I was 6½ years old when I saw the Beatles perform Love Me Do on Britain’s Granada Television. Like anyone old enough to remember that moment in 1962, I was thunderstruck – by the harmonies, the haircuts and the wavering harmonica that John Lennon was playing.
Our generation had never heard anything like it – not until we heard Please Please Me, and then I Saw Her Standing There, and then From Me to You, and then She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand, Can’t Buy Me Love, I Feel Fine, Ticket to Ride, Help …
They just kept coming didn’t they? One glorious foot-stomping pop classic after another. Songs that took us to places of head-shaking ecstasy in less than 2½ minutes, blending influences of rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues, rockabilly, skiffle and – later – reggae, folk, country and western, Indian, psychedelia and string quartets.
Songs that started with choruses. Songs that went from minor falls to major lifts. Songs with beautiful bridges and mysterious openings, like that indescribable shimmering announcement of A Hard Day’s Night, or the 16-minute medley that concluded Abbey Road, their final recorded album. (And, yes, Abbey Road was always my favourite, even though Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper and The White Albumcould always ambush me with their brilliant innovations.)
Songs that were arrows aimed at the collective heart of nations. Songs that captured the tempo and temper of a generation. Songs that saw two geniuses – John Lennon and Paul McCartney – hunting as one pair to become the greatest songwriting duo in history – and this before George Harrison finally emerged from their oversized shadow.
Songs that came to represent arguably the greatest outpouring of melody from one source since Mozart. Not scores of good songs. Hundreds of great songs that are still being analysed, deconstructed and, of course, played today.
I was eight when the Beatles came to Australia in 1964 and 300,000 people poured onto the streets of Adelaide to welcome them. I had photos of the Beatles all over my bedroom wall (actually I still have photos all over my wall, although not my bedroom) and I remember crying when my mother went to see them at the Sydney Stadium and told me I couldn’t go.
I was 14 when the Beatles disbanded in 1970 and my world was shattered for that central part of my history – our history – that had just died. And then again 10 years later when John Lennon was murdered in New York. I remember the moment as though it were yesterday – standing in a hospital corridor waiting to see my sick grandmother – as a woman in the room next door yelled to her deaf mother: “Did you hear mum? A madman just shot John Lennon.”
It was as if I’d lost a member of my own family, which in a way I had; only to be repeated 21 years later when George Harrison died from cancer.
The Beatles were the stuff that dreams and screams were made of and like millions of boys my age, I learnt to play guitar and sing because of them. I fell in love to the Beatles. And with the Beatles – George first, then Paul, then John, then George all over again.
And, truth is, this love has never deserted me – nor many in my generation – no matter how far we’ve travelled from their phenomenon, in time and space. Of course there were other loves too: the Beatles’ great rivals – the Rolling Stones, the Who, Cream; the Beatles’ successors – Led Zeppelin, Talking Heads and Fleetwood Mac; the Jewish songwriters – Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon; the androgynous ground breakers Bowie, Michael Jackson and Prince; not to mention Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Van Morrison, Cat Stephens and Bruce Springsteen. And all this well before we’d even entered the ’90s.
Such a long list of musical loves, but never like that first great love. And now that Paul McCartney is about to arrive on our shores after a near 25 year absence it feels appropriate to reflect on why this should be so, notwithstanding the millions of words already penned about the Greatest Band the World has Ever Known.
I remember the moment as though it were yesterday – standing in a hospital corridor waiting to see my sick grandmother – as a woman in the room next door yelled to her deaf mother: ‘Did you hear mum? A madman just shot John Lennon.’
It was always about the music, but the multiple stories that attached themselves to the Beatles were no less compelling. Two motherless Liverpool teenagers, one caustic and witty (Lennon), the other conciliatory and hugely ambitious (McCartney), crossing their city one day to find the only person who could teach them the B7 chord.
And then, in the space of a few short years, forging a songwriting partnership that would see them, by early 1964, capturing 60 per cent of the American singles market, all top five positions on the Billboard’s singles and then, the following week, 14 of the top 100 US singles.
They’d honed their stage craft during their Hamburg years (1960-62) when – among the bouncers, gangsters and sex workers of the notorious Reeperbahn – they’d performed 800 hours on stage, mostly on Preludin to stay awake, with show-stopping songs like Ray Charles’ What’d I Say.
They were the Rolling Stones before the Rolling Stones ever declared themselves a white Chicago blues band from London. For one thing, McCartney was a virtuoso musician who already knew his way around his left-handed guitar by the age of 15.
Son of a big band leader, he was steeped in famous music hall songs, while also imbued with the rock ‘n’ roll of Fats Domino, Little Richard, Elvis and Chuck Berry, not to mention the revival of British jazz, known as skiffle. Plus he could sing harmonies like an angel and he taught Lennon how to tune his guitar.
By the time he’d reached his prime, he was playing bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, harmonica, trumpet, recorder, oboe, flugelhorn, cello, violin, harpsichord, even the drums.
“Mr Lennon, is Ringo Starr the best drummer in the world?” a breathless interviewer once asked John Lennon. “Ringo isn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles,” Lennon replied.
It was an apocryphal story and it belied Ringo’s mastery – his rock-steady backbeat, his tom tom grooves, his syncopated propulsion, his languid rolls. As McCartney noted after Ringo first sat in for original drummer Pete Best: “I remember the moment standing there and looking at John and then looking at George, and the look on our faces was like …what is this? And that was the moment, that was the beginning, really, of the Beatles.”
And then the so-called “Quiet Beatle” George Harrison, the lead guitarist, whose magnificent songwriting talent only began to fully reveal itself in 1968, four years after Beatlemania had swept the world, with songs like While My GuitarGently Weeps, Here Comes the Sun and Something, the latter Frank Sinatra describing as “the greatest love song ever written.”
All great stories naturally have their tension and for the Beatles it was, firstly, the global hysteria that saw them turn their backs on live performances in favour of the studio. There they would end up penning their most brilliant songs – Day Tripper, We Can Work it Out, Norwegian Wood, Nowhere Man, In My Life, Paperback Writer, Eleanor Rigby. And all this before they got around to Sgt Pepper, The White Album, Let it Be and Abbey Road.
It was the tension also of the Lennon-McCartney rivalry that, at its best, would see them trading song for song – Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever for McCartney’s Penny Lane; or lyric for lyric, as in Day in the Life, arguably their greatest collaboration.
At its worst, though, was the feud that finally erupted in the wake of manager Brian Epstein’s death from a drug overdose in 1967. That’s when, according to Lennon, McCartney began bossing the others around, trying to assert his will over the band.
Lennon was withering about McCartney in his final Rolling Stoneinterview, claiming McCartney was an “egomaniac” who’d tried to destroy – subconsciously – his [Lennon’s] songs. He also damned Yesterday, the most covered song in history, with faint praise.
“Well, we all know about Yesterday,” he said. “I have had so much accolade for Yesterday. That is Paul’s song, of course, and Paul’s baby. Well done. Beautiful … and I never wished I had written it.”
That final interview came three days before Lennon was gunned down and whatever chance there might have been of a true reconciliation between these old Liverpool friends ended with those five shots from Mark Chapman’s .38 Special revolver.
In the 47 years since the Beatles disbanded the question has often been asked: “Who was the better songwriter, Lennon or McCartney?” In 2014, an American documentary crew attempted to provide an answer after spending 10 years asking 550 musicians, directors and actors for their verdict.
One respondent said it was like choosing between your mum and dad. Another said it was like deciding between “food, shelter and clothing”. Lennon got the highest number of votes, although when US President Barack Obama awarded Paul McCartney the annual Gershwin prize for popular song in 2010 he described the now 75 year-old McCartney as “the most successful songwriter in history.
“He has composed hundreds of songs over the years – with John Lennon, with others, or on his own. Nearly 200 of those songs made the charts. Think about that. And stayed on the charts for a cumulative total of 32 years. His gifts have touched billions of lives.”
My friends and I are among those billions, although I might be the most hopelessly devoted of all. Once a month a few of us gather for a night of Beatles songs and I’ll be damned if I’m still not trying to work out the complex chord progressions and the high notes to their two and three-part harmonies.
My daughters, too, are fans, even though they were born two decades after it all ended. When each girl turned five I gave them the complete works of the Beatles with the instruction: “If you want to learn about songwriting and melody then listen to this.”
My elder daughter is now a singer-songwriter, my younger daughter a photographer. No prizes for guessing where we’ll be the night McCartney rolls back the years.Liverpool
The great and the good, the wise and the weary, have all offered a definition of ‘history’. To Napoleon, it was “a myth that men agree to believe”. Historian Marc Bloch observed that it was “an endeavour towards better understanding”. His Nazi killers disagreed – their’s was a less nuanced, more zero-sum approach. Abba Eban, long time Israeli foreign minister, wrote that it “teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives”. Aldous Huxley wrote “that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” And channeling Mark Twain and Karl Marx, Buffy Summers remarked, “You know what they say. Those of us who fail history are, doomed to repeat it in summer school”. But best is John Banville’s admission in The Sea that “the past beats inside me like a second heart”. Simply put, we like to see some pattern, some sense of order to it all. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. commented: “The passion for tidiness is the historian’s occupational disease”. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote: “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who have ever been, and shall ever be, animated by the same passions. And thus they necessarily have the same results”. And yet, whilst seeking patterns, we cannot really use them to predict outcomes. And it is impossible to know what really happened. The past is another country and all that. All we can say for sure is that in the end, history will remember where we end up much more than how we got there. And, history takes time. All the time in the world.
As Mark Twain remarked sardonically, “history doesn’t repeat itself. A best, it sometimes rhymes”. A recent rhyme was evident when an opulent exhibition on the life and legacy of Alexander The Great of Macedon was brought from ‘old world’ St.Petersburg, the twice renamed city of Peter The Great of Russia, to ‘ new world’ Sydney, Australia. For all his ‘greatness’, young Alexander was, like Lord Byron “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, but with murderous psycho mixed in. In his ‘Inferno’, Dante had him standing in the river of boiling blood, along with war-mongers and murderers. Why don’t these people just stay at home! Well, what would you think? You are minding your own business down beside the rivers of Babylon, and then suddenly, there’s an army of 50,000 Greeks on the other bank intent on doing damage. Or there you are, beside the sacred Indus, just about to tuck into your chicken vindaloo, when a rampaging horde of homesick Greeks come charging over the horizon. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been massacred or enslaved by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” And there you are on the banks of the Tigris, minding your own business, and keeping out of the way of the Mukhabarat, when over the horizon in a cloud of dust and disco sweeps a column of armoured vehicles and hordes of ka-firi-n with rifles and ray-bans. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been bombed or strafed by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. Nothing much has changed, really.
Which brings us back perhaps, to what Basil Fawlty called ‘the bleeding obvious”. Beyond the scholars’ passion for patterns, and the dry dialectics of cause and effect, there is the personal dimension. Who were the actual inhabitants of ‘history’? What did they think and feel? The thinking of another time can be hard to understand. Ideas and ideologies once compelling may become unfathomable. And the tone and sensibility that made those ideas possible is even more mysterious. We read, we ponder, and we endeavour to empathize, to superimpose the template of our value system, our socialization, our sensibilities upon the long-dead. And thence, we try to intuit, read between the lines, draw out understanding from poems, plays, novels, memoirs, pictures, photographs, and films of the past. We feel we are experiencing another facet of the potential range of human experience. But in reality, we are but skimming the surface, drawing aside a heavy curtain for a momentary glimpse through an opaque window into the past. Simply put, people who lived ‘then’ are not at all the same as we who live ’now’.
Over two and a half thousand years ago, the controversial Greek poetess Sappho wrote:”I tell you, someone will remember us; even in another time”. And so we do, for 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”.
So, let us walk down what Welsh poet RS Thomas called ‘the long road of history”, beginning with, yes, the usual suspects: power and pride, greed, and aggrandizement, and as accessories after the fact, dolour, devastation, and death.
Time: Year Zero of the Christian era. Place: The Mediterranean littoral
Often, with overwhelming political and military power and economic wealth come arrogance, decadence, and complacency. And with lean and hungry barbarians on the borderland, the geographical interface between the desert and the sown, and soon hanging around the gates, so the seeds of decline and destruction are scattered and germinate. The Pharaohs conquered and ruled over much of North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Indeed, the first historical record of a ‘formal’ set piece battle between two armies took place in 1468 BCE at Meggido, just south east of Haifa in present day Israel – some five thousand Egyptians took on and bested two thousand Canaanite soldiers of local city states. But Egypt was to fall to the ascendant and ambitious Greeks and Persians, and later, the Romans. And down went these mighty successors. Thebes, Athens, Sparta, Persepolis, Ctesiphon, Rome, Carthage, Byzantium, Constantinople. Grand names, but now bones, bones, dry bones. The Bard of Avon declaimed “The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve”. As Percy B Shelley intoned: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away”.
It was the English historian Toynbee who suggested that “civilizations die from suicide, not murder”. They lose their “mojo”. The 14th Century Arab philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun, called it “assabiyah” – in short, they lose their élan, their sense of direction and their minds. His point was that the moribund Byzantine and Sassanian empires were broke and militarily overstretched, corrupt, venal and soft, and hence no match for the desert hardened, combat keen, tribally cohesive, spiritually zealous warriors of the one true faith.
At the dawn of the Christian era, the known world was divided up between the those Romans and Persians, who themselves had subjugated and subsumed the Greeks and Phoenician Carthaginians, and Hittites and Assyrians respectively (in the east, the Chinese and Indians boasted powerful, prosperous civilizations as old as The Pharaohs, but this is not their story). Anyhow, the Romans, who morphed into the Byzantines with the loss of the western empire (to nomadic rovers from out of the east) in the third and fourth centuries, and the Persians, were over extended and overspent, slave societies living off the land and labour of conquered peoples. Until they were challenged and defeated by another ascendant power. Those Arabs of Arabia and of the imperial marches.
For generations this lot had served as mercenaries and satraps of both empires, and fired up by the energy and unity of a new but hybrid faith, and muscled up with a martial spirit built upon generations of mercenary employment and privateering, stormed the sclerotic empires from within and without, and in the space of fifty years after the prophet’s death, built a domain that extended from Spain to Afghanistan. Modern genetic analysis has shown that the bloodline of these desert conquerors is as much a mosaic as most other overlords. Assyrian, Babylonian, Hittite, Persian, Egyptian, Nubian, Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Arabian, Hebrew. And whoever else may have been passing through. Many races came and settled, and many too were invaded and scattered. The ruins and artefacts endure still to remind us of their passage.
And this genetic calabash was stirred some more with the Arab conquests. As they surged eastwards and westwards, slaves were sent homewards as plunder and labour. This was the modus operandi of carnivorous empires throughout history. The Babylonians did it; the Romans too. They conquered and controlled though mass death and deportation, dragging their broken subjects in tens and hundreds of thousands across the known world. So too with the Arabs, therefore, as hundreds of thousands of souls from afar afield as the Pyrenees and the Hindu Kush ended their days in Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Baghdad. Blue eyed blondes and redheads, sallow skinned Turkic and Chinese. You see their heirs today in Homs and Aleppo, Gaza and Hebron. In a fascinating post-classical irony, the European empires were likewise catalysts for ethic trans-migration. The suburbs of Paris and Marseilles, Birmingham and Bradford reflect the colours, cuisines, and conflicts of once-upon-a-homeland.
