A House Divided – the nature of civil war

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

This is just one of the many thoughts that entered my head on reading a recent article in the New York Review of Books. The review is reprinted in full below, but here are a few more of my own observations.

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

So often, causus belli that are in hindsight viewed by historians as pivotal, are not seen as critical to the participants, and indeed, many would protest that they had “no idea that things would come to this”, and that even then, there may have been a sense that wiser heads would prevail, that it would blow over or that it would be all over soon. Lebanon and Syria, again, and perhaps even the slave states that sought to secede from the Union, and the parliamentarians who challenged the royal prerogative. But one can be damn sure Generalissimo Franco knew what he was doing when he flew the Spanish Foreign Legion with its Moorish mercenaries to the mainland in 1936, as did Leon Trotsky when he unleashed the Red Army against the Whites.

A civil war can spawn from a wider, ongoing conflagration when factions or parties dispute the nature and terms of the post-bellum status quo and fracture along political and ideological lines. The Paris Commune after the Franco-Prussian War, for example, and Ireland after the Anglo-Irish treaty that concluded the rebellion against British rule.

The experience, cost, and legacy of civil war is often a powerful political and social disincentive to venture there again. It is this fear that probably prevents Lebanon from falling back into the abyss notwithstanding the many centrifugal forces at play in this perennially divided country. It most probably had a powerful influence on the political development of post-bellum England. The next and ultimate showdown between crown and parliament, and indeed “regime change” as we now call it, was a peaceful one, and indeed, was thus named the “Glorious Revolution”. The spectre of the Commune haunts still the French soul. The beautiful church of Sacre Coeur was built as a penance for and as a solemn reminder of the bloodletting in much the same way as Justinian raised the glorious Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as a form of contrition after his soldiers had slaughtered tens of thousands of his rebellious citizens and buried their bodies under the Hippodrome.

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

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

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

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

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

See also:

Now, read on…


What Gets Called ‘Civil War’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red fiery dragons in the aire doe flie,
And burning Meteors, poynted-streaming lights,
Bright starres in midst of day appeare in skie,
Prodigious monsters, gastly fearefull sights:
Straunge Ghosts, and apparitions terrifie,
…Nature all out of course to checke our course,
Neglects her worke to worke in us remorse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thermidorian Thinking

I fought in the old revolution
on the side of the ghost and the King.
Of course I was very young
and I thought that we were winning;
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
as they carry the bodies away.
Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution

‘Thermidorian’ refers to 9th Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794), the date according to the French Republican Calendar, when Robespierre, Danton and other radical revolutionaries came under concerted attack in the National Convention, resulting in their downfall and execution.

Grim travelers butt each other to establish dominance. One lot plays Danton to another’s Robespierre, with the moderate Manon Roland and her Girondins trampled underfoot in the melee. Robespierre destroys his erstwhile friends and slaughters thousands, precipitating the Jacobin meltdown as the ascetic and purist Marat is murdered in his bath. Robespierre and Saint-Just are guillotined by those who believe “the Terror” had gone too far.

I would argue that this “Thermidorian Reaction” – the ostensibly “better angels of our nature” (Abraham Lincoln said that) reasserting themselves – is a rare bird indeed. Inevitably, things get worse, much worse, before they get better. As WH Auden observes in Age of Anxiety, “many have perished: more will”. 

Revolutions are unpredictable. They never run in straight lines. They reverberate, the shock-waves expanding and impacting on their vicinity,  and way beyond. The shots ricochet, like drive-bys and crossfires, and you never know who will be hit, where the bullets will come to rest, and who will be damaged or destroyed. Many people will be liberated, and many enslaved. Many peoples will prosper, and many, many will perish. As TS Elliot wrote, “between the idea and the reality falls the shadow”.”

Stalin seizing Lenin’s crown as the father of the revolution lay dying. Trotsky launching the Red Army against the sailors of Kronstadt whose guns had heralded the fall of the Romanovs, and who then fought to last man against their former comrades. Stalin and Trotsky wrestling for control of party and power as the old Bolsheviks disappeared into the gulags and the execution cells. Stalin’s long arm putting an ice pick through his rival’s skull in Mexico decades later. Trotsky knew a thing or two about “permanent revolution”!

Adolf Hitler making his move against the corrupt and sybaritic Rohm and his Brown Shirt bully boys, a threat to his control of party and state, in the “Night of the Long Knives”, and setting the course for a Germany’s slow spiral to damnation with the plausible deniability of the similarly dramatically named Kristalnacht. The German language has surely given the world ominous words of iron – Nacht und Nebel; Storm und Drang; Weltanschauung – none of them boding well for tyranny’s unwelcome attentions.

