From the foggy ruins of time – our favourite history stories

I wear the weave of history like a second skin,
I wake with runes of mystery of how we all begin,
I walk the paths of pioneers who watched the circus start,
The past now beats within me like a second heart.
Paul Hemphill. E Lucivan Le Stelle

Whilst its scope is eclectic and wide ranging in content In That Howling Infinite is especially a history blog. It’s subject matter is diverse. Politics, literature, music, and memoir are featured –  but it is at its most original and informative, a miscellany of matters historical, gathered in Foggy Ruins of Time – from history’s back pages – yes, an appropriation of lyrics from two Bob Dylan Songs.

In compiling the annual retrospective for 2022, I decided I would put together a list of my favourite posts in each of the categories described above, beginning with the history ones. My primary criteria were not so much the subject matter, which is diverse, as can be seen from the ten choices (shown here in alphabetical order) but firstly, what I most enjoyed writing and secondly, those I considered the most original insofar as I referenced and republished few other voices, other than direct quotations from the sources I was consulting and books I was reviewing.

A cowboy key – how the west was sung

Outlaw songs and outlaw gothic are as much apart if the mythic Wild West as cowboys and gunslingers. A nostalgic canter through some of my personal favourites on records and in movies.

Androids Dolores and Teddy enjoy the Westworld view

Al Tariq al Salabiyin – the Crusaders’ Trail 

Western folk, long on romanticism and short on historical knowledge, associate crusades and crusaders with medieval knights, red crosses emblazoned on white surcoats and shields and wielding broadswords battling it out with swarthy scimitar-swinging, be-turbaned Saracens. Here, we widen that orientalist perspective.

The Crusades

A Short History of the Rise and Fall of the West

“… one thing is for certain: we all love a good story. As they say, in Arabic, as indeed in all tongues, times and places, “ka-n ya ma ka-n bil ‘adim izzama-n wa sa-lifi al aSri  wa la-wa-n”‘ or, “once upon an time”. An original,  idiosyncratic and not strictly accurate journey through those foggy ruins of time.

Somewhere in Syria

Beyond Wolf Hall – Icarus ascending 

We know how the story of Thomas Cromwell ends. It’s how Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel gets us there that matters. Our questions here are whether Thomas could sense where it was all headed, and whether he could have quit while he was ahead.

Beyond Wolf Hall – Revolution Road

“A wide-ranging rural road trip through England’s green and pleasant land takes the traveller by antique and desolated abbeys and monasteries, their ageing walls crumbling and lichen covered, their vaulted pediments open to the English elements. The celebrated poets of the romantic era immortalized these relics in poetry, and even today, when one stands in grassy naves, gazing skywards through skeletal pillars, one can almost feel an ode coming on”. A brief dissertation on Thomas Cromwell’s English revolution.

Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis as Tom and Hal

Martin Sparrow’s Blues

It is late summer in 1806, in the colony of New South Wales. After he loses everything he owns in a disastrous flood, former convict, failed farmer, and all-round no-hoper and ne’er-do-well Martin Sparrow heads into the wilderness that is now the Wollemi National Park in the unlikely company of an outlaw gypsy girl and a young wolfhound. Historian Peter Cochrane’s tale of adventure and more often than not, misadventure, set on the middle reaches of the Hawkesbury River at time when two culturally and spiritually disparate peoples collided.

Roman Holiday – the perils of a poet in Nero’s Rome

In the First century, the Roman Empire was a far-ranging and cosmopolitan polity extending from the shores of the Atlantic to the borders of Persia. As far as we can ascertain from the historical record, Meniscus Diabetes was born in Rome in 25 CE. His father was a Greek slave in the Imperial Household of Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome. These were turbulent times for Rome and Romans, but our hero managed to navigate through them.

The Sport of Kings – CE Morgan’s “Great American Novel 

The Sport of Kings’ is not a history book – nor is it an historical novel. But it is most certainly about history. And about identity. As Morgan puts it: “You would never escape the category of your birth”. It is also about memory and myth: “Repeated long enough, stories become memory and memory becomes fact”. It is both a meditation on race, on slavery – America’s “original sin” – and a bitter inversion of the American dream.

The Twilight of the Equine Gods 

An illuminating canter through the story of the “Centaurian Pact” between humans and horses. it is at once a ride andrevelation, and a reminiscence of my short-lived ‘cowboy’ days. The horse” has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances, and yet, over the span of a few decades, a relationship that endured for six millennia went “to the dogs” – excuse my awful pet-food pun. And it happened almost unremarked, unnoticed, and unsung.

Tim Page’s War – a photographer’s Vietnam journey 

Our forest neighbour, recently deceased and internationally acclaimed English photojournalist Tim Page ran away from boring ‘sixties Britain to the exotic East at the age of seventeen, taking the ‘overland’ route that decades later would be called ‘the Hippie Trail’. He washed up in the great war of our generation, and left it critically injured and indeed clinically dead in a medivac chopper. This is the story of a war, and a young man who wandered into that war.

The quiet tea time of the soul

Some folks put much reliance
On politics and science
There’s only one hero for me
His praise we should be roaring
The man who thought of pouring
The first boiling water onto tea

Once in a while, I go on a ramble, a stream of consciousness jaunt. The following was inspired by one of my very best Facebook friends, a resident of Oklahoma, who posted a picture of a mug of Twinings Irish Breakfast Tea, and the comments I made regarding that post.

In my opinion, I wrote, the best tea is Irish – and the best Irish tea for me is Barry’s, although Bewley’s is also excellent. Taylor’s Yorkshire Tea, from Harrogate in, yes, Yorkshire, is also very delicious. I don’t like my tea too strong or “stewed”. At home, we drink Barry’s Gold which we buy it in our local supermarket – we used to be able to buy Bewley’s, but that was before the British Shop in the Sydney CBD closed down over a decade ago. With such a large Anglo-Celtic population here, there’s a strong nostalgia market for British food products DownUnder, whether it’s for tea, McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits, Marmite or Bassett’s Licorice Allsorts.

Eteaquette

Tea is served traditionally in a tea pot (and you must heat the pot first), and drank languidly, leisurely, and ideally with the morning newspaper – online these days- and with a plain biscuit which you might like to dunk in it. Milk rather than cream is how Poms and Paddies like it. Some prefer it without – “black tea”. With or without sugar. I like it not too milky , and never with cream – cream is for coffee, though personally, I don’t like that either. And never over-brew it! The Brits call that “the barely bloody drinkable”, “barely bloody…” for short. I’ve learned that trades people generally like it strong with one lump of sugar. And on the matter of the Irish, a wee drop of whisky in the tea is nice. We used to be given it when visiting our Irish relatives.

Tea without milk is called black tea. Some take a slice of lemon in it, which some purists call poncified, and others like sugar or honey. My wife prefers her morning tea black, in a Doctor Who telephone box tea pot,  and prefers Earl Grey and Russian Caravan. But I’m not into “fancy” teas like these – and the Chinese Lapsang Souchong smells and tastes like old shoes – it has actually been banned in Europe because lapsang is potentially carcinogenic if smoked for too long (I mean smoked over a pinewood fire and not rolled like a joint). But I do drink camomile tea when under the weather or need to cut down on caffeine, and mint tea on occasion, for the same reason. But these are never my first tea choice.

I prefer hot tea to water or coke after a hard slog on the property as it is very refreshing when the weather is hot. Don’t ask me how that works. But it is very popular in high summer in the Middle East. Hot tea is also comforting when it’s very cold. In fact, any time is right for a cup of tea. With that biscuit, preferably.

Russians like it black and well-brewed. It’s an old tradition (samovars and all that). Arabs like their tea black with sugar. Indians boil theirs’ with milk and sugar. They call it shai, which is not the chai that hippies and present day wellness advocates go for – and which I do not like at all. The Chinese have their own type of tea, weak, light and fragrant, as do the Japanese – who have developed elaborate ceremonies for serving it, and indeed people have committed ritual suicide when they have stuffed it up.

Eteamology

We are all floating somewhere on a full tide of tea.
JB Priestley, English Journey, 1933.

Back in the day, when I was a lad, there was whole etymology around tea, There was the English tradition of High Tea, a posh afternoon “tea” (as in “teatime”) with pots of tea and little pastries and quarter-cut salad sandwiches on white bread. One would “take tea” at places like Harrods and Fortnum and Masons – many “posh” hotels here in Australia persist with the pretentious practice. Variations on the theme are “cream teas” with scones, strawberry jam and cream (on the scones, not in the tea!) and a more downmarket High Tea of bacon and egg, baked beans and chips (that’s potato“fries” to you), described on café menus as a “mixed grill” that I used to love on Boy Scout camping excursions and on Wednesday and Saturday evenings in university halls of residence.

When I was growing up, our evening meal was called “tea time” (“dinner” was called lunch). Hence the kiddies’ refrain “what’s for tea! Mom?”. “Heinz baked beans” was the refrain in The Who’s Sell Out album, and they featured on the cover. Decades, later, I love Heinz baked beans on toast, and I still call our evening meal “tea” which irritates my wife no end because she was bring up proper!

Roger Daltrey bathes in beans

By the way, tea should not be confused with a golf tee and draftsman’s T square, or with the phrase “teed off” as in “I’m getting quite annoyed with you!” – which is a polite way of saying “you’re beginning to get on my t##s”.

Teastory

Tea is regarded as a particularly English thing. In his celebrated wartime essay on Englishness, The Lion and the Unicorn, famed, left-wing author George Orwell placed the beverage near the top of those favourite things that Brits cleave to “when the dog bites, when the bee stings” and when Mister Hitler’s bombs and rockets rained down on British towns and cities – and you can read his instructions on how to best brew it below. During the Cold War, sixties, English folk revival luminary Leon Rosselson prophesied that when the Big One dropped, we’d “stand firm” and “duck down in our hidey holes and drink cups and cups of tea”. And when Britain was locked down for months and months during the worst days of Covid-19, and tens of thousands of people perished, folk recalled that old “Blitz spirit” and I wager sales and consumption of tea went through the roof. Orwell observed that it was a palliative pleasure shared by all social and economic classes, a national characteristic on a par with the “stiff upper lip”, “shoulders to the wheel” and “seeing it through”.

It’s not just an English thing. Irish folk regard a hot cup of tae as an important social custom, indeed, arguably as as important if not more so than the bottle, and is enjoyed at all hours amongst family and friends in greater volumes  than alcohol. It has traditionally been  a symbol of hospitality, camaraderie, and friendship, and not only is it a great way to cheer up and keep warm on a bleak and rainy day, but it brings people together too. This said, the worst cup of tea I have ever tasted – and I’ve been around the figurative tea bush many times – was actually in Ireland. In New Ross, County Wexford, actually, en route from my ancestral home of Enniscorthy to Waterford and the west coast. I reckon someone must have just squezz out a dishcloth into a cup and added milk.