It is the view of some revisionist historians that whilst Mohammad and his revelations provided the impetus for the Arab “surge”, the religion that we know as Islam was actually retrofitted to the Arab adventurers’ ethos, a kind of ex post facto justification for what was in reality an old fashioned smash and grab. They suggest, therefore, that Islam and the role of Mohammad within it as the messenger and final word were cleverly constructed one to two hundred years after his death by Arab dynasties seeking legitimacy and heavenly sanction for their own aggrandizement. But then, wasn’t it always thus? As Jarred Dimond and others have written, this pandering to invisible friends and post-mortem insurance is part of our genetic baggage. It goes back to way back, to Neanderthals, and before them, to chimpanzees, our closest relatives).
Notwithstanding this, these parvenus ushered in the flowering of Arab culture in the arts, architecture, literature, and science as caliphs encouraged intellectual inquiry, and invited polymaths from across the known world to abide in their domains. Indeed, much of the work of the Greek and Roman philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, doctors and scientists was translated into Arabic and preserved for posterity when the Roman Empire was overrun by waves of barbarians, the beginning of what are called The Dark Ages.
One other ‘safe house’ for these tracts during these dire days was Ireland, in the monasteries of the far west, where monks would meticulously copy rare texts, often embellishing them with their own, ‘Celtic’ art work. The Book of Kells owes a stylistic debt to the monasteries of the Byzantine Levant. And whilst we digress on the subject of books, it is believed by some scholars that The Quran was not actually written in Mecca or Medina, but most likely in Baghdad, which did not exist whilst Mohammad breathed. Learned iconoclasts also purport that it was originally written in Aramaic, the language of the Levant at the time of Jesus, and that Arabic has not yet evolved as a written language. The Torah, the basis of Jewish law and custom, and of The Bible, was written in Babylon and not Jerusalem. And The New Testament? Well. that was assembled all over the shop: in cosmopolitan Athens, Rome, the desert solitudes of Syria and the Sinai. The Quran itself drew on both of these. Such is the power of foundation myths. There are always issues surrounding the literal ‘Word of God’.
Contrary to popular assumptions, these centuries were not that dark at all. The Islam tide was turned at Tours by the Frankish forces of Charles ‘the Hammer’’ Martel, named nostalgically for the Israelite rebel who defied and defeated the Seleucid Greeks in the Maccabee Revolt in the second century BCE. Charlemagne founded the French monarchy which endured until the unfortunate Louis the Last lost his head to the French revolutionaries in 1793. The Western Christian church established many fundamentals of law, politics and theology that endure to this day. There was, nevertheless, a lot of fighting, most of it between squabbling European potentates, and a major doctrinal rift in the Christian Church that saw it bifurcate, often with accompanying bloodshed, into the Catholic Church of Rome, and the Eastern Church of Constantinople. Between the Christian ‘West’ and the Muslim ‘East” however, there endured an armed peace interspersed with occasional warfare until the eleventh century. The Byzantine heirs of Constantine were reasonably content to maintain a kind of Cold War with the many fractious emirs who ruled the lands to their east, and to sustain their power and influence through canny diplomacy, alliances, mercenaries, and proxies (It is testament to the ‘byzantine’ skills of these emperors and their servants that the empire endured for a thousand years as a powerful political, economic, and military force until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453).
Things changed utterly for east-west relations towards the end of the eleventh century. The heirs to the Roman Empire in the west, the Franks and the Normans, descendants of those nomadic marauders who broke the power of Rome, fired up with religious zeal and the prospects of material gain, embarked upon a series of Crusades to free the Holy Land, the paths that Jesus trode, from the heathen Mohammedan. But do not for a moment dismiss the power of religious fervour in those far-off days. The promise of a full remission of all sins and a place in paradise was a powerful motivator. Nevertheless, God and gilt, backed by martial grunt, conveniently colluded with another new power, out of the east. The Mongols had spilled out of the steppes of central Asia, having conquered the ancient Chinese empire, and once again, the nomads were on the move as the sons and heirs of Genghis Khan sought khanates and kingdoms of their own in the west. And when they advanced into the Levant, they came up against, and collaborated with the Franks against the Saracens. History is never black and white – the crusaders also did deals with Muslim warlords if it suited their common interests. In their politics as well as their lifestyles, many ‘went native’.
It was always thus. The barbarians, usually horsemen originating from central Asia, surge in from the wild lands, devastate the settled lands, and take the cities. In Eastern as well as Western Europe, and the Middle East, they came, they saw, they conquered, and they moved in. Settled down, intermingled, and developing a taste for the good life, and gave up their roving, rampaging ways. We are their heirs and successors, us descendants of Celts and Saxons, Goths and Vikings, Vandals and Huns, as are French people, Italians, Spaniards, Turks, and Arabs.
Vaslily Grossman encapsulated all this poignantly and succinctly in An Armenian Sketchbook: “The longer a nation’s history, the more wars, invasions, wanderings, and periods of captivity it has seen – the greater the diversity of its faces .Throughout the centuries and millennia, victors have spent the night in the homes of those whom they have defeated. This diversity is the story of the crazed hearts of women who passed away long ago, of the wild passion of soldiers intoxicated by victory, of the miraculous tenderness of some foreign Romeo towards some Armenian Juliet”.
The story of the Vandals is an epic in itself. From out of what we now call Sweden they came, ethnic kin to the Norsemen and Vikings. Scouring through the Baltic lands, and present day Poland, Germany, and France, they settled in Spain. Andalusia is Arabic for ‘Land of the Vandals’. And eventually they established a kingdom in Libya, challenging and then paying tribute to the ascendant Roman Empire.
But the Norsemen were not quite finished with the east. On a rail of the gallery of the beautiful Aya Sofya basilica in Istanbul, there is some graffiti carved by Halvden, a 9th Century soldier of the Emperor’s Varangarian Guard, an elite force of Viking mercenaries. One commander of this guard was Harald Hardrada, who, as King of Norway, died in Yorkshire at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the first of two kings to die during the English summer of 1066. Whilst specifically the imperial bodyguard, the Varangarians fought on the empire’s frontiers against Arab pirates and raiders, marauding nomads from the steppes, Saracens, Normans and Bulgarians. How Harald came to Mickelgard, or Great City, as the Norsemen called Contantinople, is a story in itself, but the sagas say that he even travelled to Jerusalem, protecting caravans of Christian pilgrims. Just picture it. A brigade of Norseman slashing and bashing their way through the wadis and wastelands of Syria, fifty years before the first crusaders put Jerusalem to the sword. One further Scandinavian digression: in 1110, Sigurd, the teenage King of Norway, having fought his way around the Mediterranean with a sixty ship fleet massacring infidels as he went, landed at Acre in Palestine and wintered in what the Norsemen called Jorsalaberg (See Harald Went a ‘Viking).
“If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem!” The Arabs call the city ‘Al Quds’, “The Holy’. It was deemed sacred from pre-history. Those aforementioned iconoclast scholars suggest that Jerusalem was actually the holiest place in Islam, and that like Islam itself and the Prophet, Mecca and Medina were retrofitted to suit the conqueror’s narrative. A city of the mind as much as of this earth, it haunts the prayers and dreams of three faiths, and to this day, it is coveted and contested. “The air above Jerusalem”, wrote Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “is filled with prayers and dreams, like the air above cities with heavy industry. Hard to breath”. Arthur Koestler wrote: “The angry face of Yahweh is brooding over the hot rocks which have seen more holy murder, rape and plunder than any other place on earth”. Perhaps it is because Jerusalem is mankind’s number one hot spot. “There’s this thing that happens here, over the Hell Mouth”, says Buffy, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”. More Jews have probably died violently in Jerusalem than in the Holocaust. And countless folk of other faiths have likewise perished.
Razed down to the bedrock like Jerusalem of old
The crusader kingdoms of Palestine lasted a hundred years, leaving their castles and churches to remind us of their passing, and have haunted the Arab historical memory to this day. The Arabic word for foreigner, ‘faranjiye’ is derived from Frank (or maybe not – it is also said that Varangarian derived from the Greek Varangos, for the Scandinavian Varing or Vara, either a placename or a family name, which became the Arabic Varank). They fell to the Kurdish warlord from Tikrit (hometown of Saddam Hussein, small world that it is), Salah ad Din Ibn Ayyubi, and were restored to the House of Islam. But even this renowned soldier and schemer could not escape the assassin’s poison forever (it may have been just typhoid, but why spoil a good yarn?). He was supplanted by other despots, not the least, the famed one-time slave, the blonde, blue-eyed Mameluk Barbars who ruled Egypt, conquered Syria, and died when he inadvertently ate the poison he intended for his dinner guest. And then, out of the east, came the aforementioned Mongols, and these brought the house down. They conquered, settled, assimilated, and then weakened and fell as they, in their turn, were supplanted by, yes, another nomad band, this time the Turkic Ottomans (and again, out of central Asia). That’s how assabiyeh works. Once you have it, you have to work on it. Lose it and you are done.
The Ottoman Empire inherited the Arab, Islamic patrimony and assumed the caliphate as the official ‘Deputy of God’. The Ottoman Caliphate, successor to the famed Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates of Damascus and Baghdad, endured until its abolition in 1924 by Kemal Ataturk, the creator of modern Turkey. It was restored in 2014 as ad Dawlet al Islamiye fi Iraq w ash Sham or Da’esh. We will get to that later, but meantime, the wars and plagues and famines that beset the Middle East brought an end to the golden age of Arab civilization, with all its ecumenical, martial, intellectual, artistic, and scientific adventurousness (the same wars, plagues, and famines scoured the western world too, but these had less far to fall). And so, time stood still for Islam and the Arab world, as the outlying, often neglected provinces of the ascendant Ottoman Empire. It is said of old, that before the advent of the Mongol lord, Hulagu, a cockerel could graze from Baghdad to Basra without alighting to earth, such was the fertility and prosperity of the Land of the Two Rivers. In the wake of the Mongol, with his mass slaughter and the destruction of the long-lasting irrigation systems, came the Arab proverb: “When God made Hell he did not think it bad enough so he created Mesopotamia.” The place never recovered, although the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq endured through all of this until the present, when their way of life was finally destroyed by Saddam.
Meanwhile, the focus of our story shifts westwards with the crusader armies returning home, bringing with them a taste for the luxuries of the east, and scientific and philosophical ideas and inventions lost to the west during the Dark Ages (what they didn’t take home, however, was a tolerance for folk of different colours and creeds). The Islamic world settled into the backward looking atrophy that we see today. And in time, came the rise of the great European powers. To Western Europe came the social and economic upheavals of war and plague, and the social and intellectual unravelling that was to lead to the age of discovery. Came the power of the papacy, the questioning of that power, the end of the feudal system and the rise of absolute monarchy, and the invention of the printing press and with it, the dissemination of knowledge. All this set the stage for the next act.
Enter the Spanish and Portuguese, resource poor and priest-ridden, astutely patronizing the adventurers, and hence, made wealthy and powerful on the riches that then flowed in from the New World. Enter the inquisition and the straighteners of religious conformity, the bedrock of imperial power. And enter also, the mercantile nations who challenged their claim to the Americas (sanctioned and sanctified as it was by Alexander, the Borgia Pope) and papal supremacy: England, France, and Holland. The era of world empires thus began against a backdrop of trade and religious wars that would set the stage for the very gradual evolution of what would become democratic institutions. But that was way, way down the bloody track.
The wars of religion, between Catholicism and Protestantism morphed into great powers’ wars by proxy (for there is nothing new under the sun). These endured some two hundred years, giving us the renaissance and the reformation, and many, many people perished. And amidst the scramble for colonies and resources, and the ever-widening scope of scientific and intellectual inquiry, there ensued interminable blood-letting. Folk got much too close to the fire, literally and figuratively. Many were dragged there, and many were eager pyromaniacs. The Thirty Years War wasn’t called that for nothing, and unlike The Hundred Years War between France and England before that, which enjoyed a few time-outs between bouts, this was an interminable danse macabre that was at once mediaeval and mid-20th Century in its savagery. ‘Full on’ is the term we use today. It is said that it staggered to an end in 1648 because the combatants just collapsed with exhaustion.
And in its shattered wake, came the decline of the Spanish and the Portuguese, and the ascendency of the English, the French, and the Dutch. Germany and Italy were still a profusion of principalities and oppressed satellites, Russia had yet to emerge out of an anarchic fog, and the USA had not even been thought of. Meanwhile, in the most populous parts of the planet, the Chinese and Indian empires carried on ever, in splendid isolation, narcissistic and ethnocentric, though not above trading profitably with the occident. The potentates that is – the lower orders were, and in many in many ways remain, in a state of repression and submission.
So came an era of religious and intellectual ferment and the mass movement of peoples across the known world and beyond it, to the Americas. Innovation in transport, communications, industry and warfare, and the trans-global transit of armies and of international commerce in goods and in humanity literally changed the face of the planet. Eleven million slaves crossed the Atlantic in four centuries. Over forty million migrants “went west” in less than one. The inscription on Our Lady Of The Harbour, a gift from the Old World to the New, still says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door”. And so indeed did folk travel, fleeing poverty and pogroms, powerlessness and persecution, seeking “a new home in the sun”. From the glens of the Gael, from the shtetl and the steppe, from Old Europe and Old Asia. The Great American Dreaming. Today, some 1,300 airplanes a day cross ‘the pond” (475,000 transits a year).
And the printing press and the bible in the vernacular changed the way men thought. Merchants and missionaries and military men, seekers and makers of fortunes, slavers and saviours, prophets and potentates, philosophers and pamphleteers, poets and painters. Enlightenment, revolution, and war. And in America, the creation of democratic institutions.
Royal France was a midwife to this American Revolution, and endured the ironic blowback when French armies returned home harbouring the virus of republicanism and the concepts of liberty and equality. Be careful what you wish for, for liberty wields a two-edged sword as the revolution devours its children. Mounting the scaffold, the doomed Girondin Manon Roland exclaimed “Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!” The redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk noted that freedom and liberty often had to crawl over broken glass.
And thence, the Nineteenth Century and the Age of Revolutions – political, industrial, and ideological, bountiful and bloody. And the rise of new empires – Russia, Germany, and the USA, competing with the old, and all extending their power and influence throughout the world, conquering and colonizing the oldest – India, China, and the Ottomans – and spanning the globe. The Americas, Africa, Asia, Australasia, no place was beyond the reach of the empire’s military and mercantile power, and no indigene was safe from the depredations of these latter-day Medes and Assyrians. Diamond again: it was all down to “guns, germs, and steel”. The ‘discovered’ world was ripe for plunder. For land, for minerals, for food. And if the natives got fractious, we had machine guns and gun boats to back us up. For this was the era of militant and muscular Christianity and gunboat diplomacy, synergized in a divine plan to render the world a holier and happier place. Rudyard Kipling said it best: “Take up the White Man’s burden, send forth the best ye breed. Go bind your sons to exile to serve your captives’ need”. A new age of Empire had arrived wherein competing white countries seeking economic and political aggrandizement, sent their boys to die far away from home. The West, it seemed, had got its mojo back!