It is a zero-sum play book well thumbed by latter-day revolutionists like the Baathists Saddam Hussein and Hafiz Assad in their relentless and merciless accession to power in Iraq and Syria respectively, like the cruel and vengeful but infinitely pragmatic regime that has ruled Iran’s Islamic Republic for these past forty  years, and the kleptocratic dictators who Lord over much of South Saharan Africa. In the manner of revolutions past and present, each one has “devoured its children”, harrying, jailing, exiling and slaughtering foes and onetime allies alike.

The sad reality in so many countries is that when the going gets tough, the mild get going, and the hard men ride roughshod over their people.

Vengeful, vindictive. Merciless. Unforgiving and never forgetting. Do no deals. Take no prisoners. Give no quarter.

Also in In That Howling InfiniteA Political World – Thoughts and Themes

Danton, Robespierre, Desmoulin, and Manon Roland

Danton, Robespierre, Desmoulin, and Manon Roland

That was the year that was

Its been a diverse year In That Howling Infinite. We have traveled, to quote Bob Dylan, “all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem” – and to many other places in between. Vikings and Roman legionaries; Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn; Britain in the ‘forties and Paris in the ‘fifties; America, the Levant, and even Wonderland. By Year’s end a million souls will have journeyed to Europe from the war-ravaged lands of the Middle East, and my final posts for the year contemplate what it might mean for refugees who find to safe haven in Australia.

Here is a retrospective.

The year began with a short piece on recent archeological discoveries in Jerusalem that strongly suggested that the Via Dolorosa that Jesus trode on his final journey to Golgotha was the wrong route, and that instead, it began just inside of the Jaffa Gate. I took a light-hearted look at the Jerusalem Syndrome, a mental condition involving the presence of religiously-themed obsessive ideas, delusions and other psychoses triggered by a visit to The Holy City.

image

I read but one piece of fiction this year – a sad admission from a lifelong bibliophile – but this one book was probably one of the best I have read: The Incorrigible Optimists Club , winner of the prestigious Prix de Goncourt, by Jean Michel Guenassia. It is set in Paris’ Rive Gauche, as the ‘fifties gives way to the ‘sixties; as the crooners makes way for rock n’roll; as the Cold War divides a continent, sending dissidents and refugees fleeing to a safe haven in Paris; as the Algerian war divides and destroys families: and as the seeds of ‘les evenments de Mai 1968’ are sown in the hearts and souls of France’s young people. It is a coming of age book, of young hopes and fears, love and loss, a book about writers and reading, and the magic and power of the written word in prose and poetry.

Le Lion de Belfort

March saw the passing of my old friend Dermott Ryder, chronicler and luminary of the Folk Music revival in Sydney in the early ‘seventies. Dermott’s Last Ride is my tribute to him. And April was a month of anniversaries and remembrance. Forty years since the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, and the centenary of the landings of the ANZACs at Gallipoli. Pity the Nation takes its title from Robert Fisk’s tombstone of a book on the long war; and he had taken it from a poem written in 1934 by Khalil Gibran, Lebanon’s most celebrated poet, a poem that was both a prophetic testament and a testimony of times to come: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation”. The Watchers of the Water is a song about Gallipoli sing by a Turkish solder.

May saw two diverse pieces of social history. The Spirit of 45  takes personal perspective of British filmmaker Ken Loach’s documentary of the excitement and optimism that followed the Labour Party’s election victory at the end of World War II. This laid the foundation stone for the British welfare state. Bob Dylan’s Americana discusses the meaning and significance of the lyrics and the imagery of Dylan’s early ‘eighties masterpiece Blind Willie McTell, a harrowing journey through America’s dark heart.

In June, we visited Yorkshire and in London, conjuring up memories and historical connections. Harald Went A Viking is a saga about the first of two kings to die on English soil in the late summer of 1066, and the adventures that took him from Norway to Constantinople and Jerusalem and finally, to Yorkshire. Roman Wall Blues takes its title from WH Auden’s poem about a homesick and grumpy legionnaire on Hadrian’s Wall, and contemplates the lives of the ethnically polyglot soldiery who defended the Empire’s borders. And June saw another famous anniversary, the Bicentennial of the momentous and bloody Battle of Waterloo. The Long Road to Waterloo prefaces a song for the men who, after twenty six long years of war, never came home.