Predictably, the British and Irish took their tea all over the world. Here in Australia, it has long been the most popular beverage. It was a tea manufacturer who came up with the first line of our most well-known song. In the early 20th century, a copy of the song was included in packets of the popular Billy Tea, as a promotional stunt. The tea manufacturers were concerned that the song ended on a pretty grim note, so the word “jolly” was added to the opening line. To liven things up a bit. Shocking, isn’t it? That one word changes the whole feel of the thing, elevating the swag man from an impoverished, homeless man, hounded to death by police, to a happy-go-lucky bush scamp. Yet the only reason the word is there is so the song would work better as an ad.


Songs have been written in praise of tea, most particularly the English song A Nice Cup of Tea, wrttien by a member of parliament and first performed in 1937 but made famous by Gracie Fields, England’s wartime ‘sweetheart”. A “nice cup of tea”, as we’ve noted, is a traditional panacea for stressful situations – it got Brits through two world wars, and will probably do the same in the next one.

Foreigners often make fun of the English for their fondness for a “cuppa”. The French cartoon strip Asterix, set in Roman Gaul, portrays the Britons as drinking cups of hot water with milk – because tea hadn’t been invented in Roman days.

But the Poms didn’t invent it – I believe that was the Chinese who worked.out that leaves can be not just tasty but also therapeutic – but the Brits’ fondness for that nice cup of tea was one of the reasons they decided to conquer India, and they managed to rule the place for over four hundred years by drinking gallons of it – but they nevertheless they still died of malaria, dysentery, alcoholism and mutiny by the score.

Tea helped Britannia rule the waves and most of the world, but Britain lost America on account of it. Americans reckon that is why they prefer coffee, but the famous Boston Tea Party was a bit more complicated than colonists dressed in red indian garb dumping crates of the stuff overboard.and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the contemporary American “Tea Party” Republicans and their MAGA heirs. But, the first tea bag was invented – by an American, a century or so ago, and this is now the most convenient and hence most popular way to “take tea” (a peculiarly English way to describe having a cuppa). Indeed, whenever we go on holiday, we take with us a swag of tea bags “just in case ..”

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

For more yarns in In That Howling Infinite, see: Tall Tales, small stories, eulogies and epiphanies

Tea sellers, Ramallah, Palestine, in traditional Ottoman garb

George’s Nice Cup of Tea

Published on the 12th of January, 1946 by the Evening Standard. George Orwell lets us all know how to enjoy hot flavored water best.

If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.

This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:

  • First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.
  • Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.
  • Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.
  • Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.
  • Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.
  • Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.
  • Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.
  • Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one’s tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.
  • Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.
  • Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.
  • Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.Some people would answer that they don’t like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tealeaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one’s ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.

George’s nice cup of tea

And in conclusion, here is that song in full:

And that song … 

Some folks put much reliance
On politics and science
There’s only one hero for me
His praise we should be roaring
The man who thought of pouring
The first boiling water onto tea
I like a nice cup of tea in the morning
For to start the day you see
And at half past eleven
Well my idea of heaven
Is a nice cup of tea
I like a nice cup of tea with me dinner
And a nice cup of tea with me tea
And when it’s time for bed
There’s a lot to be said
For a nice cup of tea

You can talk about your science
And your airships in the sky
I can do without the wireless
And you’ll never see me fly
The public benefactor of the universe for me
Is the genius that thought of pouring water onto tea

I like a nice cup of tea in the morning
For to start the day you see
And when I get the breakfast in
Well my idea of sin
Is a fourth, or a fifth, cup of tea
I like a nice cup of tea with me dinner
And a nice cup of tea with me tea
And when it’s time for bed
There’s a lot to be said
For a nice cup of tea

They say it’s not nutritious
But still it is delicious
And that’s all that matters to me
It turns your meat to leather
But let’s all die together
The one drink in paradise is tea

I like a nice cup of tea
In the morning
For to start the day you see
And at half past eleven
Well my idea of heaven
Is a nice cup of tea
I like a nice cup of tea with me dinner
And a nice cup of tea with me tea
And when it’s time for bed
As I think I may have said
I’d like a nice cup of tea
You can talk about your liberties
They talk of women’s rights
I don’t want to make no speeches
Because the one that does is trite
And anyone can have my vote and chuck it in the sea
But golly there’ll be trouble if they try to touch me tea

I like a nice cup of tea with me dinner
And a nice cup of tea with me tea
And when it’s getting late
Almost anything can wait
For a nice cup of tea

The work, the working, the working life

Ironically, one of my favourite songs about working, Bruce Springsteen’s Factory, was written by a bloke who by his own admission has never done a day’s manual labour for wages in his life. But as for myself, I sometimes feel that I have worked all my life. When I’m busily shoveling soil into a wheelbarrow and tipping it into our garden beds, I imagine that I was born with a shovel in my hands. After all, that’s what my Irish father was doing on the building sites of Birmingham while I was being conceived, gestated, born, and brought up in the first decade of my life.

The Cubs and Boy Scouts’ Bob A Job Week taught me the basics of “working for others” and getting paid for it. Weeding and cleaning and shopping, mostly. I hated it, not least because it took up most of our Easter school holidays, but it was an early lesson in duty and toiling for a cause.

As a schoolie in sixties I just had to have hit parade LPs and singles and Airfix kits and the pocket money provided by my folks did not go that far. So while other kids did paper rounds and helped out in local shops, I worked Friday nights and Saturday morning stacking shelves and cutting boxes in a Sainsbury supermarket on Stratford Road. Later, when my existential needs extended to clothes, books, and beer, a school chum got me a gig on Saturdays and school holidays in the food hall of the now defunct Rackhams department store – it was snobbishly upmarket for Brum, being a division of the famous Harrods of London, and us weekend lads had to wear naff little white waiter’s jackets which did not flatter my then portly (by sixties standards, but relatively svelte today) physique.

Rackhams in the Sixties

On the recommendation of my uncle, I worked for Sheldon Industrial Cleaning on Sundays at various Midlands motor plants, cleaning toilets and floors before the beginning of the weekday shifts. Willing hands would stand outside the Sheldon office in Digbeth hoping to be selected by the foremen and bussed to our workplace, be that in Brum, Coventry or Rugby. Come the long summer school break, when the motor industry workers took their holidays, I and other students would be hired to help with the annual stock-take at the huge Austin plant at Longbridge. One time, I was assigned to help demolish a computer room that was being renovated and upgraded. The old computer was the size and shape of a larger container, and the new one wasn’t much smaller. The iPad I am writing this piece on has probably more processing power.

The Austin, Longbridge, Birmingham

By 1967, I was a fit and adventurous eighteen year old, but still in need of cash. Summertime in the outdoors was an attractive prospect, and labourers’ pay on building sites was excellent for the times – up to fifty quid a week depending on the work, and which, I soon found out, included “danger money”.

So, for four summers in a row, I spent three months a year working on the new housing estates that were going up all over the fringes of suburban Brum, and most conveniently, near where we lived, on the new estate on what was the old Bromford Race course near Castle Bromwich – high rise flats for Briant on the Bromford, system-built houses on the Chelmsley Wood estate (built on a redundant wartime airfield – there is still a Spitfire Way leading into the estate), and finally on the M1-M6 motorway link at Castle Bromwich with Marples Ridgeway. Inspired by the Clancy Brothers’ folk song, I wanted to join McAlpine’s Fusiliers, but that mob were working down the emerging motorway in what was to become Spaghetti Junction whilst M-R was operating right in from of my parents’ house, building the elevated motorway right on top of the River Tame. I built muscles, risked life and limb, and acquired a great sun-tan.

Bromford Bridge Racecourse

 

System-built housing on Birmingham’s fringes. I lived in one of these.

 

Chelmsley Wood council estate as God would have seen it

 

Another God’s eye view of Chelmsley Wood council estate

Work “on the buildings” was hard, and the hours were long, and I got to meet some great blokes and some right arseholes – my workmates came from all over the United Kingdom – particularly the Emerald Isle, the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean -the language was colourful and and conversation was often what we’d now describe as as racist and misogynist. I unloaded bags of cement and thousands of house-bricks by hand, dug trenches, and sledge-hammered survey stakes and learnt many things that most students did not, like using kangos and jackhammers, driving tractors, pouring skips of concrete and fixing reinforcement steel.

But those were dangerous days on the construction sites. There was minimal health and safety regulation – helmets were optional and hi-vis had yet to be invented – I witnessed many accidents during my stints on the sites, many serious and some fatal, and I narrowly missed a few myself. Job security was tenuous – most of us “navies” were hired “on the lump”, and could be “put off” on the spot, and if it rained, we weren’t paid.

Building the M1-M6 link motorway through north Birmingham

My folks were none too happy about it. My dad had come over from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland in the late forties and had worked on building sites in Birmingham for years before finding work in the motor industry. He still bore the scars and the aches and pains. Having worked so hard to give me and my brothers an education and opportunities that they never had, it was a disappointment for them to see my brother and I head off every morning in work clothes and with lunch boxes, and returning  ten hours later tired, dirty and aching with blistered hands, tired limbs and sore feet. They couldn’t fully comprehend that we did it for quick money and not for a living.

But the money was good, and during my uni years, I was able to spend up big on books and clothes, booze and dope, with enough left over to finance my travels to the Mediterranean and then overland to India and back – it lasted until I finally reached Istanbul, when I had to call my folks for money to ge me back to England.

But that is another tale …

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

For more biography in In That Howling Infinite, see: Tall Tales, small stories, eulogies and epiphanies

Postscript

My days “on the buildings” inspired many of my songs, poems and prose, though few recordings and documents now exist. One  song that has been uploaded to SoundCloud  is The King of the May, and is published below. It tells how in the early ‘seventies, a man staged a ‘sit-in’ atop a tower crane. High over London Town, he was protesting against ‘the lump’, that exploitative form of casual labour then in use on British building sites as I noted abi ‘‘em there was no compo, no OH&S, no rights. They were tough times – men died. I was there.  The title comes from Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Kral Majalis’. Allen was actually crowned thus in Czechoslovakia – before the Prague Spring of 1968 too. And thank you to WH Auden for the loan of his lyrics. I republish also below two poems I wrote about work when I was on the nine-to-five hamster wheel in Sydney during the eighties. And below two are two prose pieces I wrote about working on the Chelmsley Wood housing estate in 1969. They reflect on the kind of work I was doing, the people I worked with, and the stare I’d mind I was in at the time – which was decidedly under the influence of my politics and also my acid. 

My short career as a labourer effectively ended on the motorway. In the years that followed I entered into clerical and then professional employment in the public and private sectors, although between jobs and also, to make some extra money, I cleaned, gardened, and even worked as a hired hand at Persian carpet auctions holding up beautiful artifacts that I could never afford for punters to lay their money down … And I sang and played my songs across Australia and Britain, including many about my work, my work, my working life …

Early in the morning factory whistle blows
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light
It’s the working, the working, just the working life
Bruce Springsteen

Poems and Prose ; Chelmsley Wood  – London John and Engineers https://howlinginfinite.files.wordpress.com/2022/11/chelmsley-wood.pdf ;

 On the hamster wheel – two poems

 

 

 

Better Read Than Dead – the joy of public libraries

In 1839, in the midst of a half-century of post-Napoleonic political ferment and  incipient revolution, English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword”, implying that the written word is more effective than violence as a tool for communicating a point. It’s no wonder that the straighteners, the autocrats and the fundamentalists want to ban and even burn books. In his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953 at the height of America’s McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunts, Ray Bradbury wrote: “The problem in our country isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them”.

