.

We much prefer the version presnted below sung by the Choral Scholars of University College, Dublin, an amateur, mostly acapella bunch of Irish students. These young folk formally audition for a scholarship with the ensemble. There is little glamour or artifice, no fireworks or vocal gymnastics. Plainly dressed, they look like folk you would pass on the streets of Dublin or Galway.

Below that is a link to British film-maker Peter Watkins’ acclaimed film  Culloden (1964).

See also in In That Howling Infinite, a discussion about another famous Jacobite song:  Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. This song is presented below.

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be king
Over the sea to Skye

Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclaps rend the air;
Baffled, our foes stand by the shore,
Follow they will not dare.

Many’s the lad, fought in that day
Well the claymore did wield;
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden’s field.

Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean’s a royal bed.
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head.

Burned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.

 

That was the year that was – a year of living dangerously

Last December, when we wrote our review of the year that was ending, fires were ravaging Eastern Australia, and civil unrest had broken out across the world, from Hong to Chile, Beirut to Bolivia. Calling it The End of the Beginning, we wrote:

“We enter a new decade with an American election that will focus our attention; Britain’s long farewell to Europe; an end, maybe, to Syria’s agony (accompanied by renewed repression and victor’s revenge); the rise and rise of China and the geopolitical challenge it presents to the senescent “Old World”. And that is just a few things we have to look forward to”.

As they say, “be careful what you wish for”, or more prosaically, when men make plans, god laughs.

This was a year unlike any other in my, dare I say it and invite the evil eye, long lifetime. It started so well with the abatement of our smoky, fiery Black Summer, and then the rains came. This was the year optimists hoped would be one of 20/20 vision: progress on tackling climate change, perhaps, and end to the entertaining but scary presidency of Donald Trump, a cure for … well everything.

But it was to be the year of the virus. By year’s end nearly eight million people will have been infected and almost two million will have perished, with the US recording more than any other country – by New Years Day, its death-toll will very likely exceed its dead in World War II. Economies have been shattered, livelihoods threatened or destroyed, borders closed, cities, towns and homes closed, locked-down and isolated.

In its turbulent and divisive election year, the death of George Floyd at the hands of – or more specifically under the knee of a policeman, painted a brutal portrait of the implacable indifference to black life that defines American policing. It reopened America’s long-festering wounds of racial and social injustice, white racism and vigilante violence. Rather than douse the flames with water and retardant, The White House reached for a can of petrol. The Black Lives Matter Movement, like #MeToo in recent years, an incendiary spark ignited protests around the world, showing that police violence, injustice and inequality do not belong to the USA alone.

Armed protesters on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses

Whilst most of the world had entered into a kind of limbo, awaiting the vaccine that will end our travails and reopen our countries and indeed, the wide world, others dropped down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that alternatively deny that the pandemic exists or that it had been deliberately created and spread by mysterious and malevolent cabal that seeks total control, like some villain from an old James Bond film or an Avengers movie. Social media has enabled a veritable eBay of ideas and explanations where the isolated and excluded who do their own research and follow the breadcrumbs into the Matrix can buy one and get four free.

On a saner but nonetheless destabilizing level, denizens of the so-called “cancel culture” had a field day exercising its democratic right to be easily offended by demanding the deplatforming, defenestration and demolition of persons, ideas, careers, and monuments. Long-dead slavers, imperialists and generals bit the dust; JK Rowling and Nick Cave got a serve, the latter for devaluing that “cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society”; and an episode of Fawlty Towers was temporarily committed to the naughty corner. 

In the cold-blooded, brutal real world, there was no abatement in the wars and insurgencies that have been grinding on years now in Africa and the Middle East, whilst an old conflict over blood and soil broke out anew between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Donald Trump’s much touted “deal of the century” that would reconcile Israelis and Palestinians was revealed to be no more than a shifty and shitty bribe, whilst US-brokered “peace” deals with a bunch of autocracies who had never gone to war against Israel are but smoke and mirrors that like Kushner’s Peace to Prosperity plan throw the unfortunate Palestinians under the bus. It is as if there is, beyond the planets COVID, Conspiracy and Cancel, a parallel universe of misery and carnage, power games and proxy wars.

Meanwhile, China, or more precisely, the Chinese Communist Party, having let loose the virus, has taken advantage of the world’s distraction and confusion by pressing forward in its quest its political, military and economic predominance. Uighurs, Mongolians and Tibetans face cultural extinction whilst in Hong Kong, the flame of freedom flickered and went out. Sooner or later, something is going to give – what some pundits perceive as President Xi’s impatient recklessness will be followed by a reckoning.

Michelle Griffin, World Editor with the Sydney Morning Herald provides a brief but excellent run down of 2020: The 2020 Pandemic – our year of living dangerously. And on 2020 as the year of “cancel culture”, the reflex response of the easily offended, here is 2020, the year we finally broke our culture. Both are well worth a read.

Time during 2020 has been elastic and confused. On 21st December, The Guardian asked readers to sum up how they felt about 2020 in one word – and likewise their feelings for 2021. As of Xmas Eve, the standout words were respectively (a) shit, fucked and challenging and (b) hopeful and better. My poll responses were “fascinating” and “unpredictable”.

The year ahead?