So far away from home
A little known facet of that century’s history is that contemporaneous to the western expansion of ‘These United States” and the spread of British red across the globe, Imperial Russia was moving eastwards. One outstanding volume of George McDonald Fraser’s rollicking, picaresque and quite political incorrect Flashman series sees the eponymous anti-hero fleeing eastwards out of The Crimea having precipitated the disastrous Charge Of the Light Brigade (Captain Nolan was fitted up), and making his way through the vast Asian hinterland, one step ahead of the invading Czarist armies, and of sundry Muslim warlords. In the Flashman books, the unreconstructed villain of Thomas Hughes’ Victorian yarn “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” is roving and rogering his way through the late nineteenth century, somehow managing to escape by the skin of his teeth from one military disaster after another, including Custer’s famous “Last Stand” at Little Big Horn, and the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak during the disastrous First Afghan War of 1842.
Amidst the humour and ribaldry is a poignant reminder of those ‘lost worlds’ that succumbed to the relentless blade of progress, a theme revisited in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man and Theodore Olsen’s Soldier Blue, set in the American West, and Vincent Cronin’s The Last Migration and James A Michener’s Caravans, set in Iran and Afghanistan respectively. Ibn Khaldun’s ‘asabiyyah’ is no match for modern weaponry.,
With trade and economic wealth creation came the rise of the middle class. The urban, mercantile elite who seek political power commensurate with their economic clout thus demand a say in how they are governed. In an age of mass production and the beginnings of mass communication, we see the emergence of the masses as a political concept, and of mass society in which rulers are responsive and reactive to the needs fears, and rages of the masses and their representatives. The times of Machiavelli give way to those of Marx. And the focus of history is as much on the ruled as on the rulers.
So passed the Nineteenth Century. The Old World ruled. The New had its own preoccupations, with civil war and western expansion. The east and the south were conquered and colonized. God (European and most probably, English-speaking) was in His heaven and all was good and right in the world. The old scourges continued as they has since time immemorial: plague and famine, drought and flood, economic boom and bust, migration and invasion, war and peace, and comme d’habitude, death and destruction on a large scale. Good times and bad times as ever, with little to impede the onward march of progress. A reporter once asked Gandhi: “What do you think of Western civilization?” The Mahatma replied: “I think it would be a very good idea”.
In came the Twentieth Century. Same old, same old, but with markets and machines much more efficient, and likewise our capacity to create and destroy. A time of totalitarian regimes and total war, social change and technological wizardry. In 1905, the Imperial Russian Navy sailed eighteen thousand miles to the Korea Strait only to be broken by the Imperial Japanese Navy. There was a new boy on the block, and once the guns of Tsushima Bay had fallen silent, signalling that the white man could indeed be beaten, and thence, the decline of the colonial empires of old as the “our new-caught, sullen peoples” threw off their chains. In the political, economic, military and demographic spheres, balances of power changed, and changed again. In the wake of two World Wars, from Old Europe to the USA and the Soviet Union, and then, in these present times, to a totally new configuration that reflects the transitory rise and fall of nations. As I write, we see a hesitant America and a struggling Europe competing with a resurgent and belligerent Russia, and the rise and rise of its fellow BRICs, Brazil, India and China – an ascendency that is not however assured in this unstable and unpredictable world of ours. And in the post-Cold War, global financial crisis world of wide-open borders and the mass movement across them of people, goods, and capital, everything has a price and can be bought and sold. Immoral mathematics: “in these shifting tides, bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs, and more besides, wash like waves on strangers’ shores – damnation takes no sides” (from E Lucevan le Stelle).
And passing strange it is that whilst we can place men on the moon and machines on Mars, we still live in a world riven by superstition. We have come through the age of enlightenment, the age of revolutions, the age of machines, the age of mass society, mass war, and of mass communications, And yet, we are so, so ignorant. We thought that the rising tide of progress and knowledge would raise all the boats. But how wrong we were. The Muslims in their glory days would refer to what went before as al Jahiliyya, the age of ignorance. But in so many ways, we have returned there. Helped in no small part by their more atavistic descendants who see some wisdom and benefit to all in reverting to a mediaeval ethos and lifestyle.
One thing is pretty certain. We are almost closing a circle. The history of the West, for the past two millennia has been dominated by the emergence and triumph of Christianity and of Islam. As the early Muslims saw it, al Dar al Harb and al Dar al Islam, the houses of war and peace respectively. A pretty good description if the terms are used interchangeably. Much of what has passed has been refracted through the prisms of these theologies. Call it crusade or call it jihad; or call it blow back on a grand scale. The legacy of two millennia of empire is coming back up the pipes. “Take up the White Man’s burden (or any conqueror’s burden, in fact) and reap his old reward: the blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard”.
For surely, “by all ye cry or whisper, by all ye leave or do, the silent, sullen peoples shall weigh your gods and you”. Weigh them all and find them wanting. In compassion and loving kindness, in reason and rationality, in patience and peacefulness. And the greatest, saddest irony of all for all who have a passion for history and for charting the unbroken story of humankind, and for those with this passion who treasure the depths of their cultural lineage through all the fugues, follies, and fault lines of our heritage, is the dawning realization and regret, that after two millennia, the religion that kicked off so much controversy and conflict, schism and schadenfreude, brilliance and bigotry, bounty and bloodshed, that was the heir to ancient faiths and the progenitor of many more, is probably now doomed in the lands wherein it was born.
It’s as if over a millennium of painful, staggering, stuttering, blood soaked, inventive, and pioneering progress has meant naught, and that we might as well have remained in the dark, literally and figuratively. “It is written in the Book of Days where the names of God a wrought, where all our dead a buried and all our wars a fought”. We range through “the battlefields and graveyards and the fields our fathers knew”. The cartography of carnage: Bali, Beslan, Gaza, Grozny, Kabul, Kigali, Sabra, Srebrenica, to mention but a few of those “far-away places with strange sounding names”. ”Many have perished, and more most surely will”. This latter quotation is adapted from Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world between the wreckage of The Second World War and the foreboding for the impending armed peace. “The bane of bad geography, the burden of topography. The lines where they’re not meant to be are letters carved in stone”. And all this against a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked and betrayed. “The revolution’s father, the hero psychopath” shows us how hopes and dreams can be “fooled by the riddle of the revolution”. “Words carried far in time and space will topple tyrants, but there’s no salvation”. (see In That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul Hemphill)
When Miranda exclaimed “what brave new world, with such people in’t!’, when the dismal Dane moaned ‘what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving, how express and admirable’, was the Bard being singularly ironic? He was writing at the dawn of the Sixteenth Century when the wars of religion were well under way, and yet, the reign of Elizabeth had brought a degree of civil calm, and King James was determined to heal the schisms, using his translation of The Bible as his balm. Reasons to be cheerful, perhaps. The Thirty Years War had yet to devastate continental Europe, and the English Civil war had still to come. Sweden had not yet ravaged Eastern Europe (yes, the Swedes had indeed attempted world dominion before ABBA). The Pilgrim Fathers were not to set sail for a decade, the Inca and Aztec were already no more, and as the Plains Indians rode the range mounted on the descendants of the conquistadors’ horses, the American West had not yet been discovered let alone ‘won’.
Some digression, that! So, back to where are we now, in the first decade of the 21st century. A world of wonders, no doubt, of technological advances in medicine, machines, and mass communications. But the new millennium began with the destruction of the Twin Towers, and war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars in these sad states continue. Conflagrations now engulf Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and turmoil threatens Egypt and Turkey. These are all the battlegrounds of old. Alexander marched this way and back (he burned Persepolis and died in Babylon, and his body, embalmed in gold, lies waiting to be discovered). In 1853 Czar Nicholas I of Russia demanded the right to protect Christian shrines in Ottoman Jerusalem, setting in train the chain of events that led to the Crimean War, and thence to the dissolution of the once grand Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the long decline and eventual demise of what the ascendant Europeans called ‘the sick man of Europe”, accompanied by Europe’s cultural and political – and in the case of France, territorial – conquest of the Muslim Middle East and South Asia bred a bitterness that endures and manifests today. In June 1914, in Sarajevo, a former outpost of that empire, a wrong turn put Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the imminently moribund Habsburg Empire in pistol range of Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip. The sixth attempt on his life that morning sounded the first shot of “the war to end all wars”, which led, incidentally to the destruction of the long-declining Ottoman Empire, to the Balfour Declaration, and to the Sykes Picot Agreement that created the tortured Middle East that today is the sum of all our fears.
So, we are still paying the price as all these ghosts watch over a brave new world of asymmetrical, ideological warfare weaponized by the Lords of War who know no frontiers or ethics, and waged by rag-tag armies who likewise know neither. The sundered and sullied tribes of man are caught up in the dreams and fears of their fathers and grandfathers, all the old hatreds and habits, schemes and shibboleths, the ethnic, sectarian and partisan traps of their elders. “There rides the mercenary, here roams the robber band. In flies the emissary with claims upon our land. The lesser breed with savage speed is slaughtered where he stands, his elemental fantasy felled by a foreign hand” (from ‘Freedom Comes’).
Over to the good and the noble players of the new Great Game who wage those ‘savage wars of peace’ that are “the white man’s burden”. As the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes expounded gloomily, “I show in the first place that the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is none other than a war of all against all; and that in that war, all has a right to all things”. He had the English civil war on his mind, but, if he had slept for over four hundred and fifty years, and awoke today, he would cry “See! What did I tell you?” In the war of all against all, Homer’s blinded Cyclops is staggering around, endeavouring to catch the one who robbed him of his sight.
And he wages his savage wars of peace with weapons that would make the inquisition jealous. In his tombstone of a book about Lebanon’s civil war, and Israel’s intervention therein, the redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortals. Made in America, used on Arabs, by Jews. But it happens anywhere and everywhere, inflicted by anyone on everyone.
And meanwhile, back in the lands of the rich folks, economic recession and high unemployment, and political and social instability, financial graft and funny money dressed up in manufactured metaphors like derivatives, sub-prime mortgages, and collateralised debt obligations. And in the lands of the poorer folks, those “faraway places with strange sounding names”, as The Springfields once sang, and of those who are climbing out of the mud, a sliding scale of prosperity and poverty, venality and violence. And threatening all of us, environmental degradation and climate change, with ice caps melting, low lands flooding, pasturelands turning to dust, and oceans becoming deserts. Fires and floods, and twisters and earthquakes, famines and plagues. As Joni Mitchell sang, paraphrasing Yeats, “Surely some revelation is at hand, surely it’s the second coming and the wrath has finally taken form” (the word ‘apocalypse’ is derived from the Greek for ‘revelation’).
We are not on the ‘Morningtown Ride’ to Honalee, but are we on the road to Pichipoi? This not the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak but are we Israelites looking out over Canaan Land? We are not climbing Jacob’s ladder to Paradise, but are we sliding down the road to Ragnarok? In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the poet begins his descent into Hell saying:”I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost”. Journeying down and then back up through the seven levels of Hell, he finally returns to the surface saying: “And thence we emerged to see the stars again”. We yearn, to quote Nigella Lawson, “that blissful moment when the bagpipes stop”. But in all truth, the crystal ball is shattered. All bets are off. Everyone has a game, and all is now in play. And remember what Bob said: “Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, and keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again. And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’, for the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin”’.
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus 2014
Since I wrote this history, the final paragraph has effectively been mugged by reality. The heady days of February 2011, with the green of the Arab Spring fresh sprung from the soil of the economic and political bankruptcy of the Arab Middle East, had not yet transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter. Five years on, the wars of the Arab Dissolution have dragged the world into its vortex. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations.
The fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality. It was followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Syria, Libya, and Yemen that have led, five years later, to the virtual destruction and disintegration of these countries, the ongoing dismantling of Iraq, and an expanding arc of violence, bloodshed and repression from Morocco to Pakistan, that has extended southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.
Civil war and economic desperation have propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism has filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and coreligionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris, Istanbul, Beirut, Djakarta, and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, outsiders have intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.
In the game of political ifs and buts, the world reaps the whirlwind of bad decisions by our owners and rulers. If “the Coalition of the Willing” hadn’t destroyed Iraq in the Third Gulf War; if the war in Afghanistan hadn’t been subcontracted out to warlords and private security firms; if the west hadn’t propped up tyrants and kleptocrats for decades; if it hadn’t turned a blind eye to its Saudi friends financing and inspiring the Salafi Killers; if the US had destroyed the Da’esh convoys as they crossed the open desert to capture and desecrate Palmyra; if the Russians had attacked IS rather than other Syrian militias; if the coalition had made as many bombing runs as the Russians. If so many events that had come before had not happened – the fall of the Shah and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (apparently given the nod by the US), and the wars that ensued; the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed it; the rise of al Qa’ida. If, if, if. But, at the end of the day, Muslims pay the price, and yet, it will have to be Muslims who sort it out. Western boots on the ground will not fix it, but, rather, as in days of yore, it will create yet another whirlwind for us all to reap.
We are in midst of what could be described as the final phase of the Wars of the Ottoman Succession. The lines drawn on maps by British and French bureaucrats in the years after The Great War have been dissolved. The polities fabricated by Messrs Sykes and Picot, and manifested in the mandates that evolved into the present states of Syria and Iraq have effectively disintegrated. The future of the other former mandates, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, is uncertain, as is that of Turkey, the country which rose out of the ashes of defeat and civil war to inherit the Ottoman Anatolian heartland. Indeed, new states could emerge from the maelstrom. A Kurdistan long denied; a partitioned Iraq; Ottoman redux: and the atavistic Islamic Caliphate.
All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly.
The featured image: Timeless. A Syrian moment, in Foreign Policy 23rd July 2012. Paul Simon once sang “On the side of a hill in a land called somewhere”. Little changes.
The Destruction of the Temple, AD70, Francesco Hayes
So Far From Home, William Barnes Wollen’s The Last Stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak, 13th January 1842 (1898). The phrase ‘so far from home’ is the title of young Mary Driscoll’s 1847 account of her migration from Ireland to America.
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus February 2014. Al Jazeeraz 26 February 2014
Babes in the Wilderness. Syrian children in the eye of the storm. Al Jazeera, September 2011
In addition to a multitude of Wiki and Google searches, and references to and quotations from many songs and poems, including my own poetry and verse , special note is made of the following books that I have read of late that have inspired this piece:
Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood (Knopf)
Thomas Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization (Sceptre)
William Dalrymple, From The Holy Mountain (Harper Perennial)
William Dalrymple, Return Of A King (Knopf)
Robert Fisk, The Great War For Civilisation (HarperCollins)
Robert Fisk, Pity The Nation (Andre Deutsch)
Vaslily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook (NYRB Classics)
Tom Holland, In The Shadow Of The Sword (Doubleday)
Robert D Kaplan, The Revenge Of Geography (Random House)
Amin Malouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Schoken)
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, The Biography (Orion)
Simon Winchester, Atlantic (HarperCollins)
During the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.