But, encouragingly, reports of the demise of the written word in the form of the humble published book are exaggerated and premature.

Which brings us to keepers of the flame – the torch of knowledge and not the bearers of the fore-brands,  the people who look after our public libraries. Oscar-winning documentary-maker Michael Moore once said admiringly that librarians were a more dangerous group than he had realized: “You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re, like, plotting the revolution, man.”

To the American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, libraries were temples of learning and self-improvement. “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people,” said Carnegie, who put his money where his mouth was. By 1929, he had paid for the construction of more than 2500 libraries, most of them in the USA.

Back in the day … 

I reckon I was visiting libraries even before I could read, but that could well be my mind playing tricks on my memory. But once I commenced grammar school, the local library, but a short walk away, was a world of wonders. Yardley Wood Library, in south Birmingham on the quiet northerly extension of busy Highfield Road, between a small housing estate of postwar prefabs on the east and a large expanse of recreation field at its rear, was the fount of my early education and my general knowledge of the outside world. As a teen, I’d stay weekends at my Aunt Mary’s house in the inner city on the border of Moseley and Balsall Heath, and the Victorian grandeur and shadowy interior of Balsall Heath Library became yet another “garden of earthly delights”. This library is the featured picture of this post. The tall chimney on the left belongs to the immediately adjacent Balsall Heath swimming baths, where my uncles and aunts who shared our home would take their weekly baths (even if they didn’t need them, as the old saw goes), where I’d go in my weekend sleep-overs,and where when struggling with my Boy Scout swimming test, I’d push myself through the pool. Although I now live in a land blessed with beautiful beaches, I still hate being in water any deeper than my bath!

Yardley Wood Library, Birmingham

I’d browse the stacks, thumbing through art books and atlases, encyclopedias and illustrations, and I’d always have three or four books on loan, with a particular interest in history, biographies and historical fiction. My reading was eclectic ab initio, from the early adolescent “he went with … “ great explorer adventures by Louse Andrews Kent and the many books of H Rider Haggard, both quite politically incorrect and vulnerable to ‘cancellation’ in today’s prescriptive cultural climate, to the relatively anodyne French ‘soft-porn’ of Anne Golon’s Angélique series to Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don and its sequel The Don Flows Home to the Sea, which introduced me to Russian history and politics and a youthful dalliance with The Communist Manifesto and the Communist Party.

Eventually, as I studied for A Levels in the late ‘sixties, I entered Birmingham’s cavernous Central Library in the heart of the Second City. Opening in 1865 and rebuilt in 1882: it was a magnificent edifice within and without. I recall it when I rewatch the Game of Thrones episode in which would-meister Sam Tarly enters the Citadel in Old Town for the first time. This Victorian relic was replaced by a brand new, brutalist building in 1974 (which I never saw), and this too was closed in 2013 and replaced by the present Birmingham Library  – which I visited when I was in Birmingham two years later.

Birmingham Central Library

The interior of Birmingham Central Library

The William Shakespeare Room reconstructed atop the new BirminghamLibrary, 2015

My alma materMoseley Grammar School boasted a small but diverse library that beckoned during lunch breaks, with its high, wooden-beamed ceiling, it’s wrought iron balcony and the spiral staircase that led up to the landmark school tower in subsequent years, the library was closed for safety reasons, but a recently completed renovation project has brought it back into use as the photo of former pupils gathered therein on the occasion of Heritage Day 2022 shows.

I’ve written fleetingly of this library before: “ It was one of those beautiful late-spring evenings that you would get in the England of youthful memory. The evening sun poured through the gothic stained glass windows of the school library – it was one of those schools. A group of lower sixth lads, budding intellectuals all, as lower sixth tended to be, gathered for a ‘desert island disks” show-and tell of their favourite records. Mine was Wishin’ and Hopin’  (by (Dusty Springfield). Then it was on to the next. Clunk, hiss, electric guitar intro, and: “My love she speaks like silence, without ideas or violence, she doesn’t have to say she’s faithful, but she’s true like ice, like fire…” I was gone, far gone. So was Dusty”. From Whats Bob Got To Do With It?

It is one of those instances of serendipity we encounter on our journey through life that the first serious love of my life was studying to be … drum roll! …a librarian, and in time became the chief librarian of a major English university, whilst  one of my oldest London friends rose to a that position in the university I attended in the ‘seventies. How about that?

Moseley Grammar School, Birmingham

Moseley Grammar School library, 2022

Here in the now …

In Australia, if attendance figures are any indication, the public library is our most valued cultural institution. In the year to July 2018, about 7.6 million people visited Australian libraries – more than went to museums (6.7 million), art galleries (6.3 million), plays (3.9 million) or musicals and opera (3.5 million). But it was the return rate that really set libraries apart. Whereas at least half of those who visited museums or the theatre went only once in the year, three-quarters of library visitors went back at least three times, and one-third visited more than 10 times. Australians make about 114 million visits to public libraries annually.

Here where I now live in Australia, on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, Coffs Harbour library is the mother ship with satellites at the outlying townships of Woolgoolga and Toormina – latter is named for Taormina in Sicily, the site of one of the most famous theatres of Greek antiquity. Our own shire has libraries in Bellingen, Dorrigo and Urunga.

I get to the library every time I’m in Coffs Harbour, just to browse the stacks (there is something there for everyone) and check out the history books – as ever – and the large collection of cds. I almost always come away with something I had not intended to read or listen too. It’s a calm and peaceful space, with friendly and helpful staff, and yet always quite busy – particularly at its free computer and wi-fi benches.

As a volunteer with Settlement Services International, before Covid 19 closed our office and cut the flow of refugees to Australia, I often took newly-arrived refugee families there as part of their orientation. I’d help them enroll and give them a brief tour of the facilities, and particularly the computers and the children’s section (which hosts regular and free storytelling and craft sessions for preschools kiddies), and encourage them to return – it’s such an excellent introduction to our language, society and culture.

Coffs Harbour Library

As the following essay shows, libraries are much much more than their books and their educational and technical resources and facilities. They are not just a reference service but also a place for the vulnerable and the lonely, a “shelter from the storm” for people of all ages and circumstances. In a world where social and community services are being ground down, and loneliness and isolation are endemic, libraries provide vital lifelines for all manner of folk. from elderly people who value the human interaction with library staff and with other visitors, to the isolated young mother who enjoys the support and friendship that grows from a baby rhyme time session, to people who want to play the ukulele (visitors can actually borrow ukuleles as one would borrow books), to people like me just seeking time out time in a peaceful and welcoming space.

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

Postscript

I wrote recently about Moseley Grammar School in an article on JRR Tolkien:

“Learning more about the author, I was to discover that he’d grown up in Birmingham, my home town, first in leafy Edgbaston (the home of Cadbury and the Warwickshire County Cricket Club), where he’d attended the prestigious King Edward’s Grammar School – my own school, Moseley Grammar, was not in its league. He lived near Sarehole Mill, in present day Hall Green, around the turn of century, between the ages four and eight, and would have seen it from his house. The locale at that time was rural Worcestershire farmland and countryside and not in the Birmingham ‘burbs. He has said that he used the mill as a location in The Lord of the Rings for the Mill at Hobbiton: “It was a kind of lost paradise … There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill … “  Sarehole Mill was just down the road from my school, and our sports field and cross country tracks were adjacent to it. On many a wintry, cold, wet and windy Wednesday afternoon, I’d stagger past it on a muddy track. How I hated wet Wednesdays; dry ones were for rugby, and I hated them too!”  From: One ring to rule us all – does Tolkein matter?

For more stories like this one in In That Howling Infinite, see Tall tales, small stories, eulogies and epiphanies, and on books and reading generally, see Better read than dead – books, poetry and reading.

One for the books: the unlikely renaissance of libraries in the digital age

One ring to rule us all – does Tolkien matter?

The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone,
When Durin woke and walked alone.

The Song of Durin, JRR Tolkien

In Innovation, the final installment of Peter Ackroyd’s entertaining and informative History of England, he writes:

“The post-war years had brought fables of splrltual or material collapse, from That Hideous Strength to Brave New World to Ninteen Eighty-Four. During the Fifties, the novel seemed to be settling back to its journalistic roots – quotidian in subject, unpretentious in style – but the zeitgeist is a wayward wind. Among writers of fiction, another response was offered to the bewilderments of the post-war world, which was to fly above it. In 1955, Return of the King, the last installment of R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, was published. It was the resurrection of heroic romance, tempered by its author’s memories of war. It tells of a small, unregarded race of Middle-earth, the ‘hobbits’,who ‘arise to shake the counsels of great’. The freedom of the world hinges upon the destruction of something tiny, beautiful and evil, evil, a ring forged by a fallen angel. While elves, men and dwarves fight, two hobbits are tasked with the destruction of the great destroyer. A whole world, formed of its author’s experiments in language came into being to the extent that if anyone were to point out that Middle-earth’ is only a translation of the Norse ‘Mittlegard’, the hearer would respond with a shrug. It was there, whatever its origins. For the English journalist Bernard Levin, it offered a beautiful and salutary reminder that the ‘meek will inherit the earth’; for the American critic Edward Wilson, it was “juvenile trash”, a story of good boys being rewarded. In spite of the naysayers, the popularity and influence of The Lord of the Rings grew to unprecedented heights. Tolkien himself, a scholar and devout Catholic, was later to find his work taken up as a banner by most unlikely allies, a group that came to be known as ‘hippies’”.

Whenever a survey or poll crowns JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as the public’s favourite novel – and there have been many during the past seventy years – and lauds the author as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, the reaction has always been the same from critics who have been sneering at his books since their publication. The Lord of the Rings has been dismissed as trivial, juvenile even, and not worth arguing about. It has been called archaic, backward looking, nostalgist and sentimentalist, and has been gaslit for misogyny and homo-eroticism, violence and and even racism (with its ethnocentric and androgynous elves and it’s Graeco-Roman Gondorians besieged by darker races from the south and east). Yet, most critics have probably never read it.

On the side of the angels (or is it the elves?) are the millions who came of age with and fell in love with the books, and adopted a Tolkienesque taxonomy for viewing the world as a perpetual  dialectic between the forces of light and of darkness. Some have even studied the lineages and languages. The actress Liv Tyler, who plays a luminous Arden Evenstar in Peter Jackson’s award winning film trilogy is said to have learned elven, and I sometimes see people on the street with elven rune tattoos. Liv probably has one too. I once spied a young lady walking down King Street in Newtown, the boulevard of Sydney’s myriad young tribes, sporting eleven runs on the backs of her suntanned calves. I was cheekily tempted to tell her that they were upside down, but let the moment go. I recall that as we queued at the cinema to see The Fellowship of the Ring, young folk rhapsodized among themselves on the delights about to unfold before their very eyes.