Painting of the Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo, depicting King Harald Hardrada hit in the neck by an arrow

Battle of Stamford Bridge, depicting King Harald Hardrada hit in the neck by an arrow

In July, controversy erupted in the Land of the Free over the flying of the Confederate Flag in states that were once part of Old Dixie. The dead hand of the Civil War reached out and touched the hearts of Americans and their friends throughout the world in the wake of yet another mass shooting. This time, a young man gunned down worshippers at prayer. That the victims were folk of colour, and the shooter, a young white extremist, reopened wounds that have never really healed. Rebel Yell surmises that The South will always be with us, in our thoughts, in our historical memory, in our art and literature, our books and films, and our favourite music.

September marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s timeless, fabulist masterpiece Alice In WonderlandGo Ask Alice, I Think She’ll Know reproduces Australian  critic Peter Craven’s masterful celebration of Alice 150. The title belongs to the mesmerizing Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane who cut through to the rabbit chase channeling the long-gone Lewis in a psychedelic musical masterpiece.

Alice

On an infinitely sadder note, Ruins and Bones is a tribute to the memory of Syrian archeologist Khaled Muhammed al Asaad, murdered by ISIS in August 2015, and of Palmyra, the ‘Pearl of the Desert’.

Allende’s Desk and Osama’s Pyjamas is a brief commentary on the extension  of American military power and the pathology of demons and demonization. Tales of Yankee Power looks at American foreign policy during the 1980s from the perspective of the songs of Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn.

November’s Children of the Revolution looks at the events that led up to the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, and the early days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. Those days of hope are long gone.

A highlight of this past year has been my work as a volunteer with the Humanitarian Settlement Services programme. The HSS’ mission is to assist newly arrived refugees to settle in Australia. In No Going Home I endeavour to imagine the refugee journey. Hejira is a sequel of sorts and, indeed, a happy ending.

Happy New Year to these prospective New Australians, and to all my readers. May 2016 be fortunate and fulfilling.

Palmyra, viewed from Tadmor

Palmyra, viewed from Tadmor

The Long Road To Waterloo

The rebel yell that resounded in Paris in the summer of 1789 reverberated around Europe for 26 years until it sounded for the last time on the fields of Waterloo. On an overcast summer’s morning on Sunday 18th June, two hundred years ago, over one hundred thousand soldiers prepared to face each other in damp Belgian farmland. More gathered during that “longest day”. When darkness fell, up to fifty thousand of them lay dead or seriously wounded. A British rifleman would later recall: “I had never yet heard of a battle in which everybody was killed, but this seemed likely to be an exception, as all were going by turns.”

This song is for all those men who, after these long years of war, never came home.

https://soundcloud.com/user6120518-1/the-song-of-the-soldier-1815.

The Song Of The Soldier

Chaos is majestic in its way. I contemplate this vista of destruction and death with pain and helplessness in my soul.  
Red Army Captain Pavel Kovalenko, in All Hell Let Loose, Max Hastings, 2011

Before him, he carries noise, and behind him, he leaves tears; death, that dark spirit,
in’s nervy arm doth lie; which, being advanc’d, declines, and then men die.
Volumnia, in Shakespeare’s Corialanus, Act 2, Scene 1.

A new age dawned when the Bastille fell
Twenty six long years ago.
We marched the road of Europe
In the revolution’s glow.
In the floodtide of that revolution,
We bartered our young lives away.
And shoulder to shoulder we stood to arms
And held our foes at bay.

Against the might of empires,
Beyond our wildest dreams,
We fought the professional armies
Of Europe’s old regimes.
And hungry, tired and poorly armed,
We ragged volunteers
Pushed them back in disarray
Far from our own frontiers.

And we talked that time of setting stars
And the twilight of great powers.
And we never once thought that the sun would set
On an empire such as ours’.
But the siren song of liberty
Has lost its golden thrill.
The new age is now stained with blood
And we are marching still.

There came a great adventurer
For whom France was much too small.
As if we’d had not enough of war,
We answered to his call.
He was like a father unto us.
He served his children’s need.
A substitute for politics, for intellect and greed.

But he overreached in pomp and pride
To serve his vanity.
And we, the soldiers of the line,
Paid with our blood his fee.
‘til the whole world turned against us.
It neither forgot nor forgave
We who came to liberate
But stayed on to enslave

And we talked that time of setting stars
And the twilight of great powers.
And we never once thought that the sun would set
On an empire such as ours’.
But the siren song of liberty
Has lost its golden thrill.
The new age is now stained with blood
And we are marching still.

From the dust of Torres Vedras
To the bloodstained Russian snow.
We followed the Eagles loyally.
Never questioned why we go.
‘til the tide of conquest turned abut,
And showed us how it feels
To retrace weary footsteps
With the wolves hard at our heels.