Acclaimed British historian Max Hastings examines the reality of the events behind Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster whilst pricking the illusions and delusions of the Brexit balloon. “The irony…is that Churchill himself never saw anything in the least glorious about standing alone”. “Wars” said Winston, “are not won by evacuations”.
“After Brexit takes place I fear that this time around we shall be unable to rely upon the Russians to stage a grand diversion in the East to spare us from the hideous economic, social, cultural, and political consequences of attempting to fight on alone, without the impeccable justification that Hitler has forced such a course upon us”.
Whilst these are Hasting’s principal themes, he also demolishes a couple of common misconceptions. Firstly, the Dunkirk “miracle”, impressive as it was, was not the only major evacuation that harrowing summer. A few weeks later, “some 144,000 British troops, together with 24,352 Poles and 42,000 other Allied soldiers, were brought to England. Only historians are much aware of this “second Dunkirk”. Secondly, soldiers on the beach and commentaries thereafter talk of how the “bloody RAF!” was nowhere to be seen in the skies above Dunkirk. Recent archival research how shown that the RAF was indeed active in the hinterland, suffering heavy losses as it fought to prevent reinforcements and materiel reaching the Wehrmacht and and as it attacked the Luftwaffe before it hit the beaches.
Once more into the breach…on Belgian beaches and parliamentary benches
This article, like many of its recent ilk, is bound to a create a furore among the “make Britain great again” brigade (I loved the Katie Hopkins connection…)
I recently watched Dunkirk and Darkest Hour to back, and they made curiously compelling companions. The best thing about Darkest Hour was Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Winston, and his delivery of the famous speeches (and I could happily watch loyal stenographer Lily James typing out menus all day long – she gave us a luminous Natasha in the Beeb’s recent and eminently bodacious War and Peace).
Dunkirk was harrowing for its portrayal of the chaos aboard the sinking hospital ship and the other doomed rescue ships, and for the chaos and confusion in the cockpits of the spitfires (is there anything Mad Max Tom Hardy isn’t in these days?)
But both films were quite corny and cartoonish in their representation of the “bulldog spirit” of the brave, plucky , and yes, white Englanders (Kenneth Branagh at his Shakespearean best, and Mark Rylance channeling Foyle’s War – there was, however, a token black chap with a small speaking role during Winston’s apocryphal trip on the London Underground – “Yes, Mister Churchill, we shall never surrender!”; and there was a single Frenchie on the beach, although he was nefariously disguised as a Brit and was outed immediately prior to his demise – played by Aneurin Barnard, another refugee from War and Peace, but being shell-shocked,incognito, or both, didn’t say a word). And apart from the speeches in Darkest Hour, the script in both films was hamfistedly cliched and clunky, and not much different from a Monty Python movie – or those patriotic Ealing Studios English war films.
Which might, of course, have been the intention.These two films and other nostalgia fests like the Crown and Victoria and Albert are quite in keeping with those Ealing films of old with their high production values, great actors like John Mills and Alec Guinness, stirring music in the Vaughn Williams vein, and hammy but patriotic scripts that were in their day Great Britishly politically correct.
Christopher Nolan’s epic movie about the rescue of the British army from the beaches of northeastern France in May 1940 has become a worldwide box office success. This is splendid news for its makers, and can do no harm to American, Taiwanese, or for that matter Rajput audiences. In the eyes of some of us, however, its impact upon the British people is calamitous at this moment in our fortunes.
Dunkirk contains no foreigners except a few understandably grumpy French soldiers. It is a British tale that feeds the myth that has brought Churchill’s nation to the cliff edge of departure from the European Union: there is splendor in being alone. This was most vividly expressed at the time by King George VI, who wrote to his mother: “Personally I feel happier now that we have no allies to be polite to & pamper.” One of the British officers who escaped with his battalion via the beaches greeted news that the French had surrendered on June 17 by exulting mindlessly to his comrades in the mess: “Thank heavens they have, now at last we can get on with the war.”
Michael Korda, for decades a celebrated New York publisher, was born in Britain in 1933; his father was Vincent Korda, one of three Hungarian-born brothers who were cinema wizards of their day. Now he offers two books for the price of one, interweaving a historical narrative of the events of 1939–1940, climaxing with Dunkirk, and a succession of vivid fragments of autobiography. He describes the flow of Jewish refugees through the North London homes of his childhood: “They had the haunted look of people who have just witnessed a bad accident, people with aggressive charm and formal manners who had grown up with the Kordas in Túrkeve, or had been to university in Budapest with Alex, or loaned him money, or worked with my father on film sets in Vienna, Paris or Berlin.”
Vacationing in France in the summer of 1939, as the world tumbled toward catastrophe, he recalls his actress mother constantly reprising the comic hit song of the day “Tout va très bien, Madame La Marquise,” which tells of an aristocratic woman on holiday who calls home to check that all is well and hears from her servants of one catastrophe after another, each described as “a little incident, a nothing,” culminating in the suicide of her husband and the incineration of her château. Korda writes: “Even as a boy of six, I observed that everybody in France talked about la ligne Maginot reverentially as if it were a holy object.”
He is very funny about his family’s experiences embarking on the film That Hamilton Woman, which eventually became one of Churchill’s favorites: his father, as set designer, failed to grasp that this was a tale of Admiral Nelson. Supposing it to be about General Wellington, he began to create a backdrop for the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels before Waterloo.
Once the European struggle began in earnest with the launch of Hitler’s blitzkrieg, Korda writes, “my mother, when she thought about the war at all, had the cheerful conviction that everything would work out well in the end because it always had for Britain, except for the war against the American colonies, and that was too long ago to matter.” He discerns among Britain’s modern Brexiters the mood that he himself witnessed after Dunkirk.
This comparison seems valid. Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Michael Gove, David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and their misbegotten Tory kin daily assure the British people that once we have cast off the shackles that bind us to Europe, caravels laden with the spoils of free trade will bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh to our island; as an added bonus, the sun will shine every day. Watching Dunkirk, I half-expected Foreign Secretary Johnson to appear in lieu of Winston Churchill, promising to hurl back the Hunnish hordes led by Angela Merkel, and to show no mercy to such knock-kneed Pétainistes as France’s Emmanuel Macron.
The irony, of course, is that Churchill himself never saw anything in the least glorious about standing alone. In May and June 1940 he moved heaven and earth—even fantastically offering Paul Reynaud’s government political union with Britain—to persuade France to stay in the war rather than sign an armistice. When the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941, Churchill embraced the tyranny of Stalin, morally hard to distinguish from that of Hitler, and greeted the Russians as comrades in arms. The foremost objective of his premiership was to woo the United States into belligerence.
No man understood better than Churchill that while Britain might somehow avert defeat, without fighting alongside friends it could not conceivably aspire to victory. Only necessity and a supremely courageous willingness to defy reason, which many British politicians and generals felt unable to share, caused him in June 1940 to proclaim his country’s determination to fight to the last.
Our most eminent living historian, Sir Michael Howard, who lived through that era relatively early in his ninety-four years, observed to me recently: “The great lesson of my lifetime is that all difficult problems and challenges are best addressed with partners and allies.” This is the wisdom that the modern Brexiters seek to trample. They find the “Dunkirk spirit” refreshingly bracing, which Churchill certainly did not. “I cannot say that I have enjoyed being Prime Minister v[er]y much so far,” he wrote wryly on June 4, 1940, to one of his predecessors, Stanley Baldwin.
And so to the Nolan film. It possesses many of the virtues and vices of Steven Spielberg’s epics, wrapped in a Union flag instead of the Stars and Stripes. It looks terrific, though it is noisier than any battle I have ever attended. It contains some adequate acting, reminiscent of the silent movie era, because the stars deliver few coherent lines, being merely required to look staunch, stressed, and indomitable at appropriate moments.
The film opens with unseen Germans firing on a group of British soldiers in the deserted streets of Dunkirk, killing all but one, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), whose experiences during the ensuing week, on the beaches and offshore, form a principal theme of what follows. At intervals between being bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe, Tommy and various companions board ships in hopes of escape, only to find each in turn stricken. Nolan offers some extraordinary sinking scenes: Tommy’s escapes make Leonardo DiCaprio’s misfortunes aboard the Titanic seem tame stuff.
Meanwhile the Royal Navy has commandeered a host of small boats from the harbors of the South Coast and dispatched them to aid the evacuation. One boat owner, named Dawson (Mark Rylance), sets forth with his teenage son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and a young helper named George (Barry Keoghan). Their first encounter with the war comes when they rescue a traumatized soldier (Cillian Murphy) from a floating hulk. He is so appalled on finding that they are heading for Dunkirk, from which he has just escaped, that he tries to seize control of the boat, hurling George onto a ladder below, which his head strikes with fatal effect—a mawkish moment.
Meanwhile in the air, there are spectacular scenes as three Spitfires duel with the Luftwaffe over the Channel. One RAF pilot (Jack Lowden) ditches in the sea, from which he is rescued by Dawson and his son. As they then approach the beaches amid a throng of such craft, a colonel on the Dunkirk mole (an old term for a pier or jetty) asks the Royal Navy’s Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) what the boats mean. Branagh offers a performance as the elegant, unruffled naval officer that Noël Coward—who played Captain Kinross, based on Lord Mountbatten, in that notable wartime weepie In Which We Serve—might identify with. Bolton answers the colonel laconically: “Hope.” In the cinema where I saw the film, at that moment the audience burst into applause.
The small boats, including Dawson’s, load up with soldiers amid worsening perils—oil from a sunken minesweeper blazes on the water—before setting course for home and a heroes’ welcome. Commander Bolton gallantly lingers on the mole to ensure that some French soldiers can also get away. He remarks wryly that it has been not a bad fortnight’s work to rescue 338,000 British, French, and Belgian troops, when at the outset it was thought that no more than 30,000 could be taken off. Back home, the rescued Tommy reads in a newspaper Churchill’s heroic words to the nation, concluding with the vow that Britain will never surrender.
Most of us would agree that no work of art, whether novel, play, or film, has a responsibility to represent history accurately, any more than Shakespeare did, or David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan opens with a thirty-minute portrayal of the 1944 D-Day landings that is as vivid and realistic as anything we are ever likely to see on screen. Thereafter, however, that film deteriorates into routine Superman stuff that bears no relationship to anything that happened to US soldiers in Normandy. The mini-series Band of Brothers is a superb piece of filmmaking, probably the best ever made about Americans in World War II, but it is suffused with the romanticism that colors all of Spielberg’s work as well as much of that of Stephen Ambrose, who wrote the book from which it derives.
Nonetheless, for the record, we shall consider how far Nolan’s film tells the Dunkirk story like it was. There is no historical background to explain why the British army found itself on the beaches. On May 10, 1940, Hitler invaded France and the Low Countries. The British army, together with a substantial French force, promptly hastened north into Belgium, expecting the Germans to reprise their 1914 Schlieffen offensive.
Instead, however, in fulfillment of the only authentic personal inspiration of Hitler’s career as a warlord, the Wehrmacht’s main thrust pushed through the Ardennes, meeting the French army where it was weakest and bursting across the Meuse. The British found themselves falling back, fighting desultory actions but chiefly making haste to avoid encirclement. When the panzers reached the Channel coast, cutting off the British, the Belgians, and the French Seventh Army from the bulk of France’s forces further south, evacuation became the only plausible, though immensely difficult, option.
The first miracle of Dunkirk was that the German army scarcely interfered with the evacuation, partly because Hermann Goering assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe could dispose of the British, and partly because Churchill’s contingent was marginal alongside the forty-three divisions of the French army still in the field further south. There was no ground fighting in the town or port, so Nolan’s opening scene is spurious.
In the film, all the big ships seeking to rescue troops are sunk in dramatic circumstances, leaving small craft to do the business. This is a travesty. The Royal Navy sent thirty-nine destroyers to Dunkirk, of which only six were sunk, although many were damaged. Two thirds of all the men brought home sailed in big ships, notably including the destroyers, just one third in smaller ones.
The film shows air battles low over the Channel, whereas many soldiers came home full of bitterness toward the RAF because they never saw its aircraft: combat took place thousands of feet above, invisible to those on the ground or at sea. On the British side, it was dominated by Hurricanes, not Spitfires. Nolan shows a fighter floating for some minutes after ditching, whereas the huge Rolls-Royce Merlin engine in its nose would have sent the plane plunging to the bottom within seconds.
The character of Dawson may owe something to Charles Lightoller, a former officer on the Titanic who at the age of sixty-six took his boat Sundowner to Dunkirk, accompanied by his son and a friend, and brought home 120 men. Commander Bolton’s role at Dunkirk was fulfilled in reality by Captain Bill Tennant, who did a superb job as senior naval officer. Oddly enough Tennant, as evidenced by his diary, later became a bitter critic of Churchill’s war leadership.
Onscreen, endless British soldiers perish. Michael Korda suggests that the British army’s rate of loss was “comparable to that in the bloodiest battles of the First World War or the American Civil War, and an indication of just how hard the fighting was.” Yet what was remarkable about the real event was how few men died. In the entire May–June 1940 campaign, including Dunkirk and later episodes, just 11,000 British troops were killed, compared with at least 50,000 French dead.
A further 41,000 British troops were taken prisoner by the Germans, but alongside the 193,000 brought home, the “butcher’s bill” was small. General Sir Harold Alexander, who commanded the rear guard, told Anthony Eden on his return: “We were not hard pressed, you know.” This remark is sometimes cited as an example of his bent for heroic understatement, but was no more than the truth.
Cinema audiences are left to assume that after Dunkirk, the British sat down on their island and prepared to resist the Nazis on the beaches. In truth, in one of Churchill’s more spectacular follies, he promptly insisted upon dispatching another two divisions, one of them newly arrived Canadians, to Normandy and Brittany to show the French government and people that Britain remained committed to fight on at their side.
His chief of staff, Major General “Pug” Ismay, gently suggested to the prime minister that it might be wise for these troops to proceed slowly toward France, since it was obviously doomed. “Certainly not,” replied Churchill angrily. “It would look very bad in history if we were to do any such thing.” Few great actors on the stage of world affairs have been so mindful of the verdict of future generations. On June 13, four days before the French surrender and nine days after the Dunkirk evacuation ended, British soldiers were still landing at Breton ports.
By yet another miracle, within days of arrival in France their commander, Lieutenant General Sir Alan Brooke, persuaded Churchill that they must come home. This time there were no beaches—they embarked through the ports. Many prisoners, tanks, and vehicles, including the entire 51st Highland Division, fell into German hands and there was a spectacular disaster when the liner Lancastria, carrying over three thousand men, was sunk by air attack.