The Hobbiton film-set on New Zealand’s North Island is one of that country’s premier tourist destinations – indeed, during the three years of the films’ successive release, a big sign at Auckland International Airport declared “Welcome to Orc Land!” The trilogy’s diverse film locations revealed to the world the exquisitely beautiful landscapes of Aotearoa.

The films’ casting prompted criticism in some quarters insofar as the elves, men and dwarves were played by predominantly white Anglo Celtic actors whilst New Zealand’s indigenous Māori portrayed the evil orcs and Uruk Hai. Nevertheless, hundreds of kiwis, Pakeha and Māori alike, were employed as extras, the scenery dazzled the world and the economy of Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud,  enjoyed a Middle Earth boom.

The recent streaming of the extravagantly expense prequel series The Rings of Power has stirred controversies of an altogether different variety insofar as many Tolkien die-hards and purists protested the acting of actors of colour as hobbits, dwarves and, heavens for it, elves! A most peculiar paradox, you might think, given those aforementioned condemnations of JRR’s ostensible racism. It just goes to show that you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Arwen Evenstar

In an opinion piece in the Unheard e-zine, republished below, British historian and author Dominic Sandbrook asks whether Tolkien’s works are indeed trivial. “Surely not”, he retorts. “Even if you can’t stand them, only a fool would deny that The Lord of the Rings occupies an extraordinary place in the modern imagination … he wasn’t just a man of his time; he remains a guide for our own … And his themes might have deliberately been chosen to appeal to modern readers, anxious about the consequences of science, the environmental costs of industry, the dangers of war and the fate of the individual in the face of the vast forces reshaping Western societies in the early 21st century. To put it simply, then, Tolkien matters. How many writers can you say that about, these days?”

Tolkien and me

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
Walking Song, JRR Tolkien

My own life has intersected with JRR Tolkien on many serendipitous levels.

I first encountered The Lord of the Rings in my late teens when curiosity, imagination, and various substances bought me admission to his fantasy world, along with that of his fellow Inkling CS Lewis, creator of The Chronicles of NarniaI read all three books in the trilogy over a weekend in the autumn of 1968, and when I’d finished, I felt bereft and out of sorts. I reread it soon after, and again, and again – but didn’t we all in the days when Tolkien was king, and elves and ents walked among us. I set many of the songs to music – now long forgotten – and an apposite quotation was always on hand. I recall reciting the opening lines of The Song of Durin, which prefaces this piece, as I was walking home from a concert under a full moon on the eve of the landing of Apollo 11 upon the moon in July 1969. And many times as I headed eastwards on what we now call the hippie trail, I would recall Bilbo Baggin’s Walking Song.

In subsequent years as I evolved from naïf to cynical, and thence to other passions, the rereads slowed and then stopped, although I read and enjoyed The Silmarillion, and still treasure the opening chapter describing in a manner reminiscent of the St. James Bible of how the world was created by music. I began to pick holes in The Lord of the Rings’ story linewith its derivative ‘hero’s quest’, a monomyth popularised by Joseph Campbell in his celebrated book The Hero with a Thousand Faces; what I now viewed as stereotypical characters; the outdated and anachronistic perspectives of earlier generations; and what I perceived as old-school English prejudices. But, as Sandbrook points out, Tolkien was of his times, and those times were not kind to diversity and dissent.

And yet, The Lord of the Rings is ever present in my cultural and literary consciousness, and is often referred to and quoted. Here us one of my favourites:

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” The Return of the King

I have never lost my love for the poetry and the songs that complement the narrative  – the archaic syntax, rhyme, rhythm and balladry that I’ve incorporated into my own writing. There was a wonderful lyricism and, indeed, musicality to them that I still love. It’s as if they are just waiting for a tune to accompany them. Compare Tolkien’s Song of Ëarendil with own No Bull – the style, that is, not the subject matter:

JRR:

In panoply of ancient kings,
in chainéd rings he armoured him;
his shining shield was scored with runes
to ward all wounds and harm from him;
his bow was made of dragon-horn,
his arrows shorn of ebony;
of silver was his habergeon,
his scabbard of chalcedony;
his sword of steel was valiant,
of adamant his helmet tall,
an eagle-plume upon his crest,
upon his breast an emerald.

Me:

With massive head,
And shoulders broad,
As lean and mean as Rambeau
(That’s Sly, and not that fey French bard
This bruiser was no bimbeau!).
His hide as dark as ebony,
As tough as old mahogany,
His horns shone like chalcedony,
This massif of solidity
Was built like a Pajero.

Years passed without a revisitation, but working for a publishing company that ‘owned’ the rights to his work, I collected the latest editions and often gave them away to young people who had yet to enter the magical world of Middle Earth. For all my later cynicism, I still regarded it as a book all young people ought to read. I read the whole thing once more prior to the release of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy. The films were excellent, although I found the hobbits increasingly irritating, wishing that they’d all jump into the fires of Mount Doom, and the ents were a disappointment, a mob of corny and badly conceived muppets (they were indeed conceived by Jim Henson, the ‘father’ of Kermit and Miss Piggy). I am looking forward to the upcoming, uber-expensive television series – but I don’t reckon I’ll reread in preparation this time around. As for Jackson’s three part Hobbit extravaganza, in my opinion, it was a travesty.

Learning more about the author, I was to discover that he’d grown up in Birmingham, my home town, first in leafy Edgbaston (the home of Cadbury and the Warwickshire County Cricket Club), where he’d attended the prestigious King Edward’s Grammar School – my own school, Moseley Grammar, was not in its league. He lived near Sarehole Mill, in present day Hall Green, around the turn of century, between the ages four and eight, and would have seen it from his house. The locale at that time was rural Worcestershire farmland and countryside and not in the Birmingham ‘burbs. He has said that he used the mill as a location in The Lord of the Rings for the Mill at Hobbiton: “It was a kind of lost paradise … There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill … “

Sarehole Mill was just down the road from my school, and our sports field and cross country tracks were adjacent to it. On many a wintry, cold, wet and windy Wednesday afternoon, I’d stagger past it on a muddy track. How I hated wet Wednesdays; dry ones were for rugby, and I hated them too!

Tolkien died aged 81 on September 2nd 1973 in Bournemouth, Dorset, a town that I’ve visited infrequently. But I was actually in Bournemouth on that day to meet an old friend. Perchance his spirit swept passed me. On 2nd September 2017, the Oxford Oratory, Tolkien’s Roman Catholic parish church during his time in Oxford, offered its first Mass to advocate for his beatification, the first station on the road to canonisation, as an evangelist for nature, beauty and love.  A prayer was written for his cause:

“O Blessed Trinity, we thank You for having graced the Church with John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and for allowing the poetry of Your Creation, the mystery of the Passion of Your Son, and the symphony of the Holy Spirit, to shine through him and his sub-creative imagination. Trusting fully in Your infinite mercy and in the maternal intercession of Mary, he has given us a living image of Jesus the Wisdom of God Incarnate, and has shown us that holiness is the necessary measure of ordinary Christian life and is the way of achieving eternal communion with You. Grant us, by his intercession, and according to Your will, the graces we implore [….], hoping that he will soon be numbered among Your saints. Amen.”

Just imagine, Saint John Ronald Reuel of Middle Earth!

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

Read also in In That Howling Infinite, Tolkien’s Tarkeeth – in the darkest depths of Mordor

Gandalf the White

This is Tolkien’s World

The Lord of the Rings is more than nostalgic medievalism

Dominic Sandbrook, Unheard December 10th 2021

It’s exactly 20 years since I stood in line to see a film I had dreamed about since I was a little boy. Ever since I had first turned the pages of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I had wondered what it would be like to see it on the big screen: the hobbits, the battles, the sweeping landscapes, the blood and thunder. When I read that the director Peter Jackson was filming a trilogy of Tolkien’s masterpiece in New Zealand, I felt almost sick with anxiety. Would it be terrible? Would they sound like the All Blacks? What were they going to do about Tom Bombadil?

I need not have worried, of course. From the moment the lights dimmed in the Odeon, Leicester Square on 10 December 2001, the Lord of the Rings films were a phenomenal success. And although poor Tom B. never made it onto the screen, Jackson’s trilogy carried all before it, grossing a staggering $3 billion and winning a record-equalling 11 Oscars for the final instalment alone.

Two decades on, the films stand up remarkably well. As for the wider Tolkien industry, the bestselling books just keep on coming: The Fall of Arthur in 2013, Beren and Luthien in 2017, The Fall of Gondolin in 2018. And next autumn sees the release of Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel series – at a cool $1 billion over five seasons, the most expensive television project in history. Not bad for a writer who’s been dead since 1973.

To some people, all this could hardly be more infuriating. For as we all know, Tolkien is still associated in the public mind with a sweaty, furtive gang of misfits and weirdos — by which I mean those critics who, for more than half a century, have been sneering at his books and their readers.

As far back as the mid-Fifties, the American modernist Edmund Wilson published a comically wrong-headed review dismissing Tolkien’s work as “juvenile trash”, marked by — of all things! — an “impotence of imagination”. Decades later, Philip Pullman, never happier than when sneering at his Oxford forebears, called Tolkien’s efforts “trivial”, and “not worth arguing with”. And whenever some new survey crowns The Lord of the Rings as the public’s favourite novel, the reaction is always the same.

“Another black day for British culture” was Howard Jacobson’s verdict after a Waterstones poll put Tolkien’s work well clear at the top. “Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964,” agreed Germaine Greer, “it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century. The bad dream has been realised.” Yet by her own admission, she had never even read him.

So are Tolkien’s works “trivial”, as Pullman claims? Surely not. Even if you can’t stand them, only a fool would deny that The Lord of the Rings occupies an extraordinary place in the modern imagination. Indeed, in his trenchant defence of Tolkien’s reputation, the literary scholar Tom Shippey suggests that much of the criticism is rooted in pure social and intellectual condescension, not unlike the rank snobbery that Virginia Woolf directed at Tolkien’s fellow Midlander Arnold Bennett. Shippey even argues that in the future, literary historians will rank The Lord of the Rings alongside post-war classics such as Nineteen Eighty-FourLord of the Flies and Slaughterhouse-Five. Who’s to say he’s wrong?

One reason highbrow people dislike The Lord of the Rings is that it is so backward-looking. But it could never have been otherwise. For good personal reasons, Tolkien was a fundamentally backward-looking person. He was born to English parents in the Orange Free State in 1892, but was taken back to the village of Sarehole, north Worcestershire, by his mother when he was three. His father was meant to join them later, but was killed by rheumatic fever before he boarded ship.

For a time, the fatherless Tolkien enjoyed a happy childhood, devouring children’s classics and exploring the local countryside. But in 1904 his mother died of diabetes, leaving the 12-year-old an orphan. Now he and his brother went to live with an aunt in Edgbaston, near what is now Birmingham’s Five Ways roundabout. In effect, he had moved from the city’s rural fringes to its industrial heart: when he looked out of the window, he saw not trees and hills, but “almost unbroken rooftops with the factory chimneys beyond”. No wonder that from the moment he put pen to paper, his fiction was dominated by a heartfelt nostalgia.