Our year in review

And so to our review of what In That Howling Infinite published during the plague year. Curiously, deliberately or by mere circumstances, nothing about the plague.

The year began with the fires and smoke abating here on our Mid North Coast, though raging still in southern New South Wales and eastern Victoria. Inspired by an early Cat Stevens song, we opened with a light, nostalgic history of the first the schools of the Tarkeeth, where we live.

Before we knew it, Australian Day was upon us. Normally, the weeks preceding our national day see social and mainstream media, posturing politicians and personalities and cultural warriors of all our tribes caught up in argument and invective about its meaning and significance. This year, however, things are unseasonably quiet. As a nation and a community, we were perhaps too preoccupied with Australia’s unprecedented bush-fire crisis to wage our customary wars of words. Elizabeth Farrelly asked what it means to be Australian: “As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can smarten up” … It was Australia’s choice – survive by respect or die by stupid.

February saw the first of several cynical and futile attempts by the international community to resolve the morass of the Libyan civil war. In Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East, we pointed out that Libya was not the only quagmire of outside powers and their local proxies. Then there the Trump administration’s “deal of the century”. Intended to end half a century of conflict between Israel and Palestine, it was the beginning, dead in the water: Clouded Vision – no peace, no plan, no Palestine, no point.

The unfortunate Palestinians were viewed more sympathetically in a retrospective of the life and work of one of Palestine’s most celebrated artists: Visualizing the Palestinian Return – The art of Ismail Shammout.

The ominous drumbeats of the novel coronavirus we now know as COVID19 drew close and closer during January and February, and by mid March, it was all on for young and old. A tiny but loud minority protested that all a cod. It was to misapply Bob Dylan, “just a dream, babe, a vacuum, a scheme babe that sucks you into feeling like this”.  With enough being written about the pandemic on mainstream and social media, we took the pasty now very well traveled with The view from the grassy knoll – the resilience of conspiracy theories.

The onward March of the “Conspiratualists” merged by midyear with anti-lockdown protests in otherwise rational western democracies, the violence on America’s streets following the death of George Floyd, and the anticipation of open war between rival militia in the Land of the fearful – home of the heavily armed. As the US descended into a social and political division as contagious as the coronavirus, the calls to right historical wrongs led to the demands that statues of morally dubious long-dead white be torn down led to Arguments of a Monumental Proportions.

It was time for In That Howling Infinite to retreat into history, with The Bard in the Badlands 2 – America’s Shakespearean dreaming, a sequel to an earlier piece on America’s historical fascination with William Shakespeare. The lockdowns and self-isolation of the pandemic’s first wave saw people going out less, homeschooling, drinking more (and sadly, in many instances, beating each other up more. But many of us were also avidly FaceBooking, Tweeting and Zooming; and also binge-watching Netflix and Scandi-noir and reading large books.

In Bad Company – how Britain conquered India, we reviewed The Anarchy, the latest in a long list of excellent histories of the sub-continent by Scottish scholar and longtime resident of India, William Dalrymple – the daunting and depressing story of the rise and fall of the British East India Company, a quasi-military industrial complex that earned the misleading sobriquet The Honourable Company.

Flashman in the Great Game

Just in time for the lock-down, Hilary Mantel gave us the finale of her magisterial and magnificent Wolf Hall trilogy – The Light and the Mirror. In That Howling Infinite took up two themes that threaded through all three books. We know how the story ends, but are fascinated with how Mantel takes us there. Taking as it theme the golden bird-boy flying too close to the sun, Beyond Wolf Hall (2) – Icarus ascending asks the question “could Thomas Cromwell have avoided his doom?” Beyond Wolf Hall (1) – Revolution Road reviews Cromwell’s legacy, the Protestant Reformation that changed the course of English (and British) history.

Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis as Tom and Hal

Fast forward from the life and dangerous times of Henry VIII to the present, and Netflix’ release in November of the third season of The Crown, a sumptuous soap that beguiles even ardent republicans. The latest serve, highlighting the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher and the salacious pas de trois of Charles, Diana and Camilla, is deliciously seditious. And there was an entertaining Australian interlude, as described in The Crown – the view from Down Under  even if it was actually filmed in Spain.

In August 2020, the largest man-made explosion since Hiroshima and Nagasaki rippled the heart out of Lebanon’s capital. Over two thousand tons of illegal, combustible, unstable, and almost forgotten ammonium nitrate went up in a fireball that resembled an atomic blast. Social media shared memes and messages, hearts and flags, and “we are all Lebanese” profiles. Expatriates and others wrote and spoke about the country’s present turmoil and fears of a return to the bad old days. Many shared  videos of songs by Lebanon’s national cultural icon, Fairuz – most particularly, her poignant Li Beirut, which she wrote during the civil war as a tribute to the city’s timeless beauty and the suffering of its people people. O Beirut – songs for a wounded city presents Fairuz’ songs, and also Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani’s famous O Beirut, Mistress of the World, and Khalil Gibran’s iconic Pity the Nation.

And finally, as this strangest of years was ending, we published a frolic that has been several years a’making. A cowboy key – how the west was sung takes us on a leisurely jaunt through some of those grand old songs, films and musicals that have shaped our more pleasant perceptions of America.

Happy New Year.

Our reviews of previous years: 2019, 201820172016; 2015

Androids Dolores and Teddy enjoy the Westworld view