But thanks to Brooke, the prime minister was spared from evil consequences of his reckless gesture. Some 144,000 British troops, together with 24,352 Poles and 42,000 other Allied soldiers, were brought to England. Only historians are much aware of this “second Dunkirk,” and it seems ill-natured to make much of the fact that of 100,000 French soldiers brought to Britain, even De Gaulle at his most sanguine admitted that only one third agreed to serve with his newly created Free French forces, while the remainder preferred repatriation to France.
As for the British people, for the rest of 1940—the mood turned sourer in the following year—they did indeed display a stoicism and even euphoria as irrational as today’s Brexiter exultation. The MP Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary on June 15:
My reason tells me that it will now be almost impossible to beat the Germans, and that the probability is that France will surrender and that we shall be bombed and invaded…. Yet these probabilities do not fill me with despair. I seem to be impervious both to pleasure and pain. For the moment we are all anaesthetised.
The writer Peter Fleming, then an army staff officer, wrote in a similar vein: “It was as though the whole country had been invited to a fancy-dress ball and everybody was asking everybody else “What are you going as?” A latent incredulity [gave]…problems connected with invasion the status of engrossing digressions from the main business of life…. The British, when their ally was pole-axed on their doorstep, became both gayer and more serene than they had been at any time since the overture to Munich struck up in 1937.
Among countless reasons for revering Churchill’s performance in 1940 is that he himself never for a moment succumbed to such silliness. Though he justly described Dunkirk as a deliverance, he also warned the House of Commons and the nation that “wars are not won by evacuations.” He knew that while the men had been brought home, almost all their weapons and equipment had been lost: the British army was effectively disarmed.
Thereafter he and his nation set the world a magnificent example of defiance. But it was an impotent defiance, from which both Britain and democracy were redeemed only by the belated arrival of allies. It was 1944 before Churchill’s soldiers, aided by huge infusions of American men, matériel, and especially tanks, were fit to face a major European battlefield.
In the intervening four years, relatively tiny British forces fought the Germans in North Africa and Italy, and a large imperial army surrendered to the Japanese at Singapore in February 1942. Contrary to persisting British delusions, Hitler’s enmity and ambitions always focused on the East. Because of his invasion of Russia, the British and later the Americans were granted the priceless luxury of being able to prepare at leisure for the belated June 1944 liberation of northwest Europe: the band of brothers of the US 101st Airborne Division, for instance, spent almost two years in uniform before hearing a shot fired in anger.
Michael Korda suggests that thanks to the final triumph in 1945, “Dunkirk was, and remains, perhaps the greatest British victory of World War Two, that rarest of historical events—a military defeat with a happy ending.” This assertion stretches a very large point, not least because Churchill himself regarded the outcome of World War II as anything but happy, since Britain’s voice in the world, not to mention his own, had become so much diminished.
It would be unreasonable to demand that Christopher Nolan should have injected more than a fraction of these realities into his Dunkirk. The most absurd assaults on the film come from India, where critics complain that he does not feature the two companies of Indian service troops who were present on the beaches. This is comparable to the British wailing when Saving Private Ryan appeared that their soldiers were absent without leave from the screen. I wrote at the time that if any nation wants its part in any conflict glorified, it must make the films for itself.
Nolan seems to deserve congratulations for declining to include even a token American, for decades a prerequisite for securing a US audience for a British war movie. Indeed, this imperative so intimidated many British directors and their screenwriters that gallant American characters were often depicted showing the stupid English how battles should be fought.
This latest epic represents a version of history little worse than The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, or The Guns of Navarone. Some of us are grateful that so many schoolchildren are going to see it, because they will at least discover that in 1940 there were beaches, the rescue of an army, and sacrifice and considerable fortitude by their forefathers. Britain’s grown-ups, however, should have been forcibly denied entrance to cinemas at this moment when we are threatened with embarkation upon one of the most self-indulgent, willfully foolish acts of self-harm in the nation’s history.
For all the charm of Michael Korda’s personal reminiscence of 1939–1940, he is on much less sure ground in his narrative of the big events, partly because he is obviously a romantic, and partly because he relies heavily on elderly sources, including the British official history of the campaign in France, much of which is tosh. He is surely right, however, to conclude his book by comparing the emotions of the modern Brexiters with those of the British in June 1940: “There was a national sense of relief…at leaving the Continent and withdrawing behind the White Cliffs of Dover.” After Brexit takes place I fear that this time around we shall be unable to rely upon the Russians to stage a grand diversion in the East to spare us from the hideous economic, social, cultural, and political consequences of attempting to fight on alone, without the impeccable justification that Hitler has forced such a course upon us.
By all ye cry or whisper, By all ye leave or do, The silent sullen peoples Shall weigh your Gods and you.
And where the crazy whiteman And his teargas happiness Lies dead and long since buried By his own fantastic mess
As a young lad in Birmingham, my school chums and I would be enthralled by a world map covered in red – the empire upon which the sun never set. As Britain turns its back on Europe, it would seem that quite a few folk are still enamoured of the defunct Imperium. A 2014 YouGov opinion poll that found 59% British people polled believed the old British Empire was something to be proud of. 34% wished they still had one.
Back in the day, we’d do school projects about cocoa cultivation on the Gold Coast (now Ghana, not our Australian schoolies’ mecca), rubber trees in Malaya and East Africa, and tea plantations in Assam and Ceylon – enhanced by attractive, child-friendly posters and other educational aids provided gratis by the likes of Cadbury, Dunlop and Typhoo. That these household names had factories in our industrial ‘second city’ which encouraged school outings rendered the wonders of empire all the more tangible.
In the Britain of my childhood, the “silent sullen peoples” of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem were beginning to “colour-up” (pun quite intended) our monochrome, white-bread, demographic cityscape. The bleak and bland streets and suburbs of our English and Irish Birmingham were already rocking with new sounds and flavours, from the ska and reggae beats of Sparkhill to the spicy aromas of Balsall Heath and Alum Rock. There was prejudice, there was discrimination, there was at times violence, but as Britain emerged from the austerity of the war years, as the bombed cities were rebuilt, and a resuscitated economy created a consumer society, labour shortages persuaded politicians to facilitate mass immigration from the empire – and particularly, from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent
Words like imperialism and colonialism, economics and exploitation, were yet to enter our vocabularies. The colonies and dependencies spread across all continents, and the ‘grown-up’ white ‘commonwealths’ and ‘dominions’ like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and Rhodesia, were the friends, partners, and indeed, children of the mother country.
It was, we perceived, in the innocence of youth and the blinkers of our school curricula, a benign and fruitful partnership of mutual benefit to all. “To serve our captives’ need”, we gave them our civilizing, Judeo-Christian, Anglo-Celtic values, our able and empathetic if patronizing and prejudiced administrators, our gallant soldiers, pious pastors, selfless doctors and inspiring teachers. They in return yielded up their natural resources and an abundance of cheap labour, and when the Empire was imperiled, they despatched their young men in their thousands to perish in our wars.
We were not to know that the mournful notes of the Last Post were sounding across a changing post-war world. The Union Jack was was descending on buildings and parade grounds the world over as unfamiliar new flags were raised in their stead. Tired, broke, and damaged Britain was retreating from Empire, as were France and the Netherlands, and a new imperium was rising in the west. Within a decade, India, and Pakistan and Ceylon were joined by Indonesia, and a score of young nations emerged throughout Africa. France fought long and bloody wars in Vietnam and Algeria to cling on to its colonial patrimony, and it too finally let go of its “fluttered folk and wild”.
And we were not to know the reality of Britain’s “mission civilatrice”. From the seventeenth century, the European colonizing powers were enmeshed by trade, greed, and national aggrandizement in what today we would define as “mission creep”. Distant posts morphed over three centuries into vast bureaucracies, mines and plantations that underwrote the North’s industrial and commercial hegemony, and into societies ruled by white, expatriate elites and segregated by class, caste, clan and colour.
How all this played out in The Raj is described in detail by politician and historian Shashi Tharoor in Inglorious Empire: What the British did in India. This is reproduced below, together with a video, whilst the full Kipling poem, a song by Roy Harper, and a review by Australian author Christopher Kremmer follows.
Read also my earlier posts on India and the passing of Empire:
But what about the railways…? The myth of Britain’s gifts to India
Shashi Tharour, The Gusrdian, March 9, 2017
Many modern apologists for British colonial rule in India no longer contest the basic facts of imperial exploitation and plunder, rapacity and loot, which are too deeply documented to be challengeable. Instead they offer a counter-argument: granted, the British took what they could for 200 years, but didn’t they also leave behind a great deal of lasting benefit? In particular, political unity and democracy, the rule of law, railways, English education, even tea and cricket?
Indeed, the British like to point out that the very idea of “India” as one entity (now three, but one during the British Raj), instead of multiple warring principalities and statelets, is the incontestable contribution of British imperial rule.
Unfortunately for this argument, throughout the history of the subcontinent, there has existed an impulsion for unity. The idea of India is as old as the Vedas, the earliest Hindu scriptures, which describe “Bharatvarsha” as the land between the Himalayas and the seas. If this “sacred geography” is essentially a Hindu idea, Maulana Azad has written of how Indian Muslims, whether Pathans from the north-west or Tamils from the south, were all seen by Arabs as “Hindis”, hailing from a recognisable civilisational space. Numerous Indian rulers had sought to unite the territory, with the Mauryas (three centuries before Christ) and the Mughals coming the closest by ruling almost 90% of the subcontinent. Had the British not completed the job, there is little doubt that some Indian ruler, emulating his forerunners, would have done so.
Far from crediting Britain for India’s unity and enduring parliamentary democracy, the facts point clearly to policies that undermined it – the dismantling of existing political institutions, the fomenting of communal division and systematic political discrimination with a view to maintaining British domination.
In the years after 1757, the British astutely fomented cleavages among the Indian princes, and steadily consolidated their dominion through a policy of divide and rule. Later, in 1857, the sight of Hindu and Muslim soldiers rebelling together, willing to pledge joint allegiance to the enfeebled Mughal monarch, alarmed the British, who concluded that pitting the two groups against one another was the most effective way to ensure the unchallenged continuance of empire. As early as 1859, the then British governor of Bombay, Lord Elphinstone, advised London that “Divide et impera was the old Roman maxim, and it should be ours”.
Since the British came from a hierarchical society with an entrenched class system, they instinctively looked for a similar one in India. The effort to understand ethnic, religious, sectarian and caste differences among Britain’s subjects inevitably became an exercise in defining, dividing and perpetuating these differences. Thus colonial administrators regularly wrote reports and conducted censuses that classified Indians in ever-more bewilderingly narrow terms, based on their language, religion, sect, caste, sub-caste, ethnicity and skin colour. Not only were ideas of community reified, but also entire new communities were created by people who had not consciously thought of themselves as particularly different from others around them.
Large-scale conflicts between Hindus and Muslims (religiously defined), only began under colonial rule; many other kinds of social strife were labelled as religious due to the colonists’ orientalist assumption that religion was the fundamental division in Indian society.
It is questionable whether a totalising Hindu or Muslim identity existed in any meaningful sense in India before the 19th century. Yet the creation and perpetuation of Hindu–Muslim antagonism was the most significant accomplishment of British imperial policy: the project of divide et impera would reach its culmination in the collapse of British authority in 1947. Partition left behind a million dead, 13 million displaced, billions of rupees of property destroyed, and the flames of communal hatred blazing hotly across the ravaged land. No greater indictment of the failures of British rule in India can be found than the tragic manner of its ending.
Nor did Britain work to promote democratic institutions under imperial rule, as it liked to pretend. Instead of building self-government from the village level up, the East India Company destroyed what existed. The British ran government, tax collection, and administered what passed for justice. Indians were excluded from all of these functions. When the crown eventually took charge of the country, it devolved smidgens of government authority, from the top, to unelected provincial and central “legislative” councils whose members represented a tiny educated elite, had no accountability to the masses, passed no meaningful legislation, exercised no real power and satisfied themselves they had been consulted by the government even if they took no actual decisions.
As late as 1920, under the Montagu-Chelmsford “reforms”, Indian representatives on the councils – elected by a franchise so restricted and selective that only one in 250 Indians had the right to vote – would exercise control over subjects the British did not care about, like education and health, while real power, including taxation, law and order and the authority to nullify any vote by the Indian legislators, would rest with the British governor of the provinces.
Democracy, in other words, had to be prised from the reluctant grasp of the British by Indian nationalists. It is a bit rich to oppress, torture, imprison, enslave, deport and proscribe a people for 200 years, and then take credit for the fact that they are democratic at the end of it.
A corollary of the argument that Britain gave India political unity and democracy is that it established the rule of law in the country. This was, in many ways, central to the British self-conception of imperial purpose; Kipling, that flatulent voice of Victorian imperialism, would wax eloquent on the noble duty to bring law to those without it. But British law had to be imposed upon an older and more complex civilisation with its own legal culture, and the British used coercion and cruelty to get their way. And in the colonial era, the rule of law was not exactly impartial.
Crimes committed by whites against Indians attracted minimal punishment; an Englishmen who shot dead his Indian servant got six months’ jail time and a modest fine (then about 100 rupees), while an Indian convicted of attempted rape against an Englishwoman was sentenced to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment. In the entire two centuries of British rule, only three cases can be found of Englishmen executed for murdering Indians, while the murders of thousands more at British hands went unpunished.
The death of an Indian at British hands was always an accident, and that of a Briton because of an Indian’s actions always a capital crime. When a British master kicked an Indian servant in the stomach – a not uncommon form of conduct in those days – the Indian’s resultant death from a ruptured spleen would be blamed on his having an enlarged spleen as a result of malaria. Punch wrote an entire ode to The Stout British Boot as the favoured instrument of keeping the natives in order.
Political dissidence was legally repressed through various acts, including a sedition law far more rigorous than its British equivalent. The penal code contained 49 articles on crimes relating to dissent against the state (and only 11 on crimes involving death).
Of course the British did give India the English language, the benefits of which persist to this day. Or did they? The English language was not a deliberate gift to India, but again an instrument of colonialism, imparted to Indians only to facilitate the tasks of the English. In his notorious 1835 Minute on Education, Lord Macaulay articulated the classic reason for teaching English, but only to a small minority of Indians: “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”
The language was taught to a few to serve as intermediaries between the rulers and the ruled. The British had no desire to educate the Indian masses, nor were they willing to budget for such an expense. That Indians seized the English language and turned it into an instrument for our own liberation – using it to express nationalist sentiments against the British – was to their credit, not by British design.
The construction of the Indian Railways is often pointed to by apologists for empire as one of the ways in which British colonialism benefited the subcontinent, ignoring the obvious fact that many countries also built railways without having to go to the trouble and expense of being colonised to do so. But the facts are even more damning.
The railways were first conceived of by the East India Company, like everything else in that firm’s calculations, for its own benefit. Governor General Lord Hardinge argued in 1843 that the railways would be beneficial “to the commerce, government and military control of the country”. In their very conception and construction, the Indian railways were a colonial scam. British shareholders made absurd amounts of money by investing in the railways, where the government guaranteed returns double those of government stocks, paid entirely from Indian, and not British, taxes. It was a splendid racket for Britons, at the expense of the Indian taxpayer.