Nostalgia was in the air anyway in the 1890s and 1900s, part of a wider reaction against industrial, urban, capitalist modernity. As a boy, Tolkien was addicted to the imperial adventure stories of H. Rider Haggard, and it’s easy to see The Lord of the Rings as a belated Boy’s Own adventure. An even bigger influence, though, was that Victorian one-man industry, William Morris, inspiration for generations of wallpaper salesmen. Tolkien first read him at King Edward’s, the Birmingham boys’ school that had previously educated Morris’s friend Edward Burne-Jones. And what Tolkien and his friends adored in Morris was the same thing you see in Burne-Jones’s paintings: a fantasy of a lost medieval paradise, a world of chivalry and romance that threw the harsh realities of industrial Britain into stark relief.

It was through Morris that Tolkien first encountered the Icelandic sagas, which the Victorian textile-fancier had adapted into an epic poem in 1876. And while other boys grew out of their obsession with the legends of the North, Tolkien’s fascination only deepened. After going up to Oxford in 1911, he began writing his own version of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. When his college, Exeter, awarded him a prize, he spent the money on a pile of Morris books, such as the proto-fantasy novel The House of the Wolfings and his translation of the Icelandic Volsunga Saga. And for the rest of his life, Tolkien wrote in a style heavily influenced by Morris, deliberately imitating the vocabulary and rhythms of the medieval epic.

But there’s more to Tolkien than nostalgic medievalism. The Lord of the Rings is a war book, stamped with an experience of suffering that his modern-day critics can scarcely imagine. In his splendid book Tolkien and the Great War, John Garth opens with a rugby match between the Old Edwardians and the school’s first fifteen, played in December 1913. Tolkien captained the old boys’ team that day. Within five years, four of his teammates had been killed and four more badly wounded. The sense of loss haunted him for the rest of his life. “To be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years,” he wrote in the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”

Tolkien arrived on the Western Front in June 1916 as a signals officer in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, and experienced the agony of the Somme at first hand. In just three and a half months, his battalion lost 600 men. Yet it was now, amid the horror of the trenches, that he began work on his great cycle of Middle-earth stories. As he later told his son Christopher, his first stories were written “in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candlelight in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire”.

But he never saw his work as pure escapism. Quite the opposite. He had begun writing, he explained, “to express [my] feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way: to rationalise it, and prevent it just festering”. More than ever, he believed that myth and fantasy offered the only salvation from the corruption of industrial society. And far from shaking his faith, the slaughter on the Somme only strengthened his belief that to make sense of this broken, bleeding world, he must look back to the great legends of the North.

Yet The Lord of the Rings is not just a war book. There’s yet another layer, because it’s also very clearly an anti-modern, anti-industrial book, shaped by Tolkien’s memories of Edwardian Birmingham, with its forges, factories and chimneys. As a disciple of the Victorian medievalists, he was always bound to loathe modern industry, since opposition to the machine age came as part of the package. But his antipathy to all things mechanical was all the more intense because he identified them — understandably enough — with killing.

And although Tolkien objected when reviewers drew parallels between the events of The Lord of the Rings and the course of the Second World War, he often did the same himself. Again and again he told his son Christopher that by embracing industrialised warfare, the Allies had chosen the path of evil. “We are attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring,” he wrote in May 1944. “But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs.” Even as the end of the war approached, Tolkien’s mood remained bleak. This, he wrote sadly, had been, “the first War of the Machines … leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines”.

Dominic Sandbrookis an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982

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.

When an old cricketer leaves the crease,

When the day is done and the ball has spun in the umpire’s pocket away, and all remains in the groundsman’s pains for the rest of the time and a day. There’ll be one mad dog and his master, pushing for four with the spin, on a dusty pitch with two pounds six of willow wood in the sun.

It was a magical Sunday afternoon during an English Indian Summer in September 2008, an afternoon that evokes memories of long gone childhood and adolescence. I was England on my tod to surprise my mother on her 80th Birthday, and passing through London, I was staying with one of my oldest friends and his family in Muswell Hill. He asked me if I’d like to pop down with him to the local cricket club to down a few ales and watch a game.

Now, in all of my adult life, I have never been into spectator sports, and I haven’t watched a cricket match for over half a century. But I was enjoying the company and the craic, and thought “well, why not?” So there we were, sitting in the little members stand, drinking beer and calling out “well bowled!” and “well played, sir!” like a pair of old die-hards. In addition to his many other talents, Peter was an avid and talented amateur cricketer, and the game was his passion – he once considered a professional career and in retirement and was part of a peregrinating team of amateur players who would criss-cross the world giving kit and coaching to young people who lacked the skill and wherewithal to play. The visited some thirty countries in their cricketing odyssey.

Peter Setterington passed away in his sleep on Wednesday 23rd March. He was almost seventy five. We’d been firm friends for five decades. It’s 4am the following Sunday and I’m sitting here writing this eulogy in a hotel room on the fifty fifth floor overlooking Sydney’s Darling Harbour and listening to Roy Harper’s tribute to the game that is played in heaven. It’s cold and rainy outside and this echoes the emptiness I am feeling inside.

‘Twas in another lifetime

When the moment comes and the gathering stands, and the clock turns back to reflect on the years of grace as those footsteps trace for the last time out of the act. Well this way of life’s recollection, the hallowed strip in the haze, the fabled men and the noonday sun are much more than just yarns of their days.

1972. I was house sharing with former uni pals in London’s East Finchley. One of my friends worked for a market research company located on the top floor of an ornate Georgian building in Trafalgar Square. It’s still there – it’s the one with the little cupola on top. He talked about this very friendly, garrulous, and ambitious bloke who’d just joined the team. Not long afterwards a girl who also worked there threw a party in Romford, Essex and invited Chris and us flat mates. And so one Saturday evening in spring, we all headed over there.

The party is now a blur. I was introduced to Peter for the first time, but then proceeded to get blind drunk. I passed out on the bathroom floor and woke up in a flat near Hampstead Heath with the sun streaming through the windows. A kindly lass had volunteered to put me up for the night and Peter, who lived in close by in Swiss Cottage at the time, had driven us there. I think I was fully clothed. He rang me up a few days later to ask how I was, and we became fast friends.

His helping me out at that party when we were total strangers was an early display of the decency and generosity of spirit that he showed to me and to others on many subsequent occasions. When a mutual friend got himself into dire straits and seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth, Peter made every effort to track him down until the trail went cold in Thailand. He was like that.

Later that year, my friends hit the Hippie Trail, ending up in Australia. I moved to a bedsit in Finsbury Park and commenced my Middle East studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. A year later, I moved in with two gay friends who had a big house in Highgate. I cleaned the place and lived there for free in a top floor flat. They would introduce me to friends as “the only queer in the house”. Peter would often drop in of an evening in an old red Post Office van and we’d pop over to Jack Straw’s Castle by Hampstead Heath for a drink. He ran a mobile disco on the side at the time, and the van was the “band bus”.

During my London days, we’d visit each other and he’d have great parties. Peter really knew how to enjoy life and to help others to do so to. In March 1974, he threw one for me at his Swiss Cottage home to celebrate my 25th birthday, to which I invited all my London friends. I recall walking home to Highgate across the Heath in the early morning mist.

I’d stay weekends now and then with Peter’s folks in Oxford – Spring and summertime walks in bucolic gardens, punts on the River Cherwell and Pyms on the back porch. So quintessentially English. If I recall rightly, his father was a teacher at the university, well read and very erudite. His mother, whom Freddie has met whilst he was on military service, was a charming and beautiful Burmese lady who treated me like part of the the delightful and happy family.

In 1978, my wife and I moved to Australia. But when I returned to the old country, I’d stay with Peter and Jenny, first in Finsbury Park, and later in Muswell Hill near the Alexandra Palace. His home was our home, and as the years rolled by, Adèle, my second wife, and I watched Peter and Jenny’s sons grow from childhood to youth to family men.

Over time, Peter rose higher and higher in the marketing world, eventually becoming a senior executive for Saatchi and Saatchi – until he rationalized himself out of a job sometime in the nineties. I recall once lending him book called Driving The Pigs To Market, a take-down of the marketing industry. It may still be somewhere on his crowded bookshelf , and though I’ve stayed at his place many many times over the years, and I’ve searched, but could never find it.

On the surface, we seemed an odd couple, Peter and I – him with him marketing shtick and business acumen, and me with my Middle East Studies and morning music and poetry, and later, as a visiting Aussie. But in reality, he was much, much more than his marketing persona. He was a Renaissance man whose interests extended far beyond his day job – he was well read and loved music and an avid fisherman, a hedonist and wine buff, and above all, a consummate family man.

We had clicked immediately, and whenever we reunited, he’d collect Adèle and I up from the tube station, and we’d just pickup from where we’d last left off, chatting away through the night about life, the universe and everything, and downing gallons of French wine.

A big man with an unquenchable zest for life, he was a force of nature. With his cheeky grin, loud laugh and pukka accent, Peter was and is so much a part of my London life – and London will never be the same without him.

Yours was a life well lived, old chum, and yes, “very well played, Sir!”

Fare thee well …

When an old cricketer leaves the crease, you never know whether he’s gone. If sometimes you’re catching a fleeting glimpse of a twelfth man at silly Mid-on. And it could be Geoff and it could be John with a new ball sting in his tail. And it could be me and it could be thee and it could be the sting in the ale, the sting in the ale.

For more about London in In That Howling Infinite, see: Back in the Day my journey, in song and poetry; A Window on a Gone World – London days; Song of the Road – my hitchhiking daysSomething about London; Ciao Pollo di Soho – memories a classic café 

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

Ciao Pollo di Soho – the café at the end of the M1

Soho (needless to say)
I’m alone on your streets on a Friday evening
I’ve been here all of the day
I’m going nowhere with nowhere to go
Al Stewart, 1972

… it felt like we had one toe in the Mediterranean, even though it was January and our fingers were numb under our gloves …
Deborah Levy, The Man Who Saw Too Much

Sometimes, out of the blue, a message from the old country triggers happy memories and sends us wandering through “the foggy ruins of time”. An old friend from my London days emailed me the other day, recalling how back in the day, I’d frequent a cheap and cheerful Italian café in Soho – what was then “swinging” London’s seedy, sexy and infinitely interesting red-light, hip-boutique and cool restaurant mecca. She’d laid down one wintry English afternoon to relax with a novel, and to her surprise, two pages were dedicated to that very same café.

So, as often happens these days, I was son flicking through my back pages and  disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind.

Cut to 1967 and pictures of a gone world …

The café at the end of the M1

As I wrote in a recent trawl through my back pages (OK! Enough with the Bob Dylan already!):

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

Yes, Café Pollo was indeed a significant landmark of my London days.