And now we march our final march
On Belgium’s fertile soil.
We see an end to all or pain
And an end to mortal toil.
And the dream which fired us through the years
Has nothing left to yield
But peace that comes from a nameless death
On a confused battlefield.

And we talked that time of setting stars
And the twilight of great powers.
And we never once thought that the sun would set
On an empire such as ours.
But the tyrant song of liberty
Has lost its golden thrill.
The new age is now stained with blood
And we are marching still.

© Paul Hemphill 1984

To historians, Waterloo is one of the great battles of history, a turning point, the beginning of the modern era. It ended the wars that had convulsed Europe – and since the French Revolution,  the First French Empire and the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest commanders and statesmen in history. And it ushered in almost half a century of international peace in Europe; no further major conflict occurred until the Crimean War.

 This year, many acres of print and gigabytes of data will be spent trawling through the story. Here are two particularly good reviews.

 http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21651775-appallingly-bloody-yet-decisive-battle-waterloo-june-1815-deserve

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/11075393/Waterloo-by-Tim-Clayton-and-Waterloo-the-Aftermath-by-Paul-OKeeffe-review-compelling.html

 

The Incorrigible Optimists Club

A story of exile and of exiles, of revolutions fought and betrayed, of wars and causes lost,  of faith and failure, of shame and regret, tolerance and redemption, of secrets and confidences kept and broken, of untold stories and restless ghosts.

And this winner of France’s prestigous Prix Goncourt is one of the best books I have read in years!

IOC

They say for every boy and girl there’s just one love in all the world and I know I’ve found mine.                                                                                       Carole Joyner and Ric Cartey, Young Love, 1956

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapdly agin’ . Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand for your times they are a-changin’ .                                                                             Bob Dylan, 1964

In Montparnasse, a metro station exits onto the wide Place Denfer-Rochereau, the centrepiece of which is a magnificent bronze lion, sculpted by Frédéric Bartholdi, creator of The Statue Of Liberty as a memorial to the heroic defence of Belfort during the Franco-Prussian Way of 1870-1871. Directly opposite is the entrance to the morbidly amazing Catacombes de Paris. On the Boulevard Raspail side of La Place is a big cafe where on a freezing, wet and windy May morning a few years back, Adele and I drank hot espresso whilst waiting for the Catacombs to open. I like to think that in the late fifties, this very cafe was indeed the Balto, where much of this magnificent novel is set:

Le Rive Gauche, as the ‘fifties gives way to the ‘sixties; as the crooners makes way for rock n’roll; as the Cold War divides a continent, sending dissidents and refugees fleeing to a safe haven in Paris; as the Algerian war divides and destroys families: and as the seeds of ‘les evenments de Mai 1968’ are sown in the hearts and souls of France’s young people

It is a coming of age book, of young hopes and fears, love and loss. It is book about writers and reading, and the magic and power of the written word in prose and poetry. Like the games of chess that punctuate the narrative, it is about how life and learning is characterized by strategy and tactics, calculated feints and moves, patience and passion. And the paradox that pervades the story: nothing happens by accident, but never underestimate the power of coincidence.

Michel Marini, our narrator, is a precocious twelve year old when we first meet him, navigating his rocky road through high school, addicted to reading, rock n’roll, playing table football in the local cafes, and his introduction to the club of the title. This gathering of argumentative, chess-playing, smoking and boozing, grumpy old émigrés become in many ways a surrogate family. Michel first encounters these outcasts of Eastern Europe in the back room of a bistro. They are The Incorrigible Optimists Club, where,  despite the ancient discord of its members, the club serves as thier sanctuary. “The Poles hated the Russians, who in turn loathed them; the Bulgarians detested the Hungarians, who ignored them; the Germans abhorred the Czechs, who despised the Romanians, who could not care a damn. Here, they were all stateless and equals in adversity.”

Lost souls, the flotsam Old Europe, hugging their faded and vanished dreams, their language, their culture, their sad and often traumatic memories of their past in a strange land. Men without women, stateless, penniless, jobless, homeless, dispossessed of their wives and children.  Bent, but not broken. These are memorable characters, each with his own colourful and poignant back story. The pilot who defects for love, the doctor who drives cabs because his qualifications are not recognised. The Hungarian movie idol and his enamoured agent. The mysterious photography expert who befriends and mentors the young narrator. They are trapped between worlds and irreconcilable desires: “When a man achieves his dream, there is neither reason, nor failure, nor victory. What is most important in the Promised Land is not the land, but the promise.”