The railways were intended principally to transport extracted resources – coal, iron ore, cotton and so on – to ports for the British to ship home to use in their factories. The movement of people was incidental, except when it served colonial interests; and the third-class compartments, with their wooden benches and total absence of amenities, into which Indians were herded, attracted horrified comment even at the time.
And, of course, racism reigned; though whites-only compartments were soon done away with on grounds of economic viability, Indians found the available affordable space grossly inadequate for their numbers. (A marvellous post-independence cartoon captured the situation perfectly: it showed an overcrowded train, with people hanging off it, clinging to the windows, squatting perilously on the roof, and spilling out of their third-class compartments, while two Britons in sola topis sit in an empty first-class compartment saying to each other, “My dear chap, there’s nobody on this train!”)
Nor were Indians employed in the railways. The prevailing view was that the railways would have to be staffed almost exclusively by Europeans to “protect investments”. This was especially true of signalmen, and those who operated and repaired the steam trains, but the policy was extended to the absurd level that even in the early 20th century all the key employees, from directors of the Railway Board to ticket-collectors, were white men – whose salaries and benefits were also paid at European, not Indian, levels and largely repatriated back to England.
Racism combined with British economic interests to undermine efficiency. The railway workshops in Jamalpur in Bengal and Ajmer in Rajputana were established in 1862 to maintain the trains, but their Indian mechanics became so adept that in 1878 they started designing and building their own locomotives. Their success increasingly alarmed the British, since the Indian locomotives were just as good, and a great deal cheaper, than the British-made ones. In 1912, therefore, the British passed an act of parliament explicitly making it impossible for Indian workshops to design and manufacture locomotives. Between 1854 and 1947, India imported around 14,400 locomotives from England, and another 3,000 from Canada, the US and Germany, but made none in India after 1912. After independence, 35 years later, the old technical knowledge was so completely lost to India that the Indian Railways had to go cap-in-hand to the British to guide them on setting up a locomotive factory in India again. There was, however, a fitting postscript to this saga. The principal technology consultants for Britain’s railways, the London-based Rendel, today rely extensively on Indian technical expertise, provided to them by Rites, a subsidiary of the Indian Railways.
The process of colonial rule in India meant economic exploitation and ruin to millions, the destruction of thriving industries, the systematic denial of opportunities to compete, the elimination of indigenous institutions of governance, the transformation of lifestyles and patterns of living that had flourished since time immemorial, and the obliteration of the most precious possessions of the colonised, their identities and their self-respect. In 1600, when the East India Company was established, Britain was producing just 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was generating some 23% (27% by 1700). By 1940, after nearly two centuries of the Raj, Britain accounted for nearly 10% of world GDP, while India had been reduced to a poor “third-world” country, destitute and starving, a global poster child of poverty and famine. The British left a society with 16% literacy, a life expectancy of 27, practically no domestic industry and over 90% living below what today we would call the poverty line.
The India the British entered was a wealthy, thriving and commercialising society: that was why the East India Company was interested in it in the first place. Far from being backward or underdeveloped, pre-colonial India exported high quality manufactured goods much sought after by Britain’s fashionable society. The British elite wore Indian linen and silks, decorated their homes with Indian chintz and decorative textiles, and craved Indian spices and seasonings. In the 17th and 18th centuries, British shopkeepers tried to pass off shoddy English-made textiles as Indian in order to charge higher prices for them.
The story of India, at different phases of its several-thousand-year-old civilisational history, is replete with great educational institutions, magnificent cities ahead of any conurbations of their time anywhere in the world, pioneering inventions, world-class manufacturing and industry, and abundant prosperity – in short, all the markers of successful modernity today – and there is no earthly reason why this could not again have been the case, if its resources had not been drained away by the British.
If there were positive byproducts for Indians from the institutions the British established and ran in India in their own interests, they were never intended to benefit Indians. Today Indians cannot live without the railways; the Indian authorities have reversed British policies and they are used principally to transport people, with freight bearing ever higher charges in order to subsidise the passengers (exactly the opposite of British practice).
This is why Britain’s historical amnesia about the rapacity of its rule in India is so deplorable. Recent years have seen the rise of what the scholar Paul Gilroy called “postcolonial melancholia”, the yearning for the glories of Empire, with a 2014 YouGov poll finding 59% of respondents thought the British empire was “something to be proud of”, and only 19% were “ashamed” of its misdeeds.
All this is not intended to have any bearing on today’s Indo-British relationship. That is now between two sovereign and equal nations, not between an imperial overlord and oppressed subjects; indeed, British prime minister Theresa May recently visited India to seek investment in her post-Brexit economy. As I’ve often argued, you don’t need to seek revenge upon history. History is its own revenge.
Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor is published by Hurst & Company at £20
Rudyard Kipling published his famous poem to salute the US’ conquest of the Philippines in 1899, although he had originally written it to celebrate Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee.
The White Man’s Burden
Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Take up the White Man’s burden –
In patience to abide
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.
Take up the White Man’s burden –
And reap his old reward,
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard –
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah slowly !) towards the light:-
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
“Our loved Egyptian night ?”
Take up the White Man’s burden –
Ye dare not stoop to less –
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.
In 1970, Roy Harper, Britain’s high priest of lyrical angst Roy created a counterpoint with this song from Flat, Baroque and Berserk.
Shashi Tharoor’s indictment of the British in India
Christopher Kremmer, Sydney Morning Herald, August 18, 2017
Remember the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when a Judean rebel leader fumes as his gormless but practical comrades detail the benefits of oppression under their powerful and technologically advanced Roman oppressors?
“Orright,” concedes the leader, Reg, played by John Cleese. “But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
In Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, Shashi Tharoor, writer, politician and United Nations-based diplomat for 30 years, asks a similar question to the one posed by Cleese’s beleaguered revolutionary.
In doing so, he seeks to remind misty-eyed Raj romantics that colonialism was no joke. As empires go, he says, Britain’s was uncommonly ruthless, devious and rapacious in its quest to enslave a people whose leaders failed to see how free trade, unwisely managed, can undermine a country’s long-term sovereignty and prosperity.
In the process, Tharoor accuses a number of historians, most prominent among them, Niall Ferguson, of being apologists for the racial discrimination, violence, economic sabotage and denial of liberty embodied by centuries of British rule in India.
It all began as a harmless commercial enterprise, Tharoor reminds us. In 1600, the British East India Company was formed under royal charter. Its aim was to compete with colonial rivals such as the French and Dutch for lucrative trade opportunities with India, an industrial and cultural superpower that under its Mughal emperors would account for 27 per cent of the world economy.
Awash with gems, natural resources, shipyards and a sophisticated cultural life, the Mughals were happy to trade. By the end of the century, however, they were tired, divided, and overextended. In 1739, the capital at Delhi was sacked by the Persians.
Meanwhile, in the expanding coastal trading posts, the initial presence of armed guards to protect the company’s staff and premises had evolved into a fully fledged army that by 1757 under Robert “Clive of India” had toppled the independent nawab of India’s richest province, Bengal. By 1800, the company had 260,000 men under arms and a talent for regime change that brought 200 million people under its control.
In 1857, after Hindu and Muslim rebels joined in a bloody revolt, India came under direct rule from London, and the company was eventually dissolved. The new Raj survived two world wars and the Great Depression, extending British rule for another 90 years until Gandhi’s Freedom movement triumphed in 1947, albeit at the terrible cost of Partition.
It is unusual, but not unheard of today to meet Indians who believe their country was better off under the Raj. Muddle-headed history is much more prominent in soon to be Brexited Britain. Tharoor cites a 2014 opinion poll that found 59 per cent of British people polled believed the old empire was something to be proud of. Thirty-four per cent wished they still had one.
Tharoor marshalls a formidable array of research to make the case that such attitudes are anachronistic and poorly informed. All the old chesnuts, for example, that the British modernised India, bequeathed it a tradition of parliamentary democracy and civilised the locals by teaching them the gentlemanly sport of cricket, are lined up and skewered, or at least plausibly challenged.
The company smashed India’s advanced textiles industries, literally by demolishing factories and imposing tariffs of 70-80 per cent on exports to Britain. In doing so, they turned a manufacturing, shipbuilding nation into a source of raw materials with little scope for value adding industries. The railways, he argues, were developed principally to more efficiently ship out those raw materials, and were financed by an elaborate and shonky racket that enriched British investors by inflating the cost of Indian rail track to twice that of Australia and Canada.
Meanwhile, ordinary Indians were taxed 50 per cent of their incomes, far beyond their experience and capacity to pay. Defaulters were tortured and jailed or, in the case of two-thirds of Indians under British rule in the late 18th century, fled their lands.
“The bones of the cotton weavers were bleaching the plains of India,” as one colonial administrator observed. The treasuries of princely states such as Bengal were systematically looted by coercive and corrupt methods, while prices for basic commodities were driven up by the opulent lifestyles of expatriate Britons.
Indian taxes not only paid the salaries of the British army of occupation, but also of the hundreds of thousands of Indian troops who became cannon fodder for British interests on the Western Front, at Gallipoli, and in Mesopotamia.
Behind the entire rip-off, as Ferdinand Mount, has observed, “lay the hard calculus of the City of London”. The Indian currency was manipulated to British advantage, and its trade with Europe was forced to go through London. Specifications were set to ensure that Indian steel could not be exported to Britain. India did not miss the bus of the Industrial Revolution – it was forcibly prevented from boarding it.
Discrimination against Indians in civil service employment was rife. Even the arch-colonial writer Rudyard Kipling observed that the bureaucracy was “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service”. The “justice” British rule gave India meant it was almost impossible for a white man to be given a serious term in jail for murdering his Indian servant, which happened rather a lot. The racism of the occupiers gave the lie to the fiction of modern, enlightened and benign British rule. As one viceroy put it, “We are all British gentlemen engaged in the magnificent work of governing an inferior race”.
Tharoor acknowledges the sincere efforts of many British expats to ameliorate the harsh realities of colonial rule. But even in the 20th century, when the sun was setting on the Raj, enlightenment attitudes took second place to the desire to crush the Indian independence movement. The same people who condemned the nationalist leader Nehru to 10 years in British Indian jail cells also labelled Gandhi’s non-violent campaign for freedom as terrorism. Newspapers that alerted the public to such injustices, particularly the vernacular press, were often censored or shut down.
For all its claims to superiority, the British Empire was in charge in India during no fewer than 11 famines in which 30 to 35 million people died of starvation, Tharoor notes. Ultimately, he believes, Britain’s desire for wealth trumped all other values and considerations. The rhetoric of uplifting the benighted brown man was always a self-serving, grotesque and conceited pose to justify a regime that bribed and murdered, annexed and stole to enrich a certain class of Briton.
This book burns with the power of intellect married with conviction. It ends with Tharoor commenting that the way the Raj ended was its greatest indictment. The collapse of British rule amid devastating sectarian violence and creation of a Muslim “homeland” in Pakistan can be seen as the logical conclusion of 90 years of divide and rule strategies as London clung desperately to power in the subcontinent.
As they washed their hands and packed their carpet bags, the British departed an India in which 84 per cent of people could not read or write their own name in any language. What an achievement. In 1600, Britain produced 1.8 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product, compared with India’s 23 per cent. By the end of the Raj, Britain’s share had multiplied fivefold, while India had been reduced to penury.
But in 70 short years, India’s proud republic has made enormous strides in literacy, numeracy and poverty reduction, and is now the world’s fastest growing major economy.
Yet there are contradictions in the new India’s rise, some with their roots in the British period, like the ruling Hindu nationalist movement’s proclivity to cast the Indian identity in sectarian terms. At times, Tharoor’s determination to resist such trends leads him to downplay the injustices of earlier empires to more graphically illustrate the failings of the British one.
Yet overall, this is erudite, well-written, thoroughly documented and persuasive history that focuses varied sources into a coherent critique of colonialism in the Indian context. Tear up your copies of Ferguson’s neo-liberal mind rot and get angry like Tharoor.
for we had love and each other and the moon for company when I spent summer with Monica and Monica spent summer with me
June this year saw the fiftieth anniversary the publication of Roger McGough’s wistful verse-memoir “Summer With Monika”, and in October, we celebrate the publication in 1967 of that great anthology The Mersey Sound which showcased the poetry of Liverpudlians McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henry.
Named for the musical revolution that originated in the northern English port city of Liverpool, it became one of the best-selling poetry anthologies of all time, exerting an influence on British poetry well beyond the decade. I bought the slim volume as soon as it came out, and back in the day, guitar in hand, I would set many of its poems to music as it nurtured my nascent song-writing and poetry skills. I recall now Patten’s “Somewhere Between Heaven and Woolworths’, and “Delicate John’ and the tunes I set to them. I still sing McGough’s Great War country-and-western-noir ‘Square Dance’: “Swing your partners dos-y-doed, all around the shells explode”
The poems had an immediacy, a relevance to those breakout times when a young man’s hopes and fears seemed to centre of the availability or otherwise (mostly not) of casual sex with gorgeous dolly birds, the American quagmire in Vietnam, and the imminent threat of a nuclear Armageddon. They spoke in a familiar vernacular, everyday English that we understood and related to about ordinary events and workaday artifacts that acquired a totemic significance upon the printed page. Toasters, teapots and fish ‘n chips. Kardomah cafes and Star of India restaurants. Bus-conductors, postmen, and milk bottles on the doorstep. Schoolyards and superheroes. Miniskirts and monarchy. The northern English weather.
And all this against the soundtrack of some of the greatest popular music that ever was spilling out of radios and record players in the suburban bedrooms and inner city bedsits of teenagers across the land. There wasn’t a great lyrical leap from the songs of the Beatles with their particular Liverpudlian spirit of place to the words, worries and wonderings of our very own British ‘Beat Poets’.
“This was indeed a decade of change and ferment. Values changed, morals changed, habits changed, clothes changed, music changed (the best music ever). The way people looked at the world and thought about it. We often look back and remark that a supernova of creativity burst over the western world during those years, the likes of which was not seen before and has never been seen again. And nowhere more so than in decadent, decaying, depressing, old England, trapped in tradition, class, and prejudice”.
I browsed through the whole book the other day, and in a way, it was like a reunion party, a meeting and greeting of old friends, a pleasant, nostalgic journey to a gone time. As that well-worn saying goes, the past is indeed another country – we certainly did things different then. The places and the people, the perceptions and perspectives, the preoccupations and the passions. As I read, I’d recognize words, phrases, images, ideas that osmosised into my own verse, particularly poetry I penned in the late sixties and early seventies, and which are gathered up in my Tabula Rasacollection.