I discovered Café Pollo in the Spring of 1966 when I’d first hitched to London with school friends to take part in a Campaign for Nuclear Disbarment march. From ‘66 through ‘71, I’d go there whenever I was in town, and regularly when I ended up living there – right up to my departure for Australia in 1978. When I was studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies, I’d go there for lunch after Friday classes with my best mate and soul brother Mike (we were born on the same day in the same year in a British city beginning with B).

So, for years and years I’d hung out at Pollo’s. Dined there, boozed there, courted there – almost always on spaghetti bolognese and Chianti with a sticky rum baba to follow. It was crowdy, noisy and smokey, and in winter, steamy and clammy – and “cheap as… “

Though I’d left Old England’s shores, I’d visit Pollo’s whenever I returned and catch up with old pals. When I became vegetarian, the bolognese was replaced with pesto pasta liguria or arrabbiata. When The Evening Standard and Time Out recommended it as an excellent “cheap eats”. I thought its glory days of low-key popularity were over. But it was always there, the same as it always was. The feature picture of this post was taken, I think, when Adèle and I were in England in 1987 – I still have that old Chinese denim jacket and use it for sitting around our bonfires in wintertime.

We continued to go there until 2005, when we were denied service as we just wanted a cup of coffee. The next time I popped by, in September 2008, it was gone. Indeed, it had closed soon after our disappointing coffee quest. Having served the impecunious for generations, it was, in the words of a classic London cafés blog, dismantled and dumped, to be born again as a classier, impersonal, cut-out trattoria – La Porchetta Pollo Bar.

But at least, the name and the memory live on …

Cheap, cheerful and unchanging …

Classic Cafés published an excellent obituary to this Soho icon. Here are some extracts:

“The Pollo, at 20 Old Compton Street, with its ox-blood booths, lapidus beanpole railings, contemporary ceiling, murals, top notch signage, and perfectly preserved light fittings always had hungry queues waiting outside. It remained the proverbial Soho institution for as long as anyone could remember. A proper bargain Italian with perfect ‘60s decor, friendly banter and a worryingly high turnover of chefs (there always seemed to be a ‘chef wanted’ sign in the window). “Cheap and cheerful” remains the operative term at the long-standing Italian café Pollo …

… The almost endless hand-written choice of pastas has now been typed up for easier interpretation, but otherwise the menu remains much the same as I remember it being 20 years back. The food is still hearty, the prices are laughable for central London, the coffee is rocket fuel – and the waitresses still insist on doubling you up in the booths with complete strangers …

… Plenty has changed in London. Fortunately, Pollo hasn’t … The Pollo often finds its way onto the ‘top cheap London eats’ lists, and it was the Evening Standard listing under budget eating that first nudged me in its direction a few years ago… It isn’t fancy. It is an Italian restaurant. The inside looks something like a truckers’ caff, with formica tables and little booths, and there is more room downstairs if it looks full. There isn’t a lot of space and the tables are packed in, but the food is good. The main courses consist of a variety (unsurprisingly) of pasta and pizza dishes, again the price range for these tends to be between £3 – £5. There are some risottos as well, and some meat dishes, such as chicken with rice or veal which are a bit more expensive”.

One toe in the Mediterranean …

As for the book my London friend was reading, which inspired her email and my jaunt down the rabbit hole (a pleasant one), The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy, here’s what the protagonist had to sat about about our café de coeur:

“In late January 1989, Jennifer and I were sitting in a cheap Italian restaurant called Pollo in Old Compton Street, Soho. It was always full of students from Saint Martin’s our school around the corner because it offered its loyal impoverished customers three courses for a fiver. Jennifer had introduced me to Pollo when we first met. Once we discover spaghetti vongole and penne arrabbiata, it felt like we had one toe in the Mediterranean, even though it was January and our fingers were numb under our  gloves … She devoured a plate of spaghetti bolgnese even though she was supposed to be a vegetarian. While she drank water,  I knocked back carafe of red wine and ordered another one …. it was warm inside Pollo. Everyone was smoking and shouting us the waiters thumped plates steaming pasta on the formica table. A young man with a blue mohican was stubbing his cigarette in the avocado that had arrive on a plate. it was stuffed with something pink’.

Al Stewart’s Soho (needless to say …)

Apropos the song quoted at the beginning of this memories, whenever I recall Soho in the sixties, I always think about British singer-songwriter and musician Al Stewart’s over-orchestrated debut album of 1967, Bedsitter Images.

Maybe it’s about what here in Australia that, borrowing from our indigenous compatriots, we might call “spirit of place” – the association with the streets within a hop, skip and an amble from Old Compton Street out into Shaftsbury Avenue and that bookshop in Charing Cross Road, the opening verse of the second track Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres, and that flat in Swiss Cottage, a suburb I used to frequent in the seventies. Maybe it’s the seedy, needy, greedy vibe of the priapic songs on Al’s follow up albums. An old friend and Al Stewart fanboy called them aural masturbation. Me and my flat mates were all fans of Al back then, and went to most of his gigs.

In the early seventies, when a girlfriend started going out with him, I actually got to know him for a brief while. Indeed, one time, when he played in Birmingham Town Hall, me and a couple of pals drove up to my old hometown to see him, and after the show, invited him back to my folks’ place for a late night fry up. My mom reckoned he need fattening up. And afterwards, she and Al sat in the kitchen for a couple of hours talking about pop music. “I love Cat Stevens”, mom said. “Oh, I much prefer the Incredible String Band”, said Al. “Oh, they’re very weird, but Paul like them!” She said. Then they got talking about Mick Jagger. And my dad, in the sitting room, said to us others gathered there, and referring to Al’s stature, said “there’s not much to him is there!”. Strange but nice how you recall these little things. The folks have both passed on …

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

For more about London in In That Howling Infinite, see: Back in the Day – my journey, in song and poetry; A Window on a Gone World – London days; Song of the Road – my hitchhiking days; Something about London

 

A House Divided – the nature of civil war

A house divided against itself cannot stand. Abraham Lincoln

The North would not let us govern ourselves, so the war came. Jefferson Davis

Perhaps is the personal dimension that makes civil wars so attractive to re-enactors in the U.K the US – the gloomy and yet paradoxically romantic concept of “a family divided” and “brother against brother”. When hundreds of ordinary folk meticulously don period garb and take up replica weaponry to replay Gettysberg and Shiloh, Worcester and Naseby, Towton and Bosworth Field, it is much, much more than a fun day out in the countryside. It might be good-natured play-acting, or participating in “living history”, but might it not also speak to some inner-need to connect with long-dead forbears who endured “the longest day” on those very fields in mortal combat with their own kith and kin.

This is just one of the many thoughts that entered my head on reading an article in the New York Review of Books in 2017 reviewing Civil Wars: A History in Ideas byDavid Armitage, and another in the Times in January 2022 reviewing a new book by american political scientist Barbara F Walter called How Civil Wars Start – And How To Stop Them. The review are reprinted in full below, but first, some of  of my own observations.

Notwithstanding the fact that civil wars are so devastating in terms of lives lost, the destruction wrought on the urban and rural environment, and the shattering of social and political institutions, fear of civil war and its consequences apparently does not deter belligerent parties from marching down that road. Often, one or another actually forces the issue, aware of the potentially disastrous consequences, but rationalizing it along the lines of national, ideological or sectional interest, and indeed, some concept of community, social, religious or ethnic survival, a perception defined nowadays as an existential threat, as happened historically, one could argue, in England, in the US, Russia, Spain, and Bosnia. Sometimes, it is an accumulation of seemingly minor events, perceived slights, discrimination, actual atrocities, miscalculations, or overreactions that ignite pyres that have been building for ages – generations even. I think of Lebanon here, and Syria.

So often, casus belli that are in hindsight viewed by historians as pivotal, are not seen as critical to the participants, and indeed, many would protest that they had “no idea that things would come to this”, and that even then, there may have been a sense that wiser heads would prevail, that it would blow over or that it would be all over soon. The idea of what people are fighting about often looks different from the perspective of those actually engaged in it to his outside observers, both contemporarily and retrospectively. Indeed, sometimes, reasons are tacked on afterwards, and indeed, actually mutate progressively as matters escalate.

Lebanon and Syria, again, and perhaps even the southern slave states that sought to secede from the Union in 1861, and the English parliamentarians who challenged the royal prerogative. But one can be damn sure Generalissimo Franco knew what he was doing when he flew the Spanish Foreign Legion with its Moorish mercenaries to the mainland in 1936, as did Leon Trotsky when he unleashed the Red Army against the Whites in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

A civil war can spawn from a wider, ongoing conflagration when factions or parties dispute the nature and terms of the post-bellum status quo and fracture along political and ideological lines. Many civil wars have arisen from the ashes of a prior war, when there are what are perceived as existential issues unresolved and the availability of weapons and materiel and experienced and discontented men to use them. The Russian Civil War which followed on from The First World War and the Chinese and Vietnamese civil wars which followed the second spring to mind, and historically, the Paris Commune which raised its red banner after the Franco-Prussian War whilst the victorious Prussian Army was still camped outside the city. Ireland’s civil war bled out of its independence struggle against British rule after  the Anglo-Irish Treaty left Ireland divided and dependent with the six Ulster counties excised as Northern Ireland.

The experience, cost, and legacy of civil war is often a powerful political and social disincentive to venture there again. It is this fear that probably prevents Lebanon from falling back into the abyss notwithstanding the many centrifugal forces at play in this perennially divided country. It most probably had a powerful influence on the political development of post-bellum England in the mid seventeenth century. The next and ultimate showdown between crown and parliament, and indeed “regime change” as we now call it, was a relatively peaceful one, and indeed, was thus named the “Glorious Revolution”. And yet, the deposition of James III and the ascension of Queen Mary and her husband,the Dutch Prince William of Orange, was preceded by what can be described as the last invasion of England by a foreign force. The spectre of the Commune haunts still the French soul. The beautiful church of Sacre Coeur was built as a penance for and as a solemn reminder of the bloodletting In the streets of Paris in much the same way as Byzantine emperor Justinian raised the glorious Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as a form of contrition after his soldiers had slaughtered tens of thousands of his rebellious citizens and buried their bodies under the Hippodrome.

There is a view that civil war can be retrospectively be seen as a crucible of nation, a fiery furnace through which the righteous must walk – an ex post facto rationalization  of the Nietzschean paradox of “that which does not kill us makes us strong”. Abraham Lincoln verbalized this in his Gettysberg Address in 1863 on a battlefield where the fallen had been only recently interred. Franco made a similar play as he laid claim to the wreckage that was Spain in the wake of three years of carnage, but then petrified his riven, country in autocratic stone until his death many decades later. The Russian Civil War was not accorded such a nation-building ethos as it was viewed by the Bolshevik victors as the crushing of a counter-revolution against a new world already being born.