And there is also Michel’s actual family, his mismatched, over-worked and out- of- time parents, each from a different class and station, and their parents and siblings, particularly Michel’s art-loving Italian grandfather, and his dislocated pied-noir uncle and cousins. His chatterbox little sister, and his tortured, intellectual brother Franck. And front and centre in Michel’s adolescent life, Franck’s girlfriend and her would-be-revolutionary brother, beautiful, intelligent, rebellious, orphaned rich kids who become young Michel’s muses: and literally colliding with him through serendipity and synchronicity, his first true love. And behind them all, casting ominous shadows and unleashing sundering storms, lurks the dangerous backdrop of the closing years of the bitter and bloody Algerian independence war.

A knowledge of the Russian Revolution and its dramatis personae, Stalin’s Terror, The Great Patriotic War, the Hungarian Revolution and the building of the Berlin Wall, and of the ‘savage war of peace’ that was Algeria, is not obligatory, but it certainly helps set the scene for the various stories and vignettes that unfold. Cameo roles include philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, novelist Joseph Kessell, and one Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev – and the sinister ghost at the feast, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin.

Every now and then, your jaw drops and you say to yourself “this is a masterpiece”! Like when I first heard Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s The Swell Season. Sultans of Swing and The Boy in the Bubble. When I first read the opening paragraphs of Catch 22, and Chapter 41 of Moby Dick. The Incorrigible Optimists Club cast the same spell.

I leave the last words to the author: “Before you read a book, you can know immediately whether or not you are going to like it, just as with people, you can tell just from looking at them whether or not you’ll be their friend. You smell it, you sniff it, you wonder whether it’s worth spending time in its company. The pages of a book have an invisible alchemy that imprints itself on our brain. A book is a living creature”.

You cannot find a better testimonial for the printed word than that.

© Paul Hemphill 2015,  All rights reserved

 

 

 

Chanson – living next to Jim

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Paris has a myriad of attractions for history tragics. For me, there are three ‘must sees’ that are at the top of the ‘out there’ list. Les Catacombes de Pariss are one. The folk cabaret Au Lapin Agile is another. and the third is La Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, the most famous cemetery in the world.

For the dear departed, Père Lachaise is the best address in Paris. Some 300,000 people reste ici. A cavalcade of French cultural and political history, with a few foreign entombments, including the playwright Oscar Wild and Doors front-man and zeitgeist icon Jim Morrison.

CHANSON

I

Summer is the worst time – there never is a good time.
They come from all across the world just to visit him.
A lot has come and gone since nineteen seventy one,
But I’ve never ever gotten used to living next to Jim.

Why do they come and queue for a man they never knew
Who had gone to meet his maker before most of them were born?
I guess that it’s the fame, or the magic of a name,
Or a spirit never tamed, that brings them here to mourn.

The Poles will throw a party for their Chopin, and the arty
Bring flowers, poems and candles, and others’ wine and bread,
Why do young folk come to rave ‘round an ancient rocker’s grave?
Don’t they know how to behave in the presence of the dead?

It’s the best address in town, but I think I’d rather be
With Karl and all the comrades up in Highgate Cemetery.
Though there’s nothing to compare with this famous cemetaire,
There’s not much love to spare between the Lizard King et moi.

Pourquoi? Dites moi! Je vous dis que…

Living near the great is highly over-rated.
They stand upon my headstone just to get a better view.
If I was recreated, I’d sooner be cremated
And scattered on the river or some quiet avenue.

II

Yes, Père Lachaise is the most famous cemetery in the whole wide world. Therein recline some of the most famous names in French history and culture. And imports like Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. Edith Piaf, Marcel Marceau, Delacroix and Gericault, The man who built the Suez Canal, and Antoine Parmentier who popularised the heath benefits of the humble potato. Maria Callas’ ashes were there until some Greek stole her urn and scattered her on the Aegean Sea.

C’est vrai! C’est l’esprit de mort! Et maintenant, l’encore:

III

The singers, and the dancers, and the actors, and the chancers,
The rebels and the statesmen, and the fallen communards,
Napoleonic Generals and politicians’ wives.
The poets and the dreamers, all those other famous lives.

The writers, and the waiters, and those great large format painters,
Deportee commemorations, Oscar’s winged androgenoid,
The names no one remembers, and the ones no one forgets,
But Jim’s here with empty coke cans and the smell of cigarettes.

And, summer is the worst time – there never is a good time.
They come from all across the world just be with him.
A lot has come and gone since nineteen seventy one,
But I’ve never ever gotten used to living next to Jim.

From:  In That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul Hemphill, Volume Five

© Paul Hemphill 2013. All rights reserved

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