It was my habit in those days to scribble little notes in the margins. And there they were now, for me to ponder fifty years on, and to wonder how the world looked when I wore a young man’s skin, and thought with the mind of a raw, inquiring, idealistic youth who had yet to break loose of the ties that bound, of family, school, and town. But the adventure had obviously begun – if only in the imagination, as I read and rehearsed, pondered and prepared for the great escape. An upper sixth, adolescent eclecticism well-illustrated by the picture below of my additions to Adrian Henri’s stream of consciousness nomenklatura:
Like Adrian Henri’s name-dropping, my neatly-written notes list a host of folk living and dead, mostly white and mostly male. Actors, authors and autocrats. Poets, painters, and philosophers. Popstars, policians and television personalities. Most are, even today, remembered and commemorated. Some are long forgotten. There are few on my list that I failed to recognize after all these years. But praise be to Google! I soon rediscovered that Sean Lemass was Taoiseach of Ireland in 1967; that Frank Mitchell was a notorious ax-murderer killed that year on the orders of the infamous Kray twins; that Manny Shinwell was an MP and trade unionist, and Jack Dash, a communist trade union leader. Bartle Frere was governor of Cape Colony at the time of the Zulu wars, and Dudley Stamp, a celebrated geographer of the British landscape, both included, I believe, because I was doing A Levels in History and Geography at the time, and their names struck a chord of sorts. In the light of my later life DownUnder, one name was particularly prescient: Harold Holt’s short tenure as prime minister of Australia ended in 1967 with a ill-fated swim off the coast of Melbourne. There are now Harold Holt swimming clubs and annual swimathons all over the country.
I will conclude this personal retrospective with a some quotations, poems and recordings:
She walks across the room and opens the skylight
thinking, perhaps a bird will drop in
for and teach her to sing
The children who grow old
to who squabble and grow thin
who lick their lips at disaster .
and quietly whisper of sin
walking in empty squares in winter rain
kissing in darkened hallways
walking in empty suburban streets
saying goodnight in deserted alleyways
in the midnight hour
The Independent recently published an affectionate tribute to Roger McGough on the occasion of this fiftieth anniversary. It includes Roger’s revisiting of one of his iconic poems:
Not for me a youngman’s death
Not a car crash, whiplash
One more for the road, kind of death.
Not a gun in hand, in a far off land
IED hidden in the sand death
Not a slow-fade, razor blade
bloodbath in the bath, death.
Jump under a train, Kurt Cobain
bullet in the brain, death
Not a horse-riding, paragliding
mountain climbing fall, death.
Motorcycle into an old stone wall
you know the kind of death, death
My nights are rarely unruly.
My days of all-night parties
are over, well and truly.
No mistresses no red sports cars
no shady deals no gangland bars
no drugs no fags no rock ‘n roll
Time alone has taken its toll
Let me die an old man’s death
Not a domestic brawl, blood in the hall
knife in the chest, death.
Not a drunken binge, dirty syringe
‘What a waste of a life’ death.
And here is one of my favourites from the Summer of Love:
Summer With Monika
They say the sun shone now and again
but it was generally cloudy
with far too much rain
they say babies were born
married couples made love,
often with each other
and people died
they say it was an average ordinary moderate
run-of-the-mill common or garden summer
but it wasn’t
for I locked a yellow door
and I threw away the key.
and I spent summer with Monica
and she spent summer with me
unlike everybody else we made friends with the weather
most days the sun called and sprawled all over the place
or the wind blew in as breezily as ever
and ran his fingers through our hair
but usually it was the moon that kept us company
some days we thought about the seaside
and built sand castles on the blankets
and paddled in the pillows
or swam in the sink and played with shoals of dishes
other days we went for long walks around the table
and picnicked on the banks of the settee
or just sunbathed lazily in front of the fire
until the shilling set on the horizon.
we danced a lot that summer
bossanovaed by the bookcase
or maddisoned instead,
hulligullied by the oven
or twisted round the bed
at first we kept birds in a transistor box
to sing for us but sadly they died
we being to embrace in each other to feed them.
but it didn’t really matter because
we made love songs with our bodies
I became the words
and she put me to music
they say it was just like any other summer
but it wasn’t
for we had love and each other
and the moon for company
when I spent summer with Monica
and Monica spent summer with me.
As I contemplate my annual review of In That Howling Infinite, I am reminded, with clichéd predictability, of that well-worn Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times”.
A torturous and seemingly endless US election campaign defied all the pundits by producing an colourful and unpredictable POTUS. In the UK, the unthinkable Brexit came to pass, dividing the polity and discombobulating the establishment. Next year is certainly going to be worth watching.
The slow and tragic death of Syria continued unabated with Russian and Turkey wading into the quagmire alongside Americans, British, French, Australians, Iran, Lebanon, Gulf tyrants, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Da’esh might be on the the ropes in Iraq, but the long term survival of the unitary state is doubtful. And the proxy wars of the Ottoman Succession have spread to Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle Eas as Gulf tyrants face off against Shia Iran’s alleged puppets, and, armed and abetted by British and American weaponry, South American mercenaries, and Australian officers, bomb the shit out of the place.
Whilst the grim reaper scythed through the world from Baghdad to Berlin, from Aleppo to Ankara, the Year saw the passing of a record number of icons of the seventies and eighties, two of whom who have provided a continuing soundtrack for my life, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie. We shall not see the like of them again.
In our little corner of the cosmos, we endured the longest and most boring election campaign in living memory, resulting in an outcome that only accentuates Australians’ disenchantment with a lacklustre Tory government, a depressingly dysfunctional political system, and politicians of all stripes who, blinkered by short-termism, and devoid of vision, insist on fiddling whilst the antipodean Roman burns.
Meanwhile, in our own rustic backyard, we find that we too are “going up against chaos”, to quote that wonderful Canadian songster Bruce Cockburn. For much of the year, we have been engaged in combat with the Forestry Corporation of New South Wales as it proceeds to lay waste to the state forest that surrounds us. As the year draws to a close, our adversary has withdrawn with only half of its proposed harvest completed. But it will return in 2017, and the struggle will continue – as it will throughout the state and indeed the nation as timber, coal and gas corporations, empowered by legislation, trash the common treasury with the assent of our many governments.
And yet, life on the farm remains pleasant and delightful, though dams are low and rain would be most welcome. The bird and reptilian life continues to amaze us, and an ironic corollary to the clear felling of the Tarkeeth Forest is that “refugees” are seeking shelter here. Wallabies rarely seen on our land are now quite common, whilst echidnas, and, we suspect, endangered spotted quolls have been sighted hereabouts
We took time out mid-year to revisit Israel and Palestine, and road-trip through the two countries was much an education as a holiday. We certainly got our history and archeology fix, and in travelling through the Golan and the Negev, we found respite in a stunning natural environment. But the answers to our many political questions merely threw up more questions. We have unfinished business in this divine but divided land, and will return.
In That Howling Infinite addressed all these concerns during 2016, and matters more eclectic and exotic.
Our travels through Israel and Palestine inspired numerous real-time posts, and a several retrospectives as we contemplated what we had experienced during what was as much an educational tour as a holiday. Historical vignettes included a tribute to bad-boy and builder King Herod the Great, a brief history of the famous Damascus Gate, and its place in Palestinian national consciousness, and a contemplation on the story of King David’s Citadel which overlooked our home-away-from home, the New Imperial Hotel. Thorny contemporary issues were covered with an optimistic piece on theJerusalem Light Rail, a brief if controversial post about Jewish settlers in the Old City, the story of Israel’s ‘Eastern’ Jews, the Mizrahim, and what appears to be a potentially problematic Palestinian property boom. Th e-magazine Muftah published an article I wroteabout the conflicting claims to the city of Hebron. And finally, there is a poem recalling our visit to the Shrine of Remembrance at Yad Vashem and honouring the Righteous Gentiles who saved thousand of Jewish lives during the Shoah.
Wintertime passed with our minds on the Tarkeeth Forest. I had the pleasure discovering the history of our locality, and connecting via Facebook with the relatives of the Fells family of Twin Pines. But the latter half of the year was very much taken up with enduring and bearing witness to the clear- felling of the forest to our east. “If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise. If you go down to the woods today, you’ll never believe your eyes”. And you’d ask “what would JRR Tolkien have thought?”
The UK And US paroxysms fascinated and exasperated the mainstream and social media in equal measure, whilst the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the presidential election has initiated an a veritable orgy of punditry. Never have so many column inches and kilobytes been spent on loud sounding nothings as the sifting through the entrails of such events as Brexit, the US election, and the Australian senate! With half a dozen elections coming up in Europe, Trump’s inauguration and the triggering of Article 50 to take Britain out the European Union, we’re gonna have to endure a lot more. I confined my posts to two insightful pieces by respected right-wing Australian commentators, Paul Kelly’s Living in Interesting Times, and Greg Sheridan’s The Loss of American Virtue, and my own reflection on the right-wing media’s strange fascination with “insiders” and “outsiders”.
Finally, in comparison to last year, this year was very light on music and poetry. But American satirist Tom Lehrer got a retrospective, and murdered Pakistani qawwali singer Madhaf Sabri, an obituary, whilst an abridged and vernacular version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost told the tale of Lilith, the first and greatest femme fatale. In the words of the gloriously-named jockey Rueben Bedford Walker III says in EC Morgan’s magnificent The Sport of Kings, the subject of my first post for 2017, “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man”.
On that wise note, I wish the world a Happy New Year – and may it be less interesting than this one.
In That Howling Infinite is now on FaceBook. Check it out. And just for the fun of it, here’s my review of 2015.
When we were in Istanbul in 2014, we were particular keen to see the famous Viking graffiti on a rail of the gallery of the beautiful Aya Sofya basilica. And there indeed it was, carved by Halvden, a 9th Century soldier of the Emperor’s Varangian Guard, an elite force of Viking mercenaries. The name Varangian derives from the Greek via Old Norse væringi or ‘pledge’.
This year, we visited York, successively a Roman, Saxon, and Viking city.
I have an intense interest in connections, in the valences that link people, times, and places. And in York, there were many. Constantine, the creator of the Byzantine Empire, and founder of Constantinople, was declared emperor here on the death in York of his father. His statue sits (literally) outside York Minster. The Roman brickage we saw in Ephesus, Palmyra, and Jerusalem was replicated here in York, and in the forts of Hadrian’s Wall. And it was exciting to discover another connection to Istanbul, and that long-departed Viking warrior.
Viking graffiti in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
My story recalls one the most famous dates in English history, the the Battle of Hastings. But I shall not retell the story of that battle, nor of the battle at Stamford Bridge which preceded it. Rather, I will describe one particular Viking’s adventurous journeying before he met his doom near York in September 1066.
Harald Sigurdsson, named Hardrada (“Stern Counsel” or “Hard Ruler”), was born about 1015, and he was the first King to perish in 1066. King of Norway, his appetite grew with the eating, and he made unsuccessful plays for the thrones of Denmark and England. Failing the first, he invaded and raided east of what was then Eoforic (formerly Roman Eboracum, Viking Jorvik, and today, York – and there is an isolated hamlet on the plateau to our west in northern New South Wales called Ebor). His protagonist that day was one Harold Godwinson of Wessex, otherwise known as Harold II, King of England. Harold marched his army all the way up to Eoforic to confront his almost-namesake and Harald’s ally, one Tostig Goodwinson, Saxon turncoat and also, Harold’s embittered brother. In four days, Harold marched his army 180 miles from London, meeting and defeating Harald and Tostig at Stamford Bridge, just east of York. Hearing that William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy had landed near Hastings to challenge his claim to the English throne, King Harold then marched his army south again. 241 miles this time. The rest, as they say, is history.
King Harald is not hard to find on the Internet. There are websites, histories, and even novels that tell his story in lesser and greater detail – I republish a review of Don Hollway’s imaginative The Last Viking below. And, rumour has it, Leonardo DiCaprio is pondering the prospect of making a movie about him, and possibly starring in it. There are also many resources dealing with the Varangian Guard. I recommend Frank Westenfelder’s succinct blog history of mercenaries, Soldiers of Misfortune. So what follows is my own sensationalist synopsis, written as much for entertainment as for education.
As a teen Harald was caught up in internecine warfare between battling Viking eorls. Brothers and half-brothers, rebels and pretenders fought for lands and crowns in the realms that now constitute Scandinavia. Young Harald often fought and failed, and on failing, he fled. He washed up in Kyivan Rus on Lake Ladoga, east of present day Petersburg, and then entered the service of Grand Prince Jaroslav or (Yaroslavl) the Wise in Novgorod. The principality of Kyivan Rus, by the by, was the predecessor of today’s Ukraine, Russia, and Belorussia, and was established and ruled for over a century by Viking warriors. Harald captained the Grand Prince’s soldiery and, so the sagas sing, paid court to Jaroslav’s beautiful daughter Elesiv (Elisabeth). Ukrainian historians maintain that Yaroslavl actually ruled in raked in Kyiv and that his daughter was called Yelizaveta; but they tell the same story.
In Jaroslav’s service, Harold fought Poles, Estonians, Turkic nomads, and Byzantines. He eventually took five hundred Viking warriors to Constantinople – the Norsemen called it Mickelgard, or Great City – where his martial reputation saw him rise to head the Varangian Guard, that same mob that our Istanbul graffitist served in. Whilst this was specifically the emperors’s bodyguard, as an elite force, it fought on the empire’s frontiers against Arab pirates and raiders, marauding nomads from the steppes, Saracens, Normans and Bulgarians. The sagas say that Harald even traveled to Jerusalem – the Vikings called it Jorsalberg – protecting caravans of Christian pilgrims. Just picture it. A brigade of Norseman slashing and bashing their way through the wadis and wastelands of Syria, fifty years before the first crusaders put Jerusalem to the sword.
Harald passed twelve years in Byzantium departing a wealthy warrior. Not that his leaving was without complications. Implicated in murky financial dealings (including a fair amount of looting and blackmail), Byzantine power struggles, and, possibly, an illicit love affair with the Empress Zoe, he fled with his men in two ships. One was trapped by the famous chain that was strung across the Bosporus (see below for more details). but his boat reached the Black Sea and sailed thence to Rus’ once more, and the lovely Princess.
Elisef’s father, the renowned Jaroslav ‘the law giver’, was in fact the son of a Viking Varangian, and this may have been a reason he gave Harald sanctuary and employment in the first place, and encouraged him to seek service in Constantinople. Whilst there, Harald had secured sufficient funds to finance a bid for the Norwegian throne. After much battling and bargaining, he succeeded, and indeed, ruled Norway for twenty years until he made the fateful decision to try his hand in England.
Tostig was angry that Harold has taken the earldom of Northumbria away from him, and so encouraged Harald to challenge his brother’s disputed claim to the English throne. It is mooted that Viking Harald and French William each believed that he had been promised said crown by the dying English king, Edward the Confessor. Both therefore came ashore with their forces to claim what they reckoned was their inheritance. Which was why the unfortunate Harold did his exhausting round-trip in September and October of 1066.
At Stamford Bridge, Harald’s long run of good fortune ran out. the Norns, having long ignored him, decided to cut his thread. The Viking army was heavily beaten, and Harald himself was struck in the throat by an arrow and killed early on in the battle in a state of “berserkergang” or “battle rage”. He wore no body armour nor carried a shield, fighting fiercely with both hands clutching his heavy sword. Dying thus, sword in his hand, he was assured entry into Valhalla.