 And finally, to conclude this conversation, let us briefly contemplate the article’s discussion of how and when protagonists actually define their internecine conflict as civil war. The American Civil War is a case in point, referred to at times as “The Rebellion” and “The War Between the States”. The American War of Independence, also know as The American Revolution was indeed a civil war as defined by the author, fought along political lines by people who had race, faith, culture and identity in common. The English Wars of the Roses, which staggered on for thirty years in in the  fifteenth century is largely viewed as a dynastic struggle between noble houses rather than civil wars per se. And yet, nearly thirty thousand Englishmen died on the snow-swept fields of Towton, near York, the largest loss of English lives on a single day (a third more than perished on the first day of the Somme in June 1916).

 The Syrian tragedy, as the author notes, is regarded by the concerned, and hypocritically entangled outside world, a civil war by any definition. But it is at present a harrowing work in progress, viewed by the Assad regime and its supporters as a rebellion and as an assault by extremist outsiders, and by the rebel forces, as a revolution, albeit a comprised and even hijacked one. Jihadis for their many sins, see it as a messianic prelude to Armageddon.

Once thing for sure, civil war, the Hobbesian “war if all against all” (Hobbes was thinking England’s) is undoubtably the saddest, bloodiest and most visceral of all conflicts. I leave the last words to WB Yeats:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
   Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
   The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
   The best lack all conviction, while the worst
   Are full of passionate intensity.

© Paul Hemphill 2017, 2022.  All rights reserved


This is a revised version of the original post of June 1st 2017

See also: Rebel Yell. Pity the Nation, Sic Semper Tyrannis, and A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West

Now, read on…


What Gets Called ‘Civil War’?

Linda Colley, New York Review of Books, June 8, 2017
Civil Wars: A History in Ideas,  by David Armitage (Knopf) 

The end of the world is on view at Philadelphia. Hurtling across a twenty-five-foot-wide canvas in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Together, Death, Pestilence, Famine, and War ravage the earth amid blood-red banners and what looks like cannon smoke. Warriors fall before their swords and spears, and women, children, and babies are slaughtered.

Benjamin West completed this version of Death on the Pale Horse in 1817, two years after the Battle of Waterloo. It is tempting therefore to see in the painting not only the influence of the book of Revelation, and perhaps the elderly West’s intimations of his own imminent mortality, but also a retrospective verdict on the terrible catalogue of death and destruction that had been the Napoleonic Wars. Yet West’s original inspiration seems to have been another conflict. He first sketched out his ideas for Death on the Pale Horse in 1783, the concluding year of the American War of Independence. Bitterly divisive on both sides of the Atlantic, the war imposed strains on West himself. Pennsylvanian born and bred, he was a supporter of American resistance.

But in 1763 he migrated to Britain, and he spent the war working as a historical painter at the court of George III. So every day he served the monarch against whom some of his countrymen were fighting, knowing all the while that this same king was launching his own legions against Americans who had once been accounted British subjects. It was this tension that helped to inform West’s apocalyptic vision. More viscerally than most, he understood that the American Revolution was also in multiple respects civil warfare.

Tracing some of the histories of the idea of civil war, and showing how definitions and understandings of this mode of conflict have always been volatile and contested, is the purpose of this latest book by David Armitage. Like all his work, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas is concise, wonderfully lucid, highly intelligent, and based on a confident command of a wide range of printed sources. It is also ambitious, and divided into three parts in the manner of Julius Caesar’s Gaul. This seems appropriate since Armitage roots his account in ancient Rome. It was here, he claims, between the first century BCE and the fifth century CE, that lethal conflicts within a recognized society, a common enough experience in earlier eras and in other regions, began to be viewed and categorized as a distinctive form of war: bellum civile.

How this came to pass is the subject of Part One of the book. In Part Two, Armitage switches to the early modern era, which is here defined mainly as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and shows how elite male familiarity with classical texts encouraged Europeans and some of their overseas colonizers to interpret the civil commotions of their own times very much in Roman terms. Part Three takes the story from the nineteenth century to the dangerous and precarious present. Whereas the incidence of overt conflicts between major states has receded during the post-1945 “long peace,” civil wars have proliferated, especially in parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The “shadow of civil war,” Armitage contends, has now become “the most widespread, the most destructive, and the most characteristic form of organized human violence.”

But why ancient Rome to begin with? Armitage attributes its centrality to evolving Western conceptions of civil warfare partly to this culture’s marked success in establishing and stabilizing the idea of a distinct citizenry and political community. “Civil War could, by definition, exist only after a commonwealth (civitas) had been created.” More significant, as far as perceptions in later centuries were concerned, were the writings and careers of two brilliant Romans, each of whom in different ways was caught up in the rivalry between Julius Caesar and Pompey and destroyed by the violence of their warring successors.

Cicero, an opponent of Caesar, is the earliest-known writer to have used the term “civil war.” He also employed it in a speech that he delivered at the Forum in 66 BCE, close to the spot where his severed head and hands would be put on display twenty-three years later, as punishment for his activism and his words. In the following century, the youthful poet Lucan completed a ten-book masterwork, De Bello Civile, on how, under Caesar, “Rome’s high race plunged in her [own] vitals her victorious sword.” Lucan dedicated his saga to Nero, the emperor who later forced him to commit suicide.

Their writings and the gory fate of these men helped to foster and perpetuate the idea that civil warfare was a particularly nasty variant of organized human violence. It is in part this reputation, Armitage contends, that has made the subject of civil war a more impoverished field of inquiry than inter-state conflict. Given that the English, American, and Spanish civil wars have all long been historiographical cottage industries, I am not sure this is wholly correct. But it is the case, and he documents this powerfully throughout, that the ideas and negative language that have accumulated around the notion of “civil war” have resulted in the term’s use often being politically driven in some way. As with treason, what gets called civil war, and becomes remembered as such, frequently depends on which side eventually prospers.

 At times, the term has been deliberately withheld for fear of seeming to concede to a set of antagonists even a glimmer of a claim to sovereignty in a disputed political space. Thus the royalist Earl of Clarendon chose in his history to describe the English Parliament’s campaigns against Charles I after 1642 not as a civil war, but as a rebellion. In much the same way, an early US official history of the Union and Confederate navies described their encounters between 1861 and 1865 as a “War of the Rebellion,” thereby representing the actions of the Southern states as a mere uprising against an indisputably legitimate government.

For Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863, by contrast, it was essential to insist that America was undergoing a civil war. He wanted to trumpet in public more than simply the rightness of a particular governing regime. Since its survival was still in doubt, he needed as well to rally support for the Union itself, that “new nation, conceived in liberty” as he styled it: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Of course, had the American Civil War ended differently, it might well not have been called a civil war at all. Later generations might have remembered it as a “War of Southern Independence,” or even as a “Southern Revolution.” As Armitage points out, when major insurrections break out within a polity, they almost invariably start out as civil wars in the sense that the local population is initially divided in its loyalties and responses. But if the insurrectionists eventually triumph, then—as in Russia after 1917, or China after 1949—it has increasingly been the case that the struggle is redescribed by the victors as a revolution. Partly because of the continuing influence of the ancient Roman cultural inheritance, “revolution” possesses far more positive connotations than the more grubby and ambivalent “civil war.”

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Rebel–held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo,  recaptured by government forces, March 2017

As a searching, nuanced, and succinct analysis of these recurring ideas, linguistic fluctuations, and shifting responses over a dramatic span of time, and across national and continental boundaries, Armitage’s account is a valuable and suggestive one. But as he admits, it is hardly comprehensive. This is not simply because of the scale of his subject matter, but also because of his chosen methodologies.

In dealing with civil wars he practices what, in an earlier work, he styled “serial contextualism.” This means that he offers detailed snapshots of a succession of discrete moments and of particular intellectual, political, and legal figures spread out over a very long stretch of time. The strategy is sometimes illuminating, but one has to mind the gaps. Most obviously, there are difficulties involved in leaping, as he does, almost immediately from ancient Rome to the seventeenth century. By the latter period, for instance, England’s “Wars of the Roses” were sometimes viewed and described in retrospect as civil wars. But at the time, in the 1400s, commentators do not seem to have resorted to medieval Latin phrases such as bella civilia or guerre civiles to describe these particular domestic and dynastic conflicts. Although classical texts such as Lucan’s De Bello Civile were known to medieval scholars, the impress of this ancient Roman inheritance on contemporary interpretations of fifteenth-century England’s internal wars does not appear to have been a vital one.

Why might this have been? The question could be rephrased. Why should it be imagined that language and concepts drawn from the ancient Roman past supplied the only or even the dominant ideas and methods for subsequent Westerners wanting to make sense of the experience of large-scale civil contention and slaughter? After all, in the medieval era and long after, most men and even more women possessed no direct knowledge of the Roman classics. Multitudes in Europe and everywhere else could not even read, never mind afford books. Yet in the past as now, it was precisely these sorts of “ordinary” people who were often the most vulnerable to the chaos and bloodshed of civil warfare, and so had little choice but to work out some ideas about it. What were these ideas?

A practitioner of intellectual history from the so-called Cambridge School of that discipline, Armitage barely touches on such questions. More international in range than many of his fellow scholars, he shares some of this school’s leading characteristics: its fascination with the long-term impact of Aristotelian and Roman republicanism, its overwhelming focus on language and on erudite elite males, and its comparative neglect of religious texts. It is partly this deliberately selective approach to the past and its sources that allows Armitage to venture on such an enormous topic over such a longue durée. But again, there is a mismatch between this methodology and the full extent and vital diversity of his subject.

To be sure, many of the impressive individuals who feature in his book were much more than desk-bound intellectuals or sheltered and austere political players. One of the most striking segments in Civil Wars is Armitage’s treatment of the multiple roles of the Prussian-born American lawyer Francis Lieber, who provided Lincoln with a legal code for the conduct of the Civil War. Lieber had fought at Waterloo and was left for dead on the battlefield. During the 1860s, he also had to bear the death of one of his sons who fought for the South, even as two others were fighting for the North. As he remarked: “Civil War has thus knocked loudly at our own door.” The fact remains, however, that most men caught up in civil wars throughout history have not been educated, prosperous, and high-achieving souls of this sort. Moreover—and this has a wide significance—civil wars have often been viewed as having a particular impact on women.

In harsh reality, even conventional warfare has usually damaged non-combatants, women, children, the elderly, and the infirm. Nonetheless, the idea long persisted that war was quintessentially a separate, masculine province. But civil wars were seen as taking place within, and cutting across, discrete societies. Consequently, by their very nature, they seemed likely to violate this separation of spheres, with women along with children and the old and frail all patently involved. This was a prime reason why civil warfare was so often characterized in different cultures not just as evil and catastrophic, but as unnatural. In turn, this helps to explain why people experiencing such conflicts have often resorted, far more avidly than to any other source of ideas, to religious language and texts for explanations as well as comfort.

The major holy books all contain allusions to civil warfare and/or lines that can be read as addressing its horrors. “I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians,” declares the King James version of the book of Isaiah: “and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour.” It was often the Apocalypse, though, as demonstrated by Benjamin West’s great canvas, that Christians mined for terrifying and allusive imagery. Such biblical borrowings sometimes crowded out references to the Roman classics as a means of evoking and explaining civil war altogether, as seems often to have happened in medieval England.

At other times, religious and classical imagery and arguments were combined. Thus, as Armitage describes, the English poet Samuel Daniel drew on Lucan’s verses on the Roman civil war when composing his own First Fowre Bookes of the Civile Wars between the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke in 1595, a work plundered for its plots and characters by William Shakespeare. But it is also easy to see in portions of Daniel’s text the influence of the Apocalypse:

Red fiery dragons in the aire doe flie,

And burning Meteors, poynted-streaming lights,

Bright starres in midst of day appeare in skie,

Prodigious monsters, gastly fearefull sights:

Straunge Ghosts, and apparitions terrifie,

…Nature all out of course to checke our course,

Neglects her worke to worke in us remorse.

It was never just Christians who turned to holy books and religious pieties so as to cast some light on the darkness of civil war. Unlike allusions to the Roman past, such responses seem to have been universal. Indeed, I suspect that the only way that a genuinely trans-continental and socially deep history of civil warfare could conceivably be written would be through an examination of how civil wars have been treated by the world’s various religions, and how such texts and interpretations have been used and understood over time. In particular, the idea that Samuel Daniel hints at in the passage quoted above—that civil war was a punishment for a people’s more than usually egregious sins—has proved strikingly ecumenical as well as persistent.

Thus for Sunni Muslims, the idea of civil war as fitna has been central to understandings of the past. But fitna in this theology connotes more than civil warfare. The term can evoke sexual temptation, moral depravity—once again, sin. The First Fitna, for instance, the war of succession between 656 and 661, is traditionally viewed by Sunnis as marking the end of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the true followers of Muhammad.

As Tobie Meyer-Fong has shown, the civil wars that killed over twenty million Chinese in the 1850s and 1860s, the so-called Taiping Rebellion, were also often interpreted as divine retribution for immoral, decadent, or irreligious behavior.* Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist commentators on all sides rationalized the carnage and disorder in these terms. Poor, illiterate Chinese caught up in this crisis seem also to have regularly turned to religion to make sense of it, and not simply out of faith, or as a means to explain apparently arbitrary horrors. By viewing civil war as punishment for Chinese society’s sins in general, they could also secure for themselves a strategy and a possible way out, even if only in spiritual terms. They could make extra and conscious efforts to follow a moral pathway, and hope thereby to evade heaven’s condemnation.

Analogous responses and patterns of belief continue today, and understandably so. As the ongoing civil warfare in Syria illustrates all too terribly, vulnerable people caught up in such ordeals can easily be left feeling that no other aid is available to them except a deity, and that the only alternative is despair. David Armitage concludes his book with a discussion of how the “long-term decline of wars between states” (a decline that should not be relied on) has been “accompanied by the rise of wars within them.” As in his previous book, The History Manifesto (2014), co-written with Jo Guldi, he also insists that historians have a duty—and a particular capacity—to address such large and recurrent features of human experience:

Where a philosopher, a lawyer, or even a political scientist might find only confusion in disputes over the term “civil war,” the historian scents opportunity. All definitions of civil war are necessarily contextual and conflictual. The historian’s task is not to come up with a better one, on which all sides could agree, but to ask where such competing conceptions came from, what they have meant, and how they arose from the experience of those who lived through what was called by that name or who have attempted to understand it in the past.

Certainly, a close reading of Civil Wars provides a deeper understanding of some of the semantic strategies that are still being deployed in regard to this mode of warfare. Thus President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters frequently represent Syria’s current troubles as the result of rebellion, revolt, or treason; while for some of his Russian allies, resistance in that country is to be categorized as terrorism.

But historians can illumine the rash of civil warfare that has characterized recent decades more deeply than this. Whereas Armitage focuses here on the making and unmaking of states, it is the rise and fall of empires that have often been the fundamental precipitants of twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century civil wars. At one level, the decline and demise of some old, mainly land-based empires—Austrian, Ottoman, and Soviet—have contributed to a succession of troubles in Eastern Europe. At another, the old maritime empires that invaded so much of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East frequently imposed new boundaries and yoked together different peoples in those regions in ways that were never likely to endure, and stoked up troubles for the future. In these and other respects, Armitage is right to insist that history can equip men and women with a better understanding of the past and of the troubled present. It always has done this. But only when its practitioners have been willing to adopt broad and diverse and not just long perspectives.

Linda Colley is Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton. Her latest book is Acts of Union and Disunion: What Has Held the UK Together—and What Is Dividing It? 
. (June 2017)

Is America’s second civil war brewing? All the signs are all there

The Balkans conflict gives an ominous glimpse of potential future strife in the US. A democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory

David Aaaronovitch, The Times,  January 21, 2022

It turns out that there is a discipline that you might call “civilwarology” – the study of the factors that lead to civil war. It exists in think tanks and universities, and its experts are consulted by state agencies anxious to better understand the world in which they operate.

Barbara F. Walter became a civilwarologist nearly a quarter of a century ago and her entry is evidently well thumbed in the Rolodexes of the CIA and the US State Department.

In other words, she knows what she’s talking about – which makes this book rather scary.

The discipline is based on observation and measurement over time. Out of these have emerged a series of data sets and analytical tools relating to the progression towards or away from the conditions likely to lead to civil war. And it adds a word to the list of possible-ocracies.

Anocracy, disappointingly, is not government by assholes, but a troubling middle point between democracy and autocracy. An anocracy may exist during the transition from authoritarianism to full democracy, or the other way round, but it is less stable than either. Right now some states that lay claim to being democracies are in fact anocracies.

If anocracy is a key precondition for the outbreak of a civil war, “factionalisation”, Walter says, is another. Not to be confused with polarisation, this is “when citizens form groups based on ethnic, religious or geographic distinctions – and a country’s political parties become predatory, cutting out rivals and enacting policies that primarily benefit them and their constituents”. Winner takes all. Or loser loses all.

The postwar conflict that features most prominently in this book happened in the territories that had once been Yugoslavia. For 35 years the communist autocrat Marshal Tito had suppressed any latent ethnic rivalry between a series of closely related peoples. When he died in 1980 this settlement died with him.

As the component republics of the old state began to agitate for more autonomy, one group – the Serbs – saw themselves as losing out. This sense of loss on the part of a large group, Walter says, is a significant element in creating the conditions for war.

She reminds us that the election of Abraham Lincoln as US president in 1860 meant slaveholding Southern states no longer exercised a veto on federal policy; the other states could outvote them.

In Yugoslavia the new anocracy opened the way for what experts call “ethnic entrepreneurs” – a breed of politician that mobilises around ethnic grievances or anxieties. These included most notably Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Franjo Tudjman in Croatia and Radovan Karadzic for the Bosnian Serbs.

At a more local level ethnic politics became exploited by “violence entrepreneurs” – the men who formed and armed militias to take control and to kill their enemies. These militias do not need to be large. In the town of Visegrad one man with 15 gang and family members carried out a local genocide of Bosnian Muslims.

Rescue workers remove the body of victim following mortar attack on Sarajevo market in 1994.
Rescue workers remove the body of victim following mortar attack on Sarajevo market in 1994.

A common dimension in civil war development, Walter tells us, is a rural/urban divide, in which resentful “sons of the soil”, organising away from the supervision of the authorities, see themselves at cultural war with the more cosmopolitan town-dwellers. In Bosnia this was embodied in the bloody four-year siege of Sarajevo, with the Serb hicks from the hills mortaring and sniping the occupants of the city.

One of Walter’s reasons for reminding us of the horrors of the former Yugoslavia is to point out that to the population of these lands, civil war had never seemed likely until it happened and suddenly, one day, their good neighbours turned into their executioners.

And here we come to the nub of it. The title of the book is misleading. It isn’t really about civil wars generically, but about one conceivable conflict in particular: the Second American Civil War. Roughly at the halfway point, having established how fratricidal conflict occurs, Walter turns her attention fully to her own country. Naturally, she knows how absurd such a possibility will seem to many readers as they take the subway to their downtown offices or listen to the audiobook as they drive the children to school.

“No one wants to believe,” she writes, “that their beloved democracy is in decline, or headed toward war; the decay is often so incremental that people often fail to notice it or understand it, even as they’re experiencing it.”

Yet objectively the danger signs are there. So that “if you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America – the same way you’d look at events in Ukraine or the Ivory Coast or Venezuela – you would go down a checklist, assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely. And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”

My psychological disposition inclines me against claims such as these. In the Great Journalistic Division between the hysterics and the phlegmatists, I tend to side with the latter. But happenings in the US since 2016 – and especially the events of the past two years – have shaken my complacency.

There has been the loss of conventional politics from much of the national discourse, so that sharp political difference no longer concerns taxes or the environment, but (for one side at least) is almost entirely about ethnicity, identity, culture and loss. The Kyle Rittenhouse court case arose from armed men stalking the ungoverned streets shooting at each other in pursuit of political, not criminal objectives. Militias line statehouse steps openly carrying weapons of civil war lethality.

Erick and Jade Jordan guard the perimeter of Civic Center Park while activists protest the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial on November 21, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Picture: AFP
Erick and Jade Jordan guard the perimeter of Civic Center Park while activists protest the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial on November 21, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Picture: AFP

Then there was January 6, 2021, and the storming of the Capitol, in which political thugs sought to prevent the accession of a democratically elected president. Even more alarming than the mere fact of this act of what the CIA classified as “open insurgency” has been the way the Republican Party and its supporters have minimised this attempt at insurrection.

Walter shows how developments in the US match the conditions for other civil wars.

The sense of loss among many white-identifying voters (the US as a whole will follow where California and Texas have led by becoming minority white by 2045), the rural-urban divide, a failure of trust in politicians and other citizens, the factionalisation of politics, the rise of grievance-exploiting “ethnic entrepreneurs” (in this case most obviously Donald Trump), and all of this hugely exacerbated by the catalyst of that great creator of anxiety, social media.

Portland police officers chase demonstrators after a riot was declared during a protest against the killing of Daunte Wright on April 12, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Picture: AFP
Portland police officers chase demonstrators after a riot was declared during a protest against the killing of Daunte Wright on April 12, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Picture: AFP

The psychological fuel for civil war, Walter reminds us, is not hate, but fear. Between January and October 2020 a record 17 million firearms were sold in the US. In December 2020 one poll showed that 17 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics.”

Walter admits that in light of all this she and her husband, children of European migrants to the US, considered leaving the US last year. A useful rule of thumb could be that when your experts on civil strife start moving abroad you may be in trouble.

Yet for all that, Walter is not fatalistic. If the forces of division have a playbook, then, she writes, “we have a playbook too”. She advocates better civics lessons in schools, prosecuting armed militias as terrorists, reform of what is a terribly inefficient and patchwork voting system, tech regulation and much greater attention to developing policies that benefit the majority of citizens. The threat can be averted. To which the watching Brit, otherwise powerless, can only whisper a heartfelt: “Amen.”

How Civil Wars Start – And How to Stop Them, by Barbara F. Walter (Viking)