There is a song for every occasion, and with our our sojourn in York, and Viking fact and fiction echoing along its ersatz City Walls, I would like to share my very own Viking saga:
The Saga of Harald Hardrada
The original source for much of what we know of Harald is The Heimskringia Saga. therein is much more fascinating detail of his adventures, including the full story of his escape from Constantinople. All of Harald’s Varangians piled onto two ships and rowed like crazy for the chain. As they approached, he had every man who wasn’t rowing pick up any baggage he had and run to the back of the boat, so that the prow of was raised and the stern lay low in the water. Thus, the ships managed to run themselves halfway up onto the chain, whereupon all the vikings at the stern ran to the front with their gear, so that the ships tilted forward and came down on the other side. At least, that was the plan. Harald’s ship made it but the other broke its keel and sank, along with half of his men. The Saga is available in the online Gutenberg Library. Go to Saga 8, The Saga of Harald Hardrade.
Anglo Saxon Varangians
An exciting addition to the saga of the Varangian Guard is recent evidence that in the wake of they Norman Conquest, Saxon exiles emigrated from conquered England and joined the Emperor’s bodyguard. They acquired quite a reputation for martial prowess, and were believed to have established a city in what is today the Crimean Peninsula. Read Caitlin Green’s well-written post:New England on the Black Sea
The Vikings of Rus
The principality of Kyivan Rus, with its capital at Kyiv, was established and ruled for over a century by Viking warriors who ventured south down the great rivers of today’s Ukraine, Russia, and Belorussia. The Viking age lasted from the end of the eighth century to the latter half of the eleventh.
The vikings raided and traded, subjugated and ruled whole countries or parts thereof, transforming existing politics and creating new ones. In so doing, they butted up against the Byzantine Empire, even reaching the gates of Constantinople itself. Envoys of the king of Rus first came to the city in 838, offering peace, friendship and trade. But there was also conflict. In 860, Vikings besieged the city and passing through the Bosporus into the Mediterranean, plundered Byzantine-controlled islands. This was repeated in 959.
Over time, relations became much more cordial. Prince Volodymyr the Great of Kyiv converted to Christianity in 988, a purely political move to secure the goodwill of the Byzantine empire, his most powerful and dangerous neighbour. He adopted the Byzantine orthodoxy, thus drawing him closer to the empire, and proceeded to convert his subjects. Alliances of mutual benefit were formed, with Vikings fighting Byzantium’s border wars, and were often sealed with marriages between Viking lords and Byzantine princesses.
Constantinople was like a lode star to the Vikings. The princes of Kyivan Rus were attracted to its wealth and commerce, and also to the power, prestige and high culture. Indeed, they endeavoured to replicate it on the Dnieper. Voldymyr’s grandson Yaroslav/Jaroslav (he’s acclaimed by both Ukraine and Russia) rebuilt Kyiv in Byzantium’s image, in brick and stone, built a magnificent cathedral modeled on Theodosius’ Aya Sofia, naming it Saint Sofia, and a raised a Golden Gate like that in the Great City. Princes in other cities followed Kyiv’s example.
Everything was violently undone in 1238 when the Mongols invaded Kyivan Rus, and Kyiv itself was devastated in 1240, and did not recover its former importance and prosperity for centuries. Yet, the cathedral of St Sophia still stands in the heart of Kiev, as it has done for almost a millennium, its golden domes a symbol of the advent of Christianity in eastern Europe.
There’s a fascinating account of Kyivan Rus See Serhii Plokhy’s history of Ukraine,The Gates of Europe.
If you love heroic fantasy a la George R.R. Martin, you’ll love ‘The Last Viking’
Michael Dirda, Washington Post September 22, 2021
Harald Hardrada, the 11th-century Norse adventurer of Don Hollway’s “The Last Viking,” led an iron-hammered life of struggle, travel, scheming and violence. Especially that last. As Tom Shippey observed in his history of Viking culture, “Laughing Shall I Die,” everything the ax-wielding warriors of the North did “was based on violence. That is what Vikings were good at, especially good at, spectacularly good at.”
And none more so than Harald Hardrada, Harald the Hard-Ruler or Tyrant, whose marauding ways came to an end in England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York, in the pivotal year of 1066. In effect, the 51-year-old invader, by then the king of Norway, was caught by surprise. The Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson unexpectedly quick-marched his army north, covering 200 miles in four or five days instead of the usual two weeks. Hollway calls this “one of the greatest feats of military tactics in medieval history.” Yet even though Harald, the “thunderbolt of the North,” was defeated and killed, he unknowingly exacted a cold revenge. Immediately after this costly, hard-fought victory, the Anglo-Saxon king and his remaining, exhausted troops were compelled to hurry back south to face William of Normandy — soon to be William the Conqueror — at the Battle of Hastings. A fresher, bigger army might have changed English history. As it was, in just three weeks both the age of the Vikings and the reign of the Anglo-Saxons reached a blood-drenched close.
When we think of Vikings, we generally picture dragon ships raiding the coasts of England and Scotland or intrepidly sailing westward across the Atlantic to Iceland and, quite probably, North America. Yet Harald passed much of his young manhood in the wild, wild East, where this “almost legendary Norse hero”— as John Julius Norwich calls him in “Byzantium: The Apogee”— served as a mercenary in the Byzantine Empire’s elite Varangian Guard, eventually becoming its de facto commander. He also participated in diplomatic missions and military actions in the Holy Land, Sicily and Constantinople itself. Beyond that, matters grow somewhat hazy.
Much of what we know about Harald derives from Icelandic sagas, poems and histories, supplemented by Byzantine sources, such as Michael Psellus’s “Chronographia.” In “The Last Viking,” Hollway, a journalist specializing in military history, dramatically weaves together all the facts and most of what is conjectured about the Viking, the result being at once a biography and “a melding, comparison and recounting of the old tales.” Was the handsome blond warrior a favorite of the aging, lustful Empress Zoe? Did he gouge out the eyes of the pusillanimous Emperor Michael V? Was he the secret lover of the Emperor Constantine IX’s mistress? Might the imperial throne have actually been within reach of his sword-arm? Though it’s impossible to be sure, all of these questions could plausibly be answered “yes.” That’s what the skalds and chroniclers believed and that’s the riveting story Hollway tells.
In the year 1030 Harald was 15 years old when he joined his much older half brother Olaf, the deposed king of Norway, in the latter’s attempt to regain his throne. Just before the climactic battle of Stiklestad, Olaf told Harald he was too young for the upcoming clash of arms, to which the teenager reportedly countered, “I will certainly be in this battle. I’m not too weak to handle a sword. If necessary my hand can be strapped to the hilt.” During the fighting, Olaf was killed and Harald left for dead. But the boy survived, recovered from his wounds, and with a small company headed for Russia, traveled up the Neva River to Lake Ladoga and then on to Kiev, where his kinsman Prince Yaroslav ruled. Three years later, only 18, Harald captained that prince’s household guard. Recognizing that he could rise no higher in Kiev, this ambitious, natural-born commander sailed and portaged down the river Dnieper, then crossed the Black Sea to Miklagard, the Big City, as the Scandinavians called Constantinople.
Hollway devotes half his book to Harald’s adventures and machinations during the decade he spent with the Varangian Guard. Toward the end of those years, the Viking and his closest lieutenants were cast into a lightless dungeon, yet nonetheless managed to break out, kidnap the emperor’s mistress and commandeer two galleys. But so what? Escape by sea was blocked by a heavy barrier chain stretched across the estuary known as the Golden Horn. Ever resourceful, Harald ordered his men to row toward it with all their might just as he and the others on board all rushed to the ship’s stern. This raised its bow high enough so that the vessel rode halfway over the chain, at which point everyone immediately raced forward to elevate the galley’s back half, allowing the ship to slide down into open water.
Once back in Kiev, Harald married Yaroslav’s pretty daughter Elisaveta, then journeyed homeward to seize power in Norway and attempt to subjugate Sweden and Denmark. Up to this point, the Viking could be construed a hero or at least a brilliantly audacious and quick-witted soldier of fortune, but in his unrelenting drive to be ruler of all Scandinavia he soon grew treacherous and cruel, looting and burning Danish cities, murdering any nobles who stood against him. His battle standard, white silk bearing the image of a black raven, became known as Land-Waster. The chance to bring England under its sway ultimately led to Harald’s last stand at Stamford Bridge.
A fencer and historical reenactor, Don Hollway excels at describing medieval weaponry, shield walls and battle tactics. Yet this isn’t just a book for military history buffs. If you love Frans Bengtsson’s picaresque masterpiece, “The Long Ships,” Robert Graves’s intrigue-suffused “I, Claudius,” or heroic fantasy in the mold of Robert E. Howard, George R.R. Martin and Howard Andrew Jones, you owe it to yourself to pick up “The Last Viking.” It’s that exciting, that good.
Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
The Last Viking – the True Story of King Harald Hardrada, Don Hollway, Osprey.
“These are the days of miracle and wonder, but don’t cry baby, don’t cry…” Paul Simon, The Boy in the Bubble
With an election looming in Australia, touted as the most important election since the last election, a critical referendum next week in the UK that could precipitate a frightening leap in the dark, and possibly the most divisive presidential contest in the USA in living memory, I scale the News Corp pay-wall to share Paul Kelly’s thoughts on the “interesting times” that we are living in.
Disruption of Brexit, Trump Loom in Anti-elitist Age
Paul Kelly, The Australian, 15th June, 2016
Our age is defined by hostility towards elites and establishment power — caused by financial abuses, frustration at pressures over incomes, immigration and living standards, polarisation at changing cultural norms and Islamist terror — with the US and Britain now in domestic political turmoil from this phenomenon.
The sense of elite failure is taking hold. It mirrors the belief that established policy is rotten or ineffective. Witness the incessant talk of weak leadership and the demise of political trust. People feel they are losing control — of their suburbs, country and security.
The culture of complaint, partly justified, lurches out of control, fed by public anger, acrimonious social media and a coarsening in public life. In this cauldron, ideas that have governed prosperity and success are now under assault from extremes of Left and Right. This roughly describes the forces at work in the US and Britain today. The once unthinkable — just nine months ago — is now a real prospect.
Donald Trump, Republican nominee for president with a reasonable chance in a two-horse race, constitutes a danger to the US and the world. Britain, according to polls, is 50-50 on whether to vote for Brexit and leave the EU in a delusional national revolt. And Australia, devoid of such epic events, is not devoid of their causes, with an anti-establishment, anti-major party hostility possibly defining the 2016 election.
There are two dominant characteristics of this revolt against the elites — it proves the failure of established political leaders and every sign is that such angry, disillusioned populism is just making matters worse and leaving people worse off.
The Western democracies are sinking into a political and intellectual crisis.
The Trump and Brexit movements are different in form but close in motivation — they are driven by multiple grievance. They feed off the notion of a polity gone wrong and a public scorned for too long. They represent a community alienated by and from the centres of power, from the Republican establishment to an arrogant EU.
In extreme form, people feel the system is rigged against them. They are retaliating: part calculated, part irrational. In an age of economic and technological disruption, large segments of the community have said “you want disruption? OK, we’ll give you disruption”.
Tory PM David Cameron now finds his survival in peril. Barack Obama, the most progressive US president, bequeaths a legacy of public rancour, polarisation and low self-esteem. Is it possible for any leader to succeed in societies that have lost their traditional virtue and much of the civic glue that held them together?
It is a time of false prophets. A generation of different and dangerous populists now moves to centre stage. Some like Trump, are undisguised in their racial, sexist and selfish pitches. Trump knows the key to being a successful fraud is to be a grand fraud. He pledges “to make America great again” with an agenda that will damage America and endanger the world.
Yet he wins wide applause. This is because he is an anti-politician, shaking the system, abusing the established politicians, trashing their ideas. He thrives on shock and extravagance in a culture drunk with mindless celebrity. He stands for economic nationalism, trade protectionism, xenophobic hostility towards Muslims and a US strategic withdrawal from the world and much of its alliance system.
Many of the sentiments Trump champions are embraced, one way or another, by the collection of minor parties and independents running at this election — and receiving little scrutiny — from Nick Xenophon’s extreme protectionism to Pauline Hanson’s extreme attitudes towards Muslims and immigration to the strategic withdrawal advocated by the Greens in their hostility towards the US alliance and delusion of a neutralist and more “independent” Australia.
Because he is an inflated ogre, Trump invites resistance. He lacks the judgment for the US presidency and should be fiercely opposed every step of the way. His policies cannot be excused simply because of establishment blunders.
The situation in Australia is different because our revolt against the elites is conducted in the name of the underdog, the little Aussie battler, the moral crusader or, as the Greens say, against the political equivalent of the Coles/Woolworths duopoly.
It is a climate where Jacqui Lambie, a purveyor of cliches with the common touch, can become a Tassie heroine and Xenophon can exploit rent-seeking provincialism to become SA’s finest son. Australians with their anti-authoritarian instincts are notoriously susceptible to appeals to cut down the tall poppies. It is a national pastime and good fun. The public can elect protest candidates in haste and regret over time. Witness Clive Palmer. Who pray, will Queensland give us this poll?
The educated class is adroit at the game. Clever men, Oxford educated, who write books about Winston Churchill can become slick populists as they seek to repudiate Churchill’s legacy of Britain’s commitment to Europe. Boris Johnson spearheads the Brexit campaign and, if successful, he will be well positioned to become PM.
Exploiting the multitude of EU flaws, Johnson makes a big call in Churchill’s style — time to quit Europe altogether — mobilising the sentiments that blame Europe for Britain’s problems, channelling Euroscepticism, overlooking the evidence that exit will hurt Britain economically, hurt the living standards of its people, diminish Britain’s influence and create a series of policy challenges that nobody remotely knows how to solve.
Johnson’s is a sophisticated populism. He cannot explain how Brexit will leave Britain more prosperous or safer. But he has invoked Hitler, Napoleon and the glories of the Empire along the road to what he calls a new freedom. He has panache and, exploiting the immigration card, he may win. Malcolm Turnbull, naturally, backs Cameron’s efforts to keep Britain in the EU.
False ideas are powerful in this new populism. People these days are disgusted with transactional politics — deals, trade-offs, compromises. Yet this is how nations are run in the age of fragmentation and diversity. It is what delivers stability, progress and social unity.
The anti-elites have a different view. They are obsessed by the notion of authenticity because they see most politicians as phony. They want politicians to take a purist stand in honouring their obsessions, single issues and self-interest — against the coal industry, for same-sex marriage, free Medicare forever, banning coal-seam gas, escaping the EU, building a wall to keep out Mexicans. It is a long list.
The anti-elites embody a rising intolerance — self-righteous refusal to accept the validity of the opposing argument is pivotal to this mood. These upheavals in the two great democracies, the US and Britain, are moments of great import. To list the sources of this malaise is to recognise its existence in Australia, albeit in different and less intense form. But for how long?
The mood in the Australian election is disengagement and disillusion with the main parties. The principal contest is Coalition versus Labor.
Yet there is another issue at stake: whether this poll sees an unprecedented number of minor party and independent candidates in evidence of a growing revolt against the Australian system.